A Day to Find Silk Purses

President Jeff always asks, at the end of the meeting, “Anything for the good of the order?”

Usually, crickets chirp. But last night, Doctor Dan, the medical doctor on the board, spoke up.

“Be careful out there,” said the doctor. “Our cases are spiking, and it seems like people just don’t believe anything bad is going to happen. They’re going to parties, and weddings, and games. They’re not wearing masks. They want life to be normal again.

“And people are getting sick. The COVID beds at the hospital aren’t empty anymore.

“It’s dangerous, folks,” he said. “Be careful out there.”

The remote meeting ended as we all clicked off.

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My county has seen an upsurge of COVID cases in the last weeks, so many that we’re categorized, by the government, as a ‘red’ county. The red’s a warning; the red means danger.

If cases increase, we could move into purple. Purple would mean closing back down—the restaurants and theaters, the gyms and shopping centers.

Purple would mean strict staying home again.

It’s hard to think about that, and it’s harder to think about hundreds of people growing sick.

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Leadership has been on my mind lately: I want to write about leadership.

I want to define it and I want to understand it.

I want to know why people want no part of it—I want to know why so many of the races I voted for on my absentee ballet today have one candidate running unopposed.

What’s a good leader? What does good leadership look like?

That, I thought is what I’ll start exploring in this week’s blog.

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But creativity has been creeping up on me, too.

I see evidences of it in Hallowe’en decorations, ones that are carefully hand-crafted. Some are natural, with corn stalks and pumpkins and gourds of many colors, and with bright, beautiful, orange and purple and white mums,—all arranged in unique and vibrant ways.

Some are gruesomely alluring: Victorian ghosts, for instance, in high necked gray dresses, floating above a broad front porch.

The little park nearby hosts a scarecrow contest, and the contestants are lining the walking paths now. Tomorrow, we’ll take a weekend meander and look at the visions people have crafted into life.

This morning’s paper has an article about the county’s engineering department; the administrator is steadily fixing the bridges in this area (our land is crisscrossed by rivers and dependent on bridges). When money runs low, the engineer seeks out creative solutions, repurposing, reallocating, readjusting. He maintains his standards, but he thinks—as they say—outside of the box.

Maybe, I think, after I’ve written about leadership, I’ll put something together about creativity.

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But Friday offers a Crayola blue sky, and the trees, too, are splashed with crayon-box color, and after lunch, Mark says, “Let’s go for a ride.”

We climb into the car and decide we will head to Mount Vernon, our old hometown. We’ll visit Ariel Park, built on the site of an old glass factory, and using many of the industrial artifacts as park features.

There’s no four-lane to Mount Vernon; we meander on back roads. We see cows and horses ambling and munching in green fields. The roads twist and turn through hills.

The air has that perfect autumn clarity. Not all the trees have turned yet, but the ones that have shout their colors.

Leaves are orange and magenta and goldenrod and burnt umber. Some are almost too outrageously brilliant to be true.

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The park is not too crowded. Mark parks near the Clock House, one of several repurposed buildings. Workers once punched their time cards in this building; its overseers kept track of who was on the clock.

Now, though, the trim little brick building is an industrial museum—a closed museum, maybe because of the season, or COVID, or both.

So we walk. And we see…

….a river made of melted glass, like the glass the factory once produced;

….A huge, huge chimney stack (it’s 280 feet high; there are 224 steps to reach the observation deck. The steps wind around and around the cement smoke stack. There’s a turnstile that will let us in, let us be climbers…and today, we pass that by and keep on walking);

….sturdy brick walls, reinforced remnants of once mighty factories;

…..Twisted girders. Signs tell us that some of that metal came from the Chicago World’s fair at the end of the 19th century;

….a labyrinth, with benches labelled peace and love and hope. I walk its winding pathways, soaking in the sun, and turn to talk to the boyos. They have cut across the grass, rolling their eyes.

But they wait for me to finish tracing each curve of the maze, and then we move on.

We explore a huge industrial building that’s converted to an event center. The original towers still reach toward the sky, but the cement floors of the broad space are polished and clear. Beams are exposed; walls on either end are warm, original brick.

The sides are open, but they can be closed by pulling down huge garage doors, all glass and black metal. If there was a wedding reception there, for instance, and rain decided to whip down, the bride and the groom and all their entourage could be kept safe and dry and happy by the lowering of those doors.

There’s a smaller building with real walls and windows, a professional kitchen and round banquet tables.

There are big square chunks of industrial concrete, pieces of machinery inside them, standing en pointe. They look as though they’d tip if I tapped, but they are heavily, sturdily, set into the ground.

The hills are terraced, the trees are ablaze. We agree that our granddaughters would enjoy this place, and that it’s a great place for kids.

And that it’s unique and special. Someone had a vision. Someone used the ruins at hand and created a stunning, original park.

