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.

Community Conversation

I have a story to tell you about boots.

A few weeks ago, I was cleaning out my basement and had twice tripped on a pair of size nine men’s work boots. My husband had needed them for a short while when he was the in-flight physician on a Life Flight helicopter service. I was pondering what we’d ever do with these boots (not quite right for hiking, not insulated enough for snow) when I opened my email and saw a message from a friend asking about boots.

There is a new family in my town who have been assisted in their transition from Syria to the U.S. by a committee of generous folks in my faith community. (You may remember me mentioning taking cookies to this family in my musings on Guerrilla Kindness.) I’ve enjoyed getting to know them more through events such as dinner where my family and I enjoyed a traditional Syrian meal. (Best baba ghanoush I’ve ever had, and that’s saying something because I’ve had a lot of baba ghanoush.)

The email was from resettlement committee member saying they had found an employment opportunity for Zeyad (the father), but he needed work boots in order to be on the construction sight (the next day). Specifically, he needed size nine men’s work boots. I know coincidences happen all the time, but this one made my arm hair prickle. I said I’d bring them right over.

When I got to their home, Zeyad and his wife were just sitting down to coffee, and invited me in. It was 2:00 in the afternoon of a spring cleaning day, and yes, I needed coffee! We talked about many things and specifically about the possibility of Ezdahar (mom) starting a catering business and Zeyad’s desire to find steady work. His older boys have been lucky to find good part time jobs, “and the parents just sit and drink coffee,” he joked.

The coffee was dark and rich and amazing. When we parted, they told me, to “come again every time” (meaning anytime), and I said “Sure! I will come every time you’re having coffee.”

The next time I saw Zeyad, he was speaking on a panel regarding the Muslim Ban. The panel was part of an ongoing series of Community Conversations sponsored by the Glastonbury MLK Community Initiative. This is a non-profit group that works to foster the teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr., specifically to encourage “an inclusive community” and provide “opportunities to satisfy basic societal needs of belonging and acceptance, through a commitment to listening to all, appreciating differences, celebrating the positive contributions from all of its citizens, and increasing the level of trust, connectedness and civic participation in community.”

They certainly accomplished this goal last Thursday through their panel discussion titled The Muslim Ban: An Examination of the Underlying Factual, Legal, Religious, Humanitarian, Policy, and Economic Considerations. 

The panel was moderated by Dean Alfred Carter, and participants included:

-Rev. Dr. David Grafton, a professor at Hartford Seminary, who spoke about how Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all have scriptural references to “welcoming the stranger.” He explained that faith communities actually have a  compulsion to behave ethically based on these teachings. He also shared a fun and important fact that the word hospitality actually comes from the Greek words philo (love) zenos (the foreigner).

-Dennis Wilson, a caseworker at Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services reminded us that “refugee status” means your family’s lives are in danger. He explained how the “extreme vetting” process can take up to two years, and fewer than 1% of refuges who start the process are eventually resettled into the U.S.  A fun fact he shared was that the rate of entrepreneurship among refugees was studied and seen to be double that of other Americans. Also, refugees routinely contribute back twice to society what it cost to resettle them.

-Dr. Abigail Williamson, professor at Trinity College gave us a great reminder of specific times in history (Anti-Immigration policies go back as far as 1830) when Americans opposed other ‘strangers’ – Catholics, Germans, etc. She pointed out there have always been periodic swings to greater restriction, despite often seamless transitions of immigrants once they get here. A ‘not fun’ fact she shared was how ‘integrating well’ can be bad for immigrants’ health. Families typically come to the U.S. with baseline healthier lifestyles than ours, but by the second generation, their health has typically decreased to our level.

-Anna Cabot, professor at UCONN Law School spoke about the legal issues with the current executive order that blocks immigration from six countries (The “Muslim Ban”).  The two main arguments are that the ban violates due process, and violates first amendment rights regarding religious guidelines. I did not realize that the ban is actually scheduled to go into effect today. But, the legal community has continued to fight it’s implementation with ongoing injunctions.

