Counting the Numbers

Our teacher looked out at the yoga students doing warm-up stretches on their mats.  “Success!” he exclaimed. “This is the first class to ever top 20 students.”  Twenty-two pairs of hands began clapping. “Way to go!” someone shouted out. “Yeah!  All right!” chirped another.

As I joined the applause a very un-yoga thought surfaced.  Hey wait a minute! What about all those mornings I and a handful of others showed up for your first Kundalini yoga classes? No crows of success back then.  Quick as a vinyasa sequence, other peevish thoughts bubbled up.  What about those of us who used to get up at 5:30 AM to make it to a 6:00 AM class? Today’s “success” is built on the arched backs of a devoted few who began practicing Kundalini yoga nearly a decade ago. Without us back then, none of you would be here today. 

At the same time I was thrilled for our teacher.  Becoming a Kundalini instructor takes huge commitment. I admired, and was grateful for, his dedication. And it was indeed cool to look out and see yoga mats fanned out across the entire room.  I understood his excitement.  Bigger numbers meant additional income and more secure teaching slots, two quite tangible yardsticks of success.

Deep into this second year since we launched Picture a Conversation, I have my own yardsticks of success.  I’m nowhere close.  My largest sales have come from toy stores and a hospital gift shop for ten boxes each.  Exciting at the time, but I have my sights and hopes set on much higher numbers. Yet to discount those orders, to discount the orders of ones and twos is to ignore the full arc of hard work we have put into this venture. Every order matters.  Every order is valuable in and of itself even as it is a stepping stone to something larger.

The deeper lesson is to celebrate the immeasurable successes, to inhabit proudly and gratefully the territory where numbers are irrelevant. Every time a person has a meaningful conversation inspired by one of our cards, there is success.  How could I measure the value to a mother who learned things about her adult children that she never would have known had she not ordered one single set?   How long into the future will their conversation continue to resonate, bringing delight and comfort?  There’s no quantifying the love and wisdom that were brought forth the afternoon a pre-teen daughter fanned through the entire set of cards, drew one out and said, “Mommy, I want you to answer these questions. I want to know this about you.”  That one card sparked a conversation that might not have happened otherwise.  These are the true success stories.

We can’t escape the numbers game. The numbers matter. As long was we don’t forget that what cannot be numbered matters more.

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Conversations that Count — Baby Talk

This week I thought I’d share a conversation that counts in my own life.                                                  Fifth in series from Picture a Conversation™.


E
very parent has his or her favorite childhood stage. For some it’s infancy. For others it’s when the terrible twos have passed and the fearsome fours are far on the horizon. For me it was when my kids first began to speak.  If they thought it, they said it. No filters; no holding back. It was a magical time of spontaneous poetry when crystal goblets were likened to bubbles and a snowfall prompted my son to ask, “Doesn’t the snow make you think of God, Mommy?”  What better gift than the year my daughter said she would give me her laughter for my birthday?  

I’ve been anticipating the conversations my seven-month-old granddaughter and I will have one day. What will her spontaneous poetry be? What questions will she ask? What marvelous word mash-ups will become part of Olivia’s family lexicon, the way “sing-a-God” became ours when our daughter couldn’t quite pronounce “synagogue”?

I never imagined that Olivia’s and my first conversation would have arrived so soon.  Strapped into her magenta high chair, she was exploring finger foods scattered on the tray in front of her. She held something aloft — a soft spear of zucchini?   “B!” she said, and looked up at me.    “B!” I replied smiling back. She froze, and I could see the wheels turning as she processed the implication of our one-letter exchange. “B?” she asked. “B!” I replied.  She responded with an alphabet soup of sounds that I mimicked back to her. She smiled and waved chubby banana-smeared fists.  I smiled back. 

In any conversation one party speaks and the other affirms. One party takes the conversation in a new direction and the other party follows. Emotions are exchanged. New terrain of thought is explored. There is engagement, eye contact. A small sweet universe of communication comes into being, spinning on an axis of sharing and active listening. 

Fortified with nothing but a consonant and some babble, Olivia and I had our first conversation.      It was delicious. I eagerly await the next course.  

