Broken Plans

broken glassLife has a way of ensuring we recognize just how ridiculous we can be.

When that happens, our only choices are to get mad or to laugh at ourselves.

I choose to laugh.

I laugh a lot.

I have to. If I didn’t, I’d constantly be mad.

But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t say and do things differently if  I could turn back time, or at a minimum, give just one piece of advice to the young woman I once was – a young woman with a college degree in her hand and ridiculous ideas about life in her head.

If I could give that advice, I know exactly what I’d say.

“Don’t make plans without the expectation they should sometimes be broken.”

That’s it. Those words might seem trite, but after spending nearly 27 years as an official adult, they are extremely meaningful. They would  have saved me from hours of worrying that I hadn’t lived up to my own expectations and have greatly expedited my understanding that life generally happens as life is supposed to happen. Sometimes our missteps are our greatest teachers and sometimes they lead us in a direction we would never have chosen when left to our own devices.

For example, just over two years ago I wrote a blog about how I was leaving the nonprofit world. I had worked for nonprofit organizations for nearly 20 years and was feeling both frustrated and under appreciated. I wasn’t happy with how decisions were being made and felt I had to spread my wings.

I may have spread my wings, but I certainly didn’t soar. In fact, I flapped around for over a year until finally landed exactly where I belong – in a nonprofit organization.

I can’t say my current job is easy. It’s not. In fact, it’s hectic, demanding and challenging. I also have some of the same complaints I had over two years ago regarding how others don’t appreciate the skills, education and competence that are required to work in a social service organization.

Yet I couldn’t be happier.

Sometimes, going down the wrong path is exactly what we need to show us the path we need to be taking.stained glass

Sometimes experiencing where we don’t belong is exactly what we need to recognize where we truly do belong.

And sometimes, not getting what we want is exactly what we need to recognize that God gave us a specific set of skills and gifts for a reason. That reason generally isn’t to continue down the path we want but instead it is to make the world a better place in our own unique way.

As I think back to the 22 year-old woman I once was, I know I had a strong sense of where I wanted to go in life. That makes me laugh, but that laugh is full of joy.

Most of the plans I made have been shattered, but picking up the pieces and rearranging them has been an adventure. It has allowed me to create something even more beautiful than I could have ever imagined.

A Very Personal Perspective on Prejudice

harper lee quoteI don’t remember the name of the black man who came to eat dinner with my family in the early 1970’s, but I do remember an incident from that visit.

He was telling my parents about places where he hadn’t been allowed to go.

I couldn’t understand why, so I asked.

“It’s because I’m black,” he said.

I didn’t understand and I told him so.

“Some people don’t like black men and some people are just afraid of us,” he said.

I still didn’t understand, and neither he nor my parents could give me a good answer. Treating him based on the color of his skin made absolutely no sense to me.

I’m not telling this story to illustrate how children aren’t born prejudice. I’m telling this story because it’s not the story at all. Instead, it is the introduction to a more complex story about how children, just like adults, can fool themselves about their capacity for prejudice. It is a story that illustrates how blind some of us can be to the complexity of human beliefs and behaviors, particularly our own, I’m telling this story even though I hate what it says about me. I’m telling this story because it demonstrates how someone can claim not to understand discrimination and racism while they are in the process of developing their own prejudices.

In the early 1970’s, I was one of only a few white families living on an Indian reservation, and I knew I didn’t belong. My knowledge wasn’t a result of the fact that I looked different from most of my peers. They told me I didn’t belong, probably repeating the words they had heard their parents and other adults say.

That might explain why I cried on the first day of kindergarten when I was the only white child in my kindergarten class, even though my teacher was a white woman named Mrs. Short. My tears must have had an impact because schedules were manipulated so the only other white child my age was put in my class.

That was the year of increased concern that my peers were losing their cultural identity. To address this, members of the tribe came to class to teach us native language and traditions. That was the year we had to learn native dance and participate in a root feast. That was a year when I was taught that the white men were the bad guys. That was the year I was taunted, teased, bullied and chased home from school.

According to my parents, that was also the year I began to hate people of a certain skin and hair color. My mother says once we moved off the reservation, I insisted I never wanted to go back. We did, and I don’t remember being particularly upset. Of course, I also don’t remember ever having the disdain for an entire group of people based on the actions of a few.

