Audacious Ambassadors

I wrote my original posts on this blog about the inauguration of the MAIA (formerly Starfish) Impact School’s new building and my impressions of Guatemala as a first time visitor. The school’s impact continues to expand, boldly challenging the narrative and compelling us all to be braver and to rethink what our expectations are – of ourselves and others – and why.

It is impossible to overstate the impact that enhancing educational opportunities for girls in Guatemala can have. The average rural Mayan teenage girl has received only 3.5 years of education. Fewer than 1% of indigenous girls from rural areas go to university. The culture has historically emphasized that girls have no voice. The existing social systems are designed to make girls and women disappear – girls are not supported in getting an education; women are taught to be quiet and not to speak up; making eye contact is considered disrespectful.

And yet, globally, countries that have greater levels of gender equality are safer and more prosperous. Educating girls is also among the top forms of combating climate change. The MAIA Impact School, in its third year of operation, exists to “unlock and maximize the potential of young women to lead transformational change.” One way MAIA actively addresses the inequities in Guatemalan society is by incorporating vocal empowerment techniques from Speak educators to help the students find both their physical and emotional voice.

MAIA’s holistic approach also challenges the cultural norms by extending beyond the walls of the school to work with the students’ families in their homes. A MAIA mentor visits each student’s family monthly, during which time they engage with many aspects of the school curriculum such as personal and family goal-setting; emotional, mental, and physical health; vocal empowerment and healthy communication; and community development. As part of the admission process, families must commit to supporting their daughters through the completion of their secondary education. As a symbol of this commitment, when the girls start school, they and their families attach a lock to the gates of the school that will not be removed until they graduate.

As a testament to the profound steps MAIA is taking, last week the school was awarded the Zayed Sustainability Prize for Global High Schools in the Americas category. The school was one of 10 chosen winners from 2,100 applications that represented 130 countries. “This prize is given to global high schools in six geographic regions that can demonstrate impact, innovation, and inspiration to enable inclusive and equitable access to quality education.”

zayed prize
Prize Recipients, MAIA representative Front Row 4th from Left

Three representatives from MAIA attended the Sustainability Conference and award ceremony in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emerites (UAE). It boggles the mind to see these women, who were raised in a culture that told them that they weren’t valuable, embarking on their voyage to UAE.

Take a minute to think about the daily challenges you face. And then think about how brave these women have to be every day, to break the mold, to find their voice, to dare to reach for more in life. Think about Ester, a 9th grader from rural Sololá, Guatemala. Attending school beyond 6th grade was an enormous leap just a couple of years ago. Last week she traveled to the other side of the world. She crossed a vast stage to receive a prize for her school, a tangible testament to how meaningful and impactful all of the effort and sacrifice have been. She met people from all over the world – from UAE, Chile, and Croatia, to name a few – and represented on a global scale her school, her heritage, and her country. These MAIA representatives, these courageous Mayan women, are teaching the world about Guatemala while showing us all what is possible. This is bold. This is audacious. This is hope.


Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

The poet Mary Oliver died today. My favorite poem of hers is The Summer Day, so I copied it here. I especially love the last three lines. It’s a great reminder to pay attention to the details, to find pleasure in the little things, and to remember that we get just one precious life. It is uniquely ours. And we are each unique. So, as Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.” Live authentically, with passion, and with love.

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

from New and Selected Poems, 1992
Beacon Press, Boston, MA

Copyright 1992 by Mary Oliver.
All rights reserved.

Good Grief, Charlie Brown

Is there such thing as good grief? Because it feels like an oxymoron. Grief is heavy and hard and, of course, sad. It implies the loss of something important. How could that ever be good?

I was saying to a friend the other day that I’ve grieved so much lately that I must be on the path to enlightenment. Right??? I mean, what else is the point of all this suffering and introspection? I get it, I really get it. Life is fragile and short and beautiful and hard. And grieving is something you have to live through; there are no shortcuts. The Weight of Grief, a sculpture by Celeste Roberge, accurately and poignantly reflects how it feels.

