We’ve gotta keep the world big.

“Tikabel” (“Receive”), Tel Aviv, 2016

 

During the opening “rant” of Episode 830 of his bi-weekly WTF Podcast, Marc Maron said something that resonated with me. He said, “We’ve gotta keep the world big.” I like that. I like it because, for at least a little while, it seems like lots of people have been trying to make the world smaller. Consider:  “It’s a Small World”, globalization, the internet. Not to mention echo-chambers, bubbles, and all that. A small world has its potential upside– a greater sense of connectivity, of interconnectedness, interdependence, and so on… some of the promise of globalization and internet-ization. But Maron got me thinking about why a big world is a better than a small world and what it means to keep the world big. It seems to me that the art of living, the task we collectively and individually face, is keeping the world big while still recognizing and honoring the interconnectedness and interdependence that seem so undeniably obvious and yet so elusive and easy to dismiss at the same time.

Maron’s comment was made in the context of setting up his interview with David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker. He was praising The New Yorker for helping keep the world big by providing diverse, thoughtful, international content that spans genres and subject areas. For Maron, keeping the world big seems to be about keeping an open mind, staying connected to and challenged by culture, and to some extent, engaging with diverse and even opposite points of view, narratives, and ways of being.

I’m inclined to have a similar view when it comes to keeping the world big. I’d simply add that part of keeping one’s personal world big means actively cultivating spaciousness and expansiveness of heart, mind, and soul. Whether that means lingering in the pause between each breath a bit longer, waiting a bit longer to jump to conclusions, listening 1% more than usual, casting one’s gaze a bit wider when scanning the horizon, or actively remaining or re-opening to possibilities of different sorts. Keeping the world big means being willing to revisit core assumptions, habits of mind, ways of being, identity anchors, and patterns of all kinds. It means being willing to take a hard look at suffering, at pain, at fear, at the stuff that pushes us towards seeking shelter in the smallness that we think might keep us safe from the radically vast wilderness of existence.

I’m a fan of WTF and always grateful when I find something there that I reminds me of something that I believe and helps me think about it in new ways.

Death (Day 3)

Everyone else in the hotel has their plans for the day and we have ours. People look at you a little funny and with a tinge of pity when they see you dressed in funerary garb.

The limo arrives at the house. We check to see if it has lathes for car seats. We head to the synagogue. Eventually others arrive. The funeral begins.

My wife and her siblings all spoke beautifully. They found the right words and stories for the occasion. I know that each of them found meaning in sorting through a lifetime of stuff, each a little surprised at how the stories wove together. Funerals are like people, similar in many respects but no two the same. I sat with my daughter. All around her there were tears and some laughter too. What she calls “sweet and sour” tears. Watching my wife lead the El Maale prayer in honor of her father I think about the strength in each of us and the need to honor those we love however difficult it may be.

Riding to the cemetery. My father in law is to be buried in a newly dedicated section. There aren’t any stones there yet and only a few markers. It’s oddly spacious for such a place. A longtime family rabbi, Sharyn Henry, facilitates the interment. My daughter throws flowers into the grave rather than dirt. We shovel dirt. I feel compelled to shovel more than the usual amount. For some reason I keep the Kaddish card. We are deeply touched that so many joined us at the cemetery and returned with us for a meal at the Shul.

While the rest of the family heads back to the house to sit and be together, I take the kids for a swim back at the hotel. It’s the single most exciting gift I can give them and it feels good to be in the pool. After swimming we stop at a book store so I can buy a few books for our trip to Alaska (which begins tomorrow). I also buy a few books to give as gifts to my brother and sister in law and mother in law.

Dinner is a testament to the sacred power of friendship. We’re joined by two couples who are friends of the family and of my father and mother in law in particular. Friendship is so powerful and touching because it’s completely voluntary. Somehow people connect across the vast multitudes of time and space to forge a bond that eventually becomes a bond of love. There’s really no other way to say it.

Shiva is an important part of the healing process. Tonight I realized that part of shiva is acknowledging that death transforms relationships. There were people at Shiva tonight that we may never see again and also people that my wife and I have never met before. There was time dedicated to sharing stories about my father in law but it didn’t really get going. I wonder what happens to all the stories, all the experiences, all the moments of meaning.

Tomorrow we leave Pittsburgh for a previously scheduled trip to Alaska. It will be hard to leave but we are eager to fulfill the vision we set in motion when we made these plans. My father in law always wanted to visit Alaska and I believe he was not only envious but also so excited for us to go. We will certainly think of him often when we are there.

 

Death (Day 2)

All of a sudden it’s a new day. I guess it’s obvious but you only have one date of death. Quickly time starts to accumulate.

