Never Give Up

A few years ago, I saw this license plate in the parking lot at my local grocery store.

I snapped a picture, because I was having one of “those days.” You know, the ones where you ask yourself, “why am I even trying to do this? I should probably quit. This is never going to work out.” I was desperate enough that day to be taking life advice from a license plate. Never Give Up! 

I laughed at myself while I took the picture. But, it helped. I kept going.

Then, just a few months ago, I was jockeying around my town’s oddly tiny post office parking lot, trying to exit, and in pulled NVRGUP!  I rolled down my window and waved to the driver as she got out. “Hi, Never Give Up!” I yelled to her. “I love your license plate!”

I was tucked into the back of the lot, the last in a line of cars trying to leave, so after she parked she walked over to my window to say hello. She was elegant, dressed for errands in the manner I would dress for an evening event. I shared with her that I’d seen the message years ago and it had perked up an otherwise bad day. I expected her to say something like, “Hey, that’s great, glad to hear it!”

But instead, she thanked me just for noticing the words. This had been her late husband’s license plate choice. “That was him, all the way,” she said to me. “He never gave up on other people. He always thought everyone had good in them, and it was his job to find it and help bring it out.” I said I hadn’t considered that the message being sent was ‘don’t give up on other people.’ “Oh yeah,” she said. “It used to really frustrate me sometimes, to tell you the truth. He always gave people more chances than I would have.” (Then she assured me that he would be okay with me taking it as a sign to not give up on myself, either!)

Every time it came to renew the plate, she wondered if she should keep it, or just go back to the randomly assigned number. I told her my vote would be to never give it up, and she smirked, but the smile faded quickly. “I hope I didn’t make your day sad by telling you my husband died,” she said to me.

I said, “I’m really sorry he’s gone, because it sounds like he was an awesome person. But don’t you think it’s kind of cool that, in a way, he’s still encouraging people?” At this point I was hoping I hadn’t made her sad. But she quickly put me at ease. “I’m so glad you waved to me, because I do love talking about him. I miss him.”

Then she and I spent some time wondering about whether he knew she was having this conversation, whether he in fact orchestrated it. We both chuckled at how little we knew for sure, but also agreed that however it happened, we were glad we’d connected. We hugged through my window, and off she went into the swirling abyss of the mid-day post office.

And off I went to ponder the idea of never giving up on other people, and what that might look like, and where I could improve. Then I went home, scowled at my keyboard, and said to myself for the third time that day: “Never. Give. Up.”

 

 

 

Tell Me Something Good

Hi! If you’ve visited my blog before, I thank you and appreciate you taking the time to read my little ol’ words. Repeat readers may notice I’ve been working on a new “look.”

The truth is, I’ve been struggling to find a balance between staying informed and acting on the big, important, difficult things going on in the world, while also longing to occasionally rest and sit in some positivity. But when I turn to things that bring me joy, I worry that I’m not paying enough attention to the “right” issues. It’s hard to let yourself feel happy when you know someone else is suffering. (Why work on writing any fiction; what does any of that matter?) But I think I was forgetting a very important fact: sharing light is a great way to drive out darkness.

 

So, I’ve decided to create a space to share stories that say “look – here is something good!” Because while there’s a lotta darkness going on, there is a also a lot of light. And each one of us has the ability to create more light.

To that end, the blog portion of my website  has a new title: Encouraging Words! I’ll use this space mostly to highlight good people, good work, and good things happening in our world. I hope when you visit here you’ll always find some nugget of encouragement that may help your own little light shine brighter, too.

Today I want to tell you about an awesome national program: FAMILY PROMISE. Their mission statement is “to help homeless and low-income families achieve sustainable independence through a community-based response.” Their website shares the staggering statistic that this year in America, 2.5 million children and their parents will experience homelessness. Family Promise supports a “local response to this national crisis, helping families build new lives.” The goal is to identify the ‘newly homeless’ — people who have just fallen or are about to fall through the cracks of any other safety nets, and help them get back to sustainable independence quickly (families are usually in the program about six -eight weeks).

Here’s how it works:

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Photo credit: Family Promise

A network of volunteers from any faith-based community step up to open their physical building one week at a time, on a rotating basis.

