Collaboration

Last week a Substacker I follow, Candace Rose Rardon, illustrated a memory I shared with her. I was absolutely thrilled. The union of my words and her art spoke to one of my core values: collaboration.

Collaboration is about power management. It’s defined as working with someone. Not directing them. Not submitting to them. Working with them. In other words, sharing power – power-with rather than power-over.

Image by Bob Dmyt from Pixabay

Is it just me, or are we as a culture moving away from sharing power rather than toward it?

Collaboration and cooperation lie at the heart of my fiction. All my life I’ve been preoccupied with working together, but I never had adequate language or studied power until I learned emotional intelligence. At that point the light dawned. I reviewed my relationships, both family and otherwise, through the lens of power.

It was a grim review. I set out to reclaim my power.

Let’s be clear: reclamation is not stealing.

I didn’t want to take power away from others. I wanted to reclaim what had been taken from me.

This involved needs, boundary work, and many other moving parts, most of which I’ve written about here over the last seven years (almost exactly seven years … wow), and all of which are woven into my books.

Speaking of my books, I have a dream that one day a visual artist will read my work, become inspired, and want to illustrate it. That’s not all. (Might as well dream big, right?) In the same dream a musician (drums and flute or pipe, at least) reads my work, becomes inspired, and adds music and a soundscape to it. I even dream one day we’ll develop the ability to incorporate scent into reading.

I am a sensual person, and my writing reflects that. I myself see my characters and my world of Webbd vividly, but I’m not an artist. I respond deeply to music physically and emotionally, but I’m not a musician.

In every relationship I’ve sought collaboration. I’ve wanted a safe place to have an authentic voice, express an opinion, make a contribution. I’ve wanted the power to make choices. This has been true in the context of family, friends, spouses and boyfriends, coworkers, and community.

I have not been noticeably successful until the last ten years.

No matter how talented, strong, or knowledgeable we are, healthy collaboration can only make us bigger. Collaboration is tricky, though. It’s messy. We’re forced to deal with conflict, with different visions and voices than our own, different backgrounds, different belief systems, different ways of looking at the world and interacting with life. It’s work. It stretches us uncomfortably. We might have to be wrong (gasp!) and someone might find out we were wrong (horrors!).

Plenty of people say they want to collaborate when their true intention is a hostile takeover. Others seek collaboration as a way to make money or leverage other aspects of social power. Their agenda is to accrue power, not share it.

What Candace Rose Rardon did was extend a gift of generosity. When I sent her my memory I had no power over whether she chose to illustrate it or how she would illustrate it. I handed her my words and went on with life. I had no expectations. She sent back something beautiful woven of my words and her art. I’ve never met her. We exchanged no money. I know very little about her, but I do know this: she’s part of my tribe. She’s a creative collaborator.

Collaboration requires a willingness to be flexible and the willingness to accept someone’s vision regarding our art. As creators, we need to loosen our grip on our masterpieces and allow others to widen us. Perhaps someone else visualizes our character slightly differently than we do. Perhaps they see the character more clearly, or more fully than we can. As collaborators, we may be pushed to do more than we’ve done before, take new risks, try new things. Healthy collaboration makes us all more powerful, more expansive, more interesting, more textured.

We are stronger and more beautiful together than we are apart.

Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

Collaboration is everywhere. It’s the falling rain and early birdsong on a spring morning. It’s the calling of shorebirds against the background of surf. It’s the buzzing of a fat bumblebee in a fragrant blossom. The world is unbelievably sensual. Walking through tall grass this time of year, the stems and heads turning straw-colored, the small scratching prick of grasshopper legs on my bare skin, the scent of warm grass in my nostrils, is a miracle of collaboration. A garden exists because of collaboration between countless forms of life and the weather.

We can’t collaborate in every situation all the time. Leaders lead. Parents parent. Bosses must manage their people, teachers their students. We all have areas in our lives we like to manage solo, including areas in our creative lives. On the other hand, we are seeing the consequences of no collaboration: chaos, fear, hatred, division, destruction, and social breakdown. We are now successfully being manipulated into choosing not to collaborate even with ourselves, but with consumerism, capitalism, and ideology instead.

