February 05, 2014
To Matriarchs & Our Roots
I’ve always loved the word Roots. In English at least, the word always made so much sense to me since the word’s foundation is in fact, a foundation….Roots are the source of where things are formed and grow; they are the part of a plant which attaches to the ground and gives it support, just like a family does. It is also the basic cause and the source of origin of something, like our culture and “hood” provide us throughout our lives.
We are all born from a root, a strong thread of sorts that binds us to a known place, a known culture, a known color and a known value system and just like a maple tree knows its soil, we know our own. And, just like that tree grows and blossoms into something rich, pure and beautiful before it eventually withers and dies, we too go through a similar journey, passing through cycles just as nature does, calling on our “roots” to give us the support and strength we need to get to the next stage of our lives.
Somehow we have this notion as children that our parents and grandparents won’t ever die because they were the first source of strength, protection and support we ever knew; it doesn’t seem possible that the matriarch or patriarch everyone turned to for strength, would someday lose their own.
Having been raised by my grandparents, I’ve experienced the journey to death more often than most people my age and seen more people I care about and love slip away before I felt it was their time. We’ve all experienced death in some shape or form -- even as children, we have seen a family pet or bird we may have only nurtured for a week or two die before our eyes.
Amidst all of this tearing and pulling away from our strong albeit gnarly roots, a matriarch or patriarch was there to see us through. While we were fortunate to have a few in our extended family, it was hard to hold a candle to Aunt Jo, the feminine and graceful force behind so many functions and gatherings.
Above, she carries one of her five boys in the 1950s at a summer family outing. Below, four generations gather under one roof.
Traditionally a matriarch is a woman who rules or dominates a family, group, or state or a mother who is head and ruler of her family and descendants.
In some cultures, the matriarch holds more weight than it does in other societies. In the first half of this century, they often came from extended families in the states because the “extended family” was something we cared about and nurtured much more than we do today. The American culture if there is such a thing, was created from a mishmash of quirky customs, each generation struggling to extend the traditions they held most dear.
Aunt Jo who married into a family with customs stemming from Eastern Europe, Wales, England and French Huguenot culture, was one of those matriarch forces. Her roots came from Polish catholic descent and from those roots, I learned to polka, make a mean rice pudding, how to maintain dignity and grace under pressure (especially amidst a whole lotta male energy) and remain constant when things go south.
Together with my great grandmother and grandmother who raised me, these three matriarchs created a family thread for which our roots never strayed.
(The blurry photo below is made up of family members who were nearly all born in the 1800s, including my great grandmother who I lived with for awhile. Albeit short, she is the one who assertively stands in the front with the 'fake chicken' as if she's commander-in-chief...and oh btw, she always believed she was)
We always knew Aunt Jo would outlive every family member from her generation even as children, and so she did…I learned of her stroke not quite a week ago and this afternoon of her passing, the day after her 95th birthday.
Her passing is not just the passing of an amazing soulful woman but of an era, a time when extended family connections mattered, a time when we made time to cook homemade meals for our children and TV, PC and mobile screens didn’t preside over face-to-face talks. We partied together and also mourned together. We went to church together and fought when we got home. Passing the time pissing and moaning over martinis and gin and tonics were the order of the day and most of it was done through a thick cloud of smoke, something people did inside not out.
Adults swore but told us not to, boys would get whacked when they misbehaved and girls took piano and dance lessons. We washed our hair under the kitchen sink in the winter and used green Prell from floating plastic bottles in the lake during the summer. We had curfews but few followed them and if we missed a day of school to help our dad fix a car, it wasn’t considered truancy. We played poker and pitch with adults by the time we were ten and there was always plenty of music, dancing, vodka, sauerkraut, kabasi sausage on the grill and horseshoe matches on the lawn.
This was the small town New England working class America I knew. It was…and remains, my roots. Aunt Jo’s dignity, grace and strength were part of it, as was my grandfather’s “beat-the-system” attitude and my grandmother’s “don’t ever abandon your feminine self.”
Above is a group of women you should be equally scared and honored to know - a treasure, a joy, a lifetime of stories and an inner strength they wore so proudly. Had I not known them and seen life through their eyes, I would not be able to write these words today.
My three mentors sit in positions #2, 4 and 6 in the photo above -- very few women in my life since this miraculous generation I'm proud to call family have given me the courage and strength to move forward as I have, AND even more importantly, accepted me for who I was as a 'let's challenge the status quo child" and who I have now become, which merely extends that same child's dream and heart.
Like many Americans, I grew up learning to embrace four different ethnicities and three religions, even though there were fights between family members over more than one of them. The catholics in the family hung crosses in the dining rooms and bedrooms and the protestants went to boring Sunday morning services and raised their kids with a sense of honor and ethics, yet overdid it on weekends in rural Mad Men style.
At some point, we decide to leave our roots behind for awhile to explore and dabble. Along the way, we taste different kinds of candy, speak in different tongues, drape ourselves with different materials and shades, and discover that there are nearly 1,300 varieties of bananas and 17 species of penguins. Who knew?
Even though I’ve now lived in California for awhile, I still can’t call it home nor ever will. More than any other state, I consider California the most rootless state because its purpose historically hasn’t been to create roots but to sow them. Although immigrants first landed in the east, those with entrepreneurial spirits fled west when the Gold Rush hit in 1848 in hope of a better life.
Beyond the Gold Rush, the promise didn’t stop – from Hollywood and beach culture to America’s first sushi and award-winning wine, California led the way. Today, it’s technology and people now swarm to Silicon Valley for the promise of abundance or the opportunity to build their own thing.
California is a place of “roots” of things and inventions but not people; the melting pot of voices and ideas all stem from somewhere else. Skype was invented by Estonians, Google’s founders are from Russia and Yahoo’s founder is Taiwanese born.
These entrepreneur’s values and roots came from far away foreign lands and while mine came from a combination of five of them, they were all deeply planted in New England.
Some of us run from our roots forever and have good reasons to do so, whether it be a black cotton farmer who left the South in the 1950s because he had no choice, a Holocaust survivor who landed wherever a boat took them, the small town boy from a small European town whose dream was to produce Hollywood movies, or the Chinese girl who might have been killed in the early 1980’s had she not found a new country to call home.
As Ping Fu and Baratunde Thurston exemplify in their books “Bend Not Break” and “How to be Black”, our roots never escape us. In his book "Rescue America," Chris Salamone talks about his Italian roots as a first generation American and how today’s generation has abandoned the very thing that made this country the force it became.
Without our roots, America will look, sound and feel like a bland echo-chamber of brilliant minds without soul, without culture and without purpose. When we sleep most peacefully at night, it’s when our soul is aligned with our purpose and both are in alignment with our roots, even if we are not living on the soil which birthed us.
We’ve all been there.
Richard Russo who writes painfully at times about our shared hood, is so raw in his storytelling, I knew that if I were to meet him, we’d inherently understand each other without needing to exchange a word simply because we share the same roots.
After reading a few of his novels, I wondered if his Uncle Richard had ever sipped whiskey with my Uncle Alton or brought in the morning with a bad cuppa coffee at an old Main Street diner which no longer exists. Or, perhaps they labored in a leather mill together or one of his cousins had played cards with my Aunt Jo.
Nearly a decade into living in California, I don’t feel as if I truly “know” anyone or even worse, understand anyone. This is the truth. And yet, I have 5,120 blah blah whaaadevveerr friends on Facebook.
I write this on this longer than normal American Airlines flight from JFK to SFO, and to my right is a man from Turkey who moved to New York over twenty years ago and to my left is a woman whose mother was Syrian and father was British, yet she grew up in Canada. We talk about roots – their soil, their food, their religion.
When we stop talking and the movie is over, the plane is silent. I can’t stop thinking about my Aunt Jo, the glue who kept an otherwise dysfunctional family functional and strong. The wife of Ed, my grandfather’s closest brother who was blinded in the war, she raised five boys while maintaining elegance, fortitude, strong traditional family values, tradition and faith.
Fighting the tears knowing she could be gone by the time the plane landed, I thought about the countless family gatherings at their house and our summer camp, my grandparents singing at some alcohol-infused function and my Aunt Jo and Uncle Ed dancing in the driveway of their house where many a’ clam bake and barbecue took place.
Above, the early 1960's. Below, the mid-1990's.
When a family member we love dearly passes, we reflect on the beautiful memories of our childhood but in doing so, we also relive some of the painful ones too...the times when we weren’t understood or accepted by the family members we somehow felt we needed the most approval from -- sound familiar?
I’ve learned over the years that in order to fully embrace our roots in a healthy way, we need to absorb the stories and lessons learned from those who did accept and love us for who we were and are today, not those who didn’t and simply won’t. Secondly, roots isn’t just about the people, customs, religion and food, it’s also about the soil which nurtured us.
It’s important to embrace the nature and soil from our hood because what our hands and feet felt as a child is what our body knows and understands and even more importantly, “it” understands and knows us.
