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

 

 

 

What Would Light be without Darkness?

Apparently the existential thinking of my French studies sunk in somewhere after all despite the fact that I would desperately wish for the French novels and films of my academic years to come to a conclusion or point of some sort. Mercy!

Several decades later, as I travel in my little world, I notice how the holiday lights proliferate by the day and how the reflecting snow augments their brightness. It’s no mystery that the season of light happens on the longest and darkest of days as we (in the northern hemisphere, anyway!) descend towards winter. As I witness and delight in the decorations springing up around me, and as I set up my own decorations, I can’t help but also think about the darkness.

Darkness usually has such a negative connotation. Certainly at this time of year, darkness comes ever earlier and, as the sun sets, the cold burrows deeper into your bones. Personally, I have trouble leaving the warmth of my home to venture out into the dark. As far as I am concerned, when it’s dark the day is over. That doesn’t work out so well when it is dark at 4:30 in the afternoon. But as I set up my decorations, I find myself anticipating the dark, knowing that the lights are muted, invisible, meaningless without it.

Maybe I’ve spent too much time freezing my toes off in a snowbank recently, but my brain has been firmly veering toward the existential. What would light be if we didn’t have darkness? Not much. It turns out, the darkness I generally dread is the platform for the delight of the glimmering lights all around me. This makes me think further about gratitude and love: Would we even understand our good fortune without suffering? Isn’t grief one of the deepest and most profound expressions of love?

I think about the trials I have faced in my life, about times and places I never want to revisit or repeat, about the people I have loved and lost (or am still losing slowly, every day). I recognize how the challenges transformed me into the person I am today, that the slow loss of my mom to Alzheimer’s forced me to pay attention and to spend extra time with her while we could still talk, that the sudden loss of my aunt drew me closer to my uncle and cousins, that “grief is just love with no place to go.”

Grief is really just love quote

Adversity and challenge can be blessings in disguise. With them comes introspection, awareness, knowledge, compassion, connection, and gratitude. Without them is a life unquestioned, many paths not taken. Adversity led me to work in the woods of northern Maine and to travel to the other side of the world to study in Madagascar. It was the discomfort and emptiness of my questioning, who-am-I-and-where-do-I-fit teenage years that gave me courage, that forced me to stretch myself, that showed me who I really was and helped me define my passions, and that taught me to see with gratitude the blessings that exist every day in my life. Once again, the darkness was the platform for the light.

At this consumeristic time of year, I am even more mindful of my many blessings, especially the basics. Here is my short list of cherished things. We should never take these (and many more) for granted. Trust me.

  1. Shelter – I see the snow on the ground, hear the wind howling outside. I have woken with wet toes when the bottom of my sleeping bag slid out from under the tarp that protected me from the rain; I have slept outside when temperatures have dipped below 20 degrees, every article of clothing I could carry on my body, my sleeping bag hood drawn down to my eyes around my head. But my nose was still so cold I had trouble sleeping. I am so grateful to have a roof over my head and heat to keep to me warm;
  2. Umbrellas – You only have to get soaked in a rainstorm once to understand what a wonderful invention these are. Live in the woods working days on end in the rain and you will never forget the comfort of being warm and dry;
  3. Washing machine – As a mom, laundry is, admittedly, the bane of my existence at times. But, oh my gosh, the machine does it all by itself! And we are fortunate enough to have one in our home. One bout of stomach flu running through the family is all it takes to realize how awful life could truly be. Imagine walking your laundry to the laundromat down the street when you are recovering from the flu. That’s right. We are blessed beyond measure.
  4. Clean water – I fill my water bottle directly from the tap. If you have never experienced anything else, it’s easy to see how having clean water, on demand, anytime you need it wouldn’t register as a luxury. But many countries don’t have treated water and many women spend the better part of their days fetching water from miles away. I knew that the parasites and bacteria in untreated water wreaked havoc on more delicate American and European GI systems (sometimes called Montezuma’s revenge), but only recently did it strike me that those who live in developing countries also get sick from the water. Water they drink every single day. Five months in Madagascar taught me clearly how impossible it is to work, go to school, be healthy and strong – live – with constant tummy troubles.
  5. A quality education – Education is a much less tangible “thing,” but it’s so critical that I have to include it. An education is both a foundation and a launchpad. A quality education is something that should be a right and a guarantee. But it isn’t, not in many developing countries (where many girls are fetching water instead of going to school), but also not equitably in the U.S. An education provides a path toward financial security, a way to access broader opportunities, and, fundamentally, hope. She’s The First recently launched a powerful video about how imperative and transformative an education is. One of the extraordinary women profiled is a graduate of the MAIA Impact School in Guatemala.

