16 December, 2008

Wake Up

Recently, I was asked to write a piece about activism on my blog. Sure, I said. No problem. In this time, this economy, this political and environmental state…what could be more important, right? But then something happened. I dragged my feet. I kvetched, bemoaned the pressures of writing under a timeline, and created other, more sophisticated excuses. I even got sick. Then – today in fact – I announced (in a stomp-your-foot sort of way), NO. I just wasn’t going to do it. Period. End of discussion.

How embarrassed to admit this publicly – my sense of privilege at having the luxury of choice, my whining, my foot stomping. But I fall on my sword in front of you now to make a point (probably at my expense, but so be it): It is apathetic episodes such as these that are the kiss of death to activism.

My wake up call came literally moments after I took my oath to activism apathy earlier this morning. I came across a buried (figures…) e-mail from a dear friend whom I admire for her ability to live mindfully and at choice – constantly inspiring me to new heights of compassion and selflessness (more on her later…). In her e-mail, she included a link to this incredible video called The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard. Today, as I found myself in the throes of my last minute holiday shopping, the topic seemed too ironic and relevant to ignore. So I watched it.

The movie was about the environment and had a profound impact on me, but it was the feeling it evoked in me – nay, awoke in me – that compelled me to write about activism. I felt as if I had been in a sleep induced by laziness, apathy, and a sloth-like privilege. I don’t mean to paint a picture of myself as a overly self-critical, because it’s not that I’m judging myself so much as it is appreciating the fact that I am waking up from it. If I had to give “it” a name, it would have to be “inertia”.

I am reminded of what I’ve always known: that activism in its truest form is about the simple acts. It is about how we are choosing to ACT in the world. I’m realizing one of the assumptions that has fed my drowsiness in this arena is my deeply held belief that whatever I do has to be BIG. Like revolutionary or movement BIG. Snore. No wonder I procrastinated. No pressure.

As I reflect upon the wake up call to activism I experienced today, I can see a chain of events that acted as my alarm clock – each one of them caused me to “hit the snooze” bar on my own realizations until at last I staggered out of bed today. Here’s the beautiful thing about all those conspiring events: they were all simple – potent and profoundly simple.

The first was a gift from my wonderful friend, the Amazing Jess Esch. Nearly a year ago, she introduced me to her concept of “This Is How I Change The World”. This phrase, worn on a t-shirt or pasted on your daily coffee mug, has the beautiful effect of heightening your consciousness to the way – in that particular moment – you are choosing to change the world. The cool part is that it simultaneously heightens the consciousness of the world – via whomever witnesses your act(s). Whether you are taking the trash out, buckling your child in your car seat or taking a deep breath – WHATever you are doing – THAT is how you are changing the world. This understanding made the notion of “activism” so accessible to little ‘ole me. Ah, I see grasshopper! No longer did I feel the need to have the audacity of Rosa Parks, the charisma of Martin Luther King, the fortitude of Gloria Steinham or compassionate wisdom of the Dhali Lama. I could just be me ACTing in the world. Me, the activist. Version 1.0.

With that understanding (thank you, Jess) came a boatload of permission. I started using the phrase “activism” more and more – first in referring to others and then (more boldly) dabbling with the notion as it applied to me. I began speaking out more for those causes I feel most passionately about. I began to see that using my voice (which, frankly, comes relatively easy to me) IS a form of activism – even if I have an audience of one. I noticed (and this is a big one…) that I began to use less disclaimers when I was making a point, inserting my voice or otherwise being me, the activist. For instance, I am a HUGE fan of Hillary Clinton. Somewhere along the line, I got the message that this was not to be shouted from the rooftops, so I prefaced my enthusiastic support of her by saying, “I know this isn’t the popular opinion, but…” What kind of a statement is that!? Done with that – no more.

Something else. I’ve radically cut back on the number of apologies I offer the world. The reality is that I didn’t mean half of them, so why waste air? If someone bumps up against something I feel strongly about, good! Let’s engage in a conversation about it! That’s activism – engagement!

I’m on fire about this (can you tell?) because I now get how easy it is to be an activist. More importantly, I now see I AM being an activist. No more waiting. No more longing or aspiring or worse, yet, jealousy or guilt.

Now, back to my friend…the one who sent me the e-mail with the video link that started all this. I mentioned she inspires me. One way she does that is how her family of four chooses to make a charitable gift each month. Every month they sit down as a family and discuss how they’d like to use their allotted charitable dollars that month – brainstorming ideas, educating each other, mulling over options and coming up with a solution that the whole family has participated in making. I love everything about that practice – the intention, the financial responsibility, the generosity. It’s a simple idea that blows me away and touches me deeply.

Like the teachers at my son’s childcare. In an effort to ease the financial burden of others in a difficult economy, they were asked by their directors forgo the traditional holiday gift exchange (activism). What happened instead? The teachers came up with a creative solution: making a holiday tree using construction paper, complete with 121 handprints and footprints “ornaments” from our children and a wish for the holidays. The sight of this huge tree moved everyone in the community. People cried. And they remembered – in that instant – what was important about the holidays and this season. That was activism.

