Cherishing Elliot’s Memory Forever:  Building a Fund to Empower Dreams and Perpetuate Hope

I’m not sure why.

But I have had trouble moving forward with setting up a fund to honor my son Elliot’s memory. Peculiar, because typically, my to-do list is my go-to coping mechanism. Human doing, as opposed to human being, as they say, but I‘m learning. Still, this particular task has overwhelmed me in persistent ways since Elliot’s shocking death three years ago. Maybe the concept of a memorial fund is just too much to bear on top of everything else. Or maybe it’s because Elliot’s passions defined him so thoroughly that containing them in an administrative apparatus feels inadequate. Regardless, as Roland Barthes states in his brilliant book, Mourning Diary, “The finality of death is unavoidable.” 

Maybe I’m just stuck in denial.

But it’s a murky, dark, and anxiety-producing kind of denial. From the lingering questions about what actually happened that horrible day, to festering fantasies of his being spirited away by some secret dark-web intrigue, to a myriad of other what-ifs and inconsistencies, there’s no relief. Only an agonizing series of dead ends that fail to scumble the sharp edges of my broken heart.

Grieving this way feels excruciating and relentless.

As I travel down this exhausting and painful road, surrounded by a pandemic and a world in constant turmoil, I have come to realize that it is imperative that I recognize and cherish every shift, every exhale, every glimmer of possibility—no matter how tiny. Though they are not always easy, these baby steps are where meaning lurks, and in grief, meaning is essential for survival.

Therefore, I am taking a step.

Elliot’s father, Max, and I have decided to move ahead with creating a donor-advised fund with the Communities Foundation of Texas in memory of our sorely missed son, Elliot Everett Wright. We are still ironing out the details, but we will be launching it soon. And you will have the opportunity to participate as we amplify Elliot’s memory together.

Here are some initial musings . . .  

The Elliot Everett Wright Tsundoku Fund: Empowering curiosity, passion and purpose in memory of one wild and precious life—well-loved and well-lived, but far too short.  

We lost Elliot Everett Wright, our brilliant 26-year-old first-born son, on August 5, 2018, in a sudden and tragic single-vehicle motorcycle accident in Dallas, Texas.

A remarkable human, Elliot had more passions and interests than are possible to name, many emerging from books. And as a confirmed Japanophile, as well, he was wryly fond of the concept of tsundoku, the practice of collecting books—so many in fact, that they surround you in piles everywhere, read and unread. I believe this notion is quintessential Elliot—reflecting his insatiable curiosity on so many levels. His Uncle Doug said it best in his eulogy, “Elliot was a perspicacious boy—and the closest thing I knew to a human encyclopedia.”

In this spirit, we are creating a special fund in his memory—to fuel fervent passions that make dreams come true. Having ignited so many lives during his truncated time on earth, Elliot’s spark will never be extinguished. Through his “tsundoku fund,” he will continue to brighten the minds and hearts of fellow travelers, artists, learners, rebels, scholars, musicians, poets, and raconteurs who share his “perspicacity.”

Like piles of books, their projects are ”journeys ready to be taken,” but they require an angel gift, a timely contribution. The fund will likely consider proposals of all types—with a focus on education, literacy, music and travel. Currently, we are thinking grants may support:

  • Scholarships
  • Fees for classes, workshops or online certifications  similar to the one he pursued in Red Hat Linux programming that changed his professional life)
  • Travel to explore or study
  • Instructor-led lessons/training for any high-stakes pursuit, such as riding a motorcycle or flying an airplane
  • Open-source coding, music or literacy initiatives

Tax-deductible contributions will be welcome when the fund’s link goes live.

So, stay tuned . . . Please share your thoughts and ideas with me.

A View of the Summit: A Writing Retreat’s Unexpected Narrative Arc

It felt like kismet when I received the email.

“I’m writing because we just had a cancellation on the St. Paul writing retreat, and you’re number one on the waiting list,” it said.

And there it was — the inciting incident that launched my story.

When everything seemed to fall into place, I felt confident the August retreat would provide a welcome creative escape and a nurturing 60th birthday present to myself. After all, August is the most wicked of months. Since the death of my oldest son, Elliot, in August 2018, conflated with too many profound losses in recent years, I have written to grieve — and frankly, survive. Finding my writing roadmap was my objective for the week, but the universe had its own unique take in that.

Little did I know, this retreat would become the subject of my writing, as opposed to the enabler of it.

Perhaps that’s why the impact has been so seismic. Kind of like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, I was searching for something outside myself to help heal my shattered soul. But what I encountered was the startling real-time reality that said process is — and always will be — an inside job.

I realize now this transformative experience was less about my creative path and more about my grief journey.

Though I thought I had packed light, I arrived with some extra baggage. Turns out grief behaves like a clingy companion who never checks out and never leaves — brazenly taking up residence in every cell of your body. Sometimes, I feel like my son Ian’s lizard, Carlton, except I can’t ever seem to shed my stiffening outer layer of skin.

So, for this grief-ladened former extrovert, jumping into a bubbling broth of bright, witty women — who also happen to be ten perfect strangers — was a little like diving headfirst into 35-degree plunge pool. Game on, sister. Like riding a bicycle, yes, but also a stark reminder that I have become a completely different person since Elliot’s death.

“Be gentle with yourself,” said one of the angel voices in my head.

