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Separating Signal from Noise (i.e., Peace-Making)

My Auntie and I talked the other day. We hadn’t spoken with each other (I mean, really spoken), in some months and I’d missed her gravelly, warm, and velvety tenor voice: not quite countertenor or alto but not quite baritone either. I’d almost forgotten the measured way she selects and delivers each and every word just so. “Hey Yets” from Auntie somehow anchors me in stillness every time, and a completely-articulated, subtly-Boston-accented “ahhhright” from Auntie somehow settles the mind and spirit in a space of total, if temporary, certainty. Her voice is powerful. And so is she.

 

In this instance, I’d called her to better understand some written “feedback” she’d shared with me (read: figure out why she’d gone up one side and down the other like only an African Auntie can; those who know, know) and also to “share my perspective” (read: use all of the politicking skills I’ve learned, albeit poorly, to request that this lil’ soldier stand down). With a voice like hers, you can imagine how metaphysically peaceful I immediately felt when she said towards the end of our conversation, “hey Yets…? I just want peace to prevail…”

 

The fact of the matter is, peace had already prevailed from the moment she said “hey, Yets,” but peace most definitely flowed in like a high tide overwhelming its river bank as we touched and agreed at the end of our chat. I have no idea why, but I blurted out, “but Auntie, peace will prevail… It already has…” Later on, in my journal (and in a follow up text to Auntie), I wrote: “peace is the only option for those committed to mastery. Anything else is just too distracting.

 

Here’s what I mean: for anyone committed to mastery of any kind – self-mastery, mastery of an acquired task, skill, subject or profession, mastery of the messy art and imprecise science of life -- for anyone committed to being masterful, the relentless and intentional pursuit of peace is part and parcel of the journey. As I see it, mastery at its very core is the separation of signal from noise. It’s the clearing, and subsequent defending of, figurative and sometimes literal space to enable an elevated state of being, performance, focus, or execution. Elevated living. Sure, attaining mastery is a continually evolving process with which we get more proficient and efficient with time, but to me, the definition and final destination of mastery is taking an otherwise fractured and fragmented din of static and excessive information, and discerning the simple nuggets of truth, resonance, and salience – and honing in on them to the exclusion of all else. That clearing is a simple, peaceful, and uncluttered place to be.

 

Don’t get me wrong. The actual process of mastery isn’t all rainbows and zened-out care bears; the climb to the clearing isn’t always calm. Sometimes it’s turbulent. Sometimes there is confrontation – but importantly, if it’s in the name of reaching some higher plane of function, faith, and truth, it’s confrontation for the purpose of creating peace. A good friend of mine puts it like this: he says the difference between non-mastery and mastery is, in many ways, the difference between keeping the peace and making it. If mastery is intentional and purposeful peace-making, then non-mastery is blind and thoughtless peace-keeping; and “peace-keeping ain’t the same as peace-making,” he says.

Think of peace-keeping as going along to get along, holding up the status quo (even when the status quo is doing everything in its power to tear you up, down, and sideways), and engaging with life at the surface-level only (equivalent to non-engagement in some ways), for the purpose of not rocking the boat (even when the boat and it’s direction are shaky). Think of peace-making, on the other hand, as actively seeking better through tough leveling-up decisions, conversations, and paradigm shifts that enable growth and the end-goal of elevated function and faith. Elevated living. If that’s the difference, then I want to be a peace-maker. Sure, it can sometimes feel confrontational like my “feedback session” with Auntie did. But healthy living requires healthy confrontation with self and others for the express purpose of achieving something “better.”

Said no gardener to her garden, ever, “meh, I guess I’ll just let the weeds grow;” said no athlete to herself, ever, “meh, I’ll just let my body go;” and said no master to her subject/task/craft, ever, “meh, I’ll just…[anything].” The gardener rips up weeds to restore peace and harmony to her garden and the athlete rips down walls of all kinds to achieve her higher plane of function and performance – mastery of any kind requires growth. Growth of any kind comes complete with growing pains. And while getting there may not seem peaceful, the destination always is. It’s the clearing in the thicket, the place of simple clarity achieved after the climb. There just always seem to be a striking peace that settles on one’s mind, body and smile once what matters, what is true, what resonates, and what has salience is (finally) discerned.

 

And lest we lose hope and think that this peace only applies to those who are just way too deep and esoteric for normal-sized, regular-life milestones, we all experience that easy peace during everyday “aha” moments, flashes of brilliance (read: virtuosity), moments of mini mastery. They are so often and maybe even always accompanied by some measure of calm, be it internal calm and clarity, a quiet mind, or a sense of rest and repose in the heart. Virtuosity can’t thrive in violence. Manifest competency can’t emerge from a place or state of chaos and conflict. Mastery is, always was, and always will be a simple (but not easy) process: separating signal from noise. And the signal by its very nature, is the complete and impenetrable embodiment of peace.

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What Do You Have In Your Hand?

“Les accidents arrivent betement.”

 

In her chic, lilting Lebanese-Liberian accent, a dear friend taught me this beautiful expression the other day.  Translated, it means: “accidents happen foolishly.” What could be more true??? You get up off of the couch incorrectly and throw your back out; you reach for a coffee mug and injure your shoulder; or in my case, you do a simple exercise in the gym (one that you’re good at, for goodness sake) and you tear three major structures in your knee. Accidents, God bless them all, do indeed happen foolishly. And they can have an impact.

 

There’s nothing new under the sun so when I find myself wrestling with something (an accident, a life event, a decision, a relationship, an unexpected twist in the narrative of my life), I often go quiet, draw inward, and think. Really think. About who and where I am, how God has molded and shaped me thus far, which way He seems to be pushing me, and the patterns in my life that have preceded whatever the “something” is. I think about the narratives (productive and unproductive) that repeat themselves throughout my life. I run through the constructive “I am enough…”-style narratives and the destructive “I never measure up…”-style narratives and take stock of which ones have faded away, which ones are in the process of fading and which ones have persisted, for better or worse. Basically, I survey the mental and emotional landscapes and storehouses of me and calibrate that against the direction I feel God leaning in (there is always a direction…).

 

I pray.

 

But not that get-down-on-your-knees-in-a-quiet-room prayer. More like an honest, running, slightly protracted chit-chat with God (some might prefer to call it a check-in with your “inner voice” or your conscience). There are awkward silences and “aha” moments. There are moments of complete clarity and peace, but others of shoulder-shaking sobbing. It’s an honest talk. And I think it’s an important one to have every now and again.   

 

So I’ve been chit-chatting with God since yesterday (when I got the MRI report), and this morning, a story from one of the great spiritual texts came to me: the story of Moses in Exodus 4. In terms of personality traits, I’m a little bit like Moses (rather than, say, Joshua) in that I am laid back, sometimes to a fault. Kind of a consummate pacifist. Not wanting to step on people’s toes, be too bossy, too directive, or too offensive, I will often wilt rather than stand proudly both for and in what I believe. On any given day, I’m apt to bite my tongue rather than run my mouth (which has its pros and cons!). Moses required a bit of prodding from God to get fired up and moving -- so do I. And like Moses, when I am finally alight, things happen. Usually, pretty fast. 

 

The story of Moses in Exodus 4 starts with him timidly asking God (from the NIV version), ‘ “What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, 'The LORD did not appear to you'?” ‘ (He had just written the 10 commandments on Mt. Carmel after having been visited by God). ‘Then the LORD said to him, "What is that in your hand?" "A staff," he replied. The LORD said, "Throw it on the ground." Moses threw it on the ground and it became a snake, and he ran from it. Then the LORD said to him, "Reach out your hand and take it by the tail." So Moses reached out and took hold of the snake and it turned back into a staff in his hand. "This," said the LORD, "is so that they may believe that the LORD, the God of their fathers--the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob--has appeared to you." ‘

 

First, it’s kind of funny to me that he ran from the snake. Like, how far? It’s a comical, God’s-Must-Be-Crazy-scene in my mind’s eye (and Moses definitely has long hair and sandals). Second, the question that popped into my spirit – the central question of this text in fact, is:

 

“What do you have in your hand?”

