Friday, June 28, 2019

One Habit to Change for the Better

One after another, the singers got up to audition.

"I'm not in full voice yet, because I've had a cold," says the first.

"I'm sorry I didn't have a chance to memorize it," apologizes the next.

Still, a third: "I'm not a morning person!"

What will the next person say? "The dog ate my music?"

Apologies, blaming, excuses, even lengthy explanations. These are all unbecoming. And completely unnecessary. Whether auditioning, handing in an assignment at school or work, or arriving late to lunch with a friend, it's time to stop.

I was first introduced to this concept by a former accompanist for our choir. She'd spent the day playing for auditions and entered our rehearsal room exclaiming, "Stop with the disclaimers already and just sing!"

Perhaps your introductory remarks are an appeal for empathy, an act of self-sabotage, or an explanation for why you aren't perfect. Perhaps they are simply nerves, making you run off at the mouth. Many of us talk too much when we're nervous.

This habit is a reflection of how we think about ourselves. We blame ourselves or assume we are wrong simply when we are living our life. We're deathly afraid of what others think. Or we've convinced ourselves of our unworthiness before we enter the public arena. We're terrified of being judged but we end up judging ourselves more harshly than anyone else ever would. We use a perfectionistic standard to beat ourselves up because we fall short. We apologize simply for being human.

Consider a different option.

In the example of auditioning or performance, stand up, take your position and simply do what you're there to do. Sing, act, dance, speak. No sheepish introduction or nervous giggle. No one needs (or wants) to know what happened in your life before that moment. Stand quietly. Breath deeply. And begin.

But how does this play out in our day to day interactions?

Certainly, in personal friendships, we care about each other's lives and support one another. There is a time and place for sharing background and perhaps for explanation, but avoid making it your norm. We all have that needy friend, don't we? The one who is always in need of encouragement and affirmation? No matter how beautiful and confident, she always seems to need your validation? It's exhausting!

In a healthy relationship, it's a mutual give and take. When you're strong, you help me. When I'm strong, I support you. Even if we're weak at the same time, we can hold each other and cry. And if we're both in strong mode, look out world!

I used to berate myself for knocking over my beverage. "I'm such a klutz. I spill all the time. I'm so sorry." Even when I was bumped and it wasn't my fault! A friend finally helped me realize everyone spills. This is a human trait. We all trip. Drop things. So now I just laugh, "Oops! My cup runneth over!"

When families label the one kid who does this more than others, that reputation shapes who they become. "Joey?" they'll tease, "Oh, he's the clumsy one." So Joey gets stuck with the label and carries it through life, apologizing or giving disclaimers. "No, I can't carry that vase for you, I'll drop it." Or Joey gets angry because in his heart, he knows. He's not the only one. Others have clumsy moments.

So when those moments come for you, big or small, in public or in personal friendships, lose the disclaimers. Enter with a smile, take a deep breath, and do what you're there to do.

The world will thank you.

*  *  *  *  *

For more on this concept:

What Happened When I Replaced "Sorry" with "Thank You"

Stop Giving Explanations
Stop Apologizing

Photo by Abigail Keenan on Unsplash

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Of Judges and Poetry

Last evening I shared some of my poetry at Alexandra Writer's open mic night. It was the first time I read aloud for those who do not know me and have no context to my life. For any writer, the fear of rejection must be confronted or it will paralyze us. But I did share the following poem that challenges any who would judge... it provides me always with pause, should I be tempted to judge... And now, don't blink, or you might miss the poem. It's shorter than this intro.

Easy vs. Hard

the easiest thing
and the laziest
is to watch
and judge

the hardest is
to do better

Originally posted here.
Picture: #39196783, standard license

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

How Not to Say the Wrong Thing

It works in all kinds of crises -- medical, legal, even existential. It's the 'Ring Theory' of kvetching. The first rule is: comfort in, dump out.

by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman

When Susan had breast cancer, we heard a lot of lame remarks, but our favorite came from one of Susan's colleagues. She wanted, she needed, to visit Susan after the surgery, but Susan didn't feel like having visitors, and she said so. Her colleague's response? "This isn't just about you."

