Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Time

Yesterday was apparently Pumpkin Spice day at Starbucks. I know this because no less than four people have told me, including an announcement on the morning news. Despite our insistence on moving ever-closer to “all things fall,” the weather forecast for the remainder of the week is all 90’s, all the time (kinda like my Pandora account…). So, we wait.

That’s the thing about time, no matter how much we want it to pass or to stand still, it keeps on ticking. Time, as we know, doesn’t change. The length of a second, a minute, an day, a month, and a year are always the same. What changes is our relationship to time that alters our perspective. When we want time to move more slowly to preserve something wonderful, time perseveres and passes anyway. When we want to be squarely on the other side of something less wonderful, time perseveres at the allotted  pace despite our most desperate desires.

Time, it turns out, doesn't care about our feelings.

Because of our ever-changing relationship to time, scientists have labeled time-perception as an officially fluid thing. The way we feel about whatever it is we are experiencing will affect the way we perceive time in that moment. For many years, scientists described a theoretical model of time perception as sort of a

biological stopwatch that sped up and slowed down in line with our focus and attention. The more attention we pay to time itself, the slower it seems to pass. The more attention we pay to what we are doing, the more quickly time seems to pass. Happiness draws our attention to the source of the emotion. Happiness pulls our attention away from time, so we are less aware of its passage. Sadness and fear, on the other hand, are emotions from which we turn away, focusing our attention more on the passage of time as we painfully await the end of the experience that is the root of these more negative emotions. To make it even more complex, witnessing an event such as watching a video or a live performance of some spectacular (dangerous) feat will alter our perception of time. If we watch someone on YouTube careening down a hill on a mountain bike, our adrenaline will change our perception of time and we may be surprised by how little time has passed. When we are in nature, time often feels as though it has all but stopped, because our relationship to time is almost suspended and irrelevant. 

Suffice it to say that time is relative to how we are feeling and what we are doing. This past eighteen months of pandemic time have definitely had their impact on us, and the longer we need to wait for the end, the more slowly it feels as though time is passing. It’s taking FOREVER to be on the other side and realizing that new normal they promised. Two things that will help us weather this storm are our ability to bounce back from adversity and our ability to push through when things get difficult: our resilience and perseverance. So as we wait for fall, with joy or with dread, time will pass as it will, but we will keep moving forward, perhaps with a pumpkin spice in hand, knowing fall will come when it always does—no matter how we feel about it.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Writing--for Publication!

Greetings, Dear Readers. 

For those of you who've been following this space, I am sure it will not surprise you to learn that I am finishing up a book for publication. It is more of a guided journal, and it represents so much of my own development over the past five years that I am feeling a little apprehensive. 

The work contains 52 weekly reflective essays, each with a few bullet points to guide the reader toward incorporating the lesson into their own life (similar to my previous two posts, which are excerpts). Each week falls into a theme of leadership, personal development, or professional development, with plenty of overlap between them. It is designed for a working individual, whether at a for-profit, a nonprofit, or as a volunteer, and my hope is that this work will provide a framework for examining previous experiences and taking those well-earned lessons into the future as we all work to become better versions of ourselves. I also included a list of vetted recommended sources, a complete bibliography, and an index, so you can go through it "choose your own adventure" style. 

Writing this out feels good. I am proud of what I have created, and with many of the essays first posted here in earlier forms, I think you will be prepared as well as pleasantly surprised by what I'm offering. That being said, since this book represents so much of who I am and my process of becoming, the imposter syndrome is arising a bit. 

So, I write these words to announce my work. It's not published just yet, but placing these words here as a promise are the boost I need to move past my own misgivings and wavering confidence to finish up and share my work with you. 

You are all stars in the night sky of my life. I appreciate your light, no matter how far away you may be. 

Best,
M

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Compassion Through Imagination

Not all of us are great scholars or even interested in scholarly pursuits. Most of us want to do our work, do it well enough to finish the day with a sense of peace, and go home to our loved ones where we are the masters of our domain, pursuing our own delights and catering to our own whims. During this time of autonomy, we often turn to reading or watching television as favored pastimes.  Our favorite books and shows wash over us, sweeping us into their stories as the reality of our own world floats away. During these times, when we are engrossed in the dialogue and nonverbal communication, we assess and make sense of the situation, even anticipating what may come next and preparing ourselves to react. We find delight in guessing correctly what turn the story will take and equally enjoy being surprised by an unexpected plot twist. As we go deeper into the story, we find ourselves relating to one of the characters and even imagine the entire story from their point of view. It’s as though we have become Hermione Granger, Naruto, or T’Challa (Wakanda Forever!). 

This deep connection is only possible because of our ability to imagine ourselves in the story. Our connection to ourselves expands to include the thoughts, feelings, and outcomes of the character. When we engage in this practice with the intention to connect and be changed by the story, we are making this time, this practice, sacred. Sacred, while typically reserved for items related to religion, means to set something apart with reverence and respect. We all have things in our lives that we have marked as sacred: our family, our heirloom Bible or Quran passed down from our grandmother, our grandfather’s pipe, our baby pictures of our grown children (from the time before digital photography), and so on. These things are sacred to us because we have made them so. The same is true of our experiences, lived or shared vicariously from others.

Engaging purposefully in this practice—watching or reading with the intention of allowing the content to move and to change us—engages our imagination in a sacred way.  We rejoice when great things happen to us in the mind of that persona, we despair with them in their grief, we laugh, we cry, and above all, we are moved by how it must feel to be them in each moment. The word for this connection in which we possess a deep understanding of how it must feel to be in another’s shoes is empathy. It is our sacred imagination that allows us to empathize with the characters, and this is an important practice we can use in our personal lives to enrich our relationships.

Sometimes, self-reflection uncovers areas where our ideals are higher than our humanity (our bar is set too high), and we must get back in touch. Imagine the connection you have with a friend or a coworker or even a customer or client. Imagine how it must feel to be where they are right now, in the middle of whatever they are going through, and embrace that feeling. From this point of view, we are better able to understand their actions, their reactions, and even their motivations. This act of empathizing with another is the very foundation that allows us to respond to them with compassion. When we take the time to understand how they are experiencing their situation, we are able to connect with them in ways that makes our time with them more sacred, more healing, and more effective.

