Path maker, there is no path.
You make the path by walking.
By walking, you make the path.
It’s quite a moment when you realize that it’s up to you.
It’s a liberating, frightening moment of recognition that the only way to create your work, your leadership, your life, is by taking the steps that you alone can take.
No matter how many loyal friends, family and colleagues you have supporting you, none of them can take the steps for you. None can provide a trail map for the path you alone must create. They can only cheer you on, provide respite when needed and encourage you to keep walking.
You must take the steps.
The box of maps is empty because we are always trying to substitute someone else’s version of a path for our own. We keep grasping at other people’s experiences as if we can borrow them, an ill-fitting pair of shoes never intended for our feet.
The box of maps will always be empty. Once we understand that, we can get busy walking.
My friend, Tom, shared this poem with a small group of us last week. The poet invokes the fullness of a child’s resolve to live up to and into the expectations of his life and the loss of innocence necessary to do so. Tom’s reading of it, both tender and measured, was heartbreaking in the way that threshold moments must always be.
A Farewell, Age 10
While its owner looks away I touch the rabbit.
Its long soft ears fold back under my hand.
Miles of yellow wheat bend; their leaves
rustle away and wait for the sun and wind.
This day belongs to my uncle. This is his farm.
We have stopped on our journey; when my father says to
we will go on, leaving this paradise, leaving
the family place. We have my father’s job.
Like him, I will be strong all my life.
We are men. If we squint our eyes in the sun
we will see far. I’m ready. It’s good, this resolve.
But I will never pet the rabbit again.
My dad was a tree hugger. Not an environmentalist and not a demonstrator, but someone who so loved trees that he would occasionally depart the trail and hug one.
I find myself following in his footsteps. And while I may not be quite as demonstrative about it as he was, when I see one that wants to hug me back, I’m not going to miss the chance.
Sometimes, if we wander enough, explore enough, stay open enough, we get lucky; we stumble upon a reminder that the world, both natural and otherwise, is waiting to embrace us.
At that moment I can think of no better response than to step in and receive it.
You pack, you clean, you toss, you save, you bid fond farewells with new commitments made.
You drive, you wait, you board, you cross, you watch.
You wait for the other side.
You are going home now, to the same but different place. They are not the same, it is not the same. You are not the same.
How can you be? There is no stopping in our separateness, there is only growth that we cannot see.
Until, at last, we are home again and with eyes and hearts enlarged by renewal, saddened by departure and energized by return, we take in what has become.
To feel this – all of it – is to be alive.
“We shape our self to fit this world and by the world are shaped again.”
There is a dance we all must do. It is the dance of forming ourselves well enough to meet the requirements of our lives while also allowing ourselves to be formed by those same forces.
Those requirements, those forces, are not static, linear or concrete. Those forces are dynamic and fluid, most often we call them other people.
It is a deeply vulnerable act to willingly, as an accomplished and self-assured adult, allow others to use the tools of their dynamic selves to transform our own soft clay into something even more beautiful.
To trust the possibility of that happening is to trust those people, first of all. And as we know, that only happens when we create the space, the time and commit the energy to building a reservoir of trust that is filled by our mutual offerings.
A question to consider is this: do I allow myself to remain soft enough that I am able to be formed? And another: do I cultivate relationships with people whose forming power I can deeply trust and who are open to receiving my own?
Offered with affection for Tom, Molly, Kyle, Alia and Theresa.
At midday, the tender needles
of the Douglas fir cradle rain drops
not yet stolen by the sun.
A brush of the hand and they are yours,
diamonds dripping from your fingers.
By touch or time, by gusts of wind from below
the sloping hill, they must, against my longing,
fall to the earth.
It is evening now, and I hold a secret wish
that in those unseen places,
away from touch and sun and wind,
some drops remain.
But I cannot know for sure.
I am not there, and I dried my hands long ago.
We will be brought low; all the way down to earth. These moments can feel humiliating but they are better thought of as humbling, the essence of the human experience. It is our humor that saves us, and that will be our posthumous gift to those who follow.
humus (n): the dark organic material in soils, produced by the decomposition of vegetable or animal matter and essential to the fertility of the earth. (see: dirt).
humility (n): a modest or low view of one’s own importance.
humiliate (verb): to cause (a person) a painful loss of pride, self-respect, or dignity.
human (adj): of, pertaining to, characteristic of, or having the nature of people.
humor (n): the quality of being amusing; a mood or state of mind.
posthumous (adj): arising, occurring, or continuing after one’s death.
If we choose to think of love as a “state of being…a state of grace…in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth” as James Baldwin challenges us to do, we place ourselves dangerously close to the realization that our capacity for love is proportionate to our capacity to lead.
What is leadership if not the ability to help oneself and others navigate the complexities of change? What is it if not the ability to live at the edge of our understanding and to help others function well in the discomfort of learning?
And what but love allows us to enter into the real conversations necessary to be in those places? What but love strengthens our vulnerability to stay in a place of not knowing long enough to let the next step emerge?
If you have been loved in this way, you have been led. And if you have been led in this way, you have been loved.
It is not only that “leadership and learning are indispensable to each other,” as President Kennedy said. It is that leadership and love are indispensable to each other and that learning is the fruit of that sacred tree.
Thank you, Carol Pate, for sharing this photo/quote with me.
My friend, Theresa, loves this poem. I haven’t seen her for a few days and that’s too long. Today, that changes. I will welcome “the splash of her touch.”
on a plane,
you see a stranger.
He is so beautiful!
Going down in the
old Greek way,
or his smile
a wild Mexican fiesta.
You want to say:
do you know how beautiful you are?
You leap up
into the aisle,
you can’t let him go
until he has touched you
shyly, until you have rubbed him,
like a coin
you find on the earth somewhere
shining and unexpected and,
reach for. You stand there
by the strangeness,
the splash of his touch.
When he’s gone
you stare like an animal into
the blinding clouds
with the snapped chain of your life,
the life you know:
the deeply affectionate earth,
the familiar landscapes
thousands of feet below.
Please look at the upper left section of this photograph. Please notice that the branch you see in the foreground is the same branch that has not quite snapped off of the tree. Please also notice that this broken limb is sprouting many healthy shoots, new branches well on their way.
This branch is not whole but it remains connected. And the connection that remains is enough to provide the nutrients necessary for new growth.
You are broken in places, and I am too. Our breaks do not define us unless we choose to let them. Our breaks, if we let them teach us, make us more resilient and more committed to find a way to grow, to make life happen in ways we could not have otherwise imagined.
Do not lose heart in the presence of your brokenness. Take comfort; this is your moment to shine.