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.

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.

One Letter at a Time

I write letters. Most weekends I lift my grandmother’s 1949 Royal typewriter off its stand and place it on my desk, an unlikely partner to my high-tech iMac. I select two sheets of color-coordinated oragami paper, run them through the guides feeling the resistence as I push hard on the round keys. I compose letters full of all the emotion, candor, and typos that come with authenticity. Every one is as different as the individual who gets it, the unreadable impressions on the ribbon and platen the only record of my effort. Early on I tried to capture my words by taking a picture of each letter. I hoped I could bottle the warm feelings that I tucked into each envelope, but it didn’t last.

The words belong to the reader, not to me.

There is something uniquely vulnerable about a heartfelt letter. An email leaves a copy in your sent items folder. A text message has back-and-forth context. A conversation allows the opportunity for real-time clarification of misunderstandings, offers non-verbal cues, and has no permanence. But, a letter is physical and only the recipient can decide what happens next. They can choose to throw it away or carry it around forever. They can keep it to themselves or put it online for everyone to see. When you send it, you give up the right to choose how it will be used and cede power to the other person.

I worry sometimes that my letters are weird but I send them anyway, I push past the uncomfortable feeling that whoever I am sending it to will misinterpret my intent. I hadn’t given much thought to the feelings I was facing until a diversity and inclusion facilitator recommended a TEDx talk by Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. In her talk, she shared her personal story about studying vulnerabilty and learning about its role in creating connections and living a whole-hearted life. Listening to her speak, it was like the pieces of my life philosophy were clicking into place. It was a master class on being TooMuch, sharing how vulnerable people…

…let themselves be seen, deeply seen.
…love with their whole hearts.
…practice gratitude and joy.
…believe that they are enough.

My letters, like these blog posts, are my way of living those ideals. And that’s why this weekend I sent three more letters off to an eclectic group of people. One to my grandmother, one of the first people to love me for the full and flawed person I am. A second to a former colleague, a young woman I worked with briefly and who is now shining her light through her own business. The third went to a woman who I looked to network with earlier in the year — my apology for not following up after her offer to share her insight.

Each one holds a little bit of me that I will not be able to protect.

Earlier this fall I sent a letter to a colleague. I had to work the system to get an address and, because the individual is private, when I put it in the mailbox I wasn’t certain whether it would be welcome or an intrusion. But I knew they were going through a difficult time and I thought that if I was in their position I would want to know I was supported and not alone. So I wrote it and sent it away, letting my fear of overreach dissipate as soon as the blue box gobbled it up. It would be ok or it wouldn’t — all I could control was my sincerity.

I had forgotten completely about the letter, spending a week battling my own demons, when I got a message from my colleague. They had neglected their mail for a while and when they opened their box at a truly low point my letter had been sitting on top of the pile. The entire message was warm and grateful, but I felt my heart tighten as my eyes stopped on one phrase: your words meant everything to me.

I would love to say that my vulnerability hasn’t harmed me, but it has. I have had letters used against me, my own words twisted into daggers to harm both me and the people I love. Those moments hurt, forcing me to question the wisdom of giving others weapons for their hate. But, I am buoyed by the many more times when my words have created true love and possibility. Friendships rekindled. Hope created. Trust built. No, vulnerability isn’t easy and it isn’t comfortable but I know one thing.

It is worth it.

How Can I Help?

I saw a great cartoon earlier this year, providing perspective on the different effort expended by parents in “running the house.” As the spouse of a stay-at-home parent, I quickly saw myself in the parent who does much less and yet protests “but I help…” Everyone who has come into contact with me and my husband knows one well-established fact: I carry very little of the administrative burden of our home, sitting back content in the certainty that the vast majority of everyday tasks will just happen. I help, but not nearly enough.

As my brain wandered to what I could do to balance my ‘at home’ scales I pondered a bigger question: If I truly want to help, why am I not helping more?

