All Hail Your Dark Side

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What triggers you?

I don’t mean your pet peeves (please, stop using “there’s” when speaking about anything in the plural).  I mean what gets under your skin and affects you viscerally, really hijacks you?  I’m talking about the thing that escalates you so fast or intensely it’s like an out of body experience—you know you’re overreacting, you know it’s irrational, and yet all you can do is sit by and watch it unfold, powerless to control or direct it.

I had the pleasure of self-witnessing two such episodes recently, and it’s all so fascinating I had to write about them!

Bad Mom

A leader whom I deeply respect has asked me twice, in separate conversations, in slightly different words, how I manage my time.  The second time his words were, “How do you prioritize?”  Interestingly, I immediately altered his question in my mind to What do I prioritize?  I answered easily both times about strategies for handling emails, task lists, time with family, workouts, etc.  But after the second time I started to worry.  What’s behind this questioning?  Is he worried for me about something here?  Does he think I’m neglecting my family for work, and/or my clinical duties for all the extracurricular stuff?  Does he think I can’t handle it?

Over the next several days I had to chuckle with that sly, knowing expression when I realized it didn’t really matter what he was thinking.  The question, repeated, was a stealth trigger for my Bad Mom fear.  It wasn’t that I worried about his concern for my work life balance.  It’s that I was worried for it, and that I secretly question, more than I like to admit, whether my kids really feel loved enough by me.  This despite my previous blog post claiming that I actually don’t question it!  Blaaaaahahaha, how cosmically ironic!  Looking back, the article that incited that post was pretty much the same trigger, and it has taken me this long to see it (better late than never).  How fascinating!

In my defense, I really do think I’m a good mom—mostly.  But like being a good leader, it’s definitely not always easy, and that I question my competence/proficiency/mastery does not necessarily detract from my real, ever developing, occasionally flourishing skillset.  Thanks to this new awareness of the Bad Mom Trigger, I have adjusted my strategies and tools, and rebalanced, for now, time and energy between work and home.  I look forward to receiving more gracefully the signals for future opportunities to readjust.

Canned and Rote

Last year I was leaving an evening work gathering.  A nice man saw me departing, got out of his seat, and approached me, apparently to introduce himself.  He said he had heard my ‘shtick’ something something something—I did not really hear anything else, as my abhorrence of that word had made me stop listening.  I think I was polite, and I exited with as few words exchanged as possible.

Readers of this blog know how much I admire Brené Brown.  Followers of Brené also know that her work is always evolving, new theories testing, refining, and building on prior ones, always with deeper and more meaningful understanding and application in relationships.  So I was deeply offended when I heard someone refer to her presentations as ‘shtick’ and ‘spiel.’  These words feel dismissive, mocking, and pejorative to me.  I have only heard them used in a disrespectful way about a speaker or their speech.  But why should I be so offended on Brené’s behalf?  She knows the value of her work; she does not need me to defend her.

Of course, as usual, it hit me later:  I identify with Sister Brené, so I took these words personally.  To me, shtick and spiel are how we describe presentations, and thus people, who stopped learning and growing long ago.  We utter these words and roll our eyes at having heard it all before—nothing new here, folks.  David Litt has said that when preparing a presentation ask yourself, what is the one thing you want someone in your audience to tell their friend about your speech the next day?  If the words ‘shtick’ or ‘spiel’ appeared within a hundred yards of someone describing my work—if someone thought I had not prepared but just shown up with canned, stagnant drivel—I would be mortified.  I pride myself on constant learning, self-awareness, and self-improvement.  I want every audience to feel that my presentation was uniquely relevant to them, that I worked hard to meet them exactly where they needed me.

I understand that everybody may not see or hear these words the way I do.  I can respect that and monitor/manage my reactions from now on.  But wanna trigger me?  Tell me you heard my spiel.  Go ahead, I dare you.

