Carl Zimmer's National Geographic article, "The Parts of Life," merits reading -- and rereading. The structure of networks, meaning their level of complexity, is difficult to understand but Zimmer moves carefully to lay out an experiment conducted by Jeff Clune (University of Wyoming), Jean-Baptiste Mouret (Pierre
and Marie Curie University, Paris), and Hod Lipson (Cornell University). If I've got this right, their experiments indicated that "minimally-linked networks spontaneously produce[s] modules."
Why is this important? Modules are the basis of life -- parts make up wholes, what Jeff Stamps talked about in his book, Holonomy, drawing on Arthur Koestler's elegant term holon, meaning whole-part. As Zimmer says:
We’re made of parts. Our skull is distinct from our spine. Our liver
does not grade subtly into our intestines. Of course, the parts have to
be connected for us to work as a whole: a skull completely separated
from a spine is not much good to anyone.
This is obvious in physical and biological systems, viz. see Herbert Simon's classic, "The Architecture of Complexity." But what about social systems? Do minimally linked networks/organizations spontaneously produce modular groups of mini-networks that can specialize to solve problems?
What is just-the-right-number of links to produce just-the-right-kind of modules to get work done? Complexity scientist Stuart Kauffman has written about this, postulating that there is some apt number of links to create that "place" between order and chaos. See this white paper that we wrote some time ago, "Organizing at the Edge of Chaos," which plays with the tradeoff between too many links and too few in organizations.
About six weeks ago, I received an email with the subject line "Interest...:"
Good morning Jessica!
I was wondering if you do invited talks on working virtually?
I’m running an event for a senior team at [a well known European company] with whom I have a long standing relationship.
My expertise is in dialogue and perhaps we could consider doing an interview with you to close a two day session in late January? Or maybe you’d prefer to do a talk, in person or virtually!
Do let me know if it’s worth us having a chat on Skype or something about this.
By the way – I read your writing about Jeff on your blog and found it incredibly moving and eloquent. Thank you.
Karl James Director The Dialogue Project 20 Temple Sheen Road London SW14 7QG +44 (0) 20 8878 0929 Twitter: @2plus2makes5
What ensued were a couple of conversations during which Karl explained the engagement and we developed the kind of rapport one does with like-minded people whom you meet only over Skype or on the phone. I sent him an essay I'd written about New Zealand; he sent me a link to an extraordinary radio program he's done for Radio 4 in the UK, which airs today.
I went to high school in a different Newtown (Pennsylvania). During my junior year, five sudden deaths cracked our confidence that tomorrow wouldn't be more horrific than today. The explosion of extinction was impossible to comprehend in our bucolic, privileged boarding-school world.
In November, President Kennedy was assassinated.
Three weeks later, my close friend Katie's mother died of a brain hemorrhage.
Eight weeks after that, my father died of a massive heart attack.
A month after that, the school librarian committed suicide.
A week after that, the 28-year-old wife of our favorite teacher also died of a brain hemorrhage.
In our 16-year-old way, we cleverly covered our bottomless grief with sarcasm, irony, and humor. I returned from my father's funeral to find a note that Katie had left on my pillow.
"Welcome to The Club," it said, inviting me to join her and her roommate, Lee, whose father had committed suicide a few years earlier, in a cynical game: We would ferret out the parental status of every student and give awards for people with the worst family situation--like the boy whose parents died and whose adoptive parents then got divorced. We "presented" the accolades secretly, of course, because those not in The Club didn't understand our pathetic, yet for us, life-sustaining "research." We named the school librarian "President-in-Absentia" of The Club.
Oh. I almost forgot. In June of that year, the three civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi. The younger brother of one of them became a lifelong friend when he and I, and the following year, Katie, all went to Antioch College.
Nearly half a century has gone by since the founding of The Club and I still think about that string of deaths, especially my father's, almost every day.
It made me a first-responder to grief, showing up when friends have had to face the ultimate disappearing act, which I thought would make it easier when I had to confront the monumental loss of my husband, Jeff Stamps, eighteen months ago. I knew about death, I thought. I understood its dimensions, its contours, what to expect. I didn't. Each death leads into its own labyrinth of grief and I've had moments when I've thought I'd never find my way out.
Yet Jeff's death was so different from that string of deaths -- and the unspeakable agony of last Friday in Connecticut's Newtown--that it's nearly impossible to label them all as "death." Jeff's death was anticipated, not sudden, natural in the sense that it was cancer, not brain hemorrhages or suicides or, it's so hard to even type, the gunning down of little bundles of potential and joy, six and seven-year-olds (and the six adults, we can't forget them) who only went to school, not Mississippi.
