Past, Present, and Future

Yesterday I celebrated my 47th birthday, a prime but otherwise unremarkable number in the aging pantheon. Normally this one wouldn’t be a “big birthday” but I’d looked ahead months ago and noticed that it fell on a Friday when the kids were out of school. Too good to pass up, I marked it as a vacation day and figured we could spend the day as family before my husband took off on a trip with his lifelong friends.

Perhaps you have already guessed that none of that happened as planned.

Instead, my birthday found me in my fourth week working from home, three weeks into our state’s stay-at-home mandate. Instead of taking a day trip to try a new restaurant, I hosted a virtual birthday party in my dining room. Instead of my husband walking around the Wyoming wilderness, he’s been sauntering around our subdivision. We’re both doing our best to navigate circumstances neither one of us gave any thought to last year.

When I find myself in stressful or unfamiliar territory, my mind struggles to focus on the present. I look back to the past, seeking comfort in the certainty that humanity has conquered similar challenges. I look forward to the future, seeking hope in the promise of better days on the other side of the obstacle. But, I find that my brain spins in overdrive when it thinks about today — unable to escape either the anxiety of ‘what ifs’ or the boredom of mundane tasks.

Thankfully, my husband is grounded in the present. For him, there is only the immediate need: groceries to be purchased, gas tanks to be filled, bills to pay, news to read. The present can either be handled or not handled, it can bring either satisfaction or disappointment. Why look beyond what is in front of you? Yesterday’s success could have been a fluke or a lucky break. Tomorrow’s opportunity cannot be safeguarded and is not promised. Today is all we have and all we can action.

It makes things interesting, even in the best of times.

I have never finished a meal and said, “That was great, time to do the dishes.” For me, dishes are a necessary evil that should be handled when you’re out of silverware or the sink is full, generally after you’ve recharged your batteries with something fun. By contrast, it took him more than ten years with me to go to bed with dirty dishes in the sink. If they’re dirty they need to be cleaned. Waiting won’t make it any better.

When I was finishing grad school, I was burnt out. I knew it would be a long time before I could afford to take any time off work, and I desperately needed a vacation. But, grad school had taken its toll — we had no cash and my small signing bonus wouldn’t come until my first paycheck. I was ready to put the economy cruise I found on our credit card but that would still require carrying a balance for several months, paying minimum payments. I created a spreadsheet to prove out that the signing bonus would cover the cruise and the few months of interest charges we would incur so he felt comfortable saying yes.

No we don’t often look at life the same way, but the good news is this: we mostly we have both clean dishes and vacations.

Over the last month there have been many moments where we have barked at each other. In the stress of dealing with the uncertainty both of us have hunkered down into our own way of surviving, focusing on the stuff we’re good at. I have been fantasizing about the possibility of eating a nice dinner out for our anniversary in June and looking at sailboat listings dreaming of a time years from now when we might buy one again. He did some spring maintenance today, throwing a ladder up on the back of the house to clean a gutter and pulling the tarp off the air conditioner unit. We are living through the same moment, but as usual we’re experiencing it in very different ways.

I suppose there may be people who can balance the whole time arc effectively: holding onto the past, embracing the present, looking to the future. But, we’re not those people. We both have blind spots, things we can’t see or choose to look away from. Without him, I would neglect the present. Without me, he would forget the past and forgo the future. Neither of us can see it all.

So, every day we take a moment to hold each other, grateful for the fact that we’re in this together. He leans down and puts his forehead against mine and tells me that he can’t understand how I am able to stay positive, focused on my work and our family’s future. I tell him how much I appreciate what he is doing to keep our day-to-day life in order, everything sane and predictable so I don’t have to worry. We are both certain that we would not be able to handle this alone.

Middle-Aged Like

I cut myself yesterday morning. It was a quiet Sunday and I had already chopped up potatoes for home fries and scrambled some eggs, the kind of breakfast I can only make on a weekend. Then I remembered the ripe pears in the fridge, grabbed one and set to slicing it up — but I caught my pinkie instead. I yelled a swear word and called for help, looking away as I ran my finger under the water of the faucet. By the time my husband made it the short distance to me, I was already feeling faint and the blood was pounding in my ears making my head feel like it was in a balloon.

This is my kryptonite.

Thankfully, it is not his. He deftly and gently bandaged me up, without judgement or critique. He got me a stool when I stated I needed to sit down and a bit later, when I admitted that I was struggling to sit up, he helped me to the couch and covered me with a blanket. It’s hard for him to understand how incapacitated I get with wounds and blood, but he hates to see me hurting and in pain so he just goes about fixing it the best he can.

