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Thought Spot: Better Than We Can Imagine

December 1st, 2011

“The purpose of life, after all, is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”

                                            — Eleanor Roosevelt

“If I accept you as you are, I will make you worse; however if I treat you as though you are what you are capable of becoming, I help you become that.”

                                            — Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

 

I’m seven years old and I’m sitting on the stairs watching the departure below.

My grandmother is here to babysit while my parents go out for the evening.

As usual on these occasions, my brothers and sisters and I were given an early supper, changed into our pajamas and sent upstairs to our rooms with that most impossible of childhood encouragements – “play quietly.” I slip away from the soon-to-be boisterous board game, my red velveteen slippers padding softly onto the stairway. 

Five steps down to where the risers curve toward the second floor. With my forehead pressed against the wooden coolness of the banister, each hand gripping a railing, I settle onto the step to observe my parents. Especially my mother. 

 Most days she is dressed like other mothers in sensible skirts and sensible blouses and sensible shoes.  Dressed up for an evening out, she is transformed.

With her wavy jet-black hair and milky skin she could have been the model for Snow White. I am awestruck by her aurora borealis necklace, the swish of her dress wafting Chanel Number 5 up the stairway, the luxurious click of her satiny high heels on the hardwood floor. 

After they leave I sneak into my parent’s bedroom to my mother’s closet. I take in the scent of Chanel and survey what I think of as my mother’s princess clothes, so different from the ones she wears at home or to parent-teacher meetings at school. The aquamarine silk dress one of my uncles had made for her in Hong Kong. The russet mouton fur that was her 21st birthday present. A coat worthy of Snow White herself: a long, graceful sweep of black velvet lined with muted gold silk. 

As quietly as I can, I drag the chair from the writing desk over to the closet and with my new-found height  I lift the velvet coat off its padded hanger and drape it over my seersucker pajamas. Cautiously, I hold my breath as I open the jewelry box and find my favorite necklace – a string of intricately carved oblong ivory beads. They were a gift from my father before my parents were married, when my father was assigned to Trinidad.  I do not know where Trinidad is, but the name conjures up an exotic place with people I imagine wearing favorite clothes and beads like my mother’s.  

Not long ago I came home at dusk to find one of my sister’s favorite things sitting on the front steps. It was a package wrapped in brown paper – and yes, tied with a string. Even if I hadn’t recognized the perfectly symmetrical script on the address label, I would have known who sent it. 

Like Shakespeare’s mastery of the play within a play, my sister’s signature mailing is the box within a box, with instructions crisp as frost. I release the brown paper from its tape confines on the kitchen table to uncover a shoebox. A star-shaped post-it note is affixed to it, like a note to Alice on a cake or bottle in Wonderland. This one reads: The good news is, it’s not a pair of shoes.

Nestled between meticulously crushed tissue paper is a small box lined with fluffy cotton, and in the cotton a necklace that even now gives off a distant hint of Chanel Number 5. For a moment I am seven years old again, enveloped in rich folds of black velvet, the word Trinidad as delicious as chocolate on my tongue.

 The ivory beads. My sister has found them, string frayed and clasp broken, in the recesses of my mother’s hope chest. They are now interspersed with gold spacers and restrung with a modern clasp. The beads are back, reinvented and reinterpreted. My sister has made them even better than I remember, better than I had imagined they could be. 

Like us, in Rotary. We also are in the process of reinventing ourselves, of adding to and letting go, creating space for what enables Rotary to serve its purpose into the future. 

I don’t know if the past was as I remember or imagined it as a child. I don’t actually know if the velvet coat I coveted was as sumptuous as it seemed at the time. I do know that my mother’s great grandchildren will see these beads differently from the seven-year-old who carefully fingered them decades ago. And that exotic places like Trinidad or Malawi, as well as the outskirts or inner cores of our own communities, have needs that Rotary can serve even better than we can imagine. 

Opening ourselves to reinvention can breathe new life into our clubs, our communities and our commitment to service above self. It also takes us into unknown territory. We can risk becoming spectators sitting on the stairs. Or we can reinvent ourselves, embracing the unknowns that come with it, and step out into our future.

Sincerely,

PDG Elizabeth

Thought Spot: Time and Treasure

July 11th, 2011

 “Every generation needs regeneration.”

    –  Charles H. Spurgeon

“This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.”

              –   Ralph Waldo Emerson 

What is treasure?

When I was growing up, treasure meant everything exotic on exhibit at the local museum. Founded as the East India Marine Society in 1799, the bylaws required member sea captains to collect and bring back “curiosities” from their trading voyages beyond the Cape of Good Hope. These included Ku, the enormous, frightening Hawaiian god of war, and an oddly long-necked penguin from the Falkland Islands. I couldn’t figure out why the penguins at the aquarium had short necks, while this museum bird’s extended like a crane’s. Years later I found out that that when the penguin was stuffed in 1820, the local taxidermist had never seen a penguin before and elongated its neck.

