I Get Creative

Last night I did something I haven’t done for years: I shared a piece of my creative writing. While I do a lot of writing just about every day, I had taken a loooong break from writing the poetry and experimental short fiction that once flowed freely out of my pen.

But it was a friend’s birthday, a friend who was quite pivotal at a particular moment of my journey exploring identity, self, and creativity. In his honor I decided to resurrect this piece and rework it. I read it aloud at his celebration.

And now I present it to you.

This is dedicated to all the mixed-race, alt-sexual, gender blurry people, & everyone else who finds that “check only one box” doesn’t work for them.

1.41421…

After years of dichotomous choices
leading into an adulthood surrounded by pairs,
I begin to identify with the square root of 2. 

Beyond the visible
Between what is whole
On stone tablets and papyrus
it arises 

A secret so unsettling it warrants murder
proof

it is irrational
uncountable

frankly: unwelcome
but  

real

My own
ethnicitysexualitygenderrole
triggers
murder
legislation
demands for proof

My own
ethnicitysexualitygenderrole

only fully encompassed by the square root of 2
more than 1
a numerical quirk
which multiplied unto itself is the perfect sum of my parents’ love.

On my own:
a conundrum which cannot be entered into a census’ computer
fouling up the simple and harmonious duality of an endless
0 1 0 1 0 1 on off yes no either or black white
make a decision
declare yourself

my self tumbling along the square root of 2’s digital extensions
ever changing and ever endless
slipping like a ribbon between whole numbers
elusive but flirtatious enough to maintain interest
a mathematician’s dark-haired mistress 

I am at home in the space between integers
an orienteer given a compass of genetic codes with endless variation
following the decimal point of my birth
without discernible patterns
coyly evading resolution.

Now I see I will never be fully content or at peace.

No, that’s not it. 

I will never be done.

and
the square root of 2
and I
will hold a place in the rational world nonetheless.

——————–

If you want to know more about the history of the square root of two, read the Wikipedia entry

Complaints Choirs

Recently I learned about Complaints Choirs. The first was a choir in Birmingham, England, created by two artists who wanted to “transform the huge energy that people put into complaining into something else… something powerful.”

They were inspired by a Finnish expression “complaints choir,” a group of people complaining simultaneously. (Sidebar: I love this expression and think I’m going to start using it.)

I don’t know how I feel about these choirs, whether they’re elevating or transforming or helping to eliminate complaining. But whatever the effect, it’s pretty striking to listen to a performance of commonly heard daily complaints.

Loving What’s Here and Still Wanting Change

A friend asked how it’s possible to want change for someone without making them wrong for how they are now? Does loving someone exactly how they are mean giving up wanting change? Does seeing a different possible future automatically mean that right now is not ok? How can you stay on the path of personal development while simultaneously being fully accepting of how things are now?

My friend was asking me for guidance because she’s really struggling with this one. She catches herself shaming herself for where she is, and that feeling gets worse the clearer she gets on the changes she wants to make. I’ve certainly caught myself doing this. In some kind of cosmic cruelty, this feeling gets worse the more you learn because your understanding of what is possible increases and becomes more clear while the ability to make the change happens far more slowly.

I could see that she perceives right now as “bad” and the possible future as “good.” This makes her anxious about how she is now and impatient to make changes. She sees these changes as required and urgent. This makes it nearly impossible for her to feel love for herself right now as she is since she sees herself as a problem that needs to be fixed. All this is causing her deep suffering.

I shared that the ideal is to be able to love yourself right now without requiring any changes AND hold a vision for future possibilities, to see right now as “good” and the possible future as “better.”

I then gave her one of my favorite ways of testing how I’m treating myself: I imagine talking to a three-year-old child. I hate the idea of talking with a child and blaming her for not knowing something, making my love for her conditional upon her learning “how to be better.” What I want for that three-year-old is the feeling of being loved exactly as she is right now, with all her mistakes and lack of comprehension, with all the moods and resistance. And all the while I would still be holding a vision for a future into which she can grow, a future filled with greater understanding and deeper enjoyment of what life has to offer. I would be loving her now and in the future.

