Outside my window, the maples are beginning to blush. Soon, the whole woods will be bright with scarlet, gold, russet, and burgundy. In such a dazzling display, it's easy to lose sight of the individual colors.
Life can be like that, too. With so much going on in the real and virtual worlds, not to mention our own imaginations, it's sometimes hard to narrow our focus. Yet often that's exactly what we need to do to feel calm and grounded and to nurture our creativity.
I recently came across an intriguing exercise that reminded me of the benefits of concentrating on one thing at a time. In her Writing and Wellness newsletter, author Colleen M. Story wrote about boosting creativity with color walks. You pick a color before heading out on a walk and then let that color lead you as you search for objects of that hue.
Colleen's article goes into more detail, with tips on how to get the most from the practice.
I'll let you read that on your own, because I'm eager to show you what I found on my color walk. On the summer day I chose for my walk, everything was green, so as a challenge to my powers of observation, I picked yellow. I was surprised how many yellow things I found and how paying attention to them helped me see my familiar environment in a whole new way.
I hope you'll try a color walk, too, and tell me how it goes.
What with summer activities and chores and the myriad details associated with the launch of my memoir Mango Rash, I confess I haven’t been doing much new writing lately. I was inspired to make an exception, though, when I received a compelling request earlier in the summer from one of my favorite Michigan authors, Anne-Marie Oomen.
She was appealing to writers in her circle to join in an undertaking she called the Lake-love Letters Project. The idea was simple: write a love letter—no more than 400 words—to the Great Lakes or a specific lake. Not a huge investment of time and energy, but an important one, as Anne-Marie’s cover letter made clear.
I love our waters: lakes, rivers, wetlands, little sinking ponds, remote swamps. If it’s wet, I’ll probably like it. And of course, I’m worried about all of them, as I know many of you are. I often wonder what I can do. I’m not a scientist, politician, lawyer, not even a very good journalist. I often feel inadequate, a “fish out of water” when it comes to this work. This year, a question I asked myself: how might I use my small gifts a literary artist (creative writer) to do something for our beloved waters.
She went on to relate that just as she was considering how she might make a difference, she received a letter from Liz Kirkwood, director of the regional water organization For Love of Water (FLOW). The letter explained that in July, the International Joint Commission of the Great Lakes would meet in Traverse City. Liz wanted to enliven what might otherwise be a dry discussion (subject matter notwithstanding) by involving artists who are passionate about our water.
As Anne-Marie described it in her letter,
She had a vision: at the final meeting with the commissioners, could we showcase our love of water in a way that would involve the arts, particularly the writers. She spoke of the arts as one heart behind all the science and legal work. I was so grateful for her rare understanding. And she offered an idea that I could run with. Could we writers and artists do something with love letters to our waters. Love letters? Yes!
I usually take my time responding to requests that ask me to write, edit, or critique something. I like to consider what else is on my to-do-list and how interested I am in adding to that ever-expanding list. This time I didn’t hesitate. As soon as I found a sliver of writing time, I drafted my love letter. After a few revisions, I sent it off to Anne-Marie.
Here’s what I wrote:
Dear Lake Michigan,
You’re not like the others—the ones I grew up with. In that flat and dusty land, those pretenders to the title were mere puddles. Knowing no better, we suited up, dived in, toweled off, sat on shore with sandwiches, staring out across their dense, red-silted expanses, thinking, “Well, this is nice.”
Then I met you, and I had to expand my vocabulary. I’ll admit it: you dazzled me, spangled like a rock star, necklaced with villages whose very names enchant: Empire, Pentwater, Saugatuck.
The only time I didn’t love you as much as I wanted to was on that blustery September day I ferried across your liquid skin. Your ups and downs! How they unsettled me. Betrayed, I sulked until I reached the other shore and looked back at your troubled face, your spectrum of shades.
You, too, carry burdens, I realized in that moment. And also this: I may have loved you since we first met, but I haven’t really known you. Let me know you now.
Just before the commission meeting, Anne-Marie reported that nearly 100 letters submitted to the project would be presented in book form to each of the commissioners. In addition, she extracted sentences from some letters and shaped them into a ten-minute script to be read as part of the presentation to the commission. “Your words made a beautiful praise song to the lakes—thank you!” she wrote to contributors.
So often, writing feels like a solitary, inwardly-directed pursuit. It was gratifying to take part in this project, and it made me think about other ways I might merge my passion for writing with the issues I care about.
How can you apply your talents to something you care about?
FLOW’s video of the entire Traverse City meeting can be viewed here. The Lake-love Letters Project portion begins around minute 14 and continues to minute 28. FLOW and the commission also plan to post the entire collection of Lake-love Letters on their websites.
