When my sister was 39 years old, she died.
It was an unexpected, life-shattering event that hit me hard enough to take my breath away for months. For three long years I walked around in a fog, faking emotions I couldn't feel.
Within a few short days of her death, my family gathered - my parents, siblings, nephews and cousins - trying to comprehend the incomprehensible and face the inevitable funeral.
I remember the sharp, aching hurt in my heart that just wouldn't go away, and the tears that flowed as we all got together. Nobody knew the proper way to act, the correct things to say. It freaking HURT. I couldn't handle the pain of the moment. The idea of continuing my life without Deb to talk to, to laugh with, and to help me see that I wasn't all that bad of a person felt absolutely unbearable.
How could I possibly do it?
And then there was the battle to understand why. Why did it have to happen? Why was I going through that? Why? Why? Why?
As those events unfolded and I struggled to wrap my mind around all of it, I realized that I would never wish that kind of pain on anyone, not even my worst enemy.
I cannot fathom the kind of hatefulness that drives anyone to take the life of another human being. My heart aches for the families of the victims in Florida this week, and the families of every other life that has been unexpectedly taken. I know what they are going through. They are struggling to make sense of what has happened. They are trying to figure out how to live lives that will never be the same again. They are wondering if anything will ever fill that void in their hearts.
And I feel sickened by every single social media comment that attempts to politicize or capitalize on these events. We can't be so eager to prove a point that we can coldly make memes and trendy posts about the "50 victims", can we? That descriptor is so cold and unfeeling, it allows us to ignore the fact that those people had lives, names, hopes, dreams, families, and futures. And they leave behind a significant number of people who will be walking around in a fog for a long time to come, wishing it was all a mistake or nightmare and that they would wake up and find it wasn't true.
My heart aches for all of them, and I hope friends and followers of the Torch, and everyone else, would stand up and attempt to stop ANYONE who tries to capitalize on the lives of these human beings.
I met with a teenage girl the other day. She was a Senior in high school, and wanted to discuss some options she could pursue after graduation. I hadn't seen her in awhile, so we started our conversation casually, catching up on her job and school and how things were going. I asked her (of course) if she was excited to finally be done with high school. She said she was - that she couldn't wait to get out of there. Then, I asked her about her graduation party.
She looked at me for a blink, then said, "Oh, I'm not having one." I replied, "Oh! Okay. How come?" She answered, very matter-of-fact, "Because what would be the point? Nobody would come." I confess, I had to catch my breath and choke back some tears.
It is so easy to not realize how difficult life is for some people. I have a lot of friends whose children are graduating this year, and have been invited to a lot of grad parties - and I love that and think it is wonderful! But the conversation with the young lady gave me a solemn reminder that everybody has a different life story, and some of them are difficult and sad.
I talked with a young man last spring, right before he graduated, and he told me that he wasn't happy to graduate. He said, "I have no clue what I am going to do next. I don't know. Why would I be happy about that?" That is the reality I see with many of our young people who have disabilities.
This is not a friendly world for those who are different. Quite often, doors are closed and options are limited for the disabled and marginalized people in our society. I know there are laws which help some, but I don't think giving everyone an equal chance in society is something that can necessarily be legislated.
We need a compassion check.
I don't know how many times I have been told that particular students are annoying or scary - judgments made by people who don't really know them or even try to understand why they do what they do. Maybe the kid who wears the hoodie half over his face all the time is just so tired of being picked on he is hiding now. Maybe the girl who loses her temper easily is frightened and lonely inside. Maybe things at home suck. Or maybe it is exhausting to always be reminded how different you are, to be the butt of the jokes and teasing and bullying.
How do we insert compassion into this world? How do we become people who truly, tenderly care about each other? How do we love the unlovable? We pretend to be a society that applauds individuality, but ask people who have autism how often they are applauded for their unique views of the world and presentations of themselves - pretty much they are not. Instead, it has become very important we teach them to do their best to look like the rest of the world.
I hope 180 and the Torch can lead the way in fostering a change in our community at the very least. I hope we can raise the level of compassion exhibited to the people around us, no matter who they are or how strange they might seem. I hope we are doing that now, and that it will only multiply as we begin to train people in our effort to help foster an inclusive work world.
I hope, together, we can all see people as people and can learn to appreciate them for who they are, wherever they are at in life. I truly believe kindness returns kindness, and the rewards we will reap for loving each other - as we are commanded to in the Bible - will astound us. I would hope that would filter right down to our teens and children, and that I would never have to hear a student remark again that nobody would come to celebrate her graduation.
If I could do anything I want with unlimited time and plenty of resources, I would open up a Kindergarten classroom. And for that classroom I would select twenty students. They would be students with and without hearing, and sight, and the ability to walk. They would have high and low IQs, and those with social disorders such as autism and those without would also be in my Kindergarten class. Some would have ADD or ADHD, and some would not.
In that Kindergarten class, the only identity anyone would ever have would be his or her first and last names. We would all view learning and participating as a corporate experience in which everybody works together to learn what needs to be learned, and I would help each child figure out whatever style of learning was going to work best for him or her. Everybody would be expected to achieve the level he or she could achieve given the gifts and talents he or she possessed. The individual style of each individual child would be celebrated and accepted.
And when we went to the playground we would be engaged in activities in which the entire class had to work together to make sure everyone was involved. We would be happy as we all achieved a variety of goals together - and every day we would do something different that would accentuate the strengths and abilities and interests of our lovely variety of students. Yes, to an extent our play time would be structured, because children need to learn to work together, and because human beings in our society attempt to exclude people from a very young age.
And when that Kindergarten year ended, I would excitedly begin to plan the First Grade year. And then the Second Grade year...and all the way through graduation. And all through those years those students would grow together as scholars and human beings. There would be no "girl in the wheelchair" or "boy who is deaf". There would only be "Mikayla" and "Brian", "Cyndy" and "Tom".
