November 2015: On being thankful for the mud

Wingra Creek runs along the back side of FSM’s headquarters on Olin Avenue, connecting Lake Winga and Lake Monona.  It doesn’t look like much to most folks, and thousands driving along John Nolan, Olin, Park and Fish Hatchery daily pass over it without notice.  But at this moment in FSM’s history, the little creek has taken on a large metaphorical meaning for me.

The place where the water touches the land is called the riparian zone and it’s one of Earth’s most important ecosystems. The zone acts as a natural filter, cleaning water as it moves into the watershed, and protecting soil from erosion. The zone actually creates new soil and provides dynamic wildlife habitats. It takes on different forms depending on the river and its location, but in each form the zone is the sine qua non of life.

Wingra Creek reminds me often of the creek I played in as a young boy. Older boys wore a path along its banks as they fished its holes, but I was drawn off the path and down to the water’s edge. The memories are so vivid, I can almost feel how the ground first turned spongy, then squishy. Then, in another step or two, I was ankle-deep in muddy water, surrounded by the fragrance of the thick clumps of Blue Flag.

That memory now fuels the metaphor.  In the riparian zone, you’re neither on safe, familiar ground nor swept up in the excitement of a clear current. Instead, you’re in the muck between two certainties, with uncertain footing and uncertain direction – but you’re also where the vital mix of elements both cleanses and provides a birthplace for new life.  So it is with FSM right now.

FSM is in its riparian zone, between the soothing security of solid ground and the thrill of being swept up in the fast-moving currents of new ideas and new directions.  With new leadership and changes forced on two of our longest-standing programs, we’re between where we were and where we’re going.  We’re exploring new directions in fund-development, marketing, outreach, networking and diversity.  We’re exploring a new focus for old programs. We’re launching new programs in 2016, one to aid in the prevention of child abuse and one with a cutting-edge focus on infant trauma. We’re moving forward toward new collaborations with other non-profits providing vital services to our community. We’re taking stock of our strengths and weaknesses, performing market analyses, and challenging each other to flex our creativity muscles.  We’re even looking for a new name and logo.

Making our way through the muddy mix of possibilities is hard, slow going, and even mental health therapists can feel anxiety during the ordeal of change, but this is the sine quo non of life for FSM.  And, really, there is something more — something life-affirming, something animating, something even enriching about slogging through the vibrant mud.  Let’s call it hope.

Wingra’s banks are covered in snow today, and a thin sheet of ice is forming along its edges, but as I watch it flow by my office window, I can’t help but feel lifted by the metaphor it has become.  Between what is and what will be, there is the vitality of what might be, the riparian zone, and it’s one more in a long list of reasons, this week, to bow my head in thanksgiving.