Saturday, April 29, 2017

Don't Stop Believing...

I’m entering a writing contest called You Deserve to Be Inspired hosted by Positive Writer to share a personal story of challenges and lessons learned.

Everyone has “that dream.” You know the one that lives in your heart rather than your head. For most of us, it’s a dream we logically know  will never come true. But we keep it tucked in a place our hearts that holds on to possibilities - being an astronaut, wining a Pulitzer Prize, touring with the Grateful Dead. They are fun fantasies, but we don’t invest a lot of time pursuing them knowing the slim possibility of their reality.

My dream is performing on the Grand Old Opry. I recognize there are several logistical roadblocks to this, starting with the fact I can’t sing. It’s not the “I sing softly in church” kind of can’t sing. It’s the “I only sing in the convertible with the top down to avoid offending others” kind of can’t sing.

But it’s still fun to envision myself in front of hundreds of people … sassy cowboy boots, tight jeans, glittery top, pouffed up hair, guitar strapped around my neck, belting out with a voice that combines the best of Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynne and Mary Chapin Carpenter.

Sometimes those dreams do come true - they just might just show up packaged a little differently than planned.

For me…

It wasn’t Nashville's Grand Old Opry. It was Columbia's Music Farm.

It wasn’t a guitar strapped around my neck. It was a little yellow ukulele.

It wasn’t the voice of Dolly, Loretta and Mary Chapin. It was my screechy voice smoothly folded into the cacophony of the moment knowing the fact I couldn’t sing didn’t matter a bit.

I’ve recently stumbled into a whole new world of ukulele culture thanks to a friend who got me hooked up with a group of ladies who meet “kind of weekly” for a “Sip and Strum.” I’ve always wanted to pursue this music dream but knew I had to get over working toward perfection. I went into this adventure accepting a goal of practice rather than perfect.

Over the past year, we’ve strummed with moms and grandmothers, an artist, lobbyists, a tv producer, a Pilates instructor and even one good-sport man thrown in. We range in age from 30s to 70s. We live all over town. Our musical talent spans from none to lots.

We meet at a local art gallery where creativity oozes from the walls. We sit in a circle, sip on wine and learn the uke basics from a delightful angel of a singer named Jessica. She patiently teaches us, simple chord by simple chord, to play fun songs ranging from “Sweet Caroline” to “Shake it Off” and “Pretty Little Birds” to “These Boots are Made for Walking.” If only my childhood piano teacher had used this approach.
Over the months, we learned chords, strum patterns and tuning. We made uke straps out of yarn. We played “Shake it Off” in the St. Patrick’s Day parade. We named ourselves the Uke-a-ladies. We have t-shirts and oval stickers. We’ve created a little tribe.

So when the time came for the music school’s showcase for all of its students, several of us were game to give it a try. Our Uke-a-ladies were assigned Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” A couple of us rehearsed together, but there wasn’t a lot of preparation. Six of us arrived at the downtown music venue on a recent Sunday afternoon excited but a little nervous.

If there is such thing as musical pixie dust, this music school gave it away at the door to scatter generously. The air was electric. The tight blue hallway leading up to the stage served as the green room for the performers. We laughed that we had no privacy for hair and make-up, no place to change into our sassy costumes or to stow our gig bags. Noise was so loud it was impossible to hear ourselves get tuned. But we were ready!

We hustled on stage stepping over electrical cords careful not to knock over a mic or a light stand. Led by Jessica, whose uke was the only one plugged in, we were playing “back-up” to a teen vocalist and several others on guitar, trumpet, bass and drums.
I was ready - feeling pretty confident that I had our song memorized. I wasn’t even concerned about whether I could see the music stand with our cheat sheet on it (not that I could have seen it without my glasses anyway, and there was no way I was going to blemish my stage debut with specs perched on the end of my nose).

It was the fastest six minutes of my life. Once I heard that first D chord I was in the zone. I knew I wasn’t the center of attention, so I knew it wouldn’t mess anyone up if I missed a chord or two. I didn't care that I was a middle-aged uke-playing wanna be.

