Mixed Signals

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On the first day of spring, I felt so down and (still) isolated that I knew I had to get outside if I could muster the energy. Even the beautiful, sunny day didn’t motivate me much. So I forced myself into the car and drove to a Delaware County Preservation Park, one I hoped wasn’t populated by throngs of people. I had my mud boots on and my little camera, just in case something interesting showed up.

First impressions: The peepers deafened me with outrageously delightful chorus of mating calls.  Trees still stood stark, brownish-gray.  A woodpecker made her nesting hole in a dead tree, with escape hole ninety degrees away and six inches higher. Occasionally, spurts of greenery emerged from the forest floor, but only in the sunny spots.  Minuscule signs of spring peeked out—“is it safe yet?”—but only the bravest showed their intentions.

I walked a long, very slow circle around the park, choosing less-traveled trails despite the muck and messiness of winter-recovery. Or perhaps because of them.  I thought about the world of Covid-19: the muck and messiness of human beings polarizing, loss of civility, horrifying news cycles, isolation, illness, death, denial of illness and death, increased medicating, and desperation.  I thought of flying accusations, death threats, struggles to make a living, and mixed-signals even within families. 

Such thoughts didn’t align with the beautiful day. I tried to shake myself out of them, but had been in a negative spiral for a while. It occurred to me when I heard a red-wing black bird calling in her raspy trill that perhaps this thought process was appropriate (at the time) for upcoming Christian Holy Week. “Good” Friday is full of violence, accusation, confusion, despair, whether the sun shines brightly or not. It was a highly-charged political day 2000+ years ago, with Romans and Jews intermingling in the plot to eliminate a dangerous leader of a new movement in Judaism. Jesus was found guilty by popular vote of expanding the understanding of Jewish law beyond what was acceptable interpretation and practice at the time (at least that’s what the public story became). Change indeed usually invites backlash if someone fears losing power. Grief. Death. Then the Christian cycle moves to Holy Saturday, the waiting day, the liminal space where we let go of our understandings and wonder what comes next. Is it ever going to be safe again?

Covid-19 times have felt a lot like Holy Week: a long, slow trudge through the muck and messiness, punctuated with occasional silver linings. We have cautious hope as we watch the horizon, with vaccines available and people emerging from winter shelters into fresh air and light. The to-mask or not-to-mask debate rolls on, people impatient to find freedom of breath. Yet, Holy Week teaches us to hold steady, even when we can’t seem to stand it one more minute, because ultimately there will be a change—for the better.

Holding on to the promise of hope, even in the midst of death and destruction, isn’t a new message, nor is it unique to religion. Nature shows us this promise every single year. The wisdom of the cycles and the teachings all around us have been ignored for a long time as we obsess about the human condition rather than the overarching web of all life.  

The day of my walk, I was able to let go of my focus on the muck and return to my better self, my semi-hopeful self in the midst of mixed signals. Why? Nature entered my Good Friday mindset and stirred it up.  The unbelievably early butterfly who crossed my path stopped me in my tracks. Where did you come from?  Is it safe for you yet? You could freeze at night! The butterfly circled me once and carried on. 

Easter is coming. Relief is coming. Pay attention. No camera needed.

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2021

Out with the old, in with the new – what a year it’s been.

It is New Year’s Eve. I have been watching the world welcome 2021 as a means of turning its back on 2020.

In the past two days, I journaled about 2020 in my own life, in the sociopolitical life of my country, and in the lives of those who fought (some unsuccessfully) their own battles with Covid, and with brutal racism and sexism.

I read articles about how business and religious organizations have to change – become leaner, more resilient, technologically expansive, relevant.

I heard friends say that they have no energy left, and other friends say that they had found meaning in the paring down of activity and sharpening of purpose.

I had my own moments of surprisingly deep anxiety and deep hope.

I made dozens of new friends all over the globe through continued coaching training and immersion in imaginative change theory labs.

2020. A very mixed bag.

2021.