"It's not?" Susan wondered. "My breast cancer is not about me? It's about you?"

The same theme came up again when our friend Katie had a brain aneurysm. She was in intensive care for a long time and finally got out and into a step-down unit. She was no longer covered with tubes and lines and monitors, but she was still in rough shape. A friend came and saw her and then stepped into the hall with Katie's husband, Pat. "I wasn't prepared for this," she told him. "I don't know if I can handle it."

This woman loves Katie, and she said what she did because the sight of Katie in this condition moved her so deeply. But it was the wrong thing to say. And it was wrong in the same way Susan's colleague's remark was wrong.

Susan has since developed a simple technique to help people avoid this mistake. It works for all kinds of crises: medical, legal, financial, romantic, even existential. She calls it the Ring Theory.

Draw a circle. This is the center ring. In it, put the name of the person at the center of the current trauma. For Katie's aneurysm, that's Katie. Now draw a larger circle around the first one. In that ring put the name of the person next closest to the trauma. In the case of Katie's aneurysm, that was Katie's husband, Pat. Repeat the process as many times as you need to. In each larger ring put the next closest people. Parents and children before more distant relatives. Intimate friends in smaller rings, less intimate friends in larger ones. When you are done you have a Kvetching Order. One of Susan's patients found it useful to tape it to her refrigerator.

Here are the rules. The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. She can kvetch and complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens and say, "Life is unfair" and "Why me?" That's the one payoff for being in the center ring.

Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in larger rings.

When you are talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help. Listening is often more helpful than talking. But if you're going to open your mouth, ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support. If it isn't, don't say it. Don't, for example, give advice. People who are suffering from trauma don't need advice. They need comfort and support. So say, "I'm sorry" or "This must really be hard for you" or "Can I bring you a pot roast?" Don't say, "You should hear what happened to me" or "Here's what I would do if I were you." And don't say, "This is really bringing me down."

If you want to scream or cry or complain, if you want to tell someone how shocked you are or how icky you feel, or whine about how it reminds you of all the terrible things that have happened to you lately, that's fine. It's a perfectly normal response. Just do it to someone in a bigger ring.

Comfort IN, dump OUT.

There was nothing wrong with Katie's friend saying she was not prepared for how horrible Katie looked, or even that she didn't think she could handle it. The mistake was that she said those things to Pat. She dumped IN.

Complaining to someone in a smaller ring than yours doesn't do either of you any good. On the other hand, being supportive to her principal caregiver may be the best thing you can do for the patient.

Most of us know this. Almost nobody would complain to the patient about how rotten she looks. Almost no one would say that looking at her makes them think of the fragility of life and their own closeness to death. In other words, we know enough not to dump into the center ring. Ring Theory merely expands that intuition and makes it more concrete: Don't just avoid dumping into the center ring, avoid dumping into any ring smaller than your own.

Remember, you can say whatever you want if you just wait until you're talking to someone in a larger ring than yours.

And don't worry. You'll get your turn in the center ring. You can count on that.

Susan Silk is a clinical psychologist. Barry Goldman is an arbitrator and mediator and the author of "The Science of Settlement: Ideas for Negotiators."

(originally published April 7, 2013 in LA Times)

Sunday, February 03, 2019

From Coma to Podium

January 30, 2019 was the annual #BellLetsTalk day in Canada, raising over $7.2 million this year alone for mental health initiatives, as social media users worked toward ending the stigma surrounding mental health. The initiative encourages us to share our stories for the sake of understanding one another, getting the help we need, giving the help someone else needs, and removing the stigma attached to those suffering.

My own story includes the loss of my first husband to suicide, so this is personal. My friend, motivational speaker, radio personality, and Olympic Skier, “Jungle Jim" Hunter, shared part of his personal story and I thought it worthy to post here, to expand the conversation across North America.