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Debbie Ford and Your Dark Side

OH it’s all so funny, the things that trigger us.  Because if we don’t laugh we will absolutely cry.  Or pick fights with our spouses that last weeks on end.  That’s what happened to me when I read The Dark Side of the Light Chasers about 10 years ago.  I was young yet in my adult development journey, and I had a few (just a few) more emotional hang ups than I have now.  On page 69 of the paperback edition she lists negative words like greedy, liar, sleazy and freak, and suggests an exercise:

Take a few minutes and identify any words that have an emotional charge for you.  Say out loud, “I am _____.”  If you can say it without any emotional charge, then move to the next word.  Write down the words that you dislike or react to.  If you are not sure that the word has any charge for you, close your eyes for a minute and meditate on the word.  Repeat it to yourself a few times out loud and ask yourself how you’d really feel if someone you respected called you this word.  If you’d be angry or upset, write it down.  Also spend some time thinking about words that are not on this list that run your life or cause you pain.

I didn’t get through the whole book back then, so I don’t know what she wrote about ‘embracing your dark side,’ ‘reinterpreting yourself,’ and ‘letting your own light shine.’  But I think I have figured it out for myself, at least a little bit.  It’s about self-compassion, acceptance, growth mindset, forgiveness, connection, learning, and joy.

Every light casts a shadow, and we need both light and dark for balance in life.  I’m learning to hold it all a little more lightly (ha! Pun!).  Debbie Ford felt too heavy for me ten years ago.  I’m looking for a new book this week.  Maybe I’ll pick hers up again and see how it feels.  …Makes me a little nervous, actually.  I wonder what I’ll find this time?

We Are Really Bad At This

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Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch, Loveland, Colorado, March 2019

How many truly meaningful and fulfilling conversations do you have in a day?

How many such relationships do you have?

Though I wrote my Pit Crew post almost a year ago, its ideas recur regularly.  I have linked to it on multiple subsequent posts.  I share it with patients and reference it in conversations often.  My patients are leaders of large corporations and organizations.  My colleagues and I lead teams in the hospital, the medical group, and the medical school.  My friends lead their families and communities.  When I think about our health and its consequences, it’s about taking care of those for whom we are responsible, ourselves included.

Are you generally the one who always takes care of others?  How does this affect your style and effectiveness as a leader?

Who Takes Care of You?

I estimate that about 20% of the time when I ask this question, my patients say that nobody takes care of them; they do it themselves.  They don’t mean that nobody cares about them.  It’s that they don’t really depend on anyone for counsel and/or support.  They hold everything together themselves.  I always have mixed feelings when the conversation takes this turn.  On one hand I feel admiration and respect, especially when they seem generally healthy—apparently unaffected by physical, mental, and emotional dysfunction.  On the other, I get curious.  How do they sustain this Lone Ranger method?  And what does it cost them?  I believe we all need tight, vulnerable, and safe connections through which we can get raw and real, and work through life’s ultimately messy sh*t.  We need others, even if it’s only one or two, to help us truly hold it all together.  My default assumption is that if we don’t have such connections, we are not living into our full potential.

And today I feel cynical.  I think we are getting really, really bad at taking care of each other.

Driving to work this week I wondered to myself, why do we feel the dearth of mental health services so acutely these days?  Is it that more of us are living on the psychological razor’s edge of mental health and illness?  Are we not diagnosably mentally ill but simply, profoundly, stressed to our limits of sanity and function?  Is that why none of my patients can get in to see a psychiatrist or therapist for weeks to months?  Is that why physicians are increasingly leaving the profession and killing ourselves?  Why do we feel so hopeless?

It’s easy to blame social media.  And I do, partially.  The cruelest irony lives here.  My non-evidence based impression is that cyberbullying bears equally life-threatening consequences as face to face bullying.  If you know of evidence to support or refute this premise, please share.  Negative interactions on social media, which rage so easily like wildfires, are now understood to contribute significantly to the rise in loneliness across the country.  Worse, cultivating truly positive relationships via social media is much harder and more complex, even deceptive.   So on balance the risks and harms of social media may far outweigh the benefits.  There simply is no substitute for personal, physical contact, for sharing the same space, breathing the same air, experiencing another’s full presence.

