Monday, October 19, 2015

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Waking Up The Artist Inside

I have a friend who is an artist. She is struggling to create again. She feels like she lost part of herself in the shuffle towards middle age. She has the charm bracelet of mid-life: kids, mortgage, marriage, retirement account, tired body, minivan. She has a happy life, but she knows that part of her has slowly died. It wasn’t a bullet, it was a starvation of the artist within her.  

She tells me she is afraid that the art won’t rise up in her like it once did. She is a prisoner to fear, but at least she knows it.

I want to grab her thin shoulders and shake her back and forth. I want to yell, “what are you waiting for?” “You honestly think there will be a cabin in the woods for you to disappear to paint, to write…to create?”

“You know that charm bracelet of mid life means there will never be this long, uninterrupted days to fall into the deep creative vortex!”

We always make time for what matters. Always.

You know who needs you? The people who forgot that they cried at a symphony, because music unlocked a part of their soul they didn’t know existed.  The ones that couldn’t walk away from that painting in the museum, because they were captured by the story it told. The people who loved a book so much they read it dozens of times until they began to think like the author. We need you to help them find this part of themselves again.

In the end you really have an audience of One. Your Creator. He gave you these great gifts, this raw talent. He does not want you to waste it. Check out the parables if you want to know how God feels about people wasting what they have been given.

Is that too harsh for you? Am I calling you a waster? Yes, I am. And it’s true. Your thin excuses are a big waste.

I know you fear that you won’t be able to find your creative flow again...the good news is it is right in front of you. Take the first step. Go back to the place, physically or musically where you felt the movement in your soul. When your heart was engaged and your overactive mind finally, oh finally, lost all track of time.

You are a steward of the gifts you have been given, the artist inside that is longing to come to the world. You do not own your talent, you are the caretaker of it.

That person is still there. The artist is just begging to surface. We need to hear your voice, read your words, gaze upon the beauty you have created. We need you to get back to work. The whole world is watching and waiting...

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Dad Face, A Father's Day Post for Andrew

There is a worried look that Andrew has. I call it his “dad face” because I didn’t see it in the four years we were together; until he met Oliver.  In that room with fluorescent lights and a bloodstained floor I watched him change instantly. I had just given birth to our sweet boy with the bright blue eyes and round face bursting at the seams with love.

In his first few moments of life he made that classic baby cry, yet still had trouble breathing. I was able to hold him briefly, but after a quick assessment in the room he was taken to the NICU. I’ll never forget that look on Andrew’s face as he stood across the room: the dad face. He said, “I’m going with him”, and I said, “Of course!” I leaned back on the hospital bed with a halo of sweaty hair and the relief of the end of labor.

In less than an hour, Oliver and Andrew returned. Oliver was washed and wrapped in a sweet blanket. He was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I had longed to see his little face after all those months of feeling him grow in my belly, and especially in my heart.

We couldn’t have known that the hospital would become a place that Andrew’s “dad face” would keep showing up.

When Andrew and I met, I remember seeing his messy bachelor pad dotted with photos of his nieces and nephews. When he spoke of them, his face lit up and his eyes softened. He couldn’t wait to introduce me to them. Andrew has always had a kind heart...there is a gentleness to his spirit that I love.

I don’t remember the first time I saw Andrew hold a baby, but I do remember thinking how natural it seemed to me. His was so big with strong arms, and yet (unlike many men I dated) he was so comfortable cooing at the little face in front of him.

Watching Andrew become a father was like watching someone put on a pair of worn slippers. Easy, comfortable, natural, meant to be.

This Father’s Day I won’t be getting him a coffee mug that says “World’s Best Dad.” I do not think parenting is a competition. What Andrew is, is this: “World’s Best Dad for Oliver.” I believe that God gave Oliver a great gift in Andrew. He chose a man who would not be broken by the incredible challenges ahead of him, including one of life’s worst pains: watching a child suffer. God gave Oliver a man unafraid to work insanely long hours to provide for the cost of life-saving treatments. A man physically strong enough to lift the weight of sickness and suffering. A man with a spirit that has never turned into a bitter stone, although that temptation is real.

You see fatherhood isn’t always about baseball games and camping trips. Andrew’s fatherhood journey will likely miss those wonderful experiences.

