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?