Beyond Four Walls

We have to think big right now. And wide. Beyond what’s boxing us in.

People have a range of risk tolerances, values, and concerns. That is abundantly clear. In order to set up protocols for pandemic school in the fall means that all those risk tolerances and values and needs and wants are getting stewed together into one simmering pot. What people want and what is realistic may not be the same thing. Everyone wants something and pretty much everyone isn’t going to get everything.

All the arguing and division we are seeing in the national media and experiencing in our own social media feeds result from the sense – strike that, no, the fact – that we are trapped, that there are no good solutions that meet everyone’s needs and wants, and that this increasingly long period of upheaval feels as though it may never end. Sprinkle in a little conspiracy theory here, some uncertainty and fear there, and question science and facts with an onslaught of “what about-ism” and you end up with the centrifugal pull of a fast-spinning machine pushing people outward where we find ourselves with our backs suctioned against a wall, digging in our heels in an attempt to find solid ground, ironically ever more isolated and siloed from each other, and feeling rather nauseous.

So here we are.

Much of what we are experiencing is classic grief psychology. Grief is the acute pain that accompanies the loss of something we love. There’s a lot of loss in so many myriad ways right now. The response to that loss is the biggest variable, though. Some appear to be stuck in the anger, bargaining, and denial phases while others have grieved, been depressed, and moved on to acceptance.

What I know about grief, which has been my near constant companion the last several years, is that, while it feels counter-intuitive to face into the fire, that is in fact what needs to be done. While it feels like you should turn away from the pain, sadness, and loss to protect yourself, facing into it actually helps you heal faster, makes you stronger. The more you resist it and want to turn away, the stronger the pain becomes. It doesn’t slink off in the night because you have ignored it. No, it sits, bides its time, and quietly grows. By the time you deal with it it is so much bigger and more intense than it was originally. These days we witness daily the emotional devastation and turmoil that is wrought by crushed expectations and neglected grief.

Here’s a thought: instead of fighting with each other and arguing about the existence of or the impact of the virus and bombarding the superintendent/dean of students/president/you get the idea with hate mail and deluding ourselves into thinking that other school districts or private schools or whatever have figured this out, let’s all take a deep breath, call an adult time out, and step away from the screen. I made a rule for myself decades ago to wait 24 hours before I responded to something that irked or upset me. Typically if it still bothers you 24 hours later, it’s worth addressing. But a lot of problems lose their power if given a little time and, certainly, time affords clarity and calm in a response.

The trigger-happy, community-destroying, faction-inducing sparring on social media helps no one and advances no agenda other than an adrenaline rush. Everyone is so hyped and accusatory, constantly lobbing opposing news articles, demands, and opinions at each other. It’s like watching a pack of amped up dogs baring their teeth and straining at the end of their leashes looking for a fight. Take a day off. Trust me, you won’t miss anything. The needle won’t move one inch if you step away. Everyone already knows all there is to know – there aren’t any good or easy answers and that is what we are all living with.

Fine I won't give up but

SO, we make the choice to dig in and be angry and fan the flames. OR, we choose to take a deep breath and proceed with calm, flexibility, and acceptance. There is opportunity in this total explosion to our normal lives if we choose to see it. It demands that we pivot and get creative, dig deep and be resourceful, and truly think outside the box and beyond our four walls (and certainly outside the fours walls of a school building). The social contract of a functioning society demands that the majority respect each other and follow the established rules. We can all get through this period faster and more whole if we commit to taking a deep breath, accepting that this time is finite and also exceptionally challenging, and being respectful of each other, each other’s values and risk tolerances, and the reality that this is hard on almost everyone (except maybe people who invested in Zoom before March 2020). We would do well to face into the fire instead of trying to resist and hold it off. You don’t have to like it, but how you respond to this period is 100% your choice.

“It’s our choices that show us who we truly are, far more than our abilities.”                          – Albus Dumbledore

Happiness is letting go SSL
from @sailorssweetlife

Release the death grip on what was, and open yourself to what could be. Be flexible and think beyond the norm. This period is anything but normal. If we stretch beyond the standards, expectations, and walls that typically box us in, we will find a whole world of opportunity. The natural world continues on without us. There is still so much to be learned right outside our front doors if we just re-focus our attention. Life goes on. Life skills school remains open for business.

“Try not to resist the changes that come your way. Instead let life live through you. And do not worry that your life is turning upside down. How do you know that the side you are used to is better than the one to come.”                                                                          – Rumi

Breathe.

You will be alright.

We can do better. We are the solution.

MLK hope quote

Check out my General Resources page for podcast suggestions.

Masks are Tyranny???

Some people really and truly think that masks are tyranny. Really and truly. Despite EVERYTHING, there continues to be (really strong) opposition to wearing a mask.

I was initially all geared up to rant about it. I wanted to rant, but I am not going to. That’s the easy thing to do, but it isn’t helpful. It’s what everyone is doing these days. Who wants more of it?

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I looked up the definition of tyranny just to sanity check my gut reaction to that phrase and, yep, tyranny is a pretty extreme word for a face covering:

Tyranny (noun): “cruel and oppressive government or rule.

“people who survive war and escape tyranny” · 

Synonyms: despotism · absolutism · absolute power · autocracy · dictatorship · undemocratic rule · reign of terror · totalitarianism · Fascism · oppression · suppression · repression ·

  • a nation under cruel and oppressive government.
  • cruel, unreasonable, or arbitrary use of power or control.

    “the tyranny of the nine-to-five day” · 

  • (especially in ancient Greece) rule by one who has absolute power without legal right.”
close up of face masks
Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

I admit that after reading that definition I was even more pissed off for a while. Wearing a piece of cloth over your nose and mouth to stem a scientifically-proven public health crisis isn’t anywhere near the ballpark of being subjected to cruelty, oppression, or a reign of terror. It’s just not.

