Born to Lead – One Community at a Time

I spent Friday, September 14 at a conference, but this was not just any conference. It was missing the usual suspects: overly gregarious men in suits talking loudly into microphones; PowerPoints filled with statistics and twenty-year-old best practices; obligatory deli sandwiches or plated chicken; and the constant checking of time because surely, it’s almost over or at least time to sneak out.

This was a conference for and about women. It was about empowering women with the mindset to face and overcome personal and workplace obstacles, to see themselves in a different light and engage with like-minded women who share that inner voice whispering to them, “you can be the difference.”

The Know Your Worth Women’s Leadership Conference was founded with the vision of creating a “culture of empowerment among the women of our state.” The amazing women who created and initiated this conference “share in the aspirations for both personal fulfillment and opportunities to lead and engage in the workplace and community.” Born to lead is the mantra and it encompasses a woman’s personal and/or career path.

I’ve never considered myself a leader. Perhaps this comes from my continuing struggle with imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is when an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud. Accomplished individuals and high achievers often suffer from this psychological phenomenon. Depending on your background, personality and circumstances, the pattern may vary, but the result is the same – we feel our successes are undeserved and eventually someone will find out we’re not smart or talented or worthy and call us out.

My pattern of imposter syndrome stems from my childhood feelings of not quite belonging and it gained pace when I returned to college as an adult. While I excelled in my classes (graduating with honors), I was usually the oldest student in my classes which then lent itself to believing I was behind in my career. Imposter syndrome has been a loathsome bedfellow, one I’ve yet to completely overcome. I still tend to refer to myself as a late bloomer when receiving any accolades or acknowledgement for my successes, never fully appreciating my own worth.

I needed this conference. I needed these women. I met women who were transplants from Dallas and Atlanta, women who were from western Kansas, and women who had always lived in Wichita. I met women who worked for the government, nonprofits, small local businesses and large corporations. I met educators, biomedical and psychology students, executive directors, a photographer, an IT assistant, and a scientist. I sat next to women who believed in the power of handwritten cards; I spoke with women fearful of losing their jobs if they questioned the status quo; shared lunch with women who found their calling after volunteering for a local nonprofit and quit their higher paying jobs; and women in transition.

Some women arrived in their power suits while others found confidence and comfort in t-shirts and jeans. Some came in groups, some with a friend or co-worker, some of us alone. None of it mattered: where we came from, where we worked, what we wore or who we knew in the crowd. We were all there to learn, inspire, be inspired, listen, engage and support one another. The energy within the Kansas Leadership Center became palpable – buzzing through our bloodstreams and emerging through our laughter, our voices, our handshakes and hugs, our questions and our cheers.

The conference provided three Know Your Worth tracks: Workplace, Community and Personal. There were two sessions for each track and you could stick to one track or mix and match. I chose Rebel Thinking and the Art of Why Not with Janet Federico (workplace) and Breakthrough to be Extraordinary with Kara Hunt (community). What I soon discovered was that I wished I could have attended all six sessions!

We started the day with an informational and eye-opening morning address by Wendy Doyle, President/CEO of The Women’s Foundation, and we ended the day with a panel discussion from two of the most admirable and revered women in our community, Myrne Roe and Lavonta Williams, and two young women who are blazing their own inspiring trails, Lacey Cruse and Luisa Taylor. These women had us cheering, laughing and on our feet. Myrne stole the show.

The day went all too quickly and as I previously stated, I wished for more time, so I could experience each track, hear each speaker and add to my already burgeoning portfolio of takeaways from the day:

  • “When we are asked, women serve.”
  • When it comes to CEOs, there are nearly as many named John as there are women
  • Women = 51% of Kansas population, yet only 25% in legislation
  • “We always say why, turn it into why not.”
  • “I don’t need a title to be a community advocate.”
  • “When all else fails, start your own business.”
  • “If you want to have 50, 60 and 70-year-old white men decide what your city is going to look like, then continue to meet here and do nothing.”
  • “I want someone on our council who looks like me and understands me and the people in my neighborhood.”
  • “What you fear has mastery over your life.”
  • “I am who I am. I’m good at what I do, and nothing can stop me.”

