Sunday, January 27, 2013

Lightning Strikes Twice

     On my way home from work Friday, I stopped off at a small, suburban strip mall and walked through the doors of a travel agency.  Unlike most of their regular customers, I wasn't booking a Disney cruise or a tour package through Italy.  I was there to pay for eleven round-trip tickets on Ethiopian Airlines to Rwanda.  As I handed over the check and signed the invoice, my hand shook a little. Because until that very moment, I didn't really believe that this was going to happen.  I really am going back to Africa!

     I was in second grade when I saw a National Geographic special about central Africa.  From that moment on, I dreamed of going to that part of the world.  I imagined traveling to the land of Dr. Livingston. I envied Jane Goodall with her apes.  I imagined going on safari, seeing hippos and giraffes up close.  As I got older, I learned more about the world, studying geography in college fueling a fascination for ecosystems I doubted I would ever see--jungles and savannahs and equatorial mountain ranges.  I learned about societies so different from my own with arts and customs and foods and economies that were totally unlike mine.  I never really thought that I'd actually be able to get there one day, though.

     And then I did.  Last February, I chaperoned a service-learning trip to Rwanda for high school students.  It changed my life in ways I still can't fully articulate a year later.

 Photo by Jason Marzini

     Nineteen years after the genocide, Rwanda is a study in resilience and hope.  It wasn't at all what I expected.  There is no way to adequately describe the effects of the genocide on the nation.  I cannot even describe the effects of visiting the genocide memorials on  myself.  It was as powerful and terrible an experience as I have ever had.  In more than one instance, it physically took my breath away.  So much horror.  And yet, almost every person I met spoke of forgiveness and of building a new Rwanda with a sincerity that awed me in its quiet strength.  Yes, sincere forgiveness.  Don't confuse that with justice.  Trials continue to this day.  Punishment is still meted out.  A teacher I met, who along with one sister was alone in his family to be spared during the genocide because they were away at school, explained it this way, "We don't forgive to make things better for the murderers.  We forgive for ourselves.  We forgive so we can get out of bed in the morning and carry on."

Photo by Jason Marzini

     And carry on this remarkable people does.  They marry, they raise children, they farm on every bit of land they can--most of it straight uphill on the mountains.  They study--the literacy rate has increased at an unprecedented rate over the past decade.  They start businesses.  They go to church.  They sing and dance and laugh.  Wonderfully hospitable people, it was a delight to spend time with Rwandans all around the country.    

     About the size of Maryland, Rwanda is the smallest African country.  The "Land of a Thousand Hills" is mountainous, lush, and stunningly beautiful.  It was not at all what I expected. 

     As our group toured and worked and learned, we met people from all walks of life.  We met business leaders and poor village women.  We met the brightest high school students in the country and homeless boys.    We worked together and we played together.  We cheered on the national soccer team as they ran through drills when we happened to come across them practicing at a local stadium.  We helped build a library at a boarding school for street boys. We got schooled on weeding at a coffee collaborative run entirely by women that sells to Green Mountain Coffee here in America.  We hung out at the National Univeristy of Rwanda's campus radio station and rocked out to American pop remixed to Afrobeat. We spent two of the best days of my life working in a preschool. We crashed a National Geographic photoshoot (it was the coolest. thing. ever.).  And yes, we went on a safari.

     After three incredible weeks, I returned home to my real life.  I gave family and friends the gifts I brought back.  I showed off my pictures.  I told my stories.  And then  my African adventures were just a memory. Or so I thought.
     Because of technology, I have been able to maintain ongoing correspondence with several of the people I met in Rwanda.  Several high school students email me regularly to practice their English.  Alexis Gakumba and his brilliant wife Gyslaine, the owners of the Rwandan tour company that managed everything for us in Africa, chat with me frequently. 