I’ve spent most of my life trying to overcome this embarrassing piece of personal history. I like to think I don’t make rash judgments about people and that I treat everyone with the same fairness. But when I’m completely honest with myself, I have to admit that I can be as judgmental as anyone else.

But here’s the thing – I admit that to myself. Maybe that’s because I was raised by parents who expected me to be accountable for both my beliefs and my actions. Maybe it’s because I have personal experience being different, and therefore threatening, to others. And maybe, just maybe, it’s because the young child still in me would be disappointed with anything less.

Whatever the reason, I wish other people would take the time to look inward and realize that any words or posts on social media about an entire race or social class are always going to be wrong because they are based on limited experience.

Groups of people are not an experience or an incident. They are composed of individuals, and each individual is a complicated mix of good, bad, funny, sad, right, wrong and most of all humanity.

This holiday season, I encourage everyone to embrace that humanity and push aside the limited experience.

When we do, the child still in all of us will celebrate.

Of that, I have absolutely no doubt.

 

Getting Real About Giving Thanks

IMG_1407This Thursday will be my 47th Thanksgiving, which means I’ve had a great deal of experience hearing people give thanks for family and health and God.

I’m not questioning their gratitude.IMG_1412

I too am thankful for those gifts.

I’m also thankful for hot showers, coffee, the internet, my car’s heated seats, wine, Netflix and a husband who sends me roses when he knows he’s made me mad. And I’m not going to feel selfish for saying so.

There is, after all, something to be said for heartfelt thanks, such as that expressed by my fourth grade classmates  in November 1976.

toys and teachersI re-discovered their gratitude recently when I flipped through a childhood scrapbook and found a booklet from that year.

In those days before word processing, personal computers and printers, my teacher typed her  students’ responses to the question “What are you grateful for this Thanksgiving?” Later, she gave each of us a mimeographed  copy of our responses.color and nature

In reviewing the gratitude in that booklet, I am completely in awe of the wisdom of a group of fourth grade students in a rural community in 1976.

We knew to be thankful for our bicycles and birthdays and toys.

We  knew to be thankful for teachers and doctors and friends.

IMG_1426And we even knew to  appreciate beauty in the world, the support we gave each other and even ourselves.

Reading the words of a group of children who are now middle-aged adults marked by the scars of experience, I can’t help but smile and recognize something else for which I am extremely grateful.

I will forever be thankful for memories , the people who helped create them and the people who helped preserve them.IMG_1427

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Of Dice and Women

LaneI try not to take politics too personally.

That’s not to say that I don’t feel strongly about specific issues or specific politicians or that I don’t take my role as a citizen and my right to vote seriously. I do.

But years ago I realized that too many people consider politics to be a game of Monopoly in which the political party, the politician, the political action committee or the corporation are more concerned about securing as much for themselves as possible than they are about anyone else. They seem to believe that a roll of the dice is a fair way to determine the success and/or comfort of an individual or family.

Sometimes, they spout a few words intended to convince people they care about those who aren’t as fortunate or as wealthy or as beautiful, but their words often aren’t consistent with their behavior, lifestyle or relationships.

As someone who received a great roll of the dice on the day I was born and encounter people everyday who didn’t get such a great roll, I can see right through their facade.

And just when I feel as though I’m becoming completely cynical, I encounter individuals  who step into politics because they truly care about others.

My friend Layne Diehl is one of those people.

Layne never thought she could go to college, but through the support of people who cared about her, she not only went to college but also to law school. She is a true role model for young women whose roll of the dice doesn’t afford them the security of knowing they can go to college.

Layne didn’t grow up in a family that was always safe and secure. She learned to survive and thrive because she had a mother who garnered all of her strength, skills and resources to take care of her children when the world around her family was collapsing. Layne’s mom passed those skills onto her daughter, who understands the importance of reaching out to help others who were never given the opportunity to roll the dice.

Layne has a strong sense of purpose and self. When she realized that her personal values no longer fit with her career, she took a chance and decided to roll her own dice instead. In doing so, she found a path that fits with both her values and to give back to the community.