 

What are you working with? Better put, what resources have you been blessed with – human, intellectual, athletic, emotional, material/tangible and immaterial/intangible? This is the central question of the text because God can use anything to do any and everything but it is our job to do what I have been doing for the past 24 hours: take stock, assess the landscapes and the storehouses of your life and see what God has to work with. Then let Him work.

 

For me, this comes after this new knee diagnosis. My patients often describe getting a new diagnosis like a trauma. Their whole world changes – just temporarily, after hearing where their bodies have failed them. All of a sudden, they have to move differently, set up a different set of appointments, and come out of pocket for unexpected expenses. I know what they mean and how they feel. And I was sorely tempted to allow the inertia of disorientation and confusion to consume me. So I had this long chit-chat with God. And came to the question: what do I have in my hand(s)?

 

It all came back to what I love. At this moment, uniquely, the relationships swirling through my life are all edifying. Categorically. I’ve learned and am still learning how to put myself in environments where like-minded people live and have been blessed to know, re-connect with and meet angels of authenticity over the past few months – and I am so grateful for them. Too, there is a shift in the types of opportunities I’ve got to care for patients (whom I love), there is a surge in family cohesion (which I love). Look people, God talks to me. And at different moments in my life, He leans me in one direction or another (I know it’s the same for you) and whether I am aware of it or not, He orchestrates beauty out of the most seemingly-disparate scenes in my life. There was a purpose to my random stint in Omaha (career re-direction). There was a purpose to the 2016-17 athletics season, injury, abuse and all (understanding harassment and abuse like no one on this planet!; re-connecting with the love of my life). And there is a purpose to this (and every) new diagnosis.

 

Please note: this is NOT a “just roll with the punches” moment; I hate (!) those. It’s a stop, look and listen moment (see? I paid attention in grade school). There’s intention and action and purpose to the unexpected event that seemed to be a “pause” button in your life. Even if you’re initially like me and Moses and initially, sort of comically run from the way God uses what you have in your hand, thank God for His patience with you… Go back and pick it up… Stay in the mix until you learn the lesson fully… And work with what you have. Accidents may happen foolishly, but our responses to them don’t have to. Work with what and who have, where you are; and watch what God can do.

 

When we find that moment of quiet, when we truly look up, we’ll see what and who we love so clearly. Now is the time for that. He never leaves us, His wind never stops blowing in our lives; blowing things into and out of our worlds whether we knew they were coming or not; they are here and God is simply looking to us to take care of them fully. Thank goodness He’ll keep teaching us lessons until we learn them.

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Improvise!

bricolage

noun  bri·co·lage \ˌbrē-kō-ˈläzh, ˌbri-\

 

1.  :  construction (as of a sculpture or a structure of ideas) achieved by using whatever comes to hand (Merriam-Webster)

 

A central concept in resiliency theory is the power of improvisation. My (new) favorite word for it is Bricolage. According to Wikipedia, Bricolage is ‘a French loanword that means the process of improvisation in a human endeavor. The word is derived from the French verb bricoler ("to tinker"), with the English term DIY ("Do-it-yourself") being the closest equivalent of the contemporary French usage.’

 

Bricoleurs, then, are men and women who not only make due with whatever is in front of them, but build great things using unfamiliar tools and a hodgepodge of unrelated, unexpected materials. The ultimate Bricoleur? My childhood hero MacGyver! Remember him? He could make a bomb out of a damp twig and a feather, a toaster oven out of a reed and some string. It didn’t matter where he was or what he found himself working with, he puttered about until he built something useful, something of value, something beautiful.

 

My most recent Bricoleur experience took place on the open plains of Omaha, Nebraska (Go Huskers!). Frankly, I’ve never thought of myself as an inpatient Physiatrist and I’ve certainly never thought of myself as a Midwesterner. But when the opportunity came to move to Omaha and work on a modern, purpose-built inpatient Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation unit for 3 months, I took it. ‘Why not?,’ I reasoned. If nothing else, I could finally get to the bottom on where exactly Omaha Steaks come from (like, the street/ranch address) and I might run into Warren Buffet at Starbucks (ideal outcomes: business advice or a selfie).

 

Never mind the fact that the contract started in the middle of a notoriously brutal Midwest winter, and that my tiny, Ghanaian-born Shih Tzu, Nina Simone, seems allergic to both cold and snow. Never mind the fact that the opportunity coincided with one of the ugliest, most polarizing, and faction-focused presidential elections in American history… A single black woman moving to a decidedly red state might not be the brightest political move of the century. Minor details, I decided, and we moved west.

 

Because everything was so new (pace of life, weather, professional environment, grocery stores), I had no choice but to open my heart and mind completely, to leave any and all expectations at home, follow my instincts and simply try to do my best with whatever I found. And I found truly unexpected tools in Omaha:

 

  • An unexpected physical facility: a sleek and modern, fully-kitted-out inpatient rehabilitation gym with all of the sparkling bells and whistles we Physical Medicine devotees drool over.
  • Unexpected (extraordinary) human resources: The largest therapy staff I have ever worked with – 5 full teams of physical, occupational, speech, and recreational therapists, in addition to therapy aids, therapy students, a full complement of nurses, nursing students, social workers, social work students, case managers, medical students, and administrators, about 50 people in circulation, on any given day.
  • Unexpected inspiration: the patients on the 36-bed unit were nothing short of angels. Most were in their 7th, 8th and 9th decades of life, born and bred in the Heartland, and clear about their values. Even after having suffered significant life interruptions, from catastrophic strokes to severe motor vehicle traumas, the single most important factor that portended an efficient, optimal and often surprisingly rapid recovery for each and every patient was personal connection.

 

No matter the diagnosis, in the setting of a good medical treatment plan, my patients who had created and continued to find deep meaning in core familial relationships (from grand children to neighbors), those who talked about closeness to and positive anticipation of sharing time with loved ones (many of whom I met and became close to), simply did better. And (perhaps not surprisingly), my Heartland patients were incredibly open-hearted towards me! Differing political perspectives and life experiences aside, I was floored and encouraged by their embrace, typified by their comments on my last day of work. So it turns out my leadership style and clinical practice ethos are all right. That hasn’t always seemed true.

 

It’s like this: the way I work is aligned with my personality and values (I’m a bit of a mastery- compassion-, and justice-driven caretaker). This style can seem “soft” to some, isn’t always valued and can even be considered a weakness in hard-nosed, rigid ,exclusively data- and book-fact-driven academic environments. But in Omaha, everything was so different – the city, the roads, my apartment, my staff, my boss, my patients, my cold-gear, that there was no room for pretense, I had to just be completely myself, vulnerable and compassionate, curious and warm. And my patients were both receptive to and appreciative of the personal connection I made with them – because it resonated with their core personal values.

 

From the affluent business owner with a stroke who told me: “doc, you’re a real diamond,” to the young rapper with a traumatic femur fracture who said “know that you make a difference,” to the gentle-spirited octogenarian with a rare muscle disease who said, “go out there and knock ‘em dead darlin,’ and know that I love you,” my patients in an inpatient rehabilitation unit in the middle of nowhere taught me a clear and unanticipated lesson about family, love and life. The talented, cohesive, dedicated and huge (!!!) therapy, nursing and management staff beautifully exemplified the same, by warmly welcoming me, an outsider, into their (professional) family.

