Full Circles: Bread Bags and Handkerchiefs

Definition of handkerchief

1 : a small usually square piece of cloth used for usually personal purposes (such as blowing the nose) or as a clothing accessory

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/handkerchief

I am pulling a bread bag over the dressing on my left foot before heading out into the lightly slushy parking lot. My colleague (also a Pam) and I are laughing. We’re remembering wearing bread bags inside our boots as children. The bags kept socks dry when boots leaked.

And we wore those boots, leaks or not, until our feet no longer fit in them. Sometimes, we even passed those hole-y boots down. Lots of families, in those old days of single incomes and multiple kids, did not buy new boots every year. We kids did what our frugal, Depression-kid parents bid us to do: we reused, repurposed and recycled.

Bread bags in my boots! It could have been humiliating, dancing in the school hallway, frantic to peel that bag off without putting my knee-socked foot into kid-tracked slush, then worming that foot into cold shoes carried to school in a bag. It WOULD have been humiliating, except that, all up and down the hallways, my classmates and schoolmates were doing the same bread bag bossa nova.

Was that a generational thing? I look up ‘bread bags on feet’ online and uncover five pages of articles, essays, and updates on this topic. I message some nieces and nephews, eighties kids, and they say, no: they also used bread bags. But my niece and nephew who grew up rural say they put the bread bags OVER the boots.

Bread bags go INSIDE, insists another niece, one who grew up in a little industrial city.

Huh, I think: there’s even bread bag controversy.

My controversy was having to wear them in the first place. I remember vowing that, when I went to work, I would buy myself new boots each year. As God was my witness, I’d never wear bread bags again.

And here I am, 65 years old, pulling a bread bag over a bulky, wrapped foot, stretching one hand back through the pool of time, and tagging my twelve-year old self.

There are things I have left behind, firmly and decisively. Sometimes, they STAY left. And sometimes, like the bread bag, they creep back into the latter part of my life.

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Take handkerchiefs.

I have handkerchiefs in my bathrooms these days; I do not have kleenex. I thought about the amount of stuff I was throwing into the trash, into landfills, into—God forbid—the ocean, and I realized that some things just had to go.

Facial tissues were one of those things. They come in cardboard boxes with plastic inserts, and every single part of the package winds up in a trash can, flushed away, or, worse, haunting a forgotten pocket or purse for eons until, discovered, the hard, clumpy, little things meet their belated fates.

So grownup me decided no more disposables. I’d buy cloth handkerchiefs by the bundle and keep neatly folded stacks in the bathrooms and anyone—family or friend—who needed one could have one.

Grownup me was happy with that resolution.

Twelve-year-old me was jumping up and down on my 65-year old shoulder demanding to know what the HELL I was thinking. (Language, sweetie! I hollered backwards over the years.)

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Handkerchiefs loomed large in my formative years. I was a sinus-y kid, and so I needed, always, to have a hanky with me. The problem was that even something as simple as using a handkerchief, in the 1960’s, became a gender issue. So my father had huge work hankies—they were, like, twice the size of a record album and had brown and red plaid borders. He and my brothers had large, sturdy, white handkerchiefs for school and church. But my mother and I,–on the assumption, I guess that dainty women produce only a dainty amount of mucous,–used dainty little squares of frothy cloth. They were often embroidered or stamped with lovely flowers.

They were never very effective. I was the kid whose nose was always running. My girlie hankies were reduced to sodden little balls within minutes of leaving the house. Touching those cold, wet clumps to my red, raw nose was pure torture.

I longed to have a big white boys’ handkerchief—or two! or three!—to take to school with me. But girls taking boys’ hankies? That just was not done.

Worse, as far as gender boundaries go, my brothers had nothing to do with handkerchiefs except to use them and toss them in the laundry chute. I, on the other hand, had to iron the darned things. I cut my ironing teeth on handkerchiefs, and I bemoaned the fact.

It wasn’t just taking the hot iron and pressing it to wrinkled cloth. Oh, no. First one filled a clean old ketchup bottle with water and screwed the lid, punctured five times with a nail, back on. Then one spread out, say, five handkerchiefs of the same size neatly atop each other.

One wielded the bottle, shaking it to dampen, but not soak, the cloth.

And then one rolled the damp handkerchiefs up into a ball, put them carefully into the bottom of the bushel basket, and started again with five new hankies. We, as a family, went through a lot of hankies, so this was a substantial chore.

Then the handkerchiefs had to be ironed, fairly fast. If the damp wore off, the whole process had to be done all over again.

So: hot iron, set to ‘cotton.’ Spread one handkerchief out flat. Use the pointy part of the iron to neatly flatten the edges. Then use the iron’s bottom to smooth out the entire cloth. Fold; iron again. Fold again; iron again. Now you have a slender row of cloth; fold in half the other way.

Then fold and iron again. Now you should have a perfectly ironed, crisp little square for someone to immediately ruin by sneezing into it.

Now peer down into the damp basket and realize there are about sixty more to go before you start on the girlie hankies way at the bottom.

Maybe…I could mow the lawn instead???

NO, said my mother and father, firmly and in unison.

I stuck my lower lip out and ironed with little grace. When I get big, I vowed, I am buying Kleenex.

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Handkerchiefs, I think, represent, in microcosm, a history of the inequity of the sexes. I find, on https://strangeago.com/2018/01/07/history-of-the-handkerchief/, a handkerchief history.

I learn that the word itself is from the French, a compound of ‘ker,’ meaning to cover, and ‘chef,’ which referred to the head. (No tete???) Kerchiefs originally were head coverings, but as early as Greek and Roman days, they came to be tucked into belts, or even on necklaces, to used to wipe away sweat and grime.

In those warmer climes—Egypt, Greece, and Rome—colds were few, and people didn’t need those fabric squares for their noses so much. But the more northward folks roamed, and the colder and damper the climate became, the more those noses began to redden and run. People, especially ladies, turned those brow wipers into nose wipers.

And then barbarians conquered Rome, and an age of darkness descended. Who knows what methods were used in those dangerous days to relieve the nasal overflow? Who, really, wants to know?

We can just be glad that, as the darkness lifted, handkerchiefs returned to belts and pockets in Europe and Britain. Shakespeare mentions handkerchiefs (remember Othello?) so we know they were back in use by the time of THAT Queen Elizabeth.

The French, bluntly, called the cloth squares ‘nose-wipers’ (mouchoir); the Germans, who apparently had the habit, called them ‘snuff-cloths’ (schnupftuch). (My sons’ term of choice, ‘booger rags,’ suddenly doesn’t seem so completely inappropriate by contrast.)

And, as the handkerchief settled into common usage, people—especially female people—began to embellish theirs, with lace and embroidery and tassels.

So there came to be tiny, dainty, decorative hankies for upper crust, delicate, female sorts, and big, strong, working handkerchiefs—cloths that welcomed the powerful blows of the sinus-y working class. Lady handkerchiefs and man handkerchiefs, and those two forms marched right on through time. They marched right into the 1950’s and 1960’s, and they marched into my life to torment me.

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New boots annually, Kleenex instead of cloth nose-wipers,—such were the urgent needs that sent me off to work as soon as I could find employment. Kleenex became a staple on my shopping list.

I stopped ironing handkerchiefs, and I stopped using them too. I liked it when each room in my house offered a box of soft kleenex close at hand.

But handkerchiefs didn’t disappear entirely from my life. One of the funny little things that endeared Mark to me, when we were first getting to know each other, was that he always had a clean, neatly folded (but never ironed) handkerchief in his pocket. If a kid had a runny nose, out came Mark’s hanky. If I got teary at a sentimental movie, he always had a clean hanky to offer.

I loved that thoughtful, quirky, almost anachronistic habit of his.

But I still bought Kleenex.

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I bought them, that is, until that day of reckoning when I had to take a stark look at just how much waste I was responsible for tossing away into the environment.

And then I bought a lot of white cotton hankies—MAN hankies.

Now each laundry-load of whites includes a dozen or so handkerchiefs. We pull them from the dryer, fold them neatly into squares and distribute them between the upstairs and downstairs bathrooms.

I have a hankie in the pocket of every jacket.

I keep a hankie next to my bed.

But I do not iron those hankies, and, even though, every once in a while, a chipper little voice suggests it to me,—says, “Wouldn’t it be so much nicer if those hankies were flattened and creased???”,—I never plan to do so again.

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We trudge through the formative sludge of our growing-up years, and, when we reach dry land, we stop, and we enjoy the sensation of slowly drying off in a warm wash of sun. And then we look around and say, “Gosh. Look at everything I’ve carried with me through all those years.”

We spread all that stuff out, and we sort.

Pinochle and chocolate?

Carry those forward.

The family fudge recipe?

On with me it goes.

A habit of writing thank you notes?

Yep, that one I’ll keep.

But wait—I’ll make a little heap of this other stuff: ugly, sensible shoes; three weeks of cleaning and scrubbing before putting up the Christmas tree; an insistence on iceberg lettuce only in dinner salads. I heap up a whole bunch of things like that, and I leave them in a neat little pile and go along my way.

I come back once in a while to throw something else—the cigarette habit, my beloved caffeinated coffee—onto the discard pile.

And then sometimes, after a very, very long time away, I come back and pick something up that I thought I’d left behind forever.

This week, I realized that I had stopped back and collected me some bread bags and some handkerchiefs. I tucked them into my backpack and went marching back on.

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There are some things we leave behind and they are gone forever. Others wait patiently until we realize they are, after all, kind of important.

This makes me feel a little nostalgic, almost weepy. Lucky for me, I have a sturdy white hankie in my pocket, just in case a tear really does decide to fall.

Red Sauce and Advent Wreaths

I wake to a sense of obligation: a kind of anonymous, must-do, burdensome sensation that makes me want to pull the covers tighter and head right back to sleep.

Beyond the curtains, though, it is full day, and I can’t quite remember what it is I must do. And in the moment that my mind ponders, my body considers, too, and decides: time to get up.

So I do. And I remember: it is the first Sunday of Advent. Today, I must clear the orange and green and gold books from the mantel and put away the little plates that say, ‘Grateful’ and ‘Welcome, Fall!’ and ‘Thankful.’ Today I must take the harvest wreath from the front door, and put away the ruddy, real-looking apples in the old red candy basket.

Today I need to concoct an Advent wreath, and today, this being not only the first Sunday of Advent, but the Sunday after Thanksgiving, I have to deal, finally, with the last of the turkey leftovers.

I think of all this as I wash my face and dig out suitable clothes for an at-home kind of Sunday. I think of windexing the big mirror and dusting surfaces to bedeck, of dragging the Christmas piggies, bought last year in a January sale, down from the thing room.

I Velcro on my clumsy, post-surgery boot, and all the day’s duties seem Velcro-ed too, clinging stickily to my back, bouncing and chuffing. I clomp downstairs to put the coffee on.

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Sunday morning means writing relaxed morning pages while I enjoy my coffee; I write in the quiet house, pen skimming over the pages, jotting down last night’s crazy dreams (in one, I was so tired and I kept trying to go to bed, but comical emergencies kept popping up. First I had to watch the toddler dropped off by a long-lost cousin in my front room. “Why are they here?” I kept asking an unknown audience, but then the baby started crying, and I heaved her up, heavy little creature, and started to dance.

Then Cousin returned and I passed off the baby, and someone (why was Someone here, too?) reminded me that I had to teach a class, a class on hiking wooded autumn trails.

And I did that and then came home, thinking, “Now I can rest.” But when I went to the bathroom adjoining my bedroom, I found it full of people who had plugged the drains with sodden paper towels. Water was cascading down a double carpeted step into the living area, and, “Where’s Mark?” I demanded of the crowd, and, “Why are you HERE?”

Maybe an over-peopled dream is an inverse response to an under-populated Thanksgiving.)

