My Way, Not the Right Way

In the late fall of my first year at college I found myself sitting on the steps of the Mendenhall Center for the Performing Arts. My first year at Smith had been everything that I had wanted it to be but the constant newness and mental stretching had worn me thin and I ached for something simple and easy. I recognize it now as being acutely homesick — I just wanted a moment when I could simply exist without working so hard, to be sitting in a place where things just fit.

It was a fleeting emotion and I’m convinced I wouldn’t recall it nearly thirty years later if I had been alone. But, I wasn’t alone. I was joined in that moment by a classmate, a Black woman who had come to Smith from the south. We sat there, two women from very different backgrounds quietly pining for the same thing: the familiarity of home.

I don’t remember much of that day. I don’t remember why I was there, why we were talking, or even her name. I just remember that at some point I blurted out that I needed to go home, that I longed for the anchor of Thanksgiving with my family and everything that felt normal.

She agreed.

Then, her eyes shined and she shared with an obvious love all of the dishes that her matriarchs would bring to dinner. She rattled off foods so comforting that just saying the words brought an immediate smile to her face: ham, sweet potato pie, collard greens, macaroni and cheese. For the rest of my life I will remember the look on her face and the yearning of her voice because they so completely matched mine. And I will never forget for as long as I live the shocking moment when I realized, perhaps for the first time in my life, that my lived experience was not everyone’s lived experience.

It may sound naive, but until that moment I believed that everyone’s Thanksgiving table looked like mine — like the Normal Rockwell painting. Certainly everyone celebrated Thanksgiving with a huge, golden turkey accompanied by covered dishes of mashed potatoes, stuffing, and cranberries. Everyone shared a slice of pumpkin or apple pie before adjourning to the family room couch for napping and conversation. I had not even contemplated that other families had different traditions, that their normal was different than mine. And, because I put myself (and Mr. Rockwell) at the center of the universe, my Thanksgiving table was the right way — the way Thanksgiving was supposed to be.

(Norman Rockwell, Freedom from Want)

The whipsaw of being completely aligned to my classmate one moment and watching a deeply held assumption crumble in the next is why I remember it so clearly sitting here three decades later on a sunny June afternoon. It is the feeling of that moment — the painful, agonizing growth — that I hits me every time I feel the urge to turn my normal into everyone’s right. I think of the macaroni and cheese and remember that everyone has a normal, but only white majority culture has gotten to choose what is right.

One cannot underestimate the power inherent in defining the standard of rightness. Sure, there are some consistent ideas across countries and cultures, but there is a whole lot of gray space within that. I see them everyday in the world of work, things like:

  • The definition of professional business standards, including clothing and hair choices
  • The best way to lead people and communicate and collaborate within a group
  • The value and artistry of a painting, a song, a dance, a feature length film or a book

Looking back on the early moments in my career I can identify moments where I saw myself subtly nudging individuals with a different normal to the white majority standard. Usually, my intention was to provide them with support in advancing — in competing effectively in a world where knowing and following the unwritten rules can make the difference between getting and losing a promotion. Whether I realized it or not, there I was putting the turkey in the middle of the table and declaring it the right way to celebrate, regardless of how it felt to others. I wanted them to be successful, so I taught them how to play my game, instead of adapting to play theirs.

It was easier that way — for me at least.

And, I might have stayed in that zone if not for another personal experience many years after the steps. I was at an academic ceremony that included a pretty even balance of graduates from all races. I noticed that as the white candidates walked across the stage, their friends and family would clap quietly. And as the Black / African American graduates walked across the stage, their friends and family would offer riotous applause, shout the candidate’s name, and call out affirmations. Near me, as I sat in an all white group, I heard disparaging comments about the Black families — suggesting with rude words and offended looks that they were not behaving in the right way. I was deeply ashamed then, and I still am now thinking about it.

Here’s the thing, I was raised to see a ceremony (a graduation, church service or wedding) as a solemn thing. I was taught to sit quietly, clap politely and draw no attention to myself. That was my normal, the expectation of what was right. But what makes that right? Why was their way of celebrating any less right than mine? Isn’t a graduation cause for enthusiastic and excited revelry? What could be wrong about joyously expressing pride and support for the hard work, dedication and accomplishment of their loved one? If I’m honest with myself, my personality is much more aligned to that model of excited exuberance. I would much rather be loud than languid.