I’m excited to introduce a very special guest this week: Kirsten Voris, co-creator of the recently-released Trauma Sensitive Yoga Deck for Kids (North Atlantic Books). The deck of 50 yoga cards for kids aged 3-12 comes with a guide for trauma-sensitive facilitation that’s grounded in the evidence-based Trauma Center Trauma-Sensitive Yoga (TCTSY) methodology and the yogic tradition of ahimsa, or non-harming.
I met Kirsten through writing, not yoga—we were workshop-mates at the Tucson Festival of Books Masters Workshop a couple of years ago—and I’ve been a fan of her work ever since.
When she told me about this latest project, I wanted to hear more, both about the yoga cards and the role of yoga in Kirsten’s life. I know you’ll be interested, too, so I’m sharing our conversation here.
How did you first become interested in yoga?
The ﬁrst yoga shape I learned was headstand, and that was taught to me by a German boyfriend when I was in my twenties, so approximately 1992. Then, there was no yoga until I moved to Turkey in 2010.
In Turkey I wanted to swim, but there was no way to do so cheaply. There was a yoga studio close to my house, though, so I started going. I eventually signed up for teacher training, so that I could go even more often. I did my teacher training in Ankara, Turkey (Yoga Sala, Ankara, Turkey, class of 2012!).
What led you to trauma-sensitive yoga?
I was led to Trauma Center Trauma-Sensitive Yoga (TCTSY) because there were things that didn't work for me, in regards to how I was in my own body and how I was taught to facilitate yoga for other bodies.
How is trauma-sensitive yoga different from other kinds of yoga?
TCTSY was developed as an intervention for complex trauma (also called complex PTSD). It is most helpful for people recovering from disturbed relationships with their bodies and the lack of agency and/or trust that can come from surviving systems of chronic disempowerment or neglect.
We use the shapes (forms or asanas) from yoga to practice making choices and noticing sensations in our bodies.
In a TCTSY class, participants are 100 percent in charge of their own bodies at all times. The facilitator stays on his or her own mat, and rather than setting goals or correcting or adjusting participants, simply provides them with choices for movement and highlights sensations they may feel in each shape.
In order to help us keep the focus on our bodies, there is no music in a TCTSY class.
What principles of yoga are most relevant to trauma-sensitive yoga?
From Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga, we focus on Asana, or the movement practice. And within the movement, Dhyana, or meditation.
In TCTSY we use our bodies and sensation in our bodies as the focus of meditation or mindfulness, as opposed to the breath. Instead of returning to our breath, we’re returning to our bodies when we get distracted.
I might invite a client to notice their breath if I know them well. However, in general we don’t work with the breath. For some people, feeling their own breath moving can be a very potent trigger.
Some yogic breath practices trigger anxiety and, with Pranayama (breath control), there is a goal involved: to become more centered, more calm, more energized. In TCTSY there is no outcome we are looking to achieve.
Ahimsa, which means non-harming, is a part of everything we do. We want to empower, not disempower. I am not someone who can teach others how to heal. I can be a witness, though, to someone’s healing. And I can hold a space for healing.
Judith Herman, a therapist, researcher, and author of Trauma and Recovery, inspired so much of what we do. She has another way of putting this. She wrote:
“No intervention that takes power away from the survivor can ever foster her recovery no matter how much it appears to be in her immediate self-interest.”
I love that. My body knows how to heal. So does yours.
How did the yoga deck project come about?
I met co-creator Brooklyn Alvarez in our 300-hour TCTSY facilitation training. We were assigned to be buddies. We spoke every week for nine months. We had both done some facilitation with kids with the available yoga cards and didn't like them.
One week in our supervision meeting we told Dave Emerson (director of the center), what we'd been talking about. He told someone at North Atlantic Books. Some time later, Dave announced that North Atlantic Books wanted to publish our deck of trauma-sensitive yoga cards for kids, which up until then, we had only been talking about. It was pretty mind-blowing how that happened.
Dave read through the pamphlet and helped us in so many different ways with ideas for content and questions around language and feedback on the cards and the pamphlet. He let Brooklyn and me have our own process when it came to resolving issues that came up during the creation of the final product. He was our first editor. I'm really happy to be associated with him in this way and to have him associated with us and the cards.
How do you envision the yoga deck being used?
Lots of kids love to move. This is an opportunity to harness that and provide kids with the opportunity to experience choice—in their bodies. And maybe notice sensation in their bodies, to help them ground in the present moment, which is the only place we can feel a sensation.