It would just be a matter of routine life to know that Tom communicated through an Interpreter, and was a most amazing science student. Cyndy's wheelchair would mean nothing more than the way she navigated the world - just Brian used his legs and feet. Everybody, together, every day, would celebrate learning and progress. Maybe some wouldn't advance as high as others, but that wouldn't matter, because my classroom would be all about each individual trying as hard as he or she could, and achieving the most he or she could achieve. And, as a group, they would support and encourage each other's victories and successes - no matter how big or small they might seem to the real world.
And as Mikayla and Brian and Cyndy and Tom reached high school level, we would begin exploring the outside world together. We would learn about work and opportunities. The students would be so well-connected to each other that they would know more about what their classmates could DO than what they couldn't - because what people can DO would be our focus throughout all those school years. They would have a support system amongst each other that would help them define their dreams and figure out where their next steps could take them.
And they would leave that school with an attitude of acceptance, and the ability and desire to really look at people and to be willing to know human beings as human beings.
Yes. That's something I would do.
As I continue this adventure known as running non-profits which are the culmination of many years of dreaming, tons of tears, incredible hard work, and quite often feeling like it would be easier to quit, I am more and more aware of how small things can really be big things. We live in a critical society - rife with negativity and disillusion. And sometimes, it feels like those who would want to discourage us have a louder and more persistent voice than those who believe in the vision and are part of our successes.
But, again and again things happen that seem small at the time, but are really quite big. They come in many different forms of encouragement and good cheer. An unexpected email, text, or message on Facebook sharing how the Torch has touched a life can bring sunshine and refreshing hope which enables us to continue moving forward.
Sometimes, it's the smile of recognition on the faces of strangers in a crowd, or overhearing people say, "Those are the Torch ladies", or a phone call from a friend just to ask how I'm doing - that turn my doubts and fears and fatigue into hope and strength and energy. They seem like such small gestures; it doesn't take long to send someone a text or a message, but, in the end, they are the big things. They are the things that matter the most because their affect is profound.
The positive influence we have over the lives of those around us can truly lift them. It's unfortunate we are often quicker to pass judgment, give advice, and insult others than we are to give the benefit of the doubt, listen, and show them love. The small positive gestures we make can change the world for the people around us.
If we can learn to really treat others the way we want them to treat us, we might actually be the reason someone else keeps going, doesn't give up, and achieves his or her dreams.
It's all about compassion and love - they make the small things the big things.
I remember when I was homeless.
I remember how I felt hollow and afraid all the time.
I remember sitting at the lake, tears streaming, as I tried to imagine a future I couldn't see.
I remember feeling embarrassed and humiliated when I had to ask for help, and the people who were supposed to be there to help me were scornful and sarcastic.
I remember people in my life who offered support, but did it by telling everyone about my situation and gathering things for me. Things I had nowhere to put, and felt ungrateful for their help - and that made me feel like a jerk.
I remember how frustrating it was to be told that McDonald's and Kroger and everywhere else was hiring. As if I wasn't desperately seeking employment that would support myself and my daughter.
I remember going to interviews and falling into uncontrollable sobs in my car as I drove away, because I knew, I sensed, I had not done my best. I was so exhausted from being homeless.
I remember feeling worthless and ashamed as I showed my pay stub as proof I really needed help.
I remember driving by other people's houses at night and seeing their lights through the windows. I remember wondering if I would ever again have a home.
I remember reading posts on Facebook slamming people who used food stamps, and I remember deleting from my "Friends" list everyone who would fan those judgmental flames.
I remember looking at my last $20, and trying to calculate how much gas I needed to get to my tutoring job, and how much money would be left to buy some groceries.
I remember feeling my self esteem slowly slip away.
I remember how it felt to longer believe I was a valuable member of society. Instead, I was a burden and a drag.
I remember being told there was a rumor going around that my daughter and I were faking homelessness - and how on top of trying to keep our heads up and being strong for her, I had to defend against those accusations.
I remember. I embrace those memories, because they gave me insight into the human condition and deepened my compassion and ability to understand. Sometimes, I cry when I remember, but then I also remember there was light at the end of the tunnel. There was and is hope.
I always remember.
I cannot imagine what it must be like to grow up in a society such as we have today. When I was growing up I had no idea what most people thought about most topics in life. I didn't know who liked whom or who did what to whom - beyond my little circle of friends. I can't imagine what it must be like to be so vicariously involved in the lives of not only our closest friends - but also in the lives of their friends and families and acquaintances. Social media can be used for a lot of good things - it certainly has helped us get the word out about the Torch and 180 - but it can also be the tracks upon which the high speed gossip train goes careening down. Look out whatever, or whomever stands in the way - because you might be destroyed.
I recently read a news story about individuals in need who stand on the side of the road holding signs asking for money. The comments that accompanied the story were strongly opinionated and vocally opposed to those who do that. The idea that people who are asking for money at the side of the road are actually incredibly rich and are con artists was purported again and again. Lots of judgment was cast on those individuals. I couldn't help thinking that we are very comfortable jumping on the social media bandwagon and judging and criticizing other people's lives - even when we don't know them or actually know one thing about them. That makes me sad, because inevitably, there is more to the story than we know.
Recently, a friend of mine had an incident where a practical joke her son played spiraled into a police incident and a very terrified son. She was devastated and upset with his lack of wisdom and lack of foresight in choosing the joke he played, but he is a very young teenage boy - and no parent can predict every possible mistake his/her kids might make and teach them not to make them. It isn't possible.
When his incident began to get posted on social media and the comments began, they were often hyper-critical of his parents and his behavior. My friend is already dealing with helping a young boy face up to a serious mistake - and she commented that when she reads peoples' hateful comments about her family, "it is absolutely killing me".
