The part of my day that stood out was the hour that I sat there, staring into my iphone as it was clipped into the ring light, not really able to figure out what to say.
Since January, I had been posting a video on LinkedIn on Wednesdays — something useful, cheerful, a practical idea, for people involved in Federal contracting.
Today, I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to say, or how. My constraints are:
One idea, with up to three tips or parts.
No edits. Use it as it is.
About two minutes, no longer than three.
A call to action, something people can do or use right away
and a link to a related tool or event that will help.
I had gotten further and further behind this week, and the day had slipped away. It was past 2:30, a nice juicy time had just opened up on my calendar to get this wrapped up… and take after take, I was stuck.
I’d managed to do it every week for the past six weeks. After all, I should be able to pull these out of my head like nothing, right? I watch my gifted friend Will Randolph, who has done a video lesson on LinkedIn, “William’s Whiteboard,” every Wednesday for the past year! I’m not as good as he is, but surely I can crank out a two minute tip!
delete. Hit “record” again.
I wanted to talk about generosity; about gratitude, about writing thank you notes… and share a piece of advice from a friend that was kind of related… these were actually three different stories, and they were all of the “chipper little tip” variety: advice without necessarily a lot of, well, soul or vulnerability if I couldn’t share a personal story that could make the idea memorable.
And none of the ideas were unique to government contracting. These were all pretty generic ideas. Sure, the core of my work is all about human connection that just HAPPENS to be in the federal arena, so of COURSE my ideas are by their nature going to be kind of generally applicable, right? And if the point of my post was to serve my community but also support my own business objectives, what was the link between this little collection of thoughts of the day and whatever idea I really wanted people to remember me for, or even get in touch?
I somehow forgot that anytime after 3 pm is not a good time for me to be trying to do this. I don’t have “one-take” clarity left. Because I don’t write these things or use a teleprompter. That would probably save time.
Then there’s this question:
How perfect does it need to be? If I’m not reading from a script, then I figure I owe it to anyone watching to deliver something short, clear, and useful, and not wander all over the place.
I just finished reading a book about the power of story telling… and that just about stalled my efforts. Where were all the story ideas that were coming to me when I was reading the story telling book?
Oh. I never wrote those down.
Stories would be better than tips! People love stories.
Yeah, but that perfect two minute story doesn’t pop out of nowhere. Ask any standup comic how many times they rehearse and refine the epic two minute story.
A story needs to have a point; and the listener needs to be able to imagine themselves in the hero role, see how this could have happened to them.
Oh, gee. What stories do *I* have?
Oh, a lot, but they are long and wander all over the place.
What story do I have, something hard-hitting and poignant, a lesson I learned that has value for other people and that I can share in two minutes?
And…I had a four-o’clock call. I was out of time.
There was not going to be a Wednesday video this week.
Despite that, here are all the useful things I got from the experience.
A clear reminder to not try to do video after 3 pm, because my “one-take” ability is long gone by that time of day.
Self-compassion practice: I remembered to be gentle with myself even though I hadn’t managed to get something done that I had hoped to complete.
As I wrapped up from the day and did another skim of LinkedIn, I saw that my team had already published the scheduled post for the day, sharing a guest blog from my friend Kevin Hoey. I forgot they were doing that. So not only was there no need to consider I’d failed by not doing a video post today, but if I’d wanted to pick a theme and call to action of my video post, I could have picked up a theme from my scheduled blog post of the week, which also goes live on Wednesdays. That would be an easy plan to follow next time! SCORE!
And I got a story I could share with you after all — in this blog rather than something for LinkedIn, and it might even make its way to LinkedIn after all.
In short, the Universe had just reminded me, gently, that, contrary to my recurring fears, I was, and am, more than enough.
Oh, to heck with it. This was what hit the cutting room floor. Enjoy, in all its messy, disorganized, imperfection.
How might I live, and what I might make room for, some months from now when my bubble-mates and I have been vaccinated?
After nearly a year without all kinds of things and experiences and people, what will I do differently? What do I value differently now than I did a year ago?
I’m more conscious of the fragility of assumptions about the way things are. When there’s a big enough reason to change, things and people change.
I value human contact — physical, emotional, and spiritual — more. I appreciate more deeply the joy of having bubble mates, and the hardships that my friends and loved ones are enduring as they make the tough decisions and stay isolated or minimize contact with others.
I’m deeply aware of how work-centric my choices are right now for how I spend my time. Doing so has been a convenient way to divert my attention from wondering, planning, dreaming, of trips or activities or even people I miss. I can’t have or do those things, I don’t know when I will, and it’s just easier to not bother using up my finite attention span and even more finite energy to imagine Life After Pandemic. Workityworkitywork, cemented together with grudging mandatory attempts at self-care. Surely I might learn to love the effort to take care of myself. The prospect of breaking open and shaking up my current limited routines with dozens of options for joyful company and travel seems like…well, a lot of work. Isn’t it easier to just stop wasting my time on frivolous dreaming?
Actually, dreaming is a powerful creative force in bringing things into being. I’ve learned that something I choose to dream about with all my might and energy, and devote every resource I have to…that act of dreaming and envisioning can often turn that dream into reality.
I wrote before about the beauty that creeps in through the broken places. Now, I’m grateful for memories so powerful that they can’t be pushed away or forgotten — particularly when I pause to gaze at one of thousands of images I’ve taken over the years. A single picture can whiplash my recollections back to the smells and feels and sensations of being in a place, of being with people, I loved and still cherish.
When I set things in motion for my trip to the Atacama Desert in Chile in 2018 and the climbing expedition to Kalymnos I chose for my 60th birthday in 2019, I was conscious of how long it had been since I had had a new adventure. I never want to be someone who spends all her time telling stories from twenty or thirty years ago. I wanted to be someone who keeps exploring, always.
That light never dies for me. Pandemic may have turned the flame down very low, but it’s not out.
