Saturday, March 24, 2012

And Then They Were Gone.

"And then they were gone."

So said a friend's Facebook post as her daughter and her daughter's friends bid adieu and returned to college after a visit with the family.

I could almost hear the "poof" and see the cloud of purple-pink smoke that the students left in their wake. I thought about how these things often go: the long-planned and much-anticipated arrival, the reveling and rush of the visit itself, and the letdown that follows the departure, which can feel so sudden, even when it's not.

It's been that kind of week.

On Wednesday I learned that the company at which I've spent most of my career will be no longer. The firm itself has a long and storied history, and my share in it is only a tiny sliver, but it's been a big part of my life for many years. It's where I grew up - as a person and a professional. And "poof", almost like that, it's gone - or soon will be - at least in the form that I have always known it.

Wednesday I rode a roller coaster of emotion. Shock. Disbelief. Denial, then detachment. Disappointment, then sadness. I took comfort in knowing I was not alone, and in the caliber of the people and relationships I have known in my time there. It is also comforting, I suppose, to know that most of the people I know have been through this at least once, and that it's just my turn.

Our business line is being sold, and understanding what this really means could take many months.

So when I returned on Thursday, it was to "business as usual". We are moving forward, focusing on the future, positioning ourselves and our customers for brighter days ahead. And that's good. It makes sense, for a host of reasons. And certainly, I will be very busy for the foreseeable future, helping our various constituents to make sense of what these changes mean to them.

Yet amid all that busy-ness, an era is ending. And it seems, during the day at least, there's so little time to acknowledge that. We mobilize our teams and task forces, put people and project teams on call, reorder our priorities and go. Hard and fast and with singular purpose. The hours fly by, there seems to be even less time in the day than usual, and there's hardly a minute to think about what all of this means or feels like.

Except in the restrooms or in hushed hallway conversations, where people ask one another if they're okay, what they plan to do during or after this transitional time. People worry about their jobs, their families, their mortgages and tuition payments, their health insurance. They think about the unemployment rate and stay up too late refreshing their LinkedIn profiles and reaffirming old connections, making new ones. They focus on what they can control, and hope it's enough to make a difference in all the areas of their lives that it needs to.

It's all a bit surreal. At the end of it, whenever that is and whatever it looks like, I will have added "acquired" to my work experience. I may have stepped through a door as a career employee at one company into an unknown future at another. And with each day that brings me closer to that new future, the world I've known will get smaller and smaller as it recedes into my past until, like a free-spirited college kid catching the last train out, "poof" - it'll be gone.

Friday, March 9, 2012

"Is This All There Is?"

This question was posed today by a friend who, many years into a successful business career, was contemplating the path she thought she would take and the one she actually did. 

I can identify. 

As a young person - that is, until I graduated college - the idea that I would enter the business world never occurred to me.  But then I did, and for a time, I think I wanted to believe it was just a diversion, that eventually I would return to my passions of psychology, social issues, women's issues, even art. I wanted to believe I could make a living and make a difference, that I was just getting some real life experience while I figured out my next steps. 

Fast forward nearly twenty years. 

My entire career thus far has been in business. I've had many interesting opportunities and a reasonable amount of success. I care for the people I work with, I receive good pay and good benefits, and my team does work that makes me proud.  

These are all concrete, valid things. 

Sitting atop my lily pad, the same one I've been occupying for nearly two decades, these things sparkle and glint in the sun. They reflect back to me the fruits of my labor and the promise of a bright tomorrow if I just stick it out, work hard, perform well. 

I have followed these dangling carrots for a long time. 

The truth is, I have stayed this course for nearly twenty years in large part because I've been afraid. Afraid because I didn't know what came next, afraid that maybe nothing would. Afraid that after spending so much time and energy working to fit this mold, it had finally set and could not be undone. Afraid that choosing another path meant risking rejection, failure, financial insecurity. Afraid to follow my heart, and deep down, more afraid of no longer having a sense of what it really wants. 

Allowing my eyes to wander to the surface of the water and then beneath it, I catch glimpses of other things hovering close to the murky bottom, partially obscured and dreamlike. Yet even through the cloudy depths, I recognize them. These are things I used to know in my bones, things I used to love and want, things that had nothing to do with "security" and everything to do with the feeling that comes with living on the edge "of terror and ecstasy", as a friend would say.

I could be laid off tomorrow. Or hit by a bus. Any number of unforeseen circumstances could befall me that instantaneously would turn my world as I know it upside down. And then I would be forced to make some choices. Or worse, choices might be made for me. 