 

(Craving the connection that only a face-to-face conversation can bring?  Head on over to our order page and give yourself the gift of conversation. Have a conversation that counted in your life? Email me — debra at pictureaconversation dot com.  I’ll get in touch to interview you about your on conversation that counted.)  

 

 

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Conversations that Count — Watching is Learning

Two years after her own husband died, Chelsea’s mother worried that her daughter would turn to the drugs and alcohol readily available on campus as a way of managing her grief over her father’s death. A client put her fears to rest. Fourth in series from Picture a Conversation™.

 

Chelsea was only fifteen when her dad died. Somehow we got back on our feet. In the months and years that followed, I never wanted her to feel I was pressuring her, so I let Chelsea come to me when she wanted to talk.

But as time passed and she began applying to college, I was so afraid that whatever Chelsea hadn’t shared since Dave died had been building up inside. When she got to college, I would have no way of knowing how she was doing. I was so fearful that she would use drugs and alcohol to escape whatever feelings and memories she was keeping inside.

One day, I was in the middle of cutting a client’s hair and told her my fears. Our eyes met in the mirror and she told me to put down my scissors.  She spun her chair around to face me and said, “Are you serious? Are you kidding me?”  

I didn’t know what to say back. Of course I was serious.  How could she have missed that?  I just kind of looked blankly at her and stammered something like, “Yeah, I’m serious.”  

What she said next changed everything.  “Tina,” she said.  “You are the strongest woman I know.  You have met the worst that life can throw at you — your husband’s long illness, his death, financial worries, all of it — with incredible strength.  Chelsea has been watching you. She doesn’t need drugs or alcohol.  You have shown her how to handle whatever she needs to handle. Chelsea will be fine. Chelsea is fine.”

I kid you not, I had never, not even once, thought about it in that way — that Chelsea could have been watching me and taking her cues from me.  I’d shared my fears with a lot of clients.  Not one of them had ever said anything like what this client said. My mom dealt with breast cancer. My father had a nervous breakdown. He lost his job.  Mom never complained. I watched her make it through all that and more, but never considered that Chelsea would be watching and learning from me as I had watched and learned from my own mother.  

A few weeks ago Chelsea and I were watching a movie. One of the characters had lost a parent and was blaming her bad choices on the parent’s death. “I just HATE when they show it like that,” she said.  “It’s just such a stupid way to behave!

Chelsea had to join the Life-is-gonna-throw-some-bad-stuff-your-way club way too early. There are no guarantees life won’t throw more bad stuff her way.  But if it does, Chelsea will be fine. She is fine. Just like my client said.

 

(Craving the connection that only a face-to-face conversation can bring?  Head on over to our order page and give yourself the gift of conversation. Have a conversation that counted in your life? Email me — debra at pictureaconversation dot com.  I’ll get in touch to interview you about your on conversation that counted.)  

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Conversations that Count — My Brother Is My Friend

Having maintained their sibling connection through phone calls and occasional visits, two brothers switch gears. The ensuing face-to-face conversations bring them closer as brothers and transform them into valued friends as well.

Alan (l.) and Larry

For 68 years my brother (six years my junior and my only sibling) and I have always enjoyed a pleasant relationship, one full of harmony and cooperation in family matters and lacking in conflicts. Living far apart during the past few decades, we nevertheless have managed brief visits and regular phone chats. Although we have been pretty friendly, I did not feel we were close friends. Our approaches to life were different, and so I believed there were limits to how deeply we could share, which to me is the hallmark of a real friendship.A few months ago, Alan texted me, asking that we be more than just brothers but genuine friends, too. In a phone chat, he said he has recently been seeking spiritual guidance to discover more about his life and improve it in several ways, as I have been doing for a well over a decade. He wanted to pay me a visit for several days — just him — without other family members around. I was a bit surprised and greatly elated for us both.

During our four days together, Alan and I did touristy things: ate good meals, hung out with some of my friends, hiked the trails here in Sedona. But mainly we had conversations – long and leisurely, deep and wide, emotional and spiritual. We addressed personal and philosophical topics that we’d never really discussed before, sharing much more from the heart than the head. In short, we crossed a bridge from being casual brothers to true friends. 

