On being “Useful”, and selfishness

“If you try to be very clever, if you try to be very useful, you will be used. If you try to be very practical, somewhere or other you will be harnessed, because the world cannot leave the practical man alone. Drop all these ideas. If you want to be a poem, an ecstasy, then forget about utility. Remain true to yourself.” -Lao Tzu

Boy did this one sink deep.

For  a lot of my life, I put a lot of energy in being “useful” to people. I love listening and hearing people’s stories and their concerns and doing what I can to be compassionate and help them navigate (in fact, I built a business on it). I love it, it is a true calling of mine.

People find it really easy to open up to me, and share things that they haven’t ever told anyone.  Part of the reason for that, it seems, is that I’m great at reflecting what people say back at them without judgment, and without including very much of myself in the conversation.  Which makes me a good interviewer, and useful.

Wait here until you are useful
All of this comes with a cost, however.  Because of this focus on being useful, It’s easy for me to deflect and repress my stuff and just concentrate on helping the other person.  It turns out that you need to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others with theirs.  Being useful distracts from me. Sure it feels good, but it’s also a way to avoid stuff as well. Being useful always puts the focus on the other person

Today, and for the past few weeks, I’m trying to more consciously choose to be selfish.

Boy, selfish is a very charged word in the world.  Most people take it to mean “self-obsessed” or “uncaring about others”. It’s basically a nickname for narcissism. And it’s ‘bad’.

I’ve been aiming at selfless for a long time.  If there’s anything the world of ‘enlightened’ folk wants us to be, it’s selfless and giving and charitable and humble and down-to-earth and grounded and modest.  Of course there are great things about the concept of being “self-less” (meditation and dissolving a limited sense of who ‘I’ am are freeing practices, and yay for them). But without true compassion for myself first, it becomes a situation where others needs become way more important to me than my compassionate attention to me, and that is not good for anyone involved.

There is tremendous kindness in being able to focus on yourself first.  I think that we just cannot be truly compassionate to others when we are not compassionate to ourselves first, or at least not willing to focus on ourselves to a point where we come at a situation from a sense of wholeness. Not perfection, mind you, but wholeness in all of our flawed glory.

I’m finding in my practice that when I can find moments to be kind to myself when I wouldn’t otherwise, that it fills me with an overwhelming sense of relief. Just pure ‘hey, maybe I don’t have to beat myself up for not acting in a way that I would expect of myself’.

And with that flood of relief comes a more open-heartedness to my own delicate and gloriously flawed humanity, and by extension a greater compassion for others and potential for real two-sided connection.  Beyond that, if I let it happen, there is a tremendous sense of gratitude for the freedom I’ve given myself.  And gratitude is life-changing.

So maybe there is a way to really get into listening to people and opening them up that doesn’t involve ignoring the “me” that needs kind attention.  A way that can feel nurturing to me as well, rather than me on autopilot. Something that can fill us both up.

One moment at a time.

On The Ridiculousness of Conflict, and The Stories We Live

One of the best things about living in Atlanta is that you can go just a few blocks and find yourself in a totally different area with a different feel, population, and points of interest.

About two miles away from my home in Edgewood, Atlanta, there is a neighborhood called Lake Claire.  Lake Claire is a hippie enclave, filled with Obama/Biden signs, sidewalk chalk drawings, many many plants, and houses with peace signs and ‘love each other’ painted on them.  The vibe is very natural and authentic, and my daily walks often bring me over to the area.

One of the best features of Lake Claire is a community-operated park area called the Lake Claire Community Land Trust.  The LCCLT is a peaceful easy space, featuring a community garden, a lake with ducks, and an Emu named “Big Lou” who wanders around and enjoys eating pieces of fruit from people’s hands (well, other than citrus).

It also has an amphitheater where they have concerts (folks music mostly, of course) and a weekly drum circle. Every Fall, they have a concert called the “Peace & Love Festival”

They are not messing around with this hippie stuff.

It is a serene, quiet place to go and read or walk around or have conversations, the people who live there are exceedingly friendly (they tend to call each other Brother and Sister, whether they are related or not), and of course you could always go and see Big Lou.

LCCLT amphitheater

On this particular day, I found myself sitting several rows up in the empty amphitheater, reading a book, when one of the residents, a fifty-something guy in shorts and a t-shirt, came in and set up a fire in the fire pit located dead center.  He worked meticulously, putting the wood in a triangle with newspaper in the middle and lighting it in several places, pleased with his work.  I glanced up every once in a while, and smiled to let him know I wasn’t just being creepy and staring at his fire.

