Vote, Gather, Love

In this month of Thanksgiving and the end of an interminably long election cycle, contemplating happiness and beauty through the near-universal symbol of the bluebird seemed like the perfect November theme. It’s time to gather at the polls and across the political divide to express our shared values and concerns for human rights, the health of our planet and the civility and decency of our elected officials who we entrust to work together to promote the common good.

And when we gather around our Thanksgiving dinner tables to express gratitude for all of our gifts, perhaps we can broaden our conversations to include different points of view. Perhaps we can take more cues from the natural world about the importance of diversity for a more sustainable planet. What if we dug deeper into the reasons why we should move through the world with more love for ourselves and for others? Wishing you a brighter, happier month ahead!

Savoring the Sojourn to Sixty

Tomorrow, I begin my sixtieth year on this planet. In other words, I turn 59. I’ve always been one to savor my birthdays, stretching them out into week-long celebrations, never playing them down, but raising them up as the most tangible expression of my presence. (And I like receiving cards and presents and eating cake.) My fifties tended to blur together, I often found myself forgetting my age or giving myself a year or two more than I deserved. Perhaps it was because I was parenting teenage sons, tending to aging parents and wearing the mantle of CEO as the economy lurched into a downward spiral. 2008 was both a supremely hopeful and harrowing year from my Libran perspective as I stared down 50. So rather than “turn 60,” I am choosing to give myself a year to contemplate all of the joys and privileges and responsibilities of growing old. If we’re fortunate, it’s the only option we have, so why not leverage it?

Three practices stand out as a beginning frame:

1)    Seek Inner Beauty

It’s hard not to fall prey to the dominant culture’s obsession with a glorified “fountain of youth” and the language around products and activities geared toward “anti-aging” as if growing old was something we should be fighting against. What if we took a deeper dive into what’s on the inside – searching out more knowledge and truth and wisdom, connecting more with heart and empathy and love, recognizing the bonds of our shared humanity? These practices may hold the keys to bringing us together in a time of agonizing polarity.

2)    Deepen Outward Service

There is so much need and so many opportunities to serve one’s community. There’s never been a better time to recommit to spending more time each week in the service of others. Whether its volunteering at your kid’s school, or your place of worship, or investigating board opportunities with your favorite nonprofit or even running for office, there’s a place for you to make a difference to balance out your time spent on self, family and work. These activities are the healthy roots that build stronger communities while feeding our souls and keeping us grounded.

3)    Increase Curiosity and Reflection

More than ever, life seems to be moving at warp speed. As technology accelerates, anxiety grows and we wonder how we can possibly keep up. Perhaps the antidote is to slow down, to flex our curiosity muscles rather than leaping to foregone conclusions, to write stuff down with a pen or pencil in a journal made of paper to make sense of it all. Then to return to what we’ve written and reflect, again and again and again. Practice does not make perfect, because I truly believe there is no perfect, just a relentless desire to show up and do the very best we can.

Making Friends with Math

September always arrives with those unmistakable “Back to School” vibes: crisper air, muted gardens and a heightened sense of hustle. I always enjoyed the timeworn tradition of organizing wardrobes, shopping for clothing and supplies and moving into a new rhythm and schedule. I feel especially fortunate that school was a safe and welcoming place for me. There were no “mean girl” scenarios or bullying that I can recall growing up in Naugatuck, CT. Being allowed to wear pants in fifth grade was a very big deal and playing sports in high school with the passage of Title IX was a downright privilege, although I did not understand the underlying politics and policies at the time. Even though I held the title of “Multiplication Queen,” I was always daunted by math. In fact, we were barely on speaking terms.

I can easily recall sitting at my parent’s kitchen table trying to grasp word problems about different trains leaving different stations at different times or glazing over arcane algebra problems and symbols with my heart racing. I remember reviewing NC Theatre’s audit for the first time as a newly minted CEO and feeling like an imposter. My breakthrough moment came when a friend (who happens to be a CPA) talked about how numbers can reveal the true story behind any organization. How you invest your money reveals what you value. How your numbers change from year to year reflects your strategy. I dug more deeply into data; I learned to love Excel; I embraced the narrative behind the numbers. I truly believe that greater financial understanding and transparency can transform organizations by creating alignment and clarity.

Like anything in life, making friends with math required a strong intention, a shift in perspective, a learning mindset and dedicated follow through. This Labor Day weekend, I may be dividing my time between walking in the woods and delving into a webinar on “Understanding the Form 990.” What better way to stay grounded?

