I think I can, I think I can (Inspiration Series, Week 37)

I fell short.

One post a week for a year seemed both perfectly reasonable and wildly improbable when I decided to launch this little series last year. I had subjects in mind, a list to draw on. Surely I could write 800 or so words once a week about people I inspired.

The kickoff went well and for a little while I met the self-imposed deadline of Saturday completion for Sunday “publishing.” Too often it would get a little frantic at the end, my procrastination skills being what they are. But I got it done. Colette edited all those early ones—as her life got busier, it became more important to get things done on schedule.

Then, one week I wasn’t done until Sunday. I posted Monday. And so the story goes… lost momentum here, an attack of laziness there, and somewhere in the summer I started falling behind. At first I assured myself I’d catch up. Even at Thanksgiving I envisioned weekend writing sprees where I’d knock out a dozen.

Didn’t happen. But something else didn’t happen, too.

I didn’t abandon the project.

Oh, I thought about it. Both early on, when the streak was first broken, and more recently, when getting to 52 was clearly not going to happen. Just let it go, no one is going to die if you stop doing these, I told myself. You missed the mark, you’re out of the game.

Perhaps it was not an accident that I saved some of the most important Inspirers for the end. Because even as I floundered, that small voice said “You can’t stop before Lin-Manuel.” So I kept chugging.

37. I got to 71%. Not exactly what I was hoping to hit. But still, far more than I’d ever done before. I’d created 37 little vignettes, mini-tributes that we’re meaningful and some that had really touched readers. I had brought my writing skills out of the dusty attic and put them to work, with some pretty good results. I learned new things, gained insights on the different ways people overcome fears and put their talents and passions to work.

I’d reminded myself, in the midst of what often felt like a crazy year, that there were folks out there with lessons to teach by the way they lived and the chances they took. And I’d shown myself that despite my own doubts, I still had some talent.

I’m proud of each and every post. Grateful that i found so many people to admire, including from my own life. And hopeful—make that confident—that this endeavor is just the beginning. As part of this grand experiment, I did something I hadn’t expected.

I inspired myself. Not by hitting the mark, but by coming closer than I ever have before. By moving past the initial stumbling blocks and persevering when it would have been easier to throw in the towel. That’s not my usual M.O., but this time I tried something different.

And here’s the thing—the calendar year called 2017 may be over, but time hasn’t stopped. And neither has my ability to write. There are 15 posts to be written to make up a year of them; I plan to continue on and complete the project.

Because if there is one thing I learned from looking at the lives of those who have faced and overcome challenges, it’s that giving up is not an option for those who wish to inspire. Our quests may take a little longer than expected, but the rewards remain.

As I’m sure many will recognize, the title of this post comes from The Little Engine that Could. For as long as I can remember, this story has touched something deep inside me. I have often felt little, in one way or another, and longed for the courage to keep moving uphill, as hard as it might seem.

Thank you to all who took the time to read, comment, and encourage me on mine so far. May 2018 bring new inspirations into all of our lives, and may we all find ways to inspire those around us.

Cheers,

Paula

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To Thine Own Self Be True… (Inspiration Series, Week 36)

Ever since I was little, I’ve been drawn to artists. I’m not sure I could have articulated it, but there has always been something about those who till the create soil that sparks something inside me.

I like to tell the story about how I wrangled my way into the life of Colette Rice. It wasn’t long after my dad had passed away and he’d left me some money. I’d become a fan of the Actors Shakespeare Company in Hoboken, which Colette ran, and learned that their upcoming show was in a financial jam. I was thrilled to be able to offer a bit of support—it remains one of the best things I’ve ever done. Sitting in the audience, I felt a rush from having contributed to something so special.

Watching Colette in the theater was kind of like watching a show itself. She was everywhere. Directing, talking to donors, engaging the audience. She did it all, and seemed to have energy to spare.

I’m not sure exactly when it happened, or how, but at some point our friendship shifted gears. As we got to know each other, we realized that despite having lived very different lives, we shared many of the same outlooks and dreams, and even some of the same fears. We’d hang out in her Hoboken apartment and slowly but surely, a bond began to form.

And then, things changed. Colette’s mom had health issues. She flew to California and came back, but it was clear where her heart was. When she looked at everything from above, she knew she was going home. And so, in the midst of 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, a piece of my heart said goodbye and headed to Sacramento. I was terrified that the distance would make it harder to sustain the everyday feel of our friendship.