 

I could go on. But those are my top five.

Hopelessness is the darkest of places to be. In this season of light and giving, I encourage you to think about how you can shine your light into the darkness. Shine your light on all of your blessings, no matter how small they may be. Reach out to those who are in need of hope. If each of us were to be a ray of light for even just one other person this year, think about how much hope we could fill the world with. Let’s make 2020 EXTRA-ordinary, each in our own ways.

In thinking about something bigger than us as individuals, and in the giving spirit, here are some of my favorite organizations that are doing the difficult, audacious, and awesome work of providing high-quality education, clean water, and recognizing our common humanity across the world. I am holding them and all of my readers in the light this holiday season.

MAIA Impact School – Unlocking and maximizing the potential of young women to lead transformational change.

Water for People – We believe in a world where everyone has safe drinking water, forever.

One Revolution – It’s not what happens to you, it’s what you do with what happens to you.

Brokeness of world quote

 

Finding the Spark: How to Make Change Happen

Back in grad school, one of my professors asked us to define the spark that engenders change. What causes some stuck (people, projects, towns, cities, countries) to evolve, change, revitalize, or otherwise transform while others stay stuck? After much discussion, there was no definitive answer. The mystery of successfully effecting positive change – of figuring out the spark that finally ignites transformation – is something that I have been thinking about and trying to answer ever since.

Today I had a whole elaborate plan cooked up in my head to reveal the (honest-to-goodness-I-keep-lists-of-this-stuff) five elements that most characterize effective change. But, honestly, it’s reading like a research paper and I am, ironically, feeling stuck (and a tad bored) as I write it. So, instead, I am going to illustrate effective, BOLD change with an awesome, feel-good, hope-filled story.

So, here it is: last week the middle school students at the MAIA Impact School celebrated their promotion to high school!!!! This is HUGE. This is unprecedented! This is transforming lives and creating a path that’s never been trod before.

Remember from previous posts that MAIA is a secondary school designed specifically for rural, poor, indigenous Guatemalan girls. Any single one of those factors creates a challenging situation. All four combined seems insurmountable.

In Guatemala, the least equitable society in the Western hemisphere, Mayan girls are an after-thought. Families live hand-to-mouth, scraping by, tenuously surviving, with no opportunity for better – for generations, for the entire scope of their pasts and futures. Education, especially for girls, has historically been neither an option nor a priority.

By supporting their daughters to attend MAIA, these families have both courageously attempted something that is totally new to them while sacrificing someone to help out at home now for a better future for their child, their family, and, ultimately, their country later. When they completed sixth grade, these girls had already exceeded the cultural norms for their education. Now they have completed all of middle school and are off to high school! Grab your tissues and check out this highlight video from the graduation ceremony.

MAIA’s new school building in Solola opened just one year ago this month. Rob Jentsch of MassInsight, the behind-the-scenes education guru and co-architect of the school, observed: “Beyond the fields of the Esturctura de Elementos Esenciales at least once per trip I have a moment where I get a little overwhelmed by seeing how well you all are bringing to life what is at its core an extremely ambitious proposition. So ambitious in fact that literally no one I’m aware of has attempted it. I just had that moment. There are 150 indigenous girls, led by an indigenous staff of teachers, who are at school on a random Tuesday learning and growing at a depth and pace and in an environment that any parent in the world would wish for their child.”

