Storytelling with Drake Students

Martha and I bundled up on a very snowy morning in early January, and drove to the Hotel Pattee in Perry Iowa. Lopso, the resident dog greeted us warmly at the back door. His name complements the fact that he had three legs, making him lopsided. He became a caring presence to us and the students. Lopso wandered in and out of our session, and paused only for his hotdog lunch.

Carol Spaulding-Kruse had asked us to facilitate three hours of yoga with Drake students during a J-Term class, focusing on the intersection of yoga and writing. We focused our session on Hanuman, the monkey-faced god of the Hindu myths. Even though Hanuman’s story is centuries old, its lessons are still relevant today. The Ramayana is one of India’s most popular myths. In it Ram asks Hanuman to complete several difficult and challenging tasks, that he believes are impossible. Each and every time, Hanuman tells himself that he cannot accomplish such enormous tasks, and yet, he always does. He’s been telling himself a story that simply wasn’t true.

Lopso the three-legged dog at Hotel Pattee
Sweet Lopso approved our message, however he stood firm that he could not skip his hotdog lunch.

As we told Hanuman’s story, we asked the students to consider the stories they tell themselves. Martha and I urged them to note which stories are true, and which are not. Sometimes in our minds, we tell ourselves stories like, “I’m not funny” or, “I’m too shy.” Because the stories aren’t always true, necessary, or helpful, they limit our capacity to experience our full humanity. We told the Drake students some stories we’ve told ourselves, and how they’ve not always been helpful, true, or necessary.

Yoga asks us to occupy space, to relish in the full capacity of our humanity. Hanuman reminds us we can do hard–even impossible–things, even when we’ve been telling ourselves we can’t.

Covid–What Can We Do?

…a sense of belonging is one of the most essential needs of humans. We also need to feel power over our lives, belief in our own abilities and a sense of generosity. Seems to me Covid has challenged our ability to satisfy all of those needs.

Strengthen Relationships

Whether online, at work or at home, I measure the quality of my life by the health of my relationships. How am I feeling about the people and organizations I connect with? What am I accomplishing through those relationships? Are they helping me grow? Or distracting me from my hopes and dreams?

Cyndy Erickson, Shelly Johnson and I presented a workshop recently at the Iowa Non-Profit Summit on strengthening relationships to achieve a more productive workplace. Key components of strong friendships and partnerships are communication, focus, continuing assessment and feedback. Not a simple task, but the rewards are great.

Jose, one of my Earth Heroes summed it up, “Miss Martha, when I’m special I work really hard.” In very few words Jose eloquently stated the key to education. It’s about the relationships. Between students and teachers and among students.

This fascinating article in The New Yorker says this about the creative process, “Like every element of ‘Hopscotch,’ we figured it out through conversation, testing, discovery, iterating.” Opera director Yuval Sharon has created an amazing experience in limousines and on rooftops in Los Angeles. The piece made me want to fly to LA to see it and I’m not even an opera fan!

I’m sure their conversations included honest feedback, one of the most difficult components of communication. How often do we avoid mirroring someone’s unproductive behavior to them? Or withhold the positive feedback that provides motivation and incentive for futher effort?

What are the costs of avoiding those conversations? Cyndy Erickson facilitates Fierce Conversations including delegation, confrontational and coaching conversations. It can be done as a one- or two-day workshop and could be combined with Real Colors or other professional development.

Real Colors is a personality assessment based on Myers-Briggs. We use it to help groups identify strengths and preferences. Then we build on it to develop better communication and stronger teams.

What is amazing to me, but perhaps shouldn’t be, is the way the group at the Summit received a brief centering/mindfulness exercise. More and more I’m using techniques I’ve learned from yoga to bring groups into the present as we begin programs. Giving permission and instruction for stillness and breathing seems to strike a chord among many.

For strong relationships, the ability to pause and breathe deeply is essential to overlooking minor annoyances, for gathering courage for the difficult conversation, for rewarding jobs well done.

Clear Boundaries. No Limits

Art is unique in requiring that hands and mind be in the same place. Distraction and anxiety are at the forefront of challenges for Des Moines Art Center Outreach students. Art class provides opportunities for quiet, focus and mindfulness.

Color Me Calm

Last week I sat in a meeting and listened to a group of adults talk about how much they hate the holidays. It made me a little angry. I believe we have choices about how we experience the world, and that staying in the moment allows us to enjoy life to the fullest.

