Bodies of Knowledge

Untitled, Jussi Valtakari, 1981

Ever feel suspicious of the internal voice who knows you better than you know yourself? That voice that always seems to be whispering something, and always seems to be right?

I think I’ve just figured out why that voice makes me feel so uneasy: I hadn’t trusted where it was coming from.

For most of my life, I’ve preferred to live in my head. I trusted rationality more than messy, inconvenient emotions. I’ve thought of my body as an adequate, sturdy, container but a largely silent partner. I’ve become aware of my body as a sophisticated system that links physical sensation to powerful emotional wisdom…to which, I realize, I’ve been giving short shrift.

Until fairly recently, I placed a much higher value on intellectual prowess than on any other kind of human intelligence. I would set ambitious goals for myself, and was an unforgiving master. My motto was akin to “The beatings will continue until morale improves.” My husband would periodically hear my vicious self-talk aloud, and come in and interrupt me.

“I would never let anyone talk to you the way you talk to you,” he would say.

He was right.

I never really understood why, when I had a big, complex, project that started to get really stressful — like trying new ideas to grow my business — I would start to crumble rather than shine.

My usual mode of operation for years, especially when working on big projects or major goals, has been to push-push-push through day after day, past a creeping sense of exhaustion as my mental fog rises so high that I stall and tumble into a completely disoriented whiteout and stagger to bed. Interrupted in the middle of the night by fear of failure, I might or might not get back to sleep before the alarm went off at 5:50 am.

And that was before pandemic. I was one of those for whom pandemic removed the other “out of the house” activities like my commitments to teach at the climbing gym or run a meeting for a local association that once created practical boundaries on the end of my office working day. Once pandemic arrived, I locked myself into some bizarre kind of house arrest, and the push-push-push increased.

I had lots of theories for other people: let’s see, pandemic creates stress that means we can get 30% less done; then we need another 30% capacity to support everyone else around us who is also stressed, so we should all expect to get no more than half as much done in any day or week or month as we used to expect.

Of course, those theories were for other people.

 I finally acknowledged I had lost all perspective the Friday afternoon that I spent four hours trying to write a five-item to-do list. 

Not complete five tasks on a to-do list.

Just write down five things on a list for Monday. Any five things would have done.

My brain was a frozen slushy swirl. I just couldn’t.

Which was when I started rearranging my time to take Friday afternoons out of the office each week. Even if I only managed to get on a hike every other week, that extra half day made a huge difference. I would still think about work, though less and less. At first, it sometimes took me two hours to stop processing the events of the week and be fully present in the woods. But after a few months, I was gladly letting go of the push-push-push focus on work.  

When I stopped trying so hard, sometimes the ideas I needed would start to bubble up more easily.

Things I’ve been reading over the last year have gotten me thinking much more about the power and importance of emotional intelligence, and how emotional intelligence is firmly grounded in the body and the right side of the brain.

I wrote recently about my recent discovery of the book Positive Intelligence by Shirzad Chamine. His background includes graduate level studies in neuroscience in addition to a BA in psychology, an MS in electrical engineering, and an MBA from Stanford. He presents the concept of “mental fitness”, a synthesis of neuroscience, cognitive and positive psychology, and performance science.

He replaced the familiar concept of a single “inner critic” (which various theorists suggest one might defeat, embrace, or both) with nine mental “saboteurs,” plus a master Judge. You’ll recognize many of them when you read about them. He even offers a free confidential self-assessment based on 50 questions to give you some sense of how active these responses are in your everyday life today.

I admit I was majorly dismayed by the idea that instead of just one persistent uninvited nastygram, I might actually have a dirty near-dozen left-brain thinking-processing-based assassins, hiding in the tall grass of my already tangled psyche ready with hair-trigger fight-or-flight survival responses. The thing is, these gremlins aren’t (or originally weren’t) inherently negative or toxic. They are programmed into us, or taught to us as we grew up, to ensure we survived to adulthood. They are meant to protect, or help us learn.

The trouble is that we often leave them on autopilot. We don’t inform them with what we have learned. When they activate, we often don’t notice how they trigger all kinds of responses we might not have chosen consciously, and that create stress for us and difficulty for those around us. Left to their own devices, these responses keep firing long after they’ve outlived their usefulness.

