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A Lesson in Love (Inspiration series, week 8)

Nana & Granddaddy at home in 1953


Life continues to move fast. It can be hard to keep up with; sometimes it’s a challenge, when there seems to be so much uncertainty in the world. And so I chose a subject (well, two), once again different from my original plan, who symbolize something truly positive and personal to me. You might call this a comfort post.

Nana and Granddaddy. When I said their names as a kid, it was so often like one word. NanaandGranddaddy. My mother’s parents, they were one of the earliest examples to me of the kind of love that is at once obvious and unexplainable. I remember learning that they had eloped as a young couple. It had much to do with money, but the romanticism fit perfectly, anyway. 

I have the letters he wrote to her when they first married. My granddad was a judge and I always saw him as the smartest, most confident man – so to hear him confess to doubts about his chosen career as an attorney, to wonder if he deserved his Kay, was both surprising and endearing. 

They raised their family in a big, beautiful home (with its own name, Ellerslie) on the Choptank River in Denton, Maryland, and luckily for me, never left. It was, without a doubt, the most magical place of my childhood. We’d pull up to the house and Nana would quickly appear, always smiling, always thrilled to have her New Jersey grandkids for a visit. 

What a home it was – always candy in the spinning caddy, the old games in the little closet under the stairs. I usually slept on the third floor, where my mother’s old Nancy Drew’s  and Bobbsey Twin books awaited. 

They loved their family – all 8 of us grandchildren, plus our parents. 16 altogether, which seemed like a perfect number to me. Every summer when I was little, they’d rent a cottage on the beach in Delaware and the whole lot of us would converge for two weeks (Dads on the weekends, though mine got a whole week). Nana would make the meals, Granddaddy bought us kites and in the evenings would tell stories about the cowboy, the sailor, and the Indian. Those trips were, quite simply, about as perfect as a vacation can be. 

Looking  back, I’m struck by the work that went into it all. Nana probably spent half her days cooking, as we cavorted in and out, tracking sand and probably making a mess of everything. I guess there must have been arguments between us kids at times, but it’s the feeling of belonging that still can bring me to happy tears today. I may have had doubts the rest of the year, but when I was with Nana and Granddaddy, I know that I was safe and sound.

When life was at its hardest, they were there. It’s difficult to imagine the grief they went through when my mom died at 45; I remember hearing Nana say that children aren’t supposed to go first. But the biggest memory I have of that time was their presence, which was one of the few things that convinced me that life might eventually be okay. They stayed with us as school started back up, giving me a sense of stability that I’m not sure I could have gone on without. They were my saving grace. 

I guess maybe grandparents don’t need a lot of thank yous, but no one deserved more of them than mine. They inspired everyone around them through the beauty of their love and marriage, by their unspoken lessons about family and kindness, and for the example they set for goodness and integrity. I couldn’t have chosen better if I’d had the chance.

I won’t have 8 grandchildren, but I can strive to bring the lesson of their love and commitment into my life and to share it whenever possible. To cherish those in my life and to never take for granted how much they add to it.

If I could give a wish to every unhappy, lonely kid, it would be for them to have a set of grandparents just like mine. 

To end, a quote from a favorite show. 


Personally Speaking (Inspiration series, week 7)

Every time I try to switch lanes, they pull me back over…

Fully prepared to move on to another African-American inspirer (who will return), recent events have once again turned me in a different direction. And so, this week, I’m using the space to recognize someone I’m fortunate to know and whose story has moved to the front of my awareness. 

“Illegals.” The word makes me cringe, with its unique ability to dehumanize. As I write, Immigration Control Enforcement (ICE) seems to have renewed its focus on scooping up people across the country with nets that appear to be very wide and very deep.

I know an undocumented person – or they were when I met them, though I had no clue. All I knew was that their family was from South America and they had been here since the children were young. They weren’t the least bit foreign; the only accent I could hear was a New Jersey one. Their mother and only-present parent scrimped and sacrificed to give her kids the best opportunities. In so many ways, theirs was as quintessential an “American story” as could be told.

The reveal, which stunned me, came only recently. It’s been many years and they have now been citizens for more than half their life, but not when they first arrived. 

Their mother had to take precautions, protect both the actual children and their identities. And while she, like all parents, concerned herself with the regular worries of raising a family, she must have never lost the fear about what could happen. All so that her kids would have more choices and grow into productive, happy adults. And as they got older, they took on more of that burden – living a life that could be shattered with little notice.

My friend was in college when the family was able to take the steps to gain proper citizenship. After graduating with honors and getting a great job, they went on to create a new American family, with children who hold nothing of the burden their parent did.

My guess is that they may have a greater sense of patriotism, a better appreciation for the American “way of life,” than most. More, perhaps, than many who demand by-the-book “law & order” and “crackdowns” on any actions beyond it, whether or not there is an actual threat. More than those who declare certain groups outsiders and seek to cast them as “others” while often ginning up fear and resentment. 

I am inspired by the fortitude of my friend and their family to build productive lives, despite the uncertainty. To go extra miles to succeed and do this country proud when they gained citizenship. Their pursuit of, and commitment to, a better life fills me with awe. They did far more than I to earn their American wings. 

