Tug of War

It is so very tempting to split the world into us versus them. And if you examine yourself closely, you will recognize that there is a part of you that doesn’t look away when passing the scene of an accident. You might not physically look, but that 2% of yourself that wants to take a peek cranes its neck to look at the horror. So even in your “us”, you are a part of “them”.

Our fascination with the ugliness of life seems to be at an all-time high. We digest the diatribes, shake our weary heads at the injustice of the world, toss our hands heavenwards at the nasty behavior of a Delta Airlines passenger whose rants cost him a lifelong ban to ever fly with Delta again and feel sorry. So sorry. For ourselves and the state of our world.

Admittedly, I too have joined the lurking legions who read blog entries, newspaper articles and opinion pieces of those so deeply infuriated by the results of the US election. I am a part of the none too little fraction that is truly up in arms about the blatant lying and unfounded claims of Orange Boy. As I watch our society split into fractions, I realize that our anger is fueled by something even deeper than fear. It is fueled by hateful revenge on both sides.

You can’t build bridges by pointing fingers toward the other side of the river. You’ve got to make a plan, find common ground, view things from different angles and understand that together we are stronger. Apart we are broken. Apart we build walls. Apart we tear down cities, break hearts and destroy human dignity.

I am in no way condoning injustice or favoring acceptance of that which is utterly unacceptable. I am fighting for a collective spirit that is quickly evading my grasp.

(c) 2010 used with permission, Georg Sander, Flickr

(c) 2010 used with permission, Georg Sander, Flickr

A few years ago a boy in my son’s class was bullying my son. And so I went straight to the bully and said:

“You are far greater than this. What is going on? I mean really going on?”

The boy burst out in tears, saying his parents were separating and he was miserable. I gave him a big hug and told him his pain wouldn’t get any better by passing it on. Instead, it sounded like he needed a friend. And my son? He became that kid’s friend, easing his pain and letting him know he is not alone.

It may be hard to believe, but I truly do think that even that hillbilly on the Delta airlines flight loves his family. And if he does cry, he sheds salty tears like every other human being. His behavior was disruptive, grotesque and positively unacceptable. His outbreak frightened people. He has no right to do that. He should be prosecuted.

But he remains, as we all do, a human being. And we know human beings are capable of both good and bad. In fact, every human being is capable of both. Does a mean act justify an even meaner retaliation? If we lower ourselves to that level, we risk getting caught in a bottomless pit. When Orange Boy makes baseless claims, we retaliate not with meanness, but with cold hard facts.

As we tisk-tisk our way through Facebook, we may be frightened because we see our shadow side, that 2% we try so desperately to hide from the world. If you are human, you are able to build bridges or tear them down.

During these turbulent times, I am reminded of a beautiful Native American story. A grandfather tells his grandson that inside each one of us reside two wolves. One fights for goodness, justice and beauty. The other fights for evil, anger and wrong-doing. They are in a tug of war with one another at all times. When the grandson asked which one wins, the grandfather simply said:

“The one you feed.”

It takes the same amount of time to commit an act of kindness as it does to commit an act of meanness. How will you spend that time today?

 

Angry? Go Off(line)

The dream ended with a thought: one day even the Internet will be obsolete. One day everything will be.

The thought comforted me as I snapped on my phone in the middle of the night, unable to sleep as the turmoil of the past few weeks clouded my mind. It was most un-Slow of me to look to my phone for comfort instead of meditating or even doing one of those adult coloring books. But then, I thought, so what? In my recent efforts to be mindful, I have become too full of mind and less of the heart.

And so we return to the Source of All Things. That lovely energy that flows through us more strongly than any petulant, careless tweet from Orange Boy.

Love.

As I lay with my mind’s eye wide open, I tapped into that love flow. After a few deep breaths,  I caught the wave and harmonized with its intention.

We are here to make a positive difference. We are here to learn from one another. And to teach one another how we want to be treated.

Being a parent has helped me understand the value of being a role model in the world. How we behave truly matters. The Internet is not exactly the best place to be when trying to model good behavior on a bad day. It’s too tempting to engage in low-level anger. Flame wars and misinformation rage, especially in times of great distress. The term “information overload” has taken on a new meaning as we struggle to sort through the data and our own feelings about it.

Life offers us so many opportunities to show up greatly. We get to choose at any given moment how we wish to be. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it does not. But with every choice we make, we add a lesson to the overall curriculum of our lives.

