It’s the last day of the old year, a time that generally encourages introspection and thought. In the middle of Pennsylvania, nature has no idea which end is up. My forsythia has begun to bloom, the spring bulbs are starting to push through the ground, and chickadees are out happily picking through my despondent planter garden on the deck, looking for wayward seeds. Despite an earlier halfhearted frost, even the lantana is budding with new blooms and my herb garden remains stubbornly green. It feels like we’re living on borrowed weather, and the illogical part of me worries that we’ll be all ice and snow until June. But for now, the year and the warm weather lingers in its final hours as I sit at my kitchen table, watching the outside from within. I love these mornings of coffee and quiet contemplation; the intentional solitude often offers insight that would otherwise be lost in the flurry of life. Meanwhile, TheCop is up on the mountain celebrating Last Night with a group of friends, where they sleep outdoors and do secret manly things while I get an evening alone with myself, able to putter or watch anything I want for as long as I want, order dinner delivery and wake up to the quiet anticipation of an empty schedule. It’s almost as if we switch places for the day, and I’ve come to love this tradition almost as much as he does.
It’s the eve of a new year and I can’t help doing my own mental review. This year has been a carnival ride. I’ve lost a number of people over the last twelve months, not the least of which was my father. Loss is a struggle, and still the unexpected “What if?” haunts me. It probably always will. But it has also been a year of gains and insights. I’ve watched each of my kids overcome personal challenges this past year. I’ve discovered you can actually have an awesome job and do what you love — and even, God forbid, be good at it. At one point in my life I didn’t believe that was possible. I’ve met new people and expanded my network of friends and connections in multiple facets of my life. I’ve reestablished contact with some old acquaintances (though not as many as I should, I’m sorry to say) on Facebook of all places (I’m even sorrier to say), and we may actually become friends again if I don’t muck it up. I’m still horrible at celebrating holidays and birthdays using prescribed cards and conventions, and the Christmas season highlights that flaw in spades. I’ve received so many cards from people who have their act together, it isn’t even funny. Cards with witty year-in-review letters. Cards with picture perfect families celebrating the holidays. Hell, cards that actually arrive before Christmas! These are all talents well beyond me, tasks I attempted to live up to earlier in my life but, after years of failing, gave up long ago. (By the way, I now have enough unused boxes of Christmas cards squirreled away for the White House to send out buckets of them throughout the country for decades to come. Let me know if Hallmark ever runs out and I’ll hook you guys up.) My Instagram feed is inundated with perfect holiday images, while I’m still trying to find the last two presents I hid somewhere in my house really safe. Yes, during this season, it’s especially easy to see my personal quirks and truths as failings, and despair my lack of polish and professional contributions to this world. Don’t think I haven’t gone there in darker seasons. At times, it’s been eerily reminiscent of George Bailey in my perennial Christmas favorite, It’s a Wonderful Life. The beauty of that film is Clarence’s gift of showing George what life would have looked like had he not been born. There’s a rare beauty in that gift, because George is forced to look at himself through the eyes of others. It’s not often we take that opportunity.
My professional life is like that. There’s been a lot of growth but what, if anything, have I actually given back? I should write and blog more. I should give better and more structured presentations when I speak. I should contribute to the betterment of higher ed. So many shoulds, so little haves. It’s all too easy to believe I haven’t made much of a difference. But something’s been happening over the last few years; something I could have easily missed had I not started to tune in to this network of people with whom I’ve connected. At a conference a couple of years ago, I was on a panel of women talking about making our way in higher education. We were from all walks of life — single and married, with kids and without, some with a couple of careers under our belts and others just starting out on their first. It was a fascinating conversation and I knew and respected all of the women on the stage and, quite frankly, I wondered why I was even there. I don’t really have much insight as much as I have stories, and I wasn’t feeling like I was truly contributing. But then they asked a question about mentoring, and this beautiful, vibrant, dynamic and wicked smart young woman next to me took the mic and said, “Actually, my mentor for the past several years has been this woman sitting next to me.” And then she turned to me.
I was dumbfounded. Me? How could I possibly be a mentor to her? I hadn’t done anything at all. She went on to speak of how I’d helped her become a compelling speaker with my feedback and guidance. Meanwhile, I was blown away. I remembered the first time she had presented at a conference; it was clear she wasn’t terribly comfortable in front of people, and we had talked a bit afterwards. After all, it takes courage to stand in front of an audience, and this was her first time speaking at a conference. Only a year later, I saw her present again and marveled at the change; now she was confident and poised in her presentation and had no difficulties fielding questions from the audience. I made sure to tell her how impressed I was with her progress, and she had seemed so appreciative. But that’s just being nice, right? Those were simply conversations and ideas we had shared. Surely you have to do more than that to make an impact. I had no idea that, in her eyes, I was an experienced speaker who had taken time to encourage her, and that kindness had made an impact. This realization was both powerful and humbling for me. It truly began to reframe the way I looked at myself, even if it’s only via the occasional introspective lens. But it sits with me, in the back of my mind, and has it’s own impact on me in return. Since then, I’ve tried to be more present and aware of other’s efforts. I take special notice when people mention me, and their observations always surprise me. Take the #whosyourunicorn Twitter hashtag several months ago. Out of nowhere, three people mentioned my name as someone who inspires them. This Christmas, people have made and sent me gifts simply because they knew I’d love them. Even on Facebook (*$&%&%$*), I’m surprised when people take things I’ve said to heart, or when they’re inspired by rants, or thoughts, or stories. It’s not about the humblebrag; it’s not about the “look at me, look at me” moments; it’s not even for the acknowledgement. It’s simply about being 100% human, as my friend Dave would say. It’s about George Bailey deciding that he really wants to live.
We touch so many lives without a second thought — or even a first thought, for that matter. Forgive me for co-opting it here, but our lives matter. If we pay attention, if we step outside of our own world view and look through someone else’s view, we can start to see that we do, in fact, make a difference. Maybe not in the way you imagined you would but, then, users never use your work the way you expect them to. People take what you offer and use it in ways that work for them, that fill the need they have. It’s the kindnesses we often overlook. I think it’s easy to discount the good we do in this world, especially when we focus on our own missteps, flubs, and foibles. In the immortal words of a certain modern day philosopher, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Ain’t that the truth. The same could also be said for people. So, for all of you who read my words, for those of you who take the extra step to post a comment, or share a thought on Facebook or have a conversation on Twitter or even a cup of coffee and a laugh in person, I thank you for your kindness. Thank you for enriching my life. Hopefully I’ve added a little to yours as well this past year. Here’s hoping you see your contributions of 2015 through someone else’s eyes, and here’s wishing you a memorable 2016.
It really is a wonderful life.