Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Final Destination: Lincoln, Nebraska

Have you ever wondered if your actions can really make the difference in someone else’s life?

Recently, I experienced a remarkable moment that made me realize that we seldom stop to think about how other people's lives are really entwined with our own. The heart is huge, vast, and limitless…and sometimes helping others is exactly what the soul needs in order to flourish. Sometimes giving back is what we need in order to move forward.

As the French Philosopher Albert Schweitzer once stated, “You must give some time to your fellow men. Even if it's a little thing, do something for others--something for which you get no pay…only the privilege of doing it.”

This past August I was offered an opportunity that allowed me to answer my own question. Yes…you really can make a difference. Even in the smallest ways.

I’d just spent the greater part of a month working on year two of the most difficult grant I’d ever encountered. Numbers jumbled in my mind at night, and my dreams were filled with endless narratives and spreadsheets galore. By the end of July, my brain was fried and all I could think about was spending a few days reading a good book on the beach during the final days of summer. When my phone rang, and I heard my boss’ voice on the other line, all I could think was, “Please…not one more thing to do!”

Well…I’d been given one more thing to do: Attend a five day Project UNIFY Bridge Meeting with the goal of joining Special Olympics program leaders, staff, and youth from around the United States in order to learn how to work together to implement change in school environments and communities across the country.

Hmmm…five days, huh? My next question was, “Where?”

I envisioned a destination that was wonderful, tropical, and grand. Hawaii? Miami? Hell, I’d certainly settle for San Diego!

Final Destination: Lincoln, Nebraska. Dead silence followed on my end.

Really, Nebraska…in the dead of summer?? Wasn’t Nebraska a fricken’ Dust Bowl state?

An impenetrable cloud of doom settled over me, and yet, I found myself saying what we say to all head honchos for fear of ‘not being a team player’, “Sure, sounds like fun.”

Well…off I went, in the dead heat of August, to a foreign land I knew nothing about other than it is flatter than your junior high girlfriend (while Nebraska is flat, it is largely composed of rolling hills, so it could more accurately be described as lumpy, like your great aunt Matilda), it consists of nothing more than corn and cows (wrong again, they do have soybeans), and rumors that the inhabitants of this land “bled red” (don’t we all? Um, no…nothing like this!).

Upon touchdown in Omaha, I decided, I’d either spend the next five days bitterly longing for surf, sand, and the stack of novels awaiting me at home, or I’d buck up (good ‘ol Nebraskan phrasing, right?) and immerse myself in the experience.

Buck up, I did!

My reward for that positive attitude adjustment was immeasurable. For the next five days, I spent my time meeting new friends, colleagues, and inspirational youth. I absorbed their enthusiasm and dynamism and found myself sharing ideas and tactics, even leading group discussions.

Most importantly, I found myself connecting with the two young ladies that were part of my Connecticut group. I’d never met two high school girls that were more endearing, intelligent, honest, compassionate, and real in my life. I had this experience to thank for that bond.

On Friday night, I experienced my pivotal moment of the conference.

The entire group of Bridge Meeting attendees took part in a “Fans in the Stands” roadtrip. That evening a Special Olympics softball tournament was being held in Lincoln, and all 140+ of us were being bussed there to cheer on the participating teams. That afternoon, we broke into groups and made signs for our designated team (Go, Millard Mustangs!). We used colored markers, glitter, stickers, and other craft supplies to design all sorts of cheering paraphernalia.

However, our makeshift signs were nothing compared to our voices. Sixteen of us (youth, staff, and CEOs) cheered on the Millard Mustangs until we were hoarse. We made up songs and chants that left us in stitches, and made the locals wonder where we’d come from. None of us had ever heard of the Mustangs before, but it didn’t matter. We were united in purpose. United in cause. It didn’t matter if the Mustangs won or lost, what mattered is that we were there cheering them on.

Before long, we knew each player’s name. We pounded on the bleachers when runs were scored, and stood to root for the pitcher who’d gotten himself in a jam. Soon the parents, siblings, and other townsfolk started asking who we were. When given the explanation, eyes lit up and smiles spread across their faces. Our group had reinforced their own brigade, and they were happy for the company.

