Since holding the first printed copies of my book, Indispensable, in my hand, the idea that it is published has become increasingly real. Surprisingly, it also became temporarily disconcerting.
My first reaction to receiving my book was amusement. It existed in so many electronic versions over time, and the publication process was so long. Suddenly, I thought, all that effort came down to this little book? That’s all? I mean, I liked the cover, but wasn’t it a little thin?
Nonetheless, it was fun to hold and even more enjoyable to see others turn it over in their hands, feel the cover, and casually flip through the pages (like one does with a real book). We chatted about the design, the paper stock, and all the other little superficialities of it.
But then, I saw for the first time in my life, someone actually sit down to read it. She sat across my office just out of shouting distance. This first witnessed reader started by flipping through casually, but then paused as something caught her eye. Oh dear God, I thought, someone is actually reading my book! Instead of feeling excited, I was suddenly horrified. Though I knew it all along, it was as if I didn’t realize until that point: People are actually going to read this thing.
I wanted to sit by her side. I wanted to answer her questions and clear up where things were ambiguous. I wanted to understand her feedback and make changes where things were insufficient. In short, I wanted to have a conversation about the ideas and their evolution.
But that’s not what books are meant to do.
Books put your thoughts out into the world through monologue, not dialogue. There is no back-and-forth. You can’t defend your thinking. You can’t learn from others’ experiences and evolve what you originally wrote.
For so long, the book was a singular manuscript in my hands. I had complete control over it. I could change words, phrases, or sentences. I could rearrange or rewrite entire concepts. The book was mine.
But now, there are hundreds of published copies owned by others instead of that one manuscript controlled by me. Beyond what I originally put on the page, I have no ability to inform the reader’s experience. Though in retrospect, the release of control happened incrementally through the course of copy edits, proofreads, and publication, it felt to me like it happened all at once.
And so, this is my chance to let go of the book. It’s not mine anymore; it’s yours. My writer friend, Jess, reminded me that this is common in the process of writing — and even explicit in the process of some writers’ groups: you are not allowed to speak about your own piece.
Like so many things in life, I love it and let it go. Thank you all for receiving it.
Indispensable: How to Succeed at Your First Job and Beyond is available for purchases here on Amazon.
Two weeks ago, the Callahans embarked on a ‘near-shore’ adventure — a long weekend in Montreal to meet up with friends, dine on poutine, and test our high-school French skills. As we crossed from New York into Quebec, we were grilled at the border by the guards: How long would we stay in Canada? Who were we meeting? When was the last time we saw them? Where were we staying? Did we have a reservation? Who made the reservation? When would we come back to the United States? As we drove through Quebec’s broad fields, we made appropriately grim jokes about seeking asylum in Canada as a LGBTQ family. We laughed about The Handmaid’s Tale and shared our adoration of Justin Trudeau.
But it was the drive back — not the drive there — that made the sad truth of our circumstances even more real. As we approached the American border, I felt my heartbeat quicken. Yes, we held American passports. Yes, we were crossing the Northern border and not the Southern one. And yes, as Caucasians we had the privilege of not triggering any of the profiling flags that would cause someone to doubt our case. And yet, I was attempting to cross the border into the United States with my child. Thousands of mothers and fathers in similar situations had their children taken from them over the past weeks and months. It was only an accident of birth and circumstance that separated me from the parent who comes to the border seeking asylum.
As this disturbing truth percolated in my head, it didn’t take too much imagination to hear Elliott’s cries not as innocent toddler crises — about dropping her milk, wanting to take off her shoes, or refusing a graham cracker — but instead about being separated from Liz and me. I cannot imagine the horror of having your child forcibly taken from you, however briefly. I cannot imagine the inhumanity it takes to do that.
On a daily basis, I’m ashamed by what our country has become. We increasingly live in a country which is run, at the highest levels, without a sense of compassion or humanity. While there may be room for power and politics in parts of government, the way we treat human beings is not up for debate.
