Altered reality

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again–mostly because it is a lesson I have to keep learning myself. Perception is reality.

A couple weeks ago I attended an event that included a panel discussion with people presenting differing viewpoints. One woman came from an under-served neighborhood and felt abandoned by the city. She offered impassioned pleas for more civic interaction, including police presence that involved more than responding to crime. She wanted active integration into the community that included patrols, meet-and-greets, and regular (positive) interactions.

The police representative on the panel responded with a litany of statistics, showering them like raindrops, hoping to fill the other woman’s vessel and quench her thirst.

That didn’t happen.

When the policewoman cited the number of patrols in that quadrant of the city, the woman responded that she had never, ever seen one in her neighborhood. When the PW talked about police interactions at the Boys and Girls Club, the woman reminded her that the Boys and Girls Club was miles from her home, too far for kids to walk. That was great, she said, but it didn’t help the kids around her.

As I watched and listened, I thought, Why can’t the PW see that statistics aren’t reaching this woman? Those facts and figures don’t seem to be affecting her actual life. Even though they might be true, this woman isn’t seeing the benefit of the work being done. The PW just isn’t hearing the NEED. She’s too focused on her response that she’s not hearing the woman.

I had it all figured out. I would never do such a thing, of course. I understand communication!

A few days later, I was talking to one of my kids. He was telling me something really important to him, and he kept saying I wasn’t listening. That I didn’t hear him. That THIS was the way he felt but I just didn’t get it.

I countered with a list of the things I had done and said to prove him wrong. Of course I get it. Didn’t I do this and this and this? Didn’t I tell you that? What about that one time?

Slowly (way too slowly), it dawned on me that throwing “statistics” at him to prove him wrong–did you catch that? TO PROVE HIM WRONG–only widened our gap. He was right; I didn’t get it.

Just like the PW, even if I was “right,” it didn’t matter. My kid still felt disenfranchised. All those things I did? They clearly hadn’t been effective. I needed to take a different tack so I thought I would try to…

Wait a minute.

What I actually needed to do was stop and listen, not figure out my next move. I needed to really listen, not just to his words, but to his feelings and experiences. I needed to try to understand his reality so I could meet him there. My solutions to the problem I thought he had would always miss the mark if our perceptions didn’t align.

Reality is fluid; it depends on through whose lenses it viewed. We need to understand that it differs with each person’s perception.

So let’s stop talking past each other. Let’s stop trying to prove each other wrong and ourselves right. Let’s stop forming a response before the other person is finished speaking.

Instead, let’s start listening. Let’s put on someone else’s glasses and try to see the world from his view. Let’s learn each other’s language so we can communicate better. Let’s put ourselves in uncomfortable situations to get out of our proverbial boxes. Instead of trying to “help,” let’s find ways to work together.

For me, it starts at home.

I am not a-mused

I used to blog every day, or at least Monday through Friday. It was how I started my day, and the hours that followed were better for it. That creative jumpstart made me sharper, more expressive, and more aware for the rest of the day. I thrived on it and I didn’t care who read my words. The exercise was for me.

Then I lost my muse.

Well, that’s what I used to say. The truth is, I gave her up. I relinquished my outlet to forces I thought were beyond my control. I’m hoping that writing about it will be cathartic, that my muse will see I’m ready to take her back.

You see, I entered into a relationship that ultimately proved to be unhealthy for me. It felt wonderful at first, all sun and stars and rainbows and all that. I dove in headfirst, hungry for attention and desperate to love someone. It didn’t take long for cracks to appear, though I initially brushed them off as something we could fix later. No relationship is perfect right?

I started to feel watched. Everything I said and did was analyzed for hidden meaning, and this included my writing. Even though I often change the details of situations I recount so I won’t betray a confidence or hurt someone close to me—after all, this blog is mostly about finding meaning in the everyday situations around us, not the situations themselves—I underwent a level of scrutiny about who-what-when-where-why that eventually made me cower. My blog posts were only the start.