Vaccines will be circulating widely, government leadership will be different, every person working for an institution will wonder how much can be done from home-base and how much requires an office; we will be reinventing ourselves in earnest. Or at least I hope so.

Mind you, I’m concerned. If we don’t intentionally let go of what we no longer need, or don’t stop giving energy to what harms us (the “isms” and polarities), we won’t have attention and energy for what is emerging. I get it though. The “change back” or “go back to normal” self-safety movement is strong, because that’s what human beings do when faced with deep uncertainty. These mantras can occupy all our head and heart space, silencing our spirit of wonder and adventure because we’re off-kilter; off-kiltering invites anything but risk.

When I named this blogpost “liminal space,” I had no idea that a global pandemic would come our way in 2020 (despite warnings that such things would be on the rise and become part of life). But indeed, liminality is increasingly a popular word. I’m surprised when I hear it in public parlance now because I always have had to define it for people until Covid struck.

Liminal space indeed – the in-between, the threshold from what was to what will be, with a lot of churning in the middle.

Business has incentive to adapt quickly. Perhaps religious organizations do too if there is anxiety about how we “do community” now. But as individuals, some of us may have the luxury of dragging our feet – liminal space is highly uncomfortable and we don’t want to dwell here. Control and certainty are the places we prefer to hang out, given the choice.

Unless tragedy and trauma have struck our households.

Then we have no choice. We have to dive deep into grief and chaos as change is thrust upon us.

What to do when we don’t know what to do? Be kind. Rest. Keep our eyes open and our ears attuned. Grieve as needed. When needed. Ask deep questions of self and others. Figure out what our deepest yearnings are and pursue them. Aid others in their pursuit. Figure out what our community is going to look like now. Experiment. But mostly,

Rest. Be kind. Take a leap of faith.

Me? I just adopted two feral kittens.

2021 is going to be downright brutal.

But I love them anyway.

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Letting Go

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Letting go has three directions: past, present, and future. Some of us are well-versed in releasing past emotional hurts or sentiments.  Some of us live for the day, approaching each moment with gratitude and anticipation. Some of us are excited about the adventures of the future.

Not my world. 

I hang on to it all: the anger about the lies he repeatedly told my colleagues about his actions (which some believed because he’s so convincing!); the conviction that something will go wrong today during a high-stress presentation (because, well, why wouldn’t it?); the belief that the future I want for my life is going to be a lot of hard, unfulfilling (likely unrewarded) work. Such hanging-on tendencies have evoked complicated, constant conversations in my head over the years. What’s worse is that I can’t fix any of these situations. He lied. Stress situations can lead to mistakes. The hoped-for future is going to result from hard, sometimes unfulfilling, maybe unrecognized work. In the midst of all this chaos, if I can hang on to my anger, anxiety, and worry, I can keep the illusion of control and safety (and ultimately, stuckness).

I have been discovering in the past few years that there are some direct ways of shifting how I live in my (anxious, COVID-directed) world. The past pain is only going to be set free when I do the hard work of forgiveness. What does it serve me to hold onto malintent or neglect perpetrated by others? Why do I give power away in the form of attention to someone who doesn’t have my well-being at heart?  

The current anxiety about what I don’t want to happen or what I’m against changes to focusing on what I do want to happen, or what I’m for. What do I deeply want? How will I get there right now even if there is rough terrain?

Worry about the future, amplifying my concerns into need for control, morphs into letting go and adapting along the way as I walk toward the vision.  What would it take for me to be clear about what matters?  How do I trust that, if I am aligned with God’s purposes, this vision will play out, perhaps in ways I can’t quite fathom yet. I am reminded of the wisdom of the stalwart workers of the world who have let go of control:

When Mother Theresa was asked why she didn’t participate in anti-war demonstrations, she said, “I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I’ll be there.”

The polarities in our society—theological, political, and all the “isms” one can name—come down to change vs. staying the same.  It’s naïve to claim that change can cease, with the exception of in a vacuum, because it cannot be stopped.  

The intention of change is the issue here.

