Aug 052014
 

The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.

Frederick Buechner

In an interview with Peter Block many years ago I asked about the nature of our gifts. “We’re blind to our capacities. If you ask people what their strengths are, the list they come up with is pathetic. It’s crude and immature. ‘I’m hard-working…I like people…I’m loyal…I’m a good problem solver.’ Ask them their weaknesses and, oh God, you get poetry. They go on and on like an artist.”

When I announced I was leaving my position as Executive Director of the Chamber of Commerce, myriad questions arose from friends and colleagues. “Are you retiring?” “What’s next?” “Do you have another job?”

The answers I offered seemed feeble in this culture of plans, to-do lists and 5-year goals. I tried to explain I was not looking for a job, I was in search for my calling…my vocation. I was looking for that place to which God had always called me; a place that was simultaneously unknown and feared.

But how could I find that place? I felt rudderless and lost. I had few models of those who sought that space, unique for each human, where their deep gladness met the world’s great need.

I took comfort and direction from the wisdom I learned from improvisational pianist Michael Jones. The gifts of his music came so easily and naturally, he felt anyone could sit at a keyboard and play. So it is with each of us. When confronted with the truth of our gifts, if we don’t say it out loud, there is that internal voice of denial. “It’s no big deal. Anyone could do that,” we hear ourselves proclaiming. We assume the person speaking is just being polite because what they see in us is nothing special.

If I have wealth, it emanates from the love and care so many have shown me. After years running the fireworks, honoring the victims of September 11, exploring the fissures that so often separate us and showing up with authenticity and vulnerability, I have many truth-tellers in my life. I set out to find those who knew me well and would speak with honesty. I approached, told them the story of Michael Jones and explained how difficult it is for each of us to see our own unique gifts. Everyone understood the depth and meaning of that message. Then I asked if they would tell me what they saw in me that I was unable, or unwilling, to see in myself.

Being vulnerable in public does not take nearly the courage it takes to be vulnerable with ourselves. When I sit with a person who knows and cares about me—a truth-teller—I have to quiet the voice that wishes to deny; the one that screams “NO! Don’t you understand, what you think you see in me see is no big deal. Anyone could do that.” To deny what they see is to disrespect a person who, in love and generosity, is offering the greatest gift they can—a mirror into my own heart and soul. To deny is, perhaps, to disrespect the very voice of God.

One of the most telling phrases came from a woman who I helped as she struggled to start a small business. As I told her the tale of Michael Jones and asked if she would reflect on what she saw in me, she stopped me mid-sentence, looked me right in the eyes and said, “I’ll tell you now. You listen and then you speak. I know because that is what you did for me.”

So in honor of all those who so generously spoke of my gifts, here is what I heard. I do listen to the world broadly. I listen to the stories and wisdom of the thousands of people who have reached out on the suicide hotline. I have listened through the wisdom of the hundreds of authors who have so generously gifted us with their perspectives. I have listened to the yearnings of members of my community who long for their stories to be heard. I have listened to hundreds of teens in Operation Snowball who struggle to find their identity and place in the world. I have listened to my heart as I try to make sense of the cacophony I often experience in the world.

Then, as I listen, I draw what I have heard into the experience that is my life, and through my own sense of truth, and speak to the world in the nuances that come through me. I try to honor those who tell me I have a gift to say what they have felt, but been unable to put into words.

And, with a deep sense of gratitude and humility, quieting that voice of denial, I believe I do these things well.

Apr 022014
 

Note: The following will appear in the May/June Issue of Neighbors of Batavia Magazine.

If I asked, would you tell me of your gifts—the unique, stunning aspects of your humanity and journey that make you like no other human ever born? Even if you were able, would you be willing? Or would you, like so many, feel anxious and find yourself filled with unknowing and confusion? Even worse, would you feel compelled to say there is nothing stunning about you?

A friend, Michael Jones, is an exceptional improvisational pianist and elder. When Michael’s fingertips fall upon a keyboard, he and the piano become one, and glorious melodies emerge from them unbidden.Michael Jones Pianoscapes - Transforming Leadership, Awakening the Commons of the Imagination

Michael bared his soul to me in 1998 when we recorded, and subsequently published, a marvelous interview. We sat next to his magnificent Bosendorfer grand piano as he spoke of his journey, and how his inner flame was nearly extinguished when he was very young. I asked how such a gift could be lost. “It came in bringing a piece of my music to a piano lesson. My teacher, a very kindly person, expressed relatively little real interest. The real work was to play the masters. This creation of mine wasn’t going to measure up. I felt embarrassed and self-conscious.”

Michael’s journey was altered many years later when an elderly stranger caught him playing what appeared to be a secluded piano in a quiet hotel lobby. When Michael tried to disavow the splendor and uniqueness of his musical gifts, this unexpected guide asked him “Who is going to play your music if you don’t play it yourself?”

