Out and Back: Coming Home

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Meadow Creek Trail, Lily Pad Lake toward Frisco, Colorado

When you hike, do you like loop trails or out-and-back trails better?

What metaphors for life can you make from hiking?

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Ptarmigan Trail, outbound, Silverthorne, Colorado

Out and Back

I used to think out and back trails would be boring.  What’s so great about getting to the end of a path and then going back the way you came?  Wouldn’t it be tedious and redundant?

But the more hikes I take, the more I realize how valuable it is to retrace my steps, especially on the trails with big elevation gain and diverse landscape.  The same path, going uphill and then downhill, heading north at daybreak then south at mid-day, is a vastly divergent experience.  It is a concrete, tangible exercise in perspective, if ever there were one.

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Ptarmigan Trail, looking toward trailhead from same point as above

Looping

On a loop trail, you get to decide at the outset the way you will go.  If you choose clockwise, you miss out on the counterclockwise experience—until next time, perhaps, when you get to choose it.  Or maybe you always go the same way?  That feels safe—you know what’s coming, perhaps?  But on any trail, especially in the high country, you just never know what you’ll encounter.  Time of day, time of year, recent events (wildfire, thunderstorm) all alter the path—you could actually never walk the same trail twice—whether it’s out and back (hereafter abbreviated “OAB”) or a loop.

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Meadow Creek Trail again

In life, do/can we ever really go back?  I’m reminded of the quote attributed to Heraclitus:

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

Whether you choose OAB or a loop, when you arrive at the trailhead again, is it the same as when you started?  Are you?  And regardless, why hike in the first place?  What does it do for you, what do you gain?  Why step out from where you live every day, all the time?

Here’s what insightful writers I’m reading lately have to say about it:

John Gardner, in Self-Renewal:  “As the years go by we view our familiar surroundings with less and less freshness of perception.  We no longer look with a wakeful, perceiving eye at the face of people we see every day, nor at any other features of our everyday world…  That is why travel is a vivid experience for most of us.  At home we have lost the capacity to see what is before us.  Travel shakes us out of our apathy, and we regain an attentiveness that heightens every experience.”

John O’Donohue, in Anam Cara:  “Hegel said, ‘Das Bekannte überhaupt ist darum, weil es bekannt ist, nicht erkannt’–that is, ‘Generally, the familiar, precisely because it is familiar, is not known.’ This is a powerful sentence. Behind the facade of the familiar, strange things await us. This is true of our homes, the place where we live, and, indeed, of those with whom we live. Friendships and relationships suffer immense numbing through the mechanism of familiarization. We reduce the wildness and mystery of person and landscape to the external, familiar image. Yet the familiar is merely a facade. Familiarity enables us to tame, control, and ultimately forget the mystery. We make our peace with the surface as image and we stay away from the Otherness and fecund turbulence of the unknown that it masks. Familiarity is one of the most subtle and pervasive forms of human alienation.”

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West Overlook, Ridge Trail, Dillon, Colorado

When patients see me for their annual exams, I imagine it can feel tedious and redundant.  But it’s always fresh and interesting for me, because I haven’t seen or heard from them in a year.  And I’m continuously learning, so I often have new questions and queries to apply.  They may not think much of the past year, it goes by so fast; I get to be their fresh eyes, and lend them new lenses.  What’s the most interesting thing that happened to you since we last met?  What do you want to focus on this day we are together?  When you look back at your life a year from now, what do you want to see and say about it?  I feel like a ranger at the common trailhead of inifinite paths, checking in with my hikers as they loop and retrace their ways back to me, stopping to debrief before getting back on the road of living and growth, of evolution and development.

Mei lakeside July

Chicago, IL

Homecoming

I was born in Evanston, Illinois, when my dad was doing his PhD at Northwestern University.  We moved to Colorado when I was six, and for as long as I can remember, I have considered that state to be my true home.  I go back every chance I get; I savor it, relish it, drink it in with fervor.  When I return to Chicago, where I have lived for all but those 12 formative years before I came (back) to NU for college, it’s always with a gnawing reluctance, even a little resentment.  I never call it ‘coming home.’  Last night when I arrived at my house after a week in the Colorado Rockies, I did feel myself relax, ready to settle into life as usual.  But I still longed to be home for good—back in Colorado—my only real home.

That perspective changed today.

