Archive | May 2013

The Red Barn

The red barn, Winfield, MO

The red barn, Winfield, MO

A few weeks ago I went with Michael to pick up a package of bees near Winfield. One of my hives had died out after an unexpected snowstorm in March. They were my favorite hive–Carniolan bees, gentler than the Minnesota hygienic Italian bees I usually raise. It was a dreary day with heavy skies and the fields were newly planted with little growth amid the standing water on the Missouri River flood plains.

I was not in the best frame of mind and wished I could have put the whole trip off but the bees could only stay in their temporary package so long before they would die off. As we rounded the bend, I saw it–a weathered red barn in a field of yellow wildflowers. How could I give in to the gloomy day with this reminder that the world was a good and beautiful place?

A few weeks later I was on the radio talking about a new youth summer jobs program the foundation had initiated. These programs are common in other large cities but there was currently no organized widespread effort in our community.

It had been a long haul. We had had some success and two hundred young people would have jobs. Donors had come forward from the business and philanthropic sectors and we had garnered support from the local government as well.

It had not, however, been easy. The foundation’s motivation was grounded in social justice. The rationale for business’s support related to workforce development and economic growth. The governmental involvement meant balancing political realities. Fundamentally, everyone wanted the project to succeed, but the behind-the-scenes work to develop the actual program, create realistic expectations and manage relationships took an inordinate amount of time and energy. Being on the radio was a piece of cake compared to all of that. I was tired.

After the radio show a friend texted me and said she had heard the radio program and it was great. And then a colleague sent me an e-mail in which she acknowledged that it must have been tough navigating all of the relationships to bring the program to fruition but that it was worth it; she thanked me.

A red barn in a field of yellow flowers.

Robins Know Their Own Minds

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When I was in Ireland I stopped at a country fair where local craftsmen were selling their wares. I brought home a nesting box for robins simply constructed of pine with a slate roof. It is charming. In the three years I have had it up in the eaves no robin has nested. Obviously my assumption about what robins think is wrong.

Recently, I spent several days with a colleague, Jane. Her boss had stopped her with some questions about a project as she was leaving for a three-day conference but she was in a hurry and as they finished their conversation she made a flip remark.

She doesn’t know her boss very well. Her boss is relatively new and she finds her hard to read. Their last conversation weighed on her mind and Jane was convinced her boss had found her remark offensive or rude. I suggested that she e-mail as a follow up on the project and in passing mention that she hoped her comment hadn’t been taken the wrong way.

Even after Jane did that, however, she was still worried and continued down the path of assuming she knew what her boss was thinking. Then she received a message that her boss wanted her to call, a message that engendered more speculation about what her boss was thinking and why did she want to talk to her.

As it turned out, she just wanted to confirm a few details about the project that they had discussed. And perhaps the motivation for the call was an effort on her part to put things back on an even footing, or even to reassure Jane that no offense was taken.

We can’t assume we know the mind of another.

When I went to the studio the other day, I walked past an old gaslight by the steps and was startled to see a robin sitting on its nest inside. Evidently, robins know their own minds.

Relationships: Begin as You Mean to Go on

Blue/Purple Vase, Carondelet Pottery

Blue/Purple Vase, Carondelet Pottery

When I am throwing at the wheel, typically I begin as I mean to go on. As I center the clay, I am intentional. For a vase, I keep my left hand firm against the side to maintain a centered clay column; I push down with my right fist and strong arm the clay into a flat disc to create what will become a plate. I begin as I mean to go on.

Recently, a friend was worried about how she would work with a new colleague. She liked this person but, as an introvert, she was worried about being overshadowed. Would she be second fiddle, not because he put her in that place but because she placed herself there?

I told her quite simply,

Begin as you mean to go on.

At meetings, continue to share your perspective and not hold back because your new colleague is the extrovert. Continue doing your part of the work, and don’t carry his water.

It may appear to you that he doesn’t have all of his ducks in a row for a meeting, but don’t begin by assuming he is unprepared and then put yourself in a support role to provide what you think he needs to make his presentation a success. He is a professional and his way of preparing might be quite different, but still successful. And if turns out you were right and he wasn’t as prepared as he should have been, he will learn to do a better job the next time.

You need to establish an equitable relationship from the start and not place yourself in a subordinate role. You are, in fact, colleagues. If you represent yourself as support staff, that is how he will treat you.


When I throw that vase, I establish the parameters from the outset. Because if it starts as a plate, it is almost impossible to force the clay back into a cylinder and pull it up into a vase. The clay particles have been pushed in a different direction. Even if you do force it back, the results are usually not happy.

Begin as you mean to go on.

