Since the inauguration two weeks ago, I’ve been having nightmares. I was too freaked out to share them, until I read Sherman Alexie’s new poem Autopsy about his dream that his passport was bleeding. Thank you, master poet. For sharing your pain. I woke up the other morning and jotted this down quickly, before the nightmare could fade…
First they cheered their new savior
Their hearts swelled
imagining that beautiful new world
no enemies near
wealth without fear
They saluted or swooned when he walked
in the room…
Well, except the women, who
shrank almost imperceptibly
inward and back, smiles intact
eyes averted and blank
hands gently cocked, ready to defend
when he approached
to hug them.
Then they watched their new president
his pals with dark smiling eyes
suits and ties
destroy their institutions
generations of work and promise
became ash at his feet
and still they cheered
for soon, so soon now, they’d have nothing to fear
Then they watched as he cut
with our oldest allies
provoke others into terror and war
They watched neighbors beaten
in the streets
When the homes of natives went up in flames
they grew silent, confused
they turned back to FoxNews
where they could read about
The Best Cabinet Since Lincoln
How to Use God to Defend Against Liberal Jackals
(go check that out if you think I made it up)
When they looked outside each new day
they wondered why
millions around the world
marched in the streets
against the savior, who well, sure
may look like a dictator
but they knew he wasn’t
because he was their savior
So they did what they’d been taught
they kept preaching kindness
while they watched babies
terrorized at their borders
and in their heartland
They preached compassion and forgiveness
please, don’t be crude
don’t say pussy
don’t bother me with your petty politics on Facebook
all the while
white guys with dark eyes
poured gasoline on tepees
on women, on nature, on life herself
and dropped the match…
When the world went up in flames
the day World War III began
they didn’t even notice
thought they’d be saved by their new president’s best buddy
There they stood, plain to see
two great men: one bad, one good
and both, sadly,
long since dead.
And they didn’t even notice.
Until their water became too expensive to drink.
Until mom got cancer
nobody could afford to treat.
With no EPA, scientists,
journalists, backbones, or basic human decency left
poison peddlers flourished
bees across the homeland died
more than half the crops
They found themselves
looking for rest and work
anywhere they could get it
A third of their children
died that first bitter winter
another third of them
drowned crossing rivers
the gentle earth gave them stones
to mark their passing
Most of their grandparents died
in one spot
because they were too weak
to climb their own savior’s wall
one mass grave for them all
So that’s how we showed up here broken
bleeding and starving
with literally no place left to go
at the world’s front door
Afraid, no more. Of
I got this idea from my friend Bayo who teaches me daily that we are so much more than we imagined yesterday. Thank you, Bayo. This is his list.
These are my current irreverent and unapologetically odd resolutions. In 2017, I am somewhat inclined to:
- Accept life advice only from birds, animals, and the strangest of the strange humans I know or meet.
- More thoroughly enjoy mom’s Alzheimer’s disease.
- Write odes (aka, poems/songs of praise) to everyday people and items on good days and to people/things I am angered by on bad days.
- Watch for dragons in the woods behind our new house. Talk to them only when we’re both ready and then mostly about magic.
- March peacefully in protest to 1) show solidarity with those most hurt by standard prejudices and practices, 2) make protests safer by my presence, 3) make new friends, 4) get more exercise, and 5) fall back in love with the world.
- Dance, sing, draw, swim, daydream, or write poetry every day. See that these take priority on days when I or nearby earthlings are especially frustrated, sad, or angry.
- Hold funerals or say prayers for lost socks, buttons, and other small things that disappear unexpectedly.
- Follow the examples of Americans with disabilities and mental illnesses, Native Americans, Asian Americans, Black Americans, Hispanic Americans, and LGBTQ+ Americans, as well as braver-than-me artists/poets/musicians, in their demonstration of what it means to be fully present and listen really well to those present. Here in my country this will be a year of remembering what it is to be a true friend, fully human, a beautiful earthling, and a strong community. A year of reminding ourselves and our institutions of our amazingly weird and wonderful nature.
- Get even more lost. Open even more space and time for purposelessness, pondering, poetry, parks, play, and pancakes.
- Take spontaneous road trips with my sweetie, my dog, and possibly, my three cats, if nobody volunteers to come watch them for us. Hint, hint.
- Enjoy dirt under my feet and fingernails. Enjoy dust, dust bunnies, stains, hairballs, and all their kin. Not just alone but with friends.
- Learn from those who unexpectedly thrive within resistance. Learn from strangely endearing scientists, off-the-charts kind religious leaders, and awkward-and-beautiful-and-trying grassroots organizers around the world.
- Financially support local poets and artists, the Standing Rock Medic and Healers Council, the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Planned Parenthood, and my two favorite media outlets.
- Recognize that both our home and our town wants to be a refuge for people more threatened by hatred and discriminatory policies than we are. Allow our home and our town to live to their full potential.
- Write a book that surprises me.
