Author Archives: Nancy Winfrey

The Hall of Fears

I think everyone is born with some instinctive fear–of falling, of the dark, of speaking in public, and/or of the words “Some Assembly Required.” I’m personally afraid of big machinery–pipes, cranks, dials and grease. Big wheels and fan belts. Maybe it was all the hydraulic equipment my engineering father showed us when we were young (read “family vacation”). At least I’m old enough now to say “no” to tours and museums that involve big machines and not apologize for it.

Louisa May Alcott is famous for saying “I’m not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.” I’ve been driving a car for 36 years, but I’m still afraid to drive in a blinding rain storm- the kind where the wipers on the highest speed don’t keep the windshield clear, and you’re lucky to see the red taillights of the car right in front of you on the highway. But I get her point. I’d probably say “I don’t mind being afraid, for I am learning how to sail my ship.” Feeling fear is just a part of life.

Probably the more debilitating fears are the irrational ones that keep us from living our fullest lives. We all have some of those, right? I found this great exercise in a book called Life is a Verb by Patti Digh.  Try this: create your own Hall of Fears (picture something at the state fair, without an exorbitant entrance fee). Set the kitchen timer for three minutes and write down everything you can think of that creeps you out. Things you avoid. Things that are scary. Keep going until you hear the timer “ding.” Next read over the list and notice which fears actually keep you safe, and which ones keep you small. Circle the ones that inhibit you, that keep you from doing something you’d really like to do. For the most part, fear is actually a learned behavior, so think about how and where you learned the fears that you’ve circled. Finally, pick one fear and spend just five minutes writing a short children’s story about unlearning that fear. How would you teach a child not to be controlled by that fear?

That will give you something to stew about for the rest of the day. I’m sure Louisa May Alcott would agree that application is always the hardest part.

Leading Means Going First

“Everything in Girl Scouting is based on the Girl Scout Promise and Law. The Girl Scout Law includes many of the principles and values common to most faiths. Thus, while a secular organization, Girl Scouts has, since the movement began, encouraged girls to take spiritual journeys via their faiths’ religious recognitions.”

If you’ve ever looked into the “My Promise, My Faith” pin on the GSUSA website, you’ve seen that text above in the introduction to the recognition process. To earn the pin, a girl must make connections between her faith and the Girl Scout Promise and Law. As a leader or mentor you might wonder how to bring that connection process into a conversation, a meeting or, for that matter, your own life.

Faith is a major organizing principle in our lives; it is the source from which we derive meaning and inform our major life choices. Faith doesn’t require a religious belief system, although it often does. You might explain your view in terms of Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Zen, Indigenous or Earth Based Religions, Humanism, New Age Spirituality, a General Ethic of Care, etc. There are many ways to explore the essential questions of life.

The first step in guiding a girl to answer her own questions is to have invested in the answer to your own. And to connect your beliefs to Girl Scouting–Your Promise and Your Faith–is a learning experience that is well worth the time of quiet reflection that is required. Unfortunately, you won’t get a pin, but your ability to lead will be enhanced by the fact that you’re guiding a girl in a process you have experienced yourself.

Here is a suggestion: start with the Girl Scout Promise, and think through what each line means in your own words, and in your daily life. Print out the attached worksheet to get started. And please share what you learned making connections.

A Better Place

I was sitting in the airport the other day with my glasses on and a book in my lap but I was too doggone tired to read. I was daydreaming about that giant Boeing 777 airplane outside the window. Some lucky people were settling into their seats for a flight to Paris, or Barcelona, or some other beautiful place in the world. For some reason, this led me to think about “making the world a better place.” When it’s all said and done we want each girl, in some way, to be her best self and contribute to making this world better. Maybe that means saying “no” to friends who are cheating, gossiping or selling prescription drugs at school. Maybe that means saying “yes” to the college major she really wants instead of the program her mother prefers. Maybe that means being the first female president.

I think that how, when or why we say “yes” or “no” is a process of discovering our “voice,” or our true identity. Even though a girl grows and changes, and her environment changes, there are a few things that remain constant, meaningful and particular to her. She has a voice, a presence. When her voice is heard it has the dual effect of reinforcing that identity while uniquely affecting the people and processes around her.

