The Unexpected Hero (Inspiration series, Week 22)

Just two weeks after a terrorist attack killed 22 of her fans, Ariana Grande took the stage for all of them.

If someone had told me that I’d be celebrating a 24-year old pop star for this series, I’d have laughed. I knew who she was, having watched her in Victorius and then Sam & Cat with my niece. Cat was goofy, often daft, but always sweet. But I wasn’t going to start listening to her music. 

I went on with my suburban life while Ariana went on tour, building a legion of young fans. And then, after what I’m  sure was like any other wildly successful concert, a terrorist blew himself up outside the arena, taking 22 lives and injuring more than a hundred. Fans – many 16 and under – scrambled and shrieked as they (mostly) escaped. Not old enough to drive, they were made the target of madmen seeking to wreak havoc and destroy whatever they could. Victims included young women and men, parents, and a police officer.

One can never truly know how they’d respond. But I can see myself taking a month – or 3 – to recover from a trauma like that, if for nothing else than fear that someone would try again. Ariana chose a different path. She visited with victims, expressed her horror, and then, two weeks later, despite yet another attack in London, took to the stage once more, this time with an even bigger purpose.

The concert she organized had a name – “One Love Manchester” – and it resonated throughout the show. More than once she looked like she might not make it through, but she held her head high and sang with the kind of emotion that reached far beyond her target demo.  She brought in a high-energy team of pop stars, from Pharrell and Katy Perry to Niall Horan and The Black-eyed Peas. Oh, and Justin Bieber, who I’d previously thought of mostly as an example of not handling fame very well.

He made me cry. 

Ariana was more than the concert organizer. She was the lynchpin of the event, joining friends on stage, talking about the need for peace, and serving as a beautiful example of what humans can be – a poignant counterpoint to the disregard for life that had brought her there. Standing with her arm around the young and tearful lead singer from Manchester’s Paris Wood High School choir, she took on the role, as comforter, that she surely hadn’t expected. 

I remember another concert, decades ago, that brought together the biggest stars alive to raise awareness and money for AIDS. I watched hours of coverage and marveled at the effort. The passion left a similar impression. To me, the timeframe, her age, and the personal trauma make Ariana Grande’s amazing act of kindness perhaps even more remarkable. 

By the time the first few bars of her last song played, I was in tears. Few songs are as wistful, hopeful, and sorrowful all at once as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” She performed it as though directly to those who had lost their lives, and as a message of healing to those they left behind. 

In a time of uncertainty, when radicalism and hate can reach across the world, powerlessness can seem like the prevailing (and permanent) state of being. But as long as we have artists who will stand up and declare our resistance to the messages of hate, we retain our humanity. As Grande told the crowd:

“I think the kind of love and unity you are displaying is the medicine the world needs right now. So thank you for being just that.”


Lasting Lessons (Inspiration Series, Week 21)

With the voice of a grandfather, the smile of our favorite teacher, and the calm of a Buddhist monk, Fred Rogers brought an air of quiet kindness with him every time he opened the door of that little yellow house. Singing as he changed his suit jacket for a sweater (all knitted by his mother), his shoes for sneakers, he’d ask us to be his neighbor and we knew that, for at least the next half hour, we were in good hands. 

He entered show business in 1951, when he decided he didn’t want to pursue the path he’d started toward seminary. After experiencing the advent of television, and recognizing its potential (good and bad), he switched directions, getting a job at NBC as a writer for several musical shows. 

When it became apparent that his desire to educate and enrich young audiences wouldn’t come on commercial TV, he moved to public station WQED in Pittsburgh. Rogers worked as a puppeteer for a local children’s show and it was here that he developed the memorable characters who would inhabit his own Neighborhood of Make Believe.

