Letters

Dropping off handwritten letters at the post office, each written with care and sealed with melted wax—the old-fashioned way. This is one of my favorite things to do.

Mine is the heart of “the girl back home.” The one that waits loyally, intently for her sailor to return from faraway foreign shores. Whose top closet shelf holds a plain shoebox, tied shut by a frayed string, filled with letters that traversed the seas and mountains to deliver the stories, dreams, hopes, fears, and longings of her beloved. And the “I love you, I miss you” that seals moonlight.

I’m the girl back home that grew into an old woman with a plain shoebox on her top closet shelf. Each signed simply “Yours”, the letters she held close for a lifetime never revealed the name of the man for whom she waited. Loyally.

Shaun

In my search for a dude with big, strong hands and some anger to work out in the form of a back massage, I found instead a slight man with a sunny disposition, an inspiring story, and the lure of patience to which my angel wings easily relinquished their anxieties.

I had a two-hour massage this evening by a man we’ll call Shaun. At 30 years old and not more than 120 lbs. in stature, his first impressions on me were hardly foreshadowing of his impact. Shaun came to the US nine years ago from Harbin, China, the nation’s ice festival city, established in the aide of the Russian’s building the Trans-Siberian Railway. Once here, he realized that he didn’t know enough English to successfully attend college, so he decided to study English and took a job in a Chinese restaurant as a delivery driver until he could more successfully take classes.

Shaun worked 11 hour days, six days a week at the restaurant, and had very little time to study English, so he decided to orchestrate yet another life change that would enable him to work fewer hours and learn more English. Today, he’s a massage therapist (and a damn good one, at that!), who works seven hours a day, five days a week, and whose English is very good!

Shaun and I shared ideas, thoughts, and questions. He didn’t really understand what communism is when I asked him what it was like to grow up in a communist nation. Further, he said that one of the big differences between the Chinese and Americans is that the Americans always want to travel to see the world and nature, where the Chinese are unconcerned generally with travel and nature experiences. He said plainly, “We don’t have fate. After the war, in 1949, the government told us to believe in science only, so we do not have fate or religious conflicts.” He said with warmth, “America is the greatest nation in the world. Everyone comes here to be better people, so there is no option but to succeed when you come here, even if it is hard to learn the language and culture. Even when it feels very lonely.” I also learned that in the US, we look forward in time. In China, they look backward in time. We have fate and a sense of what might be to imagine. The Chinese have science, and thousands of years of what has been to celebrate.

Shaun said casually at one point that if the US government survives to 1,000 years, it might work more like China. Our nation is so young, that enough time has not yet passed for people to forget their anger and learn to live in harmony. He suggested that America is the future, the hope of humanity, and the pioneer of the world of tomorrow. The hard times of today, too, shall pass he assured me.

While my back muscles gave way to his not-so-angry maneuvering, I felt restored in my confidence that neighbors and friends hold space for peace in our world. Tonight, where America and China met, shared stories, asked questions, and learned a little bit more about the other – we demonstrated that world peace is more than possible. It’s forthcoming, and lives in us.

Ten Years

Today marked my 10-year anniversary at Deloitte. I’ve experienced a lot of super-cool things in that time, but the one that has had the most enduring, meaningful impact on me personally occurred as part of my role in the US chairman’s office.

Over the course of nearly four years, I wrote announcements about retired partner deaths. You may think it’s weird or morbid, but it was a special honor to be the one that paid tribute to the lives of some remarkable people who helped make Deloitte the special place that it is today, and whose contributions helped shape the profession as we know it.

I wrote several hundred such tributes, and in the process, I interviewed hundreds of people about the impact their colleagues had on the lives of those around them, going as far back as the 1950s. Here are a few things I learned from people as they reflected on the lives of their colleagues at the times of their deaths:

How you treat your colleagues and clients in the course of your everyday work has a lasting impact on their lives. Your words and actions are received, felt, and remembered by others. More keenly than you expect, in fact.

The “little” things matter. Integrity matters. Private conversations stay with people, so invest in them wisely.

Work is one expression of humanity; it’s not business, it’s personal.

Technical skills are very important, but character is most important.

