Thursday, January 31, 2008

Mentoring: The Art of Encouragement

I mentored a teenage girl in my neighborhood for a number of years. She approached me in my driveway, when she was about 12 years old and said that they were encouraged in school to look for an older mentor to help them achieve their dreams. She selected me and asked if I would be interested.

Not having kids of my own, I'm always interested in finding ways to involve myself with younger people. It is my way of giving something directly to future generations without having my own kids.

I absolutely love Marsha Sinetar's book entitled, "Mentoring: The Art of Encouragement." I have read this book several times, and I try to use the principles there in all the mentoring relationships I find myself a part of. Some are formal, like with my teenager, or the students at One Spirit Interfaith Seminary that I mentor each year. Other relationships are much less structured. I just genuinely love to encourage and support other people on their life journeys!

With my teenager, our relationship went on for about 7 years. She eventually got married and moved away, although we still coorespond from time to time.

What I found in that relationship, is that as much as I helped her with life choices and challenges, I received incredible gifts along the way as well!

We once went bowling once. It was the first time I had bowled in about 20 years. It brought back wonderful memories from childhood. I used to go to the local bowling alley on Friday nights with my dad, sometimes, when he bowled in a league. My mom used to worry about me being around all those men with their language and drinking. I loved being with my dad, and I've always enjoyed being around men. I enjoy the masculine energy and interchange. That comfort helped me out a lot in my jobs in the software industry, where most of the development teams were usually comprised of men. Bowling with my mentee and her best friend was a joy. It reminded me of something I used to really enjoy, and long since left behind for some unknown reason!

We also went river rafting. My mentees fearlessness inspired me. She desperately wanted to jump off a cliff into a swimming hole which freaked me out completely. I felt a tremendous responsibility for this 17 year old, and I had not gotten permission from her parents to let her jump off a cliff!! I had to say no to that request. :) That trip involved an overnight stay in a hotel. I remember my friend and I marveling at the fact that we ended up in the swimming pool that night, with our legs up on the side of the pool, doing crunches in the water with my mentee and her best friend!! We couldn't believe we were actually doing this as a 'fun' activity!

I also took my teenager to San Diego on a weekend trip to go spa-ing. We had a marvelous time, culminating with getting henna tatoos on our ankles. It was fun, I must admit. I felt pretty wild doing that! It was fun, I should say, until I realized that I was leaving for the middle east in a few days, and having a tatoo that was visible was NOT going to be appropriate to the level of modesty I employ when I travel there!! I almost scrubbed my skin off to remove the tatoo before I left on my trip.

There were so many things we did together. Some grand, some very ordinary. It was a lovely connection and it really taught both of us a lot! Probably one of the most profound experiences I had with her was the day we went to drive little sports car/go-carts on an indoor race track. Once again, my teenager she was absolutely fearless and was very agressive in trying to win against me and any other drivers present. I, on the other hand, kept pulling over to get out of people's way!! I wasn't very good at driving these little cars, and I didn't want to inconvenience anyone! How twisted is that? We were there to race, and I was worried about getting in the other people's way! My girl was the one who called me out on that little pattern and told me to get with it! It was a great insight and a powerful learning opportunity.

An adult, spending time with a young person is an important opportunity to influence and support them as they navigate those very difficult and turmultous years. Teenagers will often tell an adult they feel close to, things they don't feel they can tell their parents. I think it does a tremendous service to a teenager to give them an outlet where they can think through some of their struggles, with someone who has the wisdom of a little age under their belts, but is not their parental authority figure.

I am involved with other kids now in various ways. I do have some teenagers in my life and I'm grateful for that. Teenagers infuse a vigor and energy into life that is like nothing else in the universe! It is infectious!

Mentoring can take many forms. It doesn't even have to involve a lot of time. In order to make a difference as a mentor, you just need to show up and care. If you've never considered it before, you might want to! I think of it as an investment in our collective future!

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

There is Good in the World

As we travel through this sometimes rough world of ours, every once in a while a story comes along that renews our faith in humankind!

A friend sent me this story recently about a woman who found a fancy camera in the back seat of a New York City cab. She and her fiance set off to find the owner of this camera. It didn't prove to be an easy task. They left no stone unturned. They meticulously studied the photographs in the camera, made many phone calls and most importantly... never gave up!

It would have been easier to give up. Most people probably would have. The sleuthing and the search were a time consuming hassle. Who could expect someone to go to all that trouble?

Luckily for the camera's owner, these people didn't give up and felt it was the honest, decent and considerate thing to do. They eventually did track down the camera's owner in Australia! He was most grateful, not just to receive the camera back, but to have preserved the photos that it held. For him it was about the memories, not the material object. Most of us would feel the same, I'm sure.

What a world it could be if we all treated each other with this sort of concern and respect. This particular story goes above and beyond an honest person finding and returning a lost item. There was a lot of work and effort involved in the act of returning the item. It required time, energy, commitment and concern for another person's feelings. It is an awesome display of the very best of human nature!

Read the full story at Yahoo news: Photo Clues Lead to Camera's Owner and be inspired!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

We Are Marshall

Back in 1970, a particularly cruel tragedy occurred. Almost an entire University football team was killed in a catastrophic plane crash. Marshall University lost most of their players, coaching staff, many parents and community supporters in one devastating instant.

The story of this tragedy, and of collective community's healing was captured in the movie, "We Are Marshall." I was deeply touched by this movie, and this painful and difficult to accept story.

In the wake of such overwhelming loss, a little known football coach, Jack Lengyel, came to this university, after the accident, to resurrect the devastated football program. He came because he heard about the horrible event and felt compelled to help. He felt like he had something to offer that could help make a difference to the hurting population of this community. There was actually another coach who was hired for the job prior to Lengyel, but he quit after two days. The obstacles to overcome were just too overwhelming. It would take a special person to take on this situation. It would take a person who had just the right temperment and motivation to withstand all that was to come.

Jack Lengyel felt he was the right person for the job. He had to build a team with mostly freshman. He had to convince his university's president to lobby for special permission to play freshman in the NCAA football league, which was a long and frustrating process. This team had a staggering mountain of obstacles to overcome... grief... sorrow.... rules... lack of developed talent... community scorn in some cases... and yet they continued on. The goal became to simply carry on and build for the future. It was about proving that life does indeed go on in the face of overwhelming, unfathomable loss.

I admire Coach Lengyel for taking on this difficult assignment. He certainly didn't have to. There was no fame and no glory in what he did. In a world where 'winning is everything,' he had to take a very different approach. He had to focus on building a team from scratch in the face of overwhelming odds, in order to help bring some sense of healing to individuals, a university and a town.

One of the most powerful scenes for me in this movie, is when Coach Lengyel and his assistant coach, Red Dawson (who was a coach of the 1970 team that perished in the crash), went to a rival university, West Virginia University, to ask for help in implementing a new type of play (the veer) for the young team. Not only did this rival university offer any and all possible assistance to support Marshall's effort to come back, the two coaches learned that all the WVU players had added a symbol on their helmets to honor the memory of the Marshall University Team. They had added a cross, with an MU for Marshall University. This represents, to me, the most important and inspiring part of the human spirit. To play one's game with concern and love for other people in your heart. The old rivalry faded in the face of something much deeper and much more important: shared humanity and the connection of all of us to each other.

The first home game that the 'new' team played in 1971 was against Xavier University... and Marshall won! Against all odds. It was an incredible achievement, accomplished with the most lofty of goals at the core of the effort. To bring honor to those who perished.

Marshall University only won one additional game that season. But that didn't matter. Team showed up and played. That's what mattered.

Coach Lengyel resigned in 1974 with a collective record of 9 and 33. He helped to rebuild a team... and an entire community during his years at Marshall. He gave a great gift that only he could give.

It would be 1984 until this football team would have a winning season, but that isn't really the important part of the story. Life went on. Strength was gained. The human spirit prevailed.

Check out the movie... and check out the memorial website for the 1970 "Thundering Heard" football team!

Marshall University Foot Ball Team Memorial Web Site

1970 Marshall University Football Team Memorial Photo

Monday, January 28, 2008

A Favorite Meditation

Life in today's world is inherently stressful. We all have to balance complex responsibilities and squeeze far too many tasks into the time we have available to us. It is difficult to consistently take the time to center ourselves and restore our sense of balance and inner peace.

The following simple meditation is one that I have used for several years. It was provided during my interfaith ministerial training through One Spirit Interfaith Seminary in New York City.

It is very effective at calming me down, no matter what is happening in my life! I highly recommend it to you as a quick, effective way to find peace in the midst of your busy days. We operate out our best when we come from a place of groundedness. Sometimes where we come from internally is far more important than what we actually do in the outter world. One action taken in peace is a powerful thing!

Find whatever works for you. Staying balanced and centered is a gift we give to ourselves and to the world.

Guided Meditation:

When we become anxious or fearful, the first thing that happens is that our breath and heartbeat become irregular and our blood pressure rises… the following meditation, adapted from one of Vietnamese Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh’s practices, takes only a few minutes but brings the racing mind to a halt and slows the breath. I recommend that you try this whenever you need to return to your center.

