Taking positive action for something I believe in

My lunch and dinner on board
My lunch and dinner on board

Yesterday I wrote about my trip to San Diego, and how much I love taking the train. I do indeed love it, and I loved the trip. (And I’m having a great time here in California so far!)

One thing that bothered me, though, was the lack of vegan options in the Amtrak Coast Starlight’s dining car. (You may recall that I have had this problem before.) Amtrak doesn’t offer vegan meals on the standard, fixed menu in their dining car. They do, theoretically, offer them by special order, as long as you place the order at least 72 hours in advance of your travel date. (This is because the meals are not prepared on the train; they are prepared and packaged elsewhere, and placed on the train at scheduled commissary stops in large cities.) This time, I planned ahead to do so, and the woman who took my reservation over the phone assured me that I would receive either pasta or chili for each of my three scheduled meals. (Including breakfast, though I thought those two were rather unconventional choices for a morning meal.)

When I arrived in the dining car for my first meal at dinner, though, the attendant once again told me they had no record of my request, and no vegan meals on board. I ended up eating side salads and baked potatoes for the remainder of the trip.

I was disappointed and frustrated, but I wanted to take that energy and turn it into something positive rather than simply stewing in it. So, I decided to start a petition on Change.org:


Here is the text of the petition:

More and more Americans are choosing a vegan lifestyle, for ethical, environmental, and/or health reasons.  Amtrak can better welcome this growing segment of society onboard, making vegan meals easy for passengers and staff alike, by changing their on-board menu.

As it stands now, long-distance train passengers must pre-order vegan meals 72 hours in advance, so that the train staff can pick up the pre-made meals at scheduled commissary stops in large cities.  On both of the two long train trips I have taken in the past two years, however, the meals I ordered never made it onto the trains, so I ended up eating side salads and baked potatoes for several days.

The dining car menus currently do include vegetarian options (such as scrambled eggs for breakfast, a veggie burger for lunch, and six-cheese lasagna for dinner). However, all these meatless options still contain animal ingredients, such as eggs or dairy.  I am requesting that Amtrak change its fixed menus on all trains that include dining cars, so that at least one all-vegan entree option is available onboard at each meal.

I would love for you to sign it, and/or share it with friends via Facebook or email, if this is something you support.

I’m also curious, though, to hear if any of you have found a way to turn a frustration or stumbling block into an empowering opportunity for activism. If so, please share your story in the comments!

Waking up to palm trees

Santa Barbara train station at dusk
Santa Barbara train station at dusk

This winter I’ve been battling a mild depression. (You, too? Seems like it’s been going around.) Somehow in the fall, my mojo started to falter. I think it all started in late September, when my partner experienced some serious setbacks in his efforts toward self-growth and serving his community. I did my best to support him through circumstances outside of his control, but I was disheartened to witness the way things unfolded and seemed to compound over time.

Meanwhile, I was struggling in my own practice. I hit a slump, where new clients were few and far between, and my energy dragged when I thought about taking the actions I would need to turn things around.

My social life slowed down, too. I had been so overwhelmed with social commitments in the summer and early fall that I told myself I needed to slow down, and take more alone time. But when I did that, it also contributed to a feeling of loneliness. I wanted more connection, more nurturing touch, more of the emotional and mental synergy that comes from connecting with others.

And, since I live in Portland, the weather got colder and rainier with each passing week. And darker. (And darker. And darker.)

A typical NW winter scene
A typical NW winter scene

I found myself struggling to enjoy the life I’ve worked so hard to craft. Each day I would hope things would get easier, or that my spark would return. Each day, those things did not happen. (Instead, I fell into a rut of junk food and zoning out on computer time.)

I know that I am not alone in this. I know that our culture (and climate, for many of us) tends to isolate and depress us. Even (perhaps especially) those of us who are idealists, who want to make each day of our lives meaningful, for ourselves, for our communities, and for the world at large. When we have lofty goals and high ideals, it can be all the more depressing when a day goes by without any “breakthroughs” or exciting progress toward the world we are all working to create. And when a week, or a month, goes by and those things remain scarce, it can become very disheartening.

I thought of writing a blog post, here, to share my struggle and to let anyone reading know that if you’re going through this, you are not alone. And that we all struggle, and we can all get through it. (And, that if you’re going through this and want to talk to a practitioner who can listen and “get it,” without trying to fix the problem or put a Pollyanna-ish life-coach spin on the situation, that I am, as always, Happy to Listen. 🙂 )

But even that seemed a bit too much of a downer for a blog post on a site called Dream Into Change. I wanted to offer some glimmer of hope. But I needed to find it for myself, first.

