Few people are willing to start courageous conversations. Now, I am not referring to
the standard “Well, I’m jus’ gonna’ give him a piece of my mind!” Yeah, yeah, those conversations do take courage. But the conversations of which I am writing require a level of relational transparency that is becoming sadly too rare. Let’s be real for a minute, how often is the friend who asks:” “Now, I want your honest opinion, how do I……?” really interested in your honest opinion? My experience is NOT often! That’s why it takes courage to step out from the comforting limb of evasion, of half-truths, or outright lies to share a hard truth. After all, not many of us are able to take critical feedback and not despise the messenger. Ask me how I know.
I can still remember the day, about twenty years ago, when a close friend and mentor told me a hard truth about myself. It was unflattering, hurtful even, and in that moment I did what any self-respecting person would do. I launched a three-pronged counter attack. Ha!! First, I told him something bad about himself too. Then I called him a liar. “Untrue!” I said. Then, I resolved right then and there that the friendship was officially over (smh). Yes! I know, not one of my finest moment! Shucks, I was ashamed, and embarrassed and very, VERY angry with him.
Yet, today, as I stand at the 50th mile mark of my life journey, and I reflect on that moment, I think now about the courage it must have taken for him to begin that conversation and risk my displeasure–to share a truth that was necessary for me to know to continue to improve. (Side note here, in case you are wondering, we are still close friends). Moreover, I now recognize growing in me a fierce determination to also take on courageous conversations.
Just so you know, it is not because I have a secret yearning for martyrdom or a quest to achieve wonder woman status. (Though, her suit is kinda cute, especially the cape. Don’t ya think?) Rather, at this juncture of my life journey, I think of it as a responsibility—a calling if you will to be a truth sayer, to care less about what others think of me, and more about what I think of myself–to walk firmly in my convictions. And even though, I will confess, there are still too many times when confronted with the task of speaking up, that I have hesitated, rethought, analyzed, re-analyzed some more, and eventually simply walked away in silence, each day that I continue to live, I challenge myself to fight against that beguiling sense of comfort.
In an age of “fake news” and insincere “like” clicks or “beautiful” comment posts, I remain convinced of the necessity of courageous conversations.
Courageous Conversations Honor Self: It is easier to advocate for others when such advocacy comes in the form of compliments and glowing letters of recommendations. Everyone loves praise. How, much tougher it is to advocate for others through critical feedback that can be unflattering, or even unwelcome! How very difficult it can be to say “no” in a crowd of “yeses”! To understand that in taking a position, you will perhaps be viewed, as “hard” “inflexible” and even in my case, considered “unchristian”. It is in these moments that I remind myself that advocacy for affirmation is merely self-promotion.
For the many times, I have made the choice to travel the lonely road of “The Voice of the Opposition”, there have been moments of self-doubt and uncertainty. Yet, I remain convinced that the best contributions we can make in this life is to speak and act from the perspective of our deeply held convictions. That being said, we should not do so from a place of brutish recalcitrance. Rather, we should speak from an emerging position that requires us to critically interrogate our views as we continue to become intelligently informed and to listen to perspectives that differ from ours. Even as we stand firm in our truths, it should birth in us the ability to recognize and respect the rights of others to stand in their own truth. In sum, the experiences along our individual life journey is crafting in each of us a perspective that is distinctively our own. When I am true to my convictions, whether right or wrong, I am making a contribution that is branded as uniquely me! To deny that is to live inauthentically and to dishonor the gift of my presence in this world.
Courageous Conversations Advance Others: A few years ago a colleague, who I came to know through my professional circle, came to seek my counsel. She was disappointed that once again she had ben overlooked for a senior level leadership position at her institution. Having observed her for some time though from a distance, I knew exactly what part of the problem was. Though she did possess practical leadership skills, she lacked the professional presence and finesse that could secure her a C-suite position. Yet, in spite of years at her place of employment, and a host of mentors, no one had been courageous enough to have that conversation with her, to provide her with necessary resources for her leadership development. I wondered why. But then again, perhaps they had, and she had not been ready to receive it, or perhaps the timing was bad or the approach was wrong? Though she had come to me looking for comfort, empathy even, I recognized the moment for what it was—an opportunity to start a brave conversation that perhaps she would find embarrassing, and yet it was necessary to advance her along her career path. And though I was fully aware that I was about to make her uncomfortable, to take on the inevitable risk of being disliked, misunderstood, or even unfriended, I chose my tone carefully and began the hard conversation…
Courageous Conversations are Necessary to the Cause: Moving to the United States from the Caribbean island of Trinidad and Tobago, I have come to a new construction of what it means to be a Black person in this context. Existing and working in predominantly White spaces has positioned me and others like me to speak up for issues that often get overlooked, because the context is informed by a predominant majority perspective that threatens to marginalize us. It is a threat that is strengthened when we choose to remain silent. For me then, the iconic presence of Rosa Parks is a commanding symbol of courage—courage that refuses to acquiesce in the face of injustice. “Nah! Not today! I will not give up my seat!”