By the time my pages are filled, Mark is up, and I have snagged the big blue plastic bag of newspapers—local, regional, national,—from the front lawn. We settle in with steaming mugs and hot buttered toast. We eye each other, grabbing sections of paper, reaching out to retrieve the section we REALLY want to read when the other is done.

“Did you see THIS?” Mark asks, holding up the Metro section, and I thrust an article toward him.

“Is this woman SERIOUS?” I demand.

We cluck our tongues and shake our heads, and we laugh, pointing at pointed editorial cartoons. 

And Jim comes down and toasts a bagel and deftly slides the funnies from the pile, and soon breakfast is reduced to crumbs, and there is no reason to avoid beginning the day.

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Jim loves the Christmas piggies I bring down, and, as I clean off the white wood mantel, he becomes engrossed in helping me choose books to stack on it. They could be books about pigs or books about Christmas, or they could just be pretty books that are red or green.

He finds a volume about Freddy the Pig, a couple of bound screenplays (forest green and maroon bindings) by J.K. Rowling, a bright red paperback copy of Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel. He triumphantly pulls a copy of A Cup of Christmas Tea from the ‘poetry and inspirational’ shelf, and we give that book, a long-ago gift from a very special person, the front and center place of honor.

I put a bright Christmas plate in a holder and add it to the tableaux. We add a vintage green glass ball, dangling from a free-standing black metal hook-y kind of thing, and the display is balanced and done.

I clean off the little cabinet to make a place for the Advent wreath. I dig out candles, and I clomp reluctantly to the storage room in the basement, hoping I can find the Christmas wreath.

It waits for me, right where it should be, right on top of the wreath pile. Then it is a matter of moments, and the harvest wreath is packed away and the snow-flocked, fake-evergreen wreath hangs cheerfully on the front door.

Mark bags the wildlife-nibbled pumpkins and gourds, the last of the harvest-season display; he drags the bag from the front steps to the curb for tomorrow’s garbage pickup.

I cut pine boughs and holly branches and surround the Advent candles, and just like that, my much-bemoaned but not-really-so-heavy burden of things to do is DONE.

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My mother approached Christmas preparations with grim determination. There were rules about getting ready for the season, and there would not be a wreath on the door nor a whisper of tinsel in the house before the proper preparations had been completed.

The house, kept rigidly clean in the first place, had to be deep-cleaned. My December hands stayed white and pruny from days spent immersed in a bucket of Murphy’s Oil Soap water. In the first weeks of Advent, we washed ceilings and walls and floors. We crawled along the baseboards, washing woodwork.

(“Wait,” says Mark. “You washed the woodwork?”

“Yeah, baby,” I answer. “Twice a year.”)

We laundered curtains and ironed them. We scrubbed down those old white room-darkening shades that sproinged back up of their own accord if I looked at them askance. We washed blankets and pillows. Rugs that could be lugged outside were beaten.

By the time we got all that done, I was feeling pretty beat, too, and my mother, who of course did the lion’s share of work, was exhausted and crabby.

And that was just the prelude to the season. Now came the yearly hunt for a too-tall tree. Getting the old Army locker of decorations down from the attic—not an attic reached by stairs, but one that mandated a very tall ladder leading up to a square hole in the ceiling,–was arduous.  Dad climbed up the ladder and lifted the square of wood in the upstairs hall ceiling. And then he disappeared, crawling up into the darkness and the dust, being careful to walk on the spaced supports and to not put his foot through the ceiling. We heard the scraping of the Army locker across bare beams and deep rumbling mutters. Then there was a little dance as Dad positioned the locker by the opening, climbed around it to get partway down, then tipped the heavy old thing so he could carefully slide it down to the floor.

And then followed all the ahhing over ornaments and arguments over tinsel, the baking, the writing of cards, the shopping, the wrapping,–the creation of magic on a budget of mundane.

As the joyous holiday approached, my mother’s mien grew grimmer and grimmer, and my stomach clenched with anxiety.

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If my mother approached the holiday resolutely, my father often fell into a sorrowful period. It was because, Mom confided, the Christmases he had, growing up, were not good ones. He carried those memories forward, and sometimes, it seemed, they shanghai-ed him. Then he would be quiet and glum, unlike his usual demeanor, and we’d tiptoe around the aggressively gleaming house.

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But we always completed the preparations, and my father always worked through the sadness. And the arrival of the holiday itself dispelled my mother’s grim mood. Then there was the flamboyant church service, with candles in the darkness and a high clear voice singing “Silent Night,” and the triumphant crash of the organ from the choir loft as lights blazed. The doors opened to let us out into falling snow, most Christmas Eves.

And Christmas day (after Dad came home from his obligatory shift at the power plant)  always brought—and more than we appreciated at the time, I realize—a miracle of gifts and games and yeasty coffee cake and blissful time to spend with new crayons and books.

The trip might have been fraught with elbow grease and somber memories, but the destination glowed with magic, if only for a little time.

Those were Advent lessons learned in childhood. And every year I am surprised when the feelings those lessons engendered reappear.

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It is good, I find, to leave the house for even just a little bit after going from harvest home to Advent abode. It’s good to step outside, and then step back in.

So we take a ride to Mark’s office, and he shows us the new flooring: gray, wood-look laminate. I picture a similar floor in our house, flowing from the kitchen through to the family room.

Jim is impressed by the new carpet squares in the office hallway; those might be, he thinks, the perfect warming touch for the basement.

We take a ride around downtown, checking out some soon-to-be-repurposed buildings. We drive over the river, mirror-still in the cold sun, and then we head home.

We enter an Advent house, and as we do, I find I’ve also made the transition.

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Lunchtime. I chop the last of the white meat into a pan, and plop in gelatinous turkey gravy. I rummage and find a little container of turkey broth in the refrigerator; I mix that in, too, and put the pot over a low flame. Mark scoops stuffing into an orange Fiestaware bowl and adds a little water; he reheats it in the microwave and covers the steaming dressing with a plate while we wait for the meat and gravy to come to a rollicking boil.

Mark and I have turkey and gravy on stuffing; Jim has a hot turkey sandwich. And then we clean up after lunch, and I repackage any semblance of Thanksgiving dinner and put the little containers in the freezer’s nook and crannies.

Here’s a law, or a rule, that we should follow, I think: No more Thanksgiving leftovers after Sunday lunch. As the season pivots and turns, so should the menu.

In a week or two, that smidgen of turkey and gravy will make a great hot-sandwich lunch, and eating it will not feel like penance.

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And if there is a dinner that feels to me like the complete antithesis of a turkey feast, it starts with a long-simmered pot of rich red sauce. Pasta for dinner, then.

I chop onions and sauté them in extra virgin olive oil, and I open cans and dig packages from the freezer. I pour spaghetti sauce and tomato sauce and tomato paste into the softened, fragrant onions; I add water and stir and stir.

Then I pour in generous scoops of sugar, and I measure healthy dollops of oregano and basil and rosemary, grown in our yard and dried, into my hand. This is one of the best parts of the sauce-making, crumbling the dried leaves between my palms, scattering the flakes into the bubbling sauce. And then cupping my hands and breathing deep: the wonderful tang of herbs.

I cut two Italian sausages away from their cold little herd and slide them into the bubbling brew. I separate five meatballs, frozen tight to their siblings, from the big Tupperware container, and I add those, too.

The cold meat slows down the simmer, but by the time I measure the ingredients for a lovely, crusty French loaf into the bread machine, by the time I press the button and the dough hook swings into action, the sauce is steaming and roiling  again.

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All that remains, then, today, is to check to make sure the bread dough is moist enough, and, now and again, to skim the furzy acid from the top of the simmering sauce. I spread a little oil on a pizza pan, sprinkle it with corn meal, and set it out to await a nice little boule of dough.

And the house is clean, the transitions navigated, and the outside air crisp and frosty.

I light the fire, and I take my book, and I read to the accompaniment of snapping  flames and whirring bread paddle. That heavy sense of must-be-done has dissipated, and a little spark of anticipation simmers along with the sauce.

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Tonight we’ll boil up some pasta and dip crusty, steaming chunks of bread into a long-simmered sauce, and we will not regret saying goodbye to Thanksgiving’s remains. Today, we have met and wrestled at the point where season meets season, and the guardian at that gate has relented and let us go by.

I am past the point of struggle and denial, and now I am all in: let us light that first hopeful candle, let us pray for gleaming light in a pitch dark world.

Let the Advent begin.

Ordinary Time, for a Moment In-Between

Dave Granlund draws Santa, leaning out of his loaded sleigh and snapping his whip at two harnessed, racing turkeys, whose buckled Pilgrim hats are flying. One turkey thinks, “This holiday overlap has gotten way out of hand!” The editorial message in today’s Columbus Dispatch lands close to home.

https://www.hollandsentinel.com/opinion/20201124/granlund-cartoon-holiday-overlap/1

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I clomp downstairs, odd-footed in my surgical boot, on Friday morning, and I hear the back door close softly. Mark is out for his morning walk.

I start coffee, fill the tea kettle, and head into the dining room to pull my morning pages notebook from the cupboard. The brown plaid tablecloth, the Thanksgiving tablecloth, still covers the table.

I’ll leave it there, I think, until this afternoon.

I write while the coffee brews, scenting the house. I am, I realize, hungry for the first time since our indulgent holiday meal yesterday. When my pages are filled and snapped back into the binder, I fill a bowl with Chex cereal and skim milk, and I enjoy a plain and simple breakfast while I read the paper.

The newspapers are filled with coronavirus news and coronavirus opinions. I read about football games that were cancelled and rescheduled for virus concerns. I read an article about President-elect Biden’s Cabinet appointments, and I read about a controversial murder case.

These are regular-day newspapers, filled with everyday [and some of them unfortunate] concerns, and I relax into that ordinary Friday feeling. For just this little time, that high-tension holiday wire has stopped humming.

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Thanksgiving Day was a feast, of course, despite only three of us around the table, despite our self-imposed travel ban.

It was a connections feast—with texts and calls from those people we can’t hug right now. Several friends sent pictures of beautiful tables and shining faces; Christmas tree lights shone warm in the background.

“How beautiful,” I thought, even as I realized I am not ready, just yet, to get the tree out and up, to make an all-in commitment to the Christmas season.

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Thanksgiving was a food feast, too, of course…with a fresh little dry-brined turkey, and so many sides that we forgot to put the homemade cranberry sauce—our first foray into homecooked cranberries—on the table. And we were so sated afterwards that we decided against making the molten chocolate cakes; no one had room, and no one had the desire.

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After our mid-day dinner we lit the fire, and I read by its crackling light until we scrambled into the car to drive to Newark for the county hall light show.

But the courthouse was only half-lit; the lower lights and the twinkling, bouncing, musical tableaux were still under construction.

“What!” we all exclaimed. “I thought they always started on Thanksgiving!”

And we drove through downtown Newark, admiring the changes and additions the town has made, and glad, anyway, to get out of the house and into a little fresh air.

And then glad to get home, too, to settle back into the quiet, and to end the pandemic holiday by watching some mundane TV and wandering off to read. It was a holiday imbued, this year, with both a heightened sense of gratitude and an increased sense of worry.

People we know are sick.

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Some people celebrate Black Friday after the U.S. Thanksgiving Thursday, a day to seriously shop for holiday gifts and bargains and personal indulgences. But even before ‘pandemic’ was a reality word, we didn’t do that. We celebrate No-Obligation Friday instead, a day when all the holiday expectations have been met and when we’re not, as Mark says, “…on any kind of schedule.”

So today, we linger with newspapers and email. Then, about 10:30, we take a ride to pick up cashews I had ordered from a Girl Scout a month or two before. We had been shopping for yard pumpkins and gourds at a little farm market maybe 35 miles away, and a nice young dad, a clerk at the market, was touting his daughter’s Girl Scout offerings.

I had forgotten about the cashews until the Girl Scout’s mom messaged me yesterday. Picking them up is a good excuse for a ride in the country. The trees, mostly, are bare, and the cornfields and soybean fields are, mostly, brusquely shaven.

