The antebellum architecture of the South Carolina Low County around Beaufort ranges from the mansions of dignitaries and wealthy merchants to the three remaining praise houses of the Gullah people.
As much as I enjoyed looking at the former, it was my visit to a small white cabin, no bigger than a farm stand on the side of highway, that impressed me the most. Intended as places for slaves to worship, praise houses were intentionally kept small by plantation owners who feared the slaves might organize if allowed to congregate in large numbers.
There, as many as could fit on the benches of a 10x15 room would do the only thing they could do without asking permission, sing praises to a Christian God, while they beat out the rhythms of their West African homes with their hands, feet, walking sticks and dried gourds and created a unique culture by singing, stomping and shouting their own identity.
The first half dozen pages of the November issue of Real Simple were just the kind of thing you’d expect from a glossy magazine—double page ads for makeup, cashmere sweaters, and a sonic foot care system.
It was the next couple of pages that brought me up short.
On the left, beneath the word “Thoughts” there was a striking photograph of an island with a grove of birch trees whose russet leaves covered the ground and a boardwalk inviting the reader to stroll over a patch of slate blue water lined with the afternoon shadows of the trees to the solitude and peace of the island.
Near the bottom of the page there was a quote from Henry David Thoreau: "I am grateful for what I am and have. My thanksgiving is perpetual. It is surprising how contented one can be with nothing definite—only a sense of existence.
On the right there was a full page ad dominated by an enormous image of a bottle of facial lotion floating inside a water balloon (presumably to highlight its moisturizing qualities).
It was such a strange juxtaposition. I couldn’t help but wonder what Thoreau would have to say about it.
What if every time I de-cluttered, picking up shoes, books, dishes, etc., instead of grumbling about it I paused to remember the recent tornado in Moore, Oklahoma and reminded myself that if I lived there I might have nothing left to put away?
What if, after listening to a discussion about nuclear proliferation in unstable countries halfway across the world, I closed my eyes and allowed the realization of the potential we have to destroy one another to inform how I create peace in the relationships in my life?
What if I looked at the opportunity I have to do the work I know how to do as a great gift, like Mike Leahy, the only person to get a job in the PBS New Hours story about the increasing despair of over-55 job seekers unable to find employment I talked about last month.
Last month I talked about the chronic nature of long-term unemployment. But there’s another elephant in the living room—systemic ageism.
In a recent segment on the PBS News Hour Paul Solman reported, “For those 55 and older, it takes at least a year on average to find work, longer than any other age group.”
He then sat down to talk with a group of bright, skilled, articulate older men and women who been unsuccessful at finding work.
Although each of them had tried to appear younger using such tactics as truncating the work history on their resumes, their attempts had ultimately backfired.
“I was coming in for a face-to-face interview,” one person said, “and the HR recruiter saw me, assumed who I was, and his face—I could just see his face almost fall when he saw me and how old I was. After that, I pretty much got pushed through two of the people I was supposed to talk to. The other three got busy and I couldn't see them.”
The others nodded and related their own experiences of losing an interviewer’s attention or being given a perfunctory half hour before being shown the door.
During the holidays, a senior executive I work with unplugged and loved the time it gave her to think, to enjoy breathing space, and “feel more sane.” At the end of the long first Monday back, her non-stop schedule with too much work and too many meetings left her wanting to do nothing but stretch out on the couch and watch Downtown Abbey. Yet she found herself in work mode, sitting up and tensely typing tweets instead. She had to make herself stop and enjoy the show.
Harper Reed, Chief Technology Officer for President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, was used to receiving thousands of emails a day, but when the election was over, he chose to put distance between the campaign and what was coming next in his life by giving himself a week away from the Internet and 140-character tweets to read a 1,000 page history of the Stalingrad Campaign.
I like these examples of creating a healthier balance between time spent on- and offline because they represent conscious choices that are far removed from all the hype we’re hearing these days about “digital detox.”
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.