An interview with Lisa Mickley Modica, class of 1996

When you were a student at Shining Mountain, what were some of your passions and your interests? And how did these play out in your life in college, graduate school, in work, family life and beyond?

Art and the environment. I was very aware of my passion for art and literature during the younger grades and high school. In contrast, I don’t know that I was conscious or aware of the depth of my compassion for the outdoors until years after Shining Mountain. A few decades of perspective does wonders! Perhaps the first time these two aspects came together, however, was in 11th grade. I would wake up and run most mornings in the open space by my home before school; I couldn’t explain the wonder and strength this gave me. When we studied the transcendentalists that year, and I read Thoreau’s Self-Reliance, I heard his striving reflected in my unarticulated but demanding devotion to finding one’s self through our relationship with nature. I think it lay the blueprint for my future study, work, and beliefs in ways I’m still realizing. Ha! It sounds so serious, but it is true.

After high school, I attended Oberlin College in Ohio, a wonderfully funky, swampy, academic institution that drew me in by its environmental studies program. It was forward-thinking, cutting edge, inspiring – and I teared up when my environmental policy class showed a slideshow of the Rocky Mountains – and knew my heart was really in Colorado. The academics were challenging, which I welcomed, but my favorite part of every day, week, month, was running with my cross country teammates; we ran in rain, shine, sleet, and snow. I craved a relationship with the outdoors and found it through running with this group of nutty folk, each of us finding some sweet solace in the outdoor adventure. I took a leave of absence from Oberlin to accept a biology internship with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Refuge on the north shore of Kauai, and really never looked back. I propagated endemic trees and learned more about myself and relationship with my surroundings by indulging in the specialness of the land, the compassion of the people, and the interplay both have with the flora and fauna historically and today. At the end of the internship, I concluded my undergrad at CU-Boulder, and was hired by The Nature Conservancy to support their science programs across Colorado. I loved learning of my home turf, of being able to explore it and know it intimately. What I took from Oberlin and my return to Colorado was a hope that everyone can know their place, and find their purpose in it.

After marrying my love, Jesse, we had a baby girl, Ruby, and moved to be close to the ocean and Jesse’s family in California. My son, Kai, was born soon after, and I decided to return to school, pursuing a Masters in Business in Sustainable Enterprise. What that meant was learning a lot about business as usual and standard practices, and also the innovations and exciting new frontiers in business practice, models, and opportunities. This spurred many ventures, helping create California’s first Waldorf-inspired charter high school, working with a global advertising firm, starting up a local butcher and charcuterie, and endeavoring on my own business consulting practice – and recently coming full circle to find (again) that what really fuels my fire is the unique and incredible experience of getting into nature to learn more about ourselves and our place. I started Adventure Running California last year to get kids adventuring outdoors through running and orienteering (What’s that?! look it up! Orienteering is amazing, and if I have anything to do with it, it will become bigger in the US soon). We bring children outdoors, into various open spaces, farms, regional parks, and facilitate their experience of pacing themselves, challenging themselves, orienting themselves in space, and fundamentally exploring their own relationship with nature. From drawing maps in my sweet beeswax-scented grade school classrooms, to reading Thoureau and Emerson, to today’s running over fields with giggling children, I’ve found that I love orienting people to place, in nature.

As a member of SMWHS’ first graduating class, you have a unique perspective on how your Waldorf education shaped and influenced your life over the years. What types of projects and people attract you? Is there a unifying theme that you might recognize in your life – a “chord of truth” that you return to again and again?

I have a relentless magnetism to entrepreneurs, and to people pushing the lines of convention. Sometimes, I find myself yearning for a ‘regular’ job to open its arms to me; a jay-oh-bee that is reliable, ‘comfortable, and consistent.’ And more and more readily over the years, I’m able to recognize the fact that I would become complacent with that quickly, would sluff it off, and soon be searching for the next heartfull, unconventional thing. The years have bred an acknowledgement of myself, and if there is one thing I will always be learning and striving to honor, it is that we as individuals do ourselves a great service to know who we are and give our true, wonder-filled tendencies room to thrive. My tendencies were certainly influenced by the entrepreneurial nature of the families and their students that founded Shining Mountain, and I’m more and more grateful.

As a proud mama, what values and ideals do you hold for and dream of for your children?

Having children is the best challenge, the craziest adventure, and the richest thing in life! Ruby, 11, and Kai, nearly 9, challenge me every day to be the most truthful, kind, adaptable, and resilient human I can be. Some days I do alright, and other days I fail – and every day I find precious humanity in being real with them. My wish for Ruby and Kai and their friends is that they grow with a strong sense of self, and a deep and sincere capacity to love.

For current high school students and recent graduates, might you share a word or two of wisdom?

Strive to accept yourself. Work on that, and remind yourself of it every day. Your true capacities are needed and worthy of shining in the world, if they weren’t, you wouldn’t have them. Let yourself be vulnerable, and go find the places and people whose presence you shine in and love to the marrow of your bones. Don’t back down, and never ever give up on yourself – and also don’t let yourself off the hook to be anything but who you truly are. Set yourself high, honest, standards and hold yourself to them.