Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Enduring Optimism

Coming Home I, Pamela Yates

I have just completed a master's degree in Organizational Leadership. One the most valuable exercises, encouraged throughout the program, was the process of deep introspection to develop my personal leadership philosophy. Rather than a particular theory or creed, I realized that my philosophy -- the system of values that informs my lifestyle -- stems from the leaders in my family who have gone before me.

A tragic and unprecedented test of this leadership philosophy happened last November, when my fiancĂ©e’s father died in a plane crash. At times, Sarah and her family looked to me for emotional support while they handled the many tasks associated with the funeral. Before and during that time of bereavement, the leadership stories of my grandfather Donald McCulloch, my grandmother Corinne Kelso McCulloch, my grandfather Joseph McIlree, and my grandmother Hermine “Minnie” Nelson McIlree all helped to ground my daily choices. Their stories hold the values, and their combined legacies form the keystone to my sense of leadership.

Donald and Corinne McCulloch

Donald taught me the value of determined initiative. This grandfather, who lacked a high school diploma, began his 48-year career as a railroad signalman through determined initiative: he walked into a depot, promised to learn the technical skills, and then quickly taught himself through nightly study and practical experience. He became one of the most valued signalmen for the Soo Line. His life story shapes my leadership philosophy because opportunities to lead come from one's ability to take charge of an unfamiliar situation, learn what needs to be accomplished, and then guide others toward a common goal.

Corinne taught me the value of pursuing excellence in education and to always being open to learning experiences. This grandmother, born in 1896, graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a Bachelor of Arts at a time when women did not hold equal standing in American society, let alone higher education. She went on to become a professional educator, and maintained friendships with many of her former students. Her life story informs my philosophy because I too approach leadership as an ongoing educational experience. I always endeavor to learn the most from an opportunity. I also value my leadership practices as a chance to educate others, and I look forward to an opportunity to teach in academe.

Joseph and Minnie McIlree

Joseph taught me the value of building rapport with my peers. This grandfather, who was a large animal veterinarian in rural Wisconsin, also served on the Village of Palmyra School Board. Through his service to the community and skill at building relationships, he earned credibility and built rapport with local families as both a physician and a member of the school board. Remarkably, when he attempted to complete his tenure on the board, the community returned him to office through a write-in campaign. His life story shapes my approach to leadership because trust and respect for others is the primary way to earn a lasting sense of credibility in the community. Building rapport is at the core of my leadership practices.

Minnie taught me the value of faithfulness and service to my community. A mother of three, this grandmother was also an active member of the Palmyra United Methodist Church. When the church burned down, she was one of the first people to arrive on the scene in the middle of the night, and she returned to help early the next morning. Her life story informs my leadership philosophy because I share that strong sense of faithfulness and commitment to my community. As a leader, I want my peers to know and trust that I will be at the center of any problem the group is working to overcome.

Finally, my leadership philosophy is grounded in a sense of enduring optimism. Having experienced the untimely loss of friends and family, I recognize that every moment is an opportunity for me to lead myself and others toward a better life and a deepened relationship with God. Challenges and difficulties in life are to be expected, and no one is guaranteed an easy journey. Yet regardless of the challenge, no matter the circumstance, I value my skills and model them for others in daily practice. My leadership philosophy looks forward to challenges in life not as obstacles, but as opportunities to demonstrate my values in action.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Letter from Isle Royale

Red Road Spirit, Pamela Yates

The late July morning had grown warm when I hiked out of the forest and climbed onto the crest of Isle Royale National Park's Minong Ridge. I paused, adjusted my pack, and took in the view. Rain from the night before had stained the basalt under my boots a dark gray. The ridgeline was bare except for tufts of grass, splotches of lichen, and a handful of gnarled cedars charred from a forest fire three months before. Lake Superior sparkled below, where her frigid waters stretched northwest to Canada. Ontario was a green ribbon on the horizon.

Ojibwe sacred stories tell of terrible battles between Thunderbirds and Mishupeshu, the Underwater Lynx, that happened where I stood. Those deities fought with lightning and wind and water, and now I saw why tribal elders still spoke of this place with both reverence and awe. A thunderhead, dark and several miles across, was steaming toward me from Canada. Rain fell in sheets beneath it, obscuring the lake. 

