Draws the Eye

Paul Heaston Sketch

For the past year at least, I’ve been struggling with writing.  The struggle is against a sense of futility about words that begin in my journal as reflections on my own mind and experiences.  Who cares about my son’s bedtime, the trees leafing out along a bus route, the music the metro escalator makes as it howls and sings along its rusted track?  My words are outdated vehicles for tired ideas, or so my jerk-brain tells me.  I “should” be writing well-researched pieces about student development.  Or finely crafted poetry.  Or even fiction.  But I don’t.  Instead, snapshots of this little corner of the world (and my bumbling interactions with it) fill my journal and eventually make their way into my roughly drafted pieces.

Continue reading “Draws the Eye”

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You Are What You Ask

Momentum for change in any human system requires large amounts of positive affect and social bonding – including experiences of hope, inspiration, and the sheer joy of creating with one another. . . the more positive the questions that guide an inquiry and shape a conversation, the stronger will be the relationships and the more long-lasting and effective will be the change. By inviting participants to inquire deeply into the best and most valued aspects of one another’s life and work, appreciative inquiry immediately enriches understanding, deepens respect, and establishes strong relational bonds.

From “Appreciative Inquiry: The Power of the Unconditional Positive Question” by Ludema, Cooperrider, and Barrett.
 
More at Case Western Reserve University’s Appreciative Inquiry Commons

 

Happy 100 Days: 75

I haven’t even taxied down the runway yet and this home-buying mission is making me queasy. The loves ones say, “What fun!” and then tell me fifteen things to bear in mind when I start to look. The other loved ones say, “Oh, gracious, it’s so hard,” and then tell me fifteen entirely different things that could make me crash and burn. Meanwhile, the sweet little home I had tagged to see this weekend went under contract yesterday, and the two properties still open are even junkier than I had feared.
 
“Keep picturing the perfect place,” one friend says. “If you can see it, you’ll make it happen.”
 
Okay. Good advice. So, I peek out the windows and down through the clouds, whispering reminders to myself when the turbulence starts to make me panic. A small living room where I can move the furniture and dance. A nook for Bug to do crafts and make a mess. Plants in hand-painted pots drinking in the light from the windows.
 
This week, I made the command decision to shut all this off when I am at work. If I am not careful, it can seep in under the door and choke off the air supply. No looking at home listings, no checking emails from the realtor when I am at the office.  My job is what makes all this possible, so I have to be here when I am here.
 
The phone rings. It is the nice lady from the free Mover’s Advantage program. Again. I ignore it. I am in the throes of preparing for the information session for the January qualifying exam for the students. This is the job, and this is where I direct my focus.
 
The qualifying exam is the  threshold assessment the doctoral hopefuls take after they have finished their core courses. Those whirlwind four days in January will be the litmus test for whether or not they have the right stuff to continue in the program. At the info session, the PhD program director and I offer up a few pre-exam details to calm their jittery nerves and let them know exactly what will happen starting at noon on January 3. Our school has honed a system to a sharp(ish) edge over the years, and we try to keep it straight and clean for the students. The double-blind exam is administered in two parts, with a quantitative in-class portion and a written take-home essay. I proctor. Anonymous faculty members grade. Students sweat. Most pass.
 
Before Day One of Semester One in the program, temperatures begin to rise. At the orientation in August, the incoming cohort is already abuzz with questions about the exam. You can’t blame them. They don’t want to get a year or two and $20,000 in, only to discover they don’t have the combination of brains and stamina to seal the deal.  This is why we try to make the expectations crystal-clear. The students can take care of their studies. We’ll make sure the test is fair and the packets are in order.
 
My colleague and I touch base a few minutes before the info session to divvy up the tasks. I make the fatal error of popping back into my office to check my email. A long-ago friend who used to work in affordable housing in Vermont has read my blog from wherever he is in the world now. He has shot me an email from across the miles, illuminating yet another fifteen points for me to bear in mind as I begin my quest for a home.
 
This is a welcome gesture, of course. But, wow, is it terrifying. The ink is barely dry on the loan approval, and the dark clouds of these new tasks are gathering on the horizon. Time-of-sale ordinances. Buyer’s attorney. PMI. Contract review. Closing costs. Home inspectors.
 