I am moved when I ponder how significant this transformation of our relationship has been for me. I always knew Alan was a nice guy; now I know him to be a treasure of a friend. Since our face-to-face meeting, we have deepened our connection with longer-than-normal-for-us phone conversations. We have rebooted our awareness of the love, joy and peace we share. The evidence is our longer and deeper phone conversations and plans to visit each other more often.

                                                             by Larry Rosenberg, Inspirational Entertainer, The Larry Show

 

(Craving the connection that only a face-to-face conversation can bring?  Head on over to our order page and give yourself the gift of conversation. Have a conversation that counted in your life? Email me — debra at pictureaconversation dot com)  

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Stopping by a Tree on a Summer Evening


I witnessed a miracle this evening. Some wouldn’t think miracle, merely Nature doing her thing. But I stood spellbound and in awe for nearly 40 minutes as a cicada birthed itself — slowly, slowly, ever so slowly unfolding into life, enacting the silent conversation coded into its DNA.

Walking home from yoga the pale shade of green lichen covering a tree trunk called to me. If you were a kid and had rendered this tree trunk in green, especially this light grey-green celadon shade, the teacher would likely have told you, No, sweetheart, tree trunks are brown. Or maybe, if you got lucky and had a kind teacher, she’d praise you for your Fauvist leanings.

Then I saw the cicada, 2/3 of the way out of its papery brown chrysalis, head down as if emerging from a birth canal. Its eyes were obsidian black. Its legs were folded tightly over its abdomen. Its wings were mere apostrophes tipped in bright green and held tight against its body. Could it see me? Should I leave it be? Not watch this intimate act of life coming into being? Not stand there while this oh so common yet nevertheless sacred act played out before me? I couldn’t tear myself away.

It hung there for a good ten minutes and then sproing! the lowest pair of legs began trembling, extending outward into the evening air. Bent at an odd angle, they reminded me of the crank handle Half-Pint would turn to raise and lower the water bucket on Little House on the Prairie. Next to unfold were the remaining two pairs of legs. After another rest, the cicada leaned forward, grasped the now-papery chrysalis with its front legs.The remaining four legs pushed against the husk until it flipped its bottom out and was suddenly upright. Entirely separated from its crinkly home, it clung with all six legs hanging for what seemed like an eternity.

 

Look closely for the orange spots on its forehead and the secondary wings appearing

During that eternity, its wings began to unfold — transparent, veined like one of Chartre’s stained glass windows. A few minutes later a smaller second pair of wings began to delineate themselves beneath the primary pair. A Batman-shaped pattern emerged on the cicada’s back and next, a constellation of orange dots appeared on its forehead. Fully formed the cicada hung there. And hung there. And hung there.

 

 

I grew impatient. Hurry up! Part of me itched to tease it free with a twig. I didn’t. Promise. My mind began wandering. Anthropomorphizing. How often do we hold onto things that we no longer need? It takes so much strength to let go of old supports! So much gumption to separate and fly free. The cicada, perfectly upright now, wings no longer apostrophes but complete and ready to beat, nevertheless clung to its see-through shell.

See the Batman tattoo? The secondary wings are now fully visible

How often do we urge our children forward before they are ready? Or steep in impatience as they march in synch with their own inner metronome? I left before the cicada made its final separation. No coincidences, I thought as I headed home. Today is my daughter’s thirtieth birthday. As you’d imagine, all day memories of her birth flitted through my mind — the early twitches and twinges that coalesced throughout the day into stronger and stronger contractions; the long evening at home as waves of labor swelled and crashed within me; then the ride to the hospital where, after ninety endless minutes she was ours to hold, ours to count finger and toes, ours to stare into her huge black watchful eyes. Her hands were purple and I feared something was awry. Her little lungs, like tiny bellows, hadn’t yet inflated more than a time or two. Soon her hands pinked up.

