Watch, Listen, Learn. A stranger or enemy is only a person whose story you have not yet heard.
Watch, Listen, Learn. A stranger or enemy is only a person whose story you have not yet heard.
Thirty-five years ago, my father called me into his room on his birthday when he always used to remind us that Beethoven was born on his birthday. I ran to his bed quickly to wish him a happy 60th birthday, and to distract him from his pain. He died soon after. He would have been 95 today (16th) had cancer not killed him.
I knew that day that his words and examples of love were precious gifts. I remembered them and put them on bookshelves in my mind as if they were pretty rocks to look at now and then. Twenty-five years after his death, something happened that opened my eyes and heart. Suddenly I saw that they were not merely pretty rocks; he had given me rubies and gems with infinite value. He had shown me the power of love no cancer or army can defeat.
I could have told you an inspiring story or two or three from those days, when I decided to help my mother and father, after he became bed-ridden with cancer growing in his bones from his skull to his toes. However until recently, I never saw the whole story – the victory of love over pain and the highest goal a human can accomplish: choosing love and life, no matter what. “Susan,” he said, “It doesn’t matter how close death is, my job is not to choose to die, but to reach out to love and life.” And, he did. I never understood how much until I grew up enough to be able to see what he taught me.
One day, an event and the ensuing struggle brought me to a new place from where I could see better. I could see my father in a new light. Instead of telling you about one person who visited whom he helped, I suddenly saw a pattern I had never seen before. Every person who entered his room, most of whom were fighting back tears and trying to bolster their courage to cheer him up, received gifts that cheered them. I escorted tense, teary eyed people to his room, then escorted the same people back to the front door while they were laughing, smiling or relaxed and content. In three months, there was no exception, even at 7:00 am, after my father’s usual sleepless night full of pain. I had never seen the whole story because I had to grow to a place where I could see it.
My father chose to have just the minimal amount of morphine to take the edge of his pain, in order to be alert and able to live life as fully as possible. He told me many times (and I never understood what he was telling me) how grateful he was for his pain because it continually reminded him of the present, and to be the person he had always wanted to be right now. “Susan,” he offered, “I don’t know [what will happen]. All I know is that love and life continue, and I must keep reaching out to love and life.” When I could see the whole story, I saw a man racked with pain who never said one word of complaint, one word of self pity or one negative comment. From a starved body that looked like a victim of a concentration camp, my father told me a story I didn’t understand for over twenty-five years.
What precious stories are we throwing away when we judge the teller or the culture and language of origin? Every person’s story, every culture (a specific collection of stories) offers us gifts, opportunities of learning and growth. Not understanding or valuing a story is a reminder to keep growing, and keep revisiting stories we don’t understand.
Designthinkingconference.com will link you to information about an exciting conference. Instead of speakers, there will be actors, interacting with all who show up. We all affect each other, changing minds, opening hearts, allowing greater insights, understanding and growing. If you scroll down or jump around the site, you will see my passion for sharing stories, of all kinds, in different languages, in order to encourage us to connect, to see through different eyes.
We need stories and to share our stories. Experience, it is said, is the best teacher. Very probably it is the ONLY teacher. We go to conferences to confer, to bear with someone through his or her story.
We are our stories, and I am grateful for yours. Your story shows me more of me, and how I am connected to you, and all of life.
The stories I can share – The Boy Who Cried Wolf – accessible through many languages – and A Man Without Words, the book or the short documentary on a DVD, are yours. Write me and send me your address and I will send them to you. Or, join us in Amsterdam at the end of this month, and we can share some stories in person.
More after I check on the boiling beans, chop some vegies, and look for more food to add to my stone soup. Keep coming back, as I add some new posts, now that the gardens have been put to bed for the winter.
Each day was no longer a struggle when Ann, my roommate, gave up fighting her disability. As Ann accepted who she is, limitations and warts, she began to live differently, seeing life as life is, not what she wanted. People began to look different, more interesting, more varied, and not like Ann’s ideas which did not grow or change readily.
Ann told me her secret to life one day. “Susan,” she began slowly, before she had completely swallowed her first bite of toast, “I no longer raise my fist to the new day, begging for “it/this/me/you” to be different. I changed one day when, instead of my usual complaints and self absorption, I saw the green grass, heard the traffic below me and the children laughing on the playground behind me, felt the breeze, and the ground under my feet, all at the same time, vividly. I felt life in me, around me and through me. It was exhilarating, although as fleeting as a snowflake on an open palm.”
