Monday, July 17, 2017

Zen and the Art of Border Collie Maintenance

The pain hit me out of nowhere, as it always does. As I paused in my circuit around the zendo to bow, a stabbing sensation streaked through my lower back and down my leg. I staggered back to my cushion, wondering whether I could tolerate another 40 minutes of stillness. At the break, I wrote in my journal: "The pain is a reminder that plans are only possibilities and that attaching to them only leads to suffering. The pain is my own greed and selfishness attacking me. The pain is bringing me into each moment, asking me, do I feel it now? Maybe the pain is a blessing." Then I excused myself from the rest of the sesshin and limped home.

12 hours later, lying on an ice pack, it didn't feel like a blessing. I had planned to complete a half-day of sitting, come home, and catch up on a long list of personal to-dos. But the back injury that has plagued me for almost a decade put the brakes on all that enthusiasm. That night, in too much pain to sleep, I felt disappointed and lonely- not centered and at peace. My day hadn't gone according to plan at all. Your expectations are creating your own suffering, I told myself. So what, my self said back. It was a good plan. I'm pissed off now. Leave me alone.

If I am on a path to enlightenment, I am going to need some sturdy shoes.


My meditation journey began in a place of professional self-interest. I had hired an executive coach to help me step up my game. Rather than running me through Myers-Briggs and orchestrating 360 feedback, he prescribed a media fast and zazen. These were his trusted antidotes to the anxiety that manifested in my leadership as reactivity and righteous indignation. Under his instruction, I made a half-hearted effort to sit a few times a week but assured myself that meditation wasn't for everyone. I was more of a yoga gal, with its tantalizing promise of multi-tasking: sculpting my arms while cultivating an inner peace.

Over the next decade, as I weathered tides of personal and professional successes and failures, meditation came and went. My longest run was the three months I spent in a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction class, during which I meditated almost every day in the name of taming my brain chemistry. We didn't talk about Buddha; we didn't talk about spirit at all. The instructor preached meditation from a pulpit of scientific evidence, a body of research all supporting the positive impact meditation could have on stress.

When the class ended, without the support of community, my practice became irregular. Life got in the way. I reminded myself that meditation was not for everyone. Even during the year that I had a dedicated meditation space in our house, it was usually easier to lie in bed for an extra 20 minutes with my phone in hand, sneaking in a few more rounds of Word Streak before seizing the day.


I have lived in Japantown during all of the eight years that Middle Way Zen, a Soto Zen center, has been there- about five blocks from my house. I walked by a hundred times, coming or going to sushi, the eye doctor, the ukelele store, the coffee place. But it wasn't until last August, a month away from starting a new job, that I decided to enter.

Prior to that, meditation had largely been a solitary practice for me (unless you count the three cats that typically sit with me, hoping that meditation is my way of preparing to open cans.) I first went to MWZ on a Thursday evening, when meditation is followed by a service and dharma talk. I returned the following Thursday. A week later, my clock wound forward by jetlag, I woke up unusually early and went for morning zazen. For 40 minutes, I sat in the dark room, facing the wall, my mind bouncing around like a pinball. Who was in there with me? Was I doing it right? I didn't know the words to the Robe Chant that followed zazen. I didn't know anything. I felt uncomfortable. But at some point, I went back. And went back again. And before long, I learned the Robe Chant, and when to bow, and when to put my hands in prayer position. Soon, sitting zazen at an hour when most of the world wasn't even awake seemed right.


There are no Zen workshops promising to transform you in three days. This is not the Landmark Forum. My teacher has been practicing for almost 30 years. Living and working in Silicon Valley, where we're infatuated with technology that will eliminate effort, embracing a practice where effort is sort of the point can feel as if it comes from a different world.

At Middle Way Zen, we meditate at 5:30 AM, in a state of minimal activity that Suzuki Roshi calls "just-to-sit." I make my way there most weekday mornings. On Wednesdays and Fridays, there is a short service that follows sitting. We turn our mats to the altar and chant and bow. Sometimes, I am the Kokyo, the person who leads the chanting. Sometimes, I am the Doan, the timekeeper who rings the bells before and after meditation. On mornings when I feel too tired to get up, knowing that others are relying on me for their practice gives me the motivation to go. I never regret it.

