The Loving and Entwined Life

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“Love and friendship dissolve the rigidities of the isolated self, force new perspectives, alter judgments and keep in working order the emotional substratum on which all profound comprehension of human affairs must rest.”

John W. Gardner, Self-Renewal, 1963

 

How often do you take a breath, take a moment, and reflect on the deep, thick connections that hold you up?

I say over and again that our relationships kill us or save us.  But it’s not merely relationships that save us, it’s connection.  I named this blog honestly!  John O’Donohue writes in Anam Cara, “We need more resonant words to mirror this than the tired word relationship.  Phrases like ‘an ancient circle closes’ or ‘an ancient belonging awakens and discovers itself’ help to bring out the deeper meaning and mystery of encounter…  Two people who are really awakened inhabit the one circle of belonging.  They have awakened a more ancient force around them that will hold them together and mind them.”

Friends really do take you further.

This past week I finished listening to David Brooks’s latest book, The Second Mountain.  I highly recommend it.  He makes a critical and compassionate assessment of the current state of society, what he refers to as a severely torn social fabric.  We are dangerously, existentially disconnected.

David Blankenhorn and Bill Doherty, co-founders of Better Angels, see the same, and seek specifically to address our perilous political polarization.  Last Saturday I attended their workshop to help us depolarize from within our own political tribes.  The goal of the organization and each workshop is to depolarize, not to convert. The method is communication to connect, not to convince.  Both Brooks and Better Angels seek to strengthen our most meaningful ties to one another.  In Brooks’s words, about his new organization, Weave: “The Weaver movement is repairing our country’s social fabric, which is badly frayed by distrust, division and exclusion. People are quietly working across America to end loneliness and isolation and weave inclusive communities. Join us in shifting our culture from hyper-individualism that is all about personal success, to relationalism that puts relationships at the center of our lives.”

*****

On Tuesday I returned to my desk after a productive and gratifying work meeting, to read that Toni Morrison had died.  I was overcome with sadness, which surprised me.  I have never read any of her acclaimed novels.  I was not a follower, per se.  But I felt a loss as if I had known her personally.  I think it’s because she had a profound influence on one of the most important aspects of my life, early in my kids’ lives, with just a single verbal expression.

“When your child walks in the room, does your face light up?”

Morrison told Oprah in 2000:

“When my children used to walk in the room, when they were little, I looked at them to see if they had buckled their trousers or if their hair was combed or if their socks were up.  You think your affection and your deep love is on display because you’re caring for them. It’s not. When they see you, they see the critical face. But if you let your face speak what’s in your heart…because when they walked in the room, I was glad to see them. It’s just as small as that, you see.”

It’s so small and simple, and yet it alters the entire encounter, every time.  More and more I understand in my limbic brain, the part of the mind where we humans make meaning and where our decisions and actions originate, that it is how we are with people that matters, far more than what we say or what we do.  The majority of communication is non-verbal.  Morrison’s description of a parent’s facial expression, and the profound effect it has on a child, applies to all relationships and connections, or disconnections, for that matter.  It was not until she died that I realized how far her influence really reached in my life.  And it felt suddenly, unexpectedly, too late to thank her for it.

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So whose face lights up when they see you?

Whose presence awakens you and invites you to ‘inhabit the one circle of belonging’?

I recently made a list of these people in my life.  It is gratifyingly long, and growing.  It started with my mom.  I’m embarrassed that I did not notice overtly before now, and my gratitude cannot be adequately expressed in words.  I imagine she got it from my grandmother, one of the people I have admired most in the entire world.  I have met the others, my Counsel of Wisdom, my pit crew, throughout my life, from age 12 to only a couple years ago.  They are my Kalyana-mitra, or “noble friend”s, as O’Donohue describes them:  They “will not accept pretension but will gently and very firmly confront you with your own blindness.  No one can see his life totally.  As there is a blind spot in the retina of the human eye, there is also in the soul a blind side where you are not able to see.  Therefore you must depend on the one you love to see for you what you cannot see for yourself.  Your Kalyana-mitra complements your vision in a kind and critical way.  Such friendship is creative and critical; it is willing to negotiate awkward and uneven territories of contradiction and woundedness.”