Photo by Jason Marzini

This November, I was delighted when I was able to open my home for a week to Alexis.  It was Alexis' first trip to America.  He was here conducting business in Vermont, but had time for some visiting.  I had the extreme pleasure of being with him when he experienced several firsts:  bowling, snow, the ocean, Christmas trees and lights, skyscrapers, burgers and fries. 

     By the time Alexis had returned home to Rwanda, I was sorely homesick for his country and his people.  I had already been approached by the high school to consider chaperoning another trip this April.  So, I spoke to my boss and bargained with my husband and children.  It was decided.  I return to Rwanda on April 2nd.  My husband and  my children are talking about when "we all go together to visit Alexis.  How about next summer when school gets out?"  And suddenly, my world has expanded to include Africa. 
    Now I'm thinking about ways to make other little girls' dreams come true.  Alexis, Gyslaine and I have been imagining ways to connect young Rwandan students and American students in a distance-learning program.  We imagine an international training program in health care or maybe in tourism (why not both?!) that gives American and Rwandan youth marketable skills and a chance to build better futures for themselves.  I think my real African adventures have just begun.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

I Have A Dream

If you have been reading this blog you likely either know me, or you were introduced to me from my recent guest post at This Is Mommyhood.  So you know a bit about my Fab. Fam.

Years ago, when Thing 1 & Thing 2 were preschoolers, I worked at the child care center they attended.  A recent conversation with a former co-worker from those days reminded me of this story about my son.  In the spirit of Dr.Martin Luther King, Jr.'s dream where lovingkindness prevails over hatred, and all of our children have the chance to succeed together, I offer it to you.

Long before we had a diagnosis for Thing 2, of course, we had issues.  He was impulsive and disruptive. In preschool, he was the boy the other children blamed for anything that got spilled or lost or broken.  He was always the class clown and usually the class problem. Then this happened:

A local family adopted a Russian orphan.  He was nearly five years old.  As I understand it, he had been abandoned on a freight train at birth.  Before being adopted and coming to America, Ivan*  had spent his entire life in an orphanage.  (*name changed to respect his privacy.)  The social worker assisting in the adoption recommended to his new family that he spend time with American children in a school setting.  So, for a few days a week, Ivan attended my son's preschool class.

For the longest time, Ivan didn't speak.  Not even in Russian.  He sat under the teacher's desk and watched the class. After several days of this, Thing 2 started clowning around to get Ivan to interact with him.  He'd roll him balls or bring him books or make silly faces.  Ivan remained unmoved and my easily distracted boy bounced off to another activity.  The next day, though, my son was back with a different approach.  He crawled under the desk and simply sat with Ivan.  He stayed all afternoon.  His teacher was amazed, because it was the longest my son had ever sat for anything.

When Ivan's mother arrived to pick him up and found my son sitting with him, she burst into tears.  I was paged to come to the classroom.  I was already becoming "That Kid's" mother, and too frequently was called to address some difficulty that my boy had caused.  So when I came to the classroom to find Ivan's mother crying, my heart sunk.  What had my son done?!  And then she hugged me.  The boys' teacher explained everything, about how my son sensed what it was Ivan needed in a new friend.  How he stopped his usual antics to just sit quietly.  How my boy had been the classmate to show real kindness to Ivan. 

This beautiful incident didn't change my boy. He was still the boy who disrupted the class and spent more time in trouble than anyone else. It did show me, his teacher, one frightened boy and his mother though, that my son was so much more than just the trouble he causes.

It is important to remember that about people.  We are all more than our troubles, whatever you perceive those to be.  Dr. King was speaking about people who consider other people's  skin color to be trouble.  Today people talk about mental illness or poverty or immigration status or sexual orientation or, even still, skin color as trouble.  And that is all that they see when they look at a person. 

I have to admit to often forgetting that about my own son.  He is so much more than his mental illness.  And I love him with every fiber of my being. How much harder is it to remember that about strangers?  That is the task before us today, though.  As people all around the country remember the legacy of the great man who tried to make the world a better place for his children--and for everyone else in the process--we are charged with fulfilling his dream.  For me, the place to start has to be remembering that every individual is more than their trouble.