If you have ever been my climbing partner, my dive buddy, my co-pilot, my hiking companion — or even just wanted to be — have no fear. Please, let’s talk again soon and plan and dream together. When the time comes, I’m looking forward to discovering how strongly I’ll be motivated to corral the thing that calls itself work into more sensible proportions of my life.
I’m grateful beyond words for all the kindred spirits I’ve reconnected with from past lives, and new sympatico souls I’ve met over the past year. Just imagining how it will feel to be with people I love in person again verges on almost too joyful a feeling to grasp. I seem to prefer to gently nudge it to one side, put it off because that’s easier than guessing when the real experience will possible.
But more friends are getting vaccinated every day. Transition is coming.
And the days are getting longer, and spring is coming.
I’m grateful for it all: past, present, future. And glad we’re in it together.
Sometimes the inner critics stop being inner and actually speak aloud. Yuck.
On more than a few occasions, JJ has sat down with me and asked gently, “I hear you talking to yourself so harshly. You would never talk to anyone else that way. Why would you treat yourself like that?”
Remember the last time someone told you, “You’re so grounded”?
Was that positive or negative?
I was musing with a friend about how we feel when all our assumptions about the norms, truths, beliefs, and standard operating procedures change at once: we feel unmoored, unsafe, scared, out of balance.
When a lot of things change at once — as they’ve done in pandemic — and we’re surrounded by conflicting guidance, news, information, and opinions about where the new boundaries and guidelines are, of course we feel stressed.
(Our conversation nudged vaguely toward the political when we agreed that it’s not surprising that people can become upset and alienated when other people tell them that every belief they hold dear, everything that frames their understanding of what holds the world together is wrong, and that, by extension, so are they. Big topic we decided not to tackle in the moment.)
In a routine telemedicine visit recently, my doctor asked me whether I’d been experiencing “pandemia”, and I while I kind of thought I knew what she was talking about, I just went to look it up and realized there wasn’t any definition of it that I could find. My sense of the word was an overall feeling of being mentally stressed out.
We’re coming up on a whole series of anniversaries. I feel lucky that mine are all of the last time I did things that I look forward to doing again: The last time I taught a climbing class. The last time I went out for dinner. The last time I gathered friends together for a dinner party. The last time I was in a gym. The last time I traveled outside the Virgina-DC-Maryland area. Long past, the last time I was with my Canadian family.
I’m fortunate that my pandemic anniversaries don’t include the last time a friend or loved one drew breath.
My life choices for the past almost-year have been more conservative than others. I’m in a bubble with some high-risk loved ones. I feel weary, and find myself these days even easier prey for my inner critics, as you’ve noticed from these blog posts.
There are plenty of bright spots, too. I’m going to share those a few at a time over the weeks ahead, rather than try to do an all-encompassing “Gifts of the Pandemic.” Meh, I’ll probably keep trying to write that one, too, actually; it’s writing itself in my head at the moment.
For starters, light at the end of the tunnel: I’m encouraged by the growing number of my friends reporting that they’ve had their first, or even second, shot of vaccine. I’m further back on the list, but I’m on the list; I know my turn will come. I suspect I will feel a tremendous feeling of release and relief when it does. And it’s good to see the infections and hospitalizations going down.
The effort required to manage my mental space, what many call “mindset,” is… well, it depends on how I want to talk about it. Words have power. The things and situations I imagine, and the way I talk about them has a big effect on not just my own world, but on the energy and thinking I bring to other people who talk with me or read my stuff.
So, as I take a quick step back from the Vortex of Yuck, back from the cliff edge onto firmer ground, I offer a couple of thoughts about what it means to be grounded.
There was rarely anything good about being told “You’re grounded” as a kid, was there? That means limitations, restrictions, removal of privileges and freedoms, usually as result of breaking agreements about “the rules.” (Maybe you were one of the fortunate few who, when growing up and told “go to your room,” were delighted because that’s where all the books were…)
The intention of grounding, besides punishment, was also to keep a vulnerable young person who’s still learning how to make good decisions closer to home within tighter limits.
In terms of mindset, to be grounded is positive! It’s a feeling of being psychologically and emotionally centered and balanced, no matter what’s going on around us. Mind, body, spirit: they’re all connected, and all work together to create that balance.l
There are many techniques to notice that one is out of sorts, and then dozens more to bring things back together. I feel lucky to have run across so many.
I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter nearly so much what I do, so long as I cultivate a regular practice of doing something to invite, cultivate, a feeling of being grounded. I’ve also discovered that I need a supporting practice of mindfulness: that is, to notice when I’m no longer grounded, pause for even a few seconds, and re-ground.
Easy to say, a lifetime to do.
I’ve noticed that the good habits in my life take a great deal of effort to cultivate and discipline to maintain. I’ve also noticed that the benefits of good practices do have a tendency to draw me back even when I’ve strayed.
I came to a turning point when I was writing this post, and I have my friend Bridget to thank for that inspiration.
Earlier this afternoon, I had the joy of reconnecting with her on a phone call that had taken weeks to set up. We have been friends and mutual admirers for well over a dozen years, through many ups and downs in life and turns in careers. We had stayed in touch more through social media than actually conversation of late. When we spoke, she mentioned how my posts always made her feel uplifted, and that gave me pause. I managed to find the grace to say, “thank you,” and just accept her gratitude (something I find hard to do) rather than squirm my way out of it.
I carried with me the feeling, that reminder, of the impact of my energetic choices as I chose my words writing about the effort to be grounded.
Ask anyone who meditates: our minds wander. Again and again and again. The practice of meditation is also a practice of endless self-forgiveness. If you’ve listened to any guided meditation, you’ve heard the phrase, “If thoughts come up, let them go.”
I often don’t get to choose what happens. I do get to choose how I respond. I do get to choose how I write and speak and think about what happens in my life, and the energy of that expression spills over to others.
Do grounding and mindfulness take time and effort? Yeah, they do. Pretty much everything worthwhile takes effort. And sometimes in addition to the progress I make to those goals, I discover other positive things on the way there.
