Being, for a Change
By Ken Saxon
I’m fortunate to live a life that consistently brings me pleasure. Certainly I have struggles and burdens as all people do, but I have the privilege of doing work that is meaningful to me and to be nurtured by loving relationships. If nothing changed in my life from this point on, I’d be a lucky man indeed.
So why does that thought – nothing changing – cause me such unease? I find myself in the middle of middle-age, resistant to the idea of traveling a gentle glide path from where I am today to death. I don’t want to roll along on inertia, leaving other parts of myself unexplored and undeveloped.
For four months beginning March 15, I’m taking a break in the action of my work-filled life. As someone who identifies as a “human doing” more than a “human being,” and as someone who is constantly creating and building and reaching out, the idea of taking a pause is foreign to me. But it feels like a way to check in with myself at mid-life and to see what other things might want to emerge.
One of my favorite sayings is, “If you keep doing what you’re doing, you’ll keep getting what you get.” So what if I didn’t keep doing what I am doing? All the brain science that I’ve been reading about in recent years emphasizes the plasticity, the adaptability, of our brain cells. Change the conditions and you change yourself. The proven ability of people of all ages to transform their brains, learn and evolve is maybe the most hopeful thing I’ve learned about my species in many years.
In my sabbatical time, I am intent on controlling what I allow to enter my brain – shutting off work, social media, email access, much of the news of the world. With all the time and mindspace I’ll save by shutting out those things, it’s my goal to cultivate some new and enhanced practices – around writing, reading, conversation, connection, mindfulness, and physical self-care. I’m a big believer that “what you practice, you will become.” If I practiced something different, how might I be different? That question intrigues me.
I know myself well enough to know that for me to get to this place of self-discovery, I need to turn work off for a while. If, after my sabbatical time, I make even a few adjustments in my trajectory, over time that could have a really big impact – on my life, my work, and more. Or even if I returned exactly the same way I left, I think I’d see myself and my choices differently.
A poem we sometimes read in our Courage to Lead program is called “Love Wants to Know How.” Its words resonates more deeply with me as I travel through middle age, and the time ahead of me is feeling more finite. The poem ends:
quickly and with great force,
toward what burns in your dreams
at the dying of the year.
Who can say?
Perhaps you reap the whirlwind,
perhaps the harvest–
but is it ever enough to not know
the bonds and bounds of what will one day
forsake you for the grave?
That final question rings in my ears whenever I read it. At this point in my life, most of my “bonds and bounds” are self-administered. I have an enormous amount of freedom, but the way I live my life – driven so reflexively by my drive to work and to serve – doesn’t take advantage of much of that freedom. How can I begin to know how my current routines and work pace limit my vision, if I don’t try something else for a while?
And I feel clear on my answer to the poem’s final question, “Is is ever enough to not know the bonds and bounds of what will one day forsake you for the grave?” I respond with an emphatic “No!” With this sabbatical, I’m exercising my choice to step into that place of exploration, to see my life from a different vantage point, and to be.
At a retreat I attended in December, I spent some time in nature and wrote this little poem below as I thought about my sabbatical time ahead. If my life is characterized by doing and creating, my metaphor for this sabbatical time is drifting – letting myself be carried for a while by the currents of life, and noticing what I notice in myself and in the world. Drifting will be a stretch for me, but I know it’s in the stretching that we remake ourselves, that we remember ourselves.
I look forward to returning this coming summer, and to celebrating with you all our Courage to Lead community on its tenth anniversary this fall. What we’ve built together is one of the joys of my life.
Taking Time to Drift
A leaf, brown, done with its season,
falls into the river and drifts.
No longer one among many,
she’s off on a solitary voyage,
held up by what lies beneath,
following the current of the river,
surrendering to the flow of things
and open to what lies ahead.
I’m called to drift, for a while.
When my nature resists,
remember what I sense when I stop.
The gift is in the noticing, the sustained attention.
The gift is in the breathing, and the noticing of the breath.
The gift is in the feeling, the experience of aliveness.
Let go, and lean into the adventure
Reflections on Giving and Receiving Welcome
By Kim Stokely
Over the New Year’s Holiday, Nancy Edmundson and I led a retreat for the adults attending a family camp. After our morning session with about 100 people, we went to sit by fire in the lobby. A woman came in and without realizing we were the presenters, she began commenting on the morning session. Her words were something like, “That talk was about as exhilarating as watching paint dry.”
Well, you can imagine that the comment came as a bit of surprise, but what was more surprising was what happened next.
It was one of those awkward moments when you knew that the person was going to look up and realize who she was talking to, but it was also a moment where Nancy and I had a choice about how we were going to receive her story.
To give a bit more background, the audience was mostly white. The woman we were speaking to was black and one of the only people of color in the group. We were 2 white women of privilege presenting to this mostly white audience and invited by white leaders to facilitate the retreat.
It would have been easy to jump into defending ourselves and our work, or regaling her with our knowledge and work around equity, or making sure she saw the finer points of our talk, or walking away in hurt, anger or embarrassment. Instead, we welcomed her story. We did not try to “fix” the situation or her, but rather chose to ask her honest, open questions, receiving her story by listening and turning to wonder about why our talk and the situation influenced her response; about what was missing in our presentation, about what she did not hear that she needed to hear; about the barriers that were present for her to fully participate and have a sense of belonging. Had we not done that, we would have lost the opportunity for what became a rich conversation with a lot of learning on our part and the gift of her continued participation.
We came away with a new appreciation for what it means to give and receive welcome. If we welcome each other’s stories, even if they are difficult to hear, we open our relationship to deeper understanding and possibility. It is such a simple act, but sometimes so difficult to remember and practice. This conversation renewed my commitment to continue to practice. I don’t always do it perfectly, but I am willing to risk mistakes for the relationships it makes possible.