What are you afraid of? How do you move past fear?

I’ve never thought of myself as a fearful person. Sure, butterflies are normal before I speak, and alone on a dark street at night, adrenaline races and I’m particularly watchful. But I’m not afraid as a general rule. Yet, when I joined an estimated 25,000 women and men at the Des Moines Women’s March, I found myself face-to-face with my own fear.

In marching, I came face-to-face with my own fear.

One of the speakers – a 65-year-old lesbian – recalled life for gays and lesbians in the early 70s. “There was a time,” she said. Then she shared the reality of life for homosexuals at that time. A time when homosexuality was classified as a mental illness. A time when gays could be forced to undergo shock or conversion therapy to “cure” them. A time when you could lose your job, or be kicked out – possibly even killed – for being who you were.

The description of the reality of that time hit me like a wrecking ball to the chest. Because I knew it personally.

Facing my own fear

I married for the first time in 1968. Four years later, I learned that my husband was gay. For a variety of reasons, we elected to remain married. To remain married and to present ourselves as a “normal” couple. At least part of my personal decision was influenced by my upbringing when I learned that how things looked to others was a most important consideration.

In choosing to keep quiet, we also chose to don the cloak of secrecy and fear. At any time someone might discover our secret. The ramifications could be many, and none of them looked good. Would he lose his job? Would I lose mine? What would happen to our families? Would we and they be shamed in public, ostracized in church, lose our friends?

Meanwhile, others – mostly on the coasts – were coming out of the closet and out of the shadows. They were marching. Demonstrating. Speaking up and out. They were brave. Maybe they felt fear, but they didn’t let it stop them. Because they stood up, they effected change. Not right away. Not all at once. Not even yet. But bit by bit.

Divorce did not remove the fear

When my husband and I divorced – almost 36 years ago – I thought I’d left that time and that fear behind. Listening to the Women’s March speaker, I realized how grateful I am for the people who marched for change. We’re all better off for people who march.

We’re better because of the suffragettes. We’re better because of the Freedom Riders. We’re better because of LGBTQ activists. We’re better because of activists who believe women should have control of their own bodies. We’re better because of people who will not accept being demeaned, downtrodden, or beaten any more. We’re better for those who put their fear aside and act.

Another woman faces down fear – Mesothelioma

Coincidentally, shortly before I faced down my own fear at the Women’s March, I received an email from Heather Von St. James. Heather is a 10-year survivor of mesothelioma, a cancer that took one of her lungs. Talk about fear. Instead of being ruled by the fear, Heather started “Lung Leavin’ Day.” Every February 2, Lung Leavin’ Day not only marks another year of survival for Heather, but also an opportunity to educate people on mesothelioma – and the value of overcoming fear. Follow any of the marked lengths to read more about Heather’s story.

At the March, I realized I still hold some fear in my core. The March helped solidify my sense that I was done with hiding. It’s time to face fear rather than let fear own me. Everyone had their own reasons for marching. I didn’t realize moving beyond fear was one of mine. Now I know.

To get past fear? Get up and get marching.

So, dear readers, how has fear been a factor in your life? What fears to have? How do you set fear aside?

This is what democracy looks like – Women’s March

Marching to support a cause is one of the hallmarks of our democracy. The suffragettes marched more than 100 years ago to secure the vote for women. Civil rights activists marched in the 1960s to raise awareness of the inequities suffered by African Americans. The LGBT community rose up in the 1970s.

This marcher got to the core of a problem we have in Iowa and nationally – one group trying to force their idea of rights on others.

Achieving human rights is not a one-and-done deal. Each right is fought for. And once achieved, there’s no guarantee you’ll keep those rights. If it were not so, we would not be here in 2017 still marching for those same rights. 

On Saturday, I joined more than 20,000 women, men, and children for the Women’s March in Des Moines. We united in spirit with the millions who marched worldwide in support of a full range of human rights.

It took a while for my friend and I to find each other in the crowd.

The reasons why people marched varied. The messages they carried, equally so.

