Archive for October, 2013

Words of Communication

October 26, 2013

Driving down I-25 toward I-40 in Albuquerque, I passed through more than one weaving section – those complicated stretches of road where it seems everyone is trying to get into a different lane, coming up from an on-ramp or trying to reach the off-ramp or to position themselves for the upcoming interchange where two major roads meet or diverge. I know the term weaving section courtesy of a transportation planner with whom I had a relationship a very long time ago. He also taught me to drive competently and safely. Thank you, Ray.

Once through the series of weaving sections, I traveled from southbound I-25 to eastbound 1-40 via a flyover – or that’s what my British friends would call it (I know the term courtesy of all the British authors I’ve read over the years). A flyover is the part of the interchange that takes you up and over other lanes of traffic, what we in America call an overpass. As I passed over (flew through at high speed) the interchange, I remembered a number of other lessons in American versus British English, these taught me by my Uncle Eric and Aunt Hilda in Sheffield when I was still a teenager. In (I hope) mock horror Hilda scolded my use of wash cloth (only for cleaning dishes) when what I wanted was to clean my skin (using a face flannel). She was also upset that I called her garden (grassy with flowers) a yard (bare dirt or pavement). And she made it clear that the soil in her garden was earth, not dirt!

My venture into reflection on terminological differences arose following my attendance at an emergency planning conference – more properly the New Mexico Local Emergency Planning Committee Annual Conference – at which a number of intelligent, engaged, caring and thoughtful people tried to convey their knowledge and expertise to a largely receptive audience. My problem with the conference was not in participation, nor content, but in the strange transmogrification which occurred in the speakers – from competent communicators to committed users of stilted government-speak. Several of the presenters tried to include humor in their talks; all had the ubiquitous power point at hand for support; some also added pictures and graphics to illustrate key points. But the bottom – common – line amongst almost all of them was their use of that strange obfuscation which passes for communication within bureaucracies.

Ah, you’ve noticed my inclusion in these paragraphs of big words. It’s fun, sort of, to fall victim to that of which I am complaining. Here, I’m changing my usual form of communication for fun, and with intent. The presenters did not alter their delivery for fun. They seemed, rather, to feel the need to assume a formal persona because they were presenting a talk. As though who they are/how they speak normally was not good enough or important enough to give a conference presentation. One exception was the only attorney to make a presentation – he is so at home in his public delivery that there was no discernible change in him (except voice projection) when he stopped chatting over lunch and stood to give the luncheon address.

I’ve coached students learning to write essays for school, and encountered a similar perceived need to drastically alter their manner of communicating. One teen with an engaging ability to tell stories, when asked to turn the story he’d just told into an assignment for English class, became the written equivalent of tongue-tied (pen-tied, computer-tied?).

“How do I begin?”
“Just start telling your story.”
“I don’t get it. How do I begin?”
“Pretend you’re talking to me and just put the words on paper instead of speaking them.”
“But how do I start? Where do I start? How far back should I go, to get the reader to understand what the story is all about?”
“How far back did you go when you told me the story just now?”
“I didn’t have to go back because you know me.”
“So pretend the reader knows you and start the way you started with me.”
“But the reader doesn’t know me and might misunderstand.”
“Write it like you’re writing a letter to me, then. You know I won’t misunderstand.”
“So do I start with “Dear Ms. Sebastian”?”
“If that lets you get into your story, go for it.”

It would seem that wanting to communicate, for many people, contains within itself the root of lost ability to do so! It is a painful truth for stutterers, that the more urgently they desire to speak, the more inhibited that speech is likely to become. Some stutterers overcome the problem by taking singing lessons. Next, they think of singing their daily speech, and the words come out fluently. I aimed for a similar transfer of skills with my encouragement of my writing student to tell me the story on paper just as he’d told it aloud. He did write me a letter, then transferred the body of the story to essay format, and got a good grade on the paper.