The Adirondack Mountains understand me and I them – there’s no judgment or need to be anyone or anything I am “not” around them. I walk among her trees and I swim in her lakes. And in doing so, it brings me more peace, serenity and acceptance than anything I’ve ever known.
Long walks in the snow, swims and canoe rides, red cardinals sitting on maple trees, lumpy mashed potatoes, corn on the cob at clam bakes, flower corsages on Easter Day, handpicked blueberries over French toast and parties with adults who drank more martinis and smoked more packs of cigarettes than days they went to school.
This is a Tribute to you my Dear Aunt Jo, one of the most precious women I have ever known and have had the honor and opportunity to love. Thank you for all that you were and the beautiful imprint you have left on all of us. It’s hard to imagine a life without you in it, so when you decide what bird you will present yourself to us in the months ahead, please let us know. I will look for you outside my kitchen window.
"Just trust yourself, then you will know how to live.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Top photo credit: jtl.us. Red cardinal bird credit: quoteko.com. All other credits Renee Blodgett.
December 20, 2013
Happy Holidays & Reflections on 2013!
As I began reflecting on the 2013 year, I realized it has been a watershed year for me in so many ways. What an incredible year of personal growth and professional reflection, where projects and encounters I didn't think would be diverse and creative ended up being more powerful because of what they didn't offer more than what they did. I experienced calmer and more serene waters, and re-ignited with nature in a way I haven't since childhood. As the 2013 year begins to close to an end, here are some photo highlights from the year.
Happy Holidays & A Toast To An Incredibe 2014!
September 22, 2013
Mindblowing Doer's On Resilience & Moving Ideas to Action
After a warm, amusing and enchanting performance by the ever so talented WJM Band, a rock band of 10 year old boys, Paul Katz took the TEDxUNPlaza stage on September 16 to kickstart a conversation about the third session of the event: Ideas to Action.
Entertainment industry executive, two-time Grammy nominee and social entrepreneur, Paul Katz is the founder and CEO of Commit Media.
He cited Catapult, an example of an idea moved to action in the real world. The first crowdsourcing platform dedicated to girls and women's rights, it is run by small start-up team of people hailing from design, technology, advocacy, journalism and of course the girls and women's sector.
The team's passion is driven by the fact that there's an urgent need for increased funds and engagement for girls' and women's rights and development, something which has been obvious for years to activists, advocates and everyone else working and campaigning on behalf of girls and women.
When you realize how low the stats are, your ears perk up. For example, only 6% of all funding goes to girls and women's issues. One very real example in the developing world is the use of mobile phones being used to teach Afghanistan girls to read when they can't leave the house. To-date Catapult has helped roughly 200 projects in 81 countries worldwide.
While one of Paul's key drivers is social entrepreneurship and change, he is also well known for the key role he played in building Zomba’s (later Jive) successful worldwide interests in record production and distribution, publishing, equipment rental, recording studios and producer and artist management. With more than 100 million albums sold and numerous Grammy Awards won, Zomba featured artists such as Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Backstreet Boys, and others, as well as composers whose songs were recorded by Michael Jackson, Celine Dion, Brian Adams, Barbra Streisand and more.
It was fitting that Paul was in the Ideas to Action session since he is so often called upon to speak about the intersection of entertainment and philanthropy.
Take Away: Just because you have a career in the for profit business world, whether its in entertainment or technology, it doesn't mean you can't have an impact however small in the non-profit and socially conscious world. Find your passion and tell its story, utilizing your talents and exercising your voice as often as you have an opportunity to do so.
Jim Stolze is known for his successful launch of a commercial magazine and as a co-founder of an advertising agency specializing in digital marketing. Today, he is the editor-in-chief of the largest website in The Netherlands.
While content may be a core strength, Jim has stepped above and beyond his roles on many occasions. As a senior ambassador for the TEDx program, he has organized many TEDx events and set up an organization in Doha Qatar to foster “ideas worth spreading” in the Middle East region.
He talked about a festival called Rise My Friend, which involves one million people dancing on 6 continents in the summer of 2015, all as he puts it "dancing to the same beat." To generate awareness, interest and attendees to sign up however, "the ask" is a little different.
If you volunteer 20 hours of your time, only then do you get an invitation to the festival. The idea is to raise the number of hours people spend on community work in exchange for a ticket, such as painting a school, singing to elders in an old folks home or helping pick up garbage. Once people volunteer and help a community, then they more authentically understand the value, leading to continued volunteer work without any incentive at all.
Rise My Friend will allow local communities to use an online platform to give people credits for their volunteer work, which will lead to a ticket to the festival in 2015. "Rise My Friend is so much more than a party," he says. "It is literally one million people joining hands all over the world because they love to dance and because they love to help out."
Take Away: Volunteer work matters and can make a significant difference in the world, but people don't always understand the impact they can make, nor do they take the time in their daily lives. The idea that volunteering your time allows you to be part of something bigger than yourself, while having fun with a community doing the same, is a great way to get people to "feel" the impact of helping others. I personally love this idea!
Manoj Bhargava asks with a satirical tone "what is a good idea? How do you define a good idea really? Is the idea useful and is it simple to execute? If the latter two things aren't there, then it's not a good idea. There are lots of solutions but if it's not helpful to someone or a community or accessible, then it's not a real solution." He asserts that the only good ideas are the ones that can be done easily and believes that everything should be thought of in that way.
He notes that there are three things worth investing in: technology, invention and innovation. Looking at it in the simplest of terms, innovation is something you're going to do that is useful that wasn't done yesterday. Just being simple can change everything. Look at Apple. Look at Twitter.
On invention, he asked us all to reflect on history and think of the people who have come up with the best inventions in the world. In other words, no invention has ever been made by 1,000 Ph.D.'s getting together in a room.
Manoj is an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and founder and CEO of 5-hour Energy. He realized over time that the main problem in the world was water and so, he has set out to purify water cheaper than anyone else, which he refers to as the "biggest project in the world." Without water, at least a billion people will die.
Take Away: There are a lot of ideas in the world and many may be worth doing, but if they're not simple and useful, they will have a hard time of being sustainable. Focus on ideas that can lead to something useful and change people's lives in a big way. Make your idea easy, digestable and sustainable and then, you can move that idea to action in a way that will have a huge impact on communities and individuals around the world.
Harry Kraemer says from a place of passion and conviction as he walked out onto the United Nations stage: We enter the modern world with multitasking. From his perspective as someone who drives leadership and management in the world as a Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management professor, he notices that people are driving, eating a Big Mac, shaving and texting in the car, sometimes all at the same time. He says, "we just go faster and faster."
In this race we call life, he asserts that we have we confused activity with productivity. He asks: "we're very active, but how productive are we? As leaders, it matters to define what doesn't matter and what does and start moving your values and ideas to action."
He believes that there are four key principals that make up really great leadership. I loved his list so much that I decided to list them in detail here.
- Self Reflection: Ask yourself: what are my values? What do I really stand for? What really matters? What difference to I make? What example would I like to send to the world? By slowing down, we really can separate noise from what really matters. Ask myself how do I lead people? What am I proud of today? If I lived today over again, what would I do differently? If I have tomorrow and if I'm a learning person, what would I do differently based on what I learned today. Doing so can help me me figure out what kind of impact I want to have. Taking time and making quality time differentiates real leaders. Remember that true leadership is not about control and organizational charts.
- Balanced Perspective: This is the ability to take the time to understand other sides of the story. Seek to understand before you're understood. If I'm really listening, I may hear the answer if I take the time to listen to them. Ask yourself: are you listening enough on a regular basis that the other people actually feel heard?
- Having True Self Confidence: Many of us have worked for macho people who appear to be confident but they don't have true self confidence. Step back and realize that there will always be people who are smarter, more athletic and more analytical than I am. You need to have the ability to feel comfortable with yourself and know that you will continue to learn more everyday. Having true confidence says that I'm going to get better every day. This is about surrounding yourself with people who are better than you at all the things you're not very good at and embracing it.
- Genuine Ability: Ask yourself: how did you get to where you are? The two most common responses is a combination of working hard and having a certain skill set. In addition, there are four others: luck, timing, the team and a spiritual dimension. If any of those four work for you, then you start to realize a few things. You realize and remember where you came from and keep things into perspective. In other words, tell yourself: I'm not going to read my own press clippings. If true leadership is about influencing people and understanding people and remembering that every single person matters, then we won't go a place of ego.
Take Away: Leadership has everything to with influencing people but you can't influence people if you can't influence yourself and trust yourself. By slowing down, we really can separate noise from what really matters. Be comfortable with yourself and know that you will continue to learn more everyday. Having true confidence means that I'm going to get better every day and truly listen to people along the way. Letting go of ego and making people feel truly heard and understood is a strong quality of true leadership.
Chicago-based Dean DeBiase is a serial rebooter, author, speaker and director at AKTA, DonorPath, IXchat, KINGlobal and 1871Chicago and among other initiatives, he's also the cofounder of Reboot Partners which blends entrepreneurial talent with corporations to reboot innovation and growth.
Says Dean, "if you bring together an intellectual and supportive ecosystem, the innovators and entrepreneurs will come. When united, that's when real movement and change happens."
