Thursday, May 31, 2007

Disconnect / Reconnect

Disconnect / Reconnect

My Darden email address is being deactivated tomorrow. I didn’t anticipate the emotion that would come along with this. I took my laptop to the helpdesk and Randy helped me to back up all my old files and emails and then I went off of the domain. The background picture on my laptop changed to a generic windows photo of that grassy knoll. I got the chance, again, to start over. A new electronic slate.

There have been other last minute errands to do as I disconnect and prepare to leave Charlottesville. I went to Comcast Cable and turned in the form to take my name off of the account. I’ve taken down all of the pictures from my walls. I’ve rented a mini-van to drive my things to a storage unit that I’ll rent as I search for my own apartment. Couch is gone, bed is gone, and dining table and chairs are gone. Even the rugs and bookshelves have been sold. A new slate at home.

Soon the pictures of our class that have been in the hallway for two years will be taken down and replaced with those from the class of 2009. Our mailbox name tags will be tossed away. Someone else will be renting our home and living in my sunny bedroom. I went to JavaJava today, my favorite coffee shop in town, and saw the owner. He asked me to please find my replacement so that he could keep the steady stream of income I’ve provided to him for the past two years. I said I’d do my best. I’ve had to say “good-bye” and “see you later” to friends every day as their leases run out and they begin their journeys to new homes in new places across the world.

The Ying and Yang movement of the world even applies to moving. So as I say good-bye, give away belongings, change over accounts, I am setting up new connections. A new roommate for the summer as I rent my friend Anne’s sublet. The opportunity to see friends of mine back in New York that have not been a part of my daily life for years now. I’ll see my family more – my main motivation for moving to New York. One of my professors has made a connection for me with a theatre producer in New York that I have never worked with. I have coffee meetings with friends of friends who are also relocating to New York. And I’ll be back in my city, the only place I have ever felt at home. While it may be different in many respects – new restaurants, stores, high rises – so much of it stays the same. My friend, Nathan, upon seeing New York for the first time last fall was fascinated by it because of its many icons that he had only previously seen on TV or in movies. These icons are old friends to me – comforting familiarities as everything else around me changes.

I sold my dining table and chairs at a deep discount to an interesting woman who saw my posting on Craig’s List. She just bought her first home. She and her boyfriend of 7 years have just separated. As they were separating households she looked around and realized that none of the big items in the home, furniture, etc. were hers. She had spent almost 7 years living among someone else’s things. We figured out a way to strap the dining table to her car’s roof rack and she drove off with it to her new life.

I gave my bed away to a woman in Charlottesville who was coming home from Iraq and she had no money to set up a bedroom for him. We maneuvered the mattress set down my narrow, windy stairway and with the help of a friend’s pick-up truck, she was able to have the beginnings of a room for her son as he readjusted to his new life.

As we clean out remnants of our old life, other people can use those pieces to create something new for themselves. I’m excited to see what remnants I will find in New York, what people I will meet, that will help me to build something new as I disconnect, somewhat, from one place, and reconnect to my old home.

Quick Conversations

Why does a burning platform need to emerge before we adopt change? I wish it didn’t take life altering events to help me get my priorities in order. I wish I could always find what Alec Horniman, one of my professors, calls “a clearly perceived better way.”

I am always amazed how the shortest conversations have the most incredible impacts. I spoke to my mother recently and the conversation went something like this:
“Well, I’m glad everything’s going well.”
“Thanks, Mom. I’m going to run into Mellow Mushroom to play trivia and eat some pizza.”
“Okay. I just wanted to tell you one more thing…..They found some abnormal cells in my mammogram.”
“Are they going to test them to find out what is abnormal about them?”
“They already know what “It” is.”
(Long pause)
“Are you telling me you have breast cancer?”
“That’s what “It” is.”

I capitalize “It” here for a reason – I have a lot of respect for cancer, for its power to change how we look at the world. I can’t think of a six letter word that has ever had a more immediate effect on me. There have only been a handful of situations that have truly altered the way I perceive my future – 3 to be exact. This one tops the list.

I blinked, and my life was different. In that moment, I had no words despite my usual gift of gab. My only thought was, “I want my life to go back to the way it was less than a minute ago.” I know now that it never will.

Yes, I will worry more. Though I idolize mother for her strength and courage, I am forced to recognize that she is not immortal. However, I have found that there are many more good things than bad that come from this situation. I will be more grateful for time with my mother. I will criticize less and praise more. I will forgive and forget in a way that I have never been able to before. I will be even more conscious of how short life is, of how important it is to do what I love everyday – in both my personal and professional life.

