Letter to Self, November 4, 2020

Dear Cathy,

HOLY COW what a year, amIright?  How are you?  What was yesterday like?  I know you wanted to sign up to work the polls, and decided to be at work with your team instead.  Maybe they didn’t need you, but you thought it was right.  What was the vibe, could you feel the pulse? 

How have you observed people holding their own stuff together, and helping others do the same?  How have you done this… and not?  What do you need right now?  What does the family need?  And your teams?  Friends?  Leaders?

Today is your friend’s birthday, make sure you call her. 

And maybe keep the calendar clear this weekend (except for that alphabet workout on Sunday, of course).  Give yourself and the family time and space to breathe and settle down.  There may not be an outcome for a while—it’s anybody’s guess at this point!  It’s all so nuts.  Whatever happens, we must find a way to recover and reconnect; this is imperative.

How will you conduct yourself in the coming months, regardless of the outcome? 

Looking back, you have learned and matured much in the past 4 years—STRONG WORK, MAMA!  Haha, finally, I get to say this to myself. 😉  Remember when you could not help but RAGE and YELL on Facebook, when you succumbed to impulsive ad hominem, then felt helpless and exhausted?  The exhaustion feels different this time, no?  It has more meaning, more purpose.  Because you have done the inner work to show up as your better self.  You have reflected, consulted, read, challenged, practiced, rejected, regulated, and engaged.  You’ve also basked in the nourishing light and warmth of mentors and role models, showing you the value and fruits of magnanimity and grace.

You participated better this time.  You wrote and mailed postcards.  You phone banked to fellow Chinese Americans.  You focused more on what you’re for than what you’re against.  Most of all, you did your best to elevate conversations.  You seek the Strong Middle, where people can have heartfelt, empathic, and often uncomfortable conversations, in service of connection.  You compromised none of your core values, and held certain ones in front, like curiosity, kindness, respect, and generosity.  Often such attitudes were not returned, from either ‘the opposition’ or ‘your own side’. 

But you got enough to keep going, and now you’re stronger.  And it’s all stoked the embers of positive change—the rock circle around your inner campfire enlarges.   You’ve found friends who also seek connection across difference.  Together you will create wider space and build a beautiful bonfire—visible from afar, inviting, welcoming, warming, and inspiring.  There’s a knock you can no longer ignore; you are called to do more.

Let this letter serve as your ethos manifesto—a first draft, at least.  When you feel frustrated and hopeless, when all you encounter tell you it’s a lost cause; when you feel attacked and diminished, and tempted to behave badly or give up, read this.

It’s an Infinite Game.  The goal in an infinite game is not to ‘win’; it’s to stay in the game.  Others may play to vanquish you, your cause, or one another.  This will never happen—there will always be new players; the issues, conflicts, and polarities will never go away.  Your job is to modify the game, to make it more humane for all players, while you advance your finite goals.  The costs of playing should not outweigh the rewards as they do today.  You know you can help rebalance, to give voice, strength, and power to those whose Why is connection.  That is how you will leave the game better for having played.

Center.  Ground.  Focus.  Engage.  This mantra served you well for years.  You know your own core values.  Their roots run deep and strong; they hold you up; trust them.  You know the truth of your message, no matter how it gets assailed.  You also draw strength and light from your amazing friends. They will stand by you—and you them—you hold each other up high.  Trust that, too.

No ad hominem.  Your mantra for the past few years:  Present. Open. Grounded. Kind. Loving. Smart.  You can be strong and flexible—strong back, soft front, wild heart, as Joan Halifax and Brené Brown write.  It serves no one for you to engage with negativity.  Firmness, directness, and steadfastness, however, along with fairness, humility, and accountability, will get you far.  Standing in these practices, I am confident you will regret less in the end. 

One Day, One Moment, One Breath at a time.  Everywhere you go, in every challenge, mindfulness emerges as a universal sustaining practice.  You always have your breath.  You can always use it, this quintessential polarity that teaches us about simplicity and infinity.  Lean in to it.  Draw in strength, respire peace.

Finally:  Dance.  Less news.  More music.

You’ got this.

Flexibility, Grace, and Peace

MOM FAIL!

We missed the PSAT registration deadline last week.  Turns out there was an email, the information was at the bottom, and I had not scrolled down far enough.  Apparently Son was also not aware…  So we both felt badly, a little despondent, wondering what difference it would make in his future.  Last night I finally admitted that my heretofore laissez faire parenting style may fail even harder pretty soon, so I texted my uber-school-engaged mom friend, and she saved me.  I’m sending her a pack of washi tape cards to thank her.

Today I was prompted to consider my assumptions—the mindless ones I make and then fly by on autopilot.  “The kids take the lead and tell me what they need for school, like I did when I was their age.”  It’s not just an assumption; I have trained them to take responsibility and initiative for school related things.  Rather than a helicopter or ‘snowplow’, I see myself as a drone parent—one with an occasionally glitchy camera and a fully operational weapons system.  This minor lens failure served as a timely tune-up trigger.  Humbled and grateful, I commit to doing more frequent and vigilant systems maintenance.