I’ve been on the political sidelines my whole life. I’ve let others carry the load. This past year, though, I’ve seen how easily rights can be trampled on. How people are marginalized and dismissed. I’ve seen us going back – and not in a good way.

A young boy carried his hope for the march.

I elected to get up off the couch and engage. I didn’t realize what an empowering experience the march would be. Speakers roared into microphones, got us chanting, shared their stories, inspired.

When we finally marched around the Capitol grounds, I was reminded of being the slowest person in a marathon, the one who waits a half hour to even start running. In our case, there were so many people, the first people were back at the starting point before the last people began. 

Marchers wrap the entire Iowa State Capitol grounds.

Participating in one of the fundamental rights of our democracy – the first amendment rights to assembly and free speech – was a powerful rush. Where will this all lead? Time will tell.

When I woke up a couple of days after the march with the words of the State of Iowa motto running through my brain, I knew I was in the right place, doing the right thing.

“Our liberties we prize. Our rights we must maintain.”

Ah, democracy. Did you march? What was your experience? If you didn’t march, what was your reaction?

Word of the year for 2017? – Wonder

Choosing a word of the year is popular. The Oxford Dictionaries chose ‘post-truth’ as their word in 2016, while Merriam-Webster settled on ‘surreal,’ and Dictionary.com tapped ‘xenophobia.’ All  good choices given the year’s events.

A number of my friends choose a word that focuses them for the coming year. Serenity and Mindfulness are some examples. As friends shared their words for the 2017, I wondered how they do it. There are so many words that might apply.

I am frequently in awe of nature. This full rainbow caused me to stand in wonder.

Immediately, I recognized ‘wonder’ as a good word of the year for me. Wonder has many meanings so I am not trapped in one idea for the entire year. And my life circumstances already tell me this year will be full of moments that will cause me to pause.

Wonder encompasses curiosity, amazement, awe.

  • I am in wonder at our granddaughters who bring such joy to our lives.
  • I wonder if our neighbors who raise Percheron horses will let us ride them sometime?
  • I wonder what it will be like to tour the ancient Greek monasteries, to stand in the middle of the 2500-year-old Parthenon, to ask the Oracle at Delphi my own questions?
  • When I travel to Greece, I imagine I’ll be in wonder at finally fulfilling the very first travel desire I ever articulated, in eighth grade when we studied the Greek gods and goddesses, and again in college when I studied Greek theatre.

Wonder leaves room for doubt and uncertainty.

  • I wonder what our country will be like under President Donald Trump?
  • I wonder if any of the agents I pitch my novel to will like it enough to represent me?
  • I wonder what I’ll do if they don’t?
  • Now that I’ve finished the manuscript that occupied my time for two years, I wonder what will rise up as my next project? A question for the Oracle, no?

Wonder encourages emotion excited by what is strange and surprising.

  • Standing in the midst of my prairie, I feel wonder that pioneers could actually cross through miles of tall grass.
  • It is a wonder that I like ouzo. (If I actually said this, it truly would be a wonder. But who knows? I’m open to the possibility.)

Having latched onto Wonder, I imagine I’ll find even more reasons to experience all facets of the word. Having chosen the word, I’ll be reminded to appreciate more deeply each of these moments. An added value to choosing a word.

Do you chose a word of the year? If you have, please share. If you don’t have one but find that Wonder resonates for you, be my guest. I’m sure there’s plenty of wonder around for all of us.

 

Will the real Donald J. Trump please stand up? #WordsMatter

The election outcome has a lot of people wondering what Donald J. Trump as president will be like. The reason: President-elect Trump has taken widely different stances on the same topics, sometimes within hours. I find myself wishing for a return of the 1950s TV game show “To Tell the Truth.”

Which Trump will show up as president?

Which Trump will show up as president?

On “To Tell the Truth,” a panel of four celebrities sought to discern which of a group of contestants had an unusual occupation or had undergone an unusual experience. The two imposters could lie, but the central character was sworn to tell the truth. At the end of the questioning, the moderator said, “Will the real … please stand up?”