Even after almost a year of faithful attendance, my mind is like a Border Collie puppy, straining its leash at every turn, wanting to chase the ball. Stillness is elusive. Every few minutes, I catch myself in the midst of an imaginary conversation with someone I want to tell off, or drafting an email I want to send, or rehearsing the way I will gently and compassionately wake my daughter even though she has overslept again. In between, when I have that momentary recognition that I have wandered off, and I feel the whoosh of energy rushing back into my body like a student racing back to her seat, I have to remind myself not to score my performance. This is a practice. It is reflexive for me to give myself a grade, but that is not what it's about. I get no points for paying attention. I lose no points for wandering off.

It takes most people years of dedicated practice to start feeling a change. For someone like me, whose mind is continuously ricocheting off past and into future, the payoff seems unattainable. It is hard work, and there are no cheats. But I am settling in. I am starting not to worry about the payoff and to practice for the practice itself.


In the service, we chant the metta sutta: Let no one deceive another nor despise any being in any state. Let none by anger or hatred wish harm to another... with a boundless mind should one cherish all living things. Suffusing love over the entire world... let one cultivate an infinite good will... 

I am fighting it the whole way. I want to put an asterisk in there, a footnote that lets me despise certain people who deserve to suffer. I wish to leave certain addresses out of my radius of kindness. But that is not how we are taught. "In coming face to face with their life in all aspects," says the Soto Zen Association website, "{Zen Buddhists} come to know themselves and find their relationship to all other things. They learn to be truly here and to serve in all ways."

Our teacher is careful to make this point; we do not just sit for ourselves. We sit for everyone. We have a responsibility to work for the benefit of all beings. Even, I remind myself, those I don't like. Even those who bug the shit out of me. It is a new bar in my meditation journey: this practice does not just revolve around me, the Center of the Universe, and my own stress and anxiety. It is stretching me beyond what I know how to do. It is bringing my own bad habits into sharp focus. I have some nasty biases in the way I treat people. I can hold a grudge like a boss. But Buddhism challenges the notion that we are truly separate from each other. Does that interconnectedness mean that I am only hurting myself when I'm hurtful to others?

The stretch is challenging. But the stretch is also what keeps me going back, because this is the path I know I have to be on. It will lead to a new level of honesty about how I really am, how frenetically I cycle between remembering, judging, and planning, how willing I am to shake up a cocktail of truth and fiction to justify my own behavior.

I still spend most of my waking hours wandering away from the present moment, inattentive and distracted and drawn into my own delusion. But I am starting to call myself out more often. To link my unhappiness to my own undisciplined desires. To change my relationship with my chronic back injury: from victim mentality to acceptance of the pain for what it is, nothing more and nothing less. I am starting to recognize that it causes suffering for others when I conflate reality with the story I tell myself about it. Begrudgingly, I acknowledge that I might just be part of the problem.


This morning, my back is not in pain. Between breaths, I catch myself thinking about a set of three enameled bracelets that we just sold on eBay. Did we accept too low an offer? Would a counter of $25 have been accepted? A bird in hand is worth two in the bush. I wonder how much our total inventory is worth....

And then I notice where I have gone, and I straighten my posture, and I call the Border Collie back. Here, girl.



Monday, October 17, 2016

Switching Teams: Coming Out in my 40s

On Saturday, as part of the Stanford GSB Class of '96 20th reunion, I participated in a panel called Transitions. Four of my classmates and I shared stories of meaningful transitions we had made in our lives and the lessons we learned from them. This is a transcript of what I presented. It overlaps the subject of other entries on this blog, but I thought I'd share it here anyway.

The funny thing about transitions is that for much of our life, they’re cause for celebration. We move from diapers to our big-girl panties, we start school, graduate, go to college, get married, have kids, buy a home. And then at some point, “doing well” is no longer defined by transitions but rather by stasis. Years go by, and the answer to “what’s new?” becomes “not much,” and it isn’t a bad thing. We equate stability with all sorts of positive personality traits: loyalty, equanimity, perseverance, a certain flavor of likeability.

To the outside world, my story was pretty likeable between 2000 and 2008. I joined a startup in 2000 and stayed for eight years. I got married in 2001 and bought a house the same month. I had two kids five years apart. My life looked a lot like Life the board game. All but a small circle of my close friends saw a happy path.

What was actually happening was entirely different, because in 2003, I had a moment that changed everything. The best description I can come up with is to imagine yourself growing up in a world lit by incandescent bulbs, and then one day, you walk through a doorway and realize that there is a sun! And you know that what you’ve called light your entire life isn’t light at all.

