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

 

 

Time to Put On Our Rally Caps!

I am overwhelmed. I am going to put that straight out in front. This is one helluva time and I think I have experienced every emotion under the sun (or rain) in the past 9 days. Has it been 9 days? Who knows. What day is it? Does it really matter?

Let’s start where we should all be starting, especially these days: with a big deep breath.

BreatheAlways, always start here. Breathe.

Cherish every single deep, easy breath you have. I notice and value those long, slow exhales and rejuvenating inhales now more than ever. Breathing deep and clear is a gift. Enjoy every single one.

Another gift: how much the notion of putting your own oxygen mask on first resonates in this moment. I certainly pray that no one needs an actual oxygen mask anytime soon, but also hope that this metaphorical one will provide sustenance and inspiration during these uncertain times. OlafTune in when you need hope, solidarity, or just something to do! I am no FDR, but hopefully you’ll find reassurance in this modern day fireside chat and Olaf-like warm (virtual) hug.

As I was saying, this last week was something else. I found myself embracing the moment (or trying to) while grieving for the sudden rupture in our lives. One moment I was riding the tide of enthusiasm and I-can-do-this, the next I was crashing headlong into I-am-not-a-circus-performer and I need some serious me-time. I am despondent over the impact on the economy, small businesses and those who are financially insecure or otherwise vulnerable. I have dug myself emotionally into a hole and climbed back out again, struggling at times, on multiple occasions. I have reckoned with my mortality and what we need to do to get our affairs in order – just in case – while attempting to keep my kids content, reassured, and in some semblance of a routine. Did I mention me-time? I don’t understand quite how it happened, but while I go nowhere I simultaneously have less time and way more to do.

What I have learned, once again and in spades, is that I cannot be all things to all people all the time. First and foremost in this current iteration of life, I am not a teacher, and certainly not of math. All hail teachers! I’ve always wondered how they do it, and daily I accept more fully that it’s a calling and it’s not mine. But I totally get this equation, and this is what I really want to talk about:

Anxiety = Uncertainty * Powerlessness

My intrepid and wise friend, Nicole, of Sailor’s Sweet Life, shared that with me and encouraged me to find ways to empower myself to combat that sense of powerlessness.

As I go about my days here, cleaning and cooking and doing obscene amounts of laundry and dishes and teaching and loving and trying to work and wanting to write and also wanting to run away (flee instinct firmly intact), I have been reflecting on that notion of empowerment and what empowers me. And I realized that I feel most empowered when I am engaging with and learning about other people and how they see and experience life. If I have a calling, connecting with people from all over the world and then connecting them to each other is possibly it. I love to discover what makes us similar, how we are different, to hear their stories and learn more about their lives.

In this odd moment in history, we are all connected perhaps more than ever. And we are all existing and navigating this moment in our own ways, with our own perspectives. Never has the broader world been so inaccessible yet so connected. Instead of feeling grounded and trapped, I have decided to embark on an adventure of connection and imagination.

So, fasten your seat belts and put your tray table up because we are going to travel together, virtually, all around the globe. My upcoming blog posts will feature the brilliant, simple, proactive, compassionate, empowering acts of humanity, humility, kindness, beauty, and wonder that I have seen unfolding during this unusual and uncertain time. I’ll try to tie our travels to a good book recommendation related to that destination, as reading is one of life’s simplest and most wonderful of pleasures (IMO!). Please share with me stories from your corner of the world, too!

And, remember, in an emergency oxygen masks will automatically drop down from the overhead compartment. To start the flow of oxygen, take a deep breath and then continue to breathe normally. Although nothing really changes, oxygen is flowing and you will feel so much better. If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask first, and then assist the other person.

And we are off! Next stop: MAUI and the Merwin Conservancy! Pack Moloka’i by Alan Brennert for this journey. Or The Folding Cliffs by The Merwin Conservancy’s W.S. Merwin himself!