By about minute two, I was tapping my foot then swaying with the music. I felt my smile grow big. My fingers danced over the strings sliding through the chord changes without any help from my head. How in the world did that happen, I later wondered. Just a few hours earlier, I was plodding through practicing my chords, repetition after repetition.
For six minutes, I was in the band, part of a community just making music. I was living that dream.
We played Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” … a staple of my high school years. But new meaning infused as one of my Uke-a-lady friends observed later: “This shows you don’t stop believing you can learn to play an instrument at any age.”

I’d add to that don’t stop believing in a dream you thought could never come true – it might just show up on a different stage in a different outfit - but it’s living the dream nonetheless.


Friday, April 14, 2017

Mentors matter: We've all got a lot to learn

As young people in the workplace seem to get younger faster than I’m getting older, I increasingly notice the role of traditional mentor relationships evolving to adapt to younger professionals’ inherent confidence, use of technology and varying styles of communication.

Today’s young professionals have an entrepreneurial spirit that was less evident in generations past. Even those in government, non-profits and education seem to bring a spark of individualism to the workplace that we haven’t seen before.

These differences among generations mean the relationships between mentors and those they advise has changed substantially in the past 25 years. I remember college advisors and professors telling everyone to find a mentor. In those days, that meant seeking out an older professional in a similar business and asking for direction, help or advice. Admittedly that was an intimidating challenge to a young professional just starting out.
For my generation, professional or industry-specific associations were a primary source of mentoring, networking, and professional development. Today networking often happens in more social contexts such as young professional groups or more virtual environments such as webinars and online meetings. These types of networking provide both professional and social support from peers, but sometimes may involve less interaction with the “seasoned” professionals, often due to the fact that we “seasoned” folks just don’t get out and “network” like we did when we were younger.
Sometimes it can be the more informal settings where professional mentor relationships between generations evolve. Over the years, I found my most valuable mentors did not necessarily come from formalized work relationships. Rather they grew through everyday interactions or resulted from relationships I developed through professional civic, church and volunteer organizations.
Regardless, mentors matter.
Recently I ran into my boss from my first substantive college job. I thanked her for being my first mentor. She said she had no idea I’d seen her in that role. I probably didn’t even see it at the time. But looking back, I realize how much I learned from watching her interactions with others.
I learned the value of teamwork and saw how much we could get done if no one cared who got the credit. I saw how she treated everyone with respect – from the elected official we worked for to the guy who delivered our typewriter ribbons (yes, it was that long ago). She had no idea she was teaching me these secrets of success in the workplace. She had no idea of her mentor role in my career development. These were lessons I’ve taken with me through many years … and hopefully passed on to others.
In recent years, I’ve enjoyed many informal, but increasingly reciprocal, mentoring relationships. Today, I’m finding myself just as frequently on the receiving end of advice from younger colleagues as I am on the giving end.
I have found there are valuable lessons from this younger set that go beyond learning how to use social media or get the latest app. Younger colleagues keep me focused on a better work/life balance. They make me smarter by asking questions I hadn’t considered. They challenge me to stay on my toes and seek out new approaches to solve old problems. They keep work fun and interesting. But mostly they keep me motivated to learn.
As I become more “seasoned” in my profession, my thirst for learning and trying new things seems to be increasing. I’m counting on these “reverse mentors” to steer me toward new ways of thinking while, at the same time, I hope I can still challenge them to be better professionals too. 

Thursday, April 6, 2017

The blessing of laughter

My friends and the bride
I don’t even remember what was so funny the first time it happened, but it happened countless times over the course of a long weekend celebrating a friend’s daughter’s wedding.
The laughter.

We laughed until we cried.

Really big tears. The kind that needed a man-sized handkerchief.

And not just once.

Probably dozens of times.