Regardless of our political persuasion, we increasingly have a choice between acting out of love and acting out of fear. Do we believe that others are worthy of respect and treat them accordingly? Or do we demonize and dehumanize them, characterizing them as animals or criminals? There is a long history of humans blaming “the other” in times of uncertainty and distress. It is easier to point the finger than it is to take responsibility for our contribution to the problem. But it takes a certain level of personal evolution to assume responsibility, to humbly seek to understand, to leave the need to be right behind, and to contribute to the solution. I am not always good at this; I can’t imagine that you are either. But, hopefully, if we can choose to face every situation — even the smallest and most trivial situations in our lives — with love instead of fear, we can collectively shift into a different way of being.
What does it look like to choose love? Every time you find yourself afraid — afraid of a person, afraid of a situation, afraid of an outcome — look inward. Try to investigate what is going on inside of you. What are you afraid of? Are you afraid of not being loved? Of not being good enough? Of failing? Of not being able to provide for your family? How do you act when you are consumed by that fear? In reality, that fear is just that — a fear. It may come true; it may not. You will find out over time. But, in the short term, your relationship with that fear — your mindset about it — dictates your actions. What would it look like to have more love, to have more faith? What might you see differently? How would you act differently?
So please, take all the political actions you can to influence our government in the direction you believe is the most compassionate and loving. Call your elected representatives. Sign petitions. Donate. But, in addition to these, take the initiative to shift from fear to love in your own life. Nothing but the sum of our everyday choices to love will unlock a bigger transformation in who we are as a people.
I wrote my first version of Indispensable nearly ten years ago, over the early part of 2008. Later that year, as the publishing industry struggled with the birth of eBooks, the economy collapsed, and my life moved forward, the goal of publishing it shifted into the background. I largely put the manuscript down and didn’t touch it for years.
Now, it’s ten years later and my book is due to be published on June 26th. The process of resurrecting, revisiting, and revising the book has been insightful. More than anything else, the manuscript has served as a point of reflection of who I was then and who I am now. As I set to work on revisions, I found myself having visceral reactions to the content. The tone of some sections made me cringe. How could I be so rude, so flippant, or so ignorant? On the other hand, some sections felt like old friends briefly forgotten. How wise I used to be! If I had only remembered that advice and applied it myself since writing it! Over the past decade, I’ve learned and grown. And the world has evolved around me. My manuscript – from its previous incarnation and its current revisions – has been a lens through which to see all that change more clearly.
On the whole, I’ve noticed two major dimensions along which I’ve changed the most. First, my understanding of diversity, inclusion, and privilege has expanded significantly. In the revisions, I rotate the gender of the managers and employees chapter by chapter. Similarly, I intentionally included a wide variety of names to be ethnically-inclusive; it’s no longer just a book about Bobs and Rachels. But, perhaps most notably, I rewrote the entire segment on dressing at work to be comprehensive of a more fluid range of gender expressions – and to acknowledge how precious physical expression can be to people. The passages that used to read as “just quiet down and wear whatever you need to wear to fit in” have a more nuanced tone, one suggesting that you make a conscious choice about what you wear and own the repercussions of how others may interpret that as reflective of your professional competence.
That brings me to the second shift in my approach; not just in the realm of physical presentation, but more broadly, my overarching approach became much less proscriptive and more fungible. I wrote the initial book as the essential advice you need to succeed in your first job and beyond. The tone conveyed that this this advice was important and that the reader should carefully listen, learn, and apply each suggestion. I positioned it as a universal formula for success. Now, I’ve softened that approach. I’m wise enough to know that even if some abstracted advice is broadly useful, people and situations are different. I present the book as full of useful strategies, but ones which should be considered, adapted, and applied with judgment. I focus more on the journey, the learning, and the development into your authentic self at work. Ultimately, I put the reader more in the position of power and conscious choice over their path rather than in the position of receiving wisdom from on high.
