Happy Celebration!

“In every community, there is work to be done. In every nation, there are wounds to heal. In every heart, there is the power to do it.” ~ Marianne Williamson

My life has included many different cities and states and each move has taught me a little bit more about the importance of community and why we should try and build it wherever we are.

In some ways, the actual definition of the word community is a bit contrary to modern-day realities. Depending on your situation, it can be challenging to find a group of people with whom you share common interests, attitudes and goals or have a common characteristic.

As the world becomes both more divided and diverse, we have to find ways to look past the obvious and seek to find the commonalities. While we come from different ethnic origins, have varying political beliefs and refer to God by the name associated with our religious beliefs. At our core, we have more in common than we don’t. I believe that finding this common ground is key to all of us coming together in a way that allows us to have different points of view and to share them with the intention of both teaching and listening.

I thought I understood this, but my neighbor’s daughters have unknowingly taught me many lessons in this area.

My neighbor’s homeland is Saudi Arabia and they have lived in the U.S. for I’m guessing about six years, Texas before Syracuse. Yesterday, during our sidewalk chalk art afternoon, I learned that three of the four kids were born in Saudi, the oldest daughter was born in Pakistan.

What I learned was amazingly simple. Kids are kids, no matter where they were born or raised. They have favorite subjects in school, and there are subjects that they dread. Siblings fight, but they also love each other fiercely. Kids pull pranks on each other and do their best to get out of doing chores.

It got me to thinking if kids are kids no matter what – doesn’t that mean that people are just people? At least when you strip away all of the baggage, we seem to accumulate as we grow up.

My neighbors recently confirmed this notion through a recent act of kindness and generosity.

They are celebrating Eid al-Adha, one of the holiest festivals in the Islamic faith. This year it begins on 7/30 and ends on 8/3.

Friday afternoon, the girls (my sidewalk art buddies) rang my doorbell and offered a basket of sweets for me to choose some from. The oldest girl said, “We are celebrating a holy holiday and want to say thank you.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I said, “Happy Celebration!”

A bit later in the evening, my doorbell rang again, and this time, it was all of the girls in the family, including the mother.

She offered me something tucked between two paper plates, and said, “I am sorry you weren’t able to come and share doughnuts with us earlier, but we wanted to bring you one.”

I explained that I had been working and would have loved to be there with them to share, and of course, I accepted it graciously.

I asked her the name of the celebration, she responded, “Eid al-Adha” and was kind enough to spell it for me so I could look it up later.

I asked her about the celebration, and she explained the history. I will need to do more research to share it, but, the crux of it is, that kindness is everything, something that is common to all religions.

At the heart of the celebration is to recognize and acknowledge sacrifices and to share with others. Sharing gifts of food is one of the traditions.

It was a simple but meaningful conversation.

My last question to her was, “What is the proper way for me to thank you and show my honor for your holiday.”

She simply said, “You told my girls, Happy Celebration, you did it just right.”

Community is all around us, sometimes you just have to work a little harder to find and build it. It’s incredibly rewarding when it happens.

One Good Thing

March 20, 2020, was the last day my team worked in the office before the state of N.Y. shut down because of COVID. Since then, we’ve been working from home.

It’s been an interesting transition and a combination of the company scrambling to procure devices such as laptops and technology to enable easy remote access and people being willing to use personal devices to continue to be productive and effective.

We are executing on a huge website replatforming project – working remotely isn’t necessarily the best way to facilitate this. Unlike the norm, my team has more than doubled in size during this unprecedented time – going from three members (including me) to seven. These are some tough circumstances under which to build a team and to launch a new website. But, against all the odds, we have, thanks to the wonderful people on my team.

We have daily remote calls, sometimes we’re all on camera, sometimes no one is, and sometimes it’s a mixture. The essential things are, we meet every day, and people know they have a choice about whether or not to be on video.

When we started our remote daily “stand-ups,” I asked everyone to start the call with “one good thing” that happened the previous day. My original intent was to help us all stay focused, for at least a moment, on gratitude. It’s turned out to have quite an unexpected and unintended positive outcome.

We’ve gotten to know each other better during a time in which the team is onboarding new members from both outside of the company and within the company, but from different groups. From my perspective, it’s been a really unique time and way to do team building.

There’s no substitute for in-person interaction, but we’ve made the best of it. We share lots of things, from recipes, to what we made for dinner the previous night to sidewalk chalk adventures.