“The resources are already there. In the community there are congregations that can provide space in their buildings to serve as temporary homes. Day centers, where families can take showers, receive case management and look for housing and jobs, can be located at a house of worship or agency. There are multiple options for transportation to get families from the host congregations to the day center and back. With volunteers giving their time, making meals, and sharing hospitality, family homelessness is addressed without the creation of expensive shelters. Across the country, people have realized that this innovative approach truly makes a difference for families experiencing homelessness—and more than 180,000 volunteers.”

A friend of a friend has worked hard and can now proudly say that her dream of a functioning Connecticut affiliate of the program is up and running. I’ve been working on a steering committee to help my own faith community explore becoming a Family Promise host. Let me tell you, it’s very encouraging to have something to do about an issue that feels overwhelming. So I’m hopeful we’ll be able to help, even if it’s just a few families at a time.

Just after learning about Family Promise, I got my hands on two ARCs (Advance Reader Copies) of middle grade books which deal with the topic of families that are struggling to find secure and permanent places to live. Reading both of these beautiful novels really helped me understand how important even the smallest act of kindness can be to people who find themselves newly homeless.


JUST UNDER THE CLOUDS (Knopf Books for Young Readers) by Melissa Sarno is coming June 2018.

From the Penguin/Random House website:

An uplifting young reader debut about perseverance against all odds, Marie Miranda Cruz’s debut Everlasting Nora follows the story of a young girl living in the real-life shantytown inside the Philippines’ Manila North Cemetery.

After a family tragedy results in the loss of both father and home, 12-year-old Nora lives with her mother in Manila’s North Cemetery, which is the largest shanty town of its kind in the Philippines today.

When her mother disappears mysteriously one day, Nora is left alone.

With help from her best friend Jojo and the support of his kindhearted grandmother, Nora embarks on a journey riddled with danger in order to find her mom. Along the way she also rediscovers the compassion of the human spirit, the resilience of her community, and everlasting hope in the most unexpected places.

I encourage you to preorder both books for yourself, your kids, or your local town & school library! I’ll be getting a copy of each to donate to Family Promise.

I also encourage you to look around for one thing you can do to help support the homeless in your own community. All over the country, there are many great organizations already in place and doing good work, but they always appreciate fresh volunteers and donations!

Have a good day, light-makers.

Empowering Empathy

I’ve got four special middle grade novels to share with you today!

Novels for young people are unique breed. They are meant to entertain and educate, and some even have the power to foster a life-long passion for the written word. But perhaps most importantly, these stories can have a special role in encouraging a reader’s awareness and acceptance of others.

A good book lets you peek into the window of someone else’s life, and safely ask, “what makes that person behave the way they do?” The answer is often surprising and enlightening. And at its best, empathy empowering.

1) In Elly Swartz’s FINDING PERFECT, readers follow Molly Nathans as her desire for things to be perfect and well-ordered increasingly controls her life, vs. the other way around. We watch with growing concern as her ‘quirks’ become a more obvious and invasive obsessive-compulsive disorder. This is an extremely helpful read for anyone struggling to understand the behavior of OCD, and how ‘out of control’ one can feel…wrapped up with the hopeful message of what may lie on the other side of treatment.

2) Melissa Roske’s KAT GREENE COMES CLEAN  also explores the topic of obsessive-compulsive disorder, this time from the point of view of middle schooler Kat Greene, who watches her mother struggle with increasingly problematic behaviors. The story achingly shows how anxiety can manifest (and take over) in everyday life, and the things we do to deny that it’s happening (to ourselves and others). Readers will take away the message of “keep talking to helpful adults” woven into this compelling story of friendship & growth. 

3) Ellie Terry’s FORGET ME NOT is the story of a girl with Tourette syndrome who starts a new school and tries to hide her quirks. The window into understanding and feeling the unpredictability and frustration that is Tourette Syndrome is wide open as we follow Calliope June’s journey toward self-acceptance. Based in part on the author’s own experiences with TS, this beautiful novel in verse shows the realities and hardships of navigating new friendships, and is buoyed by a rich and realistic cast of supporting characters.