Breathing in I know I am breathing in.
Breathing out I know I am breathing out.
In; Out (silence for five breaths as you watch the inhalations and exhalations)
Breathing in, my breath grows deep.
Breathing out, my breath grows slow.
Deep; slow. (five breaths as above)
Breathing in I feel calm.
Breathing out I feel relaxed.
Calm; relaxed. (five breaths as above)
Breathing in I’m aware of the present moment.
Breathing out I know it’s a perfect moment.
Present moment; perfect moment (five breaths as above).

Friday, January 25, 2008

Illuminate the Darkness

I'm sitting here writing as I burn a candle from Zena Moon (, my very favorite suppliers of candles!!

Zena Moon creates very special candles. They are created around themes. Each candle has a theme attributed to it. There is an inspirational quote on the candle that matches the theme. Each candle has a unique color, aromatherapy scent combination, and includes some sort of crystal or gemstone.

For example, the candle I'm burning at the moment is "Moving Through Change." It is a lovely swirled combination of various shades of blue. It is scented with magnolia and English ivy. It contains a lepidolite gemstone. The quote on it says, "All birth is unwilling." ~ Pearl S. buck.

On the website, there are often recommendations for books and other materials to support you when working on the area of your life that a particular candle relates to! What a magnificent resource!!

Obviously I am working on embracing change in my current life experience! I love burning these candles with the intention of giving myself 'support' around various life challenges.

I highly recommend Zena Moon candles. Carla Blazek is the creator, candle-maker and soul proprietor of Zena moon. Carla is an acquaintance of mine. I bid on a basket full of her candles at a silent auction many years ago. We met when I WON... and collected the basket of candles. Her life story and how she launched her company are an inspiration to me!!

I have given many Zena Moon candles as gifts. It is wonderful to offer inspiration by way of a candle. The metaphor is unmistakable. Candles illuminate the darkness. They provide warmth and comfort.

Burning a candle that helps us focus on a goal or intention is a lovely gift we can give to ourselves. It is a way to nurture yourself through difficulty or to take time to celebrate a triumph. I'm a big fan of 'marking the moment' with a ritual. Candles, especially Zena Moon Candles... are a great way to do that.

I also feel good knowing that I'm supporting Carla in living her purpose. Her work is a blessing to all of us on our path!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

An Anonymous Gift

I've mentioned my friend, Ethel, whom I visit in a retirement community. She just turned 93 years old! She told me a wonderful story about an anonymous gift that she received several years ago.

One day, out of the blue, the minister of her church showed up to visit her. In his hands he had an envelope. He told Ethel that he had been given this envelope with the instructions to present it to her without revealing the giver's identity. He was to give her these simple instructions, "Please use this ONLY for your pleasure." THere was also a note inside the envelope that repeated this instruction.

When Ethel opened the envelope she found 25 one hundred dollar bills! There was $2,500 in that envelope!

Ethel was in shock. She simply couldn't believe that someone had given her this money. She had no idea who gave it to her and she has never found out who the mysterious 'giver' was!

Her reaction to the money was not uncommon to people of her generation. Ethel doesn't believe in 'wasting' money. She doesn't believe in frivolous luxuries. She agonized over what to do with the money.

The only part of her story that troubled me was when she said she didn't feel that she deserved the money. She simply couldn't understand why she deserved to be given such a gift. That made me feel sad because she is such a remarkable and warm woman. She was a devoted wife, raised her family and played an important role in her church and community. She had given so much of herself to so many people. Someone wanted her to know that it was noticed and appreciated. It pained me that she didn't feel deserving of such a gift. Believe me when I tell you that she and I discussed this at some length! I really wanted her to take in that she deserved all good things in life and this was but one example.

In the end, Ethel couldn't spend the money on herself as the anonymous giver intended. She simply couldn't overcome the 'thrifty nature' that permeated her life. She chose to increase her tithe to her church and eventually donated all that money to support their ministry. Yet another example of her generous and loving heart.

There are a two things to take away from this story. One is how beautiful it is to be a giving person. The anonymous giver and Ethel both demonstrated this. Each wanted to do something nice for someone other than themselves. Giving to others is a privilege and a blessing.

Another is about the feeling that we don't deserve good things. One of the things that prevents us from having what we want in this life is that we don't feel that we deserve it. I'm not speaking solely of physical or material things. We can feel undeserving of all kinds of things. When we feel we don't deserve things we can actually prevent ourselves from obtaining them.

I'm not talking about being selfish or feeling an unhealthy sense of entitlement. I'm talking about not buying in to feeling unworthy of having what we desire. This is something we need to guard against and work on in ourselves.

This covers both sides of the coin. If we are generous givers and we are open to receiving good things from a feeling of worthiness, we can live a healthy and balanced life!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Unexpected Obstacles

Several years ago, my brother and I went on a hiking and canoeing trip in the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area in Minnesota. It was six blissful days of paddling and hiking in pristine wild spaces. We paddled across 13 lakes, and down 4 streams and 1 river. I can't remember how many miles we hiked, but each time we did a hike we had to cover the same ground 3 times. We had 3 Duluth back packs (which are the large square backpacks) and the canoe to carry. When we would hike/portage, we each took a pack and a paddle and hiked 1/3 to 1/2 the total hike distance and dropped off those items along the trail. Then we hiked back to the canoe and took the canoe and the remaining pack and hiked the entire distance to the next water body. Finally, we returned to where we had dropped off the initial two packs and paddles, picked them up and returned to the boat. Then it was time to paddle again. It was an awesome workout and a transforming experience on a number of levels.

My brother had done some canoeing in college. I had never canoed before.

As we put our canoe in the water and attempted to paddle down a small stream, I wondered what had possessed me to think I could do such a thing!

My brother was ‘steering’ from the back of the canoe. My only job was to provide horsepower to propel the canoe although how I did this could greatly help or hinder my brother's attempts to guide the boat.

It would have been quite comical to watch us on our first day. We veered violently from one side of the stream to the other, careening into the reeds and occasionally the stream banks. We must have looked incredibly inept and we were more than a little embarrassed. It took us a while to get our technique down, but we eventually became a well oiled paddling machine. We paddled the streams and lakes with precision and efficiency. On our last day we were puffed up and proud as we 'powered by' all the other wilderness trekkers.

We had maps that helped us get from one trail’s end across a lake to the next trail head. We had some difficulty, in the beginning, reading the maps and locating the well concealed trail heads that we needed to find. We truly were in the wilderness, and it wasn't obvious where these trail heads were. Our first few attempts were pathetic, and we would have to paddle along the shoreline until we finally came upon the small trail opening we were searching for. That too became easier as our practice improved our navigation skills. We could pinpoint to within a few feet where we needed to end up as we paddled across each lake.

We had a certain amount of territory that we had to cover each day. My brother had planned out our route and we had a deadline for returning. Family members and friends had been told to alert the authorities if we weren’t back by a certain date. We gave ourselves two extra days of cushion beyond our target return date. We needed to make it back on time, so there was little leeway for us to get off schedule.

One day we were paddling down a creek on our way to the largest lake that we would paddle on our trip. I was a bit apprehensive because the larger the lake the more severe the wind seemed to be. We weren't tying our packs into the boat (my brother didn't want to take the time) and I was always worried about capsizing and having our food, sleeping gear, water purifier and all our other equipment sink to the bottom of a lake!! My mind was focused on what awaited us when we arrived at this large lake. As we paddled silently along, taking in the sights and sounds of the wildness I suddenly realized that the stream was coming to an unexpected ‘end.’

“What is that?” I asked my brother.

As we stared ahead, we realized that the stream was completely blocked by a very robust beaver dam! Our maps showed many things, including some known beaver dam sites, and all of that had gone into my brother’s routing plan. This beaver dam, however, was not on the map. It must have been a "new development."

We started to study our options. There was no way we could back track and take another route. We didn’t have time in our schedule to do that. We studied the banks on each side of the stream next to the beaver dam. The terrain was quite rugged, very hilly and densely covered with trees and brush. It didn’t look like we could unload the canoe and portage around the dam. We might get the packs through that brush, but certainly not the canoe.

My brother said, “I think if we take the packs out of the canoe, you could actually walk across the dam and pull the empty canoe across the dam. I think you are light enough to not fall through it.”

Oh goodie. Just what I wanted to hear. “I don’t THINK you’ll fall through.” I was not thrilled with this option. The mud of the beaver dam stank to high heaven! I wasn’t eager to test his theory that I was light enough to walk ‘across’ this thing.

As I considered our circumstances, I had to face the fact that we really had no other choice. It is important to understand, however, that my brother went through the entire trip without getting his feet wet! He had brought only hiking boots for the trip, whereas I had brought hiking boots for the hiking component of the journey and Teva water sandals for the canoeing piece. I switched back and forth each time we moved from one medium to the other. I had to do all of the loading and unloading of the canoe. He would stand on the shore and hand me the packs to load, or take the packs from me if we were unloading. It was a bit infuriating, but such is the abuse a brother will heap on a little sister!

