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

 

A Wild and Wacky Wildlife Extravaganza

This past summer was full of wild discoveries. And it was good! No further explanation needed.

Where's Waldo at the Dump

Where’s Waldo of the Suburban Wilds (you should see 3)

Where’s Waldo of the Wet (AKA Whales, Swans, Cignets, and a Crab)

Where’s Waldo of the West (1) – MARMOT

Where’s Waldo of the West (2) – ELK

Where’s Waldo of the West (3) – MY FAVE, the MOOSE

Advice from a tree.jpg

 

Working to Enhance the Voice of Women

I mentioned in a previous post that I have been doing a lot of writing, it just happens to not be happening on this blog site! It occurred to me that I should share some of my recently published writing here. So, in case you missed it, here is a link to an article in the local paper, or you can read below and view extra pictures and a video!

Meg Steere was recently appointed as the first New England-based Board member for the MAIA Impact School (www.maiaimpact.org), a school for indigenous girls located in Sololá, Guatemala. In its third year of operation, MAIA exists to “unlock and maximize the potential of young women to lead transformational change.” Guatemala is consistently rated by the World Economic Forum as the least equitable society in the Western Hemisphere. Meanwhile, countries that have greater levels of gender equality are safer and more prosperous. Educating girls is also among the top ways of combating climate change.

Guatemala Ranking SDG Gender Index

Meg traveled to Guatemala in October 2018 to attend the inauguration of the new school building. She was impressed by the caliber of the school leadership, and that, by design, the school is run primarily by indigenous women with an emphasis on empowering the local community. The school’s model markedly changes the trajectory of its student’s lives. In recognition of their success and their potential, in January 2019 MAIA was awarded the Zayed Sustainability Prize (see video at bottom of this post), demonstrating “impact, innovation, and inspiration to enable inclusive and equitable access to quality education.”

MAIA students are girls who have the talent, courage, vision, and desire to succeed but lack the opportunity. Through education, these women can lead their families and communities out of poverty. One key aspect of their education beyond academics is vocal empowerment. These girls have been raised in a culture that tells them to be quiet—that they are silly and stupid, unworthy and worthless. At school, they learn to trust their voices, to speak up, and to prevent societal judgment from defining their self-worth. This message transcends borders.

Susie Caldwell Rinehart—brain stem tumor survivor, ultramarathoner, mother, life coach, and Colorado-based MAIA Board member —released her memoir Fierce Joy: Choosing Brave over Perfect to Find My True Voice on May 15. Hers is a story of miraculous survival; motherhood; losing her voice, literally and figuratively, and then finding it again; and choosing to conquer her fear of imperfection in order to live her most authentic life. Susie and Meg have both found inspiration and strength in the courage of the Guatemalan girl pioneers. Through Susie’s medical journey, which brought her to MGH and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Susie discovered that “the opposite of joy isn’t sadness, it’s perfectionism.” She began to write her memoir as she underwent months of recovery, radiation, and separation from her family in Colorado. She returned to Boston in early June for her book launch.

MAIA’s impact continues to expand, boldly challenging the narrative and compelling us all to be braver and to rethink what our expectations are—of ourselves and others—and why. Join this brave movement working to close the gender gap in education and catalyzing positive change globally. A portion of the proceeds from sales of Fierce Joy will be donated to MAIA Impact School. 100% of donated funds to MAIA go directly to the students, mentors, educators, and families.

 

The View from a Chicken Bus

This is an exciting day! My essay, The View from a Chicken Bus, was published today in Sky Island Journal, an online magazine!!!

The View from a Chicken Bus

Meg Ounsworth Steere

The chicken bus dives and weaves along the tight switchbacks, sandwiched between lushly green, undulating volcanic cliffs to one side and a vast, deep cavern open to the expansive lake below on the other. The retired yellow school bus migrated from the United States to rural Guatemala. Here it was given new life and transformed with wild paint, flashing lights, and blaring music into a chicken bus, a form of public transit.

Outside the dirty bus window, an overwhelming cacophony for the senses unfolds – the scenic natural beauty; the chaotic, crowded, narrow road; scents of cooking, burning wood, exhaust; sounds of honking, birds chirping, dogs yapping. Overloaded motorbikes swerve in and out of traffic carrying 2, 3, 4 people. Small 1990s pickup trucks, their beds full of standing riders, scream downhill inches away.