- Learn what it takes to remove a hate-filled demagogue from government office. Take an active part in the process of learning.
- Plant trees and shrubs selected by birds, bunnies, bugs, deer, and at least one dragon for their suitability to the place and time.
There once was a land called Don’t Belong in which the people panicked and began believing that it was important to create a list of all those who didn’t belong. At first The List seemed small and harmless enough, so people didn’t think too much of it:
- foreigners don’t belong, obviously (they’re too different and too likely to want our stuff)
- natives don’t belong either (they’re also too different; too likely to want their land back)
- some foreign religions don’t belong (any that are too unforgiving, unpredictable, violent, and different; and too likely to perfectly demonstrate how distant we ourselves are from God)
- women don’t belong (they’re too intuitive, too nurturing, too emotional, and too complex, making them suspiciously like many foreigners and natives)
Because the people were busy and weren’t thinking about it too much, The List rapidly took over and wove itself into the fabric of the culture itself. People were no longer in charge. Only The List was. The moment this happened, panic became the norm of public life in Don’t Belong. The List expanded to include:
- members of the LGBTQ community (too understanding, too stretching us to grow, and/or too fabulous)
- men who are anything less than “100% all in” on greed, patriarchy, capitalism, and/or hierarchy (too much like women)
- babies and young children (too messy, too loud, too playful, too uncontrollable)
- teens (too hormonal, too irrational, too impatient, too energetic, and/or having bullshit detectors that are too powerful)
- elders (too much time to think, too generous with their time, and/or too physically frail to be of standard use to the system)
- people of color (too colorful, too angry when persecuted or killed, and/or too opaque)
- differently abled people (too likely to make us think, feel, and act outside our normal frame of thought and reference)
- the devoutly nonreligious: atheists and agnostics (too non-conforming, too likely to ask questions, too disinclined to value 2,000-year-old words above the words of living friends and neighbors, and/or too arrogant)
- the traditional devoutly religious: Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians (too prayerful, too likely to smile or break into song or feed the hungry, and too likely to argue amongst themselves)
- the irreverent religious: Rastafarians, Wiccans, pagans, Buddhists, Pastafarians, the “spiritual but not religious” (far too free for their own good and ours; also, too likely to laugh off shackles)
- people who work for a living by making, improving, cleaning, and/or repairing things with their hands (too non-greedy, too dirty, too financially poor, to distrusting of “upward mobility,” and/or too likely to also be or become artists someday)
- artists (too loving of life, too unwilling to sell their souls long term, too able to demonstrate abundant life outside financial security, and/or too likely to create very beautiful and very terrible things, both of which disturb the norm)
- scientists (too curious, too needing of evidence, and far too likely to hypothesize)
- people larger or smaller than an admittedly unachievable “average” size (too unlucky of genes or too little self-control, too likely to stretch the boundaries of “normal”)
- teachers (too devoted to the future, too inclined to respect and encourage individual differences in learners)
- people of opposing political parties (too not like “us”)
- anyone denied access to money, resources, housing, food, water, and/or education (too lazy, too draining of collective resources, too criminal, and/or too personally demonstrative of the massive failings of the current system)
- nonconsumers: people who regularly gift, barter, share, and trade; who buy and need remarkably little to be happy; grow and make their own food; and/or make their own clothing or shelter (too damaging to the economy, too self sufficient, too happy) 
- people sensitive enough be become “sick” or “addicted” within a deeply sick system (too depressing, too canary-in-the-coalmine for comfort)
- people unable to pay off debts in their lifetimes (too lazy, too criminal, too unlucky, too stupid to work the system or put themselves first, and/or too likely to chafe at a lifetime of indentured servitude)
- demonstrators (too loud, too messy, and too disturbing of established and respected traffic patterns and mindsets)
- voters (too likely to vote, too easily disappointed in leaders, too hopeful)
- all animals, birds, trees, soil, air, rivers, lakes, and oceans and those who listen to and work with them (too messy, too vulnerable, too non-competitive, too exploitable, too “woo woo”)
- Anyone who answers “All of the Above.” or “None of the Above.” to the question “Who are you?” (too confusing)
In Don’t Belong, The List was the law of the land. Those living in Don’t Belong were bound by it. Unfortunately for everyone back then, the only way to change it was to just keep adding more “don’t belongs” to it.
Eventually everything and everyone on the list was pushed out of Don’t Belong. Only a small, entirely transparent group (called The Invisible by others) remained. The streets grew very quiet. The Invisible mistook the silence of death for peace. They renamed those pushed out The Left Behind and congratulated themselves on being Peace Bringers and Greatness Makers. The only true Don’t Belongians. But with almost everyone and everything pushed away, they were more fearful than ever. They built a high wall around the land to keep The Left Behind out. In Don’t Belong, soon death became preferable to becoming a Left Behind, and more people were becoming Left Behinds every day. The rates of suicide in the land skyrocketed. Nobody left in Don’t Belong could figure out why.