My favorite spot in the museum was and still is East India Hall, a second floor room with glossy oak floors and high windows and pale walls lined with the portraits of the sea captains who founded the Society. Their commercial success in trade with Asia prompted my hometown’s motto, “to the farthest ports of the rich East.”

In middle school I visited East India Hall regularly with my friend Cathy. Cathy’s mother worked at the museum, which was located midway between school and Cathy’s house. We usually had an hour or so after school to browse tribal masks and war clubs from places like Oceania and breathe in the scent of ancient and current dust before catching a ride home with Cathy’s mother at the end of her work day.  

We’d inevitably wander into East India Hall, circling the showy figureheads that once adorned trading ships. Ornately carved women with flowing hair and vivid dresses. Scotsmen in kilts.  Black and gold dragons, tigers and sea demons, lips drawn back in fierce snarls. Under the disapproving stare of a museum guard, we’d peruse the gallery of ship captain portraits and launch our lively debate about which was most handsome, according to our ‘tweenaged standards. None of them, I would argue, were as handsome as Great Uncle Stanley.

Uncle Stanley hung reverently on the wall in my grandmother’s parlor. He needed no elaborate officer’s uniform to enhance his looks;  the stark green issue of a Lithuanian army recruit was more than enough to offset his blue eyes, fair hair and moustache. He was in his early twenties when he sat for the portrait.  This convex image of her younger, favorite brother in the oval oak frame was one of the few possessions my grandmother had managed to preserve and treasure through her migration to a new country, the lockdown of the Iron Curtain and the ultimate disconnection from family in Eastern Europe. 

With my grandmother’s passing Uncle Stanley moved to an attic bedroom in my family’s house. In my

 college and early career years, I would occasionally visit him on my searches through the boxes my siblings and I had deposited in the attic.  Largely forgotten, his old-fashioned portrait had a hard time blending with late twentieth-century decorative aesthetics.  Uncle Stanley was left to stand watch over the toys and sports trophies and yearbooks of our American childhood.

When my parents downsized to a condominium and I collected my store of stuff from the attic, it became obvious. Uncle Stanley needed a caretaker. I found myself leaving the house one night with my mother’s honeymoon luggage under one arm and Uncle Stanley under the other, now two generations removed from the sister who had held him in such affection.

Uncle Stanley took yet another migration to the American Midwest and was living an anonymous life among the excess wall art in my office closet, in the no-man’s land between trash and treasure. Things changed after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the re-established independence of Lithuania and the reconnection of our family ties there. 

A few days ago, I emailed a photo of Uncle Stanley’s portrait to a cousin in Lithuania, who shared it on Facebook with other family members on two continents. Until then, Uncle Stanley’s youngest son, now in his eighties, had never seen an image of his father as a young man, the father who had made him promise to find and reconnect with his family in America.  Uncle Stanley went digital, and went home. 

Family portrait and Rotary alike, changing with the times is what keeps us relevant.

The real value of my great uncle’s portrait is not in the past. What makes him a treasure for my family is the genuine connection he creates between us, here and now. The same is true in Rotary.  When we appreciate our past and also adapt to present times, we increase our capacity to share our core values and our humanitarian service across generations, in our communities and across the world.

Changing with the times, to be sure, can be a challenge. It is also a golden opportunity, if we know what to do with it.  And if one old family portrait can go digital, change lives and connect people across continents, how much more can 1.2 million of us accomplish, here and now?

Thought Spot: A Level Up

March 23rd, 2011

 

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
           – Albert Einstein

 “I don’t pretend we have all the answers. But the questions are certainly worth thinking about.”
           – Sir Arthur C. Clarke

 

When I returned to Boston after three years in Latin America, I was an adjunct professor in a business school. I learned a great deal from my experiences in the classroom. 

But my learning curve started in the parking lot.

It was a late afternoon and I was weaving between the rows of cars to my class, clutching my notes and a much-needed coffee when a voice interrupted my thoughts.

“Festina lente,” a man called out to me. “Make haste slowly. Or are you just making haste?”

He was tall and wide and wore a scuffed leather satchel strapped across one shoulder. The top of his head was hairless, compensated for by the full curls of a brown-gray beard at his chin. What struck me most were his eyes – piercing, kind and oddly cheerful, all at the same time.

Who was this giant of a guy quoting Latin and climbing out of a Honda Civic with a license plate that spelled DOUBT? Hm. Not a business school type.

“English department – teaching an evening film course this semester.” Michael introduced himself and explained agreeably. “This building has better classrooms for screenings.”

As I discovered over the course of that semester, conversations with Michael were free-ranging, somewhat unsettling, thought-provoking exchanges that combined an extraordinary range of interests with his obvious love of discourse. I’d heard that in faculty meetings he was often the one who redirected discussions that were veering into unproductive territory by raising a question that made others stop and think, or rethink.

One afternoon in the faculty dining room Michael cut in front of me as I pushed my tray toward the cashier.

“We’re having a few friends over for our monthly dinner party next Friday and Rachel and I thought you might like to come.” He paid the cashier for his apple and handed me a card with a mirthful smile playing in his eyes. “We meet at 6:00 and sit for dinner at 6:30. Here’s our address. Be seeing you.”   

