Thank you, Mary Oliver

I am so thankful for the life and work of Mary Oliver and so sad to learn that she died on Thursday. Her poem, “The Journey” is the first thing I posted on this blog twelve years ago. Just yesterday, in an accidental feat of perfect timing, I published it again as the centerpiece of a meditation on becoming a person. The person I am becoming continues to be shaped by Oliver’s work; “The Journey” and so many others. With deepest gratitude for her peaceful and powerful impact on my life, I have republished below a reflection I wrote in 2016 on her poem, “Wild Geese.” 

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Image credit: Kelly Warren – Wild Spirit Resources, LLC

I tacked this poem onto my bulletin board a few days ago. It’s been staring at me ever since, trying to help me understand, to see in a new way. This seems like a good day to explicate it as best I can. First, here’s the whole thing.

“Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

In my reading of the poem it has three acts: permission, perspective, and invitation.

Permission

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

There are a couple of lines in this poem that stop me in my tracks, starting with the very first. If all I could have is that first line I’d be more than satisfied. I needed to hear it a long time ago. I wish I had known and believed it  long before now. It’s a mantra, a meditation. It’s also the beginning of permission to simply let go of all of the “shoulds” and comparisons and the pervasive perfectionism  that prevents creative expression.

The permission in these opening lines simply says, “It’s ok to get off of your knees, once and for all, to let go of shame and guilt and ‘not enough’ and walk on timid but strengthening legs to that which is calling you forward.” It reminds me of the heart-wrenching scene in “Good Will Hunting” when Sean (Robin Williams) says to Will, “It’s not your fault.” “It’s not your fault.” “It’s not your fault.”

And just as that permission begins to settle in, I hear the poet’s invitation to unburden myself of my despair AND to be present to the despair of another. My pain is no greater than yours. Yours is no greater than mine. We are all hurting. And we must all get up and continue walking. And we must help each other do it. It’s the only way.

Perspective

Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.

The world goes on. I am small. It is vast. I am important, but not nearly so much as I think. I want to be special, to be heard and understood as I’m sure I never will be. Won’t you give me more time? More attention? More care and concern? Why have you moved on? Why must we change the conversation?

Eventually, as my voice gets smaller, drowned by the gorgeous volume of a world in motion, I have to reconcile myself to the hard truth – hard, hard truth – that it doesn’t exist just for me. It is not a backdrop, an elaborate setting for my experience. It simply exists. As do I. And by existing as it does, it reminds me to keep returning to myself to learn what I must learn. And to never stop because there is no end to that discovery.

Invitation

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

If only I am willing to refuse my loneliness – that subtle device by which I convince myself that no one else will quite understand – it is all there for the taking. Gifts too beautiful to take in at a glance. I am here. You are here. The world is here, made to be free in.

On stronger legs now I stride into the world, persistent in my self-reflection, consistent in my regard for you, ready to learn all I must if I am to live into the possibility I can see just above the horizon.

That faraway place, always right here.


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.

An American Life

On this observance of Veterans Day I am reposting this tribute to my late stepfather, a veteran of both World War II and the Korean conflict. Like so many others, before and after, he served his country with distinction and honor. We are forever in their debt. 


My stepfather, William P. Clancey, Jr. died on January 26, 2011.

His story is so quintessentially “American” that I can only shake my head in disbelief that the fullness of his life was lived by just one man.

Born in the east he attended the Milton Academy for a short time before being shipped off to a reform school in New Mexico. From there he found his way to the University of Colorado but not before enlisting in the Marine Corps at 17 years old and serving in the South Pacific during World War II. He fought at Guadalcanal. He was offshore at Iwo Jima. He was in the flotilla during the signing of unconditional surrender on the USS Missouri.  Just a few years ago, on the anniversary of the attack on Iwo Jima, this deeply private, soft-spoken man wept at the memory of the loss he witnessed, the destruction he carried with him, like so many others, for the rest of his days.

He returned home long enough to transfer from Colorado to Cal, the school that would hold his affection forever, only to find himself back at war a few years later, this time in Korea. He served with distinction, was honorably discharged at the rank of Captain and was finally able to get home and get his civilian life underway.

First, it was law. He graduated from Boalt Hall and served as an assistant district attorney in San Francisco.  Then came a higher calling and W.P. Clancey, Esq became Rev. Clancey. He served at All Souls Parish in Berkeley in the 1960s and 70’s and, once again, he was right in the middle of the action. His life was touched both by the Harvey Milk assassination and, more personally, by the Jonestown massacre, losing a family member in the mass suicide.