Fortunately for the land of Don’t Belong, soon almost nobody was left in the land to enforce The List. The List itself began to gather dust. After all, to qualify for staying in Don’t Belong the few who remained were not allowed to grow old. They also couldn’t reproduce. They were running out of packaged food and bottled water too. Some worked night and day to build perfect mechanical offspring, but they ran out of time. In the span of a single generation, the walled land of Don’t Belong stood empty: completely devoid of life.
In that same moment, the polluted air began to return herself to clean. The polluted rains and rivers joined clean air and returned the water to clean as well. Seeds and bees drifted back in, and soon trees and other vegetation began to grow. Birds and animals quietly wandered back in.
The remaining humans were the very last to return to the land of Don’t Belong. They had been hurt the most deeply. After all, they’d been banished and renamed The Left Behind by their own kinsfolk. They’d been hurt deeply in watching their kinsfolk lay waste to a home and a land that they loved and were forever connected to. They bore the scars of strip mines and deforestation and food deserts and gunfire and misdirected hatred in their very skin. This made them extra sensitive. Also, blessed with wild and creative imaginations, they couldn’t quite believe that the invisible residents/tyrants/murderers of Don’t Belong were truly gone.
Before the humans would enter the empty land—their home land—they decided to hold a gathering of all on the outside edge of Don’t Belong, in the long shadow of the wall.
“What if they aren’t really gone?” one young human voiced the concern of the whole. “How can we possibly arm ourselves against The Invisible now? I fear we don’t have it left in us.”
Another tentatively offered, “Could we find that old Don’t Belong list and put only The Invisible on it? Banish them as they did to all of us?”
A murmur rose up from the crowd. Everyone thought and talked at once. Those banished from the land—people who’d been on The List, pushed out, and abandoned—were not so easily persuaded to put others on The List, no matter who they were or what they’d done in the past. Life was a lot more complex than that. Beautifully messy and complex, in thanks.
They talked all night. The animals settled in to the warm grasses and trees around them, smiling. In the process, the people remembered themselves.
As the pink rays of morning drifted across the now-sleepy faces at the base of the wall, they had found a way forward.
“We are Namers,” an elder began. “We rename this land today. We more fully know her now. We are part of her now as she is part of us. And we recognize her as she truly is. We recognize ourselves more fully, too. This land is Belonging. We are Belongings.”
Another elder finished the thought, saying “As best we can, we will honor the spirit of welcome that lives within the land herself. We will honor the welcome that lives within the soil and the water, the air, and the trees and the animals around us. The welcome within ourselves. We will welcome others here. We will welcome The Invisible here, too. The Invisible isn’t outside us anymore and separate from us. The Invisible now lives within us. The Invisible is the unspoken, fearful, angry, hurt, or hidden part of us. The comfort within this home, our home, is only an illusion if The Invisible isn’t welcomed too. This community welcomes The Invisible within each one of us.”
The birds flapped their wings in relief. Animals inclined to howling, howled for joy. More than a few bugs danced. Earth, ocean, and wind were seen doing a collective high five, which the humans named a Wave and later mimicked during sporting events to remind them of their connection. And to remind them not to take themselves so seriously all the time.
And before the elder had even finished the thought, young people in all directions began tearing down the old walls and reimagining selves and boundaries. Because even the illusion of competing generations had fallen from their eyes once they’d remembered themselves together. They were all excited and itching to get some dirt under their fingernails and to begin anew.
 Hierarchy was a bizarre mass delusion in the land of Don’t Belong. At the time, they strangely competed for a non-existent physical space called “the top” and added to The List hoping to either move closer to “the top” and/or return to an imaginary time known only as “When We Were Great.” The best we can assume from their behavior is that they believed themselves to be individuals trapped in a 2D world by a separate, cruel, and conniving supreme being, who they aspired to mimic. There is limited evidence that they referred to this being as “Drumpf.” However, evidence is so very limited that this name is now considered myth. Beautiful, life-renewing myth, in thanks.
 people of color. As near as we can tell, there was an elusive, rarely seen in public (because duh) group of humans in Don’t Belong who felt themselves entirely invisible, and who, because they were transparent themselves, also felt the need to be anti-color. We can’t be certain, of course, how many there were, because no photographic evidence is possible when dealing with transparent beings. Back then, the rest of humanity began referring to themselves as people of color in response to the irrational fear, rage, and hostility of the transparent (also know as The Invisible) and as a sign of solidarity with each other in the face of outright discrimination, torture, and killing of people of color by the transparent for hundreds of years before The List was remembered into fiction and myth, in thanks.
 political parties. As near as we can tell, multiple groups called political parties existed for the sole purpose of making people distrust and/or hate their neighbors and become obsessively attached to the idea of a separate “them” out to destroy “us” within the imagined boundaries of a region or nation state. You’ll have to stretch your imagination here, as we have nothing remotely like this today to make comparisons with, in thanks. After The List became irrelevant, subsequent generations haven’t felt the need for political parties outside of historical fictional storytelling such as this.
 strangely, called “the poor” in Don’t Belong. We have no current equivalent for comparison, in thanks.
 economy. Another name for the global monetary system of the time that was poorly designed by a handful of the greedy to screw most people and the planet itself, in shock. Because so many people were deluded into believing that economy was separate from all of life and planet, the delusion ended up screwing everyone and almost everything eventually. We have no current equivalent for comparison, in thanks.
 the sick. Strangely, also called “the unwell” or “unhealthy” in Don’t Belong. Today, whenever we enter this phase, we recognize ourselves Seers, in thanks.