Looking back at five years of Healing Through Connection, learning emerges as a recurring theme.  I focus on relationships as the primary application, and I’m proud of my progress in this domain, both personally and professionally.  But these last seven months, I realize the profound importance of learning as the foundation of existential flexibility and adaptation.  And I don’t mean formal education; rather it’s life learning:  pattern recognition, empathy, communication, discernment, and connection.  When we keep ourselves open to this qualitative, intuitive learning, integrating new information from any source at any time, we develop resilience.  Resilient structures and people can bend without breaking.  We take deformations, sustain scratches and dents.  And like my favorite Coach leather handbags, life lessons make us supple and soft.  Without losing strength, we gain elasticity.

For perfectionist overachievers (POAs), however, learning from failure can cost us.  Failure triggers judgment, often snowballing into guilt, shame, and self-loathing.  If we happen to hold positions of power, our failures may affect many others.  Justified or not, we withstand wrath and hostility, which then compounds our humiliation.  In this time of relentless anxiety, many of us are fraying at the edges, and some are actively unraveling.  Relationships and wellness disintegrate in cascades of incidental destruction.  How can we keep holding it together with no end, or even respite, in sight?

More and more I look for grace, toward myself and others alike.  It feels akin to generosity and forgiveness, and also separate and distinct from these (which also really help at times like this).  Merriam-Webster lists “unmerited divine assistance,” mercy, favor, and pardon in its definition of grace.  That sounds about right.  Sometimes we must call on forces greater than ourselves to get us through.  I identify spiritually as Catholic and Buddhist—Cathuddhist.  I have prayed and meditated a lot this year, mostly for peace, strength, compassion, resilience, and integrity.  Now more than ever, I need to show up my best self for everybody around me.

And that starts with presenting my best to and for myself.  I draw on the unconditional love and support of so many; I open and let it permeate me.  Unmerited and divine, no question—and so deeply nourishing.  Self-compassion takes practice and persistence for us POAs—more than we like to admit.  It’s work.  And the rewards, for us and all whom we touch, are more than worth the effort. 

Make me an instrument of your peace, St. Francis asks of God.  Amen, amen, amen.  With flexibility and grace, let me live peace through and through, so that all who encounter me may benefit from it and me. 

The only way out is through.  The best way through is together.  Let me do my part.

Revel in the Awesomeness

What’s really awesome for you lately?

I had such an endearing conversation with a friend this week.  A new empty nester, he reflected on this new perspective.  Having spent so much time and energy focused joyfully and lovingly on his children the last couple of decades, he now has some of that time and energy ‘back’, to do with what he chooses.  And it seems he chooses in part to appreciate the awesomeness of his life a bit more.  Fabulous marriage, meaningful and fulfilling careers for both him and his wife, a chance to make a positive difference in the world around him, and happy, healthy kids.  Yay! 

I absolutely love hearing people revel in awesomeness, don’t you?  Is it not totally inspiring?  When was the last time you looked around and truly appreciated the goodness all around you?  It’s a vulnerable act, if we’re honest.  Too often it feels like tempting fate, ‘jinxing it’, to call out all that is going so well, so right.  So we keep joy at bay, we keep striving, always looking for how it could all be better.  Huh.

What happens when we allow awesomeness to envelope us, penetrate us, move us? 

I think the first thing we get is a deep sense of wonder.  How could it be so good?  How is it even possible?  And it doesn’t even have to be anything big.  I have a cold—fever, congestion, headache, fatigue, body aches, mental fog.  And yet I can hydrate, medicate, and slow down, and still work (not in person!) and take care of the family.  The parameters for normal operation in the human body are remarkably narrow.  And yet multiple systems can be widely deranged, and we not only survive, we function at about 90% or better for the most part.  What an amazingly evolved machine, with perfectly orchestrated and automatically, effortlessly effective redundancies!  HOW AWESOME!? 

For me, from wonder grows gratitude.  Some people can’t actually tolerate a cold so well, but I can.  Some people don’t have access to excellent healthcare, but I do.  Some people don’t have the marriage, career, and kids that my friend and I have—but we do.  And we are grateful.  We don’t have to feel shame or guilt for having it ‘better’ than anyone else.  Everybody has their challenges in life, us included.  And still, counting our blessings is a great way to get perspective in any time, hard or easy.

Gratitude, then, is the fountain from which generosity springs.  I wrote about this in 2015:

When I feel grateful, there is enough. I am enough. Even just saying the word, seeing it on the screen, brings me to a more peaceful state of mind and body. It brings to mind the people in my life—my parents, husband, children, friends, colleagues. I recall instances when someone went above and beyond to help me, or when they thought of me and took to the time to call or write. I feel humble. I feel connected.  I want to share what I have with others.

When we truly revel in awesomeness, then allow wonder to infiltrate our psyche, then bask luxuriously in deep gratitude, how can we help but wish for everybody to have what we have, to feel what we feel?  If I can have all this, when life is this abundant, how can I help but share?

Finally, I believe reveling in awesomeness is the seedbed for my activist heart.  I have much and I strive to share freely.  I wish for everybody with much to share with those who have much less.  I wish for our culture and society to make it easier, through policy, for all to have more than enough, for that to be the default.  These days I have cynicism-optimism whiplash at ever higher speed and intensity.  I see so much self-absorption, biting competition, and scarcity thinking.  Sometimes I just want to shake people and yell, “Look UP!  We have so much potential for good here, if we only choose to see it!”  But I realize folks don’t always appreciate this approach.  So for now I can simply revel out loud for myself, in all the awesomeness I experience every day.  And like my friend did, I can share the light I see—emanate it—and I can keep making a difference starting from there.