truth over strategy

The Myth of Ready-Made Relationships

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I’ve been thinking a lot about titles, especially the relational kind like sister or brother. What is a title, really? Letters arranged in a particular order. A word. A noun. Used to categorize, to identify, to convey position, to assert power.  

There seems to be an unspoken collective agreement that familial titles bring with them some kind of Norman Rockwell storyline. It’s like a cosmic two-for-one: With this title you get a ready-made relationship for no extra charge.

One look at your own family and it’s probably pretty obvious this is not how it works. Relationships are built over time. Reinforced and recommitted to time and again. Not handed out like a dollar store coupon.

Yet, the most precious of titles – mother, father, son, daughter, sister, brother – are granted by the happenstance of birth or adoption and we consider them irrevocable, furthering the myth that the title somehow entitles one to and automatically delivers a relationship.

Maybe it’s time we re-consider.

What if we thought of ourselves as Mother-in-Training? Or Brother, temp-to-permanent position? How might our behaviors change? Our mindset? How might our family relationships be different if we stopped assuming we were irreplaceable?

What if we regarded these relationships for what they truly are – the ultimate family heirloom to be carefully crafted, refined, polished and protected?

How I Increased My Creative Output

Summer is quickly approaching and here in Central Texas that means months of long, hot, dry days. Temperatures regularly soar above 100 degrees and by late July the Earth will crack right open, begging to be quenched.  

Relief comes, eventually, and usually in the form of a torrential downpour. Without warning that well-prayed-for rain can turn into a fast moving wall of water with no regard for anything in its path. Newcomers, certain tales of flooding are just that, Texas-sized tales, quickly learn why this region is known as Flash Flood Alley.

For a long time I thought the creative process was like those long Texas summers. You endure the dry spells, waiting for inspiration to sweep you up in a flood of creative genius. Oh, it sounds so artistic and mysterious and kind of sexy. As a Creative you’re this chosen being walking the Earth waiting for the gods to bestow greatness upon you. (Conveniently, it also means we don’t have to take any responsibility for your own creative output.)

I was certainly not one of the chosen and I assumed I was destined to remain firmly rooted in my left brain world. Then on the pages of Turning Pro by Steven Pressfield I met the liberating truth: The muse rewards those who do the work.

So…

I didn’t need to be chosen?

I didn’t need to be labeled creative?

I simply needed to do the work and trust the rain would come?

It was the permission I didn’t know I needed. Permission to expand, to push the boundaries of my self-imposed limits, to rethink what I thought it meant to be creative.

The secret, as Pressfiled points out, is in the momentum of doing. (Inconveniently, it also means we have to take full responsibility for your own creative output.)

Start.

Then keep starting.

You’re likely to produce some real rubbish. That’s ok. It’s the movement that matters. The good stuff will come.

Seeding Creativity

In my own practice of doing I discovered I could improve my odds of getting to the good stuff more quickly by engaging in the activities that feed and free my mind.

My formula, in no particular order    

One part, Aspiring Novice. Because expertise is too limiting. I’m curious about so many things, most of which have no direct connection to my everyday work. Books, stories, speeches, great interviews – I can’t get enough.

One part, Dirt Therapy. The garden is the one place I completely lose track of time and my body pushes through long after it’s tired.   

One part, Pen and Paper. I must get the scraps of ideas out of my head and give them room to breathe. I prefer to go analogue with a Post-It Easel Pad and a pack of chisel point Expo markers.     

One part, Where the water meets the trees. A river bank, a mountain stream, a quiet pond. Worries fade. My mind slows way down. Clarity reigns. 

One part, Sleep + Exercise. I’m useless when I’m tired. I sleep better when I exercise.

Mix with equal parts Start, Do the Work and Keep Starting.

Apply regularly.

How To Find Your Own Secret Sauce

I’m certain, you too, have your own unique formula for priming your creativity. Start noticing…

Where do you unexpectedly find interesting ideas?  (Go here regularly.)

Where do you lose track of time? What’s the thing you can do for hours but it feels like minutes? (Do this often. Your brain needs to rest.)

Is there a place or activity that immediately releases the tension from your body and mind? (More of this please.)

When are you the least productive? Most irritable? (Can you eliminate? Mitigate?)

What’s your go-to tool for moving a spark of inspiration from concept to a concrete idea? (Use it!) Don’t have one? Experiment!

It’s Not A Silver Bullet

Imagine being able to set yourself up for creativity, setting favorable conditions for inspiration. And imagine the fun you’ll have discovering your secret formula.

But it’s not magic. It’s a tool to give you a head start, to aid you when you’re feeling stuck or when the anxiety rises or when you have too many ideas competing for your attention.  

