on how you can’t do a don’t

She Chose The Most Important Issue We Should Address

A gentle reminder for parents, managers, and protesters.

When I took my toddlers into a store, it never led to success when I said, “Don’t touch anything!” Or worse yet, “Don’t break anything!” What was more effective was, “Put your hands in your pockets and keep them there.”

It’s quite reasonable to tell a colleague to “never miss a deadline.” It is usually more effective to say, “please get a draft to me by Friday.” It’s even more motivating to have a bigger rationale: “If we get this project done on time, we have a shot at increasing this quarter’s sales.”

And a protest by definition starts with a “no,” but will always benefit from clearly promoting what you want instead. Even better, make it something we all want.

On poems left in the printer

Eight years ago, I travelled to Idaho for a holiday with friends on a mountain lake. For a long time after I got home, I left this poem on my printer, so I would see it when I printed work-related items.  Finding this  when I was caught up in the get-‘er-done mode effectively conjured a snapshot of peaceful moment.  I found it again in a file the other day and sat with a happy memory, reminding myself to “enjoy this moment, kid, it’s what you’ve got.”


Pine trees raggedly perforate
the sky around the lake.
The fishing boat drifts on the gleaming water, silent
except for the splash of the little mocking Kokonos
who leap—laughing—at the Green Giant corn
niblets on the hook.

A cell phone startles – blasphemy!

We forgive the intrusion; it’s the wife
of a liver transplant patient.

“He’s doing very well,” our fishing doctor tells her.

“If my mother or brother or son had to have this surgery, I would want these same people taking care of them.”

He is clear and patient and reassuring,

“Of all the complicated surgeries, this is the most complicated, so you should expect…well, complications,” he tells her. “But we’re prepared for complications, we thrive on them.”

A bobber dips – fish on!

We mull the grace of our fragile joy,
encircled by the pine-deckled lake,
the shushing trees and chubby toddler clouds.
What lives we live—
complicated and so beautiful.

What kinds of small totems can you plant for your future self to serve as refreshing moments and reminders?

On my outrage

I’m not sure that I get to fully wave the flag of my outrage or despair or disbelief these days. Instead, I may just get to acknowledge that I’m only truly beginning to fully absorb the daily experience–inconveniences, harassment, worries, precautions, small fears, and huge, legitimate fears for family members’ lives–of my darker-skinned brothers and sisters. If an African American looks at my white outrage with calm, resigned, and unsurprised eyes and says, “Yes, and long before someone started recording these reprehensible behaviors for the world to see, we have lived with them,” I get to take that in. And then I have to get educated, make my alliances clear, and take a stand for building an anti-racist world.

Fred Rogers and Francois Clemmons

on my mom and meditation

My mother taught me basic meditation skills when I was quite young. If you’ve ever been to a Quaker Meeting, you’ll get an idea of the Meetings I grew up with.  Lots of quiet sitting, especially for a little kid. When an old friend called recently, he recalled with wonder about how we sat so still in Meeting. I laughed, thinking about how Mom taught me to sit like that.

She said to “sit and concentrate on your breath going in and out.” Then, when I would get restless again, “sit and listen for your heartbeat.” One time she told me to “sit and taste my spit,” an instruction I find hilarious now. Or “sit and feel all the little ridges on the roof of your mouth with your tongue.” My favorite was, “sit and listen to the blood pumping through your arteries and give thanks that you’re alive.”

Lots of sitting still.

Of course, if all else failed and I still squirmed, she would give me “the look”—stern, unflinching—and that would work, too.

Because she was absolutely devoted to God, she would remind me that unless I learned to sit very quietly, I would “miss the Still Small Voice speaking to me.”

My mother died in 1974, which is such a long time ago, and today my spiritual beliefs are not the same as hers were. However, my daily meditation practice is, in many ways, an homage to her, along with my continuing commitment to listen for that still, small voice.

me and my mom, 1964

on “it came to pass”

There are some events in life that render permanent change: the death of a loved one, the birth of a child, losing a job, a sudden divorce. It’s safe to add a few meaningful world events like the fall of the Berlin Wall, Arab Spring or a global viral pandemic to that list, as well. Those of us who have experienced profound injury, illness or loss in our lives can attest to just how thin the veneer of our control really is.  Waking up to an awareness of that kind of impermanance can be as shocking to our system as a 3 AM alarm in the middle of REM sleep, even though ancient wisdom tells us that the sense of control we have in normal circumstances is an illusion.