The Weight of Grief by Celeste Roberge

Grief is a funny thing. I can be ambling along quite pleasantly in my “normal” life and it just sneaks up, welling up unexpectedly in my chest from seemingly nowhere to overcome me. I’d love to call out, “MERCY”, to the universe and actually get a reprieve. But, instead, here I am facing again the reality that this life journey isn’t something that’s totally in my control and diving deeper into gratitude for what I have and authentically living for what really matters.

Here’s where the good in grief lies. Grief amplifies the otherwise mundane, magnifying the importance of the smallest gesture. I had never understood the importance of ritual, for example. Generally speaking, I am not a huge fan of ceremony or tradition. But when we joined hands in a circle around my aunt to pray together, though our brains were addled with grief and a sensation of numbness was overcoming us, we all knew verbatim the words. It required no shuffling of papers or notes, no cueing, no preamble. There was incredible solidarity in that harsh and deeply painful moment.

Food is another item that ascends to the pinnacle of significance during times of grief. People deliver food to grieving families as a way of saying, “I love you and I don’t know what else to do so here’s one less thing to worry about.” Food becomes an important means of connection, both literal and figurative sustenance.

When my aunt died unexpectedly two weeks ago, she had been anticipating our arrival to visit for a couple of days. Her refrigerator was full of some of the family favorites: her homemade mac and cheese, broccoli (our staple veggie), pasta and meatballs, and ricotta cookies. We decided that we should gather as a family and enjoy the meals she had prepared. My husband was given the task of packing up the food and bringing it to my cousin’s house. He felt strongly that he was delivering something sacred, so he packed the car with ceremony and care. Nancy had baked her love for us into each morsel of that food. The food was emblematic of her devotion to us and her anticipation of the time we would be spending together. It always tastes good, but never before had consuming mac and cheese been so poignant.

I can’t talk about food and not mention the chocolate chip cookie, which is hands down one of our family’s most treasured delicacies. My mom and my aunt were like some sort of chocolate chip cookie ambassadors, working industriously to spread their love of this perfect cookie far and wide. Chocolate chippers were regularly in the cookie jar on our kitchen counter, homemade and delicious. Every time I came home from college my mom was pulling a fresh batch from the oven, the smell of melting brown and white sugar, butter, and gooey chocolate chips permeating the kitchen. Our exchange students from France, Germany, Serbia, and countless visitors from elsewhere, were quickly indoctrinated to this most American delight. When traveling abroad, my mom even brought brown sugar and chocolate chips with her so she could reproduce the official chocolate chipper there. When I lived in Madagascar, I improvised using chopped up chocolate bars to make some for my homestay family. I am not kidding at all when I say that we believe with an almost religious zeal in the chocolate chip cookie as the quintessential unifier and the answer to almost any question. At Nancy’s celebration of life, we served chocolate chip cookies.

The last item I wanted to highlight are the plentiful rocks and shells on a New England beach. They can seem like nothing much at times, commonplace and a regular part of the beach landscape. Many people just walk by them, preoccupied with their thoughts or focused on the ocean. But in the midst of our intense grief, my cousin’s wife had the presence of mind to collect various shells and rocks from the beach near where Nancy lived. She put them into a wooden box for each of us, and instructed us to build a cairn of remembrance for Nancy at our homes. The cairn, she wrote, will “act as a landmark and a compass to guide us back to the people, places, and communities that Nancy loved.” She also gave each of us half of a shell that another family member has in their collection, a symbolic way to keep us connected across the days and miles between us now that we have returned home. With these beautiful words and her extraordinarily thoughtful gesture, instantly these otherwise ordinary items became a coveted treasure imbued with deep meaning and value.