He lived out his vocation by answering the call to serve parishes all over the Bay Area. He was known as a “priest of priests,” the list of those he mentored, encouraged and supported through the years far too long to mention.

He was intelligent but never put on heirs. Humble and focused, his was truly the “life of the mind and the heart of the gospel” to quote a Jesuit father I once knew. Most importantly, he was an unfailing servant. From his country to the law to every priest, parish and parishioner who called on him, Bill was there to do his part, to challenge and to support, to befriend and to console.

I most loved and respected his profound skepticism of authority, his commitment to remaining a “humble priest” rather than pursuing higher office in the church which would have pulled him away from those he had committed to serve.

As for my mother, he met her twice in his life. The first time was in the late 1960’s when my dad brought him home from seminary to be my sister’s Godfather. They met again about 10 years ago and in the reconnection began a courtship that would become a marriage, giving him a partner that would gently see him through the final battle of his life.

I am deeply grateful to have known this servant of men, this servant of God, if only for a few short years. His model and example will remain with me always as I strive to lead a life of and for others.

Thank you, Bill. May you rest in peace.


Holding on (and letting go)

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When I first published this piece in 2015 it was called “Holding.” Today, as I console myself with its message I have renamed it with a more appropriate title. I am a confounding blend of heartbroken and heart-full today, having said goodbye to my son who begins his college career in the coming days…his next unfolding.

I said to Theresa in the moments before his departure, “I am just so, so sad.” And through the tears we began to laugh about all the reasons we are so, so glad to see him go! 

The “fragile and the tenuous” I mention below is inside of me. What I am drawn to, I see now, is the breakable part of myself. It is not so coolly composed. It is just hanging on, at least today.

I embraced my son and whispered a blessing in his ear: that he may be blessed and kept, that he may be shone upon with grace, and that he may be bathed in peace.

I offer it also to myself.  


I walked outside after our last rainfall. I think I was going to check the mail. I found instead this perfect composition of water and leaf.

More and more I find myself attracted to the fragile and the tenuous. I am drawn to what will not last; the temporary, the changing, the transitory.

I am the drop of water, sliding off with the next breeze, evaporating into the warming air. I am a small child longing to become. I am a contribution hoping to be made.

Some days I want to stay on the leaf, holding out hope that it will remain just like this for just a little longer.  Some days I am ready to get soaked in, nourishment for something greater.

Being held is best appreciated in the letting go.


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world. Connect with him on Twitter at @berrydavid.

 

 

Put Out Into Deep Water

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Each one of us has a net in which we capture an understanding of ourselves. That net is strong, it can hold a lot. And testing that strength scares us so we don’t do it very often, if ever. Instead, we keep tossing our net in the shallow end of our experience, catching and re-catching what we have long known about ourselves, hoping that this time the limitations of our understanding won’t hold us back, won’t prevent us from getting closer to our heart’s desire.

Put out into deep water. Go to the depths that frighten you. Find there, in the shadowy darkness of the water a revelation of who you are. Only then will you be equipped to determine what serves you and what must be thrown back. 

Each one of us has a net in which we gather the collective force of our connection to others. That net is strong, it can hold a lot. And testing that strength scares us so we don’t do it very often, if ever. Instead, we keep tossing our net on the surface of our experience, keeping our relationships at a safe distance, rarely risking bringing them closer and almost never including someone new. We falsely believe that this distance protects us, reducing the risk of being known for who we truly are.

Put out into deep water. Go to the depths that frighten you. Find there, in the shadowy darkness of the water a revelation of who loves you, just as you are. Only then will you be equipped to close the difficult distance between the fear of loss and the exponential truth of full relationship.  

Each one of us has a net in which we collect all the learning of our adult life. That net is strong, it can hold a lot. And testing that strength scares us so we don’t do so very often, if ever. Instead, we toss our net in the shallow waters of what is known, comforted by the embrace of the status quo, keeping a wide territory between us and the edge of the new with its persistent threat of exposure, embarrassment and failure.

Put out into deep water. Go to the depths that frighten you. Find there, in the shadowy darkness of the water a revelation of new learning. Only then will you be equipped to say “I am, and always have been a beginner.” 

Each one of us has a net. It is large and strong. It works fine along the shore but it is built for deeper water.

It cannot throw itself.


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world. Connect with him on Twitter at @berrydavid.

