Thursday, December 13, 2012

Graduating with Grace

Last weekend I attended the very inspiring graduation of Empowered Women International’s current Entrepreneur Training for Success class.  The class included women with origins from all corners of the globe who faced immense personal challenges to make their dreams a reality.  Their dreams are to start businesses to support themselves and their families, to make a better life for their children, to honor family and friends who believe in them, to give their passion wings.  Empowered Women International helped them turn their ideas, creativity, and talent into personal power and entrepreneurial success. (Full disclosure—I serve on the advisory board of EWI—and you’ll be hearing a lot more from me about this dynamic nonprofit and its success stories.)

One graduate who left her mark on me and others in the room is Darlene “Grace” Allen.  Grace loves to write and writes to love.  She founded Oracle Ink “to serve as a global voice of healing and hope through inspirational and sacred products and performances.” In addition to offering greeting cards with heart, she’ll help individuals with customized writing services for special occasions and rites of passage (turning your tongue-tied sentiments into eloquent poetry and prose!), inspire with spoken word performances and messages recorded for posterity, and motivate with public speaking engagements.  

With her strong and beautiful presence she gave voice to the excitement and self-confidence of her fellow graduates with a poem, which I asked her to let me share here on “Grace in the Gray Areas.” Happy Graduation, Grace and the fall 2012 EWI Entrepreneur Training for Success class!


You leave your mark
everywhere you step
on everything you touch.

Incandescent trails
showing how you spent your time
and used your mind
beaming brightly to the world.

Marks which either add
to the making of a pearl
or the burning of a city.

You leave your mark
everywhere you step
on everything you touch.

Pursuing your vision,
keeps you from perishing.
Manifesting your vision,
is your gift to the world.

You leave your mark
everywhere you step
on everything you touch.


(C)2012 Grace Allen

(Reach Grace at 301-768-2304,

Monday, November 5, 2012

Sharing Grace with Sloan Wainwright

A recent folk concert I attended turned out to be more than a great musical experience, rolling instead into one of those great moments of connectedness that linger long after the event.  Sloan Wainwright and The Kennedys were playing at BlackRock Center for the Arts as part of the center’s coffeehouse series.  I haven’t been to as many concerts as I’d like in the past year, but wouldn’t miss Sloan Wainwright coming into town for anything.  This woman could sing the phone book and I’d pay to listen; her rich contralto voice is unlike anyone’s and I adore her style.  Yes, she’s one of those Wainwrights, sister to Loudon Wainwright III, aunt to Rufus Wainwright, and so on, but I couldn’t give two figs, because with her voice and her songwriting skills she’s one of a kind.  I also enjoy the Kennedys, this time finding it a particular treat getting to hear Pete Kennedy play the electric sitar, a beautiful instrument. 

This concert I was struck by the powerful, affirming lyrics in Sloan’s songs, especially on her new album Upside Down & Under My Heart.  The first glimmering that I’m connecting at a deeper level with her lyrics now, not just her voice, comes as she sings in “Little Bit Right”:

Everybody’s a little bit broken. 
Everybody’s a little divine.

I got chills.  What delicious wordsmithing, what perfect truth!

Her lyrics speak to me in meaningful metaphor:

Even when it’s all uphill
Somehow you find the will
To meet the sun halfway

These are lines in a song she wrote on her album Life Grows Back about meeting a 90+ year-old woman Phyllis in the mountains, but I hear that in challenging times we still need to turn our faces to the sun so we can feel its rays when they come, and that any time we need to be open to happiness to receive it.

Sloan talks about “All that dwells between the layers of living” as she introduces her song “Between the Lines,” and I am gripped by the eponymous refrain:

Between the lines
Is where I¹ll find
What I am after
The answer lies there
Between the lines

I hear the affirmation that we live and find grace in life’s gray areas, between the lines, in the questions, amidst the paradoxes, in all that is unexpected and must be accepted. 

During the break between sets I was the first one out to the table in the lobby to buy CDs and had a few minutes alone with Sloan.  I told her how I sat straight up in my seat when she riffed between numbers and shared this epiphany in real-time, “I’m becoming very much at one with the gray area, never mind context.” I told her about my former Grace in the Gray Areas column in Washington Woman magazine, now morphed into this blog, and we connected eagerly over this and over the stunning and rare deep lavender jade pendant of the goddess Guan Yin she wore around her neck, the goddess of mercy who also graces my home in two sculptures.  Did I mention both our 20-something sons are named Sam?  I love a good synchronicity!

I bought two of her CDs during the break, and went back for a third (Rediscovery, a great collection of cover tunes) after her second set hearing an amazing rendition of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.”  Yes, I have an iPod, but I confess I don't use it much; I just love to load CDs into the car player, old school, and rock out while I drive.

If you’re not already familiar with Sloan Wainwright, get to her website ( and buy some CDs or get to iTunes and start downloading.  Since it’s almost that time again (yup, I started seeing the Christmas commercials before Halloween, even), treat yourself to On a Night Before Christmas, a live recording with friends including The Kennedys. 

A wonderful and unexpected evening, music, a shared gift of grace, and the goddess of mercy--what could be better? Sing on, soul sister!

Monday, August 27, 2012

Changing the World, One Student at a Time

I sat with my 45 classmates who had just graduated from Leadership Montgomery’s Class of 2012 Core Program, happy and excited at this culmination of nine months of learning and growing together.  The next portion of the program was presentation of the Leadership Montgomery Youth Community Leadership Awards. Despite knowing any awards affiliated with LM would be special, we weren’t prepared for just how special these young people were. 

