“A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees.” – Amelia Earhart
The smallest things in life truly turn out to be the most meaningful. This fall, I traveled to New York City with my two adult children and their significant others. It was my first trip to the Big Apple, and it came with much anticipation. For months, Elizabeth, my 28-year-old daughter, had sent me screen captures of advertisements highlighting the reopening of Broadway. In particular, she wanted to see her favorite musical Chicago.
Like many, the pandemic made us long for the freedom to travel. However, the fact that Elizabeth was so focused on getting to New York was different than the rest of us who simply have cabin fever. Since the fall of 2019, Elizabeth has been battling a glioblastoma, terminal stage four brain cancer. I knew this could very well be her last opportunity to travel, and I envisioned a weekend of memory-making family time with people who have my heart.
With careful planning, and the help of others, our Broadway trip was a magical, and I am not sure what would have made it more perfect. It was the first time in two years that I heard my child laugh as much as she did during our adventure. And her smiles lit up our spaces. My son, Lucas, took care of his big sister in such a tender way, all of their childhood squabbles melted away. Watching the two of them together simply took my breath away with the gift of love, and I experienced one of the most tender moments of motherhood.
Our trip concluded with the much anticipated Sunday evening performance of Chicago. Our seats were delightful, and with great anticipation, our tightknit group watched Elizabeth’s reaction as the actors filled the Ambassador theater with elictricity of jazz. As we left the theater, floating in the ambiance of the evening, we spilled onto the sidewalk just as the actors were leaving the side door of the theater.
In a split second, the actor who plays the lead Velma, Bianca Morroquin, crossed in front of us. I shouted, “Elizabeth, look,” and her brother turned her wheelchair so she see Bianca getting into the waiting car. As Elizabeth waved excitedly, Bianca smiled broadly, winked and blew Elizabeth a kiss.
This tiny, insignificant gesture, however, wrapped the weekend with a sentimental gift. As the five of us stood on the sidewalk, we were held in the warmth of the universe as it tenderheartedly pulled us close and kissed our cheeks. And in that moment, we knew that regardless of where this journey of loving someone with cancer takes us, it is going to be okay.
“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them,” wrote Maya Angelou. A quote such as this requires some unpacking – and perhaps optimism and resiliency – but it also contains so much truth. It takes work to understand that we cannot control the world, and it takes even more work to realize the narratives we create shape our responses to events and people.
This personal toil, though, ulitmately leads to a liberation, a true empowerment. Too many of us spend a lifetime waiting for life to begin. We fall victim to believing life happens to us. Once we realize we can control our responses to people, events, and even emotions often surprise us, we nudge ourselves closer to authentic living – to living in the moment – to leading a life fully present.
The more I practice this philosophy, the more I experience its power. In moments that evoke angst, fear, or even anger – moments which often feel completely out of my control – I force myself to pay attention to my thoughts and my physical reaction. With this intentional focus, I shift my thinking, and ultimately my response. I choose not to be destroyed by the event. In this choice comes the freedom. ‘
This mindset doesn’t come easilty. I still have moments where I get sucked under by the waves of hopelessness and fear, but I have discovered two key strategies that help keep life in perspective.
First of all, I work hard at taking care of myself physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Feeding my body healthy food and keeping it hydrated gives me energy and allows me to focus. My daily practice involves exercise, typically 4-5 miles every day. I also spend periods of the year swimming or biking.
Besides journaling, listening to podcasts of spiritual leaders, and processing the universe’s lessons with my trusted square squad, I also make a practice of repeating the “Serenity Prayer” – a prayer that guides an ethos of redirecting responses to things I cannot control.
I find myself reflecting on the prayer as I walk, especially if my route meanders through nature, away from town. And I find myself repeating the prayer as I swim laps: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” Sometimes the prayer is reduced to “serentity, courage, wisdom” – a powerfrul mantra with each stroke.
Because I have learned to take care of my whole self, I have recognized the power in the second tool: mentoring. Over the last three decades as an educator, I have learned my role extends way beyond the content and skills I nurture in the young people with whom I work.
My teaching credo is deeply steeped in progressive education, a person-centered, inquiry-based way of learning to improve the human condition. As young people experience success in owning the learning process, they develop self-efficacy. As their belief in themselves grow, it spills into other areas of their lives.
Teaching, for me, has morphed into mentoring dozens of young people, often college students who are not even students within my department. No matter where it occurs, mentoring is a win-win. As I speak my truth – share my story – illustrate how I have shifted my thinking to reflect my understanding of the universe, I gain momentum in the practice of intentional living.
The other part of the equation comes in watching young people realize they, too, can shift their thinking. As my mentees begin to see life as something they do instead of something that happens to them, they are empowered in so many ways. The benefits they experience excites me – fuels me.
Again, none of this is easy, and I have moments of panic and fear, but they occur so much less than they did six years ago. And, more importantly, I know it works. Personally, I know I am in a different space than I was when I began this journey – a much different space. Occasionally, out of the blue, I am reminded that sharing my journey with others matters.
Recently, in less than a 24 hour period, I received texts from two different young women and a card from another. The first text was a young teacher who thanked me for making her a teacher. In the string of our conversation, she reflected on how hard 2020 had been for her, and she typed “And life is about perspetive. We can’t choose our circumstances, but we can choose if we are happy or not. As I type that it sounds very familiar, huh?”
The second text came from a young woman who is learning to navigate the world, and she wanted me to know she had realized the most difficult period in her life had brought important people into her circle, and she wrote “even in my worst times God was giving me the greatest blessings of friendship and companionship. That’s super weird to think about. My mind is blown right now honestly.”
And then the mail brought me a card from a young woman who recently lost her mother to colon cancer. The front of the card read EMPOWERED WOMEN EMPOWER WOMEN. Her note inside reminded me of the importance of believing in each other – of showing up – of living intentionally – of believing in each other.
So here is to empowering ourselves so that we can empower others. In the process, we come closer to living – truly living. We come closer to understand that living is something we do, not something that happens to us. #MakeRoomForJoy