The Very Things

“We often take for granted the very things that most deserve our gratitude.”
― Cynthia Ozick

Who hasn’t had weeks or days like this? When it seems that everything that can go wrong does. When every item that lands on your plate is a challenge to your ethics or your knowledge or your compassion. When your plans are derailed time and again by forces outside your control: the weather, mechanical difficulties, other people. At times such as these we have few options other than to just do our best as we find a way through. Even though objectively I know I can only do my best as each challenge presents itself, subjectively many times my best feels woefully inadequate.

So when I came across the quote, above, from author Cynthia Ozick, it seemed like a good idea to take a few minutes in the midst of this week to be grateful for some of the things I take for granted.

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Healthy, fresh food: This was my Sunday brunch, a frittata made with sweet potatoes, asparagus, onion, grape tomatoes, mushrooms, cheese and eggs. With a rich cup of French roast coffee to wash it down, of course! When I stop to think about the fact that I have both the means and the access to acquire the freshest, healthiest ingredients – and how many people in this country, this world, don’t –  I am truly humbled and grateful. At the same time, if I really think about this, I am also energized to find ways for all people to have this simple abundance.

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Natural beauty, even in winter: This photo of the Cedar River was taken in February on a day when I just needed to have a calming moment of stillness. I drove out to a rural access point, and spent a while just gazing at nature (mostly from inside my car, as the temps were dropping rapidly that afternoon). I have, only lately, come to appreciate nature and its direct impact on my mood. It seems miraculous to me that we live in a world where such beauty is, literally, just around the corner.

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Kindred spirits: On a recent trip to sunny Florida, I optimistically wore sandals to the airport, despite the bitingly cold wind here. I knew it would be in the high 70s when we arrived at our destination. My friend, Molly, saw my toes and asked if I had recently had a pedicure, which I had. Turns out, so had she – and we had selected the same shade of sparkly orange polish! One of the things I value greatly about my friends is that we are all so different from one another – in age, temperament, experiences – yet on a level deep beneath the skin we “get” each other. The love and respect inherent in these friendships with my kindred spirits is such a gift – one that I rely on heavily in difficult times. Sometimes, it is hard not to take them for granted due to the ease and natural fit of our friendship. I need to remember that my friends and family are people to treat with true appreciation on a daily basis, as that is how often they lighten the burden and increase my joy in life.

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Sunshine: It is March. In Iowa. Every moment of sunshine is a little miracle that needs to be appreciated.

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Serendipity: It just so happened that I arrived at the Merritt Island Bird Sanctuary on the morning after something or someone had trashed the bird feeders next to the observation deck, spilling the bird seed on the ground and offering a veritable feast for a variety of species. Including these painted buntings – which the volunteer at the sanctuary informed us were a rare sight. Another example of serendipity: my friend Wendy gave me a gift certificate for a 60-minute massage (she gave it to me for my birthday in July). I realized several weeks ago that the certificate expired at the end of March, and scheduled the first available evening appointment – which was last night. Not knowing, at the time I scheduled the appointment, what would be happening this week, the massage could not have come at a better time. Appreciating these moments when the confluence of events creates just the right and needed experience to salve my soul is an important form of gratitude. These are the moments that remind me that all good things come as gift and grace, rather than through my own deserving.

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Simple Silliness: I tend toward the serious most days. My work involves people and their life issues, which are serious business. When moments arrive which allow the freedom of letting go of all that seriousness, it is a big deal to let go and relax into them. I love that Mike captured this photo of me engaging, with silly abandon, in a misguided attempt to make a snow angel on the hard, crusted snow covering Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis a few weeks ago.

So, there are six things that I tend to take for granted which are richly deserving of gratitude. There are many more – education, clean water, fresh air, family – the list may, in fact, be endless. Endless, because I suspect the truth is that gratitude should be the center from which I live into each moment of this precious life I’ve been given. Each moment experienced as gift – I wonder how that would change my perceptions? My interactions? My creativity and flexibility when faced with life’s challenging and emotionally depleting days? What if I could also add my own imperfections to the list of items I am grateful for? Wow, that would likely be a game-changer. Imagine saying, “Thank you for my fear.” “Thank you for my confusion.” “Thank you for my flawed nature.” Hmmm. That, my friends, may be fodder for another post!