In just over six months, I’ll have been married 25 years to this man. And, while I love him as deeply and fully as I love anyone else on this planet, what I’m most grateful for is the fact that I really like him. He is a capable, caring man who can be counted on to do the right thing for the people in his tribe. He grows deep roots that don’t waver when the wind blows. He doesn’t seek out new experiences, but when faced with something new he gives it due consideration, wrestling with new ideas and circumstances as long as it takes until he finds a way to incorporate it into his world view. He takes care of what is his making sure everything works as intended, whether it is a HVAC system or a broken arm.

He is one of the finest men I have ever met and just looking over at him on a random Monday evening is the most comforting thing I know.

You don’t realize in the wooing stage what it means to be with someone for 25 years. You’re wrapped up in assessing the flashy moments — witty conversation over a fancy meal, how they look in a tight pair of jeans, whether the chemistry is world on fire good. Wooing is about passion and the promise of a forever romance for the storybooks.

And yet none of that stuff is what middle-aged like is made of.

No, middle-aged like is the camaraderie built through more than 1,000 trips to the grocery store, arguing over the right ketchup or a deal on chicken breast. It’s how you share cleaning up the messiness of life in the form of diapers, dishes, vomit or dog poop. It’s how you hold the hand of an aging parent or rub the head of a geriatric pet, yelling and crying at each other because it’s just not fair to have to say good-bye. It’s the every day process of figuring out three meals a day and doing endless loads of laundry — wondering the whole time why it is so hard to be an adult and how your parents managed to do it so easily when you’re struggling.

In the day-in day-out course of living, it isn’t surprising that some folks fall out of like with their partners. I consider myself ridiculously fortunate to enjoy the every day moments with someone I would choose again today if given the choice. As we face a time in the not-so-distant future when our kids leave us empty nesters, it feels like we’ll find a way to fill the time. We’ll bum around on random errands, sit out on the boat, share late night talks and Netflix binges. We’ll live a life as boring and as beautiful as a sunrise, together.

And if we’re lucky, really lucky, we’ll find a path through middle-aged like and we’ll end up hand-in-hand, doddering through our old age.

This Girl I Know

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about this girl I know. She just started the eighth grade and she’s struggling. She made a couple of bone-headed decisions in her classes, but that wasn’t so bad. What was really hard was navigating the turbulent waters as three streams of bobbing elementary kids came together into a new river. Long-standing friend groups drifted apart and when the current slowed she found herself floating alone. It hurt.

I feel for her because she’s always been a little awkward around people her own age. Confident and comfortable with adults and nurturing with little kids, she doesn’t quite know how to act with her peers. I’ve seen her retreating more and more into books, hiding with her flashlight under the blankets each night escaping into some fantasy. She won’t say it out loud, but I know it weighs on her, the worry that she will never be cool enough to be invited or pretty enough to attract a boy.

Fortunately, over the summer a couple of new girls moved into the neighborhood. She sought them out and tried to help them get settled. Maybe it was the small kindness she showed them — or maybe it was a lack of options — but they seemed to like her well enough. Despite her worst fears, she didn’t have to start eighth grade alone.

There is no way that I can convince her that middle school is not a foreshadowing of what her life will be. I can’t make her believe that the horrible hair, fashion faux pas, massive glasses, poor complexion, and braces will mean nothing in just a few years. I don’t have a way to tell her that the characteristics that make her stick out painfully at thirteen — intellect, drive, energy, and optimism — will help her build and keep a network later in life. That she will someday go from being snickered at to being well-liked and respected.

I know this girl because she’s me.

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For the longest time I thought I had tucked her into my past along with my poor sweater choices and my need for acne medicine. Not because I’m embarassed by her — I actually like her a lot — I simply believed that I had grown beyond her. She was nothing but a glimmer to be remembered in a funny annecdote or family slide night.

And then I started getting feedback through my coaching process that made me realize just how much she is still influencing me, especially in moments of stress. I was coming across as overly confident, even arrogant. I scored a nearly “perfect” 98 on the Bold attribute of the Hogan challenge assessment which “concerns having inflated views of one’s competency and worth.” I heard that my tendancy to storytelling could be overused, especially when the stories featured me as the victorious heroine. There was a feeling from those who knew me only from a distance that I was self-serving, singly focused on my own advancement and success.

