I’m interested in the energy and power people exude, and only then am I interested in them. Does that make sense? Let me illustrate this. First, a simple story about tuning in to someone’s energy flow:
During my recent visit to New Orleans, I stopped in a voodoo shop (of course) to get some incense and look around. The shopkeeper was on the phone while at the same time, a uniformed worker of some sort was standing in front of her. I felt a low hum of stilted energy from her as I overheard the halting phone conversation, which was interrupted by the worker’s prompts:
“And did they change connections? Can you ask that?” he said.
“Wait… No… But he’s telling me to ask you if you changed… yes, if you changed connections? … No, not at the switch? The switch… Oh, okay… What?” she continued.
This went on as I browsed the potions and lotions, the voodoo dolls and charms artfully displayed in this unique shop. Other voodoo shops I’d been to in New Orleans were kind of junky-looking, but this one seemed more carefully curated with a fresh backdrop of magenta-painted walls. She ended her phone call, they finished their business and the worker left. The clerk sighed and greeted me. I watched her arrange some merchandise and could tell she had a to do list running through her mind, maybe because she was kind of talking to herself as she straightened things up. She was humming a higher frequency now, but it was still agitated.
I selected my incense and went to meet her at the counter. My credit card wouldn’t work and she explained that was what the worker was there for.
“To fix this dumb thing already!” she said. “All the basements around here have been flooded, and wouldn’t you know it, the workers dealing with that cut some wire, now my internet and this credit card machine just will not work!” She was making eye contact with me, and I got a good look at her face. She was a middle-aged woman, really beautiful and casually elegant.
“That is beyond frustrating,” I empathized. “This shop is really lovely, I’m sorry the pipes and cables aren’t working for you today! I have cash, let’s just do that.”
Her face softened, and her energy changed. It was still frustrated and agitated, but I could tell it was no longer bottled up. She let it out to me, in a way that wasn’t hurtful, misguided or harsh. She simply expressed it. And, because I liked the shop and thought she was unique, and didn’t feel mean old vibes coming from her, I was able to listen.
“I can’t even imagine what is happening underground in the French Quarter, with all of this rain,” I offered.
She took me up on the invite. “Oh, you have no idea,” she said, and told me more than a few things about the corrupt political climate and power brokers holding up getting things fixed right, in her opinion.
“So the politics are like the pipes under these buildings, huh? All tangled up.” I said.
She smiled, “Exactly.”
For me, the exchange I had with the voodoo shopkeeper was about energy. I’ve been trying to tune in to the energy a person is putting out as I approach interacting with them, partly because I think it informs my part of the exchange, but also because I want to protect myself from too many negative vibes. I think I intuitively felt that though the shopkeeper was frustrated, (which I could tell from her phone conversation, the fact that a worker was there troubleshooting on a Saturday, and her tone) I felt like I could balance the energy in an exchange with her should I want to buy something. Her energy wasn’t toxic, it was just a little edgy, and I knew it wouldn’t be damaging. Sometimes, when I leave an interaction with someone who is deep into their own negative vibrations, I almost feel confused, like, “What just happened!?” I’m trying to get better at avoiding those interactions and if I must, I just try to let the negativity flow right through me. I breathe a lot, listen and offer empathy to a degree, detach and let go. Paying attention to a person’s energy first has changed my life and is improving my relationships with my family and friends.
Yet, I am still figuring out the energy that comes (and goes?) with powerful people. Does their energy beget the power? Does their power then act as a prism for their energy? I think the energy expressed by powerful people is very complex, of that I am certain. My interactions with superintendents, for example, go much differently than with voodoo shopkeepers. Now a story about power:
My relationship with my superintendent, when I was a principal, was minimal. It was not an interpersonal relationship; I interacted with her at monthly district-wide meetings as one of the crowd, and had about four or five meetings with her and another central administrator or two when a problem needed to be solved outside of my building. I’m sure we spoke on the phone a few times. This was over the course of the six years I was in admin. as an assistant principal or a principal and she was the boss. (My first two years as an AP, we had a different superintendent.) Looking back, her energy was pretty fierce. It asserted itself. It was a hard energy that felt similar to the energy politicians exude on Sunday morning talk shows. It was resolute, it cut. Honestly, her energy felt traditionally, powerfully masculine.
My guess is that she led with a forward, “strong,” non-relational energy because of the era in which she emerged as a leader. Currently between 65 and 70 years old, I deduced that she moved into administration - in Indiana, no less - when very, very few women led schools or school districts. She probably had to fit into the mold of the men in charge, to even get her foot in the door. But that foot had to be in high heels with nylons up the leg, lest she threaten them, either. She must have had to present herself with masculine qualities to even be recognized as someone with leadership potential. Could the male principals even see her as an equal otherwise? Leadership qualities are constantly conflated with masculine qualities. I’m really, really sick of that. And female leaders are expected to exude masculine energy too. I’m really, really sick of that as well.