In my experience, most people are ready and eager to help. Personally, I have one of the strongest and most supportive networks, filled with people who I know will help without hesitation if I asked. In the last month I’ve faced some challenges that I never anticipated — at home and at work — and at some point or another every person that I consider important to me has offered help. But, even with that help offered I haven’t done a great job of turning their eagerness into action, instead sending them away with the throwaway, “Thank you for the offer, I’ll let you know when there is something that you can do.”

And then I don’t call them because I don’t have a clue what they can do.

Here’s the problem, when I’m buried in work or a complex project, it feels like I’m a drowning swimmer two feet over my head and wildly flailing my arms. Although I look cool and calm as a cucumber on the outside — years of practice — inside I’m in panic mode, my body frantically trying to stay above the water. My brain is focusing on only one thing: do not drown. And, it is in that very moment that someone shows up in a boat, pulls up along side me, and asks, “How can I help?”

Now in a calmer moment I could absolutely assess the right next steps and ask them for a rope, a buoy, a life jacket — anything that would prevent me from sinking to oblivion. But with my brain fully focused on the immediate need of not drowning, I can’t. Instead I say something stupid like, “Nothing right now, I’ll let you know.”

The boat pulls away leaving two people no better for the moment of connection.

We’ve all been there, stuck on one side or another of a failed help conversation. Sometimes we’re the swimmer, sometimes we’re the boat. No matter which side we’re on, every single moment when it happens feeling inherently unsatisfying.

As I think through when help has worked and when it hasn’t the first thing that comes to mind is the power of specific help instead of generic help. Imagine if the person on the boat didn’t ask, “How can I help?” and instead said, “I’m throwing you a life ring, grab it.” It takes a lot less mental gymnastics to understand a command and respond than to run through a laundry list of possibilities and pick the one right-sized task out of 100’s. Faced with simply clarity of action, most people can accept offered help and support.

And that would work great except that I’ve seen the direct approach fail as well. Sometimes, declarative help comes in the form of an unwanted casserole or a push down an unwelcome path. There have been times when I’ve rushed into a situation with the very best intentions of helping only to harm, either by identifying the wrong solution or simply by stealing the person’s self-determination.

So what the heck is the helpful person to do?

It seems to me that the right answer is to spend more time listening and less time acting. In the cases when I have helped the most, it is because I have taken the time to listen to the person struggling so I can hear in their story and identify places where they might need help. With reflective listening and good questions, it is possible to let the person share what they choose about the situation and once more is learned, I can offer the better things. Recently, I was talking to someone and learned they no longer felt comfortable driving at night because of vision loss. Later that week we were heading together to the same event. Armed with my new intel, I was able to ask, “Would it be helpful to you if I drove?” My offer of help was specific, targeted, and still something that could be refused. It was imminently better than the open ended, “What can I do?’

I’ve found that the same technique works when someone does offer generic help. Lately I was feeling overwhelmed with a big task. Instead of going into my struggle cave, I took the time to walk a colleague through the challenges and big steps. He asked questions and together we broke the work down, eventually identifying a couple of building block items that could be easily delegated. Once I could see those tasks, I asked if he could own those and of course he said yes.

In both cases, both the helper and the helped felt exceedingly better than if we had stalled, without help.

And that’s the hard thing, really. Everyone understand that finding yourself alone and without help is isolating and horrible, but it can be just as difficult to be surrounded by help and not know how to activate it or to want to give help and not know how to do it. Our  real opportunity is to find better ways to channel good will to good action, to turn possibility into outcomes.

I don’t have all of the answers, but it seems to me that when you start with listening you have a chance to get there. When we build real empathy and understanding and we tie that tightly to empowerment we can keep everyone above the water line. By simply defining intent and offering options we can create the kind of help that benefits our friends and family. The words may seem simple — “I want to help you. Would this help you?” — but the power is immense. They may accept or not, but either way we can take a concrete step closer to doing something.

And the right something is better than nothing.