Monday, July 8, 2019

Thoughts on Calling Myself an Idiot

The other day, I finished a solitary hike on a sweltering summer afternoon and came upon a couple of coworkers. As I was peeling off my gear, I felt compelled to comment that I had worn my work nametag to give me “an excuse for looking like such an idiot”. I motioned to my big hat, worn clothes, hand lens, and binoculars. My sweat-soaked pack was still on my back.

I was met with looks of confusion. One’s reply was to assure me that I did not at all look like an idiot.

Their reactions gave me pause. Why did I say that? What point was I making about myself? Later, I looked up the word and its synonyms to try to understand:

Idiot. Fool. Clown. Loon.

Nerd was on the list, too. I’ve said before that I’m proud to be a nerd. But it was the above chain of words that spoke to me in a coldly true way. When I said it, I was wearing functional clothes and carrying field tools at a 400+ acre nature park. Why was I so “foolish” from my perspective?

After looking at that list of words, it hit me. All of these words paint a picture of someone who “everybody else” is staring at as being excessively silly- or worse. Why would I feel that? For decades, I’ve been like what Shakespeare wrote of in Macbeth: a poor player upon a stage, fretting. Alone. That’s the big key. 

I have walked through this life very much on the edges. Pretending I’m fine.

I grew up fairly isolated. My pastimes were solitary: reading, drawing, thinking. I made friends, but just a few. I tried to blend into the background and please the adults. If I felt a streak of rebellion upon occasion, I recall fits of frustration and anger and a public display or two, but for the most part, I kept it all hidden and on the inside.

Sometimes I wonder if I absorbed that grade school mantra “you can be anything you want to be...if you try” in a really unhealthy way. Real growth is achieved by networks of people supporting and challenging you in productive ways. You've defeated yourself before you've even tried if you think you have to do something perfectly or not at all...and if you have few people around showing you that there’s always a process, that everyone makes mistakes, and perhaps there are ingenious tricks to achieve one’s goals. They give you hope to go on trying.

I did receive one bit of advice before college that I reaped huge benefits from. Someone told me to introduce myself to the professors in my chosen major as soon as classes started and ask them for a job. Get your face in front of them, they said. Ridiculously enough, I don’t recall who gave me that advice. I wish I did because I would thank them for that seed that grew and grew over the intervening years.

"Get your face in front of them." The best and hardest advice.

I was super excited to purchase steel-toed boots and waders for my first environmental job after I graduated. I tried so hard. I bought tons of books. I worked countless unpaid hours at home, trying to become something: a botanist. But I had no real mentors. No one had my professional back to walk me through the challenges. At the first office Christmas party I attended, a company leader didn’t applaud my efforts. He said to my husband (we’d been married 7 months), “Now I can see why you married her!”. I was wearing a dress. I failed to process things like that in a constructive way.

What I am and what I should be. It’s been a lifetime battle.

I’m not alone in that, I know. Others have fewer resources to rely on and way more critical eyes. Now I see that. Being and becoming: it’s part of the trip. That’s a tough thing to sell to someone who deeply believed they had to be “good” and to whom the social definitions of “good” didn’t make much sense.

I’ve written quite a bit on how I have felt myself evolving out of that illusion. But clearly, I still need a lot to practice if I’m still calling myself names. In the last 15 years, I’ve met some amazing mentors who have helped me see today more clearly, look back with different eyes and look ahead with better lenses. Old and learned habits die hard, though. New wounds lead to setbacks. I still have to keep pushing myself to participate in the bigger picture, away from the “safety” of the edges.

Clearly, I haven’t fully accepted that I have found a place and community of others to drop those feelings of separation and to really be the “me” I’ve dreamed of. I can do this. I can be this. With others. A whole bunch of others. I need them and they need me.

 Others need me. That’s a foreign concept to me.

From that truth, I am compelled to consider the multitudes on the edges- those feeling dangerously out on those edges because they’ve been pushed there. They exist on the fringes where they fear for their lives. I need to ask myself what can I do to help them draw closer? What can I do to help others feel safe enough to be closer? To understand that they deserve to be closer? I hope to do what I can in the coming years to begin answering these questions with actions. Writing and posting this is a start.

I firmly believe we are all stronger together. Everyone needs to feel supportive connections beyond self and to experience the benefits of being, working, and living together. Everyone.

No one should see themselves as an idiot, a fool, a clown, or a lone loon.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Slow and Quiet

 Who has time for quiet?
Who has time to slow down?

