Growth Doesn’t Happen in the Weeds

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As I talk with women from diverse backgrounds and professions, the notion of “the weeds” seems to resonate universally.

The weeds are a highly emotional place, a vast and interconnected tangle of thoughts, memories, and experiences. Charged with  emotion and fear, the weeds are highly sensitive. Once triggered, they ricochet us through patterns and responses, leaving us wounded and depleted as we struggle to regain our sense of balance and control.

Not surprisingly, growth doesn’t happen in the weeds. And yet that’s exactly where many of us find ourselves. Sent there by tragedy, crisis, relationships, and even complacency- almost any life or work event can serve as a trigger.

Over the years, I have developed an acute sensitivity to the weeds. I experience them as creeping vines, wrapping around our ankles or torsos. I can often sense their shadow as they approach- thoughts of self-doubt or defensiveness, a tightening in the throat or stomach. And in others, they manifest as a darkness, draining both energy and light.

From a cognitive standpoint, the weeds represent the lowest levels of our thinking. Laden with details and context, they keep us trapped in our emotions with little room for reflection or insight. But if we are able to leave the weeds behind, we can travel higher in our systems, entering a universe of concepts and ideas. Unlike the closely knitted tangles of emotions, these constructs are expansive and dynamic, able to be nested, stacked, and rearranged as we build and reconfigure our understanding of ourselves, our work and our worlds.

The cognitive differences between the weeds and higher thinking cannot be exaggerated. It’s like comparing the most innovative playground to the rings of Hell. But escaping from the weeds is neither easy nor intuitive. By definition, it involves getting away from danger but also finding something  safer. In simple terms, breaking free from the emotionality of the weeds is only part of the solution. We must at the same time embrace the benefits of higher thinking, pulling ourselves upward through textured goals, commitments, and thought patterns. Imagine yourself on a climbing wall, searching for constructs to grab onto as you lift your feet higher.

The good news is that it’s all within our reach, and interest in this new frontier seems to be building. With every month, I’m being asked to speak about these and strategies with increasing frequency and enthusiasm. From companies wanting to provide their associates with tools to reach and dream higher, to women looking for opportunities for advancement, and organizations focused on community impacts, we seem to be collectively yearning for growth and expansion. Perhaps this is an area that is ready to be developed and cultivated. Perhaps the time has finally come for cognitive redesign.

As someone who has studied and thought about these ideas for over thirty years, I am excited and eager to share my strategies and insights. But I am also mindful of the paradigm shift that this approach represents. I’m curious to hear my readers’ thoughts and feedback. Does this notion of the weeds resonate with you? And are we really ready to embrace a more generative approach to growth and advancement?

Actualizing our Potential

This Friday, at the EOC Women’s Conference, I will be talking about the notion of actualizing our potential.

I see potential everywhere. It’s like a radiant energy that hovers around us, waiting to be activated and utilized. Although potential is inherently powerful, it comes in a latent form, requiring a vehicle for its release. Think of natural gas, sunlight, or wind. Identifying their presence is critical, but it’s only through harnessing and channeling their energy that they become useful.

We are in a state of latent potential. Although potential is literally everywhere, building and bubbling around and through us, it remains largely untapped. It is true that we try to develop our potential, through education and workforce training programs. But our attempts are largely limited. Rather than cultivating its abundant forms- the gifts, talents, and resources that individuals and groups and places offer- and creating tailored vehicles for delivery and dissemination, we continue to work backwards. We build our pipelines and factories with specific opportunities in mind, letting jobs and workforce sectors guide and limit our preparation.

And in doing so, we continue to propagate the belief that preparation will lead to opportunity, and that opportunity is in fact enough to get us where we need to go. And yet clearly, opportunity is not a sufficient pathway for actualizing our collective potential now or in the future. Opportunities- in the present sense- are often limited and highly specific, forcing us to compete with one another by squeezing into constraints and limitations. And let’s face it, even if we strive to win these opportunities, they are simply not enough. They will neither accommodate everyone seeking them, nor will they utilize or actualize the talents and resources of those who win them.

