Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Sweet Vibe of Collaboration

Did you sense that shift in the universe earlier this week? Maybe it was just my universe, but it was definitely a shift.

One of the tasks of my day-job is to write (or more often, compile) the company newsletter. Far different from the topics you see here on, the company newsletter is, of course, work focused and occasionally crosses into the humorous side of the industry. To read one style of writing next to the other, you might swear I have two personalities.

Then again, you might draw that conclusion if you met me, too.

During this week's final stretch of preparing the monthly work newsletter, the other half of my brain showed up. Laugh at that statement, if you like, but that phrasing is saved for only one person in my life, my sister from another mister, my dear friend, my creative life-giver, my occasional kick-in-the-pants person, my laugh-until-it-hurts lunch companion, the other-half-of-my-brain, S.* S is the only person I know -- or have ever known -- to have her own super-heroine alter ego. (Writing that sentence makes me seriously consider making an appointment with a psychiatrist -- for both of us.)

S is one hell of a writer. Her ability to take a normal daily activity and uncover the laughter that always seems to lurk behind the curtains in her world is remarkable. In a few sentences, she renders her reader (or listener, because she is equally as entertaining verbally) helpless to losing control and just laughing until it hurts. Or until the tears come. Or until bladder control is lost. Her words, though, always make one forget what might have been that day's trouble. A gift? Oh, yes. 

S has spent many years moving all over the country in her military family, even living in Asia for over a year, but she has recently moved back to her hometown and returned to work at our company (after nearly a ten-year absence). She was the original editor of our company newsletter, turning over the reins to me when she moved in 2005, but each issue since has felt her noticeable void. Upon her return earlier this year, she said something like, "but I'm not writing for the newsletter again." Yeah, sure. We'll see about that.

This week, though, the shift. The other half of my brain (that's S, you know) contributed to the newsletter and showed up in a big way. Reading the drafts, I laughed out loud so often, the folks outside my office were surely wondering if I had finally lost it. But I had not lost it; I had found it. I had found that sweet vibe of collaboration when my side of the brain -- the informative, policy-focused, somewhat-brooding, Type-A personality -- met her side of the brain -- the funny, irreverent, make-it-worthwhile side. The point of literary contact exploded into one of the best newsletter issues in years. Boom.

It made me think of only one thing: oh, how I have missed her. 

She's the reason I started writing again, you must understand. After too many years away from this thing that I loved, an hour-long telephone call with S slipped into each of us discussing how we enjoyed writing. She never stopped, always maintaining her relationship with the written word through journals, while I broke up with writing years before, leaving the memory of it in the rear-view mirror like a bad date. In that conversation, I confessed that I missed writing, though I did not know where to start again. S said simply, "Rita, just start." Cutting through all my excuses, S pointed those simple words directly to my heart, changing everything. I began writing that night and have not stopped since. 

You see, without S, what you are reading now may never have existed.

Here is where I begin my newest campaign: S should start a blog. The world would not only enjoy reading about her view of the universe, but the world needs to read about it. My chant begins: S, S, S, blog, blog, blog, yes, yes, yes. I would, of course, use her super-hero name, but you get the picture. If everyone reading this can send a similar message to the cosmos, perhaps we can get a response. Believe me, you want to read it. I hope the triple-chant will bring this wish to life, much like Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetle -- oh, I'll stop here.

As July comes to a close -- this beautiful cooler-than-usual July -- I find myself considering taking on a challenge for August. The August Break, a creative nugget brought to you by Susannah Conway, is a month's worth of photography prompts to give the creative juices a boost. It's like one of those vitamin-packed juice smoothies that kick-starts any morning. The challenge may also prompt me to finally dive into the photography book, Shooting with Soul by Alessandra Cave that has quietly spoken to me from my bookshelf. It whispers things like, "I would be good for you" and "You know you want to read me." It's true that I do indeed want to read it, but I keep waiting for a time when I can fully devote my energy to getting the most out of its pages. The August Break may be a sign that it's time to make time.

This recent shift may have opened up a crack of light I had not before seen.

*A little privacy, so she doesn't awake to throngs of fans beating down her door, because she is that good. 

Follow my blog with Bloglovin

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Bright Side of Life

If you have known me longer than five minutes, you know I like to laugh. Not only a favorite past time, it is somewhat of a trademark, prompting statements like, "I knew you were here, I could hear your laugh." For a brief period in my life, I became self-conscious of my laugh after an obviously off-balance person asked if my laugh was fake, but since then I have kicked those thoughts to the curb. Fewer and fewer people seemed to be picking up the slack of the oh-so-needed comic relief moments, so I had to step up. With the upswing in sourpusses in this society, laughter was desperately needed and an area where I could contribute. And my laugh is not fake.

