Tag Archives: playing well

Why Our Stories Matter

IMG_5348Matthew Fox, in his autobiography, Confessions: the making of a post-denominational priest, included this quote by Ellie Wiesel, “Whoever survives a test, whatever it may be, must tell the story.” I thank the heavens that Matt took this piece of advice to heart.

Matt and his stories have been instrumental in my professional and personal development over the past twenty years. If the Universe offer us clues where to find needed treasure, it has been far from subtle in urging me to pay attention to this brave and extremely brilliant being. I went to college in Madison, Wisconsin (Matt’s childhood home), was born on December 15th (the day he was famously silenced for a year by Opus Dei), and, although I went to Catholic high school, I was baptized Episcopalian (Matt’s past and current religious affiliation). The clues continue, and I am glad for the consistent nudging!

I want to recommend Matt’s story held in Confessions as we navigate how to fight for what is compassionate and right in these difficult times. Three key approaches in Matt’s life sing truth with me. First, I love his wicked sense of humor! He teaches me how to detach through not taking ourselves or greater tragedies too seriously. Detachment is a core cross-cultural skill for living well. Angeles Arrien described detachment as “caring deeply from an objective place.” Matt cares deeply and has suffered great loss, as you will read in his autobiography. When I first met him in 1998 it was clear how much he loved his Dominican brothers and was adjusting to being recently defrocked for his progressive views on the environment and feminism. The sense of loss was evident, and Matt had me hooked when he said something to the effect, “Five hundred years ago when you were branded as a heretic you were burned at the stake, now,” he added, “your books just sell better.” In his first speech after the year of silence, Matt began, “As I was saying fourteen months ago.… when I was so rudely interrupted …” Humor creates the space we need to survive and to be brave. As Mahatma Gandhi shared in his autobiography, “ If I had no sense of humor, I should long ago have committed suicide.”

Second, I wish to follow Matt’s constant search for wisdom through communing with saints past and present. He reached out to Thomas Merton in his early spiritual formation, searched out the best ritualists across the spiritual traditions including Malidoma Somé and Starhawk, and sought guidance from Fr. Bede Griffiths, Buck Ghosthorse, Joanna Macy, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalom and MC Richards. This is a purposeful list I add here if you wish to learn more about environmental or justice-based activism. His work is based in the writings of Meister Eckhart, Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, Thomas Aquinas to name just a few. Matt is a seeker of the larger whole. How can we all keep asking for more knowledge, ferreting out the greater truth and learning from the wise ones?

Last, I admire Matthew Fox’s courage to be a prophet. He has been willing over the past fifty years to speak truth to power structures that may not want to hear it. As you will read in Confessions, Matt seeks justice and equality for all and is willing to keep sharing this truth, regardless of the consequences. He tried compromise and working within the system as well and reminds me that this approach has its place, but truth is transcendent. We all deserve to be treated equally regardless of our gender, sexual orientation, religion, socio-economic class or ethic group. This truth cannot be watered down, or shouldn’t be ever hidden, and this often terrifies existing power structures. Matt is willing to stand up and in his standing, we are braver and know where to place our feet.

Thank you Matt for sharing your story and wisdom. Happy birthday and may all your days be blessed.

The Opposite of Beauty is Indifference

As a continuing theme of this blog, I want to share the work of two artists who bring both beauty from and insight about our oceans’ treasures. Richard and Judy Lang have collected plastic debris since 1999 from 1000 yards of Kehoe Beach in Point Reyes National Seashore and create museum-worthy art.

In one year they easily gather 4000 pounds of plastic. Meanwhile, as Judith says, “We are not cleaning the beach, we are curating the beach,” as they select only plastic in the colors and shapes for which they are searching. What could be a depressing or overwhelming issue to face, the Langs appear to address it with interest and careful observation.  “The opposite of beauty is really not ugliness,” says Richard, “The opposite of beauty is indifference. We are trying not to be indifferent about this and about the world.”

Please enjoy another example of artists as leaders:

Are You Willing to Be Seen?

