Piece by piece

I just found this in some old files. It’s something I wrote years ago but had forgotten. I still believe it.

Colorful fabric with natureWhat if life isn’t a tapestry, a garment patterned by events, moods, cycles, and stages? Where even a slight change in weave changes the visual effect? What if life, instead, is a collection of swatches, where not the pattern, but the very fabric itself provides the illustration?

Some phases might be unbleached broadcloth. These times are straightforward and functional. Sturdy and strong, but unadorned.

Other times are more delicate, like linen. Crisp and cool, linen phases look pristine, but add a little heat, a little moisture, or a little pressure, and the fabric crumples.

Flannel phases are warm and safe, comfortable and sheltered.

Satin cycles are sleek and sexy.

Burlap patches feel rough and unhewn. They scratch and irritate, and they’re tough to break through.

Taffeta stands up, crisp and sassy.

Cotton times wear soft but true, dependable.

Nylon periods are something made from nothing.

I am a swatch book. You can get to know me by flipping through my pages, using all of your senses to understand who I am and where I’ve been. See the all colors, strident and faded and shimmering and dull. Feel the textures, smooth and rough. Smell the sweat and tears and celebrations that stain me. Hear my crackle and snap under your fingertips. Taste my life through these snippets of cloth. Find me, not in my design, but in my very foundation.

Rearrange my pieces over and over again, and my nature does not change. The elements of my life are indelible; my swatches are product of that which has already happened. No amount of reordering will produce another end result; life is not retroactive. Only a new swatch will adjust my character, piece by piece.

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Duck, duck, goose

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Since I decided I needed to focus less on myself and more on making a difference to others, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get my ducks in a row. In the past I’ve served charities that didn’t hold my attention for long–not because they weren’t worthy, but because I thought I could do more elsewhere. For lack of a better expression, they didn’t speak to my heart.

In this new quest for meaning (I sound so cheesy), I knew it was important to serve an area where my passions lie. The problem was that I wasn’t sure what that might be. So I researched and self-examined and researched some more. I’ll spare you the details of my three-month odyssey toward enlightenment, but the result is that I feel compelled to help in ways that address the most basic level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If you need a refresher on that, it’s the purple segment of this diagram:

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To that end, I’ve begun volunteering at our local food bank, as well as with an organization that serves homeless families in transition. I was prepared to have to undergo training and work my way through some kind of hierarchical process of establishing trust. I expected documentation and lots of recordkeeping; after all, this is important work, so it must require an appropriate bureaucracy for organizing volunteers, right?

Boy, was I ever wrong.

The first time I arrived at the food bank, I listened to a ten-minute safety speech and then found myself being directed to a spot in a food line. When someone asked, What do we need to do?, the only answer that came before the doors opened was, You’ll figure it out. And I did. Within minutes I was elbow-deep in giant boxes of donated bread, stuffing it into bags held open by the outstretched arms of grateful, hungry people.

Fast forward a couple of weeks and a few miles to my interview with the volunteer coordinator for an organization serving homeless families. She only wanted to know what I wanted to do and when I could start–and oh yeah, had I submitted a background check, by the way? With her two cell phones and a steady stream of in-person questions continually interrupting our conversation, she didn’t have time to worry about org charts and personality fits; she just needed help. I said I could start next Saturday.

Silly, bureaucratic, play-by-the-rules me asked, Won’t I need some kind of training? 

Don’t worry, said the volunteer coordinator. The person working with you will show you what to do.

Not having all the answers up front and organized into neat little systematized packages sits well outside my comfort zone. I don’t usually dive willingly into chaos and just start doing. I need a PLAN.

Well, I’m discovering that’s not the way this stuff works. The needs are just too great. There’s too much to do. This work is about survival. They need people to jump in and DO, not sit back and contemplate. After all, when someone is drowning, that person needs someone to dive in and lend a hand as quickly as possible. Sure, there’s necessary preparation, but at that moment, it’s too late to prep more–you’d better have already had your swimming lessons.

I’m not saying these entities aren’t organized; I’m just saying that it’s not my job. In this case, my hands are more important than my head. The lesson I’m learning is that when people are in need, there’s no time to waste. They don’t really need me to have my ducks in a row–they just need ducks.

Okay, then. Let’s get this party started.

The other side of the mountain

Snow_on_the_Fischer_Ranger_96_Ti_SkisWhen I made plans to join my son in Colorado for a ski weekend, I envisioned days of swooshing gracefully down mountain slopes celebrated by nightly dips in the hot tub to soothe happily sore muscles. After all, I told myself, I’m in pretty good shape, I have great athletic endurance, and I’m not afraid to try new things. I might need a little practice to start, but how hard could it be? After all, I had done this before. I even bought a cute new ski jacket to seal the deal.