 

French social anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss said that the artist "shapes the beautiful and useful out of the dump heap of human life." Lévi-Strauss compared this artistic process to the work of a handyman who solves technical or mechanical problems with whatever materials are available. Bricolage made its way from French to English during the 1960s, and it is now used for everything from the creative uses of leftovers ("culinary bricolage") to the cobbling together of disparate computer parts ("technical bricolage").........” to the practice of inpatient medicine in the Heartland by an outpatient Physiatrist from the city.

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Just The Truth In 2017, Please

Blessed are those who find wisdom, those who gain understanding, for she is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold. She is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her. Proverbs 3:13-15

 

I'm a sucker for alliteration so last night, as 2016 lazily rolled over into 2017, I came up with the phrase Nothing false, phony or fabricated this year; just the truth in 2017, please! Honestly? I have no idea where it came from. It just jumped into my mind and onto a page as I journaled about the Ultimate Endurance Test that 2016 was for me. Fittingly, unwittingly, a friend encouraged me to read Proverbs 3:13-15 (quoted above) a few hours later. So, during these early hours of 2017, I’ve been thinking almost exclusively about the value of experiential wisdom – lessons I learned from 2016. One lesson in particular is a true pearl that 2017 can't possibly live without.

 

What strikes me most about the verse above are the words “find” and “gain.” Neither word gives me the impression of haphazard passivity. Action is implied. Process and intention are required to find or gain anything. You find a lost piece of jewelry after launching a well-planned, well-executed search. The fact that your search may or may not turn your room into a hazmat-certified disaster area is irrelevant. You gain fitness after committing to regular exercise and intentionally living healthy – decisions must be made, processes must be implemented, movement and action must take place in order to find or gain anything.

 

So what processes are required to find the wisdom we need for 2017? I suspect it’s through the deliberate and careful framing (sometimes, re-framing) of our most meaningful experiences in 2016. Experiential wisdom. When we gently reflect on our most meaningful experiences from last year, even if they’re painful, we concretize their wisdom and make serious gains in our personal development, thereby increasing our effectiveness within our families and in our relationships – most importantly, in our relationship with ourself. Of course, our most meaningful experiences don’t always have to be big and public – it’s not always the televised marriage proposal that hits us hardest in the gut.

 

For me, the most meaningful experiences of 2016 came in quiet moments. One in particular hit the deepest. It was early on a Saturday morning. I had training a bit later that day, so I could spend the morning thinking. I lay flat on my back, on a queen-sized bed I didn’t buy, but inherited from the previous resident of this North-Carolina-State-University-owned apartment. With my head on a thin, also-inherited pillow just beneath my bedroom windowsill, I listened to the frenzied chatter of what must have been thousands of invisible birds inhabiting a forest of gargantuan Great Oak trees 10-12 feet away from my third floor window. These were trees so thick and wide around, so ramrod straight, and so old, that they were imposing; trees so numerous that they seemed like an army of Goliaths assembled in tight formation; trees so close to my third floor window, that I often thought I could reach out and touch one. Lying on that bed, flat on my back, my trusty (little but fierce!) Shih-Zu lay next to me, her tiny body providing warmth to my right thigh and comfort to my soul. I quietly thought about my year of training.

 

When I thought about all of the pain the year had brought: physical pain from my Achilles and emotional pain from the slow, arduous, seeming endless recovery from surgery, psychological pain (mixed with numbness) from daily abuse in any/all flavors from a power-drunk coach, and spiritual pain from fearing I would let myself, my God (who gave me this talent), and a cloud of supportive witnesses down if I under-performed and did not reach my goal, I became even more still. And somehow, despite the constant, silent tears that burned their way down both sides of my face, leaking cold salt puddles into my ears as they followed gravity’s plumb line, I was able to make a decision. A single, silent decision. I needed to leave. I needed to leave, and I would do so that weekend.

 

No more abuse. No more false, phony or fabricated lies about this being “what it takes” to achieve my goal or my being “too sensitive” about my daily dose of belittling insults; no more passive acceptance that this hell was “the normal training environment for most pros,” something to be tolerated, appreciated and even embraced. No more believing that this was “all [my] fault,” that I “deserved” everything I got because I was “provocative” and “made [him] change.” I decided that whatever potential glory lay on the other side of that horror show, I was content to skip the ending and save myself by walking out of the theater. No more. In that quiet moment, I stood up for myself, for my soul, for my joy, and though I was deeply terrified of the achievement-related implications, I was resolute. Somehow, quietly, I was resolute.

 

Sure, it was already springtime and clearly “too late” to make a significant change like this. Sure, I would lose momentum with my training, fall even further behind my competition schedule and all but extinguish my competitive edge, and with it, chances of qualifying for my team. Sure. But walking away would also mean choosing myself over everything else, over my dream, over my people-pleasing tendencies, over brilliant friends and colleagues explaining the insanity of a last-minute change like this.

 

In 2017, I can finally see that moment as one of strength and I'm no longer embarrassed by the fallout of that decision. I’d simply come to a place where I desired, above everything else, truth and wisdom -- and love. And there was a process involved in finding that quiet wisdom, a journey that preceded the opportunity to gain understanding about loving myself. And despite the tremendous amount that I lost, the wisdom I gained was more profitable than a silver medal could ever be, indeed, it yielded better returns than a gold – it gave me back me. So what became of the resolve I marshaled in that quiet moment? It’s still here. Hell, it was hard-fought, it'd better be. And it’s roots run as deep as those Great Oaks,’ because they were laid down slowly, quietly, and consistently over time, watered by too many tears to count like my invisible birds flitting about my touchable forest. Make no mistake: when the roots (of a truth, of a relationship, of anything) are deep, you don’t have to worry about life’s winds. Finding the truth of my own value, strength and worthiness; and gaining the understanding that I have a right (as do we all!) to safe relationships built on joy, sincere and mutual respect, authenticity, and love, free from all forms of harassment and abuse… This was indeed a truth worth finding.

 

This nugget of wisdom is perhaps the most precious gemstone I am bringing with me into 2017.

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Shine On, You Crazy Diamond

“Your talent is God’s gift to you; what you do with it is your gift back to God.” –Leo Buscaglia

 

The title of this post is something I wish I’d said to myself on countless occasions; and something I thought about after meeting an unassuming elderly man in a nursing home [note: I can’t take credit, “shine on, you crazy diamond” was discovered by the almighty ‘Google Machine,’ lol].

 

The man, a true diamond in the rough, filled me with immense gratitude for natural talents, and reminded me that it is not talent alone, but opportunity and nurturing relationships that determine whether or not talent gets a chance to shine in the world. Here’s what happened:

 

I ran a health workshop for nursing home residents in urban Washington D.C. Everything and everyone looked generally crumpled (alternate descriptions include wilting, grey, stale). I flitted in wearing my go-to bright pink “presentation dress,” moving quickly, speaking quickly, and feeling a little bit like a song bird (or a small-scale tornado) in an old black-and-white photograph where just one person or thing is colored in. Colored in pink.

 

First order of business: restroom. The shabby toilet ran continuously. To flush it, you had to hold the handle and basically convulse (shake it rapidly to “catch” a flush), or, open the tank and investigate. I chose to convulse. Discreetly, I whispered to the matron, “maintenance may need to take a look at that toilet” but she laughed loudly, proclaiming: “it’s always like that baby! The valve don’t work – gotta open it up. Hope you knew that.” No, I explained. I convulsed.

 

The workshop took place in the “lunch room,” a large multipurpose box with a low ceiling, two tiny windows, brown-and-mustard-yellow tables and grey metal folding chairs. In the adjacent room, separated by a doorframe, there was a radio set to a Christian talk show. It was never actually turned off. Nevertheless, I got started. Most of the 15-odd attendees were listening, but passively. But there was one exception: to my right, leaning against a wall, stood a man in red plaid shorts, a royal blue tee, and a tan cap who had a glint in his eye. He nodded knowingly with most slides, maintained a thoughtful eye-squint-head-tilt posture and answered each one of my “audience participation” questions clearly, correctly, and immediately. His energy was just so different than everything around him. I wondered if he was a retired scientist(?).

