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Formicidal Houdini act

I have this gnawing feeling inside my stomach. It must be the ants. Here I was all high and lofty preaching and writing about not harming ants, when I succumbed a few days later to the neat-housewife syndrome and decided there were too many of them in our kitchen. They had to go.

A participant, from another part of the world, who I met during a Global Forum that ended yesterday, and to whom I had mentioned my ant problem, wrote me that I should have talked to the ants, told them to go outside.  I am sure native Americans from this part of the world would have told me the same thing. But I ignored the message about patience, I am embarrassed and sad to say, and headed out to the hardware store to buy an ant trap. 

After weeks of engaging with the Gaia community, and these two last intensive days of the Forum, I willfully ignored its key message: look after one another, all of us who are part of mother earth. I put a small plastic container filled with borax and some smells that attract ants, behind the sink, where the ants most often showed up. I felt a bit guilty then, and even more so when the next morning several ants were lying dead or twitching in the sticky liquid. 

And then something strange happened. A few ants circled around the trap, frantically of course, as they were, I assume, trying to figure out how to rescue their kind. I left them and assumed that sooner or later they would also enter the trap and meet their death.

But this morning the trap was empty. There was no trace of ants, no sticky tracks from having dragged the bodies out. No ants in sight, no dead ones, no live ones.

This was the ultimate Houdini act. I am still scratching my head. How could they have dragged out the dead ones, especially those deep inside the trap, without getting trapped themselves in the sticky deadly liquid? And even if they had succeeded, where did they go, and why were there no traces or tracks anywhere? This is when the gnawing feeling inside my stomach started. Even a delicious breakfast of very fresh eggs, homegrown potatoes and shiitake mushrooms did not ease the feeling of unease.

I packed up the rest of the traps and put them away in the cellar, out of sight, not daring to put them in the trash, a problem for someone else to solve later (also not good). I resolved to heed the message from the ants and not let selfish motives trump my deeper wisdom about the sacredness of life, any life.

My chatroom friend told me that the ants are our antsisters (pronounced nearly like ancestors) and that they do listen when we tell them to go back to the garden.  I can only hope they did go back to, if not this earthly garden, then maybe to the garden of Eden.

Sugar and patience

Our grandson and two ants found their way into our sugar pot. We knew about ants liking sugar. And we are more than a bit amazed that these two enterprising ants were the first two to have found the pot since we moved in here 27 years ago.

That our grandson (8) found it is no surprise as it is a bit below eye level for him (and he has known about its existence for at least 4 years). Faro is attracted to sugar like an ant. His parents have put him on a low sugar diet (not because he needs to lose weight, he is thin as a reed, but because they are convinced he should not be eating much sugar). My parents did the same with me, but I managed to find sugar anywhere, knew exactly which of my friends had candy jars or mothers who were less strict about sugar. I ate more candy than anyone I knew and still have a sweet tooth. My 123&me genetic profile claims my haplotype prefers sweets. This is not a surprise.

We are taking the ants outside where, as our granddaughter remarked, the ant’s family resides and is waiting for the return of their curious son or daughter. I like the idea of a family reunification.

We are not killing the ants. For one, as someone told me, when you squeeze them to death, they leave a scent that bring out the burial brigade. I am not sure whether this is true or not, but I like to imagine the ants outside sniffing the air and knowing one of their own has died and needs to be taken care of.

There is another reason. Ever since I learned (from Jamie Sams’ Animal Medicine) that ants carry the message of patience, I stopped squishing them. I say a brief thank you and then take them outside, where they belong, so they can carry the patience message to others, since patience is a hugely important quality these days. 

Aside from the patience we need to have with things unfolding in the age of COVID-19 (can’t travel, can’t go to visit my relatives in Holland, can’t do this, do that, yet), we will also have to be patient with a major renovation that starts tomorrow with the demolition phase. We have decided to ‘age in place,’ and in order for this to work we are reconstructing a fully equipped bedroom downstairs – fully equipped meaning that I won’t need to get up and down stairs to go to bed, to brush my teeth, to do the laundry, etc.

The demolition crew arrives tomorrow. I am a bit anxious about it, but also very excited – we have been planning for this to start for over a year now.