Do we embrace massive, quick change to foster well-being for those who are not well or who have discrimination forced upon them every day (see “isms”), thereby leaving others behind?  Or do we appropriate change to keep us entrenched in our definition of safety, ruled by control, so we can try to abate our anxiety and worry, leaving others in dire circumstances? Or do we stay a bit the same/safe enough and work for change that brings about well-being for others, including the stranger? A fierce choice is upon us.

The vision from the Source of Life for the planet, well-recorded in the world religions and many other spiritualities, is based on well-being in the sense that every creature will have what we need to live well. The only way I can contribute to such a vision is to let go and forgive the past, focus on what is happening now as a learning opportunity, and trust enough to embrace the adventure of a future I don’t know yet. 

Hang on or let go: what will you choose to do?

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Leaders

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I have spent my adult life thinking about the nature of leadership and its qualities, pitfalls, and breakthroughs. I have experienced the propensity in training courses and throughout the leadership literature to try and create a template for a great leader. I have even taught some of these skills and spoken about these templates in the courses I teach.

I’m in my middle years now and have attended workshops, conquered degree programs, been super-certified, and participated in creative group leadership development projects. Much of this educational focus stems from a great love of learning rather than to have a string of “alphabet soup” letters behind my name. I have succeeded and failed, surged with creativity and slumped with discouragement. After all these “inputs,” what I take away about leadership, here and now, is this: whatever skill set and mindset any person or team brings to the table, they can be valuable IF they are held in a genuinely curious stance, which signifies a learning posture.

What does that mean? For example, a leader can be service-oriented, profit-oriented, forceful, pleasant, loud, quiet, data-driven, charisma-driven, serious or humorous. A leader can be trained in every tool available through institutes and universities and courses, or simply have natural ability that gets honed through experience. No matter what the characteristics of a leader, the most significant aspect of being good at leadership is

to be open and to learn, and then to be able to translate and co-create learning into the shared work of all.

What a simple phrase. What a difficult thing to do. When faced with opposition, entrenchment, crisis, uncertain futures, good leaders STILL have to remain open, curious, and learning. Indeed, they walk up the ice hill without a path, sharing the load with others, despite the crevasse forming just below.

Surrounding the leader are followers (who may have leadership positions in their own rights). Trust is part of the equation. I find that people trust a leader who can admit to making mistakes and can redirect the focus when she or he learns a new perspective or entertains new data.

As a coach of leaders and teams, my statement about openness and learning posture is becoming reinforced as I meet new people in various organizations. I may not have the level of expertise in the field of the leader, but I do know a learning mindset when I see one. Therein lies the key to the work together. Therein lies the key to good leadership. Curiosity and learning lead to planning and movement: raising awareness, experimenting, mobilizing, acting, creating new habits or foci, settling in to the next journey until another learning opportunity comes along. The cycle continues – and yields tremendous potential and results when the leader and the team stay curious.

This pathway is how we grow into our best selves in service of humanity and the planet. First, stay open, stay curious.

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Managing Choices

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Walking into a grocery store cereal aisle is a shock to someone visiting North America. The variety of choices staggers the senses. In reverse, when I moved abroad from the U.S., I was relieved to have limited choices so that I didn’t move into “overload” mode.  There was plenty of choice on those shelves without my freezing in dismay.

Barry Schwartz suggests in his research results, laid out in The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, that too many choices generally render human beings more anxious about making the right choice; hence we take much more time to select an item or an option because the concern about getting the best possible result has the human brain running a complex network of comparisons and “what if” questions. As a result, a person can end up lounging in the cereal aisle, or on the shopping website, or in the workplace meeting room where an organizational focus  is at stake, rather than moving through the decision effectively and efficiently to address the next item on the agenda.

In the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, it seems that we have been forced into fewer choices about how we work and socialize. Spontaneity has taken a hit and public movements must be calculated in terms of spacing and masking. At the same time, if we work from home, we have more choices about how we spend our time, which can render us fragmented among the activities calling to us in the household and on the screen (despite the benefit of living in stretchy clothes all day long). Some of us will be working from home permanently, so we are in the midst of adjusting to self-discipline and choices about shaping our work environments in new ways.

