Most mornings, I see eight-year old Jermayne as he arrives on the playground. He comes through the big gates, takes a single step onto the yard and then stops. Every day he stops on the same spot. He lifts his chin, looks straight ahead, and forms an X with his index fingers. Holding this X held in front of his face, he advances a few yards, marks a spot, proceeds, marks, stops –repeat. As he walks from point to point, he hums.
Jump back to two weeks ago. The boy and I came face-to-face as he marked out an almost empty yard. I waited in the center, tracking his angles east – stop – X, then west – stop – X. Then he came my way. In front of me he stopped, avoided eye contact because that’s not something he does, marked the spot- X and snapped his fingers twice.
Before he stepped away, I asked – where are you going? Home, said he. Just a single word. Then, he started humming and commenced to the next X. In that little moment, I saw not only how Jermayne’s searching worked – but also why.
Marian, a principal mentor from my earlier years in leadership once talked to me about how to find your way when you get lost. “Listen with big ears. Listen all the way in and don’t be so eager to talk all the time. We lead better when we use our ears more and our mouths less. Secrets whisper in from quieter places and not so much from the loudest mouth or the fastest talker. If you start to drift, try listening this way. You’ll like what you find out.”
My thoughts about Jermayne and Marian came up again yesterday as I sat at a table with a group of super smart folks, board members, talking about their organization’s mission, vision, and values. They got to arguing about particular words, the order of phrases, where to put commas, and which verb had more punch.
I offered a story about stepping out onto my back deck the night before to look at the stars. What a night! Cloudless, cold, windy. Distant points of light popped and it seemed I could see even ringed planets turning. I felt myself as one of those small points, tiny, but connected to it all. If your words are stars, said I, you have all the words you need. Consider them all together. Not one by one. That’s how you’ll know. They grinned and continued arguing, but that’s how it goes. I went back to listening.
Home has little to do with particulars like a plot of land, a building, or a knapsack tossed under a bridge. It comes from a unity that happens on the inside. Finding it comes from making the journey – X to X, not from sticking to one point. I once told a group of fifth graders, for example, to grab hold of those wandering times. They’ll teach you what to do when you wander off track.
I am still journeying. I listen into the speechlessness of wanderers like Jermayne. It speaks to hidden parts within me. Such places need patience and quiet to come back out. I can’t tell anyone what he should do. I can, however, share what I know about marking X’s and moving on. If the deepest listening will ever come, times where I haven’t a clue are the moments I have to look forward to.
To Marian Altman who urged me to go forth in confidence, and to worry not on the days gone by.