Sunday, November 17, 2019

Compassion Over Empathy: A Look at Nature, Health, and Education

Mike Natter is a physician and someone with T1D whom I follow on Twitter. He's also a great artist (check out his works available on ArtSugar!) and this tweet and accompanying image struck a chord with me.

Dr. Elisabeth Poorman responded to this question on the balancing act that physicians face on a daily basis. I’m going to quote and paraphrase her excellent tweetorial on the subject of empathy and compassion:

Sympathy:  "a pity-based response to a distressing situation that is characterized by a lack of relational understanding and the self-preservation of the observer." The observer is not invested in the pain.

Empathy: "An effective response to understand an individual’s suffering through emotional resonance." This response is based on a more genuine connection and is preferred by those in need, but higher levels of empathy lead to a greater likelihood of higher inflammation and burnout scores in a study of nurses.

Emotional empathy: We feel the other’s pain. It can be overwhelming, so instead of doing what you can, you may shut down and run away (AKA burnout and compassion fatigue).

Cognitive empathy: We know the other is in pain but remotely. 

Compassion: "A virtuous response that seeks to address the suffering and needs of a person through relational understanding and action." It’s closer to cognitive empathy, which is based on reason and leans toward action to correct the other's concerns. As @stefanfersetz said to Dr. Poorman, it’s “engagement with boundaries”. The observer is not THE solution but CAN play a role, they know what it is, and they  DO it.

Burnout and compassion fatigue: if we feel the emotional distress of someone, we are more likely to burnout or become exhausted by it so much that we can’t even respond to it.

To me, sympathy is sort of positive and I’d rather have it than indifference, but it’s not very helpful. 

The results are too chancy because the connection is weak; if someone feels sympathy, they may very well never do anything. However, it can be a gateway to the better response of empathy, and the even better one of compassion.

Dr. Natter’s illustration depicts empathy on one side. I believe Dr. Poorman is suggesting that side should actually be compassion. I see his other side “professional distance” as “cognitive empathy”.

In the teaching world, I believe working from compassion is the basis for response techniques like “I see that you are…” and “When you are able to, I can...” when a student is in crisis. 

Rather than taking in the child’s anger, fear, sadness, etc, the adult is positioning themselves as willing to do eventually something, but not partake directly in the pain. Students may love our hearts and tears, and we may want to give them, but they need genuine fixes. And if teachers are constantly dealing with their inner cores being exposed due to empathy, the attacks by other adults on school finances, regulations, performance evals, data streams, and safety become death blows.

As someone with a chronic medical condition, I have experienced every single one of these terms over the years. 

From a nurse practitioner who saved my opinion on healthcare providers with her compassionate observations and achievable challenges to me, to the exhausted physician who testily told me to just stop eating after 6PM, each has cultivated a different response in me. In my best mindset, I can feel compassion for the burnt-out physician, but it set my own health backward because I became angry and felt abandoned. I probably was erroneously looking for empathy- I can clearly see the lure of it.

I work as a naturalist and wonder: what does environmental compassion look like? 

It should not be pity-based sympathy for a mouse facing an owl. It should not be tearful empathy for a frog facing a drying pond. Or at least not just these things. We talk about developing our students’ connections with and understandings of their natural environment. With those two things, they can see tools they can use, choices they can make, and laws they can formulate to create the most opportunities for the most species, including their own. That's powerful stuff.

Perhaps the major strength and motivator to operate with compassion is that it avoids the extreme ends of human emotional response on both sides of the equation (person in crisis and responder). At least during that moment of crisis for I know fully well there's intense gratitude possible after the fact from those relieved of their suffering.

As Dr. Natter’s image depicts, it’s not easy. 

Nor, is success guaranteed. Even if one is extremely good at operating within the realm of compassion, we can easily fall back on other coping strategies. Why? Because we're not perfect! Dr. Poorman says she must practice every day and it will be a lifelong process. Why? Because none of us have all the abilities to change all things to "good". It’s tough to offer something, but not THE thing that fixes it all.

I think that’s when we need to practice a bit of Buddhism: we must remind ourselves that there will always be suffering. 

