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The Seed

I had a little chat

With my friend, the seed

And I tried to tell her

That one day she’d be a

zucchini plant.

And you know what she said?

“I don’t think that’s true.

I think I’ll be dead.”

 

“No, no,” I said.

“Here’s how it works.”

And then I explained

That if she goes in the dirt

And gets all covered up

And then watered with rain

She’s sprout right back up

As a new kind of thang.

 

“Ha! “ said the seed.

Oh boy, did she laugh.

“That won’t ever happen.

It will not. It can’t!!

If I go underground

And get covered in dirt,

Only one thing can happen.

It’s this: I’d get hurt.

A tiny old seed

Like me cannot change

From my tiny round shape

Into a new kind of thang.

I’m a seed. That’s my world.

That’s my job. That’s my name.

I live in this package

And I won’t ever change.”

The Seed Laughs At the Notion - Illustration by Adelaide Gilbert

“My seed, my dear seed,”

I said back to her then.

“I wish you could see

That this isn’t the end.

The shape that you’re in

Is not your last form

You won’t stay a seed

In fact, you’ll transform.

You will break apart

And yes, it will hurt

And yes, in the dark

And yes, in the dirt.

But after a while,

Reaching up for the sky

You’ll break through the soil

And come up, alive!

You’ll be greener than ever

You’ll even be brown

You’ll drink up the raindrops

You’ll grow in the ground

Your leaves, they will flutter

And here’s where it’s good:

You won’t just look pretty

You’ll even grow food!

Beautiful vegetables

That animals eat

That people can harvest

And sell in the street

And when it’s all over

You’re not done the deed

You’ll also be growing:

…a hundred more seeds!”

 

When all of my talking

finally came to an end,

I closed up my mouth

and I looked at my friend.

I expected a smile

or maybe a cheer

but instead what I saw

was one tiny tear.

 

I asked her, “What’s wrong?”

“How come you are sad?

That vision of changing —

I thought you’d be glad!”

 

She looked at me then,

Looked me straight in the eye.

And then what she said next,

Made me want to cry.

 

“That story you told me,

Makes me feel alone.

If I’m in the dirt,

I’ll be on my own.”

 

I wanted to challenge,

and try to persuade.

I wanted to tell her:

“Believe in the change!”

Instead I just nodded.

I looked in her face.

I said, “I believe you.

You’re feeling unsafe.

You’re lonely. You’re scared.

You’re all by yourself.

You don’t want to change,

without anyone else.”

 

She nodded and sighed.

Then I sat in the dirt.

“I’m with you,” I told her.

“Loneliness hurts.”

 

We sat there a while,

the two of us then,

Just down in the dirt,

The two of us friends.

It lasted a while,

and neither one talked.

The quietness mattered.

It mattered a lot.

I stayed there beside her,

Not saying a word.

I’d rinse her with raindrops,

and shoo away birds.

And as the days passed,

She started to change,

And yes, a zucchini plant

Finally came.

 

As sunshine was soaking

her speckled green skin,

I thought that I saw

her zucchini face grin.

“I didn’t need speeches,”

said the one who had seeded.

“But someone beside me,

was just what I needed.”

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The Seed, Part 2

When all of my talking

finally came to an end,

I closed up my mouth

and I looked at my friend.

I expected a smile

or maybe a cheer

but instead what I saw

was one tiny tear.

 

I asked her, “What’s wrong?”

“How come you are sad?

That vision of changing —

I thought you’d be glad!”

 

She looked at me then,

Looked me straight in the eye.

And then what she said next,

Made me want to cry.

 

“That story you told me,

Makes me feel alone.

If I’m in the dirt,

I’ll be on my own.”

 

I wanted to challenge,

and try to persuade.

I wanted to tell her:

“Believe in the change!”

Instead I just nodded.

I looked in her face.

I said, “I believe you.

You’re feeling unsafe.

You’re lonely. You’re scared.

You’re all by yourself.

You don’t want to change,

without anyone else.”

 

She nodded and sighed.

Then I sat in the dirt.

“I’m with you,” I told her.