The preschoolers who attend school in a space at the MAIA Impact School also graduated last week. Mostly I am including their pictures here because they are just so unbelievably adorable. But also, think about what they and their families are witnessing every day as a real possibility for their futures. The sign behind their heads reads “Bienvenidos a la Clasura Aula Magica,” which means, “Welcome to the Magical Classroom.” This truly is magical. And it’s also what hope looks like in action. A future of opportunity in the making. Ripples of change expanding ever wider, generation to generation.

My list of what it takes to create change and shift the status quo doesn’t mention the word ambitious, but I think I will add it. Fundamentally, change starts with a bold and audacious vision (anchored with proven best practices and measurable milestones). It demands courageous action, commitment, and perseverance, every single day. And it requires leadership that’s realistic, that recognizes the formidable odds and all the problems (and they are manifold), but doesn’t get quagmired in or paralyzed by dwelling on them. When you have all that, well, it’s a start. Usually change on this scale is incremental and takes an incredibly long time, a slow shift in the sands, a ton of work happening behind-the-scenes for years before a vision becomes reality. MAIA is all the more remarkable for asking themselves “how far can she go?” and then laying out a path for these girls to see just that. MAIA is transforming an ambitious vision into reality at an unprecedented pace within Guatemala and on the international stage (the photos below are from the United Nation’s Day of the Girl in October where MAIA presented a Girls Bill of Rights!).

In this often frantic time of year, step back from time to time, take a deep breath, and a good look around. The essence of human life – connection with others – happens before our very eyes in the Target parking lot, in the checkout counter at the grocery store, at a highway rest stop – if you let it. Flood your heart with hope – for the courageous MAIA students and their families in Guatemala and for positive change in your own life. Recognize with deep gratitude all the good in the life you have; the wonder and fundamental good in this world; and the potential of us all, and for our common humanity.

Smile. Connect. Hope. Gratitude.

Thank you for reading, and Happy Thanksgiving!

In this season of giving and gratitude, if you are so inclined to support the MAIA students as they chart a bold, new trajectory, please give at www.maiaimpact.org/donate

MAIA Logo“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, that will be sufficient.”  (German theologian and philosopher, Meister Eckhart)

The End is also a Beginning, Right?

I find this time of year to be deeply contemplative.

Summer’s end. Back to school. It’s a time of transition and change. The days suddenly have more structure, the nights get ever shorter, darkness falls earlier and earlier. Eventually there will be a chill in the air and the leaves will start to change color. The trees will suddenly be adorned in vibrant oranges and yellows and reds. And then one day the leaves will all fall.

But I am getting ahead of myself. It’s only early September, after all! Labor Day weekend marks the end of summer officially, but it’s not really over. The weather, at least, will stay nice for a little longer. The world doesn’t end just because school starts again.

It’s just that this time of year is full of so many emotions: anticipating seeing friends again, meeting new teachers, establishing routines, starting up with homework and sports and instruments that have gathered dust all summer. I feel both ebullient and completely overwhelmed. I’m not even the one in school, but there’s a sense of frenzy in the air, as well as a sadness and letting go. This fall is exceptionally poignant. Our beloved Fancy Nancy’s birthday is today. As with summer, and all things beloved, she slipped away too fast. Try as I might, I can’t hold on. My mind keeps searching for her, even eight months later. I am still confused about what happened and where she is. I still wonder when I will see her again.

Similarly, no matter how hard I try to hold onto summer, no matter how hard I try to slow down and absorb it, to make the most of it, to bask in its warmth and freedom, it evaporates ever faster before my very eyes and slips away. I try to hold on, but, like kernels of sand on the beach, it slips through my fingers and becomes ever harder to grasp the harder I hold. I can’t stop the long, glorious, unstructured days from slipping away.

I should note, lest I wax too philosophical and you begin to think that this summer has been one long fulfilling moment, that I recently sent a couple of editors a draft essay I wrote entitled “Losing My Mind(fulness) One Summer Day at a Time.” I’ll publish it here eventually, but I mention it to reassure you that it’s not all roses and summer definitely has its moments that absolutely, 100% drag.

