Shaw’s Creek Smile

A road...not Shaw's Creek!

A road…not Shaw’s Creek, cause it has bagpipers on it But just pretend!

She was driving south on Shaw’s Creek Road in an old beat-up Toyota. Lucy and I were running north, and I could see her coming from for a long way. She was hunched over the steering wheel, clutching it and seemingly willing herself forward. Her face appeared pinched and sad, her hat pulled down low and her eyes almost hidden. Perhaps it was a bad day for her, for who knows what reason. But to a side-of-the-road-runner, she seemed to be preoccupied and I was cautious about not taking my eyes off of her.

Now, allow me to digress with a story about my teeth. Yes, you heard me. My teeth. When my mother was pregnant, she apparently took a lot of medication. That was in a time when the dangers of such things were not well understood or communicated. Suffice it to say that when my baby teeth started coming in, they entered in directions that teeth aren’t supposed to be in, and their colour was something very different than white. As a consequence, the dentist removed them. Then, as my permanent teeth erupted, they too formed angles that teeth aren’t supposed to form. My parents decided that money spent on my horrendous teeth would be money well spent. And spend a lot, they did. My teeth are the most expensive thing I own! To honour my parents expenditures, I’ve done my best to care for them. They are large, straight, very white and hard to miss when I smile. And if you know me, I smile a lot. My teeth get a lot of face time.

Good look at my teeth...see, they are large!

Good look at my teeth…see, they are large!

Back to the road….

She looked almost forlorn. And the day was brilliant, one of those fall days in Ontario where it’s just a wee bit cool, the sun is shining and the leaves are just turning crimson and gold. It smells fresh and clean, and wild. I was happy in my heart, and when I saw the driver, I did what comes naturally. I smiled.

Okay, I grinned. Beamed, more like it. My face exploded in a smile and the poor woman was given the full force of my parents’ investment in my teeth.

She couldn’t help herself. My teeth took over. She smiled. Then she grinned, and threw her head back and slowed down, then sped up. I swear she was laughing. And she just kept smiling.

The power of a smile is incredible. It can change a mood, change a heart, change the flow of traffic. It works while you are running, when you’re in a store, when you are simply doing what you do. It takes such a little effort, and the results are so intense.

Now, what does this have to do with anything? In my current work project with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, I’m spending a lot of time sitting at my computer and on the phone. I don’t smile a lot when I’m typing (who does), but I often do when I’m on the phone. I was talking to a gentleman north of Thunder Bay today, and we both started laughing about something I had done. He said to me “You sound like you have a big smile”. So I told him about my teeth. And we both smiled. Well, I did, and I am pretty sure he couldn’t laugh like he did without smiling. And our potentially touchy business conversation (about aboriginal treaty rights and the duty to consult with First Nation’s people) turned into one about how we often forget to smile when we’re working, and how good it feels to do it.

Today’s story, then, is about nothing that is truly of business value, like effective ways to use social media or strategic planning 101. It is about smiling.

But then again, how many more things bring success to your business or personal life than smiling? Try it. See how it works for you. I promise I’ll write about strategic planning later. But I’ll do it with a smile on my face!!!

A final driving smile. This is what my lady on Shaw's Creek looked like after I grinned at her.

A final driving smile. This is what my lady on Shaw’s Creek looked like after I grinned at her.

Estimates of Expectations

I am a scientist. Let me qualify that…the letters behind my name herald the fact that I studied science in university. Biology. As my pal Kathy MacDonald is quick to point out, biologists are different from other scientists…we estimate.

Kath, estimating how much single malt is in the glass...another skill set of biologists!

Kath, estimating how much single malt is in the glass…another skill set of biologists!

