Friday, May 28, 2010

It's Just a Wall

You know those places you never get tired of visiting? The ones that offer an experience that never grows old: that inspiring vista, that perfect cup of coffee, that uninterrupted horizon, or that pasta dish you can’t replicate?

For me, Storm King Art Center is one of those places. It’s been more than 25 years since my first visit—I was married, Jake was a baby, and our friends Bill and Sheryl invited us along for a picnic. And it’s been less than a week since my most recent visit. In between I’ve made countless trips to the Hudson Valley to stroll its acres of hills, woods and fields, and dragged pretty much everyone I know to see the 100 or so sculptures that dot its landscape. It remains a place that is consistently inspiring in its scope and calming in its quiet grandeur.

Jim and I made a fairly spontaneous trip there last Sunday. Because we’ve been there so often, we noticed immediately that there were some new sculptures scattered through the fields. But not until we’d climbed up to the main office and Jim began chatting with one of the docents did we discover that the park is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a new exhibition.

It’s important that I come clean here. Jim loves to talk with total strangers, and he does this often—sometimes at great length. The fact that he’s an inquisitive guy is something I love about him. But the chatting often gets on my nerves, especially when I’m in the mood to experience something rather than talk to someone about how best to have the experience. There are times when I’d just rather do my own thing—and when the urge strikes, I walk away and allow Jim to do his.

I did just that on Sunday—and in the process learned that I need to rethink my impatience. First of all, the docent’s explanation gave me a “new perspective” on what we were seeing that day. Secondly, she taught us a trick for keeping at bay the ridiculously annoying May Flies that swarmed the place. And finally, she told us about a new work by an artist I love, one I would have missed seeing otherwise.

The new sculpture is by Andy Goldsworthy, an environmental artist who my old friend Karen de Mauro turned me on to back in 1998, when he and a group of “wallers” from his native UK erected what has become known as the Storm King Wall. It gracefully meanders in a serpentine way around trees and rocks, enters a pond and emerges at the other side. (If you’re looking, you can see the tail end of it from the NY Thruway as you travel north between exits 16 and 17.) According to the docent, Goldsworthy just finished a new wall in a part of the park that is literally off the beaten path, invisible from any of the designated walkways. Aptly calling it “5 Men, 17 Days, 15 Boulders, 1 Wall,” he’s refurbished a dilapidated wall (using stones found on the property) that now winds around boulders along a grove of trees and sort of tumbles into ruin at either end.

There is something about these walls that I find evocative. Goldsworthy has this way of using found materials, placing them in a natural setting, and magnifying their beauty in ways that force me to pay attention. His works are of nature yet not natural, and I find this mesmerizing. So imagine how jarring it was when, while murmuring my admiration to Jim, I heard a fellow visitor say, “I don’t get it. It’s just a wall.”

To his credit, Jim instantly had the proper perspective and whispered something along the lines of “everyone’s entitled to their own opinion.” To my credit, I didn’t throttle the young woman. Later, journaling it out, I found it impossible to accept. There are just so many kinds of walls, literally and figuratively. Ones that keep things out, keep things in. Keep things safe. There are sturdy castle walls that surround, crumbling stone walls that divide. There’s the Great Wall. The old Berlin Wall. The Wailing Wall.

I thought about how I wall off people when I’ve had enough. And wall in my heart after decades of disappointment. In my change group we’re talking about how our thoughts limit our forward movement—yet another kind of wall. Maybe my belief that there is no such thing as “just a wall” is—well—just a wall. If so, I’d like to think of it as a lovely Goldsworthy wall—designed to work with the landscape of my life, not against it.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Lovely and Amazing

I’ve stolen this title from a 2001 movie about a mother and three daughters who are self-absorbed, neurotic, confused, and weirdly endearing. Two of my all-time favorite actresses, Catherine Keener and Brenda Blethyn, are the leaders of this far-from-merry band, each of whom is struggling (in a highly exaggerated, this-could-only-happen-in-a-movie sort of way) with the kind of self-esteem and insecurity issues that plague—well—most of the women I know.

The title popped into my head as I was drying my hair and contemplating writing this post. It didn’t really seem appropriate, so I tried to dismiss it. But it's not going away. As I write that sentence, it dawns on me that maybe that’s exactly why it’s perfect. Because I’m writing about something that may not be appropriate but definitely isn’t going away: racism.

Back story: I work for the YWCA, whose mission is “Eliminating Racism and Empowering Women.” When I took the job three years ago, I was all about empowering women and eager to work for an organization that was dedicated to making that happen. But in the interest of full disclosure, I didn’t really think the racism thing had anything to do with me. I wasn’t a racist. Never had been. And I didn’t spend much—okay, any—time thinking about the state of racism in America today. Fast-forward to this week and I can say two things without hesitation: I am a racist, and the issue of eliminating racism is definitely part of my consciousness.

