Sometimes Asking is Giving

The other day I was paddle boarding with a friend on a particularly hot and blustery day, stuck on my knees because the wind and chop were so strong that I risked tumbling into the lake if I stood up. After 20 minutes paddling into the wind, I looked up only to realize that I was a few feet further out from shore but still parallel with the dock. So much effort, so little progress, and, honestly, that relentless wind made me feel vulnerable and exposed even though I could have just let it blow me back to shore and call it a day.

As I dug my paddle deeper into the water to renew my effort to gain some forward momentum, it made me think about the extraordinary headwinds indigenous Guatemalan women deal with every day, and what it would be like to be stuck right where you are from the moment you are born, conscripted to a life of poverty, limited agency, and lack of opportunity. Young women in rural Guatemala face quadruple discrimination from the day they arrive on this Earth: they are poor, they are Mayan, they live in a rural area, and they are female. The MAIA Impact School works to change that by connecting the latent talent that exists in rural Guatemala but has been overlooked for generations with opportunity, starting with access to robust education through high school and aiming for university studies and access to formal work opportunities (as opposed to remaining in the informal economy, which is much more common, precarious, and poorly paid).

Each of MAIA’s Girl Pioneers (or GP’s, so called because they are pioneering a completely new path for themselves, their families, and their communities) trajectories has been astonishing. Though the wind remains incessant, there’s a flotilla of support, guidance, and information available to each of them about how to improve one’s technique, navigate challenges, find balance, and move forward.

In MAIA’s first class of high school graduates, a GP won a 4-year scholarship to college in the United States through She Can, an organization that builds female leadership in post-conflict countries. There are still so many hurdles for her to leap over and hoops to jump through before this opportunity becomes a reality, including the SATs, the bane of most high schoolers’ existences. Imagine being the first person in your family to go to high school, let alone college, and trying to take the SAT not in your first language, nor your second language, but your third language. More headwinds.

Because the US college process is so unique and challenging, with the SATs in one’s third language adding an extra twist, MAIA’s US Executive Director asked the Board if anyone knew someone who provides one-on-one SAT tutoring. I texted my neighbor, who is a college counselor, and he recommended Summit Educational Group. I googled them and cold called them, stumbling over my words as I tried to explain what MAIA is and does succinctly and clearly, who the GPs are, what the need was, all the while dreading the eventual question of cost. I asked not knowing what to expect and feeling like I was asking a lot. I was glad to be on the phone when I said the words “pro bono” because my face burned bright red and my armpits got sweaty. The gall of calling a complete stranger and asking for a favor – and then asking for it for free! Completely brazen.

But then, incredibly, they said YES. Yes, we will offer 22 hours of our time free of charge to provide the tools and resources this extraordinary young woman needs to continue along her path. That yes made my heart sing, astonished that this might actually happen and truly touched to experience the goodness, kindness, and generosity of other humans.

Several weeks ago, two MAIA staff visited the US for a conference. While they were here, we thought it would be good to meet and thank the Summit Education team in person. At our meeting we were able to give them a little more context about MAIA, rural Guatemala, and the GPs. It was the appropriate, polite thing to do in thanks to an organization that gave so selflessly on our student’s behalf.

But the part that struck and surprised me most that has stuck with me was how powerfully resonant and moving this connection to Guatemala was for them. Though they had no prior connection to MAIA or to Guatemala, while I was busy sweating through my shirt feeling awkward and queasy about my bold ask, they weren’t asking themselves if at all, only how. In fact, the response was more like:

“We don’t often get the chance to help a student like this.”

“This whole experience has been the highlight of my time here at Summit.”

It turns out that my ask was a give. Your read that right. By asking, I gave the gift of meaning, joy, and connection. By connecting, we build bridges and forge deeper understanding, expanding our own world and worldview. The wind may not die down, but if we work together we all make more forward progress.