I’m convinced that effective communication – whether in a formal presentation or a chat over tea in a garden – is not about the words one uses, not about the style, but about having a comfortable sense of oneself, and an intent to communicate. The presenters at the conference became ensnared by their efforts to appear as some formalized image of themselves, perhaps labeled “the professional”. The student, a natural story teller, was blocked by replacing his intent to communicate with an intent to “be a writer”. Many people, convinced that they won’t be understood, don’t try to express themselves at all, and become the fulfillment of their perception, going sadly misunderstood through life.

The simplest injunction to give to someone undertaking a new communication task is “be yourself” – yet it is also, often, the hardest one to manifest. How many of us really have “a comfortable sense of ourselves” that we are willing to expose through our written or spoken words? To become a good communicator then, there are in fact four necessary steps:
1) Know yourself
2) Be yourself
3) Trust yourself
4) Express yourself

Just four steps – but ones it often takes a lifetime to learn.

It’s No Coincidence

October 19, 2013

This piece has been written in sections, over time. I began it back in early August, completed it just a few days ago. Gaps in time are indicated by a change in typeface, as well as by subsection dividers.

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It’s no coincidence – I’m certain it’s no coincidence – that I spent time this morning writing out my answer to the question, “What do you fear about moving forward?” and within half an hour of finishing the exercise, received a phone call giving me the opportunity to push into fast forward. I accepted the offer (a well-paid job doing work I generally like) despite my identified reservations. Identifying the reservations let me see that they are not insurmountable challenges, merely conditions which will necessitate new adjustments to my schedule, diet, work habits, writing goals.

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Nor is it coincidence that things come to hand just as you need them. I’ve been having a discussion with writer friends, and reader friends, about how to intermix inner thought with third person narrative in my novel, in a seamless way that will pass muster with editors. (Editors are known to object to the mixing of points of view). Various suggestions have been made, including using italics for the thoughts. I tried the italics and don’t like them – they jar my awareness, as a reader, pulling me out of the flow of the story to register the fact that some change is being made apparent. I also rejected elimination of the self talk/thoughts/inner monologues solely in order to meet a style ‘rule’ that I know has elsewhere already been broken.

Ready to turn my novel rewrite back on itself, and find a way to signal shifts to first person without the jangle of italics, I was forced to turn off my computer and unplug from power to assure protection of the equipment from a fierce thunderstorm raging overhead. Reading lights have been flickering as wild electricity jumps from the sky to disrupt the flow of its domestic kindred through the lines in my house. I picked up the book I’ve been reading – Dorothy Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon – and there before me was a chapter of exactly the sort of intermixed action and thought I’ve been considering. It works – it reads smoothly, no italics, only here and there a couple sentences set apart within parentheses, which I find an unnecessary distinction. A separate paragraph would be equally effective and clear.

Posing the question to the LinkedIn group Authors, Writers, Publishers, Editors and Writing Professionals brings more valuable input, including recommendations for good reads which effectively mix first and third person viewpoints. I have my answer – a good writer can pull off the violation of rules. It is up to me to assure that my writing is good enough to do so.

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That I write well is no coincidence.

It is the product of early indoctrination, a great deal of practice, and continuing learning. I finished a blog post (Ba Gua Lessons) in the morning, and then at noon participated in Lesley S. King’s free telephone class on vivid writing. She offered the session, full of helpful guidance, as an example of what one can experience taking a writing workshop she will be producing soon. I hung up from the hour and went back to review what I had written earlier.

Look Ma, I used present tense, active verbs, multiple senses… I hope I engaged my readers, asking questions, encouraging the possibility of dialogue. But I can do it better, as evidenced by my desire to tweak a sentence here, add a challenge there. What I gained from Lesley’s class was a framework for evaluating my writing, a standard against which to stretch myself further. Good writing is fun, it’s my passion, I don’t consider it work… but it does require effort, absence of ego, an open mind, curiosity, and an unfettered willingness to learn.