As emcee Alison Starling, anchor at WJLA-TV, told their stories, and we saw video of the work they’d done, we accomplished adults were deeply humbled.  These were young people who had in the midst of academic challenges, peer and family challenges, just plain growing up challenges, dedicating themselves to others in ways that have impacted thousands and will continue to do so going forward. To put all this into perspective as I describe their service, I want you to think:
what national organization did you found at the age of eight? 
when did you first educate hundreds of people about an international epidemic?
were you extending friendship to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities when you were in high school and creating an environment where others could do the same?
how many hours a week did you volunteer in high school?

We first learned about Connor Dantzler of Damascus High School, who discovered his passion early--delivering a smile to those in need. “My father wrote a joke book years ago and we had a lot of copies stored away. That gave me the idea to collect joke books and give them to people who could use a laugh,” Dantzler says. Add to that, “I saw my family helping the community and I wanted to be a part of it.” So at just eight years old, he founded Health Through Humor, sharing new joke books with thousands of patients of all ages in hospitals and residential care centers in the U.S. and Canada. Nearly a decade later, Health Through Humor continues to offer much-needed laughs.  Connor plans to stay close to his interest in health by becoming a doctor himself. 

Kendra Battle’s project was a daunting one, educating her peers about HIV/ AIDS.  She told the awards ceremony audience she was shocked at how many teens walk around believing ‘It could never happen to me.’ “I lost an uncle to HIV, so I understand how common the disease is,” she says. As a senior at John F. Kennedy High School, she organized a talent show and created profit-sharing nights at area restaurants, raising more than $2100 for local nonprofit AIDS United. 

Becca Sussman, who just graduated from Sherwood High School, headed the school’s chapter of Best Buddies, an organization that promotes the inclusion of intellectually disabled students by facilitating one-to-one friendships between students with and without special needs.  She had been involved in the club since her freshman year, after being inspired by her father, who has cerebral palsy, and her friend, who was the president before her. The chapter became the biggest club at Sherwood and Sussman was invited to join the leadership of the organization at the state and international levels.  She also took the leadership role in making corollary sports –- a team of students with and without disabilities --- offered at her school and is a captain of Special Olympics sports teams. Next year she’s starting a chapter of Best Buddies at Columbia University. 

Katie Mark elevated the beauty of art by leading 13 people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, assisted by 11 volunteers from the community, to complete the 15’ x 8’ mural she designed as her Girl Scout Gold Award project. The park-themed mural was installed in The ARC of Montgomery County’s Vocational Services building, which serves approximately 400 people. Mark, a Holton Arms school graduate heading to University of Texas at Austin in the fall, is volunteering this summer at a camp for girls with disabilities. 

Since his first week at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, Gabe Gan been a member of the Montgomery County First Aid Unit Explorer Post 521 based out of the Kensington Volunteer Fire Department. He’s risen to the rank of Captain of this group and is certified as an Emergency Medical Responder. Volunteering an average of 20 hours a week, among his accomplishments are bringing his unit into the 21st century by digitizing many of the old paper forms, initiating a popular Facebook group, producing a new recruitment video, and creating a website.  Gan hopes to use all the skills he’s gained with a career as a trauma surgeon at a large teaching hospital.

When I asked how these talented and dedicated young people viewed leadership, the key elements that emerged were passion and communication. “If you truly care about something, and want to make a difference, you inspire others to do the same and promote change,” says Sussman. “I believe that a leader is able to execute a vision, oversee its success, and effectively communicate and listen to his/her followers,” says Battle. “I think the most important qualities of a leader are the ability to do your best for the group you represent as well as the ability to synthesize the thoughts and ideas of everyone,” says Gan.  “Most importantly, I believe doing what's right makes one a leader.”

Leadership Montgomery created the Youth Community Leadership Awards in 1997 “to identify, reward, and promote outstanding community service and leadership” among high school seniors in the county, whether they attend public, private or parochial schools.  Unlike most youth excellence awards, they don’t take academic achievement into account, strictly community service.  The young people have to complete a minimum of 260 hours of approved community service by the end of their junior year, and submit an essay about their work and letters of recommendation. The award selection committee consists of Leadership Montgomery graduates and members of the dedicated award sponsor, Shulman Rogers--which has sponsored these awards for 16 years, and has just committed to an additional five years.  Each of the five honorees receives a $1,000 award for their continuing education.

For the Leadership Montgomery graduates and community members in the audience, the stories of these young people were reminders of the power of one person—even one young person—to make a difference in the world.  We left that night, inspired and even more dedicated to making our own and to mentoring that power in others.

                 {An edited version of this post appeared as an article in the 7/20/12 Gazette of Business & Politics}

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Jungle Beasts, Bundles of Joy, and a Blueprint for Humanity

There is just something about coming out from a dip in the water to lounge poolside and read a good book on a sunny day (yes, slathered with sunscreen and eyes protected with sunglasses and a hat).  And summer reading doesn’t have to be light as a feather; it can also light the way for inner and outer journeys. 

I’ve long followed certain authors but not particular publishers, until a couple of years ago.  Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog was my first Europa Editions book and I adored it.  Since then at the library whenever I see one of their distinctive covers with the pelican logo I pick it up and check it out, regardless of whether the topic or author is something I’d normally find of interest.  Sometimes it’s another beautifully translated work, like Barbery’s first book, Gourmet Rhapsody.  Other times are books in the original English.

Most recently I was completely captivated by their Audrey Schulman title, Three Weeks in December.  If you liked Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, you’ll love Three Weeks in December.  The scene shifts between times and places, a technique I usually find tiresome but not at all here.  In late 19th century British East Africa, engineer Jeremy is posted to oversee construction of a railroad, but that work becomes overshadowed by lions stalking the workers at night.  In present day Rwanda, ethnobiologist Max looks for a potentially lifesaving vine, but her life there is more about her relationship with the threatened gorillas amidst whom she lives, and how her Asperger’s serves her in that relationship.  Both stories are suspenseful and engaging, the characters well developed, and Three Weeks in December is one of those books you wish would never end.