I wouldn’t know any of this information if Layne weren’t my friend. That’s because Layne, who is running for the WV House of Delegates, isn’t making her campaign about her.

When Layne took the risk of running for the House of Delegates, she didn’t do it so she could build her resume or her ego. She did it because she truly cares about others and understands the impact legislative issues can have on the lives of the small business owner, the single parent family, the working poor and the economy of small communities.

During her campaign, Layne never said a negative word about her opponent nor allowed anyone else to do so (even when her opponent was garnering national attention as a teenage candidate). Instead, Layne chose to praise her opponent for inspiring other young people to get involved then focused on real issues affecting real people.

Layne didn’t pander to people who want elections to be about one or two issues. Instead, she adopted a platform that speaks to those who see beyond party lines to the complexity of issues.

I do have one complaint about Layne’s campaign. I can t vote for her because I don’t live in her district.

All I can do is publicly express my support and let others know how much  I appreciate that she wants to improve the odds for everyone.

Making the Most of a Crappy Situation

plungerI love my job, but it’s not an easy one.

That’s actually why  I love it. Every day is different, and I’m always tackling new challenges. A normal work day can include dealing with personnel issues, fundraising, administration, bookkeeping, programming, marketing and volunteer development.

That’s not to mention the constant decisions I have to make that impact the lives of the people we serve.

So, while I’m generally harried and stressed, I’m also generally happy to be at work –  with one exception.

I hate being the one responsible when something goes wrong with the building. I’ve dealt with roof leaks, security alarm issues and, worst of all, plumbing problems. I’ve dealt with so many plumbing problems this past year that I’ve become quite the expert with the plunger.

Of all of my accomplishments, that’s not one in which I take any pride. It’s also one I wish I could avoid.

That’s why, when I was called into the intake office on Friday afternoon, I ignored a rather loud gurgling sound coming from the downstairs bathroom – the ones our clients use.

Instead, I chose to focus on the homeless couple  seeking help. After speaking with the two individuals for a few minutes, I went upstairs to make phone calls on their half.

I was on the verge of resolving their predicament when I got an urgent call from the intake office.

“The bathroom is flooding. There is water all over the floor and there is poop floating in it!”

I looked down at my feet and my cute open-toed shoes.feet

This was not the time to display my mad plunger skills, but, as the person in charge, I still had to deal with the situation.

My shoe excuse didn’t impress the rest of the staff, who looked down at their feet with the same forlorn look that I had given mine.

Finally, the social worker, who was wearing tennis shoes, sighed and waded into the bathroom to get the plunger.

That’s when the young homeless man spoke up. “I can help,” he said. “I’ve done worse jobs.”

I couldn’t imagine a worse job than cleaning up the waste of a complete stranger, but he was true to his word.

He unclogged the toilet, mopped the floor and disinfected the bathroom.

And he never once complained.

While he cleaned, the social worker did an intake and an assessment with his partner, and we were able to find temporary solution.

After the couple left and I had asked staff to put the mop, bucket and gloves in the garbage can outside, I reflected on the incident.

The homeless guy hadn’t thought twice about helping out  because he recognized what he could contribute to a really crappy situation.

And, regardless of the toilet situation, I was just able to help him out with his own very different, but just as  crappy, situation.

And that is why I really, really love my job.

What I’ve Learned from “Difficult” People

A thankfulfew years ago, I would have complained that I had to deal almost daily with people who irritated me.

I had no concept of all the mean and completely self-centered people I would someday not only deal with on a regular basis but also come to accept. I would have thought I was too strong-willed and strong-minded to tolerate such people.

But a few years ago, I wouldn’t have recognized that, sometimes, being tolerant is not only the best way to deal with most difficult people, it is also a great learning experience.

That’s not to say I’ll ever accept bad or abusive behavior, but it does mean that one of the benefits of getting older is gaining perspective. And perspective has taught me that difficult people have done more to teach me about how to live my life than many of the kind and giving people I also encounter on a daily basis.

Difficult people have taught me that paying attention and listening to others is much more important than ensuring others listen to me.

Difficult people have taught me that a rude word will always being louder than a compliment that is shouted to the world.

Difficult people have taught me that being concerned with who gets credit for good deeds or successes tarnishes all that has been accomplished.

