Here are three truths that guide my life:
1) Perfection is highly overrated. I’ve never met a perfect person, and I certainly wasn’t raised by anyone who met the criteria.
2) We learn more far more from our mistakes than we will ever learn from accomplishments.
3) The best advice we receive isn’t handed to us wrapped in words of wisdom. Instead, the most meaningful lessons are often hidden in what we observe, what we hear, and, in many cases, what we don’t hear.
My mom has spent more than 51 years trying to impart these nuggets of truth on my brother and me.
When I was young, she sometimes interspersed her acquired wisdom into our conversations, but what went unsaid was always more powerful.
For example, my mom never once told me I deserved anything. NEVER.
I was well into adulthood before I realized that.
No matter what I achieved, she never used the word deserve. Of course she encouraged me and told me that I’d earned my successes, but she implied that earning something is entirely different from deserving it.
She never explained this, and we never discussed the matter.
But by not speaking that one word, deserve, she said volumes.
In matters of every day life, human beings don’t have the right, or the ability, to decide who is deserving of something. Because, in doing so, we imply that others are not deserving.
Life is one big poker game in which the draw sometimes determines everything. Yes, some people are better at playing the game. Yes, some people use their cards to gain an advantage. Yes, some people avoid temptations and are able to improve their chances. And yes, some people are so charming and engaging that they can cloud reality to sway the beliefs of others.
But in the end, some people are simply luckier, and luck has nothing to do with their character, their abilities, their fortitude, their courage, or whether they are more “deserving” than others
So even though Mom never talked about why she threw “deserve” into her junk pile of words that are either misused or meaningless, she said everything through the life she’s led.
And for that, I will always be grateful.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.
Shortly before I graduated from college, I sat in a friend’s apartment listening to the song “I’m an Adult Now” by the Pursuit of Happiness and thinking it would soon be included on the soundtrack of my life. (Back in those days, life soundtracks were limited to 60 or 90 minute cassette tapes.)
I was 22 years old, and I had absolutely no idea what being a grown up really meant. But I was convinced that once I had my college diploma in hand, I would quickly learn.
Now, more than a quarter of a century later, I’m still trying on various hats in hopes of discovering the one that will officially make me feel like a grown up. So far, none have worked.
Yes, I lived on my own and paid my own bills. Yes, I dealt with mortgages and debt and the IRS. Yes, I got married. Yes, I gave birth and became a parent. And yes, I even discovered that I can sound more like my mother than I ever imagined.
But despite all of that, I’ve never felt like an authentic adult. Instead, I feel as though I’m pretending to be an adult when I’m actually more like that 22 year-old still trying to decide which songs should be on my life’s soundtrack.
Maybe that’s because I’ve never been able to answer that one question that so many adults think is incredibly important. It’s a question that was asked of me hundreds of times from the time I was a toddler all the way through high school.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Ironically, the younger I was, the more easily I could answer the question.
When I was five, I wanted to be a trapeze artist. That dream was short-lived when my dad hung a wooden trapeze from a tree in a backyard and I made him lower it because its height five feet off the ground scared me. By the time I was ten, I had my heart set on being a best-selling author which, by the time I was 15, and evolved into a desire to be a journalist. And, at what I considered to be the mature age of 20, I truly believed I was destined to produce documentaries that would change the world.
With the exception of a few months I spent as a radio news reporter, I never achieved any of those goals. I could consider myself a failure, but that would discount all my accomplishments never on my “I want to” list. Nor would it take into account how the experience of living life to its fullest sometimes gets in the way of the expectations we think we are supposed to meet.
I don’t think I could have known, at the age of 22, how life’s river of circumstances has a generally steady and sometimes ferociously rapid current that can easily sweep us away from where we thought we belonged to the places we are needed most.
I was thinking about that river this week when my son celebrated his eighteenth birthday. In only a few months, he’ll be starting college, so he’s regularly being asked what he’ll be studying. To me, that’s the more mature equivalent of the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?”