Those are powerful words. It is killing her inside when she is already dealing with a difficult and painful life situation. And the people making the comments don't know her, or her situation, or her son. or her family. But they do know how to judge and critique. Sure, she can ignore them, but that is far easier said than done. People can also stop making negative judgments about others - that is pretty easily done.
I think about the MANY stupid decisions I made and ridiculous things I tried as a young person, and am so thankful I didn't grow up in a time when people could spread gossip so quickly, frame it as they pleased, and allow others to join in as they verbally crucified whatever they didn't approve of.
I feel like, as a society of vulnerable human beings, maybe we need to look at what we are allowing social media to turn us into. What happened to compassion? What happened to understanding? What happened to the benefit of the doubt? How about second chances - and learning from mistakes? My goodness, we can't possibly know what other people are going through - and our words can destroy. And we have no idea how quickly we could be on the other side of that fence, so we might just want to withhold our comments and judgment.
We need to use social media to build up and encourage the people around us, not join in the chorus of criticism and negativity that abounds.
How can anyone be human in a society where it isn't okay to be different or to make mistakes?
As another season of food trucking commences, I can't help but think back on all the things we have done at the Torch in just these past few short years. I give the credit to God, Who has given us wisdom, stamina and hope that guides us every single day. We have awesome volunteers who always step in just when we need them the most! What a blessing it is to re-count these memories:
April, 2013 - We got a truck!
January, 2014 - We got a food license!
April, 2014 - Our first fundraising event at The Shop in Fowlerville was a rousing success! We still have an awesome relationship with them and look forward to more events in the future!
May, 2014 - We made our first food run!
August, 2014 - We had our first Back-to-School event!
November, 2014 - Howell Community Theater had a "Hunger Heroes" food drive for us! They stocked our pantry full!
November, 2014 - We began a winter free meal service at the Howell Bennett Recreation Center.
January, 2015 - We launched our 180 project!
April, 2015 - Howell High School's Interact Club held a 5K "Glow" run to benefit the Torch.
June, 2015 - We held a "Carnival for a Cause" event.
June, 2015 - We served our 5,000th free meal!
August, 2015 - Our second Back-to-School event!
September, 2015 - We served over 10,000 free meals.
And there are a million memories within each of those! What a great feeling it gives me to be part of such an organization.
We were told it would never work. We have often been told our events won't work. And yet, here we are - and here we come! Thank you for being part of this wonderful adventure with us!
A little piece of my heart died the other day. It always does, when I hear people crucifying somebody who isn't present. In this instance, it was a group of teenagers talking about an individual they all disliked. In spite of my attempts to change the track of the conversation, the boys who were leading the discussion were determined to one-up the other in describing the vile behavior of the student they were shredding. The rest of the class kept nodding in agreement.
It made me remember a time when I was working in a Freshman math class. A student joined the class in the middle of the second quarter. The day he walked in, the whole class started murmuring. I couldn't hear what people were saying, until one student said, quite loudly, "Oh, (student name), is in this class now. Everybody hates him."
The student walked to his desk and sat down without giving any indication he heard the comment. It became quickly evident why the other kids didn't like him because he was quite a bully. But I couldn't help wondering how it felt to walk into a room full of peers - which is difficult in and of itself - and hear the comment that everyone hated me. I am guessing that would make a hard heart even harder. It made me feel sad. He often made me feel sad - and eventually was kicked out of the class, and then the school.
The thing that always comes to mind is that I have never met a newborn or an infant who acts like an, please excuse my language, asshole - as my students were saying about the individual they were talking about. People are just not born into this world that way. Something happens somewhere in their lives - maybe some physical or chemical change, or their living environment, a huge loss, or neglect or pain - something happens that causes them to act the way they do.
I feel if we knew everyone's backstory, we would be much gentler with each other. I know that not everyone who has been through difficult situations turns into a bully, but some do. Maybe that is the only way they know how to cope. Maybe they need kind people in their lives who will handle them gently and cautiously - refusing to announce to the world that everybody hates them. Maybe we will be kind and gentle and it won't seem to matter at the time. But maybe, just maybe someday those individuals will remember the one person who tried.
I know, I know, I'm dreaming. But still. I never give up hope that we as a society can change, and it has to start somewhere. Why not with us?
I have a degree in communication from Spring Arbor University. I know that many people pursue higher education more for the opportunities it can provide than for the actual learning, but I am a weirdo. I love to learn, and when I chose to pursue an education in communication it was because the whole topic fascinates me. There really isn't an area of life in which communication does not play a part. I learned many interesting things in my communications program. One of the lessons that has stuck with me throughout the years, is something we learned in a class that mainly discussed communication in relationships.
The concept that resonated with me is called "nexting". Basically, the concept of nexting is a reminder that there is nearly always a next time for every communication situation. No matter how badly a communication situation went, I can always take the time to think about it and make plans for how I can do it better the next time. I have used nexting to fix a lot of difficult relationships in my life.
There are some people I just seem to conflict with. They rub me the wrong way, or I rub them the wrong way, and things just deteriorate when we interact. What I have learned, is that when I take time to think about a particularly difficult encounter when communication fell apart, I can often see how I contributed to the difficulties. I am ALWAYS able to improve my relationships by "nexting" - and making a plan for how I will interact the next time I meet that individual.
For example, I decide I won't let someone's bluntness, or apparent rudeness derail me from the topic we are trying to discuss. Or maybe he/she is a person who always brings up the past, and I allow myself to be dragged into old arguments or hurts. Or maybe he/she seems really cold and aloof, and my instinct is to respond equally cold and aloof. Those are all situations I have been in, and it helps when I decide that next time I will respond, react, or reply differently.
It really does work. I have become friends with one particular individual who always used to make me feel crazy. I had to be willing to assess myself, and put the time into making the situation better, but now we are friends. I suggest we all start nexting. There is almost always a next time, and we have the power to change it.