Worse yet, too often we can’t even get that right!  Ozan Varol wrote about this in his last post, “3 Ways to Be Insufferable In Coversation.”  They are:  1. Always turn the conversation back to yourself; 2. Pretend to listen; and 3. Ask no questions.  How many people have you already met today who do this on the regular?  If you’re honest, how many times today have you committed these relational sins?  It’s okay, we all do it sometimes.  As GI Joe says, knowing is half the battle.  The other half is doing something about it!

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Smart Museum of Art, Chicago, July 2019

So what do we do?

First, Attend.  Pay attention.  How much time do I spend on social media?  What do I get out of it?  When does Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) drive my scrolling?  Am I really connecting?  Or am I stalking, comparing, judging, flaming, agitating the echo chamber, and otherwise wasting time and energy?  How can I set alerts and redirect my routine?

Second, Intend.  What is the best use of my time?  If I want to see how my friends are doing, rather than check my Facebook feed, why not call them up?  Send a text, photo, or—gasp—a handwritten note just to say hi, I’m thinking of you?  It may cost you time, energy, and $0.55 in postage.  But aren’t your real friends worth the investment?  You can do it on social media too—if you slow down and think about it first.  Consider the return—brightening someone’s day, feeling that personal connection.  Dopamine drives FOMO, and is also associated with addictive behaviors.  Bonding behaviors elevate oxytocin, the hormone that mediates empathy, safety, and connection.  There is even evidence that higher levels of oxytocin correlate with increased longevity of romantic relationships, or even a person’s own life span (could not find a reliable, peer-reviewed source for this claim—I just believe it intuitively).

Third, Get Curious.  This was the first skill I (re)learned in life coaching, ‘way back in 2005, and it serves me well every single day.  If we let go of the competitive, scarcity-based thinking that surrounds us, what more could we learn?  What novel and inspiring stories could we hear from anyone we meet, or even our closest friends?  If we listen to understand rather than to reload and refute or one-up, what vexing problems could we solve, together?  Just wondering about it makes me feel lighter and more optimistic, what about you?

Subscribe to Ozan’s newsletter, the Weekly Contrarian, to get his list of solutions to conversation insufferability this Thursday, 9am Central Time (I have no financial interests in Ozan’s site; I just really admire his work and the community of critical thinkers he has convened).  And today, I challenge us all:  Monitor our attitudes and facial expressions.  Manage our self-absorption for a few minutes at a time.  Look strangers in the eye and smile as if they’re already our friends.  Ask a Facebook friend what they did this weekend that really made them feel alive and well.  Let’s all get our caring on, shall we?

 

On Labor Day

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For a New Position

May your new work excite your heart,

Kindle in your mind a creativity

To journey beyond the old limits

Of all that has become wearisome.

 

May this work challenge you toward

New frontiers that will emerge

As you begin to approach them,

Calling forth from you the full force

And depth of your undiscovered gifts.

 

May the work fit the rhythms of your soul,

Enabling you to draw from the invisible

New ideas and a vision that will inspire.

 

Remember to be kind

To those who work for you,

Endeavor to remain aware

Of the quiet world

That lives behind each face.

 

Be fair in your expectations,

Compassionate in your criticism.

May you have the grace of encouragement

To awaken the gift in the other’s heart,

Building in them the confidence

To follow the call of the gift.

 

May you come to know that work

Which emerges from the mind of love

Will have beauty and form.

 

May this new work be worthy

Of the energy of your heart

And the light of your thought.

 

May your work assume

A proper space in your life;

Instead of owning or using you,

May it challenge and refine you,

Bringing you every day further

Into the wonder of your heart.

