Monday, October 14, 2013

Lean In... Or Lean Out? Part 3.

Following Part 1 and Part 2, which were mostly on highlights of Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, here is Part 3... some of it, at least. I couldn't fit it all in one post.

(Also, the fact that this is coming 3 months late should tell you something about how successfully I've been balancing work and family life with other hobbies.)

I choked a bit on some of the ideas in these chapters, so I'll try to represent her line of thinking as fairly as possible before coming in with a sledgehammer offering my own criticisms.

Chapter 7: Don't Leave Before You Leave

Sandberg's main argument here is that many women begin preparing for the eventual arrival of a baby months and even years before the birth, and some of that preparation involves scaling back on a high-powered career path. Women who are anticipating having a child tend to let opportunities and promotions pass them by because they think they will not be able to keep up the same pace after the baby is born.

But later, when those women finally do return to the workplace, Sandberg says, they are "likely to feel less fulfilled, underutilized, or unappreciated" because they have "fallen behind" in their career path and are probably working for someone with less experience. Then, because work is less satisfying and challenging, they may end up leaving their job altogether. For Sandberg, it is a sad irony that women's attempts to save their career (by scaling back) actually end up demolishing it, since they find themselves too frustrated with the view from the slow lane.

Sandberg thus offers a "counter-intuitive" proposal: instead of pulling back, she says, women should "lean in" and go full force on their careers, accepting every promotion and maintaining maximum intensity until the child is born. This recommendation is based on her belief that it is possible to combine a high-powered career with the demands of motherhood, although she also includes a caveat that "given life's variables," she would never recommend that every woman do so under all circumstances.

To be fair to Sandberg, she is not saying that all women need to put career first, baby second. That would be an oversimplification. Instead, she is urging women who are deeply dedicated to high-level careers not to assume that it can't be done, and to open their minds to the possibility of finding creative ways to combine both roles.

But here's where things get hairy.

Because the fundamental problem to be solved for a career-oriented mother then becomes: "Who will provide primary care for my child?" Sandberg argues that husbands can do just as good a job at providing primary care as the mother, and argues that "biological imperatives," such as the fact that only women can provide breastmilk for their babies, can be overcome because "the modern-day breast pump has changed the equation." Although she does not mention day care, one must assume that if the father is unavailable to parent full-time, which is the case in most families, then a nanny or day care would be acceptable. If the job is exciting and engaging, she says, then these sacrifices are worth it:

"Only a compelling, challenging, and rewarding job will begin to make that choice [to leave a child in someone else's care] a fair contest," she writes.

There is no mention here of economic necessity, which often forces women to make difficult but necessary choices. The choice Sandberg is presenting is about a woman's professional fulfillment, which she seems to believe is the most important value in the equation.

Or is it?

This recommendation strikes me as self-centered. Yes, babies are too little to have a voice, but that doesn't mean they lack the capacity to feel their mother's absence. They aren't gerbils; they're human beings.

Yet, Sandberg seems to reduce "primary care" to the essentials of providing basic necessities: food, clothing, shelter, or even education. I do not and cannot conceive of motherhood in such a reductive way. Children are not just small animals that need to be fed, watered, and taken outside for walks. They are little souls that live and grow on love, and whether women like it or not, children crave and need their mother's love.

Mothering is not just a question of a "biological imperative" that can be overcome with a few handy modern inventions and a fistful of feminist ideology. Mothering has a psychological and spiritual element to it as well. No breast pump, no matter how sophisticated, can replace the daily gift of the heart through the multitude of tiny gestures and actions that motherhood is made of, and that a child can only experience when his mother is actually there to give them, at least during a significant part of the day.

Sandberg justifies high-powered career women who are never home by saying that "they love their kids" and that those kids "turn out just fine." I don't doubt that those women feel love for their children, and I also don't doubt that many of those children eventually grow up to be successful professionals in their own right. But there is so much assumption going on, and perhaps some projection of our need for it to all "be fine." We can't get inside the mind of a baby or a very young child to know how they experience their mother's absence, so how sure can we be that it's all fine? We may have a hundred things going on in our lives, but a baby's central focus is his mother. If she is missing almost all of the time, what must that feel like? How can we know?

