Do You Have Any Family Here?
A new acquaintance would soon ask about my family. “They are all back in Saint Petersburg,” I’d say, “…No, no one in the States, all by myself.” It doesn’t seem weird to me. It must seem weird, because I haven’t met many other people likewise removed from any family, not lately. “Do you visit them often then?” the small talk would continue. Last time, 3 years ago, and then 10 years before that.
During the 10 years, brother met a girl and married her, nephew was born, babushka died. During the 3 years, father died. Mama reconnected with distant cousin Tanya and that part of family; now they figure in her monologues. Cousin Seryozha’s son Yaroslav whom I’ve never met, has grown up enough to move up to Saint Petersburg by himself; he rents babushka’s apartment from mama. I saw cousin Seryozha on Skype recently: he was visiting mama, when I called her. These days, Seryozha looks just like my father, but a bit chubbier; unlike father, he is a sweetheart.
I don’t feel that the family and I have much in common. Poor mama is an extravert who spent most of her adult family life surrounded by introverts, some of us seriously neurotic. Brother lived in the same room we shared growing up until just recently, when he, wife, and kid finally moved to their own apartment. By that age, I had moved transatlantically and lived at more places than fingers on one hand. Bewilderingly, my innate personality is most like father’s, with whom I had’t gotten along since before my age went into double digits, and he died anyway, much to relief of everyone involved, sadly.
These days, I talk to mama and, occasionally, brother or nephew on Skype every few weeks. This is an improvement from not for months some years ago. I enjoy the talks primarily as a way to untangle my habits and patterns, because habits and patterns go way back, allegedly; speaking with the family helps gaining a perspective on those. As far as present time goes though, this is a distant long distance relationship. It doesn’t feel close or warm by any measure. It feels the warmest it’s been since brother was born.
Still, longing to belong is human. If not there, where?
Where Leaders Are Made
Four months in, I’d had enough of my President’s term at a community toastmasters club. One of the new VPs walked out and more or less slammed the door. Another one was resisting the voice of reason (mine, obviously 😈) in all sorts of odd ways. I spent days before each meeting worrying: who would cancel at the last moment, who wouldn’t show up, who would fail to connect. Worrying and feeling powerless, because my power is to get stuff done, but doing stuff is not in the president’s office. Worrying while instead, I could be studying tango (with dot – so much for that 😒), languages, yoga, to concentrate on work, make friends where I live… I don’t know, go to the farmers market… Whatever one can do with her life in general and on perfectly good Thursday evenings in particular. And what for?! The leadership project plan wasn’t working. The experience check box was gratuitous – been there done that. Commitment to the term – for the commitment’s sake? – meh. Should I walk out, I wouldn’t even have to see those people ever again. To care wasn’t worth it any more.
I called Jennifer before the November officers’ meeting. I thanked her for her trust and support and said I was going to quit. Yes, definitely. She heard me out with kindness. She thanked me. She encouraged me to do whatever I felt was good for me. In the evening, at Andres’s office, I opened the officers’ meeting with an overview of status and such. Then I expressed that I’ve had it and invited suggestions for improvement. I sat and listened, and watched.
Watched five good busy people who showed up when I asked them to. Showed up on their own perfectly good Thursday evening, foregoing farmers markets and whatnots. They clearly and unambiguously cared about the organization, the club, each other, and – I had forgotten – me personally. Six people showing up is a luxury; three is enough for some serious magic (been there done that). Here was the catch though. They couldn’t make me care. Just like I could choose to not care and walk out, to care and to stay was also mine to choose. The worth of that was beautifully subjective.
In my mind, I shifted attention from the situation to the people around the table. All concerned, all human. It was as if I let it all fall apart, and then everyone else stepped in and picked it up, together. We asked and answered questions. We introduced the “Bro Talk” – to be employed by the bros when I struggle to connect, and not just then. We agreed to try the Technology.
I didn’t quit. After the meeting, Andres drove me to the BART station. “You know, N,” he said on the way, “that idea you have about 20 members at year end… I don’t want you to be disappointed: it’s not going to happen.” I protested with excellent counterarguments, tried and true all of them. “That’s fine,” he interrupted when able to get a word in edgewise, “What you need to remember though is what you are here for. That’s not to get to 20 members, but to learn communication and leadership. Do that.” That evening I learned that one can choose to care. And that it’s OK to show that one is upset, even better that way. Figuring things out is best messy.
Jennifer and Louise took over the “AOB” portion of the January officers’ meeting. Jennifer said, “Let’s have an open house”. We set the date for the first meeting after the Tax Day. Louise said, “Let’s plan it now”. She pushed back on my offers to do stuff: that would be too much of me talking, she said (ouch).
We had the open house, and it was wonderful. Ruby called the meeting to order like she had done that for ages; her first time. I opened the meeting by greeting members and acknowledging guests, and then sat back and watched the magic unfold.
After letting Kerry and Jean Marie set the pace, Louise charmed three guests into participating in Table Topics. One told us how she always tells the same joke to break the ice at parties. Another told about a coworker who uses her as a confidante to talk poorly about others behind their backs. They started a bit shy and bewildered, but then received lots of giggles once they got going, and, I daresay, a smidgen of new confidence to take home. Donna delivered her best prepared speech to date using exemplary visual aids, none of them projected slides. The few folks disappointing in the Fall showed up prepared and shining. Andres led the general evaluation session with poise, confidence, earnestness, and tongue in cheek. I closed by inviting comments from guests and members and responding with encouragement or light teasing about what happened during the meeting. Five guests wanted to join on the spot. Lots of people lingered chatting long after the meeting was adjourned. Oh, there was also food. It just appeared; I literally didn’t even touch it, which was a shame, but only because I hadn’t had dinner. All I did was to decorate online and offline, evaluate Donna, and be poised and charming.
So much growth over the past few months! It felt warm, cohesive, organic, inclusive, something bigger by far than any one of us could pull off. I definitely belonged there. Belonged not just there, but also with other wonderful toastmasters I met over the years. The belonging was unplanned and unexpected. Unavoidable, too, because we are there to learn communication and leadership. Because opening up to each other and listening deeply in return is woven into the fabric. This being a large family, there are many agendas and personalities, it gets messy sometimes, feelings get felt, feelings get hurt. Then you find yourself belonging. Even though I’ll leave this particular club at the end of the term, because that will be the time, I am not really going anywhere.
Lance Miller, 2005 World Champion of Public Speaking, graced District 4 by delivering club officer training at the Winter 2014 Leadership Institute (perhaps similar to his 2014 International Convention workshop). One thing Lance said stayed with me. In the beginning, he was going to Toastmasters meetings on, say, Saturdays. Now he is from Toastmasters. Yes, that.