Transitions and Summer Solstice

I was recently invited to speak about transitions at my alma mater, The Wheeler School in Providence, Rhode Island. This is what I shared…

It was 1976, when I faced the first major transition in my life. My parents were separating. My Mother, my two sisters and I left our big, old colonial home where I’d grown up in Windham, CT, and moved into a small apartment above a doctor’s office on Waterman Street in Providence. I began my freshman year at Wheeler knowing no one, other than my sisters. I thought, “I’m Nobody” here. New city, new home, new school – I felt vulnerable and exposed. I auditioned for the Fall play, The Miracle Worker. I will never forget walking down the long hallway in Hope Building to look at the cast list posted on the bulletin board outside of Ted Tuttle’s office. And there was my name next to the role: Helen Keller. Suddenly I had an identity, a role. “I’m Nobody” became I’m Helen Keller in the Fall play.

 I want to talk to you tonight about transitions. I became interested in transitions when I took a leap that launched me into a gigantic transition four years ago when I left my job as a producer with Disney. I hadn’t ever really thought about it before. The first step is just acknowledging transitions in our lives. Naming it. Building awareness. Looking at different types of transitions. Pace and flow, self-initiated or unexpected and imposed. What comes up. Like the question of “Who am I?” This question of identity comes up during periods of major transition. Moving, graduation, new job, marriage, birth. There are so many roles we play throughout our lives that give us a sense of who we are, that shape our identity. And sometimes they are stripped away and we are left with a sense of vulnerability. Nakedness. Feeling exposed.

Listening and story are the two core practices I have found most useful in navigating transitions – which really means navigating my life. Why are listening and story so important? Because it is how we connect with ourselves and with others. It is how we build self-awareness and build relationships with others.

Listening is about presence. Being present in ourselves and present with others. Listening to our own hearts and minds, body and spirit. Am I feeling at ease or uncomfortable, energized or tired, what do I need to sustain and nourish myself? Being able to listen to your own voice and filter through the cacophony of external voices. And listening to others. Listening with generosity, asking questions and really being present to feel the answers.

Story is how we make sense of who we are, how we shift into new roles, connect and form relationships with others. Stories are how we make sense of the world around us. There are old stories that may no longer serve us, stories about our current reality and the new stories we craft and explore that help us move into a new chapter. What I find most fascinating are the ever-evolving stories we carry about ourselves, the stories we imagine and assume about others, and likewise the stories others make up about us.

I started with a story about the transition that brought me here to Wheeler. “I’m nobody” was a story in my own head. Then a new story formed when I was cast in a role that gave me a sense of belonging. That was just my story. What about the stories that others had about me? Here’s an example that surfaced a few years ago when I was here for my 30th reunion. As I walked through the courtyard at the end of the night with my classmates Paula and Debra, one of them said, “oh, I can just see us as teenagers sitting on the steps there leading up to Morgan Hall.” And a wave of memory washed over me and I shared that I had always felt like an outsider, despite being onstage and my roles in student government, it always felt like everyone else was so tight. And they were shocked to hear that and said, “We always thought you were really cool – and just quiet.” Two very different stories -my story of me, and their story of me. Listening and Story are how we manage and make sense of transitions throughout our lives.

Another early transition in my life was when I went off to UVM for college. I went thinking that I would study theatre and become an actor. And midway through my sophomore year I had the stunning realization that I didn’t really have the hunger and drive to pursue a career in acting. Once again I felt vulnerable, exposed. If not an actor, who am I? “I’m Nobody.” And then I was asked to stage manage a production and suddenly I knew. It was a felt sense of having found my calling. My voice, my vocation. “I’m Nobody” became, “I’m a Stage Manager.”

So that is what I did. After college I fell into the avant garde arena, toured the world and worked with some amazing directors and composers and writers – like Robert Wilson and Philip Glass, Eve Ensler and then Julie Taymor. Julie and I had many great adventures, including doing an opera with Seiji Ozawa and Jessye Norman in Japan, and we had a wild ride in Russia at the Kirov Opera in St. Petersberg. But when Julie asked me to be her assistant director on The Lion King I was suddenly filled with doubt. I reached out to my good friend Abbie, who had been my mentor as a stage manager at the ART in Cambridge right out of college. I called Abbie in a panic and said, “Julie wants me to be her assistant director on The Lion King – what am I going to do? Abbie wondered why I was questioning it, and I said, “But Abbie, it’s Broadway. Disney. And Julie doesn’t want me to be the stage manager, she wants me to be her assistant director – what will I do?” Abbie’s response, “You’re going to listen and tell people what’s happening. That’s what you do.”

And that is precisely what I did. When rehearsals started I was in my element, my comfort zone. I didn’t think about the fact that I’d never done anything on Broadway, and I didn’t get nervous when the producers from Disney were around – I just did what came naturally to me. I told people what was happening. And that is how I became a producer. Before we opened on Broadway I was asked to become the Associate Producer. A new title, a new role and an unexpected shift that launched me into uncharted territory. But what does a producer actually do? I was suddenly in another transition and felt deeply vulnerable. I had no choice but to move into and through the doubts and fears, which opened me to new possibilities. Once again, I settled into listening to the many people I was supporting, translating the disparate parts and pulling them together into a cohesive story. And it turns out, that’s what a producer does. Listening and Story.

