The Mark You Make

IMG_2633

Friends, Ozan has written another book!  I know it may seem like it, but he’s not paying me to promote his work, really!  He has offered perks for Inner Circle members, however, like an advance digital copy for preordering, and signed copies when the book is released next April.  In considering what I would ask him to inscribe to my friends in the books I will give them, I realized yet another evocative dimension of my relationships.

If you were to describe your friendships to a third party, or make a meaningful introduction in service of connecting two amazing people, what would you say?  I call it ‘connecting fellow Awesomes,’ and it’s always a pleasure and privilege to serve in this capacity.  I thought to ask Ozan to write to one friend something like, “Cathy thinks the world of you—happy to make such a positive new connection!”  Then I thought, this friend has really made a mark on me.  Then I thought of the mark Ozan has also made, in just 9 months of virtual contact.  And then my mind was blown with the realization of my cosmically marked-up self—the finger, hand, and footprints of all those whom I have contacted.

Years ago I attended the orthopaedic surgery resident graduation dinner with my husband, a happy and fun annual event.  At the end, mingling with faculty and trainees, one of the graduates looked at me and his eyes widened.  “You’re Dr. Cheng!  You were my teaching attending during my third year medicine rotation [7 years prior] at [the hospital where I used to work]!”  I was gratified that his expression was cheerful, rather than distressed or awkward, surprise.  He went on to tell me that I held the team to a high standard of discussion, and that he appreciated my presence and teaching.  I will always remember this encounter with pride and appreciation.

In the past year three patients from my past have resurfaced and told me the positive difference I made it their lives.  I remembered two of them so clearly, both their faces and their names (after 20 years and thousands of patients, I can usually only remember one or other).  Talking to each of them reminded me of all that we had been through together, and I was glad that I had done my job well.

But what about those for whom I have not been a great doctor?  I have had my fair share of patients who left me, for various reasons.  I know I have been seriously disappointing for many.  I wonder how many times I have contributed to patients’ negative overall experience of medicine, and further widened the divide between doctors and patients in our fraught and flawed healthcare system?  Sometimes I look back on my early years of practice and cringe a little—all the writing I do now on empathy, compassion, curiosity, openness, and humility results from years of lessons learned in real time, on real people.  I’m definitely much more adept at it all now than in the beginning.  And I’m still learning—I still get triggered, still fall into old, counterproductive thought and behavior patterns.  Sometimes it feels like I will never be good enough, or enough in general.

IMG_1852

I also think about the people whose marks on me were/are hurtful, dismissive, and otherwise wounding.  It reminds me of carvings I see in the trunks of the beautiful aspens I walked among this weekend.  Did the folks who made them set out to harm the trees?  If they thought the tree might die from their knife marks, would they think twice?  Maybe they were overcome with their profound experience in nature and just wanted to mark it in some way, especially if they shared it with someone they loved (so may initials with plus signs and hearts)?  Sometimes we just want or need to be right, competent, respected, and acknowledged.  So we mark our encounters with stubbornness, aggression, or even violence (in its many forms, overt and cloaked).  Like the strong and flexible aspens, I bear scars from such encounters and still continue to thrive.  Such marks have taught me how to care for myself, and also how not to be toward others.

In the end, how do I reconcile these relationship phenomena?  Sometimes we can see and know the mark we make on others.  Many times we cannot.  Nobody is perfect.  My whole life I will scrape and nick those around me, hopefully never with malicious intent.  I can only hope for their generosity and grace, and forgiveness.

Sister Brené Brown, once again, helps me continue.  In her book Rising Strong, she describes a choice, a mental attitude, that can help us all suffer less.  If you have not read or heard the book, I highly recommend it—it’s my favorite of the 5 of her books I have read.  Assume, she says (with the help of her pediatrician husband), that we are all doing the best we can.  That’s it.  We are all imperfect.  Our circumstances mess with us, our patterns mess with each other, and sometimes it can feel like a strange and inexplicable miracle that we have not all killed one another already.  But choosing to give each other this one, simple, and at times colossally difficult benefit of the doubt, could be what saves us all.

We simply cannot extricate ourselves from each other.  So we can just do your best to take care of one another.  And be prepared to apologize, early and often.

IMG_2498

The Importance of Peer Support

IMG_2151

What a privilege to present again to a group of smart, creative, fun, and engaging designers on Friday.  This time I was asked to address burnout, as so many folks are feeling overwhelmed and stressed.  I did my homework on stress and burnout in the creative fields, and found enough similarities in medicine to feel like a credible speaker.  “It’s not just a job, it’s a way of life,” seemed to capture how we see our respective vocations.

I presented a brief mini-lecture on self-care practices, including habit formation and maintenance in the 5 reciprocal domains of health, and narrative awareness.  The latter is always something we can do when we find ourselves in untenable circumstances:  Ask ourselves what story we tell about the situation, how that story compounds our suffering, and then tell a new story that does nothing to change the objective reality, but can dramatically improve our personal experience of it.  I have learned from work in physician burnout that people don’t just want to be told how to fix themselves.  They want someone to address the problems of the system that oppresses them.  So that’s where I tried to go next.

