Blogging Around the Coffee Table

Fill the paper with the breathings of your heart.” – William Wordsworth

I have a feeling when I blog – both reading and writing – that it’s like having coffee with a group of friends. I get to talk about what is holding my interest these days and I get to hear about what’s going on for other people. The topics are wide-ranging but the lovely part is that there’s space for everyone to share.

My experience differs based on whether I show up to share with my head or my heart.

When I write from my head, it feels as if I’m tussling with my inner critic. I find myself more restless and wanting to rely too heavily on other people’s ideas and words. It feels as if my fingers are encased in bubble-wrap and I have a harder time getting the message across. If I were to name someone I write for when I’m in my head, it’s my mom who is incredibly smart, very literal and a stickler for a solid argument and perfect English grammar.

When I write from my heart, it feels like being in the flow of the stream. I can produce faster when I get out of my own way. It’s not that my head isn’t present – it just has accepted its position to be subordinate to the heart. In that way, I get to the point more quickly, as to the “heart” of the matter. When I’m writing from my heart, I write as if for my dad, the person who is incredibly generous in their desire to understand the point of what I’m saying even if I miss a couple of steps in my argument.

Where do you go, metaphorically speaking, when you write? Do you have a specific person or image that you write for? What does the blogging experience feel like for you?

(featured photo from Pexels)

Proving the Positive

One moment can change a day. One day can change a life and one life can change the world.” – Buddha

The other day I took my kids to an outdoor shopping center. They’d been excited for three days because I said we could go there to visit the one store that makes honest to goodness cotton candy. Not the stuff you can buy prepackaged on shelves in the grocery store but a machine that spins a cone of it. I don’t like cotton candy but my daughter wanted to try it so I agreed she could if we got the real stuff.

On the way to the cotton candy machine, my kids were playing in a fountain and my daughter put her face down to lick the water. “Arghh” I said, “Don’t drink the water. It isn’t treated and probably has dirt, bird poop and maybe worse. It could make you sick.” She stopped but two minutes later she made the same motion and I had to stop her again. “Listen” I said “I know as a kid you are programmed to test the limits, but this is one where you need to believe me. Even if you don’t drink it, your little brother is going to see you, imitate you and he might actually drink it. So you are just going to have to trust me and not drink it.

I could see the wheels of her 6-year-old brain working. She was thinking something like
I’ve never tried it so I’ve never gotten sick. How can I know what Mom is saying is right?

There’s no way to prove a negative. If we don’t do something and it the consequence is avoided, how do we know what didn’t happen to us?  I heard an interview once with Matthew Weiner, the creator of the TV series Mad Men, and he said the show’s driving philosophy was actions have consequences. But what about inaction?

What if we don’t do the work to deal with our internal BS so we can see others more clearly?

What if we don’t write the letter to a sick friend?

What if we don’t go out of our way to compliment or help someone?

What if we don’t put the grocery cart back in the return slot at the store?

What if we just aimed for a grade C life? Not great, not bad, just average. Would anything happen to us?

Perhaps the consequence for inaction is nothing. Nothing exciting happens, nothing revelatory occurs, no random goodness pops up, nobody remembers us. Nothing. We aren’t a hero – just a zero.

On the other hand, we’ve done acts of kindness and felt the afterglow, we’ve made the effort to reach out to friends and experienced the relationships that carry us through tough times, and we’ve done the work to clean our internal windows because we see how more light gets in. In addition to these rewards, we’ve heard the thinkers throughout human history telling us to do our work:

Good actions give strength to ourselves and inspire good actions in others.” – Plato

Go into the world and do well. But more importantly, go into the world and do well.” – Minor Myers, Jr.

When we do the best we can, we never know what miracle is wrought in our life, or the life of another.” – Helen Keller

We all have our different ways of doing our best and our personal limits. But part of the we likely do it is because our mom, dad or someone else with authority told us and we believed them. Like with my daughter, there’s no way to prove the negative – what would happen if we did nothing, so we take the advice and continue to try. Thank goodness for that.

We Carry Them With Us

“At some point, you have to realize that some people can stay in your heart but not in your life.” – Sandi Lynn

When I woke my daughter up last Friday for the last day of school, she had a frown. I thought perhaps it was just the fog of sleepiness still lifting but she told me otherwise.