Difficult people have taught me that spreading lies and half-truths may garner immediate attention but will ultimately lead to a lack of credibility.

Difficult people have taught me that belittling, attempting to control or asserting power over others actually renders a person weak in the eyes of others.

And difficult people have taught me that refusal to adopt others’ ideas or accept constructive criticism stunts growth and limits possibilities.

I would be lying if I said difficult people no longer bother me or manage to get under skin. They do.

But I do find that the older I get, the less time and emotional energy I waste wishing I could change difficult people and the more time and energy I spend contemplating how to best apply their lessons to my own life.

In Respect of The Walnut

My stand-off with a red fox across a small meadow should have been the highlight of my evening bike ride, but it wasn’t.

My highlight was holding a walnut that had fallen from a tree onto a road. I picked it up after my encounter with the fox.

The fox stood very still in his tracks as I walked my bike a few feet closer to get a better look at the beautiful animal. I got my opportunity as he inspected me just as I inspected him. He then decided he didn’t like what it saw and turned to trot into the woods.

I got back on my bike and pedaled a few more miles when my tire hit something and skidded a bit. I stopped to determine what had almost caused my accident.

It was a round walnut still in its green husk.

walnutsI picked up the walnut and squeezed it to not only reveal the nut beneath but a flood of memories as well.

A walnut tree provided shade over the house where I lived as a child so young that my memories are scattered and limited. I remember spending a great deal of time in the yard with the tree, a wood fence that was built by horizontal, rather than vertical, pieces of  wood and a picnic table.

I would sit under that tree pulling apart walnut husks to reveal the nuts buried beneath while I waited for my father to make his short walk home from his office building.

Years later, I learned that my mother had completely different memories of that time. She dreaded the walnuts falling as they were not gems to be uncovered, as my brother and I thought, but were instead dirty objects that left stains upon whomever and whatever touched them. I don’t remember the stains at all.dirty fingers

What I do remember is the beautiful antique furniture in our home that my parents said was made of walnut.

I also remember that my parents had an annual holiday tradition  of offering an unending supply of nuts, still in their shells, with  a nutcracker. That bowl always contained walnuts.

Those walnuts bore little resemblance to the black ones that had left my hands caked in a dirt and grime, but they did serve as a reminder.

Sometimes we have to look beyond what we initially observe – the inconvenience and messiness that most people  carry with them – to discover all they have to offer. Sometimes, the greatest rewards come when we permit ourselves to take on situations that require us to get our hands dirty. And almost all of the time, people and situations aren’t all good or all bad but simply an untidy mix of both.

Our responsibility as people is to train ourselves to always look for the good.

In Between

IMG_1142 Little speaks more to my age than how quickly the seasons are passing.

Only yesterday, the crocus were starting to poke their heads through the frozen dirt, and now summer is quickly fading as  autumn once again prepares for its annual debut.

I realized that the awkward stage between seasons had arrived  as I was pedaling my bike IMG_1134the other evening.

Only a few weeks before, I had been watching the sun rise on my daily bike rides.

Now, the  sun is rising later each day and making an earlier and earlier farewell, so I am riding in the evenings instead of the mornings.

As I do, I’m observing the days are getting shorter and shorter but the leaves aren’t yet changing and the temperatures can’t decide whether I should be wearing  flip-flops or boots.

We are officially at that “in-between stage.” And I am grateful.

A few years agIMG_1126o, I would probably have tried holding on to what was slipping away while reaching out to what was just beyond my grasp on the horizon. In doing so, I would have lost the beauty and purpose of “in between.”

Now I appreciate it.
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“In between” isn’t about wasting energy on mistakes or worrying about future decisions. Instead it is about accepting who we are and encouraging ourselves to do better.

“In between” isn’t about regretting all that we missed but is about appreciating all that currently surrounds us.

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And ” in between” isn’t about hoping that the future holds more than the past. “In between” is about appreciating the present moment for exactly what it is.

“In between” is about recognizing the joy and potential in every minute regardless of our age, expectations or previous losses.

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“In between” is about learning to appreciate the gift of the present while accepting that we can’t always control our current circumstances or our future.

And,most importantly, ” in between” is about paying attention to what others might dismiss as mundane but is actually miraculous.