Choke.
 
This friend is one among many who clearly has no idea what an amateur I am. The bankers seem equally clueless about the extent of my ignorance. Maybe I have bamboozled the lot of them, or maybe they are banking on the folly of the neophyte. How should I know? I can’t tell where to begin. I feel out of my depth and stupid to boot. Find the place first and ask about ordinances later? Learn about PMI before looking for a place? A home inspector before attorney? When is — no, what is — contract review?
 
A first-time homebuying course would be a great place to begin, but the county’s classes are full full full. One is available at the end of November (!) but until then, I have to figure it out on my own. More questions. Are the online courses reputable? Whom do I ask? Do I check out a library book? Which one?
 
I print out the lengthy (and so generous — thank you, dear friend!) email to take home. I will read it when I have attention for it and can look up these strange  terms I should probably already know. (Escrow? Short sale? Lord have mercy.) Then I head over to the qualifying exam info session to do the job that will pay the someday-mortgage.
 
I walk on shaky legs out of my office, trying ease my mind back to a more manageable altitude. In the hallway, a first-year student flags me down. “I have a question about qualifying exam,” he says, a little breathless. “I saw the form online, and it says this thing about having grades for all the core courses, and I think I should be taking the exam at the end of this year, right? But I will still be in the classes that need the grades when the form is due. . .”
 
“You’re ahead of the game,” I say with a smile. “You’ll be taking 804 and 805 in the spring, right? You don’t have prerequisites?”
 
“No,” he says. “I’ll be done with the core in May.”
 
“Okay. So, after the winter break, I will schedule another info session for the folks taking the May exam. We’ll go over the details then. You don’t have to come to this one today, and anyway, some of the information will be different in the spring.” I go on to give him a brief review of the steps. I watch his shoulders ease down.
 
“Okay,” he breathes. “I’m on track.”
 
“Right on track.” I nod. “And thank you for being so conscientious. It’ll serve you well in this program.” I keep telling these student to picture themselves walking across that stage at graduation. Everything between here and there is just details and determination.
 
I turn the corner to the meeting room where the first few students mill around, big-eyed and jumpy.
 
At the end of the session when they ask about failure rates (as they always do), I answer like a true politician. “Every one of you has the capacity to pass this exam.” The program director reminds them that all they have to do is put their analytical skills and and writing abilities to work. They already have what it takes to finish this program and write a dissertation, so they have what it takes to pass the exam. We would not have admitted them otherwise.
 
This is true, to an extent. They have the right stuff when we admit them. The big unknown is how they use it once they are here. They will make it if. . . If they sharpen their research skills. If they build strong, collegial relationships with their mentors. If they organize their time, accept criticism, improve their writing, and make tough choices. If they keep their eyes on the prize. If they do these things and take care of themselves along the way, they will have done all they can and more to walk across that stage and go home with a degree.
 
They have to take it one semester at a time. One course, one qualifying exam, one field statement at a time.
 
Once again, I learn to swallow my own medicine.
 
As I walk out into the late afternoon light to head home, I let my mind lift off again and find myself dizzy with the possibility of a home. I picture myself standing on the doorstep of my new place, fitting the key into the lock. Lush vines spill from a hanging plant by the door. Shoes litter the foyer. Afternoon light from the back window greets me. A crock pot on the counter bubbles with cumin and garlic. Bug and I sweep aside the mess of paper scraps, scissors, and tape on the table so we can share our dinner and talk over homework.
 
In my job, I can stand before the group of incoming students and see clearly what they cannot. They wobble under the weight of the program requirements, the student handbook, the course textbooks, the research expectations, the administrative paperwork, and the 90 new colleagues to whom they have just been introduced, while I am picturing how they will progress from Day One to graduation. This is my small area of expertise, such as it is. “All this material is a lot at once,” I tell them on that first day. “Take it one step at a time. Remember that my job is to stay on top of the details of this program. I will send you reminders and updates all along the way. When you get lost — no, before you get lost — come to me. I will help you find the answers to any questions you have.”
 