It’s probably dinner with his colleagues from the English department, I thought. I hoped I wouldn’t have to feign an in-depth knowledge of symbolism in Faulkner or reach into the dim and dusty recesses of my undergraduate exposure to the classics just to get through dinner.

At 6:00 on the appointed Friday I presented myself at a brick and ivy-covered, 1920’s-era apartment building in Cambridge, off Mass Ave.

Michael opened the door, a pressed white shirt replacing his customary and slightly rumpled corduroy jacket with suede elbow patches. Strains of a Mahler symphony wafted into the hallway. His significant other, Rachel, greeted me warmly as she lit the candles on a table set for 10 diners.

Seven other dinner guests were already there. None were from the English department. Good. No trivia questions on Greek tragedy tonight.

At precisely 6:30, Michael invited us to take our seats. To my left was an architect who had grown up in the Middle East. On my right was a freelance reporter for a Boston newspaper who was writing a crime novel.

As the evening progressed I watched Michael raise questions on politics, art, pop culture, movies, music, history and a myriad of other topics for guests to consider whenever there was a natural lull in the one-to-one conversations. Then he’d quietly lean back in his chair, enjoying his guests enjoying themselves.

He did not dominate or force the conversation. He simply set the stage for an engaging dialogue between people with both common and uncommon views.

I left that evening re-energized by this meeting of minds. 

None of us exchanged business cards.  No one networked. We just shared a meal and ideas that were a level up from our day-to-day thinking.

All of us, all of our clubs, face issues and opportunities. Working through one of my own recently reminded me of Michael’s dinner parties and how thinking one or two levels up from the day-to-day is where a meeting of minds, ideas and peace is possible -whether we’re socializing, working on our Rotary clubs or helping others through our Rotary service.

Watching Michael that night, I understood why he had a reputation for turning around contentious debates. He knew how to bring the dialogue up a level or two.  

It takes practice, and not everyone, including me, is always comfortable with the role. Especially when a meeting of minds seems challenging. But someone has to start, and each of us can begin by asking the questions that make us stop and think, a level up.

Thought Spot: The Quest For The Vest

January 13th, 2011

The Sunday night bedtime story was a tradition in my family. 

As my brothers and sisters and I settled into bed my mother and father would lean against the doorway of our adjoining rooms to tell us stories from their own lives.

Our favorite stories from my father’s boyhood were about his pet rooster, a big black one that followed him around like a loyal hound. When it was my mother’s turn we never tired of hearing the story of how my parents met, as if we had never heard it before. 

The color rose in my mother’s cheeks whenever she described seeing my father for the first time.  And she always included the details of what he wore: a crisp white shirt, carefully knotted plaid tie and a yellow sweater vest.

The Legend of the Sweater Vest was family lore. When my parent’s 40th wedding anniversary approached, I decided it was time to bring the legend to life. 

And so began my Quest For The Vest.

 I took my search to a department store at a shopping mall. The sales person, eager and efficient and  twenty-something, wore a name tag that identified him as  Chaz, Team Member. He locked me in his sights across the shirt display he was straightening and zoomed in a Mach speed. “Hi, what are you looking for, a nice sweater for your boyfriend? These are great don’t you think, and they’re on sale, if you buy two, you know.”  I began to suspect that maybe he had a quota driven by a sales contest and I was now the target for Team Chaz, as I’d already started thinking of him.

 “I’m looking for a sweater v…” I didn’t get to finish. “Oh vests!” Team Chaz snared me in the word. “I have just the thing in faux fleece with zippered cargo pockets, they’re the hottest item this season you know, really stylish in this Black Forest green all the designers are showing…”

I feigned my way out of the store with my best I’m Late routine, gasping at my watch, the time, my urgent need to be on my way for a very important date.  That was the first of a series of unsuccessful  vest-seeking missions.  Goldilocks had an easier time sourcing oatmeal from bears.

A few days later I passed a small men’s store, with sensible and unremarkable clothing displayed in the windows.  Nothing special, I thought.  But The Quest for the Vest wasn’t going well.  Five minutes of browsing couldn’t hurt. 

A salesman greeted me from a respectful distance and busied himself as I scanned for a glimpse of yellow.  After a few minutes he asked quietly, “Are you looking for anything special?”

Special.  Yes, something very special. 

“I’m looking for a sweater vest for my father. A yellow sweater vest.”  He paused, letting my words filter down around us like the sunlight coming through the slats in the window blinds.  “What style would your father like? What size?”  He waited again. 

I found myself telling him the story of the original yellow sweater vest I’d grown up hearing and how I’d decided to find one for my parents’ wedding anniversary. And how I was pretty much failing at that.

Smiling, he beckoned me to a rack on the other side of the store. “Let’s see what we have for you.” He studied the rack, and deftly extracted a lambswool pullover vest the color of lemon custard.  Eureka.

 He noted the size. “Too large,” he observed. “When do you need it?”  I had a few days before the anniversary. “Not a problem,” he reassured me.  “Come back Friday and I’ll have it for you in the right size.”