The good behind the bad and the ugly

We are just about a whole new month into the pandemic and the horizon (that used to represent the idea of getting back to normal) is receding. It is now abundantly clear to me that we will be in this pandemic for the rest of the year and possibly the next. There are times when this thought exhausts and depresses me, but then I look around me and am comforted that we are in this together. Paradoxically, this ‘togetherness’ is also a dread, as we now know how this togetherness prolongs the pandemic. 

Where at first the disappointments were about things missed, like our trip to Holland, they are now about things not coming back as they were, longer term expectations that I now know will not be met, ever again. This shuffles me between a mood of doom and gloom and reluctant acceptance. And sometimes just denial. My meditation practice helps, as my teacher reminds me to ‘be here now,’ and let go of all these expectations, and projection in from of me and regrets behind me.

Being grateful and appreciative also helps. Compared to so many millions of people I am privileged, blessed and lucky. Yet I cannot avoid hearing and seeing the vitriol and the pain, suffering and loss that feel like a suffocating blanket at times. I avoid TV altogether but newspapers I do read. I am not withdrawing from the world.

I continue the South Africa on-demand-coaching. These are short (often single) sessions with individuals and teams. I listen, ask questions, sometimes share a story, a framework, a thought. I look forward to these conversations. They lift me up to a higher place. I see higher and further as I learn how others, halfway around the world, are experiencing the pandemic.  I experience the positive side of togetherness and the power of compassion, which literally means suffering together.

Despite the stresses and ugliness of the present time, nearly always something good ‘walks’ into our sessions. Sometimes that is the kid that crawls on mommy’s lap, the young boy talking excitedly how is going to kill the bad guys or his older brother saying he burned the broccoli (and what else can he stir fry instead). Sometimes it’s the cat that walks across the screen, making keyboard sounds, or a loving husband with a glass of wine, as the day is over in Pretoria. 

I learn that the sense of overwhelm is always there and that most people are simply coping, not really living, until they realize they are still living and that there is still good around them, like the child, the pet, the husband with the glass of wine.

I often ask the people I coach to reflect on what they need to let go of, what they need to let be, and what they need to let in. Most people know. And then, when we meet again, sometimes several weeks later, they see that they accomplished these three things, and are happier for it.


Our grandson has turned 8 today. I remember my birthday party when I turned 8; I believe I even have it recorded on double 8mm film. It’s an important event. He decided to celebrate it at his grandparents’ house. And so, we started the complicated affair of arranging for a birthday party with his other grandparents (he has 3 sets), two cousins, two aunties and uncles – staggered appearances, and 6 feet apart. It’s a complicated affair. When you think you have it figured out in the abstract, implementing the great ideas with surgical cleanliness is another thing altogether. We are learning as we go. We are stricter than maybe necessary, but we rather not take any risks, especially since one of the little cousins has spent many weeks of her four years in the hospital to manage a dangerous congenital health problem.

The grandkids arrived last night with their parents. We already have had a weekend together so that was easy as this did not require surgical cleanliness.

More challenging was my morning routine of meditation and stationary biking. As usual, I got up at about 5:30AM, which I have been doing most of the time for the last week because that is already 12:30PM in Madagascar. The birthday boy was also awake at that time (and then woke his sister), so thinking I could do my morning routine quietly was sunk.

I decided that we may as well meditate together. I showed the 4 year old some of Andy’s (Headspace) animations about stilling the mind, which she liked a lot. And then I sat in my meditation chair while Faro laid down on the yoga mat and Saffi snuggled under my arm. I am well advanced in my meditation training, so I took this new arrangement in stride. To my great surprise and delight, we all did meditate, Faro was still the entire 10 minutes; Saffi couldn’t help poking me from time to time, but she eventually got the idea.

The biking was a little more challenging with two kids watching as I exerted myself, and Faro kept talking about things (Minecraft) I don’t understand anything about. My not understanding didn’t seem to matter and he continued chattering about the intricacies of Minecraft (‘he, Oma, did you know this that you can’t get to…?”). 

Once I was done, showered and dressed, I was still the only adult awake while Faro was eyeing his decorated birthday table and the presents stacked on top of each other. It was hard for him to wait. I asked him about the famous (but also now debunked) marshmallow test that he did when he was younger. I am not sure he remembered. When I asked him whether he ate the marshmallow when the experiment leader left the room or waited for his/her return to get a second marshmallow, he said he ate it. I could have expected that answer. Why would I assume a kid would say he had not; marshmallows are for eating after all. 