Choices, when limited, depending on the gravity of their impact on our lives, tend to help us make quicker and better decisions. The travel industry has a handle on this psychological issue.  One can choose from a few seasonal options to travel to the Antarctic, and then build the details from there.  The big choice is complete, then the extras are more easily managed.  Companies like Apple also apply this principle. There are basic products, and then one enhances them to suit personal taste.  Amazon, on the other hand, has sheer volume at its fingertips, a different approach to marketing altogether, claiming the huge number of choices as a marketing advantage.  Admittedly for some, it’s fun to have so many choices because it’s energizing to live in possibility rather than focus on result, the choice itself. 

Managing our choices is a way of regulating our own energy each day.  Are you a person who gets bogged down by too many choices or someone who revels in the possibilities?  Whatever the answer, it is a clue about how we best approach our work and play as we live through highly anxious times.

Follow your energy.

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The Art of Friendship

I know when I’m with real friends when I can give voice to my worst self and all my angsty messiness AND they nod and appreciate me still.

I know when I’m with real friends who look out for me when I see them also looking out for each other.

I know I’m with real friends when they don’t try to fix me but at the same time, deeply hear me. (Sometimes a suggestion or two works.)

I know I’m with real friends when they caution me from lines of thought that tear me down rather than build me up.

It’s an art, this friendship thing. It flows and floats and sails and sits unencumbered by the stresses and strains of predetermined outcomes and successes. There are some basic principles about friendship that are evident when friends are true: trust, loyalty, challenge, being happy or sad for the other(s), collaboration, strategizing, pushing and pulling, freedom to express whatever is rising up.

In the end, the art of friendship is most deep when it has hospitality at its foundation. Hospitality of place, heart, mind, and time are indeed a rare intersection of this art – and when I find it, I know what friendship means without words. I describe it as openness, lightness even in the midst of heaviness, resilient, always leaving-me-wanting-more. Contentment.

Thank you for your generous selves, my friends. You’re real.

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Loss

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It is in loss that we find our true selves.  So many of us over the years have experienced loss – loved ones, companion animals, jobs, dreams…

Who we are in loss is who we really are–because loss cuts through the cognitive and moves right into the heart and gut.  Even if we know that suffering for our loved one (companion or dream) has ended, our suffering continues in the space of the left-behind. Painfully liminal.

The photo above is Myka (Mykonos) – passing over on July 23, 2020.  The gap, the silence, the shadow, the ghost of Myka wandering around the conversations and the spaces in my home all join in the other losses.  Xochicalco, Toby, Santiago before her. Soul friends Jennifer, and others. Family members.  The autonomous birds and butterflies that grace my garden and don’t make it to the next day… 

Many have lost loved ones, human beings, companion animals, or even vocational dreams, this year of COVID-19. There are not words for this loss.

Just know that those of us who are still here bear witness.  Faithfully and strongly.  We join arms with you.  As you have with me. There is something beyond our space of sorrow.  We know not what it looks like – yet.

With gratitude. Rest in Joy, Myka. And all those who have gone before.

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A Great Fullness

Originally published at engagedliminality.org for the Guild of Engaged Liminality (July 2020)

IMG_6753  Photography has long been my solace and my escape from everyday stresses and expectations. I have fussed with apertures and shutter speeds, filters and special effects.  Ultimately though, it is my interaction with the natural world itself that co-creates the picture, with technicalities only enhancing (or sometimes obscuring) what is already present.

Recently, I was looking through a New York Times photo essay titled “The Great Empty,” shot in March 2020, the first month of global shutdowns due to the coronavirus (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/03/23/world/coronavirus-great-empty.html). The photos, situated in the world’s great cities, show empty streets and isolated people, silhouetted in high-rise apartment windows. The absence of crowds and traffic in these photos is jarring. And hauntingly beautiful. Some cities remain in isolation at this writing, but most are opening up to human movement for the sake of resuming some sense of normalcy in the workplace and in social life.  We are still in the liminality of pandemic, feeling our way globally into the emerging future. Experiments focusing on the flow of life and work continue with a step forward, then back, then a step in another direction, as science rushes to keep up with a virus that morphs and spreads indiscriminately.