Many people have studied the dangers and pitfalls of basing one’s life and one’s decisions on fear. I agree with this idea. We need and use “fear” to keep us safe from harm. However, it can be a dangerously strong emotion and can become a serious mental disorder that needs professional support- I’m not writing in that capacity. I’m writing because I’m grappling with another idea that I think may help us to not be swayed by Fear’s allure for a quick and protective response.

Slow down and be quiet.

Without any of the term’s baggage, that’s what is at the heart of “mindfulness practice”. I’ve written many pieces over the years on rhythm and stillness. Breathing, seasons, waves on water, sunrise and sunset: there are examples all around of us of things that occur at certain natural speeds and times.

Where do patterns, fear, mindfulness, quiet, rhythm, and slowing down intersect?

Allow me to bring in yet another human concept: vacation. We take vacations to break away from our normal patterns of life. We willingly throw some chaos into our living to experience an unfamiliar rush. Even if that “rush” is to end up sitting by a pool or natural water body. It’s different from our “normal”. We crave a change, and in fact, everything is changing. It’s all in motion.

Motion. Nothing is locked in place.

 I’ve tried to draw out my thoughts. (I didn’t label the X-axis as time, because I just attempted to read Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time and my one takeaway (other than an appreciation for his lyrical style) was that time is not linear.) The red line is a hectic experience of living that can lead one to ask the two questions I posed at the beginning of this piece. What happens when we experience an unexpected, loud sound? We jump. Our hearts race, like the red line on my graph leaping wildly and picking up speed like an EKG. The same reaction happens when we feel pressured at work, when we can’t pay the bills, when we feel alienated from others, or when we feel threatened by someone we perceive as suspicious.

A little bit of chaos and fear is beneficial- it can protect us from legitimate threats, feel good, or inspire us. However, those oscillations can get so wild, we can begin feeling like flotsam on an angry sea- completely adrift and without any control. Those are perfect conditions for massive growth in experiencing fear, founded or not.

The causes of chaotic living, that red line, are many. Some are from our personal choices. Some stem from the choices of others. Others are physiological. We’ll never get rid of them all, but we can decide to try to moderate that chaos through individual and group effort. In addition, we have many green patterns both in the world around us and within us to use as metronomes.

Life’s patterns can feel boring, but they are the vital buffers everything hangs upon.

We can return to these patterns and gain comfort from them- if we so choose. The red patterns can blot the green ones from our view, but that does not mean the green ones cease to exist. And thus, I return to my initial questions:

Who has time for quiet?
Who has time to slow down?

To me, the answer is: everyone must.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Inspired by Nature and...?

Humanity can build connections with just about anything. 

I’m reminded of the 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon game as an example of our interest in finding them. Connections bring us positive feelings (including humor, love, empathy, and safety) and the potential for personal rewards (such as romantic partners, artistic inspiration, and career opportunities).

As a nature center naturalist, it’s been my desire to present convincing arguments that each of us and our human-made worlds (society) are linked to natural worlds in a variety of ways. (I use the plural because there are many social and environmental structures on Earth and all connected.) This can be a difficult idea to see, especially if we live inside and/or in highly urbanized landscapes for the majority of our lives. In addition, constantly worrying about basic survival slams the doors to the power that connecting to anything brings, wherever we live. Teachers know this as “Maslow Before Bloom”.

Lots of people from a range of social worlds play video games. I see a huge potential for connection to our natural worlds through this fact.

“It started simply enough as a hobby of Satoshi Tajiri (b. 1965), who as a child had a fondness for catching insects and tadpoles near his home in suburban Tokyo.”

He was also captivated by the science fiction shows of his childhood, including Ultraman and another called Ultra Seven, in which the hero had monsters in small capsules that helped his defeat enemies. Tajiri’s interests from the 1960s have lead to a global franchise that today is enjoying the success of its most recent product, the live-action movie Pokémon Detective Pikachu.

Pokémon was not created by a single mind and talent; it took many individuals and untold hours of work, revisions, and setbacks for this product to bloom.

While Tajiri had the vision of catching creatures, it was his friend Ken Sugimori (b. 1966) who drew the original artwork and Junichi Masuda (b. 1968) who created the music and sound effects that expanded the game’s appeal. Even that wasn’t enough for success. It took Shigeru Miyamoto’s (b. 1952) skills to pitch the product to Nintendo, orchestrating the deal that allowed the product the public access it needed on their platform. Since the early days, other creative minds have played powerful roles in envisioning and bringing the Pokémon world to life, including Shigeki Morimoto (b. 1967), who has been creating monsters for decades, including the first secret Pokémon, Mew.