Just because they (I) can’t see the way forward (yet) doesn’t mean the sky is not open and waiting.
 
And just because they (I) are not experts on this process (yet) does not mean expertise is not here for the taking.
 
How am I any less a student than my own students? I have what it takes to fly this thing to its destination. The only unknown is what I choose to do with the questions, talents, and momentum I bring. Will I engage my skills as a researcher? Will I organize my inquiries and build my vocabulary? Will I keep clinging to the misconception that I have to (or even can) go it alone? Like my students, I must seek the help of professionals and enthusiasts. Those smart, experienced friends who understand housing dynamics are offering their guidance. They are mentors. I bet if I ask, they will help me stay on track. They don’t want me to get two years and $200,000 in only to discover I am saddled with a junk heap.
 
Also like those students, this undertaking was all just an abstract idea about two months ago. First comes the impulse, then a little investigating, then an application, then the acceptance. One mile, then another. Refer to the flight manual. Follow the itinerary. The clouds will part. The destination will make itself known.
 
I lay with Bug in his bed, reading three books and singing three songs. After he drifts off, I walk out onto the back deck and take in the sky, the light from the neighbors’ windows, the hum of traffic. I stretch my neck and then my toes, letting the full weight of myself settle into place.
 
If you can see it, you’ll make it happen.
 
There it is, right there, just on the horizon line.
 
Home.
 
 

Happy 100 Days: 99

We only see each other in passing after months and months apart. She lives too far and I have the kid. She keeps reminding me she has never met my son, which is sort of extraordinary considering how much a part of me she feels. We make plans again to get together. We mean it every time.
 
She knew me before Tee. Back then, we walked together along the river and ate heaps of pancakes at the little grill where she sometimes worked. She always was the finest waltz partner. That has not changed. She lifts my arm up and over to twirl my cloddish feet in the most elegant of arcs.
 
After, in a dark corner away from the whirling dancers, we huddle together and gossip. I have known her for a decade at least. Longer? Yes, so we discover. A dozen years. Amazing.
 
We laugh like schoolgirls. Like sisters. I know the funny way she rolls her eyes, and feel what lives in layers there: the tenderness down under the scar down under the sarcasm down under the sugary flutter of the lashes. She knows my history so I don’t have to masticate all over again that mouthful of ineffective words just to get her up to speed. We get right to the laughing.
 
It is hard to believe either of us is so much older than we were then. We still circle back around to the same silly patterns. We are still always who we have always been. For once, this is a reason for hilarity rather than angst. Just leaning close to her welcome skin for 10 minutes, that fleeting return to the familiar, puts the fizz back in my tired blood. We hug good night with more promises of visits. She returns to the dance floor and I head to the parking lot. I cruise out onto the Beltway feeling the strangest of sensations. What is that, I wonder? Serenity? Happiness? Something new, but also like coming home.
 

Mind the Gap

The traditional approach to change is to look for the problem, do a diagnosis, and find a solution. The primary focus is on what is wrong or broken; since we look for problems, we find them. By paying attention to problems, we emphasize and amplify them.

Sue Hammond, The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry

The bike was the key. It was liberation. It was the only way to get to the shopping centers with all their pre-teen allure: Montgomery Donuts, the movie theater, dark alcoves and roaming packs of boys. By way of the broad and quiet neighborhood streets, I could meander up to the busy stretch of what passed as “town,” spend a few bucks on comic books and Twix, and feel like I had really gone somewhere.

I have never been very good at riding a bike. I wobble widely. When another rider calls, “On your left,” I throw a gaze over my left shoulder and end up veering directly into her path. This is still the case, despite several decades of practice.

At 11, I was as already a full-grown klutz. For some reason on this one particular day, my sister and I chose to take the more direct yet less forgiving route to the edge of our neighborhood. We turned ourselves out along a roaring stretch of Old Georgetown Road. Six lanes of frenzied traffic whipped past as we made our way to Wildwood Shopping Center for our sanitized version of adolescent mayhem. We rode on the narrow sidewalks, confident in our immortality and in the protective capacity of those three inches of curb.

