A Lesson from My Roommate

I had five roommates during college. One I lived with for only a day, deciding early that I would be incompatible with the house’s party culture. A second had the single in our triple suite and I remember only two things about her: her propensity for taking our phone into the bathroom and the way she had claimed the common room by the time I arrived with my stuff. I remember talking about it with my roommate and deciding that it wasn’t worth it to make waves. We lived quietly in our shared room for our semester and then parted ways. I reconnected with her recently on Facebook after more than twenty years apart.

My closest roommate lived with me sophomore year. We couldn’t have been more different, but we had an easy way of coexistence and connection that has endured. I was in her wedding when my daughter was a toddler and we visited her again last year. Our low-stress friendship is characterized by our mutual acceptance of someone for the person they are, even when that person confuses the crap out of you. It’s simple: she knows and loves my crazy and I feel the same about her.

Each of them played a role in my life, but it was my first roommate who taught me the power of learning from someone else’s experience.

When I went off to college I had a vague understanding that meeting people unlike me was important. I felt the limitation of my insulated life and was eager to see what I had missed. That natural curiosity burbled below the surface, popping out in late night conversations with the close friends I made over my first year. My growth was subtle, tucked inside and passive. I learned quietly bit-by-bit without intentionality or drawing any attention to my efforts.

 

 

My roommate, on the other hand, telegraphed her intent. She was outspoken about her desire to learn from the diversity and experiences of others. Sitting down with someone she would boldly ask, “What is it like to be __________?” She had grown up in Cambridge, Massachusetts and had lived her whole life in the city, so she found my very different rural Midwestern upbringing interesting. She didn’t have a driver’s license and asked me about the persistence of the car culture in my home state. Didn’t we realize how problematic the fascination with driving was and that we should walk and utilize public transportation? I told her, amused, that it wasn’t an option. We lived miles away from anything and there was no public transportation beyond the yellow school buses that took kids to and from our consolidated school district.

Her sincere interest often came before any deep friendship had been formed. Her questions were sometimes taken as an intrusion into people’s privacy, or worse as a kind of oblivious entitlement. As an 18-year old eager to fit in and find my place in the world, even I failed to see her intent clearly. It is only recently that I can see it for what it was and wonder, in retrospect, whether I would have grown more had I been bold enough to try her approach.

The simple truth is that I have only learned so much from my own experience. Casting a wide net out into the world and keeping my eyes and heart open to the experiences of others has helped me grow more. I feel empathy and understanding building every time I read a book, listen to a podcast or watch a film and wonder, “What was that like?” Even so, those moments pale in comparison to the impact of a close friend sharing their experiences. Those are the stories I tell others, the ones that cause me to reframe every future interaction through their words and the look on their faces. They are burned in my memory, especially when I find myself shaken by something I had never considered.

That’s why I can recall the moment I realized how little I understood about being a black woman in the United States.

 

I was having lunch with a good friend, an African American woman about ten years my senior. The weather had been pleasant and we had walked companionably the mile or so to the local pizza place down the street from our offices. Sitting down we ordered and then started talking about our children. Mom talk was easy for us, even though her son was in graduate school and mine was still just a little boy. In the wake of the Treyvon Martin shooting, she was sharing what it was like to fear for son’s safety in the world and the feeling of being constantly on guard. The conversation went through a number of twists and turns and then she calmly made a statement that I will never forget. “Mel,” she said, “I regularly get followed by security guards when I’m shopping at the mall.”

My first instinct was dismay. Sitting in front of me was one of the most sophisticated, stylish women I have ever known. The idea that anyone could see her as a shoplifting threat was ludicrous. Frankly, it was easier to believe that someone might look at me skeptically, but I had never given a thought to being a target of store security. And here was my friend, the wife of a police detective, sharing that it was a regular part of her lived experience. I stared. I stammered. I tried to rationalize away her experience as misguided or overly sensitive. Maybe she only thought she was being followed? Maybe she was remembering things wrong? Maybe it was a one time thing and not something that regularly happened? My brain tried to reject the truth of her statement and the calm look on her face and when it couldn’t I did the only thing I could do as her friend.