The Power of Being Present

Alley Springs MO

An essential part of living Incarnational spirituality is the power of presence. Very seldom are we truly present to others and to ourselves. We live in a constant state of distraction.

Technology brings the work world home and we take pride in being accessible 24-7. Vacations are merely working in another locale as laptops and i-phones keep us connected to the office, but at the cost of being connected to our families, friends, and ourselves. Multi-tasking interferes with our ability to focus on the task at hand. In meetings, it is increasingly rare to have anyone’s full attention.

Recently, I went to a meeting where a philanthropist was talking about her foundation’s work in urban neighborhoods. At the end of her remarks, she asked for questions, and then proceeded to use her Blackberry while simultaneously answering our questions. My suspicion is her texts and tweets are about as trivial for the most part as those that I receive. But what I know for certain is how little value she placed on the conversation at that table that day.

The Power of Being Present

I still remember the first time I experienced the power of presence. I had come to San Antonio to check in with the Congregation and stopped by Sr. Helena Monahan’s office. She was in leadership at that time and her days were spent overseeing the work of a religious order of more than 300 women, traveling to the new missions in Zambia, or working with the University of the Incarnate Word where she was the university’s attorney—her commitments were many.

When I walked through the door, I immediately began our conversation by telling her that I was sorry to interrupt and that I would only need a few minutes to bring her up-to-date on what we were doing in St. Louis.

Her response was to come around the desk, sit down across from me and say, “I am here for you. Take the time the time that you need.“

There is a power in that moment when someone sets everything aside and focuses on what another person has to say. It creates a relationship.

Presence and Incarnational Spirituality

Recently, Helena shared her thoughts on how presence and relationship are essential and stem from Incarnational spirituality.

The divine is in every person. If I put somebody off or don’t take advantage of being with that person, then I have really missed something of that person, of God and of just the experience of living. I try to live that out because it makes life calmer as every moment becomes important.

Sometimes it is challenging to do this when you are with someone that you totally disagree with on important issues. You may just want to scream. That’s the time to step back from your anger and realize this is a human being who has the same reasoning powers and decision-making powers and somehow they’ve come to a different conclusion. I don’t have to agree with them and I can challenge them to the best of my ability and not become emotional. This is a huge discipline.

Recently I’ve been reading and reflecting on Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh which discusses how the tenets of the two faiths are very much alike. A key premise, and I do think it is valid, is that all of life is a continuum.

There is a ‘before I was born’ and there is ‘my life’ and there’s going to be ‘whatever happens after I die’ but really it’s all a continuum. That takes away fear and helps you live in the present moment without worrying about what is going to happen.

It’s very enriching and incarnational since ‘In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.’ The Word will always be. Whatever God is and whatever the Word is – the expression of God – that is what we are trying to live and that is in every person. So that is where I am.

Bluebells Emerge

Bluebells at the Studio

The sun is finally warming the north-facing garden at the studio dappling crisp silver maple leaves that blanket the shade garden. Bluebells are the first to emerge and their drab 1930s green leaves provide a soft frame, holding stalks topped with startling sky blue tassels and buds tinged with a faint sunset pink. Within two months there will be no trace left–just bare ground.

I am glad I left clay wet on the wheel for a quick glance.

The Gratitude Basket: Centering through Appreciation

Zambian basket A black and tawny yellow Zambian basket sits on my desk corner behind a stack of files. At first glance it appears to be a catchall filled with notecards, clippings and photos, its strong geometrical designs completely hidden. Sometimes I toss something else in the basket but there are weeks or even a month or two when it is untouched. Every so often I take the time to sort through the basket.

I read a note from my late mentor, Sr. Mary Ann, telling me in her precise Catholic school handwriting about how she enjoyed the care package I sent to her when she lived in Italy. Peanut butter is in short supply in Rome. There’s a newspaper clipping of my daughter, Carolyn, playing her harp at some long ago Christmas program at the Arch and a lovely card from Amelia for Mother’s Day last year. A post card I received more than a decade ago from my best friend with a cartoon about spending time gardening rather than laboring at your desk.

I smile at a photo from Chiapas, Mexico and remember the time I spent with the Chol Indians and several of the Incarnate Word sisters at their organic coffee plantation high in the rainforest. The first time I saw bowls of black beans for breakfast I thought they were serving us coffee beans. A handmade note from an agency director who works to alleviate domestic violence catches my eye and I appreciate all that she does to make the world a better place. She moved to Texas a few years ago and I take a moment to send good thoughts her way.

The papers, photos and cards left randomly in a straw basket serve a purpose. The basket centers me. I reflect on what I have been given by these extraordinary people and on the opportunities I have had to give to them in return.