I started with an Appreciative Inquiry (AI) exercise.  In small groups, I asked participants to share team success stories, and listen for recurring themes around what’s already great about their teams, their work, and their organization.  Words like openness, flexibility, and “we have leaders, not bosses” made the Post-It easel list.  Then, in this headspace, I asked the groups to identify issues they wanted to address.  Instructions were to find important, urgent, and solvable challenges.  Guiding questions included, “Why will the organization be better if it’s addressed?” and “What does better look like?”

Similar to the AI results, common issues arose from multiple groups.  There was general consensus, reviewing the list at the end of 20 minutes, that overall work satisfaction would improve with less digital and more face to face communication, better project clarity, and taking better care of the shared spaces.  I would meet with team leaders and show them the list later in the day.

IMG_1939

When I opened the floor to questions, a self-proclaimed ‘Debbie Downer’ presented a query that I will ponder for many months as I prepare upcoming talks:  “When you ask someone how they’re doing and they say they feel like they’re drinking from a firehose, telling them to adjust their attitude is probably not helpful…  How can we change things that are not in our control?” The Universe had prepared me for this question by sending a new mentor who taught me to ask, “Who owns the things we don’t control?”  Thank you, my loving Cosmos.

I only partially answered Debbie’s question by suggesting she think about how she might influence the owner(s), how she might impact decisions being made in those spaces.  I segued too quickly, I’m afraid, to the question that I wanted to ask the group:  “When someone asks you how you are and you express that you are overwhelmed and drowning, what is a helpful response?”  I thought the discussion that ensued was productive…  It seemed to stimulate people’s intrinsic empathy and compassion.  We recognized the importance of feeling connected, that I’m not the only one feeling this way.  People recognized the relief found in just speaking aloud the list of stressors to a sincere and empathic listener.  We also talked about being prepared to hold space for any potential answer when we ask, “How are you?”  Even if we have no control over the flow out of the fire hose, maybe we can take turns holding the nozzle steady, and at a slightly oblique angle for each drinker, so it doesn’t have to knock us all over when we try to take a gulp.

I had a chance to talk to Debbie a little later (Cosmos offering me a second chance, Thank You Again), and we agreed that stress and burnout, in both medicine and design, are best addressed at both the individual and systems levels.  We can each start with personal accountability for our own experience of the system.  Then we can decide how we show up in the system each day.  We can choose, at any time, to either participate passively in the status quo (which is what we all need to do sometimes), or find a way, however small, to advocate effectively for change.

The latter is much better done with peers, with friends.  Take time to connect (no lunch meetings, let’s just eat together!).  Share stories.  What do we love about this work?  What’s already great?  How could it [realistically] be even better?  How can we help one another, including our leaders, envision and pave the way there?  Who else needs to be enrolled?

My meeting with the team leaders was less structured.  I worried that they left feeling disappointed because I did not offer more concrete advice on personal resilience practices for leaders, and ‘how to lead’ teams in burnout.  But over the hour, I felt no desire or need to lecture.  I queried various aspects of their self- and team awareness, personal resilience practices, and communication.  We briefly reviewed the issues list from the morning workshop, and I left with confidence that they would take it seriously.  It also occurred to me that these designated leaders were already supporting one another in their efforts to lead intentionally, effectively, and compassionately.  Maybe they have also felt overwhelmed sometimes.  Maybe it was also good for them just to talk it out with each other this day.  Maybe we can all do this for one another a little more often.

 

Tribe, Community, and Mission to Connect

berries figs regina 9-2019

Fruit for Regina’s sweet galettes.  These are tiger figs, available at Trader Joe’s. 🙂

Friends, don’t you love those synthesis/cohesion moments when all of a sudden something important to you—a passion, a core value, a project—is validated from multiple angles?  That happened for me this weekend and I am positively giddy from it!

Tribe

My new group of medical students promises to be just as engaging and fun as every other I’ve had, yay!  They are only three rotations into their third year and already wise beyond their training.  This month we discussed tribalism.  They considered stereotypes, barriers to overcoming them, and how they might lead by example.  And they identified experiences in which such barriers are already breaking down.  “Finding your people” came up as both an aspirational as well as a potentially divisive ideal.  We discussed the benefits of ‘We’re Great!’ and the risks of ‘They Suck’ attitudes.  The conversation did not veer into political arenas, but it crossed my mind.  I tried to point out how the skills of professionalism we address in medical training apply well beyond the bedside and medical teams.  Our tribal memberships can save us and also keep us from living fully.  I’m so grateful to have these reminders on a regular basis.