“Loneliness hurts.”

 

We sat there a while,

the two of us then,

Just down in the dirt,

The two of us friends.

It lasted a while,

and neither one talked.

The quietness mattered.

It mattered a lot.

I stayed there beside her,

Not saying a word.

I’d rinse her with raindrops,

and shoo away birds.

And as the days passed,

She started to change,

And yes, a zucchini plant

Finally came.

 

As sunshine was soaking

her speckled green skin,

I thought that I saw

her zucchini face grin.

“I didn’t need speeches,”

said the one who had seeded.

“But someone beside me,

was just what I needed.”

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Star Reports

Last summer, after my daughter Rosalie was born, I was able to take three months off as paternity leave. It’s the longest chunk of time I’ve ever taken off work, in my career — whether for vacation, leave or unemployment.

During that time, there’s one new development that was invented that has had a lovely impact: the Star Report.

First, some background. During that summer, moments would emerge where the behaviour of our kids would devolve into chaotic nonsense. After a while, the options for discipline kind of disappear: asking nicely doesn’t change things, threatening doesn’t do anything, and still, the behaviour persists.

What to do? Around that time, Kendra and I had been reading a book. (I think it was How to Talk So Kids Will Listen, and Listen So Kids Will Talk) (Sidenote: It worked so effectively that we have kids that are constant narrators/announcers/commentators of their everyday existence; we sarcastically/secretly wish there was a follow-up; How To Listen So Kids Will Be Quiet)

Anyway, somewhere in Whatever Book We Were Reading emphasized a principle about kids being more likely to change when they receive affirmation for positive behaviour, as opposed to only corrective discipline for negative behaviour. It makes sense. As a full-on grown-up, if somebody tells me I’m doing great, I’m likely to repeat that behaviour. If sometime tells me I’ve done poorly, I’ll be stunned, ruminate on the negative feedback, then write them off as a jerk, before eventually coming to the realization they were right, years later, and attempt to change, only to find myself wishing I could have asked some clarifying questions, but they’re gone now, oh well. (The positive feedback loop is a whole lot healthier.)

We had a pad of post-it notes in the kitchen that were in the shape of a star. One night, after a particularly horrific episode of desperately rude behaviour, I decided to try this out. We were all out of discipline. Could we swim upstream and try to nudge them towards some positive behaviour?

I picked one for Benjamin. I wrote a letter B at the peak of the star. I said: “Today, you…” and then I described some healthy, inspiring, positive interactions I had witnessed. Then I wrote: “I see a boy who is…” and I wrote some flowery, complimentary descriptions of him. I did the same for Addie. An “A” at the top, what I witnessed, and what I see.

For example: “Addie: Today, you helped Benjamin with his colouring, helped Theodore with his jacket when we asked, and helped entertain Rosie during her diaper change! When I see that, I see a person who is kind, attentive and funny.”

The kids loved it. They slapped the post-its up on a blank wall in our kitchen. And then I did it again the next day. And the next. And the next.

Every day, I would write something new I was noticing about their positive behaviours, affirming and complimenting the heck out of these kiddos. They’d move the star-shaped post-its up onto the blank dark-blue wall, until a veritable constellation of affirmations appeared in the night sky.

Eventually, one of them asked, “Can you also tell us things we need to work on?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, we know we’re not always making good choices. Maybe you could tell us things we can do better at.”

Humbling. Amazing. What an ask. Yes.

I added a last line: “Work on.” It would be things like, “No freak-outs” (when emotions would get the best of us.) Or, “Stop thumb-sucking” when a certain oldest-child one-of-us was having a hard time releasing old habits.

The Star Reports became such a hit, that if they were forgotten, the kids would ask for them, and during breakfast-creation I’d have to scribble out a quick retrospective on the day prior.

On a good day, once the kids were in bed, I’d take a breath in the kitchen, pull out the pad of star-shaped post-its, and consider what I saw in the day that would be worth complimenting. It was a practice of gratitude that helped me, too, as a parent, appreciate my kids more. And seeing those stars constellate (my verb) across the wall? It became evidence to us all that the kids were maturing, developing, growing — and being awesome.