The kids then discovered Alexa which has crept into our house as a freebie addition to a new wireless system. Our daughters disapprove mightily about this intrusion into our privacy, but we are kind of liking it, and the grandkids loved it. Alexa was kept very busy with requests for lame jokes (Alexa has much more patience than we do). Faro discovered he could get her to sing happy birthday (in the absence of the parents who were still sleeping – a nice bonus so I didn’t have to sing it by myself). 

He tested Alexa about the capital cities of countries in Africa (yes, Alexa knew about Antananarivo). And then they discovered you could get Alexa to make dog or cat sounds (do you want a spooky dog sound, a whiny dog sound, a sad dog sound or random?). Saffi learned the word ‘random’ and soon all sorts of dogs were barking, with an occasional meow. Alexa even knew some songs that had dogs barking the tune. What fun.

I was a little concerned when they asked for something and Alexa answered with ‘that requires an upgrade to premium. Would you like me to arrange that for you?” I had to shut Alexa up and gave the kids a lecture about never saying yes to a robot, as it is not a real person but an information gathering and marketing machine –  a hard concept to teach to trusting kids. These kids will grow up with robots, but for now, I don’t want to see a whole pile of Amazon prime boxes on my doorsteps of kids who ordered birthday presents for themselves, egged on by Alexa. We’ll see.


I cut my husband’s hair this morning. He insisted. Our daughters don’t allow us to go to hair salons – as these were labeled ‘high risk’ in a review to help us adjust to the current new normal. I had made an appointment and was sad to have to cancel, but our daughters are right. A stylist stands in back and above you, and you are just one of multiple clients during the day – therefore, high risk.

So, I have started to wear scarves to keep those darn wings in check and promised Axel I would cut his hair. This morning it was time. He sharpened the scissors and sat down in a chair outside. 

I had watched a few videos about how to cut a man’s curly hair, but all those men had heads that had nothing in common with Axel’s. In the process of my Google search (how to cut a man’s curly hair) some other questions were proposed, including one that said: at what age are men at their most handsome? (It turns out to be 29, stretching into 36).

It turns out that haircutting is much more difficult than I thought. It always looks so effortless when a professional does it, snip-snip. But then of course these snippers have 200 dollar scissors. Our scissors are a bit old and tired, despite this morning’s sharpening effort.  (Why are scissors plural?)

I wasn’t very methodical, mostly because I had none of those clips, and also was impatient. It soon became willy-nilly snipping. Axel got a little worried as he saw large clumps of hair float by on the breeze. I improvised until he said enough. He washed his hair and I am very impressed with myself. Now he is eager to cut my wings off, but I think I’ll hold off till my daughters show up next weekend. It’s been exactly 3 months since my last haircut.

Curiosity, imagination and doubt

There are three mindsets that seem particularly important to cultivate these days: curiosity, imagination and doubt. 

I use this in my coaching and for myself. All three came into play as I was reading, or rather listening to, Lisa Feldman Barret’s book about how our emotions are constructed. I had to appeal to all three mindsets in order to finish the book, more than 11 hours of audio. Now I am going to read the book all over again. She has shaken many of my beliefs; doubting things I took for granted, curiously asking questions (what about this, and that?) and imagining what my new insights can make possible.

I have this fantasy of calling her up (she lives nearby) and proposing we meet over coffee, somewhere in Cambridge, so I can ask her all those questions that popped into my head while listening. 

And while I was still digesting that I prepared for my challenging assignment, my first ever Zoom workshop, across 7 time zones and in French. 

I explored platforms that could be integrated into my workshop to co-develop strategies and analyses. I tried Mural and Mirro but they were too complicated, at least for me, now. I’d have to feel more confident before I dare introducing them in workshops. Besides, there is a bandwidth issue. Google’s Jamboard was more promising, because of its simplicity but even that was finally discarded – too many moving pieces and too many possibilities for confusion. I have to remember that online workshops are still new to most people, and I was already introducing one platform (Zoom) and one working document (Google Presentations).

I was blessed with a very knowledgeable counterpart who basically ran the first day while I was holding the Chat space and admitting people who got kicked out of the meeting because of bandwidth. Not all were able to put their videos on, but what a difference that made. Apparently people aren’t used to show their faced on such video calls – but it turns out to be as much about bandwidth as it is about habit (and hesitance to give people a glimpse in their home life?).