Did I mention that my “I had done this before” event occurred in 1994? In Michigan, where the highest elevation is 850 feet and the longest vertical drop is 240 feet? I mean, the technique is the same even if you’re skiing in the Colorado Rockies at elevations approaching 13,000 feet, right?

Okay, I’m not a complete idiot. I signed up for a half-day lesson for our first day on the slopes. My son took his snowboard and went off to enjoy the nearly 100 inches of snow base that graced the mountain while I headed to the bunny hill with my instructor Scott and two other guys. My fellow instructees were young enough to be my kids, and I determined that I would NOT be the prissy old lady who was afraid to engage with the mountain.

And I wasn’t. Of the three of us, I was the first one to accomplish all the tasks Scott set forth. I put my skis on. I took them off. I put them on again. I took them off again. I could get in and out of those suckers in a flash.

I sidestepped back and forth. I duck-walked up the hill. I side-stepped up the hill. I snowplowed forward. I mastered the magic carpet conveyor (okay, I fell once when I lost my balance, but I came up laughing) and took the ski lift like a champ. My movements were a little less confident skiing down the bunny hill, but I got it done. I even took my first real fall with aplomb, happy to have gotten it over with. When my lesson was over, I knew I just needed one thing: practice. Lots of it.

I stayed on the bunny hill for a while longer, and then my son and I ended the day together on a green (easy) run. It was a lot higher and a whole lot scarier looking down from the top than it had seemed looking up from the bottom, but I got it done. My future was looking bright, and it wasn’t from the glare off the snow.

Day two started pretty much as I had imagined. We took the lift to a green run, and once again, it seemed a lot scarier from the top. Besides, a little of my confidence had leaked out overnight, but I still made it down in an upright stance. In any case, I just knew that by the end of the day I’d have it mastered. Practice, practice, practice. Green runs were my friend.

At that point, we decided to hop on a different lift to take us to some green runs on another peak to avoid the crowds at our original lift. I wasn’t wearing my glasses, so my son navigated the resort map and directed us accordingly. We hopped on the lift and went up. And up and up and up and up.

By the time we got off, we found ourselves at the top of the mountain. It. Was. Gorgeous. Blue skies, snow covered peaks, views for miles. It was breathtaking.

So was the sign that showed we were at the top of a BLUE (intermediate) run. You know, the ones for people who have skied for more than one day–and it was one of the more challenging blue runs, at that. My heart started racing and my breath came faster and faster. There was no way I was going to be able to get down that mountain. I was still wobbly and tentative on the easy green runs; this one was steeper and faster, and all I could think of was Sonny Bono. Holy crap.

Unfortunately, there was no other way to get down. My son coaxed, cajoled, goaded, and shamed me. He tried everything to get me to point my skis down the mountain and let go. I just couldn’t. Finally I convinced him to go without me and I’d figure it out. I didn’t want the pressure of disappointing him to add to my fear.

Finally, inch by inch, I started down the mountain. I had to do it; I wasn’t going to let the mountain win. I did it my way, though. The skis were too fast, and I just wasn’t ready. Remember that side-step I said I perfected during my lesson? It works going downhill, too. It took me two and a half hours, but I made it down that mountain, side-step by side-step. In my own way, I conquered that mountain.

I’m not proud of the fear that held me back, but I am proud that I found a way to make it down the mountain without assistance. I knew I wasn’t ready, so I had to engineer a different kind of solution. Did it deter me forever from skiing? Not a chance. I thought about little else for the first week after I came home. I’m not going to be that prissy old lady who is afraid to engage with the mountain.

I’m going back. I’m going to ski the green runs until I can do it with my eyes closed. Then I’m going to the blue run that (almost) won and I’m going to make it mine. And I’m going to take my son with me to make sure he witnesses it.

Here’s what I learned that day:

  1. There’s more than one way to get down a mountain.
  2. If you don’t prepare enough, you won’t get the results you want.
  3. Fear is a big inhibitor. Mental preparation counts as much as the physical.
  4. Keep trying till you get it right.

I’m going to own that mountain, and I’ll let you know when I do.

P.S. For those of you with kids, I also learned that it’s very humbling to let your kids see your limitations, and it’s exhilarating to see your kids conquer something you haven’t.