I remembered, as I was about to draft something on the effort of grounding and mindfulness, the key thing, the binding element, of getting, and staying, grounded: self-compassion.
We all have fearful feelings and emotions. I had a wave of them come up very early this morning; some about me, some about people I love. I gave voice to the fears and then let them go. In a way, I was glad to be able to feel the fears, because we can’t numb selectively. Because I’m able to feel fear, I’m also able to feel joy, and my day included many joys.
I had loving conversations today with my mom and two more distant friends. I exchanged email with my nephew Simon about our respective blogs. I tried making pecan raisin bread for the first time today and have been smelling the smells of fresh bread all afternoon.
When the timer beeped, and the bread was ready, the top of the loaf had caved in a bit.
It was perfectly wonderful.
I felt grounded in another way, by this fruit of the earth.
One of my natural gifts is the ability to connect people and ideas who / that need to meet. I can no sooner fail to connect two people who need to meet than I can stop breathing.
On the other hand, one of my giant “gotchas” is grief — my own, and supporting others.
What go-to resources help you navigate how to comfort people? Or it is something you’ve always just done with the complete ease of breathing?
This week, my Canadian family lost a beloved canine member.
I appreciate, though not from personal experience, the deep bond that so many people have with the animals in their lives. In some cases, people feel a deeper connection with animals than they do with other humans. Jasper was a cherished member of my brother’s family for nearly two decades. This was a giant loss for them, and for everyone who spent even a few moments, as I did, in his loving presence.
I’m so far away, and my heart aches for them… and, again, for all my family and friends who have suffered wave after wave of losses over the past year.
Coming back to my post yesterday, of do versus be: often not only are there no words that can comfort, but so many ways that saying the wrong thing can make it worse… and saying nothing can be worst of all (I made that mistake once and, years later, still apparently have not forgiven myself for that inadequacy).
Susan Silk and Barry Goldman’s “Ring theory” offers some helpful insight: It’s important to not make things harder in ways that, in effect, end up demanding comfort from people who are already in pain.
The idea of “better to have loved and lost” isn’t helping me much.
Emotional stuff and perfection basically almost never cohabit. At least, not for me. One of my collection of critics happily hopped up to ask, “What is wrong with you?” My instinctive response to loss and death is to go numb. Emotions? Ziplocked and packed off down to the freezer in the basement.
The isolation of pandemic narrows the list of options, and/or makes adaptation challenging: some of the pretty-good wordless options like hugs (provided I remember to ask for permission to offer a hug, because consent) and lasagna (so long as I can find out who’s lactose intolerant, who’s vegan, and who doesn’t do gluten) are next to impossible long distance. Is it better to send flowers no one wants, or food no one can eat, than to just sit there thinking of someone and doing nothing?
A friend of mine who’d had cancer was dumbstruck by the number of people who didn’t know what to say when they got the news, and so said nothing. Months later, he recounted, they would tell him, “Oh, I’ve been thinking of you!” and what he wanted to say to them (and didn’t) was along the lines of And how could I possibly have known that? What good was that to me?
So, how much am I expected to get right? Or how much leeway do I get for getting things wrong?
I’ve had my share of being the person who panicked at the prospect of saying the wrong things and said nothing, and having that go really badly.
Words, words, words. I like them, but I also get scared to get them wrong because they can land powerfully when they do. I struggle to find ways to tell and show my family I love them and support them in both word- and non-word-ways that don’t land flat…and fail much of the time. I’m happy to just hear from them any time, any mode, any way.
I would do well to remember that the family member whose posts I most admire, posts that always seem to have the right tone and warmth and words and timing, is also someone who has a graduate degree specializing in counseling, mediation and human communications. So she is someone to learn from, not feel compared to or judged by.
Silence from them brings my gremlins out to dance again, wondering what I got wrong and how I might have hit some unforgivable tripwire… When likely the only thing going on, day after day, is that they have more immediate and urgent concerns than getting back to me.
This is where Brene Brown’s principle of “Generosity” is extremely helpful: my emotional life gets much less fraught when I disengage the gremlins by reassuring them that whoever it is is doing the best they can (and revived, just today, my hope of receiving over a thousand dollars in good faith that I’d written off last November as bad debt).
Humans have communicated tremendous emotional depth with written words (I know this from the personal experience of having courted, and been courted by, my husband via six years of hardcopy letters that fill a file drawer). Decades of electronic communication, and particularly years of text, keep teaching me that text is especially lacking in nuance. However uncomfortable an audio or video call can feel for me and others, part of the reason it feels that way is that it’s VULNERABLE. Voices, and especially faces, communicate things far deeper than words often can, and video requires being 100% present.
Whether I’m working with words or any other medium, things worth considering:
Thoughtful effort (not just lobbing something over the internet transom) is important even though I have no control over how it’s received despite my best efforts.
I can expect to be judged on outcome (how someone felt) not intention (how I hoped they’d feel), and I have no control over that.
Getting things wrong is part of being in human relationships, and it happens a lot.
It’s better to be in relationships, and “fall-down-go-boom” and apologize and learn, and hope for the grace of forgiveness, than to stay silent and have a score of zero errors but zero attempts. Getting stuff wrong is part and parcel of what it means to be human, and being in connection, imperfect and sometimes achy connection, is far, far, better than being isolated.
And… lots of other people get things wrong, too. So if I try and get stuff wrong, I am not alone. I’m just one more person trying to do my best for and among and with the other people around me.
It’s not insincere to have a “starter list” of four reasonable not-unequivocally-wrong things to choose from, someplace to go to, to pick something to say in response to someone who has suffered a loss.
My family member with the graduate degree in knowing how to say the right thing has had a lot more practice than I have at saying lots of things. It’s reasonable to assume that she’s also had lots of her own experiences at getting things wrong. As I recall, she’s shared some of those stories, too, to help others understand how emotional learning happens.
