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Trains, Bicycles, and Libraries

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Trains, Bicycles, and Libraries

I just returned from a three-week trip to Chicago where I was a scholar-in-residence at Skokie Public Library. I took the Empire Builder out and back, a three-day train ride each way. I brought my bike and cycled over 500 miles getting to and from Skokie each day. In addition to getting very tan and very opinionated about Chicago's car culture and bike infrastructure, I experienced an overwhelming sense of rightness and belonging. TL;DR I am filled to the brim. 

This trip was a windfall of riches in experience. Each interaction taught me something. Skokie librarians are downright amazing people. The library itself is full of heart, every ounce of it feels activated.  Together we imagined and practiced what a contemplative culture might look like. We meet, talked, and experimented. I am still feeling out the boundaries of my gratitude. They are far and wide. 

One interaction, in particular, a conversation with a retired Chicago cop who attended a program I ran on a Saturday morning is the inspiration for this post. She taught me many things that morning, and one of them was helping me realize the power of photography to reflect on and appreciate your life. These photos give in many ways. The process of taking them allowed me to slow down and appreciate the moment I captured. The revisiting and deciding which to share allowed me to remember and appreciate the experiences again and also in new ways. Captioning and sharing them with you connects us across time and space. And in the future, I will be glad to revisit these memories and experience all the emotions they rush in. 

THE TRAIN

Montana Sky Country

Montana Sky Country

I'd never gone on a multi-day train ride before and I loved it. It's a humane way to travel, one that nurtures a culture of trust. You're trusted as you board. There's no security theater. You trust others to not take your things when they're unattended. You trust each other to care for the common spaces (bathrooms, trash cans, aisles, etc.) while you're traveling together.

The sun rising near Devil's Lake, North Dakota.

The sun rising near Devil's Lake, North Dakota.

You're trusted to be nice to each other.  During meals, you're seated with whoever came right before or after you. I met such interesting people, all of whom were very different from me. I found common ground with each of them and will remember their faces and our conversations for a long time.

The sun setting in Whitefish, Montana

The sun setting in Whitefish, Montana

It's truly amazing (and also kind of wrong) that we can travel so far so quickly on planes. A train ride gives you a sense of the distance you're traveling. The time zone changes are gentle. You experience the gorgeous and the mundane of trackside towns and forests.

Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park

THE BICYCLE

There is probably nothing more evocative of my time on the trip than this photo.

There is probably nothing more evocative of my time on the trip than this photo.

In exchange for pet sitting a very sweet 19-year-old cat for a week, I had accommodations in Chicago, right downtown in Printer's Row, for my entire residency. This choice afforded me the opportunity to build a true friendship with the colleague that offered her home to me. I also made a couple friends in their tight-knit community. 

Pausing at one of my favorite spots along the lake shore. A bank of flowering Black-eyed Susans.

Pausing at one of my favorite spots along the lake shore. A bank of flowering Black-eyed Susans.

It also meant that I biked 20-miles one-way to and from Skokie each day. It was an interesting choice to make, but looking back on it, my time in the saddle was such a rich and alive part of the experience. I wouldn't have wanted it another way.

A perfect day, especially appreciated after a string of very wet rides.

A perfect day, especially appreciated after a string of very wet rides.

My first ride was during a thunderstorm that began at about 5:30 in the morning. It was torrential and I was soaked through after riding two solid hours in it. After that, I thought it could only get better but turns out another storm awaited the very next day. I experienced so many challenges along the lake front and the streets I found to Skokie (Ardmore, Kenmore, Granville, Lakewood, Pratt, Kedzie, McCormick, and Main). Menacing cars, impatient cyclists, oblivious rollerbladers. It was truly difficult each day in its own way. But, like my commute here at home, which is also two hours and involves 10 miles and a ferry ride, there's so much to be gained by accepting the challenges presented. It is a different experience to ride in the rain when you aren't upset that it's raining. In many ways, my ride afforded countless opportunities to practice acceptance.