I’ve been a runner for almost 40 years, and though I don’t keep detailed records of my runs[1], I have a general idea of how many miles I’ve covered in my lifetime…TONS!!! I run next to cars, trucks, tractors, combines and all sorts of vehicles as they pass me coming and going. I have learned to run on the edge of the shoulder so that I’m not a) splashed b)veered at or c)pushed off the road. Last year, in a personal running “research project”, I estimated (because that’s what biologists do) that:

  • approximately 70% of drivers do not slow down near runners (Imagine!)
  • the remaining 30%, drivers slow down and often wave or smile (especially if I make eye contact and smile at them).

(Needless to say, I made it my goal to get as many people driving near me to smile…and consequently slow down. Happier people, and definitely happier and safer Susan.)SusanCheerMarathon-1

I’ve recently moved to bustling community of Belfountain, home of the Salamander Festival, Lobsterfest and a lot of traffic! Upon moving here, I based my expectations about safety and running on my previous scholarly estimations – so I had to be über careful because more traffic meant no one was going to slow down or move over in this fast-paced community.

WRONGO!!!!

The first time I noticed something different was shortly after I moved in. I was running on a busy road, and there were 2 cars coming towards me. Lucy, my constant running buddy, and I moved close to the ditch, just in case. But to my surprise, the first car pulled over into the next lane, away from me. The second car slowed and then did the same thing.

Well now.

How unusual.

The next day, I was out on another road. An old BMW comes rumbling up behind me, slows down and then waves as it passes me by.[2]

This morning, I was on Main Street during rush hour (or Belfountain’s version of rush hour…more like rush moment). Not one, not two, but four separate vehicles pulled into the other lane to give me lots of room. By the time the last car passed by, I was grinning like a fool. And the passenger in that last car grinned right back and waved.

As a runner, I am delighted that I’ve found a place where people are considerate. As a simple human, I am once more struck with the knowledge that what I expected was not what happened. My assumptions, no matter how strongly grounded in science they were (or weren’t!), were not at all accurate.

Traffic struggles in Belfountain!

Traffic struggles in Belfountain!

I’m sure there are countless reasons why these drivers seem nicer than others. Perhaps they are used to runners. Perhaps the town just has nicer, kinder drivers! Then again, when I head out again, someone might aim at me while I’m running and blow my theories all to smithereens.

Despite assumptions and expectations, I have found, yet again, to expect the unexpected. In this world where we are deluged by stories about the horrors of Ebola, the tragedies in the Gaza, about the alarming unrest in the Ukraine…there are simple joys that manifest themselves all around us, if we are willing to take look for them; indeed, expect them. A driver pulling over for a runner isn’t really momentous occasion. But the frequency of its occurrence has made me happy. Which makes me smile. And if I smile when I run, people smile back and are happy. Which, in the bigger scheme of the world, Ebola and everything else not withstanding, is something we should all strive for and expect.

_______________________________________________________________________

[1] Unlike my friend Eleanor’s brother George Aitkin, who was recently featured in the July/August Canadian Running Magazine with all his journals of accurately measured distances!

[2] No, it wasn’t a LOLWBH (little old lady with blue hair); it was a young guy wearing a Jays cap and “wife beater” t shirt!

Arianna and Norm

It was just a small photograph online; a group of young women in bridesmaid’s dresses. They were all lovely – their hair and makeup done elegantly, smiles all over their faces, and energy radiating from the screen. But one of the girls was clearly more radiant and attractive than the others. She was my friend’s daughter, Arianna[1]. As I looked at the picture, I was confident that everyone else who saw this picture would feel the same way.

It was a cowboy boot kind of wedding!

It was a cowboy boot kind of wedding!

Then I went for a run. Running always clears my head. I sometimes use my run time to focus on something that is challenging me. Or I might use that time to be creative and dream about “what ifs”. But often, I run and let my mind take me where it wants to go. And what entered my mind was this: “Of course Arianna is more beautiful than the other  girls! You know her. That’s who your eye is attracted to when you look at the photo.”