In the smallest openings on the roadside, tourists stop for pictures of waterfalls or the lake and volcanoes. Opportunistic market stands pop-up, their purveyors – women in their village’s colorful and ornately woven dress – mixing, patting, and baking tortillas, frijoles warming and ready to sell.

The bus is crowded, the air stale and warm. It winds its way up from the rural, lakeside villages to the hillsides around Sololá. Passengers, mainly rural Mayans, call to the driver for stops along the way. The men wear tattered jeans; t-shirts or lightweight button downs; a cowboy or baseball hat; work boots. The women are dressed in traditional Mayan clothing – a short-sleeved cotton blouse with brightly colored geometric designs; a thick belt; a calf-length skirt embellished with a colorful, embroidered band; simple pumps, flats, or sandals.

One passenger stands out from the rest as she calls to the driver to stop near the entrance to a large, modern school. The driver and other passengers look on, mystified about this place and this teenage girl, both standing out uniquely in the Sololá landscape: unusual, unfamiliar, a vision for what could be, but also a strange curiosity and maybe something to fear.

The girl walks the uneven, rocky dirt path along the road toward the school gates, clearly uncomfortable that the eyes of every passenger, neighbor, and bystander are boring into her back, their questions, doubts, and hopes piling up on her small shoulders. She sidesteps sewer water trickling down the road, brushes the dust off her shoes, and turns onto the paved drive to the school entrance.

In rural Guatemala, it is rare for anyone to complete more than sixth grade. Most families are generationally poor, stagnated and mired in a life of day-to-day survival by the impacts of racism, gender inequality, insufficient education or health care, and limited economic opportunities beyond what they already know – farming. The harvests have become less reliable with unpredictable and more volatile weather. Being Mayan comes with traditions and cultural norms, and also a history of marginalization and subjugation. During the 36-year civil war that ended in 1996, 93% of those killed were indigenous. About 50% of the general population, but 79% of the indigenous population, lives below the poverty line.

In rural Guatemala, the standard architecture features single- or two-story buildings, with concrete siding. The rusted and battered tin roofs are supported by gnarled, roughly hewn wood beams. The colorful exterior paint, if not the concrete itself, is chipped and worn. Buildings are stacked up the hillsides, one on top of the other, seemingly supporting each other as they claw into the mountainside, grasping to hold on. Roads vary from dirt paths cut into the hillsides to cobblestones or pocked asphalt.

Each year survival here becomes more difficult. Out of sheer desperation and hopelessness, some attempt to migrate north, leaving Guatemala and their history and families. For many, the prospect of leaving all that is familiar, walking all those miles towards an antagonistic and uncertain future, doesn’t seem like a much better option than staying and trying to carry on. Something fundamental must change for survival to be tenable here.

Enter this school and this unique girl. The sign on the school’s brick wall proclaims “MAIA, mujer empoderada…un impacto infinito” (empowered woman…infinite impact). Empowered, indigenous, poor, rural Guatemalan girls. I can’t help but stare and wonder. Historically girls here have been taught to be quiet; that making eye contact is disrespectful; that they don’t need an education. On average, women in Guatemala, especially Mayan women, only complete 3.5 years of school. Narrow options and limited health information result in Guatemala’s top ranking for the highest fertility rate and youngest population in all of Latin America.

How valuable is this young girl, full of talent, courage, and a desire to succeed? How powerful is the concept that by providing educational opportunity and modern learning tools, alongside mentorship and support for the students and their families, real, systemic change could trickle down and spread roots generationally? How courageous must these girls and their families be?

Every day these families make a conscious choice not to shrink back. Every day they bravely face the ingrained, negative messages that say that girls don’t matter; that they are silly and stupid, unworthy and worthless. These girls must sense their differentness, an isolating notion that can seep in and slowly ebb away at their drive and their souls if they let it. Their path is long and challenging. It takes the power of a sprinter and the endurance of a marathoner. They face the academic and emotional challenges of any middle or high schooler, but also the burden of being the first to break the status quo, push the boundaries of cultural norms, and change the narrative for themselves, their families, and their country.

The dense clouds overhead release suddenly, the splattering rain interrupting my reverie and fogging the view. The bus driver pulls the door handle, hinges squeaking, and the bus roars into gear. Through the rain-streaked window I see the girl cover her head and rush to catch up with her classmates. Together they pass through the school gates, a small but determined caravan of hope.