And, even though I understand why everyone feels compelled to ask, I think the more meaningful question is “are you keeping your heart and your mind open to making adjustments to your plan with each new opportunity and complication?”
If my son does that, he faces the danger of ending up like his mother – nearly 50 years old and not entirely sure what he wants to be when he grows up. At the same time, he might also learn that being an adult isn’t about reaching a certain age or about achieving a certain status. And he might figure out that making mature decisions doesn’t mean letting go of the child within.
Instead, getting older should be about learning to adjust to the currents of life even when you aren’t confident you are headed in the direction you had originally planned.
For several years, National Public Radio ran a series called This I Believe that encouraged listeners to share short audio essays about core beliefs that defined who they were and how they lived their lives.
I always had a secret desire to submit my own essay, but I never did.
I just couldn’t identify only one belief that defines me.
I believe in karma.
I believe that the worst circumstances in our life are intended to teach us critical lessons that, in the end, will make us better people.
And I believe that angels show up in our lives when we need them most.
So it was last night when I got home from work in a foul mood. I was worn down by trying to do the right thing in a world often controlled by manipulative people. I was so angry that I had an almost physical need for everyone else to know exactly how I felt. I was already writing the words for this blog in my head,
But that was before I saw the package on my front steps.
My curiosity immediately overshadowed my anger. The return address was from my long ago babysitter, Carrie, in Oregon.
Growing up, I adored Carrie just as I had adored her mother, Ruby.
My childhood was spent living thousands of miles away from my own grandparents, and Ruby had stepped up and stepped into the role of foster grandmother.
Since Ruby had several daughters of her own, I never understood how someone as special as she was could possibly think I was special too. Not only was she was kind, gentle and loving, but she had the innate ability to draw into the light all the good in people while ignoring all that was ugly. When spending time with Ruby, you couldn’t be angry at the injustices in the world because you were too busy rejoicing in all its beauty.
When Ruby died in January 2007 at the age of 92, I never thought I’d hear from her again.
I was wrong.
The package on my front steps contained a photo album with the letters, announcements and photographs that my mother and I had sent Ruby over two decades. It also included a note with instructions.
As I read the note from Ruby and flipped through the pages of my life since I’d left Oregon, tears streamed down my face and my anger disappeared.
I had been touched by an angel who was reminding me not to focus on the negative. There is just too much in life to celebrate instead.
And so, thanks to Ruby, that’s exactly what I did.
When I was in high school, my fellow students begged our teachers to grade on a curve. Their theory, of course, was that if everyone did poorly, no one would fail. That wasn’t necessarily true, but we were self-absorbed teenagers with little concern for broader implications.
If you’re not familiar with the grading curve, it’s a tool used by some educators to distribute grades on a bell curve. When an assignment or test is scored, the average score becomes the average grade. The scores above and below the average are distributed accordingly. That means, if you get a really high score, you might skew the curve for everyone else. It also means some students are guaranteed to land at the wrong end of the curve.
Back in the 1980’s, my teachers rarely actually graded on a curve. But when they did, I knew two things would happen:
1: I would get grief from all the other students in class warning me not to do so well that I would mess up the curve, and,
2: I had an opportunity to prove that I didn’t need a curve to do well. And that opportunity far exceeded my concern about anyone else’s grade.
At the time, my self-worth was completely wrapped up in academic success. I truly thought that the only thing at which I could excel, and which made my existence matter, was getting good grades. (Yes, I completely related to Brian in the Breakfast Club).
I also believed that getting good grades was simply a matter of working hard, and that anyone could work hard. I had little tolerance for my peers who got mad when I did well. To me, they just needed to try harder.
And so, I shamefully admit, I always tried to burn the curve.
Needless to say, I’m embarrassed that I used to think that way. I now realize that I had so many advantages: educated parents, good nutrition, a safe place to sleep, a home free of violence, a family that embraced education, a mother who believed women didn’t need to depend on men, and a father who expected as much of his daughter as he did of his son. My list of advantages could go on and on and on.