Instead of standing up for myself, I backed off. I thought it would make my life easier, but it didn’t, of course. It fanned the flame of presumption, like an implicit admission of guilt. It gave power to him and set a precedent of behavior: push me, make me unhappy, and I’ll back off to ease the pressure. Standing up for myself became too much work; it was easier to give in. I lost touch with friends, I performed poorly at work, I stopped being present. I became focused on keeping my day-to-day situation on an even keel, at the expense of everything else. Is it any surprise I couldn’t make the words flow anymore?

I almost—ALMOST—let someone take away the most important parts of my psyche just so I could fit into his idea of what I was supposed to be. I almost gave away my identity.

Thankfully, I realized I had to remain true to myself. I didn’t need or want to change who I am, so I left the relationship. (In case you’re wondering if he ever hurt me physically, the answer is a resounding NO.) As I look back, I realize I’ve learned some important lessons.

First and foremost, it’s way too easy to judge women who find/put themselves in situations in which YOU think they should leave but they don’t. Look, I had means (house, car, job, savings account), a supportive family and group of friends, and a strong will—and I still stayed. I consider myself enlightened and independent—and I still stayed. I would call BS on my friends or my daughter if they were in the same situation—and I still stayed. So many women don’t have all these things going for them, and we judge them. I would never stand for that, we say. Who knows? Maybe you would. I did—for a while. You don’t know what it’s like until you’re in it.

Second, I GAVE parts of myself away, thinking I would appease. I guess I assumed I’d reclaim them at some point, but that’s not how it works. I’ve learned which pieces are fundamental to my being; these are my SOUL. Now I guard them fiercely. The right person will cherish them, too.

Finally, I keep learning the lesson of forgiveness. For him, certainly, but also for me. I’m learning to let go of the choices I made and to accept responsibility for my part. I’m learning to adopt a live-and-learn posture and embrace the lessons that come with it.

I’m desperate to write again regularly. I have a log jam of words in my head and I need the relief of letting them flow. I want my blog back. I want to turn the threads of books I’ve hastily scrawled into the Notes app on my phone into actual chapters. I want to reclaim this part of myself.

This post, this long overdue admission, serves as a formal invitation for my muse to return:

Please come back. You are finally welcome here again.

For better or for worse

its in the way that you use itA few years ago I joined two different Facebook groups that serve as a forum for parents of college kids (or soon-to-be college kids). One is a general group, and the other is specific to my kid’s school. I find one particularly helpful and the other, well, not so much.

You wouldn’t believe how many perfect kids are in the one group, how many secrets are shared  under the guise of privacy (in this growing group of more than one hundred thousand members), and how much judgement erupts on any side of an issue when the poster describes a situation or–heaven help us–asks for advice. I rarely participate, but neither can I seem to disconnect from it. Very occasionally have I gleaned useful information, but even then it was about an issue unrelated to the central focus of the group. Mostly I turn away from my screen shaking my head; I don’t want to add my two cents because it just adds to the confusion.

Posts in the other group typically revolve around logistics questions, advice, and useful information. How does the move-in process work? Where can I order a birthday cake to be delivered to my kid? What’s the best service to use for summer shipping/storage? I’ll be on campus next weekend for a visit–does anyone want to connect?  It’s not ALL business, but neither is it weighed down by too much “other stuff.” It’s useful, and I’m happy to contribute when I have information I think others could use.

So what’s the difference? We’re using the same social media tool for both, but one group is much better than the other. (Note: I’ll admit that LOTS of people seem to love the group I find less useful. When I say one is better than the other, that is completely MY opinion. It’s better for ME.)