Here are some things I’ve learned about my team members (using initials, so I don’t infringe on anyone’s privacy).

A.B. is from Korea and is relatively new to our industry. She is eager to learn and more than willing to embrace feedback. A has recently started to explore the world of visual art and recently was brave enough to share her drawings with the team, something we all appreciated. She very much enjoys movies, books and food from her native land, and during the pandemic has been able to connect with many of her friends from all over the world. Her face lights up when she is delighted and that is often.

R.B. has been living in Buffalo since the pandemic made landfall, which has been good for him. He’s had time away in a positive living environment and away from his toxic roommate in Syracuse. As the mom of kids who’ve experienced some toxic roommate experiences, I totally get it. Even before he temporarily relocated to Buffalo, he had started to discover his talent in the kitchen, and it’s grown from there with an appreciative audience to share dinner with. He’s also exploring the world of clothing design – great things to come, no doubt. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that his dog has been surrounded by cats for the summer, and it has resulted in some very amusing anecdotes.

S. E. is the mom of two beautiful children just starting out in the world, a 4-year-old and an infant, not a newborn – but not yet a year old. Her 4-year-old daughter is now dabbling in sports such as t-ball and is loving it. Both of her kids enjoy neighborhood gatherings and family outings to explore the area. According to her daughter, S’s husband, in addition to being a medical professional, is also a lawn care professional who is bringing life to the lawn in their newly built home. Last but not least, she’s a caring person who makes treats for others in her neighborhood.

S.T. loves the outdoors and spending his time biking and hiking. He also loves to read – Stephen King is one of his favorite authors, and he’s also a fan of podcasts and is always connecting the dots between events. If you want a recommendation for an outdoor escape, he’s definitely a go-to person. He loves dogs, is very handy at remodeling – and has made substantial home improvements with the help of Home Depot during the past few months.

T.C. is a jack of all trades, and more than competent at all of them. He’s a vegan chef, a Moped rebuilder, and more than handy around his house. T is a wonderful dad, who loves his daughter beyond words, it’s touched me more than once to see their morning hug. He also is an excellent reference for where to go in the great outdoors – and also where to go to get great craft beer. He loves helping his friends, even though he hasn’t necessarily come out and said that, it’s obvious – and I have no doubt they appreciate him as much as he appreciates them.

T. R. recently moved into a house with his fiance. They’re planning a wedding for October of 2021. He has a new baby sister, whom he’s gotten to see twice during this strange time – looking forward to more pictures of her as she grows. He’s done a fantastic job of making his new house a home, and one of his latest projects is making sure the new grass seed takes hold. He and his fiance enjoy quiet nights at home together. One of the things they enjoy doing together is cooking, perhaps especially making meatballs together to put in the freezer so they can enjoy meatball sandwiches together.

I imagine my team has learned a few things about me as well, but I’ll leave that to them. I’m just grateful to be working with a group of people who are so willing and able to make the best of things.

At Last, a Break from the Clouds and Monotony

It’s April 26, 2020, and today marks the 38th day of self-isolation and the shut-down of nonessential businesses in New York State. I was shocked when I did the math and realized that millions of Americans have been at home for just over 10% of the current year, no wonder we’re going a bit stir crazy.

I was forewarned before moving to Upstate, NY, about the overcast nature of the weather. Although I thought I was mentally prepared for it, the reality is that the cloudy, rainy, dreary days far outnumber the sunny ones. This year has been compounded by the need to stay at home, below-average temperatures, and snowfall as recently as a few days ago.

Yesterday there was finally a break in the weather pattern, and it was a gloriously sunny and mild day. I met up with my friend Rodney, and we went for what I thought was going to be a leisurely stroll around one of the state parks. It turned out to be so much better than that.

Green Lakes is a magnificent park. Even the entrance is strikingly scenic, with its evergreen lined paths to the hiking trails.

Evergreen lined entrance_Green Lakes

The paved path leading into the park met my initial expectation about the nature of the walk, it was a bit hillier than I imagined but still reasonably easy.

As we reached the top of the hill and the first glimpse of the interior of the park and the area my friend wanted to give me a walking tour of, my impressions began to change a little. Instead of a paved path, the first walking path he showed me was covered in a blanket of emerald green grass.

