Playing My Part

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Hello again, friends! Feels good to be back…  3 weeks since my last post of the Blogging A to Z Challenge, holy cow!  At the end I thought, ‘Hey, I can do this!  One post a week, no sweat!’  …And then crickets…  How Fascinating!

Though I have not posted in three weeks, I have written like mad, mostly journaling. Today I suddenly realized how much I have missed corresponding with my friends on paper.  How long it’s been since I wrote by hand to someone other than myself!  As I sat this afternoon and wrote, on stationery, with colored gel pens and stickers, to some of my best friends, a tremendous sense of connection and gratitude filled me.  Much of this post was born of those spontaneous letters to my fellow conscious, cosmic journeyers.

Given the awesome support network with which I am blessed, I feel an impulse to do something more with my writing—to amplify and project all this love and connection back out onto the world for some positive purpose.  But how can my words possibly make a difference?

The A to Z Challenge showed me that I have the capacity to write often and much—and to produce better-than-crap results! It also taught me that I can take more risks with my writing, in both format and content.  Now I want to take my writing a little more seriously, lend more credence to my own abilities.  In the framework of Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle, I know my Why: to cultivate positive and constructive relationships in every realm of life.  This blog is another What to my Why.  But since the Challenge ended, I struggle with the How.

I think night and day about so many things:

  • My own individual relationships—spousal, parental, sibling, other familial; colleague, patient, student, friend, stranger.
  • Relationships I observe between others, and their impact on those of us around them.
  • Healthcare and medicine in general, and specifically at my own institution—miracles, bureaucracies, opportunities and pitfalls.
  • Leadership and organizational culture—examples of effective and ineffective models, and what makes them so.
  • Social justice and discourse—with an urge for movement toward acceptance, inclusion, mutual understanding, and cooperation.
  • Education, parenting and role modeling—integrity, walking my talk, inside and out.
  • Physician self-care and care of one another—individual and system issues, and their interface.

What am I called to affect? I live a conscious life in all these realms, or at least I try.  I have opinions and positions on various issues, some which I hold with deep conviction.  And I struggle with whether and how to express them—for what purpose?

Finally, I have an idea. Though I have opinions and positions that I hold strongly, I plan NOT to use this blog to promote those views.  There are plenty of people doing that already, a multitude of voices trying to win one another over, or, more precisely, trying to drive one another into silence with ever louder, brasher, and more vociferous language.  My voice can be one of moderation—of collaboration, connection—maybe a bridge for a few who seek one…  Or maybe just one stilt among many others, helping to hold up one such bridge.  I will strive not to criticize or proselytize, not to berate, blame, shame, incite, or inflame; and also not to concede or abstain.  I can, at the same time, hold my positions with conviction and passion, and also listen for the convictions and passions of others.  I can practice curiosity and openness.  I can question, explore, Hold the Space, and stand strong and tall, without feeling threatened.  I seek others who strive to do the same.

Voices of moderation are muted these days. The great orchestra of discourse has lost balance and harmony.  The most strident strings, horns, and drums play for their own promotion, rather than as a contribution to a symphonic collective.  The resulting dissonance makes us want to cover our ears and run away.  In order for a symphony to engage and inspire, each player must not only know her own part and play it well, but also listen carefully for other players and their movement.  Maybe we can all do this a little better: maintain our own distinct voices, while integrating with those around us.  The best orchestra functions as one entity, breathing and moving in a quintessentially integrated fashion.

My instrument is language. The past seven weeks have shown me my part in the online verbal orchestra.  This blog is where I will practice, record, and offer my contribution, not to overpower any others’ words, but to meet, align, and resonate.  The harmony of consonant contrast plays on, somewhere.  Maybe I can help find and amplify it, so more of us may enjoy the music of life among one another.

#AtoZChallenge: Yes, And!

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Some practices take a while to establish, and it’s worth.every.minute.

