As many readers of this post already know, 2013 has been a year of exceptional experiences, both pleasant and hard. Now, as the nights grow longer and colder, and the inevitable turn of the calendar approaches, I find myself especially moved to share some of my reflections. In this particular moment, the reflections welling up within me come out of a Skype call with my dear friend, Drew Drummond, whom I first met by Skype in January of this year.
Drew and I met because I was fortunate enough to be invited by Carol Clyde, then Director of the TCU Leadership Center, to go along with a group of its students on a trip to Scotland in March. That trip was done in partnership with Drummond International and Columba 1400, both of which are rooted in the Drummond family’s warm, generous, insightful, and encouraging spirit. In its own ways, each of these organizations serves an approach to leadership that understands and promotes the centrality of humanitarian ideals. In short, I would say they facilitate the emergence of leaders guided by love. That sounds like a very simple concept, and in many ways it is, but only a little thought reveals there are many skills required of such leaders, and such skills must actually be exemplified by those who would teach them. In this way of leadership you have to practice what your preach if you expect to be taken seriously for very long. Drew and his colleagues — like Hilary Black, Don Ledingham, Guy Matthews, Jackie Gillies, and many others — certainly do that, and I want to share some specific memories from my experience with them that gave rise to this post’s title.
Our visit in Scotland began in Edinburgh. We were invited into the Drummond family home and a delicious dinner, made for us (about 30 people!) by Elizabeth Drummond herself, became the hub of a wonderful evening. We all shared in discussion that was both cheerful and deeply meaningful, highlighted by the talks on leadership and values given by Drew’s father, Norman, and Don Ledingham. Norman also gave copies of his splendid book, The Power of Three, to everyone in our group. He even took the time to personally autograph each one.
When the hour grew late and the students began to make their way back to our hostel, the Drummonds kindly invited Carol and me to stay for awhile longer. Norman and I took the opportunity to dive deeper into some attitudes and ideas we shared, and it was then that I began to feel a stronger sense of connection with him and his family. (As an aside, Norman is a great admirer of Nelson Mandela, and I’m sure he is now grieving the loss of Mandela as well as celebrating his life.) In particular, Norman and I reflected on these questions: What does one do after witnessing the ugliness of humanity, and especially after having awakened to it within oneself? What does one do in response to one’s own suffering? We agreed that the people we most admire are those who have become even more committed to, and infused with, faith, hope, and love. I was so moved by our resonance that I actually performed one of my poems on these themes, which is something I had very rarely done for such a new acquaintance. He received the poem graciously, and before I left he gave me an additional gift. Norman, a Presbyterian minister, gave me a book that has been a constant source of insight and inspiration for him and his family, The Greatest Thing in the World. It is a book that begs us to seriously consider what it means to realize that love is “the greatest of these,” as Paul wrote in 1st Corinthians 13.
The next morning, our group was to participate in community service. We were scheduled to give our time and effort to a charitable organization, the Cyrenians, working most of the day on the new gardens of the Midlothian Community Hospital. The weather had turned to snow the night before, but we were hopeful of it clearing. Still, the snow continued and our coach bus was slipping and sliding as we crept into the hospital entryway. Much of what had been planned was rapidly becoming impossible, and so we had to quickly regroup and figure out a way to accomplish something useful to the hospital. Thankfully, our hosts had lots of options, and in no time we had devised a plan to split up our group and take shifts between working out in the cold and warming up inside with hot chocolate, coffee, and tea. This arrangement didn’t last, however, because our students soon decided that what they really wanted was to keep warm through the work (and a little horseplay!), and get as much done for our hosts as possible. I was very proud of the whole bunch! It was wet and chilly, and the work could be hard, but there was no whining and complaining and we all simply focused on making the best of the situation.
Following that day, we had a wonderful drive through the Scottish countryside on our way to Columba 1400’s training center at Staffin on the Isle of Skye near Drew’s childhood home. We were treated to countless amazing views of mountains, glens, lochs, castles, and farms. Along the way, Drew and Hilary had worked out a very special treat for me, the fulfillment of a lifelong dream with a quick visit to the town of Dunning out in the countryside near Perth. We stopped for a brief walk through the cemetery at the edge of town, which also permitted us a good look at a strawberry farm and the town’s picturesque golf course. I felt like a kid being granted the wish of visiting a storybook kingdom!
We had many more miles to travel that day, so we didn’t linger there, although I will do so as soon as I can get back. Instead, we were soon back on the road, with me feeling eager to call my mom as soon as it wasn’t too early in the morning back home in Haltom City, Texas. At our next stop, I couldn’t wait any longer, and so I called to tell her and my sister of where I’d been and what I’d seen. It meant a great deal to me to share that moment with my mom, a widely respected genealogist and the leading authority on the Dunning family in America. I didn’t know then how much more meaningful it would become; less than 3 months later she was gone.
