Monthly Archives: March 2019

Getting Ourselves Back to the Garden

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels

even if we missed it the first time

I’d love to tell you I was at Yasgur’s Farm in August 1969, but I was 10, surrounded by soybeans and corn in downstate Illinois. Ten years later, my future husband would introduce me to Woodstock’s creative tillers: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Hendrix, Joplin, Mountain, Cocker, Country Joe & The Fish.

Among the famous festival’s absentees were The Beatles, Zeppelin, The Doors, and Dylan. But the most notable of all was Joni Mitchell. Precisely because she wasn’t there, Mitchell composed Woodstock.

Mitchell’s manager thought it more prudent she keep her booking on The Dick Cavett Show. So Mitchell wrote Woodstock in a hotel room, based on what she’d heard from her boyfriend Graham Nash and what she could glean from televised reports. Decades later David Crosby said that Mitchell captured the feeling and importance of the festival better than anyone who had actually been there.

We are stardust, we are golden
We are billion year old carbon
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden

Photo by Pixabay

Realities of No Return

Ever have the feeling you were born too early or too late to fully soak in the zeitgeist of an era? I was born a little too late for the Sixties. A shoot popping up in a field of wildflowers just before the frost. A would-be Woodstock kid transplanted in the middle of the country.

Just as I began to grasp the music and message of Woodstock, the Seventies were winding down. Reaganomics would usher in a new dawn most unlike Grace Slick’s meaning. While I acquiesced to the cultural changes of the Eighties, I felt I had missed a golden age, one that celebrated peace, less conformity and consumerism, and a currency of kindness that made sense.

But every golden age is fraught with plating, at best. As a white girl, I acknowledged the tragedy of race and anti-war riots that left hundreds dead and tens of thousands injured and homeless. From 1964 to 1971 alone, more than 750 race-related riots were documented. As one historian put it, “there was so much racial tension in the air in the 1960’s that a riot could happen almost anywhere, anytime.” And, of course, the tarnish that was Vietnam.

I’d like to think that my idyllic garden wasn’t sullied by privilege. But of course it was. I could choose to keep Woodstock and peace and love somehow untainted by reality. But in 1979, inflation and interest rates had climbed well into double-digits. The white co-ed would soon have to make a living, pay back all those loans. A protracted recession and a zealous young Republican (played by Michael J. Fox) on Family Ties were on the way to remind us that every speck of stardust has its price.

It wasn’t until the early Nineties, when I first moved to Athens, Georgia, that I felt close to “the garden,” one that included more humility. Sure, the Classic City’s enchantment had something to do with the music scene (REM, B-52s, Widespread Panic), but I also got the sense that this place had decided to stop the clock somewhere between Nixon’s first and Carter’s only term.

I’d arrived to get a PhD, and the University of Georgia just happened to be geographically situated in this countercultural mecca. I joined a female empowerment group called Spiral Dynamics and became friends with poets, crafters, lesbians and vegans. We discussed Sister Outsider. It was my garden.

Photo by Sebastian Kanczok on Upsplash

A woman who reminded me of Joan Baez cut my hair at the Dream Catcher on Jackson Street. Ellen is now my therapist, but I suppose she was then, as well. I think it was she (or another stylist) who’d read something on ley lines: “Sort of like invisible chakras of the earth’s energy.” Athens was, ostensibly, where many of those energy lines intersected.

Leaving the Garden

Toward the end of 1995, I remarried and moved to a remote country called Nebraska. The idea was to write a stunning dissertation proposal and collect data that first ABD year. Instead I paid the price of leaving academia before my committee gave me their blessing. I’d underestimated politics and my naivete: my first proposal failed. I was also advised that doing “diversity research” was like shooting myself in the foot. I hobbled back to Nebraska.

I missed my garden. Over a landline, I exchanged laments with Sally, a close friend I’d made in Athens. Her salt-of-earth response, “Of course I miss it. But we can never go back.” Sally had remarried her ex-husband (after several years of divorce), so she knew something about the folly of nostalgia.

Sally was right. After a 20-year separation from the garden, I returned to love Athens. But, like me, it had changed. As Frost put it: Nothing gold can stay.

Thinking Green, Instead

Just because we can’t go back to what was shouldn’t stop us from pursuing what could be. Maybe gold can’t stay. Maybe that’s a groovy thing and we’re just too fixated on what we believe we must have to be happy. But we don’t know what we haven’t experienced. So, here’s how I’m trying to look beyond the old gold:

The garden’s a big place; choose a place to tend

Four years ago, I moved back with a plan to equally cultivate my teaching and community outreach roles until I retired from the same college that awarded my PhD. After three years, I realized I’d been searching for a plot that didn’t exist.

