PsyD., O.P. Living my best life now, "mid-life". I hope the stories I share resonate with Readers, regardless of chronological age. My perspective is that, the more we travel down the road, the more beautiful and resilient we become. Life can be painful, but it is a process that burnishes our strength, and expands our capacity to love -- starting with ourselves. Being able to smile and laugh ( especially at my own foolishness!) is essential to my well-being. I try - when I can - to infuse my stories with hopeful, humorous anecdotes. Enjoy. I'm thinking of you...

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One of my aunts passed away recently at age 89. Up until her last week of life, Aunt Helen somehow found the energy to saddle-up one of her nine horses and ride her acreage. Her horse-related injuries included several broken bones and a few concussions over the years. According to family lore, this was because Helen wasn’t fussy about breed, conformation or habits:  mostly she just came across a horse that needed rescuing and adopted it. She had some beautiful animals. Some, as I learned, with seriously bad habits.

I only saw my Aunt Helen once a year as a child, when we made the drive across the U.S. from the west to the east. Whether or not I asked for it, “going riding” was always a ‘thing’. I dreaded it. My first experience was with a horse she called “Dancer” (apt, considering what this animal did when you tried to board him). After Dancer, I always tried to eyeball and ask for a slow, heavy mare for my mount.  But Helen chose according to which horse “needed” riding; a bit of a ‘giveaway’ about what was to come. So it was that I learned about, and had the full-on experience of, a Barn-Sour horse.

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“Barn Sour” has since become part of my personal lexicon. I may not use it in polite conversation, but I’m definitely thinking about its meaning in certain situations with friends and family, when I listen to them talk about their attitudes and experiences related to growing older.

So this particular day on Helen’s farm  (I must’ve been about 9 or 10), a beautiful, crisp autumn in late November, my aunt had saddled up a new horse she’d just gotten:  for free, I’m guessing. Not fully understanding horses, my experience with them being pretty limited, I was still able to sense the horse’s hesitation as I climbed into the saddle. He was a jet black gelding whose eyes told me “I’m so not into this.” Nevertheless, I and two other riders (more cousins) started out down the country road bordering Helen’s property. We’d ridden for maybe 30 minutes when suddenly my horse stopped so abruptly that I was pitched forward in the saddle. Satisfied that I was almost unseated, the horse then spun on his back legs (visualize a quarter horse’s lightning-quick moves when the rider’s roping a steer), a complete 180 degrees, and shot forward ( away from the other horses) at a full gallop. Totally stunned, I’d dropped the reins and instinctively grabbed the pommel of the saddle.

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The horse ran like its tail was on fire. Ripping high speed through the forest (the shortest route it had calculated, in its deranged mind), we seemed to reach the barn where its stall was in a matter of seconds. As soon as the horse was in eyesight of the barn, he came to a dead-stop. I leaped out of the saddle and looked at him. You know what I was thinking, even as a kid. But his eyes were calm; he wasn’t even breathing hard.

My Aunt Helen came out of her house when she saw me and the horse. I had twigs in my hair and scratches on my face, but she had a good, long laugh. “Barn Sour”:  A horse, for whatever his or her reasons, panics when it gets too far from the space that represents comfort, familiarity, food and safety. If given the smallest chance, it’ll bee-line it back to where it really wants to be.

Sometimes people can become Barn Sour as they get older. Travel may sound like a good idea. Plans are made, tickets are purchased, then excuses are made for why they “can’t really leave” after all. Those reasons might be legit:  an elderly parent suddenly needs care. But many people become so emotionally tied to personal ‘spaces’ and routines that it becomes impossible for them to venture beyond the orbit of familiarity.

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I catch myself, now and then, thinking about the Risk involved with any new situation or adventure. I’m aware that, as time passes, the World itself presents more Risk. And as I think about all of the places I could go, and the things I could try, I admit to myself that I’m absolutely vulnerable to becoming Barn Sour:  there are just too many enticing comforts, and diversions right here, in my comfy little space. And so many very accomodating industries want to keep me feeling that way:  unlimited streaming of anything, food delivered to my door; even Peloton Digital agrees I should stay home. But will I?

I gave up experimenting with Dating Sites a really long time ago. As in years ago. Turns out, the Interweb isn’t quite done with me in that regard. I used to take it somewhat seriously, scrolling through pages of pictures and profiles – especially after hearing about Real Life Success Stories within my own circle of single, divorced or widowed female friends.

