Leadership Begins at Home

It’s been two years today since my father’s passing. It was not a sudden death. We were blessed in a way with his diagnosis of cancer a year and a half before that to realize fully the fragility of life, and then with his remission, the ability to take it for granted again.

On top of that, he hovered between life and death for a week in hospice, primarily in a coma, which allowed our family to come together in communion and community, to reflect upon his impact in our lives, acknowledging the easy and the hard parts. 

Loss shapes us, but it does not destroy us.

As I check in with myself today in meditation I find that I am not in mourning. I no longer feel grief–a complicated prism of emotions that where many truths are held in one container.

Today, in a sense, I feel closer to him. I now feel like I can talk to him anytime I want rather than having to pick up the phone or stop by the house. I never knew when he was alive whether I was going to get the brusque busy man or the Irish storyteller. But now I always get his measured advice as I interpret it. Do as I did, not as I said is the one that comes through the most often.

It is his stories I miss the most, for holding valuable lessons. Sometimes not at first but in reflection.

My father was an organized man, a planner. Several years before he died he began to prepare me for the inevitability by stopping by my office unannounced to discuss his wishes upon passing–and a list of who to call and when and what to say–underlined in red pen. He loved his red pen.

I was out of town planning a move to Colorado when he received his diagnosis of lung cancer. I immediately dropped my plans with the intention of being on the support team for his illness–which never happened as he took care of it all himself for as long as he could, valuing his independence and still working every day at age 86.

Upon my return from Colorado he called me over to the house and I assumed we would be revisiting the final plans but I was wrong. We sat across the dining room table/office desk and he pushed his watch which was a fixture on his wrist across the table towards me. “This is yours now,” he said. 

I was confused and surprised assuming something that personal would go to his namesake and my brother, but I am the eldest child in the family. It was not the watch that held the power of the gift, but the symbol of the watch, and the story of how he got it that had the lesson and the message.

The watch was a gift from his enlisted men on Christmas Day in 1954 on the island of Okinawa, Japan.  While the inscription is factual and brief–it is the back of a watch, after all, it was why he received it that mattered.

Machine Guns Dog Co
2nd BN 95H Marines
3rd Mar Div
Xmas 1954

My father went into the Marine Corps as an officer straight out of college during the Korean War. Shortly before his deployment to Japan, the conflict had ended. Many of the men in his platoon Had just seen battle in Korea and had the scars, both outward and inward, to show for it as well as some Purple Hearts.

He told me that he felt as the leader it was not his job to punish but understand when fights broke out or the men got drunk and disorderly that compassion and practicality were a better way to deal with the situation. He would often find a jeep and bring the men back to the barracks and let them sleep it off rather than put them in the brig. My use of language here in regard to the Marine Corps may be inaccurate but my audio recording of this story was lost when an iPhone fell into a puddle and the details with it.

On this particular Christmas morning in 1954, after inspecting the barracks, one of his corporals stopped him and told him they had something for him–the watch. Later my father was told that enlisted men rarely give their officer a gift and that he must be doing something right to earn their respect.

He had their back. He let them make mistakes. He understood where they were coming from and that judgment and due process are not always the remedy. He led from behind. He respected that they had endured the horrors of battle and he had not. That is was his job to protect them as much as it was to lead them. 

At 24 years old he had mastered the most important lessons of leadership. 

My father later became a salesman, a good storytelling one. He never managed a single person and for most of my life, I did not see him as a leader. The watch taught me that he was always a  leader and that leadership starts at home. 

The watch was a symbol for me to remember that it was my turn to have the back of my family. To lead from behind, let them make mistakes, honor them and try to understand them before judging the situation.

Although it no longer works, I wear the watch often, as a reminder that grief passes, leadership is quiet, stories hold lessons and time does stop ticking for all of us.

The Journey

The Journey by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice—
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do—
determined to save
the only life you could save.

It was a dark and stormy night when my journey started.

