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On Leading

I’ve been thinking about leadership a lot these days as I’ve watched elected officials and community leaders struggling to meet this moment. The confluence of the pandemic and its economic fallout, racial protests and the action required to dismantle centuries of systemic racism, the collapse of confidence in government, and the stress of so many unknowns about the months to come is a powerful mix of challenges. No leader is super-human, but we do need extraordinary leadership now.

It’s important to note that most people are not leaders. They simply go where they are led—sometimes gratefully, sometimes grumbling every step of the way. Make no mistake, however: the goers and the grumblers cannot lead, no matter what some of them might think. Back-seat drivers can neither see the road nor steer, and they have no stomach for speed or hazardous conditions. Second-guessers were never in the room for the hard stuff, trying to discern a path through complete fog with cliffs on either side. The Monday morning quarterbacks…yeah, they can’t really throw a pass anyone could catch even when they aren’t under pressure. And there is always pressure. This is real life, after all.

So leadership matters. In fact, I think as I consider my lifetime, it has almost never mattered more than it does now. Thus, I think we must consider what we expect from those who lead. You may have your own list, but this is mine: a powerful set of tools I have seen the best leaders in my life use well.

Courage: Leading is not for the faint of heart. Every step into the unknown requires bravery. Courage isn’t hearty, false bravado, though. Some of the most courageous people I know are quiet, steady types who know that putting one foot in front of the other is sometimes the hardest thing to do in complex times. Some say fortune favors the bold, but my experience has taught me it favors the brave…because leading is rarely about leaps. Instead, it is usually about taking steady steps into the unknown and deciding when to reverse or change course. It takes a special brand of bravery to admit the path you championed or chose is no longer the best one. The best leaders I’ve followed were not only brave enough to choose a path among confusion options, but also to say, “We’re going the wrong way” when it was necessary.

Optimism: When you set out for the other side of chaos, and you tell others, “Follow me!” you stake their lives, their hopes, their futures to your own decisions. The thought of what could go wrong can be paralyzing for those who are not inherently optimistic and hopeful. But hope, as one of my colleagues was often fond of reminding us, is not a strategy. Optimism is not blind hope that everything will be ok. Optimism is the belief in our ability to drive for a positive outcome together. It is optimism that yields the confidence to say “we’ll figure it out” and to step forward rather than cowering in the shadows.

Curiosity Mixed with Humility: The best leaders I have ever known were curious people…question askers who listened hard to answers and followed with more questions. They had a deep interest in the talents, knowledge, and skill sets of others—so much that they were constantly asking for help or different perspectives. They saw patterns and possibilities even in the humblest places, could learn something from anybody, never thought their own context so unique and special that they could not find value in the truths and experiences of others. Strong leaders are voracious learners. They devour knowledge and seek new ideas—instead of feeding daily from the same trough that assures continuity and assuages ego. Because they are always learning, they evolve, change their minds, grow. They allow their teams, colleagues, and friends to influence them; and surround themselves with strong people worthy of that impactful role because they value the way that iron sharpens iron. They know they are strong because of the people around them, and this tempers arrogance and keeps pride in the right place. They are ever-mindful that we succeed together more than alone.

Conscience and Vigilance: Leaders don’t sleep well. They toss and turn. They lie awake in the dark hours before morning worrying about how particular decisions may have impacted others, how the course they are setting may result for those who depend upon them, how the random action of any one of their followers may upend everything they have worked for in a moment. They worry about protecting the vulnerable, and they have a moral compass they wrestle with in the midst of chaotic times. Hard decisions stay on their hearts and on their shoulders, so that even when forging ahead, they feel the drag of the wake our actions sometime leave. Strong leaders worry about the what-if’s, the left-behind, the roads not taken, the way the future may diverge from the present. They don’t take long to bask in the comfort of today’s achievement or the status quo, always planning and moving instead to prepare for what lies ahead while others rest a moment. Leaders never forget that people have trusted them to lead. Trust comes with a heavy responsibility. It is both an honor and a burden they can never put down.

Energy for the Tedious Stuff: Some people think leaders do the big stuff and leave the details to others. First lieutenants. Executive assistants. Middle managers. Division heads. Rough drafters. Perhaps that is true of some leaders, but the best I have known are not afraid of weeds, of rolling up sleeves for more than photo ops, of wading through big stacks of information or data or the ugly myriad details of difficult tedious decisions. The best leaders get their hands into the work—not just to show everyone they’re “one of us,” but because they know that leading isn’t the work; the work is the work.

Self-Reflection and Honesty: The best leaders know their own weak spots. They are brutally honest with themselves about failures big and small. They know the person in the mirror well, and they know when that person is being inauthentic. They call themselves out, and they set their own bars high. When sycophantic spin surrounds them, they don’t succumb to its siren song. Instead, they listen for their own voice and speak the truth to themselves even when it isn’t what they want to hear. They don’t need others to be their internet providers or router; they are each their own hot spot. They make time for reflection; it comes as easily as breath. A stumble is not a fall to those who make sense of experience and act on that knowledge. The strongest leaders I’ve ever worked for knew when to say, “We got that wrong. We can do better.” And then we did.

I note that I haven’t listed typical “leadership book” skills: vision, emotional intelligence, communication, team building. I don’t even mention work ethic—although certainly leaders “keep no office hours”. My list of what I hope for in our leaders is short, but—as we have seen all too often—so hard to find. Still, as we look at what this time demands and the complexity of the future we are traveling into together…well, I think we must find leaders with these strengths. We cannot afford to do less.