Our group asked for a picture with the Millard Mustangs, and the team eagerly obliged. Flash bulbs filled the stadium, and none of us let go of our smiles.

At the end of the game, all sixteen of us made a tunnel of our arms so each player could run through, breaking through the banner we’d made on the other side.

Soon, the busses roared their engines, and we prepared to bid our farewells to the Millard Mustangs. We’d made some great memories. We’d made some great friends.

I started to make my way to the bus, and remembered I’d left my jacket on the bleachers. As I walked back to the field, I overheard the Mustangs’ pitcher talking to his parents.

“Mom…Dad. We actually had fans tonight.”

I walked back to the busses with my sunglasses on…even as dusk fell. I needed to hide the tears in my eyes, though nothing could hide the huge lump in my throat.

Everyone on the bus was still laughing and elated from the evening. I took a look around and realized, that I am only one, but still, I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.

Even if that something was being a fan for one summer evening.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Finding Greatness...

Several months ago I stood in a dark music hall in New York City, staring up at the stage in absolute amazement. Before me was one of my favorite musicians—backlit by a purplish-blue glow, guitar in hand, needing little more than his talent to evoke strong emotions, not only from me, but from the entire crowd.

As each song floated through the beautiful historic building, I felt more introspective than I have in quite some time. How can someone be so multi-talented, when most individuals struggle to find strength in just one skill? This particular artist can not only play melodious guitar, but can also sing his lyrics in such a powerful way that individuals are moved to action. That evening, whether the crowd around me hushed their voices previously engaged in heartfelt conversation or stood in quiet admiration, this artist did what many only hope to do: he made people feel.

I left New York that night full of inspiration, but full of questions, too. What am I capable of? Am I good at anything in life?

This past weekend, I nursed the stomach flu on the couch with an entire season of a long- beloved show of mine, Felicity. Nothing like twenty-four hours of college angst to set some priorities straight and get you thinking about your direction in life! One particular male character in the show spends his first year of college searching for his place in life…trying to find out what he is good at. A former track star with good grades, he finds himself in academic trouble, and fails to make the college track team after a grueling schedule of tryouts. At the season’s end, he makes a comment to Felicity, “You’ve got your grades, Noel has his design work, Julie has her music, and Shawn has his inventions…what do I have?”

These two recent experiences not only made me question my own value in the world, but also made me realize that this is a common theme running through our culture. We’re all out there looking for the greatness within ourselves. Aspiring to be something more than we are today. We’re searching for that unique greatness that makes us different from each other. If we’re lucky, we find it, hone it, and reach our full potential.

Our society is full of individuals who have not only established their unique skills, but have surpassed greatness in every sense of the word: professional athletes, actors and actresses, musicians, authors, chefs, real estate moguls, computer gurus. In every professional category of life we can conjure up a list of standouts.

But what about the rest of us? The majority of people who may not be professional athletes or star chefs with Bravo television shows. Those of us simply living our lives searching for our own level of greatness. Those of us wondering what it is that we’re good, or possibly even great, at.

Many of us can look at our friends, our family members, our co-workers, and even strangers and are able to distinguish what defines their greatness. We see that our friend can draw exceptionally well, our brother can run a mile under six minutes, and our co-worker can draw in a crowd of colleagues through her powerful public speaking skills. But when we look inward to identify our own skills, we often come up empty-handed, feeling like we fall short in every life category.

I’ve found myself wondering if I’ll ever be truly be good at any particular skill, and what it actually takes to be great at something.

Some believe individuals are born with natural, raw talent. Some believe it takes dedication and practice to be great. And others believe that all it takes to be good at something is a strong will and a positive attitude.

I believe it isn’t that simple.

Lou Holtz, the inspirational college football coach, once said, “Ability is what you’re capable of doing. Motivation determines what you do. And attitude determines how well you do it.”

I couldn’t agree more. But how does one find out what it is they’re good at?

I would love to say that I’m a great photographer, a fast and experienced marathon runner, a great writer, a multi-faceted musician, and an extraordinary cook. The fact is, I am none of these things. Is it because I haven’t put in the time and dedication needed to perfect these skills? Maybe. Is it because I don’t have a natural ability specific to these areas of interest? Maybe. Could I be great at something else in life that I haven’t even tried yet? Maybe. Perhaps I’m destined to be the most extraordinary painter that ever lived. I’ll never know, because aside from the finger painting I used to love at age five, I’ve never picked up a brush in my life.