I know from experience that treating a child with conditional love only makes them rebellious and resentful. I know the adult me would be resistent if someone were to say that they would love me only once I changed to fit their vision, that I’m not worthy of love unless I comply. It makes no sense for me to think that my inner critic is going to have any more success with this approach. Better just to focus on seeing myself right now as good. And know that doing so does not mean giving up on the future, that doing so is actually the most loving thing I can do.

Contemplating the Pet Peeve

Pet peeve word cloud from Vindale Research

A “pet peeve” is defined as a minor annoyance, something that irritates you but often doesn’t seem to bother anyone else. It also refers to an annoyance that occurs frequently or repeatedly.

For instance, I have a friend who gets really annoyed when drawers are left open – something I’m quite guilty of doing. This same friend is impervious to one of my pet peeves: people who take bites of their food mid-sentence and then continue to talk while chewing.

We don’t consider pet peeves to be the same as complaints. This difference further illustrates how we use complaints as a way of either garnering sympathy or of bonding with others.  Since pet peeves are so minor, we expect we won’t get sympathy. And because they’re so personal, we half-expect someone wouldn’t even understand why we were annoyed in the first place.

But all this doesn’t quite capture another funny quality of the pet peeve: there’s something almost desirable about it. I love the Dictionary.com definition: “personal bugbear.” It’s as if our pet peeves express something about who we are, something that we’re a little bit proud of. I think we use pet peeves as an indirect, complainy way to declare what is important to us.

The next time you’re mentioning a pet peeve, try flipping it around to recognize what it is you’re valuing. For example, my pet peeve partially echoes what I learned about good manners. Mostly, though, it’s an expression of how much I value being conscious of what we’re eating while we’re eating it. So the next time someone takes a bite in the middle of a sentence, instead of noting my annoyance, I can mentally acknowledge how much I appreciate taking the time to taste my food.

This post is excerpted from my upcoming book, The NoCo Plan: No Complaining in 30 Days. Get on my mailing list to stay up to date on its progress & get advance notice of the release.

Feeling Community on 9/11

In September 2001 I was counting down the final days until San Francisco’s first Lindy Exchange, three days of near-nonstop swing dancing. I was totally immersed in the event, coordinating volunteers for work shifts, juggling the collection of registration fees to cover venue deposits, and answering an overwhelming stream of calls and emails from people across the country and beyond. I was the point person for all the legal/contractual paperwork and for much of the communication with the venues, the team leads, and the attendees.

In the very early morning of September 11 my phone rang. In a tearful voice my aunt told me to turn on the TV. Something was happening in New York.

I saw the smoke coming out of the tower and heard the confusion in the announcer’s voice. I couldn’t understand what was happening, so I jumped online and logged in to the bulletin board of Yehoodi, my direct line to the dancers I knew in NY.

One woman started a thread entitled something like “there’s a hole in the World Trade Center.” She was looking out her window to the towers and told us what she saw. That bulletin board was a lifeline of personal connection and an anchor. As the day unfolded, more personal stories flowed in. Dancers in DC filled us in on what was happening there. Others got online to tell us who had and hadn’t been accounted for.

I remember feeling devastated and also conflicted. The exchange was just 10 days away and I started to wonder if it was going to happen. I didn’t even know if it should. I felt petty for worrying about it, and yet desperately afraid of the financial implications of last-minute cancellations. A couple days later, I voiced my concerns to the community cautiously and asked if people were still planning on coming, despite the fear around travel and the airport closures and everything.

Some people were deciding against it, but mostly I heard back a resounding YES! One guy from DC wrote that he saw the plane hit the pentagon, lost friends, and would have to go to a different city to get on a plane – and was 100% sure that the exchange should happen and that he would be there. He put out a rallying cry for all of us to see each other in person, to connect, to live. I’m sorry to say I can’t remember who he was. I won’t forget what he wrote, though, and how he reminded us of why we were coming together and of what mattered.

And so on September 21 over 500 dancers from all around the country and around the world gathered in San Francisco. We shared stories, food, hugs, dances. It was healing to be together. It was clear that we were so much more than a collection of dancers. We were connected. We were a community.