Other societal trends have their basis in people interested in natural worlds. Architecture and furniture design come to mind. Inspiration can flow in the opposite direction, too. Landscape engineering, water flow design systems, and urban heat islands are all concepts that start with people but affect the world’s inhabitants on a larger scale.

Who knows what new things could be developed in the future if we continue to connect more and more?

Perhaps medical technologies could be advanced by a gamer’s tactics in a game designed by someone who’s into chemical reactions and parasites. Or a new song could be written by an artist who, while walking in a park during a rain shower, saw a bird eating some fruit in a tree. Maybe two people might meet on a trail and become life-long friends simply because one took a class that suggested they may find something cool out in nature and a way to track it with an app like iNaturalist.

Whether our lives are big or small, we’re stronger connecting to things and people beyond ourselves. We should give ourselves and others the opportunity to do that.

I hope to see you on the trail!

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Our Collaborative Music

The following is an excerpt from my book about living with type 1 diabetes, Dear Warriors. The biggest gifts I received in writing this book were connecting to others and forcing myself to be more open to my humanity and that of others. The book has art from 12 others with this condition. I referenced several others within my writing as well. Overall, I believe the book became a testament to the universal fact that we're so much more alike than we think and we need each other, no matter what we may say, believe, or do.

We're stronger together.

I saw BTS again this past weekend on their Speak Yourself tour. I met some more amazingly fun and positive fans. My whole family was in Chicago with me, and we all experienced seeing and being within thousands of ARMY throughout the city. So many different people and yet...connected. My husband said he has a new respect for and comfort with the BTS fandom- it wasn't what he expected.

We weren't what he had assumed.

I think we all make that mistake a lot in life. We make assumptions. We grasp onto fears. We hide in ignorance. It's "safe" but we can all also make efforts every day to be more collaborative. Whether big or small- we can do more and live better if we take the risk to share our personal music.

Let me show you...


Artist: Natalie Force, 15
Age at diagnosis: 14

Title: You’re Not Alone

“When I was first diagnosed, I struggled with how alone I felt. I constantly felt that no one knew what it felt like to go through this. It soon became clear that many people are going through this every day of their lives. I realized I’m not fighting these demons alone and I never will fight them alone. The inspiration for my drawing came from how scared I felt in the beginning, to how I feel now knowing I can overcome this obstacle that life has thrown me.”


“Music in the soul can be heard by the universe.”
- Lao Tzu, Philosopher

To me, my soul is the part of me that connects me to others. It’s akin to the spirit I talk about through this book. When I care for someone or something, my soul is involved. Art, pets, people, and places: when we feel that deep sense of linkage, our soul is touching the soul of that other. That’s how I see it, anyway.

Sometimes, we don’t feel that connection. Natalie’s image does a great job depicting what that feels like. Here, she shows people with T1D, including herself front and center, in carefully drawn detail and frozen flat-footed by the situation they find themselves in, whereas everyone else around them continues with their own lives, seemingly oblivious. She furthers that theme of disconnection by showing every single character, Diabetic Warrior or not, going about their business…alone. Everyone is alone. Natalie has illustrated that very “solitary warrior syndrome” that I say is not the only option we have when we consider the Warrior term.

From the Lao Tzu quote, one soul can speak outward to be heard. The reverse is true as well: we can open to the universe’s music, and our souls will be nourished and restored.

From what Natalie’s mom has told me of her and her diagnosis, of the three parts of ourselves that I’ve outlined, Natalie lived actively in her body before T1D. She has excelled as an athlete. Physical talent and a bright personality can allow easy entrance into this other part of ourselves: that community and spirit. Disrupt the confidence in and performance of that body side, and you might find yourself experiencing a plunge of the spirit: alienation. I see that in Natalie’s tears, her worried face and the Blue Circle, the “universal symbol for diabetes”, above each Diabetic Warrior’s head. Marked. Different. Alone. She drew the other Diabetic Warriors with small smiles as if they were somewhat comfortable- more so than she felt. Why? Perhaps she believed they had the condition longer and were more comfortable with it and what it takes to deal with T1D even as they still appear alone.

Natalie portrays a range of alienation levels between self and other. I’m proposing in this book that we all have a spiritual component that can take hits but also grow, therefore we have another bond with each other instead of a divider. Alopecia. Fibromyalgia. Cancer. Race. Religion. Gender. Sexual orientation. Eating disorders. Those dealt physical and mental trauma. All these life factors can tear and destroy. And yet, I’ve known people with struggles within all these areas and have been awestruck by how some have handled their lives. These are Warriors with songs we can all learn from.

