jimowenswrites

Reflections on Life, Leadership, Mindfulness, Change, and other Important Stuff

Month: June, 2016

Of Vision, Courage, and Couch Flopping

It had been a long day, the kind where you drag yourself into the house, let out a big sigh and start stripping off your clothes before you’ve barely closed the door behind you. I call it couch flopping.  If it was an Olympic sport, I’m confident I’d win a gold medal.  So as I pulled my car out of the parking deck I was looking forward to a drive home in silence and hoping the traffic gods were satisfied with whatever sacrifices they had already received that day.

 

A few blocks ahead of me, I saw two men flanking a tiny woman, like textbooks abutting a thin paperback.  Odd, I thought. As I approached them, I realized each man was manipulating a long white can, each one tapping the ground before them.  Slowing, I tossed them a brief glance and realized the woman was instructing these visually impaired men in the use of the cane.

 

As I passed them, I found myself thinking about how much courage it must take to be without sight in such a busy and often scary world.  Most of us have the benefit of our eyesight, even if it’s corrected with glasses or contacts.  We can see the traffic, the changes in the weather, and the body language of those around us.  We can see the obstacles in our path, the source of startling noises, and the approach of a stranger.  But these men had didn’t appear to have such abilities.  Maybe they never did.

 

Musing about their courage on the drive home, I thought about what Helen Keller once said.  I’m not sure this is an exact quote, but it was something like “it is far better to have vision and no sight than sight and no vision.”  Seeing these men, I wondered what kind of vision I have.  I didn’t just wonder about the kind of vision upon which leadership speakers and writers opine.  I didn’t just think about a vision at work, or for my financial plan, or what I might achieve in life.  I thought about the kind of vision that looks inward, take stock of who I am and what I am and how the things that happen to me, and the things I invite into my life, affect me.  And I thought about how much courage it takes to look at such things, the “traffic” of life, if you will.

 

It’s no small thing to make our way through this world.  It takes courage to face the difficult conversations we need to have with others and, sometimes, with ourselves.  It takes courage to climb out of bed and go to work when our list of things to do is longer than the time in which we have to accomplish them.  When our children are hurting, or our parents are aging, or we are dealing with the anxiety of waiting on test results we have to find the courage to face our fear and press ahead—to lead, to wait, or even to comfort.

 

It’s been said that courage isn’t the absence of fear.  It’s the willingness to do something when we are afraid.  It isn’t easy, I know.  But I’m pretty sure that turning away from our fears, avoiding difficult circumstances or people isn’t the solution.  The two men I watched learning a new skill, navigating in a world they cannot see, have the kind of courage that inspires me. I suppose they could have chosen to succumb to the fears of their blindness.  Instead, they chose to put aside their anxieties and to leave the darkness and walk in sunshine of an Alabama summer’s day.

 

I hope I can have the kind of vision they showed me that afternoon.  I don’t recall if I actually went home and worked on my Couch Flopping Technique that evening. I’m sure I’ll practice again some time soon. But when I’m tempted to shrink from the challenges that lie before me, I hope I have the courage to face my fears like them and feel the warmth of that same sunshine on my own face.

What do you want to be when you grow up? A Brief Fiction

“What do  you want to be when you grow up?”

 

The tow headed little boy, he was maybe six—big for his age—gave his mother a quick cautionary glance.  He kept banging at the controls of the game, his fat fingers, too large for the little hand held device, but somehow working the buttons with the delicacy of a skilled surgeon.

 

“Level five,” he mumbled.  “Hang on.”

 

Julia smiled. Her son, Peter was he name, was a shy kid; the kind that other children would whisper about and furtively point at.  Despite their cruelty, Peter never seemed bothered by them.  It was as if he simply didn’t notice their judgment.  Sometimes his mother watched him, her happy little Buddha of a boy, her heart aching that over the fact he was different.

 

“Come on, Petey.  Put it down and talk to me.”