So, you don't believe we need more chuckles in this world? Take a look at any comments section of an online news article and get back to me. The swiftness with which a pleasant article can be pummeled into the dirt by negative comments is alarming. A headline of "Puppy and Baby Goat Are Best Friends" can devolve into comments ranging from "That's stupid" to "I hate goats" to "Murderous infidels" in a matter of seconds, giving credence to my belief that no matter the event, an awaiting cesspool of dark people are poised to contaminate the good vibes with their contagious vitriol. After attacking the subject matter, commentators will begin attacking other commentators. 

A St. Louis neighborhood has been mystified by the sudden appearance of plastic pink flamingos around houses. The long-legged props are staked in yards under the cover of night by a person or persons as yet unidentified. While some residents get the joke, others exclaim the random act of "flocking" is nothing more than dime-store littering. Of course, the latter are the ones who get to speak on camera when the news crew arrives. It's a plastic flamingo, people, not a steaming bovine offering. Have a bit of fun and plan your own covert operation to place the wayward birds in someone else's yard. Or name the thing and give it a place of prominence in the garden. Have a little fun and recognize it as a moment for laughter, not litigation.

Even in life's most difficult moments, laughter can be discovered, offering not only a respite from the pain, but a bit of healing. I will never forget one afternoon where my cousin Scott reenacted animated tales that had our family laughing to the point of gasping for air. Always a gifted storyteller, Scott unearthed some of my favorite laughs at a time most needed -- the afternoon following my father's funeral. A favorite memory grew from one of the worst days in my life, due only to well-timed laughter.

 "The most wasted of days is one without laughter." 
-- e.e. cummings

Not without notice, an old friend of my ex-husband drifted across my path one day after years of no contact. Jack and I caught up on the here and there of our lives since we last spoke, as he was the one friend-of-the-ex who still spoke to me after Charlie* and I divorced. Jack had been busy the last years with his job as an over-the-road truck driver.

"So, do you ever see Charlie around?" Jack asked, tentatively.

"Uh, Jack," I stuttered. "Charlie passed away two years ago."

"Well that would explain why I haven't heard from him," Jack said. We paused a moment in hesitation, and then burst out laughing. 

"You know he would have laughed at that," Jack smiled.

Yes, he would have.

To round out my thought process for the week, this nugget appeared in my inbox. What a momentary feeling of utter awesomeness I felt when I read, "The Beatles now follow you on Twitter." Yeah, I'm cool like that.

Staying on the east side of the pond, the Monty Python guys know the secret to life. Always look on the bright side of life. Always, always, always. And if you don't see a bright side, turn on the lights.

*Name changed because, well, just because.

Friday, July 18, 2014

I'm Alive

Something sweetly mysterious is happening this week. Perhaps it is the unseasonably cool weather or the passing of the full moon, who knows, but every cell in my being is set to 'on.' The skies, and particularly the clouds, are gorgeous, beckoning me to stop by the side of the road and snap photos on my way to work. And home from work. And to and from the store also. The senses are alert, and some lovely old memories are floating in from a long-forgotten attic in my head.

Great morning commute
The high temperature today was 74 degrees. July in northern Arkansas is normally closer to 100 degrees, but at least -- at least -- 95. This arctic blast, described as being knocked loose by a typhoon in the Pacific, is not only welcomed, but celebrated. Convertibles are losing their tops and windows are open. I have driven three days with the sunroof open, an action usually reserved for spring and fall. But the weather is too beautiful to leave outside so it simply must be invited in through whatever entry possible. The cool wind whips around the car and floats out again, leaving me one happy driver in its wake. Even our local hot air balloon pilot could not let the unseasonable weather pass without celebration, and he took to the skies for an early morning flight. Pure bliss.

Days like this remind me of fifth grade when I attended a small school in west Tennessee. Directly outside our classroom stood a huge tree that towered over the building and provided shade for a large portion of the cool grass below. Often, when the weather was good, the quiet voice of one child saying, "Mrs. Walker, can we have class outside today?" was all it took to see our classroom empty onto the open grass and settle under the shade of that tree. Today was a lot like those days, and I found myself remembering those quiet voices asking Mrs. Walker for a day outside.