Each condition affects how we identify ourselves and how we relate to others. These variables alter our music: we feel it, and others see it. Sometimes what we face deepens and richens our song of life. Sometimes it causes strife and off chords develop. The wild oscillations can become unbearable noise. If we consider these truths and apply those details to the various shadowy figures in Natalie’s picture, their vagueness disappears like fog burned by the hot summer sun. Those faceless masses become companion Warriors, each with circumstances, each needing others and what they possess. We are different, but also the same.

Lao Tzu described music as being in the soul. What if we say that music is our soul? Each person has a song deep within, including notes of struggle. Those songs are audible to the world if we share them. That’s key: if we share them. If we do, the world’s chorus can fold those tunes into the overall score and we can all benefit from the net effect. We can. We should. We must.

By doing that, as Natalie described, “It soon became clear that many people are going through this every day of their lives.” I believe Natalie’s eyes will soon dry enough for her to sing her song loud and proud as time marches on.

The athlete within Natalie taught me a lesson. On sports teams like those she plays in, each player has a different role and needs to display various skills. The same applies to the world full of Warriors. We all do better by bringing ourselves and our talents together. Both before and after my T1D diagnosis, I’ve undergone that drifting alienation that Natalie has depicted in her drawing. By receiving this image (and all the others in this book), reading the attached messages, and sitting with it all, I’ve also experienced an example of the opposite of alienation and apathy: empathy. I felt her music resonate with mine. I’ve sensed our spirits touch. When we build identification like that, we can keep moving forward. That touching is what gets us through our dark times.

When we don’t feel alone, we have hope. With hope, almost anything’s possible! 

It all comes down to connections. We each need exposure to different songs, and the world needs to hear ours, too. Where? How? It depends. Things like family, friends, religions, special events, personal interest groups, social media and professional organizations are a few. And we can’t sit on the sidelines while we’re there. We must actively participate to feed our souls. Are we going to a concert? Let’s introduce ourselves to those around us. Do we have a medical condition? Let’s speak clearly and calmly without embarrassment and look for comrades-in-arms. Are we attending a family event? Let’s really be with the family and not just merely suffer their presence or hide our true selves. Are we traveling? Let’s earnestly move within that new place and interact with its people. By doing these things, we may gain new friends, appreciations, and songs.

Shared meals, art, events, stories, and time bridge the gap between us and the “other”. Touching other spirits, we can begin to see we’re part of one big music-filled dance instead of single notes scattered across an empty keyboard.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Looking Up in Hope

My son took this photo on Friday when we went for a walk in the woods. We’re definitely seeing more sunlight and feeling its effects. Those birdsongs of spring warm the soul just as much as that burning orb warms our bodies and minds.

It all inspires hope.

Hope, like this photo, speaks of looking up. Up, or perhaps the proper word choice is “out”. Without hope, we close ourselves off and protect whatever we feel is on our inside. We exist. I’ve felt a lot of that in recent months. I actually didn’t even realize how closed-off I’d become until a door opened. A door I’d given up on and had to be shown was there.

We exist in any number of permutations of our selves over time. Every decade of life can bring a host of variables that alter the how’s, where’s, why’s, what’s, and who’s of our daily living. Those variables fuel the forge that melts us into what we are. The forge never quits until our final quenching.

Time alters us.

It can force us to shut parts of our selves off as we seek to survive. Those abandoned parts shrivel and rot like apples left on a tree as winter hits. We push them even farther away as we seek pleasure in the things we do have in our lives. We don't want reminders.

If we’re lucky, we can still have a good life. It’s just different than what we had imagined.

What happens if a time comes when that old place of wonder and delight is again at our doorstep? Can we see the opportunity? Do we risk opening that door? Can we walk into that realm again, but as the person were are today? We may need help to see the promise of potential that’s maybe- just maybe- within our reach. If we can accept that there's a future we can help mold.

We need help to look up. To hope.

That’s where I am right now. I know the person I was. I know I’ve gained a ton of perspective and experiences over the years but I’m still trying out this idea of looking up. It’s tempting, but I’m also afraid. I'm tiny. I wonder if I should just keep my head down and leave it all to someone else. I worry I’ll just take an opportunity away from someone else if I step forward.

But the birds are singing. The sun is warming. The sky is calling.