Last night, I pulled my kids back out of bed so they could come outside and see the fireflies that were practically swarming in the fields around our place. I wanted them to see the wonder, but what I saw felt far more profound.
After they finally went to bed, my mind swirled with what I’d just witnessed as they bounded and ran and jumped and laughed and frolicked and screeched through the near darkness.
The wisdom of my children and the fireflies they chase:
Create, Destroy, Connect: Digital Health's Creative Undercurrent with Anderson Williams and Kane Harrison
I was out walking my dog the other morning and as he started to slow his gait and do his extra-intensive sniffing, head down, gravity causing his lips to flap open to show his fangs, I knew he was about to do his business.
Circle. Circle. Squat. Avert eyes!
And there, as I looked away, in a lawn full of clover, a big, glaring four-leafed clover is staring right back at me. I ponder a moment to pass the time...
Dog business complete. Steam rising. Bag over hand. Well, you know the rest.
My business now also complete, I looked back to the four-leaf clover still glaring back at me. I picked it to take home to my daughters. You know, share the good luck!
And, as I walked home with a big bag of shit in one hand and a four-leafed clover in the other, I felt there had to be some life learning in the symbolic contradiction and absurdity of the image.
So, here we go:
1. Hold on carefully. Throw away intentionally. We best remember what we have in each hand! Hold on to the correct one. Throw the other one away. How we hold a four-leaf clover or a bag of shit with a loose grip, a tight grip, a couple of fingers minimizing any possible transfer to bare skin, a couple fingers gingerly trying to protect and save - this will remind us in our bodies what we are holding onto even when the mind wanders and life moves on. It will remind us what we need to let go of. We need to pay attention to how we hold things.
2. Clover with a pile of shit in it is still clover. A pile of shit in the midst of clover is still a pile of shit. Our circumstances don’t define or redefine us as we move through the shitty or clover-y parts of life. We define who we are and how we are in the world and carry that with us wherever we go – come what may. We also know this to be true for others. So, we should always recognize shit cloaked in clover for what it is. We also shouldn’t be blind to the clover just because there happens to be some shit around it.
3. Own your shit. We don’t have a lot of choice as to whether or when we have a four-leaf clover or a bag of shit. As with my walk, most of us have some of both most of the time. We can’t just drop the shit for someone else to deal with because it stinks, it’s gross, or we just want to pretend it’s all clover. We have to hold on to it carefully until we can dispose of it. It’s ours. Own it. But, get rid of it as soon as possible.
4. Seize the clover. We also don’t always have the choice to just focus on the clover. Sometimes, shit rules. Focusing on clover doesn’t magically make it disappear. So, when we do have the choice, we have to claim it. If we stop looking for the clover and holding carefully onto what we find, the shit just gets that much heavier and more stinky. Carpe clover.
5. Avoid pattern blindness. Look for the misfits. The four-leaf clover is a misfit. In the land of three-leafers, it’s probably ridiculed and bullied. But, when we look at a field of three-leafers, our eyes eventually blur and we don’t see much of anything specific or nuanced anymore. And then, the four-leafer jumps out! Our senses awaken and we start looking more closely, looking for more like it. We become curious. We become explorers. We look at all of the clover differently.
The other day I had this idea for a blog. The next day, it wrote itself.
You see, every year around this time, I try and write something about living with suicide, my Father’s suicide, 16 years ago on April 27.
I was thinking the other day about who I am (versus who I might appear to be) every year on that day (reflecting on tragedy and loss). And, then who I am on the following day, the 28th, which was his birthday (celebrating life and love and missing that). And, then again who I am the day after on the 29th, the anniversary of the day that my life was forced to begin reconstituting, redefining, re-framing with part of its core missing (recognizing healing is a process).
Despite 16 years, I am rarely who I seem on these days. I am at work, but I am distracted. I am laughing but I’m hurting. I’m smiling and engaged but, as soon as I turn away and am back by myself, I am often bleary-eyed and exhausted. You may never see this. Those who know me well will sense it. I am not particularly good at hiding it.