Light…

One of our oft-retold family travel stories involves my first trip to Stonehenge, which I had always longed to see. My husband and I signed on as parent chaperones when our son’s high school soccer team planned a trip to England. We received the itinerary from the coach months in advance. At the planning meeting, I happened to mention my disappointment that we were going to be so close to Stonehenge, one of the ancient world wonders, but weren’t taking the boys there. He asked if I thought they would prefer that to Shakespeare’s birthplace (which was a planned stop), and despite the fact that I’ve spent years introducing students to the Bard and his plays, I threw Shakespeare right under the (tour) bus. “Oh, I don’t think they’ll like Stratford nearly as much,” I said. “A bunch of high school boys walking through an old house? Trying to get excited about Anne Hathaway’s cottage? But…Stonehenge! They’d be able to say they saw one of the world wonders. We’ll be driving almost right past it on our way back to London from Bath. It’s barely even a detour.”

What can I say? When I’m passionate about something, I can be persuasive. The revised itinerary arrived the following month. When I called the coach to express my excitement and gratitude for considering my thoughts on the matter, he said it was the least he could do “for the only mom on the trip.” Yup. No other moms wanted to spend a week on a bus touring soccer pitches and making sure no one lost a passport, a wallet, the contents of his stomach, or the rest of the group. I still consider it one of the most memorable trips of my life, and we’ve done a fair amount of travel.

For several days before Stonehenge, I could barely contain my excitement. I talked it up to the guys, bubbling with facts about the mystery of the giant standing stones, the legends associated with these circles, raised over 2500 years ago, and the fact that we still aren’t sure why they were set up precisely for the sun to come through the rocks in certain ways at the summer and winter solstices. Perhaps they were sites of ancient gatherings, rituals, religious celebrations. And who placed them there? Archaeologists think that one of the two kinds of stone (bluestones) were brought by Neolithic people to the Salisbury Plain from Wales over 100 miles away. They weigh two to five tons each. How ancient people got them there to build this monument is still a puzzle. As the boys listened, I promised awe, magic, mystery, history. They were intrigued. My son rolled his eyes; he is used to my enthusiasm. He and my husband joked that I should be careful not to fall through a time portal, Outlander-style, because they were not coming after me. I tolerated their amusement at my expense. I was that eager.

As we approached Stonehenge, the small tour bus we were on rumbled along the open roads through vast fields. The boys were confused. We were out in the middle of nowhere. Were we lost? Shouldn’t we see it by now? I kept my eyes peeled for the giant stones. There they were! From a distance I saw the circle across the open landscape. Seen from miles away, they looked like they were six feet tall or less, and the circle seemed small, huddled in the vast midst of nothing. Only then did I realize that the boys were expecting something grander, more along the line of skyscraper-sized rocks. “Is this it?” More than one looked confused. My son and husband snickered.

We got out and approached. Tom didn’t even ask if I wanted the guided tour headset device that provided a brief lecture for EVERY marked point of interest rather than the paper map with its several-paragraph overview of the site. Only later would I learn that he told my son, “Listen, we’re not rushing your mom here.” Days of looking at soccer jerseys and stadiums were being repaid in the opportunity to walk at my own pace and linger in this spot, if not for as long as I wanted, at least for reasonable homage to this major bucket list check.

The boys walked around the circle of standing stones laid by ancient, unknown hands faster than they’d trot across the field for a warm-up before a game. They had “seen” Stonehenge, horsed around a little, purchased drinks at the snack stand, and were back on the bus in about fifteen minutes flat. To their credit, not a single one complained to me that I spent 45 additional minutes enjoying the site while they waited (something I did not realize till later). They were gentlemen about it. And they had phones, so…you know. It was fine.

I was not disappointed with Stonehenge. Ancient sites never leave me feeling anything other than the presence of time and stories before mine. My family has to set limits when we explore places like the Roman Forum or Machu Picchu because I will stay forever wandering old streets and putting buildings back together in my mind, peopling the landscapes. My daughter—once she was old enough to stop finding everything I do super-annoying—finally explained to me that my way of exploring these sites is baffling. “Mom, I wish I knew what you’re looking at when we are in a place like this,” she said, gesturing around at the Forum. “I feel like I’m looking at ruins in a museum, and you’re staring at it like you’re watching a movie of people living their lives 1500 years ago.” It’s true. Stonehenge loomed mysterious that day under the cloudy gray skies, and groups of travelers surrounded me, holding tour radios and taking selfies. But I remember standing with the wind lifting my hair, blocking out the sounds of tourists, and imagining a procession of ancient families making their way across the Plain to this place for some important annual gathering, some meaningful ritual. I stood, feeling the magnitude of the mystery and wondering what happened to all of those people. I’ll never forget it.

I’m reminiscing about Stonehenge today because it’s in the news. Were we not living through a pandemic, thousands would be flocking to the stone circle today to celebrate the summer solstice. The site is still closed, however, and the organization that manages Stonehenge has asked people to stay away this year for public health reasons. Several news reports indicate officials still expect to deter determined visitors. Modern-day druids actually consider Stonehenge their place of worship, and some will show up there today, virus or not. Others will just go for the party they imagine will still be possible. And some may just hope for the chance to stand with the smallest crowd ever to watch the sunset through the ancient stones on the longest day of the year. I get it. It would be tempting to think you could be one of a mere few standing together when the sun rises. That would be an unbelievable moment for sure.

