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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.

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.

Blue Hole Collage: The Courage to Be Creative

Blue Hole Collage, 2013

Blue Hole Collage, 2013

Most people that know me would say that I am creative and I would agree. I am a potter, a seamstress, and a writer. I knit every day. But even with all of that, there are times when creativity is stifled by fear.

I remember taking a sculpture class at the museum. At first, I fell right into it. We were using clay–my primary medium–an old friend. My teacher was very complimentary; who doesn’t respond to that? I basked in a sense of accomplishment.

And then one day we went up to the gallery to do some sketches prior to sculpting. I sat before a pensive 10th century Buddha. Nothing–I was paralyzed. How could I draw anything? That wasn’t what I knew how to do. How could I meet the expectations, when compared to my work in clay this would be nothing? What was the right way?

Finally the teacher came over and said, “Why haven’t you started? What’s wrong?” And I told him I didn’t know how. He laughed and said, “Of course you do. Let go and just put what you are thinking on the paper.” And I did. It wasn’t a masterpiece, but it didn’t have to be. It was the opening to the creative pathway.

This came to mind a few months ago when I was at the PeerSpirit writer’s workshop on Whidbey Island. One evening early on we were given the option of doing a collage. I was skeptical. How would this help my writing? I am a potter, not a collage artist.

But all of those thoughts were just rationalizations. It really boiled down to fear. How could I create a collage that would pass muster? I didn’t know how to do this. What would people think?

I almost didn’t go that night but the alternative was sitting in my room twisting with recrimination.

I walked over the boardwalk to Marsh House and found a table. We didn’t have hours to do the collage and there was no time for self-doubt.

Within a few minutes, I plotted my course. My writing project centered around the Blue Hole, the headwaters of the San Antonio River, and so would the collage. I shifted through National Geographics and old calendars, at first focusing on anything blue for the water, then beige and taupe for the stone rim. Then came birds, leaves, and branches on the edge and a filmy blue whale’s eye at the vortex. I was caught up in the creativity of the moment.

The Blue Hole Collage opened my mind for the writing that was to come that week. Creativity overcame fear and I was in a new invigorating space.

Walking over the Alder Marsh–Passing Over Obstacles

Alder Marsh, photo by Joanna Powell Colbert

Alder Marsh, photo by Joanna Powell Colbert

Recently I attended a PeerSpirit writer’s retreat at Alder Marsh on Whidbey Island off of the Seattle Coast where I spent a week in a cabin cushioned by soft air among Douglas firs and alders.

Communal gatherings were at the Marsh House, a low round building in a grassy clearing on the far side of the marshland.

Several times each day and evening we’d travel through the watery marsh, sometimes singly and other times in quietly conversing pairs. In the morning weak sunlight struggling through grey clouds and full conifers revealed the way. In the evening fairy lights defined the boardwalk at the turns over black water.

The Alder Marsh was an obstacle. If we tried to walk through it we would have been soaked through by icy water, pushing past floating leaves, tripping over submerged stumps, stirring up the decaying vegetation and sucking mud.

Instead, we walked above it. We were careful–the wooden path was wet with moss and mist. We were observant, seeing the floating leaves, sticks covered with lichen, majestic alders and logs furred by emerald moss.

Everyday in our work we encounter obstacles. Some obstacles are deliberately dropped in front of us; others, intrinsic to the landscape. It’s much tougher if we force our way through. Rather, we can acknowledge what is in our way and walk above it, ending up where we need to be.

Doing Our Part

Magnolia tree in the garden

Magnolia tree in the garden

The magnolia tree is blooming in the garden this week. I try to spend time every morning and evening taking in the heady beauty of creamy brushed-cotton dinnerplate blooms bound to bare branches against the early April sky. One strong spring storm and it will be over, the ground splattered with petals bruised and brown.

And while there might be one or two errant blooms over the summer months, that’s it. What’s the point of a magnolia tree? Two weeks of beauty at most, some years not at all if there is a late frost. The rose of sharon flowers for a much longer period. Lilacs at least have the added value of strong perfume. Magnolias definitely have limits.

Often that’s the case when we take on a project, work in a community, or build personal or professional relationships. No matter how well things go or how hard we try, there are limitations that can lead to disappointment or even a sense of futility. At those times, we need to refocus and consider what we have accomplished or how the relationships do sustain and fulfill us. It is so much easier to see limitations rather than all the good that has occurred.

They are predicting rain for the next few days. But until the storm sets in the magnolia will keep blooming. They continue to do their part, in spite of limitations, and so will I.

