Keep speaking out

I wanted to write you a different story today. I had it all planned out in my head. I wanted to tell you all about my experience canvassing for Hillary Clinton. Throw in a few amazing anecdotes, like how I possibly convinced a first time voter to get herself to the polls, the Italian grandma who pulled me inside and sat me down and gave me food, and the volunteers who poured their hearts and souls into this campaign. I wanted to tell you how I waited in line for 5 hours with friends to see Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Chelsea Clinton, Barack Obama, and Michelle Obama speak as a unified front about our country's hopeful future. Then I wanted to wrap it up with a triumphant victory for our first woman president - with the message that women can truly be whatever they want, that our country rejects a man who spews hate, and that love won.

But, as you all know, that isn't the case. Donald Trump is the President-Elect (and won my state of Pennsylvania), and I am heartbroken and outraged. I cannot believe that I am now living in a country who elected someone who thinks it's alright to sexually assault me, brag about it, judge me based on my looks, and make obscene jokes about me. I cannot believe I'm living in a country where the President-Elect was endorsed by the KKK, has discriminated against black people throughout his businesses, thinks my husband is "violent" and "dangerous", and stereotypes all black people as living in the inner city (and in "hell"). I cannot believe that America has sent the message that this country is homophobic, misogynistic, racist, Islamaphobic, ableist, xenophobic, and more.

And that a well qualified woman who has spent 30 years working in public service can be beat by a reality TV star. 

I also cannot believe that I cannot believe it. Because I feel like I was naive to the sentiment that is being expressed by half our country today. Of course I knew that people were still racist and sexist and homophobic and Islamaphobic and more, but I didn't think that this would prevail. And I know that people who voted for Donald Trump also voted for him for other reasons. But this is the message that a Trump vote, and a Trump presidency sends.

It's also worth noting that after Hillary Clinton's amazing concession speech, the first thing pundits jumped on her for was the way she showed emotion and apologized - two things that women are continually criticized for. Please believe that this outcome does show that America is not ready for a woman to be in charge. We can't ignore this.

So now, what do we do? I wish I knew. The only thing I know to do is to keep speaking out, no matter how awkward or bumbling, no matter if I want to or not, against hate and bigotry. The only thing I know to do is to keep letting all of the people in my life know that I love them. The only thing I know to do is to keep asking people to share their stories.

So, I ask you today as I always ask you, to share your stories with me. I'm here for you. 

More than ever, I'm in fierce support of your stories.

Stories as 3rd Graders - which stories do we call on?

I've been thinking, lately, about how anyone musters up the courage to tell a story, with everything that's going on in the world.

Sometimes I picture stories as 3rd graders. When I taught 3rd grade, it never ceased to amaze me how many hands would go up when I asked a question. It was definitely a departure from the blank stares, grunts, and silence from 8th graders. But 3rd graders? They would almost bounce out of their seats with excitement.

Sometimes they would actually stand up involuntarily as they raised their hand, catch themselves, and then sit down on one of their knees, so their hand was still a bit higher than the rest. I could never find the time to call on all of them. It wasn't like I didn't want to - I loved hearing what each and every one of them said. But since I always asked a lot of questions, and nearly all of the students would raise their hand for each question, you can do the math. We would have been in class for hours. It always gave my heart a pang when I had to say "last one" and watched the students who hadn't been called on slowly lower their hands.

There are so many stories right now fighting to be called on.

There are the stories everyone wants to talk about, like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie getting a divorce. There are the stories that make some outraged and others uncomfortable, like the deaths of Keith Lamont Scott and Terence Crutcher, and the protests in North Carolina over black people being killed by police. There are stories people would like to avoid, like the fact that civilians are still getting bombed in Syria. And the too close to home stories like the bombings in New York City and New Jersey. There are the election stories that get more unbelievable as weeks go by. Let's not forget about the other stories that are underreported or swept aside every single day.

And then I wonder, where do my stories fall here? Would I call on my stories if I were still a 3rd grade teacher? 

I haven't really come to any conclusions about what stories to tell. I only know that it does continue to matter that we tell them. Yet at the same time, we just need to be aware of the stories that may be too shy to raise their hand, or that don't get called on because they are sometimes labeled "disruptive". 

Every single story matters. Even though it'll take until the end of time, let's extend class. I'll always call on your story.

That darn first pancake

Growing up, Saturdays were pancake breakfast days. As my brother and I gained dexterity, we were trained in the art of the perfect pancake. "Make sure you see bubbles before you flip it," my dad cautioned. "Make sure the batter looks a bit more solid," my mom chimed in. Inevitably, no matter how carefully we planned, that first pancake would emerge looking a bit off-color, limp, and lackluster. "The pan hasn't had enough time to heat up yet," my parents would reassure us. "The first pancake is never good."

In my writing group yesterday, most of us confessed that it's so hard for us to not erase or cross out our writing when we initially get started. We second-guess, hear it aloud in the most annoying voices in our heads, and generally think it's terrible and that we have no original ideas. So we stop, put down our pens or close our laptops, and think guiltily about how we should be writing. Sound familiar?

But what if we all just need to get past that first pancake?

