Looking at Flowers

I am taking the challenge to live now.
Not as I have been –
Scuttling on ragged claws,
eyes blinded by the search for
newer, better and brighter
eyes looking so hard for a paradise of story books,
eyes that feel so heavy under the weight of expectation.

I am choosing to be alive now.
And life is found only when eyes
are open to notice fragile moments,
only when my body is alert
only through a waltz that is easily unnoticed,
when we take notice of the fairy dance in rings of tangled flowers.
Life begins when
I am quiet enough to see.


Reframing and Resisting ‘Busy’

“Slow down, you move too fast. You’ve got to let the moment last.” – Simon and Garfunkel, 59th Street Bridge Song

I believe that our words frame our thinking/feeling (I can’t separate these two), our thinking/feeling frames our behavior, and our behavior frames how our society operates. I believe that if I want a compassionate society, which I do, then I need to seriously and critically (but gently) look inwards at myself and my day-to-day behavior and thoughts/feelings.

I decided that I didn’t want to frame my life as ‘busy’ a few years back. My life is objectively ‘busy’ – I have two kids, a full-time job managing a bustling academic department at our local college, and there is always lots going on. There have been many articles written about the reality of this modern day working-parent life, and objectively, life has gotten busier – with technology most of us continue working on the evenings and weekends, people are commuting longer distances, and we objectively have less time for leisure activities. That is a reality that so many of us are living with.
However, I don’t want this to be the dominant story that frames my life. It is crystal clear to me that feeling busy and stressed has negative impact for myself, my family and friends, the people I support at my work, and society at large. The bottom line for me, is that when I am busy and stressed, I am not present, not listening and not able to act compassionately to others in my life. There is a ‘Good Samaritan’ psychology experiment that I read about first in Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘The Tipping Point’ (p.165), and I think about a lot. This study is also referred to in a beautiful and insightful Ted Talk by Daniel Goleman entitled ‘Why Aren’t We More Compassionate?’.

The experiment is that seminary students (studying to be Christian ministers) are preparing to go to a class to give a talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan. They set up an actor who is lying on the ground bleeding, and they are studying whether or not the seminary student stops to help the bleeding person, and what factors influence their behavior. They are on their way to give a talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan! What they find out is that generally, 63% stop to help (which feels very disappointing). But the biggest influence on behavior change is when they tell the students that they are late. Once they know they are late, they become stressed (feel busy), and then only 10 percent stop to help! The words of ‘Oh, you’re late’ turn someone who would normally be a compassionate person into someone who is so indifferent to suffering that they literally step over a bleeding person! This behavior change could happen to any of us, and I believe does happen to us every day when we rush around.

This study illuminated my own unconscious behavior, rushing around when I’m stressed, not being there for others because I’m caught up in my own swirling mind. I don’t want to wake up in the morning panicked by the hundred and one things that I need to do and the long and ever growing to-do list that awaits me. I have been trying to consciously resist this frame, by using mindfulness to pull myself out of the panic and into the present moment.

As well as mindfulness, I’ve been paying attention to my words, and I decided consciously not to respond to the question ‘how are you’ by saying ‘I am busy’. I made this decision because I felt that, even though I am busy, there are so many other more positive and still very truthful answers to the question. How are you? I am good. I am trying to be present in my life. I am inspired by our students. I am inspired by my faculty. I am loving the opportunities I have for learning in my job. I am excited by the challenges that are in front of me. I am happily loving my kids, even though they drive me a little crazy. I am thankful for my friendships. I am intentionally finding time to play music in my life. There are so many possible responses to the question.

However, this has been an interesting experiment indeed. I have found that often, when I don’t respond that ‘I am busy’, many people want to respond this way for me. This especially happens at my workplace. I run into people I know all the time in the hallways of our college, who happily ask how I am. When I respond with one of my spontaneous positive answers (like the examples above), they will reply ‘But you must be really busy.” At first, this took me off guard and I didn’t want to say ‘well, I’m actually doing an experiment to not frame my life in that way so I won’t say I’m busy’, so I would say something like ‘Well, yes, we’re all busy, BUT…’ and then I would try to reframe with another statement. Sometimes the person would repeat again ‘but you must be SO busy’, clearly not getting the message, and we would continue this dance of words and conversation.