He encouraged all of us to think about being a mentor and all it takes to be one is a little bit of passion. I think about mentorship a lot and even moreso recently since I attended a high school class reunion in New York. En route, I thought about who my mentors were growing up and who they are today.
I realized that I assigned mentors in my own head or minds eye and while they have been encouraging and motivating sources in my life, as a woman, I have never had a "formal one."
Mentors can be transformative, Connectors can really help accelerate growth, and Ambassadors are the ones who can scale the passion. Ambassadors can make sure an idea or a company has a sustainable life.
A digital thought leader and regular media guest, Dean is a co-author of the best-selling book The Big Moo with Seth Godin and Malcolm Gladwell. He is also a Silicon Valley veteran with a track record scaling emerging growth companies, starting-up new ventures and embedding entrepreneurial-grade talent into multi-national corporations.
Take Away: If you bring together an intellectual and supportive ecosystem, the innovators and entrepreneurs will come. When united, that's when real movement and change happens. Embrace this and whatever hybrid role you decide to be (mentor, visionary, ambassador or simply someone who cares) and contribute "it" to a startup or an entrepreneur's idea.
Paralympic swimmer Mallory Weggemann nearly had me in tears. Her story isn't one for the light hearted! She became paraplegic after an epidural injection to treat post-shingles back pain in 2008, a decision which turned her life upside down.
Overcoming obstacle after obstacle emotionally and physically, she is a true source for inspiration. Since then, she has demonstrated not just an outrageous amount of courage and resilience, but compassion and empathy for herself and the world around her.
Today, she has a lot to be proud of: Mallory broke many world records in the S7 classification, and won multiple gold medals at the IPC Swimming World Championships in 2009 and 2010.
She says of the moment that changed her life forever, she made a decision not to let that one incident define who she is and fight for something better. She says, "it's not the moments in life who define who we are, it's how we react to those moments in life."
She reflects on when she decided to fight back and find a happy ending in her situation. Says Mallory: "It's how we react to the moments in our lives that define who we are."
Swimming and competition was something that set her free and brought her back to life. She says, "the world I was opened up to is limitless; tt's about pushing your body to new limits regardless of your situation."
In 2012, when she participated in the London paralympics and became a paralympic gold medalist, she reflects on that time and says, "a dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality. I know that dream didn't become a reality because of myself; it was because of the supporters around me who gave me support." Here, she is referrring to her family, her friends and her community.
"When circumstance steps in and alter our course in our life, it's what do we do with that is what defines us," says Mallory. She adds: "do we allow us to paralyze us and do we allow it to define us or do we push forward and move on with our life?"
Clearly she has chosen the latter in a big way...in such an inspirational way that is life alterating to anyone listening.
So given that the theme of the conference is indeed Bravery, what is indeed BRAVE? Mallory says of bravery that it carries multiple faces and we all have the ability to be brave. "Bravery cannot be defined but it can be challenged." She encouraged everyone to live their lives with passion and with a full heart AND without judgment or fear.
Take Away: Don't let negative incidents that happen in your life define who you are as a person. It's not the moments in life who define who we are, it's how we react to those moments in life. If you think about it, everyone in this life has a disability; we all have things that will hold us back in life if we let them, but it's up to us to decide to rise above and push forward. If we have dreams, and we all have dreams, it's up to us to create them and not let obstacles however large stop us. Sometimes this is the bravest act of courage we can have in our lives.
Hear hear Mallory! Thanks to you and your bravery and resilience and to Paul, Jim, Manoj, Harry and Dean for your words of encouragement and and inspiration to moving "ideas to action."
Photo credits: Renee Blodgett except for the Olympics medal photo of Mallory which is from www. malloryweggemannusa.com.
July 15, 2013
When the Clouds Ask You to Dance Under an Icelandic Sky
She picked me up from "the nautical hotel", the one that wooed me with the red balcony that faced the blue and abandoned ship in Reykjavik's Harbor. I could have written sad and happy things for days on end facing that crazy abandoned ship whose gaze continued to dazzle me outside my bedroom window.
Suddenly, she made a sharp right and headed east into the countryside, some 40 kilometers outside the city. There's a point when all pretenses fall loose and it was one of those moments. My first trip out of Reykjavik a few days into my trip, it was as I feared, rainy and drizzly as the weather report indicated. And yet, sometimes, blue sky and white clouds made their appearance because perhaps they wanted to dazzle an overworked brunette from a far away American land.
"Wow, this is pretty," I said and felt. It was such a meek and ridiculous attempt at what should have been, "this blows," or "this is outrageous"...Or perhaps nothing at all and just breathe into one aha and joyous moment after another had I been from somewhere in this world that didn't need a phrase to qualify such a beautiful existence.
It was as if I was witnessing a place where Ireland just married the Moon and then tossed with some magical dust from Scotland, Norway, Antarctica and New Zealand and I didn't know what to do with it.
The area is called Nesjavellir, a great launching pad for trips in the south of the country. I was on my way to new resort and was in a rare place of accepting the forthcoming indulgence.
Nesjavellir is set in the Icelandic countryside where there are very few frills - it's all about the air, the sights, the smells and the tastes from nearby lava fields, the thermal steam and vapor and an ever so stunning early summer Icelandic sky.
As a frequent solo traveler, I arrive somewhere I am reviewing, often a hotel, resort, activity, adventure, spa or tour and 95% of the time, people around me are couples, 4% are very young travelers and 1% are in that other category, the one I guess I would fall into -- the misfit category. And so from the category of the misfits, I hold a perspective which is unique and muddled and distinct and reflective and beautiful and blessed and pure and often....complex.
Holding that mindset, imagine my dinner, which started off mid-way to great until a fairly lame Chilean red arrived since the options by the glass were slim. Suddenly, a Viking who says he's a blend of bartender, waiter and fix it guy, showed up with a bottle of 1991 Bordeaux. Classy, I think as I watch the lame glass of red leave my table.
As I slowly sipped my Bordeaux, I dove into the Icelandic sky since it seemed to be so gracious with its time, energy and beauty in a way that the best food and wine can never begin to offer.
While the wait staff started out a little reserved and quiet, they slowly picked up steam. Liquors that solely belonged to Iceland suddenly began to appear. New to me, crowberries and einiberja soon graced me with their presence.
A local doctor who was out for dinner with his wife popped over to say hello and shared a few photos with me after I offered to take a shot of both of them at their table.
"It is usually a photo of just one of us," she said with a smile as I snapped away. My God, I thought as I looked them, they're whiter than the Irish. Later, when he approached my table as I was nearing my coffee, I realized that his eyelashes were whiter and lighter than blonde - I could barely see them as he stood to my side slightly bending over me, his 70 year old fingers sliding left and left again, so I could see all the shots he took on his phone over the previous two weeks.
It was an Iceland I had not yet seen since my days in the country were still so few. That moment in time was special if not rare...a retired doctor confiding in me even if it was for a few brief moments and showing his endearing and reflective self. The tenderness and vulnerability came through and it was a treasured and elegant memory to say the least. Iceland isn't just unique or pretty or inviting, it's dramatic, spiritual, intense, volatile and ever so engulfing. And, most importantly, the people are what make it so...
After the doctor leaves and a glass of Bordeaux has warmed my soul, a blonde Icelander returns to my table to inform me that they'll open up the 10 meter hot tub pool for me and me alone, half of which extends into the open air and half of which is covered. It is typically closed after ten, about the time my second wind is re-ignited and so, this news brought on a huge smile.
As I made my way into the shallow hot pool with temperature of 95 degrees or so, I realized there were no jets or chlorine and the bottom of the pool was both murky and slippery because it was coated with green algae...natural green algae. Surreal, peaceful and tranquil Eastern instrumental music played in the background and like I am so often these days, I was alone. It was just me and an Icelandic sky.
Gratitude won. Presence won. The hot natural waters won. The thermal steam won. The Midnight Sun won.
A couple hours later, I slowly removed myself from the pool, the one with the slimy green and black bottom. Ahhh, the pure naturalness of it all I thought.
As I made my way down the hallway, I listened to a group of Norweigans and Icelanders laughing in the lounge only two doors away from me...reserved but after much alcohol, no longer quiet. The women would frequently gasp under their breath when they spoke as if they lost their breath somehow for a moment and were fighting to get it back and in a so not so sensual way. A friend claims the women (and men) do this in Norway too. It was something I never did get to the bottom of or understand.
Two girls continued to drink and as they did, their boyfriends started to howl...once quiet reserved Nordic types now in a different place of mind.
I returned to my room and as I shut my door and turned the lock to the left, I could hear people's laughter, the same 20 or so who were in the resort restaurant some hour or two before. There was still plenty of Bordeaux left but I poured some Earl Grey tea instead and faced my open window which looked out onto a brightly lit 2 am sky.
Clear Blue sky turned to white fluffy clouds every twenty minutes or so, at times, turning into tenuous or threatening clouds. Just when they just seemed to be settling down, you suddenly felt them dancing in front of you asking you for a hand in a delicate or perhaps a not so delicate dance. You see, Iceland is this way - forever changing and you never can be sure where it's going to take you. In the midst of my volatile dancing clouds, there were rolling meadows and luscious hills.