Where will you start?


Friday, January 11, 2013

My Red Dress Moment

I know how to throw a decent party, too.  I've been hosting a Valentine's Day Brunch for some of my sisterfriends for the past few years.  I've long since accepted that men don't really care about Valentine's Day.  I've also accepted that my girlfriends and I really do care about it--or at least we care about chocolate and flowers and pretty things in reds and pinks. Hey!  Don't judge us. We also love some kick ass rock-n-roll, a great burger, and hockey.  We're MULTI-FACETED, people.

     Anyhow, because I am my mother's daughter, I usually have a theme for this girlie shin-dig. 
Some of the most notable among them?  The Chocolate Spa Day--well, that just speaks for itself.  All the food was chocolate, and so were the spa treatments.  A girls' dream, right?  Then there was the "My Favorite Things" party (a la' Oprah) where each guest brought enough of their "favorite-under- $5" thing to share with everyone else.  The favors were music CD's made up of everyone's favorite songs.  

That was going to be hard to top.  There was the family honor to uphold, you know. 
It's a lot of pressure.

     Then I read Jenny Lawson's (The Bloggess) stories about the The Traveling Red Dress and the Movement it Launched,  I knew what last year's party theme was going to be.  If you are one of the few people in the world who doesn't know about the Red Dress phenomenon, go read her stories first.  I'll wait for you. 

     Welcome back! The stories are amazing, right? 
Don't you want to burst into song or dance around on a mountain top or start a girls' school or something right now?! 

     Me?  I read the original story and forwarded the link around to all of my girlies.  We are (almost) all in our 40's.  For the uniniated, your 40's are when things start to go to hell. Your 40's are when you get sandwiched between raising your kids and coping with your aging parents.  Your own body starts rebelling against you.  You have to wear reading glasses to check Facebook on your phone. Much of your social life revolves around hospital visits and funerals.  Things get way frigging harder than you ever believed they could be.  At the same time, though, really wonderful stuff is still happening all around you.  Everyday.  And you are just barely wise enough to appreciate it. Anyhow, the fount of wisdom and bringer of joy that is Jenny Lawson really struck a cord with us--and thousands and thousands of women all around the world.  While we are busy taking care of our kids and our parents and dealing with married or dating-because-suddenly-we're-divorced sex and underwater mortgages and taking whatever THAT is away from the dog and getting enough fiber into our diet and, and, and... We have forgotten how to be deliriously happy.  Or even moderately happy.  In fact, we act as if we aren't ALLOWED to be happy.  We're wrong.  We are definitely SUPPOSED to be happy.  We are.

     And last January when I first read about the women that started sending their own red dresses to other women around the world,  I came undone.  (In my cubicle at work, actually.  There I was blubbering like a tweenager at a Bieber concert.  It was emabarrassing, but life altering--in a good way.) 

I wanted in on that magic.  For myself and for the women I adore.


     And so, I decided that for Valentine's Day 2012, my girlies and I would play dress up.  I went to my local thrift shop and purchased three red gowns for about $12.00.  They weren't exactly the red poppy dress that Sunny Haralson created.  By a long shot.  I'm no Sunny Haralson.  I do have an amazing friend, Helene, though, who can take dryer lint and some garden twine and come up with a runway-worthy design.  So I called her.  I told her what I wanted to do. She has been graciously going along with hairbrained schemes for about two decades now.  Like I knew she would be, she was totally game.  WE  (who am I kidding?!) were going to take these five thrift store dresses (I might have gone a bit overboard) and make them both FABULOUS and flexible.  See, amazingly beautiful women come in all shapes in sizes.  Thrift store ball gowns, not so much.  Our idea was to make each of these dresses deliciously corseted so that they could hug the curves and run along the straight-of-ways of ALL of my girlies.