I'd like the cards to be used by people who love kids who have been through terrible things. Anyone can help a child heal. TCTSY practitioners who are therapists can use cards in session with their clients. Foster parents can use the cards to engage with kids in their care. The cards can be a supplemental activity or the main attraction. The pamphlet comes with ideas for group activities involving the cards and practices for one-on-one facilitation or small-group facilitation.
And all of these are suggestions. What is important is creating a sense of connection and safety for children. Caregivers can do this by practicing along with the kids in their care, not asking kids to do something and then standing back and watching. Yoga card time can be family time. Time to put down your phone, turn off the TV, and practice being in your body. Everyone practices together: the youth, the moms, the grandmas, the foster dads. Each person noticing their own bodies.
How has your own yoga practice evolved over time?
My yoga practice started out as anxiety management through overdoing it. I was in class every day and it was vinyasa or ashtanga class. I wanted to stand on my head and balance on my arms. I wasn’t interested in learning to be grounded in my body. Or still. I could not tolerate savasana, or rest. I kept my eyes open. I didn’t like being adjusted or touched.
Then, I began to get injured. I have healed-over hamstring tears. I have tendinitis in my left deltoid. In the wake of that particular injury, I couldn’t raise my arm over my head for one year.
I discovered the limits of self-medication through exercise. I started to slow down—out of necessity. My favorite teacher in Turkey had a Yin Yoga class that I began attending. It was very difficult for me to hold shapes for long periods of time and give myself over to them. But listening to her guide us through it, as she talked about all the different muscles and meridians we were touching though our practice, helped. (I dedicated my yoga cards to her.)
Eventually I began to notice and feel my body and realized that, before I got injured, I couldn’t feel my body at all. And because I couldn’t feel it, I couldn’t make good choices for my body.
After graduating from teacher training, I went to a week-long Yin training with Bernie Clark, who introduced me to the idea that adjusting people based on our idea of how a shape needs to look can hurt people. Everyone needs to find their own shape.
Since moving back to the US, my yoga is mostly at home. Learning and facilitating TCTSY has made it even more difficult for me to find yoga classes I like, because now I am super-empowered to say what I don’t like (I don’t like to be touched or adjusted or told what to do), and I now know there is a kind of yoga that doesn’t require me to do that to other people.
For the past two years I have been involved in an Open Floor Dance community here in Tucson. This is a conscious dance practice. You dance however you want, and you stay with yourself. I’m still learning, and this is the scary leading edge of my evolution as a human being. And it wouldn’t have been possible, without TCTSY.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Trauma Center Trauma-Sensitive Yoga is very new and very special, and the community is not that large. It has felt amazing to create something that I believe so strongly in, in concert with other humans who are equally passionate about the innate power we all have to help ourselves heal from terrible things--without having to talk about those terrible things. Through movement.
The Trauma-Sensitive Yoga Deck for Kids can be ordered through independent bookstores, IndieBound, Penguin Random House, and other online booksellers. ISBN: 9781623173289, $25.95
More about Kirsten and her co-creators
KIRSTEN VORIS (RYT-200, TCTSY-F) is a former secondary school teacher and adult educator who completed her initial yoga certification in Ankara, Turkey. Her interest in yoga as a tool for personal integration led her to Yin Yoga and the research-based Trauma Center Trauma Sensitive Yoga (TCTSY). She has facilitated TCTSY for volunteer aid workers in Cusercoli, Italy and brought TCTSY to therapists through PESI trauma training retreats in Sedona, Arizona. In addition to facilitating TCTSY for private clients in and around Tucson, Arizona, Voris has been the TCTSY provider for youth and children through a tribal health service in Southern Arizona. She offers an introduction to TCTSY to fourth year medical students and medical residents at the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine.
BROOKLYN ALVAREZ is a clinical psychologist-in-training (doctoral degree expected 2021), certified Kripalu yoga teacher, and avid student of Buddhist psychology and mindfulness meditation. Alvarez's personal and professional experiences have inspired in her a fervent aspiration to specialize in the treatment of developmental trauma and, ultimately, to disrupt systemic hegemony.
DAVID EMERSON is the founder and director of Yoga Services for the Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute in Brookline Massachusetts, where he coined the term "trauma-sensitive yoga" (TSY). He was responsible for curriculum development, supervision and oversight of the yoga intervention component of the first of its kind, NIH funded study, conducted by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk to assess the utility and feasibility of yoga for adults with treatment-resistant PTSD. Emerson has developed, conducted, and supervised TSY groups for rape crisis centers, domestic violence programs, and residential programs for youth, military bases, survivors of terrorism, and Veterans Administration centers and clinics. In addition to co-authoring several articles on the subject of yoga and trauma, Emerson is the co-author of Overcoming Trauma through Yoga, (North Atlantic Books, 2011) and author of Trauma-Sensitive Yoga in Therapy (Norton, 2015). He leads trainings for yoga teachers and mental health clinicians in North America, Europe, and Asia.