“Sere,” I think, and there’s a kind of comfort in this fallow, waiting landscape.

The sky is a sullen gray—the kind of sullenness that says, “What have I got to be happy about? I’m laden with clouds and can’t even rain.”

Vultures circle lazily, and people, in the little settlements we pass through, are out working. A crew of young men put metal roofing on a ranch house. An elderly woman slowly, carefully, cleans caught leaves from the roots of bushes. Two small white dogs sit alertly on the front side of a wrap-around porch, and school-aged kids chase each other, grinning and hollering, around an old white farmhouse.

The Girl Scout’s mom is waiting for us at the farm market, and we put the cashews in the back seat with Jim, who re-adjusts his head phones as we turn and head back to Zanesville.

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Mark takes us on a different route this time, and we pass stores and restaurants and realize how many people are out shopping, keeping to their traditional Black Friday habits. Parking lots are filled to capacity. I don’t let my mind imagine the inside of the stores, and the limited room for social distancing.

I hope people don’t get ill from tradition.

We stop at the pharmacy—another ordinary day errand,—and then we head home for lunch.

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And lunch is wonderful. It’s that best part of the turkey-day feast: the leftovers. I heat green bean casserole in the microwave, gather lettuce, and slice fresh whole grain bread. Mark grabs the Hellmann’s for his sandwich and spoons out a healthy portion of the forgotten cranberry sauce.

The sight of the turkey sandwiches gives Jim pause; he puts away the chicken patty he was taking to the air-fryer, and piles on the turkey slices instead.

After lunch, I put the remaining green bean casserole into a smaller container, and I rearrange the refrigerator a bit. We start brainstorming clever leftover fixes. Jim suggests stuffing waffles with shredded turkey and gravy. I think we could make some biscuits to accommodate that turkey and gravy, too. Mark is thinking of a turkey shepherd’s pie, using up lovely, leftover, twice baked potatoes.

Later, we will carve up the rest of the turkey and pack things away in the freezer.

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Right now, though, I get my calendar and sit at the table. I look at the month ahead.

I plan when to mail out gifts, and I jot down some ideas for last-minute additions.

I write out reminders:

  • Fill out paperwork for flu shots.
  • Make Jim’s dental appointment.
  • Foot doctor on Tuesday morning!

I note that Mark will work from home on the 9th and the 10th, and that Jim’s class wraps up at just about that time.

I fill in work webinar dates and Zoom meetings, and I note presentations that are coming up.

Then I start listing the things I want to do…the cleaning and the sanding, touching up trim and repainting walls.

We need to wash the Christmas china, I think.

On Sunday, we’ll trade the harvest wreath for a holly one, and we’ll put the Advent candles on the old treadle sewing machine in the dining room.

Satisfied that I am organized, I close the calendar and put it away.

Enough for right now. Enough.

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Mark has the fire lit in the living room hearth, and it is perfectly right on this gray day—a day that is not so chill as damp. I get my new mystery, just begun, from the dining room, and I shake out my favorite fuzzy blanket, and I settle into the chair, feet up on the sturdy ottoman. And I settle into the story of decent people solving horrible crimes, that strangely comforting scenario creating a sense of space and safety within.

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If time is a kind of geography, today is a safe, protected valley between peaks, one higher than the other, and this day offers space to shelter in that safe valley.

Tomorrow I’ll begin the cleaning, and on Sunday, the decorating. But right now, it is time to stretch and relax, to take a deep and cleansing breather; before the rush of the Christmas holiday begins, it is good—really, so very good,—to grab and appreciate a moment of ordinary time.

2020: Really Giving Thanks

“It could be worse; it could be raining.”

—James, quoting Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein

“At least we ain’t got locusts.”
          —-Mark

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When I was nine or so, and he was maybe 5, my parents took my brother Sean and me to a wake. The man who had died (call him Dave) was a colleague of my father’s, a fellow softball player, and the dad of my brother Dennis’s good friend. He was older than my parents, Dave was; he died of heart-related problems, if I remember correctly. He left behind his wife (we’ll call her Evangeline), and, I think, three sons.

I’m not sure why Sean and I went along that night. It could be that no older brothers were available (or willing) to sit with us. It could be that my parents decided that we were old enough, and that seeing death up close and personal would be a good thing for us.

It could be that having us along would give them a reason to politely leave after a decent interval.

For whatever reason, with trepidation, I walked into my first funeral parlor.

I remember hushed, thick carpeting, with shooshing doors and unctuous greeters and mourners whispering. The air was heavy with the scent of flowers and sonorous with the tail end of a priestly litany.

In the viewing room, a line snaked toward the casket and the widow. Dave’s sons were scattered throughout the room, talking to friends, hugging aunts and uncles.

We got in line; my parents ushered us closer and closer to where Dave rested, serene in his special days suit, hands folded over his middle, a tiny trace of a smile on his craggy face.

(“He looks just like he’s sleeping!” an old lady from church whispered, and I looked at the powdery stillness of Dave. He looked peaceful, but he also looked, I thought, very, very stiff and very, very dead.)

We knelt and we prayed, and then my parents put their hands on our shoulders and steered us toward Evangeline.

My mother reached out to give her an awkward hug.

“I’m so sorry,” Mom said. “We’re going to miss Dave.”

“I’m not sad!” Evangeline crowed. “I am happy! Dave is in a better place! No more suffering! He’s gone to his reward.”

The priest next to her (Evangeline was devout and generous) patted her arm, smiling beatifically. My mother’s face froze; she gave a tight little smile, my father said his piece, and then we pivoted quickly toward the door.

“I’m THANKFUL!” we heard Evangeline say. “I’m GRATEFUL Dave has left this vale of tears.”

******************************************

“She must,” my father said, when we were safely in the car and out of earshot, “be in shock.”

“Cripes,” said my mother; that was one of her very worst epithets. “So pious!” She turned to my father, scowling fiercely. “When I die, I don’t want people to be grateful my suffering’s over. I want them to MISS me.”

(She got her wish, I’m afraid; after my mother died, when her long bout of cancer ended, my father missed her deeply and constantly. He would have been thankful only for a magic remedy to bring her back; he thought the best place for her to be was with HIM.)

********************************************

I think about that strange funeral home visit in these days of challenge, as we get ready to celebrate a quiet Thanksgiving. Many of us grew up in traditions that asked us to say, “Thank you!” for the hardships life metes out…to imagine ourselves martyrs and happy for the status.

There’s a feeling that God sends us hardships to teach us, to make us better people.

I don’t buy it. And I’m not thankful for the awful things.

I do think challenges give us opportunities to learn, but I believe that God created us to know joy. I don’t think we have to be like those stereotypical soldiers who, plugging away at pushups, are made to say, between each agonizing, torturous exercise, “Thank you sir! May I have another?”

************************************************

Take the pandemic. There is no reason to be thankful for this ravaging disease, which has killed 1,369,446 worldwide to date according to https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/ on November 20. That those people died, whether they were aged, whether they had ‘underlying conditions,’ is nothing short of tragic. Their gifts and potential contributions exited the world before they were meant to leave.

There is no reason to say we’re GLAD this pandemic happened. There’s no way we can be thankful for systemic disease.

What crises do, I think, is plunge me, goose-bumped and shivering, into the cold, sharp waters of awareness. I realize what I have taken for granted. I cherish the people I may not have consciously appreciated until this cold wash is cast on my habits. I take note of the lessons the bad time teaches; I lay them out carefully and study them, and the somber reality of the time makes me take them into my heart, for real and for true.

I do not believe God sent the pandemic. What God did do is give us is the ability to learn from tragedy and pain.

But I don’t think God wants us to be thankful for the awful times.

**********************************************

I go searching for the roots of ‘thankful’ and ‘grateful’ on Online Etymology (etymonline.com)

Thankful, it tells me, comes from the Old English root pancful, which means “satisfied, grateful.”

Thank, says the source, is related to think “as song is to sing.” So thinking about the treasures I’ve encountered leads to giving thanks for them and leads to keeping what the writer calls loving memory fresh and close.

Grateful comes from the Latin gratus, meaning pleasing or agreeable. It is a “rare, irregular case,” writes the etymonline author, “of English using -ful to make an adjective from an adjective.” (That’s a little tidbit an aging English teacher is, truly, grateful to know.)

The bad stuff life sends my way does not make me feel satisfied, pleased, or agreeable. It makes me angry and sad and regretful.

I do not wish the challenges away, or moan that they ever happened; I would be silly, and it would not be useful, to harbor those kinds of regrets.

But I am not grateful for the fact of those challenges either.

********************************************************

Mark and I both started working as very young people, and work quickly became essential to our lives. (Now, both at retirement age, we find that choosing to work anyway is what we need to do.)

We have learned a lot from jobs we’ve had. Not all the learning has been positive; not all the people we’ve worked with have been big-hearted, altruistic, or even honest. I am not grateful for the pain of some of those experiences.

I am thankful, though, for the life-long friendships forged in some of those trying times, for the people who held me up and helped me through. And I am thankful for the work ethic I developed and the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction working life has brought me.

If I could go back, though, and avoid the pain and agitation of all those bad times, by gum, I would do it. I think the friendships would still be there, the bonds formed by joy instead, and I hope there would have been different chances to learn the hard lessons adversity taught me.

***************************************************************

One of the hardest things, I think, about relationship, is to watch dear ones go through really hard things. In the last two years, Matt and Julie have dealt with shocking, unexpected losses. Mark has been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, and Jim struggles to create an identity as an adult confronted with the challenges of autism and chronic depression.

I am not, and they are not, grateful for any of these tough times. But each wrenching event gave my loved ones choices. They could let the slamming blows close them up in bitterness, or they could walk into the pain, really feel it, and emerge changed. I am proud, so proud, that the bitterness did not win out.

I see Matt and Julie reaching out and gathering in; I see Mark deciding that having a treatable disease is better than having one that he can only hope to manage as it becomes worse. James is embarking on new testing, the results of which will help him understand his learning style and show him how to focus on his strengths.

There is no reason to be thankful for hardship, but we can appreciate the graces hardship engenders.

************************************************************************

I have been thinking about prayer lately; many things, global, national, local, and personal, have called me into active prayer. So when I saw a copy of Kate Braestrup’s Beginner’s Grace, a book on prayer, on the library shelf, I impulsively checked it out.

Braestrup is a Unitarian minister who works with the Warden Service in Maine. I devoured her well-written memoirs, the stories of losing her very young husband, of raising kids as a single parent, of opening up to a kind, gentle man with children of his own and remarrying. Humor is one of Braestrup’s gifts, humor in the face of hard and tragic things. It’s humor that is imbued with a real spirituality.

So I have been reading Beginner’s Grace. And this passage really resonates as I think about thankfulness:

If, as my husband defines it, disappointment is the feeling you get when reality doesn’t meet your expectations, gratitude is the feeling you get when reality exceeds your expectations. The truly rational, realistic person should feel overwhelmingly grateful all the time.  (p. 21)

I like the thought of that, that thankfulness is the counterpoint to disappointment, and that thankfulness should inform our days.

Because, in the nooks and crannies that the sinew of tough times often separate to allow, there are true and simple things for which to be grateful.

******************************

So this year, two days before Thanksgiving, we will travel, quite literally, over the river and through the woods to Mount Vernon, where we’ll pick up a tiny turkey at a favorite butcher shop. We’ll be thankful for my new hybrid car and its awesome gas mileage, and for the ability to buy that car.

We’ll change up tradition a little bit in these odd days. We’ll try a cornbread recipe that includes shredded chicken and cheese and pickled jalapeños. We’ll make hand pies instead of whole pies and try our hands at making molten lava cakes in our under-used ramekins.

We’ll have twice baked potatoes, and we’ll make our own homemade cranberry sauce, another first.