But the exciting thing I discovered, if one explores this worldview further, is that Chamine proposes a set of antidotes: five of what he calls “Sage” responses, These are based in — you guessed it — the body, and the right side of the brain, home of “gut feel,” of intuition. He makes the case that, first, if we notice the mental messages of the Saboteurs when they kick in, we can then challenge and disengage them with one or more right-brain-based Sage responses. 


Imagine: by harboring, and giving so much attention to, this chorus of critics, I was unaware that my better angels have been murmuring messages to me in the wings. I may have missed as much as half the insight — all kinds of right-brain-based intelligence — that was open to me.

Ever have somebody tell you, “get out of your head” when you’re trying really hard to solve a problem? Chamine agrees. Doing so, he posits, let us tap a whole other well of wisdom that resides in our bodies. To prime the pump on that well is simple: all it takes is to stop for a few seconds, multiple times a day, to routinely engage one’s physical awareness by doing something as simple as rubbing your fingers to imagine feeling the ridges in your fingertips, or slowing your breathing or (sound familiar?) wiggling your toes. 

A regular practice of physical awareness, he proposes, interrupts old habitual responses that freeze out new ideas and paralyze problem solving. In so doing, we can create and strengthen new neurological pathways, lower stress, and open new lines of creative thinking.

What’s not to like?

Maybe you’ve heard of the psychological technique sometimes called centering, or “grounding.” My experience with that has been positive, but seemed to take too long to incorporate into my day in any practical way. I thought of it as something for those weekend retreats with aromatherapy. Maybe it was something that more advance life forms than I am are able to do in a few minutes before a meeting, but not me.

Or, to quote one of my favorite warrior princesses,

Instant gratification takes too long.

~ Carrie Fisher

As I read about the Positive Intelligence techniques, I thought of these as “micro-centering.” Surely I could manage to pay attention to my body in five second bursts. And how long is six hundred seconds? Ten minutes, split over a whole day. How hard could that be?

Um, well, actually, it takes more effort than I thought, and more than a few days practice to develop a, well, practice.

I wish I could tell you that in a matter of days, my life was transformed. Those are the kind of stories that online marketers love.

In truth, some days are better than others. Of the six different options I might choose from as alternatives to my toxic inner talk and related, unthinking, destructive behaviors, I recognized one as an all-purpose starting point. Any time I can notice and act on an opportunity for self-compassion, I’m off to a good start, whether or not I use any of the other additional techniques.

Over the past month, I’ve found modest success in my efforts to be more aware of the feelings — both physical and emotional — in my body from moment to moment. As a result, of that greater awareness, I notice small changes in how I respond in specific situations as well as a trend of slow but steady improvement of my sense of mental equilibrium. I feel less stressed. I’m more confident in my decisions. I’m more and more present and connected with people, and I solve problems more easily.

My body has been offering me more wisdom than I ever imagined. The voice I was so reluctant to trust has been more on my side than the chorus of critics that has commanded so much of my attention over the years. Instead of looking back and feeling disappointed by everything I’ve missed, I’m excited to look ahead, and to listen more intently to the voice that’s been whispering to me all along. 

I welcome your comments and thoughts. Please do like, share, and/or message me . Many thanks to my editors J.J. Gertler and David Egan for helping me organize my thoughts and helping me hear all the voices worth listening to.

Pande-Versary Box

Prelude: this is my second blog post of the month. I thought I would be able to develop a new cadence that wasn’t quite so exhausting — doing all the February posts was a great exercise and it also added a lot of stress that I didn’t need. 

However, I notice that without pushing myself to finish a blog post most days of the week, and leaving it until the weekend, I’m back to my old bad habit of writing something so long that I fear nobody will read it. And I notice that vulnerability takes practice: without the near-daily exercise of opening up, the doors creep closed again, and my tone of writing slips back into writing soul-less advice instead of sharing what’s going on with me and how I feel about it.

Not sure how to find the new groove, but just know that I’m working on it.

Sitting down to read the weekend newspapers, I see everyone else’s retrospectives about a year of pandemic. People who are more practiced present a concise selection, like a box of chocolate miniatures: well-organized, with complementary shapes that all fit into a nice set.

A box of various chocolate pralines – the photo is taken above

That would not be me. But here are a few of my notes and observations.

Fairly early, I had posted that I felt like I’d just been dropped off into the middle of a personal development course that I hadn’t signed up for.

I was surprised by how many friends wrote to me with concern that my apparently indefatigable merry sunshiny spirit, the one they counted on to be there to lift them up, appeared to have dimmed.