Grassy Path at Green Lakes

The path was flanked by Reed grass (I think that’s what it is) and trees that are still waiting for weather warm enough to coax them into spring.

We didn’t take this path, but seeing it did alter my expectations a bit – the trails wouldn’t be paved, but I anticipated the walk would be a little more challenging, but very manageable.

Fast forward through the rest of our six-mile ‘walk.’ There were steep hills and gentle inclines, smooth grassy paths, and dirt paths spotted with tree roots emerging through the earth as well as a few rocks scattered here and there.

Our final descent involved a steep hill with a very narrow dirt path that contained more than one spot peppered with small loose rocks. Steep Trail at Green Lakes

We stood at the top of the hill, and Rodney said, “Beth, I’m so sorry! I forgot about this hill.”

I responded, “It’s ok, I’m up for the challenge – let’s do it!”

Rodney and Mo (short for Geronimo), his trusted Chocolate Lab, were sure-footed as they began the downward climb. As for me, not so much – I was hesitant at best, but determined to make it.

I could tell I was making Rodney nervous, and he was concerned for my safety because he kept stopping, turning around, and coaching me. “Place your feet a little wider apart on this next part of the trail, oh, and walk to the left. It’s wider, and there are fewer loose rocks.” Through his coaching and a virtual helping hand, I made it safely to the bottom of the hill.

All I can say is I felt accomplished after doing so!

It was a far different walk from my usual stroll around the flat and uninteresting streets of my neighborhood. Instead of listening to my book, I listened to nature and engaged in conversations filled with good-natured banter.

It was also nice to see people outside of the grocery store, albeit in masks and from at least six feet away. It somehow still felt a bit more normal than the past few weeks have seemed.

The walk, or the hike, was life-affirming and a reminder that as we go through our days on this earth, we will experience both easy and challenging times. But when it’s all said and done, if we face those challenging times head-on and accept help along the way, life is truly joyous and rewarding.

The little lake at Green Lakes

Rooftop Parking at the Airport – Here’s to being prepared!

Well, I can’t say that I’d intentionally plan my travel experiences over Thanksgiving, but as always, one can turn it into a good story.

My flights were actually on time, other than a really long layover in Chicago, the flying part was uneventful.

Fast forward to the rooftop of the Syracuse airport parking garage, and things took a not unexpected turn for the worse. While I was in St. Louis, many, many inches of snow fell.

My poor little car was not entirely buried in snow, but let’s just say that the snow came up to my knees and it wasn’t all that easy to get my suitcase in the car or to retrieve my snow brush/scraper.

As I examined my situation, it became clear that a shovel was needed. As it just so happened, I had one in my trunk.

Almost a year ago to the day, in preparation for my move, I equipped my car with a winter emergency kit. A compact shovel was one of the long shots, I had no idea if it would hold up to the task if the situation arose.

Tonight it came in more than handy.

I opened my trunk and at the same time, noticed a young couple a few spots down the lot – their car wasn’t going anywhere.

He got out of the car and started pacing. I shouted, “Do you need a shovel? I have one.”

He walked over and looked at me. “You have a shovel?”

“I do, it’s never been used. It might be horrible, but here it is.”

He took the plastic shrink wrap off and unfolded the handle and locked it into place.

“This is sweet! I’m in the army, and right now, you’re more prepared than me. But then again, it’s hard for a newbie to know what to expect in Syracuse.”

He shoveled out his car while I brushed the snow off of mine. Then he shoveled out my car.

Snowtop roof parking

There was another man across from us who was going through the same struggles, at first he turned down my offer to use the little but apparently sturdy shovel. I’m not sure why he thought it would be better to continue trying to scoop the snow with his hands instead of using my shovel.

In the end, he asked if he could use it, of course, I handed it to him. He then stood near my car to make sure I could get out ok.

Two life lessons were validated that night. There really are good people in the world, and it’s a good idea to be prepared.

I will Uber for my Christmas travels.

Just Wondering…

Can someone reconnect with a friend whom they met in the sixth grade, exchanged letters for a few years, but hasn’t communicated with in over 40 years?

I’m going to try.

Over Thanksgiving, tales of my adventures with my best friend from sixth grade were told and retold. She and I shared some wonderful times exchanging secrets, torturing siblings and attempting to build tree houses. We also went to movies, played barbies and spent hours ice skating under the guise of looking for cute boys.