As I reflected on my experience on these three days in particular, I was also mindful of a close friend and colleague who has shared his own experiences with me, those certain days of the year – the birthday, the death anniversary, the times around family holidays – when life is hardly endurable. You may never see this. Those who know him will sense it.
These days, regardless of the passage of time, are often too tender to talk about, especially at work. There is an emotional recovery period that often just isn’t practical and some work relationships you’re just not sure are ready for the transparency.
But, sometimes it’s helpful just to know that other people know that my random Wednesday in April is not the same as theirs. My Wednesday can be brutal even if the sun is shining and everything else seems normal. I don't have to think about it. Somehow it is imprinted on me now. My body knows.
Then, one day last week as I was thinking through my own experiences, remarkably and tragically, I was teaching a virtual leadership session and one of the leaders of the group stopped me before I got started to share that the team had lost a colleague the previous night to suicide. I read the faces in the little Zoom boxes as quickly as I could. I could see a couple who I knew were struggling. Many had their cameras turned off. Some turned them off at that moment. Today was not what it seemed.
I could have taught that session without ever knowing this information. I could have delivered what I wanted to deliver and felt like it was a success. And yet, without this information, without having the chance at least to acknowledge it, to pause in recognition of where people are, the session would not have been what it seemed. And, given the news of the death, without the opportunity and willingness to empathize by briefly sharing my own experience with suicide, the session again would not have been what it seemed. Not for any of us.
Every day, people are mourning, dealing with stuff, and sometimes just getting through the day without ever feeling that they can share where they are. Settle the ground. Stop hiding. Stop pretending. Ease the white-knuckling. Ask for help. Ask for space. Ask for silence. Ask for some acknowledgment. Ask simply for a little empathy.
Until we open ourselves and allow others to do the same in a safe and supportive way at work or anywhere, until we stop trying to hide our struggles and pretend they don’t exist, until we neutralize the presumed judgment of our vulnerabilities, tragedies, and very lives themselves, today will rarely be what it seems.
It’s April. The month of my Father’s birthday. The day after his death. Suicide. It’s kind of a shitty month. Thank god for Spring - and friends.
I write something every year around this time out of a commitment to talking openly about suicide, Depression, and sexual abuse – no fear, no shame, no judgment. But, this year, I’m feeling reflective in ways I am not ready to express despite the 16 years that have passed. I am good, but I have thoughts that haven’t yet coalesced as to my own Fatherhood unfolding and the conversations I’ll be having before long with my daughters.
So, here I am instead writing something that has been on my mind for all of those 16 years since Dad died. Long overdue. Finally ready to be written.
It’s a story about a friend, a term redefined in this experience. Not an action story. Perhaps an inaction story. A story about something deeper. Silent. Eternal. Strengthening.
When my Dad committed suicide, in celebration of his life, we welcomed hundreds of people into our house. They were literally lined around the block. People who loved my Dad. Loved my family. People who were seeking solace themselves. People who didn’t know what else to do but show up. And, for hours, the line continued. Hugs. Tears. Confusion. Sympathy. Incoherent thoughts and reflections.
I ebbed and flowed as I greeted people. Strength coming as I consoled the old classmate or previous neighbor who never knew Dad suffered from Depression. The long hugs from those who whispered quietly in my ear that they too had been sexually abused as a child or suffered from Depression. The moments of despair when I collapsed in someone’s arms, not knowing the specific trigger, but unable to take any more in that moment. This was a community of people, of love, of trying to come to grips with suicide, with loss, with the contradiction of a powerful and confidant and formidable external persona and the person who couldn’t find himself worthy to live.
I don’t remember a lot of details of that day, or really that time for that matter - months - but I do remember this general scene as if I had watched it from the ceiling. And, I do remember my friend, vividly, the friend I met when I was 10, playing All-Star baseball at Shelby Park (the picture is a few years later, I still look 10 and he looks 17), the friend with whom my connection had been immediate, grown deep and personal over time (20 years then, 36 now), intuitive, and yet at times distant as our lives followed divergent paths, a friend who stood there in the front room of our house, hands clasped in front of him, button-down shirt, for untold hours, right there beside me.