Of course there is plenty about this pandemic situation that is definitely cruel and unreasonable. Dying alone in a hospital comes to mind. Perpetuating this shit show and elongating everyone’s suffering by ignoring public health mandates gets a nod. Setting up the most vulnerable people in our society to be taken out by a virus that, at this point, we know exists and, honestly, we know how to contain, reigns pretty high too. But wearing a mask?

In the face of racial protests, clear inequality, food insecurity, massive unemployment, and pretty much many much bigger issues, calling a mask tyranny – wasting your breath complaining about it at all, really – seems pretty damn tone deaf.

But this blog isn’t Ranting and Raving.com for a reason. Put Your Own Oxygen Mask on First is about providing a hopeful viewpoint to counterbalance the pervasive negative we are ever more perpetually steeped in. It’s about changing the narrative, looking more deeply at the universality of human suffering (how much more universal could you get than a pandemic?), and striving to take a new look at our challenges and to uncover the threads of hope.

Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. – Max Ehrmann, Desiderata

So, here we are, deep in struggle, and this is what I got for ya.

It’s been a really hard time.

People are BURNT OUT and worried. In the U.S., we left school in March with the promise that fall would be better. And it’s not. We are still vulnerable, still uncertain. And now, all these months later, the cure is perceived to be worse than the curse. There is virus fatigue, isolation fatigue, fear fatigue, economic fatigue, uncertainty fatigue, cheering-myself-up-and-looking-on-the-bright-side fatigue, fatigue fatigue. Kids are climbing the walls and so are parents. What’s so sad is that if everyone would just wear a mask, keep some distance, and wash their hands, we wouldn’t be having this problem.

mona lisa protection protect virus
Photo by Yaroslav Danylchenko on Pexels.com

So here’s the short of it: we can do this. We HAVE to do this.

Care about the economy and want it to open back up completely? Wear a mask.

Want the kids to go back to school? Yep, wear a mask.

You say Black Lives Matter? Wear the mask (otherwise that is 100% NOT how you are living. Black and brown people have been disproportionately impacted by this virus. So, mask it).

There are a bevy of excuses for disliking the mask: it’s hot, it fogs my glasses, I don’t know anyone who has had the virus, I want my kids to have a normal childhood. My short response: rip the band-aid off, wear the mask, and we can all move on. The long version is:

  1. It’s hot: that’s true, it’s damn hot and the mask is extra uncomfortable when it’s hot. I am pretty sure a ventilator is uncomfortable, too, so a mask seems like not that much to ask, relatively speaking;
  2. Glasses fog: I wear glasses, too. I wipe them off or lift them up when they start to fog up. Ink smudges when I write with certain pens, too. I deal;
  3. Don’t know anyone personally who’s had the virus? – well, I do. The conservatively estimated 165,000 people who have died in the U.S. to date all knew someone. You will, too – eventually. Would that really make you feel better?!?!? The fact that the majority who have died were old doesn’t make me feel better about them getting bumped off. It’s a horrible way to die. When did we get so callous?
  4. Kids having a normal childhood: I get the worry about the kids, trust me, I really do. But adversity can be a great teacher. Besides, does anyone remember their own childhood in great detail? Like year over year detail? My summer memories are a blur of the odd family vacation, the odd sports or all around camp. Mostly we made our own fun and spent A LOT of time being totally bored (my mom’s solution: “I have plenty of things you can help me with around the house,” which effectively sent me into hiding and back to figuring out how to entertain myself). There is no timeline or dates or ages associated with any of it, just a vague pool of memories. School years also blur together. I am sure bad stuff happened in there, but I don’t remember most of it. And I turned out okay. Maybe better than okay. Completely pandemic-ready okay. Resilient, flexible, able to make my own fun.
person with a face mask and latex gloves holding a globe
Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

Basically, kids will respond to all of this okay, maybe even with some positive memories, if the adults in their world present it well. I don’t mean to fake it. I mean to listen and be present, but to work with it instead of against it. Resisting it or fighting it doesn’t make it better, it just makes it harder to live with this reality. This is 2020. This is just it. We don’t know the end date, but this isn’t forever. Take a deep breath.

Remember that many people are facing MAJOR, earth and life-shattering issues right now. If you aren’t food or shelter insecure, if you are safe in your home and not struggling with addiction or mental health issues, then it’s time to put your oxygen mask on, take a big deep breath, and then assist the person next to you.

Whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy. – Max Ehrmann, Desiderata

Just because we wish it so will not make this all go away. Until we all tow the line in a unified way, the U.S. will continue to trundle along with its ineffective whack-a-mole approach to dealing with this. More and more people will suffer and die, the school year will be in a constant state of upheaval, and the economy will not be able to fully re-open. Instead of the fast, difficult, unified approach, to date we have taken the long, slow, extended suffering approach. All the loss plus a clear view into our broken health care/insurance system (that would sooner bankrupt people for needed care than cover them); the inability of many to skip work despite the risk (because there is no financial safety net whatsoever); food tied to schools/food insecurity in one of the wealthiest countries in the world; and a government that treats its most vulnerable citizens as expendable, well, I think I just described tyranny. If masks and tyranny belong in a sentence together, it would be more accurate to say “masks are liberators from tyranny.”

Wear a mask.

Unite. Be strong. This too shall pass. If we work together, it will pass all the more quickly.

We are the solution.

You will be alright.

Back to School options

 

 

I Can’t Breathe.

To breathe.

It’s the most fundamental aspect of what it means to be alive. In fact, if you google “to breathe” the definition runs from “to draw air into and expel it from the lungs” to “to live” to “to feel free of restraint.” That’s pretty poignant in the context of recent events.