I don’t do the Star Reports presently. Mostly because we’ve all kinda forgotten.

But you don’t have to. If you have kiddos, you might be somebody who is more consistent, more organized, filled with more follow-through than I. If you don’t have kids, you might be someone who wants to write a Star Report for yourself. (I dare you.)

Today, both Addie and Ben were recognized at a school assembly for the kindness they exhibit to their fellow classmates. It was a genuinely proud moment. The school has one theme a month, and each month, for each theme, they choose two kids per class who exemplify the theme. This month’s theme was kindness, and unbeknownst to themselves or each other, they both received awards from their teachers for their models of kindness to their classmates.

I’m not silly enough to claim that it’s parenting choices that make these amazing kiddos kind: their selves, their personalities, their own gorgeous humanness did that. The true stars to report on her are Addie and Ben themselves.

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What the seed doesn’t know

Addie and Ben were really excited that I had typed up the words to The Seed. They wanted to help illustrate the story, and asked for print-outs so they could get to work.

In Ben’s version of the storybook, I was really curious to notice the role of seed in the drawings: she just kept getting sadder and sadder as the story went on. As the narrator opined about the upcoming transformation, trying to encourage our seed, the seed just kept saying, “I don’t know. I still don’t know. Still.”

The narrator was oblivious, grandstanding insensitively, tuned-out to the seed’s pain.

The seed still doesn't know

In a meeting today, I found myself being a little like that narrator. I opined grandly about change and transformation, potential and possibility, while the body language in the room seemed to be growing more and more tired, diminished, reduced…

I’m reminded that change, no matter how powerful, still requires incredible amounts of work, loneliness, pain and effort. A seed being buried in the ground will explode, in total loneliness. A team working towards change will relentlessly give and give and give, and barely be able to notice their own change, even as it occurs.

What transformation needs is accompaniment. Alongside-ness. Withness. Companionship. Beside-ness. Incarnation. Co-suffering.

The narrator in the seed story needs to hush up, and climb down into the dirt with the seed, and just rest there.

It reminds me of the Brene Brown explainer on empathy:

Sharing this idea with Kendra tonight, she likened it to the idea of birth. People tell you birth stories, describing a phenomenon that until you’ve experienced it, simply makes no sense. The idea of what labour is simply doesn’t translate for the person who hasn’t experienced it. “Your body will know when to push?” What does that mean?

It may become true that birth will happen. That a seed will change. An organization will transform. It may be true that a certain degree of encouragement and inspiration can help. But without empathy to tune in to the lonely, uncertain reality of those change moments, all that talk can sound a little, well, mean.

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I dream of a world made right

I dream of a world made right
By the power of love, not the force of might
Reconciled, and shining bright —
and we could go get it tonight.

But it will never happen,
because everybody says,
that it will never happen.
So it stays this way.

How can you say it’s impossible?
When you haven’t tried it at all?
How can you call it an obstacle
When nothing impedes you at all?

How can you say you’re exhausted when
You haven’t even awoke?
How can you say that it’s hopeless when
You’re the one stealing the hope?

 

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The Seed, Part 1

When my kids ask about death — and Ben and Addie did, yesterday morning…about the afterlife, too, and heaven…I simply say: “I don’t know.”

Yesterday, I said, “I think something unexpected is going to happen, but it’s hard for me to imagine. If you were a seed, do you think you would believe that could become a tree?”

We have joked about this before. I even wrote a poem/story about it, that I made up for the kids one day.

The Seed

I had a little chat

With my friend, the seed

And I tried to tell her

That one day she’d be a 

zucchini plant.

And you know what she said?

“I don’t think that’s true.

I think I’ll be dead.”

 

“No, no,” I said.

“Here’s how it works.”

And then I explained

That if she goes in the dirt

And gets all covered up

And then watered with rain

She’s sprout right back up

As a new kind of thang.

 

“Ha! “ said the seed.

Oh boy, did she laugh.

“That won’t ever happen.

It will not. It can’t!!