I also understand that our culture puts a lot of pressure on people during the holiday season. We may be asked to spend time with family or friends we don’t really like that much. We may not have family to spend the holidays with.

We may feel the need to find just the right gift for someone we don’t know all that well, or someone who is hard to please. My siblings and I finally settled on giving our dad gifts of exotic food; we could never find a pair of slippers that fit his size 13 feet.

We may compare our contribution to the office potluck to those of others and feel less than a great cook. Or maybe there is no office potluck to contribute to. We’re surrounded by requests, from the bell ringers to the TV ads.

Well, I think it’s time to take a moment to calm down with a coloring book. According to this article, coloring generates quietness, creativity and stimulates our brains. I was an anti-coloring book mom, but I admit to having lovely memories of lying on my stomach on the floor coloring many a Disney princess as a kid.

I also loved paper dolls but they aren’t nearly as calming as coloring. All those little tabs. Yikes.

I looked at a few options for your coloring needs. From the blatantly zen Color Me Calm to the entertaining Bun B’s Rapper Coloring and Activity Book to the clearly cynical Unicorns Are Jerks. Lots of fun choices; some I wasn’t willing to highlight on this site! Ten Bizarre Coloring Books for Adults offers even more  choices for your gift list.

Laughter is always good for releasing stress, lightening up and brightening your day. But Carl Jung, a very wise psychologist recommended coloring for releasing stress. He had his patients create mandalas, circular designs originating in India.img_5178

Get Happy!

Burmese art students at the Des Moines Art Center“We’re happy!” declared the Burmese refugee group as they finished their Des Moines Art Center tour on May 8, 2014. This was the culminating activity of their four-week art class. According to the ELL teacher at Lutheran Services in Iowa, “many elderly clients are dealing with vision, hearing and general health problems. Some have endured torture and malnutrition… Many … have had no schooling in their own country…”

The language barrier makes it difficult to know much more than this about our art students but we can tell that some have formal art training, and we know that several were weavers before they came to the US. They often use English letters and numbers in their designs, as well as images from their native lands. Art is proving to be a universal language.Batik of Roses in a Vase

This spring session was the third one for several of the refugees, some from Burma and some from Bhutan. People in both ethnic groups arrived in the US after many years in refugee camps. It’s hard to imagine an environment more different from south Asia than Iowa.

We focused on batik during the spring session. It is a universal medium; every culture around the world has developed an art form based on a resist process. The medium brings out the refugees’ love of fanciful designs and bright colors.

The First Unitarian Church will host an exhibit of the class’ work in July. The Church is prepared to collect a donation from anyone who wants to purchase the artwork. Proceeds will be used to purchase personal art supplies for students in the program.

Find Your True Nature

Find your true nature. Then resist it. We’ve been exploring this concept in yoga lately, and often the question is why? Another is how? Here’s a story that answers both questions.

Back in 2004 (thanks Beth!) we built the Adventure Learning Center. We scheduled training with Junior from Wisconsin. I loved Junior. I probably owe him my life. I certainly owe him insight into my true nature.

I spent the first two days of training on the ground. This was possible since we started on the low course where elements are only twelve to eighteen inches high. To be honest, I was actually a little scared of those!

When we did play around on the highs, I carried ladders with my friend Jeff who was also determined to remain grounded. We learned to belay really well. Then at the end of Day Two Junior told us the last three days of training would be exclusively on the high course, 40-60 feet above the ground.

I lay awake Tuesday night, filled with fear. Some people dream of flying. I dream of falling. One thing you do with fear is look for ways to avoid doing the thing you’re afraid of.

I decided I’d “experience” the high elements, but not set them up. I could stay on belay and I wouldn’t have to set up the belay system that could mean life or death to a climber. Seemed reasonable to me.

Until that morning when we got to the ALC. Junior put us into four groups of three and told us our first task was to climb a pole, set up and take down its element. I could no longer see a reasonable way to avoid climbing and setting up.

I don’t ask others to do things I’m unwilling to do myself. So, climb I would. The tower held a cargo net and a giant ladder as well as the climbing wall. Setting up meant fastening the belay system to a cable running above my reach around the perimeter of the tower.

