Monday, March 26, 2012

Bridge Building 101

Trayvon Martin took great offense that he was being treated like a suspicious character for walking down the street, and refused to be stopped and interrogated by Zimmerman, a threatening stranger. Trayvon's indignity, and having the nerve to confront Zimmerman, rather than submitting himself to him, cost him his life. Taking a good, long look at this dynamic has brought the whole country to the discussion of assumptions, misconceptions and stereo-typing... and the great and small daily injustices that continue to persist because of ignorance and fear. 

"Politically correct" rhetoric is no substitute for actually experiencing the richness of friends who come from different backgrounds, lifestyles, and beliefs. Rather than providing the same comfortable hues we're accustomed to, friends that are different from us add the most brilliant colors and textures to the tapestry of our lives. I believe that just about all of us could use more friends whose lifestyles are so different from ours that we haven't yet learned whether they share our most important values, activities, and interests. We've hesitated to embrace them because of that which makes us visibly different. We are all the poorer for it. 
Being young and artistic, I wished for any race but my boring vanilla. I traveled a lot as a child and was exposed to a wide variety of people from a very young age. I was enchanted by the amazing varieties in humankind—from everyday behaviors and tastes in clothes and decor, to the very look of our skin and texture of our hair.  When I was nine years old, in 1965, my mother was the first white school teacher in a black elementary school in the state of Florida. She took us to school one day for a visit. When I saw that sea of happy, brown faces, I wanted to fit in.
In 1967, when I was eleven, we lived in New Jersey, but we took our summer vacation at Koinonia Farm in Americus, Georgia. Driving around the area, I saw poor black families living under corrugated metal lean-tos with no walls, no toilets, and no electricity. Koinonia had a housing cooperative that built cinder block houses to shelter some of those families, and I saw one being built. I also ducked under a table in the Koinonia dining hall with everyone else, when someone threw a brick through the window. My summer vacation was full of experiences that have stayed with me all my life. Years later I learned that Habitat for Humanity grew out of Koinonia Farm, just a year or so later.
In middle school in Montclair, New Jersey, we went to school with kids from all over town and made friends with kids from other neighborhoods. It was great. I loved it. During high school I attended a black church and we went on the summer youth retreat with our sister church from Harlem, where the girls my age had never met a white person. They’d seen them, but never talked to one.  We learned a lot from each other living in close quarters, braiding each other's hair and talking into the night. 
My mind was expanded with all of these childhood adventures. I'm so grateful to have touched deeply fulfilling brotherly love—only possible with awareness and empathy, and only fully realized with acts of kindness. As an adult I want this personal knowledge of “others” for everyone willing to invest the effort. It truly makes life better.
Many are raised to be afraid of those that are different from them—whether the difference is race, religion or sexual orientation.  Fear keeps you from learning about others, and ignorance is your worst enemy. Vanquish ignorance with familiarity. Go out of your way to make friends that are not like you. It might take some effort. It may not be natural where you live, so it might start out a little awkwardly, but you’ll get past that quickly and the rewards will last a lifetime. Help to end this epidemic of ignorance by sharing this message with your friends and family. One-by-one we can make a difference. Little-by-little, love can overcome fear. 
How to Build a Bridge
Only love can build a bridge that joins people across their differences, in spite of their ignorant backgrounds and the contrary examples of parents. We can break down even big barriers to love and acceptance in our towns, even in our country. But barriers will only come down when simple, small bridges are built between two or three people, one little bridge at a time
There's no easy cure, like a blog to read or a sermon to hear. It takes many small, personal, tangible experiences over time to combat ignorance. Reach out. Invite someone different to your home. Share a meal. Accept an invitation to their home. This is where the true differences between you will be highlighted... and where your bridge across those differences will be built.  I challenge you to accept this as a goal: befriend one different person before your next birthday.  Invite them to your birthday celebration.
Just last week I was fortunate enough to sit down next to a perfect stranger who, after just a few moments of casual conversation, felt like an old friend.  If I had avoided being friendly because she had darker skin, I would have lost the potential for a new friend. Opening up... opened up a sweet door.
Speaking Spanish has also opened my life's door to many friends. I’ve been able to meet brilliant, creative people—people from whom I’ve learned some of my most important lessons. My life would be so different, and so much poorer, without their influence. 
So many wonderful, loving people in the world are different from you, and live differently than the lifestyle you live. Make the effort to learn about others. You’ll fear less, the whole world will open up with its wonderful possibilities for love and friendship and, perhaps to your surprise, you’ll be much happier in the areas of life that matter most. Your singular joy at connecting with those who are different, building bridges of love one by one, will change your world... and ours. 

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Leave a trail of bread crumbs

On your journey to discovering and enriching your inner artist, the most important thing you can do for yourself is to pay attention to your moments of inspiration.
Your world will be filled with compromises because of your job, your family and your living situation. When a moment for your art occurs, pay attention. 
Words will leave a trail of bread crumbs you can follow back whenever you want. Write down exactly how you feel. What you see. That idea. Right now. Don’t wait. It won’t be the same... Do it at 2:28 a.m. when it startles you awake as pure genius. Do it at 3:10 p.m. when someone in the line in front of you says something that throws a different light on your idea, or at 6:05 during dinner when your mind drifts for a moment and suddenly you see the solution to that problem you’re trying to solve. Grab a little pad you can carry around, jot a note you’ll understand later. This moment is magic. Capture it before it’s diluted.
Driving in the car, standing in the shower, sitting at the bus stop... even when you have no pad and pencil, record that thought in your mind and write it down as soon as you can.  You’ll never be bored. Your art is your constant companion—a river of ideas you can tap into anytime your mind has a little space to breathe.  Tap in. Write it down. 
Later, when you read those words, written under the influence of that inspiration, you can follow the bread crumbs right back to that moment. You’ll feel the spark, see the vision, touch the reality of that dream, captured by you... for just you... and be able to act on it and fulfill the promise of that painting, poem, song, whatever!
I’ve kept journals my whole life. It’s been much more difficult since I’ve been sick, so I’ve neglected it over the past year or so, but I probably have more than a thousand pages of thoughts, ideas, inventions, designs, plus a record of events in my life. There are always surprises when I read them. Just a paragraph pulls into bright relief an episode in my life. Every page adding up to the person I am now. I want that for you.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Relationships are Life

