Hello Fear, Let’s Take on This New Year Together!

FeetThe year I decided to say goodbye to the shores of my beloved Trinidad and Tobago to pursue graduate education in the United States, “Fear” decided she was coming too. Though I tried to shake her loose, she resisted. “What are you  thinking, girl?” she asked. “Like  for real? Think girl!  Are you really  prepared to trade in your love of doubles, roti, corn soup, steelpan, sunshine, and just about anything Trini, for American food and smog and snow?”Then she asked more worrisome  questions: What if your money runs out? What if your Trini education has not adequately prepared you to succeed in the US academy? What if you are not able to cultivate a warm circle of friends to help you face the cold North American clime (literal or figurative)? What if……? What if…..? Fear nagged.

But even though my confidence was shaky, I packed up my two suitcases and the little money I had saved from selling everything I owned–everything, that is, except for what was in those two suitcases, and I boarded the plane to Michigan with Fear as an unshakeable companion.

Yet, when I think back on it, I recognize that I did own something far more precious than anything I had managed to squeeze into those suitcases. What I owned was a dream to do what no one in my immediate family had yet done –pursue higher education. What I owned was a determination to lay it all on the line in pursuit of a compelling life vision. The possibility of success lured me forward, even as Fear of failure threatened to slow my steps. Yet channeling the fierce spirit of my Caribbean ancestry, I was determined that “dis sista” was not going down without a fight! And if you are thinking, “Well, I wish I had your courage and confidence”, I’m just going to keep it real. On far too many days, it was all an act; I was faking it to make it.

Truth be told, it was a flickering confidence, burning brightly one minute and then almost about to go out the next when challenges presented themselves–-when the amount I owed on my student account was more than I could pay, when I got tired of wearing the one coat I could afford to get at the discount store, when I stopped to think about the long road ahead and my dwindling bank account, I was afraid. And although I have stood at quite a few crossroads of major decisions in my life since then, I recognize that FEAR remained within arms length.

Would or Should? So, what would you do if you were not afraid? The first time someone put this question to me, it was not difficult to rattle off a list of things right away—learn to scuba dive, ride a motorcycle, or sky dive, or perhaps travel the world, mountain climb etc. etc. Yes! I do have that adventurer’s spirit. However, as I think back on that encounter now, I have a more nuanced understanding of that question and my response. First off, though I would certainly bask in the thrill of saying: “Ta dah, done it!” to any one of these bucket list items, I sense that for me at least it would be a shallow victory—there are more pressing concerns that weigh on my mind—I have bigger fish to fry. Secondly, for some crazy ventures (which will remain unnamed) that I almost attempted, and for which I am glad my parents knew nothing about, I remain grateful for the fear that knit that uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach that kept me up at night, that prodded and provoked me to recognize my foolishness and change course.

But what if instead of being asked about what we “would do”, we were asked the more meaningful question: “what should we do EVEN if we are afraid? By should, I am suggesting what I believe to be a fundamental truth of life, that each person is called to walk road finalpaths that are custom designed for them. It is your path to walk, whether it is to write that book, marry that person, leave that dead-end relationship, move to a different city or country, take that new job or even the alternative, turn down that dream job in favor of a passionate calling. Whatever it is! It is YOUR path to take given who you are, and the gifts you have been given to share with the world. Yet, it is often at these junctures that we are most fearful of failure and of going against the grain, turning off the well-trodden path taken by so many others rather than doing what Robert Frost suggested: “ Two roads diverged in the wood, and I–I took the one less travelled by.”

Friend or Foe? As I reflect on my own life journey, I recognize that Fear is indeed like that annoying friend who no matter how you try to shake her loose refuses to leave your side. From the first day I stood before a class of college students many of whom were much older than I was, through leaving the shores of my beloved homeland, through walking down the aisle to say “I do”, to holding a newborn baby in my arms—I was shaking down to my cotton underwear! BUT I kept on putting one foot in front of the other as I walked on.

If you are waiting to be less afraid to make that big move this year to high tail it out of your current situation with a confident “Adios, amigos!” in pursuit of your vision of a preferred future, well then girlfriend, you may be waiting for a long, long time. In an inspiring video, entitled How to get over your fear of failure, motivational guru and coach Tony Robbins urges us instead to train our minds to think: “I can be fearful, but I can do it anyway”. Similarly, in the book Act like a Leader, Think like a Leader,  the author presents a paradoxical truth that no amount of thinking will allow us to get past the nettlesome companion of fear. Ironically, the only way to face your fear effectively is to take her along for the journey.

Crippling or Motivating? Fear can cripple you or it can motivate you to advance towards your dreams —the choice is yours. Some years ago, my husband and I faced a difficult decision. Should he continue with the world’s largest consulting firm which paid mucho dinero, but which came with an attached puppet string that pulled him on planes, trains and automobiles here, there and everywhere? Or should he say “Hasta la vista, baby!” and launch out on his own–chart a course towards having his own business? There was a moment of great pause. Actually, who am I kidding? There were MOMENTS of great pauses. Are we crazy to even be considering this? What about the risks? We have kids to put through college! So many fears!!! The lure of a stable paycheck to which we had set our GPS was tempting—it threatened to cripple our movement towards a different path. Yet, as a financial consultant to others, he realized that staying in the firm’s safety zone in uncertain economic times would lock him out of his future earning potential on his own terms. But more importantly, he was driven by a desire for a better quality of life–more time with the kids and me, and to do more than his parents had done—to work towards a richer legacy than a stable pension plan. The fear of what could be lost if we did not make this move outweighed the fears we had about the loss of that paycheck—fear was a motivating agent.