It has been a wild and crazy adventure at the Torch these past few months. We began our first ten-week training session for our 180 subsidiary. We have two students who have been a joy to work with. I am not surprised about that; I knew I would love doing this.
We are now halfway through the training process, and I am very encouraged by what these gentlemen have learned. We have practiced and studied to prepare for the ServSafe examination. In case you don't know, ServSafe is the national certification program for food safety. There are a lot more rules that go into keeping people safe and healthy than one would think.
We have also practiced kitchen and culinary skills - including safe knife handling and proper cutting, slicing, dicing and etc. techniques. By the end of the program, our students will have logged 80 hours of practice, study and class time with us.
As we begin the second half of the program, we are discussing more and more the opportunities for employment which will hopefully present themselves. These guys have worked hard, and a job would be tremendous reward for their efforts.
I have pondered the employment situation and options quite extensively. I wish we could form a network of employers who were willing to think creatively in terms of employing people with disabilities. I can't help wondering if there is a way we can flex hours, and employees in order to accommodate a variety of individuals. I see so many "help wanted" signs in the windows of food establishments, and I hear about the high turnover rate among employees. I wonder if we took a more people-centered approach to working with individuals in entry level positions, if we might be able to address that high turnover rate.
I relish opportunities to discuss these things with those who are actually working in the industry, and have the opportunity to hire and fire. It would be so incredible to see 180 graduates be a positive part of a solution to that issue. I think, if we had people represented from all sides of the food industry, we could potentially come up with some creative ways to meet everyone's needs.
Wouldn't it be awesome to come together as a community and show the rest of the world how we celebrate everyone, and how we cooperatively tackled and took care of two large issues at once - the unemployment rate for people with disabilities, and the high turnover rate in the food service industry?
I know there has to be a way - and I am working hard to find it!
I just wanted to take a moment to tell you how much I appreciate the many things you do as you seek to educate our young people. I know teaching can be one of the most rewarding professions, but I also know it comes with a level of discouragement as well. I want you to know I admire how you overcome the discouragement and keep showing up.
To those of you who instruct students in general education studies, thank you. You put in long hours to prepare your lessons, trying hard to develop creative methods to present them in engaging and informative ways. You then spend more hours grading assignments, writing feedback, and thinking, always thinking of ways to improve your delivery and help your students do better. You sometimes find yourselves blamed when a student's grade does not match his/her expectations, as if you randomly dole out whatever points you choose. I have watched you defend yourselves with professionalism, grace and dignity, and I appreciate you for doing that.
To my friends who teach Special Education, I think there is a special blessing from Heaven for your role. Do you realize you are often the voice so many disenfranchised, bullied, defeated young people need? Do you know how much they depend on you to show up each day, to bear the brunt of their sometimes very angry venting, and to still communicate how much you care about them? I do. I see it. I hear it. They need you. So, thank you.
Thank you teachers for being willing to stay in a profession where your talents and gifts will not gain you riches or fame or fortune. It takes special people to do what you do. And you are all special people. This country would be in sad shape without people like you! So, thank you.
From the bottom of my heart, I want you to know how much I appreciate your perseverance in the face of the many sacrifices, heartaches, frustrations, criticisms, and mounds of paperwork that come with your chosen profession. Thank you for sticking it out, and for believing in young people.
You are world-changers, and I am so grateful you are here.
Through the course of the past several years, as we have been on the Torch journey, so much of the experience has felt surreal. There have been tremendous highs that left me utterly speechless, which is not an easy thing to do. There have been lows that took my breath away, and caused me to question my sanity. There have also been a multitude of moments that were just - surreal.
The first time Sarah and I met our local radio personalities, Jon King and Mike Marino, felt surreal. I looked around the radio station and couldn't wrap my mind around the fact that we were really there, and really going to be interviewed. Jon and Mike are such personable, down to earth gentlemen, who in every way made me feel comfortable. But I just didn't feel - real. Who was I to have an opportunity like that? That moment did not fit with my personal ideas about who I am and what my life experience is like.
When Sarah and I met with Roger and Craig, the gentlemen who would be instrumental in finding and building our food truck - surreal. I was there in the restaurant with them, but at the same time, I wasn't. How could something so wonderful be transpiring right there, with me in the center of the action? Plain old me. I felt like I was watching somebody else listen to Roger and Craig as they excitedly designed the truck with us.
It was a very long drive from Brown City, Michigan to Brighton, Michigan. It is actually about 90 miles, but leading and following the food truck home for the very first time felt like a minute and an eternity at the same time. Sarah had never driven it before. I had never navigated for it. I could not believe we actually had it - and I remember thinking it couldn't be real - and what the heck were we going to do with something so big?
Experiencing the surreal lends an indescribable excitement to life. I don't always know when those moments are coming. Unexpected surprises happen all the time at the Torch, although not all of them lead down the path of the surreal. Surreal moments in life are euphoric and memorable.
Today has felt surreal all day. A year ago, we decided we were going to expand the Torch by adding the subsidiary, Torch 180. Throughout the past year, we have educated ourselves and worked very hard to do our parts in making 180 a reality. We have networked and connected with people, attended a multitude of meetings, presented our dream every time we have been invited to do so, and investigated countless leads on buildings and properties and partnerships. We have worked and re-worked our business plan - and it doesn't look like what it did when we began this journey.
And now, here we are. This evening, we will teach our very first culinary/ServSafe class. We are embarking on something which is an historical moment for the Torch. When I pause to think about the potential impact this organization can have on countless lives, my mind is boggled and it just doesn't feel real. I am half walking in this world, and half dancing on the clouds as I anticipate this inaugural class. The profound reality that we are but a year out from having just an idea - to actually launching our training is almost too much to comprehend.
