Text less. Talk more.

An Afternoon of Conversation at All Seasons

huge-2016_04_21_3728No matter how much you plan, when you’re doing something for the first time, you never know if reality will match up with your vision. The goal of the Picture a Conversation ™ program my husband and I created for the senior residents at All Seasons of Birmingham (MI) was to inspire a sense of community and encourage the residents, many of whom were newly arrived, to begin to get to know one another.

Martin and I planned a short talk about our own “creative conversation.” He spoke about his philosophy as a photographer and what draws him to a scene. I talked about the inspiration I draw from his images that guides me in writing the meditations and discussion questions featured on each Picture a Conversation card. Following this short Powerpoint presentation, our plan was for the residents, in groups of three or four, to use individual cards and engage in some talk and sharing. My description sounds so artificial and staged.  But I knew from our testing days that when people just take that first step and start talking, everything flows.

Those were the hopes for our afternoon at All Seasons, although there was a moment that gave me pause. A man with a walker looked into the room and said, “I’m not sitting with any women.  I’m tired of hearing about grandchildren and gall bladder operations!”  He hesitated in the doorway until I gestured toward three men sitting together.

After watching a few more residents slowly make their way to the various places we had arranged around the room, I realized that my plan to have them move to different tables for each conversation session would be a disaster.  Instant modification — instead of having them change tables, we’d just bring a new topic to them.  That worked. Seven women had gathered themselves together despite our setting up tables of three and four.  I knew this would hinder conversation, but they insisted on staying put.

L. J., Williams, the Life Activities Director, timed the program right before dinner in hopes that some new table companions might be forged. There were snacks, lemonade and wine on hand to help oil the skids.  Martin and I went from table to table, sharing in the conversations a bit, helping to move things along when needed.  When I came around to the group of seven women, I saw that they had divided themselves into three and four and were talking away. After about fifteen minutes, we called a short break for more food and drink and to distribute a new conversation card.

By the second conversation session, everyone was comfortable and jumped right in.  We looked around the room, thrilled to see all the residents, even the gallbladder averse man, engaging with one another.  There were smiles on people’s faces, They were animated and laughing together. I worried that there was so much talking going on that it might be hard for some to hear.  No matter.

What does fun look like to you?

What does fun look like to you?

For the third round, we moved from small-group conversations and opened the last question up to the entire room.  The card we chose features a snowman on the front; the reverse offers three questions about making time for fun in our lives.  I invited L. J.  to speak first and he talked about walking his dogs and the opportunities those walks bring him for connecting with his new neighbors.  He called out for other responses and several hands reached for the mike. One woman talked about the activities she enjoys at the residence. Another spoke of family times. The last woman rose to speak said this, “We all have come from different places.  We all have families.  But you are all my family now.  I have fun with you.”  Applause sounded from all corners of the room.  IN that moment, reality bested my imaginings.

As I reflected on the afternoon, the 1985 movie Cocoon came to mind. If you’ve seen it you know the scene when the aging residents of the retirement home dive into the pool of the house next door and are instantly rejuvenated as they swim through the life-force infused water. It doesn’t take Hollywood. It doesn’t take magic water.  All it takes to come alive is to have a great conversation with people eager to listen and share from the heart.

 

If you’re interested in our hosting a similar program, please contact us —                                              debra at pictureaconversation dot com.

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Sign Me Up

See you on the roads!

See you on the roads!

It felt weird.  Squirmy. Way out of my comfort zone to say the least. My husband thought it was a terrible idea, convinced it wasn’t worth the money. I’m used to that being his set point. It’s what happens when a creative marries a realist. The creative is all about taking chances, each one a stepping stone to something greater; the realist is all about the cost of the mortar and being sure everything stays safe. He shared my feeling that doing this was a wee bit déclassé. But it wasn’t like I was planning to walk up and down Woodward Avenue dressed in a panda suit, flailing my arms and shouting at passersby.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

All we were talking about was ordering a magnetic sign for my car. Thirty bucks tops. I’m sure I could have gotten it cheaper online but supporting our local business owners matters to me. On a whim I stopped into Fast Signs Birmingham and got a sense of what was possible. Two days later I had my sign.

Andy walked me to my car and waited as I decided where best to position it.  Once it was affixed, I realized this sign was as much car art as it was advertising. I was offering up to my fellow drivers a beautiful photograph that would dance through the traffic as I went about my day. Maybe someone wavering about making a life change will see the sign and take it as a message (a sign!) meant just for her. Or him.  Perhaps the butterfly will bring a smile to someone having a bad morning. Will this generate orders or increase my website traffic?  Time will tell. For now every time I get into my car, I’m reminded that if you don’t step out of your comfort zone, you’ll never take flight.

