#40 – Explain About the Thread

“The Way It Is”

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

– William Stafford –


I was captivated this week by an episode of the podcast, This American Life. Specifically, this segment featuring the magicians Penn and Teller describing their process for developing a new trick. Teller, the conspicuously silent partner, has fallen in love with the idea of recreating a classic floating ball and hoop routine. Penn is less enthusiastic, as in not at all. As Teller works and works to make the trick worthy of their show by the standard they have agreed to over 40 years of collaboration he falls short time and again.

A breakthrough comes when they agree that the way to make the trick compelling to both themselves and their audience is to let the audience in on it from the very beginning. The trick begins with Penn’s announcement: “The next trick is done with just a piece of thread.”  And off goes Teller, beautifully and brilliantly manipulating a ball with nothing more than a piece of thread.

What Penn and Teller understood and acted upon – after years of work on one specific illusion – is what William Stafford implores us to do in the poem above: “You have to explain about the thread.” 

I am often in a position to do exactly that. In the classroom or at a speaking engagement I am frequently asked about my own thread. Why do I do what I do? How did I get started? What are the steps I took from there to here?

I always respond in the same way, that I knew exactly what I was supposed to do with my life when I was 17 years old. A bright red thread emerged through my experiences in musical performance and student leadership. I was intuitively aware that the abilities developed and practiced in those early settings were the strengths I would call on throughout my adult life. I held onto my thread through the first few years of college but lost it completely once I had to marry my intuitive sense of it to the harshly practical world of “knowing what you want to do with your life.” I didn’t know how to manifest my nascent understanding of my thread into a next step. And I was too afraid to explain about the thread. I wasn’t willing to say, “This is my thread. I don’t know much about it but I do know a few important things, not least of which is that it’s mine. Will you please help me figure out where it leads?”

Instead, I let it slip away. As it turns out, it did not let go of me. We played peekaboo on occasion, a flirtation here and there, but it took over 10 years and an extraordinary confluence (aka, the thread working hard behind the scenes) of people and events to land me in front of a classroom of aspirational leaders. The specifics of that first class are hazy because my memory is dominated by the aliveness I felt at having my hands on the thread once again.

A few years ago my thread led me to the college classroom and the opportunity to teach and mentor undergraduate students. The thread has a solid sense of humor. It says, “You struggled to claim me as your own. Others struggle, too. Here is your chance to help a few people struggle a little less, to find the thread a little earlier, and to gain the confidence and declare their commitment to hang on.”

There is no “magic.” There is finding your thread and there is holding onto your thread because “while you hold it you can’t get lost.” There is demonstrating to all who cannot see it that what looks like magic is just your commitment to trust where it will lead. Sometimes, like Teller performing for a full house, we hang on with artistry and elegance. Sometimes, like Teller in the early days of practice, we hang on in spite of our fumbling because our curiosity compels us to learn where it wants to go.  And sometimes we don’t hang on at all. But it is there, waiting to dispel the illusion that we can find our way without it.

What is your thread? Where is it leading?
Who have you explained it to? Who have you asked for help?
What makes it hard to hang on?
Is there someone whose thread confuses you?
Will you listen to them explain about the thread?

For further reading, here’s another reflection on “The Way It Is” by Parker Palmer.


This is #40 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.” You’re one click away from reading another!

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#37 – Eat What You Want (It’s your birthday)

Years ago when I was downplaying another birthday as “just another day” and “not a big deal,” a friend suggested otherwise. She said that the day of our birth is inherently important because it is the day we started being us. It matters that we are here and because that wasn’t always so – and will not always be so – it matters when we started!

I haven’t thought about birthdays the same since and I won’t start now because my wife, Theresa’s birthday is today. If she hadn’t shown up on March 9, 1971 the cascade of life events and changes and chance that led us to one another and the life that we have built together as a result, would never have happened.

And for that I know that I am a very lucky guy.

And you’re lucky, too, even if you don’t know her, because the good that she does in small and meaningful ways every day is the kind of good that goes out into the world with quiet potency.

She’ll give you anything you need and help you in any way she can, no questions asked. She gets stuff done. She is loyal. And, no pushover, she is fierce.

On Sunday afternoon she was making crêpes at the stove. She makes the batter from scratch and then, one at a time, turns out a soft, golden brown, perfectly cooked crêpe.