We pulled the canoe to the side of the stream and he took the packs from me. As he carried the three packs one at a time around the beaver dam, I started working my way to what I thought looked like the most stable part of the dam. The entire time I was feeling put upon that I was the one having to drag the boat over this thing. I still think my brother just didn’t want to get into that repulsive mud! I was sinking up to my knees in this stinky, nasty mud and stick mixture as a pulled the canoe along with me. It was extremely unpleasant. Thankfully, I never sunk in deeper than my knees and I successfully drug the canoe over the dam to the other side.

I moved the boat back to the side of the stream and we reloaded and paddled toward the large lake.

We got to the clear water of the lake and I told my brother that we needed to pull over to the side, get some shielding from the wind and give me some time to wash out my pant legs, which were soaked with stinky beaver dam mud!

We moved into a little cove and my brother held the boat steady to keep it from crashing into the rocky shore. It took all his attention to keep the boat safe from the wind. I stood in knee deep water and swished my filthy pant legs around, trying to rinse them out.

Suddenly I felt a searing pain on my right calf. It felt like something was biting me. I pulled my pant leg up, and there, stuck to my leg, was a disgusting, bloated 5-inch long leach! I let out a blood curdling scream – I thought my poor brother might fall into the lake it scared him so badly! I grabbed the leach and did exactly what you are not supposed to do – I ripped it off my leg, taking a big piece of my skin with it. I flung the leach into the lake and ran onto the shore. I was mortified and extremely grossed out!

After my brother realized that my life was not in danger, he began laughing hysterically. Oh so funny! We had to do some first aid work on my flesh wound to make sure I didn't get some sort of infection. I was incredibly careful from then on when it came to being in any water for any length of time, but particularly murky waters of small streams. In case you have no personal experience... leaches are NASTY!

As horrifying as that experience was at the time, it is one of my favorite memories of the entire trip. I'm quite serious about that! It was a glorious feeling to have conquered the challenge of getting around that beaver dam. Especially for me, as I had to do the dirty work of dragging the boat over the dam and I paid the price by being attacked by a vicious beast in the process!

There were a lot of really cool experiences on that trip, but in overcoming that challenge I proved something to myself. Even when I don’t know what to do… I can find a solution. Even when I think I can’t do something, I often can! Although I may not want to do something, I know that I can do what needs to be done and get on with it. Even though there may be a cost associated with setting off on an adventure, the rewards far outweigh the cost… even the loss of a hunk of skin to a blood thirsty leach!

Unexpected obstacles give us the opportunity to prove what we are made of. They also keep life infinitely more interesting than constantly smooth sailing. :)

Next time you encounter an obstacle on your path consider what gifts you might receive once you have overcome it. Perhaps we can shift our attitude about unexpected challenges along our path

Monday, January 21, 2008

Let People Know

Several recent experiences have impressed upon me the importance of letting people in our lives know how we feel about them and what they mean to us. Life is short and I think one of the saddest things that can happen is for people to die without knowing that they mattered and meant something to others.

We often feel awkward when we contemplate telling people how much they mean to us or how they have impacted our lives. I’m not sure why we have this self consciousness. It is normal to affect each other in life. Often we have no idea what our presence, words and actions mean to those around us.

I wrote an entry a while back about Lucy, my neighbor when I was growing up. She is over 100 years old so I knew that she wouldn’t see the blog entry. My mom took it upon herself to print out the blog and send it to Lucy. In my own defense, I have written letters to Lucy in the past letting her know how much she means to me and how she positively influenced my childhood and life path. I guess when it came to the blog, I felt I’d already said what needed to be said to Lucy. My mom thought otherwise and mailed her the blog.

Lucy was delighted and shared the article with her daughters and grandchildren. I’ve heard from some of them how much they enjoyed reading the article and how much it meant to Lucy.

My mom spoke to Lucy on the phone shortly after she received the article. She was quite tickled and said to my mom something like, “You know, you go through life and just do what you do and you really have no idea how important it really is!” Exactly! I’m so happy that my mom took the initiative to give this message to Lucy again. I don’t believe we can overdo expressing our appreciation for those who have touched our lives and influenced our destiny.

My mother had her own experience of this recently. She spent a great many years as a primary school teacher. Over the years various students have come back as adults and let her know of the positive and profound impact that she’s had on their lives. Each time a student shows up it helps my mother know that her teaching really did matter, that she greatly affected the lives of her students. Recently, a former student tracked her down via me and my website. It blew my mother away to be reconnected with this student and hear about the ways that she had really helped this student through a challenging time in her childhood. I was grateful to the student for letting me know this directly. In our dark hours of doubt, it is always wonderful to be able to remember those who have let us know we mattered to them.
I too have had people remind me of things I’ve said or done, in the past that have influenced and helped them. It’s always a blessing. I go through times of doubt where I wonder if my counseling has really helped anyone. Usually it is about that time that someone emerges with a phone call or a note that thanks for me for how I’ve played a role in some positive changes that they have experienced in their life.

I am setting a goal to let at least one person a month know how much I appreciate them and how they have positively contributed to and enhanced my life. Can you imagine the revolution we would start if everyone did this? Why not try it? Pick one person from your life, past or present, and let them know just how much they mean to you.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Where Selfishness Lives

Life has a funny way of showing us exactly what we need to see. I was reminded of this powerful truth on a airline flight from Seattle to Newark.

When I was studying at One Spirit Interfaith Seminary, I made this particular trip quite frequently and it is a long flight. Usually I would board the plane in Seattle around lunch time, having left home mid-morning, and arrive in Newark around 8pm. By the time I took a cab into New York City, it would be after 9pm. I generally wouldn't get dinner when I arrived that late.

Food becomes an issue for me on long travel days. My body is sensitive to wheat. I try to avoid eating it as much as possible. Airline food generally isn’t a great match for my dietary restrictions! If I don’t eat before I board this flight (which always seems to be a challenge), it can mean I go an entire day (often until the next morning) without food. Combine that with a tendency to get a bit motion sick on airplanes and the need to get up very early the day after travel (4am to my body) to attend my seminary class and it isn’t a pleasant physical experience.

On this particular day, I was delighted to find that I had been upgraded, for free, to first class. I relaxed a bit, knowing that I didn’t need to try and rush to eat something prior to boarding the flight. In the Seattle airport my options are rather limited and generally my pre-flight food ends up being less-than-optimal fast food. With the upgrade I had a much better shot at getting a decent meal and staving off the queasiness that I usually get on this particular travel itinerary and flight schedule.

I settled into my window seat in the last row of first class. I noticed the woman next to me was talking to the woman in front of her. They both had aisle seats and were obviously traveling together. I thought, “Gee… maybe I should offer to let them sit together.” Then, I thought about how much I enjoy window seats and how I get less queasy when I can see outside. I decided that if they asked me to move, I would. Otherwise I’d stay put.

The flight attendant came around to take lunch orders. I could hear her moving through the first class cabin giving people a choice of steak, chicken or a pasta bowl. I was pleased and made up my mind to have steak. She got to our row and addressed the people on the other side of the plane first. Then she asked the woman next to me, “Chicken or a Pasta bowl?” “Hmmmm…” I thought. “They are out of steak. Oh well… chicken will be ok.” The woman next to me ordered chicken. The attendant then turned to me, “I’m sorry, but all we have left is the pasta bowl, will that be ok?”

I had a very strong internal reaction. I hadn’t eaten anything in the airport and was potentially facing not being able to eat until the next morning. I had counted on my first class meal. I had to calm myself internally before I responded to her. I explained my wheat allergy and said that I wouldn’t be able to eat the pasta. She offered to bring me two salads. I accepted, but was not happy.

It is what happened next, however, that shocked me most. The woman next to me heard the entire story. She didn’t offer to trade lunches with me. She didn’t even offer to share her entrée with me. Then, I heard the flight attendant go back to the other 10 people in first class, and ask each one if they would trade. She explained that a person had a wheat allergy and couldn’t eat the pasta bowl. It didn’t matter. No one was willing to trade, share, or do without their meal.

It was quite a moment for me. Most of these people looked quite well fed. Most were obviously seasoned business travelers. I was amazed that their meals could be so important to them. The sense of entitlement and oblivion to someone else’s predicament was stunning to me.

No one looked around the first class cabin that day. I don’t think anyone wanted to face ‘the person with the wheat allergy’ that they had turned their backs on! It felt strangely cold and distant. Selfishness breeds isolation.

The woman next to me ate 2 bites of her chicken, and left all the rest of her meal on her plate. I ate my two salads, and the flight attendant was kind enough to bring me a foil package of tuna fish to squeeze onto them. I felt a bit like a 16 year old dieter.

I was saddened and amazed as I watched the entire situation unfold. How could people be so selfish and self absorbed?