Some years ago, on New Year’s Day, our family rose at 3 AM, donned our warmest clothes, and traveled up a winding road through thinning air to the top of Maui’s Mt. Haleakala to watch the sun rise on a new year. Standing there with other travelers, all of them silent as the first rays peeked over the edge of the earth and shot through the clouds to land on our faces, I looked around and remembered Stonehenge. For millennia, people have found something powerful about gathering together to celebrate the cycle of light. Anyone who has ever watched a sunset or lifted their eyes in gratitude one early morning on the way to work at sunrise knows what I mean. Perhaps as humans, we are somehow made to look sunward—just as plants are geo- and phototropic. Light calls to us, and we turn. Having experienced the awe that comes with sharing such moments in community, I find myself dreaming that one day I will stand with other gathered travelers to watch the Midsummer sun lingering over Stonehenge for myself. Thinking of that makes me smile. But today…as we enter the longest day of the year, in a year that has already been full of challenge and not a little tragedy, I find myself reminded of the power of light…and the ever-present hope that it will draw us together.

Now what?

My country is on fire.

I am reading the news with an eerie sense that it’s history…the violence, property destruction, arson in our cities could be grainy black and white footage of Selma, Little Rock, or Montgomery in the 1960’s of my youth. But we’re over fifty years past those scenes, and what I’m watching now is the result of history—decades of ignoring the fact that we have never honestly tried to become one nation indivisible.

The cracks between us were such easy conduits for hate and distrust to navigate, so they crept in everywhere—in trickles or in waves—and made themselves comfortable. Like ice in our veins, they hardened and cracked us further apart. We knew at some level this was happening, like you know when you’re living an unhealthy life—eating and drinking with reckless abandon, letting your body go to ruin, realizing some choices are probably bad, knowing you don’t want to see your cholesterol numbers. This needs to change, you think. Still, doing the hard things is hard. The bill won’t come due for awhile, you think. Maybe I’ll clean things up before then…one of these days. That’s how we’ve squandered these decades, watching the gulf between us widen—with some people trying to act, some waiting to act, and some glad no one is acting.

Looting and burning aren’t a plan. They are attention-getting devices to wake us up to the hard truths we would rather ignore. My heart aches as I consider what the protestors want to happen. “Change” is so vague and so elusive. What is the change? Is it arrest and conviction of a hateful man given too much power over vulnerable others he was sworn to protect? Is it deeper rooting out of those like him in positions of sacred public trust? Is it calling our lawmakers to accountability for building a place where the rule of law is just? Is it wishing that every citizen could check hate at the door and work to build a society where we could live together in peace? We have to name what we want to be next even as we howl that what we have is not acceptable. And, yes, I know that some of those rioting in our streets are simply high on the excitement of destruction. No one needs to be told they are false standard-bearers. To focus on them takes our eye off the ball of truth. Let’s admit they exist, acknowledge they disgust us, and be courageous enough to hear the real message instead of letting those non-examples hijack the moment. No one whose heart is truly calling for a change thinks some guy stealing a tv is helping anyone but himself. He is not calling us to anything higher.

Movement is easy to simulate. Real change is a long, painful process; it offers easy spots along the way to bail out or regress. It takes steady pressure, deft threading of the needle, so many tiny stitches. My imaginary debate partner now taps me on the shoulder to say, “Yes. Change is slow. But we’ve waited long enough. Don’t speak to me of patience. The time for patience is past. Let’s burn things down. We tried it the other way, and we’ve failed. It’s time for revolution.” And I must acknowledge that there is so much about this argument that is compelling. Still, the part of my life that was about leading people through change tells me truly that there is more to consider. Revolution isn’t change. It is simply the signal that change must come. Even as we watch those who are calling us to action, they are not the ones who will make change. So I push back with my debate partner. I understand, I say. But don’t let the fire and smoke blind us to the truth of what must happen next. Honor the demonstrators for their courage to speak, for their spirit to fight for something more, but know that they are not the ones who will do the work. Pin your hopes on the everyday people with the patience to do the tedious job of figuring out what is next, the ones with the endurance to stick to the task, those who will keep calling us to do the big and small daily acts that will normalize the world we must build. Look for them. Those who come after. They clean up the mess. They fix the shattered glass and rebuild where others destroyed. They tend to the broken. Ponder how to heal. They somehow have to figure out where we must go next. Without them, the revolution doesn’t succeed. Without them, we fail all over again, just in a different way.

We have made the mistake before of hoping leaders will emerge to direct our steps, to tell us what comes after. Today, in addition to that hope, I think we are each called to lead, to consider our own acts of irresponsibility or thoughtless recklessness. Where did we pass by or stand by without stopping to think or change? Where was the moment we decided that we would substitute “thoughts and prayers” for allowing ourselves to feel the pain of someone else’s life, trapped in skin that we have often made an unbearable sentence? We all come equipped with brains that evolved to seek patterns, jump to quick judgment in moments of perceived threat, and align with tribes to survive. Fighting our wiring demands we understand that and maintain constant vigilance to avoid and to rewire automatic responses. Rewiring neural paths takes many repetitions of doing the new thing. It also takes a reason to incorporate the new learning.

Putting out the fires in our city streets won’t quiet the fires that burn inside people. If we want to move forward, we need to think hard about what comes after protest. We must each do the harder work of asking “what’s next?” Demand of ourselves and others a response that comes from love and not anger or hate. I say this because I want to live in an America that is trying to get better. We are the greatest experiment on the planet. But our success, in fact our collective survival, is ensured only if we can learn to live together. Peace is not just a better option; it is our only option.

This Way Out

I expect in time that we will leave our homes, emerge fully into the world, squinting in the bright light of being among each other again. It’s hard to imagine a day when we will not scuttle to and fro, heads down, masked for safety and adherence to the social contract. What will it be like to look someone in the eye across a span of inches instead of feet? To stand so close again that we can feel the warm breath of another human being on our cheeks? The mere idea of such danger now creates an instant assault on the nervous system, escalates breathing and heart rate. What have we learned, and what have we forgotten in these days apart? What is the cost of so much safety?