Jim writes, “I often think how different my life could have been if I had not healed from the severe concussion that changed the direction of my life on June 21, 1963. I was ten years of age and smashed my head accidentally on two steel bars and a cement floor. I lay in a coma for almost three months. Dr. Greene found a solution and after following the protocol, I woke up. I didn't know anyone. I didn't know my name. I could no longer write with my right hand because it would shake. For 15 months I stayed in a dark, silent, room, and gradually learned to walk, talk, read, and write with my left hand, and read a book by Dorothea Brande called, Wake Up and Live.

“I would still get dizzy and fall over, but when I was finally ready to go back to school, they thought I could. I lasted one week when the school authorities said I could no longer go because I was 'mentally retarded'.

So, even though Jim's situation was caused by a physical injury, there was still stigma, and those who were quick to judge, unwilling to take the time to understand or investing in the resources to help.

“I was different. I was slow of speech, but one day my mother found me reading the books I loved the most, my Bible and Encyclopedias. She asked if I understood what I was reading. I nodded yes.

“So you understand you just can't keep up. I had no memory so had to journal everything, which I do to this day. I was odd. A new start in Calgary in a new school board maybe would be different but alas I was told, 'We don't have room for your kind here in this school.'

“I chose ski racing because the time on the course spoke for me when I didn't need to speak. I decided in my first race I would enter twice. Once as Mark Hunter (my real name) and the second time as Jim Hunter."

"Mark" fell 4 gates from the finish, and "Jim" started dead last in position #169 and finished in the same position. He then tells what came next. "The Skimeisters chose ten girls and 11 boys to go on to the next camp. The other boys were the fastest ten. The coach chose me as the 11th, they said, because 'If a kid has the desire to enter twice, we have to give him a chance for his effort.' For me, it decided who would be a ski racer and who would be a hockey player."

Jim shared the above photo, where he is already celebrating at the final gate before the finish in the 1976 Dual Slalom finals. “I heard people saying at the start that a Downhill Racer (like me) would never be a great slalom skier.” Jim explains, “In the photo, I’m celebrating because I had just beat one of the best slalom skiers in the world, Piero Gros.”

Jim concludes, “Victory is only ours if we secure victory over mental health.”

I agree with Jim. Let’s use the support and momentum of #BellLetsTalk to secure this victory! Share  your story, ask for help instead of suffering in silence or trying to conquer it alone. We were made for community, and no one has to struggle alone. Ask for help, share your struggles and successes, what helps and what is unhelpful, donate to organizations working effectively toward effective supports for mental health.

Not only do we need to remove the stigma around mental health issues, we also need to move beyond partial recovery with temporary, drug-induced “management” and instead let's fund effective research, develop targeted pharmaceuticals, and organize a multi-disciplinary approach to treatment of the whole person, body, mind, emotions and spirit.

Healing is our goal! Join in!

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Capture Your 365

For thirty days, I have been capturing one photo to post on Instagram with the #CY365 hashtag. Why? To cultivate the routine of taking at least one photo each day, document my year, increase my observatory skill, and/or retain the memory of something beautiful or important (and those two are not mutually exclusive). It's an entertaining hobby and far from routine. It keeps the synapses firing in my aging brain. I hope you enjoy some of what I share, but that is not my measure of success.

The only measure for me is this: did I take a photo today?

There are several apps and websites which help promote the photo-a-day concept. I use this one for photo prompts. Some people can do it on their own, I personally like to have a prompt, though I am not locked into that. If the prompt doesn't resonate, or if I find something more interesting, I simply hashtag it as #offprompt. I chose Instagram as my depository, but others have posted on Twitter, Facebook or elsewhere.

You'll find me on Instagram as @north59lite. I tell you in case you're interested, since you are here, voluntarily reading this blog. I have no marketing agenda, I'm selling nothing, I've no desire to build a larger platform of followers. I can't keep track of the ones I have. The odd nicknames mean I usually have to click a person's profile to figure out who they are in real life. And then there are those of you whom I've never met...