Then, I remembered my opportunity to offer to trade seats with the woman in the row ahead of me. I had let my own selfish needs prevent me from even offering! An “ah-ha” moment to be sure. She might have said no… maybe she wanted the aisle. But, I could have offered… and I didn’t. I put my needs and preferences first. Just like the other 11 people in first class had done when faced with my meal challenge.

Sometimes Spirit gives us ‘larger than life’ reflections of the patterns inside us. The 11 people in the first class cabin that day, showed me an exaggerated version of my own selfishness and sense of entitlement. It is in there, or I couldn’t have seen it and experienced it in them. It was a lesson well learned!

By the way… the woman in the aisle seat in front of me (the seat that would have been mine if I had traded with her)… ate steak for lunch. :)

Thursday, January 17, 2008

You Never Know What Will Come in Handy

I wrote a few days ago about visiting two elderly women in a retirement community. Lilly May was in her mid 90's when I started visiting her back in 1996. I visited her until she passed away at the age of 101.

Lilly May was a very bright lady; smart as a whip, as they say. She had been a teacher of foreign languages. She played the piano beautifully and also taught music. Both of her parents were physicians. Her mother was a physician in the late 1800s, which wasn't so typical! This woman later left her medical practice to become a Christian Scientist.

I didn't learn all this about Lilly May at once. In fact, it took a long time for me to get to know her. Lilly May didn't know what to make of me when I first started visiting her.

"Why are you here?" she asked as she looked at me suspiciously.

"I'm a volunteer with 'Friend to Friend' and I'm here to visit with you and help you in any way I can," I replied with a big, friendly smile.

"Why would you want to do that?" she asked with further suspicion and some surprise.

I tried to explain that I had lost my grandmothers at a very young age and that I had missed being around women from that generation. I talked about how much I enjoy helping people. I let her know that I had recently left my software design career to return to graduate school to study psychology, and that for the first time in many years, I had time to do some of the things I wanted to do.

No matter how I tried to explain my motives, for many months she looked at me a little funny when I would show up, and would often ask, "Are you studying me? Do you think there is something wrong with me or something? Am I the subject of a paper for your graduate work?"

A lot of her comments and questions about me and my motives were amusing! It was also, clear, however, that she had trouble believing that someone could do something just to be nice.

I would go to visit Lilly May every Wednesday. We would sit in her apartment, sometimes have tea and talk about what activities she was doing in the retirement community.

One day, early on, she must have just decided to go on with what she would normally do, whether I was there or not... and let me deal with that. She picked up the New York Times crossword puzzle and went to work.

She would work on it for a minute or two silently, then she would involve me a bit and ask me things like, "OK. 24 Down. A 6 letter word for 'Hope's partner.' Do you know it?"

"Crosby? I think it's Bing Crosby."

"How on earth does someone your age know that?" She would ask in disbelief.

"I watched a lot of old movies as a kid and I still love them!" I would reply.

Most of the time in the early days, she asked me for 'help' with answers she already knew. She was testing me. Little did she know that crosswords were a favorite hobby of mine. Each time I got one of her 'quizzes' correct, she relaxed a bit more in my presence.

One day, she upped the ante. "OK Nola," she said. "I don't know this one. Maybe you can help. 19 down. 12 letters. "Fans are parrot heads." I don't understand that at all. What on EARTH is a parrot head?"

Without hesitation I answered, "They are looking for 'Jimmy Buffett.' He's a musician who sings a lot of songs about leisure, relaxation and tropical places so his fans are called parrot heads. One of my friends is so into him that he goes to his concert every time he's in his area, and he actually has a funny hat that has a fake parrot perched on top."

"Wow," she said. "I've never heard of anything so crazy."

I was right, of course, and this impressed the heck out of her. From that day forward, "we" did the crossword puzzle for most of my visit. She no longer relegated me to answers she already knew. I actually got to help with solving the puzzle.

This is how I won her over: by being really good at crossword puzzles. You never know what is going to come in handy in life. All those hours I spent as a kid doing the newspaper's crossword puzzle helped me forge a relationship with this amazing woman.

Lilly May had traveled the world. She and I had both been to Bali, and had a lot of fun reminiscing about our visits to this magical and special place. She played and taught piano, and I took 11 years of lessons as a kid. She played for me often and every now and then I would play for her. She was much better than me at playing the piano and I preferred to listen to her play.

We did our crossword puzzles and I helped her with things that were getting harder for her to do with her increasing years - like watering her plants and going to the store for things that she needed. One year, she came to my house to share Thanksgiving dinner with my family. She eventually stopped asking if I was 'studying her' for a psychology paper. :) We became friends.

She always had a basket of candy attached to the front of her walker. She wasn't supposed to have it, of course. Lilly May was not someone who responded well to being told what to do. She was truly her own woman.

As she got older, she would repeat stories over and over again. They were usually about her husband. "Isn't he a handsome man?" she would ask as she pointed to his photo. He was. She regaled me with stories of how they met, their courtship, marriage and long life together. "That's my son," she would say as she pointed to his photo on the wall. "He's a pharmacist working for the FDA. He's terribly busy you know and can't come to visit me very much..." her voice would always trail off sadly when she told me about him. He visited as often as he could, but for a mother... it's never enough.

Her hearing was failing when I first started visiting her. Lucky for us, my voice carries extremely well. Sometimes it carries too well. :) One day, she said "You know, I have trouble hearing most people, but I can hear you JUST FINE!" My loud, easily carried voice has sometimes been a challenge for me in life, but it sure came in handy with Lilly May.

Her eyesight began to fade, and that was extremely hard on Lilly May. Eventually she couldn't do crossword puzzles any more. For a while, I would read her the clues and do the writing for her. That seemed to depress her. It wasn't the same as being master of the puzzle. She asked me if I would read to her. I started bringing old copies of my mom's 'Reminiscence' magazines. She loved those, because they told stories about times past, which just happened to be the days of Lilly May's youth and younger adulthood. She loved those stories.

Lilly May was a special woman. We had a sweet bond. Ultimately, it was my crossword puzzle ability that won her over. Especially for the 'old stuff that no one my age ever knows' according to Lilly May. :) That, and the fact that she could hear me well.

We never know what is going to come in handy in life. Sometimes we develop interests or skills that don't seem to make sense. Sometimes those things might be a problem, say a voice that many say is 'too loud' or an addictive hobby like crossword puzzles that can chew up a lot of time.

Sometimes those things are 'the key' to other experiences in life. Coming to know this, in my opinion, involves learning to trust that there is a reason for everything. Sometimes we'll get to see that reason and sometimes we won't. That's where the trust comes in.

My life wouldn't have been the same if I'd missed those precious days with Lilly May. I'm grateful for my love of (and ability with) crossword puzzles, all the hours I spent watching movies from the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s when I was growing up, and the fact that I was given a booming, resonant voice by my creator. Those were the qualities that mad it possible for me to have Lilly May as a companion and a friend as she journeyed through her final years on this earth.

It was, indeed, a blessing and it made me really appreciate these qualities in myself that otherwise might have been dismissed as unimportant.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Don't Expect Too Much From Me

I decided to take some writing classes this winter. I attended my first creative writing class last week. One of the activities in the class was to do a 10 minute 'free write.' The instructor gave us a topic and turned us loose to write for 10 minutes. We were instructed to keep our pen moving and not stop, even if we just wrote "I don't know what to write," over and over again.

After the 10 minutes of writing, each person was given the opportunity to read their piece aloud.

I was nervous and a bit self conscious. Luckily, I was in the middle of the pack, so I had the opportunity to watch others read their works aloud before I had to do it.

There was a lot of good writing presented by my classmates. Many of the pieces were very fine. None were horrible. Everyone made a good, solid effort.

What struck me was how each person 'introduced' their piece. Every single person said something before they started reading what they had written. Usually it was something like,

"This is my first writing class, so please keep that in mind,"


"I'm never any good at these free writing exercises,"


"I didn't do very well on this,"

or some other remark that was basically explaining their own perception that they had somehow failed.

It pained me to hear all these wonderful people saying that they didn't have confidence in what they had done. It was actually physically painful. Like I said, all the writing was acceptable. Besides, this was an 'exercise.' Even if a person wrote "I hate this and I don't know what to write" over and over again for 10 minutes, they would have successfully completed the assignment.

What is it in us that wants to make sure that no one expects too much from us? What part of us is afraid that what we have to offer is so bad it requires a disclaimer before we share it with others?

I had the same impulse in the class. When my turn came, I too was tempted to say it was my first writing class and that I was uncomfortable sharing what I wrote. I wanted to say that, but I didn't. I made a decision to say nothing, and just read my piece for what it was and let it be OK. That's what I did. It wasn't comfortable. I was very self conscious. I wished it was 'better.' I had all the same feelings I heard in the voices and saw on the faces of my classmates as they took their turns. I just didn't voice it publicly. I wanted to do it for myself. I also wanted to set a different example of how we might put our work before others - without fear or shame.

