Lately, when I take a good look in the mirror, the phrase that comes to mind more often than not is, “Dude, what happened?” Since I think I am still 25, that is, in fact, the exact expression. Sometimes it’s just “dude,” sometimes it’s a simpler, more inquisitive “huh” sound. But the confusion and questioning as I inventory my gray hairs and wrinkles is the same.
Where – and when -, exactly, did all these pinch points around my eyes and mouth develop? I barely noticed. Somewhere along the line time started running away from me…and just kept going! I remember when I was a kid and time stood still for days on end – long, aimless, completely boring days, especially during the sweltering summers of my childhood. I’d complain to my mom that I was bored and she’d tell me she could find me work to do around the house and, voila, I would instantly be cured of boredom and find myself somewhere else to be and something else to do. In hindsight, that was a pretty predictable outcome (my mom knew what she was doing!). These days I can’t remember the last time I had the occasion to be bored.
Needless to say, a fair bit of time has passed since I was a little girl and even since I was 25 (ho hum). I mean, literally, that was more than two decades ago. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to wrap my head around that.
What I do know, with absolute certainty, is that I have earned every one of these wrinkles. Sure, some probably came from poor sunscreen choices when I was a kid. But a lot came from standing on the precipice of a new adventure or from facing into the difficult stuff that inevitably comes up in a life and not turning away because it was too hard or painful or might cause me to break (or wrinkle). I have broken down and gotten myself back up enough times now that I guess I should know I have some serious years under my belt.
Though I may have the odd Botox dream (ha ha), in fact each wrinkle is a hard-earned badge of a memorable life. It’s the sign of time spent leaning in to all of the adventure, opportunity, and challenge that come with living fully. As Lori McKenna so pithily says in People Get Old, “Every line on your face tells a story somebody knows.” What a wonderful sentiment.
From heartache to adventure, hard work to achievement, sunny skies to skinned knees, those wrinkles are the story of your life written across the canvas of you. Live and lean into those lines.
Last year the holidays were tough. Omicron began picking up the pace somewhere between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the idea of being together with friends and family, which had so recently seemed possible, was suddenly as far off as ever. Again. I was so sad to have to cancel all of our plans and to be returned to this place of fear and isolation. And, worse, once I got to that place, I couldn’t remember anything good at all that had happened in all of 2021. Surely it wasn’t all bad? Right?
I have written about the negativity bias (Utterly Imperfect and Always Seek the Sweet) before, and it’s truly fascinating how hard it is to find positive memories or thoughts when times are tough. Our family started a gratitude jar last Christmas as an antidote to the negativity that has really swallowed us whole for the last several years. The gratitude jar (I called it our Glad Tidings jar) partially forced us to make a conscious effort to be aware of our blessings, no matter how minute, and also created a steady supply of all the good things the year brought us, no matter the conditions or circumstances of the end of 2022. The glad tidings jar sat on our kitchen counter with a notepad and pen next to it all year. Anytime any family member was so moved they could add a little note.
In the end, this year was mostly, kinda, normal. We were able to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas with family in a way that was very reminiscent of pre-pandemic years (no masks, no distance, much laughter and noise and good food). The year also brought its fair share of hardship and health issues and loss. Life showed up in all its fragile beauty in 2022, as it always does.
I am happy to see that we have a full jar of notes about the blessings in our life. I am excited to look back and remember both the amazing things as well as the mundane that brought us joy and gratitude this year, from reprising international travel to finishing an entire school year uninterrupted to our first big snow storm to, simply, it’s June :-).
Here are a few random selections from the jar:
January – “Reading the Adventures of Tintin!”
February – “Sponge Bob the Musical”
June – “I am feeling thankful for having such a loving and supportive family.”
August/September – “COVID came…and left”
This is one new year’s tradition I can get behind and bring forward into 2023.
In November, I traveled to Guatemala to attend the MAIA Impact School graduation. It was a whirlwind three days of travel, meetings, and connecting (or reconnecting) with Girl Pioneers (GPs), MAIA staff, and fellow Board members.
It’s been difficult to put into words all of my thoughts and feelings from this particularly poignant event in the history of MAIA, the Girl Pioneers, and their families on top of a return to Guatemala after a four year hiatus. Here are a few highlights:
– 41 Girl Pioneers, escorted by their families, graduated from high school in November 2022. Many of these young women are the first in their families to graduate from elementary and middle school, let alone high school. Despite astonishing adversity that increased during the pandemic, when provided opportunity, these bright, courageous pioneers have seized it. They will go on to attend university, participate in paid internships, and enter the formal economy.
– MAIA has chosen new leadership, turning the Co-Executive Director role over to Andrea Coche and Martha Lidia Oxi. This transition makes MAIA the first organization of its size in Guatemala with an executive leadership team that is 100% indigenous. Travis Ning, the out-going co-ED, writes, “We have long said our goal was to structure MAIA so that Girl Pioneers could one day hold any position in the organization. This leadership transition signifies that we have completed this task.”
-The Volcan del Fuego near Antigua provided a little fireworks display and Lake Atitlan and the surrounding volcanoes delighted with their spectacular beauty.
