Just Because You’re Related Doesn’t Mean You Can Relate

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Should you keep trying?

Between the facts of shared DNA, cultural expectations, and the ecstatic families portrayed on social media lies a fiction. It goes something like this: Being related means that we can relate to family members in ways we can’t with those outside the family.

Although we know that being related and being able to relate can be fictional, we tend to hold onto another story: that one day our genetic magnet will pull us closer. It’s the resolution we seek, not unlike a Capra movie. Some of us want a closer kinship so badly, we spend decades trying. And some of us either opt for more space, reducing contact with family members, or we relegate family relationships to a more superficial status. Some opt out altogether.

Because “relate” has a few dozen definitions, I’m using the intransitive verb and especially this meaning:

to understand, like or have a sympathetic relationship for someone

The Myth of One Big (or small) Happy Family

As a young girl of the sixties, I remember hearing my grandfather talk about this or that brother — he had close to 20 (not a typo) siblings — who had wronged him or someone in the family. Because he called himself a hillbilly and was ‘kicked out at 12 because there wasn’t enough food for us’ I simply thought that family strife was the result of scarcity.

But, as I began to learn from my mother and her siblings — who grew up poor but didn’t starve — we were not all that different from grandpa’s clan. My gay uncle was sometimes tolerated but mostly alienated, another uncle incessantly bragged about his fame and fortune (I later realized he was a sociopath), another a kind, joyful man who died of cancer while in his prime, and one a generous artist who seemed the least bothered by family strife.

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My mother was frequently caught in the middle of her own mother’s unmet needs which sometimes manifested in grandma ‘stirring things up’ between her adult children. I saw mom struggle with grandma’s induced drama while mom tried to be a good daughter. As eldest, I saw the toll it took on mom, but it also impacted my brother, sister and me when we stopped seeing our cousins.

Fast forward 40-plus years. My parents are alive and mostly well; my siblings and me, our children and grandchildren — none of us were banished to fend for our 12-year-old selves. Each of us (except the younger grandchildren) has uttered and suffered cruel comments, unsolicited advice, shaming, and righteous lectures.

We have hurt one another. Just like real families.

Also like real families, we’ve dealt with some shit over the years. Not as deep as incarceration or losing a child (for which I’m thankful), and much of this shit is common to other families: Divorce, eating disorders, cutting, attention-deficit disorder, drugs, alcoholism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, anxiety, sociopathy, domestic abuse, post traumatic stress disorder, estrangement, and harmed relationships due to lying, cheating, gas lighting, blaming and shaming.

These are the ones I’m aware of.

We Are Family

Many things on the list (above) implicate genetics. Also, we’re just starting to understand how few of our actions, including decisions, are ones we (freely?) choose. In Behave Robert Sapolsky provides compelling evidence of a sort of neurochemical-hormonal-evolutionary determinism. That virtually every individual action, like the syntax of my next sentence, is unavoidably caused by preceding events in the world, including those inside my brain.

Free will, according to Sapolsky, does not exist to the extent we’ve been told we have. If you’re tempted to argue that his position would support more similarity in families (due to genetic similarities), first remember that the gene pool in every family is wide and deep. Second, his answer in an interview:

Yes, genes are important for understanding our behavior. Incredibly important — After all, they code for every protein pertinent to brain function, endocrinology, etc., etc. But the regulation of genes is often more interesting than the genes themselves, and it’s the environment [food, chemicals, light, climate] that regulates genes. Almost always, genes are about potentials and vulnerabilities rather than about determinism.

If behavior and choice are more complicated than we ever imagined, why do we put so much pressure on ourselves to “get” or enjoy our family members? And how reasonable is it to believe our family should always like us?

Maybe we suspend our disbelief due to the power of nostalgia. Researcher Tim Wildschut says

“I think one of the strengths of nostalgia is that even if they have not had a good childhood, most people have at least one nostalgic memory that they cherish and that they can use repeatedly. Someone once asked me: ‘How long do these effects last?’ My 11-year-old daughter said: ‘They last your entire life!’ She’s right, too. Once positive memories are instantiated they might have only represented half an hour of your entire childhood, but you can dwell on them and return to them forever.”

I would add that we yearn to live a good story. With endings of redemption, reuniting, and deeper relating. And everyone wants love on their own terms.

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Would it be okay to take tell ourselves a different story? Reduce the pressure of ‘one happy family’? Here are seven potential release valves for doing just that:

Put your family strife into a wider cultural perspective. And laugh.

Family issues are our legacy. Whether mythical or real, many are violent. Consider the first earth-born humans in the book of Genesis: Cain slew Abel. As for Greek and Roman gods, Hera threw her infant Hephaestus off a mountain. Cronus ate all his babies except Zeus thanks to Rhea’s trickery. Shakespeare was fond of featuring our worst family flaws (e.g., Uncle Claudius, Goneril, Regan).