We can help alleviate it, but it’ll never go away. And in my best mindset, I can find comfort in that. It means we’re reminded to enjoy the goodness. To share with each other. To revel, dance, and love when we can. In my book about living with type 1 diabetes, Dear Warriors, I wrote that it’s taught me many things, or at least shown me many things, including these concepts.

I took this picture late yesterday afternoon, when the sun was preparing to dive below the snowy horizon before 4:30 PM. The light was warm and magical, partially due to its transience. 

Here’s to us all seeing and feeling the light as it still shines on us. And to practicing compassion on ourselves, each other, and our world every day we see another sunrise.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Humility from Trees

I’m finally reading Peter Wohlleben’s NYT bestseller The Hidden Life of Trees. Having a job that once again revolves around ecology, I find myself sliding back into the field’s writings. I should have always kept an eye on it, but Life pulled me this way and that over the years. I must humbly accept that fact and try to understand what’s been learned in the last 25 years.

As I began reading it, I immediately saw many similarities between Mr. Wohlleben’s observations and my own in my book, Dear Warriors. Specifically: interdependence. Even his cover and the first image I put in my introduction are similar. Both depict flourishing trees in modified cross-section. Whereas his focuses on 3 trees and their roots, I drew a single tree, its roots, and the elements it’s exposed to.

Initially, I experienced an embarrassed flush of nervousness. I worried that my book’s art and ideas would be construed as a copy, even though I hadn’t read Mr. Wohlleben’s work before publishing. I could have easily slipped into a mental canyon of inadequacy, telling myself that my work was yet another example of my lack of originality and hidden it. Instead, I’m choosing to wave it as another support for the veracity of this notion that life is all about interdependence.

My whole point in pulling trees into my analysis of living with type 1 diabetes was to draw an analogy between trees and people. I felt a connection. Mr. Wohlleben’s book focuses solely on the gorgeous details of what trees go through, emphasizing specific ways they relate to both others of their own kind and entirely different species. I would suggest reading his book first, then mine. If you can learn to believe that trees aren’t independent and self-contained, then you can be open to the notion that no human is, either. You can also learn to believe that our daily activities can reflect that we’re stronger together, as I tried to state in Dear Warriors.

We’re stronger together, whether we’re talking humans or trees.

I titled this essay Humility. Humility and being humble are vital to our best lives, in my opinion. With them as our foundation, the ego can’t take over. We cannot become engrossed by the “wonder” of our own ways and thoughts and act as though other humans are enemies.

The science behind Peter Wohlleben’s work shores up his claims about trees- ideas that many might find fantastical and easily discounted if they were not being tested and corroborated by others around the globe. If we’re open to seeing deeper truths. To me, they prove one thing: we cannot believe we know everything about this world we live in. We have to be open to “if”.

We must humbly admit that we are not omniscient.

The networks that trees appear to thrive best in reminds me of other networks being uncovering and studied in recent years. For instance, take the human microbiome. has a great timeline review and specific deep-dive information on this expanding field of study. Over half the cells in and on our bodies are not human. They all can affect how we live and perhaps we can adjust our living to maximize our relationships with these other entities to improve how we feel and how well we live. Can we humbly admit that we need some of these other species and encourage them? Can we accept that they may need us and we might do best by allowing them to coexist with us?

Can we accept with humility that we need other humans and other species to survive and thrive?

It can be an uncomfortable shift in thought. But, it can also be comforting because we’re capable of seeing truths and falsehoods. We’re capable of testing to confirm. We’re capable of failing and trying again. We can move forward, even if the steps are painful.

I’m looking at trees a bit differently of late. I knew I thought of them in some sort of kinship, but Peter Wohlleben has given me some substance to firm up those feelings. If their bodies are linked to many others and if our bodies are linked to many others, then how far does this linkage idea go? It fills me with hope, wonder, and a sense of place.

Neither a tree’s life nor a human’s is idyllic. Both eventually come to an end. But I can pat a tree’s bark and consider its journey, as I can my own, with humility and kinship and smile.