Molokai Map

This is our hour to rise up. This is the time to love our neighbors as ourselves (from a safe distance). We need to act, as one – now – to save lives and to avoid totally preventable loss and suffering. Never before has it been possible to do so much for so many with the simple act of staying home. It’s simple, and it’s also so hard. I get that. But it’s completely necessary. Let’s do this. Rally! Rally! Rally #flattenthecurve #stayhome #cometravel(virtually)withme #putyourownoxygenmaskonfirst #whatsparksjoyismysanity #permissiontobehuman

 

 

 

Don’t Freak Out. But Also, Don’t Be Cavalier: A Corona Survival Guide

I AM the vulnerable. You wouldn’t guess it to see me bouncing around on a daily basis in my Energizer Bunny way, but it’s true. I am a healthy, young (ish!), active mom, daughter, wife, sister, friend, employee, and athlete. But I also have an autoimmune disease.

Whenever you are washing your hands extra carefully or extra often, considering whether or not to cancel or attend a big event, wondering if this is all overblown, it’s not just the elderly or some hypothetical distant someone that you are protecting. It’s also people like me, the mom who lives just around the corner, who volunteers at the school, who you see cheering at the sporting events. There are more of us than you might realize, and this is a good time for everyone to understand that. Not because we need your sympathy or pity. But because we need your solidarity. Because the reason I can be an active, healthy mom and athlete is the boat load of immuno-suppressant drugs I take. I am in my 40’s but for over a decade this has been my norm:

RA Meds

You know when they review your medications when you go to the doctor? We run through my lengthy list every time and the conversation nearly always ends with the nurse saying, “Anything else?” and me responding, “Isn’t that enough?” I mean, for real. Don’t even get me started about how many doctors appointments I have in a year or how much I pay annually in co-pays for medication even though I have health insurance. That’s for another time.

For now, I am here to tell you that immuno-compromised people worry every year about the flu and infection in general. And every year I dutifully get my flu shot, as does my family, mainly to protect me. And then we go about our lives like normal. Similarly, when I went to Guatemala last fall, before I left I had to think through carefully with my physicians the potential implications of my immuno-compromised state. I got 4 vaccines and filled 2 prescriptions for antibiotics to bring with me in case I got sick while there. No one else I was traveling with needed anything. But I went (and, incidentally, I loved it!). I live my life knowing I am generally at higher risk than others, aware of the implications of both my disease and my medications, but I choose to keep on stretching and living.

I say all this so you understand my reality. It’s a reality I have mostly accepted. I live a pretty normal life, and I am grateful for that. I have learned to work with the cards I have been dealt.

In light of all that, I have been taking this Coronavirus, I think, pretty well overall. I am aware of what’s happening, but have been measured in my response. I have not been panicking or buying shelves-worth of Purel. I did not completely stop socializing or obsess over every new headline. My heart beats at a fairly normal rate, day in and day out.

But early this week my doctors advised me, for now, not be on a cruise boat, a commercial airline, in a crowd, or to have visitors who have flown recently. They are taking this seriously and, in turn, so should I.

I’ll admit that my blood pressure and heart rate increased rapidly during that doctor’s visit, as the realization of the seriousness of the situation and my vulnerability to it dawned on me more fully. While my vital signs returned to normal shortly after, it took me a while to notice that I have spent the last couple of days feeling like I am already sick. By that, I mean, that I started to think more like an incident commander, to go into prevention and protection mode, to dwell more on the news. I have been lethargic and blue, unfocused and distracted, my head spinning with headlines and what if scenarios fast-tracking through my mind. Basically I forgot to live.

And then I caught myself. I woke up and realized this is going to be a marathon and I cannot exhaust myself in the first couple of miles. It also occured to me that I could be an excellent fiction writer because I am constantly making up narratives that just are not true! It’s called anxiety. And instead of allowing my anxiety to come along for the ride, I let it drive for the last couple of days. I started contacting puppy breeders so I won’t be alone in my isolation, for goodness sake. This is not rational behavior (though it was a lovely divergence). Puppies for everyone!

Don’t you feel better already?