Considering Accountability in August

Sometimes a photograph stops you in your tracks and challenges you to re-examine your beliefs. That was the case with the image in my blog header. It is a common merganser and her brood of 76 chicks photographed recently on a lake in Minnesota. It was an extraordinary sighting that captured the imagination of bird lovers and everyday folks alike. How was this Mama able to take care of such a large flock while remaining seemingly stoic and unflustered? That's taking on some serious responsibility. That is one accountable duck. 

It's a fitting image to dig into August's consideration of "Accountability." Webster's definition is: "an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility." I've been thinking a lot about "accountability" lately, especially as it relates to nonprofit governance. When we accept an invitation to join a board, do we fully embrace the fundamental legal duties of "care, loyalty and obedience?" More importantly, have these expectations been clearly communicated in a job description prior to our accepting of the board position? Sometimes it's a good idea to simply revisit the rules

Moving from the professional to the personal, how can we move accountability closer to home? Are we meeting our obligations to our own families and friends? Have we clearly stated what they are and if so, are we following through on promises we've made? Moving into a higher state of self awareness about our own accomplishments or shortcomings is a fine and genuine starting point. Using curiosity as a tool to examine how we behave and checking in with self and trusted others can be a safe place to begin. And what better time than right now?

Begin with a short, specific list of three ways you want to be more accountable in August and check back in at the end of the month. I'll be doing the same. 

 

 

Travel as a Transformative Practice

There is nothing like traveling in another country to get your creative juices flowing and jolt all of your senses into high alert. Entering another time zone, hearing another language, eating different food, seeing new people and places can usher you into a different, more expansive mindset where anything and everything is possible. This was the case during our recent trip to Sweden, with marvelous stops in Gothenburg, Stockholm and Uppsala.

What made this even more memorable was being hosted by friends at the front and back ends of our journey. To see the way other people live, how they decorate their homes, what they plant in their gardens, what they wear, how they spend their time, what they talk and care about — these kinds of intimate experiences make traveling even richer. We were fortunate to time our visit with their Midsummer Celebration filled with eating, drinking and dancing, while wearing handcrafted crowns made from birch branches and flowers!

This heightened state of curiosity is the stuff of great travel. The trick is packing it into your suitcase and carrying it home into your daily life. One week ago, I awoke to a crisp morning in the loft of a small, modern cabin near a fiord on the coast of Sweden. Today, I awoke in my beloved 112-year-old home in the Oakwood/Mordecai neighborhood on a hot, sultry day. Holding onto the mindset that wherever you are, the world is full of wonder and beauty and delight is the gift of travel.

What Gardening Taught Me About Leadership

June is bustin' out all over! Over the years, my passion for gardening and the wonders of the natural world have increased in leaps and bounds, in blues and greens. The lessons I have learned since tending my very first "garden" in a window box in a Boston condo to cultivating an urban garden, farm and woodland retreat is a practice that fills me with joy and possibility and cultivates my leadership well-being. Read on for my four-part lesson plan:

1. Sleep, creep, leap - The three-phase life cycle of a perennial is worth considering when thinking through personal or professional planning. The first year its roots begin to take hold and growth is minimal. The second year, the "creeping" is much more visible and the third year, well, watch out! Cultivating patience and knowing that "incremental change is sustainable change" is a great takeaway from this gardening lesson. And remember to take the long view. 

2. Let go - Despite all of my best efforts, many of my plants have died. Either Mother Nature or a critter has intervened, or they have been crowded out by another more aggressive species. Maybe this shrub was not comfortable in the soil or was diseased from the beginning. All living things have an end date. All we can do is tend them well and avoid grasping when they are gone. Sometimes the "best" ideas are also destined to wither on the vine. Learn to let go. 

3. Weed well - Pulling out what does not serve us, whether it's a pesky weed from the soil or a self-negating thought from our busy mind is another lesson from the garden. The act of weeding is so wonderfully unambiguous; it's a great digital detox and provides an opportunity to get closer to the earth. Like organizing your desk, or cleaning out a closet, weeding removes the distractions and allows you to focus on what's really important, and that's what you are growing.

4. Harvest beauty - Enjoying the fruits of my labor and making floral arrangements to display in my home or give away to friends is one of my favorite activities. There is nothing quite like reveling in the tangible outcomes of all that hard work and paying attention to the magical patterns in flowers and foliage. When was the last time you gave yourself a big pat on the back and celebrated the accomplishments of you and your team? Do it today and throw in a bouquet!