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But my own experience brought me  a lot of really lonely, sad men (as in clinically depressed); really angry men; really young men who had clear mommy issues; and men who seemed to be shopping for a woman exactly like they would a piece of furniture. None of this truly important stuff gets revealed in a person’s Profile – intentionally. I get it. But, seriously? The Truth is going to come out during the first meeting, so…why go through coffee, or drinks and dinner and strained conversation that has to end with an awkward handshake? No thank you.

Even though I’m no longer on any of these sites, the Internet Jackals have found, and have been circling me, regardless. I’m thinking that there must be an algorithm for my gender and age, education and marital status, so that what little is actually there in cyberspace flags me as “prey”. If the men now reaching out to me (via Twitter, lately) weren’t so immediately obvious in their gushing compliments in limited English (I’m referring to two apparently Eastern European “Engineers”, living and working on “oil rigs out in the Baltic” that latched on to me about two weeks apart), I might be more amused, than irritated.  

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But the typical inference that I must be vulnerable to, and desperate for over-the-top seduction ( really bad poetry, in some cases) makes me want to respond back with expletives. I want to take some kind of action to defend and protect myself from these Internet Lotharios (bottom line, wanting cash, I’m sure). Whatever that might be. I’m still spit-balling ideas at the moment, since I’m expanding (not shrinking) my Interweb Presence.

One of the last “social-networking” sites I visited really had me feeling hopeful. Its purpose was to connect people actively engaged in what used to be called New Age pursuits:  what we might refer to today as Conscious , or Mindful Living.  Unfortunately, this was and still is one of those sites – Readers might know of others – that, even though you delete your account, actually keeps your information in a vault somewhere in cyberspace. Every now and then unsuspecting former members might receive the message:  “Hello! Look Who Likes You!”

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And so it was, (yesterday) that a completely fabricated ‘person’ was delivered to my Inbox. This time, the “Engineer” (how is this career a ‘thing’ now??) lived less than 20 miles from me (supposedly), instead of on a rig in the Baltic. I decided to read his ‘message’…which was an Ode to my picture (still visible, apparently) and profile (how the hell was he still seeing something I’d deleted ?). He ended his Ode by asking me to text him (a New York number, 2,500 miles away from where I live) so that we’d have a “private and intimate way of getting to know each other”.  Of course:  ‘private’ and ‘intimate’ – the stuff of romance novels.

Curiosity got the better of me. I’ll admit:   I wanted to know if this guy was a “Dimitri’ or an ‘Alek’, so I asked him to share his real name. As though my question had cast a magic spell, complete with fairy dust, the man, the profile, and the internet presence was gone in mere seconds. Feeling satisfied that I’d outed yet another scam, I decided that “Ma” (a pretty bizarre nickname, right?) was actually an AI bot. His photo was too ‘Perfect Man’:  like the enemy-android (in his chiseled-face human form) from the Terminator I film.

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The point of all of this thinking about fake Internet Lotharios and their motives is not to alarm myself or any Reader. It’s just a reminder of how complex the Interweb experience can be. Some people enjoy a good game of ‘cat and mouse’:  they expect such weirdness and deception  and resolve to have fun with it.(I’m thinking about all of the people on YouTube who’ve taken the time to record and then call back ‘fake’ debt-collectors in the hope of ‘besting’ them.) It’s one thing when you go seeking It – whatever that edgy Cyber Thrill is. But it’s another feeling entirely when It comes prowling for you, disguised as a human being.

Time for me to Level Up, once again:  revisit my Privacy settings and bolster my sense of humor. Aside from all of the really good things it can be, cyberspace is also an amusement park “ride” that’s not for the faint at heart. As the signs always say, Ride at Your Own Risk.

As I pass the standard “mid-life” markers, I find myself laughing more often, more ironically, and with more gusto. Laughing at myself, mostly. No, I don’t think it’s generic old-age loonies; instead I think it’s an accumulation of wisdom overheard in my younger days finally getting through to me. There’s a group of women that visit me, as memories, from time to time. I can still see their faces and hear their conversations on topics that were totally disconnected from my reality at the time. Not anymore. I’m remembering, and I’m listening more closely than ever.

