Synchronicity, Good PR, or Algorithms

Is it a message from the Universe or just trying to sell us something?

Every once in a while, I have a day when I can’t help but think that I’m getting a message from the universe. But is it synchronicity, good PR, or algorithms?

One day last week, it was a subject that kept showing up in my email. The first message resonated because it gave me some ammunition for something I had already been thinking about. Later, a second message on the same topic came from a completely different source. To me, it was a pretty strong message from the universe that it was time to put my thoughts into action.

It convinced me that it was time to write this blog post.

Synchronicity

For Carl Jung, who coined the term, synchronicity happens when a cluster of unrelated phenomena create a meaningful coincidence. Sudden hunches and stochastic operation also fall under the umbrella of synchronicity. Like you are thinking about someone who you haven’t talked to for a while, then they call you. Or you open a random book to a random page and find a message that addresses a quandary you’ve been having.

I was formally introduced to the concept of synchronicity reading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. For Julia, synchronicity is a way that, “…the universe falls in with worthy plans and most especially with festive and expansive ones.”

Part of synchronicity is just awareness. Part of it is magic, like when I was looking for a hutch for my kitchen and came upon one that someone had put out on the curb.

As Julia puts it, “First, choose what you would do. The how usually falls into place of itself.”

Basically, the universe is constantly sending you messages, providing paths with which to accomplish your goals. Synchronicity happens when you are paying attention and notice these messages.

Which is super fun. But are these always messages from the universe? I mean, I can accept that sometimes the universe is telling me that I should buy the smelly candle, but sometimes, it might be another force.

Good PR

Just to clarify: I’m referring to the entire marketing communications umbrella.

There are a lot of people in the world who are gainfully employed in the endeavor of getting other people to pay attention to something. One of my favorite things, communication strategy, is simply an exercise in plotting out what you want to say (your message), who you want to say it to (your audience), and how you are going to get your message to your intended audience in order to accomplish your objective.

The whole point is increasing awareness of whatever it is (an organization, a product, a policy).

Sometimes good PR is obvious, but sometimes it feels very organic, like the idea just popped into your head. How do you know it wasn’t synchronicity?

Algorithms

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

I can’t explain the mechanics of it, but we all know that our digital lives are shaped by computer algorithms. I use Google to look up a lot of terminology when I’m writing; now Google knows that the first search result to show me is a definition.

And then there’s social media. Just because I keep seeing ads on Facebook and Instagram for smelly candles does not mean that the universe is telling me to buy smelly candles (although I probably will at some point, I love smelly candles).

So, is it synchronicity, good PR, or algorithms?

In The Art of Impossible, Steven Kotler talks about how our brain is a pattern recognition system, our own internal algorithm.

When we set up our internal algorithm properly, we are primed to notice synchronicity. Steven calls this supplying the pattern recognition system with ammunition.

He recommends doing this by feeding it lots of information. Don’t just troll the internet, read books, listen to podcasts, go for walks, talk to people – give your pattern recognition system lots of data from different sources.

By doing so, we become our own PR manager and synchronicity follows.

Because don’t we all want to be in tune to receiving messages from the Universe?

Flash Fiction Friday – Let Sleeping Cats Lie

It seemed like a good time for another installment of Flash Fiction Friday.

This is the prompt that my story is based on:

Write the beginning of a story that takes place in the protagonist’s home. Use at least 3 senses to describe your scene or set an emotion. Please write 350 words max.

I was feeling onery the day I wrote this and wanted to write something that would create an unpleasant or at least uncomfortable impression.

Let me know what you think!

Let Sleeping Cats Lie

With a sigh, she turned the key and pushed. The door opened three inches, then stopped. Crap, those damn cats must have knocked something over, she thought to herself.

Taking a deep breath and bracing her shoulder against the door, she shoved. One, two, three. It budged just a bit more. At least there was now enough of an opening that she could squeeze herself inside.

Gripping the door frame with one hand and the doorknob with the other, she stepped up onto a pile of junk mail, books, and empty takeout containers. As she began to hoist herself upwards, a black flash shot past her and she fell.

“Darnit Jasper! You had better get back here!”

She named all of her black cats Jasper, it was just easier that way.

