My Napolitana Grandma, Adele Roth–Adela/Adelina Zollo/a Roth, was a firecracker. Pictured left with her two brothers (I think?). Definitely il fratello Louis/Luigi on the right, the famously charismatic and gifted musician I had the privilege of meeting with his partner, Carl, in my early years. She used to make me cry as a child because she would get loud and harsh–criticizing my haircut or what I was wearing from time-to-time. Her five children have much to say on that topic from their childhood. As she aged, something changed in her. I can almost remember it down to the day. I remember sitting in her dining room, having some of her most incredible food with a big group of people. All of a sudden, she started throwing bread at us kids. She put a pea on a spoon and literally flicked it at me across the table! She then grabbed us by the hand, and ran with us to the park. Well, we ran–she busted out her three-wheeled, giant basket-laden bike (pictured left, source) and put pedal to the metal. I don’t remember ever finishing dinner. Her frequency was different than before. She had changed. Laughing more, taking herself and others less seriously. She had kinder eyes, a softer gaze as default. She once told me that one of her values was to grow and change–to stay up on technology (she had one of those atrocious, gigantic “car phones” before anyone! Pictured right, source), slang, television, “what the young people were doing,” politics and pop culture. She told me that with all of that learning, she would/could never feel old. She could always connect with people. She could then always be a part of culture, in keeping up with the times. We lost her last December, the week before Christmas. She was 91 years old.
One of the things she told me verbatim in her later years that I’ll never forget: “We never end beginnings.” A life-giving reminder to someone (namely me!) who loves change but tends to be hard/harsh on herself.
I’ll never forget this story she told me. Some context: Adela was the first of her family to go West. From Brooklyn, New York to San Francisco, California. She often talked about how dirty and crowded Brooklyn was. She wanted a change. Her mother once caught her in front of the mirror, practicing speaking without a Brooklyn accent. Her mother, who spoke very little English–mostly Napolitano dialect, exclaimed: “You don’t want to be like us? You embarrassed of us?!” There she was in San Francisco with her new husband who was an accountant. They knew no one. She told me this: she would pick up the telephone and nothing would come out of her mouth. She called it “clutter.” There were so many words, emotions–so much in her mind, that nothing came out. Not even “hello.” One day, her husband/my grandpa (pictured left with little Billy and baby Cathy) said: “Adele. I need you to answer the phone!” He was an accountant and his she was his right-hand support/stand-in secretary. She said something suddenly clicked in her, and she was able to from that time forward. Maybe it was something about purpose, something about her own process–her own feeling of connection to herself, the time, or my grandpa–or maybe she realized their paycheck depended on it. Not sure.
When I was in college, I went to see the film “Life as a House“ (Image source) in Danville, California with my father. I have no idea why we were in Danville–I think he must have had free passes to a theater there, as it was far from where he and my mother lived at the time. Or maybe he had really wanted to see it, and it was the only theater playing the film? No idea, but I remember that afternoon so vividly. The film struck a huge chord in me–-a chord that shows up in the reoccurring theme of my life’s soundtrack. There are themes in it about how the past informs the present and can impact our future. Themes of our interior world expressing itself in the everyday. Themes about change most of all. Whenever I sit by the sea (including me literally today, pictured left), I hear in my head Kevin Kline’s character saying to his son: “Sam, if you were a house, this is where you would want to be built. On rock, facing the sea, listening.”
Also from the film, one of my favorite quotes of all time:
“The great thing, though, is that change can be so constant you don’t even feel the difference until there is one. It can be so slow that you don’t even notice that your life is better or worse, until it is. Or it can just blow you away, make you something different in an instant. It happened to me.” ~screenplay by Mark Andrus
Clutter and flow. Why? Because we’re organic creatures. Just like growth processes in nature, change is more complex than we like to remember. Less visible. And yet, so very visible.
I once thought that you could learn anything from osmosis. If you want character/maturity bad enough, you can get it rubbed off on you from the greats–people like my mentors in youth: Steve Smallwood, Jerry Richards, Dan Kimball, Matt Bradshaw, Jaime Gonzalez, Dr. Dan Albrecht. Yes, I have learned so very much from others–books, mentors, traditional learning environments, family, friends, strangers. I cannot begin to tell you how grateful I am for all of that learning. However, it was time and space that caused roots from those seeds to grow deep. I was wrong. There is no substitute for time and space, just as there is no substitute for the ingredients of photosynthesis–light, soil, water. They’re called “elements” for a reason, just as time and space make up the “space-time continuum.” Sure it’s sometimes about having personal experience, but even just the work of time and space to let truth become your own. (Image source)
The Jewish spiritual teacher, Jesus, told a story about seeds being planted (Image source). The only way the seeds grew is if they were able to put down roots, experiencing the results of the growth/change process of photosynthesis. Right after he told the story, his followers asked him: “Why do you tell stories?” My favorite hermeneutic-happy translation says his reply was: “Whenever someone has a ready heart for this, the insights and understandings flow freely.” I recently saw a spiritual musician I appreciate in concert, Jason Upton, talk about Wendall Berry’s “Turn of the Crank” and how we miss out on truths of life because we’re removed from the natural world. We think that the industrial era and technological processes apply to us as creatures. Maybe it’s not an accident that the spiritual stories, metaphors and illustrations of Jesus about what it means to be human were delivered in an agricultural era.
