Fences, Fear, and Friendship Park

The border wall that separates the US from Tijuana

There is a fence and beyond it, the wall, that separates the US from Tijuana

I live about 25 miles from the border crossing between California and Mexico and except for a ride to Rosarito Beach back in the eighties, I’ve never been there.

I live about 125 miles from Los Angeles and I go there, or through there, five to ten times a year. In fact, I just returned from my most recent trip to spend Father’s Day with my stepdaughter and her husband, a trip colored by laughs, hugs and a chance to share a few meals together without encountering any obstacle other than a little bit of traffic.

I thought about this a lot more deeply after a field trip I took on Flag Day to Friendship Park in San Ysidro with my friends Mary Anne and Kay. Our goal: to go see Sister Simone Campbell and the other amazing women who crossed the country with her on the “Nuns on the Bus” tour. Their mission was to focus attention on the need for immigration reform. We, it must be said, were motivated in large part to see the nuns who are the equivalent of rock stars in progressive Catholic circles. Sister Simone has been on the Colbert show for goodness’ sake.

You don’t have to be Catholic to admire these women, though. They look the powers-that-be in the eye and they do not back down when it comes to doing the right thing. They lobby Washington for budgets that are humane and, in recent weeks, for the immigration reform bill now moving through the Senate. They’ve been known to politely but steadfastly agree to disagree with the men who profess to lead the Catholic church. They are the kind of people that make me look more deeply at what I’ve been doing lately for anyone who is not me, related to me, or in my direct line of vision. They don’t preach, they act. In doing so, they ask me to act on my faith, not just file it in that stuffed folder within my heart labeled “Good Intentions.”

All of this makes me glad we persisted last Friday, June 14 when all three of us piled into Mary Anne’s Toyota Corolla and headed down to Friendship Park to see and hear the nuns and others speak in front of the wall that divides the US from Mexico, or at least as much as it can before it descends into the Pacific Ocean. It did take persistence. Let’s just say that we were the first to get there but the last to arrive. We were the first to pull into the parking lot in front of a locked chain separating us from our destination. No nuns or bus, just a collection of hardy souls pulling in behind us and emerging from their cars mystified yet hopeful.

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Mary Anne and Kay trek through the morning marine layer to Friendship Park

We walked nearly two miles from the parking lot almost to Friendship Park, our trek through the gentle mists of the marine layer fueled by faith that the nuns would eventually show up even though the park was all but deserted except for hundreds of birds, a lone bicyclist, and a few helicopters that circled above apparently uninterested in why a group of middle-aged women were walking to the border. Just as we neared the final bend, news came: the nuns were on their way but would speak in the parking lot. We doubled back and were approaching our car once again when suddenly a stream of vehicles bearing cheerful determined women, news cameras, and all those who had waited in the lot while we ventured out streamed past us. We ran for our car, or at least moved as quickly as our sandals and trick knees would allow.

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The nuns arrive! They gather at the gate with Dan Watman (red shirt) of Friendship Park and others who shared the stories that take place here at the wall

But in the end, we got there and as we listened to the nuns and the other speakers, we realized that our inconvenience was laughably insignificant compared to what the usual park visitors must go through just to see the faces of those they love for minutes at a time. Here, at the park, on weekends and on holidays, a gate in the wall opens for a few hours and people on both sides of the border may get a chance to share a meal, some news, a few prayers, or simply to hug each other. We heard that very recently, a man had driven down from San Francisco so he could hug his daughter. He had fifteen minutes with her before he had to retreat back to the US side of the wall.

Others, of course, pay a far higher price. A hush fell over the small crowd at the gate when Sister Simone shared an account she’d heard in Tuscon of a mother found curved around the body of her infant in the desert, both dead. The sisters, Dan Watman of Friendship Park, Enriques Morones, founder of Border Angels are well-versed in all the aspects of the immigration issue — business, political, ideological, even the fears generated by the drug wars that cross the border — but they ask us to consider above all the human side.