I wondered if writing about this was fitting for a blog dedicated to all things amazing, surprising and/or delightful. Here’s what then popped into my brain:

1. Bloggers aren’t supposed to worry about what people will think.
2. None of the characters in the movie censored themselves—and I loved that!
3. Racism involves censorship of all kinds.

So here goes. This week I participated in a two-day “eliminating racism” training that was surprising and amazing. For those who feel the urge to check out as they read this, not to worry. I’m not going to go on about my newfound self-awareness or how uncomfortable it is to look my biases square in the eye. I won’t try to explain the guilt and shame I felt sitting in a circle with people of color and listening as they spoke about how they live racism every day, while I can choose not to think about it anytime I want. Together we created a list of stereotypes about white people and POC, then read it aloud. Many of the words I used to describe the movie could be applied to that experience: self-absorbed, highly exaggerated, this-could-only-happen-in-a-movie, confused. I’ll add surprised, angry, sad, and daunting to the list.

I also feel hope, powered by the realization that it’s imperative to question everything. Not to accept what I'm told at face value. I’ve been lazy about some things in my life that require focus, energy, and hard work. I’ve been afraid to speak up and challenge assumptions because I didn’t have facts to back me up. But I feel lucky to have reached a point in my life where I’m willing to dig deeper. And I’ve learned that it’s not necessary to have all of the facts in order to take action.

One of the facilitators used the metaphor that racism is like the “people movers” we see in airports: we don’t have to do anything to make it happen. As white people in America, we inherit it. She explained that the first step towards change is to turn around on the people mover and face the other way.

Despite my rule-follower reputation, I’ve made the choice to turn around. I’ll admit it was easy to do while sitting in a room with 30 other people who felt equally inspired. And right now, sitting here alone in the comfort of my studio, it feels both lovely and amazing. But I’m no fool. Just like the women in the movie, I’ve got a boatload of insecurities, confusion and fear—and standing up against racism brings them all to the surface. That’s the cool thing about enlightenment, though: there ain’t no “Off” switch.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Next Act

Friday night. Central Park Boathouse. A surprise party to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the launch of my friend Marla’s image consulting business. It was a gorgeous evening and the noisy, elegant dinner, preceded by cocktails and mingling, befitted the occasion. In fact, except for the shortage of while lilies, it was exactly the kind of party Marla herself would have thrown.

Our host for the evening, her beau Barry, spoke of what an achievement it was for anyone to be so successful for so long. Especially in New York—and a woman at that. While I agree completely with the first two-thirds of that statement, I think that being a woman actually stacks the deck in her favor.

I remember having lunch with Marla when she hatched the idea and thinking that, if anyone could pull it off it, it would be her. She’s smart, organized, has a great head for business, and had been very successful working in both the buying and selling sides of the fashion business. She had reached a point where she was tired of working for other people, and after careful thought had come up with a logical next step in her career.

Exactly the sort of thing women do all the time!

That’s right. We’re the masters of reinvention. Whether it’s shifting gears from full-time career woman to full-time mom, from unemployed to self-employed, from single to married to single again, women are in the business of creating and recreating their lives. As one woman at Marla’s party put it, we are the flexible sex. The ones who can turn on a dime. We can be racing to meet a deadline at work, stop to take a call from our daughter or best friend, help with a math problem or dating crisis, and return to that work project with barely a "Where was I?"

Women are the ones who manage. We make do. We make ends meet. We make lemonade from lemons. And we’re successful because we refuse to give up. Every woman in my change management group is in the process of transitioning from focusing on others to taking better care of herself. Half of the women I met at the Vermont retreat were in the process of changing jobs, changing locations, or figuring out how to turn something they're good at into a moneymaking venture. What we all share is resourcefulness. Inventiveness. And the unwavering belief that there is more where that came from.

Just because we can do it doesn’t mean that transformation is easy. Like the humans in the movie “Avatar” who traveled from one world to the next, we struggle to adjust, often wrestling with a laundry list of issues: from fear to loneliness, from lack of financial resources to lack of confidence. But we never lack the support of good friends. Or the camaraderie of other women who are either in the same boat—or have recently paddled down the same river.

Three of the smartest and most talented women I know are in search of new employment. Two of them were laid off in the past month, and the third shuttered her business. None of them is entirely sure what they want to do, but they are fully dedicated to figuring out their “next act” (as one of the three—my friend Robynn—put it.)