He stood there seeming only to move when he knew I had the strength to be still, and being still when he knew I might collapse under the weight of the moment. An exoskeleton.
For hours, I never saw him leave. I never saw him eat. I never saw him go to the bathroom. He didn’t muster much conversation with anyone. He just stood there, steps from me, never leaving his post. Still. Upright. Guarding me. Protecting me. Sustaining me. I can see him today as I could see him 16 years ago.
I know he was a wreck too. I know how much he loved my Dad. And, yet.
I have no idea what I said to him that day. I have no idea if I thanked him for being one of the first to arrive and last to leave. He couldn’t know what his presence looked like, felt like, to me as I found myself looking to him - as he only looked forward - to find my strength, to find my backbone, to know that something was solid in this moment of loss and world-shifting fluidity.
For 16 years, I have held this image of Andre standing there, by me, with me, for me, as me, when I just didn’t know how I might do it myself. Not doing anything. Not needing anything. Not knowing that you were doing anything other than what you should be doing. This is the gift. This is the offering of healing from a friend when healing was yet to begin.
I have never had the courage to write this. The gratitude is easy. The writing is difficult. But, the time is finally here to say thank you. I don’t know what else to say. It feels insufficient, out-of-date, and yet as deep and profound as I can offer from one human being to another.
And, 16 years later, unsure of my words for today, April bringing a new season, a new year without my Dad, it is in long-overdue gratitude that I find my voice and continued healing.
Thank you, Uncle Dre. I’m sorry it has taken so long.
This is a curious 25+ year story of the first work of art I ever showed publicly and the first work I ever sold.
In 1995, I made my first print, a linoleum print. I was a senior in high school. I made it from a black and white image of a black man, maybe a young man, in a plaid, short-sleeved shirt, who appeared to be taking a test of some sort, or reading a sheet of paper anyway, sitting at a desk. I won an award for that print at a statewide high school art show. The linoleum block and the print still hang in my house. It also became the first piece of art I ever sold. My teacher suggested $35 dollars because the woman who wanted to buy it worked for a nonprofit and that seemed a good price for the cause. It was a moment the details of which have never left me. It was a moment when art first started shifting from something I enjoyed to showing me something about who I am.
Fast forward 7 years. I have finished college and an MFA and have returned home. I am having my first solo art exhibition of my career. It had nothing to do with education and didn’t include any linoleum prints. My sister had invited a woman named Jane who worked at a nonprofit organization called Oasis Center where my sister was on the Board. My sister thought the world of Jane. I had met her only briefly and hadn’t heard of Oasis Center. Jane came to my first solo art show.
Fast forward 3 years. In addition to teaching art, I am now doing community organizing and education advocacy with a small nonprofit that works with marginalized youth in East Nashville – the tie to that first image and artwork is not lost on me. The organization I work for called Community IMPACT is becoming a part of Oasis Center – a larger youth-focused nonprofit that could support our work and our young people more holistically. I was having my first meeting with my new boss, Jane. I sat down in her office and looked at the sliver of wall to my right above the narrow table and there was a linoleum print of a black man, maybe a young man, in a plaid, short-sleeved shirt, who appears to be taking a test of some sort, or reading a sheet of paper anyway, sitting at a desk. Jane had bought my first work of art 10 years prior. I was shocked. She was shocked. Jane had finally met the artist, or at least made the connection. We both remembered the story.
Fast forward 16 years. Jane is retiring from a life dedicated to creating opportunities for young people. My journey has been more meandering, but always rooted in what I learned in the arts, creating, communicating, connecting. I haven’t seen Jane in years except occasionally in passing somewhere along Shelby Bottoms Greenway. Out of the blue, I get an email from a former colleague who still works with Jane. It turns out that in an office move somewhere over the years, Jane had lost contact with my print. They had recently been surprised to find it in the art studio at Oasis and Jane had shared this story with her. Jane was apparently moved in seeing it again, which, of course, moved me in reading about it.