– The reunion with colleagues and friends and the reprisal of human connection and some post-COVID-years normalcy was incredibly invigorating.
If ever my passion for the work MAIA is doing and all it has achieved as an organization flagged because of the many distractions and issues that come up over four years in one’s own life, returning to the school and connecting again with the staff, GPs, and fellow Board members refueled me completely. Even though it was school break, there were some programs running. Being able to see the school filled with students and the vibrancy of what happens there during the school year was rewarding. The school has grown into the building since I was last there.
While all of the challenges Guatemala and the school and its students face had been laid out to me in one way or another through news articles or program notes or discussions during Board meetings, to physically be present in the place, to connect with the students and staff who have lived through these challenging times, and to hear it from them and see it firsthand was powerful. The school’s work has become ever more critical in the face of more families slipping into extreme poverty, more issues with malnourishment, more clarity in terms of the entrenched barriers the GPs face as they pursue advanced degrees and formal employment.
If you have ever wished for the world to be more fair and equal, the MAIA Impact School model creates the change so many of us dream of seeing in the world. In the face of great obstacles, there is so much to celebrate and to be inspired by happening in this little school in Guatemala.
I invite you to invest with me in this incredible organization. Together we can break cycles of poverty, discrimination, and inequity and, like the Girl Pioneers, be part of the solution. https://www.maiaimpact.org/be-part-of-the-solution
I am borrowing from Matt Haig’s The Comfort Book for today’s Oxygen Mask Moment, as the end-of-school-year madness (and weeding my garden) absorb all of my “discretionary” time. Plus, it’s so, so good.
To the below I would add, it’s not only okay, it’s better. So much more genuine and real.
It’s okay to be broken.
It’s okay to wear the scars of experience.
It’s okay to be a mess.
It’s okay to be the teacup with the chip in it. That’s the one with a story.
It’s okay to be sentimental and whimsical and cry bittersweet tears at songs and movies you aren’t supposed to love.
It’s okay to like what you like.
It’s okay to like things for literally no other reason than because you like them and not because they are cool or clever or popular.
It’s okay to let people find you. You don’t have to spread yourself so thin you become invisible. You don’t have to always be the person reaching out. You can sometimes allow yourself to be reached. As the great writer Anne Lamott puts it: “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island for boats to save; they just stand there shining.”
It’s okay not to make the most of every chunk of time.
I mentioned the book The Soul of Money by Lynne Twist in my last post, Sometimes Asking is Giving. As Ms. Twist explains, “What’s poor is [people’s] circumstances, not them, and the unlocking of a vehicle to change circumstances is a gift; the radical truth about money and life is sufficiency. If you clear away the mindset of scarcity, you will find the surprising truth of enough. When we recognize enough, when we have more than enough, that excess, that’s for others.”
I shared a quote about one’s attitude two weeks ago, and this is related. It’s a mindset shift, from scarcity to abundance. It changes everything in how we approach life, ourselves, and others. When you realize you have enough, that you are enough, you can give of yourself more. Does anyone else remember Sark? This particular quote about Enough is from her book Inspiration Sandwich, which was also the genesis of much hilarity about the complete and utter dump in the deep woods of Maine that my friend Jen and I lived in one summer, which we affectionately called the Magic Cottage thanks to Sark. It was magical all right, hornets and mice living in the walls and all. But that’s a story for another time.
The other day I was paddle boarding with a friend on a particularly hot and blustery day, stuck on my knees because the wind and chop were so strong that I risked tumbling into the lake if I stood up. After 20 minutes paddling into the wind, I looked up only to realize that I was a few feet further out from shore but still parallel with the dock. So much effort, so little progress, and, honestly, that relentless wind made me feel vulnerable and exposed even though I could have just let it blow me back to shore and call it a day.
As I dug my paddle deeper into the water to renew my effort to gain some forward momentum, it made me think about the extraordinary headwinds indigenous Guatemalan women deal with every day, and what it would be like to be stuck right where you are from the moment you are born, conscripted to a life of poverty, limited agency, and lack of opportunity. Young women in rural Guatemala face quadruple discrimination from the day they arrive on this Earth: they are poor, they are Mayan, they live in a rural area, and they are female. The MAIA Impact School works to change that by connecting the latent talent that exists in rural Guatemala but has been overlooked for generations with opportunity, starting with access to robust education through high school and aiming for university studies and access to formal work opportunities (as opposed to remaining in the informal economy, which is much more common, precarious, and poorly paid).
Each of MAIA’s Girl Pioneers (or GP’s, so called because they are pioneering a completely new path for themselves, their families, and their communities) trajectories has been astonishing. Though the wind remains incessant, there’s a flotilla of support, guidance, and information available to each of them about how to improve one’s technique, navigate challenges, find balance, and move forward.
In MAIA’s first class of high school graduates, a GP won a 4-year scholarship to college in the United States through She Can, an organization that builds female leadership in post-conflict countries. There are still so many hurdles for her to leap over and hoops to jump through before this opportunity becomes a reality, including the SATs, the bane of most high schoolers’ existences. Imagine being the first person in your family to go to high school, let alone college, and trying to take the SAT not in your first language, nor your second language, but your third language. More headwinds.