-Rev. Richard Allen, Pastor at South Church (Glastonbury) spoke about his church’s outreach in helping resettle the Albukaai family from Syria. He pointed out that in getting to know and love this family, “an intellectual text now becomes a personal narrative.” He shared how quickly he became attached to the family, and how loved they are by himself and his parishioners.

-Muhammad Albuakaai & Zeyad Al Abas, fathers of two recently resettled Syrian families, spoke with the aid of an interpreter and shared heartbreaking stories of why they had to leave the country that they loved. Muhammad told of the distress of watching fellow human beings be killed as ‘easily and as often as you would kill a mosquito.’ Zeyad spoke of living with his family in a swath of forest for 15 days as before making their way to a refugee camp in Jordan. He noted that all they wanted in Syria was freedom and democracy, and that speaking out for these two things is what people are being killed for.

Both men also shared their strong desire to become self-sufficient as quickly as possible, and promised not to be a burden on our society. They conveyed deep gratitude for the welcome they had received. When an audience member asked the two fathers what their opinion was on the Muslim Ban, Zeyad responded for both by saying, ‘in Syria, we had been living peacefully for centuries with Christians and Jews. So maybe this is a better question for you here in this country.’

Another audience member asked what we should be/could be doing to help others going forward. It was pointed out that despite what happens with “the ban,” a significant number of refugees will still be barred from entering the U.S. (the number allowed is down from 110,000 to 50, 000). I believe it was Dennis Wilson from IRIS who encouraged us to contact our representatives and mention specific names of people who will now be left behind. Families just like the ones there that night, fathers who shared stories, mothers who cooked treats, and children who ran back and forth and crawled under the table during the program.

At the very end of the evening, four children (three from the Albukaai family and one from the Al Abas family) took over the mic. The three little girls sang what sounded like a playful folk song, while the littlest boy just giggled into the microphone. Their beautiful voices, set against the backdrop of the stories we’d just heard of unrest, fear, homelessness, and despair created a poignant juxtaposition. Four gorgeous, healthy kids – singing and laughing – surrounded by a group of smiling strangers in their new home.

It is a good start.

It Ain’t Easy Being Kind

beingkind

I know that many of you are with me in my quest to infuse Guerrilla Kindness into the world. I hope you’ve been inspired to be part of my mobile irregular force performing small hit-and-run acts of kindness.

But here’s the truth: it can be hard to be kind on purpose.

Exhibit A

My mom had the fantastic (GENIUS) idea of asking family and friends to perform an act of kindness in honor of my sister’s milestone birthday. I was pumped. This was my wheelhouse! This was going to be fun. But, I also knew I had to think of something really special. So…I procrastinated. Then the calendar turned and the countdown was on. One day, I had a long list of errands planned. I was determined that this would be the day for my ‘act of kindness.’ I put on my goody two-shoes and hit the road.

But then.

Well, here’s the story as I told it to my sister.

A Kindness for Jenny

(a comedy in four acts)

 

Act One: Target

umbrella

As I pull into Target to make a return, four fat blobs of rain hit my windshield. I decide to take my umbrella with me. Good thing, as halfway to the front door, the heavens open and drop a giant load of rain all at once. People are running and screeching in the warm, unexpected downpour.

I cue up in line to make my return. The person ahead of me is a mom with three boys. One, a baby, is perched quietly in his car seat. Another, a toddler, is curled in the back of the cart. He is whining and crying in a repetitive moan, the cry of a child who either skipped or skimped their nap. The preschool-aged big brother is trying to soothe the toddler, which makes him scream louder.

The mom hears the thunderous rain on the roof, and turns to see my soaked shorts and shoes. “Oh course,” she says, rolling her eyes. “Of course it just started to rain.”

