Always Seek the Sweet

Welcome 2020! A new year. A fresh start. And such visual symmetry. Sublime.

I loved this year’s holiday season because the timing worked perfectly for the ultimate in relaxation. People reading this outside of the United States may not understand this (and, fair enough, because it is sort of insane), but it’s rare here to get more than one week off. And, oh my goodness, what a heavenly gift it is! It took me that whole first week just to settle down, relax a little, and stop habitually mentally scanning for what to do next. I had more rest in the last week and a half than I have probably had in one time period for over a decade and, lo and behold, I actually have some perspective as a result. Well-rested is a phenomenal vantage point from which to intend to do amazing, brilliant, challenging things!

Traditionally this is the time of year where many set goals, resolutions, intentions – whatever you want to call them – to make the positive life changes that they have been feeling are needed. Despite my innate aversion to joining the herd in general and particularly with regards to new year’s resolutions, I feel so ready to take on what lies ahead and am zooming into this new year with passion and drive, optimism and a less waffley inner compass. I am committed to living more boldly, to taking a stand (even if it’s just in my small way), to sticking to a low-bad diet and to saying no to negativity (Wall Street Journal, December 27, 2019: For the New Year Say No to Negativity). I am also (mostly) avoiding refined sugars (at least for the month of January). Sweetness can be found everywhere in life and I am determined to pursue it in every direction except the bakery!

All this energy and enthusiasm is AWESOME. Until February (or mid-January?), when the year ahead is looking awfully long and old habits so comfortable and familiar. Did you know that it takes at least two months to develop a new habit, according to a 2009 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology? We are all human. Eventually, the excitement will wear off and no amount of stored up sleep or goodwill will be able to fuel us adequately through whatever life has in store. We get tired. We get complacent. And we start to slip, even with the best of intentions. Personally, I suffer from “What’s the point?”-ism, which is akin to hopelessness. Does anything little old me ever does really matter?

Here is an example: I used to wash and re-use my plastic sandwich bags. Some nice person even gave me a dry rack like the one pictured below for a wedding present. It was just what I wanted!Dry rack for plastic bags

But I gave up on washing out, drying and re-using my plastic bags because at some point I looked around and saw people throwing away all manner of things, idling big old gas-guzzling vehicles without a thought, not to mention the absurd destruction and desolation of war. My plastic bags seemed quite small and inconsequential. My idealism felt quaint and silly. Hopelessness set in and infected me with what’s-the-point thinking. So I gave up. For a little while it felt so indulgent to pretend I didn’t care. How liberating to just mindlessly throw stuff away!

It didn’t last long, though. You see, when I am not suffering from what’s-the-point-ism, I approach life with unfettered openness, curiosity and hopefulness. Eventually, I swing back to thinking that I may be just one little person, but at least I can say I tried. I stood by my values and set my intention to do right and I tried. No one else is washing their plastic bags? Well, fine. To be fair, it’s time-consuming and takes up a lot of counterspace as well. I think I’d rather just not use plastic bags. Plastic isn’t any good for us anyway.

The wall of apathy constructed by what’s-the-point thinking extends well beyond plastic sandwich bags. I have talked myself out of a whole bunch of good work using the rationale that there are so many big problems in the world, what could I possibly change? I am but a drop in an ocean (of floating plastic detritus, to keep with the plastic analogy). When you look at the news every day, why the heck wouldn’t you feel hopeless and inconsequential? It turns out, according to research highlighted by the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), that our brains are hard-wired with a negativity bias. There is “a universal tendency for bad events and emotions to affect us more strongly than positive ones.”

However, the negativity and hopelessness that pervades our thinking is often a false construct. Studies have shown that “we focus so much on bad news that we don’t realize how much better life is becoming for people around the world…just about every measure of human welfare is improving except one: hope. The better life gets, the gloomier our worldview. In international surveys, its the rich who sound the most pessimistic – and the worst informed.” (WSJ)

We all slip, in big ways and in small. Should being infected with hopelessness make us quit on our intentions entirely? Or be cause for shame or remorse? Or, worse, for not trying in the first place? No way! You fall down, you pick yourself up. Re-commit to what matters to you and try again. Remember that because of how our brains are wired it takes four good things to overcome one bad thing. Surely the most important stuff in life is learned through failing, learning from that experience, and then trying again.

Jane Goodall quote

There is nothing enlightened about negative thinking. Hopelessness is not a good or helpful place to be. Helping just one other person (animal, place) makes a huge difference – for that one person (animal, or place) anyway. We can’t lose hope and close ourselves off in the face of the enormity of the world’s problems. Every little bit matters. We each as individuals matter. “We do good things not because we can save the world all alone. We do good things because it is right, and because we can.” (Bear Grylls)

Be the ray of hope for just one person today and notice what a difference it makes – for them and for you! Cherish and encourage creativity. Read a great book. Be bold and courageous. Surprise yourself. Be curious and be kind. These are some of the essential wonders of life, of being human. THIS is the sweet in life, no sugar added.