The most powerful way to connect with another human being is through understanding them in a way that helps us to grow together toward a better mutual outcome. That is the very essence of compassionate collaboration and will strengthen our families, our teams, and our community relationships.

  • Stepping into someone else’s shows as a sacred act allows us to collaborate with compassion.
  • Where do you see relationships that will benefit from more compassion?
  • Where do you see opportunities to help others understand your own journey in a mutually respectful way?


Saturday, July 17, 2021

The Quest for Authenticity

The journey of self-exploration is really a personal quest to know ourselves well enough to be authentically who we are in every aspect of our lives. Finding our steady state of self, the place we are most comfortable being who we are, requires taking full stock of our wants, needs, passions, goals, purpose, and reactions to stimuli (good and bad), We must have a “you are here” point on our map that truly represents us in our entirety. Then, we can take this map with us out into the world of new situations, people, and experiences to help us chart our way back to that place, the very center of who we are at our core.

Some common “hiccups” for being your authentic self in more professional spaces can be addressed but some are actually boundaries we put in place for healthy reasons. Professionalism, especially concerning direct reports and power dynamics, dictates some personal information is kept private. We don’t owe our superiors our life stories any more than our direct reports owe us theirs. While sharing bits and pieces of who we are creates a sense of belonging and builds trust, there are parts of our lives that are inappropriate to share at work. On the other hand, not all work environments are healthy enough for us to share things about us that are normalized in other spaces. For example, a person who is under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella may hide the fact that they have a same-sex or queer partner (or multiple partners) because the heteronormative views of their coworkers include statements that show a negative bias against other orientations. In this instance, a polite distance and lack of personal details provides a safety factor, whether emotional, social, or worse, physical. True threats to the body are not common in more “white collar” industries, but the reputational harm can place a glass ceiling in someone’s career path. The work here lies in knowing what and when (and with whom) we can share to find our way back to the center of our map. 

A useful tool for guiding us in plotting our course is to develop a personal code of ethics. A code of ethics guides our decision-making in both personal and professional settings. Most organizations have a code of ethics (it was probably given to you when you were hired or added to a volunteer team and likely readily available) which outlines behavioral expectations while in the workspace. Personal ethics, however, must be identified by us as individuals. Typical factors include religious/spiritual beliefs, morals, lessons learned from previous experiences, and our overall ideas for what we view as an ideal and just society. For some, it may be a simple list of ethical traits such as integrity, selflessness, honesty, loyalty, equity, respect, and/or empathy. For others, it may be a list of statements (with or without explanations). 

My personal code of ethics looks like this:

  1. I will follow the morals and virtues I hold dear to aid me in making good decisions. I will “walk my talk” as consistently as possible, including doing what I say I will do and showing up when I say I will show up.
  2. I will seek first to understand, acknowledging my personal biases when I become aware of them and working toward making amends when I have caused harm.
  3. I give myself permission to be imperfect, and I will work toward repair and reconciliation for my mistakes and errors. 
  4. I will strive to maintain boundaries as a free and independent person, acknowledging that those around me are also free and independent and deserving of those boundaries.
  5. At work, I will maintain confidentiality with my peers, my coworkers, and those who report up through me to allow open dialogue and foster a speak-up culture. At home, I will maintain confidentiality with my family, my friends, and my congregants to ensure trust is earned and kept intact to the best of my abilities.
  6. I will speak up about events or situations that have the potential to cause physical or psychological harm; I will contact the appropriate authorities when I am required to report a situation or event based on mandatory reporting laws.

Mine does not contain references to values such as integrity, compassion, or loyalty, though all three of these are very important to who I am and who I strive to be in the world. My code of ethics captures behaviors rather than concepts. The use of “I will” statements makes these feel like promises I am making myself and those around me regarding my behavior and how I show up. They speak to the way I move through the world and not simply what values I hold. A list of values alone does not lead to personal accountability and leaves more room for interpretation.

The easiest way to ensure you can follow the map back to your authentic self is to implement a personal code of ethics as your wayfinding principles. Know where your boundaries lie, why they are there, and what actions you can take to create safety and confidence in how you show up in your personal and professional spaces.

  • Find your way back to your authentic self by following your code of ethics.
  • Create your own code of ethics. Include all aspects of life such as work, home, church, social, etc.
  • Where do you see opportunities to be a more authentic you?


Saturday, June 19, 2021

Florilegia

 A dear friend sent me a copy of a book (that I actually already had on my wish list!) for Yule last year entitled, The Power of Ritual: Turning Everyday Actions into Spiritual Practices by Casper Ter Kuile. In this work, Ter Kuile calls the reader to "deepen [our] ordinary practices as intentional rituals that nurture connection and well-being." In other words, we are invited to deepen what we are already doing and make those actions sacred to add purpose and meaning to even the every-day things we do. 

This work was suggested to me for a number of reasons, I'm sure, and what immediately stood out before I began reading was how much this sentiment echoed the way my religious practices manifest themselves in my life. I find small reasons to pray throughout the day, take moments to reflect and offer blessings to the world around me, and speak words that matter rather than rattling off whatever comes to mind first in conversation with my family, friends, and coworkers. I try to live my life with intention and make my every effort one that fuels what drives me and continues to lead me to become a better person. That being said, some days I fail. But, as the Japanese proverb says, "Fall down seven times; get up eight." The best life I can live is one in which failure and shortcoming compels me to try again. 

Needless to say, I fell in love with the author and began listening to his podcast (along with cohost Vanessa Zoltan), Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. I was apprehensive, at first, because of the notable transphobia of the author of those books, and a very short amount of research set me at ease. None of the profits go to the author (since they are simply discussing the text and not quoting extensively, etc.), and the front page of the podcast has a visible declaration: Hate the author, love the books. While I do not condone hate, the sentiment was enough to help me return to curious and keep an open mind--especially because I have always loved Harry Potter! As my trans-child said to me on this very topic: The books are amazing and the author is trash; both of those can exist at the same time. (Haha! Thanks, polytheism. I love that we have a faith practice that teaches us to embrace the complex and multiplicities of truth rather than forcing us to choose between two polarized options. Also, also, I love that my kid threw my own teaching back at me when I was conflicted. Just heart).