Because the US college process is so unique and challenging, with the SATs in one’s third language adding an extra twist, MAIA’s US Executive Director asked the Board if anyone knew someone who provides one-on-one SAT tutoring. I texted my neighbor, who is a college counselor, and he recommended Summit Educational Group. I googled them and cold called them, stumbling over my words as I tried to explain what MAIA is and does succinctly and clearly, who the GPs are, what the need was, all the while dreading the eventual question of cost. I asked not knowing what to expect and feeling like I was asking a lot. I was glad to be on the phone when I said the words “pro bono” because my face burned bright red and my armpits got sweaty. The gall of calling a complete stranger and asking for a favor – and then asking for it for free! Completely brazen.
But then, incredibly, they said YES. Yes, we will offer 22 hours of our time free of charge to provide the tools and resources this extraordinary young woman needs to continue along her path. That yes made my heart sing, astonished that this might actually happen and truly touched to experience the goodness, kindness, and generosity of other humans.
Several weeks ago, two MAIA staff visited the US for a conference. While they were here, we thought it would be good to meet and thank the Summit Education team in person. At our meeting we were able to give them a little more context about MAIA, rural Guatemala, and the GPs. It was the appropriate, polite thing to do in thanks to an organization that gave so selflessly on our student’s behalf.
But the part that struck and surprised me most that has stuck with me was how powerfully resonant and moving this connection to Guatemala was for them. Though they had no prior connection to MAIA or to Guatemala, while I was busy sweating through my shirt feeling awkward and queasy about my bold ask, they weren’t asking themselves if at all, only how. In fact, the response was more like:
“We don’t often get the chance to help a student like this.”
“This whole experience has been the highlight of my time here at Summit.”
It turns out that my ask was a give. Your read that right. By asking, I gave the gift of meaning, joy, and connection. By connecting, we build bridges and forge deeper understanding, expanding our own world and worldview. The wind may not die down, but if we work together we all make more forward progress.
Asking for help is hard. It’s challenging to separate a need from feeling needy. I find it easier to ask on behalf of someone else, certainly on behalf of a cause that’s bigger than me, but it’s still hard. It strikes me now that while it is so hard to ask for assistance in so many aspects of life, sometimes – often? – the asking creates an opportunity to give that is meaningful to the giver. As Lynne Twist writes in her book The Soul of Money, “this unlocking of a vehicle to change circumstances is a gift.” It’s a remarkable, empowering twist and the ultimate oxygen mask moment.
I used to keep a journal, many, many journals, in fact, where I would write my deepest, darkest, (dumbest) thoughts and also my favorite quotes. This one from 1996 by Anonymous still rings true and is a good reminder:
For those of us who somehow navigated a pre-emoji world, a memory (that only works on a mobile or tablet and is remarkably challenging to accomplish thanks to auto-correct):
Combining poetry with a road race? Unusual. Also: genius.
Can you actually hear the poems as you run by? No, not really. Is it a total hoot to see costumed people spouting poetry from their tomes – some perched atop large boulders on the edge of the woods, emerging like sophisticated woodland nymphs or Tom Sawyer with a poetry book instead of a fishing rod, others refusing to acknowledge you as you pass, so engrossed are they in their recitation – as you amble along your sometimes-not-merry way (depending what mile it is)? 100%!
A dose of exercise with a side of culture does the body (and the psyche) good. The genesis of the James Joyce Ramble, which features poetry along a 10K race course, was a runner in the 1980s who decided that getting through James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake was as difficult as training for a road race. I can’t speak to that, but it was definitely a good idea.
I temporarily dropped my 5K or bust mantra to give it a try. It was another example of beauty in the unexpected, combining two unlikely partners and creating something brand new that is much more than 1+1 = 2. It also proved, once again, the personal growth and joy that stem from challenging yourself beyond what you think you are capable of, and the power of friends cheering you along, or running right beside you.
As they say at the James Joyce Ramble: Read. Run. Refresh. Repeat.
I discovered in my late teens what it means to find sanctuary. Though the word is often associated with a church, human constructs never stirred my soul or provided room for quiet contemplation in the same way that a peaceful wood, a calm lake, or a mountaintop (as long as there are not a lot of other people there) do. The combination of the effort (and endorphins) that hiking engenders plus beautiful surroundings and time for quiet contemplation has always been my favorite refuge, affording me the best opportunity to reflect and re-center.
I read that Thoreau quote for the first time in the early 1990s while sitting on the side of a mountain somewhere in Oregon’s Three Sisters Wilderness and it has stuck with me ever since.
After years of practice I have learned (okay, am learning) to quiet the noise and find my sanctuary amidst the hustle and bustle of suburban family life. Putting your own oxygen mask on is about finding refuge and peace within. It’s been a nearly lifelong practice for me. Get outside today, breathe some fresh air, and find your way toward your own calm and sanctuary.
“All of our problems stem from our inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
This has been another edition of Oxygen Mask Moments by Meg