It was an ordinary weekday night, but only by the calendar. The night’s events belied the usual routine nature of a Wednesday. A friend spontaneously stopped by our new house to chat and we sat on the deck for awhile and chatted. I learned about her life in earlier years and we told her about when we were young. It was still humid and warm out, some would say uncomfortably so, but I appreciated soaking in a sense of summer with the sounds of birds, dogs and neighborhood life mixed with growing level of laughter as we discussed movies and marriage and raising kids. After she left, we walked down the street to a local coffee shop for a planned meeting with other friends. We sat outside under a large tree in four Adirondack-style chairs and two small tables. I drank iced coffee and listened as my friend described a recent biking trip across Wyoming she had just completed. She invited someone she biked with on the trip who also lives in our town to stop by so we could meet given that we’re practically back yard neighbors. The conversation was active and easy. Within a short time we realized we had other friends in common. I didn’t notice the dusk roll in until it was already past dark. Heat lightening flickered in the sky. We all gathered up our cups, said goodbye and headed home. Walking back down the quiet neighborhood street I listened to the cicadas overhead and was reminded of my childhood, sleeping with windows open and fans blowing (my parents still don’t have air conditioning). Maybe because of that experience, I love the sounds of nature on a summer evening and how they make me feel connected somehow to life. Maybe there’s something to these vacation-like moments squeezed into daily life. A weekend feel on a Wednesday night…works for me.
It’s the small stuff that sometimes makes the biggest impressions. This morning I went swimming with a friend at our local pool. I’ve really started to enjoy time in the water, learning new ways to breathe (something that could come in handy for life actually). I’m getting the routine down. She picks me up in the morning, we swim, then I catch a bus to work. This morning, though, as she was driving me to the closest bus stop, my bus was pulling away. “Darn,” I said instinctively. And when I realized she was thinking about what to do I said, “The next one will be here in 10 minutes, it’s fine.” But she said, “I think we can catch it,” and she sped up. I started to giggle. “What are you going to do?” I asked. “Pull in front of it?” “I can beat it to the next bus stop,” she said. I knew I liked her. She’s got moxie. We saw a bus stop so she pulled over. I stepped out of the car and the bus blew by us. “Shoot,” I said. “Apparently, that wasn’t the right one.” Starting to feel self-conscious that we didn’t know what we were getting into now, I jumped back in the car. With our eye on the bus we continued on, wondering where the next stop was. Just then, we saw it was pulling over at a covered stop. There was a group of people waiting to get on. “I think you can make it,” she said as she pulled in behind it. And as I smiled getting out of the car she said, “Hey, 10 minutes is 10 minutes.” Gotta love a good friend!
Lately I’ve been engaging in conversations and reading about racism, community engagement and the idea of self-betrayal. All involve examining the quality of our relationships with each other. There is a model for discussing community engagement that helps to illustrate a key point I’m finding in all of these topics. It’s called the “Ladder of Citizen Participation.” The term “community engagement” is often kicked around in community-based work, grant-making and other worthy endeavors. And yet, the definition and expectations of community engagement varies widely, and less often means listening to, learning from and giving residents true decision-making power regarding programs focused on “helping” them (anti-poverty, urban renewal, anti-crime, health promotion) or issues around economic development (what jobs should we bring in and where will they be located), transportation, etc. This ladder illustrates that efforts fall into categories of non-participation, tokenism or true citizen power. Holding a public meeting meant simply to “inform” or to “collect ideas” in locations which are hard for low-income folks to attend without providing childcare, for example, would fall into the lower rungs of this ladder. Meeting people where they are, providing for their challenges in participating, giving them the tools and resources they need to be fully engaged falls in the upper rungs.
As part of a recent training I was asked to consider whether I treat people as people or objects. When I see their burdens and struggles and respond to them humanly even when their actions make me uncomfortable, I am seeing them as people. If I see them as either obstacles or vehicles to something I want or as simply insignificant, they are objects (in that moment at least) to me. It’s easy to underestimate the number of times I may treat people as objects. Something as simple as being irritated that the person in line in front of me is unorganized and holding me up is an example of seeing someone as an object. I am not my truest self when I have this mindset. This happens with strangers, friends and family, and can damage relationships.