Hannah and me,
in the motel gardens, of course.
This weather always sends me back to memories of working at a motel years ago where our property was known for extensive gardens, rivaling those of botanical gardens only seen in cities. Yet, our humble motel in the middle of small town America burst alive with greenery and blooms every year, and each petal seemed to sing a tune irresistible to anyone who passed. It was here at this motel where I gained an appreciation for the landscape arts practiced by the family who owned the motel. The owner's granddaughter and I formed a sweet friendship, me in my navy uniform and she in her toddler shoes, and I cannot look at a bank of flowering shrubs without thinking of her. She is in college now, but to me, she will always be the happy sweet soul, toddling through the plants. (Sidebar: Favorite part of my wedding? Hearing young Hannah say "Reeeeetah", in her traditional greeting for me, when I walked down the aisle. Best moment ever.)

This feeling of late, this heightened state of my senses, has been a few weeks in the making, beginning with my vacation last month. Nothing can cure my ills faster than a handful of days spent in comfortable conversation with my aunt and uncle, and this year was enhanced with stops to see friends in Chicago and more family in Missouri. The open road, coupled with audio books and good music, punctuated with regenerative stops, never fails to restore what was worn to new again.

I've been cruising at that speed of calmness ever since.

It hasn't gone unnoticed since two people at work have asked me if I'm alright, noting that I have been quieter than usual lately. I assured them both that I was fine, in fact, really great. I have been quieter because there seems to be so much more to hear -- birds, breezes, leaves rustling, even the dogs wrestling in the hallway -- all of it is music to my ears and so my voice is still. Unusual for me, true, but nothing to cause worry. I assured my colleagues that I was fine, just more calm. As I said the words, the Jackson Browne song, "I'm Alive" began playing as the soundtrack to my words. At least, that's what I heard in my head.

That's just it, I feel alive. Every fiber of my being is alert and ready to listen to the what the world has to offer. I am calm and energized, happy and serene, inquisitive and creative, and dang it, I'm alive. And it feels so good . . . . 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Shhh . . . Listen

Have you ever felt like you haven't been heard? Perhaps your conversation companion listened to your voice but did not truly hear your words. You can see it happening -- you speak and see the darting and unfocused eyes of your companion as they formulate a reply before listening to what you have said. Their fidgeting and anticipatory starts and stops while you speak prove they are only waiting for a break in the conversational flow so they can talk. They reply with statements that underscore the fact they did not hear half of what you said. You try again, only to be met with the same haphazard response that vaguely qualifies as a reply and more likely begins a new topic of their choosing. It's exhausting. We exit the conversation feeling empty, no more understood than before, and just a little sad over the loss of communication. 

"Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply." Stephen Covey

This slow degradation of conversation could easily be blamed on our fast-paced technology-driven society, yet I believe the reason lies elsewhere, at our core. Humans, by nature, focus on the self; others become secondary. Why would our verbal responses be any different than our basic "me first" needs of food and shelter? We can, however, by being intelligent creatures, learn. We can improve. We can grow. Listening -- truly understanding the words of another -- is a method for learning that is ripe with promise. When we speak, we do not learn. Only when we listen do we hear the lessons we need.  

Last Saturday I saw Jackson Browne in concert at a small venue in Springfield, Missouri. This acclaimed singer/songwriter appeared on stage with only one piano and a selection of 23 guitars to accompany him for the night. The solo acoustic evening was only the third stop on his summer tour and may have been a learning experience for the legendary musician. After the first song, Browne mentioned he had no set list for the show and would just play what he felt like playing. After 40 plus years in the business, he's earned that right. Audience members then began shouting requests from the gallery. He graciously replied with beautiful renditions from his catalog of songs. 

As the night continued, the shouts from the audience increased to the point of distraction. Apparently some in the audience believed themselves to be better concert coordinators than Browne himself. Or, they just forgot the intent of a concert is to listen. Brown responded like the consummate entertainer he is, saying he appreciated the requests but he "still had free will and I want to play this one . . . " A charming smile goes a long way in reminding someone of their manners, which he delivered flawlessly. The worst offenders refrained from further shouting and listened. We were all the better for it.

Of course, at some point in a conversation, one has to respond.

This spring I was introduced to the art of Nicola Taylor. Her piece Listen to the Colour of Your Dreams struck me and rendered me speechless. The photograph of an ethereal woman in a vibrant blue dress asleep in a field of purple was both calming and inspiring. Only after reading the short biography on the artist did I discover how much Taylor connected with the title of the piece. She worked for years as a stockbroker in London before she embarked on a sweeping life change to pursue her artistic spirit as a fine arts photographer. Only after listening to the voices of her spirit did she make the leap and relocate to the moors in the north of England. You see, sometimes we even have a hard time listening to ourselves, but when we do, the world cracks open and illuminates us from within. Since then, Taylor's emphatic response to listening to her heart's desire has gifted the world with her inspiring photographs. 