Not liking Aunt Maria is okay. Murder is not.

It’s Hard to Relate When We’re in Trauma

Think about the times when rifts between people happen or begin to be exposed. Someone is struggling. Add family to the mix and the relating can get complicated. A parent or sibling who wants nothing more than to help fix things can be perceived as intrusive. Sometimes when we say we want to spare our family members from worry, we are really sparing ourselves from feelings of guilt or shame.

Last week during my restorative practices work at a middle school, a sixth-grader reminded me that many people’s baseline is trauma. It’s all Jasmine knows. Her father, grandfather and uncle are incarcerated (all within the last year); her mother, repeatedly abused by boyfriends and her own father, has become a threat to her. “I love her but I don’t like her.”

As an adult, you can choose to engage or disengage with family. If you believe it’s better to cut off communication until you’re ready to reengage (and you may never be), let one of them know in simple terms — unless doing so will increase your trauma.

Conversely, if you want to help a family member who may be in trauma, offer it. But don’t press. If they know they can count on you, that’s all the relating you need.

We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know. Learn It Outside Your Family.

More than 30 years ago I learned that my enabling behavior wasn’t a form of love. My attempts to control and “manage” those I loved was something I could no longer deny. Twenty years ago, I argued with a psychologist who suggested I might be enmeshed with my daughter. I was definitely sprinting in that direction, but I was scared I would lose her. I couldn’t see other options.

In both cases, my ability to (reluctantly) admit my errors and begin behaving in healthier ways with immediate family members would not have been possible if my parents or sister, aunt or cousin “advised” me.

It’s Okay to Take a Break

As hard as it may be to ask for some space and time from your parents or other adult relatives, it’s 100 times harder to have that conversation with your adult child. And when that child needs space and time from you, it can hurt like nothing else.

While it may sound too simple, tell yourself, “It will be okay. This is their journey. I will trust their process and let go of the pain, the questions, the worry.” Then believe it in your bones. If you can’t, get a good therapist.

I’ve been estranged from family members a few times. One lasted the better part of a year. It truly sucked. My biggest challenges during those silences have centered around a) not ruminating on why and b) remaining open to possibilities. As one of my counselors advised, “let them know the door is open, even if a crack.”

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Remember, Change is the Only Constant

In 1999, I designed an MBA course called Change Management, which I taught for 10 years. Peter Senge’s The Dance of Change helped me realize the power of nature as a metaphor. In nature, nothing grows evenly. An s-shaped pattern called sigmoidal growth illustrates the starts and stops, accelerating and slowing, of all organisms.

Not only do we constantly change to physically adapt and grow, we are constantly learning. And that type of growth accelerates and slows as well. If you are bummed about your brother not growing at the same speed or in the “right” direction, can you appreciate him where he is? If not, maybe it’s time for a conversation or a break.

Politics and Religion — The Growing Divide

Over the last two decades, especially the last one, politics and religion have become a thicker dividing line within my family. I am not a fan of building walls or militarizing police. Black lives and women’s choices matter. I do not identify with the religious right. These are contentious issues in my family.

Regardless of whether we are predisposed to particular ideologies based upon DNA, neuroscience, or something else, many of my views are not appreciated by at least half of my family. Likewise, I am not a fan of many of their beliefs. We seem to find less and less to talk about unless it’s something safe like laughing at that time our luggage blew off the top of our car and I crossed four lanes of Missouri interstate to retrieve my little brother’s diapers. I was nine.

Putting boundaries around conversational topics is okay. Dr Abigail Brenner cautions that “some topics are absolutely off-limits.”

Period. History and experiences should tell you that these subjects should be avoided at all costs. That’s not to say that important issues should be permanently avoided. Rather, if your experience dealing with certain issues has left you stressed out, emotionally depleted, and the discussion has not progressed sufficiently along to represent a rapprochement of sorts, then it’s best to avoid this discussion until a time when both parties are willing to move it forward in a constructive way.

She has a point. Although I’m hopeful that organizations like Better Angels can help move conversations (not debates) between reds and blues forward in non-threatening ways, my family is not there yet. We need to stick to what we can agree on.

Be as Stoic as Possible

A couple years ago, a friend asked me how things were going with a close family member. I said, “She’s alive… and right now, that’s my baseline.” She smiled, fully aware that I wasn’t using sarcasm.

Stoicism is looking at reality while remembering what could be worst case. I’ve written about stoicism and embracing what Oliver Burkeman calls ‘the negative path’ as one that paradoxically leads to more sustainable positivity. From pondering my own death to the deaths of my loved ones, stoicism helps me frame and level my emotions.

