Category Archives: paradigm shifts

Lives of Holy Curiosity

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAAs with all great journeys, there are more questions now than answers, not the least of which is, where shall we go from here? As that remains to be answered, all we can do now is keep living life to its fullest.  - Andrea Willingham, our daughter

Life is a work in progress.  We’ve always told our children that.  Sometimes we need them to remind us of that, too, when we lean towards sedentary thinking.

We’ve also always told our children to “Question everything,” to not make a habit of accepting things at face value. Sometimes, as you get older, it’s easier to just accept things. Questioning – and dealing with the sometimes complicated answers – can take a lot of energy, not to mention brutal self honesty in assessing situations and deciding how to proceed with both the questions and the answers sometimes.

In a recent article in Mindshift (Why It’s Imperative to Teach Students How to Question as the Ultimate Survival Skill ) author Warren Berger ( A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas (Bloomsbury)) . observed on “Pi Day,”  the anniversary of Albert Einstein’s birthday, as well as my own, that questioning “was a big theme for Einstein, who told us, “The important thing is not to stop questioning,” while also urging us to question everything and “Never lose a holy curiosity.”

Berger designated March 14 “Question Day 2014″ , which I think is my new all time favorite holiday.  I hope this trends!QuestionDayHeader2

Apparently at one time it did.  In  2008, Einstein’s birthday was observed as  “National Question Day”  by the Inquiry Institute, a consulting organization founded by Marilee Adams.   But it didn’t seem to catch on.  I hope Berger’s effort meets with greater success.

“Questioning is a critical tool for learning,” says Berger. ” It helps us solve problems and adapt to change. And increasingly, we’re coming to understand that questioning is a starting point for innovation. In a world of dynamic change, one could say that questions are becoming more important than answers. Today, what we “know” may quickly become outdated or obsolete—and we must constantly question to get to new and better answers.  Questions also spark the imagination.”

With our children grown, and asking new questions that only they can answer, my husband Steve and I found ourselves reevaluating some of  our life and work, and asking hard questions about our own way forward.  It can be especially difficult to set free the things you’ve created.  Like children, the creations we birth often take on lives of their own; bending,  and sometimes breaking,  under the influence of other forces, and other ideas, becoming things other than expected.  If these creations are meant to be, they’ll persevere, follow the course of their own history, unfold in their own way. If they’re not meant to be, they won’t.

What remains is us: The Creators.

And we have so many more questions about so many more things! So we forge onward here, in the next chapter of the next stage of our lives of holy curiosity.

We hope you’ll join us!

-Terri Willingham

Join us on

The Things That Matter: Fishing for a Real Future

soldering guidanceMy day job involves working for an organization whose mission is: “To transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology leaders.”

Those are the words and vision of inventor Dean Kamen, founder of the U.S. Foundation for Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, better known as FIRST. FIRST engages kids in elementary through high school grades in competitive robotics competitions that provide youth with opportunities to work with professional mentors and learn science, math and engineering skills in fun, enduring and rewarding ways, with over $16 million in scholarships for participating high schoolers.

“The assumption that drove the creation of FIRST, “ Kamen said in an interview with PTC last year, “ waslearning about robot you get what you celebrate in a free culture, and the reason America was slipping compared to a lot of its peers around the world—particularly in kids getting involved with and mastering science and technology—was not bad teachers or bad schools, it wasn’t what we don’t have. It was the fact that as a rich country we have so many distractions that have created for kids role models that prevent them from working hard at things that matter.”

In the last few weeks, I was so immersed in working with students , their mentors and the local business community supporting kids in “working hard at the things that matter,” that I almost missed an equally important debate on things that matter to us here in Tampa Bay involving a big box retailer and the substantive public tax payer incentive that county officials want to give the store to open shop in our community.

bass pro area

Site of “The Estuary” shopping plaza

The Tampa Bay Times  reports that the Hillsborough County Commission is considering contributing $6.25 million (down from $15 million, initially)  toward road improvements around “The Estuary”, an enormous, ironically named shopping plaza planned between Falkenburg Road and Interstate 75 – currently the site of Florida pine scrub, and a good 15 miles inland from any chance of an “estuary”, which is by definition a partially enclosed body of coastal water where freshwater from rivers and streams meets and mixes with salt water from the ocean and actually does something physically, biologically, environmentally and even economically useful, by virtue of the recreational opportunities our coastline offers.