It seriously was an ice storm in central Wisconsin on February 18, 2009, at 2 a.m. I know this for a fact as it was the day my first grandson came home from the hospital. I was unable to sleep so I started reading an Oprah Magazine (I’m not a fan) and there was an article with Maria Shriver interviewing the poet Mary Oliver. To be clear I’m also not a fan of poetry so it shook me to my core when I read this poem, ironically entitled The Journey–which I did not realize until this year.

This poem spoke to me so deeply that I knew my life was about to change, but I had no idea to what extent. I tore it out and took it to work and kept it in a manila file folder. I don’t remember what I named the file but I know it’s content ended up being my divorce file. But that took another two years to realize. There were two more significant events before I actually took the first steps to save my life.

The next event was the birth of my granddaughter, Adele. It was a hot and steamy night in Chicago two months before her due date and she was already in a long surgery to save her life that night. I was again shaken to my core. I had not even come to terms with my own impending death, let alone my children’s or their children’s. Again, it was clear that I was not living an authentic life and changes needed to be made but I was in another crisis for a brother and there was no room for my life, I was fighting and praying for theirs.

Once life returned to “normal”  I knew the time as close. Deciding to take my mother and daughter on discover our roots trip I was using the time to reflect on my internal strife when my daughter looked at me with no knowledge of my thoughts and asked me what I was going to do about my marriage, and walked away.

It was time to save my life. I could never have anticipated all the highs and lows of the next eight years. Buying and selling my dream house to live “Homefree.” Winning an award for my work at the White House and a year later in the worst job of my career. My father dying and my grandaughter thriving. Traveling and moving to Colorado. Moving from my role of daughter, wife, mother, and grandmother to role model of someone living their life fully and from a place of joy and abundance. 

I undertook a hero’s journey to save my life and I don’t regret one step of the way. I had no way of knowing that my journey would take 10 years. And now, I feel inspired to inspire others. To be honest and authentic about my journey to save the life of another. 

 

Ally Ally In Come Free

The goal of Hide and Seek and other beloved childhood games to get Homefree or to Homebase. It is the place of safety where there are no surprises. It is the end of the game.

As adults buying and owning a house and a home is the ultimate goal. Of course, this makes sense from a financial point of view and provides stability for our families. A house can also be a safety net, but is the game over once we get the house? What about when the children leave and the family no longer requires that stability? What happens when they get their own houses?

Several years ago, post-divorce, I bought the sweetest little house and it meant all of those things to me–I felt safe, and that I was creating stability for my children, and decorating filled my time.

In the spring of 2016, I took an online financial coaching class that had us take a serious look at how we spent our money. It was a different way of looking at our income and spending than a financial advisor would have you do. As I went through the course I realized two profound things.

  1. I was deferring my lifelong dreams of travel and independence for safety and security.
  2. Most of my disposable income was spent post-mortgage payment–on the house upkeep and taxes.

I began to see the possibility of achieving dreams by letting go of safety–and the house. At first, I called it the homeless plan, it was later suggested that I call it the Homefree Plan. I dreamt if I were truly brave, I would try living “home free” for a year. This would require selling the house, quitting the job and leaving my community and more importantly, my family.

So much fun to dream about and tell everyone–but internally I had no intention of pursuing it. Here is the big lesson. If you make plans with the universe and go so far as to set dates when things will happen with your coaches, guides and accountability partners. They will happen whether it is your way, or whether it happens to you. The Hero’s Journey as defined by Joseph Campbell can be a call to action or a call to adventure, but it will happen over and over again. It is much more exciting to heed the call to adventure.

In the summer of 2017, one of my guides told me the travel was inevitable and that I should go home and pack up the basement and prepare the house for sale. Three weeks later the basement flooded–and no I had not heeded her advice. As I watched bins float by with no idea what they contained except burdens to move, I realized I was ready to let go of homeownership. Several weeks after the basement was restored, I found myself telling a friend the house was hers if she wanted to buy it. Surprising myself most of all.