He did.

Some of my happiest memories of my parents are their Sunday night stories, and the anniversary that they opened an ordinary shirt box, peeled back the layers of tissue and lifted out a yellow sweater vest.  Yes, persistence paid off.  The bonus was a lesson in serving others, a gift from that salesman who honored the story and the people who owned it.

I’ve been in similar situations in my service leadership. Sometimes I’ve been like Team Chaz.  Hearing a story of need, I’ve jumped in, making assumptions about how I can help and taking action before understanding what’s needed or wanted. 

The times that I’ve served best – and profited most – are the times I’ve been more like that unnamed salesman.  When I’ve understood that story listening is as important as storytelling because it allows us to take action in ways that honor both the story and its owners.

We may never fully experience the stories we hear in the same way as the people who own them, whether they are members of our immediate family or members of our Rotary club or children in a remote village without schools, clean water or medical care.  But we can make a great difference in their lives and ours when lend an ear before we lend a hand, grounding our contributions and our service in good story listening.

Sincerely,

PDG Elizabeth

Thought Spot: A Degree of Focus

October 7th, 2010

“The main thing is keeping the main thing the main thing.”

                                           -German Proverb

 “Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.”

                                       -Alexander Graham Bell

 My sister has been in search of the ultimate exercise regimen for most of her adult life.  When I relocated to Kansas City, she regularly included me in her quest.

First we tried step aerobics together. Neither of us seemed able to master the necessary brain/arm/leg coordination. Then came spinning classes, the Tour de France on a stationary bike that left me sore and testy. I passed on the offer to study Hapkido martial arts with her.

Then she suggested bikram yoga.  Yoga seemed tame given my sister’s penchant for the physically demanding. “Yoga?” I asked, surprised. “Hot yoga,” she breezed. “Yoga in a room that’s 105 degrees Farenheit.  It’s supposed to be a really good workout.  Wanna try it?”

I can’t sit on my patio in 105 degrees. But I agreed to go.

The yoga studio was deceptively airy and light, with shiny blond wood floors and mirrored walls. Several students had already rolled out their mats were doing their pre-class stretches.

Staking out a spot near the windows at the back of the room, I resolutely unrolled my mat and sat down, eyes closed. Then the wall of heat blasted me like a Jedi’s force field. But this was yoga, right? It should at least make me feel peaceful, if not cool and dry.  

The studio door opened and closed with the instructor’s crisp authority, interrupting my preoccupation with the heat. Svetlana was all business and clearly unconcerned about my peace of mind. Her no-frills delivery in stream-of-consciousness English had a pronounced Eastern European accent. “We begin the 26 postures starting with standing postures, come on, did you come here to work, or just to sit in a hot room? Keep breathing, lock the knee, lock the knee, lock the knee!” 

I glanced sideways at my sister. “Not fun,” she muttered under her breath. Svetlana didn’t miss a beat. “Don’t worry about people around you, focus your mind and the rest of you will follow, concentrate!”  

This seemed like boot camp with the temperature turned up. And I’d only gotten through the first posture, which was Breathing. Twenty five postures and 88 minutes to go.

Hot yoga pulled everything out of me and just about every muscle as I contorted myself into the postures. The Standing Bow – stand on one foot, hold the other foot behind me and pull it above my head?  Even golf was easier than that. “Don’t blink don’t think just focus,” Svetlana intoned.

The Camel – kneel on my mat, do a back bend, and grab my feet along the way?  I’ll give it a shot. I leaned backwards and caught sight of the tasseled fountain grasses outside, waving upside down through the windows. My stomach roiled in protest and I sank forward onto my knees. “If you feel sick or you are wanting to cry this is normal,” Svetlana’s streaming monologue filtered through my throbbing head. Yes, I’d like to cry, thank you, I thought.

Twelve eternal minutes later, Svetlana turned down the heat, admonishing us to close our eyes and lie in savasana – the dead body pose. No problem. I didn’t have the energy for anything else.

Just as I least expected it, that sense of peace that had eluded me throughout the class settled over me like a fresh blanket.

That was five years ago. 

My sister has moved on to a rowing machine. I still practice hot yoga.  My Standing Bow is sometimes wobbly and I don’t always grasp my feet in the Camel. By degrees I’ve learned the value of staying with the postures – of focusing my mind and letting the rest of me follow. Yoga may not be “fun” or make me “happy” in the usual sense. I’m rewarded with something else for my perseverance – a most peaceful sense of satisfaction.

Yoga, it turns out, has a lot in common with our Rotary experience. Of course we have good times and enjoy each other’s company. Still, our main thing is providing life-changing service that often requires long-term, concerted effort.  Like eradicating polio, providing clean water and medical care where there are none, or making our clubs and communities bigger, better and bolder.

When we encounter the inevitable challenges, we can sometimes slip into focusing on them instead of on the main thing. Just as with practicing yoga in a very hot room, if we think about who’s watching, what’s difficult for us or how the heat gets in our way, we diminish our results. If we keep our minds, hearts and efforts focused on that main thing, extraordinary service to humanity can follow.  Along with a peaceful sense of satisfaction.   