It turned out to be the opposite. We began exchanging emails, where we’d keep each other informed about what was going on—in time, they became a daily habit. Colette was busy taking care of Mom, but always found at least a few minutes to check in. Meanwhile, I did a lot of fretting over money, work, and the anxiety that too often felt like it would get the best of me.

Even as she dealt with the upheaval caused by her transition, and the growing needs of her mom, she held me up. Meanwhile, she pondered what was next in her own life and began to look at her options. But it was Mom who held her focus.

And then, at the end of 2015, life decided to throw the kitchen sink at Colette. A health scare had us both in knots—just a few days later, her beloved mom, Ilene Rice, became ill. Before her family was ready, they were saying goodbye to their matriarch.

Colette was devastated, and dare I say, a bit untethered. She’d lost her mom, her housemate. She suddenly faced new challenges and the prospect of living life completely on her own terms. But what to do?

She thought a lot about it, and then did the thing that Inspirers do—she started taking steps. From the other coast I watched and, out of habit, fretted that this or that move wasn’t the right one for her. Was this decision going to put her in a precarious place? Was that choice the best one? As she moved ahead, I secretly (though I may have mentioned it a couple of times), hoped she’d re-discover her theater roots. To me it was her essence.

There were some rough patches as she weighed options. Money spent on potential work opportunities, a few applications to jobs that weren’t quite right. Meanwhile, she’d started a spiritual practice that seemed to lift her. In the midst of emails focused on financial issues or fears, she’d talk about spirit, about these insights into her life and responses. Practical Paula wasn’t sure what to make of it all.

There were still rough times ahead. Worries occasionally slipped into panic for both of us, while questions about a purposeful life lingered. No matter how busy we got, though, Colette rarely missed a day of writing. She talked me through my cycles of self-doubt and congratulated me when I took on my bad habits and worked to create new ones. She was, quite simply, always there when I needed her.

I could call 2017 the year of Colette. Looking back, the transformation is almost unreal. It started with some uncertainty, which included taking on jobs she’d never imagined, like caretaker for an older lady who was not always easy. There were times she pushed every button, but Colette managed to see beyond the personality to the pain.

And then, she took on a new, fuller-time job. As I continued to gnash my teeth on what was going wrong, she up and joined the real world. It was another challenge, and definitely not an easy one. She’d be working with folks who’d been through the wringer, for a wonderful organization that would pose its own tests. The days were long and bumpy, some more rewarding than others. Colette kept moving forward.

And then…

Suddenly, there was a play—but not just any play. Shakespeare. All’s Well that Ends Well, to be precise. It happened quickly, and by May she was in rehearsal. The schedule was grueling, but within the stress it was as though a light had been turned on.

The show went up, and so did the heat. Her first time onstage in years and Colette was greeted by 105 degrees. It was exhausting, but also exhilarating. The light got a little brighter…

She got a car, after depending on public transportation and others for so long. I don’t know why I didn’t see it clearly then, but it was as though the Universe was preparing her for the next chapter. One by one, things began falling into place. New contacts, new friends, and then, new opportunities.

A new job. Not immediately, but by the end of this year, which had begun so uncertainly; and not just any job. A job in theater!

It was both stunning and predictable. A great theater company in Sacramento needed her expertise. And within an instant (which was actually more than a year), her life had shifted yet again—this time, straight up.

I watched, I marveled. Was it really possible to manifest good things like this? I’d seen it all happen, so I knew it was wasn’t an accident. Colette had taken leaps all year, from accepting the acting gig to buying a car. This wasn’t luck, it was simply the logical result of her thoughts and actions. Her next role was the one for which she’d been studying.

I am not above a bit of envy, but in this case, I think it’s the good kind. For what I’ve learned, having viewed her year, are things that I can bring to my own life.

Look within

Find your passion

Take risks

Stay open

Trust yourself

Colette showed me a letter she’d written to herself at the end of 2017. Set in the future, she talked about how far she’d come, how happy she was. It was kind of incredible, how spot-on her predictions had been.

All this year I’ve looked at the qualities that make folks stand out in this crazy world. Colette embodies so many of them at once. Bravery, determination, commitment, creativity… all wrapped up in one beautiful, supportive, unbelievably talented woman.