 

Then it happened: after I explained that African-Americans have the highest prevalence of hypertension nationally, he asked: “Dr., you say ‘African-Americans,’ but that is a very big and diverse group. We’re all different genetically, so do you mean Africans from Africa who live there, or, Africans who came over during that 200 year period? And, isn’t the diet we eat now different to the diet we ate back then, 200 years ago? Has anyone ever looked at the differences between blood pressure here and there, then and now? I think history and diet have something to do with this…”

 

WHAT?!?!?!?!?!? This man was a genius!!! He basically just broke down three topics of a major scientific inquiry: historical reasons African-Americans may be salt-sensitive, the dynamic interaction between genes and environment, and epi-genetics i.e. the health legacies we carry based on ancestral experience. One of my mentors in medical school even developed a million-dollar DRUG based on middle passage survivorship! I answered his question with a grin on my face and fullness in my heart – I’d found a kindred spirit!, someone with eternal curiosity and a propensity for “lateral thinking,” i.e. connecting the dots few people see as related.

 

Afterwards, I approached: “sir, I wanted to introduce myself and thank you. You’re brilliant! If you don’t mind me asking, what line of work were you in?” He extended his hand, smiling. “Great talk… I was a meat-packer all my life.” Breath. Fast-blinking. “Well whoever you worked with was very lucky – you’re brilliant.” The words that immediately popped into my head were “opportunity” and “nurturing.” I wondered if he’d had either.

 

A meat-packer???!!! That gentleman’s natural intellectual ability shone as brightly as his eyes did that morning, his brain almost involuntarily turning the information I delivered around and spinning it into a brilliant question, one that top scientists spent billions of dollars (and years) answering. His natural curiosity resonated with mine. His inclination towards lateral thinking resonated with mine. Even his fashion-decisions (bright blue!) resonated with mine. So HOW did we end up on such different professional paths?

 

I suspect it is a combination of opportunity and nurturing.

 

Natural talent is so beautiful to behold. It cannot be suppressed by a grey room with limited light – it will shine on its own -- just needs a spark of activation. And if it finds its way to a platform commensurate with its beauty (a great professional position, a high-level competition, a grand stage of any kind), it is because of the consistent, nurturing hands and hearts that molded it, and the God-breathed opportunities that beckoned it to shine: the schools and mothers, summer programs and grandfathers, nurturing friends and coaches, grandmothers and professors who invested time and love, setting ever-increasing standards that inspired that talent to grow. And if it doesn’t find its way to a platform commensurate with its stunning glow, perhaps there’s an external system devoid of nurture and opportunity that arguably, failed it.

 

That day, I found a diamond in the rough! I am flooded with immense gratitude for the opportunity to see it shine but the stark reminder that opportunity and nurturing often direct one’s life path was not lost on me.

 

So.

 

If we find ourselves on a platform of any kind, in any field, it is not only our talent on which we rest (though talent can certainly help keep us there). No, it is the culmination of nurturing opportunities, relationships and systems that persistently buoy and buttress our natural ability until it finds a perch on which to flourish. I’m immensely grateful for my buoys and buttresses.

 

In the end, it is not “…what YOU do with [your talent that] is your gift back to God,” it’s closer to “…what WE/YOUR TEAM do with [your talent that] is your gift back to God.” 

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On Confidence

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?..." -Marianne Williamson

 

It’s funny to think that someone else’s life and the way they live it, could give you permission to do or be something within your own life; that someone else's energy could beckon you to live more fully, confidently and boldly. But this is exactly what has happened to me over the past year on my track and field 'walk-about.' It's been as much a year of mental training as it has been a year of physical training, and as I seek to improve my own performances, I find myself observing others' (athletes, artists, actors, musicians, physicians). I was reminded of this story last weekend, while speaking to a high-achieving actor.  The lesson is this: inner power, intention, resolve, and a tangible gravitas -- all of which one could summarize as 'self-confidence' lie deep within the DNA of high performers.


Pound for pound, Jack is one of the most physically powerful athletes I know. When he “high-fives” you, or does one of those playful hugs, you quickly learn to brace yourself, lest you topple over involuntarily (trust me, it's happened!). At 5'7" and 185lbs, he power cleans ridiculous weight for warm up and deep squats (butt below parallel, people!) over 400lbs without flinching. I would rather go to war or be fed to a hungry wolf than be his competitor in any physical contest. He moves with real and ridiculous power. As it turns out, that same power exists, lives, breathes and indeed originates in his mind (like a vat of rumbling lava, lazily rocking about, rolling back and forth in a furnace poised to spit; or a sleeping lion lazily sleeping, with slow and controlled breath, intermittently peeling one eyelid back to survey a vast territory, waiting for a reason to activate).  

 

One day, we found ourselves at a cafe talking about some of the ills of the world (one of our preferred, but certainly more dismal topics), everything from the top 5% controlling 80% of the wealth, to religion and it’s good/bad rhetoric, to the difficulty of rediscovering that pure childhood happiness (i.e. after growing up and realizing, as Langston Hughes' penned, life ain't "no crystal stair”). And what amazed me about our conversation was the palpable force, conviction, directness, passion -- indeed, the power with which he spoke. Speaking with him was like a experiencing a verbal manifestation of his physical strength in the weight room. The same energy showed up -- he filled the entire room, from floor to ceiling, with BELIEF. And strength of belief. And himself: his ideas and personality and worldview and unique, perfectly quirky, one-of-a-kind self.

 

Some would call it "mental toughness," "conviction" or "self-confidence," I suppose. I have certainly seen the same quality in some of my closest friends who are artists (writers, actors, thinkers): the same strength of conviction, the same convincing movement(s), the same resolute stance, physically and mentally. What consistently strikes me is the fact that the mind is indeed powerful. Infinitely so. Powerful enough to will the body to move heavy weights, and powerful enough to move the soul to believe in whatever it believes in. Powerful enough to heal, and to calm, but also to activate, to inspire and to ignite.

 

The famous passage above in Marianne Williamson's A Return To Love ends with the sentence “As we're liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” I think our challenge is to try our bests to live in that confident (fear-less), liberated state. I'm talking about waking up and walking around, interacting, thinking, and talking like that; with self-confidence, fullness, and authenticity. Just LIVING in that state, whether we are athletes, artists or engineers. Jack seems to have figured it out.

 

No matter how or when, confidence in self (i.e. inner power, mental toughness, resolve) is something worth seeking, protecting and nurturing.

 

As Williamson wrote, it enables us to be 'powerful beyond measure,' whatever our pursuit. 

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Your Truth: Find It, Nurture It And It's Strength Will Amaze You

"The truth is like a lion. You don't have to defend it. Let it loose, it will defend itself." -St. Augustine

 

PLEASE NOTE (warning label): This is one of those blog posts I wrote after a harrowing, "character-building" life event (lol). Kind of seems like a downer initially but really, it's about resilience. 

 

Sometimes it feels like life is kicking you directly in the face. Better yet, the teeth. Over and over and over again. The pain (physical and/or emotional) may even feel like it could steal the very last cough of a breath out of you. But through the blur of tears, in between the moments when one's eyelids are blinking so fast in disbelief, they feel like tarred butterfly wings, in your mind's eye, you can see something. Just a vague 'something.' Something that looks for all the world like a light, like a positive end to the story. Something that smacks of...truth. Something that says ‘hold on’ when the very will to do so was lost a long time ago. Something that feels like an irrefutable, immovable, indestructible and beautifully simple truth – like honoring your gifts, savoring your journey, loving yourself, respecting yourself and pushing through no matter what, matter. Something that feels like a faint tap on your soul, beckoning you to push yourself up from your knees and stand. Stand one more time. Stand even though getting knocked down again is almost certain. Stand again. One more time. In the arena where your very soul is being tested.