That, you might think, is a lovely way to think about a girl’s identity. Let me ask you this: have you heard your own voice lately? Does your “yes” come out with tightness in your gut that says, “I don’t really want to do that”? Is your “no” a bit conflicted because a small feeling in your heart says, “go ahead and give it a try”?

This gets me to thinking that perhaps the first step to making the world a better place in general is to make my world a better place for me; to show up in an authentic way. To connect who I am with what I do. To speak what is true for me and make an effort to see my visions through. When what I believe is consistent with what I do, my voice has a quality that enriches my parenting, my work, my volunteering, my learning, my relationships…my world. Since I share this world with you, our voices together might sound like a chorus of intentional living. Who needs to fly away to find a beautiful place in the world when there is beauty right here in my own backyard?

Well, the truth is, I’d still like to go to Paris.

Why Change?

I have a ChapStick habit. Over the years I’ve changed from glossy, to all natural, to tinted, to medicated. I’ve even used different brands but never gone out with naked lips. That would feel funny to me, and according to the advertising professionals it would also be unhealthy, unattractive, and affect my quality of life. So I’m in! I love my ChapStick.

Suppose I was suddenly, and without consultation, deprived of my ChapStick. This is no laughing matter, because as Mark Twain says, “Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time.” Even if it’s for a good reason, abrupt change is hard! And I can’t think of any good reason to give up my ChapStick. But what if it wasn’t my decision?

It’s the same with organizational change. Moving from familiar tasks, procedures or policies to new ways of doing your job is a process that takes time. Have you asked any of these questions in the last five years: Why do we have to change? Why are these the right changes? Is this organization capable of handling the changes? What will the organization do to help me through the changes?

Or you can always feel free to look around for yourself. The important thing is to learn ways to change habitual actions in your own life, and then bring that knowledge and skill to the organization for collective change. It’s a life skill, really, and one that our girls, our families and our neighborhoods need to practice in order to enjoy a healthy quality of life. And that new shade of ChapStick- Hibiscus- doesn’t hurt, either!

Go With The Flow

Have you looked at the underside of your elbow lately? You might want to have a look, because the other day I noticed a thing there. And the next day the thing was bigger. Of course I was leaving town in two days and I pictured the thing growing to the size of a watermelon, and then exploding in public. I’ll call Dr. Forest, I thought to myself, and make an appointment for tomorrow. He can poke the thing, get the stuff out and wrap me up in no time (hope you are following all that medical jargon). Unfortunately, Dr. Forest was not available So, I proceeded to self-diagnose (thanks to my friends at Google) bursitis on the underside of my elbow. Doesn’t look like I’ll need to amputate, but chances are I’ll favor my elbow for the rest of my life.

Great. That’s just lovely. The thing is here to stay.

Then while I was out of town my husband emailed me that he and Sophie the beagle were enjoying the Wendy’s dollar menu. For three days they enjoyed the Wendy’s dollar menu. “You mean Sophie got to lick the wrappers?” I asked, to which he replied, as if it were perfectly normal, “Well, no. We were out of dog food and we both went to the drive through window for dinner.” For three days.

Great. That’s just lovely. The dog who is allergic to beef (imagine!) is going to be an itchy, scratching mess by the time I get home.

Unpleasant, unexpected events can make me feel annoyed. Correction- I choose to respond with annoyance. As if any one of them would be the end of the world as we know it…. The dog eats a Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger. (For three days). But still, I have to choose my reaction.

I love this little line by John O’Donohue, the Celtic philosopher and poet:

I would love to live like a river flows,

carried by the surprise of its own unfolding.

He added the title Fluent to that a little line. Fluent, as in easy, graceful, or smooth. I would love to live an easy, graceful life, too. I would love to be delighted at the unfolding of my day, graciously accepting what comes my way. It’s my choice to go with the flow or not. So tell me, how do you make those choices? How do you live a gracious life?

Are You Listening?

