Category Archives: Courage

Safe

I’ve long known that my comfort zone acts like a box with moveable sides which I must regularly push out, or they will slowly move in on me. One of the more profound times I pushed out had an amazing payoff, though I look back now and realize it wasn’t entirely safe. I ask myself, if I had it to do again, would I?

I needed to meet up with the team in rural Romania for a project; they’d been there a week already, and I was traveling alone. Traveling in Eastern Europe is very different than traveling in Western Europe…few natives speak English, and signs and menus don’t have the familiar Latin roots which can help you muddle through. I landed in the chaotic Bucharest airport, withdrew 200 Romanian leu to get me to Podari, a farm town over two hours away by train, and knew to avoid all of the shouting men harassing me with calls of “taxi” in favor of the official taxi stand. Not everyone who takes one of those unauthorized taxis makes it to their destination whole. When I got to the hotel, I learned that my train would leave bright and early the next morning at 08:00. I also learned that my 200 leu wouldn’t go go very far, when an email from the project lead said their American, non-chip credit cards were not working in the card readers at most places. His note was dire: “Bring cash, lots of it.” The concierge told me there was an ATM a couple of blocks away, so I set out on foot. As I wound my way alone through a quiet residential neighborhood in Bucharest, I realized that if anyone wanted to accost me, no one would ever know what happened to me. I could just disappear. I walked faster and finally found the ATM twice as far as what a “couple of blocks” is to me…to no avail. I walked hurriedly back to the hotel and wondered just how dire our financial situation was.

I got up at 05:00 the next morning heavily jet lagged and hopped into a cab for the train station. Here’s where the adventure really began. As we flew through the dark streets of Bucharest (and “flew” is not a literary exaggeration), I began to wonder, again, if my goose was cooked. My first fear was that I was going to die at the hands of a Romanian-speaking cab driver’s erratic driving (I soon learned that seat belts are an unnecessary cost in 2nd-world Romania). But after Formula One racing through the streets of Bucharest for the 15 minutes the hotel told me it would take, with no train station in sight, a new fear took hold. Was he just pulling the universal taxi scam of taking me for all the fare that he could? Did he really know where I needed to go? Did he intend to take me there at all? Once again I felt all of the vulnerable, lone female traveler that I was. As 30 minutes went by, and my adrenaline level climbed pretty high as I pondered my limited options, we suddenly stopped (again, “suddenly” is not a literary exaggeration)…in front of the train station. I got out hugely relieved and feeling a little guilty for my thoughts about my driver. But my ordeal was not over.

Trying to buy a 2nd class train ticket (to save my meager cash reserves) without speaking the language was tricky (I guess she thought my two fingers were some kind of haggling ploy). I finally managed to get my ticket bought after some ridiculous pantomiming, and went into the station. It was a foreboding place. Dark, dirty and neglected, it was busy and active with the same bootleg tax drivers at the airport and ordinary Romanian commuters. Covered but open to the outside, I was grateful it was September and warm. I quickly found a clean and bright beacon in a blessed McDonald’s (it looked like it had a halo over it, I still hear angels sing when recalling it) in the center of the station. It wasn’t busy, likely out of the financial reach of most of my fellow commuters. I nursed my Coke in its safety for well over an hour. The downside of the Coke and the time, however, had me looking for a water closet, thinking I’d be better off in the station than on the 2nd class car on the train. I was wrong. After descending the dark, narrow steps into the basement restroom, I found I had to pay a couple of leu for a dark, dank concrete stall with no light on the women’s side. It would have made a perfect prison cell in any B grade horror movie. I did my business as quickly as I ever had, while trying to touch absolutely nothing (in the dark, I couldn’t even see what I wasn’t touching, likely a small blessing). When I emerged back into the dim light, I felt literally liberated. As I found my way to my train line, I saw an ATM and tried my luck again:  still no luck and sure that I’d be filing a fraud claim with my credit card company when I got home for trying to use it in such a safe public place.

I was beyond relieved to finally board the train. I’ve written about the rest of this trip before…it was a highlight of my life. This is the way life often is:  you must be willing to get outside your comfort zone to have some of the best experiences. You must risk getting hurt, or it was never a risk in the first place. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. The Belgian member of our team had a European chip credit card and ended up with an enormous expense report. I didn’t need to file a fraud claim on mine. And I saw amazing sights and ate wonderful food and met interesting people, none of which I will ever forget. And I pushed my box walls out again, at least for awhile.

“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”  –Neale Donald Walsch

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Comfort Zone


I learned a long time ago that my comfort zone is like a box with movable sides. If I stay comfortably inside my box, over time it slowly closes in around me, becoming steadily smaller. I find it critical to routinely push myself outside my box, pushing the walls out with me. By now, it’s a predictable, inevitable pattern.

It’s been awhile since I’ve pushed my box out in a big way. Three years ago, the sides of my box were abruptly yanked away altogether when Megan fell ill. Every day brought frightening new experiences, and for the first time in my life, all of my energy was needed just to keep everything from flying apart. Then just as things began to calm on that front, I changed jobs; that was plenty for awhile. I’m starting to feel rested and stable…not yet too stable, but I know it’s coming. 