In our modern-day version, Trump plays all the characters – those lying and the one telling the truth. We in the public are left trying to guess what’s real.

Here are some examples:

A. Candidate Trump: He said to Hillary Clinton: “If I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation. … Because you’d be in jail.” (Oct. 9, 2016 – Presidential debate)
or
B. President-Elect Trump: “I don’t want to hurt them … They’re good people.” (Nov. 13, 2016 – CBS 60 Minutes Interview)

In the same CBS 60 Minutes interview, this exchange:
A. President-Elect Trump: “We have great generals.”
Lesley Stahl: “You said you knew more than the generals about ISIS.”
B. President-Elect Trump: “Well, I’ll be honest with you, I probably do because look at the job they’ve done. … They haven’t done the job.”

A. President-Elect Trump: On Twitter, “@realDonaldTrump – Just had a very open and successful presidential election. Now professional protesters, incited by the media, are protesting. Very unfair.” (Nov. 10, 2016)
or
B. President-Elect Trump: “@realDonaldTrump – Love the fact that the small groups of protesters last night have passion for our great country. We will all come together and be proud!” (Nov. 10, 2016 – nine hours after first tweet)

A. Candidate Trump: The one who brags about assaulting women, attacks Gold Star parents, calls Latino immigrants murderers and rapists, threatens every person who is a Muslim.

B. President-Elect Trump: “Don’t be afraid. We are going to bring our country back. But certainly, don’t be afraid.” (Read the entire 60 Minutes transcript here.)

So, if the moderator said, “Will the real Donald J. Trump please stand up,” which one would it be? The one who rallied followers and votes around the idea of putting Hillary Clinton in jail or the one who lets her off? The one who praises generals or the egotist who claims he knows better? The one who believes people exercising freedom of speech is unfair or the one who speaks for all Americans?

The proof will be in the actions

As a public relations counselor for 30 years, I reinforced to my clients that their words were important, but equally important was that the words were backed up by credible actions.

So far, Trump appears to say whatever he thinks the audience in front of him wants to hear. Because of that, President Trump has a challenge on his hands.

To bring the country together, he will have to prove to people of color, Muslims, and women that they have nothing to fear. Yet, to satisfy the people who elected him, he needs to fulfill his campaign promises: bring back steel jobs, put Clinton in jail, build the wall, deport millions of immigrants. 

Less than a week after the election, President-Elect Trump began backing off on the wall, on completely dismantling the Affordable Care Act, on mass deportation. Will his supporters stay with him now?

At the same time, Trump has named as one of his closest advisors alt-right Stephen Bannon who promotes anti-Semetic, racist, sexist views. Can Trump really convince people he supports all Americans?

For my part, I’ll be using one of President Ronald Reagan‘s favorite lines: “Trust, but verify.” Ironic that this is a Russian proverb, no?

Along with the rest of the country – and the world – I’ll be watching to see which President stands up.

Words matter. The actions behind the words do, too.

How much does the truth matter? Too little in politics.

Count me among those who were rocked by the vitriol of the presidential campaign and shocked by the outcome. I suggest one of the reasons for public dismay was an inability to believe what we heard. It appeared that putting truth behind the words mattered little to either candidate.

From the earliest days of the campaign, candidates displayed alarming disregard for the truth. This is a common complaint with every election, but the problem crescendoed this year. Each candidate accused the other of lying while simultaneously spouting falsehoods of their own.

Fact Checking the Truth in Claims

Donald J. TrumpAccording to independent fact checker Politifact, 70% of the claims made by Candidate Donald J. Trump were judged Mostly False, False or Pants on Fire false. Only 15% of claims he made were gauged True or Mostly True.

Claims made by Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, were gauged to be Mostly False, False, or Pants on Fire false 26% of the time. Over half (51%) of the claims Clinton made were gauged True or Mostly True.