Being Intentional: A Path to Equity

Vase, Carondelet Pottery

Vase, Carondelet Pottery

At my pottery studio I mix my own glazes in a century-old cool gray stone cellar with half-windows that provide dappled natural light. Silica is usually the dominant ingredient, followed by ball clay and kaolin. They are heavy flour. Neph sy is lighter and a bright white while strontium carbonate that makes me think of NASA and the space program for some weird reason.But no glaze is complete without the colorants–the green patina of copper carbonate, the dirty mustard of rutile, and the deep red of Spanish iron oxide. My favorite is finely milled cobalt, its delicate lavender a paradox given that the smallest bit can color glazes the deepest midnight blue. There is nothing random about mixing a glaze. It is intentional. Each ingredient is essential and no measurement is left to chance. And that is the same when you are leading a work group; the involvement of each person is essential to the best end result. Everyone has a critical role to play.

How we interact with others is fundamental to the issue of equity. Have you ever attended a meeting where the only people speaking are the white participants? Or the older participants? Or the male participants? Are the contributions of those in the minority dismissed? Is a suggestion made by those in the minority ignored, only to be accepted when it is given later by someone from the majority? This calls us to be intentional. When we are working in a group, it can be as simple as being deliberate in how the meeting flows.

  • Recognize the ideas of each person and acknowledge those.
  • Take an intentional approach and use processes at meetings to ensure everyone’s voice is heard by going around the table, or start the meeting by asking someone who is typically overlooked or not in the majority to lead off with their comments or thoughts.
  • Invite those who are heard the least  to speak first.

Be purposeful in everything you do–who you invite to the table. It’s not enough to have stereotypical diversity–go deeper–mix old powerbrokers with new voices, large established groups and new innovative grassroots organizations, senior staff and the new intern.

Take a moment to be intentional to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to be heard and that there contributions are recognized and respected.   Sometimes small things make  big difference.

A pinch of cobalt added to a copper carb glaze changes a green into turquoise.

Women’s Leadership: Integrating the spiritual and professional dimensions of our lives

Sr. Mary Pezold, Bridget Flood, Sr. Annette Pezold, Nancy Hawes, and Sr, Helen Ann Collier

Sr. Mary Pezold, Bridget Flood, Sr. Annette Pezold, Nancy Hawes, and Sr, Helen Ann Collier

I was privileged to speak at the Women’s Leadership Lunch sponsored by the School Sisters of Notre Dame, Central Pacific Province. Here is what I shared with them.

Women’s Leadership: Integrating the spiritual and professional dimensions of our lives

Good afternoon and thank you all for coming. I always love coming back to Notre Dame where almost all of the women in my family went to school. The foundation has had many meetings here at Maria Center, and I keep thinking that any minute my daughter Carolyn will pop into the back of the room wearing a uniform skirt that had definitely seen better days with her shirttail out, picking up trays of food to take to the art room. But she lives in Nashville now.

I want to thank the School Sisters of Notre Dame for inviting me to be a part of this today—looking out I see so many leaders from our community. I think about the women leaders who have blazed the path for all us of like my mentor, the late Sr. Mary Ann Eckhoff, SSND and current leaders in our community like the women from Let’s Start, and the future leaders like my daughter, Amelia. It is just wonderful to be back here at Notre Dame where my leadership journey began.

So much of what I have learned about leadership I learned from women religious. My mentor, the late Sr. Mary Ann Eckhoff spent many years teaching here before she became the first woman and sister to be the superintendent of the Catholic schools for Archdiocese. I remember my first encounter with Sr. Mary Ann. I had left a really terrible work environment to go to the Today and Tomorrow Foundation at the diocese and on my first day I wrote a letter for sister to sign. After she read it she told me I had a done a great job, and I immediately starting backpedalling saying –no it could have been better, and she cut me off and said, Bridget just say thank you

How many times as women do we cut ourselves down and put ourselves back rather than accept recognition in the workplace and move forward?

That day was the beginning of a mentoring relationship that I will always carry with me. I learned so much from working with Sister. As a leader she had a way of pulling the best out of the people around her. There are two things she always said that come to mind—People live up or down to your expectations. I think that is so true. As a leader, if you expect people to do a poor job, that will be communicated to them in so many subtle and not so subtle ways. It will get in the way of getting things done and it makes people miserable in the process. She also believed that everyone has some type of talent—some people have one talent, others many, and that your job as a leader is to identify the talents of each individual and help them use their talents to the fullest.

I guess you could say it was leadership by affirmation.

That isn’t to say that Sister couldn’t be tough and make difficult decisions. When it came to doing what was right to carry out the mission and reach a goal she could be one of the most fiercely determined people I have known. One trait she and I both share is persistence. But she didn’t shy away from the tough decisions. I remember going to her agonizing about how a decision was going to make some people very unhappy. Her take on it was, “Bridget when you make a decision that some people don’t like you need to keep in mind that there are other people who are going to be happy with that decision. Don’t focus on the negative. Focus on the benefits and go from there.”

