Posts Tagged ‘Cooperation’

Playing Your Part

I grew up in suburban Detroit. My dad was a barber. Most of his customers were autoworkers. When Detroit churned out lots of cars, the auto workers were flush and got regular haircuts. When Detroit was lean and laid off auto workers, they let their wives cut their hair or wore it longer. Our family’s prosperity was intimately tied to the auto workers’.

Thousands of workers are struggling to learn new trades or relocating to another city in search of similar work, slowly realizing that they are unlikely to earn the same wages, with the same benefits, in a new career. Many resist this message and hold out hope that their industry will rebound or that somehow they will be able to keep doing the same work they’ve been doing – in some cases for their entire adult life.

As outsiders, it’s easy for us to look at these workers and say, “Get with it. Move on, learn a new trade and take a different job or move out of Detroit to where there’s work.” It’s easy for us to say it, we’re not them.  But in many ways, we are them.  Almost all of our industries are changing.  Retooling is key to surviving and prospering.

After a dozen years practicing law, I left my practice, bought a motor home and decided to travel focusing on understanding what other people do for a living. Some of it was just plain fun but a lot of it was my personal exploration – deciding what I would do next with my life.

I went to the local pancake supper or town meeting wherever I was and talked to the local people. I asked whoever had the most interesting job, “I’d love to see what it’s like to do what you do. If I agree to come every day for a week, and do whatever you need one, will you take me on as your unpaid assistant/apprentice?” Usually, I got a yes!

 The first time I tried this was with a dairy farmer who answered “Yup. And wear yer boots!” It was a total blast. For one week, I showed up and did whatever needed to be done – hand fed the calves, milked the cows, did bookkeeping or drove the tractor full of manure out to the compost field. I’ve been told that being a lawyer had prepared me well to dump a big tractor full of you-know-what somewhere!

 I had several years of these interesting experiences – a potato farm in Maine, a lobster boat in Nova Scotia, a paint store in North Carolina, a catfish processing plant in Georgia, a Hobby Lobby craft store in Texas. What I learned was how important it is for everyone in this country to do the best job they can at whatever they are employed at. I also learned how undervalued many of these people and their labors are.

Coming from a purely intellectual job, where I had been highly compensated for my perceived knowledge, it was easy to fall out of touch with what makes this country run every day and to think my work was somehow more valuable or important. Without the dairy farmer, the truck driver who brought the milk to the store, the guy who stocked the cooler, the woman who ran the cashier or the men who made and installed the checkout stand and floors, I’d be out of luck for my breakfast cereal and milk fix. Each of them does their job with pride and skill and our lives are the better for each of their labors.

Asking, “What else CAN I do?” is a step in discovering precisely how our tangible talents can be used in different ways. Use my life as an example. I could have joined another law firm, or I could have gone “in house” with a client. Or I could have taught law or written or researched. In ferreting out my talents, I discerned that I am a connector, an educator, a developer, a dream builder. Those things came from building a regional law practice over a decade, leading a team of lawyers and guiding my clients to resolutions. I am also a negotiator, a strategic thinker, a writer, a critic, a team builder, an advocate and (ask my husband) a strong willed woman who can argue a point. I realized that building something was important to me, I get a kick out of getting things going and both thinking “big picture, long term” and implementing the small day to day minutiae. It was important that my next role had lots of people contact, a way to bring different views together, ways to help people think differently and a little bit of theatre – I liked the drama of the courtroom and the presence of being in front of people.

I have spent most of the past dozen years guiding people into discovering their authentic callings and reframing the choices for their lives.  It lets me use many of my talents and helps me to develop others like learning how to be of service. Was it what I envisioned when I left my law practice over a decade ago? Nope, not even close. I was originally thinking I might run a children’s bookstore or open a B&B in Italy! But I was open to opportunity.

Like a laid off auto worker, you can just comb the remaining factories hoping to find identical work in the same town at similar pay, or you can start thinking really creatively about what you are talented at and passionate about and how it could fit into a completely different industry or geography.

