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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Character Building Project

                       From days of wearing dress up shoes for a Banking Career             dee 14

A memory clip was excavated from the archives of my mind the other morning when I opened an email from a friend and colleague named Gladys Diaz.  In particular, the following two paragraphs appeared in her blog that were uncommonly familiar to me.
“Your thoughts affect your beliefs and your beliefs affect your perception of the world, men, relationships, and even yourself.  The more you focus on your fears, disappointments, what you don’t have yet, and anything else that reaffirms those disempowering thoughts, the less likely you are to experience what it is you truly desire.
You are 100% responsible for creating both the life and love your heart desires.  The more you focus on what you want, without driving yourself crazy thinking about how it must or should look and what needs to happen for it to come about, the more likely you are to attract and draw those things into your life.”             Gladys Diaz  2014  http://www.heartsdesireintl.com/what-are-you-hopefully-anticipating/

      In Spring,1984, I addressed a roomful of people with nearly the same words. Many of them were offended they had been asked to attend a leadership training session; it implied they needed “flixing.”  Others were convinced that their offices couldn’t withstand their absences for three hours.  In a room of 24 trainees, some were delighted with what I overheard them call the training program as a “paid vacation.” To be fair, there were at least three participants that came with a sense of curiosity and interest. It was the first leadership training programs I had run since I started to work for Shawmut Bank. In retrospect, I realized that by starting with that message, it was as if I came in the middle of the story for many of the trainees. At the end of the session, I asked the participants to complete evaluations on my performance. I did well. They liked me. I was clear, organized, entertaining. I was neatly dressed and professional. The problem was that about half of them had no idea what I was talking about.
     When I reported to my boss, Ken Seyffer, with the feedback, I felt beaten up. How could half of them not understand the basic tenets espoused by Wayne Dyer, Napoleon Hill, and Robert Schuller?  There is a consistency to the messages. Maybe I just didn’t say them in a way to which they could relate?
“Evans,” he said, “Don’t take it so harshly. Consider it all part of Character Building.”

