Doors and Windows

Tina Modotti, No. 3, 1925

Last Friday I went to a retirement dinner for a senior manager at BMD, a building materials distribution company. I didn’t expect to be moved or inspired, but I was.

BMD is located in Galt, California. They’re one of the major employers in town, which is significant, especially given the Central Valley’s current unemployment rate of 10-13%.

The retirement event was held at Brewsters, in a room with lovely old punched tin ceiling. Refreshments consisted of shrimp cocktail, cheese cubes, meatballs, carrot sticks, and pita bread with hummus. There was a cash bar. 

So the event was not glamorous. BMD is not glamorous. Mike, in fact, is not glamorous. He’s balding, with a professorial air, especially when he pushes his glasses up on his forehead and pulses his fingers together in his characteristic “spider dance.” 

And, to tell you the truth, at the beginning, before the speeches, I was wondering mostly about dinner; namely, should I fill up on meatballs and carrots or would we be going out to eat later.

But I was hooked once the stories started.  Mike’s letter requesting an interview was flashed on a screen. Chuckles erupted at the quaint sight of a letter written on a typewriter.  Then the CFO engaged the crowd in a How Well Do You Know Mike game, with categories including music, cars, sports, and trivia.

It was fun, but the emotion started to kick in with the next speaker, who clutched a fistful of blue index cards. She’d started with BMD at 17 as a very junior accounting clerk, counting pallets and boxes in the warehouse.  She trained Mike in windows, she said proudly.

Mike became her mentor and champion. She described her early days in sales, calling him after a “customer beat down,” and bawling her eyes out. “Never forget,” Mike said after hearing her out, “It’s just windows and doors.”  

Mike’s ability to listen, to connect, was legendary. A sales manager described his introduction to Mike 20 years earlier. He’d gotten off a roof at a construction site, shaken the dirt out of his hair, and raced to a job interview, hoping he didn’t smell too bad as he put on a white shirt in the BMD parking lot. The interviewer had liked his technical knowledge but doubted his people skills. As a concession, she’d asked Mike, then sales manager, to talk to the kid for ten minutes. “Mike spent more than an hour with me,” he said. “I drove away not knowing if I had a job, but at least knowing I’d had a great conversation with a great man.”

Another speaker described Mike’s wisdom as life-changing. “I was a Jersey kid, having a tough time, going through a divorce.  I needed a change. And Mike said he needed me on the West Coast.  Mike met me at the Oakland airport. He got me through the rough patches. I got a happy marriage now and four kids. I tell my kids they’re here because of Mike.”

Don’t get the idea that Mike was a feel-good, softie though. The work mattered. We’re not just selling windows and doors, he frequently said, we’re helping build people’s homes. He had high expectations. His constant refrains. Make the customer happy. Do it right. If you don’t do it right, make it right.

You didn’t want to get called into his office and see him leaning back, fingers doing the spider dance, a sales rep said. And then if he said, “What? No letters? No cards?” you knew you were in trouble. Probably you’d had some kind of problem you hadn’t taken care of.

Mike did not single-handedly create a work culture based on integrity and respect. He was hired into a company where those values were already in place. Over the past 30 years, BMD has been carefully bought out from the original family owners and is now an employee-owned company, where every single employee has a stake in the business.

Three generations of management showed up at the retirement dinner. One of the most startling stories of the evening was told by the recently retired company president. During a serious down turn in the building industry, BMD was facing a financial crisis. It was at a pivot point and needed a loan, but the bank required more collateral than the company possessed. Three key players, including Mike, put up their personal homes as collateral. BMD got the loan, survived the crisis, and is now thriving.

I’m sure Mike will thrive too, in his next career as a walnut farmer. He’ll also continue to be part of  BMD since he’s been invited to join the board.

The image above is Tina Modotti’s, No. 3, 1925, courtesy of the Getty Museum’s Open Content program.


 

Posted by admin in Inspiration, work, 0 comments

A Persistent Joy

lemonsbowl.jpg

My husband and I just spent the night with friends at their Forest Service Cabin near Kyburz, California. It’s a beautiful, rustic place, on the edge of the South Fork of the American River, which was in full voice. We were there for Alan’s 60th birthday, which he’s celebrating by spending 60 days at the cabin.

