Empty Walls

That the new year, and the resulting rush for new beginnings in the form of diets, exercise regimes, and other resolutions begins on January 1st is an accident of the calendar. Anyone who has lived through 12 years of elementary and secondary education in this country, plus any additional college or graduate school education, knows that the new year and it’s assorted new beginnings actually starts with the new school year.

Our school system jumps the Labor Day gun and starts today, in the still oppressively humid heat of August. Yellow busses were already clogging the morning streets with their trial runs. Today, busses are joined by cars of parents who drive their children, and of teenagers who drive themselves to school. My ten minute summer drive to work has morphed into a full 30 minutes behind the wheel. I get to listen to 20 more minutes of our classical music radio station, but lose 20 minutes of morning harp practice.

I am readying for my own new beginnings.  I will be retiring in 6 weeks. But before there can be new beginnings, there must be endings.  So today I started to clear off my cubicle walls and bulletin board. I’ve needed some tangible, exterior evidence of my upcoming changes and new beginnings to come. My soon-to-be blank walls and bulletin board will be a moment-by-moment reminder that this cubicle is no longer home, and that this place is no longer where I belong.

 I can best describe my work cubicle as a three-dimensional collage that I step into every morning. African violets are blooming under the always-on fluorescent lights. Rocks and crystals brought to me from friends’ trips across the world are strewn on my file cabinet. A collection of stuffed polar bear toys given to me by coworkers sit on a shelf above my computer monitor. Framed photos of past and present dogs and cats cover a corner of my desk. And every vertical surface is papered with thirty years of assorted cartoons, quotes, pictures of polar bears, poems, photographs of my favorite places, Dilbert and Non Sequitur cartoons, and the best of what gets passed around on the internet. All of these scraps of paper have helped me laugh, stay sane, and remember what is important, throughout a career that was too often deadly serious, surreal, and in these last months, inane.

I’m taping all these relics of my working life into their very own journal. In my new life, whatever it may be, I don’t think I’ll need to see them every day. Nor do I have a place to put them.  But neither am I ready to toss my paper companions into the recycling bin. These little scraps of paper have traveled with me from office to office and job to job for far too long to abandon them now. They are tattered and worn, with frayed edges, yellowed tape and multiple push-pin holes documenting their many moves. All still hold memories, and some bit of wisdom that helped me survive and thrive through all my years of working in public mental health programs.

These are my three favorite wall quotes that I’ve taped into the new journal. From Idi Amin, the former military dictator and President of Uganda:    “Sometimes people mistake the way I talk for what I am thinking.”

From the actor Peter Ustinov:  “I regard myself as an optimist. An optimist is a person who knows how sad a place the world can be. The pessimist is one who is forever finding out.”

And finally, one last bit of wisdom, the paper yellowed and frayed from its many moves, from the journal Zero to Three:

“What has become critical to me occurs in the moment of interaction. It is more important to entertain the questions, “Were you kind, compassionate, and honest in that moment of interaction? Are you respected for being a decent human being, one-on-one?” These are fundamental to the relationships we have with one another. . .”

None of this wisdom was to be found in any of the management or organizational development fads I survived. Over the course of my career I’ve been stalked by One-Minute Managers, sat through endless Quality Circles, had my Total Quality assessed, and my work improved by Process Improvement Teams. I’ve searched for Who Moved My Cheese, caught fish toys from the Pike’s Place Fish Market, worked with no direction on Self-Directed Work teams, and been Managed for Results. No one, from any of these methods of organization development, could manage to simply say what these three pieces of paper have reminded me for the last thirty years:  Say what you mean and mean what you say. Stay hopeful despite all the sadness in the world. At the end of the day, look in the mirror and ask yourself, “Was I a decent human being today?”

I wish I could draw some unique and witty conclusion from these reflections, wish that I could sum up what my work means to me now, as I prepare to leave it.  Instead, my brain feels about as blank as the walls I am emptying. And I wonder, after I walk out of these doors for the last time, how will I be remembered? Did I say what was in my heart? Did I do what I said I would do? Did I help someone find hope in the midst of darkness?  Will I be remembered as a kind, compassionate, honest, and decent human being? Will the lives I’ve touched be better off for my having touched them?

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