Later that night, our group arrived at Staffin, and we settled in for our stay over the next few days. There were so many of us, that several roomed just down the road at Quiraing Lodge, including Hilary, Drew, and me. It is a beautifully remodeled house that sits at the mouth of the Stenscholl River and overlooks Flodigarry Island. The dining room has a nice window that looks out over the bay toward the island, and I have warm memories of sitting at the table there with Drew and Hilary at various times, getting to know each other better over tea and biscuits. Of course, by then we had spoken with each other several times by Skype, and had already developed a professional friendship, but it was in those moments that I realized there was more than that growing between us. We began to talk more freely of our histories, hopes, and dreams, of the beliefs and values that guide our lives, of our families and our roles in them, and soon we even shared what we were sensing, thinking, and feeling about each other. We were discovering kinship.
Especially precious to me now are those moments when Hilary and Drew listened to me speak of my mother, her love for Dunning history, and my relationship with her as she carried on after the death of my father and through the ups and downs of her emotional and physical wellbeing. They also spoke of their beloved elders and the changes in their relationships that time necessitates. That comfortable room, with its big solid wooden table and view of the cold gray sea, was a wonderful setting in which to experience the warmth of shared laughter, heartfelt mutual understandings, and the misty silence of bittersweet feelings that cannot be spoken.
The last experience I want to recount for you is our group’s trek up to the Old Man of Storr. The Storr is a very rocky hill on the Isle of Skye that overlooks the Sound of Raasay. The Old Man is a 50-meter tall spire of rock that stands with others in an area called the Sanctuary at the base of the Storr’s cliffs. It is a striking place that actually deserves the adjective “awesome” in every sense. It’s been used as a location for many movies and photo-shoots. As part of the experiential aspect of our leadership training, we made the climb all the way from the trailhead at the base of the hill. It’s a steep 5-mile hike that includes stunning views of the islands, the sound, other peaks, and high mountain lochs. However, looking up from the base, the length and difficulty of the trail is hard to appreciate in such a big and dramatic space. In hindsight, I recognize that it was yet another example of how the ability to grasp an accurate perspective of a landscape is often impossible until after you have actually crossed it.
Anyone who has hiked in mountains knows how this goes. You look up and see what seems to be a fairly easy trail, but not long after you are into it you find that it takes unexpected twists and turns, and that it has unforeseen places that are especially rough, slippery, or steep. Furthermore, you come to unmarked forks and must choose which one to take, even though it’s not clear which will be the best way to get where you want to go, or even what “best” might mean at that moment. If you are with a group, everything becomes more complicated by differing levels of fitness and hiking experience, differing ideas about what makes for a good hike, and differing opinions about which path is best from any fork. Now add to that a few significant weather changes (yes, it went from clear and sunny to dark and snowy, and back again), and what had seemed like a casual stroll to see some cool rocks can turn into a true odyssey! I’m pleased to report that we worked together very well, and it led to a wonderful gathering at the base of the Old Man. Watching and feeling the magical waves of snow and sunlight wash over us, we celebrated the unity and harmony that had grown amongst us, and each person’s unique contribution to the spirit of our little community.
Again, I was so moved by the moment that I asked to read a poem for the group. It was one that I had written many years before, yet it expressed so much of what that very moment meant to me, and of what I hoped I might help them know in their own lives. As I look back on it now, the imagery of this poem fits the Scottish landscape with its wooded lowlands and rugged snow-capped peaks.
Tree and Mountain
The tree meditates
and its leaves grow
dance in summer winds,
age in noble red and gold,
and then fall
to leave the silvery limbs
outstretched in prayer.
And so may this meditation be
the ecstatic act of living,
of life flowering through me,
of being lived.
The mountain meditates
and gathers snow,
pours down streams
of tears of joy,
of precious beauty,
and opens it dark eyes
of timeless depths.
And so may this meditation be
the wonderful fact of mystery,
of mystery flowing through me,
of being mystified.
O mysterious Life,
O living Mystery,
Let me be Thy meditation.
In the recent talk with Drew about that trek to the Old Man of Storr, I began to see how my experiences in Scotland could be taken as metaphors for my overall experience of 2013. There have been many unforeseen changes in the path and the weather of my life over the last 12 months, and many unexpected opportunities to meet and connect with new friends. Along the way, I have been frequently reminded of the significance of practicing mindfulness, of being as present and aware as possible in the moment. As part of that, I’ve constantly gained deeper appreciation for the profound wisdom of simply accepting the present reality as it is, an acceptance that includes our intentions, which are vital to that reality. There is an amazing stability of heart in this practice of mindful awareness, acceptance, and intention, one that neither denies nor gets lost in the twists, turns, ups, and downs of our full humanity. Likewise, the value of practicing reflection as a compliment to mindfulness has been repeatedly reinforced, for it is often only in reflection that we draw out the deeper meanings of our experiences, meanings that then shape the intentions we carry with us into the next part of our journeys. While such reflection is important to do within the chambers of one’s own heart and mind, the events of 2013 have also reaffirmed for me the blessings that happen when people open those chambers to each other. In doing so, we encounter the very soul of others, and we see the image of our own reflected in each others eyes, hear its voice echoing from each others mouths, and feel it reaching back to us in each others embrace. All of these things are the essential lessons life keeps offering about living it well, and sometimes whispering, sometimes shouting, but always offering if I will only listen.
Note: This was first published on my Facebook page, here.