Tuesday, March 21, 2023

The Ground Remembers

Every October, I get down on my hands and knees, and participate in an annual ritual that combines faith, hard work, and hope. Those who drive by our home  may think I am praying in and around the different late season flowers. And in reality, I am on one level. 

Every fall, I plant hundreds of spring bulbs. I dig holes at various depths and various sizes. Each one is for a different kind of spring bulb. 

This past fall, I planted 565 new bulbs throughout our flower beds. They joined the thousands that have been planted before them. My goal is to have something blooming on the land from the earliest part of the spring all the way into June before the other perennials begin to flower. 

I dug shallow holes for the species crocus on the south side of our house, where the ground, sheltered by the house, warms up first. These are the wild crocus and they come forth at the first hint of warmth within the soil. They are quickly followed by the large Dutch crocus, the favorites of the honey bees waking up from their winter hibernation. 

Then, various kinds of daffodils from the little ones to the regal and classic King Alfred will bloom. Simultaneously, the early tulips and heirloom species tulips, the original wild ones, will open to reveal their beauty. 

At the height of spring, the Darwin tulips, the classic red and pink tulips, will stand tall and make us all stop and admire their majesty. Later in the spring, we will see the Asiatic hybrid lilies flower as the rest of the perennial flowers open and celebrate the return of spring. 

Before this spring miracle takes place, I spend many hours in mid-March back on my hands and knees cleaning off the winter detritus of leaves, spent flower stalks, and the normal winter kill that comes with the cold. Then, I spread a fresh layer of bark mulch so the spring moisture lasts long into summer and the weeds are suppressed. 

As I participate in this annual spring ritual that started back in October, I am reminded of the lines from a poem called “Reverdure” by Wendell Berry from his book of poetry called The Clearing. As he writes about spring:

“An old grandmother

a little surprised

to be waking up again,

the ground slowly remembers

the shapes of grass blades,

stems, leaves, birds,

cattle, people, songs.”

This spring, after multiple years of living with the weight and challenges of a global pandemic, I celebrate the ground waking up and remembering crocus, daffodils, and tulips. I so enjoy the happiness and smiles that people show as they walk by our house with their dogs and families. 

As the earth wakes up to spring, so do we.  We remember that goodness still exists in the world, and that miracles happen each and every day. We just have to pause, spend a few minutes with some crocus, daffodils or tulips, and remember that the Divine is all around us. And we are blessed beyond measure to be a part of this change in the seasons. 

Geery Howe, M.A. Executive Coach in Leadership, Strategic Planning, and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

Monday, March 20, 2023

Keep Walking

One Sunday morning in late November many years ago, when walking home from church, our early elementary aged, and youngest son pointed to the far eastern horizon and asked an important question, “What’s it like past there?”

“I don’t know,” I responded. “How about we go find out after lunch?”

Once the noon meal was done and cleaned up, we put on warm jackets, snow pants, hats, and mittens and walked to the back fence behind our home. Then, with assistance, I helped him over the fence and then got over myself. 

We walked through a pasture and then over another fence into a freshly tilled corn field. We walked and walked over the uneven ground until we came to the next fence, the place where he had pointed to a couple of hours earlier.

We paused at this fence and looked to the east. There, we saw more fields, more fences, a small woods, a pond, and after that more fields. We just stood there and looked.

Finally, he reached up, took my hand, and said, “So that’s what it looks like. It just keep going.” 

“Yes, it does,” I replied. 

And when he was ready, we turned around and walked back toward home.  What was unknown was now known. What was pondered was now seen. What was a question was now an answer.

When we commit to a path with heart, we have to realize that the path just keeps going, and we create the path by walking upon it. In essence, the path reveals itself step by step.

Our challenge is to keep walking and to remember that the journey is a pilgrimage for greater meaning and purpose in our lives. Each step is a step toward being more connected to our inner light and to our shared divinity. Each step is a step to being more connected to the oneness that surrounds us all, and the divinity that is present in each and every one of us. 