In Self-Renewal, John Gardner takes this idea from the personal friendship to society:  “A tradition of vigorous criticism is essential to the renewal of a society.  A nation is not helped much by citizens whose love for their country leads them to shield it from life-giving criticism.  But neither is it helped much by critics without love, skilled in demolition but unskilled in the arts by which human institutions are nurtured and strengthened and made to flourish.  Neither uncritical lovers nor unloving critics make for the renewal of societies.”

David Brooks expresses the same in Second Mountain:  “Truth without love is harshness; love without truth is sentimentality.”  In her book Insight, Tasha Eurich suggests methods and exercises for engaging with our ‘loving critics,’ in service of improving honest and loving self-awareness, connection, and leadership.

Mesler book window

I have two goals this week on vacation:  Hike and read.

I brought Anam Cara by John O’Donohue, Self-Renewal by John W. Gardner, and What Moves at the Margins, a collection of Toni Morrison’s eloquent and important nonfiction writing.  Little did I know that the ideas in these books, read concurrently by cosmic accident (or more likely by divine inspiration), would weave in meaning with one another, as well as with my deepest and most meaningful life lessons to date.  How rewarding and awe-inspiring!

I pray today that my ‘soul’ and ‘noble friends’ know how much I appreciate their presence, guidance, support, and love; and that I may come even remotely close to serving them similarly.  May we all look to bless one another with our own souls every day.

Friends Take You Further

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Holy cow, friends!

This weekend marked the most ambitious cooking endeavor ever attempted in my kitchen!  I don’t know how I agreed to it, really…  I sat at our usual brunch with one of my oldest church friends, a fellow Chinese-American, and suddenly we had a plan to get a bunch of people together at my house to make potstickers, sticky rice bombs (zhong zi), ma tai soo, and stir fried bok choyat the same time.  [Insert Home Alone face here.]

My kids have severe seafood and egg allergies, and our fun new church friends don’t eat mammals, so we had to modify the recipes, each in different ways, and vigilantly avoid cross-contamination, all in an acutely crowded space.  We ended up doing ga li jiao (curry beef pastry) filling, but with chicken, in the ma tai soo instead of shrimp and pork.  I made separate chicken and pork potsticker fillings with dong gu mushrooms, napa cabbage, fresh ginger and garlic, soy sauce, and sesame oil.  And for the rice bombs, the wrapping staff segregated pork-chicken-salted duck egg, egg-free, and pork-free versions, put to boil in separate pots for 3-4 hours.  We invited my sister and brother-in-law, and at the last minute my daughter’s preschool classmate and his mom, our dear friends for the past decade.  It was joyfully rè nào, as we say in Mandarin.

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My church friend did all of the grocery shopping and overnight prep of soaking glutinous rice, dried mushrooms and bamboo leaves, and meat marinating—both bird and mammal.  She brought her food scale, rolling pin, steaming pot, chef’s knife—basically most of her own kitchen—and drove an hour across town to my house.  Sister and BIL came bearing chocolate cake and soft drinks, and school friend mom brought her knife-wielding and rolling pin skills.  Husband weaved between us all, cleaning and washing—we ran the dishwasher twice.  Because that’s the thing about Chinese food—everything had to be rinsed, washed, soaked, seasoned, chopped, shredded, minced, mixed, kneaded, rolled, wrapped, arranged, fried, boiled, steamed, and baked!

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Is it any wonder that I experienced more than a little anxiety and possibly moderate panic at the prospect?  Not only am I the queen of shortcut cooking (I use store bought potsticker wrappers and pie crust rather than make my own dough—and most of the time I just buy ready-to-cook dumplings), but for some time now I have dubbed my house The Pigsty of Entropy for good reason…  One whole segment of counter space had not seen the light of day in over a year, buried under more and more Idon’tevenknowwhat.  Two nights ago I simply moved that pile to a paper box, to be organized later, and wiped the well-preserved Corian surface.  I had to leave the rest of the place as-is, counting on guests to focus their attention on the food more than their ridiculously cluttered surroundings.  My primary reassurance was that if the project failed, we could always order pizza.