Wisdom from the Ting Tings.
Which brings me to my second criticism: it's one thing to feel love for a child, but it's quite another to make that child experience it in a real way. Like the Ting Tings sing, "It's not just what you're thinking of, it's what you put across." And the words and actions that communicate that love, that make it present and real, don't take place in a vacuum. You have to be present to communicate love. Emails, phone calls, and gifts can be a temporary bridge. But they cannot be the substance that motherhood is made of.

I don't think women need to be home all the time in order to communicate that love. I do think some degree of work/career and motherhood is compatible. And I have a vested interest in believing so, since I also work and Olivia goes to pre-K for four hours every day. So far, so good: her day is anchored by my presence in the morning and in the early afternoon when she comes home. So I'm not an advocate of keeping kids home all day, or of chaining moms to the kitchen. I could never homeschool because I don't have the patience for it. I, and many other women, need to get out and do other things that stimulate us and help us grow. Happy moms make for happy kids (and better marriages), and it's good for kids to experience other caregivers besides just mom. So I don't subscribe to the idea that women can't work or ever be away from home. Nonsense.

My issue is just with where we draw the line in terms of hours of absence. Some temporary separation seems healthy to me, and having little ones spend time with relatives and teachers is good for them. But if the majority of their time is spent away from home and they see mom only for five minutes before they go to bed and as the family is rushing to get ready in the morning, then something is wrong. I have heard of one too many cases of children who get shuttled from day care to babysitter while their parents are out doing other things all day and all evening, and I can't help feeling a terrible sadness for those little ones. What did they do to deserve such neglect? What conclusions must they draw as they grow about how lovable they are in their parents' eyes? And why did those parents ever have a child in the first place when they could have bought a nice little gerbil or a goldfish?

On this point of exportable motherhood, my response to Sandberg boils down to this: you are encouraging women to think of what is best for them as a professionals, but you are minimizing the question of what is best for the children. "Child care" is not just the provision of basic necessities; it is the daily gift of love, and if that is lacking, then we are being incredibly irresponsible with the lives entrusted to our care.

Chapter 8: Make Your Partner a Real Partner

In this chapter, Sandberg argues that "as women must be more empowered at work, men must be more empowered at home." In other words, men need to be given an active role in the family, not sidelined to be just providers and observers.


Men bring gifts to parenting that women don't have, both because of personality and because of differences in masculine and feminine psychology. I think children benefit from the balance of a woman's more nurturing approach and a father's more rough-and-tumble, crazy play approach, or a woman's empathy and a father's objectivity, or whatever the balance happens to be when personality and particular differences are taken into account. So, no problems with this chapter.

Chapter 9: The Myth of Doing It All

Here, Sandberg points out the obvious fact that women can't "do it all," simply because time is a limited commodity and we need sleep. She points to the example of her sister-in-law, a doctor, who worked 12-hour days while also trying to pump for her newborn infant. Since she "wanted to feel connected to my baby in the limited hours that I was home," she made herself the sole caregiver most nights. Basically, she never slept. With her second child, she got wiser and took 3 months off, adjusting her schedule upon her return. Her sister-in-law discovered that despite her previous fears, reducing her hours did not affect her reputation or productivity.

Sandberg gives this and similar examples as proof that women can negotiate a more realistic work-family schedule even on the fast track. But shortly afterwards, she admits that her sister-in-law's successful negotiation was more of an exception than the rule, since "employees who make use of flexible work policies are often penalized and seen as less committed than their peers."

So that's a buzz kill. It worked for her sister-in-law, but it doesn't work for most people. So... good luck as you hit the accelerator, ladies. Hope it "all works out" for you. May the odds be ever in your favor.

