An Open Letter To The Mothers of Baltimore on Mother’s Day

“A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”  –Matthew 2:18, NIV

Today, on Mother’s Day, no one will be bringing you breakfast in bed or signing your crumpled up card with cereal splashed on it.  The people who would celebrate you: your fathers, uncles, brothers, nephews, sons, are in jail or in boxes.  On Mother’s Day, like every other day, you’re living in a war zone.

This is your story:

“This was my home. This was my family. These were my friends. But they were ghosts now. There were few men looking out for the neighborhood any longer.

What’s left are boys trying to figure out how to be men — and how to avoid getting “big numbers” or ending up in ‘pine boxes.'”

Source:  http://www.cnn.com/2015/05/02/us/lord-of-the-flies-baltimore/index.html

Your men are gone, and everyone else is speaking for you, about what’s gone wrong, what needs to change, and how it can be done.

On Mother’s Day, this is what I want you to know:

  • YOU are the widows and the childless.
  • YOU are the ones who spell Trauma with a capital “T”.  Not just during the riots but every other day of the year.
  • YOU are the ones left counting fingers and toes to make sure the ones that leave the house in the morning come home.
  • YOU are the father, mother, wife, daughter–mourner–all in one.
  • YOU are the bone tired and overlooked.
  • YOU are the ones broken by broken systems.
  • YOU are the ones who would rather slap your boys today than find them in cells or boxes tomorrow.
  • YOU are the gatekeepers.
  • YOU are the fierce momma bear, protecting her cubs.
  • YOU are the shell shocked and battle worn.
  • IF there are stories to be heard, they are yours–not mine, not the talking heads, not the media’s.
  • IF there is healing, redemption even, it will be your victory.

While “we” reflect on what needs to change from a lofty perch, you are the ones too bone tired from work and grief to weigh in.

I’m a White momma raising a Black boy in Baltimore.  I can’t pretend to know your past, but you better believe I’m listening to your present, and I’m both afraid and hopeful for your future, for Baltimore’s future.

Mothers of Baltimore, you are the ones we need to hear from.  If healing will happen, it will happen through you.  YOU are the gatekeepers.  You ARE the gatekeepers.  You are THE gatekeepers.

Please, come forward and share your stories.

To My Clients About Your Meds

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Dear Esteemed Clients,

This letter, although personalized, is for all students/consumers of Psychiatric medications. It is written with the demoralized patient in mind and heart.

I’m attending a Psychopharmacology conference this week. Not because I love the world of diagnosis, medication, and clinical treatment (although it has an essential place), but because I want to understand you and your medications. I know your medication management can feel more like a high stakes poker game than a streamlined science. You wait for the river to turn up aces and you get twos instead. That is, you hope the benefits will outweigh the side effects, but your current cocktail of tapering, titration, or cross-tapering leads to yet another bad withdrawal effect.

I also know that you suffer the side effects in silence. You tolerate restlessness, sleeplessness, weight gain, mood fluctuations etc., because you think this round of medication is the best it’s going to get, OR because you don’t know how to communicate your symptoms. I want you to know, I hear you. And, you don’t have to settle.

Your doctors are stretched thin in a system where more hours are spent doing administrative work than face to face with patients. And you feel it, acutely. You feel the sterility of baring your soul with their backs turned because they’re typing furiously at the details of your medical confession. You feel their harried pace as you’re pushed in and out of offices. You feel your brain shut down as you’re pressured to share all pertinent diagnostic information in 2.5 minutes. Your doctors have a near impossible task, and so do you.

I hear you. I’m at this conference because I want to better serve you and your pursuit of medication management. I, too, am tired of the many complexities of collaborating with other professionals, and I’m tired of how that affects my ability to advocate for you. I believe there’s a better way, and I’m determined to find it.

So here’s what I want you to know:

1–Self-advocacy is essential. It’s easy to assume your doctor is all-knowing and there’s a great chasm between their expansive knowledge and your limited understanding. But you know your body better than anyone else. You know when something doesn’t feel right. You know when it does. Please advocate for yourself if you know something is wrong. Ask questions; give feedback; keep working at it until there’s a manageable solution.

2–A lot can be done to manage side effects. If your side effects feel debilitating, speak up. You don’t have to settle. It may be a simple tweak, or an added booster medication that can make all the difference.

3–Data is a doctor’s gold mine. Create a medication timeline with dates, symptoms, and previous medications prescribed, and side effects. This will provide a reference point for you, me, and other important providers. The more exact data you can give to your doctor, in simple format, the better he or she can eliminate months of trial and error. And don’t forget to tell your doctor about all vitamins and supplements, because they may interact with your medications.

4–Journal your treatment. After you start a new medication, jot down some brief, daily notes about experienced symptoms and changes. What do you feel physically, and what do you feel emotionally? You can use ratings on a simple scale, and there are even forms you can fill out, if you prefer. This will provide practical information to help you dialogue with your doctor and it will help your practitioner more accurately assess the efficacy of treatment. And if you’re concerned that your medication isn’t working, you’ll have data to support that conclusion. Data that will help them avoid other medications that could result in similar side effects.