It’s no exaggeration to say I don’t know what I’d do without her. For even as she reaps her rewards, she never lets me forget that she believes in me, and that I can do the same. When I am tempted to bathe in self-doubt, I have this, from one of her daily notes:

“If you could love yourself half as much as I do, you’d take the world by storm.”

I do believe that’s a good goal for 2018.

I can only end this post with one more Shakespeare quote, from the end of Sonnet 30.


Renaissance Man (Inspiration Series, Week 35)

Y’all knew this one was coming.

If it could be said that a single person inspired my 2017 Inspiration series, it was this guy.

This isn’t a regular post. I’m not going to go through all of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s history. You probably already know he’s a born-and-bred New Yorker, with roots in Puerto Rico. You may know that his parents are accomplished professionals—Mom a clinical psychologist and Dad a well-known name in New York government.

Not that his background is unimportant. My guess is L-MM (as I shall call him, from here on in) would tell you that his folks have everything to do with who he is. They obviously instilled in him a reverence for education—he graduated from the prestigious Hunter College High School, whose alumni include Ruby Dee and Elena Kagan. In college he co-founded a hip-hop comedy troupe. Oh, and while there he also wrote the first draft of what would become his first Tony Award-winning musical, In the Heights.

After his first success, he worked as an actor, as a teacher, as a lyricist. And in 2008, as all who follow him know, he read Ron Chernow’s Hamilton while on vacation and, in his head, heard songs; raps, to be specific.

But here’s the thing. I didn’t know a whole lot about any of those things when L-MM first entered—really entered—my consciousness. That happened on Sunday, June 12, 2016, long after pretty much everyone on the planet was watching. I can admit now that I was late to this game.

it was just after the shooting at the Pulse nightclub. He’d won another Tony, this time for Hamilton, and as part of his acceptance, read a sonnet he’d written for his wife, Vanessa. I’d seen emotion from winners before, but this was different. I heard those words, watched him wrestle with tears, and without quite knowing why, burst into them myself.

“Love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love”

I was hooked. It was a poem, a speech of gratitude, and yet it was so much more. It called out for ears to hear, for hearts to listen.

And thus began my devotion, turning from curiosity to what might be called a wee obsession. I started reading more about him, including interviews where he talked about the six years it had taken to write Hamilton.

Six years. I’m not sure I’ve ever put six good years into anything, let alone a creative project. I did do the next best thing and last Christmas, requested Hamilton (the book) as a gift. It sits on my nightstand as a beacon, a North Star of sorts, for my writer’s soul.

Writer. Lin-Manuel Miranda is one, and so am I. Small as my work has been in comparison, I do what he does. That feels miraculous. And listening to his words, his songs, I somehow believe that I can do even more. Create something of value, stories that touch hearts and maybe even change minds. I may not have an epic musical in me, but I am sure I have a story.

But here’s the thing—beyond the incredible talent, there’s even more. The man has layers of goodness and kindness and integrity that seem to be endless. He is the husband devoted to his wife, the father who sees in his son a wondrous being with all the potential of an acorn that will someday become an oak.

He is a loyal friend and ally. The way he talks about those dear to him is enchanting. He’s still has his best friend from kindergarten. And then there was this, from his appearance on Drunk History, when a less-than-sober L-MM FaceTimed, Christopher Jackson, who he had asked to join both In the Heights and Hamilton.

“You’re my best friend. As long as I got a job, you got a job.”

Who doesn’t need that person in their life? The one who will stay by your side, No. Matter. What.

Is there anything more important?

So I’m going along (semi) quietly in my L-MM-infused world. I figured out where to find him on Spotify and began to work my way through his playlists. They’re everything one would expect—filled with show tunes and classics, but also with searing hip-hop and Spanish songs that I don’t understand but that move me anyway. I don’t usually listen to a lot of stuff I don’t know, but there’s this trust now. If it’s on the list, there’s a reason, and I want to understand.

I’ve now taken on his reading material, his music. I’m in the L-MM groove and hoping that somehow, some of what makes him who he is will rub off on me. Creating (and starring in) masterpieces for the stage could be a reach. But surely I can put in a bit of effort throughout the different areas of my life to get the message out to the Universe that I’m ready for bigger things.

I was contemplating these lessons when hurricanes began attacking the U.S.—Houston, Florida, the Virgin Islands.