What if inspiration was the key to unleashing more of a potent activist spirit in the world? Think about it. If everybody is doing all these simple acts and we witness each other, might that not inspire others to do the same? I get most of my ideas from interacting or observing others. In this regard, part of who I am as an activist is a storyteller . I share the examples and ideas I’ve stumbled upon with the hope that they spread like seeds – like the story of Miss Rumphius who sows lupines by casting seeds wherever she walks in her small seaside town. We could inspire activism within each other by sharing our stories and celebrating our beautiful and simple acts.

I am so relieved to be rid of the dread. Instead, I am inspired and filled with a renewed sense of purpose. It’s not about doing your part to ensure the earth keeps turning on its axis – let’s not kid ourselves, who is capable of such feats? Activism at its heart is about simply living and making daily choices that reflect our values, our intentions and as Gandhi said, “the change we wish to see in the world.” The cool part is we get the chance to do it each moment of every day if we want. It’s ripe for the picking!

Good morning to you!

06 November, 2008

Change is a comin', oh yeah.

Have you ever had the sudden realization that you’d been holding your breath? For a really, really long time? Like 7 ½ years? And then it comes – that sudden intake of breath infused with life-giving oxygen, filling you up with renewed energy and a fresh perspective. In that moment, you remember what you’ve been missing. You remember what a deep breath of peace feels like. Hope.

Yesterday, as people exercised their right to vote it was as if the whole country took a collective breath – a determined, committed and conscious breath – and exhaled themselves into “a new dawn of leadership”. Barack Obama. And us. Together.

In his acceptance speech, he said, “This is our chance to answer the call. This is our moment.” Indeed, it was a moment I won’t ever forget. It was a moment – in the presence of all that fresh and wondrous oxygen – where everything seemed to make sense again and all the pieces of the puzzle seemed to fit into place.

Last night as I watched this historic event unfold I came home to what know, but had forgotten: change moves in cycles. Like the seasons, the moon, the tides and our bodies, there is a natural rhythm and cadence to things – we ebb and we flow, we wax and we wane, we expand and we contract. This is the way it has always been and will always be, even given all of our sophisticated analytics, research and technological advances. This is not to suggest we are incapable of manifesting what we want in this world – indeed, we proved that quite handily last night. I do, however, want to draw our attention to the “sweet spot” that can occur when we work with (not against) the natural rhythms in the world. Let me explain…

I have a new-found appreciation for George W. Bush. I never thought I’d say that, but it’s true. And here’s why: he was the one that led our country (collectively) to a place of pain and despair. He was the president that enabled our tides to go out far, far from our shores – leaving us standing on the beach, squinting in the blinding sun, looking out at the horizon and feeling our parched skin getting burned to a crisp. Without having fully experienced that sensation as a country, we might not have been ready for what I believe will come next: the return of the tide. In this context, I look at all the other players along the way – McCain, Palin, Hillary and even the economy. All of their combined forces helped us to reach the place in which we find ourselves today. They were a necessary part of that cycle. Now, as the “new dawn” rises, I am confident we will soon see signs of water returning. A new cycle will begin.

One thing I have come to appreciate about change is that whatever it is – however it manifests or reveals itself to us – it tends to follow a predictable pattern. Like the seasons of the year, I see the process of change (which is typically much more complex than the change itself) as a wheel, constantly rolling forward, but giving us different perspectives (good, bad or ugly) with each turn. Elizabeth Kubler Ross talks about this predictable process of change through the context of grieving and loss, suggesting that people go through five stages: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. Within the context of organizational change, I’m familiar with the modified version containing the four phases of Denial, Resistance, Exploration, and Acceptance. Richard Beckhard, a behavioral scientist credited with defining the field of organization development went so far as to create a “formula for change” with his two partners, outlining the factors that need to be present in order for change to occur:

C= D x V x F > R

Essentially, this formula shows that in order for Change to occur, the level of Dissatisfaction, combined with the clarity of Vision and the First steps need to be GREATER than the Resistance to (or cost or pain of) change. This formula seems particularly relevant to this cycle of change we are currently in (or coming out of) because it speaks to the level of pain and discomfort we needed to get to in order to generate some action (and consequent traction) to move through and out of this cycle.

However you slice it, it is clear we are entering a new cycle of change. Last night, President-elect Obama invited us all to “summon a new spirit” as he put out a clear “call to service”, reminding us that he could not do this alone. We are breathing now, our lungs full and flushed pink with fresh oxygen. We are ready. It’s time to answer the call.

07 October, 2008

Laying Fallow

Years ago when I first began my corporate career, I was eager to stay busy and constantly hungry for new learning and challenges. Insatiable, really. I worked under the guidance of a wise crone at that time. I used to run into her office (literally) and lament, "I'm bored! I need something to do!". She then gave me the most sage piece advice I dare say anyone has ever given me, "Lael, you need to learn how to lay fallow."

Now, at the age of 39, I so get that. Am I good at it? Nah. It doesn't come naturally to me, nor will it ever, I suspect; I am a sprinter by nature. I do, however, have the wisdom to know better. And as I settle back into my life post-retreat, I am acutely aware that laying fallow is just what is needed.

"Laying Fallow" as I understand it is an agricultural term referring to fields that are cultivated, but then intentionally not planted, so that they may rest. Because fallow fields are not growing anything in particular, the soil is able to nourish itself for the season; sort of a "time out" or a "get out of jail free" card for crop world. In the human context, this means a time of rest, rejuvenation, and for me, deep reflection.