I said, “Why are you making crêpes?”

“Because I want to,” she said. “And I’ll probably eat them on my birthday.”

C’est ma fille!


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#8 – Take a break

This is #8 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.”


“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes,
including you.”

– Anne Lamott


If you are reading this on Sunday afternoon, I hope it’s from an easy chair or the sofa. I hope you’ve just returned from a hike, or even a walk around the neighborhood with your pup. Or maybe you just popped in from the garden for a glass of water (a cold beer?!) and took a quick peek at your phone.

I hope you are taking some time today to reconnect to activities you love and to recharge by taking some time to read for pleasure, to call a friend, to watch a great movie. You need that time. We all do.

If you struggle to slow down, you’re not alone. Dividing up a two-day weekend between activities, commitments and relaxation can be tough. The truth is that we are pretty lousy at giving ourselves permission to step away from the grind of our responsibilities.  A quick search reveals that in 2018, the US workforce allowed 768 million vacation days to go unused. Approximately 70% of employees did not use all of the time they had coming to them.

That’s both a waste and a shame especially when it’s a safe bet that you aren’t going to be sitting around in 10 years telling stories about how great it was to do more work when you could have used that time to do anything but.

For our sanity, for our health, for our families, and just for fun, we have to do better. You can start this weekend. There’s just enough time.


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#7 – Get Moving

This is #7 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.”


I feel an energized anticipation when I am getting ready to move.

I feel engaged – challenged, curious, motivated – when I am in motion.

I feel rejuvenated, refreshed, stimulated, creative, purposeful, accomplished, and unstoppable when I return and come to rest again.

Some version of this is true whether it’s a sniff walk with the dog, an aggressive uphill run or a long meander on a forest trail.

I am not made for sitting at a desk for long stretches, though moments of insight, inspiration and even revelation do occur there.

I have determined, however, that those moments occur at a frequency proportionate to the quality of movement that I practice when I am not there.

There is no doubt at all that how well I work, and how affirmatively I live my life, depends on my resolve to get and to keep moving.


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The Consolation of Completion

I am a master of getting things done. Sometimes, it’s even stuff that has to do with my  growth, learning and development as a human being.

I am a master of knocking out the dishes, wiping the counters clean, spinning over to the couch to fold the laundry. I am a master of getting that laundry distributed and put away. I am a master at mowing, edging and weed pulling. I am a master at unpacking my bag after a trip, dirty clothes in the basket, clean clothes hung up or put away.

I am a master at doing all of the things that have a clear beginning, middle and end.

Checking those things off my list feels fantastic. It fills me with feelings of pride and the clear knowledge of having made a contribution to my household and family.

Every single one of those things is important. And every single one of those things is a convenient hiding place from the real work of becoming the better version of myself that I aspire to be.

That work cannot be charted on a task list but only on the pages of a much bigger book, messy scribbles writing a messy story, one that keeps inviting me back to make a bigger mess and to trust that the mess, the incompleteness is, in fact, the evidence of becoming.

Everything else is consolation.


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You Have to Plug It In

Dec 13, 12:47pm – Oakland Airport: A man looks up between bites of his Mesquite Grilled Chicken salad and sees a “Short Story Dispenser.” Intrigued, he sets the salad on the seat next to him and approaches the machine, the sensation of his unwitting participation in a social experiment growing in his mind. He pushes the button for a “1-minute Story” and nothing happens. He pushes the 3 and 5-minute story buttons and nothing happens.

The man notices that the “Short Story Dispenser” is, in fact, unplugged. Increasingly confident of the social experiment, the man bends down and plugs it in. He hears a brief whirring sound and then…nothing. Oh, well, he thinks and returns to his seat for more salad.

Moments later, he glances up and sees that the machine is lit up now, each button outlined by a small circle of light.

Certain that he is being played, and unable to resist, the man returns to the kiosk, pushes the “1-minute Story” button again and to his delight, a story comes tumbling from the mouth of the machine.

As he finishes the story he sees another man at the machine, a braver man who has clearly pushed the “5-minute Story” button given the length of the scroll that emerges.
The first man is envious and also satisfied. And when another man approaches and receives a story, and then a small boy does the same (bravest of all because he prints two stories!!) his satisfaction deepens and becomes happiness.