5–Avoid the “medication dump”. The Psychiatrist’s worst nightmare is the patient who abandons their medication due to initial side effects without a plan and without communicating with them first. Valuable time is lost when you start a medication, go off of it due to side effects, but don’t see your doctor for another six weeks. That’s six weeks of continued suffering to then end up back at square one. This is demoralizing, among other things. IF your side effects feel unbearable, don’t suffer in silence. Call your doctor. If you can’t reach them, talk to your pharmacist. Many insurance companies also have a hotline for 24-hour consultations with a Nurse Practitioner or doctor. That hotline is another immediate option in case of emergencies.

I hope this list empowers you to make a paradigm shift: narrowing the gap between “omniscient” practitioner and “fragile” patient. Much can be done to increase collaboration, limit side effects, and establish a healthy, working relationship with your doctor. And this, of course, applies not only to psychiatric medication but all facets of your healthcare as well.

As I absorbed the myriad of psychopharmacology data this week, I was reminded that in spite of having a nearly impossible task there are Doctors in this world who care and are fiercely committed to your well-being. So am I. They’re listening; I’m listening. Talk to us.

With Your Health In Mind,

Amy

Beauty and the Selfie

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“‘I could not take my eyes from her face which grew larger as she approached, like a sun which it was somehow possible to stare at and which was coming nearer and nearer, letting itself be seen at close quarters, dazzling you with its blaze of red and gold.’ Proust wishes her to remain forever in his perceptual field and will alter his own location to bring that about: ‘to go with her to the stream, to the cow, to the train, to be always at her side.’” –Marcel Proust from “On Beauty and Being Just” by Elaine Scarry

Observers of beauty desire begotten immortality.

This is a fascinating assertion made by Elaine Scarry, Professor of Aesthetics at Harvard. Her definition of beauty is currently lost in translation in pop culture, which is why reviewing the points made, including those on replication and contractual agreements, primes the pump for a revitalized conversation on this well-worn topic.

Why does a man stare at a beautiful woman? According to Scarry, he stares because of his ardent desire to take in the beauty he sees until it becomes immortal, forever imprinted in his mind with all of its original, immutable features. Scarry says this: “The first flash of the bird incites the desire to duplicate not by translating the glimpsed image into a drawing or a poem or a photograph but simply by continuing to see her five seconds, twenty-five seconds, forty-five seconds later—as long as the bird is there to be beheld. People follow the paths of migrating birds, moving strangers, and lost manuscripts, trying to keep the thing sensorily present to them.”

You’ll have to forgive me for writing in essay form today, but it helps communicate her perspective, and I think her perspective is one that’s readily applicable to everyone from Facebook moms to LinkedIN execs.

According to the above quote, when we try to capture beauty, we recognize our mortal limitations, and observers of beauty desire begotten immortality. Once gone, the object of our admiration loses some of its original qualities in the fading recesses of our visual memories. How do we combat this in our quest to immortalize beautiful things? We find tangible ways to copy them. If beauty cannot remain immortalized in visual memory, we strive for the next best thing, to replicate it. “Beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people.” Beauty, upon becoming conscious of its tragic mortality, demands replication.

What’s the favored cultural choice for replication? The selfie. This self snapshot is a personalized way to copy our favorite moments, in freeze frame (recognizing their transience), with the hope that others will see and appreciate the aesthetic value. There’s an added benefit that others get to enjoy those moments with us. The selfie is a fun and practical way to mark events when others aren’t around to play the role of photographer, but as an example of beauty it falls short.

In selfies, the observed and observer are one and the same. The subject that is emanating beauty must attempt to copy itself. This may seem innocuous at first glance, but it deceptively supports the cultural ethos that tarnishes beauty’s reputation. This ethos is based upon a one-dimensional view of beauty that is superficial and self-conscious. Let me explain. In photography, the photographer plays the role of narrator, editing with the frame, choosing just the right light, and electing the exact moment to snap, the one that will best capture the edges of the human spirit. With the selfie the defined narrator is also the protagonist in the story. Therefore, the narrator loses essential perspective.

The outcome is this. What we end up capturing is not a self-forgetful photo that replicates beauty, but a contrived and self-conscious interpretation of what we think others want to see. In our self-consciousness we end up masking the attributes that would enhance others’ enjoyment of the aesthetic, we lose the three-dimensional replication. In this sense, the selfie is flat and one-dimensional. It captures us from the physical angles we believe enhance beauty–the eyes and cheekbones and lips, and these traits can be very appealing–but in our preoccupation with being photographer and subject, simultaneously, we lose our ability to unconsciously express a soulful beauty. The contrived nature of the photo whittles away some of the genuine expressiveness that would enhance the emanating internal beauty.

