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

 

 

 

 

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

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…

View this post on Instagram

🎼 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

A post shared by Agencia EFE (@efe_noticias) on

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

 

 

IN COMING – first stop, Maui!

Feel the warm sun on your face, a gentle, tropical breeze fanning your cheeks, playing with loose tendrils of your hair. Hear the ocean waves crashing against the shore, the tropical birds singing their exuberant songs. See the palm tree leaves slowly dancing in the breeze. Welcome to the Rainbow state. Life goes on in the natural world, unfazed. Take a big deep breath. Smell the salt air. Ahhh. AND – bonus -no jetlag! 

We find ourselves today at the Merwin Conservancy, a palm forest in Haiku, Maui. The forest is the embodiment of hope in the face if futility and death. In the late 1970’s, William S. Merwin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning U.S. Poet Laureate, came across a parcel of agricultural wasteland in the small valley of Pe‘ahi Stream. The soil here was decimated and eroded by a failed pineapple plantation. Merwin and his wife, Paula, set about a nearly 40-year journey to give back to the land, cultivating seedling-by-seedling and tree-by-tree a lush botanical garden, transforming a once-barren space into one of the largest and most extensive private collections of palm trees in the entire world (adapted from the Merwin Conservancy website).

The Conservancy’s Executive Director, Sonnet Coggins, wrote last week that “We are in the garden this morning, finding and keeping stillness as turmoil swirls around the globe. I am coming to understand our current moment of uncertainty and isolation as an invitation. We are lifted out of our daily routines, maybe our ruts, and invited into a place where imaginations awaken. It brings me to a deeper understanding of the way William lived his life—always fully awake to the world around him, honoring its possibilities through daily actions and practices.

Today we will read, walk, and remember William and Paula among the palms, and will imagine that many of you are doing the same, in places that are dear to you.”

In order to fully immerse yourself in this place, watch the one-minute video of Merwin reading his poem Rain Light in his Maui garden. “my mother said I am going now, when you are alone you will be alright…even though the whole world is burning” 

You will be alright.

Find your stillness. Dive into simplicity and quiet. Read and walk among the natural spaces in your area, and really notice what’s going on around you. Make space for yourself, for all of your feelings, and honor them. Turn this moment over, slowly, in your mind. Consider it fully from all sides, and see what it may have to teach. It is through silence, reflection, and adversity that we learn the greatest lessons. It is our time to rise up; it is our time to stay home. This is where we must be and what we must do for now.

Be strong, be resourceful, be wise, be resilient. You will be alright.

A Clean Sweep – and a Win for the Power of Hope, Resiliency, and Perseverance

Dear Readers,

Let me start by saying thank you for reading! I am so grateful for your interest and your time. I certainly have days, sometimes full strings of days, where I can’t read beyond the news headlines let alone a deep dive into a blog post. So, thank you for setting aside time to read on! As I have mentioned before, I also have days in which I wonder what’s the point, does it really matter, is anybody out there? But then I hear from readers who tell me that what I wrote changed how they felt and, well, that is the very definition of making a difference.

Imagine: if in our daily lives we are confronted with feelings of “what’s the point?”, “it’s bigger than me,” “I couldn’t possibly make a difference,” what must it be like as an indigenous girl in rural Guatemala, where from any early age you are taught that you have no worth and where everything you experience tells you that you are an afterthought? Worse, as you get older, the tide pushes ever harder against you because of cultural norms and systemic racism, poverty, limited and inadequate educational options, no professional network, the wrong last name. How many times must these women feel hopeless and powerless in the face of forces much bigger than them?

But then someone with a bold and completely audacious vision steps in and begins to construct the building blocks to change all that by educating one girl, one family at a time. And guess what? OH MY GOSH, it is working! MAIA set out ten years ago with a mission to unlock and maximize the potential of young women to lead transformational change. And the MAIA Girl Pioneers are doing it!

The most recent proof of that? On Wednesday night three Girl Pioneers competed in the final round of a national competition called Ella Impacta (She Impacts). The contest, sponsored by the international organization Vital Voices, focused on giving young women a stage to share their social impact visions. Contestants came from across Guatemala, including the elite private schools and universities. Over the past few months, the contestants received mentorship and training on how to design and present projects. On Wednesday night they each made their final “pitch” to a panel of judges.