Whether all these culinary adventures have juicy outcomes or not, we’ll be happy to experiment and for the fact that, for now, we are safe, and we are healthy.

We’ll enjoy our new lounge chairs in our cozy house.

We’ll Zoom with the family and friends we are so thankful to have. We’ll think about our plenty and how to give back in gratitude.

And we’ll enjoy that tiny, fresh turkey. This year, we’re going to try dry-brining it and layering some freshly cut bacon on top to baste it as it roasts. We hope for a fine result.

I keep in mind the great words penned by my mother’s countryman, Robert Burns:

“Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it,
But we hae meat and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit.”

********************************************************

We have meat, and we can eat, and those are just two reasons to thank God this year. I’m thankful for having the eyes to see and the ears to hear those reasons, too.

I hope you are safe, and I hope you are healthy, and I hope that, together, we can endure the bad times and discern the joyful things that hide, awaiting discovery, in-between them.

May you, and all of yours, have a very, very warm and meaningful Thanksgiving.

Getting Rid of the Slotted Spoon

Sometimes you have to let everything go – purge yourself. If you are unhappy with anything – whatever is bringing you down – get rid of it. Because you will find that when you are free, your true creativity, your true self comes out.—Tina Turner

***********************************************************************

Early one morning, I find my vintage slotted spoon on a clean white napkin. Mark had hand-washed it the night before and rested it, on the counter by the sink, on the snowy cloth.

When I pick the spoon up, there is a seeping copper stain on the napkin. I can’t ignore this fact: my old slotted spoon is rusting.

*****************************

I’ve had that spoon a long time…a really long time. I’ve had it since my first, ill-advised marriage fell apart, when I was very young and completely unprepared for, and ignorant of, the buffeting life planned for me.

Back there, in my early twenties, I thought that divorce was the worst kind of personal failure, and that personal failure was about the worst thing a person could endure. I crawled inside myself to hurt for a while, and then, with the help of family and friends and a sharp-witted therapist, I began to crawl back into life.

*********************************

Being young and stupid and very, very proud, I had refused to take much of anything material (other than an old blue Oldsmobile Cutlass with one green door) from the marriage. And so, when I found a new, solitary apartment—a tiny but wonderful place—I didn’t have a whole lot of stuff—kitchen utensils or linens or cleaning tools and such. My friend Liza invited me to come and ‘shop’ her parents’ basement.

Liza’s parents owned a shipping company, and, neatly organized on basement shelves, there were contents of boxes and bins that had fallen off a truck and broken, or that recipients, for some reason, had declined. It was kind of a wonderland—a hodge podge of practical items and fanciful ones, of economy finds and lovely, luxurious things.

I, of course, was completely broke, taking one graduate course at a time, and cobbling together just enough of a living from part-time jobs. The basement shelves made me dizzy with their riches, and my mother’s stern voice, blaring in my head, over-ruled my greedy tendencies.

“We never accept charity,” said that voice. “Don’t take things!”

But Liza and her parents were kind of like chosen family, so I closed the heavy trapdoor in that bony mind cavern. I could still hear those admonitions, but, oh, they were nicely muffled, and so much easier to ignore.

I filled a box with necessities that summer day. Liza’s mom kept urging me to take more.

“Here!” she’d say. “You need one of THESE!”

I reminded her that my apartment was tiny. She reminded me that there were things I had to have if I was going to do any cooking.

Finally, she handed me a metal slotted spoon with a black plastic handle.

“You HAVE to have a slotted spoon,” said Liza’s mom. “You just do.”

I put it on the top of my box of goodies. I really can’t remember what else was in the box, probably dish towels and soap holders and saltshakers and plastic storage containers and the like. They were useful, usable things that I used up and left behind. But that slotted spoon has traveled with me ever since. It’s reminded me of where I started; it’s made me appreciate how far I’ve come.

And now it reminds me that everything has a shelf life. Yesterday, I got an email notification that my new, fancy-shmancy slotted spoon—one with a flowered ceramic handle,—will arrive on my front step this weekend.

The old spoon has been with me for forty years. It reminds me of my misspent youth, and it calls back the growth times that came after. I pick the spoon up and sense memories bloom—memories of scraping rich brown bits from the bottoms of pans as I deglazed or made gravy; memories of scooping pasta onto plates for special people on special days; memories of sifting up the good stuff from a soup pot, making sure everyone got as much meat and veggies and noodles as they did broth in their steaming bowls of homemade soup.

That was my go-to spoon for serving trifle—jagged shreds of angel food cake and pudding and whipped cream with something (chunks of toffee bars, usually) crumbled into it. That spoon scooped up dessert for lots of people.

That spoon fits in my right hand like an extension of self; it is a trusted tool.

**************************

But now, the spoon is done. It just is.

***************************

Lately, I’ve been reading all I can, and talking to all the experts I can, about homelessness. Homelessness is a state that’s a whole lot more complicated than it appeared when I looked at it, at its smooth surface, from a safe distance away.

There are different kinds of homelessness, I’ve learned. Art From the Streets, an Austin Texas publication, narrows the types to four.

There is chronic homelessness—the kind of homelessness that keeps a person on the streets for more than a year. This, I think, is the face of homelessness for most of us; and these are people with issues that keep them from being permanently housed—who have mental illness, say, or are addicted, or have been released from prison with a record that interferes with work and tenancy.

There is episodic homelessness, a label for people who’ve been homeless three times in one year. (If that person experiences four or more incidences of homelessness yearly, they are bumped into the chronic category.)

There is hidden homelessness, the people couch-surfing, staying with family and friends, the people with little hope of finding a place of their own in the near future.

And then there’s transitional homelessness, which takes in people who’ve experienced some kind of major crisis. That could be loss of job, loss of relationship, or loss of dwelling…to a fire, or to eviction. Transitional homelessness lasts until the person can get a purchase, get back on their feet, find employment, and build up the money for the security deposit and utilities.

Cherilynn Holloway (“The America Few Want to Discuss: A Check Away from Homelessness” on Centsai.com) writes that 59% of United States citizens are one transparently thin paycheck away from losing their dwelling, and from being, at least for a short and terrifying time, homeless.

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My parents were orphans with little money sense or experience, and that was our reality: one disaster, one catastrophe, one missed paycheck, and life would crumble. The disaster, fortunately, never happened; my father seldom missed a single day of work, much less a paycheck. But that knowledge of potentially impending financial doom informed my childhood.

I got clothes from kind cousins who took excellent care of their garments. To my consternation, though, by the time those garments passed down to me, they were years past being fashionable. I wore bulky woolen tops and long plaid skirts with saddle shoes when my classmates, sporting miniskirts and poor boy sweaters, were tripping around in penny loafers.

“There are a LOT of people who’d be glad for what you’ve got,” my mother would say bitterly when I complained. And it was true: I knew it was true. I was shallow and selfish. But how I longed to go down to the tacky department store and buy three pairs of cheap, tight jeans and a rainbow froth of inexpensive t-shirts.

We did not throw away broken lamps or reluctant vacuum cleaners; my father, who was handy, studied them and fixed them until those machines were more mend than product. Old clothes passed down to younger siblings or cousins until they could no longer be worn. Then they became dust cloths or neatly folded refills for the wet mop.

My parents always owned only one car—usually a used Buick LeSabre. Unless it blew up, as happened once, they drove that car for years and years and years—long past the time it was paid for.

We painted dingy rooms and made our own curtains and refinished and reupholstered  tired furniture.

The lust for things that are new, I learned, was sinful and profligate. And the indulgence in the new thing just might be that straw that made the whole trembling structure, teetering on that precipice, tumble over the edge.

Did I want to be responsible for THAT?

**************************************

I did not.

I learned early on that, when I had something,—a perfectly usable something—the virtue was to keep using it, to wring every drop of usefulness out of it before abandoning. And even when that point was reached, the best thing to do would be to repurpose that loyal old friend—an old headboard could be a perfectly good garden fence, for example, and broken pottery, shattered just right, could form an outdoor mosaic.

Wasteful, wasteful, whispers the voice as I think about buying new, about discarding things, and that remembered insecurity simmers; I feel the wind blowing hard and strong, and my toes grip the edge of the cliff.

It’s HARD for me to throw things out. And when the thing in question is imbued with sentiment,—well, that kind of struggle can wake me up at night.

But you know what?

That slotted spoon has to go.

********************************************

I think of that this week when I discover a new method in the Sunday New York Times for mashing potatoes. At first, I am affronted, reading this. I am 65 years old; I can make a pretty mean dish of mashed potatoes, thank you very much.

But the Times recipe goads me to try it. It involves boiling the peeled potatoes and then shaking them until all moisture disappears. They key, the recipe says, is a DRY potato.

And then I am instructed to heat milk and butter together in the microwave, and to grab my masher and get at those potatoes.

Mash them good; mash in half the milk mixture, and I’ve got fluffy potatoes.

Take a heavy wooden spoon and keep smooshing; add the rest of the milk-and-butter, pushing the concoction up against the sides of the pan until everything is smooth and nice, and I’ve got creamy potatoes.

Put the potatoes in the stand mixer bowl and let the paddle have its way…well, then, I’ve got whipped potatoes.

The trick, the recipe tells me, is to use less milk than I think I need, and more butter and salt…then the potato flavor shines through. Too much milk, and the flavor is flattened, the chef warns.

***********************************************

I decide to try it, if only to prove that my trusty mashed potato method is the good one. I peel and boil potatoes and read the recipe again.

We’ll go for creamy potatoes, I think.

***********************************************

We eat the potatoes with a nicely roasted herb-crusted chunk of pork and with side salads crowned with freshly grated parmesan cheese.

The potatoes are so good that laments about missing gravy cease; nummy-num-num sounds take their place.

***********************************************

And just like that, my old method for mashing potatoes is discarded. The boyos request creamy potatoes to go with the tiny, ten-pound turkey we’ll pick up the day before Thanksgiving. I want to haw and complain and ask, “What’s wrong with the OLD way of making potatoes?”

But I can’t really, because I like the new way better, too.

**************************************************

What strange times we live in,–when we look, for instance, at new ways of holiday celebrations. A person might, perhaps, replace turkey and trimmings with socially distanced finger foods in order to have a safely festive feast with beloved family members.

We might get together via Zoom rather than in huggable personal space.

We might take all those old ‘required’ traditions and wrestle them into a closet, thinking, “MAYBE I’ll take these out next year. And maybe, I will not.

We might use a new recipe for mashed potatoes.

We might throw away the slotted spoon.

****************************************************

The pandemic has been, when not a tragedy or a truly compelling concern, then an enormous pain in the buttocks. But it has taught me things.

And one of those things is this: things don’t have to be the way they always were. I don’t have to do things the way I always did. Traditions are only as resilient as their meaning and their execution.

It’s okay to get new things, and it’s okay to try new ways. And even things steeped in history and nostalgia should go when they’re not useful.

Because when the spoon is gone, the memories, love, and warmth remain.

Simmering: A Certain Way of Being

We need to establish order after experiencing disorder, and yes, it’s driven by the need for closure.

—Julie Beck, “The Benefits of Getting Comfortable with Uncertainty

**************************************

We walk early on Saturday morning, Mark and I; we walk as the sky brightens and a few cars roll quietly past, while a still-leafed tree suddenly explodes with the cheeping of tiny birds, while tired-eyed joggers nod silently, attuned to the beat pulsing in their ear buds.

We walk, a good, long, stretch, and then we go home, where James is up and dressed and ready for the day, and we cook an egg scramble.

We clean the house, a quick, brisk ramble through; the boyos take their showers. Then they pack up a bag of books and head out on a road trip, off to Westerville and a Half Price Books store, a takeout lunch, and a visit to Fresh Thyme. For the first time in, probably, at least two months, I am home alone, in a clean house…home with my books and my quiet.

I settle into the chair with my book; it’s Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste. I have been waiting a long time to read it. I was excited when the library called to let me know it awaited me on reserve.