Our conversation at Thanksgiving prompted my dad to contact an acquaintance who might know Lynn’s dad, a conversation that led to my receiving an email with the contact information for my best friend.

In a newspaper article, celebrating the 90th birthday of her dad – she was mentioned within the context of her married name. From there it wasn’t all that difficult to find the contact information for her husband. Thus the email I received, which included a not so subtle nudge from my dad to find a way to reach out to her via the contact info he found.

This past weekend, I unearthed my one and only Scrapbook and memories of the past rolled down my face and at the same time, filled me with joy. There, within the yellowed pages and still bound to the pages by yellow, brittle scotch tape, were letters from Lynn – my best friend at the time, a person I’ve never forgotten and always have held dear.

What to do?

Here I was with a boatload of memories from my scrapbook and the contact information for an Orthopedic Dr. in Rapid City, South Dakota, the name of the man she is married to.

Is it her? I can’t be sure, but it seems like a reliable trail of clues. I felt more than a bit of angst over calling or emailing the office to make a connection with her. These days, I’m certain I would have been written off as a total weirdo.

So, instead – at my mom’s suggestion, I found her home address through a Google Search. I know, that sounds a little creepy as well – but, honestly, the internet is cool when used in the right ways.

I’ve composed a letter, and am sending her a copy of one of her correspondences to me – we’ll see where this goes.

I hope we reconnect.

More to come…

Sixth grade memories

So many memories flying around in my head right now.

We’ve Reached a Fork in the Road, or have we?

My parents and I were talking tonight about things related to business dealings, politics and life in general.

The phrase, “we’ve reached a fork in the road” came up, it was followed by “it’s time to make a decision.” This doesn’t just imply it’s time to make a choice, it explicitly states there is only one next step. There is one way or another, nothing in between. I honestly don’t think that’s what either person means. But, it’s how it can be and probably is most often interpreted.

As we were talking, I had two images flash through my brain. One was of an actual fork – one we use to eat with. The other was of a fork in a road. The difference between them struck me immediately. I know this is strange, but it’s how my brain works.

As we picture a fork in the road – there are only two choices, you go left, or you go right. Those are the only options. Perhaps we limit ourselves.

Oddly enough, the fork we use in everyday life, as a utensil to consume food, has three prongs. Can you imagine how difficult it would be to pick up a piece of meat or a potato wedge with a physical fork that only had two prongs? Especially if they were pointing in opposite directions…

It made me think – perhaps, the third prong, the middle road so to speak, represents the opportunity for a “win, win” approach to life.

We seem to be faced with so many it has to be ‘this way’ or ‘that way’ choices these days.

Perhaps it’s time we started to look at the “fork in the road” in a new way and find common ground. It’s time to carve a new path – it’s in between the “fork in the road.”

Dear Betty Boop, Embrace What Life Offers in the Moment…

“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” ~ Buddha Siddhartha Guatama Shakyamuni

I’ve heard the quote many times before but never knew who to credit – after much Googling, I’m still not sure if I have the right source, so we’ll call it good enough.
Regardless of whether or not I got the credit for the quote correct (which I hope I did), it’s a true statement and one that I’ve personally experienced, or maybe finally recognized, over the last decade.

It started with my first drawing class in Yardley, Pa.

When I say that I was nearly hyperventilating and on the verge of abandoning the class for the refuge of my car, I’m not exaggerating. The only thing that moved me forward was another student who caught up to me and cheerily said, “You must be here for the drawing class, I can’t wait! Let’s head in together.”

Gulp! This left me with little choice but to face my fears and perch myself on a stool in front of an intimidating blank canvas amongst people who knew each other but were strangers to me.

The subject for the first lesson was a sunflower, a large one from my perspective. I sat on my stool, overwhelmed, and a bit paralyzed. The sunflower we were supposed to draw looked impossibly intricate.

It didn’t help matters that the women around me already had petals flying out of their pencils onto the paper, and I was so hung up on how to draw a perfect circle that I couldn’t move on.

Anne, the instructor, walked up behind me, put her hand on the small of my back, and said, “Breathe, Beth, you’re in the right place. I know you are.”

As it turns out, I was. It took me weeks – but I eventually finished the sunflower.

