Lean Sideways

Swan

4/23/2013

This is how I like to remember it now, so many years later:

I am six and in as deep as I dare. I dive through filtered hot summer sun to check the shadows of clouds on a peeling, aqua-blue canvas below. A push of water to my right abruptly breaks my focus. I turn to see a girl much like me gliding past with big effort, on the wave of small brown arms and the legs of a lopsided kick.

She is precariously close to the abyss.

I hold my breath as she spins to look me straight on.

Her fish-like eyes do not speak, but I hear challenge, clearly.  

A moment later, she breaks jail, sweeping under the rope and into the deep end.

I do not have enough breath in me to think. Without adequate time to consider, I plunge in, sweeping my own brown arms and longer legs to follow her taunting kick to the other side.

It was a small moment, really. Why it sticks with me is this: I would not have crossed into the deep end of the pool had she not bumped into me and dared me to follow.

She caused me to exceed my brink, to cut the bounds where my comfort still touched the shallow. She set me adrift in the big, blue world, perilously close to the drain which lie below the 3-meter diving board, poised to haunt and swish in swimmers, at its whim, extracting them elsewhere, as simple as that.

And I swam.  

Fear of that drain kept me captive on the shallow side of the rope on all previous occasions. In that safe zone, I perfected somersaults where my head reassuringly scraped bottom. I practiced hand stands where my toes still peeked above surface. I dove to the shallow left field spying pennies more easily on the short side of the pool. 

On that day when I bumped into the bravest and strongest of girls, I followed her lead before I had time to think otherwise.

I thought of this incident in the days following the death of Margaret Thatcher and in the wake of the conversational hullaballoo stirred by Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In.”

Having had little experience in the world of corporate board rooms and having seen 10 Downing Street only from a respectable distance of a little ways down and across the street, what popped into my mind was something that happened to me when I was six. In the midst of discussion about whether we do or do not like strong women and the perpetual need for women to lean in and lead, I remembered a little girl who tugged bravery out of me.

I remember her as being one of the first–in a list now a life long–of many females that led me on my way.  

I swam in the draft of other girls and women in the years to follow. My mentors were not Margarets or Sheryls, but I trailed plenty of strong women as they steered me right. And whether they delivered their message with kindness or grace or tough-minded zeal, they prodded me to go past the rope, they handed me courage when I was being sucked under and they gave me confidence with their gifts of attention.

I owe much of my life’s good moments to other women.

But I must say, and I suspect you might agree, we women can be very, very good critics.

We debate the worthiness of the differing roles we women choose and we compare the merit of the varied walks we women make.  We measure women who stay at home against those women who work, we compare women in the ranks with women who make it to the top, we consider women with children as different from women without children, and we measure ourselves, sometimes cruelly, by peering into the mirrors of other women. 

With Ms. Sandberg’s book, we might now measure women who “lean in” versus women who don’t.  She rightly encourages stick-to-it-ness and big effort while discouraging women’s tendency to hold back in board rooms or in response to big challenges. Women, she says, are caught in a catch-22: they can best eliminate external barriers (such as corporate culture and social policy) by achieving leadership roles—but until those barriers are gone, women can’t get into those roles in the first place. She calls it the “ultimate chicken-and-egg” situation. “Both sides are right. They are equally important. I am encouraging women to address the chicken, but I fully support those who are focusing on the egg.”

All good points in our continuing discussion.

But may I lean in to make one extra point? 

Shouldn’t we give more careful consideration to what exactly it is we are leaning into?

Given the collective angst in our world, is it wise to lean into tables around which status and strength is measured primarily in terms of power, competition, domination, growth and acquisition?  

What if we women lean toward balancing the table?  Why not use our time and effort and debate to shift our measure of success so that the big arrow that gauges our worth points much more in the direction of character, nurturing, wisdom and caring?

Women are half of the world and mother to the other half, after all.

I clearly hear the challenge in her fish-like eyes.

 Stairway

“It has always seemed strange to me……the things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first, they love the produce of the second.”

 —John Steinbeck, Cannery Row

I am adding one more very important link which refers to a book I learned about after I posted this:

I’ve just ordered the book 🙂 .  I think it sounds like it will add a lot to this conversation!

And if you missed the last two most beautiful photos at Through the Lens of We, here they are:

Flash and Flash Again

Simply Needed