The great spiritual leader Gandhi has stated, “Men often become what they believe themselves to be. If I believe I cannot do something, it makes me incapable of doing it. But when I believe I can, then I acquire the ability to do it…even if I didn't have it in the beginning.”

So, maybe finding greatness starts with searching. Searching within to find out what motivates you, what inspires you, what makes you feel alive.

Try everything once. Then try it again. Use your inner intuition to guide you towards your own definition of greatness.

If you see the greatness in those around you, tell them. This simple act could be the inspiration an individual needs to tap into his or her own potential.

Starting today, I’m going to run a little faster, take more pictures, and write a little more. I’m going to volunteer my time to more causes and individuals that might need my help. I’m signing up for piano lessons, even though I’ve never played in my life (but have always wanted to!). I’m going to take cooking classes, play tennis with more focus, and maybe even master Downward Dog.

Become your passion, let it become you. Great things are sure to happen.

Whatever it may be, I’m going to find what it is that I’m great at…ah, hell, maybe even just good at.

Good is enough for me.

Friday, February 27, 2009

What Happened to Kindness?

Do we ever look inside ourselves and wonder if we are capable of unkind acts? We all have the ability to lie, cheat, and steal…harm people in various ways. With words, with actions…with non-action.

Why do we do and say things that we know we should not? Why do we not do and say things we know we should?What keeps malevolence at bay and what causes some to be consumed by selfishness and egotism?

What happens when your actions and words make you question the person you were raised to be? Someone you no longer recognize? Someone whose reflection does not mirror any of the values and principles you’ve instilled in yourself? Someone whose morality conflicts with every fiber of your being?

Most of us were reared with a careful eye and a strong hand. Each of us hoping, as mature adults, to be fine examples of solid parenting and fundamental values.

But the modern world in which we live in can cause us to leave basic principles of tolerance and patience by the wayside in return for the easy and quick fix of immediacy and selfishness.

Lately, we tend to treat each other with rough abrasiveness. The troubled economy has us thinking about ourselves and how we will pay the bills, the rent…how we will forge ahead with a skyrocketing unemployment rate. In troubled times, we tend to turn inward and hold steadfast to the “I” mentality.

We cut each other off in traffic and let doors go unheld. We race each other in big box stores to check out our items quicker, and we hold our heads down, busying ourselves with keys and full arms rather than nod or stop to offer a friendly wave to our neighbors. We send quick text messages filled with “R U busy 2nite?” and “C U L8R” and short misspelled and non-heartfelt e-mails to our friends and family members rather than taking great care with our communication. Long gone are the days of lengthy chat-fests with close friends and two-page handwritten letters to our loved ones that live miles away. “Life” has taken over and has filled every moment with “to-dos” and “must accomplish tasks”.

How did this darkness find us? Did it steal into our lives or did we seek it out and embrace it? When did we lose our way?

Few of us really realize that slowing down our pace and taking the time to offer a few kind words for a friend, a fellow co-worker, or even a passing stranger is not only free and easy, but the act offers echoes and reverberations that are truly endless.

When we bestow love and kindness on others, it not only makes others feel loved and cared for, but it helps us also to develop inner happiness and peace.

As Amelia Earhart once said, “No kind action ever stops with itself. One kind action leads to another. Good example is followed. A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees. The greatest work that kindness does to others is that it makes them kind themselves.”

It may be long past the New Year, but wouldn’t it be amazing if everyone could at least resolve to be kind? For everyone we meet is fighting a hard battle, struggling upwards and towing their own line. You never know when your small act of kindness might return itself tenfold…giving you the confidence and strength you might need to overcome your own struggles.

Can we overcome this darkness? Is it possible to replace society’s obsession with self with a new philosophy of kindness and empathy?

It’s certainly something I hope for.

Monday, January 12, 2009


Many people claim to embrace change. They love it. They thrive on it. They seek it out.

My theory? Many of these people are full of it. Change is scary, no matter which way you look at it. Disruption of the norm is always a bit tumultuous.

I’ve always been one who is not afraid of a little change; a new haircut, a new recipe, driving a new route to work.

