Belwood Step Dancing …or Brain Training on the Edge!

The Community Hall was packed with people – mothers, fathers, kids everywhere – and the judge sat front and centre, ready to assess the steps of each participant. We were numbers 205 and 206, and I was sooooooo nervous. I hoped that when the music started, my feet would just do what I have trained them to do, but I had no idea if they would.

What am I talking about? My step dancing competition from last week!

There’s lots of research that tells us that as we age, our brains get smaller. Nerves die off, losing their connections, and that leads to a thinned out network feeding our thinking functions. But brain shrinkage isn’t inevitable, and that research also tells us that picking up a challenging new hobby makes a huge difference. I’ve successfully managed to ignore this fact until my friend Marlene sprang into my kitchen after her first step dancing lesson, loudly announcing that I would be joining her from now on. (I actually don’t recall having any part in that decision, by the way.)

Marlene picked me up the following week, and dragged me to Chanda Leahy’s studio. Fast forward about 7 months, and you find the two of us in the Belwood Community Hall, ready to dance a reel at the Spring Rain Feis 2017, while Chanda’s son Xavier accompanied us on his fiddle.

I’m a musician, and I thought that learning the steps to some jigs and reels would be easy. NOPE! Despite having the most remarkable teacher in the world, it was quite a few months before I made the switch from looking like I was stomping cockroaches skittering across the hardwood floor to something vaguely resembling dancing.

Which brings me to last Saturday when Marlene and I got ready to perform. We were in the Pre-Beginner Category (seriously), and our “competition” ranged in age from 5 – 12 years old – we were the only adults!!! The kids took their performing seriously; they had clearly practiced more regularly that the two of us, who had those silly day jobs to keep us occupied.


Our competition…with Xavier accompanying them, and Chanda looking hopeful!

None of that mattered, of course. All that mattered was the certainty that my heart was about to explode in my chest while I waited to perform. There was anxious banter between the two of us and Xavier while he tuned his fiddle, and I wondered how I was ever going to remember all the steps. With mild panic setting in, I realized that I might crash and burn in front of all those parents and kids.

How may times do we, as adults, really experience that feeling of risk, of fear of failure? When was the last time you felt your heart jack hammering with uncertainty? Do you take risks? Are you prepared to try and fail? And what happens when you do?

I think many of us adults coast through our days doing things that are safe and secure. We don’t step to the edge of our comfort zones, because that’s un-comfortable. It takes extra effort that, in our busy, crazy and chaotic lives, we don’t want to expend. It’s easier (and safer) to just do the same old / same old. So we do.

Who knew step dancing was going to take me to the edge? But when Xavier started to play (at warp speed, I might add), my adrenaline-infused feet began to dance, and I was carried away with delight that I was actually doing this crazy thing!

And the risk was so worth it!IMG_4472 2

I’d love to tell you that we won our Pre-Beginner Category…but that is not the case. I can tell you that we grinned through the entire sequence, and by the time we were done, everyone in the audience was grinning with us. We got a huge round of applause and one little girl told me she thought we were very brave.

Our Saturday morning was a clear reminder to me that I need to make myself less comfortable now and then, and that a little risk – of failure, of embarrassment, of a mis-step – bring a sense of accomplishment and pride when it’s done. Just try it. I’ll be here, grinning and clapping for you!

Anastasia’s Music

I was running south on Shaw’s Creek Road and a beautiful tune came through my headphones, an Andrea Beaton original that made my feet dance and my face grew a smile. I found myself humming along and by the time I got home, I had to grab my fiddle, pull the tune out of my memory and play it.

Close ups

Pulling a tune out of thin air…

I’m lucky like that. I can’t always remember the words to songs, or have the first notes of a tune ready to just start and play. But if I hear a tune few times, I can almost always play it back. I’ve never thought much about that skill, until I met my most wonderful friend Anastasia. 