I had hoped, this winter, to spend a few days in San Diego, which I have done each winter for the past three years. I had intended for it to become an annual tradition, and even to increase to twice per winter or more at some point. I love that hit of sunshine and warmth—and the magic that is Balboa Park—in the middle of the darkness that blankets my otherwise beloved Portland during the cold months.

Fountain in Balboa Park
Fountain in Balboa Park

But this year I was feeling short on money, which only added to my depression. I didn’t think I could justify the trip. And, for that matter, my energy was so low it was even hard to get excited about the prospect of it.

One day, about a week ago, though, I read something online about San Diego, and I felt a pang of wistfulness. I missed that place! Maybe I could just do a web search for flights, and see what it might cost. Couldn’t hurt to look, right?

One thing I am discovering about myself is that once I get the idea of a trip into my head, it is very hard to walk away from it. When I search online and find options that are too expensive and/or inconvenient for me, rather than giving up, I am spurred to think more creatively, to see if there might be a way I could make it work.

In this situation, I discovered that the inexpensive direct flight I had become accustomed to taking had been discontinued. I thought about taking the train, since I vastly prefer it to flying anyway, but dismissed the idea because I didn’t have much time to take for the trip, and the round-trip cost would be prohibitive.

But San Diego had gotten under my skin. I was not willing to give up, once I had decided I wanted to go. I kept looking. I finally realized that I could use some of my carefully saved Amtrak mileage points to take a first-class ride—sleeper compartment and all—down south, and then catch a one-way flight back for only $100. Yes. This would work!! I searched Airbnb, and found an affordable house in the exact area I like to stay, just north of my cherished park. Everything was coming together! Within a couple of days, I had booked the whole trip.

And as I type, I’m sitting in the Amtrak Coast Starlight Sightseer Lounge car, just south of San Jose, looking out the spacious windows at sunshine and Spanish-style architecture. When I awoke this morning, I peered out the window of my berth and saw palm trees.

And I am thrilled to report that my mood has improved about 100%. I look forward to enjoying three days in San Diego, catching up with friends, hitting my favorite vegan restaurants, enjoying some contemplation in the beautiful cactus garden, and taking a break from the bleak. Getting my mojo back!

Me on the train
Me on the train

I would love to hear from any of you, if you have favorite spots to visit, or a spur-of-the-moment trip that lifted your mood, or another “trick” besides travel that snapped you out of a funk… or even just a shared lament if you’re finding yourself in a dark place at the moment.

Portland workshop: Effective communication skills for vegans & vegetarians

Vegetarian-Thanxgiving-dinnerThe fall and winter holiday season is upon us.

Vegan/vegetarian advocacy (or even simple social “defense”) can be challenging throughout the year. But when turkey and ham dinners with family, friends, or coworkers start happening, it can be especially stressful and frustrating.

Whether you expect to be dodging snide remarks or jokes from relatives around the turkey, or you’d like to talk persuasively about veg*anism to your co-celebrants to encourage others to give it a try, this workshop can help. We’ll be talking about using NonViolent Communication (NVC)* tools to build connection, rather than divisiveness, when talking about these charged topics.

We won’t be talking about fact-based, point-by-point rebuttals to anti-veg*n statements, since there are plenty of online resources for that. We’ll be talking instead about how to get in touch with our own feelings and needs around animal rights, environmental concerns, and/or health, and conveying them–if and when we choose to–in a way that is more likely to encourage openness in our listeners, rather than argument or defensiveness. The goal of the workshop is to increase the potential effectiveness of our persuasive conversations, while also decreasing our risk for the anger, bitterness, depression, and burnout that sometimes go along with living by a certain set of beliefs that many of our loved ones may not share.

The venue is small, so attendance will be capped at six participants.  There are two events: November 22 and December 13.

*Disclaimer: I am not a certified NVC instructor. However, I have been involved in studying, using, and facilitating the learning of NVC for the past twelve years, in a variety of online and in-person capacities.

Reconnecting to my Portland roots

MAX to GreshamLately I have been feeling disconnected. Disconnected from myself, disconnected from my community… and, without realizing it, I think also disconnected from my adopted home.

I was a newcomer here in Portland in 1990. Since then, we have been awash in more and more newcomers every year. I welcome them all. However, I sense that over time, our city’s institutional memory has been growing weaker. People may come here because they have heard the buzz, or they are seeking a young, fun, and creative culture. When they arrive, they may not know how things were around here even as recently as the turn of the millennium (pre-“Portlandia”) much less back into the 1980s, 1970s, or earlier.