Note: I invite you to share in the comments some thing(s) you take for granted but would like to be grateful for – I would love to hear your thoughts!

March 28, 2013

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I’m not really certain how we ended up here, at the end of March already. I am certain of one thing, though: living your best life takes paying attention. Not like being in focused study mode all the time, we all need times to cut loose and relax. But if I get too caught up in the busyness of each day, the endless to-do lists that I feel I need to keep crossing things off of, time passes without my awareness. When that happens, my happiness quotient drops way down. My liveliness and my care for others disappears. There’s an old Broadway musical called “Stop the World, I Want to Get Off!”. I don’t want to stop it, just slow it down. I want to stop participating in the American cult belief that my degree of harried stress determines my worth as a person and as a productive member of society.

This concludes my Thursday morning soapbox!

Passion Flows…

“I believe we’re still at the beginning of this thing called the human experience.”
–Dustin Lance Black

Opening sessions of professional conferences tend toward the self-congratulatory, even for earnest and well-meaning professions like mine. We cheer for ourselves, we talk about our highest mission and values, we acknowledge our shared successes. And occasionally, we invite a keynote speaker whose values we expect to mirror our own but whose words challenge us in ways we didn’t anticipate. This was my experience on Sunday evening at the opening session of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) conference, when filmmaker and activist Dustin Lance Black walked on stage to talk about our conference theme, “Bold Without Boundaries”.

If you don’t know who Black is, please take a moment and watch this video clip of his Academy Awards acceptance speech for Best Original Screenplay for the film, “Milk” (and read more about him here.)

NASPA, as is true of all professional student affairs organizations of which I am a member, is supportive of all kinds of diversity. Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students find our professionals to be, by and large, their campus allies. And yet, the work of understanding, listening to and valuing others is unending. Our students grow and move on, a fresh crop with their fresh experiences and fresh ignorances arrive every year. In addition, some of us work for institutions where there are barriers to being effective allies – whether they are real or perceived barriers, they affect our work in concrete ways. It is sometimes difficult to maintain passion for the day-in-day-out nature of advocacy and support.

But that’s my profession. This blog is about me, and this piece is about how I reacted and am responding to Dustin Lance Black’s keynote address. My incomparable parents, Jack and Shirley, raised me and my siblings to be accepting and affirming toward all people – and I have striven to act accordingly throughout my life, though certainly I haven’t perfectly achieved this. Since the day (in the late 1980s) that my beloved sister came out to me, I have been aware that belief, in the abstract, is very different from living what one believes. In the end, as so many wise people have observed, it isn’t what you say that people remember, its what you do.

This is all context for the truth of where I was on Sunday as I prepared to head to the opening session – which was burnt-out, blase, and jaded.  I figured it would be another speech about truths with which I am already too conversant (suicide rates among teens who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual; the bullying of transgendered persons). And while he did talk about these things, what Black actually shared, through the unique lens of his experience, were his thoughts on leadership. And what he said spoke to me in a direct and impactful manner.

Black shared that his first experiences of leaders taught him that leadership has something to do with fear. Luckily, his life was later informed by leaders, like Harvey Milk, who understood that leadership derives from passion rather than fear. “Without passion, you can be in charge,” Black said, “but you can’t lead.”  His passion, he told us, flows from everything that he is. He strongly encouraged us to give of our own unique selves, and told us, “You don’t even have to be very good at whatever it is you do if you do it with passion.” Examples abound of people who are not especially gifted but who make a difference and have an impact by building on that foundation.

If you paused to watch his Oscar speech, you may have noted the promise he made to young gays and lesbians: that – soon – their rights would be federally protected. Black received a lot of flack from established gay and lesbian advocacy organizations about that – he was told not to rush things, that “they had a 25-year plan”. In the midst of working for a faster timeline, Black had the opportunity to meet the great Julian Bond, who told him, “Good things do not come to those who wait, they come to those who agitate.” Black went on to say that, in his mind, the great tragedy of the gay rights movement has been not being bold soon enough; asking for crumbs and trying to be satisfied with that.

So, what were the takeaways that made me want, all week, to write about this address? First, the power of telling our personal stories. If passion flows from everything that we are, as Black attests, then that “everything” is contained in my story. The key is that I have to be willing to craft my own story AND to share it, honestly and simply, with others. This is how we connect, how we learn to be open to individual and group difference. It is how we, if we wish to lead, generate passion in others for whatever our vision may be.