Photo by Nicole Coutu

     At the risk of embarrassing her forever, I have to tell you this story, because it is EVERY woman's story.  About three weeks before the party, I brought the dresses to Helene's house.  She and I were both dressed like sisterfriends who had spent the previous half-day puttering around the house doing chores.  We're both in old jeans, Helene's in a plaid shirt,  I'm in an old tie dye.  Both of us have our hair in messy buns.  I'm wearing ZERO make-up--not even the stuff that hides my raccoon eyes (thanks for those, Nana Frana, really).   We are the very picture of the women-who-take-care-of- everyone-and-everything-but-themselves. 

     To make her designs, Helene needs me to put on the dresses.  I put on the first four.  We giggle like teenagers as she makes marks and measurements and sketches designs.  The fifth dress is a beaded, strapless dress.  It's my favorite of the lot.  I tell Helene to try it on.  She hesitates.  What the hell, Honey?!  We are all alone in the house.  I bully her into trying the dress on. 
     Helene carries the weight of the world on her shoulders.  Her father is in a nursing home.  Her mother lives with her.  She  also has a husband, and a twenty-something daughter at home.  She's been out of work, like too many Americans, for too long.  (Don't worry, dear readers, she's since found the PERFECT job for her!)  Her two grown sons were both serving in the military, keeping them, and her grandbabies, too far away from her.  Did I mention that less than a year earlier, she had major back surgery and was still healing?  To say the least,  on this afternoon Helene is not feeling very beautiful or strong or even VISIBLE. 

     Then she puts on the red, strapless, beaded ball-gown.  No make-up.  Hair's a mess.  And as soon as I zip it up, she turns into a fairy princess.  It was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen.  It still makes me tear up just to write about it.  It only lasted a few moments, before she felt self-concious and it was gone.   They were absolutely breathtaking moments, though. 

I want every woman to feel that way as often as they can. We deserve it.  We do.

    Well, the dresses get altered.  The day of the party arrives.  I'm saddened to learn that several of my girlies won't be attending.  Some make excuses, some come right out and admit it--they have body-image issues that they can't get past.  They can't bring themselves to play dress up with us.  In the end, though, twelve women I love with all my heart come for a day of play.  I have a surprise for them--I've convinced a student photographer from the area vocational high school to shoot the magic as it happens.

     Then something totally unexpected occurs.  My girlies are afraid to put the dresses on.  There is a lot of emotion that nobody saw coming. It was just supposed to be a bunch of old friends (some of us have been friends since grade school) playing dress-up.  Clearly, there was some baggage we had to deal with--years of believing that we aren't good enough, thin enough, pretty enough, important enough, worth enough...

     Well, on that cold, clear day last February, we stood up to those lying, nagging voices. 
And we finally tried on those dresses. 
And they were MAGIC.
Because when we put on those dresses, we saw for ourselves that WE ARE BEAUTIFUL.
Photos by Nicole Coutu


Of course, we knew that about each other. we just couldn't see it about ourselves. 
That day, though, we did. 
And It. Was. Amazing.

     That day was filled with tears, laughs, treats, toasts, discovery, and delirious happiness.
     I wish I could tell you that all of us have been deliriously happy ever since.  We haven't. 
     In fact, 2012 was a pretty rough year for us in a lot of ways.  More loss, more tragedy, more real life happened last year.  Still, because we all had our Red Dress Moment, each of us are a bit more mindful of the MAGIC in our lives.  And it's beautiful.  Like we are. And you know, when it's contrasted against the loss and tragedy, it really stands out. So, there's that.

Have you had a Red Dress Moment yet?  How can I help you with that?
Peace, Love, & Delirious Happiness,



Monday, January 7, 2013

Friday, January 4, 2013

Celebrating BIG for the Littlest Reasons

*Warning, because this post has direct quotes from my mother, there ARE some curse words.  