My path into training in the financial industry was a loosely woven cloth that came together most unexpectedly. Previously, I worked for Amherst Associates; a financial consulting firm.  The company specialized in using computer models to design insurance reimbursement models in hospitals.  After that, I worked for Human Factors East. It was the hardest, most life-changing career move I ever made. The company was dedicated to building leadership skills at all levels within organizations. In particular, we focused on senior management – C.E.O., C.F.O. levels whenever possible. I was responsible for marketing and some training. It was there I first started to learn how to design and deliver training programs. A thimbleful description of what Human Factors offered would be that we were teaching people to look within themselves to find the answers they needed to be better leaders. We made it fun, but it was still work. It required being open to seeing familiar things in an entirely new way. There were three day, or intensive ten-day sessions. While the programs were exceptionally well-received in the San Rafael, CA location where our headquarters were based, it was a harder sell in conservative New England. I was fortunate to be on board for the experiment that came from opening an East Coast office. After a few years, the eastern offices closed; by that time, my life was forever changed. I had learned fundamental ways of questioning, thinking, and simply being in a relationship with a Higher Source. As I like to say,
“You can’t unring the bell.”           
With those two jobs and a belief system to shore me up, I felt that I was uniquely prepared to apply for my next job. I submitted an application to work in a bank in Amherst, MA. in September, 1983. There were no openings at the time.  The Human Resources person interviewed me briefly and said she would keep my résumé on file.  I was shocked when, one week before Christmas, I received a call from a woman in Human Resources in the Main Branch of the Shawmut Bank in Springfield, MA  It was about a thirty-minute ride from where I lived.  My interview fell on December 23.  As luck had it, the appointment fell on the first snow storm of the season. I was worried about the drive because my car was without snow tires. I was anxious about where to park. I didn’t have boots that went well with my one wool suit. In addition, if I changed my suit, I would have to change my handbag.  I was grateful I had pulled my hair back in a tight knot; the falling snow was doing its best to turn my hair into a ball of frizz and loosened tendrils. The snowflakes melted as I raced into the bank. It was a building designed during the Art Deco era. I was a bit too self-absorbed to take in the entirety of the massive gilded mural inside, but it was a splendid and regal interior.  I was ushered upstairs to a small, windowless room. A human resources employee left me there with a cup of water.  First, I was interviewed by a very conservatively dressed man with a dry sense of humor, whose intelligence radiated from his eyes. I was told this is Mr. Burr, Assistant Vice President of Marketing. He was quick with repartees and humor.  I felt an inexplicable rapport with him. When the interview was concluded, I thought the process was concluded. But no, a man in a diminutive shape and a powerhouse of energy nearly jumped into the room.  He was older, clearly Mr. Burr’s boss, Vice President of Retail Banking. He firmly pumped my hand in greeting as he said, “Ken Seyffer.”  Which actually confused me because that was not my name.  It was anawkward moment, but I played with it, “Ohhhh, you are Ken Seyffer, I was thinking you thought I was Ken Seyffer.”  There was a sinking second when I believed my joke fell flat. Then, his head tipped back and he bellowed with a barking laugh.
”So you come with a sense of humor,” he said as he pulled out a chair. Mr. Seyffer indicated that I should do the same. Sitting across from each other we talked briefly about nothing to do with banking.  Abruptly, he stood up and left the room. I didn’t have a clue what to do.  Was the interview over? I waited. And waited. Just as I decided that the interview was a bust and had gathered my purse, brief case and nerve to walk out, he returned with Mr. Burr. We sat down at the table again. Mr. Seyffer asked me if I had any unanswered questions at that point. When I denied having any loose ends, he said, “It was truly a pleasure to meet you. I am sure that, whatever you do, you will go far. And remember, when you make mistakes in life – and you will – they are nothing more than Character Building.” He offered another handshake, then he was gone. My heart sank.
I thought, “I have to rework my resume. That sure sounded pretty much like a brush-off.”
When we were alone again, Mr. Burr said, “Don’t mind him, he is a bit tightly strung. Now--returning to the business at hand.  We would like to hire you as Director of Training. You would come in as an Officer. While the salary is not commensurate with what you were earning, you will have more stability, good benefits and more vacation days here. There are annual bonuses and cost of living increases.  You have room to go up in your pay grade. There is every reason to believe you will be back at your former salary within a year, perhaps with a promotion to Assistant Vice President, if you do a stellar job. We would expect you to basically set up the training department from the ground up. How does that sound to you?”
“I am flattered and thrilled.  Exactly to whom would I report?” Honestly, I was slightly intimidated by the Director of Retail. He was charming, but he had street smarts. He was very sharp and often faster on the uptake than I allowed.
“On a day to day basis, bring your questions to me. Ultimately, Mr. Seyffer is both of our bosses. When do you think you might be able to start? Would January 2, 1984 fit your schedule?”
It was about six months later, when I ran that first leadership training program at the bank. It was then that I came face to face with my first Character Building opportunity. Since then, life has delivered more character building opportunities than I can count. What I can say with absolute certainty is that the voices of Wayne Dyer, Napoleon Hill, Robert Schuller, Ken Seyffer, and Gladys Diaz and hundreds of others have all contributed to my Character Building Project. It’s definitely a work in progress.

