impossible in a new light

When I boarded my flight home from Boston this July, I had a draft of this essay completed. It was written and focused; I needed only to spend time refining it. Yet as I walked down the jetway, I realized there was a different story asking to be told. It was the story of my relationship with my mother. I was not sure at the beginning how it would connect to the narrative of business, of change, of creating innovation and insight for our community, but it does explain the pathway to my perspective, the passion that is often found behind my ideas, and the force through which I sometimes bring them into light.

For the last two years my job has been to enforce contracts in property management. This is a difficult role for me because I feel better suited to create the contracts than to enforce them, but it’s essential nonetheless to see all sides of our work. With every controversy that arose over a lease agreement I felt myself pulled between sides—a familiar feeling for a child of divorced parents—and I felt the need to be sure that all sides were heard. A contract helps no one if it doesn’t honor all parties authentically. And if we choose to make a tough decision, let’s do so consciously, and with compassion.

Each time a tenant improvement request was made, a lease negotiated, a building system in need of repair, I sought to find all sides of the issue. It’s true there was a status quo as to how I am supposed to handle each issue, but I sometimes found the curt professional response I was supposed to send didn’t do justice to the emotionality of the situations at hand, particularly for the tenant, who found themselves at the whim of unarticulated structures that they did not fully understand. It’s true I represent the landlord, and yet I also believe that what serves the landlord best at the end of the day (a lower vacancy rate and satisfied, responsible tenants who buy into the care of the building) is also what benefits the tenants, and allows them to thrive.

My focus on balancing the scales, and my sensitivity to each side, did not appear out of thin air. It grows from the nuanced story of my parents after their divorce. My mom is intelligent and curious and has suffered from debilitating anxiety her entire life. My dad is thorough, stubborn, and extremely hardworking. Both of them wise in different ways. When they split, so did the resources, on equal terms. But what transpired after that reflected some of the more tragic aspects of our society, and I watched with wide ten year-old eyes.

My dad remarried and continued to work tirelessly, growing steadily yet humbly. My mom was less supported and began to spiral. The community she once knew before the divorce almost completely fell away. Over time, the dichotomy increased, and I found myself bouncing not only between different worldviews, but also different income classes altogether. I had trouble comprehending the growing gap and managing an increasingly complex relationship with my mom as I grew up and found my own way. I understood how to communicate to those who were resource-poor, and I was starting to understand how to communicate with those who were resource-rich. The two have different languages. The subtleties, the nuances, the things that allow one person to feel seen and respected differ from one language to the other, and I knew this intimately. Growing up, I often clashed with my stepmother, whom I adore, for the simple fact that I would say something that was perceived and internalized entirely differently on her end. It would leave me thinking: What have I done? And why can’t she understand me? Over many years, we have come to understand each other, and it’s been an invaluable part of my life. I also continued to cling with white-knuckled terror to the language that allowed me to communicate with my mom. If I abandoned it entirely, I feared I would lose her, and her love.

Only recently have I found the grace to let go, and to loosen my grip on that language; to explore, and diverge, and still love her. It’s fostered a desire in me to connect people through their humanity, not their income, background, race, or age. This is where progress lies for us, and where we can truly see each other as individuals, who often want very similar things.

By the time this summer rolled around, I was ready for a break from examining sides. I spent a week at the beach with my dad bookended by a day on each side with my mom. As I sat across the table from her at a small restaurant in Somerville, I babbled on about my work and my renewed passion for writing, but I was also searching for a meaning to what was so painfully in front of me. My amazing mom was aging, and in her age, I felt I had not done enough to support her when the world seemed to fail her. Does she have agency in this? Of course. But for too many women out there, or men for that matter, they are struggling. So I began to look at the broader picture and say: What does our society need more of? What can we do better? Is there a paradigm we want to change? And finally, how can I be of service?

I recently heard that we cannot move forward until we embrace our past. This is a part of mine, and it defines my view in a beautiful and flawed way all at once. I seek both to break it down and hold it gently. To know when to move outside of it, and when to draw on that power and experience in a unique way. It has developed in me a deep reverence for the pain that we all experience. Our emotions are relative and true, no matter the context. They can never be compared or pitted against one another. They just are. It’s our most challenging emotions that break us down, and if we are committed, resurrect us as we explore our pathway out.

The languages of class defined my childhood, and yet despite my observations about their differences, I also realized there were commonalities. That there was a common language between any class, across any side of the table, between any landlord and tenant. It is the language of ownership, of heart; the language of love. It is a difficult thing to differentiate the voice of the heart from the voice of the mind; but it’s possible with practice, and it tells us the story of a new approach. Of kindness, and growth that does not harm. Of communities that lift each other up, and focus on commonalities instead of divisions. It takes tremendous bravery, and requires an equal focus on the body and soul as much as it does the mind. But the seemingly intractable situations that we face today? The political confusion and aggression, the social justice issues that are rising with force—these are not lost causes. Marked change may be years away, but it is truly the journey that matters. We don’t have to despair. We have to break it down, and focus on one step at a time. Shut out the news, find your light, and bring your passion to the table. It’s not impossible.