Friday, May 1, 2015

Shmita, or easing into peace

I no longer believe in the cult of busyness. When I hear people ranting about how busy they are, I feel sad. I know I used to do that - I used to take pride in the amount of activity I undertook, not the results that activity produced. 

Jamaica was a huge opportunity to see something different. My experience of Jamaicans was that people work very hard - those in poverty have to hustle just to survive, and they sell their wares for as many hours of the day as they can in order to get up and do it again the next day. Of course I spent more time with middle-class Jamaicans, who I found similarly hard-working and with the same sense of 'hustle' about them - not the hustle of a con artist, but the hustle of a star athlete. Maybe it comes from living in a society where you don't expect the anyone to step in and rescue you. 

The flip side of that was that I never heard a Jamaican complain about being too busy to enjoy life. When it's work time it's work time, but there is still room for family, for getting together with friends, for dancing and music and playing in the water. Of course my knowledge is limited by time and selective exposure, but it was enough for me to see how false and empty our claims of busyness are. 

Since I've been home - and not going to work every day - I've had a lot of time to reflect on what I want in life. I want more of some things and less of others. I have a plan for accomplishing both the more and the less, and I believe it's necessary to have one to have the other. 

I read once that having crammed bookshelves meant I had no room for new knowledge/wisdom to come into my life; that was when I began letting go of books. I still hold on to ones that I find value in, but my practice before had been to hoard every book that came through my doors. After selling off/donating the ones I knew I wouldn't look at again, new books began to slide in - different books. Books I might not normally have read. Books that showed me something new about myself or the world. Having less meant having more. That was a valuable lesson.

Havi Brooks' blog recently introduced me to the Jewish agricultural practice of shmita, which I know as letting fields lay fallow for a year. It's essential to the health of the land, and - for a commercial farmer - it's good business. It allows a period of refreshing. Just like the sabbath, shmita occurs in a rotation of 7 (on the seventh day God rested, and that practice has been instituted by most major religions). One year in every seven a field is to be in shmita/fallow to allow it to rebuild, renew, stop output and be refreshed. Generally when the field is replanted it produces more than it would have without the year off. I've been following with fascination Havi's experience of instituting a shmita year in her life. 

I landed in Jamaica physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted. I'd had few days of rest, let alone reliable periods of it, in months/years. Even 'play' felt exhausting. That is not how I want to live my life. When I have space in my schedule for the people I love I also want to have the energy and the clarity to be truly with them. 

While I think about what it might take to create a shmita year like Havi, I've decided to take it on in bite-sized chunks in the meantime. I'm reinstating the sabbath. To me it is a similar idea - to be consciously unproductive and allow space for renewal, reconnection, growth, rest, peace. 

Starting tomorrow and until September 5 when I'll reassess, from 9 pm Saturday to 9 pm Sunday I am going to be offline.* I will not do work. I will not 'just fit this one thing in.' I will not do research related to a client task or a work project or a story I'm writing. If I create, it will be strictly for the joy of creating and not with another end in mind. I will not purchase anything during those 24 hours. I will only drive if it furthers recreation and connection. These are not laws and commandments - these are dams built to keep the swells of busyness and striving at bay. 

I can already see that this is going to take something. It will require a bit of thinking ahead. Instead of putting chores off until Sunday I will need to remember to do them during the week or on Saturday. I have a lot that I want to do and be and create in my life - for that to happen I'm going to have to make a little more space. Shmita/sabbath is part of that. Not that it is a means to an end, but because it is an access to living at a pace that makes sense to me. 

I'm grateful to Jamaica. I'm grateful to Havi. And I'm looking forward to the fun, challenge, and opportunity of my summer of sabbaths/shmita/peace. 

* Offline as in not browsing aimlessly, not blogging, not Facebooking, not tweeting, not instagraming, not watching TV, etc. Offline as in call me, or text, and let's be together without distraction. 

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

the dying of the light



When is the sunset?
Is it the moment the sun touches the hilltop and flares brightly for a moment,
as when you first kissed me
and I - weak in the knees -
had to hold you strong moments longer
until I could again stand on my own?

Or is it when the last ray dips behind the hill,
when the last email is sent and
I know there will be no reply;
when the last kiss is identified
only long after the fact?
Was it when I walked away still clinging to the last high rays pinking the clouds?

The light between one and another moment spans
space and
time and
memory and
thought.

It's here.
And it's gone.

A realist would say the sun is both always rising and constantly setting.
A realist would say the sun moves on.