At the end of each semester I accept invitations to visit student clubs and selected writing classes to share about our leadership offerings at MSU. During my leadership course pitch I like to ask, “What do you think of when I say someone is a leader?” Responses usually include, “She’s confident,” “a great public speaker,” or “charismatic.” As I have written earlier, I like to add that I think a leader is anyone who wants to help. In my view, if we care about the world, we’ve all got a position in the leadership game.

Lately, I realized I have yet to hear students throw out that a leader is willing to be seen. It seems that a willingness to show up as “the decider” when times get tough, or to be marketed as a company asset should be added to my leadership traits list.

For some, being seen may be why leadership appears fun. At the helm of a new idea or initiative we get to be its poster child. “Isn’t she brave and wonderful?” can be a seductive phrase. Others admire us and acknowledge our gifts. However, this can be a dangerous pursuit if we are in the leadership position only for the praise it might engender.

A couple of years ago, I was able to speak personally with Jane Goodall who models for me a solid willingness to be seen for the greater good. We had about twenty minutes before she needed to stand up (she actually chose to stand on a chair so all could see her!) and speak to a gathered crowd of about 100 on a local eco-preserve.  As we chatted about her Bozeman visit and the beautiful view from the home in which we stood, Jane remarked how delightful it is that when she appears at events animals are at their best and the weather is wonderful. She went on to tell me a story about giving a short sermon at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco on the annual “Blessing of the Animals” Sunday. She recounted how the church was filled with dogs, cats, birds and other pets that initially were “talking,” as pets like to do. When she got up to speak, the animals all shut up and remained quiet throughout her speech.  I had heard a similar story from someone who had traveled with Jane to Baja California years before to watch whales. In that case, a huge school of dolphins suddenly appeared and surrounded Jane’s boat for a prolonged visit.

Jane’s ability to captivate animals was not only a neat fun fact, but I was also struck that it was Jane who telling me the story. She seemed completely comfortable and seemed to convey that the “I” that she was speaking of was part of something bigger, doing what “it” was supposed to be doing.  There was no ego engagement and she seemed as fascinated as I was by this capacity.

Leadership entails a willingness to play the role for all its worth. Be it a team captain or spokeswoman for those living beings who can’t speak Human. Jane seem to have a healthy detachment from the “I” that is me, but somehow not.

For my part, I find that I am most willing to be seen when I am called to support greater compassion and others fulfilling their potential. If I am engaging in what feels like my work, I am more interested and able to stand in that tricky limelight.

Before I was to teach my first graduate level course on resolving conflict close to a decade ago, I went to a wise long-time teacher for advice. I shared my nervousness and fears and she simply asked if I knew what I was teaching to be true. I said I did and she responded, “trust in the material and you’ll do fine.”   This advice continues to serve me well.

Humus Perfume

At 21, I was given a gift. Calling to make plane reservation for my then-fiancé and me, I gave the ticket agent our names.

She began laughing and replied, “That’s so funny. Do you two travel together often?”

Punch line – my maiden name is Barber.

So, twenty-five years later, thanks to Northwest Airlines, I am Deidre B. Combs. The agent taught me that I clearly couldn’t hyphenate my name…that would not only be silly, but distracting. But, she also helped me realize that keeping my maiden name in my married mix would be a great symbolic gesture.

Not only, as one of four girls, was there no one to carry on my primary family name, but also, how can you take yourself too seriously when you have a last name like “Barber Combs”? The “B.” reminds me that our children could easily garner nicknames like “Scissors” and “Perm” and that I am a victim of the same game of Life that everyone else is playing. Honestly, just think about the likelihood of falling in love with someone whose name does that to yours? Like the Northwest agent, my name makes me giggle.

I adore the intricate connection between humor and humility. They come from the same root word of humus, or “earth.” Both humor and humility ground us; connect us to the planet and to each other. I find humor and sincere humility magnetizing. I like myself most when I am employing these two well; thus I wanted to keep that “B.” close at hand.

