I didn't always have work that lit me up. It took me until forty to find the right fit. That's late and yet entirely worth it.
Many little moments and thoughts helped me change course. Last week, a friend encouraged me to share one idea which guided me towards work (and a life) that feels like home.
Let me start by saying, I was always a late bloomer.
Many of my friends have (or were) these brilliant little kids reading while in diapers. I wasn't like that; I never thought I'd make it through the first grade. Counting by fives confounded me-- I wore a digital watch until I was a teenager.
Reading took time and writing took longer. Teachers wanted to hold me back to give me time to catch up, but I gripped on to my second grade desk, refusing to leave my friends.
Eventually, I plowed my way into an Ivy League university and graduated summa cum laude with a degree in Intellectual History, probably in large part just to prove to myself I wasn't an idiot.
I proved that, but I still had no idea what to do with my life. I've worked as Barney (the dinosaur), an editor, a waitress, a librarian, a healer, a farm hand, a temp (many times) a coach and eventually and for years as an advertising executive. All had their highlights.
But I also found myself at times crying in the bathroom -- some jobs just hurt your soul.
What kind of emails do I want?
At one point, I started paying attention to the "kinds" of email in my inbox. Most folks wrote me to express frustration, correct me, get out of a contract, to describe why something could not happen.
Email usually meant problems...unending problems, complaints and explanations about why the world could not be as I wanted it.
Email was treacherous. In defense, I'd often respond too quickly, too harshly and the cycle would continue.
I really liked my colleagues and clients as people, but the environment felt so harsh.
One day, I said to myself, "Well, Sarah, what kind of emails would you like to be receiving?"
This little question helped me change the direction in my life. I'd love to get emails from people saying how our time together helped them live better lives. I wanted to hear, "because of you, I was able to..." Imagine that? An inbox filled with messages like this?
This helped move me towards a career in conflict resolution, working on everything from interpersonal conflict to genocide prevention. Eventually, somehow, little-by-little I found myself becoming a scholar-activist-author with a really awesome email inbox.
The new inbox
My first semester at the University of Baltimore is coming to a close. And while I was not able to transform the lives of every student, I received a number of emails similar to the ones I began to dream of 7 years ago. It took time to develop the skills to be able to help people. I also needed to grow personally before serving others; I could not bring people to an awareness I did not have.
Thousands of hours later....the first shoots of my new life began popping up in the mail
Here are some of the emails coming in this month:
I will truly miss you and thank you for giving us a new perspectives in life. You helped me look with in myself and create a plan to have a balanced future. You also taught us not to be so consumed in ourselves that we don't see others that are in. You helped me face a lot of things and now I am ready for the next phrase in life. You encouraged us and taught us how to always find the positives in everything. All of the UB students will be happy to have you as their instructor.
Dear Dr Federman,
Thank you for giving selflessly to shape my future, I appreciate you.
happy teachers day
I am blessed to have you as my instructor...Coming into this course I was quite myopic, but now I have a wide angled vision of where I want to go with this profession, all because of your oratorical skills in and expertise in the field.
Thank you for a wonderful term! I enjoyed your class a lot. I may not have said a whole lot, but it was a great experience! And good luck on your textbook! You should message when it's going to be published, I'd loved to have a copy at some point!
What kind of emails do you want in 2018?
....It's your life, your email....you decide....
A few years ago, I had the tremendously wonderful opportunity to attend a Tony Robbins seminar as his personal guest. World leaders (including U.S. Presidents), olympians, world's most successful business people and others rely on Tony Robbins to help them make better decisions and live more enjoyable, fulfilling lives.
For those of us who are not heads of state and have yet to win a olympic gold medal he has tremendous amounts of resources online and -- at seminars. [He had invited me for my work on international conflict resolution (a story for another time) and now I occasionally coach their youth program]
At some point during the seminar, I came upon this little plastic reminder-card about problems (see below). I put it on my fridge and occasionally look at it while sipping my coffee -- sometimes scowling. I like the idea of problems being gifts, but they don't usually occur this way.
Today, in a very small, but profound way I experienced the possibility of this idea.
Emboldened by a powerful weekend in New York at Columbia University studying memory politics, I felt ready to taken on the broken light bulb in my humble Baltimore kitchen. Of course, the bulb decided to brake during extraction -- I had no idea what to do.