Fast forward through a move to Toronto and the first version of his show, and by 1966 Fred was back in Pittsburgh. Three years later, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood would debut

It was not the place to be if one wanted bells and whistles. There were no smart-alecky characters or crazy songs to catch your attention. Mr. Roger’s voice was warm and never, ever loud. He would go about his little home talking as if you were in the room, sharing his thoughts and letting you in on  the lesson for the day. 

Whether it was  dealing with anger, starting school, or visiting a crayon factory, he served as a personal guide, all the while tapping into your imagination and sometimes even your fears and anxieties. Regardless of subject, he remained fiercely committed to authenticity. He wasn’t acting when he spoke, and he wanted his audience to know it:

“One of the greatest gifts you can give anybody is the gift of your honest self. I also believe that kids can spot a phony a mile away.”

I don’t remember if I watched Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood when I was little – I’m guessing I probably did, it was the perfect speed for a quiet kid who valued consistency over excitement. I have the vaguest memory of being scared by lady Elaine, who had a red nose and cheeks (rosacea?) and an odd voice, which I didn’t realize was Roger’s. But it wasn’t really until I was an adult that I could appreciate how the show was such a perfect reflection of the man.

He was just – kind. It was baked in and readily visible whether he was doing a 4 1/2-hour interview for the Archive of American Television or accepting a Lifetime Achievement Emmy Award, when he encouraged the audience to take 10 seconds to think about someone who had helped them succeed. It was something to watch that room fall silent – afterwards, Rogers said a few more words of thanks before heading off stage.

For the children who counted on him – relied upon his showing up each day to impart a bit of wisdom, he was like the warmest blanket. For he went beyond the “easy” topics to tackle big ones, like sadness and grief (using the death of his goldfish), and gun violence. To each of these, he brought the reassuring tone and understanding that marked his entire life.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the news, the fear, the rush to get somewhere. Being an adult means we’re supposed to know where we’re headed. And while I may no longer need a lesson on what the first day of school will be like, it would be kind of nice to have Fred Rogers around to explain some of the other stuff that lingers beyond childhood.

I think about his Neighborhood and the friends who lived there, from Daniel Tiger to Mr. McFeeley, the mailman. Every character had a place and even when there were problems, we could be sure that Mr. Rogers would have an answer. 

Many times after a tragedy someone, somewhere, will bring up Mr. Rogers. As we struggle with the insanity that seems to pervade the world, even 14 years after his death the strength of his voice and message rings true. 

In an episode about gun violence, where he talked with kids about why people do bad things, he reminded us of a lesson from his own mother, repeated again after this week’s bombing in Manchester. For after the terror, there was news about hotels where children could be safe; taxi drivers giving free rides to get people home or to help. Mr. Rogers has told us about these folks, too, and on his simple statement, helps us to keep room for the light that often shines brightest in tragedy:

Master of Simplicity (Inspiration Series, week 20)

“Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.”

“Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.”

“This world is but canvas to our imaginations.”

Let’s be honest. One could devote an entire post to quotes by Henry David Thoreau. I’m sure he spoke ordinary old sentences once in a while, but they must have been squeezed in between the words of wisdom he imparted though his incomparable writings. 

Born in 1812, Thoreau grew up in Concord, Massachusetts, the son of a pencil maker. He graduated from Harvard in 1937, then took a job as a schoolteacher, where he lasted two weeks before resigning rather than administer corporal punishment. After a stint in their father’s factory, he and  his brother John opened a grammar school that included unusual experiences for students such as nature walks and visits to town. The school came to an early end when John contracted tetanus after cutting himself shaving. He would die in his brother’s arms.

It was soon after that Thoreau would meet the man who changed the course of his life. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a fellow Concord resident who had taken an interest in Transcendentalism and would become a mentor to the young man already gaining interest in the more ethereal aspects of life. Emerson encouraged Thoreau towards writing, and in 1941 had the younger man move into his house as a handyman. 

After a time he returned to the pencil factory, but it was not where he belonged. He began to plan for a different kind of life, in a place that would allow him the space and freedom to pursue an altogether different kind of living.