Most importantly, I learned we were all born to lead. Even me. Whether it’s in our workplace, our homes, our communities. It’s time to not just make the change, it is up to women to be the change. We’ve tried it the other way for too long. So many women have already lit the trail, but the journey is long, and we have much to do. 189 women attended the Know Your Worth conference. These women are at the ready. These women are on the cusp of their own great histories.

Grab your torches, ladies. Meet us on the path.

 

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No Place Like Local

I was a little ambitious when I thought I would post on a semi-daily basis regarding all Wichita has to offer when it comes to local businesses. My excuse is that I was so busy experiencing this abundance of goodness, I didn’t have time to write! But, since I’ve promised many family, friends, and even my staff, that I would direct them to local establishments, I thought I should make good on those ICT promises.

In the past two weeks, my husband and I have put our hard-earned dollars back into our community by shopping for groceries at the Kansas Grown Farmers Market, The Spice Merchant, and the Douglas Avenue Chop Shop. Plus, we’ve enjoyed a few on-the-go meals at favorites like TJ’s Burger House, The Anchor, Picasso’s Pizza, Hungry Heart and T.O.P.S. And, I’ve kicked off a few mornings with a delicious sugar rush from Juarez Bakery and The Donut Whole. As for local watering holes, we’ve enjoyed the recently opened Hopping Gnome and were fortunate to attend a soft opening for Central Standard Brewing Company.

The choices we Wichitans have when it comes to dining out or meeting for a few drinks is nothing short of amazing. There is no reliance on big chains for sustenance and conversation over ales, not with the bounty of local businesses offering unique, tasty, and somewhat addictive fare. Since I could dedicate an entire post to each of the establishments listed above, I decided to break it down in a simple, descriptive paragraph for a few. If you need more, click on the name, as I’ve provided a link to either their website or Facebook page. Then, do yourself a favor and share in the dream.

Kansas Grown Farmers Market: Kansas grown. Need I say more? From farm fresh eggs and blood-red tomatoes to bowls of purple radishes and sweet corn from Gaeddert Farms in Buhler, KS. Open from April to early October.

The Spice Merchant: A Wichita landmark brimming with tubs of coffee beans ready for purchase, an entire room to entice tea drinkers, oodles of kitchen accessories, hard to find spices, snarky magnets and birthday cards. Oh, and incense. Warning: do not plan a brief trip to The Spice Merchant. You will need time to get lost in the aisles and corners. Plan accordingly.

Douglas Avenue Chop Shop: Schane Gross expands her reign as the Matriarch of Multiple Businesses (Hell Bomb Tattoo, The Anchor, Fork & Fennel, and the DACS) with this butcher shop featuring Kansas raised meats and locally grown produce. Currently, we are addicted to the Red Wattle pork chops and bacon wrapped tenderloin. Laid back atmosphere, knowledgeable staff. My favorite Saturday afternoon consists of errands completed, a rewarding beer or two at The Anchor, and meat and cheese from the Chop Shop to take home for a home cooked meal.

Hopping Gnome: “Brewed for the Locals.” Located in the Douglas Design District and owned by Torrey and Stacy Lattin, their ICT tribute craft beers are brewed on the premises in served in full pints or samplers. Front window seating is great for people watching. But, probably avoid if you have a phobia of gnomes. My heart belongs to the barrel-hopping gnome logo and the Earl of ESB.

TJ’s Burger House: Delano District. While I’m not a fan of the 1950s décor, the burgers are scrumptious. Big, beefy, ruin-the-red-and-white-sandwich-paper-they-came-in greasy and messy. Cheeseburgers are my weakness. My last meal better be the mushroom Swiss burger from TJ’s.

TJs burgerhouse

T.O.P.S (Taste of Philadelphia Style) Steaks and Hoagies: Owned by local general contractor, Bernard Knowles, and located in a small plaza just west of Grove and 21st Street, T.O.P.S is a must-visit. I do not profess to know what makes a cheesesteak an original or Philadelphia style, but I do know a great sandwich when I taste one. Cooked on a grill located behind the storefront window, you watch as the meat is skillfully browned along with the peppers and onions, the white cheese added, then piled into a hoagie bun that perfectly retains the drippings. The place is very small, but the sandwiches, wrapped carefully in sandwich paper, foil and bagged, travel well to their destination.

