Sunday, October 10, 2010

When to speak . . . what to say . . . and priceless lessons from a little old woman.

I spent a lot of this summer not posting anything to this blog. And, I’ve been feeling really torn lately, feeling like I desperately want to get something up here and then feeling like either I don’t know what to say—or feeling that I don’t know how to say what I should say.

Over the summer, I was struck by how lucky I was. I was able to take three months off from my job—knowing that the people at my company wanted me back when my sabbatical was through. I almost felt guilty for having saved the money to travel—knowing that so many people were suffering financially this summer, and here I was able to travel carefree, spend saved money, and know my job was safe back at home.

But because I saved for it, I was able to travel to Massachusetts, Maine, Florida, and through parts of my current home state, Washington. I was able to reconnect with old friends—including a gal I went to nursery school with (back when we called it nursery school)—make new friends, and enjoy one of my favorite activities: sailing.

But in part because I have still failed to go on a Tim Ferriss (of Four-Hour Workweek fame)-style information diet, I kept thinking about the state of our country and being perplexed by the fact that so many of the people currently suffering the most severe consequences of this Great Recession are actually lobbying against their own better interests. While Arianna Huffington, Warren Buffett, and many other very well-off Americans indicate that they would happily pay more in taxes because they earn more and are willing to shoulder their share of the burden of getting us out of our current fiscal mess, those who barely pay taxes—or at least pay far less than the wealthy—continue to rally in favor of preventing the wealthiest among us from paying more. Why?

And, more and more, those of us who have similar ideological perspectives get our news and information from certain outlets, and those who have a different view get their news from other outlets. And in effect, there is no conversation. There is no dialog or exchange of ideas. And lies—things that can be proven to be inaccurate and untrue—spread and are believed at a greater rate than things that can be shown to be factual. Again, why? As Jon Stewart would say, “This isn’t helping.”

So, during my break, I spent a bit of extra time reading and watching speakers on TED and PopTech. Most of the speakers are leaders in business, science, technology, etc, and they have lots of great ideas. Many of these so-called thought leaders are doing inspiring things: leading innovative new businesses, working to combat climate change, and starting philanthropic organizations that are locally making significant change. But, while so many of these individuals are incredibly articulate and are very accurately able to frame the problems we face, I remain struck by the fact that they are still only speaking to some of us. For the most part, they are speaking to a highly-educated audience that is already poised to agree with them. So, in most cases, they are not actually challenging the members of their audiences to make radical changes in their personal lives.

But more than any lecture or book, what turned out to be most inspirational for me this summer is that I had the very rare opportunity to reconnect with a woman who is something of a hidden treasure. Her name is Evelyn Kok, and she and her husband of many years own the Gallery of the Purple Fish.

I have no idea how old she is, but she was old back when I worked on the Nathanial Bowditch as a cook back in the 90’s, and I was both shocked and thrilled to find that she and her husband are still opening the doors to their gallery most summer days.

When you visit Evelyn, the first thing you’ll notice is that she doesn’t do business like most people. From a purely economic perspective, some might say that she doesn’t really do business at all. When we found her after walking all morning up and down the main street in Stonington on Deer Isle, one of our shipmates on the Bowditch, Michael, had decided to rest in the shade in front of her gallery. When Evelyn and her husband arrived, she was astonished to find Michael, whom she seemed to regard as a rather handsome fellow, lounging on the ground in her dooryard. It seems that people rarely surprise Evelyn, and Michael had managed to do just that. She went on and on about finding this man lazing about in her dooryard—apparently not something that happens everyday, so an instant kinship was formed. She then happily invited us into the gallery, where we all walked around reverently as if in a museum. Soon after we were settled and chatting, a couple of ladies off a yacht in the harbor entered the shop somewhat brusquely. They had heard that Evelyn makes personalized bookmarks for people and sells them for a dollar or two. The ladies explained that they were in a rush and asked if it would it be possible to get a couple of bookmarks. At that very moment, Evelyn could have decided that the price of a bookmark was $15 instead of a dollar or two, and in a few minutes, she could have made more money than she normally makes in the better part of a day. Instead, Evelyn explained that she always takes care of the schooner people first. They were welcome to come back, but there would be no rushing around trying to meet their demands or schedule.

Evelyn has other rules too. You have to be present in her shop for her to personalize a bookmark for you, so you can’t, as I had hoped, have her create one for every member of your family. You can only purchase a schooner bookmark if you arrived by schooner; if you drove to Stonington, you can buy a bookmark with a fish on it, but you can’t get a schooner one. No amount of money will change these rules.