I feel blessed, humbled, excited, afraid, prepared, and like I cannot, once again, believe it is plain old me in this life, at this moment. The pull on my life to make 180 a reality throughout this past year, has brought me to tears. I have quit a million times. And yet, I am always drawn back in by the knowledge of how necessary this is and how lives can be changed and impacted.
And, as we prepare to teach the very first class of this very amazing project, I find I cannot keep a grasp on reality. I need to pinch myself. This is really happening.
We are relational beings, and as we go through life we continuously enter into and out of relationships. Our earliest years of life shape our personalities and mold our ability to trust or not trust, and discern or not discern whether the people who come into our lives are good for us or not. Depending on what we learned about relationships, we either keep people in our lives, or move them out. Sometimes, the ability is warped or not well-formed, and we have to experience pain in order to learn what is good for us.
One of the most difficult experiences in life can be the ending of a relationship. There have been times when I had people in my life, and I did not believe it would be possible for me to live if they were no longer there. I marvel at how that really isn't true. Sometimes, we have to admit that someone is just bad for us, and we have to move on.
I have been in that situation and, if I felt particularly close to the individual, or dependent on him or her, ending the relationship could be incredibly painful. It is possible to be so close to a situation we cannot see how it harms us. When I reflect on my life and the people who have come and gone, I realize how much I have grown, And I think about how all the relationships of my life have helped me to grow and change. Even unhealthy relationships are part of the mosaic of my past. I am stronger because of them. I am more independent because of them. I know me better because of them.
I used to be ashamed of my seeming inability to develop healthy relationships, but not anymore. I embrace those learning experiences as much as I embrace the people who have lasted and stayed in my life. I now know a lot about how I choose friends, and how much of myself I will give away. I respect me. I realize that I am an infinitely valuable person who deserves healthy relationships - and all the other human beings I meet deserve the same. So, I have to be healthy; I have to know me; I have to set boundaries.
We all do. Hearts are precious and delicate and they can break. People can break. Relationships can threaten to break us. We matter too much to let that happen. Not everyone is meant to be in your or my life forever.
Sometimes, I just have to let go and face the pain of the end of a relationship, but always, in the back of my mind I remember that on the other side of the pain is a stronger, healthier me. I deserve to be healthy. The people I am close to deserve for me to be healthy. The same goes for you.
Today, I wish you joy! Notice I didn't say happiness, nope, happiness is something very different from joy. Sometimes I stop and think back over my life, and I realize quite often I remember moments of joy, even during dark days when I was not happy. We don't need happiness to have joy.
I remember one Christmas, seventeen or so years ago, in the late '90s, when almost everyone I knew was struggling financially from the affects of the downturn in the economy. I had a friend, whom I will call Kay. Kay had known a lifetime of struggles. She was in a very strong marriage, but had children who were battle-scarred from a previous teenage marriage. Her fifteen year old daughter, Elise, lived with relatives in another state, 2,000 miles away.
As Thanksgiving approached, I was talking to Kay one day, and we were discussing how difficult and expensive and depressing Christmas could be. She began to weep as the conversation turned to her far away daughter. She said she wished she could have all of her children with her for Christmas, but she knew that financially that would never work out for her family. I was struggling financially, myself, but her mother's love resonated deep within my heart, and I decided to find out if there would be a way to bring Elise to Michigan for a Christmas surprise.
Her daughter loved the idea, and the finances came together to purchase a plane ticket to arrive on December 23.
We kept the secret well, and when December 23 arrived, I could barely contain my excitement! Elise boarded her plane 2,000 miles away early in the morning. I made plans to take her to Kay's house, as soon as she arrived, and sing Christmas Carols outside the front door. I could just imagine Kay's face when she saw her beautiful Elise standing on the doorstep singing merrily with my family.
In case you don't know, I grew up in Southern California. It took many, many years for me to adjust to the fact that the weather must be considered as a factor when making plans in Michigan. And the weather became a huge factor that day. It began to snow in the afternoon. Soon it was a total white-out. I tried repeatedly calling the airline to find out if the flight was delayed. The line was busy, and I was unable to get through.
At that time, the internet was barely a resource. Our service was dial-up and slow, and airlines had not yet jumped on that bandwagon as far as posting flight statuses. After what felt like a hundred phone calls, I got through to the airline, and I was told that all flights into Detroit were canceled. I began to panic a little bit. I was responsible for a minor who was flying alone, and I had no idea where she was going to be spending the night. I was terrified at the thought she might be sleeping alone in an airport.
As I was trying to figure out who to call next, Kay suddenly came knocking at my door. She was nearly ready to cry and said she desperately needed to talk. We sat down, and the tears began to flow as she told me she had had a funny feeling that Elise was not okay, so she called her home. She said that Elise's aunt had acted very strangely on the phone, and would not let her speak to Elise, but told her she needed to contact the pastor of the church. I have no idea where that came from, because he was not in on the surprise in any way.
Kay said she had called the pastor, and he acted strangely, as well, and did not help her. She knew something was wrong, and she had a feeling nobody wanted to tell her that her daughter was in jail or in some other kind of big trouble. She wept hopelessly in my arms, as my mind raced crazily. I said I would call the pastor to find out if he knew anything.
He told me he had called the relatives, and they said that Elise had told them that she knew her mom, and that no matter what happened, nobody was to breathe a word and spoil the surprise. I hung up the phone, and hugged Kay. It wasn't hard to sympathize, I was worried out of my mind that this surprise was going all haywire, and I didn't want to say anything to Kay, until I knew Elise was fine.
Finally, Kay left to do some Christmas shopping for her other children, and i began frantically calling the airlines again. It was literally hours later when I reached somebody who could tell me that the flight had been sent to LaGuardia in New York, where the passengers would spend the night, and it would arrive in Detroit sometime in the afternoon on Christmas Eve. After explaining I was concerned about a minor flying alone, the airline representative made some calls, and found out Elise was going to be shuttled to a nearby hotel for the night.