Just moments after this scene played out, another fellow came down the path and noticing that there was a fire, came down to confront the first guy about it.

“Why did you set a fire??? You know we have the Fairy Light Festival tonight and I need to prepare the area.”  It sounds silly but this guy was really annoyed.

“Because I can.  There are house tours today. Dammit”

“We can’t have a fire in here now, and I wish you’d stop being such an asshole to me.”

“I’m not being an asshole, YOU’RE being an asshole!”

“No, YOU’RE being the asshole!”

This continued for awhile, in the center of this amphitheater surrounded by nature, in preparation for the Fairy Light Festival, and  mere feet from this stage:


After this, they both stormed out.

I continued reading my book.  This was an act break, I suppose, in this improv theater-in-the-round.

At this point, The fellow who’d complained about the fire stormed back in, took a rake and toppled the fire into the ashes, grabbed a bucket of water, and doused the rest of the flames, shaking his head and walking back out again.

I finished another chapter.

More slowly this time.

Then the first guy came in, saw his destroyed fire and looked up at me.

“Did that guy put out my fire?”

I wasn’t sure I wanted to get involved.

“Er…Yes, yes he did.”


I smiled and tried to sound neutral. “Everybody’s got their something, ya know?”

“You got that right!”

He stormed off again.

At this point, I gave up entirely on the book.  I owned the situation.  This was two people embroiled in conflict, literally in the center of a stage, so stuck in being right that they had no idea how ridiculous it all seemed, given their context.  I could see it only because I was several levels up, sitting on an audience bench, watching it all unfold. I was not involved, I was merely a spectator, amused at the absurdity.

The fire-douser returned with a rake, sweeping up the ash and dirt, cleaning the seats in preparation for the festivities of the evening, shaking his head in annoyance.  This was no one-time argument.  These two had a history.

Ten minutes later, yet another confrontation, center stage, this time with several other friends of the fire-douser present (and seemingly just as amused as I was)

I got up and walked out.

My instinct was to find the fire-maker and suggest to him that maybe if he treated the other guy super-duper-nicely, that might really annoy him.  But I didn’t.

I’m not sure what that says about me.

Anyway, I guess that’s what the universe thought I needed to learn today.

There is lots to learn, if we step back and look at it from the audience.

Best play I’ve seen in a while.

If you find yourself at the LCCLT, say hi to Big Lou for me.  He likes grapes. And doesn’t care a bit about fires.


Letting Go Of Masculine Energy. Or: Unselling Myself

If you’ve met me, I would imagine that you wouldn’t describe me as particularly ‘macho’ or ‘manly’.  This is not a point of contention.  I surround myself socially with women, for the most part.  My interests are not particularly masculine (I like girly drinks, and WB shows and am not much into sports and so on), and I often feel out of  step when surrounded by mostly guys.

I’m beginning to realize that there is a ton of masculine energy shaping how society expects us to behave, especially when it comes to “work” and resources.

We are supposed to go out and get that client, or get on our grind or always be closing.  If you’re not hustling, you’re never gonna win. 

We have to rock our sales pages.  We need to get to #1 on Google.  We should network and build our connections.

Can you feel the “grrrr” energy connected to all of this? I certainly can.  When I set up Deeper Context the way I did, I felt a little unsettled by my sales language, but it seemed like the thing to do in order to grow my business and build a client base.   It hadn’t really occurred to me to think about it in terms of whether any of that language meshed with my own natural energy.

I’d been brainwashed by the popular assumption about how to build a business, how a freelancer is supposed to behave, where the energy should come from.

And I was wrong.

Because what I want to do isn’t to sell products, or generate revenue (not as a main goal, anyway), or even grow my business.

To me, those are clothes that don’t fit very well.  They are the same clothes that didn’t work for me as an employee of large, masculine companies.  Just ask my former bosses.

What I want isn’t any of that.

Those are not forces that nourish.

They are forces that break others down.

Those are not forces that leave room for everyone.

They are forces that must destroy the competition.

Those are not forces that are interested in what you have to say, and will sit quietly and listen.

They are forces desperate for your attention by any means necessary.

They are forces that mostly care about numbers. About SEO. About quarter-over-quarter growth. About bolding random sentences in the hopes that they stand out.