All the tips, tricks, quieting your mind and moving your body is for nothing unless you sit and do the work.

Only in the doing, drop by drop, will the muse unleash the flood of your best work.   

Happy Birthday Helen

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This is Helen Fendlason Bottolfs & Arthur Bottolfs, my paternal grandparents. Helen would have been 103 today. She died when I was only nine, but my most vivid early childhood memories are from her house, her big yard, the old chicken houses, and the barn. She lived just across the field from my house and I would find my way to her doorstep most summer days, usually barefoot.

Helen did not approve of my unkept tom-boy ways and for me that was part of her charm. In one look and tsk tsk of her tongue she could both disapprove of what was before her and simultaneously see right into me— who I could be, who I really was. She had higher expectations for me. ⠀⠀⠀⠀

Of all the stories I could tell, my favorite memory is of the Christmas Helen let me help with her gift wrapping. I was probably in 1st or 2nd grade. She let me write all the To/From tags and I did so diligently and with such pride. Helen was very particular and I fully understood what an honor this was. I remember beaming with pride with each little tag.

Later I learned I had misspelled her name on every tag. Hellen with two Ls. I was crushed. Why didn't she say anything? I was convinced my mother was wrong. Helen must really be spelled with two Ls because my Maw-Maw would have most definitely corrected my mistake. Anyone who knew her would tell you that.

I never asked her about it. She never said a word. It was our unspoken secret. The message was clear, "I see you, mistakes and all, and it's ok. You're ok."

64 Shades of Spring Green (& 10 Other Random Observations)

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In no particular order, a few observations rattling around my brain.

  1. The world is a complicated, chaotic place. It’s also elegantly simple.

  2. Stripping away the noise, the pretense and the posturing is always a good idea.

  3. Givers expand. Takers contract. (Oh, the irony.)

  4. Empathy is a super power.

  5. We all need more impromptu kitchen dance parties.

  6. Trusting your instinct is one thing. Learning to act on it, in the moment, takes a whole new level of faith.

  7. There are at least 64 shades of spring green.

  8. True leadership is a thing of beauty.

  9. Kindness is contagious.

  10. Asking for what you want can be an act of courage.

  11. Emotional intelligence is sexy.

Just As You Are

#sundaynightthoughts

#sundaynightthoughts

I wrote a story for you about an interesting encounter I had recently. Great story, but I couldn’t properly capture the ending. After weeks of re-writing I gave up, thinking…

…maybe this isn’t my story to tell.
…maybe I don’t have the skill to bring this together.
…no one will ever know if I don’t publish it.

Then I remembered my golden rule: say what you mean in the simplest way possible.

So, here’s what I want to say, without pretense or story arc.


In a little coffee shop, sitting with a new friend, the world became slightly less complicated as I realized that wanting to be seen – really seen, for who we fully are – is a universal desire that crosses gender, race, age, culture and all the other classifications that try to separate us.

 But here’s the rub. Before we can be seen by others, we need to first see ourselves.  

 We all get a bit lost along the way. Life bullies us around. We give in to fear. We dim, and we shrink.

Our people pleasing, rule following and believing them (the others) instead of ourselves, leaves us as a character in our own lives. We become so accustomed to (addicted to?) playing a role, we can’t see it’s replaced our true self.

Eventually, some of us will have the courage or be desperate enough to wake up and reclaim ourselves. And I do believe it is a reclaiming, not a “New You” to be created.  

Maybe there are people lucky enough to ease into this awareness. But not me. I prefer the long way around. Brene Brown best sums up my experience: “It was an ugly street fight, and even though I got my ass kicked, it was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

It’s going to be messy.  

But if you can no longer ignore that deep longing to discover the real you. That longing to be seen as You instead of the character you’ve fallen into.

And if you’re scared and wondering if it will be worth it.

Please, come have a seat with me. I want you to hear this:

Resist the allure of yet another layer of shiny armour disguised as “New You.”

Instead of a New You, how ‘bout you become a deeper, fuller version of who you already are? Not the person you think you should be. Not the person others say you should be.

The real you. The person you were meant to be, with a unique combination of gifts and talents and quirks. And flaws. Oh, honey, we all have them. We’re human. 

I have a hunch the real you – you fully embraced – is way more appealing than any shiny new version.

Show me your scars.

Your wisdom. Gained from the doing, the failing and then doing some more.

Your laugh. Ya know, the one that can only come after you’ve felt the pain.

How? you ask.

By deeply listening to your body, your heart and your soul. By employing a depth of self-honesty that will test your resolve.

In these practices you will start to re-discover You.  

And, you know that thing you’re afraid to say out loud? The one that seems just a little too much? That’s a clue. Your True Self is in there. Look a little deeper.  