Cell phones were a pretty new thing in those days. They were expensive to call from, and service was spotty. Elise had one, though, so I began calling it repeatedly. Eventually, late in the evening, she called me back. She was very worried that the surprise might be spoiled. I told her what had been happening with her mother, and that she better call right away, or I felt like I needed to let her know what was happening. Elise was adamant that she had come that far, and she desperately wanted to surprise her mother. She called Kay as soon as we hung up.
Kay called me after talking to Elise and said that Elise had told her she had just been out at a party, and that the family didn't want to worry Kay. Of course, Kay's motherly instincts told her she was being lied to. She said she was comforted that she had heard from Elise, but she was very sad because she knew something terrible had happened, and Elise was covering it up.
Because Elise's plane was coming in early the next afternoon, and we had already lost a day of their visit, I offered to watch Kay's other children while she and her husband did their last-minute Christmas shopping. Money was so tight, we pretty much all waited until the last minute to finish up. I knew at some point Elise would be at my house, and they could be reunited there. Kay agreed, although she told me she did not feel like dealing with Christmas that year.
The next morning, she and her husband dropped off the children and left to shop. Kay kept her eyes downcast, and they were filled with tears as she left. it was hard to see how stressed out she was. Elise arrived in the early afternoon, and about three hours after she arrived, Kay and her husband returned to my house to pick up the children.
Kay was sitting in the van, and decided not to get out. I ran outside and told her that I had a Christmas present for them, and that they both had to come into the house to get it. Kay stopped just inside the front door, and kept her eyes on the ground, clearly depressed and embarrassed.
Elise came up the stairs from the basement and stopped about three feet in front of her mother. Kay never even looked up. I began to sing, "We wish you a Merry Christmas, we wish you a Merry Christmas...". Elise took a step forward, and her shoes entered Kay's peripheral vision. Kay took a deep breath, and slowly her eyes traveled up Elise's body, until they reached her face, and everybody burst into tears of joy!!
I will never forget that moment, or that Christmas. Life was difficult and full of challenges. and quite often, we were not happy. But we had joy!
Those moments of our life when we experienced pure joy are stored up in a reservoir of joy. Joy doesn't depend on outward circumstances, it comes from an understanding deep within us, of the good that is in this world, even among the bad. It does not depend on our happiness, it is fed and filled by the positive beauties around us. It's always there, even in my darkest moments when I was desperately unhappy - I have bright spots of memories that flood my being with joy. It is filled and fueled daily by my relationship with God.
It is my prayer that your joy reservoir continues to be filled with the good things in this life, and that no matter what happens around you, your reservoir will continue to be filled - with every sunrise, sunset, and beautifully unexpected pleasure this life brings.
It is rather unfortunate we live in a society in which truly beautiful people are often overlooked. Some of the most beautiful and amazing people I have known have been people who were not necessarily the most attractive on the outside. Many times, people put a great deal of time and effort into achieving a certain acceptable look, while neglecting to develop an inner beauty that will actually last. I have known far too many young ladies and men who are at what is considered the bottom of the socially-significant ladder. It makes me sad to hear them acknowledge their lack of worth in a society in which physical attraction frequently matters more than character.
So many of those teens have an amazing amount of character. They have resilience and courage that many of their peers would struggle to achieve. I've known young, discarded individuals who watched their parents die, or whose parents simply left. I've watched them endure teasing and bullying - and not only by other teens, but sometimes by adults as well - and yet they manage to keep a gentle spirit and strive to defend those less fortunate.
I have watched children and teens cope with disabilities which cause others to fear them because fearing them is easier than trying to understand them. I have listened to them speak of the hurt and pain and frustration every day life brings. And yet, when defenses are dropped, and we are able to talk about other important things in life - I find that the majority of these young folks have such beautiful souls.
They see suffering around them, and want to help. They have concerns for people in far away countries, and those in their own schools and homes. They cry when they see others being bullied and picked on, acknowledging they have walked in those very same shoes. I have known young people who are hilariously funny when they are given the freedom to be who they really are - and they are no longer masked by the shyness that accompanies a lifetime of victim-hood. I have grown to love the quirks and oddities that sometimes accompany social disorders like autism, and to realize those human beings are often participating in the world on a level deeper than the rest of us realize. They observe and absorb and contemplate and search to find the good in other human beings, and to understand this often-confusing world.
I've watched them become excited at the prospect of doing something kind for their peers, and I've seen them work hard to raise money to help out those less fortunate. I've known beautiful, amazing young people who never give pause to the physical attractiveness, abilities, or disabilities of those around them - they simply accept everyone into their presence without judgment or malice.
In a world in which most people fill every precious moment of their schedules with busy-ness and activities, it is difficult to allow time to get to know others, and particularly those who are outside our personal bubbles AND who can be quickly judged and dismissed because of their very different appearances. I wish I knew the secret to helping people care. I wish I knew how to encourage others to take a chance on people who are outside their accustomed circles. I wish I could re-define what is considered normal, and I could abolish the generally accepted paradigm that the pursuit and attainment of physical beauty somehow reflects the character of an individual.
In a perfect world there would be no such thing as imperfections, flaws, and abnormal. In a perfect world there would simply be people living life among other people. And everyone would be equally valued, accepted, and loved.
Without a doubt, peanuts are one of my favorite salty snacks to enjoy. I am so very thankful I do not have peanut allergies, because I don't know what I would do if I could not eat peanuts! I have noticed something, though. Every so often when I am feasting on those delicious little nuggets of protein, I will get one that tastes potently bitter. I guess, like anything else, they can't all be good.
I usually will make a face when I unexpectedly eat a bad one. Sometimes I grab a quick drink, or even more peanuts, to try to get rid of the nasty aftertaste. One thing I don't do, is throw away the rest of the peanuts. They are not cheap, and it would be silly to throw away the entire jar or can, just because one tasted bad.