Community

Some of you may notice I reference Ozan Varol increasingly this year (see coda below for why I think he’s so great).  I started following him in the winter after reading his post on why facts don’t change people’s minds.  This summer I joined his Inner Circle, a private forum of diverse and like-minded folks who subscribe to Ozan’s newsletter and wish to connect.  Yesterday Ozan generously hosted a conference call for three of us to get feedback on current projects.  At 2:00pm Central Daylight Time, I logged on from Chicago.  I met Ozan and his wife in Portland, OR.  J, a Canadian, called in from the Dominican Republic, where she has lived the past 24 years.  C, an organizational psychologist interested in humane-ness in the workplace, logged on from Germany.  And R, an education leader working on emotional intelligence workshops for schoolteachers, called in at 12:00am from India.  C, R, and I presented our projects and everybody gave generous, honest, and encouraging feedback to help us all do and be our best.  I could hardly contain my enthusiasm, gesticulating wildly and barely staying in the webcam frame sometimes.

I wrote to Ozan afterward:  “I’m still wrapping my brain around what you have done here–stimulated so many people to think more critically and also openly… Convened a community of us all and given us a forum to interact, at our own pace and in our own words, from around the world… and invited us to help one another, to contribute to lives that we would never otherwise touch…  What a privilege, a pleasure, and an absolutely ecstatic experience!!!”

Mission to Connect

I think it’s fair to say that part of Ozan’s mission is to connect people.  But not just for the sake of connection—to make us all more thoughtful, curious, and collaborative beings.  A man after my own heart!

Maybe my passion for such connection stems in part from my immigrant roots?  Today my daughter and I embarked on another food adventure at home:  Onigiri and chong you bing (but ours are much easier than the linked recipe!).  The former turned out to be less labor-intensive than I expected, so we made a bunch, both salmon and chicken versions.

onigiri chicken

Tonight’s teriyaki chicken onigiri selection

My Korean-American friend of 20 years, Regina, posted photos of her own culinary accomplishments today—savory and sweet galettes.  Mei and I may try those next!  Our ensuing text thread included my laments about the unhealthiness of onion pancakes (but oh, salt, fat, and starch—yummo!).  Her kind reply: “Making food together with your kids, carrying on food culture, bonding, it’s a win-win!!”  I knew I loved her for good reason.  And how lovely that we have stayed in touch all this time!  If not for that, I could never have recruited her to join my work team this year.  And holy cow, talk about a win-win!  Her kindness, generosity, curiosity, openness, and conscientiousness have elevated the team even higher than we could have dreamed—Thank you, Regina!  What a blessing our connection has been for so many.

My new German friend C is thinking of launching a blog to explore humane-ness and its effects and importance in the work environment.  She thinks maybe next year.  Yesterday Ozan and I both encouraged her to start now.  Asked whether I would follow, I said HELL YES.  Not only will writing about her topic develop her ideas and thesis faster; the interface with fellow readers and writers on a blog, the opportunity to join a community of thinkers, and the connection with folks from who knows where, doing who knows what amazing things, may very well yield untold treasures of relationship and development—as it has for me—so why wait?

Tonight my heart bursts with gratitude for membership in such thriving, complex, diverse and overlapping tribes.  I treasure the various communities that welcome me and give me a chance to contribute.  And my mission to make as many and meaningful connections as possible between all people stands validated and sustained once again.

Onward, my friends.  As Simon Sinek says, Together Is Better.

 

Ozan about

Why Ozan’s So Great:

  1. Humility.  So many bloggers and podcasters are so full of themselves.  It’s obnoxious.  They may have expertise and knowledge, maybe even wisdom.  But I cannot get past my aversion to their ego.  I have no such issue with Ozan. 🙂
  2. Goldilocks content.  The blogs are the perfect length!  Enough words to make his point eloquently, and not so many that I lose interest before the end.  He contacts subscribers at just the right frequency–weekly emails and biweekly podcasts.  And the newsletters are also the perfect blend of blog, quote, and other interesting material.  So many other authors inundate the inbox that I first ignore and then unsubscribe.  Ozan has really found the perfect touch.
  3. Resonance.  Though Ozan’s podcast topic is failure, what he really addresses is humanity in all of our complexity and fascinating ironies.  I LOVE that!  And he does it nonjudgmentally, always from the perspective of curiosity and learning.  I really respect that–the generosity of spirit and growth, exploratory mindset.
  4. Consistency and reliability.  Ozan is clearly disciplined and intentional when it comes to this work (and so I imagine he is also this way in life).  His podcast script has a reassuring cadence and authenticity to it.  When he says he’ll reply to all messages, he actually replies (that is what most impresses me about him–his responsiveness and how he makes me feel like I matter).  He says he will update us on something and then he does.  All in all a truly stand up and stand out guy among so many!

 

We Are Really Bad At This

turkey human car tracks

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!

IMG_1547

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?

 

Birthday Sock and Washi Love

 

IMG_0486

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.

img_2199.jpg

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.

IMG_2202

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.

*****

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

IMG_1944

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?

IMG_1863

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.

IMG_1862

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.

IMG_1931

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.”

IMG_1998

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.

IMG_1959

Dillon Reservoir, Dillon, Colorado

The Loving and Entwined Life

IMG_4456

“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.”

*****

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.

*****

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.