Here is to “in between.”

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A Backward Glance at Happiness

happinessI was having dinner with a group of friends who were celebrating life despite the handfuls of crap it sometimes hands us, when I realized something.

Despite the tears and hugs and prayers about several painful situations, hope was in plentiful supply while despair was being left behind.

I was so struck by this not because we were being unrealistic but because we were being completely realistic. No one was hiding from the truth. We recognized that there are no scales of justice in real life: bad things happen to good people, relationships sometimes crumble,  illness doesn’t  pick victims based on age or virtues and people with large egos sometimes prevail.

But we also knew that attempting to make sense of this imbalance only results in one thing: wasted time. So instead, we chose to simply acknowledge life’s imperfections while spending our energy enjoying  what we could.

That’s when I realized that happiness is not something that exists only where sadness, frustration and anger don’t.

Instead, happiness exists despite them and right alongside them, and it doesn’t require an absolutely perfect moment.

It jumps into your lap while you are feeling lost amid hundreds of other students at an elementary school assembly when one of the performers walks off the stage and asks you to dance.

It reassures you when you skip classes during your senior year of college to hang out at a lake with friends because you know you only have days left before you will go your separate ways. Despite the  fear of leaving the safety of a college cocoon and  being forced to test your wings, you know you are enjoying a fleeting  moment that will quickly become a treasured memory.

It stays with you when a few people are saying unfair and untrue things about you yet even more people surround you with their love and support.

And it embraces you at a funeral service when you  laugh at a funny story about someone you loved  but who can no longer share your amusement.

I would never attempt to define happiness anymore than I would attempt to define love.  But I know I can see it in every memory I have. Sometimes it is silent and sometimes it is loud. But it is always there and, even more importantly, I know it will always be in the memories I have yet to make.

 

Conversations With Strangers – The NYC Subway

There is something incredibly comforting about conversations with complete stransubway signgers with whom we only share are a few random moments in the same location.

We don’t have to worry about making an impression or searching in vain for something we have in common. We simply accept the fact that connecting with another human, even for just a few minutes, will always be more meaningful than comparing a long list of accomplishments, the size of our house or our connections with what we deem powerful people.

I was reminded of this last Friday on the subway in New York City.

I was lucky enough to have a seat on the crowded  train, but that seat was very, very small. My thigh was wedged up against that of  the man next to me. Societal rules dictated that I ignore the contact, but apparently he didn’t abide by those rules and immediately engaged in conversation.

In a thick Hispanic accent, he asked if I lived in the city. When I told him no, he told me he didn’t he either. He had grown up in the Bronx, but he now lived in Kellogg, Michigan. He wanted to know where I do live. When I told him, he asked whether I lived near the ocean and if the winters are bad.  apparently, he still hasn’t recovered from the one he experienced in Michigan.

He and his wife applauded as my daughter and her friend broke into song, and he told me that his cousin had started the children’s chorus in New York City. He gave me tips about navigating the subway system, and he shared his excitement at being back in “his city.”

At one point during our conversation, his wife urgently grabbed his arm and started speaking rapidly in Spanish.

“She wants to know if you are Polish,” he explained to me.

His wife gave me a brilliant smile, and I felt some sense of guilt asking  “why?”

“Because you look like her good friend who is Polish,” he said. “Your  features are the same.’

I glanced back at his wife who was still beaming and shook my head. “Not Polish,” I answered.

She nodded in understanding as the train grinded to a stop – our stop.

“Have a good life,” the man said as I stood to leave.

“You too,” I said.

That ended a generally unmemorable conversation, and I know I’ll never recognize the man if I ever see him again. He was just a random person on a train with whom I happened to share a moment in time.

Yet, ironically, I’ll never forget him because he gave me a little piece of himself to me.

He and his wife provided my daughter with an audience and applause in New York City. His wife seemed to think I must be a good person because I reminded her of a dear friend. Most  importantly, the man  took an interest in me not because society required that of him but because he recognized the importance of humanity. And because of that, I gave a little piece of myself to him.

I couldn’t ask for more.

He, a random stranger on a subway train, taught me how much total strangers can bring into our lives and how much sharing those encounters can bring into the lives of others. I’m looking forward to many more conversations with strangers.

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