For when we discover this oneness, we understand that we are all walking different paths to the same destination. So, keep walking your path with heart. It is a sacred journey.

Geery Howe, M.A. Executive Coach in Leadership, Strategic Planning, and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Pruning the Apple Tree

The warm winds from the southwest are returning to the heartland, hastening the arrival of spring. The cardinals and chickadees have started to sing their spring mating calls. The species crocus have broken ground on the south side of the house, and will bloom soon, maybe even today. The earth is waking up from its winter slumber. And it is time for me to go and prune the apple tree out east of our house.

Many years ago, my father-in-law gave us this apple tree. It was an old variety that had been highly popular back at the turn of the century. He had bought one for them, and one for us. 

When it came time to prune the tree, I did not know how to do it. He told me to remove the suckers, the broken branches, and the limbs that crossed other branches. He told me to save the fruiting spurs where the buds were. 

As I stood and looked at the tree, I had no idea where to start, because I had never pruned an apple tree. It was not something that we did when I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia as a child. We got our apples from the store. 

So, my father-in-law came up, and we started pruning the tree together. Slowly, I learned the difference between a sucker and a fruiting spur. But I struggled in the pruning process, because I could not envision what the tree was going to become from the pruning we were doing. 

In particular, he told me to “prune for what the tree will become; what it will grow into, not just for what it looks like right now.” I never really grasped this concept when he told me this, because I could not envision the clipping of a branch here or a limb there and how that would result in a full grown tree. In essence, I could not see the fully mature tree within the sapling that we started with on that sunny spring day. 

Finally, he told me that when you are done pruning, “you should be able to toss a basketball through the center of the tree, and never have it hit any limbs.” Then he proceeded to help me to achieve this outcome. Not every year, but over the course of multiple years, he would come and help me to prune this tree. 

And each fall, the tree would produce lots of apples.  Some years we were bountiful, and other years it was sparse. He told me this was normal, and to keeping pruning every spring. 

Late in his life, we talked about our apple tree. He shared that he was not that impressed with this old apple variety. It did not turn out quality apples like other varieties. I was glad to hear this as I felt the same way about it. Since we did not spray the tree every year, many of the apples were of poor quality. We used some of them, but most of the apples I would pitch over the fence to our neighbor’s two horses who were delighted to be eating them. 

Each spring, I dutifully pruned the apple tree. It was nearly a six hour process including the clean-up. My hand was always sore from clipping so many parts of the tree. And each fall, the apples kept coming. 

Then, one spring after my father-in-law had passed away, I decided to stop pruning the apple tree in the spring. I didn’t really like the apples and it was a lot of work. 

That year and for quite a few years, the apple tree took off like a rocket. It grew and grew, and we were overwhelmed by apples. The harvest was massive. The horses were over joyed and our neighbors even came and harvested the tree, taking the best apples to town to share with people who were less fortunate. I was delighted with this outcome. 

But late one winter morning, I realized that the tree had gotten so big that it blocked my view to the east. I could not see the field behind our house where the horses gave birth to their spring foals. I could not see the place where the hawks came to sit and look for prey in the tall grass. I could not see the sunrise as well on an early spring morning. 

So, I went out with my clippers and my saw, and gave the old apple tree a massive haircut. It was a multi-day process, and in the end, all that was left were the fruiting spurs and a gnarled and twisted old trunk. The tree had moved from being a wild one to a more cultivated and cared for one. As a result, the harvest was less, but the view to the east was much better.

This late winter, I again decided to go out and prune the tree. It was not going to be a massive haircut like years before but it was going to be a pruning cycle that took a fair bit of time and energy. However, this time, I had a different purpose in mind. 

First, this spring, I wanted to enjoy the pruning process, not just the outcome. I wanted the goal to be enjoying the time outside in the spring, and being with the tree and in the tree as I pruned. I wanted to take more time to marvel at the miracle of spring and the beauty of this old apple tree. It may or may not produce lots of apples, but, as I slowly pruned the tree, I realized that it had grown and survived many a harsh winter, and, at times, some poor pruning decisions on my part.