While in college in my early twenties, I taught an aerobics class on weekends at a gym exclusively for women. The proprietress (“Ginny”) was a statuesque former beauty (you could still see it in her bones) somewhere in her seventies. She walked like a model, wore a silver bouffant wig, tons of bangles on her wrists, and kept a bottle of vodka in her personal locker. I liked her, a lot. Most of Ginny’s clients were well past middle age. Some of them were in their eighties. They were a different breed of gym-rat back in the day: always dressed in fashionable gym-wear and always in full makeup, perfumed and wearing jewelry. Perspiration was to be avoided.

These ladies eased-into their “workouts” by having coffee with Ginny when the gym opened, around 7 a.m. on Saturday. When I got there a little before 10, ready to teach my class, Ginny was in high spirits (Coffee Lace, as they say in the south, I always thought.) and usually welcomed me with a bangle-jangling hug and cloud of fragrance. During stretches, the women continued to talk amongst themselves non-stop. After about 20 minutes of low-impact Step, I’d guide them through a mild bit of circuit training. Through which they all talked. I don’t think anyone there (besides myself) ever broke a sweat. That wasn’t what this gym was about.

Menopause. Cheating husbands. Feeling ‘invisible’. Slowing metabolism and weight gain. Sagging body parts and wrinkled skin. It was pretty much the same loop every weekend, and fairly easy for me to tune-out. Not only did I tune them out, but I actually thought “What bizarre conversations they have, and what boring lives these women lead.” I had the total impertinence and smugness to think that their concerns could never in a million years be my own one day.

Turns out, as I laugh at myself these days, I do so in the company of these women — now long-gone, most of them. I remember the 85 year old who always washed her face in ice water and never used any other moisturizer than Crisco (I kid you not). Nowadays, almond, olive, apricot and other oils are “de-rigueur” for skin. Then there was the woman who told me that my metabolism would some day slow to a sluggish crawl; that I wouldn’t be able to snack on nachos at midnight without packing on the pounds. My, my — do tell. Finally, there was the woman who complained that becoming Invisible was the worst part of aging for any woman (she eventually became one of the Red Hat Ladies, which I didn’t “get” at the time, but now I do.)

No question that in Western culture we value youth above all things (next to celebrity and celebrity-athletes). But there’s a time period of ‘limbo’ for women — before our kids start joking about pushing us out in a canoe or leaving us on an ice floe — in which Invisibility is a definite problem. Doctors try to convince us that 20 pounds is ‘normal’ weight gain, post-menopause. The fashion industry follows suit by creating Mom Jeans with Tummy Panels to console us. Eye doctors tell us, “Get ready for cataracts — they’re inevitable!” With the aging process, apparently, comes a whole complement of things we’re to assume we must accept. To my thinking, this is the very definition of the Invisibility that my gym-lady was describing so long ago. “You’re a woman, you’re growing older, your body is going to hell but it’s really ok because no one cares, unless you can compete, which you obviously can’t.” Reinforcing this invisibility is the husband who trades his wife in for a model “with fewer miles on it”. Not just a cliché, but a common reality.

What’s a woman to do, when facing Invisibility? Start wearing a red hat, a crimson lip and leopard stilettos? Commit to a strict Paleo and prep for a 10k? Give up cocktails and chocolate? Resolve to find summer and winter-weights of sweatpants? All women will face versions of these questions, and more, as they age. Speaking as one well-into this phase, I can offer two pieces of advice: the first is that Invisibility has distinct advantages, and becoming older brings a certain wisdom and cunning that comes in really handy, when used correctly.

My second piece of advice is to know — or learn — what feels right to you (body weight, fitness level, diet, makeup — clothing- accessories) and jump on that, with all you’ve got. Challenge doctors, dentists, stylists, nutrition and fitness “experts” if or when their suggestions clash with your own inner knowing. Learn to flow with aging according to your own rhythm and sense of well-being. I don’t have a red hat, but I do have a very dramatic, femme fatale black cloche with an iridescent peacock feather perched jauntily on one side. I don’t wear it that often because, when I do, the ‘drama’ of the hat attracts a lot of attention and questions about where I bought it. Sometimes I enjoy that, but sometimes I enjoy being invisible.

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There’s a time-worn idiom in the English language that I’ve always loved (English Lit. undergrad, I love all forms of word-play). This idiom is a verbal visual of someone painting a floor (I guess that was common, back in the day of rough-hewn floors) ‘blindly’, not realizing that his back’s against a wall: no way to leave the scene without stepping on wet paint and ruining the floor.

