Author Archives: Deidre Combs

Awash, a wash, in love

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Head, shoulders, knees and toes

I recently supported a conference in Morocco for Middle Eastern and North African university students. They were reconvening to commemorate a shared 6-week summer experience in the US where 120 young university leaders participate in an intensive leadership and civic engagement program in host universities across the US.

After the conference closed, my son Cameron and I went to Fez to visit a past State Department teacher fellow who had spent two months with us at Montana State University. We toured the city and its environs with our friend and accompanied him to teach an evening English class to 11 middle schoolers. They were learning body parts and health issues, so we brought in the old camp song, “Head, shoulders, knees and toes.” Since there was an odd number in class that night, I became the partner of a bright 11-year-old girl we’ll call Zalfa.

Zalfa seemed to be in those magic moments of girlhood where confidence and self-awareness have not been yet touched by the claws of adolescence. The movie “I am Eleven” captures this oasis well. Ramrod straight and self-assured in her responses, Zalfa volunteered to speak in front of the class with an impeccable braid pointing down her back. According to our teacher friend, she is called “the genius” at her regular day school. She instantly captivated me.

Listening to her presentation, I recognized that I would probably never see Zalfa again. Her possible paths ran as scenarios within me — would she live out her life in Fez, eventually wear a veil, travel abroad, follow that intelligence to its peaks, or would she be required to marry young? It became clear that I had just this class to support and encourage her potential. I couldn’t protect her, nor shouldn’t, from the challenges that just the next decade would yield.

MI had the same experience with the university students in Rabat earlier in the week. After working with the Middle Eastern Partnership Initiative (MEPI) for seven years now, I have learned to accept that I will see from only a few after our intense weeks together at Montana State. In Rabat, I watched the MEPI young leaders enthusiastically present follow on projects. Some students I knew and others I just met. Yet, with all, I realized I probably wouldn’t know “the rest of the story.” This loss tugs at my heart where these students have a way of sneaking in.

We only have the present; that’s not new news, but I like to ignore that. Hanging out in Morocco, the Islamic Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi’s words kept sneaking into my consciousness. “And watch two men washing clothes. One makes dry clothes wet. The other makes wet clothes dry. They seem to be thwarting each other, but their work is a perfect harmony.” Traveling on bus and train we passed women cleaning rugs and clothing in streams and buckets. No home is complete without a clothesline of drying outfits. Pass a mosque and see men washing prior to prayer. Washing is a constant theme. One guide we met in Chefchaouen added this Koranic verse, “Cleanliness it’s from faith,” النظافة من الايمان

So many of the women I met were also awash in kissing and saying “thank you” and “Allah is great.” As Cameron and I were served wonderful meals by the mothers of those we visited, multiple kisses and shukrans (“thank you so much”) and hamdullahs (“praise be to God”) punctuated their every interaction. Again Rumi sneaks in, “Water, stories, the body, all the things we do, are mediums that hide and show what’s hidden. Study them and enjoy this being washed with a secret we sometimes know, and then not.”

Those I admire in their elder years seem to wash every situation with love. It’s not what they do, but who they are. They seem to hold a constant awareness that we only get this moment with each other and that they may not see you again. They remind me of this secret that I sometimes know, like with young Zalfa, and wonderful MEPI students, and then not. May you each wash with love and be washed and find that perfect harmony each day.

 

 

Show up

I am not the first, nor will be the last, to write about the recent passing of Angeles Arrien. Angeles was an internationally renown and beloved teacher/ cultural anthropoAngeles Arrienlogist whose work has been a foundation of my own. She left us suddenly and unexpectedly on April 24th with her pearls of wisdom arising as answers as we each wrestle with her passing.