On paper (or online), this immersive writing experience felt almost magical — the “Oz” of writing retreats but still layered with complexities. At the top of the list was the pandemic. It was my first time on a plane in a year and a half. In her follow-up email, retreat leader Jess Lourey assured me they were following “Minnesota COVID guidelines,” and they had cut the attendance in half. It still felt strange. Then, there was the Twin Cities location — packed with backstory for me, now viewed through the traumatic lens of George Floyd’s tragic murder last year.

On the plus side, there were memories from my salad days as an intern in the mid-1980s at The Guthrie Theatre, including wacky adventures with my college pal Peter, who was a Minnesota native. It was a time when anything felt possible. From Mary Tyler Moore to Prince to friends in the area, it seemed like the ideal destination after an extended period of debilitating grief and isolation. There would be yoga, meditation, healthy food, and a community of brilliant women, peppered with sassy literary insights from Jess, accomplished writer and professor.

As I approached the shadowy Summit Avenue manse on that first day, it dripped with 19th century charm in a Grey Gardens sort of way. Its cluttered elegance felt both inviting and unsettling. Shabbier than chic, the front porch was festooned with overgrown hanging plants and clusters of peeling lounge chairs with faded cushions. Dangling strands of greenery enveloped the tattered lanai like a lacy antique tablecloth draped over my long-deceased grandmother’s dining table.

My room was on the so-called “garden level,” termed euphemistically since the vine-wrapped transom windows, barely peeking above ground level, had probably not been cracked open since 1925. I tried to appreciate the quaint appeal, but I was struggling to sleep and breathe in the dank basement room with no air conditioning. And the fans they dug out of the closet did not help the sullied, stagnate air situation at all. It felt like a blast furnace at night.  

This was not my beautiful retreat, nor the 60th birthday experience I had envisioned. Once again, my yin clobbered my yang. The blessing and the curse;  bitter and sweet; excruciating and transcendent. It was overwhelming, really—a mosaic of epiphanies, fears, tears, laughs, gold nuggets, connections, wine, hugs, more tears,  sleepless nights, perspiration, Kleenex, mucus, chocolate, thick coffee, and abundant charcuterie.

Let’s just say it was complicated.

In particular, a worsening runny nose and cough came into full bloom on day two, and an IM to my doctor to check symptoms resulted in what I feared.

“Yes, Elaine, get a  COVID test,” she instructed. “The variant is causing milder breakthrough symptoms in vaccinated people.”

I shared my concern with Cindy, one of the hosts, and she said, “Oh dear. I’m sorry. We don’t have liability insurance to drive you to get a test.”  

I was stunned, but fortunately, angels on earth do exist because Lea, my retreat compatriot, came my rescue. Survival mode is my natural state, so I did what was hardest for me—asked for help. My therapist would say I was over-functioning, but I needed a ride. Lea had driven from Rochester, Minnesota, my pal Peter’s hometown, so she had a car. We had hit it off on day one. I knew Lyft would not drive me to get a test, and I had no transportation.

Though I was vaccinated, I could not rest until I knew my status. How could I run the risk of infecting the retreat bubble with COVID? What would happen then? No one was masking. After all, I had come for Texas, where hospitalizations were rising. I was feeling my anxiety ramp up. Handling this was distracting and stressful, to say the least. Shattered any Zen vibe that might have been brewing. And a COVID test was definitely in sync with a restorative retreat I imagined. 

After extensive online searching with my dear Lea’s help, we found the only test available that day at a sketchy “emergency” COVID lab located in the industrial outskirts of St. Paul. It required prepayment, but I was game. We hit the road like Lucy and Ethel trying to find William Holden at 21. It was as hysterical as it was annoying. There were even some madcap antics when we could not find the poorly marked entrance behind the thick, uncut grass. We thought it was scam.

Lord, we giggled and gasped our way across the Twin Cities, laughing through our tears. And miraculously, for a couple of hours that afternoon, I felt my crusty lizard-grief skin dissolve into a puddle of silliness. For just a brief moment or two, I felt like me again — me with a cold, that is. Thank you, Lea for that unexpected glimpse of joy and your extreme generosity.

Not surprisingly, more intrigue ensued as I had to follow up when the results did not appear as promised within an hour. Apparently, the technician had stepped out for some wild rice soup, I guess, but they eventually found him, and it was negative. Thank God.

Back to our program in progress, Jess, our charming, brilliant and earthy retreat guru, was deep into her spectacular curriculum. It’s all a little foggy to tell you the truth, but I can tell from my notes that she offered a keen understanding of how to construct a narrative. It was all about finding clarity and giving yourself permission to sink into the power and value of your story. She was a font of practical knowledge, too — all the brass tacks and tricks to get ’er done. Meanwhile, Cindy, her perky and polished partner in crime, orchestrated our delicious moveable feasts and morning yogas with unflappable panache. Exhaling felt good — especially when the congestion cleared a bit.

But the heart connections among the women were the highlight. It’s ironic that words elude me to adequately describe the experience of a writing retreat, of being in the presence of these amazing soul sisters, but that’s probably because it feels as ephemeral as the tiny fuchsia morning glories that bloomed for only an hour or so in the sprawling backyard each day. Finding authentic community is rare — particularly in the brave new pandemic world. There was a little Oz in the mix.

So, in spite of the mayhem, I believe this week was a long overdue investment in my muse and myself. It taught me to go on cherishing the beauty in the tiniest glimmers of grace. I am grateful for the memories, motivation, momentum, and minor mending of my fractured heart. And I could not wait to get home to my air-conditioned bedroom.