I believed her.

It may seem like a very small thing, believing that your well-dressed friend could be shadowed by plainclothes security at the mall, but to me it was transformative. Once my brain accepted that she had been profiled, I opened myself up to all kinds of other possibilities outside of my own lived experience. I was able to read articles and listen to stories without filtering it through my truth. If she could be profiled, I thought, certainly that was possible.

Now, more than ever, we need to understand that no one has cornered the market on experience. There are more than 7.4 billion lived experiences on this planet, from an elderly person who has lived their entire life in the same earthen home to the toddler of privilege who has already filled a passport. In a world where my own experience feels too narrow to understand and appreciate the questions of my generation, I find myself channeling that roommate of mine from long ago. No, I don’t go up to people and say, “Tell me what it’s like to be…” but I listen to people tell their story and no matter how hard it is to fit within my experience of how the world works, I try to do one thing.

I try to believe them.

 

A Home Rooted in Stories

Last weekend my brother and his wife moved into their new home. Well, new to them. The house itself is more than 70 years old, lovingly built and renovated by the same couple throughout their marriage. You can see their uniqueness throughout the character of the rooms: a great room off the entry perfect for entertaining; a large, private master suite with only a sliding glass door for escaping to the backyard; a central galley kitchen designed for efficiency; small private spaces for hobbies including a dark room, library, office and wine closet. It is the kind of house that leads to questions and wonder in every oddly shaped room, layer of plaster and bricked up window. It is a house begging to share its stories.

I know many of them — the owners were my grandparents.

My grandfather returned from World War II ready to marry his sweetheart and start his life. He told me once that there weren’t enough homes available for the returning GI’s — he just wasn’t able to find a home to purchase. So, being the resourceful person he was, my grandfather moved his new wife and infant son into his parents’ house, bought land from his father and proceeded to build his young family a home. Years later, he could articulate the thinking behind each of the design decisions and the practical evolution as his family grew and their savings made enhancement possible.

When I was growing up we visited their house every Sunday. It was a family ritual that needed no explanation and brooked no argument; few things overruled our 5:00pm trip down familiar roads to my father’s childhood home. I learned the little bit of patience I have from those visits, over the 2,500 hours of amusing myself and my brothers while the grown ups chatted. To be honest, I learned about life without even knowing it. Once during a job interview I was asked what interested me about the automotive industry. I answered, without embellishment, that listening to my father and grandfather “talk shop” had taught me about business before I even knew I cared about business. Family, loyalty, conflict resolution, straight talk — I learned all of that and more as a child at their feet. 

I remember that sometimes grandpa would fall asleep and we would all wait patiently for him to wake up knowing he would smile and assert that he was just reading his eyelids. I remember my grandmother disappearing into the kitchen to come out with plate after plate of snacks (cut fruit, cheese, chips, cheese balls) that we would eagerly devour. I remember getting old enough to be given permission to go off on my own into their bedroom (the only room with a tv) to sit on the bed and watch 21 Jump Street and Star Trek the Next Generation. I remember summers throwing lawn jarts, climbing trees and playing hide and seek under the massive willow tree — the one that was later struck by lightening. I remember one glorious summer afternoon (and only one) when we churned ice cream by hand — it was filled with chunks of Oreo and delicious.

As an adult I created new memories. I got dressed there for my wedding, journeying across the driveway to walk down ‘the aisle’ — a cobblestone path through the grass to my parents’ back deck. We brought our children as infants and toddlers, setting them on the carpet and pulling out familiar toys while grandma brought fresh baked cookies. I remember the warm feeling when my kids first asked if they could go over to “Old Papa’s” house, watching from the kitchen window as they ran across the driveway on their own. They would open the door and head straight to the back bedroom without any warning; grandma and grandpa didn’t mind, their door was always open.