Asking for help is hard. It’s challenging to separate a need from feeling needy. I find it easier to ask on behalf of someone else, certainly on behalf of a cause that’s bigger than me, but it’s still hard. It strikes me now that while it is so hard to ask for assistance in so many aspects of life, sometimes – often? – the asking creates an opportunity to give that is meaningful to the giver. As Lynne Twist writes in her book The Soul of Money, “this unlocking of a vehicle to change circumstances is a gift.” It’s a remarkable, empowering twist and the ultimate oxygen mask moment.

It’s a Wonderful Thing, A Mother

A print of James McNeil Whistler’s Mother hung on the wall of my childhood home for as long as I can remember. I always found her kind of creepy, to be honest, and the poem by Baroness Von Hutton affixed below it within the frame always felt so dark.

It's a wonderful thing, a mother;
other folks can love you, 
but only your mother understands.
She works for you,
looks after you,
loves you,
forgives you anything you may do,
understands you, and then the
only thing bad she ever does to you
is to die and leave you.

- Baroness Von Hutton

Of course since those days as a little girl staring up at this portrait and trying to understand it (and still trying to understand why it hung in the bathroom of all places), I have become an adult, and a mother, and my mother’s caregiver.

It’s been one helluva year for me and my mom. We have walked the line so many times between life and death. And she just keeps coming back dancing and laughing. Just this week she was hospitalized again. I found myself racing to her side, grateful to be freshly vaccinated but afraid I had missed my chance to be with her while she was still alive after over a year of distanced visits and screens between us. And, you know what? Even though there is only one way for this story to end, even though I have already lost so much of her to Alzheimer’s, the grief that overcomes me at intervals when I face the prospect of losing her remains immense. The words of Baroness Von Hutton resonate more clearly by the day.

My mom (and her sisters) are my guiding lights. I have noticed especially over the past year of isolation and quiet that my most profound and impassioned writing tends to be reflections on my relationship with these women. A Tribute to My Biggest Fan, Nancy Waddell, Practically Perfect in Every Way, Clips

I think about my mom and her two sisters (“Sisters, sisters, there were never more devoted sisters” is the Irving Berlin song that accompanies my memory of the three sisters together, they dancing to the beat and laughing) as I make my way through this world. And I try to channel Nancy and Ellen’s wisdom as I care for my mom.

I have begun to recognize more fully how these women were my champions throughout my entire life; how they showed me by their example what it is to be a strong, courageous, compassionate and caring person; how they showed up over and over again at ballet performances and soccer games, at Thanksgiving dinners and music recitals, at the hospital the day my kids were born. As I wrestle with the phone calls and texts and times together that I miss, though they are gone (or gone in most ways, in my mom’s case), they are always with me. They are a part of me.

I’ve got all of this on my mind, swirling in these emotional crescendos and troughs, when the MAIA Impact School (which, if you don’t remember, is what inspired me to find my voice and share it by starting this blog) announced it’s Nim Mama (“Great Mother” in the Katchiquel language of Guatemala) scholarship. The concept is centered on honoring our mothers and the collective strength, beauty, and transformative power of mothers the world over by investing in the education of an indigenous Guatemalan girl. The images of these pioneering, brave girls with their mothers at their side brought me to bellyaching tears. In these images I could see my mom and my aunts standing beside me, or pushing from behind me, saying, “Go. Be brave. Do great things.”

This campaign renewed the call of these female pillars of my life to channel their strength and rise up to be the courageous, bold, passionate, brave woman they showed me how to be. I am living their values and honoring their legacy by returning the devotion my mom showed to me in my caregiving for her and passing the gift of their strength and love onto my children, both my daughter and my son.

This Mother’s Day, I will ACT for change in their names. I am investing $3,000 in MAIA’s Nim Mama Scholarship Fund, $1,000 each in honor of Ellen, Nancy, and Beth, the fiery, loving, devoted, caring, amazing women who paved the way for me. I can’t think of a better way to honor them than to live their values by working to create a more equitable and just world and launching the next generation of Girl Pioneers to pursue their dreams.

Join me April 29 for the launch event to learn more. Find your voice! Empower another to find hers!

Life is short. We don’t know when our time will come. Make – and be – the change you want to see in the world. Now.

Go out there and get after it!