In all seriousness, I suspect – I KNOW – that I am not alone. Anxiety buttons are being pushed the world over. The illusion that we have control in this life has been de-masked. We never did have control, folks, but now we can’t even pretend. So we control what we can: we buy all the Purel on the shelves and we read the news ad nauseum and we perseverate over what to do. But we have no more control over this after all that than we did before. Really. We can prepare, but we also need to make room to sit with this uncertainty and acknowledge it. And, then, deal with the cards we have been dealt. This is how I plan to do that:

  1. Seriously, wash your hands and wash them well (how to video here);
  2. Don’t freak out – it doesn’t move the needle one bit to do so. Take a deep breath, or, better, a couple (try 5 deep breaths every hour). Sit with the discomfort. This is a great time to get really good at accepting that we can’t hide or fix or control everything (or, really, anything). Sometimes the best thing to do is to acknowledge that and sit with it. Meditation is a good way to do that. But so is taking a deep breath and recognizing anxiety for what it is and not letting it drive.
  3. Limit yourself to checking social media and the news only once or twice a day; trust me, if something really important happens in the interim, you will get the deluge of texts and phone calls or see the helicopters overhead that will clue you in that something happened. Otherwise, it’s just an anxiety mob feeding on itself.
  4. This virus is clearly an equal opportunity event – anyone is as likely to get it as anyone else. Don’t be a racist or an asshole or a racist asshole and make negative assumptions about people. This is good advice in general. But, in particular, Chinese food, Corona beer, Chinese people, and immigrants of any stripe have nothing to do with whether or not you are going to get sick. So chill and show some humanity and compassion.
  5. Speaking of racism, take a minute to consider how devastating this virus could be – WILL BE – in places without strong medical facilities and protocols.
  6. Speaking of racism two – there is a massive locust swarm happening across parts of Asia and Africa right now. Thousands (possibly millions) of people WILL die from starvation as a result of this, and ever more will emigrate toward Europe in an attempt to save themselves. Have you read anything at all about it? Because a ton of human beings are dying already and it ain’t from the coronavirus.  Locust Swarms Put Millions at Risk Across Asia and Africa; Hundreds of Billions of Locusts Swarm Across East Africa
  7. There are great lessons we can learn from this – for starters, we are all living creatures, human beings of all colors and types, and we are all a little anxious and concerned about ourselves and our loved ones. Compassion, kindness, and caring for and about something bigger than ourselves are values we should espouse ALL THE TIME, not just in times of crisis; but now is a great time to up the ante.
  8. Words matter and so does your mindset. For example, use the word distancing instead of isolating; I kept saying I was isolated and it made me want to buy a puppy; distancing is less weighty.
  9. All of us are in this together, and many are uncomfortable about the situation. Hold that worry, concern, fear, sadness in the light and honor it.
  10. Maybe try just half a cupcake instead of eating the whole thing when you feel the need for comfort. I’m not going to tell you that I ain’t been panic eating. Sugar is still bad for you, but I am not going to judge.
  11. Consider the greater impacts of your actions – this is a good idea in general, but specifically now. It’s not all about you, nor should it be.
  12. For now. For now is a great phrase. Because difficult things are easier to bear when there is a perceived finiteness to them. For now gives the sense that things are temporary. And, it’s true, we will learn more about COVID-19 and eventually this crisis will be in the past. We need to take it seriously NOW, for now, and we need to show compassion and urgency to get there without too many lost lives along the way.
  13. If you or your kid is sick, own it. Don’t pretend that Motrin or Tylenol masking the symptoms is a reasonable choice for carrying on with your day. Sending sick kids to school or going to work sick isn’t a good idea under normal circumstances. It is a very bad idea right now. I get that work beckons, but, damn, that’s just wrong on so many levels.
  14. Don’t buy a puppy or any other living creature on a whim. Also good advice beyond a pandemic.
  15. Seriously, wash your hands.

Check out my Resources page for more information.

Drink Coffee
This has literally nothing to do with anything but it makes me smile

 

 

 

 

 

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/