In thinking about strengthening relationships, which I believe is a key to happiness, these ideas are powerful. When we believe someone doesn’t really need to voice their opinion (again) or that their stubbornness around an issue is simply based in ignorance (because of course, we’re right!) or that it simply takes to long to be inclusive of others, we are working from the bottom rungs of the ladder, seeing them as objects. From my work with communities, I’m learning that yes it does take longer to be inclusive, hear people’s fears and concerns, seek to understand those concerns and work together on solutions that make sense to everyone (or most). But these are the projects that are most sustainable in the end. The same is true with our relationships. When we seek first to understand and then to communicate through that lens, we are more apt to build trust and deeper bonds that last.
“What’s your dominant eye?” they asked. (That’s a question I never hear). Last weekend I spent a day at the shooting range. (A sport I never do). And apparently it matters knowing which eye you tend to favor when you’re firing at a target (who knew?). At the shotgun station they said it was especially important to know my dominant eye when shooting skeet (I’m not sure why). So we did an activity to identify that eye. And to improve our aim they rubbed chapstick on the eyepiece of our safety goggles blurring the vision of our opposite eye.
I found that an interesting analogy for life. How often do I fall back on well-worn (dominant) perspectives? It’s like rubbing chapstick on any alternative lens I might use when interpreting the behavior or words of another in order to continue filtering everything through my “dominant eye.” In fact, once I’ve made up a story about why someone does what they do, it’s pretty easy to have selective hearing and vision so that I am justified in my opinion.
I recently read the books “Leadership and Self Deception” and “The Anatomy of Peace” by the Arbinger Institute. They talk about how we see others with a distorted lens, produced from our need to justify some image we have developed of ourselves or some behavior we have chosen toward them. When we find ourselves blaming someone or justifying our own behaviors, it’s a clear signal that we are using a distorted lens…and we’ve probably applied the chapstick ourselves.
It’s a fascinating new perspective I’m trying on which has the possibility of clearing my vision so I can better hit the target of strong relationships with my kids, husband, family, friends, colleagues and others. Now that’s something worth shooting for.
I realized last week that I’m not nearly as sensitive and in tune as I should be to people’s lives. My girlfriend and I are generally very forgiving of each other on this. “I’m sorry I forgot to call and see how your trip went,” I’d say and she’d respond, “I can’t even keep up with my own life, let alone your schedule. Don’t worry about it.” And that is nice. I relax into the comfort of unconditional love.
But then something like the disasters in Japan happen and I don’t immediately think about the people in my life who have ties there somehow. This one has family on the west coast where effects were expected to spill over, that one has family in Japan, another did a semester abroad and probably is worried about his “host family,” and yet it takes a few days for me to make those connections, and sometimes it takes reminders by others. I’m amazed at how much smaller the world has gotten. And disappointed that I don’t make immediate connections regarding the personal impact this has on people.
And Japan is but one example. There are others. I care about people. Relationships are a big value in my life. So I am tying to find ways to improve in this area. How can I be more proactive and thoughtful about what others are going through and reach out to them at important times? I need to more intentionally reflect on these things. This is another reason to keep life more simple. A full schedule and list of obligations makes it less likely for me to be spontaneous and thoughtful. Reducing stress enhances the probability of actions that strengthen relationships.
I heard about a study on this. The study was with seminary students, some on their way to talk about the parable of the good Samaritan, others on their way to something else. Some students were given a stronger sense of urgency to get to their next meeting. All had the opportunity to help someone along the way. The more hurried the students were, the less likely they were to help the unexpected stranger along the way.
I am almost always fighting the urge to fill my plate. I have a lot of interests, a lot of opportunities to be “involved.” My husband doesn’t have the same struggle. He enjoys a more relaxed pace, which is good for me. I’m learning how to find a better balance. And I’m encouraged by the idea that to fulfill the value of strong relationships, it’s important that I am selective in how I spend my time. That’s not always easy. So many things are good (enough) but not everything is beneficial (enough). Oh for the wisdom to know the difference.