Whatever the cause, the counterattack begins through opposition. It is the lone voice that shouts aloud about injustices that are whispered in hushed tones; it is the lone voice that is not afraid to ask the uncomfortable questions: “And why were no people of color invited to the event? Recruited for the position? Received the award? Offered a seat at the table? Why are there no women in the top leadership positions? How were candidates recruited, selected? What are we doing to address these inequities? Why? What? How?
Though my cause may be different from yours, the advancement of work against systemic injustices requires a conversation starter. It requires someone who is brave enough to voice the concern that unapologetically challenges the normative–and lets the chips fall where they may.
Now that kind of courage does not come easily. In fact, every time I have started one of these conversations with students, colleagues, relatives, friends or even in my scholarship around the topic of diversity and inclusion, I have done so in spite of my fears. No, it is not easy, but it is indeed necessary. And whether we emerge from such conversations on the winning or losing side is not really the point. The point is: “Am I? Are you courageous enough to walk in your convictions—to make a mark that is distinctively you– to speak your truth even though your voice is quivering?” That is the kind of courage that Harper Lee defines as “real courage” ….It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”
So, bring on the courageous conversations! Why? Well, because at 50 and counting I have earned both the right and the responsibility to lead such conversations And come to think of it now, maybe I will get that cape after all…
Yes, the leaves aren’t even cold on the ground and I am already thinking of Christmas! What can I say? I love this time of year! At the same time, the Christmas season, also adds a small lump to my throat, as I think about my dad. He loved Christmas! Ah, what fond memories! Ours was not a rich community. What we had to give each were not store bought gifts. Instead our gifts were open doors to neighbors, family and friends to visit at anytime –day or night during the season; and the very best that we could offer –a clean and well decorated house, good food and Christmas delicacies—sorrel, pastelles, black cake, and ponche crema which we had made, like they say here, from scratch. These were the best gifts! And as I reminded my daughters the first time my mother-in-law presented them with not one, not two, but numerous purchased Christmas gifts, I was lucky to get ONE, and only ONE such gift at Christmas time! But, oh how I treasured it!
Now, as a parent to these two girls who are growing up in this country with so much, I find myself thinking about Christmas in a more intentional way. How can I pass on to them an appreciation for the simple gifts of Christmas time, amidst the cacophony of “Gimme” Gimme”? How can I help them cultivate a giving heart that is sensitive to the needs of others, in season and out of season? Here are some ideas that Mark and I are considering in the true spirit of Christmas celebration this year:
Focus on the Advent: The word “advent” means the arrival of a notable person or event. Therefore, to focus on advent means to prepare to celebrateooo the arrival of the baby Jesus. Although I did not grow up with this as part of my faith tradition, I decided to try it last year. We did not start off on the traditional Sunday or do the Advent wreath, but each night from December 1 to Christmas when we had dinner, we would share a devotional segment from the Focus on the Family 2015 Advent Calendar or another reading that we had chosen that centered our thinking on the significance of the nativity. What a blessing! What thought provoking conversations that these devotions sparked! What laughter and family fun! We are planning to do it again this year with a customized version of this 2012 Advent Calendar — Knowing Him by Name.
Give with Intention: For us, that means helping the girls to independently and thoughtfully choose causes for which they want to give. Additionally, it is important that the giving should come from them and not from us, and that it should be relational. In other words, we are careful to guide their selection to causes for which they can connect gifting to helping real people and not merely dropping a dollar in a can. In this way, we hope that they can get a sense of how a small act on their part can be a real blessing to someone else. This year, after considering a number of options, the girls seem most interested in creating greeting cards to send to sick children through Send Kids the World. It is eye-opening for them to see children just like themselves who are battling such serious illnesses.
Celebrate through Worship: I really should not have to write this one down! But with all the merry making and gift giving, worship can be the last thing we choose to do, except, maybe, when we go to church. This year, we hope to have communal worship not just at church, but to open our doors to friends in a special vesper celebration event. In keeping with our faith tradition of a Sabbath rest, we are looking forward to gathering with family and friends on a Friday night during the season around a simple meal and to worship Christ in praise, in thanksgiving and song.
Celebrate through Sacrifice: This is a tough one especially for my 6 year old, who loves gifts! However, undaunted, we are reminding the girls of the great sacrifice it was for God to send his only Son to this earth. Sacrifice means that it should cost them something—might even make them a bit sad to give THAT thing away. Hence, we are encouraging them to think about one gift, special toy, or item that they are willing to give up to someone in need this Christmas season. (I’ll let you know how that one goes!)
Celebrate through Service: We have a close family friend who is in a nursing home not far away. Have you been to a nursing home recently? Well, if you have, you know that some of them can be very dreary places indeed. We have been talking about visiting him for most of the year but have not done so! Shame on us! However, it is our intention to visit him this holiday season and take a bit of Christmas cheer. The girls are putting together a special program, and they are practicing a couple of duets—Alyssa is playing and Amya is singing. You should hear them do “Amazing Grace!” Even though I don’t see any music awards in their future, it does make my eyes water every time! I might even bake a cake and take a fruit basket. I am excited just thinking about the joy this simple visit might bring him! For some more great service ideas, check out The Center for a New American Dream.