Tunneled into bunkers built of abundant caution, we will need to help each other find the way out. Old exits are blocked with the wreckage of this moment and our hastily-erected barricades. Old maps are useless. We will need new roads and modes of travel to find our way back to the past. We may need to scavenge for the salvageable remnants of what we used to do, dust them, repair what was broken, and learn to do life again in the new spaces we rebuild.

We’ve been under high pressure for an extended period of time. Like deep sea divers ascending slowly to avoid the bends, we cannot shoot back to the surface of our lives. Our physical bodies know what our minds might ignore: when you’ve been deep underwater for awhile, you must decompress and acclimate in order to emerge intact. Moving fast is not possible.

Many truths assault us all at once, and we cannot will them away. We are not going back to normal, just forward into the unknown. We are still at risk, just a little better armed and more alert. We’ve learned that distancing is safe and fellow humans shed invisible danger as they go; those lessons will be hard to forget until they are no longer true. We reflexively cross the street to avoid each other. We have traded a sense of abundance for panicky self-preservation, built walls of supplies to calm our fears, let go of small civil acts of courtesy in the name of safety. We will need to reteach and repair the simple trusts on which we built our days before, put mortar in the chinks in our confidence, rewire our limbic systems to allow approach, and learn to let ourselves be together without activating internal alarms. That will take time…and effort… deep breathing…and a fair amount of grace. Our inner voice may sound a warning, and we will need to learn to honor its intention, even as we try to quiet its noise. In time, we will be able to soothe ourselves with the conviction of truth, saying, “You can turn off the alarm. Tomorrow is never promised, but we’re as safe as we can be for today. We’ve got this. It’s going to be okay.”

Story Power

I come from storytelling people who linger laughing around the table or the fire long after dinner plates are empty. At a young age, I learned the simple price of joining them: the classical skills of a good listener. They expected audiences to engage with nods and chuckles, animated faces as realizations dawned, and interjected questions or comments. “What did you do next?” “So what happened?” The end of a story provoked sighs of satisfaction and instant reviews. We pronounced it “a good one,” or agreed how much we loved rehearing an old favorite. And that reminded us to ask someone to “tell about the time….” They’d take up the thread, and on we would go, late into the night. My grandmother used to tell us how her family’s first question of any visitor was, “So what’s news?” You earned your right to be there by producing something clever. Your value stemmed from your narrative. Our people treat newcomers like traveling troubadours. Storytelling rituals run in our blood.

I suppose it is no surprise, then, that all of us learned to tell a good story. Not just the nuts and bolts of events, you understand, but drawn-out, suspenseful, delicious details peppered with dialogue and plenty of narrative voice. “So then the woman behind the counter, this gigantic redhead in a polka dot blouse with a bow from the 90’s, she took one look at me and said in this snippy voice, ‘Nope, we don’t exchange things without a price tag.’ So I showed her where the seam had just dissolved into a jagged mess and said, ‘I think you should make an exception for THIS! And she looked at me like she was thinking maybe I’d worn it and then ripped a hole to get my money back. And I thought to myself, ‘I just bet you live with ten cats,’ so guess what I did next?” We learned how to keep people entertained with lively tales of everyday life. The refrigerator repair wasn’t just annoyingly late and inefficient; it was a saga for the ages pitting our heroine against the dark forces of evil corporate appliance bureaucracy and inept technicians. We howled over the comedic retelling of a long wait at the bursar’s office, surrounded by all manner of odd students.

And so I learned that small daily events are actually quite interesting. No day is dull. Something happens every minute, and in the hands of a masterful storyteller, all of it is part of an ongoing tale as captivating as Odysseus’ journey home. Stories taught us that most people are interesting characters with thoughts in their heads worth wondering about and that we should take a lively interest in our own adventures. They helped us learn to see the entertainment value even amid the ordinary.

Because I come from storytelling people, I know my own story as it spirals back through generations. My great-grandfather was a reluctant dairy farmer who wanted to be a doctor instead. Through my grandmother’s eyes and words, I’ve ridden on dark winter mornings with him into town to deliver the milk, and I have visited him at the hospital in Logansport where he ended his days, deep into dementia but “practicing medicine” as he talked to imaginary patients. I have visited the library with my great-grandmother, then enjoyed a special dinner after the lamps were lit and the opening of that first book with anticipation to be read aloud.

In stories, I have watched my mother break her arm, refuse the first boy who wanted to kiss her, and invite the one home who would break her heart. I’ve done laundry in the cellar in the 1940’s with my grandmother in the “new house” on Victoria Street while a mischievous cat, the star of many stories, twined around her legs. I’ve planted rows of petunias outside an elementary school with my grandfather and stood, hat in hand, with him on porches of suspicious families who weren’t sure they wanted to let this new white principal into their homes. Family stories took me to Civil War battlefields, skating sessions on country ponds, playing in the hayloft on Indiana farms, and traveling in foreign lands I’ll never see. I’ve driven in the Model T Great-Grandma Newhard flew out of because it was going so fast. I’ve skied Zermatt clad only in wet jeans and a sweater with a group of young Marines who decided to see Switzerland on a lark one Christmas overseas far from home. Over and over, I’ve fallen asleep lulled by the voices of my people murmuring low and laughing about all the people and places that feed into my own here and now.

The world is spun from stories, and storytellers know it. They see the woven yarn, the over-under patterns, the purpose of each glistening color in the big design. With the rise and fall of their voices, they link us—new to old, today’s experience to yesterday’s memory. Sometimes I marvel at my luck: I grew up among tellers of tales, lingering by the fire listening to the laughter, binding me to my origins and the world with only the simple threads of their words.