 

–John O’Donohue, from To Bless the Space Between Us

 

I know Labor Day is not about doctors, but I’m thinking about all workers and how we each relate to our work.  I discovered the poem above earlier this summer and loved it.  Rereading it this weekend, it resonated even more deeply and I shared it with some friends.  Since taking on a new leadership role about 20 months ago, it feels like I have really lived into these aspirations, as if the cosmos has held this blessing for me a while already.  I was primed for the call; I summoned every skill and insight I already possessed; still the learning curve has proven steep.   And no success is achieved alone!  The steady, honest, and loving support I enjoy from so many humbles me beyond expression.

Our practice recently welcomed new physicians and staff, and I will soon share this piece with the whole team.  Even for us veterans, it never hurts to look at our everyday work with new eyes, as if approaching it for the first time.

I hope O’Donohue’s words above speak to you in your chosen vocation, even if your occupation does not fulfill all of these lofty ideals (it’s kind of a lot of pressure to put on a job).  I wish you work that is much more meaningful than stressful.  If that’s not the case, I hope for you an effective and peace-giving way to reconcile this and find great meaning elsewhere in life.

And I thank you for the work you do, whatever it is.

 

 

Birthday Sock and Washi Love

 

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What’s the best birthday gift for you?  How do you feel when you get it?

I turned 46 last week; I am now officially in my late 40s, YAY!  It feels pretty awesome—what a great age!  I am a seasoned clinician, at a point in my career where I have earned some respect and status, and still have plenty yet to accomplish.  My kids are maturing, getting wise; we have fun and deep conversations.  I am, finally, understanding how to do this complex thing called marriage.  I know what I will tolerate from others and what I will not, and I stand up for myself better than ever.  I know who I am.

Apparently others know, too, and they showed me this week in the most loving celebrations.

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I used to wear the most boring socks.  I worried whether they matched my outfit or my shoes.  Then one day my manager gleefully wore the loudest, brightest striped socks to work.  Suddenly hosiery became the easiest mode of self-expression that I could exercise daily, with abandon!  Soon I discovered mismatched sock trios, launching my sock loving life to the next level.  Thereafter my socks did not match; they coordinated (but I did it less expensively by just mixing regular pairs).  These days I wear compression socks, but even they come in fun styles (I have no financial interests in any of the businesses linked here)!  It just brings me that little bit of joy each morning pulling them on, and then seeing them all day—a splash of color, a flourish of design.  On Thursday, in honor of my birthday, colleagues came to work sporting fun socks of their own.  We gathered briefly and bonded with exuberance, took a picture, hugged, and went, a little more joyfully, back to work.

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The next day, at the other office, I was greeted with a big printed sign, shiny streamers, and a delicate, hand-decorated, washi tape banner.  My newest colleague brought a huge box of assorted donuts.  Hugs abounded from all over.  And one friend wrote me a lovely birthday note—on one of a stack of washi tape cards I had made and left in the office for folks to use on each other.

I have a friend who always feeds me when I go to her house—whatever she has around, often that she has made—and she always has something awesome…  It’s usually sweet.  This day she went to special trouble to make a perfect dessert, which we enjoyed with coconut green tea while catching up on work, relationships, life.  We sat in her beautiful front room, afternoon sun streaming in, surrounded by books, leather, and special papers—all of my favorite things.

 

It was the best birthday yet, I must say.

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I wrote recently that we have 5 fundamental needs:  To feel seen, heard, understood, accepted, and loved.  Over these two days and in the past week, so many people in my life have not only met these needs for me, but fulfilled them in the deepest, most touching and poignant ways.  Simple gestures.  Heartfelt words.  Slow, quality time.  They may seem small.  But make no mistake, their impact and resonance cannot be adequately measured.  I felt absolutely lifted, and my heart was—is still—warmed, through and through.  “Gratitude”, even rendered by the eloquent and wise David Whyte,  just doesn’t quite capture the whole experience.

Gifts like these—conceived from an intimate knowing, presented joyfully, and shared in generosity and love—make birthdays, both mine and my friends’, some of my favorite days of the year.