Whatever your plans are for this holiday season, keep them simple and keep Christ at the center of them all. Have a blessed Christmas!
My father had two girls, but I don’t think anyone ever told him we were girls. While other neighborhood girls were busy painting their nails and playing dress up, we were often working as his “go-fors” on any one of his many projects, or we were cleaning the yard, putting fertilizers around the tomatoes, or helping him get his crop of watermelons ready for the market. Though farming was not his primary occupation, dad loved the land, and he was a constant gardener.
My experiences working in my garden this summer, made me reflect on dad and the legacy he passed on to us in understanding the value of “work”– not just any work but of “manual labor”– working with your hands. When I went to boarding academy, “Manual Labor” was a required course in the curriculum. I kid you not! Everyone had a pick of where they would work: on the farm, in the broom shop, on grounds, at the health food store, in the laundry, or in the cafeteria. And as I think of it now, what a valuable addition to the curriculum! Indeed, there is a dignity in work and gifts that come only when we bend our backs in the kind of work that makes curls droop, nails chip, sweat drip, muscles ache, hands chafe—yeah, that kind of work. And that is one of the things to love about it.
When I started posting garden updates on my FB page, one of my friends suggested that I take a picture in a straw hat, with a long white flowing dress blowing in the wind, as I appeared to stare dreamily at the plants in my garden in a “Martha Stewart” inspired moment, I resisted the urge. Why? Because, the truth is that gardening is far from glamorous— and I have the tan, the scars, and the dirty nails to prove it. Yet, there is a beauty to it that is beyond compare.
In the garden we are confronted with “life at the bone”, but it is here according to Thoreau that “life is sweetest”. In the garden we see that seeds shallowly planted can be carried away by birds, a heavy downpour can wash away the potential for life, and young seedlings must courageously battle the elements and bugs to have a chance at survival. In the garden, I grieved the loss of plants—eaten by critters that did not tend them. But then I watched them bounce back when not even one leaf was left on a chewed off stalk. That indomitable spirit spoke to me, inspiring me to replant and press on. It made me recognize that my part in the process was to sow the seed, water it and cultivate the young plant. His part is to do what I cannot– breathe life into death. I saw plants learn to grow where they had been planted—some beds were clayey, some too moist, sandy or lacking in nutrients— yet, they persisted growing and flourishing as best they could.
Though I will admit that I resented it at the time, I am grateful now that dad cultivated in me an appreciation for the dignity of with our hands. I am reminded that in assigning Adam this work God was handing him a gift (pun intended). The first work God gave man was to “farm the land and take care of it”. No doubt, God did not need Adam’s help. He, who made the earth out of nothing, did not need a co-laborer to keep his creation beautiful and “good”. However, in this gift of work, I like to think that God was passing on to Adam a treasure that would nurture his own spirit, that would teach him important life lessons, and ultimately remind him that like the plants under his care, he was himself under the care of a master gardener—God himself.
I am becoming a staunch counterculturalist! I don’t know precisely when or how it started happening, but it is clear to me that if everyone is going left, then I will be the one staring longingly in the right direction with my hand raised high to ask the annoying question with a preface: “Ahhh, not to cause problems or anything, but exactly why aren’t we going right?”
That is certainly how I have felt about fashion and the media’s constant barrage at us to buy more new clothes. Well, “Not to cause problems or anything, but what’s the deal with this constant buying of new clothes for the change of season, a special event, a new job, or for no reason whatsoever?” I just don’t get it! As someone who deliberates long and hard about most clothing purchases, the lure of intentionally choosing to sign up again and again for a shopping encore, eludes me. Personally, I hardly have time for all the wonderful things in life that interest me to devote another minute more than necessary to shop for clothes—be it online or face-to-face.
But then again, perhaps my penchant for being this way is not even of my own doing; it is a function of growing up Trini. If there was one subject area that I learned while still in elementary school, it was economics. My father, aunts, uncles and teachers, well, almost everyone, it seemed was teaching us about economizing. What that meant in our house was that we should cut the cheese so thinly that we could see through it. What that meant was–“No, you cannot have bread with peanut butter AND jelly. Are you kidding me! It was one sandwich filling OR the other. My dad would say: “Learn to economize.” When I eventually got to high school and started the formal study of economics, I was thrilled that I already had a head start in understanding that in a world of limited resources we need to use what we have wisely.
In Trinidad, we were recycling, reducing, reusing long before it was fashionable to do so. In fact, I remember collecting glass bottles along with all the other children in our neighborhood, and waiting expectantly for the trucks that would drive through on certain days to swap our collection for coveted coins that would allow us to purchase a palette or ice-cream cone when that particular truck came by. All school children wore uniforms to school, and we washed and ironed them until they were so threadbare that the tired fabrics would burst forth in triumphant holes with any sudden slight exertion.
Spring Jacket Circa 2005- Still Wearing It!