I can’t breathe.

As someone who runs a website called Put Your Own Oxygen Mask on First, who encourages myself and others to take as many big, deep breaths as they possibly can every hour of the day (because I tend to forget – not completely, obviously – but enough that it doesn’t do me any favors), I can’t help but reflect on how powerfully the inability to draw breath has affected our world these last several months.

Oxygen mask. Ventilator. ICU. George Floyd. Death. Tragedy. False Accusation. Grief. Fear. Protest. Anger.

I can’t breathe.

I continue to try to put my attention towards where I can find hope. Without hope, it feels that we are irrevocably broken and that all is lost. When hopelessness takes over, there is no sense in going on.

I can’t breathe.

But on we must go, deep into the the discomfort and uncertainty. And thus we must, daily, find reasons for hope. If you focus on the thousands of peaceful protestors that have turned out nation-wide and not the looters and property destruction, you start to see the threads of hope and where we are headed. There is a united and diverse coalition actively exercising their democratic rights to confront police brutality and the social inequities that plague this country.

I don’t pretend to have answers. I don’t pretend to get it right every time, and I know that I have work to do to be a more conscious and conscientious ally. I look to my friends of color to understand their daily experience more deeply and to have that guide my actions. I always have, but I am doubling down on that now. I know I can galvanize my privilege and will continue to advocate for the voiceless and vulnerable. I am committed to asking the questions, learning more, and participating in forging a better, safer, more equitable future.

Stand together.

Lift up your voice.

Breathe.What if 2020 isn't cancelledAnd don’t forget – please – that we are still in the middle of a pandemic. Social distancing, masks, and hand washing still matter tremendously. So do police – good police. Both/and. Life is complicated and shades of gray, ironically, not black and white. Let’s not lose track of what the story is about. It’s about greater equality for people of all colors – and that includes access to health care, education, safe living environments, opportunity. It’s about systemic racism that disadvantages some while privileging others. It’s about reforming bad policing. It’s about caring for our neighbors as ourselves, against injustice, violence and virus.

Check out my Resources page for reading and other information on #BlackLivesMatter and being anti-racist.

To do list

 

 

 

 

The WHY of Preservation Matters Now More Than Ever

Today’s post is brought to you by Anna Davis, the Communications Director of the Architectural Heritage Foundation in Boston, MA. She wrote this really wonderful post recently distilling why historic preservation matters. When all else goes away, she writes, “what remains is the stories we keep.” How profound and beautiful. Historic preservation is about more than preserving old buildings – it’s about community and our past and the stories that weave us together. That’s important to recognize, now more than ever. It will help guide us when we emerge from this period of extreme slowing-down, introspection and, honestly, grief to engage with our communities and our world differently and more completely.

Stay well, stay home. You will be alright.

Photograph of the Fellowship Hall at the Grand Army of the Republic Hall and Museum in Lynn, MA. The Architectural Heritage Foundation (AHF) is providing historic preservation consulting services to the Friends of GAR Hall.
Grand Army of the Republic Hall in Lynn, MA. Image courtesy of Jason Baker.

When life as we have known it comes to a halt; when the bonds holding society together grow brittle; when we cannot gather for fear of harming each other – what remains to us are the stories we keep. The reminders of those stories take many forms. A building. A battlefield. A burying ground. These physical affirmations of our histories and values are all around us. They help us to see ourselves as part of a community spanning generations and, in so doing, make us feel less alone.

Yet preservation can seem frivolous during a crisis like COVID-19. Why spend time and money on saving historic sites when people are getting sick, losing their jobs, and struggling to stop every aspect of their lives from unravelling? Answering this question requires a shift in perspective from regarding our historic places as luxuries to recognizing them as necessities. Catalyzing that shift in perspective is one of the main challenges facing preservationists over the coming weeks.

Successfully making the case for preservation will depend on how well those involved in restoration or adaptive reuse tell their projects’ stories. This means crafting a narrative focusing not on properties’ historical and architectural significance (though important), but on the material and intangible benefits that successful projects bring to their surrounding communities. Projects need a vision that extends beyond the historic places to the people who will use them.

A vision does not need to lock a project into a specific program, but it should offer a general idea of the role that the site could play in the community. For example, could a vacant building become much-needed housing? A mixed-use commercial hub that invigorates a business district? And arts or educational center? Which populations will the building primarily serve, and how will it benefit the most vulnerable members of society? And specifically, how will the project help the surrounding community to heal post-Coronavirus?

North Brookfield community members stand conversing in the Great Hall of the North Brookfield Town House in front of a stage with blue and red velvet curtains. The Architectural Heritage Foundation (AHF) is providing historic preservation consulting services
Community members discuss the future of the historic North Brookfield Town House.

Though all preservation efforts are different, they share certain commonalities that are helpful to consider when making the case for a project:

Preservation strengthens the economy

Most likely to resonate with the widest range of people are the economic benefits of preservation. The National Trust for Historic Preservation notes that each year, historic preservation creates millions of jobs, attracts hundreds of millions of dollars in investment, increases property values, augments the affordable housing stock, and generates more money in tax revenue than it costs.

Preservation is green

Not only does preservation make economic sense, but it is an ecologically sustainable form of development. Demolition and new construction generate massive amounts of landfill waste and carbon emissions; by contrast, adaptive reuse of historic real estate reduces these climate impacts. Moreover, historic structures designed prior to the invention of HVAC systems are generally more energy efficient than many modern buildings. Preservation is a climate-friendly option.