Today my daughter got a napkin and wiped tears from my wife’s eyes.

Then she sat in my father in law’s oversized arm chair and said it felt like he was sitting beside her.

My son asked questions. Some we could answer authentically and some we couldn’t.

Visits with the rabbi and the funeral home. Lots of micro-decisions about a subject that feels anything but micro.

Eulogies need to be written.

Conversations about what happens when you die. Is there such a thing as unfinished business or is death the finishing of all business?

Facebook messages posted.

People start to bring food in earnest. They call and check in.

Some measure of relief as people indicate whether they are coming to the funeral or not.

While days are a convenient way of marking time, it seems more helpful to think in terms of moments. How am I now? Now? Moving through different emotions.

Death

My wife was out running the Peachtree Rod Race. And making good time.

My phone rang. It was my mother in law. She rarely calls me directly.

I answered the phone and she told me through her tears that Jim, her husband, had died.

I called Loren, still recovering at the finish line. I have terrible news, I say, your dad is gone.

When we’re all together we tell the kids, 6 and 3. They’re sad, especially Hadara, but they’re mostly upset that their perfect day of swimming and baking cookies and launching champagne poppers has gone out the window.

We pack not only for Pittsburgh but for our planned adventure to Alaska. Jim dreamed of going to Alaska but never got there. We’ll go for him.

Delta is helpful then not then helpful again. Hilton hotels are helpful then not and then helpful again.  The same with Alamo.

Peter and Karen stop by to check on us and play with the kids a bit. Lots of phone calls and texts as details come together.

We lnd, get picked up, and go to the house to hug Cathy and cry a bit.

14 hours later and we are now in Pittsburgh. She’s at the house and I’m at the hotel trying to get the kids to rest. They’re watching fireworks displays on TV. It’s the 4th of July.

Its hard to get beyond these simple descriptions. There’s much to say but the words aren’t yet formed. I’m trying to be mindful of what’s unfolding around and within me. And mostly I’m trying to be compassionate and present and attentive and aware.

Want to Be A Better Leader? Then Adopt These 9 Habits!

I borrowed the title of this post from a blog post written for Inc. by Gordon Tredgold on 6/28/17. A colleague posted Tredgold’s article to our email distribution list and asked for feedback. Sometimes when I receive an article like this I prefer to write my own version before (or in place of) reading the original article. That’s what I’m doing here. But here’s a link to Tredgold’s article in case you want his excellent thoughts!

Chicago, 2017

Since leaders are basically human beings with certain responsibilities in the context of a cause or organization it makes sense to think of habits that leaders might cultivate since human beings are in the business of cultivating habits. Rather than falling into habits through a kind of mindless default, there’s power in consciously selecting and then habituating ourselves to certain habits. We can quibble over whether the following list contains habits, mindsets, dispositions, ways of being, traits, or some other form of personal commitment. But when I think of good habits for leaders, “these are they”:

  1. Be Present. It’s quite difficult to lead if you’re not present. Of course this means physically. But it also means intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. It turns out that being present might be the most basic and most difficult habit of all.
  2. Be Connected. We are connected. That’s basically a cosmic truth if you stop and really think about it. But that doesn’t mean that we feel connected. It doesn’t mean that we exist in ways that honor relationships, that overcome perceived isolation, that bridge chasms of understanding. Technology has laid claim to the idea of connectedness, to the detriment of real connection. Leaders and human beings need to be present and be connected– to ourselves, to one another, to our shared values and visions, and so on.
  3. Be open. Different than being transparent. Different than being honest. Though these are important as well. Being open means being ready to encounter reality as it is. It means being open to feedback, new ideas, better ways of doing things, criticisms, opportunities. It takes tremendous discipline to cultivate a habit of openness because being open means letting go of many of the things that potentially anchor our work and our identity. But the opposite of being open is a no-go. Find me a leader or human being that has succeeded by being closed.
  4. Joy. There’s much cause for celebration in daily life. And it’s a rare and special person who is so deeply attuned to the joy of living that they are able to infuse their life and their community with awareness of that joy. It’s also a rare person that doesn’t respond positively to little infusions of joy in their day or their workplace. As joy sometimes gets lost amidst the work, leaders and human beings do well to cultivate a habit of joy.
  5. Care. Leaders and human beings must care. It’s really that simple. Read Nel Noddings. I’ve written about this before. If you don’t care about yourself, others, your organization, the quality of your work– then what’s the point????
  6. Meaning. As problem solvers and doers, sometimes we get so focused on how that we forget about why. There’s nothing wrong with how. It’s just that we do well to surround ourselves with lots of different types of questions, especially those that push us toward understanding the meaning(s) that we and others have in our lives and in our work. Leaders do well to cultivate a habit of reflecting on the meanings that permeate every community and workplace.
  7. Be reliable. Life is tough and reliable people make life better for everyone. Being reliable means being honest, being trustworthy, being accountable, being responsible, and being organized. Leaders are only reliable if they complete tasks, get back to people in a timely fashion, follow through and so on. Reliability is an undervalued but critical habit.