I've been living as though I will cross those bridges if they come to me, but in the meantime, I've put them off with questions and rationalizations such as, Why rock the boat? Why not just have a hobby, take a class, make time to dabble in the soul-satiating stuff, be satisfied with a "fix" every now and then?   

My eye is drawn back toward the bottom of the lagoon by something shifting in the silt. It looks nearly close enough to touch. 

I have deferred exhuming and exploring my heart's deepest desires because doing so might put me in the uncomfortable position of wanting to pursue them. And that would mean a face-off with all that fear.

"Is this all there is?"

Yes, I want to say. Yes, this is all there is. And I/you/we can decide what this is: this moment, this one life that we've been given, to live as fully as we can in honor of our creator and our highest selves. 

If I don't like this this, I can change it: by giving more or less to the job, or listening for the things that call out to us from the watery depths of our subconscious, or walking through the fear of trying something new... but goshdarnit, yes.

This is all there is, and it is as expansive or as confining, as fertile or as barren, as glorious or as mundane as I would have it be.  

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Torbie 'tude

I love cats. If you do not, I encourage you to keep reading.

Many people do not share my affection for cats, which I've never really understood. I tend to assume it's because they've never taken the time to really observe the feline and how much they have to teach us. 

My husband and I have two cats, both Maine Coons. They are intelligent, sensitive, talkative, funny, curious and infinitely wise. These are qualities they share, but their personalities could not be more distinct. This post is about our female, Sadie, who every day offers clues to me for how to be an unapologetically empowered, independent female. 

Sadie has very strong Queen energy. My sister gave us a plaque that reads, "It's the cats' house. We just pay the mortgage." That sums up a great deal about our brown patch Torbie (short for "tortoise shell tabby") girl. She's in charge, always has been, and her expectation is that the rest of us will just fall in line. We do. 

Exceedingly clear about what she wants and needs, she calls us out if we fail to pay attention. She doesn't apologize, and she's never been cruel, she just wants what she wants and needs what she needs. And, as the humans that brought her into this domestic arrangement, it is our job to see that those needs get met. That's our end of the bargain, end of story. No "please" and "thank you" most of the time, just a tacit acknowledgement that this is what partnership looks like. 

She is resourceful, tenacious and a natural athlete. Adept at high jump, soccer and hide and seek, she can amuse herself and us for long stretches at a time. 

Conversely, she is delicately beautiful, perhaps a tad vain. Adoring of the spotlight, she can rock a diva 'tude that could make Mariah Carey look like a wallflower. She takes full ownership of this. 

She values her alone time and takes as much as she needs without asking permission. 

An intrepid explorer and calculated risk taker, Sadie trusts her instincts implicitly, follows her gut, and never lets others' ideas about what's right or wrong trip her up or slow her down. "Should" is not in her vocabulary.

The world is her oyster. She does not experience this fact from a place of ego, it is just something she knows, and it is the framework in which she lives her life.

As a family member, Sadie is a loyal companion, generous with her affection, and protective of our dominion. Among her jobs (all self-assigned) is keeping tabs on all household activities, watchful and attuned to everyone who enters and shares her domain. Bad day at work? She'll greet you at the door with head butts and a reassuring purr. Tummy ache or the flu? She's the furry, hot water bottle wanna-be curled up beside you for as long as it takes you to recuperate. Unexpected company? She maintains boundaries without worrying about whether she'll be perceived as "nice" or not. 

Not a day goes by that I don't marvel at her. How completely unique and multi-faceted and embodied she is; how unfettered by social constructs or idealized images or external expectations. She is everything she is and nothing she's not every minute of every day, without question, without struggle, without interruption. 

What a gift to have such a beloved and loving mentor in my midst, as I seek to move toward that kind of knowing and being in my own life. 

Mourning What's Broken

I recently have signed several online petitions, adding my name to a cause I feel passionately about because it felt so important to do something. Anything. Anything other than nothing.  

Now that I've added my name to those online petitions, I am inundated almost daily with emails whose subject lines proclaim outrage and disgust. They demonize people, parties and policies. They are all so angry.

When I come home after a long day at work to this flurry of furious mail, I can feel my blood pressure spike. Either I delete them without reading them, or I begin to read them, and feel like I am somehow participating in the problem by inviting all this rage into my consciousness. Sometimes, there's so much of it and it feels so overwhelming that I find myself again in a place of doing nothing -- because I have to wade through so much hyperbole and vitriol to get at some semblance of the truth that it feels too exhausting to make the effort. 

There is much to be angry about: War; poverty; violence against women and children; violence against animals; lack of access to health care/water/food/shelter; corporate greed and corruption; environmental devastation; protracted unemployment; Congressional gridlock; partisan politics... for starters. 