It was in this podcast where I was introduced to the practice of Florilegia. A florilegium is a collection of literary extracts from either one or many sources that, when read together outside of their original context, will lead us to a new understanding. The practice comes to us from the 5th to 12th centuries through religious leaders who would collect short lines or phrases that stood out to them, sparklets, and used them in tandem to create new teachings and gain new understandings from sacred texts. This practice (along with several other very useful contemplative practices) is one of the exercises they use in each episode of the podcast to delve deeper into what meaning we can glean from this work. After all, any work that serves to guide us to deeper meaning and to evolve into a better version of ourselves may be treated and held as sacred!

All of this has led me to create my own journal of florilegium, a place where I write down my own sparklets from all the sources surrounding me in my daily life. From books to articles, from television shows to social media, I am recording those sparklets that stand out to see what wisdom may be gleaned in what is right before my eyes. In reading these short phrases and individual sentences without the context provided in the greater text, I am finding myself paying more attention to the individual turns of phrase and to my own use of words as I write. It is my hope that over time, there will be phrases I write or speak that will guide others to find new ways of becoming for themselves. That, as a creative person, is the highest praise I will receive for my work: knowing my words have impacted another in a way that touches their lives.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Core Value: Curiosity

Much of the discussions around curiosity as a concept center on using curiosity to combat or counteract the human tendency to judge things that are different. When faced with change, we typically list out everything that could go wrong if we adopt it.  Leadership and organizational culture theories call us to use our curiosity to create a sense of open willingness and acceptance to change.

Leadership resources point to “curious” as the neutral point on the mood elevator and asks us to at least remain curious when we are faced with change—in other words, to approach the change with a curious mind. When we look at curiosity as a value rather than a mindset, the conversation changes. Holding curiosity as a value leads us to engage not only our minds but also our hearts in this work. A curious mindset will ask for more information to help the seeker understand and adopt someone else’s idea, and curiosity as a value will lead the seeker down the path of creating their own ideas. The curious mindset is important for following, for working to adopt change, and for growing in the same direction as a collective; but the value of curiosity is the foundation of problem-solving, discovery, and innovation.

As we gain knowledge and experience in an area, we may easily become set in our ways. In a technical field like medical laboratory science, there is a finite amount of information we use on a regular basis. We know which chemicals are in which tubes, which tubes are required for which tests, which reagents go on which analyzer, which analyzer alarm requires which action, and which actions will yield the results we seek. We can perform all of this virtually on autopilot by the time we’ve done it a thousand times. Repetition, it seems, may be the death of our curiosity, and this is where many of us find ourselves after years in the field.

Bringing our curiosity to life again requires us to expand our boundaries, and it begins with wondering. We are good at wondering outside of our work environments. We may watch a flower bloom and wonder how it knew it was finally safe in the face of all the late snows. We might watch the snow falling on the mountains and find ourselves wondering how the storm can look so different depending on our elevation. We may be watching the slow construction of a new building on our route to work and wondering what it will be when it’s done. Our curiosity leads us to learn more, such as finding an article on high-elevation gardening or a video on mountain range weather patterns. We may even take a few minutes to drive past that construction site to read the “Coming soon!” sign we can’t quite see from the main road. When we are on our own time, we readily engage what inspires us.

Applying this to our work or long-term volunteer environments might seem less relevant, since most of us are not particularly inspired by our jobs. I offer that it is exactly our curiosity that can guide us to engage in our work with new eyes, to wonder what might be yielded from an unopened envelope or new intake/task. From here, we are poised to discover barriers, to seek new ways of doing things, and to look beyond the status quo to gain more consistent and successful outcomes in every aspect of our lives. Curiosity leads us to wonder if there is a better/easier/faster/more efficient way, guides us to research options, and compels us to try something new. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but curiosity is the mother of innovation when we hold it as a core value.  


Saturday, April 17, 2021

Core Value: Be Here Now

“Be Here Now” comes to us from the modern Mindfulness movement, but the concept is much older than that. The origin of this ideal lies in the 1971 work of Ram Dass, an American yogi and spiritual teacher whose work focused heavily on spirituality, yoga, and meditation. In his book, Be Here Now, Dass describes his own journey from a PhD psychologist working out of Harvard to his spiritual awakening in India facilitated by Guru, Neem Karoli Baba.

While very few of us will embark upon such a journey, his story offers remarkable direction for how we can embrace our own lives with a “living faith in what is possible.” The Be Here Now concept readily lent itself to those who wanted to move beyond the limitations placed on them by others, and its adherents include Steve Jobs, Wayne Dyer, and George Harrison.

Since then, his meditation practices, associated with the foundational concepts of being present with the Now, fueled a movement we all know as “mindfulness.” Like Be Here Now, Mindfulness practices teach us to focus on the present moment, including our own feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, in an open awareness of what is going on around us. Mindfulness meditations guide the individual to focus inward, but the practice is not meant to stop there! The goal is to be able to focus our awareness onto a situation, including not only our own thoughts, feelings, and physical reactions, but also those of the other person.

When we Be Here Now with one another, we give them our undivided attention and actively listen to what they are saying. We focus on the individual, see their facial expressions, read their body posture, and meet them in their fear and concern with compassionate attention. We do this, because we also want to be heard and understood in this way when we others are attending to us. In order to foster this level of understanding, we must strive to speak clearly, such that we are saying what we mean and meaning what we say. We cannot speak in ways that expect others to read between the lines to grasp our true meaning.

Further, with the amount of technology and social media we use, the concept of speaking plainly and making clear points must be applied to our writing, as well. This careful attention to communication, both verbal and nonverbal, will allow us to truly understand the thoughts and feelings of those around us, whether they be coworkers or members, and lay the foundation of true compassion. 

Be Here Now calls each of us to be fully present with the person in front of us, to set aside distractions, and to actively listen and attend to their needs. Most of all, Be Here Now calls us to invest in what and who is in front of us and to give the best we have to offer to every situation.