Preservation brings people together

The preservation of a beloved historic property often inspires people who otherwise would not come into contact with each other to pursue a common goal together. Moreover, it gives people – not least those who often feel disenfranchised – a stake in improving their neighborhoods. This benefit, though unquantifiable, is particularly important to emphasize at a time of social distancing. As communities become ever more fragmented, projects that are unifying, uplifting, and meaningful can raise morale and connect people to one another.

Now is the time to speak up for historic places by articulating why preservation projects matter to the communities in which they are located. As Richard Moe, former President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, once said, “There may have been a time when preservation was about saving an old building here or there, but those days are gone. Preservation is in the business of saving communities and the values they embody.”

Photograph of the Shingle-style buildings of the Charles River Speedway framed against autumn foliage and sunshine in November 2014. The Architectural Heritage Foundation (AHF) is preserving and redeveloping the Speedway as a mixed-use commercial complex.
The Charles River Speedway, November 2014.

The Architectural Heritage Foundation is a 501(c)3 dedicated to stimulating economic development in disinvested communities through historic preservation. Follow AHF and its projects on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn.

Local Love

Let’s zip up across the border to the United States now and do a deep dive on how things are faring there. There’s a lot of good stuff and a lot of questionable stuff happening, both in terms of policies and initiatives as well as my state of mind. For reference (and a splash of color!), here it is:

Map of US

Personally, I have begun to notice that I hit a WALL around 3pm. And that’s when all the positivity and good cheer and we-got-this come crashing down. I have been observing this disaster-in-the-making for the past couple of days. And I think I have the data I need to try something new. Before I get all hyperventilated and claustrophobic and panicky and irritable I am attempting to catch myself spiraling down the wormhole and NO I am not going to stop myself or judge myself or tell myself I am a bad person or that I need to be tougher and just stick it out. Nope. I am going to call a Mommy time out and catch my breath. Alone in my room. For as long as I need. So far, I really only need 5 or 10 minutes. But the critical part is knowing you need to exit stage left, how to excuse yourself, and how far gone you are by the time you do so. That’s where I need practice.

I share this because I spend a lot of time looking on the bright side and trying to find the silver lining in everything. But I’d never want anyone to think that I don’t have a deep well of vulnerability and moments of hopelessness or anxiety or grief, too. We are all going through those moments now, probably more regularly than usual. The trick is to catch it and notice it and figure out how to take care of yourself amidst all of this, too.

For me, I have to laugh because I can hear in my mind my mom and my aunt telling me one of their favorite stories about me as a little girl. They would say, smiles on both of their faces, “It was Thanksgiving and we were all together in the house on Rural Lane. When you were a little girl, maybe 5 years old, you were sent to your room for something or other. About 20 minutes later you brought yourself back downstairs and announced, “I feel much better now.'” They would laugh and look at each other with dancing eyes, remembering what a precocious (and surely adorable and maybe nearly perfect – ha!) child I was and that moment together as they shared it with me.

What I recognize from that story is that I am the SAME EXACT PERSON now. I often don’t even need 20 minutes, but I DO need time just to myself and I always have. So, if no one is going to send me to my room, I am going to have to do it myself! And that knowledge of self and honoring it, my friends, is what will help us get through this with our sanity and relationships not only intact, but quite probably stronger. This is such good and important information about who we are and how we work.

TS Eliot quote 2
From Quote Fancy – https://quotefancy.com/

So that’s the state of my mind here. But you should also know about some really cool and beautiful projects happening in these parts:

Have you heard of the #frontstepsproject yet? Area photographers are going out into the world and capturing families (from 10 feet away) on their front porches. In exchange for the quick but professional family photo, the participants are encouraged to make a donation to their local food pantry. Not only does this mean that my Instagram and FB feeds are filling up with smiling family portraits – teenagers and all! – but it’s breaking down that sensation of isolation. Read more here!

Another really great initiative that was started in my neighborhood are Window Walks. Kids create artwork along a certain theme – last week was rainbows, this week hearts, and next week bears. As families take their daily walks to get some fresh air, this turns into a community scavenger hunt of sorts as kids delight in counting how many rainbows (hearts, or bears) they can find.

And how about WBUR’s Kind World newsletters? Or the effort to sew home-made face masks? And/or collect and deliver needed medical equipment (check out #getusPPE). Or about the letters children have written to elders confined to their assisted living homes at this time? Have you heard about that? What a wonderfully touching and human way to reach out to people who are the most vulnerable, most likely to be alone, and almost completely isolated.

Letter to elders

Once again, I implore you, to breathe. And wash your hands. And try to stick to a routine. And, if you have kids at home, talk to them about this experience, because we are ALL living it and wrestling with it in our own ways. Let their creativity lead your days. Sometimes.

Kindness and hope. Each gesture matters.

You will be all right. WE will be all right.

Stay well, stay home.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
-Emily Dickenson
Fear

Next Stop – GUATEMALA!

Guatemala MapTouching down in Guatemala City, you’ll be surprised to see how modern the airport is. I was expecting it to be really rugged since Guatemala is a “developing country,” but it’s not – the airport anyway.

Oh, look! A mariachi band is waiting for us! You can see the glimmering floors, the drop ceiling and recessed lighting, the very modern arrivals area in the below video.

We are going to have a real adventure and take a chicken bus to a more rural part of Guatemala, mostly because I just love saying chicken bus and because, well, look at it! Chicken Bus2The chicken bus is a retired yellow school bus that migrated from the United States to Guatemala where it was given new life and transformed with wild paint, flashing lights, and blaring music into a means of public transportation. Pile on. No number of passengers is too many for the chicken bus! Did you take your dramamine? It’s a long, windy route to get where we are headed.

Notice as we leave Guatemala City heading West toward Solola and Lake Atitlan all of the U.S. influence here. Papa Gino’s, Starbucks, and Domino’s abound.