This is actually one of the consistent flaws -- or maybe just realities -- of Sandberg's approach: there really is no tried and true method. Each case is so different, and her own story is riddled with exceptions to the rule. Some critics have accused her of offering contradictory and inconsistent advice because her own experience so often belies the very steps she recommends. But I think this is just one of the realities of the elusive work-family balance issue. We keep talking about it because there is no clear-cut, one-size-fits-all answer. Each woman has to figure out a creative way to balance these two aspects (if necessary) in the context of her own marriage and family and line of work, not to mention the workplace culture. So many variables... no wonder there is no simple formula for success!

On another note, this chapter also offers a rebuttal to women who advocate staying home full-time and being intensely involved in the lives of their children. Women who stay at home in order to care exclusively for their children are part of a new trend that sociologists call "intensive mothering." Past models of mothering were a little more laissez-faire, with moms present but not always directly involved in their children's games and play. Today, many moms (self included, up to the point that my laziness permits) are trying so hard to be good moms that they quite possibly devolve into helicopter moms, always hovering, always swooping in to fix things. I know in theory that there is a balance between being involved and giving space, but I have trouble finding it in practice. So yes, I'm probably one of those. And as hyper-involved moms, we tend to believe that more time with our kids = greater benefits for them.

But Sandberg cites a series of studies that argue against that assumption. In summary, the studies claim that "children who were cared for exclusively by their mothers did not develop differently than those who were also cared for by others." This strikes me as pretty obvious: it takes a village to raise a child, right? Hence the value of extended family, networks of friends, teachers, coaches, and so on. But what neither the study nor Sandberg specifies is how the children's time was distributed between their mothers and others. I would be interested to see what kind of proportion we're talking about here. Where is the optimal distribution of "time with Mommy" and "time with others"? At how many hours a day does Mommy's absence become detrimental? How many hours of intensive presence are optimal? Let's quantify this mother love thing, shall we?  I want to see percentages, pie charts, and graphs with two colored lines intersecting at the point of optimization so that I can plan my mothering the way I plan my finances.

And of course, that ain't gonna happen because each child is so unique and each relationship is also a singular, daily creation. So I know it's unreal to hope for any kind of hard data on the matter. But still, I imagine there is some kind of a basic bell curve -- too much time with Mommy is probably limiting (especially if she's pregnant and tired and has to play games like, "Why don't I lay here on the couch while you make Thomas the Train go in circles around the living room? Vroom! Vroom!") while too little time is virtual orphanhood. But somewhere in the middle there is an optimal mix of Mommy-care and other-care, and I'd like to find that balance in my own life and family.

It will probably be by trial and error, and I'll probably err on the side of being around too much.


Speaking of too much... I have to continue the next part in another post, since this is getting too long and I'm sleep deprived and dealing with a fuzzy brain today. Hopefully I'll get the next part out before the baby is born!

Good luck to all you fabulous moms. I know we are all doing the best we can!

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Lean In... Or Lean Out? Part 2.

Continuing from Part 1 on Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead... here is Part 2, which covers more highlights (Part 3 will cover the controversial points about combining motherhood with an intense career).

Chapter 4: It's a Jungle Gym, Not a Ladder

I think everyone knows that the old career pattern of lifelong tenure with one company is pretty rare these days, and that most people make several significant career changes during the course of a lifetime. Sandberg touches on that fact with a helpful image: career growth isn't like a ladder that you climb up. It's not linear. It's more like a jungle gym, with a lot of lateral movements, ups and downs, and a gradual, zigzag ascent.

What gave me hope -- as someone who was completely off the radar for ten years living a semi-cloistered life as a consecrated woman, and then as a mommy working part-time from home in Mexico -- was that Sandberg believes the jungle gym model works in my favor:

"The jungle gym model benefits everyone, but especially women who might be starting careers, switching careers, getting blocked by external barriers, or reentering the workforce after taking time off. The ability to forge a unique path with occasional dips, detours, and even dead ends presents a better chance for fulfillment."

I think that last statement really depends on how well we can swing like monkeys from one path to another, but it seems true that an uncharted course forces us to look inward at what we want to do instead of just going on autopilot and following the dotted line. It would be easy to just climb an existing linear structure or follow orders, but the risk is that we could lose touch with what we want to do, and to some degree, with who we are. The reality is, we change over the years. New interests appear; old interests may drop into the background. And those new interests can lead to totally new fields of personal development and new horizons for work as well.  That's exciting. It's dynamic and interesting. It sounds like a life worth living.