This Christmas I decided to accept my fate and embrace the inevitability of becoming my mother.  

      "Life is too fucking uncertain.  And it's really friggin' hard a lot of the time.  We have to make a point to enjoy the hell out of the good days while we have them."  Yep.  My mother said that to me.  Has said a variation on that theme to me repeatedly for the past decade. Yep.  She's elderly. She's a retiree.  She's a doting grandmother.  This is what the rock-n-roll generation has become.  Isn't it awesome?  Okay, it's a bit horrifying.  Mostly, though, it's awesome.  And there is no arguing with her wisdom.  

     My mother is brilliantly smart.  She's exceedingly generous.  She's fun and outgoing.  And she has a wonderful--if completely inappropriate--sense of humor. She loves rock-n-roll, and reading classic mystery novels. She loves cooking, dining, and theater. She's a great travel companion, even though she admits to a TERRIBLE sense of direction. She has a sharp tongue you don't want to be on the wrong side of, and she can be a stubborn cuss.  Best of all, she knows how to celebrate BIG. 
     See, about ten years ago there was a string of family funerals. The Ancients were passing away.  An era was coming to an end.  It happens to every family, as the generations age, and the next generation takes the helm of the clan.  After the third or fourth wake in as many months, my mother looked at her favorite cousin and said, "We have to stop meeting in these lines."  It was decided, right there in that funeral home that my Mama would organize a party for the whole clan for "sometime around the holidays."  My mother booked a community hall and sent out Save-the-Date cards to a holiday "As Seen on TV-themed Yankee Swap." 
      That autumn was a really difficult one in our family, with a string of health crises and tragedies that loomed large like a black cloud for months on end.  Nobody was much in the mood for celebrating that Christmas.  Still, my mother had paid for the room and the food.  So the extended family gathered.  They ate.  They drank.  They sang karaoke off key.  (To this day, I cannot hear the Eagles song, "Desperado" without laughing and cringing.)  Grown men fought over the "Abdomonizer" in the silliest, most hilarious Yankee Swap ever.  At the end of the night, the sole remaining Ancient, my mother's Aunt Mary, hugged us all goodbye, exclaiming, "Thank you for this!  I haven't laughed since September!" 
     And so the Over-the-Top-Christmas-Extravaganza was born.  Each year's party has a theme:  Redneck Christmas; Christmas in Las Vegas; Cowboy Christmas; Christmas at the Drive-in; the Sea Cruise Christmas;  70s Disco Christmas; Christmas on Broadway...  Each year's party has a "floor show" featuring the youngest uncle as a snarky Santa , and a variety of extended family members in costume performing lip synch numbers. Who could forget the Sigfried & Roy number where a faux-Aunt and faux-Uncle wore matching gold lame` pajamas and tossed stuffed animals through hula hoops?  Or the Spam-a-Lot number that really needed a trebuchet built specially for the big finish?  Or the year the uncles all dressed in drag and danced along to "I Like My Women A Little on the Trashy Side" ?
     My mother didn't stop at the Christmas party, though.  There is now an annual "March Madness" outing to celebrate several March birthdays.  There's a regular NYC trip to shop, eat, and see a Broadway show or two. There are also the cards and random gifts she sends to mark any success or milestone.  If it is a MAJOR milestone, don't be surprised if the Sucrettes (what my mother calls her lip synch girl group) make a special appearance to recognize your achievement with a song-and-dance routine.   

I used to roll my eyes at all the fuss.  (Okay it's the costumes.  Women of a certain age REALLY should not sqeeze themselves into Marilyn Monroe dresses.)  And then, I had my own share of lessons in the uncertainity and difficulty of life.  Now I'm more mindful about good news when it comes my way.  I'm actively on the look out for special occasions.  And now I think, "Hell!  We're above the ground today! Where are those disco wigs?!"

What good news have you heard lately?  What  plans are you making to celebrate?  If you need any costumes or props, my Mama has a barn full of them...