Big things, small steps

When it was built in 1962, Seattle's Space Needle was the tallest building west of the Mississippi River.

It was in the sixth grade when I realized that I liked big things. Growing up in a relatively small town where grade school was a 10 minute walk from home and the public swimming pool a five minute car ride away, my sense of space and scale was somewhat limited. After all, the tallest building, a department store, was just two stories high.

But that changed when dad and I crossed the state to visit Seattle, city of tall buildings, crowded sidewalks and six lane freeways. I remember standing near the base of the Space Needle and looking up at its top some 600 feet above us.

And so my passion for big was ignited. Monuments like the Pyramids and the Sphinx. And Michelangelo’s statue of David and the Sistine Chapel. Titanic. Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose. Symphony No. 7 by Gustav Mahler. The Sunday New York Times.

It’s hard to fully comprehend the complexity and scale of these “big things.” Whether it’s monument, a painting, an airplane or a symphony, they share one common factor: each began with a single idea and a single action that began the building process.

Don’t get me wrong, I like “simple”, too. Simple is good because it’s a good place to start. Take last week, for example.

A friend asked if I’d help with a writing project but, frankly, I didn’t know where to begin. I worried about the “tone” it needed to take, and how many pertinent facts needed to be told. Perhaps it was my zeal for “big” that was making too much of this assignment.

So, I did what every writer (or most anyone facing the situation) does, I put a few words down on paper. They weren’t the right words, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that they were a start from which the right words emerged after only a few minutes. Five paragraphs later, followed by some fact checking and polishing, and it was done! A brief email sent the project on its way.

Brings to mind the nearly cliché quote about a journey of a thousand miles beginning with one step. It is true. If you want to make a change of any size, you have to take a step of any size.

Recently, I’ve been using this idea to gain a greater sense of personal peace. Admittedly, they’re small steps like listening more and talking less. Or showing more patience and trying to make more people “right” than “wrong.” Or encouraging others in what they’re doing.

Will this usher in world peace? No. Will it help? At some level, yes.

For me, peace is a “one gal, one guy at a time” effort. And each day is the day to wage it.

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Following intense rehab, snowboarder Kevin Pearce returns home

After four months of intense rehab following a near-fatal snowboarding accident, Kevin Pearce returned to his family’s Norwich, VT home last week. Although hopes for an Olympic metal were dashed, for him, being home with his family was a golden moment that gave him a new perspective on his young life.

You can read a New York Times account here and watch NBC Nightly News coverage here. An ItsJakesWorld post from February 27, 2010 is here.

Love as a verb

I spent much of this morning finding and listening to music about home, love, peace, and compassion. And on the way, I ran across a video called “Beautiful Earth” celebrating Earth Hour in the United Kingdom. Blake, the British musical group whose music you hear in the video, is loosely called a “boy band” although that hardly represents the vocal talents of this gifted vocal quartet who named themselves after William Blake, the poet and writer.

All this was sort of a mellow prelude for an after-lunch trip to the fish market and a local retailer that features close-out merchandise. A Saturday afternoon distraction of sorts.

I was unprepared for what would happen, an important lesson about living love, not just thinking about it.

After a quick visit to a nearby pet store to look at cats and dogs up for adoption, I headed to the real destination. Inside, in the bedding section, was a mother and her 22-year-old son who appeared to be a significantly challenged special needs child. He was hunched over and stared vacantly at the collection of colored sheets somewhat neatly stacked on the table.

As I walked over, I found myself uncomfortable being there, even wondering if it was safe. I walked down a different aisle to avoid him. A few minutes later, when I returned to an area just a few feet from him, I felt a certain eerie-ness. I turned. It was the young man, his head pointed away, but his right eye fixed intently on me.

I felt strange, “weirded out,” as some would say.

And then, in what had to be just a split second, I wondered how many others—like me—judged him with their eyes while avoiding our hearts. The feeling of eerie left.

I turned, looked directly at him, smiled and said, “Hi, how are you.” In a clear, strong voice he replied, “I’m fine. Are you okay?”

We had a 30-second conversation about what he was buying with his mother. “Sheets,” he told me saying that he really didn’t understand this “thread count” thing. We laughed.

And then the conversation ended but not before he looked at me and said, “Thank you for talking to me.”

As I watched him disappear down the aisle to join his mom, my eyes filled with tears.

I was embarrassed by my selfishness and all-too-quick judgment. But at the same time, I found myself being grateful for a moment in which love became an action and not just a thought.

High above this overcrowded place
A distant blackbird flies through space
And all he does is search for love.
Love is all that matters in the end…

Love is the oldest secret of the universe
Warm as the touch of two innocent lovers
When they discover that
Love is what we ever really know.

A past and future come and go
Because they do, Love stays with you…

Celebration” by Paul McCartney

Six lessons from Dylan and Trevor

Life lessons come in many shapes, sizes and situations and mostly when we’re open to learning them.

One recent Saturday dished up some pretty good ones, each served by a couple of unlikely messengers—my coworker’s sons, Dylan and Trevor, ages eight and five. She and the guys showed up to help with some serious office cleaning and straightening.

Now I don’t hang with kids much, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Because I follow their comings and goings pretty much on a daily basis, I knew that her sons are (1) all boy, (2) very polite and (3) extremely smart.  I figured I was in for either a real treat or a pretty long day.