Well, I’ve come up with 7 instead of 9 but I’m pretty happy with the list. I’d love anyone’s thoughts or feedback that might have read this far!

On the occasion of my 20 year HS reunion

I woke up this morning to discover that the 1997 graduating class of Grover Cleveland High School in Reseda, Ca had a 20th year reunion last night. I didn’t attend because, first and foremost, I had no idea that it was taking place. I guess I missed the FB memo. But such a milestone moment is certainly cause for reflection.

 

Sculpture, Israel Museum

Earlier today I found myself thinking about, for lack of a better phrase, the constant surprise of existence. By that I mean the fact that, no matter how much life experience we’ve acquired, the present moment and every moment that has preceded or will follow it is, on some level, a complete surprise to us. On some very fundamental level I think it’s true that for every single one of us, life is an endless series of surprises. And I think on some level, we all know this is so.

It’s easy to miss the surprising nature of existence. Since existence has a kind of rhythm to it and the appearance of predictability, the ever-present element of surprise can sometimes go unacknowledged. Much of existence ends up looking and feeling pretty similar for an array of reasons. But the surprise is there, at the core of existence, nonetheless.

Our existence begins in surprise– isn’t it surprising that we should have ever been born? It ends in surprise– do any of us really know exactly what death will look and feel like? And though I brush my teeth every day, sometimes the toothpaste feels different in my mouth. Who knows why? Said another way, could I have ever imagined what would go down between 1997 and 2017? Could any of us? Maybe the surprising nature of existence is easier to see when we look backward rather than inward.

That existence is more surprise than it is predictable unfolding of moments, might be an easier idea to lean into for some than others. It’s easier for those of us that don’t mind surprises or who have a strong sense that the surprises of existence often tend toward the good rather than the bad.

Knowing what a day or an experience will likely bring is an important part of a lot of peoples’ game plans. But at a certain point, life will teach each of us to be cautious of expectations and be prepared for the unexpected. At some point the surprising nature of existence will announce itself. It’s announcing itself now if we are able to hear it. May we be pleasantly surprised!

Film Review: Fierce Grace

Fierce Grace, produced and directed by Mickey Lemle, is a documentary about Ram Dass. The film was made after Ram Dass had a stroke. The film is about how the stroke changed Ram Dass’ life and how he makes meaning of what he calls, “being stroked.” The film moves between the present (2001-2002) and the 1960s-1970s when Ram Dass became Ram Dass.

As I watched the film I found myself trying to figure out what I find compelling about Ram Dass’ teachings and world view. While Ram Dass has offered many different teachings over the years, I think his central idea is captured in the title of the film: Fierce Grace. Ram Dass seems to believe in a purposeful universe where everything happens for a reason. Experiences and phenomena, both subtle and extreme, are given to us so that we might get closer to the essence of being, to truth. Embracing of God language, Ram Dass seems to believe that the good, the bad, the pleasant, the miserable, the easy, the difficult– all the stuff of life, comes to us from God. God gives so that we might receive and work with that which has been given. Fierce Grace seems to refer to the most intense of gifts. The loss of a child, acute illness, profound love. During the film we meet several people that are working through Fierce Grace and that seem to have found comfort and challenge in their relationship with Ram Dass and his ideas. Four moments really stand out in the film: 1) watching Ram Dass interact with his speech therapist who helps him understand why silence cannot be the only response to loss of speech and how to communicate through gesture; 2) when a bereaved couple reads a letter that Ram Dass wrote to them after the tragic death of their daughter; 3) watching Ram Dass participate in a Kirtan concert led by Krishna Das; 4) Ram Dass’ conversation with a young woman whose boyfriend was murdered while participating in an environmental demonstration in South America.

It seems to me that a good documentary is one that evokes the essence of its subject. Over the last couple of years I’ve listened to several lectures delivered by Ram Dass. He is a person whose essence is both incredibly simple and incredibly complex at the same time. Watching Fierce Grace helped me to distill some of that essence in a new way. And for that reason I recommend the film to anyone that might be interested.

“I see no imperfections.”

Today, while zigzagging across Atlanta, I had a chance to listen to another episode of Jack Kornfield’s “Heart Wisdom” podcast. Again, I found something there that resonated.