Their response took me aback…and ended up tugging me even more deeply into what my intuition had indeed correctly identified as a massive, full-immersion, personal growth experience where I didn’t get to design the core curriculum, much less pick out the optional elective topics.

So, yes, this is my first pass at retrospection.

It won’t surprise you that I begin with gratitude.

Unlike well over half a million families in the United States and more around the globe, all of my extended family are well, and have stayed free of the virus. Despite stressful symptoms, concerns, and testing, we remain physically healthy and continue to make conservative decisions that are keeping us safe, While we’ve had some minor differences of opinion about what the best course of action is in specific situations, we’ve respected each other’s choices and have been pretty much on the same page about that. 

Huge gratitude.

I’m grateful to be part of a five-person, four-household bubble of people who have taken exquisite care of one another, with patience, creativity, and logistics wrangling, and have drawn from a greater depth of empathy and compassion than any of us ever thought we either had or might need to find. We have had clear, open communication within the bubble about what’s okay and what’s not, and that clarity has kept us all safe.

Within both the “friends bubble” and the family circles, we’ve exchanged support and been there for each other as much as possible.

I’m grateful for the experience my husband and I have had: after his office sent everybody home, for the past year we have spent more time together than I think we might have had in the previous, say, five years. The part I’m particularly grateful for is how much we still like each other. Not that that comes as a surprise, but maybe just a little relief as we ended doing — well, in racing terms, practice laps for a time fast approaching when we’ll be spending full time together by choice, not by diktat.

I’m grateful to have skills and business that meant I could keep working basically uninterrupted. Grouse as I might about “staying home,” I had been working from home for 17 years at the point lockdowns started. I entered pandemic with a strong professional online and on-camera presence. That made it a little easier and less stressful to step up my game when what was optional for a lot of people became a way of life in my business community, and people expected a lot of each other.

I’m grateful for the friendships I renewed, through old-fashioned phone calls as well as video chats, with people I’d been out of touch with for a while.

I put some practices in place that I knew were good for me, like journaling most days, and aimed to do SOMETHING physical four or five days a week. Pandemic happened JUST at the point where I had a physical and fitness routine that was working well for me when I lost my gym. My makeshift solutions have never really closed the gap. 

I bought some more weights and a kettlebell, and splurged on the professional-grade TRX resistance training system. But it feels like mandatory drudgery while I’m doing it. And all those things where the person in the video sticks their feet into the straps and does planky things? Oh, please. Even when I stop and restart the video, I can’t seem to get the straps right and the entire elaborate core section of the workout is…  Lesser-angel is growling at me, “You clearly aren’t serious about yourself,” as I flounder and flop around and in no way resemble what the trainer is doing.

I like personal attention and personal instruction. It makes a huge difference for me. And I miss high intensity training with my small group (which, to be fair, wrapped up in the fall of 2019 and I never found a successor to). Could I do a bunch of those things at home on my own if I dug out the screen shots of the workout boards from class? Yes. So what’s my excuse?

Goodness. My demons are all coming out for spring training.

I miss training in a fully-equipped gym and particularly miss the only sport I have ever really loved: rock climbing. I miss the joyful experience of putting my life into someone else’s hands and going up a wall. I miss the close relationships with my climbing partners. I miss the thrill of choosing a complex physical and mental challenge of picking a climbing route, working at it, even failing multiple times, getting support and encouragement from my partner as I work on it, and ultimately solving it.

I chose to minimize my risk — and the risk to my bubble-mates — by staying away from a gym that, to its credit, is using sophisticated procedures to keep its members safe. I’m not as strong as I was a year ago, or, sigh, as thin. 

What could be so hard about setting a routine and sticking to it? What could possibly be so exhausting about another day at home, working, working out, and keeping company with a loved one who’s had pretty much the same day?

I come back to remembering the idea of chronic micro-trauma. Pandemic has played with our heads, warped our sense of what is normal, stolen our sleep, and repeatedly drained our resilience.

I am putting down markers for at least two future posts: First, I’m still recovering from my stressed response to the politics of 2020, which left me feeling so…well, I realize that I spent much of particularly the last year shoving most of my feelings under a trap door, and that hasn’t gone well.  And, second, 2020 was yet another horrible year for racial justice in the United States, and pandemic continues to make that injustice ever more stark. While that weighs ever more heavily on my mind, I have not yet figured out where I can contribute meaningful words or actions I want to make public.