Andrew’s fatherhood is marked by hospital rooms and intermittent seasons of communication with Oliver. It is a picture of a sacrificial love that is beautiful. We all want someone to love us that well.

For six and a half years, I have watched his love in action. Not just his words, but his behavior and choices. I have been utterly amazed at his perseverance and positive attitude.

So this Father’s day I am privileged to honor a man that deserves so much more than a blog post.

One of the most emotionally touching things I’ve ever watched is Andrew being a father to Oliver. I have every confidence that as Oliver grows, Andrew will be there with his “dad face.” Maybe he’ll be feeding Oliver dinner when he is twenty five, wiping his chin when the applesauce doesn’t quite make it. Perhaps I’ll see that face in a hospital room after a particularly difficult cluster of seizures...his large hands holding the face he loves so much. I don’t know what is ahead for Oliver or for us, but I do know Andrew will be there.

How blessed we are if we’ve had a daddy’s lap to climb into, a father’s kiss on the forehead, a man to walk us down the aisle, someone who never stopped making sacrifices to make sure we were our best selves. Indeed, one is lucky to have ever received the gaze of a worried “dad’s face” filled with love and a promise to always be there. No matter what.

Happy Father’s Day, Andrew. You’re incredible.

Friday, June 12, 2015

55 Lights, Reflections on Leadership North Carolina

Fall in North Carolina

It is an October afternoon, a Pumpkin Spice Latte is in my cupholder and a 90 lb pumpkin on the floor of the backseat of my minivan. I have just visited my dad and grandparents in Concord, NC, the land of rocking chairs on front porches and rusty tractors in backyards. I am on my way to Boone, NC for the Orientation Session of Leadership North Carolina. I  still can’t believe they let me in.

The colors are just beginning to turn across the mountains and my face widens with a smile as leaves fall all around my car...autumn’s version of confetti. As I pull into the hotel parking lot I hear my suitcase collide into the pumpkin on my floorboard. When the door slides open I have to laugh at the juxtaposition of the giant pumpkin and a suitcase stuffed with business suits and leopard print heels.

I arrive at the hotel early; classic Type-A behavior.

When it is time to go to the first session, I grab my blazer, brush my teeth and head out the door. I see another person in the parking lot that looks similarly anxious and overdressed for Boone, NC. She is in a teal blazer, beautiful long brown hair falling over her shoulders and a smile that could light up a room. I like her and I haven’t even met her. I decide to roll down my window and ask if she is part of the program.  She answers back cheerfully, “Yes, I’m Alison DeCinti.” I ask if she wants to hop into the minivan and ride with me. Little did I know I had just met a friend for life.

We get lost finding the parking deck on the campus of Appalachian State University. We have multiple GPS apps open at the same time and can’t stop laughing at how many times we’ve missed the imposing structure that was right in front of us. It is the first of many times we will get lost looking for a parking deck on a college campus.

We get out, follow the LNC signs and find our meeting space. The room is large, the carpet is patterned and the windows go from the floor to the ceiling. There is a circle full of chairs. One for each of the 55 class members. As my classmates come into the room I immediately begin assessing them even though I’m trying not to do it. I wonder who will become a close friend, who will be the leader among the leaders, who is going to make me laugh? Alison and I choose to sit beside each other, thankful to have found a friend so fast. It feels like the first day of summer camp, but with much older campers in suits.

As I shift in my seat, I notice a woman across the room named Kim. She walks in with a huge smile that radiates instant warmth and confidence. She has beautiful blue eyes, luminous with kindness. I couldn’t have known from that first meeting, that we would soon be sharing deeply personal conversations about loss and hope.

What happens next at Orientation is a Leadership NC secret, but let’s just say that it is an unforgettable experience.

As the first session unfolds I begin to see that this journey will be more than I expected. The combined intellect, warmth, accomplishments and passion in this room are mind boggling. I feel unworthy of the company I am keeping, but decide to savor this experience. I know this is lightning in a bottle.