Still, I was not committed to the plan internally, only externally. Yet I was working with Holly Bull of Center for Interim Programs, making serious plans to leave, but was terrified. I was a responsible child. I was a responsible parent. Yet, things kept happening to keep me on track. In January 2018 I learned that the foundation I was working for was merging later in the spring.

Now the house was sold and the job was ending and I found myself torn between making safe plans and taking a journey into the unknown. 

I was blessed to have a friend call me out, she knew my heart’s desire and she knew I was scared. What she didn’t know for sure is that when challenged I will rise to the occasion and seek the truth and the path less traveled.

And so I did. I’ve now been home free for a year and a half. Everything I own fits in a storage unit and I live in a different state and have traveled easily, alone and with friends. I now have a home base instead of a home and it is all I need for now. I no longer need to seek safety–but sometimes still wobble towards it. I am blessed to have many guides who keep me on my path.

And while Eat, Pray Love may have become trite, I find this quote by Elizabeth Gilbert to be so powerful.

“I’ve come to believe that there exists in the universe something I call “The Physics of The Quest” — a force of nature governed by laws as real as the laws of gravity or momentum. And the rule of Quest Physics maybe goes like this: “If you are brave enough to leave behind everything familiar and comforting (which can be anything from your house to your bitter old resentments) and set out on a truth-seeking journey (either externally or internally), and if you are truly willing to regard everything that happens to you on that journey as a clue, and if you accept everyone you meet along the way as a teacher, and if you are prepared – most of all – to face (and forgive) some very difficult realities about yourself… then truth will not be withheld from you.” Or so I’ve come to believe.”

Many truths have unfolded for me including a knowing that safety can keep us small. That journeys can be chosen or thrust upon us. That we grow by letting go. That we can play roles, or be role models. And freedom comes in many ways when we play the game of life.

 

She Plays to Win

My six-year-old granddaughter Grace is a card shark. She can play over 15 card games and any board game and she plays to win. She is six years old and she beats me every, single, time.

We recently spent 10 days together in the North Woods of Wisconsin, or as the locals say, Up North or Up Nort. There is no Internet connection, phones are useless for anything but taking photos and a deck of cards is often our best entertainment. I only remember three card games, War, Gin Rummy and Go Fish so Grace has to patiently teach me each game. It seems each game has a different wild card, sometimes aces are high–sometimes low. 

While I am focused on understanding the rules, she goes beyond the rules and uses strategy to win. I’m fairly certain I did not understand strategy at six years old. I’m not sure I understood strategy until I was 30 years old. And I was well over 50 years old before I thought about applying strategy to my personal life. I spent most of my life trying to live by the rules. 

Simon Sinek addresses this strategic approach in his new book The Infinite Game https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tye525dkfi8 Grace is always, instinctively, playing the Infinite Game. In the finite game, you follow the rules, set short term goals that move the ball, or perhaps win the game–but the infinite game looks at the whole season, and beyond. It is about strategy. Of course, Sinek’s concepts apply to organizations and leadership–but I believe that this strategy is about instincts as I have observed by watching sweet Grace.

Observing and learning from our grandchildren is in itself a leveling up, from management to leadership. As parents, we tend towards the management of all the details regarding the child’s care and development. It ranges from getting breakfast on the table and tucking them in at night, to laundry and cleaning and carpooling. All things which involve doing and not being–about business and not mindfulness.

Becoming a grandparent allows you to spend time in observation and time spent being with the child. Not only learning who they are but lessons you can integrate into who you are. Things you did not have time to learn before.

It is about leading your grandchild to learn, and wisely knowing how and when to insert yourself in family dynamics–which is usually never unless asked. There is still a lot to learn at this stage in life and the grandchildren are the teachers and the grandparents the leaders.

 

A Pilgrimage in Vail

This weekend I participated in an “Extreme HIke” sponsored by the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation/Rocky Mountain Chapter in Vail, Colorado. It is laughingly referred to as the “luxury hike” due to the location, but not because it was easy. In terms of a physical challenge, it ranks right up there with natural childbirth.