Because there’s no place like home.

It’s All Grief to Me: 5 Things Grievers Would Like to Hear

Thankfully, I have found several groups for bereaved parents on Facebook. Yes, they are the yin to Facebook’s otherwise troubling yang, but the shattered hearts convened in them are full and present. They weave together the bitter and sweet, the dark and the light, the loss and the love. Thinking of Leonard Cohen’s wisdom, “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

These sacred conclaves provide safety and warmth in the midst of grief’s pervasive miasma. They have exacting parameters, like “Loss of an Adult Children,” “Sudden Death,” “Parents Who Have Lost Sons,” and “Refuge in Grief.” And their openheartedness is as transformative as it is devastating. In fact, their kind words often keep me functioning on my worst days. It’s a level of knowing no one else possesses. 

Part of the pain of living with the death of a child is the ancillary awkwardness of engaging with other people in the world every day. The tragic reality of losing a child is a stark identity that seeps into every interaction, whether expressed on the outside or fiercely contained on the inside. Every conversation is a reminder, ladened with trenchant decisions about what to say, how to say it or whether to say it at all. It’s like having two or three people arguing inside your head all the time.

A recent question on one of these precious groups sparked a deeper dive into my own lexicon of grief. A member posted, “What do people say that helps you most?” This intrigued me, as I thought taking inventory of what resonates with this group of irreparable hearts might help other humans who stumble around those struggling with grief or who avoid them completely.

Let’s start at the top. This list is full of contractions, but then, so is grief.

  1. Nothing

Say nothing. This might seem counterintuitive, but it makes perfect sense. This is about just being present, just saying you are present. That’s all. In pre-COVID times, it meant hugging, sitting next to you on the couch or just holding a hand silently. I think this is the ultimate comfort in grief—like sitting shiva in Judaism. You don’t have to talk or offer beverages or speak. Just be. Allow the pain without fixing, evangelizing, entertaining, cajoling or minimizing. Human presence is a divine gift and a relief. In writing, it translates as “I have no words, but I am here.” Or “my heart is with you.” The grace is in the spaces between.

2. “I am here.”

“I am here” gives a voice to the above. This response ranked high. As grief guru David Kessler says, “Grief must be witnessed to be healed.” Strange but true. “I am here.” “I see you.” “I hear you.” “I am here for you.” “I am here anytime, day or night.” “I am here when you need to talk or when you don’t want to talk.” This is the power of presence.

3. Say their names, share their memories

Casual acquaintances frequently shy away from saying my son Elliot’s name, and they sometimes visibly cringe if I do. But I love it when someone asks, “Will you share a favorite memory of Elliot?” Or says, “Let’s talk about Elliot. Remember when he  . . .” or “I want to tell you a story you might not about Elliot.” Saying their names keeps their memories alive—so personally and poignantly. The invitation to share a memory somehow propels his memory into the present moment instantly. He doesn’t feel so gone. For a brief  moment, it’s more sweet than bitter.

4. “I will never comprehend your pain.”

Every grief is different—as unique as every loss. Though we may share commonalities in our stories, the essential pain is our own. Offering acknowledgement of this can be very comforting and healing—like a specially compounded ointment. “I can’t possibly begin to know your pain or how you go on.” “I have no idea what you are going through, but I am here for you in any way I can be.” I suppose this is a riff on “I am here,” adding the shared dimension of incredulity.

5. Speak from your heart

You don’t have to fix. Just feel. “My heart breaks.” “My heart hurts.” “My heart bleeds.”  “My heart is next to yours.” “My heart is with you.” There is something visceral and intimate about these statements. It’s both physical and emotional. Elliot will always live in my heart and in the hearts of all those who adored him—the agony and the joy in one place.

I am in no way suggesting we should script such things. Far from it, but I would like to see us cultivate a greater ease and openness with loss—allowing space for its enormity to expand. It is scary, but we are here on the earth to be in relationship—to be better at being human in the hard times.

But as a grief-averse culture, we simply don’t have the everyday language around life’s most painful events. I find this ironic since the pandemic has made the immediacy of grief as much a part of life as the joy of birth. And yet, the social dialogue is still tense, brittle and detached. So much so, we continue to default to the perfunctory, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” How did this happen? I’m sorry . . . for your loss? It does not even make sense. You don’t need to apologize for my loss. And “sorry” is a flimsy word, like trying to put out a fire with a Dixie cup. Just feels inadequate.

In the ebb and flow of the pandemic, we are in a both/and world—forced to learn a new way to be as we live. There is no new normal. Perhaps, a new tolerable—with the occasional glimmer of joy. I want to learn to carry the loss and the love together, the grief and the grace. Grief will always be a part of who I am down to the marrow—not just something that happened to me I have to get over. The tap dance of OK-ness is utterly exhausting. But the dark pit of despair is no place to exist, either.

So, I’m not going to list the ridiculous clichés. You’ve heard them. You may even say them. (No judgement.) But here are a few other great words worth sharing from the collection:

This totally sucks, but I’ve got you.”

“I want to know everything about Elliot—when you are ready.”

“You will get to a place where the sting of the pain softens a bit. Until then, I will be here for you every step of the way.”

“I love you. You are loved . . . always.”

“It’s OK to not be OK for as long as it takes. Allow yourself to feel and grieve at your own pace.”

“If you want to share your pain, I will catch what I can. I am here to sit or listen, and hold a space for you.”