In his book, The Lost Art of Listening, Michael Nichols says that effective listening requires attention, appreciation, and affirmation. Though listening may be silent, it should never be passive. However, it’s interesting how often times it is difficult to fully pay attention. It takes effort to focus, and stay focused, on the person who is talking. Appreciation generally has to do with the listener’s frame of reference–do I really care about this person and what they have to say? The truth is, if I am to affirm what they share with me, I need to pay attention and care about the details and their feelings about the details.

Sometimes it’s easier and quicker to offer advice. If we’re sure of ourselves we might say, “If you take my advice, you will surely solve your problem, if you take my advice but fail to solve your problem, you didn’t try hard enough,or if you fail to take my advice, I did the best I could.” This way, no matter how things turn out, we’re covered. Maybe that explains why we often feel that “no one really sees us, hears us, or understands us.” How can we understand when instead of listening deeply, we rush to repair each other?

When you open up about your life you don’t necessarily want to be fixed. You may simply want to be seen and heard. The best thing I can do is give you my undivided attention, thank you for being honest, and acknowledge, or affirm the validity of your experience or feelings. This takes time, energy and patience. It seems like we tend to seek safety in abstraction, sharing our opinions, ideas and beliefs, instead of learning about ourselves and each other. But when we speak and listen from the heart, we find common bonds in the shared details of the human journey.

Learning By Doing

Have you ever thought of “learning by doing” as a process? It’s certainly not just an activity that we plan for girls and say, “Now this is learning by doing,” only to wrap it up right at 4:00pm in time for the meeting to end. If learning by doing is, in fact, a process, then what are we doing along the way in order to get it right? Are we taking little detours, making mistakes, adjusting, tweaking and laughing at ourselves? How about getting frustrated, asking for help, giving up or feeling proud?

If I’m the adult watching the clock I may be more concerned about punctuality than process. I can finish up the last of a Brownie cooking project more easily than I can motivate a second grader to learn to finish by cleaning after the project is complete. I can hardly blame her because how many times have I tried to lose 10 pounds and not quite finished? In her world, cleaning up a cooking mess is just as hard as going to the gym regularly in mine. Maybe if I think of it all as a process I’ll be more patient with both of us.

What helps you keep going in the learning process when it isn’t fun anymore, but you still need to finish? How does that influence the way you facilitate the learning process for girls? I’d like to hear from you.

Sit Down and Breathe

Have you ever noticed that thoughts arise in your mind as if they have a life of their own? They string together into stories that we repeat, embellish and then act upon. Sometimes they are gone as quickly as they come, and other times we just can’t seem to get them out of our head. But they are just thoughts- not who we are- and not necessarily truth, or even factual.

One way to picture all those mental gymnastics is to view the process of thinking as a water fall, a continual cascading of thought. To reflect on what’s going on we need to go behind, or beyond our thinking, much the way you might find a vantage point in a depression behind a waterfall. We still see and hear the water, but we are out of the torrent.

The next time you feel a sense of frustration, of something being missing or not quite right, turn inward just as an experiment. See if you can capture the energy of that very moment. Instead of picking up a magazine or going shopping, calling a friend or looking for something to eat, take a moment for yourself. Don’t feed into, or react to, your mental impulses, your flow of thoughts. Sit down and breathe. Don’t look for anything. Don’t even think to yourself, “I’m going inward now.” Just sit. Give yourself the time and space to let thinking dissipate and open into wonder.

Life isn’t about where you’re going as much as it is about being where you are. Except for thinking about the future or the past, the only real power we have to do anything is in the present. The past is, for the most part, behind us, and we cannot alter it. The future is, by definition, ahead of us. We can act in the present moment based on what we have learned in the past, realizing that our present action will in turn influence the future. But all we have to really work with is today.

We need to go nose to nose with pain, confusion, frustration or loss if that is dominating our thinking at the present moment. But be kind to yourself. It isn’t just ourselves that we are discovering. To the degree that we are willing to look into our own thinking, our own hearts, we gain a measure of openness and kindness that we are able to extend to each other.