Out and Back: Coming Home

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Meadow Creek Trail, Lily Pad Lake toward Frisco, Colorado

When you hike, do you like loop trails or out-and-back trails better?

What metaphors for life can you make from hiking?

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Ptarmigan Trail, outbound, Silverthorne, Colorado

Out and Back

I used to think out and back trails would be boring.  What’s so great about getting to the end of a path and then going back the way you came?  Wouldn’t it be tedious and redundant?

But the more hikes I take, the more I realize how valuable it is to retrace my steps, especially on the trails with big elevation gain and diverse landscape.  The same path, going uphill and then downhill, heading north at daybreak then south at mid-day, is a vastly divergent experience.  It is a concrete, tangible exercise in perspective, if ever there were one.

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Ptarmigan Trail, looking toward trailhead from same point as above

Looping

On a loop trail, you get to decide at the outset the way you will go.  If you choose clockwise, you miss out on the counterclockwise experience—until next time, perhaps, when you get to choose it.  Or maybe you always go the same way?  That feels safe—you know what’s coming, perhaps?  But on any trail, especially in the high country, you just never know what you’ll encounter.  Time of day, time of year, recent events (wildfire, thunderstorm) all alter the path—you could actually never walk the same trail twice—whether it’s out and back (hereafter abbreviated “OAB”) or a loop.

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Meadow Creek Trail again

In life, do/can we ever really go back?  I’m reminded of the quote attributed to Heraclitus:

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

Whether you choose OAB or a loop, when you arrive at the trailhead again, is it the same as when you started?  Are you?  And regardless, why hike in the first place?  What does it do for you, what do you gain?  Why step out from where you live every day, all the time?

Here’s what insightful writers I’m reading lately have to say about it:

John Gardner, in Self-Renewal:  “As the years go by we view our familiar surroundings with less and less freshness of perception.  We no longer look with a wakeful, perceiving eye at the face of people we see every day, nor at any other features of our everyday world…  That is why travel is a vivid experience for most of us.  At home we have lost the capacity to see what is before us.  Travel shakes us out of our apathy, and we regain an attentiveness that heightens every experience.”

John O’Donohue, in Anam Cara:  “Hegel said, ‘Das Bekannte überhaupt ist darum, weil es bekannt ist, nicht erkannt’–that is, ‘Generally, the familiar, precisely because it is familiar, is not known.’ This is a powerful sentence. Behind the facade of the familiar, strange things await us. This is true of our homes, the place where we live, and, indeed, of those with whom we live. Friendships and relationships suffer immense numbing through the mechanism of familiarization. We reduce the wildness and mystery of person and landscape to the external, familiar image. Yet the familiar is merely a facade. Familiarity enables us to tame, control, and ultimately forget the mystery. We make our peace with the surface as image and we stay away from the Otherness and fecund turbulence of the unknown that it masks. Familiarity is one of the most subtle and pervasive forms of human alienation.”

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West Overlook, Ridge Trail, Dillon, Colorado

When patients see me for their annual exams, I imagine it can feel tedious and redundant.  But it’s always fresh and interesting for me, because I haven’t seen or heard from them in a year.  And I’m continuously learning, so I often have new questions and queries to apply.  They may not think much of the past year, it goes by so fast; I get to be their fresh eyes, and lend them new lenses.  What’s the most interesting thing that happened to you since we last met?  What do you want to focus on this day we are together?  When you look back at your life a year from now, what do you want to see and say about it?  I feel like a ranger at the common trailhead of inifinite paths, checking in with my hikers as they loop and retrace their ways back to me, stopping to debrief before getting back on the road of living and growth, of evolution and development.