“I can’t take your pain away, but I do have a shoulder to cry on and ears to listen.”

Megan Devine, another one of my grief gurus says, “Acknowledgement makes things better even when they cannot be made right. It’s a radical act to allow others pain and sit beside them with it.” In the end, grief is love.

Changing Your Light

Changing Your Light

This has been a particularly exhausting week—juggling multiple layers of chaos and confusion at work, in our nation, and on my heart. But today, I received a profound gift. I spoke with dear woman named Cindy Hartner about her grief journey and our lifetime of almost-intersections. It’s amazing how many glimmers of healing and grace we can offer each other—if we just pay attention. Thank you, dear Uncle Duck, for orchestrating this sacred connection. I am looking forward to reading Cindy’s book, “You Don’t Get a Map, You Get a Compass.”

As we chatted about our experiences with overwhelming grief, she mentioned how she often makes unspoken deals with herself in her head, like “If I roll a particular number on the dice or draw a specific card, I will be OK.” Maybe it was synchronicity, but her revelation echoed some of my own recent musings . . .

I’ve done it all my life.

It’s one of those compulsive ruminations that’s stuck on auto play in my head, probably related to my need for control. I call it the “if/then game.” It goes like this: If the light stays green, and I make it through the intersection, then . . . fill in the blank. I’ll get the job I applied for, or that pain in my lower back will go away, or I’ll get sleep tonight. Or even bigger things, like Elliot, my late son, will walk through the door today and say, “Fooled you, didn’t I, Mom?” Or America will somehow awaken and heal from this algorithm-infected, dystopian nightmare. The result can be anything—large or small, but it rarely has anything to do with the “if” statement. A random association.

Some might call this magical thinking or even insanity, but still, I do it—even though I know it’s ridiculous fantasy. Maybe somewhere down deep, I hope it’s true in some woo-woo sphere of influence—that when I send a thought out into the time/space continuum, the atomic particles align in my favor, and all will be well.

“That’s silly!” my dismissive inner COO snaps.

True enough, I admit. This practice is not logical, but it aligns with my core belief in a cosmic causality we don’t quite understand—even if it’s just a desperate attempt to make sense of this quagmire of dysfunction we are drowning in. Yes, the universe is intricately intertwined in tangled threads of connection and coincidence that we do not fully comprehend, but I’m relatively certain Einstein’s interest would be minimal in this juxtaposition of events. Even if you dive into dark matter, string theory and parallel universes, you are not going to find much evidence to support the veracity of these syllogisms. I know this intellectually, but I so want to believe there is a greater meaning in all this chaos.

“And what about when that light turns red?” my inner COO chirps. “What happens then, huh?”

You stop the car; I smirk to myself.

“Ha, ha . . . Very funny. Seriously, if the light turns red, and let’s say Trump instantly concedes with humility and grace, anyway, is that the exception that proves the rule? Or maybe I just made a specious association? Hmm . . . ‘tis a conundrum.

“So,  how’s this workin’ for you?” asks that sassy COO.

Well, I’m not sure. I think I need to do a deep dive into the data. To date, it’s just an in-the-moment kind of deal—a mini-boost, a serotonin hit, similar to a “like” on my Facebook post. It’s like I’m tricking my brain into anticipating that something good might actually happen, somehow, some way, for some strange reason. So, is there any control?

Somewhere between predestination and free will, I think there’s gentle control. We find it in our own choices and in how we respond to people and events. That’s our only durable control. I guess everything else is a roll of the dice. Makes me think of the serenity prayer. It’s about knowing the difference between the things I can change and the things I can’t. There’s the rub, especially when one of those things is the eviscerating death of my beloved first-born adult son, Elliot. That’s where I struggle most and where I probably will always struggle. It’s also where my guilt, despair and fury at the universe often obscure my better angels. Indeed, knowing the difference is the hard part, but I think that is my real work in this life and ultimately, my real peace . . . but only if that light stays green.

The Power of Wounds and Words

Words provide endless fascination for me, and I’ve encountered a couple of gems in the past month that seem to sizzle with relevance. So, here are my words of the week – and how they resonate:

Senescence and Debridement.

Both words I learned accompanying my 94-year-old Aunt Virginia to the Wound Clinic at Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas.  She is a warrior queen of remarkable grit and constitution, but a pesky wound on her outer ankle has refused to heal over the past few months. Since beginning our biweekly visits to see the perspicacious Dr. Moran and her choreographed coterie of clinicians, Virginia’s stubborn sore has much improved.

Debridement. It refers to the forced removal of unhealthy tissue from a wound to promote healing. Mon Dieu! It’s French – from débrider, to remove adhesions or to literally unbridle. Though the body possesses miraculous and mysterious organic self-healing capabilities, sometimes the process hits a snag. It stymies, and it needs a little help to progress. Debridement sends an urgent message to all the white blood cells and healing resources to galvanize the rescue mission – stat.  And, it hurts like hell!

Unfortunately, we don’t always know why we attract the excruciating circumstances we do or why healing pauses, but we do know why pain exists – to tell us something is terribly wrong. Pain  might be the most potent teacher. It’s just a matter of making the right connection.

Senescence. Debridement is a necessary protocol when a wound is senescent – another vocabulary word from the good doc. Senescent comes from the Latin senēscere, “to grow old.” In medicine or biology, it refers to cells that are still metabolically active – but are no longer capable of dividing.  Existing but not thriving. That’s why they need the jump-start.  Life is about living, not just surviving.