Light attracts light

Spring 2015

It is a May evening in Raleigh, NC. We’ve left the Old House Chamber and our cars are holding giant framed diplomas from our Graduation Ceremony. We’ve all fought the traffic to drive to Chapel Hill and celebrate at The Crunkleton. The bow-tie wearing bartenders are busy mixing drinks and the sound of vigorous cocktail-shaking fills the air. The breeze is coming through the wide open windows and some of my favorite people in the world are gathered around in huge leather chairs. Over the sound of the drink making is the voice and piano playing of our “Most Talented” class member, John.

There are at least twenty of us in a circle once again, but this time there is no anxiety, only affection for one another. We joke about the “LNC lovefest”, but sitting in that room, that night it was a perceptible thing. We don’t just respect each other, we have grown to love each other on a very personal level. The 12 nights and 17  days that we’ve spent together over the past 8 months have created life long relationships. The sheer volume of time spent together fostered chances to be real and vulnerable with one another.

Pam, a class member famous to us for her clogging, walks over to John and requests “Rocky Top.” Of course he plays it and we’re all smiling because we get to see one more performance from Pam. In this group of leaders there are all kinds of unexpected talents...discovering them is not only fun, but inspiring. These 55, they live life to the fullest.

Somewhere between “Rocky Top” and a strong cocktail, Kim leans over and asks, “What was your favorite part of LNC?” I sit quietly, unsure of how to put it into words. I need more time to process this experience.

So Kim, I finally have your answer:
I gained 54 new friends in 8 months. Friends that evoke peerlessness. Men and women who are game changers in their fields of expertise, deeply committed to the success of our state, passionate about issues that have shaped their lives. I have come to know a  rare collection of individuals who see problems and then tackle them with intensity and tenacity until they are completed with excellence. They are people who create momentum.

What happens when lights get together? They gain strength from each other. When one is weak it simply gets near another light and not only gains its strength back, but burns so much brighter.

That was my favorite part. Becoming friends with these 54 lights, unafraid to stand in the darkest places, not for their own personal recognition, but for the betterment of all.

As we, Class XXII, move forward, my hope is that we’ll keep fanning into flame the light we see in one another. Shine brightly my friends, because you were made for this and our great state needs your light.

“Whatever you are physically...male or female, strong or weak, ill or healthy--all those things matter less than what your heart contains. If you have the soul of a warrior, you are a warrior. All those other things, they are the glass that contains the lamp, but you are the light inside.”

Photo Credits: The Indie Image/Rebecca Mills

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Our First Special Olympics

It is our first Special Olympics. The opening ceremony includes a parade down the track and field of UNCW. All the classes from the county schools are walking, pushing wheelchairs and holding homemade signs that say, “Parsley Elementary”, “Hoggard High School.” A marching band is playing music and the feeling is joyful and triumphant. The carolina blue sky is clear and the spring sun is warming everything.

I arrive late to the tail end of the opening ceremony. I have to search through the sea of people for Oliver. The red shirts and crush of people make him hard to find.

Oliver and his class at Special Olympics

The band keeps playing and it reminds me of high school football games. Hearing the drumline, I smile and am taken back to being 18, surrounded by a sea of black and gold in the stadium at Concord High School. Football is so deeply imprinted on my mind, such a sacred ritual in a small southern town. I remember how I loved climbing into the press box to pray before football games. Even then I was trying to point people to the One I love, yet struggle to trust, during these days of suffering.

When I finally get to Oliver, his body is like a piece of spaghetti in his borrowed wheelchair, a faded color of purple, worn out from years of use. The band has stopped and now music is pumping through the speakers, wafting over the track and field, a sea of red shirts and smiling faces fills my view. I take a deep breath and struggle to understand the emotions that rise and get caught up in my throat. The lump, the tingle of emotion that wants to spill out. The sadness that seems to be shuffling around in my heart. It is hard to contain.

My eyes are already bowls full of sadness.

When I think “Special Olympics”, I’ve always thought of the teenager beaming with pride and holding his medal. I never thought about my Oliver being least not as a participant.

I used to pray every night he’d be three things: a great big brother, a leader with a servant’s heart and that God would give him eyes to see people as He does. You know your life is changing when your prayers change. It may be the very first indicator that something deep inside is shifting.

