Six Degrees From Barach Obama: How I Knew His Mom

Six Degrees From Barach Obama:  How I Knew His Mom

As I listen to Barack Obama giving his farewell address to our great nation, I am taken back in time…

Actually, I have been transported back in time during these entire eight years. During the first Obama campaign in 2008, I had the privilege to shake Barack’s hand.  I said to him, “Masi bisa Bahasa Indonesia?” (Do you still speak Indonesian?) He answered, “Masih bisa.” (I still can.)  Then I said, “I knew your Mother.”  That got me a doubletake and a second handshake.  I mumbled something about the Ganesha Museum, but the reality is I did not remember how I met her, only that I knew her.

Today is the last day of Obama’s administration and still, I have not uncovered the mystery of how I met Anne Soetoro.  Nor have I finished this article.  Two things happen when you write memories from a distant past.  Remembering the past brings on a nostalgia and yearning for days gone by.  It also awakens one to the fact that our memories have holes — areas where the memory is not complete, where the surrounding details are lost.  All I really have are impressions of the past.  The following are my impressions. I don’t promise to be accurate.  Memories are never accurate.  The most important thing is that the impressions are a reflection of the impact events create.

In 1981 my first husband, Vinod, and I moved to Jakarta, Indonesia.  In the first six months house-in-kuninganof arrival, I gave birth to my youngest son.  I managed my time taking care of him, but immediately jumped into learning and living within the culture.  I enrolled my daughter in a Balinese dance class.  I looked for opportunities to meet Indonesian women and to learn from them. I was also active in the American Women’s Association (AWA), singing in the chorus and at the American Club, learning tennis (a lesson was just a dollar).  I often sat for tea with other expat wives or read voraciously from our book club collection of books.  Still, I longed for a deeper connection to the country I who was hosting me.

I had already experienced many admirable moments during that time.  I had, as an AWA singer, sung for events held by Martha Holdridge, the American Ambassador’s wife.  Our group also was invited to sing for the President of Indonesia and his wife, Ibu Tien Soeharto.  We posed for a picture behind Ibu Tien as she sat in her chair at the Palace.  I remember lightly touching her chair with quick reminder’s by her guards that it was inappropriate to touch Madam First Lady’s chair!

Sombrass-flyetime in those first few years, I heard about an informal interior decorating course taught by a wife of a key embassy personnel.  (I do not remember her name and never knew his position.  I could only guess that it was key by the house they were assigned.)  The woman who opened her home to our small group of six was a beautiful and welcoming person.  Her lessons resonated with me.  I learned the importance of focal points and especially ones with a bit of humor or that invite laughter.  Her’s was a stuffed cat with its leg up and head bowed as if licking itself that sat on her beautiful, stylish sofa.  Another that we used during lunch was a brass fly that one of our members brought.

It was in this course that I met Anne Soetoro.  Anne was the one who brought the brass fly.  The above picture is not the one she brought, but a similar brass fly.  They sold brass flies in the marketplace.  Often, they were ash trays in disguise.  We used it as a focal point or centerpiece for a dinner table arrangement.

Anne was an interesting person in our group.  Quiet and softspoken, but full of fascinating information about Indonesian culture, she enchanted us with her stories.  Some stories were what I called “Indonesian ghost stories”. She talked about a tree that needed to be cut down and nothing anyone did would release the tree from its place in the ground.  After many frustrating tries, the government changed the road to let the tree remain in peace.  The belief was that this tree had a powerful spirit and therefore should not be cut down.  Another story was about someone who had problems with their electricity.  They called a dukun (a kind of medicine woman or man) to see what the problem might be when the electrician could not fix the problem.  The dukun had them dig a hole in the backyard and they found a box that looked like it was floating in the hole.  After it was removed and prayers said, the electrical problems disappeared and never bothered the family again.

But Anne had a wealth of information about Indonesian art and culture.  I always looked forward to Anne’s stories at our meetings.  I also marveled at the “finds” our hostess received from Anne.  Once Anne found a beautiful ebony board that our hostess used to create a room divider.  It was exquisite!  We usually had to coax Anne to talk.  She was generally quiet and reserved at our meetings.  Because Anne worked, she was not always present at our meetings.  We missed her on those days.