And so, in 1845, Thoreau began the process of building a home for himself on Walden Pond. Framed in May of that year, the 10′ x 15′ structure cost $28.12 and was completed on July 4, when he moved in. 

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

It was everything he needed. In his book, Walden, he goes over the materials and the construction – in its final form the cabin featured

 “a bed, a table, a small desk, a lamp, and three chairs – one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”

Thoreau would spend the next two years in his little house, mostly with his own thoughts and observations. His goal, as he noted, was to reduce his needs to a minimum. To make the small amount of money he needed he planted a bean garden, while reversing the tradition of a six-day workweek and 1 day off. This allowed him to study nature, read, and philosophize on the benefits of simple living and virtues of civil disobedience and self-sufficiency. 

Walden‘s chapters include “Economy,” “Where I Lived, What I Lived For,” “Reading,” “Sounds,” “Solitude,” and “Visitors” – as he contemplates nature Thoreau’s eyes and ears sharpen and he is able to distill the human experience in a way few have. It is as though by shedding the wardrobe of regular society he becomes a more pure being, bound only to laws and norms set forth by the natural world. 

He reads the classics (in the original Greek and Latin), ponders the value of vegetarianism – along with chastity and teetotaling – and moves through the seasons with a watchful eye that catches each one’s distinct blessings and beauty. 

It is this engagement with the Earth around him, along with his pursuit of simplicity and meaning, that propels Thoreau to the top of my Inspirers list. Despite being born into a time when each day brings new noise, I find myself longing to pare down, scale back, get to the essence of my own human experience. 

It  seems all but impossible. In most moments, it appears I have at least a dozen things I could be doing. Distractions buzz at my ear like flies, while problems (past, present, and as yet unknown) hover in the air. With each breath, it sometimes feels, I am commanded to do some new thing to achieve some deadline or fulfill some obligation. On and on it goes, until the routine movements smother the original ones looking for an entrance. 

The ghost of Thoreau beckons – if I try,  I can hear him ask, “Do you think you are immortal?” I look down at a desk full of papers, an in-box full of messages, and wonder how much time I will have to build my cabin in the woods. And if indeed I can, how much time will I have left to spend there?

For today, I read Thoreau’s words and am grateful – but this time, as I thank the universe for teachers of wisdom and truth, I also make a silent promise to do as he advised:

Ripple Effects (Inspiration Series, week 19)

A legacy of Love: Dave left behind friends and family who are committed to keeping his spirit alive in the world, and sharing it with the rest of us.

I never saw Dave Adox. I wouldn’t have recognized him on the street, or looked up if I’d heard his name a year ago. 

And yet, I know him. I know that he was a philosophy major, that he read Thich Nhat Hahn, that he was a dad, and even how he met his partner. I know all of these things without having ever spoken a word to Dave. 

Unfortunately, the other big thing I know about Dave is how he died. ALS took him, when he was far too young and had far too much to live for. I have read about his last few years, the journey from health to disability, when he became dependent on those around him, especially his husband, Danni. It is heartbreaking and yet…

I first “met” Dave at a party forced indoors due to rain. I entered his and Danni’s house a total stranger, looking for Rosalie, Dave’s sister, an old friend from high school. Over the course of the next few hours I’d learn about him – he’d died just a few months earlier, on May 18, surrounded by his loved ones. People were still very, very sad and yet there was this thing that hung in the air. Maybe it emanated from Orion, his son, who toddled around as the adults talked and cooked and smiled as they recalled Dave stories. I certainly felt it from Tracey, a lifelong friend of Dave’s who lit up when she talked about him.

The stories, the presence of Dave throughout the house and the people, made its way into my soul without fanfare; as I left later that evening, I didn’t realize that I was taking with me one of those experiences that lasts far beyond the original one.