It was her, not the forty-something executive, who cried coming to terms with what was being said. She reacted before I even knew how to handle it, telling me that I needed to pull back, be less, protect myself. She declared that she had been right all along and that I had dared too much, aimed too high. Mentally, she started to jettison the most obvious symbols of my confidence, the things I no longer deserved. Sitting across from my coach, I told her that maybe I needed to shut down my blog. My rebranding had intended to be self-deprecating and empowering, but seriously, Too Much Mel? What the hell was I thinking?

I didn’t shut down this blog. But I thought about it.

There is a fine line between confidence and arrogance and the line can be even thinner for women. I remember a time when I couldn’t have been described as either — I was a bottle thrown against rocks, breaking into pieces and washing out to sea. Many years of wonderful people and crazy experiences have polished my jagged, sharp edges buffing me into a piece of barely recognizable sea glass. Despite my own doubts, they have lifted me up and reminded me that I can make a difference in the world, if I only have the courage to show up and the humility to acknowledge that I can’t do anything alone. It is the smoothed shard that shows up now in conference rooms, sitting tall and speaking loudly, certain that together we will find a path to success. Others don’t see the broken pieces or the years of tumbling. They don’t see the girl who is still inside me.

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about this girl I know. She’s an executive who’s had her share of misfires and mistakes, but still finds a way to smile, pull herself up, and find a path forward. She’s grateful for her life, both the part she’s made and the part she was gifted through privilege, lucky breaks, and assists. She’s cool enough to be invited and pretty enough to attract the boy. She works too hard, sleeps too little, and talks more than she listens, but she’s a good person and I like her a lot. And she’s still got a lot to learn.

Coaching

A couple of weeks ago I got stopped in the hallway by a colleague. We chatted about work and as the topic was waning they commented, “It’s been a while since you blogged.” The tone was neither critical not expectant, just an observation of fact. They continued, “I thought maybe I missed something, so I went and looked. Nope, nothing for a while.”

To be clear, a while has been more than three months. My last post dropped in late April when Midwesterners were still desperately waiting for a real spring to arrive. Since then I have been buried by new job responsibilities, two great vacations, visits from family, and a dearth of time to sit quietly and write. I’ve been running like a mad fool, that’s the truth. But, that’s not the whole truth. If I’m honest the thing that has kept me from writing is this: soon after my last post I started working with an executive coach.

Just typing that feels weird.

Coaching is not something that people talk about openly. Like counseling, there seems to be a fear that investing to improve your capabilities signals some weakness; that competent leaders don’t need help. In my first meeting with my coach she went out of her way to articulate the confidentiality of the process — what would be shared and what would be just between the two of us. I recall laughing in the moment, knowing full well how much of what I learned about me would seep out into conversations. I get it, some people don’t talk about their journey with a coach and they don’t want the coach talking with others.

Some people don’t write a public-facing blog.

Frankly, I knew that once I started the coaching process it would come through my blog. How could it not? The coaching process is all about introspection, pattern-finding, and self-improvement — the things that are at the heart of nearly all of my posts. I expected that it would give me rich material and potentially jump start my rather lackluster production over the last year. Maybe it would give me enough content to get back to one post a week.

What I didn’t anticipate was that I would have too much material. I didn’t anticipate how challenging and difficult it would be to break down all of the new insights coming my way and parse them into succinct, well-constructed posts. In a fairly short timeframe I documented the key pivot points of my life, constructed mental models, completed a behavioral assessment, and reviewed 360 feedback. It was a lot and I’m still coming out of an Information coma. I’m like a kid on their first Halloween, sneaking candy along the route and then coming home and upending the bag, ripping into the bars two-fisted before an exhausted adult can stop them.

I was too overwhelmed to write in the moment and I’m not ready yet. But, three months is long enough between posts and just because I’m not ready to share what I’ve learned about myself, I can’t keep putting off writing while my brain settles down. It could be months because the thing I’ve learned about coaching is that one idea flips into another and another and another and another so that just when you think you’ve finally figured you out…

…flip.

And don’t get me wrong, I love it. I love thinking deeply about how I’m wired, where it has helped me and my team thrive and what I can do to be better for myself and others. What I’m learning is informing my personal and profession actions and decisions; it’s allowing me to create new and interesting ways of responding to the risks and opportunities I see every day. As I thought, I’m bringing snippets into conversations with everyone from my husband to my boss to my teams. Someday, I’ll bring it into here.

Just not yet.

Finding Inspiration

One night during the dark of winter I found myself with a complete lack of inspiration. Sitting there with my iPad on my lap I desperately wanted to write something witty and instead was stalled. Normally when that happens I cop out and scroll through social media or flip over to a word game, but that night I did something else.