And yet, as an occasional actor, I think back to something a director once told me: When you find your character wanting to react angrily, go back and find the hurt. Anger is a surface emotion, beneath which, there is always a wounding. That's the place from which you want to begin - 'doing angry' is easy. And, some might say, lazy. Because anger creates a bright, hot, colorful flame that jumps and dances and gives off smoke and distracts us from looking beyond it to what else might be there, at the blue center.

So I think about all these things we're angry about and I wonder about the wounding beneath. And the grief that comes with wounding. Something important goes unnamed or unspoken, gets broken or torn, is eradicated or destroyed, is terrorized, traumatized, abused... something essential is lost or forgotten, or goes unseen or ignored, is violated, victimized, wiped out. Where is our grief? Where is our collective recognition of what is really happening? 

What if, instead of allowing ourselves to be galvanized by anger, rage and a desire for retribution, we gathered to share our grief, to mourn in community? 

What if, instead of pumping our fists or weapons in the air, we used our hands to reach out to the person next to us? 

What if, instead of talking incessantly about the things that piss us off, we started to talk about how terrified we are, how vulnerable and small we feel, how insecure? 

What if we started to say that our hearts are heavy from carrying shattered illusions and broken dreams -- those we had for ourselves and our children and their children after them? 

Sometimes, when I am still and allow myself to begin to really contemplate some of the problems we are facing, I feel that my heart may actually break. So far, I have not given myself to it fully, I haven't allowed it to happen.  It feels so enormous as to swallow me whole, and I have no idea what is on the other side. So I open my eyes, or move a muscle, make room for other thoughts. But it's there, that grief - I know it. It knows it. And I think the day is coming when it will not be denied. I will be compelled to acknowledge it not in my mind, but in the breaking of my heart.

In the breaking, something opens: there is room to let go, room to receive. 

In anger, there is only the hardening of the heart, the closing down, the shutting out. 

I don't know, maybe I'm nuts. I do know that I want to change the conversation. I'm sick of being angry and of being subjected to other people's anger. 

Anger can get people fired up enough to get off their fannies. But I'm not sure it solves problems - not the kinds of problems we're contending with now, anyway, and not for the long term. Anger begets anger. 

On the other hand, grief shared is grief halved. Mourning can facilitate healing. I believe this.

Maybe I'll start a petition. 

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


Several girl friends told me that when I hit my forties, I would step fully into my power as a woman. I'm still on the early end of the decade, but I have occasional glimpses of what they were talking about.

Some of them said things like, "You'll stop caring about what other people think." Maybe that kind of hard line will appear at some later point, but I do find that as I settle more securely into who I am and who I want to become, I'm placing less emphasis on others' opinions of me. 

It's not exactly that I don't care what you think - for better or worse, often I still do - but not to the same degree, and not to the extent that I allow it to induce the obsessive shape-shifting that it used to. 

The truth is, at this point, I just want to be me. To not only accept my shortcomings and development opportunities, but to get to know them, even make friends with them - to find out what I can learn from them. 

As it turns out, there's a lot of juice and wisdom in the messy stuff - the things that for years got locked in the cellar because they weren't worthy of the sunlight, or of the image I'd constructed (or was trying to construct) for myself. And a lot of that had to do with what I thought others would think of me if they knew the truth about how unremarkable and imperfect I am. 

I thought that if I didn't excel at everything, I would be a failure; if I couldn't somehow convince myself of assured success, I was inclined not to try at all. For the endeavors that I did undertake, I often was so consumed with trying to master them to perfection (whatever THAT means), so focused on the outcome, that I wasn't fully present to the journey, the process, the learning that occurred along the way. Each new venture was a performance opportunity, instead of a learning opportunity. 

I so feared failure (whatever THAT means) that it became the only alternative to "perfection". The expansive middle ground that stretches between these two ends of the spectrum fell away into a gaping black chasm where experience, growth and joy got (and stayed) lost. Of course, I didn't see this at the time. At all. 

But as the cellar got fuller and fuller, and I had to work harder to keep the door bolted, I began to feel perpetually anxious and tired. I worried constantly that the ground beneath my feet would give way to the monument of imperfection that was threatening to thrust its way through the basement ceiling and into the room with me, with you, with us. Which of course, it eventually did, because as a friend once said, "The truth always rises to the surface."

Over time, as I've started sifting through the buried treasures, traumas and trivia that comprise whole other aspects of me and my life, I've been able to admit (accept, even!) that despite all my grandiose aspirations and strivings to the contrary, I am just...ordinary. This acknowledgement ushers in a healthy dose of humility, but it also provides a substantial helping of relief and liberation. 

So I'm in the process of forging a relationship with my ordinary self. 