The answer is simple: it’s in the way that you use it. [Cue Eric Clapton.] One group is so big that it arguably loses the value of specificity. Comments on a single post often run in the thousands; how do you find the nugget of critical info in that? Who has the time, especially when there are hundreds if not thousands of posts per day? The parameters for this group are pretty broad, too. If you can make a general connection to the purpose, any topic is fair game. e.g. I’m the mom of a college kid and I have a bunion. What should I do about it? Oh, you have a college kid? Go ahead and ask that question here, no matter that it doesn’t have one whit to do with your kid or college! The group is too big and amorphous. It’s losing sight of its original purpose.

The other group is limited to parents with kids in this particular institution, so all our questions and posts revolve around a specific, common interest. There is certainly a broad range of topics within it, but the lines back to the original purpose remain pretty clear. People stay on track, and we all appreciate the camaraderie. I think you’ve already surmised that I find this group infinitely more valuable than the other.

The broader lesson here? Define your purpose and stick to it. You dilute your usefulness when you let yourself get pulled in too many directions. Any tool just serves as a medium. How you use it defines its value. 

PS–I finally ditched the less useful group about a year ago. Stay tuned for a future post about the reason.

Us and them

In one of my former jobs, I led a team of people serving all departments in the company. We were responsible for global branding, identity management, and creative services, among other things. My reporting structure was at the corporate level, which made a ton of sense given our charter to serve everyone.

At one point, company politics changed that dynamic, and for a period of time I reported through one of our divisions. That wasn’t supposed to change anything my department handled (and it didn’t), but other divisions panicked. They no longer viewed my department as neutral and assumed we would give priority to our reporting division. I had been working pretty hard to build credibility with the panicked division before the change, and in one fell swoop it disintegrated.

So we started over.

Although we worked really hard to change their perception, I still felt a rift. There was an “us and them” feel to our interactions, and eventually I realized it had found its way into our language. The division liaison who worked with us—great guy, btw—would talk about my group as if we were part of the division where I reported. In turn, my team responded accordingly. WE do this. YOU could try that. And so on. The very language we used started to separate us from the beginning of any conversation.

That’s when I became the language police. To the amusement and often irritation of my team, I would stop people mid-sentence in meetings to remind them that we worked for everyone, so we were part of everyone’s “we.” Instead of aligning ourselves with one division, albeit unconsciously, we made the verbal effort to be inclusive. I earned my share of eye rolls, but I can’t count how many times I said things like, There’s no THEY here. We’re all the same WE.

Eventually our relationship with that division improved. By the time my reporting structure was moved back where it belonged in the corporate chain, we enjoyed working with that division more than any other. I credit the power of language for helping us get on the right track.

I think about this situation a lot amid our current political climate. So much of what I hear from people around me, in the news, on social media—everywhere, really—comes with an overpowering dose of “us and them.” The Dems do this! The Rs do that! Liberals! Evangelicals! You! We!

Stop it, everyone. Just stop. Take a minute and think about who will listen to what follows when the very beginning of whatever you have to say draws a line in the sand. Are you on MY side or THE OTHER side?

Don’t get me wrong; I have some very strong beliefs about what needs to happen in this country. I will neither present nor debate them in this post; I want to stay on point and not lose anyone’s attention because of a particular issue. I’m trying to illustrate that the language we use powerfully affects our ability to have meaningful conversations with each other.

So here’s the thing. Let’s stop making broad categorizations that immediately define US and THEM when we’re trying to talk to one another. Even if I generally identify with a particular group, I guarantee I don’t espouse every single belief of that group—and I doubt you do either. So let’s stop identifying each other as “uses and thems.” Let’s stop telling each other why the other person is wrong. Let’s focus on sharing what we believe and why—and LISTEN when others are doing the same.

This is hard stuff. I know what I believe and why I believe it; why waste my time listening to opposing views? My answer boils down to this: what we’re doing now clearly isn’t working. The vitriol that surrounds us every day is staggering. No one is blameless on this.

It’s time to have conversations rather than posturing for battle, and it starts with watching our language.

Words matter.