So, here we are 26 years later. My print is being cleaned up and reframed to be given back to Jane to celebrate her work and retirement - reminding me that I am an artist and that the things we create have lives and journeys and meaning far beyond us. So, today, I am writing in celebration of Jane’s journey, her gifts to the world, the possibilities and stories she has helped create, their interweaving with my own, and acknowledging a simple linoleum print that has been a curiously common thread between us for almost three decades.
Congratulations, Jane. Thanks for all you have created.
Much love. Always.
Anderson Williams (Class of 1995)
As an artist, when you learn to paint with oil paint, for example, you have to learn the characteristics of the paint, how to thin it, how to thicken it, how to build a surface, how to mix color, how to manage your brushes and the nuances of the surface of a canvas or board or whatever you are painting on. Knowing these foundations of the medium is what enables you to use the medium for your unique expression. Things will likely be messy, muddled, and frustrating at first, but putting in the time with the mess is the only way to become an artist.
Leadership is the same. You have to learn the characteristics of leadership, how to communicate, how to empathize, how to listen, how to delegate, how to prioritize, how to know when to step up and when to step back to empower others. Knowing these foundations to leadership is what enables you to find your unique version of it. Things will likely be messy, muddled, and frustrating at first, but putting in the time with the mess is the only way to become a leader.
In art or leadership, there is no prescription for the outcome, there is only knowledge and application of the medium and investment in the process. So, artist, leader, or both, you have to be willing to get a little messy in your practice if you are going to find your voice.
We are three weeks into the fourth grade and my Daughter is already on her second school-based activism/organizing campaign. It’s hard to know what is nature and what is nurture, but neither of these campaigns has been drummed up at home or from conversations with my wife or me. My daughter has just come home and said: this is what I am doing.
The current campaign has just begun: a drive to organize donations from other students in her school to help the flood victims in West Tennessee. On her own, she’s gotten support from the Principal. She’s garnered a teacher sponsor. She and her sister were making signs last night to put up around school. For a couple of days in, she’s got a pretty solid plan and process in place. We will see how it all unfolds.
But, it was her first campaign that was so important and has the most to learn from.
So, my daughter came home one day saying that she and her friends had started a petition that would ease the restrictions on standard school attire for fourth graders. No doubt, a year of being schooled at home makes standard school attire seem that much more annoying. Not to mention, as a fourth grader, she is starting to want to express herself through her fashion and accessorizing in new and different ways that are largely outside of standard school attire.
She decided she could - and should - do something about it. And, despite ultimately canceling the effort – or perhaps because of that – she illuminated some powerful lessons about organizing and life in general:
LESSON 1: Passion ignites action.
Clearly, my daughter and her co-conspirator friend had talked and were feeling strongly about their rights as fourth graders to wear what they want to, and even to be treated a little differently. They felt that as the oldest kids in school and those doing the “hardest” work that some reprieve from standard school attire would just help relieve all of that bottled up stress. While loaded with some pre-middle school drama at its source, I have to say she presented her argument logically and thoughtfully with a level of passion that I certainly wanted to encourage.
LESSON 2: You can’t go it alone.
Not to mention, by the time I even knew anything, she and her friend had already created a petition and enlisted others to help them gather signatures – which was pretty badass. They had even talked with a couple of teachers who, to their credit, encouraged the process the girls were undertaking without dismissing them, discouraging them, or otherwise derailing their passion. But, my Daughter and her friend knew they ultimately had to get the Principal’s buy-in.
LESSON 3: Start with a plan (but be willing to throw it out).
And, to do this, they were going to gather signatures from all of the 4th graders and deliver this petition to their Principal. They had decided who was going to cover which classes and which periods when they could gather signatures without disrupting their coursework. When they had all of the signatures, they would deliver the petition.
LESSON: Stay open to feedback.
So, it was at this point that I finally heard about this campaign. At dinner, my Daughter was so excited and fired up that she talked and talked and talked until I finally had to break in and ask a few questions. I told her I appreciated and supported her action, and was proud of the steps she had already taken, I could tell she had really thought about how to do this, but that I had some questions for her to consider:
LESSON: Back your passion with reason. Do your research.