Angeles’ core philosophy included four life practices that are found throughout the world’s indigenous cultures, called The Four Fold Way. They are: 1) Show up, choose to be present 2)Pay attention to what has heart and meaning, 3)Be open to outcome, not attached to outcome and 4)Tell the truth without blame or judgment.
When tough times come, it is all too easy to want to run away. Grief physically hurts. It pulls stomachs into knots and bends us to its will as we weep with happy memories appearing unbidden, torturing us with the knowledge that they will never be again.  You think you are safe and then turn a corner or wake up from a dream and Mr. Grief belts you again. A week after Angeles’ passing, our beloved dog Kiki also left us very suddenly, so we had some pretty visceral grief practice these past two weeks.

Where to begin to create greater ease? I keep hearing, “Show up, choose to be present.”  Show up for the loss, for the pain, for the tears and the disappointment. Pay attention to the intensity of the grief and feel the jagged edges within when it feels impossible.  When I was researching Worst Enemy, Best Teacher  I was struck by how the world’s warriors traditions all include practice in enduring pain. They counsel fasting, sparring, and endurance activities that push the initiate to find strength through intense discomfort. When you land on the battlefield of loss, it all makes sense. Showing up is the only way to get through. The 12th century Sufi mystic Jalal ad-Din Rumi, once prescribed that the cure for the pain is in the pain. 

Arrien also connected showing up to the cross-cultural archetype of the warrior through her research.   Running away, although it is alluring for a moment, creates a dragon that chases until we are willing like a knight of the Round Table, to turn around and confront. Whenever we are in a leadership role, it demands that we show up for the tough times. When profits disappear, projects are cancelled, or key employees are lost, the warrior work begins.

Also, when there is ease and comfort, we need to show up and pay attention to the gifts and strengths of those around us.  Show up and recognize the impermanence of it all and give thanks. It will be no surprise that Angeles was an expert in the practice of gratitude and wrote her final book, Living in Gratitude on this subject.

Angeles mentored a huge gaggle of us, and from them, I am also gathering jewels.  Cheryl Esposito, Leading Conversations, brought back the memory that when Angeles would be driving home a critical teaching and we would find ourselves much too serious, she would begin to say, “Kisses, kisses” and blow them out to the audience. Today, we are all blowing kisses right back.  Thank you Angeles.

Screen Invasion

Perhaps no meeting is as good a use of our time as sitting alone in silence, letting go of fear and allowing the wisdom of the universe to emerge with the guidance that will help us take the next healthy action. – Steve Roberts, “Cool Mind, Warm Heart”

I am noticing that other consultants I respect, like Steve Roberts above, have been often writing this year about the need to slow down, get quiet and listen. They speak to my soul.

A few weeks ago, I was working in Puerto Rico and took a bathroom break to find this.

Watching Thor while washing my hands

Watching Thor while washing my hands

Really, we need screens in the bathroom now too? When I am mediating or facilitating tough disputes, bathroom breaks provide needed moments of quiet and space to re-center. Last week, I refueled the car to find that the local station had added TVs above every gas pump. Then, walking down Main Street in Bozeman, and I found that they have installed screens on lampposts. Oh my. I’m sure you can add three more crazy locations you have found screens installed in your daily life, but this is rough news for this gal.

Ever since I was little when a television is on, my eyes are glued to the screen. If you want me to complete a sentence, don’t take me to a sports bar, or even a sushi bar if they happen to need to play Japan-amation. My students giggle at how easily I am distracted by shiny objects in whatever form; that dancing screen light seduces me away in seconds.

Selling screens and Big Sky on the street

Selling screens and Big Sky on the street

So, how can we call for silence and time without stimulus when the screens have become an invasive species? I don’t have an answer to share. This is probably just an end-of-year a plea for no screen zones. How might I advocate for places where I can keep my observation skills turned on without having them co-oped by CNN, ESPN or Fox? How might we demand that some parts of our world are preserved for re-centering, quiet and clarity?

In meantime, I am trying to find humor in all the strange places that screens are sneaking in like these naughty pets who are so proud of what they have accomplished! I will also admit that seeing Thor leap around on that screen while washing my hands wasn’t the worst part of my day.

May you find joy, humor and a bit of quiet during this holiday season.