Now, Indispensable is in the final rounds of copy editing and proofreading. From a content perspective, this book, which was ten years in the making, is suddenly out of my hands. And I find myself looking both backwards and forwards. Looking forward, if I am living well, won’t I learn as much over the next decade as I did over the last? It is scary to think that the manuscript is fixed and I won’t be able to evolve it over time – as I and the world evolve in parallel. I have to believe that I’ll look back on Indispensable in another ten years and think “Wow, I missed so much.”
And so, I’m publishing something which feels not like a universal decree, but instead, a stake in the ground. But maybe that’s okay. Maybe, since this version of the book will be fixed, it will provide a similar view into my psychology today – and I’ll be able to see the differences between now and then – and the growth that has occurred – all the more clearly.
It’s rare that I sit down to write and poetry comes out. In many ways, prose is more aligned with the nature of who I am — someone who wants to illuminate a clear path to what is most meaningful. To that end, I mostly find poetry a difficult medium through which to communicate meaning while maintaining clarity.
And yet, from time to time, poetry flows out anyway. It tends happen at times when my feelings on a subject are so strong that the ‘clarity’ possible in prose feels reductive and unsatisfactory. This was the case three weeks ago, when I found myself both mourning the death of a dear friend and impacted by children and teens around the nation marching for their lives. The grief of the funeral as well as the images of children proved to be an overwhelming experience of tragedy and possibility, despair and hope, death and life. I found it hard to not only process, but also to articulate anything without the nuance and shape of poetry. And so, poetry is what came.
The hardest part of writing poetry for me is my inevitable judgment of the output. Unable to judge it versus my typical rubric of meaning and clarity, I often don’t know what good looks like. Today, as I share my poetry with you, I put it into the world lightly — less concerned about the quality of the thing and simply grateful that I can flex into a different form when the necessities of life call for something else. Whatever the form, what matters most is that there is simply a way to share the most important things.
With love and hope,
Many Are Here
I. The Way
From the darkness I saw this place inside and out.
I saw all the ways to perform and succeed.
The world, complex but clear,
was peopled by structures and traditions,
roles and expectations,
cues, routines, rewards.
This was the way.
II. The Invitation
Slowly, the crack.
First one jumped, and then two more, and now dozens at a time,
as if jumping for their lives from two towers high above.
Falling men. Falling women.
Cashing in on an invitation that,
if brave and foolish enough,
they might be able to create
out of the deepest and truest inclination of their souls.
We thought they were silly; we knew they were right.
These were the first holes in the firmament,
water drip-dropping through them.
If you didn’t know better, you’d say:
“A leaky faucet, call the plumber.”
III. The Exhortation
Exiled and out of the parklands, now
invitation becomes exhortation.
Postdiluvian but preapocalyptic.
And no one is left behind.
And so, a new creed in our crisis,
one unhinged from books but floating in the ether,
in bits and bytes around us,
and prophesied by the voices of little children
wiser and braver than you.
If you open your ears, you too can make out the words,
echoing the call of a civil rights anthem:
We must and we must now
abandon sins of commission, and
walk to truth and reconciliation.
Radical accountability is the higher call.
What have you used? Who have you used?
And where did you discard them?
We must and we must now
throw out our lawn signs and let the grass breathe.
Instead of arguing the point of the point, we must
strengthen ourselves to be wildly wrong.
When we find we are not only victim, but perpetrator,
we cannot be surprised.
It was us all along.
We must and we must now.
Not create from what we know first,
and not birth from self,
but unearth what lies
beyond the me, beyond the I, beyond the mine.
We must recover the better instincts of our souls
and become brave on their behalf.
IV. The Giant
There is no other option;
you already knew there was no white knight at the gates.
But there is a giant with a flaming cloak,
a gentle shepherd to help find the other side of this,
allowing you to do something right
without letting it go to your head.
In his fire you are incinerated and embraced.
That is the start.
Many are here, I am here.
And soon, you must be here.