real estuary

A real estuary

Besides the sad fact that  “The Estuary”  shopping center is going to completely destroy anything remotely natural – estuarian or otherwise – in the area of planned development, developers predictions of “ annual sales of $61.8 million, generating state and local sales taxes” and “property assessment climbing to $16.4 million, boosting taxes on land now used for agriculture” ring hollow in light of the facts, and misleading in light of “things that matter.”

Bass Pro’s track record and the history of big tax incentives for major retailers suggest assurances that “ Hillsborough could break even on its $15 million investment by 2018” are probably more than a little inflated.  More important, though: Do we truly believe that subsidized shopping offers a real return on our investment towards our collective future?

Bass Pro projects it would create 369 permanent, full-time jobs in addition to 1,517 temporary construction jobs over five years, and the entire shopping plaza development is project to create 1,327 retail jobs.

But the fact is, says a report by the Public Accountability Initiative that examined such claims (Fishing for Taxpayer Cash), “Bass Pro often fails to deliver on its promises as an economic development anchor and major tourist destination – promises which were used to reel in government subsidies. Its stores successfully attract shoppers, but often do not produce sought-after economic benefits associated with major tourist destinations,” and taxpayers in places like Cincinnati, Harrisburg PA, and Bakersfield, CA “ have been left with high levels of debt and fiscal stress as a result of Bass Pro Projects.”

“Retail is not economic development. People don’t suddenly have more money to spend on hip waders because a new Bass Pro or Cabela’s comes to town,” Greg Leroy, executive director of Good Jobs First, a non-partisan economic development watchdog group based in Washington, D.C., told The Atlantic Cities in an article last summer .  “All that happens is that money spent at local mom and pop retailers shifts to these big box retailers. When government gives these big box stores tax dollars, they are effectively picking who the winners and losers are going to be.”

Larry Whitely, a spokesman for Bass Pro Shops, argued in the article that their stores “should be viewed as an amenity being added to a community — much like one might view a park or a library.  …”These aren’t just stores – they are natural history museums.  Every store is designed to reflect the unique natural environment of the area in which it is located.” “

Aside, again, from the basic fact that the store, by virtue of its construction, would be destroying a unique natural environment in the area in which it is to be located, $6.5 million would buy a lovely real natural history museum , park or library with a far greater return on the investment, socially, aesthetically, academically, environmentally and economically. $6.5 million dollars could also address food insecurity, make a serious impact on homelessness, pay for new teachers, finance school improvements, or make a nice deposit on a light rail system.

From a purely personal perspective, $6.5 million could fund a couple or three FIRST robotics STEM education robotics teams in every one of Hillsborough County’s nearly 160 K-12 schools for years, helping create the type of scientifically literate people Florida needs for a truly economically successful future.  Because the real path to future prosperity in Florida and nationally, economic development experts are saying, is growing a knowledge based economy,not a consumer based one.

stem skillsA knowledge based economy is one that is “driven by research, ideas, innovations, and technical skills to generate high-impact economic benefits and high-wage jobs. Strong sustainable knowledge economies

  • Are able to sell goods and services at a higher profit margin than others;
  • Earn average wages up to $25,000 more than non-knowledge-based communities, and;
  • Are able to perform and execute business through more cost-effective and efficient relationships.

In the “New Economy Index” report of states by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which evaluates states on a similar “knowledge based” formula, Florida ranked 21st – and dropping.

“Some have argued that, given the economic downturn, now is not the time to focus on innovation,” state rankingobserved the report’s authors. “rather, our chief concern should be job creation. Yet, fostering innovation and creating jobs are by no means mutually exclusive. To the contrary, most studies of the issue have found that innovation is positively correlated to job growth in the mid- to long-term.”

