Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Decade Makes a Difference

As autumn sets in and this decade nears its end, I am amazed by the extent to which people and circumstances can evolve across 10 years.

This is the end of September 2009. Ten years ago I was well into my final year of graduate school at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky., with a return to Florida on the near horizon. We were prayerful about starting a family. I was immersed in a world of courses involving ministry leadership, public speaking and counseling--among others--and had been carefully documenting all of my graduate reading into an A-Z subject list for easy retrieval. The summer of 1999 had involved an intensive internship as a hospital chaplain, followed by a few days in the mountains to read Thomas Merton and Ken Gire and catch my breath.

Since then, I've completed school; become a father not once but twice while saying goodbye to my own father; become ordained as a deacon in full connection by The United Methodist Church; and moved from a pastoral leadership role to business leadership development roles in the corporate sphere. During these past 10 years I've also evolved in my writing from doing mostly articles and marketing copy to a stronger focus on books and blogging. Ten years ago I was still several years away from establishing any sort of Internet presence, and today I'm all about leveraging social media to communicate with others and create awareness. And the context of my family's life has shifted from Kentucky to Florida and now to Tennessee, which certainly feels like home for the next decade and perhaps many more after that.

Throughout this 10-year journey of many changes that have built upon one another and expanded my thinking across numerous disciplines, there certainly have been joys and struggles. Each has taught me something, and some lessons I have had to repeat. I find myself today, as compared with 10 years ago, much less in a "box" and harder to categorize. I have hundreds of new friends or associates whom I did not know 10 years ago, and thankfully have been able to stay somewhat connected--especially through social media--with those I knew well during the 1990s. There are dozens and dozens of books I've read this decade that were not on my radar in 1999, and these certainly have enhanced how I look at vocation, spiritual growth, relationships and certainly myself.

The sustainable joy is in the growing, the learning, the trial and error. I would not be satisfied with a life that remained virtually static across a decade. I do not know what pleasure or pain awaits me across next 10 years, or even what might happen tomorrow. But my hope is that the passion I have for growth and learning that has carried me for so long will continue to escalate, and that I might leverage it wisely and humbly to serve others well.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

When Leaders Cry

I saw leaders cry today, at the end of a workshop I co-facilitated. They didn't cry because the workshop or the facilitator were so bad...they cried because they expressed heartfelt appreciation to others, and had it expressed to them in return. For a precious afternoon, they let down their guard, engaged their hearts and realized it was a good thing not only for human relationships but for business. Both and. What a concept.

When you appreciate others, recognizing and building upon their strengths, you set loose a vocational revolution. People move from worker-bee to leadership perspectives. Jaded managers regain their sense of inspiration and help organizations break through barriers to success.

Appreciation, respect and caring are not hard to express. Such behaviors are some of the easiest a leader will ever have to execute. But they seem to be some of the hardest to remember to execute.

Why is that?

In my opinion, leaders are often inconsistent in expressing appreciation and building on others' strengths because of fear. They fear they won't get a desired result if they slow down to extend the human touch or take their momentary focus off of the employee's areas of opportunity. Fear is a key symptom of lack of presence, lack of being fully engaged with the person before you and the latent possibilities. The mind is zooming ahead to potential consequences, missing out on what could be done right now to make things better. Much of the frustration in a leader's life--and, furthermore in any one's life--is grounded in failing to make the most of the moment at hand because of fear, anxiety, distraction, etc. The moment to come is always more eagerly anticipated, so no moment is every fully enjoyed or capitalized to its fullest.

Leaders cried today because they were fully engaged in the experience of the moment. Heart touched heart, spirit touched spirit. And the business did not come grinding to a halt in the process. My hunch is that the business will be even more vital tomorrow, a day full of present moments.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Blowing Bubbles

A few days ago my four-year-old, Olivia, and I had some free time to play outside. Someone at work had given me a giant "bubble wand," and Olivia had set her little brown eyes upon it. I unwrapped it and we brought it into our driveway, and proceeded to take turns holding it up to our mouths and blowing out dozens of tiny and large bubbles.