Is it any wonder that I still hold on to my clothes? I have clothes in my closet that I have had for as many as twenty years. Yes, twenty years! In a younger life that would have perhaps bothered me a bit to admit, but now I celebrate it! There’s no shame in my game! First, can I just say that they still FIT (Well, most of them, anyway.) Sheesh! That should be reason enough to celebrate, right? Those that don’t fit, I pass along to a friend or donate. And if you are thinking well: “You must look a mess!” I think my husband would be the first to tell me so. (He was not fortunate to grow up as I did but had to contend with growing up here. Ha ha ha! Let’s just say, he does not quite share my passion for old clothes).
Now, I know that my approach to fashion is not for everyone. So if this is not you, feel free to mosey on over to another blog at this point. However, if you have even a sliver of curiosity or are an aspiring counterculturalist, I will offer 10 tips for getting the most out of your clothes and in the process loving the planet a bit more.
Recognize that you are MORE than what you wear. My personal mantra is my own butchering of a quote by Coco Chanel: “Dress showy and they notice the dress; dress immaculately and they notice the person.” Aim to dress in such a way that people notice YOU before they notice what you are wearing.
Know your Style Formula and Work with It: Spend time thinking about what colors, fabrics, and styles work best for you and work that formula. For example, I have learned that I look best in autumn colors, long skirts, princess line cuts etc. I couldn’t care less about what is the rage this season. I do venture out to try new fabrics, styles, or colors on occasion, but for the most part I remain true to my formula.
Go for Classic Designs: Avoid trendy looks that are in one season and out the next. Instead opt for wardrobe staples in classic cuts. If you work in a professional settings, go for classic blazers, suits, shirts, slacks and skirts that you can easily mix and match. Give as much thought to your casual look understanding your style formula and choosing timeless pieces that bring your collection together.
Shop Quality over Quantity: Be prepared to spend a bit more on clothes that you intend to keep in your wardrobe for the long haul. Pay attention to the quality of fabric, go with trusted brands, and pay attention to care labels. However, quality does not always equate with high cost—(See next point).
Shop End of Season for Next Season: Free from the compulsion to be the first to wear the latest color craze for the season, choose to wait until the end of the season to buy quality items when prices are sure to dip low. Be sure to also browse discount stores for good quality past season clothing.
Care Creatively for your Clothes: Invest the time in taking care of your clothes. Follow care instructions for fabrics and be prepared to update, mend and even transform pieces. I have switched out buttons to update a suit, added appliques and decorative patches over holes, dyed fabric, and used needle and thread and/or my sewing machine to extend the life of a treasured piece.
Share the Wealth: If you have taken great care of your clothes, then those that no longer fit or just don’t work for you anymore can be consigned or donated to benefit some else.
Shop Consignment: If you want to cultivate a timeless look, consignment shops are a great place to find classic, hard to find, quality items at reduced cost. Moreover, with the push for conservation in recent times, consignment shops have undergone remarkable transformations. You can find clean shops that are very well run in upscale zip codes.
Buy Only if It Passes the Test: Set up your own internal criteria for determining if a new item should become part of your wardrobe. I have about four test questions: Are there multiple occasions and events to which I can wear it? Does it play nice with other pieces in my collection? Is it consistent with my style brand? and Is it something that I can see myself wearing for years to come?
Cultivate Your Style Brand: Well-worn pieces of clothing that have been with you through the years have a certain je nais se quoi quality to them—that money cannot buy. They become a part of your identity brand. The more you practice and adhere to the first 9 tips, the more your wardrobe will be congruent with your personal story. Your sense of style will effortlessly communicate your life brand without you even saying a word. What I hope my clothes communicate is my personal brand– elegantly simple.
I love going through my collection of clothes, and thinking back to the occasions and events on which I wore them. There is so much history there: the suit I wore for my first job interview after graduate school, the skirt I wore on one of my first dates with Mark, my first splurge on a pair of St. John’s shoes, the dress I wore to my father’s funeral, and the denim jacket –a gift from Mark while we were dating (I am wearing it now as I type). Oh my! There is more than old clothes here, more than fabric, more than fancy buttons, designer tags, and embellishments on these pieces—they are mile markers on my life journey, and it is comforting to fit into them and feel the warm nostalgia of yesteryear embracing me once again.
So I say: “Out with the new and in with the old!” And the next time you see me and are perhaps wondering: “Hmm, didn’t I see her wear that before?” Chances are that the answer is: “Yes!” Yes, indeed, and isn’t that a beautiful thing?
If someone had told me when I was growing up that I would one day earn my living by speaking, I would have said,”No way!” As a child, I was constantly teased about my voice–too squeaky, too mousy, too soft spoken! So to become a professor, and a frequent presenter in a variety of settings at that, I had to learn to find my speaking voice; I had to learn to own my voice as something that was unique about me–to think of it as an asset and not a liability.