I first learned about “Yes, and” from my residency classmate, c.2001. She was taking an improv class in her spare time (a revelation in itself for me at the time—you can do that?).  One day after rounds, she came into the workroom eager to share this new learning.  I warily accepted her invitation to try it.  For those of you unfamiliar, the “Yes, and” exercise goes thusly, according to Wikipedia:

“Yes, and…” is a rule-of-thumb response in improvisational comedy that suggests a participant should accept what another participant has stated (“yes”) and then expand on that line of thinking (“and”).[1][2]

“Yes”

The “Yes” portion of the rule encourages the acceptance of the contributions added by others.[3] Participants in an improvisation are encouraged “to agree to the basic situation and set-up.” Thus, “By saying yes, we accept the reality created by our partners and begin the collaborative process.” [1]

“And ”

In addition to accepting the premise offer by others, a participant in an improvisation is expected to add new information into the narrative. Hence the phrase “Yes, And!”[1]

 

The goal is to open our minds, allow possibilities, expand our boundaries, and encourage creativity. I can still see her smile, the gleaming light of engagement and anticipation in her eyes.  I also remember my own hesitation and self-consciousness.  What do you mean, pimple on my forehead?  Is it really about to burst?  I need a mirror!  I was distracted, trepidatious, reserved—less than an engaging partner.  Sadly, I think she left that interaction a bit deflated.  So sorry, Carol!

In August of 2003, I read an interview with Tina Fey.  [Hey, isn’t that AMAZING, that I can Google “tina fey interview 2003 yes and” and it pops right up??]  In it, she recalls, “A couple of times I’ve been called on to do things—jobs or whatever—where I’ve felt, ‘Maybe I’m not quite ready. Maybe it’s a little early for this to happen to me.’ But the rules are so ingrained. ‘Say yes, and you’ll figure it out afterward’ has helped me to be more adventurous. It has definitely helped me be less afraid.” For whatever reason, perhaps primed by Carol’s invitation to try improv, this spoke to me, and I resolved to say Yes more often.  The very next day, I was invited to attend a luncheon at my church at the last minute, when another attendee had cancelled.  Normally I would have said no, thanks, and gone home.  I would not have wanted to overstep usual social boundaries, assume a position higher than my own (the luncheon was to honor benefactors).  AND, as I had nothing else going on that day, I thought of Tina Fey’s advice, and said yes.  I learned about all the people who give their time, talent, and treasure to help our faith community thrive.  I was humbled and grateful to be included.  Years later, I would give the keynote address at that annual event.

In 2005 I started working with my life coach, Christine. The “Yes, and” idea resurfaced again, this time as a practice in mindfulness.  Rather than saying, “I want to be in Colorado, but I am stuck in Chicago,” I redirected to say instead, “I want to be in Colorado, AND I am stuck in Chicago.”  The first was a straight-up complaint—a whine.  Changing the one word made all the difference, propelling me beyond the ‘stuck’ness.  After the ‘and’ statement, I intuitively accepted the current situation as it was, and a logical, sequential question arose: “So, what do I want to do now?”  In the following year, I moved (somewhat) past my resentment, feeling anchored in Chicago for the rest of my professional life, and embraced the opportunities a life here could offer.  The but-to-and modification played an important role in this attitude shift.  I was even able to apply it to my patient interactions, holding space for their stuck-ness and inviting them into new possibilities.

Fast forward to 2009, my first time at the Harvard Coaching Conference.  I had the enormous fortune to attend a presentation by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, based on their book, The Art of Possibility.  I had my picture taken with Mr. Zander, and soon became of disciple of the book’s teachings, including the practice of substituting ‘and’ for ‘but’ in daily vernacular.  ‘But’ implies limitation and scarcity.  ‘And,’ conversely, opens our minds to movement and possibility.  I would say that by this time, my Yes, And practice was almost second nature.

And, it was February of 2013 when everything truly gelled. I was offered the privilege of leading a group of internists in the Chicago area, in an innovative educational initiative—weekly board review webinars for practicing physicians.  The format was new to all of us, so we took an improv workshop to hone presentation skills and build the team.  My partner, Sean, and I engaged in iterative exercises to demonstrate the power of ‘No,’ ‘Yes, but,’ and finally, ‘Yes, and.’  You can try it yourself.  Get a partner, and whatever you say, your partner says, ‘No.’  Do that a few minutes, then switch to ‘Yes, but,’ then finally, ‘Yes, and.’  The first two responses have essentially the same effect—shutting down the conversation, tempting the initiator to disengage in exasperation.