I started the week creating the template for my daily checklist for starting and ending the day. The things to get done every day, in addition to the things that get done on a particular day.
I was checking them off. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday morning, check, check, check.
Tai Chi practice. Journal. Mediate, breakfast, edit Simon’s blog, review goals of the day… practicing positive intelligence (my newest challenge) and wrapping up, another list, including evening personal blog time, and fitness. Checking things off, getting a sense of calm, feeling centered.
Just when I thought I had it all under control…
Yes, I hear your hysterical laughter all the way to here.
This week I one of my big goals was to tame the to-do list, get it all into one place and start methodically knocking it down.
Well, that didn’t happen. The taming of the list at the end of the week usually takes at least four hours in a week that goes as planned…
…and when was the last time I had a week that went as planned?
Mid-day Thursday, I abandoned my list of “do” for the remainder of the week because a couple of people in my life needed me to be there for them. Looking back, what did I need to actually do? Objectively, nearly nothing: go on a three block walk to pick up a prescription at 6:30 pm, and drive someone to a medical appointment.
“Be there” meant to not be on my phone, but to just sit on the sofa and listen, be fully present, with someone while they made the phone calls they needed to make and figure out what needed to be done. There was nothing I could do, research, write. Nothing. I just needed to be there, awaiting clarity on what needed to happen next — which kept changing — and eventually whether or not there was anything I needed to do.
This felt weird and frustrating and disorienting and jagged all over the place.
I am learning to: (a) let myself feel the feels — they are real and need time and attention; (b) notice “Who’s talking?” Which of my chorus of personal critics and saboteurs has grabbed the mic and what are they saying? (c ) rewrite the script, to figure out what message I need to put in its place? And (d) get curious about “Where’s this coming from? What’s underneath?”
The whole process is massively time-consuming and distracting and I don’t like it at all.
For most of my life, I’ve placed the highest value on “how much can I get accomplished?” I’m not sure why that is, nor what exactly is so wrong about that, but as the years go by it’s clearly an incomplete way of looking at life, the Universe, and everything and everybody in it.
It’s one thing to be physically present. [Massive generalization warning] I’m not at all sure when multi-tasking is the ideal way to tackle almost anything, but I know that the list is always a lot shorter than I’d like to think it is. Laser focus on one thing at a time gets a job done, and gives me a better quality outcome, too.
In this device-distracted world, I have (and am on a long journey of fixing) my bad habit of paying poor attention to what’s going on around me. It’s a lot more work to be fully present. To do that, I need to be organized enough to have the confidence that while I’m doing the ONE THING, I’m not getting hopelessly behind on everything else. If I’m going to focus on one thing, I want that consolidated List of all the other things waiting for me. The Master List (the one I thought I almost had at the beginning of the week) gives me…the grand illusion of control.
I had my week all planned out, and the Universe did its usual job of cancelling things to give me extra time to get the things done that I hadn’t allowed a realistic amount of time to complete. That was going pretty well.
Then things got ragged; I let my Wednesday end-of-day push past 4:30 to 5:15, which meant I couldn’t get to both dinner AND personal blog time, so personal blog wasn’t going to happen because Tai Chi starts at 6:45, and by 8 pm there need to be sofa time before bedtime. Production “do” time frame was over for the day.
I managed to remember that the only person who would notice and even remotely try to pass judgement on me for not publishing a personal blog post was… not even me, but one of the “made up” voices. Nooooooo, I replied. It’s fine. You’re fine. Not only would publishing a blog post tonight have not made me any more worthy person, but I recently learned first-hand that trying to do so would rob my bubble-mate and me of the “be” time together on the sofa that we cherish as nourishing and soulful.
Got through Wednesday.
Thursday had other plans. It was going so well: by 2:55 pm, I had led two intense, two-hour sessions with two client teams and was headed into four more 30-minute calls.
My bubble-mate came downstairs and said, “I need you.”
I said, “I have a call starting in 90 seconds.”
“I need you,” he repeated.
“I’m online until 3:30,” I replied, and all my sensors went off. Wrong answer.
He went upstairs and closed the door.
The Universe being so much smarter than I am, after 7 minutes waiting on zoom for someone to not appear who had confirmed their call two hours earlier, I logged off, sent a “hope you’re okay; I know things happen, let’s circle back next week,” and asked my colleague to contact the other three people on my schedule on my behalf with apologies and request rescheduled appointments.
By 3:15, I had released the remains of the day, and went upstairs to shift from “do” to “be.”
I’m not a nice person, I thought to myself. I am grouchy about this. There is nothing truly more important than being here for this person I care about. If I were doing this right, I’d be all “Hey, so glad I’m here for you,” and I’m really stressed and finding it hard to even put a nice face on this. If I’m gonna be in a bad mood about this, that’s almost worse than not being there at all. The only thing that would be worse would be to sit here looking at my PUT THE PHONE DOWN.
By evening, it was clear that I also needed to reschedule Friday’s calls.
99% of the time, it’s other people whose plans change. I’m always the one who has to move things around and follow up and find out what happened and are they okay or did you really not want to talk to me in the first place and just didn’t want to tell me that, nor tell me why…
I’m grateful that people were as gracious and understanding of me as I manage to be with others. A big thank you to them and The Universe for that. I honestly didn’t feel worried that I was letting anyone down. It just meant that the happy feeling I’d looked forward to having in my week, checking of all the boxes, giving myself a “good girl” pat on the head (as I am my own boss, and know all my own tricks) for getting my work done, wasn’t going to happen.
My friend’s particular situation wasn’t an emergency but did require immediate attention over the next few hours, and he had a number of steps to take and people to talk to in order to figure out the right sequence of events and how and when I could help.
Meditation didn’t get done. Fitness didn’t get done. Journaling didn’t get done.
It wasn’t until after supper, when I was just all kind of fall-apart from the uncertainty and uprooting and stress of the day and the situation that I backed away from all the “didn’t get done” and a took a deep breath and absorbed something important:
Being got done.
