Hit the Reset Button

“The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” (Marcel Proust)

I’m not big on making New Year resolutions (What’s she talking about, Leonard? Doesn’t she know it’s nearly April?). But what I do try to do at the beginning of each year is think about who I want to be, what I hope will be different, and what I want my life to look like at the end of the year. Then, I set my monthly, weekly, and daily intentions with that vision in mind.

It’s very organized and kind of nerdy (and maybe a tiny bit OCD). It works for me.

But, here at the end of March, 2020—a month during which the world changed in ways that were unimaginable a short time agoI find it’s time to rethink my priorities and reset my intentions for the emerging brave new world (which, I hope, will not resemble the one imagined by Aldous Huxley).

I wonder, as we hunker down—giving colossal thanks to those on the front lines who cannot hunker—if it would be healthy and wise to take some time to think about who we will be and what the world may look like once the coronavirus pandemic is behind us. Continue reading

What Are You Saying Yes To?

“Your priorities aren’t what you say they are. They are revealed by how you live.” (Anon.)

In recent days, I’ve been working with a nonprofit board on strategic planning. It’s always an enjoyable and enlightening process—especially when a board of directors is both committed and receptive to new ways of looking at their world.

One of the things I found myself saying to the group is something I say to nearly every planning group I work with: “Be very intentional about what you say ‘yes’ to, because everything you say yes to means you have to say ‘no’ to something else.”

It’s not rocket science. I’ve never met a nonprofit that was so flush with cash that it didn’t need to make hard decisions and be strategic about how it invests its resources (money, time, and people). When I remind them about saying yes and saying no, I often see a light come on. They realize strategic planning is not about coming up with as many things to do as they can possibly think of, but rather about identifying the few, mission-critical actions that will move them forward, that will really make a difference. That awareness leads to a practical and dynamic plan, and a cohesive group committed to accomplishing important objectives that will serve their constituency.

Sometimes I have to stop and ask myself if I am following my own advice—because it’s true for individuals as well as for organizations. Continue reading

When Kind Meets Nasty

“Unkind people imagine themselves to be inflicting pain on someone equally unkind.” (Marcel Proust)

Attribution: Donna CameronHave you ever come into contact with someone who is just . . . nasty? Rude, insensitive, unpleasant, maybe even a bully? I suspect we all have.

The first thing to ask when we encounter such people is whether “offensive” is their default setting, or if maybe they are—like Judith Viorst’s Alexander—having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

If it appears that the latter is the case, the kind response might be to offer some empathy. “It looks like you’re having a tough day. Can I help?” Or even just silently give them the benefit of the doubt—she must be struggling with some challenges right now. I know this isn’t who she really is. Sometimes these acknowledgements—offered without responding in the same tone or attitude of the offender—will give them the opportunity to pause and look at their behavior, and sometimes even alter it or apologize for it.

But if you’ve had similar encounters with this person before and know them to be perpetually unpleasant, angry, and aggressive, giving them a pass is less than satisfying. Sometimes it feels like we’re letting mean win. So, what’s the best strategy for those inevitable encounters with thoroughly odious people? Continue reading

What Are You Holding Back?

“Share your knowledge. It is a way to achieve immortality.” (The Dalai Lama) 

Wikimedia CommonsMy talent as a cook is about equal to my interest in cooking—random and fleeting, sporadic at best. Fortunately for me and our friends, my husband is a good cook, and a venturesome one. He does the lion’s share of the meal prep in our household.

Many years ago, he decided he wanted to master potato salad. He tried several recipes, but never found one that excited him. His stepmother made an exceptionally good potato salad and that’s what he was aiming for. So he asked step-mom for her recipe. She refused.

For whatever reason, she didn’t want anyone else to have her recipe. I wish I could say I was surprised, but she was one of those people who held tightly to everything she had. She had neither open hands nor an open heart. A few years later she died, taking with her the secret to her great potato salad. Sadly, the loss of the salad was probably mourned more than the loss of the woman.

Bill did finally find a great potato salad recipe, shared by TV personality Joan Lunden. We appreciate her generosity every time we enjoy the salad and make it for friends.

As previously noted, my own cooking is generally mediocre and uninspired, but on those rare occasions when someone asks for one of my recipes, I am elated and eager to comply. I have even been known to inflict unrequested recipes on my dinner victims guests. And, fortunately, my friends—who are all fabulous cooks—are always generous in sharing their recipes.

I’ve never understood people who are unwilling to share their recipes. What is it they’re holding on to? Does it give them a sense of superiority to know that no one else will ever be able to replicate their Chicken Marsala or Cherry Chocolate Walnut Cream-Cheese Pie? How much better it would be to know there are people preparing our recipes and thinking of us fondly as they do.

Refusing to share a recipe is just one example of how we sometimes senselessly withhold things in our lives—from recipes, to compliments, to knowledge, to assistance.

In my professional life, I occasionally saw this behavior exhibited by colleagues who somehow felt that holding information close to their vest gave them an advantage. I would see them strategically spring their information in a board or committee meeting, often blindsiding other colleagues who would have welcomed the knowledge earlier. Sometimes this resulted in needless scrambling to adapt to new information that should have been provided sooner. While the individual who withheld the information may have been perceived as smart or powerful, they were acting in their own interest rather than the group’s or organization’s.

Writer Annie Dillard has addressed this more eloquently than anyone I know:

“The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

How many of us are guilty of saving things for special occasions, realizing only much later that we never actually enjoyed having them. Maybe it’s a piece of clothing, or a delicate china tea-cup, or a journal so beautiful we hesitate to write in it. Often those special occasions never come, and we die with our treasures neatly tucked away, wrapped in tissue paper.