 

Labor Day

“Work isn’t to make money. You work to justify life”

Marc Chagall ~

When I was 17 years old I knew exactly what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I just didn’t know that it was possible to apply what came naturally to me to a formal educational and professional pursuit. And so began a 14 year journey to find what it was I was supposed to do with my life. When I finally landed on my vocation I was shocked to find that I had known the answer so many years before; that the answer had always been in me, just waiting to be unlocked and reintroduced to the world in a new and more profound way.

Of course, had I not wandered in the desert, searching in vain for the perfect fit; had I not been tested and molded by so many “roads to nowhere” I never would have found the road to somewhere. It was because of the work that was not my work that I was able to find the work that is.

James Michener wrote, and I’m paraphrasing heavily, that until we find our “thing” everything else we do along the way is creative. It’s all part of the process of learning who and what we are and how we are meant to use it in and for the world. Another sage, Joseph Campbell, said this:

“If the path ahead of you is clear, you are on someone else’s path.”

In other words, your path – the work of your life – is the one with all the obstacles. You have to fight for it, up and over, through and around; clawing, scraping, racing, pushing, pulling. This is how you know it is yours. And, in my experience, while all of that is happening you are deeply gratified by knowing that this fight is your fight, this labor is your labor; the work meant for you and you alone.

And what a joy it is to find that work. Truly, it is an exceptional thing to realize that this is my offering, my contribution. And with it comes a deep and significant responsibility to fully explore, fully realize and fully practice that which I am meant to do.

I am grateful on Labor Day to have found my work. More than that, I am grateful to have the permission, support, trust and expectation to fully express it.

“Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.”

Albert Camus ~


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world. Connect with him on Twitter at @berrydavid.

More Human Than Otherwise

“We are all much more simply human than otherwise.”
– Harry Stack Sullivan –

Human beings deserve a human experience in the workplace. That is possible…that actually happens…when leaders decide to be more human themselves; when they decide to make what is common between us the foundation of their leadership.

In the face of complexity and change – the relentless pressure of change – this can be very difficult to do even for the most well-intentioned leader. The questions before them – before us – are daunting and powerful:

  • How do we eradicate fear and replace it with love?
  • How do we shift from the exhaustion of change to the inspiration of possibility?
  • How do we release anxiety and capture imagination?
  • How do we free ourselves from our well-worn ruts and unleash creative energy?
  • How do we replace tension and struggle with ease and pleasure?

To work with these questions sincerely and authentically, wholehearted leaders do three things:

1. Start within: an intentional inquiry and continuous dialogue about who they are, where they shine, how they struggle and what they most want from their work and their life.

2. Strengthen relationships: a dedication to the truth that only through reliance, trust and vulnerability are we able to create the future we desire.

3. Commit to a lifetime of learning: a commitment to the raw humility that the only answer that makes any sense in the face of complexity and change is to just keep learning.


I created RULE13 Learning to support leaders who make the commitment to live the hard questions; to stand with those leaders as they strive to be more courageous, more resourceful and more generous in the face of complexity and change.

“There is no organization large enough for even one human soul.”
– David Whyte –


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world. Connect with him on Twitter at @berrydavid.

You Have To Explain About the Thread

“The Way It Is”

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

– William Stafford –

I was captivated this week by the most recent episode of the podcast, This American Life. Specifically, a segment featuring the magicians Penn and Teller describing their process of developing a new trick. Teller, the conspicuously silent partner, has fallen in love with the idea of recreating a classic floating ball and hoop routine. Penn is less enthusiastic, as in not at all. As Teller works and works to make the trick worthy of their show by the standard they have agreed to over 40 years of collaboration he falls short time and again.

A breakthrough comes when they agree that the way to make the trick compelling to both themselves and their audience is to let the audience in on it from the very beginning. The trick begins with Penn’s announcement: “The next trick is done with just a piece of thread.”  And off goes Teller, beautifully and brilliantly manipulating a ball with nothing more than a piece of thread.

What Penn and Teller understood and acted upon – after years of work on one specific illusion – is what William Stafford implores us to do in the poem above: “You have to explain about the thread.” 