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In the end, though, the gathering was a raging success.  A bright summer sun shone through the big windows from the west.  Everyone arrived happy and ready to participate.  And we had very reasonable expectations for the outcome—namely that taste and company mattered ‘way more than presentation (but it all looked pretty good!).  Conversation topics ranged widely and laughter punctuated questions about ingredients and procedures.  I found the vegetable chopping rhythmic and satisfying, and I even developed a double-fisted-chopstick mixing method that could rival any Kitchen Aid—someone just had to hold the bowl for me.  We planned the order of activities such that the three main courses would be ready to eat at the same time—and then we feasted with “Crazy Rich Asians” playing in the background.

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The oblong ma tai soo were made in a pig mold, but bloated beyond recognition in the oven.

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What would you never have done if your friend had not invited (instigated) you?  How do your friends’ confidence and experience hold you up when you try something new?  How can we nudge and support our own friends to step out of their comfort zones?  Besides cooking, what other skills can we love our friends into acquiring?

I already anticipate our next audacious culinary event—menu suggestions, please?

As I look around at all the people in my life, my myriad meaningful and thick connections, I am overwhelmed with gratitude and humility.  This weekend filled my belly and my heart.  Thank you, my dear friends and family.

 

Agency and Emergence

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When do you push forward, and when do you step back?

How do you decide, or is it decided for you?

How does this reciprocal rhythm oscillate and dance in your life?

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Modern western culture tells individuals and organizations alike: Grow! Move! Push! –Or die!  Competition and scarcity dominate the collective psyche, if not consciously then subconsciously, no question.  Even on vacation we are pressured to do something socially noteworthy, lest we have nothing to report upon return.  There is a palpable, frenetic, explicit and implicit drive—to keep driving.  I’m not complaining, necessarily.  Growth, innovation, evolution, improvement, advancement, development—I pursue these with as much fervor as anyone.  It has served me well!  My whole life the hard work (and a lot of luck) has paid off in spades, in school, work, and now leadership in multiple realms.  I have accomplished as much as I could have imagined at this age, and I’m just getting started!  How exciting and rewarding, living a life of audacious acceleration, of claiming agency, of “Yes, AND!”

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Tara Donovan, Chicago IL July 2019

Yet, lately I feel another energy emerging.  It came on unexpectedly, and I welcome it like my oldest friend.

I only realized it as I wrote about ‘Aunt Rachel,’ Dr. Rachel Remen, last month.  “I am called to slow down, to be still, more than I have been (have allowed?), for a very long time,” I wrote, quite spontaneously.  Those words forelighted a month of ‘settling and recharging… awareness and fulfillment,’ as I wrote to my friend, when I realized what was happening.  This meta-awareness always fills me with awe and gratitude, as if the cosmos lets me in on a secret, conspiring to prepare me for what lies ahead. Remen’s My Grandfather’s Blessings reminds me of the importance of human connection at the deepest level.  Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert makes me confident and brave to create, to make things to share, like this blog or a new oral presentation.  The Art of Possibility helps me dig deep, in a different way every time I reread it, for fundamental relational skills when I need them the most.

The week I wrote about Aunt Rachel, Maria Popova’s post on friendship as rendered by Kahlil Gibran crossed my email inbox.  The Prophet was one of my favorite books in high school.  I found it moving, inspiring, and reassuring, like a lovingly personal counselor, in those emotionally tumultuous adolescent times.  Popova’s post brought that comfort back, similar to how Remen’s book did in recent weeks.  I felt compelled to follow her sequential links to writings by Seneca, CS Lewis, David Whyte, and John O’Donohue, all on friendship.  She quotes Seneca, the stoic: “Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship; but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul. Speak as boldly with him as with yourself…”  Something within me was deeply moved, activated to seek more.

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Tara Donovan, Chicago, IL, July 2019

How fascinating, what is with this fresh call on my attention?  I’m not sure, but I trust it fully, and have embraced it.  I found To Bless the Space Between Us by John O’Donohue, a book of the most eloquent blessings, and Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment, and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words by David Whyte.  Both books quench my thirst for beautiful language that articulates the deep longing for meaning and connection, with myself as well as with others.  They call to me.