My grandfather only admitted to one time when he and my grandmother had truly disagreed. It was when his business had been taking off and his peers in industry had suggested that he needed to move to an affluent town to ensure financial success. Achievement was important to grandpa and he thought they needed to do it. My grandmother was adamantly against it — she argued that they had to remember where they came from and stay true to their roots. More than 20 years into my own marriage I have a hard time seeing that argument in my mind’s eye. It must have gotten pretty heated, but my grandma was a strong woman and she loved her family more than anything. She won and they didn’t move.

I have a hard time imaging my life if she had lost.

There was a time in my life when I was convinced that my past, present and future would be lived within a few miles of that house. I thought I might be the one to live in their home. My parents were living in my great-grandparents house across the driveway and I had moved home to raise my own young children just a few miles away. I envisioned the changes I would make, how I would be true to the history while building a bright future for my own family. And then I moved away, pulling up roots four generations in the making to start over in a place where we had no history at all.

I would be inclined to be maudlin if not for my brother and his wife. I’ve watched as they have embraced the old while creating a new space totally their own. Walking into the front door brings a feeling of comfortable recognition tied to their own character. The house includes furniture that was my grandparents, pieces that were once mine and things all their own. They’re creating new stories, stories that the next generation will share. I can’t help but think that perhaps it has worked out the way it was meant to — that the house was always destined to come to them. I like that.

Grandma would have liked it, too.

A Space of Her Own

I didn’t always love books. (I’m going to pause a moment while the people who know me in real life stand back up after falling over. Ok, everyone good?)

No one who knows me well will know what to do with the fact that as a child I thought that reading was horribly boring and that I used to do just about anything to get out of it. I didn’t like any of the books that everyone said were good and I wanted to be out playing with my friends or climbing trees or riding my bike. Literally anything was better than being stuck in a stuffy room sitting still and reading. And so it is a great irony to me that I spent a big portion of yesterday putting bookcases together and organizing the shelves of my very own library and loving it.

One of the books that I put away, lovingly, was a tattered copy of The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley. It is the Newbery Medal winning fantasy novel that tells the story of a socially awkward princess whose largest offense was that she was born a girl and not a boy. She tries desperately to be good enough, the whole time acutely aware that she is an embarrassment as she prefers adventure to more ladylike pursuits and she ultimately does the unthinkable, saving her kingdom from disaster. I loved Aerin immediately; in my mundane suburban experience I wondered if I could ever be as powerful as her. I loved that book so much that it started my passion for reading; I loved it so much that I actually didn’t give it back.

(Sorry, Mrs. Aubrey, I promise I’ve taken really good care of it.)

After that my love of reading was unstoppable. I bought books with any spare cash I had and became a frequent flier at the school and public libraries. Do you know that there is a limit on the number of books you can check out at any one time? I did, and it annoyed me. I found ways to sneak a flashlight into my room so that I could read under the blankets, I tucked books inside text books and would read during class. My seventh grade pre-Algebra teacher actually called me out for not paying attention many times and told me to put them away; I complied until I couldn’t help myself and then would do it again.

By the time I graduated from high school I had collected a library of over 200 books, most bought with money earned babysitting that most other kids would have spent on clothes or going out. As I headed off to college to study English at a top ranked liberal arts college, I donated most of them to our local library, carrying in bags and bags of books hoping that other kids would love them as much as I had. I thought that I was beyond the juvenile experiences of that little girl. When my own daughter hit middle school I wished briefly that I hadn’t been so short-sighted, but I relished the fact that I put aside a few of the series that I thought were ‘adult enough’ to keep. I can see them, the foundation of my library commingled with books collected in college and even newer ones from my last decade.

Sitting in my library, still incomplete and with much work yet to do, I am content and I am thankful. I am building a room of my own where my passion has a place of prominence, where I can be surrounded by my love of words without apology. Looking over at the bookcases I am reminded of that young girl who awoke to a love of reading and never gave it up. Not through middle or high school. Not through college. Not through graduate school. Not through working or marriage or the rigors of day-to-day life. Not even when my books were boxed up in the back of closet or double or triple deep on a single bookcase. That young girl had patience and she waited to have a room of her own.

And this room is hers as much as it is mine.