You simply will not be the same person two months from now after consciously giving thanks each day for the abundance that exists in your life. And you will have set in motion an ancient spiritual law: the more you have and are grateful for, the more will be given you. Sarah Ban Breathnach

When I was given the opportunity to provide a Tedx talk in 2012, I wanted to tell the world everything I knew about transforming conflict. There was this technique, and that one, and, oh my, I must tell you about elemental conflict styles! It didn’t take long to realize that with less than a quarter of an hour, I could only share one skill. If these were my lifetime 13 minutes of fame, what did I need to tell the world?

It was quickly clear what I needed to share — I had to discuss gratitude. Simply put, when conflict, or really anything, comes…be grateful.

Watching the included video, you’ll realize that gratitude is a prescribed behavior by both the spiritual traditions and by brain science, but why do I return to it today? Not only we just celebrated Thanksgiving in the United States, but also a recent conversation with a favorite client that reminded me how leadership demands not only us providing consistent gratitude, but teaching its importance.

Entitlement is not a favored attribute within our culture, nor in many of the cultures with whom I get to work. Yet, it seems to be a learned behavior. Be it through upbringing, cultural context, or as a survival skill that got us to demand basic rights, we all have a bit of entitlement within us, and that’s all right in my book. We need to self advocate at times. There are moments when I need to demand what is mine, especially when it comes to basic human rights.

On the other hand, too much entitlement doesn’t serve anyone involved. It sends us into an attitude of scarcity and criticism. We can miss the hidden opportunities in what we didn’t choose. Also, those who are being generous on our behalf miss our acknowledgment, and may wonder why this generosity is deserved.

If I didn’t learn the power and importance of gratitude as a young person, I may need your mentoring as one who understands its value. You may mentor by modeling sincere gratitude and acknowledgment. It may be adding appreciation to your organization’s code of conduct. Working on US State Department programs where we are asking community volunteers to host international visitors, our team has begun sharing the importance of gratitude in US culture during each program orientation. Gratitude has thus become a core leadership skill I now teach after I learned that not everyone was parented as I was to give thanks for every ride I was given home whether it was another mother or my own.

Appreciating a Peruvian patron saint

Extending gratitude to a Peruvian patron saint

How can you impart the power of gratitude to those around you? Not everyone in my experience has learned of its strength. How lucky we are to have you not only to be thankful, but also to remind us how it can support us as an employee, employer, family member or friend.

 

Making Meaning

In a sense, all creativity is a process of giving meaning to what is on a universal scale meaningless. The plant and the poet and the gardener collect these disparate, disorganized raindrops, sun rays, passing birds and make something formal. Creativity gives form to what is in nature ambiguous, suggestive. Language wasn’t there at the beginning. It was created after people had gone through all sorts of experiences and needed to become expressive in order to give meaning to life. – Stanley Kunitz

How can we collect the disparate in our own lives and make meaning? This is the creative opportunity that is pushed upon us by tough times or conflict. What am I to make of the lost job, relationship or possible adventure? How am I to craft a new vessel from the broken pieces of the earlier boat that was ravaged in the storms of disputes and unforeseen circumstances?

Read this blog enough and you’ll figure out that I am an art junkie. Here’s an installation in the Seattle Tacoma international airport named “On Matter, Monkeys and the King,”created with found objects. Trimpin Sculpture

This “kinetic” sculpture by Trimpin self propels along a track within this enclosure.  I love the creative possibilities that appear after an artist has had her way with leftover lumber or garbage on a beach. How can we see ourselves as everyday artists? As I beach comb my inner landscape I wonder, what might we as everyday artists make by combining global warming, the expanding Internet, more humans than ever before and the miniaturization of technology?

One of my dearest friends is a professional mosaicist. Walk with her anywhere and learn how to see the disparate pieces as potential elements of a great new mosaic. That rock I stumbled upon has potential. The broken branch that caught my sleeve holds beauty and opportunity. Egg shells left over from breakfast make a gorgeous background. She calls me through her joy and discipline to see my own life in a more productive way.

What are the disparate pieces that are calling for your creativity this week? How can we make meaning of what trips us up and catches our sleeve?