Same old song and dance

*1986 Junior Miss banquet. Not naming names.*

I heard a song on the radio the other day that took me back to high school when I participated in the Junior Miss Pageant (now known as Distinguished Young Women). Yes, believe it or not, I was once a pageant contestant. The how and why are less important to this story. Just know that it happened.

I had no expectation of winning—or coming close—but I did my best and had fun with the other girls through the process. It wasn’t too hard to follow all the choreographed moves, I thrived in the one-on-one interview, and really, how taxing is it to walk across the stage in a prom dress? Only one aspect of the pageant struck cold, hard fear in me: the talent competition.

It has been well documented that I can’t sing. I don’t play an instrument. I’ve never formally twirled a baton, taken dance lessons, or participated in any activity that could be considered “stage-worthy.” I had NO idea what I would do for this competition, and I felt horribly awkward.

At the time, a TV show called Puttin’ on the Hits had become popular. It featured people lip syncing to popular songs, and judges scored participants on how authentic their “singing” seemed. This, my friends, is where I drew my inspiration. (Insert eye roll here.) Indeed, I lip synced a song. On a stage. With a few made-up dance moves. In front of a few hundred people. It was not my best moment.

Anyway, hearing that song on the radio that reminded me of my pageant experience and got me thinking about how we define talent. We take such a narrow view of talent when we limit it to what translates to a stage performance. What about the person who is really good at cooking? Or knows how to fix anything mechanical with a single glance? Or can run fast or jump high or make three pointers all day long? What about the person who can write stories that make people laugh or cry or even transport them to another place? Or the empath who naturally knows how to make others feel special? There are so many kinds of talent that don’t translate well to a stage. How do we put those on display?

2020 Tammy would do things differently. I would have written this essay—or one like it—and delivered it on stage. The writing would have been my talent—not just stringing the words together, but speaking for others and hopefully bringing a different perspective to the audience.

I don’t know what I would have done if I couldn’t write. It’s pretty hard to make a cheesecake in two minutes in a high school auditorium.

Talent is so much more than song and dance. The next time someone tells you “Oh, I’m not talented,” don’t let it slide. Everyone does something well, in a way that comes naturally. Look for it.

And by the way, it’s not a competition.

Miss me?

I’m back, at least for the moment. And although it’s the elephant in the room, I don’t plan to write about COVID beyond this paragraph. That may change, but there’s already so much noise out there that I believe one more voice will only add to the confusion. Besides, with so many (real and imagined) expert opinions, I won’t be contributing anything new, just restating. So let’s get this out of the way: there’s no harm in wearing a mask. The potential effects of not wearing one and being wrong far outweigh the potential effects of wearing one and being wrong. I’m happy to discuss elsewhere, but not on this platform. Just wanted to get that out of the way.

Stay tuned for new content. I’m teeing it up now!

The icing on the cake

Kara80s-8Years ago when we were young and ambitious and thought we had a lot to prove, a friend of mine began to prepare a birthday celebration for his girlfriend. As on any birthday, the crown jewel of the celebration would be a cake, but this one would be her favorite flavor, made from scratch.

Everything went according to plan–until it didn’t. In the middle of the cake prep, the power went out. Okay, you say. These things happen. She’ll understand. I mean, really, is it that big a deal? Just go to the store and buy a cake. Take her out to eat and finish it later. It’s just a cake.

Nope. That wasn’t the point. That cake was his labor of love, an all-in dedication of the work of his hands. It was important.

The next step in the recipe was to beat egg whites into stiff peaks. You have to beat fast and hard and continuously for some time before those snotty little suckers finally submit and stand at attention, a feat normally best accomplished by an electric mixer. With no power and thus no mixer, my friend simply grabbed a wooden spoon and got started.

After nearly 25 minutes of beating (and probably laughter and sweat and finally, cursing), those snotty little suckers eventually submitted to his hand and stood at attention. Mission accomplished.

The power came back on in time for the rest of his cake bakery to proceed without incident; the birthday celebration went off without another hitch. In fact, I don’t know if my friend ever told his girlfriend what he had done.