To my left was a view of Icelandic tundra and flowing landscape and to my right was a painted white horse against a concrete wall, hazy at best against a later than midnight sky. A juxtaposition in time or was it really all one in the same?
I wanted to shut down my laptop, yet there were photos to process, more hot water for my tea to fetch, emails and tweets to respond to and a life size photo of a horse's head to say hello to. Breathing into my beautiful Icelandic horse on my wall...stage right, and the meadows to my left with the three shades of brown drapes covering a third of my view, I breathed deeper than I had in awhile, and as I did, I acknowledged it was okay that I didn't say hello to anyone else but me and that I didn't have to be someone else other than me for a moment or an hour or as Iceland would remind me, a lifetime.
In my white robe and bare feet, I "okayed" my wet bathing suit that lay on the concrete floor. I also acknowledged that it was okay not to pick it up, hang it up or dry it before my day's end. I let it be. I let me be. I let the Iceland sky be. I let the laughs of the all Nordic guests at the end of my wing just be. And then, and only then, did I hit save and toss my computer off my lap without packing it away. It fell into a bundle of pillows to my left and then I gently moved it to the floor as the pillows followed without rhythm, without choice and without a plan.
Suddenly, pure joy. With feet up in the air behind me, dangling as a ten year old would dangle them, I looked out into my Iceland sky and its draping, green luscious hills which stretched to my south and smiled. Thank you for that gift you Nesjavellir wonder I thought. Thank you for that gift!
July 12, 2013
Reflecting Under Iceland's Midnight Sun
It's a late June evening as I take another spoonful of my Blueberry Skyr, a creamy substance that looks and feels like yoghurt, only Icelanders make it better. While looking out my hotel window that faces Reykjavik's harbor, I can't imagine another place I'd rather be or anything else I'd rather be doing.
I had just come from an environment where they talked about start-ups and new business ventures at an event hosted at HARPA and was suddenly thrown into one where they talked about fish, thermal baths and spiritual retreats in the countryside and hikes in the north that would soon would leave me both speechless and breathless. Taking in the weathered ship in all its ancient glory, I smile in quiet knowingness and nothingness all in the same breath.
My Skyr cup is now empty and using an underhand maneuver, I toss it in the bin. Score! Slowly I lick the rest of what’s left on my spoon and put it on my sailor themed table eager for any action at all since I hadn’t yet given “it” or my laptop any attention. Iceland’s Midnight Sun is happy about this decision and so am I.
Hands empty, I grab my camera, hotel key and nothing else and head out the door.
Wandering through Reykjavik's streets on a not so warm summer night, you're quickly reminded that you're about as far from Kansas as you can be. And so, I take in the nautical-ness around me for a couple more hours. Midnight had long passed and yet the skies glowed above me, egged me to explore textures and colors. It was then that I realized my Icelandic journey had really begun and I knew there was something magical awaiting though I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time.
I walk and walk for what feels like hours and hours – is it 5 am yet? There's a truck clearly ready to head into far more rustic areas than Reykjavik's city center and yet, I haven't begun to dive deep into Iceland's nature wonderland, so in that moment in time, I only imagine what hills, valleys and rivers those wheels have crossed.
I still didn't know what Iceland had to offer you see, since I did no research before I left home. The good news about this fact is that I allowed locals to lead me by the hand and tell me where to go, what to do and often, who to meet. It's a small country and it's astonishing who knows who. Incestuous almost. That said, there's an endearing and magical quality to its intimate size, where an energy, spirit and energy I forgot existed. It was the same one I grew up with in the Adirondack Mountains.
But it was too early to know all of that. For now, Reykjavik at night was my playground and I "it." I wandered through the streets taking it all in and didn’t get back to my hotel room till after 5 am. Alone – all night long – was so the right way to "take her."
I retired to my bed to only see a similar view out my window from the one I left six or so hours ago. Welcome to an Icelandic night, the one which never sleeps and where the sun never sets.
Those first few nights were the start of something transformative, but I just didn't know it at the time. Soon, Iceland was about to bring me back home, not to the Adirondacks, but back to myself.
May 26, 2013
Embracing & Owning Your Imperfections Opens More Doors, Not Less...
People who know me well know that I'm a sucker for a new read. As long as there's not six other books in queue or the recommended book is so uncompelling I can't get through it, it's mine for the taking. When I was beating up on myself recently, a friend recommended I look into the work of Brene Brown.
I started with her TED talk and then moved to her book: The Gifts of Imperfection -- oh such a compelling title in a country that deems itself more perfect than any other. Some may call it a personal self help book, and while aspects of that may be true, the category has gotten such a bad rap lately that I'd prefer to call content what it is designed to do: help you get from A to B through whatever wisdom the author shares through their vantage point and skillset. If that's self help, fine.
Is it self help when you need to learn a specific management skill and an expert who has the wisdom shares it through a book to get you unstuck? We look down upon wisdom that might help elevate ourselves and our sense of humanity but praise things that help our skills and ability to accomplish and succeed. You get my point.
Frankly if you dive deep enough into most things we do of "external value," there's always an underlining emotional issue that gets in the way. Take money. While clearly there's a skillset in trading, investing and allotting the right money to the right buckets, selling too quickly or making the wrong decision often comes from a place of emotional fear rather than following a code of what works and what doesn't. The best guys on Wall Street keep their emotions out of it but not all of us can. The same applies to raising kids, keeping a marriage together, staying healthy or running a company.
While most of Brown's references are personal ones, the gift that this "read" gave me was largely professional. Here's why. While clearly we all have moments where we're afraid to be honest with ourselves and others, throwing our vulnerabilities out there with a friend or group of friends tends to be easier, at least for me. I'm more likely to lift the shield in a personal environment than in a professional one. The former can expel me from their group while the latter can fire me, impact my revenue, reputation and most importantly, self esteem.
When I read that Brown was a "shame researcher," my immediate reaction was: how much is there to research about shame? Really? It's so specific that I couldn't imagine a professor dedicating her entire career to something that specific and yet, there are professors who dedicate themselves to ants and write lengthy scientific papers on the latest Melanesian ant fauna which end up as a TED talk, so why not?
Little did I know. Shame is not as specific as you might think. Through reading her book and doing some additional digging on my own, I can see how prolific it is in our lives, weaving its way into all aspects, from how we interact with family, peers, and loved ones to the person who hands us our double latte in the morning.
To deny that "shame" shows up in my personal life would be to deny being human, for we've all experienced it, however the piece which most resonated with me is how it awkwardly plays into professional relationships and dynamics, a place that doesn't use the word "shame."
Getting beyond it requires courage and compassion daily in order to live what she refers to as a wholehearted life. It requires practice. Malcolm Gladwell said it best in his 10,000 rule analogy. How can you ever ace something you don't spend time practicing over and over and over again? The same applies to our personal lives. In other words, proactively practicing courage, compassion, connection and empathy is how we ultimately cultivate worthiness.
Time and time again, I have witnessed people not asking for what they're worth and "owning it" while they're at it. I've been there - we all have. Given that PR in general is often perceived as being useless, provides little or no value and can't be measured, I find that many practitioners and consultants undersell themselves or charge on a transaction basis to bring the cost down in order to get the business. It's an act of desperation when you do this - it not only commoditizes our business and our value but delivers an "action" rather than the "value of that action."
Women often have a harder time feeling worthiness and the moment we attempt to prove our worthiness is the moment we've lost the game. Often, we feel as if we have to prove ourselves particularly when a CEO or worse, a COO suggests that what we do didn't move the needle today. The problem at least in my industry, is that branding, communications and marketing doesn't move a needle in a day, or a week or even a month, although sometimes it can. It's a process, just like building relationships is a process. We cannot and must not ever measure our worthiness based on that formula and model.
Because of the nature of my industry, it's even easier to undercut our worthiness than say a doctor, who performs a surgery and suddenly a limb is working again. At the heart of what we do as communications pros is storytelling. Aren't the best stories the ones which are authentic, intimate and vulnerable at their core?
I often feel that when I begin to go there with a client, fear gets in the way...not just on my side but on the client's side as well. The more I rely on emotion, intuition and creativity which is the essence of what makes me thrive at what I do, the more the client throws up roadblocks or devalues the deed because it's so untangible. Beauty, art and yes, even moving the needle often comes from untangible.
Is a brand that you buy again and again always tangible? Sometimes it is (it's faster, more durable) but more often, it's a feeling you have about the brand that brings you back again and again. This feeling is the result of years of storytelling and messaging, not six month's worth. And, consistency is key.
One of our inherent gifts as professionals is that we excel at not just creating that story, but delivering it consistently again and again. It's an art and our clients need to understand that it's an art, not a science. Own that art and you own your worthiness. We shouldn't have to 'sell or prove our worthiness' again and again as if somehow showing a stat suddenly proves that our "art" is worthy.