These last days I have thought deeply about my life path.  I’ve really only lived in these two places, these vastly different places.  Until this morning I thought of my OAB trailhead unequivocally as Littleton, Colorado, where I grew up.  My plan is still to go back for good someday.  But this morning on the way to church, as I crossed the intersection onto the NU campus, I felt at home.  We left our house late and drove through a thunderstorm to get there, and like a flash of lightning, I recalled when I came for my campus visit in the fall of my senior year of high school.  It had also rained cats and dogs that whole weekend.  But I’m pretty sure I wrote to friends at the time that it felt like coming home.  I was born here after all.  It is my dad’s and my alma mater.  I met my husband here during New Student Week my freshman year.  I’ve brought my kids here since they were born.  Our church here is my spiritual home, no question.

We were late today, arriving toward the end of the homily, in the chapel across the street, as ours is being renovated.  From the back, I first saw the silhouette.  Then I heard the voice.  Then I listened to the words—always words of connection, truth, service, and love.  I was overcome with emotion when I realized: It was Father Ken, director of our church from my sophomore year until I first became a mom.  He led my RCIA class for confirmation.  He nurtured my early adult development as only a pastor could, and has known me through inspiration as well as struggle.  I have only seen him rarely since he left, and missed his calming, comforting presence. Seeing him and hearing his homily today made it suddenly crystal clear to me: This, Chicago and my life here, are also my home, wholly and without question.

I can claim and love both—the places, the people, the cultures, the memories.  The mountains and also the lake; where my parents made their life and also where my kids are growing up.  Colorado is not the same now as when I left in 1991.  Chicago is not the same today as it will be when I finally return to Colorado.  Which is the Out and which is the Back?  Doesn’t matter.  Finally, after all this time feeling conflicted and divided, I really am home.

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Dillon Reservoir, Dillon, Colorado

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.

* * * * *

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/

Our 5 Fundamental Needs

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To Feel:

 

Seen

Look what I can do

This is how I can contribute

See me achieve

 

Heard

Hear my concerns

Take me into account

 

Understood

Validate me

Normalize my feelings

Say you can relate

 

Accepted

Tell me I belong

 

Loved

Participate in the Messy with me

Commit to sticking with me through the hard shit

Let me be my whole self with you

Be your whole self with me

 

Children by parents

Patients by doctors

Students by teachers

Workers by managers

The led by their leaders

Spouses

Friends

 

What if?

 

 

The Status of Women, 1999-2019

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What happens for men when women speak Feminism?

I intend to ask this question to more men in my life from now on.  What do you hear as Feminism?  Where do you think it comes from?  What do you think women are trying to accomplish by talking about equity and representation?  What moves a man to ally with women in this movement?  What keeps him from doing so?  What are the risks, costs, and benefits for us all when he does and does not?

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Women in Sports

The US Women have just won their fourth World Cup Soccer title, kicking balls and ass, I like to say.  What an accomplishment, and how far they’ve come since winning the first ever Women’s World Cup in 1991, the year I graduated high school.  I don’t follow soccer, but as an American woman, this victory carries meaning for me.  At halftime this morning I read about Brandi Chastain, the 1999 US World Cup champion midfielder who famously, spontaneously, took off her jersey in unadulterated celebration after firing the winning penalty kick in double overtime against China to win it all.  The New York Times featured her story yesterday, commenting on the evolution of our perceptions and treatment of female athletes over these 20 years:

In that pivotal moment of arrival for women’s team sports in the United States and around the world, viewers saw Chastain removing her jersey and twirling it like a lariat, spinning around and falling to her knees, pumping her arms in exultant triumph. What resulted was perhaps the most iconic photograph ever taken of a female athlete, a depiction of pure spontaneous joy.

It was a moment of freedom and liberation, Marlene Bjornsrud, a longtime women’s coach and an influential sports executive, once told me. She called it a “casting off the burden of everything that kept us down and said, ‘You can’t do that because you are a woman.’ It was a moment that screamed, ‘Yes, I can.’”

Title IX was signed into law by President Nixon in 1972, one year before I was born.  So I took it for granted that girls could play sports just like boys in school—not every sport, but most.  I also took for granted the inherent assumptions about women in athletics—that we cannot be as fast, as strong, or as competitive as men.  I have so much more appreciation now for icons like Billy Jean King, Martina Navratilova, and Pat Summitt. I think about the WNBA, and women coaching in the NBA, NHL, and NFL, and I marvel at how far we have come.  Take a look at this timeline of women’s sports in the US to get a fuller perspective.  I know many will say we have a long way yet to go.  But today, let us joyfully celebrate all that we have accomplished already.  Wahoo!! [fist bump and dancing woman emojis]

 

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Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery, January 2012