029 final sunflower_white shading
I took several classes with Anne through the Artists of Yardley. In all that time I finished every drawing we started, but only one during the class. It was a pine cone, and the medium is charcoal.

pine cone_04_19_12
While I lived in Pennsylvania, I also had the privilege and opportunity to take drawing lessons from an accomplished artist at the Princeton Arts Council. I lived just across the river from New Jersey, so it was more than convenient.

I still remember the Thanksgiving in St. Louis when I decided to sign up for one of Konstantin’s classes. The class cost more than any class I had attended to date, which was part of what caused me to take pause. The more significant hesitation had to do with his profile. There was no doubt in my mind that he was a no-nonsense professional artist. I bit the bullet and hit submit.

He didn’t disappoint, he exceeded my expectations and made me think about art ways that had never occurred to me. I’ll always remember my first class with him.

He asked the class, “What is one of the most important things to know as an artist, as you sit down to create? Here’s a clue, if you took piano lessons and you had a good teacher, you learned this early on.”

There was silence as the students looked at each other and tried to come up with the right answer.

Unsure, but uncomfortable by the silence, I raised my hand and offered with some hesitation, “Proper fingering to form a chord or to play a scale?”

His somewhat clipped and heavily accented response was, “Good guess, but no. They teach you how to position yourself in front of the instrument and place your fingers properly on the keys so you can easily move from note to note. It’s no different with art, and that’s where we’re going to start.”

That’s when I first learned how to properly set up an easel and align myself with the subject when working from something real, not imagined for inspiration. I was hooked on his teaching style from the beginning.

He taught me to draw while he taught others to paint. His focus was on helping me learn and understand the fundamental elements – and also to loosen up. His painting classes were always full, but the drawing classes, for whatever reason – not so much.

I hadn’t thought about it before now, but I realize now he went out of his way to offer me a venue in which to learn. It had to be tough to have patience with a student who is afraid to draw a circle and at the same time, coach a student with years of experience. He did so with aplomb.

I laugh with fondness when I recall him walking up behind me when I was clearly frozen in a state of perfectionism. He’d say to me, “Betty Boop, you’re creatively constipated again. Loosen up.”

He was a teacher one either loved or not. For whatever reason Betty Boop was and still is his nickname for me, I sort of love it!

Fast forward a few years, and two cross country moves that landed me inexplicably in Upstate NY, and enter stage left, my piano teacher. It wasn’t easy to find him, and when I moved here, I had every intention of continuing my exploration of visual art and had no plan to rediscover music.

As life often happens, things unfold differently than we imagine they will.

Having my piano tuned for the first time in over a decade triggered an unexpected flurry of Google searches for a piano teacher. I found one that was willing to teach an adult was within a reasonable driving distance and sounded like he had a fun approach to teaching. I’ve been taking lessons now for a little over seven months, and all I can say is “wow.” It’s been amazing and continues to be so – I’m now thinking about music in a whole different way.

I’ve kept in touch with Konstantin over the years, and on a whim, I sent him an email about a week ago.

Subject line: Greetings from Betty Boop

Hello Konstantin,

It’s been a very long time since I’ve touched base with you. Thought I’d send you a hello.

I hope all things are well in your world. Things are good, but a bit strange in my world – as per usual. 🙂

I may have mentioned that I moved to Syracuse, NY – it’s been quite a change in many, many ways. It’s hard to believe I’ve lived here for almost a year…

I won’t bore you with aspects of my professional life – let’s just leave it at, I made the right decision to move to Omaha and from there to NY. But this will most certainly not be my last move. I’m starting to feel like a nomad. LOL

Creatively speaking, my move here has caused a gap when it comes to writing and visual art. In Omaha, I was on fire with experimenting with visual art. In Pennsylvania, I was on fire with writing and exploring visual art.

Here, those two aspects have been lacking. However, I found the most fantastic piano teacher, and he’s helping me learn to play the piano in ways I never dreamed of. I doubt I ever shared this, but I took piano lessons from third grade through twelfth and for a few years again as an adult in the early 2000’s. Before I started my crazy cross-country moving trek. I was actually reasonably accomplished in classical music.

My current lessons are stretching me in so many ways, it’s almost impossible to describe – but it’s incredible.

I did participate in #inktober, so, in a small way, I have started to revisit visual art expression. My new place just doesn’t have a space that’s conducive to doing much more than small scale drawings – ink, pencil, and small canvases are currently my options.

