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What’s in the Way of Better?

accomplishment-ceremony-college-267885When I was younger (said in my geezer voice), I had all of these ideas about when things would be better. First they would be better when I graduated high school. Then they would be better when I graduated college. There was some stuff about boyfriends and relationships all during that time as well – that would definitely make things better. THEN there was the things would be better when our band finally got noticed, when I figured out how to make a living, when I could get my own place (okay that one was TOTALLY true). Sprinkled throughout there was still more better when I don’t have to deal with so and so or better when I can tell that person what I really think.

The point is that place of better was always out there somewhere and the things that were getting in the way were everything. Time and age was in the way. Lack of money was in the way. Other people’s behavior was in the way. So many things that were in the way of my feeling better. Didn’t they all know that I deserved to feel better? That’s a whole separate branch of this tree and it deserves its own post.

This habit of delaying better and tying it to something I had no control over continued on well into my adult years (wait, that’s right, right? I am well into my adult years… holy crap). When I was struggling with infertility, everything would be better if I was pregnant. When I was pregnant everything would be better after my twins were born. When my twins were born everything would be better… yeah, I don’t remember what I thought then. Sleep deprivation is a killer. When my twins were toddlers, everything would be better when they were potty-trained, able to dress themselves, etc, etc, etc. Now my husband is in seminary and I’m sure everything will be better when he’s done. Except for all of the countless ways it will be exactly the same and all of the new ways it will be challenging.

There’s some sort of cliche older person talking to younger person lesson in here. Something about the more things change, the more things stay the same. Wherever you go, there you are. The grass is always greener… There are more of these but my caffeine hasn’t kicked in enough to access more of them. They are right on the money, but they also miss something crucial.

What we miss when we point out that the grass is always greener is that when we make that comparison, we’re spending a whole lot of time looking at someone else’s lawn. It’s not just that it seems better over there, it’s that we’re not looking at here at all. If we spent more time looking at our own yard, we might notice a few things we didn’t see before.

beautiful-flora-flowers-83118We might see the tiny flowers that pop up in the earliest Spring.

We might see the shells in the flower beds that we brought home from a trip to the beach with beloved friends.

We might notice the pair of mockingbirds that nest in the bush.

We also might see that we’ve let the weeds get out of hand. We might notice that some of those come up rather easily.

We might notice some vines are threatening the small trees on the border.

We see the details. We see the “good” and we see the “problems.”

We see it all and can get real about what’s in the way of what we think of as better.

Is it what we’re not acknowledging and celebrating?

Is it what we’re choosing to leave unaddressed?

Is it what we define as better?

When I think about it “good” can only really happen right now, in this moment. When it’s in the past, it is over and when it’s something we are predicting, it is not ours to experience it yet. Good is now and better is here, if only we can see it behind all of the things we’ve let get in the way.

 

What Are You Cultivating?

My friend was telling a story to the kids at church (that’s what she does for work – cool, right?). It was a story about a boy who made a garden as his summer project. It was a wonderful story about all that was possible if you just pursue what makes you YOU, unique, special. And as with every garden story, it was also more.

agriculture-close-up-depth-of-field-767240In the garden we never question the need to take care. Initially it’s all about preparing the soil – and this ideally happens WAY ahead of time, something I struggle to remember both on the earth and in any endeavor. Next it’s about tending the soil AND protecting that emerging seedling. In my garden rabbits are usually the culprit and this stage – well, and for later summer seedlings, bugs.

As the plant grows there are a host of things that threaten the soil and the plant. Most of these need to be guarded against, spotted and removed, occasionally even eliminated (I confess I have been known to be merciless at times in the garden). If we get really good at this whole gardening thing, there is an additional category of things to do to encourage help in our garden – inviting beneficial bugs, making the area friendly for the right kinds of birds. Even experienced gardeners continually ask themselves what can help that garden flourish – what would bring it more nourishment? How can I prevent and stop weeds and pests from doing damage and inhibiting growth? We ask so many questions and make so many efforts.