 

“K.  Jus’a sec.”

 

He let out an “oh, man” and she heard the whamp-whamp-waaah emerging from the game and realized Petey had just run out of lives.  Peter blew out a sigh and gently placed the game on the coffee table before him.  He blinked her into focus and asked, “Now, what did you ask me, Momma?”

 

“I asked you what you want to be when you grow up?”

 

“What do you mean, Momma?”

 

It had been a busy few days and she hadn’t really spent much time with Peter.  Between her job and trying to cook and clean their little apartment, she often felt exhausted.  She often worried she wasn’t a very good mother.  Julia had managed to keep Petey clean and fed and safe, but there wasn’t much else she could do, except on the weekends when she took him to the park.  She loved her little Buddha with a kind of tortured desperation, wanting more for him than she could possibly give.  She had loved him from the moment she first held him.  But she wouldn’t recommend becoming a mother at the age of seventeen.

 

“I mean when you grow up, what do you want to be?  What do you want to do?”

 

Petey gave her a kind of perplexed grimace, his brow furrowed, chin cocked downward, his neck drawn back.

 

“I don’t get it,” he said.

 

There had been times before when she had seen this look.  Like the time she tried to explain where babies come from and why he couldn’t watch a particular television show.   Peter seemed to understand some things far beyond what a child his age should be able to grasp.  Then there were times like this, times when he seemed to make simple things difficult.

 

“I mean you want to be something when you grow up, don’t you?  What do you want to do?”

 

“Momma, you’re not making any sense.”

 

Julia’s heart quickened.  She wondered if maybe Petey was having some sort of problem thinking, if maybe he was running a fever and was delirious.  Then he explained.

 

“Those are two different questions, Momma.  Do you want to know what I want to be?  Or do you want to know what I want to do—like for a job or something?

 

Julia shook her head a little, dismayed.

 

“Now I’m confused, Peter,” she said.  “What are you saying—asking I mean?”

 

“You asked me what I wanted to be when I grow up.  Then you asked me what I want to do.  Aren’t those two different things?”

 

“Oh, I get it,” she said.  “Yeah, I want to know what you want to do.  What kind of job do you want to have when you grow up?”

 

“A betternarian.  I want to be a betternarian.”  Petey had always had trouble pronouncing his Bs.  Vacation was bay-cation and Vermont was Ber-mont.

 

“A what?”

 

“A betternarian.  You know.  I want to take care of dogs and cats and stuff.”

 

He had always wanted a dog or a cat.  At the park, Petey would always ask people if he could pet whatever beast he encountered at the end of a leash.  He was fearless—he wanted to pet them all, large and small.

 

“Or a baker.  I like the smell of bread and cookies,” he added.  “Maybe, I can do both.”

 

“You can be whatever you want to be, Petey,” said Julia, reassuring herself more than Peter.

 

He gave her the look again.

 

“You’re doin’ it again, Momma.”

 

Suddenly, Julia understood, her frustration resolving into understanding.

 

“So what do you want to be when you grow up, Peter?” she asked.

 

The boy paused, gently biting the left inside corner of his bottom lip, which made the right side poke out in a kind of vague thoughtful way.  He thought for a moment.

 

“Jus happy,” he said.  “I jus wanna be happy, Momma. Like now.”

 

Julia could feel her eyes become watery with profound gratitude.  This little boy, with such a grown up soul, somehow had eyes to see the world in ways that never stopped amazing her.  She begged God or the Universe or whatever omniscient power there might be over this world to protect Petey, to keep him unsullied by the sometimes harsh realities of life. Or maybe it wasn’t Petey that needed protection as much as it was her.  Maybe she just needed to understand the difference between being and doing like Petey seemed to know.

 

“Are you okay, Momma?  Did I make you sad?”

 

“No, Peter, you didn’t make me sad.”

 

“Is it okay to just want to be happy?  That doesn’t make you sad that I said that?”