I discovered, through my quite-unexpected feelings for a straight woman who never reciprocated, that I was gay. I tried everything I could think of to back away from this epiphany, to walk back through the door that had gotten me there. But it didn’t work. This was not the flirtatious crush we feel and safely dismiss. This was an awakening. And as the years went by, it nearly destroyed me. The child of divorced parents, I considered anything but lifetime loyalty to my spouse to be a total personal failure. I fell into a deep depression, trapped between the shame of feeling disloyal, and the strain of being an imposter.

It took me seven years to make the choice to leave. My then-husband knew it was coming. We’d been having the conversation for more than a year. Still, he was furious, and hurt, and resentful. The first year was very hard on both of us; if I’m being honest, it was harder on him than on me. But I stayed committed to a peaceful outcome, and eventually, we got there. For the past 6 ½ years, we’ve lived four blocks away from each other and share custody of our girls, now 9 and 14. And for the most part, it really does work.

Coming out in my 40s meant breaking things. It meant breaking my marriage vows, breaking apart my children’s home. My decision to leave caused pain, confusion and sadness. In my heart, I was creating something- but my day-to-day felt much more like destruction. And I was doing it without any idea whether there would be a payoff. It was pretty scary. I felt that I was putting all my relationships at stake for an unknown outcome.

My story has brought me to a happy place. I met Paula five months after moving out, when my life was still very much a demolition zone. She voluntarily entered into a relationship with a woman who had two young children, would remain legally married to someone else for four more years, wasn’t out to most of the world, and pretty much had all straight friends. But the sunlight that I believed I saw turned out to be very real. I have never felt such a pure connection with another person. I never believed it was possible. We got married last June.

We’ve settled comfortably into being the token lesbians at family camp. Our friends and families have embraced us with such warmth and love and acceptance that we usually forget that we’re gay. We know the hate is still out there; we celebrated our first anniversary on the day of the Orlando shootings. But day to day in our world, love is love, and we love our life.

If I had to go back and change the sequence of events, I don’t think I would- because if I did, I’m not sure I would have my two daughters, and I know I would not have met my wife. It’s impossible for me to imagine wanting any life other than the one I have. What I do wish is that I hadn’t been so afraid, that I hadn’t underestimated the strength of my relationships so dramatically. I wish I hadn’t believed my ex-husband when he told me I would ruin our daughters. Believe me, the kids are all right. It’s funny to look back and think about how much I worried about things that now seem silly- like my fear that it was going to be really socially awkward for my mom. She was so great about it. I didn’t lose anyone who mattered to me.

If you’re going through this, or you have a child or friend who has come out to you – trust that it’s going to be OK. It really will. And I’m happy to share more of what got me through the darkest days and to a place of gratitude, freedom, and joy: how I found community; how my ex and I managed to achieve a peaceful, compassionate divorce; and how I got to a place where I felt I was acting with integrity. All are possible. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Confessions of a Caregiver

My wife's charge is about to pull into the driveway. I quickly flip Pandora to her favorite station and stuff an English muffin in the toaster. Before she's made it to the front steps, I've got jelly on her toast and a mug of her favorite drink waiting. I swing the door open and shout, "Yay!" She smiles broadly and shouts "Yay!" back. Then she dives into her breakfast while happily putting all of our dishes where they don't belong. I sing along with her music, shaking my butt to make her laugh. She's babbling about something I can't understand, and I don't try to make sense of it. I just look for clues as to whether I should react with surprise, laughter, or sympathy. If I'm wrong, she can get frustrated, which can quickly turn to rage. And once she's set off,  it can be very hard to turn the day around.

I try to keep her busy, to give my wife Paula a little more respite before she takes over. Today looks promising; it's warm and sunny. She'll probably be happy puttering around the backyard most of the day. Rainy days are more challenging. She no longer cares for puzzles, and TV tends to bore her after a few minutes. She always wants to be active, always wants your attention.

If you're picturing an impish toddler as you read this, think again. The person my wife cares for is her 80-year-old mother, who suffers from progressive aphasia (the loss of ability to understand or express speech) and Alzheimer's-related dementia. She lives 15 minutes away from us with her husband. Paula has been her primary caregiver for the past year and a half.