This past weekend, forty-one amazing women gathered at Kingsley Pines camp on the shores of Panther Pond in Raymond, Maine for the entire weekend. As the host of this event, called Homecoming: A Women's Retreat, I felt like a proud "birth mother" and was moved to tears at the beauty of women saying YES to themselves, the side-splitting laughter that emerged around the fire and at meals and the community that was formed as a result of sharing this experience. It also explains why I now feel rather post partum - that indescribable mix of sheer gratitude, awe and exhaustion. Not unlike after the births of my sons, I am rendered speechless and have the urge to crawl in a corner, wrap myself in warm blankets and sip hot tea. This is how I lay fallow.

During these times, I have this uncanny ability to remain present - something I struggle mightily to do during most days of my life. I resist the urge to make sense of what just happened, because it just seems too daunting a task to define magic. I clear my calendar and stare vacantly at whatever is in front of me; resting my eyes, redefining what "vision" needs to be for me just now. I put off making decisions, and instead make lists of my questions.

Yesterday, as I returned from dropping my eldest son off at Kindergarten, I found myself heading home pushing the stroller with my youngest son in it. I had that familiar sensation - the one that has been with me for months now - saying, "okay, now what?" Instead of rattling off the impossibly long list of to-dos and then prioritizing what is needed most, I smiled as I heard my own voice say, "Now, we push the stroller". Yes! That was the indicator my field was about to lay fallow. Then I cried with relief. And panic.

The panic comes from a realization that for me, laying fallow can be a lonely place that is filled with wide open spaces and not a lot of distractions from my ruminations - a dangerous combination. It also means making myself available to the "elements" of my emotions - grief, gratitude, pride, fear, joy and hope - as they buck and weave with the wind across my field. I hearken back to the "Red Tent" that I created as part of the retreat this past weekend and the energy of women it contained within it, and I am fortified by that image.

Many, many years ago, the Red Tent wasn't just a construct to symbolize a place of women's wisdom and community as it was at my women's retreat - it was a real place, used monthly by women in their communities. Because menstruating women were considered by many to be "dirty" or "impure", they were forbidden to cook food, carry water or do other traditional tasks that women of that time were assigned. Left to their devices, they created a place for women to retreat during these times - a Red Tent. Over time, places like these came to house all things sacred and special to women - menstruation, birth, grief, storytelling, nurturing and comfort. It was a place only women could enter, a place women could comfort other women and wisdom could be passed along. It was a place where women could be known without explanation and needs could be met without asking. It was literally a place to "go fallow" and let your fields soak up the nutrients from the fields of other women who's own were abundant and rich and overflowing. There was a reciprocity inherent in the Tent; in taking care of other women, women were actually taking care of themselves, knowing that we are all connected and soon enough, they would be the one seeking care.

At the retreat, I literally draped yards and yards of various types and shades of red fabric across the beams of this massive lodge, invoking the wisdom of our ancestors and tapping into ancient ways of being that many of us didn't even know we possessed. I watched as women sat by the fire and shared their stories, gathered around a bowl of beads, draped a blanket or rubbed the back of another woman nearby, moved their bodies in Belly Dance or stomped and roared their primal songs during Journey Dance. It was powerful and beautiful and so very good.

I heard stories that weekend of women who were experiencing shifts happening for them - the woman who finally understood what it felt like to nourish herself with food, the woman who felt herself loving herself, the woman who rejoiced upon getting her period for the first time in almost four years. I heard their songs and laughter. I smelled the bowls of soup and the mugs of tea and the chunks of chocolate. I saw women returning home to themselves - and to ourselves collectively - and it made me weep as I did the same. Although I have not yet found the words to begin to describe what I took away from that experience, I do know I returned home with a conviction to do more of it (whatever "it" is...) and was thoroughly fortified to stand century in my fallow field for a while so that I may replenish myself for when that time comes.

I was touched deeply by our connection to nature as women. From the regal and proud grandmother oak (aka "Big Mama") to the cry of the loons, the lapping of the water, the crescent moon and the bald head eagle that circled the camp six times at the conclusion of the retreat - nature supported and blessed our gathering in so many ways.

And like the waves in the ocean, I am reminded that there is a lull after each big wave. There is a natural quietness and retreating that gathers after such an event that, however disconcerting or jarring (for me, anyway), is quite necessary and part of the natural order of things. And so I head into my fallow season, wrapped in the blanket of this experience and a new, stronger commitment to tend to my own soil so that I may help other women do so for themselves. Like the yoga posture shavasana that concludes each session, I am intentionally making the time to lay down and relax into this post-retreat time, and in doing so, am beginning to re-integrate this new experience into who I am.

Thank you to all those who made this retreat a reality - my gratitude knows no bounds.

30 August, 2008

Momma Had a Baby and Her Head Popped Off

Remember that little ditty from your childhood days? So there I was in the midst of the frantic morning rush to get my two boys to child care and then rush home to start my “work” day and I hear my five year old singing this in the back seat. I pause and then it hits me, “Oh, that’s what happened!”

Seriously. It all made sense to me in that moment. Suddenly, I felt validated and no longer insane. After all, they wrote a song about it at one point in time, so it had to have some kernel of truth, right?