I’ve been reading Willamette Week’s 40th anniversary issue these past few days, and I’m finding it very poignant at this point in my life. Their anniversary issue each year is always the same week as my birthday, which makes it a nice touchstone for me. And, since I just turned 42 this past week, their age is similar to my own. I’ve read their “alternative weekly” religiously since I arrived here (though it gets thinner each year, as print journalism shifts).

What struck me about this 40th-year special edition was the sense of connection and rootedness it rekindled in me for the hometown I eagerly adopted 24 years ago. Something about this place—its climate, its culture, its populace—stood out to me when I was thinking about where to go to college. I intuited that it would be a good fit for me, and I was right.

When I got here, I wanted to learn about local history, culture, and politics. I immersed myself in those things right away. In 1990, Barbara Roberts was poised to become Oregon’s first female governor. I wished I could vote for her, but my 18th birthday fell two days after the election. Still, I volunteered for several progressive ballot measures—and against several regressive ones—during that campaign season. My home state of Virginia did not have the initiative process, so it was all new to me. I loved it!

Barbara Roberts

Reading WW’s retrospective helped me to remember some of the culture I stepped into when I arrived. The MAX light-rail line to Gresham had just opened four years earlier.  (Now we have a light-rail network throughout the region.) Bud Clark was still the goofy and avant-garde mayor. Lloyd Marbet was working to shut down the nearby Trojan nuclear plant.  (I remember the “Leaking Trojans… Cause Accidents” T-shirts.) The city was still reeling from the racially motivated killing of Ethiopian immigrant Mulugeta Seraw. Gus Van Sant was artistically documenting the grit and seediness that still permeated the place, with films like “Drugstore Cowboy” and “My Own Private Idaho.”

Trojan nuclear plant

In the early to mid-1990s, I experienced firsthand many of the events covered in the story. I remember when the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, for example, successfully campaigned for bike racks on city buses. I remember when US Senator Bob Packwood’s sordid history of sexual harassment became public, disgracing him and ending his political career. I remember when former Oregon governor Neil Goldschmidt, whose progressive policies and strong leadership had cast a long, hopeful shadow across the local culture, similarly fell from grace when his sexually abusive relationship with a teenager, from many years prior, surfaced.


I remember when the City Nightclub—the first all-ages gay dance club in town—was forced to close. My bisexual first boyfriend had regaled me with tales of his experiences there during its heyday, so I had felt some small personal connection to it.

I remember when the Pearl District—which had housed that nightclub—changed from a mostly deserted warehouse area to a bustling example of urban renewal (for better or worse).

I remember when Stumptown Coffee quietly opened on SE Division Street.

Stumptown Coffee Roasters

And I remember many more things.

Over the years, I have noticed that many of my closest friends—and almost all of my long-term romantic partners—have been Portland natives. They are a rare breed—growing rarer every day—and I think my invisible pull toward them reflects something about my resonance with this place, its culture, and its history. I love all the new energy from all the other newcomers since me… and at the same time, I really appreciate the opportunity this Willamette Week retrospective has afforded me to reminisce, reconnect, and soak in the gratitude for some of the events and people who have shaped this unique city.

I welcome feedback, from Portlanders old and new, as well as people from other places around the world. How has your connection to your own sense of place changed—or stayed the same—over time?

The gifts of giving

This is a follow-up to my last post, regarding my intention to give away 365 things this year, one every day.  I’m almost two months into it, and I wanted to share how the experience has been so far.

In a word: wonderful.

There have been more benefits than I had initially expected.  My main goal was to lighten my load, physically and psychically.  That has been happening, and I love it.  But there have been other benefits, too.

For one thing, it has been a pleasure to see how happy people have been to receive these items.  One of the first things I gifted was an essential oil diffusing candle set.  (I had always thought it was a lovely thing to have, but after two years I still hadn’t used it, so it was clear to me that someone else should be enjoying it instead.)  After the recipient came to pick it up, within a few hours he posted on Facebook to all his friends that he was having a lovely relaxing evening with therapeutic scented oils in his new diffuser.  What a pleasure to know that someone’s life had been enhanced by this transaction, at the same time that my life was being simplified.

Another gift was a vegan book about health, and a friend of mine claimed it and came to pick it up at my workplace.  When she did, she met my vegan coworker, and the two of them started chatting about food and health and being vegan in Portland.  Spontaneous community building!


Another surprising benefit involved my own receiving.  It wasn’t my intention to receive anything in return for any of these items (after all, the whole point was to reduce my possessions) but a few cool things have come my way nonetheless, and they have been fun surprises.  When I gave away a green velvet tunic, the recipient said he wouldn’t be home when I dropped it off at his house, but I could leave it on the porch. He invited me to bring along a container to fill with grapes from the arbor at his house.  I did, and they were delicious.