I confess, that even now, after making that and other major life decisions together over the years, there are still moments of uncertainty and lingering questions. Did we do the IMG_7032right thing? Can we really make it? Yet, it is in the presence of this troublesome companion–fear–but armed with a growing confidence that we are determined to keep on walking courageously in fulfillment of our purpose and calling. And here is what we are discovering: every day, we make that choice –it is a choice that is positioning us well to experience the gift of joyful living. And it is wonderful!

So as you stand on the brink of this new year, what is your resolution? What should you do even if you are afraid? I know you’ve thought about it. Well? What are you going to do? My advice: Go ahead and DO it! Prepare yourself to begin walking that road even if you are afraid!

I would love to hear your personal story or thoughts of wanting to or facing fear head on. What lessons are these experiences teaching you?

“Nah! Not today!”–Leading Courageous Conversations

 

Kathy- SpeakingFew 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.

Kathy-1Yet, 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 OthersA 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 Diversity_Matters-coverpeople 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…

 

Ahem, Yes! I Did Wear that Before!

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Jacket Circa 2002 – Gift from Mark

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.

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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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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).
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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?
  10. 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?

 

In Search of An Unhurried Life

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Morning walk -Tortola, BVI

One of my friends shared a link to a book by Alan Fadling entitled, An Unhurried Life: Following Jesus’ Rhythms of Work and Rest. As I made a bee line to get the book from my library, I could not help but think: “Foiled again! Someone beat me to it!” Well, perhaps, not exactly, the title of the book I have been writing in my head for the past year or so, but close enough to the central thesis. But even as Fadlings’ book sits on my pile of books to read, my mind has taken off again with thoughts about the hurried age in which we live.

Somewhere along the line, I think we’ve been bamboozled into thinking that the level of busyness in our lives is in some way equal to our level of importance. In the book, Abundant Simplicity: Discovering the Unhurried Rhythms of Grace, Jan Johnson launches a sharp critique against a culture where we actually celebrate such busyness. In fact, it is common place to hear comments like: “Wow, I only got three hours of sleep last night”; or “I flew to 3 different states in this past week” (all uttered with an air of thinly concealed importance). Unbelievable! And wait for it! This is usually not a singular, once in a while occurrence. It is, in fact, a way of life. Well, not for me. I pass! Before you take me to task for adopting such a stance, I will offer three reasons in defense of my penchant for easy living.

First, I come by my quest for an unhurried life quite honestly. My aversion to such “madness” and I do call it “madness” stems in the first instance from a source that is partially out of my control—my socialization. I grew up in Trinidad and Tobago. For those of you who do not know, Trinidad and Tobago has been ranked in the top 10 countries in the world for having the most public holidays, 14 at last count. It seems that every week in Trinidad and Tobago, there is always something to celebrate—a moment to “kick back”, “buss a lime’ with friends and family, “have a fete”, or just take it easy. And though some have argued (I must admit with some credence) that this kind of frivolity is one of the chief culprits behind low levels of productivity, I would argue alternatively, that the benefits of such a life style to the “je no sais quoi” –that certain something that is so infectious, bubbly, inviting and warm-hearted about Trinidadians is in my view of inestimable worth.

The second influence, is a function my personality. Again, not exactly something I could control, right? I knew early in life that I wanted to find a job that would feel more like play than work for me—a job that would nurture my spirit life and also leave me enough time to live. I didn’t want to be pressured to take a bus, or train, or plane, or bicycle for that matter; in rain, wind or snow in a race to catch the mighty dollar; to get to a job that would suck up 8 hours of my day for 50 to 51 weeks out of the year. So, I became a professor And I don’t mean to gloat, but, hey, it works!

I can deal with less money in my pay check—but not less time to live. Living for me involves crafting out the right ratio between time to work and time for the really important things in my life. For me those things include time to seek out an old teacher/mentor or friend and reconnect, and tell them what a blessing they have been in my life; time to lose myself in a new favorite hobby that does not require clicking or dragging anything on a screen, time to ease into the day with a good talk with God so that I am clear on His assignment for me for that day; time to sip and enjoy a cup of tea and a good book; and time to look into my children’s eyes and really listen to what they are experiencing in their world.

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Sunrise run -Fort Myers, Florida.

The third influence on my quest for an unhurried life is the most critical. It is my faith. I believe that God calls us into a space of simplicity and quietude so that we can come to find him and know Him better. Moreover, I have been struck by how little “capacity” (a term my husband and I use to describe our lack of time) we have built into our lives for anything other than our concerns or what is in our Google calendar. There is just no time to do ministry, meet for a casual informal get together, stop by someone’s house just because, or help a neighbor in need.

Just to be clear, I do not live in “La La Land”. I know what it is like to have bills to pay and mouths to feed. In spite of my job and my desire for an unhurried life, each day, I push against the current and a tidal wave of activities and requests that threaten to crowd my life with ‘stuff to do” for me, for my kids, commitments at work and at church, financial commitments etc. etc. And yet, ultimately how we choose to spend our time has to be a personal choice. We can take control! How intentional are we in crafting out unhurried time and space, to reflect, take in the rhythms of life and to hear God’s voice? Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God”. I don’t have all the answers, and I am not totally in the quiet, unhurried space I want to be so God can effectively use me, but with His help, I am continuing the search. I want to be ready for His interruptions! Won’t you join me?