Or Can We?

The word “unprecedented” is getting a lot of use these days. The pandemic is unprecedented. The shutdown is unprecedented. We’ve got about 3 billion people under lockdown around the world—about 40% of humanity. We’ve emptied our streets, skies, factories, beaches, parks, playgrounds, schools.

Unprecedented.

Somehow, in the last month, we taught millions of people to socially distance, wash their hands, make a mask, interpret graphs showing linear and logarithmic extrapolations of infectious disease trajectories, comprehend in simple terms the complexities of virus transmission, and work/live/learn/socialize in quarantine from one another. In normal times, we cannot get most people to change their habits enough to lose five pounds or give up a habit that kills them, but in the month of March, we changed the habits of most Americans dramatically and without warning. Somehow, within days, many businesses moved their entire workforce online, altering immediately the way they collaborate, communicate, and produce. Somehow, our legislative branch moved with other than its typical glacial, partisan-laden speed to pass unprecedented economic support packages. Many of our governors and local officials summoned the courage to disappoint or anger huge numbers of citizens and issue what my dad would call “buck stops here” executive orders to close schools and businesses, force millions out of work, and risk the decimation of our economy in order to prioritize lives. Most of them didn’t dither, delay, or equivocate. They simply did it.

After months (or years) of contentious political debate about government over-reach and the evils of corporate greed, we found out in the last few weeks that we need both strong government and corporate resources/research/development to make us do hard things and to help us survive. In fact, we need them on the same page, working for everyone and not just their specific constituencies or stakeholders. We’ve seen in harsh light the truth we knew all along: we are stronger together, than alone. The dangerous fault lines in our society have never been more exposed…but neither have the possibilities that lie within our people.

If you had asked me a year ago whether it would ever be possible to halt the traffic of our modern civilization, quiet the noise of industry, clear the skies over our cities, empty the streets, and move huge numbers of people to sacrifice in order to increase the possibility that the lives of unknown others might be saved…well, even as an optimist, I would not have believed. And yet, the machinery of society has ground to a stop. People have stayed apart in greater numbers than anyone could have predicted. Citizens can see the sky in India, China, and Los Angeles. CO2 levels in the air have dropped. Seismologists can hear the sounds of earth better because the rumble of the most pervasive species on the planet has stilled. Researchers around the world are sharing information without waiting to ensure who will own it or buy it. A number of employers are temporarily paying workers who aren’t working. People are talking about whether everyone should have health care after all…and whether a living wage and equitable educational opportunities would make the economy stronger even if the cost for them is great in the short term. And suddenly the work of overlooked millions from teachers to nurses to waste collectors, postal workers, grocery staff, and warehouse teams is acknowledge by a grateful public who suddenly have stood still long enough to see that what makes their own life possible is…others.

I am not Pollyanna. I acknowledge the grim and ugly realities of this crisis. Disparate impacts on rich and poor, white and brown. Harm to the helpless, homeless, imprisoned, and undocumented—whom we have not cared enough to protect. Weak leaders who chose denial over action. Greed that did not relax in the face of need. Selfishness and fear that prevented abundance and adherence. Ego that got in the way of service. Spin that blocked truth. Ignorance of the plight of people different from ourselves that gave us a skewed view of the impacts of this horrible turn of events across the spectrum of society. We are human after all. Perfection eludes us even as this upending turn of events brings out so many of our better angels. We’d rather celebrate good news about birthday parades and heroic medical workers than face the inequities of who’s packing our food and picking up our trash while we quarantine. That’s a truth we must continue to see and to speak.

Trade-offs are real. Sure, we grounded planes and the sky is clear. But thousands are furloughed who work in the airline industry—worried sick about rent and feeding their families if the planes don’t fly again in the same numbers as before. And who among us is willing to forego the visit we “must have” to far-off family members, the vacation, the important business meetings just to keep the air clean once this is over? Will we be willing to pay more for goods and services so that those providing them can earn a living wage and have healthcare? Will we be courageous enough to vote to increase our taxes to protect the climate or elect people who will make the hard decisions that make us pull our gasoline-fueled cars off the road or do other things to change our ways? That seems implausible. The inexorable pull of “business as usual” will sing its siren song as soon as the virus is under control, and we will sigh collectively in relief and return to our past without looking back to this present.

But I wonder…

When this crisis ends, won’t it be harder to say, “Oh we can’t do that?” Won’t it seem possible that we could accomplish impossible things? End our reliance on fossil fuel? Collaborate to pass social reform and economic support for all? Get assault weapons out of the hands of our citizens so we’re safer on our streets and in our schools. Close the gap between too much and not enough. Acknowledge the benefit of both corporate success and strong government. Care more about people who aren’t us.

Won’t it sound strange after what we’ve done this spring to say we really can’t strengthen infrastructure, build global alliances, create systems to support each other around the world, make quicker progress on research, and do something about climate change?

Once we had the ability to blissfully deny that we could mobilize most of the world’s population to do hard things. But now…I’m not so sure. Isn’t the most honest response now, “Or can we?”

We have never promised to leave our children a world that is allied, equitable, safe, and sustainable. Instead, through our actions and words, we have said to those children, “We can’t guarantee the future” because, honestly, we have been too busy protecting our current comforts and ensuring the status quo keeps those who benefit from it secure. We have decided we cannot change “the way things are.”

But in a whisper, I hear the voice of this crisis saying in the background…”Or can we?”

When this is over, what’s next?