When you feel stuck, depressed, frustrated, here are some stoic-like questions to consider. Implied in most of these is the need for two-way communication, not to assume how the other feels and thinks.

How do I feel about my current relationship with [parent/sib/child]?

If it’s not what I need, do they know what I need from them?

Are they able to give it right now?

What do they need right now?

What kind of relationship do they think is best right now?

Do they know what I’m willing to do to repair or improve the relationship?

Is it possible that more space and time could be what we both need? For now?

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Be Patient With Yourself. Time = More Opportunities

Life has a way of offering wisdom, usually wrapped in some pain. I turn 60 this month so I’ve been given a few opportunities to learn some humility. Many opportunities I’ve squandered. Especially in my active mothering years when I often failed with my parents and my siblings. Sometimes, these failures were accompanied by ugly emotional kicking and screaming.

More recently, I’ve decided to accept opportunities. I don’t necessarily accept others’ behavior toward me but I try to accept that this is where they are in the moment. This acceptance thing is relatively new. I don’t embrace it reliably, but I’m working on it.

Grandpa used to say, “You’re either for me or against me.” I am now his age when I was born. I’m grateful for his life. And grateful I have more than a binary choice.

Thanks for reading! Tell me what you like and how I can improve my writing jodi@14wordsforlove.com.

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Wanna Be a Good Ally? It Has Nothing And Everything To Do With You

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Allies have had some bad press. More than five years ago, Black Girl Dangerous Mia McKenzie wrote that she was over the term ally, ‘the constant cookie-seeking of people who just can’t do the right thing unless they are sure they’re gonna get some kind of credit for it.’

I saw glimpses of cookie-seeking among a few of my university leadership students, who were mostly white, during their multi-semester service-learning projects. But most were happy to invest two or three times the number of hours for the relative crumbs of credit hours they received.

The bigger cookie-seeking piece was more evident on social media. Something I’d consider optics, given the service-learning teams who stretched themselves the least tended to post the most. McKenzie and Mychal Denzel Smith (among others) describe this kind of behavior as making sure everyone knows they are an ally to a movement, whether they’re actually doing anything required of them or not.

More often than not, they’re just seeking credit for being a good person…It becomes self-congratulatory, centers their experience at the expense of the marginalized, and, as McKenzie points out, reinforces oppressive behaviors that their “ally” work is supposed to be ending. — Mychal Denzel Smith

Given the need for allies — those who help support a movement they believe in but aren’t directly impacted by — we need to think about what qualities make for an effective ally. Both ally and the social justice organization(s) they represent deserve more substantial sustenance.

The Case for “Fit”

Before diversity became a buzzword, I was learning the statistical and legal foundations of good recruitment and selection. Finding good matches between humans and jobs with a focus on fairness and equality is important work — important for individuals, coworkers and companies, alike.

The importance of person-job fit isn’t restricted to paid work. Everything we do with others includes a fit between needs — the daily dance of accommodation to get our needs met. With that in mind, I’ll make the case that being an effective ally requires all the preparation, practice, and introspection one needs when applying for a paid position. Perhaps more.

Not everyone who wants to be an ally should be one. While equal as humans, we are not equal in our abilities to do good social justice work. This is true for many allies who often work at the grass roots level as volunteers. And it is especially true for allies who thrive on optics.

The exclusivity I’m advocating dovetails with good job selection practices but runs somewhat counter to being inclusive — a bit ironical given the social justice context. Being selective about one’s allies is not the way we typically think about offers to help. If I want to volunteer at a soup kitchen or the humane society, I can probably stock shelves or scoop cat litter five days a week with no knowledge of human or feline homelessness rates, and with no specific skills.

Social justice work is vastly different. Social justice leaders who seek help or to fill unpaid positions — volunteers, allies, or advocates — should be choosy and select and on the basis of knowledge, skills and other personal attributes, as they do any paid position.

But the bigger responsibility is on the ally.

Example: You are white and want to get involved in local race relations and anti-discrimination work. You’ve a genuine desire to serve — a fine place to begin. After you attend the first informational meeting of a social justice organization (and you’re fired up about what you might do), you pause. In addition to class or work schedule considerations, you take some time to reflect on your knowledge, skills and the experience you can offer. You also consider your temperament and your motivations for allyship.

It’s not a question of being a good enough person; but rather a question of possessing the knowledge, skills and attributes that can effectively serve the community.


You don’t need a degree to understand America’s myriad issues that disproportionately affect people of color: mass incarceration, school-to-prison-pipeline, intergenerational poverty, lack of decent, affordable housing, and police shootings (to name a few).

The goal is not to be seen as smart but to be an informed citizen. Increasing your knowledge requires some time and effort. Understanding different forms of racism and how these are baked into our institutions and systems can be difficult and emotional work. Once you know them, you can’t unknow them. You start looking at things like cash bail and access to milk and vegetables differently.