On that occasion, I also used the gifting opportunity to go for a beautiful bike ride to his house, which was about 25 minutes away from mine by bicycle.  I enjoyed the warm sunshine and fall foliage.  When gifting other items, I’ve taken more bike rides, traveling to sometimes unfamiliar parts of town, and appreciating new-to-me bicycle infrastructure and beautiful views, including a rainbow on a cloud over the river near sunset.  In some cases, I have stopped at restaurants or gone to parks in parts of town I don’t generally visit, because dropping off these items (by bike or car) has taken me out of my way.  What a gift!  On the other hand, I have also met close-by neighbors I never knew I had.

Meanwhile, one of my hopes had been to metaphorically “clear space” for my businesses (Dream Into Change and Happy to Listen) to grow with new clients.  I was pleasantly surprised when two new clients contacted me within six days of my beginning this gifting venture.  Coincidence?  I don’t know, but I’m happy to receive it as a part of the whole intention.

I’ve got ten more months to go (assuming I can continue to find that many more things to give!)  I look forward to more magical unfoldings as the year progresses.

How about my readers?  Have any of you ever undertaken such a project?  If so, what benefits – expected or unexpected – did you find?

Giving away 365 things

I have too much stuff.

It’s a common lament in today’s First World, but lately I am feeling more and more palpably the weight of my possessions and clutter.  They eat into my space.  Not just my physical space (I’m typing this on my laptop in the one clear spot on my kitchen table, surrounded by stacks of paper) but my mental and psychic space.

About a year and a half ago, as many readers know, I set an intention to begin living in a warm climate – specifically, the beautiful city of San Diego – between December and March of each year.  I would do this by quitting my “day job” of ten years, and transitioning to full-time work in my Happy to Listen empathetic listening practice and/or this Dream Into Change coaching practice.  This coming December was to be the beginning of that new way of life.

It’s not going to happen this year.  I still have only a few clients, not nearly enough to transition away from my full-time day job. There are many reasons for this, but I’m starting to think that my attachment to my stuff may be a part of it.

When I began visioning this new way of life, I pictured myself living nimbly.  I would own few possessions.  I would rent out my condo here in Portland, and rent a room in San Diego, and travel lightly (possibly by train and/or bike) between the two cities.  When I think about that now, it is hard to imagine myself moving so nimbly and lightly.

When I feel myself overwhelmed by physical objects in my space, somehow it seems to shrink my time, as well.  I find myself escaping the chaos into the Internet, and before you know it, hours have gone by, and I need to sleep.  I haven’t used that time to see clients.  I haven’t used it to do the behind-the-scenes work necessary to build up a thriving practice, either.

So I think it’s time for me to clear out this clutter.  I am going to set a new intention to move to San Diego next winter, in December of 2014.  That gives me about 15 months to get things going.  And my first step will be to give away at least one possession per day for the next year.  365 possessions.  They may be large or small – mostly small, since that’s mostly what I have – but I will give away one per day, on average.  (I’ll probably take time off for vacations and maybe weekends, but when I do, I’ll give away more things on other days.)  My plan is to post these items on local free websites and/or Facebook pages, and anything that is not spoken for I will take to a thrift store or put in a free box.

Yes.  This feels good.  Let the lightening begin!

Hitting the sweet spot in Raleigh

At the Wake County Courthouse
At the Wake County Courthouse

Well… the tour is wrapping up!  Today we’ll be boarding a plane back to Portland, the East Coast Empathy Tour on its way to becoming a memory.

Yesterday, in Raleigh, I found the sweet spot.  At the suggestion of my aunt and uncle, we headed for downtown near the lunch hour, and I set up my sign on the steps of the Wake County Courthouse.  The sun was shining, the temperature was pleasant, and people were out and about.

Within seconds, I felt at home.  People smiled at me, gave me thumbs-up, and shared words of encouragement and appreciation.  It was great to be back in the flow!

The first woman who approached asked me what I was doing.  I told her, and she said, “Well, I’m homeless right now.”  She paused, then continued, sadly.  “Ain’t much to talk about, being homeless.”  I was surprised to hear her say this, because in Portland I found that homeless people tended to talk with me at length.  But she seemed sincere, so I nodded and said, “Well, I’m happy to listen if you ever do feel like talking.”  She nodded in acknowledgment, and went to sit with a friend.  Then she called over to me, “Show him your sign!”  I did, and he seemed to approve.