Where is your focus going today?

Sincerely,

PDG Elizabeth

Rotary: Is it Time for a Re-Read?

July 21st, 2010

Note: The first Thought Spot was drafted at a bed and breakfast in Kirksville, Missouri a little over two years ago. In appreciation of all of the Rotarians in Kirksville and their special contributions to Rotary International this year, it seems fitting to revisit that first edition as we begin Building Communities and Bridging Continents.

To Kirksville’s Rotarians, and to every Rotarian who leads by example, inspiring others to new perspectives on Service Above Self, thank you. This one is for you.

“There will come a time when you believe everything is finished.  That will be the beginning.”
                                -Louis L’Amour, Lonely on the Mountain

English was not my father’s first language. 

And like a lot of second language learners, he was an avid reader.  He especially liked Conrad and Melville and read their bodies of work not once but several times during his life.  As a young man, it was not uncommon for him to drop my mother off at her home after a date and head for a neighborhood diner, book in hand, to read and drink coffee until the night waitress closed up and shooed him home. 

 Later in life, he added Louis L’Amour westerns to his list of favorites.  One of the simple and great pleasures of his day was to settle into a comfortable chair in the evening to revisit a favorite read for a second or third time – or more.

 Why did he prefer to re-read, rather than switch to something new?  I asked him once.  His answer, like him, was straightforward but not necessarily simple:  it was a good book the last time, and he got something new from a book every time he read it.  

 Lately it’s occurred to me that my father got something new out of old favorites in part because his insights changed with his life experience.  The books weren’t different but what he brought to them each time was.

 As we enter a new Rotary year, I’ve been thinking about what we each bring to our Rotary experience, both individually as Rotarians and collectively in our clubs.  Beginning a new year brings with it an opportunity for all of us to take a “new read” on Rotary and on our clubs.  

 Are we truly bringing new perspectives to Service Above Self?   Or are we operating from perspectives we’ve always held? 

 Maybe it’s time for a re-read. 

To gain something new from being a Rotarian by bringing something new to the experience.  And like my father reading in the neighborhood diner, we can change our local perspectives and open ourselves up to a whole new world of possibilities. 

 Sincerely,

PDG Elizabeth

(originally published July 17, 2008)

Rotary Thought Spot: Crossing Essex

June 17th, 2010

If you want to be creative in your company, your career, your life, all it takes is one easy step… the extra one.  When you encounter a familiar plan, you just ask one question: What ELSE could we do?
                                  – Dale Dauten

“There are no traffic jams along the extra mile.”
                                  – Roger Staubach

Where would you shop if you needed just one grocery item right now?

When I was growing up in New England everyone walked to the “corner store” for that item – the local family-run affair that sold a little of everything.

 One block west of the waterfront in my hometown, Essex Street marked the end of a predominantly Eastern European neighborhood and the beginning of the historic district. And on the northeast corner of Essex and Washington Street stood Armand’s variety store.

French-Canadian Armand was small in stature, staccato in his movements and neat in appearance. His dark hair was meticulously combed back and kept in place with Brylcreem, the precursor of hair gel. A pencil-thin moustache seemed etched on his upper lip. 

 He always wore a dove gray cotton jacket over a white shirt and thin black tie at the store – even on muggy August days. Maybe it was the jacket, but to the neighborhood children Armand seemed like a cross between a general and a bench chemist.

Armand’s variety store was as exacting in its appearance as Armand himself. Pulling open the heavy glass front door, shoppers entered a tidy little universe ready for inspection. Rows of canned goods with all the labels facing front. Paper towels and napkins in orderly, ceiling-high stacks behind the counter. Cold cuts in football-like casings displayed in a deli case, including a mysterious meat labeled Olive Loaf.

Armand sometimes used a secret weapon to access his arsenal of merchandise. When a customer requested something that was stacked on an overhead shelf, Armand would raise a polished wooden pole with adjustable brass clamps and neatly, precisely, grip the item.

 Sometimes he would release the item overhead and catch it as it dropped, presenting it to the customer with an exaggerated flourish. Every kid in the neighborhood wanted the chance to use that pole, just once.

One afternoon the mother of my friend Joyce sent us to Armand’s to buy three eggs. Armand’s wife Lorraine, who kept a wary eye on all children shopping solo, took the eggs from a carton and placed them in a paper bag for Joyce. “Now watch out,” she warned, “don’t drop these!”

Sure enough, just after crossing Essex Street, Joyce dropped the bag. With dread she picked it up and we both watched the yolks leak through the soggy bottom of the bag, slowly, inexorably yielding to the law of gravity. Joyce burst into tears and, helpless to help, I tried to sop up the yellow mess pooling on the sidewalk.

 I looked up to see that all traffic had stopped. One hand raised to thank the drivers, there was Armand, crossing Essex Street in his starched gray jacket, holding a carton in his other hand. He unfolded his pocket handkerchief, held it gently in front of Joyce’s nose and ordered her to blow.  