MAIA Girl Pioneers won 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place! 

MAIA Contest Winners and XocoMAIA
MAIA Contestants with their Mentor and XocoMAIA (Guatemala City) Supporters

Remember, in Guatemala, the average Maya teenage girl obtains only 3.5 years of education. Only 10 percent of indigenous girls in rural Guatemala are enrolled in secondary school, and fewer than one percent continue on to university. Add to those disturbing statistics that even when families do invest in the promise of education, the substandard quality of Guatemalan schools fails them. According to the Guatemalan Ministry of Education only 10 percent of high school graduates meet international standards of literacy, and only 9 percent reach the standards of math comprehension.

Given all of those statistics, it’s incredible that these girls are even at the table. But a clean sweep of the competition?!?!? These pioneers are no longer in the shadows. They are striving forward, proving out a model for change. The formula: bold, audacious, committed action towards a vision; building robust partnerships within the community and beyond, from mentors to the XocoMAIA supporters in Guatemala City to Guatemalan and U.S. donors; living a growth mindset, perseverance and resiliency daily. You want an example of grit? MAIA and the Girl Pioneers live it every single day.

So, what were the projects that these pioneering young women put forth?

The first place winner, a 10th grader named Claudia Marisol, designed a project called Huertos Familiares (Family Orchards) to address malnutrition in her village by growing diverse fruits and vegetables locally. This project builds on her experience with the MAIA garden plot that was jumpstarted by the school’s 2019 Zayed Sustainability Prize award. Claudia received $1,000 as seed money to launch her initiative and will travel to New York City for the next stage of the competition.

The second place winner, Norma Alicia, pitched a pre-school called Paso A Paso (Step By Step) for her community to give kids a running start into elementary school. She won $500 to begin her project.

The third place winner, Rosa Angelica, proposed a social entrepreneurship project to augment the opportunities for female artisanal crafters in her community.

MAIA Students with US Ambassador
(Left to Right:) MAIA Mentor Silvia, MAIA Student Rosa Angelica, U.S. Ambassador Luis Arreaga, MAIA Student Claudia Marisol, and MAIA Student Norma Alicia

What’s the point? This, this right here. The problem is too big? It is big, and there are lots of big problems. You couldn’t possibly make a difference? Start by making a difference one person at a time. A small kindness, a shared story, an honest vulnerability, an unexpected smile to a stranger, a hug and gentle reassurance to an Alzheimer’s patient, even if they won’t remember.

Dive in! Too many too big problems means there is ample opportunity to create meaningful change and make an impact in someone’s life. It’s amazing what people can do with hope, a path, resources, and support. And, if you are very lucky, one day you get the chance to watch them soar. Today is my lucky day. Congratulations to all of the students and staff at MAIA Impact School! Abrazos fuertes a todos!MAIA Logo

 

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

 

Coming into the Light – 10 Life Lessons from a Year of Writing and Living Courageously

A year ago, a friend asked me to create a blog about our trip to Guatemala. I had never set up my own website before or blogged (gosh, I still detest how that word sounds) or publicly written much at all to that point. But she knew that I liked to write, having watched me carry my journal everywhere back in our days together in Madagascar in the 1990s and then again as we traveled around Guatemala. I assumed I could figure it out, and it seemed like a good challenge.

What I discovered is that there is more formatting and behind-the-scenes work needed to get a website set up than I expected. It’s more time-consuming than it is difficult, and I spent ages just trying to think of a website address. I eventually settled on “Put Your Own Oxygen Mask on First” thanks to a sticky note that sits on my desk as a reminder to myself. At a certain point, I just needed to get writing. So I plugged it in, and after confirming that no one had claimed it yet, I went with it. I know it’s probably too long, but it was time to unstick myself from the nitty-gritty details and get down to writing. As time passes, I adjust and tweak the site’s format and layout. As with so much in life, greater clarity comes with time. You can perfect – or improve it – later. The most important part is to just get started.