As I kept running, I considered the phenomenon of “knowing” someone. I have shared memories and experiences with this young woman. I remember sitting in the living room, having tea and laughing out loud about something ridiculous. There is context for her in my life. The other women were just faces and smiles, with nothing else attached to them. They were less important to me than the wonderful person with whom I had shared something.

So why is this remotely important? It reminds me to consider each person I encounter in my crazy, busy life as an individual, and to try to find or create a context for them.

I conducted a small and entirely unscientific experiment on myself the other night. I went with my friend Eleanor to hear the band “The Outside Track” http://www.theoutsidetrack.com/ at Hugh’s Room. (If you’ve never heard them, you must!).

The Outside Track drivin' 'er!

The Outside Track drivin’ ‘er!

Our waiter was busy and a bit harried, and when I asked him his name, he was taken by surprise. But he said his name was “Norm”, and off he went. Each time he came to the table, I thanked him and said his name, to cement his value and personality into my mind, to create a context. Later in the evening, I turned and surveyed all the tables. The room was a-bustle of activity, with many wait staff hurrying to get tables cleared before the band started. As I scanned the room, amidst all the activity, Norm stood out in my view, and I noticed him wherever he went. I knew there were other waiters, but my eyes were drawn to Norm.

Unscientific and elementary, but still interesting to me: the one individual with whom I had a connection and a context was the one I continually noticed. Norm and I didn’t go way back in our relationship…it was built on a polite repartee´ between a client and a waiter. But we had something, and like Arianna, that connection brought him to my attention more than any others wandering around that evening.

So what? In my personal life, I am always making connections. But this served as a reminder to me of its value in my professional life. Reflect on the last meeting you were at, where introductions were made. Most people will announce their name and job title. This provides the listener with absolutely no connection to the speaker. You don’t learn what floor of the building someone works on, let alone whether or not they play the fiddle, fly fish or have burning love of peanut butter toast. Context is not made.

When I facilitate a meeting, I spend an inordinate amount of time getting people to introduce themselves. I’ve been chastised for this in the past, because it does take precious time. But I tend to ignore that admonishment, because in the long run, it saves time. When people are connected to one another, with a shared context, story or experience, they communicate in a more personal and compelling way. And that’s when the real work gets done.

Jaime, being more "individual" than most!

Jaime, being more “individual” than most!

So I ask you to think about Arianna. And about Norm. In work, and in your personal life, take the time to make connections. Friedrich Nietzsche told us that invisible threads are the strongest ties. Don’t forget to lay out those invisible threads. You will be grateful that you did.

[1] That’s not her name, of course!

More than the obvious

I recently ran a Change Management Workshop. There were 15 participants, remarkably eager and interested in learning about how to help people adapt to a changing environment – in this case, a new information and records management software program. At the end of the workshop, one of the participants said: “Taking a change management workshop with Susan is like taking a ‘workation’… if every day was that enjoyable, I could do another 25 years in the public service!”

A biologist,  between two fisheries officers spells trouble!

A biologist, between two fisheries officers spells trouble!

What a wonderful compliment! But I’m a biologist, for heaven’s sakes, with a Master’s degree in educational policy analysis focusing on environmental science. What am I doing facilitating change management workshops? How did I ever get here?

Image

I have musical skills as well…though I don’t think anyone would pay me to use them!

Well, I finally realized that we are more than the sum of the letters behind our name, or more than our obvious work experience or expertise. Often people my generation believe we start out as a (fill in your own blank here) “biologist”, so we can only work and advance in the field of “biology”. But we limit ourselves when we only recognize our JOB and not our SKILLS. The job is the obvious. Our skills, and what make us good at our jobs, may be something more vital and unique. And may lead us to a future we hadn’t planned on.

My ah ha moment? My buddy Lorne asked me to help facilitate a workshop for the International Joint Commission (IJC) on environmental database integration. No biggie, because it was all related to environmental agencies, and I was confident that I was going to be working with the Canadian organizations.