I was in exactly the same place three years ago, about to lose my job and sure only of what I did not want in my future. With help from two wise women and an assist from my son Jake (who convinced me to take the leap to, I achieved my goal of leaving a Manhattan commute behind and landing a great job a stone’s throw from my house. This change began a process that, at the moment, seems never-ending. As if I tipped the first domino and sent dozens of others toppling in a line that snakes into my future. Each one that slaps the floor is another chance to move forward. To dream, to learn, to grow. To lead a more genuine life.

To do what women do so well: discover, realize—or create—our next act.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Spring Cleaning

Two summers ago, I met a woman named Janet Dunn at a hiking spa in Vermont that my friend Robynn discovered. Janet did a cooking demo one afternoon, and her gentle, nurturing persona was as memorable as the yummy protein salad she taught us to make.

It turned out that she ran her own retreat center of sorts (Tao of Health VT) and I put myself on her email list. Last October I made a solo trip for a weekend of “detoxing” with a small group of like-minded women. Janet had this innate ability to conjure up an atmosphere of safety, support, and lighthearted camaraderie that I found irresistible. So when the invitation arrived in my Inbox for a “darkness into light detox” in May, I signed myself up for a return trip to her rambling, sun-washed house, perched atop a hill near the end of a long dirt road. And I invited my friend Maryanne to come along.The last time Maryanne and I shared a “health spa” experience, things didn’t go so well. She is a lover of abundance—so the concept of being restricted does not sit easily with her. (No coffee? No bread? No sugar? No way!) So I knew it was risky to ask her to spend 48 hours in the wilds of Vermont, cleansing her liver, avoiding caffeine, and consuming a strictly vegetarian diet. Instead of creating expectations, I decided to think of it as an opportunity to spend time with her. And maybe let go of a little stress.

Arriving late Friday night, we discovered there was a full house of 20-plus guests. But we were lucky to have been assigned to the “blue room,” one of the nicest in the house. We set the alarm for 7 a.m., fell into bed, and before we knew it found ourselves in the roomy kitchen with a bunch of yawning women. Everyone lined up dutifully for fresh-squeezed juice and Janet’s deliberate dispensing of the morning’s detox regimen: a customized combo of herbs, tinctures and essential oils designed to help our bodies rid themselves of the crap we shoveled into them all winter.
Instructed to drink plenty of water and specially brewed tea (we’re talking burdock root, not Spiced Chai!), we moved slowly into a day dedicated to relaxation, reflection and release. The hours unfolded like flower petals, each yoga session, massage and mindfulness exercise building on its predecessor. Each of us chose our own path, participating (or not) in activities that encouraged us to look inward and focus on refreshing our minds and spirits.

Maryanne replaced the walking mediation with a nap. One guest spent the afternoon in her room, laid low by caffeine withdrawal (a plight that plagued at least half of us.) Others shared goals, fears, laughter and tears in that amazing way women have of entrusting virtual strangers with their deepest secrets. I dove in with typical rule-follower enthusiasm (the Thai massage guru, Einat, dubbed it my “good girl” energy, much to Maryanne’s delight!) By sundown, the herbs, fresh air, massage, and dinner (spicy adzuki beans and kale) had rendered me comatose. I passed on meditation and went to bed.We slept with the windows open and awoke Sunday to the sound of wind chimes ringing like church bells. After breakfast, we did some stretching. As she had the day before, Janet asked us to think of an intention to hold in our hearts. Muddled thoughts swirled in my foggy brain. Then a lovely woman named Monica arrived to give the group an acupuncture treatment, placing needles in our ears and whispering something about “spring cleaning.”

Maybe it was because I expected nothing. Or maybe it was the culmination of Janet’s weekend master plan. Whatever the reason, I sank into a state of utter calm unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. My body was infused with warmth. My pulse slowed. I inhaled one long breath, belly to lungs to collarbones, then slowly exhaled. Suddenly, the intention that I realized had been forming all weekend bloomed fully into my consciousness: Make Space for Self-Expression.
This simple sentence encapsulates all of the work I’ve done on myself for the past seven months. When I mentioned it later to Janet, she said "Make space where? And I replied, "In the day? In my life?" She looked at me with her crystal blue eyes and said, "In your heart." And there it was. The real reason I needed to be at this retreat. In this moment. And Maryanne was there with me so that I could let go of my typical nervousness about going anywhere alone, and immerse myself completely in the experience.

Right before we said our goodbyes, Janet announced that this was her last retreat. She’s selling the house and planning to “take her show on the road.” She gave each of us the candle we’d lit to celebrate our bond as women in search of more fulfilling lives. It sits on my desk as I write this, a reminder of the enlightenment that took place in that magical house on the hill. And I light it, selfishly, with the hope that I’ll cross paths again with this incredibly giving woman.