First draft yoda

And start I did. I published my first post on November 15, 2018. Looking back at the past year, I am astonished for many reasons, but especially with how this writing endeavor has blossomed and grown. In the past year I wrote 50 blog posts. FIFTY. That’s a lot of 5am wake up calls. The lesson here is that writing is most effectively accomplished with focused, uninterrupted time, and for many writers that’s early in the morning. The other lesson is that I can pretty much turn any pursuit, even if it starts as a passion project, into work. The good news is that I noticed it happening and backed off a bit. That’s the gift of being in your 40’s – perspective and life experience!

Throughout this year I have had days – okay, weeks – where I have become discouraged and self-conscious. My strong and judgmental inner-voice has ruled my thoughts saying, “Who really wants to read this stuff?” and “Isn’t this a little self-indulgent?” I hear a Sarah Palin-esque derogatory and snarkily delivered, “How’s that hopey changey stuff working out?” in my mind and wonder, “What’s the point? Does all this – any of this – really matter?” I am but a drop in an ocean of snark and negativity, and does anyone really care about what I have to say anyway?

Anais Nin quote

But I carried on, because I like writing and how it helps me sort through my thoughts and experiences. About halfway through the year I began to pitch essay ideas to journals and newspapers, partially out of curiosity and partially, to be honest, to see if the pros though my writing was any good. And I was delighted that a couple pieces were chosen to be published! My essay The View from a Chicken Bus, about an indigenous girl’s journey to school in Guatemala, was published by Sky Island Journal in their Issue 9 in June. It has since been nominated for Sundress Publications’ “Best of the Net” and the Pushcart Prize. My essay on being a sandwich generationer and a child of Alzheimer’s was published by the Washington Post in August and then picked up by the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun, and eventually by Maria Shriver who published it in her Sunday Paper on November 3, 2019.

What a thrill and unexpected gift it has been to watch my words travel around the world! Talk about validation! The feedback I have received from readers has been astonishing, compelling, heartening, and uplifting. I am amazed that my words can bring others to tears, or lift their spirits, or provide a new perspective to set the tone for their day or week. Other caregivers who have walked the long, lonely, difficult road of caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s reached out to me from all over the country to express their sorrow at my loss, but also to share with me their journeys and their pain.

The fact that my experience resonated with so many other people, that my words touched people’s hearts and inspired them to open up to me, highlights how important connection is, how critical it is to break down the feelings of loneliness and isolation – be it from our circumstances or our modern culture – that can overwhelm us. A friend shared, as she observed my writing journey: “I had never really considered how sharing an experience, beyond an in-the-moment conversation perhaps, could help others.” But it does. I think, in some way, I have always felt that innately, but evidence is mounting about how much it matters (and is missing). According to the results of a recent scientific analysis, loneliness is becoming a worldwide epidemic, and not just for caregivers. Fostering connection with other people, providing a means to have hope, it turns out, are critical remedies to a burgeoning public health issue.

Hope is what drives all of us forward. When all else is lost, what propels us forward besides our hope and our connection to other humans and those we love? So, then, why not be guided by hope? Why not seek connection with others (and, when I say connection, I mean authentic, genuine connection, not Instagram likes or FB “friends”). The alternative is so bleak. Everyone struggles. Everyone seeks a purpose and for their lives to have meaning. Having hope is not an absence of difficulty, or an avoidance of reality. It’s the light at the end of a tunnel of darkness; it’s the anchor that keeps you moored in stormy seas; it’s an intangible but absolutely critical feeling that is sometimes found in the unlikeliest of circumstances and where you least expect it. It matters immensely. This coming year I will redouble my efforts to share stories that give hope, especially where and when we least expect it.