Yeah, yeah, that’s nice.

But what about right now? When anxiety and adrenaline are flooding us, how can we anchor and maintain a sense of ease and balance?  How can we soothe and cultivate healing?

Counter-intuitively, the first step is to feel the sorrow and anxiety and restlessness…and yes, sometimes even terror. Our bodies are always in the present moment, even when our minds are spinning frantically. I don’t know about you, but I’m used to running away, keeping busy, reading another article, starting another project, or even helping someone else. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a nice dose of Netflix and chocolate (my personal go-tos), but as those patterns of self-soothing are revealed, inject a tiny pause of non-judgmental noticing. That’s a start. Then, in that space, we can remind ourselves of that timeless phrase, “and it came to pass.” While we’re not sure what’s on the other side of any crisis, we have experience of looking back on personal turmoil (sometimes with surprise that we survived) and know that, yes, it did come to pass.

on Aunt Rhoda’s advice for making it to the top

Aunt Rhoda,* who is half-way through her ninth decade, has a tactic for any long-haul climb, “like climbing to the top of the Washington Monument, which everyone knows is quite a trek.”

Fifty flights of stairs? Aunt Rhoda says the trick is to stop and say, “let’s look at the view from here!” every time you need a breather.

What a good reminder to frame the exhaustion and breathlessness as a positive opportunity to stop and take into account how far you’ve already come. Rest a little, she says, and don’t just focus on how far you have to go.**

Oh, and don’t climb with impatient people. Choose your hiking companions carefully. Aunt Rhoda reminds us to climb with people who will let you catch your breath. Go with the ones who will laugh and empathize with you. One of my best friends notices when I start my asthmatic wheezing. I’ve caught him smiling to himself before he says, “let’s slow down a little because my knee is barking.”



*Aunt Rhoda isn’t my aunt. She’s the aunt of a dear friend and I just claim her because she’s cool and smart and funny.

**This is a variation on the technical question, “How do you eat a Woolly Mammoth?”  Each of the “single bites at a time” of a complicated project is worth celebrating.

on what I learned from the Marines

For better or worse, I was raised by a Marine. That means I learned to work hard, suck it up, and get things done uncomplainingly. I learned how to make my bed so a quarter could bounce on it. I learned to offer no defensive explanation when I got in trouble even if I could see no earthly way that it was my fault. I learned that the team is bigger and more important than I am. I learned that courage comes from the French word for heart and that courage is sometimes as good as love.

Like all childhood lessons, they’ve each had to be un-learned to some degree.

But one little useful thing has been showing up for me, almost daily.

“Don’t just stand there.” When you’re completely stuck or paralyzed with not-knowing, pick up a broom and sweep the room. Or take care of the task required by that one piece of paper on your desk you’ve been avoiding. Or that email at the bottom of your in-box. Do one small thing. One thing at a time.

And in taking one small action, the way starts to shake clear. Next steps reveal themselves.

Don’t just stand there.

on hiring an assistant: I’ll take a vowel

Recently someone asked me what was most important to me in an assistant.  Great question. A drama-free soul who is committed to making me as productive as possible is worth his or her weight in gold. That person who keeps my professional world spinning makes me twice (you read that right) as effective.

Hiring an assistant calls for self-awareness on my part about what works for me.  Start with the obvious stuff: He or she must

  • draft a warm and grammatically correct thank you note;
  • understand the relevant software that I and my company use;
  • sound (and be) friendly and efficient on the phone;
  • and never schedule me into two places at once.

But the rest of it lies in the vowels. I’m looking for someone who anticipates my needs, has empathy for me and for the team, operates with integrity, is open to opportunities to make things better, and shares my sense of urgency.

I want a scout who anticipates my needs, sets priorities and breaks down the voluminous onslaught of demands into actionable items. Oh, and remind me about what’s coming up and what we left behind that needs follow-up. Free me up to get the big stuff done. (To be clear, I’m not talking about having someone fetch me coffee or my dry-cleaning or buy my partner’s birthday gifts.)

True anticipation is intentional looking and listening: empathy. My complex schedule requires a conscious imagining of my experience. From the first day, I plead: “Put yourself in my shoes. Does this schedule make sense? Does it put me up-town, then down-town and back up-town in short succession? Will it exhaust my introverted self? Have we planned enough time to get from this meeting to the next? Imagine what it’s like to head into these meetings unprepared. Or getting to the airport and not having ticket information.”