Ram Dass. (1971). Be Here Now. San Cristobal, New Mexico: Lama Foundation.

“Be here now” is a core concept that challenges every one of us to give our undivided attention to our colleagues, friends, and family; to actively listen to understand,;and to speak and write clearly in a professional and direct way.

 


Friday, March 19, 2021

Empowering Others

The leadership ideal of empowering others, to make someone stronger and more confident, is a bit of a misnomer. Despite our best intentions, we cannot make someone stronger. We cannot make someone, well, anything. We can only create spaces where all the “someones” in our sphere of influence are able to find their strength and improve their confidence. This is no small feat, but there are some actions we can incorporate into our own behaviors to help create empowering spaces.

  1. Showing Up. Being physically present may not always be possible, but the importance of people seeing us, particularly those of us with leadership positions, sends a powerful message. The more we are present with others, the less room there is for unrealistic ideas about who we are. Togetherness is grounding, and when those around us see us as real, tangible people, we become more relatable and approachable. We also have far more opportunities to lead by example. 

  2. Engaging People. Engagement involves building relationships with all types of people—not just those who are most like us. When we limit our relationship-building to only those who think and act like us, we create cliques, discourage diversity, and suppress a speak-up culture. 

  3. Helping Teammates. Helping our peers and those in our natural work groups leads to building community. A strong sense of community encourages the members to work together and collaborate more while discouraging the competitive mindsets that can tear teams apart.

  4. Challenging Leaders. Sometimes, our leaders are wrong. It’s not because they are bad leaders. It’s just because they are people. Part of our humanity is our inherent nature to be imperfect. Sometimes, they don’t have all the information and make decisions that beg for adjusting. Sometimes, the pressure to move forward leads them to forget a stakeholder. Challenge decisions, ask for the why, and bring new information to the table as often as possible. And leaders: let yourself be challenged without taking it personally. Challenge helps us to grow.

  5. Stretching People. The art of professional development involves allowing people to work on projects that are outside of their typical comfort zone. Doing it well involves also providing the tools and support they need, including the space to make mistakes and learn, without leaving them hung out to dry. Getting to know not only existing strengths but interests and potential will aid in ensuring we guide others to projects and endeavors that will broaden their experience without stretching them too thin.

  6. Aligning Around a Mission or Common Goal/Purpose. Finding the passion and purpose of any group of people is one of the most important discoveries we can make as we seek to create and maintain empowering spaces. When we have a common goal, a sense of purpose that unites us, we can rally to that cause and obtain success as a group. Group cohesion and successful projects greatly increase the confidence of the individual members: “When WE did it, I was part of that we.”  

  7. Let Go. The simplest and most effective way to help others to feel empowered is to let go of control. The act of empowering is allowing others to have control over their own situation. Be it work, social, or homelife, the easiest thing we can do to help others grow in strength and confidence is to let them make their own choices.

Empowerment is not an easy part of leadership, because empowering others is more about letting go and less about what you can do. We’ve all heard the saying, “If you give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” The old adage is true—but you have to let go of the pole and let him fish for himself. He might make mistakes like breaking the line, snagging some water plants, or losing the fish he was sure was in the net; and our job as leaders is to let him make those mistakes. Each will help him to grow in skill and confidence. You may occasionally be called to give him an extra line, but ultimately, the only way he can learn to feed himself is to be in control of his own learning process. That is empowerment. 

Cartoon image of young boy with a fish on the hook of his rod.

George. B. (2010). True North: Discover your authentic leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


Sunday, March 7, 2021

Finding Yourself Again After the Kids are Grown

Raising children is a lot of work. From getting ready for school to meals to after school activities to homework to bedtime, there is not a lot of wiggle room in most schedules to find downtime as a family let alone for us as adults. Raising children in a pagan/polytheist household is even more work, because most of us have to provide our own religious education to our children. I used to covet the programs at other churches, especially the ones where someone qualified to work with children would whisk yours away so you could attend the adult services and feed your own spirit while they learned about faith practices. 

Sadly, most pagan groups do not have the capacity to provide childrens lessons even now, so most parents have three basic options: hold a separate service at home for each high day that is child-friendly, bring the kids to the adult high day and hope for the best, or leave the kids at home and attend the high day without them. I admit that I have done all three of these depending on what was happening in my life. As a single mom, I was very fortunate to have a series of groves within a day trip who fully supported me bringing my kids to our events and helping (sometimes A LOT) so I could sing.  As more families began attending our events, we were able to provide kid-specific content, but by this time, mine were quite a bit older than the others. This often left them as helpers, which was a lot of fun, though not entirely educational in terms of developing their religious path. Grove events were inherently social for them, and I am grateful they had this outlet. 

Most of the "education" I provided for them involved storytime and outdoor activities. We read all sorts of myths from a host of hearth cultures, sang songs, tried fun recipes, and took a lot of hikes. We would try to name birds and trees (which was easier when our grove naturalist came with us!) and often hold mini-rituals of offering while we were miles into some path in a metropark. It was pretty unstructured, and I know I could have done more, but I am at peace with what I showed them. I remember the first time we were in a park and they picked up trash unprompted. It had become such a routine part of our trips to the playground that they just began doing it--even now they can't walk by a can or wrapper without picking it up and placing it in a trashcan. They also had a hand in "shaming" some of our guests through recycling by example. My autistic son used to pick their soda cans out of the trash, place them into the recycling bin, and say, "you're welcome." I always told him "thank you" when he placed his recyclables in the correct bin, so he always said, "you're welcome" when placing items in. Even if his motivation was more "this is what we do with these types of items" instead of "we do this with these items because it's good for the Earth," his actions were consistent and resulted in positive change among those around him. 

But, I digress. This was supposed to be about me.

I was recently asked how I went about redefining my own spiritual path as my kids grew older, more independent, and eventually moved out of the house. At first, I didn't have a solid answer. Being pagan is a part of who I am, of how I move through the world, so when I was parenting, I was also paganing. Even now, when I am working, I am paganing. When I am socializing, I am paganing. When I am relaxing and taking time for myself, I am paganing then, too. For me, I was able to "redefine" myself by filling the time that freed up as they began entertaining themselves. Being a Bard and aspiring Initiate and Priest, it was easy to fill those gaps, because I knew what I wanted to do. I had goals! 