What is this about? Is this just that ‘being busy’ is so ingrained in our society, that its all we have to talk about? Is this a strange way to compliment me, telling me that I am important because I’m busy? Is ‘busy’ valued over all else, because it implicitly signals that I am being ‘productive’ instead of idle, contributing to our capitalist society’s bottom line? What would our society look like if we weren’t busy and racing around so much? These questions may be for another future blog post. But in the meantime, I don’t want to feel like a rat on a rat race. I don’t want to lose my compassionate nature that is core to all of us. So I will keep trying to reframe busy.

Summer in a Bottle

If I could bottle summer up
The sun’s rays warming my face
The glistening water sparkling in the sun
My body floating effortlessly, weightless
Peace, pure peace in this moment
If I could bottle this up
Kids splashing and laughing
Running in and out with juicy peaches and dripping bathing suits
Not a care in the world
I would
I would open the bottle in November
To get through the cold dark nights of winter
To remind myself that seasons change and the cold won’t last forever
I would open the bottle in December
When my muscles are tight from wearing heavy coats and shivering as I run to get inside
When my skin cracks and bleeds from the cold
I would keep the bottle open in January, February and March
Waiting for the ground to thaw, keeping my eye out for the budding of flowers, the birds singing, the first signs of life again
Waiting for the summer sun to come again

I Am Back…

I haven’t written a blog post since November 30, 2015. I have thought about writing many many times in the past 8 months, and I have missed writing. I kept saying to myself, week after week, that this will be the week that I will write. But it wasn’t happening. I think I felt overwhelmed with my new job (which is amazing, I love, but the first year in a new job is always a steep learning curve!), and I just didn’t have any mental space left for writing.

But I am back. And I am committed to writing, because it is so important to my life practice. Blog writing, where the slate is wide and open, allows me opportunity to self-reflect on life moments. Life moves so quickly, often flashing by with the daily juggling of responsibilities where one can feel constantly racing to catch up. The life moments are small and can pass by so quickly, that it feels so critical to take pause and notice. When I’m committed to writing, I move slower, I mentally capture these moments like my mind is a camera. As Jon Kabat-Zinn asks in Wherever You Go, There You Are: “Can we be in touch with our own life unfolding? Can we rise to the occasion of our own humanity?” (p. 133).

Blog writing challenges me to think differently and make connections between ideas, pushing me to create new ideas or reframe old ideas from my own unique perspective. There is so much content out in ‘the cloud’, and I am constantly reading articles that interest me. A friend recently named me an ‘article hoarder’, after I showed them my extensive system of using apps (Flipboard, Pocket etc) to save articles that resonate with me. It is easy to feel insecure amidst all of this content – ‘maybe I have nothing original to say’ when there is so much being said already. But this little voice gets drowned out by my excitement for the conversation that is happening all the time on the internet, where voices are free to speak and dialogue, disrupting the boundaries that we have created in ‘the real world’ based on discipline, pedigree, age, language/culture, nationality. My unique voice is a drop in the internet ocean, connecting with all the other drops that make up the ocean.

And so I will return to writing. I will make writing a practice in my life, and I will carve out time for it. I hope you enjoy reading, and participate in the conversation when you feel moved to.

Parenting Without Punishment

Its been about 6 months that I have now consistently, consciously been parenting without punishment. And along with no punishment, no rewards either. This decision was after great struggle over the past 7 years in my relationship with my 9-year old son (yes, struggle began at the early age of 2), who is so amazing and also the most stubborn person I have ever known. I am very familiar with motivational research that shows that the ‘carrot and stick’ approach (punishment and/or rewards) is not effective in motivation, and actually, can cause the opposite effect of de-motivating people. This research is most prevalent in HR research around motivating/demotivating employees, and the research findings have been popularized by one of my favourite writers (and TED Talk speakers) Daniel Pink in his amazing and inspiring book Drive.

While many of us, myself included, know this research well, we don’t seem to apply these same principles in our parenting. And in the moment, when I am reactive and angry, it can be so easy to pull out a punishment. But, and this is the kicker, IT DOES NOT WORK. My son’s behaviour does not change because he is afraid of punishment or doesn’t want a consequence. His behaviour is in reaction to something much bigger going on in his life.