Mei lakeside July

Chicago, IL

Homecoming

I was born in Evanston, Illinois, when my dad was doing his PhD at Northwestern University.  We moved to Colorado when I was six, and for as long as I can remember, I have considered that state to be my true home.  I go back every chance I get; I savor it, relish it, drink it in with fervor.  When I return to Chicago, where I have lived for all but those 12 formative years before I came (back) to NU for college, it’s always with a gnawing reluctance, even a little resentment.  I never call it ‘coming home.’  Last night when I arrived at my house after a week in the Colorado Rockies, I did feel myself relax, ready to settle into life as usual.  But I still longed to be home for good—back in Colorado—my only real home.

That perspective changed today.

These last days I have thought deeply about my life path.  I’ve really only lived in these two places, these vastly different places.  Until this morning I thought of my OAB trailhead unequivocally as Littleton, Colorado, where I grew up.  My plan is still to go back for good someday.  But this morning on the way to church, as I crossed the intersection onto the NU campus, I felt at home.  We left our house late and drove through a thunderstorm to get there, and like a flash of lightning, I recalled when I came for my campus visit in the fall of my senior year of high school.  It had also rained cats and dogs that whole weekend.  But I’m pretty sure I wrote to friends at the time that it felt like coming home.  I was born here after all.  It is my dad’s and my alma mater.  I met my husband here during New Student Week my freshman year.  I’ve brought my kids here since they were born.  Our church here is my spiritual home, no question.

We were late today, arriving toward the end of the homily, in the chapel across the street, as ours is being renovated.  From the back, I first saw the silhouette.  Then I heard the voice.  Then I listened to the words—always words of connection, truth, service, and love.  I was overcome with emotion when I realized: It was Father Ken, director of our church from my sophomore year until I first became a mom.  He led my RCIA class for confirmation.  He nurtured my early adult development as only a pastor could, and has known me through inspiration as well as struggle.  I have only seen him rarely since he left, and missed his calming, comforting presence. Seeing him and hearing his homily today made it suddenly crystal clear to me: This, Chicago and my life here, are also my home, wholly and without question.

I can claim and love both—the places, the people, the cultures, the memories.  The mountains and also the lake; where my parents made their life and also where my kids are growing up.  Colorado is not the same now as when I left in 1991.  Chicago is not the same today as it will be when I finally return to Colorado.  Which is the Out and which is the Back?  Doesn’t matter.  Finally, after all this time feeling conflicted and divided, I really am home.

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Dillon Reservoir, Dillon, Colorado

The Loving and Entwined Life

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“Love and friendship dissolve the rigidities of the isolated self, force new perspectives, alter judgments and keep in working order the emotional substratum on which all profound comprehension of human affairs must rest.”

John W. Gardner, Self-Renewal, 1963

 

How often do you take a breath, take a moment, and reflect on the deep, thick connections that hold you up?

I say over and again that our relationships kill us or save us.  But it’s not merely relationships that save us, it’s connection.  I named this blog honestly!  John O’Donohue writes in Anam Cara, “We need more resonant words to mirror this than the tired word relationship.  Phrases like ‘an ancient circle closes’ or ‘an ancient belonging awakens and discovers itself’ help to bring out the deeper meaning and mystery of encounter…  Two people who are really awakened inhabit the one circle of belonging.  They have awakened a more ancient force around them that will hold them together and mind them.”

Friends really do take you further.

This past week I finished listening to David Brooks’s latest book, The Second Mountain.  I highly recommend it.  He makes a critical and compassionate assessment of the current state of society, what he refers to as a severely torn social fabric.  We are dangerously, existentially disconnected.

David Blankenhorn and Bill Doherty, co-founders of Better Angels, see the same, and seek specifically to address our perilous political polarization.  Last Saturday I attended their workshop to help us depolarize from within our own political tribes.  The goal of the organization and each workshop is to depolarize, not to convert. The method is communication to connect, not to convince.  Both Brooks and Better Angels seek to strengthen our most meaningful ties to one another.  In Brooks’s words, about his new organization, Weave: “The Weaver movement is repairing our country’s social fabric, which is badly frayed by distrust, division and exclusion. People are quietly working across America to end loneliness and isolation and weave inclusive communities. Join us in shifting our culture from hyper-individualism that is all about personal success, to relationalism that puts relationships at the center of our lives.”