Priorities

Things that don’t matter right now:

Good hair days, nail polish wearing off, updating your wardrobe, spring fashion colors, shoes, finding the right jeans or bathing suit, vacation plans, meetings, office politics, getting credit for your ideas, replacing the car, catalogs, robocalls, the dog’s fur getting too long, freshening up home decor, redoing the bathroom, wrinkles (in clothes or faces), replacing that watch battery, being annoyed that the kids haven’t called in a while, someone’s “tone” in a conversation, sports seasons, plans that change unexpectedly, family drama, determining who left that pile of stuff on the counter for three days, late mail delivery, airline delays, non-essential projects at work, aspirational weight goals, old arguments, grudges, wondering whether we really need two different music streaming services, the weird recurring 99-cent charge on the credit card bill every month, upcoming appointments…and next month’s plans.

Things that matter now more than ever:

Hearing the voices of people you love, saying things you should have said more often, internet connectivity staying strong, family, the magic of utilities we take for granted, delivery people who brave the world to bring us things, food, having a little bit saved, leftovers, messages from old friends, a really hard run to get the stress out, music, books, poems, flowers blooming, compelling tv/movies or really dumb shows that let you think about nothing, friends, reviving Pizza Night as a tradition, puzzles, games, staying well, being alive, breathing in and out with ease, trash pickup, grocery stores, eating right, positive people, a good night’s sleep, memories of happy times and places we love, spring coming, sunshine, dogs, being together IRL or virtually, laughter, people who ask “how are you doing” and want to know, time, getting outside, people who lift our hearts and inspire us by the way they care for others, really good news reporting, science, expertise, leaders who keep giving it their best even though they are really tired and overwhelmed, innovators figuring this all out, neighbors, smiles, creativity, patience, resilience, courage, love…and hope.

Just saying…

Spirit Week

For most of my life, I’ve been in school. The rhythms of the school year are twined in my DNA, thanks to decades of familiar rituals and rotating seasonal decorations, recurring music programs and quarterly milestones. In fall we open our classrooms and welcome each other and new students. Over the next weeks, we find our way into community. Those months give way to winter sniffles, indoor recess, and snow days… followed by the slog through February into March and the hopeful countdown to Spring Break that makes spirits lift. April testing leads to May rites of passage and June’s quiet days of packing up, as we close the door on the year and depart for the summer. For all of my adult life, I’ve lived to the steady beat of those rhythms. My heart is tuned to them still.

In every teacher’s closet a small section of extremely odd things exists. They’re grouped together at the back behind “regular clothes,” and they only make sense to fellow educators. The collection might include a poodle skirt, Hawaiian attire, crazy hats, an amazingly ugly shirt/skirt combo, flapper beads, a superhero shirt, an entire outfit in one color—like orange. You get the idea. This, friends, is the “Spirit Week” collection. The runways in Milan and Paris will never see an array of pieces quite this stunning and eclectic, but I guarantee most American educators could assemble something similar in five minutes. My own collection has a VERY cool silver hat with a huge drooping feather plume, a teal vest with black beading and the outline of a phoenix on it, a colorful muumuu/lei combo, plastic nerd glasses, a Superman logo sweater sharing a hanger with bright red tights, footie pajamas in grown-up size, an old prom dress, denim overalls, a black cape/witch hat, a headband with light-up reindeer antlers, and an extremely ugly Christmas sweater. (There’s more, but a girl can’t give away all her secrets.)

We keep these clothes for Spirit Week—a ritual which takes place annually in nearly every school in the country. In some places it lasts a day; in others, it is a full-blown weeklong extravaganza which makes every other profession’s “Dress-down Friday” look like a pathetic attempt at variety. In schools, we know change is the true spice of life and the essential ingredient in motivation. Most Spirit Weeks occur in late October or February—the deadly burnout zones of a school year that begins in August and runs through June. In those longer-than-most months, spirits flag and mischief rises in disproportion. Adolescents, left to their own devices, WILL create interesting diversion for themselves because they have a strong sense of self-preservation, and the innate knowledge that boredom simply isn’t good for us. Educators worth their salt foresee this, so we get out ahead of our students ensuring we, not they, control just what kind of hilarity ensues. And so we give them…Spirit Week.

Before Spirit Week, we pump up the energy with pomp and circumstance, herald it with daily announcements, challenges, and homemade signs in the halls. During the festivities, we post pictures in our newsletters and on scrolling video monitors in our hallways. We give prizes and shout-outs to the best “twins” look, the craziest hair, the wildest hats, the best zombie, the teacher who manages to teach on roller blades for a day (yes…seen it…wasn’t pretty). We do our work for a few days dressed in pajamas, Wild West wear, and head-to-toe orange or whatever our school color is. We do this for the kids…and we do it for ourselves. You cannot work surrounded by the lively minds of children without catching the need for some delight in the midst of routine, so when October comes, we roll our eyes JUST a little, and eagerly put together our Spirit Week apparel. We run around the house asking, “Does anyone have fuzzy slippers I can borrow? Or something that looks like leopard print?” “What would a pirate wear?” “Where’s that really ugly flannel shirt; please tell me you didn’t give it to Goodwill?” We spray paint old white tennies with some black to look like saddle shoes, or cross our fingers as we dye our hair pink. A decade’s worth of yearbooks will show that while each year is “tweaked” a bit, Spirit Week retains a familiar undertone of choices. We welcome some combination of cowboy/farmer duds, luau wear, flappers or 50’s outfits, twinning, ugly clothes, inside-outs, pajamas, crazy hair, and weird hats over and over. Also, you can count on at least one day of college/favorite team sportswear. No Spirit Week is complete without one because that’s the day you give a test; assessment demands a bit of solemnity. Or sometimes it’s Wednesday…because…sanity.

