Author

David Harkins

The Journey

We were on our way to somewhere. Traveling in a large RV through the countryside, we watched the sun dip below the horizon and the bright greens of summer slowly become shades of black. I looked down to see the gas gauge floating at half-full and I had not seen a gas station for miles.

Not knowing how far we were from where we were going, I turned to dad and said, “I’m going to stop at the next gas station I see to fill up. I’m a little worried about running out of gas.” Dad seemed lost in thought, but he turned to me and the familiar gaze indicated to me he hadn’t understood, or maybe had not heard what I had said.

“I’m going to stop for gas, soon,” I repeated louder. Dad nodded and smiled as if to acknowledge he had heard what I said this time.

A few miles later a white clapboard store appeared on the left. Several cars were on the lot in front and a neon “open” sign pierced the dusk. As I got closer I could see two old gasoline pumps in front of the store under a small canopy just large enough to protect the pumps, and maybe a customer pumping gas, from the day’s weather.

“I’m going to stop here, dad.” Dad just stared ahead and said nothing as I pulled in next to the pumps. I climbed down from the RV, opened the tank cap, pulled the hose off the pump, flipped the pump switch and began refueling.

It was dark now. The one fluorescent blub flickering above the pumps and dim glow from the store window was barely enough light for me to see the gallon markers slowly roll by as I refilled the tank. The steady click of the pump gave way to the soft sounds of frogs and insects calling into the night. I took a deep breath and pulled in the warm, sweet air of summer in the country. There were hundreds of lightning bugs in the meadow across the road and I wondered if I could catch enough in a jar to light my way home as I did when I was a boy.

The pump shut off with a loud click and pulled me back into the moment.

“It sure is a nice night,” I called up to dad in the RV as I replaced the hose. “The air smells so fresh and clean.” Dad didn’t respond. I was sure he hadn’t heard me.

I went into the store to pay for the gasoline and as I was walking out, I saw dad get into the driver’s seat. I ran toward RV, calling out for him to wait. Without ever looking at me, he started the RV, pulled away from the pumps and onto the road, and then drove off in the direction we were going. As I watched him drive away, I wondered when he would remember we were traveling together.

I pulled the phone from my pocket and brought up his contact card. I’ll call his cell phone or text him, I thought, before I remembered he probably wouldn’t hear his phone and if he did, he wouldn’t answer it while he was driving.  I put the phone back in my pocket and looked up to find the lights at the store and the flickering fluorescent above the pumps were off.

As my eyes to readjusted to the darkness, I noticed the night was clear and the sky was full of the brightest stars. The lightning bugs in the meadow across the road were gone and the frogs and insects were now silent. I walked back to the store and knocked on the door.

A voice answered from the other side, “Yeah? Who is it!?”

“I’m David Harkins. I was your last customer,” I answer. “My dad just drove off without me and….”

Cutting me off the voice said, “What do you want me to do about it?”

I didn’t know. If I could only remember where we were going, maybe I could catch up with dad somehow. Or maybe I could get him a message.

“Nothing, I suppose…,” I said. I turned around, sat down on the stoop and closed my eyes .  I wondered where I would sleep that night, whether dad would remember to come back for me, and how I would get home if he did not. As I thought about my situation in the silence of the night, I heard music in the distance.

The music grew gradually louder, like a car approaching with its windows down and the radio playing at its highest volume. A wave of relief flowed down my body. Dad must have remembered me! I wouldn’t be stuck tonight. I was so glad to know dad would drive again because I didn’t know where I was going! The music got louder and when it felt in front of me, I slowly opened my eyes.

Soft morning sunlight streamed through my bedroom windows. I took a deep breath, and rolled over to turn off the music now blasting from my alarm clock.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad. The journey’s a little different without you.

Fragile Souls

Two fragile souls, forged
and tempered,
strong and weak in places, different
still
old fractures feel
mysteriously
aligned.

Spontaneous uncertainty, both
overwhelms
and calms, a heart
racing, a brain
endeavors
constraint.

An arm taken, finally
heat felt through
a gloved-hand held, a fire
starts
gentle first kisses, shy
smiles grow, plans
made
again.

Quiet intensity, held
close breaks free
again, overwhelms
a cautious heart,
breathe
deep and slow, dancing
with time
present, two
fragile
souls.

© 2014, David L. Harkins

Thank You, Greg Henshall

Greg Henshall
Greg Henshall (Circa 1983)
Photo by Brandon Walsh

I have always been interested in photography and many of the earliest pictures of me show me with a camera. Whether it was the Kodak Duaflex III that belonged to my dad, or the Instamatic-X35 I received as a gift just before my 6th grade safety patrol trip, I loved the idea that I could capture a single moment in time. It came as no surprise to my dad, then, when I told him the summer of 1978 that I wanted a 35mm film camera.  I had saved some money, but not quite the $800 I needed for a camera and a couple for lenses.