And being has value.
There are some people who shine in times of crisis. Their breathing slows, their focus is on the perfect thing, they are an oasis of calm. They know what to say, listen intently, don’t interrupt others, and never offer unsolicited advice. They know how to comfort, how to just be.
If the situation in front of me is something I know something about, I’ll give it my all.
But the average crisis is a crisis because we don’t know what to do. And in that situation, I’m, um, basically not the most helpful person despite desperately wanting to be. My family knows this and I am grateful that they somehow love me anyway.
I have had my share of epic failures to be there, of course and especially for family I love dearly, so my instinctive response to any crisis requiring an emotionally intelligent response is often, “You’re terrible at this. Try not to screw up again.”
Worse, I do like to be helpful and know many things (most of which are almost certainly not required in whatever the crisis of the moment, but why would that stop me from trying?) And if I can’t be helpful, then what on earth am I doing here? So, crisis? How can I manage to not make things worse?
Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield has a wonderful piece of advice in his book, “An Astronaut’s Guide To Life On Earth”: Be A Zero.
It’s a slightly different take on the value of not trying so hard that your efforts have exactly the opposite effect of what you hoped for. I like his explanation, here.
When I was studying to become a pilot, I learned about the concept of dynamic stability. When something gets jolted, does it return to even keel, keep oscillating at the same amplitude as the original jolt, or become progressively more unstable?
I will save a long metaphor in aerodynamics for another day. The thing I need to remind myself for now is that I’m dynamically stable…like the plain, boring, little Cessna 172’s, workhorse of general aviation flight training. I may get pushed off kilter but I am built with good recovery characteristics. I do pop back up straight and level again. If the weather is crummy and the winds are strong, that may take a little longer and require a bit more attention, but things level out.
I will start to mop up this week probably Sunday; I need a relaxed chunk of the time that Organized People use for what author Cal Newport calls “Deep Work” — a concept I would do well to incorporate into my week and have utterly failed at for the past two years. (Oooo, critics, please, please, take a rest. You’re NOT HELPING here. I have not forgotten you. Deep Work is on the list of things to figure out. I promise. Now, breathe and beat it).
The one thing I know for sure is that I have no mental or spiritual acuity left for this week. Taming The List is now at the top of next week’s list. And I know perfectly well that there is nothing, truly nothing, no lives at stake, no zillions of dollars on the line, on my list that’s going to go Tango Uniform between now and Tuesday if I just freaking Let It Go until then.
When I set myself a month-long “authenticity challenge,” I had no idea what I was going to shake loose for myself or where it would go.
In my quest to just write this, I’m not going to kill off half an hour looking for the source of this concept, but all I can tell you is it’s not mine. One of the books I read last year talked about the folly of pushing one’s emotions away. Emotions you don’t deal with might seem to disappear, but all that happens is that they go down to the basement and lift weights: they get stronger.
And so I’m finding that my collection of writing is shaking loose all kinds of threads that are attached to bigger lines and heavier tangles of emotions that have been lurking down in my emotional basement. Mixed metaphors; just go with it for today, okay?
By the way, don’t think that just because I write about emotional connection, I’ve got anything all figured out or have a trove of perfect relationships with family and friends. Quite the opposite: the more I reflect, the more I write, the more I’m dismayed about what I don’t know.
My two Tai Chi instructors were chatting in our zoom room before class. John was talking about all the martial arts he’d had experience with before he came to his first class with Kris, all ready to impress her with everything he knew. Within a few minutes of the start of the class, he said, he realized how much he didn’t know.
Kris laughed, remembering the experience. “Yeah,” she said. “If you want to impress me, do it with humility.”
My humility as a student of human connection grows by the bucketload these days.
What’s coming to the surface for me, wave after wave, is the ripple effect of relationship mistakes I’ve made and have just stuffed under the trapdoor, and not bothered to go back and fix.
At the moment, those are stalking me in a pack like the ghosts of Christmas past.
I can only tackle them one at a time. Yesterday’s post about an incomplete apology reminded me, in the middle of the night, about a more recent time that I made a mistake and was so chagrined and confused that I didn’t know what to do or say and didn’t find the right words or actions, and just withdrew from the relationship. I felt ashamed to have gotten something so basic so wrong, and I gave up on trying to find a way to make amends. I assumed that the person I had wronged was simply never going to forgive me, and that nothing I could ever come up with would ever make things right.
In the middle of the night, I think I tripped over the same thing I got wrong over 30 years ago when I hadn’t figured out apologies. I got so tangled up in trying to explain what I intended, and why I did the wrong thing, that I didn’t stop to understand and acknowledge what happened to the person I wronged. THAT was the thing that I needed to apologize for.
When I sat down to write that note, albeit almost a year after I screwed up, I also figured out something I can do to make amends, and started doing that.
My friend Glen Bullard’s recent Facebook posts, including pictures of people I knew while we both worked at the Canadian, are calling up all kinds of recollections of missed opportunities for friendships. I don’t know what I thought I was trying to accomplish while I was there. What I thought at the time was a deep passion for public service was, well, yes, that, but it was driven by a bottomless quest to in response to the voice that kept saying, “Not good enough.”
Seeing all the pictures of the people, and the happy hours I never went to, left me wondering about all the missed opportunities for relationships. I put a much higher priority for getting work done, for completing projects, than I did for the quality of most of the relationships I had with the people I worked with to get those things done.
My professional practice today is ostensibly centered on the world of Federal contracting, of helping business owners who want to win Federal contracts.
Over the past six or eight years, I’ve discovered that the core of my work is actually human connection.
I work with people who embrace the idea that there’s no such thing as doing business with “the government.” There’s only doing business with people.
When I teach, and in my work with clients, I often share the wisdom of Dr Maya Angelou.
People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.
~ Dr Maya Angelou
People have forgotten what I said (even including the ones I still owe an apology).