As a leader and an advocate for diversity, inclusion and belonging I seek to remain humble about the right way to do anything although I find myself fairly rooted in my nearly 50 years of lived experience. Even when I try to be open to new ways of seeing the world and manage to push myself off my anchor my human bias is to swing back. As hard as it is now to pivot, I suspect it will be even harder the older I get. So, I surround myself with people who live in the world differently than I do — good people with values and capabilities that I respect. I do little things like say “different” and not “weird” to remind myself (and signal to others) an openness to possibility. I accept the challenge I have to create a more inclusive standard and the failures that will come in that work. And every time I get to experience something different than what I would expect I am grateful for the chance to put a crack in my deeply held traditions and reveal them for what they are.

One way of living in the world — but not the right way.

This I Believe

This week I walked over to one of my many bookcases to find something to read. More and more I have found myself sucked into the endless scrolling on my phone or tablet and I wanted to spend some quality time — at bedtime at least — letting my brain connect to simple black letters on warm white paper.

As I stared at the spines, some aged since I was a teenager others new and seemingly untouched, my eye caught one that reminded me of a simple green field on a summer day. It said, “This I Believe” and I vaguely remembered buying it on a whim with a Christmas gift card. At the time I skimmed it and then ticked it away; it was pleasant and distracting, but not the kind of read that had me pushing past bedtime, giving up hours of sleep to find out what happened next.

Just what I needed, I thought. I grabbed it and carried it upstairs.

Starting at the beginning I found myself reading the short essays of people (some famous, some not) sharing their most deeply held beliefs. Leonard Bernstein believes in people. Eva Ensler in the power of naming things. John McCain in honor, faith, and service. Colleen Shaddox that jazz is the sound of God laughing. Jackie Robinson that human beings are imperfect but that if we are free we can get better. So, so many essays, some from the original 1950’s series launch by Edward R. Murrow, and some from the early 2000’s when my kids were little.

Some of them touched my heartstrings. Some made me think. Some were from people I already admired, some were from people I hadn’t given much thought to. All of them inherently asked me the same question: What do you believe? If someone sent you a text right now and asked you to write an essay, what would you say? And so last night I went to bed planning for that moment (one that would never, ever happen) and this morning I woke up and realized that I don’t have to wait to be asked — I could write it anyway. I will write it anyway. Here. Now.

The Value of Relationships

I believe that the only thing that has true and lasting worth in this life is the relationships you build. I have achieved some professional success and financial comfort but I would consider it all cheaply bought if it came at the expense of the love, respect, and trust of the people in my life.

Granted, I say this as someone who has never truly known want, who has lived in financial security my entire life. Perhaps if I had ever had to wonder where my next meal was coming from, I would now connect my net worth with my worthiness. Perhaps if I had spent years laboring in work that was undervalued and demeaned I would equate my current vocation with my value. Some people do.

And, I believe that the best way to build a relationship with someone is to create a moment of joy and possibility. A worthy life is spent crafting those moments together into a patchwork quilt, the kind of an heirloom that is well-used through a life and can be passed down for generations. Some relationships are critical and create a large and intricate square, worked throughout your life. Others are smaller, filling in the gaps and reinforcing the weak spots and adding color and accent to the covering. No matter how it comes together, a life full of strong relationships provides warmth and shelter throughout hard times and can be tucked around elderly legs to keep warm at the end of a life well-lived.

Personally, I have watched this play out in my own life and those I love. Money didn’t keep someone from dying alone in hospice. Position didn’t save someone from the backlash of work politics. Instead it was relationships built over days, weeks, months and years that brought change — that made it worth it to take action.

Failing to nurture those relationships creates holes in the fabric or gaps in the pattern. Worse yet, betrayal yanks the squares outright, ripping the threads that hold the quilt together. Destroy more relationships than you build and you end up with a thin blanket filled with holes, alone and cold in moments of need.

With that in mind I seek to bring more joy than pain to those who matter to me. I focus on their strengths and not their weaknesses. I offer help not judgement. I try to understand my impact and not hide behind my intent. And when those attempts fail, and they do fail, I pull out my needle and thread and do my best to repair the damage. I don’t always succeed.

I believe that at the end of my days my worth to the world will be judged not by my bank account or my career exploits, but by the warmth of my quilt. I hope between now and then the colorful squares reflect all the diverse, authentic, and connected relationships that make my life worth living.

Pictured: Quilt is Crazy Quilt 4 by Modern Art. Available for purchase at Fine Art America. I only quilt metaphorically.

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.