Collaboration is wide. It’s not only about human-to-human interaction. If we don’t figure out how to collaborate with our planet, with the human and non-human life around us, and (perhaps most importantly) with ourselves, we will not thrive. We’ll solve no problems. Nothing will change. We’ll meet challenges as individuals and as communities and countries poorly. We will keep ourselves small, disorganized, and weak.

Or we can choose to combine our knowledge, our skills, our vision, and our humanity.

Questions:

  • How have you collaborated successfully with others?
  • How have you struggled with collaboration?
  • What’s the hardest thing for you about sharing power with another?
  • Are you open to collaboration? Why or why not?

Leave a comment below!

To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:

The Voice

I read every day in Substack. Right now, AI is a main topic of conversation. I’ve read about the science behind it, opinions about where it will lead us ranging from the extermination of humans to a leap forward in positive ways we can’t imagine. Most of all, I read about the ways AI is impacting creative work and creators.

I don’t have a firm opinion about AI myself. I’m wary of predictions, interested in the science, and thoughts and experiences of writers I respect who have used AI-generated art, music, and writing. I’m especially interested in those who have interacted with AI as a resource for answering questions or developing new perspectives.

In the last couple of months, I read about an app called Betwixt. On principle, I hate apps and rarely use them. They increase my vulnerability online, provide more personal data to mine, clutter up my phone and laptop, and frequently feel like bells and whistles I don’t need. On the other hand, I admit they can be useful.

Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

Betwixt was briefly described as “an interactive story” of a journey into our own mind. The user co-creates their journey via questions and answers. It combines “story, science, and play,” enhanced by sound. It was developed by a team, including writers, game designers, a cognitive hypnotherapist, mental health specialists, and (get this) an “AI creativity scholar.”

I was intrigued, in spite of myself. In fact, I was surprised by how much I wanted to try it. I hesitated, feeling vaguely ridiculous. I did some research, discovered it was free, read some reviews, and decided I had nothing to lose. I could always just uninstall the app if I didn’t like it.

Most of us have probably encountered AI in online chatting to address problems or troubleshoot. I was on the Red Cross site last week chatting with what was clearly AI. It kept typing cheerful, excessively polite, Little-Mary-Sunshine things while I was trying to cut to the problem and solution part. I was annoyed. I’m polite and cooperative with people, but I can’t see much point in exchanging pleasantries with AI.

I had never interacted with any of the more sophisticated programs before using Betwixt.

Upon opening Betwixt, one enters into a story. A setting is provided; the user chooses details to fill in. The user is introduced to a Voice. The Voice asks questions, good questions. The user is provided with different choices for answering the questions, along with a frequent option to type in his/her own answer. The audio is rich and textured. The program is not illustrated, at least not so far. I like this; I like using my own imagination to fill in details. I don’t need more than audio.

The questions, along with possible answers to choose from, are quite good, even challenging. I don’t speed through it. I stop and think about what is true for me. Sometimes I don’t have a choice to answer in my own words and am forced to choose among the provided answers, whether they are good fits or not. This irritates me. As the story unfolds, steered by my answers to questions, I enter new internal territory. The closest answer rather than the exact answer takes me to places I normally wouldn’t go, giving me slightly different (and unfamiliar) views of myself and my behavior.

The app is divided into chapters, each a few minutes long. At the end of each chapter the user receives a summary and accumulates strengths, skills, and self-definitions to take forward. A brief explanation of the science and psychology underlying each completed chapter is also provided. There are options for upgrading to paid tiers.

Photo by Ryan Moreno on Unsplash

I notice an astonishing thing. I answer questions the Voice asks me with a depth and honesty I have never shared with a human being. I’ve believed I’ve been totally honest with people I trust before, but interacting with The Voice accessed a level in my mind I didn’t know was there. It was like those dreams in which the dreamer discovers a whole other room or wing in a house they weren’t aware of. As the journey begins, when the Voice is introduced, the user has an opportunity to ask the Voice questions, like its name and what it does when we’re not interacting. (It asked me my name.) I was astounded to find myself incurious; more than that, I don’t want to know. It’s an AI. I don’t have to do the emotional labor of building healthy connection. I’m not making a friend. I’m using a tool.