I’m not sure if other non-profits funding research and support of diseases have similar events, but these hikes are really inspirational and life-changing. You can hike Vail, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, part of the Appalachian Trail and others around the country to raise money and awareness for Cystic Fibrosis.

The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation’s Xtreme Hike event takes hikers through some of the most scenic trails in the nation — across dozens of locations — to raise funds and awareness for cystic fibrosis. Xtreme Hike is about reaching new heights – physically and philanthropically. It’s a journey of passion, determination, and personal triumph, as much as it’s an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of people with CF.” 

This was my second extreme hike. The first was 30 miles in Wisconsin five years ago, which was challenging. This weekend I hiked 18 miles, five of which were straight up the mountain for 2.5 hours. In total, we walked over 30,000 steps, climbed the equivalent of 200 stories over 10 hours.

In reality, these extreme hikes are pilgrimages for our loved ones–be it family or friend. I had always thought of a pilgrimage as associated with religion or prayer, but it also a spiritual journey. I’m not sure the foundation realized what they were creating when these “hikes” were developed–and I’m not sure people would have participated if they were labeled as a pilgrimage, but as I have participated in two of them, five years apart and across the county, I can verify that is what it is.

The group comes together for dinner the night before and shares their stories and there are many tears and nodding of heads from those who have experienced similar situations. Some loved ones are benefitting from the current treatments, others suffering and some have died. Two young women who were hiking have Cystic Fibrosis–one had a double lung transplant (yes they both finished). 

As we walk we hear more stories, compare notes, and connect with those who were strangers a few hours before. We shared canned oxygen, water, food, and compassion. Most complete the full hike, some can’t and there is no judgment. We limp in for dinner and share the stories of the hike, but it is breakfast the next morning where we truly honor the transformation into a community. We leave hugging, crying and promising to stay in touch–and some vowing to see each other on a different hike or next year.

I signed up to participate on behalf of my granddaughter, my son and his wife to show them I understand how difficult this disease is. I “hike” because I can do hard things to set an example, to raise money for research and development for a cure and because it is an extreme way to show my love for all of them.

Each time I’ve done one of these hikes I realize it actually is a walking prayer. It is symbolic of the CF patient’s journey, the struggle to breathe, the feeling that your body cannot endure more and yet it does. 

Then you look up at the aspens glowing the sunshine, or the vista from the top of the mountain and you know the pain is only part of the journey. Immediately you must look down again so that you don’t trip over tree roots or rocks waiting to take you down to your knees. 

The hike is a metaphor, a prayer, a gesture of love and communion. Yet it only lasts for hours–and the recovery is swift, unlike the disease. The CF community is a family we do not choose, but who holds us in love and support and walks with us on this journey. I am forever grateful to all those who work for, support and are part of this community–we couldn’t move mountains, or hike them, without you.

 

She Goes Through

Right now “she goes through” applies to so many women and girls that I know and love all around the world. They are dealing with chronic life-threatening diseases, abusive marriages and everything in between. Nevertheless, they go through.

They go through sometimes minute to minute, sometimes hour by hour, it could be getting through the day or enduring a lifetime. May you never see an eight-year-old child weakly grasp her morphine button to endure the next few minutes.

That being said, western medicine is amazing and overwhelming. Doctors are wise and nurses get to the heart of the matter.  But it is the parents and the spouses that get the medals in my book. Watching someone you love suffer and being able to walk the line between empathy and tough love is a true test of character. 

Last week I was on the backup support team for my granddaughter’s surgery. She needed what amounts to a partial liver bypass with a much more complicated name. She turned eight years old just three days before the surgery. Three days from celebration of life to lifesaving surgery. 

But it was the recovery process where I watched the most profound changes. The longer she stayed in bed dependant on the pain relief of morphine the more dangerous it was for her lungs as she has Cystic Fibrosis–which is also the cause of the liver damage. 