By a correlation factor of 0.87, notes one author – ” in fact exponentially proportional to KEI (Knowledge Economic Indicator) , ie higher the KEI, higher is the per capita income of that country and vice versa. Highest KEI is of Denmark at 9.58 on a scale of 1 to 10, and the lowest KEI is of Myanmar at 0.96 at rank 145.” (Express Tribune-)

Among the key findings in Change the Equation’s Florida Vital Signs report, “Florida needs a world class education system and seamless talent supply chain to meet workforce demands at all skill levels. STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – is of the utmost priority if Florida is to achieve its long term goal.

Nowhere in that report is there a call for more consumer opportunities or retail jobs.

“Before handing taxpayer money to Bass Pro projects, ” concludes  the Public Accountability Initiative report, ” public officials should consider what some other cities are going through as a result of Bass Pro-anchored projects that have fallen short: high levels of debt and fiscal duress, lackluster development, vacancy and blight, and lower-than-expected tax revenues. Considering the potential consequences, it is imperative for public officials and taxpayers to take the proper steps to ensure that they are not subsidizing an underperforming development: ask straightforward questions of Bass Pro and project developers, demand transparency and data, secure contractual guarantees that limit cannibalization, and, above all, consider alternatives. There is no good reason to subsidize development that sells cities short and leaves taxpayers on the hook.”

checking under the hoodPublic officials – and the public – should also consider what really matters to Florida’s future and help us build a Knowledge economy that will serve us and future generations  far better, and make us far more productive and competitive than any retail chain store ever will.   If, as Dean Kamen says, and as I fully agree, we get what we celebrate, and the best we can do is Bass Pro Shops , then that’s all we’ll get.

If, however, we choose to celebrate creative productivity and scientific and technical literacy and achievement, we’ll get so much more than we could ever have imagined!

Block Friday: A Better Way to Spend the Day after Thanksgiving

Let’s take back Black Friday to be mindful of the way we spend our time and money.

Tee shirt and wallet company Holstee , in what may be considered a commercially and fiscally ironic move, is leading the “Block Friday” effort.

According to CoExist, Holstee co-founder Michael Radparvar said the company elected to “create something participatory, by renaming Friday, November 23, as “Block Friday,” a day to “block off” for something meaningful, whether it’s hanging out with friends and family or being outside.

““The goal is to get as many people as possible to consider one question:This Thanksgiving, what are you blocking Friday for?’” says Radparvar, who plans to use the day to see old friends in his hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. “There’s no wrong answer.””

Yesterday, our family set the tone for the weekend with some remarkably nice family time capped off by a little silliness (see above). Today we’re hanging out, reading, writing, talking.  It’s quiet and peaceful.  I’d rather be here with a handful of loved ones, than in a crush of shoppers buying presents no one will remember after Christmas.  That dancing photo above?  We’ll all remember and talk about that for years!

Is staying home today bad for the economy?  I don’t think so.   I think we need to find a new economic model based less on  “stuff” and more on knowledge and creativity.  That’s another topic altogether, of course, but for today at least, maybe we can take a holiday from the onslaught of commercialism and enjoy the gift of meaningful living.

Want to play along?  Share your Block Friday plans and pics on YouTube and Twitter with the hashtag #blockfriday and #holstee to add your declarations to Holstee’s digital archive.

The Sum of Our Parts

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

― T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

I’m just back from a personally perspective setting visit to South Florida, a trip which took me through the old haunts of my youth in Miami and the neon lit art deco district of  Miami Beach, to the Everglades, the River of Grass, my original wilderness muse.

We can run but we cannot hide, nor should we, from the sources of our being – some good, some bad, some indifferent.   For many and varied reasons  I have avoided for many years, the city of my childhood, the Magic City of Miami; the place where, in the 1970s, I swam with manatees in the Tamiami Canal and pedaled for miles on a rusty old bike, from our tiny terrazzoed apartment on the final approach to Miami International Airport, to the elegant ruins of the Biltmore (since restored) to the tropical jungle of Alice Wainwright Park, through Little Havana and Coconut Grove and all parts in between.