“Painting oneself into a corner” means, You did this to yourself; a blind move; a stupid move. The kind of move we all make in our lives – some of us many times over. The actual mistake can be harsh words that can’t be taken back; it can be bluff and nonsense about our skills; it’s very often a lie told that is sure to be discovered as a lie. Finding yourself in a corner, with no way to back-out unnoticed (without paint on your shoes and having to re-do the floor) is embarrassing on many levels:  it’s feeling exposed and foolish. For a minute, it’s hard to know just what to do. Then, the urge to get out of that corner becomes critical and there’s just no choice. You’re going to leave a mess, and be stuck with paint on the soles of your shoes.

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As human beings, we all say and do things that are ignorant, or that reveal our “tunnel vision” toward a situation. Our ego gets in the way and the resulting ‘corner’ we find ourselves in escapes our attention until it’s too late. Then, we  immediately feel the absurdity and humiliation of our predicament. (Anyone who’s ever embellished their resumé and then been asked about a particular aspect of it during an interview has lived through this idiom.) It’s clear to everyone watching or participating what’s happened. It’s usually pretty clear, also, what needs to happen next. But this is what’s so very hard for most of us (unless we’re toddlers, then it’s totally easy-peasy denial).

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Acknowledging that the predicament we’re in is of our own making, and reconciling this within ourselves is awkward. Even though making mistakes and ‘owning’ them is part of Life’s process of learning and growing, self-forgiveness — especially with a harsh Inner Critic –requires reflection and peace-making. But that’s only Part I. Part II is the way in which the person or people we’ve hurt or deceived react.

I had the opportunity today to watch and listen to someone – an older family member – realize he’d ‘painted himself into a corner’ — with snarky words aimed at a much younger relative who in no way deserved them. Within a matter of moments it was clear to me that – at his mature age (almost 70 years old) – the older man was still nurturing an ancient wound ; a grudge, to be exact; and had no way to explain (or back out from a painted-in corner with any dignity) his misplaced anger.

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What needed to happen right then?  “I’m sorry” would have been really good — perhaps even preventing the need for any further explanation. And what was the response from the other ‘side’? Sadly, but wonderfully, even though an apology never came, the recipient of the nasty words responded with grace by not acknowledging the misplaced anger. The younger man left the older man in his ‘corner’. Like a few people I’ve known in my life, I’m guessing he’ll stay in that corner until the garish red paint he splashed all over the floor with his words dries completely, and he can slink away. Even when Grace is extended, sometimes people don’t recognize it, or don’t feel they deserve it.

The Truth is, we all deserve Grace. We can wait, and hope it comes somehow, or, we can summon the courage in ourselves to ask for it.

I’ve always been intrigued by Thought Experiments:  the kind that place you in stressful situations and reveal your deepest values when faced with various dire circumstances. Many of us have had some version of a Values class, or training; or maybe we engaged in such Experiments to pass the time:  “You have to leave your house in an emergency and can only take what you can carry in your arms; what will you grab?”  “You’re cast adrift in the ocean and can only help your spouse or your child survive (one or the other); who will you save?”  

I can recall many years ago, when now-global celebrity Oprah Winfrey had barely begun airing her television program, one of her guests was a psychologist who ran selected audience members through these two scenarios. Although I didn’t watch her program routinely (it aired while I was at work), the show must’ve been on when I was on holiday, because I happened to tune-in while scrolling through channels. It was memorable, on several levels.

I can still recall the wild uproar ( audience members – mostly female — were literally on their feet ) when one woman in particular told everyone in the studio that day that she would most definitely save her husband, as opposed to her drowning child, if forced to choose. Now, Winfrey’s a pretty cool head, but she didn’t seem prepared for the reaction of the crowd as it processed this statement. (The woman’s rationale, as she tried to justify her choice over the din of the audience, was “I can always have more children, but I could never replace my husband!”)

I wonder if Security had to escort the woman from the building at the end of the show? Seldom have I seen so many women – a few even in tears – look like they might tear one of their own limb from limb. It was a Thought Experiment run amok, in my opinion:  there wasn’t really room for discussion after that – just an enormous tidal wave of emotion that Winfrey immediately tried to quell with a commercial break.

Our value systems are, in large part, uniquely personal. It’s clarifying and even helpful to explore and talk about what matters to us; what’s really important in our lives. Doing so during pivotal moments, or times of stress, can facilitate wise choices and prevent mental or emotional ‘overload’.