I’m still trying to find the sweet spot between my better angel of self-compassion, who whispers, “you’re doing the best you can, and that’s plenty good enough,” and my old “friend” Slayer, the judgmental angel who brandishes the flaming sword while roaring “not good enough.”

(Dude. Not you again. Seriously. I have some lovely parting gifts for you.)

I am so grateful to have decided that what I probably needed was to add a non-aerobic element to my mix, and took up tai chi. The repeated immersion in the humility of “beginner’s mind” has given me a foundation that I expect to keep building over years to come, and provides me with support throughout my day.

Hah! I caught the vulnerability shields closing down instead of opening up. That last paragraph sounds really happy-dappy, doesn’t it? The reality of my Beginner’s Mind is something like, “Again? You got it wrong again? Waaait… you’re still a beginner even after ten thousand times. This is the journey. This is the work. Imperfect is who you are. And that’s absolutely okay and truly good. We promise.”

Tai Chi is a singular pitched battle with my perfectionist, who gets to spend my Tai Chi practice time locked up in the equivalent of what at church they used to call the “crying room”, a sound-proofed balcony where mothers (it was almost always mothers) could take crying children so as not to interrupt mass but still get to watch.

So, with curtailed fitness options, I appreciate the simple pleasure of walking anywhere outdoors, even with a mask on…and especially when I’m far enough away from anyone to be able to be unmasked. I cherish the hour or so of walking I do some mornings, and the company of my walking partners (one of whom I look forward to climbing with again once I’ve been vaccinated).

Then there are the discoveries: things that might never have happened without the jolt of pandemic.

I figured out that I can completely relocate my office every week, alternating between Alexandria and Baltimore, and have continuity of operations. On the one hand, I find it challenging to change gears and immerse in the standard operating procedures of two different households. On the other, I feel like I’ve always got a change of scenery and fresh company coming up.

I made new friends in an online community called the Onward Movement, created by Emily Harman, coach and podcaster of Onward, and met kindreds spirits who support each other as we go through life and its challenges together.

I crashed a bunch of times before I learned that that boundaries are different from limitations.

It took me six months to fully understand something I knew in my head pretty fast: that the amount of work I had been expecting myself to get done in any given day or week was not sustainable, and if I kept it up, I was going to break. So by October, I began to place much firmer limits on the end of the work day — or at least make a dedicated effort to do so. I have not mastered that art, but I’ve really noticed that I can be much more fully present for the people I’m with, and simply feel more resilient if I’m treating my personal energy as a finite resource that needs care and replenishment.

Because of that rearrangement, I’ve spent countless hours hiking three or four chunks of Maryland’s outdoor woodland trails, taking a couple thousand photographs and spending time with people I love. Until pandemic, we’d mostly walk in the city to a restaurant and back. Now, our excursion is to drive out of town away from people, and renew body, mind, and spirit outdoors. When I take pictures, I look closely, reflect, unpack ideas and metaphors from the natural world for the rest of life, and have new things and images to share with people.

I’ve had a whole year of empathy practice. More than a few failures, but with lots of practice comes lots more success. I’m much better able to walk my talk, slow down, really listen to the people who want to talk to me, and hear in their stories how I can not only serve them better as a business owner, but be there for them as another human being, whether or not we ever do business together.

I find it easier to really answer somebody’s question, “How are you doing?” and find my way in the space between “Fine, just great…” (because NOBODY is “fine, just great…”) and having a meltdown on camera. Every so often I do get into emotionally ragged space in real time when everybody’s looking, and that’s… okay. I’m certainly more willing to say, “Well, I’m having a hard day and I miss my family and I just worked too long last night and wish that something as simple as sleep weren’t quite so elusive…how are things with your mom?”

Walking my talk, showing greater comfort with vulnerability, has brought home to my clients what that looks like and sounds like in a way that’s more powerful than giving someone a list of seven voicemail scripts that help you get your calls returned. They are more connected with their clients, and I’m building better relationships with them.

Then there are the bright spots that either just happened to happen during this time — like being invited to edit one nephew’s sports blog, or engage another nephew to build a gamification business quest board for my elite clients.

And…we bought our next house. Exciting, a place we’ve wanted to be and can start spending more time. It brings a ton of new work we’d like to do faster than we’re able, and some stress managing that transition as best we can. 

After losses come the firsts, and the memories of the lasts.

It’s been a year since my last haircut.