In Life, love ma, I spell out some of the wisdom I've shared with my kids over the years for getting along with others.  Life is rough enough without our close relationships being a struggle. Smoothing out friendships, romances, and family relationships brings a level of peace and prosperity unmatched by financial success. I hope these words help you or someone you love enjoy richer, more honest relationships.

(too many) great expectations

The truth is that our expectations drive our happiness more than our actual experiences.  I love Pema Chodron’s books – teaching us to experience the present moment for exactly what it is. Period. Are you cold? Feel the cold; don’t fight it. It’s an experience all its own, not to be missed by rushing to avoid it. And who is this person you’re with? Experience them as they are. Not as you wish them to be. There's your bliss.
Attitude IS everything. If you want something to be fun, make it fun by having fun with it yourself. Don’t wait for someone else to meet your expectation.
Do you want romance? Create it for yourself.  Set the mood you want. Don’t wait for someone else to meet your expectation. Do you want flowers? Tickets to a game? A piece of jewelry? An evening out? The laundry done?
You have two choices:
1. Do it for yourself.
2. Ask for it.
But if you ask for it, remember that this is a request to be reciprocated. What do they want of you? Hopefully they’ll be honest and let you know, rather than having an expectation you’re not aware of.
Expectations like these are traps. Weapons against yourself. They sabotage your happiness as well as your relationship. 
So where does trust, kindness, generosity, and all of the other attributes you need in a relationship come in if you don’t want to sabotage it with expectations? Shouldn’t you expect these things?  Yes. These attributes are the natural result of love.  You should expect them as much as you demonstrate them.  Forgiveness, patience and faith as well.  Have faith in your friend, family member or partner, and expect them to have faith in you.  Just don’t make the leap from expecting kindness to expecting him or her to do your laundry.  It’s a separate discussion.  

negotiate for peace
Every close relationship needs a little negotiation. Ask for the things that you need. But remember that this is how to get what you need – not how to change the person into someone who reads your mind.  If you each have un-met needs or wishes, you are obligated to share them and to negotiate a fair balance that you can both agree on – so that no one feels they carry a greater burden in the relationship. If anyone is harboring resentment or bitterness you will quickly sink deeper and deeper into miscommunication and unhappiness. 
Admit to yourself that you want certain things in your relationship for your own selfish reasons. For example, you’d like to be seen out with a beautiful woman – it really boosts your self-esteem. Or you’d like to dress up, do something dangerous with your hair, have an excuse to buy a little black dress. Admit these things are for you instead of pretending they are for your partner and you’ll enjoy them a lot more when you do them.
Reject the temptation to withhold your disappointments and hope the other person figures out what you want or need and makes things better for you. Express your needs. But when you air them, remember that this is a negotiation. They may have disappointments just as great as yours. Be ready to hear them and to reciprocate with meeting their needs, too.   
conscious dialogue for understanding
The most effective weapon against friction is conscious dialog. This is a technique I learned from a wonderful therapist in New York. Here is my oversimplified version:
A person with an issue asks for time to be set aside when you won’t be disturbed so they can have a conscious dialogue with you about it.
When that time comes, the one with the issue gets to say what is on their mind – how they feel, what’s wrong, etc. – uninterrupted until they are through expressing themselves. This is the Speaker. The Speaker is responsible for articulately sharing what they want the Listener to know and understand.
The job of the Listener is to set his or her opinion aside and focus solely on what the Speaker is saying.  Really hear every word – with the goal of understanding the other person’s point of view.
Next, the Listener has the job of repeating back what they’ve just heard, but not verbatim. What do you now understand? What is this person’s experience, feeling, pain, frustration, or dilemma?  In your own words, the Listener must relate to the Speaker that the Speaker has been heard and understood. Period. No editorializing. No injection of attitude, debate, contradiction, justification, etc. etc. etc. This is not about the Listener. This is all about the Speaker. Whether the Listener agrees with or is wounded by what the Speaker says is completely irrelevant. 
The Speaker gets to determine whether or not the Listener can take a turn as Speaker at this point. Perhaps they need time to feel safe and a later date is scheduled for the other person to convey their thoughts, fears, concerns, or to express what they feel is not readily apparent or understood about them. Or maybe the Listener did such a good job of understanding that the Speaker now feels safe enough to listen.
It takes a certain amount of maturity to participate in conscious dialog. That said, if maturity is an issue in the relationship, this is an excellent way to help with that. When you can speak without fear of being interrupted or challenged, and you are heard and understood, half of the battle is won. When you can get outside of yourself and really listen and see where the person you love is coming from – free of judging them – the other half of the battle is won. There you have it! The entire battle is won when you embrace the difficult and mature work of conscious dialog.  
Give it a try. 
If you try out this advice, please let me know how it goes. You can write to me at