 In Don’t Belong, near the end, this group was called the Techies or the Technorati. None of them survived. However, some of the Techies who became Left Behinds did join hands with others/survive. You will recognize their ancestors among our beloved Tool Makers, Game Teachers, Star Travelers, and Artists today, in thanks, and recognize them in yourself when you join them.
There’s an article circulating this week called Why Relationships Should Be ‘HELL Yeah or No.’ It’s targeted at millennials, and about love relationships, but the headline drew us in and got some of my Gen X friends and I talking about work projects and work relationships. To the point I was told to blog about it. So here goes: ideas about finding abundant life between HELL Yeah (I love this work!) and No (I don’t want do this anymore.) at work.
1. Trust HELL Yeahs and Nos about the work itself
Here at mid-life, I’ve noticed that I use a Hell Yeah and No approach for taking on new work projects and for sticking with work projects. Not out of any particular personal wisdom (which I’m hoping comes later in life): simply because when I don’t trust my own HELL Yeahs and Nos — and the HELL Yeahs and Nos of those I’m working with — we end up having way too many Oh HELL NO! moments. On work projects now, I’m all in, I take breaks when I’m not feeling all in, and then I return when I’m all in again. I allow others to do the same. Together we work on encouraging and allowing ourselves to do this and learning not to take it personally when others need to walk away. Helps us stay happy and interested and engaged and productive. Helps us know when it’s time to take a break, time to let go of responsibilities and take on new ones, bring others in to help or take over, and move on completely from work, too. The extreme ends of the spectrum can be helpful for making day-to-day choices about the work itself. This works especially well when everyone feels they have the ability to work while energized and to slow down or stop or leave or move on when they’re not.
2. The ends of the spectrum aren’t enough for long-term friendships and work relationships
Thankfully, humans are too beautifully complex and interesting to settle for just two choices. There is so much more to learn…
a. Ask “Where am I on the spectrum between Hell Yeah and No right now?” and be willing to move away from a new-to-you No
For me, work projects eventually end, while friendships and working relationships may last a lifetime. Long-term human relationships require an understanding of where I myself am on the spectrum between the HELL Yeah and No at any given time and a courageous willingness to shift, move, and let go. For example, there are many Hell Yeah-at-our-core people in my life who I have walked away from for a year, or a decade, during years that we, or our work, became Nos for each other. But that doesn’t mean they’re out of my life forever. When we listen to new Nos and let go of each other “for now” (well before feelings get hurt beyond repair and definitely before contempt settles in), then often the parting really is “just for now.” Many friends and work colleagues return, eventually. At least here in my indie, work-for-yourself corner of the work world. For those who don’t return, I still get to love the memory of them and pop online to see what they’re up to now and then, share a recipe, or share news about work they might be interested in.
b. Notice if your No is an intuition-screaming-loudly No or a self-doubt No and be willing to move toward the occasional self-doubt No
When it comes to new people, many Nos from the beginning tend to stay Nos, simply because they aren’t given the chance to come farther into my life. That’s ok. Sometimes our No instincts are screaming loudly, and when they’re that loud, they’re spot on. Trust yourself. I’ve left jobs, social groups, and spaces when a screaming loudly Oh HELL NO-for-me showed up. I’ve never regretted those choices.
Sometimes our Nos aren’t about the other person at all: they’re about us, being stretched, and our own fears about our ability to handle something. For example, I eventually became friends with a guy at work who was a No-for-me as a work partner the first time we met. I read his fast decision making and organizational political savvy as “slick and untrustworthy.” Yet we had compatible goals, complementary skill sets, and we decided to stick together. We eventually ended up loving working together because we had opposite strengths that we could suddenly both draw on. We ended up wildly successful as a result. He eventually became an Oh Hell Yeah! friend for life. I carry him in my heart now no matter where we go or what we do: the same is true for the other three friends in that self-organizing work group. For me, reimagining the No is about reimagining ourselves together. This tends to require trust and respect that starts with trust in and respect for yourself. Can I trust and respect this someone who is remarkably different from me? And can I still trust and respect myself in their presence? If so, and if they can say the same about you, then together we can reimagine ourselves, changing our initial Nos into a mutual Oh Hell Yes! I learned a valuable lesson from this friend about work partnerships and about myself. Sometimes we need a No to grow. To round out an amazing small work group. To collectively pull ourselves from good to great. To get to another level of Oh HELL YES! for all of us.