The Donut Whole: Cool, inventive, and resourceful Kansas proud owners; creatively, quirky and delectable donuts; an adult space to enjoy live music, poetry readings, retro films, and celebrate turning in your thesis (okay, that last one might be solely me, but I remember the afternoon very well and maple bacon donuts can spur the memory with one bite). Oh, and the wildest, entertainiest, funnest, birthday bashes, ever. I enjoy their birthday bazzazzle so much, I made up a word to describe it. The Donut Whole does that to you.

Juarez Bakery: Go. Delight in the wall of breads and pastries. Grab a pink tray and silver tongs and pile to your heart’s content. Their conchas are the closest to my mother’s homemade Mexican sweet bread I can find. One bite and I’m a little girl sitting at the kitchen table dunking pieces of my bread into Mexican hot chocolate, the sugary topping crumbling into the cocoa, the sopping bread melting on my tongue like a communion wafer.

Wow. Where was I? Oh yes, local establishments. Those are just a few of what Wichita has to offer. I will warn you, so many choices make for sometimes strenuous decision-making on where to dine or stop for a cold beer. But, I’d rather fuss for a few minutes over whether to grab a large slice of The Kansan or The Kitchen Sink at Picasso’s Pizzeria or salmon sliders at The Hungry Heart then not have any local choices, at all.

Thank you, local ICT business owners. You make it easy to advocate for this hometown of mine.

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#ShineICT: My Final Post as Blogger of the Month for KSWB

I’ve enjoyed the opportunity as Blogger of the Month for Kansas Women Bloggers. I close the month of July with my final post about my hometown, Wichita. As is stated in my bio, I’m an advocate for this growing city and its people. The ICT (as it is affectionately known thanks to the International Air Transport Association (IATA) code for our airport), has much to offer her native Wichitans and transplants. But, I want to focus on the faces and places who reflect the most light in our city, those I believe generate the greatest shine in our community – small business owners.

Okay, so I’m a little biased, since my husband joined this courageous group in 2008 when he combined his years of work experience and his passion for art and launched Concrete Colorscapes. But, even prior to his stepping out on the small business ledge, we were always supporters of local. It’s in our blood. Wichita has a long legacy of people and their businesses started on a dime and a dream. We are rooted in a city that pulses with inventiveness, creativity, and the willingness to take a risk.

Local business owners are entwined with their community: they are familiar with the mainstays and aware of trends, understand its geographical limitations, and have lived its history. But more importantly, small business owners know the people of their community. For me, small business owners are like an aunt with a scrumptious recipe or cousin with a great idea who want to share so we might all partake in its awesomeness. From the perfect cup of coffee or delicious work-of-art donut to a sturdy, handmade coffee table or an intriguingly creative bouquet of flowers, Wichita business owners share the dream.

This weekend, I visited Veritá Coffee Company. Finally, the west side has a coffeehouse to call its own! Jon and Ivy are energetic and consummate small business owners, learning the names of every customer and passionately educating new patrons on the beauty of their espresso, as well as a menu which includes a root beer latte. There is such care in the preparation of each cup, such patience, precision, and enjoyment in doing so, something you definitely don’t get from a chain. And, it is contagious. I left Veritá wanting to know more about coffee and, of course, drink more coffee. Sure, this is their livelihood and they are aware of the stress, the gamble, and yet, their manner of voice and their genuine smiles express it’s all worth it. That and their incredible coffee will keep people lined up at the coffee bar. Plus, they were spinning vinyl Saturday morning. How you could not want to visit this place?

Owning your own business is definitely not for sissies. Small business owners work 24/7, with no real paid time off or extended holidays or anyone matching 5% to their retirement fund. Their bonuses come in the form of repeat customers and word of mouth. And, their true success doesn’t come in expansions or buy outs, but in longevity and consistency and the creation of family. Just look at The Artichoke Sandwich Bar, Connie’s Mexico Café, and The Spice Merchant for examples of Wichita family and mainstays.

