Interview 13: Noelle

Noelle and I started at our company within a few weeks of each other. I, along with another new teammate, had been seated on the opposite side of the office from the rest of our team due to space issues, and we anxiously awaited our new compatriot in what we termed “Siberia”. And I am so grateful that she walked into our lives, bringing a breath of fresh air.

I admire Noelle for so many reasons. Her focus on mindfulness is apparent from the moment you meet her—her presence is somewhat calming, because it seems everything will be okay when you’re with her. She is grounded and thoughtful and always seems secure and confident. She knows who she is and she is true to herself. She seeks out joy in her life and she finds it.

I wanted to interview Noelle out of curiosity about my friend but also out of a desire for understanding—Noelle inspires me to be more mindful but I still have so much to learn (where Noelle is cool and collected, I am frenetic and somewhat always on-edge). Even just interviewing her, tucked away in a quiet hidden conference room at our office, brought my heart rate down. I hope everyone can take away a little bit of peace from her interview, because I know I certainly did.

Interview 13: Noelle

“I think we’re all looking for that more profound, deeper meaning of what it is to be human.”

Me: I’d like to start off by having you go through your life story in terms of religion—how you were raised, how you got to where you are now—from a high level.

Noelle: I feel like my story is funny. Neither of my parents was deeply religious. My mother came from a Jewish family and my dad came from a Protestant family, so what was really instilled in me was mostly the importance of tradition and celebration—times for family to get together. I didn’t feel like we were practicing religion—and of course this is all in retrospect, I don’t think as a kid I even knew what “practicing religion” really meant—but we just celebrated major holidays and milestones. Of course, you have to be only practicing the “fun” parts of religion if you’re both Jewish and Christian, because Jesus was not half-resurrected. There’s a conflict of belief there.  So my perspective of religion from a young age was more, “Oh, Christmas is great and fun! And bat mitzvahs are really fun, too!” and less about deeper meaning. And I wonder how much focusing on the “fun” parts of religion informed my evolving perspective as I got older. It’s funny, because in college I went through a phase where I thought, “If you are not atheist or agnostic,” to be honest, I thought, “you’re kind of stupid.”

Me: I’ve been there.

Noelle: Yeah, that was a perspective that I went through for a while. I think was what was happening there was that I was getting flooded with information. I was learning a lot. I had left my bubble of Tenafly, New Jersey and went to a liberal arts school that was all about global citizenship and celebrating differences and culture. I saw how divisive religion could be. And my coursework was laser-focused in science at that time. A discipline rooted in hard proof. I believe information overload really led me to think that way about religion. And I hate that I ever thought that, because I think that’s so silly now that I’ve found my own spiritual path. Because I think we’re all thinking about the same thing when we talk about religion or spirituality. We’re all thinking about this greater picture, and how we really do want our lives on this earth to be a little more profound than they seem from a perspective of “you’re born, you die, and that’s it.” I think we’re all looking for that more profound, deeper meaning of what it is to be human. We’re curious about what else is “out there” and how all of this craziness and chaos and inexplicable beauty even works. Who set all of this up? I think we’re all trying to answer the same questions and we’re all on that path, just in different ways. That said, I still don’t love when religion causes divisiveness – that’s a problem that I struggle with – but at the end of the day, I absolutely see why people turn to different religions to serve themselves on that path.

Me: So what brought you to that change, from being in college and thinking that way?

Noelle: I think a couple things brought me to that change. For one, I was very tied to my father’s beliefs throughout my childhood. He’s very intelligent, he’s very logical, he’s all about science, and he’s very assertive with his beliefs. Not really in the sense that everyone should believe what he believes, but more so in the sense that there’s really nothing more to this world than what science and logic can stand behind. We always look to our parents for guidance, and I think for a long time I thought, “what he says is probably right – he’s way smarter than I am!” So I do think being under his roof allowed me to hold on to that perspective for a while. But as I started to form my own curiosity about the world, I really started to depart from what my dad believes. And that’s fascinating to me, because I thought we were so similar for so long. We definitely have similarities, but in that regard we are totally on opposite ends of a spectrum. I think another thing that really helped me to evolve – kind of jumping off of that whole science/logic thing – is that I slowly started to open my eyes and realize that we as humans truly know nothing. We so definitively say what we believe we know to be true, but even from the perspective of science we have barely cracked the surface. Coming to that realization and coming into it with a lot of curiosity—I was spurred into re-evaluating many concepts that I once though were impossible or supernatural. I think my yoga practice also brought that on. Yoga is definitely religion-based, spirituality based—there’s a lot going on there. And I think one of the concepts of yoga that has really shaped my spiritual perspective is that, “What is divine if not what we are experiencing? If not us?” It’s truly inexplicable. It’s hard to wrap your head around it, when you start to think about what it means to be a human, and how complex we are. That concept is now really ingrained in me—that we’re not just “little, insignificant humans” and that there truly is divine essence within us. Bear with me, because this is going to sound really hippy-dippy, but I think a lot of my spirituality is rooted in the natural world. We as humans continually try to “beat” nature with technological advances. We place ourselves in these really dense cities where trees are few and far between and so much of what we eat isn’t really even food anymore. So much of that is in the name of efficiency and cost savings, which is pretty comical to be reflecting on considering that’s our job as Operations Innovation Analysts. But all jokes aside, I believe we have detached deeply from nature. And although we’ve created this artificial boundary between us as humans and nature, we were born out of this earth and we don’t give it enough credit. It’s what we breathe, it’s what we eat, it’s what sustains us, it is us! We are this magical manifestation of nature. So I think a lot of my spirituality has been coming into that and realizing that we are an integral part of this complex natural world. And that’s pretty significant if you ask me!

