Memento More: The life-giving practice of remembering that you have to die

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Last year, we laid a dear friend to rest. He was 46 years old, with a best-friend-wife of 23 years, two blooming teenagers, family, friends, co-workers, and a community who loved him. He had worked his entire career in IT and had finally made it to the consulting side of professional life. Things were all going well, and then he died in his sleep.

The day before his funeral, I sat in the hotel lobby contemplating what the weekend held for us all. I typed a question into my Instagram post. “What are you doing with your love today?” I was spending my love caring for my friend and her two children, honoring their pain and my own, while we said goodbye. I was bearing witness to the bookend of this life that we all judge as ending far too soon. I was showing up to offer a song during the service, even though I wasn’t sure any sound would leave my mouth. 

Love calls us to show up in the paradox.

After all of the services were over, after the food filled our hollow insides, and the wine numbed our pain, we stood around the kitchen table, in our sock feet, laughing. We were searching through old photos, reliving as many moments with our friend as we could remember. I was struck by one photo from his 28th birthday. I stared at the life in his beautiful blue eyes and the joy in his smile, and I thought; “What if he had known that this moment was over his half-way mark? I wonder if he would have done anything differently?”.

The paradox experienced when someone close to your heart dies, is almost incomprehensible. On one end there is this enormous weight of grief. Sadness so thick that you find it hard to breathe, hard to move, hard to think. On the other end there is a deep and rich gratitude for having known and loved this beautiful soul. Love fuels the grief, and grief recalls the love. In between grief and love, we are forced to exist in a fog of confusion, of adjusting reality, of changing present tense to past, saying “He was”, when just a few days prior we said “He is”.

I may never understand how and why souls come in and out of our lives. I do wonder in times of loss, “Why was I ever given this person to love and why do I have to now live without them?” Eventually, I remember that I actually don’t think it’s very useful to question the reasons why these things happen. Maybe they just happen. Our attempts to understand and bring certainty to mystery are futile. Maybe this is where acceptance of the things we can’t control comes in. It’s part of the human condition, to know that we are alive and we are going to die, and we can’t do a damn thing about it.

This is the wisdom of practicing Memento Mori: Remember Death.

Some people default to a particular religious view only when contemplating death, defining death as being only a passage into another life in which all meaning will be revealed. While I personally embrace the mystery of what happens with our souls or spirits when our bodies no longer work, I’m focusing this contemplation on connecting to the life opportunity I have right now. I have this breath, and I may have many more after this one, or I may not. I may have this whole day, this whole year, maybe even another decade or longer, on this earth, with all of these other souls in their human bodies. 

We have only one precious death to work toward in these human bodies. 

How are we honoring this incredible opportunity?

Understanding the relationship that one’s death has with one’s life is vital. Without embracing the deadline of physical death, we behave as if our lives can stretch on forever, in a scenario that never requires contemplation, clarity, urgency, and powerful choices. Without physical death, actual life risks never getting to the point.

All we have to spend is time and love. 

How you approach your own mortality impacts what you do with your time. How you approach the mortality of others impacts what you do with love. 

I don’t want to risk turning this into one of those “Three easy steps to making a meaningful life” posts. It’s not. It’s not easy at all. Are there practices that can help us hold this paradox of having a life? Yes. There are many. What works for some will not work for others. Find your own way. Practice often.

Here are just a few prompts for further contemplation on your own:

How often do you notice your breath? Each. Individual. Precious. One.

How often do you think about your eulogy? Is it in line with your to-do list?

How often do you look at your life’s timeline? What’s worth doing next?

My birthday is coming up next week. Hopefully I’ll make it there to start my 44th trip around the sun. (side note — Have you ever noticed that we only claim the years we’ve fully completed? I kind of like acknowledging the year I’m stepping into instead. Onward, either way.) With the time I have, with the love I give, I will renew my annual subscription to making meaning. 

Here’s to being present and noticing life in the tiniest of moments. Here’s to gathering enough courage to tackle work worth doing. Here’s to spending my love on change that will never be complete in my lifetime. Here’s to showing up in the paradox. Here’s to embracing the whole human condition anyway. 

Memento Mori my friends, Memento Mori. 

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Unseen and Unearned: A prayer for my privilege

Bibb Graves Bridge and First Presbyterian Church in Wetumpka, AL Photo credits to Matt Futral

Bibb Graves Bridge and First Presbyterian Church in Wetumpka, AL Photo credits to Matt Futral


I was born and raised in the guts of the American South. Wetumpka, Alabama is a beautiful town, with the Coosa River running through it. My childhood home sits on the edge of Alabama’s black belt, a region named for its rich, dark soil and later, for the skin color of the majority of its inhabitants. The stretch of soil between Montgomery and Selma has been cultivated with decades of pain that still seeps into neighboring communities.

