I was sitting outside one late summer evening a year ago under a tree full of lights.
Ten friends around a table that had the look of cast iron, we might have just walked onto a scene from a Smith and Hawken catalogue.
The chairs and tables were arranged on the wooden deck in the suburban backyard of a couple that I had known for a long time. The reason for their organizing this evening together was the chance to visit with Ron and Trudy, two friends who had spent the last year and a half in New Zealand and who were preparing to return there in a week. A significant career possibility had prompted the move across the oceans, and the evening was threaded with tales of cultural adjustment and economic realities and surprises and opportunities to savor what stays important in lives no matter where they are lived.
The conversation whirled and eddied over food and drink that was as creatively orchestrated as usual with this group. Someone had prepared an amazingly fresh bowl of greens; someone else, a potato salad with the crunch of carrots and red onions and parsley. Our host fired the grill for ribs prepared with a paprika rub. Pitchers of white sangria heavy with orange and peach and grape slices circled around the table for the first two hours – a nod to the recent trip to Portugal on the part of the host and hostess.
“So what’s new with all of you?” Trudy asked the table during a lull in the Auckland questions and answers.
Someone’s daughter had just published a first book, and we were all urged to go onto Amazon soon. Someone else had this week returned from a conference in New Orleans and recounted latest impressions of the city’s recovery from Katrina. Another friend had started a business in the past few months with someone we all knew from New Year’s parties at our host and hostess’s home. There were lots of itineraries recounted all around, and someone even mentioned my two trips to France the previous spring, one to handle work commitments, the other to provide a taste of vacation in a low-travel time of year.
As I listened to the catalogue of activities, I knew that I would find no way to mention the most important thing that the year had brought to me. I was not going to talk of the energy that had returned to my life with that year of weekly meetings in an office in a quiet neighborhood in another part of the city.
Looking around the table at people that I had known for over twenty years, I could imagine no way to tell them that I was growing happier and more confident than I had felt in a long time. Trips to France would have to suffice for now as the new landscape in which Ron and Trudy and the rest of these people pictured me. I became aware that there was little ease for me in thinking about talking with them about what had become important in my life. With that awareness, I knew that the work I had to do in that office was not over.
At the end of the evening, I followed Trudy onto the front porch to wish her a final farewell. It was our first time together that evening, just the two of us. With her usual ready smile, she asked how my nonprofit work had gone this year. Coming from someone else, it might have sounded like a stock question. It was with thought, however, that I told her, “Great!”
“You still enjoy it, don’t you?” she asked.
“Absolutely!” I answered.
“It’s rare to hear someone who is able to say that about their work after all these years.”
Her comment cut through all the other topics and drifts of conversation of the evening. I felt at that moment that my answers mattered to her and that I mattered to her.
I looked at Trudy and thanked her for asking what she had.
I love good questions. I am learning how to ask them and how to recognize the people who ask the ones that give me the most life and light.