I was happy that it was the last week of school but I’m not happy that it is the last day. It’s not like you can ever go back.

She didn’t want to leave her beloved 1st grade teacher. I thought the buildup and anticipation of summer would carry the day so I was caught off-guard, something fairly common for me as a parent.

The grief of the school year ending reminded me of a Ten Percent Happier podcast about the science of loss and grieving with Mary-Frances O’Connor, Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Arizona. She talked about what happens when we bond with someone – it actually changes the brain so that we encode that person is special. In the brain imaging studies O’Connor recounted, yearning for someone lit up the part of the brain that is the reward center of the brain, the nucleus accumbens.

Her conclusion was that even when our memories tell us that something has changed – someone is gone, an experience has ended – even when we know all that, the part of our brain that was transformed when we bonded still lights up. In O’Connor’s example, when she goes to pick an Easter dress, she’s still impacted by her mother. She may pick the dress her mother would like or the one that her mother would hate, but either way her mother is still present.

This explanation resonated with me. It explains that warmth I get when I think of my dad putting his arm around me and saying “It’s going to be great, Kid!” Or the little skip in my step I experience when I hike a trail my beloved dog Biscuit liked and I think of how he’d run back and forth.

I’ve often said that the longer my dad is gone, the more that I feel him inside me as if I have to act out the parts that I used to rely on him playing. O’Connor’s research says that in a way, that is true because he lives on inside my brain. I’d say that same about my dog which is true but also I’ve always had a personality much like a golden retriever.

Knowing that I’ll always exist in my kid’s heads gives me a little perspective on what that voice should say. Is the soundtrack that wants them to pick up after themselves or the one that says that they are lovable, kind and capable of anything? I’m aiming for a little bit of the former but mostly the latter.

As we moved through this past weekend, my daughter kept asking, “what would I be doing at school now?” She was processing the experience of being done by remembering all her school activities and quoting her teacher to me. Knowing a little about the science of how we record things didn’t help me know what to say, but it did give me a lot of patience for her yearning.  

By the end of the weekend, my daughter said, “I’m so happy for the Kindergartners that will have my teacher next year.” To get to our new experience, we have to cross the threshold of leaving the old. But the bonds we formed in the old experience go with us.

Sorry Your Head Hurts, Do You Want Something to Eat?

I am becoming water; I let everything rinse its grief in me and reflect as much light as I can.” – Mark Nepo

Last night we were having dinner on my brother’s World War II era tugboat. He has lovingly renovated it over more than 20 years so that it’s very comfortable for him and my sister-in-law to live on, but it still has a lot of steel edges to bump into. Which is what happened – my 2-year-old son was looking out a port hole, stood up quickly and bonked his head. My sister-in-law was standing there with me, saw him do it and as I picked him up, showered him with sympathy.

But 30 seconds later (maybe longer but not much), my sister-in-law said to my son, “What’s the matter, Buddy? Are you hungry?”

It struck me as a common thing we do as humans. It’s hard to witness someone else’s pain. So we express sympathy and then we are ready to move on. Three things strike me about this.

First, we often move to trying to solve the problem. I find this impulse, especially as a parent, to be so alluring.

Second, if things last longer than we expect, we try to conflate the pain with something else as my sister-in-law did. Is it not surprising that we grow up confused about what our feelings are if the grown-ups around us think that what is wrong is that we are hungry when really our head hurts?

Third, we compound the original pain with our discomfort at sitting with someone in pain. So that they often are moved to pretend the pain has stopped so that they don’t have to contend with both their own pain and the pain of the people who are witnessing it.

It’s hard but sometimes the best thing to do when someone is in pain, is just sit with them. As a mom, I want to reach for the ice pack, the bandage or the song but I’m working on just letting the tears fall onto my arms as I hold them. We have to clean our wounds before we bandage them and, in a way, letting the injured party cry for as long as necessary is the best first step.

Still Waters

God leads me to still waters that restore my spirit.” – Psalm 23

Today is my birthday. When my 6-year-old daughter realized that earlier this week, she said “Great, can you wake us up early on your birthday so we can make you a surprise?”

Wait a minute…this is a trick. So sweet of her but that morning time is my sacred time. Waking my kids up early is the opposite of a birthday present.