But the big things in life? I’ve always been loyal and true. You might even use the term “staid”.
Dating? I’ve been a long-term relationship gal. Even when I wasn’t totally emotionally fulfilled or invested.

Living quarters? While I may have loaded up the U-Haul truck a time or two, I’ve always made my house my home for generous amounts of time. At least long enough to hang my hat, or, er... pictures.

Cars? I’ve only had four, and I'd probably still be driving my last if not for that unfortunate *blush* fender-bender. When I left the green machine on the salvage lot, I felt pangs of remorse and regret. Why hadn't I been paying more attention on the highway that morning? We'd only been together a mere seven years! I was going to drive him (yes, him...he even had a name) into the ground! My plan was foiled. I even sheepishly took pictures; hood mangled into a menacing looking grimace.

And my jobs? Well, you might call me Dedicated Employee #1. One of my first jobs was a cashier at the local CVS/pharmacy. I was sixteen years old, fresh-faced, and eager to learn. Each year I worked my way up the shaky aluminum ladder and found myself with more responsibility. I caught on quickly and actually enjoyed counting out drawers for the upcoming shifts and swinging around my newly acquired manager's keys. CVS kept a position for me throughout college, and even four years after. My loyalty had paid off, and when I finally turned in my stiff and unfashionable red employee vest and 20% off discount card, I had to swallow the ever-growing lump forming in my throat.

It wasn't until I found my true career path that I finally began to question this concept of loyalty.
One year after I graduated college, I found what I thought to be my dream job. A marketing assistant at a little travel/outdoor publishing company. In fact, my loyalties to an old college friend secured me the position.

I loved it. I loved the people, I loved the location (minutes from my home and the beach!), I loved the hours, and most importantly, I loved the work. I'd found my niche, and within several years, I'd found a more suitable position within the company for my long-term goals.

Each year brought about change (new books, new authors, acquiring new publishing companies). I moved through it gracefully; bending, swaying like a willow tree. My hard work garnered me several promotions; the responsibility made me content and fulfilled.

But suddenly, my happiness ceased.

Soon, the company began a downward spiral. We acquired a New York City publishing house, which brought about new genres of books, new breeds of authors, and a new echelon of employees. The small-town, positive aura had dissipated, and a new dark vibe took its place. The courtesy and respect that employees had for each other was replaced by snarky tones, sarcasm, and callous demeanors.

My work began to feel rushed and shoddy. The authors I worked with were self-absorbed and impatient, and the new employees that filtered in around me were rude, ruthless, and had the impression that all the “older” employees were a bunch of dimwitted country bumpkins.

Years before, my ideas were accepted with enthusiasm and approval. Now, when I voiced opinions in meetings, I was met with new policies and procedures, and "we'll sees". I was no longer able to treat my books with time and careful consideration. I felt like I was pushing widgets out the door. And no matter how proficient, capable, and accomplished I was...I merely wasn't good enough.

Quite simply, I'd become wallpaper. I'd melded into the furnishings; unrecognizable, even to myself.

I now served no purpose to this organization. I felt like a rebellious teenager, who was one outburst away from getting kicked out of her home.

The reality was, I'd stayed too long. I knew it, and it was a bitter pill to swallow. The hordes of my co-workers who'd left before me had known what I hadn't. I'd been rendered useless.

During this time, my mother was in the hospital being treated for complications due to her cancer. It was days before Christmas, and I'd made the trip to the 8th floor to visit her.

She wasn't in her room. I was scared. She never left her bed, never mind her room. Before the panic really set in, one of the nurses popped her head in. “Looking for your mom?” she inquired. I nodded, hoping for the best, praying not to hear the worst. “She’s down the hall in the piano room. They're having a little Christmas sing-a-long."

My mother? Signing with people she didn't know?

Now there was a change. My mother wasn't one to step outside her comfort level and interact with strangers—especially strangers who were likely sicker than she. And caroling? This I had to see.

I quietly watched from the doorway. Cancer patients of every color and creed, bald heads bedecked with colorful scarves or bandanas— or not. Someone gracefully stroking the ivory keys, while the others sang out familiar words of the season. My mother in the middle.