Cheering the Cheerleaders

We headed out today for a pleasant jaunt in our speed boat. Our family, and every other family in Northern Illinois, thought it would be a great day to get out on the water. But, there was a ton of algae in the water and our intake got plugged up. Twice. The channels were crazy crowded and at least three boats came barreling into no wake zones in full throttle. So, I had been finding the bright side of every complaint, looking for something to be happy about, when my husband caught me with a knowing glance.

“Why are you always so positive?” he joked, “It’s irritating.”

I’m not sure when I realized that there was something unique about my blend of energy and positivity, something quintessentially too much Mel. The first glimmer of it came during a late night my first year in college. I was struggling trying to write a standard 3-5 page lit paper and I had sought help from a woman one year older than me. In the course of the work we got to discussing our high school experiences and she asked me, completely seriously, if I had been a cheerleader. I was shocked. Beyond shocked. It must have shown in my face because she clarified. “You’re so energetic and perky; you have a great smile. You would have been an awesome cheerleader.”

On that night, in that room, I came up with many reasons why that wasn’t true. I wasn’t pretty enough. I wasn’t popular enough. I wasn’t athletic enough. I tried to help her understand why I could never have been a cheerleader, why she was wrong. I wanted her to be wrong because I had built strong images of both myself and cheerleaders and I knew that they couldn’t co-exist. I knew it like I knew the sun rises in the East and a rock thrown into a pond will sink.

And as much as my eighteen year old self knew it was wrong, my forty-something self knows it is right: I am a cheerleader.

At some point I realized that people count on my energy and positivity to push through hard moments. My friends rely on me to stand on the sidelines of their life and remind them that they are strong and capable and good. My co-workers rely on me to come into the office each day with the certainty that problems can be solved and to roll up my sleeves and make it happen. My family relies on me to take the ups and downs of life in stride and find a way to smile and power through it. I don’t resent that reliance, I understand it. They aren’t expecting me to be anything but me, an Energizer bunny with a unique capacity to find the good in life.

Most of the time it works out great.

And once in a while, once in a very great while, I just can’t put on my cheerleading outfit. I look at a situation and I really don’t know how to handle it. I am overwhelmed by a hard relationship. I feel hopeless and not hopeful — against all facts to the contrary I feel alone in my failure to figure it out. Depending on the depth of the problem, it might be enough to get a good night’s sleep or sing loud and off key to my motivational playlist. But sometimes that doesn’t work and I am wracked with sobs that echo from deep in my chest, with snot and tears everywhere.

It’s not a pretty picture, the emotionally capsized cheerleader.

But, I’m lucky. I have a great network of people who are watching out for me. When I send out warning signals people offer me chocolate or a hug. When I just tell my network I’m on rickety ground the support is overwhelming. People who would never consider themselves cheerleaders stand on the sidelines of my life with shaking pompoms chanting, “Give me an M! Give me an E! Give me an L! What’s that spell? Mel, Mel, Mel!” And it’s enough for me to dust myself off and get back into position.

I get it now. I understand that my contribution in this life isn’t just about what I can accomplish, but about what I can inspire other people to accomplish. Years ago I rebelled against the cheerleader moniker, but today I embrace it. Who wouldn’t welcome a chance to support others achieving their best self? And if there is something in my DNA that makes it just part of the way I’m wired, well, it would be unexcuseable not to leverage it. I’ve stopped fighting it, I’m here on the sidelines of your life ready to cheer you on.

Just don’t ask me to wear the outfit.

Last Step to Adulthood

I’ve never really understood the fascination with a formal age of maturity. It seems to me that regardless of the age we set many individuals will fail to fit that standard. I’ve know wise and thoughtful teenagers and reckless and imprudent people of middle age. No matter what rights of passage we create to try to prove we’ve reached adulthood, each is a poor attempt to codify something that can’t be easily defined.

Consider me for example.

According to any objective standard I reached adulthood long ago. Take your pick from:

  • When I celebrated my 18th birthday.
  • When I celebrated my 21st birthday.
  • When I got married and started my first full-time job at 22.
  • When I started my “real” career at 26.
  • When I bought my first home and had my first child at 27.