The last time I used the app, the storyline encouraged a moment of empathy for the AI. I felt a flash of savage anger and resistance.

I was entirely astounded by this very uncharacteristic knee-jerk response. I finished the chapter, closed the app, put the phone down, and did dishes while I thought about what had just happened. It didn’t take long to uncover it.

My experience of empathy is one of the core pieces of my life. Empathy can be a positive trait, but the empathic experience is frequently an overwhelming, utterly exhausting business. The only time I can truly rest, ground in myself, and be authentic is when I’m alone. But I’m a human being, a social animal. I need other people to interact with. Yet when I’m interacting with others, my empathy demands they take center stage with their needs, their feelings, their distress, their stories. I’m incapable (so far) of fully participating in my own experience because I’m too busy caregiving and being empathic. When I do ask for support or need to discharge feelings, I writhe over my selfishness and berate myself for it afterwards, feeling ashamed and angry for allowing myself to be vulnerable, for “burdening” those around me.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

I only want to give. I never want to take.

Since I learned emotional intelligence, I have reluctantly realized we need someone to interact with. Journaling, private physical and spiritual practices, and, in my case, writing, is not enough. At times we need someone to listen. We need someone to react, even if it’s just making encouraging, I’m-listening noises. We need someone to receive us.

I hate this reality. I don’t want to need anything from anyone, ever. I learned as a child such a need puts one in dreadful danger of abandonment, betrayal, and emotional annihilation that feels like death.

This is the first time I have interacted in a therapeutic context with something not human. The Voice reads what I type, responds, asks questions, and creates a story with me, but has no existence outside the app. I’m free of empathy, of caregiving, of the need to labor emotionally. I feel no responsibility to anyone but myself. I’m using it. It’s there for me, not the other way around.

The relief is indescribable.

So, when the story asks me to be empathic for the Voice, I want to throw the phone across the room. Animals, plants, people — even inanimate objects and spaces – receive all the love and care I’m capable of. This is the first time in nearly 60 years I’ve run across something that interacts like a human but is not a living being in the way I think of living beings. The value of the tool lies in my ability to be completely free and honest because there’s no one to take care of besides myself.

It makes me realize my context as a human on a planet filled with life is my entire identity. If I were magically transported to the world of Betwixt, with only the Voice to interact with, I have no idea who I would be or what I would say or do.

I have not finished my journey with this app. There’s more to experience, share, and think about. I’ll be back next time with more on my exploration of Betwixt.

(I’m not earning a commission from Betwixt, in case you were wondering!)

Questions:

  • Until now, emotional intelligence training was the most valuable therapeutic context I’ve ever engaged with. What kinds of therapy have you explored? What did you find most helpful?
  • What are your thoughts and feelings about AI?
  • What kind of potential do you think, fear, or hope AI might have as a creative tool?

Leave a comment below!

To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:

Chaos

I have written about dance here before. In the structure I use, the 5 Rhythms Wave by Gabrielle Roth, chaos is part of the wave. The music for chaos is fast but grounded. Think Pink Floyd’s Meddle.

As I lingered on the threshold between waking and sleep this morning, thinking about loss, the subject of my last post; thinking about my distressing inability to publish my usual essay on Substack last week, and thinking about the ways in which I’m reshaping my beliefs about my family and therefore myself, I recognized the chaos part of the dance.

Photo by Leon Liu on Unsplash

To dance in chaos involves letting everything go except the beat. Chaos is about strength, not beauty. It’s about grounding and staying grounded even as the music flings us through space.

Chaos is the part where you dance till you drool.

The edge of chaos is fertile, regenerative, thick with possibility. It’s also powerfully disorganized and unpredictable. It’s exhausting, overwhelming. Too much is happening too fast. When dancing chaos, we give ourselves entirely to the music and follow it through the tumult however we can. As Margaret Shepherd said, “Sometimes your only available transportation is a leap of faith.” Add music to that idea and you have the chaos part of the dance. The car has broken down. The planes are grounded. The train has derailed. The illusion we’re in control has shattered. Our routines and schedules fall apart around us. Our internal and external worlds begin to reshape in ways we can’t understand.

