At some point late in 2020, I was riding in the car with my wife - an unusually painful process at the time due to a bulging disc - and after a few quiet moments in my own head, I blurted out:
“I haven’t felt this…just…ravaged since Dad committed suicide.”
I’m not one for drama or overstatement. 2020 had taken its toll. The tornado. The pandemic. The school situation. The concern for family. The loss of a dear friend. The economy and its impact on my startup. The extra hours each day of work. Mourning my children’s loss of their school and their teachers. The isolation - without the alone time. The state of politics and discourse and democracy. The state of truth and those conversations with my children. The disc situation.
I felt like absolute dog shit - physically, emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually.
Within a few weeks, we’d add a Christmas-morning car bomb that rattled my house and an insurrection against our government to the ravaging mix.
It’s been 15 years on April 27 since my Dad committed suicide. I have written extensively about it and have always focused my language around “living with suicide” because that’s what I do every day. But, that experience took a toll on me that was remarkable and long lasting - both confounding and clarifying. It forced a sort of reckoning with my understanding of my own sense of capacity and control - taking and giving me some of each.
I have the capacity to live with suicide.
I have the capacity to prioritize where and how and with whom I spend my time and energy and love.
I have the capacity to create and iterate through my life - even when that includes tragedy and trauma.
I can control where and how and that I allow myself to grieve (just not that I need to).
I can control the kind of people I surround myself and my family with.
I can control who I am as a person and how I live regardless of the circumstance.
I don’t have the capacity to ignore my emotions and just “get by”.
I don’t have the capacity to invest in shallow relationships.
I don’t have the capacity to be all things to all people or to be my best self - especially when I feel ravaged in my very being.
I can’t control that suicide and mental illness are facts of life.
I can’t control people who don’t or can’t or won’t love unconditionally.
I can’t control what life is going to throw my way.
With all of that, I don’t know if my Dad’s suicide left me a little more dead or a little more alive. At the time, it was certainly the former. But, over 15 years of processing and evaluation and prioritizing and growing in my own life and with my own family and with my own capacity and control, I am at least more fully human than I was back in 2006. And yes, sometimes that means more tired and more hurt and more ravaged and maybe feeling a little more dead inside. But, it also means I see life with a longer arc and recognize my own capacity to bend it.
So, I come back to my query as to the toll 2020 has taken on me - and surely on all of us. What capacity has it taken from me? What has it given or shown me? What control has it proven I don’t have? What control has it proven I do have?
Has 2020 left me a little more dead or a little more alive?
I guess I don’t know yet. But, at least I do know that I have the capacity to help define the answer.
See also: Trauma Without Tragedy (The work of 2020 is just beginning)
A couple of years ago, I was working with a multi-billion dollar, global financial services company that had (pre-Covid) a vast network of on-location staff as well as remote online and call center staff to provide direct support to their customers. As we talked about growth and change in their company and their market, we explored if and how they were, or could be, learning from these front-line employees spread across the globe. What were these people hearing directly from customers that the company really needed to hear and understand?
We’ve all heard the saying about the importance of having “an ear to the ground” so we can sense imminent changes in our work environments and markets, but how well do we do it? Who has their ears to the ground more than those meeting our customers where they are? Dealing with their problems? Frustrations? Who has the potential to positively or negatively impact our customers minute-to-minute on a daily basis?
Too many of the people on the front-lines of our work think they are too “low on the totem pole” to speak up in our companies or don’t have the power to create change in their own work. And, too many companies think the same way. As a result, many of us are really missing the opportunity to become more resilient, adaptable, and creative organizations. When we don’t listen to our customers and the employees who interact directly with them, we run the risk of missing indicators of emergent change in our markets, products, and even broader society that can lead our products and companies toward their next iteration.
Through a simple, facilitated reflection process, this company - which thought it did a good job listening to its people because they could reel off some good anecdotes - realized that their listening to front-line employees across the organization was far spottier than they would like. They recognized that their anecdotes were about specific leaders or departments that carried this value of active listening rather than a reflection of a systemic approach or strategy by the firm. The implications from this kind of company self-awareness became pretty vast as they then considered who they needed to train, how they needed to adjust professional roles and expectations, and how a better process of listening could improve their product offerings.