And so when a friend, or someone you thought was a friend, turns his or her back on you, that person was meant to do so. Consider it sharpening the tools in your toolbox. You understand life is the greatest teacher. Perhaps that person was developing in a different way than you are. That’s okay. Let it go.

And when a client turns foul-mouthed, learn from it. His behavior speaks volumes. Walk away.

And when your family causes you great despair, know that it is a part of the great experiment called life. We cannot control other people’s actions or feelings, only our own.

Magic is everywhere if you have the eyes to see it. Believe it is so and it will be.

Why Should You Care?

The unyielding darkness has started to seep into the Northern Hemisphere. Abbreviated sunlight in November has always affected my mood, challenging my natural buoyancy by the stagger and sway of light deprivation. And this year we have an additional force to reckon with: a metaphorical shadowy veil that has been draped across our world.

Even in these pitch dark moments I see opportunity. We have a chance to stand brightly in the darkness and call out all for which we stand: peace, love, joy, beauty, grace, wisdom. The sanctity of life remains untouched for our willpower and minds remain free, even if we feel shackled by political, environmental, social, cultural and economic realities. We can make a difference. Show up for what you believe in in a non-violent, loving way. Others will notice and may be encouraged to do the same.

Self-care is especially vital when we feel this vulnerable. My hot water bottle has become my trusty companion, feeling its warmth on my lap as I type words and phrases and lines, sometimes blurred by distraction and an urge to check in on the world to see if it’s alright.

My sister graciously shared her strategy for comfort. A shower and a nap are the best remedies for sorrow. With gratitude she feels the spray of instant warm water that she knows so many in this world do not have. A mid-day respite, bowing to the altar of Slow, reenergizes the fuzziness and frayed edges. Jumpiness is replaced by a Zen-like calm and we return to that greater part of ourselves that knows this too shall pass.

It may be the end of the world as we know it, to quote REM, but it is not the end of the world. Apocalyptic thoughts leave no room for positive ones.

If you are struggling with how best to care for yourself, consider this:

  • Switch off the noise – both internal and external. Surrender to your need for rest when you require it.
  • Minimize your exposure to online vitriol. It won’t help you, but will only serve to fuel confusion, wrath and disconnection.
  • Eat vitamin-rich food. Especially now as the sun quickly genuflects to the horizon, Vitamin D is essential. Ensure you get natural sunlight. Compensate with supplements if you cannot.
  • Connect with others. Isolation feeds insanity. Gather your tribe.
  • Hug more often.
  • Watch a comedy. Laughter heals.
  • Express love and gratitude.
  • Respect our differences. Remember that you may appear as foreign to someone else.
  • Create a safe environment for dialogue with people you meet.

Why should you care? Because you can. Because you do. Because caring for self is the first step in caring for others. The opposite of love is indifference. Recent events have shown we are not indifferent, although we may feel powerless. Your power begins within you. Embrace the power of Slow. The result of its force is mightier than any politician on the planet.

Yes, We Kant

It is in times like these that we are most tested. We say we are for equality. We say we are for freedom. We say we are for tolerance. But can we show tolerance for someone we do not believe in? If we fight back with the same vitriol, we do not land higher. We land in the pit with those we do not respect.

The outcome of the 2016 US Presidential election is indeed shocking. I was up all night. Perhaps it is my exhaustion speaking, but I feel the need to stand by my principles of love for everyone.

We create our own reality. And people’s realities have been shaped by false messages based not on facts, but on emotion. The outcome of this election originates within people’s feelings about what is happening, not about what is actually happening. The bigotry shown at the polls by the majority’s support for Donald Trump exceeds my wildest imagination about the United States’ underbelly.

But it is about something more as well.

In the wee hours of the morning, I watched an exhausted German moderator attempt to have a conversation with a panel of three women, two of whom were American. One of the American women was a professor for gender studies at the University of Maryland. Even she agreed, well before the polls leaned in Trump’s favor, that it was an uphill battle for Hillary to win as a woman. Her gender, not just her misguided use of an email server, was a great stumbling block. The professor admitted it would be tough for her to lead the country as a woman because only men had ever held the office.

What?

So just because it hasn’t been done before, she’ll somehow have it harder? Being a trailblazer has been her speciality. In my view, she would have done just fine. Further, that kind of argumentation is what tries to keep women playing small. Hillary wouldn’t have it. She played larger than life. And was crucified for it.

