The practice of joy

photo

Fall is a magical time in New England. One by one and then in clusters the leaves give way to hues of red and yellow and orange, as if bursting into flames. “The trees are on fire” I say. As a native Southern Californian, a hillside of such colors are usually framed by black billowing smoke.

My favorite way to experience the foliage is by walking through the forest on a sunny afternoon.  On a recent hike, with a dense canopy of leaves overhead, I took a few steps off the trail and stretched out on a soft bed of moss and fallen leaves.

Staring up from the trunk of a tree I imagine what it would take for an artist to recreate this view. Each leaf would need to be carefully cut from brightly colored parchment, hand painted with tiny veins and then painstakingly glued to artificially branches and limbs. Thousands of dollars. Hundreds of hours.

Back on the trail, the leaves crunch beneath my feet as each step brings me more deeply into a meditative state. Perched on the edge of a small valley I take a deep breath and scan the foliage below.

This is one of the most beautiful things I’ve experienced.

Joy courses through my veins.

Then, in an instant, I feel overwhelmed with sadness.

All of this beauty will be gone soon.

*** 

Why is it so difficult to be present to joy?

I recently attended the Women and Power Retreat at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, and Dr. Brené Brown shared her research findings. “Joy is the most vulnerable emotion we experience”,  she said to an audience of over 500 women. “If you cannot tolerate joy, then you start dress rehearsing tragedy.”

How can we overcome this? Brown’s research showed that certain people had an ability to experience a great amount of joy. What did they do differently? These joyful people cultivated a practice of gratitude.

What is one thing you can do today to practice gratitude?

 

 

The World Domination Summit: Fertile ground to get out of your own way and create

I am still processing all that was the World Domination Summit, a gathering of writers, creative and world changers over a warm summer weekend in Portland, Oregon. There are brilliant recaps of the speakers and events here and here. But what happened outside of the scheduled events were just as powerful for me.

After an inspiring talk by Darren Rowse, I slipped out of the theater and into the warmth of the July Portland sun. I felt stripped and raw, open to observing all around me. As I sat and watch my friend try acro yoga, which was providing relief to her chronic back pain, I met Benedict. Then I made this short video.

What would happen if we got out of our own way, if the voices of self doubt and criticism vanished and we slipped into a creative flow? 

The fisherman

We stood at the edge of the boat deck, our forearms resting on the railing and the sun in our faces. The edge of the river exploded with lush green foliage, framed by the deep ochre sands of the Sahara, and the blue, cloudless sky.

A lone man stood on a bluff and laid out a thick cloth on the ground in front of him and kneeled.

“See there,” Walid said. “This man, all he has is his boat, his fish and Allah.” The man pronated, then rose. “A simple life, but a happy one”.

Walid and I had slipped away for our first moment alone. We had spent the day exploring the Temple of Hatshepsut, marveling at the vivid, well-preserved hieroglyphics. Well I was the one marveling- he had seen them hundreds of times before.

I was drawn to Walid the moment I saw him, walking down the bus isle in Cairo, welcoming the group of newly arrived tourists from Spain. His olive complexion, tight brown curly hair, and upper lip whose shape resembled an eagles wings, drew me in.

And now, here in this floating oasis, I felt myself falling in love. With him, with his country, I wasn’t sure which.

The other side

Image

My first vivid memory outside the United States occurred when I was 8 years old. My mom and I travelled south by car from Vista, California, past expansive homes perched on hillsides, lagoons with crashing waves in the distance and tall shiny buildings.

Then, suddenly, we crested the freeway and large gray mounds rose up from the horizon. Blotches of reds, blues, and yellows slowly become visible, giving way to outlines of roofs and walls- hillsides of pieced-together dwellings.

We arrived at a large plot of land in the outskirts of Tijuana, Mexico. My mother unloaded a black trash bag of used clothing from the trunk and I watched a group of kids play soccer with no shoes. A few yards away a team of gringos alternated cinder blocks and cement, constructing the rear wall of a small building.

Back at the border in the late afternoon, we inched slowly in our car past curbside vendors with oversized status of the Virgen de Guadalupe. Children smaller than me darted between vehicles yelling “chicle, chicle” while holding up packages chewing gum.

When we returned home, my mother turned on the kitchen faucet and said, “ I feel so grateful for running water now.”

We were poor by US standards, but trips across the border made my mom feel rich.

A decade later, while a freshman at UCLA, I travelled back to Mexico with a group of students to work with AMEXTRA, an organization founded by 3 students from Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México who were dedicated to serving the poor. After days of touring the community, I grew frustrated. When would we give away clothing? When would we start building houses? Weren’t we there to help people?