Puerto Rico. It went dark after Hurricane Maria, which hit in September. (Estimates now are that total power won’t be back until perhaps May, 8 months later).

The disaster has brought out the best in many; including, once again, L-MM. He has been an urgent, passionate voice—and, as always, he brings his creativity to the table. Not only did he visit the island to help, not only did he write a song for the island (Almost Like Praying), he is bringing Hamilton there in 2019 and reprising his role as the title character. Because of course he is.

I draw inspiration from many, for so many different reasons. Courage here, loyalty there, a dose of caring in what can feel like a cruel world. In Lin-Manuel Miranda, it’s as if the goodness of human nature has collided with the incredible power of creativity and created this ball of energy who can, perhaps, do anything.

I’ve always tried to see how I might bring my Inspirers’ focus and determination into my own life, even if I wasn’t given their particular gifts in type or size. I’m not sure I have an epic historical musical in me (then again, who knows?), or will ever be in the position to guarantee my best friends work for life.

What I can do is be vigilant about growing my skills, stretching what I thought were my limits. I can remind myself that each of us has a time to play on the world’s many stages and that we must be prepared, listening for our cues. I can not just treasure friends but let them know they are treasured. I can seek ways to be a helper, especially to those with great needs.

These should be ways of life, rather than goals; perhaps that itself is the goal: to make these things rules, and not exceptions. To ask myself, when confronted with a challenge:

What might Lin-Manuel Miranda do?

And then, do that.


Keeping it Real, while Keeping the Faith (Inspiration Series, Week 34)

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Matt Haig’s willingness to share his story of living with depression and anxiety has earned him a special place in the hearts of his fans.

One of the coolest things, in the midst of all the noise we face each day, is finding new voices that speak about things in a way we haven’t heard before. Every so often, through all of the clanging, something squeaks through that resonates.

I’m not sure where or how, exactly, I came across Matt Haig on Twitter, but he quickly became someone who I looked for each day. He had fought anxiety and depression like so many people I know; what made him different was a commitment to sharing his experiences—the good, the bad, and the ugly—and showing just how normal we really were.

Matt wrote a memoir, Reasons to Stay Alive, about the internal battles he waged in his 20s, when he reached the deep end of depression. He describes the spiraling, the panic attacks, in a candid, self-effacing style that resonates with so many.

friends and family may not always understand the demons we confront, but Matt does. He empathizes with our pain, but also takes us through to the other side, where it doesn’t god such a tight grip. We see that he didn’t stay in the darkness, but instead found enough slivers of light to eventually break up the clouds. He reminds us that the things that can feel real and scary are often tricks our depressed minds are playing on us.

Matt’s life story continues—he worked his way through that dark period and has gone on to write more than a dozen books. His latest, “How to Stop Time”, about a man who’s been alive since 1581, became a bestseller. And just to add a cherry on top, the book was optioned for a movie and will star the great Benedict Cumberbatch.

Talk about rising up. And yet…

What made me choose Matt Haig as an Inspirer was not that he’s vanquished the pain, or even left it completely behind. Sure, he’s spent months on a book tour (and bestseller lists), received all kinds of accolades and opportunities. But as he’d head back to his hotel room, even after a day filled with recognition, he shares with is that the old fears and feelings are sometimes waiting for him.

And so he is fierce in his messaging on mental illness and how bad we humans are at recognizing its impact. He celebrates sensitivity and let’s us know we are not weak for feeling the invisible pains that seem to drain our lives of the happiness we deserve.

Matt argues that we should not capitulate to societal norms telling us that there are unbreakable rules for how to be in the world. He decries the unwritten standards of stoicism and instead urges true, honest expressions of feeling, even the bad ones.

He is not oblivious to the fact that the platforms he uses to reach out, including to those most in need of a friendly voice, are the same ones where we humans too often tear each other down. But while he’s not above snark, or strongly expressing his views, his baseline remains kindness.

To me, it is his commitment to spreading compassion for the unhappy among us that stands out. The sheer openness in telling the sad parts of his history, the times when he was not able to be his best. The direct advice to a fan who is experiencing a hard time, and the congratulations to another who has overcome a phobia and achieved something new.

Life is a strange experiment. We form groups, we make commitments, we cooperate to get things done. And yet each one of us falls asleep and wakes up in our individual bodies and mindsets. We learn our strengths and faults and work hard to use the former while pushing down the latter. We don’t always succeed.