I had morning paper route then and dad decided it would be a good time to teach me about finances. He offered to co-sign a one-year loan for me at his company’s credit union so I could buy the camera equipment. Before I made the investment, though, he wanted me to learn more about photography from someone who worked in the field. He asked a photographer he worked with at Union Carbide to come by the house to give me a primer on photography and equipment.

It wasn’t long before Greg Henshall showed up with several camera bags filled with different cameras and lenses. Greg was in late 20’s, loved people, loved photography, and was close enough to my age that dad thought I might listen to what he had to say. I liked him immediately and not just because we shared a common passion. Instead, I liked him because he was genuinely interested in me, a gangling teenager looking for a way to express himself.

Greg spent a few hours with me that night, teaching me the basics of cameras and offering his thoughts on what kind of camera I should buy.  Once I bought a camera Greg taught me the technical aspects of photography—apertures, shutter speed, film speed.  A few years later, he was kind enough to let me tag along on a few of his freelance jobs—mostly weddings and portraits—where he taught me the importance of composition, view point, anticipating the action, and the importance of “waiting for just the right moment” to release the shutter.

In high school I was a photographer on the yearbook staff and at Greg’s encouragement began taking portraits of friends to practice technique. He loaned me lights and other equipment whenever I needed them, taught me darkroom basics, and gave me tips as I prepared to teach my first photography class for Adult Community Education when I was just seventeen. I took my first real job with WBPY-TV as a staff photographer in 1983 and Greg was there again to critique my work, offering suggestions on where and how to improve my technique. When I opened my own studio and processing lab in 1985, Greg was my first lab client. And when I burned-out on photography as a profession in 1988, it was Greg who encouraged me to stick with it as a hobby. That was the one piece of advice from Greg I did not follow; I put down my camera and did not pick it up with any enthusiasm again for nearly twenty years.

I lost track of Greg when I moved from Charleston in 1995, but we reconnected through social media in February this year. Through our new Facebook connection, I learned his wife had died in 2000 and he had retired from Union Carbide about the same time.  I understand he took assignments with FEMA documenting disasters for a while and more recently, he had become a “man about town” photographing events and activities for the local newspapers and his many, many, friends. I ran into him in Charleston over the summer and the first thing he said to me was, “I’m glad to see you picked up your camera again. I enjoy seeing your photographs on Facebook.” We briefly caught up, and then he moved on to take another photograph. He was always anticipating the next moment. Greg never stood still for long when he had a camera in his hand.

From portraits, to weddings, to natural disasters, to a night out with friends, Greg documented our lives with passion and empathy. He wasn’t just a good photographer we hired to do a job, he became a friend who instinctively knew what was important to us and did his best to help us achieve our goals. In doing so, he connected with each of us emotionally, giving a part of himself in a way that made that connection so special. That kind of connection is something few photographers, in my opinion, ever achieve.

Late last week I was heartbroken to learn Greg had died unexpectedly. Tuesday many will gather to celebrate Greg’s life and I am sorry I cannot be with them. But, I do want to acknowledge the important role he played my life.

I am thankful for Greg’s thoughtfulness and reassurance; he helped me find courage and self-esteem as a teenager. As a teacher, a mentor, and a friend, he helped me find a way to express myself when I words alone were not enough. For these lifelong gifts Greg helped me to find and foster, I find it ironic today that I can only pay tribute to him with words. Yet, words are the best way I can create a full image of Greg, one that truly captures how important he was in my development from a timid, gangling teenager trying to fit it, to the person—and photographer—I am today.

Thank you and Godspeed, Greg Henshall. You were one of a kind.

Change

Photo by David HarkinsThe work I do causes me to think a lot about how and why culture changes, how businesses change to respond to cultural change and how we, as individuals, adjust engagement and consumption behavior in reaction to an external disruption–that change in our normal state–when it is forced upon us. Throughout my career, I have helped many companies facilitate change, and the most important thing I’ve learned from it all is most of us hate change because it is usually something we are forced to react to, rather than participate in. This is especially true in our workplaces, with the businesses we deal with, and even with our favorite products. If you need an example, consider “New Coke,” or the attempt by GAP to change its logo.

I think everyone realizes change is constant and there is no rational choice but to embrace it, evolve with it, or at least find a way to adapt to the impact it has on our work. Embracing, evolving, or adapting is how most of us manage change in our personal lives, too. Although, we probably manage change in our business and professional lives much easier than we do in our personal lives.

My friend, Wendy Lou, believes most of us just want someone to change with us. I believe this, too, and I think this is why a change in business and professional environments, as painful as it is, can feel much easier for us than personal change. While each of us may approach change differently based on our background and life experiences, we typically experience workplace change with colleagues who are all moving, together, in the same direction. Change is much easier to navigate and appreciate if others are with us on the journey.