I watched for a few moments, before I tearfully walked back to her room. I'd remembered being a little girl, playing with my dollhouse, and suddenly looking up only to catch my mother watching me from the doorway. It had always embarrassed me—having been jolted out of childlike play--tarnishing the moment. I didn't want my mother's moment of cheerfulness to be ruined by prying eyes. She'd looked fear in the eyes many times after her diagnosis, but this was different. I knew she'd have been apprehensive about caroling with strangers, and I didn't want her to second guess herself.

With tears streaming down my face, I sat in a chair in my mother's room. Tears were normal here. The nurses were kind and empathetic.

I started to think about my mother, looking her fears in the face. I started to think about all the nurses and doctors surrounding me who were working to help all these sick individuals. I started to think about their purpose in life as opposed to mine. For the first time in a long while, I started to think about true change in my life.

Not long after, I started volunteering for Special Olympics Connecticut, an organization to which I'd always inexplicably been drawn. I knew that purpose would come to my life if I could just use my skills to help those less fortunate than myself. There wasn't an open position within the organization at the time. So I took photographs at events, I wrote biographies for the athletes attending National Games, and I did whatever was asked of me. I prayed a little. Ok...I wished, and I hoped, and I prayed. A lot.

The job finally came. And my life changed.

I cried my way out the door my last day as a book publicist. Leaving the familiar and the secure was gut wrenching.

I also cried all the way home my first day as a grant writer. Had I done the right thing? When would I feel like I fit in? Would I become wallpaper again?

I just celebrated my second anniversary at Special Olympics. I am doing my very best to serve a misunderstood and ignored sector of our society, and I truly believe that I’ve found where I need to be. At least for now. I am so proud of myself for casting my fears aside and accepting the biggest challenge of my life. I left behind all that was safe for a complete risk, and I came out stronger and more focused.

Alan Cohen, the Chicken Soup for the Soul guru, once stated, “It takes a lot of courage to release the familiar and seemingly secure, to embrace the new. But there is no real security in what is no longer meaningful. There is more security in the adventurous and exciting, for in movement there is life, and in change there is power.”

My own life change has taught me that there is no such thing as can’t—only won’t. If you're qualified, all it takes is a burning desire to accomplish—to make a change. The ability to make a change comes from your mind, and your pure desire to move forward. When we do the impossible, we realize we are special people. People of mediocrity ability sometimes achieve outstanding success because they don't know when to quit. Most men succeed because they are determined to.

You can have anything you want—if you want it bad enough. You can be anything you want to be, do anything you set out to accomplish if you hold to that desire with a singleness of purpose.
There are some people who think that holding on makes one strong, when in fact, I believe that sometimes what makes one strong is letting go. Letting go doesn’t mean giving up, but rather accepting that there are things that cannot be. There are things that we never want to let go of, things we never want to leave, dreams we thought were ours to fulfill. But letting go isn’t the end of the world, it’s the beginning of a new life. And the past is all experience.

The only person you are destined to be is the person you decide to be. We’re all tested in different ways each day. Life twists and turns on a dime.

The great M. Scott Peck, acclaimed author of The Road Less Traveled, said, “The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of ours ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.”

So get out there and find out what lights your fire. Where do you need to be? How do you need to change? Find your calling…and go for it.

And for God sake, don't ever become wallpaper.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Stop. Rewind...

Earlier this fall, I set out to run at the local high school outdoor track. The darkness was settling, and a mesmerizing, brilliant sunset was just before me. Oranges, yellows, pinks, and reds streaked the sky; the air was so crisp it burned in my throat. A perfect winter-preview evening that most would undoubtedly enjoy.

I, however, burst into tears. As I rounded the first curve on the track, deep, heaving sobs escaped me. Emotion poured from my heart, and I gladly let the tears flow.

I knew where this outburst had come from. It wasn’t a surprise. It was only a matter of time before the simmering pot boiled over.

I’d just turned 35.

My mind flashed to a time in my life, twelve years earlier--some fifty miles away. I’d found great pleasure in locating a great running track near my new home, and I religiously used it as my escape. Throughout my life, I’d always run…or walked…or found another outlet to clear my head.