You know that old Bob Seger song, “Roll Me Away”? It’s been running through my mind lately. Only this time, I’m not the one rolling away. My dearly beloved motorcycle rolled out of our driveway for the last time a few weeks ago, destined for a new owner’s garage.
Now, for the first time in our twenty-seven years together, Ray and I have no motorcycles, as he recently traded his last two in on a side-by-side quad.
It’s a strange feeling, a little sad and yet absolutely right. In the seven years since we moved to Newaygo County, I’ve gotten so involved in other activities—yoga, hiking, kayaking, photography, plus this blog and the book project I’m absorbed in right now—there just hasn’t been time for the long motorcycle rides I used to enjoy so much.
But there’s more to it than that. Lately, being out on the road, even in a car, has started to feel a lot more hazardous. I don’t know if it’s my age, the increasing number of distracted and aggressive drivers, or both, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had an experience on the road in recent years that left me thinking, “Thank goodness I wasn’t on a motorcycle!"
So I put the motorcycle up for sale, and before I had time for second thoughts, a young man was pulling into our driveway with a motorcycle trailer and a wad of cash. This would be his first motorcycle, he said, and seeing his excitement brought me joy. For good measure, I threw in saddlebags and a heap of other accessories and sent him and the bike off with my blessings.
Now, my motorcycle days are memories. But what memories!
It all started when Ray gave me my first bike—a Harley-Davidson 883 Sportster—the first Christmas we were together. (So much for that $100 gift limit we’d agreed upon.) I had yet to learn to ride, but riding had been high on my hope-to-do-list for a long time. So I signed up for a Motorcycle Safety Foundation Basic RiderCourse at a local community college the following spring, practiced in parking lots until I got up to speed, and then took to the road.
Together, Ray and I took motorcycle trips to Milwaukee, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and around the perimeter of Michigan’s mitten. I rode to work in Ann Arbor, and took long, meandering rides all over Southeast Michigan.
When I outgrew the 883, which Ray had customized for me, I sold it and moved up to a 1200 Sportster. With custom paint and Ray’s touches, it became my dream bike—just the right size and weight, with forward controls, a comfy seat, a stylish Sport Bob tank, spoked wheels, fringed lever covers, and other cool details.
At one point, I joined a women’s motorcycle group, the Chrome Divas of Motown, and though I’d always preferred riding solo or with Ray, I came to enjoy the camaraderie of our group rides and social activities. When my “bonus daughter” Michelle (Ray’s daughter) joined the Chrome Divas, riding together gave us new common ground.
Riding gave Ray and me a lot of shared experiences, too, and it certainly made gift shopping easy. There was always one more bike accessory or piece of riding gear to be bought. One Valentine’s Day, Ray heard a jewelry store ad on the radio: “This Valentine’s Day, buy your sweetheart something shiny.” So naturally, he headed to the Harley dealer and brought home the perfect gift for his sweetheart: a chrome tachometer cover.
We covered a lot of asphalt over the years, and every memory of every ride—even a couple that resulted in broken bones—is a treasure.
Now, it’s on to new dreams. That wad of cash I got for the bike? It’s going into my fund for a trip back to Samoa. But before we take off on that journey, come with me on a trip back through my motorcycle memories.
Ready? Cue up Bob Seger, roll on the throttle, and let’s ride!
I realize it's not the last Wednesday of the month, but I haven't done one of these compilations in quite a while, and I blew right past last month's bonus Wednesday, when I fully intended to post something extra. So I owe you! Besides, I've been finding some good stuff that I really want to share.
So here you go . . .
We tend to think of consciousness as skin bound, brain tethered. However, in nature we can sense something vaster--and that something larger senses us. And from here our perception and understanding transforms. We start to think from this bigger perspective.
-- Mark Coleman, Mindful magazine, April 2019
I'd sooner exchange ideas with the birds on earth than learn to carry on intergalactic communications with some obscure race of humanoids on a satellite planet from the world of Betelgeuse. First things first.
-- Edward Abbey, "The First Morning," Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness
Bees teach us so many lessons. When they take all this nectar from the tree, does that deprive the tree of anything? No, it enhances it. And when you give your time and energy to helping someone, does it deplete your skills? No, it gives you something to be proud of.