It’s been a year since I last taught a group of people how to put their lives in each other’s hands — literally — and go up a wall. I remember considering what it might mean to be older and at higher risk of COVID, and, a few days before shutdowns were mandatory, the president of the climbing gym where my gear is still sitting in my staff locker telling me that she was concerned for me and wondered if this might be the last class I taught for a while.

I remember my two gut-punch moments of “oh, wow. This is really happening.” 

One was the day in early March, before Virginia closed down, that we got the letter from the place my husband and I traditionally go for a week of summer vacation, saying that they had decided to close down through November of 2020. 

We look forward to that time away, just the two of us, away from it all, deep reconnecting, all year long. Now, it wasn’t going to happen. That annual rest and reboot was gone. The restorative break that leaves us refreshed and renewed…nope. Endless same-old-same-old was coming. I could not imagine how it would be possible to get out, get away, anywhere, let alone to any place that had the unique mix of special experiences we longed for. 

I was somewhere between ashamed and embarrassed that, with the threat of literal death and illness on a massive scale sweeping the globe, the wave of grief I felt was for…

…a lost vacation.

When I confessed my embarrassment about this to my thoughtful friend Robert, he offered me a way to be gentle with myself on that one. “Grief is real,” he said. “What you lost, you lost. You don’t have to compare your loss or the cause of your grief, with anyone else’s. Your feelings are real, and you can — and should — acknowledge them.”

That helped a bit. 

Still, when I look ahead and consider the big features of that trip, I have a little trepidation about whether a getaway that’s all about quiet isolation will be the same kind of treat as it has been… Oh, come on. I love that place and I’m going to be just as thrilled to get back to my favorite cottage with the view of the Atlantic as I’ve ever been. I am not going to let my brain make up problems. Just no. 

I remember the other wave of grief: I was driving into Baltimore one night in April, listening to the nine o’clock news, which included the story that Prime Minister Trudeau announced the closing of the Canada-U.S. border to all but essential traffic. 

That was when I knew for sure that I wasn’t going home for Christmas 2020. 

At least I had a good seven or eight months to come to terms with that reality. I felt lonely, and then of course selfish that, in that moment, I felt worse about losing my vacation than I did about going not one, but what would become TWO, full years without seeing my Canadian family.

I love them and I miss all the messy complications that come with loving the people I’m related to. In some respects, we are in more frequent contact than we were before pandemic, and we’re more deliberate now about finding ways to bring everyone together for capstone and milestone events in our lives. 

Will I be glad when I’ve got my vaccination and can look ahead to being with more people again? Probably. I notice that part of my way of dealing with things I can’t have is to not think about them. I saw a meme last week saying something like, “Not sure if you’re ready to go back to in-person conferences? Don’t worry: your social skills have completely atrophied anyway.”

I feel like I’ve adjusted to simply be more of an extrovert-facing introvert: I’m “on” when I need to be on, and when the ring light clicks off, I’m ready to hide under the furniture, right after I wash off the makeup.

Spring arrives this week. 

I welcome the longer days. I welcome the return of the light, and of the feeling of hope that comes as vaccines become more available and more people get them.

As things open up, I’m a little more willing to dream again, but my sense of hope is weary. Research shows that humans are incredibly resilient, so odds are good that I’ll get through the months ahead just fine. I ricochet between happy and exhausted.

Maybe it’s also a good thing that the return to…well, “pre-pandemic normal” is not ever coming back, but… whatever post-pandemic life will look like is going to be slow. What will come back? What will I just leave behind and not try to pick up again?

I know I’m not feeling ready for whatever is next. I do know I’m ready for what is to start being over.

Hair Today…

My hair is making me just a little crazy right now.

This is the longest my hair has been since 1986 (with the exception of 18 months in 2002-2003). Both times have been visual, albeit largely unheralded, symbols of my determination to get through a time of tumult to the next threshold for my life — personal and professional.

Throughout history, across many cultures and around the world, how we wear our hair is a powerful symbol. Styles and meaning change, but the choices we make send a message to the people around us. 

Are you old enough to remember (or even to have been) one of those “long-haired freaky people” in the song Signs (by Canadian group Five Man Electrical Band, reached #3 on the U.S. Billboard chart in 1971) or wondered whether and, if so, why, barristers anywhere still wear wigs)? 