What I would not do with a can of peanuts, I see happening in the society in which I live. Only it happens in regards to people. I'm not naive; I know there are people with bad intentions and hatred in their hearts in the world - the extremists. And in another vein, I know there are people whose differences make us feel very uncomfortable and removed from our comfort zones - some disabled people. I get that, but we step onto a slippery slope when we decide we must judge entire groups of people in terms of those we don't like, or who challenge our comfort zones.
When we use one brush to paint everyone the same, we begin to step out of our roles as fellow human beings, and into the roles of judges and judged. Superior and inferior. Hater and hated. The statement: "We fear that which we do not understand" rings very true in the world today. I see it happening in terms of race and in the world where I spend a significant amount of time - helping those with disabilities.
One of the components of my job includes finding employers who will allow my students to work for them three afternoons each week. The students are paid minimum wage, but not by the employer - by money from the funds that support the training. Basically, what I am offering is a free employee. I cannot count the number of times, as soon as I mention that the students all have some type of disability - even when I say that many of them are hidden disabilities, like a math or reading learning disability - the conversation has shifted and management has made a split-second decision not to give even one student the opportunity to work with their organization. Sometimes they have had bad experiences in the past, I understand that, but at the same time I think we miss out on a lot of great opportunities when we automatically shut a group of people out of our bubbles.
Stereotyping really does come from a place of ignorance. And people who are highly educated can be just as ignorant when it comes to allowing our society to be made up of a broad range of diverse individuals. A truly inclusive society would be such a beautiful thing to be a part of, but it will only come with education.
It will only happen if those of us who are willing to accept others' differences are willing to stand up and begin to educate those who don't understand, and those who are less willing. We need to infiltrate comfort zones, and educate whenever we find ignorance. And we need to do it with love and understanding. It is not easy to change the way people think. It is not easy to persuade people to allow others inside the bubble. It is not easy to assuage the fears of the unknown, and things we do not understand. It must be done with love and compassion, because if we try to force it by bashing and criticizing others, the process will move more slowly. It is not easy.
But it's not impossible, either. Bit by bit, person by person, we can share our hearts - and encourage others to open theirs. If I won't discard an entire bag of peanuts because I don't like some, I certainly won't discard an entire group of people because of the actions of some. It's time to bust the bubbles of exclusion. Are you in?
This has been a long and dark Autumn - and I am not talking about the weather. By nature, I am a rescuer and helper of others. I have spent my entire life taking care of those around me, or at least attempting to. I have been drawn to the rejected and hurting, and have looked for their potential and abilities, and the many positive characteristics others are apt to overlook. I have often been questioned for befriending those who rub society the wrong way. And yet, my rescuing heart has not been swayed, and I am blessed to have a huge variety of friends. After so many years of pouring myself into those around me, I was stunned this past September when I realized I had spent so much of my life caring for everyone else, I never learned to take care of me.
Suddenly, the rescuer needed rescuing.
Ordinarily, nothing much rocks my boat. I am optimistic and have faith in God that is deep and steadfast. My faith has gotten me through many storms, and over enormous mountains. When I unexpectedly found myself wrestling with depression, overwhelming frustration, and even rage - I wanted to deny it all. It made no sense to me. I loathed myself, and yet, I was living my dream. It was a confusing time, and I felt so ashamed for having such conflicting feelings. Everything was going great for the Torch! And I could hardly contain my excitement over the rapid progress we were suddenly making with 180! I thanked God every single day for all the wonderful things He was doing in my life. How could I possibly feel so down and dark inside? I tried very hard to talk myself out of it. I blamed my ingratitude. I blamed my job. I blamed my friends. I blamed my divorce.
As I sunk lower and lower into pain and despair, I finally acknowledged that I didn’t totally understand what was happening to me, and that I needed to make some changes and to seek out help. I hated doubting my mental and emotional health. I hated the thought of going into therapy. How could I possibly need that? I was the one who gave help!
But I knew without a doubt, if I didn’t get some counseling I was going to find myself walking away from everything I worked so hard to accomplish. I truly did not want that to happen. And so, I began one of the most challenging journeys of my life. I was compelled to step back from my lifetime role of always-the-helper-never-the-helped, and realize it was time I took care of me. Somehow, that had gotten lost as I shouldered the responsibilities of helping others. I came face to face with the knowledge if I wanted to continue to try to be a beacon of hope and encouragement to people, I had to take time to make my life my priority. It was time to stop waiting for some magical person to come along and do it for me.
The process was slow. It was painful. I found it necessary to comb and dig through events of my past - many things I preferred to bury and forget - but I had to dig them up and to face them, acknowledge them, and allow myself to experience the emotions I was often able to ignore while in my quest to care for others. I worked through anger, rage, sadness, hurt, disappointment, rejection, and deep, deep sorrow. I felt them; I allowed myself to experience the full range of my emotions, and then, finally, was able to truly put behind me the demons of my past. I hated every minute of it as much as I knew it was necessary and right. I wrestled desperately with the knowledge of how much I have lost in my life.
And yet, as I walked through that valley of loss and despair, I found much as well. I found some very true friends who are willing to listen, and to hold my hands when I cry. I found friends who housed me and comforted me. I found friends who allow me to call whenever I need to. I found friends who pray for me and with me.
Additionally, most importantly, I found me, and I found that I am not so bad after all. My relationship with God grew deeper - something I hadn’t realized was possible. He showed me again and again, as He always does, that He was there. One night, He made Himself very present in a clear and tangible way. I was sitting on my couch, and suddenly had the overwhelming sense that I was completely alone in life. As I began to pray away that feeling, I received a text from an individual I had only recently met. The text said, “I was thinking about you and hope all is well.” They went on to tell me they had been praying for a long time for God to send them a friend, and they were thankful they had met me. I was overcome with gratitude for God, and for that person who was sensitive enough to know I needed to hear from someone at that moment.
