Monthly Archives: January 2017

Keeping History Alive  (Inspiration series, Week 5)

Elie Wiesel: Author & winner of the Nobel Peace Prize

I’ll be honest – I didn’t immediately realize that January 29 was Holocaust Remembrance Day. And yet, as I looked for my next inspiration during this past week, my eye was drawn to a slim volume on my bookshelf. It had been years since I first read “Night,” by Elie Wiesel, and at a time when the world seems to be in a huge upheaval, it seemed like a good place to turn to for thoughts about the human condition.

Born in 1928 in Transylvania, Wiesel was just 16 when his family of 5 was taken from their home, along with their village of faithful Jews. Separated quickly from his mother and sisters, he and his father became part of the horror that was Auschwitz-Birkenau. 

His descriptions of the camp – from the crusts of bread to the torture of beatings – are at once journalistic and surreal in their brutality, as they reveal the extent of man’s evil. I would not attempt to describe them with any but his own words:

“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.

Never shall I forget that smoke.

Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.

Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all of eternity of the desire to live.

Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.

Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.

Never.”

– from Night, by Elie Wiesel

The gate at Auschwitz – Arbeit Macht Frei (Work will set you free)

So what, exactly, is my inspiration from Wiesel? Survival? I was certainly struck by the ability of these prisoners to adjust to the horrors of their new existence. But many of them did not survive, and as Wiesel himself suggests, much of that was pure luck. When in 1944 his foot was injured and became swelled, it could have been the end for him – but he recovered. He made it through “selections,” he was able to do enough right things to avoid death, while others, including his mother, little sister, and ultimately his father, did not. 

So while his story astounds me with the recognition of just how much the human body and spirit can endure, it is something else that drew me to Elie Wiesel. 

His determination to tell the story.

Since the time we learned to communicate, humans have relied on gifted writers and archivists to record what has happened. To relay the ugly truths that, along with triumphs, have marked our days on this planet. We look to these historians to tell us about how slavery became an entrenched labor system; how people who thought differently became persecuted; how, in a land right in our midst, men and women were forced to dig their own graves before being shot into them, as part of a Final Solution. We depend on them to provide the gruesome, firsthand details so that we cannot pretend it was all just a tale. 

Not all who experience horror can talk about it, let alone use it to fuel a life focused on teaching new generations and speaking out for those who were forever silenced. People like Elie Wiesel, combining their will to survive with a gift for language, deliver a service whose value is immeasurable and survives far beyond their time on earth. They inspire us to speak out, to tell what happened, rather than assume the worst cannot, will not, happen again.

I end this week with a question: How will we bring our own stories into the world? We may not all be bestselling writers, but each of us has a gift to share, a way to communicate the lessons we’ve learned. Are we bringing our wisdom to each encounter? Teaching from our tragedies, as well as from our victories? Lighting the way for others? If so, we might truly say that we are making the most of our time here – as Elie Wiesel did his. 


Fighting the good fight – and passing it on (Inspiration Series, Week 4)

Lifetime Legacy Award recipient from the American Conference on Diversity, Theodora Smiley Lacey

It seems appropriate to take a look at a woman this weekend, as all over the world groups gathered, filled mostly with women, to express concern, hope, and yes, at times, anger. There are enough opinions to build a mountain, but one thing rang clear to me – women know how to get things done. In that spirit, I’ve chosen one who was an actual influencer from my childhood. 

I knew Theo Lacey as a teacher. A warm but insistent elementary school teacher who commanded respect and gave it back. Even as a fifth grader I could sense she was different somehow. And she was, a lesson we kids would learn year after year when it was time to hear about civil rights.

For Mrs. Lacey did much more than teach from a book – she taught from experience, as an activist who not only had met Martin Luther King Jr., she called him a friend; he even baptized her children. 

Growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, she was constantly confronted with injustice and bigotry. In stories published in national newspapers marking the Civil Rights Movement, Mrs. Lacey would recall her mother tracing her feet onto cardboard because she couldn’t try on shoes on the store. And then, organizing rides for fellow blacks during the bus boycott in Montgomery in 1955. Her husband would sometimes drive behind MLK to help ensure his safety.