To her credit and her friend’s, regarding the first question, they decided they couldn’t reasonably answer why 4th graders should be treated differently and they quickly opened there demands for school attire leniency to be more inclusive of other grades. They were no longer seeking change that privileged one group over the other. This was, I thought, a pretty great breakthrough and recognition on their part.
But, more importantly to the second question, a couple of days later, they actually did go to their Principal to ask why standard school attire was instituted in the first place. And, what they learned is that standard school attire is an attempt to ensure no one feels excluded if they can’t afford new, or stylish, or even clean clothes to come to school every day.
LESSON: Recognize your privilege - and reframe.
As she processed this learning, she explored other options. Maybe you could wear pajamas. Maybe a school t-shirt. Maybe if you didn’t have clothes to wear you could just stay with standard school attire. There were several more, but she quickly realized that all of them ended up with the same challenge: kids from lower income families always ran the risk of being spotlighted inadvertently. As we discussed this at dinner and she ran through the possible variations and adaptations of her campaign, she finally just sort of got quiet. She was obviously reflecting – also badass.
LESSON: Don’t be too proud to change.
I didn’t hear anything else about the petition for several days. So, this morning, I asked what they had decided to do. She told me she and her friends had decided not to carry through with their campaign. They didn’t want to do anything that made other students feel uncomfortable or different because they may have less money.
I am writing this having just dropped my girls off for school, loaded with signs and plans and preparing speeches to gather donations to help the flood victims. Campaign #2 is now under way, and I am again proud of her efforts (and her inclusion of her little sister – both kind and strategic).
I am sure there will be more to come, but for now, I couldn't be more proud of the campaign that wasn’t.
* And, for the record, the masks don't bother them at all!
Update: Here’s a shot of the donations for pets (with mine hoping for a ride) collected by her school and delivered to Waverly.
My Dad suffered deeply from Depression. He was sexually abused by a neighbor as a young child. Surrounded by religious judgment. Guilt. Conditional love. He wrestled with these demons his whole life. Ultimately, he committed suicide a day before his 62nd birthday. 15 years ago this month.
The last words we received from him: “I love you all, but I hate myself.”
Thanks to a neighbor who recently shared this video with me - found on a VHS tape in an attic - I just heard Dad’s voice for the first time in 15 years.
Oh, his way with words. His tone. Silky flow. Weather worn. Southern drawl. It could sooth just as it could cut. Eloquence colored by the language of a sailor.
I remember as a small child his reading me Cinderella and the sound and vibration and depth of the clock striking midnight as he slowed for dramatic effect - BONG! BONG! BONG! - my head resting against his chest. Feeling the vibration.
His life was brutal within - those vibrations - but most never knew it. He was charming and gregarious and made you feel like you mattered - no matter who you were or where you’d come from. He knew others’ darkness in ways no one else could understand - ways others didn’t even understand about themselves - and loved them for it. He also fought for those people, his people - in schools, in the neighborhood, anywhere he found them.
He took on challenges - in court as an attorney and in life as a Dad and Husband and as a community activist with my Mom in rebuilding our neighborhood - that just begged him to fail. I actually sometimes think he wanted to fail. It would have proven him right about himself. Fulfill the darkness.
But, he didn’t fail.
Yes, he had failings and weaknesses and flaws like any of us. But, somehow, he transformed his deepest demons into a life of beauty.
Today, amid the noise and all of the activity of our daily - often transactional - lives, we look but we never see. We do but we rarely just be. I am as guilty as any.
There is no nuance. There is no suggestion. We are missing the thrilling contradiction of bold humility, the creativity of belief, and the acceptance and ownership of the battles between our demons and our best selves. We are missing beauty.
But, we cannot have beauty without honesty. We cannot have beauty without vulnerability. We cannot have beauty without tragedy.
This is the truth of the human condition.
This is the truth of my Dad’s life in hyper-focus. This is the truth of my memories. Our lives. This month. A suicide and a birthday. The contradiction. The tragedy. The beauty.