The comments were positive about what I wrote. Most were amazed at how much I wrote in the short 10 minute period. I do write very quickly. It really doesn't matter whether the comments were good or bad. It was an exercise. We are all in the class to improve our writing. We are not expected to produce perfect writing in the class.

And yet... that terrible self consciousness. That deep desire to ask people not to expect too much from our performance.

We are not what we write. We are not what we do. Over identifying with what we do or write is dangerous business. We are entitled to be human. We are entitled to make mistakes. We are entitled to flounder around in the learning process.

I want to be free of that awful internal feeling that what I have to offer 'isn't good enough' and I'm committed to doing whatever it takes to accomplish that. I have that same wish for everyone else as well. I hope we can all find that place inside where we are allowed to be ourselves and where we feel good about what we have to offer. Accepting ourselves as we are is how we become free.

Next time you are asked to share something, try to do it without offering a disclaimer first. Just smile... and do it!

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Happy Birthday

Today is January 15th which happens to be my father's birthday. Born in 1930, he would have been 78 today.

Today is also the birthday of one of my heroes, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., civil rights leader and social transformer.

Both of these men are very important to me, in very different ways, of course. I always thought it interesting that they shared the same birthday. Dr. King was born exactly one year before my dad, in 1929.

Each influenced me at different times and in different ways in my life. My father, of course, on a daily basis and in a personal way. Dr. King impacted me mostly in retrospect after his death, learning about and revering the life he led and the contribution he made to bettering our world.

My father instilled many qualities in me that make me who I am in the world today. He was extremely generous and was quick to help people. Sometimes he was taken advantage of and his generosity was abused. (I tend to have followed in those footsteps). My father never stopped helping and giving. Even after being burned, his generous and loving heart kept helping people when they needed it. I hope that I got that part of his nature as well.

My dad had a fantastically amusing sense of humor. He did funny little things that kept everyone around him laughing all the time. I wish I would have inherited more of that trait. I tend to be terminally serious and the only time I'm funny is when it is by total accident. I'm usually the last one to know that what I did or said was humorous!

I pause on this day to give thanks for the fact that my father walked among us on this planet. He blessed my life and was a springboard for me to pursue my dreams and aspirations.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. transformed our world. He studied the works of Mahatma Gandhi on non-violent, non-cooperation with evil and injustice and led a revolution for civil rights.

Gandhi and Dr. King are two of my all time heroes. They lived the principles for dealing with injustice that I most admire.

So, today - the day of his birth - as well as on the upcoming holiday, we celebrate the life of Dr. King - who sacrificed so much to lead a revolution that has impacted us all.

From the King Center website, here are two wonderful quotes from Dr. King:

"One of the greatest liabilities of history, is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change. But today our very survival depends upon our ability
to stay awake,
to adjust to new ideas,
to remain vigilant
and face the challenge of change."

"Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major. Say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. Say that I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won't have any money to leave behind. I won't have the fine and luxurious things in life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. And that's all I want to say. If I can help somebody as I pass along, if I can cheer somebody with a word or song, if I can show somebody he is traveling wrong, then my living will not be in vain."
~ Excerpted from "The Drum Major Instinct", a sermon by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1968.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Changing Conditions

Like a lot of Seattle folks, I watched the disappointing Seahawk's playoff game this past weekend. The Seahawks were playing against Green Bay, somewhere in Wisconsin. I don't need to go into the details of the game, except to say... it was ugly!

One thing about the game that really struck me was how clear the weather was at kick off compared to the conditions later in the game when snow was falling at a fast and furious rate.

I'm not,in any way, blaming the Seahawk's loss on the snow. There were many problems with the way they played the game. I was watching them play in the slippery white stuff, however, and kept wondering how the heck they could even stay on their feet! The Green Bay Packers are most likely used to playing in this stuff. They are from Wisconsin, after all. Our Seahawks don't play in the snow very often.

The conditions on the field changed mid game. What did the Seahawks do? They played. They couldn't control the conditions on the field. Even if they didn't like the snow or perform as well in the snow... they played. That's what players do. They play. They play no matter what the conditions are on the field.

How often do we want conditions to be 'just so' before we do what is ours to do in life? We wait for the right conditions before we take action. The Seahawks didn't 'wait' for the snow to go away before they played. They played in the snow. The outcome wasn't what they hoped for, but they didn't use the snow as an excuse to take off their uniforms and go home.

OK, I know... they get paid big bucks to show up and play. The point is still the point. We have things that are ours to do in life. We need to do them. Conditions around us are always changing and we can't control many of them. Waiting for the right conditions is a sure way to stay in one place and never progress.

We, like the Seahawks, have to face whatever conditions we find on the field and do what is ours to do. The outcome isn't nearly as important as the playing. Sometimes we will win. Other times we will lose. Even in the losses, however, are lessons that make us better players in the game of life.

Face the changing conditions and do what you have to do! That's what life (and football) are all about!

Friday, January 11, 2008

Bush's Peace Hallucination

I decided that I needed to republish this email I received today from Sam Bahour, a Palestinian American business man who writes a lot about what is really happening in Israel and Palestine. I'm on his email list. I appreciated this article, because it gives the honest opinion of most Palestinians (and Israeli Arabs for that matter) about American foreign policy (as touted by Bush) regarding Israel and Palestine.

The only positive thing that I saw out of Bush's visit is that he referred to Israel's "occupation" of Palestinian land, which US presidents try not to do. The Israeli government does not consider it's actions towards the Palestinians as an occupation, which is ludicrous to me. Other than Bush calling it what it is, an 'occupation,' he was his normal, clueless self. Naive at best, driven by horribly misguided beliefs and interests more than likely.

Here is Sam's newsletter from today. If you'd like to keep a pulse on what is happening in the Palestinian territories, and a good representation of Palestinian opinion, I encourage you to subscribe to it.

January 10, 2008

Bush Peace Hallucinations Continue

By Sam Bahour

U.S. President George Bush landed in Israel yesterday on his first Presidential trip to the country. He participated in a press conference in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in what both men termed a “historic” and “monumental” occasion. After listening to both so-called leaders make their opening comments and fielding questions from journalists, the only groundbreaking revelation I could register was that the naiveté of President Bush, either real or a charade, only served the agenda of one party in the region - Hamas. The radical Islamists at Hamas could not have recruited a better cheerleader for their movement if they tried.

My opinion may be extreme, but then again, I live in an extremely violent limbo under Israeli military occupation, shaped by a policy both men continuously refuse to call by its true name – state terror.

Again, my opinion is certainly subjective - but then again, I started my day by reading a communique from the real world: a report issued from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs titled, Gaza Humanitarian Situation Report: Power Shortages In The Gaza Strip (8 January 2008). The report states the background of the issue; on 28 June 2006 the Israeli Air Force bombed the power plant in the Gaza Strip destroying all six transformers and cutting 43% of Gaza’s total power capacity. The report says “households in the Gaza Strip are now experiencing regular power cuts” and goes on to note that “the irregular [electricity] supply causes additional problems. Running water in Gaza is only available in most households for around eight hours per day. If there is no power when water is available, it cannot be pumped above ground level, reducing the availability of running water to between four and six hours per day.” The result of this single punitive measure, as stated in this report, is that if Gaza’s Coastal Municipalities Water Utility “cannot provide its own emergency power supply because of its own fuel shortages, it has to pump raw sewage into the sea which damages the coastline in Gaza, southern Israel and Egypt.”

In another report, released the same day, the World Food Program spokesperson Kirstie Campbell says 70 percent of the population of Gaza has to choose between putting food on the table or a roof over their heads.

For President Bush and Prime Minister Olmert, the fallout expected from the information in these disturbing reports, released one day before President Bush arrived in Israel, was not even worthy of worry. As a matter of fact, the reality that Israel has successfully placed 1.5 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, over 50% of them children, in the dark and under the most draconian siege in recent history did not even make it to the footnotes of either leader’s comments.

Instead, much more important issues were on Bush’s agenda. The need to realize and work on a “vision” for the future was in the forefront of President Bush’s mind. According to President Bush, "the parties" should now sit down and "negotiate a vision" – the parties being Israel, the 4th strongest military might in the world and a 40+ year occupier, and the Palestinians, the yet-to-be state of an occupied and displaced people who have been dispossessed by the State of Israel for 60 years and while on the receiving end of a brutal Israeli military occupation for over four decades.

Both Bush and Olmert did send one united message to the world. The two-state solution was still the aim of the negotiations. Reading between the lines, we can infer that the specter of a single state, from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River, is the most frightening vision of all. The terrifying notion of Palestinians (Muslims and Christians) and Israelis (Jews, Muslims, and Christians) living side by side with equal national and civil rights, has never been so apparent since the struggle in South Africa to end racist white supremacy under Apartheid. To ensure that a one-state solution does not materialize in historic Palestine, the U.S. and Israel talk about a two-state solution, but meantime, the U.S. bankrolls Israel as it continues to create facts on the ground that make any viable Palestinian state impossible.