Every year, on the anniversary of 9/11 I am reminded of that amazing feeling. I felt so blessed to have a solid source of love and support while the world whirled around us in confusion and fear. Without forgetting the tears, we also allowed in laughter. I felt part of a community that was committed to celebrating each other and to living fully. I am forever honored that I could help bring people together at that time.

Thank you to all dancers for allowing me to experience connection again and again. I have a wish that everyone could feel that. I think the world would be a better place.

In Praise of Effort

I want to take a moment and reflect on what we value in learning – both in ourselves and in others. It is so easy to be focused on the goal, the end result of knowledge or skill achieved. We are so quick to congratulate someone on reaching that goal – without noting how easy or hard it was to get there. Every day we encounter messages that reinforce the idea of end goals, of achievements, of someplace to get to that’s better than here.

This is in direct conflict with the messages that we pull out to comfort someone when they fall short of achieving some goal. That’s when we say, “That’s ok. You gave it your best.” or “Keep trying. You’ll get there!”

I think about this pattern and how it directly undermines placing value on effort. It takes away value from the process of learning, from the journey of discovery.

I study a lot. I teach a lot. I know that we all learn at different paces. Not only that, but even though I’m generally a good student and smart, I know that I learn at different paces depending on the subject, what else is going on in my life, or what else is churning in my mind.

This focus on the end result instead of the process makes it no surprise to me that our impatient culture is rife with get-rich-quick schemes and convenience everything. I have known many kids and adults who give up quickly when things get hard, or who don’t even try because they expect they won’t be able to do it well. I’ve found it depressing that people take note when I “work hard” as though it’s something unusual.

When I teach or coach, it’s heartbreaking to see people who fall short of their goals despite having worked really hard, but it’s even worse to then watch them beat themselves up. Their frustration and disappointment then takes on a flavor of shame. I also find that it closes them down from being able to absorb anything else and makes it nearly impossible to enjoy the process of learning.  I’ve seen this happen in academic settings, doing athletics or dance, and even in personal transformation work. We are never far from an image of where we “should” be.

I would like to invite us all to consider changing what we focus on. It will require a shift of perspective, of language, of core structures. What if we always made two evaluations – one for effort and one for achievement? What if each was graded separately? What if we started to drop the achievement and just focused on effort? What if “success” was measured against an individual’s potential and not against an abstract level? What could happen?

And what if we focused on the experience of learning itself? The incremental insights and improvements that we accumulate throughout the long process of trying out something new? Could we learn to enjoy everything that we’re learning whether we do it well at the end or not? What if we took on the idea that learning is infinite and there is no one who knows all? That everyone has a perspective they can contribute and that there is always more to learn? That we are all students together?

What if “E for Effort” really was the highest grade of all?

Coda: I send this out as a challenge to our society and to myself. I am definitely someone who sets a high bar for herself, who evaluates herself on achievement, who can forget to enjoy the journey. And I am also someone who has experienced peace and happiness every time I manage to remember. So I write as both a challenge and a reminder.

This article in the NY Magazine is quite related. I read it years ago and have been thinking about it ever since.

Owning a Judgment

Wherein I own a specific judgment, and discuss what judgments reveal:

It’s about time that I own up here to the fact that I can be extremely judgmental. My quickest trigger is when I think that someone is co-opting a long-standing tradition, particularly when I then see them blend it with something else to turn it into a “new” thing and they market themselves as a “teacher.” My judgment is at its worst when I perceive that the tradition comes from a “brown” culture and the teacher of this “new” thing isn’t of that culture (usually White, or at least raised solidly American). It is not, however, limited to just this.

Living in San Francisco and having been involved in leftist politics my entire life, it feels like I bump up against this trigger almost every day.

I get triggered because there’s a part of me that feels like the original tradition is being misunderstood, appropriated, and/or fragmented, not being explored or honored in its entirety. There’s also a part of me that feels like the new “teacher” is disrespecting the traditions of apprenticeship, the depth that comes from life-long study. I am saddened by people saying they “know” a topic. I love the sense that something is infinitely unknowable, that there’s always more to learn.