We can be stronger together.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

My Thoughts on Lab Girl

This year the Waukesha Reads program is based around geobiologist Dr. Hope Jahren’s debut book, Lab Girl. I think the premise of throwing a spotlight on environmental science, and women in science specifically, is a brave and vital decision that I hope has long-lasting effects in the county.

Hope Jahren is two years my senior, so I immediately felt a near-peer connection when I picked up this book. After reading it, I think this work is a great catalyst for discussion, both in terms of its merits and its weaknesses. She doesn't shy from personal or societal merits and weaknesses and that's refreshing.

I love how she divided this book into 3 main sections that correspond to the overall structure of trees. She’s seeking to explain herself, her work, and the fact that we’re all in it together as scientists. I heartily concur with this parallel in life.

Roots and leaves are the bases. They bring in what is needed- or fail to.

She explains her Norwegian roots. I was shocked at how well my own Swedish ones matched with her observations about familial aloofness and an ingrained desire for efficiency and self-sufficiency. Her observations on mother/daughter relationships also rang very true, as were those about being or behaving like a “boy” or “girl” and the related frustrations that come with those labels. It was nice to hear that someone else hasn’t had the stereotypical connections with roles and motherhood one is told are “natural”. At many points throughout the book, I found myself thinking, "I relate to that.".

And yet, I felt hers was a privileged childhood and I became frustrated with Dr. Jahren because of jealousy. She was born into academia with both parents being deep thinkers. Her matter-of-fact tales of wandering her father’s lab would have been a dream-come-true to me. She’s lived her entire life with access to laboratories: first her father’s, and then her own. She describes college sexism, which is one place I didn’t experience it, and extreme budget concerns that exist to this day, which I did. What I have faced beyond the labs firmly supports all her assertations in one way or another, and that angers me the most. Women, especially women of color, are still not considered (or paid) equal to men.

In Chapter 1, Dr. Jahren describes her childhood winters as almost endless, stating "I grew up in a place where there was snow on the ground for nine months out of each year". Given her location, I question the validity of that statement. Small instances of exaggeration such as this pop up regularly through the book and that bothered me because I wanted to rely on her words as being extremely accurate. I know she might be attempting to use winter as a symbol for her cold and suppressed rearing, but she is a scientist.

Over the course of this section, Dr. Jahren describes many people who have touched her as she’s slogged through her professional life. They seem to be archetypes that we all have met along the way. Sometimes the stories feel lengthy, but these connections are important to consider. We learn and grow from those we experience. I know I’ve been molded by those I’ve met (and not met) just as I’ve gone down life paths and not down others for the same reasons. My jealousy of Dr. Jahren lessened as I admitted that to myself. I dreamed as an unknowing teen of being "A Scientist". She had a framework for that idea from birth that I didn't. I can see now that mine has been a different journey than hers, neither better or worse. In this book, she clearly describes some of her own worse times and that is helpful for us all to learn by.

Wood and knots are formed by growth and the obstacles we face over time.

The choppiness of Dr. Jahren’s writing style isn’t explained upfront. For chapters, I was confused at the dramatic changes in sentence complexity and style, where sections would wax poetically and then flip to terse observations. Her childhood recollections initially made me picture her as one or two decades older than myself- they seemed very old-fashioned. The juxtaposition of so many elements was off-putting because it felt like the work was poorly edited. In the middle of Section 2, the fact that Dr. Jahren deals with mania and has bipolar disorder is finally explicitly revealed. Finally! An answer! Yes, leaving the piece as-is is a way to express Dr. Jahren’s reality- how she thinks and processes. Perhaps my confusion is a good jumping-off point for discussion of mental health. I don’t consider myself a grammatical snob but perhaps I am. To me, there’s so much going on in this book in terms of content, a common structure would have helped me focus on the main message. Or perhaps a note in a short prologue would have helped prepare the reader for the switchbacks, detailed descriptions, and occasional ramblings.

