The reading level for this article is Novice
From my window seat — the plane aloft in the deepening blue of evening — I watched the lights below. Some lights seemed to sway like Japanese lanterns. Others flickered like luminarias. There must be some wind down there, I thought. The wind was shaking the tree branches, parsing the light. I could almost hear the frame-by-frame ticking of an old high school projector.
There were cars, tiny cars, with forward-looking beams stretching out for some kind of certainty. Farther out, on the edges of town, there were the new suburban geometric clusters of lights. Their symmetry seemed designed for my from-the-plane perspective.
And even farther out, I could see the small houses of country folks. When I go driving through late-night Texas, my eyes are drawn to those simple white frame houses with porch lights (usually bare bulbs) that are a strange shade of yellow. Some nights as I drive, I see women standing by their kitchen sinks. And there are these lights. There was a time that I might have called these kitchen-sink lights “mother lights.” When I was a kid in suburban Houston, most evenings at around 7 I could always find a mom standing at the kitchen sink, framed by a curtainless window. The light was there, and in its glow you might have been able to make out some facial features if she looked up from the dishes. Some nights, I would see the mother of a friend, with her kitchen-sink light turned off, just staring out at the family’s empty backyard. For all I knew then, it might have been a moment of despair. In the light of all I know now, it might have been a moment of complete “in-this-world-ness.”
Where I lived, in a Houston suburb next to one of America’s first shopping malls, there was a story about lights. One dark night, years earlier, a pilot was struggling to control his malfunctioning plane. In his communications with the airport tower, he made it clear that he was going to crash. Death was a certainty. All he wanted to do was find a dark piece of land and steer clear of the house lights below. (Would I have had such presence of mind, not thinking about the straitened gate of certain, painful death, but about the lights below that I must spare?) The plane fiercely resisted the pilot’s noble intentions. But, in the end, somehow he found that dark piece of land, land that used to be a rice farm, and it welcomed him to her bosom. In the place where he died, a plaque and a pin oak tree honor him.
I have this gift. Sometimes it is a heavy one that makes my knees feel wooden and my legs heavy. Sometimes it is an inspiring one. I have a gift for imagining the other. As gifts go, mine is not the most obvious, for sure. Nevertheless, it is there, like an old familiar within the house that is me.
This gift makes me a better marketer, and it certainly makes me a better writer. When I sit down with clients and listen awhile, it isn’t hard for me to imagine their customers, and who might become their customers. If this sounds mystical, I can assure you that it is — in just the same way that there is an irreducible something that opens you when you have a truly genuine conversation.
You know the kind of conversation I’m talking about. It starts simply. Then two hours have gone by, but it couldn’t have been two hours, could it? Maybe it was a conversation — like a few I had in college — that was a preface to a romance. And now, years and years later, it’s the conversation that you wish had been continued. Details of kisses and what exactly constituted a “break with faith” have long since lost their clear outlines. But the jazz on the car radio and the give-and-take, intertwining thoughts about Martin Buber or Walker Percy or Michael Polanyi or Homer or Hawthorne — these endure.
Of course, business conversations are very different. We are not comfortable with chaos. We crave agendas. We want to speak and display ourselves. It is important that everyone know, by the time of the last PowerPoint slide, just who is the brightest person in the room. We hope that our business lives will be apollonian, purged of inconsistencies, positive, and predictable.
And there is that undeniable thing we call “productivity.” Management’s question — “Is this productive?” — is the sword dangled above our every business conversation. (Recently, I sat in a meeting with seven corporate managers. It was later characterized by one brilliant man as unproductive. He’d come to the meeting with a sense that a particular “train” — an important corporate project — had left the station without his counsel or approval. From what I observed, the meeting had been neither good nor bad. It was what it was: a chance to gather information and build consensus. However, what the meeting clearly lacked was a way to salve the man’s smarting ego.)
Just below the surface of our posturing and declamations, there lies a better, far more intriguing, far more valuable flow. It is a meandering river, like “the to-and-fro-ness” of Thelonious Monk on the car radio and Buber’s I and It, and the chance for as long as we breathe that the Thou might find her way into our communion, unbidden and unexpected.
You don’t believe me, I know. There is no such conversation that could be officially blessed in the workplace. We must check our spirits at the factory gate. And even if such a conversation could happen, what could possibly be its product? How will we ever launch our new “end-to-end enterprise wisdom portal solution” if we make room for that sort of unorganized, unproductive babble? Yet I would argue that we must, as best we can, always make such room.
Make room for the silly, for it is also the holy. Make room for the surprising connection. Make room for those ideas you might otherwise leave in the shadows or blocked at the margins. Make room for the entirety of a lived life, rather than just those parts you would have others see. Because, ironically enough, the goal is best reached and realized by meandering.
I was 17 years old. Mine was the smallest and the messiest room in the house. I’d flick on my bedroom light, and the crickets in the backyard, hiding in the cool St. Augustine grass, would stop their singing. I’d flick the light off, and they’d resume. On, silence. Off, singing. I theorized that crickets were unusually attuned to changes in light. (Not a big theory, I grant you.) One night, I walked through our backyard with my flashlight off, intent on an experiment. The “mother light” was on, although Mom wasn’t in the kitchen window. I was getting closer to the cricket chorale, which liked to assemble near our next-door neighbor’s wooden fence. As I made my careful approach, the crickets suddenly stopped singing.
I had a knack for sneaking up on human beings and other creatures. The flashlight was turned off. They couldn’t have heard me. It must have been that, somehow, just my presence changed the light.