Between caring for patients, leading work teams, proposing new projects, LOH training, speaking engagements, wife-ing, parenting and friending, life could hardly be more challenging or fulfilling (I should also call my parents more often!).  I see every meeting, every letter, every message as a chance to show up all in, fully present, at my best.  To be my Best Self in all realms, I push myself to learn, practice, and excel, to exercise my agency in service of relationships and connection.  So sometimes the universe approaches me lovingly, jogging alongside, inviting me to slow down.  Take a break, he says, enjoy the view.  Soak it in.  Relish how far you’ve come, what you’ve built thus far.  Breathe deep, stretch out.  Rest a while.  What do you see, she asks, how does it feel? What have you learned, they say, what can you synthesize and integrate, before you march on with resolve and conviction once again, in the direction of your biggest dreams?

The word pairs below emerged, with a little nudging, over the past week.  I see them not as dichotomies, not at all in conflict.  Rather, they are each separate and inextricable sides of the same multifaceted polyhedron of life, necessary counterbalances for a healthy, fulfilling, and meaningful existence.  I started wearing my Yin-Yang ring in January.  It is meant to remind me that opposites are more often complementary than oppositional.  Our society values agency over emergence.  We endorse doing ahead of holding.  But practicing emergence is by no means passive, weak, or unproductive.  It is active, enthusiastic participation in the dance of life, the reciprocal movement of ebb and flow.  Childbirth and heartbeat are quintessential examples of the balance of Agency and Emergence, giving and receiving, contracting and relaxing.

What other word pairs would you add?

I commit to fully inhabiting, savoring this deliberate time and open space, however long it lasts.  Energy will shift again, as it always does.  I have the next self-improvement books and task lists in queue.  I’ll get on the blocks again, ready for the starting gun, soon enough.  But for now, I breathe deeply and look around in appreciation and learning.

 

   Agency                           Emergence

Control                             Relation

        Action                          Observation

Power                        Capacity

Acceleration                          Momentum

      Focus                         Zoom Out

Contraction                       Relaxation

Tightening                      Stretching

Exhale (blow)                     Inhale (smell)

  Intention                        Possibility

  Strength                        Elasticity

Telling                        Asking

             Make this happen                         What’s trying to happen?

            Tap the system                       Watch it spin a while

               Grip                        Hold loosely

Drive                      Ride

Take up space                          Hold space

Yang                     Yin

  Heartbeat

  Childbirth

The exhibit where I took the art photos:  https://smartmuseum.uchicago.edu/exhibitions/tara-donovan-fieldwork/

Aunt Rachel’s Blessings

My friends, it’s been an intense couple of weeks!  So much so that I have fully neglected the news headlines—this must be why I’m still in a reasonably good mood.  Another is that I have rediscovered Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, the wise and benevolent matron of medicine whose gentle and gracious example I aspire to follow.

I first read her books, Kitchen Table Wisdom and My Grandfather’s Blessings, at least ten years ago by now.  They felt like my favorite plush blanket, draped over my shoulders with that welcome, comforting weight, and tucked under my feet, warming me with stories of love and belonging.  Life was just as hectic then as today, but in a different way.  The kids were little, and I had few if any responsibilities at work outside of patient care.  Aunt Rachel’s stories calmed me and gave me peace in that young chaos.  I had meant to reread them, but, well, life.

I perused the shelves and stacks of my personal library recently, searching for a book that my friend might like.  Both avid readers, we share and discuss titles on leadership, philosophy, and personal development.  The search this day felt different from browsing Amazon or my local book store.  A deeper part of me knew exactly what I sought for my friend, even as my conscious mind had only a vague idea.  I wanted to share something different with him, something less cerebral.  As soon as I saw it, I settled on My Grandfather’s Blessings, no question.  But after a day or two, as often happens with instantaneous intuitive decisions, I did question.  So I sat down with Aunt Rachel and her grandfather one evening, as if meeting old friends in the squishy armchairs of a cozy, familiar café.  After some years of listening to books rather than reading them, I find quiet sitting with a paper book so comforting now.  I am called to slow down, to be still, more than I have been (have allowed?), for a very long time.

By page two of the introduction, my doubts vaporized.  This is it, I thought.  Stories of humanity, history, culture, medicine, healing, perspective, and how we humans are intertwined with one another and nature in the most beautiful and cosmic, inescapable and daunting ways.  As I reread her grandfather’s wise sayings, his subtle yet unmistakable messages of reassurance and unconditional love, that familiar warmth enveloped me again.  I could almost feel my blood pressure drop and my oxytocin level rise.