Monday, September 8, 2014

My Noah Moment

Noah’s Boat                         dee ‘12
      I can readily label 2013-2014 as the worst year of my life.  And frankly, I have had some pretty bad ones. If I had a vintage wine created for each year I have been alive, the 2013-2014 varietal would have consisted of barrels and barrels of vinegar. On a personal level, I felt like my world imploded as a result of dramatic and long-term health concerns, devastating relationship issues in which I lost the friendship of my lifelong best-friend and partner, the deaths of two dear, but aged, mentors as well as my own father’s passing. To add to those Job-like tests, I faced the challenge of living alone as an independent adult for the first time in 38 years.
It has been one year since my life seemed to come unglued and I moved to Martha’s Vineyard. The Island has been a place of recovery for me.  I was told by a member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head that parts of the Island have healing powers described by his Indian tribe as going back 500 years.  At a time when I found myself feeling seriously untethered, maybe even in free fall, I knew the Island was where I needed to be. Thankfully, by some inexplicable psychic communication, almost every day, one of my children would call, or I would have a text from a friend, or a package at the Post office.  I was reminded that I still had rope, carabineers and yes, belaying devices to slow my descent when I (occasionally) found myself slipping. The pivotal discovery was that much of what happens in our lives is outside of our control. The real power is what we do with that in our heads.
When I arrived on Martha’s Vineyard, ready to shift my residential status from part-time to full-time, I started from scratch in building a new life. New friends, new volunteer work, new hobbies and I spent a lot of time working on making my body and my mind as strong as I could with the components I had available. It was kind of a MacGyver thing; make due with what was at hand. And use a lot of duct tape. Every one of the things I did required people to help me. In the middle of my worst year ever, I found myself the most grateful ever. So many people were invested in me. My friend, Elizabeth, called me every morning from New Hampshire for nine months (except when she was in Germany on business) to make sure I was up and moving. I did not take that level of commitment and love lightly. She laughs and says, “Just paying it forward, Dawn.” Another friend sent me regular supplies of books. There were texts and calls and lots and lots of caring people who showed up unexpectedly.
       Recently, those of my friends and family who are closest to me have heard me talking (they might say babbling) about my “Noah Moment.”  I call it my “Noah Moment” because I imagine Noah’s family was probably as skeptical as mine when he randomly announced one morning that God had a task for him. As the story goes, it was on Noah’s word alone that the ark and the preservation of the animal kingdom took place.  I like to imagine  old Noah (he was said to be centuries old when he had this challenge put before him) waking up one morning and announcing that, “Oh-by-the-way, there’s going to be a flood. What’s more, it’s my job to build an ark and gather up mates for all the animals so that the animal world and humanity can continue to exist after God’s complete and utter devastation of what he built.”  
     Don’t you suppose Noah’s family and loved ones --  never mind the nosy neighbors --- might have said, “What’s up with Noah? He sure seems to be getting a God complex lately!”
      In my case, there were no cherubs and cherubims involved.  I simply woke up on August 18, 2014 with an inexplicable clarity that all that I have been through -- the physical and emotional trials that have taken me right to the edge -- were all for my enrichment and are, somehow - inexplicably - meant to temper me for my upcoming work.  My friend, Elizabeth, likes to describe me as a phoenix rising from smoking embers. In her poetic imagery, I am still strengthening my wings. On that morning of August 18th, I woke up knowing that the sense of grief, loss and mourning that has nearly engulfed me at times, has not ended. It may, in fact, never really end, but it has transformed me.  I will carry it, but it will propel me forward.
     I imagine I sound pretty much as lunatic as Noah sounded when I say that I have a deep knowing that I am being called to something greater. What’s problematic is that I have no ark in the works.  My charter is not clear.  And while I am not exactly talking about a religious calling, there is a strong spiritual element to all of this.  I have conviction that, soon, I will have a clear sense of direction. 
Omni Tower  or True North             dee ’14
When I first moved to Providence for the “Vineyard shuffle,” (whereby Islanders vacate affordable housing for the summer, and return when the prices return to, well..sort of reasonable levels) my daughter and I overlapped in Providence by two weeks.  I sublet her Providence apartment from her, and she moved on to Philadelphia.  In terms of helping orient me to downtown Providence, she had advice.  She said, “I always use the Omni Tower as my True North.  When I see the Omni, I can work out my direction from just about anywhere.” It seems to me that my “Noah Moment” comes with its own “True North” built in. Somehow, this year of introspection and reflection has offered me a keen understanding of my values and priorities.  Whatever it is that I do will be consistent with them. I don’t even need the Omni to guide me! In these early days since my “Noah Moment,” I truly feel that I have been stripped down to my essence, seen my core, looked at the “what” of who I am, and I am ready to put that to use. I find myself thinking, "If I can get through this past year, I can live through anything.” 
     The only other time in my life when I felt this absolute and utter certainty was when I knew I wanted children.  After four miscarriages, including one in the second semester, my doctors told me that I should stop trying. They felt it unlikely that I would bear children of my own and that I should consider adoption. The minute I walked out of the office, I threw away the informational brochure on the adoption process. I respect and encourage adoption as an option, but for me, I never doubted the outcome.  I was unwavering in my certainty that my husband and I would parent our own offspring. Ultimately, we were blessed with three children.
      So I am telling my friends something pretty much as preposterous as Noah’s claim. I keep repeating, “I have a calling. I am going to help many people with the skills I have as a result of the unique experiences of my life. I feel like I have walked through fire and have come through the other side, knowing I am stronger and even more grateful for my blessings. When the time is right, I will know just how that will look.  I need to stay open to the possibility that my work could show up at any time.”