If we could accept in our hearts that the first bit of writing is going to be subpar, would it give us the momentum to keep going?

Over the weekend, I ate brunch at a restaurant on South Street that I hadn't been to in 9 years - since my first fall in Philly. With that first bite of bacon and eggs, it all came back to me. After the first week of school, I went to this very restaurant with my mentor and two teaching colleagues to debrief, vent, and cry. It had been a rough first week of teaching for all of us. "I'm the worst teacher in the whole world," I wailed to my mentor. I expected to hear her say something like, "Of course you're not," and I had an arsenal of worst teacher ever evidence, ready to fire back at her.

"Okay, so maybe you are the worst teacher in the whole world," she calmly said. I almost dropped my fork. "The question is, can you get better?" I gulped and slowly nodded my head. There it was. I had nowhere to go but up, so I did. That first week of teaching was the quintessential first pancake, and my subsequent weeks kept improving, as pancakes do.

As Anne Lamott says, "Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere."

So, my challenge to you this week is to write without crossing out or deleting words.

It will feel awkward, of course. That's what we did at our write-in during writing group yesterday. We set the timer for 30 minutes, drank some wine, ate some chocolate, and wrote. We didn't cross out, we didn't second-guess - we just kept going. By the end of that 30 minutes, everyone had at least a tiny nugget of writing they were proud of (even if the first bit of writing seemed like a mess).

Let me know how it goes, and remember that everyone struggles with the first pancake syndrome!

Being present: ideal vs reality

Have you noticed that "being present" seems to be a catchphrase everywhere now? I seem to hear this phrase constantly. Being present is the cure-all for our society's inability to focus, be happy, and avoid multi-tasking. It should be easy, right?


Whenever I try to really be in the moment and be present, a million other things are going through my head at the same time. In yoga class when the teacher asks us to set an intention for the day? My mind goes to my to-do list. When I'm walking through the city, intent on savoring my exercise? I check my phone. Heck, I even interrupt myself sometimes. Last night, talking to L, I must have started three different thoughts before I was able to finish one. Even while writing this, I've had to stop myself several times from checking my email.

And I don't think I'm alone in this.

We worry so constantly that we are going to miss something if we don't always have our hands in several pots at once. This makes my mind very jumpy.

But over the weekend, at our family weekend place on a pond, my father and I took a canoe ride. The pond was smooth like glass. The air was cool and crisp. The sun shone brightly, but faintly, that kind of sun that you know means the end of summer. As we paddled, barely making a sound in the water, we noticed a blue heron on the left bank.

We paused in our paddling, floating for one moment. I'm fascinated by the blue herons I see on that pond. They are perfectly still until they take flight. We gazed at the heron, mesmerized for just one moment. We watched, respectfully, reverently. Then, the heron took off, wings flapping gracefully.

I realized just afterwards that I hadn't been thinking of anything else during that moment. I was just watching this majestic bird, feeling that fall air, relishing being in a canoe with my father on a pond.

Was I actually being present?

So, what does it take for you to be in the moment? Do you need to be in nature? In a city? How do you focus on just one thing at a time?

Refresh your listening powers

In a world where everyone is constantly talking, it’s hard to remember to listen. Many people feel like they have to fight to be heard above all the noise. Our attention spans are getting shorter and shorter. We jump from person to person, from story to story, and sometimes, we can’t even hear ourselves.

I consider listening to be my super-power - one of my most valuable tools in my proverbial toolbox. It’s helped me throughout my career, whether I’ve been teaching, building relationships, or consulting. Listening helps me gain insight into people, solve problems, and learn something new.

So how do we relearn the art of listening?

Step One: No distractions.

I know this seems like old news, but I’m surprised how often people have conversations while looking at their phone every 20-30 seconds. Set aside the iPhone, put down your notebook, and give the other person your full attention. Actually look into their eyes. This for me is the hardest part, since I’m a consummate note-taker. But I find that even taking notes for me can be distracting, and I remember so much more of what has been said when I’m fully in the moment.

Step Two: Don’t think about what you’re going to say next.

Do you remember being in class, having something to say, and waiting, hand raised, for the teacher to call on you? It was difficult then to remember what other people were saying because you wanted to keep your share in your head, and it’s equally difficult today. If you’re thinking about what you are going to say next, you’re not really listening to your conversation partner. It’s perfectly okay to take a moment to pause and regroup after the other person stops talking, but try to focus solely on what they are saying, and not how you will respond.

Step Three: When in doubt, repeat what your conversation partner says back to them.

Sometimes part of listening is being sure that you understand what the other person is saying. It’s lovely to nod and smile, and give sounds of affirmation, but if you don’t understand what the other person is actually saying, it will be a pretty dull conversation. As silly as this may sound, repeating parts of the conversation back can do wonders for clarity, and has the added bonus of making the other person feel heard.

Step Four: Pay close attention to what’s not being said.

Here’s where the detective role really comes in. Notice the non-verbal cues. Is your colleague telling you about a project and saying it is going really well, but is hunching his shoulders and seeming stressed? Is a client sounding confident, but expressing doubt? Being observant can make all the difference in the world when you can follow up with thoughtful questions.

 What are some of your best tips for thoughtful listening?