I did not benefit from a formal speaking forum like Toastmasters International. I wish I had. Rather, I learned how to become a public speaker on the job. Being in the academy, I learned the importance of having good organizational structure for a presentation, of voice modulation, how to maintain eye contact, and to watch for vocal interferences. Knowing how to cultivate good public speaking techniques has indeed helped to make me a more polished speaker; however, it is not what I think is most critical in making me or anyone not merely an effective public speaker, but an impactful one. Allow me to share with you three strategies that have helped me, and which I think will also help you find your voice to achieve speaking success:
1. Recognize that it’s not about you: Early in my career, I was intent on being “the presenter”–the one up front with the information to share with the waiting audience. The problem with this stance is that it separates you, the presenter, from your listeners, when the goal should be to connect you with them. Even if you have important information to share, it should be from the perspective that information is co-constructed between you and them–the audience.
When I give the same presentation to various groups, it is never the same presentation. It changes because the audience is different and our combined interaction creates a unique information sharing experience. The information exchange in each context is as much about what I have to say as it is about what the audience has to say to me, non verbally and/or verbally. In recognizing that, I have learned to privilege their presence above my own, and I listen to their needs as I speak and I am willing to accommodate as I go along, choosing to tell a joke or not, to know when to linger on a point or not, or to clarify further. Most importantly, when we choose to approach a speaking engagement in this way, the audience can feel it; it makes them more receptive to what we have to say. So recognize first of all that it’s not about you. It’s about the audience and the message.
Presentation at University of the Virgin Islands
2. Be Authentic: Every year my husband sets up a tripod and we take a family photo with our girls in front of our Christmas tree. Even I will admit that the photos often look Hallmark ready. Perhaps, the only thing that might make them better was if we had a boy and a girl–but there’s no helping that any more!!
When we do send our photo out to our relatives and friends, we get lots of “Oohs and ahhs!” But what they do not see are the dozens of photos that did not make the cut; the many freshening ups I did with the kids hair, and me begging them to please focus and smile. The perfect family photo is all a facade, isn’t it?
To find your voice in public speaking, it should be your goal to dispel the facade of the perfect speech or the perfect presenter. Lose the pretension and be real with the audience! They do not want a perfect speech or a perfect presenter. What they want is a message and a presenter with whom their own imperfect humanity can connect.
Last November, I spoke at a church my family has attended for the last few years. I would guess that the Christmas card photo is pretty much the image that members of the church see of us each Saturday. However, when I spoke that morning, I referenced the time when I only had one pair of shoes for church. After the presentation, I received many compliments. Finally, a lady come up, hugged me hard and said,”Wow, I did not realize that you were one of us!” Others wanted to share their own one pair of shoes stories with me. I had broken through the facade by keeping it real.
3. Speak from your Pain and Your Passion: This is the hardest skill to master. But if you want to provide added value in you presentations, you must learn to own your story and tell it with conviction and power. No matter what the topic is that I am called on to present, I look for ways to connect it to my pain and my passions because I know that these are my secret ingredients.
We live in an age of information obesity. Almost any information can be found with a few taps on a keyboard. Yet, you and I own something valuable that cannot be found using Google–our story, our convictions, and no one is as qualified as I am to tell my story, as you are to tell your story. Now it is indeed hard to master this skill because it requires discipline to speak about your passions with conviction but not with anger; it requires courage and discipline to speak about your pain without falling apart at the podium. But then again, it’s okay if your voice quivers a bit. It’s okay if a tear falls because it tells people that you are just like them–human. Aspire to speak from your pain and your passion.
Kappa Presentation with Jean
In 2009, my best friend Jean passed away after a 5 year battle with cancer, and I was asked to give a tribute at her memorial service. I did. But I am sure if that speech were evaluated on the basis of technique, it would be viewed as an epic failure. I cried my way through almost every major point, runny nose and all, with frequent pauses to compose myself all the way to the bitter end. I was a mess! And yet, as I listened to the audience through my tears, I heard and saw them laughing at my funny recollections, grieving with me this loss, and waiting patiently for me in those moments when I needed to compose myself. Someone had even gotten up from the pews and come to the podium to hand me some tissue.
I can now look back on that presentation as one of my finest hours in public speaking because I was applying these three strategies: I recognized that in that moment it was not about me but about giving my friend a tribute she deserved; I was being authentic about the feelings in my heart; and I was speaking through my pain and my passion with this same soft voice. I had come a long way in finding my speaking voice. I wish you every success as you continue to advance towards finding yours.
* A slightly different version of this post was given as a presentation to the Toastmaster Group of Tortola, British Virgin Islands on March 1, 2016.
If you are anything like me, most days you are left with more things to do on your list than there is time left to do them. Being a maximizer type, those things that remain undone on my list really work my last nerve. It’s as though I am destined to be forever stuck in the twilight zone, tormented by a never ending list of things to do! It’s one of the reasons that doing laundry is perhaps one of my least favorite things to do. Has anybody ever gotten to the bottom of their laundry basket? Like really? I mean no sock, no blouse, no handkerchief, no bed linen, no kitchen towel etc. etc. left to be washed? If you have, I applaud you. Me, I am still fighting the good fight.