Brown talks about owning our story and I'd ask you to think about how what she says here shows up or doesn't show up in the workplace. Where she refers to love, belonging and joy, replace the words with self respect, connection and courage.
She writes: "Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love, belonging and joy -- the experiences that makes us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light."
She also quotes Pema Chodron, a Buddhist writer who is one of my favorite authors. "In cultivating compassion, we draw from the wholeness of our experience: our suffering, our empathy, as well as our cruelty and terror. It has to be this way. Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounder - it's a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity."
Hear hear Pema.
Here's another little bit of wisdom for those who have a hard time with imperfection and asking for help. Depending on what circles you travel in, some have a tight network (let's not forget the old school boy network, which yes, does still exist, especially in Washington), they rely on and often, they don't even have to 'ask' for help. It shows up just because they're part of that network. Others have different networks who help them out from time-to-time and others try to do it themselves...all the time: parenting, managing, creating, producing and running with very little delegating along the way.
Asking for help is hard when we are conditioned to strive for perfection, even if its something we disguise as perfect. From that place, we often feel that if we ask for help, we're indebted to someone and that lays over us like a negative card. Within the confines of that negative card, it's as if we're always trying to figure out how to repay for that help, even if the help wasn't a financial one.
This is how it shows up in many of our lives. While the following statement may sound counter-intuitive, it's true and she's right. Brown writes, "until we can receive with an open heart, we are never really giving with an open heart. When we attach judgment to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help."
This is also true: "Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us....because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance."
While I know many a narcissist in my business circles and on the flip side, others who have gone through the hard journey to get to self-acceptance, many of us still struggle with pieces of it from time-to-time. When that piece shows up in our professional lives, we second guess our decisions when our intuition tells us its the right one or we don't ask for what we're worth because a client widdles us down or leads us to believe our value isn't worth a specific amount.
Suddenly we're in a place of proving that we matter when we matter for just showing up and sharing the gifts we can deliver better than that client or possibly anyone else. Bottom line, we should be paid well for it: the value of it, not the task of it even if some of that value can't be measured right away. I know people who have gone to psychologists for ten years - does the value of their work show up after a visit or does it take time to get results? What about a tennis coach? Does the value of a dentist's work show up after one time or let's put it another way, how would your teeth look and feel if you didn't have those bi-annual check ups and cleans?
Value shows up over time and if you believe in yourself, your client needs to believe in your value too or don't work with them. Walk away. I mean it - walk away. It's the biggest gift you can give yourself. When one door closes, another one opens. And if you're feeling fearful about that statement, think about Helen Keller's fabulous quote: "when one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we don't see the one opening before us."
Live from a place of true worthiness, self-respect and authentic living and as Brown puts it, a wholehearted life and things will blow open for you. While it may not happen overnight, it will happen as long as you trust in the process. As an old wise monk said to me on a hike in Nepal many years ago, Patience, grasshopper, patience.
Photo Credits: Original Impulse. Andrew S. Gibson. Tiny Buddha. Jenny's Endeavors.
May 26, 2013 in America The Free, Books, On People & Life, On Poems, Literature & Stuff, On Spirituality, On Women, PR & Marketing, Reflections, Social Media, WBTW | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
May 05, 2013
Reflections: A Walk Into a Past & Present Estonia...
I'm lost as I navigate my way through the outskirts of Tallinn, but purposely so, as I know that magic lies in the unknown and what a better way to discover that unknown than to get lost. I flash back to my grandfather who would never hold my hand as we walked through the woods in the dense Adirondack mountains when we embarked on our summer hikes.
I know now that I never left his vision although at the time, he made me believe I was on my own after he purposely disappeared out of sight and watched me from behind a tree as panic entered my small face, those youthful child-like eyes searching for his familiar red and blue flannel shirt. Bringing me out of my comfort zone again and again was something my grandfather sought and it was less of a 'thing' he did from time-to-time, and more the way he lived his life.
It wasn't until I had long passed my twenties that I realized what a gift he had given me so many years ago despite the fact that to this day, anxiety still swallows me when I lose my way.
That anxiety occasionally moves to a "fight or flight" place and yet there's an excitement in that kind of anxiety, for I know that in that unknown place, I'm bound to make some rare encounter or learn some bizarre lesson about some bizarre piece of life I never deemed important before.
I reflect in that memory as I turn another corner, realizing that I left no trace of where I had been nor did I have a clue about where I was going. Having moved beyond the boundaries of the old town at least thirty minutes before, I stopped looking for landmarks I may have read about in some brochure or guidebook, and began to notice what was around me.
It was one of those off-blueish colored moments, where I realized I was pretty far from Kansas, in a part of town where people lived and didn't deal with tourists as part of their day...not unlike the small town and world where I grew up, they too didn't fit the storybook culture up until know, I had only read about.
I was struggling with the notion that Eastern Europe could become as modern and western as the rest of Europe even after over 20 years of independence. The last time I had been this close to Russia was the mid-eighties when I didn't have permission to have free-flowing conversations with locals nor did they with me, there was a thriving black market, our hotel rooms were bugged, shops were stark and restaurant menu offerings were slim.
Even my return visit to Budapest and Prague a couple of summers ago didn't convince me that everything had transformed even though I could rent a segway, buy a t-shirt with the city plastered on it and order fine wine.
If that wasn't enough, every newspaper, history book and photograph proved that it was all very real and we were now living in very different times. And yet, like the abolishment of slavery didn't transform America's attitudes about how blacks should be treated after 20 years, you can't remove the impact of more than a century of tyrant rule and communist life in one generation.
Like many cultures in Eastern Europe, Estonians didn't always rule their own land. In fact, for over 800 years, the Swedes, the Poles, the Danes, the Germans and the Russians have all invaded the country and put down a stake.
I learned through my visits to Kolga and Sagadi Manors that the Scandinavians and Germans held fort for many years while Estonians served them tea and watered their gardens. While they've enjoyed stints of freedom -- for two short years in the 1200s -- and for 19 years in 1920, not ruling their own land has been more common than ruling it.
Not being given control of your own destiny time and time again must play a toll on one's attitudes, personality & outlook on life I thought as I wandered aimlessly down yet another street, one that didn't seem to have a visible street sign.
I also thought about what else I knew about Estonians aside from the factoid that my fellow travelers were most thrilled about: Estonia is the most connected country in Eastern Europe. Aside from connectivity, the other topic that came up again and again was the one that breaks up countries, marriages, families and cultures: Religion.
You can't go to many places in Europe and not be inundated with churches and people's fixation with them. Yet, Estonia is apparently the least religious country on the planet with Ireland, Poland and Greece being the most religious...at least in Europe. In talking to a few locals in the first few days, the proof was there.
Women in their twenties and thirties both told me they didn't go to church nor did they grow up believing in a God. 80% of the same group of women said that they didn't feel the need to marry their partner even if they wanted to have children.
Like we do when we want evidence of stereotypes to show up in our face, I looked for more irreligious types on my walk, as if they'd somehow show such a trait in their walk or attire.
I remembered the live strip show on Viru Street I had passed on my way out of town, red satin dots across fake diamond studded banners fell in and around the Golden Dolls Gentleman Club, where they hold shows every day from 10 to 6. It was next to a Veta clothing store, Restaurant Cru and a Baltic amber shop, one of the dozens you'll find on any street in Tallinn.
This wasn't quite the evidence I was looking for however, nor did it support my theory that more remnants from pre-Soviet days were still around moreso than tour guides would have you believe. I, for one, would have loved to sit down with an 80 something year old male Estonian and drill him on every decade of his life, from his job, the wars, his military duty, his experience with Russian soldiers, how he provided for his family then and now, what his daughters thought they would become at ten and who they are today, politics, the environment, education and every miniscule detail in between.
Lacking a victim born in 1924 to sip coffee with for the afternoon, I continued walking. Urban shops and signs gave way to more stark buildings, some white washed and gray with weathered textures that wove in soft pinks, oranges and yellows in that antiquated way that old stone buildings display after a century of wear and tear.
Olive green paneling is plastered across the top of a turn of the century stone building and graffiti in more than one language decorates the bottom half. Two smoke stacks protrude into the sky ahead of me, one with a red stripe I can barely make out in my hazy view, one which suddenly feels more surreal than what actually just met the eye.
A woman in a bubble gum pink coat wearing matted gray rubber shoes with furry tops, stands with her son at a bus stop. She has a faux leather bag with keys dangling from a worn-out fringe and she looks away from her son while she takes a puff from her cigarette, as if doing so, will ensure the 36 bus comes that much faster.
While in the country, they spoke of mushroom farms, Juniper forests and limestone gravestones, in Tallinn's greater urban-ness, I learn about relics from the past, savory dishes that are more meaty than not, amber and the the attitude dynamic that exists between a not-so-wide generation gap.
I chalk up a conversation with a man in his forties standing a few feet away from my pink-clad woman with the cigarette dangling from her mouth, now on her third and there are still no signs of the bus. His English isn't fluent, yet we can communicate and his blue sparkling eyes which exuded generosity and authenticity in double doses, were enough to make up for whatever word or phrase that might present a communications challenge.
