Poem for a Sunday Morning

The Facts of Life

That you were born
and you will die.

That you will sometimes love enough
and sometimes not.

That you will lie
if only to yourself.

That you will get tired.

That you will learn most from the situations
you did not choose.

That there will be some things that move you
more than you can say.

That you will live
that you must be loved.

That you will avoid questions most urgently in need of
your attention.

That you began as the fusion of a sperm and an egg
of two people who once were strangers
and may well still be.

That life isn’t fair.
That life is sometimes good
and sometimes better than good.

That life is often not so good.

That life is real
and if you can survive it, well,
survive it well
with love
and art
and meaning given
where meaning’s scarce.

That you will learn to live with regret.
That you will learn to live with respect.

That the structures that constrict you
may not be permanently constraining.

That you will probably be okay.

That you must accept change
before you die
but you will die anyway.

So you might as well live
and you might as well love.
You might as well love.
You might as well love.

From “Sorry For Your Troubles” by Pádraig Ó Tuama (Canterbury Press Norwich, 2013).


I chose this poem on Mother’s Day because, if I’m honest, with all that I have seen and experienced right up close to the action with my nose pressed against the glass, is that I still have no idea what it means to be a mother.

I only know what I’ve witnessed for 50 years as a son and 25 years as a husband. And that is that motherhood, at its very best, is a marathon of ambivalence. It is a forward march of sky-high expectations, too little recognition, the deepest possible feelings of embodied love and the desperate desire to simply be left alone.

The only reasonable synonym for “mother” is “fighter.” The get knocked down repeatedly and never refuse to quit kind, except in this fight there is no bell to mark the rounds and no time to sit and catch your breath.

Motherhood is resilience, through and through, at least that’s what I’ve seen. It is surviving with a smile, resentments and longings set aside, giving while finding, giving while discovering, giving while making, giving, giving, giving.

How, how do they make it look so easy?

Why, why do they love us so much?


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Poem for a Sunday Morning

from “Vacillation”
{W.B. Yeats}

My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.

While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.


On Monday, I will celebrate my 50th birthday. Months ago, well before the advent and repercussions of Covid-19, I decided that there were two ways I wanted to mark the occasion. The first, a long and challenging hike and the second, the recitation of this brief poem for a gathering of close friends and family.

The long and challenging hike is for the expression of my physical well-being, to feel and rightly use the body that has faithfully brought me this far and, with good care, will keep me moving and reaching for years to come. I enter my sixth decade with a deep commitment to being outside, to the exploration of trails and mountains and forests and valleys. I am drawn to these places because of their elemental beauty, of course, but even more so because of their gifts of perspective and humility, something I seem increasingly open to receiving!

The recitation of this poem is an opening through which to express my emotional well-being, that reservoir of love and service that has been poured out in my favor by the people who have refused to allow my failings to interrupt the flow. I know what the poet felt because I feel it too; the blaze of gratitude, the shock of unearned grace, the deep happiness of being wholly loved.

I also hear the call to action (“…and could bless”) as an affirmation of the responsibility of a mature person to be of service. While my personal planting will continue – learning, growing, expanding and connecting – it is companioned I now see by an even more robust season of harvest and distribution. Learning becomes teaching. Growing becomes the provision of shade. Expansion becomes an invitation to share abundance. Connection becomes the catalyst for capacity, because there is no such thing as a finite amount of love.

With rain in the forecast the next few days, I took advantage of the favorable spring weather and enjoyed that long, challenging hike first thing this morning. Once at the top of Mt. Woodson, across a broad, flat boulder, I went ahead and recited the poem, too (video below).

It’s important to share it now, knowing it will be some time before that gathering of family and friends, but in a broader sense, too. It’s important to share it now because in this threshold moment we are all experiencing, if only for “twenty minutes more or less” we are compelled to remember whom we are to one another and to amplify it accordingly.


#45 – Integrity

“The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more one fully enters into the communion of all creatures.”
{Wendell Berry}


When my daughter was in elementary school one of her classrooms had the following sign over the door:

THE DOOR OF INTEGRITY:
I am responsible for everything I think, say, do and feel.

In my memory of it I cannot help but recall Viktor Frankl’s challenge to us when he writes, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

And, I would add, in our response lies our integrity, the evidence of our more or less cohesive self.

How incredible that we get to choose! That we, alone among creatures, have the opportunity to reflect on our impulses and find even more effective ways to interact with the world. Wendell Berry reminds us that this effort is never for its own sake but that the deepening of personal understanding is at once the strengthening of connection with everyone and everything around us.

In these days of uncertainty, anxiety, simplicity and grounding may you access your deepest possible expression of integrity. And, however difficult it may be to swallow in the moment, may the aftertaste of personal responsibility be a savory accompaniment to the freedom you will have so rightly earned.

The best thing about the “Door of Integrity” is that however small it may seem, there is just enough room for all of us to squeeze through.

I look forward to greeting you on the other side.


This is #45 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.” Here’s a piece on organizational culture you might mind valuable today.