 

May Day, May Day - Work + Play

What image does May Day conjure up for you? My mind first jumped to workers’ rights and a quick Google search led me to this post about the significance of the Haymarket Riot. On May 1, 1886, more than 300,000 workers across the country staged a walk-out and general strike demanding an eight-hour work day. Violence erupted several days later at Chicago’s Haymarket Square, when a bomb was thrown into an assembly of worker sympathizers and the police responded with gunfire. This resulted in serious casualties and injuries on both sides.

This event, complex and often misinterpreted, is considered by some to be a tipping point for the worldwide labor movement. It also set off a “national wave of xenophobia, as scores of foreign-born radicals and labor organizers were rounded up by police.”

An event that took place 132 years ago sounds like it was pulled from yesterday’s news headlines.

In sharp contrast, The Festival of Flora, honoring the Roman Goddess of flowers was the earliest May Day celebration during the Roman Republic era. Other European pagan cultures commemorated this date with rituals like dancing around the maypole and the giving of “May baskets” — small baskets of sweets or flowers left anonymously on a neighbor’s doorstep.

Traditional English rituals carry on to this day and include the crowning of the May Queen and the staging of festivals honoring fertility and the beginning of spring. The bard nailed it in this quote:

“Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, and summer’s lease hath all too short a date.” How right you are, Mr. Shakespeare, Sir!

I began my day honoring both traditions at Loading Dock Raleigh, a diverse, welcoming coworking and collaborative workspace, with two inspiring female entrepreneurs. We spent an hour in our “creative collision” supporting each other’s journeys and sharing stories of change, challenge, growth and transformation. And yes, we shared “May baskets” of flowers!

Happy May Day — May this month reward you with the best of work and play. Honor both!

Watch Your Backside

Today I received an e-newsletter from a leadership forum I recently attended; right away I clicked to the Flickr album to, you know, see if I was featured.

Are you ever surprised at your face that greets you from across the digital divide? Does the posture and energy from this person reflect your truest, best self? Is this someone you want to hang out with?

I was easy to spot in the photos because of my orange fuzzy suit. It was a cold, rather dreary day and I chose this outfit to uplift my spirits and increase my confidence — things I believe our wardrobes are meant to do.

My choice of clothing did receive more than one compliment and I recognized myself in the front facing photographs. Several of the pictures, however, were taken from the side or behind; captured when I was not aware of the camera.

This got me thinking about my posture and energy from a new perspective. It made me consider other parts of my being that do not get as much attention, and I’m not just talking about a cursory brushing of the back of my hair.

What new learning or insights have I pushed to the back burner because it’s a safer choice? What knowledge can I examine with greater intention to continue to “level up” my leadership skills? How can I more fully integrate both sides of me into the best version of myself?

Have you taken time out to consider your backside lately?

A Mother and Son's Memory of Leaving Home

My Memory: Our family lived in Royal Oak, Michigan for nine years after my husband accepted a position in the architecture department at Lawrence Tech University. We lived in a rental property for the first year and spent the remaining years in a charming bungalow we renovated on the main drag leading into town. Our boys were five and nine when we left with a large trailer hitched to our over-stuffed car. The majority of our possessions were en route to Raleigh, NC in a big moving van. Royal Oak is where our sons took their first steps, made their first friends, learned to swim, attended their first kindergarten class, rode their first bike, collected coins and Pokemon, listened to Eminem, and understood the meaning of “home.” Ours was a pale shade of pink, hence its nick name, “The Pink House.”

We dug in and made a beautiful life with good friends and solid careers, but always knew in the back of our minds that it was a temporary assignment. The East Coast was where we grew up and knew we belonged. Not so for five and nine-year-old boys. So, the right opportunity came along and the job was accepted. The news was shared with friends; the pink house was painted “eggplant” and sold in one day. There were “going-away" parties and discussions with the boys about larger yards, warmer winters, new pets and friends. I shed my tears gradually and let go. Then came the evening of the move and all hell broke loose when the little guys fell apart (the big one too). Somehow, it had not quite sunken in: they were moving away from the only home they had ever known, that very night!