Anastasia (or Aunti-Stasia, as I sometimes say in my head) is an amazing fiddler. She picks up her bow, and she looks like a professional player,  with an intense focus and drive. She’s also a  NINJA when it comes to sight reading. You can put anything in front of her, and she can play it. It is almost as if her brain doesn’t even have to register the notes she sees, and the tune goes from the paper to her eyes and down to her fingers in lightning speed. At our Tuesday night fiddle group with Sandy MacIntyre, she puts us all to shame when we get a new set of tunes, because she can play them perfectly as soon as she sees them.

But here’s the thing: she has serious trouble memorizing tunes. She can read anything. But take the music away, and she’s temporarily lost. 

I have read about how people’s brains are different, and I can acknowledge that, intellectually. But it really wasn’t until I spent time playing music with Anastasia that I really, truly understood how different people can be.

At first glance, Anastasia and I pretty similar. She’s got a handful of university degrees, and so do I. We are both medium height, with Germanic last names. We are both runners, and we play the fiddle. And we both smile a lot.


Partners in crime after our Half Marathon in Ottawa!

But the way that we process information is dramatically different! My brain seems to capture the tune in its entirety, and I can reproduce it. Anastasia’s brain sees the individual parts of the tune, as transcribed in notes, rests, time signatures, and she reproduces it. We can both play the music, but we do it using different skill sets. 

I was running a workshop for York Region last week, and I had a room full of people who worked in the forestry sector. A quick glance around the room told me everyone was pretty much the same – outdoorsy types who prefer to wear plaid shirts and hiking boots, but were stuck behind a desk doing management plans. I imagined that everyone was going to have the same ideas and perspectives about the upcoming tree planting programs.

But then I thought of Anastasia and our differences. How many people around the table had brains that worked like mine? And how many were like Anastasia? And (gasp) how many other kinds of brains were out there???!!!

Before I got myself twisted into a knot, it occurred to me that I could just ask a question and I’d find out what kinds of brains were going to contribute to the discussions. So well before panic set in, I simply asked people to tell me how they “thought”. Were they problem solvers? Were they skeptics? Did they see a few clear choices, or did they see a variety of options? Could they hear the music and repeat it, or did they prefer to see all the notes beforehand?

As each person shared the way they “thought”, I wrote down their responses on a flip chart so we could all see them. Once I realized the wide variety of thinkers who sat around 


Don’t be blind to the differences!

the table, I got excited about the diversity of ideas, options and models that we could generate. And interestingly enough, once everyone else understood this incredible diversity, they looked at one another differently and with a more critical appreciation of what each person could contribute.

Suddenly, the plaid shirts appeared quite different!

My take away from this? If you are a facilitator, or a participant in a meeting, or any living, breathing human being, please don’t forget that there is a wealth of diversity all around you, and that is goes above and beyond gender, culture and apparel choices. Take the time to recognize and take advantage of that diversity in your work and your personal life, and celebrate the differences as your move closer towards your goals.

I read a quotation this morning that said: Play the music, not the instrument. So listen for Anastasia and I playing music this weekend. She’ll be the one paying close attention to the notes, making no mistakes and playing with joy. I’ll be the one with my eyes closed, playing whatever notes come from my fingers, and also playing with joy. We may get to the music in different ways, but the result makes us both happy! 

Nothing but a song

I went to a conference last weekend. Or to be more accurate, I crashed a conference last weekend. In truth, I hadn’t actually intended on going. I was in Victoria, visiting with my most wonderful friend Marj Welch. We did what we do each year: she works up in her office, I work in a make-shift office at the dining room table. We converge at the end of the day to walk her dog Bobbie, eat our dinner and tell stories till the wee hours. Somewhere in there, we all head up to Cowichan Lake to visit with my friend Andy and family, and play music for hours and hours (and hours) on end.