Second, I did not frame up the tree as just an apple tree that would produce apples. It also was a tree that had the potential to be the home for a great tree house if the grandchildren ever deemed this to be something that they wanted to create. As I stood on the ground and looked up into the tree, and as I moved my step ladder around the tree, I could envision an awesome tree house in and around the multiple main branches coming off the solid trunk. And this gave me great joy. 

My late father-in-law could envision the tree fully grown when it was just a sapling and then prune accordingly. I never grasped this concept in the beginning, but now I can envision it becoming a special place for the grandchildren. And one day, they may climb up into that old tree, pick and eat an apple, and enjoy the view from on high. 

Then, I will smile from ear to ear with tears streaming down my face. For on that day, I will see what my father-in-law saw so many years ago, and be blessed by the gift he gave us. 

Geery Howe, M.A. Executive Coach in Leadership, Strategic Planning, and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

Monday, March 13, 2023

Understand The Path Is The Destination

We are a destination oriented society. We are driven to get there, where ever there may be. And we are supported and validated when we do that. We have our foot on the accelerator and we push ourselves hour after hour. The goal is to accomplish more goals. Exhaustion is a sign of status and accomplishment.

Making a commitment to a path with heart begins with the understanding that the path is the destination. There is no goal but to stay on the path. It is a “joyful journey,” referencing the earlier quote by Carlos Castaneda, rather than an exhausting one. It is a path where restoration and rejuvenation are integral to clarity, commitment, and confidence.

When we seek, discover, and then commit to a path with heart, we are willing to be 100% present to each step and each choice along the path. We seek to be here and now in the present moment, the place where miracles and blessings are born and happen all around us.

A very long time ago, I was participating in a Tai Ji class when the teacher asked a wonderfully insightful question: “Are you looking at the moon or are you looking at the finger that is pointing at the moon?” Our challenge in life is that we often get distracted and focus on the finger pointing at the moon. Thus, we miss the beauty of a full moon rising in the night sky.

The same is true on a path with heart. We often become distracted and get caught up in the minutiae of details, goals, and plans. We seek to make progress on the outside rather than to be present to the union of the inner reality and the outer moment. 

For when we commit to a path with heart, we learn that each day is filled with many opportunities to be 100% present to the beauty around us and within us. There are numerous “all moon moments” happening. We just have to open our hearts and see them. The goal is to stay on the path and to embrace the journey. The path is the destination.

Geery Howe, M.A. Executive Coach in Leadership, Strategic Planning, and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

Monday, March 6, 2023

Embrace Your Imperfections

It was a beautiful spring morning and I was washing the breakfast dishes, looking east as the sun rose. Tears were streaming down my face as Peter Mayer sang the song, “Japanese Bowl”, from his album called “Heaven Below.”

“I’m like one of those Japanese bowls

That were made long ago

I have some cracks in me

They have been filled with gold.

That’s what they used back then

When they had a bowl to mend

It did not hide the cracks

It made them shine instead.

So now every old scar shows

From every time I broke

And anyone’s eyes can see

I’m not what I used to be.”

I know the feeling of being broken and cracked open. I know the feeling that my old scars and wounds are visible for all to see. I also know the slow journey of  restoration, and the work of mending those cracks. 

Candice Kumai in her book called Kintsugi Wellness: The Japanese Art of Nourishing Mind, Body and Spirit (Harper Wave, 2018) writes that “Kintsugi is the Japanese art of putting broken pottery pieces back together with gold - built on the idea that in embracing flaws and imperfections, you can create an even stronger, more beautiful piece of art. Every break is unique and instead of repairing an item like new, the 400-year-old technique actually highlights the “scars” as a part of the design. Using this as a metaphor for healing ourselves teaches us an important lesson: sometimes in the process of repairing things that have broken, we actually create something more unique, beautiful and resilient.” 