I open and begin. My mind drifts. It is not because of the quality or the timbre of the writing; it is because questions keep arising from the sludge of my mind: bubbling to the surface, muddily popping, then hanging, suspended, waiting to be addressed.

What will the election bring?

When will it be safe to visit with friends again, or to attend a movie?

What will the holidays be like this year?

I have waited for this quiet time all week, nurturing the thought of it, and now the questions chase me out of the chair.

I might as well be cooking.

*************************************

I put water on to boil, dollop in some olive oil, shake in some salt. I pull out my old Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook and turn to the cookie section. I unpacked groceries last week; Mark’s eyes lit up when he saw the molasses.

“Ginger snaps!” he said. “We haven’t had ginger snaps in ages.”

I mix up a batch, and I pour shells into the boiling water. I roll dough balls in sugar and arrange them on trays.

While the cookies bake, I chop onion and celery and carrots. I mix up some ‘Cream of Something Soup’—a substitute for canned ‘cream of’ soup. I open tuna and grate cheese, and when the pasta is ready, I mix up a tuna noodle casserole and scrape it into a pretty red ceramic baking dish.

The oven is warm from the cookies; I slide the casserole in, wash the cookies sheets, and sit at the table with my book.

As soon as I am quiet, the questions resurface, lazy but persistent.

I sigh and close the book; I decide to clean the cupboard where I keep paper and markers and art supplies, notebooks and stationery and related odds and ends.

I can’t sit with uncertainty. My hands need to be busy.

Maybe I need to feel some kind of mastery in uncertain times, to have the satisfaction of beginning one simple thing and knowing I can steadily work it through to completion. Maybe I need to have at least one certain outcome.

By the time the cupboard is clean, the casserole is bubbling. I fill a heaping bowl, and I eat and read my book, and the doors have opened, for this moment, to let the words come in and stay.

******************************************

It is valuable to recognize that much of your education did not teach you to deal with uncertainty. Exam questions often had one answer. Assignments had clear grading criteria. Teachers helped you to make steady progress toward the completion of projects.

To better cope with uncertainty, then, it is important to focus on the processes by which you live your life, rather than the outcomes.

—Art Makham, PhD, “The Benefits of Being Comfortable with Uncertainty”

How do we learn to settle into uncertainty, to let it simmer, to accept and be in that moment? All of my training has taught me to forge through to outcomes. All of the personality tests I’ve taken in leadership courses have clearly revealed that I am results-oriented, accomplishment-driven.

The election and its potential results, their impact on lives and on the world, push me up and keep me walking.

I have cast my vote, and insured it safely arrived where it needs to be.

I have contributed to the causes I think need to come to fruition.

I have put a sign in my yard, displaying my intention, my bent.

There is nothing else to do.

I try to keep very busy.

I take many walks, and I rake many leaves, and I embrace the challenges of work.

The week moves forward, relentlessly, and sleep becomes more and more elusive.

***************************************

Perhaps the best thing you can do is to find colleagues who seem to thrive in uncertain times. Take them out for coffee and pick their brains. Find out the strategies they use to allow themselves to act decisively and effectively, even when they don’t have a clear reason to believe that their efforts are paying off.

—Art Makham

I haven’t seen Kris since…January? We meet at the hospital fitness trail, masks on, and walk briskly, trying to recap nine months’ worth of life into sixty minutes worth of walking. Impossible task, but one worth trying.

On Sunday night, the phone rings, and I spend an hour talking with Wendy.

I message people on Facebook. I talk with two young professionals, exploring leadership training, and I am heartened by the depth and thoughtfulness of those conversations, and by the rich email chains I link into with others.

I wonder about Mark’s brother and his wife; they are living through the horror of the unexpected death of a dear one. They struggle with this in a time of isolation and polarization and yes, uncertainty. We will not travel to be with them; the COVID cases in our state and county are rampant, and travel is not safe.

I try to divert myself by thinking about leadership, about homelessness, about the holidays.

I shop for Christmas gifts online.

Election day arrives, and its aftermath, and the uncertainty intensifies.

I text dear friends.

We visit on the patio of friends one night, socially distanced, enjoying cherry cobbler and a brisk fire as the darkness envelopes us, inky and sly. Cold nibbles around the fringes, but the fire promises safety and warmth. The conversation flows, gentle and rich, and we laugh. For those two hours—a visit with friends!—life seems kind of normal.

Connecting with others helps, if not to alleviate the uncertainty, then to sense it’s being shared.

******************************************

On Friday morning, the election is still undecided. COVID cases are spiking in Ohio, and in our little county; more people are sick now than in the worst of the lockdown days. Schools are scrambling to decide how to operate; we order our groceries. Getting takeout food is a big treat. We have been to a restaurant only twice, I think, since January.

Mark goes off to work, James goes downstairs to work on homework for his math class, and I turn to cooking once again. I take out beef bones, chop veggies, drizzle olive oil, sprinkle herbs, and put the mixture in the oven, browning it to make broth. I mix ground pork and ground beef with herbs and onion and garlic and grated cheese, stir in oats; I let the mixture rest while I put the ingredients for oatmeal bread into the bread machine.  

I take the bones from the oven, fill the pan with water and put it on the center burner, low and slow. Then I roll the ground beef mixture into fat meatballs and bake them.

While things rise and simmer and cook, I sweep and vacuum and mop.

When the bread is done and the meatballs baked, I wash the dishes and let the broth simmer while I go outside to rake. It is a glorious day; the remaining leaves either flame or glow yellow. While I rake, people walk by; the lady with the cute and ornery boxer dog stops to talk. The UPS guy walks around to where I’m raking and lets me know there’s a package on the front step.

Shirley’s trees, to the right of us, have finished shedding: I rake up the last of those leaves.

The leaves from Sandi’s trees, to our right, have long since disappeared into the dark maw of the leaf sucker.

November’s leaves are OUR leaves; I try to corral them; to bank them by the retaining wall; to keep them, as much as possible, from infiltrating the yards of our nice neighbors across the street.

It’s a losing battle, but we try.

***************************************

I eat salad and a piece of oatmeal bread for lunch.

James and I take a ride to the campus, where we walk.

I chop beef and carrots, onions and celery and open a can of diced tomatoes; I scoop out tomato paste and measure dry red wine for deglazing. I sauté meat and sweat veggies and stir together a big pot of Jodi’s Beef Barley Stoup, a comfort food if ever one was needed. It simmers as I write.

I try not to let myself check election results on the computer; often, I fail.

There is no new news.

I type “the benefits of uncertainty” into a search engine and get 217,000,000 hits.

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I have come to understand that living through this pandemic has its benefits, its silver linings; I think about how I do things now, and I cherish the chance to interact with people I might have taken for granted a year ago. I have organized my grocery shopping into a curb-side pickup routine, and I have learned new recipes, and we have experimented with new dishes and learned to live without restaurants meals.

This odd, quiet week, while we await election results makes me wonder if uncertainty, too, can have its unforeseen gifts. There are the obvious, physical things that result from my need to be busy: a freshly baked loaf of bread. A simmering pot of rich soup. Clean floors.

This is a time suspended between dread and hope.

I like completing things. I like to finish books, to complete knitting projects, to follow threads to their logical conclusions. I like, to be honest, to feel like I’m in control.

In uncertain times, that is not how I feel. Untethered, uneasy, I give myself do-able jobs to stop the sense of drifting.

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In these uncertain days, I remember the comfort and promise of prayer; I brighten at the text from a friend. I soothe myself by restoring order, and by, in these harvest days, creating the feeling of a full larder, of provisions against the coming darkness.

And I pace and I worry; I wake up in the dark, dark hours, and think, “What if…????”

Surely, uncertainty teaches me something, and surely, that lesson is something I need to learn.

I cannot see it yet, but I await the recognition, the little pulse that says wisdom is gleaming just past the horizon, that if I pursue it diligently and carefully, I can arrive where uncertainty is trying to lead me.

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https://www.fastcompany.com/3056421/the-benefits-of-being-comfortable-with-uncertainty

https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/10/the-benefits-of-getting-comfortable-with-uncertainty/409807/

Led to Lead

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”
-John Quincy Adams

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We were newly married, Mark and I, and shopping with seven-year-old Matt at Twin Fair, the prototype of supermarket/department store combos. This was a Friday night, and the store was busy. There were many, many tired, unhappy children shopping with long-suffering parents.

One parent in particular gave us pause, though.

A stout little blond boy, red cheeked with tired eyes, turned sudddenly and gave his tiny toddler sister a whack on her snow-suited back. She began to wail, and the mother wheeled around, already swinging.

She started to hit that little guy, hard, over and over.

“I’ll teach you to hit your sister!” she snarled.

And Mark said to her, “That’s exactly what you’re teaching him.”

And she spun around and directed her venom at Mark, but at least she stopped hitting the burly, overheated boy.

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That little guy would be around 40 years old now, and I wonder what leadership lessons he learned in his growing up years. I hope that was just one bad night, and that he learned that it’s okay for leaders to say, and mean, that they’re sorry: they’ve made a mistake.

I hope, too, if the mama was a usually angry person, that there were other grown-ups who modeled calm and thoughtfulness, patience and perseverance. I hope he had  a big person who listened to him, quiet and patient, deep and true.

I hope his teachers and bosses showed him how good leaders live in this world, and I hope he incorporated those lessons into his own life.

It’s something I’ve been thinking about—how we learn to be leaders. We learn from our most basic, intrinsic models, of course. We learn because we want to lead, and we want to learn to do it well. And some lucky people have the opportunity to study leadership—study it in a more formal kind of way and put it into practice. Ten or so people I connected with who had that opportunity stunned me with their thoughtfulness and generosity, and with the leadership roles they’ve embraced as adults.

Maybe, I’m thinking, we should be teaching leadership in all of our schools…

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Of course, our first leadership teachers are our parents. In fact, I typed ‘parents as leaders’ into Google, and got 652,000,000 hits. In the first hit, Brighthorizon.com offered, “Parenting Skills: What Makes a Good Leader.” It pointed out that every situation and every person is different, and that different reactions might be required of parents.

“In every situation, you remember that you are the leader, capable of providing guidance, training, and encouragement,” the article notes, and it goes on to say that trust is the number one ingredient in the successful parent-child relationship.

I can remember, as a shy, shy child, visiting a friend whose house was loud and raucous. The mom in that house often yelled things like, “Who the HELL took my pen?” and stomped around the kitchen.

I was terrified at first, until I learned that family’s culture: they were noisy, loving people, and there was no violence in their noisiness. The kids would yell right back, and in minutes, they would all be laughing.

I had other friends whose homes were quieter, quieter than I was used to, where the rules were very clear, but that sense of love still simmered. Very different kinds of parenting: very different models of leadership. But all of the people in all of those homes trusted each other to be there in need.

“My parents were good leaders,” Liza writes. “They taught me to work by modelling that behavior.”

As she thought about parent leaders further, Liza added, “I think moms historically are the more influential parent as they manage it ALL. It is enormous the amount of leadership qualities mothers have to possess just to keep the world running.”

Things are changing, though, she adds. “Dads these days are stepping in more in the running of the family household…”

My mother used to tell me, “DO as I say, not as I DO.” She was jokingly referring to an important truth: as children we model the behaviors our parents demonstrate way more than we listen to the words that they say…a truth I learned more deeply as a parent myself.

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Other family members are important leadership role models, too. Janet noted that her two grandfathers were professional nurturers of people and potential. “One was a minister in Long Beach, California,” she writes, “and the other served as superintendent of schools in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.”

Her minister grandpa built a church; her educator grandpa built a school. Janet is a retired educator who served on her school board and who fills many leadership positions at her church. The lessons she learned from her grandfathers, and the admiration she had for them, shaped her life’s roles.

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And then our families, fully believing in the beneficence of the system, launch us.