Why, even when I know this, do the punishments so easily escape my mouth? Because frankly, I have power over my 9-year old son. And I have been thinking about my power, and the (unconscious) abuse of this power in my day-to-day reactions. I came across this powerful online article by Teresa Graham Brett about ‘Adultism’ that shook me to my core – vhttp://www.kindredmedia.org/2011/11/adultism-the-hidden-toxin-poisoning-our-relationships-with-children/. I teach the Power Flower and the ‘isms’ to College Students, and I am comfortable identifying and speaking about racism, homophobia, sexism etc. But this article made me confront my own oppressive use of power in parenting: “…if we are using our power over the children in our lives, we are perpetuating injustice and oppression. We are setting children up to accept a world that is based on the more powerful controlling the less powerful.”

All of this collided with my reading the amazing book ‘Honey I Wrecked the Kids: When Yelling, Screaming, Threats, Bribes, Time-Outs, Sticker Charts and Removing Privileges All Don’t Work’ by Alyson Schafer. This book was critical in providing concrete tools on what parenting can look like, when I am parenting without punishment. Along with the arguments above for this strategy, Schafer writes from an Adler psychology perspective, which is that children misbehave because they are experiencing a negative feeling and are communicating this. It is our job to understand what they are trying to tell us through their misbehavior, and to help them to find another way to feel positive and re-engaged in their life. Instead of getting angry with the misbehavior, Schafer encourages parents to ‘get curious’, to play the detective in understanding what is happening in our childs life.

In her book, Schafer points out that we often say disrespectful things to our children on a daily basis, not even thinking about it. Statements like: “Why don’t you act your age” or “How old are you anyways?”. Statements that serve to knock kids down a notch or too. When I really reflected on this, I realized that I was doing this, often without even thinking about it. And I wanted it to stop.

Without a doubt, parenting without punishment has been a game-changer for me, my family and my relationship with my son. It has been incredibly challenging for me to check myself, bite my tongue and not react with anger, threats or consequences. I have tried to respond with love and patience, every time. I am trying to treat my children with the respect that they deserve, every single day. And it has been eye-opening for me to notice how, even when I am so committed to parenting consciously without punishment, it can be so difficult. Especially when I am tired, or trying to get the kids out the door so we don’t miss the school bus, or when I’m trying to multi-task.

However, it has been so worth it. I saw the results right away, within 48 hours. Our family has become calmer, my son is happier and we have found a sense of peace.  When my son does something wrong, I try to find out whats going on. But I also try to honour my feelings too, which sometimes means I need to take some space. I try to name my feelings, so that my children see that modeling. I say clearly, not angrily (but sometimes sadly): “I am feeling upset by what has happened. I need some space.” For the time ever, my son, who is so stubborn and could never before admit that he was wrong, has started apologizing on his own, when he knows that he has made a mistake. This was shocking when it first happened. I had never received an unsolicited apology from him before.

And we talk a lot about what is going on. My experience resonates with Schafers argument, that there is always an underlying reason behind the misbehavior. I play detective, and sometimes its challenging because he won’t just tell me what is going on. That would be too easy. But I often find out, even if it’s the last conversation before sleep, when he is most comfortable and ready to share. His reason behind the misbehavior usually has nothing to do with me, and is often a feeling of sadness and fear of not belonging with his peers at school. Usually there is some small but critical event in his day that has made him feel insecure about his significance and self-worth in his world. And when I find this out, it is my job to simply hug him, tell him that he is so very loved and that I believe in him. And especially after those most difficult days, I like to share my favourite quote with him: ‘tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it’ (Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables).

Showing My Work…

I just finished reading “Show Your Work!” by Austin Kleon, and it has inspired me to think differently about my humble little blog here, The Ignition Condition. Kleon has challenged me to be more open, to share my process and thinking and my true vulnerable self. Just starting my blog over a year ago was a bit frightful, so I am proud of the work and writing that I have done so far. However, I have been pretty safe in this blog, sticking to my topic of ‘community and volunteer development’. While I continue to be passionate and curious about community and volunteer development, I find myself everyday thinking and wanting to write about other topics that I am passionate about and that I want to explore. So, whether in the long run, I need to change my title or tag line of this blog, for now, I’m just going to let myself be open and write about what I care about and what I want to share. I definitely know that community and volunteer development will still be a central theme, but I don’t want to feel restricted. What else am I passionate and want to write about? Parenting, parenting as a lesbian mom with a chosen ‘alternative’ family (you can read a description of my family here – http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/the-new-canada/article12913575/), parenting two boys and wrestling with the complexities of masculinity and boyhood and how to raise my boys to be amazing men. What else? Mind/body awareness, mindfulness, Buddhism/spirituality, awareness of the present, trying to live my life with integrity and passion and how I struggle in doing this every day. What else? Teaching and learning, struggling with how to teach and make impact, how learning can be transformative (or not), how to support post-secondary students to be successful and what does success mean in the long run. Lots and lots of questions surfacing here. And last but not least, music, oh sweet music…integrating music into my life, singing and writing music, sharing music with others and listening to great songs. So, who knows what this will look like, but I want to be open in my writing and see what happens. I want to explore my thoughts and ‘share my work’. Thanks Austin Kleon for your inspiration!