Refocusing on the task in front of her, she pushed her substantial girth up onto the mound that was blocking the door, teetering cautiously atop it.

The reek of ammonia sucker punched her. She attempted to blink the sting away. This was another reason why she didn’t like to leave her house, any length of time in fresh air intensified the cat urine stench when she returned.

She told herself that her accumulation of things was actually a budget-friendly, cat-centric decorating technique – using found objects to craft a multi-level, feline wonderland. But the boxes she collected for the cardboard cat fort she once intended to build had become a haphazard catchall.   

Twisting, she pushed the door shut before prying eyes caught a glimpse inside. Darkness engulfed her. Last summer she had covered the windows with aluminum foil to try to keep the house cooler. It had been sort of cozy until her electricity was shut off, now it was like living in a cave. This wasn’t a problem for the cats, they could see in the dark. She told herself that the darkness was just another way that she was providing for her feline companions.

The avalanche had thrown off her established route to the sofa. She shuffled ahead slowly. After bumping into a familiar pattern of knee and waist high piles, she arrived at her destination. Her hands fumbled for the one, clear spot where she could sit. It was covered with sleeping cats.

Art or Craft, What’s the Difference?

Questions About Art, Crafts, and Meaning Making

Do you have some sort of creative expression? Do you write? Or paint? Or sew? Do you make decorative objects? Utilitarian objects?

Do you consider the product of your effort art? Or craft?

A while back, I found a show on PBS called Closer to the Truth that was ostensibly about art and meaning. I was expecting some insights from neuroscience or a conversation about symbology. It turned out that the show was basically just white, male, Eurocentric gatekeeping. I was really disappointed by the lack of breadth in the perspectives presented.

I had been looking to learn something new or feel enlightened, instead I got a bit fired up. Isn’t there a universality in meaningful art? Because it expresses something about the human condition to which a diverse audience can relate. You know, the collective unconscious and all that jazz.

I decided that I wasn’t willing to accept something as art “because someone else said so,” anymore. So I started looking for a better way to answer the question of what is art and what is craft.

One common answer that I kept coming across is that art expresses ideas beyond the scope of the form whereas craft serves human objectives (well-being and fulfillment of expectations). But are these mutually exclusive?

Monet at the DeYoung, 2019

Maybe the Dictionary Can Help

Art and craft are both valued as products of human effort. Definitions of craft indicate that there is an expectation of a certain, demonstrable level of proficiency.

But I think that proficiency is as necessary for the production of art as a certain amount of creativity and freedom of expression is desirable in a craft. A ballerina or a writer would be called an artist although they both work every day their craft.

For some reason, thinking about proficiency reminded me of what Mr. Densley, my 8th grade art teacher, used to say, “Even Picasso learned how to draw it how it looks before he could draw it how it doesn’t look.”

Can we determine what is art versus what is craft based on the materials used or the method by which a work is created?

An Inch of Art for a Week … or was it a craft?

If Not How, Then What?

There are many things that are considered art which are created with common materials. Think about seeing an Eames chair made from molded plastic being displayed in an art museum. Or art made from junk like the work of Noah Purifoy.  

Maybe craft is the creation of a utilitarian object and art is nonfunctional? But what about the art of fashion? Clothing, despite how fanciful or decorative or imaginative it may be, is still a utilitarian object, isn’t it?

Maybe art is the creation of one, unique artifact whereas crafts are things that can be replicated?

But then what about Monet’s many, many iterations of his water lilies?  Or the performing arts? A symphony or a play must be replicated to be experienced as the artist intended. Or objects that are mass produced?  How do we reconcile the work of Andy Warhol?

My creativity doll and her pet cat

The Process Or The Product

I was talking to an executive from a local arts organization, and I mentioned my conundrum to her. Her answer: art is the idea and craft is the execution of the idea. I like this definition very much although it speaks more to the process than the product (that is a whole other rabbit hole we may want to explore another day).

Now I’m wondering:

Is the distinction between art and craft even useful? Necessary?

Maybe what I’m suggesting is that we can all be more critical about finding ways to consider creative work on its own merits and making up our own minds as to what we feel is meaningful regardless of whether someone else chooses to call it a work of art or a craft.