 He put the egg carton in her two hands. With index finger punctuation, he said, “Hold tight, eh?  Your mother needs these eggs.” Then he turned with rapid steps and went back across Essex Street, back to the store.

It wasn’t until that day that I began to see why my grandmother, and every other babcia in the neighborhood, would walk the extra blocks to shop at Armand’s.  

 It wasn’t because his was the cheapest store in the neighborhood.  They kept going back because of how he made them feel.

He greeted them when they came in with a continental bow, a hello in their native language, a smile, a compliment, a joke. He laughed with them. He kept cultural essentials like chruscik pastry and farmers cheese in stock. Neighborhood mothers, fathers, grandmothers went to Armand’s because they felt welcome, and they left with a human connection – an experience in their hearts, not just groceries in a bag.

Armand’s stood out among the corner stores in the same the way that our Rotary clubs can stand out among service clubs. We can create an experience in our clubs that is so compelling and powerful that people will go out of their way to share that experience with us. 

 Sometimes that means accommodating new or younger members’ preferences or adjusting the way we do things. Other times, it’s a question of intentionally including new members in our collective experience of Rotary. And still other times, it’s recognizing when their experience with us hasn’t been positive, and going the extra mile to change that.

Our challenge isn’t necessarily based on economics or geography. We don’t need to be the least expensive option in town, or the closest, or the trendiest. Like Armand, we can welcome guests and members to our club, and keep them coming back, because of how we make them feel.

Sincerely,

 PDG Elizabeth

Rotary Thought Spot: The Fourteenth Leaf

May 3rd, 2010

“It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.”

Leonardo da Vinci

“The difference between something good and something great is attention to detail.”

Charles R. Swindoll

Miss Hill was the first true gardener I met as a child.

Spry at seventy, she wasn’t much taller than most of the kids in the neighborhood.  In the warm weather she’d be out puttering in the dirt in her signature string of pearls, plaid skirt and navy blue tennis shoes. She lived in an elegant Victorian house across the street and if I was lucky enough to pass by as she was planting and pruning she’d invite me for a chat. Her garden seemed like the ones in my storybooks – rimmed with roses and big pinkish-purple rhododendrons and filled with beds of marigolds and zinnias and gerbera daisies. Sometimes she’d send me home with a prized flower or two. 

I vowed that I’d have my own garden just like Miss Hill when I grew up. And I thought I had gardening figured out before Hand Plant happened to me.

A few years ago an elderly relative gave me a cutting from one of her house plants, a single stem with three small spade-shaped leaves.  “It’s a hand plant.” She explained.

Hand Plant?  The leaves looked like little oven mitts to me.  “Don’t worry,” she assured.  “They’ll look like hands as they get bigger.”

Hand Plant arrived at a time of gale-force change and responsibility in my life.  I have bigger things to think about than a cutting, I thought.  So I put it on a kitchen counter and promptly forgot about it.

For the next few months Hand Plant somehow survived my neglect. Sometimes I would notice its leaves drooping in the bone dry soil, pale and flimsy as worn gloves, and I’d sheepishly give it a splash of water.

Hand Plant didn’t get much bigger or grow any hand-like new leaves. Its ringed depression of eroded soil deepened as I continued to push it back into the margins of my awareness.

Six months went by and one Saturday in early September I took a rare break to sit on the patio.  I reflected that an entire spring and summer had gone by and I’d spent very little time emulating Miss Hill in my garden. Since the coming year was shaping up to be as busy as my last, I reluctantly accepted that yet another gardening season would pass me by.

Back to work. I leaned over to empty the dishwasher and came eye level with Hand Plant.  By now its three leaves were yellowy green and one had a hole in it, the stem ringed by that dry moat of eroded potting soil. The roots were starved for space and had matted outside the bottom of the pot.  

Hand Plant qualified for the yard waste bag my husband was filling and I started to take it out to him.  But an image of plaid-skirted Miss Hill kneeling gently in front of her marigolds replaced my mental to-do list. It would take me only a few minutes to repot, feed and water Hand Plant. Was I really so busy being busy that I couldn’t do that? 

I found Hand Plant a corner of afternoon sun in the dining room.  That fall the trees outside shed their leaves while Hand Plant transformed itself.  First a deep green shoot emerged next to the faded stem. When the new shoot was about six inches high, I saw that it was actually two stems. They gradually separated at the base and stayed connected at the top, a thumb and forefinger joined in the Dharmic wheel.  As the tops parted a foot-long frond began to unfurl in a slow-motion spin until one morning Hand Plant had a new hand.  

This morning Hand Plant’s fourteenth new leaf is emerging.  Hand Plant is my daily demonstration that what’s true in nature is true in our Rotary service: what we pay attention to will grow and flourish.  What we ignore will shrivel up, wither away and die.  

Those small details we push to the margins of our awareness can grow into greatness when we pay attention to them.  Like a word of encouragement or an invitation to a prospective Rotarian. A little time spent reading to a child in our community. A few dollars in seed funding for a water well in a remote village. Or a mere sixty cents for a dose of polio vaccine.  Sometimes our impact on the big picture is rooted in each  of us seeing and acting on the seemingly small details.