Walt Disney storyteller quote

This year has been an exercise in writing, personal growth, and reflection. There is plenty of room to continue to grow in all of those areas. As author Rob Buyea has said, “The largest room in the world is room for improvement.” Isn’t that the truth? I will forever battle the internal judgement that says that no one wants to hear what I have to say, or that I have to prove myself, or that I am only as good as my last published article. I continue to find room to breathe into the self-doubt, to practice empathy and self-compassion. I live and write with integrity and intention. Or I try to. And I am blessed by this purpose-filled life that has grown out of the sometimes tumultuous and quagmired quest for who I wanted to be when I grow up. As I look back, here are the lessons I have learned through this year of writing (plus a couple of years of living):

  1. Don’t let the details be your undoing; as with writing, the first draft usually stinks but it has to be written to get to the next draft; so it is with life – get started and keep going;
  2. My biggest critic is myself – and I suspect I am not alone in that (why else would the imposter syndrome be a thing?). Check the narrative. The feelings are real, but is the story they are telling you true? Monkey mind is how Buddhists describe it. I guess I’ve always been a storyteller of sorts ;-).
  3. Be open to new perspectives about who you are and what you can do. As I began to think of myself as a “writer,” it opened my eyes to new opportunities and to connecting with people in a new way. I have made new friends this year that I would never have known or had occasion to overlap with a year ago;
  4. Curious gets you a lot further than furious when it comes to connecting with and understanding other people;
  5. If you’re at all like me, learn to check yourself when what started as a fun pursuit becomes a deadline-driven project; remind yourself who is in charge – or should be – you or your to-do list?;
  6. Being vulnerable is uncomfortable; it is also real, human, and relatable;
  7. Conformity is boring. Be uniquely you. Always;
  8. Sharing our stories is how we relate to and connect with one another;
  9. Storytelling is an art, and it’s an important part of helping humans understand their purpose and their past;
  10. Thank you for reading!
  11. BONUS – I like lists (and post-it notes).

First draft Anne Lamott

“My deepest fear is not that I am inadequate. My deepest fear is that I am powerful beyond measure.

It is my light, not my darkness, that most frightens me.

I ask myself, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who am I not to be?

I am a child of God.

My playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so other people won’t feel insecure around me.

I am born to manifest God’s glory within me. It’s not just in some of us: it’s in everyone. And, as I let my own light shine, I unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As I am liberated from my own fear my presence automatically liberates other.”

-Marianne Williamson

 

What are We Without Our Memories?

My mom forgot my birthday for the first time six years ago. As an almost-forty-something, I didn’t need a big birthday party or lots of attention or anything like that. But it is a stunning milestone for a mother to forget the day that she brought her baby into the world. And for said baby, it was incredibly painful the first time it happened. There are some things that seem like they would be impossible to forget.

Especially for my mom, a woman who embraced motherhood fully and in every way. Raising my brothers and I was the best job she could dream of. That’s not just me putting on rose-colored glasses and saying so – she told me that. When I say our mom was our biggest fan, I am not exaggerating. She showed up in so many ways. She was on the sidelines for all of our games, only missing them if there was a conflict with another sibling’s schedule. She attended every ballet recital (a bouquet of flowers in hand), swim meet (day-long affairs in over-hot, heavily-chlorinated air to see your kid swim for 30 seconds), soccer game (sometimes taking up entire weekends for months on end, game after game), hours and hours of shuttling us to music lessons, baseball practice, soccer, tennis – you name it, we played it. Even in the early stages of Alzheimer’s she was there on the sidelines for Kindergarten soccer and witnessed her grandson’s first goal ever. It was 28 degrees, the field was covered in frost, her memory was failing, she was frightened about the future, her world was shrinking – and there she was. She showed up time and again – for us, for everyone in her family, and for her friends.

Don’t get me wrong, we were far from perfect and I am pretty sure she had her moments when she wanted to run out of the house screaming to escape from us and the insanity we were causing her. In fact, she actually did so on at least one occasion, prompting our next-door neighbor, who had been out gardening, to come over and put his arm around her to comfort her. It kind of became neighborhood lore. So I know she thought we were royal pains in the ass sometimes – and we were – and surely she was overwhelmed keeping track of us and our schedules and our issues and, of course, the never-ending laundry. I imagine she had her moments of cursing us quietly under her breath, or venting to her friends or sisters on the phone. I am certain there were lots of things that got missed. My mom was chronically last minute in her approach to life. Her desk was a jumble of papers, binders, and – to my mind – complete and utter chaos. It looked like she didn’t sweat the small stuff, but I think the truth is that she was the world’s biggest procrastinator. You could count on her, but she’d make you sweat it out, tumbling through the door with the cake or hors d’oeuvres or whatever she had promised to bring just seconds before the start of a big event.