The entire purpose of Friendship Park itself, Watman explained, was to provide a way for people on opposite sides of the border to meet and learn about each other, to share, to become friends. The wall did not change that mission but it has made it immeasurably more difficult.

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Beyond the fence lies Mexico. Here is where families come to visit sometimes through the bars, other times, briefly, face to face

As I type these words, I am certain that there is a woman my age maybe within a few miles who has has not seen her children since they were babies. I have probably walked past a mother who gave birth to her children in this country and lives in fear of being separated from them. Conversely, I have neighbors whose life companions are immigrants who entered the country legally; an open door and a pathway to citizenship has allowed them to contribute to our community and to fall in love.

The speakers on Friday (Flag Day by the way), listed many reasons to support the immigration reform bill that the Senate has just finished debating. I am sure there are many reasons that those opposed to it can offer or seek amendments rooted in fear. Fear abounds these days. Fear, I realize, is at the heart of my reluctance to venture across the border. Fear is a fence in my heart. People are dying in the desert and families are torn apart because of fear like mine.

I stood at the fence last Friday and imagined Friendship Park as it must be on weekends when people speak through the bars or, for those brief few hours, find an opportunity to embrace. The fence looms now in my memory as a challenge, to come back, at least this far, to look, listen, and learn.

And to act.

To follow the progress of immigration reform and to stay in touch with your Senators or Representatives, here’s a one-stop link: Contact Legislators 

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Kay, Mary Anne, Sister Simone Campbell, and me

Lost in Plain Sight

It's the small things that make the big picture for Oliver Gray

It’s the small things that make the big picture for Oliver Gray

Taking a walk with Oliver Gray isn’t easy. He lives 2,300 miles and three time zones away. But I’ve taken seven walks with him to date and plan to take another on Friday when he posts the latest in his series, “Forgotten Fridays.”

Here’s how it all started. One night last week, I took an amble through his blog, Literature and Libation. Although tempted by articles grouped under “How to,” “Writing,” and very tempted by the photos that appear in the “Libation” department, I headed for the “Other” category, the one that captures all those musings that refuse to be neatly categorized.

I found gold.

I read a letter he’d written to his bone marrow on the eve before donating some of it to his father who, a short while earlier had gone to the hospital with what he thought was the flu. His dad was diagnosed with leukemia instead.

I came upon a zen-like piece inspired by the ability of water to overcome just about any obstacle in its path:

“If I can flow and adapt like water, nothing but the most dense situations can contain me, and none but the driest and least pore-laden of of people can hold me back. After some practice, it makes the worst events seem like brief obstacles in the river of your life. You’re never stuck dwelling on or seething over something, as you’ve floated on long since.”

Then I followed Gray through the front doors of the fitness room in the office complex where he works and found myself feeling sorry for it. As I followed  my guide around the room, I saw the place as if I were right there with him and it wasn’t just because he took a few photographs to go along with the piece.

“In this building is a single room that is sadder than the others. A room that from outward appearance once perspired with potential, but has fallen into a state of lonely abandonment.”

He evokes the sense of yearning that fuels those who seek out the fitness room as well as the hollowness of dreams abandoned. Were they ever as real as we felt they might be when the endorphins coursed through our veins in the gray weeks of an East Coast winter?

“Directly in front of the center treadmill is a tiny picture, pinned to the wall. This piece of paper has been on the wall for about three years now; it appeared as if by magic sometime in early 2010. Sometimes I wonder who took the time to so carefully cut out this picture and so intentionally place it where it is the only thing you can focus on while running. Were they aiming to one day conquer the seventh, using the idea of playing this hole as motivation to get back into shape? Did they ever make it to Pebble Beach? Did their time in this room, on this very treadmill, start a journey that ended with a little white ball dropping quietly into a hole as West-Coast waves crashed on nearby rocks?”

