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.