Hillary did everything right. She was prepared. She was disciplined and organized. Hillary Clinton deserved to win, but she did not. If she had made even a fraction of the comments Trump had, as a woman she would have been burned at the stake. But Trump? He is a white man with a lot of money. Being foul-mouthed, the populace claims, is something to be overlooked.

Are we that fascinated with the rich and stupid? Our obsession with the Kardashians tells me yes, we are.

It turns out it’s not so much what you say, but what gender you are that makes the difference. Hillary didn’t fulfill the image of what a woman should be: soft, loving, compassionate, demure, sweet, unthreatening.

She scared the bejesus out of people. It’s a shame that the US voting population couldn’t see that as an asset, but as a threat to their own beliefs about how a woman should behave.

I am disgusted, discouraged and deflated. But there is good news on the horizon.

Germany is the land of Immanual Kant, one of the philosophers who drove the Enlightenment. Rational thought, he argued, was what forms our human experience. I studied his works during graduate school and came to the conclusion that Kant encouraged embedding morality in legality. Formalize the moral code and we will go far in life. Kant was also one of the earliest exponents of the idea that perpetual peace could be secured through universal democracy and international cooperation.

The United States does not have the same philosophical background. It is a land of possibility in which it is truly possible to never have held public office, make outrageous comments with no basis in reality and become the leader of the free world. This too we must accept if we are to embrace the level of freedom so many have fought for.

Today I say: Yes, we Kant. We will maintain our moral codex in the face of this catastrophe. It begins with you. It begins with me. If we come from love, we will never lose, even if our candidate didn’t win.

The Awakening

Nothing removes the shutters from our eyes like travel. It is by far the most compelling method for broadening our horizons and relativizing what we think is true about the world. Growth is not measured by the miles we walk, but by the lessons we learn on the path we take.

Travel tills the garden of your soul. It unearths new possibilities and ways of thinking. It deepens appreciation for that which we have and a profound thankfulness for that which we no longer have.

One thing I have learned along the way is that it is irrelevant where you are. You can be anywhere in the world as long as you are at home with yourself. Inner peace provides shelter even in the darkest of storms.

mohammed_essaouira_2016

Tuareg in Essaouira, Morocco. Foto credit: Klaus Polkowski, 2016 (c)

At the end of October I embarked with my love on a most amazing journey. For the first time in my life I went to Africa. As I stood in line at passport control, I could feel the country’s rhythm enter my bloodstream, carried by the distinct smell signaling I was somewhere “else”. The odors intensified as we walked the Souks (market alleys) filled with moped exhaust, animal remains and the piercing fierceness of spices and amber. I was transported by the city’s heartbeat, the eagerness of its people, wishing to share what they had with us. I recognized that their persistence stems from a kind of generosity mixed with vested self-interest that we admire, then purchase, their wares. I observed that acknowledgement went further than our money. Showing respect for their craftsmanship — including the snake charmer — contributed to a richer understanding of one another.

The day after we returned, I attended a professional multimedia presentation by a veteran photographer friend of ours, Dieter Glogowski. The topic? On the surface it was about Nepal. Underneath the message was simple. No matter who you are, love is what counts. The images projected a joy that I strive to discover within myself and I have a distinct feeling that I am getting closer to it. Maybe I will find more of it in Nepal, the next on our list of travels.

It doesn’t really matter whether we step beyond the borders of our own country or not. The awakening, once evoked, continues with every step we take.

 

Moving Beyond Disappointment

Feet dangling at the ledge. Looking up. Looking down. Looking left, then right. Looking straight ahead.

We all face choices in life. Should we stay where we are? Should we take a new direction? Should we? Could we? Would we?

Choices don’t contain inherent risks, although we might think they do. Choices are merely decisions we make based on the knowledge we have at any given moment. Sometimes we make choices that bring us more joy. Sometimes we make choices that bring us a great deal of pain. No matter the decision, it brings us further, granting us wisdom about things we didn’t know before. Every action we take widens our pool of understanding.

top-thing-to-do-today_-13Broadening our horizons is a limitless activity. What a marvelous thing it is to know that wisdom is an endless journey. How boring life would be if we had “everything figured out”. Imagine the predictability. Imagine never, ever experiencing disappointment again.

That used to sound like a great idea to me. As a young adult, I used to avoid disappointment like the plague. It was a hard emotion for me to manage. In some ways, it still is. But what I have learned over the years is simple: disappointment comes from thwarted expectations. We expect people to act in a way to which we are accustomed. We expect things to turn out “as they always have”. But just as we never quite wake up the same person who went to bed the night before (our cells are renewed, our energy is restored, our skin sheds, grows, breathes – you get the picture), each day is never quite the same as the one before it. Or the one after it for that matter.