Of course we should continue to pursue opportunities, preparing ourselves and one another to compete for positions that offer security and meaningful work. But we cannot stop there. We need more vehicles, more models that will allow individuals, systems, and communities to plug in their respective resources, to add value, to connect with others. We need models that are generative, systems that create new spaces and opportunities, that leverage- by design- latent potential toward the greater good.

It is true that the frontiers of entrepreneurship and social enterprise are creating new spaces and opportunities for growth. But if we allow ourselves to see potential as a natural resource, THE natural resource, we will recognize that we haven’t even scratched the surface with regard to what is possible. This is the world that I revel in- the land of possibilities and potential. And although it may seem fantastical, especially for those who focus on “matters of consequence”, I assure you that it is real and well within our reach, and more fulfilling than you could ever imagine.

I look forward to sharing more this Friday. Please join me for the EOC Women’s Conference from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. March 18 in the EOC, 555 Ellicott St., on the UB Downtown Campus.

Settling In, Reflections for the New Year

Today begins a new year. A clean slate. A pristine page of promise and possibility. I once found such newness intoxicating, always eager to plunge in- to create, dream, begin new chapters, new projects, new stages of life.

But in this moment, I do not feel the whispers of new. The house is exquisitely quiet but not at all empty- buzzing with warmth and life- husband, children, furry creatures. I am moved by its fullness.

Like many, I have been tempted to reset the plot, trading frustration and complexity for shiny and new. Unfinished journals, job applications- efforts to fast forward, to transform, to finally get it right.

Perhaps it takes a while to settle in. To listen quietly as the richness of life buzzes around us. To realize that the air is thick with nuance and color.

I am thankful for the reprieve- the chance to pause, to settle in to the moments, the relationships, the people and places with whom I have touched souls. The richness and beauty are remarkable when framed against stillness- so many textures and colors, patterns pulsating with life and history.

My family is just moments from waking, from setting into motion the dramas and stories, the possibilities that swirl around and through us, always changing yet staying intimately the same.

There is no need to create anew. I accept this gift of understanding. And with it, the sun rises.

In just one week I will return to Tanzania, to the Mara Region, to my special place. In the silence I listen for my soul’s response. I am reminded that this time it is not the promise of new projects, possibilities, or promises to be kept. Instead, it is simply a continuation, another touchstone in a life being lived.

I will accept this insight as a resolution, a promise to listen more attentively to the richness of the moment, to resist the false temptations of starting new. To settle in to the experiences and relationships I have been given, the plots and players to whom I am promised and committed. To let the stories play out in their full splendor. To resist the urge to overproduce.

Perhaps these are not traditional resolutions. But as I embrace their wisdom, I feel a sense of lightness and excitement. My mind wanders to the gifts that I will give and receive in the coming years. To friendships. To experiences. To the richness and mystery of life. To the infinite possibilities that exist within every moment.

The house finally stirs and it begins to snow.

Happy New Year everyone!

It’s Hard to Stand Still

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Certain states of being are natural. Growth, for example, is written into our DNA. From the moment we’re conceived we stretch and move outward, engaging with the environment, learning, and developing our skills and understanding toward a higher state of mastery. Ironically, entropy is an equally natural state, an inherent tendency for things and systems to break down over time, losing focus, strength, relevance, accelerating toward a place of disorganization and eventual obsolescence.

In contrast, the act of standing still is neither natural nor sustainable. Upon scrutiny it is merely a fleeting moment in time before either growth or entropy kick in. And as such, it is a particularly precarious place to rest or hold onto as the  world changes and thrashes around us.

And yet despite its inherent dangers and limitations, the notion of standing still continues to factor prominently in our plans and decision making. When faced with the overwhelming and often competing challenges, threats, and demands associated with our lives and work, our systems and structures, many make a deliberate decision to stay where they are, steady, constant and secure.

Efforts to stand still look different with varying players and contexts, but universally they consume large amounts of effort and focus. Because the dichotomous forces of growth and entropy serve as magnets with opposing fields, the cost of resisting and remaining braced in a neutral position can be depleting. Any movement in either direction must be corrected immediately before momentum builds, ricocheting people and organizations forward and back at an often dizzying pace.