Today, those hands create beautiful art. Her feet take her on her own path in her own time. Her eyes are still obsidian dark. They see so much, too much I sometimes think because her heart is so big and it breaks. Yes, time and again she pushed against me to free herself. And yes, there were times we both clung too long. I won’t take this metaphor any farther. I am not a husk; not even close. I watch her from afar now. Flying free she soars. Her wings are veined with determination. And I, I witness miracles.

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Conversations that Count — What it means to be heard

When we consider the word “conversation” what usually comes to mind is the talking. On the cusp of adolescence, Lynn Margolis experienced a conversation’s crucial other half — being listened to. It set the course of her life. Second in a series from Picture a Conversation™.

Ernest Ludwig Kirchner

My parents were Holocaust survivors. As it has for many American-born children of immigrants, the role of pseudo-adult fell to me — translating for my parents when necessary, interpreting the myriad of customs and expectations of their new lives here in America, learning much younger than my peers how to negotiate the purchase of a car. My parents were loving but had so much to cope with. In addition to being immigrants, they were  grieving the utter decimation of their entire families at Hitler’s hand. In many ways, I did not have the luxury of being just a regular American kid. In the role of family communicator, I had no adults in my life who I could talk to about life’s larger issues.

My brother’s father-in-law was a very warm and loving man who was a professor of psychology at MSU whose family stretched back five or six generations.  One afternoon I tagged along with my brother to visit his wife’s family. This must have been 1968 or ’69 and at one point during the afternoon, his father-in-law was discussing with his two daughters the professions and various paths open to women in the work world. He took me into that covenant of daughters that afternoon, making space for me to contribute to the conversation even though I was not his daughter and no more than thirteen at the time.  I experienced being listened to in a way my parents had never been able to do. I’d never known any parents who listened to their kids the way this man listened to me that afternoon.

It was nothing in particular that he said, no words of wisdom, or offering of his perspective on what I might or should do one day. He simply saw me, recognizing who I was at the time and giving me the space to find my voice. The way he listened to me allowed me to feel that what I was saying mattered. I decided then and there to become a social worker.  We can say say so very much simply by listening, truly listening. 

 

(Craving the connection that only a face-to-face conversation can bring?  Head on over to our order page and give yourself the gift of conversation. Have a conversation that counted in your life? Email me — debra at pictureaconversation dot com)  

 

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Conversations that Count — How do you know, Mom?

Zelda’s daughter asked her mother how to tell if he’s The One. The answer surprised her and instantly became her rule for knowing.  First in a series from Picture a Conversation™.    

Pablo Picasso

“I was getting ready for a date.  I really liked this guy and was kind of excited about going out with him again. Waiting for him to arrive, my mom was fiddling with the back waistband of my pants. Or maybe she was straightening my belt? I don’t  remember exactly, but she was sitting on my bed behind me and I was standing with my back to her.  She was talking to me with her cigarette dangling between her lips as usual.

‘How do you know, Mom?’ I asked.  ‘How do you know when you’ve met The One?  How did YOU know with dad?’  She stopped with the fiddling and backed away from me a bit.  I can still see her today.  She leaned onto one of her knees, took the cigarette out of of her mouth and exhaled a big cloud of smoke holding onto to it between her first two fingers.  She looked down at the floor for a bit then looked up at me.

‘You never know,’ she said. ‘It’s just a matter of what you’re willing to put up with.’ 

‘That’s it?’ I asked.

“That’s it,’ she said.

I was expecting a long answer filled with advice or maybe cautions. Or maybe to wait for some magical kind of feeling that transported me to I don’t know where, SOMETHING. But no. Just that one sentence.  It was so HER.  No BS, flowery words or magic. Just raw and straight the point.

I’ve kissed a lot of frogs in my time and even had a few close calls, I mean engagements.  About three years later I met my husband.  We dated for 7 years on and off before realizing that he was “my guy”.  We’ve been married now for eighteen years. My mom was right. It really IS ‘just a matter of what you’re willing to put up with.’ Magic and flowers don’t hurt either.”