 There is a lesson for all of us in what furloughed blue collar factory workers have known for a long time – your job isn’t who you are, your job is what you do to earn money to support your family and entertain yourself. When you’re pouring the Cheerios into your bowl tomorrow morning, be thankful that someone else didn’t think those jobs were “beneath” them.

What Seeds Are You Planting?

Every year I coax myself through winter by devouring the garden catalog from Silver Heights Farm in Cochecton Center, New York. Trina nurtures an amazing variety of things that I can transplant as seedlings every spring to get a jumpstart on my vegetable garden. While there are some things that come up best from seeds like beans and carrots, my wooded lot (and my personal dearth of patience) just doesn’t offer me enough sunshine to grow tomatoes and peppers from seed before fall comes. In my many years of backyard gardening, I have learned some lessons, such as if I plant carrots, I can’t expect to harvest oranges, so I think carefully about what I want to harvest when I decide what to plant. With the vagaries of climate in our area, it also means I am quick to decide what’s a weed and to firmly yank it out by the roots.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed the spread of a really invasive weed throughout the county I live in. I had only read about it taking root in other parts of the country, but I’ve started to see signs of it here. It seems to be spreading and showing up in places I hadn’t seen it before. I recognized it as the genus “Blame” and I realized that it wasn’t staying confined to its own family like most plants do. Nope, this one was definitely a weed and it was move stealthily from one yard to another and its roots were crowding out healthier growth throughout the county.

A neighbor mentioned it at a coffee shop. She said to the man she was sitting with in the booth behind mine, “Why didn’t Somebody do something?” I knew I shouldn’t eavesdrop, but I realized she was the third person that day who had made reference to this insidious rot of blame. I knew that blame grows wildly in the shade of denial and that it was spreading across the country and was now threatening the gardens and forests of my community.

I had been reading about this invader in the paper for many months. “Why didn’t Somebody do something to stop the banks from making all those mortgages?” For heaven’s sake, why didn’t Somebody do something to stop the nuclear meltdown in Japan! Somebody ought to figure out how we can avoid cutting back on services without raising taxes. It seemed like everywhere I went, people were looking for a mysterious weed-killer to deploy against this kudzu-like duo of denial and blame that had crept into our conversations, robbing us of the fruits of our labors.

Everyone seemed to wonder why the manufacturers weren’t issuing more of this Somebody that they could sprinkle on the problems they faced like some kind of magic cure to bring this black rot of irresponsibility under control. I started to wonder if individually we aren’t each the “Somebody” we’re searching for.

I supposed the blame and denial had taken root because maintaining the gardens of our lives is hard work, especially when we’re maintaining the common ground of a community. In many ways, it’s just easier to hope that spraying on some nebulous “Somebody” will make everything fine when we’re ready to harvest our share. But that head-in-the-sand approach allows the weeds to take over and pretty soon it’s hard to find the dreams we thought we had planted. I want to harvest friendship and prosperity from the safety of this common ground and I want to take pleasure in sharing that labor and that bounty with my neighbors.

In tending this plot of land we share, I am diligent to make sure that no one is spraying RoundUp on it as a way to keep the weeds of blame under control. Pesticides like anger kill everything it is sprayed on – weed and vegetable alike. Blame needs to be pulled up by the roots and we all need to be careful not to accidentally tote the seeds of blame to someone else’s home. That means mindfully disposing of rumor and using the bright light of personal accountability to clean our tools before digging in anyone else’s dirt.

Fruitful gardens benefit from composting – it can turn leftovers and yard waste into rich organic matter. Unlike MiracleGro, which gives a quick, but short lived burst of blooms, doing the work to enrich the soil makes for long-lasting, healthy growth and delicious, satisfying results. I personally suggest using your hands to turn together in your own yard equal parts of responsibility, selfless effort and humility. When we each bring together the products of that effort and moisten it with a shower of kindness, we will be amazed by how fertile our common ground is.

No one can do everything, but everyone can do something. What we plant in the months ahead will ensure a bountiful harvest for our community. It’s amazing what one seed can grow.