What great thing can happen with a little of your attention?

Sincerely,

PDG  Elizabeth

Thought Spot: Thanking Outside the Box

March 31st, 2010

“Give thanks for a little and you will find a lot.”

                              -Hausa Tribal saying, Nigeria

“The depth and the willingness with which we serve is a direct reflection of our gratitude.”

                                – Gordon T. Watts

Appreciation is a wonderful thing.  It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well.”

                                   -Voltaire

Ever wonder if your efforts are appreciated?

Most of us do, now and then. When I do I find it helpful to appreciate someone else’s efforts and say thank you. And I always think of Ruth, a college friend.

Ruth is a take-charge personality who could organize and run the world – which she did, in the campus clubs she joined and the classes she took. We stayed in tocuh after graduation and whenever our circle of firends gets together, Ruth is usually the one who makes it happen.  Better than social media, she’s the go-to person for up-to-the-minute news on our post-college lives.

Several years ago Ruth called me about getting together with another college friend, Elaine.  Elaine lived in Los Angeles but was back in Boston breifly for family affairs.  Over dinner and catching up on our lives the conversation eventually turned to other college friends and the burning questions: Where are they now and what are they doing?

Ruth of course knew everyone’s latest details, including news of a mutual friend who had moved to Kansas City.

I mentioned that I’d be in Kansas City on business and to visit my sister in a few weeks, which ignited Ruth’s instinct to organize and connect people. “I’ll let him know you’ll be there – he’ll be delighted to see you!”

I felt a pang of sympathy for our friend. When Ruth said you’ be delighted, you’d better be delighted.

True to her word Ruth made the connection. About a week before I was scheduled to be in Kansas City I got a phone call form the friend Ruth had contacted.  I couldn’t tell if he was delighted but he was definitely excited about something.  A few days earlier he had been sorting through some boxes from college and came across a small piece of paper that caught his eye. For some reason he couldn’t explain he didn’t put it back in the box and propped it up behind the wall phone in his kitchen.

The next day Ruth called him, chattering excitedly.  “You’ll never gues who’s going to be in Kansas City,” she announced. Our friend plucked the piece of paper from behind his wall phone ans whar he said left Ruth in a rare wordless moment. “Yes I can – Elizabeth, right?”

The piece of paper he had stuck behind the telephone was a Thank You note I had written to him during our senior year in college, for his help with the sound and lighting for a theater production I had directed. When he rediscovered this little fragment of gratitude he decided he would keep it in a place where he could see it and remember to say thank you himself.

As he told me this story I was stunned. All this time he’d kept that note. And neither of us fuully realized its impact until years later.

Needless to say, we made arrangmeents to reconnect during my trip to Kansas City. That college friend is now my husband, Dean. We keep the thank you note on our lving room desk as a reminder that gratitude and appreciation are what brought us and keep us togehter.

Not every thank you has a dramatic outcome. We don’t always know the impact of our appreciation on the person we thank. But the appreciation we express and the gratitide we feel are the bonding agents of our business and personal relationships.

Appreciation and gratitude are also what make us Rotarians in Service Above Self. When I get boxed in, wondering if my efforts are appreciates, I think about someone I’d like to thank and act on that thought. Whether I know their reposne or not -now or at some unknown time in the future – doesn’t really matter. By focusing on thier kindness and actions, I  let go of my wondering and reconnect with my gratitude. And being grateful for what I have brings out my best self, which makes my Service Above Self possible.

Come to think of it, now’s a good time to thank Ruth again, and a Rotarian or two.

So I’m wondering…who have you thanked lately?

Sincerely,

PDG Elizabeth

Ways to Thank Outside the Box

Thank the “Quiet Heroes” in Your Commuunity:

Last year I attended a meeting of the St. Joseph Rotary Club 32 at which the club members recognized nurses’ aides from local nursing homes. The club made their lunch meeting special by recognizing each nurse’s aide with a certificate and flowers and by inviting each aide’s manager to attend. This appreciation had a deep impact on the nurse’s aides, who normally are not thanked and appreciated in this way.  Are there unrecognized heroes in your community that your club can thank?

Incorporate Appreciative Inquiry into Your Next Club Asssembly:

Appreciative inquiry is a planning process that emphasizes what an organization does well and builds on those strengths. It can be a useful component of a club assembly. Start by asking club members about a time when they’ve been most proud of being a club member, and ask them to share that event or situation.  Appreciative  inquiry allows your club members to connect with their best selves to make the club better. An overview of Appreicative Inquiry is available on the District 6040 website at www.rotary6040.org. Or contact Elizabeth at eusovicz@kc.rr.com for a copy.

Thank a Rotarian:

Your mother was right: a thank yo goes a long way. Think about a membe rof your club who has done something, or continually does something, that you appreciate, but whom you’ve never thanked. Why not write them a note, or take the time during your next club meeting to thank them?