Tomorrow we’ll do another three-day workshop, now with three times as many people. I imagine how that will go, am curious about what is and what is not possible, in French, across timezones, and with feeble internet connections for some. So it’s a new adventure, though not as anxiety-provoking as last week’s. Now it’s a fun adventure, with everyone, including myself, in deep learning mode (open mind, patience, humor) while accomplishing some important tasks, and continuing to cultivate our collective curiosity, imagination sprinkled with a small dose of doubt.

Two thoughts

This morning I skipped our Zoom Quaker meeting. A New York Times piece explores whether it is possible to be worshipping and communing with God via your computer screen. No one in their right mind would have asked that question even a short 4 months ago.

Today I didn’t feel like communing with God over Zoom. I have work to do (countless Zoom hours ahead for the next few weeks). It is work that keeps my mind on edge: three consecutive virtual workshops, in French, across 7 time-zones, with a repeat every week for 3 weeks, starting tomorrow. I have worked hard to contain my anxiety. What helped a great deal is that I am paired up with a very knowledgeable facilitator in Madagascar. Our preparations together are reducing both our anxieties. I am actually starting to look forward to our first event tomorrow, rather than dreading it.

Taking a break from the work, and sitting in front of my computer, Axel and I sat in the warm sun, drinking coffee, watching the newly planted Cranberry beans pulling their tiny little heads out of the small peat containers, and practicing our guitar and ukulele chords so we can improvise together. New life, warmth, beauty, harmony are here with us, if you have the ability notice.

At the same time, we cannot forget the global pickle we are in. The front page of the New York Times reminds us of the 100,000 deaths so far in the US by printing names, ages and one liners about the person behind the small entry in this register of deaths: a small sample, one tenth of one percent of all those whose lives were cut short. 

I learned that we cannot hold two thoughts in our mind at the same time (think milliseconds) – but in a slightly longer time span (seconds, minutes, hours, days), may be we can make sure that we don’t forget to notice what’s good, what’s beuatiful and what’s right, and let these inform our actions, for ourselves, our families and our world.

Stretching & the new world order

I have a new stretch assignment that requires me to work remotely with a team in a country 7 time zones ahead of me and in French, with very little time to prepare. I have worked in this country before and with some of the people involved. I compare my current experience with that of some years ago. Then I did not need a contract, since I was employed and these were my colleagues. I would read up in the week leading up to the assignment, get my ticket, get on a plane, travel through the 7 time zones, land, get to my hotel and have a few days to connect with old and new colleagues, get the lay of the land, prepare the workshop and off we go. The project would have been billed for at least 14 days of my time, plus overhead; an expensive but common proposition. That’s why I have over 2 million miles on Delta.

Now all this has to be done by Google Meet or Zoom, Google docs and comments, a series of iterations and then trust that we can pull it off next week, it being a series of three mini workshops conducted using Zoom and Google’s Jamboard.

It’s all very new and somewhat nerve racking. I am in full experimentation mode, as many of us are now in this new world of virtual everythings.

I gave myself a crash course in Mural, Miro and Jamboards and landed on Google’s Jamboards. Not the most sophisticated but the simplest of them all requiring the least amount of band width. Band with is an issue, especially when we start to descent from the central (capital) level to the periphery (regions, districts). It is clear that the work will have to be done by the local team. For one, they are in the same time zone, and also because they know the context so much better than I do.

This is also happening in other far away countries I work in, where I am asked to connect locals to locals, local resources that can do the work I do in ways that are better and cheaper. I think the current crisis is teaching everyone that there are alternatives to the classic model of experts in the US or Europe, flying in, being put up in a hotel, workshops in hotels. The alternatives are cheaper, more cost effective and probably just as good, with a light touch from the experts far away, if at all.  This is how it should be, should have been for a long time. But there are interests at stake, the (expensive) experts who need to be paid, the organization replenishing its overhead kitty by sending these experts out. The US taxpayers footing the bill. The new order is an awakening: we can do more for less.

If we pull off next weeks’ assignments, producing intended outcomes, this will prove that I have worked myself out of a job. I am glad I am at the end, and not the beginning, of my international public health career. I see less and less use of people like me, and more value being given to local experts. 