Another summer read that lived up to my high expectations was Anne Lamott’s  (with Sam Lamott) Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son’s First Son (Riverhead Books).  Like her brilliant Operating Instructions, the story of her son’s first year, her latest is brutally honest, warm, hilarious, and spiritual.  Lamott did not expect to become a grandmother at just a “ripe” 55, when her son was not yet 20.  Some of the most beautiful moments of the book are when this mother watches her “wild son…now taking tender care of his own newborn, a miniature who is both unique and reflective.”

Lamott does not question her sanity this time around, but struggles with her overwhelming love for little Jax and the fear that her son’s challenging relationship with Jax’s mother could keep him from her.  She is also an eloquent observer, as always, of life’s foibles and miracles, of her own days and those of the people around her. “With your own child, you’re fixated on the foreground, trying to keep the child safe and alive,” she muses. “But with a grandchild, you can be in softer focus, you can see beyond the anxious foreground.” While she does still spend some time in that anxious foreground, “quiet, peaceful joy” is the place where she and Jax rest most often, in their complicated family, in Lamott’s caring community.

Amidst much other reading both fiction and nonfiction, I was lifted up by the Dalai Lama’s Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), coming 10 years after his luminous Ethics for a New Millennium. While he still comes from a place of deep commitment to his Buddhist tradition, he wants the reader to shed the concern about this religion or that and cut to the core of our being as humans, which is compassion and action upon it.  He reminds us of the power of one individual to make a difference, and of the extraordinary things that can happen when committed individuals ban together to do so. 

The Dalai Lama walks readers through ways to cultivate a mental practice, meditation, to help us walk a calmer, more patient path through life, for “Our inner lives are something we ignore at our own peril.” He urges a secular system of ethics grounded in compassion, an “education of the heart” as part of formal education: he is “hopeful that a time will come when we can take it for granted, that children will learn, as part of their school curriculum, the indispensability of inner values such as love, compassion, justice, and forgiveness.”

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Creating a Community of Purpose

You just never know who you’re going to end up meeting and what you’re going to end up learning from them at Leadership Montgomery. We in the Core Program Class of 2012 just jumped into each experience headfirst, whether it was loading up in a firefighter’s gear, having a dialogue with the County Executive, tramping around a water recovery plant, or visiting an Islamic temple.  We also took time to record the epiphanies that came with each presentation or experience, and there were plenty of those.  Our learning leaps of faith were well rewarded.

Yet when I asked a cross-sample of classmates what was the best thing about LM and Class of 2012, they didn’t respond with all the cool things we got to do or cool places we got to go or statistics we digested.  Instead, each person answered with some permutation of “getting to know my classmates” and “the friendships I made.” 

It’s not surprising, really.  We came together as individuals, and thanks to adept facilitating at our opening retreat by Eliot Pfanstiehl, CEO of Strathmore and Founding Board Member of Leadership Montgomery, we became a community.  Keith Danos, Chief Financial Officer of Jewish Foundation for Group Homes, said, “I never anticipated I would be able to develop relationships with as many people in such a short time.” That sense of community strengthened each time we gathered and grew as we met leaders and visionaries in various sectors of the county and started working on our Nonprofit Discovery projects.

Ron Dimaranan, Director of Business Development for Mid-Atlantic Federal Credit Union, enjoyed “seeing and learning from everyone’s leadership styles and how I can improve mine.  And how type A personalities can get along!”  Discussions and experiences related to the workings of the county and promoting the wellbeing of our citizens both enhanced and were enhanced by the personal bonds we shared. As Anna Maria Izquierdo-Porrera, Executive Director of Care 4 Your Health, put it, “The people I’ve met are a phenomenal group of individuals. For me it was the intense conversations that have been the most rewarding parts of the whole experience.”

Our Nonprofit Discovery projects spanned education, literacy, the arts, disabilities, homelessness, and health.   We learned about all the good that was being done by individuals and organizations and our government, and so much more that was still needed.  Hopefully the tools we acquired in Leadership Montgomery would equip us better to tackle the complexities of the challenges facing the county.

Leadership Montgomery provided rare windows into the present and the future of our county, from the Agricultural Reserve to the arts, from planning to public safety.  Class members were encouraged to ask questions and offer our own perspectives, whether it was in small group discussions on diversity or a no-holds-barred dialogue on education with the new school superintendent. 

                                           photo credit: Esther Newman

Almina Khorakiwala, Vice President for The Walker Marchant Group, marveled that “there were things in the county I’d never seen before, innovative ideas and places that were models for how to do things.  One of my favorites was the Annapolis session and the access to lawmakers, being able to learn and understand the process and how we can all be better citizens.”

Deborah Broder, Vice President, BSO Strathmore, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, was impressed “by the opportunity to learn more about the incredible resources in Montgomery County and resources the county government throws behind them.” Susan Burkinshaw, owner of Snap Fitness, echoed this, saying she’s impressed “to know so much goes on behind the scenes to make Montgomery County better--so many things we as community need to participate in to keep things going, and going right.”

Many times we saw the power of one individual to make a difference, but also the exponential increase in making a difference that can occur when individuals and organizations collaborate effectively.  We didn’t wait to graduate to start putting that into action, building partnerships across our organizations and volunteering individually for each other’s pet projects.