*  *  *

Henry once asked me why I share things on social media. I didn't have an answer then, so I ordered two books I thought might help me answer the question for myself. "Why We Write" and "Why We Write About Ourselves" gave me some interesting reading by other authors, but also offered as many different reasons to write as there were chapters in each book.

Steve Bell, writing in "Pilgrim Year: Ephiphany," finally hit on something close to my own motive. He said:

"We all have interior landscapes that deeply long to be expressed." 

Steve tells how he was once moved to tears reading about the late-life longing expressed by Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky. "As he neared his own death," Steve says, "the great writer was desperately trying to complete The Brothers Karamazov." Dostoyevsky reportedly said that if he could just finish the work, "he would die a happy man, having expressed himself completely."

That quote exploded like fireworks in my heart. It was my own sort of Epiphany. The longing to express oneself completely drives some artists mad. If we tie it to approval of what we have expressed, we get driven there a bit sooner. I determined long ago that I would offer my expressions to the world, be it poetry, prose, photographs, or music. I have been sharing via this blog since 2005, having published over 1,200 posts. That's an average of eight expressions each month for 13 years. Not prolific, but regular.

As someone else has said, "Just because it happened doesn't mean it's interesting," so I try to be interesting, not just self-indulgent. The key to being boring is telling everything to everyone. So, one photo a day for 365 days might is a somewhat interesting record to me of this year. We shall see if I can consistently persist in this. I'm quite aware that I like to try things and abandon them if I get bored. So far, so good. Thirty days in, I'm game to keep going.

Come along if you like!

Friday, January 25, 2019

My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose

Today is Robbie Burns Day. One of my most favorite songs is a choral setting of Robert Burns' poem: "My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose." I have created a video with the song, featuring a photo-diary of  my love, marriage and life with Henry. It parallels the poem in many ways. I am so grateful for this love and for our life together.

Please enjoy the music and share our joy.

Poem by Robert Burns
Music composed and arranged by Bill Douglas

Sung by The Ars Nova Singers
Conducted by Thomas Morgan
From Songs of Earth & Sky/Hearts O'Space Records 11083-2

Photo credits:
Laura-Anne Smid, Engagement
Jill Hopkins, Wedding
Andrew Harback Photography, Wedding and Anniversary
"Which Santa?" by Meester Mustard
Balance of photos from personal collection

Thursday, January 24, 2019

The Three Gates (plus one)

The Three Gates
by Beth Day, 1835

If you are tempted to reveal
A tale to you someone has told
About another, make it pass,
Before you speak, three gates of gold;
These narrow gates. First, “Is it true?”
Then, “Is it needful?” In your mind
Give truthful answer. And the next
Is last and narrowest, “Is it kind?”
And if to reach your lips at last
It passes through these gateways three,
Then you may tell the tale, nor fear
What the result of speech may be.

This is one of the simplest guides to guarding our tongue. How hurtful careless words can be, from both sides. We speak a careless word and wound someone, or hear a word that cuts us deep. Many times offense was not the intent but was the result. And, as the poem addresses, you're telling someone else's story. Gossip, which someone has defined as, "Anything of a personal, intimate, or sensational nature, shared about another person without their express consent."

At times I've thought if I could just keep my mouth shut, I wouldn't misspeak. However, silence is not always the answer. Sometimes the hurt comes out of silence which can be perceived as neglect, a lack of care, apathy, or intentional disregard. So I don't necessarily agree in every circumstance with Thumper's mom who taught him: "If you can't say somethin' nice, don't say nothin' at all."

But "nice" (kind) is one of "The Three Gates." If we decide to speak, we must first measure it. Thinking, in advance, rather than just running off at the mouth whatever pops into our head.

A colleague introduced me to these "golden gates":

Is it true? 
Is it necessary? 
Is it kind? 