-- Brother Blaise Heuke, "The Beauty of a Bee," AARP The Magazine,
Live with unremitting alertness.
-- Joseph Campbell
[W]ith art comes empathy. It allows us to look through some else's eyes and know their strivings and struggles. It expands the moral imagination and makes it impossible to accept the dehumanization of others. When we are without art, we are a diminished people--myopic, unlearned and cruel.
-- Dave Eggers, The New York Times, June 29, 2018
Authorship is a solitary business, always coming down to a writer and a blank page, but inevitably it becomes a social act as well, because the book is inextricably part of the world. It finds readers, it begins a conversation, it tells a kind of truth that can't be told in any other way--or else it fails to do that.
James Gleick, Authors Guild Bulletin, Spring-Summer 2018
But here's the thing: Humans are not what we do. Humans are everything we do, and feel, and think, with a dash of stardust thrown in. The same is true for writers.
-- Lenore Myka, "When to ignore good advice," Poets & Writers magazine, Sept/Oct 2018
You need to let the little things that would ordinarily bore you suddenly thrill you.
-- Andy Warhol
Life is a great bundle of little things.
-- Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.
For a few years now, I have closed out most weeks by taking to the trails with the Wander Women, a local hiking group. We walk, and we talk, and we take in the sights and sounds along our woodland paths. But the truth is, we don’t really wander. We have a definite destination and an approximate time frame, from which we rarely deviate.
That’s as it should be. We all have post-hike errands to run or appointments to keep or evening engagements to get ready for, so it helps to have an idea just how the day’s hike will fit into all of that.
Sometimes, though, when I’m on my own in the woods—or on a city street, for that matter—I like to just aimlessly meander. That makes me a flâneur, a word I learned from a lovely article in Mindful magazine. The word has been variously defined as “an aimless idler” and “a passionate wanderer.”
I guess I’m a little of both. So, apparently, was Henry David Thoreau, who extolled the virtues of “sauntering” and letting his mind wander along with his feet.
When I worked in downtown Detroit, I spent most lunch breaks walking, usually with no particular destination in mind. I might end up strolling by the Detroit River or losing myself in the Ren Cen’s maze of hallways and catwalks or exploring Greektown or Harmonie Park or Washington Boulevard. Wherever I roamed, I always came back to the office refreshed and ready to work for the rest of the day.
Later, when I worked in Ann Arbor, my lunchtime walks took me into various neighborhoods, where I found inspiration in the creatively-designed gardens, quirky houses, and funky yard art I passed along the way.
“When you wander, the spring you tighten in order to secure your purpose and direction can unwind,” editor Barry Boyce observed in the Mindful article. What’s more, he noted, wandering can even be a kind of mindfulness practice. While we tend to think mindfulness is all about corralling our restless minds, the definition can expand to include “the practice of just noticing one thing after another as we let ourselves out to play.”
That’s exactly what I find myself doing on my walks these days. A just-bloomed wildflower, an oddly-shaped stone, a leaf floating down the creek—there’s no telling what will catch my attention and take it far from whatever minutia occupied my overloaded brain before I set out on my stroll.
I seem to wander best when I wander alone, but some folks are joining up in free “walkshops” organized by the nonprofit group Street Wisdom. On these volunteer-led strolls, participants are encouraged to tune into their senses and use their heightened awareness to sharpen their creative problem-solving skills.
Whether you ramble solo or with fellow flâneurs, you can bet your creativity will get the same kind of boost, as long as you let your mind meander freely. Researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology found that frequent daydreamers scored higher on tests of intellectual and creative ability and used their brains more efficiently (as measured with brain scans) than people who zoned out less.
All of that is reason enough for me to get up from my desk and wander off. See ya later!
In some ways, the third Monday in March seemed like any other Monday. Early that morning, eleven of us trooped into Fae Wood Studio, the serene space that’s been our yoga home for the past couple of years. Just as she had on so many other Mondays, our teacher, Behnje Masson, led us through a series of moves that refreshed our bodies and boosted our spirits.
Our spirits needed boosting more than usual, because—appearances notwithstanding—this Monday was not just any Monday. It was our last class at Fae Wood Studio, and for now, at least, Behnje’s last time to travel to Newaygo to teach us.
For this community of yoginis, this ending marked yet another change in a long history of practicing and studying together. More than twenty years ago, our neighbor Sally Kane initiated the class, teaching every Monday morning in her basement. When Sally went back to school to become a teacher, Ellie Randazzo appeared at just the right time. Ellie took over Sally's class and went on to add more classes, build a devoted following, and eventually open her own studio, Woodland Yoga.