After giving this some more thought, I think I’ve found the kernel of truth (for me, anyway): My head didn’t “pop off” – those of you who know me will attest that it is firmly rooted to my body – but it was replaced by a bigger, much heavier head. It’s not the self-inflated sort of “big head” that comes with the big ego or delusions of grandeur. It’s more like the size has stayed the same, but now it’s filled with a heavier material – a “mommy head” that’s chocked full of those weighty buckwheat hulls, like the soothing microwave bags you buy at new age stores, only minus the soothing.

The result? I realize that I’m responsible for carrying a lot more weight with this heavy head. No wonder the notion of achieving “balance” in my life continues to be so elusive; my equilibrium has been forever altered. Don’t get me wrong. I love all that in my life that has caused my “mommy head”, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I just feel validated now. Like I can give up the fight to return to “normal”. As my dear friends put so aptly after making their way through the countless emotions, tests, and treatments when they learned their five year old daughter had leukemia, there is a “new normal”.

What this little ditty my son so graciously brought back into my life also reminded me was to not take myself so seriously. Indeed, the very notion of my “head popping off” made me howl with laughter when it hit home with me. The gift of this realization invited me to throw up my hands and recognize the fact that I can’t do it all (perfectly, no less) and have it all (immediately, no less). I must choose, be clear what I want and learn how to say no.

Whether or not I give myself credit for it, I have been doing just that. I have consciously chosen not to write in my blog for the summer (feverishly sweeping aside well meaning comments reminding me, “Lael, you haven’t written anything since May 31st!!!?”). I also have chosen to loosen the boundaries on my work, allowing myself to make some much needed calls on my “home” days while I’m playing with my boys (again, fervently battling the feelings of guilt, “if I die tomorrow, will my youngest son think this phone is actually part of my head?”).

So now I move forward, as we all ultimately do. To my “new normal”. I’m learning to say no with more confidence. I’m learning to lower my standards a wee bit and to manage the distractions that inevitably come-a-callin’ when I’m trying to focus.

And here’s the cool part: I’m not alone. One of the benefits of coaching and consulting with primarily women and women’s businesses is that I get lots of insight into their lives and their experiences. I also am affiliated with a number of women’s organizations (http://www.mainewomensfund.org/) and am running a women’s retreat this October (http://www.shechanges.com/retreats.html) so I get to come into contact with and hear from amazing women all the time! I hear their stories and I see my own reflected in them. In those instances, I get the validation I am longing for: I am not alone.

When my head popped off last week (one of the three times…), I serendipitously had a friend come over. I recounted to her my story of the week: accidentally assaulting another car (turned out it wasn't mine – oops!) when my key failed to unlock it. All the while, I was holding a baby, gripping the hand of my five year old in this busy parking lot, and answering a call on my cell. By the time I had relayed the story, we both had tears in our eyes from laughing so hard at this absurd and outlandish tale that was my life

Another time, a neighbor overheard me “holding the line” with my five year old at breakfast during an incident which has come to be known as the “yogurt standoff”. I was beating myself up about how I handled it when I got a call. She quite simply said, “I just want to let you know, I heard how you handled that this morning and I think you’re a good mom”. Needless to say, I sobbed with relief. Validation.

Here’s what’s been born out of this realization: an unwavering commitment to gather women for just this purpose. To sit in circles and tell our stories and have ours reflected back to us. To laugh, to cry and to be validated. Sometimes, it feels as simple as getting your parking garage ticket validated by a local vendor - you're looking for the stamp to get you out for free. Some days, I hear myself cry out, “stamp me, sistah”; “tell me I’m not crazy and I’ll tell it right back to you.” It's on those days I am reminded that no matter how far fetched or unique our circumstances, there will always be another woman in the crowd who will say, “I hear you. You are not alone. I get you.” And then you breathe and begin anew.

28 May, 2008

We Can Do This, Ladies

Can you hear it? At first I thought it was my imagination or perhaps wishful thinking, but now I’m absolutely certain: it’s a rally cry. A call to the women of the world to move to action.

I’m hearing it in so many different arenas – economic, political, spiritual, organizational. It gives me the impression of being in the bottom of a canyon, the way the sound reverberates off all the walls so it’s impossible to locate the exact source of origin. It’s all around us. It is us. I’m left with that out-of-body sensation that as I am witnessing this sound, I am also part of it; making it happen, that deep, resonant vibration reminding me I am connected to something greater than myself. Despite what I hear in the news or read in the paper, I intuitively sense it is a great time to be a woman in this world.

Jean Shinoda Bolen, a Jungian analyst and author, refers to this reverberation as “a wisdom whose time has come” and harkens us back to the two previous times American women have changed our world – the suffragette movement and the women’s movement. Malcolm Gladwell, author and social scientist, describes this notion as a “tipping point” and reminds us that major transformation can occur through seemingly mundane and everyday acts. Dee Dee Meyers, author and former press secretary for Clinton, calls women to step up and “rule the world”, not because women are the same as men, but “precisely because [we] are different.”

We are different. Let’s celebrate that and start bringing those differences to bear in the world around us. Let’s snap the old masculine measuring sticks for power, performance, and prestige over our collective knees and focus on what we know deep down inside of us. Let’s not waste time defining ourselves in relation to men or the masculine, but rather honor and obey (yes, I said O-B-E-Y!) our instincts as women and honor the feminine wisdom within all of us.