My grandparents lived in Montgomery, Alabama. I adored my Granny. She was a bubbly, silly, loving woman with a big squishy lap and a back porch swing. I spent many childhood days with Granny and Papaw in their Montgomery home. I remember her recount of the chaos that was downtown Montgomery during the bus boycott.

I wish I had heard stories of how my grandparents showed up to help the cause, but I didn’t. Instead, I heard stories of how inconvenient it was. I heard stories of how she was scared working downtown and couldn’t understand why people had to make such a “big fuss” about it. My Granny was not a mean or heartless woman. Would I describe my Granny as racist? That’s a challenging question. I’d say the number of white people in the 50’s, in the black belt of Alabama, that didn’t have at least one racist belief, was probably very minimal. Did she choose to be consciously and openly against black people? Probably not. (I don’t really know.) Did she inherit a belief system from her ancestors that caused unconscious bias? Absolutely. (We all do.)

We all inherit layers of bias from good people who love us. We don’t even know it’s happening. When you happen to be white, those layers of bias join in with the power and privilege of the majority. It’s important to realize that racism and bias are very different. Sometimes they get mixed up. It’s a lot to sort out.

I think this could be why some white people don’t know how to speak up now. Accepting that the ancestors we love held racist beliefs that they also inherited from their ancestors (and that we probably do too, even when we don’t mean to), takes some work. It’s vulnerable to admit that somewhere down the line, your people were wrong. It’s even more vulnerable to own the way you choose to show up now, regardless of who you’ve been in the past. I hear this in my teenage children when they express their own struggle with race. They say “Why are the black kids in my facing history class saying they’re angry at me for slavery? I didn’t have anything to do with it. I think it’s bad too.”

How do we teach our kids to be humble and show up in the middle of this cultural stand-off, if we haven’t figured out how to do it ourselves?

So often the shame of our inheritance causes us to hide and be silent, even when we don’t know it’s shame that we are experiencing. We need the courage to say, “Yes, my ancestors were part of it, and I’m sorry for that. I understand why you’re angry, and I support you in it. What can we do together now? We want the same things today.”

We white people (myself included) need to get inside our own history, see how it’s impacted our heads, hearts, and guts. We need to explore the layers of bias we still have. We need to understand that sometimes we choose sides that aren’t helpful because we are unknowingly just protecting our own pain. I believe we all have hidden shame and guilt that we don’t even know we have.

To really be of service, we have to see color. We have to see our own and others’. To say, “I’m not racist. I don’t even notice race.” undermines everyone’s history. It’s far more useful to say, “I do notice color. I’ve even noticed that sometimes I still respond differently, based on the color of someone’s skin, even when I don’t want to. I’m aware of it, and I’m trying to sort through it to be better.”

It’s hard to shake off unconscious bias. You have to dig around for it. Forgive yourself, and learn more about it.

My Dad was a student at Robert E. Lee High School, in Montgomery, in the 60’s. I’ve had conversations with him about that time. They’re short conversations, but they’re heartfelt. He’s a strong, southern man. (If you’re southern, you understand the conversations with this type are always short! Bless his heart. I love him.) He has expressed regret and remorse for his own inherited beliefs. He remembers using the white restrooms as a 10 year old in Demopolis, Alabama, traveling between Montgomery and Meridian, Mississippi, to visit family. He’s told me how this didn’t make sense to him as a child, but he accepted it because that was just the way it was.

My Dad is still sorting this out in his 70’s. I find it very endearing when he reminds me that his church now has members who aren’t white. That was not my childhood experience at all. If my big, strong, southern, conservative christian Dad can wrestle with this, anyone can. It’s not too late.

The reconciliation of our inherited self with our current, chosen self is deep identity work. I believe it’s spiritual work. If God calls us all to “Love one another,” it means real love, and it means everyone.

If God grants us the courage to change the things we can, here’s my prayer for my own privilege:

Unseen and Unearned

God of courage, help me be humble and honest with myself.

I did not earn the privilege of my skin.

I did not earn that unseen blanket of support.

I know I am called to love, and I am sorry that I haven’t spoken up sooner.

I know that inequality will not disappear in silence.

I will be awkward. I will need grace and forgiveness.

I will not let my discomfort stop me.

God of love and compassion, help me use my privilege in meaningful ways.

Help me show up anyway, even in the midst of my ignorance, fear, anger, sadness, and anxious hesitation.

Help me use my one voice, even when it seems lost in a choir of opposition.

