Looking for Beekle

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

That is a dreaded question for me, and the older I get, the more dreaded I become. It felt easier, as I recall, to answer the question as a kid. “A doctor,” I would have said in a heartbeat. There was no fear. There were no consequences. It was the answer that came to mind because that was what I wanted to be. It just felt right.

Then, life got complicated. It is easy to blame external factors. My parents and their belief systems, their own experiences, their tendency to be protective, or their well-intended concern that might not have been expressed in a way that supported my best interests. “That’s going to be competitive and difficult.” “You are not going to make as much money as a businessman.” “Smart kids go into accounting or engineering these days.”

Or my teachers and their assessing, evaluating minds. “You are not the top of the class. You need to be smarter to get into a medical program.” “Your math and physics are not good enough for medical schools.” “Are you sure you don’t want to be a scientist, instead? We need more basic research scientists.” “What about becoming an economist? We need more economists to help the country.”

Or my friends, my parents’ friends, acquaintances, or society at large. The questions might have sounded different, but most of them came down to people’s opinions, informed by their own beliefs, values, and experiences. To be fair, it was not all like that. Some did offer hope and validation. “Go and follow your dream,” they said. But for a young person with an innate pragmatic mind and a heart full of dreams, they didn’t help answer questions like, “How am I going to pay bills if I study literature?”

As I said, it is easy to blame external factors. I am not. Those were just the external factors that I faced and came to realize in retrospect. I grew, I changed. I learned more about my own preferences, not only about what I liked, but also what I didn’t like. I liked reading books and learning about literature. I worried about savings. I liked some branches of science, but was not comfortable with others. I no longer wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to be a biologist, a horticulturist, a diplomat, a chef, a yoga teacher. I knew what I wanted, and I didn’t know what I wanted. All of those ideas, hopes, and dreams happened inside as the external opinions brewed.

Then came my decision to go into the business world and business school. Then came the wisdom (I’m not sure whose) about knowing one’s career goals, one’s career paths, and one’s cohesive story about one’s career. I had one. It was well thought out, and it came from a sincere place in my heart. I didn’t make it up, and yet I knew that compromises were made, and something was missing.

But I had my goals.

Off I went chasing those goals. Things were checked off the list, lessons were learned, connections were made, and a career path was laid. As I crossed a milestone, I felt a sense of accomplishment, and it felt good. But I was not content or happy. The sense of discontent and lack of joy continued to mount, becoming unhealthy, physically and mentally. Challenges and hard-earned milestones do not equate to joy. It feels oft times like a Pyrrhic victory. Something is missing.

What is missing is my answer to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I don’t know how to answer that question any more. Over the years, my experiences, my hopes, my fears have created a thick wall. I forget what it feels like to be inspired.

A good friend of mine recommended The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat. It is a story about a creature waiting to be called upon by a child, so that he could be the child’s friend. That calling never came, and he took action in his own hands and went off to find a friend in an unchartered world (to him, anyway). He was about to give up hope, when a girl found him. They didn’t know what to do with each other initially, but they knew that their encounter felt right. They knew that he was her imaginary friend, when the girl gave him a name, “Beekle.”

Beekle became her inspiration, and she became his. They played together, drew together, created together. He validated her, encouraged her, and empowered her, unconditionally. And she gave him a sense of purpose, that his brave journey to search for a friend, made total sense.

I would like to believe that we all have our own Beekle. Some of us may not have met him. Some of us may have met him and have lost him over time. If we look hard enough, we will find him, and we just need to call out his name.

Why am I so sure? In the last three days alone, examples of people who have found their Beekles have been coming to me, unsolicited. Some of the Beekles are large and life-changing. Some are small and momentary. Beekles can come in all forms. They could be a loved one, a fruit or even a typewriter. What they all have in common, however, is that they inspire.

Before yesterday, Jim Obergefell was not known to many. As of yesterday, his name went down into history. His devotion to his late husband kept him up as he fought for right for marriage for gay people in the US.

Yesterday, my partner, who loves baking and who is not a morning person, got up early in the morning to bake an egg-free cupcake for our beloved niece who is allergic to eggs. He didn’t want her to feel left us as everyone had their cupcakes for desserts at a family gathering later that day.

Also, yesterday, I was at a café named Agora, and it was showcasing photographs by an organization called Micah (“Help Micah Change Sign”) to raise awareness about homelessness. One was a series of three photos of a woman showing up a sign: “I was a lonely drunk housewife.” “I needed a purpose.” “I rediscovered who I am.” She smiled in the last photo. She had found her Beekle.

A few days ago, I read on BBC about Helton Josue Teodoro Muniz from Brazil. He was born with a motor neurone deficiency and only learned to walk as a teenager. Holding a seed in his hand can be difficult to him. Yet his childhood discovery of a fruit propelled him to become a collector of fruit, and he is now an internationally renowned fruit expert and author.