Although building knowledge takes time, it’s relatively easy to acquire. For starters, read or listen to The Color of Money, The New Jim Crow, White Fragility, Women, Race, and Class, and Between the World and Me.

Understanding historic and current racial issues is a baseline. Just as important is knowing some history of local issues from the perspective of citizens you might serve. Few allies (and whites in general) take the time to learn about work that has been done for decades in Black and Latinx communities. Knowing community history honors the community’s work and instills some humility that allies need to be effective.

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Deceptively “Soft” Skills are the Hardest to Hone

Whether learned behaviors (skills) or abilities we were born with, we come with tools in our toolbox. Whether your skills are mostly rudimentary or developed, they can always be honed. The most important ones are related to communication.

Most Black communities have had their share of white folks asking questions and offering to help. Whether partnering on a grant, gathering data for a study, or doing community service, the help ends. The partner leaves. To be re-told a community’s history, their needs and issues, allies need communication skills that earnestly engage (not try to dazzle).

Don’t ask people of color to educate you about racism (see Knowledge, above). Educate yourself and don’t imagine that any person of color can help you manage your discomfort or horror resulting from that knowledge. They know. They’ve been uncomfortable a lot longer than you.

Two vital engagement skills are active listening and not interrupting. If you don’t already possess it, you want to develop the ability to focus on the message and not get distracted by whether you are being liked or appreciated.

You should apply these same engagement skills in conversations with program directors and other members of the social justice organization. It’s simply hard to learn when you’re talking.

Allies need to meet others where they are, be up front about what they don’t know, why they are asking, share information about themselves, and begin to build relationships that won’t abruptly end after getting the story (or the data). As McKenzie says, [Being an ally] is an active thing that must be done over and over again, in the largest and smallest ways, every day.

Personal Attributes

Everybody has a personality. A personality, once thought fixed, can change over time and with intentional practice. For example, “over-reacting” to stressors can improve with meditation, mindfulness, yoga, better nutrition and proper sleep. Some personality traits can enhance an ally’s effectiveness while some can impede it. While an ideal ally “profile” doesn’t exist, extensive research on the Big Five can help you make reasonable inferences.

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Conscientiousness: You want to develop and demonstrate conscientiousness. Do you always do what you commit to do? Or does it depend on the cookie-credit? Take your job as an ally seriously. Work hard and deliver what you promise and on time. Not following through with good work tells others that you don’t value the work or their time.

Openness to new experiences: As an aspiring ally, you’re probably pretty open to new experiences, as those who score highly tend to be more socially liberal. That doesn’t mean you’ll be effective in your role. It does mean that you’re probably not put off by complex issues and that you like variety.

Whether it’s a fresh idea like restorative practices in schools or a different approach to an old PR problem like inviting the new police chief to every board meeting, being open to and supportive of different ideas and processes can enhance your effectiveness. Openness certainly won’t hinder your work unless you become distracted by too many ideas and possibilities at the expense of doing and delivering (conscientiousness).

Openness also has a collaborative aspect. When we are open to others’ ideas and ways of doing things, we are less likely perceived as the outsider know-it-all.

Extraversion: There’s no evidence that being extroverted versus introverted makes for a better ally. Given that an effective ally is not one who takes the spotlight but listens well and contributes when they have something of value, extroverts and introverts and ambiverts could be equally effective.

Neuroticism: This personality dimension includes tendencies to be anxious, hostile, depressed, self-conscious, and panicky. Obviously, these traits can compromise your effectiveness. Low scores (preferable) on this dimension are calmness and emotional stability — not overreacting when presented with stressors. As mentioned, people can change this aspect of their personality over time with practice.

In White Fragility, DiAngelo talks about how an ally’s emotional displays or “white tears” take the focus off victims of racism and onto them. Not only are white tears a symbol of displaced pain and suffering, but those who shed them (mostly women) force people of color to drink from the firehose of their feelings about it.

I shed many white tears during a social justice circle debrief after visiting the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (National Lynching Memorial) last summer. I mention this to show that with 20 years of social justice work, I became a textbook version of white tears. We’ll always make mistakes. When we do, it’s an opportunity to reflect and incorporate what we are learning.

Agreeableness: Like openness to experience, effective allies are apt to score moderately highly on agreeableness which includes tolerance, altruism, being straightforward (honest), and tender-minded or sympathetic. If you are low on these traits, you might consider asking to serve in a role that involves data or writing, instead of one with a relationship focus. At least initially.

Beyond Personality: Culture and Beliefs

Before I read White Fragility, I’d done research on racial and ethnic values in the workplace which supports the claim that American caucasians value individuality over any social group (including family). According to DiAngelo, two things impede white people’s beliefs and their accountability for racism.