People have forgotten what I did.
But people will never forget how I made them feel.
Last night I was saddened by all the times, in my work at the Embassy, and in many circumstances since then, that I was hell-bent on being remembered in some way for what I accomplished.
The judge-y part of my psyche would like to bring the entire collection of my past transgressions to my immediate attention.
My newly-developing skills give me the opportunity to embrace Dr Angelou’s other advice.
My heart is lifted up when I reflect on the experiences I’m able to give my clients now because of what I’ve learned.
And I will also keep writing and unpacking the emotions and the disregarded lessons waiting there for me. They’re inconvenient and messy and distracting. They’re also filled with wisdom when I stop squirming and sit in the discomfort and pay attention.
“I didn’t mean it when I said I hope the cable in the elevator snaps when you step on board.”
~ Christine Lavin
Thaaaat’s not an apology.
I am not proud to say that I was 29 years old before I discovered I didn’t know how to make a proper apology.
I cannot tell you how I managed to get to that age with such a profound gap in something that’s not just a social grace, but a…you know, as I write this, the phrase that comes to me is “divine grace.”
Dateline 1989: The Canadian Embassy in Washington DC had just opened the doors of its new building at 501 Pennsylvania Avenue NW. It was an exciting new destination, and our guests were thrilled by an invitation to any event we hosted there.
You’ve probably hosted more than a few events in your life. Whether you’re putting together a wedding reception, a political fundraiser, or a birthday party for the eight year old who’s allowed to have eight guests, it’s a LOT of work.
So throw on an overlay of doing an event representing a foreign country in a brand new building where the staff is still working out the standard operating procedures for… well, honestly, absolutely everything from security and parking and name tags and microphones and lighting and program, and catering and wait staff, and some of the innards of the building still aren’t working quite the way they’re supposed to yet.
Anyone running an event was gliding and smiling on the surface and paddling like hell under the water all night.
I was an officer in a unit called the Trade Commissioner Service. We hosted many events to bring together people with the aim of encouraging international business and trade relations between Canada and the United States. Our guests enjoyed the events not just because of the stunning building and the prestige of the Embassy, but also because we worked hard on the guest list and on making introductions among our guests.
Officers were often asked to suggest appropriate guests for event invitation lists. If enough of one’s contacts accepted the invitation, the officer who had suggested those guests was also invited to attend the event as part of the supporting cast. When I was in that support role, I’d often roam the room introducing people who I knew but who didn’t know each other and had good reason to meet.
During one of those conversations at an event a colleague had organized, a guest complimented me on the reception. Still agog with the thrill of being part of the event myself, the words that came out of my mouth were, “Maureen did the bulk of the work.”
The next day, word got back to me that Maureen was utterly furious.
I was baffled. What was wrong?
As far as she was concerned, I had lied to a guest and taken credit for the event she had organized.
I was dumbfounded. That wasn’t what I meant at all. But my intention wasn’t even remotely important.
What mattered was how my words made her feel.
I had no sense that my responsibility was to be accountable for the effect, not the intention, of my words on someone else.
So I kept saying, “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings,” and she just kept right on being furious.
The relationship never healed, for want of a single word.
All I was missing was a single word…and the profound understanding of what it would have meant had I know enough to use it.
Instead, I bumbled my way through decades of mis-steps and squirming out of accountability for all kinds of things, not really knowing what I was doing or saying wrong, nor how to make it right.
Remember when you were a little kid, and a parent would tell you the words to say to apologize but none of them made any sense? You just repeated a pattern of words until the grown up was satisfied or gave up in exasperation? It felt like that.
“And I’m sorry for all the nasty things I said about your mother even though we both know they’re true…”
~ Christine Lavin
I never felt like I knew how the parts fit together for many years, even when I was completely ready and willing to own my sh*t.
Far too late came the day that I learned not only how to make a proper apology — that there is a WAY — but also that an apology was part and parcel of accountability, one of the seven elements of TRUST that is the foundation of healthy relationships. Thank you, professors Brene Brown and Harriet Lerner.
The critical elements are apology, accountability , and amends.
The syntax is:
“I’m sorry THAT…” (not “I’m sorry if…”).
When I use the word “that” it means I take accountability. I own my mistake.
Then I think hard about what some meaningful options might be, some starting point, that I can offer to make amends. I make that offer. And then I make good.
If you and I have built trust, then you accept my apology, and allow me to make amends.
An apology is more than a social grace. A full apology, fully accepted, also confers the divine grace of forgiveness.
I sure wish I’d known then what I know now.
Now YOU know.
This is one of the most useful skills I have ever learned.
I need it a LOT.
Somewhere, someplace, I still have amends to make to Maureen Flynn. And I owe her a debt of thanks for showing me how much hurt I was going to keep causing, to others and to myself, until I understood what was wrong and how to fix it.
Oh, and just in case you want to know what an apology really, really isn’t, listen to Christine Lavin NOT apologize.
If you’re old enough, you recognize the blog post title as the hit song recorded by Karen Carpenter and written by Paul Williams and Roger Nichols.
I wonder idly, on the evening of my 33rd wedding anniversary, how many millions of couples danced to that for their first dance.
The cover photo is me and my Dad just a few minutes after I got married. He had a lot to teach me, and so much more that I was too oblivious to learn while he was alive and I think about a lot now, especially about kindness and empathy, and taking the time to listen.
How often do we begin again?
If we’re wise, at least every day, if not many times a day.
I met my friend Glen Bullard when I was working at the Canadian Embassy. He was there long before I arrived in 1988, and he was there long after, retiring just a couple of years ago. He was a latecomer to Facebook: he only set up an account as he was getting ready to retire, urged on by people who told him it’d be a good was to stay in touch with people.
Over the last few days, he’s been posting selections from his archive of thousands of pictures taken over nearly five decades. Seeing the pictures, and the people, from that part of my life opened up a lot of emotions that I realized I had stuffed under a trapdoor for nearly twenty years.