I read on-line about potatoes, epoxy, and other tactics, but wasn't sure where to start.
I texted my cousin. He lives near Cape Cod and, like his father, has a successful business helping those of us clueless with our homes. He talked me through it; I succeeded and felt like a superstar!
Now, this may seem rather trivial, "cousin calls cousin for lightbulb help."
But it was more meaningful than this.
This year, his sister (my cousin) died.
This year, my dad (his uncle) died.
Anyone who has experienced family loss knows the strange gap this creates in so many ways. Now, my dad was not the fix it type. I never would have called him for his help. He would have either guided me into gluing the whole thing together with epoxy or suggested I move to a place with better lighting.
That said, I probably would not have thought to call my cousin had my father been alive. It moved me closer. I thought after hanging up the phone that maybe Tyler's sister-- had she lived -- would have called him for the same kind of help someday.
Hearing his voice soothed me. I appreciated, again, the wonderful talents of those who know how to fix objects -- people who know how to make the material world function.
Today was a gift. I'm glad that light bulb broke and I'm glad I didn't know what to do.
So take a look at this little card. Maybe print it out, put it up, scowl at it like I did and then one day watch a problem become a gift. I'd love to hear about it.
When I was in my twenties living in San Francisco, I went to Bikram yoga 4-5 times a week. One morning, as I was filling my water bottle for the 115 degree class, the 80-year-old woman from whom I rented a room said all this yoga was giving me, "a really great ass." I lived in the Castro, one of world's havens for gay men, so she was the only one around town who seemed to notice. At that time, though, my sense of pride came not from how I looked, but how capable I was of doing all those poses. Those, poor old people, I thought, they'll never get it.
Learning Humility in Baltimore
Well, time passes and life has a way of teaching us humility one way or another. This week I attended a Yoga Class in Baltimore. Hoping for a nice 1.5 hour stretching class after a few weeks of swim club, I found myself sandwiched among 30 versions of me in my 20s. I was sure they were all planted there to haunt me. They twisted and put their feet in the air, while I grasped for my water bottle.
At the beginning of the class, the very kind teacher told us think about on our intention for the class. I just wanted to stretch out and invest a bit in my body so that I could live a long, healthy and active life. I was inspired by Ben Ferencz who I interviewed this past week. He's the oldest living Nuremberg prosecutor. He went with General Patton when the death camps were liberated and then gather piles of evidence against the Nazi leadership. He wasn't even thirty when he served as a lead prosecutor.
I called at 9am, but he asked that I call him back because he needed to finish his regimen of 110 morning pushups before breakfast. He's 98. He basically kills all excuses. He works out because he wants to end war before he dies. He's a busy man. I tell him I'm on his team, he isn't working alone.
To prepare us for this effort to bring peace to the world, I chose yoga for the day.
Mid-way through the class we were asked to do a posture that required putting our feet over our arms, wrapping them around and then lifting off the floor. She gently said,
"What comes up in your mind when you feel yourself unable to do a certain pose?"
For me? FAILURE!! Totally failure, fear of aging, weakness...Ahhhhhh!
Probably, what should have come up was "If we were meant to have our feet behind our ears, they would have grown there."
After a few moments for reflection she said, think back to your intention for the class. Ah, right, to live long and prosper. It was amazing, as soon as I remembered why I wanted to attend the class, I didn't worry as much about my inability to do the pose. Of course, I had the occasional smug thought about my neighbor "Yeah, well you can do that pose but I can smoke you in the pool or on rollerblades." A thought of a 12-year-old. Overall, though, I was just able to relax and enjoy the class.
I just wanted to share this because a number of my really talented friends and colleagues are finding themselves super challenged at work. They are facing huge learning curves in new workplaces, not because they are failures but because they are not. They have been chosen because they are successful people. I just hope they remember what their intentions are.
What do they want? Why are they there?
Focus on this and let go of trying to measure themselves against the girl in the hot-pink yoga outfit spinning on her head. Eventually she will have to come down.
Today, I leave for my three week journey sponsored by Amtrak. Thanks to the Amtrak Residency, I'll live aboard Amtrak while editing my forthcoming book about the role of the French National Railways (SNCF) in the Holocaust and the conflict that continues in the U.S. today over that role.
Today, the SNCF bids for contracts in the USA, but has trouble winning a few because some folks feel the company has not made sufficient amends of the Holocaust.