Help me love those who appear unloving.

Help me connect with those who push others away.

Help me remember that the courage I spend now is tiny, compared to the courage that those with darker skin have had to spend for centuries.

There is no liberty and justice for all, until there is liberty and justice for all. There is no peace for me, until there is peace for all humanity.

Amen.

How to Build a New Daily Habit

photo credit: Poppy Thomas-Hill

photo credit: Poppy Thomas-Hill

 

Make it simple. Rinse and Repeat.

I’ve been trying to build a daily exercise habit for, I don’t know, EVER. Before, I’ve been successful enough to run a marathon. (Ok, only once.) Other times, like now, I’ve repeatedly tanked and can just make it from mailbox to mailbox. I value being somewhat healthy and fit. Yet, it’s still a struggle to prioritize exercise.

Why is starting a new daily habit so hard? 

Inertia — continuing in a state of rest, unless that state is changed by an external force. 

Yes. Moving from doing nothing to doing something requires you to overcome inertia. It’s so much harder than tweaking something you’re already doing. If it requires force to move out of a resting state, I’m seeing two options:

  1. Conjure up extra force powers. 
  2. Figure out how to need as little force as possible to make change.

I vote for #2. Path of least resistance and all…

While it’s true that starting anything new will require some degree of effort, I’m curious what’s the least amount possible? I propose that the most simplified version of success will reduce overwhelm, support starting, and make continuing possible.

So, what’s next? 

In my coaching practice, I believe in helping others build on what they can already successfully do. Helping someone remember their own capability can sometimes reveal a pattern or template for success with a new situation.

I decided to apply this technique to myself. I asked myself, “What’s a daily habit that’s so automated, you don’t even think about doing it any more?”

My most honest answer was brushing my teeth. It happens, twice daily, without effort, planning, or discipline. I would say, for me, it’s automatic. 

According to the CDC, over 70% of Americans are with me, practicing twice daily brushing. Apparently, I am also with the majority of Americans who do not consistently exercise. Only just under 20% of us do. 

Duh. Toothbrushing is far more simple than exercise.

Here’s why I think the habit of toothbrushing works: 

  1. We brush our teeth at regular times.
  2. Typically, in the same place, every time.
  3. Everything we need is kept together.
  4. It’s a quick, repeatable process, every time.

Now what’s so different with other habits, like exercise?

Everything!

Think about it. We can exercise any time of day or night. It can happen at the gym, in our homes, in a class, on the street, in the forrest, in the water, almost anywhere. We need equipment or clothes or special shoes or memberships or trainers. It can happen in a group, in a pair, with a pet, or alone. 

There are so many choices. It’s overwhelming. 

To keep it simple, we need to reduce perceived effort and emotional overwhelm. Remember, the goal is to simplify enough to overcome inertia. The plan can always be tweaked later after the habit is becoming established.

How can I set the bar just low enough so I’ll actually do it?

Logistical parts help reduce perceived effort:

  1. Time of day — Choose a time of day that is the most easily repeatable.
  2. Location — Choose a location you already have access to on a daily basis.
  3. Resources — Choose supplies you already have access to.
  4. Process — Choose a short, simple success.

Emotional parts help reduce overwhelm:

  1. Set the bar low — Choose the smallest action possible that moves in the direction of your ultimate goal. Choose one. One lap, one push-up, one dollar, one paragraph, just one. Stephen Guise calls this the concept the “golden push-up”. The hard part is getting down there to do one. That’s overcoming inertia!
  2. Eliminate decisions — Choose just one way to do the new thing. Habit formation is not the time for variety. 
  3. Organize supplies — Keep everything you need for this new habit together and visible. (just like the toothbrush & toothpaste)
  4. Be OK with sameness— Choose a process that you can identically repeat daily. Creativity can come later. (rinse & repeat)

I understand this sounds all so robotic. I seek variety, resist routine, and rebel against order regularly. That’s probably why building new habits is such a struggle!

When you’re brushing your teeth, you’re not thinking about all of the possible ways you could be doing this. All the colors and styles of tooth brushes, all the brands of toothpaste, all the sinks and water sources you could choose from. No, you just stand there and do it. It’s not an emotional experience. It’s just done.

Sure, not all habits can be this straightforward. I believe there are just many more that could stand to be simplified, started, automated and done! 

To get my daily exercise habit built, I’ve committed to running just one mile a day. This is just a low enough bar for me. The same loop, same time, in the same shoes & running clothes I already own. Sure, there’s a voice in my head that says, “but you should be running way more than 1 mile.” That voice does not get me on the pavement.