THE LIBRARY

From the first minute to the very last of my time in Skokie, I felt something I rarely experience: belonging. Over the course of thirteen days, I participated in 51 engagements — "Mindful Meet-ups" with staff, departmental meetings, walk & talks with individuals, pop-up programming for the public, and more. I directly interacted with lots of folks — from over 70 Skokie staff members to nearly 20 leaders in other area libraries to ~40 members of the public.  It was a very full 13 days.

A goodbye gathering on my last day.

A goodbye gathering on my last day.

I left with more questions than I arrived with, which is just what a PhD student needs. Together we explored contemplative culture, programming, and spaces. There's so much to play with and learn about what's possible.

Drawing "internal weather reports" with Skokie patrons. (Photo by  Max Herman )

Drawing "internal weather reports" with Skokie patrons. (Photo by Max Herman)

I think more than any other question, though, the one that's most on my heart and mind at the moment is about how contemplative practice creates and sustains community.  I am sure that wherever my work is leading, it will involve understanding how we bring our whole selves to everything we do, and how our whole selves are incomplete without understanding who were are together.  

A post-it note left by a member of the public. I couldn't have said it better myself.

A post-it note left by a member of the public. I couldn't have said it better myself.

So much gratitude for this experience. So much more to come.

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Now is a time for courage.

Now is a time for courage.

To people like me, average and privileged: Now is a time for courage. May this moment be like the hill I bike to get home — unforgiving and hard, but strength building and on the way to a better place. Give yourself time and space to digest this loss. Speak your truth to those you trust. Write, pray, cook, cry, smile at strangers, give and take hugs, be you. There is a role for you to play in whatever comes from this. Your job right now is to figure out what that is and have the courage to be it.

To those who may feel more threatened and marginalized than ever: Now is a time for courage. May this be the villain at the end of the story who is on his last breath. May you have the  strength to keep fighting and may you trust those of us who are ready to fight for you. Your wounds were centuries in the making and they will be centuries in the healing. I truly believe our lives are playing out on the healing part of that path. Raise your voices. We are listening and many of us are ready to do our part. You are not alone.

To people who supported Trump: Now is a time for courage. May you feel heard. May you rest in whatever relief this outcome gives and may you pay close attention to the unrest that exists within you as well.  May you have the courage to participate in righting whatever wrongs unfold from this. 

I’m pretty sure that everyone in America is feeling the same thing right now and that’s fear. We may be afraid for different reasons, but we are afraid all the same. May we be united instead by our courage. If there’s anything to truly fear it is that we won’t open our eyes and hearts in this moment. Fear is moving closer to truth. Fear is a prerequisite for courage. Now is a time for courage.

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Question: What is contemplation?

In an effort to share what's on my mind and also invite dialogue and collaboration* with others, I've decided to occasionally post illustrated questions to my Twitter account. 

I posted the first question "What is contemplation?" on July 20th with the following illustration:

To my delight, a new friend that I met at Sketching in Practice, Brad Ovenell-Carter, took some time to enter in dialogue with me by responding with this:

Brad asked, "Do we understand 'contemplation' better by taking it apart or by practicing it?" I suspect this is something that the people who already research mindfulness and contemplative practice grapple with all the time. I haven't even started yet and I am already torn between wanting to be rigorous and scientific and wanting to truly understand, which I recognize may end up being a personal journey. I hope both are possible. I tweeted back:

To which @braddo replied

Encouraging me to read "Meditation in a Toolshed" by C.S. Lewis, which I did and found inspiring. On his recommendation, I'd also read a post on Brainpickings about Alfred Kazin, whose journals I instantly downloaded to my iPad thanks to the wonders of having a university NetID. I tweeted back:

And found myself arriving at my next question, which I posted this morning: "What contemplative practices might inform my future research?" The twitter conversation for today's question is already unfolding to reveal new connections and ideas.