Outside the dirty bus window, you can watch the stunning Guatemala countryside whiz by as we navigate the chaotic and crowded roads at an uncomfortable clip. The weather is perennially spring-time – 75 degrees or so during the day, generally sunny, and 50’s at night. The countryside is lush and verdant, the bright pinks and yellows of tropical flowers adorning the roadside even in the most barren places. In the distance, Volcan del Fuego perpetually puffs wisps of smoke into the air. The smells of cooking, wood burning, and exhaust permeate the air. There is rarely a moment of quiet between the honking cars, chirping birds, and barking dogs.

Everywhere you look you will see women in their traditional dress, the traje. The Mayan culture remains strong, despite the Spanish colonial and American influences. The cultural customs of modesty and honoring the ancestors remain guiding pillars of life here, especially in rural communities. Twenty-one (21) different Mayan languages are still the primary languages used in Guatemala’s Mayan communities.

Which is where we run headlong into an issue with the Coronavirus. This virus has the potential to be a crisis on an epic scale in developing countries like Guatemala. The health system here was already one of the weakest in the hemisphere. All of the government information – and it is abundant (Guatemala has closed its borders and has been incredibly restrictive and proactive about isolating the virus) – is in Spanish.

Most rural communities here are remote, have no internet access, do not speak Spanish, and typically do not read or write. Radio remains the primary form of communication. Which is why it’s all the more stunning and impressive to see the MAIA Impact School, based in Solola, immediately begin to assess where their skills and relationships can be most helpful and take proactive action. In this space of limited resources, MAIA leads with ingenuity and heart.

As a school for rural, poor, indigenous girls run by indigenous women, MAIA works with some of the most vulnerable populations in this part of the world. MAIA has worked hard to build relationships with families and to gain the trust of community councils in the region they serve. Family engagement is an enormous part of each student’s education (as this video shows).

As soon as Coronavirus began creeping its way across the world, MAIA realized it was uniquely positioned to assist the rural villages and address some of the issues that the they will face. The first thing they did was to quickly compile home school packets for all of the students. Without access to the internet, this pause in school could prove to be a major setback for learners who already had substantial obstacles in their way. These home school materials aim to keep the girls connected to their MAIA community and persevering through this pause on the path toward their educational goals.

The second initiative they undertook was to begin to address the major information gap facing rural villages. They created videos that translate the government’s Spanish information into the Mayan languages of the rural villages and posted those videos on MAIA’s social media pages. The videos quickly became the most viewed and shared content on their pages ever. You can watch them here. Better, though, for the state of our souls currently, are the bloopers. They exude humanity and love and light even if you don’t understand the words.

MAIA continues to explore ways to reach the rural villages, but also is trying to figure out how best to report out from the villages to media outlets. The plight of rural villages will be profoundly difficult and there is a real risk that it will go unnoticed since there is no movement in or out of these places.

As we move along in our virtual travels and in our individual worlds, in this moment of profound quiet, how can we be proactive? How are we each uniquely positioned to make a meaningful difference, now and going forward? What’s next when we get through this period of “new normal”? Back to normal? Is that good enough?

I am wondering how we can galvanize this moment of extreme slowing down and re-evaluating to shepherd in a new paradigm; how we can look to a future that does things differently, more equitably, a world that engages more people more completely. MAIA models a different way of doing things, and a respectful and bold approach to change. This is our collective moment to rise up, not only to get through this social isolation but to fundamentally change business as usual.

You will be all right. WE will be all right. And, in fact, we can be better.

Stay well, stay home.

I am currently reading Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond.

Specific reading to Guatemala:

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” – Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Silence on the Mountain: Stories of Terror, Betrayal, and Forgetting in Guatemala” – Daniel Wilkinson

The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop?” – Francisco Goldman

A Beauty that Hurts: Life and Death in Guatemala” – W. George Lovell

When the Ground Turns in Its Sleep: This is a beautiful novel that will give you a sense of time, place, and history—all woven together into a compelling narrative that makes it endlessly readable.

Popol Vuh: The Mayan Book of The Dawn of Life and The Glories of Gods and Kings (Kindle Edition): If Maya history is your thing, then this is the definitive guide. It gives the backstory you need to fully enjoy the numerous Maya temples you’ll visit while traveling Central America.

A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya: Descend into the Mayan culture throughout Mexico, Belize and Guatemala in this travel narrative that dives deep into the regional culture, ancient Mayan beliefs about time, as well as a look at modern Mayan culture.

Jungle of Stone: The True Story of Two Men, Their Extraordinary Journey, and the Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya: A fascinating tale chronicling the two men who traveled through the Yucatán and Central America in search of the Maya Kingdom, and brought this ancient civilization back to the world.

 

 

Stealing the Show – in Spain

My son tells me that people usually stay two days on average in places they visit, that that’s a fact. I don’t know where he gets his info, but he’s a tween and he seems to know everything these days so I’ll go with it. Based on this sage advice, but erring on the side of that-seems-really-ambitious-because-no-one-will-be-fed-in-that-case, I will post a new location in our journey every three days until I run out of ideas or run out of steam. Follow my blog to have these little visits arrive directly into your email box.

I’ll warn you, fellow travelers, that when I travel I want to see it ALL (except if it involves a museum, in which I case I’ll wait for you outside unless it’s raining). I also do not travel in a linear fashion (that quote “all who wander are not lost” may or may not have been about me).

So, yep, while I excel at being efficient and organized, I also tend to be driven by my passion (and the cheapest plane fare). I can assure you that there are just a few places between Maui and Spain that require a stopover, but, for now, we just have to go to Spain because I have stories to share from there that just can’t wait. Everyone in between, if you have an empowering story that needs to be shared here, email it to me at misste259@gmail.com!