First, they believe in the primacy of individuality over social groups. Whites are acculturated to believe that individual character is more influential than affiliation or identity with any social group. Therefore (unless you’re in the Ku Klux Klan, maybe) racism is caused by individuals and not groups. “It’s simply not my problem” is what the average white person might think.

The other obstacle is objectivity. If having a perspective or an opinion of racism is biased — just like every other individual opinion — then why examine it? What’s the point? Especially when you could be criticized, misinterpreted, and especially shamed. Why would anyone invite that?

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If you’re a white ally with some experience, you’ve probably embraced race problems as your own, but may have more concerns sharing your views on racism with people of color. And that’s ok. Not everyone needs to know what you think. Plus, your perspective will continue to change as you do the work. On the other hand, don’t be afraid. Be thoughtful but be vulnerable.

The closer you get to being an effective, trusted ally, you will never be perfect. But that’s not the goal. People (of any race) may label something you do or say as “racist,” evoking an image of a hateful, immoral person. DiAngelo points out that when white people are told they’re being racist for saying, “you people” or using micro-aggressions, they disagree — some are shocked! — because they don’t see themselves as hateful or immoral.

I agree with DiAngelo: most of us are neither hateful nor immoral. Yet we unwittingly play a part in perpetuating racism by not understanding (or copping to) what racism means. To refuse to understand, to learn and grow is simply a lazy, fixed mindset. It’s looking at life through a dark lens of a fear-based, worst-case analysis. If I put myself “out there” to learn about racism, what will I get in return besides feeling shitty? Or being shamed?

The Real Returns of Putting Yourself Out There as an Effective Ally

Effective allies, white or otherwise, only gain in knowledge, wisdom, skills, personal and social transformation when we stop thinking about what we look like and focus on seeing and then serving our communities. Here are three mantras that may be helpful:

Get busy. Show up to social justice events and listen. Volunteer to help with mailings or to usher events. Don’t expect the red carpet. Forget your expectations (I’m going to be embraced, appreciated; I’m going to feel good about myself and help these people). Just show up and keep showing up. After a few events or meetings, others will get the sense that you’re reliable. You will then be worth investing in. People of color should be choosy before they consider someone an ally.

Get braver. Just like singing in public, getting your poetry rejected, or falling off a bicycle, the more you engage with other races and ethnicities, the more comfortable you become with yourself and the less you think they may be judging you. Don’t restrict your experiences to the annual International Fair or Black History Month. Initiate a new conversation, go out with people outside your circle every few weeks. Without vulnerability, without asking and offering and DOING and debriefing together, we can all post Dr. King quotes on January 15 and feel good about our non-racist selves.

Get humble.

Think about the circumstances we all share at birth. Completely dependent, unable to survive on our own. We chose nothing about the babies we were.

I didn’t choose to be Caucasian, nor did I choose where and how my ancestors migrated, the place of my birth, or my DNA. So how could I see my whiteness or culture or familial customs as good or bad? How could I expect any more or any less from others?

What we have not chosen we cannot consider either our merit or our failure. — Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

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Deconstructing The Work You Don’t Have To Do

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Just before Christmas, I asked a friend if she could push our lunch back 30 minutes so I could finish writing some recommendation letters. Over lunch, we talked about how we imagine “boundaries” of work, volunteering, family and personal life. Less a bitch-and-moan session than trying to figure it out. She brought up the letters that had delayed our lunch:

“It’s not really your job, anymore, is it?”

Almost too quickly I told her I wanted to write them.

But as I said it, I wasn’t sure. After leaving the university seven months ago, I still get requests from some of my former students. Not a constant flow, but each request includes multiple graduate program links to different portals, questions and the letters that take thought and time.

So when she added, “You are really kind to do that!” I decided to examine my motives. Writing to faceless selection committees is not something I look forward to. Sure, I want to be kind. Acts of kindness have myriad benefits. But kindness wasn’t the primary motivator, or was it?

No One Does It Alone

One of my “doable” resolutions is to complete Ryan Holiday’s 14-Day Stoic Challenge. In his Day 8 audio file, Holiday asks us to reflect on those whose shoulders we’ve stood on. Specific individuals who have informed, assisted, influenced or sacrificed to help each of us do what we do, to be who we are.

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Holiday references Marcus Aurelius and I am glad to find Meditations within reach instead of boxed up in storage or loaned out. Within the first few pages of Debts and Gratitudes, Aurelius assigns unique and specific virtues to friends, family, teachers, and statesmen (several of whom were not revered by as virtuous, according to the translator). Debts and Gratitudes feels like a chapbook of epitaphs, a collection of psalms in praise of the perfection within imperfect people.