This piece is part of an ongoing series that focuses on what Gray describes “modern archeology, or things that have gotten lost in plain sight.” In each piece, Gray takes us to a place that thousands pass by daily but never really see. He shows us the Dream Roller Rink and a drive-in theater located along a stretch of road he has driven since he was a child. He shows without a trace of sentimentality the remains of the Go-Kart track he also loved when he was young. In “Bridge Over Landover,” he shares the discovery of an overgrown pillar which turns out to be the remains of a bridge that once carried cars and people but outlived its usefulness.

In one of my favorites, we come upon a mystery posed by a stone railway marker,  a solid hunk of granite carved with the information that Baltimore is  23 miles in one direction and Washington is 17 miles in the other.  But the information is wrong.

“… upon Google-mapping, I found that this marker is not 23 miles from Baltimore, nor 17 miles from Washington. It’s almost as if it was picked up and moved here, either by a human’s will or by the slow ebbing flow of nature, growth, and dirt.”

In an attempt to restore it to its purpose, Gray tries to move the marker but it is too heavy to lift.

“So instead, I lay down on the tracks for a second, ear to the rail, listening for the ghosts of the trains that used this marker rumbling miles and memories away.”

I got in touch with Gray to find out more about this person who, in a few blog pieces, got me thinking about how much I was seeing and how much I was missing as a writer or as a citizen of this world.  I half-expected to learn that he was a yogi or had somehow tapped into the well of stillness that so many say gives rise to heightened awareness of one’s self and others.

He laughs at the notion of being still. “For most of this conversation, I’ve been walking around. I’m awful at being still. I can’t think of anything worse than spending a minute doing nothing.”

This explains why, in addition writing, and studying writing at Johns Hopkins, he also takes mandolin lessons, brews his own beer, plays soccer, lifts weights and runs (activities to which he is returning after recovering from the bone marrow transplant). Oh, and he holds down a day job as a technical writer because he is an IT guy, like his dad. He celebrates a life that has been blessed with a large measure of good fortune.

Looking closely at life is something that comes naturally and is consistent with his tendency to engage every chance he can. “I tend to remember everything that seems important, even if it really isn’t. I hate being passive.” With that comes a fascination with scale and perspective reflected in the Forgotten Friday pieces.

“Little details tell the story of the larger thing that catches your eye. Let’s say there is a tanker in port. You can look at the side and see a lot of black paint or you can see how much of the sky it blocks, the shape and size of the people you can see on the deck, the rivets in the side that hold it together and the people who put them there.”

He adds, “I get that most people don’t notice what I notice and in some ways I’m not sure they should. It’s an incredibly distracting way to live your life.” But, he says, “I think a writer is a type of archeologist. We’re often finding, collecting, examining, and then presenting information in ways that people can understand. We connect ideas, places, times, people.”

The full interview can be read here: Oliver follow up 6-5-13.

As we wound up our talk, I asked Gray where he would take me if I were close enough to accompany him on a real walk.

“I’m a woods dweller, always have been. I’d probably take you to Seneca Creek Park or Patapsco or Greenbrier. We’d hike. I’d show you the macro photography I’d like to take [ see the two photos that accompany this post]. We’d eat hummus and talk about spiders and types of oak trees — white oak, red oak, broad leaf oak. It’d be fun. Then we’d hike too far and get tired, because I have a terrible sense of distance and time. Our legs would be really sore the next day.”

"They only bloomed in the spots where the sun cut through the canopy and made it to the forest floor. They smelled great, sort of like summer honeysuckle."

“They only bloomed in the spots where the sun cut through the canopy and made it to the forest floor. They smelled great, sort of like summer honeysuckle.”

Sounds nice and from the photos he sent me of what we’d see along the way, it would be beautiful. But as I’ve been reminded by the pieces in “Forgotten Fridays,” there are walks I can take right here and right now that would reveal stories aching to be told.

What about you? What deserves a closer look in your world?

Letter to an Unknown Soldier

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Dear One,

I may have seen you a few years ago in the months before you left for war, walking with a child in your arms or crowded into a small fast car with others like you, music blaring, tattoos fresh. I may see you this week as we both wait for our food orders at the local Baja Fresh.