My own favorite moment came during a break-out meeting with a scientist talking about his organization’s research on Alzheimer’s. In passing he used the term “community of purpose.” He continued talking but my brain had stopped at that term.  I love the idea of “community of purpose” and I also think it is a great way to describe LM and our class.  Our community of purpose is to become more informed stewards of our county’s people, environment, and infrastructure, and to create connections for sharing information, ideas, and resources toward that purpose.

Whatever achievements, jobs, education, or opinions classmates brought to the table of the Class of 2012, everyone checked their egos at the door.  DeRionne Pollard, President of Montgomery College, perhaps summed up best the personal connection we all made: “The most rewarding thing for me has been making new friends out of context.”

Our class year may be over, but the community is forever. 

 This post originally appeared as an article in The Gazette of Politics and Business: Leadership Montgomery Book of Leaders Annual Report & Directory 2012

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Parents Texting to Connect

Pick up a copy of When Parents Text: So Much Said…So Little Understood by Lauren Kaelin and Sophia Fraioli. I promise you it will keep you laughing from cover to cover.  Even if you think you know very well how to text properly.  As I am sure you do, much like myself, despite what you may have heard from my know-it-all 23-year-old.  

Two young women have to move home after college.  “In between babysitting jobs, unpaid internships, e-mails from DirectLoans, and taking NJ Transit into the city for various hourly wages, we received some texts from our parents.” These struck them as so hilarious they started a website, and this book chronicles some of their early posts. 

Their parents’ texts range from the mundane (tacos for dinner? Fine. Leftover dumps? Er, bad? Oh, no, dumplings, ok then) to special occasions (What does dad want for his birthday? Hair.) Texts are the perfect vehicle for helicopter parenting in the not-so-empty nest, but most of all they’re an extension of love in what are clearly two very loving families.  Nonetheless, there’s a lot lost in translation, like in this exchange:

            “Mom: What did you do with your sisters contacts, she can’t find them
            Me:  I didn’t touch her contacts, maybe she deleted them.
            Mom: From her eyes?”

Sometimes parents have to text for directions:
            “Dad: would ya’ll take me to the itunes store…is it on S. Congress?

And sometimes texting is perfect for health and safety alerts:
            “Dad: Have fun paint ball ing? remember that you only have one eye? be careful that no one shoots you in the remaining eye?
            Me:  Dad, i’m nearsighted in one eye, not blind...
            Dad: You know what I mean? I would hate for you to lose vision? that would affect you for the rest of your life? how do you make a period on my phone?”

And more than once in a while things come by text that seem more suited for oral communications, but maybe that’s just me…

            “Mom: Your dentist died. No appt next week. I’ll find u new one. I learned how to make bread!”

Happily, when you finish the book and find yourself unable to stop reading, you can continue to get your laughs online at  I have yet to find any clues, however, as to why my son treats my abbreviating words in perfectly logical fashion as a faux pas. (I’m trying desperately to shorten the time it takes me to express myself—why won’t he just pick up the phone?!)  “Coz” as an abbreviation for “because” drives him particularly crazy.

Looking for evidence of his gentle ribbing about my texting style, I had to go back no further than a couple of months in the texts saved in my inbox. (And can someone please tell me how to get these precious communications off my phone and onto my computer? ) I had invited him to do something, I don’t remember what, and here’s the impertinence I got in return: “No cnt, no tme kep abbrevn tho so kwl.”  

So no, he doesn’t appreciate that I went out and got a new phone a couple of years ago specifically because it had a QWERTY keyboard, and added more text allowance to my already exorbitant wireless plan so I could text with him, so I could stay connected by his communications media of choice.  

I’m not a technophobe by any means, I just have fingers and thumbs that were meant for bigger keys, and, oh yeah, like to hear the sound of his voice once in a while.  But I will continue to text my boy and take his critiques in stride. 

Coz I luv hm.

Monday, June 18, 2012

An Evening with Ram Dass, Krishna Das, & Fierce Grace

No one at the staff meeting this morning seemed to notice.  Or perhaps they were just being polite and ignoring the dark circles around my eyes and the fact that I had exchanged showering and putting on makeup for an extra half hour of sleep. How could they know that their colleague had had an extraordinary experience that kept her out late the night before? Or that even when I had laid my head down on the pillow it took me til nearly 3 am to get to sleep, in no small part due to the rhythmic chants going through my head on a non-stop loop, like when you hear a song on a TV commercial and can’t get it out of your brain, only more meaningful?

My friend Laura and I spent all day and all evening yesterday at Buddhafest, a three-day feast of Buddhist films, music, meditation and talks.  We were both in a place where we needed some spiritual shoring up and this was definitely the place for that.  One of the organizers shared that a man from West Virginia had told him how much the event had meant to him, and how it was a “hope generator.”  How perfectly that captured our intention in coming and the gift of the event.

As is often the case, memorable events can come where and when least expected.  I made a nice connection with a man, Steve, sitting near me when speakers from Shambhala Meditation Center had us break up into twos for an exercise.  It was one of those great incidents of synchronicity and recognition where you’re both saying, ‘wow, we’re going through the same kind of experience!’ and it makes you remember you’re not alone in this world or in your experience.

My friend Laura was chatting with a woman behind us in line, she more intently than I as I popped out to grab another bottle of water and browse the books/CDs/DVDs for sale tables.  I heard that the woman, Lysa, was from Canada and had come here specifically for Buddhafest. I knew that Laura was also talking with her about how much she needed this gathering and its lessons, after a series of events had really beaten her up over the last year and a half. After we sat down, Laura told me what a lovely spirit she had, and how when Laura had asked her of all the retreats and meditation centers she’d been to, which was her favorite, Lysa replied that it was the one she’d created in her own home.  Out of the blue in a break between sessions, Lysa came back to our row of seats and knelt urgently at Laura’s feet, pressing into her hand a little silver bag.  She told Laura she knew how difficult a time she’d been having because she’d gone through some things herself, and that she wanted her to have this talisman.  After she stood and disappeared back to her seat, Laura opened the bag to find a gorgeous glass pendant of blues and grays and greens. As she rubbed her fingers over the smooth surface, we sat holding in awe the deeply touching gesture, all the more meaningful coming from a stranger.