One practical suggestion Sandberg makes in this chapter is that we should have both long-term dreams, which do "not have to be realistic or even specific," but which give us "a far-off guidepost to move toward," and well-defined 18-month goals for learning new skills. The idea is to be thinking, "How can I improve?" so that we are always growing, never stagnant or pigeonholed into our past. I love that and it's why I'm going to pursue a Master's degree next year. I see a huge gap in my knowledge in a particular area that interests me and that is relevant for my current work, so I'm going to fill it and make myself more qualified for future jobs. Later there will be other steps, but for now this is my 18-month goal: start and finish an MA degree in International Affairs. Nothing to do with religion or Catholicism. It's a new chapter, and maybe a form of self-reinvention.

Another helpful suggestion was to look for companies or jobs or even niches with potential for growth. Sandberg calls them "rocket ships." These companies are expanding fast, and signing on during their fastest growth phase will mean that we grow with them. Of course, joining a fast-expanding company or market may entail some risk or a loss of perceived stability, but Sandberg argues that "the cost of stability is often diminished opportunities for growth."

I think this is an interesting idea but there has to be a lot of careful evaluation before signing on with a company. I can't help but think of Regnum Christi, which also went through a fast growth phase, but a keen observer (which wasn't me) would have noticed that it was poorly managed and that the finances were a disaster of debt upon debt. A lot of that growth was illusory and lacking solid foundations. Now it's slowly collapsing in upon itself, and many lay people who worked there have been laid off. So some "rocket ships" end up running out of fuel and slowly sinking back to earth... like all those dot com companies that went belly up around 2000.

A while back, I read that Warren Buffett, who is one of the most consistently successful (and rich) investors in the world, is not just lucky: he's a careful and exhaustive researcher. Before he invests in a company, he studies it in depth, paying particular attention to how it is managed. If he sees solid management practices, that company becomes a candidate. But if those and some other elements are lacking, he doesn't let himself be drawn in by the appearances of fast growth. He looks for rocket ships and steady climbers with solid infrastructure and smart leadership. I think we should do the same. Of course, there is only so much we can know about a company from an applicant position. But maybe talking to people who are already inside (because people do gripe freely if they are poorly managed) can give at least some insight.

Chapter 5: Are You My Mentor?

Sandberg describes how she has often been approached by breathless young women who want her to be their personal mentor. She said she always feels uncomfortable and usually says no, simply because mentoring a total stranger is totally awkward.

Women need a mentor in order to succeed in their jobs, she notes, but the way to get one is not to go around asking people (like the baby bird searching for his mother), "Are you my mentor?" Instead, we should excel at our jobs, and if we are lucky, a mentoring relationship will spring up out of the mentor's initiative. Basically, people mentor younger folks because they see potential that they want to help develop. They see momentum, drive, impetus, and excellence, and they want to contribute to that. So women shouldn't look for mentors like Cinderella looking for her fairy godmother. Mentors won't do everything for you. They will just tweak a moving vehicle.

"Studies show that mentors select protégés based on performance and potential. Intuitively, people invest in those who stand out for their talent or who can really benefit from help. Mentors continue to invest when mentees use their time well and are truly open to feedback."

Sandberg also clarifies that "a mentor is not a therapist" and that "few mentors have time for excessive hand-holding. Most are dealing with their own high-stress jobs. A mentee who is positive and prepared can be a bright spot in a day. For this same reason, mentees should avoid complaining excessively to a mentor. Using a mentor's time to validate feelings may help psychologically, but it's better to focus on specific problems with real solutions."

So helpful. I'll remember that, if ever I get a mentor.

Chapter 6: Seek and Speak Your Truth

This chapter just confirmed a lot of points that I already knew, so it didn't lead to major "aha!" moments. Communicate honestly and clearly, and in simple language. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Listen well. Accept critical input gracefully so that people don't end up thinking you can't handle the truth, because then you'll never know what you're doing wrong -- or what people think you're doing wrong.