Olivia encouraged me with delight whenever I chased one of her bubbles. She was focused and determined to grab hold of one of mine as well. The end for each bubble was always the same, that silent "pop" into total transparency. For about 30 minutes this game continued, breath interacting with soapy water to give birth to temporary little spheres that floated in the air and delighted a child and her father.

And for that precious window of time, nothing else really mattered but the bubbles. My life, too, felt like total transparency, as if there was nothing too complex or stressful about it. No facades hindering the ease of knowing the nature of my heart.

There was a certain lack of doing in the whole activity. Olivia and I were simply just together. The bubbles might have looked like a "doing," but they really were a form of loving. Loving each other's presence, giving each other permission to play our sacred father-daughter roles in a tender moment that, like every tender moment, was too short and destined to soon pop silently into some pragmatic endeavor.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Me and My Fair Ladies

The setting was this month's Tennessee State Fair, right in the heart of Nashville. My wife Jenna and I normally hide any section of the newspaper bearing any mention of local fairs, carnivals, etc., lest our 9-year-old Aly catch a glimpse and insist upon our attendance. However, this was a special occasion, as Aly's jump rope team from school was performing at said event on a Sunday afternoon. So we packed up Aly and four-year-old Olivia and slummed our way across town.

Things were hopping from the start with the jump rope team's performance. It was truly entertaining, and not just because my kid was part of it. The Hot Shots' collective talents truly do inspire.

On the other hand, a paradoxical form of inspiration came from the passage of various sentient beings to and fro the stage area. Species of fair goers would continue to be the main attraction across the next couple of hours, until we escaped only $75 or so in the hole, living to fight another year or ten.

Perhaps the most memorable interactions occurred during the long, downhill March to Bataan from the jump rope stage area to the land of the Ferris wheels, merry-go-rounds and other machines that rupture discs and elicit pre-digestive vomiting. This Dante-esque and Conrad-like journey into darkness occurred along what is commonly known as the fair midway. There, a plethora of hard scrabble gentlemen (with a few ladies tossed in) stood eagerly behind their booths, stuffed animals manufactured in Third World sweat shops abounding and smiling through gaps normally occupied by teeth as they spewed their offers of games of chance.

My favorite:

"Sir, for only $10 you could win your wife one of these here stuffed animals."

I turned my head at the sound of this form of speech communication, plugging in extra RAM so my brain could more efficiently decipher the concept he had floated for my consideration. I eyed the creature with a combination of amusement and annoyance, and then commenced to daydream in the spirit of the TV show "Scrubs" as I glanced at Jenna.

You know, dude, I thought to myself, look at her, your pretty wife--and you haven't bought her a stuffed animal in years. How could you be so insensitive, such a worthless for-granted taker?

The only thing Jenna would like less than a stuffed animal would be a kitchen appliance. Thus, I quickly dismissed the daydream and focused back on my would-be merchant. I needed to be careful here; I didn't want to inflict any psychic damage. I tied half my brain behind my back. I harnessed another quarter, and then proceeded to speak slowly and carefully:

"We're going to go ride some rides first, thanks." We started to walk off. He wasn't taking the mercy offer.

"The rides are gonna be there," he responded with a sense of urgency that I was too foolish not to overlook. "My stuffed animals won't be."

I paused to let this sink in. Moment of truth, twas. Then I smiled, and calmly replied, "I'll take my chances."

The next 10 minutes made me feel like a freshman girl at a crowded on-campus frat party, just trying to fight her way across the room to hang out with one of her friends and not have some beer-spilling, urine-smelling, unshaven moron grab her arm and go, "Hey, baby, what's your hurry?" The dares to invest multiples of $5 for the slight chance of winning a toy that neither of my kids would care about 10 minutes later continued to fly through the air like pigeons spotting a trash can full of funnel cakes. One semi-kind soul whispered that his boss "would kill me if I told you this, but that guy over there will let you play his game for only $2." I found myself silently wishing I could floss his tooth, but then came to my senses, grabbed my wife and children and ran toward Switzerland.