Doesn’t the time feel ripe? In her book, Urgent Message From Mother Earth: Gather the Women, Save the World, Jean Shinoda Bolen does not mince her words in calling us to action. She points out that even the men in today’s world are recognizing the need for women to take the lead and invites us to feel the “stirring below the surface of our collective consciousness” that is gathering momentum.

So are you ready? Seriously. Are you? This is not a time for shrinking violets or patent social graces of deference, modesty, or coyness. This is about standing up and being seen by all – even in the face of your own uncertainty, messiness, or (yikes!) failure. Marianne Williamson calls to me daily (some days louder than others…) from my office wall where I’ve posted her famous quote: “Your playing small does not serve the world”. Lest I forget.

So let’s get over ourselves. There I said it. It’s not about being arrogant, egotistical, self-centered or selfish. It’s also not about being delusional, a feminist or even remotely ready. It’s about time. It’s about stepping up, taking a stand, choosing to stay in the conversation(s) that matter to us and using the powerful voices we were given to unleash the collective wisdom that is bubbling up within us.

If you’re anything like me, you worry. I’ll admit it: I’m a chronic worrier. I worry when other people don’t worry – how sad is that? So I get that stepping up and taking a stand can be a thoroughly lonely if not downright terrifying act. I catch myself quelling my own instincts much of the time because I am second guessing myself and wondering if I know enough or am astute enough to warrant opening my mouth. So some days, sadly, I don’t. I wait and I watch. My moment comes and goes as I diligently try to learn more so that next time I am ready! Next time I am more prepared. Next time I have the courage to step up and take my stand. And lead.

So what is your “enough” quotient? Get clear on it. Then get over it because that day will never arrive. If, like me, you are waiting to “know enough” about any particular topic or issue, you are most likely a life-long learner and as long as the earth continues to turn on its axis, you will never deem yourself to “know enough” because there will always – ALWAYS – be more to learn out there. So get over it.

What about your “next time?” When will that be? Do you see how passive that invites us to be? Waiting for the “perfect” entry point, the “right” time to pounce or the “best” place to make your move as a leader?

If I sound all “tough love” on us as women leaders, it’s because I, too, am in this space of waiting, being poised, and never feeling quite prepared for or (dare I say) competent to step up and be the leader I know myself to be. And anybody who knows me will tell you that I am entirely impatient, so you can imagine how this situation has my kettle at a full boil and shrilling loudly over here.

So are you with me? We’ve got some paradigms to shatter for ourselves and a bunch of new stories to write. Among other things, we will be called to reconcile (fancy word for “get over it, already!”) our relationships to power, money, and anger. We’ll have to break that nasty perfectionist habit and ramp up on our risk-taking tolerance. Suze Orman, as she explored the notion of women and money in her most recent book shared her confoundedness and then concluded, “we can do this, ladies.”. In that spirit, I truly believe – and history will back me up on this –we can do this. We can lead the world to a better place. We can answer the call.

Start today. Don’t wait. Don’t worry. Don’t look back. Just open your mouth and trust that wisdom will come out. It’s bigger than any one of us, but it begins will every one of us. It doesn’t have to be some earth-shattering notion or a profound idea - the best ones usually aren’t. Keep it simple, but do it today. However you choose to step up as a leader – in the big or the small everyday ways – do it publicly, proudly, and with conviction. Spare us the apologies – that’s really about your need, anyway, right? Let your actions serve as inspiration to the women – and the world – around you. My talented artist friend, Jess Esch has inspired me along this path with the creation of her t-shirt emblazoned with the simple message “This Is How I Change The World.”. Whatever I am doing as I wear that t-shirt – consciously or unconsciously– I am reminded that I am in the process of changing the world. It can be that simple. And profound.

And on those days – and we all will have them – when we feel small and whiny, we would do well to remember the words of some great leaders who are are with us in spirit cheering us on: Ghandi saying, “be the change you want to be in the world”; Martin Luther King, Jr. saying, “you don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step in faith”; Soren Kirkegaard imploring us, “leap and the cliff will appear.”

It’s our turn to leap. Are you with me?

01 May, 2008

Letting The Wind Be Your Ally

Years ago, I was introduced to the phrase “blowing the stink off” and it stuck with me. At the time, it was in reference to the engine of a car – getting it out on the highway and opening it up so that the gunk and grime that had accumulated from its around-town usage could be cleaned out of the system. The idea was to do this periodically so that the engine would perform better, last longer and generally “run cleaner”. From experience, I will say the effect benefited both the car and the driver. Over time, the practice of “blowing the stink off” has become a regular ritual and has demonstrated its practical applications way beyond the scope of my car.

At its core, this practice is an invitation to cut loose, shake out your feathers, and let wind and gravity cast off anything that is dragging you down, holding you back or otherwise clogging your system. We all have them – the barnacles that somehow attach themselves to our hulls or the bugs that get pasted to our windshields, whether they are persistent "shoulds", annoying replays of scenarios or interactions or perhaps lingering regrets that are really minor in the grand scheme of your life. The bottom line is that it doesn’t really matter where they came from or how or when they attached themselves to us – it’s that they are here now and they’re ugly, unnecessary and tend to hold us back because of their excess weight and “drag”. They are just parasites along for the ride – YOUR ride.