In our personal lives, we typically tackle change, at least self-change, alone and this is precisely why such change can be difficult. When we need, or desire, change of our own it’s often self-driven or created by an internal disruption and not directly caused by external forces. When we have people in our lives who are capable of and willing to change with us, we can grow together. If not, then, unfortunately, we will grow apart.

Facilitating life change is intensely personal. After all, not everyone experiences change the same way, or at the same rate. Unlike in the work or business world, we are not all moving in the same direction or toward the same goal, at least not at the same time, in our personal lives. While others might empathize and support us on our journey, no one will truly understand our new path because they will navigate the unique twists and turns of their own path at a different pace.

Change is inevitable. Accepting our own need to change and evolve is an especially difficult, but necessary part of what it means to be human. Acknowledging that we may need to experience personal change alone surfaces the undeniable, and sometimes painful, recognition that we are solely responsible for who we are, who we will become, and the happiness we choose to uncover in the process of living our own lives.

Circles

The boy, determined confidence,
a bundle of energy, buzz-cut cowlicks highlight
quirkiness only a child can embody.

The teenager, empowered,
in creative communities, artistic and musical, shy
and reserved one-on-one, afraid
of appearing foolish.

The father, loving and sentimental,
touched to tears often, children grown
desires to protect appear controlling, hard
to let go, but learning.

The man at mid-life, determined confidence
and energy still, lost and found
at once, boundless creativity, sleeping less,
alone, but love and quirkiness still shine,
breaking through an aging façade, revealing
a self-portrait of the boy, now refined.

© 2013, David L. Harkins

Life’s Rebirth

I watched you grow for nearly a year,
three hundred fifty-seven days to be exact
from conception, stretching, then growing,
then stretching again, showing yourself more
and more with each iteration.

Your birth brought warm hugs and toothy grins
from your new family and I, from a distance, watched
for signs of your distress, quietly
moving amid the happy laughter, hoping
to go unnoticed as I cradled you,
and calmed your cries.

One hundred-forty people, more, or less, saw
your first steps forward, offering oohs
and aahs while I weaved quickly out in front,
and then behind, removing obstacles, ready
for your first tear-inducing tumble.

In three days time, the family left, raining joyful tears
in appreciation of you, their souls filled with love and pain,
a deep, achy sadness from leaving you to blossom,
in their absence, another year, maybe two,
before returning to see how you have grown,
and stretched, and grown again.

We waved good-bye, you and me, before
I tucked you into rest, for a while,
to dream of courage and creativity, brimming-over
in future lives, and all because your first breath,
your tiny, tiny, breath did everything, or maybe just enough,
to bring the family together.

As I left you to rest, I stopped to look at you again,
and in the dark silence I knew, my heart
had seen your heart, too, in stolen glances
through those unknown fractures your birth
created in my soul, as the beauty
of your existence caused my distraction.

I turned out the light and walked away, leaving
you to dream, to become what you need to become,
while I watch quietly, for a year, not two, for you
to stretch, and grow, and stretch again, just enough,
to turn on the light, open the door,
and tell me it’s  time to begin, again.

© 2013, David L. Harkins

Possibilities Lost

I sat with you,
exposed and aware
of the darkness and light
passing between us,
like two notes an octave apart
playing harmony I alone heard at once
misaligned and in unison.

Carried by the quiet ebb and flow of your voice
I traveled with you through time, told
by stories and poems of your life
and then of mine,
to places kept walled away
save for the words
we both use as keys, to open
a still beating heart, hidden
from all but those we believe are worthy
of the search, and those who possess
the courage for the journey.

Small cups stacked nearby,
remnants of the dare
that brought us to this frozen place
in time, serve as the only witness
to a communion of minds
contemplating new possibilities in the night
that now the daylight colors as forbidden,
and so I wrap those gentle moments in a cloak
of the past hidden from all, but our memory.
© 2013, David L. Harkins

It’s in every one of us: Remembering Richie Pearlman

I originally wrote this essay in February 2009 for Scout Sunday and shared the excerpt below on my business blog September 11, 2010.  In 2011, I decided to make this an annual post in remembrance. Every trip I have made to New York since 2002, I go down to the WTC site and pay my respects to Richie, an 18-year-old man who answered a call of service to others with such passion and commitment, he never saw his 19th birthday. In May 2013 I saw this, a more permanent reminder of his remarkable courage…

I hope you’ll consider joining me in a moment of silence at 8:46 AM Eastern Time today to remember Richie Pearlman and the nearly 3,000 people who died twelve years ago. 

From February 2009…


A few weeks ago, I was in NY and made a visit to the World Trade Center site as I have on every trip to the city since 2002. This trip I was able to go to the museum for the first time and reflect on that tragic day. As I made my way around to the photographs of the three thousand or so individuals who lost their lives, I caught a glimpse of a familiar face. It was the face of Richard Pearlman. Suddenly, I couldn’t contain my grief. Standing there looking at that wall, at the picture of Richard, the tears streamed down my face. Although I did not know him personally, I did know his story.