The exception to the selfie rule is when there’s more than one person in a selfie, at which point you may see less self-consciousness from those who aren’t playing the role of narrator. This advances the argument that beauty is best captured by an observer who is other-than the object of beauty itself.

Have you ever seen the candor in a captured expression that enriches the picture because of its self-forgetfulness? For example, a surprised or wide-eyed look, an unabashed and wide grin? These are all vestiges of the internal beauty rising to the surface at just the right moment of replication. Often, this effect is due to the interaction between the photographer and subject, an interaction that advances the storyline. This robust and non-superficial snap of beauty is best captured when the subject is acutely unaware of what he or she is emanating.

When we replicate beauty through photography, the interaction between photographer and subject can enhance the emergence of beauty in ways that allow it to be photogenically captured. This interaction hints at the communal nature of aesthetic emergence.

If beauty demands a separate observer (narrator) to interpret and replicate it, then beauty cannot be self-interpreted or solitary. “At the moment one comes into the presence of something beautiful, it greets you. It lifts away from the neutral background as though coming forward to welcome you—as though the object were designed to ‘fit’ your perception. In its etymology, ‘welcome’ means that one comes with the well-wishes or consent of the person or thing already standing on that ground. It is as though the welcoming thing has entered into, and consented to, your being in its midst. Your arrival seems contractual, not just something you want, but something the world you are now joining wants.”

The moral of the story? If we apply Scarry’s definition, then beauty is best interpreted, replicated, and celebrated not in the solitude of the selfie, but in engaged and receptive community.

I truly hope that you who are camera shy will reconsider allowing yourself to play the singular role of subject. I hope you will take the risk of being photographed at varied angles and with unfiltered expressions knowing that beauty may emerge in unexpected ways, and interpreted differently than you would interpret it yourself. Can you dare to allow your beauty to be interpreted by other narrators? Can you dare to believe your own attractive qualities, when replicated, may contribute to the well-being of your community?

Communal observers of beauty desire begotten immortality, because true beauty points to that which is life-giving.

Write What You Know

 

–Write what you know—

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It’s probably the most common advice handed down to the novice writer, often with the cold austerity of a principal handing off a diploma.  It’s a symbolic statement and a rite of passage.

It’s communicated with a nod that suggests: “You seem like you might someday know something, so when you get to that point, write it.  In the meantime—just fumble.”

 

My question.

 

–What if you don’t know anything and never will?—

 

It’s a dewy, wide-eyed look that accompanies this question.  It’s the look of a novice, scared to death.

This is a good question.  It’s one that occurred to me twenty years ago when I first received the advice to write what I know.  It still fits.

I don’t know anything.  Sure, there are things I understand, some things I have a decent grasp of, but I don’t know anything, not really.  At least not the way advice-givers mean.

To write what you know implies expertise.  And to be an expert implies arrival.  Those who are experts have reached a destination.  The problem is that if you’ve reached your destination, you’re no longer moving.  Arrival is static.

To be in process is dynamic.  To be in process implies perpetual motion.  There are no trappings of finality to entangle us there.

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I remember times in my life when I was an expert.  The arrogance of that belief is astounding, and it came with all the immovable stubbornness that accompanies static living.  Because I believed myself to be an expert, there was no room for community; there was no room for growth.

What did I miss?  Perspective.  Alternative views were lost on me.  Views that were robust and expansive.  Views that had flesh and bones, not just thoughts and words.

I thought I was an expert on grief, which is absurd.  Anybody who has experienced grief knows that you can’t even begin to understand grief until you feel like your body has melted so far into the wood panels of your floor that you’ll have to be scraped up, bit by bit.   And at that point the industrious hand of another–one that scrapes you off the floor–is invaluable and it’s the only option.  And even then, you don’t know grief.  You’ve just begun to learn.  I’ve only begun to learn.

_____________

Nowadays, for so many reasons, I’d rather be dynamic than static.  I’d rather be a novice than an expert.  I’d rather be dewy-eyed and eager to experience the world with curiosity, hunger, awe, and ever-so-many questions.

So, in the unlikely event that I’m asked, here’s my advice to anyone, like me, who wants to fumble at writing.

Write what you live and breathe and love and fear.  Write what you stumble upon and sit with and run away from.  Write what you don’t know but are trying to understand.

And if you don’t care about or want to write, then learn anyway.  Learn from what you live and breathe and love and fear.  Learn from what you stumble upon and sit with and run away from.  Learn from what you don’t know but are trying to understand.

Maybe then expertise will be usurped by a different and, dare I say, better goal.  Maybe then what you know will be replaced by what you desire.

 

 

Is Facebook the New Debbie Downer?

Debbie DownerThe true-to-life nature of SNL’s sketch on Debbie Downer now has backing from the Facebook Team. According to a Facebook research study, it turns out our moods are directly affected by what our friends share on social media.

I was sent a Mashable article on the ethical implications of this study and traced it back to the origin to uncover the conclusions of this peer-reviewed research.