For whatever reason—genetics, brain composition, experience—a segment of us often finds difficult what comes naturally to the rest. While we crave connection, it can feel too scary to reach out. And so, we often suffer silently, believing that it is at least our duty to keep the bad stuff quiet, rather than spread it around.

Despite our shaky records of self nurturing, with some work, we can learn to see beyond our marred self-images to a more kind, more real understanding of all we have to offer. And we can find guides—Inspirers—who show us that despite a world that can feel like a mass of bogs and quicksand, there are actually a whole array of paths we can choose to take. Including, and especially, the ones we forge on our own.

A Twitter follower asked Matt, “How do you keep going in hard times?” His response:

“By remembering I have felt like that before. By remembering I felt there was no hope, when there was. By realising things can change. If you felt differently before you will feel differently again. Low points give the worst perspective. Keep on. You can.”

As I begin another leg of my own journey, with a bit more gratitude each day, I will remember to look out for these guides along the way.

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Unbounded Spirit (Inspiration Series “Week” 33)

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As long as I can remember, Seema has been a source of light in my life

When I was young, but no longer little, life often felt like a jumbled mix of pain, worry, and the darkness that goes along with having an alcoholic parent. I spent a good amount of time alone, especially after elementary school, when reality sort of came into focus and then began falling part. Though there weren’t a lot of places I wanted to turn, one weekly event could be counted on as a space to lay aside the “stuff” and just be around people.

The MYF (Methodist Youth Fellowship) group at my church was pretty healthy, with a mix of kids from junior and senior high. At the center of it, at least for me, was Seema Christie. She was just three years older, but to me, she was like a movie star. Gorgeous, with bronze skin and black hair (not to mention a cute boyfriend) she seemed perfect. And to top it all off, she took an interest in this kid who was spending half her time fumbling around trying to figure out how to get through each day.

I came to look forward to those Sunday nights as a time to get away from it all—my own personal Calgon bath—and became closer to Seema. She’d include me in parties, relieving some of the loneliness and giving me hope that the future could somehow get better. When Mom died she was there to give comfort; I found myself turning to her as my family worked to regain its footing.

I loved being around hers. Joel, her dad, was always kind to me and her mom, Kusum, was the kind of gentle, nurturing woman who could always be counted on for a great hug. As a family they seemed to embody friendliness and stability. I was hooked.

As things often happen, Seema and I lost touch as high school ended and everyone went their separate ways. I would think about her from time to time as one of the bright spots in a childhood that was still painful to remember.

And then came Facebook. I think I became friends with her brother, Neal, first, but it wasn’t long before I’d connected with Seema. I scrolled through her page and saw that not only was she still helping people, she had made love, peace, and bringing light into the world a mission of sorts.

She’d become a massage therapist. But not *just* a massage therapist, one who travels the world to work with vulnerable children. The organization she works with is called “Buds to Blossoms,” which tells you all you need to know about their purpose. The pictures of smiling kids, the hugs, reminded me of the kid I used to be and how Seema embraced me, confusion and all.

She painted these big, beautiful canvases filled with color and light. Swirling images that radiate peace, forgiveness, calm. It’s as though her spirit flows through piece of art. In the photos of her, there was that smile I remembered, the dark brown eyes that told you it was safe to come out.

Every post was filled with the same love and warmth. Though we were separated by a lot of miles and time passed, it was as though I could feel her.

And then came learning about Ben, now her husband. I know nothing about him except two things:

1) He may be one of the luckiest people on Earth, to spend his days with Seema, and

2) He must be incredible himself to have won her heart.

They smile like teenagers in love. They hug, they kiss, they lift each other up in the most captivating way. Now remember, this is just from what I can see on Facebook. In real life, I imagine it’s even better.

As I have worked through my past, the decisions and actions taken (and not taken), I’ve come to value those who set an example for me early on of the simplest things, like friendship and caring. I may have not have had all a kid should, but I also had some people—like Seema—who were even more special than I knew.

My goal for the coming years of life is to do more than admire Seema, which is easy; or is to follow her example. To use my gifts to serve others. To find ways to express myself and my soul in ways that reach someone who may need an extra dose of hope.

I want to look at a sunrise, a painting, a meadow, and people in need with Seema’s eye and her unending supply of love. With all the filters we use every day, it would be something to have one that shows us the world the way she experiences it.

