Saturday, November 14, 2009

Back Together Again (Cleveland, TN)

Kathy, Debbie, me, Vickie & Lamar in Cleveland, TN

Before walking across America became my vocation, I had a more conventional office space. It was on the fifth floor of "Bible House", the American Bible Society's headquarters which look out over Central Park and Columbus Circle. Okay, so maybe it isn't as glamourous as it sounds. I didn't have a window in my office. And yes, technically it wasn't my office alone. I shared it with Famatta. But I had a desk and a computer and most days I had a working internet connection. It was my home away from home for 40 hours a week.

Physical office spaces have never meant much to me. I can work just about anywhere. What does matter - and matter a lot - are the people I work most closely with. In this respect, I had reason to rejoice. The other assistants on the executive side of the fifth floor - Famatta, Michael and Rachelle - were wonderful co-workers. Then there were the executives themselves.

In the two years I worked for ABS there were two distinct periods of leadership. For the first nine months I worked there the President's Office was, how can I put it delicately, a bit unapproachable. Since the tenor of an organization resonates from the top down, our executive office space felt like a cross between "The Holiest of Holies" and a Please Don't Touch Museum. In other words, other employees did their best to give it a wide berth.

Then, in May of 2008, "The Gray Lady" published an article and everything started to change. The President's contract wasn't renewed, one of the EVPs left and the organization underwent a period of soul searching. During that time the two remaining EVPs - Dr. Lamar Vest and my boss Simon Barnes - ran the organization under the oversight of the Chairman of the Board of Trustees.

There was no speech by Ronald Reagan challenging the organization to "tear down" this invisible wall separating the Executive Offices from the rest of the organization, but that's exactly what they started working to do. The interim leadership set the tone and then by the end of 2008 the Board of Trustees elected Dr. Vest to serve as the next President. ABS finally got its glasnost.

I can only speak for myself, but by the time I left I felt like the attitude of the organization had shifted quite a bit. It wasn't sudden, nor could it have been. Organizations which have been around for almost 200 years don't tend to have that luxury. But it was palpable. The Exective Offices started to feel like a more welcoming place. And Rachelle, Famatta, Michael and I got a new office companion for a couple weeks a month - Dr. Vest's executive assistant Debbie.

Debbie Davis and Kathy Anderson are two of Dr. Vest's administrative support team. There were days when I would think I was a pretty good assistant, but once I got a peek behind the curtain of their organizational skills I knew I was merely a gesticulating Wizard of Oz. When Simon traveled I would give him a laminated itinerary. Debbie and Kathy gave Dr. Vest a full binder. I had Simon's meeting calender planned out through the end of the year. They were already filling up Dr. Vest's calendar through the end of 2010. You get the idea. They were good. Really good.

Luckily, they were also exceedingly kind. With Dr. Vest setting the tone and Debbie, Kathy and Michael managing the logisitics, the President's office became what it should have been all along - a place where multiple voices are heard and lower-level employees could have a say in the direction of the Society.

On a personal level the difference between the two periods of leadership can be summarized by this unassailable fact. I wouldn't have felt comfortable asking the first President to be a host on my walk across country. With Dr. Vest it just seemed like the most natural thing to ask and I knew he would be happy to have me. Thus, way back in August, Debbie and I compared calendars and we settled on a date that looked like it would work for everyone, including her and Kathy.

In August the thought of me walking into Cleveland, TN on Nov. 14th - almost 1,000 miles into my journey - seemed very far off in the distance. By Saturday morning when I left the Schrock's house in Athens it was only a single day's journey away. All that separated me was a few miles of country road, an overly amorous cat and the overpowering scent of wood pulp.

With those paper dragons slayed, I sauntered up to Lamar and Vickie's house a mere 4 minutes past my expected arrival time. I guess you can take me out of the office but you can't take the office out of me. An administrative assistant is forever trying to keep things on schedule.

Lamar and Vickie welcomed me like a member of their family. Debbie and Kathy came over and we had a little Executive Office reunion under a Tennessee sky. Before dinner I was interviewed by the local Cleveland newspaper and then Lamar gave me a quick tour of Cleveland, TN, his home for the better part of 20 years. Lee University sits near the center of town. Dr. Vest served as President of that institution a number of years ago as it was laying out its vision for the expansion that is evident today. Beautiful new buildings abound on a well laid out campus, including one that bears his name.

Back at the original Vest building, also known as his house, we dined on steaks and potatoes and I filled them in on some of my adventures since leaving the cocoon of Bible House. They had read some of those stories from my blog, especially Kathy, who gets at least one vote as my site's biggest fan. It was nice to know that those I worked with were still taking in interest in what I was up to. Whether it is those in Bible House, or in Liberty Ridge (Suite 301 ... represent!) or anywhere else throughout the organization, I have really appreciated the calls, the emails and the connections with hosts made on my behalf. The Vests are the third ABS family I have stayed with after Janet Grell in New Jersey and John Walter in Virginia. Other of my ABS friends like Joey and Malorie and Sam and Joseph and Shamalia and Siyumi and Brian have connected me with people they know who have formed some of my host network across the country. Still others gave me gifts that have come in handy on the road. My boss Simon and his wife bought me the hiking boots that have cushioned every step of my journey. Geof and his wife got me the gift card that turned into my aluminum canteen, which turned into my last line of defense against the attacking dog in Thorngrove, TN. The list goes on and on.