In my first ten years, I worked with rookies and sages; interns and CEOs; colleagues, clients, competitors, and the professional community at large; people in every part of the US, and every region of the world; the unknown and the famous; and every type of person along the many spectra of society. Deloitte is a special happening, and I am honored to be a Deloitte “colleague for life”.

(If you want to make my day, please share a memory of our working together at some point over the past decade. Through you, my family can come to understand my professional life better, and why I am so committed to the green dot. Thanks!)

Foyer on 5th

There were no people on the sidewalk, no beggars on the steps; the antique, ornate metal doors budged as much as a stubborn ox at the plowing season’s dusk. I shut my right eye tight and leaned in close to peer inside through the small crack between the two monumental doors. Nothing, except a small flickering light deep in the distance, greeted my curious eye. I might have been able to slide a note between the doors on a single sheet of paper, but I could not press sight into the same space before darkness consumed it wholly. Stillness moved swiftly about on the other side of the doors, and made a ruckus of silence that easily spilled out through the narrow crack between those doors. The steps were sticky with silence and shadows, and I stood plainly in them. No one on the sidewalk. And no one else on the steps.

The tall entryway hung around me, like a high-flung blanket of thick folds of grey and white marble, the center of which got stuck on a nail high on the wall over the doors. I stood under the arching marble blanket in a soft glow of light that pressed the marble blanket away from my crown. I felt tiny and soft standing in the glowing marble archway, still and curious. The skins of the doors appeared to have been meticulously carved with mathematical precision, a visual orchestra of swirls, peaks, squares, and circles. They echoed a grand tale: “Once upon a time, through these doors, walked a king and commoners alike …”

Tonight, though, there was no king. No commoners. Street lamps cast a powdery mist into the calm night air, and I noticed a few passersby; they seemed not to see the doors, the marble entry, or me. A man with a dark blue suit and shiny black shoes walked briskly by, and glanced at his watch twice before crossing the narrow, two-lane street. He hurried by the steps upon which my shoes soaked in silence.

A young woman with drab blonde hair sauntered in the opposite direction, wearing a skirt that moved like the aurora borealis, and in colors the same. A brown bag slung over her shoulder, and she carried a book in the crook of her arm. She didn’t notice me noticing her approaching the tight intersection at 5th Avenue, which she crossed carelessly.

I turned again to the door, and touched the unyielding handles. Brass or gold, I couldn’t be sure. My senses begged for more of the story. Who were these commoners that crossed the threshold guarded by these grand doors? Why did they come here? Where were they now?

Just then, I heard a purring whisper from above, as if peace passed over the heartstrings of a poet, whose words needn’t find paper or tongue. And there, tucked in a small architectural crevice that gave rise to yet more marble, rested a lone, gray pigeon. From the breast of a peaceful messenger, the story began to unfold.

A pigeon is a common bird, with an uncommon gift. Her sooty wings give flight to messages of love and longing, of good news, and warnings of danger. It is in her commonness that she journeys—unnoticed—from one place to the next, stitching humanity together with threads the length of her travels. She is ordinary, but in her ordinariness, she tells extraordinary tales to those who listen. Unlike her elaborate, marble birdhouse, in which she tucked herself out of view from the street behind layers of ornate majesty, she cooed a quiet, unassuming greeting.

The important man with the shiny shoes hadn’t noticed me. The woman with the book walked by without even glancing up at the mountain of marble upon whose steps I waited. But a simple, ordinary pigeon welcomed me to her spectacular home from a foyer the size of a breadbox. She told me about how commoners come to these doors to hear messages of love because they long for acceptance. There are times when the doors swing wide open to share good news, and other times they are unlocked to calm the commoners’ fears, and soothe their pains. She made this her home because from her foyer, she could watch the common folks pass through the doors; their sooty stories and tarnished, hardened hearts made well by the extraordinary experience of being common … noticed and loved.

Far above the narrow streets and luminous streetlamps, the moon glistened. With my silence-soaked shoes and quenched curiosity, I descended the steps delicately and walked north on 5th Avenue, on the tiny island of Manhattan, where common is breathtaking, and awe is as common as a small, silvered bird.