Click here to see the full issue: https://www.skyislandjournal.com/issues#/issue-9-summer2019/

 

 

 

 

True Confessions of a Mom Set Loose

October 31, 2018

On the plane from Miami to Guatemala City. This is my first extended solo excursion since having children, my first trip to Central America, my first trip to the developing world in a very long time. It’s a lot of first’s and with that comes excitement and joy and a re-awakening of my spirit or some part of me that’s been quiet for some time…as well as a visceral, biological longing and sadness that I can’t control and didn’t expect. It’s hard to say goodbye to my family and, much as I am sometimes desperate to bust out of the routine and the daily grind, it’s also incredibly difficult to break away.

By chance, the man who drove me to the airport this morning grew up in Guatemala. He was stunned that that was where I was headed. It feels like the universe conspired to cross our paths. I told him (between sniffles) that I hadn’t really done much for myself in 11 years and that I wanted to soak in the moment. He said, “You are like a comet, passing through so rarely but shining so brightly.” I like that idea!

So, here I am, halfway to Guatemala with my journal out and two books sitting beside me – Open Veins of Latin America (by Eduardo Galeano) and Less (by Andrew Sean Greer) – that I might actually be able to read with all this uninterrupted time. For the time being, though, my mind keeps jumping between thoughts of travel past and the younger me; about my kids, already anticipating our reunion; and imaginings about what this trip will be like! And this tells me that maybe I should take a couple minutes to just sit and be, quietly…but, first, a haiku:

Mundane and routine

Break the mold of must and should

Rare delight, bright light.

What if I fall quote

 

 

Notre Dame and our common humanity

Why is it that tragedy unites us but otherwise we spend our time picking each other apart and spreading divisiveness?

I don’t want to launch into a synopsis on modern politics or the state of the world today. Most people are pretty up-to-speed on the general dark cloud hanging over the western hemisphere without my rehashing it…so I’ll be short and sweet here for the sake of all of our sanity and won’t delve into things about which I know (too?) little.

What I know is this: Notre Dame cathedral burned yesterday and it stopped everyone in their tracks. Suddenly people of all stripes are united in their grief. Facebook posts display picture after picture of individuals’ experiences at Notre Dame, plus stories of longing and sadness from those who hadn’t had the chance to go there and see it in person.

The notion that this monument anchoring the skyline of Paris for centuries is in peril defies belief. This human construct, a display of the beauty that man is capable of creating, has for centuries drawn pilgrimaging Catholics, as well as millions of tourists of other religious and agnostic persuasions, to stand in awe of its majesty. It has survived so much history, so much destruction, from the French Revolution to the two horrific world wars of the 20th century. But in mere hours yesterday it literally went up in flames.

It’s like the smack across the face that the world needed. I hope it is, anyway, and that some long-term good will come of it. Historic monuments like Notre Dame are an investment. They represent hope, connect us to our past, and guide us toward the future. They are an incarnation of what binds us to each other and to our common good. They are a symbol of the best in human civilization – architecturally, culturally, and artistically –  and a beacon when we have lost our way.

We have been living in a period of neglect of community, faith, and hope. We have literally let historic buildings crumble and decay before our very eyes due to a lack of funding, indifference, and disinterest. In our lives, the virtual becomes ever more confounded with reality. We intentionally, or through the magic of algorithms and our personal data, surround ourselves only with like-minded individuals.

Today we must acknowledge these failings and renew our faith that we are more alike than we are different. It’s well beyond time to restore global sanity, to find common ground, and to chart the course forward with an intact moral compass by investing in what really matters. The investment required is not exactly in our history or our future, per se, but both together manifested in how we treat our fellow man today. Words like honor, dignity, respect, integrity, patience, and hope swirl through my mind. The restoration of the building is a worthy aspiration, but those values are what urgently need restoring.

Vanilla, Powerfully Plain

I mentioned that my family has bit of a love affair with the chocolate chip cookie. You know what the smallest make or break ingredient in a chocolate chip cookie is? The vanilla. The difference in taste that a single teaspoon of vanilla makes is astounding.

But I have often heard vanilla used as a synonym for plain. In fact, Merriam Webster dictionary defines vanilla as, “lacking distinction : plain, ordinary, conventional.” And, yet, a world without the vanilla bean would be flavorless and bland.

Where does the majority of the world’s vanilla grow, you ask? In one of the least plain, ordinary, or conventional places on Earth. That’s right, my old love, Madagascar.