This year, the EECOM conference was taking place at the University of Victoria while I was out west. The contract work I am doing right now is not related to environmental learning per se, and I was more interested in visiting with my friends out there, particularly Olivia, Sonia and Darrell, than attending a conference. But Holly Arntzen was playing at the Saturday night EECOM event, and she is quite remarkable (  And besides, Grant, Luba, Remy and Sue all conspired to convince me to come, just for the evening. I am so glad I did.

Holly and her partner Kevin, and the rest of the band The Wilds, were wonderful. They were backed up by the Getting Higher Choir from Victoria, and before I knew it, there were about 30 of us up, singing and dancing with Holly and company. The performance ended, and many of us gathered outside to ponder the remainder of the evening.

Which, of course, had to involve more music. The dancers and singers moseyed and sashayed through the residences and found a “campfire” to gather around. Well, campfire, not so much. But circle of chairs and a few cold beers, a taste of Strathisla single malt, and it was anything and everything we wanted! And if you know me at all, you will know that you’ll find me wherever music is being made. A fiddle, a mandolin and a guitar, supported by happy voices, is a magical event and I want to be in the middle of it all.

What I wanted to share with you was not so much the magic of the night, but the connections that music can make. I had crashed the conference. I didn’t have a name tag. I didn’t know anyone other than a few familiar faces. But after a few songs and switching from instrument to instrument, I had a circle full of new friends. I didn’t have a clue what they did, but I knew they were interested in environmental learning and in music…so they were kindred spirits to me.

Interestingly enough, when we took a wee break to refresh, I started chatting with Lidia, one of the singers, a lovely young woman from Quebec. Do you know that she was not interested in traditional environmental learning, but more interested in working with adults, with communities, exploring the role of stakeholders in environmental change? And do you know that I am interested in the same thing? And that without music, without the gathering that brought us all together to sing, I would have never known anyone else at the conference was interested in the same things that intrigued me?

It was music that brought us together but our shared interests outside music that made us both sit up and notice. The conversations I had with Lidia convinced me to beg for admission to the next day’s morning session, and explore, discuss and consider new paths for pubic awareness, engagement and communications.

It was nothing but a song that brought us together. But it was everything.

Post conference tunes!

Post conference tunes!

Can you use your passions to slow down?

Busy-ness and passion. Those are two things I’ve been thinking about lately. I’m busy packing, storing, throwing out, doing all those things involved in moving. Oh yes, and then there’s my work, filled with projects and clients who need time and attention. I’m madly running from one place to another, trying to organize while my head is spinning around on my shoulders.

All I really want to do is indulge in my passions for a while – skiing, running, fishing, and music.

Because when I am involved in something I am passionate about, “it”, and not all the other “stuff”, captures my attention and focus. My mind, that is currently flitting from project to client to tape and packing crates, will slow down and focus on one thing instead of a gazillion. Here’s what I wrote to a friend last year about how I feel when I am fishing…

For me, there is a bizarre sense of urgency coupled with a peace of mind, body and soul that salmon fishing brings. A sense of urgency, because once I am near “the river” (which is any river where I might wet a fly), I want get out, walk around, make decisions about type of fly, where the best lies are, and how quickly can I get my waders and gear on to get out in the river. My heart just races, and I usually laugh out loud because I’m so anxious. Once I get geared up and I know where I want to cast, I step into the water. 

And that’s when time stands still.

Just one more cast?

Just one more cast?

The urgency stops. All the thoughts that seem to bang around in my head – about kids, money, relationships – everything leaves my mind. I feel the pull and push of the water, and focusing on balance becomes essential, and then second nature. The temperature of the water means my feet get cold, but it doesn’t matter. My heartbeat seems to slow down and as soon as I start to cast my line out, there is a peace the just embraces me. 

Things that we are passionate about allow us to rest, or allow our minds to rest. For those of us who are busy doing those gazillion things, when we indulge in our passions, we let all the extraneous busy-ness float away, and we pause. Casting a fly rod, riding a horse, skiing down a mountain…it is all the same. Our minds, used to traveling at warp speed and changing directions at a moment’s notice, are quieted and focused.