Her returns are confusing, her receipts are kerfuffled, her kids are restless.

Finally, she finishes up, and I take my place at the counter. Roused from my standing-in-line stupor, a thought occurs: the act of kindness for my sister’s birthday! This mom is the perfect recipient.

I keep my eye on her as I quickly complete my transaction. She is trying to cover the baby and the toddler and her purchases with one small blanket. I ponder offering to get her car for her, but realize that would be weird. I’ll drive them to her car in my car? Also weird. Okay, how about I just walk next to her with my umbrella, at least helping keep a portion of her posse dry?

Finished, I turn to follow her to the door, where she is watching to see if there will be a let up in the rain. But a small crowd has also gathered there, and it’s hard for me to get up to where she is. I’m making my way, when suddenly she grabs her preschooler with one hand, her cart with the other, and bolts. Pushing past people, I race out of the store after her. My extended umbrella held aloft, I call to her that I’d like to help. But the rain is too loud, and she is so darn fast! What is she, a sprinter? I’m chasing her, and getting soaked, because I’m holding my umbrella out in front of me as if I’ll be able to shelter her from five steps behind.

Then, in my haste and distraction, I am saved by another shopper who stops me before I run in front of a car pulling into the lot.

Situation: fail.

Act of kindness has been done to me, not by me!

 

Act Two: Grocery Store

brokenglass

 

A chance to redeem myself. I’m on the lookout for another harried mom. I’ll never forget those days, when everything was made a gajillion times harder by the constant presence of my little charges.

And there, in the dairy aisle, my opportunity: the distinctive CRASH of a glass jar of pasta sauce hitting the hard tile floor, dropped by a toddler. His mom looks around, embarrassed. She is dressed in a security guard uniform. She looks tired. I spring into action.

Me: Let me go get help for you!

Her (already pulling son out of cart): No, that’s ok, there’s always someone from the store right around here.

Me: Let me leave my cart over the mess, and you take your cart and keep shopping!

Her: No, that’s okay, I’m sure it won’t be long.

Reluctantly, I let her get her own help, and watch her leave her cart to mark the mess. I’m thinking maybe she’s just a really chill mom, and honestly didn’t need my help. But, when her son tries to grab a can off the shelf they’re passing and she snaps, “You’ve already made enough of a mess!” I know that she’s human. So, I give her a big smile and move on. But, a big smile? That can’t be my act of kindness! Not for my sister! I give big smiles out every dang day. I will continue my quest.

 

Act Three: Grocery Store Parking Lot

shoppingcart

I had gotten a good spot when I pulled in. The first spot next to the handicapped one. And here now, loading her car next to me, is an elderly woman. Carefully, bag by bag, she is setting her groceries in her back seat. Elderly woman in the handicapped spot. THIS IS IT.

She has one bag left.

Me: Let me help you with that!

Her: Oh, that’s okay, I’m almost done. (Puts last bag in).

Me: I’ll take your cart back for you.

Her: Oh, you don’t need to do that, dear. I can manage.

Me: Really, I’m taking mine back, too. Let me take your cart for you!

Her: Well, how far is it?

Me: It’s just right over there (two cars away).

Her: Well okay, dear, if you’d like.

I return the carts, and get back in my car. No, I think. My special act of kindness for my special sister cannot be that I walked an old lady’s cart 15 feet for her, when she didn’t really even want my help.

I get in my car, grab a piece of paper, and start to write.

 

Act Four: Return to the Grocery Store

noteofencouragment

I’m wandering the aisles, clutching the note I’ve written, which is wrapped around a $20 bill. The note says something like this:

“This small act of kindness is in honor of my sister’s birthday. I saw you in the store, a hard working mama just trying to make a quick stop before dinner. You were so sweet to your son when he dropped the pasta sauce, even though I knew you were annoyed! Those were the hardest days for me, juggling work and small kids. This is for you, to treat yourself. Lunch out, coffee, whatever helps make your day brighter. From, A friend. P.S. Hang in there, bedtime’s coming!”