What would it take to turn that lens on ourselves?

How do we prepare the soil for whatever we have to offer the world? What kind of nourishment will best serve us? How much water do we need? How much light and how much dark?

How do we protect tiny new shoots of growth and exploration? How do we keep them from being stomped on by careless acquaintances or by our own doubts and fears?

How do we keep a vigilant eye on creating the best possible conditions for growth while shaking off the pestering worries of how our growth will be received by others, master our resistance to our own change, prevent ourselves from self-sabotage and self-destruction?

Because that’s the work. We tend to think that whatever we do for a paycheck is our “work,” and I get that in our real-world economy, some attention needs to go toward that calculation, but our real work is in the garden. Our real work is tending the soil, having the patience for germination, protecting the seedling, nourishing the plant and being persistent enough to get to the day of harvest. In the garden we celebrate on harvest day – the day we finally get the bloom of the flower or the fruit from the tree or the bean from the bush. In our personal gardens, we can celebrate the whole process.

body-clouds-early-morning-823694We can celebrate what we learn about preparing the soil. We can pay keen attention to our bodies and how they feel. We can enjoy the pleasures of a good night sleep and a delicious and healthful meal. We can celebrate the emotional work we do to be ready to grow again. We can provide our bodies with experiences that make it feel well, whole, strong AND peaceful. We can congratulate ourselves as we enrich ourselves for new work. we can take pride in our capacity for self-care and refuse to allow it to be deemed “selfish” or vain.

adult-autumn-autumn-colors-1122280We can celebrate our growing ability to let the harsh words of others roll past us even in our most tender stages. We can acknowledge our increased capacity to spot and work through situations that we know will stop us short. We can appreciate the wisdom of the spirit that continues to grow even as we are uncertain that this is wise, good, or safe. We can give thanks for the ability to ask for help and the love embodied that brings us assistance.

female-girl-muscles-903590We can celebrate the ways in which our growing strength protects us from all manner of threats, the way we develop an ability to not be seduced by thoughts, plans, and actions of others that would take us off course. We can rejoice in the greater feeling of freedom that comes with each new shoot.

And when it is time to harvest, we can celebrate the miracle of everything we can create from this new vantage point, from this new perspective. And we can look behind us and see everything we were creating all along.

This is the work, and it is gut-wrenching and glorious and we are so blessed to have it. And let’s not forget what comes at the end of all of the work. It’s YOU, it’s what becomes possible if you can find the way to being exactly who you are and cultivating the part of you that can never be replicated. How are you tending your garden?

XO,

julia

Letting Go

Letting go of the chatter,

adult-art-artist-133170Letting go of the measurements,

Letting go of the certainty that I know either the ways or the means,

Letting go of the notion that my worthiness is in any way dependent,

Letting go of the hope that I can be good enough,

Letting go of the need to prove, to show, to demonstrate,

Letting go of my agenda, my goals, my plans,

Letting go of the barriers to my attention,

Letting go of the fear that I use to distance myself from things that feel good, do good, are good,

Letting go of the need to have proof, evidence, and demonstration that all will be well.

adult-beautiful-close-up-773371Letting all of it go, releasing that which no longer serves with intention and ease of heart, knowing it may return and visit but in feeling its absence, I have the chance to glimpse how my true nature and peace.

I am enough and

All is well.

Amen.

Face Value as a Starting Point

I had to block someone on Facebook yesterday. It is the second or third time I have had to do that – maybe that’s a lot. I don’t know.

Here’s what happened. I posted something admittedly provocative, about something I feel very strongly about, gun violence in schools. What I posted offered no policy prescriptions, it was simply a photo that demonstrated the severity of the problem in a stark and moving way. Within 5 minutes someone who was in my friend circle (I think because of a tenuous music booking connection from a few years ago) but from whom I had never heard before (despite plenty of other provocative posts) decided that I was calling for a repeal of the second amendment and to throw a bunch of memes at me by way of arguing.