I recently had a birthday. And I had to smile at the changing way birthday greetings arrived. I received four birthday cards via U.S. mail plus a couple of texts, four calls and a few emails. The majority of my birthday wishes, though, were from Facebook. Nearly 50 people wrote a birthday greeting on my “wall.” I understand that Facebook makes it easy with birthday reminders and all. One click and you write a few words on someone’s home page. No searching for an email, a phone number, an address or a stamp. No looking for the card that’s not too dorky or sentimental. You don’t even have to sing.
The thing is, knowing it took people little effort didn’t diminish the joy. While I greatly appreciated the extra efforts some made by leaving me a singing voice mail or handwriting a note in a card, I also loved hearing simple wishes from so many. It reminded me that I can often over think how special, personalized or creative an effort needs to be (which usually stifles any action at all). Maybe most of the time, it’s just the simple outreach that matters.
Japan is certainly on the minds and hearts of many right now. So much destruction. Whole communities wiped out; the enormous mess is overwhelming. The human loss, deeply tragic. I watch the footage in awe of the immeasurable force of nature that changed everything for people there in an instant. And as I grieve for their suffering,I am struck again by how little stuff matters. How little most things we stress about matter. How people are searching not for their recently purchased iPad 2 but for their family and friends. It’s about relationships. Relationships matter. So little else does.
Today I was looking around our house at our simplifying process (i.e. stacks of stuff we’re sorting) and feeling overwhelmed. In light of the incredible disaster across the ocean, though, I feel validated that this is the right thing to do. Less stuff will mean less time dealing with it and more time for what really matters. And time with people we love is clearly a precious thing. May it not take a tsunami to remind us of that.
In a recent “Great Work Blog” Michael Bungay Stanier shared this quote and his thoughts:
“We do not rise to our expectations, we fall to our level of training.” Bruce Lee
Which begs the question – what are you training yourself for at the moment. (And sure, you might consider formal courses you’re signed up for. But consider also the daily practices and routines you have. What are those training you for?)
I like that spin on preparation. Thinking about our daily practices/routines as training. It’s more palatable than creating big hairy goals requiring intense learning and discipline. Bite-sized daily routines can also lead to an ultimate goal in a more sane and enjoyable way. So, I started thinking about my daily habits. It could be more like “training light” but I do see some clear patterns that are leading toward a life of:
- Health. I’m more consistent than I’ve been in years about exercise, although it’s still a challenge to maintain, let along increase my efforts. Still, I’m running several times a week and starting to add in some cross-training options. I know I could be more disciplined about my diet, but it’s not awful.
- Simplicity. Many of you know about our efforts to reduce. The “big picture project” is slow going, but only because I’m also taking advantage of spontaneous opportunities to see my kids, friends or enjoy an unseasonably warm day (all of which I consider simple pleasures). Still, we’re making strides and that feels good. And there’s no reason to stress out by creating false urgency. I like the pace at which we are weeding out our stuff.
- Personal Growth. My efforts to blog/write daily are mostly to improve my writing skills and learn more about my strengths, interests and potential offerings to others. At work I’m frequently discovering something that makes me think in new ways or helps me to refine my focus. I’ve been learning new concepts that offer opportunity for deeper thinking and application more broadly than work (the recent “Undoing Racism” workshop is one example).
- Strong relationships. When my kids call about getting together, I generally make it happen. They’re very busy, with jobs that require evening and weekend hours so when they’re free, I try to be too. It matters to me. I know how quickly life stages change and realize their availability could get worse or better, so I relish the time I can spend with them now. My husband and I spend a lot of time together in the evenings and weekends. I also enjoy social exercise (which is my trick to sticking with it). Running with a friend is also a great way to stay connected when the rest of life makes it hard to do so. And, I try to talk or Skype regularly with friends or family who live at a distance. I’m glad technology allows us to stay better connected.
Perhaps my daily routines would reveal other things too (I’m clearly NOT training to be a culinary chef or great musician, for example). And I know I could be more disciplined in all areas. However, I’m finally enjoying a more mindful pace to life. And I believe that will help me sustain these routines. Also an important aspect of training.