Throughout the entire midway gallop, Aly repeatedly begged for us to stop and throw some money away for the outside chance that she might win something she really didn't want. Finally I whispered to her, "Aly. These people just want to take our money. Let's save it for guaranteed stuff, like going on rides and eating pizza."

I then told her the story of when I was 15, wandering around a local Oktoberfest in Florida with some cash, proceeding to lose all of it through an obsessive effort to win some kind of prize, any kind of prize. I went home that evening of the fall of 1983 rather dejected, and quite determined to never be made a fool of again by the cigarette-dangling, shrunken-tank top-sporting men of the midway, those who made a "living" by preying upon the foolishness of already cash-strapped individuals who were much better off hanging onto their dough and using it for their kids' lunch money that week.

The brightest moments of the rest of the fair included riding the Ferris wheel with Aly, seeing Aly fly down a humongous slide and watching Olivia ride solo in a little choo-choo train. Observing their happy cherub faces on the rides made the "walk of shame" through the midway a little less shameful. This was what the fair was all about...right?

As we pulled our minivan out of the giant dirt-and-grass lot, we made our way down a little side street. I looked out the window and saw tiny, white, run-down houses, some with three or four very young children hanging out on the front steps. A satellite dish was affixed on one or two of them. Another had a rented bounce house around which 15 or so kids were frolicking, dangerously close to the road. Almost all needed extensive roof repairs.

"Aly," I said, "look out the window. I want you to see how the fair's neighbors live, and then think about how we live. It's another reminder of how much we have, how fortunate we are. That's not some other country right here; this is Nashville."

As we drove home for the next 30 minutes, Jenna and I engaged Aly in a discourse on the socio-economic disparities that span between our cozy neighborhood of Franklin and the homes surrounding the cheap land of the annual state fair. We listened as Aly talked through what she had noticed via her own excessive people watching, what she had picked up while listening to how people spoke. Throughout most of the conversation sweet Olivia was whining for something to eat. We gently told her to be patient and hang on, having no doubts that there would be plenty in the cupboard and refrigerator.

Aly had a lot of fun at the fair, but she'd also learned some things. In a sense, a state or county fair is a mosaic of the human condition in all of its highs and lows, all of its extremes. A microcosm of life in a broken world, a world still mostly unconscious. It's a fantasy zone where cold realities come crashing in, a sphere where you can taste both the high of a spinning Ferris wheel and the low of watching some character pocket your change.

"That's not fair!' is a frequent retort I hear from my 9-year-old when she doesn't get her way about something, when we require her to engage discipline in her choices. We often smile and respond, "The fair only comes once per year." Not that often if I can help it...but then again, frequent visits might teach her more than she'll ever learn in school, and at least supplement what she hears from two parents trying to keep up with daily opportunities to provoke critical thinking.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Strategic Living

Across this year I have spent a significant amount of time helping leaders in the arena of strategic planning. There’s a very simple process that has been at the centerpiece of my consulting. The more time I spend with these components, the more I also see their applicability to our personal goals.

The first step in embracing a “strategic life” is to gain clarity on a couple of clear, tangible goals. These are the big “what” questions that must be answered before any of your actions are to have significant alignment. What exactly do you want, and when do you want it? So much of our vocational and existential frustration can be absolved by giving yourself permission to explore this with some depth. One cannot microwave the answers to such questions; they must be allowed to incubate, and then fine-tuned, edited, strengthened.

Once the goal (or the “what” I want) is solidified, it’s time to move into the “how in general” you will accomplish the goal. “How” is simply a basic term for strategy. Strategy is how you plan to reach the goal. And it needs to be a bit on the generic side, more flavored with a big picture perspective as opposed to specific, in-the-weeds details. Perhaps you’ll have two or three high-level strategies that will help you to execute one specific goal.

