No one ever said life is fair, my father repeatedly reminded me every time I moaned about the fairness of household chores, the demand for excellence on my schoolwork, or having to spend my own hard earned baby sitting money to buy my first pair of leather Converse shoes. After all, didn’t he know how many hours I had to watch the neighbors’ three children at $1.00 an hour to buy those coveted shoes?

At thirteen, life really did not seem fair.

Decades later, my adult life continues to remind me of this deeply rooted childhood lesson. In that apparent “unfairness,” though, I had developed a resilient, bulldozer mentality – one that has served me well. With his matter-of-fact observation about life, my father had relayed expectations that I would do what I needed to overcome obstacles – no matter the magnitude of the roadblocks.

More importantly, my early, pre-adolescent understanding that life is never fair, and that it actually contains disappointment and even heartache, has instilled in me a great desire to celebrate the goodness that does exist – even in the midst of unfairness. When I take time to appreciate the wonder of each day, life doesn’t seem so unfair after all. That philosophy, however, isn’t always easy.

In 2014, my oldest child, Elizabeth, endured a 10-hour, awake craniotomy to remove a benign tumor in her left temporal lobe. Since then, frequent MRIs have monitored the small remnant of the tumor the surgeon had to leave behind. At the end of 2019, though, the neurologist gently, yet firmly, informed us the MRI revealed a new, aggressive tumor that seemed to come out of nowhere. Within a month, my 27-year-old shifted from planning her wedding to fighting for her life.

Diagnosed with stage four brain cancer during the holidays, the past five months have thrown massive hurdles in front of Elizabeth, and as her mother, I have had to reach deep inside me to remember my father’s lesson – life IS not fair, but how I encourage my daughter to take on the opponent of cancer is making a difference. I see it in her drive – in her smile – in her desire to make sure others remember to not let life slip by unnoticed.

At the time of her diagnosis, our pastor delivered a sermon entitled “Make Room for Joy.” As I began to use my bulldozer, get-out-of-my-way personality to help Elizabeth navigate the twists and turns of living with stage four brain cancer, this sermon gave me a lifeline.

This sermon asked me to make room for joy- to be grateful – to delight in the moment. Since then, the sermon’s message has become my rally cry. Even in the midst of watching my child bravely battle cancer, I have much to celebrate. I have had to shove fear aside to make room for joy.

Publicly, I use the hashtag #MakeRoomForJoy to celebrate all of the good that has emerged from my child’s experiences with cancer. Yes, in fact an overabundance of good has emerged. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of people have shown up to offer support; skilled and patient hands of the healthcare professionals at the James Cancer Center in Columbus, Ohio, sustain her life; and the strength and resiliency I see my daughter so graciously draw on every day inspires me.

Never once has Elizabeth uttered the words, “This isn’t fair.” Never once. And, she could have. No one would have blamed her. That’s not Elizabeth, though. She, too, knows that she wasn’t promised a trouble-free life. She would rather celebrate the joyful moments than dwell on things she cannot control.

And so there it is. Even in the midst of the ugliness of cancer, I have so much to celebrate. Because of that, I will always #MakeRoomForJoy. My dad was right. No one ever said life was fair, but how I lean into that apparent unfairness makes all the difference.

Know your WHY

Knowing our why is important.  Frederick Nietzsche, a German philosopher, once said, ‘He who has a why can endure any how.”  When we figure out our why, we will find courage to take risks – to stay focused even when the world around us seems to be falling down – to passionately pursue what brings us joy. 

Depending upon our point of life, we may not fully understand what it means to know our “why.” We may feel pulled toward a project – a vocation – a person or group of people that fan our fires, that propel us forward. When we find our “why,” we feel awake, and sometimes, we feel consumed by protecting that which excites us.

I should offer a warning to those of us, though, who are just finding our “why.” We must prepare ourselves to realize that just when we think we have identified our “why,” the universe has a way of giving us alternative paths – changes happen.  We grow and change over time, and sometimes our “whys” change as well, and that’s okay.