A friend of mine talks about (I’ll paraphrase in a metaphor:) how people sometimes just move to a new flower pot but are essentially the same. (Image source) She shared about how a friend of hers was an extremely conservative Christian and shifted to become an extremely conservative Atheist. The deceptive thing about those shifts is that they seem like big leaps, when they’re really just more of the same. We become tired of or repulsed by one form, and so we migrate to another that looks and feels different to us and satisfies our itch for evolution. We look different, but our substance is essentially the same. I identify with that.
Because of how I grew up (specifically what I speak to here), I can easily deceive myself into thinking that me feeling like a free spirit is a signal that change and growth has occurred/is occurring. I’ve always been spiritual and artsy–intellectual and reflective, even as a child. Some years ago, at the recommendation of my therapist, I read the book “The Glass Castle” which has recently been turned into a film. I was also struck by a recent Viggo Mortensen film “Captain Fantastic.” In both of those stories, which in many ways mirror themes and environments of my own experience, there is a great tension between the structures of health and routine, versus careless living that cuts into our humanity (particularly childhood!) in a troubling way, even to the extent of abuse. As an adult, I am constantly challenging my psycho/social/spiritual worldview and epistemological framework to not deceive myself into “more of the same” that I was steeped in from a young age. If I really want to become more whole, more evolved, more integrated–I must go beyond that sneaky sameness. (Image source)
Everyday at 4:00pm PST (right now, pictured right, the screenshot shows my 24-hour clock / Italia time since I’m traveling), a reminder comes up on my phone that I set. It’s my own words as shared verbally via Voxer (which I heard myself say outloud, “listening to myself speak” like I talk about here) with my dear friend Renee: “I need to focus on what I’m saying ‘yes’ to, not what I’m saying ‘no’ to.” I find that if I focus on the “no’s” in life, my mind thinks in terms of checks and balances–replacement and substitution. If I think about “yes’s,” suddenly life is creative–the focus is on capacity for enjoyment and learning.
Something most people don’t know about me is that in high school, thanks to encouragement from Matt Bradshaw, I won first place in a California, Hawaii, Nevada regional speaking competition three years in a row with invitation to the national competition. I got a perfect score from the judges each time. I went on to nationals two of those years–Indianapolis, Indiana and Orlando, Florida (pictured right, with my dad, just after competing). It was a timed presentation on a spiritual topic (a sermon essentially)–just 5 minutes total, memorized. Needless to say, not only did content have to be on-point, but delivery had to as well. The bar was set really high charisma-wise, and emotional/affective stimulation was in-demand from the judges. I wrote and spoke with power and conviction from the heart–speaking stories and truths I believed to be the most real and true. I still am amazed I had the opportunity of experiencing all of that. My mom is my Napolitana grandmother’s daughter. I have distinct memories of her shouts and exclamatory comments in coaching me <insert winky-eyed emoji here>. I experienced flow.
However, I had moments of real clutter (to use that word in the way my grandma used it, above) in the mix too in that very same era. I participated in a speaking competition for the Legion of Honor, to win a college scholarship. Also a 5 minute talk, memorized. I croaked. It was “aria fritta,” hot air. Nothing special and even worse than that. I sucked.
Flow happened when I gave a workshop at a conference in San Antonio, Texas called “Creating a Sharing Culture: Adaptable Tools, Policies, and Resources for Social Media.” The association had asked for workshops on social media policy–and that is what they got in an unexpected way. Concrete tools, policies and resources to think about, construct and collaborate in an organizational culture supporting social media–authentic, vibrant, mining and telling creatively unique stories collaboratively, ethically and with impact. I spoke from my own experience, my own learning–what I had been a part of leading in institutions and organizations. The content of the workshop and its execution was an extension of my truest self. We stepped through the dynamics and foundational basics of the art form itself that can make social media sing. There were activities with worksheets for real-time use–over 50 people fired-up, chatty and interacting. Standing room only. There I met Grant Crusor (pictured left) who I’ve been honored to know since in friendship, who started “Black and Free” and now does incredibly creative community work in the arts in Chicago. And side note: during the workshop, one of the participants shared with me one of the most impactful stories I’ve ever heard illustrating institutional racism. I asked her permission to share it with the whole group then, which she said yes to. It was during a pair-share portion of the workshop where we reflected on “the stories we tell” without realizing it as organizations–in spaces and places, in print and digital design, and more.
The story goes: She worked at one of the most significant, well-known HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) in the South. On campus, there was really just one big meeting hall for all of the big gatherings and events. All along the top of the wall, there were photos of white men. All white men. Only white men. During the time of Dr. King, the Black caucus came and took those photos down. Somehow those photos are back up. Those photos are still hanging to this day (or the day she told the story anyway, in April 2015).