So today I am giving thanks for her and doing my best to be a student of all she teaches.


Courage & Convictions (Inspiration Series, Week 32)

Malala was just 17—the youngest recipient ever—when she received the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, with Kailash Satyarthi, for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.

When I was 15, my biggest concerns were how i would get through another day of chemistry, learning all the words to Total Eclipse of the Heart, and if I’d ever have a date.

When Malala Yousafzai was 15, she was recovering from a bullet that went through her head and neck after an assassination attempt by members of the Taliban.

The reason? She wanted girls to be educated.

Born in Pakistan into a Sunni Muslim family, Malala was greatly influenced by her father, Ziauddin, a poet, school owner, and educational activist. He recognized early on that his daughter was special and took the time to encourage her thoughts and learning. It was a difficult time, as the Taliban began to move across all areas of Muslim life.

By the time she was 10, Malala had declared her desire to be a doctor. With the support of her father, she also became a public speaker—in a 2008 speech before a local press club that was covered by regional media, she declared that the Taliban had no right to keep her from an education. She would go on to be a peer educator, encouraging other young people to get engaged in social discourse and journalism.

in January 2009 the Taliban set a new edict that girls would not be allowed in school; the ruling was accompanied by the bombing of more than a hundred girls schools. The harsh mandate did not go unnoticed, and the BBC came looking for someone be to cover the group’s increasing influence from a girl’s perspective. The dangers were real and after original bloggers bowed out, Ziauddin recommended his daughter for the job.

In her first post (published January 3, 2009), Malala wrote about a scary dream she’d had, with military helicopters and fighting, and noted that it wasn’t a new one. She was relieved when the girl’s schools were reopened in March. The fighting was far from over, though, and when their hometown was evacuated the family became separated. That May, Ziauddin was the subject of a Taliban death threat for criticizing the military.

It was around this time that she and her father were approached to be part of a documentary. In it, Malala talked about how her career plans had changed.

“I have a new dream… I must be a politician to save this country. There are so many crises in our country. I want to remove these crises.”

The documentary led to new visibility and even celebrity. Malala began to publicly advocate for women’s education on global platforms. She was still only 12.

In 2011, as her profile file continued to grow, she was awarded two peace prizes for youth. By 2012, she was organizing an education foundation. She also became, at 15, the target of a Taliban assassination attempt. Malala was on a school bus headed home when a gunman shot her; the bullet went through her head and neck.

She was moved to hospitals in Germany and England, where she was treated at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, which specialized in treating military personnel. She was in a coma for several days before speaking on October 17; miraculously her prognosis was for a strong recovery.

The shooting had prompted worldwide outrage that included protests in Pakistan and a petition, signed by more than 3 million, that led to Pakistan’s first Right to Education bill.

Her work was not yet done. She met with world leaders and activists and in July of 2013 spent her birthday addressing the United Nations to call for worldwide access to education. The occasion was named Malala Day; the teen used it to further her message:

“The terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions, but nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born … I am not against anyone, neither am I here to speak in terms of personal revenge against the Taliban or any other terrorist group. I’m here to speak up for the right of education for every child. I want education for the sons and daughters of the Taliban and all terrorists and extremists.”

In 2017 Malala would receive yet another honor as co-recipient (the youngest ever) of the Nobel Peace Prize, along with Indian child’s rights activist Kailash Satyarthi. The following year she opened s school on Lebanon for Syrian refugees.

She had already written her autobiography by then, an accomplishment that is particularly resonant with this writer. It’s almost impossible to truly take on how much life she has lived in her now 20 years.

There are a dozen things that make Malala an Inspirer. What strikes me most is her unending commitment—despite threats, despite an actual attempt on her life—to speaking truth to power. Her dedication literally put her in the line of fire and yet nothing could stop her from spreading her message.

I have to think that some people are just born with a different kind of core, a brain and the kind of integrity that supersedes fear and allows one to push past challenges no matter how difficult. To accept danger and seek truths and fairness anyway.

But while we may not all have the physical and emotional courage of Malala Yousafzai, it is undeniable that in every life there are opportunities to act in ways that reach beyond ourselves. We may not influence world-thinking or make it to the stage of the UN, but we can look at our own beliefs and find what matters to us, then fight for it. As we approach another new year, it is time to put up, stretch those integrity muscles and follow the example of the girl who refused to listen to those who would tell her no.