Then

Let me see You.

Love,
Denise





Kindness In Action

Reading, Berkshire, England. December 2002.

Reading, Berkshire, England. December 2002.

Please note: This post covers the subjects of pregnancy and loss.

 

That’s me. December 2002. Wearing my bulkiest sweater and trying my best to create the illusion of more than a tiny 10 week baby bump.  

Oh, the things Baby D and I had already done. We braved the bitter cold at the Newark International Antiques Fair in Nottinghamshire, lugging our many finds on and off trains, The Tube and a bus. We marveled at the Pont du Gard and all things Provence including an unforgettable meal at La Fourchette in Avignon. Not long after this photo was taken we were off to Bonneval-sur-Arc, a magical little village tucked into the Alps near the Italian border where we rang in the new year, post card style -- snow gently falling as we watched the torchlight skiers make their glowing decent down the mountain.

2003 would be your year, dear baby.

4pm, January 14, wet, cold and pitch black – a typical winter day in England. My (then) husband and I waited quietly to see the doctor (ever aware to not be the loud Texans). Introductions made and details charted we were down to business. I couldn’t wait to get the first glimpse of my little world traveler.

I was a newbie, but this sonogram seemed to be taking a long time. The doctor asked, “When did you say your last cycle was?“ then he said something about a heartbeat, but I couldn’t hear him. The room had gone silent for me. I vaguely remember an internal sonogram to confirm what I didn’t need to be told. I don’t remember the blood draw or the instructions or the drive home. Had I even spoken? Oddly, I remember the nurse was an American and I found that comforting.  

Officially, I had a missed miscarriage. At some point the pregnancy was “no longer viable” but my body hadn’t gotten the message so it continued to act, look and feel pregnant. Barely into my 2nd trimester I had a choice to either let my body catch-up and miscarry naturally or have a routine procedure. I decided to give my body a chance to handle this.

Three grueling weeks of trusting that my body would cooperate.  

9pm, February 4. It started just like the pamphlets said it would.

1:30am, February 5. She looked at me and said, “You’re in labor.”

Labor? Somewhere in the middle of the pain and exhaustion I hadn’t recalled the list of warning signs of when to seek medical care. By the time I had woken my husband at 1am I had lost a dangerous amount of blood and as the nurse would later explain, I was in full labor.

I don’t know that nurse’s name and I don’t recall what she looked like but I distinctly remember meeting her eyes as I stood in the triage room, mid-contraction. She took my arm and stayed with me right through the delivery.

As nurses do, right? Except, her shift had ended just before I came in. She was simply passing through triage on her way out to meet her husband. A chance encounter.

Sixteen years later, her act of compassionate kindness stands out clearly in a sea of blurred details. That’s what this story is really about — acts of kindness.

Miscarriage is the most common form of pregnancy loss. Yet, it’s a strangely taboo subject.  I hope sharing a part of my story, talking about it publicly, will help lessen the uneasiness. Loss makes us uncomfortable and we often don’t know the right thing to say or do.

I was graced with tremendous love and support from friends and family. Two instances stand out. I’ve called on these examples time and again as my guide to how to approach difficult situations. I hope they can serve you too.

After excitedly announcing the pregnancy to everyone back home via email I had to follow up with news of the loss. Within hours of sending that second email my friend Pat called me from Austin. An email response would have been easier and more than sufficient, especially given the bother of making an international call. Instead, he chose to call. He led with, “Sunshine, I am so sorry” then he simply listened to me sob.

Kindness. In action.

A couple weeks after the miscarriage, I received a letter from my friend LB. She is genuine and loving and filled with grace. Her words that day were no different. She led with saying she didn’t know the right thing to say. That simple truth was immediately comforting. It felt like we were in this together: I don’t know what to say, but I’m here.

Kindness. In action.

I wasn’t sure why I felt compelled to tell this story until these particular details flooded back to me. They are a reminder that kindness is a deliberate act. Kindness gets involved.

Kindness is always worth the effort.

Things That Did Not Happen in 2018

It’s the obligatory end-of-year review. A random list of things that DID NOT happen in 2018.

The massive Texas Black Walnut tree that fell on my house in a storm DID NOT cause major damage.

I showed up to classes, workshops and masterminds that were way out of my league and I WAS NOT asked to leave.

The billowing white smoke from my car’s exhaust WAS NOT a major engine issue.

I leaned on people in outsized, disproportionate ways and NOT one sweet soul turned me away.

I followed my intuition without question, made bold decisions and jumped without looking more than once. I DID NOT regret a single instance.

I gave my writing a public home, posted my first selfie, did my first “live” anything, created my first videos, and wrote/said what I wanted to say when and how I wanted to say it, uncensored. I DID NOT shrink.