My pandemic bubble includes a couple of high-risk people, so I’m making really conservative choices about pretty much everything one might do to avoid COVID exposure. Not only do I not want to get this thing, but if I were to give it to one of my bubble-mates…nope, not going there. I’m doing everything I can to take care of people I love.

Which means I’ve just marked the one-year anniversary of my last haircut.

My hair is greyer than it was even last year — which I don’t mind, really. It’s also thinner than it was in 2002, and doesn’t grow as fast. The little twisted-wire hair combs don’t stay in well for me. Wispy pieces fly around once my hair dries, and so don’t quite all do up into a ponytail without some kind of hair glue. While that looks tidy, the ballerina bunhead look seems pretty severe on me, and definitely needs a little makeup if I want to look like I’m trying. And while the long hair blowout with the curly brush ends up being a pretty good look for me, I find I resent the five or ten minutes amount of time and bother it takes to look good (for, well, who, again?) compared with the short cut I so miss that I could blow dry in 60 seconds flat.

It started last week, when my assistant Jan popped onto our zoom call with an immaculate pageboy ‘do and fresh color.  Why now? Plenty of my friends and family have found ways to get themselves to their hairdressers. Why not me?

I wouldn’t even have to go to a salon: my hairdresser, Gail, has come to my home to cut my hair for over a dozen years. Gail is wonderful, and she’s one of the people I miss most. She’s mostly gotten over being exasperated with me (I think). 

By this time, you know how the line of logic works: Even if my hairdresser says she’s fine, even if nobody in her family has been sick, she can’t know where any of them (or any of her clients) have been or who they’ve been with. Call me a drama queen if you like, but the way I look at it, even if I don’t get sick, the last thing I want to do is make an asymptomatic transfer of a virus I picked up because I just couldn’t wait a few more months for a haircut, and lose someone I love.

A year into pandemic, I still have to work at not judging people whose ideas about getting through pandemic, or whose entire situations and “bubbles” are different from mine. I have friends who have gone to Disney twice. I have friends who reside in assisted living. I have friends who are medical professionals who have calculated the risks and gone on dive trips and come back just fine.  have a couple of friends I walk outside with, masked up and at a distance. I have clients in Texas who were delighted by their governor’s latest decisions on masks, and friends in Florida who were headed to the gym or booking summer concert venues for their musical ensembles the last time I talked to them.

I hope we all come out of this alive and healthy. Not everyone will.

Some people will end up catching the virus despite taking heroic measures to avoid it. I hope my bubble mates and I aren’t among them. My male bubble-mates have more haircut options than I do. 

Almost a year ago, one sat himself down in front of me, handed me clippers, and said, “Here. You’re going to cut my hair.” 


Well, pandemic has been full of first-time experiences. I do relish collecting new skills, but this was one I hadn’t expected. Fortunately, David’s hair is already pretty short, and he knew which blade and setting to give me. Honestly, his hair is pretty hard to mess up. And what was the downside? At that point in pandemic, he wasn’t going out at all, and wasn’t zooming much either, so even if I messed up a bit, I was pretty much the only person other than him who was going to see it.

I had never applied electric clippers to anyone’s head, and I was nervous. The results were, well, let’s call it “promising” the first time around. I finished with a fresh wave of admiration for the skills of professional barbers and hairdressers everywhere.

On it went. We were both pretty confident by the time I got to my third try. While now it’s one of the pandemic rituals in our temporary normality, we’ll both be delighted when he can return to his wonderful professional neighborhood barber). 

By the time I’d found my tonsorial groove, JJ (my husband and fellow bubble-mate) had gotten sufficiently shaggy that he, too, presented himself to me along with an open boxed set of shiny never-used clippers. 

Good thing the guy with the more complicated hair came second.  I felt nervous all over again, because JJ does do a lot of video conferences. I really wanted to get this right. I was tentative on the first try but at that point any cut was an improvement. The second try… well, let’s say I was glad his schedule didn’t include any on-camera engagements for a couple weeks right after that.

I’ve gotten quite good at cutting his hair (though I have no plans to take up a new profession, and have renewed respect for barbers every time I try to remember what I did right last time), and last time he even said how good it makes him feel to have a fresh haircut. That’s especially high praise!