I would LOVE to know what you think.

Acting Like a Dancer

Does Authenticity Really Matter?

When I was in college, it always drove me (and my fellow dance majors) crazy when the drama majors would invade ballet class. In the sanctity of the dance studio they were a disruption. I remember one girl who was always there just acting like a dancer.

There is an ineffable difference in the quality of the movement when someone is acting like a dancer. They will be executing the steps, but it is as if they are just trying to replicate pictures of the movement. Everything was happening on the outside.

An authentic dancer moves from the inside, from the center. Think of it like the sun or the center of an atom. Everything else radiates from and moves around that point.

Center is a metaphor, but it also corresponds to a physical location in the body, much like chakras. The precise placement varies depending on the style of dance. For example, the center in ballet is at the diaphragm (manipura) but in Martha Graham technique it is below the belly button (svadhisthana).

Regardless of the style or level of training, for an authentic dancer all movement, no matter how subtle or grand, how delicate or robust, how small or substantial, emerges from the center.

Among my many college jobs, I taught ballet to preschoolers. They would come to class in their precious pink baby ballerina outfits (so would the drama majors), and we would practice the foundational elements of ballet – the positions of the feet, the positions of the arms, the basic movements. And they would act like they were ballerinas.

One day instead of the usual drills, I read the class a story. And then I put on music and instructed them to dance it for me.

I was blown away. It was the most beautiful expression of pure dance I had ever seen. Because these little girls were dancing from their center. They hadn’t suddenly mastered ballet technique, but they were executing advanced steps. Their lines were strong. Their movement had a refined musicality.

But the most moving thing about what I saw was the way that they were expressing themselves. What was on the inside was being made visible through their movement.

Photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash

I had a moment of clarity that day about what my instructor El Gabriel had been yelling at us about in my ballet classes. About letting the expression come through in the movement. About moving from the center. All of the training, all of the practice was just to facilitate the path for that expression to emerge.

There are a lot of times in life when we are moving from the outside, when we are acting like a dancer, or a writer, or fill-in-the-blank. We have the right costume, and we know the steps, and we go through the motions. But we are not moving from the center.

And that’s ok. Sometimes it is appropriate or even necessary to act like a dancer. Maybe a lot of the time. As long as we are mindful of it.

And as long as we are open to opportunities when we can authentically dance.

Paint Your Own Audience

How A Dancer Looking for a Stage Created Her Own Theatrical Oasis in a Desert Ghost Town

Once upon a time there was a dancer looking for a stage.

She had performed on Broadway and been a Rockette, but the roles got sparser as time marched on. One day in 1967, she came across a dilapidated building in a virtual ghost town in the California desert. When she did, this lifelong New Yorker knew that she had found the place that she would make her life’s work. She decided that this was the place where she would paint her own audience.

Marta Becket was 42 when she found herself in Death Valley Junction (founded Amargosa in 1907).

The town is located at what was the terminus of the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad, just east of Death Valley National Park (also known as two hours from anywhere). In 1925, the Pacific Coast Borax Company constructed a building in the town to serve as a whistle stop for borax mine workers and executives. It included a hotel, restaurant, and the meeting hall that would become the Amargosa Opera House.

photo credit: Tuxyso / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Marta leased the theater and got to work making repairs and putting together a show.

I first learned about her when I came across this short (under 10 minute) film about the Amargosa Opera House. I was enthralled. I think that you will find the story as fascinating as I do.

Dust Devil, directed and produced by Poppy Walker

Her first performance was February 12, 1968 for an audience of twelve. For over 40 years, she gave performances three nights a week at 8:15 p.m. (her last performance was in March of 2012 at the age of 85).

Sometimes she performed to an audience of one, sometimes there was no one. Marta never let the number of butts in seats (or the lack thereof) stop her from giving a performance.

To ensure that she would always have an audience she painted one, covering the walls with a fantastical mural that invoked the glamour of an old-world opera house. Why worry about whether there is an audience for your work out there in the world somewhere when you can create your own?

At first pass, the tale of Marta Becket and the Amargosa Opera House is simply a delightfully strange one. I mean, Who does that?  

Really.

Think about it.