My book will not be a polemic for or against the SNCF, but rather a thoughtful presentation of the various involved parties and their perspectives. Readers think through questions of corporate accountability in the aftermath of violence
What's Happening with the Book?
During this trip, I will edit my book manuscript. It's fitting that I start in Washington D.C. where a big fight occurred over whether the SNCF would be allowed to construct the new Purple Line before paying survivors.
Then, I stop in Chicago, where the conflict continues because of a class action lawsuit launched there.
After Chicago, I'm off to California where legislation and protests made it hard for the SNCF to advance in high-speed rail bids. I'll spend a couple days in Stanford's Hoover archives looking at the documents that sparked the lawsuit (I'll write about those when I get them)
After Death, Go West!
The residency could not come at a better time. After the death of my father and cousin earlier this year, I've struggled to find my way back into stories about the Holocaust.
What better place to think about trains than on a train! Thanks, Amtrak!
Thanks also to you all for your interest in the forthcoming book which is based on 120 interviews, 80 with survivors conducted in France and in the United States.
The survivors will soon leave us. The book honors them as experts (not just victims) by including their wide-ranging opinions as well as those offered by the SNCF, the Jewish leadership, ambassadors, lawyers, and legislators.
When the conflict rolls into your state, you'll have a handle on the past, understand what the SNCF has done to make amends, and have thought through the intricacies.
It's not for me alone to say what - if anything- should happen next. The issues belong to us all and extend far beyond the SNCF. Corporate Accountability issues abound. That's why Grinnell College brought me to campus in April to teach a course on the Role of Market Actors in Mass Atrocity.
These conflict rests in your hands...
Please stay in touch and let me know your thoughts opinions.
As part of my never eat alone series, this blog describes what happened Monday morning when emeritus religious studies professor, inter-faith dialogue specialist and Holocaust witness, Harold Kasimow came over to me in the café. We shared a morning coffee and some great conversation. Harold launched into his excitement about his new article in the Huffington Post about the importance of "servant leadership" in today's social and political climate. In the article he talks about the importance of speaking up, as Martin Luther King Jr. encouraged us to do:
"His core message was that we must talk to each other and be fully present to each other. “[To] stand alone or live alone in the world today,” King said, “is sleeping through a revolution.”"
King's message and Kasimow's message are aligned with the purpose of this never eat alone series. I wish to inspire people to talk to each other, both the upend the alienation that brings anxiety and depression as well as to strengthen the links which strengthen our communities, nation and world.
Harold and I chatted about his article and then he told me a bit about his Holocaust story . Harold spent a few of his early years hidden in a cellar. He did not know what light was when he first saw it. His father built a tunnel so he could slip out for food: mostly bread and water.
"That's why I'm so short," he told me. In his early years he barely age, "All of the Kasimows are really tall. Except me!"
The Long-Tail of Holocaust Survivorship
For many years, Harold did not think of himself as a survivor until his sister wrote a book about his family's experience.
"But it was really about 50 years later that it started affecting me," he explained.
Harold was a professor of religious studies at Grinnell College starting in 1972. I met a man who took Harold's class back in the 1980s and said,
"It was incredible, Harold taught this whole class about Jews in Poland during the war and never once mentioned that he was one of those Jews."
This is not uncommon. In the 80 interviews I conducted with Holocaust survivors for my forthcoming book on the contemporary U.S.-based conflict over role of the French National Railways (SNCF) in the Holocaust, I discovered that many lived decades before what happened really hit them.
"Of course I was a mess before then, but it was at about 50-60 years when it really started to affect me...dreams, memories. And I started telling my story. But it was really hard. I started to have dreams. "
He then stopped telling his story for sometime.
"It was just to difficult," he explained.
"I have started again. Now that Elie Wiesel and many of the others are gone, I feel an obligation."
Like many witnesses of the Holocaust I have met, Harold doesn't concern himself only with the horrors of the Holocaust. He focuses on contemporary challenges; he spends much of his time working on interfaith dialogue, When I asked him if this work was influenced by his early experience he said,
"Yes, but I didn't realize it for many years."
I asked whether he was ever involved in the lawsuits, trials against former Nazis or restitution. He said he has never received any money. He thinks he made too much money today and was therefore disqualified. Do certain compensation programs limit based on your income? How could that be? How could an apology be dependent upon your current well-being?
