Sunday, May 18, 2008

A Colleague's Questions and My Answers

The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent IBM's positions, strategies or opinions.

In Response to a Paper I Wrote During Spring Semester

The course I took this past semester was the most draining and most profound I've taken so far at Teachers College. It was on Educational Biography and Leadership, and the core assignment was for all of us to write our own learning history and how it informed our leadership, and then to exchange papers with one another.

One of the colleagues with whom I shared the paper kindly wrote a number of questions to me in response to having read mine, including:

Q: In addition to her being your “teacher”, was she [your sister] also a friend, or was there a “teacher-student” distance between you? Were you always close with her, or did that sort of evolve as you grew up?

A: She was my teacher and my friend, though I did turn her into an icon to adore, and she had to tell me when she was 18 and I was nearly 13 that she was "not Superman" and I needed to stop treating her as such. That shocked me, to know that she had felt my adoration at all as a burden.

Q: The whole section on your father, and his wishes for you, touched me so much. His encouraging you to write for the newspaper especially....Why do you think you didn’t stick with it, after you had some articles published? Was this your own negative beliefs about your abilities tripping you up?

A: (My colleague was referring to my having written a bit for "The Michigan Daily" as a freshman.) If I were providing the answer back then, I'd tell you that it was a luxury I couldn't continue to afford -- I had to study and work for 10 hours a week while in school and also was studying at Hebrew University in Jerusalem for my whole junior year -- but really, I agree that it was a combination of giving up before I started and also letting it be the province of a friend on whom I had a crush at the time. Both of us wrote for the "Arts" page and she kept at it, but when our friendship diminished (because she discovered my crush and rebuffed me, which was another tragic story), I didn't want to be around her as much and vice versa.

And yes, I think I couldn't believe how easy it was to get published -- it overwhelmed me. Though I had been an active reporter for my high school newspaper, "The Roundtable," at the college level, at a newspaper that had its own art deco building on campus (which it shared with "The Gargoyle," the school's humor magazine), it seemed like the college journalistic equivalent of being on the Michigan football team. I didn't feel worthy on some level, I guess. And yet the articles I wrote were clever. The best of the few were a feature story for the weekend magazine on the 10th anniversary of the Saturday midnight showing of "Harold and Maude;" another, a review of a gallery opening, including Richard Diebenkorn; and a review of "The Flamingo Kid," a film I liked because of its star, Matt Dillon.

Q: I loved the “Full Moon at Noon” story. Do you still have a copy of it? And if so, would you be willing to share it? (if not that’s fine, I understand!)....What part of him [my father, may his memory be blessed] is still with you, held close? Can you take in, now, that belief that he had in you, his vision of your potential?

A: Unfortunately, I don't know where that story is. It was from the typewriter era. If I had it, I'd be happy to share it in its entirety. I've written about my dad's particular legacy for me before, but not lately. I feel like I got nearly all of his height (he was six feet tall and I'm five nine and a half), and his creativity/sometimes childlike enthusiasm, and also, the self-doubt that can go with being an artist, or with being any sort of human. And also his appetite. He referred to his alma mater as the "Rhode Island School of Desire" (rather than the Rhode Island School of Design) because he developed, and aimed to satisfy, his learning longings so fully while there as an Industrial Design major. He was a toy and game designer professionally and so I always relish opportunities to work with designers in my work at IBM.

It's a touching question about whether I can fully see the belief he had in me and my potential now in hindsight because I don't remember any such conversations, other than that one, where he encouraged me to go to the University of Michigan and write for the school newspaper. And then by November 1st of my senior year of high school, he had died.

In 1995, I had a dream about my father that devastated me initially: In real-life, I had proposed that IBM be a major sponsor of the International Gay & Lesbian Business Expo (that's what it was called back then, and it was pioneering of the sponsor-companies then). IBM agreed and 24 gay and lesbian IBMers staffed a giant booth at the Expo and we were swarmed with thrilled customers and future customers the whole time. In addition, my colleague and friend Rob Shook and I gave a business workshop, "Cruising the Information Highway," which again, back then was pioneering, and happily, popular.

The night before the workshop, I dreamt that I was helping to set up the booth, taking flyers out of the pedestal cabinets to post on the pedestals and my dad was crouching alongside me as I was bending over to get the fliers. The only statement I recall of his from the dream was, "I'm sorry, Sarah, but I can't stay." And then he disappeared.

I cried about it to my oldest sister right before co-facilitating what turned out to be a wonderful workshop. I was upset that he couldn't stay because I figured he must not have been able to abide by the mission I was serving, didn't approve of my being lesbian and working to advance gay and lesbian business professionals' success.