If I go underground

And get covered in dirt,

Only one thing can happen.

It’s this: I’d get hurt.

A tiny old seed

Like me cannot change

From my tiny round shape

Into a new kind of thang.

I’m a seed. That’s my world.

That’s my job. That’s my name.

I live in this package

And I won’t ever change.”

 

“My seed, my dear seed,”

I said back to her then.

“I wish you could see

That this isn’t the end.

The shape that you’re in

Is not your last form

You won’t stay a seed

In fact, you’ll transform.

You will break apart

And yes, it will hurt

And yes, in the dark

And yes, in the dirt.

But after a while,

Reaching up for the sky

You’ll break through the soil

And come up, alive!

You’ll be greener than ever

You’ll even be brown

You’ll drink up the raindrops

You’ll grow in the ground

Your leaves, they will flutter

And here’s where it’s good:

You won’t just look pretty

You’ll even grow food!

Beautiful vegetables

That animals eat

That people can harvest

And sell in the street

And when it’s all over

You’re not done the deed

You’ll also be growing:

…a hundred more seeds!”

 

I don’t quote know how to finish that poem/story, yet, but I’ve got a few ideas.

Addie thinks the seed should get eaten by a mouse.

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Learning so far

I’ve been doing this Create Daily project for 4 weeks now. 28 posts have been generated. 4 email summaries. Here are a few unsorted thoughts and observations:

  • I’m writing far more than any reader can keep up with. People who open the email may choose to read one essay, if they can make the time.
    • That’s okay, because the project is primarily to stimulate my own writing-and-processing muscles. Readers are an added bonus.
    • That’s also sad, because I sense I’m writing high-quality content a lot of the time (not every post). I need to ask myself what else I might like to do with this, besides the weekly email, to see about sharing it.
      • I can’t quite discern my own motivation for the “sadness” I mention above. I am curious if that’s me acting out of ego, a desire for validation, and to be seen…or if there’s a sense of stepping into a mix of “gifting” and “calling” that is also connected with some kind of reach or at least resonance.
        • Interesting that in the above statement, I say the phrase ‘my own motivation for the sadness.’ What is that? Sadness has no motivation. Sadness just is. I’ve written about that. Why would I expect “sadness” to have a “motivation”?
          • Anyway, I’m writing here, and saying it’s for personal reasons, and it is. And also, I seem to be harbouring an intention for some kind of influence.
            • I also really want to remind myself that the only potential influence I wish to have is one that bids the world-at-large to choose authenticity, love and the stepping-into-one’s-own calling.
              • If you’re reading this, we’ve hit now on my deepest hope: That you yourself would check in with yourself, your gifts, your genius, and ask if you are creating the space necessary for you to live that out. Don’t squelch. Don’t evade. Don’t defer. You are the only person with your unique point of view, your own unique position of influence, and you may be capable of bringing more love and possibility to the world than you’ve been acknowledging. It may be “small,” but it is in that sphere of influence that you get to reside. YOU are only one that is where you are. You are here for this. Don’t step back.
                • You’re doing amazing.
  • I am willing to let the “create daily” project slide when needed, if I need to give myself the grace. Things that might supersede it? Caring for my family. Being tired. The needs we have (where “needs” = sleep, love, well-being) can be prioritized over the goals we have.
  • Somebody this week said I was a “machine!” On some days, I do feel somewhat like a juggernaut: like I have been holding back for years, with so many unshared ideas and uncreated stories. Like this must be my calling: the daily telling of realtime stories of discoveries, the saying yes to creating new. And on other days, it just feels a little tiring, somewhat mundane, and painfully embarrassing, to be constantly throwing myself under this bus, instead of resting in the quietness of anonymity and not-sharing.
  • I will make mistakes during this process. I have so many lessons to learn. I am learning lessons at a breakneck speed. I have 10 years worth of lessons to learn. All the years where I was “supposed” to be creating daily — where instead I spent the time working to meet others’ expectations, putting on a show instead of creating authentically, or otherwise simply ignoring this calling — I now have to dogpile/avalanche into new lessons.
    • Lessons learned include:
      • Please ask people’s permission before you quote them on your blog.
      • Please create instead of making excuses.
      • Please meet your obligations and duties before creating
      • But don’t not create.
      • When you experience drastic and overwhelming senses of shame, ask yourself to explore the root cause of that shame, instead of simply deleting the blog or deleting the habit.
      • You’re doing a good thing. It’s core to your calling. It’s worth investing in. “The world needs people who have come alive.”
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Gross. Domestic. Love.