Israel Museum, May 2017

Jack told an old story about a time when his friend, Ram Dass, was experiencing intense doubt. In that moment, Ram Dass’s teacher quietly circled him, looking at him closely. After a few minutes, his teacher said, “I see no imperfections.”

“I see no imperfections.”

That phrase struck me. As I type now, I realize that I’ve lived a good chunk of my life living by a different mantra or belief. The belief that there is no such thing as perfection. At least in the way that many people seem to think of it. In my mind, I’ve abandoned the idea of perfection and tried to replace it with deep appreciation for what is, especially when “what is” is good, in the deepest sense of the word. I’ve lived by the belief that perfection is somehow antithetical to being human. To be human is to be imperfect. Imperfection is what makes life beautiful, meaningful, unique, and interesting. Imperfection is part of what evokes in us the striving that pushes us forward.

To me, “I see no imperfections” is a radically different way of expressing a similar sentiment. And perhaps it’s a more useful, or differently useful way of thinking about what it means to be alive.

What if we were to look in the mirror each day and say, “I see no imperfections.” Not because we aren’t really looking, but because we are really looking. To do so would be to affirm that the present moment, as it is, has a kind of perfection to it. Not because it’s achieved some type of subjective perfection, but because it IS. What if perfection is achieved simply by being?  Is it possible to look in the mirror in this way? Maybe it’s possible on a personal level, and when things are good, but what about beyond that?

What if we were to look at our neighbors, our fellow citizens, our world, and say, “I see no imperfections.” Not because everything is “perfect,” but because everything is as it is and therefore has an undeniable reality and wholeness to it. Maybe.

But what about the horrors of life? What about the senseless and random suffering? Can any of us, should any of us, look at that and say, “I see no imperfections”? While I recoil at the thought of casting such a seemingly indifferent and empathy-free eye at the world, a part of me, at least intellectually, can go there. I think I can look toward suffering and say, “I see no imperfections.” I think I can say this not because I’m happy about it, but because I am able to honor and acknowledge that it is. I can continue to reject and fight against the reality of suffering but also acknowledge that it is present, real, whole and therefore, somehow perfect, if only for a perishable instant.

Coming back to the story about Ram Dass. I think his teacher was telling him that who he was, as he was, was a kind of perfection. That his being was perfection in and of itself. Brokenness, suffering, doubt, desire, all of it, to the extent that it IS, is transformed for us when we look, see, and purposefully say, “I see no imperfections.”

 

How might we?

Neot Kedumim, 2017

How might we be a little kinder?

A little more compassionate?

A little more present?

A little more accepting?

A little more curious?

A little more open-minded?

A little more engaged?

A little more receptive?

A little more appreciative?

A little more humble?

A little more aware?

A little more uncertain?

A little more flexible?

A little more creative?

A little more playful?

A little more human?

Take one breath.

Take one moment.

Take one look.

Take one step.

Co-existing with Cancer

Today I attended the funeral of a beloved member of the Atlanta Jewish community. While there, I had the sacred opportunity to learn more about someone I knew, but didn’t really know. There were many moments where I felt greater appreciation for the man, and one that really struck a chord.

Tel Aviv, 2016

During his beautiful eulogy, the deceased’s son shared that his father had once said (and I’m paraphrasing), ‘Instead of thinking of myself as fighting cancer, I prefer to think of it as I’m co-existing with cancer.’

What I find striking in this statement is the power of writing your own story, something this man clearly did. As the author of his life story, this man preferred the idea of co-existing over the idea of fighting. For him, “co-existing” was a more compelling, meaningful, and useful way of thinking about his life and his situation.

I suspect that all too often we adopt the metaphors, images, and even world views of others instead of doing the work of understanding and articulating our own. We don’t even notice it because our own meanings are so deeply influenced by others and by society more generally. One could even argue that we can’t arrive at any meanings outside of the shared vocabularies of our culture.

I think of all the times I’ve heard people use the phrase “fighting cancer.” There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the phrase and I would never suggest that there is. But I wonder, were they all “fighting”? Did they think they were fighting or did others describe them in those terms? And even if they were fighting, what did or does fighting mean to each? And in what other, perhaps more personal, ways did they and do we think about our life and situation.

Before today, I can’t think of a single person “co-existing” with cancer. That doesn’t mean there aren’t many. What I learned today has less to do with the specifics of cancer than it does with the idea of authoring our lives.

What really matters is that we populate our lives with ideas, concepts, and ways of thinking and feeling that reflect our deepest commitments whether they be “fighting” “co-existing” or otherwise. What matters is that we determine for ourselves the nouns, verbs, adjectives, metaphors, parenthesis, and exclamation points of our lives.