Years ago, Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, one of the earliest pioneers in the mind/body health field, and one of the first to develop a psychological approach to working with people with life-threatening illness, described working with a cancer patient who was struggling. The patient drew a picture of herself as a vase covered in cracks. She felt like her life was breaking into pieces. 

One day, this patient asked Dr. Remen to see the picture again. The patient worked some more on the drawing and then showed it to her doctor. Each of the cracks she had originally drawn now had yellow light pouring out from them. She told Dr. Remen that the cracks were where her inner light could shine through. She had transformed her view of her illness from a problem to an opportunity to live in a new way.

As we walk a path with heart, we will experience moments which are challenging on the inside and the outside. We will feel our scars, our pain, and our difficulties. They do not go away just because we have committed to walking a path with heart.

Instead, we have to accept our past choices and experiences. We have to realize that we did the best we could with the information we had and the history we had experienced. We also need to understand that everyone around us has their own scars, and their own history. We are a community of broken bowls moving forward one step at a time. 

With this perspective, I have learned to embrace my own imperfections and to have compassion for those around me. I give grace and forgiveness to myself. I show it to others, too. With this perspective, I continually seek oneness and acceptance of my own and our collective cracks instead of following a path of separation and alienation because of our cracks.

On that beautiful spring morning, my wife, Jane, stood beside me, and put her hand on my back. We listened as the final verses were sung.

“But in a collector’s mind

All of these jagged lines

Make me more beautiful

And worth a much higher price

I’m like one of those Japanese bowls

I was made long ago

I have some cracks you can see

See how they shine of gold.”

A path with heart is a healing path and a challenging path. And as we travel on this path, we must embrace our flaws and imperfections, and not judge others who also have them. We must not hide our cracks, but honor them. We must always remember that they are filled with gold and we are beautiful and whole just as we are.

Geery Howe, M.A. Executive Coach in Leadership, Strategic Planning, and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Uncertainty Is Uncomfortable

She called me on a warm, sunny day, and said: “Geery, I have made a decision. I am going to get some personal counseling about some home issues. Are you okay with that as my executive coach?”

“Completely. I think it is a great idea,” I responded.

“Oh. I thought you would be upset by this choice.”

“No, not at all. We need different people to help us with different problems through out our entire life journey. We don’t ask the roofer to be a piano tuner. And we don’t ask the piano tuner to be a plumber. Nor would we ask the plumber to be an executive coach. So, if you want to access a qualified and experienced counselor or therapist to help you with some personal or family issues, I am 100% behind you. I think it is a great choice.”

“Thanks. Have you ever done something like this in your life?”

“Definitely. One of the best decisions I ever made. And I still see them on a regular basis. Let me tell you why. 

First, back in the 90’s, I taught a week long class on how to teach stress management skills at the University of Iowa’s Annual Summer School For Helping Professionals. On the last day, an older counselor came up to me and told me that I had missed one important point. I was surprised, and asked “What?” She replied, “Never go to a counselor who does not have a counselor. Everyone has issues that they need to deal with.” And when she said this, I knew she was right. I did have some issues, and I did need to spend time working on them. 

Second, many of us think we have it all together and that everyone else is all messed up. But as the popular bumper sticker states: “Don’t Believe Everything You Think”. Yet, most of us do just this. Thus, we miss new insights and perspectives that an experienced professional can help us with over time. I am most grateful for my counselor as she has opened my eyes to all sorts of misinformation that I grew up believing was true. She also helped me to discover better strategies to dealing with the personal problems I have encountered in my life. 

Furthermore, when I think I have it all together and should be done with this level of work, life happens and I realize I have just begun the journey. Then, I am most grateful to have an ally and confidant who can help me. As Chris Germer, PhD, a clinical psychologist and part time lecturer on psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School wrote: “Gratitude is not putting on rose-colored glasses. It’s more like taking off shit-covered glasses.” And often, my counselor helps me understand that I am wearing the shit-covered glasses and thinking it is reality.”