Yet...and this is the reason for this post...the lifelong effect of these deaths, all of these deaths, can't be captured in a blog post or a memoir or a church service like the one I went to yesterday where the minister (like President Obama last night) read the names of all who died.
Living through the grief is a moment by moment thing, especially at the beginning, when those who survive are only barely present, only barely eating, only barely sleeping. It's a bit like they way people describe an Everest climb, I think -- after great struggle, you make it to base camp and think you can breathe, then have to drop down to catch your breath. You try to ascend again, then have to drop down even lower, gasping, thinking you'll never really breathe again.
People, trying to help, say stupid things to you like "it takes time" but the time-taking is precisely what is so excruciating. Here I'm reporting on my most recent experience. The beginning was indescribable, really, even if I appeared to be functioning, going to meetings, working, giving presentations. But when I was alone... I'll leave it there for now.
All of our hearts are in splinters for the families and friends of the murdered in Newtown--and there are some of us, too many of us, who know how long, steep, arduous, and sometimes hopeless the journey ahead is for the survivors. We, those of us not directly connected to Newtown, will remember but the magnitude of what's happened there is beyond measure for the families. Just one death, just five were gargantuan and everlasting.
As so many before me have said, you never get over such loss; you just get a bit more used to it. But that takes a very very very long time.
Don't leave them alone. Not now. Not a year from now. Not ever.
Lybba, the "do good, be well" nonprofit founded by Jesse Dylan, is a groundbreaker. Its vision is to build an "open-source health and learning network offering a model of personalized medicine that is scalable, affordable, and broadly available." I had the chance to work with them two years ago and was mightily impressed by their approach and reach.
Recently, Bruna Mori, managing editor of Lybbaverse, the organization's blog, asked me to contribute a portion of Jeff Stamps's memoir about his dying, "A Dangerous Experiment." You can read that excerpt, from the beginning of the memoir and never before published, here.
Thanks, Bruna, and David Fore, Lybba's executive director, who made this happen.
Though I missed the annual Thanksgiving "Engage with Grace Blog Rally," it was not because I wasn't thinking about it. It's never too late to think about this stuff. In fact, it's never too early. The closer we bring death, the easier life is, at least in my (limited) experience. Having lived through a death where the person embraced the end, I am (eternally) grateful that he didn't fight it. In fact, Jeff Stamps entered his final year with enormous "grace."
Here again are the questions that "Engage with Grace" folks recommend families discuss; here also is their annual preamble to the conversation.
The Engage With Grace post for 2012
One of our favorite things we ever heard Steve Jobs say is… ‘If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.’
We love it for three reasons:
1) It reminds all of us that living with intention is one of the most important things we can do.
2) It reminds all of us that one day will be our last.
3) It’s a great example of how Steve Jobs just made most things
(even things about death – even things he was quoting) sound better.
Most of us do pretty well with the living with intention part – but the dying thing? Not so much.
And maybe that doesn’t bother us so much as individuals because heck,
we’re not going to die anyway!! That’s one of those things that happens
to other people….
Then one day it does – happen to someone else. But it’s someone that
we love. And everything about our perspective on end of life changes.
If you haven’t personally had the experience of seeing or helping a
loved one navigate the incredible complexities of terminal illness, then
just ask someone who has. Chances are nearly 3 out of 4 of those
stories will be bad ones – involving actions and decisions that were at
odds with that person’s values. And the worst part about it? Most of
this mess is unintentional – no one is deliberately trying to make
anyone else suffer – it’s just that few of us are taking the time to
figure out our own preferences for what we’d like when our time is near,
making sure those preferences are known, and appointing someone to
advocate on our behalf.
Goodness, you might be wondering, just what are we getting at and why
are we keeping you from stretching out on the couch preparing your
belly for onslaught?
Thanksgiving is a time for gathering, for communing, and for thinking
hard together with friends and family about the things that matter.
Here’s the crazy thing – in the wake of one of the most intense
political seasons in recent history, one of the safest topics to debate
around the table this year might just be that one last taboo: end of
life planning. And you know what? It’s also one of the most important.
Here’s one debate nobody wants to have – deciding on behalf of a
loved one how to handle tough decisions at the end of their life. And
there is no greater gift you can give your loved ones than saving them
from that agony. So let’s take that off the table right now, this
weekend. Know what you want at the end of your life; know the
preferences of your loved ones.
Print out this one slide with just these five questions on it.
Have the conversation with your family. Now. Not a year from now,
not when you or a loved one are diagnosed with something, not at the
bedside of a mother or a father or a sibling or a life-long partner…but
NOW. Have it this Thanksgiving when you are gathered together as a
family, with your loved ones.