I'll be sure to chime back in with any insights I come to regarding experimenting with looking along and at my own practices and where they lead me. Feel free to pick up any of these threads and contribute your thoughts. You don't have to be as provocative or talented at drawing to be part of this discourse. 

And much gratitude to @braddo for extending my thinking here. There are fewer greater gifts. 


* I'm enabling comments on this post if you'd like to think together about this publicly. Of course, you can also email me or dm me on Twitter if you'd prefer to keep the conversation private.

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Uncertainty

Some ideas for moving towards uncertainty:

LET GO of any fantasies of perfection you may be holding. Let go of the illusion that you can control what happens or that you can control what others think. Accept that you have less control than you think you have and less control than you wish you had. 

ALLOW yourself to go towards that which makes you uncomfortable, that which you don’t feel ready for, that which you don’t know how to do. Allow emotions that arise, even if they increase your discomfort and anxiety. 

TRUST that you are evolutionarily designed to adapt. Trust you already have what you need to handle pain, disappointment, embarrassment, and loss. Trust also, that others are made to adapt as well.

And, most importantly, PERSIST despite failure. Growth and learning are more often than not the direct result of simply continuing to try despite failing to succeed. 

Being with uncertainty is PRACTICE-BASED. It’s something you can try to be with in small ways that add up over time. Discomfort (from within) and resistance (from others) can be signs that you’re there. Do not be surprised if you find it to be both harder, and also more doable, than you thought possible.

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Practicing Sabbath

I began to get interested in the Sabbath last summer when a friend and I found ourselves walking around Vancouver one night after sundown. We'd sought after a somewhat faulty Evening Primrose Bush at dusk and were walking the long way home when she mentioned that that Sabbath ends when the first three stars can be seen in the night sky. Using the night sky as a time piece to set about or end a practice intrigued me, and when the opportunity to practice it came about a few months later, I was primed. 

That opportunity arrived in a book called Judaism's 10 Best Ideas, which I picked up at the library this winter. It suggested five "to do's" and five "not to do's" in observing the Sabbath in today's world. I've listed my slightly modified version of those suggestions below.

I've been practicing since the end of January, missing one week due to a trip (ironically, to visit the same friend in Vancouver!). I've found the practice thoroughly worthwhile. I look forward to it every week. It doesn't feel at all like following rules, but rather being gifted a reprieve from the demands of everyday life. I'm always a little sad when it ends and also comforted to know that nothing, except my lack of prioritization, will keep it from coming around next week. I've had experiences that would've never happened had I not allowed myself to be still, and my brain enjoys the break. I try to keep the Sabbath from Friday at sundown until Saturday at sundown, but some weekends I've made it Saturday sundown to Sunday sundown due to difficulties with scheduling. I'm okay with that flexibility, but I'm trying my best to not compromise on the full 24 hour commitment. 

I am not Jewish, but the book I read suggested that I didn't need to be, so I feel okay about it. YMMV

Five Do's

  1. Do commemorate and bless the Sabbath with candles at the beginning and end. Use candles that feel special and only use them for commemorating the beginning and end of the Sabbath period. I google "shabbat times Seattle" to know when to light them.

  2. Do stay at home. As a general rule stay close to home (nature/neighborhood walks are okay IMO) and only leave when doing so would mean honoring another one of the Sabbath do's or don'ts, like...

  3. Do spend time with friends and family. Make an intentional effort to see friends and family. This also includes being extra neighborly, even if that means smiling or waving with intention to people as they drive by.

  4. Do read things that edify, challenge, or make you grow. Walk to the library (or your bookshelf if it's too far), pick any books that appeal to you (as I did when I found the book on Judaism in the first place), carry as many as you possibly can home, and leaf through (or dive into) them throughout the day.

  5. Do spend time alone. Even in the company of others, use some time in the day to be by yourself, reflect on the previous week, and contemplate where you are in your life.