Although the afternoon’s talks and films had focused very tightly on Buddhist meditation and Buddhist lineages of spiritual teachers, it was an evening more in the Hindu milieu that lifted hearts and voices the highest and bodies from our seats.

Krishna Das, the world acclaimed musician, had us chanting for a few minutes in a call and response before he talked a bit about his relationship with Ram Dass, the great spiritual teacher who came out of the 1960s and reminded us to “Be Here Now.”  We all knew that Ram Dass had suffered a stroke more than a decade ago that left him partially paralyzed and with speech difficulties.  We were all very excited that after watching a film that had been made of him after his stroke, Ram Dass was going to join us via Skype.

photo credit: Laura Keel

I had already seen the film Fierce Grace on Netflix, but it was much more powerful on a large screen in a room full of mindful spiritual seekers and practitioners.   Also on my small living room TV I had not been able to hear Ram Dass in real time from Maui, with the wonderful sound of waves crashing on the shore in in the background.

Krishna Das talked with him briefly.  Ram Dass said, “I’ve learned to go within to go in my heart, and certainly my stroke has helped me because it’s given me contentment.  Here I am, I’m 81 and I’m content!”  Later he added, “The stroke was grace.  You know, I’m just learning how to inhabit my heart, my spiritual heart.  Our guru [Maharaj Ji] gave us love and I’m giving you love, and you will give love to other people, and that’s the way it’s spent, heart to heart to heart.”

One of the audience members asked what we can do to engage the youth of today to look at spiritual teachings and continue to work for peace.  Ram Dass replied, “We can be, not do…I tell the youth today, don’t get intrigued by information on the outside. Go into your heart because that is where the real information is. Outside is objective.  Inside is subjective.  Inside is self, your guru, God.  All inside of you. Inside of you!  When the environment is too much, go inside, go inside,” he urged us, then broke into a great big smile and added, “Yeah!”

Ram Dass also told us that we have to embrace change, particularly regarding aging, but that declines in health need not define us.  “I am inside,” he said, “and I am an infinite being, and then I have this body.  The stroke happened to this body, it didn’t happen to me. See?”

“It’s made it hard to play the cello, and it’s made it hard to drive, and it’s made it hard to walk,” he continued. “But those ‘hardnesses’ showed me how strong my attachments were.”  Taking the example of driving, he said that he’d gone from being in the driver’s seat to being chauffeured, and he looks at trees and grass now, not the road.  “I am a passenger.  A perfect passenger!”

We gave a standing ovation and waved farewell to Ram Dass, then settled in for a promised 45 minutes of music from Krishna Das.  The kirtan began then and we had barely chanted one call and response before one after another of the audience members rose to their feet and began to dance, either at their seats or out in the aisles.  Small groups of dancers formed and we chanted on and on and on, a mantra, a loud vibration of the universe and praise to God that in this multi-faith gathering became praise to the universe, praise to spirit and divine energy, and to living lives of love and peace.  The emotion built and the chanting and music from Krishna Das and his band and the audience response grew louder and louder til I thought I would lose my voice.

Introducing the film to us, Fierce Grace director Mickey Lemle said that one thing he learned from Ram Dass was, “We’re simultaneously human and divine, and the trick is to dance in the space between the two, in that tension.” And so we danced, and danced, and danced.  

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Reading and Remembering on Memorial Day

Wow.  Rarely has the A section of The Washington Post been such a roller coaster of emotion for me.  

Two front page articles had me in tears.  One took me by surprise with its goodness--the last place one expects to find good news, after all, is the front page of a newspaper.  “Honoring the dead to treat the living” by Lena Sun was the story of a ceremony honoring the families of dead people whose organs were donated to research.  The Georgetown University medical students carried candles creating a ribbon of light, and the ceremony celebrated the priceless contribution of both the dead and their loved ones.  The author interviewed relatives about the difficult decision to donate, and medical students about their respect for the people whose organs they had explored in anatomy lab. The beauty of it took my breath away.

The second article brought tears to my eyes, but this time tears of despair. “Homeless,not helpless” by Annie Gowen was at first glance an uplifting article about a once-homeless vet, Jas Boothe, who purchased a house in the Northern Virginia suburbs as a shelter for homeless female vets and their children. I am, as readers of this blog know, frequently and vocally in awe of the power of one individual to make a difference. But in this case that awe was overwhelmed by the dread that this house was a drop in the bucket of a problem that is a disgrace by its very existence, which is that we aren’t taking proper care of our vets who have served our country so bravely.  One of the issues is that many of the shelters created to support vets don’t accommodate children.

I have known about the link between homelessness and mental illness in war vets since the Vietnam vets of my generation, but heretofore only really made the connection regarding male vets.  I’m sure it’s not that every war hasn’t had female vets shattered just has badly of course, and I’ve read several stirring and disturbing books by female veterans, but this article brought these women, right now, in my community, to light.  Gowen writes, “Although the overall number of homeless veterans declined 12 percent between 2010 and 2011, the number of homeless female veterans is increasing, the VA said in a draft report this month. Women are the fastest-growing segment of the homeless veteran population.”  Gowen also shares the VA’s acknowledgement that female vets “are more likely to be diagnosed with mental health problems and to have suffered sexual trauma during their military service” (though the author doesn’t say whether the VA report notes the further horror that some of that is at the hands of their fellow American soldiers).

