I headed up the broad, sandy trail in the shadow of the fire-barren hills, past the sign warning hikers to proceed at their own risk. The mom with the little girl being silly in the bathroom said they could handle it, so I let myself be drawn by the crows wheeling around the sunlit ridge above. Reaching the viewpoint at the top, I left the trail to follow the ridge – the cool of the canyon to my left and the warm currents rising from the urban sprawl on my right. The crows were nowhere to be seen, but I soon spotted them moving darkly in the cool shadows, poking through the ashy silt and edging along charred branches, burbling in the tones they reserve for intimate company.
I made my way to the edge of the cliff just above them to get a better look, speaking to them in my mind so they would not be startled. But as soon as I peered over the edge, a warning call went out from several throats and clusters of them began to take to the sky, cawing and circling until there were over a hundred in layered clouds above me. I crouched to the ground in submission and the tone of the calls shifted, but they still dove so close to me I could see their eyes shining against their slick and shimmering feathers and hear the buzz of the air whizzing through their wings. Following their movements as they hovered and plunged in tumbling spirals was dizzying and I edged back to a flat rock along the center of the ridge for stability and let myself feel flooded by their creative dignity. My body light and free, but I felt no desire to join them any more closely than the uncertainty of my own life had already brought me.
In that moment, I sensed crows even more deeply than ever as a totem, ubiquitous, but always offering something to me piercingly astute and broadly sacred. My last day in Seattle I had watched a flock of them dining on the lawn outside the Native American Center and I could feel a beak extending from my own face driving deep into the soil and tossing dried leaves. A large crow outside the hostel in Marin had cooed to me in such astonishingly tender and eloquent tones that I tossed him a few almonds and marveled at how his eye tracked every piece that flew as he dismantled each nut in a different way. As they spiraled above me on that ridge, drifting up and away and slowly dispersing, I understood how each was fully self-sufficient, but drawn together in a spirit of play and collaboration – communicating about safety and new opportunities. And I understood that of all the trainings I’m considering – of all the slick and structured and high-status presentations that dazzle my mind – what I really need is to go deep, as deep as I can, not just to learn exercises to share with others but to facilitate my own transformation. I will remain hungry and shallow unless I let go into the free fall and dig as deep as I can – under the concrete and timelines and bank accounts and fear – and sense how life is supposed to be lived in a primal unfolding dialogue. That is what the sentience of the earth and all its creatures has always asked of me: to come and be nourished and guided, and to share what I receive.
What does it mean to be a leader? In the last year I have had those close to me question my leadership ability and praise the leadership of those I did not respect. Over the years I have had others recognize and encourage the leader in me. Adjectives both groups tend to use are “courageous”, “focused”, “charismatic”, “having integrity”, “visionary”, “strong”. In a dialogue with David Bedrick in the comments section of his most recent and insightful Facebook post, I shared my current struggle with a strong desire to serve a leader I admire and my increasing inner suspicion that I must create my own business, organization, and/or community as the only sure way to find what I seek. I have been deeply moved and excited about the planning sessions I’ve had with my sister over our new business, feeling so at home supporting her driven vision, but also worried I may just be hiding from my own brilliance in the familiar role of youngest sibling I tend to adopt in whatever group I’m in. David’s intuition across the distance, despite having never met me: “I think you are a leader; actually, I get a pretty clear sense of that. No doubt enters me when that arises. Now, what kind of leader are you? Hmmm, that I don’t see clearly, but it may have a resonance with leading and serving and learning – it may be less of a conventional leader (which is often patriarchal in tone). Consider the possibility that that is your nature and you are growing into it.”
Recent events have invited me to start thinking less in terms of “this or that” and more along the lines of “both/and”. I see this in the way I consider the options as finding a leader to serve or becoming one in order to serve others when in my experience I tend to do both. I see this coming up in my attempts to make peace with my last relationship and community. Was I too weak or were they dysfunctional? Was it my strength that enabled me to break away or my failure in giving up? Did I see and experience enough in my body, mind, and heart to finally be free of those painful patterns or am I just continuing the same exhausting cycles? Yes. Yes, to all of it. It all held threads of dysfunction, and I played into it in familiar ways. I also made tremendous progress in the ways I did things differently, fewer times, and for shorter durations. I had to escape in a way that didn’t feel as clean or honest as it could have been, but I also held tremendous self-love in recognizing my limitations. The idea of “strength” keeps shadowing me. It’s never a compliment to be called “weak” and the world isn’t kind to victims. We all want to be strong, but what does that mean? Some admire leaders who persevere against all odds. Others admire leaders who admit their mistakes and change course.
After I left the crows on the ridge, I wandered through the recovering landscape. I saw new life springing from the ground around charred shrubs. I saw spikey plants with dead tips and bright green growth at their bases. I saw tiny animal burrows. It is in the nature of all life to rejuvenate itself, and burning is a necessary part of that process. What came to me is that strength is what enables something to remain intact despite powerful opposing forces. Perhaps the way we define strength, and therefore the ideal qualities of a leader, depends on what it is we believe should remain intact. Is it the façade of perfection or radical honesty? Is it rugged self-reliance or the value of collaboration? Is it stoicism in the face of all circumstances or the courage to model publicly a willingness to be broken and a faith in rebirth?
Whether I consider myself a leader boils down to whether I believe that what I consistently embody with uncompromising strength has value to others. And that can be found both in where I have succeeded and where I have failed. I succeed where emotional transparency and honesty are celebrated, where mutual ownership and collaboration thrive, where there is genuine curiosity and willingness to take risks that challenge the status quo, and where the sovereignty and wisdom of all life is honored. I will fail to lead where decisions are hierarchical, where with wisdom and power of feelings are marginalized, and where etiquette and prudence are valued over authentic expression and innovation. I will be weak where self-sufficiency, stoicism, and domination are the measure of success. And I will give up on anything that doesn’t allow itself to be shaped by its impact on all living things – people of all ages, animals, and the land.
One does not necessarily become a leader by having a following or getting things done. The leaders I have respected most are those who spend much of their days alone in the jungle of life, deepening their conviction in rebellious beliefs, adopting unpopular lifestyles, and making the sacrifices required to carry within them something life-affirming that they cannot compromise. They often become traditional leaders reluctantly when others discover and want to emulate them. As much as the child in me just wants a community to protect her, a lover to comfort and play with her, and a companion of uncompromising values to serve, the woman in me knows none of that is reliable enough. Like the crows, I must embody the creativity and cunning to survive in this world on my own and to keep what nourishes my spirit intact while remaining ever watchful and grateful for those moments that erupt in play and mutual exchange, whoever it is who takes the lead.
“If you cannot find a good companion to walk with, walk alone, like an elephant roaming the jungle. It is better to walk alone than with those who hinder your progress.” – Buddha