For my birthday, she would hang streamers in the dining room and bake a cake from scratch. She took cake-decorating classes to improve her skills, and – as cliche as it is to say it – she baked love into every morsel of every item she made. She planned epic treasure hunts in the woods for my friends and I – two-hour hikes with elaborate clues and “treasure” hidden along the way that ended at a river where we would feed the ducks with stale bread she had been collecting and freezing for months. It only occurs to me to wonder in hindsight how she got the clues placed and the treasure hidden all while baking and decorating the cake, organizing the party, and keeping up with my brothers and I. While those more elaborate birthday celebrations faded away as I got older, if I was home my mom would always bake her famous chocolate chip vanilla cake with cream cheese frosting (recipe below). If I was away, she sent a card and called. She was never extravagant, more of a simple but elegant woman. But she always acknowledged what a special day my arrival was for both of my parents and how much I meant to them. Like I said, this is the stuff that you would think you could never forget.

But forget she did, first six years ago and increasingly each year since as time for her becomes more and more of a loose construct and words and their meaning elude her. This year I baked her famous cake for my daughter’s birthday and brought her a slice to see if the taste brought back any recognition of all of these wonderful, deeply held memories. She liked the cake, smiled while she ate it, but otherwise was blank. For my birthday, I brought tea and cookies to her care home to celebrate. Because, really, my birthday is about us, maybe even more about her than it is about me if you think about it! She was happy as usual to see me, springing from her chair with delight, her hands swinging dramatically in the air to wave me over, a huge smile across her face. She loved the idea of a party, but I don’t think she really understood the birthday part. She used to break into song, part of her brain holding onto familiar tunes like Happy Birthday better than other things. But she didn’t sing this time. She just enjoyed her cookie and her tea, and I enjoyed her company. Despite all that I have lost of her, I still have that.

I am left wondering time and again as we face into Alzheimer’s ever more deeply, what is life without a memory? I read Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End and, while inspired, grateful for this new perspective, and appreciative of the recommendations for aging and dying well, I found myself wondering how one can have a meaningful, purpose-filled life and live life to the fullest until the very end if you can’t remember anything. Who are we without our past? It’s one thing to live in the moment, moment to moment. That’s enlightenment. But isn’t life, ultimately, a collection of memories? Isn’t that what we all aim for, to create wonderful memories? So many of my conversations start with, “Remember when?” What happens when you don’t? Without memories, what does it mean to be alive?

I don’t have any good answers. I just wonder. And I wonder what goes on inside my mom’s head, what she is seeing when she points to things that aren’t there, what she is trying to describe when she can’t find the words, what it feels like to entrust yourself and your well-being completely to another person.

Where is the hope in this? I don’t know. But there is definitely connection. There is some deep, biological recognition of one’s own, no matter what else has departed. And I guess there’s hope – or magic of some sort – in that. And there’s always cake.

Bethie O’s Famous Chocolate Chip Vanilla Cake

1 cup yogurt (plain or vanilla)

1 cup oil

2 cups sugar

3 cups flour

2 heaping teaspoons baking powder

3-4 eggs

1 bag mini chocolate chips

2 teaspoons vanilla

Mix. Bake at 350.

Tube cake – at least 1 hour

Flat cake – 30 – 35 minutes

Cupcakes – 20 – 25 minutes

Cream Cheese Frosting

1 teaspoon vanilla

3 ounces cream cheese

Confectioners sugar

Dab of milk

Mix to taste and consistency. And enjoy!

Just because you carry it well

 

Anaya Tipnis and Access to the American Dream

Independence and self-reliance are two of the most prized American values. We are raised in a culture where individualism is paramount. From an early age we are told stories about how anything is possible if you work hard enough. We are brought up on images of settlers coming to this country seeking freedom from the hierarchy of European society, and then of pioneers bravely striking out for new territories in the west in search of the American Dream.