After my talk at the conference, a fellow speaker named Steve and I were chatting.  I had quoted Marshall Rosenberg on my slides, with the quote: “Any anger is a tragic expression of an unmet need.”

He had snapped a picture of the slide and texted it to his wife. “This is our kids,” he texted. He was saying: “It’s crazy; our kids can go from zero to freak-out in two seconds, and it’s exactly that: a need that wasn’t met.

“Right?” I said. “And we’re learning it all alongside our kids. Is it any easier for us, even as adults?” I asked. “I mean, were you taught how to be aware of your needs and express them, in your upbringing?”

Steve shook his head emphatically no. “That was not us, not in our house,” he said.  The sense of emotional literacy, a fluency in naming our own emotions, didn’t come from our families of origin in this generation, or the generation before.

I gestured at the towers of Atlanta’s skyline visible through the windows behind Steve. “None of these founders of any of these organizations would have experienced it either in their upbringings. 90 years ago, each of them would have experienced distance from their own parents, and had no tools for expressing their needs meaningfully.” Love would not have been expressed verbally — an unnecessary luxury or indulgence, a forgotten accessory. And naming their own inner realities and needs? Unlikely.

And thus, the great drama plays out. A sea of individuals, bereft of true sense of belonging, unable to express their own deeply felt needs, pushing forward to Make Their Mark On The World. Questing to prove their value and worth, fishing for affection from others through their greatness. Skyscrapers rise and companies are born, being cemented into loveless corporations, being officialized into loveless systems, all born out of a great quest to be seen.

I had used the Rosenberg quote on my slides as a way of saying: until we get conversant in naming our needs, we’ll keep using work as a way to get our needs met unconsciously.

Steve and I shared a bitter laugh at this, as we connected the dots: this was us, too.

We had both been “lured” as speakers to this conference by a flattery-wielding conference organizer, who had convinced us we were too valuable to say no. We each left our families, who needed us, to demonstrate our worth on the stage instead. Every job has trade-offs, and occasional travel is part of mine — but had I blinked long enough to ask whether I was seeking affirmation elsewhere instead of investing up-close in my own family? Five days away makes a big impact. Was this one a worthwhile investment? Had we checked in with ourselves to be sure of our own motivations and needs?

The ability to become conversant in the language of our inner lives, to name our needs, and more importantly, to access the help needed to address them is still so recently developed.  From mental health supports, to gender equality that allows parents to meaningfully support one another, to having workplaces and cultures that encourage and support some aspect of this interpersonal investment — that’s still emerging.

The expectation of “love” being foremost isn’t new to the species, but the tools for supporting each other in this quest are a little fresher to the west. It’s thrilling to think of the transformation that awaits our organizations, cities, countries, families and selves as we gain a greater awareness of this. And it’s tragic to think of how far we have to go.

When I think of my conversation in the coffee-shop and the work ahead of us in true, deep, systemic reconciliation, I am even more convinced that love must be the forefront of our motivations and focuses. The daily practice in our closest relationship. The metric we evaluate, the factor we’re accountable to. The grace we extend, the vision we hold up, the ambition we pursue. If it’s not, we’re only going to be recreating the same challenges all over again.

Standing on the train platform to take MARTA on the red line back to the airport earlier today, I thought of my friend Tony’s comment about the meaninglessness of trying to pursue happiness. And yet, some writers would elevate happiness as a worthy aim, some countries even going so far as to measure Gross Domestic Happiness alongside Gross Domestic Product.

I wondered, what about Gross Domestic Love? It made me smile as it brought to mind the kind of squirm-inducing affection between parents that makes kids say “ew.” Gross, domestic, love: a national pursuit and household project.