There are numerous attributions online as to who originated these gates, the earliest of which seems to be Socrates. Even the poem above has been mis-attributed to others. However, no matter the source, the gates and the accompanying poem are wise guides to follow.

My wise colleague suggested we add one more. A fourth measure, also, a time-worn guide, which has helped me hold my tongue appropriately in several key places.

Is it timely?

Is this the right time and place to address this issue? Are these the people who need to hear what I'm wanting to express?

"A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver." (Proverbs 25:11) 

I didn't understand that proverb for many years, I believe it simply means an appropriate word in the right setting is beautiful. It fits the situation, considers context and audience. and is crafted and delivered in a way which benefits the hearer. So, if it is true, and necessary, and kind, then plan when to speak this word, to the ones who are best to receive it.

There was a young clerk who reported to me in an engineering firm where I supervised administrative staff. One workday we were having lunch at a nearby restaurant. He began to complain to me about his soup being cold. When the server came to check on us, she asked, "How is everything?"

I expected him to send the soup back with a request to warm it, but he looked up at her with innocent eyes and said, "Fine!"

Everything was fine? I was shocked. After the server left, my shock increased as my clerk began complaining again about the soup. I put my hand up in a "stop" motion and spoke a "timely" word. "If you are not going to tell the person who can actually solve your problem, then I don't want to hear your complaint."

It might have been true that his soup was cold, but in grousing about it to me, he wasn't being kind to the server. Telling me wasn't necessary, because I couldn't do anything about it, and while venting might have given him some sense of relief or self-righteous vindication, it was unkind me as the listener.

It's clear this gate-keeping analysis doesn't often happen before many words are spoken. Especially in our current climate of social media comments and debates. Everyone feels entitled to be heard, and considers their opinion as valid as the next. It takes maturity and discernment to understand that there are others who know a great deal more than we do about many things. And the ignorant won't benefit if you insist on correcting them.

Anyone who rebukes a mocker will get an insult in return.
    Anyone who corrects the wicked will get hurt.
So don’t bother correcting mockers;
    they will only hate you.
But correct the wise,
    and they will love you. (Proverbs 9:7-8)

Do not speak in the hearing of a fool,

For he will despise the wisdom of your words.
(Proverbs 23:9)

My young clerk took my rebuke to heart. It was a new concept that he had not yet encountered in his young life: to speak to the right person who can solve your issue, rather than talking about it ad nauseum to everyone else.

"I realize even as I am writing that my memory is making much of very little," (to borrow a quote from Marilynne Robinson). "Making much of very little" could be the theme for almost every blog post ever written, including this one. I do consider these four gates when I'm writing paid articles and blog posts, and I've learned to take it seriously when I'm commenting on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

One careless remark, one errant tweet, these can destroy a life.

Before we speak, we think. And before we find ourselves in that situation, we train our minds in preparation. A longstanding guideline comes from the apostle Paul as he writes to the church in Philippi. His instruction at the conclusion of his letter was this:
And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and just, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. (Philippians 4:8)
In another translation, it reads:
Finally, believers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable and worthy of respect, whatever is right and confirmed by God’s word, whatever is pure and wholesome, whatever is lovely and brings peace, whatever is admirable and of good repute; if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think continually on these things [center your mind on them, and implant them in your heart].  (AMP)
If we follow this guideline, our minds will be primed in advance for guarding what exits our mouth. But let me close with one final encouragement, given to us in Paul's letter to the Ephesians:
Do not let unwholesome words ever come out of your mouth, but only such speech as is good for building up others, according to the need and the occasion, so that it will be a blessing to those who hear [you speak]. (Ephesians 4:29)
Can I recommend you read the context of this verse by reading the closing paragraph of chapter 4 by clicking here. Speak truth, it says in v. 25; what is necessary, helpful and timely in v. 29, and above all, be kind, v. 32. The rest of the passage describes what is unhelpful.

So, remember the four gates:

Is it true?
Is it necessary?
Is it kind?
Is it timely?

And "may the God of peace be with you."