It is comforting to work with someone who is of high principle, can keep my confidences and has my back. I also use the word integrity in the sense that a safe bridge has integrity; it is intact and sound. It means that there aren’t short cuts taken in construction (no missing rivets, no shoddy girders, no lowest-bidder nonsense) that lead to panic or disaster. Integrity makes sure the task is done impeccably before it’s handed to me. Too much time spent correcting small mistakes or editing a sloppy draft and I’ll get pulled off mission.

Be open for opportunity. Open to new approaches, open to moments of connections and open to praising others. Help me make connections and celebrate moments we can all delight in. To be open is an active state of alertness. Be on the look-out for opportunities of all kinds, to connect, to suggest, to make us all better. Be open to engaging others appropriately and chiming in at the right moment.

I’ll admit that my calm affect is sometimes a facade. Underneath I’m often a seething mass of impatience, so a sense of shared urgency is critical. Part of the job is to share my concerns and alleviate my anxiety by moving intentionally and with focus to solve the challenges that surface. And if I ask for a project to be handled, get ‘er done or let me know about the obstacles.

On just moving your chair

Picture me sitting in the back row of a packed faculty workshop. Every time I tilt my head to see the speaker, the guy in the front row leans directly into my line of vision. Frustrated with the back and forth of my completely-non-malicious, big-headed, good-listener colleague, I keep angling my head to work with his unpredictable rhythm. After several minutes of this back and forth, I realize that my shoulders are tight, my breathing is shallow and I’m completely distracted from the speaker by the urge to….wait! I can just move my chair. I shift my chair, take a deep breath and calm down, view restored.*

Sometimes reality is too intractable and a chair moving option is not available. (What if I didn’t have to see the speaker? What if I closed my eyes and just listened?)

It seems like we are often required to manage our frustration and spikes of adrenalin, whether it’s coping with the news or colleagues or commuters. (It’s not just me, is it?)  I often make it a game, imagining that the guy who just cut me off is worried about being late to his daughter’s chemo appointment. Or that the woman who rammed me with her backpack in the subway car is late to a critical job interview.

Sometimes the internal exercise doesn’t work. So I just speak directly to the kid on the subway with the earphones reading his phone when a pregnant woman is standing in front of him. If he doesn’t respond, I enjoy a well-deserved moment of connection with my fellow-commuters about our shared disgust. I treat the national news in the same way.

Self-awareness demands that we check in with ourselves about our own frustration. The options are limited.

Change the situation where possible. Or change the response.

Boy, I feel both silly and elated when I’ve had a personal epiphany about something wise philosophers have been talking about for years.

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

the courage to change the things I can,

and the wisdom to know the difference.**


*The same thing has happened to me in movie theaters, by the way, where once I ended up trading places with the large fellow sitting in front of me. Another time, the curly-haired monster in front of me very kindly agreed to scrunch down a little so I could see all of The Bourne Identity. Amazing what happens when I am brave enough to take action.

**Reinhold Niebuhr, 1951.

on being nice

On a flight from Houston to Salt Lake City, I felt lucky to have been assigned an aisle seat on an exit row after a harrowing travel schedule.  As I was about to be seated, the young woman on the inside seat said, “Would you be willing to trade seats with my dearly beloved so we can sit together?” Dearly beloved? Wow. That’s hard to resist, indeed. My instant reply is almost always to be accommodating, to be nice, to say yes. But something gave me pause and in that pause was an enormous growth moment for me.  “Where is your beloved seated right now?” I asked her gently.  She pointed to a man–waving and smiling–wedged into a middle seat near the back.  “Oh, no wonder he wants to trade!” I thought.

So I said no. I said it kindly and firmly, but I said no. I couldn’t resist a small explanation (“I actually paid extra to have this seat, so I hope a couple hours apart will make your dearly beloved’s heart grow even fonder.”) It was all I could do not to apologize, especially when my row-mate huffed and sulked for the remainder of the trip.

When the word “nice” was first being used five hundred years ago, it meant foolish or stupid. It’s rooted in the Latin “nescius”, meaning “ignorant or unaware,” so I have chosen to seek other characteristics to aspire to these days. (I can’t help think of the boyfriend I had years ago who openly admitted that he “just wanted to be with a nice girl” and how grateful I am to have parted ways.)

Our work and personal lives often demand diplomacy and grace, but nothing works when we’re ignorant and unaware. Clarity, firm and friendly communication, accurate relaying of facts…those all serve us well. Any time you’re tempted to just be “nice,” remember the root word and opt for a more nuanced approach.