I gave the storm twenty minutes before it rolled over me.

Two days earlier I'd been aboard the Voyageur II, a ferryboat out of Grand Portage, Minnesota, that circumnavigates the Isle Royale archipelago. I sat atop the starboard engine compartment as the boat nosed around the island from Washington Harbor to McCargoe Cove, and mentally ran through my clothing and gear. I wore a blue t-shirt and gray trousers made of a quick-dry synthetic fabric. A laminated map of the island was tucked in a backpack pocket, along with a compass. Other items packed included my tent, a water filter, an MSR stove with fuel bottle, an ultralight mess kit, rain suit, and trekking poles. Zipped into a watertight pouch was my late Grandpa McIlree's silver Army medal from 1915, because I'd asked him to join me on the hike.

Voyageur II, R. Pahre, Flickr

This trip represented my first solo, long-distance hike in the backcountry. The Minong Ridge Trail has a reputation for toughness, so few people choose it. I'd picked it for the solitude and isolation. The trail runs thirty-one miles along barren ridges interspersed with beaver ponds and forest that one must repeatedly traverse. Park rangers do little to maintain the path, so backpackers follow a succession of cairns -- small piles of stones -- for direction along the way. I'd be on my own from the moment the deckhand tossed my pack onto the McCargoe dock to the moment, three long days later, when I walked into Windigo Ranger Station.

Now, as the storm enveloped the green hills ahead of me in blue and the wind grew stronger, I felt less keen about solitude and isolation. Thunder cracked, echoing off the Greenstone Ridge to the east. Then I slipped on a patch of scree, fell forward with the weight of my pack, and sprawled onto the pocked bedrock.

My thoughts grew in a crescendo of fear as I stood up.  

What are you doing alone on a bare outcrop, miles from anyone, with fifty pounds strapped to your back? What about lightning? Or losing the trail in the rain? And you haven't seen a soul all day. Who's going to help you out of here if you break a leg?

Storm Coming, RwFrenchJr, Flickr

"Grandpa," I said as the dark clouds rolled toward me. "Grandpa, I am so scared."

I stopped and took a long, deep pull from my water bottle. I closed my eyes, saw the lean frame of a man I'd never met, saw the smile of a man who'd died eight years before I was born, and felt his hand on my shoulder. When I opened my eyes, I knew he was present. Grandpa was here, on the Minong, watching out for me. Calmness settled within my chest. Just keep on walking.

A spatter of rain, another crack of thunder across the ridge. And then the storm began to pivot, blowing eastward. Blowing away from me. I kept on walking.

Later that evening I camped, surrounded by birch trees, on the shore of an inland lake. The acres of dripping leaves held an atmosphere of deep monastic silence. I sat on the shoreline as a loon dove, surfaced, and then called to her mate. For the first time in a long while, I felt at peace. Eighteen miles of hard trail were behind me. So far, I had handled the solitude and wildness. Thirteen more miles waited in the morning.  A thought rose in the stillness: do I love me?

Desor Lake Birch, Fred Sproat, Flickr

An image of four old men in pressed black robes followed that thought. Back home, these judges review my daily life with eyes of polished stone. They never smile. "You accomplished nothing today," one will proclaim. "You're not good enough." The other three always nod as the gavel swings down. "Guilty!"

But those old judges had not come with me to Isle Royale. The thought returned: do I love me?

The moon rose, almost full, against a sky of burnished copper. The loon paddled away. Soon this journey would be accomplished. Within a day the trip would be over. I took a deep breath, exhaled through my nose. What knowledge would I carry from this place? I stood, stretched, and gazed at the lake. Then I smiled. 

Do I love me?


With special thanks to

Pamela Yates Watson
Rich Watson
John Bostwick
Taylor Slapinski
Joe & Carol McIlree

Monday, April 9, 2012


For their sheer weirdness, the dreams of babies stuck in my mind. They began a month into my job at Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota Foundation.

In one dream, I'm in a square, white room without doors or windows. An infant is crying in another room, but I can't get to him. I frantically search for a way out. The baby is in trouble and needs my help. In another dream, I'm treading water in a deep pool while holding an infant over my shoulders. We are alone, and the baby needs to stay dry and safe. "Don't worry," I tell him. "I won't let you slip."