But now, all these years later, I recognize how some children start off at disadvantage simply because of the family they are born into or because of a disability. Some struggle to read. Others struggle to overcome loss of at least one parent in the house. Others were never encouraged or never had an adult who even recognized their potential. And when you are struggling just to get by, studying for test isn’t a priority.
That’s why, more than 30 years later, I may be ashamed at who I once was, but I am also ashamed of some of the former classmates who still embrace the bell curve. Some of the same people who encouraged me not to exceed are now blaming their neighbors for falling at the negative end of the curve. I know this because I see their posts on social media.
They complain about people “on welfare”and how they don’t want their hard-earned money going to support people who are lazy and just don’t try. The want to drug test individuals who receive SNAP (food stamps) because they aren’t deserving. And they have the misguided belief that if people just try, they can find a job that pays more and provides benefits.
When I read such opinions, I can’t help but wonder if my former classmates remember back to the days when I, the person at the top of the bell curve, had similar thoughts about them.
But, over time, I learned that each of us has fought both visible and invisible battles to get where we are, and success looks different for everyone. No one’s achievement shouldn’t be denied or belittled. But neither should we think everyone has the ability to achieve what we have.
Such thinking only accomplishes what the bell curve does: ensures an elite few stay on top while someone will always be struggling to just get by.
When I was a little girl, I fell out of bed on a regular basis.
Sometimes, I’d pick myself up off the floor and climb back under the covers. Sometimes, my father, who must have heard the thud, would come into my bedroom, scoop me up, and tuck me back into my bed.
I don’t remember being particularly concerned or afraid of falling out of bed, nor do I remember my parents worrying about it.
It was just something I did until, one day, I didn’t do it anymore.
Like so many childhood memories, my habit of falling out of bed was locked away in a part of my brain that only opens with the right key. Sometimes that key is a piece of music, sometimes it’s a smell, and sometimes it’s a conversation. But there are times when I have no idea what key unleashed a memory. It just pops into my mind, and I can’t shake it. Those are the moments when I realize my memories have come out of hiding and dusted themselves off because they are trying to teach me something.
And so it was last week with my memories of falling out of bed.
As I thought back to those nights decades ago, I realized they represent all of life’s struggles. Those times I fell out of bed were only a fraction of all the tumbles I’ve taken. And yet, I only remember a very small percentage of them – the ones that left behind scars and a good story.
But almost every time I stumbled or even completely fell, I had the choice to wallow in the pain and humiliation or to pick myself back up. Those few times when my struggles were so great that I couldn’t just pick myself back up, I was fortunate to have someone nearby who heard the thud and immediately responded with a helping hand.
There are so many individuals with no such people nearby. On almost a daily basis, I watch the stream of people coming through my office doors for financial assistance or other social services. I realize that most of them had very few, if any, people nearby listening for their thuds. And I wonder if it’s harder to pick yourself back up when you know that no one else is paying attention to your struggles.
I also wonder if knowing that you are safe and that someone has your back makes it easier to teach yourself not to fall. When you trust that people care and realize that falls are part of the learning process, it’s easier to have the fortitude and the ability to prevent self-inflicted bruises.
My memories were reminding me that I, like everyone else, needs to pay more attention and react to the thuds when someone nearby, no matter who they are, falls.
Earlier this week, a colleague stomped into my office expressing indignation about an injustice.
That unto itself wasn’t the least bit unusual. Someone is always stomping into my office to complain about something.
I work for a social service agency with a mission to alleviate poverty. My co-workers and I comprise a group of passionate people who won’t accept that the odds are simply stacked against some people. We try to change those odds.
Often, we feel as though we are tilting at windmills, and we even get discouraged.
But we don’t give up. After all, our heroes didn’t give up.
And the treatment of one of those heroes is the reason my co-worker was upset as she stormed into my office.
“I can’t believe that the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday has become just another day for sales for some people,” she said. “The day is supposed to be about honoring of one of the greatest men in history. He changed the world.”
Indeed he did.
I was a just over a year old when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, so I never knew a world that hadn’t been impacted by his actions, his words and his ability to change the system. But for years, what I knew about him was limited:
- He was a Civil Rights leader.
