A Meaningful Solution for our Southern Border

I wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times last month in response to a series of articles Nick Kristoff had published about Central America. It wasn’t chosen for publication there, but, hey, I can publish it here! It’s still relevant, perhaps ever more so.

The problems are clear, manifold and complex.  But so is at least one solution. If we double down on education and create meaningful opportunity, the trajectory changes. Having hope matters. This is a human truth, and it transcends boundaries. A robust education creates hope, opportunity, and a path forward, both in the U.S. and elsewhere. This path requires investment, leadership, humility, and commitment. But this path also produces long-term results, in addition to being one of the most all-encompassing and humane.

June 6, 2019

Dear Mr. Feyer/To the Editor:

Re: “Food Doesn’t Grow Here Anymore. That’s Why I Would Send My Son North” (Opinion, June 5)

Mr. Kristof’s column highlights the conundrum of the immigration crisis on our southern border. In communities without opportunity, where climate change has destroyed harvests and survival is a daily struggle, what choice do people have but to leave?

Antagonizing immigrants at the border isn’t going to change the hopelessness they are fleeing. Creating real and meaningful opportunities for their future does. A robust education is a fundamental pathway toward this goal. The MAIA Impact School, a secondary school for indigenous girls in Solola, Guatemala, is an exemplar of best practices in this area.

MAIA, led by Mayan women, provides not only academic opportunity, but also the mentoring and support students and their families need to navigate this unfamiliar road. Imagine the trickle-down impacts when empowered, educated girls become empowered, educated mothers. Educating girls and family planning are two of the top ten solutions to climate change, according to a study by Project Drawdown. Education provides a transformative solution to systemic poverty and climate change, expanding generationally like the roots of a strong tree.

Sincerely….

That’s what I wanted the New York Times to share. Bold, audacious, selfless solutions.

For more information and recent perspectives on Guatemala, below are links to articles from a range of sources:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/stuartanderson/2019/07/15/a-safe-third-country-agreement-with-guatemala-could-be-dangerous/amp/?fbclid=IwAR1jCK8fA0YyyKa3lbm4oTc8SjVEUrezYfDx0S5_oRWrhJh5jSn6g26QIig

https://brightthemag.com/in-rural-guatemala-this-school-make-the-girl-effect-happen-kipp-maia-education-cbeabb429863

https://www.yesmagazine.org/peace-justice/guatemala-deployment-united-states-migrants-asylum-20190613

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-49134544

https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-guatemalan-city-fueling-the-migrant-exodus-to-america-11563738141

https://www.newyorker.com/news/dispatch/how-climate-change-is-fuelling-the-us-border-crisis

And because it’s an awesome moment, here is a video of a band greeting people at the arrivals terminal in the Guatemala City airport.

 

 

 

In the Shadow of a Blood Moon

I used to earn $50 per week.

Accommodation was provided as part of my job, and we pooled our resources to purchase food in a family meal plan. I lived in T2R9 in the unorganized territories* of Maine at the time, a one hour drive to the closest town. We made one trip to town per week, family-style in a lumbering repurposed Suburban. The town trip consisted of food shopping (family plan), collecting and sending mail, doing laundry at the laundromat, and using the payphone – yes, for real, the payphone. If you’ve never seen one, I included a picture here. There weren’t a ton of extras to spend money on in Millinocket, ME, which suited me just fine since I didn’t have any money to spend anyway. Somehow I managed to break even each week.

Well, every week except for the week that I got my period. Tampons and pads weren’t part of the family plan. And, guess what? They are expensive and, also, essential. The other women on the crew lamented the same issue – every month we slid further into debt. And there was really nothing we could do about it.

You would think that this experience might have made me wonder as I traveled in developing countries how women there handled this issue. I guess I assumed there was some practice handed down woman to girl about feminine hygiene and how female bodies work. I often assumed other cultures were more evolved and open than my own close-lipped, grin and bear it Irish-Catholic heritage. I made those assumptions and didn’t think much more about it.

It turns out, there isn’t a good practice in most developing countries for handling basic health education on this issue. In many countries, girls miss school, are sent to huts together to wait out their “time,” or sit on a piece of cardboard alone in a room until it’s over. Every single month. I only figured this out recently when one of the women I was traveling with in Guatemala brought kits from Days for Girls to distribute to the students at the MAIA Impact School.