Thankfully, we have come to the right place. On our first visit to this chaotic clinic, I was overwhelmed by the number of “customers” – all seeking some sort of relief. There were not even enough chairs for everyone. There were babies, adolescents, grandfathers, society matrons and athletes. I saw one disturbingly gaunt man slouched in his wheelchair with his bandaged ankle plopped in the lap of a young man who looked like his son. He spoke with unconscious gusto. I think he must have been a teacher. “I believe in word economy,” he proclaimed. “I read that boy’s paper, and he used commas like he keeps them in a salt shaker.” I chuckled, but no one else in the room reacted.

“Ms. Thompson,” the out-of-breath nurse shouted as she cracked the door.

That’s Virginia’s married name. More accurately, her divorced name – an identity she’s maintained for more than fifty years. I grabbed the wheelchair she usually propels with her own two feet, and we were off down the hall.

“This is not uncommon,” said the chestnut-maned doc with an easy, warm smile. “But it’s a bear to heal. It’s a problem of pressure. I’ll bet you sleep on your right side, don’t you? We must offload the pressure. That’s all there is to it.”

Offload. There’s the lesson.

“This is gonna to hurt . . . a lot,” Dr. Moran warned as her nurse squirted the swollen, red ankle with lidocaine.

“This is what we call debridement,” Dr. Moran explained. “We have to remind the body how to heal. We need to remove the dead skin that gets in the way. This sends the body’s healing properties and enzymes to the wound.”

Virginia winced and closed her eyes tightly. Then, one glistening droplet ran down her wrinkled cheek.

“Are you OK?” I asked quietly. I have never seen her register pain, and she has endured much in her life.

“I know that hurt . . .  Uh, Ginny, more lidocaine here,” said Dr. Moran. “We need to rally all the resources we can to heal this bugger.”

Virginia began to breathe a little easier as the efficient tech team wrapped her puffy leg with focused precision. Moran gave us a list of instructions and pointed us to our next stop – radiology in the main hospital for an x-ray.

I was not here by accident. In addition to providing companionship and moral support for my only living senior relative, this experience held a lesson for me.  Sometimes the process of removing the dead tissue requires a seismic jolt – maybe two!  We can’t let unattended wounds just scab over – and pretend like everything is OK while the senescent tissue underneath remains.  Ignoring pain does not resolve it. And, the Universe keeps amplifying the intensity of our lessons until we finally get the message.

After all the turmoil, displacement and trauma in recent months (and even years), I know now it’s not my job to change or fix the mess and dysfunction all around me to feel better. That’s a no-win energy suck and likely leads to spiritual senescence. It’s about staying mindful, making higher-grade choices – and getting myself unstuck – not everyone else.

In medical terms, I guess the prescription is debridement – liquefying the icky eschar and slough. But, no more “liquefying” on my home front, please! I get the message! Thank goodness, Virginia’s choices are helping her heal, too. It’s been nice spending this time with her, too.

Let’s rally those inner resources . . . stat.

Present Imperfect: 5 Intentions for 2018

Instead of resolutions, I am focusing on intentions this year. I like this nuance, because it conveys a sense of positive expectation and possibility, as opposed “revision”― or eliminating unsavory behavior, condition or circumstance. In fact, we have little control over conditions or circumstances ― such as the stealth leak I discovered in the wall of my home on Dec. 28, 2017. What I do have control over is how I think about this event and how I choose to respond to its unfolding impact.

Intention.

I learned about the power of intention from the late, remarkable Wayne Dyer. The concept has served as a strong springboard for my journey to my authentic self. However, today’s guru is Pema Chodron, the revered Buddhist teacher, author, nun and mother. She is a purveyor of peace in these turbulent times ― a soothing salve for troubled spirits.

This week, I bought her calendar to hang over my desk ― a constant visualization to support my path to presence and focus. January’s quote is profound:

“The more you practice not escaping into the fantasy world of your thoughts and instead practicing the felt sense of groundlessness, the more accustomed you’ll become to experiencing emotions as simply sensations ― free of concept, free of story line, free of fixed ideas of bad and good.”

I love this way of looking at emotions ― actively embracing and experiencing them in a healthy way as part of my ongoing practice to master my own thoughts and eliminate limiting beliefs. My work is to notice what I am feeling. For most of my life, I have avoided my emotions and masked them with doing ― rather than feeling. This year is different. I intend to:

  1. Become a student of my own emotions. Honor and value them ― learn from and use them as essential data to become more energetically aligned. As Esther Hicks suggests, I seek to dissolve the “wobble” between my intentions and what I unconsciously believe about myself.
  2. Consistently connect to my inner divine power to discover the Love and Light in every moment ― accessing the ability to lift, support and propel my greatest possibility. Daily meditation is a key component of this one.
  3. Use my gifts as a writer, coach, actor and producer to express authentically and create work that shifts hearts, feeds minds and awakens souls.
  4. Mindfully use more words in my daily communication that accurately describe my feelings. And, find enormous value in this exercise as a writer. Emotional neglect therapist Dr Jonice Webb recommends, “Using words like dismayed, despondent, incensed, blissful, elated, morose, bland, raw, depleted, wary, strained, deflated, perky, free, quiet, devoted or feisty adds dimension and realness to your life.” What simple and astonishing truth.
  5. Notice at least one moment of joy in every day. This is another dimension of cultivating gratitude, I think. Seeing and feeling joy trains my unconscious mind to create more if it. The more you notice, the more you have.