So much love and connection—the book is really all about relationships, which my friend and I both hold as the key to a meaningful life.  As I continue to read this week, it occurs to me that perhaps I was not actually looking for a book for my friend, but rather for myself.  For many years I have hunted ravenously for books to teach me, to elevate my performance in parenting, doctoring, leading.  But Aunt Rachel’s books simply soothe me.  They acknowledge and give credence to that still small voice that advocates and validates the need for deep personal connection, in a world that values it less and less.

I wonder if reading Aunt Rachel’s books so early in my career helped me more than I knew.  Looking back on the past decade, I feel proud to have resisted the pressure of 15 minute clinic visits, to have made the effort to relate as personally as I could with every patient, even if my bids were rejected.  Aunt Rachel’s books honor that heart center in me that holds true to what I value the most, which is connection with people.  Perhaps I have her to thank for watering the strongest, deepest roots of my doctor soul before they could dry up and later require excavation to revive?

I still think my friend will enjoy Aunt Rachel’s book.  Her stories resonate with the humanity in all of us, not just doctors and patients.  I look forward to hearing his feedback, and finding more books to share.  And I must remember to bless our friendship.

May we all acknowledge and share the blessings in our lives, every chance we get.

Thanks, Ba

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Today I sat stewing a long while over what to write.  Too many ideas, all intertwined, tangled, and amorphous.  It’s been an intense week of learning and introspection, and I’m happy to have some quiet down time.  Hubs and son went to Colorado for a quick weekend getaway, and I got to FaceTime with them briefly while they drove with my dad to the mall before heading to the airport for the flight back.  These, the three most important men in my life, all in one place—suddenly I felt moved to say thanks to the dads—Happy Father’s Day, of course!

When we think of dads and their special place in our lives, can we not help but realize the gravity of their job?  Let’s not kid ourselves, no dad is perfect.  But if we assume each does the best he can, we should really start to appreciate how they shape our lives.  At their best, they protect us, model our core values and how to be in the world, and prepare us to launch successfully into that world with conviction.  They seem also to possess inherent knowledge on how cars, garage doors, and water heaters work—what is up with that?

Much is written on why boys need strong male role models.  But we girls need them, too—dads are key to all kids’ success.  My dad immigrated to the US as an engineering graduate student in 1970.  He taught me how to be assertive, honest, direct, articulate, and confident–all the things he had to be.  Because of him I can stand tall (all 5’2” of me) in a room full of men and know without question that I can hold my own.  I can meet my senior corporate executive male patients not just with my MD and expertise, but with the self-assurance that a lifetime of verbal sparring with a powerful mental coach has provided.  Because of Ba I am precise, intentional, and sure with my words.  [I got my diplomacy from my mom, but that’s another post.]  I would not be the person I am today without my dad.  It’s not at all that Hallmark commercial mush and goo (we are Chinese, are you kidding?), and we have certainly had our differences.  But I do not question his absolute, unconditional, and infinite love, and I know he felt it from my grandfather before him.  Hou-Ping Cheng of the Greatest Generation was, by the way, a Renaissance man.  He traveled to the United States as a young adult in the early 20th Century, learned English, returned only to flee communist China after World War II, then rose to teach at university and lead infrastructure projects in my parents’ hometown in Taiwan.  I think his father was a surgeon (will have to check with Ba on that one).  I come from a long line of strong male role models, so voilà, how could I not be a successful, 21st Century, Chinese-American mama doc?

Healthy relationships evolve and mature with time, and parent-child relationships are no exception.  Kids appreciate when parents can admit their flaws and own their mistakes.  Parents appreciate when kids acknowledge that we really are here doing our best.  Apologies and forgiveness heal wounds great and small.  I don’t do everything the way my parents did it, and I expect my kids will do things differently still.  But what I really hope never changes through the generations, is that every kid in our family, no matter how old, feels loved through and through.

Ba, you have succeeded.  Congratulations and thank you!

 

 

How Reunions Feed Us

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It was July 1997.