The mega-star Pink croons “If you had one song left inside your soul what would you sing tonight?”  Her song urges us to define what we want to leave as our legacies.  I think she’s asking us to claim our why.  If we only had one message – one final thought- to tell the world, what would it be?  That is our why.  Every once in a while, we should ask ourselves why we do what we do?  What are we passionate about?  What makes our hearts sing?  The answers to those questions identify our why.

As a college professor, I often ask students on the first day of class to consider their why.  Why are you at this institution?  Why are you in this class?  As a person preparing the next generation of educational professionals, it’s important for me to ask them why teaching- why counseling – why childlife specialist – why work with children and/or young adults? 

My own why has many layers, but more importantly, I feel it deeply woven into everything I do – the fabric of my very being. I have dedicated my life to teaching because of the relationships I develop with young adults.  I have seen firsthand the deep connection between educator and student. 

As a college professor and former high school teacher, I have had the privilege of traveling across the United States as well as internationally with students. Whether to Austin, Atlanta, London, or Rome, these experiences challenge them to think differently about others; they practice flexibility, wonder, and being comfortable with being uncomfortable. 

My why for everything I do centers around children and young adults, leaving this world a better place than I found it. Every day I try to pay it forward so the world is a little more kind.

Take some time to consider your why.  Name it.  Claim it.  Own it. Keep it close to your heart.

The Embrace of the Universe

“You are not IN the universe; you ARE the universe, an intrinsic part of it. Ultimately, you are not a person, but a focal point where the universe is becoming conscious of itself. What an amazing miracle.” – Eckhart Tolle

This blog has been a long time coming. For years, the universe has invited me to share my stories – to use my words as I support others, often college students navigating their own journeys. Stories of my own journey, a journey filled with hope, joy, resiliency, and strength amidst uncertainty, angst, and sometimes heartache offer a safe space as I share cups of coffee, meals, or a walk with students. More recently, I have spun my stories via Zoom or FaceTime calls.

Through stories of my parents’ divorce, of my pre-adolescent immersion into “parenting” my siblings, of finding my voice through teaching, of taking my health into my own hands, of ending a thirty-year marriage, and of my daughter’s battle with stage four brain cancer, I create a safe space in which others can connect. As I expose myself in vulnerable ways, I offer an opportunity for us both to realize how similar storylines are.

The same is true for all of us brave enough to share even a small piece of ourselves. Through stories, we find hope in others – others who seem to have emerged bruised, but not scarred – others who find joy in life regardless of the obstacles – others who help us realize we are not alone.

On days when life feels a little heavy, the universe sends me reminders that I am loved – that through the life I have shared with others, I have deep, deep connections. The universe reminds me of how gently she is holding me: a friend waiting on my porch when I return from a walk, a group of friends from across the country gathering on Zoom just to conenct, a friend who sends me daily quotes like the one anchoring this blog (every single day since Elizabeth’s diagnosis with stage four cancer), and another friend who sends a text, “You good?”

The universe reminds me in remarkable ways that it IS conscious of me… of you. Our stories matter. What a gift!!! #MakeRoomForJoy

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Early in life, I realized I was a little different than others. Events that often debilitate or give great angst to others seem to quickly evaporate for me. I am not without fear or anxiety, but since childhood, I have been able to quickly work through those emotions – to figure out a way around those emotions.

My eternal optimism gifts me with the ability to dance or at least tip toe quickly through difficult moments in life. As I have made my way through the five decades of my life, I have experienced moments when life has seemed incredibly heavy, and this deep belief that everything will be okay has sustained me.

Over the past two years, I have found myself navigating a divorce, moving my father into a nursing home after his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, and walking beside my first born as she battles stage four brain cancer. Uncomfortable emotions have overwhelmed me at times, but I have learned to lean into those moments – to recognize the gift of feeling all of the emotion, even when the heart feels like it is breaking into a million little pieces. In each of these challenging moments, I have also found great joy; in these moments, I have learned to be present – to look for the lesson – to love deeply – to be vulnerable.

Through this part of the journey, I have drawn deeply on Mary Oliver’s reminder to live intentionally. In her poem, “The Summer Day,” she reflects “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed.” In her words, I am reminded that I AM living my “one wild and precious life,” and every day unfolds just as it should. And when I remind myself to kneel – to be idle – to be present, I am alive.