Hillary ClintonShould Clinton supporters feel smug because their candidate lied less than Trump? Because only a quarter of the things she said were false? No.

Would any of us accept our children lying to us a quarter of the time, let alone 70% of the time? Our spouse? A friend? A business associate?

Maybe I’m bent out of shape over nothing. Do I care that Trump lied when he said he drew bigger crowds than Beyonce and Jay Z? My inclination was to blow it off. Who cares who gets bigger crowds?

But, when Trump said at a campaign rally that President Obama “spent so much time screaming at a protester, and frankly it was a disgrace,” he flat out lied, fabricating a situation, ripping down the President, who had, in fact defended the protester. Meanwhile, Trump had himself shouted down protesters many times. That I care about.

One of the greatest strikes against Hillary Clinton was that the public believed her untrustworthy. Initially, I cut her slack about the emails. I believed what she said. Much unsubstantiated ado about nothing, I thought. When it finally became clear beyond a reasonable doubt that she lied about the emails, I was heart sick.

I should care about all lies. Because they all speak to character. Yet, I made excuses for Clinton just as others made excuses for Trump. We sank into a tar pit this year, apparently willing to accept candidates for whom lying and corruption are standard procedure.

The Impact of Lying

The results of lying are many. A damaged reputation for the speaker. Difficulty going forward, because what can you believe when someone lies about even the smallest things? A disillusioned, disheartened, apathetic, cynical public. Greater distrust in the political system as a whole.

If the candidates don’t care enough to build trust in their audiences by searching out, presenting, and sticking to the truth, how can they expect us to care about them? Yet, apparently, we did.

What can we do?

How do we climb out of the tar pit? I’m trying to figure it out. I know I need to care more at the outset. I need to vet candidates more closely. Speak up. Speak out. Because the weight of our current situation isn’t just on the candidates; it’s on all of us. We will get more of what we accept.

I want to believe what people say. I need to believe what people say. I’m desperate to believe my president. Words matter.

How did you process the ongoing, escalating falsehoods during this presidential election? How much does it bother you that candidates play so fast and loose with words and facts? What do you propose we do about it?

68 years – 68 reasons to be grateful

October 11 is my 68th birthday. I’ve had – am having – a great life. Borrowing another idea from Laurie Buchanan, author of the soon-to-be-released Note to Self, and to recognize the years with which I’ve been blessed, I’m sharing 68 reasons why I’m grateful.

In no particular order, here they are:

  1. More than a house – a home
  2. My logical, practical husband who invariably has whatever I need
  3. My son and the happiness he’s finding in his life
  4. Two delightful granddaughtersCarol & Eliza on Tractor who give me so much joy
  5. Parents who loved me and gave me a solid foundation of values
  6. A lifelong love of education
  7. Hearing devices
  8. Glasses
  9. Living in an area with ready access to great medical care
  10. A positive attitude
  11. Readers who’ve supported my writing – and chosen to write and tell me what my stories meant to them
  12. Book club friends
  13. Bible study friends
  14. Lifelong friends and brand new ones
  15. My sister who’s living and another one I had for 58 wonderful years
  16. Good health
  17. The ability to travel
  18. The trips I’ve taken and the ones I see ahead
  19. Farmers
  20. The change of seasons
  21. My prairie and all the lessons I learn theremonarch in prairie
  22. Birds at the feeders and those in the trees
  23. Cheese
  24. The Percheron horses that pasture adjacent to our back yard
  25. The Internet and Google
  26. Libraries and librarians because Google doesn’t know everything
  27. Good editors
  28. The smell of lilacs
  29. Electricity
  30. More good memories than otherwise
  31. Curiosity
  32. Green trees, green grass, green
  33. Nurses like my sister and her daughter
  34. Teachers
  35. Authors who inspire me
  36. Our service men and women
  37. The police
  38. Summer tomatoes
  39. A deep freeze full of the bounty of our garden
  40. Hostas
  41. My washer and dryer
  42. My hair dresser
  43. A “good stick” at the blood bank
  44. October and the advent of cool weather
  45. April and the return of warm weather
  46. Chocolate chip cookies
  47. Vanilla ice cream
  48. Being ‘old enough
  49. Good health
  50. The ability to walk easily
  51. Colorful sunrisesIowa sunrise
  52. Thunderstorms
  53. Birkenstocks and Chacos
  54. Breathing
  55. All the colors of the rainbow
  56. Music of the 60’s and 70’s
  57. The breadboard my dad made me
  58. The smell of fresh-baked bread
  59. An appreciation for hard work
  60. My nieces and their families
  61. My smart phone
  62. Oakridge Neighborhood and all the places that help individuals, children and families in need achieve a better life
  63. Givers
  64. A good bed
  65. Children laughing
  66. My writing buddies
  67. A wealth of ideas for what comes next
  68. Another birthday