We go to school, where we have teachers who model leadership in many shapes and forms. There are leadership roles there—in the classroom, on the playground, in clubs and organizations and student government—that give many kids a chance to learn about the challenges of leading and about themselves as leaders.

We go to churches, some of us, and look at leadership through a spiritual lens.

We go to work, and we learn from bosses.

“My last boss,” writes Brian, “definitely had her flaws. But she was no-ego in the sense of digging down and pitching in. She would dive into the dirtiest, sweatiest areas of the restaurant when something needed to be done with no complaints. It was inspiring.  She felt that when you accepted a job, you accepted it with all its warts intact.”

As Tracey notes, we learn from bosses both good and bad.

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Life thrusts us, at all ages, and often kicking and screaming, into certain leadership roles, and we learn by doing.

Sometimes, we learn by failing.

What we don’t always have are formal chances to learn leadership—classroom training. And when I thought that, I thought of my young colleague, Bob Mead-Colegrove, at SUNY Fredonia in the 1990’s. Bob came in and took over and enriched and enhanced the Leadership Development Program (LDP) there.

Since then, I have taught at some colleges who once had leadership programs for their students; changing times and pressures to trim credits and the ever-present budget concerns crept into play, and those leadership programs disappeared.

I got on SUNY Fredonia’s website and saw that, although Bob now has a position (a leadership position, I might note) at a college in Buffalo, New York, Fredonia’s LDP is going strong.

I messaged Bob to see if he thought college leadership programs were dwindling.

“I don’t know if the leadership program trends have decreased in recent years,” Bob replied. “But I can say I have seen a trend of the interdisciplinary leadership programs being taken in by academic departments. I find this concerning as I truly believe in the interdisciplinary approach to leadership programs. You get the diversity of thought and academic differences more when it is an interdisciplinary program. My proudest moment was when I was able to get the Interdisciplinary Leadership Studies minor approved at Fredonia.”

Then Bob asked if I’d like him to see if any LDP alums from Fredonia would be interested in discussing leadership learning.

SURE, I said, thinking how great it would be if one or two of Bob’s former students responded.

Ha. The response blew me away.

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Several students—now established professionals—who responded all had different reasons for getting involved in a college leadership program. Some had no idea what a leadership program was, but a faculty member nominated them, so they figured, “Why not?” They thought it might look good on a resume or something.

“I guess I took it because I was nominated,” writes Jeremiah. “It seemed like a good opportunity not offered to everyone, so why waste an opportunity? I wish I could say there was more thought into it, but that was it. I always volunteer and try to help so, it was easy to say yes.”

Dave notes, “I was ‘selected’ because I showed leadership qualities in other classes, and it probably played into my vanity at the time.”  

Kate writes, “I knew my leadership skills were something I wanted to develop, and I wanted to be able to lead my peers and possibly supervise one day.” (Kate is now assistant director for residential life at a major SUNY school.) She adds, “I was also very passive and needed to learn some better assertiveness skills that I seriously lacked when I started college.”   

Jason was nominated by an advisor, and he had a work-study job in the student government office, which was right next door to the leadership program. His best friends had signed up for leadership; the people involved looked nice; he thought he’d sign up, too. Jason now is also a student life leader at a SUNY school.

And Ryan Barone freely admits that the only reason he got involved in the leadership program is because he was in trouble. He was sanctioned for underage drinking, and one of his options for getting back into the school’s good graces was to enroll in the leadership program. So, what the heck, he figured, and he applied.

Ryan is now an assistant vice president for student success at Colorado State College.

Some students self-nominated, mindfully seeking out leadership training.

Whatever route they took to the program, their reflections on how it helped them grow were thought-provoking.

Clay writes, “One could write books on [the topic of what he learned]. I learned tolerance. I learned real skills to apply to working with groups of people. I learned how to listen.” He adds, “That last one being the most important.” [Clay is now, by the way, a Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at a $1.6 billion federal contractor, managing large projects involving government bids.]

Holly, who, as an MSW, oversees 50 staff members in a Child Protective Services agency, writes, “I kept very few things from college; however, one thing I kept was my leadership development book.” She attached a photo to prove it, and noted that, as she moved into challenging roles in graduate school and professionally, she has referred to the binder time and again. Jason also mentioned using the binder in his professional life.

Holly also notes that the public speaking exercises she did in the leadership program, among many other real-life skills, have served her well in her career.

Dave agrees the public speaking was a key learning component. He also mentioned learning how to dine formally…a skill he uses in his current federal position.

Ryan A. says, “Oh my gosh, what DIDN’T I learn? I fully believe that being a part of Leadership changed my life. I learned that you don’t have to be extroverted to be a leader…I learned how to work with people, especially how to work with people as a TEAM.”

Ryan Barone mentions gaining the ability and space to clarify his values. The teaching and advising that he received in the program laid a foundation that he has continued to build on in his professional life.

Kristine writes that she learned that there’s a lot more to leadership than “being in charge and making decisions.” She learned teamwork, collaboration, how to foster decision-making to reach a goal, and how to let others participate rather than doing everything herself.

And Kate notes that servant leadership, which she first learned about at SUNY Fredonia, has informed her life. “To me,” she writes, “serving the needs of the group helps move the end results forward.”

Several of the students (errr, sorry: several of these professional, civic, and personal leaders who I can’t help but think of as students still) talked about learning the concept of time management. Many of them shared a mantra Bob taught them: Early is on time, on time is late, and late is unacceptable.

Every one of the alumnae of the Leadership Development Program is in a leadership role, and each of them said the LDP gave them skills and confidence that helped them reached their current pinnacle. One of the many things that impressed me about this diverse group of respondents is that they didn’t complete the program, call it done, and smugly walk off looking to lead.

They all knew they had skills and potential, but they continued to read, seek, practice, and grow.

They talked about using Meyers-Briggs with their staff to foster understanding; they talked about learning to build morale.

They talked about how important it is for people to have leaders who look like they do…so that a leadership program must reach out to a diverse range of people and help them develop their potentials. (And that’s a subject for a further post…)

They talked about insuring the people they work with have the support they need.

They talked about having developed the ability to hear and absorb criticism.

What they learned in the leadership program applies in all aspects of life, not just on the job. “Currently,” writes Kristen, “I’m a stay-at-home mom. I think the things I learned from [the leadership programs at SUNY Fredonia] have always applied to my life. It doesn’t matter if I’m working as a professional or volunteering at my kids’ school. What I learned in those programs is immeasurable.”

“It did get me on a path of leadership roles in my life, though,” says Jeremiah, “and a quest for knowledge on how to be better at leading. I’ve read books and been to countless trainings since college in various fields to better myself as a leader.”

And Ryan A. states, “Leadership taught me that continued personal growth and learning are very important in order to continue being the best version of myself.”

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There is more to share, more that these thoughtful young professionals, parents, and leaders had to say, more thoughts for another post. But tonight I am left with this: leadership IS taught, negatively and positively, by the models woven into our lives. But we are not doomed to only try to repeat those leaders’ triumphs or to succumb to their failures; self-knowledge, encouragement, and opportunities can help us become ever better at the challenge of leading.

And leading can be taught, mindfully, with proven success, to a whole range of receptive people.

And it should be taught. Leadership and maximizing potential should be lessons every child, teen, and young adult have the chance to learn. I wonder how, without adding another task to already over-burdened teachers, we could make that happen.

Thoughts in This Strange Week

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

                                      Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

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It is dark when Mark and I set off, although the sky is just starting to get milky—it’s a cream-splashed navy blue sky that reminds me, for some reason, of the bottle my mother’s Evening in Paris perfume used to come in. We walk off into the dawning quiet.

We pass children waiting, in the dark, for their school buses. A jogger slaps quietly by, careful on slick fallen leaves.

But by the time we reach the halfway point, it’s light out. We start to notice trees which have captured sunshine, shot it out into their leaves, hanging onto summer in reds and oranges, golds and purple.

“Look at that one!” one of us says.

A few minutes later: “Oh, my God! Look at the color on that tree!”

It is, we agree, one of the brightest, most vivid falls we can remember…the beauty is, maybe, a natural apology for a pandemic world.

We cross the street to avoid the cordoned-off sidewalk where the new park is being constructed on the corner where the school used to be. We cross, and we set out to catch our stride back up when I realize there’s something blocking the sidewalk not far ahead.

It’s a doe, hunched over: a big doe. Something is wrong.

“Mark,” I say to my husband, who is deep in thought. I swerve out into the street, walking by the curb.

Mark looks up as the doe lurches forward, using her front legs to pull herself up the shallow grassy bank on the house-side of the sidewalk. It’s clear she is in pain, and it’s clear her back legs are broken, as she struggles valiantly away….and doesn’t get very far.

Mark calls the police to tell them a deer’s been hit and is gravely hurt. The dispatcher assures him a squad is on its way.

We leave the suffering deer, hunching and heaving on someone’s leaf-covered lawn, and we don’t think about what will have to happen when the peace officers arrives. Just this: an end to suffering.

The morning walk went from dark to vibrant to sad very quickly.

How are we to feel?

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This week has had its gifts.

This week I got a beautiful card, a custom photo notecard, with a picture of a masked statue at the library. I KNOW the daring folks who authorized, equipped, and executed that masking.

The masks disappeared within a few days, and we hoped that the people who took them were people that needed them…that masks from statues might keep a person or two safe.

There’s a wonderful sentiment on the inside of the card, as well. I put it on the cabinet in front of the living room window, next to Larry’s Happy Hallowe’en! card. And I smile when I walk by.

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Susan and I visit a breakfast program for homeless people one day this week, and we talk with the impassioned founder of the feast. We tour the facility, which is partly renovated and mostly dreamed of.

On our way out, a tiny woman in bright red togs, a hand-inked Celtic cross on the mask shoved up on her head, runs over.

“That’s a present for you,” she says, and hands me a wooden cross wrapped in scarlet pipe cleaners. It glitters and catches the light. “Blessings!” someone has written on it. “God loves you!”

We take that gift back to the office and hang it in the hallway.

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This week has had its challenges and cautions.

The day we went to the program that reached out to homeless people, I went back to my office, ate a quick lunch, and logged onto a Zoom call with a newly met colleague. Only she, the inviter, was not there. I waited for ten minutes until the program booted me out of the empty room.

I emailed the colleague, whom I know, although our acquaintance is short, is not the kind of person to forget—or blow off—a commitment.

Within fifteen minutes, we were talking. She apologized profusely, explaining that she’d been on a tough call that wouldn’t fit nicely into narrow confines. She’d been talking to a lifelong friend whose mother is hospitalized with COVID. It is not a hopeful hospitalization; the mother is very, very sick.

And the friend is pretty sure that the reason her mother is dying of COVID-19 is because she exposed her to it.

Not exactly the kind of call that my colleague could end with a, “Jeez, that sucks. Well, hon, duty calls: gotta go!”

That story burrowed and clung; I imagined the daughter’s torment, and I remembered that, outside our doors, beyond our masks, real danger lurks.

It sobered me all day.

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Last night Mark read a text and learned that his brother’s brother-in-law, a healthy, active, never-sick kind of guy, is hospitalized after suffering a massive stroke. No warning: just BAM.

We think about him, and we think about his family, and of course, we wind up thinking about ourselves. Because tomorrow doesn’t come with a warranty, and we might not want to just fritter away today.

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But this week, pursuing thoughts on leadership, I reconnected with Bob, who implemented a leadership development program at SUNY Fredonia in the 1990’s. Bob shared some of his own thoughts, and then he asked if I’d like to talk with some former students from the program.

Sure, I said, thinking the likelihood of busy people having time to talk about a college experience was slim.

Within an hour, I received twelve emails from leadership development alums.

Within the next day, I received at least six more.

Generosity, leadership, the power of a program and a person to make a difference…all of those things wrap together in the connections Bob helped me make.