I liked her suggestion to solicit critical feedback with questions like "How can I do better?" or "What am I not doing that I don't see?" Thanking people publicly for their critical feedback "sends a powerful signal to others" because it tells them that speaking the truth is always welcome and accepted, and that you are not threatened by other people's insights.

She also suggests being open about our weaknesses, and says that she openly admits to being quite impatient, which gets rid of any potential elephants in the room. Without going to the point of embarrassing or inappropriate disclosures, it's good to be able to show some self-awareness. Humor also helps.

I guess it's a form of humility, or just of realism. Most people can see our defects clearly anyway, so we're usually the last person in the room to realize what everyone else already knows. If we mess up, we might as well be frank about it and not try to hide it. When I see people try to deny or hide or gloss over their mistakes in order to maintain some kind of facade of perfection, I end up losing respect for them. For God's sake, if you screw up, just admit it. If someone admits a mistake nobly and then repairs it, I actually have more respect for them than before. And I don't think I'm the only one who reacts that way.

Lastly, Sandberg encourages women not to try to create a watertight separation between our real self (with all its emotions) and our work persona of professionalism and competence. She says that "true leadership stems from individuality that is honestly and sometimes imperfectly expressed," so there is no point in hiding or compartmentalizing our emotions to the point that we become impossible to relate to. For women, especially, some degree of emotion is going to work its way into our office space, especially if there are problems with the kids or some other difficult situation that we are carrying. Sandberg says that sometimes (and I suppose each case is different, depending on the person and also the workplace environment) it is even okay to cry at work if a personal burden becomes too heavy.

I don't think she is advocating a total waterworks of uncontrolled emotion every day; I think she's trying to correct an opposite extreme of women leaders doing violence to themselves by compartmentalizing and suppressing emotions, when maybe some show of emotion would make them more human and accessible. Just a guess.

Coming soon: Part 3, which covers what I consider to be the fundamental flaw of Sandberg's philosophy of "leaning in."

Friday, July 26, 2013

Lean In... or Lean Out? Part 1.

A few days ago I finished Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In, registering mixed feelings. What follows is a cursory summary of the book (admittedly from a totally subjective angle) and some thoughts on the massively debated subject of balancing work and motherhood.

First of all, Sandberg's book is based on a central premise: women have yet to achieve full equality with men, especially in the highest echelons of the professional world, where most CEOs tend to be men. She argues that there are two types of barriers holding women back: internal barriers that women need to overcome in their own minds and behavior, and external barriers that society needs to break down.

Within that overall framework, she presents a series of particular recommendations focused mainly on helping women overcome our interior barriers. I personally grouped these recommendations into two categories: helpful highlights and disturbing lowlights.

Since there is too much to fit into one blog post, I'll do this in a series of parts. Parts 1 and 2 are mostly helpful "highlights" that made me glad I forked over $25 to Barnes and Noble, while Part 3 will get into some of the more controversial points about combining motherhood with an intensely absorbing, high-powered career.


Chapter 1: The Leadership Ambition Gap: What Would You Do if You Weren't Afraid?

Just the title of this chapter got me psyched. Yes! I love these types of questions, because one thing that resonates with me is the freedom to define my dreams according to what is in my own heart. Of course, once you have a family, your dreams are joint pursuits worked out in dialogue and teamwork, but they are still yours. Adapted, but still springing from your own heart and arising out of your own reality.

For Sandberg, the main obstacle that prevents us from following our dreams is fear. "Fear is at the root of so many of the barriers that women face. Fear of not being liked. Fear of making the wrong choice. Fear of drawing negative attention. Fear of overreaching. Fear of being judged. Fear of failure. And the holy trinity of fear: the fear of being a bad mother/wife/daughter."

I was with her until the last sentence, because I think that being a good or a bad mother, wife, and daughter is something with tremendous consequences. Of course, we can sometimes be scrupulous and unnecessarily anxious about whether or not we're doing a good job, and if Sandberg wants women to get over needless worries, then I'm with her. But there are also women who don't give a crap about how many hours their kid languishes in daycare, and I think women like that could use a little more fear in their lives.