At 23, my whole life stretched before me. I had my first real job, my first real apartment. I’d had my first real heartbreak, and my first taste of real true debt. I was in great physical shape and was poised to make promotion after promotion at my publishing company. I was also poised to make a series of poor decisions regarding the opposite sex. Truth be told, my 20s was not only the best time of my life…but also the hardest. And as cliché as it sounds, it was a decade of complete floundering and growing.

Now here I was…five whole years ‘til 40. Where had time gone? How did I get steps away from being…old?

Norman Vincent Peale said, “Live your life and forget your age.” Hard words to live by.

After each lap I found myself wondering what happened to some of my life plans. Long before Sex and the City became every girl’s vision of a dream life, I’d wanted to escape to New York City to explore a career…and an utter assortment of endless dates. I never did. I’d also fancied a pipedream of holing up on Nantucket or The Vineyard for a summer of waiting tables in return for room-and-board and a whirlwind summer romance that would make even Danielle Steel jealous. Never happened. In my mid-twenties, I’d wanted to embark on an Outward Bound adventure in Colorado with the hopes of kicking my own ass and pushing all boundaries. A trip never taken.

Now here I was, weeping on this track, staring wasted time in the face.

I think it’s fallacious when people say they live with no regrets. I have plenty of them. Some I hold so tightly to my chest that it’s hard to embrace the present.

Why had I let time pass by in relationships that were stagnant and fruitless? Why had I stayed loyal to a career that had ultimately become unrewarding? Why hadn’t I spent more time with my mother, taking her to lunch and the beach, before she’d become too sick to do so? Why had I let fear hold me back? Why had I stayed immobile for years, when I could have been pushing forward, achieving goals…making my dreams a reality?

Why does time pass so quickly? Why can’t I press STOP? Then Rewind. Or maybe even just Pause?

As we get older, we come to accept that time is a companion that accompanies us on our journey. It is there to remind us to cherish each moment, because these moments will never come again. We also realize that what we leave behind is not as important as how we have lived. But why is time so fleeting?

As each mile ticked my on my run, I came to some powerful realizations. I want more time to live. Time to read all the books I want to read. Time to run the races I want to run. Time to nurture my friendships and make new ones. Time to love my husband. Time to love myself. Time…period.

Before my mother passed away she firmly stated her wishes that she have a simple obituary. “None of that business about me being a member of the Gardening Club or anything like that. Simple…to the point.” I didn’t agree with her then, and I still don’t.

When I die, let my obituary detail all of my accomplishments…no matter how minute. Let it cost a $1.00 per word, and let there be thousands of words.

Looking back, I realize that a very special person passed through my life these past 35 years—it was me. And as my wrinkles appear, the laugh lines set in, and the gray hairs outweigh the blonde, let time be on my side…and let me live.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Pay it Forward

The last Christmas my mother was alive, she did not want to put up our tree. Granted, it was a ramshackle semblance of the tree I once thought of as glorious and grand...but it was still Christmas, and I thought she deserved some spirited decorations.

She refused. Even after I told her that I'd trudge up the rickety attic steps, wrestle it down, decorate it, and stuff all the bent branches back into the box come January 1.

She didn't budge. Looking back, I think she realized it would be her last Christmas holiday, and she simply didn't want to relive all the memories. Each ornament would have brought about reminisces of years past, and with that, tears and heartache. I finally relented.

A few days after the tree standoff, my uncle arrived at my parents' doorstep. He awkwardly carried something swathed in green garbage bags. It was a present for my mother.

She sat in her recliner, perplexed and bewildered, and proceeded to unveil what turned out to be a handmade wooden Christmas tree. My uncle had carefully crafted it in his woodshop from pine, painted it a lovely hunter green, and had even made sure to include a golden star at the very top.

My mother was thrilled...and tearful...and, ultimately, so touched that her brother had gone to such great lengths to try to make her last Christmas (did we all know it then?) a festive one.

We strung some soft white lights around the new tree, placed it atop a sturdy table, and my mother finished the decorating with one silver ornament...something new and not tied to years of treasured, but painful, memories.

It's been almost four years since my mother passed away, and the painted Christmas tree has been sitting in the attic all this time. Simply collecting dust.

December rolled around this year and my co-worker, Lynne, set off to cheerfully trim the Special Olympics office with holiday garlands and ornaments. Last year, we'd suffered a serious seasonal debacle, and watched our Christmas tree crack in half and fall to the floor when a member of our cleaning crew accidentally backed into it with the vacuum.