I went home and read about Dave – there were stories on his battle with ALS, local features and national ones, including on the challenges he faced at the end in his quest to donate his organs (he did – both kidneys and his liver). There were old pictures so I could see Dave as his loved ones had known him. 

I had connected with Tracey on Facebook, and we would comment every so often on each other’s posts.  And once in in awhile, Dave – this guy I didn’t know – would pop up too, in a memory or photo of someone who loved him.

And then, nearly a year later, Tracey told me about this thing they were doing: Artbender, a weekend event to raise money for, dedicated to helping artists with disabilities. They’d be painting rocks to place by Dave’s tree (planted with him present, shortly before his death) in the local park.

The  memory of that first encounter with Dave’s family came back to me and I happily accepted the invitation. I arrived at the house on a Saturday afternoon to find the painting well under way. From monochrome blue to the most fantastic rendering of Dave and Danni’s very house, they formed a collection that, like everything else surrounding Dave Adox, practically screamed love. Once the painting was done I spent the rest of the day soaking in his almost palpable spirit, which came through even more strongly with my greater sense of all he’d meant. 

Because to be around his loved ones, his home, his belongings, is to be around Dave. I’ve no doubt that I would have liked him, would have been lucky to call him a friend. I also am quite sure that his is a legacy destined to go on – in his son, in his tree, and in every person he touched. He is that eternal reminder that within our lives, no matter how long, we have the opportunity to step beyond our struggles and touch hearts – both the ones we know and the ones we have no idea we could ever reach.

It is humbling to think of the mark Dave left on Earth. Even as he ended his time here he planted seeds – both literal and figurative – that will be eternally watered by those of us he left behind. We can learn from his example to be graceful under stress, courageous under fire, and always committed to a life filled with love

I end this with a big thank you to the man I will never meet, and leave you with the quote that he took on as his mantra. 

Against the Tide (Inspiration series, Week 18)

With every stroke, Diana Nyad seemed to dare the water to try to stop her from fulfilling her goal

It’s an image not easy to forget. Sun-blistered, swollen, a woman emerges from the ocean onto the shore of Key West. It is 2 o’clock in the afternoon and a crowd of people cheer her as she stumbles forward. 

If one didn’t know the story of Diana Nyad, that image alone would evoke admiration. A 64 year-old woman is not who we generally think of when considering athletic heroes. And yet, there she was, declaring victory against the forces that had worked against her since that first attempt, back when Jimmy Carter was still president and Laverne & Shirley was the #1 show on TV.

Strong Westerly winds, however, threw her off course in 1978, and Nyad was forced to end the swim after covering 76 of the trip’s miles. Having already won a record for the fastest swim around the island of Manhattan, her legacy was intact despite not reaching her goal.

She became an author – first of a memoir, “Other Shores,” and later of biographies and content for major publications – and, not surprisingly, a motivational speaker. She was a contributor and commentator on public radio. And then, on a milestone birthday, having turned 60 and recently lost her mother, she did what so many of us do;pondered  her list of things not yet accomplished.

“I said, ‘Uh-uh, I am not going into that good night. I am going to fire up and live this thing as large as I can live it until I can’t live it that large anymore.'” 

And so she started training again, first in the Bahamas and then from the planned point of her ultimate finish line, Key West. Training began in July 2010. Bad weather cancelled the scheduled August try, so the swim was moved to July 2011.

It was, as Nyad says herself, most certainly a team effort, including a lighted support boat to keep her on course. It was not enough, however to keep away the strong currents. 

Just two months later she would go again, and make it 41 hours (67 nautical miles) before the current would once again thwart her success. This time, it was aided by creatures of the sea – it is difficult to forget the images of Nyad with jellyfish and Portuguese man-o-ward stings that left her skin unbearably red and puffy, as if she’d been to a sea war and perhaps not won. 