My opinion on how Dr. Jahren presents Bill flip-flopped between "awesome" and "awful". I have struggled during my professional life with thinking others were making incorrect assumptions about my relationships. This is a reality that I’m glad we’re talking about. It’s maddening that this occurs to this day: anyone should be able to work with anyone else. Period. Maybe now I’m the one overlaying something that doesn’t exist in Dr. Jahren’s writing. As I read, I kept thinking she was hinting at something with Bill. Her tales of their adventures sound wildly true, raw, and real but "something" popped up chapter after chapter that made me think there would be a big reveal. Then 200+ pages in, she’s marrying and having a baby with someone else. Work relationships can be deep and intense- that’s a good thing. But if you’re going to write “Bill and I lay side by side on the bed, staring up at the waterstained ceiling”, “We lay side by side, fully clothed, and laughed and laughed with our boots on”, “then we both lay back down, side by side, and continued to stare at the ceiling”, “But you do know that you can never be friends with the people that you work with”, and “And so we did [go to sleep], on opposite sides of the big bed, with our clothes and boots on.”, it either indicates a hidden message like a screenplay for a cheesy romantic drama or the need for better editing of a story to better show the awesomely complex relationships that actually do exist. Kudos to her for showing both their helpful and hurtful sides in different parts of the story. Bill and Hope are a team proving once again that we’re stronger together.

The subsistence life that Bill leads for most of the book infuriates me. The professor I worked for had to finagle funds to buy things. He’s the one that taught me “It’s better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission” as he scurried across the commons to the university administration building one day to calm a frantic accountant after he did something unconventional to continue his zebra mussel experiments. I’m all for people having to “pay their dues” as college students and there should be good reason applied to purchases and expenses. But science is valuable. Professors and scientists should be able to study things. How some greedily and (at times) proudly bilk systems for personal gain while others scramble their entire lives makes me livid. Dr. Jahren does a great job depicting this reality of the struggle to answer the scientific questions curious minds have.

I absolutely love it when Dr. Jahren outlines specific cases of tree science based on those curious questions and minds. These sections shine with truths that are relatable and incite a sense of wonder. Her description of the Sitka willow experiment shows everyday people a different way to consider trees and communication, a truth that those in science have struggled to accept for decades before now. I find connections with Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass. That whole “Wood and Knots” concept is evident. There is struggle and then growth to greater truth. Science can be used to prove or disprove a belief or explain an observation. It takes time, opportunity, and effort. What else could we do if we invest more in science and scientists?

Flowers and fruit are about harvesting and what may come because of our lifelong activities.

I found Chapter 13 of the last section of Lab Girl to be especially poignant and a great way for me to finish my review. Dr. Jahren states,

“Often when dealing with plants, it is difficult to tell the end from the beginning.” 

We had to take down a huge ash tree last year that was succumbing to emerald ash borers. The roots are still alive and this year the sawn stump sprouted new branches. While we animals can’t do something so visually stunning, we also get damaged and try for as long as we can to adapt and survive. Plant and animal: we all get damaged. This book is a testament to that fact. We humans can (and perhaps other species can, too) also perceive, question, test, and revise our thoughts and actions if we're not spending all our time and energy trying to simply survive. We can all be scientists. 

With that in mind, I again ask: what else could we do if we invest more in science and scientists?

Today is another opportunity to begin answering that. Together.

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.


Sunday, February 24, 2019

Before Mindfulness With Mindfulness

I bet some people still look at the term “mindfulness” as a joke and consider the practice a waste of time.

An article in today’s KQED Mind/Shift newsletter caught my eye: How Making Time for Mindfulness Helps Students. From my experience, mindfulness cultivates grounding, leading to a sense of peace and a reduction in how anxious I feel.

It’s extremely windy here today. Winds like these want to keep things stirred up; they work to pull and twist things out of place. I like the contrast. Our inner world and outer reality can feel just as wild as this windstorm- even wilder.

The KQED article does a great job outlining some keys to successfully putting mindfulness into practice in a school setting. It even mentions the need for staff to have “buy in”. For anyone who agrees with the first sentence I wrote, I’m hoping to increase your buy-in.

To begin, not everyone has the luxury of practicing mindfulness. If you’re reading this, you probably do.

Living paycheck-to-paycheck. Unexpected expenses. Overwhelming debts. Overdraft fees. Payday loans. Chronic medical conditions. Eviction. Loss of utilities. Unemployment. Fear of unemployment. Underemployment. Violence. Bills. Accidents. Hunger. Addictions. Isolation.