So what I would answer here is: a woman's self-giving to these relationships is not just some "social construct" that creates a bunch of mental complications and obstacles in her head. Concern about the quality of these relationships is not just a needless fear to be chucked out the window; it's something that has to be evaluated on an individual basis (because we can exaggerate) but always with the awareness that the way we relate to those closest to us is profoundly important and has lasting consequences... especially when a child is involved.

Chapter 2: Sit at the Table

I loved this chapter and I thought most of her points were spot on. Sandberg talks about how she and many other women suffer (or in her case, suffered) a confidence problem. When it comes to evaluating their competence or skill, women tend to be harder on themselves than men, more critical of their performance, and more self-deprecating when they talk about their accomplishments. Men, by contrast, tend to be more confident, and are quicker to propose themselves as candidates for new opportunities or promotions at work. They are more comfortable selling themselves and advocating for their own advancement.

It's a balance, Sandberg says: "I would not suggest that anyone move beyond feeling confident into arrogance or boastfulness. No one likes that in men or women. But feeling confident -- or pretending that you feel confident -- is necessary to reach for opportunities. It's a cliché, but opportunities are rarely offered; they're seized."

She then cites examples from her own professional experience, particularly as a manager of both men and women. Time and time again, men would knock on her door and tell her why they should be promoted, while women were more likely to hang back or take a cautious approach. But by hanging back, we shoot ourselves in the foot.

This was a helpful dose of realism for me: "Few managers have the time to carefully consider all the applicants for a job, much less convince more reticent people to apply. And increasingly, opportunities are not well defined but, instead, come from someone jumping in to do something. That something then becomes his job."

I loved this. Who better than Sandberg, who worked at Google in the early years and now as COO of Facebook, to know how the job market works these days? I love her spirit of boldness and seizing opportunities that you can grow into instead of passively waiting for the "just right" thing to come along.

She mentions the case of a friend who passed up a lot of opportunities during her career because she thought, "That's not what my degree is in" or "I don't know enough about that domain." Sandberg's friend later realized that "In retrospect, at a certain point it's your ability to learn quickly and contribute quickly that matters. [...] There is no perfect fit when you're looking for the next big thing to do. You have to take opportunities and make an opportunity fit for you, rather than the other way around. The ability to learn is the most important quality a leader can have."

The ability to learn. The ability to adapt and grow. Making an opportunity fit for you instead of waiting for the world to come to you custom made and in your favorite color. Seize it, make it happen, craft your future, design your dreams. I love it. Sold.

Chapter 3: Success and Likeability

Sandberg bases this chapter around the Heidi/Howard study, which took two identical resumes and career narratives -- one belonging to "Heidi" and the other belonging to "Howard"-- and asked students to evaluate which individual they liked better. The students respected Heidi and Howard equally, but viewed Heidi as selfish and "not the type of person you would want to hire or work for." The conclusion drawn from the study is that successful women may sometimes come across as less likable for no other reason than the fact that they are successful.

She cites some interesting stats, noting that when graduates from a Carnegie Mellon University MA program started their first job, 57% of the men tried to negotiate a higher starting salary, while only 7% of the women dared to do the same. Sandberg's reaction to that data is fairly realistic: "Instead of blaming women for not negotiating more, we need to recognize that women often have good cause to be reluctant to advocate for their own interests because doing so can easily backfire."

So here we have an underlying cause for the problem identified in chapter 2, which was that women are too hesitant to jump into higher-paying or leadership positions. Instead of leaving us with a depressing problem and no solution, Sandberg cites a Harvard Kennedy School of Government professor's twofold strategy for successful negotiation:

1) "Women must come across as being nice, concerned about others, and 'appropriately female.' When women take a more instrumental approach ('This is what I want and deserve'), people react far more negatively." This part of the solution, then, is for women to take a communal approach, using "we" instead of "I" and speaking of their achievements as gains for the company, not just for themselves.