Second, that in spite of all the ways I’ve worked to change and grow in my life, I am still too willing to let my own life’s path be dictated by others. I remain too willing to accept crumbs, when I should demand the whole delicious slice of cake. Whether professionally or personally, I still fail too many times to be the driver of my own life. This is a learned behavior (albeit a tenacious one) that I need to unlearn. Black said, “Hope is just delayed disappointment.” In that context, I need to stop hoping and start agitating!

Third, that I need to be less afraid of breaking fragile eggshells and more conversant with making omelets. Or, stated more directly: I need to start speaking my damn mind. Instead of worrying about whom I will offend by saying what I think, I need to be worrying about whom I harm by keeping silent – even if the only person harmed is me. So fair warning, friends and foes alike – I plan to uncork this bottle! My purpose won’t be to break things; rather, it will be to stir things up and create something delicious in the process.

Hopefully, it is apparent that I was moved by Dustin Lance Black’s address. His story was beautifully told, with compassion and humor. I felt myself responding to his admonitions in a very personal and profound way which I hope will have an enduring affect on me. And I am grateful to know that even a burnt and cynical old bird can be exhorted to stretch her wings again.

Note: The Supreme Court will hear the case challenging California’s Proposition 8 next week. It has been a major effort of many, including Dustin Black, to fight Prop 8 and to work toward federal civil rights protections for ALL citizens – namely for our LGBT brothers and sisters. I support gay marriage rights, as part of an overall civil rights agenda, and have been a proud defender of them in my home state of Iowa, where gay marriage has been legal since April 3, 2009.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

 

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Sorry, first off, about the quality of the photo. My telephone camera is getting worse and worse! Second, I want you to know that I didn’t want to step on the scale this morning, much less actually post this weight. I have been at a conference, where there wasn’t the kind of choice or control over my food options I am used to – nor was there time for the level of exercise I prefer to keep the day’s net calories in check. But the reality is that I am up several pounds and it isn’t only because of the conference. I haven’t been making the choices which I know are best in the long run – I’ve been managing stress and overload by falling into old patterns.

So, even though I thought about not posting this week, I did. The point is to share that a journey of the sort I’m on isn’t one that moves in a straight line. In real life, as opposed to “The Biggest Loser”, we sometimes go in circles. I’m (hopefully) done going in circles and am back to a straighter trajectory – at least, that is the choice I am making in this moment. And this moment is the only one I know about for sure!

Revision and Connection

Recently, I have been scouring the internet for photocopies of famous writer’s handwritten and edited manuscripts and notebooks. I am fascinated by the look of them – the humanity of crooked handwriting, misspellings, ink blotches and smears. More, though, I love seeing the layers of thought they reveal as writers edit, scratch out, write over the top of their original words. As they perfect their sentences and their articulation of an inner vision. (Click here to see a few images.)

Some writers grouse about revising and editing their work. Not me.

Not only do I enjoy editing my work, I love the feeling that, as I do, I come closer and closer to touching what I meant to say. In this way, the written word allows for something that my direct, spoken communication rarely does: removing the awkwardness from my expression. On the one hand, the carefully crafted written word is the ultimate in self-conscious communication – after all, it is finished on the far side of time and space to think and feel and reconsider and restate. On the other hand, the stuttering self-consciousness of face-to-face speech is utterly missing.

While I love having the opportunity to revise and edit my writing, I am also aware there are dangers inherent in this activity of revising. First, there is the danger of overcomplicating what should be simple (or at least simply stated). Any one of the few individuals who has ever received a card or letter from me in which I’ve tried to express my romantic feelings for them can attest to this – I don’t know how to write simply about my feelings. Of course, I can’t express them at all in person; complicated statements may be preferable to silence.

Another danger of editing and revision is the temptation to raise every thought or concept to the level of High Art or Philosophy (capital letters intended!). It’s easy to begin with a true, small story and end with an epic of mythic proportions. Just keep elevating the language. I have written a number of versions of a story about “Crazy Hats Day” at my Girl Scouts day camp when I was a child. They all start out as a little story about how thoughtless children can be…and all end up as missives on the great themes of Motherly Love, Shame/Guilt and Forgiveness.