I begged the internet for inspiration.

Earlier that week I had listened to an episode of This American Life focusing on a technology designed by two guys in Oslo, Norway called Inspirobot. The software uses a huge library of phrases and pictures (and clearly a fabulous algorithm) to come up with the equivalent of on-demand inspirational posters. The developers have tried to explain to incredulous users that no human being is behind the pictures — but they just can’t believe in mechanized meaning.

I must have clicked the “generate” button 30 times and I quickly understood why people want to believe in it. Some of the results were gibberish, but there were some that had a sliver of truth, just enough to make a connection. The one that I pulled for the graphic on this blog is a good example. It shows a picture of a stylish and happy woman with the phrase “You are capable of making it so that your brother gets scared.” When it popped up I laughed out loud. I am a happy woman who aspires to be stylish and both of my brothers are (in one degree or another) scared of me.

It felt like someone was writing a joke just for me.

Of course, Inspirobot wasn’t doing anything for me. I had simply clicked a button that kicked off a stored routine on a server somewhere hundreds or thousands of miles away. It wasn’t Inspirobot that was making a joke, it was me. It was my more than forty years as a bossy big sister and my love for my brothers that had made meaning out of a inherently meaningless sentence and picture.

Listening to the podcast and laughing at Inspirobot reminded me that I have a lot of power to create meaning in the world. I am exposed to thousands of words, images, and actions every single day and I run those things through the filter of my lived experiences. How many other people would have seen the image I did and grimaced or cried or felt completely unmoved? What about the woman who lost a brother to a tragic accident? Or the man who had been abused by his sister?

I went back out to Inspirobot today as I was finishing this post and decided to see what witticisms it had for me, what I could learn from its coded crystal ball. I got…

…a prognostication…

…a cautionary tale…

…an inspirational question…

…a rally cry…

…and a truism…

I could read something into each and every one of those pictures, find some way to bring meaning into the story they never intended to tell. Inspirobot reminds me that I need to be careful in my assignment of meaning to the signs and symbols and to be open to the unintended signals I am sending out into the world. And if I’m not sure whether or not I’m manufacturing meaning from the meaningless, I can ask myself a question.

What would Inspirobot say?

Intimidating

Everyone has hot buttons. Some people can’t stand it when people merge last minute at a lane closure, while others are annoyed when people get over too soon. Some people like to arrive just in time at the airport while others panic if they aren’t there early, preferring to sit quietly at the gate. People have emotional reactions to mannerisms, manners, or moments. Personally, I struggle to remain composed in situations where I feel that others are talking down to me, especially when sales people swivel their heads away from me to talk to my husband.

But, as hard as that situation is I’ve learned to get through it. My husband and I have worked hard to show up as partners and there are even times when we’ve used society’s tendency for male decision rights in our favor. The one thing I haven’t found a way past is being described by a single, simple word: intimidating.

The first time it happened, I thought it was a mistake. I’m just a bit over five feet tall and the idea that anyone could feel threatened or afraid of me was laughable. But the person sharing the feedback was a close colleague and quite sincere and I quickly went from amused to shaken. I rationalized it away (it’s not you, it’s them) but that only worked for so long. Over the years that crappy word kept popping up and when something won’t go away you have to acknowledge its reality, whether you like it or not.

Last month it reared its ugly head. I was wrapping up my time at a women’s leadership development conference and I had asked a colleague for feedback. Specifically, I shared that this year I had swiveled from my own development to focusing on supporting the needs other women at my company. I asked, “How did I do? What more could I do to support them?”

The early feedback was encouraging and positive. They highlighted my energy and positivity and the fact that I seemed to be omni-present. And then they noted that the junior-level women seeing me might compare themselves and determine that they couldn’t aspire to my level. The dagger plunged in as they said, “I worry that you are a bit intimidating.”

I didn’t want to wince, but I know I did.

I defensively shared my own story of growing into my confidence. I talked about my belief in each person deciding what success and happiness looks like for them. I expressed how often I feel like I don’t do enough for my company, for my family, and for myself. I had just heard Brene Brown talk about vulnerability and I wanted to plead, “How the heck can I be intimidating when I am so clearly flawed and failing myself?”

This blog post has been sitting in draft status for nearly a month as a contemplated what the heck is going on with this word. I have had “write the post on being intimidating” as a goal for the last four weeks and each week I have had to mark it as incomplete. Every time I found the time to sit down and write I would stare at the word, feel defeated, and play Wordscapes on my iPhone. I just couldn’t figure it out.