The rich fabric of our ICT community is further enhanced with each new storefront, neon sign, or tinkle-clink of a bell against a door. Beautiful Day Café is a shining example of this beautification. Located at the corner of Central and Green Street, they provide healthy meals for their neighbors, from farm to table. Their food is fresh, delectable, and pleasing. But, it is the atmosphere of comfort that gets me, every time. Walking into their café is like walking into the kitchen of a neighbor or a relative. I keep waiting for my Aunt Becka to appear, rollers tucked under an opaque scarf, and serve me a plate of eggs. Their dream was built on a vision of community and family, and you can feel it wrap around you like a soft serape when you sit at a table.

While Wichita definitely has its own quality of brightness, it also shines in its ability to distinguish itself as a place to build dreams, both big and small. As I said earlier, it’s in our blood to create, to invent, to dare to build a dream upon the purchase of an abandoned warehouse, a commercial grade vertical stand mixer, a pro-pack of engraving tools, or a Slayer espresso machine. And, it’s in our character to support those who take such risk, as they are a reflection of ourselves, as we pursue our own dreams. Thomas Watson, Sr. once said, “To be successful, you have to have your heart in your business, and your business in your heart.” My business and heart is in Wichita, just as her business and heart is in each one of us. Let’s continue to #ShineICT.

Thank you for following my journey this month at Kansas Women Bloggers. Please visit me here, at Mermaid of the Plains, as I will be listing my favorite local businesses throughout the week. And thank you to our small business owners of the ICT, especially Verita Coffee Company and Beautiful Day Café, for allowing me to take photos and ask questions.

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Last Days of Fall

Old Man Winter has arrived with a vengeance, blowing the leaves off trees, sending them to cower in piles against fences and back doors. The temperature feels more like mid-February than early November. Fortunately, we were able to take a walk through the Pawnee Prairie Nature Trails on Sunday and bask in the late morning rays of the sun spindling through the tall trees.

The trails were littered with the droppings of deer and horses and the shimmery decay of leaves. A silver-gold sheen covered one narrow path, as if the leaves had been painted in silver or gilded in gold. The scent of decay filled my nostrils, along with pungent evergreens and once in a while the smell of animal hair mixed with droppings that reminded me of the smell of a petting zoo.

It had been awhile since we’d walked through the trails and as always, I was amazed by their beauty and mystery. The trails are less than a mile from our home, but surprisingly our walks are few. We made the trails a promise to return to her on a weekly basis, rain or shine, fall or winter. I look forward to seeing her change with the seasons, to see the starkness of the trees without their leaves, to be tested by the frozen ground, to gaze upon her winter coat.

So far from the sea, a walk through the trails is just what this mermaid of the plains needs to replenish and rejuvenate my soul.

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Day #32 (Saturday) of Wild and Exciting Little Things: Local Artwork

I don’t consider myself a connoisseur of art, I just know what I like. I’m drawn to vivid color, depth, and skulls, with an occasional lean towards whimsy and a guilty pleasure of seascapes. I’m especially supportive of local artists. Wichita has an exceptional art community. From the highly trained to the self-taught, from oils on canvas, to spray painted murals, the talent is vast and the artwork is broad.

On Saturday, I brought home a new piece by Jaki McElroy. Her fascination with skulls and Dia de los Muertos and her use of color are bold and calculated. My interest in this piece was immediate. I feel such pride knowing I am supporting our local artists, as they are a significant piece in the puzzle of success in a community. Without art, there is no passion. Every community needs and deserves passion.

New Art

Day #17, 18 & 19 of Wild and Exciting Little Things: Bicycles, birthdays and film

While I was completely immersed in the Tallgrass Film Festival and did not have time for my daily posts, I remained aware of the little and not-so-little things throughout the weekend.