People who live with several of these (and other) types of pressures on a daily basis exist everywhere. These are windstorm generators and no one is immune. Some people experience more due to the choices made by others. You yourself may feel drawn to one or more of them.

Imagine being a child with these types of fears surrounding you every day. That’s a big part of the push for mindfulness in schools. Without other options, survival instincts can lead to choices that include lashing out, withdrawing, hiding in past times, making excuses with generalizations, or practicing self-harming behaviors that begin by “feeling good”. Everything we adults do to survive, our children will try.

I’m looking out at all the broken branches littering the snow-crusted ground. I hear the winds moaning outside, wildly whipping the bushes and skeletal trees. But I don’t feel the cold, because I am safe inside a warm house. I’m wearing woolen socks so my toes are toasty and my hands are warm on the keyboard. I smell the coffee still in my mug and the lingering smoky trail of bacon from this morning’s breakfast. I can smile at these truths.

That last paragraph is a bit of mindfulness. It’s what is now (whether I like it or not) and what I have now. It’s an appreciation. From there, I can consider beyond. 

Why bother?

From What's Under Your Cape
Survival instincts can hurt both ourselves and others. They can blind us to others’ pains and to other options that could help everyone involved. We’re capable of so much goodness. We have to be open to working through the roughness, though. These are things that must be noticed, taught, and learned again and again.

How much are we really suffering? How many gifts do we really have? What other options might be out there for us? Who can we go to for help? Who can we reach out to in order to help? These are the types of questions we can answer by using mindfulness instead of simply surviving. If we’re capable of it, we should try.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Abilities, Choices, and Opportunities

It’s February 10 and I’m writing for the first time in months. I turned the writing spigot off back in October after I published Dear Warriors. Why? I was drained. I felt flat and dead in all three parts of the self that I had tended to and examined so carefully for that book: my body, mind, and spirit were all numb.

Now, in the coldest and (subjectively) most ugly part of the year, the exciting urge to tap the keys has awakened once more. Why? An idea has been turning in my head. 

We’re all what and where we are in life right now because of three key things: our abilities, our choices, and our opportunities.

I’d like to use this clove of garlic as an example. We received several heads from one of my husband’s coworkers, who grew and harvested their crop last year. These bulbs have enhanced several family meals with their hearty flavor and bite. But this week, I found this clove had begun to sprout and even tiny knobs of roots are bulging from the bottom.

Without proper planting in soil and a supply of light and water, this clove’s attempts at becoming another garlic plant are doomed. It has a certain amount of food and life inside it- some ability to grow- but its “decision” to sprout will not end up being successful within the environment it is currently located.

We can look at ourselves as garlic cloves. We each have some abilities. We each can make choices. However, there are factors beyond us that inevitably affect those internal truths: the opportunities we have and are given by others change what we are today and who we will become down the road.

In today’s news, a lavish birthday fete for a one-year-old has led some to feel bad about themselves and their situations in comparison. That child has found itself in that environment and their life will be influenced by it. What they will do with it is yet to be seen. There are others who we feel have great abilities, but waste them with choices like taking drugs or propagating -isms that harm both themselves and those around them. Then, there are those who rise up through extreme effort, capitalizing on what they do have talent-wise, with the help of others who support them in their quests. (Yes, BTS, I’m thinking of you, your teams, and your 18.3 Million ARMY fans around the world, including myself.)

Abilities. Choices. Opportunities.

So, for those who argue that “you can do anything with enough effort”, I say that we still need others’ help and enough talent to get it done. For those who think “some people are just [insert slam here]”, I say it’s possible there’s a choice factor, but we can also help or hinder them. As in my garlic example, the garlic is trying to grow, is it not?

That garlic didn’t just happen nor did it call itself into being. It needed its progenitor. It needed a farmer. It needed time. It needed the sun. It needed water. It needed soil. My family needed all that to happen in order for us to enjoy our meals as we have, too.

It’s all connected. We’re connected. We’re stronger together with our choices, abilities, and opportunities.

It’s not easy seeing life that way. But, it’s the closest thing to truth that I’ve found to date.