My waking hours had been spent talking with Children's donors about our care for preemies, those infants born months ahead of schedule and weighing anywhere between a dozen ounces to a couple pounds. The technologies and skills available to a Children's preemie never cease to amaze me, like surgery on a heart smaller than a quarter. As a representative of Children's Foundation, I show donors how their generosity helps patients like these tiny babies.

Those dreams, though, made me reflect upon the purpose of my new job. I'd never dreamed about homeless people while serving as a Street Outreach Coordinator, or about scholarships while working at a liberal arts college. But now, while walking past preemies in their incubators, a warmth would blossom within my chest. I wanted to hold each one. I wanted to reassure the parents. And I found myself -- a guy whose passion is hiking the forested hills of northern Minnesota -- dreaming about babies like a nesting mother. Yes, this job was different from any before it: Children's mission was reminding me of my little brothers Joey and Tim.

I was born around twenty-eight weeks gestation, weighed a hair over two pounds, and spent several months in an incubator. Many people know that I was a preemie. I even used my early birth as a selling point in my employment application to Children's. But I rarely told people that my late brother, Joey, had also been a preemie.

Growing up, Joey was less of a brother to me than one of  my earliest childhood memories. He was born at twenty-one weeks in 1985. Unlike today, medical technology at that time could not keep him alive. Joey was with us for less than five minutes.

A single photograph exists of me holding Joey, just after he'd died. Mom sits on a couch beside me, her mouth curved downward. Her body, wrapped in a terrycloth robe, radiates heartbreak and fatigue. Dad leans forward, as he loves to do with his children, engaging me in conversation about my brother. And I look at the photographer without smiling. I remember feeling confused and disappointed. "You kept asking why he wouldn't open his eyes," my mom later told me. "You were so excited to be a big brother."

I became a big brother again, to a healthy baby boy named Tim, one year later. I remember feeling elated. But while I'd had big plans to be a model brother for Joey, I rarely acted on them with Tim. I didn't teach Tim to play baseball or protect him from bullies. I didn't talk with him about girls. I often either mocked or ignored him. We didn't have an authentic conversation until we reached our mid-twenties, and he was the one who initiated it.

Perhaps, I thought, those dreams were saying less about the past than they were about the present. Children's mission was reminding me of what I never had with Joey, but it was also reminding me of what I appreciate about Tim. He has become an exceptional violinist, a young man with character, and a loyal, compassionate friend to many people. I'm very proud of Tim's accomplishments.

And now I can help other kids, because Children's encourages its youngsters to imagine similar accomplishments in life. Many of our patient families lack the money to pay for treatments, let alone music lessons or painting classes. So, Children's integrates the fine arts and community outreach into its model of care -- a model where no family is ever turned away -- and I watch kids benefit from that care every day.

My hope is that these kids will grow into young adults like Tim, and I feel that working for such a mission has expanded the space in my heart for people. Like memories of my little brothers, the work I do at Children's encourages me to grow beyond my boundaries and to care for others. Together, those memories and experiences continue to make me a better person.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Great Silences

Only when one comes to listen, 
only when one is aware and still, 
can things be seen and heard.
        Sigurd Olson

Honeymoon Bluff above Hungry Jack Lake, Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

Lake Superior Shoreline near Grand Marais, Minnesota

Prairie flowers at Pipestone National Monument

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Once More to the Cabin

June 1989. This was the summer I discovered the cabin. I remember a long day's ride in Dad's brown Volkswagen Camper with the windows rolled down, 139 miles of two-lane highway. Cement became asphalt, then gravel, and finally we turned onto rutted logging road. Aunt Joyce and uncle Mel rode with us.

Dad downshifted and cut the engine. We were in the midst of Nicolet National Forest, over a million and a half acres of woodland in northern Wisconsin. The forest wrapped around us like a thick wool blanket. I remember hearing the wind in the trees and looking up at the towering pines. (All trees appear huge when you're six years old.)

Deeper in the woods, where the road edged a tamarack bog, I spotted the cabin. I remember it appearing smaller than I'd imagined in stories, the facade shingled in muted browns and greens reminiscent of rusty nails and unpolished greenstone. I loved it.