I guess that is my advice: set goals for yourself. The hardest part about having your kids out of the house, those little monsters who made a mess and ate all your food while they stole your heart, is filling the time once reserved for them. Kids require a tremendous amount of time and energy, and when that outlet is no longer there, our best way forward is to find other outlets. Your goal might be simple like trying three new things, or hard like learning to play an instrument. You may set a goal to finally get to that stack of books, to work on creating a new daily devotional that isn't kid-friendly, and so on. What do you want to do? As you work toward answering this question, the becoming and finding yourself will happen on its own.

If you don't have kids and are worried about how they will change your life, including your spiritual path, you can stop worrying. They will change everything, including your spiritual path. And it will be some of the best changes you've ever made. 






Saturday, February 27, 2021

Secret Ingredient Soup

Those of you who’ve spent any amount of time with me know that I live my life through movie and television quotes. I connect to others through our shared experiences with entertainment, and many life-lessons are ready for harvest—particularly in cartoons. 

One of my favorite movies is the 2008 Dreamworks Animation film, Kung Fu Panda (all photos in this post copyright Dreamworks Animation. All rights reserved).  A panda named Po, voiced by comedian and musician Jack Black, is a character I, as an overweight but highly enthusiastic individual, relate to on a visceral level. He loves food as much as he loves kung fu, and when he finds himself suddenly within the world of his highest aspirations, he experiences awe and self-doubt in equal measures. 

Po was raised by a goose who owns a noodle shop, serving their famous “Secret Ingredient Soup,” and while he has been preparing the soup for decades, he does not know the secret ingredient. During his training in the Jade Palace when he finally achieves the highest honor of receiving the Dragon Scroll, he is flabbergasted to discover the scroll is nothing more than a reflective piece of paper. 

At the height of his disappointment with the entire Peaceful Valley evacuating in advance of an attack from escaped prisoner and Kung Fu Master Tai Lung, he runs into his father, the goose. His dad, seeing the sadness in his son’s face, takes the opportunity to reveal to him the secret ingredient in an attempt to lift his spirits. You can watch their interaction here

The truth is, there is no secret ingredient. He made it up! The soup is special because people believe it is special. And with that, Po realizes the mystery of the blank scroll: there is no secret ingredient. It’s just you.

This is one of those moments where I feel the doubt in myself rise to the surface—all the times I looked at those I admire and longed to know what it is they know that has allowed them to become who they are. What was their secret ingredient? I look at the selflessness of Mother Teresa, the courage of Amelia Earhart, the creativity of Frida Kahlo, the passion of Ella Fitzgerald, the strength of Indira Gandhi, the perseverance of Benazir Bhutto, and the vulnerability of Oprah Winfrey. I look to the defining traits of the women I know personally who have inspired me to be a better version of myself, and instead of feeling the weight of self-doubt, the lack of self-worth, and the overall feelings of being less-than those around me, I am gifted with these simple words: there is no secret ingredient. 

All these women I admire are special, because we believe they are special. These women have done amazing things, AND there is no secret ingredient! It’s just them, being who they are, when it mattered most. After all, Rosa Parks was a woman who worked long hours who was just trying to get home. When they told her to move, her exhaustion moved from being tired in her body to being tired in her mind, to being tired of giving in--and her response sparked a revolution.

And that is the lesson of Kung Fu Panda. There is no secret ingredient. It’s just you. You are what makes your life special. Because you believe you are special. And if you don’t believe you are special, there is no better time to start than now. You, as you are right now, are what makes the soup special. 


Saturday, February 20, 2021

Seeking Support in Grief

Grief is a difficult emotion for pagans, because for many of our non-pagan friends and family, the comoft they offer tends to reflect their religious beliefs and not ours. Over the past year, the need for supporting one another in our grief has grown exponentially. We've been isolated and removed from our typical support networks, and when we turn to our family and coworkers--the only folks most of us have seen in months--the mismatch between what we need and what they offer by means of support can be jarring and leave us feeling even more alone. 

Understanding grief from a non-religious standpoint is a key way we can learn to communicate our needs to those whose religious beliefs are different from ours, for this understanding is more universal. When we experience loss, the comfort we seek falls into one of the stages of grief. When we are suffering, understanding how we feel and being able to communicate this to others will guide them in how to better support us.

Let's start by talking about the grief cycle as it relates to death. There are five stages of grief, and we move through them in different ways based on the circumstances of our loss. Some losses will leave us lingering in one of the stages of grief for far longer (or far shorter) than another. 

In the first stage of grief, we are in denial. Our reality has shifted in an unacceptable and permanent way, and we don't want to believe it is true. Even for our Christian loved ones, the denial phase is not a time for focusing on the "better place" our loved one has reached. During this phase, we need help allowing the truth to wash over us. The pang reverberates through us, and we are frozen by the weight of what we have learned, like a deer trapped in headlights. As the denial begins to ease, the full gravity of the loss sinks in, and we become angry at the injustice of having to live in a word without them.

When we are angry, we are often making a list of the should've's and never's of that relationship--and some of these can be pretty big! Losing a father can leave items on this list such as should've called more often, should've made that trip to visit, never getting walked down the aisle, and any of a myriad number of words left unspoken (including I'm sorry). The loss of all the things that will never happen again is infuriating! Holding space for that anger is hard even for the best trained support person, and what most folks really need right now is not words or advice but space to make that list and be heard.

The third phase is bargaining, which is complicated. Bargaining is more common when a loss is imminent and has not yet taken place. When a loved one is in the ICU and being moved to hospice, there may be an internal dialogue between the person being left behind and whatever higher power they perceive to have control over death and dying. "If you will spare/heal my loved one, I will [makes promises]." This is also a time when guilt, angst, panic, and hopelessness may kick in. Again, the bargaining phase is a time for holding space and listening.