Do you understand how vulnerable a group of girls in a hut alone could be? Or how much school is missed when this happens every month? Or, simply, how unhygienic it is not to have a means to deal with this, or a cultural support system to explain why it is happening and what it means? Does teenage pregnancy in these circumstances, inequitable educational attainment between girls and boys, or high maternal death rates really come as a surprise in a world where this completely natural and necessary process isn’t discussed, in many cases is feared, where tampons, pads or pharmacies don’t exist, and where earning $50 per week is more the norm than the aberration?

To begin to address this problem and solve the many ancillary issues it creates, Days for Girls (DfG) developed reusable sanitary supply kits that are hand-made in the United States by individuals and groups committed to creating change for these girls. Sewing groups gather regularly or sewists work independently to make pads that can be discreetly hung on a washing line to dry and that last for approximately three years. The design has evolved over time – 28 different iterations to date – into an effective, durable, reliable and environmentally friendly product. Over the years, Days for Girls has earned the trust of village elders and other decision-makers, winning some semblance of freedom for girls worldwide.

Wisely, these kits aren’t just distributed to anyone who asks. Days for Girls requires the person distributing them to be trained and to teach the recipients about how to use the pads and care for them properly, but also about what is happening with their bodies and why. Kits go where people involved with Days for Girls travel. The number of kits available depends on how many each chapter is able to produce.

My local Days for Girls chapter sent this recent status update: “212 kits will go to Uganda in a week, to help girls stay in school. 10 kits will head to Guatemala in July as a pilot project. 10 more travel to Zambia soon. The last 20 will be donated to Days for Girls’ refugee project. They will be taking 11,000 kits to each of three refugee camps. Imagine fleeing your homeland and arriving somewhere unfamiliar, then living in a camp with thousands of other people, none of whom have access to sanitary supplies. The conditions under which many others live is challenging, to say the least. We hope to relieve some of the misery. The kits have been extremely well-received in the camps in which they have been distributed in small numbers in the past. We will also be sending some kits to Ghana in December.”

I am astonished both by the thoughtfulness and impact of this program as well as by my own ignorance. The provision of these basic supplies has an immense effect on a girl’s well-being, dignity, and potential. Globally, countries that have greater levels of gender equality are safer and more prosperous (World Economic Forum). Educating girls is also among the top forms of combating climate change (The Unsung Solution to Climate Change). In Guatemala specifically, “if women had equal economic participation, in 10 years the Guatemalan GDP would grow by 46%, or $40 billion, or $2,460 per person. In a country with an average per capita income of $4,060, that’s a big deal” (MAIA Impact School). Reducing the number of school days that girls miss matters enormously. This is a really big deal.

To follow are a couple of examples of videos from the Days for Girls website that more fully display the results of providing these basic necessities alongside health education. #daysforgirls #maiaimpact #girlsforgirls.bracelets

*Side note – I know it says unorganized, and I get now what it means (no local, incorporated municipal government – essentially vast swaths of territory with very few human beings), but in my early days in T2R9 I kept thinking the word was “disorganized.” I remember thinking what an odd way that was to describe a place, but, fine, own it, you disorganized territories. Whoever heard of moose and black bear getting organized anyway. That may just be me and it may only truly be funny when you’ve been living in the woods with the same 8 people for months on end, but it still cracks me up.

Update – check out legislation that just passed in New Hampshire! Lack of access to feminine hygiene products should never keep girls out of school – in the US or anywhere else!

Article: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/new-hampshire-passes-bill-requiring-free-menstrual-products-in-all-public-schools_n_5d31bd0de4b0419fd32bd119 

One Year Later

A couple of weeks ago, a good friend commented that she couldn’t figure out how I have time for everything I am juggling currently. From trying to keep up with my writing to spreading the word about the MAIA Impact School to keeping things together at work and at home, I am busy with a capital B. This got me thinking – where did the time and head space for all of this come from suddenly? Ostensibly all of my responsibilities are the same, so what changed?