The story plays into a larger lesson I’ve been re-learning over and over again recently, about how so much in this life is dependent on factors completely out of our control. To be born white, straight, and into the ”mainstream” religion of the United States, to parents who could afford me, was a stroke of cosmic fortune that meant I would never personally face the hurdles many others do, among them people I call friends. 

I will never have to appreciate the ability to marry who I choose, nor wonder whether the service I receive is less than someone else with a different skin color or accent. I won’t have to hope that my family isn’t swept up into a raid or new immigration mandate, or worry that someone in a position of authority might treat me differently because of my name or where I am from.

In addition to those who travel the harder paths, persevere, and thrive, I take inspiration from those who fight alongside them. From civil rights attorneys and compassionate lawmakers to neighborhoods and schools that welcome refugees, I am inspired by people who remind us that human history is filled with those who put their own comfort on the line in service to those in greater need. Their sacrifices have been enourmous, their courage without limit.

I end with an obvious quote, from a source I have taken for granted my entire life:


The Will to Resist (Inspiration series, week 6) 

Frederick Douglas – born a slave (1818?), died a free man and hero, 1895

I didn’t plan this.

Frederick Douglass was not on my original slate of Inspirers. I’d planned on finding some feel-good people to highlight over the course of the year to keep me writing. Simple.

So I was somewhat surprised, over the past two weeks, to have a subject tossed into my awareness. But here came Mr. Douglass, a man I must have learned about in school, but whose story had floated to the back of my brain somewhere with the periodic table and geometry. I knew he was an escaped slave, but it pretty much  ended there. Thankfully, his journey included an autobiography.  

“I often found myself regretting my own existence, and wishing myself dead; and but for the hope of being free, I have no doubt but that I should have killed myself, or done something for which I should have been killed.”

– “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”

The memoir opens with recollections of a childhood spent as witness to beatings by slave masters – even the one who was likely Douglass’ own father – who reveled in their power and cruelty. His early life was  spent in relatively “easy” conditions in St. Michael’s, Maryland. When he was returned to a cruel master, he was not spared again:

“I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me, and behold a man transformed into a brute!”

Somehow, this transition to an ever-increasingly brutal existence did not kill him. In fact, it served as a challenge somehow, to the spirit of a young man who had defied odds to learn to read, to understand there was something more, and to want it for himself. 

After a series of punishing encounters with the slavemaster Covey, Douglass somewhere found the strength to resist his torturer when the man came at him while he was at work. Douglass grabbed Covey by the throat and engaged in a fight that would change his life:

“This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free.”

In 1834, Douglass went to work for a Mr. Freeland and came to serve as a teacher to the slaves and workers under him. He took great pride in the role and marveled at their courage:

“Every moment they spent in that school, they were liable to be taken up, and given thirty-nine lashes. They came because they wished to learn. Their minds had been starved by their cruel masters. They had been shut up in mental darkness. I taught them, because it was the delight of my soul to be doing something that looked like bettering the condition of my race.”

An escape attempt in 1835 led to capture: after a stay in jail, Douglass was collected by his previous master and hired out to a shipbuilder, where he was at the mercy of 75 men. A fight led to yet another place of work, where he made a pittance. His life continued on, and his determination to be free grew stronger. He began to make plans, and:

“on the third day of September, 1838, I left my chains and succeeded in reaching New York without the slightest interruption of any kind.”

Douglass explained that the lack of detail about his escape was intentional, to spare those who had helped him. Though his new surroundings were frightening, he found aid and a place to stay, and soon married Anna, a free woman he’d met in Baltimore. The pair left New York for New Bedford, Massachusetts, where Douglass took work and became active in the cause of anti-slavery reform. 

In 1841 he was asked to speak at a convention in Nantucket; though nervous, he took on the challenge and was a huge success. Thereafter Douglass became a beacon for equality, for blacks, for women, and later for voting rights, emancipation. and desegregated schools. He served as editor of a liberal paper and became a renowned orator. By the time he died in 1895, Frederick Douglass had served as president of the Reconstruction-era Freedman’s Savings Bank, and a presidential elector. At the 1888 Republican National Convention, Douglass became the first African American to receive a vote for President of the United States in a major party’s roll call vote. 

It is difficult to fathom this journey, from bondage to revered symbol of both man’s worst inhumanities and of his ability to survive and overcome them. I am struck by Douglass’ commitment to not only his own personal freedom, but his commitment to helping others in their fights as well. 

How many of us hesitate before resisting, ponder the option to stay still, stay comfortable? How often do we rise up, take a stand for our own worth and, once our personal battle is won, take new fights onward? 

Today’s world, full of causes and injustices, can overwhelm even the most passionate. It can be tempting to leave things to the strong, the young, the energetic. But while we may not all have the skills or sheer bravery of men like Frederick Douglass, we must declare our stances nonetheless. We must draw lines across which we will not step  and be willing to defend the principles for which we will sacrifice. 

Whether we write, speak, march, or serve, we must be willing to act as the resistance to that which is unacceptable. By doing so, we help to ensure that the spirits of Douglass and his fellow fighters never truly disappear. 

 


Keeping History Alive  (Inspiration series, Week 4)

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 3)

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

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 (Week 1 of a series)

      

    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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