Over the Rainbow: On the Edge of August

Maybe it’s the accumulation of almost sixty years of living in this body, but I am feeling the weight of my existence. No, my survival. I feel like I have been in survival mode—consciously or unconsciously for nearly half my life. That takes my breath away. Yet the past three years have eclipsed everything that came before. The loss of my son Elliot three years ago on August 5, 2018, at age 26 is the heaviest of all.

With August just days away, I have been drilling down into my search for a sense of renewed purpose in my life. With my son Ian in the interactive thick of his gaming master’s program at SMU, I have been peeling back the layers of my personal onion lately—asking myself all those daunting and stupefying questions:  How do I find meaning?  Why am I  here? What’s next?  How did I get here? Where do I belong? What should I do? All the usual cocktail party banter. Oh, how festive a good cocktail party used to be . . .

Writing helps. But it can be both an astringent and a salve—like pouring hydrogen peroxide on a wound to make it sizzle with pain, then soothing it with a healing ointment. This is an inescapable reality of living in the ubiquity of grief—a curse and a blessing, pain and gratitude, light and dark—all about finding a way to carry both with grace and aplomb. Ah, but there’s the rub. I seem to be fresh out of aplomb, but that might not be such a terrible thing. Stripping off the hardened layers of figurative varnish, liberally applied over the years to make everything look good on the outside, is probably healthy. Authenticity is definitely less work but more vulnerable. I have found that being present, grounded and real in the moment has its advantages.

Feeling bravely. Letting go. Saying no. Intentionally noticing where I am—to calm my unconsciously triggered nervous system. That’s the work. I can try to override an event intellectually, but my body keeps the score and always wins (referencing a seminal book on the subject by Bessel van der Kolk.) That’s pretty much how I roll now. Simple? Not always.

Process. Trust the  process. But trust the process?

As another August looms, it’s getting harder to breathe, especially since I am about to mark six decades on the planet on the 15th.  I also am remembering my late Aunt Virginia, who would have been 98 on August 6, and my mother, who died on August 22, 2012. Her birthday is August 27, and she would have been 86-ish. I’m a little vague on this, because my mom fudged her date of birth for so many years that she could never authoritatively confirm it. Regardless, August is heavy, and nine years later, my heart breaks for my mother—charming and magnanimous in public, but resentful and insecure in private. And tragically, her devastating stroke snatched her flamboyant life away far too soon—after leaving her paralyzed, brain-damaged and bedridden for nearly two years.

Thinking of Elliot and my mother on the edge of August, I am wondering about the journey of souls and the nature of life. Are Elliot, Mother, Father, Aunt Virginia, Cousin Scott, and my beloved mentor Ann Abbe together in some parallel cosmic dimension watching me try to function? Sometimes, I think so, but I’m not sure. When I interacted with my mother, aphasic after her stroke, she could say only “bah-bah-bah” with no discernible meaning attached. Yes, she was awake and present, but she was not there in a way I recognized. I suppose the mask of her larger-than-life self had dissolved. Being with her toward the end, I learned that souls have nothing to do with speech, thoughts or cognitive function. Her body was a mere vessel, still containing her spirit, but the violent rewiring of her brain’s circuits caused by the vicious stroke had amplified the serenity of her core essence somehow. It’s a strange thing to say, I know, but she seemed blissful, even giddy with childlike innocence. I was grateful for that part and wondered: Was this a glimpse of eternity?

When I was a little girl with my eyes open wide in the middle of the night under the covers, I tried desperately to visualize what heaven would be like. Would God be there? Would we frolic with angels amongst the clouds eating chocolate cake and picking flowers?  Would the streets be paved with gold and diamonds? What exactly was heaven, anyway?

I am still wondering about souls.

While the human being consists of physical matter, the soul is quite literally a piece of God, the Divine. The teachings of the Quran tell us the soul of each individual person is located in the eighth chakra at the top of the head, above the crown chakra. The power is not visible to human eyes, but it’s like the flow of electric current. And New Agers conjecture, “Your soul is your conscience, energy with no form or location that is part of the whole universe. The meaning of life is to evolve your conscience to higher consciousness—the source of all existence.”

Hard to pin down. Even harder to find.

Since Elliot died, I have never reached a point of feeling better— just different, and sometimes surprisingly so. His absence is always present. It never goes away, but maybe I’m learning to accept it—little by little, moment by moment. Not how it could have happened, but the reality that it did. I cherish the moments of forgiveness—for Elliot and for myself.  And then, a wave of grief hijacks me again. Alas, sustainable peace is just beyond my grasp right now, like the elusiveness of a distant rainbow I saw engulfing the morning sky yesterday. For a brief instant, I thought it might be Elliot—gorgeous in its subtle palette but ephemeral in its existence.