Why would anyone or any organization choose to stand still? When forced with a categorical choice between growth and dissolution all would claim to embrace the former. Indeed most publically extol the virtues of innovation, generativity and growth. Organizations post job descriptions calling for leaders who can think outside the box, who are entrepreneurial and collaborative. Meanwhile individuals fantasize about new jobs, new adventures, and opportunities to spread their wings and soar.

And yet when push comes to shove we gravitate toward the middle, seeking comfort, shelter, and security, implicitly defending and supporting the status quo. How ironic that a place that is not really a place at all can keep us so collectively stuck.

What is it about growth that seems so scary? Perhaps it is simply a fear of the unknown or the risk of losing our footing. Maybe it’s a need to feel the ground beneath our feet or under our nails. After all, growth is about expansion and generativity, elevation and brilliance. To many, these concepts feel foreign and suspicious, too airy and nebulous, too risky and uncertain. But once we begin to unpack the notion of growth, revealing its facets and structures, giving it shape and texture, we can start to develop a sense of comfort and familiarity, ways to chart our progress and find the sense of stability we crave. Maybe then we can finally allow ourselves to go for it, leaving behind the false sense of security that we’ve come to associate with standing still.

Women, Power, and Getting Unstuck

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Our collective notions of power are in need of a major makeover.

Forget about the greedy self-serving kind, or the influence that comes with wealth and control. Although these are the connotations that are sold to us by a male-dominated society, they are not the type of power that we desperately need or crave.

What we need at this particular moment in time is an inherently different version of power, an ability to connect our gifts and talents with needs and opportunities around us, to add value, to build unity, and to create something inherently better.

This notion of power represents a dynamic interplay between two component forces- a clarity of mission and purpose, and a responsiveness to the ambient world. Honing and knowing what we bring to the table, what we represent in terms of our gifts and potential, and then tracking our focus on opportunities to respond and engage.

When viewed through this lens, it becomes apparent that our power is magnified when we work together. Not in a solely strategic or calculated way, but instead through intimate and personal connections, activating one another’s talents and networks to accelerate and amplify our impacts beyond what we could achieve alone.

This is the type of power- the only type of power- that nurtures our souls, that heals our wounds and fills us back up, undoing the damage that we have collectively incurred. Fear, aggression, victimization- all weapons that have drained our essence leading us toward self-destruction instead of the brilliant future that waits within reach.

But how can we find our power when so many of us remain trapped in darkness? Like a riddle, the answer is hidden in our false assumption, a fundamental error that is exquisitely simple yet profound. To find our power we cannot start with our supervisors, titles or salaries, or any other label or thing that is given to us or put upon us. For looking to others for our power is the surest way to never find or keep it.

The type of power we seek is neither ephemeral nor uncertain. Its permanence and strength derive from a sense of clarity and purpose tied to our own talents, mission, and what we uniquely bring to the world. To find it we must go deep, getting personal, moving well beyond our degrees, titles, and jobs that are externally bequeathed. We must delve into the very core of our experiences, insights and realizations, allowing ourselves to think, feel, and know.

And then we need to make things happen- big things, important things, things that matter. And we need to do it together, supporting one another, and celebrating and reflecting on our impacts, creating more spaces and opportunities to shine and help others shine, creating a world that values and leverages talent toward the greatest good.

Only then will we know what it feels like to be truly powerful, to be no longer afraid or hurt or angry.  Only then can we shine.

Dorothy’s Gift

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As I prepare for the New Year, I find myself combing through past posts, searching for poignant memories and lessons learned.  Perhaps ironically, I am drawn to one of my earliest musings, a piece that details an encounter with a homeless woman temporarily living in a neighborhood park.  Her image has become indelibly associated with the place, and I find myself thinking of her often.

Unsure what is befitting my 100th post, the final day of a fascinating year, and the beginning of unknown adventures to come, I re-offer Dorothy’s Gift, originally posted in December 2013.

Happy New Year everyone, and thank you for being part of my journey.- Mara

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The moment of realization struck me like a lightning bolt.  The woman sitting on this bench before me had been in this very spot for several days, maybe even weeks?  I strained to remember when I had first noticed her, but couldn’t get past the weight in my throat as I acknowledged the obvious.  She was sleeping there, on this bench, in this lovely little park right in the middle of my neighborhood.