- He made a speech about having a dream that all people would someday be treated as equal.
- He believed in using peaceful tactics instead of violence.
- He was shot and killed at a hotel in Tennessee by a guy named James Earl Ray.
Those facts paint a picture of a great man who made a difference in the world. But those facts never really inspired me because I couldn’t relate to the charismatic leader. His ability to make such a huge difference in the lives of others had absolutely nothing to do with my potential.
At least, it wasn’t until I learned that he, like the rest of us, struggled with imperfections.
He apparently tried to commit suicide when he was 12 years old. His grandmother passed away after a heart attack while King was off disobeying his parents by going to watch a parade after they had prohibited it. When he got home and learned that his grandmother had died in his absence, he jumped out a second story window.
Martin Luther King, Jr., the man who delivered one of the most iconic speeches ever, received a C in a public speaking class during his first year in seminary.
King is rumored to have had numerous extra-marital affairs, which even resulted in his becoming a target of the FBI.
On the day he was killed, King was out on that now famous hotel balcony because he was smoking. He tried to keep the fact that he was a smoker hidden, so he didn’t want cameras around when he had a cigarette in his hand. According to Rev. Kyles, after King was shot but before he was taken away by the ambulance, Kyles removed the package of cigarettes from King’s pocket and got rid of the cigarette butt. This was an attempt to hide the fact that King was smoking at the time he was shot.
None of these facts minimize the accomplishments of Martin Luther King, Jr. In fact, in my eyes, they make them even more impressive. Like all of us, Dr. King struggled with being imperfect. But despite that, he changed the world.
He is my hero not just because he acted on the same beliefs that I hold dear. He is my hero because he didn’t let his imperfections get in the way of taking action and changing the world.
This Monday, when the United States celebrates the federal holiday that honors Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that’s what I’ll be thinking about.
I’ll be remembering that every person who makes a difference in the lives of others has a personal story lying just beneath the surface. These are the stories that involve failing from time to time but persevering anyway. They involve making mistakes or saying the wrong thing while we still attempt to do the right thing. And even though many of us feel like we are trying to lead when no one is following, we have to keep trying to blaze trails anyway.
These stories sometimes aren’t visible to those around us because we try to hide them just beneath the surface. But these are the stories that make us strong enough to take on the world and try to make it a better place.
Just like our heroes did.
I hadn’t been out on my bicycle in a week, so I was determined to get in at least one ride over the weekend. Before heading out, I checked the hourly weather report for the third time. The skies were clear, and I calculated that I had time to get in a 15-mile ride before the wind picked up and the temperatures began to drop.
I forgot that weather reports aren’t always accurate.
The first ten miles of my ride were perfect, but just as I reached the top of the steepest and most dreaded hill, the sky went suddenly dark. Within moments, the rain pelted down while the wind almost knocked me off my bike. Since there was no option but to keep pedaling, that’s what I did.
But it was a struggle.
Fighting the elements, I climbed another hill. While it wasn’t as steep as the last, it was more difficult than usual because of the weather conditions. Then, just as I reached the top, the sky lightened, the rain stopped and a one of the brightest rainbows I’ve ever seen spread across the sky.
I stopped to look at it in wonder. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such clear and brilliant colors in a rainbow, and I regretted that I couldn’t capture the beauty of the moment in a photograph.
But I could capture it in my heart and soul, which is where it needed to be.
That rainbow was the exact reminder I needed after a week full of more downs than ups.
The rainbow’s message was simple: life is rough. Sometimes, just when we think we are facing our toughest battle, the fight gets even harder. Despite that, our only option is to just keep going. If we stop trying, we won’t be any less miserable while we don’t get anywhere. And so, we must persevere. And when we do, life eventually gets better, and the moments of beauty it provides are even more precious.
I know the rainbow and the message may seem a bit cliché. But sometimes? A cliché is the exact reminder I need to remind me that life isn’t perfect but that some moments are. We have to treasure those moments.
In the summer of 1977, my family made the hour-long car trip to the town of Bend, Oregon see the movie Star Wars.