As I've written about before, yoga with Ellie, followed by breakfast at Hit the Road Joe Coffee Café became a can’t-miss Monday-morning routine for the group (which I joined about seven years ago), and friendships flourished in the process.
When Ellie died unexpectedly in 2016, we were adrift. Yet we kept our Monday morning yoga-and-breakfast sessions going, even when we had to squeeze into someone’s living room or loft to practice together. Then, through a charmed confluence of events, Ellie’s sister Kathy invited us to use her newly-established studio, Fae Wood, and Behnje offered to drive up from Grand Rapids twice a month to teach us. It was an ideal arrangement, one we’ve been privileged to enjoy for almost two years.
But just as Ellie always taught us, change is inevitable. Sure enough, everything has shifted again, and it’s time to readjust.
After deciding to move back to Grand Rapids, Kathy has sold her home and closed Fae Wood Studio. Meanwhile, Behnje’s studio in Grand Rapids, From the Heart Yoga, has moved into a new location and needs more of her time and attention. All of that means we’re adrift again.
But sad as we are to see this chapter close, drifting for a bit may not be a bad thing, especially with all the possibilities swirling around us: continue practicing together at a new location, carpool down to From the Heart Yoga, try out other local yoga classes.
At the end of our last class, we gathered at the back of the room, near Ellie’s favorite statue of the Hindu archetype Ganesh. Behnje talked about the importance of letting go of what you’ve lost, without trying to figure out in advance what’s coming next. She used the image of casting the old into a stream and just waiting to see what flows back to fill the space left open.
It was fitting that this last, momentous class happened to fall in the same week as the vernal equinox, a time associated with balance, but also with change, cleansing, and new beginnings. As we contemplated this latest change, we could feel winter loosening its grip, allowing us to move forward into a season of growth and beauty.
It was a good time, too, to be reminded that yoga itself is all about change. As instructor and author Cyndi Lee writes in the March/April 2019 issue of Yoga Journal, yoga “offers a myriad of experiences, many that we could never have predicted.” The point is not to nail a particular pose and hold onto it to dear life (no matter what we may think as we totter in Tree pose), but to adapt, adjust, and explore the range of possibilities.
“See how your actions come together to make certain poses, and then notice how that experience dissolves and is over. We are learning the truth of impermanence. Since everything arises and passes, we try to appreciate it in the moment that it is here.”
I’m happy to welcome Peter Gibb to HeartWood today. I met Peter when I took—and greatly enjoyed—his workshop, “The Joy of Mindful Writing,” at the Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference last fall.
Peter’s award-winning memoir, King of Doubt, is a beautifully-crafted story of self-discovery—a must-read for anyone who’s ever experienced self-doubt. (Is there anyone who hasn't?) When I learned he has a book on mindful conversation in the works, I cleared a space on my bookshelf in anticipation.
As he relates on his website, Peter grew up shy and isolated. Not exactly a conversational whiz. Eventually, though, he caught on to a few secrets that he honed and shared over a 22-year career of teaching, consulting, and coaching conversational skills “on 4 continents, in 3 languages, to Fortune 500 companies, to leaders of the emerging democracies in Eastern Europe, to doctors and bakers and just plain folks, hungry to learn.”
I’m honored to have Peter as a guest today. At the end of his post, you’ll find a link to his website, where you can take a quiz to learn your dominant conversational style. I encourage you to check it out. I took the quiz and not only gained insights into my habits in conversation, but also got tips on tweaking those habits toward more effective and satisfying face-to-face communication.
Now, here’s Peter . . .
First, I’m delighted to be a guest on Nan’s blog. So much interesting talk happening here, and such important topics.
Is there any human activity that has the potential to bring us contentment and provide real connection, more than Great Conversation? Conversation is a master life skill. Essential for parenting, teaching, leading, making friends, getting along with colleagues, selling . . . you know, just about anything and everything you do will be more successful and more satisfying if accompanied by Great Conversation.
But here’s the rub. Not all Conversation. In fact a great deal of conversation isn’t conversation at all. It’s just talk. Talk that does not bring us contentment or connection.
A great deal of talk consists of what I call “Serial Monologue.” This is talk in which two people, supposedly engaged in conversation, are actually just talking heads, listening mostly to their own voices. Rather than paying attention to what the other person is saying, they are more frequently:
Further, when such talkers do respond to the speaker, the most frequent type of response is what I call a “Grabbing Response.” Here is an example:
Person A: “I just got back from a great trip to San Diego with my family. We had a terrific time.”