And now, I am back. I am back, but I am not the person I was before. Oh, I still plan to go after the broken people I meet. I still plan to diligently seek all the good I can find in them. I have to do that, it’s my passion. But I will also take care of me. My life will be a priority in my life. I will stay healthy. I will keep close to people I should be close to. I will move forward. I will cut myself some slack and allow myself to be human. I've never been able to do that.
And from this point forward, when I need help, I will ask, because sometimes we all need help and support. There is absolutely no shame in that.
I am me, and me is not such a bad person to be.
So, The Torch was on the news. You can see the story at: http://www.fox2detroit.com/news/local-news/8097284-story
I will admit, watching that coverage on TV felt quite surreal. It was also very humbling. Only time will tell if it really mattered.
Every time we share our stories, Sarah and I both remember exactly who we are and where we have been, and we acknowledge that we are nothing special and The Torch is never to be about us. It truly is not. I know we drive (unintended pun) what happens at The Torch. We have been blessed with a variety of gifts that enable us to do the things we do. I pray all the time that we never take those gifts for granted.
But, The Torch is not about us. It is about hope and that's what makes what we are doing so important and what compels us to push for more. The Torch HAD to happen. It was time for somebody to say, "Hey! Things need to be different!" It was time to remind people that EVERYONE matters and that people who need help should be treated like the valuable human beings they are. They shouldn't merely become a number, or part of a list of clients that keeps the money rolling in for an agency. Their humanity and being makes them worthy of respect and love. They deserve to know they can have hope, and that their lives are valuable.
Then, there is Torch 180. a food-service facility in which we will train and employ individuals with disabilities to work in the food service industry.
Torch 180 is not just a good idea, or merely another dream. It's not intended to be a feather in our caps. Torch 180 is a NECESSITY. It HAS to happen, because the food service industry is a great big industry with many employment opportunities, and people with disabilities can be trained to fill those positions. It HAS to happen because we see large numbers of people who have disabilities who are unemployed - and we have had many contact us to ask for help with training. It HAS to happen and therefore it WILL happen.
We believe 180s happen in life all the time - and they don't always have to be bad! Employment can make so much difference for people's lives - enhancing self-esteem, as well as helping to provide for basic needs. We all know that. Torch 180 has to happen, because will enable us to help so many more people in such a practical way.
Which is why only time will tell if our television debut (snicker, snicker) on Fox 2 news really matters. It really matters if, after seeing the story, people rally around The Torch and Torch 180, and the funding comes in, a facility is located, and we are able to bring hope to people in yet another way.
It is not about us. Not even a little. It's about hope and helping and making the world different for others. So, we will see if it really matters.
Do you see that picture? THAT is a picture of what love looks like. "Of course," you say, "Everybody loves Sarah! The Torch wouldn't be The Torch without her!" Which, naturally, is true, however - that is NOT why that is a picture of what love looks like.
The snake makes it a picture of love. Being the fitness gurus we are, Sarah and I went for a walk one evening. I was the first one to spot the snake. I grabbed Sarah's arm, and said, "LOOK!" And waited in anticipation for her to scream and freak out a bit. Sarah HATES snakes. They don't really trouble me much. I think it's kindof funny when we encounter one and she tries to escape.
But, Sarah surprised me! She said, "Wait! I have to catch it!" Hmmm, I thought, She must be trying Exposure Therapy to rid herself of her fear of snakes - being the psychological thinker that I am. I was wrong. She handed me her phone, held up the snake, and asked me to take a picture. Her nephew, Benjamin, LOVES all kinds of creatures, and Sarah LOVES Benjamin, so she knew he would be very happy to see a picture of his aunt holding a snake. She did get a little creeped out after she put the snake down and it slithered away.
So that is a picture of love. When we love, we do things that sometimes go against our nature - which is not always easy. In fact, often it can be very hard. Our society makes it difficult to talk about love, too - particularly if it is love among humanity and apart from family and friends. People think it is impossible to love others unless you are deeply and intimately involved in their lives - and who has time to get deeply and intimately involved in the lives of all of humanity, besides God?
But, I think it is possible to love people just because they are people and are worthy of my caring. We recently got an email in which we were told we are the most beloved ladies in that community. I admit, I cried when I read that. The email was sent to inform of us of an opportunity they had found to give back to the Torch - but for me, that was secondary. We are beloved because that is a community where we love on people. We draw strength for that from God.
I think making a leap of faith to follow a dream sounds much simpler than the process really is. When I was homeless, I saw a side of life, and people, that deeply impacted me with the desire to try to make things different. We live in a society where we are often discouraged when we try to love others. It is not easy to put ourselves aside and try to make a difference for a greater purpose. I fully believe God used my time of homelessness and despair to embed in me a passion for change both in my heart and attitude, and in the world around me. I wanted to love people with abandon, with no strings attached, and to find out what it means to fully immerse myself in following faithfully wherever God leads. And it has been a beautiful, surprising, awe-inspiring journey for sure.
But it hasn't been easy. I would never tell anyone that stepping out in faith is easy, because it is not. It is one of the most difficult pursuits of my life, and it is challenging emotionally and physically.
The emotional toll can be wearing - and in more ways than one. I love the people I meet. Sometimes my heart just aches with pain as I listen to their stories, and life experiences. I have a soft spot for those society discards and discounts - and the knowledge that I can't help them all sometimes makes me achingly sad. I am also struck, as I drive through the neighborhoods where we go, by the numbers of individual human beings we are NOT reaching. I want them all to know how much they matter- whether or not they need the meal we are cooking - but also because I know and understand how completely lonely life can feel. And my prayer is what we are doing at the Torch will have a ripple effect that reaches beyond the people who we have been blessed to meet and know - and spreads out into the people they meet and know, and beyond.