We set a ladder against the northeastern telephone pole and lashed it to the pole with bungee cords. I don’t know who went first, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t me. I believed my true nature was to stay on the ground. I had a visceral, palpable fear of heights. When we took our kids to the Rockies, I spent a good deal of time pulling the boys back from the edges of cliffs.

Making it to the top of the ladder wasn’t so bad, but then finding the giant staples sticking out of the pole, getting a purchase on them and figuring out where my left foot should go was another huge challenge. Especially since I was shaking.

Not only was the footwork challenging, but I was using lobster claws for the first time (I was also on belay thank god). By the time I got to the top and locked the carabiners on the cable I was shaking AND crying.

I had bruised and cut my legs and arms reaching for staples and navigating the railing, but there I was at the top with task accomplished. Cheers came up not only from Eric and Corinne but from the whole group. I had done what I never expected to do. I had resisted my nature.

Over the next two years I gained confidence in my ability to set up the belay system correctly, keep at least one lobster claw clipped to my harness and one to the pole. I learned to love being perched at the top of a gently swaying telephone pole, just a little closer to flying in the clouds.

Hope is a Verb

It’s hard to be hopeful when we’re bombarded with news 24/7. Sometimes it’s next to impossible to scare up the courage just to go out into a world where it’s ok for almost anyone to carry an automatic weapon.

Much less to speak up about what we believe, whether it’s a big issue–climate change or a small one. Well, after a fairly thorough search, I’m pretty sure there ARE no small problems. Maybe a few inconveniences.

But I read an article this afternoon in More Magazine that takes it down to the simplest of solutions. Go back to the things that comforted you in your childhood. Mira Bartok talks about rabbits, both literary and plush. She also writes of a photo of an absent friend on her fridge; I have a small gallery of mentors who have passed away on my dresser.

I can look into their eyes at the beginning of the day and find the courage to go out into the world to seek my fortune. I also have a necklace my friend Jill made me from beads she collected while she was in Peace Corps. When I was going through a particularly difficult time of my life I wore it to meetings where I felt vulnerable and needed the courage to tell my story.

That experience of reporting an incident of sexual harassment didn’t seem like it would change the world, but it’s exactly the kind of thing that can.

A young friend of mine, at great personal cost, brought charges against a doctor who harassed her. Her courageous action means he no longer can practice. She’s made it safer for women to trust the professionals we rely on.

Jane Goodall spoke at Drake University a few years ago. She sees a fairly dire future for the planet, her beloved chimpanzees and all of us. But she talked at length about hope and about the work she continues to do to turn the curve of climate change, “What else are you going to do? You can’t just give up!”

Just Sit There

Next Step Adventure is offering “Be the Change,” a loosely connected series of Thursday evening dinner discussions  at Christopher’s Restaurant beginning January 2, 2014 with “Be the Change in Your Body.” Register here for one event at $30 or register and prepay for all five events for just $125 ($25 discount).

Our February 27 session will focus on mindfulness. The more formal aspect of mindfulness is meditation. To be honest, I do better in moving meditation.

Walking, swimming and art are three of my favorites. In Sweat Your Prayers, the late Gabrielle Roth reflects on her nearly forty years of teaching personal and spiritual development.

Since I’ve been practicing yoga, seated meditation comes easier to me. Breath is one key. Observing your breath leads to managing it, then moving with it. Finally in savasana, we let our breath breathe us.

I’m excited to be making some progress in seated meditation–I can now sit comfortably for 20 minutes or so, without getting squirmy or falling asleep. Quite an improvement. So what?

So, it turns out meditation not only helps us handle stress but actually changes our brains and our bodies. As I age, I become more and more committed to maintaining my mobility, both physical and mental. My mom spent the last three years of her life literally vegging out in front of Animal Planet.

At her graveside service, I imagined God requiring a certain amount of stillness. Because she never stopped working, being busy, she had to make her quota all at one time. I plan to get my sitting done in a less painful way.

I just learned from Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight that staying in the present moment happens in the right side of the brain. “We are the life force power of the universe.” That’s what this neuroanatomist learned from having a major stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain. She believes that through focusing in the right hemisphere of our brains, we can project peaceful energy into the world. Talk about an idea worth sharing!

We’ll touch on all of these aspects of mindfulness, and some others as well on February 27 at the “Be the Change” dinner discussion. We’ll focus the discussion on being fully present in life through meditation, putzing, art and yoga. Whether through formal or everyday practice, mindfulness improves mental health.