No matter how you look at it, I’ve been a certified adult for +/- 20 years. And yet I will tell you that I had a stark realization last weekend that I had finally taken the final step into adulthood.

This crazy idea of midlife adulthood came courtesy of my 25th high school reunion. Most people carry some baggage from their time in high school and as I was approaching reunion I decided that I wasn’t going to let my 18-year old self go. I was adamant that if I was going to go at all, it was going as the me of today, the person who can walk into any room and engage with anyone about something. I was going to hang out with a group of adults and try to forget that I had spent my most awkward years in their company.

My husband wasn’t sure I could pull it off. He reminded me about how unhappy I had been after my 10th reunion as he looked me in the eye and said, “Are you sure this is a good idea? You don’t have to go.” In a heartbeat I knew that I could spend a night surrounded by my family, safe and loved and comfortable. I had a hundred excuses I could use to make a graceful exit and I knew there would be no judgement or worry. But I also knew something else. Every single time my husband has given me permission to give up it’s been a signal that I’m doing something hard and important. And so I looked at him and said, “Nope, I’m going to go. I think I need to go.”

I got in the car and I drove, by myself with no back-up plan and no safety net. I walked in and found the first person I recognized. I got a drink, had some dinner and then circled the room. I knew in minutes that I shouldn’t have worried — my classmates are fabulous people who have unique and inspiring stories.

I talked with a woman about adopting a puppy that her aunt had found in the middle of the road, a puppy who by alerting a passing car had saved her litter and mother who were off the road in a ditch. I talked with a man who told me about his journey to find a true home in the mountains of Tennessee and I saw his pride as he shared the apirations of his daughter who would someday be a pediatric surgeon. I talked to many mothers, including women who had children soon after graduation, women navigating the challenging waters of being a stepmother, and even a woman with toddlers she considered an unexpected gift. I talked with people about working too hard, medical challenges, websites, dissertations, and hobbies. I was never bored.

Over the course of four hours I felt the last vestiges of my 18-year old self drift away. She had no place in that bar, moving among the tables of interesting and engaging people. When I left that night, after a prolonged good-bye with a woman who I hadn’t known in high school and but who now made me promise to visit her home, I felt truly comfortable. I stepped out the door and into the night with one idea in head.

“This,” I thought, “is what it feels like to know you’re an adult.”

Alone

I don’t have much practice being alone.

When I was eighteen I left my parents’ house to go to college. Over the next four years I lived with three roommates on as many campuses. Even after I had a single room midway through my junior year I rarely spent time there, gravitating more to the common spaces where the people were. And then, barely a month after graduation, I moved into a one-bedroom apartment with my newlywed husband.

Last weekend I was traveling by myself and I considered all the times when I was on my own. I recalled two times, both during job transitions, totaling five months. That’s five months out of lifetime-to-date of 520 months. Less than 1% of my life has been lived alone — and that’s crazy.

I’m not sure what got me thinking about the idea of being alone. Maybe it’s the blog posts from 20-somethings about the pressure they feel to find a life partner. Maybe it’s the news of middle-aged people heading into divorce. Maybe it’s older friends and family learning to live alone after an unexpected death. Maybe it’s just the fact that, as a woman married to a man four years my senior, I’m statistically likely to be alone someday.

And I have no idea how I’ll pull that off.

In the rare moments when I find myself alone in a temporary apartment, a hotel room or my own home I go through a strange cycle. It starts with a feeling of euphoria, the freedom of choosing from an infinite set of options. I binge eat foods that should be eaten in small quantities. I walk from room to room leaving lights on and blaring the radio.  I leave dirty dishes in the sink and empty wrappers on any flat surface. Basically, I act like a teenager.

But, after an hour the oppressive weight of the quiet becomes unbearable. No matter how many tv shows I turn on or how loud I turn up the radio nothing can cover the fact that no one is asking for anything. No one is there to share an important part of their day or a problem that needs to be solved. Faced with an empty home and no one who needs me, it doesn’t take long before I crawl into bed.