 

What do you stand for? And what have you been given to work with in this world? And what is your truth no matter what? And what is the story you must – you must – oh, you must – tell? The natural gifts we have are the very things that lead us to our story. Our real story, the beautiful one, the effortless one, the one that flows, the one that rocks our soul gently to peace and satisfies our heart, the one that the world, at some point, sometime, will need. And so the challenge is not to enter the arena unscathed and pristine, in “clean” fighting shape (“fighting fit,” as Dr. Barbara DeLateur said). No, the challenge is simply to march on.

 

March forward. March towards and then into the arena. Steadily move your feet, and at times, it'll be under such a firestorm, such a siege that the clamor inside and outside of you drowns out the sound (and feeling) of your moving feet. But move your feet forward, nevertheless. The challenge is to march tall even with bloodied soles/souls and aching shoulders. To push on, towards the mark…through the pain, visceral and otherwise. Knowing…that the very pain that could have destroyed you (and almost did time and time again), was sent to clarify who you are. To pare away the noise. To simplify your mission, your truth, your natural and original state. Because whatever is left after that firestorm, whatever nugget endures – it is true.  

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I Am Enough (And So Are You)

“You wander from room to room hunting for the diamond necklace that is already around your neck.” -Rumi

 

A few weeks ago, a dear friend (let's call him "David") called. What he told me changed the way I see myself, my power and my path. Bottom line: I am enough. 

 

Here's what happened: David had been looking for a job in a new region for almost a year. I knew how determined but frustrated he was (I know that harrowing balance well). The marketplace was unforgiving and to make matters worse, his past performance on the job was at best, average. His achievements certainly didn’t match the performances of his borderline maniacal colleagues. And so, he assumed he could only find a job by activating his external network of friends and family; which to be fair, was an impressive group of achievers all around the country (David knows everyone!).

 

After dutifully reaching out to colleagues, a job opportunity arose as expected. He excelled during the lengthy interview process, moving from conversation to conversation flawlessly. During the final interview, for some reason, the interviewer was visibly unmoved by his charisma, education, skill and clear fit with the company. Unlike everyone who came before her, she was simply unimpressed. She made the decision not to hire him. To David and the personnel who so badly wanted him on board, it was a serious blow. He was flattened morally and emotionally, confused, disoriented, and unsure of where to go, who to turn to and what to do.

 

But then something happened. Apparently, somewhere along the way (read: along a sound path built on a fundamentally unsound premise), he had turned some heads. A woman from the company who David barely remembered meeting called. They’d met during one of the general greeting sessions. There was no pretense, no fluff, no frills. All she knew was that she liked his honesty, his style and how he carried himself. When she found out David had been snubbed by the final interviewer, she called to offer him an opportunity with a different company far better than the job he’d “lost.” The benefits were beyond what he could have ever imagined. As he recounted the story to me, there was a slight waver in his voice when he said, “Yets, I thought I could only get a job using my network… In the end, I got it just being myself.”

 

The premise of the first journey, while logical, was unsound. It started with the belief that David was unqualified and thus needed extensive external support, bolsters and connections in order to find what he was looking for. It started with the belief that his mediocre track record plus his innate abilities plus God’s grace simply weren’t enough ammunition to fight the battle ahead – and to fight it well. The premise of that journey was all together wrong: it presumed that he wasn't enough. Almost as if to make the point as strongly as possible, life (read: God, the Universe, if you like) brought him to the very end of the road only to completely flatten him with deep disappointment. Amazingly, and perhaps because all things really do work together for our good, it was that same flawed path that enabled a tangential path to be illuminated – a path that by design, was a direct branch off of the previous one. The tangent path was narrower, far less familiar, unexpected and definitely risky; but the premise of that journey was all together right: that David alone, sans pretense and stripped of social trappings, was enough to secure an opportunity and a life in which he would be happy.  

 

We are all, always, enough. The way we learn that lesson is so often painful – and maybe that’s by design. If our tendency is to secretly, desperately cling to the idea that we “need” him or her, them or that, approval, endorsement, and applause – something outside of ourselves, to be happy, to shine as brilliantly as we were created to shine, then maybe him and her, them and that need to be cut away (sometimes dramatically, painfully) before we can truly see how much we are worth in our own right.

 

I think it happens in different ways, this funny stripping away process. Sometimes we suffer some kind of public embarrassment (for me, that happened when I graduated from medical school and didn't land a residency position right away like my classmates did). Or we fail at something we thought we'd mastered (David's final interview). Or friends betray our trust. This stripping away process can happen again and again in our lives, and it reminds us each time that our certainty, confidence, and clarity about who we are need to be anchored at an internal dock, not an external one. The truth is, our inner voice tells us everything we need to know and do. No social network, no relationship, no accolade, no supplement, no institution, is more valuable or more critically necessary than our own quiet instincts, in the process of realizing true joy.

 

As competition season has set in (I've competed in 4 meets to date and counting), I am realizing this more and more. I am enough. No fancy coach or designer sneaker, no top-notch training gear or packed-to-the-gills grandstand needed. My training, my love for this sport, the joy I find in effort and my intention to perform high in my potential; that is enough for me to enjoy this work. 

 

You are enough. Three words. Sometimes the most hard-fought lessons we learn during this great education called life, are the simplest.    

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Lessons From The Other Side Of The Examination Table

"Pain should not be wasted."

 

I heard this phrase back in med school when Gerda Klein, a holocaust survivor, addressed our class. It's always stuck with me but this year, it is taking on new meaning because (chuckle, chuckle, sniffle), I'm in pain a lot. I have had to see a LOT of clinicians this year, each with different styles and strengths. As a result, I am learning exactly how to treat athletes -- specifically, how I want to treat the athletes I will see as patients. Being on the "other" side of the examination table is teaching me more than any rotation ever could -- it's an unexpected gift of this journey. 

 

On the heels of an appointment with my favorite physician (mentor, role model, and friend), I've refined "what I know for sure" about the right way to treat athletes (elite, collegiate, weekend, and pee-wee). Here are my Top 10 Tips:

 

1.     Know their sport. Endurance athletes are different animals than power athletes, both in their psychological make-up and in their training programs. Once you understand the kind of athlete sitting in front of you, communication becomes infinitely more personal, resonant and fruitful. 

2.     Do NOT start by telling them to retire, whatever you do (and please don’t forget that your body language, facial expressions, long sighs, raised eyebrows and crossed arms can communicate that exact sentiment). If you start there, you automatically lose their trust. Their respect, too, but most importantly, their trust. They are coming to you with their athletic identity in crisis, at a vulnerable moment in their lives, asking you to help them stay engaged in something they love and that in some way feeds their souls. If you start by telling them to retire/stop the sport, you're basically telling them to starve themselves. From that point on, you may as well start speaking in a foreign language or just repeat "whaa-whaa-whaa-whaa" like a Snoopy character; they are not listening. If they are, they are doing so with an eyebrow and every defense you can imagine, raised. 

3.     Listen, listen, listen, listen, listen. To their tone, sense of hope, determination, athletic identity; as well as to the mechanism of injury, the predisposing factors, the kind of career they envisage, their short and long term goals and their level of commitment to those goals. And incorporate those details into every part of your conversation. 

4.     Contextualize everything, from their injury (how many per year? per practice? per sport? per gender?), to your experience with similar injuries/patients. Re-tell them the story of how it happened, including details they told you, and some others that you were savvy enough to infer, like the difference between overuse and intermittent-use injury, the role of de-conditioning, and life stressors that may have contributed. Remind them that this has been seen before, treated before and beaten before (if it has) and describe what you have seen and what they can expect. Context is comforting. 