#lowbaddietsaregoodforyou

 

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

 

Hope and Humanity at the U.S. Border

I’ve been meaning to write – for ages – but time is not on my side. Life happens and I have been swept along with it. I expected September to be a loss with the deluge of emails and activities that accompany back to school. But October seems to be well on its way to disappearing as well. I am not complaining, just explaining my absence!

So, where do I start? I wanted to share Jennifer DeLeon’s article Migrant Stories from McAllen, Texas: Finding Hope and Humanity at the Border that was published on WBUR’s (NPR’s Boston channel) Cognoscenti on September 5, 2019. I fully intended to post it then, but I am only getting to it now (life: see paragraph 1). It’s still relevant and what she witnessed there, plus countless new stories, persists.

Jennifer’s article struck a chord with me on many levels, but I especially love that her story’s title includes the words hope and humanity. I am always trying to find those stories. The whole original intent of this blog was to shine a light on stories of hope where you might least expect to find them. I have no doubt that the situation at the border, as well as the situation that migrants are both coming from and into, requires some fortitude and digging in order to find hope.

Hope, and compassion, come alive through authentic human connection. That’s part of what Jennifer experiences in McAllen. Authentic human connection. Meeting people where they are. Seeing the world through their eyes. It’s not easy. But it’s so rewarding, and so human(e).

Freddie is the name of the nine year old Honduran child that Jennifer profiles in her article. When my daughter was in second grade – about Freddie’s age – she brought home the artwork shown in the image below. It reads: “Show kindness. Avoid easy.”

Imagine a world where we were all guided by these simple tenets. Many adults seem to have forgotten the basic and common humanity and innocence that underlies what these 8 and 9 year old’s already know. Show kindness. Avoid easy.

Show Kindness Avoid Easy

What Does Courage Look Like?

Today is video day. I have two videos to share, both of which show in images versus words what courage looks like – no, check that – what courage IS.

The first is a one-minute video of Vilma Saloj, a young Mayan woman born into poverty in rural Guatemala, giving an empowered and moving speech at the MAIA Impact School annual event in Denver, CO. This video is worth every second of your time spent watching it. For context, most Mayan girls in rural Guatemala are lucky to make it to 6th grade and to learn limited Spanish. Vilma is seen here presenting like a pro, in English, with a bold vision of being part of systemic change in her country. #maiaimpact #wearethesolution

The second is also only one-minute long and features Kendra Smith: kickboxer, stuntwoman, former pro-wrestler, personal trainer, and athlete. She travels to Guatemala every year to teach self-defense and kickboxing to the girl pioneers at the MAIA Impact School. She is currently working on a program to incorporate self-defense as a regular part of the school’s curriculum. #warriors #girlpower #stronggirlsstrongwomen #maiaimpact

Those are my messages of hope and joy for today. I’ll close with a poem written by MAIA 7th grader Wendy Palax:

Indigenous Woman

Fighter and entrepreneur

Strong and capable,

Indigenous woman from the land,

Brave and bold.

 

You are like the phoenix that rises

From her ashes,

Your traditions

Are wealth.

 

With your gown of beautiful colors,

Weaved with the hands of your ancestors

Showing a warrior woman

Dancing to the beat of the marimba.

 

You fight for equality,

Shine among the nature,

Woman dedicated to culture,

Indigenous woman of my town.

 

You care for your traditions

For your customs

For your family

For your language

For your gown.

 

You love and care,

Have feelings

Of joy and emotions.

WE ARE THE SOLUTION

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.

 

A Meaningful Solution for our Southern Border

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

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

June 6, 2019

Dear Mr. Feyer/To the Editor:

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

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

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

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

Sincerely….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Millinocket, Marathons, Momentum, and Moose

“Like a pebble tossed into still water.” This is how Gary Allen, the man behind the Millinocket Marathon and a Half, likens his efforts to create ripple effects of ever-widening positive impact and change. For background, check out this post about Millinocket and the marathon from November – Have you ever heard of the Magic City?

Here we are in August 2019, and while it’s hard to believe that New England could be cold at anytime – ever – from the vantage point of this summer’s heat waves, already Millinocket is on the mind and momentum is building for the December 2019 event. Check out singer/songwriter Jenn Schott’s tribute to the Millinocket marathon:

Another cool new fundraising initiative for the region is the virtual Acadia to Katahdin race that starts August 2 (you have until December 31 to log all 328.5 miles). More info on that here.

Interested in running the actual Marathon or Half on December 7, 2019? Sign up here. Remember, there is no registration fee – this is a race designed around showing up and giving back!

The idea of this marathon was bold, audacious, and selfless. The result has been large, broad ripples more like those that result from water cascading off a moose’s antlers as it lifts its head from the pond than from a small pebble.

Moose and Mountain
Gratuitous moose pictures, with the majestic Katahdin.

Bold. Audacious. Selfless. I’ll circle back to those themes soon.

Marathon Hat and Logo