This December, I find myself reflecting upon a holiday many years ago when I played the role of an angel at my church’s Christmas pageant. I remember receiving instructions to gently cradle my offering of plastic grapes for baby Jesus and to approach the nativity scene slowly, deliberately, and in step by my fellow blue-robed angel. I was not to look at or wave to my family members as I passed them.
This was the first time I was charged with the solemn execution of ritual duties, and I followed through with a level of commitment absurd for a six-year old in a tinsel halo. I was stone-faced and serious, committed to the importance of the ceremony and my role.
Over time, my interest in ritual only grew. As a child and teenager, I served as an acolyte, carrying the cross in processionals, lighting and extinguishing candles, and helping prepare the Eucharist. Later, in college, I was the sacristan at my college chapel, a role which had me arriving early to arrange chairs and candlesticks, staying late to disassemble the ritual space, and learning how to get wax stains out of altar linens in my dorm room (Hint: an iron and newspaper do the trick).You know, typical college kid activities.
Though the church was an obvious focus of ritual life, my ritual devotion extended elsewhere, particularly to the intersection of ritual and food. Family dinners were sacred to me, and I would insist we turn off the television every night. I threw my first formal dinner party before the age of ten, immersing myself in cookbooks, napkin folding manuals, and etiquette books to get all the details right. I started the first of many dinner party clubs in high school and wrote my college thesis on parallels between the Eucharist and other ritual meals. Today, we ritualize our family meals by sharing gratitudes before eating.
And this Christmas, we celebrate it with all sorts of rituals – those from my family, those from Liz’s, and those we have created together. We open the advent calendar with our chocolate-ravenous child each night. We think about loved ones around the world and send Christmas cards with well-wishes. We, like Liz’s grandmother, burn bayberry candles. And we make ‘miracle loaf’ – a truly miraculous combination of refrigerated crescent rolls, bacon, eggs, and other artery-clogging items that Liz innovated. Each ritual sanctifies the season and makes our wintry days feel special.
What is it, exactly, about ritual? To me, there’s something incredible about how you can intentionally invest meaning in some of the most mundane, tangible aspects of life – movements, words, objects, food, and space – and thereby create something transcendental. It is a way of bringing the holy (however you may define it) into the everyday. I see it as the alchemy of meaning: by enacting ritual, you take everyday life and make it special.
And so, this past fall, I started classes to become a celebrant. A celebrant is someone who creates and performs rituals for others. This can include anything from the weddings and funerals you might expect to baby blessings, divorce ceremonies, business openings, and seasonal rituals. Celebrants do not bring any particular religious bent to their work, but instead focus on crafting meaningful experiences to fit the needs, values, and beliefs of the ceremony participants. Come spring, I’ll be certified and look forward to bringing more ritual into my life and being of service to others.
Whatever you believe and however you ritualize it, I wish this holiday season is transformed into something special and meaningful to you.
To learn more about celebrancy, check out the Celebrant Institute and Foundation here.
As many of you know, the Callahan clan moved from California to Connecticut earlier this year. I wrote about that transition here on my blog, The Intentional, and posted it to the appropriate social media channels. Amongst the chorus of wisdom and encouraging words, there was no comment more apt than my friend Michael reminding me that: “Qui transtulit sustinet.”
“Qui transtulit sustinet” or “He who transplanted sustains” is the state motto of Connecticut. I recalled the motto from the first time I transplanted myself to this state — from my hometown of Port Huron to college in New Haven. And here it was, cropping up again as I moved to Connecticut a second time.
There are a couple of meanings of the motto: The first implies that he who transplanted you will sustain you, indicating that God (who brought the settlers to America) would support them (in the new land). I prefer a second interpretation of the motto, however — the one that makes it more personal: He who transplants himself, sustains.
The idea of transplanting oneself resonates with the advice that “You have to repot yourself every once in a while.” The philosophy of repotting people is the same as repotting plants. When our growth slows or stops, it’s time to move. We pull ourselves up by the roots, shake off the dirt, and settle into a new pot with fresh soil. The pot should be a bit bigger than the old but not overly big; we need space to grow without being overwhelmed.