3. Watch for the hidden gifts within Oh HELL No! at work
Everyone I know has had many Oh HELL No! work experiences early in life. Many of them are about us: part of growing up and learning to play/work well with others. Many of them aren’t actually about us as individuals and are instead the natural outcomes of the antiquated work systems and cultural norms we inherited from those who came before us and the beliefs and ideas we unconsciously hold as a result. Our Oh HELL No! work experiences point directly at the real, often hidden, work that we are actually doing: improving our cultures and work systems for ourselves and those who come next. Many people make entire careers out of their Oh HELL No! experiences: tapping the energy within THIS WILL BE DIFFERENT FOR THOSE WHO COME NEXT! to pull forth massive social, professional, and personal change.
For those of us who love to work, and imagine ourselves working across our entire lives, I suspect there is never a complete escape from Oh HELL No! work experiences. There’s just too much work left to do to create work systems, cultures, and selves that more fluidly work well together and more fairly and justly work period. If we’re lucky, we can imagine the world of work into a playground: remaking many of our own No and Oh HELL No! experiences into sparks for innovation and change together. I believe that those of us who can imagine this have a responsibility to do so: not only for ourselves and those who come next but also for all of those today who are crushed, beaten down, or killed by old ideas and outdated systems and patterns of thought. This is my belief. For me. Part of my own Oh HELL YES! I’ve yet to live in a way that allows me to get entirely past Oh HELL No! at work now and then. Maybe next month. Speaking of that…
4. Watch extra close for the gifts within Oh FUCK NO! work experiences
I can say from recent personal experience that as you age — learning more skills, better understanding yourself and peers and environments, gaining more credibility and respect, and having more work colleagues willing to connect you to perfect-for-you others — that it is possible to delude yourself into thinking that you’ve moved past Oh HELL No! work experiences. And I can also say that it’s at this self-satisfied moment that you are perfectly primed and ready to land hard, on your ass, within an Oh FUCK NO! work experience.
This fall, Daniel unexpectedly lost his day job. Just like that, 85% of our income vanished. At the same time, we were also helping my parents (mom with Alzheimer’s disease and dad a tired primary caregiver of 10+ years) pack and move across the country. At the same time we were preparing our Seattle home for sale and awash in a sea of floor repair, countertop replacement, and cleaning/beautifying projects. And I was also trying to get not one, but two, books published. We were stressed, tired, and too busy. And I lost my way again. I took on several new work projects/clients in a hurry: rushing and making decisions out of fear and while exhausted. One of those clients had work processes and systems and cultural norms and expectations that were wildly outside my own comfort zone, and I had no interest in changing myself, or connecting with them, to make things better. But I stayed anyway. Out of fear. And just six days in I totally lost it. Frustrated. Angry. Trapped. After ending my work days sobbing, for three days in a row, Daniel had to tell me to quit. I couldn’t even see it for myself. I ended up hurting myself and Daniel, and to a lesser extent an old friend who offered me the work, and an employment agency, in the process.
My own Oh FUCK NO! work experience was not primarily the result of broken old systems and antiquated cultural norms and expectations. This one was the direct result of me over-booking myself, not standing in/working from my own power, and making decisions out of fear. I know the difference now between a primarily-a-Lori-problem and a primarily-a-system-problem and this one was on Lori. Yes, their system had problems. Massive problems. As do most of our large work systems today. But I showed up to work with zero interest in connecting and becoming part of any small group that could make them better. This was work I should not have been doing. I suspected it ahead of time. I became more certain the moment I started it. I knew it more deeply every day that followed. But I ignored my loudly screaming intuition. And, surprise, surprise, I landed in an Oh FUCK NO! work experience.
Fortunately, I have a wide support system, a great partner, and generous, forgiving work colleagues. I was given the chance to say “I’m sorry. I messed up. I shouldn’t be here. I need to go. Right now.” And I was graciously forgiven my mistakes. By everyone. The employment agency even let me keep a bonus I’d been given for bringing the client to them and for connecting them with others in my field. Nothing pulls forth gratitude — and drives home noticing the deep privileges in your life — like being graciously forgiven for making big, ugly-crying, pain-inducing mistakes….
5. Be open to receiving the you-specific gift/lesson/insight
I have no idea what you took from this essay for yourself. Unless you choose to share, that’s not even my business. For me, this didn’t begin as an essay about the deep privileges of my work life or my skin color. But for me, now, how can it not be? When I get to count on gracious forgiveness, the-benefit-of-the-doubt, and getting to be fully human in my work life — even when it was definitely me who screwed up — while countless others can’t? When I get to quit a job — even when I need the money — because I so clearly should not be doing it? While countless others can’t? That’s total bullshit. We can do better. We must do better.