As human beings we share in collective value systems that are deeply tied to our cultures. In the above scenario, where the unfortunate woman became a target for admitting that she could withstand losing her child, but not her husband, onlookers left no doubt in anyone’s mind that her choice was a major Taboo. In most of the world’s cultures, children are automatically bestowed with  a kind of sanctity that adults are not; regardless of any religious backdrop for  this fundamental belief. Which really makes me wonder about the ongoing digression from care and consideration for our most vulnerable in society: those that we’ll rely upon as we all inevitably age.

Several important people throughout history (Gandhi, writer and novelist Pearl S. Buck, and political U.S. presidential candidate of long ago, Hubert Humphrey, to name a few) have stated their values publicly, when it comes to protecting the “weakest members” of society. Using various words and phrases, these three proclaimed that the morality of any society could be gauged by how it treated “those at the dawn of life, and those at the sunset of life”:  children and the elderly. (Gandhi, by the way, also included all animals when he defined those needing and deserving extra care and protection.)

Here in the United States, I wonder about the difference between our espoused values, and the values that we actually act on in our daily lives. I noticed that a particular politician in the U.S. recently cried-out about gun violence, only when it became apparent that his young daughter could have easily been a victim, due to her proximity to the killer during a recent mass shooting.

What do we really believe? Do our fundamentally-human beliefs apply to ourselves and our families, or to all humans of the world? How often do we act on our deepest beliefs? As I look around, I just don’t see the shock, outrage and protests that were so evident in Oprah’s audience, so many years ago. Not that I’m suggesting the attack on the woman, in that instance, on that day, was warranted. But there was a response — albeit to a fictitious scenario. We have the real-thing, right now, right here in our lives. I’m really feeling my own response and wonder if — hoping others — are too…

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I can still remember the day my teenaged son screamed “I hate you!”:  three words that totally gut-punched me and shut down the argument we were having about his extremely poor choices (for the record, the kind that threaten life and limb). I was standing my ground, holding firm, sticking to the tenets of Tough Love. Until those three words eviscerated me. Feeling almost mortally wounded, I retreated. I’ve never forgotten how that felt.

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Whether we’re on the receiving end of Hate, or delivering Hate, the result is the same, as far as our bodies are concerned. In his book, “The Biology of Belief”, Dr. Bruce Lipton talks about the mind-body connection and the changes brought-about on a cellular level by negative emotions (giving or receiving). Lipton’s not the first (and won’t be the last) to connect the dots between human emotion and overall well-being.

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Anger – whether it’s impulsive, or becomes a lifestyle – is particularly harmful in the way it slowly corrodes our delicate internal systems. Lipton’s studies are too fascinating, too important, and much too data-detailed  (he’s a scientist, first and foremost) to summarize here. Instead, I’ll just share that Lipton’s one of my main Go-To’s,  when I’m struggling to understand hateful people.  

Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1926-2004) is another ‘giant’ in this area. Although she’s probably best known for her theory of The Five Stages of Grief, what I often — especially lately, here in the United States– “consult” (in my own head, anyway!) with her on is this:   when it comes to human emotions, there are really only two:  Love, and Fear.

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We know a lot about Love:  what it feels like, what it can do in our lives and in the World; how our bodies ‘float’ when we engage in pure acts of love toward other people, animals, Nature and our own Planet Earth. There’s no mistaking authentic Love. Even the superficial, media-created (think: films and TV) versions of ‘Love’– often cheesy and formulaic – can still be charming and sweet in their attempt to ‘copycat’ the Real Thing. What is harder to get a handle on is Fear, because it wears a few disguises: Hate being one of them  (Kübler-Ross, by the way, adds ‘anxiety’ and ‘guilt’ as other “masks” worn by Fear).

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When I consider the times in my life that I’ve encountered Hate, of course it’s always been a hateful person or hateful people:  animals don’t hate. That may seem like an idiotic observation, but I mention animals to make a distinction between what happens when Fear dons the mask of Aggression, versus when it shows itself as Hate. Fear can cause animals and people to feel threatened and go into offensive-mode.

But Hate is entirely different:  hate is a choice. Hate takes the normal survival-instinct of Fear and shoots one thousand volts of aggressive current through the body so that ‘fending off a predator’ is no longer the primary goal:  mental, emotional and even physical annihilation is.  And great suffering is a desirable part of the process.