2) Women must also provide a "legitimate explanation" for the negotiation: for example, a woman asking for a promotion could suggest that a senior figure in the company suggested that she apply, or she could cite industry standards and say, "My understanding is that jobs involving this level of responsibility are compensated in this range."

In general, women can avoid becoming the Hated Successful Woman by being consistently nice ("relentlessly pleasant") even if their position requires that they demand results. Sandberg acknowledges that these types of social expectations may be unfair, but she advocates learning to work with that reality until it can be changed, noting that we must also work to change it in the future.

What if a woman does all of this and some people still hate her? You can't please everyone, and criticisms will come. According to Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post, we can't just deny that criticism affects us, because we would only be lying to ourselves. Denial doesn't work. Instead, we should "let ourselves [...] feel whatever anger or sadness being criticized evokes for us. And then we should quickly move on" like a child who cries at one moment and then runs off to play.

I would just add there that some criticism is justified, so we should also carefully evaluate what we're doing and see if we need to change some things.

Part 2 (tomorrow) will cover these chapters:

Chapter 4: It's a Jungle Gym, Not a Ladder
Chapter 5: Are You My Mentor?
Chapter 6: Seek and Speak Your Truth

All three of those chapters were immensely helpful for me, so I can't wait to share them.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A Road That Reminds

The road from Xalapa to Veracruz always feels like a liberation.

Once we leave the traffic and dust of the city, with its crisscrossing networks of electrical wires overhead and the cement buildings jammed together, the road opens up to a rolling horizon of green. There are grassy, tree-studded fields on the right, marked off with crooked white posts strung with barbed wire; and a majestic canyon to the left, spectacular and verdant during the spring months. Sometimes the trees along the side of the highway shed pink or purple petals in a gentle cascade when the wind blows. And the temperature gets noticeably hotter as we descend from the foothills of Xalapa, which is 1500 meters above sea level, to the port city of Veracruz.

This is sugar cane country and part of the processing involves burning the fibrous residue after the sugar has been extracted, so we often see a column of smoke rising up a mile or two off the highway. The smoke is acrid with a tinge of sweetness, and tiny flakes of ash float for miles, leaving a fine residue of black dust that forces families to wash their floors and dust their furniture almost on a daily basis during the harvest season.

Driving out of the city feels like freedom because my eyes hunger for more green, and the road brings me a sense of expansion and peace. The fact that our trips to Veracruz are usually recreational -- or marking the start of a trip to Cancun or the States -- may also have something to do with it.

There was one nighttime trip to Veracruz, however, that felt like hell the whole way.

We had just arrived back from the States to the Veracruz airport, and then had taken a small bus for the two-hour trip to Xalapa. Upon arriving in Xalapa in the evening, I realized that I had left my purse (with credit and debit cards, cell phone, and some other goodies) hanging from the arm of a chair in the airport's ground floor cafe, right next to the door.

We lugged our suitcases into the house, packed a few snacks for Olivia, and jumped right into the car.

We made the trip in absolute silence, hurtling through the darkness at a speed I should not mention in case my mom reads this. Both of us were already exhausted. JC was annoyed that I had forgotten my bag, and I was stewing in anxiety over whether or not it would still be there. Olivia was soon sleeping.

As the yellow lane dividers flashed by hypnotically under the headlights, I was calculating the probabilities in percentages that my bag would still be there (not more than 10%). I was also fretting about the practical implications of not finding it, because it would imply canceling my credit and debit cards. In the States, replacements arrive in the mail fairly swiftly. But in Mexico, where the mail system is extremely slow and not always reliable -- some packages arrive intact after ten weeks, others are partially opened, and a few never arrive at all -- the loss meant a solid month or two of frozen finances and anxious expectation.

We normally avoid nighttime journeys; JC is cautious by nature and the dozens of drug-related killings in Veracruz the year before had confirmed him in the decision to avoid traveling after dark. There is something about seeing photos of 37 decapitated bodies dumped onto a major highway through the nicest part of the city that makes you think twice about venturing out at night. And although there had been almost no rumors of narco war for at least a year, we preferred to travel by day.

