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Friday, March 22, 2019

Accepting Kindness

photo: katerha used with permission

Surfs Up!
A couple weeks ago, my wife Julie and I were vacationing in a little Mexican beach town called Sayulita. The weather was lovely, the ocean warm, and the waves were small and soft -- perfect for a Seattle-based surfer like me.

One afternoon, as the tide went from medium to high, a peak that hadn’t been surfable at lower tide started to ‘turn on’. I watched a couple nice waves roll thru. There was a small pack of guys on the main peak, but no one paddling over to this new spot. Ok, maybe it’s because of that big chunk of reef sticking up at the end section of the wave, but it didn’t look that bad.

Adult Jeff thought, “Yeah it looks fun… but are you up to dodging the reef? You haven’t surfed since summer.” Rising adrenaline squeezed my chest. Another wave stood up on the spot, the curl rolling for an easy 30 yards or so with totally makeable sections and plenty of room for a couple big turns. Adrenaline fizzled in my brain, whispering, “Just paddle out and have a look.” Before I knew it, I’d paddled out and was sitting on the peak.

From the water I could see that by riding a higher line across the wave and kicking out early, I could pretty easily avoid the reef. I picked off the first one that came thru, and got a really fun ride. Hooting, I paddled back out and got another one right away.

The tide kept rising, and the waves kept coming. My confidence grew with every ride. I added an extra turn, ending my rides closer to the reef. I was in it – feeling the rush, and getting cocky. Until I rode one a bit too far.

I didn’t get pushed up onto the reef, but I was ‘caught inside’ and a set of white-water washed me into the shallows. I wound up about 20 yards from the beach, but I knew that final stretch was sea urchin-infested. Rather than risking a walk, I decided to float in as far as I could.

The key to safely washing over a reef is patience. Floating on your stomach, a hand on your board, you let the ocean gently wash you in. No kicking. No paddling. But about halfway to the beach I lost my patience, started gently kicking, and almost immediately something jabbed into my foot. Rolling over to check the damage I saw six or seven urchin spines sticking out my big toe. 

Making it to the beach I gently pulled out spines, but a couple of the tips broke off under the skin. The ideal tool for removing those is a sewing needle, and I figured that the local surf shop might keep one of those handy.

Kindness Blindness
I hobbled over and found the 12-year old ‘shop grom’ Odie behind the counter. He said no sewing needles were available but he offered to pick the spines out himself with a thumbtack sterilized with a cigarette lighter. A little reluctantly, I gave him a shot. The first few came out easily, but then a customer came in, so I borrowed the thumbtack and lighter and moved to the curb to pick out the final spines myself.

I was making steady progress when four sandals clopped into view. Looking up, two gringos smiled down at me with quizzical looks on their faces. The man said, “I hope you sterilized that thing!”. I chuckled.

           “Sea urchin?”
“Why don't you try tweezers?”
“Good idea. But this pin is working. I’ve almost got it.”
“But did you sterilize it?”

I held up the lighter. “I think I’ll be okay”
“Did you consider flesh-eating bacteria?" 

Seriously dude, what the hell? I looked up at him and half-snarked, “You wanna take a crack at it?”

He hunkered down immediately and asked for a magnifying glass and rubbing alcohol. I chuckled and held up the lighter. Tweezers? I laughed. Clearly he knew less about extracting urchin spines than Odie or me.

He went looking for a pharmacia, and his wife explained that they were from Bellevue, Washington with six kids, and he was an orthopedic surgeon, so helping people was just part of his DNA. He brought back rubbing alcohol and tweezers, sheepish that “they didn’t have a magnifying glass” and walked me to a bench across the street.

After washing my foot with the alcohol he started poking at me with the tweezers.
   Me: You’re very kind to try and help me, but what we really need is a sewing needle.
   Doc: (poke) These tweezers are terrible!” (poke poke)
   Me: Yeah? Um…(poke poke) 
   Doc: If I had my surgi-kit I’d be done by now.(poke poke poke)

A few pokes later, a street vendor approached us, holding her assortment of sarongs and pantalones. She said something in Spanish I didn't catch, but told her, “no gracias”. 

She spoke again, so I looked at her, smiled, and said “no gracias”, thinking, “Jeez, can’t you see I’m not on the market for a sarong at the moment?”. She held my gaze. I looked away. She waited impassively as the doc continued poking, grumbling, and tweezing, I guessed she was hoping to sell us something when we finished up.

A few more pokes and I told the doc that I appreciated his help but I would handle things from here. I offered to reimburse him for the first-aid supplies, but he shrugged, saying that’s ok, and flip-flopped towards the beach with his wife. Relieved, I turned back to the vendor and closing my eyes I shook my head firmly, stating “no gracias” a third time. When I opened my eyes I saw that she was holding something out to me. I realized that, this whole time, she'd been offering me the very thing I'd been looking for.

A sewing needle.

Nodding, she pushed the needle at me. My first reaction was surprise – how did she know what I needed? Then embarrassment – I realized she’d been saying “Amigo, you need a sewing needle, wanna use one of mine?”. I accepted her needle feeling like “Muchas gracias” didn't say nearly enough, but I said it anyway. She nodded again, turned, and walked off, leaving me stunned and humbled.