The workday began with lunch and a detailed movie review of the new Dreamworks film “How to Train Your Dragon” that they’d seen a few days before. I was struck that these guys were using complete sentences that logically developed from one thought to the next. I was still learning to tie my shoes at the age of seven. At five, I was sticking my head in chimneys and who knows what else…

Then it was on to the work of the day: packing, shredding, and boxing stuff—all of which was punctuated with lots of questions, laughter and, well, did I mention questions? Bunches of them.

It was a quick 2-1/2 hours. While driving home, I found myself laughing out loud at the time we spent together. There were lessons here. I counted six. Call them Lessons from Dylan and Trevor:

  1. Expect good from everyone you meet.
  2. Think of work as a joy because it can be if you let it.
  3. Tell stories about what you like to do as it makes living more fun.
  4. Say “Yes” when asked if you want to do something—even if you don’t really understand what it is.
  5. Thank people, even if the gift they give you is small.
  6. And, finally, love each other, because it makes everything better.

Thanks guys!

Doing nice

Mom and dad’s advice about being nice to friends, strangers and animals didn’t fall on completely deaf ears although some of my friends would argue that on occasion.

Being nice has lots of parts to it. Being polite. Being kind. Being patient… understanding, thoughtful, respectful, courteous, forgiving… The list isn’t quite infinite, but it gets close.

The word “being” implies a state of existing. For me, it’s a passive word in that it doesn’t require action. Being just is.

And when it comes to life there are lots of opportunities to respond with niceness or not.

I was reminded of this during the week while flying cross-country with plane loads of others who just wanted to get from here to there with as little hassle as possible. Generally people were patient and courteous—nice, if you will. And, with the exception of the woman who couldn’t pry the cell phone from her face while speaking loudly, I found myself thinking “nice,” too.

But then I started watching the flight attendants as they helped mothers with small children to their seats, served drinks, read safety messages, passed out headphones and the myriad other things that airline people do in the course of their jobs. I offered the usual “thank you’s” for the coffee and the pillow. Mom and dad would have been pleased.

And, then it struck me.

Maybe there is something more than just being nice. Maybe we should elevate it to “doing nice” to others. Sure, the flight attendants were just doing their jobs and getting paid for it. So, “thanks,” should be enough, right?

I realized that the answer to that question might, in a small way, make a difference in the lives of others.

So, while sitting in 8B I decided to think about what they were doing for me: making the trip more safe and pleasant, calming passengers during some turbulence and bringing countless glasses of water to the person in 6C.

While leaving the plane and under the moniker of “doing nice,” I spoke to one of attendants and thanked her for making the flight pleasant and enjoyable. She paused, looked at me and said, “You just made my day.”

That made me wonder why it took so little to do that. And, if it took so little effort on my part, why wouldn’t I practice “doing nice” more often: think store clerk, the guy on the help line, the boss, the neighbor.

Being nice is good. But why not trump it with “doing nice.”

The virtue of bad news

Newspaper and television reports, filled with stories of hardship and misfortune, affect us on some level. Yet, each report takes on a different meaning when the casualty of war is a friend’s son or daughter, or when unemployment becomes a family member’s story.

Although the news seems to be about “the other guy,” it may be more about us than we think.

I was reminded of this the other day when a co-worker’s dear mother passed on unexpectedly. At a spry 80-plus years, she was filled with spunk and lived a strong and inspiring life. Although I never knew her personally, her death reminded me of my parents’ lives and how much their values permeate my work and friendships today. As I wrote a note to my friend the other night, I found myself thinking that her mom’s enthusiasm and drive didn’t die with her, rather, it was being passed on through the stories she shared with me and others. Her passing, a huge loss for her family, contained a small note of inspiration for me: How could I dial up my own enthusiasm for life? It was a small measure of good to be found in the bad news.

Something similar could be said for news accounts of the Haiti earthquake. Most of us have trouble relating to devastation on such a large scale, but it becomes real when a neighbor’s home is damaged by fire or flood. Suddenly “over there” moves closer to home. What does that mean to me and can I reach out to lighten the burden? Perhaps the news calls us to be a contribution.

Millions of people today are looking for work after losing their jobs to economic conditions. The big numbers and statistics shield us from individuals with faces, names, families and their own stories. For them, the bad news contains little good. Yet that judgment may be hasty, especially if causes us to miss how the closing of one door points to others we didn’t see.

And, that may be the point. Sometimes the current situation—good, bad or otherwise—can lead us, if not lull us, into complacency about how much we really have to offer others. We may accept the status quo because the not status-quo is scary or not even apparent. So, we settle for what we have because it’s convenient, if not easy and safe.

What if the “We have to let you go” message that many have heard is really “We’re setting you free.” I don’t credit employers with all that much smarts, insight or unselfishness. We have to assume that for ourselves. We must read the lines and understand the real story. We choose how we hear the message.

Being set free isn’t such a bad thing. Neither is taking a longed-for chance or a risk, something that can be scary and heartening at the same time.

Set free. Seeing new doors and opening them to a better life and greater contribution.

That’s the virtue in bad news.

Listening for everything

The more you listen, the more you hear, according to Gordon Hempton*, an acoustic ecologist.

But Hempton says that if you listen for something, you stay inside a narrow expectation of your previous experience and tune out what you’re not listening for. In other words, when you listen just for the sound of the cricket, or the bird, or the wind, you will often miss other sounds going on at the same time.

He contends that real listening occurs when we truly pause and let everything in, opening our ears, our heart and our mind to be filled with all there is to hear.

It’s in this listening that we hear the Universe speak.

***

*Hempton is the author of  One  Square Inch of Silence and is waging his own war to save silence from extinction.