And so, I suppose, must I.
At long last light, so must I.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

I have something to say

I have something to say. But first I have a story to tell. I may have told this story before - here or elsewhere - so if it's familiar to you, just bear with me: 

I started performing, in one form or another, very early in life. My sisters and I first sang a 'special' in church when I was only 4. I couldn't read the words so my mom helped me memorize them - I still remember that tune. I took a fairly immediate liking to the experience - the singing, the attention, being in front of our small church. I have never really been afraid of a crowd. 

With that early reinforcement, it didn't strike me as all that note-worthy when I was in grade 7 and my English teacher - Helen Rogers, an imposing woman who suffered no fools - asked me to join the Drama Club. I was flattered, but it just made sense in my egotistical teenage mind. I was fairly certain that she saw some spark of genius in me. 

Mrs. Rogers, mid-lecture, 1981
I acted. We were a very small school with a very small drama club putting on very small plays. We staged two or three one-act plays twice a year.We attended and hosted regional drama festivals. We went to provincial arts festivals. By grade 11 or 12 I did a little directing. It helped me hone some rudimentary assessment and leadership skills, though I doubt I knew that at the time. 

The week before my graduation from high school, Mrs. Rogers - who remained my English teacher through most of junior/senior high - and I had a private chat. I wanted to acknowledge her for encouraging me to write, for letting me write creative responses to readings not just essays (in addition to, not in place of, mind you), for teaching me critical thinking, and for helping direct my anything-and-everything love of reading into something a little more useful. Mrs. Rogers was too stern to ever be one of my favourite teachers, but I had the good sense to at least recognize her as one of my most valuable teachers. I also thanked her for that long ago invitation to join the Drama Club for all the fun it had been. 

With her trademark dryness, Mrs. Rogers said to me, "I wanted you to join drama because I wanted you to learn how to speak. You have so much to say, and much of it is worth hearing. But when we first met you spoke really fast and in a high pitched voice like you just wanted to get it out without anyone noticing, and I wanted you to speak so people would listen."

I was slightly flabbergasted - and perhaps a smidge put in my place - at both her insight and the long-range game that she had been playing. It still moves me. 


I have been home from Jamaica for 2 and a half weeks now, don't see any immediate prospect for work, and am frightened by my quickly draining bank account. Having not been out of work since 2002, I am finding the job search frustrating and, frankly, soul-sucking. It's been hard on my confidence. Chatting with my friend Cheeky last night, I admitted that part of the problem may be that I don't want a job, per se - I want contracts. I want to write and teach and let others know that they have something to say and provide them with the tools and confidence to say it. And I want to be location independent - to be able to take my work anywhere in the world. 

Cheeky said "well, are you the best at what you do?" And I hedged my answer and said it was a silly, possibly mean-spirited, question and there are a lot of great writers and teachers/trainers/public speakers in the world and ... . He interrupted. He persisted, and at first I thought he was trying to get me to be reasonable, to see that I am not the best in the world, and to go take a job like a good North American. 

Me, mid-lecture, 2015
It turned into one of those things. A few minutes later I was sitting on my couch in my flannel pyjamas proclaiming my awesomeness just to shut him up. He made me keep saying it not until he believed me but until I did. 

In that moment I remembered back to January when I lead a communications, branding and story-telling workshop for 38 non-profit employees in Kingston. I thought about being at the front of the room knowing that what I said was making a difference for the attendees, the organizations they work in, and the clients those organizations serve. 

And I remembered the feeling of also knowing that, in that moment, at the front of the room, I was awesome. Words flowed out of me, and time both flew and stood still. I may not have been the best in the world, but in that classroom at that time I was what was needed. 

I have something to say. For the longest time I've wanted to write and speak as my way to 'make a life, not a living' but I didn't think I had anything that was worth saying. Last night I realised that I do have a specialty - I have something to say. So do you. And I can help you say it. 

Friday, February 6, 2015

intentionality & the lost art of apologizing

You're playing with a sharp pocket knife when it slips from your hand and lands point down in your friend's foot. You didn't mean it. You were just playing around, but somehow that doesn't ease the pain or staunch the blood. 

Why are words different? Why do people assume that their intentions are relevant when their words cause pain or offense? If the pen is mightier than the sword aren't words something to be used with care?

There is, and has been for some time, a lot of backlash against what's wrongly labeled being politically correct, and I will acknowledge  it might seem there's a mine field of offense just waiting to explode at any step. That's a different conversation. I'm talking about direct personal insult (though I course there is overlap).