My mother-in-law is a beautiful woman with a radiant smile. She arrives each morning impeccably dressed, accessorized, and made up. She has a zest for life and a physical energy that belies her disease and her age. She adores animals and babies, delights in a crusty buttered baguette, loves thrift shopping, can't help but shake her booty if you put on music, and works in the garden for hours without getting tired.

When I met her six years ago, she was still independent: actively involved in the senior center, driving around to her favorite Goodwill outposts every day. Her husband, a lethargic, overweight Rush Limbaugh devotee with heart issues, did not constrain her. But about three years ago, her speech began to lose its fluidity- occasionally at first, then noticeably. She'd mix up words and struggle to say what was on her mind. Her husband responded with irritation and impatience. "Spit it out, Peg," he'd bark at her when she'd struggle. She stopped going to the senior center. Kaiser diagnosed her with early-stage dementia and reported it to the DMV. The DMV revoked her license, even though she'd passed the written test with flying colors. Overnight, she lost her freedom, relegated to her husband's torpid lifestyle. Since then, in addition to losing her license, my mother-in-law has lost her ability to count money, to read, to do puzzles or cook. Her speech has deteriorated to the point that even her immediate family frequently has no idea what she's talking about. We all suspect that her thoughts are much more lucid than what she's able to tell us about them; Kaiser's diagnostics are blunt instruments, not well-suited to the nuances of neurocognitive disorders. It's frustrating for everyone.

Paula fell into the role of caregiver by accident. In February of 2015, she found herself unexpectedly unemployed, part of Picaboo's Bay Area layoffs. Around that time, her mother began routinely misplacing her wallet; each time, she would phone Paula hysterical, certain that her husband had stolen her money. Each time Paula came to her rescue, digging through closets and drawers until she found the wallet her mother had invariably hidden from herself, her mother leaned on her more. Before we knew it, Paula's stepdad was dropping her mother at our house three to five mornings a week. On the weekends, Paula's sister, who still works full-time, blessedly steps in to help.

We have some great days caring for my mother-in-law. She laughs easily and has an infectious smile Unencumbered by election year stress or the nuisances of life administrivia, she exudes pure happiness when she is enjoying herself. She dances like nobody's watching. Like her daughters, she's attuned to beauty everywhere, and she celebrates it. And she can be really funny.

But there's no way of knowing how the day is going to go. The strain to understand her can be exhausting. Exempt from the confines of logic, she can fly off the handle at any time- for what seems to the outside world like no reason at all. And the outside world is not kind about it. A mother with a screaming two-year-old at the grocery store has the empathy of fellow parents around her; a daughter being chewed out by her elderly mother at rock-concert volume in the middle of Walmart gets no such compassion.  Dementia caregivers are socially isolated even when they manage to leave the house.

To date, our attempts to introduce a caregiver other than family have crashed and burned. Although dementia is characterized by the inability to form new memories, my mother-in-law still retains strong emotional associations with new experiences- and they stick. She can't articulate why she hated going to the adult day center, or why she didn't like the woman we tried to introduce as an individual caregiver, but there is no talking her out of it. She has always had trust issues; her disease has exaggerated them.

The result is increasing dependency on Paula - a dependency without redundancy. If we were talking about a cloud system, this would be a big red flag. It's a fragile solution, easily disrupted. We have two vacations planned this summer; what will happen when Paula isn't around to run interference? Last year, when Paula's stepfather went in for open-heart surgery, three days a week became 24x7 care for three weeks. My mother-in-law, despite her volatile marriage, was thrown off badly by her husband's absence; she lashed out at Paula and her sister as they desperately tried to juggle life around their mother's round-the-clock needs.

Sitting one ring outside the bull's eye of my mother-in-law's care, I'm in a state of protracted adjustment. Dementia is brutal for a control freak with chronic anxiety. There are limitless what-if scenarios to play through, and because we're in a world ungoverned by logic, my management skills are useless. I haven't given up believing that I should resist this because it's unfair. I cling to a notion that my home should be a retreat from stress. I insist that there must be a plug-and-play caregiving solution out there. I reject the idea that I can't fix this. And because resistance is futile, I often feel frustrated, trapped, and depressed.

It's uncomfortable to confront the things you like least about yourself. Caring for my mother-in-law has outed me as self-centered and petty. Dementia is inconvenient for me. I want to fix this so I can get back to my regularly-scheduled programming, which involves a lot more of what I want to do.