Along with Cornell and UCSF, Facebook researchers used their news feed algorithm to edit the posted content on almost 700,000 user profiles. They skewed the feed either positively or negatively and then analyzed the resulting posts. The hypothesis was that the ingested content would affect the readers’ emotional states and contribute to an increased emotional response in their own posts. But the question was whether it would be correlative or inversely correlative. In other words, would reading positive content lead to writing more positive content or to writing more negative content? And vice versa.

The results? In short, they found that those whose feed was skewed positively ended up posting more positive content themselves and, conversely, those whose skewed negatively posted more negative content.

For some of you, this may seem like a no-brainer. However, in psychology theory it doesn’t always pan out this way. Some research supports the opposite results that positive content skews negatively as a bias effect (meaning we’re socially influenced and typically react against that influence by assuming the opposite emotional response).

However we view the ethical implications of this research, it supports an important counseling idea: co-rumination. This is the belief that our moods are affected by the moods of those around us. This is so pervasive that, cognitively, when we hear others share negative beliefs about themselves, negative information, or critical ideas, over and over in a cognitive loop (rumination), we’re more likely to internalize those beliefs and feelings ourselves and start our own pessimistic loop.

Debbie Downer is a great example of this. Maybe you’re having a good day, but then run into Debbie who shares bad news, or you read something depressing on the internet. How do you feel afterwards? How does that content affect you? Now, imagine that Debbie doesn’t just share one piece of bad news, but fifteen horrible tragedies; how do you feel then?

In a digital world, we’re more vulnerable to absorbing large quantities of information in a shorter period of time than we were in bygone, analogue eras. Much of what we absorb has an emotional bias, whether we’re aware of it or not. This means that what we’re ingesting from our news feed can be metabolized differently depending on the emotions underneath that content. And anybody who knows dieting knows that metabolic rates can either make or break weight loss. In the same way, our ability to metabolize emotional content will affect the way we feel, think, and react—making or breaking our day.

This means intentional decisions about who and what we learn from are important to our emotional well-being. It also supports something else. Absorbing information well means we need to learn to stand on our own two feet. (More on that later.)

Have you considered how much you’re impacted by what you see and read on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc.? It would be easy for any of us to believe we’re above such impressionable responses, but as social creatures we were made to respond to the emotions of fellow humans, so whether we like it or not mirroring their responses is instinctual and catalytic.

So if this post made you angry, or sad, you can just call me Debbie Downer, blame your mood on my irritating ruminations, and go back to scanning memes and witty aphorisms. Or, you can start viewing social media just a little bit differently.

For my part, I’m curious about Mark Zuckerberg’s emotional response when he sees articles like this hit his own news feed…

When Attachment Hurts

I recently wrote an article for an adoption blog on attachment issues.  While this article was meant for those who have children with complex trauma backgrounds, the theory of attachment is applicable to all.

Our underlying view of attachments will shape the way we experience others and relate to them.  I hope you find this article useful on your journey towards greater self-awareness.  

When Attachment Hurts

The buzzword in the adoptive community is, unequivocally, attachment.  For those who have never adopted or fostered, this word may have vague associations with dusty textbooks and archaic research studies.  But for those of you who have chosen the joyous and painful journey, this word has flesh and bones to it, in the form of your child.

The historical, prevailing wisdom dissected attachment into four categories.  These categories had a variety of names, all with similar, delineative meanings: Secure/Balanced; Anxious/Enmeshed; Avoidant/Detached; and Anxious-Avoidant/Ambivalent.

From my perspective, this view of attachment anaesthetizes the true complexity of it, and by doing so, diminishes how adoptive parents experience it in real time.  It also leaves these parents with an incomplete framework for understanding the rapid-fire emotional changes they witness in their traumatized child, and it gives little insight into managing those changes.  An example?

Cheerio Confusion:

One moment your child is clinging to you at breakfast, with loving arms encircling your neck.  The next moment she screams and smashes the cereal bowl following a simple request to wipe Cheerios off the table.  That same child, who was just doting on you, is now reminding you that you’re the worst parent ever, there’s never been anyone more horrible than you, and she wants to hurt you.  You’re bewildered.  You ask yourself why this is happening when the same request the day before yielded swift compliance—a completely different response.

Does reading this bring validation, intense emotions, or your own physical reaction?  If you said yes to any of these, then chances are you’ve experienced this, first-hand.  This attachment pattern is the most confusing and troublesome for adoptive and foster families.

Now bear with me while I get theoretical.  It’s important to have a framework that demystifies this experience.

While a traditional attachment view would say that the girl in our story has an ambivalent attachment, confining her to that box misses the fact that this style is a combination of two other attachment patterns.

Rather than compartmentalizing attachment styles as  secure, insecure, enmeshed, and ambivalent, I prefer to view attachment along a spectrum.  Take a look at the picture.  Think of it as a fulcrum, where the closer you are to a secure attachment, the more balanced the scale.  When you move along the fulcrum to one side or the other, it tips.  So the middle represents an emotionally balanced connection.