I judge what I perceive as arrogance. I idolize being humble.

What makes this ridiculous is that I am, at the same time, deeply enamored of innovation and of “mash-up” approaches to art and science. I am a fan of “figure it out as you go along” and get upset when people get stuck in the cycle of continually researching and never get to the doing of a thing.

What makes this judgment frustrating is that I often scold myself for holding back too long to put my creations out into the world, that I have a part of myself that waits for others to grant me permission to do things – and I am constantly pushing myself to give myself that permission. I get envious of the people who don’t seem to have this obstacle. I think sometimes that envy is easier to feel as a judgment.

And what makes all this painful is that I have done this myself. I am a diletante of many subjects, some of which I’ve been known to talk about “with authority.” I too have read a little or done a minor amount of study on something and then run with it. I am not completely ok with this. I judge myself for not devoting myself to a lifelong study of any individual field of study – even while I am proud of my tendency to incorporate so many different perspectives into the way I think. I feel my pride go against my desire for humility. I am in love with the idea that I am my own original creation at the same time that I value giving props to the people and schools of thought that influence me.

I find this all hard to reconcile.

The thing about judgments that hit me like a thunderbolt when I learned it: Judgments point directly towards something about ourselves that we don’t like. The level of judgment is directly related to how much we fight against that part of ourselves.

The practice is to learn to recognize what I perceive as my “flaws” and accept them, even love them. And then I anticipate my judgments will fade into something more reasonable and softer, like an opinion or a point of view. Or maybe it’ll be anger because there’s something legitimately wrong. Meanwhile, I’m sure I’ll continue to be myself, learning a little bit of this and that, and excited about the latest blended something or other that allowed me see something new.

Which has more pull: Past or Future?

This idea caught my attention the other day: Learning to pay attention to the difference between taking an action in order to avoid the past vs. taking an action in order to realize a possible future.

When I’m motivated by the future, I find I have more energy. That future vision can give me extra strength to tackle difficult decisions, to take a little more risk, to withstand more pain in order to achieve something greater. When I’ve been called on to mediate a difficult situation, I’ve learned again and again that if all the parties can agree on a shared vision for the future, the details of how to get there are far easier to negotiate. Even talking about past grievances can be less painful if preceded by a conversation about the future.

In contrast, when I am primarily trying to avoid the repeat of something that happened in the past, I feel defensive, stuck, or anxious. I am protecting myself. I find my capacity to listen and empathize dimishes. I am acting from a place of having been hurt. Paradoxically, my efforts to protect myself somehow help keep that hurt alive. It shows me that the hurt still has power over me, that it’s still very much running the show.

This came up when I was thinking about recent conversations I’ve had about difficult topics. In some, I felt powerful, awake, and alive. I was very much myself and in the present, talking clearly about what I wanted or what I needed to take care of myself without being demanding. The more I talked about it, the more energy I had and the better I felt.

In other conversations, I felt myself making a resolve to “do the right thing” or “get it over with.” My chest was tight and it felt like my vision was narrowed. I found myself nervous about choosing the wrong words, sure that I had to get it right or else I would be misinterpreted and everything would fall apart. Afterwards, I found my inner critic replaying those scenes over and over again in my head, chastising myself for word choices or even for having the conversation at all.

It’s becoming clear to me that in the first example, I was trying to achieve something for the future. In the second, I had no vision for the future, I only wanted to avoid a repeat of the past.

I want to learn this distinction because not only do I feel better in future-motivated conversations, they also have a tendency to go better. I’m more likely to achieve what I really want. Also, past-avoiding conversations have a way of making me feel more isolated while future-motivated ones leave me feeling more connected.

I want to be able to switch or at least stop myself from just reliving the past. I want to step into the future, and I want to be able to do it at will.

Of course, while I’m in the middle of something, it’s hard to stop and recognize what’s driving me. But I’m starting to sort out the clues. The easiest to identify are physical. If I feel my chest tightening and my vision narrowing, then I may be projecting some past pain on the present moment and it’s time to pause. If I feel my energy increasing, then I may be getting drawn into a vision of the future, and it’s a good time to articulate that and nurture it.