I always need a next frontier, but I no longer have any idea what the next one might be. I’ve got a few loose ideas, but nothing that’s grabbed me yet. Guess I’ll have to take the small opportunities for awhile and wait. Patience has never been my strong suit…I may have to make something happen. I hear you can now take tours of Chernobyl…that should do it.

“The risk of a wrong decision is preferable to the terror of indecision.”  –Malmonides


Walking In My Shoes


I have a $5.87 pair of Walmart tennis shoes full of memories. I can’t seem to part with them, though I’ve gladly purged everything else associated with that dark time. I instead occasionally choose them from the closet, strap them on, and begin my trip down memory lane.

Three years ago this month, I took my baby to the ER after dinner. After ten trips to the doctor and countless tests and scans in the last six weeks, we still had no answers, only agreement with a mother’s diagnosis that she was very sick. We’d watched her mysteriously but steadily deteriorate until that night, when we made yet another desperate attempt to get her help. After a couple of hours at the ER, we got our first distant hope of an answer, from a doctor who said she needed to be at Children’s in Little Rock. He saved her life, the first of several times to follow. After another hour waiting for an ambulance, I learned there were none. How does an entire region of half a million people run out of ambulances? At one in the morning, I signed her out of the ER against their wishes, gassed up the car, and started off on the three hour drive. We arrived at Children’s at 4:30 a.m. with the clothes on our back…we were finally going to get her answers and relief. It ultimately took another two and a half weeks for those answers, as she careened to critical. Complete treatment was still months away. I knew none of that yet when I found myself at Walmart, 36 hours after driving to the ER, needing everything from a toothbrush and toothpaste, to a jacket in July and warmer shoes than my little slip ons, since they keep an Arctic temperature in hospitals. The cheap tennies fit the bill, and I’ve had them ever since.

As the months went by and remission kicked in, our worry began to fade that we’d need another sudden run to the hospital. We finally unpacked the overnight bags we’d kept at the ready for so long; the shoes now sit next to their colleagues in the closet. When I now occasionally pull them out, they take me back, to a time of crushing fear and stress. But somehow they haven’t stored up any residual bad feelings. Instead, they remind me of how far we’ve come, of what we survived. The memories aren’t good, but the ending was. I learned how strong I can be when I need to, which is useful, because I know the day will come when I will need to be that strong again. When I do, the shoes will be there to remind me that I can.

“Life is tough, my darling, but so are you.”  –Stephanie Bennett Henry


Not OK

Something’s changing in our country, and I’m dismayed. Over the last year or so, we’re losing the expectation that we will demonstrate basic respect for each other in public discourse. No group is completely clean on this, and there’s a reason that politics has long been called “dirty”. But we’re seeing a steep slide that needs arrested. A friend once told me that “words matter”…he was right.

If you don’t believe words matter, ask a child who’s just been bullied. If you don’t think words matter, ask someone who’s fighting depression. If you’re unsure if words matter, study Nazi history and see how a nation was manipulated to ignore (and even commit) atrocities against their fellow citizens.

America has always been a beacon of hope and optimism for the world, Reagan’s “shining city on a hill”. But we are rapidly turning into a mean and nasty place, where insults take the place of meaningful debate on how to make our great country even better, for all of its people. We, the people, must halt this decline. We must demand better from our public figures. We can do better…we deserve better…we are better than this.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”  –Martin Luther King, Jr.


Weary


The older I get, the more weary I get.  I don’t know how to fully explain it, and I don’t mean that I’m more tired (though that’s true, too).  I mean weary, like not just in my bones but in my soul, too.  It’s not a good feeling, yet somehow it’s not totally bad, either.  It’s almost familiar, even though it’s new, like somehow it was inevitable.  I’m at the stage now where I’m working to decide what it means, and more importantly, what to do with it.

While I think that a small part of it has to do with the realization that I’m now unquestionably in the back half of my life, this isn’t a mid-life crisis.  I have a precious family that means the world to me and a meaningful job I love.  I’m healthy and active, and I’m in the best place I’ve ever been in my life spiritually.  No, it’s more than that.  It feels the most like more of a vague realization that life is just flat out a struggle, and there’s too much suffering in the world.  This loony election season hasn’t helped any, but this is way bigger than any political outcome.  I just get weary.

I get weary of the polarization and seemingly unreconcilable divide in our country.  I get weary of the need to hand money and a blessing out of my car window to the homeless.  I get weary of seeing the photos and hearing the stories of especially children fighting horrific diseases for their very lives.  I get weary of politicians acting in what is clearly their own best interest over those who elected them to serve them.  I get weary of layoffs and domestic abuse and addiction and racism.  It becomes overwhelming.

Yet when it seems like just one more all-too-human story may knock me down, another story…an offsetting story of hope… shines through.  The amazing part is it usually only takes one of the good ones to counter many of the bad ones.  That’s the power of good, of love.  From those small, shining nuggets of hope, I get the strength to carry on.  Even though I am weary.