She was not deterred. The following August she renewed her quest, this time covering a greater distance but still falling short. And yet, stopping was still not an option. In a speech at the University of Texas, Nyad explained the attitude that prevailed in 2013, when she and her group took to the water once more::

“Our team said, on the Havana shore before this last attempt, that we would Find A Way. That’s what a champion athlete does. No matter the obstacles, she finds a way to the other side.”

A specially designed suit and mask to protect from stings were her uniform this go-round. Once in the water, they could not shield her from the hallucinations (including visions of the Yellow Brick Road and the Seven Dwarfs), ingested water (and subsequent vomiting), and exhaustion. But with best friend Bonnie Stoll to give her both sustenance and encouragement, she swam on. 

On the second night, getting more delirious, Nyad saw what she thought was the morning sun, way in the distance. But it was not the sun – it was, in fact, the lights of Key West. Still hours away, she knew then that success was inevitable. 

She came ashore on September 3, looking disoriented (she was), and exhausted. And while her appearance was disconcerting, there was another state of being simply waiting to take its proper place. 

She was victorious. She had taken on the seemingly impossible odds, at an age where such dreams can only be pipes ones, and had turned the odds upside down.

The inspiration here is no less profound for its obviousness. For all of the qualities it takes to achieve such greatness – dedication, self-confidence, purpose – the one that strikes me most is persistence.

It is rather easy to set goals, attempt them, and move on if they turn out to be more ambitious than we first suspect. Perhaps we even try a second time to be able to tell the world we are not quitters. 

But to commit ourselves to the thing – to go after it again and again – takes a special kind of focus and heart that brings us to another level of existence. Fighting  the inevitable doubts requires, paradoxically, both patience with our human-ness  and impatience with the belief that it limits us. 

How many times have each of us stopped because the struggle felt too long, or too hard? How often do we allow our fears or the fears of others to keep us from staying on a noble path? 

How many times might we have relinquished a dream without looking up to see that the lights of Key West were calling us forward?

Each of us must set our own targets, find our own North Star. No matter the path, we must all do that one thing that people like Diana Nyad have been teaching us to do since we started taking notice. 


A Voice for the World (Inspiration series, Week 16)

Francis has made caring for the poor and needy a central theme of his papacy.

The Pope – larger than life, mysterious, and to non-Catholics, generally not of much interest. To atheists and agnostics, even less so. And yet, in the midst of a world that often seems to be off its collective rocker, along comes a religious leader who seems determined to help keep our moral compasses somewhat straight. 

Born Jorge Mario Bogoglio in Buenos Aires, he studied to be a chemical technician and taught literature and psychology in Argentina colleges before earning a doctorate in theology. Overcoming his mother’s initial objections, he entered the priesthood in 1969. As he rose from titular bishop of Auca to archbishop of Buenos Aires and then to cardinal in 2091, he was already earning a reputation for his humility and simplicity. He was at the top of candidates following the death of Pope John Paul the II and then named 266th Pope on March 13, 2013. 

One wouldn’t be surprised at any man – even the Pope – being changed by such an elevation. And yet, Francis has brought a new sense of kindness and dare I say, spirituality, to his position that makes him unlike any other. Not only has he challenged church doctrine and points of view, he has openly talked about actions and viewpoints that he does not see as Christian in substance.

Pope Francis’ connection to the poor and suffering, and his insistence of society’s obligations to them, reaches beyond rhetoric of religion, which tells us to care for the least among us. This man teaches us by example. He visits slums, washes the feet of the homeless, takes the faces of small, impoverished children into his hands.

His voice is loud and clear (and sometimes exasperated) as he takes the powerful to task for the systems of inequity and lack of attention to those most in need. Indeed, Francis seems most at home and happy when chatting with villagers and those who have nothing to offer but their thanks and love. 

He seems closer to the descriptions of Jesus that I heard growing up than most of the “spiritual” voices in today’s world. And despite those who tell him to stick to his place, Francis continues to do – well, not that. Whether speaking on protecting the environment, questioning orthodoxy, or challenging our attitudes, he sticks his neck out for what many would call the greater good. It seems to often infuriate those who otherwise speak of piety and devotion to their higher power. 