During the final session of the conference, a video was played of a young man from Scotland who had been through the country’s foster care system since he was an infant. He now has a goal of reforming that experience, to help “bring love to the system.”

It was one of the first times that the word “love” showed up at the conference as clearly as that, spoken by a Scottish youth with a heavy brogue, a tragic story and a huge ambition.

I’m on my way back from Atlanta now, on the plane. I’ll be tired when I get home, but Kendra will be much more so. Solo parenting for this many days, on the night-shift with a nursing child, on the early-morning shift with the same kid rising at 4:45…really, solo parenting for any amount of time — that’s expensive, exhausting work.

Here is my work: returning home, helping up-close-and-personal with the humans for whom I am most directly responsible. Bringing love and attention to the person I married, the tiny humans we’re raising together. Showing my own ramshackle real-life emotions and processing our realities together, getting conversant in the language of naming our needs while deepening the sense of love between us.

It’s empire-building. It’s as big as founding a company. As massive as launching a non-profit. As worthy as creating a hotel chain. As impressive as leading a country. Very clearly and easily stated, much more significant than speaking at a conference in Atlanta.

Part two: Designing love-based systems

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The invisible fight

“If you give your life to a cause in which you believe and if it is right and just, and if your life comes to an end as a result of this, your life could not have been spent in a more redemptive way. I think that is what my husband has done.” – Coretta Scott King

I walked through the National Civil and Human Rights Museum in Atlanta today. It’s a full-sensory experience that immerses you in the sounds of conflict, the sights of the fight, the shifts in human culture, and helps you encounter a living sense of history.

With headphones on, sitting on a diner stool at a replica diner bar table, I experienced an audio simulation of enduring a lunch counter protest.

I sat with my hands on the counter, as the audio created the sonic experience of men surrounding me. They called me names, and spoke right into my ear, husky and venomous voices spitting at me from all sides. I could hear someone at the diner get dragged away, feet kicking on the tile floor while they attacked him, all the while the voices closest to me screamed at me, daring me to step up and fight back. They kicked my chair. They kicked it again. They roared at me to get up. The whole thing shook and rattled; haptic feedback on the museum’s stool was making it jolt, as violence erupted all around me.

I opened my eyes as the audio ended and saw my own face in the mirror.

I rose, recovering my breath, and stepped to the wall of 400 mugshots of willfully-arrested Freedom Riders, people who had allowed themselves to get taken to jail: faces of white people and black alike, joining the protest.

I stepped into a scene resembling Birmingham Jail, with Martin Luther King writing letters in the very spirit of the Apostle Paul, challenging his church to not give up.

To the March on Washington, where millions arrived and King delivered his extemporaneous “I have a dream” speech.

Into the riots that ensued, and the bombings: a young girl with my own daughter’s name was killed in a church bombing in the following days. A stained glass window featuring Addie Mae, one of the victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing

Into the assassination of King, at the Lorraine Hotel. The black metal stairs we walked up in the museum mimicked the same railings where he stood when he was shot, as neon from a replica hotel sign flashed. MLK Jr. on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel

Into a room simulating the church where his funeral took place, and we see that this man, who has inspired so much, and caused so much change, was simply gone, leaving his children and wife behind.

Did it end in victory?

Laws changed, yes, and changed the reality of many for the better. And yet from my encounter with Tony yesterday, the long-term effects of a long-term reality have yet to make their way to some communities that are still experiencing the long-lasting effects of trauma.

We might get the impression that in our world, that the fight is over. The Civil Rights movement has ended, and these events are in the past. But that was just the visible fight, the one with a spokesperson. The invisible fight is still taking place every day.

* * *

In the basement of the museum was a display of Martin Luther King Jr.’s letters, journals and plans. After the civil rights movement, he became involved in something called the Poor People’s Campaign. That movement has a 2020 version, organizing for June 20, 2020: a national call for moral renewal.