Women at Work

I’m thinking about the culture of orthopaedic surgery.  In the twenty years since I graduated from medical school, I see more and more women in this field (as well as other surgical specialties), which makes me proud.  While women comprise only 5% of practicing orthopaedic surgeons, 15% of American orthopaedic residents are now women, which is roughly double the percentage in 1999.  But what’s it like to be a woman in orthopaedics?  How do these women present, perhaps differently, at work compared to in their personal lives?  Is it truly safe for them to be themselves as surgeons?  The American Orthopaedic Association held their annual meeting recently.  My orthopod friend returned from the conference and commented that the rare women leaders in his field seem ‘fierce’ and ‘tough’—but in a good way?  It struck him to wonder if they are just like that in general, or do they have to be that way to navigate their male-dominated specialty.  He wondered how they would be seen if they displayed sensitivity and emotion, “because a man can be seen as sensitive and kind” and not only does it cost him nothing, his social status is likely to be elevated because of it.  My friend was not sure this is the case for his female colleagues, and he seemed both empathetic and powerless at the idea.  Looks like gender parity may take a bit longer in medicine than in sports.

At work in general, women’s status varies considerably.  But research points to common issues such a 22% pay gap and too few women in leadership (5% of US corporate CEOs), though these are improving.  One need not look far for abundant evidence that having more women on the corporate team improves earnings and morale.  Much is also written on strategies for improving gender equity at work.  Two of my favorites are exit interviews and work-life balance initiatives for all employees, not just women.  But as I wrote last week, it’s not just about including women as participants in the workforce.  It’s about truly appreciating the diversity of experience, biology, and contribution that women bring to any group they serve.

 

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Women and Men

There is no way I can do justice to this topic in the remainder of this post.  So let me just share some ideas and resources I will continue to explore in the months and years to come.

I asked at the beginning what happens for men when women speak Feminism.  A corollary question is what happens for all of us when we hear the words ‘toxic masculinity’?  My guess is men get defensive and women get aggressive.  Personally I love the phrase because it’s so incisively descriptive.  But it can also be a flashpoint phrase, one that immediately incites conflict and emotional hijack.  Let me be clear: toxic masculinity does not imply that men and manhood are toxic by nature.  Quite the contrary, the phrase refers to a culture of expectations of men that is just as toxic for men as it is for women.  Male surgeons may well benefit from being sensitive and kind, but not too much so, lest they be seen as weak.  This is a vast oversimplification, by the way; the history and complexity of toxic masculinity are explored articulately here.

Readers of this blog know how much I love Brené Brown.  Her explanations of how shame (where toxic masculinity is born) manifests and organizes around gender—and why it is toxic for both men and women–are the most poignant and real.  Read her first hand comments to Ms. magazine here, and a stay-at-home dad writer’s interpretation of them here.  If you seek a nonjudgmental, objective, and real-life exploration of the complex dynamics between men and women, read The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly.  Sister (she’s not old enough to be Aunt) Brené’s books are the most accessible form of evidence-based, all-around relationship advice I have ever read, and I’m so grateful for her.  From the Ms. Interview:

What role do you think vulnerability played in the #MeToo movement?

Know what I love about the #MeToo movement?—and, me too—I thought until I was 25 or 30, that sexual harassment was just the price of entry.  The greatest casualty of trauma is the ability to be vulnerable. So this #MeToo movement is re-defining and re-claiming vulnerability, and putting vulnerability in the context it belongs in, which is power and courage. 

 What gives you hope?

The thing that scares me about the world today is the same thing that gives me hope. I believe we’re witnessing white male power over. It’s making its last stand right now. And it’s scary because last stands are dangerous, and people get very backed into a corner. I think this is the last stand, and that we’re going to see a shift, mercifully, from white male power to inclusive power with it too. And I think from that paradigm, we can do anything, change anything, and be anything. 

And it’s not just women who can claim agency against misogyny and sexism.  Men who identify as feminists serve as allies for gender equity and respect.  But men can also help themselves and each other break free from the restraints of machismo and chauvinism.  Movements like The Good Men Project and Evryman give men a forum for honest, vulnerable emotional expression and connection.  Just like women surgeons and corporate executives, all men need inclusive spaces where they can feel true belonging, where they are free to be all of themselves—hard emotions and all—for all our sakes.

Men I admire in this space include Nate Green, Ozan Varol, and David Brooks.

* * * * *

To lift my spirits here at the end of this long post, I’m listening to a song on repeat: Woman, Amen by Dierks Bentley.  It’s such a shining anthem of a man’s unabashed love and appreciation for his partner.  I can also imagine modifying the lyrics and hearing Faith Hill singing about her man Tim McGraw.

Thanks for reading to the end, friends.

Our relationships kill us or save us, and we really need to be better at taking care of each other, locally and globally.  We, men and women alike, are all in this together, inextricably, in sickness and in health, forever.

Only Love can save us.  Let’s get on it.

 

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.