Our interior decorating class developed into a kind of interest group that met for almost a year.  We started doing regular activities like visiting each other’s homes and sharing our decorating interests.  I remember visiting Anne’s home.  I believe Anne lived near the American Club in Keboyaran Baru.  It was a modest home compared to the large homes provided to us by the oil company my husband worked for.  The home had many plants outside lining the veranda.  The interior was full of interesting cultural artifacts from different areas of Indonesia.

Later, Anne arranged for us to visit the home of one of her friends, Halimah Brugger (at least I believe it was hers).  Halimah lived behind the Cilandak campus of the Jakarta International School.  I believe she taught art and music. When we visited, she was not at home but had provided us with entry.  I remember the living room having ten or more large batik pillows lining the living room floor.  No furniture, only pillows.  I loved the concept and how this minimalist look was so inviting.  It was fun to see how others decorated their homes so creatively with local flavor.

I was so happy when the class came to my home.  Anne was there as well and I shared my collection of Indian saris and batik sarongs.  This singular visit changed my trajectory in Indonesia.  One of the women in our group said, “You love textiles.”  Before this, I had already become inspired to learn Indonesian culture by joining a study group on Balinese art and culture through the Ganesha Society (an Indonesian museum volunteer group).  This single comment made me want to study Indonesian textiles and learn more about the history of textiles.  Anne told me there was also a textile study group.  I joined the textile study group and presented a paper on Patola Influence on Indonesian Textiles.  Somehow, I also managed to contact Iwan Tirta, a prominent batik designer, and borrow his antique textiles.  He also asked me to write about this topic for an India-Indonesia exhibit of textiles.  I am proud to say my article was published in an official book about textiles.  I also think that Anne was the person who translated my article.  Though, I have to admit she told me she did not get my copy in time to translate the difficult concepts I had included.  The translation is not exact in my edition of the book, Cindai, Pengenbaraan Kain.

During those days, Anne also told us about a great art exhibit by a Balinese up and coming artist, Dewa Nyoman Djati, that her friend, Kay Ikranagara, was sponsoring.  I was very excited to attend.  I fell in love with the large painting I bought that is in my living room today.  Looking back,  I think it’s funny how I never realized that Anne Soetoro had influenced so many small shifts and changes in my life and yet she did not play a central role.

Here is the painting which I have often said is a representation of who I am:


The most important memory I hold and the one I first remembered about Anne was a conversation we had outside the gate leading to her home.  I was waiting for my driver to bring the car around.  I remember Anne leaning on a cement wall with her long, thick hair and batik kaftan.  We talked for a long time about our backgrounds.  She shared her first and second marriages to an African and then an Indonesian.  I shared my marriage to an Indian.  We talked about what it felt like to live inside a culture — to experience it as a wife rather than as a typical expatriate.  I told her how much I wanted to experience more of Indonesian culture from the inside and not as the wife of an expat.  We shared our deep interest in culture and the values we brought.  I shared how out of place I often felt with the wives of other expatriates.  I seem to remember her telling me her son was going to go to Harvard.  I was so impressed because my son at five or six wore a Harvard T-shirt and proudly exclaimed he was going to go to Harvard.  (He did not, at least not yet.)  At the end of the conversation, we both agreed that a closer friendship would be right for us, but we also realized that her lifestyle and mine wouldn’t allow it.  She worked during the day and I made it a point to be with my family.  My family was everything to me.  There was no time for us.

Looking back I am amazed at how deeply I was touched by the brief and fleeting moments in Anne’s company.  We knew each other, but barely.  And yet, we respected one another and recognized in each other a camaraderie and connection as two people with similar values, goals, and lifestyles.  This is why I look at Barack Obama as the son of a friend.  Someone who is not unlike my own sons.  I admire Anne and all that she did in her life and I understand her. Because she is me.  I too have a life that drifts like tumbleweed on a wide plain.  I, too, have a love for Indonesian culture and Indian culture, and any culture that I touch.  I, too, have a deep love for my family and have experienced the inability to fully give them all that I would wish.

There is really too much to talk about.  Barack Obama is moving on tomorrow.  But, the memory I have of him, his family, and Anne will be deep and enduring.