 

(Craving the connection that only a face-to-face conversation can bring?  Head on over to our order page and give yourself the gift of conversation. Have a conversation that counted in your life? Email me — debra at pictureaconversation dot com)  

                                                           

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Once and Future Conversations

Picture a Conversation ElephantsOur daughter-in-law jokes that our newborn granddaughter is part baby elephant. At four weeks, Olivia has a full repertoire of snorts and snuffles, back of the throat raspings and full-throated cries that trumpet, “Somebody better feed me and change me, NOW!”  Olivia and her devoted mom are embarking upon a mother-daughter conversation that will last their entire lives.

As for me, one of her devoted grandmothers, I look forward our own conversations.  I adored that brief window of my kids’ verbal development as they acquired language but not the filters that kept their words, and thus their thoughts, hidden. I savored their funny phrasings and crystalline insights, all the more stunning for coming from such wee beings.

Look, Mommee! Olivia’s father said to me some three decades ago.  Bubbles!  IMG_1769He was pointing to a set of iridescent crystal goblets we’d received as a wedding gift. What poetry to see the world through my son’s eyes. There was the time he pulled me to the window to point out the falling snow.  “Look, Mommee.  Doesn’t the snow make you think of God?” “Oh yes, little one. Yes, indeed.”  I thought then.

 

IMG_1771What kinds of conversations will Olivia and I share?  Will we read about Noah’s ark  and imagine together how God might have dreamt up the giraffe and the peacock? Whence came the idea for kangaroos and starfish? Or why sunflowers have dozens of petals and tulips so few? What will be her talk on the changing leaves as fall overtakes summer? Or what it feels like to  jump in a pile of leaves or build her first snowman? As time passes, our conversations may well turn to deeper issues — squabbles with friends,  frustration with her parents’ sage rules and boundaries, broken hearts and promises.

But until then, I savor Olivia’s cries and whimpers, the outsized snuffles coming from one so new.  The conversations will be here before I know it.

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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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The Conversation Beneath the Conversation

debra-emma-walking-down-the-streetWe weren’t sworn enemies but we had had words. Well, she’d had words with me while I held my tongue. At the time, my daughter thought I was a being wuss, especially because I’d never called this mother about the times her daughter had hurt mine. During the conversation in question, I said what I thought was appropriate — that our daughters, at fifteen, could settle their own differences; if she wanted to meet with me we could do so with our girls and the school counselor. She said I was an unfit mother and a phony. In my mind I was taking the high road but was my daughter right? Should I have responded in kind,  recounting  the times her daughter had mean-girled mine to the point of tears? My pounding heart closed my throat on a whole ton of words, all justified. For months I silently castigated myself. What kind of a mother doesn’t stand up for her daughter, or herself, in the face of such an attack?

We’ve bumped into each other from time to time. I decided long ago to take a page from the “kill ’em with kindness” rule book.  When I saw her at the post office a few years ago, she hesitated. “Come,”    I said moving toward her. “It’s time for a hug.” We caught up on where our daughters were and what they were doing. Hers wields a scalpel; mine a very cool iPad stylus. They are both healing lives and spirits in their chosen professions.

When I saw her this week at a show, I moved from behind my table to greet her and give her a hug. She hugged me back. She looked good; I looked good.  The kids are good.  All is good. Thank God.

I knew way back then the source of her pain, and that’s why I had held my seemingly chicken-hearted tongue. I knew then, as now, that I wasn’t walking in her shoes.  This week I heard more consciously another layer of the conversation that had kept me quiet all those years ago. Because this is likely what the mother was really saying: “It’s not fair your daughter is healthy and mine had cancer. I’m furious that your daughter has gorgeous long dark hair because I’ll never forget the months my daughter had none. You are unfit because in the darkest parts of my soul I fear I am unfit, else why did my daughter have to suffer through chemo? You may think you have all the answers but I cannot find the answer to this question: What did I do to make my daughter get cancer before she even got her period?

In our rational moments we all know how little of this great big life we can control. And yet as mothers, we still feel we should, and ought to, have the power to keep monstrous things from hurting our children.  So when X and I cross paths, I greet her kindly.  I hug her because were her shoes ever on my feet, I don’t know how I could cope. Maybe on some level, my hug is an irrational talisman of hope that my kindness today will bless my daughter, keeping her and even her one-time nemesis,  safe for a lifetime of tomorrows.

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