In retrospect, I feel a little sorry for him. He – let’s call him Phil for the sake of reducing ambiguous pronouns – clearly did not know what he was getting into.  That was my face value response. The other part of my face value response was that this was a conversation that would not go anywhere. I was familiar with the predicted path of Phil’s argument and had no patience or sympathy for the viewpoint I assumed he had. I also suspected, based on some experience, that his interest in my point of view would be limited and would likely include some version of “libtard.” That was my face value assessment, plus a load of assumption and some knee-jerk reacting.

Being clear minded about all of that – self-aware about my judgments and my knee jerkiness on this subject in particular, I decided to try to engage. But I determined to try very hard not to beat him up. I determined not to paste the wall with graphs. I determined to ask questions. I proceeded to explain that if he was up for a policy discussion, I was in. If he wanted to meme toss, I was not interested. And so it began.

attractive-beautiful-beauty-1024403Phil staked out a few positions, avoiding actually saying “libtard,” but only just. And I felt the thrill of the self-righteous as I demanded respectful interchange and grilled Phil about policy positions. I pointed out the errors in his logic (with glee that I attempted, but likely failed, to hide). I brought him back to what I viewed as the central question as he attempted to shift the context of the discussion. I gave counter-factual for the facts he presented. I was pretty logically disciplined.

A very dear old friend jumped in and I felt bolstered by having an actual attorney arguing with me, until my wonderful attorney friend raised the point that I so wish I’d focused on all along. My friend got right to the heart of the matter and said he was sorry that Phil was so afraid – and he said it in a way that made it clear that he meant it sincerely – no sarcasm, no ill-will, just wow – I’m so sorry you are hurting.

And that is where my face-value assessment fell short. Because I had been right about ALL of my predictions and all of my assumptions. I had been right about exactly how this would go. What I failed to see was that my response to Phil was as much a part of that equation as his idiotic arguments (yep, still feel that way). What I failed to see in all of my super self-righteous generosity about engaging in this conversation even though it would go nowhere is that I did very little to try to chart a different course. I was careful not to insult him. That was my concession.

What I failed to do was choose love. What I failed to do was expand on a more loving perspective even when it was presented to me. When my dear old (he’ll really love that I’ve called him old twice now) friend demonstrated sympathy, rather than pausing and breathing and checking my course, I just let my circuits get a little fried, judged myself for not being that nice and proceeded with my policy discussion.

Just as Phil wasn’t interested in hearing my demands for government action, I wasn’t interested in understanding his heart. I wasn’t interested in leading with love. I  wasn’t interested in asking the one question I now wish I’d asked instead of peppering him with specific policy questions (a shitty but easy thing for someone who’s had a lot grad school to do). I just wish I’d said: “Yeah Phil, you do sound really scared. Why are you so scared? What makes you scared?” Not in a you don’t have any right to be scared way, but in a I know it sucks to be scared and I am willing to listen to your fear kind of way. I am willing to love you in your scaredness (autocorrect really wanted that word to be sacredness, which I find both charming and ironic – the lesson continues) even though I disagree with you wildly on something that is connected to my deepest and truest fear. I alluded to my fears, but it was in all caps to convince rather than to share, to connect, to love. Phil continued arguing after both of his opponents had declared their intent to leave the field. “We’re not getting anywhere and it’s late.” He kept going and got more heated and a little more personal, both in his interpretation and his assertions. That’s the end for me, but looking back I can see how that happened. I’m not saying it’s all my fault, but I can imagine how it must have felt.