I have set a record for the number of times I have apologized to friends and family for not returning their calls or emails more quickly. My excuse is always, “I just don’t have time.” In actuality, I do have time. We all have time; we just make choices about on what and on whom to spend it.

It is as if my life has permanently found a home under a magnifying glass – everything, the good and the bad, are amplified. The highs higher and the lows lower. Maybe this is better than simply existing in a world that is even-keeled. Those highs and lows do make the game more interesting.

My friends have been incredibly supportive, and I am very grateful for them. Their obvious first question is always, “Is your mom going to be okay?” Usually I answer, “I hope so.” The other answer, the one that’s almost always impossible to articulate is, “I don’t know.” Truthfully, we never know. From one moment to the next, life twists and turns in ways we never expect, and often does so at break-neck speed. I blinked, and my life was different. And that’s not always bad. Things that don’t scare you to death will scare you to life.

Dear Terrified Adults

Dear Terrified Adults

My Uncle Tom always tells me if I’m not in debt and not afraid at least 50% of the time then I’m not doing enough with my life. Whether or not that’s true, it’s been a great comfort to me since I’ve been in debt for over a decade now, and have spent far more than 50% of that time afraid of all sorts of things.

Often what I fear and what I believe I fear are different things. I always thought I was afraid of swimming because I was afraid I’d lose control somehow and drown. I like to splash around (as long as my feet can touch the bottom) and I like being near the ocean, a lake, or a river. I’m not afraid of swimming; I’m afraid of being incapable of swimming; I’m afraid of uncertainty.

Think of all the things I can’t do because I can’t swim! 75% of the world’s surface is under water. If I never learn to swim, and never learn to scuba dive, I’ll miss out on exploring ¾ of the world. If I don’t learn to swim, I’ll never be able to do a triathlon. I’ll never learn how to surf. I’ll never get to be a trainer for a day at Sea World. In August, I decided I had to get out there and conquer this fear.

When I signed up for a beginning swimming class, I expected to meet an Olympic look-alike swim instructor who wouldn’t understand my lack of natural swimming ability. Instead, I met Karla, a woman who’s at once scrappy and incredibly supportive. She’s been teaching swimming for 50 years and proudly boasts, “I haven’t had a student fail yet.” My mother always said I was one-of-a-kind; let’s hope I don’t ruin Karla’s record. “I teach the terrified adult class, levels 1 and 2,” Karla said to me at registration. “How do I know which level I’m in?” I ask. “That all depends. How terrified are you?” “I get a little nervous in water more than 5 feet deep,” I say. “Yep, you’re a terrified adult, level 1. But don’t worry, I can fix that,” says Karla with her smiley, grandmotherly eyes. I’m to report to the AFC pool the following Wednesday, goggles and personal injury waiver in hand. “And don’t be late.”

On Wednesday, there’s a giant sign on the locker room door that reads: “Dear TERRIFIED ADULT swimmers (to be) – DO NOT SHOWER, we start swimming on dry land!?%#$!?? See you in the classroom by the pool. Karla”

I arrive at the classroom, and watch the swimmers intently. My heart’s racing. Karla’s right – I AM a terrified adult. Look at all these people, paddling along as if they were born to do this. It looks so easy for them. Why isn’t it easy for me? Why am I so scared?

At that time I didn’t realize that I had already done the scariest part of this process and I hadn’t even touched the water yet. I signed up to do something that I may very well fail at, all under the watchful eyes of dozens of other people enjoying the pool. I was risking public humiliation, failing to learn to do something that a five year old does without even thinking about it. I realized that ‘fessing up to fear is a lot harder than conquering the fear itself.

I’ve been working with Karla and six other terrified adult classmates for a few weeks now, and this past Wednesday for the first time in my life I swam properly, breast stroke, frog kick, with my head under water. I’ve graduated to what Karla calls the “moderately terrified adult class”, level 2. I took the sign off the locker room door from that first night of class and taped it up at home near my desk to remind me to face up to fear more often.

Our finest hour often comes out of moments of fear and disappointment. We’re conditioned to think that success, and doing things we’re naturally good at, brings out our best self. I disagree. Our best self comes shining through when we are most alive, and we are most alive when we have much to lose and yet we forge ahead anyway – head on into that fear and uncertainty. We emerge from the other side stronger, healthier people for having faced up to what frightens us. In the spirit of continuous (self) improvement, I’m making a pact to do things more often that scare the hell out of me.