While the goal of repotting is growth, when plants are first moved, they often enter a period of shock. Instead of thriving, we appear wilted and thirsty as we adjust to our new circumstances. Change, as everyone knows, is hard. That said, over time, the new pot, with more space and refreshed nutrients, enables the new growth and, eventually, new bloom.
While repotting sounds wise, it is often painful and unpleasant. Your pot may be so homey that you could stayed there forever. And yet, if we’re committed to growth, we must repot ourselves instead of waiting for some cosmic gardener to change our circumstances. As John Gardner wrote in Self-Renewal, only by intentionally repotting can we grow into our fullness as humans:
“Most of us have potentialities that have never been developed simply because the circumstances of our lives never called them forth. Exploration of the full range of our own potentialities is not something that we can safely leave to the chances of life. It is something to be pursued systematically, or at least avidly, to the end of our days. We should look forward to an endless and unpredictable dialogue between our potentialities and the claims of life-not only the claims we encounter but the claims we invent. And by the potentialities I mean not just skills, but the full range capacities for sensing, wondering, learning, understanding, loving, and aspiring.”
When we made the decision to move across the country, it was not pleasant. We didn’t happily repot; instead, we felt our roots holding onto the California soil with all our might. When the opportunity called to investigate our new potentialities — to see what new growth might be possible — we took it. And so find find ourselves here, repotted in Connecticut. We are certainly still adjusting from the initial shock, but we hope that the family who transplanted will not only sustain, but grow in an even bigger way.
Wishing you plenty of uncomfortable growth and self-renewal,
Working in the learning and development space, I often reflect upon what takes us from novice to master. For any given topic, what is the path of learning? How do we become experts? And how do we grow our ability to then teach others in a meaningful way? Below, I propose a framework for understanding how we move from student to teacher, from teacher to content designer and, ultimately, from content designer to learning strategist.
AS A STUDENT Experiencing We begin in traditional student mode. Students in the experiencing stage are the recipients of the experience rather than creators of the experience. Though they may actively participate in exercises and offer their perspectives, they do so within the design of the course and typically at the behest of the teacher. They focus on content — comprehension, application, and integration — rather than the way in which the content is delivered.
Note that, for most learners, this ‘hard’ focus on the content is where nearly all their attention goes — and rightfully so. It is often only higher-level thinkers with a specific curiosity about learning and development who step above the direct student experience.
Understanding Stepping one level above the experience at hand, students shift their focus from the content of the experience to the design of the experience. Students are still primarily in observation mode, but their senses are attuned to different dimensions: They look for the choices made by the designer and/or the teacher. They are curious about the decisions made about when to tell, when to ask, when to demonstrate, and when to invite participation. They notice the teacher’s own style as a factor in facilitating the experience.
AS A TEACHER Replicating Shifting roles, we next transition from students to teachers. Again, this transition is not for everyone; on any given subject, the majority of students will find that they capture the value they needed through their experiences and move on to apply their learnings in the real world. For the handful looking to teach others, their teaching approach begins in a crude and unrefined state; it lacks subtlety and depth of experience. They largely replicate the approaches they have seen, delivering content referenced in notes or memorized by rote. They navigate with the aid of lesson plans, outlines, or presentation slides. When complex questions come up, they tend to parrot their own teachers and cite the experience of others rather than relying on their own expertise or observations.
Tailoring As they teach the content again and again, teachers come to facilitate the learning experience more elegantly. They abandon their external aids, depending instead upon an increasingly clear understanding of what is required to meet the goals and how it should go. As they get the facts down cold, they are able to widen their aperture, intentionally managing their style and focus. They dynamically adjust to accommodate the learners in the room and their style of learning. Increasingly fluent in the content and structure, they grow more fully into their authentic selves as teachers.