Day #17: bicycles

My husband and I love our bicycles. Purchased from garage sales or found discarded alongside dumpsters, we cherish time riding the bike paths of Wichita on our coasters. During the film festival, we utilized our bikes to get us from venue to venue, from the Scottish Rite Center to the Wichita Art Museum and back to the Orpheum Theater. The bicycles were not only convenient, they truly added to each day, giving us time in the sun and the opportunity to act like kids as we pedaled furiously to make the green lights or zoomed downhill near the river. On any given Thursday, we can meet other bicycle enthusiasts and raise a pint at the Shamrock prior to group riding to the Keeper of the Plains or through Old Town. A bicycle is more than exercise; it is a link to the freedoms of childhood.

our bikesDay #18: birthdays

Saturday was my husband’s birthday. While I’ve nothing against my own birthday, I’m not a big celebrator. And, it’s not due to any fear of aging, as I’m good with getting older. I believe the old adage, “with age comes wisdom.” But, I also believe with age comes experience, equity and confidence. I find as I grow older, I grow stronger in heart and mind.

So, when it comes to birthdays, I enjoy providing or adding to the celebration, especially for my husband. All day, it’s his choice. Plus, I try to surprise him with a gift, usually related to VWs, tie dye, or music. I celebrate in his celebration, as birthdays should be.

Day #19: Films

Once again, the Tallgrass Film Association has given Wichita and Wichitans a festival to be truly proud. This year, we viewed 11 films (those with links, I highly recommend):

  1. Life Itself
  2. Johnny Winter: Down and Dirty
  3. Gone Doggy Gone
  4. Brave New Wild
  5. The Brio: A collection of animated shorts
  6. Stray Dog
  7. Yojimbo
  8. Keep on Keepin’ On
  9. Self Medicated: A film about art
  10. The Living
  11. Five Star

Along with the films, we attended three of the Gala Events, one VIP rooftop shindig, the Firkin Filmmaker Brunch, and in between films we made libation/snack pit stops at the VIP lounge at Candela at the Lux. Throughout the festival, we met up with friends, welcomed and chatted with visiting filmmakers and actors, and enjoyed one of the best events of the year. Again, if you have never attended the Tallgrass Film Festival, I encourage you to check it out. Plus, there are smaller events held throughout the year, including Dudefest (all things Big Lebowski), the outdoor movie held at the Wichita Art Museum and other singular showings to get your indie film fix. Tallgrass Film Association and TFF provide not only entertainment, they provide opportunity and education, spark passion and conversation; create partnerships and camaraderie, as well as a whole lot of fun.

Day #15 of Wild and Exciting Things: Just a little thing called Tallgrass Film Festival

Tallgrass Film Festival opened with the screening of Life Itself, a film that follows the journey of Roger Ebert. If you get a chance, you must see this film. Our evening began with the screening at the historical Orpheum Theater, included beers from Tallgrass Brewing Company (Zombie Monkey is excellent!) and was followed by the opening night party at the old Union Station.

During the Ebert film, we sat next to a visiting filmmaker, Anthony Grippa, whose film, Half Brother, will be screened on Saturday. Originally from New Jersey, he is now living in L.A. and this is his first time to Wichita, Kansas. We may have to rearrange our viewing schedule on Saturday to support his film.

And this is just the beginning. Welcome to a little thing called Tallgrass Film Festival, one of the best events of the year.

Tallgrass

Day #9 of Wild and Exciting Little Things: Seeing anew

I love introducing others to places and people I adore. Today, I introduced our administrative assistant, the lovely Jen, to two of my favorite Wichita gems. I am an advocate for my hometown and all it has to offer, especially its local businesses and services.

As a member and former employee of  KMUW-89.1 FM, I couldn’t wait to take Jen to the small but impressive public radio station on 17th street. A service of Wichita State University, there is no other station in Wichita that does more for news, music, and our community, so I am always quick to educate others. Plus, not only is the programming excellent, those who work there are some of the most creative, spirited, intelligent, and caring people our city has to offer. Needless to say, Jen is enamored with KMUW. She even signed up with me to answer the phones during their upcoming fall pledge drive.

And just when she thought our impromptu afternoon field trip couldn’t get any better, I took her to lunch at Watermark Books and Café. The smell of coffees past and present greets you as you enter and you have to truly remain on task, whether it be for lunch or a book, because deciding between the two can be torture. Over the Great Expectations and Godfather (two of the best sandwiches in town), Jen and I talked about books, work, life, and bread. If we had an extra hour or two, I’m sure we would’ve spent the entire afternoon slow-walking through the aisles of books, breathing them in, touching them, and getting lost in the wonderland that is a bookstore.

