Oct 032016
 

Many recall at least one teacher who, because they saw something in us, changed our lives. Sadly, we seldom take time to thank them.

In every school there are teachers to be avoided. Sometimes for good reason, but just as often, the object of our terror was the teacher who demanded what they knew we could produce. Our fear lay in our insecurity and lack of self-confidence. What we said to hide our fear was “She’s too tough!” or, “He’s really mean!”

I approached junior year in high school with a fair amount of math success on my very brief resume. I loved geometry, partly because of Sister Barbara, who was young, enthusiastic and smiled a great deal. Algebra was not my favorite, but I managed reasonable grades.

But as I approached junior year, I was about to face, not only trigonometry, but one of the teachers we feared most, Sister Ann.

As the year began, I discovered the most fearsome thing about Sister Ann was that she had high expectations, and was not about to compromise. She believed in us and cared deeply about our success. And while my trepidation remained, especially before exams, it eased greatly as I discovered I was, more often than not, able to live into her expectations.

But no amount of success on traditional lessons could prepare me for one pivotal day during my senior year.

We had a small class of fourth-year math students. Because we were the few who agreed to test our mettle against the most advance math offered, Sister Ann raised her expectations. She devised a truly terrifying challenge. Each of us was assigned a complex mathematical topic, totally unrelated to the fourth-year syllabus. We were told not only to research the topic, but to hone our understanding so we could present it coherently to the rest of the class.

I have no recollection of the topic assigned, but I remember sitting in the library, staring blankly into texts that held my future. I read and reread the words, but understanding eluded me for what seemed like hours. I felt lost and very alone. But I pushed on; I had no choice.

I can still recall—even re-feel—the moment of elation when the shroud lowered. The euphoria emanated, not from a cursory understanding, but from a deep sense of comprehension. I couldn’t wait to share my excitement with my classmates.

So we come to the day Sister Ann helped me, actually she demanded I, see myself in a new way. Those moments, standing next to the, now ancient, overhead projector, tendered a sense of joy I had never before experienced. In those moments, a facility arose in me; I found myself turning complexity into simplicity. It felt magical.

I have come to know, at heart, I am a teacher. In every talk I give, in every word I write, I strive to turn complexity into simplicity. My goal is to help others understand something that may have eluded them. There is a bit of Sister Ann in everything I do.

I am indebted to you, Sister Ann, for changing my life. You may not have been the first to witness me as a teacher, but you were the first to help me witness myself in that way. I am more because of you, and I am so very thankful.

Postscript: I wrote this with a deep sense of regret. Why had I waited 46 years to express my gratitude? I was certain it was too late to tell Sr. Ann personally.

However, thanks to a classmate, I found Sr. Ann Ozog. I called her and had an opportunity to tell her how she changed my life. It filled my heart with joy.

This amazing woman, along with 20 other Felician sisters, including Sr. Barbara, founded a new religious order, Servants of Jesus. Sr. Ann eventually returned to school to get a law degree and spent twenty years fighting on behalf of the abused, poor and underprivileged.

After I sent this note, she emailed, in part: “To one who made my day! The more I listened to your thoughts, the more I was humbled. If you are who you are because of me or in spite of me, I thank you for the compliments.”

Sadly, Sr. Barbara died just four years ago. If there is someone you need to thank, do it today.

Jan 082016
 

From the January Issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.

The theme of this issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine is a 50-year vision for the community. In 2008, Batavia rebuilt the William J. Donovan Bridge which spans the Fox River connecting east and west Wilson Street. As head of the Chamber of Commerce, I was asked to write a letter to my future counterpart, for a time-capsule to be opened as the bridge is rebuilt in the next century:

Dear Chamber of Commerce Executive Director,

It is a challenge to speak to my counterpart 100 years in the future. I suspect very little remains the same as in 2008 since we live on the cusp of a very different era for humans in general—and commerce in particular. The word that best describes the difference between today and that new era is oil. Many predict we are nearing the end of its abundant supply and it is the single biggest commodity that drives the economics of our time. Not only does oil power our industries, it powers our vehicles—and those are the primary users of the Wilson Street Bridge. Likely, by the time you read this, alternative forms of energy have been discovered to create the products you need, power the vehicles that transport you, and support the livelihoods of Batavia’s residents.

So as I write, it is unclear of even the reason for or need to replace the Wilson Street Bridge. But since bridges are perhaps even more symbolic than they are practical, let me address their symbolism. No doubt the other letters in this time capsule deal effectively with the practical, so I am washing my hands of the need to add to that discussion.

We live in an era of isolation. Much has been written about a concept we call social capital—the number, strength and diversity of the networks that connect us as human beings. The Wilson Street Bridge has been a major piece of the infrastructure that has connected the people of the east and the west, but social capital refers to so much more. It includes all the ways humans connect and build a sense of community. Much of the research shows that, between 1960 and today, the creation of social capital has been in dramatic decline. We find ourselves largely isolated and removed from one another.

Interestingly, it is oil that has enabled so much of that isolation. It has facilitated the emergence of technologies that allow—even encourage—us to spend great periods of time alone. Television is perhaps the best example. Oil has also made it possible for us to control the environments of our work places and dwellings—places to which we retreat rather than face the harshness of the outside world.

So as the thoughts emerge, it becomes clear that we need to be more concerned with the philosophical and cultural needs for connection than we do about the physical needs. And while it would be difficult to write to you about ways to enable the rebuilding of the bridge, it is impossible to give you any insight into the rebuilding of your other needs for human connection. We are still neophytes in that construction industry.

I wish you well in rebuilding the physical connector between the east and west aspects of Batavia, but more than that I wish you well in the continuing challenge of connecting the people in the community. This is the challenge of our time…I truly hope it is not the challenge you face.

Postscript: Seven years later I see little reason to soften my critique of our culture of isolation. We have hundreds more digital channels into which we can tune and remain observers, rather than participants in human drama. Dialogue is prepared for us, relieving us of the need to find our own genuine, loving, but elusive, words to offer solace and comfort. Then, when lives unfold and we find ourselves in the presence of devastating loss and suffering, we are amateurs at being human. We search for words we learned from script writers, because we cannot discern our own authentic, unique and vulnerable end to the story. We can and must do better…we have 93 years left in which to learn how. I pray we begin today.

Nov 132015
 

Last Sunday morning I unexpectedly found myself in the embrace of an African American teen who was crying uncontrollably. His deep emotional response was too much for me to remain untouched; my tears soon followed. After several minutes, he released his grip, looked me in the eye and said “Thank you so much.” I felt blessed by the encounter.

How can an aging white male and a young black man find such an intimate moment of meeting? It blossomed from our shared humanity, and a profound need in our culture.

The final event on every Snowball weekend is a hug circle. We wind the nearly 120 teens and 20 or more adults in a snake-like pattern that enables each of us to face and hug every other participant. I began and ended the circle with a young man I had seen on the event, but had not met. I had no idea how dramatically that was about to change.

As he and I finished, some in the room had yet to hug everyone, so we had a moment to chat. Never wanting to waste an opportunity to peer into another, I asked what he learned about himself during the previous forty eight hours. “I learned I cry very easily,” he said. It can be difficult for a male in this culture to admit they are not always in control of their emotions. Young men are ridiculed or bullied for cultural infractions far less serious.

I thanked him and expressed my belief that men need to learn how to be more in touch with their emotions, and publicly vulnerable. “After all my years in Snowball, if there is one thing teens respect…appreciate… perhaps even love me for, it is my willingness to be open and emotionally exposed…often in tears” I pointed to his heart and said “Your tears—modeling vulnerability—may be your greatest gift.” It was those words that caught him. Tears welled up and our extended embrace began.

Had you told me before I began my foray into Operation Snowball ten years ago I would one day find words to draw tears from a young man in this way, I would likely have found it difficult to believe. But I have since learned I have some facility to look deeply into the hearts of teens and hold up a mirror to help them see the beauty I see.

Whenever I am gifted by such moments, worlds shift—both mine and the teen’s—and I feel graced by the encounter. And I am reminded we never learn all there is to be learned about who we are, and the blessings that lie ahead.

Dec 182013
 
Note:The following will appear in the January/February Issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.
 
For more reasons than I can recount, I chose well the day I proposed to my bride. Not only is she from Hawai’i and “forces” me to visit her immediate family in Honolulu, but she has family in Thailand and Malaysia as well. We recently embarked on a long-delayed journey to meet them for the first time.
I have loved my in-laws for many years. Now that I have met the extended family in the Far East, I have many more to love…and admire. Being in the presence of a warm and generous family can leave you in awe, but that is an insufficient descriptor for the depth of my love and respect.
I learned of their generosity and acceptance our first night in Malaysia. In a wonderful seafood restaurant, I struggled with chopsticks to extract crabmeat from a tenacious shell and claws. I was the only one with seafood and sauce strewn across the tablecloth. When one last bit of crabmeat escaped the death-grip with which my fingers juggled those two tiny pieces of wood—and splashed another puddle of sauce across the tablecloth—I was mortified and did my best to hide the mayhem with my napkin. One young nephew sitting next to me, with the most understanding gaze, turned to me and said “It’s okay…don’t worry.” It was a generous moment of acceptance I will not soon forget.
The Saturday night we spent in their home, more than 50 family members gathered for an evening of food, fun and festivities. I have seldom seen such a well-orchestrated feast as the family unveiled a cornucopia of cultural treats…and more joy and love than one could imagine.
The final night we were there, after far too many glasses of scotch, they even coaxed yours truly to take to the microphone for karaoke.
If you could choose a family to call your own, it would be difficult to find one more life-affirming. And yet, this family was nearly ripped apart many years ago. When the patriarch, Ivan, was just 19, both his parents departed this earth, leaving him to care for four younger siblings.
I have only the most rudimentary sense of the anguish of leaving a young family to fend for themselves. Many years ago, on a weekend retreat with my daughter, a teen recounted the death of her father when she was in eighth grade. She described the unfathomable grief and heartache that gets only marginally easier as the years pass. In the ensuing moments, I realized, in a way I had not prior, that I will likely depart this earth leaving my children behind to face the world alone. The separation, loneliness and grief brought me to my knees. That night I literally cried myself to sleep. How could I possibly say goodbye to the children who so animate my life and give it meaning?
Before we left Malaysia, I thanked Ivan and his wife for fulfilling his parents’ deepest longings. “I can only imagine,” I told them, “that your parents would be grateful to know their children are well, happy, and loved.” Ivan looked at me with a gentle smile that spoke of his humility and gratitude and said, “I hope so.”
As I sit here, I can easily be brought to my knees again at the thought of leaving my children alone and vulnerable to the vagaries of life. But now, the pain eases just a bit. Ivan reminded me of the indomitable human spirit and our ability to survive and thrive even in the face of unbearable loss.

 

And I am grateful to my bride and her family whose love, support and encouragement make all these experiences, thoughts and words possible.
Jun 032012
 

 

Note: in 2008, Batavia rebuilt the Wilson Street Bridge which spans the Fox River. The Fox River severs our community into its east and west, and the bridge plays an important role in keeping us connected. As head of the Chamber of Commerce, I was asked to write a letter to my counterpart. It was placed in a time capsule to be opened as the bridge is rebuilt once again in 100 years.
Dear Chamber of Commerce Executive Director,
It is a challenge to speak to your counterpart 100 years in the future. I suspect very little remains the same as in 2008 since we live on the cusp of a very different era for humans in general—and commerce in particular. The word that best describes the difference between today and that new era is oil. Many predict we are nearing the end of its abundant supply and it is the single biggest commodity that drives the economics of our time. Not only does oil power our industries, it powers our vehicles—and those are the primary users of the Wilson Street Bridge. Likely, by the time you read this, alternative forms of energy has been discovered to create the products you need, power the vehicles that transport you, and support the livelihoods of Batavia’s residents.
So as I write, it is unclear of even the reason for or need to replace the Wilson Street Bridge. But since bridges are perhaps even more symbolic than they are practical, let me address their symbolism. No doubt the other letters in this time capsule deal effectively with the practical, so I am washing my hands of the need to add to that discussion.
We live in an era of isolation. Much has been written about a concept we call social capital—the number, strength and diversity of the networks that connect us as human beings. The Wilson Street Bridge has been a major piece of the infrastructure that has connected the people of the east and the west, but social capital refers to so much more. It includes all the ways humans connect and build a sense of community. Much of the research shows that, between 1960 and today, the creation of social capital has been in dramatic decline. We find ourselves largely isolated and removed from one another.
Interestingly, it is oil that has enabled so much of that isolation. It has facilitated the emergence of technologies that allow—even encourage—us to spend great periods of time alone. Television is perhaps the best example. Oil has also made it possible for us to control the environments of our work places and dwellings—places to which we retreat rather than face the harshness of the outside world.
So as the thoughts emerge, it becomes clear that we need to be more concerned with the philosophical and cultural needs for connection than we do about the physical needs. So while it would be difficult to write to you about ways to enable the rebuilding of the bridge, it is impossible to give you any insight into the rebuilding of your other needs for human connection. We are still neophytes in that construction industry.
I wish you well in rebuilding the physical connector between the east and west aspects of Batavia, but more than that I wish you well in the continuing challenge of connecting the people in the community. This is the challenge of our time…I truly hope it is not the challenge you face.
Apr 122010
 

Note: This post will be published as my article, Beginnings, in the May/June Issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine. It is printed here with permission.

“Don’t confuse connection—feeling a part of something larger than yourself, feeling close to another person or group, feeling welcomed and understood—with contacts.”
Edward Hallowell in Connect

Many years ago, when I had the opportunity to interview her, Kathie Dannemiller, an icon in the field of Organizational Development, uttered a phrase I will never forget: “I don’t want my life to be a throw away line.” She was nearing the end of her formal career and having difficulty discerning if her life meant anything. She passed away several years later and I’m sure the question remained for her.

Kathie Dannemiller changed our fundamental understanding of organizations, and touched the lives of tens of thousands of people who work in them. In the process, she captured the hearts of hundreds of us and changed what we knew of ourselves. If it is difficult for Kathie to find the meaning of her life, how much more difficult must it be for the rest of us. Perhaps I am the only other person besides Kathie who wonders whether the time I spend on this planet will have added to its magnificence or detracted from it. I know I have done many things on both sides of that ledger of life.

When Edward Hallowell points to the difference between contact and connection, he is also pointing us towards ways to find the meaning of our lives. Even though I was interviewing Kathie, she had a marvelous way of making me feel welcome and understood. But the welcoming and understanding came when you were in her presence. You had to sit with her, look her in the eyes, and have her look back into yours. It was in those times of deep connection, not contact, that she could tell you what she saw in you that emanated from deep inside.

Much of the world is now delivered to us in bits and bytes splashed across screens attached to our computers and cell phones. It is the world of the Internet, texting, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, flikr, LinkedIn, Plaxo and so many other “platforms” through which we are told we can now connect with the world. We live in an era in which we can trade missives with hundreds…thousands…or perhaps even millions of people by pressing a few keys on our electronic weaponry. And when I do, not one of those people is able to stare into my eyes and tell me what they see in me that I am incapable of self-witnessing.

Don’t misunderstand; these electronic bully pulpits enable me to correspond with people with whom I might otherwise lose touch. A high school classmate I had not heard from in over 35 years, I now discover is editor of a newspaper in New England. He makes an annual mission trip to care for an African village immeasurably less fortunate than the one he now calls home. Judi and I made a small donation to help purchase mosquito netting to protect the children of that village. What a gift to affirm and acknowledge the work of someone I was close to so many years ago. But how much more could I learn—about him, about myself and about the world—if we could sit together over several cups of coffee eye-to-eye and heart-to-heart?

If any generation should have benefited from this new world, it would be those for whom it is second nature…the first generation to have known no other. Yet, when a large group of high school students was recently asked if they had ever considered suicide, I was stunned to see the number who had.

I wonder in this new world—a world in which we are challenged to condense our wisdom into 140 character “tweets”—if we are overwhelmed by the number of people we can contact, but underwhelmed and saddened by our loss of connection.