These are the rights I will fight for, and speak up for, for myself and others: the right to be fully human at work, the right to make mistakes, the right to be graciously forgiven for mistakes and to receive the benefit-of-the-doubt, and finally, the right to give up work and move on to something else when your intuition is screaming at the top of its lungs that you moving elsewhere will be better for everybody. This is a much needed comfort, insight, and reminder here in a month when I’m feeling down about book sales numbers and wondering where my next editing gig will be coming from.
Today, if we’re lucky, even our Oh FUCK NO! work experiences can become gifts that point us toward who we’re becoming and where we’re going next. I’m ready to help move these rights from for-a-lucky-few to by intention for everybody who wants them in their work lives. I don’t have to wonder anymore if I’m ready to go there now. I’m already here. This is already part of my own Oh HELL YES! and I have my own Oh FUCK NO! experience to thank for it.
After reading yet another repetitive, tired article this morning about increasing my productivity as a writer, I made a vow. As of 10 a.m., December 3rd, 2015, I will never again click on a link promising to teach me about increasing my productivity as a writer. I feel more productive already.
Worrying about productivity is a task for mindless cogs in a machine. We are not mindless cogs. We are writers. Creators. We don’t live other people’s stories. We create our own. Productive is just an adjective in deft fingers: useful only when we choose it to appear within our stories as needed. It’s nothing more than that.
1. Goals shmoals.
I wander the beach now, at times going shoeless, even in winter, to feel sand beneath my feet. I talk to deer and rabbits and birds as I walk through the woods. I chat with strangers in shops and at the dog park and with my neighbors on the street. I retreat quietly, for long chunks of time, to observe and reflect. I support my family and neighbors struggling with disconnection, heartbreak, violence, and disease. I create coworking spaces: playing with other writers and artists and humans doing other cool things. I love crafting books, poems, and essays. I love trying new things, with new people. Who I am naturally makes me a productive writer. Why did I think otherwise?
2. There is no such thing as writer’s block.
I write all the time. I write to learn. To heal. To play. To mourn. To support my world and my family. To communicate. To kill time. To pay bills. To flirt. To dream. Like a drunken bumble bee lingering among wildflowers at dusk, I write for the pure delight of it. When I can’t write, that’s not writer’s block. It’s writer’s intuition: a gift saying “There is actually something else more important to be done first.” I’ve learned to listen to it. Even when what I’d really rather do is kick it in the teeth.
The “block” might be saying that you really need to eat something. That you need to move or exercise. To work on another project for a while. Or it might be saying something bigger. You need to ask for help. You need to sell your house. Or change who you’re spending your time with right now. Maybe your next door neighbor needs help, or your sister needs a pep talk, and you need to be not writing tonight so that you’re available to notice. Or maybe you yourself need to rest. I’ve learned that if I trust the block/intuition on this one, that I don’t need to get sick to make deep rest finally happen. This fall my parents needed me to drive their car across the country for them and help set up a new home for them here near us. I couldn’t write for a few days before and most of the time while this was happening. That was a good thing. The “block” always gives me time to examine and drop my ridiculous expectations and assumptions about myself, writing, and the world so that I can return to them fresher, as something closer to the real me, instead of showing up completely exhausted and pissed off. If you must believe in the block, focus on learning to trust the block.
3. Everything I do counts as writing.
Just because others can’t see this, or don’t agree, that doesn’t make it less true for me. When I’m taking a walk, I’m pre-writing. When I’m grocery shopping or cooking, I’m feeding a writer. When I’m napping and dreaming, I’m receiving writing ideas from the universe. When I’m listening to music or attending a play or binge-watching Netflix or cleaning the cat box or noticing the sound that boots on a snow-covered sidewalk make, I am a writer. Absorbing. Listening. Learning. Imagining. When I sit in a sunbeam, I’m writing. When I mend, trade, or shop for clothes, and do laundry, I am clothing a writer. When I walk in the pouring rain, without my coat on, or I sit on the ground instead of a chair, or I offer sincere and loud direct reply to an eagle’s cry, I am a poet, poeting. I am writing every single moment of my life now. Only those who have the option to return for another life here get to be more productive than I am.
4. Procrastination is trustworthy.
What writers lack in self-confidence we more than make up for in intuition. Our intuition is rock solid even when it lands us way off course and lost in the wilderness. Especially when it lands us way off course and lost. I’ve learned to ignore people, including myself at times, who say otherwise. My procrastinating self knows that I literally have better things to be doing than the work I’m struggling to do. That struggling itself is the sign. And if that means I need to go watch silly cat videos or lurk on Facebook for a while or bake a cake from scratch for no reason, then so be it. Procrastination is a flashing sign that it’s time for a break, a shift, a move, a change, a rest. Big or small. Your call.