Prime Minister Olmert was clear beyond a doubt: President Bush has been very, very good for Israel. Olmert was nearly jumping for joy as he praised President Bush for increasing the comprehensive U.S. aid package to Israel to a whopping $30 billion.

The issue of Israeli settlement-building in the occupied territory, including East Jerusalem, was raised repeatedly by journalists asking questions. Again, Israel’s Olmert made no excuses; Jerusalem is different, he said, and no one should expect settlements to stop there. As for the other settlements, he said it was complicated and began elucidating the lexicon of "outposts," "population centers," etc. If only this entire settlement enterprise were not threatening Israel’s very own citizens and future, Olmert’s blather would have made excellent comedy material – not to mention President Bush’s weird facial expressions as he sought to evade the barrage of questions asking if the U.S. was ready to apply pressure on Israel to make good on its talk of freezing settlements. The best President Bush was able to come up with impromptu was to remind us all that Israel has been promising for over four years to stop settlements but has yet to do so. Even that came with a chuckle, as if the human tragedy these settlements are causing was a side show. Rarely has Mr. Bush given so persuasive an impression of being detached not just from the facts but from any sort of empathy for the victims of this appalling situation.

All in all, it looks like President Bush came to Israel to speak about Iran. Not only did Mr. Bush seem much more enthused about threatening Iran from Israel; his glaring inability to articulate a basic understanding of the Palestinian-Israeli issue left seasoned Israeli journalists chuckling in disbelief at the President’s replies. The local press corps noted every opportunity seized by Olmert to hitch a ride on each one of President Bush’s superficial comments, lauding the importance of the Bush visit, the Bush commitment to peace, and the Bush courage in confronting the region's difficulties.

Well, next President Bush arrives in my Israeli-occupied city of Al-Bireh/Ramallah. He plans to land two blocks away from my home, in a sports field where I happen to be developing as a commercial project for the Friends (Quaker) School. We were notified today that our street will be one of the many that will be under 100% lockdown. We were advised we would be risking our lives if we went to our rooftop to watch the charade unfold. Public notices from the Palestinian police chief warned that absolutely no protests would be tolerated. In short, we were told to stay indoors. Even our local newspaper advised a civil society campaign I work with that an ad we submitted to be published in today’s newspaper, conveying a message to Bush via a cartoon, would require special approval from the newspaper’s management, given the special circumstance that Bush is in town. (As I write, I’m being advised that our ad**, as is, was refused!) So much for running a business, economic development, and freedom of the press. So much for Palestinian democracy too.

As an American and a Palestinian, if I could advise Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on how to greet President Bush today, I would ask him to declare the end of the Palestinian Authority, which Israel has consciously and systematically destroyed. I would ask him to announce that the Palestinians will not accept Rambo-style diplomacy and will revert to international law as the only reference point for resolving the conflict. I would ask President Abbas to request America’s support for non-violent resistance against 60 years of dispossession and 40 years of military occupation by calling for a strategy of boycotting, divestment and sanctions*** on Israel until Israel joins the community of law-abiding nations.

But that’s not all. If I were President Abbas I would tell the world that the Palestinian people will remain committed to the two-state solution until the end of 2008, and after that, if the international community fails yet again to end this nightmare of occupation, the Palestinian people will return to their original strategy of calling for one democratic secular state, where Palestinians and Israelis of all religions can live in dignity and mutual respect as equals - one person, one vote, with appropriate arrangements for cultural autonomy for all.

President Abbas could lead now, or we could all sit and wait amid the increasing numbers of funerals, until the climax of the reality forced upon us by Israeli policy engenders a violent path to the same one-state solution that so many fear.

* See
** Newspaper ad refused by Al-Quds Newspaper is the one at top of this article or may be viewed at
*** See and

- Sam Bahour is a business consultant and may be reached at
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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Secret Service

I have a lovely 93 year old friend that I visit in a retirement community every week. I've been doing this for the past 11 years. Back when I started this, I was looking for a volunteer opportunity that I could do 'in secret,' for one year, without telling anyone I was doing it.

Why did I want to do this? Interestingly enough, the idea had come to me at a women's retreat that I attended. One of the activities that we did during the retreat was a guided meditation experience. In this experience we were to go inside ourselves, to a sacred inner chamber, and ask our higher self a question. Usually I'm not very good at this sort of thing. Maybe I should say that I don't often get profound results when I attempt this sort of meditation. This time, however, I was shocked at what happened.

As we did the meditation, I decided to ask myself "What's the next step on my spiritual path?" The answer was decisive, clear and immediate. What I 'heard' is that I needed to find a volunteer opportunity and do it in secret for one year, without telling anyone that I was doing it. I was intrigued by this response. It felt 'right on' to me.

I contemplated my options and I knew that I either wanted to work with older folks or with kids. During college, one of my many jobs was tutoring grade school kids in math and reading. I really enjoyed that and loved helping kids overcome their special challenges in learning. That must come from being the daughter of a primary school teacher! :)

As for my attraction to hanging out with older folks, I think that comes from the fact that I lost both of my grandmothers when I was pretty young. One passed away when I was 13 and one passed away on my 16th birthday. They both left long before I had the where-with-all to get to know them well as women. I missed out on something important. I did have Lucy, my next door neighbor when I was growing up, whom I've writeen about on this blog and she was a true treasure. In many ways I had more contact with her than I did my own grandmothers. I loved sitting and talking with her over tea in the evenings. Since I left home 18, however, I have really missed the presence of older, wiser women in my daily life. I was yearning for that presence.

I decided to do my volunteer work by visiting an older woman in a nursing home.

I signed up with a fantastic organization called Friend to Friend ( which matches volunteers with people in nursing homes or retirement communities. You are put through a background check (as the elderly are considered a 'vulnerable' population in Washington state) and fill out a questionnaire that helps Friend to Friend make a good match.

I was contacted by a local retirement community and was asked to come in for an interview. When I went in, the volunteer coordinator said she had a perfect match for me. A wonderful woman who was 82 years old and was starting to suffer vision loss as a result of macular degeneration. Although this woman had lots of family members, several of them near by, she was struggling with the idea of asking her family and friends for help. The coordinator felt that it might be easier for a stranger to be available to help her with some things as she accepted and made the initial adjustment to having her condition. I agreed that this was a great idea.

Then the coordinator got a funny look on her face and said, "Could I ask you to consider visiting a second woman?" I explained that I really only had time for one weekly visit. She kept pressing and said that she had a lovely woman in her 90s who's only son who lived in Maryland. She rarely had visitors and was very hard of hearing. That definitely tugged on my heart strings.

I thought about the commitment I was making and whether I could take on visiting two women every week, instead of one as I had planned. Friend to Friend asks for a one year commitment, but I knew myself - this would go on as long as these two women were alive. I wouldn't 'make friends' with someone and then just walk away when my gig was up. That's not my style.

Well, you guessed it... I decided to visit both women! I have received so many blessings over these past 11 years. I can't begin to tell you about them all!

I will write more about my friends, Lilly May (who passed away a few years ago at 101) and Ethel, who I still visit every Wednesday.

I do have inspiring and heart warming stories to share about them. I have learned so much from each of these women. Much of it is well worth spreading around. Age often does bring great wisdom. My two friends exemplify that in a major way.

For this blog entry, I wanted to focus on my 'secret' volunteer service. I will write more about these women in future blogs.

It was a heck of a year. I *think* it was about making sure that I was doing it for the 'right' reasons. No credit, no glory, no acknowledgment. Just doing something nice for someone because I wanted to and because I could. It was an interesting year as I watched myself 'wanting' to tell people at various points in time. Sometimes I was late for something because of a visit with the ladies. Oh... how I wanted to get myself off the hook by explaining why I was late. There were times I wanted to 'use' what I was doing to gain sympathy, respect and favor from people. This was never blatant or extreme, but I did see elements of it creeping into my desires and impulses from time to time. It was fascinating, and I learned a lot about 'true service' through that powerful year.

After the first year was over, I did tell people about visiting the ladies. The stories were too good to keep to myself and keeping the secret was a lot harder than it might seem!

I highly recommend this as a spiritual practice! Doing something that no one knows you're doing... just for the sake of doing it, is a a powerful exercise. It is guaranteed to teach you all sorts of things about yourself. Give it a try!!

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

What's in a Sugar Bowl?

It sits on my kitchen counter every day. It has been with me since my Grandma Drazdoff passed away on my 16th birthday. One her sentimental and cherished possessions, she left this item especially for me.

It is a little sugar bowl in the shape of an apple. The bottom is round, clear glass. The lid is grooved gold that forms the top of the apple, complete with a stem for the handle. The spoon too is gold and fits through a small cut out hole in the side of the lid. It was a gift that my grandparent's received on their 50th wedding anniversary. From who, I don't know.

This was an item of great significance to my grandparents. They were Russian immigrant farmers and apples were one of the crops they grew.

It symbolizes my family's ties to the land and love of growing things.