It took me forever just to write these few paragraphs.  Every time I would start to write, I would check out if I was correct or confused.  I left out dates because I know during the time I knew her I would hear reports of her visiting India or Pakistan and that we met only a few times during the nine years I lived there.  Still, we knew the same people and walked in the same circles.  Much of my experience was influenced by the few exchanges we had.  My Indonesian experience is deep and enduring and one that I hold dear.

The pictures in this article were taken from the internet.  The fly was downloaded from eBay and is of one reportedly made in Italy.  The painting is my own and taken with my phone.  The house is a similar house in the neighborhood where I lived. 









Remembering Martin Luther King, My Thoughts

Remembering Martin Luther King, My Thoughts

A highlight of my life has been my experiences marching on Martin Luther King Day.  I haven’t been there for a few years, but this year I was invited to celebrate in downtown Dayton, Ohio.  I was treated by an inspiring talk by Daniel Juday, Director of the Ohio Diversity Council.

What inspired me were the fee points he made from his experience having lived in Thailand.  I also lived abroad.  So, his experience spoke to me and reassured me why I chose my path to train people who want to experience a life in a different culture.

He, like me, believes that having an intercultural experience is enriching and teaches us lessons we could never imagine.  As he said, “It doesn’t mean you are perfect.  In fact, no one is perfect in a different culture.”  You just are.  And, getting it right is generally not part of the process of learning.

I want to summarize the three points I took away from his talk.

  1. Be earnest.  What he meant by being earnest is approaching the experience of talking to someone in a different culture with an intention to learn.  Be genuine, but be interested.
  2. Be eager.  Approach everyone with enthusiasm and a sense of awe.  I love this one.  I believe that the most enjoyable moments are the ones we share with people who are different.  They teach us more about ourselves than anyone else.
  3. Finally, listen to the stories.  As he said, from our eager faces, stories arise.  Even  if that story is told in the silence of having no words.  He recalled a meal shared with a family in Thailand in which there was no way to talk.  Yet, the very act of being in their home told him their story.  And, when they were able to talk, he heard a little about their life.  I also have my own experiences.  My first trip to India.  I talked so eagerly to my Mother-in-law — in English.  She talked to me — in Hindi.  And yet, I learned so much from her.  I learned her expectations of a daughter-in-law and her love for her family and son.  Unfortunately, I also learned that the calves of my legs were too big and that muscles were not a desirable trait for a daughter-in-law.


While this advice is good for learning in a different culture, it is just as valid when walking into a home in the US.  We often forget through all that we share as Americans that we are also different.  We have differing values, hopes, and fears.  Right now as we are divided as a nation it is even more important to remember the lessons of Marting Luther King and his dream to see us all “bend towards justice”.

Here are Martin Luther King’s words:

“The arc of the moral universe is long,” Dr. King said in closing, “but it bends toward justice.”

In contemplating the civil war, Thomas Parker, a Unitarian minister wrote:

“Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Ere long all America will tremble.”

Let us all ride the arc and find justice together!



Being Intentional: aka living life with purpose

Being Intentional: aka living life with purpose

I think being intentional is the most powerful thing we can do for ourselves.  Being intentional, living with purpose, means choosing our own direction, deciding our own future, designing the gifts from the past, and living in our own present.

I love the concept. It requires a little more effort than reacting to events every day.  It required a lot of self-reflection and decision-making.

I am constantly balancing my life between a number of passions.  I love the work I do in intercultural communication and in conflict resolution.  I love all the creative and innovative projects I work on.  I love being able to give back to my community.  I love the diversity that comes from all the interesting people I meet and interact with.  I love the scientists, the artists, the struggling, and the accomplished!

All the above passions are highlighted by the fact that I try to live an intentional life.  I intentionally seek out diverse people.  I intentionally open myself to new experiences and ideas.  I intentionally decide to do work that helps others.  I intentionally decide to learn and grow.

To get to where I am now, living and enjoying the present, I had to review my past.  Every time I see myself at a crossroads, I revisit that past for clues about what to plan for the future.  I don’t attach myself to my future plans. Rather, I enjoy my present state and put things in place for my dreamed future.  If it happens, I will be grateful. If not, I will redesign the future, reviewing the past, listening to my internal self, and paving a pathway towards a new future.

That is life with purpose.  Because to choose the future, I also partner with my values and beliefs.  The most important inform my plans and dreams.  The least important are noticed and saved or discarded depending on what I feel needs to be done.