Instead of looking at my return as a failed experiment — a search for gold gone bust — I realized the part I loved most about my faculty job was working with nonprofits to develop service-learning opportunities for my leadership students. I also took some time to birth 14 Words for Love, a social justice-focused writing initiative to reclaim a hate motto shared by white supremacists.

Photo by Jodi Barnes

For a city as small as Athens, we citizens are lucky on many counts. Music now includes a growing hip-hop scene that’s getting deserved buzz. We still have great local bars, restaurants, and coffee houses. Donation-based yoga. A regional startup hub. An eclectic business collective called Athensmade. Festivals like AthFest, Human Rights Festival, and Wild Rumpus bring people together from around the country and beyond.

But it’s tough to sustain yourself here. Over one-third of Athenians live in poverty (some figures are as high as 40 percent). That’s over 2.5 times the national poverty rate.

To put a finer point on it, plots aren’t equally allocated among us celestials. They never have been, from Eden to Woodstock.

I look for the intersection between what I love, where I have some skills, and what breaks my heart. And there’s so much to tend within that single intersection. Millions of acres in need of 21st century aerials, more equitable plats, seed monies and sustainable irrigation systems. Hundreds of nonprofits and incredibly talented and passionate people are here, many home-grown, to tend these needs.

Photo by Red and Black staff, used with permission

Start planting seeds to restore your best self

One of my plots this year includes non-violent communication and restorative practices within a big field called restorative justice (RJ). RJ is about restoring people to their best selves. A place many of us have never experienced. We’re used to retribution. Rules simply rule. A kid curses out a teacher: suspended. U.S. schools generally show zero tolerance for disruptive behavior. The results impact black students especially hard.

RJ focuses on relationships. How does someone who’s harmed another person repair what’s been done? How can we listen for underlying unmet needs and support each other for more accountability? Restorative practices are the ways we can help students, their parents, our teachers, and school staff to listen, learn and support one another’s humanity. (For a good read on restorative justice in schools, Jennifer Gonzalez rocks it as part of her Cult of Pedagogy.)

Find Master Gardeners to Keep Learning and Loving

Last week, I got the opportunity to take a workshop with Charles Curtis, psychologist and RJ coordinator at Ron Brown College Preparatory High in D.C. I remembered hearing about Ron Brown and its focus on restorative practices on NPR. Dr. Curtis introduced himself, unabashedly, as “a lover.”

Love grows in the Ron Brown College Preparatory garden. Love, in deed, is the garden. Simply, Curtis and the CARE team at Ron Brown actively love each student every single day, without giving up. Like this:

“We’re at your house, we’re in your face, we’re in your business, we’re caring about you, we’re at your mama’s funeral, in class when you’re struggling.” — Charles Curtis, PhD

and this from his colleague:

“I tell the guys all the time, ‘You’re going to get love, and there’s really nothing you can do about it.’ … They’re like, ‘Is this real? Why don’t y’all suspend me?’ And I think that blows their minds. ‘Why y’all won’t send me home?!’ ’Cause we can just talk about it, and y’all be fine.” — Dawaine Cosey, CARE Team member

Billion Year Old Carbon

One of my dearest friends owns a bunch of gardens and acres of living art at the Rensing Center, about 90 miles north of Athens. Orchestric waterfalls play behind brilliant yellow-orange chanterelles on lush 3-D canvases. Her artist residency program requires several houses for modern human habitation. And shit breaks at the least convenient or affordable times. She keeps going off something like remembering her identity. Family ties with the cosmos. A bone-deep belief that we are all stewards of the garden. We can restore both Eden lost and found. We can build new Edens.

All of this fits in my garden. Every once in awhile, I begin to research ley lines. And then I realize, I don’t need to know why I’m here.

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Digging My Way Out of Scarcity: A Writer’s Tunnel of Reads and Claps

Photo by Pat Graziosi on Unsplash

I started feeling competitive and it wasn’t helping.

Feeling that edge every now and then can be good motivational fuel. But the edge was becoming the whole cloth. The fibers didn’t feel right.

I knew too much about my own traits, motivations, and the science behind them. Twenty-plus years of reliable data that I’m highly agreeable, tend toward collaboration, and have little need for power. Collaboration is intentionally baked into the other work I do. I’m not unselfish. Choosing to work in spaces of shared ideas, recognition and rewards yields the most meaning for me.