 

“No Petey.  It’s perfect.  It’s absolutely perfect.”

 

 

Finding Joy: The People We Meet

She greeted me with a kind of genuine enthusiasm you don’t often see in people.  She may have only been about five feet four, and tipped the scales at less than a hundred pounds, but she projected herself with the charisma of a Broadway star.  I had just sat down in a very popular café in Portland, Oregon.  She told me her name and offered me a choice of French Pressed Rwandan or some other dark blend, suggesting I peruse a breakfast menu that promised to crush whatever weak resolve I might have had about eating something healthy.  I know her real name, but let’s just call her Joy, because she truly is one.

 

Here, in the buzzing hive of a mid-week breakfast crowd, full of hungry, and probably some irritable patrons, Joy managed to connect with me in a way that I think we all crave.  She looked me in the eye.  She smiled.  She laughed.  She offered me Belgian Waffles.  With a waive of her arm, the kind of thing you do when your speeding down the highway, windows down, letting your hand your hand rise and fall in the wind, she described a particular dish that was “topped with a ribbon of Dijon.”  I almost ordered it just to see her repeat the waive.

 

She noticed my Southern accent and said something that made me blush.  I mentioned I was something of a writer.  She told me both of her parents were writers, that Dad had written several travel books.  Her Mom, as a recall, had published a work about some esoteric topic in psychology that was well beyond my capacity to grasp.  Joy told me she was from Alaska, by way of California, and had been working in this landmark restaurant for more than ten years.  She didn’t have to tell me she loved her job, I could tell, but she did anyway.  She looked at another associate, asking the woman her employee number, a designation of when you joined the business.  It was in the seven-hundreds.  Joy was the proud owner of a number in the twenties.

 

I’ve often written about the people I meet—a smartly dressed old man I met in the mall, a veteran of World War II, with an eye for the ladies; a tailor named Esso who spoke no English on his arrival from Africa; and the men and woman I’ve met in towns small and large.  I try to pay attention to them because their stories are often compelling. It’s funny what people will trust you with if they never think they will see you again—but I think it’s more about wanting to connect with one another.   I certainly felt connected to Joy.  I told her I would be writing about her because she had made such an impression on me.  Yesterday she wrote kind words to me about some of my work she had found online and suggested our meeting was no accident.  Divine inspiration, she said.  I think maybe she was right.

 

Maybe the lesson here, if there is one,  is to be mindful of the people you meet.  Joy would have been hard to ignore, but I’m sure others have managed.  They’ve missed something—no, someone—special.  While they were busy consuming platefuls of eggs, Belgian Waffles, and pancakes prepared by some mystical alchemist of culinary delight, they could have had the added pleasure of getting to know Joy a little bit. But we are often so busy or so self absorbed in our plans, our smart phones, or even our worries, we miss these holy moments.  And we are the worse for it, I fear.

 

For the record, I ordered the Migas, a combination of eggs, chorizo, cheese and corn tortillas that was so delicious I feared I was hallucinating, delivered by a tiny angel who managed to upsell me on the avocadoes and the genuine Maple syrup.  Did I mention I also had the Belgian Waffle—topped with perfectly ripe sliced bananas which also happened to be an upsell.  Joy is very good at her job, you see.

 

As I reflect on these words, I think we are all looking for Joy in some way.  We just get distracted and miss the chance to find little bits of it…in the people we meet. And Joy, if you’re reading, I’ll see you on my next visit.

No Place To Be

It’s very plain, you see,

This abundant clarity;

 

Do not miss, or flee,

It’s quiet subtlety;

 

This kind peculiarity,

In having no place to be.