Oliver and his one-on-one aide, Mrs. Henline

So here we are. Oliver’s first “event” —a short walk down the track. I pull my wet noodle of a son out of his chair. He is less than enthusiastic about the walk. As I steady him to stand, it dawns on me that we’re in a competitive situation for the first time. We’ve avoided Saturday morning soccer leagues,  so I’ve never felt this emotion before. It is strong. I like to win; Oliver hasn’t ever competed with anyone for anything other than a brain surgery slot.

I look to my left and to my right and realize we won’t win. Not only can Oliver no longer run, he can’t walk all that well today. It could be the seizures and it could be the meds. Who knows.

The bowls of sadness are filling up again.

I remember when he used to run everyday. He was like a lighting bolt through the backyard, the grass pushing into our bare feet as we chased one another.  I can hear his giggle even now, that dimple showing on his sweet face. I miss that, oh my how I miss that.

I stand there, trying to smile, waiting for the sign to “Go!”, but feel like my heart is cracking into pieces.

I don’t spend my days thinking about Oliver’s would be too hard. Mostly, I think about how to care for him, how to love him, how to communicate and break through to him. I don’t think about what he used to do. I don’t wallow in all the ways he has regressed. I don’t even let myself imagine what he would be like if he was typical. It hurts more deeply than anything has ever hurt in my entire life.  

Oddly enough, this whole experience of the Special Olympics has been hard, highlighting how much his health has declined. I expected a joyful day, not a wake-up call. Not the freight train of heartbreak that is barreling towards me.

As they lined up the other “walkers” he simply laid on the track. Disinterested, lethargic from the potent cocktail of meds in his small body. In his typical sensory-seeking way he licked the rubber material on the track. He just kept folding his body like a crumpled t-shirt onto the ground.

I kept saying in a cheerful, encouraging voice “use your legs, Oliver”...”stand up, sweetheart.”

Oliver and his teacher, Mrs. Pollock. Clearly he was not too interested in the competition. 

Oliver also participates in the softball throw, which consisted of me competing in the softball throw. I put the ball in his hand, but he wouldn’t let go. He kept trying to bite the softball, so finally I threw it for him (with his hand in my hand). It was not elegant, but it got the job done.

As I was walking to the tent from the softball throw, his teacher calls out,  “come get Oliver’s ribbon.” Turns out he got a ribbon for 5th place. I had to laugh. I actually laughed so hard I cried, those bowls of sadness finally spilling over. I’m 33 years old and despite competing with kindergarteners with special needs, I still placed 5th!

I leave the event early, unable to control the tidal wave of tears that are now coming. I am an emotional soup. We have a trip out to Boston tonight for another appointment for Oliver. It is a good excuse to leave. I push Oliver’s wheelchair across the field to my parking spot, the tears change from normal crying to heaving sobs. I remove my sunglasses to let the moisture and heat escape. Will there be an escape from this?

As I walk down the sidewalk I pass students going to class and it dawns on me that it has been 15 years since I walked these same sidewalks as a student.

At 18 you can’t know what is ahead of you.

By the time I got to my minivan the sobbing had turned into a few tears trickling down my cheek. I turned on a Spotify playlist meant to comfort and sat there, AC running hard against my face. I pull the handicap plaque off my dashboard. I look back at Ollie, tired and hot. His blonde hair and blue eyes shining. I love him so much I think my heart will come out of my chest.

I am so weary of watching him suffer.

I pull out of the parking spot and call the office. Work is the most satisfying distraction. There are deals that need to be negotiated and agents to encourage. There is an amazing administrative assistant holding it all together. There is a husband waiting at home for us to drive to the airport. He needs my tenderness and encouragement too.

Watching Oliver struggle, this hard, for this long has changed us. On August 1st it will be five years. We never imagined wheelchairs, Special Olympics ribbons, handicap plaques and seizures.

When I get home, I peel Oliver out of his car seat which is now much too small for his 65 lbs body. His adaptive car seat has been ordered. The new seat is huge, has a five point harness and will go up to 120 lbs. in weight...we just have to wait for the insurance to approve our request. That was 6 months ago.

I stick the baby blue “5th Place” ribbon in the file folder by the fridge. It falls out every once in a while when I am searching for our checkbook. I can’t bring myself to get rid of it, but I also can’t put it on the fridge. I shuffle it around just like I shuffle around all the sadness in my heart. It never goes away, it just moves around. Sometimes it is well hidden under the intense pace of my life. Other times the sadness spills into plain sight. Sometimes the bowl just overflows.