So to confess my competitive jealousy here is both a relief and a self-reprimand. To admit imagined rivalries between myself and other Medium writers feels immature. Even ridiculous.

I’ve been a writer here since January. My husband, an avid reader of all things non-fiction, occasionally sends me links on writing by Medium writers. A recent piece by Shaunta Grimes included staggeringly high stats and payouts over three months. Even seeing her first month’s earnings of over $100 evoked a green monster within me. I felt anxious, almost panicky.

Points of comparison poked into me like those plastic T fasteners that hide in the label of your shirt after you’ve cut away the tags. I chafed as I read to find something I was either doing right (confirmation bias) or to reveal holes in the writer’s logic (to reduce cognitive dissonance).

My biggest bias, though, was my illusion of superiority: a tendency to overestimate our positive attributes and underestimate our negative attributes when we compare ourselves with others. Although I didn’t feel superior to Ms. Grimes, I convinced myself that I didn’t have much to learn from her.

Of course I did. My tunnel vision of stats and earnings had trapped me in a fixed mindset, a world of scarcity and competition.

The Thief of Joy

Teddy Roosevelt left us with some killer quotes like “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Comparison is also the foundation of all competition. Especially the disabling kind of competition that makes you doubt the what, why, when, where, and how of your work.

Of course, comparisons are beneficial. Without a system of measuring, how do we know we’re getting closer to what we need or where we’re headed? A good answer is not to stop comparing, but to compare your progress against your former self — yesterday, last week or last year. Benchmark on personal bests. Don’t worry about anyone else’s.

The ancient thief that Roosevelt referenced, the one that can rob us of our serenity and gratitude, is based on anyone else, not ourselves. Comparing to others robs us of honoring what we have achieved and aspects of success that society doesn’t recognize as valuable: self-care, good relationships, and understanding what’s enough.

Photo by Henry & Co. on Unsplash

Enough Versus Scarcity

So as I’m driving back to Athens from an overdue self-care-with-a-friend weekend in Asheville, that Medium article — the reminder of how much money I’m not making, how much time each article has taken me to write and edit, and (as a self-flagellating bonus) fifth-guessing my decision to quit academia — is poking into me. I turn on NPR to distract myself with Shankar Vedantam’s Hidden Brain.

The Scarcity Trap: Why We Keep Digging When We’re Stuck in a Hole could not have been more salient for me.

When you’re desperate for something, you focus on it to the detriment of everything else.

People who lack money to meet basic needs worry constantly about feeding their families today; they can’t worry about rent. The loneliest people who hunger for companionship appear awkward when talking to strangers. If they seem desperate, that’s how they feel. The time-starved (e.g., physicians who work 80 hours a week) overspend their mental energy on juggling time. Scarcity affects more than our bodies: it affects our brains. Detrimentally.

You can become so obsessive about what you lack, you can’t focus on anything else.

We all tunnel in on what’s missing. Inside our own tunnels we are consumed by this lack, leaving us no bandwidth to focus on anything else. Inside the tunnel, there’s no outside, no bigger picture to attend to. Scarcity captures the mind. One out-of-reach goal is all we think about. Not because we don’t want to. But because we can’t think about anything else.

Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

Scarcity as a Mindset

An important point: Lacking money for food and housing is not the same as a doctor being over-worked. Fascinating, though, that a mother who had spent her last $500 on food and diapers while forgetting to save some for gas had made the same decision-making error that a new doctor made after working consistent 18-hour days. They were both making decisions without the ability to think past their immediate lack.

Scarcity tunnels are equal opportunity offenders. Here are some simple strategies based on what I gleaned from The Scarcity Trap. In case you find yourself in a hole:

Stop digging deeper.

Turn around to see that sliver of sunlight above you. Take a break and come to the surface. We’re not built to see much, let alone gain insights, in the same underground dwelling. Scarcity is its own trap.

Balance being in the present and doing for the future.

While out of the tunnel — even momentarily — breathe. Would life crumble if you took 10 minutes to meditate or mindfully breathe? Without fixating on the past, what would it look like to regularly emerge from the hole, to be more present with those you love?

Don’t be fooled (anymore) that more = more.

Shankar’s epilogue revealed how the working mother and doctor had escaped their respective tunnels. The doctor, who’d ignored her own health and had almost forgotten to order insulin for a Type 1 diabetic patient, now makes room for a hobby and a social life. She is able to hold more patient care ideas and data in her head. She’s a better doctor. And she’s happier.