We hold such great expectations about simply everything, from the way our soufflé should turn out to the results in the next Presidential race (okay – exception here: Please dear God. Listen to me on this one. No fluff-haired, baboon-faced man can or ever should be elected. We need someone who can run a country, not just his mouth.) And then things happen as they happen. We are sometimes left with our mouths agape (did she really just say that? Did he really just do that?). In that moment of surprise, we again are faced with a choice. We can either choose to be disappointed or find the humor in it. Or perhaps relief. Better to find out now about the true essence of a person than later when things could be much worse.

And then there’s the thing about growth and change and seeing things with different eyes. What I used to value as a teenager has little meaning to me now. I’d venture to guess you feel the same way. The point is we are constantly in motion. Why not move beyond disappointment from the realm of what might have been to the realm of what might be? Possibility is not expectation. It is merely the chance to try again. Or to decide again. And again. And again.

 

Shadows in the Light

Where there is much light, there will be much darkness. Ah yes, those ubiquitous shadows that dance in the sun’s rays. My intention in life has always been to spread love and light wherever I can. I really mean that. It may sound naive, and perhaps it is. But I am always shocked when I meet people who don’t live with that level of integrity. When they feel more drawn to the darker side of things because, well, it’s cooler and no one can see what they’re up to. If no one witnesses your lying as you lurk in the shadows, have you really lied at all?

Dancing with the Freiburg sun

I recently watched a fascinating documentary called Dishonesty: The Truth About Lies. It turns out we all lie, yet most of us still think we are good people. We are hopelessly optimistic that somehow we are above average. We cheat mostly when our social surroundings support that behavior with the promise of a more favorable outcome with a very low to zero chance of getting caught. So it’s not the honesty we care about, but about whether we can pursue our advantage by whichever means available to us while still being liked or loved.

Shocking. And somehow so true.

Have you ever been in the check-out line at the grocery store and you forget to place one of the items in your cloth bag onto the conveyor belt. You noticed it when you get home. You literally stole it without knowing it. Do you make your way back to the store to return or at least pay for the item? Chances are if the cost in terms of time and energy is above a certain threshold, you won’t. You’ll live with yourself and your justifications about how it doesn’t really matter. Most likely, you will believe what you are telling yourself. And even if you tell your friends, they most likely will too.

Have you ever received too much change after a purchase transaction without giving it back? Have you ever run a red light? Walked across a crosswalk while the pedestrian sign says ‘Don’t walk’?

We look for shortcuts to get things done faster. In the name of economy, we lie our asses off. And sometimes when we get caught, we feel a sense of shame. But usually only the first time. The more we lie, the more it feels normal. Dishonesty tells a few sobering tales about some liars who ended up getting jail time.

So what about those shadows and that light? What makes us choose to step into the light instead of hiding out in the darkness with our reasons and fear? It turns out even being reminded that there is such a thing as a code of ethics can vastly impact a person’s willingness toward honesty. Study after study showed that when participants first read a line about the moral standards set out at the university at which the research was being conducted, people shaped up and gave honest answers. That’s encouraging. So we can learn to be upstanding with a little nudge from the ethics’ committee.

André Gide says: “The color of truth is grey.” A little light. A little shadow. A blend of the two makes up what we believe to be right. Even if we’re sometimes wrong. Or naive. Or both.

 

Summer’s Farewell

The sun raskyys pierce through the open sky. The smell of decaying leaves fills the air. Summer gasps its last breath as we say fare-thee-well for another year.

I have never been at such peace to bid the hot months goodbye as I have been this year. Something has awakened within me to appreciate the very moment instead of mourning the passing of summer. I have somehow grown wiser, or more accepting, of the Earth’s need to pause.

A predictable deceleration takes hold as the days grow slightly shorter. The pressure to “go do something” eases as we tap into our inner chipmunks that seek dark places to hide in the warm shelter of our homes. Pumpkin soup suddenly seems appealing. Cooking is a treat once again. The rhythm of life slows as we match the pace of the weather patterns lulling us into hibernation.

It is okay to take it down a notch. To retreat to the depths of our caves. To reflect on a most spectacular season. To be alright with the nothingness that more restful times bring. It is no longer necessary to keep searching. Everything we have ever needed sits quietly in our laps.