To cultivate a powerful culture, people at all levels of our companies need formal and informal outlets to provide feedback, ask questions, and share ideas and solutions. This is just strategically smart. It’s not about being nice to our employees. Not only will listening to our employees make our company more resilient and adaptive, it will also make for happier employees and better products and services for our customers. When they know their ideas and insights are respected (even if not always acted upon), our people will more actively and critically identify customer patterns and frequent issues that we may never see, and solve them in ways we may never have thought of. They will own their work and the whole company will perform better because of it.
Powerful cultures don’t happen by accident. They result from powerful leaders, powerful relationships, and organizations that understand and leverage the power of their people at all levels.
Also relevant: “Does your organization have a powerful culture or a culture of power?”
It’s been so long since we last connected that I just felt compelled to sit down and write you. It’s so uncharacteristic of our relationship, I know, so formal, and yet it’s all I have. I wanted and needed to assure you that while we’ve been apart for most of 2020, I still need you. I didn’t mean to demean or belittle or hurt you by trying to translate our relationship to text message. It was an honest effort, but I know you must have felt used and cheapened and I’m sorry.
I wrestled in writing this as I am not even sure who left whom this year. I feel like I’m still the same guy, still need you like I always have. But, I do recognize I’ve not exactly been able to give you what you need this year either - to invest in our relationship fully. There’s a lot of heavy stuff to unpack there, but I know that’s really not your style.
Again, I don’t know if I am asking for your commitment or mine at this point, but I need a few things in 2021 if we are going to make this work. While I know I’m just another of your many grown-men-turned-instant-juvenile-delinquent-in-your-company, you mean a lot to me. So, I guess maybe this is a plea for commitment, for patience, for help.
I desperately need to be stupid. Banter stupid - and only you know exactly what I mean. More on the ridiculous side of stupid where you aren’t sure if you accidentally ended up saying something profoundly smart. And yet, with your gift and permission, riffing in presumed brilliance.
I desperately need to talk about nothing. I need to leave a conversation after coffee or after a beer or a bourbon with a smile plastered all over my face and joy in my body. And when someone asks me what I talked about, I am either too embarrassed to say (it wouldn’t make any sense out of context anyway) or I genuinely don’t remember because it was all complete nonsense.
And finally, I desperately need to laugh like a 13 year old boy about stuff a 13 year old boy would laugh about. I’ll spare the common details here assuming you are clear. Message me if more color is needed. But, I think you get the idea. I need to stir the pot of the youthfully absurd, to cringe a little at someone going too far, to inevitably end up talking about farts.
Banter, my dear friend, I will clearly need some time to get settled back in, to get reacquainted, to re-awaken my sensibilities and re-sharpen my tools for your beautiful art. But, I know I can do it. I just need the time.
I will commit right now in this letter and on paper to doing my part in 2021 to bring us back together, but you’ve got to do yours. I need to see old friends in person. I need the time with them to digress - and to digress on that digression.
2020 has been a long and lonely and brutal year in your absence.
Let’s let 2021 be the year we brought Banter back!
Sincerely and always,
I always hesitate to write about things I know everyone else is writing about - unless I feel I have something unique to say. I wasn’t sure what I could write that would add anything to 2020 and figured I’d just let the year end without commentary. There’s been a lot of commentary.
And then, as I sat with my family in my living room, my precious children unpacking their Christmas stockings, the warmth of love and a fireplace washing over us, accented by the early morning light - we were all assaulted by the shockwave energy of a car bomb - slowly, methodically rumbling to a horrifying crescendo - passing through our house and our bodies and our beings in just a few seconds. The energy was palpable; the source then unknown. We all leapt to figure out what the hell had just happened.
Moments fearing mass casualty. Moments of terror. Protecting Christmas morning for my kids. Early pictures coming in. A bomb in an RV. Processing. The energy of the bomb still echoing and bouncing around within me. Gifts to be opened. Fire still burning. Merry Christmas.