Mrs. Lacey didn’t leave her beliefs in the South when she moved to Teaneck, NJ. The town was known as the first in the U.S. to voluntarily integrate its schools following the Brown vs. the Board of Education decision, but there was plenty of work to do.  Mrs. Lacey was soon helping driving efforts to integrate housing and ensure access to good schools for all children. 

And of course, there were those talks to students about the famous people she knew, about the struggle I couldn’t always understand. That willingness to participate in the battles, along with the desire to pass on what can feel like old history to those of us who would never experience it, was an immeasurable gift. I didn’t know, at age 10, how special it was to have such a direct link. I sure know now. 

It is the willingness to stand up that I recognize in Theodora Lacey’s stories and life. The determination that comes along with staking one’s position despite huge odds; joining the fight, and speaking out. What takes her a step beyond, for me, is bringing those stories to a bunch of kids living in a very different place and time. She provided context to a history that is usually read about, not listened to, live. Voices like hers will always be essential to making better tomorrows, because they bring past events into the present and keep them from fading away.

For the end of this story, I give you two quotes. First, from the lady herself, discussing progress in 2012:

“There’s still a presumptive privilege I think that many enjoy that blinds them to the inequality that we suffer daily,” she says. “We must continue the dialogue and we must be more open and honest in righting the wrong.”

And from Dr. King:


May we all heed the guidance of these two very smart people. 

For a 2010 video of Mrs. Lacey speaking about her memories of Dr. King: https://vimeo.com/8880108

USA Today story: https://www.google.com/amp/amp.usatoday.com/story/2646013


The Best Medicine (Inspiration series, Week 3) 

It was a memorial service unlike any I’d been to before. The church filled quickly, and the tears you’d expect to see were plentiful. But there was something else – in every story, every remembrance, there were these big bursts of laughter. It was as if the focus of our grief was in the director’s chair. Because boy, did he know how to make a crowd laugh.

Sanborn. Born. Shakey. Ron Sanborn was called all of these by various groups of his admirers, friends, and family. To some he was a fellow actor, to others a lifelong buddy. And while many hadn’t met before this day, it was as though Ron himself had made the introductions. There were guys who could imitate his laugh – a goofy giggle that came out of a booming body – with such perfection that I almost did a double-take. There were hugs upon hugs between people who hadn’t seen each other in too many years. The love and laughter mixed in with the sorrow to make for a unforgettable day.

My initial encounter with Ron was unlike any other of my life. An avid follower of the Actor’s Shakespeare Company, with whom Ron did lots of his work, I wanted to be more than an audience member. I wanted to get to know the actors. Because he was so friendly, I’d always introduce myself to Ron and say hi. But he couldn’t remember my name.

After a couple of times, I came up with a solution, telling him I’d give him $20 the next time if he remembered who I was. At the end of the next performance he spotted me. 

“Paula!” he boomed. I grinned and handed him the money, over his (slight) protest. He never forgot again, and I made a connection that will never leave me.

Ron was one of “those” guys who enter a room and take it over. He would joke, he’d sing, do voices… a quintessential entertainer who loved seeing people happy. Everything he did was big; his life seemed to be a reflection of his huge heart. He talked big, he drank big – his neighborhood bar was a big part of celebrating his life. The combination of booze and friendly faces was made for Ron Sanborn.

I hung out with him in a bar once. It was during my “Hemingway phase,” when I’d determined that with a trip to Key West and consumption of whiskey, I could channel his creative spirit. Three of us sat in a local pub, and while I can’t honestly say I remember much after glass number 3 (or maybe it was 4) – I know that Ron sang karaoke and I can pretty much guarantee it was great. The next day was not so fun, but the memories made were worth the pain. Ron was worth it. 

When he died, so, so far too soon, the stories poured forth. Friends with little kids posting videos of Sanborn reading Green Eggs & Ham, cracking himself up. Tales of his flirting between scenes during shows in the park. And flirting nearly everywhere else, too. He was irredeemable, in the very best sense of the word. 

His irreverent personality was complemented by a reverence for his duty to his fellow man. As a treasured member of his church he cooked meals for the homeless and built houses – he was one of those people who Mr. Rogers told us to keep an eye out for:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

Ron was a helper of the highest order.

It’s almost impossible to place a value on someone who makes you feel the kind of joy he did. It’s as though Ron was put on Earth to do just that. The laughter that followed him around wasn’t polite. It was huge, from the belly, the kind that leaves your sides aching. 