What other efforts might be happening in my own community and country that represent grassroots efforts to help create change? What might I participate in, or even start? How can my church play a meaningful role, as the network of churches did in MLK’s day? What might it look like to be a citizen working towards healthy change for today’s injustices?

I don’t know the answer, but I remain more open than ever to continue listening and partnering.

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A conversation with Tony in Atlanta

At the coffee shop where I found lunch today, I accidentally caught the eye of a person sitting alone, by the fireplace, with a tea. I chirped a greeting as I went to my table, and he mumbled a response that I didn’t quite hear. “Pardon?” I said.

“Just trying to stay strong, y’know?”

I wasn’t sure if I did know. I was just coming off having finished delivering a talk, and was about to eat some kind of vegetarian sandwich at this Caribou Coffee location.

“Do you ever wonder why you’re here?” he asked. “I mean, what’s the point, really?”

I wondered if this was a suicide-intervention type of conversation and moved closer to make sure I could understand his intent.

“Oh, yeah, come have a seat,” he said, and I joined him by the fireplace on a decorative stump.

He was a black man in his 20s, overweight and wearing a grey, fraying “Jasper Canada” zip-up over an all-black wardrobe. His eyes were weary and his posture slumped.

“Do you ever just feel so tired of it all? Just so fatigued?”

I wondered if he was referring to health challenges, like an iron deficiency or mono that had gone undetected — that would be certainly less urgent than a suicide risk, but still important. I kept listening.

“I mean, why can’t I just catch a break? I try so hard, and every where I turn, it’s just dead-ends. Don’t people understand I’m trying to make good choices? Like, how one minor decision they make ends up have major impact on a person’s life, and they don’t see it.”

It was clear there was a whole life story rippling under the surface of this man. I glanced over at my spinach-and-something sandwich at the table where I had intended to sit. I had been planning to check some tweets from the conference. This conversation had a little more urgency to it.

“People say to me, Here’s what you gotta do, just avoid people who give you trouble, and you’ll be happy, and I say, for what reason? Show me one person who is actually happy. I see people who supposedly have everything, and guess what. There is nobody who is happy.”

He sighed, rolling his eyes in despair and tiredness.

“And besides, everywhere, people are making selfish, greedy decisions, and those decisions affect somebody else — and what if that person doesn’t have a safe, healthy family to go back to? Do they even imagine how much their decision affects that other person?”

I was trying to imagine what he was referring to. I wanted to hear more to understand this. I grabbed my sandwich and kept listening.

“I was adopted. My mom couldn’t take care of me because she was a schizophrenic and a drug user. My dad was a thug and didn’t want nothing to do with me. So I was adopted by my grandmother. I found out later I have a sister, who I still have never met. I tried living with my other sister to save money, but she started asking me for money I didn’t have. The whole reason I’m staying with her is to save money. Just when I had finally saved enough money to buy a car to get out of here, I had to give it to her. ”

He looked at me straight-on.

“So many of my relatives are in jail. So many of my relatives are dead. These are the paths available to me. How do you get by in a world that just doesn’t let you get ahead? It just really fucks you up.”

Then he asked, “What’s your answer for why the world is as fucked up as it is?”

I looked at him. Here I am, a short-term visitor to Atlanta, Georgia, from a small city in Canada. A white guy, from comparative privilege. I don’t have answers for this guy.

I pointed at his jacket and told him I was from Canada — he hadn’t realized he was wearing Canada swag, and laughed.

I told him I was here for a conference, and that I was really grateful for him sharing his story. It sounds like he’s going through a lot.

I wanted him to know that, as best I could tell, his lived reality is because of generations of dysfunctional systems ignoring his voice and story.

I shared a concept I had just shared in my talk: that our systems of work and government were designed more than 100 years ago. We are now at a turning point where people are starting to recognize our systems need to be redesigned — our systems were created before the word “empathy” was even coined in English. That we are the people who can make choices to centre these redesigns on actual love and collaboration and teamwork, to set up the next generations for healthier systems.  That it starts by restoring love and dialogue and empathy to the relationships where we find ourselves. That he can do that today in his world, just as we are doing with each other now, in hearing each other’s stories. And I admitted that a long-term view like that doesn’t necessarily help a person like him, today, living under the crushing weight of a hundred years of broken systems.