Marble entryway

Saturday morning in Connecticut

This morning, I met a delicately-statured lady at the hotel restaurant named Jael. She was bustling around doing thrice as much as her male contemporaries, and we struck up a sweet conversation after I commented about her being a busy little bee. As we talked she said she feels like the world has lost touch with humanity and that we all need to pay more attention to each other, to smile, and connect through conversation. That we should work hard to serve others. My brief encounter with Jael was a warm reminder that many people are starving for the richly textured life society gladly dropped and left behind when it reached for a smaller, faster, smarter phone. She told me about her son, about how she learned to serve others from her roots in Asia, and how she appreciates the chance to talk to people who actually see her … a person. I saw her, and I liked her immediately, pretty sure that I could sense her heart open to receive any warm human outreach. Sadly, no one else paid her any attention. I’m so glad I did.

​Following breakfast, I headed out to get a taxi for the train station to get on my way to Washington, D.C., only to learn that there weren’t any taxis nearby. German the bell hop personally drove me to the train station​–a gracious gesture given my limited time to make my reservation​. During the ride he told me about his ​ailing ​daughter, and about how the doctors ask for proof of insurance papers before addressing her by name or even looking twice at her, even after three years of treatments. “Healthcare isn’t about people,” he said. “It’s about money.” He wore the worry of a papa and the armor of a father in the fine creases drawn across his brow and at the corners of his eyes when he talked about her. He told me exactly how to get to the train tracks, and I hugged him, compelled to whisper “God bless,” as I left. ​He bowed his head slightly, and smiled gingerly. ​I couldn’t help but wonder if God himself asked me to do that very simple thing … to simply listen and allow German to serve and feel appreciated for taking care of another fellow human being. I knew I was safe in his care as a guest of the hotel, and as a friend in humanity.

​O​n the platform of Track 2 at the train station, I saw a lone man around whom lots of people walked, ignoring his existence​ except their sidestepping his wheelchair​. He wore a brown, delicately woven cap over his balding head​, and​ I noticed that the top portion of his left ear was missing. He spoke with a thick Spanish accent, wore bifocals, and gladly told me about my train when I asked him if I was in the right place. He was on his way to New Haven to the VA hospital, and I learned that he was discharged from the U.S. Marine Corps in 1969 after serving in Vietnam. He told me all about the beach to the northeast of Stamford, and of his enjoying that part of the country for the last 45 years between bouts of travel all across the U.S. He called me “ma’am” when he spoke to me, and looked directly into my eyes with kind strength. Then, when the train people announced that my train would arrive on Track 3, I thanked him and headed toward the footbridge; he waved good-bye from the platform, wearing a broad, grateful smile, as I looked back in his direction from the top of the escalator. We became friends and bid a final farewell without ever knowing each other’s names. When I emerged on Platform 3 on the opposite side​ of the tracks​, he was gone.

Begin. Change.

I’ve heard the cues in hundreds of yoga classes, and have loyally anticipated and obeyed them like a prized show dog. Every day, I put down a dry mat and plant my feet firm upon its center. Then we “begin.” Take the posture, breathe, and fall into the pose with strength, balance, and focus. “Change.” Let the posture go, gracefully return to stillness, and observe the tension as it subsides. Sometimes, we “release” instead of change, but it means the same thing.

Last week, I heard the cues for the first time again. In the absence of instruction about leveling hips to the floor, pulling angel blades down-and-back, and lengthening the spine, I heard a message about living well in two simple words.

Begin.

Change.

Many treasure the release from postures like ustrasana, or “camel” pose, and eagerly count the seconds until they can put their hearts back into their chests following the ultra-vulnerable, wide-stretched chest-to-the-sky pose. Not me. I particularly like camel because in that posture, my heart beats with the vigor for which it was designed, the hallmark of excitement.

Philosopher Alan Watts wrote the following in The Wisdom of Insecurity: Where do I begin and end in space? I have relations to the sun and air which are just as vital parts of my existence as my heart. The movement in which I am a pattern or convolution began incalculable ages before the (conventionally isolated) event called birth, and will continue long after the event called death.

If that is true, Watts contends, then constant motion—not a set of stills placed in quick succession—is the perfect characterization of life. There are no still moments, just movement, the very definition of change.

Begin, change. Begin, release. Begin, change. Begin, release.

To change is to begin again; to release is to begin to change.

Even stillness is movement, although not of the body, but of the spirit. Every day, I spend 90 minutes on my mat going through this metamorphosis, ending on a once-dry mat that drips with sweaty change.

