I was never a great manager. I can say that because I don’t manage anyone now. I used to be in charge of 7 people for a number of years at the Royal Perth Rehabilitation Hospital when I was the Coordinator for an Orthopaedic Outcome Project and Outpatient Clinic. In charge is a very loose term, they were professionals in their own right, physios who were senior but were happy to work in a research/clinical area rather than on a ward or in private practise. I also had a super secretary who managed me more than I managed her. In fact regardless of my poor managing skills the Clinic did thrive and the staff I had were amazing, innovative and responsible and caring to the patients. Sometimes things happen in spite of the situation!
What I did learn through those years, when I would rather have been doing my own work than supervising others, is that empowering and trusting people is the name of the game. Sure there is a framework to follow in any organisation, but within reason I should have shared my knowledge instead of wishing I could get on with my own work. To be a good manager, I realise now, you have to manage, not dictate or micromanage. Rather by sharing, at all levels, all my staff could have had a say in how the Clinic worked and the outcomes we were achieving, giving them a real feeling they are part of the project or work situation, instead of just a cog in the wheel.
I should have learnt to let go more, of the power of being in charge, the knowledge I had and my own set ways of doing things, and been open to other ideas, their ideas.
But of course that is always pretty hard. Sometimes we hoard the knowledge because it gives us a sense of who we are, a person who knows a lot about something, sometimes we hoard ideas because to let them go takes us into a scary unstable place. Sometimes we don’t share because we don’t recognise the other person as a person capable of great things. Sometimes we hold our power because we have nothing to replace it with. Without power and prestige and position we are worthless! Sometimes it’s as simple and as difficult as not wanting to change, to try something new. This is how we have always done it, and no upstart graduate is going to tell me something else.
Ouch, I plead guilty to many of these.
I read a book recently by one of my favourite authors. Barbara Kingsolver (Poisonwood Bible, and Flight Behaviour fame).
In this book, letting go is explored in so many different ways, corresponding to much of the above. It is called “Unsheltered”, and I love the title because sometimes that’s what we are called to be, unsheltered, unprotected!
Let me give the premise of the book..
The story is based around a house, falling down, in a place called Vineland, New Jersey. There are two stories, told in alternating chapters, one set in the first half of the 19thcentury and one set in the 21stcentury.
In the first story we have Thatcher Greenwood, a science teacher who has come to Vineland with his wife to teach science at the local school. He is a nature lover and admirer of Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution, only just published. Unfortunately Vineland seems to be a community set up with strict religious and social rules, mostly laid down by its founder Captain Charles Landis. The town and most of its pupils are not interested in new ideas, ones that might rock their stable life and faith, and neither is the principle of the school at which Thatcher teaches.
In this story Thatcher Greenwood develops a close bond with his neighbour, Mary Treat, a real 19thcentury biologist, who corresponded with Darwin. She supports Thatcher in his efforts to educate his students about evolution, even when he is hounded by the principle and Captain Landis.
“How are people so irrational?”, he asks.
“People may be persuaded of small things”, Mary said, “But most refuse to be moved on larger ones. An earth millions of years old appalls them, when they have seen it otherwise….Presumptions of a lifetime are perilous things to overturn. Presumptions of many lifetimes, in this case”.
“Mr Darwin is blamed for the finding, and Dr. Gray for standing as its champion on our side of the Atlantic. And for bringing it to Vineland, I am threatened by my employer”, says Thatcher.
“And still your pupils depend on it, Thatcher. Their little families have come here looking for safety, but they will go on labouring under old authorities until their heaven collapses. Your charge is to lead them out of doors. Teach them to see evidence for themselves and not to fear it.”
‘To stand in the clear light of day, you once said. Unsheltered”
I loved this part of the book, the clash of ideas, the courage needed to challenge and promote new ways of thinking. How hard would it have been in that time to be a woman scientist or a science teacher, or Darwin for that matter. Or as the story progresses, a journalist who speaks the truth. Sometimes it’s hard even now.
The other story is that of modern-day Vineland. A family has come to live in the run down house. A family a bit run down themselves. Willa Knox, a freelance journalist and Iano, her Greek academic husband have chased the security of academic tenure for years, moving from place to place. Yet in the end it is a mirage, and they are left with Iano, her husband working in a small community University on very low pay. They are financially stretched and feel abandoned by the system that is about to elect “the Bullhorn”, a man who says he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and people would still vote for him”. It seems all of America is falling apart, not just them. They are joined in the house by their daughter Tig, a free spirit who has returned from 2 years in Cuba and who becomes friendly with the ramshackle neighbours who are a family without parents. In the house is also Iano’s father who is slowly dying, but causing a great stir with his racist cries in the process.
If that is not enough, early on in their story, Helene, their son’s girlfriend commits suicide, leaving Zeke, a Harvard educated capitalist, with a small baby to care for. He comes home with the baby, called Aldus, later Dusty, eventually leaving the care of him in the hands of his parents and Tig. while he goes back to Boston to continue his business interests.