5.     Describe their anatomy to them in detail. They get it. Help them understand how they are built and what to emphasize versus avoid. As an example, I have retroverted hips which protects me against impingement. Who knew! Thus, the fact that I am having impingement signs and symptoms indicates that my chiropractic work may be inappropriate for my anatomy and that some component of my training may need tweaking. Amen! So happy to have learned this. 

6.     Be realistic about pain. If it’s just going to be a “live with it” pain, so be it. If they should be pain- free in short order, tell them. But be direct and do not sugar coat that detail. Safety permitting, having to suck it up is okay as long as the athlete knows that that is what they are in for.

7.     Gather every detail about ancillary treatments and clinicians. From the chiropractor to the masseuse to the physical therapist to the yoga teacher to the psychologist. Each has his/her own opinion and bias and each will fill the athlete’s mind with different diagnoses and “ideal” treatments options, many of which they only talk about because they specialize in them. This can be confusing. So as the physician, it’s critical to corral that information into a single, streamlined narrative that the athlete can understand and follow. Very helpful. 

8.     Safety permitting, come up with a plan of care that is integrated into the training program – not in conflict with it. It’s actually quite stressful to hear, in one ear (from the doc), “after this treatment, you will need to take take 6 weeks off...” and in the other ear hear (from the coach), “so I’ll see you at practice tomorrow? No? Why not? We don't have 6 weeks...” Equally as importantly, the plan of care should be tailored, creative and absolutely specific to the athlete’s functional needs in the short and long term.

9.     Emphasize home care and daily maintenance exercises/activities the athlete can pursue on their own to make sure their outcome is optimal.  

10. Encourage. Elevate. Inspire. Never, ever, ever stop trying to get them better. If they say something along the lines of “I was doing so well and then this happened…” or “Now that I have this injury, I just don’t know…” go ahead and interrupt with a gentle smile, encouraging them to keep the momentum going, to keep doing well, to keep improving, keep striving. Momentum is everything during a training cycle or a competitive season. It absolutely must be maintained in order to buttress morale and I suspect, positively influence outcomes.  

 

Just a short list so far, but I whole-heartedly believe in these 10 tips. Weirdly grateful for the pain that inspired these lessons (chuckle, chuckle, sniffle). :)

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Today Is All There Is (i.e. Enjoy The Process)

This is your life... LIVE it.

 

Truth be told, I never liked the phrase “enjoy the process.” I mean, what??? A card-carrying, die-hard goal-oriented Type A Personality, I never quite understood why or how these feeble, pseudo-Zen people could enjoy anything other than the goal – and more specifically, achieving the goal. “Weak-minded weirdos,” I used to think, shaking my head in disgust. But of late, probably because of this up-and-down uncertainty around my health, I’ve started to truly and deeply enjoy the process, the journey, the daily blips and blaps, the unique little details that constitute my life. 

 

A casual conversation with my dad sparked it off. We were talking about training (track) and 2017 job prospects (medicine). I kept describing where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do, when, why, how, etc. when he interrupted me. “Don’t forget,” he said, “THIS IS YOUR LIFE. You’re not preparing for anything anymore. This is IT.” For some reason, that hit me HARD. I paused. I was stunned (if I were a cartoon, I would shake my head from side to side super duper fast). This is IT! Oh my goodness, he was right. The little activities of today, the accomplishments, the failures, the fears, the hopes, and most importantly, the joys, this is IT. My entire life. There isn’t any other life “on the way,” or in the pipeline. It was as though I’d never heard that before.

 

As we hung up, the phrase THIS IS YOUR LIFE kept reverberating in my mind and heart, and along with the phrase came a crystal clear feeling of gratitude. Why? Well, because on the other side of that phrase, there are a few more phrases that came to mind: tomorrow is not promised, love the little things, the present is a gift, and again, tomorrow is not promised. I don’t want to go through the motions. I want to live fully. Today.

 

So why did I have such a hard time feeling this before? What was I afraid of? Well, I think medical training and track training are similar in their weird allegiance to delayed gratification. To be brutally honest (and Lord knows, I can’t bring myself to be anything but nowadays…), I didn’t really like the process of becoming a physician. I thought it was passive-aggressively competitive, I thought it de-valued creative thought and undermined students’ sense of purpose and self-worth from the start. I went through that mill and came out slightly shell shocked, and definitely a more cautious, closed version of myself. So that was blow #1 to my ability to truly “enjoy” any kind of long-term process.

 

Track can be similar. You set a goal and march backwards from that goal to determine your training plan. But the goal is priority number one. A future goal. A goal that hasn’t quite arrived yet (at least not physically…another subject all together).  So you work towards something that exists at a future moment. You hope. There’s so much insecurity in that! This paradigm could make it hard for even the most zen person to really and truly enjoy the present moment, the process, and to trust it.

 

So thank God for Dads and for coaches who remind you (daily, weekly) that the progression is (1) never linear and (2) never as expected, so the best thing to do is your absolute best in the moment. But that’s effort. Enjoyment is what I am after. So after my chat with Dad, I started telling myself “today is all there is.” Today is the only thing that exists. There is only today. That thought alone gave me permission to become wholly and fully aware of the tiny little details of my life, to be firmly anchored in the present and to truly appreciate each moment as though I may not get another one.

 

So the two non-track guys at the gym who inappropriately joke with us in the middle of our heaviest training sets? I smiled at them yesterday, thinking, yes, they are an integral part of my life, today, in this moment, and I’m grateful they’re here. The kind drivers on the road who let me cut to the right from the left lane? The terrible reception I get on the radio when I get closer to the gym? That unmatched feeling right before that last set of deep squats (that moment when you need to turn up the iPod, let out a sharp exhale, say a prayer of gratitude for your spotter and look yourself directly in the eye in the mirror in front of you, thinking, “man…I may or may not hit these but here goes nothing…!”)…? All of it. I allowed myself to fully experience, embrace, and enjoy all of it. Because today really is all there is.

 

This process, this journey, this IS the substance of your life – the material substance of your life-energy and unique purpose on earth. This is IT. So eat it up, contribute to it wholly, engage without fear but with faith, without grumbling but with gratitude, without expectation but with effort, and enjoy the process

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On Professionalism (i.e. Absolute Focus)

Pardon my French...

 

But day 6 of a 6-day training cycle can remind you that this -- track & field, running, jumping -- is your profession (starting from the butterflies the night of Day 5 right up to the slow head shake as you arrive at the track or gym the morning of Day 6). You're tired. But wait. You have an endurance workout to knock out. S#!t just got real.

 

So if this really is your profession, then it behooves you to understand that professionalism demands consistency, focus, successful execution despite any and all external factors (e.g. mood, weather, discomfort, fatigue) and excellence without exception. I’m learning that a very specific type of focus is required to achieve professionalism in a movement-based profession like track & field (and possibly in other professions, as well). It’s a calm, confident and fiercely single-minded focus. Almost a meditation. It’s a focus that comes from understanding one’s purpose (at this level, it's beyond “capability” and moves towards “calling”), and deliberately narrowing one’s purview of attention to include only what is required to execute the task: movement.

 

As my coach says, it’s a process of removing the “noise.” In the end, one needs to pay attention, almost exclusively, to internal stimuli. This kind of focus requires both discipline and vision and I’m learning that despite its intensity, it is freeing, liberating and perhaps paradoxically, calming.

 

I recently watched a documentary about a professional dancer who trained and danced, with breath-taking beauty, through severe pain. It changed my perspective on professionalism. 

