The Third Third

Change Happens

Probably the most dangerous thing you can do at mid-life is write a book about mid-life. After I wrote a book called *What’s Next* about women changing direction at mid-life to do something more meaningful or use their gifts in a different way, people kept asking me what was next for me. After all, I was still working at the same newspaper where I had worked for 30 years. Wasn’t I going to practice what I preached? Good question. So when my youngest son graduated from college, I decided it was my turn, my time. I left the world of newspaper work to pursue some new projects. I took on a new job in education, because I care passionately about improving public education, and finished a book about a woman apostle named Junia, because I care passionately about honoring the roles of women in the early church. And then, as people I interviewed for *What’s Next?* predicted, something happened that I didn’t expect. They had warned me that when you open yourself to change, changes happen you didn’t dream of. And sure enough, the phone rang one day with the invitation to come to Washington and work at the State Department. Karen Hughes, the former Communications Director at the White House, was on the line. She is now the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, working night and day to help improve our country’s standing in the world, and she said she needed help. It would mean giving up a good job and my home in Dallas and taking time away from the launch of my new book. But how could I say no? I have been so blessed to grow up in this country and enjoy the blessings of freedom and security – how could I not give something back when asked? I had known Karen Hughes professionally for many years and admired her personal integrity and remarkable ability as a communicator. She had always been one of the good sports in politics, always returned calls, always a straight-shooter, a woman who was serious about her faith and her family. It would be a privilege and a challenge to work with her and learn from her. So I moved to Washington in the fall of 2006, moved into a condo that I leased on-line without seeing it, and started a new life as a speechwriter and strategic communications manager. My first day at work we flew to California, where Karen Hughes spoke to the Governor’s Conference for Women, so even before I even had time to sit at my desk, I was writing speeches and fielding reporter’s questions. It’s been a whirl since then, but a healthy whirl of learning and doing. I have used my old skills in new ways and learned some ones. Appropriately I have a paperweight on my desk at home with a quote from the Italian artist Michelangelo when he was 87, “*Ancora Imparo*” – I am still learning. I must admit it’s a real challenge to keep up with the career foreign service professionals in my office who have served in challenging posts all over the world and speak multiple languages fluently – and it is a real challenge to keep up with the bright young political appointees, who are much more world-savvy than I was at their age and who are still laughing and teasing each other on their blackberries until late at night. But I’m glad to have this chance to say they are some of the finest, most dedicated people I have ever met. Most Americans will never know their names or what thoughtful things they have done to make our country safer or more successful, but I can say I have a new respect for such government workers. Yes, it’s annoyingly difficult to get things done through the acres of bureaucracy at Foggy Bottom, but things do get done – we are starting summer English camps in key Middle Eastern areas for young people that includes Junior Achievement training, we are distributing My Arabic Library translations of American classics in Jordan, we are starting new broadcasts to Somalia, we have more students coming from Iraq and Afghanistan, we are mentoring businesswomen in Guatemala and Kenya, we are helping women learn how to run for office in Kuwait, we are starting a new counter terrorism communications center to rebut terrorist propaganda. The War is an ever-present concern at our meetings. For sure, many people have strong feelings about whether it should have happened, how it was handled, and more, but for now, there are many amazingly brave Americans trying to save the day on the ground and many dedicated people pitching in here and there. One of our colleagues, Susan Phalen, has just gone back to Iraq for her ninth tour of temporary duty. She left only a few weeks after having surgery because she believed so strongly that there was unfinished work she needed to do. Just this week, she helped a half dozen Iraqis, with a mix of Sunni and Shia backgrounds, start the first independent radio station in Diyala province, one of the most dangerous areas. She spent weeks in places without showers to do so, helped pile sandbags to protect the families who had moved into the station for safety, and helped used car jumper cables to boost the transmitter in action. Today the station is broadcasting a message of peace, encouraging Shia and Sunni neighbors to quit killing each other and start rebuilding the country. Maybe that effort sounds simplex and naïve in the face of all the violence and bloodshed there, but if you could see the photos and hear the heartfelt stories of the Iraqis who are risking their lives to get the word out about reconciliation, I think you’d want to pull for them to succeed. Susan has steadily lost weight since she went back, often having to get by with Diet Coke and a stick of jerky while she’s in the field, so we are sending up a care package of power bars and Wet Ones this week. I feel a little soft by comparison, sitting here in my office, with the local classical music station playing, and a Starbucks coffee in hand, writing speeches and op-eds and media advisories. But hey, we all to do what we can where we can. I read that in a book by a newspaper lady in Dallas once and I have decided she was mostly right. I’ll have to figure out something else to do when this assignment is over, but I couldn’t predict yet what that is. After 30 years of doing the same thing, I am still learning what’s next. While that is a little harder than I thought, it’s well worth the effort. p.s. If you or perhaps your church group would like to help the brave Iraqis who are trying to spread the word for peace and reconciliation on the new IRTN station, you can check them out at ****. They are supporting themselves with sales of coffee mugs, hats, etc. I ordered some of the hats and mugs and they are terrific.
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