That's like having an old boyfriend not apologize because you're now happily married. One has nothing to do with the other. I seemed more bothered by it than Harold. He moved quickly to discussing the relatively new compensation program which offers 2500 Euros to anyone who survived. He filled out the paperwork, but there is some discrepancy between his story and their official story,
"How am I supposed to remember exactly where we were? How are we supposed to have records of this?"
His comment echoes the frustrations of many survivors of the Holocaust -- some of the few survivors of mass atrocity who are even eligible for compensation. Most of the world's genocide survivors have received nothing -- and likely never will.
For more about Harold's story, please see Defying Darkness . Stay tuned for his new book on Pope Francis!
Another great meal shared!
The Never Eat Alone Series
In 2005, Keith Ferrazzi came out with a business book called Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success One Relationship at a Time. Now in its second edition, Ferrazzi discusses importance of relationships for professional advancement.
The book sparked an idea!
What would happen if I started to avoid eating alone?
What kinds of incredible conversations might I have?
The purpose of this series is to record these rich conversations and inspire others to eat with others. See where these conversations take you. I would love to hear your stories, so please add them in the comments below!
When I read Ray Oldenburg's ethnography; The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of the Community, he seemed to be writing about a place already extinct.
I have lived in Paris, so I know the café culture there and have sought for years the "ideal" American cafe where people come together to exchange life updates as well as ideas. A cafe where people work on their projects while remembering that our borders are permeable. We are individual creatures operating in community. But we are community creatures that take on individual projects.
One of the Great Cafés!
Well, it turns out such a café does still exist. At least one remains. I am writing this blog from SAINTS REST: COFFEE HOUSE right in the heart of Grinnell, Iowa. This morning two moms have their kids running around looking for leftover Easter Eggs. In the corner, Jon, the anthropologist is chatting with Howard the emeritus religious studies professor who survived the Holocaust by spending two years in a potato cellar. One woman in a black polka dotted dressed seems to be preparing for an interview and others grab their coffee to go.
"Sarah, do you want the awning down," Sam, the owner, just called to me.
She had noticed the sun beating on my back. Abbey, roughly aged four, just bumped her knee during her café hunt for Easter eggs. Once she finished with the awning, Sam came over to kiss the boo-boo.
That's just Monday morning. You should see this place on the weekends. The above photo is of Sam, the owner. She came and had a coffee with me outside yesterday. That's how she knows my name. She said bought the café just a few years ago and hopes when she sells it in 20 years someone else wants to keep the spirit alive.
"I'm never sure whether to stay open on Easter, " she explained, "but the students tend to come out when the weather is warm like this."
But people came by after church, Grinnell College students struggled to finish assignments due Monday as I made my way through book three of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels.
As wonderful as yesterday was, last weekend may have even been more extraordinary. Rabbi Rob, the school's Rabbi who helps run the spirituality and social justice center would not let me sit alone reading. He wanted to introduce me to some of the incredible people sitting all around me.
This included Kesho Scott, a professor in the sociology department who used to be a black panther and had heard Martin Luther King speak. She is internationally recognized for her human rights and other workshops designed to shorten the divide between people, mostly by helping them unlearn racism. (A perfect person to meet before I start leading similar classes at the University of Baltimore this fall.) Students and faculty came up to her all afternoon wanting to bounce ideas off her or tell her their latest accomplishments.
She never graded her 16 student papers.
It's not only intellectuals who stop into Saints Rest. The café draws locals who pull up in large trucks. Sam, herself is from Louisiana, and gives the place a southern feel. A large apple pie was at the counter at 7am this morning. You know, just in case you had a hankering. She taught me about "ham balls" a southern meal that she and her family make all the time.
Saints Rest is intellectual and social justice oriented while leaving space for the Iowans who come by for a cup of joe in the morning.
All Great Places Have Conflict
The café is an intersection of multiple worlds and sometimes those worlds collide A Grinnell student told me just after I left last Sunday, he had a run-in with a local man. The student was having an animated conversation with a friend in which he was using numerous curse words. A local man told him stop speaking with such a fowl mouth. The student believed the criticism also had to do with the fact that he was gay. Though, I'm not sure how the man would have known that.
Somehow the police became involved. A little drama to keep the streets alive, I guess. Where there are people there is conflict.