Just imagine how free and easy your ride might be without them. If you were to blow the stink off every now and then, how might your journey be different? Consider this: if you have come this far with the barnacles attached to you, imagine what you will be capable of or how far you would go if you were to clean the junk out of the trunk – to get rid of the back-seat-driver sort of stuff that slows you down, distracts you from the scenery and causes you to burn more gas.

Sounds wonderful right? You might be thinking, “it’s not that easy…you’re making it sound so simple.” Maybe. But what if it were that easy? What if we could cast off our barnacles or blow off the bugs by going out on the open road and just revving our engine up a bit – and letting the wind and gravity be our allies? Ever make your way onto the highway and watch what happens to the bugs that are desperately clinging to your windshield? What happens to them as you pick up your speed? Gone! At least most of them are. Sure, you might still have one or two that hold out – just as you have one of two issues or habits that will take a bit more elbow grease to remove; I’m not denying that. My point is this: for the majority of bugs, you don’t even need to turn on your windshield wipers to cast them off. In this way, perhaps you can increase your visibility and clarity without much effort on your part.

Personally speaking, I have a number of ways I like to blow the stink off - my own stash of methods that are tried and true and have endured the test of time. Sometimes I run - the leave-your-lung-in-the-parking-lot sort of runs that are so foreign to my 39 year old body. Probably one of my most relied upon methods involves popping in some rockin' music, cranking up my car stereo as loud as it goes and singing my heart out. The boom-boom of the bass and drums as my voice merges with Aretha, Annie Lennox, and Eva Cassidy has easily and effortlessly dislodged even the most tenacious of my barnacles. There are also occasions that involve other people - like crazy dancing to disco with my five year old (we call it "getting our ou-oos out") or going on a roadtrip with some of my best girlfriends and howling with laughter as we share our thoughts about life and tell our women-tales. Regardless of which one I choose, they all rely on two factors: loudness and laughter. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

We are a society that thrives on struggle, toil and sweat. We work hard. We even play hard. So I recognize that this simple (dare I say “fun”?) way of blowing off our stink can be a radical move for people. But what if it were just that easy to lighten the majority of our load, but we resisted the notion because we were taking ourselves (or the barnacles and bugs) too seriously? For some, blowing off the stink can be a terrifying proposition because it means letting go or saying goodbye to those things you have come to know so well. It means stripping down and being seen by yourself and others for who you really are. It might make you feel vulnerable and naked. Ultimately, it signals that you are taking responsibility – when it is just us, there is no one to blame or distract us. No excuses.

Of course you are absolutely entitled to cling to those particular barnacles with which you identify and are not ready to part ways with – those tough items stuck firmly into our front grills or perhaps worn as a hood ornament – I’m not suggesting you go cold turkey. What I am inviting is some curiosity and experimentation: how many bugs might fly away on the open road if given the chance?

Whatever your particular vehicle you are in at this phase of your life – an ocean liner, a mini-van, or an ice cream truck – ask yourself if it’s time to blow the stink off. Gather some friends or maybe go it alone, but find a stretch of open road that calls to you and open it up – let your particular engine do what it loves and watch as the bugs, barnacles and excess luggage get carried off by the wind. Smile to yourself as you look in the rear view mirror and see what you’ve left in your wake. Above all, have fun with it and notice how free and easy it is to travel without it. There will be plenty of opportunities to struggle and sweat later. Dare to let this one be easy. See what happens.

15 April, 2008

In Praise of Leaves (of absence that is...)

Okay, so I kid you not, this was literally my first thought this morning as I lurched my tired body out of bed: “thank goodness for coffee!” Not “thank you” as all the countless books on gratitude have taught me…or even basic stuff like “what time is it?” None of that seemed relevant to my immediate needs. It was all about the coffee. I’ve developed quite a love affair with the stuff. Seriously. How sad, right?

But then I remembered the conversation I recently facilitated with a group of women about the myths and realities of why women “opt-out” of the workplace and I didn’t feel so alone any more. I’d like to also say I didn’t feel as pathetic, but as I sat there on the seat of our toilet madly scribbling my thoughts, that particular sentiment seemed somehow fitting. Given what I’ve heard, however, I am most definitely not alone in my current state of exhaustion, never-ending to do list, and bungled ball-juggling. That realization gave me great solace and hope – or at the very least mitigated some of the shame I felt as my husband came in to brush his teeth and found me writing (again) in the bathroom. Last week my perch of choice was the edge of the tub, so a bonafide seat seemed like progress to me. Either way, as I sat there this particular morning, I knew that somewhere in the great state of Maine – and certainly in the country – another woman was scribbling her notes on a toilet seat. I have to believe that.

So what does this early-morning bathroom writing blitz of mine have to do with the workplace notion of “opting out”? Everything. Because like me, people are craving some solitude to sort things out and be with their thoughts. This was validated most recently when this group of women I was working with shared their own stories or fantasties of “opting out” and in doing so, revealed quite an impressive list of things they were currently mulling over. The conversation quickly digressed from the exploration of why more and more women are disappearing from the corporate leadership ranks, contributing to the “leaky pipeline” that has fascinated me for so long, and morphed into a new, more compelling theme. We were clearly touching upon a deep and profound longing to have the time and space to reflect. And here is the interesting part: it wasn’t the topic or even the product of the reflection that was important, as it was the ACT of reflecting. It was as if the wisdom of our group was making a case for the power of “allowing” and letting things emerge – which, we noted, flies in the face of a culture that values and rewards production, speed, and control.