At my next session with the therapist I was seeing then, I told her the dream and how hurt by it I was. She said, "Don't you see, Sarah? Your father was apologizing. He was sorry that he couldn't be with you for this important event."

I didn't fully believe my therapist, but it was a possible alternate interpretation, and since then, I've tried to believe in her version.

Q: I am so sorry that you were not able to give birth. Does that desire really feel like it has passed, as you write in your narrative, or do you still think about it with regret?...Does that “not being able to empathize with parents” feel troubling? Does your family accept that “inconceivable” part of you? Were they supportive of you trying to conceive, and when they found out you couldn’t? How does not having given birth affect you now, and the choices you make? Are you trying to give birth in figurative ways?

A: Mostly, it has passed. The regret I feel is that I do not feel driven to adopt a child; it's a shame-based regret, really, i.e., I wish I wanted to be any child's mother badly enough to go to any lengths, but I don't, I must admit. The troubling part of not being able to empathize with parents is most apparent to me when I think of my sisters as mothers. They have something in common with each other that I do not share with them.

My family mostly accepts my not having given birth. My mother, I think, is addicted to grandchildren. I was 42 (and still am till July 13th) when Pat and I were in India, and my mother said to me once long-distance, "Sarah, I read that there are many women in India, who would be willing to carry your eggs." I felt much more sad in response to her suggestion than she knew, but I realized that she meant well and could not resist making it, and so I never told her how much pain it caused.

My ability to go to India for six months with Pat for work was possible because we did not have a child, I think; though I saw expats from many countries, living in India with children and teens, including my local manager, who had brought his family from China, I don't think I would have had the wherewithal to do it.

Pat's and my relationship also feels more peaceful than many couples' I've seen, who've got kids. There is less stress, emotionally and financially. There is also less vividness, I believe, and that's a kind of regret, too. I am always trying to nurture people, especially myself, if not also trying to give birth figuratively. Increasingly, I think of my legacy and how I'll need to have a more public one -- or that I aspire to have a more public one -- since there's no guarantee of a next generation, feeling it directly; we have a niece and three nephews, but they will think of their parents' legacy primarily.

Q: I was struck by the fact that you mention realizations that come “after swimming” twice....I was curious – does swimming, or physical activity in general, serve as a means of insight or connection to inner knowing for you? I am interested in somatic knowing/learning...and always find myself noticing and wondering when someone makes the connection between physical activity and knowing. Is this a conscious process for you (meaning, do you use physical activity consciously to resolve inner dilemmas or gain insight)? Or does it just sort of happen? (I read your swimming autobiography on your blog, but it didn’t really answer my questions!)

A: My partner Pat bought a water-tight iPod case that she swims with and I worry about getting one for myself, since I use swimming to improve my mood, to clear my head, to help me think, to relax my spirit, to sing pop songs to myself when no thoughts are urgent and to plan for the coming day's work. I don't get into the pool, promising myself that I'll have breakthrough insights, but often, insights come in parallel with the repetitive stroke I'm doing lap after if doing movement on auto-pilot enables sharper thinking at the same time.

As a leadership development facilitator, I learned that if I gave program participants things to play with while they were learning, they'd actually focus more so on the learning and be less distracted, e.g., squeeze-balls et al. Also, I feel much more connected to their learning and my own if I shake hands with participants when they first enter the classroom. It's like a mini learning exchange for me with each handshake.

Finally, I read a year or more ago that most leaders are physically graceful, rather than clumsy. I wonder if there's a connection there, i.e., perhaps leaders are more conscious, but not self-conscious, of their bodies and their minds in parallel. Ever since reading that, I've been even more driven to appear graceful when I am in front of a group of people, and even one-to-one.


Marni said...

Rarly, thank you for sharing all this!

I remember reading your story "Full Moon at Noon" - and i would not have thrown it out, but neither can i put my hands on it - it's got to be in one of a gajillion boxes of old papers in the basement at Faircourt. If i ever go through the right box and come across it i will send it to you.

I was really struck by your dream about your father, and your interpretation.

One rule of thumb in dream interp is that dream figures are really parts of ourselves, represented by the images of others. And yet i think on some level, at some times, we do tap into our underlying connectedness with others, through dreams as well as intuition, etc.

But even then, meaning is so, so subject to our interpretation. We all know how easy it is to project a mood or an insecurity onto a totally unrelated occurence (i.e. someone doesn't respond to our greeting, we assume they are angry at us or dislike us, but it turns out they were distracted or something like that and are fine with us...)