I spent some time reflecting on this question and I’ve come up with a couple thoughts. One factor, surely, is that my kids are older. With greater self-sufficiency on their part, I have a longer leash. The time saved by them being able to apply their own sunscreen, tie their own shoes, or put on their own snowsuits is immeasurable. Well, okay, it’s probably 5 minutes each day, but those are some of the more tedious daily demands of motherhood so these milestones matter.

The term “labor of love” also keeps popping into my head. While all of my current endeavors involve work, time, and sacrifice, they also fill my cup. My life is purpose- and passion-filled, and that’s energizing. I used to have a real problem saying “no” so I devoted a lot of time and energy to activities and jobs that left me feeling depleted – or downright stupid and worthless. I am just slightly more strategic about how I spend my time these days. When time becomes a precious commodity, even the most self-sacrificial person learns to guard it more wisely. While I am still horrible at saying “no,” often lapsing into its almost worse cousin “maybe,” I do appear to finally be learning a modicum of boundary setting. Ahhh, your 40’s are good for something!

Fill Your Cup

All that is meaningful and certainly adds up. However, I also lost my aunt this year, the amazing Fancy Nancy, and that sent me into an emotional morasse for a bit. The start of this calendar year I found myself sluggishly crawling through the days after she passed away, trying to get my head around the idea that this woman who was my guiding light and kindred spirit was suddenly gone. I quite honestly still can’t believe it. But these days when I feel scared or uncertain or sad, I can hear her faint but clear voice whispering, “Go. Live!” I think that she has made me braver and more determined.

And then there’s the fact that we moved our mom into a memory care facility last June. As the anniversary of that absolutely gut-wrenching decision and day came and went, I  marveled at what a difference a year can make. I knew as my mom’s primary and long distance caregiver that I was working hard on her behalf, and I was aware that her well-being took up a huge amount of space in my life, but until she was settled into a care home I had no idea exactly how much.

Initially, the interventions necessary for my mom to maintain a mostly independent life were relatively minimal. Over time, as the course of her Alzheimers progressed, though, I spent more and more time triaging issues: making health care decisions, as well doctor and dentist appointments; ensuring communication about appointment outcomes and necessary follow up; staying on top of prescription medications; acting in an HR capacity hiring, replacing, and advising aides; organizing payroll and the weekly schedule; paying bills; sorting through clothes that no longer fit and paperwork that was piling up in her office; fielding calls from her aides and her friends with questions, observations, or concerns, and then doing the research to determine if what we were seeing was to be expected and what to do about it. That’s just a sample. Countless other little things would come up to turn an otherwise uneventful day into a fire drill.

For a while, it was all worth it. And then last spring after a visit to see her, I got the distinct sensation that we had reached the zone beyond the peak of the bell curve. My efforts to prop up my mom’s faux independence were less and less noticed by her and more and more consuming for me. I spent incredible amounts of time working on my mom’s behalf, but had almost no time to actually spend with her. After some intense reflection, I realized that if she had perspective on the situation, she wouldn’t want me to feel so sad and torn between my life with my young family and my responsibility for her life hundreds of miles away. And with that knowledge, I began to visit, and eventually chose, a care home for her.

I’ll tell you what. That process, culminating in leaving her for her first night there, was utter hell. I literally cried into my dinner of a bowl of ice cream accompanied by a glass of wine the day I moved her in. I then put myself to bed early, like an overtired, weepy child, both missing my mom as I grieved this moment in our lives and feeling overwhelmed by the responsibility for her happiness. Rationally, I know that’s crazy – you can’t make other people happy – but I still wish I could sometimes.

Heschel quote

So here we are one year later. She is in fact perfectly happy. I don’t know that she has had one unhappy day since she moved to memory care. Her life exists in this exact moment. There is no past to dwell on, no ruminating about the future. There is just right now for her, and she seems to be quite amused by it. She knows she is loved, by the staff at her home as well as her family, and I think that’s what she always wanted. She has always been guided by what is in her heart, and that emotional clarity remains.

For me, I am my mom’s daughter again, not her business – heck LIFE – manager. It is one of my greatest joys in this mostly horrible Alzheimer’s journey to have my mom close to me again. She doesn’t know my name, but she knows I am hers (maybe her sister, maybe a friend, but sometimes “her little girl”). She lights up when I walk into the room and trusts me absolutely. We go for walks, and we have lunch. Sometimes I just stop in for 15 minutes to check on her. She comforts me when I cry, not understanding at all that I cry for her, for who she was.

