Tag Archive | Journey

What’s Important Is How We Do It

Surprise Lilies in the Parkway

While I was walking this morning, I was reflecting on a quotation from the woman who founded the School Sisters of Notre Dame.

With God, what we do is less important than how we do it.
Blessed Theresa of Jesus Gerhardinger, SSND

She said those words a century ago, but they speak to my heart today.

At the Incarnate Word Foundation I see many agencies working to serve those in need. Those of us in the funding world pressure them to show measurable outcomes. We want to know that they are effective in delivering services, that they measure their progress toward goals in quantifiable ways, that they are efficient in their use of resources. In response, agency leaders develop elaborate logic models and hire consultants to create service delivery systems.

And while good stewardship is necessary and important, the danger in that is an over-emphasis on what is being done rather than how it is being done.

Are we grounding what we do in compassion, love and respect?

Are we taking time to listen with our heart?

Are we walking with them on their journey?

Do we sit and hold a woman’s hand?

Do we see the spark of the Divine in each person?

So often we focus on getting things done, on accomplishments and outcomes. While we may reach every benchmark, we can lose the love and humanity that should be present whenever we are with others.

Because with God, what we do is less important than how we do it.

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Day Lilies: We Choose How We See the World

Day Lilies at Carondelet Pottery

Day Lilies at Carondelet Pottery

When I am throwing pots at Carondelet Pottery, I usually take a break and sit in the garden. And when I do, I make a choice. I can choose to focus on the weeds that need pulling or the fence that I have been meaning to paint, or I can choose to see day lilies blooming.

Every day we have times when we choose how we see the world.

Later that morning as I was emptying the trash at the studio I saw two men fishing for cans in the dumpster. This presented me with several choices.

I can choose to ignore them.

I can choose to inform them in no uncertain terms with only a glance, not words, that they shouldn’t be fishing in the dumpster and that they had better not knock trash into the alley.

Or I can choose to say, “Good morning.”

Which is what I did. And they responded with “Good morning” as well.

We had a brief conversation about the beautiful weather, the nice people at the Methodist church a few blocks away, and the price of scrap metal. All three of us made a choice about how we saw each other that morning.

And it was the beginning of a lovely peaceful day.

Day Lily, Carondelet Pottery

Day Lily, Carondelet Pottery

The Mission Is Within

photo by Grant Gillard

photo by Grant Gillard

The primary nectar flow is in full swing and my bees are single-mindedly going about their work. Some guard the hive, others fetch water from the pond, forage for nectar, alert their comrades to new blooms by dancing on the doorstep. They and their mission are one. The mission is within.

And I think of Sr. Alice.

I first met Sr. Alice when she was leading a spirituality and arts center in the congregation’s old dairy barn. Alice is a white-haired wise woman, her features sharp, her eyes kind and laughing. She is a tai chi practitioner, tall and angular, moving effortlessly through the world of spiritual traditions.

Alice’s white barn housed vibrant art and quiet music where the dairy stalls had been. The soaring beams of the hayloft framed a contemplative sacred space. I loved walking past the tall rosemary bushes into the barn, reflecting upon artists’ visions, listening to Alice as she shared her latest spiritual journey. But then it was gone.

The sisters’ retirement complex was next door and needed more space. The barn gave way for senior apartments to expand the sisters’ ministry to serve older adults.

The loss touched my heart. I thought of Alice, the scent of the rosemary and heat bouncing off the Texas sandstone that bordered the barn path, the light coming through the square dairy stall windows. The white barn gave way for a high-rise. I couldn’t imagine how terrible Alice felt about losing that beautiful space.

A few months later I was in San Antonio on the motherhouse grounds walking behind the retirement center. Suddenly, I saw Alice striding toward me, tall and slender in a red shirt and denim skirt. I hurried toward her and blurted out my concern for her and the loss of the barn.

She just smiled. Then she said that she was fine.

The barn was just a place, albeit a beautiful place, but a place all the same. She had been given an office in the retirement center and was carrying out the mission in a new way that she called Chispas, or sparks, for the sparks of the divine that are in each of us.

Alice explained that the mission is within her. The place is unimportant because she carries the mission within wherever she is. The mission manifests itself in whatever she is doing.