I have probably been close enough to shake your hand but I never have.

I see your face reflected in the photographs lined up in the obituary pages of our newspaper each week.

I see your eyes looking out of each one but you remain unknown to me.

I may have seen your mother’s face yesterday in the grocery store as she shopped for one less mouth to feed at the family gathering, or your sister’s face when she placed a vase of flowers at your grave in the national cemetery near my home.

I saw them but never knew.

When I was a 21-year-old newspaper reporter, my first job assignment was to cover the Memorial Day Parade in Rockport, Massachusetts. I snapped photographs of men with creased faces in uniforms brushed clean as they placed wreaths, spoke words and then went silent as they remembered you.

I saw all this too and could not know what was in their memories or their hearts.

I can never know. I only know a life that comes with never having had to face the choices you have made or that were made for you.

It has been all too easy not to know you.

I have lived all my life behind the shield created for me by my age, luck, family, timing, the country into which I was born. In this country now, there are those who go to war and those who can remain behind. Those who know what it costs and those of us who believe we know, who try to imagine but can’t. We’ve never been there. We’ve never lost a child or a husband or a mother or a sister or a brother or a friend to enemy fire. There are those who, inspired by attacks like the ones on 9/11, rushed to join and to help and put their lives at risk. There are those of us who, made afraid by these same attacks, let you. We asked it, maybe not out loud but with our actions, or our inaction.

In every generation, in every country of the world, there have been people like you and people like me. There have been warriors who die instantly from their wounds on the battlefield and those who die years later of injuries no one can see or understand. There have been families who have had to face sudden and devastating loss and those who witness the loss of their loved one as it plays out over months and years. There are those who never know what happened to the ones they have lost.

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And then there are people like me who lose sight of all these casualties simply because we can. We can lose ourselves in our dreams, our plans, in Memorial Day sales, and food and in the families who have not been altered forever by war.

I learned this week that a moment of silence has long been part of a the right way to observe Memorial Day. At  3 p.m., all across the country, people will be silent and will acknowledge you and honor you or simply fall silent and let themselves feel that your death is our loss. Today, at 3 p.m. Pacific time, I will be thinking of you and I will be thinking of those you faced and fought who have also suffered and died.

I still won’t know you but I will wish I had. And I hope that taking that moment will lead me to a deeper acknowledgment of what I ask of you and to give more to you and to those who love you.

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The photos above were taken yesterday at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego where thousands of military men and women and their families have been buried for more than a hundred years.

Here is a link to some numbers that I will be thinking about when I am silent today at  3 p.m: US War Deaths

Learning to Walk, Learning to See

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We’re two friends walking along the cliffs overlooking the Pacific. For one of us the walk is preparation for a 200-mile pilgrimage, for the other, it is a chance to taste a part of the adventure vicariously.

Patty is training. I am tasting.

Later this month, she’ll fly to Spain and walk two-fifths of the 500-mile journey from France to Santiago de Compostela, a path trekked by thousands of pilgrims over nearly two thousand years. I’m going to be right here waiting for her to come back and tell me all about it.

Patty isn’t religious. She just wants to walk that road, sleep with strangers in hostels, sip coffee in the company of pilgrims and taste the food she will find along the way. Although she has logged thousands of miles on planes, trains and automobiles, walking or biking is her favorite way to travel. She will leave laptop and cell phone behind as she always does. She will leave her husband behind this time too, although he has put almost as many miles on his feet and bike as she has. The trip will find its way unfiltered into her soul and her memory.

I am not exactly jealous but I feel something, a kind of longing. I have always been fascinated by long-distance walking. Theoretically, anyway. It held no fascination for me when I was in college with an infant and no car. As a kid, I used to hide when my mother organized multi-family hikes up one of the hundreds of mountains surrounding our house in northern New Hampshire. For a long time, I thought people who walked by choice were a little insane, sort of like the robot police car thought Leonard Meade was in Ray Bradbury’s “The Pedestrian.”