Nonetheless, with its bumps and boredom and sunburns and seriously near-constant interruptions, when it comes to an end, it’s still hard to let go. There is a sheen to hindsight and to time-limited moments. There is an allure to remembering only the good times. And summer is full of good times.

So, what to do?

What if the beauty is the sensation of the sand slipping through your fingers? What if the beauty is in the awareness that it is all fleeting, in the good fortune of having another day? What if the beauty is in the pain, of knowing how much you loved and having to let go? What if the beauty is in the sheer joy of doing a cartwheel on the beach for your birthday, no matter your age? That’s what Nancy would do, and that’s what she always did:

What if the beauty is in celebrating all the memories? Because that’s what we’ve got. Tons and tons of wonderful memories, of summer and of Nancy. And it is beautiful.

Happy birthday, Nancy! You are missed, but you continue to teach me through the example of how you lived your life. I long to see your smile again, to feel your hug, and I miss how special you made me feel. I did a cartwheel on the beach for you, but I may have hurt my neck 😊.

More importantly, I try to see joy in all the little things every single day, like you did. I try to push on when I feel melancholic, a sadness and loneliness and loss creeping up on me, when some mornings I would rather just hide under the covers and skip out on all my responsibilities. I know you would rather see us all living and enjoying our lives, so we have lots to report to you when we meet again!

You lived your life as if it were an adventure every day, curious and compassionate and caring, with an open mind and an open heart. That’s the trick, isn’t it? Life IS the adventure. All of it. The mundane and the magical. The sandcastle and the tide that washes it away. Duck cairns out of scattered rocks. Beauty out of stumbling stones. The difficult endings and the new beginnings.

 

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!!!

 

 

 

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

 

On Becoming Powerful and Empowered

I have been writing a lot recently about the MAIA Impact School and my fight for girls’ education (rights, life – hope!) in Guatemala. Today I am bringing empowerment Stateside.

A couple of years ago, my Rheumatologist recommended adding weight-bearing exercise to my routine. Instead of doing what normal people do, you know, lift some weights here and there at the gym, maybe do the circuit equipment, I joined CrossFit Launchpad (CFLP). My Rheumatologist’s jaw dropped when I told her that. It was pretty funny, actually. I could see the wheels turning in her head, “Crossfit? Really? Do you always have to push the outside edge with this disease?” Why, yes, yes I do.

You see, I know myself, and it’s a fact that I will not pick up a weight unless I am instructed to do so. Accountability counts. Plus, the gym owner, Ronda Rockett, is a Primary Care Physician, so she knows all about body mechanics and physiology. When I told her that I have RA I felt safer knowing that she knew exactly what that meant. Plus, she seriously knows about health and fitness.

Crossfit Coach
Crossfit Coach and Athlete Ronda Rockett

Needless to say, I started showing up to these classes, at first cutting workouts in half and still hobbling around on pulled and tired muscles for days afterwards. I have been going long enough now that not much fazes me, the lingo all sounds familiar, and I have watched our crossfit community grow. The other day it struck me as I watched people moving around the gym, stretching and warming up, gearing up for the workout, asking questions of the coach – this small gym is a microcosm of society, a seemingly ever more rare reflection of what an inclusive, supportive, caring community looks like. The idea is to work hard personally, but not to leave anyone behind (even the family dog).

This tenet applies to everyone who comes to the gym – men, women, and children. People join CFLP for a whole range of reasons, including some who haven’t exercised in a long time; who weren’t “athletes”; who have weight they want to lose that just won’t budge or health issues they can’t shake and are sick of not feeling well. I notice them shyly standing in the corner, hoping to blend into the walls and go unnoticed, deferentially allowing others to go first, reviewing the WOD (Workout of the Day) saying things like, “I don’t think I can do this.” The weekly schedule reflects the scaled workouts and WOD modifications designed for them. I see how hard they work, and how it just wipes them out, sweaty, panting, red-faced, and exhausted at the end.