My cherished early morning walk had come to a halt as I stood there looking at her trying not to be noticed.  The impression was one of a mystical tree.  Draped in a dark green cloak with a peaked hood and flowing sleeves, she sat with her head down, all angles pointing to and merging with the earth.  Her legs were like thick tree trunks, completing the image of stillness, strength, nature.

Although I didn’t want to disturb her I knew that I had to acknowledge her presence and repent for the days that I had let slip by, lost in my own self.  I resumed walking and prepared to initiate conversation, or at least some respectable gesture.  As my steps approached her bench I uttered, “Good Morning,” and immediately regretted my words.

But a melodious voice echoed, “Good morning to you.”  I stopped to pivot, beholding the rising of the hood, and the whitest most lovely set of teeth parting in a warm smile.  In just a moment I took her all in- well kempt hair, healthy glowing skin, and a tiny diamond ring on clean and dainty fingers.

Despite my shock I continued conversation, confirming that she had been sleeping in the park, and inquiring about her safety and well-being. Her responses were light and reserved, hinting at circumstances and her decision to make the park her temporary home.  She alluded to domestic and mental health issues, plans to move to a shelter in Carolina, and only mild concerns about the cooling temperatures and impending weather.   She was clearly a woman with choices, a woman with a plan.

Feeling our conversation coming to a close I asked if there was anything I could bring her to make her stay more comfortable.  She dismissed my gesture with an airy wave and insisted, convincingly, that she had everything she needed.  I pressed on, determined to offer something of value.  When she finally agreed to some left-over chicken and perhaps a light blanket, I turned and quickly ran home, assuring her that I would be right back but secretly scared that I would be too late.

When I got home I made a beeline for the kitchen, wrapping food items with care, and placing them in a still perfectly functional backpack from the previous school year.  I sneaked up the stairs, trying not to draw my family’s attention as I frantically looked around, surveying the endless shelves and piles of stuff for worthy offerings.  I grabbed a Smithsonian magazine and a book of crossword puzzles unused by my children at camp.  And then I finally saw it, the perfect gift, making me giggle as I touched them one last time.  I lovingly placed my most wonderfully cozy and warm pair of socks into the bag.  They had been given to me by my husband, brought home from our family’s clothing store.   Indulgently unnecessary, they were the perfect gift for someone who had everything and wanted of nothing.  They were the perfect gift for my new friend Dorothy.

When I raced back to the park I was relieved to find Dorothy still on her bench, peaked hood down and re-rooted in the earth.  I experienced a rush of gratitude as she lifted her head once more and returned my greetings.  Like a child I described my offerings as I pulled each from the bag.  Only mildly feigning interest, she accepted my gifts and thanked me by name, sealing the exquisite moment of connection that I continue to cherish today.

Reset

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We have such a paradoxical relationship with change. On one hand we long for it, yearning for new opportunities and growth, and yet we often completely miss its inherent powers.

Two fundamental errors keep us in the dark.

First, we believe that change is driven by the boundaries. If we think of our lives as series of categorical shifts, it’s easy to see the categories themselves as the primary levers of change. New jobs, new relationships or homes- if we can achieve movement between categories, we assume the details will fall into alignment, like magnets propelling us forward or upward, creating stronger and more healthy patterns. Because of this belief, we either wait for opportunities to materialize or try to force change through giant leaps or starting over. But either way, we often miss the most powerful drivers of change, the millions of seemingly minute decisions and choices through which we can reset our interactions, behaviors, and perceptions toward more positive and meaningful results. These deceivingly powerful changes can ripple and reverberate around us, transforming not only our own experiences but also impacting those of others, in essence flipping our realities and catalyzing seismic change.

But while our individual choices are indeed powerful, they do not occur within a vacuum, which is why our second fundamental error is so dangerous. This is the false belief that we can somehow resist or protect ourselves from the change and flux that surround us. Without even knowing it, many of us cling to the status quo, manifesting a deep sense of rigidity, fear, or vulnerability. We surround ourselves with those who will maintain our illusion of control. And yet the truth is unavoidable. The world is constantly changing around us, including the people with whom we work and live, and our communities and systems that frame and support our lives. And although we may be able to temporarily ignore these changes or judge them as unacceptable or unfair, our long-term inability or refusal to adapt or respond will eventually leave us irrelevant and obsolete. For change will not stop, instead our worlds will simply flow around us.