I am often in a position to do exactly that. In the classroom or at a speaking engagement I am frequently asked about my own thread. Why do I do what I do? How did I get started? What are the steps I took from there to here? I always respond in the same way, that I knew exactly what I was supposed to do with my life when I was 17 years old. A bright red thread emerged through my experiences in musical performance and student leadership. I was intuitively aware that the abilities developed and practiced in those early settings were the strengths I would call on throughout my adult life. I held onto the thread through the first few years of college but lost it completely once I had to marry my intuitive sense of it to the harshly practical world of “knowing what you want to do with your life.” I didn’t know how to manifest my nascent understanding of my thread into a next step. And I was too afraid to explain about the thread. I wasn’t willing to say, “This is my thread. I don’t know much about it but I do know a few important things, not least of which is that it’s mine. Will you please help me figure out where it leads?”

Instead, I let it slip away. As it turns out, it did not let go of me. We played peekaboo on occasion, a flirtation here and there, but it took over 10 years and an extraordinary confluence (aka, the thread working hard behind the scenes) of people and events to land me in front of a classroom of aspirational leaders. The specifics of that first class are hazy because my memory is dominated by the aliveness I felt at having my hands on the thread once again.

Most recently, my thread has led me to the college classroom and the opportunity to teach and mentor undergraduate students. The thread has a solid sense of humor. It says, “You struggled to claim me as your own. Others struggle, too. Here is your chance to help a few people struggle a little less, to find the thread a little earlier, and to gain the confidence and declare their commitment to hang on.”

There is no “magic.” There is finding your thread and there is holding onto your thread because “while you hold it you can’t get lost.” There is demonstrating to all who cannot see it that what looks like magic is just your commitment to trust where it will lead. Sometimes, like Teller performing for a full house, we hang on with artistry and elegance. Sometimes, like Teller in the early days of practice, we hang on in spite of our fumbling because our curiosity compels us to learn where it wants to go.  And sometimes we don’t hang on at all. But it is there, waiting to dispel the illusion that we can find our way without it.

What is your thread? Where is it leading?
Who have you explained it to? Who have you asked for help?
What makes it hard to hang on?
Is there someone whose thread confuses you?
Will you listen to them explain about the thread?

For further reading, here’s another reflection on “The Way It Is” by Parker Palmer.

DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.

Scattered Thoughts On Creativity

Starting here: I recently watched the film, “My Neighbor Totoro” by Hayao Miyazaki. It was recommended by a friend following a conversation on creativity. A children’s film, such as it is, I settled down with my two daughters last Sunday afternoon to check it out. Interestingly enough, the movie centers on two sisters who are adapting to a move to the countryside. As they explore their new home the power of their imagination brings to life magical creatures and incredible happenings, the most significant of which is an enormous tree sprouting from their yard in the middle of the night. In reality they had simply planted some seeds. In their imagination (fueled by their insistence on immediate gratification) the tree erupted from the ground, filled the sky and became their new vantage point on the world around them.

Creativity starts with “rootedness.” A grounding in something solid and well-defined. Seeds are planted, roots move into the earth fed by nutrients and pulled by gravity, preparing for an upward push towards the sky. The tree is simultaneously moving into the earth as it extends itself into open space.

When I weave in Andy Goldsworthy’s idea that “change is best understood by staying in one place” the image of the tree as a metaphor for creative thought and action takes on another layer of meaning. The tree is stationary; growing down to grow up. It is a keen observer of the world around it and it uses this awareness to adapt and to grow. Stay with me here…

Let’s personalize it: I am the tree. If I am well-planted, well-rooted in my beliefs and values; if I am willing to stand firmly in reality, aware of who and what is around me and committed to continuous learning about them, I create the conditions for creative possibility. As I stretch myself upward, I do not do so at the risk of losing my “groundedness,” I do so because of it. My confidence is fed by the core truths at my base; the steady supply of food and water.

Change is a certainty. It is the wind that topples the shallow-rooted tree. Learning, creativity and adaptability are a must in the face of change. And they are only possible when the conditions are right, when the roots are deep.

Leadership and Fatherhood

Leadership and fatherhood: taking complete responsibility for teaching and supporting others to take complete responsibility; for themselves, for the welfare of others and for any cause worth fighting for.

DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.

Ambivalence

Pinned to my bulletin board is a card received from a friend during a professional transition that significantly impacted us both. She wrote:

“Here’s to the next chapter! I say it with a pit in my stomach and eyes forward to the new.”

To acknowledge our discomfort with change while holding onto our belief in the possibility of what’s to come seems like a good description of maturity.

The last of the finches fledged on our patio has flown the nest. I will miss the daily, sometimes hourly, opportunity to see them grow before my eyes. I am also glad they’re gone.

DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.