Not knowing what bus he was waiting for if he was waiting for one at all, I figured that I didn't have much time to start the conversation with trivial chit chat and work my way up to what I was really wanting to know.
And so, rather than begin with "Is it always this cold in Estonia in April?" especially since I had already heard countless times that this was an unusually cold year, I dove right into a question about his life as a teenager and oh btw, what were your twenties like while we're heading down that path? Luckily, he didn't think I was some American stalker or loopy redhead hitting on him on a random Thursday afternoon.
Andrus used to drive a military truck and spent time as a night sniper, oddly not the first one I had met since I arrived in Estonia. The Soviet army brought him to Moscow for training when he was just 18 and as he drifted off into memory lane, I learn that he was brought to the "KGB House" twice during his 2 and a half year stint with the Russians.
Afterwards, he was given an offer to stay where he'd receive a one room apartment and a black Volga or return home to a small town an hour or so from Tallinn. He chose the latter wondering if that choice might land him in Siberia instead, for who knows how much was required to demonstrate one's loyalty to the Party way back when?
As he shares his stories with me, I take in the volume of graffiti adorned on two century-old buildings across the street, while the structure next to it meets me with a mixture of urban decay and remnants from a Soviet past. Signs in a language that look as unfamiliar as Klingon might; Mustikas, Karamika, Infoveva, Euro Vaistine line up next to brightly colored plastic bubbles, where I think locals might dump their recyclables.
I move on and lose myself for awhile until the word Turg presents itself, a sign that is next to or part of a long blocked off area with a plastic cover draped over its top.
The ceiling has ripples of sorts, a flimsy covering that barely seems as if it could give the people below it shelter if the sky should open up. I can see that it's a market of sorts.....flowers, fruit and vegetable stalls face me mostly in open air, yet the stall tellers don't flinch despite the beckoning of rain.
Cars lined up on sidewalks in front of the shops without any logical reason given the volume of open parking spots scattered nearby. Bright colored clothing with over the top costume jewelry is the fashion order of the day, their glitter too much for the eye to bear against its otherwise stark background...I can see the glare from the shine echoing through the windows. Most of the shops appear to be closed yet the cars linger....another mystery in a mysterious land.
In these near suburbs of Tallinn, I don't see architectural evidence of the Gothic, Baroque and Rococo styles that swept through the centuries and still remain in tact at some of the country manors and estates.
I see a Tallinn struggling with its past and its present, trying to figure out its future, one where East not just meets the West, but embraces it with fortitude.
I continually met welcoming hospitable people, inside the city and out, eager to protect their heritage and history even if that history didn't include a religion or two that mattered.
They are if anything resilient. Moving. Intriguing. Reserved and yet warm. Authentic. It was an Estonia I wanted to return to and as I decided it was time to navigate my way back to more familiar streets as the light began to fade, I bid farewell to the part of town where locals lived not worked, smiling into the distance and thinking: this was a trip worth taking.
Note: I didn't take many photos as I ventured out of the old town center, so these are selected shots taken in and around Tallinn's old town.
April 29, 2013
What a Trip to Helsinki Reminded Me About Life's Lessons...
It’s a funny thing in life in that quite often, the opposite paradigm of the same thing applies: when you ask for something, you usually get what you ask for and equally, when you least expect something to happen, it often does.
I find that I’m much more aware of both paradigms when I’m on the road.
The week I was due to fly to Eastern Europe, I found myself wondering why I was once again heading to a cold climate country when I had been dreaming of warm weather destinations for months.
I often visualize myself listening to Chopin’s Concerto in D (any of the minors really), on a beach in Chile, breathing in Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni, or dining with a Mr. Handsome in some scrumptious steak restaurant with award-winning Mendoza wine in Buenos Aires, an evening which ends with a dance that equally embraces artful precision with unbridled passion. So Argentina I think. Grace and beauty at its best.
As travelers, we all cherish such moments on our around the world adventures, as we check off magical moments and experiences we have on some bucket list. Many of these moments forever change who we are and ultimately who we become.
These are the magical moments of travel: cultural faux pas’ that end in laughter, culinary experiences when our tongue is awoken to a new taste we never knew existed, or a hug from a child who doesn’t speak our language. It’s not just the tender moments which forever change us but the painful and unpleasant ones as well. We know this, but we try to avoid them at whatever cost.
With little sleep from the previous week, my emotional energy was thin, worn down like a pencil which had been sharpened so many times it had lost its original form. In that state, with bags under my eyes, I boarded an American Airlines fight from SFO to JFK and climbed into a tight space with someone close to 250 pounds next to me, a seat I had paid an extra $50 for the privilege of this insufferable leg.
I tried to recall earlier moments in time before airlines nickeled and dimed you for blankets, pillows, headsets and more, shrunk your leg room and seat size, you know....the times before you were charged extra to sit closer to the front, regardless of whether it was a middle seat or not and before you were charged for each and every bag. This was a period of time in travel, if you’re old enough to remember, that the flight to your destination was as pleasurable as the destination itself.
After five hours of cramped flying, I boarded another overbooked flight, my first with Finn Air, tweeting that it was so, as I made my way down the ramp. It was the ‘whitest’ flight I had taken in years, perhaps at all, unless a puddle jumper in northern Canada counts.
The other observation was how structured and controlled the boarding process was, so much so that I made a mental note that I was heading to the Switzerland of the very north.
Rules were not meant to be broken under any circumstance I thought.
It wasn’t until I sat down in my seat and endured several hours of resistance and persistence, that my trip to Eastern Europe became clearer.
My Finnish neighbor was sadly one of the rudest women I had encountered since my Egypt trip so many moons ago, and even worse, her bitter attitude didn’t lift for the entire seven hour journey.
As she jabbed me in the side of my ribs, barking over and over again that the arm rest was her’s and her’s alone, not to be shared, I found my anger and resentment building. She then proceeded to include me in a bucket of “god awful Americans”, clearly the result of one negative encounter she experienced at some point in her life.
Trying to reason with her in any way that seemed logical failed again and again. After a very sexy Finnish airline steward with sparkling blue eyes also tried to reason with her and also failed, I spent more of the flight standing up than sitting down, chatting with him in the rear of the plane about her stubbornness, he assuring me that all Finns were not like this. His dreamy eyes gave me cause to believe that he must be right.
When I finally surrendered to the fact that sleep wasn’t in the cards, I tried to change my own attitude towards this difficult woman, the one whose arm and elbow continually dug harshly into my side as she proceeded to show me who was boss all the way to Helsinki.
Breathe deep, I told myself and followed with other mantras and incantations of positive energy hoping that this mental exercise alone would melt her stubbornness. Sadly, this didn't work as it had already become personal since it was clear she hated Americans. She verbally said so.
As I saw how tightly wound she was, I realized I had been as tightly wound over the last few months for my own personal reasons. My work schedule has been insane, with barely a break to do anything much at all except to handle the myriad of external and internal requests and the same cycle repeated again, day after day, even on weekends. Ever have the experience when you exceed all expectations, work over and above what is humanly possible and received less acknowledgement than if you simply played the soldier? Alas, the soldier, which Seth Godin refers to as the cog in the wheel...the obedient employee who delivers precisely what he or she was told, regardless of whether it was a savvy decision or best for the company's success.
Perhaps she had been experiencing something similar in her own life? Ambushed by some ill form of logic that defied her own odds and deflated her own sense of worth and being? By her employer, her husband, her child, her sister, her colleague?
Either way, I realized that before the plane landed in Helsinki, I had to rid myself of the notion that all Finns were as rude as this encounter so I didn’t leave the country thinking they were all a bunch of control freaks who needed the rules to be precisely as they were or else they'd torment you into submission.
The thing about cultural stereotypes is that so often many of them hold a "certain" truth. The danger of course is that there are always exceptions and over time, people can dramatically change as we saw over two generations in Japan...two groups who couldn’t be more different from one another. If you're not sure this is true, just talk to a friend of mine whose brother wears punk clothing and purple sneakers, has an earring and four shades of hair while his grandmother who doesn't speak a word of English, still wears a traditional Japanese kimono, bows and serves tea.
I know that Eastern Europe is slower to change since they are fixated on the past more than most regions of the world I’ve visited and I wondered how much of this had extended over its borders to nearby neighbors like Finland.
My first time to Helsinki was in 1980-something in one of those old-fashioned boxed vans hippies drove the decade before. We had driven north from mainland Europe, across Scandinavia, into Finland and finally into the Soviet Union – the old Russia -- the one that detained us at the border, strip searched everyone and literally dismantled the vehicle searching for everything they deemed propaganda or trade-able on the then thriving black market.
It was a very different time for European travel and nothing was exactly what it seemed. Just like the experience with my Finn Air flight companion, when you least expect something to happen, it often does and back then, it did more consistently than not.
The wall was still up in those days and tensions were fierce behind not just THE wall, but the invisible walls, the ones that led east that is – Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and the Czech Republic (the then Czechoslovakia).