Jill Filipovic had a brilliant piece in the New York Times exploring authenticity coming from women leaders who are emerging right now. She used the new Democratic congresswomen in the House of Representatives as examples. Her argument was that men in leadership frame their rise to power as individualistic and meritocratic and family behind them are posed as beneficiaries of the man and his power. In her description, I felt the energy of that type of male in power. It felt strong, but hollow. I imagined watching a traditional press conference after a new congressman claims his mantle. I felt like I was seeing something that wasn’t whole, or wholly truthful. The man’s energy doesn’t feel balanced. Energy like that leaves me feeling disinvited. Like I just need to sit back and watch. Shut up and take it...he’s in charge.
Filipovic argues that the new women of color in Congress bring authenticity to their work in extracting themselves from a culture that wants women in power to act the way men in power act. Unlike my superintendent, they don’t feel like they have to behave in ways that look traditionally male or traditionally powerful to be taken seriously. Or maybe, they realize their way of being - of exuding a different energy - means some people will not take them seriously, but they don’t care. Also, I must add, they are 30-40 years younger than my superintendent. It’s clear that part of the reason they were seen as viable candidates was because women of my superintendent’s generation did what they felt they had to do to get into positions of power. But now, these new Congresswomen are saying they don’t want to sacrifice their authenticity to maintain their power. They do not want to play a male role, when they are not males.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for example, has made it very clear it was collective action that brought her to power. She dismisses any notion that her win was a by-the-bootstraps, individual one. She does this without making herself seem any less intelligent, any less hard-working, or any less merited for the difficult job ahead. Her attitude of gratitude and recognition of community effort exudes a high frequency energy which leaves me feeling hopeful. Her energy feels like truth to me. Isn’t it amazing that women of my generation and younger (Ocasio-Cortez is 28!) can lead in authentic ways, growing into something more than just a model of male leadership?
When my superintendent first came on the scene, she dazzled many by her extremely professional, classy way of dress. She had a really gorgeous, perfectly tailored gray skirt suit that she wore often. A teacher friend of mine watched the superintendent walk by once and said, “She looks like a million bucks,” and I had to agree. Now, many think-pieces have been written about how women in power dress, so I won’t go into that, but I do think that a woman’s “power-suit” is kind of comical, honestly, in how much it echoes standard male professional clothes, but has acquiesced to femininity in small ways. A skirt instead of pants. Shiny buttons. Darts to cinch a feminine waist. Always paired with heels.
I used to have a couple of suits. I did allow them to make me feel outwardly powerful. Or at least put-together. But my shoulders ached after a day in a suit. My boobs usually barely fit under the one button. My feet always, always hurt. But I guess I looked like a million bucks too. And that was very important to my superintendent, who told me, when I got a high-profile principal job, to always dress professionally. I guess I had slacked off in the previous position, wearing colorful tights with dresses every now and then and she wanted to put a stop to those shenanigans. But I couldn’t blame her. The rules on what women in power should look like had infected me too. Years ago, as a substitute teacher, I once worked in an elementary school where the beloved principal wore overalls, horrifying me at the time. How could she lead looking like that, I thought. She looked unprofessional, I thought. In reality, she dressed like that so she could comfortably visit with the Kindergarteners, and help the fourth graders in the new school garden. Can you imagine how comical a suit would look in those situations? Can you imagine how her energy would change in such a get-up?
As I did with the voodoo shopkeeper, as I do with my family members, and as we must do with our leaders who hold power, we need to discern their energy as best we can in our interactions. Tune into them. Breathe. Give it a couple of seconds. Pay attention to them for a few heartbeats. I believe that doing that will help suss out the truth in any situation. It can help us honor and protect our own energy, which during troubling times can be a bit fragile. It can also help us be open and even heal other people, in balancing the collective energies, cancelling the negative vibes and clearing the way for more joy, more connection, more truth.
A gifted woman I know, a singer, musician, teacher, healer named Janiece, once talked about women’s authentic leadership as a circle. An authentic circle of power grounded through high frequency, divine feminine energy. A circle where you interact across from yourself, to each side and all the way around. A circle where those each person takes the lead when there is a need, instead of leadership from on high, trickling down, with diminishing returns. This way of leadership may very well be our future. The new Congresswomen have taken the first step in acknowledging the group effort it took to get them there, and in acknowledging their families (biological or chosen) as their biggest support, not their best looking backdrop. Those leaders didn’t even feel the need to put on the costume of leadership (a femme suit) when they assumed power. Deb Haaland wore traditional native American garments at her swearing in ceremony, for example. I can’t say that Congresswoman Haaland looked like a million bucks though, because she transcended dollars and cents. She transcended what we thought we should value in leaders. Her’s is a powerful, unique energy we can tune into and not be drained or oppressed. Haaland and her sisters in Congress might be able to lead in a different way. Those of us who pay attention to these different energies can learn so much from each other when we’re in the circle together.
I am very grateful that my superintendent rose to power before me. She filled the district’s cabinet with other women, making it clear that you did not have to be male to lead. But, you still sort of had to act like a male. Let’s let those times go. Let’s bring out a different, authentic energy and tune in to each other, amplifying positive energies that flow through all of our minor and major interactions. What a way to be truly, authentically alive.