It is no coincidence that my encounter with Lesley – who encourages writers to build a career from their writing passion – comes at exactly the moment when I am choosing to once more put writing into second place in the prioritizing of how I spend my time. My new job will initially require enough attention that I can meet my commitment to myself and my readers with weekly blog posts, but am unlikely to do much more about building my platform (the latest word for audience), or marketing my novel.

I am not abandoning a writing career; I am accepting that I’ve been offered an opportunity to do something else I care about (assisting others to access services which help them live their fullest potential despite health issues), and to meet an external financial need, while I learn to maintain a balance between competing interests. Not an either/or choice, but an integrative one. Continuing to write is a crucial part of “taking care of myself” – that imperative frequently stated but not so easily implemented. One of my writing projects, a book of creative suggestions for managing the challenges of Parkinson’s, will undoubtedly be furthered through my new job.

Mind likes to create dichotomies. It suggests that just when my focus on writing is beginning to morph into a career, the rewards of my efforts are being taken out from under me. Mind might think so, but I don’t! Instead, I’m being offered the opportunity to meet both outer and inner needs, to manifest balance not only in the activities to which I give my attention, but in the way I blend social interaction with quiet time, and productivity with stillness. I don’t know yet how this balance will manifest; I’m looking forward to discovering the various ways it will express itself. The one thing I do know, with certainty, is that its place in my life at this time is no coincidence.

Ba Gua Lessons

October 12, 2013

As I count down the days until the start of the intense training period for my new job, I find myself in yet another dichotomy. Do I laze about as much as possible, wallowing in the freedom-to-do-nothing that is about to vanish from my life? Or do I begin a disciplined adaptation to going to bed earlier, getting up early, and organizing my days to accomplish tasks that it will be hard to fit into my upcoming schedule? Or, more practically, do I aim to achieve a balance of both tendencies?

My acupuncturist/friend/wise-teacher commented that it is often the case that moving to the extreme of yin (doing nothing) pushes one into yang (activity) so that resting instead of participating in activities can be an excellent preparation for the burst of energy that will be required of me. I liken this approach to the one I’m learning from the same friend and teacher when we practice Ba Gua, wherein movements are designed to “coil” muscles like tightened springs, until the point of release. The force of the release may serve as the attack (the martial part of the art) or may be contained and redirected into intensifying the next coiling movement.

It’s difficult to consider what Western culture calls laziness and idleness as appropriate preparation for a required, new and busy schedule. In that mentality, I definitely should already be adhering to the new (yang) schedule of waking, and filling my days with tasks, accustoming my body to delivering energy and clarity of mind across the ten or so hours of an upcoming busy day. But what happens if I rename the preparation period (the yin) in an Eastern fashion, and say that I am practicing stillness and emptiness? Then I am setting up a powerful contrast, with the potential for sustained energy emerging from the containment being practiced this week.

What a difference a few words make! Try them out. Spend a chunk of time playing solitaire, or just sitting and watching the wind blow the drying grasses of autumn.

Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

Call yourself idle and lazy for failing to do something constructive with your time. Then, rename that time as allowing yourself to be still and mindless, outside your usual sense of yourself. Which set of terms weakens you? Which seems to relax and yet energize you?

To a large extent, even when I’m not engaged in writing, I live my life through words. My grandfather taught me the importance of choosing the right ones, when he talked to me about his poetry. His choices were in Hebrew, and constrained not only by the meter and rhyme of his verse, but by his dedication to purity of the language. (Words created for items that did not exist in ancient culture should, in his opinion, follow the traditional structural frame as to number of consonant sounds).

My experience of parents whose behaviors were often in contradiction with their words led to my dedication to accurate and clear communication. A lonely and isolated childhood built my desire for connection with others, and to the understanding that communication is a two-way street. I do not communicate when I talk (or write); I only communicate when what I say is heard and understood by another.