In February 2009, I had the privilege of sharing the message for Scout Sunday at my church. My message that Sunday was based on the New Testament book of Luke 6:17-26, commonly known as the “Beatitudes.” I closed the message with a story about Richard Pearlman that I compiled from news reports. Below is the story and the message closing:

…let me share with you the story of Richard Pearlman. He knew a little something about making an effort and the responsibilities of taking care of others.

Richie joined the junior corps of Forest Hills Volunteer Ambulance Corps. When he was 14, working as a volunteer dispatcher. At 18, he joined the Senior Corps as a paramedic, where he immediately became a source of knowledge for new dispatchers and new volunteer members. He looked forward to starting his EMT courses and a career in emergency services.

Richie was a constant presence at the Corps. He was the regular Tuesday night and Saturday daytime dispatcher. He was present at every can shaking and blood pressure screening the Corps held. But he found his passion when became involved in the Boy Scouts of America, as an Assistant Scoutmaster for Troop 106, in Queens, New York. Richie was committed to both Scouting and caring for others. The summer of 2001, Richie was a staffer at Boy Scout Camp Aquehonga in Narrowsburg, NY. He served in the trading post, camp services, assisted the commissioners and as an office manager. While in the office, Richie found his calling and a new nickname, “Mother.” He earned this name for the way he doted on injured campers and staff. Richie was a trained in CPR and as a first aid technician, but his specialty was psychological first aid. He had a knack for calming down the most upset and injured Scout and Scouter alike.

Richie lived with his parents in Howard Beach, NY and was working as a messenger for a New York Law firm the morning of September 11, 2001. He was delivering a package to One Police Plaza when he learned that the first airplane had struck the World Trade Center not far away. He called his boss and told him he had gone over to help. His employer ordered him back to the offices where he would be safe. However, Richie knew in his heart where he belonged. He saw total mayhem before him, and his training kicked in. He shared that he saw people hurt and bleeding. “I have to stay and do what I can to help.”

Upon arriving, the 18-year-old flashed his gold paramedic’s badge #3754 and rushed into a building to aid in the rescue effort. Despite the chaos at the scene, Richie’s heroics were later confirmed on pages 16-17 in Newsweek’s Extra Edition of America Under Attack which shows a picture of Richie aiding the injured—helping a woman covered in blood, but alive, from one of the towers. After getting her to safety, he ran back in to find more survivors. Shortly afterward, the towers came down.

Richard Allen Pearlman, 18, an assistant scoutmaster with Troop 106, chartered to Trinity Lutheran Church in Queens, NY became the youngest victim of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. He received The Honor Medal, with crossed palms, the highest award given by the Boy Scouts of America for an act of Heroism at extreme risk to oneself.

“He used to always say,” his mother shared at his funeral, ‘I’m going to be a famous person one day, Mom. I’m going to help save the world. ‘You’ll see.’ “And he did save the world…at least the world for the one woman he helped escaped the towers that day.

Richie Pearlman was an exceptional man. He was a brave, courageous, tenacious, and strong. But, we learned that he was also loving, compassionate, empathetic, and kind-hearted – everything we hope for in ourselves and others. In our scriptures today, Jesus is clear about his expectations of us; that as His followers, we are held to a higher standard through this “code of conduct.”

Richie Pearlman was just the kind of person that God calls us all to be.

The Scout Sunday message closed with this video:

May God bless and keep the families of those who perished on September 11, 2001 (911).


If you would like to commemorate the life of Richie Pearlman, please consider making a donation to the Richard Allen Pearlman Memorial Annual Scholarship, providing scholarships for EMT or Paramedic Training.

It’s In Every One Of Us, by David Pomeranz, is used with permission. The photographs of Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, Venturers, and volunteers leader shown in this video were photographed by David Harkins and are also used with permission.

A rabbi, of sorts

I did not know my parents while growing up. I knew what they looked like and where I could find them every day because we lived in the same house. They were my parents, and I never saw them as individuals. I thought their job was to take care of me; to make sure I had food to eat and clothes to wear.  I think most children feel this way about their parents until they’re well into adulthood. As for me, my perspective changed the summer of 1982.

momandad_fall1981

In 1982, my dad was on the board of directors for our community swim club and one summer Saturday decided he was going to fix a malfunctioning sump pump at the pool. He was up and out of the house early that day, as he usually was, with my little brother in tow. Mom was working. My sisters were sleeping. The house was still and quiet, making it the perfect morning for a 19-year-old college student on summer break to sleep a little later, too.

The phone rang about 11:00 a.m., my sister answered and then woke me to take the urgent call. When I picked up the phone, a family friend told me dad had been injured, and I should come right away. I grabbed a shirt, put on my shoes, and drove up to the pool alone, wondering what had happened and what I would need to do when I go there if I could do anything at all.