I’ve often thought that the transition between my quiet morning time when I do yoga, meditate, read and write to the time when I get the kids up and ready for school was a hard transition because I was selfish and wanted more quiet time. But something I read this week sparked the thought that it’s really something deeper.

In those quiet morning moments, I find my own stillness. I breathe into the space beyond myself and feel that unity with the Universe. And in that place, the feelings settle, the rush quiets down and it feels like I see beyond all of our physical boundaries if just for a moment.

And I feel that love for my kids that came the moment they became real for me. It’s bigger than a reaction to something they’ve done or the way we express ourselves. It’s that pure connection between the core of them and the core of me, not complicated by any movement. It’s that overwhelming feeling that I get when I creep in and watch them sleep. They are quiet and I’m quiet.

When I’m still, it feels like I’m standing in one of the clear lakes in Northern Idaho we used to visit in my childhood on a hot day without wind. I can see all the way to my feet and beyond.

Then it’s time to wake them up – and any movement stirs the waters. I reach for them and stir up the waters between us. It’s time to accomplish things, meet a timeline and respond to any worries. It’s like going from my peaceful standing in the lake to a full-on water fight. I have trouble traversing that threshold because I miss the quiet view of my little loves.

It’s not just these relationships either. When I’m quiet and peaceful, all my relationships seem clearer and easier to understand than when we are in front of each other talking and stirring up all the things that come with interplay. It’s harder to feel the full appreciation for the depth of each relationship in the busier moments, I just have to hold the quiet snapshot in my heart.

My friend Betsy, who is a more experienced parent than I am, suggested what to do about my birthday. Get them up just a couple of minutes early – so I get my morning quiet time and then also get to feel their love in full audio as well.

Comparison

Comparison is the thief of joy.” – Theodore Roosevelt

Yesterday as we were getting ready to leave for school, I asked my 6-year-old, Miss O, to put on her shoes and then I told the 2-year-old Mr. D I was putting on his shoes. Miss O said, “Wait a minute, you are putting on his shoes for him? What about mine?”

It seems that in a household with two young children, the opportunities to compare are endless. They compare with each other, they compare my actions with other mothers, our rules with friends’ rules. Not to mention that I compare them all the time (hopefully 100% in my head). “Did Miss O do that when she was 2?” I’ll wonder?

In her book Atlas of the Heart, Brené Brown cites research that shows that comparison is more or less ubiquitous. We might all be different, but we share the trait to compare. It’s what we do with the feelings that comparison brings that makes a difference.

So I wrote about it for my post this week on the Pointless Overthinking blog: Comparing our Differences

(featured photo from Pexels)

The Choices We Have

Life is the sum of all your choices.” – Camus

I was talking with my friend, Betsy of the ParentingisFunny blog (possibly going to be renamed the Chex and Balances blog) but a delightful and fun blog about life, Jui Jitsu and the Universe at any name. We were discussing the idea of choices that behavioral economist Dan Ariely discusses in his book Predictably Irrational. He gives so many great examples of how our brain works to make choices based on the options presented. Like if we are looking to be a house and are comparing two ranch style homes, one that needs work and another that doesn’t, and a colonial, our brain will make the choice based on the price/work of the two ranch homes because they are similar. And even if it isn’t a totally rational choice if you really figured in the third option (the colonial), it’s repeatable because of way the brains anchors the choice by comparison.

Betsy said something lovely about admiring my ability to read and listen to interesting stuff. I replied that being single gives me more free time in which I fill with listening to content. And maybe it even fulfills a need for this intellectual stimulation since I’m not getting that from a partner at this point in life.

Which isn’t to say that I’m recommending being single, it just is a little amazing how much time being in a partnership can take. Choosing to do fun stuff, watch tv or even make dinner together – wonderful things to enjoy in a relationship but it fills time in a way that is hopefully fulfilling but might not leave time for reading behavioral economists. Or it could be deemed rude to put a podcast in at night when folding laundry or working out.

So I have the great pleasure of having time to listen and read great content. And then I have so much life in my house and little ones that I get great joy in processing the ideas and trying them out on them. Like with choices, if I think my little one should wear sneakers instead of rain boots, it works marvelously well to give him the choice of two pairs of sneakers and the rain boots. Just like the houses, it works!