4) INSIGNIFICANT EVENTS IN THE LIFE OF A CACTUS by Dusti Bowling (yes that’s her real name!) also gives readers an honest look at what it’s like to navigate life with ‘significant’ differences. Main character Aven Green “loves to tell people that she lost her arms in an alligator wrestling match, or a wildfire in Tanzania, but the truth is she was born without them.” (Goodreads). When she moves to a new town, she is befriended by Connor, a boy who barks and spits because of his Tourette Syndrome. Both Aven and Connor understand what it feels like to not fit in, and more importantly, they both also know how to be a true friend.

I hope that you and/or a child in your life enjoy reading these fantastic new books on the kid lit scene. I’m grateful to the authors  for creating and sharing these lovable, strong, important characters. I know their stories will open minds and hearts.

Guerilla Kindness

justbeniceIt has been a rough couple of weeks for this Pollyanna of politics. I’ve been thrust out of several bubbles I had been living in. And it’s uncomfortable. (I was the white lady reaching for the Xanax in that SNL skit about election night.) I thought that since the people I chose to surround myself with held values similar to mine, that meant that most other people did, too. It was hard to see how wrong I was about that. It was hard to imagine someone being able to ignore the ugly packaging and vote for what I believed to be a message of reversal of times, reversal of progress.

I spent the first few days after the election reading, reading, reading. Trying to understand. I know Republicans who are really good people, and some who aren’t. I know Democrats who are really good people, and some who aren’t. I know Independents who are good people, and some who aren’t. My chosen candidate has lost more than once in my adult life. But this was the first time the outcome of an election made me so despondent. I did not and still do not know how to reconcile the fact that the president-elect of our county embodies the antithesis of what I value most: kindness toward others.

I had to figure out what I was going to do next. After sitting on the couch under my blanket fort for a few days, I knew I needed to start acting. What I’ve decided is that now is the time for Guerilla Kindness.

I first learned the term guerilla warfare in 8th grade, when I was writing an essay about the Iran-Contra Affair (I was an overambitious English student). Before that, I had heard the term but had pictured angry gorillas flinging dung at one another. Guerilla warfare is the use of hit-and-run tactics by small, mobile groups of irregular forces operating in territory controlled by a hostile, regular force (Dictionary.com).

The idea of guerilla kindness came to me after hearing this post-election story: A woman saw a mother and son behind her in a fast-food drive thru line, pointing and laughing at her political bumper stickers. She made a split-second decision to turn her anger into action. She paid for their meals. You see? Guerilla kindness. And nothing they can do about it.

My call to action/forward motion:

safetypin After the U.K. voted to leave the European Union, incidents of racism skyrocketed, and people began donning safety pins as a way of showing their support for the immigrants living in the country, assuring that they’re safe with them. And I had noticed that the trend had spread to the U.S. after our election results similarly emboldened people to act even more overtly on their bigotry.

My first act of guerilla kindness started small, with something I did to make myself feel better. I scrounged in my jewelry box and came up with a safety pin, which I affixed to my burse (my backpack-purse, which is a thing. At least it is to me.) I’m not sure what I thought this little piece of metal would accomplish, but somehow it helped me get my shoes on and out the door. You see, it was my first outing since the election, and my heart was heavy. But I had been waiting 6 months for a one-day-only mattress sale, so off I went to help stabilize our economy. The sales person who greeted me looked similarly glum. We’ll call him Abdelhadi (because that’s his name).

When I pulled my burse off my shoulder to pay, he saw my safety pin. And once my transaction was complete, he whispered, “My wife has not gone to work for two days. She can’t stop crying.” I told him I had been crying on and off, too. “You?” he said with surprise. “You cried?”

I told him it was hard being confronted with just how out of touch I was with the racial divide in our country, how painful it was to have the illusion that I had been paying attention be broken. “Now you know,” he told me. Then he reached out for my hand and said more softly, “now you know.” It destroyed me. Here was this Muslim man from Dubai comforting me about my sadness.

When we parted ways, we shared a lingering handshake. “Tell you wife…” I started, but I couldn’t finish my thought. Tell her what? What could I possibly say to her to make her feel better? Hadi came to my rescue. “I’ll tell her you cried,” he said. “I’ll tell her you cried, too.”

