Thursday, March 20, 2014

Caught in the middle

My mom’s life mission was to rescue those left out. If you were marginalized, ignored, mistreated, in crisis, new to the area, lost, lonely or in any other way an outsider, she wanted to help. She would find you in a crowd, at an event, walking the neighborhood, while shopping, at the park or wherever. I think you get the idea.
At first meeting, she would invite you to over for a meal or a chat or, better yet, to some gathering, usually one she was hosting. And she would keep inviting. And if you didn’t show up, she’d find you and be with you on your own turf.  The stories of my mom’s caring are legendary and the grateful recipients of her kindness are many.
My Dad relished being an outsider and wondered why anyone would want to “join that stupid club” or organization. From his perspective, joining in was the same as giving yourself over to the system. And the system was bad. Leadership was almost always corrupt and who would want to trust their future to people who were empty-headed, arrogant, evil or foolish — and in many cases, all four of the above?  In any situation, he knew what the games were, but refused to play, a straight shooter all the way. His attitude may have been rooted in deep distrust that grew during a childhood now clouded in memories long forgotten.
My Dad has been gone almost seventeen years, but the better part of his reputation still holds. He was trusted and respected by friends and business associates. Others knew his word was gold. If he promised it would happen, no extensions or excuses would be forthcoming — the deal was as good as done. He made agreements with individuals, not companies or organizations. Plans were set, and commitments fulfilled.
And me, I’ve spent much of my life living this tension in my own way. I resonate with my mother’s desire to help those who are, for whatever reason, overlooked or abused. And with my dad, I am quick to see the flaws in systems and leaders — a big stew of nature and nurture.
Much of my adult life has found me in roles where I have been able to open doors for inadvertently overlooked or intentionally excluded people, and I sense this is a reflection of the best of my mom in me. I have helped people gain access to new ways to further careers or shape life paths. There is deep satisfaction in seeing someone beat the odds or prove others wrong. I believe I have been gifted with insight or intuition that helps me see deeper potential and encourage it to surface.
I have also lived in a love-hate relationship with organizations. Organizations have given me the opportunity to live my deeper convictions and commitments. But I often find myself hitting my head against the wall. I can’t tolerate perfunctory rules. I am mostly unable to ignore incompetence. I shut down when encountering self-serving, egotistical leadership. 
For things to happen, people must somehow become a team, tribe, club, business, non-profit or other form of organization. And as soon as that system is established, it will show the signs of becoming self-serving and, possibly, corrupt.  Some are simply gifted with an ability to overlook situations that step up my race toward some future heart health incident.
Another perplexing piece of this puzzle is the contradiction of my values and experiences. At times I must admit I am helping people gain access to or be elevated within systems that I distrust. Yes, you might want to read that again. At times I have helped people gain ground in settings within which I question the health of the organization.
In all honesty, I think my Dad was more of an institutional joiner than my Mom. Mom could take or leave the structure, cared very little for politics and was truly focused on helping people. If the organization helped people, she’d go along with it in spite of internal imperfections. Dad worked in and with systems of business, associations and government. He may have more accurately been seen as one who felt ostracized, but wanted to find a way in. The only problem was that no organization lived up to his standards.
Belonging is deeply rooted within. The desire to be accepted, included, valued and ultimately loved is human. The realities of belonging are complicated. Think of the stories you have heard, or lived, in relation to the complexities of being a part of an extended family.
I do not blame my parents for the ways in which I have struggled with being a part of organizations, systems and groupings. I appreciate what I learned from them along the way. I imagine I will continue to struggle with the tension of belonging in both my current context and new opportunities that I will discover in the future.
I need others. The mess we create in trying to do this life stuff together frustrates me. But I have yet to find a better option.
My God have mercy on us all.

also catapult magazine

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Beyond my ability

As a child I was never able to color within the lines, cut a decent shape with scissors or make the glue only cover the intended area. Making model cars was a favorite activity of my neighborhood friends. Mine never looked anything like the box cover.  My school art projects were disasters. Whatever it was I made as a gift for my parents resulted in awkward moments. Either they had to ask what is was or fake appreciation for what they held, but didn’t understand.
As for my family, my Mom dabbled with painting and other artistic endeavors. She an eye and the touch. I struggled with an unsatisfied eye; I could see it, but never create it.  Both of my sons have exceptional artistic talents. My oldest son paints, sketches, sculpts and more. He does custom tattoo work, taking ideas and images and creating something beyond expectations. My younger son dabbles in graffiti art having created a wall on his garage that continues to amaze as he covers one great piece with another.
Even from a young age, there has been something in me that wanted to create — to take what is within and make something, something that would express that which stirs deep within.  I had a poem published in a primary school anthology (and it was not one in which every student had a piece included). In eighth grade we wrote autobiographies and I mentioned wanting to write as a possible future career. The desire lay dormant until I stumbled into writing as a young adult. 
In the late 70s, I was a camp director and was asked to write a training piece for the national journal. The piece got published and something clicked. I was asked to write another piece, and then another.  I loved the validation that came from seeing my ideas become print and get “out there.” Soon I was looking for other places to get published. I started with training-focused pieces and soon shifted to leadership, satire and op-ed pieces.
Satire became my primary vehicle for a few years. Growing up in my family provided great fodder for snarky insights into organizations and relationships. I found ways to take basic ideas and re-craft them for numerous settings.
I made a few bucks here and there and set a goal of getting at least one piece published each year. I wrote for national journals and some local publications. I made a list of publications that I wanted to work with. I learned to live with rejection letters. And I learned how quickly the buzz of publication faded.
I was writing on assignment for a local magazine when I got a call from the editor. Could I come by and pick up my kill fee? “My what?” I asked. Kill fee. They had decided to go another way with the story and no longer needed my work. I picked up the envelope a couple of days later.
I waited until I was in my car to open it, and then started to laugh. The check not to print my work was bigger than any I had received to date for a published piece. I wanted to go back in the office and ask if there was anything else they’d like me to write for them not to print.
A landmark was the day an editor introduced me as a humorist. Mark Twain and Garrison Keilor are humorists. I was not about to consider myself their peer, but was energized to be a part of their writers’ community.
I later expanded into short fiction, poetry and essays. I won a few local contests and the bug kept me going. Anytime I have been called a writer, even occasionally a poet, it fuels my drive.
I have been writing for over 35 years now. I know my style. I took little more than required writing classes in my schooling. I know I want to have my voice, a more casual, personal tone. I do not want to come off as using vocabulary to somehow prove educational or academic superiority. I know at times my stuff is weak and mangled. At times I avoid an editing process that feels endless to me and send too quickly.
I have a sense of deep gratification when my words connect with others stories, feelings and hopes. There is something magical about working alone digging within to produce something that will eventually be out there for others — others who hear my stories in their own way, adding or shifting meaning beyond my ability to imagine.
May God have mercy on us all.