If you had a flat tire in a desert ghost town and wandered across some abandoned building, would you think, “Ah yes, this is just the place that I am looking for. This is where I am going to create my life’s work.”

But then I suppose the next question should be, Why not?

Why not find your own place to do your own thing?

I’m not suggesting we should all go driving around in the desert waiting to see where we get a flat tire. But I do think that if you find yourself at the metaphorical intersection of passion and purpose there is no reason not to roll up your sleeves and paint your own audience.

Bardo – Something Really In-Between

Before COVID times I was listening to a podcast about meditation (because why meditate when you can listen to other people talk about meditating) when the woman introduced this interesting term, “bardo” which she defined as meaning “in-between.”

In-Between!

Well, considering that this is the In-Between Things it certainly seems like the right place to explore the concept of bardo. I decided that I needed to look into this it further, did a little bit of research, and left my notes sitting in my draft folder.

Until now.

Bardo Thödol is a Tibetan Buddhist funerary text that is popularly known in Western culture as the Tibetan Book of the Dead. This text describes the process through which a recently deceased person transitions from their current state of being to the next. The occurs in an in-between state, bardo, which is similar to the Roman Catholic concept of purgatory.

Applied metaphorically, bardo can describe many sorts of in-between situations. Any time there is a suspension in the way of being that we are familiar with we are experiencing bardo.

COVID times certainly qualify, wouldn’t you agree?

The Four Noble Truths, a central tenant in Buddhist teaching, explain that the root of suffering is desire for and attachment to worldly things. When we experience bardo, we become detached from our usual way of being, including the accompanying suffering.

But you know what we feel is worse than our regular, everyday suffering? The unknown!

Think about someone you know who is always complaining about something. You wonder why they continue fill-in-the-blank rather than change. When you say something, they usually reply beginning with, “yeah, but…”

This is because in-between-ness is uncomfortable. Bardo puts us in a position where we are confronted with considering other ways. We must mind the gap as it were.

What if, in that in-between space, instead of reacting negatively, we withhold judgement of the discomfort?

We may discover an opportunity for something new.

The gap gives us the cognitive distance to consider things from a new perspective. We may have a flash of insight or creativity or we may gain clarity about things that we are allowing to be causes of our suffering.

And this is why I wanted to dust off this topic at this time. The past year was certainly bardo, the entire world’s usual way of being was suspended. Now that things are beginning to stabilize, many are looking to get back to our old ways of being and doing. But it would be unfortunate to not take advantage of this bardo to make some conscious choices about the sorts of suffering we hold on to.

Maybe being in-between this past year wasn’t all bad.

All of the Pesto, None of the Basil

Something new that I’m doing in 2021 is getting farm box delivery. I have really enjoyed the pandemic practice of minimizing trips to the grocery store, but running out of fresh vegetables is the pits. It’s been great having a box full of veggies show up at my door ever couple of weeks.

I’m a big fan of vegetables in the crunchy water family (I believe that’s the technical term) – celery, cucumbers, etc. and one of my favorite things to get in my farm box delivery is radishes.

One week, I noticed that the greens on the radishes were looking particularly lovely. Were they edible? Yes! What could I make with them? Pesto!

Since this was an experiment with bonus vegetables (radish greens are now on my list with beet greens as a vegetable gift-with-purchase), I didn’t worry about not having all the right ingredients to make pesto (such as basil or pine nuts). I just threw the radish greens in the blender with some other things I had on hand to see what would happen.

It turned out good enough to share the recipe with you here.

Radish Greens Pesto

Suggested Ingredients:

  • Bunch of radish greens (cleaned)
  • Handful or two of walnuts (I don’t keep pine nuts on hand, but I always have walnuts around)
  • Couple cloves of garlic
  • Lots of lemon juice
  • Plenty of olive oil
  • Some salt

Blitz the radishes, garlic, and lemon juice in the food processor until the greens are mostly broken down.

Throw the walnuts in and keep blitzing until it resembles a lumpy paste (so that you can’t tell that they are walnuts anymore and the whole thing has taken on a pretty, light green color).

Now comes the fun part, let the food processor run and drizzle in olive oil until the concoction sort-of smooths out (I feel like Ina Garten when I do this which is why I think it’s so much fun).