For others to hear and understand me, I need to understand them – hence my choice of psychology as a major in college, and my continuing interest in neurology now. Also my engagement with the several programs I lead or teach (including Alternatives to Violence Project and Chronic Disease Self- Management), both having to do with learning concepts that help one direct and control behavior.

Which brings me back to Ba Gua, teaching my body new ways of moving, and simultaneously reinforcing flexibility of mind. And back to the importance of just the right words – stillness and emptiness creating a vacuum which attracts energy, to be stored and contained until it explodes into action. So much more sustaining than to label my down time as idle laziness that should be filled with doing.

The first time I attended a feast day dance at one of New Mexico’s Pueblos, I observed a dancer carrying an old-fashioned alarm clock, the sort that is wound with a key, ticks loudly and has a clanging alarm. The dancer teased non-Native observers with the clock, shaking it in our faces, setting off the alarm suddenly and startling visitors with its discordant noise. Eventually, he tossed the clock away and joined the line performing traditional steps in a mesmerizing, repetitive pattern. Time did then disappear, as spectators and participants focused totally on what was happening in the moment.

I suggest that much that we like, whether a good book, a particular hobby, an activity, or a piece of art or music is liked precisely because it has the capacity to capture our attention strongly, and thus to eliminate our sense of time and ego. Being present in the moment with the object of our attention creates a satisfying energetic stillness, and an expanded sense of connection, of capacity, of self.

Those fortunate individuals who are able to combine such likes with their means of employment do not describe what they do as work. They are more apt to describe a career as pursuing a passion. Those less fortunate in the choice or conditions of employment go to work, and then try to find free time for pleasures to balance what they have sacrificed for the earning of income.

You may have noticed in previous posts that I have not called my new job “work”. For the past eighteen months, I’ve been able to live mostly in the present moment, doing what is in front of me to do each day. I really like this way of being. My intention is to continue in this manner, acknowledging that there will be more things in front of me to do, in many of the upcoming days, than there have been in the past ones. I have determined not to change my approach to the doing of them. I will find energy for the doing by assuring that I remain centered in being.

As my body improves its stability and strength through Ba Gua practice, so too my mind – and its use of words – expands its capacity to “hold the tension of opposites” and to achieve balance. For important external reasons, I am starting a new job. For vital internal ones, it will not be work. Activities required of me by the new job will be integrated into the pattern of observing, of writing, of being that has nourished me of late.

Please, if you notice that I’m falling away from center, alert me! If my words seem poorly chosen, my posts less reflective, give me a nudge. I need to know that I’m continuing to communicate with you, not slipping into a stress-driven rant.

Thank you for reading, and for feedback.

An Appreciation of Habits

October 6, 2013

Interesting how many unthinking habits are revealed when the pressure tank in the well fails, and a household is without water! Over the years, we’ve been waterless several times, for different reasons. The most difficult was the winter it got down to 30F below and someone forgot to leave faucets dripping, resulting in a frozen water line. That time it took 4 days to restore water flow, fortunately without associated broken pipes. Four days of not being able to flush toilets, or easily wash hands. Of hauling water in three gallon bottles, doling it out in dribbles for washing with a cloth in the sink, “birding off” as a friend used to call it (another acquaintance used to refer to the same process, I know not why, as a whore bath).

This latest episode of being without running water lasted only a little over 24 hours, in warm enough weather to need to shower, not just dab and dry. I gained experience at showering without access to running water back in my early teens, when we lived in Saigon.

Our House, a Very Very Very Fine House - Saigon, 1956

Our House, a Very Very Very Fine House – Saigon, 1956

Water only flowed in our housing compound for about two hours a day. The live-in maid would fill large vats with a hose from a standpipe, then carry buckets up to the bathroom whenever someone needed to bathe. Showering became a matter of pouring a bucket over oneself, soaping, pouring another bucket to rinse, and drying off. In the steamy heat, two or even three showers a day were necessary. A five person household used a vat of water just for bathing. The second vat supplied water for cooking and mopping and hand washing.