When it comes time to pay for your bookmark, Evelyn tells you that the Quartermaster will take your payment. The Quartermaster is a small, carved object that I seem to recall looks something like a hippo, and its mouth opens to reveal many quarters, which is where you are to add your payment.

Evelyn does not work quickly. She talks and dispenses little bits of wisdom. She tells you about art and talks about her husband, who was a professor of music and who now putters with her in the Gallery of the Purple Fish. Since we were running out of time and had to get back to the schooner, I told her that I didn’t need a bookmark because I already had one from back when I worked on the schooners myself. So, instead of a bookmark, she gave me a hug.

Evelyn has quite a sense of humor and she told us about escaping the gallery and going up to what she and her husband call their “escape hatch,” which I assumed was a house further up in town. She explained that in the summer season, being the star attraction (my words, not hers) in the gallery begins to feel like being a fish in a fish bowl, so at times, she and her husband simply flip their sign to closed and head for their escape hatch.

What I learned from Evelyn is that while a zillion people can and will prescribe the rules of your life, only you can stand up for your needs and make a set of personal rules that can successfully govern your life according to your own wishes. Most of us believe we can’t do it. Most of us believe we have to step in time with what society asks of us. When society urges us to work more hours, buy a bigger house, saddle ourselves with more debt, and live a life that is not truly of our own choosing, we typically heed the call. And, I believe that in a zillion little ways we are all coerced into making daily choices that benefit big corporations and other special interests more than they benefit us—all because we aren’t really paying attention to what is most important to our happiness.

When I think about Evelyn, I realize that this little old woman may be slight of frame, but she is immensely powerful. She has been strong enough to make and to live by her own rules, which allow her to be happy—and she is unwavering in her determination to live a life that reflects her own passions. She loves the Maine Windjammers, so she sets rules around supporting these traditional boats and the people who sail them. She is an artist, and in order to enjoy her art, she forgoes money in exchange for happiness.

Part of what I believe created the Great Recession is that so many people—at every point on the economic spectrum—fell in line and did what they thought was expected of them instead of choosing a life that they were passionate about and living by a set of rules that they themselves created. Instead of listening to their own voices, they believed the banks, they were seduced by excess, and they forgot what they really wanted and who they really were.

Evelyn is a reminder that we all get to choose. And it is not that earning money is inherently bad or that working for things you want is unreasonable, but I would suggest that it is critical to make sure that you’re working for what YOU really want. In Evelyn’s world, money and getting ahead isn’t what drives her. She’s already there. She is an old woman, in love with her husband, content with her life. She is rare, and she is a gem.

But, what if we all selected a life and pursued our dreams—even if our dreams didn’t conform with what is typical: having the highest profile career, driving the flashiest car, and living in the fanciest house. What if we didn’t create bubbles and instead created foundations for the lives we wanted to live?

As those of you who have read my previous posts know, my partner, Brian and I are saving to build a cruising sailboat, and when the boat is complete, we intend to sail—if not all the way—around much of the world. We hope to power our boat with electric auxiliary power. We plan to have a composting toilet, and we hope to learn and share our experiences. Are we doing this because we expect to save the world? No. Are we trying to fix global climate change? Well, we wouldn’t mind contributing, but no, this is not our primary motivating factor either. The reason we want to build a boat and voyage around the planet is because it is a way of life that we believe will suit us. We believe our boat will be something of a floating classroom—or university—where we will study and explore subjects of interest. We believe it will satisfy our wanderlust and our love of outdoor adventure. We hope it will allow us to meet many wonderful and fascinating people, and we hope to share our experiences both in person and through writing with the many friends and family members who are already so important in our lives.

So, I’m not urging anyone else to build a boat and sail away (although, it’s not a bad idea, eh), but I am suggesting that one way to start to repair our society is for each of us to, at times, decide to take a different, less conventional path and to live a life based on our own dreams and principles, realizing that if we are trapped in a job we hate or a life we don’t want, we can change it—not by lobbying congress—but by shifting our own direction and ignoring what the television may suggest—and even what well-meaning friends, family, and colleagues might urge. Because in the end, if we could all live lives that feel personal and that make us proud, I believe we could all be as happy and content as Evelyn Kok.


  1. I love this post. Thank you for sharing such wisdom -- both from Evelyn and from you. I will bookmark this post for those times I feel like I should go back into the corporate world to get a "real" job. :)

  2. Thank you both for your kind words! And, Wenmei, you have multiple very REAL jobs, and you're doing exactly what I think we should all be doing--following your passion. And in doing so, you are setting a fantastic example for Mr. Z and Ms. S. They are very lucky! :)


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