When I think of all that ABS has done to support me following my bliss, it starts to feel less like a company and more like a ..... oh, what's the word for it ..... ah yes, a family. Lets hope it stays that way. So I want to say hi to any and all of you reading this and wish you a Happy Thanksgiving. I'm thankful that I worked there for two years and extra grateful that I met all of you.

-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x


While I was writing this entry I thought a lot about my work life up until embarking on this journey. All good writing has one core element in common: rigorous honesty. The author Michael Chabon said in an interview with Terry Gross that he recognizes when he is striking a particularly deep vein of honesty in his writing when he feels his stomach start to churn with embarrassment at the thought of others reading it.

That is a very big build up to a relatively small piece of honesty about my past life. It is important enough to me that I feel the need to say it in writing: I have spent the better part of the last 10 years judging myself rather harshly for being an administrative assistant.

This has nothing to do with the career itself. It can be a very demanding profession, especially at the elite level, and those who do it well are some of the most talented people I know. Rather, the self-judgment of my career choice to this point sprang from an inner knowing that I had taken jobs as an administrative assistant not because it was what I felt called to do, but because I was too scared to go out there and Follow My Own Bliss.

I feel into administrative work after fleeing the stress of teaching. My first job as an administrative assistant was at UCLA Medical Center, working for the CAO of the Radiation Oncology unit. It came very easily to me. I am a natural planner, very time conscious, and I seem to have an innate ability to organize someone's work life and put people at ease. I loved that it was a 9-5 gig and I never, ever, ev-ah had to think about it between 5:01pm and 8:59am. It was the perfect antidote to the poisonous stress I wrestled with as a teacher.

Then I got comfortable. I pushed down those yearnings telling me that I should be doing something that excites me and challenges my creativity. I let fears of failure and financial insecurity win the day. One year became two. Two became almost five years at UCLA. Then I moved back east and found ... what else ... another adminstrative assistant job. It was the familiar path of least resistance. But it was also a lesson I needed to learn. And for that reason I'm happy that my life played out just like it did.

The adminstrative assistant job I got when I returned to the Philadelphia area was with Geneva Global. That is how I started working for Simon Barnes who was one of their senior advisors at the time. Simon and I hit it off and what resulted was a five year working relationship. When he took a job as the Executive Vice President of the American Bible Society in August of 2007 I shifted jobs with him and moved to New York City to work in their executive offices.

In some ways it was a dream come true. I had wanted to move to NYC and this gave me a perfect avenue to do so. I had a boss I got along great with, nice co-workers and a life that was low in stress and high in free time. So you might be thinking, "what was the problem?"

It was that voice. That voice in your head that whispers, "This isn't the truest expression of who you are." For some people their calling is to be an administrative or executive assistant. But not me. I knew it all along but was battling my fears. One of the ways I knew was the cocktail party test. Here is how it goes. You are at a party and someone asks you what you do for a living. Freeze. The test is your internal reaction to that question and the subsequent answer you give.

I always failed that test. I hated the question and always tried to either change the topic or deflect with humor. I disliked it because I thought if I replied, "I'm an administrative assistant" that person would silently be judging me. The truth is I was simply projecting my own self-judgment onto the person I was talking to. Eventually this inner discomfort every time this situation arose was one of the things which convinced me to take steps to live a life that is a more authentic expression of who I am. Thus, this journey. It is my first step in letting the real me come out. I honestly don't know yet what the second, third and fourth steps of that journey will be or how I will support myself in the future.

I do know this. I have come to peace with having been an administrative assistant. If it happens that I need to go back to that profession to make money so that I can continue to do what I love on the side, I'll do so with more neutrality than I had before. My grandfather supported his family as a doctor, but it wasn't his bliss. His bliss was growing his roses and dahlias. I realize that sometimes jobs and callings are the same path, and sometimes one supports the other. Only time will tell what my experience is.


14 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing a piece of your truth.

    Andrea

    ReplyDelete
  2. I lived in Cleveland for 5 years. I moved back to Indiana in 2007. I lived on the North side of Cleveland for a while and I know that smell of wood pulp..lol. Bowaters is the place that everyone can smell for miles around...lol. Like you I feel more at home in Tennessee. Most of my relatives came from the South to Indiana for work. I really enjoy reading about your journey. I am looking forward to the rest of your walk. I have become a big fan in a short time. :) God Bless You!!

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  3. Hi Garth - loved hearing your thoughts on our reunion recently. It was SO great to see you. I appreciate your kind words...truth is, I always felt like I had a lot to learn from YOU, and I so admired (and still do) your professional skills.
    Keep on walking! Enjoying your journey and experiencing it vicariously.
    Take good care!!!
    Blessings,
    Debbie Davis

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