Sure that workshop was glorious flow, however I experienced clutter just months later when giving a “Social Media 101” workshop at a conference for the Global Street Paper Summit for the International Network of Street Papers–the first time it had ever been in the United States. It wasn’t anything special, and I could see it in the faces of the people in the rows in front of me in real-time. I hated that feeling. I wanted so much more than mediocre for them.
Flow happened when I was the program director of my undergrad university’s assemblies and programming–the MC (master of ceremonies) and more most days. Clutter happened when I auditioned to speak at my undergrad university’s commencement. I could go on and on. Clutter and flow.
Why? What happened? What made the difference? There are concrete factors I could speak to regarding what varied in my preparation styles, the content itself, elements of delivery, etc. I was in a process of my own development. Just like the process of photographic processing still in the works.
Inconsistency is a great marker of immaturity. Being under-developed. When change is not yet integrated into the whole. We know the concept of “half-baked,” from real-life baking when the inside of a cake or quiche is still runny.
Another beautiful word picture from the spiritual teachings of Jesus is the concept of “the outside of the cup” being clean deceivingly when the “inside of the cup” is actually disgusting. (Image source) He was talking specifically to the religious leaders of that day. One of my pet-peeves is encountering that inauthenticity. That’s why the discipline of emotional hygiene is such a saving grace practice. The true gift of “clutter” is that you can’t hide the messiness. It’s obvious that you’re in-process. It sucks. It’s humbling, but it’s even that much more motivation and validation, to continue the change and growth. The URL for my consulting and coaching practice is “CambioforGrowth.com“–“cambio” means “I change” in Italian and Spanish. “Cambio for Growth” speaks to the idea of personally, proactively/actively/directly engaging the change required for growth. In order to flow.
I long for the real-deal–for authentic, nonstop flow–in all of the pockets of my life and expression. I’m grateful to have tasted more consistent flow and change, including areas I’ve talked about here in this post. Maturity. Growth. I revisit the quote from “Life as a House:”
“The great thing, though, is that change can be so constant you don’t even feel the difference until there is one. It can be so slow that you don’t even notice that your life is better or worse, until it is. Or it can just blow you away, make you something different in an instant. It happened to me.”
One of my favorite passages of sacred text is Ecclesiastes, chapter 3. It’s poetry. We know it; many pop songs have been written about it–including Judy Collins’ (pictured right, source) and others’ performances of “Turn, Turn, Turn” written by Pete Seeger. The passage goes through a long list of opposites–there’s a time to be born and to die, to cry and to laugh. “Everything is beautiful in its time.” We get it. When a flower finishes growing and blooms, it’s beautiful. It’s time for it to bloom. When a joke is well-timed, it’s like none other. Timing and process are real things. We know that more subconsciously as an assumption than consciously as a guiding light. In our consciousness, we get impatient. We rush. We jump the gun. And some of us personality-wise more than others, me included.
In the process of writing this post, I texted my mom (thanks to iMessage being accessible internationally via wifi!), asking her for the photo I included here of me and my dad at the competition in Florida. While we were texting, she asked me if writing these blog posts has been making me happy while I’ve been away–here on vacation in Italy. I asked her why she was asking me that. She said she was afraid I was stressing myself out, or distracting myself from enjoying my time here. I laughed and had warm fuzzies because, coming from two parents of “doers” it’s refreshing to be encouraged to not produce but enjoy (especially when one of them is telling me that!). I told my mom that no, it actually has been surprising. It’s been flow. I’ve been in a robotic production mode of work, work, work these past eight weeks with intense projects and deadlines and so much has been blooming inside of me that now needs to elbow its way to the window, into the light.
My mom (pictured left, my favorite photo of her) said that she couldn’t relate more. She said she was up until 12:30am PST (00:30 in 24-hour time!) last night writing a song. At age 60, she said she is doing what she wanted to do at age 25–write songs. She texted me: “I have a heck of a lot more to say now.”
One of my favorite photos of my dad is the one pictured right, one I took of him for the back of one of his poetry books. At age 67, he is writing what he had visions of putting to page for over 40 years.
Interestingly enough, both of these favorite photos of my parents are them laughing. Laughter and humor are signs of freedom. The favorite photos I have of myself (like the one on the left here, taken at my friends Dani and Josh’s house in 2006/7) are oddly enough of me laughing as well.
Everything is beautiful in its time.
And no, we’re never perfect. Nothing is ever perfect. Learning is never “done.”
Sometimes, we miss the boat, and realizing flow takes much longer than it could have otherwise. That’s true for my parents, who lived much of their life in their own version of what I called, for me, “production mode.” They disproportionately focused on other people’s lives and dreams for them. They are now making their own choices and embracing their own development in new ways.
My old roommate Cassie and I were texting early this morning about how unavoidable certain lessons are for both of us right now. The same exact ones. We can’t be naively annoyed by them any more. There is no path but through this learning. We both hate it, and have gotten away with avoiding it, but both committed to facing it head-on.
Ah, the adventure of being a human being!