A minute or so later, an older couple walked by and seemed delighted to see me.  A few minutes after that, they came back, and the man said, “I’m so glad you’re still here!”  They wanted to talk about what I was doing, and take my picture to post on Facebook.  This is exactly the sort of response I love!  I hope that by sharing the photo of me and my sign with their friends, some new people will be inspired about the idea and power of empathy.

Then a man walked by and studied the sign for a bit.  He asked a question to clarify what I was doing, and then shared that he himself does something similar.  He works in some sort of ministry, approaching people on the street who have lost hope, and helps them to believe in themselves and find ways to move forward in life, following their hearts.  He spoke for about a half hour, and at times his explicitly Christian sharings bordered on proselytizing.  Not surprising, given what he had told me about the way he spends his time.  But although I did not agree with everything he said, I enjoyed experiencing his positive energy, and found some of his personal stories of overcoming major life challenges to be engaging and inspiring.  I always enjoy connecting with people who seem lit up by life, love, and purpose, and this man definitely was.

After he left, a young woman stopped by and asked if I would be there every day.  No, I said; unfortunately today is the last day of my tour.  She looked disappointed.  “But I’ll be here for another half hour,” I offered, thinking perhaps she could come back.  She said, “Oh, no – I’m fine today!  But some days…” with an expression that said she could really appreciate the value of having someone to talk to after a rough day at work.

An elderly woman came by, pushing a cart.  She puzzled over what I was doing, and then said she knew what she wanted to talk about.  “I want this war to end.”  I smiled sadly and nodded.  She went on to say that she believed President Obama was doing a good job, and trying really hard.  Then things turned a bit surreal.  She mentioned that she had recently written to his cousin, who would probably pass along her message to the President.  Then, the two of them would probably invite her to go on an important political road trip with them, probably around Thanksgiving or Christmas, when all the residents in her group home get the holidays off.  She was looking forward to the trip, and added that she would need to stop by Goodwill to get a good suitcase for it, probably no later than September.  I listened to all of this, nodding supportively.  She reiterated that she wanted the war to end.  Then, apparently satisfied that she had been heard, she walked on.

Shortly before I wrapped up, a man came up on a bicycle.  He said he was a busker, and had been playing his accordion in various cities along the East Coast, most recently Savannah, which he had really enjoyed.  Based in upstate New York, he was a bit concerned whether it was legal in Raleigh to simply busk on the street without a permit.  I didn’t know, so we said goodbye and he pedaled off to inquire elsewhere, carrying the accordion on his back in a large pack.

In between all of these interactions, I was touched by how many people just smiled and said encouraging words.  I had come full circle in this tour: the experience reminded me both of Portland, and of my first day on the tour, in Boston.

I have learned a few things about how to do on-the-street empathy:

The size and scale of a city is important, and finding the right public spot is key.

Weather can play a big role.

But, region to region, people are people.  And it seems clear that people in today’s world appreciate the value of empathy.

I am deeply honored to think that I have been able to play this particular, tiny role in hearing people who have wanted to be heard, inspiring people who hadn’t been expecting to be inspired, and bringing to consciousness people’s innate appreciation of being heard in a supportive, warm, non-judgmental way.  I don’t know what the future holds for me, in terms of continuing this on-the-street work; I will be listening to my heart over the next few weeks and months to see if I want to continue it on any kind of regular basis, in Portland or elsewhere.  But this tour has been a wonderful experience.

I want to take this moment to thank each and every one of the people who have supported me in any way, and there are too many to list by name!  Some people contributed money.  Some people opened their homes to me and/or Brian to offer lodging (and in many cases, amazing food as well).  Some people shared my campaign and/or blog postings with their friends, or on Facebook.  And many, many people offered encouragement and moral support throughout the process.  I am grateful to all of you, and thrilled to see what we have all brought to pass.

Until the next step of the journey…!

Triangulations in North Carolina

At the Durham Public Library
At the Durham Public Library

Well… no one said it would always be easy.  This whole tour has been a learning experience for me, in so many ways.  Here in North Carolina, I am finding both new and old challenges.

Brian and I headed out to Chapel Hill and Durham today, hoping to find a “sweet spot” for me to sit with my sign.

Chapel Hill was first.  On this humid day of 95 degrees, we set out in my aunt and uncle’s car (thankfully equipped with GPS) to look for Franklin Street, which is a quaint business district and social hub for students and community around the University of North Carolina. Perhaps partly because of the weather, we didn’t see much foot traffic on the street, and the people we did see were moving pretty slowly, in contrast to the bustling masses I had encountered in Boston and New York.  I set up with my sign near a bus stop, facing what foot traffic there was… but got no takers.  I sat for only 15 minutes, but it felt like much longer.  One passerby saw the sign and smiled at me, but others either walked past without looking, or eyed me and/or the sign with puzzlement and/or suspicion.  I felt awkward and out of place.  I reminded myself that part of what I have intended to do on this tour is to challenge myself and push my comfort zone in situations such as this.  So, I continued to sit, and to smile at people as they walked past.