In grieving there is renewal in connection with family and friends and community. It always comes back to this. That was on display in spades at Nancy’s celebration of life (Community Pays Tribute to Nancy Waddell), and in the food that kept arriving at our doorsteps. In loss we are reminded of what we have and somehow we appreciate it more fully. Out of grief, new friendships and connections are made (I’m looking at you WV Adaptive and HFCC!). In my sorrow, but also in how I have deliberately chosen to live every day of these past two weeks, my aunt is present. Her example, her capacious heart, and her compassionate spirit guide my actions. I can tell she will never leave me. Good grief, that’s an astonishing gift.

charlie brown good grief
Good Grief image by Charles Schulz

Nancy Waddell, Practically Perfect in Every Way

On December 30, 2018, my vibrant, caring, full-of-life aunt, Nancy Waddell, died from complications of a heart attack. Her passing was sudden and quick and far too soon. She spent the morning of December 29 teaching skiing lessons with the adaptive program in Waterville Valley, NH, before coming in for lunch and complaining that she wasn’t feeling well. It was mere hours later that we were facing the unthinkable, that the glue to our family and our greatest cheerleader might be leaving us.

There is something powerful that happens when someone you love dies. My heart is somehow broken and full at the same time. My brain is operating like it was greased with molasses. I feel like I am in some sort of cognitive twilight zone, where all of my emotions are dulled. The reality is so shocking it’s hard to absorb or believe it.

Our family has pulled together and reveled in memories of times long past. We have shared laughter as well as tears, sometimes simultaneously. Friends and neighbors have helped with hugs and meals and rides and entertaining the kids, reminding me once again that community and connection are so important and revealing how much I must have talked about my aunt!

Nancy was no Mary Poppins, but, to me, she was practically perfect in every way. I had intended to write at some point about how she inspires me. I specifically had in mind to profile her fearless leap into Corcoran Pond at Waterville Valley as part of the Cold Turkey Plunge in November. She was dressed in her Fancy Nancy costume, inspired by the Fancy Nancy children’s books written by Jane O’Connor. The purpose of her plunge – “freezin’ for a reason” – was to raise money for the Waterville Valley Adaptive Ski program to which she was so devoted. I even have a note to myself from that day that says, “When I am 71, I want to be like Fancy Nancy!”

Nancy was my other biggest fan. How lucky am I to have had not one – my mom – but two – my aunt – women who loved me and were guiding lights in my life? Nancy always had a comment or like on every text, facebook or blog post. You name it, she read it and commented on it. But more than that, she showed up. She was my partner in caring for my mom, her sister, making the hour drive each way at least once a week to spend time with her. She filled the void of the grandmother my kids lost when my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and took them under her expansive and caring wing. She taught them to ski, took them sailing, ferried them to events when we were in the process of moving, arrived at our doorstep with a smile and fresh-baked snickerdoodles or brownies or ricotta cookies in hand.

Nancy was the BEST of everything it is to be human and genuine and caring. She was honest about her imperfections, laughed when the children at the childcare center where she worked told her she wasn’t fancy, and never wanted a title or accolades, just to be told what needed to be done so she could get to it. She put her family first – always – and gave completely and selflessly of herself. She devoted herself to loving others and to her community and, in so doing, she created a life of deep meaning and purpose and impact.

I went to visit my mom today at her care home. She is blissfully unaware that her beloved sister is gone or what that means, though she joined us to celebrate Nancy’s life yesterday. My mom’s laughter and love are somehow capable of penetrating the depths of our grief and helping us all feel closer to Nancy’s spirit. Today one of my mom’s neighbors shared that my Mom is the queen of their floor and that she had never met someone with such a big heart. I guess it runs in the family.

Nancy was my role model and she will always be what and who I most aspire to be like. In this time of acute sorrow, I find comfort in the many memories, the endless laughter, and the good fortune to have had two compassionate and caring women lead the way for me. The connection with others that comes from sharing such a loss is powerful and intense, beautiful and horrible all in one fell swoop. We are at the very outset of a long, challenging road to readjust our lives without Nancy in them.

Nancy will always be in my heart and, if I am lucky, in how I live my daily life. I will look for her spirit in the crash of the ocean waves and listen for her voice in the mountain breezes. I will miss her presence with us more than I probably even realize at this moment. And I will continue to face into the pain, because much like with a strong wind, if I don’t face it head on the grief will blow me over.

I am so grateful to have had this woman’s light shine on me and to have known such love that it hurts this much to say goodbye. We had a good run and some great adventures. You taught me by your example what matters most in life. Rest in peace, Fancy Nancy. You were one of a kind.