I was ten years old, and I had been waiting for what seemed an eternity to see the movie. In retrospect, I didn’t care so much about Star Wars as I did about fitting in.
By the time I actually got to see it, I was still stinging from the shame I’d experienced when Alice Cannon insisted we play Star Wars in the basement of my house. I knew Alice’s older brother Calvin was a big fan of science fiction, but I hadn’t expected the same from her. In the past, we had spent our time together in a totally different way – such as secretly playing her parents Carpenters albums on the record player so we could lip sync to songs like “Yesterday Once More.”
But that summer, the Carpenters were out and Star Wars was in. And, even though I had no frame of reference, when Alice wanted to play Star Wars, I agreed.
I shouldn’t have.
Despite her best efforts to engage me in playing the role of various characters, she finally gave up in disgust when I couldn’t even figure out what she meant when she said “just act like R2-D2.”
So when my parents announced we were finally going to see Star Wars, I couldn’t have been happier. Despite the long car ride, the longer ticket line and our seats in the very back of the theater, I thought my needs had finally been met.
That only lasted until the movie started.
I didn’t get the plot. I didn’t understand how I was apparently the only person in the entire world that didn’t like the movie. And, most critical of all, I still didn’t understand how I could have acted like R2-D2, who didn’t say anything but instead spoke in mechanical beeps.
What I did understand was that the Carpenters had probably been correct when they had sung “We’ve only just begun.” I knew that this Star Wars thing was going to last much longer than I wanted.
My dad confirmed my fears as the credits rolled when he said, “Well, it’s obvious they are going to make a sequel.”
Which is why, during the long, dark car ride home, I curled into a ball in the back seat and tried to reassure myself that at least I liked the theme music. (For the record, I got the sheet music and played it over and over again on the piano that fall.)
All of this is why I found myself sighing loudly this past October when my husband asked me at least three times if I wanted a ticket to the Star Wars: The Force Awakens on opening night.
He seemed so hurt and confused when I told him that I had no idea what I would be doing on December 18 and that buying tickets that far in advance was ridiculous.
Neither he, my children or millions of others thought it ridiculous at all. To them, it was an event for which to plan accordingly. And they did.
To me, the new Star Wars is something else entirely.
It is a reminder that. sometimes, the things we think we want the most aren’t what will make us happy. What does make us happy is discovering and pursuing our own interests and passions.
As the Carpenters would say, that’s what puts me at “The Top of the World.”
For the last few months, something has been missing from my life. Its disappearance is particularly unnerving because I am given a sufficient supply of the missing element every day. But when I go to bed each night, I am left wondering what happened.
Time is that common yet mysterious element that belongs to everyone, plays favorites to no one, speeds up and slows down at the most inopportune moments and steals the occasions we treasure most while gifting us with memories.
When I was young, 24 hours per days seemed more than sufficient. Now, it’s anything but.
Which is why, on Christmas Eve, I felt as though I’d won the lottery. I had 11
days, or approximately 264 hours, without any significant appointments or commitments. And even though I had a long list of projects I wanted to tackle, part of me that just wanted to escape life as I know it.
Which is exactly what I did on Christmas Day.
After the presents were opened and the Christmas dinner was prepared, I escaped to find evidence that life is more than a series of events or accomplishments that are documented with time stamps and dates to remember.
I took my bicycle out on an unseasonably warm day, and, for the first time in a long time, I didn’t pedal to
cover a specific number of miles in a specified number of minutes.
In fact, I often didn’t pedal at all. Instead, I stopped to investigate. I stopped to listen. I stopped to breathe. Most of all, I stopped to take photos on my phone and to simply appreciate life without the constraints of deadlines or appointments or expectations.
And what I discovered was that, unlike people, most of the world pays no attention to clocks or calendars. While everything is affected by time, only people give it power.
The rest of the world just exists in the moment, adapts to the elements, accepts changes and stays committed to survival.
In other words, the rest of the world can teach us humans a thing or two.
And I’m ready to learn.