Like most people who live on the outer hook of Cape Cod, where the land juts thirty miles out into the Atlantic Ocean, I've long accepted my vulnerability to howling winds and rising seas, but I’d be less than honest if I didn't admit to thinking a great deal more about it since Hurricane Sandy. When the images of devastation on television look a lot like the beach houses, marinas, and sand dunes you see every day, it's a powerful reminder that it could be your turn next.
So how do you get ready—not physically, but psychologically and spiritually? Whether it’s a superstorm, a professional crisis, or a personal loss, how do you prepare yourself to move beyond your own fears so that you can be a calm and supportive presence to others? What can you do to make it more likely that in a disaster you will be able to offer the best of who you are?
Shortly after arriving at my retreat destination on Skaneateles Lake, I took a walk on Glen Haven Road, a narrow lane cut into the steep hill above the western shoreline.
Just beyond the bend in the road where crimson Virginia Creeper had wrapped itself like a shawl around the arms of a golden maples, I saw a woman jogging up the hill toward me, and then a car approaching from behind her. A moment later I heard I car coming up behind me as well.
Suddenly my walking route, which was normally deserted on an off-season weekday, had turned into a crowded thoroughfare. There was no shoulder, and I thought I might have to leap down a ladder to a boathouse to get out of the way, but both cars stopped, and the driver coming toward me pulled over as far as he could to let the driver coming from behind me pass, and then he carefully proceeded. We all waved at each other and went on our way.
These acts of courtesy felt very special to me. Why? Because they were in sharp contrast to the stories of rudeness I routinely hear about from my clients who are looking for work.
As you read this, I am on my annual rest-read-write retreat at Skaneateles Lake, so I am offering this column about a past trip in 2010. Of course, I don’t yet know what will come from the creative space of this year's visit, but I promise to let you know in a future column.
My time at the lake this year was about being in the here and now. I try to do this at home, but being away frames it differently.
There's the packing and the unpacking, the seven hour trip there and back, the joy of arriving and the sadness of leaving. Going to the same place every year has sharpened my awareness of these dichotomies, and I know the alternating rhythm well enough that sway with it immediately.
A couple of weeks ago I was sitting at a Board of Health hearing, listening to a detailed description of the advanced septic system proposed for the house being built across the street.
The technicalities were way beyond my grasp, but I got the gist of it—waste would be collected, aerated and filtered through a series of membranes and holding tanks until what was left was potable.
I found the idea of being able to transform discarded matter into something useful intriguing and tried to think of a way I could use it as an analogy in my own area of expertise.
Then I remembered what I learned about feedback from Charlie and Edie Seashore.
Feedback is simply information, and in spite of what we may sometimes think, it's neither negative nor positive.
Like input to the system discussed by the Board of Health, it can be processed through a series of mental “membranes” to eliminate the garbage and refine what has potential for use.
During July and August the bayside beaches of Cape Cod are prime destinations at sunset. It's the best show in town and tourists and locals alike flock to it.
The other day, as sunset was approaching, I decided I would go to Sunken Meadow, the bay beach closest to my house. As I pulled into the packed parking lot and saw groups of visitors socializing, wine glasses in hand, my inner negativity was stirred up and I said to myself "What are all these people doing on my beach?" I had come to view a natural wonder, not watch them party.
I decided to go further up the road to the Wellfleet Bay Audubon Sanctuary and walk one of the trails out to the bay. To my delight, there was only one other car in the parking lot, and I didn't see another soul as I passed Try Island and followed the boardwalk out to the tidal flats. I was able to watch the crimson sun slip into the glimmering teal water in perfect solitude.
One of the participants in Charlie and Edie Seashore’s course at the Cape Cod Institute last week spoke of a particularly entrenched dynamic in her life and concluded with a sigh, "It is what it is."
"Or is it?" Edie replied, to much laughter.
It was a reminder of how easily we fall back into seeing our circumstances in habitual ways that don't serve us well.
I didn't realize just how much I needed it until the course ended and the very next day the full weight of summer descended upon me—tourist gridlock in the grocery store, a calendar complicated by trying to juggle family visits and client sessions, my own competing desires to get things done and still have enough time and energy left over to enjoy summer.
My husband and I own a canoe, but for years the only action we took re canoeing was to talk about how we ought to take it out on one of the marshes or kettle ponds before the summer ended.
But we’d got rid of the car with the roof racks and it always seemed like too much trouble to have to figure on a new way to strap the thing on top, so there it sat, season after season, on sawhorses beside the garage.
This year, however, as the tourists began to arrive, I found myself looking at their kayaks with envy, so I told my husband it was time we went canoeing again.
He went to work, cleaning years of accumulated dirt off the fiberglass shell and fixing a broken thwart, while I rummaged in the attic and located the paddles, the life jackets and the dry bag.
At a local outdoor store we found a carrying kit suitable for hauling a canoe short distances and we bought it and drove straight home and loaded Sacagawea onto the car and took her to Salt Pond.
It was the beginning of rush hour, and the Green Line train was almost full, forcing us to stand. As soon as we boarded I grabbed the bar on the back of the seat nearest me and adjusted my stance to absorb the jerk which I knew would follow as soon as we started.
I noticed a man sitting in the aisle seat a few rows back, and two things about him immediately grabbed my attention. One, he was sitting with his back ramrod straight, and two, he was ex-military, wearing a black corduroy baseball cap embroidered in red and yellow letters that said "Marine Veteran" and a badge that read "Vietnam Veteran" above the pocket of his denim jacket.
His self-assurance was fascinating, yet I also found his eyes-front posture intimidating because of the oversize aviator sunglasses that hid half of his handsome face, making it impossible to read his expression. I aimed my gaze over his head and out the window and wondered what he'd experienced in that war that was more humiliating to those who fought in it than any other in America's history, and how it had shaped him.
During the first week of spring, the temperature dipped into the twenties, the daffodils lay prostrate on the walk, and I devoted an entire day to cleaning out my files.
I usually purge them in January to get a fresh start on the year, but I had failed to do so, not only this past January, but also in January of 2011.
So it was time—past time. Too much paper never sorts itself out. The trivial and the important were jammed together, both in the cabinet and in my head.
I soon realized that my neglect to use organization as a strategic planning tool (see Wildly Organized) was symbolic of an ambivalence about where I am in my professional life.
In Free Agent Nation, Daniel Pink suggests watching two films to get an idea of how the world of work has changed since the middle of the twentieth century.
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956) is about a public relations executive, the Organization Man of the 1950s.
Jerry Maguire (1996) is the story of a West Coast sports agent who navigates today's freewheeling entrepreneurial culture.
But what struck me on the snowy afternoon that I watched these movies back to back was not so much how the culture of work has changed, but how much it has remained the same.