Sunday, February 24, 2008

Dana Meadows' 7th Death Anniversary

January 20th was the death anniversary of Donella (Dana) Meadows. She was an internationally recognized scholar and environmentalist. She co-authored The Limits to Growth and Beyond the Limits, among others. She received a Pugh Fellowship and a MacArthur Genius Grant. Her columns on environmental issues, sustainability and systems thinking made the important ideas in those fields of study/public policy accessible to wide audiences. For a period of time, we collaborated closely and then, for reasons that seem trivial in retrospect, we stopped. After years of not meeting , face to face, circumstances brought us back together and we were considering how we might collaborate once again. Soon afterwards, Dana died.

Though I am not a Buddhist, I have adopted the Buddhist custom of remembering some death anniversaries. Here is a favorite quote from one of Dana's columns that I have posted in my kitchen. It seems appropriate in a post-holiday season that has witnessed a death in my own family and in the families of three close colleagues and friends.

Life and Death on a Farm
Dana Meadows, November 1986

You don’t have to live on a farm very long before you come to terms with life and death, with all the Novembers when you kill last spring’s lambs and start next spring’s lambs. It is not that you become hard or unfeeling; rather you become accepting. You see life and death as a cycle or a continuum. You see that deaths are necessary for the balance of the farm, so that the ratios of rams and ewes and sheep and pastures will be right. You know that there will be beautiful meat to feed people, that not only the soil but all of nature turns death into new life, that in spite of all the death in the world, life persists. The whole process takes on a mysterious beauty and dignity. November, with its pervasive death isn’t the exciting high of April when the lambs are born and the daffodils bloom, but it’s the serene time of preparation for April; April couldn’t happen without it.

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Sunday, February 17, 2008

The weight of the world means nothing to me

This poem, entitled “Bird,” was written by my sister, Brook Maher. She sent it to me earlier in the week.

I am a being with plumage fair
I scan the sea, I slice the air
I fill with music when I speak
I carry offerings in my beak
I seize the breeze, I ride the gale
So light, I’d barely tip a scale
The weight of the world means nothing to me.

The envy of more solid beasts
I dine on seed and berry feasts
I find joy in the least of things
I travel wide with outstretched wings
My cheerful eye is bright and beady
I herald fortune to the needy.
The weight of the world means nothing to me.

My feet were never made to plod
So fleet be I by grace of God
Whose sunlight warms my naked wings
Which soar above the heads of kings
So grounded by their crowns and thrones
Where grave deeds meet with frowns and moans,
The weight of the world means nothing to me.

I bathe in dust and there I’ll rest
When time has stilled my feathered breast
No stone shall mark my passage here
No funeral pyre, no jeweled bier.
Where human souls may hope to soar
I have already gone before
The weight of the world means nothing to me.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Introducing AU's new President, Neil Kerwin

American University devoted five days of last week to celebrating the inauguration of our new President, Neil Kerwin. The story of how this ‘native son’ rose to AU’s highest office, after having matriculated as an undergraduate, was told and retold, as he appeared at event after event. Here is my introduction, from an event during an inauguration week day devoted to ‘Teaching and Learning.’ that the Center for Teaching Excellence hosted.

Opening our conversation today is President Neil Kerwin, whose inauguration we celebrate this week. Now I’m not going to give a traditional introduction of our new President. You have and/or will hear this on several occasiona this week. instead. I want to quote from what I wrote for CTE’s Newsletter, Arete, which means excellence, when I heard that Neil had been chosen - I happened to be working at a research center in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

My first reaction was that Neil’s journey from first-year student to President is a remarkable saga that will appeal to prospective students and their parents. The trustees decision also affirmed his contributions, perhaps not fully appreciated, to raising AU’s academic profile, both externally and internally.

But naming a new president is not about rewarding past services, however meritorious. It is about looking to the future. Having recently completed Chapter 3 - “Level 5 Leadership” - in Jim Colllins’ best selling management book. From Good to Great, I was reassured by the author’s findings. His profile of good to great leaders, bore a surprising resemblance to Neil Kerwin. Collins writes, "Ten of eleven good to great CEOs came from inside the company.  The comparison companies turned to outsiders with six times greater frequency - yet they failed to produce sustained great results. (p. 32). "...Level 5 leaders employ a paradoxical mix of personal humility and professional will... They are ambitious to be sure, but ambitious first and foremost for the company, not themselves.” (p. 21)

CTE looks forward to working with faculty colleagues and President-elect Kerwin in the coming year and the years ahead. I am optimistic that a transition “from good to great” may be in our future.

The planet did not stop spinning

n many sad events - perhaps not all - there are useful lessons. My father’s death called me away from the university and separated me from emails for the better part of two weeks. Life went on. At American University, the committed, talented Center for Teaching Excellence staff conducted workshops, kept computer assisted classes functioning smoothly, planned events, attended meetings and dealt with the budget. In Sri Lanka, the International Centre for Ethnic staggered through a crisis and coped, despite the fact that most pleas for input from me were refused or postponed. Some individuals survived despite the fact that their requests for appointments with me were ignored. Others continued on their daily rounds without benefit of the emails that I could not answer.

Retrospectively, this could be viewed as sobering - did my absence really make so little difference? It could be viewed as empowering - when I was absent, others learned that they could do what needed to be done without me, perhaps even more effectively. It could be viewed as liberating - I have the freedom to choose when, how and to what degree I will make a difference on this planet. In the areas to which I choose not to attend the planet will, nonetheless, not stop spinning.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Commemoration and celebration

We held the memorial service for my father on January 276th. It was, as it should be, a commemoration and celebration of a good life, well lived. More than thirty family members gathered from points as far distant as California and Florida. Mot were blood relatives. The service was after the manner of Friends (Quakers) It began with a period of silence - followed by speaking. Three of my father’s four children spoke. One did not. One granddaughter sang; father had enjoyed her singing. One of my sisters, the wit of the family recited a poem of the sort that my father often wrote.

We had two dinners, one on the day before the service, another the day afterwards. They were convivial and fun. On Sunday morning, a diminished group of us gathered for breakfast at the Hilton Garden Hotel before going our separate ways - to Washington DC, Florida, California, Singapore, Salt Lake City.

“Isn’t it sad that it has taken a death to bring us all together,” several remarked. “We should do this more often.” Probably we won’t.

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