AttachmentSpectrum

On one side of the spectrum is enmeshed (clingy), the opposite of this is detached (avoidant or hostile), both are equally insecure attachments.  The fourth style, ambivalent, is demonstrated at the bottom of the diagram as a patterened response of moving between one end of the fulcrum and the other—between detachment and enmeshment.  The more extreme the attachment disorder, the more likely we are to live between the two ends of the scale, rapidly pinging back and forth.  For those exhibiting an ambivalent attachment, the imbalance is dramatic and polarizing.  The point, here, is that this type of imbalance quickly creates chaos.   

Unlike a compartmentalized view of attachment, this spectrum view presumes that all of us have dynamic attachment patterns.  We all move along the spectrum and the frequency and severity of that movement depends on the amount of stress we’re under.  This means that I’m not defined by being anxious, or avoidant, or insecure in my relationships, I will move between those descriptors, along the fulcrum, depending on my level of stress.

So why does this matter to you?

The more ambivalent your child’s attachment pattern, the more easily they kick up your own stress.  How many of you feel like, during crisis moments, your internal, emotional state reflects that of your child?  How many of you feel guilty when the same angry insults they are hurling at you are rising up in your mind regarding them?  Don’t.  You’re being triggered.  Rather than judging yourself, know that you’re under tremendous stress, and the chaotic emotions you feel mirror what they’re feeling too.

The good news?  They can move from the edges of the spectrum closer to the middle.   The other good news?  So can you.

Rather than trying to move your child from one attachment “category” to another, you can think in terms of lessening the frequency and duration of their polar responses between enmeshed and detached.

If we’re aware of how these traumatized children are moving across the spectrum of attachment, we can better understand how to tailor our responses.  De-mystifying this experience is the conquered first step.

Once you understand this, the next step is to consider how to calm yourself down when their shocking responses are programmed to suck you in to their emotional vortex.  If you’re drawn in to the chaos, the likelihood of the two of you overreacting is high.

Now, let me make this very clear:  This. Is. Not. Easy.

I have tremendous respect for those who have made the decision to foster or adopt.  And working with a child who exhibits this ambivalence on a regular basis is very difficult.  So any suggestions I make or insight I offer I do with the understanding that this is painful and exhausting.

It’s for this very reason that it is essential to find a supportive community that understands adoption, to provide support and resources during crisis.

There are two traps I see parents fall into.  And the first trap initiates the second.  First, they view the attachment as overly fragile.  Because many parents have been indoctrinated with the importance of healthy attachment for their child’s healing, they often believe they have to tiptoe around the child with the utmost sensitivity, which ends up being burdensome, exhausting, and can lead to increased triggered responses on the parent’s part, as well as tension and anxiety for the child, who is attuned to your responses.

The second trap is that because of this fragile view of attachment, parents are so concerned with maintaining the connection in order to generate healing that they end up living in enmeshment while believing they’re creating a healthy attachment.

What does this look like in real time? 

Long, drawn out conversations about emotions and copious amounts of time spent trying to engage your child to facilitate the connection (the belief being that time spent correlates with attachment security).  In reality, spending too much time in emotional conversations with your child increases the likelihood that you both become stressed and you both overreact.

Parents’ hypersensitivity to their child’s emotional cues will likely increase their child’s hyper-vigilance.  And if the parents view the attachment as fragile, this will increase their sensitivity to the child’s cues.  It’s a vicious cycle.

The number one way to combat this is through awareness.  You need a clear understanding of the landscape to know how to respond.  Picture the attachment spectrum in your head; consider where you fall on that spectrum during moments when you’re most upset.  Do you tend towards anxiety? Avoidance? Or toggle between both?

Now, what do you notice about your child?  Can you pinpoint where they are on that spectrum during times when they’re upset?  What would it look like to view them as more resilient?  What would it look like to stay calm while they are in crisis?  What do you need to remember from what you’ve learned, here, to be able to do that?

For traumatized children, we can respect the nature of their attachment to us without being overwhelmed by its fragility.  Putting language to the interaction patterns with them will allow us to better understand their actions and our reactions, moment by moment.  As we begin to understand those and get perspective on the obstacles we’ll face, we open the doorway to incorporating interventions and experiencing them, and ourselves, with greater resiliency.

Buried beneath their stressed responses are the personalities of some really awesome kids, full of vibrancy, curiosity, and creativity.  And buried beneath your stressed responses, you’ll find the reflection of your former self, the pre-adoption part of you that was also more vibrant and more curious.  I bet you’re longing to see that.

The New Mentor?

Mentoring

As I was skimming articles the other day I came across this headline from Harvard Business Review: “Find a Micro-Mentor for Your Next Short-Term Project”

I felt immediately deflated.

It was the management tip of the day, and the description indicated that since mentors are in short supply, securing their attention requires offering a short-term arrangement of less than a month to complete a singular project.