 

 

wabanakibook

Okay, you put a pin on your purse. What now? What else?

I’ve written before about a service organization called hawkwing, Inc (the h is not capitalized, no matter how much I want it to be).  They “provide essential services and support for the people of the Cheyenne River Lakota (Sioux) Indian Reservation,” and run an annual holiday giveaway that is organized in a warehouse near my home. “The Annual Giveaway brings joy each winter to some 2,600 children on the Reservation, many of whom would otherwise receive nothing for the holidays. Each child receives new toys, books, warm clothes and personal care products. We also supply dozens of Tribal programs and schools with equipment, supplies, coats, shoes and educational materials.” They are partnered with First Book and one of my favorite stations in the warehouse is the book corner. But I noticed a need for books for older kids, and when I saw WABANAKI BLUES by Melissa Zobel at a local bookstore, I picked up a copy and dropped it off at hawkwing. Stealth. Guerilla. Kindness.

 

cookies

Okay, you put on a pin, and you bought a book. What else? I thought about the Syrian refugee family, new to my town, sponsored in their transition by IRIS (Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services) and supported by my place of worship. I had been meaning to say a formal “hello and welcome.” This would probably be a good time for me to take them cookies. Making the cookies was easy (and delish). Taking them to the door was harder. I wasn’t sure how much English they knew. Would they be confused about who I was, what I was doing there? Turns out holding a Tupperware of baked goods is the universal sign for “I’m here to say hello.” I got smiles. I got introductions. I got invited in.

I know there are many people whose opinions differ from mine on the topic of immigration and resettlement. I would implore those interested to read the Time Magazine article: This is how the Syrian Refugee Screening Process Works. “Of all the categories of persons entering the U.S., these refugees [people from Syria] are the single most heavily screened and vetted.” – Jana Mason, senior adviser to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Picture the kids from Aleppo you’ve seen, covered in ash from bombing raids. Now picture them living next to and playing on the Hubbard Green in Glastonbury, CT. Which would you want if it was your child?

We must put education before fear. We must see each other as human beings. Cookie-eating, book-reading, family-loving, human beings. My way of doing that is going to be with this idea of Guerilla Kindness. I’m going to be a mobile irregular force of small hit-and-run acts of kindness. And I’m going to be kind to you no matter who you voted for. Or how you worship. Or where you came from. Or who you love. And you can’t stop me.

Like a friend’s yard sign says:

“🇺🇸  we treat all people with dignity regardless of origin, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political views ”

 

Join me?

 

carmagnet

 

 

 

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Hi. How are you?

A few years ago, my email send out the dread “viral spam.” Every single person in my address book (friends, acquaintances, professional contacts) got the same message:

Hi. How are you? http://www.spamwebsiteaddresshere.com

Spam

A few people responded right away to tell me “your email has been hacked.” I spent the morning hoping the all the other recipients recognized it as spam and did not click on the accompanying link. I was annoyed, but not too worried about this modern day inconvenience we’re all pretty used to seeing by now.

Then, that afternoon, I got a response from someone I had once done some volunteer work for.

Thank you for asking. I am hanging in there. This has been a really difficult time.

Oh. Now, a dilemma. Should I come clean that it hadn’t really been me asking after her well-being? When I saw her later that day in the school parking lot, the answer became clear. Instead of telling her the truth, I gave her a hug. She had had a death in the family, and was in the early stages of processing that grief. She needed my hug more than she needed to hear an explanation of my email being hacked.

Hug

The next day, I got another response.

I’m okay. We’re all getting used to our new normal. And I am finally feeling a little bit better. My face was so swollen – it was scary for awhile there. 

Oh. One of my precious young cousins, who was living through a major change in her family structure, had just found out the hard way that she is allergic to mangoes. We had a nice email exchange where hopefully I said a few encouraging words that helped in the moment.

email

These two responses prompted me to think about my “address book” in a different way. I sat down and thoughtfully read through each name. A few were deleted (e.g. the electrician in the city I hadn’t lived in in 5 years). A few stood out in my mind. People who were special to me that I had lost touch with because…life/parenthood/craziness. Then I hit the compose button, for real, and sent a message. The same one I’m sending you now:

Hi. How are you?