The language of youth is gone – or at least broken, the Cuban half of my heritage shoved under the Caucasian camouflage of my other half.  But I found I still love the sounds and smells and tastes of my original culture – the scent of cigars and pipes, the hot sweetness of cafe con leche, the rich fragrant jumbles of meats and rice and fruits, the music, the omnipresent chatty effusiveness and easy camaraderie of a people – my people – who wear their hearts brassily on their brightly colored sleeves.

The natural landscape of South Florida, which persists through even the most determined urban construction in Miami was the catalyst for my love of the outdoors; a veritable botanical Eden populated with the ubiquitous palms – coconut, royal, date, queen and more, giant ixora, hibiscus blossoms of every color, massive Bougainvillea,  heady banks of jasmine, walls of bamboo.  Everything that can grow here, does, erupting  in verdant abundance through sidewalks and stone walls and even from cars parked too long in one place.

And at the edge of it all, that massive River of Grass, the place where all roads south of the urban landscape of Miami fall away, one by one, until only a narrow handful venture past the fields and sawgrass prairies of Homestead and the Redlands and enter the stark, beautiful inevitability of the Everglades, a wilderness which so few understand and upon which so much depends.   The Everglades is the place where I cut my hiker’s teeth, along the Gumbo Limbo and Anhinga Trails, and later went stargazing with my pivotal South Miami High School Astronomy Club, and later on photo safaris and adventuring with my would-be husband in reaches far outside the tourist trails.

We are the sum of our parts – the depth and greatness of our being determined largely by the degree of our receptiveness to the  influences and experiences – focused, incidental, accidental and peripheral – of our lives.  Turn our backs on any one of our parts, and we are lessened by a commensurate degree.

Life is a series of lessons. Every experience is a required course, prerequisite to the experiences to come. The test of  lessons well learned is to be able to revisit the past not nostalgically nor with bitterness, but with understanding and appreciation, using the past as a ladder to a hopefully more enlightened future; a future  in  which, in my case, my family, friends and cultural heritage will always be an integral part.

Hasta luego!



Taking Ambiguity on the Road, to Spirit of Life UU on September 2

Throughout the summer,my spiritual home,  Spirit of Life Unitarian Universalists  has been welcoming guest speakers and religious leaders from a diversity of faiths and backgrounds, to give members and guests an opportunity to better understand our religious and spiritual neighbors. On Sunday, September 2nd, at 11 AM, I’m one of those guest speakers.

I’ll be sharing my thoughts on the agnostic value of embracing uncertainty and how, in the spirit of a Unitarian Universalist hymn, “even to question truly is an answer.”

Drawing on some of the reflections I shared in “Delicious Ambiguity,we’ll be exploring our ” imperfect efforts to create order out of the natural chaos of life and living, ” and how that tendency toward narrative unity sometimes “paints us into a corner, or leads us down blind alleys” that only lead to more confusion and chaos.

Sometimes, there simply aren’t any answers to the problems we encounter. Sometimes, especially if we’re honest with ourselves, our narrative boils down to an essential and enduring unknown.

Adult Discussion and youth programs begin at 10 am, at Spirit of Life. In Adult Discussion, I’ll be helping facilitate discussion on the topic of  “Neil Armstrong and American Heroism”. Neil Armstrong was “ happy to become a professor of engineering in his native Ohio in later life, and in no way vainglorious. That was an admirable side of the American character of which we have lost sight as the bogus cult of celebrity has taken hold. It is, of course, the antithesis of the ancient world’s vision of a hero.”

Learn more about Spirit of Life UU at or call 813-792-1622.

The Ever Changing Face of “Normal”

One of my guilty pleasures is reading advice columns. I don’t watch court TV or talk-shows, or follow along with celebrity gossip, but I do enjoy the Cliff’s Notes versions of peoples’ lives revealed in the likes of Dear Abby, and Tell Me About It, by Carolyn Hax.  Of the two, Hax’s column seems the most relatable, and in a recent response to a reader overwhelmed by caring for a bereaved sibling and her own family, Hax used the phrase, “new normal.”

The sibling, however disconsolate and aching, would ultimately adjust to the “new normal” of life without the spouse; of raising children, for the time being at least, alone as a single bereaved parent. At first glance, this seems a harsh sentence. But in the context of the reply, and in the context of life in general, it holds water.