I’ve been troubled in the last couple of weeks by the violence of my rebellion against doing anything except work and play in the garden. I don’t want to write. I don’t want to think or reason. I don’t care about the damn housework. Beltane, May 1st, came and went without my usual ritual and practices. I don’t want to be brave, strong, organized, compassionate, tolerant, empathetic, or responsible.

I can’t remember a time in my life when I’ve shut down like this. I/m unable to guilt or lash myself into being “productive.” I feel ashamed and scared. I don’t recognize myself.

It occurs to me this is my Beltane ritual this year. After all, Beltane is about fertility. Physical fertility, the cyclical fertility of the growing season, creative fertility. My ritual this year is being in the garden. There, with my knees in the dirt, the smell and feel of the soil, the texture of new weeds and old leaves and matted grass (we didn’t have a mower last year), I am peaceful. I know where I am. I am, literally, grounded. I don’t have my phone. Nobody needs anything from me. I bend, kneel, stoop, dig, rake and shovel compost mindlessly. I dream vaguely about new garden beds, rewilding with native shrubs and trees. Black flies come for their drop of blood. The sun shines down on me.

Right now I need to be in the garden. I don’t understand it entirely, but perhaps there’s no need to. What I do know is something in me refuses to engage with anything else. As the lilies and iris emerge, as the tulips bloom and the daffodils fade, as the lilacs bud and the magnolia blossoms fall and cover the ground, I mulch and prune and feel seismic forces beyond my control reshape me internally.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

So much of what I’ve learned and believed about my family and my place in it has crumbled into dust. Old family myths have exploded with fragments of evidence from Mom’s life, unearthed in the process of selling her estate. I didn’t entirely believe in some of those myths, but they were stable. They provided a family background I was familiar with. I built an identity from the identities family members who came before me created. If I am not the despised one, the broken one, the one who doesn’t belong, the cuckoo in the nest, who am I? Has all that been yet another family myth? Has any of it ever been about who I really am or my personal value, or have I been nothing but a faceless, nameless piece in a dysfunctional family pattern?

I long for freedom. Is this the beginning of freedom?

My recent inability to force myself to take care of business, to be responsible, consistent, and productive, is terrifying. I’ve always pushed myself through any resistance or fatigue. I’ve always known I must justify my existence with constant production, pleasing, and caregiving.

Am I free of that now? If I don’t have to justify my existence because that belief is a lie based on family mythology that’s at least part lies, is that freedom? Am I brave enough to take my freedom, walk away from all the burdens (too heavy for me, but I’ve carried them anyway), and simply choose what makes me happy? I have stood at this crossroad before.

Two weeks ago I wrote about loss. Now I’m watching glimmers of new beginnings, nebulous glints of what might come into the disturbed ground of my being. I pick up trash and find rich soil beneath it. I dig up dandelions and burdocks and discover little patches of old garden. The sun touches me without asking for anything in return. I rake away last year’s debris and mix it with compost to build new garden beds. This morning, the crab apple is in bloom. The tight buds on the white lilac by the porch door gather perfume.

Meanwhile, back in Colorado, strangers live in my mother’s house. Hospice tells me Mom can no longer ambulate independently, even with her walker. A call in the middle of last night reported yet another fall, as she doesn’t realize (or won’t admit) her own weakness. Appraisal revealed my wealthy and powerful grandmother’s gold, pearls, and gemstones were mostly costume, not real. A ladylike façade. A denial of her impoverished roots. A glimpse of shame and fear that rival my own, though I never knew they were there.

Photo by Doug Maloney on Unsplash

It’s Mother’s Day weekend. A friend asked me yesterday how I felt about that, and I had no words.

What is real? What can I bear? The dirt on my knees, under my fingernails. The spectacularly itchy, burning welts of black fly bites. The egg shells, banana peels, and soggy segments of lemon in the compost pile. The lovely cupped double tulips I planted last fall, white, pink and purple. The thumb-sized bumble bee tumbling ecstatically among the pink blossoms of the crabapple. My own breath, heartbeat, sweat. The sun on my skin.