Still, I sensed that even if I sat for a full 90 minutes – my optimal amount of time – I might not get any takers.  The size of the town (I whipped out my phone and discovered the population is only 58,000) and the fact that most students were gone for the summer were not working in my favor.  My aunt and uncle and their friends had suggested some other locations in the area that might work well, so I decided to try elsewhere.

We got back in the car and headed for Durham (population 279,000), home of Duke University.  We had heard that Ninth Street was the “hippie part of town,” so I thought I might find a receptive audience there.  When we arrived, though, the street seemed even more deserted than Franklin had been.  Again, school was not in session, and in the heat and humidity, even those folks who were patronizing the businesses on that street were indoors, luxuriating in the air conditioning.

We drove through campus, to see if we could spot any groups of people.  Nope.

I decided to Google the Durham public library, since the Portland library had been a good spot for me.  We found the address, and headed toward downtown to check it out in person.  The building we encountered was much more modern than the Portland library, appearing to have been built around the 1970s.  It was surrounded by a large parking lot.  I was dubious that there would be enough foot traffic to work well, but thought I should give it a try.

I found a spot in the shade, near the door, but not on the path into it, since there were no steps leading in.  Brian went inside to explore the library, and I set up my sign.  Once again, I felt somewhat awkward in this setting with not many people.  There was a somewhat steady stream of people going in and out from their cars, but they didn’t seem interested to stop.  One middle-aged man looked at the sign, smiled, and walked past.  Later, a middle-aged woman asked, “What is empathy?”  When I answered, she said, “Oh,” and walked past, asking another man if he had a light for her cigarette.  One other group of women walked by and smiled, but I couldn’t tell if they were responding to me and my sign, or just enjoying a joke or happy experience amongst themselves.  Most people who walked past, if they read the sign, looked puzzled and/or dubious, and did not interact with me.

I became very aware of my feelings of awkwardness, and some of the factors that contributed to them.  I noticed that a certain level of activity seems to be necessary for people to be interested in stopping.  A certain distance from people seems socially comfortable; too far, and it becomes a real commitment for someone to approach.  Public transit – or at least the urban density that makes public transit workable – seems to be an important factor.  Here in the “research triangle” of North Carolina, there is a lot of sprawl, and no light-rail or subway system.  Hence, the places feel different, with more room for cars and less for people.  Also, the heat and humidity seemed to encourage people to move more slowly, and to spend more time indoors rather than stopping to talk to someone outside.

I spent another 15 minutes – which again felt much longer – at the library, then decided to pack it up.  We drove to another area that seemed like it might be promising, but found almost no one there either.  Dark storm clouds began to portend the electrical storm that had been forecast, and we decided to head back home.  (On our way, the storm hit, knocking down a large evergreen over several lanes on the highway and causing us to drive over the median to avoid it.  By the time we arrived home in the evening, the storm had passed, and the forecast indicates that tomorrow should be sunny and pleasant, in the mid-80s.)

So… once again I was disappointed that things did not flow as smoothly as they did in the beginning of the tour, and that I wasn’t able to contribute anything meaningful to the residents of this area.  But, hope springs eternal for my last day:  We will go into Raleigh (state capital, population 500,000) and do our darnedest to find some folks who would like some empathy!

I do want to take this moment to make a plea to anyone reading who may have wanted to contribute financially to the tour, but who hasn’t done so yet.  I am down to less than two days remaining in my Indiegogo campaign, and I have raised $1205, just $45 shy of halfway to my $2500 goal.  I would love to at least hit the halfway mark before the campaign is over; I need to cover travel expenses and lost pay, since I am taking two weeks’ unpaid leave for this trip.  Every dollar counts… and perks include Happy to Listen and/or Dream Into Change sessions!  If you’re interested in contributing, or spreading the word to your friends on Facebook, the link is http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/east-coast-empathy-tour

Meanwhile… stay tuned to see what happens in Raleigh tomorrow!

Washington, DC

IMG_1820I am somewhat chagrined.

I’m writing from the train, heading to Raleigh with my sweetie, Brian, who has joined me for the second half of this empathy tour.  We had an enjoyable few days in the Washington area, but I very much regret to report that I was not able to sit with my sign for long enough to get any takers.

