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Rotary Thought Spot: Tidings From Glass Beach

November 30th, 2009

“To stand at the edge of the sea, to sense the ebb and flow of the tides…is to have knowledge of things that areas nearly eternal as any earthy life can be.”

                              Rachel Carson, Under the Sea-Wind

“For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)

It’s always ourselves we find in the sea.”

                              e.e. cummings,  maggie and milly and molly and may

I have always been a beachcomber, especially in the off-season.

On Sunday afternoons my father would take my brothers and sisters and me to the beach and we’d spend hours scouring for shells and odd bits of flotsam. If we were lucky, we’d find buried treasure – coins and bills that fell out of sunbathers’ pockets during the summer and resurfaced months later with the winds and the tides.

On a clear and brisk autumn morning last year my sisters and I were drawn to the wharf and waterfront. Our mother had just passed away and in the day-long lull between making arrangements and the services we found comfort in our  childhood habit of beachcombing. It gave us time to be together and the space to be alone with our selves and our thoughts.

The half-moon of sand adjacent to Derby Wharf  isn’t officially named Glass Beach – and it isn’t really a bathing beach, either. From the time of the American Revolution and my hometown’s heyday as a Far East shipping port, the locals had dumped more than tea into the harbor and mud flat.

 The visitor’s center on the wharf displays artifacts fished out of the water, including an assortment of shoes spanning more than two centuries. Derby Wharf Beach had earned its nickname from the bits of weathered glass and ceramics that regularly washed up with the tides. There was always more to be discovered on Glass Beach.

It was almost low tide when we arrived that day.

 One of my sisters headed for the rocks flanking the north side of the beach while the other explored the drift lines in the sand, marked by rubbery, lasagna-like ribbons of seaweed. I walked southeast along the exposed granite seawall, my boots suctioning through the mucky sand and a pair of indignant but hopeful seagulls trailing in my wake.

Periwinkles clung in clusters to the slick green algae coating the wall. Gingerly I searched the pungent mud flat for promising glimpses of what could be the day’s perfect, intact shell. 

When the muck got too deep I crisscrossed the beach to the barnacled rocks separating the sea and neighborhood backyards. What the tides had washed up was displayed there in ingenious ways. One ocean-facing patio sported two urns filled with ceramic fragments. Clam and mussel shells adorned wind chimes on the deck next door. 

The garden path in another yard was built from green and brown sea glass. Had those bottles held last year’s beer or a privateer’s grog? There was no telling; the tides had worn them down and washed them up when the time was right.

We regrouped to compare our booty and Glass Beach had not disappointed.

One of my sisters had found several artfully aged pieces of pottery; the other had found a few coins and an inexplicable turquoise geode. I had an assortment of salt-bleached clam shells and smooth rocks for the porcelain bowl in my office.  

The pottery in my sister’s hand could have been shipped here centuries ago, chipped and left as rubbish in the harbor, only to resurface that day as a bit of art and history. A space in the sand that held a piece of seaweed or a shell today would hold something different tomorrow.

 As we walked quietly homeward, the thought occurred to me:

 Was I sifting through ideas and possibilities with the same care I reserved for beachcombing?

Being a member of a Rotary club is less like viewing those artifacts in the visitor’s center at Derby Wharf and more like being on Glass Beach. Even in the midst of our familiar, predictable activities, circumstances change. Are we shifting our thinking when that happens? 

Many times I’ve rejected an idea or possibility because it hadn’t worked on the first attempt. And when a fired-up club member suggests a previously thought-of idea, we may patiently listen and say, “We tried that 5 years ago and it didn’t work.”   

Our clubs and our ideas, like the beach, are not fixed and static. Like the tides, they are bringers of new things,  revealing today what wasn’t possible yesterday. 

My porcelain bowl of shells and stones holds more than the fruits of beachcombing with my sisters. It reminds me that there might be buried treasure in sifting through ideas and giving them another try.


PDG Elizabeth

 For H and Peggy

Beachcombing for Ideas

Move Beyond “We Tried That”:  The next time a club member raises (or recycles) an idea, and a club member (or you) says, “We tried that and it didn’t work,” try asking a few questions instead.  Examples are:

  • What got in the way of this succeeding in the past?
  • What circumstances have changed from then to now?
  • What could we do differently that might make the idea work now?

Check out Your Voice, Your Solution:  Rotary International has created a new online problem-solving forum to promote idea exchange and implementation suggestions for the common issues that clubs face. Your Voice, Your Solution addresses a new issue each month and provides clubs with an opportunity to offer and read input.  Check out Your Voice, Your Solution at the following link: 


Easy on the “I’s”

November 10th, 2009

Recently I attended a corporate meeting and in the dozens of conversations that took place over two days, I took some time to observe the participants. On the surface, they seemed to be having good conversations, with lots of jokes and loud laughter. But their subtexts revealed more. Often they interrupted each other in mid-sentence. Some people seemed not to be listening at all but rather prowling for the small pause that would allow them to take back the floor.  And most of what everyone had to say started with the word I.  They behaved like normal people – like most of us would in a similar situation. Intent on communicating, they never really saw one another’s points of view.

That meeting made me think about my first business trip to Japan.

I was in Tokyo to negotiate the terms of a strategic alliance. I was travelling with a Japanese-American consultant to my organization, who functioned as a liaison and translator. For our first night in Tokyo we stayed in the home of his cousin.  A single woman in her forties, Takayo was a realtor in Tokyo who spoke some English and had studied French.  My Japanese was limited to polite phrases that were useful in passing interactions but not so useful for a true conversation: comments about the weather, where I would be travelling, how long I’d been in Tokyo, yes I liked Japanese food.  We managed to speak a hybrid language of our own over dinner, a mix of deconstructed English with some French thrown in and a little Japanese here and there, spiced with unintentional humor. 

After dinner I reflected on our conversation. And as I thought about what Takayo had told me about herself and asked about me, I realized that rarely had she used the word “I” in speaking to me.  It was as if she had held up a mirror to our conversation.  Only instead of admiring herself in the mirror, she reflected back everything she said in terms of its relevance to me and what I had said. 

We were using the same words but we weren’t really speaking the same language. I was speaking I to You and she was speaking You to You. 

You to You communication is part of Japanese culture and it taught me an important lesson early in my career: relevance is a business essential, regardless of the culture.

Through her interaction with me, Takayo demonstrated that in forming business relationships – whether they are with partners, prospective customers or the Web 2.0 audience that influences perceptions of our brands – responding is more than expressing our own views. It’s listening first and then expressing our views in a way that reflects and incorporates the viewpoints of those on the receiving end.  That’s You to You.  And that’s as relevant in Texas or the digital world as it is in Tokyo.