I pulled into the parking lot to see paramedics, firemen, and a crowd of concerned friends. They told me the sump pump dad had been working on was in a small well a few feet underground. He had his hands and arms down in the well when the powered-off pump released a residual spark, igniting fumes in the well, and sent a ball of fire shooting up and out of the top where dad and brother were looking in. It happened in an instant, they said, but somehow dad was able to get his face out of the way and move my brother aside.

Paramedics were treating dad for third-degree burns on his arms and hands, and second-degree burns on his face when I saw him. I talked to him briefly and he said he was okay, but I knew he was not. The skin on his arms had blistered, peeled, and rolled down around his hands. It looked as if he had been wearing arm-length latex gloves and had rolled them down around his wrists. My brother had a few singed hairs and some first degree burns—similar to a slight sunburn—on his face from the blowback.

The paramedic told me dad’s condition was serious. It was likely he would be airlifted to Pittsburgh to the regional burn center for treatment, he said. He also told me my brother wasn’t hurt, but like dad, he was in shock, and I should ride in the ambulance to the hospital with him.

Later in the day, Dad was flown to the burn center. After helping my sisters and brother settled with my grandparents, mom and I drove to Pittsburgh. We stayed for a little over a week while dad was stabilized, and then came home for a day. Mom returned the next and stayed for several weeks while dad was treated for his burns and had multiple surgeries for skin grafts. I traveled back and forth several times that summer.

On one visit, I was sitting with mom and dad in the room he then shared with a Rabbi, who had third-degree burns on his hands from a Fry-Daddy® explosion. Both dad and the Rabbi were being treated for pain with heavy doses of morphine, and while alert, they were anything but lucid.

“I used to be a Rabbi,” my dad called out to the real Rabbi in the next bed.

“You did? That is wonderful,” said the Rabbi. “Did you know, I used to kidnap little children for a hobby?”

My mother started laughing so hard—uncontrollably really—she had to leave quickly to find the ladies room. Of course, it would be in the moments after she left that dad would need the bedside urinal and I would need to help him because his hands were bandaged. It was at that moment helping my dad, when I realized my parents were people, too. They had hopes and dreams. They even had bodily functions at the most inconvenient times. Their life and their dreams were on indefinite hold now because of a freak accident.

When dad finished, and I took the urinal away, I needed to do something to take the edge of the awkward moment, so I asked him how to build an AC-to-DC converter to put on the starting buzzer I was making for pool swim meets. I wanted to lower the voltage of the power to the switch since the person tripping the switch would be closer to the water. I did not expect him to tell me. I didn’t think he was lucid. He described the circuit and told me how to diagram it. It worked flawlessly. Teaching me how to diagram a circuit while critically injured and under the influence of painkillers was not the first thing dad taught me. His first lesson was dedication and commitment to the task.

DadCarbiderPhoto

After graduating high school, dad did a short stint in the Navy where his leadership skills earned him an offer for recommendation to attend Officer Candidate School. He turned down the offer and was honorably discharged after three years of service. He moved back to Charleston, married my mother, and started a family. When I was three, he decided to get serious about his college education and began night classes, often carrying a full load each semester, while working full time and raising a family. Five years later, he had earned a B.S. in Business Administration and another in Mathematics.

For most of his life, dad has put the needs of everyone else above his own. My sharing the list of things I know he’s done would embarrass him, but I’m willing to bet the list of things he has taken care of without anyone’s knowledge would be at least twice as long. In this way, he taught me the principles of servant leadership—quiet service to others to build a more just and caring world.

Dad and David

Dad also taught me perseverance and the importance of perspective. When he was younger, he fell asleep while driving and was in a bad single-car accident, but walked away without serious injury. He was helping neighbors trim a tree and were knocked off the ladder by a swinging branch, and fell eight feet onto a pile of branches on the driveway and again, walked away unhurt. He was in the explosion at the pool, and he has had two heart bypass surgeries. Recently, he walked away from another auto accident without injury. My siblings and I encourage him to be more careful because he has used most of his “nine lives.”   He believes there is a purpose in his survival considering how frequently he has had brushes with death.

“I think there’s still someone on this earth I’m supposed to meet,” he says.

To the contrary, I believe many people still need to meet him. Maybe, just maybe, he was is a rabbi once.  of sorts.

Happy 74th Birthday, dad. I love you.

A place where they’ll never find [III]

This is the final essay in a three-part story of self-discovery that coincidentally culminated with my attendance at the World Domination Summit (#WDS2013) in Portland, Oregon July 5- 7, 2013. Click here for Part I in this series.

We can dance if we want to

I was grateful to wake up without an alarm Sunday morning until I realized it was 6:45. I needed to check out and change hotels, and I had a 7:30 meeting. I jumped up, showered, extended my checkout time, and ran to meet Tami for a Working Life Project interview. Tami shared a compelling story of entrepreneurial spirit, and it was perfect for the project. I was energized and ready for the day’s sessions.

Gretchen Rubin, the author of The Happiness Project, kicked off the morning sessions with a talk about our search for happiness.