Following the prompt, I can recall people’s generosity (if not their names) at different stages of my life. Every degree, job, place I’ve lived, childcare provider, doctor, means of transportation, and social network happened through the help of others. Lots of others.

A few remain strangers, some I’ve lost touch with or forgotten their names, several are dead, but the rest I plan to contact and thank this year.

Idolizing the Individual: Fantasies and Fallacies

Horatio Alger’s late-19th century fiction about boys pulling themselves up by their bootstraps to rise out of poverty and into plenty continues to resonate (like Disney stories) throughout American culture. We adore the single hero. We still yearn for the simplistic cause-effect between hard work and the deserved payoff.

DREAM BIG! If you want it badly enough and work hard enough, YOU WILL MAKE IT! (Just pull up on them bootstraps, boys and girls.)

The assumption that everyone owns boots or has access to boots that fit their feet is an obvious fallacy. If success were a matter of dreams, dogged determination and sleep deprivation, America would be an equal-opportunity wonderland. (But that argument is best left to another article or three.)

And even if we lived in a world of right-sized boots beside every bed (and a chicken in every pot), we still couldn’t succeed or survive alone.

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An Invitation to Ditch the Boots and Look Down

Just days ago, writing an imagined autobiography filled with tales of rugged individualism may have appealed to me. I’d tell you about a grad student living loan-to-loan, long hours and the leanness and lack of everything. And further back, a first-generation college student whose obsessive-compulsive disorder intensified with anxiety, triggered by uncertainty. A steady oversupply of not knowing what the hell I was doing — especially my freshman year.

But now I remember who sustained me. My parents, their cards crammed into a tiny mail slot like paper lifelines; their unwavering willingness to come fetch me when I needed home. My dear Aunt Ann, who’d completed college and married my uncle, sent luxuriously long and thoughtful letters, sometimes a check tucked between pages of her elegant stationery. My virtuous and indecent roommates, the weird but provocative philosophy guy, the muckrakers from whom I learned as much about community as I learned about good journalism.

I estimate at least 80 letters of support have been written on my behalf; hundreds of introductions, phone calls, and deeds done in the service of me, whose welfare was not part of anyone’s job.

Whether our delusions of self-making are due to cultural individualism, Calvinism, a rise in narcissism or just being human doesn’t really matter. I only invite you to take off the boots (real or imagined) and consider:

The mentor, the tough teacher, the lunch lady who made sure you ate every day, your friend’s aunt who took the time to tell you about her adventures in Katmandu, LeVar Burton’s soothing narration after school.

We are helped, lifted and assisted by other people.

Who has been part of your story? Whose story can you help write today?

Maybe the only motive that matters is one we already know by heart: We are all part of the same story.

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It’s Been a Week: Science and Art Are Telling You to Lighten Up

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Resolutions have a dismal success rate: a quarter fail by mid-January and less than 10 percent are deemed successful by year’s end. The problem isn’t that we’re lazy or that winter is a lousy time to punish ourselves (although getting up at 6 a.m. to run in 20-degree weather isn’t exactly pleasurable).

What we’ve been taught about behavior change is wrong because it’s incomplete. Twenty years ago, with a newly-minted PhD, I believed that motivation was The Answer. That if workers were properly resourced with training, equipment and time, if expectations by their managers were clearly understood, and if results were linked to rewards deemed important to workers, they (and their companies) would be successful and satisfied.

Like individual resolutions, organization-wide change initiatives fail at about the same rate (if you’re wondering). But back to you.

Motivation IS important, but it’s not The Answer. You may have set yourself up for success: You’ve rid your pantry of the crap, adopted a new schedule, a “buddy” is part of your plan, and you’re going to measure progress. What’s the problem?

The problem seems two-fold, only one of which suggests we have some real agency. The first is powerful evidence of a type of neurochemical-hormonal-evolutionary determinism in Robert Sapolsky’s Behave. That virtually every one of our actions is unavoidably caused by preceding events in the world, including those in our brain. So, is there such a thing as free will? Not according to Sapolsky, at least to the grander extent we imagine we possess.

The second problem may be linked to our never-ending, almost pathological quest to find happiness. In doing (exercising) or not doing (eating carbs), we’ll be healthier (thinner, more attractive), which will certainly make us happier.

The Power of Paradox

The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking has become my anti-self-help bible. I revisit it every year. Oliver Burkeman’s compelling idea is that our constant efforts to eliminate the negative — insecurity, uncertainty, failure, or sadness — are what causes us to feel so insecure, unsure, doomed to fail, or unhappy. After years of research on several continents, Burkeman lands on something he calls the ‘negative path’ to happiness.

The negative path offers no neat, single solution but includes abandoning the chase for happiness and embracing the fact that happiness involves paradoxes. The Stoics knew this millennia ago, as did counterculture philosopher Alan Watts who pointed out that we sink when we try to stay on the surface of the water, but we float when we try to sink. And as Aldous Huxley put it, the harder we try with conscious will, the less we succeed.