What things are you grateful for today? Leave a note with two or three.

How old do you feel? Time to Reflect.

Recently, I felt the need to journal and reflect. But where to start? I recalled a social media post I read a few months ago that offered a list of questions. As usually happens, though, I couldn’t recall exactly when I read the post or the people involved in the discussion.

However, the list included the kind of questions Laurie Buchanan, a holistic health practitioner and transformational life coach, shares on her blog Tuesdays with Laurie. I took a shot and contacted her.

note-to-self_finalLaurie generously sent a list of 365 questions that form the core of one chapter of her soon-to-be-published book Note to Self. From the book cover:

Note to Self is about offloading emotional baggage – something that’s especially important when we realize that we don’t just pack for one, we pack for seven of our selves – self-preservation, self-gratification, self-definition, self-acceptance, self-expression, self-reflection, and self-knowledge. Each plays a vital role in harmony, overall health, and well-being.

Exploring one question

I chose this question from Laurie’s list: How old do you feel?

To begin, I catalogued my physical aches and pains of the last three years, including how breaking my wrist caused me to go from healthy to  invalid. The transition occurred in my brain, since the wrist healed quickly, and I recovered full movement. The broken wrist became an excuse to exercise less, to question my balance, to move cautiously instead of with confidence, to begin to see myself as “old.”

Understanding I had no legitimate physical reason to feel old, the catalogue led to an exploration of what I’ve done to regain control of my health – from ears to feet to core strength to weight.

All this led to what society and the media have to say about age. What they say someone who’s nearing 70 years can and can’t do. The decidedly mixed societal messages caused me to affirm that how old I feel can be my own decision, not one imposed by others.

So then I journaled about what I want to be able to do with my life. A long list included things like playing with my granddaughters, traveling, hiking, riding bike, gardening, having enough energy to do whatever I feel like doing. All activities associated with good health.

Concluding that barring serious illness, “old” is a state of mind, I meandered into the positive sides of being “old.” I realized I’m Old Enough:

  • to have enjoyed a good long career doing something I loved.
  • to have made some good friends; to know what a friend means, and to value having and keeping them.
  • to have figured out (finally) what I want to do while I’m still able to do it.
  • to have made lots of mistakes, learned from them, and be young enough to make more mistakes, but maybe handle them better now that I’m old enough.
  • to know I’m lucky to be as healthy as I am, to live where I do, to have the life I have.

While feeling old may be a physically-imposed reality, barring that, feeling old appears to be more of a state of mind. I don’t “feel” 68 any more than I “felt” 40 or 17. If I even know that that means. Some comparative measure against others, societal expectations or my own, I suppose.

After pausing to reflect, I realize I don’t feel any particular age.

I feel like me.

The result of reflection

What a journey, Laurie’s question inspired – journaling for three days and returning in thought to the topic repeatedly since. After pausing to reflect, I realize how much of age is perspective. Reflecting reminded me again to be grateful.

Laurie Buchanan, author of "Note to Self"

Laurie Buchanan’s philosophy is “whatever you are not changing, you are choosing.”

If even half of the questions unlock such self discovery, I’ll be journaling not for 365 days but for several years. I pre-ordered Laurie’s book Note to Self and I encourage you to check it out too.