There is a certain thrill I get from seeing a project through from conceptualization to completion, knowing that the final deliverable, whatever it is, has my signature on it, and I can give the triumphant cry: “Ta da! Done it!” Then of course, there is the added thrill of ONCE and for all crossing it OFF my list! I love it!! However, as thrilling as completion is, I now recognize that for most of the really important things in our lives that crossing out moment may forever elude us. And while the thought of it initially filled me with great dread, as I have continued to reflect on it, I am more at peace with this notion of the incomplete.
Outside La Sagrada Familia
On a recent trip to Spain, I stood in amazement outside the famous La Sagrada Familia. This cathedral was started in 1882 and became the magnum opus of Antoni Gaudí. Gaudí envisioned a cathedral with eighteen towers that would showcase his unique architectural style and be a place of worship for the poor. Tragically, he died when only one tower had been built. And yet that is only the beginning of the story. From the time of his death to now, many other architects have continued to add to his endeavors to create this architectural wonder that is still incomplete, but remains the most visited tourist attraction in Spain.
On my last day in Spain, my friend, *Heewon, and I were walking in Park Güell, another one of Gaudi’s creation. In the distance we could see La Sagrada Familia, and as we looked out at it, Heewon said to me wisely: “There is beauty in the incomplete.” Indeed, she is right! There are gifts that come to us from the incomplete journeys in our lives.
With Dr. Edwin Estevez
Gifts of a Larger Purpose: In early November, I spent a few days shadowing my friend Dr. Edwin Estevez, Provost of Greenville College. I have been in academia long enough to understand the work that a Provost does—he/she is the hand, eyes, ears, mouth and feet of the president of an institution. As Edwin and I walked the more that 10,000 steps each day meeting with faculty, students members of his administrative team, board members etc. there was hardly a moment when he was not ON. His job entails being an unseen cog that keeps the machinery of the institution going. Yet, in one of those rare moments when we sat down to chat, he said to me: “The nature of the work is that I may never see the final deliverable of my day to day activities. Yet, I am committed to a larger purpose, the mission and vision of the institution”.
Similarly, in our own lives there are gifts that come to us when we step back from the mundane day- to-day activities and catch a glimpse of the grand arc of our lives. Each day we are contributing to that larger mission and vision. And unfortunately or, perhaps, fortunately that work will forever be a “work-in-progress”.
Gifts of the Alternative: In economics, I learned the concept of the “opportunity cost.” The true cost of an action includes the cost to us of forgoing some other action. Yes, I know: “Mumbo jumbo, Mumbo jumbo!” Let me clarify with the use of an example. A few years ago, I took a sabbatical leave from my job to work on a book. Said book is still incomplete. Now, I will admit that part of the reason it is not finished has to do with lack discipline, plain and simple. At the same time, that incomplete book is a reminder of the things I did CHOOSE to complete, for example, spending more time with my children, planning birthday parties and family outings for them, reading to them, doing art projects with them etc. etc. However, the biggest gift to me of this incomplete book project comes from the time I took in the last months of my sabbatical to plan an awesome Mother’s Day event for my “mom”. I bought some fabric, dusted off my sewing machine and sewed an apron for her. Then I took the time to search online for the perfect cupcake motifs to glue on it representing her children and grandchildren. We planned a scrumptious brunch and the siblings and grandchildren got together at our house, and we showered her with gifts and tributes of love. What an awesome time we had that Mother’s Day! We had no idea that it would be the last Mother’s Day that she would spend with us! But Oh! I am SO grateful for this gift of time with her that came to me by way of my incomplete book.
Gifts of an Enduring Impact:There is a Greek Proverb that says: “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” I have been teaching for so long now that individuals, some whose names I don’t even remember, come up to me and tell me what a great influence I have been on their lives. I am often surprised and humbled by these admissions. Yet, many days the grind of trying to get it all done–teaching, answering emails, grading papers, (i.e. things on my to-do list), and sometimes feeling overworked, undervalued, and underpaid threatens to make me lose sight of the unique opportunity teaching affords me to invest in the future. Similarly, in taking time to write this blog, some days I wonder if this “blog seed” will yield any real fruit. What will be my impact factor! For now? Still less than 4,000 views! Yet, what I hope for in this incomplete journey is that one day my writings will be a legacy for my daughters and others after them.
Whatever your life aspirations, celebrate the gifts from your incomplete journeys and recognize that the magnum opus of your life is still unfolding…..
* I am grateful to my friend Dr. Heewon Chang for planting the idea in my head for this blog post.