And now it feels like the opportunity to do better has passed, although that’s rarely ever completely true. I have admittedly blocked Phil and am unsure (to be perfectly honest) that I would like to change that as I was exhausted by this whole thing (and my ego still wants that to be about him). But I want to pause and realize that my problem from the get go wasn’t that I took him at face value and responded, but that I stayed right there. I didn’t allow my assessment and understanding to change even when it became clear that face value was not enough, not this time.

art-beach-beautiful-269583Face value is a great starting tool, especially when the other party is not revealing more; it can keep us from delving into other people’s personal thoughts and obsessing about our own choices, but face value has its limits. Love demands awareness when it’s time to make adjustments. Love demands not just listening but hearing. To quote a favorite songwriter: “Love reaches out,” not with facts and an agenda, but with curiosity and openness.

I can’t undo the exchange I had, and even now there are parts of it that I feel pretty good about; but today I will try again, with more open ears to reach my ever more open heart.

Humiliation and Other Choices

A few days ago I stepped in it with a friend. I inadvertently hurt her feelings, and after she expressed that to me, I apologized. In explaining why I had upset her so much, she told me that she was COMPLETELY humiliated. I tried to put my coach ears away (they are often not helpful when interacting with friends and loved ones) and simply offer my regret at the way things went down. My intent clearly was not the same as the impact here.

adult-alone-beautiful-808711When the conversation was over, however, I had to cycle back to that feeling that she had, humiliated, and to consider what it has to tell us about our thoughts and our feelings. Let me start at the beginning. A lot of folks think that their feelings come from an external event. Something happens, and then we have a feeling about it, and then we have thoughts that come from those feelings or are about those feelings or something like that. But that model has the steps all mixed up. Truth is the feeling about an event comes from our thoughts about it, what we make it mean. The event is facts that we could all agree on. And then we think things about it. And then we have feelings because of those thoughts…. Yeah, okay Julia, so what. Who cares?

Well, I care, and if I tell you why, you might care too. The notion that our feelings come from our thoughts means that we have some say in how we feel. If we are simply reacting to external events all of the time, there’s not a lot we can do. We often can’t change external events; we certainly can’t change other people, so if we’re reacting to them all the time, we don’t have much wiggle room. But the thoughts that we have about things that happen? THOSE we can change.

So if we feel humiliated, embarrassed, ashamed – there is a sort of family of feelings here – are we simply reacting to the event? No, we are reacting to what we think about the event. Stuff happens and then we think, what? For humiliation, maybe something like: “I look like a fool. I look like I don’t know what I’m doing. People think I’m not good enough.” It’s all about how people perceive us. And maybe, if we’re really practiced at humiliation, embarrassment or shame, we skip the other people part and go right to some ugly thought about ourselves: “I’m not good enough. I’ll never get it right. I always mess up.” The bad feeling comes from the thought.

In addition to being a life coach, I am a musician. I know a lot about that humiliation/embarassment business. I used to be a total perfectionist about preparation and performances because I was terrified that I would make a mistake, that I would look foolish, that I would be not good enough to perform in front of other people, much less get paid for it. I was sure that the level of scrutiny they were giving my performance was similar to my own, that they were judging each note, each phrase, every strum. I was sure that their attention was solidly focused on what I was doing, rather than on their food, their drinks, their date, their friends.

guitar-music-musical-instrument-34074.jpgWhat I found over time is that if I allowed myself to relax into it, if I stopped worrying so very much about what they thought about me, if I released my version of their assessment of my performance, I could actually enjoy myself much more. This is the moment where making music for me becomes about more than the actual music. It becomes magic and it involves the way that I feel, the way my singing partner and I feel together and the way I see THAT experience float out into whatever audience might be there. It feels entirely different. When I make mistakes from that space, they seem such a small thing, a brief millisecond that passes almost as soon as I notice it. When something doesn’t go as planned, it’s within the creation of this new thing, this new moment that will never happen again.

And here’s the really cool part, when I stop worrying so much about what everyone thinks of me, I feel more joyful and THAT makes everyone have a better time. I am humiliation-proof AND I create an experience that everyone can enjoy. THAT is the magic of paying attention to what you think. That is the magic of minding your own business.