Eckhart Tolle offers sage counsel to folks like me who suffer from fabricated trauma: "Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it." It's a powerful construct. Alzheimer's is a heartbreaking disease. It's crushing for Paula and her sister to watch their mother recede into a fog. I hope that there is a cure someday. But for now, this is what is. Trying to fix it misses the point; it assigns a brokenness to being ill. Our life isn't broken. We're contending with some things that we didn't expect, and they're challenging us. What else is new? This isn't always pleasant, but it's not inherently bad, or wrong.

"Eckhart Tolle offers sage counsel to folks like me who suffer from fabricated trauma: Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it." 

The Landmark Forum teaches that our actions are perfectly correlated with the way the world occurs for us. The story we tell ourselves about our life dictates our behavior; it's why two people having identical life experiences can respond so differently. If I abandon my narrative about being a dementia caregiver-- that it's unfair, that it's a burden, that it's sapping our energy and exacerbating my proclivity for anxiety-- what becomes possible? Contentment? Gratitude? Fun? Willingness to choose this life, warts and all, and lean into it-- because it's all I've got, and it's amazing, and the talk track running on loop in my head is not really helping anyone, least of all me?

Yes. All that is possible.

In twenty minutes, my mother-in-law will knock on our door, ready for a day of God-knows-what.

Let's do this thing.

Monday, November 2, 2015

On Becoming a Bat Mitzvah: An(other) Open Letter to my Daughter

{On October 31, 2015, my older daughter became a Bat Mitzvah in a beautiful and moving service that she led. It was 1 year and 10 months after the open letter I published here, hoping to convey to her why this rite of passage was so important to me. Below are the words I spoke to her after her own wonderful speech,}

Well, Becky, I thought this day might never come.

No surprise, you did a beautiful job leading us in your Bat Mitzvah service. After all the wrestling it took to get here… well, I am so proud to be your mother. And maybe it’s worth a few words about why. You are radiantly intelligent. And you’re beautiful. And you just read the Torah in Hebrew, and there weren’t even any vowels. You’re gifted and blessed in so many ways.

But those aren’t the things that make me so proud. Those are the things you were born with, your genetic inheritance, what some would call God’s gifts to you. You got those gifts without any effort or intention.

No, what makes me swell with pride is the long, windy struggle that brought you here. You questioned and challenged and kicked – and at the end of that path, you made a choice.  You chose to respect my wishes, even though you found them inaccessible. You chose to approach your practice with determination, even though it ate into your leisure time. And you chose to trust me- even though you did look back over your shoulder from time to time along the way. 

And unlike God in your Torah portion, I knew that your struggle was a good sign; it showed me that you’re not going to just do what people tell you to do without questioning whether it’s right for you. Nothing could make me feel better about your entry into adolescence. I may have lost my temper a time or two along this bumpy path, but never once did I want to turn you into salt.

You’re familiar with Facing History and Ourselves, a non-profit whose motto is “People make choices, and choices make history.” Today, I want you to remember this above all: in the words of philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, we are our choices. Life is what you make of your gifts. You can use your creativity and your mastery of the written word to fight injustice. Or you can write it all off as hopeless. The choice is yours. 

My hope is that your Jewish identity will provide a moral compass when you face down those decisions that will chart your course. In your next 13 years, as you become more independent in your choices, as you become a voter and a professional and maybe even a parent - may you always return to the basics. Do justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly.

You and I recently read a story of a man symbolically visiting his younger self. “You have a lot to learn,” he said. “You have a lot to unlearn,” the younger self said back. Both were right.

And here we are: you, recognizing that you have so much left to learn, and me, knowing that I have to unravel some of my own hard wiring to be the mother I want to be.  

This is the most rewarding part of being your mom: I’m still growing, still being challenged, still learning and unlearning.  

May you always have an appetite for things that challenge you. The rewards are so great.

The light within me honors the light within you, Rebecca. Mazal Tov. I am so grateful to you, and to God.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

To those who would condemn my marriage

In June, I got married. I walked down the aisle holding a ukelele instead of a bouquet, serenading my betrothed with a shaky rendition of Marry Me. We stood under a trellis of ranunculus and gerbera daisies, our daughters and sisters at our sides, while a longtime friend officiated a moving ceremony.  Friends and family waved bubble wands, alternating between laughter and tears. We danced and ate and hugged and kissed and celebrated the first day of the rest of our life. As we closed in on our fifth year together, we told the world that we finally got it all right.