Person B: “San Diego, we were there in fall of ’17, but it was cold most of the time.”
Person A: “The zoo was really wonderful. My Clara left saying she wants to become a Vet. I’ve never seen her so excited.”
Person B: “Really. We take our kids to the zoo at least once a year.”
Person A is all excited to tell about her vacation, but Person B pretty much disregards everything that A says and launches into whatever story comes to mind. A conversation should be like a dance of connection, but in fact this one is more like a football game, each side trying to grab the ball and score points on some mythical scoreboard. Person B grabs the spotlight from A and changes the topic from A’s vacation to B’s cold vacation in San Diego and how one of the children is going to be a Vet.
Instead of creating connection and contentment, this kind of talk fosters isolation and frustration. Neither talker feels heard or acknowledged. There is no real connection.
What Ears Can Do
We were given two ears but just one mouth. There must be a reason. The most critical ingredient for Great Conversation is “Deep Listening.”
The first step toward deep listening is to get rid of grabbing responses and start using “reflective responses” instead.
Imagine how different this conversation might have been, had it gone something like this:
Person A: “I just got back from a great trip to San Diego with my family. We had a terrific time.”
Person B: “You sound so excited. San Diego. What made the trip so exceptional?”
This is a “reflective response.” There are many types of reflective response, too many to go into here. They all validate the speaker, mirroring back some aspect of what the speaker has said and often inquiring for further about the topic. Note that in this particular response, Person B validates a feeling (excited) and then inquires for more detail (what made the trip so exceptional?) There is no telling my own story, or giving advice, or judgment, or distraction. It’s basically listening, reflecting and inquiring. Simple? Well, not always, but what a difference it will make.
The Power of Listening
Learning to become a more conscious, committed listener is the single most important step you can take to move your conversation from talk to connection and ultimately to “Great Conversation.”
So what exactly is great conversation? Well, that’s a longer conversation. The best I can do in this short time is to say that it’s a skill we can all develop. It’s based on four values whose first letters spell the word C.A.R.E.
If you’d like to learn more about Great Conversation, please visit my web site, http://www.petergibb.org/. Scroll down a bit on the home page, and you’ll see an invitation to take the “Conversational Style Assessment,” a short survey that will help you discover your dominant conversational style. You’ll learn which of four basic conversational styles (Observer, Nurturer, Performer, and Explorer) is your default mode. You’re not locked into any one style for life. You can change your conversational style, but knowing your default style can help you to get oriented and on the path to Great Conversation. Take the assessment and you’ll get a personalized report back from me.
I also have a blog that discusses issues of Great Conversation once or twice per month, and a forthcoming (but not for at least 18 months) book, titled Beyond the Weather: 5 Steps to Great Conversation. If you’d like to be notified when the book is released, please sign up on the drop down form on my web site, or email me: email@example.com
Thanks for Listening. I hope to visit with you again.
Today is my birthday! I was going to be all low-key about it—just let it slide by without a mention. But when I noticed it would fall on a blog-posting day, I couldn’t resist sharing some birthday thoughts with you.
Besides, this one’s a biggie: 70. Just typing that number makes my jaw drop. Me?? 70?? With the dicey health history I had from age 17 on, there were times I doubted I’d ever see this many candles on my cake. Yet as the years piled up, I allowed myself to hope—and then believe—I just might.
When I did envision myself at 70, I imagined I’d be living a slowed-down, reflective life, sifting through mementos and old photo albums, processing the past, while practicing meditation and yoga to keep me grounded in the present. What I didn’t imagine was that I’d be so involved in new projects and interests and so jazzed about what’s still ahead.
It helps that we live in a community of energetic, engaged people around my age and older who are doing interesting things: playing and recording music, making art, writing and illustrating books, tending gardens, devoting time and talents to worthy causes. (By the way, if you missed my post on Bea Cordle, an inspiration to us all at 90+, be sure to check it out.)
Last year, the stars aligned to make good things happen with my writing and photography. Now, looking forward to the publication of my memoir, Mango Rash, later this year, I’m loving the idea of being a debut author at 70. Toward the end of last year, I also achieved my goal of hiking 50 miles of the North Country Trail, earning that coveted patch for the vest I wrote about in a previous post. This year, I’ve signed up to try for 100 miles (and another patch!), and though sub-zero temperatures and icy trails have set me back lately, I’ve at least made a start toward that goal.
Yet in spite of my undampened enthusiasm for projects and passions, this time of life does feel different in some ways from my earlier years, and I do feel the need to take time out for reflection, for putting things in context and looking back as well as forward.