“Those are helpful insights, Geery,” she replied. “So, if I find the right person, what do I do first?”

“Well, I would do three things. First, share deeply. Do not hold back because you are afraid of being judged. Your personal therapist or counselor needs to know that as a leader, you suffer from the burden of confidentiality, and the burden of understanding strategy. You know things about your team and your company that can not be shared and explored in nearly all settings. This knowledge about what choices people are making and what choices the company needs to make is a heavy and challenging burden. It has a price that few understand. 

But as you share these professional burdens and their impact on your home life with your counselor, you also need to share your personal burdens. Don’t make this all about work. Work and home issues can become a tangled web of problems. Explore both of them and paint the full picture about who you are and what you are dealing with at this time period. And recognize that your history is as important as your current reality.

Second, be curious. As Einstein wrote: “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence.” Ask lots of questions and realize that the answers will evolve over time. 

In the beginning, we may not have the language to fully describe what is going on inside or around us, but together, you and your counselor will figure it out. Then, you will decide on what is the best course of action to take. Uncertainty is uncomfortable, but we need to be curious and ask questions. As we both know, awareness is the first step toward understanding, and ultimately to new ways of living and working. 

Third, be kind to yourself. Working on our personal issues comes with suffering, and at times, grieving. As Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D. noted, “The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is unrealistic as expecting to walk through water without getting wet.” Being a leader involves suffering. You have hard choices to make that come with intense short and, at times, long term consequences and pressures. Not everyone is going to like what you do or how you do it. You will feel alone and even lonely. Still, you have to move forward as an individual who leads others and the company. 

Many days, all of this stuff follows us home. Our marriages and our families are impacted by our work choices. And many times, the impact is that we become emotionally burned out. Some choose to not deal with this burnout or just become numb to it and to all those arounds us. 

Recognizing this, Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D. points out something important about this choice. “Protecting ourselves from loss rather than grieving and healing our losses is one of the major causes of burnout…. We burn out not because we don’t care but because we don’t grieve. We burn out because we have allowed our hearts to become so filled with loss that we have no room left to care.” 

Working with an experienced counselor or therapist, we can step by step understand and grieve our losses. Over time, we can restore a sense of wholeness and meaning in our lives. As Remen explains, “… being brave does not mean being unafraid. It often means being afraid and doing it anyway.” Be kind to yourself during this work and be strong . Keep moving forward through it.”

We chatted for a while more about what I shared, and then she scheduled some time with me to talk about some of her work related challenges. After she hung up, I paused, reflected on her choice to do this level of personal work, and was very proud of her. Having the courage to tackle these kinds of issues in the midst of these challenging and uncertain times was an act of bravery and integrity. It reminded me of something Maya Angelou wrote many years ago:“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” And on this warm and sunny day, she had taken that first step and chosen not to be reduce or diminished by her challenges. The path forward will require a lot of work, but it was a good choice and over time, the outcomes from it will be transformative on so many levels. 

Geery Howe, M.A. Executive Coach in Leadership, Strategic Planning, and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

Monday, February 27, 2023

Rise To The Challenges Before You

There is a myth that when you find your path that it will be a blissful, smooth, and easy journey. This is so far from the truth. A path with heart covers many challenging mountain ranges, some lush valleys, and more canyons of chaos than we care to experience. There are times of great insight and perspective, but there also are many hours of hard work, difficult decisions to make, and periods that include grief and overwhelming effort. I have experienced all of this and more. 

This past spring when visiting our oldest son, his wife and our grandson in Flagstaff, Arizona, my wife and I decided to take a day trip to Grand Canyon National Park. Our goal was to experience this natural beauty and to hike a section of the South Kaibab Trail. 