Interestingly, these two errors- missing opportunities for internal change, and our lack of responsiveness to outward change- are both the source of our collective stuckness and the vehicle for growth and prosperity. By embracing the myriad choices and opportunities for growth and becoming more responsive and sensitive to the shifts and flows that contextualize our lives, we can become more nimble and effective, both as individuals and communities. And in doing so, we can enjoy greater fulfillment and connectedness along the way.

Clearly, this state of heightened responsiveness represents a new frontier that calls for the development of new sensitivities, tools, and paradigms. But at its core is the simple acceptance that nothing stands still. Every day brings infinite opportunities to fulfill our potential and touch souls with those around us toward a better and more actualized world.

Generative Thinking

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An amazing thing is happening in my world. Really good competent people are moving into key positions or blossoming within their current roles, and the synergies are astounding. It’s as if the universe of possibilities is opening up, and for me the excitement is palpable.

Awareness of this phenomenon seems to be spreading. Several of my colleagues have a brightened energy, as if resonating to the new landscape of possibilities. They find themselves developing new opportunities for growth and collaboration while mentoring and supporting those around them. It’s as if by simply honoring their commitments and relationships, their worlds are expanding, in turn generating new benefits and possibilities that continue to grow and intersect. Yet at the same time, many others remain completely outside of this phenomenon, seemingly unable to detect or tap into the sea of potential that surrounds them. And when framed against the vibrancy of their peers, their negativity emerges in stark relief, leaving them virtually in the dark with little sense of hope or clarity.

For me this dichotomy has become so pronounced that I can literally sort colleagues into these categories- bright or dark. But increasingly, I’m convinced that this distinction is neither permanent nor unavoidable. Instead, at virtually any moment it is possible for individuals to flip the switch, activating their potential to thrive in this new landscape.

But before they can brighten, they must first recognize that the landscape has indeed profoundly changed. From my vantage point the new vista it is defined by complexity, uncertainty, and a dearth of the core elements that many of us have come to expect and need. Clearly defined and meaningful goals and expectations, guaranteed security, and appreciation and support have long been viewed as key ingredients for professional fulfillment and success, but are now, at best, temporary luxuries, and no longer foundations on which to build careers.

Understanding this important distinction can prevent feelings of victimization that can result in in ego-driven decision making and the train-wrecks that eventually follow. By acknowledging the new landscape and accepting the inherent flux, we can reinterpret voids in leadership as opportunities for ownership, and lack of resources as platforms for innovation. In transforming apparent deficits into spaces for movement, we can get ourselves unstuck in virtually any role or situation while making important contributions that in turn will propel our growth.

But how do we fill such voids amidst the uncertainty that defines our workspace? This is where the notion of generative thinking becomes critical. By overriding our default tendencies to avoid additional work and assign blame to others, and allowing ourselves to think, design, and add value, we can begin to stretch the spaces around us and expand the realm of possibilities. Although doing so will not release us from the expectations that are set by those above us, we can begin to see them as minimum expectations and no longer defining constraints, allowing us to ensure our value while serving as a springboard for growth and fulfillment.

New Year’s Resolution: Out of the Weeds

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I’ve always loved the New Year. The anticipation of things to come, new goals and aspirations, and the promise of growth and fulfillment- I get giddy just thinking about the possibilities. And yet, despite our dramatic chance to do something big and bold, we continually miss the mark, setting resolutions that are inherently underwhelming and even counter-productive, sending ourselves back down into the weeds from which we came.

If you follow my blog then you already know about the weeds. They are the scary dark regions of our inner world where we tend to go and stay. If you think of our minds as expansive networks of concepts, memories, and ideas that stretch out in all directions, the very lowest levels are the weeds. They are filled with personal and emotional details that are highly charged and interconnected. Once activated they quickly trigger related experiences and memories, creating a pin-ball effect that consumes our energy and resources, preventing us from accessing higher levels of thinking and decision making, and their associated benefits.