When I initially envisioned this trip, the idea of offering empathy in our nation’s capital – the place where decisions that affect the entire world are made on a regular basis – was a central part of it.  I imagined sitting on the steps of the Capitol building with my sign, attracting attention from tourists and “Washington insiders” alike, and perhaps even offering empathy to people who might play some role in important decisions.  I wanted to be close to the halls of power, and to bring the concept – and perhaps the reality – of empathy into a place where political polarization seems to increase every year, mirroring a cultural trend toward isolation and black-and-white, us-vs-them thinking.

Perhaps I would sit on the steps of the Supreme Court, where contentious legal decisions sometimes spur protests in the area outside.

Maybe I could sit in the area near the White House.  President Obama himself has spoken of a “deficit of empathy” in our culture.  I had hoped I could play some role – however tiny – in ameliorating that deficit, by making the concept of empathy visible and human.

It was not to be.

We had three days in the Washington metro area, and the first we spent with my parents in Loudoun County, revisiting my childhood home and environs, and taking a short jaunt to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, where we even stepped onto the Appalachian Trail.

The next two days we spent in the District of Columbia, but the first day – as we traveled about the National Mall as tourists, and I kept an eye out for good spots to sit with my sign – we were soaked by a rain that lasted all day, even occasioning flash-flood warnings in parts of the area.  I could not see any dry place to set up “shop,” so we spent the day indoors, exploring some Smithsonian museums.

The forecast was dry for the next day, so I was hopeful that I would be able to get in at least one, and possibly two, on-the-street empathy stints.  We headed out on Capital Bikeshare bikes (wonderful experience – I am sold on the bike-sharing concept) toward the Mall again.  Brian pedaled toward the tidal basin to see the MLK, FDR, and Jefferson memorials, while I set my sights on the Capitol building.

When I got there, however, I was reminded of the scale of the Capitol, and indeed of Washington itself. The city, as I have often recalled from my childhood visits and field trips, is built on a grand scale, rather than a human scale.  Compared to Portland, the city blocks seem to stretch forever.  The Mall itself is a truly enormous public space.  The buildings inspire awe, and hearken to a time when people were building both physical and psychic infrastructure for a grand new nation, filled with promise.

These streets, parks, and buildings are impressive to behold and to photograph, but in my felt-sense experience, they dwarf individual humans, and do not lend themselves to community-building in the way that public plazas in Portland, Boston, New York, and other cities do.  Certainly there are neighborhoods in DC – perhaps most of them, in fact – that are much better suited to these social needs.  But in the places that house the halls of power, I saw expansive stone surrounded by mobs of tourists, and I didn’t experience the feeling that I get when I know I’ve found a good spot to sit with my sign.

I started at the Capitol, but almost no one was passing by on the steps.  There was actually some police activity going on there at the time, and two separate officers asked me to ride my bike on the “wrong” side of the double yellow lines in the street, in order to avoid their cars.  I don’t know what was happening; but I determined that the Capitol would not work for my purposes.

Next I cycled to the Supreme Court, just a few blocks away.  Again, though, I saw an imposing building with no one on its steps, or even many people walking nearby.  No protests, or people gathering nearby.  I could see I would not have any takers.

A friend had told me that the Smithsonian Institution’s Portrait Gallery’s steps were a popular lunchtime spot for downtown workers, so I tried sitting there with my sign for about fifteen minutes.  I didn’t get any response, though, and most people didn’t even see the sign, because they were walking past the steps rather than up them.

Time was ticking.  I needed to meet up with Brian so that we could see the White House.  By the time we got there, we could only stay for a few minutes before leaving to get to our hosts’ house just outside of town.  Surveying the scene at the White House, I’m not sure whether it would have been a good spot to offer empathy, either, since again, it was filled mostly with tourists taking in the sights in the midst of their packed itineraries.

So… my time had run out.  I felt sad and disappointed that what I had imagined as the capstone to this trip had not come to pass.

Since my parents live in the area, perhaps I can return within the next few years, and maybe try it again.  Seek out more neighborhood-based locations.  We shall see.

But, for now I’m looking forward to spending some time in the South, and keeping my fingers tightly crossed that the predicted rain- and thunderstorms (amid 95-degree temperatures) will break for at least a few hours so that I can set up my sign in Raleigh and/or Chapel Hill.

The empathy tour continues!

On the steps of the Portrait Gallery
On the steps of the Portrait Gallery

Empathy in New York


This afternoon I headed to Union Square in Manhattan, and found a bustling urban park teeming with life.  The park contains green spaces as well as a paved plaza.  I walked all through it, marveling at the sheer number of people, before choosing a spot right next to the subway entrance.