The Great Empty refers to the movement, or lack thereof, of human beings. Yet, I have been encouraged with reports over the last few months that the slowing of human pace has created space for other creatures to find more space – A Great Fullness.  Whales increased communications with each other because cruise ships were not interrupting signals.  Turtles showed up on beaches where they had diminished in numbers significantly. Bird migrations were more cohesive.  For a moment, the planet breathed again – and so did human beings.   Photography essays showing signs of the natural world rebounding in a few short months brought me a moment of hope, countering my growing cumulative despair after decades of evidence pointing to human culpability for the planet’s demise. I don’t know if my hope will last; much depends on all of our choices during this liminal time.

Questions arise now about whether we can find our way to live well and make space in the world for the rest of creation. Economic anxieties and racial unrest are at the fore of human consciousness, rightly so, yet the plight of the natural world will likely move to the background once again rather than take its place as an integral connection to inequity and resources.  Until industry and mega-corporations make a decision that the natural ecosystems are essential for thriving, there is small likelihood that we will find a sustainable co-life with the world’s natural resources and non-human creatures.

So this forced, virus-based liminality necessitates our asking the essential question that Margaret Wheatley, a leadership entrepreneur and writer, poses: “Who do we choose to be?”  Notice that the subject is plural.  We are in liminal space together, and creating hope for a sustainable future is a shared decision, which is a complex prospect. Choices in the present are tempered with both grief and hope – grief for loss of the past and letting go of what we do not need, and hope for the emerging future. Moving through these states of being is essential for good choices.

The Great Empty gives us a picture toward which we might strive: breathable air, slower pace, space for creation to renew, working from home rather than clogging the streets and skies, focus on beauty.  The brilliance of collective human focus can take this picture and make something sustainable of it – if we choose well.  We pay attention to our shutter speeds (pace), our apertures (what we take in), filters (what matters and what doesn’t), and our special effects (how we bring beauty into the world and how we receive what is given to us). The possibility is endless.  Who do we choose to be?

 

 

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Disintegration

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We are well into our third month of coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.  I don’t know about you, but I am busier than ever – my inbox can’t be contained, my writing opportunities are fast-increasing, and I am suddenly aware of the home clear-out possibilities that could be done right this very second.  Building a coaching and consulting business during this time has its own frenzy to it. I’ve never felt more connected to people whom I almost never see, and I’ve never felt more disconnected from the people I try (tried) to see often.  Someone reminded me the other day that this blog site is called “liminal space” for such a time as this. Yeah. I know. Now.

Liminal space as a concept is taking on a life of its own these days. The term is cropping up in the business, academic, social service, and religious worlds. Every day, dozens of articles land in my inbox, telling me and my business to be agile, prepared, flexible, and to mind my supply chains.  CEOs need to keep morale high and show just the right amount of vulnerability, but not too much, or people will lose confidence. Anxiety and grief are fine as long as it is fruitful and handled well. Being with the people in one’s care matters. Mindfulness, compassion, exercise, sleep, and support are crucial.

Oh for goodness’ sake.  Can’t we just deal with disintegrating for a minute? The calendar is hard to follow (temporal disintegration), meals are not on schedule, work and home life are fused (fragmentation), and today, there’s a tornado watch in my part of the country.  None of these things is inherently bad, but they need a lot of space to swim around in for a bit.

Liminal space means “in between” and in between has chaos in it.  Trying to control the chaos every second is exhausting. Sometimes, we have to ride the currents even as we’re planning that next executive meeting or sorting out the schedule for workshops, Zoom calls, and the next possible date to get on a plane.  This situation calls for a both/and – we have to ride the current and we have to swim too. Tricky. Necessary. But I hope the “ride the current” part doesn’t get lost or we are going to disintegrate into swimming into exhaustion.  And I hope the “swim” part doesn’t get lost or we’re going to disintegrate into being feckless, depressed victims of the times.