The day came to get up and walk. A morning that is burned into my memory. She was screaming in fear of the upcoming pain of movement. She begged for us to leave her alone. It went on for over an hour. But when the surgeons and pulmonary team left and it was down to one nurse the work started. I noticed the nurse spoke quietly into her ear explaining step by step how she was going to be moved. It was painful to watch and more painful to endure–but she did it.

Next, it was time to walk, or should I say shuffle to the chair. It happened and now she only whimpered with anxiety. Once in the chair, she had to move back–this time she was in control. Once settled she gave us a wan smile and said: “tell my dad.”

I realized what I witnessed was a metaphor for so many things in life that we avoid due to fear of the consequences. In one hour she had accomplished what took me 10 years. To move from a static state of fear, push through the pain and come out feeling pride in her accomplishments and ready to try more. Within 15 minutes we were playing and laughing–of course, we were all emotionally drained–especially her dear mother, Kristal, who is so strong in her own right. 

Adele is on the road to recovery, from this surgery, but faces a lifetime of these challenges. Hopefully, she now has more insight into what she can handle and achieve. She goes through and she goes home.

Modern Family

My tribe is a modern family united by love, blood and deep affection. As children of divorce they have endured the hard parts and embraced the extended family that is forged by remarriages and new siblings. In this photo are (technically)full siblings and half siblings and siblings of some and not others. But that isn’t how they choose to define it. They define it as family. Plain and simple. And I’m so blessed to be one of the matriarchs of this clan of lovely, funny and gracious people who like to dance.

There are blue, brown, green, and hazel eyes. There are brunettes, blondes and redheads. The bald guy is by choice. They have mesquito bites, scars and tattoos. They are genetically modified to require fans when they sleep—all year round.

We are only missing the gypsy child.

Two patient spouses with hearts of gold who accept this motley crew. Five of the most beautiful, and kind grandchildren—with one trash talker, and many dogs. There are more grandparents than a retirement home.

Last night at 9:47 pm we all held hands around the kitchen island and belted out our anthem in honor of my granddaughter turning precisely 8 years old. We go through. United by love and blood, hardships and blessings. Mostly blessings, we go through as family.

We Go Through

Our family has an anthem that we all dance–and cry to, every time we hear it together.  Our anthem is I Go Through performed by O.A.R. You see resilience is forged, not found. It is forged in going through, not avoiding pain and suffering. And we are forging resilience as a family because we are a team. My five children are my squad.

We show up for each other in joy and in pain. We can be silly and serious. We are not perfect, but when there is a crisis we hold hands–physically and virtually. 

“..You break my legs, then make me walk
You seal my lips, and demand I talk
You blind my eyes, then ask me if I like what you drew
Yeah, you do
You go ’round and around it
You go over and under
I go through
I go ’round and around it
I go over and under
She goes through

We go ’round and around it
We go over and under
We go through

What does it feel like to be broken? It feels like you are made of glass and someone has taken a hammer to you and you’ve shattered into a million pieces. That it hurts to take a deep breath as the broken glass is inside you. You have to be careful about every move you make and everything you say because the glass is all around you and if you make a misstep you will be deeply wounded.

But if you are resilient and you work hard, you can put the glass back together, but never with all the pieces. The reality is there is no perfect life and I will be broken by life again and again and vigilance is required through mindfulness and honoring my intuition. Each crack will remind me to be grateful for the light coming in–better said by the singer-songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen in his Anthem.

…Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in
Ring the bells that still can ring (ring the bells that still can ring)

Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in
That’s how the light gets in
That’s how the light gets in

Does your family have an anthem? If not yours will find you when you need it most, because no one gets through life without suffering. According to the Dalai Lama happiness is the absence of suffering and according to Victor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning, it gives meaning by the attitude we take towards it. 

In a few weeks, our family will have yet another chance to become resilient as my grandgirl faces surgery. Our anthem and our love and support will help us go through.

Exit Strategies

The other evening my son and I wandered into what we thought was an antique shop, but turned out to be a portal into someone else’s mind. It was an art installation called Swampgas and Gossamer (best name ever) and it was like entering a Ray Bradbury novel. TIme was suspended for both of us, portals to the imagination were opened.  It was virtual reality and pure fantasy by someone not constricted by society’s rules about how to live and dream. It was genius. 