In the grand scheme of things, is this really a big deal? People roll with the punches every day. We take detours, make allowances, adjust our expectations and move on.

Or do we?

How often do we go the extra mile for another person? More importantly, how often do we go that mile when we may not get credit for it? You couldn’t tell the effort that went into that cake just by looking at it, so did it really matter?

Yes, yes it did.

This, my friends, is caring. It’s what we do for the people we love to make their lives better. We go the extra mile when the bottom falls out, when we’re tired, or when they need us. We do it because we can and because we love them, not for the recognition. Real love is not transactional.

Love your people every chance you get.

 

For Tim

a long time ago tim

“Have you been writing?”

“What have you written?”

“Why haven’t you been writing?”

He hounded me. Every time we talked or texted, he hounded me. He valued my words and wanted more of them. I had a few well worn excuses, but he always pushed me to come back to the keyboard.

“Find your words,” he said.

Now he’s gone, and I have no choice. I owe it to him. These words are for him, about him, to him.


Tim wasn’t perfect. He was full of flaws and I stopped falling for his bullshit long ago. But he was special, really special.

Other people who love him, whom I’ve never met, describe him the same way I knew him:

Smart. Quick witted. Funny. Loving. Kind.

Radiant light, bursting forth from an imperfect vessel.

He made me feel like I didn’t have to be a whole, complete person to be smart and creative and valued.

Of course I’m stealing their words; I couldn’t write them any better.

He was the kind of person who makes you better, even when he struggled himself. He always knew how to draw out the important parts and he didn’t care if he pissed you off doing it. In fact, that’s the thing I think he liked most, because getting a reaction usually led to the getting better part. It made me see my flaws or my excuses or whatever, and that made me face them. And he always, always stretched me, though I’d never admit to him that I sometimes struggled to keep up.

Once I asked him for advice in overcoming my writer’s block. This was our text conversation (the real deal, not paraphrased):

Me: How did you find the wherewithal to return to the keyboard?

TJT: Just pound out something shitty and return to it with your critical eye.

Me: Words fail me.

TJT: Sure, blame it on the words.

Me: And I them.

TJT: Now we’re getting somewhere. Maybe you need to be told to shut up by someone or something. Then those words would be itching for a fight.

Me: Perhaps, but not likely.

TJT: Shut up.

Sure, he said. Blame it on the words.

He was right. It has never been the words; it has always been me.

Others have written long, loving tributes to this man who left the world before we were ready. Mine is less long, though no less loving.

Tim, you were as wonderful as you were difficult. We saw each other’s flaws and loved each other anyway. Sometimes you even flaunted yours to me, and I knew because of it that you trusted me. Our connection was deep and real, though miles and time separated us. You made me laugh. You made me mad. You made me think. You made me better.

Sometimes I don’t know how to explain you to people who don’t know you, but I guess I don’t have to. All that really matters is that you were my friend.

Rest in peace. You deserve to finally find it.


Love Over Gold
You walk out on the high wire
You’re a dancer on thin ice
You pay no heed to the danger
And less to advice
Your footsteps are forbidden
But with knowledge of your sin
You throw your love to all the strangers
And caution to the wind
And you go dancing through doorways
Just to see what you will find
Leaving nothing to interfere
With the crazy balance of your mind
And when you finally reappear
At the place where you came in
You’ve thrown your love to all the strangers
And caution to the wind
It takes love over gold and mind over matter
To do what you do that you must
When the things that you hold can fall and be shattered
Or run through your fingers like dust
Written by Mark Knopfler, performed by Dire Straits

Piece by piece

I just found this in some old files. It’s something I wrote years ago but had forgotten. I still believe it.

Colorful fabric with natureWhat if life isn’t a tapestry, a garment patterned by events, moods, cycles, and stages? Where even a slight change in weave changes the visual effect? What if life, instead, is a collection of swatches, where not the pattern, but the very fabric itself provides the illustration?