And that’s what I’m worried about.

I know a lot of people who are absolutely amazing at living alone. Somehow, they seem to strike a perfect balance between solitary activities and engaging with others. I’m jealous, really. I want to believe that I have the potential to be amazing at living alone — but of course I’m in no hurry to find out. I have a sneaking suspicion that even though I could do an adequate job living alone, I’m only at my best when I’m with people.

And that means someone is stuck with me.

I’m Biased & That’s Ok

Soon after I started my first professional job the team that had recruited me asked for help. They thought I would be a good ‘recent hire’ and they brought me into the recruiting effort. At the time it felt like a nice compliment; many years later I realized it was one of those crucial moments that helped develop me into the person and leader I am now. 

Let me explain.

In order to to recruit, I was required to take mandatory interviewer training. At the time I remember thinking the day or two that I was away from my desk was a very long time, a serious interruption from the “real work” they were paying me to do. I embraced it, but I thought of it as more perfunctory than profound.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The training was broken into two parts, theory and skills. The skills section focused on how to take effective notes, how to solicit responses, and things that could and couldn’t be said. It was all very good, I learned fundamentals that have served  me well for many years. But the bigger piece of it for me (as it always is!) was around the theory of talent acquisition. How can organizations find the best talent for any given role? What stops talent from coming to the top?

I’m sue there were many elements in that second, but the one that was the most impactful to me was the idea of managing bias. The trainer explained that everyone has a series of experiences that frame their view of the world. Those frames are your personal bias — all of the things you know to be true just because you’ve been alive and breathing. You can’t avoid having biases, she said, so you need to work hard to be aware of them and build systems and processes that are designed to counter them. Without that, you won’t be open to all talent, you’ll just build organizations that look a lot like you.

It made immediate sense to me. I stopped thinking about a world where I either was or wasn’t biased and started thinking about a world where I would always be biased and I needed to own my assumptions constantly. It shifted me from a closed circle where I was everything I would ever be to an open sunburst, where all I needed to check and challenge my biases was a willingness to have new experiences and ask new questions.

Recently, I have been thinking back to that learning. I feel like I’m exposed to more and more in the digital world as my  physical world is becoming increasingly homogenous and isolated. I look around and see a tendency to generalize based on anecdotes and experiences. I see unquestioned bias popping up left and right, and I see the tendency to self-reinforce those biases by clicking links and reading articles that support it.

And in case it sounds like preaching, I do it, too. It’s hard not to these days.

When I feel myself falling into that pattern I try to remember is that it isn’t possible to live without bias — bias is just as much a part of life as breathing. Instead, I try to be honest about my biases and how they lead me to act. Personally, I am biased toward strong, intelligent women. I tend to view a generalist leader as stronger than a specialist leader. I lean toward extroverts who like to brainstorm, who are comfortable with the rapid fire back and forth that gets my intellect going. In short, I like people like me and left to my own devices I would hire me, over and over again.

But because I know that, I haven’t. I have hired many talented men and worked for many more. I seek out individuals with deep linear technical career paths because they provided the expertise that every good team needs. My favorite project co-lead was an introvert who let me have the first word in conversations yet added the kind of thoughtful insight that took our conversation forward. Sure, I work with and mentor some Mels, but not just Mels.

I want to believe that if my life had taken a different path and I hadn’t been in that training in my mid-20’s I would still have gotten the point. It’s simple and obvious, and I hope I would have understood it intuitively. Unfortunately I have plenty of examples in my life where despite my focus I have completely missed my own bias. There are so many failure points: gender, race, accent, clothing, religion, occupation, education. Whether someone likes sports or the symphony. Whether they have kids or cats, or live in a city or suburb.

Admit it, you could profile any of those categories. Anyone could and we’d all be wrong.

So, I’m thankful that I had that experience. I’m thankful that when I was young, eager and ignorant about what it meant to lead people my company invested in me. They believed I was capable of rising above my bias to find talent and bring them into our organization. I hope I’ve proved them right.