33-31: Tilling the Commons

31. Join a non-profit board

32. Find and commit to one public issue for 5 years

33. Serve on a committee of the town

When I first landed at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government (HKS) for graduate school in the middle of my professional life, I entered with an interest in connecting my contemporary studies to the idea of ‘the commons’ – that area of a town in early America shared and cared for by citizens for the collective good of communal grazing.  What are the 21st century ‘commons’ we as a community or nation hold, and what are the ways in which we work to sustain their bounty – or not?  Having served on the board of the local Habitat for Humanity (since it was on my list, when I was invited to join I was ready!) I had initially conceived of the commons as those areas where citizens come together to solve community problems – in some cases through the non-profit world.

With the Boston Commons just across the Charles River from Cambridge, I found fodder to reflect more on this idea through early morning runs at the start of the HKS program and incorporated them into an essay application to join the study group Charlie Gibson, from ABC’s Good Morning America, was teaching as a Visiting Fellow at Harvard.  For the next 10 Monday evenings, our small group of students representing diverse political perspectives met in his living room to investigate the causes of increasing polarization in the American Congress – and those whom they represent – with an eye on the role the media played.

Soon my interest in and perspectives on ‘the commons’ evolved as I began to connect lessons from my public finance course to our Monday night discussions and realized that one public issue I found incredibly compelling was, well …. taxes.  Though a hot (and incredibly contentious) topic, taxes indeed are the ultimate manifestation of the commons.  We each contribute financially to make the care of that which we hold in common easier; less expensive; less of an individual burden.

With Charlie Gibson on the first Tuesday in November 2010, I watched the culmination of a 30 year campaign against this commons unfold in the victory of the newly coined Tea Party during the midterm election on an ‘anti-tax’ and ‘small government’ platform.  While certainly government waste must be addressed and government efficiency can be improved, the national conversation seemed to have turned to vilifying anything  taxes provide for the sake of ameliorating our tax ‘burdens.’  Burdens, however, come in many forms. I would much rather pool my resources with my neighbors’ so that our streets will be plowed before we wake, our children will receive an education, and our way of life as a community be protected with the services, safety, and security our collective governments provide – in a much more efficient manner than my having to do these myself.

In 1804 at the founding of Bowdoin College, Joseph McKeen – the first President – declared that, “literary institutions are founded and endowed for the common good, and not the private advantage of those who resort to them for education.”  In 1980, as a high school junior when I wanted to become a truck driver or ride the rodeo circuit, Kay Philips – my mom – declared (in her very gentle way), “You need to work to make the world a better place.”  Both declarations have been equally influential in my life at different times. And while driving a 16 wheeler and riding rodeo certainly present chances to do good in the world – as any activities do – for me, education, non-profit work and public policy provided more direct routes.

Will I remain committed to this interest in public finance for 5 years?  I don’t know, just as I don’t know if I will ever serve on a committee of the town.  But just having written these goals down on that list 5 years ago has influenced not only my thinking, but my actions and the resulting directions my life has taken personally and professionally. For these I am both grateful and better equipped for a lifetime of ’tilling the commons’ in some form or another, for the benefit of the greater good.

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Some things just aren’t going to happen …..

34. Visit All the Islands in the Caribbean

35. Study Islam

36. Play Scott Joplin’s Serenity

When I first made the 50 Before 50 list it wasn’t nearly as easy as I thought it would be. And, naturally, I added things throughout its development that seemed interesting at the time. But in the last 5 years, so much has changed.

Do I really want to play Scott Joplin’s Serenity?  Sure. I’ve wanted to play it since 9th grade when I learned along with every other piano student how to play The Entertainer.  But now I would much rather listen to Niles practice his saxophone.

Do I want to learn more about Islam? Of course.  After teaching 7th graders about the Prophet Mohammed’s life and calling, the 5 Pillars of Faith, and the gifts of knowledge that the Muslim Empire spread throughout Europe before the Renaissance, I had  enough ‘history’ to understand the men and women we met in Morocco who embodied the Muslim faith in their lives and actions every day. After 9/11, I had enough ‘understanding’ to know that the terrorist attacks and ensuing calls for jihad that included horrific death and destruction in the lives of innocent people was no more a part of  Islam than the same, done in the name of Christ, is a part of Christianity. So while I would love to learn more, for now what I know is enough.

And, that is what has changed for me in the last 5 years.  More and more in thinking about life, what I realize is that in so many ways what I have already is enough.

