I have a friend named Michele. I met her when we moved to Ketchikan and I took a job with PeaceHealth, joining the medical group in a support role for the team. Michele was my immediate supervisor and manager, and has become a mentor.
New to a community, an organization, and my position, I had a lot to learn. Michele had moved to Ketchikan just the year before, and was also adjusting to rainy Southeast Alaska, and finding her way with the medical group too. As we worked together, we would sometimes compare notes about our past lives, how we perceived this corner of Alaska, and our likes and dislikes. We sometimes sat, after a work meeting at the end of the day, and just talked, becoming friends as well as co-workers.
Michele is the opposite of me in many ways. She is tall and elegant, a smart dresser, who often adds a bold splash of color to her look with a signature scarf. She is a woman of city life whose path has brought her to rural Alaska. She’s a regional vice-president in a health-care organization. She’s a hiker, a rock-climber, and a humanitarian. She loves jewelry, and wears it well. She’s generous with her time and money, supporting children in Africa; but even more generously, has made numerous trips to third world locations as part of a team to build homes, schools, and lives. Her office is tastefully decorated with framed photographs of children she’s met on her journeys, her own portraits of people she’s touched. They are reminders, in a way, anchors, contrasting the world she lives in, and the world she sometimes visits.
We are alike in some ways. We are both directionally challenged. If we drive to an unfamiliar location together, we’re likely to have a bit of an adventure finding our destination. We love to shop. We love to eat. We love sweets. We love pretty things, clear glass, kitchen gadgets. We wear high heels and a lot of black. We love Pandora charms, and sometimes make a detour, after treating ourselves to a rare lunch out of the office, to check the latest arrivals at the local jeweler’s.
We’ve attended some local productions and charity events together. A few times we’ve hauled spouse and significant other with us. But often these are too foo-foo for the men in our lives. We have a chance for the occasional girls’ night out that invariably gives us stories for the next day, and likely, the day after that. We’ve braved howling winds and downpours for evening corporate dinners, bought the wrong smoked salmon at an auction, giggled through a community production, two fifty-somethings slipping into schoolgirl mode for a few moments.
Michele is a story-teller. With gentle self-deprecation and an animated and lively way with words, she makes people and events come to life. She shares stories from her childhood, of her grandparents who largely raised her, her college days, her long-time girlfriends who have become family. She draws on her work life, past relationships, and most of all, her own sense of the ridiculous. She’s a serious business woman, but often lightens work meetings with humor. She loves a good laugh, a good punch line, and she never minds sharing, even if the joke is on her.
Michele is an advocate. She is a bridge between a corporate world that is coming of age, and a medical community that is feeling its age. She pleads each group’s case to the other. She stands in the gap. She is often appreciated, but sometimes not. Her job is not entirely thankless. But it is stressful, demanding, challenging. Health care in 2012 is not a profession for the faint of heart.
She can confront when she needs to, but she doesn’t seek confrontation. She asks rather than tells, in general. She is gracious, respectful of others. But she’s tough too. She’s taught me a bit about standing up, facing something difficult head on, with kindness, but with firmness. Hard for me, when my default setting is “yes.” Oh, I have integrity, but I also avoid conflict. She calls me on it, and has helped me recognize the position of strength I want to adopt. She stands firm, not in a belligerent manner, but with a steadiness of character that is grounding, reassuring.
Michele knows how to be a friend. There is a quality of sisterhood to our relationship. We share pieces of ourselves, insights about life, love, choices. She has seen me through some difficult moments, and has allowed me inside a few of hers. Often, we just talk. About finding our way, about recognizing the good, about perspective. About balance. About doing the right thing, and for the right reasons.
Twice she has helped me see clearly when I had lost my way. I’m not often at a loss. But on these occasions, when I needed clarity and perspective, I found the beginnings through her. It was Michele’s suggestion that I stay with PeaceHealth in a relief capacity, when I thought there was no other option but some level of employment. And it was Michele’s sharing of her own past struggles that allowed me to see some of my personal issues through different eyes.
I like to think I repay, in my own way. I mother a bit. I bake. I’m about comfort, and caring. I listen. I encourage. But it is all a two way street, and maybe that’s the reason our friendship has flourished. We each have something to give, and we are each able to receive.
Michele’s presence in my life has been an unexpected gift. If I met her on the street, I wouldn’t guess we would find connection. She has a career, I’ve had jobs. She has had a life of adventure, I’ve had a life built more on marriage and motherhood than any other element. She is fearless, I am not. But I think what drew us together was a bit of a kindred spirit. We are of similar ages, and we share common values. Above all, besides a killer sense of humor, I’m drawn to Michele because she cares, and she cares passionately. She cares enough to risk. She approaches her job and her life with integrity. She inspires me, and she pushes me. She is my friend, and I am hers.
[I'm leaving the position that has allowed me to work closely again with Michele. My relief stint is coming to a close. I'll be back in Ketchikan in the fall, after our summer ramble, and hope that there will be something for me to do with PeaceHealth...but that's uncertain, and the risk I take for choosing to work in a relief capacity. Regardless of future opportunities, I've been fortunate to find friendship in my work environment. Thank you, Michele!]