I’ve wondered why change is often so difficult. While it’s not always as acutely physically strenuous as, let’s say, natural childbirth, it is often as profound. Like the anticipation of welcoming a new life to the earth, ought not change incite at least some of the same anticipatory excitement, wonder, and delight? Releasing the old is equivalent to welcoming the new, and in the strain of holding on to what is worn and familiar, we enjoy what has been called comfort. Comfort, insofar as we understand it, that is. Maybe that’s the big trick we play on ourselves. While we spend significant energy planning for comfortable futures, natural forces are changing the future, the ecosystem of time and space from which comforts derives its meaning. The starting point moves at the will of the universe, but we don’t see the movement because our eyes are fixed on our own fallen selves in our past, present, and future states, as if we are set apart from the universe within which we exist.

Lately, stepping onto on my yoga mat is a reminder that I am also perched on the precipice of potentially drastic change, not micro-movement that takes years to launch a surprise. Instead of watching sand fall gently through the protective choke of an hourglass, I imagine smashing the hourglass into slivers, and gathering the sand up to build a castle on the beach, where the tide rises and falls at the will of the moon.

Yeah, I want to build something on the beach—something amazing. I want to change … to begin.

Kat, thank you for teaching my last hot music class in just two words. Love you, sister.

Every sixth stroke

“You’re going to need surgery eventually.” Apparently, I’d torn my left labrum as I ferociously scooped and tossed five-gallon buckets of water away from my house as the rain fell in biblical proportions. It’s the only thing I could possibly have done to injure my shoulder. The orthopedic surgeon went on, “I recommend that you stop swimming, because the leveraged stress put on your shoulder when swimming is likely to further injure it.”

2012 Paralympic Games in London (sponsored by Deloitte!)
2012 Paralympic Games in London (sponsored by Deloitte!)

That was over two years ago. Instead of surgery I set out to give my body what it needed to heal by taking up hot yoga. Three hundred hours of hot yoga later, I got back in the pool this weekend. Ginger strokes turned to a single, smooth, confident—albeit slow—cadence after just a few laps; my breath found its pace effortlessly. Life under the surface of the water is calm, cool, and steady. Wrapped in the safety of the water, my mind explored the consciousness of my body, from my toes as they fluttered behind my slow crawling arms, to my now strong shoulders.

 

Paralympics logo in London, 2012
Paralympics logo at Olympic Stadium in London, 2012

As I swam, my thoughts drifted back to my trip to the 2012 Paralympics in London, where I watched elite swimmers torpedo through a pale blue pool. Some didn’t have arms, legs, or both; and some were blind. The story of one impressive swimmer had intrigued me. Former U.S. Navy officer Brad Snyder, who became fully blind after an incident with an IED in Afghanistan, won several gold and silver medals, and became the world record holder for the 400-meter and 100-meter freestyle events. He’s a sailfish with arms. I am a seahorse.

Since the games, I’ve had the honor of getting to know Brad while serving together to help military service people transition to the corporate world upon their returning to civilian life. Vignettes of these experiences flashed through my mind as my muscles regained familiarity with the water.

paraflag2
American flag hanging over the pool at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London

Every sixth stroke, I noticed the American flag hanging over the pool at the far end of the rafters, and something Brad said once came to the foreground of my memory. He talked about how one of the strange things about being a blind swimmer is that when the race is over, you don’t know if you’ve won until you hear the results. He recalled finishing a race and, unlike his sighted contemporaries who know with a glance at the scoreboard, had to wait until someone called out the name of the winner to know where he placed. I remember watching the races in London, thinking, “He won!” I knew it before he did.

This weekend, as I bumbled along in my lane, I saluted the flag hanging over the pool with a simple look to the rafters as I drew in the prana from just above the surface. My Paralympic gold-medal winning, world-record holding, war fighting, bomb diffusing friend who donned U.S. Navy stripes with pride, and who represented the United States on the world stage at the London Games … he couldn’t see the flag under which he served, and later competed. But he represented it as well as anyone ever has.

Today, I am thankful for role models and friends like Brad, who don’t have to see in order to dream, to triumph.

Brad, I  respect you. I am grateful for your selfless service; your positive, strong mind; and the fiery spirit with which you live this amazing life.