As for visiting all the islands in the Caribbean?  Perhaps that is something to do in the next 5 years of Chuck’s 50 before 50….

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37. Do Own Taxes


In that I had 5 years and myriad available software programs to learn how to do our taxes myself, you would think that this would have been an easy one.  Here it even looks like I might have accomplished this with all the extra time I have while living abroad.  No, this was just gathering things together to send to Lorraine – the greatest tax preparer ever – to file our return for us.

Perhaps next year …. or, perhaps, I’ll just take the time saved to continue to drink more South African wines….in Maine.

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38. Live Abroad for a Year

Live abroad for a Year when Niles is in Middle School

When Chuck and I were newly married, we taught for two years in Morocco at the Casablanca American School.  Living and working in Casablanca gave us the first taste of immersing ourselves in another culture completely.  One of the biggest lessons, however, came from observing our colleagues who where in Morocco with their children.  It was then that we both realized living abroad when your kids are in junior high is best for everyone.  So, we determined to follow suit.

Years passed, Niles was born, we moved to Maine, and 6th grade was suddenly approaching. Since kindergarten we had reviewed the long-term calendar each year, noting the potential correlation between Chuck’s sabbatical and Niles 7th or 8th grade.  Could we make it work?  Was it possible with Chuck’s research? With my job? Financially? How would we go about this? What seemed mostly impossible remained a topic of conversation; a shared goal over the years. So when Chuck applied for and was awarded the Fulbright with a placement in South Africa we were so grateful.  Things fell into place. And now we have learned; we have seen and done; we have grown as a family.  And 7th grade has been lovely for us all. This year together in Cape Town is a priceless gift we will share for years to come.  (Notes from Cape Town)

But another lesson lives within this story.  It was in Morocco all those years ago that I got my first inspiration for aging with grace.  Linda was the PE teacher at the Casablanca American School; her school-counselor-husband, Rick, and 8th grade daughter Lindsay formed the perfect ‘three is the magic number’ family.  Over a marvelous spring weekend at the Hippo Camp in Oulidia – a small fishing town nestled on the Moroccon coast – we ate, drank and giggled our way through Linda’s 50th birthday.  As I watched her run through the surf and listened to her (gently) chastise me for not wearing sun screen “everyday!”,  I made a note that I wanted to be just like Linda when I turned 50.  As a 35 year old, it seemed a long way off, but I took note of things that Linda had incorporated into her life.  Many of those are on this list, and each day I am grateful to her for the example she set then – and still sets for me today.

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Lenten Lessons

39. Do Lent Really Well Three times ….

40. Focus more on God – trust in his path; commit time to do so

As it is Good Friday, I’m thinking about lent.  Over time it has become my favorite time of year in part because of a ‘little black book’ I pull out each Ash Wednesday. With anchors of scripture for each of the 40 days leading up to the Passion combined with simple commentary that invites reflection about incorporating love, compassion and justice into daily life, each year I have moved through lent with a deeper commitment to, and better understanding of, the grace of faith. Usually it takes a few weeks to get serious; and then I always say at the end, “Why wasn’t I more focused early on – I would have grown so much more!”

Seemingly paradoxically, the best part of lent is giving things up – trying to remove those things in life which can distract us from the gentle callings of the Spirit.  Usually in addition to living a little more simply overall, I also give up drinking – at least drinking some thing.  One year it was ‘white wine’ to which Chuck (understandably) rolled his eyes; at the Kennedy School, it was giving up the vodka martinis I had come to indulge in.  This year, surrounded by South African wines, I took a different route – and gave up the New York Times.  Difficult? Incredibly. Rewarding? Tremendously.  A few peeks here and there, yes, but overall exponential time gained to be more quiet, more thoughtful, more reflective.

This lent has been significant on a global level with the election of a new Pope.  As we watched the white smoke turn to black and disperse into the skies over the Vatican we followed the news from our small den in Cape Town. I prayed the new Pope would be African.  It just seemed ‘the time.’  Though not the case, we were pleasantly surprised as Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis I. Just that he was born outside of Europe and grew up in Buenos Aires, and more that he emulated St. Francis of Assisi with his chosen name brings a certain sense of hope, a certain hunger for a worldwide recommitment of the Catholic Church to Christ’s teachings related to poverty and humility. His modeling of this in the past week is an example for all of us in the various forms of faith we embrace.