I definitely find joy in viewing my son Ian’s incredible talent in this drawing. And what a wonderful metaphor ― the gentle warrior. Here’s to an abundant, joyful, peaceful and expansive 2018.

Deep in the Heart: Giving in the Wake of Disaster

“And the multitudes asked him, saying, What then must we do?”  Luke 3:10 (ASV)

Inconceivable. The destruction. The devastation. The suffering.

As a state and a nation, we are all struggling to find a reason, a context ― or some sort of meaning in the horrendous natural disaster that is Harvey.  We talk of heroic rescues, Texans pulling together under adversity and Divine order; however, the enormity of the hurricane’s wake still exceeds our capacity to comprehend. It’s almost impossible to fathom the numbers (as of Sept. 1):

  • 27 trillion gallons of rain water falling over Texas and Louisiana
  • 50 lives lost
  • 51.88 inches of rain ― the greatest amount of rainfall over land for a single storm in continental U.S. history
  • 40,000 + people forced from their homes and currently sheltered in the state of Texas in 239 facilities
  • 2,882 animals currently being sheltered in Texas
  • 1,000-year-level flood

Yesterday, I purchased a giant box of Luvs diapers and baby wipes for the first time in about 20 years and made a contribution the TrustedWorld.org, which is efficiently managing the logistics of contributed items. I attended a prayer service, but I’m still searching . . .

So, I remembered this article I wrote almost exactly 12 years ago following Hurricane Katrina. I think many of the messages still resonate today.

Reconciling the Overwhelming | Fall 2005

As we continue to grieve the devastating losses of Hurricane Katrina and her aftermath, our nation’s nonprofit sector now faces daunting challenges ― both immediate and long-term. Frontline relief organizations will continue to require sustained financial support as they scramble to manage the biggest displacement of Americans since the Civil War. Thankfully, Americans care deeply, and they are exceptionally generous.  Within two weeks following Katrina’s landfall, almost $1 billion was contributed to causes serving those stricken by the disaster. Unprecedented in American history, this pace of giving overtook historic rates in the early weeks for both the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the Asian tsunami of 2004. And amazingly, this outpouring of generosity is expected to represent only one percent of the total amount Americans are likely to give to worthy causes this year.

However, we must not neglect the frontline nonprofits after the breaking news fades. Even after support spikes have subsided, these organizations must be relentless about maintaining consistent funding levels. Still, as nonprofit leaders in a post-Katrina world, we might be feeling reluctant to actively raise funds for other worthy causes ― hindered by the overwhelming needs burdening so many. Understandably so. These unprecedented tragedies require our undivided attention, and it may be hard for some of us to go about our daily activities ― haunted by the shadows of those struggling in the ongoing anguish of disaster.

But this fierce commitment to humanity and our communities must help us stay focused ― working in the true spirit of philanthropy.

Let us embrace the power of generosity by leading our organizations with a vision of abundance, as opposed to scarcity.  As Americans continue to open their hearts and wallets in inspiring ways, let’s envision an expanding philanthropic pie. In fact, historical data proves that as donors increase their giving levels, they tend not to slide back to former habits. As we build compelling cases for support, giving will increase.  And what a privilege is it is to be part of the growth of the philanthropic sector ― as giving assumes such a prominent position in the American consciousness.

Impact Beyond the Gulf Coast.

Whether you are providing food and shelter for the displaced, education for our nation’s youth, or solace for the spirit, now is it the time to communicate directly and authentically with your donors.

Honor the situation, but do not apologize or shy away from contact on behalf of the cause you represent. Let’s reassure our donors that our organizations are strong and that we are grappling with new needs and shifting priorities. If we are confident and centered, our constituencies will have confidence in us and our missions.

In the long run, dedication to our causes will inspire donors who have already made our organizations priorities in their lives. This is a time for all of us to reflect carefully on our own giving commitments and clarify the impact we hope to make.  Now more than ever, let us strengthen our support of the organizations that speak to our personal truths, knowing that we can make a difference ― across the street or around the world.

Healing Trumps Trauma

“Nothing ever goes away until it teaches us what we need to know.” ― Pema Chodron

Appalled. I guess that word describes my current state. I keep trying to come to terms with the abhorrent behavior of our 45th president. Though I work daily to find a place of personal peace, the fear still creeps in. I know all is in “Divine Order,” but I am struggling to discern what kind of order that might be.  What could be the silver lining here? What is the gift in this, as great spiritual teachers might ask?

Well, I have a theory, and I guess I’ll go with it, because it’s really the only way I can contextualize the escalating chaos. I had a light-bulb moment when I saw Jeffrey Lord, a conservative pundit on CNN, attempting to defend 45’s alarming “Morning Joe” Twitter rant. Lord resolutely proclaimed, “You can’t call the president crazy.” Wow!  I had to put down my phone. That one sentence summed it up.

  1. Why can’t you?

There’s something distressingly potent in Lord’s protest. Why can’t you question a disturbing, unhealthy pattern of behavior that could endanger the lives of others ― in the leader of the free world? Lord’s claim shines a light on a pervasive mentality that strengthens the stigma of mental illness in the U.S.  Admittedly, this is not easy terrain to navigate, but mental illness is not a weakness. It is not an insult or a bad choice. It’s a disease ― a disease of the brain.  If you have a stroke, like President Eisenhower suffered in 1957, someone hopefully says, “Hey, something is not right with you. Are you OK? Let’s get some medical attention.” But with mental health issues, it’s much murkier. There is so much shame and embarrassment involved; we don’t speak up. We don’t get involved. The condition may not be as immediately life-threatening as a stroke, but it can certainly result in tragic consequences ― especially if you are president of the United States.