Promises, promises

The last time I wrote here, I made a bunch of promises–including a promise to write about the things I promised. Well, if you thought I forgot about that, you were wrong. I’ve been busy, albeit sporadically, trying to make good on those IMG_2375[1]promises and learning lessons along the way. I’m going to break up my report into a series of posts so it’s easier to digest.

Before I dive in, let’s recap the promises.

  1. Go skiing with my son to honor his desire to spend time with me and show me what he loves.
  2. Focus on something other than myself. Look outward rather than inward.
  3. Write about the process.

That’s only three items; how hard could it be to check off that list, right?

Well, a quarter of a year has passed and I only have one definitive check mark. I’ve made progress on the other items, but as I described it in my original post, it’s more of a journey than a destination.

You have probably surmised from the photo that I made it to the ski slopes with my son. (Yay, me.) I’ve also spent a lot of time researching possibilities, evaluating opportunities, and trying some new things. My head is full of information that is begging to be mined for nuggets of wisdom.

It’s coming, my friends. Here’s what I’m going to share with you in my next several posts:

  1. There’s more than one way to conquer a mountain.
  2. Overthinking kills ambition.
  3. People who need help don’t want you to wait to get your ducks in a row. They don’t need them to be lined up; they just need ducks.
  4. My grocery cart looks a whole lot different to me now.
  5. Never, ever lose sight of the people.

Stay tuned.

New beginnings

I have struggled mightily this holiday season. I can’t say what brought it on or why it seemed to take hold so deeply, but I’ve been depressed and angry. I’ll spare you the details; there’s not much to tell anyway. I was just in a bad place.

This morning my kids and I exchanged gifts and I’ve been thinking all day about the choices my kids made for me. I’ve been teary and reflective since they left to celebrate with their dad, but this time I’m teary in a good way.

Allow me to share.

My son gave me a balaclava, ski goggles, and long ski socks. I don’t ski. I’ve tried a couple of times–one dismal and one mildly successful–but that was years ago and with my wonky knees, I never really had any intention of doing it again. Besides that, I live in the glacially-leveled Hoosier heartland. There are no mountains here, not even hills where I live. Potholes provide the only elevation changes I see around home.

But I. Love. This. Gift.

It means that my son, who now lives in Colorado during the academic year and has taken up snowboarding, wants to share his world with me. He has asked me repeatedly to come visit and hit the slopes. With his gift, he’s asking me to spend time with him doing something he loves. I don’t care about the goggles so much as the wish behind them. You can bet I’ll be heading to the Colorado Rockies soon, wonky knees and all.

And my daughter. That beautiful, wonderful girl saved my life.

Her gift to me was a small book entitled 1: How Many People Does It Take to Make a Difference? It seemed modest at first glance, but I’ve already read it cover to cover and it has started to heal my heart. I’ve been so focused on myself and how bad I felt that I didn’t realize all I was doing was digging my pit of misery deeper and deeper. That little book is so full of wisdom that I’m going to have to reread it several times to take it all in.

Its message? GET OVER YOURSELF. Well, okay, it doesn’t say exactly that, but that’s the sentiment I took from it. Get over yourself, stop focusing on YOU, look outside yourself, and do good. And it’s sort of an activity book, too–it has spaces for thoughts, ideas, and goals.

Here’s the thing. Just like the ski gear, it’s not the book. First, my daughter sensed I was struggling and wanted to help. Second, I’m not sure how anyone else would receive the wisdom in the pages or even how it would have struck me a few months ago. I just know that in this moment, it offered what I needed. Words. Do. Matter. Especially the right ones at the right time.

I’ve had a cathartic few hours since my kids hugged me goodbye for the day. I’ve been finding myself again under the muck and the junk that has buried me for weeks. Some of the thoughts bogging me down–sorry, they’re too personal to share–found their foil in the printed words my daughter gave me. I have started to find my way back from a place I thought I might never leave.

So maybe it’s a week early, and I don’t usually do them anyway, but this year I’m making a resolution for the New Year.

This year, I’m going to focus less on me. Not just a little less, but a lot less. I’m going to get over myself and see where it takes me. And I’m going to write about it here.

Hold me to it.

A Cherokee elder was teaching his children about life. He said to them, “A terrible fight is going on inside me. It is a fight between two wolves. One is the wolf of joy, love, hope, kindness, and compassion. The other is the wolf of fear, anger, cynicism, indifference, and greed. The same fight is going on inside of you and every other person, too.” The children thought about it for a moment, and then one child asked, “Which wolf will win?” The elder replied, “Whichever one you feed.”