The most important realization for me is that being intentional means I have much more control about how I feel and react in this world.  I have the control to let go of past injustices or circumstance and make my life a positive example for others.  Or, at the very least a positive example for me!


This post was written for the Daily Prompt:  Purpose.

The featured image is a sketch by Tricia Calvert.  She is a Dayton artist whose work I enjoy.  You can see more of her work on Instagram.

Please leave a comment or let me know what you thought about today’s post!  I look forward (REALLY!) to hearing from you.



Today’s daily prompt.  Flourish.  It feels like a “Go forth and prosper” kind of word.

Every month I give a workshop on organizational culture to a group of individuals re-entering the community and potentially the workforce from having been incarcerated. It is one of the most rewarding volunteer activities I do.  I am constantly learning from the insights and reflections of my class.

Today we had a rewarding conversation about how to get to where you want to be.  We talked about how to become more self-aware so that you have more control over designing your future.  We didn’t skip the challenges and difficulties in doing this from the standpoint of someone re-entering society.  That was on the table.  But, we also talked about having clear, realistic goals to achieve the desired result.

So, flourishing is about being able to get what you need and being intentional about it.  One can take a bad situation and find the skills learned from going through hard times.  It is an art to be able to take the worst and turn it around.  It takes guts.  It also takes skills and a lot of self-reflection. Ultimately to flourish is to go beyond what is thought possible and find the best of the best possibilities.

I think of flourishing as a dance.  A dance reflecting the joy of living.  An eternal pleasure. A gift.


The featured image is a painting by Tricia Calvert. You can view her collection on Instagram.  I felt the color and vibrancy of this painting matched the feeling I get from the word flourish.

Lessons on Leadership from Kung Fu Panda 3

Lessons on Leadership from Kung Fu Panda 3

Yesterday I watched Kung Fu Panda 3 and was enchanted by the story and how much it relates to my view of leadership.  The first impactful quote for me was when Master Shifu encouraged Po to act outside his comfort zone.  “If you only do what you can do you will never be better than what you are.”  That, to me, is such an insightful saying.  It is so true of all of  us in striving to be more than what we are we often fail to remember that it takes courage to start something new.

How does all this relate to leadership?  What are the lessons of leadership in this small and wonderful animated movie?  In my opinion, the whole theme is in learning to be a better version of oneself and in gaining self-confidence.  Leadership doesn’t just happen.  It is a process.  Leadership takes our own internal development as well as a partnership with those around us.

In the beginning of the movie, we see that Po is tasked with teaching his colleagues new moves.  He has advanced to a new position of authority and he is struggling with this position.  He fails to believe he has the necessary skill and know how to lead his fellow colleagues.  He is suffering from a crisis of belief.  This is common of many leaders.  Many of us have within ourselves an “imposter syndrome” that questions our own ability to be in the leadership position we are in.  This is especially true of many people who are gifted. A post from website describes this syndrome and quotes Dr. Valerie Young who has studied this phenomenon for years.

Finding the self-confidence to lead is a key struggle for many of today’s leaders, whether they are leading an organization or a movement, they still need to find the strength within themselves to be able to inspire those who work with them.  Po had to go on his own journey of self-discovery to find the talents he brought to the table.  His first step in self-discovery was to find his own people.  We often forget how important it is to gather minds who are like ours to give us the strength to realize our own potential.  In this saga, Po discovers his father and a hidden village of other Pandas.  The key is hidden.  The reflections of true selves are often hidden.  Once we find them, we discover with delight (as Po learned to roll down a hill!) that some of our skills are the assets we ran away from.

“Don’t push past memories deeper inside of yourself.  Let those memories breathe and let old wounds heal.”

Discovering those hidden truths about ourselves, even if seemingly difficult, do have the potential to help us become more of who we should be.  Finding our voice with other’s who understand and respect our voice helps us in that reflection.  Going back to our roots is an exercise in finding our true values and beliefs.  It helps us discover what is important to us.  It also helps us respect the differences in others.  When we start to have true self-confidence, we start to look at people not as how they should be like us, but how we should develop them according to their own strengths.  As Po so aptly said, “I don’t need to make them more like me, I need to make them more like them!”