Some phases might be unbleached broadcloth. These times are straightforward and functional. Sturdy and strong, but unadorned.

Other times are more delicate, like linen. Crisp and cool, linen phases look pristine, but add a little heat, a little moisture, or a little pressure, and the fabric crumples.

Flannel phases are warm and safe, comfortable and sheltered.

Satin cycles are sleek and sexy.

Burlap patches feel rough and unhewn. They scratch and irritate, and they’re tough to break through.

Taffeta stands up, crisp and sassy.

Cotton times wear soft but true, dependable.

Nylon periods are something made from nothing.

I am a swatch book. You can get to know me by flipping through my pages, using all of your senses to understand who I am and where I’ve been. See the all colors, strident and faded and shimmering and dull. Feel the textures, smooth and rough. Smell the sweat and tears and celebrations that stain me. Hear my crackle and snap under your fingertips. Taste my life through these snippets of cloth. Find me, not in my design, but in my very foundation.

Rearrange my pieces over and over again, and my nature does not change. The elements of my life are indelible; my swatches are product of that which has already happened. No amount of reordering will produce another end result; life is not retroactive. Only a new swatch will adjust my character, piece by piece.

Duck, duck, goose

IMG_6058

Since I decided I needed to focus less on myself and more on making a difference to others, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get my ducks in a row. In the past I’ve served charities that didn’t hold my attention for long–not because they weren’t worthy, but because I thought I could do more elsewhere. For lack of a better expression, they didn’t speak to my heart.

In this new quest for meaning (I sound so cheesy), I knew it was important to serve an area where my passions lie. The problem was that I wasn’t sure what that might be. So I researched and self-examined and researched some more. I’ll spare you the details of my three-month odyssey toward enlightenment, but the result is that I feel compelled to help in ways that address the most basic level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If you need a refresher on that, it’s the purple segment of this diagram:

maslow-5

To that end, I’ve begun volunteering at our local food bank, as well as with an organization that serves homeless families in transition. I was prepared to have to undergo training and work my way through some kind of hierarchical process of establishing trust. I expected documentation and lots of recordkeeping; after all, this is important work, so it must require an appropriate bureaucracy for organizing volunteers, right?

Boy, was I ever wrong.

The first time I arrived at the food bank, I listened to a ten-minute safety speech and then found myself being directed to a spot in a food line. When someone asked, What do we need to do?, the only answer that came before the doors opened was, You’ll figure it out. And I did. Within minutes I was elbow-deep in giant boxes of donated bread, stuffing it into bags held open by the outstretched arms of grateful, hungry people.

Fast forward a couple of weeks and a few miles to my interview with the volunteer coordinator for an organization serving homeless families. She only wanted to know what I wanted to do and when I could start–and oh yeah, had I submitted a background check, by the way? With her two cell phones and a steady stream of in-person questions continually interrupting our conversation, she didn’t have time to worry about org charts and personality fits; she just needed help. I said I could start next Saturday.

Silly, bureaucratic, play-by-the-rules me asked, Won’t I need some kind of training? 

Don’t worry, said the volunteer coordinator. The person working with you will show you what to do.

Not having all the answers up front and organized into neat little systematized packages sits well outside my comfort zone. I don’t usually dive willingly into chaos and just start doing. I need a PLAN.

Well, I’m discovering that’s not the way this stuff works. The needs are just too great. There’s too much to do. This work is about survival. They need people to jump in and DO, not sit back and contemplate. After all, when someone is drowning, that person needs someone to dive in and lend a hand as quickly as possible. Sure, there’s necessary preparation, but at that moment, it’s too late to prep more–you’d better have already had your swimming lessons.

I’m not saying these entities aren’t organized; I’m just saying that it’s not my job. In this case, my hands are more important than my head. The lesson I’m learning is that when people are in need, there’s no time to waste. They don’t really need me to have my ducks in a row–they just need ducks.

Okay, then. Let’s get this party started.