I finally find her, the pasta sauce mama, just in time. She’s next in line at the checkout. I catch her eye and hand over the note. “This is for you,” I say. “A little surprise. Have a good evening!”

Not knowing what it is yet, she still gives me a huge smile. “And you have a good evening, too!” I quickly leave, feeling so, so good and happy.

I had finally done it. I had captured the feeling my sister gives me and so many people in her life: you are important, you matter, I see you, and I’m here to help.

orangeflower

Being kind isn’t always easy, even when you’re trying. Sort of like how it can be hard to see goodness in the world through all the darkness that exists, too. But it’s there. And we’re here. Just keep doing the little things. After awhile, they’ll start to add up.  One candle does not dim when it lights another. Keep bringing the light, friends.

 

 

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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The Power of “Yes”

Ever notice a new pattern in your life, and wonder when and how things shifted?

IMG_3113

I recently noted that interesting things were happening to me, with some regularity. For example, I was asked to be an extra in a TV commercial. (Yes – random, unexpected, fun.) The morning of the shoot (look at me already using the lingo), I had a fleeting thought that I might meet another kidlit author that day. And I did. The actor in front of me in the “bank line” that I stood in for several hours told me all about his middle grade novel and his popular anti-bullying school visits.

Then, as I was reflecting on how fun it was to see the behind-the-scenes making of a commercial, I was asked to do an (unrelated) televised interview highlighting a local service I’d used and been happy with. Yes, I’m ready for my close up, I thought.

Before that, as I was sending my littlest off to school and contemplating next steps, I was asked to teach a few courses at the local university (UCONN). It was the clear-out-the-cobwebs/rejoin-the-adult-world kick in the pants I had needed.

I’ve also been asked to test and rate products, and have gotten paid to 1) eat crackers, 2) give my opinion on Lego toys, and 3) choose a decking material.

Oh, and I win things all the time. Annoying, I know. It’s always little things like books and baked goods. But still.

Things just keep…coming at me. Is this some kind of cosmic force I’m pulling to myself a la “The Secret”? (I never did read that book, but I know it talks about the ‘law of attraction.’)

No. I don’t think that’s it. It’s much more basic than that.

YesNo.php

I think it’s this: I simply started saying “YES.”

Yes, I will try this new random thing that scares me. Yes, I’d like to go somewhere new, and meet interesting people. Yes, I’d love to get out of my comfort zone for a bit…um, I think….yup, okay, I’ll do it. Yes, I’ll enter that contest. By saying yes, maybe I am sending the universe the message that I’m open to new ideas. I just hope it keeps answering. Because I’m having a LOT of fun.

What else, though, can we challenge ourselves to say yes to? It could be something small but significant, like: Yes, I will listen with an open mind to the varied opinions around my Thanksgiving table.

Last weekend I had to start with Yes, I will watch the news reports that are hard to digest, so I can know who needs our help the most. And how about yes, I am willing to learn about other religions and cultures, and open my heart and mind to their struggles? As I write this, people in Connecticut are arguing about our Governor’s decision to continue to welcome refugees from Syria. Really? If the tables were turned, and your family was casting about for a country to safely call home, wouldn’t you want to be given the benefit of a yes, you are welcome here? Honestly, if you are sitting on something comfortable as you read these words, you have so much more than millions of other humans on Earth. How simple your yes/no decisions would seem to them.

So many “No’s” come from fear, ignorance, and harmful generalizations: I’ll never succeed, why try? All Muslims are violent. People who don’t look like me don’t have the same emotions I do. One person can’t make a difference.

Let go the NO. What will you say YES to today? Tomorrow? Next month? Next year? I’d love to hear where your positive attitude takes you.

yesYouCan.php

If you’re interested, here is my small screen debut. I’m available for autographs, or to stand in line for you at the bank.