I first visited Grand Canyon National Park in the winter of 1978 as part of a semester long, college program called Southwest Field Studies. This life changing experience involved back packing and hiking through the three major desert areas in the United States, studying biology, geology, ornithology and American history. It was a complete immersion into these unique desert wildernesses within the continental U.S. During the first part of the semester, we spent a week, hiking in the Grand Canyon, experiencing its history up front and personal. 

The next time I visited the Grand Canyon was in 2009. Our oldest son was a part of a backcountry conservation team doing trail restoration in the Grand Canyon as well as other areas of Arizona. We hiked the South Kaibab Trail with him and got to see the hard and challenging rock work involved in restoring this heavily used trail. With him as our trail guide, we felt we were in good and  experienced hands to make this journey 

The section of the South Kaibab Trail we hiked with him was from the trail head down to Cedar Ridge and then back up again. The distance was only 3 miles which in our small town would be equal to walking to the local post office, on to the park, then to the library, and ultimately back home. The elevation change  at the Grand Canyon, on the other hand, was intense. We started at 7200 feet, dropped to 6080 feet at Cedar Ridge and then had to hike all the way back up to where we started. 

Going down is fun and a touch slick in spots due to the steep incline. The views are spectacular. There is even a special spot called Ooh Aah Point where everyone stops to take a picture and admire the vast beauty of this natural wonder. And when, we made it to Cedar Ridge, we celebrated our accomplishments of making it that far. But in hiking, as in life, going downhill is the easy part of the journey. It is the climb back up that is the more difficult challenge. 

Forty four years later and nearly sixty-five years old, I knew this as the two of  us stood at the trail head on that April morning. We had good food, ample water, the right layers of clothes, and a good trail map. But I have learned in life that the map is not the road, and many times the road is not the full journey. 

So, on a cool and breezy Friday before Easter, we started hiking down the South Kaibab Trail. After the steep, initial switch backs, the trail was more gradual but still dropping down toward the lower parts of the canyon. We hiked for a while and then stopped, rested, drank some water, and ate an early lunch by the side of the trail in the shade of a small pine tree. Other people breezed on by us, moving along at a good clip downward. I, on the other hand, knew we needed to have enough energy to make it back up, not just to make it down. 

Slowly, we made it down past Ooh Aah Point and then on to Cedar Ridge. Here, we again stopped, rested, drank more water, and snacked on energy bars. We enjoyed the view and the quiet of the canyon. Then, it was time to start hiking up. 

Step by step, as we hiked upward, I kept thinking about how hard it is to rise up  from our challenges in life. Effort is part of the work, but it takes more than just effort. It takes commitment, discipline, and the understanding that striving upward is not simple or easy. 

There is an old hiking prayer that goes like so: “Lord - if you will lift up my feet, I will continue to put them down in a new spot.” I know this place and this feeling. It is not hopelessness as much as the exhaustion of feeling like you are not making progress. It is the feeling that life is nothing more than a series of switch backs with no forward or upward progress. It is just one hard step after another, and all we see ahead is more steps. 

Still, over time, we do make progress. It does not happen at the speed of software, but it does happen at the speed of human evolution, namely gradual and not limited by time. We learn that we are changed by the journey on more than just the physical level. 

With mutual encouragement plus ample opportunities to rest, my wife and I made it back to the trail head. When we got to the top, we were smiling. I hugged her and looked out across the Grand Canyon, filled with gratitude and humble appreciation for my body, mind, and spirit. 

As we turned to go, a family was gathering at the trail head. The father turned to his young son and daughter, saying “Come my loves, we are going to see amazing things and experience amazing thing.” I just nodded my head and said to myself, “Yes, you are. And your life will be the richer for it.”

Walking a path with heart is challenging. There will be inspirational moments of new perspective, and difficult times of hard work where we have to overcome old patterns of thinking and living. In short, there will be Grand Canyons of chaos and Grand Canyons of glory. Just keep lifting up your feet and putting them back down in a new spot. The journey is worth the effort. 

Geery Howe, M.A. Executive Coach in Leadership, Strategic Planning, and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257