It reminds me of my grandpa's affection for me because each year he selected the largest and best red delicious apple from the harvest and triple polished it just for me.

It represents the quality of self reliance that permeates our family belief system. These folks raised or grew almost everything they needed to survive.

It also tells the story of their enduring commitment to each other with over 50 years spent together as life partners.

Each time I put sugar in my coffee I remember my grandmother teaching me to cook some special Russian dish, making me practice rolling my r's to get it just right or sending me to the garden to pick fresh green beans for our dinner.

I remember too that one of my Russian great grandmothers refused to eat white sugar because of her experiences in the sugar factories in Hawaii where they landed soon after leaving Russia. The stories were never told to us children but we knew there was some horrible truth related to how white sugar is made. I still wonder about it.

I have very few items of my grandmother's, but this one item is enough. In this one little bowl a whole world exists for me.

Such a simple item. No one would ever know just by looking at it that it holds so many secrets and so much meaning for me. It speaks volumes of my family heritage and where I come from. It contains not only sugar, but the very stuff of which I am made, deep in my soul.

I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world.

I think we all have things, some tangible, some not, that connect us to our history and our familial heritage. It does us good to honor and acknowledge those things. No matter what has gone on in our family's history, it is part of what makes us who we are. Good or bad, our history influences us. It's up to us to decide whether that influence will be positive or negative... no matter what the nature of the past.

Honoring our history and learning from it is a way to harvest the lessons and blessings that are there for us, while releasing anything that needs to be left behind. I believe one of the great challenges of a human life is how to learn from the wounds of the past, without letting those wounds define us. The 'good stuff' is easy to look back on and see value in. The darker, more painful parts, are harder to look at with harvesting gifts in mind. That, however, is the key to crafting the future that we crave.

Got any sugar bowls lying around that might contain more than sugar?

From Right to left: Great Grandma Drazdoff,
Great Grandma Maklakoff, Grandma Drazdoff
My Uncle Johnny & my Dad (blonde!) in front
Working in a hop yard

Me and Grandma Drazdoff picking sour/pie cherries

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Big Rocks

I came across a statement today, attributed to Robert Heinlein, that struck me to the core.

"In the absence of clearly defined goals, we become strangely loyal to performing daily trivia until ultimately we become enslaved by it."

It is so easy for all of us to get caught up in the minutia of daily life and watch time slide by us without accomplishing the things we say are most important to us.

I love the story by Alan Smith about 'rocks in a jar.'

One day an expert on the subject of time management was speaking to a group of business students and, to drive home a point, used an illustration those students will likely never forget. As this man stood in front of the group of high-powered overachievers he said, "Okay, time for a quiz." Then he pulled out a one-gallon, wide-mouthed mason jar and set it on a table in front of him. Then he produced about a dozen fist-sized rocks and carefully placed them, one at a time, into the jar.

When the jar was filled to the top and no more rocks would fit inside, he asked, "Is this jar full?" Everyone in the class said, "Yes."

Then he said, "Really?" He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. Then he dumped some gravel in and shook the jar causing pieces of gravel to work themselves down into the spaces between the big rocks.

He smiled and asked the group once more, "Is the jar full?" By this time the class was onto him. "Probably not," one of them answered. "Good!" he replied. And he reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand. He started dumping the sand in and it went into all the spaces left between the rocks and the gravel. Once more he asked the question, "Is this jar full?"

"No!" the class shouted. Once again he said, "Good!" Then he grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour it in until the jar was filled to the brim. Then he looked up at the class and asked, "What is the point of this illustration?"

One eager beaver raised his hand and said, "The point is, no matter how full your schedule is, if you try really hard, you can always fit some more things into it!"

"No," the speaker replied, "that's not the point. The truth this illustration teaches us is: If you don't put the big rocks in first, you'll never get them in at all."

Not only that, but the same items, in the same volume would not fit into that same jar in any other order! If you filled the jar with sand, you could not fit in the gravel or the big rocks. Several other combinations would yield a full jar, but the 'big rocks' would not be inside with the other 'stuff.'

This story gets at the same point as my opening quote. There will always be a lot of little nitty gritty details that are screaming for our attention in life. If, however, we focus on those little details first, we will never get to the big priorities. We will never achieve our deepest desires and our highest aspirations.

I know lots of people who fill their days with minutia (myself included at times) to avoid facing the things that need to be faced, or dealing with the things that really are worthy of attention. It is a coping mechanism. It is used to deal with fear or overwhelm. It is an attempt to keep things manageable and not venture too far our of our comfort zones.

The one who suffers most from the implementation of that strategy is the implementer themselves. The other thing to keep in mind, however, is that all of us suffer when any one of us does not give their gift to this world. If any one of us fails to get our big rocks into the jar... the world loses.

We all have 'big rocks' that we want and need to achieve. The key is to put those things first... no matter what they are, and fit everything else in around the edges.

What are your big rocks for 2008? For your life? Make sure that you are spending time on the big rocks each and every day. Fulfil yourself and at the same time you are serving the world!

Monday, January 07, 2008

Cinderella Man

I have another movie recommendation for you. The movie is, Cinderella Man, which is based on the life of boxer, James J. Braddock. I'm not a huge fan of boxing. Two people beating each other's brains out doesn't really appeal to me. This movie, however, is really inspiring.

James J. Braddock was an average guy. He was a hard working family man. His promising boxing career fizzled out when he had a string of losses and seemed to end when he shattered his right hand.

Struggling to feed his family during the great depression, James J. Braddock worked as best he could with a broken hand, and finally did something he never intended to do: he went on public assistance. It was the toughest of times for a proud and honorable man.

In 1934, he was given the opportunity to box one more time. In a huge, surprise upset, he beat John "Corn" Griffin on the under-card fight for the heavyweight championship fight between Max Baer and Primo Carnera. Everyone was amazed.

One of the most surprising aspects of that fight was that James had developed an incredibly powerful left punch. It was a result of having to rely on his left hand when working on the docks when his right hand was shattered.

This is perhaps the part of the story that I love the most. He wasn't a good enough fighter to 'go all the way' in the early part of his boxing career. Due to the horrible hardships of the great depression, and his broken right hand, he developed strength and power in his left arm that became the critical difference in his boxing ability. It is a great reminder that sometimes our greatest gifts are born out of our greatest trials. Without the broken hand and the hardship of working the docks as an injured man... he would have never attained the greatness that he went on to achieve.

After the Griffin win, James J. Braddock went on to win a string of additional fights, culminating with taking the heavyweight championship from Max Baer (as a 10 to 1 underdog) in 1935.

James J. Braddock became a beacon of hope to millions of Americans struggling through the hardships of the great depression. He was any man... He was every man... and he did something extraordinary that inspired that masses and gave people hope that things could turn around.

He never gave up. One of the biggest turning points for him was at his lowest moment. His electricity had been shut off, his kids were cold and getting sick, and his wife, in a desperate moment farmed the kids out to relatives. James had promised his children he would never do that. At that moment, he went to his old friends in the fight business and asked for help to pay his electric bill. It was humiliating for him, but he asked for help. That is the moment that his life started to turn around. The opportunity for the fight that resurrected his boxing career was born in that moment. His manager, witnessing the humility it took for James to ask for help, was inspired to get him a fight. He got him that fight, the Griffin fight, and the rest, as they say, is history.

From the James J. Braddock website: It is the "American story of a man who was not so much a great boxer as a great man who boxed his way out of darkness and defeat and into the stuff of immortality."

I wholeheartedly agree. This story is truly inspiring. It is a must see!

James J. Braddock

Friday, January 04, 2008

Even A Vacuum Can Be A Teacher

Lessons come from the most unusual places! Recently, I discovered that my vacuum cleaner was broken. A couple of small pieces had broken off and left my fancy, hi-tech machine totally useless.

I took the machine to the vacuum cleaner hospital to have it repaired. I was informed that the repairs would be done for free, under warranty. A nice surprise indeed! As the mechanic inspected my vacuum he told me that I had another problem he should fix. It seems that my hair gets sucked up into the roller/beater brush and winds around the bearings at each end and messes up the bearings. Who would have guessed. I got a long lecture on how important it is for me to take this entire assembly apart every 6 months and clean out the hair! Seems I've been neglectful of my vacuum. I had to pay for the repair, and felt properly 'schooled' on proper vacuum maintenance for the future.

In a related tale, my hi-tech fridge recently started flashing me a message each time I open the door. "Vacuum Condenser" it keeps saying. Another problem to solve. I sometimes get weary of these little annoying problems! I finally looked in the owner's manual today to see if they could shed more light on this part, the "Vacuum Condenser" and direct me to an authorized service center. The book had no troubleshooting information, but there was a section on routine maintenance. In that section they presented step by step instructions on how to remove the front grill from the refrigerator and vacuum the condenser! I had misinterpreted the message. I was taking vacuum as a noun and they intended it as verb! I laughed at my error.

Once I got the vacuum cleaner home from the shop, I followed the instructions and vacuumed under the fridge all around the condenser. The light dutifully went off. I thought it was going to be an expensive pain in the backside, and it took all of 5 minutes to handle it!