The older I get, the more clear it is that having fun should always be at the top of my to-do list. The time spent worrying has done me little good and I am looking more closely at the joyous people around me for guidance. Not because they are perfect, but because their overriding instinct is to smile, and to make someone else do the same. The outpouring of love for Ron, both when he fell ill and when he passed away, was proof of how much value a laugh can leave behind. 

So, my three takeaways for my own life, courtesy of the wisdom of Sanborn:

  1. Laugh loudly, and laugh often. Fear not that others will think me mad, and invite them to join me in the merriment instead.
  2. Follow my passions – Ron held a corporate day job, but infused his life with creative pursuits that fulfilled his soul. I must muster the courage to do the same.
  3. Love freely and with gusto. Give big hugs, let people know how happy they make me. Read to little children, travel with friends. Make every day count. 

And flirt, as often as possible.

    To end, I give you a quote from Herman Melville, which sounds just like something Ron would say:


    Little Package, Big Inspiration (Inspiration series, Week 2)

      

    On the day she was born, Olivia’s 1.5-ounce body weighed less than a small guinea pig. Her skin was translucent, her fingers like matchsticks; she was about as long as a dollar bill. In the hours after she arrived (naturally, as doctors prepared for a C-section), a well-meaning priest offered last rites, which Olivia’s mother declined. And so her life began, 15 weeks earlier than expected.

    By the time she was a few minutes old she had been hooked up to tubes and machines in the NICU, while her shell-shocked family tried to take it all in. She would spend the next stage of her tiny life in the company of nurses, monitors, and other infants with varying challenges. Each day brought new hope, and many brought new fears.

    After 100 of those days – which included multiple surgeries and a premature trip home – Olivia left Englewood Hospital weighing 6 pounds and was welcomed into her family to live a miraculous life. 

    Reality set in quickly. Olivia was going to need a lot of help to do what most babies do naturally. When I took on the role of caregiver, she was about 10 months and hadn’t hit any of the normal milestones. And so, a team of therapists came in and taught her to sit up, accept food. There were days I couldn’t stay in the room, listening to her scream in protest as the PT specialist worked her legs back and forth. Slowly, she began to move and grow.

    It was a bout with pneumonia when I first recognized the quality that I would come to identify with this little girl. After a few days in the hospital, it became clear she was recovering when she took to throwing things at the nurses. A small act of defiance that declared, “you haven’t got the best of me.” 

    I couldn’t figure out where it came from, but it was breathtaking. As she’s continued to grow, beat odds, face down challenges, Olivia’s spirit of survival, of thriving despite an impossible beginning, still moves me to tears. Changes never came easy to her; talking, learning – even eating was an ordeal  – but she trucked on. It was as though everything I’d hoped the human spirit and body was capable of was manifested in this little girl.

    And that’s what makes her story so visceral to me, and why I chose Olivia as my first Inspirer. It’s not always about choosing how to be, or making a grand statement about what we’re capable of. Sometimes, pure will and innate strength can be called upon to power through the challenges. 

    As a ruminator, I tend to think about what’s possible in every situation – I can often wonder my way right out of taking the next step, no matter how positive. Olivia reminds me that at our core, we have the instincts and abilities needed to overcome just about any obstacle.

    I used to wish that Olivia could walk around with a picture over her head of when she was in the NICU, so everyone would understand how amazing her journey has been. But it’s become clear to me that a big part of the miracle is how her tough start on life didn’t keep her from where she is now, a regular pre-teen with all the anxiety and fun that entails. That normality may just be the ultimate proof of her victory. 

    As to my goal with this blog series – how to bring these inspiring qualities into my every day life? I’ve come up with three reminders:

    1. Drop the doubt, along with the aversion to change that too often stops progress.
    2. Accept that I am here for a purpose, and that fighting to fulfill it is a noble task. 
    3. Stop underestimating myself, saying “I can’t” to so many things. Take my cue from the Olivia of today who, despite her shaky beginnings, is pretty darned confident of her place in the world.

    If each day, I confront one thing my mind tells me I can’t do – whether it’s vacuuming or working on my novel – I can honestly say that I’m moving forward. “Pulling an Olivia,” if you will.

    To end, a quote from an expert on survival:


    May we all be responsive to change, and use it to live our best lives.


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