Do you. Engage with it. Be there in the moment. What they are thinking about it is none of your business, and likely is nowhere near as bad as you think it is. What moment could you make if you stopped worrying about it?

xo,

julia

The Rocks We Cling To

A few weeks ago I sang with my church choir. We sang a hymn that was one of my Dad’s very favorites. Whenever I hear it, I can see him sitting, eyes closed, at our beloved Chautauqua Institute, leaning his head back as if to take in the sound fully. Getting through the piece without tears was a surprise and a welcome signal that I am coming into the time when I can remember my Dad with joy in addition to my sorrow for the loss.

beach-clouds-cloudy-557067There is a line in the hymn: “No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that rock I’m clinging…” The arrangement we performed really swells and sweeps in this moment and it feels like both storm and strength. I can see it, the figure in the water holding onto that rock amidst the cresting waves and the dark sky. The hymn reminds us of the joy, the peace that can be found using love as our rock, our foundation.

I know, not just from my own experience, but from so the stories so many others have shared with me, that love is not always the rock we cling to. We cling to all kinds of rocks hoping to weather those storms. We cling to tradition (or at least the “way we’ve always done it”); we cling to rightness; we cling to stability; we cling to stories.

What I’ve found is that there are many rocks that will help us SURVIVE. In times of trouble, we can turn lots of place to muddle through, to endure, to get by, to get through, to get past. But some of those rocks, they leave us cut and bleeding, wounded by the clinging rather than by the storm.

Some of those rocks are old stories we have about who we are. “I couldn’t possibly do that. I HAVE to do XYZ. I really SHOULD or SHOULDN’T.” These are the guideposts we develop when things get tough, and sometimes they really do help us. The thing is that once they are in place, they sort of become furniture, or bricks, unquestioned in purpose or validity. It’s there; it should be there. It’s ALWAYS been there. It is truth and when I suspect it’s not, I am wrong; I am bad. I am flawed and a failure because I can’t live within the story I’ve created for myself. And yet we cling. We cling to those stories.

We cling to those rocks not because we are stupid. We cling to those rocks not because we don’t want better. We cling to those rocks because we are scared. We are scared to question what we know. We are scared to do things differently. We are scared to try on a new story because the outcome is unknown.

And so we cling to those rocks and get cut and bruised and hold on with our teeth chattering from the cold. We stay stuck because it feels safer. We stay stuck because it’s what we know. We stay stuck because for us or for someone we love getting unstuck means breaking the rules. We stay stuck because we are afraid we’ll lose everything if we imagine a new way. We’ll lose our friends and family. We’ll lose the community and relationships we’ve cultivated. We’ll be that outsider – unwelcome in the ring of humans around the fire. Cold, alone, abandoned.

It’s old this coping mechanism. And by that I mean it’s human evolution old, not just you personally old. Our tendency to define our possibilities using a pretty narrow scope and a shallow field ensures our acceptability in the tribe and we need the tribe to survive, even if it means everybody in that tribe is clinging to their own brutal rock.

It’s a grim picture, but being somewhat drawn to the image, I want to extend this metaphor just one step farther. If you are clinging to a rock that hurts, I want to know if you’ve tried to touch the bottom with your feet. I want to know how convinced you are that you can’t stand up. I want to know what would happen if you just let go? Even I, a confirmed “sinker” in a lifetime of swimming lessons, can float with the occasional small maneuver. What would happen if instead of clinging to that brutal rock, you just let go and see where the storm takes you?

beach-dawn-dusk-128458There are some things I can tell you about storms on the water. First and foremost: they always end. Secondly, they bring up all kinds of miraculous and beautiful things (just ask any shell collector). Thirdly, when they are over, the beach is there and the sun emerges, and more often than not there is someone who will help you find your towel.

Maybe it’s time to trade in your rock, or maybe it’s time to just float.

What’s A Story?

Yesterday I did a workshop on Rewriting Your Story – it’s my thing right now and I have to tell you that this material is transformational at the foundational level. Sounds important, right? It is. I mean it.