While often during this season we move through the final hours of Jesus’ life beginning with the Last Supper, in my little black book each year I relish the night before when he goes ‘up the mountain’ to seek God’s will. He takes a couple of his disciples with him asking them to ‘watch and pray.’ But in the hour of his greatest angst they fall asleep (me), fall asleep again (me) and then ultimately deny him as they passionately declared they wouldn’t (me again).  Here this year in Cape Town under Table Mountain which has proved to be another anchor in my life, this story resonates even more.  Mountains are important.

Before he chose his twelve disciples, Jesus ‘went up the mountain’ and spent all night in prayer.  After the multiplication of loaves Jesus again went up the mountain to pray.  And at the Mount of Olives, Jesus prayed his heart out to the Lord, hours before his death – and while his dearest friends slept.

It is often the mountain top experiences in our lives which are most pivotal. It’s funny how we have such a tendency to want to avoid them and level them out.  We build expressways around the mountain, take the curves out of the roads, and make them straight and flat.  It is, however, the mountain top experiences which provide us with a different perspective. And to get to the top takes time, preparation and effort.  It’s not easy. Along the way, we often have to throw some things off in order to make it to the top. But when we get there, things always look a little different.

These are the words I hold onto from the little black book this lent – and every lent.  I want to live my life with the larger view of having made it to the top of the mountain.  Sometimes I get there; sometimes I only make it half way; and sometimes I just choose to skip the hike all together and sleep in.  Regardless, I know the Lord meets me where I am and, like his closest friends at his most difficult hour, understands me more than myself when I fall asleep. The darkness of Good Friday always brings the new life of Easter Sunday, just as the blessed burden of lent can sometimes lift us to the highest peaks of living.

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44-41. Shaking Up the Family Tree


As a former middle school social studies teacher, I know the value of primary sources in learning about history.  In part I know this as when I was myself in school I learned first hand through our family’s Civil War Diary – a small leather-bound journal kept by my great-great uncle, William Bulkley, while he traveled from battle to battle as an enlisted member of the Cavalry.  Wounded at the same battle in which his younger brother, Channing, was killed, after several months in hospital, he died from infection of his injuries.  The last entry in the diary is written by Willie’s attending nurse who recorded his passing before sending the diary home to his parents in Missouri – who we know, through other primary sources, were devastated.

Willie’s mother was a Johnson and a prolific writer and “keeper” of the family history. As a young woman accompanying her (much older) Reverend husband, Anne Johnson moved from the Revolutionary War era Johnson Family territory of Fredricksburg, Maryland, to Missouri.  Carrying the family bible with her, it was not only read, but used to record important family events and was given to Anne by her mother who received it new and clean as a wedding gift in the late 1700’s. We know these things as family stories and documents were passed down from generation to generation, with many landing in my mother’s (Katherine Bulkley Philips) hands in the 1970’s.

Shuffling through the pages of the family bible one afternoon at mom’s house several years ago, I find Willie and Channing’s deaths recorded among the multitude of other deaths, births and weddings listed in careful 1700 and 1800’s penmanship.  It is clear my grandfather made numerous attempts to chronicle family history this way into the 1900’s, but  the recordings become more sporadic. However, just seeing their names – and the record of such young lives lost – makes the Civil War Diary just that much more real, and the war itself that much closer. Similarly, could there be any truth to my Grandma’s old stories about George Washington eating off the family plates that now rest on my mom’s shelves?

Through the years we’ve always talked about updating the family bible; suddenly it seems to become more relevant.  In knowing family history, one has a closer connection to history itself.  And, with such family connections to both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars we have played a role in the establishment of the country!  And so, intrigued with history and family, I determine to undertake several projects:

41. Update the Family Bible

42. Do something interesting with the Civil War Diary

43. Become a Daughter of the American Revolution

44. Work on the Family Tree

The next spring, my mom and sister (who also has written a bit about Willie and Channing and the Family Bible)  and I take a trip to Fredericksburg where the Johnson family came from.  We know our ancestor, Roger, was the younger brother of the first Governor of Maryland, Thomas Johnson, and through some historical records find several family farmhouses and a church that they built. We then learn the Johnson

Mom and Carol at the Johnson family furnace site

Mom and Carol at the Johnson family furnace site

brothers owned a huge iron foundry, and visit the site on a cold winter afternoon.  Alas, our hunches are now confirmed. They are patriots! Not only did our relatives serve (as officers) in the Revolutionary War, they contributed to the war effort with iron and weapons!  Because of these two things, we three are eligible to become Daughters of the American Revolution (the DAR).