Higher is definitely better. Free of contextual details and hyper-connectivity, the higher levels allow us to think critically with emotional distance from the minutia that can paralyze our growth and deplete our resources.

But getting out of the weeds is tricky. Because our patterns and emotional triggers are so deeply ingrained, even as we inch our way up through positive choices and behaviors, one false move can send us back down, strengthening the very patterns that we’re trying to break.  Like tendrils wrapping around our ankles, the only way out is to disconnect ourselves entirely, removing their source of sustenance and support.

Although the process can be challenging, the underlying logic is quite simple. To emerge from the weeds we must create powerful goals that are less specific and detail oriented, far enough away from the weeds that they’ll stretch us higher while mitigating the risk of falling back down. Finding the right goals takes some practice. Want to lose weight? This is too specific and risky, tied to past issues and emotional triggers. How about making healthier choices, or being stronger? You might have to clarify what these look like or mean. You might ask yourself why you want to be healthier, is it just for you or for the people you love? What example do you want to set? Who is the person you want to become? By doing this additional clarification work, you can create new associations and roots that are positive and powerful, moving you beyond your insecurities towards growth and actualization, even in the face of struggle or uncertainty.

This process is equally powerful for professional goals. Are you determined to get a better job, or to get paid more? Such commitments can enhance your vulnerability and unhappiness, leaving you at the mercy of uncontrollable forces or decisions. How about better utilizing your strengths, or finding ways to stretch or grow, or associate yourself with more positive and professional colleagues or initiatives? Any of these will open up spaces to move and gain satisfaction, which in turn will lead to new opportunities within or outside your current roles.

You’ll know you’re on the right track when you can feel yourself elevating, your energy and outlook moving higher and brighter. And while set-backs and bad days will continue to be inevitable, you’ll find yourself less responsive to their triggers. And eventually, when you barely notice them at all, you’ll know that you’ve truly emerged from the weeds, with nothing but expansiveness and possibilities ahead.

The Big Reread

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I am struck by the evanescence of life. It’s as if everything- and everyone- around me is evolving and changing at an accelerated pace. What once felt heavy and permanent has morphed into airiness with nothing fixed or immutable.

I wouldn’t say it’s alarming. In fact, I find myself welcoming this new state of being. It has forced a sense of presence that is both warm and comforting. Receiving the moments in their fullness, listening, honoring and feeling, before letting it all dissipate and fade, to be replaced by something slightly different and new.

Yet there is a certain oddness to the experience. Seeing my children grow before my eyes, meeting them each day as I marvel at their transformation. But perhaps even more profound are the changes I perceive within myself. As I let go of preconceived notions, fears, and assumptions, situations seem to morph and obstacles dissolve, with endless doors opening to a vista of dizzying expanse.

I am in an adventure. And while there is no use planning or packing, I find myself yearning to somehow chart my course, marking my journey and reconnecting with the places through which I have passed. Clearly, these points are neither geographic nor real in a concrete sense, but instead former versions of myself that I yearn to touch and embrace before letting them go.

My books. How thoughtful of me to have left such vibrant traces for my future selves, captured within the pages of my most precious stories. Recognizing them as treasures even while reading them, I infused them with my dreams, fears, and tears as I allowed them to permeate and touch my soul. In doing so I imprinted them forever with my shadow, a permanent snapshot of me contextualized in time.

By delving back in so many years later it is so much more than a reunion. I am indeed finding joy in reconnecting, but also a yardstick for measuring how far I have come. As I acknowledge and appreciate the distance, I am gradually released from the residual angst and pressure. In its place is lightness, lifting me further upward, back into the glorious unknown.

The books I am rereading

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse (high school years)

Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemmingway (junior year studying abroad)

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand  (early college)

The Love Song of J. Afred Proofrock by T. S. Eliot (college)

A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (college)

Dalva by Jim Harrison (adulthood)

West of the Night by Beryl Markham  (adulthood, Tanzania project)

The Little Prince (by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, see earlier post)

The Alchemist (by Paulo Coelho)

Night Train to Lisbon (Pascal Mercier)

 

*Please share your own rereads and what you are learning/have learned along the way