In that spirit, Ray and I have been looking through all my photo albums, in order. They start with photos from before I was born—ancestors, my parents’ early lives—and continue up to 2003, when we switched from film to digital and I got tired of sticking pictures on pages.
Though I’ve dipped into these albums from time to time over the years, I’ve never gone through them this way, one after another, in the span of a few weeks. Doing that now, I notice threads that run through the decades. One is my love of nature, from childhood romps in the woods to more recent treks on nearby trails. Another is appreciation of art, evident in snapshots from settings that range from tony sculpture gardens to funky street fairs. Travels—around Michigan and beyond, by motorcycle, RV, or other conveyance—are another theme.
Most meaningful, though, are the faces that keep showing up, year after year, in different situations and places: the friends and family members with whom I’ve shared both celebrations and somber occasions. It's gratifying to realize how many of these people I'm still in touch with and have talked to or exchanged email with in the past week alone. Remembering the roles we’ve played—and continue to play—in one another’s lives gives me a deep sense of connection.
Within the pages of my photo albums, I also find reminders of the losses that come with a long life. So many faces in those photos belong to people who have passed from this life and whose presence I miss. At this time of life, the losses come closer together, and the bonds among those of us who remain grow stronger.
When I embarked upon this photographic time trip, I didn’t give much thought to its significance. It was just one of those “someday, I’ll . . . ” things that I felt like doing now. Now, as I pore over pages, I realize what a profound experience it is to look back over a lifetime and contemplate what it's all been about. At a time when it sometimes seems things are falling apart, there's also a sense that everything's coming together.
As I anticipate the coming year—and years—it's with a keen awareness that there's really no way of knowing what may come, and no point in either worrying or fantasizing about what-ifs.
All I can say for now is, "So far, so good."
Share your thoughts about the stage of life you're experiencing.
Mālo le onosa’i
-- Samoan proverb loosely translated as “patience is a virtue”
I’ve been thinking a lot about patience—and its payoffs—lately. About the years I spent writing and revising and polishing my memoir, and the months of researching agents and publishers, pitching at conferences, and sending out queries.
Friends praised my perseverance, but I sometimes wondered if they were secretly thinking, Isn’t it about time she gave up on this thing and got on with her life? Sometimes I wondered that myself.
At the same time, I kept reading about authors—many of them famous now—who traveled the same plodding path, encountering rejection after rejection until finally they hit publication pay dirt. So I waited . . . and waited . . . and kept doing everything I could to improve my odds until, miracle of miracles, I had my own book contract in hand.
And then I found out still more patience is required. My memoir, Mango Rash: Coming of Age in the Land of Frangipani and Fanta, is due out in October of this year—a wait of another nine months, made up of a multitude of mini-waits. Right now, I’m waiting for my editor’s notes so I can begin another round of revisions. Then I’ll be waiting for more editorial input on final tweaks. And so on, and so on.
Meanwhile, I’m suppressing the urge to fire off nervous-newbie question after question to my editor, knowing that she’s swamped with other projects right now and trusting that she will provide whatever information and guidance I need as I need it. Patience. Patience.
In that spirit, I’ve rounded up an assortment of wisdom on the subject to share with you today.
Great works are performed not by strength but by perseverance.
- Samuel Johnson
Have patience. All things are difficult before they become easy.
The creative people I admire seem to share many characteristics: A fierce restlessness. Healthy cynicism. A real world perspective. An ability to simplify. Restraint. Patience. A genuine balance of confidence and insecurity. And most importantly, humanity.
- David Droga
I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures.
- Lao Tzu
Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish.
- John Quincy Adams
The key to everything is patience. You get the chicken by hatching the egg, not by smashing it.
- Arnold H. Glasow
Having patience is one of the hardest things about being human. We want to do it now, and we don't want to wait. Sometimes we miss out on our blessing when we rush things and do it on our own time.
- Deontay Wilder
Have patience with all things, But, first of all with yourself.
- Saint Francis de Sales
If you would know strength and patience, welcome the company of trees.
- Hal Borland
Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace.
- May Sarton
Patience is the companion of wisdom.
- Augustine of Hippo
Despite the common misconception, having patience doesn't mean making a pact with the devil of denial, ignoring our emotions and aspirations. It means being wholeheartedly engaged in the process that's unfolding, rather than yanking up our carrots, ripping open a budding flower, demanding a caterpillar hurry up and get that chrysalis stage over with.
- Sharon Salzberg in “The Power of Patience,” Awakin.org, February 10, 2014
The more you know yourself, the more patience you have for what you see in others.
- Erik Erikson
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.