The slow, unfurling of trauma - the new climax of what actually started in March.
And still, I have felt the need to apologize or add a disclaimer for my commentary on 2020.
After all, I didn’t lose my business or my home in the 2020 Nashville tornado or the massive wind shear just a few weeks later. I lived it, but only lost a chimney. I know people who lost everything.
I didn’t lose my job in a collapsing economy - and yet tens of millions have.
I didn’t lose the end of my kindergarten year and all of my first grade year. I didn’t lose 2nd and 3rd grade. My daughters did.
I didn’t lose my home to foreclosure.
I didn’t lose a child or a brother or a friend to police brutality or racial violence.
I have not even lost a close friend or family member yet to Covid.
Neither my house nor my business was bombed on Christmas Day.
I’ve seemingly been on the edge of it all. Indirect hit after indirect hit. Yet, I have felt it. I’m wearing it. I see it in my own face.
For months, I have been “white knuckling it.” Gripping the fucking wheel and focusing on the road right in front of me. Control what I can control. Stay present. Manage.
And, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this is probably most of us.
I have been traumatized by 2020. We have been traumatized. Regardless of my or your lack of personal tragedy in the year, or direct hit from the year - if you too have been so lucky - our basic empathy seeds our trauma. Practically demands it.
So, “moving on” from 2020 is going to take a lot more than a shot in the arm. There is no inoculation from trauma, and we have more grueling months of the pandemic ahead of us and more to endure.
The work of moving past 2020 will require each of us to do deep work on ourselves and with others to understand how 2020 has changed us. Surely, we have all learned something about ourselves and the world and our values and our politics this year. But, what is less clear is the emotional toll the year has taken on us. We must be aware how we have changed emotionally to ensure growth and avoid emotional stunting or regression. We must grow.
We must cultivate our hobbies and our physical, mental, and intellectual health with deliberate investment and intentionality that has never previously been required.
We must recognize that the energy and spark that our passions once brought may be only sufficient to keep us afloat rather than making us soar. We must stay afloat. But, we also must find new ways to stay afloat, so that we again may soar.
We must find reasons to smile in isolation and seemingly without reason to replace the happenstance smile and joy of an interaction with a stranger on the street or with a server at a restaurant or running into an old friend out of the blue.
We must hear ourselves when we talk to our kids and our spouses and those we care about most in the world and ensure we nourish our own patience and invest in our own presence such that we may also model it for them.
We must be aware when we feel the walls of our homes closing in on us - as home continues to be office (and school) and office continues to be home and find our way to more open spaces within and around us.
We must deal with our trauma.
In other words, we have to work our asses off in 2021 (and beyond). Normal will not return. The new normal - at least a healthy one - won’t just happen. We have changed, been changed.
We have been traumatized. We must now live and work to transform this reality into a healthy and necessary new foundation for any meaningful recovery.
My kids were learning recently about natural disasters and the conversation led to the wonder of how animals often sense disaster coming before humans have a clue. It’s a fascinating demonstration of how instinctively in tune with the larger world they are - and, inversely, how out of tune we often are.
I recalled for them the horrible 2004 Indonesian tsunami and the stories of how the animals all ran to higher ground well before the waves arrived and all but wiped that part of human civilization off the map. I had never conceived of such a disaster, nor such a response. Both are still difficult to fathom.
While certainly different, 2020 has been a natural disaster of its own - both the Covid part, and the lack of early competent response from humans (the incredible feat of the vaccine is the hopeful counterpoint to the absurdity of people’s fighting over wearing a mask). This year, humans have demonstrated an entirely new capacity to be out of tune with themselves and the world around them.
I’ve been a bit lost and dismayed about this reality - how humanity has shown its ass this year and what that means for the future (again, a strong counterpoint thankfully provided by our teachers, nurses, and doctors). As I was mulling this yesterday, I just happened to be following my dog who was pulling ahead of me as I took him on a walk to the post office. He doesn’t know what the post office is.
Now, I know dogs aren’t exactly the top of the animal kingdom and that our domestication of these sweet animals has certainly made them dumber and less naturally capable, but certainly more loving and lovable. Domestication has had a similar impact on me.