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On Tuesday I returned to my desk after a productive and gratifying work meeting, to read that Toni Morrison had died.  I was overcome with sadness, which surprised me.  I have never read any of her acclaimed novels.  I was not a follower, per se.  But I felt a loss as if I had known her personally.  I think it’s because she had a profound influence on one of the most important aspects of my life, early in my kids’ lives, with just a single verbal expression.

“When your child walks in the room, does your face light up?”

Morrison told Oprah in 2000:

“When my children used to walk in the room, when they were little, I looked at them to see if they had buckled their trousers or if their hair was combed or if their socks were up.  You think your affection and your deep love is on display because you’re caring for them. It’s not. When they see you, they see the critical face. But if you let your face speak what’s in your heart…because when they walked in the room, I was glad to see them. It’s just as small as that, you see.”

It’s so small and simple, and yet it alters the entire encounter, every time.  More and more I understand in my limbic brain, the part of the mind where we humans make meaning and where our decisions and actions originate, that it is how we are with people that matters, far more than what we say or what we do.  The majority of communication is non-verbal.  Morrison’s description of a parent’s facial expression, and the profound effect it has on a child, applies to all relationships and connections, or disconnections, for that matter.  It was not until she died that I realized how far her influence really reached in my life.  And it felt suddenly, unexpectedly, too late to thank her for it.

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So whose face lights up when they see you?

Whose presence awakens you and invites you to ‘inhabit the one circle of belonging’?

I recently made a list of these people in my life.  It is gratifyingly long, and growing.  It started with my mom.  I’m embarrassed that I did not notice overtly before now, and my gratitude cannot be adequately expressed in words.  I imagine she got it from my grandmother, one of the people I have admired most in the entire world.  I have met the others, my Counsel of Wisdom, my pit crew, throughout my life, from age 12 to only a couple years ago.  They are my Kalyana-mitra, or “noble friend”s, as O’Donohue describes them:  They “will not accept pretension but will gently and very firmly confront you with your own blindness.  No one can see his life totally.  As there is a blind spot in the retina of the human eye, there is also in the soul a blind side where you are not able to see.  Therefore you must depend on the one you love to see for you what you cannot see for yourself.  Your Kalyana-mitra complements your vision in a kind and critical way.  Such friendship is creative and critical; it is willing to negotiate awkward and uneven territories of contradiction and woundedness.”

In Self-Renewal, John Gardner takes this idea from the personal friendship to society:  “A tradition of vigorous criticism is essential to the renewal of a society.  A nation is not helped much by citizens whose love for their country leads them to shield it from life-giving criticism.  But neither is it helped much by critics without love, skilled in demolition but unskilled in the arts by which human institutions are nurtured and strengthened and made to flourish.  Neither uncritical lovers nor unloving critics make for the renewal of societies.”

David Brooks expresses the same in Second Mountain:  “Truth without love is harshness; love without truth is sentimentality.”  In her book Insight, Tasha Eurich suggests methods and exercises for engaging with our ‘loving critics,’ in service of improving honest and loving self-awareness, connection, and leadership.

Mesler book window

I have two goals this week on vacation:  Hike and read.

I brought Anam Cara by John O’Donohue, Self-Renewal by John W. Gardner, and What Moves at the Margins, a collection of Toni Morrison’s eloquent and important nonfiction writing.  Little did I know that the ideas in these books, read concurrently by cosmic accident (or more likely by divine inspiration), would weave in meaning with one another, as well as with my deepest and most meaningful life lessons to date.  How rewarding and awe-inspiring!

I pray today that my ‘soul’ and ‘noble friends’ know how much I appreciate their presence, guidance, support, and love; and that I may come even remotely close to serving them similarly.  May we all look to bless one another with our own souls every day.