So, what are we to do? Resign to poor habits and a shorter life span? Obviously, we can and do change. Giving up on a better you isn’t the answer. But neither is incessant positive thinking, believing that the harder you try to eliminate the negatives in your life, the more you will succeed.

I’ve reframed a piece of Burkeman’s wisdom on the negative path to hang on my own formidable wall of self-change. Specifically, it’s Burkeman’s reflection on poet John Keats’s letter to his brothers: “Sometimes the most valuable of all talents is to be able not to seek resolution; to notice the craving for completeness or certainty or comfort, and not to feel compelled to follow where it leads.”

But wait… before you ditch your resolve and refuse to follow its lead, before you return to the habitual comfort of your 2018 programming, pay attention to this nuance. The fact that you chose to make a resolution (fervently or as a half-assed hope) means that you are willing to curb your comfort. You are okay with some level of discomfort in the service of desired change, a change that includes uncertainty, temptation and feeling — at least periodically — incomplete.

Could it be that you are already on the negative path? The more promising one?

If a reasonable inference, resolutions themselves don’t get us into trouble. Our tidy expectations of how and when we will be successful do. The path that ultimately leads to happiness will be paved more smoothly by “embracing imperfection, and easing up on the search for neat solutions.”

Photo by Natasha Brazil on Unsplash

Resolve to Play at Your Problem: Turn it Upside Down

I became interested in how to foster creativity about 25 years ago. The context was my writing. Two books, that influenced me most (neither targeted to writers, specifically) were A Whack on the Side of the Head by Roger von Oech and Drawing Upside Down by Betty Edwards. The former got me out of my bloated left brain hemisphere and the latter helped me literally see things I’d not seen before.

Turning things upside down or inside out can be helpful in multiple contexts: cognitive problem-solving, art, spirituality. Artist and designer Kelly O’Dell Stanley, author of Praying Upside Down, suggests that readers reframe their prayers using artistic concepts — allowing them to shed preconceived notions about answered prayer in favor of new, unexpected insights.

In business, pre-mortem meetings help teams imagine that a project or organization has failed, and then work backwards to determine what might lead to failure before it happens. And there’s reverse brainstorming which is like Opposite Day for big kids. If your team needs ideas to promote customer loyalty, you’d ask, What could we do to drive customers away from our site?Working backwards brings attention to opportunities and threats that are harder to see (or envision) via the same ol’ patterned processes.

Change Requires Your Inner Rebel

Take a note from the underdog, the weird and glorious exception, that character in your favorite book, play or film. You can find yourself effortlessly connecting with their imperfections and struggles to succeed or simply survive in a world rife with stress, conflict, injustice, temptation. Adopt one of their traits, philosophies or habits (preferably not a habit you’re trying to break).

Take a tip or two from Tom Robbins. A guru parrot in Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates: “Peeple of zee wurl, relax!” or indulge in some irreverent, immortal wisdom by reading Jitterbug Perfume and “Lighten up!”.

Don’t give up on what you want. Muse on how you approach the same old devils. Invert them and their mandated shoulds. Mold them into novel, playful challenges. Here are some some of mine, shared in hopes they might inspire your inner-rebel:

GET FAT — Gorge myself on writing and reading to outweigh self-doubt. 
SPEND MORE time on what and who I love. DON’T SAVE it for later.
REFUSE TO EXERCISE control over or criticize others.
ENABLE others to be their best selves. 
GIVE UP on past mistakes, missteps and regrets. 
CHEAT on others’ negativity, their personal, political and social despair.
LIE with (not to) myself: Take time to be still, unplug, reflect.
and above all: DON’T QUIT!

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This Is How I Do It

write_tattooGary Powell, author of Speedos, Tattoos, and Felons and Lucky Bastard, recently tagged me in a blog about his writing process. I’m happy to participate. Although every writer’s process is different, I always get some insight from an author who’s willing to share what works for her or him. Plus, Gary Powell rocks! Now I’m tagging my pal and North Carolina’s new Piedmont Laureate Carrie Knowles.

 1. What am I working on?

For the last year, I’ve shifted my focus from poetry to short fiction–and most of the latter flash (under 500 words).  Some of the shift came from Fictionaut, an online writing community where I could experiment and get feedback from good and generous writers like Gary, Michelle Elvy, Sam Rasnake, Pia Ehrhardt, Barry Basden, Carol Reid, James Claffey, Chris Okum, Jake Barnes (no relation), Amanda Harris and Charlotte Hamrick. (And no doubt others I’ve missed.)