He knows, and will always know, that he is the man who plugged in the story machine at the Oakland airport on a Friday in December.

(Alternative post title: “Things that happen when I am not holding my phone”)


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Towards Aliveness

“Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.”

– from “Sweet Darkness” by David Whyte


Move towards aliveness. As best you can, keep moving towards it.

Resist the pull to the middle, miles from the edge of your experience. The edge of your experience is where aliveness lives.

Aliveness is not “happiness” or “satisfaction.” It is not “achievement” or “success” or “confidence” or “knowing.” These are too small, too confining.

Aliveness is a persistent invitation, found both in the bright light of day and the darkest hours of the night. It is the invitation we all feel to have a bigger conversation with the unknown than we believe we are capable of having. It is the first, tentative steps toward a kind stranger, the first uncertain words spoken in greeting. It is saying, “yes, I will keep walking and see where this leads.”

Aliveness is a loyal companion, wagging with exuberance when we arrive home at the end of the day, ready to play. It begs us to step out, to engage, to explore.

When we decline, it lays down close by, resigned to our disinterest, and hopeful for what tomorrow might bring. Maybe tomorrow.

Move toward aliveness. Begin a new conversation, one that starts with “Yes.”


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Margarita the Super Dog

Playful

“We have no empirical evidence that being more serious leads to greater insight into the human condition than being playful. There is, however, growing empirical evidence that being playful opens toward the ever-elusive, supple heart.”
John Paul Lederach


There is only one thing I miss…that I truly miss…from going to work every day at an organization, from being an employee, on a team, responsible to deliver what’s been promised.

That thing? The fun of it. The playfulness, the messing around, the good humor, the connection and camaraderie. Enjoying myself at work – playing at work – is something I never got tired of and that I miss very much.

As a “sole practitioner” I have to work very hard to create the kind of playfulness that, inside the walls of the company – in the right conditions, of course – happens organically. I have regular and irregular phone calls and email/text exchanges with friends and colleagues that help me keep perspective, have a laugh and enjoy the experience of my day-to-day work. And that’s essential because I can take my work much too seriously on far too many days.

I am reminded today that the intensity of my furrowed brow suits my work only insofar as it moves me toward lightness and freedom. I realize that I can measure this by checking whether I am inching myself closer to the playground than to the principal’s office.

That the seriousness of my endeavor can be for the purpose of creating more playfulness – rather than just more work “product” – seemed an irreconcilable difference to me for far too long. That my work is and always needs to be playful, given all of the best effort I can muster, is what makes it worth doing. And what makes those on the receiving end much more appreciative of what I offer.

I love my work. Some days I love it so much that I squeeze the life right out of it. Some days, better days, I hold it lightly…so lightly that it just starts to float away. And I can sit back and smile as I watch it go.


This is for my friend, Alia.

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The Human Paradox

The need for certainty. When we meet this need too well, life becomes predictable, routine and stagnant. We end up sort of dying in place.

The need for variety. When we meet this need too well, life becomes chaotic, an endless chase for the next, the more interesting, the more stimulating. We end up sort of dying on the run.


It’s been a strange summer around our house. Since I set up my business and a home office 6 years ago, summers are always a bit strange – and stressful – for me. Mid-June arrives and the kid’s schedules make a hairpin turn into late nights, later mornings, and just a whole bunch of them being around…like all the time. This summer we have the addition of a college student returning to the nest for a few months. It’s an adjustment for all of us, needless to say.

On top of that, we had no plans for any kind of family trip this year, nothing that required reservations or flights or extended planning, anyway. And with some extended getaways on the calendar this fall an implicit agreement was made to stay put this summer.

But I don’t stay put very well. After a couple of months of the certainty of my daily routine being displaced by the variety of summer’s randomness, I heard myself saying that, “If we don’t plan a getaway, I’m going to take one of my own.” Not as a threat, simply as a statement of need. The familiar has become too familiar and, with the squeeze of three teenagers, the fine attributes of the “staycation” no longer seem so fine.

We’ll be making our way north soon, some expected spots on the itinerary and a few unexpected ones as well. Really, it’s the going that’s the thing. It’s the chance to experience the chance encounters that rarely come unless we set out to meet them. And it’s the knowing that, all being well, we will return to the certainty of a home ready to hold us as we settle in again, anticipating what comes next.


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