Our mom always wanted us to be fulfilled and happy, and whatever our passions were became hers. She championed our efforts and was our biggest fan – always. One year later, I have achieved more balance and found greater purpose. One year later, I spend less time applying sunscreen to others, and more time with my mom. While I am still my mom’s biggest advocate and primary caregiver, it’s not all-consuming. This unexpected time in my life and space in my mind have allowed in more joy and light. If my mom could understand, I can visualize the smile that would break across her face and how her chest would swell in satisfaction. I am doing the best I can with the cards I’ve been dealt, and playing them to the best of my ability. Just like she and her sister taught me. Go! Live!

What if I fall quote

 

The View from a Chicken Bus

This is an exciting day! My essay, The View from a Chicken Bus, was published today in Sky Island Journal, an online magazine!!!

The View from a Chicken Bus

Meg Ounsworth Steere

The chicken bus dives and weaves along the tight switchbacks, sandwiched between lushly green, undulating volcanic cliffs to one side and a vast, deep cavern open to the expansive lake below on the other. The retired yellow school bus migrated from the United States to rural Guatemala. Here it was given new life and transformed with wild paint, flashing lights, and blaring music into a chicken bus, a form of public transit.

Outside the dirty bus window, an overwhelming cacophony for the senses unfolds – the scenic natural beauty; the chaotic, crowded, narrow road; scents of cooking, burning wood, exhaust; sounds of honking, birds chirping, dogs yapping. Overloaded motorbikes swerve in and out of traffic carrying 2, 3, 4 people. Small 1990s pickup trucks, their beds full of standing riders, scream downhill inches away.

In the smallest openings on the roadside, tourists stop for pictures of waterfalls or the lake and volcanoes. Opportunistic market stands pop-up, their purveyors – women in their village’s colorful and ornately woven dress – mixing, patting, and baking tortillas, frijoles warming and ready to sell.

The bus is crowded, the air stale and warm. It winds its way up from the rural, lakeside villages to the hillsides around Sololá. Passengers, mainly rural Mayans, call to the driver for stops along the way. The men wear tattered jeans; t-shirts or lightweight button downs; a cowboy or baseball hat; work boots. The women are dressed in traditional Mayan clothing – a short-sleeved cotton blouse with brightly colored geometric designs; a thick belt; a calf-length skirt embellished with a colorful, embroidered band; simple pumps, flats, or sandals.

One passenger stands out from the rest as she calls to the driver to stop near the entrance to a large, modern school. The driver and other passengers look on, mystified about this place and this teenage girl, both standing out uniquely in the Sololá landscape: unusual, unfamiliar, a vision for what could be, but also a strange curiosity and maybe something to fear.

The girl walks the uneven, rocky dirt path along the road toward the school gates, clearly uncomfortable that the eyes of every passenger, neighbor, and bystander are boring into her back, their questions, doubts, and hopes piling up on her small shoulders. She sidesteps sewer water trickling down the road, brushes the dust off her shoes, and turns onto the paved drive to the school entrance.

In rural Guatemala, it is rare for anyone to complete more than sixth grade. Most families are generationally poor, stagnated and mired in a life of day-to-day survival by the impacts of racism, gender inequality, insufficient education or health care, and limited economic opportunities beyond what they already know – farming. The harvests have become less reliable with unpredictable and more volatile weather. Being Mayan comes with traditions and cultural norms, and also a history of marginalization and subjugation. During the 36-year civil war that ended in 1996, 93% of those killed were indigenous. About 50% of the general population, but 79% of the indigenous population, lives below the poverty line.

In rural Guatemala, the standard architecture features single- or two-story buildings, with concrete siding. The rusted and battered tin roofs are supported by gnarled, roughly hewn wood beams. The colorful exterior paint, if not the concrete itself, is chipped and worn. Buildings are stacked up the hillsides, one on top of the other, seemingly supporting each other as they claw into the mountainside, grasping to hold on. Roads vary from dirt paths cut into the hillsides to cobblestones or pocked asphalt.