So this was my first time passing through the countryside at night, and since I live in a city, it was one of the few occasions that I have ever seen the full array of stars in the sky over Mexico. There were a few clouds, but wide patches of clear sky were peppered with light. Along the way, we also passed a sugar-residue bonfire that probably measured 15 meters in diameter, and that generated an immense column of illuminated smoke that stretched toward the stars. Since I was already in an apocalyptic mood (losing one's bag will do that to you), I almost expected to see demons cavorting amidst the flames.

We passed through Cardel, which is a small city with an outsized nightlife and blaring music in every other shop on the main drag, and sped on to the next toll booth, where the traffic... gradually... slowed... until we were crawling along at 5 miles an hour. It took us about 45 minutes to cover two miles, which was maddening.

The reason for the delay was that there was a security checkpoint just before the toll booths, and traffic was streamlined into one lane so that the Ejercito officers, in a wide-legged stance, armed with rifles, faces masked, could see each car and its occupants (fully opened windows are mandatory) as it crawled by.

After what seemed like an eternity, we reached the airport and I leaped out and ran inside. I was in for a lesson in pragmatic negotiation.

The waitress who had brought our sandwiches at the cafe was still there. When I asked her, breathless, if she had seen my purse, she said she had not and that she would have set it aside for me if she had seen it. There was something about her that struck me as trustworthy, so I believed her. She said, "Look, what you need to do is go to the security guard over there and tell him that you lost your purse." And she added, "Tell him that you want to see the surveillance tapes in order to know who took it."

I went straight over to the security guard, an older man with a gray mustache, and told him my tale of woe. He nodded and said, "Describe the bag to me." So I described it in exhaustive detail, inside and out.

He simply nodded and took me upstairs to the administrative offices, where he led me to a tiny office where a woman was sitting behind a desk. She also asked me for a description of the lost item, so I went through the whole spiel again, adding that I had a photo ID inside to confirm that it was really my bag.

She seemed noncommittal, and there was a pause as the guard and the woman glanced at each other. Neither showed any signs of recognition and neither made any move.

Then I remembered what the waitress had said, so I added, "I would like to see the surveillance tape to know who took it."

At that, the woman glanced up at the guard again and then turned around and opened a small filing cabinet behind her. There in the bottom drawer was my bag, just as I had described it. Apparently, a woman with several children who was sitting in the waiting area had seen me run out without my bag. She had picked it up and tried to run after the bus to flag it down, but was too late. Then she went to the bus office and told the clerk that a passenger had left her bag, but there was no cell phone service on the road between Veracruz and Xalapa and we were already out of range. So she turned it over to the security guard, who in turn gave it to the airport administrator who handles lost things.

It struck me only later that the honesty and generosity of that woman, who made every effort to get my bag to me, was offset by what now seems like the silent complicity of the guard and the administrator. It was only when I asked to see the surveillance tape -- which clearly showed the woman giving my bag to that very guard -- that they handed over the goods.

On the ride home, considerably more at peace this time, I was thinking about my initial calculations of the likelihood of ever seeing my bag again. Somehow the outcome landed in the 10% category that I had nearly classified as a miracle. So it felt like another small reminder that my constant worrying (because I worry a lot, I really do) is an insult to God's providence.

For me, emotion-laden events (even just the anxiety and relief of finding a lost bag) tend to anchor themselves to the places, sights, and even smells that accompanied them. Now, the sight of the green countryside en route to Veracruz, with the occasional column of acrid-sweet smoke rising in the distance -- not unlike the column of smoke that guided Moses and his people through the desert -- reminds me of that little miracle.

After that one hellish journey, our subsequent trips to Veracruz have an added layer of sweetness, an extra feeling of liberation.

It's not just the greenery and the view that refresh me; it's also the memory that Someone is taking care of us, the reminder that we are not alone, and we don't have to do it all by ourselves.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Morning Run in Xalapa

I'm posting these pics here for those who aren't on Facebook! These are some snapshots of the prettier parts of my morning run in Xalapa.