Dad’s words in this video about our violent, crumbling, and forgotten neighborhood - an undeniable metaphor of his inner life - ring profound today as I reflect on it all:
“You’d have to be blind not to see there was some beauty there.”
Last weekend, I went hiking with my wife and daughters. We headed to a familiar trail knowing from previous hikes that the bridge was out where we needed to cross the river. But, we also knew that a couple of trees had fallen previously and created a very workable bridge that we’d successfully navigated before.
But, as we approached, we realized those two big trees were no longer lying across the river. They were gone. It’s early Spring now and we weren’t planning on swimming and didn’t have any water shoes and the water was high and quite cold - but it was the beginning of the hike and we had to get across.
Given that our trees were gone, the next obvious thing to look for were stepping stones - some pattern for us to get across without getting wet. No luck.
So, then we walked up and down the bank a bit looking for options. And, low and behold, there was actually another fallen tree reaching all the way from bank to bank. The problem was that there was no way any of us had the balance to climb across it. That wouldn’t work either.
Ultimately, we all shed our shoes and teamwork-ed it across the river - my kids were total troopers as we slipped and slid and stepped on rocks of all shapes and sharpness while our feet slowly transitioned from painfully cold to numb.
It was not easy or particularly pleasant, my daughter hurt her ankle for starters as her foot slid deep between two rocks, but we crossed and continued on a wonderful hike (albeit with a bit of a limp) that included a picnic at a waterfall.
On the way back, we approached that same crossing and that same skinny tree traversing the river - and a totally different idea came to mind. What if we didn’t try to walk on it but rather used it as a balance rail? After all, the rocks had been even more slick and more treacherous than we realized the first time. We’d still go barefoot but we’d at least have something to hold onto.
As we mulled this option, we also noticed that the river bed was markedly smoother - pretty much one solid rock - at this small section beneath this tree.
We shed our shoes and were across in no time - no slips, no falls, no ankle injuries.
This all left me curious as to why we hadn’t seen this tree and this section of the river as the solution when we first faced the problem that day of crossing the river without a bridge. We had looked right at it!
Here’s what I’ve come up with:
1. We initially doubled down on our problem-centric thinking. We needed to cross the river and the bridge was out, and now our familiar fallen-tree crossing was out too! We unconsciously processed this as two problems (1. Need to cross and 2. No trees) when really it was still the original problem and the absence of a previous solution. And, we unfortunately started solving for the absence of a previous solution: we needed a tree to walk across because that’s how we’d solved this before, but the one flimsy tree we saw just wasn’t going to cut it.
2. We jumped too quickly to a new solution without creatively adapting the resources we already had and knew. The tree was key to efficiently solving our problem all along - at least on this day - but when we couldn’t find one to walk across, we threw it out as part of the solution. We jumped quickly to the stepping stones strategy and then to the straight-up wading strategy without thinking creatively about how the tree could still be used in a different way to help us across the river.
3. We didn’t fully evaluate all of the variables and possibilities available with a new strategy. We knew the water was cold and we weren’t exactly excited about getting wet at the very beginning of the hike. But, once we believed that was the only option, we just made it happen. We looked at the depth of the water. We looked at the speed of the water. We knew about the cold of the water. We knew the rocks were slippery (not that slipper though!). We knew they could be sharp. But, we didn’t consider the alternative possibility of finding a smooth, solid rock floor that was just 30 feet from us - beneath that tree.
Problems and solutions both build inertia, and sometimes this is critical for efficient and quick decision-making. But, sometimes this inertia sends us on the wrong path or on a more difficult path to the same spot or perhaps even derails us altogether (my daughter’s ankle could have been a lot worse) all because of the initial ease of not thinking much or the comforting familiarity with a known version of the problem and/or solution.
So, if we can start recognizing and feeling inertia in our work and in our lives and committing to pausing just for a moment to take in the situation anew, to make sure we’ve thought of all of the variables, seen them fresh for today, and built our best options from there - rather than yesterday - we will find small moments each day that can transform how we create our way through life.