I found this slide on a LinkedIn site by Sompong Yusoontorn.  I think he quoted the right thing.  Believing in oneself takes understanding our core values and beliefs and deciding that those beliefs are worthwhile.  We can’t convince others to follow us until we are ready to follow ourselves.

And ultimately, the leadership lesson of the day is not only learning to believe in oneself, but also to find the joy in living.  Po never hesitated throughout the movie to appreciate the awesomeness in even his enemies.  “Wow, he can do that.  That’s awesome.” was said of any talent, even his worst enemy during the battle.  That is also a talent.  We can’t improve ourselves until we also admire the strengths of not only ourselves and our friends, but also our opposition.  Our journey to be better leaders, especially in a world where talent is all around us, takes recognizing the unique strengths of others.  In Kung Fu Panda 3 Po also learned that to create an effective fighting force meant seeing that each of those he was working with had unique skills and talents.  Even if your talent is bumping stomachs with another, that is the skill to use.  That is what made his team more competitive than all the others.


This is where Po leads us — to a place where we know we need to create our own story.  Where his leadership is in helping us find what our story is.  Where we know that everyone has their own unique, individual story and each story has the potential to become a greater version of itself!

In closing, I leave you with a few more excerpts and quotes.  Hope you go and see the movie!




How I Came to Love Learning With MOOCs

How I Came to Love Learning With MOOCs

I want to digress today to talk about the joy of learning!  I can’t say how satisfying it is to be able to take a course or two and to upgrade my skill sets. In a 2013 article in Forbes Monan Shah writes about taking a course on Coursera.  I have to admit, I am hooked on Coursera!  Through the myriad of courses I have taken, I have learned more about social media, psychology, philosophy, leadership, and the list goes on.  I am currently enrolled in more than ten courses and five specializations!  Every day I listen to fascinating lectures and write papers that help me gather my thoughts more succinctly.

Let me explain a little bit more about what a MOOC is.  MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course.  MOOCs started before computer technology was available as distance learning programs.  The thirst for learning evolved and morphed into multimedia programs and then into online courses which is the state of the art today.  They exploded throughout Europe and the United States and are a very popular alternative for people who want to explore learning, but are not able to manage the time or place to take courses in person.

One of the advantages of MOOCs is that they can be taken by anyone anytime who has access to a computer.  They are often free or low cost.  Coursera‘s courses charge only to those who want to have a certificate of learning but are free to anyone who wants to audit them.  Other MOOCs that are popular are EdX, Udacity and FutureLearn.  Most partner with major Universities throughout the world to provide courses and certifications.

I have known about these technologies for a long time.  I took part in a massive exploration of online platforms for the European Union in the late 1990s or early 2000 (can’t remember exactly when).  My job was to facilitate learners as they explored three or four platforms and decided which one they liked best.  For me, to see this explosion into learning programs is incredible.

After facilitating the search and choosing a platform, I stepped away from online learning and into other pursuits in life.  I worked to create my own business in conflict resolution consulting and intercultural training.  I volunteered to develop programs in restorative justice for disadvantaged people.  Then one day a few months ago my daughter in law told me about a free course she was taking online in chemistry.  I immediately checked out Coursera and signed up for a course called Analyzing Global Trends For Business and Society offered by the University of Pennsylvania. The course has not been offered since I signed up in 2014.

Lessons I have learned taking courses:  so what have I learned in my year and a half of study? In all of these courses, I have learned a few lessons that I would love to share.

  • First, I strongly believe taking a MOOC is a worthwhile endeavor that helps anyone grow and develop. I highly recommend it.
  • There have been a few courses that I did not complete and did not do well on.  I learned to be more patient with myself, not to be too ambitious, and not to let one or two failures get in the way of all of the success I have had in other courses.
  • I have learned to pace myself, add my own learning style to that of the course. For example, I learn better by reading the material.  Some MOOCs don’t provide reading material.  If no reading material is available, I find an article or book online that will help me learn. I think anyone can adapt the material to their own style, including experiential, in order to get the most out of a course.
  • I have learned there is a community out there to share the learning!  Through the courses I have taken, I have met a number of wonderful people of all ages who are also engaged in the  learning.
  • Finally, I have become a more skilled professional and better person that I was a year and a half ago.  And that, after all, was the whole point!