I set down the newspaper for a while, deeply disturbed and wondering how I could help this cause (which turns out to be through Final Salute, whose mission is to help homeless female veterans with safe and suitable housing).

When I returned to the A section a bit later it was another piece of good news that caught my eye—and sent me down Memory Lane.  I squealed at the first sentence of Olga Khazan’s “Kickstarter spies asunglass start-up” article as a familiar name jumped out.  Vincent Ko, one of my son’s best friends since elementary school, who he’d roomed with in DC most recently last summer, had a vision and is making it a reality.  The entrepreneurial 24-year-old used crowdsourcing to fund his startup selling sunglasses made of bamboo.  And if that’s not cool enough, he’s taken inspiration from the model of TOMS Shoes, which for every pair sold donates a pair of shoes to the needy.  Vincent and his co-founders have partnered with an organization that for every pair of Panda sunglasses sold provides an eye exam and eyeglasses to someone in need in India, Colombia or Argentina.

I read with growing excitement (the sunglasses will be selling in Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie, and sales have already been responsible for more than a thousand eye exams), as puffed up with pride as if Vincent were my own. I did, after all, offer food and shelter to him and the rest of the bright bunch of tots-turned-teens that formed my son’s posse for so many years, and toted them to middle school dances and skating packed tightly in their gangly glory of pre-adolescence in my car, whose moon roof I had to open to let out the competing colognes. 

I finish reading the newspaper feeling a sense of connection to my community and the world, optimism that there is still a place for good writing and that journalists can be voices for change, and, after all, inspiration at the power of one individual to make a difference.  

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Coming Out the Other Side

I realize I have lost my voice.  Metaphorically, that is. I’ve been sitting here thinking it has been a really long time since I blogged, and beating myself up for that.  My last post was more than a month ago, musing about my then-impending move and my sense of loss and my gratitude for the place I had the good fortune to live for the past decade.    I have since then thought about my next post, something funny about the ridiculous things that happen during a move, or perhaps a vicious tirade against the hands-down winner for lousiest customer service during a move, Verizon Communications.

But I’m too exhausted, still, in the aftermath of my epic battle to procure working phone, fax, and Internet, and when the realization of the enormity of the change I’ve just made hits me. I’m too exhausted, still, by the fact that after my move, instead of the vacation I really need, I instead had to face going back into my draining job, now located claustrophobically in my dining room, six feet from the should-be sanctuary of my favorite chair perch in my living room.

I have had a lot of losses of late. I am struggling.  And I am sick of—and fear those around me are sick of, too—the gloomy story I’ve been telling for the last year or so at least about my struggles.  Blah blah blah blah blah.  

Now that the immediate chaos of my move has settled, I’m simultaneously searching for things I know are in my apartment but damned if I know where, and realizing that living in this smaller space--or more accurately both living and working full time in this smaller space--requires me being intentional about getting out more.   I won’t bore you with the things and places and people and animals I miss.  I’m pretty sure that in time I’ll build a good life here.  But right now, I can’t seem to sustain my wit or energy or optimism quite long enough to crank out a blog post.  This might be a Web 2.0 version of the “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it” message girls get, particularly girls of my generation got. Also quite some years ago I decided to stop being a person who complained or insisted on being right and be instead a person who smiled and tilted my head towards the sun.

So after all this, I will tell you that I’ve been exploring my new community.  I’ve found a new dim sum place that’s even better than my friends’ and my long-time favorite.  I’ve found a friendly coffee shop that supports live music.  I’ve signed up for local aquatic classes. I’ve found a drive-through Dunkin’ Donuts and good falafel take-out. I’ve got about half a dozen different ways to get to places I need to go.  I’ve stopped turning in the wrong direction off the elevator to get to my apartment.  I’ve had several family members and several friends come to visit my new place. And this morning I challenged my Pajama Sunday credo and corralled a friend on one of her rare weekends off to go with me to the Olney Farmers & Artisans Market opening day.  I can report that the omelet burritos at the Eat a Little Something tent are delicious and totally worth waiting in line, and that I need to stay away from all the booths where sculptors and creative jewelers ply their tempting wares.
I guess that’s not so bad for six weeks in.  And look at that, I’ve found my voice again.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Leaving the Lake