When the third phase has run its course and we realize there is nothing we can do to stop or reverse the circumstances of the loss, our hopelessness leads to a situational depression. It is at this stage that I think we truly begin to grieve. It is here that our sadness benefits from the balm of compassion and the strength of our friends and family. When we reach this fourth phase, we are ready to seek comfort, and for the Christians in our lives, this is a time to turn to God. It is here that the mismatch in our religious affiliations and belief systems are the most at odds. We don't want to hear about the good life the departed has lived that has given them entrance into "heaven." We don't want to hear about seeing them again when we pass into the same realm. 

For Ancestor-centric faith practices, comfort comes through the realization that the departed is not lost to us. What we need is to be reminded of the memories and how this person will live on within us and through the stories we tell. We have the framework in our everyday work at our shrines to make offerings and keep their memory alive. We may speak to them, and through our divination practices, they may speak back to us. These moments of clarity, of being able to see the way forward, will ultimately lead us to break out of our depression and move onto the final stage: acceptance.

Acceptance doesn't mean the pain of the loss magically disappears. In fact, the acceptance phase may even make the pain of the loss feel more acute as we understand the breadth and depth of this new reality, of the new world we have to live in without our loved one. And that's okay.  In the acceptance phase, we are perched at the threshold of this awful rite of passage, and the liminal space between what was and what will be is uncomfortable to say the least. We are best served by help moving out of the doorway to the past and taking the first step into our new future. 

Ways our loved ones can help us make this transition include practical things: helping us clean and sort the loved one's belongings, listening to our stories of the items we uncover, and allowing us to find laughter and tears in equal measure as we release each of the emotions we have within us tied to this person's life. We need to share the memories of happy times and find peace in them. We need to share the things that we will miss the most. We need to be met with patience as our waves of emotion stop us in our tracks and utterly distract us from the task at hand. And the only way those who are here to help us can get it right is for us to communicate with them.

I have a list of things I tell people when I need support. I tell them how I am feeling right now, even if how I feel is best described as "I don't even know." I ask for what I need and guide them in helping me. I may ask for their ear as I share stories. I may ask for their silence so we can just be together. I may ask for them to leave me alone to process on my own, adding that I'd like them to check on me later. And when the loss is new and I cannot speak to what I need, I mostly just let them hold me, because hugging makes me feel stronger and more able to handle whatever is happening that I am trying desperately to understand. It may help you to make a list of the things you typically need when you are the most upset, including whether touch is okay, so that when grief strikes, you can hand this short list to those who are there to help you through. 

In the end, our non-pagan friends and family mean well, and as in all things, grief requires us to articulate what we need in a way that they can understand. They may not get it right the first (or second) time, but those who truly love us will always be learning how to be in right relationship with us, just as we are with them.

May the losses you have experienced lead you to richer relationships with those who remain in this world with you, and may the memories of those who have passed on always be a blessing.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Book Review and Personal Reflections: White Tears/Brown Scars

White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color

by: Ruby Hamad
ISBN: 978-1-948226-74-5

In her work, Ruby Hamad takes us on a journey through the history of racism in America and the greater "white" world, providing ample evidence for how the actions and attitudes of white men accompanied by the silence of white women is the defining feature of Western settler-colonial society. 

In short, as the title suggests, this book is about the use of White Women’s tears as weapons and the price we pay for our role in maintaining the status quo of white supremacy. The idea of white women as the best supporting characters in maintaining whiteness in our society is a blind spot in our antiracism work even though the evidence is everywhere. Racism gets more subtle over time, and while White Women are not screaming rape when a black man passes us on the street, we are supporting the oppression of people of color with our inherent white innocence. And it’s all bullshit. 

Hamad's in-depth analysis of representation in media, tokenism in social circles, internalized oppression, and large-scale/global gaslighting are spot-on and important for those doing the work of antiracism:

On page 57, Hamad writes, “[Representation] matters because it is in popular media that our social world is both constructed and reflected back at us.” How many times have I felt comforted by the diversity of a cast, as though the presence of people of color was enough to comfort my whiteness into feeling “woke”? How many of these stereotypes did I miss, did I “not see,” and in my blindness perpetuate? How many times have I made excuses for the stereotypical portrayal of a character because “it saves time” for the plot to move forward? Yikes, me. 

On the white art of tokenism: Just as having a black friend doesn't make us "not racist," having a black woman as a member of our women's group does not give our group legitimacy as "progressive," "diverse," or even "woke," nor does it give our group a bye on the work of anti-racism. That, simply put, is the very heart of tokenism. If there's at least one person of color present, too many groups and organizations think they get to check the diversity box and be done with it. We need to make space for the thoughts, feelings, and opinions of women of color, not just their bodies.

"Whiteness has become so attached to the symbols of privilege, wealth, and status that it no longer even needs European-derived people themselves to perpetuate it." (Amad, p. 206). Another term for this is "internalized oppression," and if you are not familiar with the term, I definitely encourage you to do a quick google search. Basically, it is when an oppressed group self-restricts their own actions and even thoughts based on the dominant cultural norms that apply to them. I am reflecting on what the unspoken cultural norms of women's groups would be that women of color automatically adhere to, such as ensuring they hold space for white tears properly, apologizing when they anger or upset a white woman, or other similar things. In reflecting on the unspoken rules, it is my hope that I can find ways to change those rules. The real way to defeat unspoken things is to speak them. Once spoken, they can and, Gods be good, will be changed.

Finally, the idea of large-scale gaslighting must be addressed.  White society has convinced itself that all we have done was for the good of those “less-than” us—meaning less-than-white. It is othering on a global scale. As you’ve heard us say at Mountain Ancestors: we [the dominant culture] create outsiders. 

People of color have had to continually deny parts of themselves and adopt whiteness, through ideology and appearance, as a way to protect themselves from literal harm. The more they pass, the less they have to deal with the direct threat of racism, but at what personal cost? 

Our role as women has been one of softening. White Womanhood has made the edges blurry between white supremacy and the rights of people of color. White Womanhood has perpetuated the illusion of creating a better world that keeps whiteness at the top of the hierarchy of humanity. We are the rose-colored glasses through which white supremacy is filtered—and our white tears, as Hamad points out, are a result of the rosy perception we have created crashing into the unfiltered reality where people of color live. 