     As proof that the Universe is determined to do its thing, with or without our help, there is a tangential footnote to this story.  I was telling my friend, Kate, about my “Noah Moment.” Kate has cheered me on every step of the way since I moved to Martha’s Vineyard.  “You went to the grocery store and the bank today, Dawn? Why that is fantastic.!”  Or, “You worked on your photos for four hours this afternoon? I can’t wait to see the best of them.”  She didn’t seem the least bit flummoxed by my assertion I had this new clarity and an unshakeable calling to do something over the next 25 years or so.
Instead, she said, “Dawn, you know how I listen to these inspirational Ted Talks? You have to listen to the one I heard today. I think you are going to be blown away.”
It was delivered by a game maker named Jane McGonigal.  She had a traumatic head injury and was unable to use her computer for a year. She devised a game that ultimately engaged her family and then her friends, allowing her world to grow. A surprising side effect and a quantifiable result started to occur, Jane began to feel better. In her Ted-talk-twenty-minutes of speaking at breakneck speed, I learned something particularly germane to what I call my “Noah Moment.”

As it turns out, the media tends to focus almost exclusively on Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. There is a flip side to that coin for some people. Many studies are being done to understand the whys of the phenomenon, but the deal is, some people, when they hit rock bottom, will rise up stronger, more directed, more connected, more giving and more grateful than previously. According to Jane, there are two distinct added bonuses, first, these people tend to adopt behaviors that correlate with a longer and happier life and second, they have fewer death-bed regrets. They feel they have used their lives to the fullest possible measure. I was hooked on what she was saying, I caught a reflection of my head nodding excitedly.  Yes! That’s what I was talking about. I began winding and rewinding her delivery on my iPad as Jane McGonigal described the characteristics of Post Traumatic Growth.  After profound events, severe or even life-ending illnesses, and after bone-deep traumas, a certain group of people emerge in their own way, and at their own rate with a sense that there may be a new, and conceivably, better path available to them.

The Five Characteristics of Post Traumatic Growth that show up repeatedly are:
    1.  A deeper commitment to relationships and family.
    2.  A belief that “if I lived through that, I can face anything.”
    3.  A sense that new opportunities and people will appear.
    4.  A greater appreciation for life.
    5.  A shift or deepening of spiritual awareness

The ability to experience growth is greatly affected by having a support system. Some kind of spiritual core seems to be a critical element to the growth, and finally, the ability to grieve and gradually accept loss plays a part of the conversion of trauma to growth, in the ability to move from tragedy to possibility in a healthy way. Humans, by nature, are story-tellers.  We use narratives to interpret our pasts and to invent our futures.  As I started reading up on this, I discovered that the way that survivors invent and tell the narratives about their life events was key to their ability to move past the trauma or grow from it.  Those individuals who could develop life stories that confront the pain and sorrow and then convert it into a way to cope are more likely to find a way to turn their most severe of life’s trials into an avenue of growth.  Individuals with a strong support system consisting of people willing to buoy and, sometimes, gently bully, their loved ones into taking just-one-more-step fare better than those without those connections. Interestingly enough, it is more likely that slightly more extraverted individuals will find their way to a path toward their personal True North.  There is still a large school of research being done to study this entire subject. Maybe that is how I am supposed to help?