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Caught in Conversation

 

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L-R: Edie (Catholic), Judy Lewis (Jewish), Bro. Al Mascia, OFM (Catholic) and R. Kahn (Muslim) Co

Caught in Conversation is the brainchild, or maybe I should say heartchild, of Mary Gilhuly. Because I don’t know that the brain could come up with, and keep advocating five years for, a gathering of Jews, Christians and Muslims to come together for dinner and conversation. The brain would serve up a heap of reasons not to — it could get heated; who would show up?; why bother?  where ?

I’m one of Mary’s tiling volunteers at Song and Spirit. For the purposes of this post however, Mary was the force behind this week’s Caught in Conversation held at the Muslim Unity Center here in Bloomfield    Township. Over one hundred people signed up.

Envision the setting — twenty tables covered with white cloths, each one set for six.  I know, it sounds like the set up for a joke — two Christians, two Muslims and two Jews show up for dinner conversation.  We began with blessings led in turn by Hazzan Steve Klaper, Imam Elturk of IONA and finally Brother Al Mascia. Whispers in Hebrew, Arabic and English rolled through the room, three quiet waves of gratitude for the meal before us.

I was a bit trepidatious. How would I, a pro-Zionist  Jew feel in a Muslim community center?  Would the conversations be stilted? How was this really going to work? The most contact I’ve had with women wearing a hijab has been a casual wave around town. But I believe in the power of conversation; how could I miss this?

Darvick-Picture-a-Conversation-IMG_2409Over felafel sandwiches, chicken rollups, and salad we introduced ourselves.  At our table was a Catholic man who serves on Song & Spirit’s Board of Directors; a young man who is making his initial vows to become a Franciscan friar; two Muslim women, one a doctor, the other an attorney;  a Jewish woman I know from tiles and me. It was an evening of learning; a night of uncovering similarities; a meal over which assumptions were set right and customs were shared.

The doctor at our table recalled her surprise upon realizing the parallels between  Muslim and Jewish burial customs. The board member assumed that rabbis, like Catholic priests, do not marry or have families. Not true, but without an evening like this, how might he have ever known? The young man beside me, a postulant in the Franciscan order, told of us his plans to become a friar —  pursuing a divinity degree, taking vows of poverty and celibacy. It was quite moving hear a young person filled with such dedication to his faith eagerly on a path so different from that of his peers. Adjacent to our table, six mothers discussed the challenges of keeping their teens connected to church, mosque and synagogue.

The six of us discussed Original Sin and how something that is expunged by baptism in the Catholic faith doesn’t exist for Jews or Muslims.  We learned of a moving Muslim birth custom — whispering the call to prayer into the ear of a newborn so that the first words the infant hears are sweet words of tradition and not the whisperings of any evil spirits that might be hovering near by. It made me wish that I had whispered the Shema to Elliot and Emma at their moments of birth.

Granted, we were a self-selected group open to learning and new experiences. The night’s purpose wasn’t to solve global crises, but to engage in positive religious dialogues that the world beyond our dinner tables rarely notices or envisions. I think we all felt a sense of safety from the pundits and politics. The briquets of today’s rhetoric-soaked sound bites fuel little that brings harmony within or without. Our goal was to lay down a few hefty logs of community and kindle them with hope and conversation, not ignoring our religious traditions but because of them. I wondered if such a gathering could happen anywhere else in the world but America.  Likely in Israel. And Canada. But France? Lebanon? Egypt? Last night was about being ourselves and bringing ourselves to the table precisely because we are Americans of different religions.

As I was leaving, one of the women from the Center called out to me that she hoped we would do this again.  I said I hoped so.  In Sh’Allah, she said. I nodded, which prompted her to ask if I knew what it meant. “Of course,” I replied. “It means Baruch HaShem. May it be God’s will.”

I’m not so Pollyanna-ish to think that an evening’s program will change the world. But you have to start somewhere and a civil, engaging and heartfelt conversation is a pretty good place to start.

 

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Image First

Darvick-Hydrangeas-FenceNo one will ever figure out which came first, the chicken or the egg.  But at Picture a Conversation, it’s always image first, words second.  I mine Martin’s trove of photographs from our travels until one stops me in my tracks and speaks to me about our relationships. Or our troubles. And our triumphs.

Occasionally, I’ll see a flash of something that gets my thoughts tumbling and a theme begins to emerge. Can Martin frame the visual flash into an artful photograph that I can work with?  Our partnership is really about translation. Martin’s images speak to my heart.  How do I translate, in as few a words as possible, what my heart heard?

We were walking in the neighborhood and came across this bright white fence with a handful of hydrangeas peeking through. I loved the sweet simplicity of pink and white and realized the buds had to have breached the fence slats before blossoming. My thoughts began seeking  a theme. Break free from the crowd….Sometimes life calls on us to push through to the other side. Maybe, Find your place in the sunlight. Or Sometimes the only way to blossom is away from the crowd.

“Can you get a good photo of this?” I asked Martin. Our rule is that every photo has to stand on its own as a great image. I don’t know if this one will make the grade, but I wanted to try just the same.  So he took a few shots from a lot of angles, and I snapped a few as well.