Late summer 2013, Press 53 announced its short/flash story manuscript contest, so I spent three months writing and editing what became Skirting The Dress Code, a collection of 49 stories, which made finalist status. Several of these stories have been published (100 Word Story, Camroc Press Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Wigleaf Top 50, Prime Number) and “Counting” just won the Lascaux 250 contest. So, I’m very happy and grateful about taking the flash fiction path.

Also in 2013, I began an online community project called 14 Words For Love, to encourage everyone—not just writers—to contribute 14 word poems, stories or aphorisms about kindness and community inclusion. Anyone in the world can write a 14-word piece, comment on others’ work and/or download as many creations as they want to hand out. We’ve celebrated Valentine’s Day (over 3000 poems from around the world), Pay It Forward Day (April) and Peace One Day (September).

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

While I try to read as much flash and short fiction as I’m able, I don’t claim to know precisely what constitutes the flash genre. I’m sure it’s evolving just like everyone’s work within it. I started reading Meg Pokrass’s Damn Sure Right in 2010, a big inspiration, and then began reading others’ flash on Fictionaut. One of my favorite books is New Sudden Fiction edited by Shapard & Thomas, a really good anthology, very rich and diverse in its offerings.

If I had to describe my work in comparison to the flash that I’ve read, I would say that my poetry roots are evident. In fact, several of my flash stories began as poems that I was told didn’t quite work as poems. Instead of pitching them, I decided to rewrite them as flash. I was amazed at how relatively easy they were to transform into flash. One of the best examples of one of my poems turned prose, I think, is “My Uncle’s Last Day in Hospice,” at Tupelo Quarterly. The other thing I’d say is that poetry has helped me with economy, image and to some extent, lyricism. I’m glad I began with poetry–not that I’ll ever be done with it.

3) Why do I write what I do? 

That’s the big question! Sometimes I don’t know where the first line comes from but there’s always a first line. In most cases that line remains as the lead or at least somewhere in the story. Other times, I overhear the first line and go from there. I have an unusual background for a writer, I think: journalist, labor relations and HR practitioner, business professor. But everything I’ve enjoyed about these jobs has a social justice element. A lot of what I write is about diversity, multiculturalism or inclusion.

4) How does my writing process work?

It’s changed and changing. While I do some planning, I’m what some would call a pantser. But even that fly-by-your-seat label makes me uncomfortable because I’m very focused when I’m inside the story. Sometimes I have two stories or one story and one poem cooking at the same time, but usually I like to throw myself into one piece of work at a time. Multitasking is not optimal for me, unless I’m in the middle of a 14 Words For Love event, commenting on others’ work and also working on a story. I’m trying to get better at time-boxing but I’m the first to admit that when I am productive, it’s hard to quit. I’m like a kid at the fair; to hell with dinner. I hyper-focus until my body says stop.






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14 Words for (a little more) Love

Last year I started a social media event called “14 words for one love” where I asked my Facebook friends to post 14-word poems or aphorisms about community love in order to give them away on Valentine’s Day. My goal was 1400 poems but secretly I hoped to collect more like 140. The day before Valentine’s day I’d collected over 2800 poems from Russia, Germany, France, Brazil and all 50 states.

About a thousand people (friends of friends of friends) created beautiful, funny, poignant and weird poems and prose to be given away. To anyone or everyone. To make someone smile or help them remember that they count. That despite our differences, we humans are all in this together.

I roamed around Raleigh, Durham and Cary, NC, handing 500 poems to legislators, the homeless, shop keepers, postal workers and anyone who said yes to the valentines my daughters and granddaughters helped me assemble with 14 words created by so many generous people.

Will you join us this year? Starting Saturday Jan. 25, go to 14 Words For Love and sign in once. Post a 14-word poem or statement. Comment on what others have written. Post more (they’re addictive). Download as many 14-word creations as you’d like. Print them out, cut them up. Paste them on hearts (or not) and give them away this Valentine’s Day.

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Santa Breaks Bad for Good (just in time for Christmas!)

Santa_Breaks_Bad_Cover_for_KindleIn 14 flash fiction chapters, Santa goes off on a reality TV celeb and is swiftly incarcerated while political, social and supernatural forces conspire to cancel Christmas. Two brilliant women–a Russian hacker and a Moroccan pastry chef–enlist The Legion of Doom to free Santa. But not before Joker and the KGB attempt one last deal.

The world of mythic, graphic and human characters becomes strangely credible in this international love story. Santa’s meltdown sets off a chain of events where everyone–Mrs. Claus, the Joker, Russian spies, and lovely Carmelita–is forced to face what they really want. As greed and jealousy infect humans and supervillains alike, only love can save them…and maybe Christmas.

Santa Breaks Bad is available now on Amazon and on Kindle. All proceeds go to 14 Words For Love whose mission is to enlarge our sense of community through small acts of writing and art.

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