An hour later..... 

I tried to sign up to participate in a study that is evaluating the cognitive response of individuals after trauma.  It is being run by the University of North Carolina. Unfortunately, the project was closed when I tried to enroll.

For the time being I will try to remain open to the possibilities coming my way, with my eye set on my True North. I will work on practicing the values I hold most dear to the best of my ability. I will thank the friends and family who have held my hand, brought me food, run errands, listened to me repeat myself like a broken V8 tape.  I will continue to spend a part of each of every day in meditation, connected to the Greater One. I will be ready to step forth onto the path that is right for me when that opportunity appears. Meanwhile, I will do the work I know how to do. Write essays, treasure other people’s life stories, appreciate the blessings in my life and always, remember the glory of the firmament. If I stay true to My True North, it will lead me where I am called.  Note to the Universe: I am listening.

A few references


Friday, September 5, 2014

Happy Birthday from the Outermost Inn

                Daytime view from Aquinnah            dee

Today is my birthday. I have a peculiar sense of detachment about it. I feel proud to be able to claim another year of knowledge, discovery and survival.  I have never been a person that demands a lot of public recognition, with streamers and party hats on the anniversary of my birth; I do not expect a status elevating the date to the prominence of a National Holiday. I have known people who are actually offended when their entire birthday is not spent in tribute to them.  They schedule vacation days because, “they deserve them.”  I have no such sense of entitlement. On the other end of  the spectrum, I have a friend whose husband comes from a family of Friends that did not acknowledge birthdays in any way.  Not even with a simple card or casual morning greeting kiss and a “ Happy Birthday.”   My friend stood her ground when they had children; their children had birthday celebrations, a gift or two and yes, sometimes birthday parties. I respected her going toe to toe with him on that score.