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And this week, too, Sharon texted from western New York—texted and asked, “What is going ON in Coshocton, Ohio?”

Sharon has visited us, and on one of those visits we went to Coshocton, which is only about 35 miles away. I wasn’t sure, though, what she knew about Coshocton or how she knew it. So I got online and discovered that an 85-year-old man was beaten by his neighbor there for having a Biden sign in his backyard. The story went fairly viral.

What a thing for a place to be known for.

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This week, the election hangs heavy over everyone’s heads; worry lurks, and most people I meet say, “I just wish it was over. I just wish we knew.”

And a new restaurant opens, its parking lot filled, all day long with cars, and we wonder about social distancing.

And tomorrow is trick-or-treat night too: a short treating window this year, limiting the amount of exposure little gremlins will have. Or cause.

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This week I talk a long, long walk with an old friend, and it is wonderful to catch up with her.

This week my writers’ group meets inside for the first time since January 2020, and it is such a pleasure to reconnect, we take an hour to get to the writing.

This week it rained, cold, bitter rain, for just about 36 hours straight.

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This week is pain and worry and uncertainty.

This week is reconnection and discovery and rare, raging beauty.

There is hope this week, and there is the kind of gut-wrenching knowledge that sometimes there are just no solutions.

But let this week be a door, a gateway, the beginning of an evolution into whatever life will look like now and after. Let us get through this time with grace and some sort of unquenched optimism, and together build into that new world we can’t quite envision, that we can’t quite trust will happen, just yet.

Gimme Gimme Good Leaders (Every Day)

I glanced over at Victoria, and it occurred to me that she was one of the best bosses I’d ever had.

Victoria always made sure we did our work correctly, but she was patient with us when we made mistakes. Victoria also seemed confident in her authority, because she never asserted her power through petty acts.

Josh Gross, “AmeriCorps 2020: July 10” on his blog, The Jaguar

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(And just a note: I put out a call for leadership thoughts, and I am not surprised at all that the people who responded shared rich, thoughtful, meaningful ideas, anecdotes, and insights. Because of this, my planned ‘one post’ has morphed into several posts, looking at leadership from different angles. I am going to post these on Wednesdays, beginning on November 3rd, and continue my ‘regular’ (whatever that means) essays on Saturdays.

If you have leadership thoughts, please feel free to send them my way at pamkirst@yahoo.com.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, to the people whose textured input created this week’s rumination on good leaders: Wendy, Liza, James, Ann, Karla, Debra, Meg, Tony, Janet, Kris, Tracey, Patty, Kim, and Mark.)

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So there I was: very young, very stupid, and recently divorced; paying for my nice little studio apartment by cobbling retail and babysitting jobs together; ending the month at a deficit, every month; dabbling in graduate studies by taking a linguistics course; and clueless about next steps. Don’t let me sound like a martyr: I was having a lot of fun, too, but I was running through the days so quickly that I shoved any thoughts of career choices or next steps into that big basket labelled, “When Time Allows.”

And then one day my friend Marsha called and asked me if I’d be interested in teaching at the inner-city Catholic school where she was a beloved fourth grade teacher and mentor.

I had sworn, graduating from college with my English degree in the full flush of feminism’s second wave, that I would never teach and never type for a living. Still, people had said to me, time and again, “Aren’t you going to teach?”

They asked as if it were the obvious choice, as if I had “TEACHER” tattooed on my forehead and I was the only one who couldn’t see it. Frankly, that irritated me—maybe like the irritating sand that conjures up the pearl.

And Marsha was very persuasive.

And somewhere, deep inside, I must have really wanted to do what she was asking me to do.

Anyway, I said yes. And then I hung up the phone and realized I didn’t know a damned thing about teaching.

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So I did what we geeky folk always do: I went and found books. I read every book I could find (dozens…maybe even hundreds, of books) by and about effective teachers, and then I tried to distill what I had learned into concrete steps to follow.

The three big things for me (after, of course, caring that the kids I’d work with would learn what they needed to learn) were these:

  • Building community in the classroom
  • Being as organized as possible
  • Treating everyone (students, coworkers of all sorts, and administrators) with respect

I learned a LOT in my first years of teaching; I hope my students, looking back, can say the same thing. And teaching often led into other, related positions—sitting on boards, officer-ing an organization—and I discovered that my three big things really WERE big things for me, for my style…and that they applied not only to teaching, but to leadership in general.

If someone asked me what a good leader does, I would say without hesitation that a good leader builds community, respects the people she works with and for, and is as organized as possible. And of course, I’d acknowledge that there’s a little more to it than that.

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My view is a limited one—limited by my own quirks and positioning and propensities, so I went searching for what OTHER people think good leaders must have, or do, or be.

My first search, of course, [remember: geek] was on the Internet, where typing ‘qualities of a good leader’ landed me with several million hits. I started reading through the first couple of entries; my eyes glazed over, and I gave up.

And I thought it would be so much better to ask real, leader-y type people what THEY thought. So I did.

And here is a list compiled from the responses of fourteen thoughtful people who have every reason to know whereof they speak.

Qualities a Good Leader Needs

  • The ability to lead by example (“No exceptions!” says Wendy.)
  • The ability to communicate; leaders must be able to talk with people at any level, and they must be willing to address individual problems with individuals and not in a group. They must have strong listening skills. (Debbi writes, “I look for a leader to first and foremost have excellent listening skills…to make people feel that their voices/ideas are HEARD and considered.”

Meg adds, “I’ve also had leaders that were inspiring and passionate and knew how to motivate a team through different types of communication styles (video, music,–getting people engaged emotionally), while there were some who were extremely insightful, intelligent, and knowledgeable, but frankly, nasty and stressful to be around.”

And Kim remembers, “Lou, the head of the cashiers, was loyal to the cashiers to a tee.  We were her girls.  If there was a problem, she would take care of it, but privately. She had our backs, always.”)

  • Worthiness of respect. (“I’ve seen some leaders,” writes Wendy, “who had the potential to be stellar but either the power went to their heads or they had secrets. For example, [I have worked with leaders who were good at] condemning inappropriate relationships at work while having an inappropriate relationship themselves.”) 
  • Charisma…however one defines that.
  • Personability; ease of working with others. (Ann shares this: “The interesting thing about leadership is that it’s really not about ‘leading’ per se.  What good leaders do is teach and coach their subordinates, so the subordinates develop their skills, abilities, and confidence.”) 
  • Willingness to work hard, and to do whatever work they demand of the people they lead. (Kim writes, “When I was a cashier in a grocery store during college, the manager of the store and the woman who was in charge of the cashiers had qualities that to this day I remember, that shaped my work ethic.  When the checkout got really busy from end to end, everyone who could be spared to bag came up front.  It was quite the picture:  men from the meat department in their white coats, (why, oh why, are those coats white?), men from the produce department in their green smocks, men from the dairy department, managers, and the rest would come up to bag.  The manager of the store himself would come down from his office in a loft and bag as well.  It made me feel very proud that everyone worked together, but it especially made me appreciate the manager for doing ‘what everyone else needed to do’ to get people moving.  I was very impressed with it, and it cemented for me that leaders freely do what is needed.  No job is beneath them to do.  It is about the job that needs to get done.”)
  • The ability to motivate others. (“She would let us each do our job,” Liza notes. “She knew what to expect and would only make occasional suggestions, not bark out orders.  She trusted us to do the job.” And Ann adds, “As the subordinates develop, good leaders step back and let the subordinates do their jobs in their own way rather than micromanage them or be insistent that it has to be the leader’s way.”) 
  • Intelligence. (“I can’t tell you,” writes Liza, “how many ‘leaders’ I had to follow who didn’t have enough intelligence to find their way out of a paper bag and wouldn’t listen to any other suggestions.”)
  • Knowledge. (Mark notes that the grasp of the intrinsic subject matter made four of his bosses people he readily chose to follow. “With Mr. Wahl it was his willingness to share his knowledge of how and why machines worked the way they do. I was like a sponge whenever I had the opportunity to listen to Mr. Wahl chat about machine design. With Paul Mansell it was the knowledge of how to interact with our customer base in order to understand their needs and to provide them with the products to assist them. With Ken Oswalt and Mike Haddox, it was their knowledge of the law.”) 
  • Decisiveness. (Liza writes, “I don’t believe someone is a GOOD leader unless they are EFFECTIVE. They must be able to make a decision, good or bad, and move forward.  If the decision was good, great job.  If the decision was bad, apologize, recognize the mistake, make changes and try again.”) 
  • Fairness, willingness to recognize others, and generosity. Good leaders must give credit to team members for exceptional work.
  • Supportiveness; they can support team members, for instance, by recognizing major life events and milestones.
  • Willingness to accept responsibility for both victories and failures.
  • Gravitas, compassion, eloquence, and kindness. (For a good explanation of gravitas, says James, watch the “Poet Laureate” episode of West Wing.)
  • Understanding. (“She’s as much my friend as my supervisor,” writes one contributor. “I trust her completely, and she has a great handle on my personality and what I need.”)
  • A progressive personality.
  • The ability to teach and to coach those they lead, to lift others up.
  • Enthusiasm. Karla writes about a supervisor she worked with in the 90s who “…had at least some of the characteristics I would associate with a good leader: enthusiasm and the ability to convey that to those who worked for him, a willingness to recognize accomplishments, and a personality that made you feel he was accessible. Added to that, he had a willingness to call them as he saw them, at times bluntly.”
  • Trust/trustworthiness. [“One [of my bosses],” writes Meg, “never brought his mobile phone or laptop home from work, and, if I had to make a decision after hours, I would have to make it on my own. He would always say that I did what he would have done. However, I never felt that he was being lazy or didn’t care. I felt that he trusted me and portrayed a sense of calm and balance that was reassuring (not everything was highly urgent/a burning fire/the most critical decision of all time).”]
  • Approachability. (“Another boss I remember,” writes Liza, “was an easy person to talk to; she led with a kind of hands-off approach.”) 
  • Integrity. (Integrity was an oft-cited quality. Tracey writes, “In order to possess integrity, you must have AND follow a moral and ethical code and refuse to compromise your code.  If you do this, you will build trust among others, and without trust, all attempts at leading others will fail.”) 
  • Honesty.
  • Courage.
  • Passion.
  • Energy.
  • Empathy. (Many people cited empathy as an essential attribute of good leaders. “I remember one boss I had that I highly admired.  He had empathy,” writes Liza. “He understood what I was dealing with.  Not that he cut me any slack; I was always an overachiever in getting my assignments done, but he was one of the few who really cared about ME!”

And Tony adds, “There are many qualities that come to mind, such as caring, forgiving, understanding, loyal, etc. However, the one quality that encompasses all of these for me is EMPATHY!”

Tracey, too, writes of empathy being an essential characteristic of leaders: “You must be empathetic.  Empathy requires leaders to be aware of the needs of their followers and react appropriately to those needs.  You must know the values, feelings, intentions, struggles, and goals of your followers.  You must take the time to truly listen to their needs and wants.  You must show them how the path you are asking them to follow leads them to where THEY want to be.”

  • Sense of humor. (Karla writes, “I don’t know if he [her former boss] originated this saying, but I heard it from him, and it made me laugh, and I have quoted him many, many times over the years: ‘Anything is possible for those who don’t have to do the work!’ ”)
  • Humility.
  • A thick skin. (I believe,” writes Janet, “a good leader needs to have a thick skin. In the public arena there are SO many critics.”)
  • Loyalty.
  • A sense of timing…leaders need to know when their tenure is over. (“The second thing a good leader does is not to stay in that position too long,” advises Janet. “Your ideas were fresh and new in the beginning and worked very well, but they become old ideas.”)
  • Ethical behavior, an unblemished reputation, and the avoidance of even the appearance of impropriety.

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Good leaders–even great leaders–don’t have to be perfect. Consider this contributed example.