Here’s what excited me most from our conversation: our stories seemed to be suggesting the real gems and richness in life lie not within our answers to whatever the questions are, but rather within the questions themselves. We exchanged countless examples of what emerged, materialized, and crystallized for us during our various leaves – maternity and otherwise. For those of us with children, we weren’t necessarily pining for the time back with our newborns, as much as we were that unbelievably decadent time and space to “do nothing”. Ironically, the physical labor of birthing, healing, nursing, and adapting to a new life seemed to provide the container for our minds to disengage and take a hiatus from the analytical gymnastics we had been accustomed – or in some cases, addicted - to. We reflected on what that “time out of time” gave us and wished more people could experience a leave for themselves. We talked about the merits and appeal of paid sabbaticals and leaves of absence and how that could positively impact the health, growth, and profitability of companies and ultimately, the world. We talked about how tired we were and how much we longed to have that experience again.

So where am I going with all this? A lightbulb went off for me during this conversation that radically shifted my thoughts on this topic of “opting out”. What if this topic being discussed by and for women in the workplace today wasn’t really about women at all? What if women were doing the work for our society as a whole by bringing this conversation to bear? What if we all could have the gift of “opting out” every now and then – without needing a justification or socially-sanctioned reason? Imagine what the world would be like then…

What a radical thought! Think about it. What if more people were invited – nay, encouraged! – to retreat and go inward for reflection, renewal, and inspiration? Imagine the ideas that would emerge. Imagine the impact on our health as a culture – less heart disease, depression and acts of violence. Seriously. If that’s not enough “cost justification” consider the improved focus, renewed commitment and fresh ideas that would be brought back into organizations after a “time out”. If we could get over the tangles and trip-ups of setting a precedent, measuring returns, and otherwise administering such events, I would wage a bet we would see a myriad of benefits appearing on the top AND bottomline of organizational balance sheets as a result of this practice. Not only would we have happier and healthier people working with and for us, we would start to experience a whole new caliber and class of ideas and productivity levels. I imagine the “shoulds” would start to fall away and new and creative pathways would open. As people emerge refreshed and inspired, I could see unprecedented levels of excitement, commitment, and ownership being reported.

There are so many examples – a client of mine, the tired Executive Director out on maternity leave who comes back inspired and invigorated, ready to take her non-profit organization to the next level; another client who finds his job eliminated and consequently stumbles upon a more meaningful and rewarding way of “working” for pay; my own habit of going away every birthday to just sit and think about the past year and the year to come; the story of Bill Gates who goes off on an annual “reading retreat” to think and be with his thoughts. The thread that runs through all of these examples is the same: the space for serendipity, Divine intervention (yes, I said Divine), and emergent thoughts to take center stage, while the ego, fear, and cluttered thoughts take a hike.

Sounds great, right? Taking a leave – unpaid or otherwise - as an employee or granting one as an employer is a BOLD act, make no bones about it. But it’s not new. However, it seems, there is a proverbial fly in the ointment: this option is currently limited to those who can afford it financially – because of paid benefits, workplace flexibility and/or the financial means to sustain themselves during a leave. Sadly, it appears that the leave-taking option requires either having a child, getting sick or becoming part of the economic elite – not necessarily practical or plausible options for most of us.

So it appears I have more questions than answers (what else is new?) What I am certain of, however, is that this collective longing I’m witnessing – in myself, in others, and indeed in organizations – is a force to be reckoned with; one that will ultimately break through the antiquated notions we have governing our organizations and workplaces. Until then, I will heed the advice of the wise Rainer Marie Rilke:

“I beg you…to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

02 April, 2008

Watering the Plant of Feminism

I just bought a plant today. It is this lovely, hearty looking succulent plant called a “ZZ”. The little card that came with it boasts, “this durable houseplant is an exceptional performer in low light and requires next to nothing in care.” It's apparently bomb proof and seems to thrive on neglect. This concept has always appealed to me, particularly when it comes to houseplants. I was immediately drawn to the plant, perhaps because the notion of “thriving in almost all conditions” resonates deeply within the tired, but resilient and hearty nature of this working mother.

For some reason, it got me thinking about the current state of feminism. I know, quite a leap of logic, but hang with me a minute…

I’ve recently claimed the identity of “feminist” with all the fervor I can muster. It’s officially part of my super-secret cache of self-identifying monikers – right up there with “runner”, “working mother” and “Scorpio.” But after a particularly rugged March, one in which I got sick a number of times and felt particularly run-down from my habitual tendency to burn the candle at both ends, I am seriously revisiting this notion of “thriving on neglect.” As I approach my fortieth birthday, this wise voice within me keeps kvetching saying, “you’re kidding me, right? You’re actually proud of this ability to run on empty?”

So here is the crucial intersection at which I find myself standing: the convergence of all my self-appointed identifiers in the bright light of this new question of whether or not I want to continue to “thrive on neglect.” I’m thinking perhaps it’s time I water my own plant a bit. For just like my new succulent ZZ, I have been boasting that I can go for long stretches of time with no water and still be an “exceptional performer.” I have let myself get dehydrated. Again.