If we do decide to use it as a prompt, next comes writing the questions that will spark meaningful conversations our concept is known for.  Recall a time when you had to make a radical change to blossom. How did you feel leaving others behind? What did you discover on the “other side of the fence” as it were? Did you find your place in the sun? 

Or what about now? Leave a comment and start the conversation. Add another to join it. Or share this post and start a face-to-face conversation on your own.

Until next time……

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Reveling in Lupine

In this week’s post, the conversation veers a bit. With pictures, lots of pictures.

UnknownTo visit Maine in June is to slip into the pages of Barbara Cooney’s glorious children’s book, Miss Rumphius. Fans will recognize the eponymous Miss Rumphius as the one who made the world more beautiful by scattering lupine seeds through the fields and headlands, along the highways and country roads and tossing them into hollows along stone walls. Of all her books, this remains my favorite, not only for the lupines, but for the gentle admonition to leave the world a more beautiful place.

We were visiting our former neighbors and forever friends who moved to Maine four years ago. When Shelby left, I gave her a copy of Miss Rumphius. Her first spring, she began planting lupine in the field beyond her barn. We arrived last month just in time for the blooming. I was ecstatic. Color does this to me. Somehow those shades of blue and purple send my spirit soaring and I walked the edges of Shelby’s lupine field in utter color ecstasy.

Shelby's lupines beyond the barn.

Shelby’s lupines beyond the barn.

I always thought that the flower got its name because its bushy blossoms resembled a wolf’s tail. (Lupine is wolf in Latin.) Reading a wildlife journal I learned the plant was so named because of the mistaken belief  the plant wolfed down the soil, depleting it of all nutrients. In fact, it is just the opposite. Lupine, similar to the soy bean, returns nitrogen to the soils where it is planted.

Years back, Shelby and I tried growing them here in Michigan. We’d get a halfhearted stalk or two that would never reseed and soon moved on to hardier choices. As with people, flowers do best when planted where they can bloom. For lupine, this means Maine’s salty air and wide open fields of dry soil. For the rest of us, well, it’s our life’s journey, to find the right conditions for blooming.

For those of you also smitten with these glorious spikes of cobalt, purple, and rose — enjoy!

 

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And now a conversation topic to get you texting less and talking more — What would you do to make the world more beautiful?

 

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Picture a Conversation — Tell vs. Sell

Picture A Conversation - 25 CardsWhen my first book was published back in 2003, I was thrilled. Seven years, 60+ interviews, two publishers, 10 months with Toastmasters learning how to tame the butterflies in my stomach. Finally, the books arrived. Review copies were sent out. It was time to start selling the book and begin recouping at least some of the costs and time I’d expended for so many years.

That was my focus — selling. I was thrilled to be on book tour, to be a keynote speaker, to give a lecture at my son’s college and more. But the yardstick of success I carried with me in those days was how many books I sold at the end of each event. If I didn’t reach my target, I didn’t feel successful. I never allowed myself to feel deep in my bones the glow of satisfaction that I would have, had I only shifted my focus from selling books to absorbing just how much the book and my talks inspired people.

Yes, I was gratified when a woman approached me after a lecture on pursuing dreams, and said she was going to start painting, something she had always longed to do. Yes, it was thrilling when a college student, now a cardiologist in Boston, told me he had decided to do what it took to go to med school despite bombing his MCATs the first time around. Another young man, whom I met in Russia, said my book inspired him to reclaim a religious heritage he knew nothing about save for a few hazy stories from his grandmother during his childhood.  It was quite moving to hear how my words had transformed people’s dreams into action. But was that success? Back then I didn’t think so, because I was so obsessed with transforming the numbers in the red column into the black.

This time around it’s different. I’m a good deal older. Time and experience birth perspective. Instead of seven years, it’s been one long and intense year of researching, beta testing, meeting with fabricators and printers. It’s been the assembling of 27,000 cards and the folding into shape of 1000 boxes to create 1000 sets of Picture a Conversation that yes, it is now time to sell. There’s no escaping the red numbers in the debit column.

Except this time I do not feel that old compulsion to sell. Instead I want to tell. I want to tell people of our journey.  I want to share why I believe it’s crucial for us to text less and talk more. I want to tell mothers, Here are great conversation prompts. Create a weekly dinner ritual that will inspire the conversation you crave. I want couples to know, Here’s something to spark conversations. Find your way back to each other by talking.    I want to tell any and everyone who will listen that having meaningful conversations recaptures the closeness that true conversation can bring.

Sure I want those red numbers to turn black, but that’s not what gets me out of bed each morning. What gets me out of bed is the message Text less. Talk more. What gets me out of bed is my belief in the power within each card to inspire fun and enlightening conversations where they might not otherwise happen. What gets me out of bed each morning is the joy that I feel in telling, not selling.

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