Photo by Nqobile Vundla on Unsplash

This resonated. Spring semester, sophomore year, I finally got my single dorm room. I cut my credit hours to 14 and worked a lighter work study load. I was determined to pour everything I had into academics. My grades that May constituted my lowest GPA of eight semesters. I was also depressed. All I was doing was doing — and mostly alone.

Let other people help you see the light.

Get out of your head and onto a more work-life-balance path. Schedule down time for yourself and with those you care about. I’d “taken” two full days to meet friend in Asheville, hoping I could catch up to all my real and imagined work (and worries) when I returned.

Instead, I received relaxation, the loving company of a good friend, and a bigger idea of what success looks like. I met Monday with softer edges of a lighter texture. It’s much more me.

I’d love your feedback. As a writer, how you respond to your scarcity traps?

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How Reporting 101 Could Teach The World To Sing in Closer Harmony

Photo by Amy Ross on flickr

I majored in journalism because it was the Seventies. My mother had a radio show at WSOY in Decatur, IL. I thought AM radio was corny, but I was secretly proud of her. To fill an hour of empty air with nothing but a microphone seemed insanely brave.

Print journalism was safer. As a newspaper reporter, I’d have more control over what I “said” and an editor’s net could catch me if I was wrong. Plus, I liked to write.

Bernstein and Woodward had already become celebrities by exposing the rot under the Nixon administration’s veneer of innocence. A new magazine called Ms.was stirring things up by serving news to a feminist audience. As I packed my bags for Normal, IL, I imagined that a first-generation college co-ed could be successful at something outside teaching or nursing. Gratefully, and with many supporters, I graduated.

Although I didn’t stick with the newsroom but for a few short years, my journalism education benefitted me far beyond the job of reporter and editor. After many years and several different careers, I’ve learned that our ability and willingness to interact with one another as human beings is the most important life skill. We must learn to communicate with less suspicion, prejudice, rudeness, and rancor.

Civility now sounds rather antiquated. But society’s need for it is not. Our ability to interact with others as co-inhabitants of our world is at stake. In fact, about 70% of Americans think a lack of civility in public spaces is a major problem.

Instead of blaming our growing incivility on politics or lack of role modeling (both of which certainly play a part), I believe that our use of technology — especially in social media spaces — is the main driver.

Social media platforms invite and reward us to make assumptions about people we don’t know. And if we knew them, we might like or even love them.

No one in my journalism cohort could have imagined the extent to which media would expand beyond TV, newspapers and magazines. Advertisements were of course necessary to keep the publications I wrote for and ones I dreamed of writing for afloat. But the blurring of entertainment, advertising, news, features, and public relations? What are you smoking? Alternative facts? A mad dystopian nightmare.

Yet, marketing “pop” as a pop song that exploited our ethos had begun before the Watergate break in. The most famous and (up to then) innovative commercial — one that pushed us into the brave new world of soda equals social consciousness and world peace — actually happened in 1971.

The Washington Post, Second-Wave Feminism and my mother’s role modeling influenced my actions. But the Coke commercial is the ear worm that wriggled its way into my emotional brain. Whenever I think about making the world a better, saner, kinder, more enlightened place, it’s the song I hear.

I’d like to Teach the World a Reporting 101 Mindset

Reporting instructor Steve Pasternack was not one for feel-good jingles or pithy aphorisms. He was a serious, seasoned reporter both respected and moderately feared (after some of us cancelled his wake up call for an early conference event as a prank). He was from New Jersey, Jewish, direct and passionate about what constituted accurate and accessible reporting. I remember fragments of memories while sitting in his class, mostly behind a Royal or Remington at Illinois State University in 1978.

Photo by Ed Uthman on flickr

Fragment 1: Your writing is an artifact. It will be scrutinized and your assignments will bleed with corrections and critiques. Toughen up. It’s not personal.

Fragment 2: Inverted pyramid: State most important facts up front. Details come later. Don’t embellish to sound smart.

Fragment 3: Don’t assume anything. Ask. (Image of a cloudy blackboard, six letters divided by two vertical chalk lines)

ass | u | me

This word summed up the source of a journalist’s most common error. Taking steps to mitigate assumptions cleared the path to a more accurate, objective truth. Simple steps like asking sources to spell their names, double-checking “facts,” listening without interruption, probing without pushing, restating what they said, asking permission to contact them if you have more questions. And, of course, offering no opinion. A reporter does not judge.