Then Betsy generously added, “Your brain is being so enriched. And then you share your newfound knowledge with others. What a service! Especially when you share the highlights to those of us who don’t have time to learn things ourselves.” Which was a delightful thing to hear but also explained by behavioral economics.

In Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely describes an experiment they did at a college campus. They had pictures of two attractive people – Student A and Student B. They created a triptych of pictures with student A, Student B and a third picture where they altered student A to be less symmetrical and therefore less attractive.

When students were given the choice of who they found to be most attractive, the majority picked Student A. The third picture, the altered student A gave them something to compare against that steered them towards student A. They did this with several pictures to make sure it wasn’t specific to Student A.

Applying that to life, the choices are

  1. Being single with a rich blogging/writing life
  2. Being in a partnership with a great intellectual conversation
  3. Being single but feeling isolated because I’m not discussing the ideas that have inspired me.

Since option B isn’t really viable right now, it’s a no brainer that I happily choose to listen, write and share since it enriches the option that I have.

(featured photo from Pexels)

Beautiful Questions

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue…And the point is to live everything. Live the questions.” – Rainier Maria Rilke

I needed a break from the minutiae of data that I was dealing with at work yesterday so I took a few minutes to listen to Krista Tippet’s conversation with poet and philosopher David Whyte on the On Being podcast. The conversation turned to the human experience and how we face life. Referencing the poet, John O’Donohue, David Whyte posed the practice of asking beautiful questions:

John used to talk about how you shaped a more beautiful mind; that it’s an actual discipline, no matter what circumstances you’re in. The way I interpreted it was the discipline of asking beautiful questions and that a beautiful question shapes a beautiful mind. And so the ability to ask beautiful questions — often in very un-beautiful moments — is one of the great disciplines of a human life. And a beautiful question starts to shape your identity as much by asking it as it does by having it answered. And you don’t have to do anything about it, you just have to keep asking. And before you know it, you will find yourself actually shaping a different life, meeting different people, finding conversations that are leading you in those directions that you wouldn’t even have seen before.

David Whyte

This sent me on a search to find out more about John O’Donohue’s idea of a beautiful mind and found this passage in an excerpt from John’s unpublished work:

Your mind is your greatest treasure. We become so taken up with the world, with having and doing more and more, we come to ignore who we are and forget what we see the world with. The most powerful way to change your life is to change your mind.

When you beautify your mind, you beautify your world. You learn to see differently. In what seemed like dead situations, secret possibilities and invitations begin to open before you. In old suffering that held you long paralyzed, you find new keys. When your mind awakens, your life comes alive and the creative adventure of your soul takes off. Passion and compassion become your new companions.

John O’Donohue

Inspired by both of these Irish poets, I started trying to think of beautiful questions.

What is the softest touch I can apply in this situation? (to myself, to the Earth, to others)

What is there to see right here and now with compassionate curiosity?

And this one I heard from my 8-year-old next door neighbor as I was ferrying the girls home from school, “Why would we not?”

Indeed, why not?

In the interview with Krista Tippett summed up David’s musing on beautiful questions with “That’s what Rilke called ‘living the question.‘”

What beautiful questions come to your mind?

(featured photo from Pexels)

Growth Mind-Set

Man often becomes what he believes himself to be. If I keep on saying to myself that I cannot do a certain thing, it is possible that I may end by really becoming incapable of doing it. On the contrary, if I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have it at the beginning.” – Mahatma Gandhi

My mom, who will turn 83-years-old in a few weeks, just put on a piano concert for her senior living residence. It’s something she’s done since the pandemic started, trying to fill in the entertainment schedule especially for those who can’t readily leave their apartments. She has to do three performances to keep the audiences small, they performances have been broadcast over the in-house tv and she learns new music for each one.

All that is to say, my mom is a pretty confidence and very capable person. She still practices speaking Russian, a second language she learned in college and even typing out messages to her Russian friends in her What’s App phone application.

But when something goes wrong on her phone and computer, she brings it to me. Often she’s already figured out the solution but she just wants me to confirm it. Which I am more than happy to do. But it always amazes me and amuses me that she has a blind spot in her confidence.