5. I don’t actually need to be more productive. I need to be more fully present.
Spend 5 minutes and write down everything you’ve done this year to make life better on planet earth. Be generous with yourself: pretend that it’s your best friend writing the list on your behalf. I wrote and published three books this year: one about turning your home into a free community coworking space, one for other dementia caregivers about becoming your own respite center, and one for others interested in the process of becoming a poet and an artist. I wrote two mini-books containing tips for working in and hosting an informal coworking space. I also wrote essays and poetry, and blogged them, receiving thanks and feedback, regularly. I wrote offline entirely, just something for myself, almost every week. I taught others about creativity and writing and publishing. I took on temporary writing and editing gigs to help pay the bills. I also supported family dealing with Alzheimer’s disease and the birth of a new baby, supported friends through their many struggles and joined them in their joys, prepared a home for sale and sold it, joined a memory and brain wellness center’s board at a local hospital, started a new coworking space, made new friends, drove a car across the country, helped set up a new home for my folks, took care of my neighbors’ dogs and cats, canned pickles and jams and applesauce and tomatoes for the winter, took care of my spouse and home and pets, started a small business with my husband, and gathered neighbor-offered art supplies and well wishes for the new family that bought our Seattle home.
What ridiculous, nonsensical part of me thinks that I still need to be more productive to be of value? The part of me that needs to shut the hell up.
Productivity as a goal — as handed to me by the industrial world, my own fears, and all others foolishly attempting to turn wonderfully messy humans into less messy machine-type automatons — makes no sense here in my real world. Here, productivity has more to do with getting better at noticing our already amazing world and the journey of trying to leave it a speck more amazing than we found it. Here productivity is a natural outcome of being alive and fully present in the world together. Becoming more fully present requires a whole lot of things that on the surface appear to be the opposite of productive in the large-scale industrial sense (which I now officially recognize as Ridiculous City in my story). Things like wandering the wilderness alone, helping neighbors, talking to animals, daydreaming, sitting on the ground, and doing nothing are what make me, and those I touch, so productive.
6. Receive the world lightly and embrace the consequences of doing so.
Your heroes. Your most respected mentors and teachers. Your friends and family. Your partner. Your manager. Your editor. Your boss. Your client. All your former selves. None of these people know that perfect combination of what makes you more or less productive today, right now. Receive the bits that work for you today. Let the other bits go. Lightly, gracefully, when possible, like a tree letting go of leaves. I now move away from me-specific energy drains, as kindly as possible, and move toward energy-creating-for-me people/ideas/things whenever I can. I’ve had to say “No, that doesn’t work for me.” and “This isn’t working for me anymore.” and “I can’t do things the way you do them.” and “I can’t do this the way I used to do it.” to countless deeply respected mentors, teachers, family members, and personal heroes. People who I trust 100 percent. I’ve had to say “No more!” to all my former selves too. As a novice. As a struggling writer. As a person not making enough money to live on or one who really needed the money someone was offering me for a job I didn’t want to do anymore. As a still mostly clueless (even at age 25, then 35, then 45) human. Even when I had no idea what actually would work in the moment.
For me, receiving the world lightly, gracefully, involves regularly listening to and then visibly using the voice that says “This works for me right now. This doesn’t.” It also involves regularly accepting, and eventually embracing, the consequences of this privilege: 1) allowing everyone around me to do the same, 2) connecting more deeply to others in any given moment, and 3) moving away from people regularly, when the moment isn’t quite right for connection, even away from people I love. It’s about learning to trust our collective intuition. About learning to see and trust mentors-of-the-moment as they change. Some days they’re living people. Sometimes they’re long-dead people. Often they are small groups of trusted others. Sometimes they’re dogs, cats, trees, ocean waves, rain, wind, sunshine, books, poems, songs, paintings, or birds. Some days they are the me I’m saying goodbye to.
7. Prioritize whatever keeps you awake and present in the moment. As you notice valuable results, share them.
I’m learning to honor and embrace those things that keep me aware and present: whenever and wherever they show up. Writing and making/drinking tea consistently do this for me now, so I start my day with them at the moment. Then the dog shows up to play or go for a walk, so I shift and listen to/play with the dog. Then I’m hungry, so I shift to listening to my body. Then a neighbor knocks at the door, so I give her my full attention. After that, I really want to write again. Yet after too many days of writing alone my mind begins to wander. So I follow my desire for human interaction and go to the movies with neighbors, work on a project with friends, or go work in a coworking space where I am surrounded by writers and connect to become re-energized for my own work. Yesterday two dogs came into the coworking space and wanted to play. So I played instead of finishing my work on deadline. I created better work as a result. This is what being aware in the present moment feels like. Enough at ease with disruption, most days, that you are aware that you have a variety of options anytime disruptions happen, including the option of welcoming them and running with them. Those disruptions that push us out of our comfort zones are among the best to welcome and run with, IMO. To me, they are life’s hand-crafted, person-specific, just-in-time training. And if you ignore them, they just keep on coming in ever-louder ways.