Why? Because now is when it matters. This is the conversation to have
when you don’t need to have it. And, believe it or not, when it’s a
hypothetical conversation – you might even find it fascinating. We
find sharing almost everything else about ourselves fascinating – why
not this, too? And then, one day, when the real stuff happens? You’ll
Doing end of life better is important for all of us. And the good
news is that for all the squeamishness we think people have around this
issue, the tide is changing, and more and more people are realizing that
as a country dedicated to living with great intention – we need to
apply that same sense of purpose and honor to how we die.
One day, Rosa Parks refused to move her seat on a bus in Montgomery
County, Alabama. Others had before. Why was this day different?
Because her story tapped into a million other stories that together sparked a revolution that changed the course of history.
Each of us has a story – it has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
We work so hard to design a beautiful life – spend the time to design a
beautiful end, too. Know the answers to just these five questions for
yourself, and for your loved ones. Commit to advocating for each other.
Then pass it on. Let’s start a revolution.
Jeff Stamps, who invented OrgScope, the software that allows for digital mapping of complex organizations (all OrgScope posts at this link), took the lead in writing this post -- and he (not I, credit truly due to him) did the hard work of mapping the then-incoming Obama administration. In a few hours (we hope this doesn't drag on--it's election day in the US, all non-American readers), it will be time to update this chart again. We published this as a memo to the transition team, encouraging a style of open governing that would make it immensely easier for people to navigate government -- both those in the government and those needing government.
And while I'm on the subject of a single citizen/thinker/business person taking responsibility for researching and publishing information just because he knew it was important, I also want to point to Jeff's detailed work on following the money of the TARP (remember TARP?) funding back when the Bush administration first started bailing out the financial institutions.
OK. It's election day. What do I think? We need to update this chart with information for the turnover in the Obama administration that begins tomorrow.
The Times interactive page shows four of Danny's works with the ability to mouse over and see them in more detail. Click-worthy, for sure.
This photo, from Danny's website, says what words cannot, him painting, what he's painting, and how he paints it.
It was my good luck to meet Danny when he was a teenager. His brother, Eddie Hauben, and his wife Jan (Ward) Hauben, were our first friends in Boston, whom we met in the context of bringing Bucky Fuller to Boston to stage World Game here in the summer of 1970. The story, of course, has many twists to it -- Eddie worked for Bucky; Jan worked for Gus Jaccaci, a futurist who had previously been a Harvard admission's office who had tried to recruit my late husband, Jeff Stamps, to Harvard so that he would ski with the Harvard team. (FTR, he chose Dartmouth instead, where he lasted for less than a year--it was all-male then and far too conservative for him--before transferring to University of New Hampshire.) Gus was working at Boston College at the time and in his role as Arts Assistant to the President was able to sponsor World Game.
And it was evident from first meeting Danny that he was a major talent. Most people (everyone?) in our lifelong network of friends who grew out of that 1970 confluence of interests own Danny's pieces, including one of our house, a pastel from the perspective of the back yard, that has hung in the dining room since 1985 when I asked Danny to do it. Just superb.
Dear friend and colleague Linda Guinee just sent me this photo of the lovely lantern that she made for the 14th Annual Lantern Festival at Forest Hills Cemetery, which took place tonight. The calligraphy reads "peace."
From the site: "The Lantern Festival draws its inspiration from the Japanese Bon Festival -- a celebration each year when a door opens to the world of their ancestors allowing loved ones to send messages to the other side. It is a time when neighbors come together to share stories, celebrate, and honor the memories of loved ones."
One year ago today, Jeff Stamps died of pancreatic cancer, at home, where he wanted to be -- where he always wanted to be, even at his very healthiest. In the thirteen highly-productive months that he lived post-diagnosis, he pulled together three manuscripts, including his memoir, A Dangerous Experiment, that I've posted from before here.
In thinking about what to post today, I'd planned to include the last sections that he wrote. But I can't find them. Chalk this up to circumstances (I don't have access to his computer today, for example), but there are likely other reasons. Thus, I'm posting a section he wrote on "centeredness," a very good word that arcs across how Jeff wore his fate.
The beautiful little boy in this picture was centered as only two-year-olds can be. Watching our identical twin grandsons today, just a little older than Jeff was when this picture was taken, I thought many times of Jeff as a little boy, wide-eyed in wonderment at the moment. Which is precisely how he approached his death. He is so missed.
From A Dangerous Experiment by Jeffrey S. Stamps
I feel centered. Looking through my notes and at earlier drafts of this book, the word appears often as my attitudinal shorthand. Recently, a friend spontaneously said, “You look centered.”
In simple terms, a centered attitude lies between optimism and pessimism, a middle-way that looks as clearly as possible at the current situation and options, then leans in one direction or the other along the lines of one’s normal inclinations. This centered attitude might be usefully thought of as a third bucket, a third way of being a terminal patient aside from optimist or pessimist.