Visual art teachers here are non-existent. I genuinely miss the Princeton Arts Council and the classes I was able to take there. In particular, I miss learning from you.

Anyhoo…

Just thought I’d say hidy ho and send greetings from Betty Boop to you.

A few nights later, I sent my piano teacher an email, I wanted to try and express how his teachings are changing my perspective about music.

Subject line: More than Music Lessons

Some thoughts are in my heart and mind that I wanted to share.

Until meeting you, I didn’t understand or appreciate the role of an accompanist.

I had no idea what to expect at my first lesson with you, but I knew I didn’t want to regroup on learning classical. It served me well, but for me, it was time to have fun with music.

You immediately seemed to get it.

Although, at first, to be honest, I sort of thought you were a bit bonkers for teaching me to play songs from music with a single note melody line- aka fake music. But, I quickly got it, loved it, and felt challenged.

Then, you started taking me on the path of learning how to chord on the piano in a way that would support a vocalist and/or other musicians.

I couldn’t stop thinking, I can’t do this.

But you challenge me, teach me and encourage me in a great way, and I am loving the progress I’ve made. It’s beginning to click.

You’ve turned music on its head for me. That’s a good thing.

Now, every time I listen to a song, I gain a new appreciation for the accompanist, who helps bring a song to life.

I also feel like I’m making good progress in my own way.

I came across this tonight and wanted to share it. (You’ve got a friend, link was inserted here – I’ll put it at the end of my post. 🙂 )

Carol King is one of my favorite artists, and in d for me, this brought home the music lessons I’m learning from you.

The most amazing and extraordinary thing happened, on the same day – they both responded.

There were many words of wisdom, support and encouragement in both replies. It truly made my heart smile.

I also laughed out loud at Konstantin’s quirky, humorous comment. For a bit of context, refer back to my message, in which I mentioned to him that my piano lessons are stretching me.

In true Konstatin humor, he replied, “please, be very careful with the stretching exercises (of the direct, not figurative variety), while keeping in mind the grave price Robert Schumann paid. After all, you do need your hands and fingers for drawing and painting, as well. No need to sacrifice yourself to one muse only! 🙂”

I had to Google what happened to Robert Shuman, suffice it to say, he damaged his hands in an attempt to stretch and strengthen his fingers – which of course, is something Konstantin would know!

I took comfort in both messages, which coincidentally – or not, sent two important lessons. Konstantin summed it up this way, “Take full advantage of whatever Life is offering you at THIS moment -lemons or piano lessons, and make full use of it.”

Mark, my piano teacher, offered this thought among many others, “So the journey is long but so FUN!”

When the student is ready, the teacher will appear…

Embrace What Life Offers in the Moment…

As promised, here’s the link.
Carol King is one of my favorite artists, and for me, this brings home the music lessons I’m learning right now.

Lessons in Leadership

It’s odd, but true that one of my most profound learning experiences as a leader has also been one of my best-kept secrets. It’s an experience that caused me so much shame and embarrassment that I haven’t shared it with many people – in fact, I just recently shared it with my parents more than 20 years after it happened.

As a young supervisor, I entered my new role with unearned confidence after having been the President of the University Program Council at my college, coupled with many summers of managing lifeguards at a local country club and a short stint in retail.

Little did I know what the business world expected and would require from me.

I entered the “real” work world as the supervisor of a small call-center for a printing company. Don’t even get me started on the ridiculous interviewing tactics of my then manager. They included describing the dimensions of block of wood, which was somehow supposed to relate to printing – I actually never understood the connection.

Anyway, fast forward to my role as the Customer Service Supervisor (yes I was hired).

I thought I was doing a fantastic job. After all, “everyone “loved me.”

Turns out, it was time for a significant course correction.

The company (ahead of its time) conducted an employee satisfaction survey, “guaranteed to be anonymous.” The survey included the opportunity to give direct feedback about your supervisor, and honesty was encouraged.

The survey was sent, the results were received and the feedback sessions were scheduled.

I’m reasonably sure my feedback session was the first. It was awful, no, let’s make that horrible. Not only was the feedback hard to hear – the setting was worse.

Imagine sitting in a conference room surrounded by your direct reports, the V.P. of HR (aka the daughter of the owner of the company, in this case) and your nemesis. In other words, I was sitting at a table with the people who had been asked to provide “anonymous” feedback about my performance as their supervisor.