Each year survival here becomes more difficult. Out of sheer desperation and hopelessness, some attempt to migrate north, leaving Guatemala and their history and families. For many, the prospect of leaving all that is familiar, walking all those miles towards an antagonistic and uncertain future, doesn’t seem like a much better option than staying and trying to carry on. Something fundamental must change for survival to be tenable here.

Enter this school and this unique girl. The sign on the school’s brick wall proclaims “MAIA, mujer empoderada…un impacto infinito” (empowered woman…infinite impact). Empowered, indigenous, poor, rural Guatemalan girls. I can’t help but stare and wonder. Historically girls here have been taught to be quiet; that making eye contact is disrespectful; that they don’t need an education. On average, women in Guatemala, especially Mayan women, only complete 3.5 years of school. Narrow options and limited health information result in Guatemala’s top ranking for the highest fertility rate and youngest population in all of Latin America.

How valuable is this young girl, full of talent, courage, and a desire to succeed? How powerful is the concept that by providing educational opportunity and modern learning tools, alongside mentorship and support for the students and their families, real, systemic change could trickle down and spread roots generationally? How courageous must these girls and their families be?

Every day these families make a conscious choice not to shrink back. Every day they bravely face the ingrained, negative messages that say that girls don’t matter; that they are silly and stupid, unworthy and worthless. These girls must sense their differentness, an isolating notion that can seep in and slowly ebb away at their drive and their souls if they let it. Their path is long and challenging. It takes the power of a sprinter and the endurance of a marathoner. They face the academic and emotional challenges of any middle or high schooler, but also the burden of being the first to break the status quo, push the boundaries of cultural norms, and change the narrative for themselves, their families, and their country.

The dense clouds overhead release suddenly, the splattering rain interrupting my reverie and fogging the view. The bus driver pulls the door handle, hinges squeaking, and the bus roars into gear. Through the rain-streaked window I see the girl cover her head and rush to catch up with her classmates. Together they pass through the school gates, a small but determined caravan of hope.

Click here to see the full issue: https://www.skyislandjournal.com/issues#/issue-9-summer2019/

 

 

 

 

Setting Goals and Facing Failure

First of all, please excuse my absence on the blogosphere recently. I have been writing and writing and writing, but I can’t put anything I’ve been working on here because I have submitted it all to various journals and newspapers to try to get it published!!! As a result, much of my allotted writing time has been dedicated to that pursuit. Happily, I just received word this week that a creative nonfiction essay I wrote will be published June 15 in Sky Island Journal! Woohoo!

And, with that, let me write about some of the highlights of what has been in my mind – setting goals, and also failure, rejection, making mistakes, and trying anyway.

For some reason, I have a terrible time setting goals. I know the SMART goal recommendations – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-sensitive. I love the list, but I still can’t come up with a goal.

I took a little online blog branding course several months ago after I started this blog. I was trying to figure out if there was some sort of methodology I should be following so you, dear readers, don’t wonder where on earth my head is every single time you read one of my blog posts. In other words, is there some sort of path or a strategy to building a blog that I have as yet not followed? (Answer: yes; but, see, it requires setting goals and focusing…so please proceed to the next paragraph…).

One of the first exercises was to come up with 3 goals. Oh cripe. My crossfit coach is always encouraging us to come up with goals, too. I have dodged that bullet for two straight years now. Both cases have got me thinking about how really and truly awful I am at setting goals and why that might be. I am 100% not awful at all at achieving things, I am just terrible at setting goals and answering questions like “what would success look like?” I don’t like to be hemmed in. In fact, probably if I set some goals I’d achieve them before I even wrote them down. Start a blog. See? That could have been a goal. But I did it already. Figure out how to pitch for publication. Done. I am a do-er. But I am also a planner, so I am slightly mystified about why this task both eludes me and causes me so much agita.

In the end, I’ve decided that my problem isn’t so much the task itself as the destination. I understand full well that if I knew where I was going and took actual concrete steps (i.e.: goals) to get there I might actually get there (or get there faster). I do get places, it just tends to be a more circuitous, scenic route. I’ll be the first to say that there’s a lot to be learned by not going from point A to point B. But if I am being completely honest, there’s also the reality (which I know is real thanks to decades of journaling because I would never remember this) that I re-learn truths I discovered already over and over again. My cousin wrote this great book called Things I Want to Remember Not to Forget (by Chris Waddell). I so thoroughly relate to that title. Is this life (asking for a friend)?