Maria C. and I had just started our third year of medical school, rotating on general surgery.  We stood on evening rounds–it was already dark outside on this balmy summer night.  The hospital hallway was quiet and half the lights were off.  We visited a little old lady who had had surgery in the prior days.  She looked frail, but also like she had been spry once.  Her lips protruded the way my grandmother’s did when she took her dentures out at night.  She wore a round fuchsia sleeping bonnet, a little askew atop her head.  She looked half asleep, barely aware of our presence, and had slid down in the bed such that the pillow and blankets had effectively swallowed her.

We were tired, Maria and I.  It was not a fun rotation for me.  I had witnessed our attending throw a bloody sponge across the OR that month.  He was not particularly interested in us, I don’t recall any direct teaching (but there could have been), and the sleep deprivation was killing me.  But I had Maria.  She always had a smile, always an encouraging word, and she loved surgery.  Her energy held me up.  We stood dutifully, trying our best to pay attention and learn something.

As we listened to the discussion of the nice lady’s plan of care, suddenly I heard a loud, resonant, and prolonged PPPPPPPTHTHTHTHAAAAAARRRRRRRRTTTT.   Our somnolent charge had just passed the longest breath of colon gas I had ever heard, before or since.  And it didn’t phase anybody.  The team continued to discuss her plan of care as if nothing had happened.  I don’t know, maybe they were encouraged, as flatulence is the first step to oral feeds and eventual discharge after abdominal surgery.  They forged on without acknowledgement.  I wondered if I had imagined it.  But when I caught Maria’s eye, within seconds we could both barely contain ourselves.  Maybe we were just slap happy from too little sleep, or we just needed something to break the tension.  But it was too much, we had to step out.  Back out in the dim hallway we laughed out loud as quietly as we could, to the point of gasping for breath, hanging onto the wall and each other to keep from falling down.  Even today, 22 years later, I cannot help but smile at that moment.  Either we went back inside after composing ourselves, or the team emerged eventually, I don’t remember.  Rounds continued and I tucked away this little memory as one of the best bonding experiences of all my years in training.

*****

The Class of 1999 returned to The University of Chicago this past weekend to celebrate 20 years since graduation.  I had only signed up for a couple events, in my usual non-committal way.  I arrived at the breakfast venue, a building that did not exist when we were students.  I glanced over at the tables and saw only people much older than me, and my heart sank a little.  Where were my peeps?  Then at a back table an old friend stood up and waved, and my spirits lifted instantly.  We ate and laughed, and shared photos and anecdotes of surly teenagers at home.  As I had made no other plans that day, I met people again for lunch and we walked through campus, which I had not done in years.  The peonies in the quad burst with color and fullness, welcoming us all back.

I’m so proud of our class.  We are general internists and pediatricians, hospitalists, cardiologists, allergists, emergency medicine doctors, and orthopaedic surgeons.  We do neurologic interventional radiology, microvascular plastic surgery, and private equity.  We are medical directors, section chiefs, and NIH researchers; we teach medical students, residents, fellows and colleagues.  We advocate for immigrant health and lead international research teams to win the war on disease.  We are parents of toddlers and college students, single, married, and divorced.  But mostly we are just older versions of our younger selves, in love with the science of medicine and driven by something deeper within to care for our fellow humans, relieve suffering, and make the world better for our having lived.  This weekend gave us the opportunity to reconnect deeply on that level, to recall and relive those bonding memories tucked away all these years.  I had a chance to catch up with classmates whom I had always wanted to know better in school.  What a blessing.

Our specialties are widely diverse, as are our life experiences, before and since medical school.  But we also share so much in common.  Many of us have had painful experiences as patients or family of patients, and that has impacted our attitudes as physicians.  We collectively recall the stages and transitions of training as both trial and reward.  And everybody has something to say about the current, broken state of American healthcare.  But the overarching feeling of the weekend was camaraderie and love.  Emails poured in from classmates across the country and around the world who could not make it back; I count almost 60/100 of us included in our communications thus far.  We were just waiting for the chance to find one another again.

*****

In our current geopolitical climate of division, competition, and polarization, reunion is the antidote.  In this vital ritual of humanity, we reconnect with those who knew us in a more innocent phase of life, when we bonded through shared struggle, with whom our diversity and shared experience are paradoxically complementary in the best ways.  Our souls are fed by one another, in person, surrounded by food, back at our first professional home.  Relationships long dormant stand revived, and we are lifted.