Oddly enough, the key to being able to switch from past to future is to get even more grounded in the present. If I can pause long enough to figure out what my body is telling me at that exact moment, I have a better chance at making a choice about how I want to be. And if get that choice, I’m going for the version of me that’s more alive.

The Courage to be Goofy

In her wonderful blog, Ordinary Courage, Brene Brown wrote:

“It takes courage to be awkward, goofy, and silly.”

This made me think of so many things at once. I remembered that when I was directing theater, I would challenge actors in auditions to do something that felt out of character, that put them at risk of looking uncool. I found myself casting only those who were willing to take that risk because it showed me that they were willing to push themselves to get the best performance, to prioritize what the character needed over what they themselves needed. To me it meant that they were really actors who were committed to their craft and their art.

I thought about the process of learning something new, of the awkward stage that inevitably shows up when you haven’t quite mastered a skill but have passed the forgiveness allowed to true beginners. It’s so easy to quit at that point. Indeed, I have talked to so many who don’t even start learning some things because that awkwardness is so painful they’ll do whatever we can to avoid it – including not learning something that they’d like to do.*

And I thought about a beautiful night years ago at Burning Man – well, a night that turned out beautifully. It started off hard. I had become separated from my friends and couldn’t find them. I desperately wanted to be connected with someone or something. I cried melancholy, self-pitying tears. I started walking just to try to distract myself and heard some beautiful music come out of the HookahDome. I got into the line, excited to start dancing, knowing that dance always lifts my mood. When I finally made it inside, my heart sank again. No one was dancing. Everyone was seated on cushions around the perimeter, smoking hookahs and talking quietly. For a moment, I considered joining the crowd even though every part of my being was straining to move, to express that music. And then I swallowed my fear and walked into the open area between the tables near the DJ and started dancing. I tried to block out the knowledge that people were watching me and just let the music in. I felt like a fool and I also felt brave. After a few songs, a couple of people joined me on the dance floor. Then a few more and a few more. I danced until that DJ, Kaminanda, finished playing, thanked him and then re-emerged into the night air, filled with a sense of my own power and the lightness that I had been craving. It was a beautiful night.

*Side thought: Imagine if we decided as toddlers to give up learning how to use utensils when it got totally awkward and we kept ending up with more applesauce on our cheeks than in our mouths? Even in the face of our parents’ and siblings’ laughter, we persevered. Where did we lose that courage?

Letting Go of the Need To Be Right

“Communication is only as good as how it lands.”

This is one of the most clear and true things that I’ve learned in recent months. I’ve witnessed (and been part of) numerous arguments which included the words “that’s not what I said!” And I’ve come to understand how utterly irrelevant that sentence is.

In the end, does it matter what words were actually spoken? I’m really starting to think “not much.” What matters is what was heard or understood. What matters is how that communication impacted the other person.

If I’m saying something and the other person isn’t getting what I intended, any number of things can be in the way. I could be saying the wrong words. I could be saying one thing but thinking something else – and they could be picking up on that disconnection. I could be trying to tell them something they’re not ready to hear – and that lack of readiness can come from my raising a difficult topic, my timing something badly, or just that they’re pre-occupied with something else and so my communication is bouncing off without being absorbed at all.

By the way, when I say “communication” I mean so much more than words. I mean words+intention. Because really, we are creatures who can communicate without words. We do it all the time every day. We start doing it as infants and words get added, but they never replace that unspoken communication. Words are useful to help clarify and to make things more specific, but they are just one part of communication.

I’ve recently been paying a lot of attention to this. And working on getting away from the arguments (or even discussions) about what was said. Because if I’m making that argument, it feels I’m not doing much more that trying to prove that I’m right. And what I really care about is that I’m in relationship with someone and that they understood what I meant to say. Towards this end, I’ve learned that swapping out “what did you hear me say?” in place of “that’s not what I said!” has incredible power to change the direction of a conversation.

I’m starting to recognize the power of letting go of the need to be right. Because in the end, I don’t care about being right as much as actually communicating and being connected.