No one cared that they were celebrating the marriage of two women. All our guests could see was a love they would wish for anyone.

No gifts, we said – we already have too much stuff. But two weeks after our ceremony, on the Friday before SF Pride weekend, the Supreme Court gave us an unexpected wedding present: in a 5-4 decision, they held that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples. Our marriage, so far in our minds from being a political statement, was unwittingly happening at an historic time.

Around the country and across social media, proponents of LGBT equality burst into celebration. The Pride parades were never so joyous or emotional. Corporate America, from AirBnB to Procter and Gamble, had a gay old time with clever creatives affirming support for the SCOTUS decision. Twitter was atwitter with colorful tweets: a rainbow of Coca Cola bottles, even a pair of Maytag Men captioned "Perfect Together". It seemed that everyone was shouting "love wins" from their rooftops, unafraid.

I was in London, awake at 3AM, scrolling through an article featuring 35 of these celebratory tweets. Already emotional from jetlag, I was working my way through a box of tissues, puffy-eyed. Then I clicked through on one of them, the Maytag ad. 

And that's when the "4" in 5-4 hit me. 

Among the enthusiastic retweets and shout-outs of gratitude, there were tendrils of disgust, fear and loathing. "@TheMaytagMan promoting the destruction of American values." "Will NEVER buy another Maytag product again after supporting the anti American decision by SCOTUS." "Keep the Maytag Man away from your children."

One the one hand, it was comical. You people know nothing about marketing, I thought to myself. These companies weren't being particularly bold. If Coca Cola or Delta Airlines had any market data to suggest their brand would be tarnished by their support for SCOTUS, those tweets would never have hit air. You're an insignificant blip, I silently mouthed to my would-be haters. But I was rattled. Living in our California bubble, we're surrounded by a community that has gotten used to, if not fully embraced, marriage as the expected fruition of love and commitment between two people, regardless of gender. I wasn't used to this.

If you really knew me...  I thought to myself. Yes, you, lady boycotting Maytag, I am talking to you. If you knew me, would you feel the same way? Because here's the thing. I bet we have a lot in common, starting with the fact that we both believe in getting married. 40% of Americans don't. You and I agree that the word wife communicates a commitment and responsibility that transcends girlfriend, lover, or partner. We share an affinity for commitment and dedication. We believe it's still meaningful. 

And I'm guessing, if you've been in a relationship for a while too, we both understand what it means to be there for better or for worse. If what you picture when you hear about two women getting married is a nonstop lesbian porn reel, here are a few screen grabs from the past five years for you: in the emergency room with an infected kidney stone. Two months later, same ER, same kidney. A funeral for my stepdaughter's dad, age 50. Me lying in a Percocet-induced daze on the couch, reeling from a herniated disk, unable to reach my shoes to tie them. In the recovery room after a ovarian cystectomy. The two of us trying to calm my sobbing mother-in-law, lost in a fog of dementia. Oh, here's a good one: Paula and her daughter staring at their former apartment, burned down to the studs by a negligent contractor. (Lots of straight people lost their apartments in that fire too.) There was a silver lining, though. It gave us the nudge we needed to merge our households. 

My wife shores up the parts of me that are weak. She reminds me that beauty is all around us, just waiting to be noticed. She calms my hamster-wheel of a brain. When I married her, I shared these vows:

In this world, it has become a Hallmark euphemism to say that someone has a beautiful heart.  But there is no other way to describe the way you show up in the world.  You don’t blog about it, you don’t post it on Facebook, it’s not a “possibility” for you… you are your beautiful heart.  It manifests in the unceremonious selflessness with which you give your energy to anyone who needs it, whether it is our family and friends or someone you’ve never met before.  It manifests through your hands, in the art you bring into the world.  You never ask for appreciation or reciprocation; giving comes naturally to you.  And in just being you, you show me what is possible for myself.  You make me want to be a better person, and yet I know that I can be your partner for life exactly as I am.  You have no intentions for me.  Our contract has no terms and conditions.  I feel perfect in your arms and in your life.