The idea that future mentoring might parallel the micro-blog trend is disappointing to me.  The term is currently used to describe a variety of personal and professional relationships where the more experienced pedagogue imparts upon the newly minted protege wisdom, guidance, support, and perspective for self-development.

If professional mentoring is trending towards brief stints with one, task-oriented outcome, what differentiates it from project management?

The etymology of this word comes from Greek mythology.  Mentor was the friend to King Ulysses who cared for the King’s son, Telemachus, during his twenty-year absence.  Mentor’s influence on Telemachus was formative to his insight, moral development, and character growth, thus the association of his name with this valuable role.  (source)

There are many famous and exemplary mentoring pairs, even ones that pre-date the creation of the word.  In the Old Testament there’s Elijah and Elisha; in the New Testament, Paul and Timothy; there’s Socrates and Plato; Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross; Freud and Jung; in more modern times, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra; Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot; Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, and the list goes on and on.

There’s a fascinating history in between the mythological introduction of the word and our current usage.  It’s worth researching to understand the evolution of the concept and how its changing usage mirrors cultural trends.  I’ll leave the rest to your own intrigue.

The modern iteration of the term was initiated with the 1978 pivotal work, The Seasons of a Man’s Life.  It was at this critical juncture that mentoring ideology moved from communal learning to self-actualization. (source)

Rather than emphasizing individuation, I believe the goal of mentoring is not only to benefit the people on both sides but also the lives of their surrounding circles of influence.  If mentoring becomes self-actualizing or condensed project management, the community suffers.  This form of reductionism, if broadly applied, would also leave us without essential accountability.

The longevity of the mentoring relationship is one of its most endearing qualities.  The opportunity to meet with a trusted adviser who understands us, knows our history, and is available to our questions is invaluable.

While I understand that there’s a denotative divide between personal and professional, here, I sometimes wonder if there should be.  If we divide mentoring relationships categorically, we lose the impact of the term as indicative of someone who gets the whole picture and shapes the whole person.

If our culture is trending towards this type of reductionism regarding mentors, I hope we can resist the temptation to trend with it.  I’m concerned that if the original intention of those relationships is diminished, it will lead to less accountability and minimal opportunity to be sharpened by the wisdom, insight, and character of those who have gone before us.

For my own love of poetry, I wonder what T.S. Eliot’s works would’ve been like had he spent only a month with Ezra Pound…

 

Pixelated People

Garry Winogrand--airportI’ve been walking the streets of the Capital over the past few days, enjoying a mini holiday.  I’ve also been discovering this urban wonderland afresh through a 50 millimeter lens.  On Thursday as I began to experience DC from a multi-lens perspective, I happened upon an exhibit at the National Gallery of Art featuring Garry Winogrand.

For those of you who don’t know, Garry was a still photographer, mainly working in the 60’s and 70’s, who was adept at capturing human emotion with rich metaphor as subtext.  He sought to convey both the connection and fragmentation between humans, and did so mostly in his home state of New York as well as in California and Texas.  He juxtaposed urban life with country fairs in ways that were startling and compelling to admirers of his work.  He became a teacher of the medium, both formally and informally, and many of his photographs were unveiled posthumously (a fact that has intrigued many for the perceived implications that he was less interested in showcasing and more interested in capturing the art form).

As I meandered through the Gallery exhibit, I was struck by the dramatic switch from frames of disconnection to connection.  So often both were found in the four walls of one photograph.  In the middle of the exhibit, there was a detailed explanation of why he enjoyed taking pictures in airports.  He considered airports to be hubs not only for arrivals and departures of planes, but also the patterned entrances and exits of human connectedness.  He found those transits to be rich sources for portraying the contrast.  He would see loved ones issue tearful and dramatic good-byes, then immediately exit and ignore everyone around them as they boarded planes.

It was the space between apathetic humans walking in proximity that particularly interested him, according to the exhibit.  As I registered this intentional decision of his to seek out disconnection and portray it, I was struck by a thought.  Where do we see that kind of fragmentation on display currently?  In a post-911 world, we don’t find it in the same way in airports, at least not the juxtaposition of tearful good-byes to apathetic plane entrances.

His decision to seek out airport disconnection seemed worth pondering, so I came up with a few other places where cultural fragmentation is currently on display.

Urban streets: These streets host masses of feet committed to perpetual motion and marching in horizontal and vertical patterns, sometimes sliced across by a diagonal line, cutting the cadence of the toed rhythm.  These feet are continuously kicking their way through crowded intersections, attached to legs, arms, and elbows, blocking out and defending against fellow humanity.

The fact that shoving others in a crowd is such a defensive act contributes to the cold and sterile disconnect.  In order to take such a defensive posture, we have to make a decision that our agenda, needs, and desires are more important, thereby elevating ourselves and diminishing the humanity of the people around us.