Steve, the tall lanky American who worked with AMEXRA full time, took us to see Diego Rivera’s murals in the Palacio Nacional. A massive relief showed a peaceful Aztec people harvesting corn- then their dramatic enslavement by the conquistadores.

“You are here to listen,” said Steve, “You are not here to tell people what to do with their lives.”

I was stunned. I though I would be able to contribute something tangible to people in need. Instead, it felt like the trip was all about me.

Back at the community center I witnessed my first triple bottom line operation: a hand-made paper business. Two women from the community collected paper trash from the streets and tuned it into handmade notecards and journals.

I now know that empowering marginalized communities is not about rushing in with “the answers”. Rather, it’s about standing in solidarity with another human being, observing and listening to their desires, passions, strengths and weaknesses, and offering a hand if and when they ask.

How to get the most out of a conference

I recently attended the Global Health and Innovation Conference at Yale, not for work but for my own enrichment. After attending dozens of conferences over the years, this was by far my favorite gathering. I left full of ideas, new connections and clarity about my life path.

What made this conference different than the rest? 

I really wanted to be there.

Don’t get me wrong, the conferences I attended while pursuing my masters and PhD programs were interesting. But here’s the thing about academia: it’s difficult to study something you’re really passionate about.

Why? Because you almost always have to specialize. And as you’re specializing, it will be in an area that interests your advisor, because you are there, after all, to support his or her work. I started out in college wanting to improve the lives of marginalized people and years later I was analyzing the impact of increased fiber consumption on pancreatic function. Interesting work? Yes. Potential to improve lives? Probably. Did it encompass the scope of my interest and serve as a platform for reaching my potential? I didn’t think so.

If you know what you want to study early on and this aligns with a faculty member’s research, then kudos to you. But most of us learn about what interests us by actually trying it, and there are few options for shifting around once you’re on the academic track.

Leaving my doctoral program created an opportunity to shift my vantage point. Zoom way out. Clear the canvas and ask myself: what do I really want to learn about? How do I want to impact the world?

Here’s how to maximize your conference attendance:

1. Choose a conference that interests you

What do stay up late reading on your own time? What books are on your Amazon wish list? For me, it’s books about social entrepreneurship, social innovation and writing, to name a few. If you’re attending a conference because you have to for work or school, and you can’t find a break out session that interest you, it may be time to consider making a shift. Note: most of the points below won’t apply if you’re at the wrong conference.

2. Take notes

I took notes on my laptop at each session. I’m over taking handwritten notes because I lose them, I can’t search them and I can’t write fast enough. I also recorded every talk in case I need to go back and fill out my notes.

3. Organize your own mixer.

Talks before lunch are networking gold. Find a session with a panel of speakers that are early to mid career, sit in front, and then ask your favorite speakers out to lunch. That’s how I met Danielle Grace Warren, founder and president of JustShea, a social enterprise that increases the safety and income of over 600,000 women in Ghana. I got to hear the behind the scenes of a start up social enterprise, how she manages a business in another country (she spends 4 months in Brooklyn and the rest of her time in Ghana), and, most importantly, I made a new friend and colleague.

4. Ask a good question

I mean at the end of someone’s talk get up and ask a question. I make myself do this because it forces me to pay attention. Also, this makes attending a conference more like a conversation. You can read someone’s book, blog, etc., but when do you get to ask the author your burning questions? By the way, this is about asking a question and not endless self-promotion. I’ve witnessed the obnoxious listing of accolades and affiliations and it just makes me want to stay far away from that person. Ask a thoughtful, succinct question, and then listen.

5. Really follow up with people

If you get someone’s card and say you will send an email, follow through with your word. At a recent talk on mentoring, Sharon Oberg said that only 10% of people she gives her card to ever really email her back.

5. When you do follow up, be succinct

This is not the time to pour out your whole life story.

6. Skip a session

You don’t have to attend them all. I took a break to walk through New Haven, browse a bookstore and bought a card to give to someone I met and really connected with. 

Run to empower women

Image

“What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?   -Mary Oliver

I’ve been throwing myself birthday parties since third grade. Birthdays were an excuse to gather the people I love, feed them and play.

This year, I have a different vision. Women in post-conflict Kamoniyi, Rwanda, gathering around a fresh new start. Clean water.

Lack of access to clean water not only leads to illness, but research in Kamoniyi showed it’s also the cause of domestic violence, chronic malnutrition, and school absenteeism.

So for my 33rd birthday, I want to raise $3,300 to help Global Grassroots complete the “People of Love” water project.

This new water collection point will double as a gathering space to teach women how to create kitchen gardens and nutritious meals, and to train couples about domestic violence and women’s rights.

I’m hoping to inspire 100 people to donate $33 each.