In 2010, after more than two decades of listening to and supporting other people’s stories I started to listen to myself and my own stories in a new and deeper way. I sensed that it was time for the Disney chapter to end, and I felt a yearning, a pull toward something new, yet to be defined. My entire being told me it was time. I became ill with vertigo and migraines for the first time in my life. I was offered a job to produce Eve Ensler’s new play, and while I considered the possibility, I felt a constant tightness in my chest and knots in my stomach. And so began the biggest transition of my life. I said no to Eve and ended my career with Disney. I left title, paycheck, travel, collaboration, camaraderie, respect in the field, structure and knowing – to leap into the unknown. It was quite surprising to people that I would leave it all… for what? The only thing I knew was that I needed space for something new to grow and emerge.

June of 2011. It was one month after leaving my job as Senior Producer with Disney Theatrical Group. I went to Columbus, Ohio for a leadership conference. My new friend and colleague, Dorian, asked me to support her in leading a session on Feminine Leadership. I agreed, I was excited, but I didn’t really know what she expected of me, so I felt a bit uneasy as we began. But there we were, the session went well and when it was over Dorian thanked me – offering very warm words of appreciation.

I said, “But I didn’t do anything.” “Oh, my heavens”, she said, “you were such a support, you held the space so beautifully… I mean you’re a producer, you’re a theatre producer from Disney. What an honor to have you here with me.” My response was… “But I’m not that anymore. I’m Nobody.” And the tears began to flow. In that moment I had a sudden crushing realization that I was nobody. Who am I, if I’m not Michele Steckler @ It hadn’t occurred to me that my entire identity would come into question. Not just as a producer with Disney, but as a lifelong theatre professional. I also did not anticipate that other parts of my life would also be impacted dramatically. Soon my relationship of 15 years began to unravel and then ended. And then, I sold my house. As this transition evolved I shed every major piece of identity – job, relationship, home. I was left with – ME.

At that same conference I had a moment that I soon recognized as one of the many gifts that emerge during transitions – when we are awake and aware. It was during what I call a mini-transition. Mini-transitions are the many in between moments that occur throughout a day as we commute to work, go from meeting to meeting, move from a keynote speech into the next session at a conference. It was during an in between at that leadership conference that I had an “ah ha” moment. As I left an inspiring and emotional keynote called “Treasures in Darkness” – about the many gifts that emerge during periods of darkness and despair, when we face big life changes – I ran into a woman I’d met the night before, Jane. She asked how I’d found the keynote and my mind was still reeling. I shared that I felt as if the speaker had been talking to me, about me. Jane grabbed my hand and said, “You’re in the darkness.” That was it. I felt a strange sort of relief at being able to name it and place myself somehow.  I recall that moment, and the one with Dorian, more vividly than any other at that conference. Both were in between moments, encounters, conversations in passing after an event. A mini-transition.

Now, having talked about major and mini-transitions, I’d like to focus on natural rhythmic transitions. The transitions that happen daily, seasonally and annually. The cycles we experience like sunrise and sunset, moving from Spring into Summer, birthdays, New Years. And just as some major transitions are marked by a ritual like graduation, bar mitzvahs, weddings or a funeral – these natural cycles of transition can be marked as well. We can choose to observe a shift, mark the passage of time and create a ritual. For example, as we come to the end of a year we might take time privately to reflect on the past year and look ahead setting an intention or a New Years resolution. And there are more public ways to observe the transition, like gathering with friends for a party or watching fireworks.

Here’s one final story about ritual and recognizing a natural transition. Last year my sister Niki was visiting during the Fall Equinox. She was helping me pack up the house as I prepared to move. I went online to look for some suggestions about how to mark the shift  – and I also noted the exact time it was to occur. The Equinox fell in the middle of the day, and so we stopped work and each spent some quiet time by ourselves. I went off for a short walk in the woods… Listening. And what I heard was: Permission to Pause. That was the gift of the Equinox that day. It was a reason, an excuse, permission to stop work in the midst of a beautiful September day and pause. And when I thought about past, present and future – a framing I’d grown to appreciate, as I found it supportive during transitions – 3 questions emerged that I brought back to the house for a ritual with Niki :

1) reflecting on the Summer coming to an end – What am I grateful for?

2) listening in that present moment –  How am I feeling right now, today?

3) imagining the future –  What is my vision for the Fall?

These natural rhythmic transitions are an opportunity to pause. To stop and watch the sunset, to reflect back on your life every year on your birthday or to give yourself permission to pause as the seasons shift.

We all have an opportunity this month to acknowledge the Summer Solstice – the longest day of the year. The end of school, beginning of the growing season, a time for more lightness and fun, barbeques. I encourage you to take a moment and give yourselves Permission to Pause on June 21st. To stop and listen. To hold past, present and future. To reflect on the stories of the Winter and Spring. To listen to what is true for you in the present moment and to imagine the story that will unfold in the months ahead.

As I stand here now, almost 40 years after my freshman debut as Helen Keller, I am very pleased to say that I have finally accepted the role of ME. Michele. My passion is people. My cause is supporting people to realize their potential and sing their song in the world. For some audiences I may craft a version of my story and say, “I’m a producer. I produce Human Sustainability Programs. I teach people the core practices of Listening and Story, and I create space for people to gather and pause, to build awareness and discover tools that will help them maintain and nourish their internal resources.” Human Sustainability Through Listening and Story.

Thank you for listening so generously and for holding this space for me to share some of my stories. I look forward to joining you in the classes and afterwards at the barbeque. May the listening and story sharing continue!