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Music for the Soul

Hello everyone and happy holiday season!

It turns out that when I was traveling for work and studying for the GMAT, everything else in my life fell by the wayside and I stopped pursuing potential interviews. But I’m hoping to line up some good ones before I travel again in January–wish me luck!

Since it is now December, it seems to everyone is bringing out the Christmas music. To me, the ultimate Christmas music is Handel’s Messiah, but that could be because I performed it as part of the orchestra for four years (and returned to play it for four years after that–my high school lets alums play/sing, and it was family tradition while my sister was in high school).

All this music swelling around me everywhere I go has led me to dwell on the power that music holds. Many people I have interviewed/spoken to outside the interview format have spoken of music and the strange way it can touch (for lack of a better word) the soul. I grew up in a household filled with music–my dad’s passion for classical music is both inspiring and at times grating. My favorite Christmas movie as a young child was Maurice Sendak’s production of the Nutcracker (which is insane and amazing, by the way). My favorite toy was an old electric keyboard at which I would pound away, making what sounded to me like beautiful music (but I’m sure was not).

The first time I consciously realized that music could bring me to tears (as far as I remember) was when I was in chorus in the fifth grade. We were practicing ‘Bist du bei Mir’, and I found myself overwhelmed by the sadness and longing in the song–which is in German. I didn’t need to understand the words. The intent is in the melody.

In middle school and high school, I was in the orchestra. Playing an instrument, as a part of a whole, can be a glorious and transcendent experience. I could forget whatever angsty problem I was having and stop thinking, stop existing within my limited experience and even within the parameters of my own body. I felt lifted, outside physical boundaries, truly and deeply moved.

I was lucky enough to go to Kenya in high school–and there I discovered that perhaps I did believe in a higher power. We attended what appeared to be a choir practice for the students of the boarding school at which we were staying–and I was awestruck. The Kenyan students seemed to be so deeply within the music that they could harmonize effortlessly. There were perhaps fifteen to twenty students, singing and dancing and somehow existing in a different state of being. And it wasn’t an isolated experience. I found it again when we went to church services with them, and once again when one sweet girl sang us a Natalie Furtado song the night before we were leaving. We sat in the dorm, on our beds, as she started to sing–and the other girls picked up the harmony instantly. The song itself is a decent song–but from these girls, it brought me to tears.

Most of my personal examples of music that has moved me or reached me in a particular way are tunes in a minor key, or with a certain sadness to them–a beauty tinged with pain. But there is music that can make one feel triumphant and joyous as well. One of my favorite pieces of music of all time is Saint-Saëns’s Symphony No. 3, “Organ”. You may recognize it:

Now, most of my examples are classical–but there are also some great modern musicians today. Take a listen to Sufjan Steven’s “Casimir Pulaski Day”, Gregory Alan Isakov’s “This Empty Northern Hemisphere”, or Vienna Teng’s “The Hymn of Acxiom”. These are just a few of the songs that I have needed at particular times in my life. (Also, the Hymn of Acxiom is particularly interesting, given its subject matter.) And I will also add that at one time, I needed Avenged Sevenfold’s “So Far Away”: when my grandfather died, it was one of the only songs I listened to. (If that isn’t your thing and you have experienced a loss, Anoushka Shankar’s album “Traces of You” is a salute to her father, Ravi Shankar, and includes collaborations with her sister, Norah Jones.)

Music unites us in a way very few things can. I think Neiloy summed it up incredibly well in his interview:

“There’s no biological incentive or advantage given to us for wanting to, for example, dance along with music, to feel it in us and be moved and lifted by it. There’s no biological imperative for that but it’s still something that we all seem to experience….it is, to me, evidence that yes, there is something beyond the nuts and bolts of what we are.”

So this holiday season, I hope you listen to whatever music puts you into the spirit, or helps you feel your spirit, or takes you outside whatever pettiness comes along (come on, you know it can happen). I’ll leave you with my favorite part of Handel’s Messiah.