How old do you feel? What impacts your attitude about age? What tools do you use to reflect?

How have you chipped away at glass ceilings?

“When there are no ceilings, the sky’s the limit.” Hillary Clinton

NOTE – This is not a political post, so if Clinton’s name inspires you to rant, take a breath, relax, and hang with me as I muse in other directions.

Chihuly Garden & Glass, Seattle, Washington.

Chihuly Garden & Glass, Seattle, Washington.

The United States made history this week when a major political party, for the first time ever, nominated a woman to run for president. During her acceptance speech, Clinton made the statement above about ceilings, and I could not help but think about my own career and how many ceilings have broken since I entered the workforce in the early 1970s.

Back in 1973 when I joined the Soybean Digest staff as editorial assistant, I didn’t recognize what a major step my boss at the American Soybean Association took when he named me the first female editor of a national ag magazine. There were women home page and recipe editors, but no women editors of ag topics.

Yet, his willingness to push the boundaries only went so far. Each year when Secretary’s Day came around, the men took the (women) secretaries to lunch, and they invited me, too. Each year, I argued that I wasn’t a secretary so I shouldn’t be included. Each year he said I needed to go. Each year, I went along and enjoyed lunch with the other women. Then after lunch, I went back to the office and reimbursed him.

Every job I had in my career trajectory showed the challenge to shifting attitudes and acceptance of women.

As a member of the American Ag Editor’s Association, I participated one year in a panel of ag editors, including a (male) editor from Successful Farming magazine. During the panel discussion, that editor commented that his magazine would never hire a woman in an editorial position because a woman could never know enough about agriculture. At that moment I thought, Hey. I’m sitting right here.

In that moment, I was embarrassed, but also silent. He was completely comfortable saying what he did, and neither I nor anyone else challenged him. That was the time.

The upshot of this story is that nearly 10 years later, that same editor asked me to interview for one of the positions he’d said would never go to a woman at that magazine.

In my early years at CMF&Z (the marketing agency I worked at for 20 years), we pitched for a major national account. The agency knew that the prospective client would have a woman at the table, so it was agreed the agency needed one, too. And they wanted me to be that woman. Cool. Right? But I had specific instructions: Do not say anything.

I must say, I played my role perfectly. When I returned from that pitch, though, I vowed that I would never let myself be put in a position like that again. Nor would I let it happen to anyone who worked with me.

Over time, the attitudes of men at CMF&Z changed. Capable women were hired in account management positions, they led major accounts – including ag accounts, they were successful.

Men had to change their attitudes, but women did, too. Some women at CMF&Z felt that if one woman held an account management position, that was all there could be. Because I was there, they considered the path closed to them. That wasn’t true, of course, but only time could prove that.

I didn’t consider myself as breaking ground – or cracking ceilings – though I see now that I was. So we’ve come a long way, baby. All of us. And I agree with what Clinton said. When we break a ceiling, there’s upside potential for all of us.

What do you say? Have you broken ceilings yourself or helped someone else do it?

Clocks, stoves and life & death coincidences

As a child, I grew up singing a song about a clock that counted the seconds of a man’s life. “My Grandfather’s Clock” – Are you familiar with it? The refrain goes like this:

“Ninety years without slumbering
tick, tock, tick, tock
His life seconds numbering
tick, tock, tick, tock
It stopped, short, never to go again
When the old man died”

I recall this song, which I’d always considered a made-up story, because I’ve been thinking a lot about my mother. Her 100th birthday would have been this month. She lived a full, active life until she passed on nine years ago.

Mom's stove served her faithfully.

Mom’s stove served her faithfully.

On the weekend she died, my husband and I drove to Preston, the small eastern-Iowa town where she lived. We intended to spend the weekend, knock off the list of chores Mom invariably had for us, and return on Sunday afternoon. A typical weekend visit home.

