“When you stop growing you start dying.”Read More
First, A Thing of Beauty
Author Jamaica Kincaid wrote a short story called “What I Have Been Doing Lately,“ which has haunted me in the best of ways since the first time I read it more than 30 years ago. (You can get a taste of the story here or read a whole gorgeous collection of short stories in her slim volume, At the Bottom of the River.) I keep a battered copy of the story in a cubby at my desk to repeatedly return to her dream-like prose. Because it seems so fitting, I borrow Kincaid’s title for this blog post. Also, this kicks off the beginning of a new tradition of sharing a thing of beauty as a part of each Vital Signs post.
What I have been doing lately: Getting stuck in the hole
I missed my commitment to write and share at least one post each month for the past two months. At first, I labeled this as “getting stuck.” Stuck because I just couldn’t form my thoughts into focused posts that felt finished and whole. Stuck because I felt the chafe of constriction from my self-imposed rules and shoulds and judgements. I fell into the “not good enough” hole again, which I think many of us revisit from time to time, even when we’ve learned to ‘take a different street.’ (See Portia Nelson’s great poem about the hole.)
Some sense of breath and freedom return when a mentor said bluntly, “You can let go of the rules. Why don’t you just write whatever you want, whenever you want? As long as you’re not an asshole, everything will be fine.”
I believe my 82-year wise friend is right, and I see the opportunity before me to develop yet again, pushing beyond rule-following (especially when the rules are self-imposed!), trying to please, fitting in a box, being too externally-focused.
What I have been doing lately: Retreating, hibernating, incubating
However, insights do not always yield immediate action.
The wise advice caused me to laugh and loosen up in many ways, and it also sent me back to revisit my purpose and values, asking the questions, “What do I have to say that fosters aliveness and the ability to create positive change? What am I learning about well-being, human development, interdependence, leadership, beauty?” I wrote a lot but still didn’t publish a post.
I (finally) relaxed into the idea that maybe I needed to remain in hibernation mode for a bit. I reduced my social media time to nearly nil. I went to the woods for days and nights and more days with loved ones. I purged a lot of physical objects. I beautified the space where I do yoga, meditate, and coach—and I recommitted to spending significant quiet time there every morning. The shoulds loosened, the quiet felt right.
What I have been doing lately: Playing, exploring, experimenting
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in the last year is to allow myself and others a lot more room to experiment, invite play, allow spaciousness, and be responsive to what’s happening in real time. In short, I think of this as living and leading more consciously.
It’s not easy for me to work this way—yet. In my former role, my team’s goal was to aim for consistent quality and stable resources at scale. We spent a lot of time tightening, clarifying, and codifying. Switching to a space of dancing with the emergent is much different, and it takes a ton of practice.
And so I keep practicing. Last week, 20 high school students and teachers came over to my house for a couple of hours, and we focused on the idea “the world is your playground.” It felt so good to say to them, “Your first invitation is to simply explore the land on your own. There’s nowhere you can’t go, nothing you aren’t allowed to touch.” Later, every person made a mini art installation out of natural materials, which involved a lot of experimentation and failure. We finished out our time together in small groups playing Calvinball, a delightful game without rules that you invent as you go, where the only parameters are to keep it fun and inclusive.
When coaching and working with leadership teams, play and experimentation is perhaps a bit less obvious and sweaty, but no less important. I’m learning to trust that by being fully present, I and the people I’m with will know the right next move, question, invitation, place to explore.
So I don’t know what, exactly, you can expect from future Vital Signs blog posts, and I’m trying not to box myself in with rules. However, I do feel clear about my intentions: I will continue to write honestly and hope my words, along with “things of beauty” evoke vitality in you and empower you to shine your light in the world with greater strength and constancy. If you find yourself stuck in a hole or needing to retreat, so be it. AND, as soon as you’re ready, please come out to play and explore. The world needs your light, thrives on your ideas, cries for our connectedness.
I started collecting quotes and poems when I was 11. It’s a distinct memory because I won a poetry contest in April of my 6th grade year and attended an awards ceremony held in the youth section of the library–a favorite haven of mine. I’ll never forget being handed a forest green blank journal as a prize, with curlicues of embossed gold swooping across the cover, my poem inscribed in someone else’s perfect penmanship on the first page.
I felt daunted by a whole book of blank white, but I jumped in and used my just-about-to-enter-junior-high summer capturing ideas that mattered to me in that little book. I interspersed wise words from others with thoughts of my own, writing more poems, jotting notes, and using the pages to capture snippets of song lyrics, quotes, and others’ poems I loved. I started to recognize a great love for words.
The forest green volume wasn’t my first journal, but it was was different from the others. It’s the one that, looking back, points to my future as an English major and librarian who sort of minored in philosophy and human development. I had begun compiling.
Fast forward exactly 40 years, to April, 2018. After continuing to collect words of wisdom and favorite poems across the years, I had the pleasure of editing and publishing a small but mighty book of readings with EL Education, where I worked for 14 years, called There is More In Us Than We Know. It’s a collection of quotes and short readings organized by topics including service and contribution, leadership, teaching and learning, character, craftsmanship, equity and social justice—topics that reflect the heart of what EL Education is about and echo back to the summer when my innocence began to morph into deeper inquiry. There is also a list of 25 recommended poems in the back, which was a beautiful challenge to curate.
The book of readings is inspired by Outward Bound tradition. As part of my path with experiential education, I took a few OB courses in my time. Every Outward Bound trip leader I knew faithfully carried a favorite book of readings in a Ziplock bag, keeping it handy for the opportune moment to salt in a gem of humor, insight, or new perspective.
Though EL Education has carried on the tradition of using readings, until now there hasn't been a collection to reflect the fullness of the organization, beyond its roots in adventure and teamwork. We also learned that far too many previously published books of readings sorely neglect the voices of women and people of color, and this volume is intentionally balanced and inclusive. Nevertheless, it is fitting that the title of the book references Kurt Hahn, founder of Outward Bound, whose fuller quote reads:
“There is more in us than we know. If we could be made to see it, perhaps for the rest of our lives, we will be unwilling to settle for less.”
I find this sentiment so fitting as a way to capture key ideas of both EL Education and Only to Grow: our depths are boundless, life is about learning, and we need each other’s help along the way to discover what is possible.
This little book is a heartfelt way to celebrate EL Education’s 25th anniversary and serve as a parting gift to the organization from which I have learned so much. In tribute to the wisdom of giants, upon whose shoulders we stand, as well as to the wisdom that resides within each one of us, I’m proud to launch into the world There Is More In Us Than We Know.