The Stories We Write

Recently, someone asked me if I want to participate in an upcoming storytelling event.  Given I’ve been described as a “speech in search of an audience,” I immediately gave an enthusiastic “yes!”  Listening to and telling tales can be lots of fun.  Stories can make us laugh or make us cry. Sometimes they can be scary.  They can even be encouraging.  They can help us see who we are and how we arrived to this place in life.  But learning to listen to the stories we all tell ourselves, well, that can be a lesson in self discovery.  And if we don’t, our stories can become prisons of grief, resentment and despair.

 

Think about it.

 

Unless we are mindful, we are always writing some internal narrative about what and who we encounter.  They are often tales of injustice; some mistreatment at the hands of another.  We become judge and jury about why someone doesn’t return our calls.  Or why we shouldn’t have been fired or denied a promotion. Or so many other things. As an overweight kid, peering in from just outside the popular social circles, I often wrote my own internal stories about how others just weren’t smart enough to see my value.  It was an effective short term strategy for dealing with my pain, but one that wasn’t particularly useful in examining what part I might have been playing in the creating my own social exile.  Or in why I was eating too much.

 

Looking back, I realize with each Hostess Ho-Ho and Ding Dong I ate, with every Coke and glass of chocolate milk I swallowed, I was trying to quiet the boredom and fear of that time between being a childhood and adolescence. And with each bite and swallow, I was only adding to the cycle of boredom and fear.  I just couldn’t see the part I played in the story I was living. Sure, I was a kid then.  But now I’m all grown up.  Well, sort of.

 

All of us have strategies for dealing with the very legitimate challenges of life; things like abandonment, judgment, injustice, abuse, to name just a few.  But if we become self-righteous authors, placing ourselves at the center of some would-be Greek tragedy, we often fail to see our own fatal flaw.  It’s time we take a careful look at our stories and ask ourselves if we’re only perpetuating our own fears and pain when we write them. 

 

If we can find the courage to examine our own tales, maybe we can free ourselves from the burden of judging others for conduct we really don’t understand—even when their conduct is hurtful.  Perhaps in letting go of the blaming part of our stories, we can learn to be content with the mystery of how things arise in our lives; or better yet, see how we sometimes invite our own troubles—and stop doing doing it. Maybe it’s possible to acknowledge our own hurt without heaping more logs onto the fires of our pain by examining how our stories are written only from our own point of view.

 

It occurs to me that accusations of selfishness in others normally arise when we aren’t getting our own way. And that my temptation to resentment doesn’t always begin with a look in the mirror.  I laughingly tell my friends that every middle-aged man needs a magnifying mirror to take careful stock of what others see in on his face, neck, and earsWe need to examine our stories like we do our face in a magnifying mirror so we might actually see the real blemishes our own.  Doing so shouldn’t become a matter of self judgment.  It’s really just self care.  We should be gentle with ourselves when doing it.  Examining the stories I tell myself liberates me when I see how they are rife with my own biases and fears, how the ending to the tale is disappointing because the story didn’t turn out the way I thought it should.

 

I wish I could say I overcame my childhood weight problem by some transcendental enlightenment.  I didn’t.  Puberty came in a flood of growth hormone and testosterone that now makes me stand more than six feet six inches tall. I simply outgrew the problem. Not emotionally, because I’m still capable of trying to eat my fears, my pain, and sometimes, my boredom.  Thankfully, my frame just hides it better now.  Or that’s what I tell myself.  Whatever the case, I hope I’m more mindful of what I eat and drink.  I hope I’m more mindful of the stories I write, of the characters in them, and the part I play.  Because after all, I’m the author of my own tales.  Just like you.

Gratitude

http://www.elephantjournal.com/2016/06/the-day-i-found-gratitude-in-a-convenience-store/

Soul Food

if it’s true,

as often’s

been said,

 

let these few words

remain

in your head;

 

dine on

compassion,

forgiveness

and grace,

 

eat not

remorse

and

anger replace;

 

fill up your plate

on these alone feast,

friendship and laughter, and

kindness and peace;

 

forsake

all the bile

of revenge

and deceit;

 

please remember

my friends,

that you are

what you eat.