“And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”  –Galatians 6:9


Offensive


I’ve been in exactly one play in my life. I was in the eighth grade, and I no longer have any idea why I tried out. In retrospect, it’s pretty surprising:  I was an awkward, introverted teenager…being in a play wasn’t remotely who I was. I vaguely remember being encouraged to try out by a teacher. I did, and I got a part. It wasn’t a lead part, but at least I got to participate.

After weeks of practice, we gave three performances…one during the day for the school, one in the evening for our parents, and one at a regional competition. I learned a few things from the experience. The main thing I learned was that I could pretend to be someone else. That was hard for me, not just because I was shy, but because I’m pretty logical and fact-based. I’m not creative, and taking on a role really stretched me. I learned to put myself out there in public. I can’t exactly say it changed my life, but it was a step on the journey I underwent during high school to come out of my shell. And I enjoyed being part of the troupe, included at an age where exclusion is often the rule. I’ve always looked back fondly on the experience.

Except. I’ve long forgotten the name of the play, its plot, or any of the other roles. What I do remember is my character. You see, I played the comic relief, pretty ironic for me. My character had the best lines, generating laughs in all of our performances. I  also had the best costume and was the most memorable. It was an awkward role to learn, but once I did, I knew I’d done it justice by the audience’s reaction. It was a blast. Except that now, with the wisdom of adulthood, I realize that my character was offensive…highly offensive. You see, I was the black maid, Mammy.

I wore an old dress, an apron, a kerchief over my pinned up hair…and blackface. Just walking out onstage in my small Kansas farm town got laughs. I got even more laughs when I delivered my well-rehearsed lines in a high-pitched shriek. Let’s just say that my character was not the brightest bulb in the box. Looking back now, I’m mortified. I was a naive 13-year-old, in an all-white, rural community. We had one black student in my entire school career, and she stayed only a semester. Obviously, the play was an overt indicator of an uninclusive culture in the late ’70’s. I had no idea that I was being offensive.

I’ve been thinking about this experience over these last couple of months. No matter whether or not you’re happy with the outcome of this ugliest election, it’s held at least one undeniable lesson for our country:  that any belief that we’d evolved to some post-racial America was a delusion. The signs were there all along that prejudice is still very much alive. But fifty years after women’s liberation, the first black president, and the increasing heterogenization of our country’s demographics, some of us had been lulled into a false complacency that we’d moved past all of that. That illusion has been shattered; the ugliness is still very much among us. 

“Injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere.”  –Martin Luther King Jr.


Fear


A leader whom I admire said this week that we need to drive out fear, versus using it as a tool for power. We were lamenting that this has been an election of fear. I told him part of my truth, but not all of it.

I told him that my brother-in-law is terrified that his Mexican wife of 20 years, the mother of their two daughters, will be deported. I told him that my gay friends are afraid their marriages will be dissolved. I told him that a sweet, young Vietnamese friend was disturbed by a horrible racist incident on her campus in Minnesota. I shared how troubled I was at the stories of harassment of blacks and Muslim women wearing hijabs, and of Hispanic children bullied at their schools with taunts of being deported and building the wall. And this is the experience of a privileged white woman since the election. But I didn’t tell him the rest.

I didn’t tell him that I’ve lost sleep over these last couple of weeks for fear of slowly losing our civil rights and democracy to an autocrat who trades in fear. I didn’t tell him how I’ve struggled to understand how so many could overlook such overt sexism, racism, and bullying for a single issue or for politics. I couldn’t admit that I’ve been unable to watch the news or open a newspaper since the election, as it’s too depressing to think about a racist overseeing the country’s law enforcement, or an isolationist as national security adviser, or a white supremacist whispering in the ear of the man in the most powerful job in the world. I’m having trouble coping with news stories about ripping families apart through the immediate deportation of 2-3 million citizens, or how there’s “historical precedence” for a Muslim registry or even internment camps. My world changed overnight, and I’ve struggled to cope with it all. My struggle is embarrassing and shocking at the same time:  after all, I’m a 50-year old strong and successful woman. How can this have impacted me so?

But I’m my mother’s daughter, and I knew that I would eventually pick myself up. The shock and fear are starting to wear off, being replaced by determination. I’ve started taking action, and that is lessening my fear. I will fight to keep the gains women have made over these last 50 years, for myself yes, but especially for my teenage daughters. I will be vocal in support of the right to basic dignity and protection that my LGBT family and friends deserve. And, as scared as I am of the thought, if necessary I would face water cannons and prison to ensure that the freedoms of religion and speech remain bedrocks of American democracy.

My favorite Bible verse is Romans 8:38-39, and it reminds me that neither principalities nor powers can separate us from the love of God. And in Philippians 1:30, Paul invites us to join him in the battle. In my immediate reaction, I nearly forgot Who always has been and will be in complete control. But He has always needed arms and legs. I offer mine. I am not afraid.

“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality…I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”  –Martin Luther King Jr.