 

I’ve always taken a lot of inspiration from dancers.  My cousin Maresa D’Amore, an internationally acclaimed modern dancer, is a perfect example. The very best of them have something that cannot be taught, nor can it be learned: presence. They seem to move through space -- every space, from a big stage to a grocery store aisle, completely centered and with control of their bodies and the air around them. Without tension. With fluidity. With aplomb. With what looks like joy. The very best dancers seem to respond exclusively to internal stimuli – it’s like they are constantly, quietly coaching themselves (“chin up, core tight, extend, shoulders down, relax the face, good…”), with compassion, trust and the quiet knowing that the hearer can and will do exactly as she is told without compensation or immense effort. Without question. Without complaint. They seem so patient with every movement, savoring them until their natural end. They seem grounded and unhurried with every step. But precise. They own themselves and the air around them – filling it with long, full, certain movements. I love watching dancers move!

 

And make no mistake, they are also fiercely competitive. But among the best dancers, their competition is almost always an internal reference. The aim seems to be perfection e.g. doing the movement justice, not “beating” anyone or anything outside of themselves. And amazingly, this is when their natural gifts shine the brightest, when they allow themselves to get lost in movement, transcend themselves and soar above the ever-present temptation to use tension or strain to force rather than allow. “This isn’t work...” the muscles of a natural dancer inherently know. “This is simply what we do.”

 

My coach has been working on getting me to, as he so eloquently states, “not give a f#@k about any body else” and I am getting there. Even on Day 6 of a 6-day training cycle. Putting one foot in front of the other is simply what I do. Fast. 

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I'll Have What She's Having

Yesterday morning, three of my best friends and I met up… Guess where? At a track meet! We grabbed coffee at an underwhelming but trendy breakfast spot then went to a collegiate meet to spectate. For me, the meet had a dual purpose.

 

Purpose Number One: to see my besties. Goodness, gracious, there is nothing like vibing with dear friends, especially when they are my kind of friends, EXCELLENCE PERSONIFIED: humble, honest, hilarious, loving and unapologetically fierce. One is an internationally acclaimed lawyer and legal thought-leader, the other is a former national-level media mogul and part of the civic team cleaning up Washington D.C., and the third is Senegal’s number one women's short hurdler, and has been for almost a decade now. These hilarious, beautiful, caring and yes, extremely competitive women are among the most precious of my gifts from God and spending the morning laughing-to-the-point-of-tears with them was, in a word, priceless. So that was Purpose Number One. Connect. Externally.

 

Purpose Number Two: check in, internally. I wanted to see how I would feel at the meet. Would I want to compete, feel excited, be scared, feel some vague sense of intimidation or worry? Would I feel giddy, alert, focused, content and serene? Or angry and frustrated? Maybe I'd just feel numb. More than anything, I felt at home. And secondarily... Praise be... Eager to move with the power, focus, and strength that I saw. I wanted to compete.

 

Track athletes are an interesting bunch. Often, when we start watching our event, some part of us -- physically, starts moving. You've probably seen it before: we either sway back and forth slightly, or tap our fingers (imperceptibly), or drum our toes in our sneakers (as though those toes were fingers), or wriggle our lip a little, or draw in our abs, or sniffle sharply as though we were about to get out there and join the competition. Our eyes often stay trained on the competitors coming down the runway or surging out of the blocks, as though we are right there, on the track, WITH them. Totally tuned in. That definitely happened as I watched the jumps yesterday: I found myself swaying back and forth calmly but with focus, eager to jump in. :)

 

For a non-track-athlete, that experience may sound strange. But for me, it was re-assuring. I think the combination of having such an incredible time with three of my dearest friends (hey, there is no need for Pilates when you’ve got friends to make you laugh like that), feeling so connected and ultimately, alive; but also wanting to participate (with joy, for the love of this elegant sport), and envisioning, myself, one day soon -- rubbing hands together -- moving beyond participation and performing. What can I say? I love all things excellent, as do my friends. 

 

So when I got home, let me tell you, I did everything in my power to get this lower leg back on track. I prayed, stretched, iced, stretched again, iced again, massaged, rolled, compressed, elevated, prayed, prayed again, blasted gospel… I did the most. A day at the track with three of my dearest friends, laughing, loving my sport and my family – both on and off the track, was like a huge serving of Healing with a side of Kick-It-Into-Gear Drive.

 

So grateful.     

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A Prayer for Healing

4:30am on Wednesday, January 6th. Thinking about healing... 

 

Right after my Achille’s surgery last month, a journalist wrote an article about me in a local newspaper in Umea, Sweden – I have yet to see it. So. At 4:30am, unable to sleep, I decided to search for it. Every combination of the terms Yetsa, Tuakli, Ghana, Sweden, Dr. Alfredson, and Achille’s Surgery yielded nothing but, curious, I did a general search of my name. Starting around page 7, results from old meets began to pop up. I don’t think I’ve ever looked through my performances over what feels like, and in many ways is, a lifetime… 

 

In college, an astonishing 14-15 years ago (goodness gracious!), I competed and set a few school records in the triple jump (the triple what? why and how was I even authorized to do that event?!?), and my performances were all what I now consider “cute:” barely hitting 5 to 5.50 meters in the long jump, once hitting 6.17; hitting 11 to 11.80 meters in the triple jump; running 7.43s in the 55 meter dash (is that event even contested anymore?!?).

 

After medical school, around 2008, I consistently hit 5.80-5.90 meters in the long jump, and 12.20-12.30 meters in the triple jump (again, why was I even triple jumping?!? I literally have no recollection of those meets).

 

During my first year as a member of the medical school faculty (2015), I randomly ran the 60m dash in the middle of a strange period of fall training. I wasn’t enrolled in a specific training program since my coaches had “quit” on me yet again (Lord knows, that should have been the final red flag for me never to go back to them). I remember just wanting to give myself a goal, any goal, and re-kindle the joy of competing. So I signed up for the 60m and ran 8.00s. Not earth-shattering. But I ran almost the same time 3 years earlier during residency (7.91s). The major difference was that in 2008, I was in the middle of a comprehensive, supervised season of fall training. Weird!

 

My best jumps came in 2012 (6.29-6.35 meters). In 2015, despite my Achille’s pain (and probably due to a lot of Diclofenac!), I still competed out in Cali and hovered right around 5.99 meters.

 

Now. Let’s not hype it. None of these performances are staggering, I know. But they tell me that I have been working very, very hard for a very, very long time; that in the midst of very different seasons, professional moments (college student, medical student, resident, fellow and faculty member?!?), coaching programs, and often in the absence of a program (and a sane coach); that in different states and at different body weights; with no support or the full support of family and friends; I have made either very slow and steady progress (long jump), or at least stayed consistent over a weirdly long time (sprints).

 

Amen to consistency over time but really… The question is… How can I use this “story,” my story, RIGHT NOW?

 

Truth be told, I’ve been pretty beaten down by this Achille’s issue and recently, I've wanted – badly, to give up all together. But. This 4am Google search is making me re-consider.

 

I haven’t worked harder or longer for anything. It’s an invisible journey, and a slow one, sure, but it has both taken and given me more than any other journey I’ve taken in my life. It's not something to just cast aside. If God sees fit to allow me the opportunity to train this season, to overcome my literal Achille’s heel and enroll in a formal, systematic program of training and competing with a positive coach (not the old ones, Lord have mercy...) who is as committed as I am apparently am, best believe I’m taking the chance. I can’t just passively give up now. Whatever the outcome, if or rather when healing finally happens, we’re going for it.

 

Amen.  

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Motivation Through Your Mirrors

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Motivation Through Your Mirrors

Most sprinters have a low center of gravity (clear exception: “Insane” Bolt). Most distance runners are slender. And most jumpers are tall. This is something that’s bothered me forever because, well, I’m just not! 5’5” (on a good day!) is certainly above average height for an average modern woman but it’s below average for a jumper. So when my motivation wanes and I look around for inspiration, it hardly ever helps to look at other people in my event since most of them look nothing like me! 