The Kindness of Strangers

It’s early in the morning and I am up typing this article because the jet lag is still messing with me. I just returned on Tuesday from my first trip to South Africa. When I met South Africans and they asked how I liked their country I would say that I was struck by the similarity between Johannesburg and big U.S. cities. They would laugh sheepishly and say things like “not everywhere is like that” or “those are nice areas but that’s not the real South Africa.” For our own safety, we traveled from the five-star hotel to the tour bus to the immaculate office building to the five-star restaurant and back again. During the whole South Africa trip, I kept wishing that we could see the “real” South Africa.

Before I go throwing wishes like this out to the Universe, I should put qualifiers on them. Instead of saying “I wish I could see the real South Africa”, I should have said “I wish I could see the real South Africa surrounded by friends with my passport in hand.” On Friday the 16th, the day before my 31st birthday, I got my wish, unqualified. Somewhere between the Cape Town and Johannesburg airports, my passport was stolen, lost, or evaporated into thin air. When I got to the international departure gate in Johannesburg, the pocket where I kept it was unlatched and everything else was in that pocket minus the passport. I panicked. The friend I was traveling with kept counseling me to breathe. “Don’t worry, we’ll find it. It has to be here.” No passport.

I followed the irritated customs official around the corner where I met a gruff, unfriendly man who informed me that there was no way I was getting on any plane without a passport. This after I just heard him berating another woman who had apparently been in the country illegally, from Zimbabwe. “I’ll arrest you myself if you ever set foot in South Africa again.” Emotionally, she was in much better shape than I was. I pleaded my case and he said “I don’t even know you are who you say you are. You are not getting on that plane.” I couldn’t help noticing the irony: I wanted so much to go home and the other woman hoped to never see her home again. I asked about the possibility of being deported back to the U.S. to which he barked, “Go talk to your embassy.”

There were many people from the airlines to the police officers to random travelers who saw how upset I was, who tried to help me. The bottom line was my flight was going back to the States with my friends and my luggage, and without me. At this point, the only people who could help me get home had just left the U.S. Embassy for the weekend and I’d be on my own, or so I thought, until Monday morning at 8am.

After finding hotel accommodations, I collapsed into bed, very tired and very lonely. The next morning, I set out to get passport photos to take to the embassy on Monday morning. The front desk at my hotel had no idea where I could go so I toddled down the road ways and found another hotel, much more expensive than mine, and asked the front desk there if they could help me.

They directed me to Hans, a very kind, 9th generation South African, who owned a studio in the very back corner of a shopping center about 15 minutes away. He ran the studio with his son, Whimpy, and they were both very interested in my life in America and how I ended up in Pretoria. Hans was thrilled when I told him that my name is Christa, the name of the first woman he ever fell in love with, and that I was from New York, a city he has always dreamed of. Actually, he’s been dreaming of Hoboken because he idolizes Frank Sinatra. I didn’t want to disappoint him by telling him that Hoboken is actually in New Jersey and that I had never actually been to Hoboken, so when he asked if it was beautiful and if everyone there looked like Frank Sinatra I said “of course!” He was delighted to hear this.

Hans and Whimpy show me pictures of their family and then Hans asked to see my left hand. “A nice girl like you, not married? Why not?”

“I just haven’t met the right guy yet.”

“Good. Better to wait for the right guy than marry the wrong one. That would just be a mess.” I nod in agreement.

“How old are you?”

“Actually, I’m 31. Today.”

“Today’s your birthday?”


“And you are alone in South Africa?”


“Whimpy, come on, we’re taking Christa to lunch.”

They gave me my passport photos free of charge and off we went to lunch in another shopping center close by where I would also be able to pick up a few changes of clothes for the weekend. Hans quizzes me some more on New York, telling me about all the books he’s read on the topic. “You should really come see New York for yourself,” I said. “You’d love it.” “No, no. I can’t,” he replied. “Why not?” “I like the way New York looks in my mind and I don’t want to be disappointed.”

I was sad to hear this, though I understood his point. I thought about all the times that I had been disappointed by a place or a person or an event, though I have also been surprised an equal number of times to find that some places and people greatly improve upon acquaintance. After lunch, I told Hans that I hope someday he gets to Hoboken and meets a lot of people just like Sinatra. They wished me a happy birthday again and went back to their car while I went shopping.

After what now seemed like the two longest days of my life, Monday morning rolled around and I was off to Johannesburg in a hired car that the hotel arranged for me. After about two hours in rush hour traffic, I got to the main gate of the embassy. The guards outside informed me that because I had a laptop and a digital camera, I was not allowed on consular grounds. They couldn’t check the items for me either. My frustration reached its pinnacle and I plead my case with a sense of urgency that surprised even me. A kind American couple in line behind me offered to hold the items for me in their car, parked just across the street.

