Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Unexpected Beauty

Through the course of life, we often come to anticipate or expect beautiful sights, sounds or moments in certain specific locations. In previous essays, I have commented on the beauty of a sunrise on the Atlantic coast, or a moonrise over the Columbia River in eastern Washington State. Both were moments of tremendous beauty and both in what I would describe as beautiful environments. Additionally I have written about the moments of experiencing beauty in museums, being absolutely blown away by the marvelous impressionist paintings on view at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. Breathtaking indeed! What I want to share today is a recent experience where I was overwhelmed by “beauty” in an environment where it was least expected.

My family and I recently returned from a marvelous vacation to Paris. We had been itching for a “big trip” and while there were a hundred reasons why it would have been “smarter” to take the trip at some later date (the kids are too young, it’s too expensive, there’s too much going on at work, etc.) I was reminded this spring on just how fragile life can be so we eagerly made plans to head to France. Our plan was simple; we would spend the whole time in Paris, each day exploring two or three sights, taking a rest in the afternoon, and heading out in the evening to find a cafĂ© to enjoy a great meal. Obviously a number of the “sights” would be museums (The Louvre, Musee d’Orsay, L’Orangerie, etc) and churches (Notre Dame, Sainte Chapelle, Sacre Coeur, Saint Sulpice, etc), all locations of anticipated beauty. We were not disappointed, the shimmering stained glass light in Sainte Chapelle literally did take our breath away and the water lilies by Monet at L’Orangerie were unbelievable. Huge floor to ceiling panels of Monet’s famous Japanese garden in Giverny, completely enclosing two oval rooms, absolutely overwhelming. This past year in school, Marie had done a report on the artist Edgar Degas. Watching her come upon his “Tiny Dancer” in a temporary exhibit at Musee d’Orsay was outstanding. Indeed, having her strike the statue’s famous pose brought tears to these eyes. Additionally, watching Bryson working away in his sketchbook as we visited the Louvre, sketching various statues near the Marly horses, was absolutely inspiring. How did Jennie and I get lucky enough to have these two wonderful kids???

As you can tell from the above, we did indeed experience “beauty” in numerous “expected” environments. When you visit the Louvre and see the Mona Lisa, or the Venus de Milo, you expect to find “beauty,” and we were not disappointed. It was on our journey from the Louvre back to our hotel one day that the unexpected occurred. We were constantly using the Metro in Paris and by the end of our week, we became pretty good at navigating its system. We changed trains and changed lines regularly and even used the RER line to get to and from the Charles de Gaulle Airport. The route from the Louvre back to our hotel in Montparnasse required us to change trains in the Chatelet station that day in order to head back to “our” metro stop, good old Raspail! We had changed trains at Chatelet before, without incident, but we had been left with one strong memory… the smell! For some reason, this station was obviously used by a number of Paris’s homeless community as their underground bathroom. It reeked! Jokingly, we all held our breath as we moved from one rail line to another to work our way home to the Raspail metro stop. It was in this “least expected” environment that beauty struck an amazing chord.

We literally were in the beginning of rush hour and the crowds were starting to increase as we made our way through the Chatelet station. As we turned a corner, still holding our breath a bit, we started to hear music. It wasn’t unusual at all to hear live music in the Paris metro. I am certain that we heard an accordion, a guitarist, or possibly a lone violinist every day during our visit. What was unusual at this moment was that the music grew louder and larger as we drew near. Rather than a lone musician, there were nine or ten musicians; all gathered in a small passage way, playing what I think was a Mozart string concerto, fiercely. It was unbelievable! Very few of them were reading any music, they played in wonderful unison, and the acoustics of the tiled metro station were unreal. The music stopped all of us in our tracks, and we moved to the side, up a few steps, to get out of the way and enjoy the “beauty.” I was so moved by the moment, watching my family equally consumed in this unusual scene, overwhelmed by the music that I began to cry. Marie turned to me, seeing my tears, and asked why I was crying. Was it the music? Was it the jet lag? I’m still not sure what triggered the tears. I really had no answer other than I was overwhelmed by the moment and I was so happy to be together as a family. I gathered myself as the music came to a finish, a most amazing moment in a most unexpected location.

I wanted to share this story because since our return a few weeks ago, my thoughts continue to return to that metro station. Moments like that cannot be planned, created, or even anticipated in a travel itinerary. We could go back to that metro station today and while I am confident in the smell that we would encounter, I am doubtful that we would encounter the overwhelming “beauty” of that recent moment. I think we all need to be aware and open to what might be awaiting us through the twists and turns of life. As I have written numerous times, life is fragile and life is short. Whether I think back to my mother Arline, my sister-in-law Carrie, my dear friend Bruce, or my mother-in-law Jane, all are sweet fond memories that were lost too early. Life is now, beauty can happen anywhere, whether in a historic museum or in a smelly Paris metro station. I think it’s our opportunity to try to live this life as fully as we can, keeping our eyes and hearts open to beautiful moments wherever they might occur.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Lessons from the team!

Recently I had the pleasure to take a group of inspiring young leaders on a leadership experience to the North Carolina mountains. One of the activities was a hike up Whiteside Mountain, accompanied by a set of readings and discussions.

In preparation for the trip, I had the team read three documents: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech; chapters from Cicero's "On a Life Well Spent"; and a recent blog essay of mine titled "Leadership with a Growth Mindset." My intent was to use the three readings to provoke thinking around the group's approach and priorities as leaders. As we climbed the mountain trail, we paused at different points to share a reading, discuss it's meaning, and connect it to our lives and work today. The discussions were lively and profound, complemented by stunning scenery and vistas. As you can see by the photo, we were no worse for the wear from the climb and the discussions!

At the end of the trip, one of the team shared the following story. I was thrilled to hear the story on the trip, and I loved the idea that all of us have experiences and stories from our lives to share with others. I have found the story of "The Mexican Fisherman" poignant, and I hope that you do as well!

Story of the Mexican Fisherman

A boat docked in a tiny Mexican village. An American tourist complimented the Mexican fisherman on the quality of his catch. “How long did it take you to get those?” he asked.
“Not so long,” said the Mexican.
“Then why didn’t you stay out longer and catch more?” asked the American.
The Mexican explained that his small catch was quite enough to meet his needs and feed his family.

“So what do you do with the rest of your time?” asked the American.
“I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, and take a siesta with my wife. In the evening, I go into the village to see my friends, have a few drinks, play the guitar and sing a few songs. I have a full life.”

The American interrupted. “I have an MBA from Harvard and I can help you! You should start by fishing longer every day. You can then sell the extra fish you catch. With the extra revenue, you can buy a bigger boat.”
“And after that?” asked the Mexican.
“With the extra money the bigger boat will bring, you can buy a second boat and then a third boat, and then more until you have an entire fleet of trawlers. Instead of selling your fish to a middle man, you can then negotiate directly with the processing plants. Pretty soon you could open your own plant. You could leave this little village and move to Mexico City, Los Angeles, or even New York! From there you could direct your whole enterprise.”
“How long would that take?” asked the Mexican.
“Twenty — perhaps twenty-five years,” replied the American.
“And after that?”

“Afterwards? Well, my friend,” laughed the American, “that’s when it gets really interesting. When your business gets really big, you can start selling stocks and make millions!”
“Millions? Really? And after that?” said the Mexican.
“After that you’ll be able to retire, live in a beautiful place near the coast, sleep late, play with your children, catch a few fish, take siestas with your wife and spend your evenings drinking and enjoying your friends.”


The moral of the story… Know where you’re going in life — you may already be there.