I’ve also learned a great deal from the Incarnate Word sisters who sponsor the Foundation. Over the past few years I have been interviewing our sisters to capture their wisdom (and actually I need to take a minute to thank my wonderful friend, Pat Thibodeau who transcribes these interviews in exchange for me knitting her socks).

It seems like everything I’ve learned from our sisters stems from their Incarnational Spirituality, a belief that God is present in all people and in the relationships we have. And what it has taught me is that effective leadership is grounded in relationship.
Sr. Mary Pezold, CCVI was the Foundation’s Board chair for nine years and in that time I learned so much from her about leadership. One of the main things is to value relationships. And that sometimes relationships are more important than being right. By that I mean that when you are working with people with a variety of views, there are times when leadership means taking a back seat and telling yourself that even if the group doesn’t do things your way, that’s okay. That’s hard for me since I’d like to think that I have perfect wisdom but the sad reality, is that I don’t. And there are times when what looks like “giving in” is in reality choosing a path that is going to advance everyone to the ultimate goal—a goal that can’t be achieved if you trample on relationships to get there.

Her leadership style is centered in respecting the contribution that each person makes to carrying out the mission. She also embodies gratitude. Taking the time to thank people and recognizing the contributions large and small that people make to achieve the goal is so important and often overlooked. To my mind taking the time to thank people, and to not take credit for their work but to acknowledge their contributions to the larger group is a key attribute of a successful leader. It may seem like an oxymoron in our world today, but the most effective leaders are humble and in that humility is great power. Because in being humble and putting others forward, their power is added to your’s and suddenly one plus one equals not two, but four or five.

Being a leader is also about adapting and continually growing. Sr. Annette Pezold, CCVI shared that with me when she talked about all the changes that she has seen in religious life and in the world. We can’t be stagnant. Leadership is about new experiences and being open to change, not being stuck in the past. One thing that drives me crazy is when people say, “We’ve always done it that way.” Well when you look at some of the issues facing our world today—where has that gotten us? Like our sisters, we need to continually be open to walking new paths and identifying new solutions to the problems we confront.

Being a leader is also about being contemplative. It is about taking the time to reflect and to step back. Sr. Helen Ann Collier, CCVI shared some insights with me about the importance of taking time even if it only for a few minutes to reflect on whom we are, and what we did, and how we did it. It is about asking where God was today, and what did I do in response? It is about forming a contemplative spirit because in that time of prayer we find the strength to bring God to birth in ourselves and in others. I know when I don’t have any time to step back I get stressed out and overwhelmed. That is when I head to my studio and put everything aside and work with the clay. After just 30 minutes there I feel renewed and just so much better. We can’t be leaders if we let ourselves get burnt out. And reflection time clears our minds to enable us to see new solutions or different ways to address nagging problems.

There are many days when I go next door to Sr. Mary Margaret Bright’s office to vent about a problem and her response is “What is God trying to tell you?” My first reaction to that is—“Who cares—this problem is driving me nuts!” But afterward, if I take the time to think about it and reflect, many times I see it differently and it is much more likely to work itself out.

Leadership also means being authentic—being true to who you are. And that is something I learned right here at Notre Dame. One of my teachers, Sr. Joanne Hanrahan, SSND is here and I can still remember how she emphasized that we needed to speak our minds in her world cultures class. That has stuck with me because one thing people I work with in the community say to me is that I tell it like I see it. There isn’t a lot of beating around the bush. And perhaps that’s because I have gone to so many meetings where women will come up to me afterwards and say, I am so glad you said that. Or I wish I had said that.” Well speak up. Because if you don’t you can’t count on someone else to speak up in your place. Your ideas have as much validity as the next person’s.

And finally, being a leader is being happy in what you do. If you don’t find joy in the mission you are trying to carry out then it is going to be very challenging to involve others in working toward the goal. One of our wisest sisters, Sr. Neomi Hayes, CCVI told me once that her work in life is to bring joy to the world. And I’d like to end with a quote she shared with me from Kathleen Norris.

“Imagine yourself at a party. Introduced to a stranger you ask, “What do you do? And comes the reply: “My work is loving the world. . . My work is mostly standing still, and learning to be astonished.”. . . This work is available to us all. It is the work of someone who takes the time to listen, to smell, to taste and see. We live in a time when anxiety and road rage are rampant while gratitude and wonder seem to be in short supply. All the more important, then, to take the time to imagine something better in yourself, in this exotic and beautiful world we call home.”

As women leaders, perhaps that is our special gift—to bring a new perspective grounded in joy.