Then, I noticed something I never had—the bitter sweetness of a rainbow. Yes, there is beauty in its vivid hues, but it’s contained in a grand arch of sorrow enveloping the sky, the earth in mourning for my Elliot. I stopped in my tracks and wondered if I were the only one transfixed in this moment of poignant beauty. For so many, the rainbow is the ultimate symbol of hope and happiness, the stunning surprise belying the sadness of its form. But this is the way I meet every day and every moment of my life—such an apt metaphor for living with the untimely loss of my flesh and blood, my baby Elliot. The only solace it that he will always be in my heart—and alive in the hearts of so many who adored him.

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What’s the Next Layer on the Stack?

pancakesI was privileged to speak to a class at Southern Methodist University last week on social media for nonprofits. Nina Flournoy, the charming, accomplished corporate communications professor, was taking a very practical, professionally focused approach to the material. Clearly, the bright, enthusiastic students were hungry to comprehend the marketing power of social media.

They asked great questions – What makes something go viral for a business or nonprofit? How do I know what to post? When to post? How do I find my audience? Looking back on the day, my insights were many, but I was surprised to notice that though we may be asking similar questions, our points of view were remarkably different. Facebook, Twitter, and social media are as much a part of their daily lives as the telephone or the iPod. In fact, they live perpetually connected lives. Therefore, looking at these social media sites as marketing channels to be managed or positioned can feel incongruent. Social media is simply how they live, how they interact with the world and each other. It’s second nature—breathing, eating, sleeping—and tweeting! The reality is here:

As part of a slightly older generation of professionals, I am still experimenting with ways to integrate, coordinate, and differentiate somehow. But whether you are Generation X, Y or Z, I think these are questions we as marketers must address right now, in the moment. We are all trying to figure out how to weave social media tactics into the overall marketing mix—and manage them effectively. As we know, setting up a Facebook account or a Twitter profile is just the beginning—definitely not the whole story.

Content is king—but even more important is the conversation it triggers. Social media is less about information and more about participation. And geez, that is very hard to schedule! It is an activity, behavior, and process. Therefore, the question is—does the user experience have value? I think that’s where businesses and nonprofits are stymied. They look at social media and ask, “how is this relevant?”

And yet, that’s probably the flawed interpretation. Twitter, Facebook, and Linked In are really relevance-neutral. They are only as effective as their context. Sage North America recently released survey data that “88 percent of U.S. and Canadian nonprofits are using some form of social media, although less than half of this number have been using it for more than a year.” The surprising news is, “Of those who have not adopted a social media campaign, 45 percent indicated that it was because they were unsure of its relevance or advantages. Others said that they were unable to devote the time or resources.” The other hesitancy seems to be an uncertainty about integrating existing online transactions with social media environments. “91 percent of nonprofits said that they raise funds online, yet only 58 percent of these respondents said they use social media for fundraising.”

The challenge is to embrace the social media landscape in a valuable, productive way. That is, from a business perspective, we need to find a way to aggregate the vast, messy world of social media into a usable set of metrics, messages, behaviors, and/or outcomes. As I have written in earlier posts, it’s the new success measure—ROE, return on engagement.

At the end of the class, the SMU students asked me the question, “What’s next? What’s the next big thing?” What a fabulous and provocative question. There is some buzz about this among thought leaders. They suggest it is the question is really “What’s next on the stack?” We need to think about the media communication world as a stack or a progression. Many point to aggregation, dashboards for marketers, and consolidation tools. Chris Vary of Weber Shandwick and the Dallas Social Media Club says he suspects Twitter has probably peaked in terms of growth, so we should keep our eyes on the social media horizon. I have read there are 11,000 registered third party apps built on top of Twitter and probably more for Facebook; therefore, I’m thinking the cycle dictates some sort of consolidation or filtering.

Thinking back on my visit to SMU, where I earned an MBA and an MA, I am dizzied and overwhelmed by the acceleration of change. When I was sitting in those same chairs in the Hughes Trigg Building (well, maybe replaced since then) twenty-ahem years ago, I was thinking about taking my box of punch cards to the guy who worked on the other side of the little window in the mainframe building. No PCs. No Internet. No email, even. Still had the old Smith-Carona and Liquid Paper, for heaven’s sake! So hard to fathom.

gartner-social-software-hype-cycle-2009
Gartner Social Media Hype Cycle

And now, I can’t imagine a day without my iPhone and HootSuite. I guess I’m sort of a hybrid. As I wrapped up my remarks, I waxed a little nostalgic and encouraged the students to stay open, curious, and highly, highly adaptive.

The human condition is evolving at hyper-speed—intertwined with high-velocity technological innovation focused solely on expressive capability. As NYU professor Clay Shirky observes, “The moment we are living right now, this generation, represents the largest increase in expressive capability in human history.”

So consider this—social media as we know it right now will not be recognizable in 3-5 years. What do you think is next? Are you ready?

Elaine Gantz Wright writes about social media and other communications phenomena. Please post your comment below and join the conversation. elgantz@ yahoo.com