AS A DESIGNER Evolving With increasing experience, teachers may shift into content designers. At first, they may simply evolve pre-existing content, making an adjustment to the delivery here or a tweak on the timing there. Over time, they come to shift the learning experience in bigger ways, more fully revising content to better achieve learning objectives. Evolving designers take the power of the pen not only as they plan learning experiences, but real-time in the room as well; they are comfortable shifting the design in substantial ways on the fly in order to maximize learning in the room.
Innovating With even more experience, content designers become innovators. They are able to take new learning objectives and craft meaningful learning experiences ex nihilo. They thoughtfully consider all aspects of the learning experience. They often begin by examining the world of relevant content on a topic and synthesizing this into the most important points. They then apply themselves to crafting the learning, adjusting each aspect of the embodied experience (e.g., the timing, the tone, the atmosphere, the space, the materials) to enable the higher-level goals.
AS A STRATEGIST Translating Beyond this, we again transition roles; this time from the designer to the strategist. Translating strategists can take high-level goals (e.g., greater proficiency in mathematics) and render these into the right set of tangible learning objectives (e.g., understanding of concept of addition, facility with adding multi-digit numbers, speed of application). In addition to the learning objectives, they also articulate the design principles and high-level architecture within which the objectives are best achieved (e.g., twelve-session series over three weeks, focused primarily on application). Translating strategists can apply their skills in either direction — scoping a new learning experience from the top-down or evaluating an existing learning experience to understand whether it fits shifting needs.
Envisioning Finally, envisioning strategists primarily concern themselves with the goals at hand and how exposing people to learning experiences might contribute to those overarching ambitions. They bring a big picture view, carefully considering the relevant context (whether that be the organization, industry, community, country, or world as a whole). They see the opportunities and challenges within the broader system and can envision its evolution. Given this view, they identify where learning experiences might affect meaningful change in individuals and communities.
As you see, each stage includes a basic level and a more advanced level before fundamentally shifting focus via a role change (e.g., student to teacher). That said, this framework is not linear. Though some may ‘rise through the ranks’ from student to teacher to designer to strategist, this is not necessary; for example, a strategic thinker with experience in other domains may also strategize about learning. However, the best envisioning strategists are not generalists who see learning experiences as one of many levers to pull to execute a strategy, but those who have moved from student through strategist in this continuum and hold a nuanced understanding of how learning experiences can meaningfully shift human development.
Stepping back and reflecting, what has your own evolution as a learning professional looked like? At which level do you prefer to function? At which level do you aspire to function? Then, looking at your team, at what level are they engaging with your agenda? What potential do they have to operate at other levels and what experiences are necessary to get them there? And, most importantly, what do you see now that you didn’t see before?
Liz and I were walking down the main drag in Westport the other day when we passed a group of high schoolers. We overheard:
“I have my first day outfit figured out, but I still need to buy my second and third day clothes.”
I remember being a version of that high schooler (albeit, one who only planned the first day). Specifically, I remember preparing for ninth grade and my first day of high school with particular care. My mom took me down to Jacobson’s, the Detroit-area department store, to shop, and I put together the best outfit: light blue jeans with more-than-average flare (we were en route to the ‘extra wide leg’ era of the late-90’s), a yellow fitted sweater, and, the best part, a silver necklace with block letter beads spelling M-E-R-E-D-I-T-H.
[For a shout-out to nineties fashion, the stress of outfit matching, and the iconic movie Clueless, click here.]
On that first day of high school, I wanted to be perceived as stylish, grown-up, and desirable to be around. My first day of school fashion efforts faltered quickly. I didn’t have the second and third day outfits planned, nor did I find any joy in doing so. After all, I didn’t value fashion; I only valued the approval it might give me if I crafted my image appropriately. And yet, through my first day outfit — and every comment, action, and homework assignment to follow — I sought the approval of every student, teacher, and administrator in that building.
To my surprise, when I started my new job in April, I was no different from that ninth-grader in the wide pants. I bought a new dress and blazer that struck the right balance of casual and professional. I got a reasonable haircut and even spent a minute considering whether I should wear make-up. While I’m more comfortable with myself in important ways, I could see the instinct of approval-seeking nonetheless playing out.