For you, it may be the thrill of the steeps at Whistler. Or the calm and delight that comes from writing a new song. Perhaps it is walking in the woods, or playing a guitar. But that time when you are focused on your passion allows you to pause and rest.

When I really think about all the work I have ahead of me, I get so anxious my teeth chatter and I want to chain myself to my desk (or cover myself in packing tape!). But then all I do is focus on my ankles…where I can imagine the water coming up over my wading boots and the feel of the current pressing on my legs.  My passion allows me to pause and rest.

What is your passion? Can you use it, in these busy and hectic times, to pause and rest? Try it. Tell me how it works.

Pretty passionate about skiing as well. Peak to Peak Gondola with no one else but the two of us!

Pretty passionate about skiing as well. Peak to Peak Gondola with no one else but the two of us!

Rooftops and Satellites

What happens when you mix Colin James, Roger Von Oech, Stephen Voltz and Fritz Grobe? (aka a musician, a creativity specialist, and two video specialists?)

Well, you get me! At least, you get what my mind has envisioned by trying to recognize patterns and find meaning in what each of these individuals has to share. I woke up this morning to James’ “Love is calling” (, read from von Oech’s Innovative Whack Pack, and reviewed Voltz and Grobe’s “Four rules for successful viral marketing”.

von Oech challenged me to drop my assumptions, because they are not always a reliable predictor of the future. In fact, the more assumptions we make, the less likely we are to find the unexpected. So instead of assuming my day would be normal, I looked for something unexpected. I chose to believe I could find messages and opportunities in James’ music, in the Voltz and Grobe literature, and in my immediate surroundings. Here’s what I came up with, as it relates to both my professional career and my personal life:

  1. Engage people: I talked about team building initiatives a short while ago. I asked for input and ideas, and I assumed I would get a smattering of input from a few friends who read this to be nice to me. Instead, I received input from places and people I had not expected. Lessons learned? Expect the unexpected. But if you want people to react/respond/contribute, engage them in an activity.
  2. Use emotions: Colin James’ song tugs at my heart and his lyrics provoke emotions. Emotions are a part of everyone’s reality, both personal and professional. Recognizing that reality is honest, and reaches down to people’s souls. In workshops, in conferences, speaking engagements, and everything else, reach out through emotions.
  3. Don’t waste our time: Avoid long introductions. Avoid too many words. Voltz and Grobe refer to “money shots” in movies – those provocative, memorable scenes that viewers focus on and remember. When running a workshop, make certain everything you do has purpose and contains mostly “money shots”. Use emotion, engage your audience, and jump right in!
  4. Be unforgettable: “Over the rooftops and satellites, I hope you hear me out there tonight”. James describes something that people haven’t heard before. He brings together rooftops and satellites. Way cool! I may forget the rest of the words to the song, but not that. So in business, in life…show people something which they will not easily forget.


    One of my Olivias, being unforgettable!

Now, those are just moments of clarity that I’ve come up with today…they may change tomorrow, but for today, they work. I’ve got two workshops coming up. I am going to use these reflections and incorporate them into my facilitation plans. But here’s my challenge in which I hope to engage you:

I want to collect a series of THE VERY BEST warm up activities that you’ve ever experienced. I’ll share one of mine: At the beginning of a one day workshop, I often ask participants to write down what they would do/be if they weren’t doing their current job. It allows everyone to dream for a moment, to admit he or she might like to be a musician, a fishing guide, a sommelier or something entirely different. It engages people, it provokes emotion, it doesn’t take or waste much time, and often people remember your preferred occupation over the one that you really do!

I'm ruling out professional seamstress to my alternate profession list. I think I just pinned my hair to this mitten!

I’m ruling out professional seamstress on my alternate profession list. I think I just pinned my hair to this mitten!

So, your task is this:

Please reflect on workshops you’ve attended, on those you’ve facilitated, and let’s prepare a list of the best warm up activities out there. Add them here  on the blog as a comment, and you’ll have access to what everyone shares. 