As we drove back to work, I realized our excursion was made all the better due to the wonderment and outward-awe of Jen. She relished in each moment, she hugged herself with excitement and the famous Pat Hayes; she devoured the tour of the station; with kid-like contemplation selected her sandwich at Watermark Café; and smiled all the way back to the clinic. And I joined in her enthusiasm. I’ve learned that the best way to rekindle the appreciation one has for their hometown haunts, one only has to introduce them to someone new. As the newbie’s love affair begins, your own fires are stoked and it’s like falling in love all over again with oversized artistic coffee mugs, familiar voices, global music, apricot-curry mayo, and books.

Jen at KMUW

Day #6 of Wild and Exciting Little Things: More than just air guitar

My brother sent me his three-year-old son’s first music video. Less than two minutes in length, the video captures the little dude wildly strumming and twirling a green broom, while singing three words over and over, “Sing my song, sing my song, sing my song.” While the lyrics could use some work, he utilizes his voice impressively, taking his voice on a rollercoaster of ranges with each “lyric.” There is a rhythm to the song towards the end, just as he decides, “songs over.”

I loved it. But, there is more. My brother called me to share the inspiration behind his son’s budding music career. It seems the little dude was perusing his dad’s DVD collection when he came across one that seemed to capture him. He studied it, then walked over to his dad and asked who the man was on the cover. My brother took the DVD and told him, “That’s Kirk Rundstrom. Your Aunt Natalie knew him. He played in a band in Wichita.”

The little dude paused. “What is he doing on there?”  My brother answered, “Playing the guitar.”

A few minutes later, my nephew left the room and returned with the broom.

The DVD is Never Make it Home, the man is Kirk Rundstrom, a crazy character and talented musician I knew a lifetime ago, or so it seems. I think it’s a beautiful thing that his presence is still so large, it can inspire a three-year old boy to rowdily brandish a broom and sing his first composition. My nephew will never know Kirk, but he recognized the same bold, energetic spirit we all knew and loved and paid homage with a simple green broom.

 

 

Is This Seat Taken?

I cannot remember the last time I flew on a commercial flight. Yes, we flew to Atlanta for the 2013 Final Four, but that was a chartered plane filled with Shocker fans and while we had to go through security, we were all so high on the tournament ride I couldn’t tell you if I took off my shoes or had to open my carry-on bag.

So, when I recently flew to Chicago, I was pleasantly surprised by the ease of travel with Southwest Airlines. My ticket to Chicago from Wichita was inexpensive, non-stop, plus I got to print my boarding pass 24 hours prior to my departure , my overstuffed red suitcase flew for free, and I got to choose my seat. Yes, choose my seat. While I overheard some passengers grumbling about not having a reserved seat, especially after it was announced our plane had arrived from Dallas with 60 passengers already aboard, I loved the idea.

No more reserved seat surprises. You know the ones, the sweaty, salami-burping salesman; the snoring elderly man with the dangerously close to the shoulder drool; the chattering, gossiping-about-people-you-don’t-know housewife; the deadpan teen who can only grunt when you ask them to let you pass or to help you with your bag; and the infamous kick-the-back-of-your-seat-all-the-way-to-Florida child who screams “no” in between kicks. No surprises on this flight. I got to choose my seat, therefore choose my flight mate or mates.

Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t always had undesirable flight mates. I was sixteen when I took my first plane and I flew solo. I was nervous, but excited and felt like an adult. I wore gray corduroys, a sweater with pink and gray stripes and these awful earth shoes. My only carry-on was my over-the-shoulder purse that I’m sure contained a tiny wallet and root beer flavored lip gloss. My flight mate was a tall, blonde wearing a fox fur. She floated on a cloud of Chanel No. 5 and reminded me of the actress on General Hospital who played the character, Tiffany Donely (I was a “General fan” at the time). Of course, she’d flown numerous times, ordered a cocktail at 9:00 am, and proceeded to engage me in conversation from school to fashion to cities to visit in my lifetime, and shopping in Chicago. And, if I learned anything from that hour and a half flight next to Sharon Wyatt’s doppelganger, it was how to make a flight go quickly with interesting conversation.