Kathryn and John Grabowski have been in Africa since 1983. They met in the Peace Corp and now live in Swaziland where John works for Save the Children and Kathryn is a school teacher. With them, is their 9 month old adopted son, Zahkele. In Zulu, Zahkele means “to do something useful with one’s life.” Zahkele’s mother died from AIDS and was turned over to the state. At the time, Kathryn was volunteering in the orphanage where he was being kept, and noticed that he was losing weight rapidly, not eating, and not making a sound. He was near catatonic, and Kathryn decided that she had to take him home. He tested negative for HIV and she and John began the very slow, painful, expensive process of adopting an African baby.

In the two hours that we were all at the embassy, I learned about their Peace Corp days and their adventures living in Africa. Little Zahkele played and laughed, keeping us entertained as we waited for our respective sets of paperwork to be processed. Zahkele has gained back all the weight he lost and then some, now alert, smiling and crawling around at a rapid clip. It was amazing to me that a little love and nutrition could save a life. He was one of the lucky ones. There are many more babies just like him who aren’t lucky enough to find their own Kathryn and John.

After leaving the embassy and retrieving my laptop and camera, Kathryn and John helped me find a cab and negotiate a price to the airport. “If you ever want to see Swaziland, please stay with us.” I promised I would. On the way to the airport, I thought about all the kind people I had met on this side-trip that I never intended to take. I felt so lucky to have met them, even if the original situation had caused me so much distress. I got my wish – I got to see the real South Africa – and it was more than worthwhile. A quote from Scarlett O’Hara ran in my mind over and over again. “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

A Sense of Place

A Sense of Place

May 20th would have been my grandmother’s 88th birthday so my Darden graduation on that date has a dual-significance for me: it is the celebration of my greatest academic accomplishment and of a woman whom I consider to be my greatest teacher. She was born Sarah Louise Gagliardi, though I knew her as Sadie Lupinacci. She was born to blue collar immigrant parents on Barber Street in Hartford, Connecticut. She was a life-long employee of Traveler’s Insurance Company. She had two children: my mother, Sandy, and my uncle, Tom. She was married to my grandfather, Alfonso Lupinacci, for over 40 years until his untimely death in 1982. They were childhood sweethearts and grew up around the corner from one another. She led an ordinary life. Nothing extravagant. Nothing extraordinary.

Yet she was an extraordinary person – the kindest, most loving person I have ever known. She had a remarkable sense of forgiveness and an endless supply of support for those she loved. When anyone asks me what kind of person I aspire to be, I consider that I wish to love and be loved the way my grandmother was, and still is. She came from so little, and I have so much which is why I feel a tremendous amount of gratitude for the opportunity to be a part of this community and this graduating class.

I came to Darden to attain traditional financial skills because that was a clear hole in my resume. This was the explicit learning. While I was able to reach this goal, there were implicit learnings that I did not expect to find which are just as valuable, if not more. I learned about the idea of lifting as we rise, that there is so much more satisfaction in climbing the ladder with people we admire and care about along aside us rather than climbing over others and being alone.

I spent a lot of time here considering the idea of happiness, of accomplishment. Defining it, setting benchmarks, reflecting on what’s working in my life and what’s not, and then taking on the responsibility to change, even when that change is painful or frightening. And I am continually reminded of the idea that what we wish to have in our own lives we set about attaining by providing that very thing for someone else. So if it is happiness we seek, we can begin to have it by providing happiness for another. The same goes for success, personal and professional, for peace of mind, for friendship, and, as my grandmother showed me, for love.

I learned how devastating it can be to think I’m on a road that I built going one way, and all of a sudden the bottom falls out and I end up on a path I never knew existed and probably would not have chosen by my own volition. Surprisingly, I learned to love the new road, and even became grateful that the Universe presented it to me. Resiliency and the ability to see possibility in all opportunities are great blessings that I found here.

And most importantly, I learned about the power of place. I have a friend who talks about the metaphor of a great vein of life running just beneath the Earth’s surface. Sometimes we come upon physical places that have special significance though we cannot pinpoint the underlying reason for that feeling. She says that at those points, the vein of life emerges for us to grab a hold of and experience an intensity of emotion that we do not find in the course of our everyday lives. The places where the vein emerges makes us feel alive; make us feel connected to one another and at cause with the world around us. Darden has been one of those places for me, and I hope it has been for everyone who has the privilege to call this beautiful place home, even just for a little while. I look forward to returning again and again in the years to come, and I am so excited to see how our lives unfold, intertwine, and connect.