I sit here in my living room on a Pajama Sunday, conscious it’s one of just few such days left here in my townhouse as I prepare for a move to an apartment in a nearby town in just three weeks. As I stare out the window and reflect on the huge change coming in my life, I realize it’s not just what’s inside my house that I’ll miss, it’s what’s outside.  
It’s that beautiful lake with the sun dancing on it.
It’s the ducks and geese sailing serenely across, except when they suddenly bob down into the water for a bath.  And the ducklings and goslings who suddenly appear and follow behind them in spring.
It’s the great blue heron standing on one leg in the rushes, or soaring across the lake to a treetop.
It’s my neighbors:
It’s Norma and Daniel, who live next door, and are the best neighbors a gal could ever have.  They have become very dear to me for their generous spirits, for their love of my son as he’s gone from adolescent to young man, for (once that son moved out) the sound of a shovel on my sidewalk during a snow storm before I’ve even gotten out of bed, for Daniel’s chivalrous efforts to rid the wall outside my bedroom of a particularly determined woodpecker, for their fig tree arching over the edge of my front patio and the harvest they share with me every year, for Norma’s beautiful garden, for both of them inviting me into their home and hearts.  Whether helping take out my recycling when I was recovering from surgery, swapping newspaper and mail watch when either of us were out of town, or just sharing a few minutes conversation in our daily routines as we met outside our doors, they have always been there for me.
Ellen, who is my go-to gal when there’s an animal in need, the neighbor who like me has Second Chance Wildlife engrained in her brain should crisis strike.  Whether it’s a bird who’s bumped into a window or a squirrel laying down who suspiciously hasn’t moved in hours, she’s the one I can call who will come out and rescue the animal, or me (in the case of the bat that got in once). And whose lush gardening and bird-feeding draws pretty chickadees and glorious red cardinals and of course all the LBB (little brown birds) and squirrels to our patios for me to enjoy, too.
It’s Nancy and Dave, who saved me from insanity when I had a very active little dog who needed more exercise than I could give him in a day.  They’d pop over several times a week so he could join them on their long walks and sometimes take him back to their home afterwards where he would entertain them with his acrobatics and his adoration.
It’s the encounters in the parking lot, shooting the breeze with Ira or saying hello to Ken or Joanne with their teeny tiny dogs a good breeze could blow over.  It’s 10 years of seeing Susan and her dogs—first Molly’s friend Truffle, now Penny the beagle (who has her own fan base on Facebook)—catching up on each other’s lives in a nutshell, me getting doggie love from Penny now that I no longer have my own pup at home, and assuring her I didn’t believe all those crazy stories her mom told about her antics.
It’s the occasional surprise in the parking lot, specifically having my hand on my car door to open it before noticing a stag in the strip of woods just feet away, or driving home at dusk and having a family of deer cross my path and make me glad I was going so slowly. 
It’s the sunsets across the lake, lavender, gray, pink, and orangey.
It’s the sliver of moon through another window over the lake certain times of the month.
It’s the sun streaming through the lakeside windows in the afternoon, into the living room or into my home office, almost blinding at times, though I only reluctantly close the blinds.
It’s the trees arching over the esplanade in welcome as I drive back into my neighborhood. It’s the willow trees on the opposite bank of the lake.  It’s the combination of evergreens and deciduous trees, a complex weave of bare branches in the winter, lush in spring and summer, fading in melancholy in autumn yellows and oranges.
It’s the delight in summer of seeing the occasional dog (almost always a Lab) leap off the small pier across the lake into the water and paddle happily around before returning to its owners.
It’s the memory of Sammy and friends stomping in the front door after school, laughing, talking animatedly, bringing the quiet townhouse back to life.
It’s during a snowy day when I remember how much my dear Yellow Lab Molly loved hurling herself onto the white carpeted ground and wriggling around with a vigor that belied her advanced age, reveling in the cool snow against her skin. 
It’s the squirrels scampering about on the front side of the townhouse. They’re so used to me, saying hello to them as I come and go, once one sat right outside my front storm door, not six inches away, staring in as a friend and I talked just inside the door, as though he was waiting for an invitation to come in.  (I was amused and not at all surprised; my friend was a little freaked out.)
It’s my neighborhood pool, where I’ve spent many lovely days and evenings swimming, doing water exercise, and lounging with a good book, where I’ve celebrated Fourth of July with our annual BBQ and festivities, and where each year at season’s end I’ve gathered with many of my neighbors for the annual dog swim—some years as a participant, others as an observer, always a delight!
It’s the community of Rockville that surrounds me, where I’ve lived now for 20 years, where I’ve raised my son.  Sure, I’ll be coming back here frequently, as my mom still lives here, and as a shopper, a diner, a movie-goer—but no longer as part of the fabric of this citizenry, of the familiar faces at the post office or the neighborhood pool.
I didn’t just live in this home at night and on weekends.  I was here often 24 hours a day, working from my home office with the awesome 30-second commute and the glorious lake view.  This was my base, my sanctuary. 
Now I have to trust that the clearing of this space I’ve done so far, and the ultimate clearing out, will lead me safely, if not gently, on the next step of a journey that will take me where I’m meant to be—my next leap of faith.   

Saturday, February 11, 2012

A No-Regrets Life

I met Mary the way hundreds if not thousands of people around the world met Mary.  I was traveling into her city—at the time, Beijing—and a mutual friend arranged for me—a poor foreign student—to stay with her.  Stay I did, for a week, with my traveling companion, in the home of this vibrant perfect stranger who truthfully I didn’t see much of because her work schedule.  The most vivid memory I have of Mary’s apartment there was the pantry.  I had just been living in Taiwan for a year, and familiar Western foods were hard come by.  Because she had generous shipment privileges being in the Foreign Service, Mary had the best-stocked pantry I had ever seen.  Particularly I remember the gusto of tucking into Quaker Granola paired with local yogurt.  Yummm…

We didn’t stay in touch after my visit beyond a heartfelt thank you note, but one day back in Washington, DC some years later, working in the Asia field, I spotted a familiar looking face at some seminar.  It was Mary.  Agreeing to talk soon, we did, and in so doing discovered many mutual interests.  We quickly became fast friends.  That was about 30 years ago. 

My friend Mary passed away on January 8.  I write this still with a sense of how surreal it is—can she really be gone? 

Her death was sudden and too soon, but I still feel blessings around it.  First of all, Mary lived what I call a no-regrets life.  She travelled all over the world, she had friendships from her work and those travels that had lasted for many decades, she immersed herself in things she loved to do (like reading and collecting books), she was respected and well loved.  She had an amazingly close nuclear and extended family with whom she spent a great deal of time, including a big Christmas reunion she had returned from the day before her first massive stroke—a huge blessing for her family. 