I got two valuable lessons from my "vacuum" issues. The first, was a reminder to make sure I understand the message I am receiving! Faulty interpretation could lead to an ineffective, unnecessary and costly solution!

The second, was the importance of properly maintaining things in our care. Whether it's our body, our spirit, our cars or other possessions... wise use involves proper maintenance. I could have avoided both of these problems if I had simply done what was necessary to keep things up properly. Nothing functions as it should without proper care. Whether from ignorance or choice it does not matter. If we neglect things they malfunction and don't perform as we need them to. It's as simple as that.

I'm thankful today for the 'vacuum' lessons. Even a vacuum can be a teacher!

Thursday, January 03, 2008

The Importance of Understanding

I was in my bank the other day, and as I conducted my transaction, I noticed a sign on the wall behind my teller. The hand written sign was posted above a little machine. It said,

"PLEASE - Don't press any buttons on this machine if you don't know what they do!!!"

I cracked up as I read it. The teller asked me what I was laughing about and I pointed at the sign. She went on to explain that it is easy to mess up that machine and render it useless. They depend on that machine a great deal and can't afford to have it out of commission.

As I left the bank I was thinking about the sign and the universal importance of the message conveyed there. If you don't understand how something works and you blaze ahead in engaging with it, you can mess things up.

Sometimes ignorance of the rules can be dangerous. I like to think about electricity. Electricity is powerful. If you understand it and work in harmony with it, you can light a cathedral. If you are ignorant or arrogant about how it works, you can electricute yourself. The power is the same power. The difference is in how it is directed. KNowledge and undertanding are critical in the directing of that power.

Understanding the laws of the universe and how to engage with life allow us to be our most successful. It pays to take the time to learn how we can feel and perform our best in life... physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Otherwise we are randomly punching buttons on the machine, and often can paralyze ourselves.

Even a sign in a bank can remind us of what's important. So next time you find yourself about to punch buttons and you have no idea what they do... ask for help or haul out the instruction manual and study up. Increase your understanding and your knowledge level and watch yourself soar!

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Kindness Pays.... Part II

The other day, I was in a store making a purchase that took quite a lot of time. I had about 3 hours of interaction with the salesman who was helping me. The purchase involved a number of purchases to help me with an ongoing problem I have with my back and hip. Over the course of this three hours I talked with this man a lot.

We were discussing a recent incident that I was feeling very upset about. Someone who hit one of my vehicles (and fully admitted it at the time - there was NO dispute about who's fault it was), stalled dealing with his insurance company for two months and then finally contacted his insurance agent, only to lie about the facts of the accident. Now we are in a dispute because this man is being dishonest. Nothing infuriates me more than one person trying to take advantage of another and being dishonest in the process.

As I was telling the sales guy this story he started telling me his opinions about 'karma' and how he believes the old saying about 'what goes around, comes around.' I share his beliefs, wholeheartedly. The salesman said, "One day, something is going to happen to that guy... and he's NOT going to like it!" I agreed.

Then the salesman told me the following story. He said that a while back, the other saleman in the store had a young customer in the shop who was making a purchase. During the credit application process, the young man inadvertently left his passport and social security card in the store. My salesman's co-worker said he was going to just throw the documents away. My salesman was mortified. He tried to reason with the other salesman and talked about how frantic the young man must be in losing track of those items. The other salesman didn't care and handed the items to my guy. He said, "If you care so much about it, YOU track this guy down."

My salesman looked the last name up in the phone book. There were 5 entries. He started calling. Eventually he found the young man's grandmother and left a message. Finally he received a call from the young man's parents, who were relieved beyond belief. They set a time to come and pick up the documents.

When they arrived, they handed the salesman a thank you card. It had $50 inside it! He didn't feel it was necessary, but he was greatful. He only did what he would have wanted someone to do for him!

The irony, he told me, was that the other salesman who refused to try and return the documents to the customer, was extremely broke and desperate for money at that particular time. $50 would have really helped him out. Yet, in his laziness and lack of concern for someone else's problem, he made a choice that cost him the very thing he needed... money!

Another great lesson that when we do the right things, for the right reasons, we are often rewarded in overt ways. Even if we don't get an outward reward, there is a deep satisfaction that comes from doing something nice for others... just because it is the right thing to do!

I enjoyed my afternoon with this salesman. I learned a lot from how he approaches his life and I feel enriched by that!

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Happy New Year!

Here we are... January 1, 2008! A very Happy New Year to you!

I spend my new year's eve as I always do: performing a comprehensive review of the outgoing year. I spend several hours, looking back over my goal list (more on this in a moment) and flipping through my journal to mine out the events and achievements that were the most meaningful to me during the year.

The 'year review' is a powerful process that reminds me just how much life I lived in the course of the outgoing year! I pay special attention to trips I took, experiences and gifts I gave to others, significant personal achievements, and the contributions that I made to maintaining and strengthening the health of my relationships. The resulting list is several pages long. I always end the night feeling that my year was worthwhile and that I did far more than I give myself credit for.

Some of my highlights for 2007 were exploring my roots and heritage in Texas with my mother and my uncle David last spring. We spent a fantastic two weeks driving ALL over Texas, meeting relatives and visiting the places where my mom and her family lived when she was a child. I even got to stand at a pulpit where my Grandfather, Morris Russell Pike, Sr. preached as a Methodist minister 65 years ago. As an ordained minister myself, that was a magical moment for me!

Me behind the pulpit of the Channing Methodist Church

The Channing Methodist Church where my Grandfather preached 65 years ago

It was such a treat to share this experience with my mother and my uncle David. We saw so many relatives. I had never met many of these people. It was fascinating to see some of my heritage. Many things about my drive, determination, personality and mannerisms made more sense after this trip!

Another highlight was discovering my Drazdoff relatives up in Canada, and uncovering my Doukhobor heritage! I've written about this a bit on my blog back in September. It was also very enlightening and revealed a lot to me about 'why I am the way that I am!' A lot of things about me make a lot more sense now!

I got a double whammy of spiritual depth from both sides of my family! :)

The list of achievements and special moments, as I said, is several pages long. It would be a bit boring for me to recount them all here. The point is, I think there is tremendous value in doing this sort of review. I actually do this almost every night when I go to bed. I do a 'day review' to remind myself of all the life I've lived that day. Whether for a day or a year, it is always a good idea to give oneself credit for the life we've lived. It helps us not take things for granted, or let things slide by without really appreciating them.

This is my New Year's Eve tradition. The year review.

Then, on New Year's Day, I set about setting my goals for the year. I've been doing this for 22 years! I use a journal that I found at Jack Boland's Church of Today (Now Renaissance Unity) in Warren Michigan. Jack Boland was (and is) one of the primary spiritual teacher's I've had in my life. He is one of the two people I actually credit with saving my life... literally. (The other is my teacher, Dr. Charles Bruni .) Both of these men have made their transitions and are no longer living with us here on earth. I have brief tributes to Jack and Dr. Bruni on my website, and will undoubtedly write about them here at some point.

At any rate, I use the journal, developed by Jack Boland, to guide me in a comprehensive goal setting process. I set goals by category. Among the categories are: Physical health, Mental/Emotional health, Career, Family, Relationships, Finance, Things I want to do, Things I want to have, Things I want to be, etc.

Every year I set these goals. Some of them are very minor things and other goals are actually more like 'life' goals. Some goals carry forward from year to year because they are continuous and never 'achievable.' Others are items I can tick off the list. I evaluate goals based on whether I 'achieved' them or 'made progress' on them. It is a really wonderful process!

What I have discovered over the years is that I really do achieve a lot more because of writing down my goals! Sometimes I'm very shocked to see that I wrote down a goal, forgot about it and have achieved it!

In addition to goal setting, I declare a 'theme' for each year. I record my theme at the front of my journal, and I literally try to keep the theme in front of me during the entire year. It can actually aid in decision making! I can ask myself whether an action will take me toward or away from my theme. It has aided me many times when I have felt confused about a course of action!!

Some of my themes have been "The year of the body" where I worked on physical health, "Adore and Adorn this body NOW, as it is" where I worked on grooming, wardrobe, etc. and embraced my body exactly as it was in the moment, "Embracing my Femininity," etc. I look forward to choosing my theme each year. The first couple times I did it, I felt some pressure. It seemed like a really big commitment, and I struggled with all the themes I 'couldn't' choose if I selected only one. As the years have gone by, however, I've learned that I have time to get to all the other themes that are important to me. I've lost the urgency and am just left with the excitement of taking on yet another new theme each year.

So, as we sit at the dawning of 2008, I encourage you to give yourself credit for the life you have lived this past year and do a bit of a year review. Then, set yourself a few goals to focus your energy and attention on in the coming 12 months!! Last, but not least, think carefully about a major theme that you might embrace for 2008. You might find that your life takes off in wonderful and unexpected directions!

Happy New Year!!!