On this day, I commit to love you with a full heart exactly as you are, adding nothing and leaving nothing out. I commit to a life with you that is joyous, generous, and ultimately leaves the world a better place than we found it.  I commit to our amazing modern family and to having as many cats as you want.  I commit to you that when times are tough, and life throws us a curve ball, love will see us through – and that what doesn’t kill us will make us stronger.   I commit to our life together as a celebration, as a prayer of gratitude, and as a really, really fun game.

I love you, always and forever.

We did not decide to get married lightly. I was married before, to a man; I wasn't sure I wanted to make that commitment again. But in our fifth year together, when I could not look into the future and see any version of it that did not include her by my side, when I came to a place of full appreciation for the compassion and joy that she brings to my life, I agreed: I was already playing her wife on TV. Why not make it official, for the same reasons most other couples do: companionship, support, someone to share the joy and the pain? Isn't that why you got married?

Look, I get it. It takes some getting used to. I mean, I'm married to a woman, and still, when I hear another woman talking about her wife, I do a mental double-take: did she just say wife? It's still a curiosity, an oddity. But it's a beautiful one. Our marriage benefits the world in the same ways a straight marriage does: together, we are more resilient, we are stronger, we have more to give. And I promise you, if you knew us, you'd understand how solid our love is, how worthy of honor and recognition.

You seem like someone who will fight for what you believe in; that's another thing we have in common. So perhaps you could take that fierce spirit and use it for something we can all believe in: boycott the corporations polluting our waterways, or rally to take better care of the working poor, or the homeless, or the mentally ill. 

It is, I firmly believe, what Jesus would do.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Personal Creativity in Business

In my last quarter of business school, I took “Personal Creativity in Business” with Michael Ray.  I loved this course.  We meditated, journaled about our voice of judgment, practiced live-withs like "everything is new", and learned to play the harmonica.  For my final project- constructed around the questions "Who is my Self?" and "What is my Work?" - I cut up the first chapter of my Management in the Nonmarket Environment textbook and made it into a poetry kit, then mounted poems on some scrap foam core I had left over from making toilet seats for the school show.   It was a far cry from doing regression analysis or pulling all-night shifts in the machine shop trying to build a portable tripod we could market test.  I did a lot of mountain biking that spring.  Creativity in business was not a stretch for me.

Many years later, the Stanford GSB magazine ran an article on Michael Ray’s course, featuring graduates who had taken left turns off the traditional MBA career path - becoming sommeliers or artists or answering other callings that stirred in their hearts.  You see, the article seemed to say, getting an MBA doesn’t preclude you from pursuing passionate, creative work.

Damn right, I thought to myself, reflecting on my own career.  Manufacturing management, support team management, product management – all roles that fit nicely along the expected trajectory of your typical MBA.  I had poured creativity and passion into every job I’d had.  How could I not?  It took creativity to get 75 Spanish-speaking machine operators to accept me-- a 28-year-old single white girl-- as the jefa.  It took creativity to make the potential monotony of front-line customer support into a job with variety and opportunity for personal growth.  It takes continuous creativity to find ways to advance the things I care about personally through my professional life.  

So why did this article - in the magazine of a school dedicated to nurturing business leaders- focus on people who had turned away from management jobs?  Perhaps it just made for more entertaining reading.  But I felt cheated.  Stanford was doing what the world at large tends to do for us: stereotype management as passionless and prescribed.  As if creativity were the sole domain of poets, painters and Iron Chefs.  (For the record - Fast Company ran an article in June 2000 on Michael Ray that paints a much broader picture of creativity.) 

I was reminded of this course when I recently attended a workshop on personal artist with executive coach and poet Libby Wagner.  Part of my reaction to the Stanford article came from my fragile self-image as a hybrid.  I want my personal creativity recognized because there are all sorts of nice adjectives that go along with "creative" that the world doesn't associate with "MBA".  Free-thinking, empathic, sensual, inventive, passionate... I'd like to tag myself with those descriptors, even if I am also structured, results-oriented, analytical.  It hurt a little that my own alma mater would, by omission, ostensibly deny me these appealing labels.

But beyond my personal dose of righteous indignation, I wondered whether those who have pursued their passion in leadership subconsciously hold back on tackling big problems because the looking-glass self they see reflected in the world tells them that they don't have the creativity to do it.

Most of the creativity in the world happens outside art studios and writers' garrets.  In Michael Ray's words, "Creativity is a way of life.  It's a productive attitude that thrives at all levels and at all phases of business."  Creativity is the ability to sense the expansive possibility of every moment-- to stop long enough between forays into planning, reminiscing, and judging to see the unique opportunity in this never-to-happen-again instant.