My Coke-flavored-teach-the-world-to-sing wish is that everyone learn Reporting 101 life skills from someone like Dr. Pasternack. To sit at a metal desk with a manual typewriter at your fingertips, eyes squinting to decipher handwritten facts from opinions on a blackboard. To type a coherent and accurate story in 40 minutes. To shake off that red-stained artifact that you were sure deserved an 83 but is returned to you with a 57. A number that compels you to double-check your own name in the top-left corner.

Illusions of Knowledge, Comfort, and Being on the Right Side

USAF 1st Airman Devin Boyer

Today, supercomputers do our investigative work. We consume more than we research, think about, or discuss current events and their implications. Social media algorithms point us to folks like us who like what we like, have similar interests, and further fuel our dislike of “other” — those whose ideologies and lifestyles are dangerous, weird, even wrong.

Those models, created to make money, eerily predict our spending, what we will read, share, like and love more accurately than could our closest loved one. But an equally troubling phenomenon is our increasing tendency to stick to the stories that get shared and praised within our tribes. We report and repost narratives that reinforce the tribe’s ideology, thereby proving our allegiance and upping our likes and status.

Being drawn to folks who validate our ideas, experiences and opinions is understandably comforting and comfortable. Yet, if we only listen to those who agree with us, if we keep sharing the same memes, cover the same narratives over and over again with no passersby from other perspectives, what do we gain?

Not Assuming Anything

I’ve been doing work in the area of conflict for a few years. Whether it’s helping others have difficult conversations at work or facilitating opposing perspectives on community issues, not everyone wants to learn a more complex, nuanced story from different perspectives.

Those who resist more complete stories are not stupid or wrong. Like it or not, though, we are all constantly learning and adapting. Whether we want to or not.

One thing seems clear, yet frustrating: Often it’s the people who are least willing to have conversations outside their tribe who could benefit most. At a minimum, we need to be curious in order to talk about uncomfortable topics or to engage with someone who belongs to an “opposing” tribe. Some people are so certain they’re right, there’s no more room for curiosity.

If you remain curious and want to better understand political perspectives, Better Angels is devoted to reds and blues discussing beliefs without agenda. Better Angels began in December 2016, when 10 Trump supporters and 11 Clinton supporters gathered in South Lebanon, Ohio, to listen to one another, respectfully disagree and find common ground. Becoming a member is a good way to engage with others who are looking to learn, listen, develop curiosity and grow.

Here are five of my own tips, derived from Pasternack’s class and other skills acquired in later careers. The first three address communicating with others. The last two are reminders to be mindful of what we consume.

  1. Ask someone who differs in some way from your identities (age, gender expression, ethnicity, race, nationality, ability) to coffee or tea. Ask them about their experiences. Listen. Share something about yourself. That’s it.

A conversation is not a debate. You can’t listen and judge at the same time.

2. Remember that we all have different identities but we aren’t solely defined by them. Because I was born female, white and within the baby boomer generation doesn’t mean I dress, vote, or eat like other 55+ white women. I like this paradox:

Group identity matters but it never defines any individual.

3. When you talk with someone who is different from you, what do you expect?

We tend to find what we set out to judge.

4. Reduce your social media use. Avoid or block content created to produce fear and polarize us based on group identities.

You are not what you consume, but you can become consumed by it.

5. Read books, newspapers and magazines that give longer treatment to issues and people who are trying to make the world a more positive place. Listen to podcasts featuring people who have done work to add knowledge, not simply their opinions, to issues you care about.

Although politics is important, reacting to sound bites and memes does little but rile us.

We put stories together in our heads to make sense of a very complex world. Our right and left brains work in tandem to create the story — where the pieces seem to fit best based on our experiences, beliefs, biases, hopes and fears.

We assume the pieces fit because we only have our own lens of experience through which to see. As Anais Nin said,

We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.

In Memoriam

Dr. Steve Pasternack died in 2004. He was full professor at New Mexico State University from 1983 until his death in 2004, and he served as journalism department head there for eight years. Dr. Pasternack also taught and conducted workshops for many U.S. government agencies, including the Fulbright program, Voice of America and the U.S. State Department in 17 countries, including Latvia, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Albania, Mali and Ethiopia.

His goal was to increase the level of professionalism in journalism in countries emerging from authoritarian rule or which had suffered from violence in the past, according to friend and colleague Dr. Nathan Brooks. In 2000 in the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda that claimed nearly a million lives, Pasternack helped establish a journalism program at the National University of Rwanda during his first extended stay.

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