So what do we do? As a group, white women need to focus on what Hamad has pointed out: acknowledge the unfair advantage our race has given us in the form of white privilege AND our participation in a system where our womanhood has been both a privilege and a weapon. 

What do we do on an individual level? For me, I am starting by answering the many questions Hamad poses to us as white women on page 244. From there, I need to take off the proverbial rose-colored glasses and see what reality—and accountability for my/our parts in creating the world we live in now—actually looks like. Reconcile the truth of the now with the lies we told to fabricate our current version of the overculture. 

I do not want my tears used as a weapon to hurt others. I do not want my emotions used as justification for other people’s actions—especially when those actions are violent and hateful. I want full ownership of my own self, and the cost of that is giving up the “get out of jail free” card that allows my tears to shift the blame and rescue me from my own failings. 

I will start with a refocus on personal accountability. If we all start there, maybe we can begin to truly dismantle the broken and violent system we have held aloft on the pillow of our femininity.

Ruby Hamad is a journalist, author, and academic who spilts her time between Sydney, Australia, and New York, New York. This work was inspired by the response to her article entitled, "How White Women Use Strategic Tears to Silence Women of Colour." 

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Giving Back During the Pandemic

Giving certainly looks different right now. Our groves, covens, and groups might not be meeting in person, but our need to connect is stronger than ever. If I were writing my thoughts on giving back to the community before this all began, I know my thoughts would be very different! In what seems like another life, I would have suggested gathering some friends and picking up trash in parks, nature preserves, and along highways. I would have suggested volunteering at any of your local NPOs addressing social needs such as food banks, housing insecurity agencies, or afterschool programs. The thing about these suggestions is this: these are all social events. The last thing we need is to create a super-spreader event trying to make ourselves feel better about our role as a productive member of society! 

Folks who are able have opted for making financial donations in lieu of physical work as their contribution, but with so many feeling the pinch of fewer hours and less customers, adding the financial burden of even the most worthy of causes is not an option.

So, during this time of social distancing, if you are feeling the spirit of generosity upon you, here are some ways you can still give back to your community:

  • Deliver supplies. Many of the organizations we would normally volunteer with in person have adopted a delivery service model, though their budgets do not have room to add personnel to get the once-picked-up supplies into the hands of those who need them. Contact food banks and other local charities and offer to give their packages a lift!
  • Make phone calls. Similarly, many nonprofits are now conducting much of their business via phone or email, and they do not have the capacity to answer or make the number of calls and emails required to meet the needs of their target populations. Contact your local charities and see how you can use your voice to aid in their mission.
  • Help your neighbors. Many communities have pages in the Next Door app, and you may be able to find folks in your own backyard who could use your help. If you can cut grass, shovel snow, fetch the mail, do a grocery run, or leave prepared food on someone's porch for their family, you may be just what they need to get through this.
  • Give blood. Seriously. In most places, the donation rate has gone WAY down. If you are able, consider donating blood. One donation can make a difference in as many as six lives.
  • Offer a community class. Do you have a hobby or special skill that you'd love to share? Consider hosting a community class! Online classes are a way to bring folks together, and what better way to meet new people with similar interests than to host a class on something you know well and love?
  • "Sell a Skill" as a fundraiser. Do you have a skill that others could use? Offer your skill for a donation and raise money for your favorite nonprofit!
  • Buy from small businesses. Whenever you can, opt for local, small businesses. These folks are hit the hardest and every penny helps them keep their doors open.
But what about my religious community? Here's a few ways to connect to your church while in-person services are suspended:
  • Write liturgy. There is a lot of pressure on religious groups to produce wonderful online rituals; however, the process of creating, setting up, hosting, and managing technology for online services is not as easy as you might think. If you are a prayer composer, you may be able to help your local congregation by generating written material for them.
  • Send Greeting Cards. If you think you are feeling the isolation, consider that the other members of your congregation are feeling the same. Sending letters, greeting cards, or small presents not only makes them feel remembered and loved, it also supports the local post office!
  • Host social meetings. Your church leaders are probably stretched thin and do not have time to attend to the social needs of the congregation. If you have the time and desire, hosting a social gathering for your group might be just what the community ordered!
No matter what you decide to do, finding ways to reach out, to connect, and to provide for the needs of those around you will help you keep your head and heart in a healthy place during this time of social distance and isolation. When all else fails, contact those with whom you usually serve and ask, "What do you need?"

Monday, February 1, 2021

Home and Hearth Reflections 2021

Midwinter is a time of quiet activity and contemplation. The new year may be noticeably brightening, but there is much time that must pass before the promise of Spring made by the longer days is fulfilled. To pass the time, crafters focus on their crafts, writers write, planners plan, and dreamers dream. 

We rest in the in-breath, the waiting period before the rush of preparations begin. It is a time for inward reflection on where we have been, what we want to bring with us from those places in our past, and where we want to go moving forward.

This seasonal festival is celebrated in a similar way. Those who celebrate Imbolg or Imbolc honor the Goddess Brighid whose many epithets include healing, creation, and transformation. Some celebrate Candlemas, which is a festival of lights commemorating purification and the growing of the bright half of the year. All of them center on the fire at the center of our lives—our hearth fire. 

During this time of pandemic, social distancing, working from home, and general isolation, it has been easy to take our hearths for granted. A single flame holding vigil through this liminal time between when we used to gather and when we will finally be able to gather again. 

We’ve been in this liminal between space for a full year now. A whole year has passed since we held open in person ritual here at The Prairie Home. We’ve watched from a distance (sometimes not a very far distance) as wildfires burned, as police brutally murdered yet more people of color, as the people protested such violence, as agents of hate used the chaos to pillage and destroy, as alt-right counterprotests culminated in a full coup attempt and storming of the capital, and as the acrimonious politics of our nation threatened the voting process that is the only voice we have left as We The People (flawed as access to the system may be).