I was wrong. The morning of the session, I discovered that I was not only going to be facilitating the American agencies’ discussions (and I was not remotely prepared to do that), but also that I would have half of the participants in the room with me, and the other half on the phone, calling in from all over the US. I was unfamiliar with their data, with their information, with their accents, with pretty much everything I needed to know! But I was very familiar with facilitation techniques, virtual meetings and working with disparate groups of people (translation: people who want to thump one another right there in the meeting room), and I knew I could get this group to come to a strategic consensus on next steps for database sharing.

My brain had had to work at warp speed to keep up with terminology of which I was not familiar; I had to keep the representatives from Michigan at arm’s length from the Ohioans; I had to try to remember to integrate the phone participants with those in the room; I had to juggle, dance, moderate, intercede, laugh and learn.

Gail and I facilitating with two of our favourite support staff!

Gail and I facilitating with two of our favourite support staff!

But you know what? I’m good at that. Really good. And I love doing it. Just love it.

I realized I have limited myself in thinking that, because I have a particular title or set of qualifications, I should be or do a particular thing. If I consider what my skills sets are, and what I really love doing, that opens up a whole new set of unexplored and previously unconsidered opportunities. Yes, my job is that of an environmental consultant. But my skill sets make me a proficient facilitator, and that allows me to pursue facilitation opportunities both in and outside the environmental field.

My message is one we’ve all heard before, but we can stand to be mindful of and listen to yet again: Don’t limit yourself. Don’t believe you are only a biologist/teacher/supervisor/whatever! Take some time and consider what you love about your work, what skill sets you love to use, and what you do really, really well. What is holding you back from finding opportunities where you can do what you really enjoy, do it really, really well, and continue to grow?

Stay tuned. Gesner & Associates Environmental Learning is taking a shift in perspective; I am listening to myself. With two associates, I’m going to explore what we love and do well, and find/create/take advantage of those opportunities. We are going to find more than the obvious about ourselves. Why don’t you do the same???

For the sake of a Community

I started playing fiddle about five years ago. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I travel down to Toronto each week with my friend Eleanor and we play in a group called MSR Fiddlers (March, Strathspey, Reel is the acronym). This is a diverse group of folks of all ages, stages and abilities, brought together by the simple love of Cape Breton music, step dancing and the generous and loving spirit of our leader, Sandy MacIntyre.

Three "hatted" fiddlers!

Three “hatted” fiddlers!

I don’t remember much about my first year of playing with this group. I struggled mightily as I tried to learn the instrument, play and memorize tunes, and try to keep my feet from stomping when we’d really get a tune going. Trying to fit in was not on my list of priorities. Then again, this is not an organized group – we slip in at staggered times, acknowledge one another with a head nod or and wave, sit down and launch into tunes. This community of people come together once a week and play music, nothing more. 

And then Leona got sick. 

Leona and Fiona - different in age but sisters in spirit!

Leona and Fiona – different in age but sisters in spirit!

Leona, a Cape Bretoner through and through, was like sunlight on anything she touched. She makes me smile just thinking about her. It was her second battle with cancer, and despite her motorcycle adventures in the summer and her zip lining in the winter, our group knew that this battle was her last. So one evening a few weeks ago, at Lucy MacIntyre’s bidding, we did something that we’ve never done, at least not in the 5 years I’ve been going to play music. 

Eleanor, warming up for a performance.

Eleanor, warming up for a performance.

We introduced ourselves to one another.

Names were exchanged. Street addresses and e mails, laughter and wishes and things that could have/should have/might have been done years ago. Characters like The Professor, The Teacher, Poodle Man (he brings his miniature poodle!) and The Older Lady now had real names. People learned that they actually lived down the street from one another. 

We were a disparate community of musicians who had morphed into a community of friends in a moment, simply because one precious member of our community was going to leave us. 

I believe we all have different communities in our lives. Our immediate families are a community, often extended to cousins, uncles, aunts, once removed or otherwise. I have my yoga community that meets every Thursday night, none of whom know my family. Or my friends from work, who make a huge community and are separate from other parts of my life.