A third, and probably the most insidious danger in revision is the temptation to blur the truth: to gloss over the parts where we behave badly, to obscure our own warts. In short, to fudge a little. C’mon, admit it, we all like to do some of this with the stories we tell. I know people in my line of work who, charged with addressing student behaviors through college judicial processes, will tell you everyone lies in their disciplinary hearings. I prefer to think of it as a natural human tendency to construct our stories in such a manner that we show in the best possible light. Few of us wish to be the villains of our own stories.We want to be the heroes.

For our own self-esteem, we may need to revise some of our stories to place ourselves in the hero role. As Tony Robbins has famously said,  “We are defined by the stories we tell ourselves… Is your story empowering you… or is your story causing you to fall short?” However, this commentary is about the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, rather than those we are sharing with others.

When the point of telling our stories is to connect with others, this form of revision can hurt, rather than help, us. What if, as I believe, our connection with others depends on our ability to reveal both our breathtaking brilliance AND our deepest darknesses? What if the world wants and needs our flawed humanness to shine through, instead of the wart-free perfection of an airbrushed picture? Perhaps human connection requires our rough or broken pieces to find compatibly rough and broken spots in another before we can not only touch, but also hold on.

When using certain adhesives, we are directed to take sandpaper to the surface to rough it up a bit before applying the epoxy. This helps form a tighter bond. I’m not, we’re not, required to share anything – not required to expose our unedited selves or stories. But if we want better, tighter bonds with other people, we need to be willing to expose the rough patches. In the process of revising and editing our life stories, we would do well to remember this and leave a few of the honest imperfections and mistakes in clear view.

Flashback Friday: Reflecting on empathy and yesterday’s post

To follow up on yesterday’s post, a beautiful video on empathy produced by Cleveland Clinic, a nonprofit medical center. (I saw the video on NPRs “On Being” facebook page).

As I watched it, I was reminded just how little we know about what is going on for the people we  cross paths with on any given day. I have walked through hospitals, as in the video, wondering what was behind the mostly impassive faces I saw. The video asks, “If you knew…”, would you treat these people differently?

My hope, of course, is no. But many days the reality falls short. Luckily, its something I can be aware of and improve – even in the case of insensitive doctors whom I will stop calling names. So here’s to an empathetic Friday – and a daily infusion of compassion into our interactions with others!

Open Letter to Physicians: Don’t Be a Dr. Douchebag

Dear Physicians:

I have a wonderful doctor, who has never made me feel anything but cared about and supported; every patient deserves this from their medical professionals, whether it is their first appointment with a doctor or their fiftieth. Unfortunately, not all patients are the recipients of thoughtful and appropriate communication from their physicians.

A few weeks ago, I received a telephone call from a woman who is very important to me. Our conversation went something like this:

My friend:  “I have a sinus infection and I needed to get in to see the doctor. They couldn’t see me at my local clinic, but their clinic one town over could get me in this afternoon, so I went. I was sitting in the exam room when the doctor, whom I’ve never met or seen before, walked in. He looked me up and down, even walking around me and looking at my backside. Then he said, ‘I’ve got to say, when I read your chart and saw your height and weight, I walked in here expecting to see Jabba the Hut. Congratulations, you carry your weight very well.’ “
 
Me: “Oh my God! He actually said that?”
 
My friend: “Yes. Jabba. The. Hut. At first, I didn’t think I heard him right.”
 
Me: “What did you do?”
 
My friend: “Nothing.” (She starts to cry.) “I was so embarrassed and humiliated. I didn’t know what to do or say so I just sat there.”
 

Our conversation went on for quite a bit longer – with many attempts on my part to reassure my friend that she didn’t deserve to be spoken to that way and with tears of self-recrimination and hurt on her part. There was quite a bit of colorful language with the word “douchebag” liberally thrown around, primarily by me.

Let’s unpack what was going on here. The doctor, seeing that he had a patient waiting for him, read her chart – that’s a good thing. Noting her height and weight, that she is overweight and, let’s face it, short, an image came into his mind. Mental images happen, it means he’s human. However, here’s where the event went terribly wrong.