Now that I don’t have to walk and in fact spend most of my time sitting in front of a computer screen, I am fascinated by the idea of covering great distances by foot. I follow blogs or news reports of cross-country walkers. I order catalogs for walking tours in Europe, Africa, and Asia. I like to imagine myself seeing a place up close for the first time, feeling it in the fatigue of my muscles and the contours of the road beneath my feet. In my mind I’ve walked thousands of miles which is a little like saying that I’ve written ten novels without typing a single sentence.

Patty, on the other hand, is the real deal. She’s packed her fourteen-pound backpack and is training by taking long walks around San Diego. Not that she needs much training. This is a woman who makes a business out of walking the neighborhoods of the city and bringing them alive to tourists and natives alike. She bikes around town as often as she drives. She has logged thousands of miles visiting nearly 80 countries and has tried to spend at least some time walking or biking in each. Not long ago, she walked across the English countryside with her husband, Rusty and in the eighties, they spent two and a half years circling the globe by air, boat, train, car but as much as possible by foot and bike.

“When you’re walking or riding a bike, you’re living the way people always have lived,” she says. “You wake up, head in the direction you’ve picked out and find food and shelter as you go. We do these things home at home too but we don’t think about it. So much is already done for us.”

For Patty, traveling is defined simply as, “going someplace new.” She adds, “I don’t care if it is pretty or not or if the food is good. I want to know what it is like to live in a place.” This doesn’t mean that no one has been there before her. It simply means she has not been there and when she does go, she wants to take it all in, warts and all. She understands that seeing a place, really seeing it, makes it new.

As we make our way along the edge of the ocean, I find myself thinking how differently we travel but also about the similarities in our work and lives. We are both pilgrims in a way.

We both come from small towns miles from anywhere “exciting.” Patty is driven to explore a place she has never seen. I am driven to explore the terrain of the heart and mind. She is always searching for something new to see even in places she knows by heart. I am searching for a new way to express ideas so old they have no age. She likes waking up in the morning, setting out in the direction she has picked and finding what she needs along the way. I get up in the morning with a plan, a direction and then, along the way must forage for material, for ideas, for words. Sometimes they come just exactly the way I thought they would.

Most times, though, they surprise me and alter my course. And this Patty understands too. The surprise is the thing that pilgrims are most in search of whether they realize it or not: that serendipitous moment, a flash of insight, a family that lets you pitch a tent on their farm and then invites you in for dinner, a glimpse of a rare bird or a view that no photograph can ever capture.

There is art to it, discipline and joy. I am thinking that this is why writers like Dickens, Twain used to walk ten miles or more a day and why, more recently writers like Cheryl Strayed have chosen to make one spectacular journey with nothing between them and their goal. Their physical journeys feed their journeys as writers.

I wanted to tag along with Patty on her training walk to see if I could get a little of her journey to rub off on me – to make it mine. But that’s not how it works in walking or writing. To really see something new, even in a place you have lived for years, you have to do it yourself.

A view of Santiago de Compostela awaiting Patty at the end of her pilgrimage (Source: By Alejandro Moreno Calvo from Madrid, Spain [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

A view of Santiago de Compostela awaiting Patty at the end of her pilgrimage (Source: By Alejandro Moreno Calvo from Madrid, Spain [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Bonus links:

If you are or will be in San Diego, you can take a walk with Patty. Check out her website here: Urban Safaris

Another bonus link I found for Bradbury fans. It is in German but even if you do not speak that language, the story comes through loud and clear and the images are perfect.

The Pedestrian – German live action short.

What I Wish She Had Told Me…

I’m not a historian but I am a woman and Women’s History Month reminds me that without the help of incredible women working over many years, my personal history would read very differently.

This point was driven home for me earlier this month as my husband and I watched Makers: The Women Who Make America. It was driven home even more deeply by 26 women who shared with me their thoughts on the kinds of questions I haven’t asked or answered in a long time, if ever. I sent them eleven sentences I asked them to finish (to see them all, play the video above). The group includes mothers, teachers, lawyers, judges, students, marketing executives, accountants, and women who have had to work at any job they could find. Some are married. Some are not. Some have been and are no longer. This is a very strong and mixed group of women but we know that there are many women from all walks of life and philosophy who are not represented here. This will be something to work towards.