Opening a new school year and starting a new job are both entryways into new group formation. Our approval-seeking tendencies, which may be more or less activated in the day-to-day, are piqued by this newness. Uncertain about our status and situation, we bring reawakened questions of identity, inclusion, and approval. If I show them who I really am, will I be included? Will the real me be a fit for this role? And, more broadly, who do I have to be for you to approve of me?
When is the last time you picked out your “first day” outfit, designed your Burning Man costume, or dressed to make a particular impression? And what can those choices tell you about how you want others to perceive you? Byron Katie, in her work on thoughts and approval, suggests considering each item you pick out and articulating:
“With this <item of clothing>, I want you to think that <perception of you>.”
“I am hiding this <part of self>, so you won’t think that <perception of you>.”
What do these seemingly mundane choices about shoes and shirts tell you about yourself? How do you use clothes to manage your desired image? And what if you gave this up and dressed as your authentic self? I’m not suggesting there’s a right answer here, but instead an opportunity to look at something as tangible and seemingly inconsequential as your ‘first day clothes’ and get curious about what you can learn from it.
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I remember my first trip to the Bay Area for my Stanford business school admissions weekend. I had not spent much time in California, yet I felt drawn to moving West. That said, when I arrived, I was a bit confused. I remember sharing with my soon-to-be-classmates: “I don’t know what people see in it.” I was committed to moving West, but I couldn’t wrap my head around the place. The whole start-up scene appeared unhinged from reality. People seemed to do whatever they liked on nearly every dimension, defying convention and practicality. Did they really kite-surf every morning, wear hoodies to work, and drink wine in Sonoma all weekend? Even the arid landscape seemed alien compared to the traditional deciduous forests of my life to date.
And yet, everyone seemed to love this place. Not just the hippies and surfers, but trusted friends (practical, business-type people!) who had already taken their manifest destiny.
So, I packed my bags and caught the train from my hometown of Port Huron. I rode Amtrak’s Blue Water Line to the California Zephyr straight out to the Bay. After sixty-seven hours on the train, I disembarked in my new home, excited for school but still skeptical about this place.
After a month or so, I noticed that I smiled more. I smiled to myself as I walked to class. I smiled to others. I became one of those people who hug everyone. I dyed my hair from brown to blondish-red, an act that somehow lightened my view on the world. I left behind my wardrobe of drab neutrals and bought a bright pink coat. While the palm trees and weather were lovely, there was something even more important about this place: California’s freedom, looseness, and joie de vivre started to seep into me.
I studied entrepreneurship and interpersonal dynamics. I came to differentiate between real Mexican food and other Mexican food. I tried out ecstatic dance, hiked in the redwoods, and held bonfires on the beach. I went to naked hot springs, dabbled in yoga and meditation, and discovered my favorite spiritual retreat centers. I came to have opinions about not only Napa versus Sonoma, but specific ideas about which Sonoma wineries were the best. My love for kale, kombucha, and avocados grew. I had one wardrobe, appropriate year-round, and filled with color.
Beyond what I gained, I also lost things. I lost my concern for appearances. When I left the house, my goal was to look like I wasn’t homeless. And if I was mistaken for homeless (which did happen), it was no stress.
I am sure that freedom also played a role in supporting my ability to come out (previous entries here) and subsequently fall in love with Liz. San Francisco was not just the backdrop to but a character in our love story. On our first date, we lingered over breakfast sandwiches at Slow Club and drinks at Triptych. She proposed in our Potrero Hill apartment, and I ‘counter-proposed’ at a vineyard in Napa. After a week of escorting our guests around to all our favorite Bay Area sites, we were married in the Presidio against the backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge. We didn’t think twice about how we’d be accepted as a couple — or later, how our little lady would be accepted and loved.