How do we cope with hateful people? Is there a way of reaching their hearts, soothing their fears, disarming their need to inflict pain? I can only speak from experience and share what I know about the wisdom (or lack thereof) of this thinking. In my own family relationships, I came to the conclusion that, sometimes – regrettably — Fear appears more powerful than Love.

actor Malcolm McDowell as the despot Caligula

The Roman emperor Caligula, known for his extreme sadism and brutality, is supposed to have said, “I don’t care if [the People] love me, so long as they fear me!”  Some people, it seems to me, would much rather be feared than loved. Instilling fear in others equates with power, for these types. When powerful people (who have the ability to influence your happiness, sense of safety, stability and general welfare) decide to mobilize their own insecurities in hate-filled ‘attacks’, there’s really no reaching them.

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Kübler-Ross says that Love and Fear are mutually-exclusive:  they can’t co-exist at the same time. We must always – therefore – choose to operate from one or the other. In countering Hate, it seems to me that the only strategy is to acknowledge (actively, demonstrably) that Love is the better option. But since Hate is in full-body armor in our World today, Love must shield itself also, while remaining fully ‘present’ and steadfast, in a genuine struggle for Survival. It really doesn’t matter to me if you’d prefer to call Love’s armor God, the Universe, Allah, Jehovah, Divine Spirit, Gaia, or something else. As long as we stand together under one of Love’s many names, I’m with you.

I love poetry, and admire all poets:  established, fledgling, and even those who’ve yet to put  their feelings into words. Reading poetry, for me, evokes the same kinds of emotions I get from almost all artistic expressions:  I intuitively understand that the Artist is hoping to reach some deeper part of me. And I submit, willingly; enthusiastically; with relief.  Poetry is like an intimate conversation between the Poet and the Reader; but one that allows the Reader to step away, take time to process and absorb, then come back. As many times as is needed, or desired. Some poetry (much of it, really) is so poignant and eternal in its power that it can’t be felt or withstood by the human heart in just one ‘dose’. Instead, it begs to be read, over and over again, as time passes and our perspectives change.

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To some, classical poetry, prose, sonnets, etc. might seem way too “dated”. Awkward speech, elusive references – so difficult to access, and find meaning in. But, like music, painting, sculpture, photography, and almost any other artistic expression you can think of, poets have their own unique ways of connecting with our hearts and minds.

Think of it this way:  in our daily experience of living, many of us have intimate friends; as well as  acquaintances, work colleagues, and a bazillion ‘superficial’ connections. Only our intimate friends might hear our innermost thoughts and feelings. In times of great loneliness and despair – or during utter jubilation — the right poet can touch , and comfort your heart in ways that even a dear friend can’t.  A poem can ‘speak’ your exact emotions as you’re searching for the words; or, searching for the courage to express them. ( Enter the mega-million dollar industry of greeting cards).

Today I was reflecting on – and trying my best not to feel discouraged by – recent horrific episodes of gun violence in the United States, which now seem to happen on a daily basis here. Exhausted by the chatter ( so much Talk, so little Action) on social media, I turned to a poem. Brace yourselves, younger readers:  it was written in 1802.

The very first line, etched in the minds and hearts of all English Literature (my undergrad) students – is so applicable as to be heart-breaking, in the context of our seemingly disconnected – from what truly matters – collective State of Being. Although this poem was written to express the writer’s despair about the Industrial Revolution in the United States – a time of huge unrest and economic upheaval for the majority of citizens – it also aptly describes our 21st century conundrums and terrors in a bold, yet tender, and deeply prescient way:

“The World is too much with us; late and soon. Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers. Little we see in Nature that is ours. We’ve given our hearts away…This sea that bares her bosom to the moon; the winds that will be howling at all hours, are gathered up now like sleeping flowers. For this, for everything, we are out of tune:  it moves us not.”

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William Wordsworth continues his lamenting in this poem. I’ve only included the lines that express my own feelings of helplessness on this day, contemplating the grief that survivors of two mass shootings, in 48 hours, must be feeling.

Poetry is a quiet place to turn, when the World is too loud, too oppressive, too chaotic. It’s also a gentle reminder to reflect:  have we laid to ‘waste our powers’ and ‘given our hearts away’ in certain aspects of Life? Are we so ‘out of tune’ with Nature that its beauty and grace pale, compared to so many distractions?