PS: If you are reading this on Facebook, I would like to invite you to go to my website to sign-up for direct delivery of my blog posts. I will be de-activating my FB account at the end of the month. Thank you!


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#44 – The Greater Good

“Social distancing”

“Hunker down”

“Self-isolate”

“Flatten the curve”

I did not plan to include “The Greater Good” on my list of “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For” but it’s never been made more real or more important to fight for it than right now.

Yes, it’s possible that we are already too late, that a surge of cases will overwhelm the system, but we cannot afford to think like that. We have to choose new actions out of a deep sense of responsibility to ourselves, our families and our communities.

In the age of the selfie we have to do the well-being equivalent of asking a stranger to take our picture. And when asked, we have to be willing to say, “yes.” Not a perfect analogy, I know.

Those of us living privileged lives with plenty of resources (toilet paper included), are morally obligated to take these steps in order to ensure we limit the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

We are morally obligated to honor the vital truth that we are all connected and that, by and through our connection, we wield the power to enliven and enable as well as the power to neglect and to harm.

We must choose the former and we must do it now. 


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#43 – Compassion

Pandemic

What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
Center down.

And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.

Promise this world your love–
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.

–Lynn Ungar 3/11/20
http://www.lynnungar.com/poems/pandemic/


close up photo of pink and green caladium plants

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#39 – The Real Conversation

Open. Authentic. Honest. Vulnerable. Expressive. Sometimes painful, always a catalyst for new learning.

The real conversation is the one below the surface of the one that is familiar and comfortable.

It is the one hinted at but only entered into when two people agree to ask the un-askable questions give the un-giveable answers.

I am a deeply privileged human being in so many ways. One of those for which I am most thankful is that the “real conversation” is explicitly stated in my job description.

It is an expectation of my professional interactions that I have – and help others to have – real conversations because they are the ones that lead to lasting change. And the degree to which people trust me to do so, the ways in which they willingly, if often tenderly and cautiously, enter into territory that has been perceived as off limits, is humbling beyond measure.

It helps me to appreciate how deep our shared need is for more authentic connection. It also makes me optimistic that the more we work together to meet that need the more likely we are to meet other needs as well.

This is #39 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.” Care for one more?


PS: If you are reading this on Facebook, I would like to invite you to go to my website to sign-up for direct delivery of my blog posts. I will be de-activating my FB account at the end of the month. Thank you!


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#37 – Eat What You Want (It’s your birthday)

Years ago when I was downplaying another birthday as “just another day” and “not a big deal,” a friend suggested otherwise. She said that the day of our birth is inherently important because it is the day we started being us. It matters that we are here and because that wasn’t always so – and will not always be so – it matters when we started!

I haven’t thought about birthdays the same since and I won’t start now because my wife, Theresa’s birthday is today. If she hadn’t shown up on March 9, 1971 the cascade of life events and changes and chance that led us to one another and the life that we have built together as a result, would never have happened.

And for that I know that I am a very lucky guy.

And you’re lucky, too, even if you don’t know her, because the good that she does in small and meaningful ways every day is the kind of good that goes out into the world with quiet potency.

She’ll give you anything you need and help you in any way she can, no questions asked. She gets stuff done. She is loyal. And, no pushover, she is fierce.

On Sunday afternoon she was making crêpes at the stove. She makes the batter from scratch and then, one at a time, turns out a soft, golden brown, perfectly cooked crêpe.

I said, “Why are you making crêpes?”

“Because I want to,” she said. “And I’ll probably eat them on my birthday.”

C’est ma fille!


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#29 – Little Things Are Big Things

Mossbawn: Sunlight
{Seamus Heaney}

There was a sunlit absence.
The helmeted pump in the yard
heated its iron,
water honeyed

in the slung bucket
and the sun stood
like a griddle cooling
against the wall

of each long afternoon.
So, her hands scuffled
over the bakeboard,
the reddening stove

sent its plaque of heat
against her where she stood
in a floury apron
by the window.

Now she dusts the board
with a goose’s wing,
now sits, broad-lapped,
with whitened nails

and measling shins:
here is a space
again, the scone rising
to the tick of two clocks.

And here is love
like a tinsmith’s scoop
sunk past its gleam
in the meal-bin.


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#24 – Empathy

This is #24 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.”
Here’s another one you might like.


“So compelling is the evidence of our own eyes and ears, so swift is your mind to assemble your own version of the story, that one of the hardest things in this world is to understand there’s another way of seeing things.”

{ Niall Williams, This is Happiness }

Empathy is a too big a topic to be reduced to a single quotation from page 48 of the novel I’m reading. I admit that I would like to leave it at that. It’s an easy and satisfying way out of a deeper discussion on a topic that is easy to mention and difficult to live.

That’s why it’s worth fighting for. It needs more practitioners and when we’re done looking around for them, we can finally arrive at the conclusion that that means us.

It’s hard to speak about empathy in a personal way because it reminds of my daily failing to practice it. I am impatient and confident which is not a terrific combination for pausing to consider another way of seeing things.