Back story- In high school, my tennis coach, Mr. Smith, was a lead-by-yelling kind of guy.  He had a bullhorn, and when he was angry, his face would get red and I thought he would explode.  He commanded respect as he was a towering and imposing figure.  But I also found him to be reasonable and fun.  Throughout his early career, only boys had been eligible for varsity tennis. Then girls were allowed to try out, and when—gasp!—some of us actually made the team, there were few overtures made. The uniforms, for example, were boy’s shorts and golf shirts, and they did not fit female players well. The three of us girls on varsity wanted to get clothes that fit better, and my peers nominated me to speak for them. I talked to him about how the shorts were uncomfortable and inhibited our movements.  At first, he was gruff, but as we talked, he finally relented. We got ‘girl shorts’ the next year. 

The main story – One of my teammates, Elvin {note: names and details have been changed} had a very rough childhood, very poor social skills, and a tendency to be annoying.  (Side note – he had a hard time making friends in school, but he was in my circle and always invited.) 

One day, Elvin committed some minor infraction during practice, and Mr. Smith yelled out, via the bullhorn, “Elvin, if you don’t get it together I’m going to put your head through that tennis racket!” Coach was standing on a high hill next to the courts. He threw his bullhorn to the ground in anger, and it rolled down the hill, hit the asphalt court, and smashed into pieces at my feet.  It was pretty hard not to laugh.   

So, keep that passionate coach in mind. 

A few years ago, Elvin’s father died; Elvin was back in town for the funeral, and we talked at the funeral home that night.  I learned that Coach Smith had become a father figure to Elvin, had been the best man at Elvin’s wedding, and had been present for the birth of each of Elvin’s children.  I’m getting choked up even typing this. 

We respected our coach, and some feared him, but I always knew he was reasonable.  What I found remarkable is that this guy who could simmer tightly on occasion was the same guy who quietly, behind the scenes, did the right thing and even went above and beyond.  That really stays with me.  When my Mom died, he was the first person in line at the Church and even arrived early to be able to spend extra time with me. 

That’s a leader.

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In conclusion, here’s a thought to contemplate: while it’s great to work with a good leader, we learn from all the leaders who cross our paths. Tracey puts this eloquently.

“In my life,” she writes, “I have been blessed to work with many ‘good’ leaders:  servant leaders, empathetic leaders, strategic leaders, and transformational leaders. 

“I have also had the misfortune of working with ‘bad’ leaders. When I say bad, I do not necessarily mean ineffective, just bad.  Bad to their followers, bad to their customers, and just bad to the human race. 

“I have learned much from both good and bad leaders.  Good leaders showed me what to do, and bad leaders showed me what not to do.  The combination of the good and the bad is what developed my personal leadership style.  So, I am grateful for both.” 

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Take Me to Our Leaders…

“Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It is precisely that simple and it is also that difficult.” –Warren Bennis

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Last Monday, our absentee ballots arrived in the mail.

Last Monday, we each filled our ballot out, careful to sign where signatures were needed, careful to fill in each and every bubble completely, careful to leave the tab on the ballot, to slide the ballot into the inner, correctly filled-out envelope, and then to seal that inside the outer envelope.

Worried about ballots getting thrown out for silly reasons, I checked mine seven times before sealing it, finally, up.

Then we drove down to the Board of Elections and deposited our ballots in the official drop box, taking no chances on any possibility of loss or dispute or fraud.

It felt good to have it done, to know our votes and our voices would count.

But one thing really bothered me: at least six of the races we voted on had candidates running unopposed.If your choice is Fred or no one, it’s pretty sure Fred is going to win.

That doesn’t feel much like a democracy, though.

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The first United States presidential election I can remember was when John F. Kennedy won…November 8, 1960. The new president was young and dashing; his wife was glamorous and shy. I was just five years old, and even I felt the excitement—the winds of change, the vitality breathed into dry corridors and rote practices.  

I think I was six when I first encountered the word charisma. I understood what it meant because President Kennedy had it.

And I remember my mother saying something that was kind of a catch-phrase back then: “Every mother can hope her boy grows up to be president.” (Girls, of course, couldn’t even play Little League then; there was no thought that every mama’s GIRL could grow up to be the ‘Leader of the Free World.’)

And then the dashing young president was assassinated, and I remember my mother saying she’d never want a kid of hers to be that prominent or that vulnerable.

For a long time, John F. Kennedy was my symbol of a good leader: good-looking, bursting with personality, the kind of speaker who could get a kid with no idea of what government was all about excited about learning.

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Then I started to realize that there were leaders in all levels of life. Teachers, of course: teachers were (and are) leaders.

Some of mine were despots, ruling with an iron hand…sometimes even ruling with an iron ruler. In fifth grade, though, I had my first male teacher, Mr. Smith. Men who taught grade school classes were pretty much unheard of in those days, and so I was jazzed from the get-go. A funny thing happened, though: I had to change my modus operandum.

I had learned to thrive in a classroom built on law and order…in an environment where raised hands and neat handwriting won silver stars and warm praises; where quiet demeanor and solitary work were two of the top criteria for being a good student.

Mr. Smith just up and exploded all that. He shattered my vision of straight rows of chairs, putting us in pods of six students. We were charged to work together, to create something as a group, and to glory in the joy of teamwork and collaboration.

Sometimes, of course, we did have individual work to do; we’d sit at our desks and do math problems, for instance. And Mr. Smith would sit at his desk, on the wrong, front side, a student chair next to his. As we finished, we could bring our papers up to the teacher, and he would go over them with us, praising and pointing out ‘opportunities to grow.’

Anyone could go up there, whenever work was ready. I remember finishing one day, and seeing that another student was ready to get his work checked, too. He saw me stand up, and we both just bolted, leaping and stomping to be the first to that empty student chair.

We arrived at the same time, red-faced and panting. Standing behind us was another classmate, Kathy, who’d walked up, quiet and calm.

We two racers were sent back to our seats, dwelling on another opportunity to learn: this time that courteousness and quietness sometimes won the day. Both of us, until my tenure in that class ended, watched and let others go first, learned and practiced a painful politeness.

We moved at the holidays that year, and I was placed in a different fifth grade class, with a teacher who had us copy spelling words in silence, who made the first ones finished wait, sighing and heaving, for the last ones done, and who then went over answers, one by one, with no explanations. The excitement of school burned away for the rest of that year.

That was the year I learned to write long notes to friends, to fold them into hard little triangles, to heave them with deadly accuracy when the teacher’s back was turned…or when she was dozing at her desk.

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I didn’t appreciate until years later, until I began teaching myself, just how much work went into Mr. Smith’s seemingly casual teaching. The organization, the mindfulness, his own excitement at the things we discovered…there were thought and flexibility and energy built into his classroom leadership style.

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But there were other teachers I revered, too—some who ran firmly ordered classes, who reserved their passion for the subject and not the student, who set their expectations up on a shelf out of reach, and waited calmly for me to try to figure out a way up there.

And then I started working, started having bosses, and I learned some new things about leaders.

I learned that there were frazzled moms who would expect, for fifty cents an hour, that the babysitter would handle four naughty kids, do a sink full of dishes—some Melmac plates with three day old catsup dried as hard as super glue,—clean up the messy living room, and be ready to do it all again at an hour’s notice, because their REAL babysitter punked out that night.

I learned that there were supermarket managers who would scream at me for a mistake I may or may not have made, scream in front of shoppers and co-workers, scream until I dissolved in tears, and then storm off—leaving my hair blown back from my face and my eyelids pinned wide open. Later, having discovered that the mistake was NOT mine, after all, the manager would drop a “Sorry, eh?”…poking his head into the break-room as I sucked down a quick cigarette.

There were fifty witnesses to my shame and none to my vindication, a fact which brought the tears rolling back again.

I learned that some bosses needed always to be right, and always to be in charge, and that others thrived on discussion and on coming up with creative solutions by pooling the innovative ideas of the people they worked with.

There were some bosses who got my back up. There were some bosses who, with a gentle word, could change my whole trajectory and attitude.

I stopped, really, paying a whole lot of attention to elected leaders—national, state and regional. I put my leadership interest into the leaders I interacted with on a personal, daily basis.

Then I got involved in a couple of leadership programs—programs that involved doing the deep work of identifying my own styles and skills, and weaknesses, too; that involved mentoring; and that exposed me to effective leaders in all kinds of roles.

I developed some theories of my own about what makes a leader effective.

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I think a leader needs to have a deep understanding of their own personality. It’s perfectly possible for an introvert, for example, to be an excellent leader. She will probably be exhausted at the end of day, but she’ll do a darned fine job. But her leadership style may involve one-on-one conversations, memos or email communications, quiet, thoughtful discussions.

The introvert leader may not want to do a lot of public speaking; she may create PowerPoint presentations; she may identify a team member with oratory skills and appoint them as spokesperson. But she’ll get the work done; she’ll have a loyal team helping her.

Another leader will do it completely differently…with weekly staff meetings, complete with gooey brownies and flip charts and broad, raucous discussion…a kind of messy, ooze-y compost of a discussion that, finally, churns up amazing ideas.

And a third leader might need a tightly organized structure, with everyone on the team understanding his own job, her own sphere of influence. That leader sets all the tea cups spinning, and as long as none falter and fall, the team is a dynamic success.

But if the introvert tried to be the hail-fellow, well-met kind of boss, she’d fail miserably. The leader-person needs to understand who they are as a person, and use their strengths to lead their team.

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I’ve had leaders who have never reached that level of understanding; I bet you have, too. Those leaders are frustrated; nothing ever quite works the way they envision it working. There is anger and stress and often, recrimination.

Not, of course, that stress doesn’t occur even with effective leadership. But, with an effective leader, the stress can wring out a positive result…and a relaxation of tension. With the leader who’s operating from a shaky platform, the stress seems never-ending.

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And then, with self-knowledge intact, the leader needs passion. They have to be inspired by their mission.

Two examples:

Ruth Colvin, who was shocked to learn, in 1962, that 11,000 adults in Syracuse, New York, were functionally illiterate. In a church basement and at her kitchen table, Colvin developed an unconventional way of teaching adults to read.

Her program worked and her passion carried it forward, until it became the Literacy Volunteers of America. LVA merged, in 2002, with Laubach Literacy International, to form ProLiteracy Worldwide.

Colvin’s passion launched a program that reached millions of people, that taught millions of people to learn to read or to learn a new language. At 103, Colvin published a memoir, her love of words still pulsing.

Margaret Wheatley, a leader suggested by Kim Allen, devotes her life to leadership itself. (https://margaretwheatley.com/bio/) Her latest book is called, Who Do We Choose To Be? Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, Restoring Sanity. Her passion is toward inspiring sane, responsible leadership in a world that needs it badly.

And I bet you could easily come up with four or five examples from your life—teachers and bosses, classmates and partners, creators and innovators—who understand themselves, and who tap into their passions…who make a difference.

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So, effective leaders, I believe, must have clear self-knowledge, and they must be impassioned about whatever it is they want to accomplish. But does that make them GOOD leaders? (I think we could argue that despots and dictators might easily fit those two categories. They’re certainly effective, but it would be hard to call them good.)

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This week, I’m wrestling with two questions.

First, what makes an effective leader a GOOD leader?

And second, why the leadership vacuum? Why the one-candidate races? Do we have a leadership drought?

I would love your thoughts on these two questions; please feel free to comment here or to email me at pamkirst@yahoo.com.

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We were talking about the election the other day, and someone said, “I just wish it was OVER.”

I remember a time when elections meant great excitement. In a pandemic world, we may be experiencing excitement turning into dread on so many levels. But I hope, and I have to believe, that leadership—first on our own personal and local levels, and then on broader ranges—can become exciting again. I hope that people with the skills and ethos to bring change about will be encouraged to develop those skills and to step in and lead.

I’d love to see every race having FIVE candidates.

But something needs to change for us to get there. Somehow, we need to start nurturing some great leaders right now.