At every intersection, a handy little dip in the curb for folks on axles – strollers, wheelchairs, skateboards and the like – ferried us smoothly down to the road and back up again. I am sure the sidewalk engineering choice was not intended for cyclists, but considering how few pedestrians actually frequented those loud and dangerous thoroughfares, we made happy use of them. I could zoom down the sidewalk, slowing just enough to make sure no one was turning off the main road onto a neighborhood street, and buzz right through the intersection up onto the opposite path. I was too poor a cyclist to learn how to “pop a wheelie,” as it was called. The sidewalk design saved me slowing to a stop, walking, and lifting my bike up over the curb.

I was zipping joyously along, picking up speed as I became more confident in my ten-speed prowess. I looked ahead. One of the intersections neared. My stomach leapt into my throat. An enormous telephone pole was rammed right into the sidewalk just beyond the opposite ramp. I saw it. I could not slow. I took its measure, and I knew I had enough room to veer around it. I watched it and I locked my gaze on it, calculating the distance, determined to miss it.

Wham!

My bike flew out from under me. I body-slammed into the pole, face pressed against the splintered wood and old staples. My arms wrapped around its girth as my poor bicycle wobbled and fell into the gutter. My sister screeched to a halt, whipped around, and burst out laughing. “You are so weird! How could you not see that pole?”

I slid down and did my best not to burst into tears. We rescued my bike and made the rest of our limping way to the strip mall.

How could I not see that pole? That was the wrong question. I did see the pole. I was looking right at the pole! My question was this: how could I crash into something I was working so hard to avoid?

Anyone who has put a kid on training wheels or taught a teenager to drive knows the answer. You do not look at where you do not want to go. The gaze is more powerful than any of us really understands. Look, and your mind, posture, and even behavior will veer in the direction of your vision. For this reason, any student of the road learns to look at where she intends to go. She looks ahead.

My sister, with her natural physical aptitude and addiction to speed, had learned this without knowing how to articulate it. She focused on the gap and squeezed herself through it. I fixed on the obstacle and met it.

Today, in the face of several mounting so-called problems at work and at home, I needed a reminder of how to direct my gaze at the open road instead of the flashing lights and gaping potholes. I dipped back into Appreciative Inquiry’s fount of refreshing thinking.

Appreciative Inquiry (AI), a tool that has gained its foothold in the worlds of Organizational Development and leadership practice, offers up practical approaches for drawing upon the power and possibility in people and systems. Work, love, parenting, friendships – hell, life itself – all are riddled challenges. This is especially true if they are seen as such. Pulling from AI’s handy toolbox is a great way to training the mind away from problems and towards capacity when trying to build a way forward.

AI involves, in a central way, the art and practice of asking questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate, and heighten positive potential. . . AI deliberately, in everything it does, seeks to work from accounts of this “positive change core”—and it assumes that every living system has many untapped and rich and inspiring accounts of the positive. Link the energy of this core directly to any change agenda and changes never thought possible are suddenly and democratically mobilized.

David L. Cooperrider and Diana Whitney, Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change

Through a series of questions about the system when it is at its best, AI allows participants to give voice to stories that generate power and animate dormant resources for building towards a vision. Instead of a problem to be solved, the task at hand is a mystery to be explored full of opportunities to be discovered. The people involved are rich sources of insight. It is a choice to perceive of things this way.

Today, I began again to wean myself from panic, and returned to the practice of asking the generative question. Little by little, the answers offer up source material for telling a new kind of story. Learning how to do this takes intention. I am as much a klutz here as I am on two wheels, but, as ever, learning is exhilarating. (More on the specifics of AI and the questions can be found here.)

Dissect a fear and watch it thrive. Describe despair and feel it spill out of its container. Delineate the barriers to your greatness, and notice how quickly they harden into cinder-block and razor wire.

In the inverse lies solace: You can make real the very thing to which you attend. Ask the right sorts of questions, and watch the future bloom.

Be careful where you set your sights. Yours is an awesome power. That telephone pole is there, for sure. But so is the gap. The open path has been there all along. Hop back on the bike. No matter how you wobble, the way ahead is waiting to meet you.