Madagascar boasts more than 75% of the world’s vanilla fields. All of Madagascar’s vanilla is grown in the SAVA (Sambava, Antalaha, Vohemar and Andapa) region in the country’s northeast. Vanilla is Madagascar’s largest export, which is pretty remarkable given that the plant, which was introduced from Mexico during the French colonial period, needs to be hand-pollinated.

This CBS video from 2017 discusses the recent vanilla bean shortage, a little about the price fluctuations over the past two decades, and the impact of the shortage on US businesses. What the video alludes to but doesn’t dive into, is what life is like for vanilla farmers in Madagascar now that vanilla is second only to saffron as the most expensive spice in the world.

Used to flavor so many sweet treats in the west, with the US, France, and Germany being the primary importers of its vanilla, vanilla beans in Madagascar are labor-intensive to cultivate. In a developing country like Madagascar, where the rule of law is flimsy at best, corruption is rampant, poverty is beyond most westerners’ comprehension, and cyclones can wreak havoc on a crop that takes three years to be marketable, sustainable livelihoods are elusive.

When Madagascar was a French colony, the French government set prices for vanilla producers. Madagascar gained its independence in 1960, after which the Malagasy government set the vanilla prices. During both of these periods, prices were low and predictable. In the mid-1990s, however, just about when I arrived in Madagascar, the Malagasy government de-regulated vanilla prices because of pressure from global financial institutions. This was the beginning of the dramatic vanilla bean price fluctuations that have been on-going ever since.

Increased demand and higher prices would, ostensibly, seem to be a good thing for Madagascar, one of the world’s poorest countries by GDP (the 10th poorest according to the World Atlas). Global vanilla prices were hovering at about $450 to $500 per kilogram as of August 2018, with the expectation that this year the prices would decline somewhat due to increased production. For context, this is about the same as the price for silver.

Demand pressures, however, have led to farmers harvesting beans too early to prevent theft; increased need for security at vanilla fields; and generally more dangerous conditions for vanilla farmers. Much of the vanilla profits go to middlemen, though the SAVA region has also benefited from this boom period. For vanilla farmers, it has been documented that they typically don’t know what to do with the windfall. In the context of rural Madagascar, where the closest bank is often a day’s walk along routes patrolled by armed bandits, long-term savings are not realistic. A large influx of cash in rural Madagascar turns into a liability pretty quickly.

Because of the vanilla boom, in addition to demand for rosewood, protected rainforests in the northeastern part of Madagascar, like Masoala National Park, have been illegally cut to create more vanilla fields. It makes logical sense from the perspective of the local population, the majority of whom are barely surviving on a daily basis, with absolutely no social safety nets. No one wants to miss the opportunity to become a “vanillionaire”, and the long-term implications of their actions on the island’s unique flora and fauna, like the use of its vanilla beans, are luxuries that appeal to those who live in another world. They are irrelevant to day to day survival.

Except that, in the end, it isn’t irrelevant at all.

For the long-term sustainability of the region, of the very vanilla plant that is the source of such demand, it makes no sense at all (check out this 10-minute BBC documentary to learn more, starting around minute 7:30). Other aspects of the local economy benefit from tourists interested in seeing lemurs, wild orchids, and rosewood trees in their natural habitats. Even more esoteric to the rural population, but still meaningful, is the potential for medicines cultivated from plants that grow in Madagascar’s forests, such as from the Madagascar periwinkle, which is an ingredient in leukemia treatments. These are much the same issues I observed in 1996.

Where do we go from here? Trust me, this is a question I have been asking myself for over 20 years, since I first set foot in Madagascar. There are no easy answers. Education has to be one component. Functional government is inevitably another. There aren’t short-term solutions for long-term, sustainable outcomes. For creative ideas, I like this World Bank blog that reports on initiatives happening in Madagascar, and also Madecasse’s efforts to establish bean-to-bottle production within Madagascar. As in so many aspects of life, I also think it’s a good idea to have small, specific, achievable goals that can be accomplished in the short-term, but that begin to establish the path toward a larger, long-term goal.

So, for now, the next time you buy vanilla extract or vanilla ice cream or almost any sweet treat, think about that little dab of vanilla and what a difference it makes to your taste buds, but also what an impact it has on a little country way on the other side of the world. The story of vanilla is more complex that it appears, and it is far from plain.

Pictures courtesy of Madecasse and National Geographic