But for now, I am a little nervous and asking myself, can I pull this off? Can I handle Zoom and Jamboards and glitches and time zones and Zoom fatigue all at the same time, and all that in French?

Our turn

The crows have always been here, at least for the last 150 years. We know this from a center page engraving in Harper’s Weekly (August 6, 1887). It features a ‘murder’ (yes, that’s the collective noun!) of crows circling over Lobster Cove. It was drawn by Harry Fenn in a series called ‘Around Cape Ann.’ The offspring (we’d like think) of those crows are still here.

About five years ago, many of the crows were killed by the West Nile Virus. We found their bodies all over the place, and dutifully reported the dead beasts. But it didn’t kill all of them.

Lately I watched as the crow population has not only surged, but the beasts seem larger than usual, and more aggressive. They are dive-bombing and hassling the squirrels in ways I cannot remember. I was wondering whether this is what happens when you lose many members of your species after a virus has ravaged the population. 

The ones we see now survived the onslaught, as their average lifespan is about 13 years or so.  Are they stronger than the lost family members? Darwin would say yes. Were they also more aggressive? My own eyes tell me yes.

And now it is our turn. I wonder if the crows are watching us, and in their own caw-caw language contemplate what they see below them, and ask themselves questions like, how will these humans emerge from their virus episode? Will their survivors be stronger, like us? Will they be more aggressive, like us?

I think they’d be wrong. I have seen so many instances of generosity, from companies to their customers, from total strangers to total strangers, from all those critical workers to their fellow citizens. It’s true I have also seen instances of aggression that I could not have imagined when the crows started dying, but these are far outnumbered by the acts of goodness and generosity.

I’d like to think that we are not at all like crows.

Poof time

In the introduction to the 2009 edition of his book ‘Theory U’ Otto Scharmer writes, “Because our thin crust of order and stability could blow up at any time, now is the moment to pause and become aware of what’s rising from the rubble.” The reference to ‘rising from the rubble..’ comes from Vaclav Havel’s Liberty Medal acceptance speech at Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (4 July 1994): “I think there are good reasons for suggesting that the modern age has ended. Today, many things indicate that we are going through a transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born. It is as if something were crumbling, decaying, and exhausting itself, while something else, still indistinct, were arising from the rubble.”

So, here we are, 26 years after Havel said those words, and 10 years after Scharmer wrote his. The thin crust has blown up and we are now in this strange new world, wading into the rubble of the old. 

As we hear other people’s perspectives on COVID-19 and the new world it has created for us, I see people on a spectrum that range from “this is nothing more than a very bad case of the ordinary flu!” (expressed by the guys who cut our neighbors lawn, who don’t wear masks or gloves), to “things will never be the same again” (as predicted by many scientists, economists, finance people, and me, all masked and gloved).

The SARS-CoV2 virus, in all its cleverness and tinyness, has accomplished in just a few months what the most brilliant, enlightened, farsighted and imaginative people failed to do since the second world war: getting people out of their boxes and reinvent how to live together on this planet in ways that are sustainable and leave no one behind.

Until just a few months ago plenty of people (at least among those who had the ability and resources to do so) had no interest in changing the way they worked. Now we are collectively doing it, even though some do it kicking and screaming. The people who will weather this storm are the ones who were prepared and saw this coming. Or those who may not have seen this coming, who are nevertheless able to see silver linings (no more commutes, more quality time with the kids, more freedom, no disruptions from bored or gossipy colleagues), and possibilities for the future.

As we now know for sure, we were never very imaginative about our future. We simply extrapolated from the past and present, with minor tweaks. The people who didn’t believe in online education kept on expanding their campuses with more real estate, upping their tuitions to pay for it all and hitting their wealthy alumns for never big enough endowments in an ever rising spiral. And now it’s ‘poof’ time.

In 1911 the Scottish naturalist John Muir wrote in his book My First Summer in the Sierra, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitches to everything in the universe.” I always thought this was about nature and the universe, but now I see it is also about our supply chains: Vietnamese factories cannot make an important export product (clothing) because they can’t get the buttons which come from China where the factory that made them is closed because the workers went home to be with their families and, even though they are now open, they cannot staff them because for them too, everything hitches to other parts of the supply chain, whether human or material.  It’s Poof time on a grand scale

November 2020


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