Finland was the most foreign to me, even moreso than Russia and Poland in many ways, largely because I didn’t expect it to be as foreign. We knew about the Black Market, about the minimalistic hotels with dingy barren rooms that were bugged, the stark food supply, the weathered buildings and surreal lack of optimism...a place where women paraded around in unfashionable rubber boots and in-need-of-repair colorless coats. Finland never fell under that umbrella however despite its proximity to Soviet borders.
What I remember from my first trip to Helsinki was how clean the streets were and how distinctly organized everything was in that Switzerland kind of way...a little disconcerting at first, especially if you had just come from a country like Italy which embraces chaos and passion more than order and structure.
I visited a friend who was in my South African high school in Johannesburg, where we had spent our senior years. Not originally from Helsinki, he was either living there at the time or drove in just to see me. We were but 'babes' and that innocent and youthful naivety was floating in the air. Combine that with the fact that Helsinki streets ooze playful energy all night long in the summer since the sun never sets: drinking, walking dogs, sipping coffee and eating ice cream is how you spent your time on open air streets at 3 in the morning.
Mika and I had a magical time walking through the city, lounging on park benches discussing our life's dreams and aspirations as youthful warriors in-the-making so often do. I think I may have been but just 19 at the time.
The lens at which I experienced Helsinki so many years ago was through his lens, a native of this strange land with a strange accent and language that differed so greatly to those on the European mainland. On my most recent trip, I talked to a French couple from Paris who stopped over in Helsinki on their way to the states. She said to me with a surly smile about her experience, "it's only a two hour flight and yet the culture is so different to our world, it's as if a solar system separates us not a thousand miles."
Structure is the word that comes to mind, something they wear on their sleeves, much more than their Scandinavian neighbors. The Swedish and Danish travelers I hooked up with for short jaunts of my first trip to Europe presented a free spirited energy to their walks and talks. While my Swedish friends all seemed to have summer homes with saunas they ventured to annually, there was an equal hunger to explore the world which I didn’t find from my conversations with the Finns at the time.
It was as if once we crossed the Swedish border, things and people had more rules and alignment and order reigned. It doesn’t mean I didn’t have a great time – after all, Mika’s eyes were dreamy, he was courteous and sweet, and won me over by swinging me under his arm next to a luscious hovering tree that took us into its breath, creating an aura of moonlight when the Northern Lights ensured there wouldn’t be a real one.
He treated me to dark roasted coffee in outside cafes and introduced me to other Finns who were intelligent, quirky and funny, as long as you could understand their dry off-beat humor. We drank beer well into the wee morning hours, at the time, the most expensive beer I had ever had. Everything seemed insanely expensive from my recollection….and insanely odd.
Remembering that it was the mid-eighties, Helsinki had price tags that made your jaw drop. An apple was $3 a pop, beers exceeded $7 and meals in restaurants were simply beyond my reach and so I lived on bread and cheese. Today, the same is true. A 50 Euro dinner for a starter and main course isn't that uncommon.
Within the confines of those beautiful summer walks under Helsinki's skies, I felt taken care of by Mika and his friends and it was this memory I brought to the forefront as my Finnish companion on this hellish long flight jabbed me once again.
While hot places like St. Maarten and Greece have been on my mind, and I’ve been puzzled by all the trips to cold countries I’ve taken in the past two years, I realized that on this sleep deprived flight all the way to Finland with an angry woman at my side, that we throw ourselves into the experiences the universe wants us to see, as if they are in fact, a mirror of ourselves, showing us exactly what is happening in our lives.
It is that visual representation and that insight that allows us to change the course of our lives....that is, if we are paying attention to the signs and can admit the truths we see in the mirror's reflection.
Relinquishing control is not inherently a natural trait of northern Europeans or the Baltic states and if you think that is a broad statement, compare the relationship with control and structure of those regions to cultures like Jamaica, Italy, Spain, Kenya, Fiji…..need I go on? You get the idea.
Upon this reflection, the plane makes a harsh landing at Helsinki’s International Airport and I remind myself that so much of the flight felt like “torture” because I allowed myself to be drawn into “her” tortured state. She clearly lived in that place all the time and because I was so out of balance and overworked myself, her torture became my own. I hadn't taken time to look in the mirror - the internal or external one. In order for me to "see" again, it seemed to require a long haul to northern Europe and a flash back in time. I call this a "walkabout," where we venture far away from our everyday reality so we can get clear again about who we are, where we are and more importanty, where we want to go.
These are the lessons we learn on the road. And, for all those precious marvelous moments we share with new cultures that draw us into such delicious foreign experiences, we also run into people who are internally tortured or who inflict their pain on us for whatever reason and in most cases, we’ll never learn what they are. We wonder why were chosen to receive their torture until we realize it is us who chooses that the experience be one of torture or joy.
It happens on the road, whether it's in a third world country where someone steals your bag, or gives you the wrong directions because they’re not a fan of your nationality or overcharges you because they think you’re richer than they are and can afford it. The list goes on. Every day life is like this too.
In those moments, we learn about ourselves – what we’re showing of ourselves to the world in a mirror, the same one that reflects back to us if only we take the time to notice and acknowledge it. It’s in these moments – painful and precious – that we grow and move forward on our life’s journey.
My experience here in Finland and soon, Estonia and Lithuania, will be far from warm sandy beaches with pineapple trees and the blissful sound of waves that could put me to sleep every night. I won’t be sleeping in a hammock nor will I be eating fresh fish from a warm salty sea.
But now, I know why I’m here. And with my winter coat, mittens and toasty wooly hat packed in my bag, I will venture into yet another cold country experience paying close attention to what I can learn from countries that need to be more in control than not, taking in the gift I learn from it and from them. New cultures to learn from, to play with...to be grateful for and most importantly, to remember what's real and truly matters along the way.
Photo credit: The Telegraph
April 03, 2013
Kundera's Immortality: A Person is Nothing But His Image, But a Woman is Nothing But Her Truth
I just finished yet another Milan Kundera novel: Immortality. He is, as always intense. I happen to be one of his fans, one who patiently understands the flow of his meandering style, knowing the poetic philosopher in him who needs us to read each and every line.
It's as if I'm in his head when I really listen to his meanders, and can even sense where and how he is sitting as he writes a passage, can feel the women he has known and not known and all the intricate details which make up his life, or least the bit which give it meaning.
The first meander centered around image and the premise was that a person is nothing but his image. "Philosophers can tell us that it doesn't matter what they world thinks of us, that nothing matters but what we really are. But philosophers don't understand anything. As long as we live with other people, we are only what other people consider us to be. Thinking about how others see us and trying to make our image as attractive as possible is considered a kind of dissembling or cheating." (I'd add, dying).But does there exist another kind of direct contact between my self and their selves except through the mediation of the eyes? Can we possibly imagine love without anxiously following our image in the mind of the beloved? When we are no longer interested in how we are seen by the person we love, it means we no longer love."
I thought about a kind of love which isn't whole, one which leaves behind fragments...mere fragments, as if flashes in time like two ships passing in the night, a long weary night. Or the kind of love that leaves behind the violent yet exciting sound of a thunderbolt on a stormy night, one which will never be repeated in precisely the same way again.
These are loves we never fully understand just as Kundera's characters never fully understand theirs. As humans, we ache to understand love and what went wrong in love. We grasp for that understanding and repeat the story in our heads as if its a mathmatical equation we must analyze, even if only in our mind's eye. In that analysis, which we continue to play over and over again like a broken record, we must have an answer, a truth of some kind, for surely it can't possibly just be about an image, of an image...hers, his, your own.
We look for the truth amidst that analysis as a way to better understand ourselves and perhaps to better understand humanity; in that understanding, we think we will find a love which is whole, the kind that is rich in color and texture and full of so much vitality and connection, there is no space for fragments.
If we speak of image and of love, we must of course speak of and to the feminine voice, which brings me to my second favorite meander. It couldn't be a Kundera novel without women, who are brought in as almost subcategories into bigger themes of existence, like Chance, the Dial of Life, Image and of course Immortality itself.
From painters Rubens and Goethe to author Hemingway and a radio host, lawyer and professor in Paris, we hear about their desire of women, their inability to escape from women and their adventures with women.
He asks, isn't the story of Ruben's life nothing but a story of physical love? For the artist who looked at women as "life itself?" We hear from Rubens as Kundera's character, an acute observation when one day he can't remember anything substantial about any of the women he bedded. The details, their names, their parents, their childhood, any anecdote other than a flash of an instance.
Rather than continue to conquer a future of a string of women, he decides to revert to the past, as told to him by the hand on the dial (of life), of which Kundera dedicates an entire chapter to.
Rubens reflects, "but how is one to be obsessed with the past when one sees it only a desert over which the wind blows a few fragments of memories?" He decides that yes, one can in fact be obsessed even with a few fragments.
But then, Rubens discovered a peculiar thing. In those fragments, they are not moving. In other words, memory does not make films, it makes photographs. What he recalled at most were a few mental photographs. He didn't recall their coherent motions, but only short gestures, but only in the rigidy of a single second."