Over time, I witness a slow evolution brought about by hard work and perseverance. Not only are these budding athletes literally becoming more powerful by lifting ever heavier weights or accomplishing more sets in a workout, but they are also becoming more empowered. Being part of this community ignites a light within. Here, a strong core means much more than six-pack abs – it’s about your spirit and celebrating everything that makes you you. Given the right support and encouragement, it turns out you can do anything – in the gym and outside of it.

Scientific studies suggest that strong, healthy, active parents raise strong, healthy, active kids. According to Dr. Christine Carter, “the first step in the science of raising happy kids is to actually be happy yourself.” Check out this Time magazine article from 2014 about how to raise happy kids (10 steps backed by science). Here’s the summary list:

  1. Get Happy Yourself
  2. Teach Them To Build Relationships
  3. Expect Effort, Not Perfection
  4. Teach Optimism
  5. Teach Emotional Intelligence
  6. Form Happiness Habits
  7. Teach Self-Discipline
  8. More Playtime
  9. Rig Their Environment For Happiness
  10. Eat Dinner Together

At CFLP, Ronda and the other coaches encourage us beyond the amount of weight we can lift. We talk about setting (achievable) goals, forming new habits, nutrition and sitting down for a healthy meal as a family (not in front of the TV!), working hard, and gratitude. We are creating new pathways for ourselves, and also setting an example for our children. We are modeling what it means to be healthy and strong and to expect effort, but not perfection. We are also teaching them about building relationships and how a supportive and caring community behaves. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – no one goes it alone. Everyone needs support and encouragement somewhere along the line.

The other day, we finished the prescribed workout with a little time to spare. One member, the one guy in the room that class, suggested that we add on a little extra to finish out the time. This particular athlete had finished the workout well before the rest of us, and then stood there patiently swigging his water, cheering for each of us, and waiting for us to finish. When the coach asked him what he wanted to do for extra work, he responded, “whatever the team wants.” This is an attitude to emulate. Imagine our world if everyone strove to lift others up versus pushing them down; where unity was sought over division, support given versus criticism; where we meet face to face, put the screens away (for an hour!), and cheer hardest for the one who is coming in last; where our common humanity – our community – is celebrated and flourishes. Go team!

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.” ― Theodore Roosevelt

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Extraordinarily Ordinary

This weekend the skies were clear and blue, the breeze a gentle relief from the heat. You never know what you are going to get around here, the only guarantee is that you can’t count on it. For months the weather has been soggy, gray, cool, and grim. So when the sun is actually shining; when you go outside and don’t have to brace yourself against the chill or run back in for another layer; when your rainboots and umbrella are traded for sunscreen, and the wind isn’t even ruining the moment by blustering on, it feels rather miraculous.

One of the most extraordinary aspects of this weekend, though, was that apart from the weather it was totally ordinary. We didn’t have tickets to a big event. We didn’t go on a trip. No big plans or agenda. We gathered spontaneously with friends. We went to a BBQ. We rode bikes and played in the backyard. There was actual time to pause and reflect and, gasp, relax. It was totally decadent in its simplicity.

It’s one of life’s great ironies that the pursuit of more actually results in less. If you are treadmilling your way through life, manically pursuing more and governed by the next event on your schedule or to-do list, remember this: the deepest and most profound fulfillment doesn’t come from things to do or from things you buy. What matters most, what sustains us through the darkest days, where the real magic lies, is in noticing and cherishing life’s small moments, in teasing them out amid the fray of responsibilities, challenges, and disappointments. They happen organically and in some of the most mundane circumstances (and they are also, usually, free).

Find joy every day.

Delight in the small pleasures.

Be compassionate.

Embrace ordinary.

Live with gratitude.
Eagle with flag Memorial Day

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An Ode to Moms Everywhere

“I See You”

I see you, mom, in pajamas at school drop off. You who could care less about your appearance because the fact that the kids actually made it to school on time is such an accomplishment it hardly matters. Today. This time.