One thing is clear: as women we have the power to influence other women through our words, our example, our work, the art we make or love and share –and not always in ways one might expect.

Doing this made me realize that I don’t spend enough time talking with other women about things that matter. I hope that this exercise is the beginning of many conversations I will have with the women in my life and women I come to know. I’ve decided to tuck these questions away and use them like those little cards people hand out at parties called, “conversation starters.” I invite you to do the same. Even better, use the comments section here to add to the conversation with your answers and even better questions. If nothing else, we will have paused together for a moment to reflect on a piece of history both past and perhaps shape our stories-in-the-making. All the questions appear in the video so go ahead and play it if you’d like a quick look.

Finally: this kind of conversation is not just for women. There will be men reading this who are at home with children while their wives work or serve in the military, there are men who have watched their daughters come of age during times of huge change followed by significant setbacks, there are husbands who have struggled, adapted and, struggled some more to figure out their roles in marriages that are influenced by the jobs available or not available to women along with the expectations society still has of men and of women. There are sons who have never sat down over a cup of coffee with their mothers and asked them what being a woman in today’s world means to them.

If that is too much to start with, then just ask a woman who her favorite female character in a book or movie is. Then ask her why. You’ll both probably learn something.

Okay, I’ll shut up now and let these wonderful women speak. Or, rather, I’ll show you their answers.  Each section below shows the question asked and provides a link in blue to the answers right below the photo. Clicking on the link will take you to a few slides with all the wonderful answers. If you’d like to see everything all at once, scroll to the end and click onto the link “Women Talking to Women Master.”

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The wisest woman I ever knew told me..

Women who offered us insights over the years might be surprised at what “stuck.” Wisdom reflected here ranges from  practical safety “cover your drink when you go to a party” to the inspiring “you can do anything.” Perhaps most poignant is that some of the women responding here could not point to a woman who offered wisdom along the way.

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The worst advice I ever received from a woman was..

Sometimes the people who love us the most give us bad advice. Which means it’s a good thing when we ignore it or find our path in spite of it. These answers provide required reading for anyone thinking of giving any advice to any woman.

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My favorite female writer is..

A list that features everyone from Pearl S. Buck to Chelsea Handler is worth a look. Sheryl Sandberg (Lean In) made the list along with Isabel Allende, Margaret Mitchell, Ann Patchett, Alicia Keys, Lalita Tademy and others.

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My favorite female character in a book or movie is…

This list confirms that art can inspire us or show us the kind of women we would like to be (some of the time anyway). Some characters draw admirers from all ages (Nancy Drew, Scarlett O’Hara) some show us that we really should be reading more.

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The most important woman on the world scene today is..

Not surprisingly, Hillary gets lots of mentions but so does Malala Yousufzai, one of the youngest women to show courage and vision in the face of oppression.

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The most important events that have changed opportunities for women are…

The right to vote, access to birth control, access to education for all women regardless of race, the women’s movement of the Sixties and Seventies have profoundly impacted women’s opportunities.

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The most important challenges facing women are…

Education. Poverty. Health. Equal pay. Equal rights. These are running themes when women list challenges faced by women in the US and around the world. The answers reflect that nothing should be taken for granted and that we have a long way to go.

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I wish a woman I respected had told me..

This is just a sampling of the thoughtful responses inside, one representing each decade. Reading all of them will give you a very clear sense of the impact a few words can have and the vacuum that exists when no one offers them.