One day, a lover he saw over many years decides not to see him again, an incident he he becomes fixated on trying to understand, certain that something must be wrong, something he could somehow resolve. Then, he thinks of an Australian woman he decided never to see again and she too, was rejected for reasons she couldn't understand. He wonders if he can understand them himself.
Throughout our lives, don't we all have stories or chapters of stories which have ended yet we didn't understand the reasons why? Maybe later, at some future time, we begin to understand those reasons and other times, we don't and perhaps never will. Time marches forward, each of us never understanding why her or his story ended with yet another person, another association, another encounter.
He quotes Aragon's "Woman is the future of man." One of the main male characters in the book explains what he thinks Aragon must have meant.
"This means," he says, "that the world that was once formed in man's image will now be transformed into the image of woman. The more technical and mechanical, cold and metallic it becomes, the more it will need the kind of warmth that only a woman can give it. If we want to save the world, we must adapt to the woman, let ourselves be led by the woman, let ourselves be penetrated by the Ewigweibliche, the eternally feminine!"
Later he goes on to say: "Either woman will become man's future or mankind will perish, because only woman is capable of nourishing within her an unsubstantiated hope and inviting us to a doubtful future, which we would have long ceased to believe in were it not for women. All my life, I've been willing to follow their voice, even though that voice is mad. But nothing is more beautiful than when someone who isn't mad goes into the unknown, led by a mad voice....The eternal feminine draws us in."
It reminded me of how important it is for us as women to go to our source of strength through that eternal feminine, each and every time we need an answer...the real truth.
It is that source that will guide us out of muddy complicated waters which are led by masculine ego, give us the power to say no when the world forces us to say yes, provide us with the clarity when it is being fogged up by mindless chatter aimed at sinking the very core of who we are and most importantly, ensuring we return to a place of authenticity, love and purpose so we won't look back years from now as we pass along meaning to a child and not be able to say: I embraced and lived a true life.
Yes. To be able to say I lived a true life, one which I painted on a bright white clean canvas, one which was virgin before I myself lay down the paint brush.
To be able to say I decided what was me and what wasn't me and along the way, returned to that eternal feminine strength for the truth. In this truth, I'd be my own character and not a facade of another in a novel I didn't write, nor would I dance to another's drums I didn't subscribe to or respect.
Oh, such a noble way to live, I can hear my great grandmother saying. And yet, it has less to do with noble, and more to do with truth. Men have this instinct too, even if it shows up with a different voice, a louder thunder and in an external embrace.
When we become lost, which will happen often on this long life journey, we mustn't forget our truth, that for which we will accept and not accept as a definition of who we are. We must never ever forget that.
It's ironic that Kundera weaves Goethe in and out of his chapters because just then, at the moment I had turned the corner of the final page of the book, I thought about a quote that I return to often for a source of strength, one which rests on the front page of this blog and has since the very beginning. As I thought of the source of the quote, my heart began to race....it is nothing shy of a quote by Goethe himself...Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It may be only ten words of Johann's wisdom, but they are ten very powerful words: Just trust yourself, then you will know how to live.
Photo credits: hplusmagazine.com, templeton.org & artmarketblog.
December 06, 2012
Paris: Absorbing the Many Sides & Moods of Her
Paris has a funny way about her and yes, I'm sure she's a her. She's all the things a her can be: beautiful, moody, complex, dynamic, essential, turbulent, pensive, fashionable, delicious and vivacious.
I've been meandering through her alleys, eating her crepes and sipping her coffee every December for years now. I've never shied away from her nor have I ever rejected her....she has that way about her of pulling you in like gravity, the force of which is so powerful you find yourself agreeing with her even if she toys with your patience from time-to-time.
This year, as I thought about her brittle wet days and nights, as she is every December, I realized I was hesitant to go. She wasn't egging me on and part of me feared: Am I done with Paris? Is she done with me? I contemplated the thought but only briefly as I realized my dismissal of her was only because I was so preoccupied with the year 2012 and seeing it come to an end.
Far too many heady reflective messages this year....the ones that call you to challenge things you once believed were crystal clear only to discover they were muddier and murkier than a pond on Detroit's south side during a lightening storm.
It's not as if I needed a 'soulful' place to visit...not that Paris doesn't have its fair share of soul. More than a soulful city however, Paris is an invigorating one, one which re-ignites lost creativity and inspires the artist within. Who doesn't need a creative light and inspiration regardless of what stage in life they're in I thought? And yet, I reflected on one insightful early December night before I boarded the plane, I want silence, not noise, warm balmy nights, not icy windy ones, clear blue skies that hurt my eyes from their brightness, not gray cloudy ones, and warm brothy soups, not sizzling duck with a glass of Bordeaux.
But then I remembered all the drizzly rainy cold days and nights with Paris below my feet and how many of them I spent with her alone. Ahhh yes, Paris alone. Most people don't think about her that way - they head there when they want to propose to a loved one, take in a romantic weekend away, surprise someone with an anniversary present, or simply to experience the allure of her magnificence, the allure Hemingway and other greats have written novels about since anyone could.
Alone is when Paris really shines, I thought to myself and I've more often had her to myself than not, so why would this year be any different? She'll surprise me in a different way like she always does, I told myself. It will rain since she's rarely given me sunshine and I will hover under some broken umbrella on a corner somewhere savoring a piece of dark chocolate that was beautifully wrapped in 3 colored foil with a golden blue ribbon.
I knew the shop, the many shops I could go to for such a delight and marvel in its decadence the moment I stepped back out onto the wet pavement. I knew Paris would be good for that or for a plate of mussels near Saint Germain des Pres. Or for her lights. Her beauty. Her mystery. Her endless cafes where you could sit for hours over a dark roasted coffee in a cup the size of a thumb nail or one large enough to be a soup cup.
I wondered about the latest boot and shoe fashion and what St. Paul's window displays would bring me, or the beer I'd have with a journalist friend who always insists on meeting near the Republique and I always say yes even though I'd take grapes over hops any day. I considered a couple business colleagues who would roll their eyes when I pleaded for old world charm when they simply wanted to take in a modern brasserie or cafe. Then, there is my friend who has lived there for nearly thirty years, who remains as enthusiastic and endearing about life itself as he was when I first met him on that Eastern African island where we were stuck for weeks because there was no boat, rig or plane that could bring us back to the mainland.
I remembered one year where I had more time than most and walked ten miles of her wet cold streets every day for two weeks. At the end of each day after I had killed two or three of those $5 umbrellas because the wind blew them apart, I'd trek back to the apartment where I was staying, which had an unobstructed view of the Eiffel Tower from its kitchen. Every night, the Tower was magnificent and looked like it was close enough to touch from my balcony, the vibrancy of its lights rightfully overpowering anything else near it. Waiting for me was either a graceful or complex Bordeaux (I never knew which one I'd get) and some dark chocolate.
On the way, I'd stop at a corner near La Motte Picquet Grenelle's metro station and order a crepe with ham and mushrooms and because I was there so often, I didn't have to explain daily why I didn't want cheese, something that confuses anyone who lives in Paris, French or not. I wondered if the same man was there, the same man who'd smile every time I ordered the same thing night after night.
"Poivre?" he asked the first time. "Beaucoup, beaucoup," I responded. As he was about to fold the crepe from the piping hot skillet and scoop into a paper plate, I stopped him and said, "plus de poivre s'il vous plait." He looked at me in disbelief as if to say that any more pepper atop his perfectly crafted crepe would destroy the flavors inside. Perhaps he thought, "damn yank, she doesn't have a clue," on that one cold December night, the first time I bought a crepe from him. Over time, the smiles increased and he even helped me navigate a very long walking route one day on my crumpled damp paper map and although he kept reinforcing that it was too far to walk and why wouldn't I take the metro, he gave me advice anyway. And, we never had to talk about "poivre" again for he sprinkled the perfect amount on my ham and mushroom crepe with no cheese every day until I left.
Why was I fighting her I thought? Reflection time aside, doesn't Paris always take me in whether I am in a state of chaos, glory, beauty or solitude? Doesn't she always give back even if there are some cuts and bruises along the way? You know, the side that many foreigners complain about. The French "attitude," they receive because they aren't sophisticated enough, cultured enough, educated enough, polished enough, fashionable enough, French enough or French at all.
We've all been there and yet, a variation of it exists in many cultures, albeit more common in cosmopolitan cities. Yet, with the exception of Buenos Aires and Tokyo, I've been to all the other major cities around the world and truth be told, Paris does have more attitude. It's France's New York, posing the same directness and attitude but with more charm unless of course if you happen to be British or American.
New Yorkers feel the same way about their city, as if there is no other city greater in the world and why would you go anywhere else, even for a weekend for crying out loud?
I was no longer worried about why I brushed Paris aside this year. Once my flight was booked, the hesitation went away and even after looking at the 70% rain weather report, I moved forward packing warm socks, waterproof boots, mittens, hats and scarves and one of those many mini $5 umbrellas I was due to destroy in the coming days ahead. I wondered as I thought about the cloudy gray skies that would meet my gaze when I landed at Charles De Gaulle, what she had in store for me at the end of this very long year.