When we walked into the kitchen on Friday afternoon, Mom (age 91) was standing at the stove canning tomatoes. That stove got a lot of use, every day for more than 30 years, since putting meals on the table three times a day was a task Mom thoroughly enjoyed. Because it was so well used, it’s no particular surprise that the stove was on its last legs. In fact, three of the four burners worked intermittently, if at all, and the fourth gave out that day.

Well, my mother couldn’t live without a stove, so we all trooped down to the local hardware store, which also sold major appliances, and picked out a new stove. They delivered it to her house on Saturday morning, in time for Mom to bake an apple crisp and cook lunch. Don’t you love small town Iowa?

That same morning, I convinced Mom to throw out the dish cloth she’d been using because it was worn to threads, held together mostly by the thread she used to sew each new hole closed. With a new stove and a new dish cloth, she was all set.

That afternoon, my husband I drove to a nearby town to finish off the list of chores. As we left, Mom lay down to listen to Rush Limbaugh and take a nap, as she did every afternoon.

When we returned, barely an hour and a half later, we learned from a neighbor that while we were gone, Mom got up to defrost the deep freeze. In the process, she had a stroke. Less than six hours later she was dead.

Past the shock of her sudden passing, I couldn’t help but think about Mom’s stove and her dishcloth. They gave out on the day she died. Just like the Grandfather Clock.

Cosmic coincidence? A mysterious link between animate and inanimate? The workings of my idle mind trying to make sense of life and death? I don’t know. But it was curious, and something I think about.

Have you ever experienced something like this?

You just never know

Fork in the road

The unplanned-for route may be the right road after all.

If you just spent four years in college to become a teacher, would you take a secretarial position instead? I did and found myself on a path loaded with unexpected opportunities.

After graduating in 1972 with a degree in speech & English education, I faced the hard reality that I could not land a full time teaching position. Needing regular income, I did the unexpected – what some probably considered unwise. I took what I could find – a position as editorial assistant at an association magazine, a position that could more accurately have been labeled ‘secretary.’

Recently, I returned to my alma mater, the University of Northern Iowa, to share my career experiences with several classes of creative writing and public relations students. Bright, young people receiving a good education and preparing themselves for jobs in their chosen fields. Just as I did.

After I told the students about my start in a secretarial chair, one young woman asked, “Did you regret taking that secretarial job?”

“I didn’t,” I told her. Not then. Not now. Not at all.

I needed the paycheck, but beyond that, I explained, everything was new to me and an opportunity to learn. I knew nothing about the publishing business and I jumped at the chance. As I took on assignments, I found I had a talent for writing. Then, six months after I started, the man who had been editor for 40 years retired and they gave me his job. Unexpected. Unpredictable. Unbelievable.

New-found skills, industry knowledge and a boatload of connections came with that job. Then my husband pointed me to a Help Wanted Ad for an ‘ag journalist.’ “Sounds like what you do,” he said. I applied.

It turned out to be a position at a small public relations agency. I knew nothing about public relations, but it sounded interesting. I took the job, an entree into another new industry. That position led to one at a larger agency where I worked for 20 years, learning a host of new skills, with emphasis on product marketing, developing messages for clients and teaching them how to deliver those messages, moving up the ladder and finally earning the position of President.

Then I came to Robert Frost’s famous fork in the road  – a time when I could stay on what had become a well known and well respected career path or strike off in the new and unknown direction of creative writing. I took the road less traveled. But I was remarkably well prepared for that road. All those previous experiences ensured I had the skill set not only to write books but also to effectively market them.

In Steve Jobs now-famous commencement speech to Stanford University, he points out that it’s only in retrospect, looking back on life, that we can see the dots and how they all connect. Someone looking at my career path now might think it was all brilliantly planned out. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, I worked hard, took advantage of opportunities, and built my skills. Just as important, I think, was staying open to possibility.

I hope some of the students I spoke with experience – and embrace – the unexpected along their career paths. I hope they are able to look past the job title. Because you just never know. Maybe the real future starts in a secretary’s chair.

Have you had a you-just-never-know experience? Do share.