Age isn’t a “thing” for me. I get exasperated by people — and it’s almost always women — who say things like, “I’ve been running this company for 33 years, so you have to understand that I started my business when I was five…”  I am 61 years old and happily own every day of that. I wouldn’t give back a single day of it. It’s also part of why I don’t color my hair anymore. I went through a few years of getting highlights but after a while I just resented the expense along with the implication that I’d be stuck doing it forever if I did it for so long that that was the color people genuinely thought my hair was. I know perfectly well that people change their hair color all the time, and it’s nobody’s business to judge. I genuinely like my grey hair and everything it stands for. If you decide you want to judge me because of my hair color, go right ahead. There’s a completely different blog post out there somewhere about hair color, but today’s not that day.

Then again, I just recently started watching Star Trek Discovery, where many humanoid commanders who don’t have naturally curly hair have straight-down locks. So maybe I’d feel less grouchy about the effort if I decided I was giving myself a command-do.

Paradoxically, given what I just said about hair color, in these days of pandemic, I really notice what a difference it makes when people put some effort into their time on camera: not just their personal appearance but also real background and lighting and sound quality. I make the effort to look professional and put-together: hair, clothes, makeup. I use a real backdrop, not a simulated one. It makes me feel like I’m on my game, and it shows people I make the effort to dress up for them, just as I would if I were visiting their office or conference. It makes the occasion special — for all of us.

Maybe it’s the cumulative effect of the one-year anniversary of pandemic, but last Monday I almost had a mental mini-meltdown in my head during a zoom call. Mondays are what I call “backstage” days, when I typically don’t have any public presentations or provide client service. This call was a working committee meeting and I thought of myself as not being on serious public display. So I was having a no-makeup, hair-pulled-back day. Ironically, our committee meeting was all about planning another “virtual networking” session for members of an industry association, and we were talking a lot about best practices for how to show up on camera. That day, I just wasn’t walking my talk. I kind of thought it didn’t matter that much that day.

A fellow committee member who started the meeting off-camera, was cajoled into making an appearance, and wow she looked great! Impeccable short-hair coif of the kind I miss so much, and perfectly-blended makeup, too. I had instant haircut-envy, even though she admitted she had just gotten all done up for a video shoot. My “not-good-enough” inner critics were all over me in a heartbeat. I’m grateful to be close enough friends with these good folks to have been able to share how I felt, and that they are good enough friends to say, “Hey, give yourself a break,” and “Hey, we’ve got you,” and “I really appreciate you sharing how you feel. It happens to me too — the experience and how I felt about it. I’m glad to know I’m not alone.”

The only other time in the last 35 years that I ever let it grow anything like this long was when I decided it was time to leave my job of 14 years, the job that had brought me to Washington, at the Canadian Embassy. I hadn’t yet figured out when I was leaving or what I was going to do next,  but growing my hair out was one thing I had control over. It took me a year of soul-searching and researching before I found the courage to simply walk away without a clear plan at all. 

The day after I told my manager I was done, I went out and got my hair cut short again. It wasn’t exactly burning the ships, but there was no turning back.

Today, my long hair is a symbol of my love and solidarity with my bubble-mates, and commitment to my family, to get us all through pandemic safely together. When I get my second shot of vaccine, I’ll be making my appointment for my haircut.

For so many reasons, I can hardly wait.

Let There Be Cake

As February comes to a close and I wrap up my month-long blogging challenge, I started thinking about cake.

Goal: write a personal blog post every day for a month. Box scores: 22 out of 28 days, 79% of my goal, if I round up. 

Gosh. I have a lot of goals I don’t get to the 79% point on (like “close office by 5 pm”, for which my current average score is around 40%. I’m looking to bump to that score in March)!

How about connecting with people? I can’t tell for sure, but I just took a peek at views: as of this writing, looking back on the months, while most posts got maybe a couple dozen views, more people read each day as the month went on. The two posts with a story or picture related to my wedding got over a hundred views (maybe because, well, stories?). My February 23rd post,  “Caught in the Ringlight,” surprised me with over 51 views. Maybe it was the colorful backdrop, or maybe because I shared that one LinkedIn, crossing over for the first time in this series from the personal side (the way my Facebook profile leans) to the professional (the primary focus of my LinkedIn posts).

Back to connection: that was really the core motivation behind wanting to wade more deeply into expressing authenticity and risking vulnerability.

What happened? My mom said she appreciated all the time she knew went into the writing, and she really liked them. The exercise turned out to be a way for my nephew Simon, whose sports blog, “Shoots Left and Writes I’ve been editing since January, to get to know me better as I have been getting to know him. A couple of friends told me how much they appreciated my posts, including the candid sharing of raw emotions. 