Yes, he sniffs the greasy base of a fire hydrant and the still-glistening blades of monkey grass as if he were delving into the depths of quantum physics.
Yes, he’ll roll over and unabashedly lick his private parts whenever the need strikes and regardless of who else is around.
Yes, he actually stepped square into another dog’s poop as I was on my way back home to write this post.
But, this dog is in tune with something greater, I swear.
Today, as I turned left onto South 11th Street, about 30 yards down, he started pulling me out into the road, seemingly wanting to cross to the other side. Turns out, he knows where Bongo Java is and is apparently deeply in tune with my coffee needs. He was pulling me to the coffee shop.
“Not today, Fitz. We are heading to the Post Office. But, thank you for the offer.”
On our way back from the Post Office, we were walking along the South side of Woodland Street, and again, the dog starts pulling me out into the road, seemingly wanting to cross the street.
“What the hell are you doing, Fitz!? There are cars!”
And, then I realized that we were approaching Woodland Wine Merchant on the other side of the street. He was pulling me to the liquor store.
“Not, today, Fitz…well…OK…if it means that much to you.”
Returning home with a happy dog and a bottle of bourbon, I felt one with nature. It’s gonna be OK.
My dog understands 2020 and coffee and bourbon and me. It’s really pretty amazing and profound - that deep animal instinct and intuitive connectedness.
Also, both Bongo Java and Woodland Wine Merchant offer complementary dog treats when you visit, but that probably doesn’t have anything to do with it.
I wrapped up 2019 with a reflection on advice, and unwittingly found myself again reflecting on the topic as 2020 thankfully comes to a close. There must be something about this time of year!
Anyway, here are a few more thoughts on advice from 2020:
1. If a person starts with his advisement and not by listening to you, run.
Run fast. He probably believes he is a great advisor or mentor because he knows so much and has so much to say. But, the great advisors and mentors are the best listeners and thinkers and question askers. It’s not what they know so much as how well they surface knowledge with you and within you. Advice should be arrived at collaboratively.
2. Listen to all advice in the context of that person’s experience.
Advice is rarely directly transferable. You have to peel some layers back to get to the nugget unless that person has experienced the exact problem in the exact industry with the exact people and the exact business model as you. Clearly, you don’t dismiss them because of this discrepancy, otherwise you’d never find yourself a good advisor or mentor. But, you need to know where they are coming from to understand what they are saying - and, of course, understand where you are to know what to do with it. Advice is an act of translation.
3. You have no idea what you are doing, but you know what you are doing.
This is a seemingly odd contradiction, but boils down to an obvious translation: you know some things, and you don’t know some things. Good advisors or mentors will never make you feel stupid for what you don’t know, nor will they ever let you feel like you have it all figured about because of what you do know. Their advice should uncover both, and leave you encouraged and humbled, motivated and uncertain. Advice should generate a sense of creative tension.
4. Gather all of the advice you can and throw away as much as you should.
Advice is for learning and improvement along your journey. You are not, and should not be, beholden to it - although, you should be accountable nonetheless. So, if you take advice, you should know and be able to communicate exactly why you took it. If you don’t take advice, you should know and be able to communicate exactly why you didn’t. If you can explain and communicate the result in this way then you can show that you’ve listened and learned and gotten clarity out of whatever advice you have received - accepted or denied. A good advisor doesn’t expect you to take them at their word, but they should expect you to demonstrate that you listened, translated, and acted accordingly. Advice is a prompt, not a directive.
The approach of Thanksgiving prompts some much needed reflection on 2020, this the year of the shit show.
So, here are a few thoughts on gratitude:
1. Gratitude is the foundation of presence.
Gratitude requires focus on what you have, not what you’ve lost, are missing, or wish you had, what was or what will be. The sense of loss and longing and loneliness and anxiety that feel so natural to 2020 are only exacerbated in gratitude’s absence. The opposite of gratitude is not being ungrateful, but rather being unrooted.