I did have a small victory the other day. At the very last moment before issuing a sigh of impatience at my perception of someone’s carelessness, I remembered that they were holding the pain of unwelcome news. I stopped myself and chose another path.

It was a close call, a brief break in my pattern. I can do it again.

I know I can do it again.


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#18 – Build Capability Before You Need It

This is #18 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.” Here’s another one that I like a lot.


Since we know that nothing lasts forever, a healthy, necessary and realistic point of view for leaders to take is that whatever is working right now will not necessarily work next year. Rationally, we understand that. Emotionally, however, we are too frequently loathe to question ourselves when things are going well as if we might jinx our good fortune. Harry Potter taught an entire world of wizards that it was not only ok to “speak his name” (Voldemort, that is) but it was actually necessary to do so to have any chance of defeating him.

What follows are the direct and specific actions I believe leaders must take if they are to be successful in building capability for the future. I have divided the list into three categories: Developmental, Strategic and Cautionary.

DEVELOPMENTAL

1. Go to therapy. Don’t walk, run. Since many leaders are narcissists and all leaders have narcissistic qualities they are more fragile than they appear to be. (Both Michael Maccoby and Manfred Kets de Vries have written extensively and powerfully on the subject.) When they are wounded by criticism and questioning of their leadership they often don’t heal very quickly and may actually go to great lengths to even the score. As you know, it can get pretty ugly. And, since everything else I am about to advocate involves building infrastructure to question the system, leaders need to build a tough and thoughtful resilience to bear it well. They need to learn not to take every new idea for improvement as an indictment of their leadership but rather as a response to an invitation to keep getting better. For that to happen, those narcissistic wounds are better worked out in the therapist’s office than in the conference room. (If you’re wondering if someone’s a narcissist you can always just ask them.)

2. Send all key leaders to therapy. For all of the reasons stated above.

3. Or at least provide them with highly skilled coaching support. A great coaching relationship can and often does feel “therapeutic” (one senior leader I worked with referred to it as “couching”). The key is to have a safe, trustworthy partner to work through the holistic challenges of work, home and health. All necessary subjects for an effective executive to discuss and work on regularly.

4. Be more human than otherwise. That is to say, thoughtfully reveal your vulnerability, things you’re working on, the challenges you face. Items #1-3 will be very helpful in equipping you to do this. When you become accessible to your team as a human being you increase your power by strengthening your connections. Those connections become the lifeline for communication. And communication is at the heart of learning how to get better.

5. Treat people like adults. Respect them enough to be transparent about what’s going on. Be clear about what you need. Expect them to do the same for you. You’re not their mom or dad. You don’t have to protect them from the truth. You do need to give them a chance to rise to the occasion. If they can’t or don’t you’ll have the information you need to support them in their own development.

STRATEGIC

6. Make every leader accountable for a meaningful annual report of what needs to change in his or her function in the coming year. There is always something to improve. ALWAYS. Building in this kind of evaluative, reflective process expands our capacity for having hard discussions and normalizes the process of doing so. And this is to be done in open dialogue with the whole team, starting with the people who are actually doing the work each day. A simple question for them: if you could change one thing that would allow you to be more effective in fulfilling your job responsibility, what would it be? (Note: if you don’t get useful answers the first time around it’s probably because they don’t trust you enough to be honest. Earn that trust by keeping at it in a sincere and authentic way. If that’s hard for you, see item #1.)

7. Determine how you will change first. No meaningful change happens until the leader decides to change. Figure out what change in your behavior will help bring about the larger change initiative and get busy. “Be the change you want to see in the world” is not an invitation but an admonition.

8. Hold Pre and Post-mortem meetings for every project. In the pre meeting ask as many people as possible what they think could go wrong. Learn to anticipate the bumps and get your team ready to respond. The post-mortem is more of a no-brainer but usually overlooked because we’re already off to the next thing. Even a couple of simple questions – again, asked of all involved – will build openness and a greater capacity for learning: What worked? What didn’t? What did you learn about yourself and our team? 

9. Expect leaders to coach their teams and teach them how to do so. Here’s a fine job description for a key leader: spend time everyday understanding the business and how all the pieces fit together (educate your team about same); critically consider what’s working and what’s not in your function and engage your team in frequent dialogue about same; make plans for improvement by seeking as much perspective as possible; assign responsibilities to follow through on plans; provide coaching support and resources to ensure success; recognize and celebrate publicly and tangibly. This is a talking, engaging, coaching, critical thinking, relationship job. It is not a protect, defend, isolate, manipulate, scheme and otherwise preserve hierarchical hegemony job.

CAUTIONARY

10. Don’t pretend to do any of the above. Up to now, I’ve offered suggestions on what to “do.” Here’s my first and only “don’t do.” Any inauthentic attempt at any of the above will be sniffed out immediately and seen for the manipulative tactic that it is. You gotta mean it or don’t even bother. Good people will leave and you will be surrounded by scared people all too willing to tell you that you’re great and that what “we’re doing” is just right and will certainly last forever.

Until it doesn’t and you end up in therapy anyway.


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