    • Looking back I would wish that I had been encouraged to think bigger.” [Anonymous 1930s]
    • “I can’t say it would have made any difference if a woman encouraged me because I came up in a male-dominated world. Women need to actively mentor other women continuously. We need to open doors for each other the way men do. Every time we move forward an inch, we need to reach back and bring a woman along with us.” [Rae 1940s]
    • “Stay in college.” [Joleen 1950s]
    • “Stay in Europe.” [MJ 1960s]
    • “Have the confidence to trust my instincts. That advice came from a male mentor. But it would have meant more coming from a woman because women, I think, have to work harder at developing confidence than men do.” [Elizabeth 1970s]
    • “Be strong but always keep an open mind, things are not always as they seem.” [Elisa 1980s]
    • “Speak loudly and without apologies.” [MEW 1990s]

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Here is the advice I would give a teenage woman today..

These answers are packed with with the lessons these women have learned and want to offer to young women preparing for their future. The beauty of these is that there is more than one voice from more than one generation. Individually and together, they can get a conversation started with a teenage woman near you.

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I am optimistic:not optimistic about the future for women and here is why…

Overall, the optimists outnumber those who view the future of women with more caution. The optimism is rooted in the strength and gifts of today’s young women and in the examples set by women who are leading the way in politics, human rights, business, education and more.

If you would like to see the entire slide deck in one go, here is the pdf version:

Women Talking to Women Master

Naked on a Plane

I woke this morning to the rumble of jets overhead, one of the sounds that marks the start of a new day here. It’s one of the perks of living a few miles from the airport but I didn’t think about the noise. I thought about some friends I got naked with for a few hours and never saw again.

And by naked, I mean as revealing as one person can be to another without removing a stitch of clothing.

There was the woman beside me who showed me her post-mastectomy, reconstructed breast and asked, “Would you like to feel it?”

There was the man behind me who told the story of how he walked away from his wife and daughter and never saw them again.

There was the man in first class who loved his wife and still desired her so much after twenty two years and three children he would sit on the floor outside their bathroom so he could see her emerge naked from the shower.

They were strangers on planes. I encountered them only once and in the time we shared, we were as intimate as only strangers could be.

If you are lucky, these moments can and do happen anywhere but I am struck by the number of times I’ve stumbled into these brief intimacies on airplanes. Perhaps when you pack people tightly enough together, the friction rubs some of that protective veneer away whether you want it to or not. There you are, shoulder-to-shoulder, knee-to-midback, sharing an armrest, breathing the scent of each other’s breath until you know what your rowmate ate for breakfast and how her stomach feels about it. For an hour or twelve or more, you occupy a village enclosed in metal, surrounded by nothing but clouds and sky. I can’t help thinking that I may die with these people. I check the hand of the person next to me and wonder whether it would be the kind of hand I’d want to hold on the way down or if the owner would want to hold mine.

Once I’m airborne, I understand in a visceral way that I control nothing. No one in my plane village does either. We are all in the hands of the pilot, upheld by the laws of physics and engineering and the grace of whatever diety controls the weather. All we can control is what we give and receive.

Like most of my fellow passengers, I work hard to avoid the burden of connection. I burrow into the book I’ve brought, the game on my phone, or the movie in front of me. Sometimes I try to sleep away the hours so that the time folds like a napkin and it feels as though I’ve stepped directly from departure to arrival.

Other times, though, I’ve been ambushed and then seduced by a stranger with something to share. Maybe they are picking up a signal I don’t even know I’m emitting. They may need to talk but more than I realize, I need something too.

When Mary invited me to feel her new breast, right there on the plane somewhere between Greensville, South Carolina and Newark, New Jersey, she taught me something about resilience, fearlessness and joy. (I did and you can read about that moment here).

John, the man who loved and desired his wife was unselfconsciously in love. The cynic in me initially thought that he was reminding himself of his obligations before he got swept up in a mid-flight flirtation. As we chatted, though, it became apparent that he was simply and unselfconsciously sharing, as though he wanted the last words that filled his mouth to be ones of love. As we talked, my own feelings of love and desire for my mate stirred and stretched like children let out to play.

I never knew the name of the man who left his family years before but his dead, matter-of-fact tone echoes now. He had no intention of returning. Ever. In fact, he  was about to leave his current girlfriend; by telling me his story he seemed to be saying, “This is who I am.” I had always wondered what it would be like to just walk out a door and never return. He showed me one reason I am glad I never tried to find out.