Fortitude of Friendship

When she was asked if she desired her sight more than anything in this world, Helen Keller answered, “Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light.” The companionship of her teacher and good friend Anne Sullivan profoundly altered the life of a woman born deaf and blind in such a way her immediate response chose friendship over sight.  Each of us should be as fortunate as Helen Keller to have confidants so connected with our physical and emotional needs we do not fear darkness of any kind.

For many of us, the “dark” elicits different images and emotions.  We may fear making major decisions, debilitated by the fear of change or the unknown.  We may find ourselves in darkness in anticipation of performing an uncomfortable task, requiring us to step outside our proverbial comfort zones, so we step back into the shadows, unwilling to say yes.  For others of us, we find darkness in our daily lives, limping along not fully present in the moments we have been given.  And darkness may creep into our lives when someone we love faces a major health battle, and we feel completely alone or unable to help.

At some point early in the fall of 2015, after an evening of building a blanket fort with her elementary-age children, my colleague and I reminisced about our own childhood blanket forts, the ones we constructed out of every piece of fabric we could locate, pulling blankets and sheets off every bed in the house.  For me, a ten-year-old often left alone by the fractured aftermath of divorce, these elaborate blanket forts tethered to curtain rods and secured to surfaces by piles of weighty encyclopedias, offered a respite from the darkness of navigating a new family structure.  My younger siblings and I could crawl within the safety of the walls and escape into a fantasy world together.  Memories of the comforting sanctuary connected threads of my childhood to my colleague’s, stories mirroring one another’s in so many ways, and I shared with my co-worker my sadness that my own adult children had long outgrown the need for blanket forts.  Both of us understood the security found within those fabricated walls.

A few months later, when my 23-year-old daughter called with the heart-gripping news that her brain tumor showed signs of growth, darkness enveloped me, sucking the air right out of me.  Two years prior to this phone call, she had undergone a ten-hour awake craniotomy to remove the invasive, life-altering, egg-shaped tumor taking up space in the center of her speech and memory.  Our family had powered through the shock, surgery, recovery, and transitioned into a different way of viewing the world, but this reminder that my daughter would never be free of this lurking tumor rocked my world in a way different from the initial news two years prior.  I felt enveloped by the darkness of doubt, fear, and anger, feelings foreign to me as a perennial optimist.

With the end of the semester, my husband, daughter, and I traveled to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, ready to develop a plan of action for fighting her tumor.  In order to stave off the growth, her neurologist recommended a month and a half of daily proton radiation followed by six cycles of heavy chemotherapy.  Still trying to wrap my mind around what these pending treatments meant for my daughter, I returned to work, a campus silenced by the beginning of winter break.  Quietly, though, three of my colleagues worked in their offices, finishing up the semester’s work and anticipating the holidays with their own families.  Unable to focus on my work, I was relieved when one of my colleagues asked if I had twenty minutes to take a break. 

As he led me towards the teaching lab down the hall, I had no idea of what awaited me, and it took a second before the magnitude of the gift my colleagues had created registered.  With blankets tethered to the classroom tables and chairs, they had built an adult-sized blanket fort.  Inside the fort, two of my other colleagues awaited me with even more blankets and a card game.  At that moment, I realized how precious a gift it is to work with people who care so much about each other they do whatever it takes to provide comfort in one of the darkest moments of life.

Spending half an hour playing cards and lying on our backs reconnecting and processing the journey which awaited my child and our family, Helen Keller’s words reverberated.  My heart, already fragile, pounded with gratitude as my three colleagues comforted me in the best way they knew how.  Their genuine care for me, while not erasing the impending battle my child would face, made the future bearable.  I knew, in their kindness, I would not be walking the journey alone.  What had a few days previous seemed insurmountable and frightful, now seemed less burdensome.

In their compassionate gesture, I realized even in the darkest of moments in life, having someone walk beside me is so much more important than the darkness.  And when the friendship comes with an adult-sized blanket fort and friends willing to crawl inside in the quiet of an afernoon, the gift is even sweeter.