I am not a very nice person. It’s only taken me some forty-something years to admit this outright! Perhaps, if you are reading this and know me, you are thinking, “Like, duh! No surprise there!” On the other hand, if you are thinking: “Okay girl, enough with the false modesty!” let me assure you, this is not some suave attempt to self-promote and do a bait and switch. It’s the truth. At the same time, I will admit that with every fiber of my being I aim to live contrary to this truth–to be intentional in becoming a person who radiates a beauty that comes from a cultivated spirit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
But back to the “not nice” part, here is a case in point. I was about 9 years old (Yes, I said 9). It was Friday spelling test, and we had exchanged our papers to be graded by peers. I was in high spirits! I felt confident that I would get all 10 words correct and be allowed the coveted honor of standing tall and proud (hopefully, I would be the only person), when the teacher announced: “Those who got all 10 correct, please stand!” Can you imagine, my shock and horror, when I got back my paper and saw that I had 9 correct! What!! I scrutinized my script. The last word was “razor”, and between the letters “o” and “r” was an “i” that I had NOT put. I was indignant! I pleaded the case with my teacher with as much vigor as a lawyer pleading over a life and death sentence. My teacher compared the writing and the color of the ink and determined that a crime had been committed by my friend. Ah ha! I reveled in my vindication, and I rejoiced in her demise. But wait, there is more. For many years later, whenever, I saw my friend, the first thing that would come to my mind was: “Hmmph, she put an “i” in my razor!!” For sure, this is a crude example, but there you have it–pride, feelings of superiority, lack of forgiveness, resentment, ill-will etc. etc.
Now here I am an adult, and I recognize that it is still all too easy for feelings like these to surface in response to a myriad of life experiences–injustices real or perceived. How much harder it is for us to cultivate the response of love in the face of injustice, forgiveness in response to wrongs, and humility instead of selfish pride. In reflecting on the difference between that 9 year old girl then and the woman I am now, I do not want that difference to be merely that I have learned to hide these feelings better–to present to those who know me a false view of my inner reality. So what’s a girl to do? Well, here’s my 1,2, 3 approach.
Admit Your Poverty of Spirit. Coming to this point in my life journey has been remarkably liberating. Empowering even! I can’t even begin to tell you the many times I would begin my analysis of a difficult interaction with a colleague or friend from the flawed perspective that “I don’t understand it. I am a nice person!” “Oh, PllleaeSEE!”The spiritual foundations of my faith tells me that none of us is good or has a good heart. It is only in recognizing my poverty of spirit that I am in a position to begin the process of countering this reality. I am no longer surprised or taken off guard when negative feelings surface and my ugly spirit rears its head. I expect it.
Speak to Your Poverty of Spirit. Yes, I speak to myself! When an event happens that triggers negative feelings, I face these feelings head on. I examine my feelings and the weight of the circumstances surrounding them to determine the amount of effort and work it will need to counteract it. Let me illustrate this using money (Hey, I’m married to a CPA. It rubs off). So I say to myself, “Girl you’ve only got two pennies of good vibes about this. However, you need that whole dollar of good vibes to to be in line with the spirit that you desire.” So I say: “Wow. This is gonna be a BIG one! Girl, you’re gonna have to dig deep. No pain no gain!” Then I prepare myself to do battle with the cry, “Bring it on!”
Act from that Poverty of Spirit. I now think of these experiences as opportunities for spirit growth. So what do I do? I begin by spending the two pennies of good vibes as an investment into the rich spirit I desire. For too long, I had operated under the misconception that I needed to feel better to act differently. This misconception is crippling. If we fail to act against our base instinct, we run the risk of having that unwanted spirit deplete our nobler aspirations– we lose the few pennies of good vibes that we have. So lean into your spiritual oasis! Lean into your God, and ask Him for the strength to act from that place of scarcity. Here’s the remarkable thing! First, I do believe that acting out of our poverty of spirit is a quality that God values. Jesus said of the poor widow that when she dropped her two mites into the offering plate she had given more than all the others, because she had given “out of her poverty”. Secondly, when we invest our little in living more intentionally towards a nobler, better way of walking, those pennies grow exponentially–we begin to develop a richness of spirit.
An experience I had several years ago while teaching at the H. Lavity Stoutt Community College in the British Virgin Islands made me a believer in this system. One morning as I was explaining an important concept, one young woman came in very late and was talking loudly on her phone. She proceeded to call out loudly “Good morning”, and was disruptively heading to the front of the class. I stopped her and asked her to quietly slip into the back. Well! She did not appreciate that! So she proceeded to curse me out, then she turned around (still cursing), walked out the door and slammed it loudly behind her. Boy! I was livid! I could hardly wait for my one on one tutoring session with her later that week. Oh it was ON! it was ON like popcorn with a whole “lotta” butter! However, while explaining what had happened to a wise and dear friend, he challenged me to treat her with the same level of care and concern as I would have if nothing had happened. Like, “Huh??”
Well, a couple of afternoons later when she walked into my office, I looked up at her with a broad smile on my face and said. “Hi, *Beverly. I am so glad you could make it. Now how can I help you, today?” It was not until the end of the session that we talked about what had happened. She was still belligerent. But guess what? As I had gritted my teeth and dug deep throughout the session to love her, my attitude towards her had changed. She admitted that she had felt embarrassed when I stopped her. To which I could have responded and defended my actions with a number of reasons. Instead, I smiled and said, “It’s okay. I am here to help you in whatever way I can. These things happen.” Fast forward, several years later, on a visit to British Virgin Islands, I saw Beverly at the airport. She greeted me with an exuberant hug and we chatted like old friends. How different this encounter might have been had I chosen to act differently.