Alan is also a hand builder of amazing clay vessels, and he laid out an assortment of pots for his visiting friends to choose from. We brought home a deeply contoured, cobalt blue, straight-sided bowl, which I filled with lemons.

I met Alan 35 years ago, at a dark and confusing time, just after I flung myself out of law school, not knowing what would come next. Alan hired me as a paralegal, and we worked together until my husband and I moved to the country, 5 years later. By then we had formed a deep friendship. It was not the typical work relationship, if there is such a thing. But Alan is an unusual person—a superb professional, a playful artist, and a grounded, practical man.

After we established our working relationship, we moved into deeper territory, exploring our mutual love of art. On lunch breaks, we’d wander over to the art museum on Van Ness. I don’t remember who thought of it first, but we soon developed a game. In a gallery, one of us would keep eyes shut, while the other kept eyes open and described a painting. The speaker strove to convey the essence of the painting: its colors, mood, textures, composition—everything but the obvious narrative; i.e you could not say, “It’s a windmill.” Then the other would open eyes and try to find the painting. It was an exhilarating game, both as listener and as speaker. Try it some time.

Once we held a talent show, nominally in honor of everyone’s birthday. We remembered the event with great delight last weekend, more than 30 years after it had taken place. The talent show was held at Alan’s house. The talent he offered to us was cooking, and he made a feast. I recited poetry I’d written. Alan’s devoted secretary (Yep, we called her a secretary back then) taught us snazzy tap dancing moves. The receptionist told jokes, and her husband, a graduate of an art school, brought an inflatable sculpture, which was met with gasps of surprise and delight. My husband showed slides of his geological adventures in the Arctic. I’m sure we all drank plenty, but the real inebriant was joy—a joy that has persisted.

You can see some of Alan’s ceramics here.

See The World As Garden, a poem I wrote 15 years ago celebrating my friendship with Alan.


 

Posted by admin in arts, friendship, work, 0 comments

Heroic Journeys

Travellersonawoodedpathharpignesng.jpg

For nearly 10 years I’ve led a weekly group for women whose children have been taken by CPS. (Child Protective Services) The women are in recovery, most of them ordered by a judge to attend this program. The group format is unusual in that I tell the women a myth or story which they apply to their lives. While this might sound frivolous, it can have profound impact.

This week as I strode into the musty living room, I was greeted with, “It’s the storyteller!” A voluptuous blonde in flannel pajamas beamed at me. “Remember me?”

                “No,” I confessed.

                “I was here in 2010.”

                “What brings you back?” This is my standard question, and it usually leads to an involved story and often tears. This was no exception.  The blonde, I’ll call her Deb, relapsed after two years, when her ex left her, and she went back to the guy who first hooked her up with meth. She knew she shouldn’t have. She wished she hadn’t. But she couldn’t help herself. At this point she wept copiously, berating herself because her three year old is now enmeshed in the foster care system.

A similar story could have been told by most of the women in the program. 

My work, as I see it, is to help the women re-frame their narratives, so instead of seeing themselves as helpless victims, condemned to perpetually screw up, they see themselves as the heroes of their own lives. I point out that traditional stories often start with bad situations: Hansel and Gretel are left in the woods; Cinderella is abandoned by her father and mistreated by her stepmother; simple Jack has to face down the ferocious giant. But the hero always sets forth, willingly or unwillingly; receives unexpected help; perseveres through the obstacles; and gains the prize. This is the classic model of the hero’s journey, and it’s a pattern that has endured for millennia.   

When I introduced this week’s story, Deb shrieked. “I wanted to hear that story again! It’s about the goddess who hid in the cave but came out!”

                “Yes. Amaterasu.”

                “I went to the tattoo parlor to get her tattooed right here. The goddess coming out of the cave.” She pointed to her forearm. “But I didn’t have enough money.”

I sat open-mouthed, floored by her attempt to have the story tattooed on her body.  And later, when I explained the exercise of reflecting back each other’s positive qualities, Deb rattled off the list of positive qualities she’d been told four  years earlier. “I taped it on my door,” she said sheepishly, “and read it every time I left my room.”