For me, this individual prioritizing of what keeps us conscious and present (and willingness to drop individual plans and expectations for disruptions and concede that often the universe or currently present collective has a better idea) is the primary difference between being a creator most of the time and being a consumer most of the time. The fully conscious part is the tricky part. To remain conscious, awake, and aware, I have to be willing to prioritize whatever keeps me conscious, awake, and aware again and again. What keeps me present is different than it is for others. For me at the moment it’s living on the edge of the ocean. Walking in the woods and on the beach. Chatting with strangers. Helping neighbors. Creating coworking spaces with friends. Giving and receiving honest opinions on things with people who appear to have little in common with me. Engaging with others to reveal hidden community and connections. Playing with dogs and cats and friends. Figuring out how to communicate with my mom who has Alzheimer’s disease and a dad who is a far-beyond-exhausted caregiver. Very light business planning (aka, co-imagination check-in meetings). These things keep me present and paying attention today.
This makes it possible for me to spontaneously say “Enough! Right here is a place for me to be writing instead of reading. Creating instead of consuming. Right here my procrastinating is pointing me to what I actually should be doing today.”
For me, today, this was it: writing an article that had absolutely nothing to do with what I planned to do on a subject that I never intended to write about, ever.
Damn it feels good be human.
My mom Linda was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease by a doctor in 2007. She was just 60 years old. Mom, dad Jim, sister Jen, and I all knew that something was going seriously wrong with Mom for several years before that diagnosis. Memory troubles showed up. Anxiety and depression showed up. All new to her. More significant personality changes, such as not wanting to talk on the phone with us anymore, not wanting to visit Jen and me anymore, not wanting to do many of her favorite things, and avoiding spending time with other family members, friends, and large groups of any kind. She began spinning in worry about simple things, such as spending hours worrying that she would forget to feed the dog at 4 p.m. In those early years, worry spinning began causing her to repeat herself: such as asking me 15 times, in 30 minutes, to make sure she didn’t forget to take a bottle of water into the theater with her.
The more we read about the disease, the more we suspected Mom had Alzheimer’s. Even so, it took us years to finally get her to the doctor for that official diagnosis. She was remarkably sly at avoiding that doctor visit, including cancelling appointments behind Dad’s back: another completely-not-like-her thing to do.
Back then, I was terrified and felt utterly alone. I think we all did. And why wouldn’t we? In my country almost nobody is in a rush to diagnosis this disease: not the people who have the disease, not the people who love them, and not even many of our doctors. As a country, this disease terrifies us.
Fast forward to the fall of 2015.
We are an entirely different being today: a collective being. Reflective and thoughtful. Calm within storms some days. Creator of storms other days. Able to drop worry, stress, fear, ego, and even people, if need be, in the blink of an eye. We’re becoming quite the bad ass together. More fluid and funny too. I’m a creator now: poet and artist in addition to writer and editor. My sister recently became a mom. We even speak a wordless new language now. Speak collectively out of habit. From my perspective today, the difficulties we experienced before are mostly symptoms of trying to tackle change and chaos, and trying to fix unfixable problems, as lone individuals. The result of standing in a river alone and trying to make what is right now back into what used to be. How impossible and exhausting that was.
Some people receive long, healthy individual lives to become something more than they once were. Others, like us, receive and accept diseases like this: diseases that require us to become something new, something different, and something more than individual selves each new day. This disease surfaces our collective selves. Our dragon selves. Our river selves.
So yes, as a dragon/river/human/community hybrid being, this disease doesn’t terrify me now. Not anymore. Even though I myself may end up with it as soon as 10 years from now. Thank you Alzheimer’s.
In August I was sitting outside a coffee shop, in the warm sun, having lunch with a friend who is also an Alzheimer’s care partner. In addition to talking about our marriages, food, the wild world of indie authoring and self-publishing, our mid-life aspirations, and our families, he brought up the subject of euthanasia. We talked about when and if our loved ones might make that choice and when and if we, ourselves, would ever make that choice. I’ve never had this conversation with anyone: not my husband, my parents, or my sister. It was a deep, lovely, moving, weird, and fascinating conversation, woven into and around talk of annoying husband quirks, great new food spots in the area, and the stubborn expansiveness of mid-life waistlines.
As I drove home, I realized that I’d just had yet another amazing, life-affirming conversation that I wouldn’t have been strong enough to have before Alzheimer’s disease entered my life. With a close friend I may not have had without this disease. And, even more amazing, that I’d just spontaneously taken a 4-hour lunch break out of the middle of a glorious, sunny work day. The old Lori would never have done that. Never. Thank you Alzheimer’s.
Our new book, The Grace of Dragons: Receiving the Gifts of Dementia Care Partnering, is another gift of our experience. A gift born of finally learning to slow way down and make time for what matters most. It is a collection of essays and poems that I wrote between 2012 and 2015 — the years my panic about Mom’s disease had subsided enough for me to notice beauty again. Create beauty, anywhere and from within anything. The essays and poems have been grouped in the book by one of the gifts they share in common, out of chronological order, so dates, times, and world events may seem a bit jumbled and confused. That’s ok. In this world, the gifts are the focus. Everything else is background noise.
Thank you Alzheimer’s.