Happy One Year Anniversary!

“The unexamined life is not worth living” – Socrates

Today is officially the one year anniversary of my blog – The Ignition Condition. This year has flown by, and I remember starting this blog like it was yesterday. I had been thinking about starting a blog for a few years, but never got around to it – life was always too busy, and it never felt like my top priority. However, I wanted to integrate more writing into my life. I have always wanted to push the envelope on ideas and perspectives, and question what seems commonplace. As an avid reader, I know that ideas and writing holds great promise for change and transformation. And I have always wanted to be a small part of that change.  The top highlight of my career so far was writing and publishing the article “Questioning Volunteer Management”, which 7 years later, still resonates out in the world, and I still receive feedback and response from readers. The ripple effect of writing this article has surprised and delighted me, and has solidified my commitment to write.

But it was attending Marilyn Herie’s Centennial Learns workshop on “Blogging for Reflective Practice” that set the fire under me, to stop with the excuses and just do it. Thanks Marilyn! And so I started blogging quietly, at first not telling anyone about my blog and just making sure that I really wanted to take on this commitment, and that I could keep up the discipline of writing on a weekly (ish) basis. As I became more comfortable with it, I figured out how to post through Facebook and Twitter, and some people are reading my blog! It is very exciting to know that people are reading and reflecting on my writing, especially when I have had comments from people I don’t know. Its like when I was a child blowing milkweed out in nature, and the fluffs would fly everywhere, being carried by the wind. I write and when I put it out on the internet, the words and the message is carried to wherever it is meant to be.

    As I thought about this post, I realized that blogging has truly been an act of ongoing reflective practice. People have asked me how I come up with ideas of what to write, and my answer is that I am always thinking about it. This blog is now in the back of my mind every day, and in my day-to-day interactions, I reflect on themes that I could write about. This has become my ongoing reflective practice, both in my mind as I go about my day-to-day life, and then when I sit down to write. I actually have an ever growing list of topics that I want to write about, and the list gets longer and longer! And the writing process itself is funny. When I write a post, I just need to write until it is finished. And I never know how long that will take. Sometimes the words flow out so quickly I can’t write fast enough, and I write the post in 30 minutes or less. It feels easy. And sometimes I struggle with every word and have stayed up far too late grappling with putting my ideas into words, determined to finish and publish before I hit the sheets. And it feels really hard (and I question myself – is this worth my lack of sleep? The answer is yes – it sure is).

In reviewing what I’ve written this past year, I also can see that my interests have changed. A year ago, I mostly wrote on the topic of volunteer development/engagement, and now, my topics are more in the area of community development/engagement and civic engagement / political participation. I am also writing about teaching/learning and anti-oppression/power dynamics. While I had an idea of what area I would focus on when I started the blog, I also have allowed myself to be free in following my interest and exploring different themes and topics. I see my blog as not just my published writing, but also as my ‘sketchpad’ to think freely about different areas that I am interested in. While my posts may not be as focused on ‘community and volunteer development’ as I originally imagined, I think there are clear themes that thread through the posts.

So what are my goals for my blog this second year?:

-Keep writing! I used to try to write once a week, and I’m not sure if I can keep up with this, but one every two weeks will be my minimum goal.

-Do a better job responding to my readers who comment! I must admit – I have done a terrible job of responding to reader comments, so if you are reading this, I am sorry. I do feel so appreciative of the interest and comments, so I need to express this better.

-Track/tag my themes in my posts – I haven’t yet really used the tagging function, but I want to do this, so I can group my posts in themes and see what areas I want to ‘dive deeper’ into.

And as a little ‘teaser’, here are some of my upcoming blog posts that I’m thinking of writing:

-Teaching the Power Flower – What Message are we really delivering?

-Millennial Civic Engagement – Stats that bust the ‘apolitical’ stereotype

-Social Exclusion Continues to be Standard Practice in Volunteer Management – Where is the Dialogue?

…and more.

Happy Spring!