The cabin is the centerpiece to forty acres of woodland that my late Grandpa McIlree purchased for forty dollars in 1941. He and a friend built the structure in his backyard, and then trucked it over 250 miles from southeast Wisconsin. I remember my aunt, uncle, and dad walking toward it without speaking. McIlrees talk so much that moments of silence can get lost amid the broadcast. These moments, however, often say more than the words surrounding them.

This time the quiet was whispering, Listen. This is a holy place.

I stepped through the door and for the first time became aware of Grandpa's presence. An empty gunrack made from deer legs was hanging on a wall, its two hooves pointing at the ceiling. The walls were insulated with flattened cardboard boxes. The place smelled of kerosene and cracked leather and musty mattresses.

I sat on Grandpa's bottom-bunk and climbed up and down the cobwebbed ladder to the loft. I studied rows of small glass bottles in a cupboard covered with dust. The cast iron kitchen pump squealed when I worked it, but no water came forth. Birds chirped outside the window.

And then I understood that to Grandpa, the cabin was a touch of sacred in a tough world. Hunting was always beside the point. Fishing was always beside the point. A place to commune with nature and interact with family and friends, free from life's distractions, was the raison d'etre of the cabin. It was where we could reflect on God's vast greatness in the company of one another.

Grandpa and the family spent summer, autumn, and winter weekends here. Some of Dad's happiest childhood experiences happened here. Aunt Joyce and uncle Mel honeymooned here. And now I too was introduced to the family tabernacle.

For McIlrees, the cabin has come to represent an ideal of life, especially because our family is no stranger to dark rooms within the American experience. We've pressed our hands over several generations against the walls of mental illness, substance abuse, divorce, a suicide. We often forget to act lovingly toward one another, and we avoid talking about hurt feelings.

Memories of the cabin, at times, have provided doorways out of those shadows. McIlrees may not want to articulate how disappointed we feel about a hurtful situation, but we can easily reminisce about the long journey to this holy place, about walking the boggy woods and flushing deer.

And sometimes, after reflecting on our forty acres, we can begin to be honest about our inner struggles and our struggles with each other.

Yet these memories have limited mileage. The family has splintered into sharp, wounded pieces in the roughly forty years since Grandpa's death. We rarely see or talk with one another. Some of us haven't visited the cabin in years, and the youngest generation has never even seen it.

Vandals have since smashed the cabin's windows and stolen everything from it. Gone is the gunrack made from deer legs. Gone are the small glass bottles in the cupboard covered with dust. Gone is the cast iron kitchen pump. The place appears abandoned and forgotten.

The cabin was where family could be experienced as well as remembered. Otherwise, without a space for honest and regular interaction with one another, challenging family experiences just become freighted with more and more baggage. Eventually any family memory becomes too bothersome to recollect. And if that habit becomes the new status quo, I wonder if both the relevancy of our family and the purpose of our forty acres will fade into the past.

The spirit of the place, of our family's sacred connection to nature and to one another, will disappear.

So I return once more to the cabin, because only from within my circle of family can I glimpse my authentic self. Their flaws mirror my flaws. Their talents mirror my talents. This time I walk our forty acres not to reminisce or blame or redeem, but to simply be aware of our shared heritage before any part of it can become unrecognizable. At the cabin I can begin to be honest about my role in those relationships, and by doing so, begin to be honest with God.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Out on Highway 61

One evening last summer I pitched my tent along Highway 61, where the Sawtooth Mountains tumble into Lake Superior. My fire had burned to embers. The loons were quiet in the darkness. I zipped my sleeping bag and closed my eyes.

And then my heart began to race. Pounding apprehension in one of my favorite spots on earth.

This country, the North Shore of Lake Superior, is a source of spiritual power for me. The last glacier scraped its face like a dull razor, and even now, thousands of years after the ice melted, only gnarled cedars and stocky spruce grab the thin soil. No corn. No wheat. Just trees and stones.

You can't hide out on Highway 61. I love how this wilderness demands so much humility. This is a landscape where, like it or not, God speaks to you.

That long, restless night amid the pine and birch began what you've been reading for the past year on Dingo Prayer.