In redefining what I value in myself, I am less concerned with others' estimation of my value. In releasing myself from the mandate or expectation to be exceptional (or nice or successful or [insert adjective here]), I can be real and present and more fully human. 

"Excelling" is less important today than being honest, living my values, admitting and learning from my mistakes, making tomorrow a better day. Fitting into to someone else's idea of what success looks like is not of much interest to me anymore. Feeling comfortable in my own skin is more my speed, and it is to that I am turning my attention more and more. 

So while I may still care something about what you think of me, I care more about how I feel about myself - all the real, imperfect, still-trying-to-figure-it-out parts of myself. 

And that feels forty-onederful. 

Sunday, March 4, 2012

I Asked for a Hawk.

A dear friend passed away earlier this week. In addition to grieving his loss, I've been grieving my inability to say a final goodbye, which I was unable to do in the weeks before his passing. His services will be held in private, and it surprised me how much this felt like salt in my wound. Irrational, probably, but I am left with the uncomfortable feeling of unfinished business, lack of closure. Closure for me, of course - not for him - which feels selfish, but there it is.

I prayed for him in church today, and on the drive home, I sent a silent prayer up to the sky: "If you've arrived safely at your new destination, my friend, please send me a sign. Show me a hawk on my drive home."

Nipping at the heels of this request came a series of internal admonitions: Who am I to dictate to a dearly departed that they should communicate with me, let alone how and in what time frame. My eyes scanned the tree tops as I drove, but I felt foolish, knowing full well that such appearances don't occur on demand. Also, we live in an area where hawk sightings are not unusual, so I had requested a sign in a form that might be nothing more than a daily occurrence. What a dolt. 

I sped through a changing yellow light to turn onto the wide main drag that marks my last leg home. To my left are the town's municipal offices. To my right, an old cemetery. 

I completed the turn and was passing the cemetery when sweeping into view from the right came a smallish hawk, wings spread wide in a graceful, unhurried glide. It wasn't circling high over head, it was crossing my path, and it banked to its right a bit to show me its smooth, creamy underside before continuing its slide toward the municipal complex and out of my view. 

Several months ago, my friend's bladder was removed. Most recently, the cancer had invaded his liver, and his back was giving him a lot of pain. The chemo and radiation sapped what remained of his flagging energy, and he was frustrated that while his mind was willing to get up and go, his body was unable. 

This was not a hawk at rest. I don't know if it was at work or at play or just taking in the view on this grey March morning, but it appeared healthy, strong and free. 

I thought: I will never know if this is the sign I requested, but I can choose to believe that it is. And in making the choice, my eyes filled with tears, my heart swelled, and the need to look down into a casket to pay my last respects was winged away with the vision of the hawk. 

I am reminded of the importance of asking for what we need - whether a sign, a hug, an apology, whatever - however silly or unimportant or selfish it may seem. Because sometimes, oftentimes, we really, actually get it. And when we do, we get heard and validated and made a little more whole. 

Rest in peace, dearest P. I'm glad you made it home safely. 

Welcome to the Lily Pad

Why a lily pad?

I like the image. It came to me in a near-dreaming state: a tiny little frog sits in the center of a pad in the center of a pond, which is the center of a lush community of living things. Unseen birds sing from the tops of trees, dragonflies buzz along the surface of the water, reeds dance to the rhythm of a gentle breeze.

There's something reassuring about that image. Out on the pad, you can see in all directions, surrounded by nature and alive things, held up on the surface of the water by something sturdy and reliable, something connected to the depths. Out on the pad, you're in the middle of it all - the rattle and hum of something bigger than yourself. An ecosystem. A community of fellow dwellers, some known and some unknown. You have a place in the grander scheme of things.

And yet, there's something existential about the image, too; that sense of isolation and floating that can make you question whether you're headed any place in particular or whether, without benefit of the lily pad, you'd just be treading water - arms and legs pumping below the surface, your self too focused on staying afloat to notice, let alone enjoy, your surroundings. Who or what sees you when you're out there alone? And are you alone at all? And what does it mean to be seen, or not, anyway?

I expect this blog will be a bit like that. A periodic musing on what lives or hides or thrives below the surface; what's outside the realm of my tiny little pad that's worth noticing, connecting with, learning from. It will be based on the questions that I'm living with at this stage in my life, such as:

How I am connected to any of it, to all of it? 
What is my direction? Does it change with the strength of the wind, or activity below the surface, or am I sitting still? 
What sparks my movement and to what do I return?  
What if I left the comfort and familiarity of the pad I know for another? 
What other options have I not even considered?

And with any luck, once in awhile, someone else out on the pond - or in it, over it, along the edges of it - will share their thoughts in return.