I have thought about that conversation with Alice many times. So often we get caught up in the need to possess something, whether it be a place, a project, our job or another person. To varying degrees these things are necessary for us, but they do not define us.

Each of us has a mission.

The bees currently live in a hive box in my yard, but they could swarm and move to a hollow sycamore tree or rotted building eaves. The bees would construct new comb, rebuild the honey stores.

We carry the mission within.

Coneflower Creativity: Life after the Pinterest Black Hole

Coneflowers

Creativity implies creating something. This, however, is the age of Pinterest and virtual creativity. We create vicariously by scrolling through an endless array of elegantly executed creative concepts. Instead of following our own path we settle for pinning the ideas of others to boards stored in the cloud, saving the instructions for projects that will never be ours or become real. We lose our creative vision.

I started sewing when I was about ten and my mother sent me to the Singer Store on Cherokee Street for lessons. I made a delicate yellow voile dress, lined and with covered buttons, an overly ambitious project that I approached with great enthusiasm until I had to rip out a dart seventeen times. My mother was experienced and knew it was a recipe for disaster. I should have made an apron. But she realized that the dress was my vision.

Those scraps were the beginning of a fabric stash that could take over a small room. Snippets of cotton, wool and silk in bins and baskets. So many possibilities. Perhaps a tablecloth, a throw pillow, or a crazy quilt. Pinterest opened up an ever-expanding universe of projects and the clicks of the keyboard drew me further into the black hole. So many plans and ideas to pin and share.

And then one day, the realization that pinning is not creating.

Time to head up to the sewing room.

I pulled out the batik fabric scraps thinking I would create a table runner that captured the simmering waterlily pond in the yard but a drippy striped sunrise of yellow orange caught my eye. Coneflowers at dawn.

Magenta pinks and shadowy purples for petals, aggressive spotted orange for the bristly center, Chartreuse and retiring forest green leaves. No need to sketch, take a Pinterest break or wait until tomorrow. Pull out the scissors, needle and glass-headed pins.

Coneflower creativity.

Quiet Leadership

photo by Taline Manassian

photo by Taline Manassian

We had a day of silence while at Aldermarsh for the PeerSpirit writing workshop. I didn’t know how that would work for me. Life is loud. We are always talking, sometimes all at once, pushing our points of view. But this is a space where cell phones don’t work.

Rather than stare at the wall or cheat by getting on the internet, I took a walk.

In my work at the Incarnate Word Foundation, we are called to the table many times. Board meetings, committee discussions, agency collaboratives and community workgroups–all of these require leadership, and there as many leadership styles as there are leaders. But should leadership be equated with whomever has the loudest voice, or who convened the meeting, or who has the most community standing?

Sometimes the most effective leadership style is quiet.

Sr. Mary was the foundation’s Board chair for nine years. During that time she practiced what I have come to think of as quiet leadership. The fundamentals are simple:

Listen to the ideas of others before you speak.

Don’t become consumed with anxiety about getting your idea out on the table.

Focus on making the outcome one that incorporates the best thinking of the group rather than furthering a personal agenda.

Stay calm and respect the integrity of each person involved in the discussion.

Speak quietly.

When I began walking the woods at Aldermarsh, I started in aimless silence only to become aware of murmuring sounds at every turn, leading me down the path and through the labyrinth.

Photo by Taline Manassian

Photo by Taline Manassian

Shells Cast at Our Feet: Imperfect Beauty

Walking on the beach in St. Petersburg I couldn’t help but look for shells at the tideline.

When I was younger I would search for shells that matched those in book illustrations. Trumpeting conch shells with carnation lips whispering secrets, the whorl of the whelk, sunsets captured in the inner concave of cockle shells. I sought perfection, discarding those that were chipped, broken, barnacled.

Now I scrutinize the broken bits of shells pushed to shore by sea foam. The retreating froth lays down a mosaic of frail pinks, white ivory, faint gull grays on gritty taupe sand.

When did beauty become synonymous with perfection?

What causes us to look past fragments of beauty in search of an ideal defined for us?

Why do we ignore beauty every day without sparing even a quick glance?

I stop–caught by a fragment of a quill shell as its Tiffany iridescence transforms a blade of navy blue into captured lightning. Imperfect beauty.

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.

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.