I’m not one to sit by the window, nor do I need the aisle seat (although it does make for better leg room), so as I perused the empty seats that early morning headed to Midway Airport, I looked for only one thing: does he/she look like an interesting person to get to know in an hour and a half? I must say, I chose well. On the way to Chicago, I chose an empty aisle seat next to an older couple who looked hardworking, observant, and married. They began the conversation by asking if I was headed to Chicago or elsewhere? The reason for my trip? They were en route to Nashville via Chicago (ah, airline routes these days) to visit their granddaughter who was joining a convent. After a brief banter regarding the decline in the sisterhood, the rarity of knowing someone joining a convent, they asked what I did for a living. At the mention of Wichita State University, they told me they owned an eatery near campus, one that was quite popular with the WSU crowd. They introduced themselves as Ken and Carol Hertel, the owners of Barn’rds on Woodlawn. I told them they were the home of the best hot ham and cheese in Wichita. After thanking me for being a customer, they asked if I knew Dr. Jim Rhatigan. He is my personal cheerleader and the reason I’m with WSU. They are good friends and threw him one of his many retirement parties over the years. They are men’s basketball season ticket holders; although they give away most of their game tickets due to their time with the restaurant, so imagine the conversation that ensued. And the world gets smaller, as their granddaughter in Nashville is named Natalie. Departure flight mates: A+. I’ll be stopping in to Barn’rds to see them, soon.

My return flight was even more special. I chose the aisle seat next to a tiny elderly woman in a purple jumpsuit. Her auburn curls caught my attention first. Her eyes seemed to light up when I asked if I could sit next to her. She was returning from a month-long trip that began with a family gathering in Colorado, a wedding in New Orleans, and a visit to a sister-in-law in North Carolina. Did I mention she is 83 years young? She was looking forward to sleeps in her own bed and couch time with her cat. She patted my hand when I provided the details regarding my trip to Illinois and much-needed time with my sister and her family. We discussed hair color and how I managed to have straight hair in lieu of curls, how one pales sans lipstick, and faith. She carried a cherubim hand mirror and a “Jesus with children” compact, but I got the feeling her family is her true religion. At 83, she prays she can remain in her home for as long as possible and says she sets goals each year. Next year, the youngest grandchild graduates from high school and the following year, the second youngest graduates from college. She’d like to be around long enough to see them all graduate because education was something her husband stressed to their children and grandchildren. He has been gone for three years. The Chicken Soup for Your Soul in her ivory pocketbook focuses on angels. I can tell she misses him, but carries him with her, always. As the plane unloaded, I waited with her to ensure the Southwest people arrived with her wheelchair. She doesn’t really need it, except she knew she would be exhausted when she returned to Kansas. Plus, she had a long drive to Liberal, Kansas. Her son was waiting for her in the baggage claim. I hugged her tight and she told me she’d always remember me as Natalie Wood.

With all of the complaints regarding flying, from the long security lines, overpriced and lost luggage, fights on planes between passengers and crew, and the insensitivity of airline corporations and their employees, it is comforting for me to know that Southwest airlines still allows the opportunity for conversations between strangers. If your bags fly free, complimentary drinks and pretzels are available, and you get to choose your own seat on a plane, it would seem with the stress of flying at a minimum that most passengers would take this opportunity to engage with their fellow flight mates. At least, that is my hope.

In a world that seems to be spiraling out of control with hatred as its catalyst, in just one hour and a half in a flying machine one can be reminded of the old adage, “We are all in this together.” This post is not meant to promote Southwest Airlines, I’m only hoping to promote the pastime of conversation, especially with a neighbor, be it the family next door, the person next to you in the grocery line, the next cubicle, the pew in front or behind you, or your chosen or assigned flightmate. Again, life is a collection of short stories and the more stories you have or know, the more interesting this life can be. So, what will you respond when asked, “Is this seat taken?”