“Self-knowledge is the key to happiness,” she said. “There’s a certain sadness to self-knowledge because when we acknowledge who we are, we also acknowledge who we aren’t and who we’ll probably never be.”

She talked more about how it was okay to let go of those fantasies so we could have more time to do the things we love. It sounded like a good plan, provided I could figure out what I loved doing.

“Shine a light on the things you love, even if it doesn’t fit the image you have established for yourself,” she continued.

Oh, so there’s the catch, I thought, Not only do I have to find the thing I love doing, but I also have to call attention to it, even if it’s not something I want to share with others. My level of cynicism was on the upswing.

Tess Vigeland, formerly of NPR’s Marketplace Money, followed with a heartfelt talk on how it feels to jump from the security of a job without a safety net. I could relate. I’ve been where she is several times. Toward the end of her talk, she offered this advice, “The only way to get back to remarkable is to redefine what remarkable means to you.”

I could feel my brain working to assemble the patterns, skillfully ignoring the cynicism I had introduced earlier. When my brain is doing this work, it feels like mental alertness and physical exhaustion simultaneously. My body is ready to recharge, but my mind is in high gear. I knew something was coming, but the connections were not solid. The picture was not clear.

On the afternoon break, I went back to the hotel, packed, checked out, and moved to another hotel in a planned bit of loyalty-point juggling. I grabbed lunch and then walked to the park where I sat for a few hours reflecting and watching people. I even talked briefly with Tess, who took a bench nearby, about how the Universe manages things on its time, not ours.

We returned from the afternoon break to hear several moving pieces from actor, songwriter, and musician Steve Schalchin’s musical, The Last Session. Christian author Donald Miller was the closing speaker for the event. I was intrigued when Miller suggested most of us hide our “true self”—the person we were as a child—because of some “shame” we experienced early in life. Our adult personality is the result of what we have built to cover and protect our true self—an inner child—from the shame. He had my attention.

For months I had been thinking about why some of my friends find it so easy to be vulnerable and open, while I only open up to a few very close friends. And by few, I mean one. Maybe two. I wondered if those who wore their vulnerability as armor lived a fuller life than I did because sharing so openly seem to give them deeper and more meaningful connections.

Then Miller caught me off guard with this question, “What if we are not the identities we project? What happens when we operate outside of our ‘false’ selves? Maybe, we get to impress fewer people, but connect more.”

Wow.

Then it was over. A little closing fanfare, some acknowledgments, and the World Domination Summit ended for another year.

Well, that was fun, I thought. Still, did I learn anything? I wasn’t sure.

I walked back to the hotel and recharged for a while, wrestling with myself about going to the closing party at Pioneer Courthouse Square Park. I was hungry, and the party had food, so I made my way to the park and walked directly to a food line.

An hour later I sat down to eat a Philly Cheesesteak while watching a large group of dancers move in unison to Bollywood music in the middle of the park. My original plan was to eat and then leave. The weather was nice, though, so I opted to get in line for a drink. Once in line, the couple in front of me turned to introduce themselves. It was the couple that sat next to me Saturday, Andrew, and Christine.

I remembered them because of the energy I felt from them when we first met, but I didn’t think they remembered me.

“We met yesterday,” I said. “You sat next to me in the morning session.”

“We did?” Andrew asked. He told me he wasn’t good with names or faces, and jokingly said he had a short-term memory issue.

“Yes. You’re from like, a mile away, and she’s from like, four miles away.”

Christine seemed surprised at my recollection. Andrew jumped in with, “No, no… that’s not right. I’m from four miles away, and she’s from sixty miles away.”

We laughed. The ice was broken.

We talked about the day’s sessions while standing in the long line. Donald Miller’s session seemed to be most intriguing to us all. Suddenly, Andrew shared a story about his “shame,” as Donald Miller called it, the one thing that drives us to create a personality to hide our true self. In the seconds it took Andrew to tell his story, my brain had assembled the connections it had been working on for days. It had identified my shame.

My “shame” occurred after my family moved across town and I started 8th grade in a different, more affluent school. I was talking with a group of friends at lunch one day and improperly pronounced the word “wash” using a more typical southern West Virginia pronunciation, “warsh.” One of the boys in the group made fun of my pronunciation, and all the others laughed. The embarrassment of seeming uneducated and backward hurt. I remember the names of everyone standing there that day, and the boy who leads the charge. I can still see their faces.

It was in that moment of embarrassment I began building a different personality to hide my shame. I would become educated, informed, and articulate. I would become private and reserved so as not to endure that shame again. I would become whom the majority of people in my life know today as “David Harkins.”

In what I can only describe as an impulsive moment, I did something my friends and family would say is out of character: I allowed myself to become vulnerable. I shared my moment of shame with Andrew and Christine. I doubt they realized the importance I placed on the moment because they didn’t know the person I began building all those years ago. They only knew me at this moment.