Here’s the thing about disintegration.  Those who have a sense of what liminal space is know that disintegration is the first part of the chaos; things get messier and messier.  They kind of fall apart or split wide open.  Then we get our footing and look around to see where we are and what’s going on around us. Then we begin to figure out a short-term plan. Then we get to better footing and find a few people. Then we figure out a short term, better plan together.  Then we continue along these lines until there is a whole team working on the same thing: the other side of chaos. And then the plan becomes action.  Part of the action is medium-term planning. And then the action becomes the new thing, and we have launched into a future that we hadn’t really seen before. Then we plan long-term.  That’s the process – coast a little, swim a little, look around, coast a little, swim a little (I feel a song coming on).

That’s the beauty of the pain of liminal space.

That rock that split in the picture above?  Look closely at the top of the left half. There’s a little tree growing on it. And that tree’s roots are going to cause another split. Liminal space is cyclical – it’s how we grow, whether we’re hit by a disaster or we sense that it’s time for a change that we can initiate.

I hate this pandemic and what it’s done to the world. I also know that the disintegration will bring new life out of loss of life and normalcy. What will your new life be as you coast a little, swim a little? Only time will tell.

 

 

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Unfurling

IMG_6686 Something is unfurling these days.  

 

We’re past the initial shock of the coronavirus pandemic, but still in the throes of panic and grief. Weariness over long-term battles with the virus, fear over a tanking economy (affecting most people anyway), and suffering over various levels of isolation–this is just the beginning. Or rather, the beginning of the middle. Liminal space has new meaning now; we aren’t where we were a few months ago, and we have no idea what’s next. This long-term (in the human scheme of things) middle space isn’t pretty. 

On the other hand, the planet is getting a rest, the whales are showing lower stress and higher levels of communication uninterrupted by cruise ships, people are breathing cleaner air in asthma-inducing cities, and we all are enjoying birdsong and the audible sigh of the wind as noise pollution diminishes. This short-term (in the planetary scheme of things) middle space is pretty.

I find myself ping-ponging between listening to the mindfulness/encouragement industry and rejoicing over the positives for the environment, and reading gruesome detective stories where the dregs of human behaviors assert themselves in violence, meanness, and disruption (sort of like news headlines). I hold this paradox–hope/despair–in my mind and body every single day, rather helplessly: a state of being that I do NOT LIKE. This ping-pong game isn’t pretty.

At the same time, I wonder about ping and pong. Is this action a merely back-and-forth  across a net, trying to score victory against the unknown?  Or might it have a different purpose: a fervent give-receive/push-pull in place of great disruption and discomfort,  shedding an old game for a new one? A new kind of life? For those who survive, that is.

The encouragers are clear that we are entering a new awakening, complete with scars of course, where we have opportunity to pay more attention to what matters and what we can let go. The new awakening calls for us human beings to be more mindful of our spiritual selves and our interconnection with the planet. On the other hand, those who warn us speak to the oncoming economic recession, if not depression, that is going to catapult us into years of discord and days like the early 20th century, with accompanying poverty and misery for the masses.

I suspect that both perspectives have elements of truth. What can be done? What can we do? Ultimately, we choose who we want to be in this paradoxical time of swift change.  That means we choose what we support, how we will act, and what we will stand for as we move forward. The choices are crucial and frustrating; in one sense, we are waiting things out, and in another, we are gearing up to be the best or worst we can be no matter what is on the horizon. Collaborative or competitive?  Handing out toilet paper and food or hoarding it?  Voting for openness or protection? What about both? Can it be both?

We have some power over what actually unfurls.  I have it, you have it.  The future is a co-creation and it will take conversations, work, and hope that is beyond our knowing. The pretty and the un-pretty are going to be there together.  Who will we choose to be in in the unfurling?

Because something is unfurling these days, no matter what.

 

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