Watch in the attached TED video how really funny and humble connect.

Our son Cameron is a master in the sport of  humble humor — he’ll appropriately deny it. To prove my point, Exhibit A is a recent blog post from his travels in Brazil entitled “Bonbon Disaster.” Click here to read!

Observing my leadership students employing humility this week, I noticed that humor is usually always close by. For example, one young man on the MSU track team remarked how he is trying to make sense of why he gets scholarships for throwing hammers and weights in the air. “I can’t believe they give me money for that,” he explained with a wry smile. He had us all giggling as he thoughtfully considered the relevance of this pursuit and his future athletic goals. His humble assessment and humorous descriptions of his daily practices had us all captivated. By the end we were trying to convince him that his focus on excellence and discipline was leadership in action. He had us all cheering him on, although that didn’t appear to remotely be his intent.

Humility exposes our vulnerability, mostly to ourselves. We might think that we somehow need to have it all together, but our community usually sees through that façade. They know that we are flawed. We all were born, we are all clumsily trying to figure out how this world works, and we are all going to die. That you can’t overcome. Our community seems more interested in when we realize this truth.

Personally, I’m not as interested in following a leader who is perfect, but one who despite imperfections wants to give. Isn’t it strange, when our “ugly” bumps and bruises are exposed that others often find us at our most beautiful?

Sell local, buy local

Before I became a Combs twenty-five years ago, my mother-in-law was my boss. She hired me to cook at the family guest ranch in Ennis, Montana during two college summers. “Jinny” was first “Mrs. Combs” to me.

Six days a week, the kitchen staff would be up at 6 am frying bacon so we would be ready to feed the wranglers by 7; Sundays afforded us just one more hour of rest. We’d then make breakfasts to order for our guests; eggs any style, pancakes of the day, toast and, more bacon. The waitresses and two cooks then would hope to be cleaning up by 9:30 am to start prepping for lunch and dinner. It was usually then Jinny would drop by the kitchen before heading to town to pick up groceries.

During those mid-morning hours she shared how to knead bread to the perfect consistency. Did you know that women have a “built in” advantage? Jinny taught me that “You pinch the dough, now pinch your… and if both feel the same, the dough is ready to rise!”

She would often add a few of her favorite left-over recipes to the conversation, and when prodded, I learned her philosophy on leadership. After taking over a dude ranch at 29 years old with no previous experience, Jinny had learned the hard way who to hire and how to keep your employees productive. She would have us all giggling, sharing how in the early weeks of her first summer, the head cook suddenly took off with a ranch hand left behind no note, only her dentures over the stove! Jinny got a crash course on cooking and careful hiring that year.

“Attitude is everything,” was Jinny’s assessment. “I can teach anyone how to do the work, just not how to work!”

Another clear leadership value of Jinny’s was and is “buy local.” I grew up in downtown Minneapolis, so this idea was a novelty to me almost thirty years ago. Jinny was adamant — we bought everything we could in Ennis. With a population maybe 500 at the time, Ennis was our community and we needed to support it. I found this funny since I was sure toilet paper would be cheaper in Bozeman, the nearest city some 50 miles away. We had to go to Bozeman to pick up guests, why not shop there too?

Today, with internet shopping and Costco, Jinny’s modicum for running a rural business is now becoming a critical philosophy. I recently facilitated a working group session on preventing obesity in Montana. There I learned, not buying local has created “food deserts” in rural communities across the state.  As we now purchase the majority of our food from outside our communities and are unable to sustain small town grocery stores, the only ready food choices become what is sold at the local gas station. Corn dogs have replaced fresh produce as the affordable or even available choice for dinner across Montana, and in many communities around the country.

Mothers, and even mother-in-laws, deserve to know that their advice was heard and deemed correct. I think this video illustrates a magical intersection of  Jinny’s two mentioned leadership lessons:

To learn more about creating local healthy food choices check out The Center for Rural Affairs and Grow Montana as interesting examples. How might we support the health of our local communities? What are your leadership values?