It should be obvious by now that I love Spirit Week with all my heart. One of my greatest joys in my chosen profession is the creativity inherent in teaching and learning. Every day is different. Every year is new all over again. But the rhythms that run through a school year provide a steady beat to it all with interesting variations, just familiar enough that the song is one we all know how to sing. And the sound of laughter restores our reservoir of joy and recharges us.

In the next weeks, as we continue our “social distancing protocol,” I find myself mischievously longing for a little of that familiar variation: a little craziness, a little humor, some simple change to the day that makes it all just a little more fun. I smile to think what my husband will say if I come downstairs one morning in my “fancy hat” or Superman tights and sweater. Sadly…a few weeks past my salon appointment, the crazy hair will probably take care of itself.

So here’s my ode to Spirit Week…its powerful sense of fun in the midst of things that may have gotten a little too routine, and here’s to the ingenuity to create the variety that keeps us all young…and strong.

Ripple Effect

My grandparents saved string. I can still picture the Maxwell House coffee can with small coils of twine in my grandfather’s basement workshop. They also saved twist ties from bread…and pennies…and a host of other things—long past what any of us today would consider an object’s “useful life.” They never Marie Kondo’ed anything. The idea of my grandmother pitching items that didn’t “bring her joy” (sorry, Marie) makes me laugh. She had boxes of old photos, dance invitations, pressed corsages, dress-up clothes, books, and family artifacts. Their attic held all sorts of treasures. A basement room my grandfather used for developing photographs became a storage space for stacks of old furniture, equipment parts, and all manner of “reusable” objects. We called it “the dark room” not because of its former use, but because it was pitch black in there, and my siblings dared each other to see who could last a minute alone inside with the door closed to prove our courage. The dark room—with its silent stacked items and rustles of mice—scared us silly.

But to my grandparents, I think the things they saved brought comfort. Born in 1914, they were in college during the Great Depression, began married life in its shadow, and dwelt from birth to their early 30’s in the space between two world wars and their aftermath. They had lived through scarcity and unexpected change, rations and life disrupted by events beyond control, and they had muscle memory of those experiences that kept them from getting rid of broken chairs and pieces of string. “Now this might come in handy someday,” Gramps would say about something approvingly as he showed us some item stashed in the workshop—an old stair spindle, reclaimed wood, cans of random nails, old cigar boxes. My grandmother washed the pimento cheese spread glass jars clean when they were empty and showed me what lovely juice glasses they made. Her freezer in the basement was full of food to last months. They wouldn’t bat an eye at the empty shelves we saw at Kroger this week. They were always stocked up.

In unusual times, things change in big ways, but I think it may be the small ones that have the greatest ripple effects. The 1930’s economy eventually rebounded, but my grandfather saved every spare penny in a wooden bowl on top of the refrigerator, rolled them in coin wrappers when it got full, then took them to the Teachers Credit Union to deposit. He always told us every little bit counted, even the pennies. Ripple effects from his past experiences impacted him forever.

I’ve been pondering small things this week, and a friend just sent a great piece by AP writer Ted Anthony (https://apnews.com/a82294fc0723630d850603dd7b016ad5) that noted how many impacts the momentous events of the last days have also had. He writes of change that took place because of things we didn’t do. “In first kisses that didn’t happen. In skies that weren’t as polluted. In trips of a lifetime that weren’t taken. In inspirations that didn’t strike, conversations that didn’t take place, photographs that weren’t snapped, videos that weren’t made.”

Two women I passed in the parking lot at the grocery store were commiserating over the fact that their children likely wouldn’t have college commencement this spring because “everything has changed now.” Being a storyteller, I found myself picturing a scene decades hence when those same children, now parents, are snapping at some lethargic college senior of theirs, “You’re RIGHT I’m making a big deal over this…because I never even HAD a graduation, so we ARE inviting everyone, and we ARE having a celebration because it’s important to me. So deal with it!” It made me laugh a little, but I suspect the echoes of this time will linger in lives and psyches long after it ends in small, nearly imperceptible, ways like that.

The question is this: what will those ripple effects be? Will we be closer to our families and friends after having spent time apart or in close quarters together? Will we have some new skills we learned in isolation? Healthier habits? Extra pounds? Will we finally take time to exercise every day even when we return to busy lives because we realize it kept us sane, or will our new best friend be ice cream? When we go back to work, will we have MORE meetings because we’re just so glad to sit in a room physically together even if the work could be done more efficiently via email? Will our muscles remember caring about each other and doing hard things together for the greater good? Or will we just have a basement full of paper towels, canned goods, and soap forever?

We don’t know the answers right now, and we may never. Still, I hope we will take less for granted on the other side of this crisis, be more aware that tomorrow is not promised, and know that people matter more than stuff, busy schedules, or the trivia that often distracts us. Perhaps that won’t happen. Then again, for their entire lives, my grandparents saved string.

My kid’s home from school…5 good “now what?”s for parents

Having spent most of my life with adolescents, I know two things you don’t want for them: a lot of time with nothing to do and a feeling of boredom. With schools out for possibly several weeks, whether you are a parent who is working remotely, always at home, or going to work as usual, here are five things to expect of your kids while they stay home to “e-learn” or “extend break.” Think about how you could put a little routine in place for each “school day” (with their input, of course). —You could even consider making this like the school day: 1st period, 2nd period, 3rd period…and write out what happens each hour of the morning and afternoon. They’re used to that structure. The familiar is calming. (Even griping to your friends about how weird your mom is about this is familiar…and therefore calming.)