Grocery stores: Where tomatoes share a common fate, but are divided by vastly different purposes depending on the purchaser.  We’re all there to buy the same produce, meats, dairies, etc. but the varying combinations of utility seem to be more divisive than uniting.  If I smile at people in the grocery store, or hold the door for them, or help them with their carts, I usually get a startled or confused look.

My takeaway?  Connection is inherently unexpected.  We’re more inclined to anticipate dodgy glances, fights over the last loaf of fresh-baked bread, or Bluetooth calls piercing the air with the hope of dialogue that just isn’t meant for us.

Have you been in Target lately?  Fighting over the grocery store conveniences is extended further to clothes, home goods, electronics, and pet supplies.  The larger quantity of stuff only increases the combination of decisions we have to make that leave us with a strong agenda, haphazard pathways, and little interest in interacting with others in our laser-focused task orientation.

Trains, Buses, Taxis:  Maybe the new airport of disconnection comes in the form of trains and automobiles.  It would seem that any invention meant to move people is also prone to silence them between point A and point B.  When there is noise, it’s not directed at the kind stranger, it’s at our electronic devices.  And elevators?  We all know that they are champions of awkward silence designed to glue our gazes to the beyond mundane fake, wood floor, or poorly patterned carpet.

This exercise is not meant to shame or judge or even point out our flaws in engaging in these patterns.  I’ve made the decision many times over to push through crowds defensively or sit in silence on a bus or fix my gaze to the elevator floor.

I have noticed, however, that the times when I do break pattern are times that are generally rewarding.

To reach out to a surrounding someone when the expected cadence is disconnection is a startling and bold act.  So when we do it, we may get initial surprise or confusion, but oftentimes there’s a softening, and a remembered realization that we’re all human, and that the crowds we’re pushing through are not objects but beings.  The feet we’re kicking against are not speed bumps but are lives with failures, successes, and plans of their own.  The hands that are fumbling to pick out ripe produce are hands designed for work and for play, just like ours.  The eyes that are shifting downwards in the elevator are beautiful, lucid, and brimming with stories, both happy and sad.

We are united by the fact that we’re people.  We share common experiences, emotions, stories, failures, successes, body parts, family units, hobbies, work goals, daily routines, and the list could go on and on.

So maybe this seems basic, or soap box-esque, or unimportant, but when I share these same stories in counseling, there’s often a deep exhale.

Why is that?  Because it’s normalizing.  To know that we’re all people and we all experience the world in similar ways means that maybe our fears, failures, and shortcomings aren’t so very different from others.  And if that’s the case, maybe it’s worth the risk of reaching out in connection during those times when connection is least expected.

I’d like to share this quote from Winogrand that is eerily applicable here:

I like to think of photographing as a two-way act of respect. Respect for the medium, by letting it do what it does best, describe. And respect for the subject, by describing as it is. A photograph must be responsible to both.

When we ignore others on sprawling, urban streets or avoid them in elevators or push past them to get produce, do we allow their humanity to be what it is?  Or do we diminish it, overshadowing their personhood with the immediacy of our agendas?   I believe we all want our humanity to be respected in those moments; so it seems worth the effort to respect others within a deeply self-conscious and fragile divide.

 

A Gift Giving Guide By Ebenezer Scrooge

Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father.  He became as good a friend, as good a master, as good a man, as the good old city knew, or as any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.  Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms.  His own heart laughed, and that was quite enough for him.  –Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

 

It strikes me as odd that trees turn to sticks, sloughing off their foliage just weeks before we’re thrust into the requisite, gift-giving season.  It’s as if nature is shrugging away the last vestige of its bountiful, autumn gift in protest of the holiday trappings–trappings that can feel as prickly and barren as an unadorned oak tree in winter.

What’s even more unfortunate is that this sacrosanct undressing opens my expansive set of office windows to an unencumbered view of the Wal-Mart parking lot. It’s as if the beautiful oak outside my windows, emblazoned with red and yellow in the Fall, is shedding its leaves as a callous tribute to one of the least desirable trappings of the holidays: last minute gift shopping.

There’s an economy to gift-giving, one that would make Scrooge proud.  Mind you, I’m not talking about the dollar value of the gift.  I’m referring to something much broader and more subconscious than that.  There’s the transactional analysis between the gift giver and the receiver where the tone, gesture, chosen time, and type of gift all communicate the level of value the recipient has to the giver.  We instinctively know, upon receiving a gift, what it truly cost the giver.  We instinctively know, upon receiving a gift, our relational value by virtue of the giver’s choice.

One wife who receives perfume from her husband every year knows that it’s his expression of familiarity, care, comfort, and thoughtfulness.  She knows that he is secretly communicating that he loves her scent and he is still committed, year after year.  While another wife, upon receiving the same yearly gift knows it’s her husband’s uninspired expression, an unwelcome interruption to his hurried, holiday pace.

No pressure, right?