The three of us talked most of the evening about business, some about life, and a little about close friendships. Andrew and I confided that we have few close friends “on purpose,” immediately recognizing, I think, how our created personalities were the words, “on purpose.” Our true personalities made friends effortlessly, as we proved with our near instant connection that night.

While we talked, the Bollywood music gave way to 80’s dance music, and Andrew and Christine began to talk about dancing. They prodded me for a while to dance with them, but I resisted. The heart and feet heard the beats, but the head would not let them move. “David Harkins” had not danced since most of the music playing through the speakers was first released. To dance in public would risk looking foolish. “David Harkins” does not like to look foolish.

They didn’t give up, though. Christine kept asking me to dance with them, and Andrew occasionally chimed in with encouragement. Jeff walked by, sat down, and we talked for a while about the problem he was having with a foot and how the strobes affected his balance. Jeff could not have danced that night, even if he had wanted to dance.

I took a Porta-John® break and when I returned the song, “Walk Like An Egyptian” was playing. The goofy 12-year-old I keep tucked inside broke through to prove he could still “walk like an Egyptian.” Christine saw me, laughed, and asked me to do it again. I was not embarrassed at all.

By the time “Footloose” began, my toes were tapping quietly inside my shoes. It took the song, “The Safety Dance,” and Andrew’s battle cry, “I’m going in…all the way in…” to get me into the dancing crowd of people with the two of them.

And I danced. Not as freely as I would have liked, but I danced.

Over the last year, a few of my closest friends have noted how little of my true personality I let the rest of the world see. Apparently, the “true” David Harkins is more creative, charming, generous, and loving, or something. Go figure. Of course, I could not fix what I didn’t know was broken, and once I became aware I still needed to identify the cause. Sunday night, thirty-five years later in Portland Oregon with 3,000 people trying to find a way to be remarkable in a conventional world, I identified that cause.

There are greater powers at work in the world, I think. There are lessons to learn and people to meet to help guide our life journey. I am convinced it takes the Universe time to line up all of the stars—to get everyone ready—for the work we are called to do, often unknowingly, for each other. Until that stage is set, the play cannot begin. This is why life does not always happen on the schedule we plan for ourselves.

Traveling home Monday I realized the Universe might have put this plan in motion for me over a year ago. A string of events, seen only in hindsight, opened the door to make it possible for me attend the 2013 World Domination Summit. There I heard diverse voices, each carrying to me the same message—it’s time for the “true” David Harkins to come out and play. I encountered the energy of Andrew and Christine, who were placed in my life, not once, but twice to make sure I heard the message and to help me facilitate this transformation.

So, if you’re reading this, thank you, Chris and Patti, for opening the space. For gently encouraging me to let down my guard more often and to expose that vulnerable “soft underbelly,” thank you Katherine, Kristi, and Greg. For giving me a place to temporarily call home while I unknowingly prepared for what was to come, thank you, John and Steve. Thank you, Nancy, Jia, Gretchen, Tess, Steve, and Don for using different words, but sending a singular message I needed to hear. Thank you, Jeff, for appearing out of nowhere to keep me grounded in those moments when I needed it most. Thank you, Andrew, for sharing your story, your passion, and your gentle humor that helped us make a connection. Thank you, Christine, for your kindness and persistence, but most of all for helping me remember how much fun it is to let go and just dance.

Sunday night in Pioneer Courthouse Square, I discovered I was free from the shackles of the single mispronounced word, which had shaped so much my life. Andrew and Christine saw, without even realizing it, something so few people in my life have ever seen, the “true” David Harkins.

And they saw him…no they saw me, dance.

The title of this post is taken from the lyrics of “The Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats.

Photo Credit:  Chris Gillebeau WDS 2013

A place where they’ll never find [II]

This is the second essay in a three-part story of self-discovery that coincidentally culminated with my attendance at the World Domination Summit (#WDS2013) in Portland, Oregon July 5- 7, 2013. Click here for Part I in this series.

Magic set in motion

I ran into Jeff, a friend from North Carolina, at the Zoo. We had talked a little before I left to mingle with others in the crowd. I have learned to force myself into the discomfort of small talk, so I am not perceived as a wallflower at parties. It would have been easy to sit down with Jeff and not engage anyone else. It would have been easy for me to be a wallflower at the World Domination Summit. There were so many people.

I am not “shy,” the word most extroverts think is interchangeable with the word, “introvert.” I’m outgoing, and I make friends easily. I work hard not to come across to others as aloof, although I am certain those who may not know me well have used the word to describe me.

As an introvert, I draw energy from being alone and reflecting; crowds suck energy from me. As much as I like people, large events like WDS can be particularly draining because I put myself into “outgoing-introvert” mode for hours of constant interaction. If I could have visualized my energy levels through the evening, I would have seen a cell phone battery light, slowly discharging from the constant engagement of others.

I made some new friends during the opening reception. I met, in person, a few long-time Twitter friends. I even did something I never do: I stayed until nearly the end of the party.