2. Gratitude is richer when it is more difficult to come by.
Sometimes it’s just hard to feel thankful for anything, but these are the moments when gratitude is most potent. Like most anything, the gratitude you have to work for arrives enriched by the investment. So, taking the time to be reflective, to see yourself and the world, yourself in the world, to explore those around you and those who are no longer, to empathize deeply, frequently to the point of tears of joy or sorrow, to learn something, to share something - this is the work of gratitude. And, its reward is far greater than the effort and far more complete than thoughtless appreciation.
3. Gratitude requires perspective.
For pretty much the duration of the pandemic, I’ve had a bulging disc in my neck. I’ve been in regular and at times near constant pain. I’ve wanted to complain, but, you know what: who gives a shit!? I don’t have Covid. I don’t have cancer. I’m not going to die. My fortune is plentiful. My privilege is grotesque. Gratitude dilutes the need to complain - even, and perhaps especially, if you have to remind yourself. I am grateful for my health - as it is. I am grateful for the health of my family and friends and that I’ve lost no one close to me to Covid.
4. Some days, gratitude is all you have to get you through the day - and, that’s ok.
I lost a friend this summer who I loved dearly, even though I saw her infrequently. Her loss was tragic and painful and her absence has surfaced my deep gratitude not just for her and her life - but for the people and life I lived when we met more than a decade ago. It has spurred deep reflection on the positive impact others have had on my life, hopefully that I’ve had on others, and a deep re-digging into why I am here. While her loss had me feeling lost and untethered, it has in my gratitude for her deeply rooted me.
5. Gratitude is a gift to be exchanged.
It’s important to do things for others, to be a part of other people’s lives, to feel part of a community. This can be helping or being helped, or something as simple as engaging in a random conversation at a coffee shop or even just viewing someone else’s art in a gallery. It’s connection. It’s exchange. Of ideas. Of energy. Giving and receiving. In a time of social isolation, these connections are harder than ever to find. Deliberate effort is required. While gratitude for others is critical for creating meaning in life, feeling the gratitude of others is critical to finding it.
This year has been a shit show, and yet I find myself more grateful than ever. But, I’ve had to work for it. For that, I am grateful.
The season of 2020 has been like no other.
I don’t know whether it has been hot or cold, rainy or dry. I don’t know even how long it has lasted or when it will end. A singular, enduring season.
I don’t really remember now, but figure it began with the budding promise of any new season. New year. Life waking, welling up, promising to burst forth.
But then, the winds came. While my bows were not broken, they still express the bend of the wind, the subtle arch that tells you where it came from and where it was going, and showing what it left behind. A bend that says I survived but not without a story to tell, not without a little bit of wear. Forever changed.
And then disease silently struck. I didn’t see anything - I couldn’t - but I knew others were falling. I didn’t see them fall. I didn’t hear them fall. But, they fell, and it changed me.
I am left here - to reach deeper, to understand my ground, to hold what I cannot touch, to feel what I cannot see, to find something new, within. I reach to the wisdom deep in my cells.
I inhale the beauty that remains free, above, encompassing - articulated in stark contrast to the fallen, shadow, below. The sun hits me differently now.
And then the dog days set in. A hyperventilating time when heat consumed oxygen, when my leaves warmed in thirst, starving refreshment, some drying and cracking and falling amidst the intensity, the urgency. They were false suggestions of a changing season. All of me simply could not endure.
Only the season endures intact.
And now, I am losing my leaves. All of them this time. I amidst the others, above and below, wondering how some stand barren while others glow - in reds and yellows and oranges - more alive than ever.
I wonder how they see me. I feel frail. Limbs exposed. Bare.
But, even in 2020, even in the absence of time, the singularity of season, in the futility of place, in the intensity of the unknown, in the reduction of my self outward, expansion inward, I take solace in that deep wisdom I found in my cells:
In this season, I don’t need leaves to be alive. I just need roots.
My commitment to creating has presented me with many media over the years - some art, some not - each of which has its own tools, challenges, and creative outcomes and brings its own unique joy and value to the world. Drawing. Painting. Printmaking. Sculpture. Digital media. Community organizing. Advocacy. Nonprofit management. Educational consulting. Entrepreneurship. Life itself.