Though I worried my words would seem hopeless and empty, he seemed to connect with them. He was with me, really with me, as I went through all that. For the first time in our conversation, he had a smile — as I labelled the trauma and terror of his lived reality as being broken and in need of redesign, he smiled.

But his response surprised me still:

“Somebody should communicate that properly to the children born into situations like mine,” he said. “We’re born, and we’re told that if we work hard we can get ahead. But it’s not true.When we work hard, we only find dead ends. Nobody tells us that we’re living in a broken system that needs to be changed. Somebody should notify the children.”

He is not being sarcastic about this. He is saying that the American Dream is advertised in such a culture-soaking way that those who are suffering within its dysfunction still don’t recognize that the system is broken.

I’ll repeat: They don’t believe the system is broken. They believe they are.

My new friend was asking:

Why isn’t this working for me?

Why can’t I get ahead?

Why are my relatives in jail?

Why is this so hard?

“Do you ever get tired like this?”

“What’s it like in Canada?” he asked. “How do you cope?”

I shook my head, at a loss for words.

I haltingly explained that we only have 35 million people in Canada, spread over more land mass than the US. I share that I was born into relative privilege, and that I had the benefit of a family that took good care of me. I wanted to talk about the suffering of indigenous people, but even then, I didn’t even enough first-hand experience to relate to my new friend’s reality.

I asked him his name — he said I could call him Tony.

I asked him what kind of work he wanted to get into.

He shook his head, as if I had asked the wrong question.

“People keep throwing themselves into jobs all around me,” he said, “anything to make money. But I want to ask different questions. I want to ask what kind of future we’re creating. I want to make sure what I’m working for doesn’t just keep creating the same fucked-up system we’re living in. I want to ask better questions. I want to make sure we’re working towards the right future.”

In the words he was speaking, he may not have known this, but he was cutting-edge. All those themes are on the lips of people doing the work of systems change: That’s Cascad.AI, that’s the Centre for Humane Tech. That’s the new movements for restorative justice. That’s the emergent future we talk about. That’s strategy. That’s inclusive design.

I wanted to respond to him in a way that would be explicitly encouraging as I could muster; though I was no longer picking up suicide-risk, Tony was clearly a person living within a daily reality that was highly discouraging. I didn’t know when the next person would be to speak something directly affirming and encouraging to him, so I decided to be it.

“Tony,” I said. “The way you are processing the world is brilliant.”

“You are a clear and amazing communicator. Please don’t give up. Don’t give up. I have no idea what somebody in a position like mine can do, but people need to hear your story and perspectives.”

“Oh, there’s something you can do alright,” he says.

I paused, not really sure if I could commit to much more than just this conversation. I did a time check and glanced across the street at the hotel where the conference was soon to resume.

Tony continued.

“When you find yourself the boss of something, or starting your own company, using your education to get yourself in a position of power, hire me.”

“Because it never works that way,” he says. “A person becomes the boss, gets in charge, and their greed takes over. They take shortcuts. They see a person like me and say, ‘I can’t hire him, I don’t like him…'”

“Yeah, right,” he said, exasperated. “You didn’t even get to know me!”

I thought back to my talk at the conference an hour prior, where I had said: “The goal isn’t just to prove that we as creators can produce great work. We need to create space to draw out the best contributions of all of us.”

All of us.

Can you imagine? If we were serious about co-creative practices that create the space for all, what would it really look like? If we were serious about inclusivity, diversity, and accessibility, what would it look like to hire Tony and train his curious, thoughtful mind and communicative, sensitive spirit to become a strategist and facilitator? To work with him on themes of citizen-centric government?

The time came for me to head back to the conference. Tony asked for nothing from me, and we exchanged only stories, not even contact information. As a visiting Canadian, I can’t hire Tony. But I can share his story here, in the hopes it could challenge us all to consider overlooked people and stories we can welcome and incorporate into our practices, to co-design systems that work for the next generation.