And through it all, our hearth fires burned: our single lights representing each of our single lives, sitting alone in seeming darkness. Looking closely at one flame can blind us to what else is around us. If we take a step backwards and widen our perspective, we see that not only are we not alone, for there are many other flames, but we are all connected, held aloft on the arms of a strong and intricate candelabrum. Our hearths alone may feel small and lonely, like a single flame struggling to light up a room, but if we can focus on the connections we have to the other hearths around us, we can truly see the light we cast capable of lighting up the world. 


To add to your own celebration, please find Melissa Hill's beautiful prayer for the season on her blog at Patheos.com: Imbolc Prayer to the Heart of Fire.


Saturday, January 23, 2021

Job Satisfaction & The Chemicals of Trust

Job satisfaction is rooted in the environment that the leader establishes. The leader can be the CEO, an executive, the manager, or a team leader--and this doesn't apply to only your money-earning job. Volunteer roles and nonprofit workspaces are just as sensitive to the workspace environment. 

A good leader isn’t concerned with title and importance, rather is focused on making a workplace environment in which the employees and volunteers feel safe and feel they belong. It’s a Circle of Safety in which we grow, learn, and become real assets to our teams. We feel secure in this circle and protected by our leader. We learn to trust and cooperate and to speak up without fear of repercussions. The building of trust within the group is essential. We learn to trust the leader because they are consistent, tell the truth, do not have their own secret agenda, and is always there to support and counsel us. In turn, we learn to trust each other and work together as a team. We emulate the qualities of the leader. However, if a member of the group, leader or peer, is caught in a lie or is exposed for self-centered actions, the trust begins to die on the vine.

Survival is not just an intellectual matter. There is a direct and involuntary physiological release of these chemicals brought on by internal as well as external stimulants. A leader with integrity and a focus on the experience of those they lead will facilitate the release of helpful chemicals:

  • Endorphins. Endorphins mask physical pain and are the “high” we feel after exercise. 
  • Dopamine. Dopamine causes the feeling of satisfaction we get with accomplishment. 
  • Serotonin. Our bodies release serotonin when we receive recognition creating feelings of pride and success. 
  • Oxytocin. Oxytocin leads to the best feeling of all: the feeling of human connection. Oxytocin creates intense feelings of safety and comfort. 

Leaders actually create safety and comfort in our workspaces through generosity and integrity. When a leader sacrifices for others, everyone—including the leader, the receiver, and the witnesses—receives a boost in oxytocin. The more oxytocin we have in our bodies, the more generous we want to be. The more generous we are, the more oxytocin we release, and the safer and more comfortable we feel. Oxytocin even increases our ability to solve problems.

When things get hard, our body also responds by releasing a stress chemical: cortisol. Cortisol is the fight or flight chemical in our body and serves to viscerally alert us to signs of danger. When we work or volunteer in a stressful environment, we end up with high levels of cortisol. When we have high levels of cortisol, we become too busy protecting ourselves to help others feel safe and secure. Worse, our bodies will continuously release cortisol even after the stress has abated, creating a long recovery and healing period for a team suffering from a lack of trust. 

Leaders can make the choice to start the cycle of healing by example and putting others’ needs before their own. Selfless leaders with integrity are paramount to job satisfaction and feelings of workspace security. Leaders who focus on their own personal safety and security (or personal gain alone) will be the downfall of a team, because the trust that is essential for success evaporates in the face of selfishness.  Leadership is not a rank or position. It is a decision. It is a choice. As leaders, all we need to do is look to the people around us and decide to place their well-being over our own. Let them go ahead of us at the potluck of life and, as a leader, decide to eat last to make sure everyone else has what they need before serving ourselves.


Sunday, January 10, 2021

Focus

Turning to the dictionary for understanding “focus” leaves room for improvement to say the least. Focus as a noun is the center of interest or activity, the main focus of attention (i.e. focal point). Focus as a verb means to adapt to the prevailing level of light and become able to see clearly. We’ve read about mindfulness practices that teach us to focus on what’s in front of us, to “be here now” with what we are doing, but what more does focus have to teach us as a skill?

Imagine you have awakened in the middle of the night with an urgent need to use the restroom. When you open your eyes, the dark is comfortable. It is not difficult to navigate your way. In the restroom, you turn on the light, and for a moment, everything is blurry and not easy to see. You have to wait for your eyes to adjust in order to begin moving forward again. After you’ve washed your hands, you turn out the light, and once more, your ability to see is hindered until your eyes adjust. Then, you can return to your comfy bed and sleep the rest of the night away.

Taking the time to focus is an important part of seeing the right path to take. Unless we pause for a moment and allow the details to resolve into discernable shapes—the root cause, the immediate effects, the long-term effects, the stakeholders, etc., we won’t know how best to move forward. Focus is what gives us the ability to observe a situation from a new perspective and adjust accordingly. 

Here are some behaviors that can help you hone your ability to focus, to see clearly that which is in front of you, and to make good, informed decisions:

  1. Get enough sleep and wake up early enough to plan your day. Every day is a new opportunity, and if you have armed yourself with the big picture, any last-minute adjustments you need to make to your schedule will not be emotionally draining.
  2. Schedule “focus time” into your daily routine. Focus time is a time with no email or Teams or phones or text messages, so you can manage tasks that take more of your mental capacity. The average attention span for a single task is about 14 minutes. If you want to hone this skill, you must practice it! Start with 15-minute intervals and work up from there. 
  3. Keep a list of your most important tasks (i.e. big rocks) and accomplish those first. This way, if you run short on time, you are not doing a less-than-stellar job on the important stuff.
  4. Limit your information intake. Information fatigue is real. Take quiet time, just like focus time, to allow your brain to rest and restore your focus energy.
  5. Reflect, remember, and regroup. At the end of the day, go back over your performance. Did you follow your schedule? Did you accomplish the goals you set for the day? Were you able to put forth your best efforts?

The first part of focus is clarity about how you feel, what you want to do, the pulse of those around you, and the potential obstacles in your path. The second part is letting go of other things you also want to do, whether that means putting them off until later or removing them from your to-do list altogether. As Steve Jobs said, “Deciding what NOT to do is as important as deciding what TO do.”

Focus on your inner self. Expand your focus to include those around you. Expand your focus even further to include the systems and environment around you. And let everything else fade away. From here, you will be your most successful and effective self.