I like it on the thick side but add as much olive oil as you like (at least enough to get to a creamy-ish texture).

If you taste it at this point, it will taste very bitter and you will be sad, but don’t despair! Just add salt! A good bit of salt, not just a wee sprinkle.

Now taste it. Magic? Yes. Salt magic. It will be a little more bitter and earthy than a basil/pine nut pesto, but still plenty tangy/zesty.

Now that you have your pesto, what are you going to do with it?

You could put in on pasta, sure. You could use it as a spread or a dip. You could use it to dress a green salad. I use it for a roasted vegetable salad that I have been experimenting with and it is perfect for bringing all the random ingredients I found in my cupboard together.

Lentil and Roasted Veg Salad

  • Cook ½ cup (or so) lentils (use the kind that stay firm) w/ salt and thyme in water until just done, drain and cool. *or substitute a can of garbanzo beans for the lentils – even easier!
  • Dice one sweep potato, toss with olive oil, salt and pepper and roast until tender.
  • Optional (but delicious): dice some turnips and roast with the sweet potato.

Let everything cool a bit, throw it in a bowl, cover, and throw it in the fridge.

Later add:

  • A good amount of chopped parsley
  • Some artichoke hearts
  • Some sliced radishes
  • Maybe a scallion
  • Maybe some grated parmesan
  • Whatever else is in the fridge/the cupboard/the garden that looks interesting
  • Lots of your delicious homemade pesto

Get it all mixed together and it’s ready to eat. Or you can throw it back in the fridge for later.

Both the pesto and the roasted vegetable salad feel like good foundations for improvising as the seasons change and different produce is available. What would you add/change?

The Writing Sprint Challenge Prompt Was: Mercy

Have you ever participated in a writing sprint challenge?

Neither had I until a couple of weeks ago. Someone was doing one on Instagram and I signed up right away because there were prizes. There are probably a lot of things that I can be motivated to do for the sake of artisanal smelly candles. I should remember that. 

Ok, back to the writing sprint.

The challenge was that there were prompts for each day and you would write for a set amount of time and then post on Instagram for accountability. The writing sprint prompt one day really captured my attention and I decided to turn it into this blog post. It was just one word: mercy.

Mercy. It isn’t an unusual or exotic word. But it struck me that this is not a word that I use or hear a lot. It’s not really in the zeitgeist the way that forgiveness is for example. It’s an ordinary word, why did it feel uncommon? What thoughts/ideas/feelings does the word evoke?

My first thought was that mercy correlates to surrender. Not that there is some sort of causal relationship, they’re not two sides of the same coin; but maybe they live in the same room.

So where does that correlation come from?

I started to pull my idea apart. Mercy is an act from a position of power, isn’t it? Whereas surrender seems to be something that the one who is being acted upon would do. Asking for mercy is a means of surrender.

That got me thinking about affirmations and all that jargon. Forgiveness is very trendy these days. But what about mercy?

Mercy means that you were in an acknowledged position of power and chose to relinquish your advantage. That rather than impose your will, you showed restraint. I suppose that mercy takes a good deal more awareness and self-control than forgiveness.

By the time that you get to forgiveness the thing is done. You stayed strong and kept plowing ahead with a single-minded determination, then when it’s over, you can evaluate and choose to forgive.

Mercy requires evaluating the impact of your actions while in process. That’s no fun.

If you follow the etymology of mercy all the way back to its Latin root, you find the word merx which means “wares” or “merchandise.” There is something tangible about giving up one’s advantage in a power dynamic, isn’t there?

All that being said, I wonder if we all couldn’t use a little more mercy in our hearts, even more so than forgiveness.

Just because something is within our power to make happen doesn’t mean that we always need to. Maybe have mercy for your feet by not wearing those shoes (you know which ones I’m talking about – they are really cute). Rather than say the unkind thing that you will apologize for later, demonstrate mercy by not saying it at all. You could even get meta with it – I’m thinking things like buying hand soap at the refill-your-own-container store (mercy) instead of putting another plastic container in the recycling bin (forgiveness).

What do you think? Did I get too in-between on this?