Five Don'ts

  1. Don't work. This includes reading books that seem interesting but are ultimately related to work, discussing work, and even thinking about working. Think of this rule as the one that lets your brain rest.

  2. Don't use screens. Power down laptops, iPhones, tablets, tvs and don't turn them back on until after Sabbath is over. This is a bit risky in that you may not be able to be contacted (I'm okay with that and it's a huge relief for my brain and attention muscles). Do what feels right for you.

  3. Don't consume packaged entertainment. Avoid movies, television, podcasts, and music. Spend time in the yard, play, create art, make up games, read, have conversations, meditate, cook, and/or simply sit and think to entertain yourself.

  4. Don't buy things. Don't spend any money on Sabbath. (I make two personal exceptions here: The first exception would be to give someone money if they desperately needed it (this hasn't happened to me yet). The second exception is to participate in the farmer's market. I thought significantly about this and came to the conclusion that the FM, which in my neighborhood falls on the Sabbath, is important enough to my life to make an exception. I've deemed it okay to spend money there as long as those transactions are treated in the spirit of community and relationship building.)

  5. Don't travel. There will be times where this is unavoidable, but when it's not, travel only by foot. Experience the world at walking pace, or even slower.

BONUS DO

  1. Make your own list of guidelines for how you want to incorporate and honor a day of rest into your week.

BONUS Don't

  1. Don't be a perfectionist about any of these guidelines. If you mess up or end up, for example, talking about work for an hour before you realize it's probably not a Sabbath-sort of conversation, simply acknowledge that and move on.

 

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The Participant is Present

Marina Abramovic is exploring some interesting ways to get her audiences to digitally detox. 

  • She worked with Igor Levit, who performed the 86-minute long Goldberg's Variations uninterrupted and by memory, to an audience of prepared listeners. To prepare them, she offered lockers outside the music hall where they were instructed to put all devices and watches. Once in their seats, everyone was given noise cancelling headphones and instructed to sit quietly for 30 solid minutes before the performance began.

  • She ended this TED talk with a short "The Artist is Present" experience where she asked audience members to stare into one another's eyes for two minutes.

  • She's experimented with rice counting as a way to create presence and independence in individuals.

  • And she's envisioning a museum-like institute where people must sign an agreement promising to stay for six device-less hours without leaving. While there, she imagines people going through different chambers where they would (re?)learn how to walk, drink water, sit, stare at each other, and lie down.

Thanks to Note to Self for pointing out this particular rabbit hole.

 

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Big news, everybody.

In October of 2014, I posted this image to Facebook and told everyone that I was leaving my job. I said, “I'm leaving because my gut says to leave and that's pretty much the only reason I have.” That was true then, and it’s true today as I write to tell you of another similarly gut-based decision.

Last summer, I experienced an “aha” moment, where I realized that much of what’s come before has positioned me well to do something I didn’t previously know was possible. I met a researcher who studies information and contemplation, and began discussing what it might look like to research that area myself. 

I talked with mentors, faculty, students, former students, and friends. I wrote reams on what I care about, where I’ve come from, and who I am. I began to make out a body of water—a field of research—into which I want to dive deep.

I applied to be a PhD student at the University of Washington, I moved out west, and I crossed my fingers. Last Thursday, I was notified that I’ve been accepted. 

I never expected to be an academic. I never knew studying something like “contemplative practice and information” was even possible. But I feel my whole life has led me to this opportunity and I plan to take outrageous and exquisite advantage of it. 

Classes begin in September. Until then I’ll be working work with some of my favorites, resting my brain a bit, and steadily continuing to build and refine my own set of contemplative practices to carry me through the harder parts of this new endeavor.

Thank you for those good vibes and prayers a few weeks ago, especially those of you who sent them without hesitation or knowledge of why I needed them. They mattered so much, as do each and every one of you.