Anyhoo…I suspect my brain block about goals has at least a little to do with the unpleasantness of failure and rejection. If I set a goal and don’t achieve it, well that’s no good. Who wants that? If I set a goal and fixate on achieving it, that wouldn’t be great either, to be fair. Pitching to journals, even blogging, sets me up to be rejected and to push that old fear-mongering anxiety button that says I am not enough – not good enough, not smart enough, not worthy enough, a failure. Jeez. Tough crowd. But here’s the beauty of getting older – I get now that I am the one telling myself all these horrible untruths. Sure, I was helped along with material by the horror of being a rule-following, nerdy kid in middle school (fact: kids at that age are mean). But, ultimately, it’s down to me to face those negative storylines, check the narrative (“the feelings are real, but is the story they are telling true?”), and strive to make great mistakes. Then try again. This is what my husband and I teach our children. My goal is to be a good example. And, FINE, @crossfitlaunchpad, I’ll get my first strict pull-up, too.

Mountain proverb

 

The Unsung Solution to Climate Change

The top solution for reducing climate change probably isn’t what you think. I am an avid outdoorsperson and have been a proponent of sustainable development and living lightly on the land for decades. But I missed one big factor in considering our environmental impact entirely until relatively recently. During all my years thinking about environmental issues and solutions, I thought very directly and narrowly about the more obvious aspects of the environment from pollution to deforestation.

I have had an epiphany in my thinking about environmental priorities lately, as well as long-term solutions. Project Drawdown, founded by author, entrepreneur, and environmentalist Paul Hawken in 2014, maps, measures, and models the most substantive solutions to stop global warming, and communicates those findings to the world. Project Drawdown researchers published a list of their top solutions to climate change. It’s not recycling more and it’s not riding your bike everywhere or giving up your car – though doing more recycling and less driving aren’t bad ideas either.

What is it? It’s educating girls. If you look at their list of solutions, you will see Educating Girls listed as number 6 and Family Planning listed as number 7. If you combine the total atmospheric CO2-EQ reduction (GT) of these two solutions, which has been arbitrarily split in half by the list-makers, it climbs to the top of the list.

By chance, at the same time this solutions list came across my plate, I had just read The Education Crisis: Being in School is Not the Same as Learning. To quote the article, “Global experience shows us that countries that have rapidly accelerated development and prosperity all share the common characteristic of taking education seriously and investing appropriately.”

This data amplifies the power and importance of what I witnessed at the MAIA Impact School in Sololá, Guatemala. MAIA is an incubator of best practices in education from all over the world. The approach is community-based and culturally appropriate. And they are completely open source, sharing their knowledge and experience with 30 local organizations per year.

I am a little late to the party in figuring this out, but it is abundantly clear that education is the fundamental tool to unlocking the chains of systemic poverty and catalyzing positive, long-term change in communities across the world. Incredibly, by investing in something that is intrinsically good, we simultaneously reduce our impact on the environment. For $250 per month (or about $8 per day), a Guatemalan girl can attend the Impact School, becoming a stronger, more empowered and more self-sufficient individual, while leading the way towards a stable and sustainable future for both her country and our world. That is a transformative, life-altering and life-affirming impact. That is the kind of investment that makes the world a substantially better place – for everyone.

“The schools of the future are being built today. These are schools where all teachers have the right competencies and motivation, where technology empowers them to deliver quality learning, and where all students learn fundamental skills, including socio-emotional, and digital skills. These schools are safe and affordable to everyone and are places where children and young people learn with joy, rigor, and purpose.” – World Bank

#maiaimpact #educationmatters #investinpeople

 

Can Your Skin Cream Transform Your Mind?