I have been blessed with a rich library of birthday memories. As it turns out, the birthdays that mean the most to me are my children’s. The days of their births are what imbued the most meaning in my life. 
My own date of birth became special on my fifth birthday. My mother, father and sister, my aunt and my grandmother were all there for dinner.  I received several books I had wanted. There was a cake with candles and I blew them all out in one long breath.  I was surrounded by those who loved me most, and they each had a gift for me. It was exactly that feeling that has served as a benchmark for Happy Birthdays ever since. When I was growing up, the birthday ritual included choosing the dinner menu for that night. (I inevitably chose fried chicken, mashed potatoes, corn and a vanilla cake with vanilla frosting).  After dinner, there were cards and a couple of modest gifts such as a book or a dress my mother sewn. There was always talk about the year to come.
            Scanning through remarkable birthdays, the next one that jumps out at me was when my lifetime friend threw a surprise birthday party for me on the Vineyard.  It was the summer that I turned twelve. I had never imagined such a thing, so my surprise was complete and utterly sincere. I recall my initial confusion about why all these people I knew somehow appeared in her house.  I am embarrassed to admit that I didn’t even understand it was for me until she told me! 
For about thirty-five years, my husband and I observed the tradition of a few exchanged nonsense words that we repeated instead of Happy Birthday at the beginning of the day. At breakfast, I opened any cards from family or friends that might have come on the days leading up to my birthday.  Throughout the day, my parents, my sister, and my friends would often give me call.  I cherished those moments more than I can measure. It felt good to be remembered.  After work, my husband and I – and later, our children, -- often went out to dinner.  He would give me his card (I received a ratio of funny cards to sentimental ones 8 out of 10 years) along with a thoughtful gift of jewelry or some form of technology or maybe a gift card for clothes that I always felt was too extravagant. My children would make me heart-rending drawings or “projects,” many I still have. Later, when they had control of their own money, the three of kids would, individually, or, on occasion, together, chip in, to find some ideal gift, an object I might have oft-handedly admired during the past month.  The girls seem to have a second-sense about such things. My son has been particularly keen on gift cards granting me access to his technological prowess. Truthfully, what the children probably never know is that the biggest gift is in their remembering. My closest friends and I never worried much about gift exchanges being on the specific birthday.  I was never, ever, convinced that I deserved them. They would surprise me with functional (an electric tea kettle), extravagant (a peignoir set),  and exotic (Italian hand-blown glass necklace).  While I treasure the thought and the effort put into making a selection it is the idea that someone thought about me that means so very much.
The past few years have followed different patterns of celebration. In fact, I have had to work a little harder than usual to celebrate. Not so much because I am growing older, more so because my life is not unfolding in the way I had envisioned it might. However, on each of my birthdays over the past four years, my friends and my children have found ways to delight me and restore in me that feeling of joyful pleasure I remember so well from my fifth birthday.  As it turns out, today has been no exception. It is a day for each of us to be reminded that we matter to others. That what we do and who we are makes a difference in their lives. 
In my lifetime, I have met several people who share my birthday. I have read extensive mathematical models that can be used to calculate the odds of a roomful of people sharing the same birthday. I believe that, in a room of 23 people, the odds are better than 50% that two of them share the same birthday.  Among my friends, there are three of us; in addition to me, there is my mother’s best friend, Nan, and my best friend’s neighbor, Michelle.
Michelle called me earlier this week to say she was thinking about our birthdays. I asked her if this was “the big one?”
“Sixty!” she said.
“What do you have planned?”
“A couple of friends are joining me for dinner. I made reservations in Aquinnah at the Outermost Inn. Sunset is at 7:09 p.m..  We will have drinks on the lawn, then dinner at 8p.m.  I can’t think of a place I would rather be than on the furthest tip of the Island watching the sunset on my birthday.”
Aquinnah is an Island treasure. Located near the Vineyard’s famous clay cliffs. Aquinnah is bordered by the Vineyard Sound to the north and northwest and the Atlantic Ocean to the south and west. Sunsets are a marvel to behold from that vantage point on the Island. The Outermost Inn serves superb meals.  Though it is the only restaurant for fine dining in the smallest town on the Vineyard, it rivals any three star restaurant in New York City. Dinner is by reservation only.
When I hung up with Michelle, I googled the phone number for the Outermost Inn and dialed them immediately.  Reception was spotty. When I got through with my conversation, I had given myself a birthday gift.
                        Sunset over the Atlantic                  dee
When Michelle and her guests settle into the lounge chairs for the sunset display tonight, they will be served a bottle of Veuve Cliquot.  They can toast her sixty years, and, together, keep their chairs turned westward to watch the sun slip below the horizon. The sweet satisfaction of having made those arrangements was multiplied a few days ago when Michelle called.  Knowing I wouldn’t be back on the Island for another 25 days, she offered me a room in her house for the weekend.  She wondered if I would like to join her and her friends at the Outermost on our birthdays. Regrettably, I had to decline because I am going to visit my daughter in Philadelphia at her new abode.  However, if astral projection is all that it is supposed to be, I will be with them tonight.  Around seven o’clock, I will plug my headphones in and use Hypnosis for Deep Trance Mind Travel (Healing Astral Imagery) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CsrhpqiibNAd to settle in beside them on an Adirondack chair.  After a while, I expect to find myself hovering somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean in a time continuum in which all my birthday celebrations from the past, and and present and all the joyful possibilities of the future exist simultaneously in one space and time continuum.  Ultimately, the date and time of my birth are not what matter, the love I hold in my heart as the sun settles below the horizon are all that I will carry as I step boldly into a new year, no matter the astral plane on which I find myself.