It occurs to me, in this lovefest of reconnection:  How can we leverage this energy?  What if we could sustain these bonds, reforged and hot in this moment?  If we connected like this more often or regularly, across specialties, geography, and practice structure, how much better could we all be at what we do every day?  How much more empathy could we have for those who don’t do what we do, whom we see as competing for resources or otherwise trying to undermine us?  How would our patients feel in our presence?  Our support staff?  Our hospital leaders?  Gatherings like this prove that we have the capacity to just be together, appreciate one another, and support each other with generosity and grace.  So much potential for positive synergy among this group.

We have big plans for our 25th reunion, but I have a feeling our renewed relationships will find powerful expression long before then.  So stay tuned, my friends.  We are Pritzker Class of 1999, and we’ got work to do.

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A Community of Champions

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Spoiler Alert:  Big Bang Theory Series Finale!

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When was the last time you felt totally safe, at work, to address the central relational challenges that hold you and your team back from your best performance?

How often at work can you really assess and evaluate your own interpersonal skills, their impact on those around you, and on the organization as a whole?

How much time and energy do your teams waste being stymied by relational issues, stuck in redundant, dysfunctional power struggles up and down the organizational hierarchy?

How do you feel in your body just reading these questions?  Perhaps tense and frustrated?

* * * * *

We, the eight participants and two faculty members of Leading Organizations to Health Cohort 11, reported palpable heaviness upon convening for our second training retreat last Tuesday.  Despite the Colorado spring bursting with blooms, wildlife, and vast clear blue skies, dark clouds hung over our collective consciousness, each for our own reasons.  Throughout the week we shared stories of successes, challenges, conflicts, power and powerlessness.  We practiced appreciative inquiry and relational coordination, and explored the insidious impact of unearned privilege.  We spent three days in intense skills training, supporting one another through viscerally gnarly role plays and open, honest feedback about how we impact the group.

In the midst of all this deep work, we also shared meals, walks, a horseback ride, and life stories around a fire pit and drippy s’mores.  As we debriefed around the circle on the last day, something had shifted:  overall we now felt refueled and energized.  The air buzzed with the anticipation of learners on the verge of integrating our emerging skills, excited to bring it all home to practice.  The clouds had parted.  We will keep in touch through peer coaching groups—our newly established, intense-support network.  In my heart, I feel we are really becoming a family.

 

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I headed to the mountains straight from the session, for 24 hours of processing and decompression (and more washi tape card-making).  More and more I marveled at what a rare opportunity I have in LOH, to be led and learn to lead in this relationship-centered way.  For these ten months I am immersed in a professional learning lab, experimenting with different ways of speaking, acting, and being, safe among fellow professionals also grappling with this skill set.  It just does not get any better than this!

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On my way down from the mountains, I listened to an interview with Bonnie St. John on Ozan Varol’s podcast, Famous Failures.  She is the first African-American to win medals in Winter Paralympic competition as a ski racer; she is a lower extremity amputee.  She is also an author, an entrepreneur, and a former member of the Clinton administration.  Her story is inspiring, please take a listen!  At the end of the interview she describes asking a former coach about how he built champions.  He said he never built individual champions; rather, he built communities of champions.  You can only push one person so far, he said; but an allied group of people will hold one another up, push each other harder, make each other better, take one another farther.

That is exactly how I experience LOH—my best self is challenged and called forth in the most loving and professional way.  We hold space for all our struggles, allowing the learnings (epiphanies, in my experience!) to emerge.  It is deeply and literally inspiring.  Though I already do so much of this inner work on my own, there is a profound and unparalleled synergy from learning in this group—we serve as one another’s pit crew for the journey toward our better selves at work and in life.

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Nobody succeeds alone.  In the series finale of The Big Bang Theory (my favorite TV show of all time, which I missed while at LOH!), Sheldon (the obliviously self-centered genius) finally realizes this.  During his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he acknowledges his sudden and profound appreciation for his family and friends, crediting his success to their unconditional love and support, and recognizing them in front of an international audience.  LOH made this finale even more meaningful to me than it already would have been.

It is always through the struggles that we grow.  When struggle together, any and all successes are amplified exponentially.  My nine new friends will make me immeasurably more successful, both professionally and personally, than I would ever be without them.  God bless them all, and may the work we do together ripple out for the benefit of all whose lives we touch.

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