I see you, mom, who can’t say no to volunteering, who says no one else steps up so you have to do it, who feels like life turned into one long tumble in the washing machine, dizzying and cold.

I see you, mom, with your junk drawer completely overflowing with accumulated, well, junk. Like bumper stickers that aren’t car worthy and old iPhone chargers and receipts and spare keys to neighbor’s homes, if only you could remember whose they were.

I see you, mom, who got lost along the way and doesn’t recognize much of who you are anymore, spending all your time in the service of others, so much so that you couldn’t say what stirs your soul if you were asked and you fall into bed so dead tired you don’t have time to think about it. Anyway, no one’s asking.

I see you, mom, with the nice pump on one foot and the mismatched flat on the other. Some days the best you can manage is to show up.

I see you, mom, with spit up dried into your new, dry-clean only blouse. There is officially no dignified way to exit the house when you have a baby.

I see you, mom, on a frenzied mission, scrolling through websites for quick healthy meals for dinner tonight. Guess what? They don’t exist. Especially if it’s 4:30pm and you still have the commute home and day care pick up and you haven’t gone to the grocery store in days. Because, seriously, who has the time? What dimension of hell is this that kids need to be fed three times a day anyway???

I see you, mom, racing away from gas pump with the nozzle still in your car.

I see you, mom, who is starving for intellectual inspiration and adult conversation, but can’t figure out how to balance even part-time work with all the other stuff that needs to get done for the family.

I see you, mom, head throbbing, feverish, body aching while ringing way too loudly in your ears are the repeated and urgent words, “Mooooommmmm, I don’t feel well.”

I see you, mom, at Starbucks, who absolutely knows that this latte is going to be the highlight of your day.

I see you, mom, who tries to do it all, chaperone and sell Girl Scout cookies and make healthy, homemade meals and sign the kids up for all their activities and then actually execute on getting them there. Did I mention the full-time job?

Or the:

Birthday party planning

Dishes

Laundry

House cleaning

Haircuts

Lunch boxes

Homework

Bedtime routine

Sleepless nights

Doctors appointments

Play dates

Sick days

SNOW days

School supplies

Sports equipment

New clothes

New shoes, ideally well before you are leaving for the piano recital and realize that the dress shoes don’t fit. Either kid.

I see you, mom, who is buried under never-ending piles of laundry and groceries to buy and bills to pay and birthday presents to buy and holiday meals to make.

Did someone say decorations? Yeah, I see you, mom, whose holiday lights are still on the tree. In May. Way to plan ahead for next year.

I see you, mom, who wonders why it is that the kids have to be reminded to wash their hands, pack their school bags, unpack their lunches, clean their rooms, practice their instruments…EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. How many years have we been doing this?

I see you, mom, who feels like the trip leader of life, like you are everyone’s guide on this journey and they can’t seem to function without asking you how to do it first. And then they ignore you and do it their own way anyway.

I see you, mom, who is taking care of your mom, and missing her wise counsel and yummy cooking and mom advice. You, who are flooded with memories of the incredibly capable woman she was, and can’t reconcile them with the woman she is now, who barely knows you let alone remembers your birthday or a recipe.

I see you, mom, who lost your mom far too young. And, you, whose mom is alive and helpful and wonderful and still bugs the heck out of you sometimes.

I see the whisper of tears in your eyes that you quickly brush away, when some days it just feels like too much. Strong shoulders, but human shoulders. Vulnerable and tired and overwhelmed by the pace and the volume and the sensation that you are not terribly in control.

I see you, I see you every day, and I know.

I understand. And I am here acknowledging all the little things that just don’t get done without you.

In Solidarity.

Happy Mother’s Day.

In gratitude for moms everywhere and for my village.

It’s a good time to put your own oxygen mask on. This is another writer’s take on why:

https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/put_your_own_oxygen_mask_on_first

make-sure-your-own-mask-is-secure-before-assisting-others-unintentionally-profound-quotes