I am so very grateful for this life. For the pain. For the joy. For the ever-present moment of now. Every bit of it. Spring. Summer. Fall. Winter. Each season plays a most significant role in our own becoming. The change of seasons grants us license to make our own radical changes where necessary. Such transformation, the Earth tells us, is the natural course of things. I find reassurance in its implicitness.

What used to feel like death to me is now merely a place in the cycle of life. It is so very beautiful to be a part of it all.

Would you agree?

 

Who Gives a Shift?

Change. It’s the only thing we can count on. And it’s gonna happen, whether we like it or not. Although we may try to prepare ourselves for life’s transitions, it isn’t really possible to consider all eventualities.

Back in the day when I was scraping by as a glorified secretary at a Boston investment firm, I provided administrative support to several people, including one working mom who would call me from her car phone (yes, we still had them back then) so I could fill her in on all the office politics. She worked remotely most of the time so she could spend more time with her kids. And she would constantly say at the beginning of each call, “I need to know everything so I’m not blindsided.” I would roll my eyes and pretend to be nice, filling her in on this and that. Back then I wasn’t a working mom. I had no idea how important my function was to her until much later when I became one myself.

Being blindsided comes from the world of sports. It’s that blind spot your opponent hopes to fill so you can’t see him or her coming. Taking inventory from the last nine months of this year, I would say my blind spot has been filled a time or two too many. Shift happens. Whether we like it or not.

Hindsight is indeed a helpful thing. It is the platform for gaining wisdom when things happen unexpectedly. If you have a tendency toward feelings of regret, hindsight can mock you. It can stand there with its hands on its hips like a bossy older sister, telling you “I told you so!” Or you can allow it to gently nudge you toward an alternate course in your direction like a noble mentor who truly wants what’s best for you.

I tend not to regret most things, but I do question why I chose to do what I have done in my life sometimes. Why did I chose to spend time with certain people who clearly have their own interest at heart? Or how could I trust others not worthy of it?

Those who give a shift roll with the times. They don’t resist it or at least accept some parts of it, taking responsibility for what they have created in their lives. They bounce. They rock. They roll.

Resilience is a survival skill I learned early on in my life. Researchers say resilience may add to your longevity. It makes us happier people who tend to make healthier choices. Resilience makes sense as a key ingredient to a fabulous life.

So as life tosses more dodge balls at my head, I’ll live on with change as my constant companion, smiling all the while with anticipation of what will come next. Maybe next time I won’t be blindsided. I have heard that wisdom offers a pretty good shield against such things. Nothing is guaranteed in life except the change we experience. I’m opting to enjoy the ride and dance to the very end of it all.

Won’t you join me?

 

Music, Marley and Me

(c) 2016 Klaus Polkowski

Julian Marley and me, African Music Festival (c) 2016 Klaus Polkowski

The greatest adventure of this summer was blogging for the Zelt-Musik-Festival (ZMF). Writing 27 consecutive Blogstage posts through the month of July, I attempted for the first time to blog in German. I didn’t really think anyone would read it. Much to my surprise, they did!

Hanging around the backstage area became a natural part of my routine as I searched for stories behind the scenes of Freiburg’s most popular music festival. A security guard’s story followed that of a popular music artist. It didn’t matter who the subject was. The goal was to highlight the very important part every participant plays in making the long-running festival the most amazing part of Freiburg’s summer landscape. In partnership with my love Klaus Polkowski, we danced in the magic of music, culture and encounters. He with his camera. Me with my pen.

The spirit swept us into August where the African Music Festival audibly took us to far away places. It was there that I asked Julian Marley, son of the great Reggae artist Bob Marley, what color his music would be if it had a hue at all.

“It would be transparent. Or rather, every color in the rainbow,” he said. It includes everything. Because music is everything. One world. One color. One love.

At ZMF the world-famous clarinetist Giora Feidman said the color of his music depends on the time of day. A rose reflects a different hue in the morning than in the late afternoon. So it is with his music.

And Mischa Maisky, a most benevolent Albert Einstein-looking world-class cellist, told me his color would be blue. Because he likes the color and it can be both sad like the blues or happy like the sky. It too depends on the mood and the melody.

What I learned this summer is how truly connected we are. No matter our passport or our taste in music, we all feel love and sadness the exact same way. Our world is much smaller than we realize. Each individual carries a thread to the next one and while we might sometimes feel abandoned and alone on this great planet, we are never, ever truly alone because we carry that connection with us no matter where we are. The ever-gyrating pulse of our being strings each of us together.

We are one. Yes, we are.