In those days, I also learned how to throw a bucket of water (the third vat’s supply) with just the right force, at just the right angle, into a toilet to force it to flush. In recent days, I learned I am still able to shower by the bucket, but have lost the knack of the toilet flush. Or maybe modern toilets are less amenable to alternative flushing procedures? In any case, the knowledge of how to manage without running water rose up from depths, at the same time as I caught myself automatically reaching behind to flush the toilet that had no water in its tank. Knowing there was no water did not stop the unthinking hand gesture.

How many other actions of daily life, including much less mundane ones, do we unthinkingly perform? How many aspects of our routine do we take for granted? And what about people… how often do we take them for granted? Or respond to them out of habit? Or respond to a present situation with an inappropriate habit learned in childhood?

Regrettably, my mother was only able to experience disappointment with life. She had a unique knack for projecting that disappointment, ensuring by her actions that anything I looked forward to with happy anticipation would fit her world view, and therefore not materialize positively in my life. My childhood was one of fearing to express what I wanted, since to do so was to assure it would not happen. Put differently, I became ingrained with the behavior of waiting for the other shoe to drop. As I matured, left home and began living my own values, I gradually freed myself from maternal negativity, and experienced lots of positives. Life brings mostly what one looks to receive from it – and I look with curiosity for new opportunities, good friends, and spiritual growth. I’ve been blessed to receive an abundance of all these.

So – how surprising to discover, in recent days, that a corner of my being is busy defending itself against a shoe dropping, in relation to my upcoming new employment! Why am I suddenly hearing myself reason that I should delay certain purchases because one should never “count chickens before they are hatched?” In ten weeks of living and working on the Maine coast at a home without electricity, I ‘forgot’ the habit of reaching for a wall switch when I entered a dark room. So why do I, after 50 years of living away from my mother’s fearful negativity still subconsciously duck and cover in response to upcoming positive and desired changes?

The Habit of Following Along

The Habit of Following Along

Well, at least I recognize the old emotional habit and can now practice setting it aside. I hope I have more success breaking that pattern than I’ve had with the one that leads me to look up to the right as I leave my living room. For nearly 20 years I had a clock on that right-hand wall – it’s been gone for 2 years now but I still glance there to see the time. And then laugh at myself. I suspect that being able to laugh at practicing an outdated habit is a step in the direction of letting it go, so I will chuckle to myself if I fall back into emotional duck and cover. What better way to switch over to a positive attitude?

And I do intend to retain the habit of washing with minimal water, although not the bucket method needed so recently. Collecting the water that accumulates until a suitable temperature is reached, and turning off the shower while soaping up, have become common sense habits in our continuing drought-plagued environment. Hmmm… I wonder, if someday I move to a place where water is abundant, will my water-saving habits endure?

Sounds of Silence

October 1, 2013

First, I should explain that a different type of silence was imposed on me over the weekend, preventing me from putting up this post when I intended to do so, on Sunday afternoon. The internet link at the motel where I was staying was somehow incompatible with my computer, and the IT people weren’t able to reset it properly. I am back home, and once again connected – able to ‘speak’.

Thank you for patience, for reading, for following, for being there.

Niki
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Noise pollution is one of the issues not being adequately discussed in relation to my county’s examination of a proposed fracking ordinance. I brought the topic into the discussion, and I have to keep raising it as others focus insistently on water quality and scarcity, and contamination of the air and soil. By comparison I suppose noise can be considered a less significant negative – but not to me.

I live in the countryside – what most people would consider a truly rural area. My small 900 square foot house is set back from the road, on four acres, abutting a several-hundred-acre ranch. I have three neighbors – houses close to the road with entrance driveways off it, in a cluster with my own entryway. Across the road are two more homes. Most of the time, those neighbors are quiet – so much so that I wonder if they are at home. No loud parties, nor growling outdoor machinery.