As I drove away this week, I was flooded with the familiar ambivalence and paradox. Yes, the session had been powerful and beautiful. Yes, there had been tears, insights, vows to change. But the odds were against lasting change.  Almost all these women had been raised in foster care or by mothers who were addicts. The cycle is deeply entrenched and difficult  (in dark moments I think impossible) to break. I do this work as a volunteer, and I frequently ask myself if it’s the best use of my time.

Recently, I took a four month break from the program. I wasn’t sure I’d go back. But I kept thinking of the women, and not out of guilt or obligation. I missed the vitality I felt while with them.  The women in the house are fighting a life-and-death battle. It’s just so real. Their courage and tenacity are an inspiration, and their challenges are humbling. It’s a privilege to be given intimate glimpses into their lives and to offer sustenance for their journeys, which are radically harder than my own.

See my website for more information and articles about healing story.

The painting above is Travelers on A Wooded Path by Henri Joseph Harpignes, courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.


 

Posted by admin in story, 0 comments

Sonoran Blues and White Quartz

momandfrankietrail2.jpg

Last week I took my 84 year old mother to the airport. She went home to Massachusetts, accompanied by my brother, who came out to fetch her. She’s been visiting me for two months, enjoying a respite from the snow. She’s also been enjoying walks in the canyon, jigsaw puzzles, Mary Stewart Gardner mysteries, Senior Moments potlucks at church, and one Old Fashioned every evening. She also enjoyed the mini dachshund and read the paper to him every morning, greatly enhancing his education, although I wished she’d turned her efforts towards his house-breaking instead.

Mom and I dubbed it the year of the butterfly. The Stagecoach trail has been aflutter the last month, particularly with rare Sonoran Blues, aquamarine, tiny as a fingernail, dancing in pairs alongside the path. Mom also picked up white quartz crystals gleaming along the trail. She thought she might bring them home but has left them in a pile by the washing machine. Too heavy, she decided. She also left, to my surprise, a beautiful heart-shaped rock beneath the icon in my office. She rested it carefully against a gnarled piece of driftwood.

Although I’m free to get back to my own schedule, the house feels empty. When I went to strip the bed, I found her reading glasses and rosary beads. “Don’t mail them to me,” she said when I called. “I’ll either be back for them next year, or I won’t.”


 

Posted by admin in family, 2 comments

Tell Me About Your Shoes

     HangingSneakerjmsnewpairofshoesjs10053

 

Lani Peterson, a psychologist and storyteller, posted this story on the Healing Story Alliance listserv. It was told to her at the Women’s Lunch Place, a soup kitchen in downtown Boston, after Lani had offered the prompt, “Tell me about your shoes.” Lani passed the story along in honor of the woman who shared it.

 

 

You see these beautiful white sneakers? I didn’t always have them. My last pair of shoes was pretty sad. After many winters of walking through snow and slush, I was holding them together with cardboard and masking tape.  So I decided to go to the mall to get a new pair. There’s a Payless Shoes store there that often has sneakers I can afford.

 

Walking through the mall I knew everyone was looking at me. They didn’t like me being there. I wanted to get my new shoes quick and leave. Walking down the aisle, I saw a really nice pair of white sneakers. There was only this one pair in my size left. I put them on and couldn’t believe how good they felt. I walked all around the store in them, thinking how nice it would be if they were mine.  I knew I didn’t have the money to get them that day but I also knew that if I waited, they’d be gone. I brought them up to the front of the store and asked the guy behind the counter if he would hold them for me. He said it was against store policy. I promised him I would come back as soon as I could to buy them, but he just kept shaking his head and saying no, he couldn’t. I put my masking tape sneakers back on and left the mall as fast as I could.

 

For the next two weeks, I scraped by until I had enough money to go back for my shoes. Funny how I kept calling them mine, as if somehow I could protect them from going home with anyone else. The day I had enough money, I ran all the way to the mall, and ignored all those people staring at my masking tape shoes. I went to the shelf where I left them, with my eyes half shut afraid to look.  Sure enough they were gone. I looked at every pair of shoes in the aisle that had my size, but there were no shoes left like them. They were gone.