Finding Beauty in the Mundane

Every few days, I think “what am I going to write about in my blog?” Usually, I take my regular walk out to the get paper and something strikes me as special, unique or otherwise worthy for sharing. This morning, I was walking while the sun was rising, and I was smitten by the beauty all around me. The fog was lifting, there were birds on the hydro wire, my dogs were following some scent that had their tails wagging, and I was lost in contemplation.

But despite all that, nothing struck me as news worthy to enter here – nothing seemed to inspire me enough to share.

So, as I do when I was to kick-start my day, I turned to Roger Von Oech and his Creative/Innovative Whack Packs ( for some inspiration. I pulled out a card and read: Find Beauty in the Mundane. Von Oech reminds me that I can find beauty in the mundane patterns of everyday life, perhaps in the shapes and colours of rust on a sink pipe, the gentle crack and snap of the wood stove, or the patterns of the ice forming on my deck.  Looking for this not only forces us to reassess the criteria by which we decide what is beautiful, but it also requires us – because of the ephemeral nature of many of these phenomena – to focus on the here and now.

Here and now. Sometimes the “here and now” gets lost in the “hurry up and plan”, “get ready for” and “how will I deal with all I have to do tomorrow”. I know I am guilty of that, especially now that I am planning on moving, and much of my thinking is focused on the future. I find myself staring off into space, plotting and planning for how I will pack, organize or do other things. I am not even noticing the here and now.

Von Oech reminds us that we need to be open to the present moment, and that means using all our senses. We tend to overlook beauty that is found in life’s inconsequential details, but when we notice it, it pleasantly surprises us.

I took a moment. Rory was packing up his car, and he bent down in the gravel driveway to hug Roxy. His 6 foot 2 inch frame was all bent over, with knees almost in the dirt. It was beautiful.

I challenge you today to stop and breathe, in and out. Look around you, not at the artfully crafted, but at the mundane. What beauty can you experience that you might otherwise have missed had you not looked for it? What is humbly beautiful in your life and in your current situation? Share it here….tell me about that beauty.

Moose kissing!

A few blogs ago, I wrote about coming up with 10 new ideas each day. I’ve been trying it out, and finding two things:

  • it’s hard to come up with 10 new ideas each day. I tend to create “to do ” lists instead of new ideas; but
  • it gets easier over time to come up with ideas!

So, here are my 10 ideas for today. They relate to my business and to my life, and I imagine you’ll figure out which is which.

  1. Respond to everyone who writes me an e mail today, as if he/she was my friend
  2. Use Roger Von Oech’s “Creative Whack Pack” for increasing my creativity  (it is amazing!)
  3. Start an Ideas Notebook for these daily ideas. And carry it with me.
  4. Put bird seed for the feeder on the front deck near the front deck.
  5. When Lucy wants to play with her toy, stop typing and focus on playing with her for a few minutes. (If I try to work while I throw the ball, the work suffers, and Lucy doesn’t have as much fun either)
  6. Add something completely new and different in the latest proposal I’m doing. Follow the template provided, but create a Value Add section that highlights my team’s unique attributes as necessary for a successful project
  7. Don’t use the word “creative” in the proposal at all. Find alternative words that are not as over-used.
  8. Do one thing completely unexpected today – like Kira, kissing the moose!

    Moose kissing in Whistler! Why not?

    Moose kissing in Whistler! Why not?

  9. Ask everyone I electronically speak to today to bookmark this site.
  10. You can’t come up with great ideas just sitting at your desk! Get up, look around, and think!

I challenge you: stop what you’re doing (which is reading this!) and think….come up with your own 10 ideas. They can be about work, about home, kids, dogs, whatever. Don’t create a to do list, create an Ideas list. Think outside the box, find the second right answer, reverse your thinking, borrow ideas, see the obvious, make your own rules…create! Good luck, and make sure to share your 10 ideas with me. Maybe I can borrow something from you!