For some of us it means figuring out what matters most and where we want to spend our energy. Which talents can we bring to the table, what gifts can be put to use? How do we overcome the doubts that try to tell us we can’t really have an impact?

We can start small—hell, we can stay small, as long as we are in the mix, doing something. We can find those who push us to be better and to live up to our fullest potentials. And with the example she’s set, can all look for the Malala inside ourselves.

The world would be a much better place.


Feeding the Soul (Inspiration Series, Week 31)

When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, Chef José Andrés wasted no time getting food to its people.

Chef Andrés brought his skills as a chef and inspired together to feed the people of Puerto Rico in their greatest time of need.

Back in Week 21 I wrote about Fred Rogers and his advice to “Look for the helpers.” And when Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, in September, it became all too clear that some very special helpers would be required to respond to tremendous and unprecedented needs.

Enter Chef Jose Andrés, world-renowned restaurateur and hero-in-waiting. As politics and bad management hindered progress on the island, the Chef and his troop of workers swept in and did what they do best. Feed the hungry.

Although to the rest of us he seems like a natural at all this, he didn’t start out as a philanthropist. By 2011, Chef Andrés had earned a top reputation for his signature minibar and é restaurants in Washington DC and Las Vegas, as well as for a string of eateries (everything from steakhouses and seafood to casual dining and Spanish fare) across the US. He served as Dean of Spanish Studies at the International Culinary Center and taught a course in how food shapes civilization at George Washington University-–the school would have him as commencement speaker and award him an honorary doctorate degree in public service.

His first big foray into disaster relief came in that year, when he created World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit association of chefs set up to help Haiti recover from the earthquake that killed more than 220,000 of its people. After getting nutritious meals to the most needy, he went beyond the basics and educated Haitians about things like clean cooking fuels that don’t harm the environment.

The experience gave him some preparation on how to handle challenges. He arrived in Puerto Rico on September 25, 2017, just five days after Maria hit, devastating the island and wiping out access to food and water for many. He quickly learned that there was no one in charge and took $10,000 of his own money, as well as credit cards, to get the balls rolling. Soon Chef Andrés was feeding 50,000 people a day; FEMA, whose response to the crisis has been questionable, gave him money to prepare 20,000 meals over a week’s time, and a second contract for two weeks, before declaring they couldn’t give more.

Andrés would grow publicly frustrated with the bureaucracy and lack of urgency he faced from FEMA, but even as the agency pushed back on the criticism, he and his team continued their work. In fact, they delivered more meals than the experienced relief organizations—by opening bottlenecks they were able to get supplies to where they were most needed.

There would be no skimping on the meals they cooked. In an interview with 60 Minutes, he noted the difference between providing packaged MREs and fresh food:

“Americans should be receiving one plate a day of hot food. That’s not too much to ask in America. An MRE is very expensive for the American taxpayer. A hot meal is more affordable, it’s cheaper. It’s what people really need, it’s what people really want. They feel all of a sudden that you are caring for them, that America is caring for them.”

This notion of food not just as nourishment, but as a symbol of commitment, shines through Chef Andrés’ work. At the peak of the crisis he ran 18 kitchens across the island, leading his team in the effort to get meals to every resident he could reach.

He reminded interviewers more than once that those being helped were not just our neighbors—they are, in fact, U.S. citizens who deserve the full support of their country. And so he returned with World Central Kitchen in November for that most American of holidays to serve Thanksgiving meals to 40,000 people, including volunteers who have worked tirelessly since the storm.

Like many of the best Inspirers, Chef Andrés is quite effective in balancing his roles as a master organizer and eloquent spokesman with his job as a cook. He can talk inventory and supplies, then switch effortlessly to nutrition and human dignity. His hands are capable, his spirit seemingly ready for any challenge.

In a world where news—even the most tragic sort—is only relevant until the next headline, it is all too easy to lose track of stories and suffering. It’s tempting to remain wrapped in our own lives and challenges, with the presumption that surely, someone else will step in to help.

And so we count on those better angels among us to keep us engaged and be a voice for those without one. We look to the leaders who see a problem and move quickly to address it. Although not all of us have the expertise to make soup for a thousand, heroes like José Andrés can inspire us to dust off our own gifts and put them to good use.


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