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Some might tell me, “Get over it; that’s how Life is!” They might scoff at the very idea of trying to make sense of senseless acts. Clearly, there is no “sense” in random acts of hate and cruelty; that’s not the point of my reflection today. More importantly,  since Wordsworth’s 1802 poem (and even much before that), there’s plenty of evidence that human beings haven’t yet ‘given our hearts away’ as a species. I’m focusing on that today, taking comfort in a very old poet’s thoughts; hoping they’ll be shared and felt in countless ways; in ways that make a difference, as we all continue searching for words.

poet Maya Angelou, 1929-2014

My colleague and friend Deepak Patil recently published his doctoral dissertation. His topic was related to the Theory of Collective Intelligence. Think:  the wisdom of bees, ants, migrating birds and whales, and even plants and trees. A kind of inner-knowing, without a whole lot of empirical evidence beyond the research and speculation of scientists that study systems and patterns. What my friend Deepak did was investigate an emerging application of this theory, to human organizations.

While doing his research Deepak uncovered some very interesting, fairly recent studies and subsequent conclusions about how Collective Intelligence functions in groups:  allowing humans to come together more productively by exploring – among other things — the power of empathy, compassion, tolerance and something called “social perceptiveness”.

Why should we care about this? Because despite what our eyes and ears might be telling us at this very moment, Humans Beings – as a large and complex Tribe –actually have very positive tribal instincts. (I’m not referring here to the media’s version “tribalism”, which is more narrow in focus and typically pernicious.)

At the very depths of our being, we humans recognize the practical value of unity and cooperation. In the process of survival, the emotions and skill mentioned above become the “glue” that forges and cements relationships, ensuring that nurturing and protection is extended to all members of the tribe. This is the foundation of our Collective Intelligence as human beings.  And even though it’s not exactly‘ on display’ in the world around us, it’s not just an ideal, or a dream. It’s evident, in studies that began (Carnegie Mellon Institute) back in 2010.

From what I’ve just learned from Deepak about the actual science of it, on a human level I think that Collective Intelligence could  be casually defined as “what happens when we listen to our better angels.” Or, what happens when we try to stay in that “higher vibration” of daily living.

The Carnegie Mellon Institute (after its lengthy study of organizations worldwide), identified the presence of Collective Intelligence through a variety of assessments and observations. The resulting data indicated that significant Collective Intelligence could be identified and measured by three factors. The first was a high degree of Social Perceptiveness (the ability to read non-verbal cues); the second was the Distribution of Conversation (the degree of shared and transactional dialogue); and third was the Proportion of Females in the group (the higher number women, the stronger the Collective Intelligence.)

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The full Carnegie Mellon study is much too detailed to summarize here, but I’ll offer my own takeaways: Our Collective Intelligence will, if we allow it, see us through our challenges as a Human Race. Also, when (not if) women are fully validated by global societies (females, by the way, scored much higher in Social Perceptiveness and in the facilitation of Conversation), we’ll experience how profoundly this benefits everyone.

Now: all we have to do is remember that we are better, stronger, smarter, happier and healthier when we are truly “Together”. Nothing else matters – arguments, divisions, disagreements – as much as this particular reality. It’s not really up for debate…is it?

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Without thinking about it, consider the word ‘Surrender’ and notice how it feels:  the associations and connotations of the word. Does ‘surrender’ feel calm, even blissful? Or, does it bring feelings and visions of being overcome:  powerless and defeated? Surrender definitely implies giving-in to something; the end of a struggle of some kind; relenting; relaxing resistance; allowing something else to transpire.

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Depending upon the opposing ‘forces’ that cause us to re-think our resistance, Surrender can in fact be heavenly. “Surrendering to Love,” for example. For many people, though, the idea of surrendering feels like giving-up; doing something that feels unnatural and maybe even scary. So it was when I began to release lifelong habits that no longer suit or serve me.

For most of my adult life I’ve been goal, and action-oriented. I was clear about my professional path early on, and driven to achieve in my accumulation of degrees, credentials, certificates and opportunities for advancement. A friend of mine recently remarked (we were discussing my doctoral program) “How ambitious you are! At your age!” My response – ignoring the urge to call-out ‘ageism’ by someone actually older than me – was casual:  “Oh, all I’m doing is just living life.” Right?  But then I began thinking about his words. It’s common for those closest to me to complain that I rarely “sit still” (not true); that I “over-do it” in the achievement realm (define, ‘over-doing it’, please). A teammate recently told me, “You do too much” (translation he confided: you make the rest of us look bad!).