I started this blog in late 2009, and I occasionally published posts. But as I sat drinking coffee in the morning sunshine, I admitted to avoiding another spiritual path. I'd been feeling the urge to push my spiritual boundaries beyond my comfort zone, and then document those experiences on a regular basis. 

I'd felt a  similar restlessness in the past, notably before I joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. Back then, my body hummed like steel rails before a Soo Line freight, more excitement than fear. But now I knew the vulnerability such a path entailed: drawing closer to God always feels chancy. You never know what you're going to discover about yourself. Drawing closer to God and publicly writing about it is even chancier, because others can judge those experiences. What if people mocked me?

But I also recognized that Dingo Prayer might encourage readers to embrace their own spiritual search. That had always been my hope for the blog.

Bob Dylan, "Train Tracks"

It was time to make a wager. 'Ok God,' I thought that morning. 'I'll be part of this journey.'

And what a journey this year has been.

I began by exploring a forgotten family atrocity in ancient Scotland. I wondered how my direct ancestors, who for centuries had sponsored a religious order founded on the principles of peace and reconciliation, could also torch a church filled with their neighbors. Writing the piece was my exploration of love, anger, and reconciliation within both humanity and myself.

Next I made peace with a memory from Philadelphia, when I followed a man's trail of blood into place of deep spiritual darkness. Admitting to that painful time on Dingo Prayer is what opened my heart to new spiritual practices, like mindfulness meditation (see "Synchilla").

Later that fall I invited cookbook author and master baker Danny Klecko, the culinary entrepreneur behind St. Agnes Baking Co., to be a guest writer. His thoughtful contributions opened my eyes to how daily work can encompass one's spirituality, and I'm proud to call him a friend.

I wish I could write that my most popular post was on Bob Dylan and Lake Superior, but no: much to my surprise, close to a thousand people last April read about my awkward introduction to yoga in Downward-Facing Dingo. I learned that folks love the yoga.

This odyssey is teaching me, moment by moment, that essays on spirituality happen organically. I simply need to breathe and let God show me the way. Letting go of the creative process feels liberating. Letting go feels scary.

Letting go feels like prayer.

And so, a year after I began this journey, Dingo Prayer is going on retreat for the summer. Time for me to sit in silence.

Time, once again, to go out on Highway 61 and listen for what God has to say.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Faith, Learning, & Vocation

I wrote this profile for my alma mater about a year before I started Dingo Prayer. My mom requested that I add it to the blog, and a wise son pays attention to those requests. Happy Mother's Day, Mom!

My experience at St. Norbert College taught me to recognize the value of my faith and strengthened my confidence to live it with others. My core values stem from Presbyterian roots, Scots who anchored their faith with daily readings from the Bible. I grew up hearing stories about family elders who were pastors and activist women, all inspired by a priority centered in the Torah and repeated in the Gospels: And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

I didn’t know who the Norbertines were when I arrived at St. Norbert College, and I wasn’t a Catholic. What soon struck me was how the Norbertines and the college shared with my family the same fundamental understanding of faith. The Rule of Augustine – instructions penned a thousand years ago to center on God while living with people – is the foundation of the Norbertine mission, and it begins with a command: Let us love God above all things, then our neighbor, for these are the chief commandments given to us.

What had been a family motto was renewed as a radical spiritual path: loving God through loving others became my base as I explored my faith at St. Norbert College, and I found there an authentic community where I was both challenged and loved while developing relationships and my life goals. Loving others is challenging and living with them even harder, and the Norbertines are honest and direct about how that fundamental command shapes their lives. Their witness to that radical ideal quietly shapes and inspires the students who call the college home.
The lessons I learned at St. Norbert remain authentic: I am happiest when I focus my identity on loving God than just my identity as a professional. Despite daily battles with selfishness and self-importance, remembering to focus on God has led to my proudest achievements and my best relationships. Whether as a Jesuit Volunteer serving the homeless in North Philadelphia or as a fundraiser in the Twin Cities, by lessening the importance of What I am doing and instead emphasizing the How my life is centered on God helps me to focus better on loving those around me. That skill is the true gift of my St. Norbert College experience.    

Andrew McIlree, ‘06