 

Except Alice.* She’s not a horizontal jumper but she’s a petite, elite athlete with a storied career in an event dominated by tall people. Looking at Alice is like looking in a mirror – and sports psychologists would say that this simple observation (that we are alike) is a powerful tool for confidence building. The principle of “vicarious experience” gives us a clue as to why. Alice is one of those friends you don’t need to see all the time to maintain a powerful connection to. She’s laid back and funny but fierce, having accomplished everything I aspire to accomplish through sport (and in many ways, life). She’s been to multiple World and Olympic Games representing her island nation, and she’s pushed through slumps in motivation, external doubters and serious physical set-backs, to perform high in her athletic potential consistently, over time (over more than a decade!).

 

When she retired last year, I asked her about her journey and she said, simply, “every year, people said I was done [for one reason or another]. But I decidedthat’s not the way this is going to go’…” She decided. Using a decision as a weapon is another topic all together (take a mental note of that concept), and Alice has certainly exemplified that but I won’t linger there. In terms of her physical size (height, weight, proportions), Alice is exactly like me!  

 

Recently, she was in the area (for a track meet of course) so we had dinner together. I greeted Alice with a huge hug and as I did, I suddenly remembered, she’s tiny! I felt like I was hugging a high school student or maybe a slimmer, slighter and slightly younger sister. Her untouchable athletic resume makes her seem larger than life in the mind’s eye, but amazingly, she’s my size. Beyond that, she’s the same complexion as me, we have similar hairstyles, we have similar smiles (the kinds that completely overtake our faces) and our dreams are about the same size. All of these similarities are important for vicarious experience to work.      

 

There are roughly 6 major sources of self-confidence as it relates to sport:

  1. Performance accomplishments (“I did it before, I’ll do it again”)
  2. Vicarious experience (experienced through others, explained more below…)
  3. Verbal persuasion (positive talk from self, coaches, trainers, family, etc.)
  4. Control of psychological state (preventing excess anxiety)
  5. Emotional state (clearly needs to be regulated!)
  6. Imagery experience (multisensory images of successful performance)    

 

Vicarious experience involves deriving self-confidence from watching someone else perform successfully – and this is especially effective when that person has qualities or abilities that closely match your own. Every time I re-connect with Alice, I feel re-charged primarily because as she speaks, I see myself. Inevitably, our conversations meander over to all things track-related from coaches, to teammates, competitions, wardrobe malfunctions and “track hair.” She’s a great friend from whom I learn so much and deeply respect but unlike other friends who have had similar success on the track, she consistently motivates me to be and do better. Much better. My best. I think it’s precisely because she is similar to me in physique and in perspective that vicarious experience kicks in.  

 

Sure, there are expressions about water finding its own level and the importance of getting in where you fit in, and they speak to the same general idea. But these expressions are devoid of a critical ingredient: motivation to achieve higher and re-imagine yourself… Better.     

 

In the art of flight and of life, chose your mirrors wisely and love them! Your mirrors need to be achievers who are like you in some obvious way (be it physique, vision, favorite colors, sense of humor, upbringing, personal style, smile, nationality). They will do more than simply reflect who you are now; they will motivate you to become a better version of yourself by showing you it’s possible, no matter your size. When you find a mirror that consistently reminds you who you are and what’s possible just as you are, cherish it.      

 

*Note: ‘Alice’ isn’t her real name. Obvi.

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Do Not Pack a Parachute

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Do Not Pack a Parachute

There is a West African folktale I love “Fly, Eagle Fly!” about a baby eagle raised among chickens. The eagle walked, ate, played and slept among chickens, but didn’t realize who he was. An aged man in the village understood the eagle was different in size, shape and destiny and twice brought the great bird to various heights, from a rooftop to a small hill, encouraging the eagle to fly.  

 

“You belong not to the earth but to the sky,” he would say, “Fly, Eagle, Fly!” The exercise would inevitably end in calamity: the eagle, terrified, would unceremoniously clamor to the ground, the villagers would laugh uproariously and the old man would go home disappointed. But not deterred. Early one morning, the old man set out on a long journey with the eagle in tow. He made his way to the highest cliff edge on the highest mountains he could find where the air was thin and cold but the vistas, breathtaking. When they reached the top of the cliff, as the golden rays of dawn emerged, the old man whispered, “it’s okay to try but you must flap your wings; you belong not the earth but to the sky; fly, eagle fly!” and sent the eagle into the air. 

 

The eagle had no village earth beneath him, no squawking chickens as a point of reference. No safety net. This time, I doubt it was fear that gripped him, but a heightened focus. His true nature asserted itself and he flew. Majestic wings he didn’t know he had unfurled and a powerful wind he didn’t know he’d love arose, rustled and buoyed him. And he flew. High above the highest heights, as he was meant to, never to return to the village again.

 

The circumstances we create for ourselves (note active voice) have a tendency to either allow or prevent our true nature from emerging. The eagle was born strong but raised shuffling. It took a cliff edge, the first golden rays of sun and a powerful wind to re-orient him to who he was and compel him to do that which he was built to do: fly, and to do so with majesty, with divine ease. His true nature asserted itself on a cliff edge. I used to suffer from the fear of flight (being in the air), of flying (actively making flight happen) and the performance of flight (in a competition, for example). Tough phobia for a long jumper to have! Weird as it sounds, I found being in the air — any air, from roller coaster air to long jump pit air, intolerable. Being uncertain of how or when to land, having my stomach in my throat even temporarily, feeling that (previously) unfamiliar feeling of total vulnerability and allowing; I hated it. I didn’t tell this to my track coaches. Rather, I’d excel at all flight-related drills (plyometrics) and at short-approach jumps (less speed, more control) and inexplicably, when competitions came around, I’d almost forcibly land.

 

That was my version of jumps: forced landings. To my team and coaches’ chagrin, the contrast between my leaping ability and performances was striking. I don’t think it was exactly “choking,” that fascinating psychological state of moving routine movements back into the processing area of the brain under stress (competition), and under-performing; though there was certainly an element of that. But perhaps next to that explanation, there was another, simpler one: I was afraid of flying. My sense of who I was, my domain (land versus air) and my true nature was dramatically off. 

 

God-given leaping ability is undeniable. Anyone who sees an athlete with “hops” or "ups," on the basketball court or above the long jump pit, will inevitably say/think something like “wow, they float.” Leaping ability, while it can be improved through training, is fundamentally God-given and the key to a sort of alternate playground, the air! But truly understanding that one belongs to the air — that the air is one’s intended domain, this is what will allow an athlete with exceptional leaping ability to fly. And to delight in their flight. 

 

Perhaps the eagle needed a cliff edge without a safety net, a taste of the golden majesty of dawn and the powerful rumblings of the wind to unlock his true nature; perhaps we all do. “Do not pack a parachute” is a call to radical vulnerability, one of my sister’s favorite phrases. It’s the realization that this state — of complete allowing, of radical vulnerability and of absolute, almost shocking newness, is the key to being completely alive, being precisely who we were built to be, with majesty and divine ease. Put yourself on cliff edges happily and often. For me, cliff edges include flying (actively making flight happen), performing flight (competing), and even seeing patients.

 

NOTE: This is not a simple “take risks” message. The term “risks” simplifies and dilutes what the cliff edge represents. At the cliff edge, at dawn’s first light, there is a still and expectant moment when streams of beautiful light pierce the horizon, when wind gathers and one feels enlivened by and compelled towards this new domain of adventure, excitement, challenge, reckoning and exploration. “Take risks” may or may not imply “be afraid.” Bringing yourself to the cliff edge mandates a simple decision. Without fear, but with heightened focus, you must decide that in the end, the air is your domain.

 

My friend Miriam once told me (about jumping) to “go meet God up there.” I’ve always loved that idea and think about it often. What an exciting appointment to book. What an important appointment to honor.

 

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