Friends Take You Further

KT St Elmo hummingbirds 8-17

Holy cow, friends!

This weekend marked the most ambitious cooking endeavor ever attempted in my kitchen!  I don’t know how I agreed to it, really…  I sat at our usual brunch with one of my oldest church friends, a fellow Chinese-American, and suddenly we had a plan to get a bunch of people together at my house to make potstickers, sticky rice bombs (zhong zi), ma tai soo, and stir fried bok choyat the same time.  [Insert Home Alone face here.]

My kids have severe seafood and egg allergies, and our fun new church friends don’t eat mammals, so we had to modify the recipes, each in different ways, and vigilantly avoid cross-contamination, all in an acutely crowded space.  We ended up doing ga li jiao (curry beef pastry) filling, but with chicken, in the ma tai soo instead of shrimp and pork.  I made separate chicken and pork potsticker fillings with dong gu mushrooms, napa cabbage, fresh ginger and garlic, soy sauce, and sesame oil.  And for the rice bombs, the wrapping staff segregated pork-chicken-salted duck egg, egg-free, and pork-free versions, put to boil in separate pots for 3-4 hours.  We invited my sister and brother-in-law, and at the last minute my daughter’s preschool classmate and his mom, our dear friends for the past decade.  It was joyfully rè nào, as we say in Mandarin.

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My church friend did all of the grocery shopping and overnight prep of soaking glutinous rice, dried mushrooms and bamboo leaves, and meat marinating—both bird and mammal.  She brought her food scale, rolling pin, steaming pot, chef’s knife—basically most of her own kitchen—and drove an hour across town to my house.  Sister and BIL came bearing chocolate cake and soft drinks, and school friend mom brought her knife-wielding and rolling pin skills.  Husband weaved between us all, cleaning and washing—we ran the dishwasher twice.  Because that’s the thing about Chinese food—everything had to be rinsed, washed, soaked, seasoned, chopped, shredded, minced, mixed, kneaded, rolled, wrapped, arranged, fried, boiled, steamed, and baked!

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Is it any wonder that I experienced more than a little anxiety and possibly moderate panic at the prospect?  Not only am I the queen of shortcut cooking (I use store bought potsticker wrappers and pie crust rather than make my own dough—and most of the time I just buy ready-to-cook dumplings), but for some time now I have dubbed my house The Pigsty of Entropy for good reason…  One whole segment of counter space had not seen the light of day in over a year, buried under more and more Idon’tevenknowwhat.  Two nights ago I simply moved that pile to a paper box, to be organized later, and wiped the well-preserved Corian surface.  I had to leave the rest of the place as-is, counting on guests to focus their attention on the food more than their ridiculously cluttered surroundings.  My primary reassurance was that if the project failed, we could always order pizza.

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In the end, though, the gathering was a raging success.  A bright summer sun shone through the big windows from the west.  Everyone arrived happy and ready to participate.  And we had very reasonable expectations for the outcome—namely that taste and company mattered ‘way more than presentation (but it all looked pretty good!).  Conversation topics ranged widely and laughter punctuated questions about ingredients and procedures.  I found the vegetable chopping rhythmic and satisfying, and I even developed a double-fisted-chopstick mixing method that could rival any Kitchen Aid—someone just had to hold the bowl for me.  We planned the order of activities such that the three main courses would be ready to eat at the same time—and then we feasted with “Crazy Rich Asians” playing in the background.

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The oblong ma tai soo were made in a pig mold, but bloated beyond recognition in the oven.

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What would you never have done if your friend had not invited (instigated) you?  How do your friends’ confidence and experience hold you up when you try something new?  How can we nudge and support our own friends to step out of their comfort zones?  Besides cooking, what other skills can we love our friends into acquiring?

I already anticipate our next audacious culinary event—menu suggestions, please?

As I look around at all the people in my life, my myriad meaningful and thick connections, I am overwhelmed with gratitude and humility.  This weekend filled my belly and my heart.  Thank you, my dear friends and family.