Yet they all amazingly try to carry on!
It is a very multilayered story, with the relationships between Willa and Iano, between them and Tig, and between Tig and Zach being front and centre, while the baby and the dying father just add to the chaos. Talk about being unsheltered! Talk about having to let go of things. But somehow it does actually work.
The link between the two stories is the writings of Mary Treat, who Willa comes to know when she finds out about the history of her house, and the house next door where Mary lived. In some ways Mary is a confidant not only of Thatcher but also of Willa, giving both strength and support in times of change. I must say I have fallen in love with Mary myself!
While the book is drawn out and some might say tedious, I liked it, for it deals with topics I find close to my heart. The changing nature of Christianity in the 21stcentury, the issues that face us as a world, including environmental issues but also issues of politics and poverty. And about what a good life really is, is it one with security and a big house, or is it one with love and community? The book is about what we have to let go, as individuals and as a society and a world in order to change and move forward together. And how we do it. Perhaps with less fear and ego and more trust.
As Mary Treat says to Thatcher when they first meet.
“We are given to live in a remarkable time. When the nuisance of old mythologies falls away from us, we may see with new eyes.”
“Without shelter we stand in daylight.”
Mary Oliver, my beautiful companion, who opened my eyes to poetry, and wonder, and creation has died. My heart feels sad that I have to say goodbye to this wonderful woman, yet, I will in some ways never say goodbye. For the poetry she wrote, beautiful, glorious poetry, with a depth and perception that spoke to anyone who found it, lives on. In all the books that hold her poems, and in all the people who will continue to read and be inspired by them. I for one will never let the simple pleasure of a Mary Oliver poem be lost.
Here are just a couple of my favourites, but this is just the start!
“In Blackwater Woods”.
Look, the trees
their own bodies
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
the long tapers
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders
of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
We are letting go of Mary Oliver the person, but never Mary Oliver, the poet.
And this one, called “In the Storm”, speaks to me about what in the end life is about. I have used it before, but maybe we need to read it again and again to let it sink in. Kindness, a little bit of kindness, isn’t that what we all want for each other.
Some black ducks
were shrugged up
on the shore.
It was snowing
hard, from the east,
and the sea
was in disorder.
Then some sanderlings,
five inches long
with beaks like wire,
snowflakes on their backs,
in a row
behind the ducks—
whose backs were also
covered with snow—
they were all but touching,
they were all but under
the roof of the ducks’ tails,
so the wind, pretty much,
blew over them.
They stayed that way, motionless,
for maybe an hour,
then the sanderlings,
each a handful of feathers,
shifted, and were blown away
out over the water,
which was still raging.
they came back
and again the ducks,
like a feathered hedge,
stoop there, and live.
If someone you didn’t know
told you this,
as I am telling you this,
would you believe it?
Belief isn’t always easy.
But this much I have learned,
if not enough else—
to live with my eyes open.
I know what everyone wants
is a miracle.
This wasn’t a miracle.
Unless, of course, kindness—
as now and again
some rare person has suggested—
is a miracle.
As surely it is
And finally, this one, which is long, but I love it because it talks about a God in all things, in creation, in the river, in the stones, in each one of us. Its called “At the River Clarion”.
I don’t know who God is exactly.
But I’ll tell you this.
I was sitting in the river named Clarion, on a water splashed stone
and all afternoon I listened to the voices of the river talking.
Whenever the water struck a stone it had something to say,
and the water itself, and even the mosses trailing under the water.
And slowly, very slowly, it became clear to me what they were saying.
Said the river I am part of holiness.
And I too, said the stone. And I too, whispered the moss beneath the water.
I’d been to the river before, a few times.
Don’t blame the river that nothing happened quickly.
You don’t hear such voices in an hour or a day.
You don’t hear them at all if selfhood has stuffed your ears.
And it’s difficult to hear anything anyway, through all the traffic, the ambition.
If God exists he isn’t just butter and good luck.
He’s also the tick that killed my wonderful dog Luke.
Said the river: imagine everything you can imagine, then keep on going.
Imagine how the lily (who may also be a part of God) would sing to you if it could sing,
if you would pause to hear it.
And how are you so certain anyway that it doesn’t sing?
If God exists he isn’t just churches and mathematics.
He’s the forest, He’s the desert.
He’s the ice caps, that are dying.
He’s the ghetto and the Museum of Fine Arts.
He’s van Gogh and Allen Ginsberg and Robert Motherwell.
He’s the many desperate hands, cleaning and preparing their weapons.
He’s every one of us, potentially.
The leaf of grass, the genius, the politician, the poet.
And if this is true, isn’t it something very important?
Yes, it could be that I am a tiny piece of God, and each of you too, or at least
of his intention and his hope.
Which is a delight beyond measure.
I don’t know how you get to suspect such an idea.
I only know that the river kept singing.
It wasn’t a persuasion, it was all the river’s own constant joy
which was better by far than a lecture, which was comfortable, exciting, unforgettable.