In the days before photos became primarily digital, these albums of 15 years of my own life, lived largely at or centered on the Embassy are filled with pictures that are all too frequently missing his face but are replete with his work and his skill, his generosity, and his patience.
He was one of hundreds of people who wrote kind words in a farewell album that Helen Getka compiled for me when I left the Embassy in 2003.￼
Glen had many titles over the years, but was always at the helm of managing the facilities and resources of the building for the literally hundreds of events my team and I worked on between 1988 and 2003 to introduce thousands of people to each other, and open what they later told me were life-changing chapters in their lives.
At the same time I was musing about that this morning, I was still reverberating with echoes from a book my friend Emily Harman recommended to me called Positive Intelligence.
As the old emotions and new emotional intelligence crashed into each other, I felt walloped by waves of realization of how much I didn’t know while I was there.
I was extremely un-self-aware, and was a fizzling pinwheel of all kinds difficult traits that I now realize made me really challenging to get along with, particularly as I repeatedly put output ahead of everything else. The system rewarded that. But it was hard on everyone around me.
I will always be grateful for the loving kindness and generosity of hundreds of colleagues I worked with there over the years, particularly on the many, many, times, on matters large and small, that despite good intentions, I got stuff wrong or got the words wrong, and hurt people’s feelings or trampled their plans or words or ideas (or all three along with their spirits). They gave me the chance to apologize and work together to find a way forward.
There was so much I didn’t know I didn’t know about life and people (and how to be a better person) that I needed to learn.
Time management. How many courses have I taken, books have I read, journals have I abandoned, apps litter my phone, and it still eludes me?
When do we start to hear it? And why?
When we’re little kids, five minutes feels like almost a lifetime. Five years is a lifetime.
As my average weekday kicks over past 3:15, then 4:05, then the 4:30 I promised myself it was time to wrap up, and at 5:07 I’m officially calling the last seven minutes my conversation with my colleague in Oregon “social” in order to be able to claim that I finished the day by 5.
Right now, a specific clock is ticking: I’m giving myself just 25 minutes to write this post, and five minutes to find the pretty picture that goes with it, and get it posted.
I spend a lot of my day talking to business owners, and nearly every one of them agrees that time is one our most precious resources. Many of my decisions, and theirs, are driven by the answer to the question, “What’s the best use of my time right now?”
I am blessed with a creative mind, burgeoning curiosity, and a bounty of natural energy. That typically means I have many thousands more ideas than I can do anything with. I try to write down the ones that are the most insistent, and trust that the others that are truly worthwhile will keep jostling for attention until they end up on what I’ve tricked my idea generator into thinking is The List.
Except that I don’t have just one list. NoooOOOOoo…. There are stickies, and a desk blotter, and three journals. Then there’s the big monster Zoho calendar, which doesn’t talk consistently to the Outlook calendar that people’s evites land on when I accept them, the daybook I copy things into (why I do that in ink is anybody’s guess; it takes a whiteout strip dispenser to clean it up to reflect reality) to see the blocks of TIME that are actually available to DO anything that’s not an appointment or meeting.
Those are usually skinny little fragments.
I’m familiar with maaaaaany concepts of time management and organization. Ohhh, I have a shelf full of books, and hundreds of hours of coaching time behind me. Did I mention I love stationery and paper and lovely quality pens and pencils? And automated systems to check things off? I still have open accounts with Nozbe and Asana and one other one with pretty colors that I forget what is, and I know there’s another app on my phone that generates packing lists for travel and makes helpful suggestions based on seasons and destinations.
One of my morning walking partners — a communications specialist with the National Guard — says she wrestles the same flood of to do’s as she moves through her week.
When we were talking about it on the trail today, she observed, “If I’m not keeping track, and checking off my AM list and my PM list, and the things in between, I feel unmoored, kind of ungrounded.”
I’m glad I’m not alone.
If I block off the daily time for journaling, and fitness, and tai chi practice, and meditation, and writing my own personal blog (challenge of the month) and editing Simon’s daily sports blog (a continuing mission), and if I actually scheduled in time for meals instead of gobbling and snacking, and then the scheduled client sessions, and the weekly team and coaching calls, and the presentations and public speaking for lead generation, the social media sharing and video to support all that, the conversations with new and sustaining partners to help each other… and then put some constraints on all that like “Calls start no earlier than 8:30, and formal day ends at 5 except on Fridays, when I’m done at noon,”
There’s not much time left for the professional creative “deep work” that is truly sustaining. All too often I find I’ve backed myself into a corner where I haven’t left myself enough time to bask in the work I love to do most.
And I consistently underestimate by about 200% how long it takes me to do anything.
I woke up this morning despairing just a bit that this is my life right now. This is what my life looks like optimized for pandemic. No flying. No teaching climbing. No climbing. No traveling. Squeezing in social conversations with friends and family that I book with the same precision as I stack up my work day.
If pandemic ended tomorrow, I’d be at a loss to figure out where to find the time to find the time to restructure how I manage my time.
“It’s not ending tomorrow,” JJ said helpfully.
We finished listening to the 6 am news and it seems he’s right.
AND…hey, I’m vertical, breathing, and on the right side of the grass. The bar for accomplishment, and the threshold for gratitude, is low these days.
Wish I knew how to tame the time tangle. I think all I can do is take it apart one thread at a time.
Remember I said the clock is ticking? Timer just went off.
Gotta find the pretty picture, and that’s all the time this gets today.
What does it take?
Maybe it’s not about managing time but changing my relationship with how I feel about it.
So today, just a sweet story from 33 years ago to the minute.
On February 1st, 1988, I started my job at the Canadian Embassy in Washington DC. I had really no sooner arrived than I left again: months before I’d won the job, JJ and I had planned to be wed in Toronto on Saturday, February 13th.
Nothing as minor as a new job in a foreign country was going to get in the way of that. On Thursday the 11th, after a surprise chocolate cake send-off from my brand new colleagues, my about-to-be husband and I headed for the airport.