I have two stories from Spain and both fall into the category of “things are not always what they seem.” Such simple and beautiful displays of humanity.

First stop, Vigo, the largest fishing port in Europe and an industrial mainstay in the Spanish economy. It’s a city that’s a funny mix of industrial meets Roman architecture meets the seaside on the northwestern coast of Spain just north of Portugal.

An 80-something man named Hermann lives in Vigo. Here here is playing his harmonica from the window of his apartment. In the background you can hear voracious clapping. Is it for his music? I don’t want to spoil it. Watch and then read on…

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🎼 Hermann es octogenario y sufre alzheimer, pero no ha olvidado cómo tocar la armónica. Cuando la gente aplaude estos días a los sanitarios desde sus balcones, durante la cuarentena por el #coronavirus, él sale a tocar desde su ventana en Vigo y cree que todas esas personas le ovacionan. A esa sensación, la de sentir que está ante su público, él no ha llegado por una ocurrencia cualquiera. Se lo ha hecho creer así la persona que lo asiste, Tamara Sayar. “Pedazo concierto, eh, Hermann", "¿Ves? Te has puesto nervioso. Mucho público. Yo entiendo", le dice esta sanitaria en cada vídeo que graba de sus conciertos. Él sonríe, sigue soplando y al final bate sus propias palmas sobre la dulzaina, sumándose a la ovación. #covid_19 #covid19 #coronavirusespaña

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Quarantined in their homes, everywhere across Spain, every night at a designated time, people come to their windows or balconies and clap for the medical staff.

Imagine that. At the same time, all across the country, doctors and nurses are given a standing ovation. As they should be.

But where does Hermann fit in this? Hermann has Alzheimer’s, but has not forgotten how to play his harmonica. His caregiver says to him, “What a concert, Hermann! You got nervous. Such a big audience. I understand.”

Look at the delight on his face. I mean, what else is there to say? There is such beauty and love captured in this moment, both as we share this man’s wonder in his moment of stardom as well as the love of his caregiver, while on a national level we witness citizens come out in unison to honor the medical community. It leaves me speechless.

But, wait, that’s not all! We aren’t done here in Spain yet! Let’s jet way on over to the other side, sliding right off the eastern coast for a brief dip in the Mediterranean before we reach the island of Mallorca. The land here is mountainous, rocky, sandy, salty, and also stunningly beautiful. Plants and trees – and people – find ways to grow and thrive in the most surprising and challenging of places – and times. Olive groves abound. In the air is the faint smell of orange and lemon trees warming in the sun. Almonds are in bloom at this time of year, white flowers blossoming as far as the eye can see.

And on the streets, during this time of quarantine, the police are keeping an eye on things and making sure that everyone is safe and well:

In this case, the police came to entertain the children and cheer them up. That was not what I expected. And it warmed my heart.

This is a good time to remember how we sooth children when they have nightmares. We do not google the symptoms or entertain all the “what if” scenarios and fan the flames. Instead, we calm, we console, we give hugs, we reassure. That’s what we need to do for ourselves right now. All of us. Collectively. A big, compassionate hug. Because when you aren’t living a nightmare and stressing out completely, you can be strong and resilient, committed and compassionate. And that’s what we all need right now.

You will be all right. WE will be all right.

For books on or in Spain, you can always pick up Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls or The Sun Also Rises. Based on some of my Facebook feeds, I wonder if I would do well to recommend regional wines as well ;-).

See you next time…off to another Spanish-speaking country next, but this one a former colony. Hasta luego! Stay well, stay home.Bilingual versus an idiot

 

 

Lifted Up By Letting Go

This essay was published in the March 2020 edition of Wellesley Living Well Magazine.

Life consumed me in the early years of motherhood: work deadlines were shoved into limited daycare hours; the frequent illnesses of childhood regularly upended any non-parenting endeavor; time for grocery shopping was elusive; exercise mostly consisted of bouncing with a baby and “lifting” out of the crib. During those demanding and isolating pre-school years I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) and my mother with Alzheimer’s. I found myself wrestling with Pico Iyer’s question, “How to hold on to the things we love even though we know that we and they are dying. How to see the world as it is, yet find light within that truth.”

At the time, I struggled to find hope. The intensity of these divergent and demanding caregiving needs galvanized me to pay attention and not miss this time – any of it – while also laying heavily in my lap a palpable burden. Without exercise, I had no outlet.

Fast forward a couple of years and I found myself joining Crossfit Launchpad. CrossFit, it turns out, is more than lifting weights and intense cardio. The surprise – and what keeps me going back – is the community. Trust me, I never thought I’d say that – a gym that’s a community? But that’s what it is, and it is part of the formula of endorphins, nutrition, and a support system that helped restore my balance, clarity, and health.

Not only is my RA in remission now, but my Crossfit community has also helped me bear the heavy weight of caring for my mom. Outside the gym we gather monthly to make baby blankets for Boston’s Family Nurturing Center. I mentioned that a large version of these blankets, with their taggie ends and soft texture, would be ideal for Alzheimer’s patients. Without missing a beat, the group decided to make blankets for my mom. It would never have occurred to me to ask. My go-it-alone, never-be-vulnerable internal driver flared. I couldn’t have people spend their time doing that for me. I declined. They insisted. Eventually I let go.

And, what happened? I now have two soft, beautiful blankets for my mom. By allowing help, I was able to focus on other things my mom needed. By letting go, I allowed the number of hands who created those blankets – the number of people who touched my life – to grow exponentially. This turned everything I know about asking for help on its head – helping me can help you, too?