Some Thoughts on Measuring Online Engagement

Did you grab attention? Did you deliver delight? Did you cause people to want to share? Did you initiate a discussion? Did you cause people to take an action? Did your participation deliver economic value?
— Avinash Kaushik

The tricky thing about these metrics — conversation, amplification, applause, economic value — is that they may or may not reflect what we care about, which is change. It’s assumed that more conversation, more amplification, more applause, and more economic value == good. And that correlation == causation. We can assume neither, despite the digital reams of data that are available to us.

Online facilitation is like in person facilitation, especially if your intended outcome is change. Consider likes, favorites, follows, friends, comments, and shares like you consider test scores, which do not reveal much except for truncated measures of retention, attention, and recall. Clicks of mouse, taps of a finger. These touch points do not reveal the complexity of a human heart, mind, or identity.  Understanding how a person changes based on their interactions with us, how those interactions shape who they are and combine with their past and future experiences to produce change inside of them — healing, harm, openness, closedness — is probably impossible. 

Learning and change are super complex. Consider we may never know the effects of our work. Every snapshot lacks context in some way. Proceed with listening, kindness, observation, and experimentation. Accept that there will be uncertainty, as in all things, and move forward anyway.

Same, Same

I have never lived in a place as big as Seattle, where I encounter stranger after stranger, day after day, and could never not. 

But some of those strangers are magical.

The woman who rides the same bike I do, same color and with the same basket and even the same kind of bag in the basket, wearing the same t-shirt that Jen used to wear all the time until she lost it, locking her bike up across from me at the library on a Thursday afternoon.

The man who sits in the Olympic Sculpture Garden on a Saturday morning, writing in a notebook and staring at the water for a long time. I know it was a long time because I sat a ways down from him writing in my notebook and staring at the water for that whole time, too.

Or the day I left my apartment with an apple, which I ate while walking down the hill to Broadway, where I stood holding the apple’s core and waited patiently for the crosswalk signal. And the man on the opposite side of the street, who after also waiting patiently for the signal to change, crossed my path  holding the core of his own apple.

These moments are pure joy. I grin wide and breathe them in deep.   On a different day, in a different moment, we wouldn’t know each other at all. 

A List of Things That Improve

  • homes

  • energy efficiency

  • handwriting

  • the seasoning on a cast iron skillet

  • water quality

  • screen resolution

  • public transit

  • the time it takes to run a 5k

  • wifi bandwidth

  • medical treatments

  • interest rates

Noteworthy omissions:

  • self

  • humans

  • trees

  • flowers

  • ladybugs


My thanks to Frances Ulman, who taught me much of this over and over again.

A Flow Chart for Navigating Fear

The next time you notice you're afraid and aren't sure if it's an actual shark with teeth, maybe this flow chart can help you out.

How to Draw a Shark

sharks.png

 
 

Step One:

Think of something you are afraid of.

step2.png
 

Step Two:

Draw an upside down “V” or an A without the crossbar that makes it look like an upside down “V.”

 
 

Step Three:

Draw the bow wave so that you can tell what direction the shark is swimming (e.g. towards you).

 

Step Four:

Draw the wake to help reinforce that yes, it’s definitely swimming towards you.

 

Step Five:

Draw an arrow that points to it.

 

Step Six:

Color it in (optional).

 

Step Seven:

On the end of the arrow that is not pointing at the shark, write down a sentence that describes the fear you thought of in step one.

 

Repeat as many times as necessary.


 

You may be wondering why there is no body necessary to draw a shark.
It is because we only need the imagined threat of any fear to fully fear it.
And besides, spoiler alert.

 

Knowing Not Knowing

Some days risk must be endured. On those days it's not thrilling nor terribly scary. Reward and failure, both, elude.

Today is one of those days.  Today I experience the plain, boring side of risk. I must be with my choices and not scramble one way or another to change them so they are more or less comfortable. Being with this uncertainty is different from creating it or discovering where it leads. It’s both not knowing and knowing at the same time.