  1. “Crazy” perpetuates stigma.

On another level, I was shocked Lord said “crazy.” It seems to be the media catchall for all aberrant or irrational behavior, and its derogatory connotation helps propagate stigma and patient isolation, too. We are so uncomfortable talking about diseases of the brain that our default is “crazy” or now ― “cra-cra.” This language leaves no room for dignity, recovery or healing. And the shame prevents many from pursuing treatment (if their insurance will even cover it, that is) ― whether they are diagnosed or silently contemplating suicide. In a world where “the overall suicide rate rose by 24 percent from 1999 to 2014, according to the National Center for Health Statistics . . . and the suicide rate for middle-aged women, ages 45 to 64, jumped by 63 percent over the same period,”  we cannot continue to humiliate or ignore those who exhibit signs of mental illness.

  1. An inside job.

And finally, there is the reality to face that if we elected a man suffering from mental illness, he is our mirror. It is time to take responsibility for healing our own inner wounds. It’s time to choose authenticity, conscious communication, mindfulness and healthy boundaries.   

But Trump’s coterie of codependent enablers (flying monkeys) is not helping matters. White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended Trump’s tweets, saying he “fights fire with fire.” And Homeland Security Advisor Thomas Bossert minimized the threat of violence associated with the president’s hostile CNN-assault tweet ― actually saying he was “proud of the president” for creating a social media platform that connects with the people.

The 25th amendment offers some guidelines, but the act of defining “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office” instantly becomes political and complicated in the realm of behavior.  In addition, the psychiatric profession is still hamstrung by the 1973 Goldwater Rule ― enacted after Sen. Barry Goldwater, the GOP nominee in the 1964 election, was declared psychologically unfit for the presidency by psychiatrists surveyed in Fact magazine.  Goldwater won a defamation suit against Fact, and the resulting rule still prevents psychiatrists from voicing a caveat publicly without conducting an examination. Unfortunately, this further perpetuates stigma, as well― muffling open discussion of mental illness concerns under a cloak of disgrace.  There is probably a middle ground we can explore somehow.

So perhaps, from a quantum perspective, Trump is here to open our eyes (that have been “wide shut”). Maybe it’s time to end the silence, as the National Alliance on Mental Illness  (NAMI) is trying to do in our schools nationwide ― freeing our voices to tackle taboos that keep mental illness under the radar and under-treated. We are only as sick as our secrets, as they say, and questioning the mental health of the president in a constructive, supportive way might help lift the veil.

I am not sure of the answer, but at least we can start asking the questions about the very real behavioral concerns of this unconsciously virulent and externally triggered man leading our nation. It’s about his health ― and ours.

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From NAMI: If there is NOT AN IMMEDIATE THREAT OF DANGER but someone is acting irrationally due to his/her mental state, contact your local mobile crisis team. In the Dallas area, individuals may contact ADAPT Mobile Crisis at 1 (866) 260-8000.  If someone is acting irrationally due to their mental state and there IS AN IMMEDIATE THREAT OF DANGER to themselves or someone else, call 911. 

Cultivating Your Native Garden

“Let us cultivate our garden.”
― VoltaireCandide

I attended a provocative and refreshingly relevant production of “Native Gardens” by Karen Zacarias on Sunday at WaterTower Theatre in Addison, Texas. It was a modern take on the classic drawing-room comedy ― with a backyard twist. “Native Gardens” is a tightly orchestrated play about escalating conflict between two suburban couples who consider themselves “good neighbors.” However, their well-intentioned façades crumble when they begin to excavate the prickly, gnarly roots of ageism, racism, sexism and elitism ― all revealed in an emotionally charged explosion of their largely unconscious prejudices.

Zacarias and director David Lozano deftly capture the awkward challenges associated with communicating authentically and mindfully in an increasingly complex world.  The crisp, pointed banter shines a bright light on the cultural and racial tensions people have such difficulty discussing. Ostensibly polite conversations turn instantly into arguments ― and hilarity, though uncomfortable, ensues.

The drama builds over a festering boundary violation (love the irony there).  Tania, a young, pregnant New Mexico native pursuing her doctorate, attempts to “settle things” with Virginia, her stately new neighbor, who is an old-school Anglo feminist. Succumbing to her swelling rage as the plot thickens, Tania erupts, “You pushed all my buttons!” How accurate is that? But the truth is ― our buttons can only be pushed if we allow it.

And, that’s the message here. This high-def snapshot of suburban America reminded me of the conflict brewing in my own neighborhood association ― so often disintegrating into defensiveness and obstinate silence (without the guffaws).

The notion of “cultivating your garden” does apply here on several levels ― in this case, your native garden. In fact, way back in the olden days when I applied to college, I used that Voltaire quote, “Let us cultivate our garden” as a springboard for my essay. I can’t remember what I wrote back then in the last century ― painstakingly typing my cogent prose on a powder-blue Smith-Corona with Liquid Paper by my side. But I feel certain I was looking outside myself for the answers.

Now, I think the real garden to tend is inside.  It’s the one we discover in those moments of solitude in the peace and quiet. And, it’s up to us to clear out all the weeds, roots and debris cluttering our inner landscapes, strangling our opportunities to bloom ― as individuals and communities. 