Flowing from the high-level strategies are more specific ones that flesh out the actionable details. If high-level strategy is the “how in general,” then as strategies become more tactical (indeed, some call this next step the “tactics”) the question becomes, “Now, tell me more about how exactly you plan to do this?” The challenge is to become as specific and concrete as possible: What exactly will you do and when? Who else will be involved? How will you measure your progress or success? What other resources do you need?

This process might seem draining to those who do not normally dwell in the strategic planning space. But it is threaded with discipline, which when embraced will force your mind to focus and cut through the clutter, rationalizations and vagaries that often prevent us from truly achieving our goals.

Try this process on yourself. Let’s say your goal is to go back to graduate school and earn your masters. Brainstorm the specific components of the goal—what exactly you would like to study, which degree you want to earn and the potential school at which you will earn it. Moving from there, flesh out a few how-in-general strategies that will enable you to accomplish the goal of earning your masters. These will likely relate to things you must do at home and at work in order to position yourself to begin school. You then must drill these high-level strategies down into more tactical steps, very specific actions that you can illustrate on some sort of timeline that flows into the achievement of your goal.

There is no goal toward which this type of process is not relevant. Too many people give up or get distracted from a goal because they do not take the time to detail a working strategy. Try it now for the thing you most want, for time and life are precious.

Monday, September 07, 2009

The Elusive Present Moment

After a quick first read through Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now--with at least two or three more rounds, highlighter in hand, planned across the next few weeks--it is hard to know where to begin in terms of my usual post-read reflective blog entry.

In a sense, the urgency I feel to write something smacks against the spirit of Tolle's intent: to help people become more fully present or conscious, to embrace the is-ness of the current moment instead of getting caught up in compulsive thinking, planning or fear about how things might turn out in the near or distant future. The fact that I feel the need to compose an insightful blog entry demonstrates the embryonic state of my own journey toward consciousness, I suppose. And maybe this confession is evidence of some progression.

The 1999 book, which I already know is as loved by the masses as it is scorned by them, has powerful implications for each of us and for every profession. It speaks to leaders or managers about how they might react to interpersonal difficulties or strategic conundrums. It offers a fresh angle for religious teachers seeking to make spiritual growth a more vibrant, holistic reality for their pupils rather than just intellectual ascension or task-driven legalism. It helps spouses, parents, siblings, friends, colleagues and strangers to more deeply surrender to the commonalities among each of us and gradually become less addicted to struggles for power, control and materialism.

I'm doing Tolle's body of work backwards. Last year I devoured his more recent book, A New Earth. I gave The Power of Now a shot after I'd read A New Earth, and found it a bit redundant so tossed it aside. After giving it another shot, I quickly learned I had made a hasty assumption. It's funny how during one season you're not ready or open enough for a particular book, challenge or relationship, and then new soil is cultivated and the timing is perfect.

I'd first heard of The Power of Now a few years ago, from a physician whom I was coaching in his executive role. At first I was skeptical as he quoted excerpts from the book; but across time I saw how he applied the principles to himself and began to carry a greater sense of peace and purpose in his work. Those around him responded accordingly, and it is always encouraging to catch up on the phone with my former coachee and hear of his ongoing ability to fully embrace the present moment, good or bad.

Accept Tolle or label him as you might, it's hard to deny one crucial observation of the human condition: We are basically inept when it comes to fully leveraging the present moment. So much of our thinking is composed of either ruminations about what has happened in the past, or hope/dread toward what might occur. To "be still" or to cherish what is right in front of us, is a rare behavior. Look around, and see how few are doing it. Look inside yourself, and make an honest assessment of how much you are surrendering to the possibilities of this very moment, a moment for which--intentionally or not--you have toiled all of your life to achieve.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Vapor Streams

I just returned from an invigorating run/walk on a lovely Saturday morning, a happy mixture of music on my iPod and an intentional effort to simply be present to what is characterizing my demeanor.

During the final leg of my exercise, I happened to look up and see a thick vapor stream in the sky, the aftermath of some sort of jet. My next thought was of the biblical narrative of the ascension of Christ into the heavenlies, and I amused myself by considering whether there was a visible vapor stream that followed him as well.