Adventures in Landscaping, part 2

As my adventures in landscaping continued, rather than shapeless days of digging, there were discrete tasks that needed to be executed in a certain order. I was so excited to get to the part where I had a finished patio that I had to keep reminding myself to take breaks and enjoy the process.

After consulting with Mr. Man about what he learned from his research, I forged ahead, driven by enthusiasm and determination rather than knowledge or skill. There was a rainstorm pending for the end of the week and it seemed like a completed patio would weather a storm better than a half-finished project. Over the course of five days, I went through the steps of:

  • Framing
  • Leveling
  • Lining
  • Installing the base layer
  • Leveling
  • Installing the fill layer
  • Leveling
  • Tile setting
  • Filling
  • Watering

It all went relatively smoothly although I did basically fake it when it came to leveling.

The great thing about dry setting tiles is that there are no long-term consequences to messing up. You can just pull it all out and start again until you get it right. Which is exactly what I did. Many times. After the third or fourth try, I started to figure it out. I wouldn’t say that I did a good job, but I did the best job that I was capable of. And when I get to the point that I can no longer tolerate my shoddy workmanship, I will just pull it all out and try again. But look at that! I built a patio!

Now what? It was just kind-of there. Sitting in the middle of a bunch of dirt. What needed to happen for it to get to the point that I could sit out there comfortably, sipping rosé and reading books?

Over the course of the next several weeks, I puttered, tweaking here and there (including adding a patch of pea gravel, there had to be pea gravel somewhere). I have been slowly adding some plants and finally got around to picking up some furniture. Mr. Man has promised to run some irrigation for me but in the meantime, I have just been making a point of going out every couple of days to hand water and tell all my new little plants how proud I am of them. It will be a while until they are established so I want to make sure that they are getting positive reinforcement while they are settling in.

Now that it is starting to feel like springtime, I am looking forward to making use of my little outdoor getaway. I’m sure that I’ll find more tweaks and finishing touches to do, but my adventures in landscaping have already been a very satisfying success!

Adventures in Landscaping

It’s time for an update on my little side yard project. In January I shared about how we finally got a fence between our property and the place next door and how that started a whole chain reaction of what I am calling my adventures in landscaping.

That side of the house had been an eyesore for years and years and years. Because it is shady for most of the day, it was never suitable for any serious gardening. Sometimes I imagined turning it into a little meditation garden/sitting area. Then I would walk out there and behold the magnitude of such a project and put that idea back in the maybe someday idea file. But once the fence happened, I was ready to at least give it a shot.

After the what turned out to be a car-sized bush was removed, it was Mr. Man’s turn to get to work building a fence to divide the front/side yards. Suddenly, I had a whole little private oasis … well, it wasn’t much of an oasis, but it was finally private and had potential for oasis-ness. What to do?

Our very lovely landlady mentioned that she had a bunch of tiles in her garage that we were welcome to use to build a patio (she and I had talked about doing something to the side yard years ago, but until the property owners next door were ready to do something about the fence, there was no reason). Up to that point, my best idea was just putting down pea gravel. But a patio! Yes please! I was ready to get to work.

And so, adventures in landscaping continued as phase two of the side yard beautification project got underway (phase one had been the fencing). While perhaps some would look for professional help or rent power tools, I just started digging.

There is something relaxing about just digging in the dirt for the sake of digging in the dirt. I spent hours out there. There was so much to notice about the ground, how it sloped, how it could change from hard and dense to fluffy, how many earthworms were in there (who I kept stopping to transfer to my vegetable garden). Maybe it already was a meditation garden of sorts.

Mr. Man does not find digging as meditative as I do, so for everyone’s happiness, we agreed that I would focus on the digging and he would focus on providing support (encouragement, knowledge, supplies, and tools).

After several days of digging, it looked like I had done enough to be able to move on to the next step, whatever that was. Fortunately, Mr. Man had been researching and laid it all out for me.

Before any actual patio building could take place, we needed to define the footprint. I knew what I thought would be the ideal area, but my eyes tend to be bigger than my stomach if you know what I mean. Mr. Man had the good advice to figure out how many square feet of tile I had to work with before I over-committed.

Ah! Math! Alright then. Eight feet by twelve feet sounds about right.

Next week I’ll tell you all about how the plan came together.