The secret to cultivating a beautiful spirit is rooted in an acceptance of our poverty of spirit coupled with a fierce determination to act contrary to these feelings with each arduous battle. As difficult as it was that day to repay Beverly’s disrespect with respect and to place her interest above my own, when she left the office that day I felt like I was on a high that money could not buy.
I have become too weepy in my forties. This is not a complaint–merely an observation. The truth is, I have always been somewhat of an emotional person. You know, the quintessential creative type, and all. Yet in spite of that, I do recognize an intensity in the frequency of my tears and the occasions that bring them on. And being the analytical person that I am, I did find myself wanting to corner this observation and put it under the magnifying glass of my mind and try to make sense of this unaccustomed spot at which I have come to rest.
So when and how did this happen? And why? And then, is this perhaps a quality that comes to some with age? To this last question, I am reminded of Jacques‘ famous soliloquy on the seven stages of life from beginning to end, returning to the place where we started. At first there is the infant, and then on from stage to stage until “the sixth age shifts…. his big manly voice, turning again toward childish treble”. The more I ponder it, the more I am certain that this weepiness is a part of my mid life journey. Yet, it is not just mine, but others as well. There are several occasions that convince me of this. However, I will share these two.
Peter Hernandez–1928- 2004
I was living in the British Virgin Islands, when my father was diagnosed with prostate cancer. So as soon as I could, I made the difficult journey home to Trinidad. When he came to greet me at the door, I was scared to look at him. Where was the strong, robust man whose look was enough to quell any mischievous thoughts that my sister and I had? The voice that was enough of a lashing to surpass any physical punishment now trembled and quivered as he spoke. When had the man died and this child been born?
“Cath-ian! Go…od to see y…ou!” he said in a halting whisper. And I…, well, I pretended not to see the water collect at the corners of his eyes as he spoke. Instead, I hugged him fiercely in a tight embrace–us two in this father daughter reunion. But separate from the apparent scene, my mind stood alone. I thought of the approaching day, and inwardly I cried.
The second happened on my first trip to St. Lucia while staying with friends. On Christmas morning, I joined them to visit with and take gifts to elderly folks in the community. At the first stop, we rattled the makeshift wooden gate to the yard and called out the customary Caribbean greeting: “Good, morning! Good morning!” The front door of the tilted house creaked open and an old man peered out at us with bewildered eyes and a toothless grin. He placed one foot gingerly forward and dragged the other behind him in a hurried limp to meet us. We made our way inside the airless house where the loneliness had settled thick. There was no Christmas cheer here except what we had brought–a few faded photographs, a set of mismatched china, weather beaten books, and dust covered doilies all recounted a lonesome tale.
His wife sat on the rocking chair looking at us with happy and hungry eyes. “I am so happy to see you!” she said. “I am so, H-A-P-P-Y to see you!” Over and over, she repeated this phrase, as she paused to spell the word H-A-P-P-Y –as if by stretching it out, it would make the emotions linger, the visit longer. Then with silent tears running down her cheeks, she turned to her husband who sat quietly in the corner staring at an imaginary something on the floor and chastised him thus. “Why you goin do dat, eh? Why you goin’ cry?” I told you! You mustn’t cry when people come to see us!”
Last night, I made a confession to Mark as we lay awake long after the girls had gone to bed:
“I have become too weepy in my forties,” I say.
“Hmmh” he says, for he knows this is all I expect of him.
“I have been thinking about why this is. But I am not sure”. (Sigh).
“Perhaps, the longer one lives the more occasions there are in one’s life that are worthy of tears. Then on a given day… a word, a glance, a song, a smell brings the memory back and takes us to that place and time where the emotions are as fresh as they ever were.”
“Hmmh,” he responds.
“And yet it is more than memories….more than memories…… and more than sadness…..”
I have come to think that as one stands at the midpoint of one’s life journey or even close to the end, it is clear that much has happened already that cannot be undone. Indeed, it is a place for reflection even regret, but opportunities as well. For it is at this juncture that we can arrive at a cultivated appreciation for BOTH the present and what lies ahead, and choose to value them deeply.
In my father’s and the happy couples’ tears, I sense this blending of joy and sadness–both inextricably linked. If I were to put a label on it I would call it tears of a grateful and maturing heart. It is the way I feel when I look at my daughter with her chest rising and falling, limbs all askew as she sleeps in the bed at night. It is the way I feel when she chatters excitedly in a voice that sounds too much like mine: “Mommy, my tooth is loose! My tooth is loose!” It is the way I feel when I think about my daughters’ potential! Their possibilities! And how much I want ALL that is good for them. It is the way I feel when I think of my dear friend Jean–still hear her laughter and see her smile from our too brief but deeply meaningful friendship. It is the way I feel when I look at Mark and think, “How could I ever imagine my life now without you?”
It is in these moments that my heart is stretched to capacity– and I am aware of its smallness. It is too small to contain the weight, and the richness, and the depth of the emotions of gratitude, and joy, and sadness all tangled up in an intricate and happy struggle. And so as these emotions battle on, they spill out unto my cheeks, and I weep.
Yes, I have become too weepy in my forties… but even that is to be celebrated.