With each encounter I fell in love with life a little bit more deeply. Something in me that was closed had opened. I loved these people for giving that to me.

What are your most memorable encounters on a plane or anywhere else? Do you think you made them happen or were they pure serendipity?

God, Love, and Dog Poop

Chloe

Chloe

I took Chloe for a walk not long ago and ran smack into a lesson on boundaries, dog poop, and the love of God.

We had only gone a few steps when my ears picked up the voices of two women who regularly walk by, usually in the late afternoon. They stride down the middle of our street as though it is the yellow brick road and they and their two small dogs are twin versions of Dorothy and Toto. Their laughter precedes them and lingers in the air after they sweep past.

They weren’t laughing on this day though. One of the women peeled off from her companion, words spewing furiously. I caught the words, “he,” “job,” “asshole”  and watched, stunned, as she marched up our driveway to the garbage can against our house’s wall and threw a a loaded bag right into it.

“Hi,” I said, or something like that. Her companion looked at me and smiled so I went on in what I thought was my calm, reasonable, “adult” voice. “Normally, people ask first.”

By this time the poop-tosser was already back down on the road, charging past us. Her friend, made of softer material, hesitated. “I’m sorry, we didn’t know it was your house.”

The tosser, now well ahead, turned and yelled, “For the love of God, it’s a GARBAGE CAN!”

The friend shrugged apologetically and she and her dog scurried to catch up.

I seethed. Chloe tugged on the leash but I was immobilized by astonishment, resentment, embarassment, fury, righteous indignation, a sense of violation and, of all things, denial: Even as I seethed, I was telling myself that this was nothing. It didn’t matter now and wouldn’t even come close to mattering in 100 years when all of us would be dead.

I thought that denial was my maturity showing but really, it was just a ramrod I was using to stuff down all the discomfort that kept churning its way back up. The fact is, I felt trespassed against, ignored, run over by a sleeker, more powerful train.

Then Chloe tugged again and I began to move. The women were out of sight. For the first few steps, I wanted to chase them down to explain just exactly how wrong they were and how right I was. There’s a code, unwritten but nevertheless followed by most of us, involving reciprocity, proximity of garbage can to curb, whether or not the owner of the can is a dog owner and other provisions that my inner lawyer cited with force to my inner judge and jury while my ego clapped and the small sane person inside me rolled her eyes.

But as my small dog kept nosing her way forward, lost in the richness of my neighbor’s lawn – enjoying it fully even though it was not hers or mine – I became aware of my own breath. It was out of sync, pent up. It wanted to get out and just escape all that toxicity. Suddenly, so did I.

IMG_1787

I tried this thing I’ve been practicing for a long time now without consistent success: being mindful of my own breathing. I tried really hard to focus on each breath and let the anger do whatever it wanted to do. Turns out, when I wasn’t stoking my fury with one angry thought after another, it settled down. My chest relaxed and I almost laughed out loud at the thought of myself chasing her down. Perspective returned like grace. Something like forgiveness filled me but also gratitude – grudging perhaps but gratitude nevertheless – for the encounter.

The cans weren’t mine. Taxes pay for them and they are given to us by the city when we move in or are passed on by previous owners when we buy the house. We all pay for them. And those of us who believe in God would probably agree that she does not worry much about whose garbage can receives the poop. Those of us who don’t believe in God probably still believe in love with all its gentleness, strength, excitement, renewal, and demands. For still others of us, God and love are virtually the same and sharing is part of the deal we make no matter where our belief lies.

Whose trash can is it anyway?

Whose trash can is it anyway?

The poop tosser may have been rude but she was probably also suffering that day too judging by the heat of her diatribe and the need she had to spill out her frustration to her friend and to me. In the end, she was a fellow traveler who without realizing it asked me a tough question and then left me alone to wrestle with it:

If I can’t share my garbage can, just what am I prepared to share?