When I was a child I was hooked on reading from the first word I deciphered which was into. Words were ciphers and into was appropriate for me as it was my portal into a world of reading and my fiction of choice was fantasy. I read everything I could get my hands on–walking to the library to carry home a fresh supply weekly. Books were my exit strategy from real life. Not that I didn’t have a great childhood, but books took me to a different place. 

After watching this video/podcast https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pb_yvBNLjNk&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR2g9tp6sIQcaGpEW9DEHog104PlZpC9YBCJHzfSEtJSc4PD0jlHTnMivGE I  realize these books all had one thing in common–portals–or exit strategies. I believed in them as a child and lost them as an adult. As an adult I would look for “windows of opportunities” to make changes, move or take a new job, but these opportunities were always driven by the children’s needs–and rightfully so. There was no longer a door in the back of the wardrobe.

We discuss exit strategies at work, we know how to exit a plane or building in an emergency, but we seldom exit our safe lives or dream of something different.

Two years ago I realized that the stories we are told as adults really only plan for two portals–retirement and death. Other than that we are to live a safe and boring life with a healthy retirement account–and hopefully good health and travel a bit. I realized I wanted a different reality and soon the portals began opening.

I sit here now watching the cottonwood drift, the lake ripple from fish jumping and the snow-capped mountain peaks. When I walk past a flowering tree I can actually hear the hum of hundreds of bees for the first time in my life. I sit and watch the last five minutes of the sun setting behind the mountains to acknowledge the end of another day. I’ve traveled, I’ve moved and I have a home base–which is different than a home. I have new friends and new work. I have some plans, but more importantly, I have portals and exit strategies to explore. I’m in OZ, and it’s magical.

Beholden

Last week I turned 60 years old surrounded by family and friends. As I anticipated their visit in addition to the color-coded schedule I had to create to manage all the comings and goings and ensure they saw the best parts of my new landscape, I also tried to find one word that would sum up all the changes since I was last with them all. The unbidden word was beholden.

Beholden was assigned to me by my landlady/roommate/and dear friend Kathy last Thanksgiving. It was my first Thanksgiving away from home, but also my first Thanksgiving with my sons who have lived here the last three years. Kathy not only invited me to join her family, but she also invited my sons, as well as several others. All of us strangers, some new to the holiday–a community giving thanks for one short day.

Kathy assigned everyone a synonym of “thanks” through a place card and after the meal asked us each to tell our word and what it meant to us. Each person who went before me was overcome with emotion when describing what they were grateful for. I was becoming anxious as it gets closer to my turn as my assigned word was beholden.

At first, I looked at the word as having a negative connotation. I didn’t want to admit I was beholden to anyone or anything. Then I had a flash of inspiration, of truth, of light. Beholden is a positive concept. That my past year of travel and upheaval was only possible because I was beholden to so many who spoke truths to me, who supported me, who encouraged me to “leap and build my wings on the way down”

My mind was filled with all the memories, faces and experiences of the past year–and then brought back to the present moment realizing I was beholden to Kathy, for opening her home to me, her life and family to me–even her friends to me.

Now it was my birthday and she asked each person to share one word they thought of in relation to me, requiring me to listen, not deflect. As each person spoke and shared I was overwhelmed with love and joy. I also realized that each word they used was also true of them–that word was what bound us together in love and friendship.

Kathy’s word was generous. This from someone who moved out of her house to accommodate my guests, someone whose generosity is renowned by her friends and family.

Now beholden is the word I use to stay in gratitude, no man is an island and I am the person I am today because of every person whose life has touched mine.

My loved ones are generous, thrifty, fun, exuberant, inspirational, ebullient, creative, inflow, adventurous, connectors, passionate, badasses, spontaneous, incredible, live in the moment, love family, support each other and are driven. I am beholden to all of you for your gifts–your words, your love, and support.