“Our teachers weren’t kidding when they said we’d take lots of walks and that people in the villages are very content to do nothing. No plans, nothing. I thought I’d handle that well because I, too, like to do nothing. But I only really do nothing for brief interludes during the day, in between finding something else to do. When I sit and knit, read, write letters, make necklaces, etc., I consider that pretty much doing nothing. Here they just sit. It’s not an easy lifestyle to adjust to.” – me, March 2, 1996

I had to laugh when I read this journal entry from my village homestay in Madagascar. In the U.S. we live in a culture that is so go-go-go that I didn’t even recognize that my doing nothing was still doing something. That was true 20 years ago, and it remains true today. I just happen to be more aware of it now. Doing nothing and remembering to breathe are literally things I need to practice. Five minutes sitting still without my mind wandering to a hundred different items on my to-do list is impossible. Truly. Try it and you’ll see it’s not just me! “Monkey mind” is the Buddhist term for the incessant chatter and sense of unsettledness in one’s mind. It looks like this:

Monkey Mind image
This is what a monkey mind looks like; illustration by Lilian Leahy

That phrase evokes images that just crack me up, quite like this Lilian Leahy illustration. The ring-tailed lemurs shown in the following photos that I took in Madagascar also crack me up. They are very Zen. This is NOT what having a “monkey mind” looks like.

When I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis, and finally accepted it (that’s another story altogether), I considered all options for how to live my healthiest life given the cards I had been dealt. Besides doing all the regular stuff my doctor asks – take all the prescribed medications, see her every three months, have bloodwork done at the lab regularly, get exercise – I wondered if there was anything else that would help. I had two very little kids when I was diagnosed. And I love leading a busy and active life. I want to be as healthy as possible and have left no stone unturned in my quest.

Having RA has taught me many, many philosophical but also practical things about life. My diagnosis and subsequent eventual acceptance was like a massive 2×4 smacked across the head saying, “ummm, hellooooo, for real, you need to pay attention.” It has taught me about cherishing the little things in life, and not taking any day or any thing for granted. It’s like a constant anatomy lesson – yes! that pain I was wishing could be solved by a root canal is in fact a jaw joint (too bad for me). It has taught me about control, and that it turns out I am not in it. And, it has taught me about how stress and my monkey mind can be implicated in RA flares and general feelings of being overwhelmed.

After a bit of research and a lot of finagling of schedules, five years ago I enrolled in an 8-week course at the Benson Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine (BHI) at Massachusetts General Hospital. This course introduced me to the term “monkey mind,” not to mention to the fact that I have an extremely active monkey. You may have already figured that out from the sheer breadth of subjects I write about. I am not exactly focused on one thing, rarely one thing at a time, and I am passionate about many!

For the record, I am not one to buy into the concepts of meditation and relaxation easily. The term self-care makes me cringe, as do the words snuggle and cuddle (but that’s an aside). Bluck. All that touchy-feely stuff gives me the shivers. So you could say that I entered BHI skeptical at best. But I figured since I had devoted my time to this, I might as well go all in and have an open mind (pun intended).

Did my life change overnight and was my RA banished for good? No. It takes a long time to learn new habits, and the brain tends to tack back to its well-trod neural pathways. It takes effort and practice to become aware of the mind’s motivation. For me, sitting still and doing nothing were bad words. My inclination is still more towards whirling dervish than calm Buddha.

But I learned an incredible amount about how important the act of doing nothing and sitting still is for the brain. It’s a biological reality that is now backed up with MRI studies and scientific data. The scientifically validated benefits of mindfulness include: decreased stress; reduced symptoms associated with depression, anxiety disorders, pain and insomnia; an enhanced ability to pay attention; and a higher quality of life. Don’t believe me? Check out Harvard researcher Sara Lazar’s TEDx talk on the effect of meditation on the brain.

Or Dan Harris, the ABC anchor who had a panic attack on live television that led him to meditation and eventually to writing the book 10% Happier.

Personally, my most notable takeaway from the course happened on the first night. The instructor flashed a powerpoint slide that read, “If you can’t make room for exercise now, you’ll have to make room for illness later.”

I was already making room, lots of room, for illness. But I wasn’t prioritizing myself. AT ALL. This one quote completely changed the way I viewed my calendar and what was and was not negotiable on it. I began swimming and made it a permanent item on my calendar. I trained myself to take a deep breath every time I come to a stop sign or stoplight. I downloaded a million mindfulness apps (still working on pausing long enough to actually use them).

My message to you is this – skin creams may help with wrinkles and dry skin, but meditation enhances a wrinkled mind. 

Breathe. Deeply. And often. It helps.

Serenity Prayer

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Reinhold Neibuhr