They are not forces that say “Yes, let’s try that and see what happens”

They are forces that say “Show me that this will be a success, using my values, before we try it. And still probably no.”

They are not conversational.

They are dictatorial.

These are not my values.

What I want isn’t any of that.

What I want is to connect. To grow and help others grow. To turn over a rock and see what might be hiding.

To help to awaken that giddy, childlike part of us that we cover over with “should” and “this is how it’s done” and “justify your time” and “but I need to”.

To find out what makes you tick.  Under all that stuff.

That’s what Deeper Context will be, when I learn to unsell myself. One part of a larger person, unconcerned with the masculine. At home.

We can get there, you and I. Together. One healing moment at a time. Just being.



On Nourishment

3546425A concept that’s been coming up a lot for me lately is ‘nourishment’, and leading a nourishing life.

Does your life nourish you? Do your days?

A big part of how I’ve spent the last two years is in the mindset of “trying to figure out the next chapter” or “what do I want to do with my life”.  I’ve worked toward that with Deeper Context, to some extent.

But recently I’ve realized that “figuring out the next thing” is actually a mind state completely distinct from actually living your life and having the next thing happen. You can spend your entire life with the mental filter of ‘I gotta figure out what I want to do’.  The answer doesn’t come from thoughts, from contemplation.  There is no light bulb waiting to pop on and provide a singular a-ha moment.

So, it seems there is no answer.  But maybe the question itself is flawed. Maybe how can I find a job that maps to my skills and interests and passions is not really useful or answerable.  Maybe a more useful framing would be  how might I live a life that more often includes things that nourish me, and trust that the necessarily material concerns will follow?. 

What nourishes me?

For one, stepping away from the computer. I’ve spent too many days glued to one screen or another, communicating with loved ones, feeding my interests, killing time. I’m taking a break from my 12 hour laptop days, as much as i can.  The internet will be there if I need it.

I’m also taking a bit of a breather from the current iteration of Deeper Context.  Now, the project is still very near and dear to my heart.  It’s my own fault, really.  I’ve had the ‘figuring out the next thing’ glasses on, and I’ve accidentally taken something that I care about very dearly (talking to people about the things that they love and their history and what energizes them) and aimed it too much at “let me make videos for your website”.

What I care about is the conversation, and that just doesn’t show through.  So, it needs adjustment.   I know there’s a better way to integrate it into my life in a way that is nourishing, and it will happen.  That will come, in time.

So, here’s my reality now: I have no idea what’s next.

I could not possibly feel better about accepting this reality.

Stepping away from the expectation of ‘finding a path’ or ‘choosing a topic’ is providing me the freedom to look at things through this different, lighter lens.

I’ve been gardening a bit.  Taking my hands off of the keyboard and putting them into the dirt.  Something real.  Something I can help to grow. In some instances, something I can eat later.

Plants exist in the real world.  You feed them and care for them and they reward you with rich colors and flavors.  You can feel them. There’s no screen to look through.

I guess in some way I’m creating nourishment there too.

Feels good.

Note: Sometimes I struggle with making these posts more inclusive. Using ‘we’ instead of ‘I’. I’ve decided not to worry about that now, but I would really genuinely love to have a conversation about this with anyone who would like to share their feelings.

Thanks to Mynde Mayfield for encouragement and Jen Carney for resonance on this post.

On What We Leave Behind

“My hope still is to leave the world a bit better than when I got here.” -Jim Henson

Do you think about your legacy, ever?

What you will leave behind?

We continue to exist long after we die through the cherished memories of those who knew us.

And through our works.

I ask this because my father is dying.

He has Parkinson’s, he falls a lot, he needs 24 hour care.

Nocturnal K by Charles Meyers

He’s been an artist his entire life, and now his hands shake too much to be able to do the one thing that has driven him.

His mind can’t focus enough, though he’s aware that his mind can’t focus enough.

He’s leaving behind hundreds of works, that are in the collections of national museums and private collectors, and yet he doesn’t feel like he ever ‘made it’.

Do you think about your legacy, ever?

I’ve been thinking about my legacy a lot lately.

Will what I’ve done endure?

Will what I’ve put out into the world enrich people’s lives?

Will they share it with their children?

Will anyone know who I was 10 years after I die?

Two weeks after?

What if I got hit by a bus tomorrow?

Would someone still think of me and smile after my friends are dead?

Do you think about your legacy, ever?

What you will leave behind?

Do you?