 

I started for the door. I wasn’t ready to try on anything else that day. I just felt too worn down to look any more. That’s when the manager yelled at me. I started to walk faster to get away, but he ran after me, still yelling. “I have your shoes”.  It took me a few times of hearing it to get what he meant.  ‘I HAVE YOUR SHOES.’

“OK”, I said. “I’ve got the money now to pay for them.”

“No. No”, he said. “They’ve been paid for. That’s why I’ve got them. They’re all yours.”

 

I can’t tell you fully what went on in my head in that moment. I only remember leaving my old shoes in the trash bin and walking out into the mall wearing my new white sneakers with money still in my pocket. I took my time leaving that day. As I walked past each stranger, I looked them in the eye and smiled. I felt so good.  It wasn’t that I thought that they were looking at me differently because of my new sneakers. It was more that I was seeing them differently. I used to think no one was on my side.  But that day I knew that any person I walked by could be the one who gave me my new shoes.  Whoever they were, I wanted them to know I was saying “Thank you”.

HangingSneakerjms Hanging Sneakers, JMS, Dreamstime.com

 newpairofshoesjs10053 New Pair of Shoes, js10053, Dreamstime.com

 


 

Posted by admin in Inspiration, story, 2 comments

I See Y

xbranchI take walks with my friend Sandy, a visual artist. About 9 months ago, she stopped mid stride, pulled out her phone and photographed some branches. I couldn’t see the appeal. “It’s a Y,” she explained, as if that meant something.

Turns out she’d been keeping track of all the Y’s she saw wherever she went. Sandy is Jewish and most closely aligned with the kabbalistic tradition where certain letters have mystical meanings. For Sandy, adapting this tradition, Y  was associated with Yahweh, one of the names of the Divine. We had fun for months, seeing Ys everywhere. And Ys started showing up very subtly in her work, which is abstract and beautiful, full of color and organic movement.

Last week on the trail she stopped again. This time it was an X. As in an X on a treasure map, where X marks the spot. The spot of the present moment, where she is fully alive and engaged.

Try it yourself. Discover a letter that for you is full of meaning. Then look for it everywhere.

You can see some of Sandy’s work at http://www.sondraart.com/


 

Posted by admin in friendship, spirituality, 0 comments

Life From Death

Recently I encountered Kate Munger at a conference. Kate founded the Threshold Choir, which sings at bedsides for the dying.  I told Kate about about a life-changing experience with the choir.

It began in tragedy, when a young man drove into a tree, and 3 passengers were killed, including his brother.

This tragedy rocked our small community. So much death. So much loss of life, of youth. And the fate of the driver, who agonized in jail, completely bereft, perplexed us all. Three lives had been lost. Was a fourth life, that of the driver, to be lost as well?

The driver’s mother sang in the local Threshold Choir. His father sang in a performing choir.  The parents of one of the deceased sang in the same performing choir. The four parents had volunteered at a local school; they’d sung together; they’d been friends. How were they to encounter each other now?

Song was part of the answer.

Several weeks after the crash, mutual friends invited the couples to come to their home for their first face to face meeting after the tragedy. The driver’s mother asked the Threshold Choir to come and surround them with song. The choir’s music is spiritual but not explicitly religious and sung without accompaniment. The music is lullaby-like, archetypal in its evocation of love.

I was one of the four or five singers who gathered at the bottom of the driveway that Sunday afternoon. We rehearsed a few songs quietly. At the appointed time, we started up the driveway, singing Ubi Caritas, our voices blending in a soothing chant. We opened the back door, still singing, and filed slowly through the kitchen, into the living room. One couple sat on a couch under the window. The other couple sat on chairs opposite.  The hosts were in between.

We never stopped singing, moving seamlessly from one harmony to the next, creating a surround of song. The music filled the space, weaving a connection. The parents sat with eyes closed. Tears ran down their faces. Their hands reached out for each other.

We sang for about ten minutes, then walked out and continued singing all the way down the driveway. We didn’t talk much once we reached our cars. I was overwhelmed by the courage of the parents and their decision to work towards forgiveness and healing.