A story to illustrate this made the rounds of cyberspace many years ago. The author writes about how she and her brother-in-law found an exquisite and expensive silk and lace slip among her sister’s things after she died. It had never been worn—she had been saving it for years for just the right “special occasion.” They had her buried in it.

As writers, we are sometimes guilty of holding onto our ideas, saving them for just the right time, waiting for the ideal place to share them, or the perfect time to tell our story. We delay so long that sometime those stories never get told—and we were the only one who could have told it in just that way. What were we waiting for?

What we love and treasure is not meant to be hoarded or held back, but to be used, shared, enjoyed, and savored. More will come, it always does. Likewise, what we have or know and can give to others is meant to be offered.

Is there anything in your life that you’re holding back—either not sharing with others or not allowing yourself to enjoy? What are you waiting for?

“Don’t die with your best song still unsung.” (Anonymous)

Where Is Your Querencia?

“There is a way to live that makes the angels cry out in rapture. There is a way to live that makes each cell a star.” (from “Clearing,” Morgan Farley)

Attribution: Donna Cameron

Harmony Hill

In recent days, I’ve seen a number of writers and bloggers declare that they chose a single word to be their theme or focal point for 2017. In place of traditional resolutions, they selected words like joy, trust, focus, even kindness, to be their inspiration for the year. I started thinking about what word I might choose. Of course, kindness is my raison d’etre. It’s more than just a word—to me it’s a way of living. It’s at the heart of everything. I looked for another word that might speak to the journey ahead.

The one that sprang to mind is a word I encountered some years ago, in one of my favorite books, Kitchen Table Wisdom. Author Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, introduced the concept of querencia, It is a word that has many meanings—none of them especially clear, and that very imprecision contributes to its allure.

Dr. Remen describes how her cat, Charles, finds querencia in certain favorite places in the house they share—behind the drapes, under the stairs, even in one particular spot in plain sight on the living room rug. There, Charles is fearless, he is calm and relaxed. He casts off his usual wariness and basks in serenity. Remen herself finds querencia walking through Muir Woods in early morning before the tourists arrive. She also describes how when the cancer patients she works with find their querencia it begets in them a new strength and peace.

What is this marvelous and magical place?

Most commonly, querencia is used to describe the place in a bull ring (“corrida”) where the bull goes to feel safe and to gather his strength. For each bull it is a different place, so it is the job of the matador to recognize where querencia is for each bull, and keep him out of that spot. I find the idea of bull-fighting abhorrent, but the concept of finding our individual place of safety and sanctuary—while a force tries to keep us away from it—that is compelling … and certainly timely.

As I researched the word online, I found other definitions for querencia:

From Wikipedia: In Spanish, querencia describes a place where one feels safe, a place from which one’s strength of character is drawn, a place where one feels at home.

John Jeremiah Sullivan defines querencia as “an untranslatable Spanish word that means something like ‘the place where you are your most authentic self’.”

Other definitions:

  • A place in which we know exactly who we are; the place from which we speak our deepest beliefs
  • A safe haven, lair, or sanctuary

If I were a teacher, I would introduce my students to this word. I would put it on spelling tests and ask students to write papers describing their querencia. If I were a parent, I would talk to my child about querencia and encourage them to become familiar with their own place of safety and strength.

How wonderful it would have been at age 8 or 18 to know such a word, to know that there is a place of security and refuge that is ours alone, a place to go to gather strength and be exactly who we are, with no pressure to conform to norms or expectations imposed by others. No matter how idyllic one’s childhood may be, there are always times when we look for safe haven, or when we seek the confidence to speak from the depths of our heart, or when we recognize the place where we come face-to-face with our most authentic self and know that we have found something precious.

Querencia can be a physical place: at the foot of a favorite tree, a cozy window seat, a forest path. Or it can be a place inside us where we breathe into our own strength and feel our own certainty, a certainty that we don’t need to share with anyone else or proselytize to others to convince ourselves. Querencia might be the sense of transport we feel when we read a book, knowing as we do so that it is changing our life. And it might be that sense of oneness with nature that occurs when a place takes our breath away and replaces it—if only for an instant—with its own essence. Or it might be what we feel when we listen to a symphony by Sibelius. For each of us it will be different.

There are places I go to for querencia: the deck of our cabin facing Mt. Pilchuck and the Cascade Range, the labyrinth I built a few summers ago and walk every chance I get, certain books or passages from books that resonate to the thrum of my heart. In my memory, I go to a tiny, secluded cove near a condo my husband and I stayed in years ago on the island of St. John. It was a place of perfect peace, warm water, and star-studded night skies.

As I get older and shed some of the excesses from my life, I see that my inner querencia is much less elusive than it once was. I have cleared a space for it. That matador whose job it has been to keep me away from my querencia has also become less vigilant—perhaps she, too, recognizes the importance of having that place of personal sanctuary.

Something tells me querencia will be a much-needed refuge for many of us in the coming year. It will be a place to retreat to when we see and hear things that denigrate our values, when we are worn down by the effort of standing up to injustice, and when we need to replenish our souls in order to continue standing up.

I didn’t know the word as a child, but I know it now, and I think it’s a fine word to be my companion for 2017. Feel free to adopt it as your own. There is querencia for each of us. Where’s yours?

“Within you there is a stillness and sanctuary to which you can retreat at any time and be yourself.” (Hermann Hesse)