I hadn’t felt so good in ages!
I have a crowd of five girlfriends who came together 30 years ago in Washington, D.C. as young professionals, young marrieds, young parents. Our families formed a supper club connected by the shared experiences of growing up in the south, attending SEC colleges, and (for the most part) working in politics.
At the time, we thought of the supper club as just a fun way for some southern ex-pats in D.C. to come together over food, football and kids. Little did we know we were starting to set the table for a lifelong friendship.
Just so you get the picture … this supper club didn’t require fancy meals, the good china or even a clean house. Our supper club focused on simplicity.
But the big thing I remember about the supper club wasn’t the food.
It’s how we laughed.
We laughed playing board games. We laughed over the meals that didn’t turn out exactly as our moms would have made them. We laughed while helping each other move from one small condo to another or paint the walls of a new house. We laughed over our bold attempt at throwing our first “grown up” cocktail party using all that silver and china that good southern girls got for wedding gifts. We laughed while sharing holiday meals far away from our families back home.
Eventually, the realities of D.C. life kicked in, and four of the five families moved back south. Among us since our years in D.C., we have lived in eight cities, had 12 children now ranging from 14 to 31, experienced parents’ deaths, lived through a tornado, weathered illnesses and changed jobs more times than I can count.
Girls’ weekend 1999
Today, two of us are in Columbia, one each in Florida, Mississippi and Connecticut. We’ve stayed in touch through the years with girls’ weekends, texts, emails, Facebook, Christmas cards and random overlaps during trips that took us to each others’ current hometowns.
I don’t know if this friendship would have weathered these 30 years if we had all stayed in D.C. We might have ended up living in distant suburban neighborhoods. Kids probably would have gone to different schools. Budding careers could have forced our priorities to change. Time together may have fallen by the wayside.
Maybe it’s the fact that we don’t all live in the same city that has kept this friendship alive. And I am so thankful for that.
As I reflected on the laughter hangover I had for several days after that weekend, I realized those couple of days fell at the intersection of three things that are basic to a happy life – laughter, joy and friendship. We had all three in great abundance for that weekend.
But the question came to my mind: Why was it so easy, when we don’t communicate regularly as a group, to fall into that kind of soul cleansing laughter time after time over the weekend?
First, we were gathered for such a joyful occasion – the first wedding among the children of our supper club group. At the bridesmaid lunch, we seemed to have caused a spectacle with several of the bridesmaids videoing one of our laughing bursts. I’m sure we sounded like a combination of yelping dogs and snorting pigs, but we were oblivious. It happened again in a store, then at lunch the next day. We broke out in laughs numerous times during the wedding reception.
Second, I believe as we’ve aged, we’ve become far less conscious of what others think - both among our little group and in our wider worlds. We’ve all had our own versions of successes and failures. Age has gently nudged us with the gift of being able to say exactly what we are thinking and allows us to be ourselves …  but more importantly, to laugh at ourselves.
That reminded me of a quote from one of my favorite writers, Brene Brown, who described laugher in this way in The Gifts of Imperfection: Laughter is a spiritual form of communing; without words we can say to one another ‘I’m with you, I get it’ knowing laughter embodies the relief and connection we experience when we realize the power of sharing our stories - we’re not laughing at each other but with each other.”
Then a couple of days later, I was reading an interview with another of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott, and she mentioned a quote from one of her earlier books, Plan B.
“Laughter is like carbonated holiness,” she wrote.
Yep. That was the perfect way to describe this intersection of laughter, joy and friendship we experienced. Our laughter was carbonated holiness connecting us that weekend ... the blessing of holiness amped up by the bubbly, tingly, fizzy carbonation of laughter.
At the wedding reception that weekend, I watched all the young folks who had come from far away to celebrate the marriage of their friends. They probably haven’t considered the possibility that these friendships could fall away as they age, move, have kids.
My wish for the young people … particularly the young women gathered for this happy wedding … is they would be blessed by this same kind of friendship I’ve found with these four friends. 
You don't have to see each other, talk or text every day. But you can pick up exactly where you left off last time ... in the middle of the best-ever belly laughs that bless us with giddy, giggling carbonated holiness.