According to Katty Kay and Claire Shipman in their book, The Confidence Code, this is not at all unusual, especially with women. Drawing on the research of Stanford professor, Carol Dweck, they describe:

“Most women think their abilities are fixed, Dweck told us. They’re either good at math or bad at math. The same goes for a host of other challenges that women tend to take on less often than men do: leadership, entrepreneurship, public speaking, asking for raises, financial investment, even parking the car. Many women think, in these areas, that their talents are determined, finite, and immutable. Men, says Dweck, think they can learn almost anything.”

The Confidence Code by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman

And the way past that fixed assessment of abilities is to adopt a growth mind-set according to Dweck. It ties with confidence because “Confidence requires a growth mind-set because believing that skills can be learned leads to doing new things. It encourages risk, and it supports resilience when we fail.”

When I first had children, I remember reading several articles about not praising your child for being smart but instead to focus on praising them for their efforts. It turns out that this is exactly the thing for building our own growth mind-set as well. When our internal dialogue is focused on effort and improvement, we reinforce the internal story that we can learn.

Sometimes we have blind spots in our abilities on purpose. We don’t learn things because our partner, friend or child can do it for us. It works fine for us as long as when life requires us to do those tasks, we adopt that growth mind-set, believe we can and then support that with the patience and praise for our efforts as we learn.

I’ve seen my mom do that in these seven years after my dad passed in the many things that were his specialties like taxes and car maintenance. Either through nature or nurture, I think my mom has a growth mind-set. I’m happy to be her computer help but notice that when I do it, she usually looks over my shoulder to see what I’m doing. Maybe by the time she’s in her mid-eighties, she’ll no longer need me for tech support.

This is my third post in the series delving into confidence. The first was I Can and the second was Fear and Confidence.

(featured photo from Pexels)

Digging Deep vs Leaning In

I don’t promise you it will be easy. I do promise you it will be worthwhile.” – Art Williams

My 6-year-old daughter mentioned that she wasn’t excited to go to school yesterday because she had “reading rotation.” I don’t exactly understand why she doesn’t like it but it’s something about being with her group and having to move through the different stations of school work. So we counted the number of days she has of reading rotation left in the school year – nine. She decided nine was more than doable.

But I was left thinking about “counting the days.” It made me think of the difference between digging deep and leaning in. I remember when I started working out to climb my first mountain and I was working out on these set of stairs on Capitol Hill in Seattle where there are 13 flights for a total of 290 steps. As I did these the first time I thought, “I can do anything for 20 minutes.” This became my mantra for digging deep to get through short-term pain.

Then it came time to climb and I thought “I can do anything for two days.” And adopting that attitude got me through a great deal of repetitive tasks and tough conditions.

When I had first had kids and the sleepless nights were getting to me, I remember thinking to myself, “I can do anything for two years.” Well, I’m not sure I could have done sleep deprivation for that long and fortunately didn’t have to find out but saying that mantra helped get me through.

I can do anything for x amount of time is my mantra for digging deep. It works – it helps me push through a perceived limit by tricking my brain. But there is a point where digging deep becomes a habit to not only push through challenges but also to bear down and push through life. At that point digging deep becomes a liability.

By contrast, the biggest gift I received from the rich healing days when I first started meditating after my divorce was learning how to lean in. It was a lesson I got from Pema Chödrön’s book When Things Fall Apart. It was my awakening that it doesn’t work to avoid things – we need to lean in to them instead and take the power away.

I’ve heard this likened to the martial art of Aikido – that by leaning in to a punch, you take away its power. You get it closer to the source so it doesn’t have a chance to build up steam and turn into something bigger.

You lean in to the things that make you uncomfortable to find out why. You lean in to the arguments you have with your partner to find the root cause of what isn’t being said. You lean in to the fear of what you don’t want to do to find out what associations can be untangled.

For me, it’s a subtle difference between digging deep and leaning in. Digging deep is for when I have to grind things out. Leaning in is for when I can stop things from blossoming into something that has to be endured.

We close enough to the end of the year that I’m sure my daughter can dig deep to get through her remaining reading rotations. But perhaps next time we should practice the art of leaning in so we find out what is making an activity hard and disarm it.

(featured photo is my daughter on the Capitol Hill stairs in 2017)