Which has sometimes delighted those of is us who don’t necessarily subscribe to traditional faith bases and institutions. We are continually surprised to find ourselves deeply affected by this man whose beliefs and leanings in so many areas would seem to be radically different – and sometimes diametrically opposed – to our own. While other figures pack folks into mega-churches and decry those they deem sinners, Francis works on as an advocate and friend to those who need one most.

I don’t misunderstand his role, or his adherence to the laws and norms of Catholicism. I dont expect that he will suddenly shift from the church on every issue or doctrine. As its leader, he is bound to it. I will though, take great comfort in a voice that rises above the ever-present language of divisiveness to remind us that at our core, we are one people. 

In one lifetime, long ago, I was a Sunday School teacher, explaining to the smallest students about Jesus and how he taught people to live. It’s the part of my experience in the church that has had the most lasting effect.

“Love thy neighbor”

“Do unto others”

“Blessed are the meek”

These are the lessons that, all these years later and far beyond the church, still resonate for me. And though I will surely never get to tell him in person, I hope that Pope Francis continues to teach them to all who will listen.

Strength from Adversity (Inspiration series, Week 15)

From beloved TV star to real-life champion, Michael J. Fox choice to stay in the spotlight has helped many.

If you grew up watching television in the 1980s, few names are better remembered than Alex P. Keaton. Michael J. Fox’s lovable teen Republican and mogul-to-be made many a Thursday night a little less lonely for those of us with less-than-active social lives. 

After Family Ties he’d get even bigger with movies, especially Back to the Future (though some crazies I know prefer Teen Wolf). It seemed that no matter how much time passed, Fox held onto the boyish grin and mannerisms that had made him so popular right from the start.

He was just 29 and making the movie Doc Hollywood when he noticed twitching in his left pinky finger. The diagnosis was one no one could have seen coming -Parkinson’s disease. Fox would work for eight more years before revealing his illness to the public through an interview with People Magazine in 1998.

It would mark a high-profile beginning into a whole new role for him. A year later, the actor testified before Congress on the need for more dollars for Parkinson’s research. And after completing his series Second City in 2000, he created a new foundation, which has raised more than $700 million dollars and is the largest nonprofit funder of research worldwide. He spoke about his experience with Oprah Winfrey and David Letterman. Though the effects of Parkinson’s became more obvious, with medication Fox kept enough control over his speaking voice and physical tics to keep going. And into the next decade he would appear in new shows, including one about a newscaster with the disease. 

He has stayed reliably visible, attending charity events and serving as the best kind of example for living with challenges. Comedians must have special souls, for the ability to laugh, and make others laugh, in the face of illness is a gift given to but a few. He even subtitled his 2009 book Adventures of an Optimist – no displays of self-pity from this guy.

He is, perhaps, an obvious hero, but no less powerful because he’s taken on the role in such a natural style. By sharing his story he shares the opportunity to help and becomes an insistent voice for research and treatment. I see Michael J. Fox – or just hear his name – and I am reminded to treasure every moment, live each day with joy, and do everything in my power to instigate positive change. 

There is something profound in turning one’s greatest liability into an undeniable strength. From tragedy to triumph sounds trite and yet, there he is, smiling, joking… living, each day with a vision and purpose that is too clear, too true, to be ignored. 

He fully uses what has been given him – including his illness. This trait unites so many of my Inspirers. They do not cry about their fate, at least not for long. Instead, they somehow turn their afflictions, pain, disappointments, into building blocks and end up higher than they might have been without the handicap. One watches and wonders: Would I be so gracious, so persistent in the face of such a diagnosis? Would I be an Inspirer?

It may be impossible to say for sure. We can be grateful, though, for those who have proven themselves worthy of the title. 

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