Much loved members of another community of mine!

Much loved members of another community of mine!

These communities may or may not overlap, but it is our inclusion in those communities that gives us strength, a sense of belonging and a place in the world. They don’t have to be large; they just have to be.

Leona Au Coin, though if she were alive would most likely deny it, was a cornerstone of our fiddle community. She chose to learn the fiddle after having a stroke. She wanted something to help challenge and restore her brain. She somehow reached out to all of us in her own way, and helped shape us into this unique congregation of musicians and friends. 

Her funeral is next week. Our community of fiddlers will gather at the funeral home with our fiddles and honour her life the only way we  know how: play her favourite tunes. Because of her, we know each other’s names and we feel connected. We’ll also see members of Leona’s other communities at the funeral – her family, her travel friends, her work friends; so many people will be there to celebrate her life. And we will blend those communities, if only for a day.

To all my friends who read these musings of mine, I would ask that you take a moment and consider your own communities. You might surprise yourself when you realize how many communities you find yourself in. And to honour my Leona, take a moment and be thankful for those communities, and let all the members who touch your heart in some way know how very, very special they are.

Taking my own advice, if you are reading this, whether I know you or not, you are very much a part of my community, and I am so grateful for your presence. 

A small part of our community!

Eleanor, me, Anastasia and Leona – a small part of our fiddle community!

Don’t aim for the trees!

I was 38 years old when I started skiing. My then husband had skied all his life, and we wanted our family ski together. So Rory (5), Jaime (3) and Susan (38) started into lessons at the Mansfield Ski Club. 7 years later, we could all ski down anything, and had skied in Utah and all over Alberta and BC. In all those years of lessons, I am pretty confident that each and every ski instructor shared this lesson: don’t look at what you want to avoid…look at where you are going, and your skis will take you there. Trust your skis and your ability.

Susan, Julie and Kira contemplating our skiing exploits!

Susan, Julie and Kira contemplating our skiing exploits!

In 2007, we were skiing in Jackson Hole, Wyoming with my most wonderful friend Kira and her family. Second to last day, lots of powder and great weather, I (stupidly) decided to follow Jaime down some steeps through the trees. I dodged the trees successfully…until I slowed down and came out into a clearing…and managed to catch a spruce tree that I was trying to avoid with my right ski. That ski released. The left ski did not. 

3 breaks in the lower left leg, a most memorable toboggan ride, emergency surgery, a rod, a plate and lots of screws, 7 months of intensive physiotherapy and I was back to skiing the next winter. Kira and I headed to Banff and skied Lake Louise. It was as if I hadn’t broken my leg. Except, I had developed a new and irrational fear of skiing in trees. If I even got close to them, I had an immediate and visceral reaction of panic.

I still love to ski, but I always stay away from trees. Those beautiful little glades with trails that beckon? I avoid them. Even the larger open tree areas in Whistler and Big White, I stay away from those. It limits the areas I can ski, but quells my panic. 

A bit of mountain to ski down...note the lack of trees here.

A bit of mountain to ski down…note the lack of trees here.

However, last week, the most miraculous thing happened. Kira and I were in Whistler, and after the first day of heavy, wet snow (and tired legs), Kira reminded me that we just have to trust our skis and our abilities…and make sure we look at where we want to go, not what we want to avoid. In other words, don’t aim for the trees.

We ended up in Symphony Bowl one morning, and down we skied. We took different routes and before I knew it, I found myself in some tight trees. I could feel the panic start to rise as my skis were turning. I found myself staring hard at the trees, turning past them and looking for the next one to get ready for my turn.

Then it happened. I heard Kira’s voice in my head, echoed by all those other ski instructors, and I actually listened. Then instead of looking at the trees, I looked at where I wanted to go.

Holy cow. 

It really worked! 

I was turning like a  ninja (or my version of an old lady ninja), gliding between the trees like I wasn’t afraid at all.