A centered stance may also go deeper and include a quality of mindfulness.
In my terminal initiation story, I have experienced feelings of calm and acceptance as I dealt with news no one wants to hear. I continued to examine this feeling against the denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance stages and found myself already moved into a starkly new personal reality. I did not flip out as the realization hit full force with my friend Dr. Tom Lamont telling me “some of my patients live as long as a year.”
As the days, weeks, and months have unfolded, a time of emotional intensity filled with lots of positive and negative events, I have found a new normal and an attitude of equanimity. For the most part I don’t get too bummed out by negatives, nor do I punch the air with the thrill of victory, particularly not with respect to the course of my treatment and disease. As for negatives, how bad can it get? I’m going to die relatively soon.
I want to emphasize that this equanimity, this centeredness, is not a passive state, some pleasure-pain neuter midpoint. To the contrary, it is a very active emotion, always adjusting to fast-changing circumstances. Sometimes it is struggling to limit feelings of loss, particularly in the wake of my young friend Wangchuk’s suicide. Sometimes it is tamping down feelings of success, like those a good CT scan can bring. Throughout, an attitude of equanimity seeks to find something good, precious, or just memorable in the moment.
Most practically, equanimity is about not getting angry. Of course this means not expressing anger, but, more importantly, not feeling angry, not being angry. There are always exceptions brought about by unique causal conditions and intentions. Sometimes it is very important to be angry, to do something, or not, and then get over it. But I believe that a permanent state of anger is likely to lead to more personal sickness and an earlier death. It also strongly affects people around you as those anger effects ripple on through networks of social relationships…
The real underlying driver is personal transformation, to get as close to “enlightenment” as possible. I don’t know what enlightenment is, so “it” is in quotes. I may know it when I see it, or, more likely, I am seeing it all the time but not recognizing it. In uncomplicated terms, the goal is a better me while simultaneously graciously negotiating the inevitable forced detachment from the things and, eventually, the people that have made me my self.
What I can do is share what I’ve learned about learning, which is to immerse yourself in the stuff you want to know about and watch for the synergistic patterns to emerge. In this case, the “stuff” for emergent discovery is life and end-of-life experience.
Immersion is being mindful, creative, and committed when dealing with the ordinary affairs of life—the proverbial dishes. It often means bringing some life-and-death issue to information overload and forced resolution as time moves along, such as whether to accept a new treatment. New information is constantly streaming in. Much is to be ignored, but some information is life-critical and not necessarily carrying a sign to that effect. Immersion is in life, in the approaching end of life, and the reality of your condition and survivability, which are in constant flux.
I know I can reach beyond where I am, and the knowledge of terminality offers a very simple and easy-to-understand lesson on the preciousness of each moment and the meaning of the admonition “don’t waste time.” The word “precious,” which I have used throughout this memoir, is preciously close to being a cliché. Nevertheless, it is an excellent term for a grand body of spiritual discovery from many traditions that attention to the present reveals the whole in every moment. The word evokes a jewel-like quality and brilliance, catching and displaying light in myriad twinkling patterns. And that, indeed, is the quality of precious time.
I noticed such a precious moment recently in a late-autumn walk in the woods with my daughter Eliza and her dog Sola under a cloudless sky and noon-high sun. A few late-blooming hardwoods painted near and distant woodscapes with splotches of color. The forest floor was coated with brown and crackly dead leaves. Except this morning they shone as pools of light, each and every leaf, creating a sea of rippling light that streamed out of a motley mass of fallen life. Crackling with each step, we strode across a shimmering wooded sea.
I have walked the woods from the earliest years of my childhood but never before noticed the late fall sea of light. Or knew that I noticed it.
The transforming effect of my terminal period is beginning to spread. In my own experience, active equanimity was particularly noticeable in my Terminal Bardo reality. That is, I could apply a nimble calmness most easily to the more difficult circumstances inside the new cancer-bubble normal, while in the regular-life normal, I had the usual range of conflicting emotional experiences about things clearly not so important. Sometime in the early fall I became aware that equanimity had become a more prominent feature of my regular normal, and I continue to work on this all-important path of personal growth. If not now, when?
I will need every possible psychological advantage to navigate more difficult days ahead.
More remarkable, I think, is the spread of some sort of transformative centeredness to those most immediately affected by my death. This does not mean not living with grief as well as happiness, but it is an active engagement with the reality of our situation and the hard growth that requires.
I cannot tell you how to be centered any more than I can tell you how to be optimistic or pessimistic. Nor can I tell you how I got to be centered, if I am.
What I can say is that I am more centered than I thought I would be, if I ever thought about it before. With this memoir, I can show you what trying to live that attitude looks like from the inside.
Centered is what I would like to be when I die, and before.