So i feel curious about why you would think your dad not being able to stay with you in your dream had to do with homophobia or disapproval. Were those things he had expressed to you when he was alive? Even if that answer is yes, it strikes me as likely involving some projection.

This is just my own belief system, now, but it seems to me that things like homophobia and disapproval are manifestations of ego rather than spirit - and ego goes with the body. (easy to believe in the abstract, as here i am around the anniversary of my mom's death, still trying to actually feel her spirit as released from some of her intense solidifications...)

I also have the idea that spirits can't stay with us because _they're spirits_, who aren't here anymore - not because we failed to please them in some way.

So maybe instead of trying to convince yourself of the truth of one alternative interpretation which doesn't sound like it quite resonates for you, why not open the question back up for exploration? Does it really make sense that you dad would feel that way? Even if you think he might have during his lifetime, what about now? And if he had lived to see you that weekend, wouldn't he, by then, have gone through a long process of letting his love for you win out over his cultural conditioning?

So then - really, why did you figure it meant what figured it meant? (a question for contemplation, not answer per se).



Sarah Siegel said...

Marniferous. It *was* projection, I know. Sad, too, that when my dad recommended my going to Michigan and writing for "The Michigan Daily," I saw his recommendation as a statement of his lack of faith in my being able to get accepted by an even more elite school. That might have been projection, too, I guess.

I had wanted to go to UPenn because the girl everyone most admired in my elementary and junior high school was going there. I felt ashamed at having been rejected by Penn.

Also, Michigan didn't give me a full scholarship to go to there, like it did for you, and I was not from Michigan, like you were, and so I couldn't claim that it was a bargain that my family couldn't resist.

It's really so easy to project my shame onto my dead parent, may his memory be blessed, but even more useful at this stage would be to let go of the shame altogether.

I've written about this here before: My friend Richard says that it's the things about which we're ashamed that are the most interesting about us.

As you remember your mom on her first yahrzeit, I wish you zero projection and as little ego as possible, and that you can feel her spirit increasingly.

In fact, perhaps we've already talked about this, but I do feel my dad's spirit when I look for signs. Simple stuff sometimes, like yesterday, I took my mom out for lunch at a wonderful restaurant we discovered, where our server put on the fireplace for us and seated us by it, as it was chilly yesterday, and then also fed us well and healthily. When the check came, it read, "Your server's name is Herman." My dad's name was Herman.

Marni said...

Actually, it was a half-tuition scholarship - which, from in-state tuition, really was an incredible bargain. And which it turns out, if you're going to go to music school, is a darn good thing. As we say, there are hundreds of dollars to be made in this business. ;)

It's funny, i didn't think of Michigan as that elite a place at the time, i guess because it was so local (and i knew too many people from high school that i was not impressed with who were going there) - i had this idea i should really go to a small liberal arts college in the East somewhere. And i also had too much paralyzing anxiety (speaking of my mom) to actually complete an application. It was only after i won the Michigan Youth Band scholarship (which, in a very important moment of encouragement, my mother nudged me to audition for! i'm ever grateful for that one, and while i'm at it, she encouraged me to go to Naropa too) to the school of music that i actually finished my application to the university.

I remember in one of your early jobs in Chicago you were filtering resumes, right? and you told me that Michigan was in a high-status tier. That was kind of an eye-opener to me. I knew the school of music was good... ;)

That's interesting what your friend said about things we're ashamed of being what's interesting about us. I wonder what he meant exactly. I will think more about that.

I'm glad your mom could go out to lunch, and that you could take her. That is wild, about the server being so nurturing to you, and then having the same name as your dad.

Sarah Siegel said...

Think about the things about you that produce any shame, now, or which have historically. Don't they tend to be among your differentiators? Don't they tend to be some of the more interesting facets of you?

The context for his comment was that I ran into a childhood friend at a bris (circumcision ceremony) of the son of another childhood friend. I had stopped being friends with her because she was so beautiful and I had become embarrassed by my feelings for her -- this was not entirely conscious at the time, as we were eight. Well, she had grown up to be even more stunning. I was now consciously embarrassed by my attraction to her. I called my friend Richard after seeing her and told him all of this and he responded, "Sarah, it's the things we're most ashamed of that are most interesting about us."

Also, yes, it was a temp job over the summer at one of the corporations headquartered in Stamford -- while we were still in college. Michigan was considered a "key school," and so if a resume came in from Michigan, or from any of the other key schools, it went in the pile for further consideration.