We spend a lot of time exploring what our stories are in this workshop and in order to give participants a boost on finding their stories, I offer some categories of kinds of stories and some examples of my own. To be frank, this is also necessary to make this a safe space. I am asking people to think up some of the most painful stuff they’ve got going at the moment, I feel compelled to show them some painful stuff of my own.

pexels-photo-261763At any rate, I offer these categories to you as a way to think about what kind of baggage you might be carrying around. One kind of self-limiting story is based largely on an event in your past. It doesn’t really matter what kind of event. It doesn’t matter how old you were. It doesn’t even, for our purposes here, matter what happened to you (which is not to say that it doesn’t matter at all what happened to you). This story, this event from the past is something that you repeat to yourself, something you return to again and again. You may see it as an explanation for how things have turned out. You have likely identified it as a turning point of some kind. It is an event that led you to some conclusion about yourself that may have seemed logical or reasonable at the time but has now become harmful to you.

The other major category of story that I see is the type that is a general idea about who you are, who you can be, what you’re capable of, maybe even what you could never do or have or know. These are trickier. Sometimes they come from a specific event, but sometimes they are a little harder to pin down. Sometimes they come from family beliefs. Sometimes they come from family roles. Sometimes they are just conclusions we have drawn at some point and just keep fueling up with new evidence.

I had a vague story like that that for all of its lack of specificity, created a great deal of trouble in my life. Somewhere along the way I got the idea that there was something wrong with me. You’re wondering what that means, but you see that’s the beauty of that belief. It can mean anything. What it definitely means is that there is something about you that is inherently bad or damaged or broken. What it also means is that every time something bad happens in your world, you know why.

And guess what? Bad things happen. So when I had pretty normal teenage angst – something was wrong with me. When I had a hard time feeling like I had “real” friends – something was wrong with me. When I struggled to feel connected to family – something was wrong with me. When I struggled to figure out what to study in college and rejected things that I loved and filled me with joy – something was wrong with me. When I struggled to figure out what to do with myself professionally – something was wrong with me. When I married young and made a mess of it from the very beginning – something was wrong with me. When I experienced a 7 year battle with infertility – oh brother was there something wrong with me. You see where I’m going with this. Anything can be evidence when we have a general crappy story about ourselves.

And sometimes we use that story to generate more evidence. If there’s something wrong with me, I can’t really let people see who I am because then they’ll know. If there’s something wrong with me, I might as well give up on big dreams, big projects, big demands because it won’t go well anyway. If there’s something wrong with me, I’d better do everything I can to make things alright for everyone and then realize how annoying and exhausting that is so I can resent them. See how that works? Now THAT’s a great shitty story. It cuts both ways. It gives explanations for why things will never be better AND it fuels the internal meltdown fires. It allows you to both keep your distance and feel the devastation of loneliness. It allows you to self-sabotage at the deepest level.

pexels-photo-261734-2Do you have one of these, one of these horrible generic stories? Do you collect evidence for it? Do you use it to excuse yourself? Is it deeply written in your wiring even though you are starting to see it and your wise self KNOWS it’s the worst kind of b.s?

There’s work to do there. There’s work to do on that thing you’ve decided about yourself. And here’s the thing. That story? The one you’re already looking at with side eye – it’s a choice. It’s a choice you’ve made so many times it doesn’t even require you to participate any more.

So the work involves making a new choice, but that can be a really big step. So what about taking a smaller one. What about just noticing? What about just bringing that unconscious story you’re telling into the forefront? What about REALLY seeing yourself? What about deciding that MAYBE, just maybe thinking on purpose could be helpful and starting with noticing where you are today, right now, how often you have that thought, how often you retell that story, how strong and sure it feels, how ready you are to tell me that it’s a fact. Notice. That’s the first step, and even if you never take another, it will be different.

If that’s too small a step, dive into really changing things with my free mini book. It will tell you how to change that story of yours so you can watch your life change as a result. It really CAN be different.