And you know what?

I wasn’t afraid at all!

I could end my story here, celebrating my brave and skillful skiing ability; how I learned to look at where I wanted to go, and not at what I needed to avoid – the trees. But that is not the purpose of this story. As we went up the chair lift, I shared my inspiration with my two ski buddies (who love and tolerate my relative insanity). In a moment of quiet contemplation, Remy turned and said something like this:

Three skiers focusing ahead...or at least on the camera!

Three skiers focusing ahead…or at least on the camera!

“That is a metaphor for life. Trust yourself, trust your abilities, and point yourself in the direction you want to go. Don’t look at what you want to avoid…look ahead at where you want to go.”

So, my friends, whether you are skiing, traveling, writing a policy document, developing a new learning program, or just trying to live a good life, remember to focus on where you want to go. Don’t focus on what you want or need to avoid. That will lead you astray, or at least into the next tree. Look ahead.

Trust me, it works. 

 

Savagery to Civility – a continuum explored

 

My friend Bonnie and I had lunch with my Dad yesterday. Bonnie jokes that in order to prepare for a lunch with “Poppo”, she has to read every newspaper around and then study what he might be most interested in..then prepare to be schooled by his superior ability to gather and analyze information.

Today was no different from most days. Our discussions took us from assisted suicides to self-induced stress from our over-connection to cell phones and computers, to the similarity of political realities between the first World War and what’s happening in the Ukraine today.

Poppo getting ready to work at his computer...and become smarter than me yet again!

Poppo getting ready to work at his computer…and become smarter than me yet again!

My father eloquently explained that on the continuum between savagery and civility, humankind has not progressed very far. We have learned and seen so much, but we have not moved our positions to any great extent. 

I wholeheartedly agreed with him, quickly rising to the occasion with a story (typical of me…like father, like daughter). 

I recently received an e-mail, along with other members of the project team, about a quirk in a program I’m working on for the federal government. Something about the wording of the e-mail struck me as hilariously funny. I responded, but only to the author. The demands of this task team are huge, the stress they are all under is significant, and praise and acknowledgement is a rarity (in my experience) in the public service. I was careful in crafting my response, to note the humour, assign no personal blame or responsibility, and perhaps, create a smile and make the day better. 

I failed miserably. 

The author’s response to my e-mail was immediate, brief and, in my father’s words, savage. 

I was heartbroken. Not because I was chastised and berated for my attempt at humour. But I was saddened because the default position for this individual was so very, very negative. It hearkens back to our lunch discussion, where the default position of so many powerful political figures, when faced with a posturing or sanctions, is to strike out with negative force. Has this savagery pervaded our society so much that it has become a professionally acceptable approach to business? Or to the rest of our lives?

Honestly, this one e-mail has had a powerful impact on me. I had to stop and consider my own default position. What do I do when faced with something that I can easily misconstrue? Do I lash out, choosing to be savage and remaining on the low-end of that continuum? I hope I don’t. I believe I try to conscientiously move myself towards civility, in fact, striving to move past to a greater form of humanity and love. 

After the great e-mail episode that left me a bit bruised and confused, I took the dogs for a walk. Ball cap, lined coveralls and muddy boots are my dog walking uniform of choice, and few people take a second look as I spring along with the girls. As I was turning for home, a car slowed then stopped near me. A smiling gentleman explained that he has seen me walking with the dogs for months, and though we smile and wave, he didn’t know me. And he just wanted to say hi, meet me in person, so that the next time we pass one another, we will have something more substantive than simply a kind wave. We will have a friendship.IMG_2724

The next time someone does something that rubs you the wrong way, pause. Before you lash out, consider the intent and circumstance. Find perspective, both yours and theirs. Then proceed like my smiling gentleman and reach out with that smile. 

Move up on that continuum. Strive for something even more than civility.

There is hope, my friends. 

It is all around us. 

It is us.