“The next morning,” Ann continued, no longer interested in her toast, “I woke with my usual black mood, then stopped, remembering all the life I had experienced in that one moment. I looked out the window to the clouds and the blue openness, and whispered, “thank you.” I did not think or care what the “you” pointed to. Thank you, blue. Thank you, cloud. Thank you, new day. Thank you, Life. That morning was the beginning of the best day I had ever had.”
Ann, with her black hair still and shiny resting on her shoulders, sat motionless, gazing into the garden, into its summer lushness, out our kitchen window. She was so relaxed that she, her chair and her coffee cup all were one seamless picture. Her peace and joy were contagious, and I felt myself merging with the morning sun.
Weeks and months went by as I watched Ann grow and change, becoming more Ann, more alive. It was as if an Ann light had turned on inside of her, shining everywhere. I was honored to be a witness to her transformation, inspired to reach, to stretch, to find my own light. I found myself worrying less, holding on a little longer to a real moment, free from floating fear of bills due or mistakes I predicted or remorse at that remark that escaped last night, free from fear of everything. Ann taught me how to enjoy a piece of toast.
Then I moved to N. Idaho and began missing fresh avocados and friends and familiar streets, and more variety of ages, colors, clothing, and attitudes. I struggled to fit in, to find a friend, to remember which way to turn to get to the grocery store. It’s the struggle and the beginning of self pity that reminded me of Ann. Because of Ann, I looked up and saw the blue sky, remembering to be grateful for the colors around me. I noticed the green, reds, oranges, purples, grays and nameless shades in the trees and mountains. If I looked, I saw beauty in every direction.
Ann’s story of transformation led to changes in me and my life, as stories always do, in minor or major ways. I gave up the struggle, and breathed in some lovely clean air. I began to walk and talk and act as if I belonged, instead of missing fresh avocados. I discovered, instead, some tasty food at a quality grocery store that catered to all kinds of stomachs and needs. One day I tried a brand new dish made with N. Idaho wild cilantro. I fell in love. I never knew such a plant existed or such a taste. I’ve decided to stay in N. Idaho as long as possible, hoping to feast on wild cilantro as many days as I can. Good- bye, avocados. I love you, Cilantro.
Pain is a necessary message to the brain. Pain triggers the removal of a hand from a flame before too much damage. Pain protects us from further injury,…. when we listen. When I began to listen to pain, I learned a lot. Pain is my best teacher.
This last month has been painful. I’m learning a lot. Passing the lessons on in a blog post, with an impersonal keyboard and clumsy words, is not nearly as useful or effective as direct pain, but modern times bring vicarious experience more often than direct, real life. Such is the world of screens, machines and pathological individuality.
Long life story shortened, a fantasy balloon of mine has been popped. Loud bang and disappointment were accompanied by some deep pain of rejection and feelings of betrayal. Instantly, however, I saw those feelings coming from the little kid in me – another fantasy: my projection of someone betrayed me, not the actual person. Also, I could see reality and be grateful for all the clear sky and spacious beauty where the balloon had been. Life as I had planned, worked for and expected didn’t happen. I can cry over the bits of balloon on the ground or look at new blue sky, billowing white and gray and purple waves of clouds, more mountains and their pine forest clothing.
For years, in different ways, I have experimented with developing, supporting or engaging community. My most recent effort, accompanied by more than one fantasy balloon, included growing food, alternative building and living, practicing sharing and giving economies, and communal cooking and meals. I had three and a half pages of all kinds of ideas, and spent all of my liquid assets on infrastructure and preparation while I fantasized about meeting the future community.
Then life happened, and I lost the garden or farm or orchard to be, the land for my newly built tiny house, and three and a half pages of fantasies. Within a week, I moved into a shared living situation, reeling from the roller coaster turns in my life. I sensed all the openness, newness and vast expanse of life, but my eyes needed time to adjust to all the brightness, after the shadows of my fantasies.
Two nights after moving into my new place, I was at a table with three strangers, eating and laughing and sharing. I was communing.
The shared meal came together spontaneously, with strangers, all of us rocketed to that moment, mostly against our wills and plans. It had nothing to do with anything on my three and a half pages. This community sharing, laughing and eating happened, in spite of me, not because of anything I did or planned. Growing pains ushered in a lesson I had heard, knew intellectually but had not practiced regularly: Community is Everywhere.
We are never alone. We cannot be fully human alone. Community is all around us. We cannot always see or engage others because of our projections and assumptions. Those fantasy balloons blind us.
May the bursting of your balloons, along with the painful pops and stabs of disappointment, open your eyes, hearts and minds. Growing pains are worth the newly gained heights and views.
Look around you and be pleased.