Using the needle, I easily popped the last sliver of urchin spine out of my foot. Heart swelling with relief and gratitude, I dropped the collection of first-aid gear off at the surf shop and went to find Julie to tell her what had just happened.

. . . . . . . .

Three strangers offered me their finest self. In each case my impulse was to deflect, to assume they couldn’t help me, and say no gracias. Why is accepting kindness so hard? Maybe it’s easier to offer kindness? or maybe in the moment saying “no gracias” just seems easiest? or maybe I'm afraid that accepting kindness will require more energy than I think I have? 

I'm reminded regularly that kindness in all its forms lifts me up. That accepting kindness pulls me into joy and abundance. My task is simply to say, “yes please”. 

And Muchas Gracis to the locals and tourists of Sayulita for your generosity of spirit.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Good Things Jar

Note: in a previous post on LinkedIn I shared that instead of setting resolutions for 2019, I’d be picking a theme that I could practice in the hopes of increasing the joy and abundance I experience in my daily life. My theme for 2019 is Ease. My buddy Matt Loos commented on that post, and suggested I share occasional updates about my real-time experience with Ease.

Good Things Jar

A few years ago I was in a pretty dark place. It felt like everything I tried to accomplish, both personally and professionally, led to an awkward or unsatisfying outcome. I was feeling heavy; out of sync, ashamed, and a little desperate.

Then my friend Sam Beasley started talking about Ease.

Sam had a hardscrabble childhood. Big family, little money, few positive role models. His early-adult years were filled with booms, busts, high highs, and low lows. We met decades later, after he’d learned some things and built an incredible life filled with comfort, creativity, and good friends. I was honestly was a bit jealous of Sam and the wonderful things he had in his life. As I heard more of his story, I grew eager to understand. Might I be able to have these things too?

I was raised quite differently from Sam. I grew up with plenty of food, cool toys, and no chores. Family vacations to Hawaii were normal in my neighborhood, and every material need I had was met. I was given an excellent education. I found a fulfilling career, and even won recognition in my field. Everything was great for many years – until it all came crashing down.

I burned-out professionally, got divorced, and opened a new business. It did well for a few years, but one economic downturn later I’d burned thru my life savings. About that time my new wife, Julie, was recruited into an amazing job in a different city. So, with great relief, and excitement and hope for a new beginning, I sold the business to my partner George and moved to Seattle.

I found myself more challenged than ever – to build a new life, in a new city, almost from scratch. I felt like I’d lost everything.

So you can imagine how good the life Sam was enjoying looked to me. But I couldn’t make sense of how he’d made it from a brutal childhood, thru the turmoil of his early adult years, to a life of considerable ease. I swallowed my pride and asked Sam if he’d be willing to share with me how he did it. To my great surprise, he said he’d be happy to.

There is no shortcut, he explained, and one positive early step for him was “really experiencing gratitude”.

Experiencing gratitude? That sounded a little insulting. I’d been taught that the only path to financial freedom and ease was hard work and discipline. But since I’d given that a try and it hadn’t worked, not even close, I pondered this supposed insult for a bit.

To my next question, “How can I possibly experience gratitude given that everything I’d enjoyed in my fat years, the creature comforts, my friends, my intellectual pursuits and my hobbies had been taken away from me?” Sam replied, “Great question! Now we’re getting somewhere.”

But rather than give an answer, he gave me an assignment. He told me to take an empty jar and label it “Good Things”. I was to leave it out somewhere I could see it every day. When good things came into my life, no matter how big or small, I was to write a note about it and put the scrap paper into my Good Things jar. I was a little embarrassed to leave the jar out, where people might see it and ask me about it, but I was also willing to take any suggestion that Sam might have to offer. And this one seemed pretty simple, and didn’t cost a dime, so I put aside my pride and labeled my jar.

At first, I had to force myself to add to the jar. Then I realized that my jar was slowly filling up with good things.

To my absolute surprise, acknowledging these good things was making the rest of my life a little bit easier.

Sam had also instructed me to hold off reviewing the good things in my jar until the year was over. He suggested I save that for New Years Day, then celebrate each one of those little scraps of paper. It was important, he added, to re-experience the joy that those good things had brought into my life, and to express my gratitude in return. The first New Year’s morning I did this I was shocked at how many good things I’d received in 12 months – many of them already forgotten – and to see in my own writing what an incredible life I was already leading. It was surprising to realize that many of the notes were about things that had nothing to do with stuff, and everything to do with being in the moment. A weekday walk in Discovery Park. A kiss from my wife. Seeing Sleater-Kinney at the Showbox. A kind word from a stranger.

Reading, my heart flooded with gratitude.

And in the following weeks, like a snowball rolling downhill, my gratitude gathered momentum. Things kept getting a little bit easier, every day. Today, they’re easier than ever – so long as I remember to let them be.

Take what you like from my story, but as far as I’m concerned, Sam was right: any Ease I enjoy is proportional to the amount of gratitude I allow myself to feel and acknowledge. I’ve done this for a few years now, and I'm still not sure why it works. But from Sam I've also learned that some questions can’t be answered with words.

My Good Things Jar for 2019 already has a few good things in it. Which reminds me -- I owe Sam a call.