Now that I think about it, none of this (the travel saga, not the wedding) would have happened if I hadn’t learned to fly.
The way international air travel was set up in those days, before Canada-US preclearance and the Open Skies Accord, most people who wanted to fly from Washington DC to Toronto would have taken a nonstop from Dulles International Airport (40 minutes’ drive from DC in no traffic and nice weather) right to Malton (Toronto Pearson.)
Except that I didn’t want our trip to begin or end at either of those airports.
First, and less important, the oh-so-convenient National Airport (DCA) is located a mere ten minute drive from where we were living. It was, and still is, exactly as its name suggests: a domestic airport, not an international one. In those days before preclearance, passengers departing DCA for a destination in Canada had to stop and, if need be, change planes so that the final leg of the flight leaving the U.S. departed from an international airport.
Second, and more important, for reasons of sentiment, economy, and nominal convenience, I wanted to arrive into Toronto Island (now “City Centre”) Airport, on the shore of Lake Ontario right below the CN Tower. Toronto’s big international airport (also a solid 40 minute drive from downtown even in decent weather, and traffic was almost always bad on top of that).
Between 1986 and 1988, a short-lived air service operated a small fleet of DeHavilland Twin Otters — 19-seat turbo-prop aircraft — between Toronto Island and Buffalo, Rochester, and Newark. But the best part was the price: just $29 one way, instead of about $350 if you went from Pearson to Buffalo.
And the sentimental part? Well, Toronto Island was my favorite airport because I had just learned to fly there. I had friends among the pilots at the flight school as well as various Skywalker aircrew, whom JJ and I had gotten to know as we’d flown back and forth to visit each other over the past year. It was…our home airport.
I’d spent a lot of time wandering around Buffalo International Airport while waiting to change planes. It had become kind of a no-mans-land: my body had left Toronto, and my brain was already in Washington. But, for what it’s worth, it remains to this day the only airport I’ve ever seen that featured an entire trophy case dedicated to the prowess of its ground crew in emergency airport snow clearing. Buffalo routinely gets socked with weather the locals call “lake effect.” In the winter, that means prevailing westerly winds whistle by, suck up tons of water from Lake Ontario, chill down once they hit the shore…and dump the snow on Buffalo.
We didn’t pay much attention to the forecast before we left DCA. We took off in the afternoon sunlight in a nice big shiny USAir jet. When we landed in Buffalo to change planes, we saw the Skywalker pilots saunter off to play pinball while waiting for departure time. They seemed unconcerned by anything. All was well.
Nine passengers boarded and sat wherever we liked. The Twin Otter had single seats along the left side of the aisle, and pairs on the right. In the days before 9/11, access to the flight deck was wide open for all to see. JJ and I sat together in the two seats right up at the front, leaning forward watching all the flight operations as we took off into the night.
The flight was rough. Rockityrockityrock. We hadn’t paid much attention to a massive winter storm that had been pushing its way eastward for a couple of days, and now we were in the thick of it. This plane had “de-icing boots”, so that if the leading edge of the wings got covered in ice (very bad for airplanes that want to stay airborne), the pilots could activate inflatable strips that would break up the ice. That night, they needed them. Every time the pilots cycled the de-icing boots, we could hear and feel the broken ice hitting the fuselage. Bam, bam, bam.
I could see the pilots changing their communication radio frequencies. I looked at JJ and shook my head.
A few minutes later, the copilot came back to talk to the passengers, and explained the situation:
“So, the weather at Toronto Island is below minimums: it’s not safe to land there. We can either go to Pearson, or divert to Hamilton. What do you want to do?”
The passengers took a vote, and we all decided we’d prefer to end up in Toronto, even if it was the other airport.
The co-pilot belted back in and then turned from the cockpit and looked behind into the cabin and yelled to me, “Would you pass me my approach plates?”
His flight bag was just in front of my knees. I knew what he needed: the instructions for landing at a different airport than he’d planned. I dug through the bag and handed them to him.
I’m now following the COM frequencies intently.
Rockityrockityrock. BAM. BAM. BAM.
I look at JJ and shake my head again as the plane banks left. That’s definitely not part of the original flight plan.
Now the pilot comes back to talk to us all.
“Well, folks, there’s a big stack of planes in a holding pattern over Pearson, and we don’t have enough reserve fuel to be able to fly long enough to be able to land, so I’m sorry, we have to go back to Buffalo.”
The passengers, while not happy about the change in destination, are happy to have decent odds of landing safely at any destination at this point. Just as we literally tighten our belts, the pilot turns around again and looks at me and asks,
“Is your name Judy?”
“Your dad says you should call home when you get to Buffalo.”
I guess one nice thing about knowing the people who run the Fixed Base Operation at the Island is that your family can pass messages to the flight deck.
We landed safely. Our group of nine grateful and slightly grumpy passengers trudged out of the terminal to the pickup lanes and looked at each other through the near-horizontal snow. Now what?
We had one thing in common: a single destination.
Sitting right in front of us, a white stretch limousine was idling. One of us had the inspiration to chat with the driver. Turns out he’d been waiting to pick up passengers who were clearly not going to be arriving from Chicago any time soon.
How would he like to do a nice long trip, with a big fat tip, to Toronto?
Everyone’s day got a little brighter.
We piled in.
After a brief stop at the nearest drive-thru McDonalds, we were on our way in the ideal ride for a blizzard: a long heavy vehicle with snow tires that was very good at going in straight lines.
And that was how we arrived, fashionably late but in high style, in Toronto to be married.
Skywalker is no more; flights ended a few months after that, in April of 1988. They lasted just long enough to get me married.
My name is still Judy, even though nobody flies with paper approach plates anymore, and passengers don’t get to watch flight operations. It still snows in Buffalo.
We are still married, and still flying in every sense of the word to destinations we never even imagined possible. Life is good.