Lynne tried valiantly to assemble the tree again this year...but it, and Lynne, had lost the battle. The tree found its final resting place in the town dump.

I could see Lynne's disappointment, and my mind raced to try to conjure up some type of solution.

There it was. In my parents' attic. Long forgotten...but much loved.

That evening I pulled the tree down from the depths of the cold and dark attic, and with a little dusting (and permission from my thrilled father), I paid that tree forward.

We've all been enjoying the little-tree-that-could for the past few weeks, thanks to some dedicated stringing of popcorn and cranberries that really gave it some cheer.

Several days ago, Special Olympics' CFO, Mike, knocked on my door. "Liza, I have a favor to ask you. Would you mind if, during the Christmas break, I took your mother's tree home to put in Loretta's room for her to enjoy?"

I've known Mike for just about two years now, and during that time, I've found a mentor and an individual who, on a daily basis, displays kindness, generosity, and patience. I would have said "yes" to probably anything Mike needed from me...but this particular request struck me deeply. Not just because the request involved my mother's tree, but because it also involved Loretta.

Loretta Claiborne is somewhat of a Special Olympics celebrity, and Mike invites her to spend each Christmas holiday with his wife and three young boys. I met Loretta last year, and I found myself humbled in her presence. She is kind, gracious...salt-of-the-earth. The kind of person who makes you want to strive to be better than you are.

Loretta was the middle of seven children in a poor, single-parent family. Born partially blind and mildly retarded, she was unable to walk or talk until age four. Eventually, though, she began to run. And before she knew it, she had crossed the finish line of 25 marathons, twice placing among the top 100 women in the Boston Marathon. Disney has recounted her life in a documentary, and her biography has also been published...and she's only in her 50s.

Loretta also holds a black belt in karate, communicates in four languages--including sign language--and holds honorary doctorate degrees from Quinnipiac University and Villanova University, making her the first person with mental retardation known to receive such honors.

I hadn't been feeling the Christmas spirit this year. Monetary struggles are hitting everyone hard, and the news isn't exactly broadcasting the most uplifting stories. My momentum for gift shopping had hit a all time low. Something just wasn't "right".

Then came Mike's request.

I was beyond touched. As cliche as it sounds, I found myself thinking, "This is what Christmas is truly about."

Loretta being able to enjoy the tree that had made my mother’s last Christmas so joyful had finally made things "right". I couldn't imagine a more perfect fit. These two inspiring women, both of whom had struggled greatly in their lives, would never know one another. But this simple tree had united them for me.

I pulled out of the parking lot the other night, heading home, and saw my mother's tree in the window, still lit.

I welled up a little...feeling so good about paying my gifts forward.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Glimmer and Sparkle...

"In your soul are infinitely precious things that can never be taken from you."– Oscar Wilde

It sits in a dark place, quiet now, tired from holding in so many memories. Lifeless, yet still glimmering with the remembrance of the happiness, emotion, and passion it once experienced.
The color resembles sparkling champagne in a crystal flute and the softest pale the keys of a well-played piano.

Recollections of the day are embedded in the carefully crafted threads and ornate fabric, like precious pearls worn dear to the heart.

A bit frayed and mottled from endless hours of spirited dancing, it still holds the gleam of bliss and contentment.

It remains fragrant with the perfume she wore that day, and the tenderness with which she was held—not only by her beloved, but by others who love her—can still be felt.

The man she loves had cast his eyes upon this garment—and her—with the utmost affection and adoration, tears spilling from his eyes. She will never forget the moment his breath was taken away.

From time to time, she gazes at its beauty (so pretty, still!) and remembers every smile and nuance of the day. Perfect in every way, each moment a sparkling jewel. A glance, a secret smile, a child’s laughter ringing out with pure joy. A kiss, a cherished dance, a tearful exchange amongst friends. She takes great care of these memories, knowing she can never relive them again.
It hangs tranquil. Yet it is full of promise and hope, representing the future and all that it holds. It represents a link to the extraordinary past and the promise of a remarkable new life.
Her wedding dress exists now to symbolize the glimmer and sparkle that life now offers…