This April, we left the Bay for Connecticut. We were lured away by the promise of new things: a job that offers unparalleled learning and significant impact, less commuting and travel time, more balance and flexibility. It is the right choice for our family, but it is not without heartbreak. Because, beyond everything I’ve described about California, the biggest thing we will miss is the people. The ineffable magic of the Bay Area doesn’t come from the temperate weather and the bay views, but from the people and the culture. We will miss our community above all.
It will take a while to grieve California and adjust to this new place. As I wind my way along the parkways of woodsy, suburban Connecticut, I feel the familiar questions creep in: What is this place? What do people see in it? Like my reaction ten years ago, I honestly don’t understand what is so great about this place. Driving by the green-leafed trees now feels foreign. And yet, just as impossibly as California did, I hope that this place too will grow close to our hearts.
But, for now, I have left my heart in San Francisco. This is my love note to you. Thank you for everything. We’ll be back.
As a committed parent, I want to optimize every situation for my baby’s development. In addition to the feeding, diapering, snuggling, and bathing, I’m always at the ready with an age-appropriate toy 0r the Baby Einstein Pandora station. I read Wonder Weeks, Google every incremental action, and know the developmental milestones like the back of her tiny baby hand. But the other day, I was reminded of why I try to give Elliott space instead of trying to drive her development. This day in particular I was waiting for her to turn from back to front. She had mastered the front-to-back roll, but not yet the opposite.
Instead of entertaining her, showing her how to move, or even cheering her on, I got quiet. I watched the micro-movements that were not in her repertoire a couple of days earlier. She moved in a circle on her back to get a toy. She pushed off with her feet to scoot along on her back. She explored a blanket by putting it on her face instead of lying atop it. Eventually, after a long while, Elliott turned a full circle, 360 degrees, on her back. Looking at the babe, I realized that this wouldn’t have happened if I had followed my instinct to reposition her as soon as she moved off her baby blanket or even changed her diaper as soon as I noticed it was wet. Instead, I let go of my parental agenda and followed her lead. She was exploring. She was happy. She had a wet diaper and was laying directly on the rug, but she was doing all sorts of unexpected and “untaught” things.
While I was focused on the great big milestone of The Roll, Elliott was accomplishing a whole host of subtle new moves – when I gave her space to do so. But by asking her to be with me instead of me being with her, I was missing all the ways she was developing herself – and perhaps even getting in her way.
In parenting, I have been particularly inspired by the thinking of Magda Gerber and her parenting philosophy known as RIE (“Resources for Infant Educarers”)*. One key point of Magda’s philosophy is to “observe more, do less” and, correspondingly, to “do less, enjoy more.”
I can go days feeding, changing, and playing with Elliott to belatedly realize that I’ve spent very little time just observing her. When I do that, I realize that she is up to far more interesting, complex, and developmentally-appropriate ‘play’ than I could ever design for her. It’s not easy to settle and be present; Lee Fernandez, a RIE instructor we’ve worked with, suggested that even just ten minutes a day of truly being present to your baby is an accomplishment.
Of course, the following day, when Liz and I sat quietly with her, Elliott rolled from her back to her front. And when she finally rolled over, she did it for a purpose. She turned over not because I was showing her how to do it or cheering her enthusiastically, but because she was exploring her world. She did it not to satisfy some developmental milestone, but instead because it was the best way to reach her ball. Elliott had no sense of it being better to move this way or that way; indeed, she seemed to be less likely to do what we might hope when we’re getting in the way with our interference and expectations.
Now, when I’m shaking a toy in front of her face or moving a toy to within her reach, I have to ask: “Am I doing this for her or for me?” Often, I am trying to control the situation for me or shaking the toy to entertain myself. Instead, I need to breathe, take a step back, and see what she’s up creating. Ironically, that’s the way that she ends up taking the developmental leaps that I am expecting anyway.
*Liz downloaded the book Your Self-Confident Baby for our European babymoon roadtrip. She asked her sister, Kate (with a graduate degree in Early Childhood Education), advice on whether it was a good pick. Kate’s response was that it seemed like something I would like. That was my first introduction to RIE and she was right.