The image that came into his mind was of a grotesquely slimy, filthy, amorphous blob of a character from Star Wars. A character meant to represent indulgence in all of the most gross sins of the flesh. A character enfleshed by creative artists such that one look at him tells you all of this. (If you don’t believe me, check out images for Jabba the Hut on google). And this image was brought to the doctor’s mind by two numbers – as if that horrid character was simply created from the intersection of two statistics. As if it was perfectly reasonable to extrapolate from those numbers that he would find a real Jabba the Hut waiting for him behind the closed exam room door – because all short, overweight people embody the same qualities that the Jabba character possesses, don’t they?

Instead of Jabba the Hut, the physician found my friend waiting for him. She is beautiful from the inside out, hence his insulting “congratulations”. She is funny, loving, witty, and has the best and most contagious laugh I’ve ever heard. She is a loyal and loving wife and mother, works hard to support her family and to offer her children every opportunity. She has weathered many difficulties and storms in her life. And on the day she visited Dr. Douchebag, she was low with both a sinus infection and a difficult month of family problems, her self-confidence at low ebb. His comment cut straight to her heart and made her feel ashamed and diminished.

If we are willing, for the sake of argument, to agree that this doctor has the right to think what he chooses, I believe we can also agree that VERBALIZING it in this case was COMPLETELY UNACCEPTABLE. Even though he couched it as a backhanded compliment, he might as well have said “Your stats are those of someone whom I would naturally find to be completely grotesque and repulsive. Congratulations, you’re not as gross as I feared you would be.”

Physicians need to check their inappropriate prejudices at the door. Patients are often at their most vulnerable – they are sick, possibly afraid, often worried. They are there seeking help, which for many is not a preferred activity. I would love to say my friend’s experience is an isolated incident, however, I hear stories all the time about doctors telling their overweight patients inappropriate things (“it just takes a little self-discipline”), including incorrect and/or unhealthy dietary advice (“you could stand to live on iceburg lettuce for a few weeks”). Get any group of obese adults in a room and ask. You’ll hear story after story about the disrespectful, prejudiced and hurtful things said to them in doctor’s offices, emergency rooms, clinics, pre-surgery. One friend actually heard doctors arguing about which one had to “deal with the fat one”.

As physicians you ascribe to the precept of “do no harm”. (While there is no legal obligation to take the hyppocratic oath, approximately 98% of medical school graduates take some form of oath regarding the level of care they will offer patients). I am certain many physicians take this concept seriously, and are able to practice this in both word and deed. For others, there are certain groups of individuals about or to whom you would never speak in the manner my friend was spoken to – groups based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity*. Your consciousness, and your business sense, have been raised enough to understand that discrimination and prejudice of this nature are harmful – to people and to your pocketbook. Unfortunately, there are still large numbers of you who don’t include obese patients among those deserving of sensitivity and respect.

 What Dr. Douchebag did was harmful to his patient. Since he didn’t know her, he couldn’t know what effect such words would have on her – nor did he have any idea of her robustness or fragility on the day of her visit to him.  Finally, he  clearly made  a priori judgements about her based only on her height and weight. In doing so, he reduced her to less than human. Does it matter that he found her “better” than his expectations when he entered the room, and that he consequently voiced that? No. My friend felt the very depth of his initial judgement to her core.

Dear physicians, I know you’ve got lots to think about and remember in order to do your difficult jobs well. Please consider sensitivity to your obese patients one of those important concerns. I know, from personal experience, how working with both an insensitive doctor (one who told me it was unpleasant for him to examine me) and one who is caring feels. My current physician is an example of the latter. At my last physical, knowing how I have worked to change my life (and seeing the evidence of my improved health), she apologized, saying, “I’m sorry, I still have to list you as obese on your chart. But you are doing everything right – it’s just a chart. You should be so proud of yourself.” And I knew she was sincere. I left her office feeling affirmed, as I have every time, even when I was at my heaviest weight. Her acceptance of me at every stage helped me to feel that getting, and being, healthy was within my reach. It doesn’t mean she hasn’t been honest with me about concerns, just that she voiced them with sensitivity and care. Shouldn’t every patient leave the doctor’s office feeling like they have an ally?

Sincerely,

Jenion

*Please note, I am not suggesting that there aren’t physicians who may discriminate or give less sensitive care to members of these groups. Only that there are many who would not and yet continue to treat their obese patients in this manner.
 
To my readers: I don’t know whether there are any physicians who read or stumble across my blog. Please feel free to share this post with any you know or any you feel might benefit from it. I plan to share it with my doctors – past and present.