“It’s only one mile.” THAT’s the voice that gets me out the door, around the block, and into a new habit.

Use this simple chart to help build your plan:

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What's small enough to get you going?

There is no best way. Just start.

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New beginnings simultaneously hold nothing and everything. There is no history, no experience, no successes to repeat. In the same moment, there is limitless possibility, undiscovered opportunity, and unrealized potential. In both directions, there is a lot of not-knowing. The paradox experience at beginnings can feel almost paralyzing.

Today is one of those beginning days for me.

Today, I am completing a commitment to myself to “just write something and post it”. The hold-up isn’t with the writing, it’s with the sharing. I have volumes, carefully crafted and completely unread. Something happens inside of me the moment the send or publish button needs to be pressed.

I’ve decided to get over that, by practicing it over and over again. (Yikes!)

When I was deciding what to write about today, I remembered a quote in a journal I started years ago. I fished it out of the stored away pile and read the inside cover.

“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”
-Arthur Ashe

(Yes, this quote has been turned into a thousand glittery inspirational posts. But still, thank you Arthur Ashe. I needed this today.)

In my coaching practice, and in my work in healthcare, I sit alongside people with real struggle. I listen and appreciate the full situation of stuck-ness. People meet complex challenges and unexpected circumstances with enormous capabilities. I’m not necessarily writing about those kinds of new beginnings here. (Although, some of the strategies described later in this post do help with taking the first step of big change.)

I want to be extra clear. I do not compare my fear of sharing a creative work online to real struggle. It’s pseudo-struggle at best.

What I’m interested in exploring today are those pseudo-struggle moments. Those beginnings that, in the scheme of the world, are NO BIG DEAL. Yet we sometimes make them HUGE, and they hold us back.

I am curious how many good works never make it into the world simply because someone couldn’t get over themselves.

So here’s where I am, and why this matters to me.

One year ago, I returned from a month-long coaching experience in Vancouver, BC, with the most clarity I’ve ever had in my adult life. I could finally see where it was I wanted to be, as a person, a wife, a mother, a friend, and a professional. I could deeply understand my potential for even more contribution to the greater good. I could also see that I had a long way to go to get there.

If I’ve learned anything over the past year, it’s this:

Nothing brings out inner gremlins like uncertainty. Perfectionism and unworthiness, the nasty cousins that they are, lurk in the corners of creative ventures. Their job is to keep us afraid and stuck. Thus, the seriousness of the pseudo-struggle begins. When we can’t move past our uncertain selves, to take one step forward, we can’t bring forth our unique goodness. Every piece of progress that humanity has ever made, started as a creative venture. Someone had to just start anyway.

It’s not about waiting until you feel better about doing it. It’s about doing it.

So how can you JUST START ANYWAY ?


Take three deep breaths.

Simple.

Grab a dose of perspective.

Really, look around. Get out of your head. Get out of your neighborhood.

If your position on this planet is one that allows you to experience and contemplate a pseudo-struggle moment, then congratulations. People are dealing with real struggles, and this isn’t one of them. Use your place of privilege to grow and bring others along with you.

A better you makes things better.

Ask yourself:

Who benefits if I can get over myself?

Let good enough be enough.

Right now, right where you are, you are ready. Behave as if you are, even if you don’t believe it. Seriously, it’s just. one. step.

Dialing back expectations is a useful exercise to find “good enough”. What you’re going for here is one doable step. Momentum will come later.

Ask yourself:

What would be just good enough for this step?

(If you’re in a long term relationship with perfectionism…keep asking…)

What if I could lower my expectations by just two more notches, then what would be good enough?

Focus on what you CAN do.

Circumstances, as real as they are, don’t control what you do. You do. The more deeply you believe this, excuses and blaming leave your mindset.

Energy is limited. Spend it on what you can control.

Ask yourself:

What CAN I control here?

Open up to uncertainty.

Beginnings are loaded with uncertainty. Find the light side of its force. The trick is to take a broader view and realize that EVERY MOMENT IS UNCERTAIN. When you do this, you realize that beginnings happen with every breath and this one has no extra special power over you.

There is no guaranteed outcome (even if you feel certain there is.)

Ask yourself:

If I knew it would go well, regardless of my next step, what would I choose?

Value action over outcome.

Desired outcomes, intentions, and plans are necessary pieces of getting somewhere new. ACTION is what actually gets you there. Think of your actions as a learning practice. Each experience further refines the direction you’re heading.

Practice makes progress. Success is in the doing.

Ask yourself:

What’s one thing I could complete before the end of the day, that moves me in the direction I’m committed to?

What are you going to start?

3….2….1…. GO!