So it begs the question in my over-active mind: what else is dehydrated simply because of its hearty and resilient nature? I mentally scroll through my list of monikers and find more examples. “Runner?” Yes, it’s true I consider myself to still be a runner (not a “jogger” – very different), despite having not taken a step in my sneakers for nearly two years. What else?

Then it occurs to me. Recently, while on the Maine Women’s Fund website (http://www.mainewomensfund.org/) , I stumbled on the phrase “riding the wave of feminism.” Ah! Feminism! Now there is a hearty plant with which I can identify! I think “feminism” and I think “Gloria”, “60s” and “women’s movement.” I have visions of throngs of women, raising their voices together in protest and taking a stand. Most recently, I think “Hillary.” Interestingly enough, I don’t think: “me” or “my generation.” Which leads me to my next question to myself: when was the last time I did anything to water the plant of feminism? And more importantly, as a white woman in my late 30s, have I ever? Or am I continuing to rely on the work that those legions of women have done before me?

There is something within me that is rising up and saying, “this is no longer okay!”. The health and well-being of feminism is too important to neglect and it will fail to thrive with without some serious watering by my own generation. There is something shifting inside of me that is rebelling against the whole “thrive on neglect” mentality, despite my recent purchase of a ZZ.

I consider conversations that I’ve had with my women friends who are in their 50s and 60s – women who forcibly (and noticeably) created positive changes for women in the world. There is often visible annoyance or resentment present when the topic of feminism arises among us. One particular dear and wise friend confessed, “I’m tired…you do the work now!”

Okay. It’s time. Are you ready to join me? For one thing that I’ve learned is there is strength in numbers. Despite all my resilience, tenacity and “thrive on neglect” ways, I cannot do this alone.

So I pulled out some books because that’s what I do when I’m on a mission. Rebecca Walker. bell hooks. Naomi Wolf. Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner. I am beginning to hydrate myself for this leg of the journey and am feeling my endurance athlete spirit awaken within me.

I am ready. I think back to my days as a runner in the 4 x 400 meter relay. I imagine myself standing there, warmed up and primed for the race. I feel the sweaty baton coming into my fresh hands from my weary team member. I am so ready for this challenge.

Are you with me?

21 March, 2008

The Underbelly of Women's Culture

Two times this week I have facilitated a dialogue with women leaders on the topic of women working with other women. Specifically, we examined why it can be so difficult. Needless to say, I’m exhausted. However, what I’ve observed in both groups has me really intrigued and has given me the inspiration to keep this topic on the table with the women with which I interact. Despite my sweaty palms.

This is a tough topic. Most research on the matter concludes that is exactly why it is among the lists of “undiscussables” with women. From my own experience, it can bring up issues of shame, embarrassment, defensiveness, and most certainly denial. I’ve found this to be true for myself and most recently, I have observed this in other women engaging in the topic. What it requires is women to look at the “dirty underbelly” of female culture. There is an increasing amount of research on the topic of why women struggle to work with one another. The findings typically attribute it to three dynamics: how we are encultured as girls to deal with anger and conflict, the fact that we are often pitted against each other in the media and the challenges we face as we aspire to be leaders within a society that traditionally honors and rewards the masculine.

So sure, there are a lot of good reasons this is happening. And certainly, this is a really hard issue to explore as a group of women. But here is my concern: what if we don’t? What are the consequences for us as women if we don’t discuss this issue and begin to take ownership of our collective dynamics and perceptions? What then? My fear: more of the same. In fact, the research out there comes to the same conclusion: until women rise up address this within our own culture of women, we will find ourselves stuck and divided. More of the same.

From my experiences this week, I’m getting a bit clearer on the rub. What I’m noticing is when women don’t relate to the statistics and the stories that would paint this picture of “internalized sexism” – either because of their experiences or because of their own resistance to claim a rather unattractive issue – they tend to vehemently push away the topic as if it was a hot potato. Which it is. The problem is, who will catch it? And ironically, isn’t the very notion of “passing the potato” to another woman discounting the many, many voices of women who claim this issue is true and alive to them? Isn’t that in itself an act of judging and differentiating ourselves from other women?

And then there is the whole Law of Attraction thing… If we begin to focus on this topic as women and talk about it more, won’t that “draw it in” to us? So, in effect, we will be creating more of what we don’t want: divisiveness, disagreement, and conflict among women?

So what’s a woman to do? Simple, the research concludes: RISE UP and DO SOMETHING!!!! The bottom line, is that we need more women winning, than losing. We need to see the connections between our successes and our losses and resist the urge to just use our own perceptions and experiences to drive our actions (or inactions). We need to wrap our minds around the idea that when we find fault with another woman – or another woman does – the notion is reinforced that women are somehow faulty. And that includes you, whether you “deserve it” or not. So the invitation is to turn the tide – to somehow make it fashionable to be good to each other (which flies in the face of the current cultural mindset).

Specifically, here is what we can each do:
Become less judgmental about other women
Find common ground – we are more similar than different, so focus on that
Don’t allow the media, or anybody else for that matter, to define who you are.
Support women’s organizations with your involvement and/or your checkbook.
Mentor a younger woman–become an ally for another woman and support her success. Be an activist in ways that engages dialogue, not debate: invite curiosity, not judgment.

So what do you think? Let’s talk about this. And I’d ask you again: what are the consequences if we don’t? Isn’t it time?