Michael has since shared his music on more than a dozen CDs with millions sold around the world. “To think,” Michael confided in me, “there was that much music I was carrying inside and had no sense was there. We have no perception of what is waiting to be made manifest.”

What would Michael say to that elderly gentleman today? “I would thank all those people who—in that moment of perception and courage—have been able to see into the essence of the other and give it voice. That’s how we can best serve one another…to see in the other what they cannot safely see in themselves.”

Michael went on to say, “We don’t get help in our culture to understand what it means to belong to ourselves and the world. There are many cultures where musicians would never think of playing anybody else’s music! In the West we play almost exclusively other people’s music— as a metaphor, but also literally. We feel embarrassed to bring something that is our own.”

We see the gifts that come to us most naturally as nothing special. “That’s easy,” we say to ourselves and the world, “anyone could do that!”

“More people are becoming aware there is deeper music in their life…sensing the call to let their lives and work be a reflection of that music,” Michael suggested. “The challenge is, we have to put aside the script…the musical score. When that gentleman spoke to me, I felt absolute clarity in terms of what was significant in my life, but I was totally lost in terms of what to do with it. Being lost is part of the journey. There is something we need to access within ourselves that only arises when we feel lost, confused or uncertain. There is the tradition that says, if you can see the path clearly laid in front of you, chances are you’ve stumbled onto someone else’s path!”

As I have struggled to discern my path in this world, I have asked those who know me and care for me to help me see what I cannot safely see in myself. Then, when a friend leans in close and points me in the direction of my music, I struggle to quiet the voice that screams in dissent, “Anyone could do that!

So, when you find yourself lost, confused and uncertain, take comfort in knowing that this just may be your rightful path for now. Then consider seeking out guides who know and love you. Listen, and seek the courage to believe what they tell you. Finally, thank them for their willingness to see into the essence of the other and give it voice.

You can hear Michael’s glorious melodies, and tap into more of his wisdom, at pianoscapes.com.

Dec 232011
 
Note: I wrote the following for the January, 2012 Batavia Chamber of Commerce Newsletter.
 
“People hate change” is perhaps the most incorrect aphorism ever uttered. People LOVE change. In fact we crave it. On a CT scan, the human brain lights up in the face of it. If you put a human into an environment devoid of all change, they die!
If humans hate change, we would have spurned cell phones, ignored the Internet, snubbed the personal computer, rejected social media and eschewed wifi. Starbucks, Google, Facebook, Prius, Under Armour, iPad, Blue-Ray and Harry Potter would never have altered our lexicon.
Why is it, then, when the phrase “people hate change” is uttered, everyone nods in agreement? What is it that propels a book about the fear of change to the New York Times business bestseller list and keeps it there for more than 5 years? Maybe it’s because of a different fear…the fear of who we fear we are.
The parable in Who Moved My Cheese is based on two “little people”: named Hem and Haw who, after becoming complacent about what was once a large cache of cheese, deny their fate when, one day, it is gone.
Everyone has been caught acting like Hem or Haw. Most can remember moments when complacency about family, friends or career, left us suddenly lost, or in denial when a foundational piece suddenly crumbled.
But there is a danger in buying into the parable of WMMC with too much gusto. Because we are only privy to one part of their lives, we are left to believe that “hemness” and “hawness” fully defines the two main characters. Then, when I am tempted to even think, “Yeah, I’m a lot like that guy Hem,” I run the risk of seeing myself fully defined in that way. Then fear sets in…fear that I am Hem, I have always been Hem, and, I am sentenced to a life of “hemness”.
It’s true, each of us has a bit of “hemness” about us. We might even see a bit of Hem when we look into the mirror. But it is dangerous to allow those characterizations to define our lives.
I don’t want to be, nor do I deserve to be, defined by the way I behave in some portion of my life. I know I don’t accept change readily when it’s forced upon me. I am facile at finding reasons why a necessary change suggested by another is riddled with weaknesses…won’t work… or makes little sense. Like Hem, I am prepared to sit in the corner of life’s maze and wait for my cache of cheese to return.
But, there are many ways in which I love change. Much of what I believe today no longer resonates with what I believed just a few short years ago. When I look around at the things I have embraced with enthusiasm and gratitude, I know I am not Hem or Haw in most situations.
So, when “hemness” rears its ugly head in my life, or the life of others, what then?
First, I need to find the generosity to acknowledge that this moment does not define a life. It simply means that, momentarily, the perceived costs of change ignite a fear that the perceived benefits do not yet assuage. Once the benefits outweigh the costs, fear eases and change become easy.
To not offer the generosity of acknowledgement in a moment of fear does violence to others… or worse yet, to ourselves…and fuels the fear of who we fear we are.