It wasn’t until years later, that we tuned into the massive knowledge gap that existed between the adult version of leaving and that of the child. Words fall terribly short of conveying such a monumental experience of moving from the only home you have ever known. So, we took our final tour through the home - the boys in tears. Goodbye to the front porch where we watched the raging Midwestern storms pass and our neighbor’s mulch float down the street; goodbye to the living room where we made fires and hosted parties and played with the cats; goodbye to the basement playroom where mischief was made; goodbye to Ian’s room with the bunkbeds and Simon’s room under the eaves with its miniature kitchen set. Goodbye beloved pink house; you served us well.

Simon's Memory: I was born in Royal Oak and all of my earliest memories come from that town, from learning how to ride a bike at the nearby park, to helping my dad build his office out in the backyard (helping as much as a 4-year old could). My whole life centered around this place, my friends, and our house that played such an integral part of my childhood. Our house was colored pink and we always referred to it as the Pink House for obvious reasons. Whenever we went on trips to visit family, I remember inevitably breaking down in tears and crying out that I wanted to go back to the Pink House. That house was filled with memories that I still remember fondly. Since moving down south, every time it snows, I picture jumping off our porch into four feet of snow and nearly disappearing. 

I was not ready to leave that house and the friends that were the only friends that I knew. We began to move out, and somehow in the mix of moving out and the whir of change and activity that comes with it, I missed the memo that we were moving so soon. I found myself playing with my best friend on his swing-set in his backyard, when my parents called me over and told me that we needed to go home and to say goodbye to him. I did and then we headed home and when we arrived my parents then told me to say goodbye to our house. I was taken by complete surprise and abruptly burst into tears. I must have thought that it was happening in the near future and not right in that moment. All my worst fears were realized and then we got in the car and left. 

I’ve haven’t been back to Royal Oak in over a decade but I still hold those first memories close to my heart. I am also eternally grateful to my parents for deciding to move to Raleigh, because I would not have met the friends that I have today and in all likelihood, would be a different person. 

So, our stories align in this next chapter of swapping and sharing old memories. How fortunate we are that our loss is grounded in love.  

 

 

Wake Up and Smell the Hyacinths

January’s theme was hibernation and I logged in a lot more hours of sleep, reading in front of the fire, reflecting on 2017 and planning for the year ahead. February begins the countdown to spring. As someone highly attuned to flowers and fragrance, I become downright giddy when I am in the company of hyancinths. They remind me of my grandmother’s garden and Easter celebrations. They are especially magical when forced from a bulb in a simple glass container in your home. They smell heavenly and are the right combination of showy and sturdy.

Memories surrounding smell are also on my mind based on a new writing project I am undertaking with my 22-year old son, Simon. We are sharing and reflecting on memories we chose that correspond to a seasonal framework of spring, summer, fall and winter. January’s memory was based on a concert at his pre-school, Mon Ami in Royal Oak, Michigan. My story included a mash-up of the joys and anxieties of early parenting and the pride of seeing your child perform and build confidence. His was centered around smells:

I have a couple of memories that stand out from my pre-k time and most of them are associated with smells. The first and most potent is the type of hand soap that was used in the bathrooms. It was a particular type of soap that I still run into. It brings back a flood of images of the small bathrooms in Mon Ami with stools that led up to the sinks that held cups with individual toothbrushes inscribed with the names of all of the kids. After lunch we would all line up outside of the bathrooms and when it was our turn, we’d grab our toothbrushes and look into the mirrors and watch the other kids mostly to see how they were brushing their teeth so we could know that we were doing it right. Learning as we were, just getting a finger hold on being a person in the world.

The second memory that I have is tied in with comfort. It was the smell of my mom’s coat when she would come inside and pick me up. She used to wear this black coat that was made out of thick cotton, but on the collar and the cuffs, it was fringed with a very soft wool. When I would see her walk into the building or she would call me over as I was playing with the other kids, I would hug her and bury myself in that coat and the smell would be of crisp, clean, cold air. It was something different than the warmth of the inside and the first inkling in my mind that the world was a bigger place. She had come from an outside world that I had not yet began to explore, but that I knew was outside of that school.

So, let’s get this straight: I was wrapped up in my pride and the joys and anxieties of parenting. Meanwhile, my 3-year old son was focused on the smell of soap, learning from his peers and took comfort in the smell of my coat. The smell of my coat! Learning as we were, just getting a finger hold on being a person in the world. Now there’s a life lesson that smacks you right between the eyes and breaks open your heart. Just in time for Valentine’s Day.