Funny, my mother is not so excited about this prospect.  “Do you know much about the DAR?” she inquires.  Her historical memory is different than mine, as she recalls how the DAR refused to allow the (black) singer Marian Anderson to perform for a mixed audience at Constitution Hall in 1939. Oh. Then, at the ruins of the foundry, we read the placard description and realize that in many ways it was on the backs of the Johnson’s slaves that their business – and their positions in society – were so successful.  And then I recall – and understand – the separate pages of listings in the family bible that used only first names.  These were the life events of the family’s slaves.  Oh, and Willie and Channing?  They fought on the side of the Confederacy.

Sometimes looking into your roots doesn’t bring the stories you had sought.  But they are the stories, nevertheless, of who we are.  What matters is what we do with them.

Someday I would like to develop a 7th grade curriculum to accompany the diary. And though I will never be interested in becoming a Daughter of the Confederacy, at some point, I may again consider the (time consuming) process of becoming a Daughter of the American Revolution.  Why? Like our family’s history, yes, the DAR’s history is full of skeletons. But also like our family through the years, time changes things up and the DAR has moved from it’s former narrow views and does engage in positive community work – especially in providing scholarships for disadvantaged students. They certainly could move more, and maybe that is the opportunity that interests me – as often, bringing about change occurs from within.


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45. Play Scrabble with Women Friends

scrab 2

I grew up across the street from my best friend, Dori.  Our moms were both pregnant when they moved into new Eichler homes in Palo Alto in 1963. Though 50 years later Dori and I have long left, in the neighborhood they remain and are still best friends, too.  Every morning  at 8:30am Margie and ‘Sweetie’ head to work out at the YMCA around the corner, and then gather again to debrief the day over a 5 o’clock Scotch.  Into their 80’s they share projects, community work, laughter, stories of growing grandchildren and endless conversations.

As Dori and I grew up and settled into our separated-by-miles family and professionally-busy lives our own ‘endless conversations’ became more sporadic.   We missed our mothers’ convenient proximity.

Catching up one day on the phone, I learn how Dori and a neighbor mom across her street play scrabble every evening.  Raising energetic boys and a having a hankering for an end-the-day-nicely glass of wine as the only things the two have common, nevertheless, the scrabble game becomes an anchor in their lives. Though different than our moms whose lives were intertwined by shared life perspectives, their friendship was solidified simply over the challenge of words on a board….and then the unfolding shared conversations that accompanied them over the years.

I always imagined finding my own scrabble friends when we moved to Maine. I envisioned regular evening talk and catch-up evolving into profound reflections on life, love and politics as we shared the joys and challenges of raising our children, growing in our professions, and deepening our intimate relationships.

When the house across the street from us in Maine was up for sale a few years ago, I first prayed that a kid Niles’ age would move in, so he could have a best friend in such close proximity like Dori was to me. And then I prayed that this best friend’s mother would be equally interested in endless conversations, and dreamed of our long evenings together over the scrabble board.  I wanted to walk across the street and settle into a friendship with ease over words. I was disappointed when an older retired man who kept to himself moved in.

Now here in South Africa, I realize I won’t reach this goal before 50 – mostly just because I haven’t made it happen.  With plenty of women friends I know who like to play scrabble, and even with two who live close by and whose kids are my son’s best friends, I never really followed through with the idea.  Niles’ friendships, and mine, arose in different ways and the endless conversations I enjoy with my women friends occurs at work, in the backyard with our spouses, over coffee, and while enjoying the occasional glass of wine.  With ease I accept that I’m just not going to pass my days playing scrabble every evening with my best friend across the street.

So Traci’s email a couple of months ago (before I posted the 50 Before 50 list) comes as a surprise. A college friend in Germany with whom I now share a time zone, she writes, “Do you by any chance own an i-phone or an i-pad?” I reply, “Yes, what are you thinking?”  “Scrabble!” Online. It’s an Ap, called Words with Friends. Brilliant.

Traci, quite coincidentally and unbeknownst to her, has unexpectedly and delightfully fulfilled my hope to be able to ‘play scrabble with women friends.’ But more importantly, she has done so in ways I had never imagined.

Lesson Six: Unexpected gifts, like words with friends – play them with joy

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