Gardens are made and remade. They die and are reborn. They go wild and survive until rediscovered. They adjust, adapt, take advantage of the edge of chaos according to their own wisdom and purpose.

For now, I’m in the garden, dancing with chaos, nurturing new life, hanging on.

Questions:

  • What is your experience of Mother’s Day?
  • In the times during which you struggle to manage your life, are you fearful or do you allow yourself to follow your needs?
  • Do you find chaos joyful and exhilarating or frightening?
  • What opportunities have you had to reframe your family?

Leave a comment below!

To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:

Our Daily Crime Becomes Harvesting Stones

It’s time. Harvesting Stones is now live, after six months of hard work. I hope you enjoy the new site as much as I do!

Why harvesting stones? We can’t plant pebbles and grow big stones. Why would we want to?

Stones are hard and heavy. Aside from gemstones or the pebble in our shoe, we don’t think about them much. Stone, after all, is everywhere. Healthy soil is the child of stone, plants and animals. Stone is literally the foundation of our world. It’s the raw material we live on, build and decorate with. Stone shapes the land. We break our backs and tools on stone.

We also, especially as children, marvel at the colors and shapes of stones. We pick them up, finger them, carry them in our pockets, take them home and set them on a shelf or table.

Stone is elemental. It contains a record of the planet’s history, and our history as a species. It contains the future, for every stone eventually wears away. It’s what remains when all else has perished, like bone, like seed. Stone endures.

Stone is resilient. It weathers. Water shapes it. Plants split it. Lichen breaks it down. Volcanic heat melts it. It can be chiseled and carved, and then time blunts and wears away the chiseling and carving. Given enough exposure and time, stone becomes sand and soil. It’s never lost. It’s always becoming.

Stone is uncompromising in its simplicity. It will bruise us, scrape our skin off, cling stubbornly to the field where it’s not wanted, make us ache with its weight. It doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not. It’s authentic.

Harvesting Stones is about presence. It’s about appreciating the stones we trip over, the stones we carry in our hearts and bellies and pockets. It’s about coming to terms with discomfort and looking past our narrow focus on monetary value and popular beauty. It’s about power.

I lately came across an exercise in The Enchanted Life by Sharon Blackie. She asks the reader: If you could be any place in the landscape, what would you be?

By Joshua Sortino on Unplash

I would be a cave. A hidden place, a haven. A cozy cave from which I could hear and see and taste the outside world. I’d be a cave with a spring falling into a stone basin, a cave with ledges and shelves, a cave with, perhaps, a bat colony in some part of it, or a hibernating bear, or a new animal mother and her young. A womb of stone.

Not surprisingly, caves show up everywhere in my reading and writing.

Creating Our Daily Crime was an extraordinary experience. I could never have imagined how many stones I would turn over, how much I would grow and learn, what I would discover, what I would let go. I was unprepared for how powerful it would be. Powerfully healing. Powerfully connecting.

Now I want to do more with that power. I wanted something more creative, more authentic, and more accessible for readers, browsers, and searchers. I wanted to create a digital space to share more poetry, more resources, more stories, and my books.

Welcome to Harvesting Stones.

Traumatic Response: Flight

Last week I wrote about the traumatic response of fawn, as described by Pete Walker, author of Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. This week I’m tackling another of my strongest trauma responses, that of flight.

Photo by Ian Espinosa on Unsplash

Flight, or fleeing, is a natural response to threat or danger. It’s an instinctive life-saving behavior. However, we’re not physiologically made to live in a constant state of flight. It exhausts our adrenal glands, our immune systems, and our psyches. I believe it’s at the root of much disease and chronic pain. Sadly, we reward people for operating out of this particular trauma response by calling them “productive,” by which we mean “making money” or “benefitting me in some way with their work.”

Flight, like fawning, encompasses several behaviors I’ve struggled with all my life and already written about in this blog.