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I began considering my action-oriented life and allowed alternatives to seep into my current ways of thinking. Is ‘taking action’ always necessary? Clearly not. Non-stop action, as I’m sure many Readers know, is, among other things, a recipe for exhaustion. With day-to-day interactions — if someone close to us does something really offensive and obviously meant to cause hurt, is immediate action required? Not always. But how does one, whose entire life has been about Doing, slow down and surrender to Not Doing? It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve discovered how amazing and wonderful it can be. I started by realizing that the word Surrender has super-powers, if we allow it to expand past negative moments in our memories (“Surrender your passport!” being one of the worst in mine:  our PanAm flight was forced down, into Iran, many years ago, passports seized).

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Surrendering to all that is beautiful, restful, nurturing and peaceful in Life means letting-go of control (an ongoing theme in my world). Surrendering to Whatever Is, and Will Be means that Trust becomes a guiding influence in Life. Trust: that one’s best efforts will be enough. Trust: that in the midst of chaos, there is Harmony (time spent in Nature and with animals is my proof). Action’s still a governing principle in my life and always will be; but I’ve reached a truce with Surrender by accepting that, at the end of the day, it’s On My Side.

I’ve been trying to pinpoint the exact moment in time when shopping for items became a meditation on Conscience and Responsibility.  Not that the timing matters very much, compared to the actual Fact of this shift in reality. While I’m not a completely shameless consumer, my Prime membership is pushing me closer to that precipice.

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A couple of days ago I bought a pair of shoes (a blue “vegan” suede, as it happens) online from a company I’d never heard of. In the Checking-out process I noticed that I had the “option” of Amazon-Pay. Lately I’ve felt like Amazon is crowding me a bit:  so ubiquitous that it’s almost creepy. So I skipped this payment method, feeling smug. But wait – there’s more:  when the shoes arrived they were in the unmistakable “smile” bag of this nefarious company. What the…?? Bypassing this annoyance for a minute, I tried the blue vegan wonders on and instantly realized they were too small. Back you go, Cuteness. To Amazon. Which now, by the way, allows me to take the shoes, sans box or bag or wrapping to any UPS – and UPS takes care of everything for me.  I hope I’m not the only one that finds this unsettling and weird.

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Returning to what I’m now thinking of as Shopping Seduction: Who doesn’t like 2-day shipping and a totally indulgent Return process? But recently I saw an exposé (was it Vice News? I can’t remember) about working-conditions at this company. Am I going to thumb-my-nose at this story, disregarding the unfortunate  Pickers (Fulfillment Center employees) who’re on their feet almost non-stop to meet impossible quotas, not risking bathroom breaks when they need one, for fear of being written-up by Management?

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Now I have to think and also feel while Consumer-ing with any company that may have a veiled sort of partnership with Amazon. (You literally never know) I mean, I’m already posing critical questions with most of what I buy:  Is it Fair Trade? Check. Does the company pay a living wage? Check. Is the celebrity spokesperson for the product secretly funding a sweatshop? No thanks. Is my food the product of toxic or harmful practices? Nope.

Not too long ago I was in my front yard putting out some “FREE, please take” items.  A battered, older truck pulled up and a man got out. Super-friendly, super-talkative:  my antennae went up. We started talking. Turns out he was a “Prepper”, trying to make enough money to get to a piece of property he’d inherited (he said) from his mother, in a remote area of Washington state. The man offered to clean all of my windows on the outside of my house (actually, he wanted to do ‘inside’ too, but that felt beyond my comfort level). We settled on a price and he got to work. (So…he just drives around, collecting old stuff, with all kinds of window-washing equipment – just in case? Strange, but I rolled with it.)

What an amazing job this man did. As he worked, I cleaned out my garage, which gave him ample opportunity to “school me” on what Preppers are all about. It’s not just preparing for The Apocalypse:  it’s also (in his case, anyway) a rejection of the very Consumerism or never-ending consumption that leads to having to question oneself constantly about the ethics and sustainability of Choices. Yes, I can relate.

Back in the Day, this is what communes were pretty much all about. I lived through (and participated in, for a while) the obsession with Back to Nature in every sense. I respect anyone who chooses this lifestyle, or variations of it. Having said that, at this point in my life I’ve grown accustomed to a few things:  technology, and the ease it brings being a Biggie. It’s a balancing-act for sure, but I just can’t escape the feeing that Amazon’s winning this tug-of-war. Which doesn’t mean I’m letting-go of the rope.