When we got to ‘Yes, and,’ I could feel my anticipation rising. Where would this go, what positively outlandish ideas could we possibly come up with?  I understood Carol’s excitement at sharing an imminent journey of imagination and creativity.  Between Sean and me, we devised a plan to hitchhike to California through the Badlands and Yellowstone.  We would stop on the Golden Gate bridge after our car broke down and help tourists take pictures.  Then we would steal one of their cars and joy ride down to Jay Leno’s house, or some professional athlete’s house, by way of Candlestick Park, I can’t remember for sure.  We would somehow convince the celebrity to drive with us, in his car, back to Chicago, taking selfies along the way, and make a presentation to our colleagues about the importance of primary care…  Or something like that!  I patted myself on the back; I am a Yes, And pro.

Our webinar series is now well into its second two-year cycle, and the Yes, And approach has guided us well through changes in communication, marketing, staffing, and expansion.

I’m reminded of a strategy that that Dr. Phil McGraw’s team implements when they brainstorm content for his show: “We love every idea for fifteen minutes.” That is the essence of Yes, And!  Take any idea, love it, embrace it, flesh it out, water it, pour Miracle Grow on it, throw it around, bounce it off the walls, crack it open, dissect it, sit on it, taste it!  You never know what will come of it until you let loose your imagination—YES, AND it!

Yes, And can be applied in every conversation, every relationship, every decision. Yes.  And?…

#AtoZChallenge: Xerophyte People

Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary

Xerophyte: a plant structurally adapted for life and growth with a limited water supply esp. by means of mechanisms that limit transpiration or that provide for the storage of water.

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Photo courtesy of Cyndie Abbott, Green Valley, Arizona, 2016

 

Water is essential for growth and survival—of plants and animals alike. So how is it that some plants can not only survive, but thrive and even reproduce, with so little water?  On top of that, they also provide beauty, habitation, and even sustenance for others.  Their short-lived flowers splash color onto monochromatic landscapes.  Regional animals are adapted to live nestled among some xerophytes’ barbs.  Survival programs tell us to seek these plants as a source of essential hydration when stranded in the dessert.

Humans share many of these tough flora’s adaptive qualities. We evolved as omnivores, able to eat most things that grow in nature.  Our big forebrains allowed us to cultivate plants to eat.  We learned to capture, then herd, animals for our own use.  We have come so far as to alter and control our environments, in order to live in places where nature may never have intended.

But the more interesting parallel between xerophyte plants and Xerophyte People is resilience.  If we consider metaphorical water for human life, many things come to mind: joy, security, connection, purpose, meaning, love.  Think of all the people who live with little or none of these things.  Think of those who once had these things, and then had them forcibly taken away, often indefinitely—by war, abuse, illness, death.  In medicine, we witness this kind of suffering regularly.  Our hearts break alongside those of our patients and their families.  But it’s not always forever.  In primary care, where I have the privilege of knowing patients over long periods, I have also celebrated remarkable reversals.  New relationships, revelations, births, treatment innovations—you never know what will happen to turn the tide.

So what keeps us hanging on? Like plants, maybe we figure out ways to prevent further loss—limit transpiration.  Thick skin and prickly spines keep us protected.  Only the very persistent or the specially equipped can penetrate our defenses.  But more important, we have adapted to store what we need.  Even if we cannot readily identify or articulate it, something keeps us going.  Maybe it’s hope, remembrance, or some core value or aspiration we have yet to realize—some inner pilot light that never goes out.  Some might call it the human spirit.  Whatever it is, I stand in reverence of its mystery, its utterly saving presence.

To all the Xerophyte People in our world, I say as Glennon Doyle Melton does:  Carry On, Warriors.

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Tent Rocks National Monument, New Mexico, June 2015