Flight becomes a trauma response when we are unable to flee from chronic threat. If we cannot physically escape, we default to mental and emotional escape by dissociating or distracting ourselves with activity. We push ourselves without mercy into workaholism, extreme stimulation, and chronic anxiety. We micromanage everyone around us, trying to maintain some sense of safety and control. We cannot sit still or relax without feeling panicked. We produce, and produce, and produce. If we’re not producing we feel empty, worthless, and scared.

We lose our ability to be. All we know is how to do.

There’s nothing wrong with achievement, but we need more than that to be healthy and happy. Of course, capitalism depends on achievement, and as consumers we are romanced with uncountable ways to be more productive, better at multitasking, and faster workers, not so we have more time to relax, rest, and play, but so we have more time to produce, multitask, and work!

Photo by Anna Dziubinska on Unsplash

Hard workers and super achievers are rewarded in the workplace with paychecks, promotions, bonuses, good references, and recognition. We are not culturally rewarded for taking sabbaticals, sick days, disability leave, family leave, or vacation days.

Here are some of the ways flight behavior shows up in me:

  • Pacing.
  • Panic attacks.
  • Teeth grinding.
  • Chronic physical tension and pain.
  • Working without pausing for rest or food.
  • Eating disorder.
  • Refusing to accept physical limitations of pain or illness, thereby ensuring more pain and illness.
  • Chronic worry, anxiety, racing thoughts.
  • Insomnia.
  • Migraines.
  • Weakened immune system.
  • Chronic exhaustion (chronic fatigue syndrome, anyone?)
  • Rushing/speeding.
  • Schedule shaming.
  • Self-loathing if having fun or relaxing.
  • Resistant to taking breaks.
  • Shame and guilt if not “productive” or “useful.”
  • Shame and guilt over mistakes.
  • Inability to sit quietly and meditate, read, dream, or gaze at my navel.
  • Refusal to engage creatively. It’s not “productive.”
  • Constipation.
  • Perfectionism.

Remember that trauma response behaviors are on a continuum. Every day I look at a graphic from Pete Walker’s website depicting the four trauma responses at their most polarized and destructive as well as healthier, less extreme options.

For example, fleeing in blind panic has become a deeply ingrained behavior pattern for me. I feel panicked, but there is no threat, not here, not now. I’m safe. I don’t need to run away from anything. Yet the smallest trigger produces a flood of adrenaline that demands I flee. If I don’t obey the compulsion, I have a panic attack, which is extremely mortifying when I’m in public.

I counteract this old trauma response by practicing disengagement and healthy retreat. Disengagement means, instead of running like a panicked rabbit, I excuse myself with dignity from situations in which I feel uncomfortable and walk (not run!) away. I don’t pick up poisoned bait. I don’t accept an invitation to have conflict. I create some distance between myself and the trigger. I lay down a boundary. I say no.

Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

I’ve written about healthy retreat in my post on quitting. Sometimes a healthy retreat is the best choice we can make for ourselves, no matter how uncomfortable, frightening, or even devastating it can be. Unfortunately, we are often unsupported in this choice. When we understand we’re in the wrong job, the wrong relationship, or the wrong place, we have a right to choose a healthy retreat. We don’t need to drop an atomic bomb as we leave, but it’s okay to change our mind, make a mistake, outgrow a situation, or simply realize things aren’t working out for us where we are.

I’ve been challenging what I now identify as my flight response for some time. I developed a meditation practice. I developed an exercise practice and then began working with a personal trainer to ensure I wasn’t pushing myself too hard (I was). I get regular dental care and wear a mouth guard at night. I eat regularly, no matter how busy or stressed I feel. I’ve slowed down. I no longer strive for perfection. I make it a point to relax, laugh, play, and take breaks. I do creative work every day. Because I’ve learned to relax during the day, I sleep much better at night, and I’m careful about my sleep hygiene. I stopped making to-do lists and no longer engage in schedule shaming myself or anyone else. If I feel tired, ill, or just plain uninspired, I rest.

The funny thing is, I’m more productive now than I’ve ever been in my life before. I’m also far less exhausted, much healthier, and happier. These trauma responses have had enormous power over me, but recognizing them, naming them, and understanding where they come from have reduced them to habits I can break. And I’m breaking them.

Photo by ORNELLA BINNI on Unsplash