Done walking, we drive down pathways, discover a whole different section of park, one with shimmering lakes and picnic pavilions. And we remember—fifteen years ago, maybe, as newcomers to the town, visiting that lake. We found discarded needles and trash; we encountered scowling people who wished us gone.

This is a place that’s been transformed.

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Mark takes us out the back way, past another twisted girder-sculpture, and we emerge on a road we haven’t traveled in years. We will, Mark suggests, take another way home.

So we meander through Centerburg, home of Robert McCloskey and Homer Price’s doughnut machine, and we drive through the little town of Sunbury. Jim begins to make polite inquiries. Would anyone else happen to be just a little bit peckish? he asks.

And Mark says, maybe this would be a good time to figure out just exactly where we are.

He pulls off the road in the center of a little town called Galena, and grabs his phone to get direction. And then he says, “Hey. Look at that.”

Across the street is a classic little brick bank, the kind of bank every small town should have. On the pediment, in dignified letters, we read these words: “The Coffee Vault.”

We put on our masks and go.

The place is charming, and the staff is amazing, and the social distancing is firmly in place. We wait for our drinks by the open, shining doors of the kind of bank vault that would have posed a pleasant challenge for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The young baristas tell us stories.

The owners, said one, were driving by one day, maybe two and a half year ago, when they stopped in front of the bank with its for sale sign. And they bought it.

“Do you know anything about COFFEE?” the man asked his wife. “Because this building is surely meant to be a coffee house.”

She went to school and learned her coffee. Now she comes in often, but her daughter is the general manager.

As she shooshes whipped topping on Jim’s raspberry white chocolate cream, another barista points out the world map behind here. The pins, which are placed all over the world, show where their visitors have come from.

Imagine! She says. People from those places wound up in little Galena, Ohio. She caps my decaf Americano, and we go downstairs. We sit at rough-hewn wood tables, and we sip our drinks to Don McLean singing “American Pie.”

The drinks are good. Mark enjoys a double chocolate muffin. The young barista tells us he thinks our presence called forth great music.

And once again, we are charmed by a surprising re-use of a place whose original purpose seeped away many years ago.

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So we ride home in the pure, clear, amber-tinged afternoon sun, and I think about that particular kind of creativity—that creative vision that doesn’t just see a wonderful new use for a thing, but pulls that vision out of mind and into reality.

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That special kind of creativity takes something discarded,—even, maybe, something originally distasteful,—and makes it into something beautiful, charming, engaging, surprising.

I think about what Doctor Dan said after the meeting, and how I felt steel doors clanging shut…how I said to myself, “Life can either be THIS…or it can be that.” And I let depression sink heavily into the pit of my belly.

But maybe, I’m challenged to bring that special kind of creativity to this time,–to practice a little alchemy and make of these challenges something greater than their parts.

I think of Phil, tech guy extraordinaire, with whom we met this morning. He was wearing a neatly crafted, handmade mask. Around the back of his neck hung a thick cord of elastic.

He showed us what it was for: he could take off the mask and let it hang comfortably around his neck. His mother-in-law, he said, was cranking those masks out for people by the hundreds.

I think of Wendy, who’s taking advantage of free online courses during the pandemic, and who is teaching herself to draw the fascinating fungi she photographs on her daily walks.

I think of young James, who, for whatever reason, has found his math mojo during COVID days, and is embracing the challenge of an on-line math class, and succeeding.

I think of all of us who, once self-declared to be proudly technologically inept, are navigating Zoom meetings and Microsoft Teams and Google group calls.

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Perhaps there is a third choice and a fourth choice; perhaps there a better choice for this time in this time than “Life like it use to be,” and “Man, this sucks.”

Maybe, I need to engage my creativity and see what can be made out of something that really doesn’t look, right now, so attractive.

Maybe it’s time to think about what Plan G might look like.

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I am excited tonight to contemplate unexpected creativity.

I am still thinking about leadership, though. I’m thinking about great leaders I’ve encountered in my life. I’m wondering if there is a clear and perfect way to define what leadership is. I’m curious about what people’s leadership experiences bring them—joy and satisfaction? Something else?

If you have thoughts about leadership (considering people and themes on a personal, not a political, plane), please feel free to email me at pamkirst@yahoo.com. But meanwhile, I hope you have a week filled with surprising and heart-lifting blasts of creativity.

6 thoughts on “A Day to Find Silk Purses

  1. Kathy McCaslin

    I love ready your writings while sipping coffee on a Saturday morning.
    Your day trip was very interesting. I need more road trips.

  2. Sue

    ~your virtual tour & shared accompanying pics were truly enjoyed, Pam. A nearby lakeside community here, fave quick-escape destination, has a gift shop located in a former bank & vault…also very unique!
    ‘Transformational leadership’~yes!!

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