This morning, my partner sent me a YouTube video about Paul Smith, an elderly man from OH, who found a way to get around his disability and expresses himself by using a typewriter to create beautiful arts.

Also this morning, the Free Lance-Star newspaper, a local paper in Fredericksburg, Virginia, celebrated a local author Vincent Annunziato of Stafford, Virginia. Annunziato knew his Beekle was the love of writing, but he gave it up when he moved East to take an IT job and has a responsibility to provide to him family. Despite his life circumstances, he let his Beekle came back to him and found time on his long commute on the commuter train to write. He just published his second book.

Regardless of the time in their life, their circumstances or the time it took, these people found their Beekle. I am determined to find or reconnect with mine, whatever he is and wherever he is now. I know I will find him (or her).

Etched on a coffee table at the café yesterday, the carving read,

“It is never too late to become what you might have been”

~ Mary Ann Evans

I hope Mary Ann Evans is right.

Beekle and Me

I’d like to introduce you to my new, powerful, marshmallow-y muse, Beekle. The first time I read “The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend” (Beekle) by Dan Santat I knew I was being introduced to so much more than a children’s picture book about friendship. Sure I was dumbstruck by the beauty, color, and space within the illustrations, but it was more than that, Beekle, it turns out, is a guide of sorts. An internal guide for helping you stay connected to ways of being that speak to the heart. Since that first reading, Beekle has helped me strengthen my resolve, guided me in difficult times, and bolstered me against nay-sayers and doomsdayers. In essence, this new muse Mr. Santat has created has helped me see clearly in times of self-doubt.

Now, I know self-doubt can be the fuel leaders need in order to ask tough questions and create long lasting changes in the world, but it is not always a comfortable state of being.  It can often help to reach for answers or parables to guide oneself. However, instead of reaching for a leadership tomb about how to best harness those questions for positive change, I found myself reaching for Beekle!

It wasn’t long until I was suggesting others do the same. A friend mentioned he was searching for a more impactful way to inspire others, to which I responded by saying, “I know just the book you need! Read “Beekle” closely, for it’s not just a story about friendship – it’s a story that will remind you to honor your creative vision and if you do, others will follow.” Then another leader mentioned she was finding it hard to be as engaged in the mission she worked for, to which I said, “I know just the book you need! Read “Beekle” closely, for it’s not just a story about friendship – it’s a story that will remind you of the importance of finding and naming your passion so that you will better understand the depth and bounds of your willingness for being a leader.” After recommending this book multiple times, here is why I think “Beekle” belongs next to the other great leadership books on your shelf.

At the start of the book, there is an imaginary being, living on a beautiful  island where imaginary beings are created. The being is waiting and waiting to be imagined by a real child.   He watches as he sees other beings beamed up out of imagination-land to be with the friend who imagined them. As you turn the page you are met with a two-page spread of yellow sand.  In one corner stands a tiny one-eyed hermit crab with a shovel, and in the other stands the marshmallow-y being next to some sand castles with the words, “But his turn never came.”  The scene is a bit jarring at first because there is so much empty space. The illustration conveys, with such poignancy, a feeling of disconnectedness and loneliness, perhaps a natural state for a hermit crab, but not for the being.   The shear amount of open space elicited a sense of stillness, a wonderful feeling when you can eliminate distraction and see clearly, but the yellow color filled me with a sense of anxiousness, knowing that a choice was around the corner.   A choice filled with risk and possibility, a proverbial crossroads.

On the next page the being imagines all the amazing things that are keeping his friend from imagining him. Awards being won, books being read, music lessons, juggling, baking, essentially, life happening. When I thought about what sort of imaginary beings adults create within themselves as guides, I realized this squishy, friendly, marshmallow-y guy could be seen as the embodiment of my own internal passion or purpose. I identified with the feelings of the being and those times when I don’t see my own passion clearly.  We all experience life happening and what it feels like when we don’t have time to dedicate to a passion.  But the depiction of this little being on this page filled me with a sense of hope. Hope that, even as I continue experiencing life fully, my own internal passion or sense of purpose will come looking for me.

The being gets tired of waiting at this crossroads, so he musters courage, by thinking about his potential friend, to do the unimaginable: sailing through scary waters and unknown things into the real world.

When he reaches the real world, it is a grey place where adults eat cake without joy, music streams past without notice and adults seem to need a nap.  The adults are all doing things that children easily see as joyful: eating cake, playing or listening to music, riding a train. But all the adults in the illustrations show no joy as they do these things, which is very puzzling to the being.