A few good men

img_00272-e1537882454171.jpgEvery day, I read about someone else’s #MeToo experience. Stories abound of frat boy culture and locker room talk being excused or even nurtured in schools, the workplace–everywhere, really. Women still earn roughly 80 cents for every dollar of the salary of a man in a comparable position, and we remain far outnumbered in positions of power. With every new story, we have to decide whom to believe, and frankly, that sucks.

Now it’s my turn to tell my story, but it’s not what you think.

Twenty-three years ago, I desperately wanted a new job. I applied to a company and ended up as one of the final candidates for the position. I didn’t get it, but the company president thought I had potential and hired me anyway. He dropped me unheralded on the VP of marketing and told him to find something for me to do.

(Lovable) curmudgeon that he was, my new boss didn’t want to be bothered with me so he found someone else to give me busy work. Within a few weeks, I had proven myself enough that my boss decided I might be worth mentoring. He moved me into the office next to his so we could work more closely together.

The problem was that my office wasn’t just adjacent to his; it adjoined his, with a door between the two. To everyone else, I looked like his secretary. Naive as I was, I didn’t even think about what that meant.

But he did.

Before I had put my things into my new desk, my boss laid out the ground rules. I was to position one of my visitors’ chairs in front of the adjoining door so no one could use it. (His office had another door for access.) He intentionally didn’t share his calendar with me so I couldn’t schedule appointments for him or look up his whereabouts for others. He handled his own correspondence, got his own coffee, and generally handled his own business. In no uncertain terms, he did not want me to look like his admin. That wasn’t why I was hired and he didn’t want anyone to pigeonhole me into the position.

His foresight and concern for my development became the launching point for my career in marketing. I worked hard for him, and he advocated for me. By the time he retired many years later, I had become director of corporate communications, reporting to the company’s CEO.

To be clear, I’m not tooting my own horn, but his. In a world where the battle of the sexes has become increasingly contentious, I bring you this glimmer of hope. There are good people out there. There are good men out there, men who are concerned about appearances, men who look at a person’s work instead of her gender, men who champion opportunities for those who deserve them.

I write this not to discredit the realities of sexism. Believe me, I’ve experienced that, too–in the very same workplace. My intent is to remind myself and maybe you, too, that we can still find good among the bad. And while we need to assign culpability and consequences for injurious behavior, we also need to effect a culture shift that eschews this behavior in the first place. We need more advocacy and less abuse. I just hope we don’t kill each other as we work toward it.

PS. Thanks, DRH. Under your gruff facade, you always had my back, even when I didn’t realize it.

Never, ever forget

Never forgetNever forget.

That’s what everyone is posting today. Hashtags abound as the entire nation reflects on a shimmering September morning seventeen years ago when disaster struck in the form of maliciously-guided airplanes.

Once in the north tower.

A second time in the south tower.

A third time in the Pentagon.

A fourth time in a Pennsylvania field.

And many times over in the prejudices so many Americans now harbor against people who don’t share our views.

“Never forget!” we cry. “Remember September 11th!”

Yes, please. Let’s remember September 11th. Let’s remember the people who lost their lives for doing nothing more sinister than going to work that day, or for getting on an airplane, or for just going about their regular routines. Let’s remember the spouses and children and parents who still suffer the gut-wrenching loss of someone they loved with their very soul. Remember them, grieve them, celebrate them, and carry on–for them.

Let’s especially remember the first responders and the ordinary people, heroes all, who turned toward danger when all odds were against them. Let’s remember how they raced into smoke and flames and blood and gore to save anyone they could, without regard for race, religion, nationality, or political affiliation. Let’s remember the day we were reduced to our very humanity and wanted nothing more than to help somehow, some way.

#NeverForget should not become a rallying cry for hatred and intolerance. (Isn’t that what redirected those airplanes in the first place? I can still hear my mom saying ‘Two wrongs don’t make a right!’) Instead, I choose to not forget the selflessness that took over so many people in a moment of unimaginable crisis. #NeverForget is my catalyst to do the right thing, to make the world a better place, to build bridges instead of walls.

Don’t get me wrong. Bad people committed unspeakable horrors on September 11th. There is no excuse, and we must work to eradicate the terror-mongering that holds people hostage to fear. But that also means we have to surrender our own tendency to react to others out of fear just because they look, act, or think differently. Accepting others doesn’t mean we have to agree with them.

We can’t sacrifice our humanity for the sake of our existence.

Live in peace. React in love. Help whenever you can. Never forget.