This took place several years ago.  Last December, at the performing choir’s annual concert, I saw all four parents embrace. The young driver was miraculously given a merciful sentence, in large part due to the request of all the parents of the deceased.  He now works with high school students, sharing his story as part of recovery programs and prevention efforts.  Life has come from death. I know of nothing more inspirational.


 

Lilies, Eugene Atget, 1916-19, courtesy of the Getty Museum

Posted by admin in arts, community, Inspiration, spirituality, 0 comments

Ashes

firering.jpgSeveral months ago I burned a manuscript of a fantasy novel. This was not a spontaneous act.  Altogether, I’d spent thousands of hours scribbling, doodling, plotting, and outright writing.

But the work was dead. I’d bullied it into submission and knew it. I’d kept writing through sheer will long after losing the authentic energy of the story. I needed a fresh start.  

I heard a subtle inner whisper, “Burn it.”  I wondered if I was crazy, if my inner saboteur had finally taken control. But the guidance persisted. What would it be like to be free of the manuscript? If I didn’t have all those pages to paw through, to edit, to try to get a jumpstart from? I remembered Faulkner’s advice. “Murder your darlings.”

It took me several months to actually haul the manuscript out to the fire ring. I’d debated about ritualizing the burning and inviting friends to witness the deed, but in the end, I did it alone. It was surprisingly easy.

One of the characters has reappeared in dreams, which is a good sign. The psyche is resurgent and forgiving.

Last night I went to an ecumenical Ash Wednesday service at St. Theresa’s Catholic Church. Nine clergy presided: two Catholics, one Presbyterian, one Methodist, one Episcopalian, one Adventist, one Congregationalist and two Lutherans. Three of the clergy were women.

I was moved by the service, which felt humble and authentic. We were invited to lay our burdens down. To reflect on what separated us from Love. And hundreds of people, filing contemplatively up to the altar to receive a mark of ashes, did just that.

I’ve put away my childhood Lenten disciplines. I no longer give up candy or try to cheerfully obey my parents. Instead, I’ll pay attention to dreams and whispers: listening for guidance, sensing what is emerging and what needs to be put to rest.


 

Posted by admin in religion, 1 comment

That Which Persists

oak tree winter photo

Yesterday I walked a half mile to Starbucks with my dear friend Gail. It was an immense journey. Gail has had 6 strokes in the last 9 months. She lives in a constant present moment, which may be a spiritual ideal but presents  challenges when you cannot remember your address or how to turn on your computer. Let alone what year it is or who is president. 

But this blog is not about loss or suffering.  Or about her husband’s nobility as he rises to this new situation with dignity and compassion. This blog is about what has not changed: Gail’s luminous spirit.

During her long hospital stays, she was unfailingly gracious, thanking everyone who entered her room: aids, doctors, friends, family, therapists. Not knowing who anyone was, she smiled and said welcome.

Lying in that hospital bed, she was no longer an Executive Director, Academic or Philanthropist; she was bereft of all personas, stripped of  every identity. Helpless. And in that radical exposure, her deepest self was revealed: a self that is open, gracious and grateful.

It is a current mantra that we should live in the moment. But what if that moment is filled with terror? If every moment is a succession of fear, anguish, loss? For Gail, this is not so, although it certainly could be so, given that the strokes seem unpredictable and largely inexplicable.

Gail remains herself because she continues to say Yes. A deep and profound Yes that is not intellectual and not egotistical.  It is a Yes that comes from a deep core of goodness that is the signature of her being.

As we walked to Starbucks yesterday, I told her of my daughter’s recent engagement. Gail clapped her hands with delight, asking question after question. She was unable to see the photos on my phone, but she asked for detailed descriptions. Her face glowed. “This is so good,” she said. “I’m so happy. Nothing could be better than this. Thank you for this wonderful news. For this perfect day.”


 

An Oak Tree in Winter, Fox Talbot, 1842, Getty An Oak Tree in Winter, Fox Talbot, 1842, courtesy of  Getty Museum

After the Sixth Stroke, a poem about Gail

Bedside, a poem about Gail

Posted by admin in Inspiration, 0 comments