Managers interact and rely on the most complex of textiles every day: humans.  Paying attention to the shades, patterns, textures and temperatures of a team and its customers unveils tremendous potential energy.  Converting that to the kinetic energy of a high-functioning organization, driving not just investor wealth but also joy, and beauty, and justice into the world - now that is creative.

I can't imagine a life without the celebration of human spirit that is art.  But there are problems in the world that we can't dance or paint our way out of.  We need people with a natural aptitude for leadership to see the creativity in their work, because we need a future that transcends what the past would predict for it.  To all the business leaders out there, I hope you never stop asking, "Who is my Self?"  What is my Work?"  Even if your first instinct when you look at a trunk full of Legos is to sort them by color and build square towers, you have more uncelebrated creativity than you get credit for.  And the world needs it.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Nobody is writing a screenplay about my life

Last week, I stared down the reality that my life is probably not going to be the subject of a major motion picture.

Go ahead and laugh, but as I pushed my cart through the towering aisles of crackers and chips at Costco, it hit me that I was wholly unremarkable - and that a small voice in my head had never thought it would come to this.  My accomplishments are too trivial, my errors too mundane, the ripples emanating from the waves I've made too small to make my name go down in history.  All those years my mother worked like a dog to make sure that I had every privilege in life, and here I am, as anonymous as a squirrel in all but a tiny universe.  I can't even walk through the San Jose airport without being completely ignored.

So what?  you say.  Last I checked, Kate Beckinsale wasn't jockeying for the lead role in my life story, either.  Yes, well, that isn't making me feel any better.  The voice in my head doesn't have any opinions about whether you would go down in history; it is all about me.

It hasn't been without effort.  I work hard, I challenge myself, I parent like a tiger (well, maybe a zoo tiger).  But compared to Virginia Woolf or Marie Curie or Hillary Clinton, my fingerprints are looking pretty faint.  I haven't taken the kinds of risks that powerful people take.  The best I can strive for at this point, I thought to myself miserably, is not to be a malignancy.

So this is what a mid-life crisis feels like: that sinking feeling that my life is more than half over, and I've yet to figure out what I'm doing here.  It feels too late for me to achieve greatness - and perhaps more disturbing, it sounds like a lot of work I'd rather not do.  It's not just a matter of time running out; it's that I'm not even wired for greatness.  I never was.

And if you're not going to be great, what is The Point in being?

I was doing quite a number on myself with this exercise.  But then I heard a voice that was not so small, and actually not inside my head:

MOM!  I need a TOWEL!!!!!

And suddenly, I was important.  Without me, my daughter would apparently never be dry again.

The older I get, the more frequently my mind wanders toward a vision of my legacy.  But history only has so many open seats for immortals.  Life is a much more finely-woven cloth than the actions of a few great people.  Martin Luther King's famous speech would not have been famous if there hadn't been more than 250,000 civil rights supporters marching on Washington that day. Pop icons are only stars because of their fans.  Spanning out from those remarkable people whose stories have made Hollywood blockbusters and New York Times bestsellers are millions and millions of supporting actors.  We create joy.  We create beauty.  We make life better for a small circle of people we love and care for.  And we work for our dreams.  This is where I live: in one of those circles.  In concert with millions of other circles, we create the symphony of life - the thing that will eventually be called history.

In her memoir Paula, Isabel Allende writes to her unconscious daughter while sitting at her bedside in a Madrid hospital:

In terms of the cosmos and the long course of history, we are insignificant; after we die nothing will change, as if we had never existed.  Nonetheless, by the measures of our own precarious humanity, you, Paula, are more important to me than my own life, or the sum of almost all other lives.  Every day several million persons die and even more are born but, for me, you alone were born, only you can die.

This is the heart of it: how I feel about my own children, and my own Paula, and about my mother, my sister, the friends who have become my California family.  They are more important to me than the sum of almost all other lives.  My inspiration is to live out the second half of my life with full consciousness that I am the same to them.  If that isn't a high standard, I don't know what is.

I am writing the screenplay of my life as I live it.  It is a movie that the people who loved me will continue to watch after I leave this world.  So I better make it a good one.

We are almost at the California Avenue station... it is time for the next scene.