It’s knowing not knowing.

Ocracoke Update No. 4

Ocracoke Update No. 4

After a long drive and ferry ride. After packing the cars. After taking down the Christmas tree. After time with friends and family. After Christmas concerts. After finding a whole Scotch Bonnet. After star gazing and dodging cats (and their poop) on walks with Rusty. After dolphins and rainbows. After raw wind and storms. After warm days long past their due. After being chased by a dog and circled by a hawk. After making and experiencing one of the best decisions ever, we are home.

About a month ago, I was sitting on the couch writing morning pages when I heard an abrupt and familiar whackthump. A bird had flown into the window. I winced and got up to assess and I saw it lying on the ground, upright, panting, and otherwise not moving.

I knew the bird wouldn’t last a minute in its current state. Ocracoke is home to dozens if not hundreds of the fattest and most fearless feral cats — Ocracats — I’ve ever seen. And our area of the island happened to home a large percentage of them. I thought of something Frances once told me — to always make way for life — and I put on a coat and went outside to stand watch.

I sat about ten feet from the bird and waited. I tried not to scare it. I had no desire to rush it. I simply sat and watched it for what felt like a long time. Eventually, it did fly and with a start. One second it sat immobile and the very next it was gone and I never saw it again. 

As I sat watching that bird, I didn’t know if it would ever fly again. So much of my Ocracoke experience was like that. It was unknown until it was known. And even though each and every moment of those three months is known at this point, there’s still much unknown about it. What will come of the relationships we’ve begun? Will we keep our new routines and perspectives? Who will we be as a result of this experience? 

One last story.

Leslie owns a bookshop (the bookshop) on the island. It’s called Books To Be Red. We went there frequently because we love it and she’s awesome and it’s something to do. We always chatted and were friendly and it was the sort of thing we could do anywhere but usually don’t. 

A week or so ago, we stopped by Leslie’s store to buy toy walkie talkies. Jen and I were driving separate cars home and we thought it’d be nice to use them instead of our phones. Leslie showed us the set she had but once we told her our plans, she didn’t recommend them. She didn’t trust that the toy ones would have the range we needed to communicate.

Later that day, I got an email from her. She wrote that her son had a pair of real walkie talkies that we were welcome to use and could ship them back once we got home. We stopped by the store the next day and picked them up.

On the morning we were set to leave, Leslie texted at 7:32 am. She was on the 7:30 ferry with her son Andrew, a freshman at UNC, who she was driving back to school after winter break. Just as the ferry launched, he realized that he forgot his dorm key. Even though they were only two minutes from the island, they were essentially seven hours away from his keys (the three hour ferry to mainland, the wait for the next one, and the three hour ferry back to Ocracoke).

Leslie wanted to know if we might grab the key and meet them in the Triangle later that day. It was effortless to say yes and so right to be able to reciprocate her frequent kindness to us. We met them at REI a few hours later, dorm key and walkie talkies in hand.

These stories remind me of something I learned time and again in Ocracoke - to give from a place that has. The morning I watched the bird, I wasn’t sacrificing to stand watch. I suppose Ocracoke didn’t sacrifice much by being so very much Ocracoke in our time there. But it was exactly what we needed.

In the words of Rilke, “In the course of my work this last long winter, I have experienced a truth more completely than ever before: that life’s bestowal of riches already surpasses any subsequent impoverishment. What, then, remains to be feared? Only that we might forget this! But around and within us how much it helps to remember!”

Or in my own words, dated the morning of 12/30/14, “I am deeply grateful to this place. And to my past self for finding and trusting a way here. This time, while I am sad to experience the end of it, was enough. I am grateful for this perspective and for the truth behind it. I have the eyes to see how my life is wonderful.”

Ocracoke showed me that we have. And when we give from that place, we have even more.

Secret's in the Salt

The first edition of the Secret's in the Salt newsletter went out in the US Post today.