Copyright 2008-2010 Whitespace Consulting LLC

Rotary Thought Spot: Why We Do What We Do

February 16th, 2010

“A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself. What one can be, one must be.” 

— Abraham Maslow

 “Begin with the end in mind.”

Stephen Covey

What inspires you to do the things you do in Rotary?

People sometimes ask me why I write Thought Spots.  The truth is that Mrs. Jalbert has everything and nothing to do with them.

She was my fifth grade teacher and assigned the first creative writing task can I remember.  Mrs. Jalbert was a kindly, no-nonsense teacher in practical cardigans and sensible shoes and short, easy-care hair.  I think she was forty-something, although when you’re nine everyone older than high school seems middle-aged.

Mrs. Jalbert was a by-the-book teacher; our parents could be certain that the content of our text books would be absolutely covered and thoroughly tested.  She grounded us in the basics. That’s what she graded. Which for fifth grade composition is not a bad thing, since writing is a lot easier if you know something about punctuation and parts of speech and the meaning of words.

One bleary Friday afternoon in February Mrs. Jalbert patiently walked us through the mechanics of paragraph writing and sent us home with a paragraph to finish. It was an assignment straight from our composition book, which gave us the last sentence of a paragraph.  We were supposed to write the topic sentence and middle sentences and end our paragraph with the assigned sentence about how pleasant the woods are in May. 

Then she opened the door to the unknown.  “Follow the rules, and make it interesting,” she warned as we packed up our books.  Uh-oh.

My classmate Mark and I trudged home in our bulky winter coats, kicking at street-grimy snow banks taller than we were and trying to figure out what to do about this homework. “At least you can write,” Mark groused. Mark was a numbers whiz who could whip through the math homework in half the time it took me to finish.  Sure, I knew lots of words but this was different.  Extracting a rule-following, interesting paragraph from either of our heads would take most of the weekend.

That evening I tried to forget about the woods in May.  But all through the Friday night movie they gyrated in my head, surrounded by big blank spaces of unwritten sentences. They kept me awake and silently stared me down at breakfast the next morning.

By Saturday afternoon I still faced a blank sheet of paper and needed a diversion.  I waited until my older brother left to go skating and sneaked into his bedroom. He was a Boy Scout and I read his Boy’s Life magazines when he wasn’t around.  I was fascinated by the mail order advertisements for things I never saw in girls’ magazines, like sea monkeys and X-ray glasses and pepper-flavored chewing gum.

I found the latest issue and stretched out on one of the bunk beds when I noticed that the patterned bedroom walls were, well, kind of woodsy.  And that a thin winter sun was filtering through the window blinds. 

I remembered that I’d bought a pine sachet as a souvenir last summer during our family vacation to New Hampshire and that my sister had a bottle of wildflower cologne.  I collected my scented props and opened the blinds.  I thought back to summer vacation in New Hampshire and felt dry pine needles cushioning my feet as I walked down to the lake.  I heard Towhee sparrows warbling “Drink Your Teeeee” and the blank spaces in my mind were suddenly swirling with ideas.

My paragraph came back from Mrs. Jalbert with an “A” and exclamation points, which earned it a place of honor on the refrigerator door.  I was proud of the praise but there was something else I’d learned from Mrs. Jalbert’s assignment.  I didn’t have to wait to be inspired to do my work.  I could find the inspiration within myself.

If we’re honest with ourselves, most of us know why we do what we do as Rotarians.   Like eradicating a deadly disease like polio.  Or growing Rotary by bringing a guest to a club meeting.  Or helping to clean up after a club event.

We may not always have the precise words to express our motivation.  Sometimes it’s the result of an experience – something we see that stamps its image onto our memory and our hearts. Or an exchange with another person that deepens from like-mindedness to an emotional bond.

Ultimately, like Mrs. Jalbert or a homework assignment, other people and things have everything and nothing to do with it. The impetus may come from someone or something else.  But the best source of inspiration for our work in Rotary is within ourselves.

So take a look inside yourself. 

What inspires you to do the things you do in Rotary?

Ways to Connect with the Inspiration Within Ourselves

Begin with the End in Mind

In Stephen Covey’s personal development classic, the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, habit number two is beginning with the end in mind.  Even the smallest tasks contribute to big outcomes. Being assigned to the clean up crew after a club fundraiser may seem unimportant.  But without it, fundraiser facilities aren’t available, which means the fundraiser can’t happen.  Which means money for Rotary humanitarian projects doesn’t get raised.  Start thinking about the outcomes of every task as big and important – whether you’re doing them or assigning them – because they are. 

Follow the Rules and Make It Interesting

We all need a framework to organize our work – a composition assignment, our club by laws, the RI Manual of Procedure.  In order for our work to be meaningful , it needs to be interesting to us and to others. The next time you, a committee, or your club is considering a project or activity, consider asking the following questions:

What is our required framework?

What options do we have within that framework to:

  • Surprise and engage members of the club?
  • Create interest and awareness in our community?
  • Achieve beneficial outcomes for our beneficiaries?