My getting to see her a last time was a blessing, too. Though another friend and I had been told she could not see, move, speak, or eat, that morning (after a visit from a therapy dog, her sisters told me) she became a bit lucid. When we got there her bed had been rolled out into the hospice’s garden. It was a magical 65-degree January day, and as I shared stories about Mary’s and my friendship and escapades with her sisters and a niece, she was definitely there.  Mary was there, and she even spoke—albeit with great difficulty-- to me, using my name.  Not having been with anyone in this condition, I had opted to bring a couple of particularly fragrant flowers in case she still had her sense of smell, as well as a few clementines, thinking of that delicious aroma when they’re cracked open, even if she couldn’t eat.  One of her sisters had the bright idea of taking a slice and very gently dribbling juice onto her lip, and you could tell Mary loved it.

I’m grateful I’m able to remember Mary in that serene space, not at a hospital with needles and tubes and hospital smells and noisy intercom and staff bursting in at all hours of the day or night. It was so peaceful, that time together, as I talked and I stroked her hair, having decided in her position what I would want was for people to touch me.  She just as peacefully passed away a couple of nights later, with her family at her side. 

This is the first time a friend—a peer, though a bit older than I—has died, and I didn’t know what to expect.  Tears come at odd times every day or so, as something or other touches a chord that says “my friend, Mary”:

v  Looking at a list of museum openings in the Weekend section of The Washington Post. Mary was always game for a museum jaunt, despite the fact that one of her two most recent jobs was as a tour operator taking visitors from school kids from the Midwest to business people from Germany or China around the city’s attractions (in their native language, one of about five she spoke). 

v  Flipping through a clothing catalog, seeing a kind of shirt we both loved and had in several colors.

v  Every time I look at my living room bookshelves and worry about where my framed picture of Mary I’ve had for perhaps a decade has gone, oddly vanished right around the time of her death.

v  As I stand in Second Story Books chatting with the bookseller who is appraising the hundreds of books I’m selling in advance of a move, and wonder where Mary’s collection will go.

v  Flipping through a Healthy Back catalog when I see a blue recliner. I remember having to go to the La-Z-Boy store and arranging for delivery of one just like it to Mary’s home while she was in rehab at the hospital after a knee replacement surgery.  I helped her when she returned home, too, and we enjoyed many “picnics” with her sitting in the recliner recovering.

v  Thinking I’m really overdue for a press trip for a travel article.  Mary was my partner in crime for two trips, one to an Eastern Shore resort that was fun, but its luxury not really her kind of travel, and another that was more her thing, staying in a small B&B and tramping around exploring Richmond, Virginia.

v  Telling my mother about a program I had coming up in Annapolis that was to start at 8 a.m., and that with some of my classmates considering staying overnight the night before that. Suddenly I was remembering the group’s opening retreat in Pennsylvania where I did stay at a motel the previous night, courtesy of Mary, who told me she didn’t want me driving early in the morning—also for an 8 a.m. start--after my usual late night working and the medications I take usually at 1 in the morning. Just a beautiful, completely generous gesture so typical of Mary.  Her Facebook page shared stories of even huger generosity, given still so openly.

v  Reading the spring National Geographic Live! brochure and reaching the page on the All Roads Film Project, “Women Hold Up Half the Sky,” films by women directors from international and indigenous cultures. We had gone to one of these programs together a year or two ago, to a film about a matriarchal community still existing in modern China. That’s the kind of cultural outing Mary and I loved best.

v  Reading a book about two women travelers in the 1920s and wanting to share the fun of it, thinking I’d pass it to Mary when I finished it, that she would love it.

v  Seeing women wearing Asian-inspired jewelry or clothing.

v   Every time I write to certain friends on Gmail, when a suggestion courtesy of Google pops up automatically suggesting other people I might want to send the email to-- often, Mary,

v  Seeing people with the beautiful ruddy faces suggesting they might be from Nepal, or seeing the word “sherpa” in a mail-order catalog describing some thick comfy outerwear.  Mary spent years in Nepal in the Peace Corps before going into the Foreign Service, and retained many friendships from that time, including her favorite Sherpa.

v  Roaming in the library or a bookstore.  Again, despite the fact that one of Mary’s job was as a bookseller at the now-defunct  Border’s, she could always spend more time around the books that we both loved so well.  One of our favorite mutual haunts was the Freer & Sacker gift shop/book shop.  Oh, the trouble we could get in there! 

v  Seeing a play last night that dealt with how a group of people at the hospital together got through the last hours of a loved one, how one in particular remembered the man. (Perhaps it was a bit too soon for me to take in a play like that.)  

Mary was always up for dim sum and we had a favorite spot the town over from where I live in Maryland.  At Chinese New Year, just a couple of weeks after her passing, two friends who’d become friends of Mary’s through me over the years, and their children, celebrated with the traditional dim sum, and we saved a seat for Mary.  And every late July, those same two friends and I will celebrate the Leo Birthday gatherings the four of us had held for years.  And Mary will be there with us.

For the first few weeks after her passing I would hop on Facebook every night to see if there were new photos of her or anecdotes about her shared by all the people whose lives she had touched. I still go back, though less often, hoping for more.

I am grateful to Mary’s sisters for having a memorial service here, though at her instruction she’ll be buried back in Wisconsin with her family.  It allowed some of us who had been privileged to know her, as friend or as colleague, a chance to swap warm and funny anecdotes about her, to sing some songs she loved, to learn more about her family, to look at some adorable pictures of her as a child and fondly remember the times of her photos as an adult, and to honor her immense but easy generosity and her no-regrets life which I, for one, aspire to emulate.

I love you, Mary.

“I think of memories as…bringing [her] back before me. 
No, she is not reborn. And she is probably not a ghost drifting above me, or an angel singing in heaven. 
But nor is she nothing, and there is not nothing after her death.
.  There are all my recollected moments of time I spent with her.”  
(Nina Sankovitch, from Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading)