Mar 282014
 

Note: The following is a letter I wrote for Neighbors of Batavia Magazine in 2008 when I was Executive Director of the Batavia Chamber of Commerce. I found it recently and decided to share it on my blog.

A new book has left me haunted, and keeps me wondering about the proper role of the Chamber of Commerce. We are charged with improving the local economic climate, but, if improving that climate just means more business…more customers…more commerce…more activity, perhaps I’m in the wrong job.

The book is entitled loneliness. The capitalization—or lack thereof—is accurate, and telling. When we’re lonely, it leaves us feeling very small in a large and complex world. By leaving the title in lower-case, the authors insure that even book itself seems smaller and less pretentious.

“However wealthy and technologically adept our societies have become, beneath the surface we are the same vulnerable creatures who huddled together against the terrors of thunderstorms sixty thousand years ago.” As I read this statement, I couldn’t help but juxtapose it against the modus operandi of some of the great TV heroes of my generation. The Lone Ranger, for example, saved the day by revealing that he, and he alone, possessed, and knew how to unleash, the silver bullet.

I had a conversation recently with a Chamber member. She expressed her regret at missing a Chamber event—the demands of her job, and the mountains of work she needed to scale, were simply too great to permit time away from her desk. She has 4-weeks vacation this year, and has yet to take even one day. Every year she is sure the pressure and the expectations can’t possibly increase…only to be proven wrong when the new year struts confidently through her door. The look in her eyes was painful from my vantage point…I can only imagine how it felt from hers. Every time I see her, she too is huddled against the terrors…but she is huddled alone.

So why does the book haunt me? A tool near the beginning shows that I score relatively high on the loneliness scale and one of the key conclusions of the authors’ extensive research is that loneliness appears to be as much a cause of deteriorating health and early death as smoking, poor diet or lack of exercise.

It is no accident that the subtitle for the Chamber’s monthly newsletter is “For the life of your business…and the business of your life.” Once again I am reminded that far too often the business of my life is ill-defined, poorly conceived, and too often simply an afterthought.

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.
Aug 072013
 

The following will appear in the September/October edition of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.

The truth of who we are is betwixt and between…and we need courage to find it.
The St. Charles middle schools recently hosted an Operation Snowflake event. Like Operation Snowball, which is for high school students, Snowflake is for 6th, 7th and 8th graders and is intended to be a place where students can be with peers who want to live a healthy lifestyle. I was asked to be the “motivational speaker” speaker that afternoon.
I thought long and hard about the message I wanted to impart; I wrote and rewrote my remarks many times. The night before the event, a teen at Operation Snowball spoke of the debilitating bullying to which he had been subjected during his years in middle school. I was so taken by his remarks, I found it difficult to sleep and awoke early the next morning and reworked my remarks one last time.
Either bullying was not the cultural tsunami it is today, or I was simply fortunate to have escaped its devastation…at least from other teens in my life. Yet I recall 7th and 8th grades as two of the loneliest years of my life. Episodes that seem trivial today, 50 years ago as an insecure and fragile human being, seemed large and unrelenting…their consequences insurmountable.
I remember a Jungian psychologist who suggested that, throughout the early years of life, we get messages from parents, family and friends about who we need to be in order to be loved or even lovable. What we must eventually discern, if we ever hope to liberate ourselves from the assault, is that few, if any, of those people know who we are at the core of our being. What makes those years terrifying and lonely is that we fall short in our attempt to be who others demand we become. Since we are someone else, it is easy to wedge a knife into the gap and twist it in such a way the pain becomes excruciating.
So that afternoon I touched on bullying. We agreed that bullying is—whether physically, mentally or emotionally—to make someone feel badly about who they are in the world. When I shared how the teen who became the man who pens these words, seldom had kind words for himself, I asked if they thought I was bullied…and who the most hurtful perpetrator was. Many realized I was, in fact, the most unforgiving bully I had to face every day.
My maternal grandmother was a woman I adored; she loved me greatly. If only I had the wisdom and courage, in moments of despair, to seek her counsel. “What I see of my life, and what I see of me, often leaves me sad and lonely. Would you be willing to tell me what you see?” She would have had amazing words of encouragement and affirmation.
And so, my final admonition for the young people of Snowflake was, in the moments when life seems unrelenting and insurmountable, find an elder who loves you and will walk with you into the truth as they see it. Tell them of your angst, fear and loneliness and ask what they see. That can be very difficult—I never had the courage to try. But the far more arduous task is to believe what they tell you. Trusting another to help us express who we are is one of the most courageous things we can attempt.
Trying to get 6th, 7th and 8th graders to sit still long enough hear my message just may be the second most courageous thing I have ever attempted. I left Operation Snowflake feeling as though I was unable to connect with those young people in the way I had hoped. And yes, many subsequent moments have been consumed beating myself up over the perceived failure. Fortunately, other adults who were in the room have said very kind things about my attempt.
Since we are often unable to see our gifts, we must look to others in the community to help us discern them. The truth of who we are in the world is betwixt and between our self-deprecation and others’ generosity. We just need the courage, when we are betwixt and between, to listen more attentively to the generous, loving words available to us. I wish now I had had the courage to ask my grandmother what she saw.
Dec 292012
 

Note: I wrote the following essay ten years ago. It has become the heart of a new website: The-Dream.us. An accompanying post on this blog, “The Invitation,” explains more.

Imagine for a moment you have returned to your childhood. In your infancy, at an age that precedes memory, you were given a blanket, which, in the intervening years, became your constant companion. You ran to find it every time the world came at you in a way far more complex than your innocence could understand. It comforted you every evening as you prepared to enter, with great trepidation, the world of dreams. It protected you throughout the night and greeted you every morning. Some mornings you found it looking up at you from the floor, carefully positioned to keep the monsters at bay…under the bed and in the closet!

One evening, as you lie in bed caressing it, you note with alarm and sadness your faithful companion is aging, and with an increasing lack of grace. Its stained and fraying body seems somehow no longer up to the task of fending off the evils of the night. With a feeling of emptiness, you carefully set it beside you, afraid you will soon have to say goodbye to your friend and face the world alone.

That night, you are visited by a dream of incredible proportions. Lying next to you, where you set your worn blanket, is an exquisite piece of cloth that appears to extend as far as you can see in every direction. The patterns and colors, which moments earlier seemed dull and lifeless, are more beautiful than anything you have ever seen…or even imagined. As you examine it closely, its magnificence continues to emerge. The patterns are in a continuous state of flux. And as beautiful as the colors and patterns were when you first saw them, they become even more beautiful by the moment—the colors are more vibrant, the patterns ever more complex and interesting. The longer you stare, the more extraordinary is the sight in front of you.

As you examine the changing patterns more closely, you notice millions of small bits of color emerging from the interaction of the threads. Most dissipate quickly, with others emerging to replace them. But a few seem to remain longer and grow larger than the others.

Suddenly, you see a vile color emerge and, instead of fading into a pattern, it grows, seemingly out of control. Without warning this blood-red stain is spreading across a large portion of the cloth. Momentarily you wonder how you might stop its desecration of so many beautiful colors. Unexpectedly, you witness an amazing transformation. The blood-red stain is not destroying the other colors! They interact over time—blend to create a new ever more extraordinary palette. Crimson edged in gold. Infinite shades of amber. Purples and oranges like you never thought possible. You notice some of the original vibrant colors emerge unchanged, and for a split second, rather than rejoicing at their salvation, you are disappointed they too did not discover a new beauty by blending with the original stain.

You run for a magnifying glass to study the unfolding detail of the intricate patterns. You are amazed to discover that the patterns that look so magnificent from a distance contain millions of fibers and colors you truly dislike. You notice one particularly stiff, coarse fiber damaging those around it, and, without warning, the fibers let go of their mutual embrace and a tear races across the fabric threatening to rend the piece in two. Once again, to your amazement, the tragedy is instantly reversed as the cloth “heals” itself before your very eyes. And, even though you have no way to know for sure, it is clear the way in which the fibers reconnect adds flexibility and strength greater than had existed previously.

Then you are awake—back in your bed, as the morning sun streaks across the room. Almost magically, it caresses your blanket. With the sunlight streaming down on your old friend, you see it anew. Every shared adventure is written there in the folds. Every tear you shed for a lost toy…every hug you shared with your parents…every experience of sadness, joy, loneliness, love and pain…is there. Suddenly you see a brilliance arise from your very life itself. The worn blanket actually represents the millions of experiences that are now woven into those worn threads. And while they looked dull and faded, when you look closely you discover the colors that came from your life experience are actually complex, vibrant and extraordinary.

Then you notice a bloodstain from the time you skinned your knee and you remember the dream. And you wonder…