my mother’s shoes

From May 2019.

Last Thursday morning I gave a talk to staff about my “leadership journey”. HR asked me to do it nearly a year ago when they were planning this year’s course catalogue and I’d given a hasty yes, thinking I had a whole year to figure out what to say. And then I never thought about it again. Until two weeks ago. When I realized it was less than two weeks away.

I got it together though. I wrote some decent notes & crafted a few Powerpoint slides. And, I stood before them, in my mother’s shoes — a stylish and comfy pair of leather ankle boots with heels that take my “ish” from 5’ 2” to at least 5’ 4” — and told them the career lessons I’ve carried forward from each of the places I’ve worked and how they’ve shaped the ‘accidental leader’ I have always considered myself to be.

I talked about the importance of owning your mistakes, organizational storytelling, seeking out mentors, and believing those fabulous people who come along, not often enough, who see things in you that you don’t yet see in yourself. I talked about all the times in my career that someone has taken a chance on me, and all of the times I’ve felt like an imposter in the boardroom. I talked about the value of mistakes I’ve made, moving up, and down, the corporate ladder — and above all, doing my best to always be true to myself in career decisions. And, I talked about how my career seemed to be showing me, more and more often, how courage is a muscle — and the more you flex that muscle, the stronger it becomes.

And then, as I stood there in my mother’s shoes, I segued into something I hadn’t ever necessarily expected to share so blatantly with a staff audience. 

“So, here I am in 2012. Remember 2012? When everyone thought the Mayans had unwittingly predicted the end of the world because their calendar ended that year? Well, they got it wrong. But the world as I knew it ended that year. After 20+ years of marriage, I came out. I’m not telling you that because I think it was a career lesson. I actually had stroked it out of this presentation 10 minutes ago. But I think I’m telling you that because I want you to see how the lessons that you take from your career overlap and apply to your personal life — and vice versa. All of those things — the hard and the wonderful — combine to make you the person you will become. And ultimately, the leader you will become.”

Or, something like that.

I’m in no way closeted at work. Or, anywhere else in the world. I talk about my story and my experience openly whenever I’m asked. But I had never before volunteered it to a room full of staff who had mostly signed up to hear about the path I followed to get where I am on the corporate ladder. 

It was emotional. And, much harder than I thought it would be. I’m still not entirely sure why I did it other than to say that it felt right in the moment. And, if courage is a muscle, then so is vulnerability. And that’s equally important to my human workout. At any rate, it was enough to push me from having stroked that part of my journey out in my notes, minutes before I gave the speech, to inserting it back in off the cuff. 

The room was silent. And, there I stood, in my mother’s shoes, thinking: Holy. Shit. This feels okay.

Later, after everyone had left, I sat at one of the tables, looking out toward Duke Street, past the gardens that will soon be in bloom, and said a silent thank you for the moment. 

Only tonight, on my way home from work, did the irony of me being there in that moment, in my mother’s shoes, strike me. My coming out was so hard on my mom. I have been caught up in the memories of that time so often lately, in the months since her passing, trying to make sense of how she felt. And, while I know that she didn’t have to fully understand me to love me, I also know that it’s an incredibly difficult thing not to be fully understood by the one person on the planet that you want to understand you more than any other.

I have always believed that heaven is a place of great empathy and greater understanding. And I hope, all the time, that it’s a place that lets my mother see things in a way that allows her to hold the world without her in it. That maybe she can see and understand things now that she couldn’t have with that limited earthly view we all share. And, I hope, that somewhere in the air between the living, she is standing — in my shoes — and marvelling at all the love and grace this life has given me.

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