Several years ago, I even wrote a book about it.
Last night, for the first time, my medium was flowers. Thanks to a company called Poppy, I had a box of fresh-cut, direct-from-the-farmer flowers delivered to my door to create with as I saw fit.
I had big aspirations of enjoying the process with my two daughters (6 and 8), but the day kind of slipped away from us. So, as they wound down their somewhat hectic day, I actually had some time alone, some me-time, some "studio time" with this big, bunch of color, height, form, movement, rhythm, and rhyme in the medium of Poppy flowers.
Part sculpture, part painting, part meditation - my first experience with flowers-as-medium was a treasured and peaceful and unexpected end to my day.
And, this morning, the results met me at breakfast - presenting me again not only with the joy of the diverse beauty, color, form, and pure nature of the flowers - but also a moment of reflection and self-critique, seeing things in the new light of a new day, showing me how I could have done a better job arranging them.
This is the creative journey that drives life - no matter your medium.
I’ve been lied to. And, I am still living that lie.
This is not so much a revelation as it is a reckoning.
I’ve been aware of my privilege for most of my life and have written about it from time to time. But, I’ve also quietly accepted and lived its self-reinforcing loop that allows me to forget about it.
I can forget I’m White.
Surely, this is the defining result of white privilege.
On the other hand, when my Black friends walk into a room - into a restaurant, a classroom, an interview, just to buy something at a store - their skin color walks in first. It is their first noted attribute - which happens to come with a flood of systemic, racial bias.
I’ve had this experience - of my skin color walking in first - only as exceptional events where I, as the White guy, was in the minority. These moments of situational minority status have been important, often humbling, and revelatory experiences.
But by default and generally speaking, when I walk into most rooms, the system tells me and everyone else that I am normal. I am neutral. I am right. I am accepted.
My education has only reinforced and ensured that this lived experience becomes a narrative that presents as a greater historical, cultural truth.
I was not taught history. I was taught White history.
I was not taught art. I was taught White art.
I was not taught literature. I was taught White literature. (until a transformative African American Lit class in college).
I was not taught what it means to be an American citizen. I was taught what it means to be a White American citizen.
Lies of omission are still lies. In fact, they are arguably more insidious in that it is difficult to address something that feels absent.
The White American narrative - this lie of intentional omission related to the contributions of pretty much every other culture except in a paragraph here, a chapter there, or a poster that goes up during a special day or week or month - innately instills white supremacy. This is a fact.
If the greatest artists and the greatest writers and the greatest scientists and the greatest theologians and the greatest political figures in our historical narrative are all White, then White supremacy is implicit in the narrative.
And, of course, this means all of my Black friends have also been lied to. Whereas I’ve lived a forgettable lie of privilege, they’ve endured a relentless and ever-present lie of their second-class citizenship - lived currently, and reinforced through a historical and cultural narrative they’ve also been educated on.
The more I read, the more I am aware of and disturbed and angered by the patterns of history. Not just the meta narratives, but the micro narratives. Just last night I was reading about a police shooting in 1964 of an unarmed black man and the subsequent protests of police brutality that ensued.
I am still stricken with grief that John Lewis died amidst the same turmoil he began fighting against 60 years ago. The same lies.
I increasingly understand how White people have leaned on the oppressed to redeem our souls and have taken too little responsibility of our own to do the work ourselves. (Read: Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own) We’ve in turn celebrated racial progress that we have also systemically - both actively and through privileged inaction - resisted. And, we have called this progress our own.
We have perverted and co-opted the narrative of progress to reinforce our own comfort and privilege and to relieve our consciences whenever discomfort creeps in.
This is a White problem. And, until it is recognized as such, we will build and rebuild and live - actively and passively - the lies of our own privilege and force our Black friends to live its inverse.
So, today as I try to work on myself first and understand how that relates to the larger world, I am left with this one reflection: If our country is going to live up to its premise and promise that all men are created equal, if racial justice is to become a reality, our white privilege must feel as urgent a lie to White Americans as oppression and injustice feel to Black Americans.
To overcome our lies, the burden of truth must be collectively borne.