One is left with the impression that success, then as now, is all bootstraps and determination, and that opportunity is equitably available to all. Facebook and Instagram reflect only the polished finished product. Magazine and newspaper articles tell tales of overnight success stories that seemingly truly happen overnight. In reality, overnight success is often many years in the making. What “got you there” doesn’t make for pretty pictures. The seemingly easy wins, the quick pivot and big idea that gains traction, the rags to riches are built on a lifetime of relationship and skill building.

Working hard matters. But, when you dig deeper into success stories, there is also usually someone in the wings – a mentor, a teacher, a parent, someone or an accumulation of someones – providing guidance and support along the way. The notion of instant success in a complete vacuum is folklore. Is there opportunity to be found by people of all stripes and backgrounds in the U.S.? Absolutely. Do some have advantages over others in the pursuit of these opportunities? 100%.

I’ve been reflecting recently on the enduring impact and importance of a good education. Education creates a solid foundation, a springboard that expands one’s options and from which to make choices in the future. There is incredible privilege that comes with that, from literacy and critical thinking skills that enhance one’s basic ability to function in the world, to the confidence to handle new situations, to a broad professional network and understanding of professional norms. As a child, my siblings and I were given the space, the support, and our parents’ disciplined example when it came to pursuing our studies with vigor and without distraction. Going to college wasn’t a question; it was a priority. I wasn’t aware at the time of the enormous and enduring gift I was being given. Only now do I realize more fully how the core fundamentals of my education – literacy and grammar, critical thinking and data analysis, clean writing, and a challenging of one’s preconceptions – inform who I am and what I am capable of today.

In this context, I think about the MAIA Impact School in Guatemala and how education is poised to change the trajectory of the girl pioneers’ lives. Notably, part of the curriculum at the Impact School includes mentorship. Mentorship bridges the gap between the students’ family and cultural history and a new future of expanded possibility. Working hard and the means to afford an education are obviously critical pieces. But so is having a support system in place to help navigate unfamiliar terrain.

In the United States, the opportunity to attend school exists more broadly for all. Education through high school is both a right and a requirement, though educational opportunity and outcomes are widely variable and often influenced by geography and wealth. The leap to college for low-income and first-generation college students is vast. In some ways, because of the traditional values we are raised on that espouse hard work, independence, and self-reliance, the gap is even wider because it isn’t acknowledged, as though the unique struggles of first-time college-bound students don’t or shouldn’t exist.

Working hard and financial means are only two components of successful outcomes. To pretend otherwise is to be disingenuous about one’s own experience. For students who are trying to break the mold, to chart a new course, the demands are even more rigorous and the reality more isolating. The notion that working harder will remove all barriers is a myth. The Anaya Tipnis Scholarship Fund recognized that, “a high percentage of [low-income and first-generation] students drop out of college for reasons other than solely financial, from lacking a familial support system to an adverse academic environment. While many organizations help high school students secure college admissions, almost none provide vital mentorship for transitioning to and succeeding in higher education.”  They have made it their mission to help first-time college students by closing both these financial and mentorship gaps. In partnership with Upper Bound, Upper Bound Math and Science, TRIO, and Urban Scholars, the Anaya Tipnis Scholarship Fund offers:

●  Cash awards of $3,000 to each accepted student;

●  One-on-one mentorships tailored to each student’s individual needs;

●  Internship opportunities at local institutions and/or organizations.

The award recipients for 2018/19 and 2019/20 are shown in the following picture. You can read more about their individual stories here!

PHOTO-2019-07-26-21-38-44
Anaya Tipnis Scholarship Awardees

This is hope in action. This fund honors Anaya and her life wish. It bridges the gap to achieving the American Dream for hard-working and driven scholars, attempting to level the playing field by creating more equitable access to, and outcomes in, higher education. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – Community and Connections Count. That concept may not be as prized or acknowledged as some traditional American values, but it is a more genuine and real one. No one truly goes it alone. And no one should have to.

The Scholarship Fund’s Annual event and award ceremony will take place this year on August 20, 2019, in Needham, Massachusetts. If you are interested in attending or contributing, RSVP through their website at: https://anayafoundation.org/index.php/events

Congratulations and good luck, scholars!!!

 

 

 

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