Life is an incredible teacher. Hope is restored in the most unexpected ways. This is universally true, if you are open to seeing it. My truth, this journey, has tested me with its bleak mercilessness. As in the depths of winter, I have at times been lonely and cold, wondering if it would ever end. And yet, I wrap my mom in her blankets and this act of support and community warms my soul. The light in my truth is all the people who have held my mom and me along the way. The smallest gift, the heartfelt gesture, the simple acknowledgement that the journey isn’t mine to walk alone, matter. Helping other people – and letting other people help you sometimes – are powerful antidotes to lost hope. Even on the darkest days there is light. Also, exercise helps.

art artistic black and white blank
Photo by Lynnelle Richardson on Pexels.com

The Magic City Beckons

It’s the most wonderful time of year!!!!

Do you think I am talking about the holidays? Naaawwww, that’d be so predictable. I’m talking about getting your freeze on for a reas-on at the Millinocket Marathon and a Half this Saturday, December 7, in the Magic City (aka Millinocket, Maine)! It is the most warm and fuzzy event in one of the coldest paces in New England – and it truly is magical.

welcome runners

No matter the weather, approximately 2,500 runners are planning to participate in this fully subscribed event. In fact, the town is expecting as many visitors to descend for the weekend as there are residents! And the northern Maine hospitality machine is ready, with an artisan’s fair, spaghetti dinners, warming huts, pre- and post-race gatherings, and logging trucks to mark the start and finish.

Run between the trucks
Running between the trucks. Photo courtesy of Millinocket Marathon and a Half

As with the four prior years since the race’s inception, there is no entry fee. The idea is to entice visitors to this stunning area to spend money in a town that has weathered severe economic downturn since the paper mill, its primary industry, faltered, stumbled, and finally shuttered, over a decade ago. It takes place during a time of year that can otherwise be pretty quiet and challenging for businesses. It’s a shot of adrenaline for local businesses and residents when they need it most. In its fifth year, the event has become a tradition for runners and residents that everyone looks forward to.

And, this year, my husband is running the half and I will be there to enjoy being in one of my favorite places on Earth and to cheer on all the runners.

The marathon is, for my husband and I, this incredibly synergistic convergence of our passions. Often our passions look something like this, with his on the left and mine on the right:

Fortunately, we appreciate each other’s interests and passions and accept that we don’t necessarily share the same ones all the time! Our relationship is fundamentally grounded in respect for the other person and their interests. We have enough overlap that it’s not an issue, though it’s taken some ironing out along the way to understand what drives each of us for sure. I didn’t realize, for example, what an offense it was to not actually pay attention to the game when we would go to Fenway Park. I like the atmosphere, but the game? Not so much. On the flip side, I used to be a park ranger in northern Maine, headquartered in Millinocket, and love the peace and solitude of the north Maine woods. He can’t quite understand the appeal of climbing a mountain (for fun?) and spends most of his outdoor time swatting away every biting bug from within a 100-mile radius that descends to attack him as soon as he steps out of the car.

So imagine my surprise when I told him about the Millinocket marathon and a half and he said, “Wow, that’s pretty cool. I’d like to do that some day.” I mean, for as much as I love it there, I personally thought it was a kind of crazy idea to drive over 5 hours to voluntarily run 13.1 or 26.2 miles in winter in that rugged country. I was pretty sure he’d have the same reaction. Instead, he watched and re-watched the Running with Cameras race video (which, incidentally, won an Emmy for the New England region in 2019!) and got ever more excited about it. He up’ed his fitness efforts and his running game. And he signed himself up as soon as registration opened for the 2019 race.

Here we are now, a couple of days away from the race. We are finding that both of us are excitedly anticipating the drive North and being a part of this event and this community, each in our own ways, but also together. He is anticipating the challenge of the run, the camaraderie of the event, and being part of something that helps a place he knows I love. I can’t wait to see Millinocket thriving and alive, to be close to those mountains, and to cheer on my husband, all the other runners, and this community that I have come to love over all my years of living and visiting there.

As the Millinocket Memorial Library t-shirt says, “Don’t Millinocket ’til you try it.” The Millinocket Marathon and a Half is fundamentally about connecting with other people and a new place (or an old place in a new way); about both opening our eyes to the challenges other people and their communities face, and also about opening our eyes to the natural beauty that surrounds us, even in winter; about taking action by showing up and participating fully as partners in making ripples of change; about taking a chance, and second chances; about caring so much for your spouse and what they love, that you are all in to support them (and vice versa); and, of course, about hope, both having it as well as catalyzing it. I can’t think of a better reason to put on every ounce of clothing I own to stand outside and freeze! Go runners!

Don't Millinocket Till you try it
Don’t Millinocket t-shirt fundraiser for the Millinocket library

 

Contemplations over Coffee

I love my morning cup of coffee. I used to be a tea drinker, but coffee is my current go-to daily indulgence. I didn’t drink coffee or tea until I had kids, but during those puffy-eyed, foggy-headed, sleepless baby years I developed a habit of going to a coffee shop for a latte. Yes, a latte. Because I am still a baby about drinking straight up black coffee. Going to a coffee shop served the dual purpose of being a treat for me (oxygen mask moment!) and a destination to get out of the house.

Finding a cozy coffee shop remains one of my favorite ways to see a new city or town. I will walk a great distance or drive quite a few miles out of my way with the lure of a local coffee shop as my destination. Some of my favorites include Reykjavik Roasters (Iceland – Icelandic folks really like their coffee!), Catalyst Coffee Bar (St. Albans, VT), the Kalaheo Coffee Company (Kauai, Hawai’i), and Café Loco (Panajachel, Guatemala).