At this stage in my life I have had the pleasure of knowing the difference between when I am with adults who are leading with joy or openness and those who are perhaps only motivated by the goal or mission, but doing so without joy or openness.  I’m reminded that in order for my passion to find me, I must honor that many experiences, both successes and failures, are reflected in determining what passion or pursuit will speak to my heart. In other words, I must be open.  Open to experiences, open to ideas, open to voices different from my own.  The being knows none of the grey adults are the friend he is looking for because there is no joy, no openness, no color.  I’m not sure which comes first, joy or openness, but for me, they are closely related, one often eliciting the other.

Then the being sees something familiar and follows it. The being enters into a colorful land of play and make-believe but everyone seems to already be playing with friends and the path he takes does not lead him to his own friend. At times of disconnectedness I have found myself looking around at others who are deeply engaged, caring for others, purposefully seeking knowledge in order to grow, or creating objects to improve the world, and I’m reminded we are all passionate beings wanting or waiting for a sense of purpose to find us. He then climbs to the top of a star-leaf tree where children are playing. As the sun sets and the kids run home, no one came for him and “he thought about how far he’d come and how long he’d waited, and felt very sad.”

Then he heard a noise say, “Hello!” from down below. A little girl was pointing to a piece of paper that was stuck in the tree. He reached over and brought the picture down to the girl. The handing over of the picture is illustrated across two pages, no words, with the being at the bottom of the tree trunk, holding out the picture, and the girl at the base of the tree, reaching to accept it. This is the moment of connection we are looking for within ourselves. On the next page the girl opens the picture she was drawing, and it is of that exact moment. A meta-moment, reminding us that this moment can be difficult to spot and hold onto, but when you spot it,  just as the being noticed, it will seem friendly and familiar and feel just right.

Then the imaginary being gets to know the girl. At first they didn’t know what to do, neither of them had made a friend before. The illustrations show them trying to shake hands, but using the wrong hands, then the girl opens up her arms for a hug, but the being tried shaking, then the being opened up his arms to hug, and the girl offers her hand. When I think about my passion or purpose finding me I sometimes am not sure what to do next.   This moment of awkward meeting reminds me to trust my passion and keep trying to find the best ways to know it and bring it forth.

The being and the girl were both a little frustrated, but then started to giggle. Another ingredient often neglected in finding purpose – humor. The girl then shares her name, Alice. But the imaginary being doesn’t know his name and his face blushes because he doesn’t have an answer. Alice then reaches her hand out and names him Beekle. The being says, “I’m Beekle!” with his arms thrown wide. Alice throws her arms wide and says, “Hi Beekle!” and they hug one another. This is one of the most powerful passages in the book, reminding me to take notice of my passion and name it. Beekle and Alice have many adventures together, they share snacks, tell jokes others don’t understand, and lay together day dreaming and drawing when, “The world began to feel a little less strange.”

I liken the feeling when Alice names Beekle and the world begins to feel a “little less strange” to that inner light great leaders let shine when they move through the world. The phrase touched me deeply because that is how it feels when my passion is guiding my actions and I’m working toward creating meaningful change. Once Alice is connected to Beekle, she then focuses her talents and gives attention to drawing with joy, drawing with humor, drawing with passion. She is guided by her inner passion, her inner-Beekle. When we can stay focused on our own passion, by whatever means possible, i.e. building, creating, making, the imaginary can help us transform the world before us.

Then, a boy and his imaginary friend walk up to Alice and Beekle. Alice sits on the ground surrounded by the pictures she has been drawing. The boy looks hesitant, but smiles and holds up a hand in greeting while Beekle and the boy’s imaginary being begin to play with one another. The line on the next page reads, “And together they did the unimaginable.” The illustration shows Alice and Beekle at the helm of a sailing ship, with the boy and his imaginary friend aboard, along with three other children, as an imaginary whale carries them away and other imaginary beings wave and smile. Together they voyage into unchartered lands.

I know when I’m guided by passion and purpose, others will appear, even if they cannot see a clear vision.  Many leaders connect ideas very quickly. But a visionary leader knows how to bring others aboard, to inspire others to act, even when others don’t yet see. Beekle reminds me to honor my passion, stay guided by it, and others, with similar visions and purpose, will be drawn toward me and together we can set sail in “unimaginary” ways.

I was simply giddy when I read this book, not only for the joy children would feel, but I also knew it was a powerful story. A reminder to be open and have hope while experiencing the world in order to allow your passion to find you, to trust your passion when your heart feels it, to name it, and stay connected with joy and humor, allowing it to come into the world, honoring it with attention and action, ultimately drawing other like-minded friends aboard, so that together, the unimaginable can become real.

Hope, Passion, Courage, Openness, Joy, Humor, Connectedness, Trust, Attention, Togetherness – a great list of leadership traits, if there ever was one. Not surprisingly, it is the well-deserved 2015 Caldecott Award winner. Read “The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend” by Dan Santat closely, for it’s not just a story about friendship, it’s a story about leadership.