Basic human survival needs dictate that we do, in fact, constantly adjust to the new normal of our ever changing lives: single to married, married to single, childless to childfull, to war and to peace and back again, to freedom and to captivity, to comfort and to suffering, to new jobs and to job loss, to sickness and to health.

Reams have been written about things like Stockholm Syndrome, and war prisoners from Viktor Frankl to John McCain have famously and heroically adapted to lives of brutal captivity.

…everything can be taken from a man but one thing,” Frankl observed in his famous treatise, Man’s Search for Meaning.  “the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

I remember adamantly swearing that a difficult relative would never ever wind up living in my house.  Now, three years down the road, she is part and parcel of my home, the extra place at the table, her folded laundry next to mine, a routine – however occasionally still difficult – part of my normal, everyday life.  I have chosen to accept her.

I’d never had a dog before our doxie Dexter came into our home ten years ago, and I’d never really felt like I was missing anything for the 40 years I lived without one. When he died three weeks ago, I couldn’t remember what life was like without him. Today, the house still feels hollow without his small, warm, vigorous presence, but I’m also slowly readjusting to life without a dog.    It is my new, if comparatively still empty, normal.


I’ve been married longer than I was ever single,  but was childless longer than I’ve had children. Although now our children are pretty well grown and “normal” is yet again taking another direction. Of course the danger in adapting so readily to what becomes “normal” in our lives is that it predisposes us to accept unhealthy norms – bad health habits, poor social, or career choices  - and can skew our overall perspective of what is “normal” in other people’s lives.

In the recent Eeyorian opining of David Frum, in a Daily Beast article titled,  “America the Anxious”, Frum concludes, “We fear above all what we do not know. In the past, there was one thing that Americans thought they knew for certain: tomorrow would be better than today. Now? Americans are no longer so sure.”

Personally, I’m not too sure what particular “past” Frum is talking about.  For certain cultural groups – middle class white Americans, typically – there has usually been at least a modicum of assurance that the future would be at least somewhat better than the past, although those growing up in the 30s, in the 40s during WWII, and again in the late 50s and early 60s, had no such illusions.  I remember anxiously watching the “Doomsday” clock in the paper each day, as a young tween, worried that it would tick closer to the final hour of annihilation.  But for ethnic and racial minorities throughout history, there was often very little to recommend the future over the past.  Life, for many people, has always been one hardship after another.

Many today fear that a new America is being shaped in this economic crisis-an America in which only a talented and fortunate few will find opportunities on a global scale,” writes Frum, “while the working many will experience a long slow decline in their living standards and life chances. Many fear that the days when it meant something special to be an American are drawing to a close.”

Again, not sure who these mysterious “many” are, but the fact is that only a talented and fortunate few have ever found opportunities on a global scale, from the Carnegies and Rockefellers to the Zuckerbergs and Gates of America.  I believe, though, that we have more opportunities than ever – education is more accessible to more people and the Internet, despite its still many shortcomings, is certainly flattening the world and bringing knowledge within reach of more people, of all classes, than ever before.

Frum cites 1959 as “the golden age of the American middle class,” perhaps conveniently forgetting that much of that period was built on a façade of equal opportunity.  Kicking off with the Korean War and wrapping up with the start of the Vietnam War (US involvement actually started around 1959), rampant racism, McCarthyism, sexism, and an “invisible” poverty rate affecting 25% of American citizens were all part and parcel of that “golden age.”

The “fear that haunts us now,” Frum asserts, “the worry above all worries: Has the golden legend of America-the constantly renewed promise of a better economic future for its citizens-finally reached an end? And if so, what alternative future awaits us?

I would suggest that the “golden legend of America” is just that – a legend, built in large measure on the reality of attainable success here for those willing to adapt to the ever changing face of “normal” that is a necessary part of human life, and a bit on the false memories we create of the “good old days.”

Perhaps the surest path to a true “golden age” will be one built on the knowledge that there is no one true “normal”, no one right way to do or be in the world;  the compassion and understanding to accept and learn from what’s normal in the lives of others, and the adaptability to embrace the ever changing face of normal in our own lives.