The remedy when your tongue slips instead of your knife is not 'I was just joking' - which places blame for the offense on the offended party's lack of humour. The remedy is a simple formula each one of is should have learned in childhood.

I am sorry I X
I realize it was wrong because Y
I will do Z to make sure it doesn't happen again. 

That is the simple and dying art of apology. You will notice the formula does not include spots for either blame or explanation. In business we call it crisis communications. In the rest of life I call it's called taking responsibility for yourself. 

Monday, January 26, 2015

Kristiana is my child

CREDIT: KRISTIANA COIGNARD, COURTESY OF HEATHER ROBERTSON via thinkprogress.org
Isn't this girl beautiful? I think she's beautiful. She looks a little sad, but like she's trying to smile for her aunt who is taking this picture. She thinks, maybe on an unacknowledged level, that peace is a concept worth supporting. She has the glowing skin of youth. 

This is Kristiana Coignard, and until January 22, 2015* she lived in a small Texas town. That location is not really important, though we reassure ourselves with tragedies that happen 'over there.' Kristiana could have lived anywhere. A big city, either coast, Canada, my home town. As of today Kristiana doesnt live anywhere. This morning Kristiana walked into a police station and was shot 4 times by 3 grown men. 

We don't know much else. We know Kristiana lost her mom when she was 4. We know her aunt raised her and her grandmother loved her. We know she was young when she was diagnosed with mental illness. We know she was young when she died. What little I've told you I know from a much fuller story on ThinkProgress.Org. More details will eventually surface, and regardless of what those details are the men who killed this beautiful girl will return to their fully-armed work. Of that much I am certain. 

It seems like months since there hasn't been an extra-judicial police killing in the American news. For the most part those tragedies have been black men murdered by white policemen. Here in Jamaica black men are murdered by black police men and it barely makes the news (but boy did we know about Miss Universe!). There's more to all of it - more to the race conversation, more to discussions of weapon access and power and who has it and how to make them responsible for how they use it, and much much more to the mental health conversation. There is also more to people's fatigue with doing something about it. 

When I read about Kristiana today on twitter I felt nauseated. I still feel kind of shaky.  

I was 16 - a year younger than Kristiana - when I was first diagnosed with depression; it has waxed and waned throughout my adulthood. There have been days or weeks or months when I'm not sure that anything I know is true. 

My son NL* was first diagnosed with mental illness when he was 12. He has worked hard to find a variety of ways of coping with his diagnoses. He has a life and a plan and big goals. He's an intelligent and articulate advocate for himself. He's responsible for his own care and honest with his doctor. Sometimes his coping methods work well, and other times he has set backs and has to try something new. Twice it has been bad enough that he attempted suicide.

This past autumn NL had his first mental health related interaction with the police. He said something online to someone he thought he could trust but couldn't, and in the middle of the night the police came into his home, ransacked the place, took his medical marijuana (see coping methods & supportive doctor, above), and arrested him. And no, I don't believe there is a difference between arrest and "protective custody." 

For someone with anxiety, during midterms in his first semester of college, a night spent in Psychiatric Emergency is not helpful. Sitting bolt upright in a chair worried what the wandering, muttering, sometimes snoring other patients might do if you fall asleep is not helpful. Being taken from your home into the autumn night in your gym shorts, T-shirt and flip-flops is not helpful. Being left without cab fare home is not helpful, and having to take the bus in those same shorts, T-shirt and flip flops is not helpful. In the morning when the Psychiatrist - who doesn't work nights - asks 4 questions and says the whole thing was a travesty it's only slightly less unhelpful. Returning home to boxes dumped of their contents, shelves emptied, and a terrified cat is a perfect recipe for triggering more symptoms. 

NL is also beautiful. Like Kristiana has has bright eyes and a sly smile and hope for a peaceful, just world. Like Kristiana he has a family who cherishes him. NL could easily be Kristiana, and from 5,370 kilometres away that thought leaves me cold. 

We are failing people with mental health diagnoses, and more and more of those people are our children. Someday, somehow, something has to change. More children like Kristiana shouldn't have to die. More young men like NL should be able to ask for help when they need it and receive ACTUAL help, not interactions that make things so much worse. Kristiana was not nobody's child - she was everybody's child. Kristiana was my child. 

*Date corrected Jan. 27 based on new news reports.
*Thanks NL for once again letting me tell his story.

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