If so, it must have been so incredibly manifest, so consuming, that all inhabitants of the earth would have gazed upon it. It would have shook the pillars of the world, turned everything upside-down while declaring the majesty of the resurrection that foreshadows the resurrection of all into the fullness of who we were meant to be.

Whatever our religious faith happens to be, once some external stimuli increases our consciousness and awareness of the divinity that lies within and awaiting resurrection, we can no longer be the same. Our pillars are shaken, our framework of reality turned upside-down and every other direction. Our false selves and pretenses begin to slip away, the less we resist and the more we allow that original image of God to come back into focus. For every moment that were are fully engaged in the truth of who we are, and humbly available to love others, the vapor streams becomes manifest and cannot help but elicit a sense of curious wonder

Friday, September 04, 2009

Coming of Age, Part Five: Internal Wars and the New Self

During my tenth grade year I began to sense, for the first time, a fear of not realizing my creative potential, fulfilling my deeper identity as a writer and thus being affirmed by community as a poignant voice in the wind. This fear became a stone in my shoe, a quiet but unsettling whisper that has nagged and kept me restless and dissatisfied, wondering what else is out there. At times it has paralyzed my creativity and motivation, leading to a sense of resignation and an almost intentional embrace of Thoreau's observation that most men “lead lives of quiet desperation.”

It is blatantly obvious that the clearest way out of a sense of not fulfilling one’s potential as a writer is to simply write. Emotions, distractions and even the mythical “writer’s block,” however, have their say and get in the way of the words, bottling up the poetry and diminishing the relevance of the creative idea. To be a writer intrinsically means to be somewhat of a scrambled mess. The darkness and constant interplay of emotions and passions that create the ebb and flow—and the highs and lows—also are what produce the scattered moments of brilliance that make the words meaningful, true and life-changing.

I had enough momentum remaining from that hinge passage of a summer to produce one final adolescent novel, by far my longest and most bizarre. During the late fall and early winter I cranked out Locust, written while I was immersed in Stephen King novels. This explains a lot about the psychological horror genre that characterizes my 407 half-sized typewritten pages.

In particular, it was King’s The Dead Zone that inspired my plot. King’s story concerns Johnny Smith, who wakes up from a car accident with clairvoyant powers that torment him and lead to a fateful mission to save the country from a diabolical politician. My Locust protagonist, Jack Garrel, also is tormented by his mind but in a different manner.

The story is broken into three parts. In the first, “The Dark Journey,” Garrel and his colleague Frank Krossinger are in Nicaragua, and I demonstrate how I had learned just enough Spanish to be dangerous with sentences such as, “Come to my casa.” Garrel and Krossinger write for The New York Scope, covering the war between the rebels and the government (just a few years before the whole Iran Contra scandal broke). Garrel has horrible nightmares that usually involve him being propelled by a force beyond his control and pummeled by frightening images of a white dragon; menacing buildings; missiles and other symbols of war, set to familiar rock music such as The Doors’ ballad “The End” strewn together in maddening montage.

One fateful day Krossinger is lured by a stranger to buy some drugs at an undisclosed location, where he is kidnapped and strapped to a sort of “mind machine” by an evil genius (of course) named Dr. Wesley Handor. Krossinger is made to watch horrible images that strike close to home, such as the depiction of a former lover being attacked in a grotesque manner by a giant snake. While Krossinger suffers, Garrel is across town and nearly killed by an explosion. He wakes up after a nine-month coma (a not so subtle nod to Mr. Smith of Dead Zone) in a hospital in Havana, Cuba, where a Dr. Johnson tries to help him make sense of things to little avail. With his colleague Krossinger missing, Garrel returns to New York and learns that his sister, another New York-based writer, is missing as well.