The next morning I ran into Jeff again on my way to breakfast, and he asked me to join him. Afterward, we walked to the meeting hall for the day’s sessions. Jeff and I sat together at the end of one row in the balcony, only to be encouraged by conference staff to move toward the middle of the row so others could find a seat more easily. The row filled quickly, leaving two seats beside me. Just before the program began, a couple came in and asked if the seats were available. I looked up to answer, and I felt an unexplained connection with them. We offered polite introductions, including the obligatory WDS question, “How far have you traveled?” and then the program started. After the morning sessions had been over, we took a short break. I did not see Jeff, or the couple, for the rest of the day.

I intentionally set the bar low for most conferences, hoping to find only one nugget of information I can take away and put to use. I was confident I had found my nugget in the very first session, with communications strategist Nancy Duarte. Still, I listened intently to the other presentations, and although interesting and entertaining—especially Jia Jiang’s presentation on Rejection—much of what I heard reinforced concepts I know and have applied in my life and work for a long time. There was little new content for me, but I enjoyed being in the company of such passionate, interesting, and fun people.

After the day’s closing session, I took part in photo-walk in downtown Portland for a while before breaking off for drinks and dinner with my long-time Twitter friend Heather, and her friend Anna. It’s always interesting to connect in person with someone I have known only through social media. Sometimes social media allows a person to project a façade, but everyone I met in person at WDS, like Heather, seemed warm and authentic.

I turned in early the first night and reflected on my day. The reinforcing words of the speakers and the passion and openness of the attendees were on my mind. I thought more about the energy I felt from the couple and the courage I heard in the voices of those seeking to be somehow “remarkable in a conventional world.” I considered my frequent encounters with Jeff in a sea of 3,000 people.

My “spidey-sense”—the feeling I get when my brain is working overtime to find patterns among the random inputs and connect those seemingly unconnectable dots—began to tingle. It seemed the Universe was up to something. Maybe even something magical. Whatever it was planning, though, I hoped it would wait at least until morning.

Read Part III: We can dance if we want to

A place where they’ll never find [I]

This is the first of a three-part story of self-discovery that coincidentally culminated with my attendance at the World Domination Summit (#WDS2013) in Portland, Oregon July 5- 7, 2013.

Everything’s outta control

A year is far too long for this introvert to go without an extended period of self-reflection. I know this, and still, I let the days slide by until more than two years had passed since my last significant “time-out.” The few weekend getaways I had managed to squeeze in somehow lulled me into a false sense of stability and security in the midst of my complicated life and an overabundance of work obligations.

My friend Patti must have sensed my need for a break and in May generously offered me her ticket to the World Domination Summit (WDS) when she discovered she could not attend. A conference with the name “World Domination Summit” could be about any number of things, so I’ll admit to researching the event before accepting her offer.

WDS was billed as an event for those who desired to create “a remarkable life in a conventional world” with an entrepreneurial slant. On the surface, it seemed very “touchy-feely” and although I am introspective, “touchy-feely” is not my thing. The speaker list was solid, and there was enough information to provide some comfort about the event’s topic. I still wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into, but the World Domination Summit was in Portland, Oregon and in all my travels, I had never been to Oregon.

I knew a period of self-reflection and recharge would be essential before encountering a crowd of nearly 3,000 people seeking to become remarkable, and I built that time into my trip. I flew into Sacramento on a late flight July 2 and left the next morning on a self-guided photo tour through Mt. Lassen National Park and around Mt. Shasta, before stopping in Ashland, Oregon to visit two long-time friends for a couple of days.

Feeling recharged after my visit with John and Steve, I left the morning of July 5 for the five-hour drive to Portland. My plan was to check-in before the early registration ended at 3:00 and then attend the WDS Virgins gathering—a meeting of first-time attendees to learn the ropes—at 3:30. I left Ashland later than planned, but I thought I could make it to Portland by 2:30. Two rest stops later and interesting encounter with a guitar-playing homeless woman who pulled my heart-strings to the tune of twenty dollars, I realized I would not arrive before early registration closed. Since I could register at the opening reception, my revised goal was to make the WDS Virgins gathering.

I was still on track when I arrived at the hotel a little before 3:00. I quickly showered, dressed, and left at 3:20 to attend the WDS Virgins gathering. Unfortunately, I misread the map and eventually discovered I had gone blocks in the wrong direction. It was impossible to make it to the meeting and still have time to mingle, so I abandoned that plan, too. Despite a day of missed connections, I was confident I could make it to the meeting hall in time to catch the bus to the Oregon Zoo for registration and the opening reception.

Walking to the meeting hall, I realized I had completely lost control of my day. Typically I would be frustrated with myself for making choices earlier to derail my plan, but I was not frustrated. In fact, I was very calm for an introvert on his way to a Zoo filled with the untamed energy of 3,000 people.

Read Part II: Magic set in motion

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