So, take moment to listen to that still, soft inner voice ― the voice of compassion and kindness. It’s there. Mindfulness takes practice, but it’s the road to oneness and peace. Ask yourself, “Why am I feeling triggered?” “What is this about?” And the next time you go looking for the answer “out there” somewhere, you might try looking no further than your own backyard.

Finding Peace in Community: When Your HOA is an SOS

“All politics is local.”  ―Tip O’Neill

I attended the monthly meeting of my Home Owners Association (HOA) this week. As I entered the room on the humid summer evening, the atmosphere was heavy with expectation and simmering with skepticism.

You see, we are in the midst of launching an extensive and costly community-wide renovation project addressing years of deferred maintenance. But the project we are all funding is more than six months behind schedule. It has not even begun. Now, the board and residents are at loggerheads ― embroiled in a major kerfuffle over the financing and management of our seriously delayed initiative. With tensions festering, tempers flaring, and barbs flying, I felt very uncomfortable in the middle of this murky morass.

About 15 neighbors and I were attending the “working board meeting” to inquire about project status and related decisions impacting our finances and homes. But some of the board members were not amused. They responded to our questions with escalating hostility and defensiveness. One fellow resident even left in tears.  Such drama. The whole event was profoundly disturbing.

Days later, I am still feeling unsettled ― but I recognize this small community meeting in Lake Highlands, Texas  was truly a microcosm of our nation’s broader, brooding dysfunction. I do not understand this behavior, this lack of tolerance. When some folks encounter differences of opinion, they tend to lose all ability to relate as mature adults. In this unconscious breakdown mode, listening, respect and compassion cease. Polarization sets in.

Why is this happening? Why do opposing opinions make us all enemies? It reminds me what happened in the 2016 election as we hunkered down in our separate psychic silos. But, here’s the rub ― don’t we all want to live in happy, healthy, pleasant environments? So, what is getting in the way? Why are thoughtful, honest questions interpreted as personal attacks ― lambasted and dismissed? Evan McKenzie, University of Illinois political science professor and author of the book Beyond Privatopia: Rethinking Residential Private Government, explains that a complicating aspect of HOA disputes is that they often become personalized, “so you can’t even resolve them.”

One thought is this. The road to resolution is an inside job. It requires that we all commit to building authentic, aware relationships with ourselves, first. What I witnessed Monday evening ― and afterward, in harassing texts from a participant who took issue with my right to ask questions, was unconscious reactivity. And it spilled out all over the patio after we were dismissed as the “closed session” continued. There is no changing other people. Ever. But we can shift our own realities.

So, there is hope. There is mindfulness.

Essentially, I’m talking about the discipline of staying present, awake and aware in the moment. A great Forbes article states:

When you are mindful . . . you become keenly aware of yourself and your surroundings, but you simply observe these things as they are. You are aware of your own thoughts and feelings, but you do not react to them in the way that you would if you were on ‘autopilot.’”

I love this definition, because it’s about aspiring to a higher level of consciousness. Yes, it takes practice, but it is a practice that improves mental health ― as well as relationships. This means building mastery over your emotions and impulses — allowing you to adjust your behaviors.

According to a 2014 study from Carnegie Mellon University, self-soothing skills, mediation, and relaxation techniques that are part of mindfulness training have been proven to decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and meditating for just 25 minutes a day for three days in a row is an effective way to alleviate psychological stress. There is a great, new app I’m using to keep me on track with my meditation called Headspace. It’s been proven that meditation can actually enhance empathy, creativity and focus ― all core elements of a joyful, peaceful, centered existence.

SOS: Small Organization Stress

HOA board meetings can be tough rooms. Stress levels for the board members can be high, because the job is voluntary with very little appreciation involved. Resources and time are limited. The organizational structure is likely insufficient, and there is usually no official training for positions that carry significant responsibility. Boundary function is probably not optimal regarding task assignments, and these unexamined resentments can easily manifest as contentious and unsavory behavior. Not exactly a recipe for a good time!

An insightful Entrepreneur article reminds us of the importance of process ― not mistaking impulsive action for productivity. This is something I have been tackling in my own life for the past couple of years. It involves becoming aware of my own emotions, taking a breath and a beat ― and retraining my brain to intentionally consider the pros and cons possible options. It’s called “wise mind.” Start your day with a contemplative practice ― breathing, mediation, journaling, etc. Or, spend 15-20 minutes a day walking outside in nature. Gain perspective. Space. When you feel yourself reacting emotionally, take a moment ― and ask yourself what the reaction is about. Is it an unconscious response?

Make Mindfulness Matter

Mindfulness is the cornerstone of emotional intelligence — and a way to help you create a more fulfilling life. Here are a few tools to make that journey more manageable for leaders in organizations:
• Delegate
• Listen
• Empathize
• Resist making snap judgments
• Ask for guidance and opinions ― know that asking for help is not a sign of weakness
• Evaluate your operating structure and responsibilities
• Realize that you are completely biased ― love that one!
• Get clear about what you really want out of a relationship, transaction or activity
• Prioritize — you won’t get everything. Clarify for yourself what is most important
• Recognize that folks have other opinions, and they have nothing to do with you.

Above all, get real! And find a way to enjoy the process. Courageously assess your strengths and weaknesses, continuously. We are all spiritual beings having physical experiences, so let’s try to make the best of it.

Do you have suggestions or questions regarding nurturing healthy communities ― from the inside out? Please share.