Here’s to more NOTs in 2019.

The Desert Called. I Answered.

It was a spontaneous decision. As I opened my laptop the only parameters were: 3 nights, easy flight, no car, leave the next day.

Beach? Desert? Snow? Passport? An old favorite? Some place new? In less than 15 minutes it was all booked. No research. No deliberating. I went with my intuition.

And it was sublime, in a way I haven’t felt in….ever?

Reflections from the desert.

Quiet. 
As I please.

Me.
Only me.

Books, journals
laptop. 
Untouched.

Quiet mind
Full heart.

Content. 
Yearning for more.

And not Or.

I greeted her each morn and bid her goodnight each evening.
I listened.
She whispered:

Rise. Keep going. Higher. 
Shine.
Nourish them.

And 

Bold.
Technicolor.
Never too much.
Blazing.

Leave them in awe.

Rest.
Return.
Repeat.

Like it’s the first time.

Me. 
Only me.

Quiet mind.
Full heart.

Content. 
Yearning for more.

And not Or

Not On My Watch

The alarm went off at 4:45. By 5:20 we were on the road.

Wind-blown, covered in dust and the distinctive smell of horse everywhere, it was nearly 3 in the afternoon before we were back home.

She was off to shriek into the phone to her friends and grandparents. It was her first blue ribbon, her first reserve grand champion.

I quickly got ready to meet with yet another contractor. He would be here any minute. I was crossing my fingers that maybe he would finally be the one to take on this project. It’s too small of a job for most people to be bothered with. It’s nothing to them. To me it’s everything.

At 5pm I slid into the tub. Ahhh, the power of warm water. Ready for a long soak.

Soon, there’s a heavy, hurried knock on the bathroom door. “Mom. I’m hungry and there’s nothing to eat. When are we having dinner? I’m really hungry.”

 “Ok. I’ll be out in a minute” I replied, begrudgingly.

Her brother and I are at the table. Waiting. Did she hear you call her for dinner? Yes he grunted in that way only 14 yr old boys can do, mustering a generation of disdain in one guttural sound.

We start without her.

Her dinner half-eaten she pushes her plate to the center of the table. “I’m done. Can we go now? Sarah’s waiting for me.”

“Are you kidding me? I thought you were starving? You barely ate anything. I got out of the tub to get dinner ready for you and…” I stammered.

Without pause she looked straight at me and said, “I didn’t ask you to get out of the tub. I said I was hungry. You chose to get out. Don’t put that on me.”

She was right. Infuriatingly right.

And here I was, facing that blurry line, again, the line between service and martyrdom.

I chose. To put mom before self—when it absolutely wasn’t necessary.

It was not “on her” as she said, but that’s right where I put it. The unspoken implied guilt: Look, I got out of the tub to cook dinner for you. You should be grateful.

Ouch.

Generational patterns, perpetuating the lie that “I should” always comes before “I need.”

No. Not today. Not on my watch. She will not learn this from me.

I look at her, exasperated, with wounded pride. “You’re right. You’re exactly right. I’ll take you to Sarah’s as soon as I’m done eating. Please put your plate in the sink.”

As she hurries out of the car she calls back, “Thanks for dinner mom. Bye. I love you.”

Austin: A few thoughts

Austin has been home for 23 years. I’ve had a front row seat to the transformation of this city. Like so many other longtime Austinites I’ve pondered the questions, What makes Austin Austin? and Is Austin still Austin? My answers are, It depends and Yes.

Austin has always been many things to many different groups. When I moved here the city was dominated by state government, UT, music and the semi-conductor industry. The software scene was in its infancy. These vastly different constituencies shared a common affection for Austin’s siren call of “It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from. Come as you are.” Local was the norm; national chains were scarce.

Things are different now. Vastly different. And while you could make an argument that the feel of the city has changed and you could start a cultural war arguing whether that change is good or bad, the common affection for our city remains the same. I’m reminded of the Lyle Lovett lyrics: That’s right you’re not from Texas. But Texas wants you anyway.

My love for this place runs deep. Like all who are enchanted by her, I too desire to preserve Austin’s charm. It’s tempting to want to close the gates, but that would be very un-Austin of us. Instead, I believe the key to preserving Austin is to perpetuate the best of what makes Austin special. That responsibility falls to each of us, individually.

What makes Austin special to you? I challenge you to DO / BE / SUPPORT those things, regularly. Like it matters. Because it does. Be the megaphone for your special slice of Austin.

And tell the stories. Be that person who talks about the old days, not with sorrow or bitterness for times gone by. With joy and aspiration. To inspire, teach and raise up the next generation of Austinites who will take the best of this city and leave their own unique mark, as so many before us have done.

With love from Austin.