I know there is no need to hide the sadness. The depth of this sadness is evidence of the immensity of my love. Real love, sacrificial love that wants Oliver’s any cost. It is the kind of love that spares no expense, goes to any length to care for the other. The sadness will never break me, as long as the love is stronger. Love wins. That is a competition worth fighting. That is a ribbon worth keeping.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Thoughts on Entrepreneurship & The Fear Factory

There is nothing to writing. 
All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.
Ernest Hemingway

It is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It is the world’s most efficient factory. It is constantly sending out products of destruction. The machinery is silent, but it is always running, plotting, producing thoughts. No one knows how to stop it.

I call it the Fear Factory. And it operates in my mind.

I kept thinking as I crossed off my goals, more “to do’s”, held awards in my hands and saw the string of accomplishments listed on my resume, that it would slow down the factory. It has not. The factory remains operating full steam ahead.

Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel, said that a level of paranoia makes a CEO great. Who wants to live in a constant state of paranoia, then again who wants to be Blockbuster? Remember that company back in 1995? They thought they were invincible, but they weren’t. Perhaps they should have had a bigger fear factory? Did they get too cocky assuming we’d always fall prey to their boxes of Junior Mints at checkout? Remember the panic you felt when you realized you were four days late returning your rental? How dare you not rewind that tape? Of course you remember. Do you know what Blockbuster did wrong? Do you know how they stood by and watched their business fall apart before their eyes?

They didn’t pivot. They weren’t agile. They were not paranoid. Their fear factory was old and senile. They didn’t pay attention and once they did it was too late.

Now, that is something to truly fear... customers who no longer want your services or products.

Be afraid of being irrelevant.

My fear factory isn’t old or senile. It is young, productive, efficient, calculating and on the worst days it is brutal.

The Fear Factory is the part of my brain that I can’t make stop. That evil enemy who keeps saying “You aren’t smart enough or prepared to do this.” “The competition will outsmart you on this one.” It is the part of me that insists I need a MBA or prep-school pedigree.

The Fear Factory is especially fired up when I set those Big Hairy Audacious Goals that Jim Collins planted in the minds of every entrepreneur that ever lived. The pistons start moving and the gears are shifting as I write down, with painstaking specificity, what I want to happen in the next three years. The Fear Factory says,  “You don’t understand the complexity of the situation and you’ll mess it up.” “Your understanding of the finance world is barely made it through statistics in college.”

And just when I think I have gotten the factory to close for the day, I open my Facebook feed.

Wait, before we go any further...
Did you know that comparison is the thief of joy?

I try to remember that as I see a competing agent’s feed full of thrilled buyers and luxury properties “SOLD”! Their update taunts me, “We closed 15 million while you brushed your teeth this morning.” “I’m in the Diamond-Onyx-Moonstone Club for my company yet again this year.” #tooblessedtostress. Uh oh, I hear the lights flick on. The factory starts again. You see, I am in an industry that makes an olympic sport out of bragging. We put our headshots everywhere, we’ll even wrap our entire vehicle in our own image. As a group we are obsessed with how we are perceived, our accomplishments and how we measure up. Our strength is also our weakness.

Want to know the truth? I don’t measure up. Who does?

You know what you can count on with 100% accuracy? There will be failures. There will be public pain. There will be epic meltdowns and frozen pizzas for dinner for days. It is even possible to let your business domain lapse and miss 20 hours of emails. (Who does that?)

The Fear Factory is partially right. I am not prepared for this...


You know what? I am doing it anyway.

You know what is brave? Trying. Taking risks. Putting yourself out there for a dream that you know deep in your soul you’ve got to chase down---with a baseball bat. Not stopping.

Here’s my new plan. When the Fear Factory turns on today I will calmly walk in and look around. I’ll survey the factory floor to make sure there isn’t anything actually important (like becoming irrelevant to our customers). Chances are everything will actually be ok. I’ll let out a sigh of relief, turn on my heel and walk right out of that place. As I leave the fear I’ll purposefully walk into a different kind of factory. A place that is full of poise and peace. A place that radiates with an unshakeable conviction that Providence is at work in all places and at all times.

Which factory will you visit?