                                                                And I’m going to run through 3 states to do it.

That’s right, three states. Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Yowzers!

Why am I doing this?

Because I believe we can make the world a better place.

And Gretchen Wallace, founder of Global Grassroots, is doing that in a radical way. I attended her Conscious Social Change Workshop and knew I needed to support her work: empowering underserved women to become change agents, transforming their own communities. Also, Global Grassroots is a few miles from my house and I plan to learn through osmosis!

Will you join me? 

5 Life lessons I learned from quitting my PhD program

Back Camera

Three years ago I was accepted into a fully funded doctoral program in my dream field. I quit my job, loaded up a UHaul and moved to sunny San Diego.

Then, my father was given months to live. Prostate cancer. And my mother, who had long suffered from bipolar disorder, stopped taking her medication. I flew to St. Louis, Missouri and drove hours until I reached a remote hospital near the Arkansas border. I scooped up my mother, like I had so many times growing up, and brought her home.

Assignments now competed for precious time with my ailing parents. In an instant, reading and writing about preventing chronic disease became meaningless.

And I began to question everything. Why did I want a PhD? Did I really want to become a professor? Would academia provide the necessary vehicle to change the world?

I had answers. The PhD, those magic letters that would appear at the end of my name, would give me credibility. I imagined breaking into a board room of old white men who were about to rule against the little guy and, even though I was young, and a woman, they would listen to me because I was Dr. Katharine Alexander.

In addition, my own experience growing up on welfare with a single mother left me with an almost unhealthy self-appointed mandate to serve the poor. While an undergrad at UCLA, I taught HIV/AIDS education in South Africa, helped run a mobile clinic for the homeless in West Hollywood and created Proyecto Chalco– a student group that traveled to Mexico City’s post NAFTA urban sprawl to conduct health assessments– all while maintaining a rigorous load of science courses in preparation for graduate school.

I had big plans to change the world, and I needed a big degree to do it.

My professors proved to be relatively flexible with my assignments and I finished my first semester. A few days later, as I was holding his hand, my father took his last breath. This was a profound loss and I was deeply grateful for those final moments with him.

I returned to my program in January, motivated to get back on course. But it wasn’t long before the questioning returned.

Why was I pursuing this degree? What was the point?

When I scratched the surface even further, I became aware of my deep, irrational fear of being destitute. I was terrified of being poor, and that fear had played a role in pushing myself towards a professional degree. Now, this same fear of poverty was keeping me from leaving.

In addition, I was told that my independent funding would allow me to create my own research project. I drew up a proposal and got verbal approval to move forward. But a week later my adviser rescinded: I was to work solely on her research. I was crushed. It felt like the program was not about nurturing me as an independent researcher, but about training me to be a cog in the academic machine.This, and my existential crisis, left little motivation to continue, and months later I withdrew from my program.

I had no money, no job, and no degree to strive towards. My source of identity was gone. I had spent the last decade deriving meaning from the work I did, and without the work, I had no meaning.

This is what I learned:

1. Face your fears head on

Dropping out of my program — with no job and no money — was one of the best things I did. I was living my greatest fear, confronting it head on. After a few weeks, I got a job through a temp agency and I was not destitute after all. In addition, I now know that I can take risks in my career, walk away from jobs, etc. and I will land on my feet.

2. Family is more important than career

When it came down to it, my parents needed me and I was there for them. I have no regrets around my father’s passing, although I would have regretted missing out on precious time with him due to slaving away at a career I didn’t really want.

3. Question your motives

Why are you on the path that you’re on? Is this really what you want to be doing? Although it may be a difficult process to uncover the answer, it will be worth it in the end.

4. You don’t need grad school

I was waiting for graduate school to deliver a magical career on my lap and take away all my problems. It doesn’t work like that. In fact, grad school can actually get in the way of finding meaningful work.

5. Be true to yourself

The months after leaving my program involved the deepest soul searching I have ever done. Everything was under scrutiny. I let go of what I had thought was important to me, and was left with a glaring, empty canvas. What to replace it with? How could I be sure I wouldn’t fill it back up with more of the same?

Enter: the beachwalk. I would walk for hours along the ocean until the critical self-talk in my head was slowly replaced with the calming, rhythmic sound of waves crashing. One day, a whisper came. ‘Be true to yourself’, it said. I walked and repeated those words to myself over and over again, like a mantra, while the backdrop of waves endlessly lapping on the shore reminded me that I couldn’t, and shouldn’t, try to control everything and be everything. Whatever my path will be, I need to carve it out in a way that honors who I am.

——–

I still want to radically make the world a better place, but I am going to attempt it in my own way. I’m not sure exactly what that will look like. I do know that I’ve committed to the wonderful journey of figuring it out.