All in all, I have to say Saints Rest Coffee House is magic. Anyone who lives in our around suburban sprawl knows how rare these places are. Usually you find cafés in U.S. cities inhabited by young folks without kids. But at Saints Rest, you find a place for ages 1-100. And as compared to most city cafés people seem to talk to each other, at least more often.
Thanks, Sam for making residents of Grinnell Iowa think this way of life is normal and thanks for letting me know the American café is not dead. I'll have to tell Ray.
April 10th, in the bustling student center of Grinnell College, over 100 students, faculty and staff gathered for a seder. A visiting faculty, I found a seat next to another visiting professor-- Kostek Gerbert, a Polish journalist and Jewish activist well known for his war correspondence, most notably during the war in Yugoslavia.
I wanted to write about this rare opportunity to chat for several hours with Kostek as part of a forthcoming "Never Eat Alone" series of posts.
Never Eat Alone
In 2005, Keith Ferrazzi came out with a business book called Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success One Relationship at a Time. Now in its second edition, the book talks about the power of relationships to get you where you want to go. The book sparked an idea in me. What would happen if I started to avoid eating alone? What kinds of incredible conversations might I have? The intention for me was not to win business contracts, but simply to see what I might have been missing out on during those solitary meals. A conversation with Kostek showed me just what I had been missing...
Hopefully, summer in Siberia"
When Jack, the psychology major sitting to my right, asked Kostek what he might be doing for the summer, Kostek replied,
"Hopefully, summer in Siberia."
I said usually the words summer and hopefully are not near the word Siberia. Then he explained why,
"Of course, you know, everyone reads on the metro. This is not unusual. But in Siberia, they double read."
He paused and said,
"You see, historically, all the great writers got sent to Siberia...they were exiled there. So they have a very rich culture of reading and writing!!"
I am so glad someone benefited from all those writers being sent away.
And, You Don't Want to Miss Winter in Siberia Either
We could then understand why an activist/writer would want to be around a rich intellectual culture, but we could not understand why experiencing -50 in a Siberian winter was on his bucket list.
"My daughter explained that at negative 50, life leaves a trail. People warm the frozen air as they walk and then it re-freezes as they move forward, but in a different shape. The light then picks up the crystals and leaves a golden trail. I want to see this before I die."
He also was told that at -50 anti-Semitism freezes. He has been told by locals that people cannot hate each other. At that temperature everyone relies on everyone else for survival.
"So, what you're saying is that hate and conflict is a luxury?" I asked.
We paused, that gave us something to think about.
What World War II Heroes Have in Common
In between Seder prayers, the conversation continued with Jack and Kostek. Jack, now a second-year student, told us he was going to spend the summer learning how to operate an MRI machine studying the brains of young women who might be prone to social anxiety disorders. He was thrilled to be doing real research and in his hometown of Madison Wisconsin.
Somehow, probably due to the intercession of prayers, bitter herbs, and horseradish, we got from there to what wartime heroes had in common.
Kostek, an expert in World War II Poland, said he had spoken to many people who had saved Jews during the war. He noticed something so curious about what they had in common. He said, after the war, they were all over the place politically. Some of these people were on the far-right (many of them, in fact), some where on the far left, some where professors and others were uneducated peasants.
"Do you know what they all had in common?" he asked.
We shook our heads.
"They all did not believe that the problem was someone else's business. They are the kind of people that cannot leave well enough alone. They make terrible co-workers," he explained laughing a bit, "because they are always involved in everyone else's business."
He talked to people who knew people who took similar risks in the Bosnian war, the attribute was the same. The people who saved others at the risk of their own lives were nosy people who wouldn't wait for others to fix things.
Astonishing. We have totally undervalued these folks! Or at least I have. In 2015, Psychology Today wrote an article on how to handle nosy people. But, I'm starting to think maybe we need more of them.
I suggested to Jack that maybe his future research could be studying the brains of people who do this. Maybe their brains are different. Maybe nosy people have a bigger this or a smaller that. He really liked that idea....lets see where young Jack lands.
As for never eating alone, I am so glad I spent the evening with Kostek and Jack. I won't ever look at Siberia or nosy people the same way.
Sarah Federman, PhD
Enjoy these short blogs and videos designed to bring you a little cheer.
My other blog Language of Conflict addresses the importance of word choice and narration in conflict.
Finish and Flourish supports writers struggling to complete projects.