As far as I know, the post that I was most afraid might frost off someone — Good Griefby leaving people I love with the impression that my historically higgledy-piggledy attempts to express condolence for their losses were insincere — seemed not to have resulted in disaster. My niece Natalie, part of Jasper Dash’s family — even posted a “like.”

As an experiment in putting my real self out there, I’d call it a success. I discovered that I can say something reasonably coherent in less than three thousand words with footnotes. I learned that while I can write a post in a single sitting, it is not realistic for me to allow less than a full hour for even a 750 word post when I have a clear idea of a short story I’ve told many times, because formatting and finding the image and all the publication stuff takes me at least 15 minutes every time.

Managing the time got stressful, and managing my own expectations of myself in ways to appreciate what I achieved rather than criticize my production, was the second biggest lesson.

Which takes me to cake.

When I worked at the Canadian Embassy, I used to bake.

I would bake when my Canada-based colleagues rotated out to new postings. I would bake thank-you cakes for my interns when they departed. I baked for team members who changed jobs and for colleagues who got engaged.

As you can see by the progression of cakes, I got better over the years. It was funny: word would get out that I was bringing in a cake, and when the little in-office party time came, people would find their way to the fifth floor from all over the building to get a piece.

It wasn’t unusual to be able to serve twenty people or more with these rich, triple-decker masterpieces!

This was also the job where I had developed my bad habit of routinely working 10- or 11-hour days. Which meant that making a cake like that took me three nights: first night, actual baking. Second night, assembly. Third night, the fun part: decorating! Fourth day, JJ would drive me in while I kept the giant Tupperware cake carrier on the level all the way down Constitution Avenue.

It was a wonderful way to celebrate life’s milestones with people I worked with. 

These days, I rather miss that. I’ve worked from home since 2003, and I can’t remember the last time I made a cake to celebrate with professional colleagues. I remember thinking recently that, wait, since 2007 I’ve worked part time at an indoor climbing gym filled with hardbody humans who possess much more active metabolisms than mine; why on earth wouldn’t I bake for them? Well… it’s a different kind of relationship, for one thing… oh, yeah, and, until pandemic, there was generally no shortable of leftover sheet cake (and, rarely, really good home made masterpieces) from kids’ birthday parties. All-hands staff gatherings there were rare.

But I digress.

Will I keep writing the blog?

My thinking is yes.

Here’s the biggest lesson: Like cake-baking, vulnerability gets better with practice. There are oopses, but I learned. For example, it’s more precise to weigh ingredients than to measure them (especially cake flour). 

I realized I can keep blogging regularly, but spread it out a little more, to create a regular but more sustainable practice.

And it’s okay to do a little thing, like the tiny chocolate lava cake I’ve gotten reasonably competent at making. One bowl recipe, and I can even make a very small one in under a half hour. Neat, sweet, complete.

If I inspired someone else to write, I’ll be thrilled.

Oh, and I will finish by taking a “page” from my nephew Simon’s blog:

Please comment, like, and share. Let me know what’s on your mind, in your heart, and what you might like me to write or think about. Challenge me.

And remember to be. Just be. 

Caught In The Ringlight

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.

Naw, this isn’t gonna play, so don’t try. Too long, and messy. Start over…


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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!
  4. 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.

Living Room

How might I live, and what I might make room for, some months from now when my bubble-mates and I have been vaccinated?

NASA ARADS team, Atacama Desert, Chile 2018

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.

Delicious, warm, and centered. Mmmm.

Good Grief

What are gifts, and your gotchas?

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. 

The Beloved Jasper Dash, “Dog heaven’s goodest boy”

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. 

Nope, not the right answer.

Gary Chapman’s love languages inspire some ideas for ways I might offer support: Talk, time, touch, things, tasks.

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. 

It’s easy to make resolutions now, but here is one of mine: I resolve to remember that words, and things, are not the only way. That it’s okay to just sit and be with someone and not have to say anything at all. I mean, there’s even a wiki for that, cleverly entitled It’s not like there are no places to research ideas.

Whether I’m working with words or any other medium, things worth considering:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Getting things wrong is part of being in human relationships, and it happens a lot.
  4. 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.

It’s the journey we’re all on. 

Thanks for being on it together.

Dynamic Stability

Just when I think I’ve got it all under control…

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.

Right now, I need a nap.

Things Shaken Loose

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.