To my immediate left, several outdoor chess matches unfolded.  Right in front of me stood a man with a booth representing “the 99%,” who blew a whistle in a rhythmic way reminiscent of a protest chant, about once per hour.  Just slightly beyond him, a quartet of hare krishnas chanted and sang.  And all throughout, people of all ages, colors, and languages walked and talked.

I set up my sign.  Within about 30 seconds, I heard a young woman’s voice saying, “Free empathy?”  I looked up and met her eyes as she continued, “If I had time, I would sit down and have a heart-to-heart with you right now!”  Alas, she did not have time.  She walked on.

After that, I found myself talking to a number of people from Eastern Europe.  The first pair were two young men from Kosovo.  They were curious about what I was doing, and seemed inclined to chat.  One seemed to fancy himself a sort of joker/philosopher, and kept asking me questions like, “If there is so much more water than earth on this planet, why do we call the planet Earth?”  His friend described arriving in the United States a year ago, speaking almost no English.  He said he loved New York, has a job now, and is happy to have made the move.

After a few minutes, we were joined by a cheerful young man from the Ukraine, who was happy to supply his own definition of “empathy” when the other two asked.  His definition was different from mine; he focused on intuitive understanding of another’s emotional state, often from a distance or with no verbal exchange.  He said that he was very empathic himself, and enjoyed talking with people whom he sensed were troubled, since he found he could often help them to feel better.  He also said that anyone can hone this innate ability, and it helps to release everything we think we care about.  He himself had been thrust into homelessness and destitution a few years ago, and found it very scary at the time, but later appreciated it because through “losing everything” he was able to gain this powerful ability.  His material circumstances had since become more comfortable, I gathered; but he retained the ability, and recommended the experience of “releasing everything.”

After these three left, a man who had been sitting nearby turned to ask me about what I was doing.  He was from Italy, he said (and possibly another place in Europe, too – he spoke quietly and with an accent, so I had a hard time hearing everything he shared.)  He, too, wondered what empathy was, so I described it as “listening with caring.”  He told his story of coming to this country, and encouraged me to move to New York, saying that it was great and that he could help me find a job.  (He also asked me for my phone number, which I politely declined.)  I told him I was enjoying my visit, but that I love Portland and plan to continue living there.

Shortly after he and I stopped talking, a self-described “geezer” from Hungary arrived, taken by my sign.  He told a touching story about his father’s having been a political prisoner for ten years.  During his incarceration, the father managed to make small wooden blocks with letters carved into them, and smuggled them out of the prison to his young son (the man talking to me) who was able to use them to teach himself to read and write. Wow.

After he left, another young man – American, apparently born in this country – approached and asked what empathy was.  I told him, as best I could, and he seemed to like the idea, although he didn’t have much more to share.  He moved on.

Then another young man came up, and asked me to differentiate between empathy and sympathy.  I told him my understanding (which is based on Marshall Rosenberg’s distinction) and he seemed to agree.  We had a rather long talk, about a variety of topics including the changing culture of business – especially the financial sector – in America today.  From his insider’s perspective in that industry, he could see that the old norm of high-pressure sales was being replaced by a relationship-building, trust-based model.  I enjoyed hearing this.

While we were talking, I caught sight of a young man walking through the square holding up a “free hugs” sign.  I smiled as he came near us, and jumped up to show him my sign.  We hugged, and got a few pictures together.

As he left, the man I had been talking to expressed suspicion about the “free hugs” guy’s motives, surmising that it could simply be a tactic to get women to hug him.  I smiled at what I imagined as a more “New Yorker” reaction to it than the “Portlander” reactions I had seen from many of my friends back home, most of whom love the “free hugs” idea, and some of whom have carried such signs themselves.  Then, I wondered if perhaps this New Yorker was correct, about some men who carry these signs.  I wondered if I, and my left-coast friends, might be blinded by idealism and naivete at times.  Probably so, actually.  But, I’m pretty sure I’d rather err on the side of trust than suspicion, most of the time.  A lot more magic can happen that way, I find.  I also tend to find that people live up to my expectations, be they positive or negative.  I certainly didn’t lose anything by hugging this guy today; I think we both gained something.

After that, it was getting cold and starting to rain, so after this longer-than-usual session, I packed it up and headed to check out a vegan restaurant nearby.

Heavy rain is forecast for tomorrow, so I believe this will be my only empathy session in New York.  I had been a little nervous that people here might be more stand-offish, or even sarcastic or contemptuous of me and my sign, given the stereotypes I had heard about New Yorkers (mostly, I should mention, from ex-New Yorkers.)  But I found myself once again reassured that we are all human, and people enjoy connecting with each other.

Next stop: our nation’s capital!