When surrounded by the din of our day-to-day lives, the transition to the quiet of listening may be a move too frightening for some. We have all met people who have no clue what to do with conversational lulls. They simply must keep talking in these moments and propel themselves into nervous chatter. It only fills the air but offers no improvement or benefit.

"Don't speak unless you can improve on the silence." -- R.E. Davis

Listen (c) Rita Herrmann 2014
In the days ahead, I encourage you to try an experiment. When a friend is speaking, quiet your mind from formulating a response and listen -- fully and actively -- to their words. Before speaking, wait two beats and respond to what they said rather than with the subject you want to discuss. Practice listening. Sit. Relax. Breathe. Listen. Only when we listen do we learn.

My thoughts of active listening were punctuated this week by the completion of Greg Hindy's year-long journey in silence. I wrote about Greg in a previous post, and though I only followed the last two months of his 12-month trek, the inspiration was immeasurable. Imagine 365 days without speaking one word and only communicating the essentials by pen and paper. Imagine what you could hear when your voice does not hang in the air. What could you hear? What could you learn? Is understanding waiting on the other side of chatter?

I'll sit in the quiet
and listen to the leaves
The birds will sing to me
and the wind will carry my dreams
My voice will not clutter the landscape
and its beauty will be revealed

Friday, July 4, 2014


Thunderheads building (c)Rita Herrmann, 2014
The storm clouds billowed on the horizon as I approached Rockford, Illinois. I was nearing the eight hour mark of driving for the day, having begun that morning in Arkansas. The weather was great with sunshine and blue skies since the morning, a view that carried me past the cornfields of central Illinois and toward its northern border. A few lightly grayed clouds in the distance were of no consequence to me, this girl of the South, this woman from tornado alley.

The last hour of the day's journey turned me east from the interstate and onto a series of two-lane state roads through the lake district north of Chicago where I would find the home of an old high school friend I had not seen in almost 30 years. A few sprinkles of rain soon changed to a steady downpour, making it a bit more challenging on these roads which were in the midst of summer construction projects. The two lanes were narrowed with work on each shoulder, resulting in one-foot drop offs on either side. Navigating through the orange construction barrels required attention on a good day, but add rain and fast approaching dusk, and the unfamiliar road became nerve-wracking. 

Then the wind started. Leaves blew across the road and smacked against the sides of cars, sticking there in the dampness. I was in the middle of a line of about ten cars, all slowed to a speed of 30 m.p.h. due to the reduced visibility in the storm. We puttered along this road as the wind whipped the rain at sharp angles. Over the sound of the car radio, I heard an odd noise and lowered the radio volume to listen. It was the distinctive sound of a tornado siren, a sound I have heard numerous times before.  In a split second, I thought I should stop and find shelter, but in the seconds that followed, I realized there was no where to go. The construction had removed any shoulder I could use to park. No driveways or side roads appeared on this stretch of highway, and stopping in the roadway was impossible due to the line of traffic. We were all driving through it. We had no where else to go.

An emergency alert blared from my cell phone, filling the car with a sound that could draw blood from the ears. The shock of the sound nearly scared my bladder into forgetting itself. This was not a good sign.

The winds grew stronger and limbs were blown from trees into the roadway. We drove over the small ones and around the larger ones. At one point, a huge limb fell across the roadway, and two guys from a truck in front of me stopped and dragged it from the road. Then we all kept going. We had no choice. The winds took on the telltale circular motion I knew far too well. I wanted to stop and wait out the storm, but I had no option to do so, no where to safely stop. 

I would not advise driving through a storm like this. I would advise heeding the warnings of the sirens and emergency alerts. Under normal circumstances, I too would have calmly and quickly found a safe place to ride out the storm. Sometimes, though, life does not give you options. Your only option to get from here to there is through. 

This event occurred a couple weekends ago, and resulted in comments regarding my fortitude from the few people I told. People have often described me as strong, though I would not use that term to describe myself. Friends say that my ability to take on hard tasks, travel solo, and endure life challenges show that I am strong. The funny thing is, I don't see it that way. I never felt I had any other choice. Giving up was not an option, nor was sitting down and crying. It doesn't make me better, it just was the way my life unfolded. I traveled the road before me, and for each person, that road is different. If I had to wait for someone to help me, I still would have been stuck on that dirt road where I had a flat tire when I was 23.

About 20 minutes after the emergency alert filled my car with its screams, I arrived at the front door of my friend's house. Her first words to me after 29 years were, "I tried to call you to tell you to pull over. You just drove through a tornado." Funny, it didn't seem all that bad.

Sometimes 'through' is the only option. Hang on tight, pray, and drive through it like a boss.