Yesterday I realized that the problem is that I have been intimidated by people and I have formed my own opinion about what that means. For me, intimidating people seek to overpower and demean. They are bullies that find the soft underbelly of another person and push. They wait for someone to be down and kick. The harder the better. They are the people who cause me to cringe, knowing that I will have to work with them to deliver some important outcome. I don’t let it stop me, but I do have to spend significant time psyching myself up to counter their “win at all costs” mentality and to formulate a solution that won’t mean carnage on either side.

I know those intimidating people and the last thing in the world I want to be is one of them.

Instead, I want to be the leader that people can count on to empower them. I want to be the kind of person who others can approach when they are vulnerable and need help. I want to be the kind of person who can see the weakness and say, “Your weakness does not define you — your strengths define you. Your growth defines you. Your future defines you.” But, no one goes to someone who intimates them with their weaknesses laid bare seeking help. No one.

Just yesterday I had a conversation with someone who had made a hard decision to leave a position they loved because they didn’t feel supported. Knowing their talent, contribution, and reputation I immediately felt guilty. Why didn’t they come to me? Why didn’t I see it? Could I have helped them find a path forward that would have allowed them to thrive? I told them how confident I was of their continued success, offered a few ideas on how to navigate transition challenges, and then shared how much I wished I had been more aware of the situation so at least they wouldn’t have felt alone. Inside my heart I wondered whether they had felt intimidated — whether that had created a barrier for reaching out.

I’m not sure I’ll ever know.

Over the years, I have accepted the fact that who I am and how I show up in the world will impact people. I try to express my values authentically, both in real life and in the virtual world of my blog. Each day I try to be transparent about my intent and to be open to adjust when my execution fails to meet that intent. I just hope that some day people will feel less intimidation and more admiration when they think if me — that they know if they come with a good heart hoping to grow that they have nothing to fear from me.

Getting the Jump on Time

I woke up this morning cursing daylight savings time. Now, you may be nodding your head in solidarity — who likes losing an hour of sleep? — but I actually love daylight savings time. For a person like me who loves sunshine and hates mornings the annual “spring forward” is a small price to pay for 239 more hours of enjoyable sunlight. So, it was weird when I woke up this morning and struggled to be excited.

Normally, I spend the Sunday morning after the big shift lazily waking up without an alarm. I open my eyes whenever it feels right and look around at the various clocks throughout my house unconcerned with which ones are right and which ones are wrong. I spend the whole day with chronological near misses, constantly asking, “Is this clock right?” but it actually doesn’t matter. I am weekend calm and the answer really isn’t all that big a deal — we have all day to figure it out.

This morning was different. I’m traveling for a women’s leadership development conference and today’s agenda starts at 7:00am. At last night’s event, the organizers were insistent that individuals should not miss our start time so I came back to my room and developed an elaborate scheme. I was going to ensure that I didn’t screw up by changing my phone from automatic sync to manual sync and I would set it forward before I fell asleep, just like in the olden days.

Take that, I thought. I’ve got this handled.

Well, when my alarm went off on my cell phone at 6:00am on the nose, I saw that the hotel’s alarm clock still showed 5:00am. No worries, that was to be expected because everyone knows that alarm clocks need a human being to update them. But, in an over abundance of caution (and because my Spidey sense was tinging) I thought I better confirm the time using one of a million “what time is it” websites. Site after site stated it was 5:00am, not 6:00am and I sat there befuddled, wondering which data was right.

“Is this clock right?” felt strangely urgent.

So, I jumped out of bed and called the hotel front desk where a nice woman confirmed that I had — in my over-engineered attempt to not screw up and miss my meeting — sprung forward two hours. My smart phone had refused to be dumb and regardless of my attempts to make the change proactively still adjusted to daylight savings at 2:00am as per the careful programming. Sheepishly, I hung up the phone and headed to the shower.

We’ve all been there, faced with a failed plan and stuck not knowing how to move on. If I wanted to, I could whip myself into a frenzy and spend the rest of the day disappointed. I could be angry about technology, frustrated with my plan, or embarrassed by my own incompetence. I could be, but I won’t.

Because in the end, instead of rushing down to the breakfast at 7:00am, I was dressed and ready to go at 6:00am. I pulled my iPad out and wrote this blog post. From one perspective I did lose an hour of sleep, but I gained an hour of reflection. And more importantly I gained another remarkable moment that makes my life not just a series of days, but a series of stories.

And I’ll gladly be sheepish (and sleepy) in exchange for that.