Garrel’s magazine editor then suggests a “relaxing” assignment in a small town called Mayport, home to a mysterious mental hospital that warrants an investigative piece of journalism. The hospital has long been shut down by the government, yet faces and shadows are sometimes observed in the windows. Garrel (perhaps stupidly) agrees to go, and the novel’s second part features the writer arriving in Mayport and meeting the small-town newspaper editor who will be his temporary guide…

…and things immediately grow quite bizarre. Garrel has a late-night encounter at a hotel lounge with two individuals whom he later learns do not really exist. His nightmares intensify with the ubiquitous white dragon. His attempts to get into the grounds of the Mayport mental hospital lead to an encounter with droid-like guards.

Days pass and Garrel is getting nowhere on his assignment for the magazine, his editor growing impatient. Realizing that the mental hospital resembles a structure Garrel often sees in his nightmares, he visits a psychiatrist; and grows even more uneasy when the doctor chronicles some of the supposed history of the mental hospital. Somewhere in the conversation the shrink alludes to Dr. Handor, who had tortured his friend Krossinger.

The book’s final section, “Living Nightmares,” kicks off with Garrel imprisoned at the mental hospital by none other than Handor and the psychiatrist. Handor resembles the white dragon Garrel has seen in his nightmares; he reveals that he has been tracking Garrel for years as a chosen subject on whom to test his “mind machine.” Garrel, Handor says, reminds him of his late son who was a brilliant writer.

During Garrel’s escape he runs into, much to his shock, the Dr. Johnson from the Cuban hospital, and learns that several people are being kept in some sort of frozen hibernation chamber (a la Han Solo in the first Star Wars trilogy?) within the mental hospital. He suspects that Krossinger and his missing sister are among the frozen chosen. Garrel runs to freedom outside of the hospital, only to be arrested by a corrupt local sheriff who works for Handor; but almost as miraculously as the Apostle Peter’s midnight express, a deputy named Sam Smith sneaks him out of jail.

Garrel resolves that he must return to the hospital to face Handor, the “locust” who will not stop his assault until one of them is destroyed, the one who has somehow caused his nightmares. He and Smith, well-armed, storm the mental hospital to free the frozen captives and face Handor, and they riddle the evil doctor with bullets before Handor crashes through a top-story window. After they free the captives and rush out of the mental hospital the building strangely self-destructs. Just before the implosion, Garrel sees Handor’s image in the same window he had fallen through just minutes earlier.

Reunited with Krossinger and his sister, Garrel heads back to New York to try to get his life together. The novel’s final scene shifts to a hitchhiker who also is traveling toward New York: Dr. Handor.

As I re-read Locust I am amazed, as I am with most of my early novels, by the sheer patience I had to bang out page after page on a typewriter; yanking out and sliding in sheet after sheet of paper, backing up with corrective tape to fix typos and misspellings. I also am perplexed that I remember so little of what I had written, and cannot even picture myself giving birth to the text. It is like stumbling across someone else’s work, yet familiar enough that I know a part of me remains in the pages.

Similarly, I am not quite sure how to characterize this final novel’s enduring message or theme. I was grappling with the madness of war; the power of the mind; the poison of unresolved inner conflicts; and the sheer evil that can plague a person as he descends deeper into darkness and madness.

I have learned how often the wars we fight are internal, and can leave us quite scarred and battle-hardened. At some point we have to storm the gates of the structure that has imprisoned us, and take the risk to find some resolution. We seek some healing for the crop amid the assault of the locusts, so that there might yet be hope for a bountiful harvest of authenticity.

Perhaps the structure that has served to incarcerate me is a lingering lack of self-esteem, affixed firmly to an early foundation of loneliness mixed with fantasy. Too often I feel like I am straddling a pair of lives, the John who connects with the world and the one who is engaged in an idolatrous realm that no one else can touch.

Through grace and my occasional cooperation with the Spirit wind, Christ has made much progress in storming the gates of this teetering yet stubborn structure. His Word, and the words of many others, have compelled me to, as Paul writes in Colossians 3, take off the “old self” and put on the “new self.” As I finished Locust I was almost 16, and still trying to cast off my “old self” but unsure of whom the “new self” should be.