In Guatemala, I had the opportunity to visit small-holder coffee farmers who are members of a cooperative called De La Gente. I loved this visit, of course, because coffee was involved, but also because it was my first chance to meet actual coffee farmers. I had seen large, glossy images of coffee farmers plastered on the walls of chain coffee shops – coffee farmers tending their crops; coffee farmers posing happily with freshly picked beans or with their family in front of a bright red, newly scrubbed jeep; coffee farmers staring across vast, idyllic landscapes. I had seen advertisements for Fair Trade practices, the happy smiles in the photos implying that life as a coffee farmer was good. But those images smack majorly of marketing campaigns, and I have always wondered: who really and truly are the people behind the coffee and what are their lives actually like?

As usual, the story is more complicated than a Fair Trade label and a sustainable living for farmers (known in industry lingo as “producers”). In the central Highlands of Guatemala, coffee grows in the folds of picturesque volcanoes. This area produces some of the best coffee in Guatemala because it is the perfect micro-climate for these shade-grown plants. Except when the volcano erupts, of course.

For these coffee producers, the commute is a walk up the hill to the higher elevations where the coffee beans grow. The cooperative model has had a positive impact on farmers in this area. With 28 coffee growers working together, they are able to get better prices. So that’s a good thing. Better prices should mean more money in the pocket of the farmers. Hopefully. As part of a direct trade cooperative, the De La Gente farmers are better off than many. But they still work 12-hour days, sometimes more. And they are still extremely vulnerable to the smallest change in circumstances out of their control – weather, infestation, global prices, health issues within the family.

Coffee is only harvested once per year, apart from in Columbia. This means that, for producers, managing cash flow is extremely challenging. All of their annual income is realized in a matter of one or two weeks. The farmers dream of more than just barely surviving. Stability and predictability are not yet a reality; margins are extremely thin.

How vulnerable are coffee farmers? Coffee plants rely on a temperate climate with a specific range of degree in temperature. Martin Mayorga, of Mayorga Organics, says, “If you doubt climate change, go talk to some coffee farmers. 1,000 meters was prime elevation for growing really high quality coffee in Central America. One or two degrees of climate shift, it becomes basically unsustainable.” Climate change is already impacting low-altitude coffee-producing regions because of increasing temperatures, making plants more vulnerable to insects and diseases.

In 2013, coffee rust impacted many coffee farmers in Central America. The result of this disease outbreak meant the producers weren’t able to produce enough coffee to meet their loan payments. I should mention that coffee farmers often rely on loans to bridge the gap between growing seasons. These loans come with high interest rates. If their once-per-year payment from that year’s coffee production isn’t sufficient, the farmers can’t pay back their loans. The cycle and insecurity intensify and deepen year after year.

In Guatemala, much of the coffee grows in the shadows of active volcanoes. According to Henry Wilson of Perfect Daily Grind, the world’s largest English and Spanish coffee publication (with 5 million page views), during the volcanic eruption of Volcan del Fuego in June and November 2018, coffee production decreased by 30%. How does anyone survive under these conditions?

The solution(s)? According to Mayorga and Wilson, the prescription for producers is diversification. Producers need to be adaptable to market forces, but also to the varied outside forces that impact their ability to produce high-quality coffee. Diversification enables producers to generate income from a range of products over the course of the year. Portfolio diversification equates to risk management. Both Mayorga and Wilson have begun to work with farmers to produce and market other crops that grow well where coffee grows such as chia, cacao, beans, and quinoa. According to Wilson, the coffee farmers near Volcan del Fuego survived their losses in 2018 because they had already diversified their crops.

On the consumer side, we can be more thoughtful about where the beans that fuel our day come from, how they are produced, and by whom. And we can demand better if it’s not good enough. It’s easy to forget where the supply chain that gets products onto our supermarket shelves starts, but it’s important to think about it. As Mayorga Organics notes in its purpose statement, “The solution isn’t as simple as paying farmers a few cents more. It’s about treating our farmers as EQUAL PARTNERS and empowering them through communication and cooperation. It’s about ‘trimming the fat’ in the agribusiness supply chain to create more value for farmers and for consumers–all while obsessively focusing on quality.”

The world is a complicated place. The problems in developing countries are often interrelated – the systems of export-based economies set up during colonial periods endure, keeping the poorest mired in cycles of hopelessness and poverty from which they cannot escape. In primarily agrarian economies, diversifying crops leads to greater stability for farmers on a year-over-year basis. The less vulnerable farmers are, the better able they are to weather the impacts of climate change, and the more likely they are to allow their children time away from the farm to pursue an education. The more educated the populace becomes, the deeper their understanding of the forces that impact their daily lives, from climate change to politics. It’s all connected. No one can pour from an empty cup.

I am not an expert on these subjects by any stretch. But they matter. Here are some further resources to pore over as you pour and enjoy a nice, warm beverage to start your day:

10 Reasons Fair Trade Coffee Doesn’t Work

Changing Challenges and Solutions for Guatemalan Coffee Producers

Small Coffee Farmers Need to Diversify

Acknowledging the Impact of Slavery and Colonialism in the Coffee Industry

Cultivating Change Podcast

PS – Check out the video below to further understand the conditions in which producers of various commodities the U.S. imports work, thanks to Martin Mayorga. He writes, “The farmers we typically work with are usually in remote areas, don’t have proper tools, and are most easily exploited by large traders. Our goal is to give them stable income and work with them to develop their skills, tools, and capacities so THEY can choose who they work with. It’s a long, challenging process but if we don’t go into those communities, those producers will continue to be exploited and consumers will be the unknowing tool used for exploitation.  (BTW, these farmers are separating chia seed from the husk. It’s the first of many steps necessary to get to pure, clean chia seeds and is done using tractors in industrialized farms)”.