(there is more..)
I went to see a musical the other night, and having bought the whole family tickets I was pretty excited. It was called Madiba and it was based on the life of Nelson Mandela, so I thought it would be educational, and inspirational as well as entertaining.
Well, I found it to be all 3 but the boys were less enthusiastic, and I wondered about that. Yes it was slow in the first half, the dancing and acting and singing was not as good as other musicals we have seen (although the women’s voices were strong) but the second half lived up to everything I was expecting. This half was very moving, focussing on when Mandela was in jail, how he survived and influenced others around him, and his release in 1990. It also focussed on his election as President, and the forgiveness that both he and many people had to find for South Africa to move forward. I thought the actor who played Mandela was very good, and had a beautiful voice which we heard more in the second half.
After reflecting on the boy’s response I realised Nelson Mandela and the fight for justice in South Africa was part of my story, not theirs. Of course the boys know and learnt about him, and about the history of South Africa but that doesn’t really totally cut it.
Rather, for me, Nelson Mandela is someone who has greatly influenced me on my life journey. I was in the UK when he was in jail, and participated in protests calling for his release. I listened to endless talks and presentations about the history of apartheid and the world’s response against it. As a cricket lover, I watched international cricket and rugby without the South African stars, always wondering whether it would ever change. And then, suddenly, it did!
I sat spell bound when Mandela walked free, calling for peace and reconciliation and a new life for all citizens. And felt the hope that abound when he became President.
So the story was more visceral for me, it is part of who I am and how I see the world. The musical came alive for me in a way that was different from Nathan and Pat, and I could overlook its shortcomings.
I was a bit disappointed in their response, but they are an observant twosome. “What has happened since Mandela, look at the country now, it’s a mess”, they commented. Of course South Africa is not the utopia we hoped for, it has so many problems related to corruption, inequality and violence. Its problems are huge, as are the problems for many independent African countries.
What could I say but yes, unfortunately! But the problem we face is that there are not many Nelson Mandelas, just as there are not many Martin Luther Kings or Gandhis, Oscar Romeros or even a Jesus or two, floating around, ready to sacrifice everything for justice. To shine a light in the darkness to what can be as opposed to accepting what is, and then fight for it, not with more guns and violence but with love and fortitude.
But movements like this are more than just one person. While at that time and place in South Africa the light shone through Nelson Mandela, it also shone through everyone who wanted a change, wanted a better world. And in many ways while Mandela was in jail there were ordinary people, sacrificing much to make this change. People like you and me, with jobs and homes and families. .
And it has changed, because of them! Even if there is still a lot of work to be done.
Funnily enough, I was listening to Life Matters on Radio National today and heard a wonderful women being interviewed over a book she has written, called “Always Another Country. She is the story of South Africa as well.
Sisonke Msimang is a black South African who grew up in the country during the time Nelson Mandela was active and then in jail. Her parents were freedom fighters, working hard for justice in South Africa in their own way. Her memories of people staying over, of planning and protesting seemed so vivid. Unfortunately the family moved around the world unable to stay in their homeland for fear of death or imprisonment and so she lived in many countries, hence the name of the book. But when Mandela was freed she came home.
Yet the book is also about belonging as much as anything, because the story doesn’t end there. She now lives in Perth with her husband and children, for while she loves South Africa it has not become a place she can stay. She belongs to the people who love her and who she loves, which can be anywhere. As it turns out it’s here in Australia.
While I haven’t read the book yet, but I will as she was a beautiful, insightful speaker, her final comments on the radio about the post Mandela era were really interesting. And a follow-up to the problems found in modern South Africa.
Yes South Africa is not a utopia. As the boys pointed out. Yes, people who are incredible agents for change and for justice rise at a particular time and place, when they are needed the most. Yet when things return to normal, or sort of normal, sometimes the transition is difficult. People who were outstanding leaders during the 20th century have led corrupt governments in South Africa and made terrible, terrible mistakes for the country and its people in the 21st century.
And the population have allowed them to because maybe they expected so much from them. They allowed them too much power without monitoring what they were doing because of their history and reputation.
That’s why Sisonke loves Australia and Australians. She feels we have a healthy disrespect for our politicians, and so our expectations are a lot lower. A bit sad really, but that means we question them, we analyse what they are doing in our name and we keep them honest, well as honest as possible. I think this is a positive take on our lack of love for our members of parliament and our role in the wider society! We are to be gate keepers for a more just, compassionate and inclusive community. To keep the ideals alive of those who have sacrificed much for them.
Such a challenge for us all!
So, returning where we started, at the musical Madiba, with the family. The musical speaks to me of a time I remember vividly and of a person who was a giant of the 20th century. It’s part of my story, even as a young Australian.
But the book and Sisonke speaks also of what we can do and what people have done, as ordinary citizens, to change things for the better. When there is a light to follow. In a world which seems darker by the day we need both! People to be the light and people who are prepared to help spread that light.
For a better, more just world.