It also included the woman who had been hired to be promoted into the position I wholeheartedly and mistakenly believed should have been mine. Could there be a more uncomfortable setting? I think not – it was beyond awkward for everyone.

Long story short, and I’ll get to the point. The feedback I received was painful to hear but honest and accurate.

The next morning, after a night of endless tears, I made myself get out of bed and go to work. Just as I got to my desk, the phone rang, the name and extension number on the display signaled it was John O’Brien, the president company. I froze, then shakily picked up the receiver and said, “This is Beth.”

He asked me to come to his office.

I was terrified of the outcome – sure I would be fired because I had received such a terrible review from the survey. But here’s how the conversation went.

“Beth, yesterday was a tough day for you. First and foremost, I want to apologize to you for how the feedback was delivered. That was not my intention, and unfortunately, I didn’t do a good job of setting up the right way to communicate the feedback. I own that, and you should have never received the feedback in a group setting, it should have been private.

Having said that, it happened. Tell me what you think about what was said and what you heard, separate from the way you received it.”

After a deep breath and through barely held back tears, I responded, “It was hard to hear, but it was accurate. I do try too hard to be liked instead of giving people honest feedback that might be difficult to hear but would help them grow. There were many things said that I need to improve on and change. The list is long.”

His reply as he handed me a tissue, “You have choices now, Beth. What are you going to do?”

“John, it’s embarrassing to admit, but what they said was right, and like I said, it was hard to hear, but it’s obvious I need to make some changes.  I’ll need help along the way, but I want to make this work.”

“You have great potential, I knew you’d make the right choice, and I’ll help you in every way I can. We both learned valuable lessons yesterday and today. Let’s put this  experience behind us, but learn from it.”

Looking back, the choice seemed rather obvious to me at the time, purely from an “I need to keep my job” perspective. But as it turns out, this was one of, if not the biggest and best lessons in leadership I have ever learned.

The lesson was painful but straightforward. People look to a leader to help them grow, not to be a friend. It’s essential to believe in people and to take a personal interest in their lives and in their success, but boundaries are important and necessary. Being a leader is important and bears responsibility. As a mother, I often-times liken it to parenthood.

We want the best for our kids, we are stewards of their lives – after all, we brought them into the world. While we didn’t bring the people we work with into the world, we spend more time with them than we do our own children when it’s all said and done. So, as leaders, and we all are in one way or another, we have the responsibility and the privilege to care for the people we interact with. Especially if we are in a leadership role.

The people we work with rely on us to show both honesty and compassion in our relationships with them. What they may or may not understand is that it’s not always easy. I’d never thought about it before, but I now realize that John O’Brien probably dreaded the conversation with me, maybe nearly as much as I dreaded facing him.

In the end, he owned his part in the debacle but didn’t let me lose sight of the leadership lesson I needed to learn. John O’Brien was someone who owned his mistakes, made the needs of his employees a priority and helped people develop. In other words, he was a servant leader long before it was a corporate buzz word.

While the experience was undoubtedly the most humiliating one of my professional career, it was also the most important one. Because of it, I learned what it means to be a leader and it changed the course of my career for the better.

Recently I attended a leadership workshop, which brought the experience full circle. It involved a “360 review.” This basically means questions are sent to your manager, peers and direct reports requesting feedback on your effectiveness as a leader.

I’ll leave it at this, John would be proud of the leader I’ve become.

Angels Really do Wear Plaid

Last week, as I was writing about the unexpected and sometimes strange twists in my life over the past 11 years, a thought occurred to me – I don’t think I’ve ever shared the reason I named my blog “Angels Wear Plaid.”

Of course, me being me, there’s a story behind it that goes way beyond the single moment of inspiration on the day I decided to start a blog.

You’re a Writer, Who Me?

2009 was a tumultuous year. We’d emerged from the fall and winter of 2008 with a few family outings under our belt, including a visit to Bowman’s Tower in the fall with our two miniature dachshunds, Annie and Romeo.

I’m not sure what was more memorable, the breathtaking view of the orange and golden hues of fall interwoven with the last signs of summer green or the comment made to us by a stranger as we walked up the path with the dogs. Apparently, he’d never seen mini-dachshunds.

With some obvious discomfort, he knelt down to say hello to them. In a deep, graveled and memorable voice, he looked up at us and said, “Little dogs, little feet.” He rose with as much effort as it had taken for him to kneel and limped away.