“…Cultivate poverty like a garden herb, like sage. Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes or friends. Things do not change; we change. Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts.” – Henry David Thoreau
I really like this quote, except the phrase “or friends” bothers me a bit. At first it sounds like he’s saying don’t invest in new friends. But I think he really means don’t keep replacing things, including friends. And if that’s what he meant, I’d agree. Because since moving to North Carolina we’ve developed several new friendships. They have given me new perspectives, stretched my thinking, shared my joys and struggles and deepened my sense of community.
I am still working on cultivating simplicity. It’s not easy. More things have come into our house lately than have left. New habits must be fertilized and require pulling up well-rooted thinking and behaviors. But with simplicity, I believe, comes more space, time, energy and resources for things that really matter to me–being creative, staying healthy and fostering strong relationships. And so I press on.
I love meeting women who are independent yet oriented toward strong relationships especially those who are grounded toward simplicity and health. I love when people are willing to examine themselves and their lifestyles to ensure authenticity and alignment with their values. So, when I moved here nearly two years ago, meeting Cara was an added bonus. Cara is an adventurous and courageous person, although she probably wouldn’t define herself that way. Here’s proof. This year she turns 40 and she wanted to celebrate by doing something different. She thought about an outward-bound trip or picking up a new habit like running. Instead, she moved with her Dutch husband, Danny, and her two children across the ocean to start a new life in Holland. I’d say that’s adventurous and courageous.
What brought on such a life-changing decision? Well, in truth, it had been percolating for a long time. She and Danny planned to live in the States only for the first five years of their marriage and then move before starting their family. Fourteen years later, now with two young children, they realized it was probably now or never.
“We didn’t want to wait any longer and make it harder for the children. But it was so hard already because we were deeply rooted with friends, work, and community” she said when I recently talked with her about her big life transition. “From a personal perspective I was perfectly happy with my life. I loved my job, my colleagues, my friends, my neighborhood and I felt very close to my parents and loved watching them as grandparents.” It was like, ‘Why are we doing this?’ But I had to put all that aside and remember that there were good reasons and this would be okay if I had an open mind.”
Over the years, she and Danny had become more and more conscious about their impact on the environment and dedicated in their pursuit of health. As such, they became a biking family. Not for recreation but as their main mode of transportation. They tried not to get in the car with their children on the weekend so they biked all of their errands and leisure time trips.
“I lived in the Netherlands for several years and I became comfortable bicycling,” Cara explained. “It gave me the courage to bike commute even though the infrastructure was different in the U.S. I was committed to the principles behind it all so we invested in the right gear to make it doable.” Plus, she liked the personal benefits. “Being a working mom gave me precious little time for exercise. Having a means of active transportation meant the world to me because I got 40 minutes a day by biking. It helped me keep off extra pounds, not to mention the stress reduction which helped keep me sane.”
Cara said she also biked her 5-year-old son to his school across town “which was crazy when I think about it. I went through a lot of traffic around the hospital and it wasn’t always safe,” she said. But she was torn because she wanted to be a good role model and show her son the car wasn’t the only option. The more difficult it became, the more convinced she was that it was time to move.
When they told their kids about their decision, they focused mostly on the close proximity to their paternal grandparents and biking. “It was good for them to see that this was our philosophy on life,” Cara said. “ And that we were going to move to a place where we could live it out.”
Now, not quite five months in their new home, Cara is already seeing the benefits she’d hoped for. In fact, their three-and-a-half-year-old daughter is already biking without assistance. “The fact that she can bike on her own is indicative of how good the built environment is,” she said. “It’s just what people do. It’s how people get around. Everyone seems to bike. The kids love living here because they see how safe it is and they feel the difference in their freedom. There are all these directional signs and red lights just for us. We talk about it all the time and compare the differences.”
As for Cara, there have been difficulties. The language is hard, job hunting is hard and not understanding some of the culture is stretching her in this new stage of life. But, she is learning how to handle it. “I try to be like my children and take it day-by-day…not dwell on things…be in the moment. That’s not natural for me, but I’m learning. And when I do that, there’s a lot to be happy about. I like that I’ve been challenged that way. I remember that I chose this. I tell myself, ‘You gave this to yourself as birthday gift. It’s good.”
Read more about Cara’s adventures at her blog at http://livingsmall.posterous.com.