1. Exercise/Movement: They need it. If they’ve been bad about getting it, great time to start. If they are used to PE/Wellness class and passing periods every 45 minutes and “recess” and walking to and from the bus and sports practices…they need it MORE now. Assign it. Ask them what they did. They can use exercise videos they stream from Youtube, a list of calisthenics you put on a chart and they check off, equipment you have at home, jump ropes, etc. Exercise experts recommend 30 minutes of cardio daily (steady-state or interval with warm-up and cool-down and stretches). Strength and core work with simple exercises like push-ups, squats, and crunches are good for everyone, and they can chart their progress over a few weeks.

2. Fresh Air: People need sunshine and air. If your kids can get outside safely for a walk/run/exercise/playtime with the dog/shooting baskets/etc., insist that they get out every day to do this. If it’s only safe with you, then consider making it happen before/after work so you can be with them. If it’s not safe in your neighborhood, can you drive someplace several times a week so they can? We get Vitamin D from sunshine. It builds our immune system. There’s a reason fewer of us get sick in the summer. Some interesting research has shown that being outside in nature increases endorphins. School unfortunately keeps kids inside for a lot of the day; this unusual break is an opportunity for something they don’t normally get to experience. A morning and an afternoon time in the air is a great stress relief…and really, no one will melt if it’s raining. Grab an umbrella and go for a walk.

3. Purpose: Adolescents need something meaningful to do. They thrive when they get a chance to be part of something that matters. Give them things to do to help the family daily, and THANK them, reminding them “I couldn’t get through this unusual time if you weren’t doing this to help.” This doesn’t sound like, “Watch your sister while I’m at work and there had better not be any problems” or “Clean your room; it’s a pit.” Instead, think of some projects you really need to have done, and put a list together that you discuss with them. Explain what you really need and how it would help you because things are stressful right now. Think of things like doing all the family laundry, making dinner every night so it’s ready when you get home, cleaning out the garage or storage closet, building a set of shelves for the basement or a bedroom, cataloging items for sale/donation and researching what they are worth, getting the yard ready for spring, planting pots for your home or balcony garden, cleaning off furniture, washing windows…watching a YouTube video to figure out what’s wrong with that blender or why the car is making that weird sound and reporting back to you. A teenager who is home from school is the PERFECT person to check in on an elderly relative by phone each day or teach Grandma how to use email. They can also make a scrapbook out of all that “stuff” you’ve been saving or the pictures from that vacation five years ago. They can organize recipes, mail, sock drawers, sports equipment, coat closets. You know your kid best. Find things you really need to have done and ASK, THANK, REPEAT. Kids used to help on the farm and have jobs at much earlier ages to help their families. They thrived. Use this time to give them a taste of being needed again.

4. People: Being away from the social excitement of a densely populated school day is going to be hard for many kids. Trying to stay connected could quickly spiral into too much time on social media which experts have said isn’t always good for kids’ emotional lives. Consider how to build time into each day (like “passing periods”) for kids to connect with friends virtually or in person (if you feel it is safe to do so). With kids home alone, it’s easy for working parents to give an edict “no one in the house” while we are gone, but without good strategies to ensure kids can see the people most important to them (their friends), teenagers will, like water, find a way through obstacles. And you may not like what they find to do. Plan for them to have daily social contact at a time and in a way you think makes the most sense. A teenager who is home cannot survive with his six-year-old sibling for long as his only social peer…but being glued to social media or a video game headset 24/7 isn’t the only option. Luckily many of our kids already have ways to connect when they aren’t in person. Remember, though, that at school, a lot of those interactions with peers are supervised by caring adults who pay attention to what’s happening. If the kids are home, this caring adult is now you full-time. Consider asking more questions about who they heard from today, how they connected, what they’re hearing from friends, what different kids are thinking/doing/saying. Also, consider building in some different ways for family members to visit, be in contact, drop by for lunch, etc. Variety IS the spice of life…especially life in “social distancing” land.

5. Interesting Stuff: Even though kids roll their eyes and complain bitterly about how boring school is, at LEAST once a day at school “interesting stuff” happens. Maybe it’s a project in that favorite class, a game/quiz/competition to review for a test, a teacher who really is a great storyteller, a fascinating weird fact, a science experiment, a fire drill, a strange substitute, a really tough math problem, a lively debate in a class discussion, someone throwing up at lunch, drama between friends, a great book a teacher started reading aloud, a new art lesson, a fun song to perform in band/choir/orchestra, a tryout for something, your favorite relays in PE today unexpectedly, someone falling off a chair in science lab…. The list is endless. School really is a cool place to be—trust me, I’ve spent my life in schools. E-learning, even when it’s well-designed is not the same as being there. (If you don’t believe me, think about your virtual work…fun?) It’s why schools matter so much to our democracy. Being together and learning interesting things about each other and the world is how we grow. I suspect if your kids are e-learning for the next few weeks, teachers will help provide some interesting things to do. Think about how to add to that. Is there a list of 10 favorite movies, you’d like your kids to see and talk about with you? Is there a topic you can get them to find out more about (BESIDES hand washing and virus stats)? What about a conversation about ten careers they are interested in and some research to find out which one has the most opportunities, pay, requirements, etc.? Does your kid love animals? Can they find the three funniest dog videos and a few fun facts to show you when you get home from work? Can they start a blog, an online store, an art studio, or learn a new skill from you or someone online? It doesn’t have to be 24/7 fun…just a few interesting things a day to keep their brains growing.

Finally…don’t forget laughter and don’t forget modeling. Laughter takes the edge off many disappointments, and adults in kids’ lives are FAR more important than they will ever let on. They are always watching us, and learning from what we do. This is a weird set of circumstances, and perhaps the most important thing our kids are learning from us is how we deal with unusual events and challenges. Model how we do the things we need to do without complaining and make the best of tough times. And remind them that we generate our own happiness and can choose our attitudes.