This anecdote will always stay fresh in my mind, to this day I can still hear his voice.

However, sometimes I need to look at pictures to recall the full glory of Fall coming to the Delaware Valley in the fall of 2008.

 

The outing had given me hope, but the hope was short-lived. Life rapidly returned to the pre-Bowman’s outing pace of going to work, coming home from work and trying to ignore reality.

I fell into the deepest funk I’ve ever experienced in my life, and to put it mildly, I was a mess. Gin and tonics followed by servings of wine had become my coping mechanism, and during that time of my life, I was fooling no one but myself.

Thankfully (and here’s where the story will begin to come together), in January of 2010, a friend of mine took a very tough stance with me.

He said, “Beth, you are a beautiful talented woman. I’ve read what you write in your triathlon community training log, I love it – everyone loves it. Write. If you don’t want to write, take a drawing class, take a photography class; you’re always talking about wanting to create. Do it and quit depriving the world of your gifts. We’re given gifts so we can share them, not to waste them.”

The writing bit was the only thing I could connect to, but my response was, “A writer? Who me?!” Halfheartedly I conceded, “I’ll do my best to try and find a way to do something creative.”

He replied, “Beth, I don’t think you understand. I can’t continue to watch you destroy yourself and waste your talents.”

The message was received and the meaning was clear.

Ironically (or not), the following day I received a course catalog for ed2go.com in the mail; the featured online course category was of all things, creative writing.

I registered for my first class on the same day. Oddly enough, I signed up for a class on writing romance novels, perhaps due to my teenage love affair with Harlequin Romances.

Writing Under a Pseudonym

In retrospect, I was unduly nervous about joining in on an online writing class. But at the time, it seemed as though I was going to be baring my soul, or more specifically my writing, to strangers and people who might ridicule it.

So, in order to protect myself, I registered on the site under my real name (which was obviously necessary) but signed up for my first, second, third and maybe even fourth and fifth six-week class under the pseudonym of Lady Smith.

Lady Smith is the name of a town in Virginia. I’ve never actually been there but drove by it on my way to and from Richmond, VA a few months prior to signing up for my class. For some bizarre reason, it stuck in my head and seemed like the perfect name to use as a name de plume in my online writing classes.

Six months into taking my online writing classes, ranging from “How to Write Romance Novels,” to “How to Make Money From Your Writing,” I somehow mustered up the nerve to start my own blog. Never mind the fact that I was still authoring under a pseudonym in a private and really safe environment. For whatever reason, I decided to take what I’d learned during the previous six months and give it a go – for the first time, putting my real name and identity to my thoughts, ideas and stories.

My main dilemma now was what to name my blog.

Angels Wear Plaid

I honestly can’t remember which came first, the idea for my first blog post or the idea for the name of my blog. I suspect it must have been the name of the blog. It seems logical that I would have started the process of setting up my blog before deciding to write a post – but, I’m not always logical and it could easily have happened on the same day.

What I remember is sitting at my dining room table in the house on Pine Grove Road, it was a brilliantly sunny early summer day and for some reason when I looked at the driveway I was taken back to winter and more than a few inches of snow.

The day I recalled was equally as sunny, although not nearly as inviting. At least eight, maybe ten inches of snow had fallen overnight. I woke up to the sun flooding my bedroom with daylight and forgot for a moment that we were in the dead of winter.

Not one to pay attention to the weather forecast (that is until I moved to Upstate NY), I had no idea there would be snow on the ground. I pulled back the curtain and groaned. The depth and heaviness of the snow were obvious from my upstairs window; the thought of shoveling the long driveway sent me straight back to bed. I pulled the covers over my head, closed my eyes, and hoped the snow would melt before I woke up again.

I was in that haze one feels between being fully awake and deeply asleep, there was a familiar, but yet unfamiliar sound outside. I couldn’t sort it out so I made my way to the window once again; the sound I didn’t quite recognize, was a snowblower.

My neighbor Bill, from across the street, wearing a plaid jacket and matching fur-lined cap was snow-blowing my driveway. I remember at the time thinking something to the effect of, “he’s an angel.” Although truth to be told, his daily disposition might suggest otherwise.

At any rate, that morning I certainly felt like that morning he was one.

In June of 2011, that memory inspired me to publish my first post and to name my blog Angels Wear Plaid.