One of the sticking points of the holidays is all the “gifts” we give in reaction to intuitively understood expectations.  We give of our time, energy, and emotional resources.  We give away those last, solid three minutes of uninterrupted space to add extra holly to the table decorations.  We give away moments of laughter with a beloved friend to sprint through the mall and grab the last, shiny gift card to (insert relative’s favorite restaurant, clothing store, or holiday event). We give away the opportunity for silence, solace, breath and immerse ourselves in chaos, noise, and crowd.

Please don’t mistake me, here.  I love moments of frantic, fast-paced, shopping and delicious, party noise.  I love to immerse myself in surround sound laughter, jokes, and stories around hot chocolate or wine during this time of year.

However, if there is an economy to gift giving, and if the definition of giving can be broadened to include time, emotional reserves, and energy, then a transactional analysis would say we have limited assets to give.  How many of us approach the holidays as if we have infinite energy and emotional resources only to come out on the other side in the red?  How many of us feel worn and aged by the season, wondering afterwards how we’ll ever be able to generate more emotional revenue?

When we indiscriminately give away our “gifts”, we run the risk of depleting our resources to the point where we can’t give the offerings that truly matter to the people who truly matter. Read that again, and slowly.  We can’t give the offerings that truly matter to the people – who truly matter.

In case this is all sounding too theoretical, and on the strong chance that you’re bored with (or panicked by) the economy metaphor, let’s talk details.  Most of us have a good idea, early on, what the holiday landscape will look like.  There are the annual parties, children’s performances, work outings, volunteer opportunities, etc. So as we take a moment to observe that landscape, it’s important to ask ourselves a few questions:

  • If I attempt to do it all, will the people I value suffer?
  • Which activities provide the most meaning to myself and the people I care about?
  • Which activities unnecessarily deplete my reserves?
  • Which activities are really just noise?
  • What is my mission for this season? In other words, what would give this season true value?

As we ask ourselves these questions, we can choose to make the people and things we value most a holiday priority.  Since gift giving communicates how much we value the other, maybe we can all broaden our definitions of giving this year, and think carefully about to whom, how, and why we choose to give.  Maybe the best gift you’ll receive this year is the holiday note from a friend scribbled in marker on that faded, blue card.  Maybe the best gift you’ll give this year is a radiant smile, a meaningful embrace, or a can of soup to someone in need.

If each of us embraced this concept of intentional giving, maybe we would look a bit more like Ebenezer Scrooge at the end of A Christmas Carol; our experience of the holidays would be transformed and transformational in our own hearts and in the world around us.  And like Scrooge experienced, maybe a bit more merriment would return to our season.  Could we possibly have that twinkle in our eyes, and a lightened, bouncing step through the holidays?

Art as Relationship

When art is done well, it mirrors the many facets of human connection. It whispers of relationship, beckoning beyond what is to what could be.

Woodberry Kitchen creates great art. It creates it in a common language that points us towards the already and not yet of relationships. The atmosphere, food, and drink inspire with warmth. The flavors are comfortable and familiar, yet intensely bright. When I’m there, it’s as if they know better than I do what I’m craving. The thoughtfulness that goes into their food stirs my longings for that same level of intention with friends and family. We all want relationships that are thoughtful, warm, and inviting.

Woodberry Kitchen tells a story through the common language of food. They tell that story so well, in fact, that my friend Brody decided to showcase the restaurant in his video.

Brody is a branding humanitarian. He creates the opportunity for companies to tell their stories by helping them connect with the humanity in others.

His company’s vision is based on the co-constructed narrative of relational value. He explains it this way: “We are all relational and finite creatures… We can’t do everything ourselves. We need the services of others to make our lives complete…We want to be with those who see the light we see, who value what we value, who are inspired by what inspires us.”

This recognition of interconnectedness in his company’s pursuit of branding draws many to their doors. They get the core of what we’re attracted to. We want to interact with other people who are inspired by what inspires us. We want to do life with those who create art–art that we can connect with personally.

Our humanity requires connection. We can not escape it, no matter how hard we try. For better or worse, we are in relationship with one another.

For the duration of 2013, I want to explore that interconnectedness. I want to look at it from different angles, inspecting each side with curiosity. I would like to invite you to explore with me. We’ll consider storytellers, themes, and contexts, that share a common journey.

This is purposefully done with the holidays in mind. As we approach a season that’s meant to celebrate those connections, we often find ourselves in conflict with others. There can be a clash of values, desires, and expectations, to name a few.

If we all long for those connections, why are they particularly hard to come by during the “most wonderful time of the year”?

The holidays can be a time of inspirational experiences. A time filled with the creation of art in its purest form. A time where thoughtfulness comes to life. Those opportunities are often hindered by a variety of conflicts that seem to intensify during this season.

As we reflect together on the anticipation and trepidation that comes with the holidays, I hope we can begin a conversation that adds value beyond the temporal season. I hope we can tell each other stories of the Woodberry Kitchens and the branding humanitarians, stories of connections awakened. It is my belief that those stories will reveal the artful longings behind our humanity.

Stay tuned…