I do hear traffic on the highway. My house is situated on a hill toward which the road heads before it veers off, resulting in the longish driveway that snakes from the road up over a hill to my front door. Sitting in my living room, looking out its floor to ceiling windows, I can see a section of the road, and all the vehicles that travel up and down it. I cannot see – but can hear clearly – the heavy trucks and the rattle of gravel excavation that is going on a further 2 miles away, on a section of land that “ought” not to be considered to be in my neighborhood. Something about the lay of the valley funnels that noise straight up to my house.

The gravel operation is new this summer. I don’t know yet if I’ll notice it when my windows are closed, but I am very aware now, with windows wide open, of the days it is running and those, like today, when it is not. Perhaps I’m more sensitive than other people to the ambient noise within which I live?

I do not like to have music playing “in the background” of my days. I work better, think better, live better in silence. I enjoy music, go to concerts, play records (there’s an oldie for you) or CDs with intention to listen to them – emphasis on the intention to listen. If my intention is to work, I prefer to do so in silence.

Undoubtedly, that preference has something to do with my enjoyment of Quaker Meeting, and Buddhist zazen sessions, as well as my own daily spiritual contemplative practice. Undoubtedly it also has something to do with my appreciation of the skill of the young musicians from Curtis Institute who performed Britten’s Quartet #3 for Strings at a recent Music From Angel Fire concert near my home. Two of the piece’s five movements, including the last one, end with a prolonged silence defined by the musicians holding their bows immobile above the strings of their instruments until, as one, they relaxed in their seats, signaling the end of the silence that was part of the movement, and the beginning of the silence into which the audience could inject its noises of appreciation.

Once before, many years ago in Boston, I attended a concert which featured a piano performance that included long silences as part of the piece, and then too I was able to ‘hear’ the difference in quality between the silence that was integral to the music, and the silence of the piece’s end. That time, as I recall, I had no visual cue. I was sitting too far back, in the cheap seats, to see the pianist’s hands. I could only rely on my ears, and the pianist’s flawless sense of timing, to distinguish when musical silence transitioned to an appreciative silence from the audience, which in turn transitioned into loud applause.

A few of my acquaintances seem to understand what I mean when I express my awareness of the difference between the silence of Quaker Meeting, and that in a Zendo. Even the famously silent Meetings (the oldest, historical ones in Philadelphia) which I have attended, have a busy-ness to them, a sense of minds occupied with focused reflection, that is distinctly different from the no-thought silence of a practiced group of Buddhists in meditation. And different again from the life in silence of the Benedictines (and their guests) living at Christ in the Desert Monastery. Different yet again from the experience of many hundreds of chelas (students), attending to the silent communication from our Beloved Teacher at a MasterPath gathering. Dare I say that there are many different sounds of silence?

(Yes I know the Simon and Garfunkle song The Sound of Silence. It doesn’t fit into my narrative because the song is about the negative aspect of silence – silence as a barrier to communication and a symptom of loneliness.)

We seem, in the modern urgency of tuned-in lives, to have forgotten the old adage that silence is golden. We settle for the silver, the copper, even the dross of noisy, busy “I’m somebody, doing something important” daily life and think we are fulfilling ourselves. Just yesterday, I had a Facebook ‘chat’ with a young friend who is torn between his desire to study the classical languages necessary to read ancient Buddhist texts in their original, and the supposedly practical necessity of getting a degree in a subject that can lead to a job. How practical is it, to go against one’s nature, to ignore the still, small, inner voice directing one toward a path of spiritual fulfillment, in favor of a loud, outer, boisterous demand to focus on earning a living?

Inside golden silence, there is much to hear and learn. Whole worlds of perception, of wisdom, exist within our inner silent spaces. Would that we all, individually and collectively, were more insistent on spending time in that beautiful silence within! Would that we all, individually and collectively, could share the golden wealth to be acquired from listening to the songs of the Divine played so beautifully within us. Listen…. and you will hear…


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