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Dream Again

28 Aug
Guts Over Fear - Photo by Lisa Kolanowski

Guts Over Fear – Photo by Lisa Kolanowski

A few days ago, my mother confirmed my status as a life-long optimist when she told me that, as a toddler, my standard response to the question “How are you, Mary Alice?” was always an enthusiastic, “I’m too too happy!”

For those who know me, this probably does not come as any big surprise.  I firmly believe that joy comes out of sorrow and that this perspective is a choice. Yet I think that, at times, my optimism has the tendency to be interpreted as naivete or downright Pollyanna-ish.

And I understand why.

In a world where so much pain, suffering, injustice, violence, and hatred occurs on a daily basis, it is incredibly difficult to maintain any kind of optimism or hope that anything can change.  My optimism doesn’t deny or ignore all of this, instead every day, I make the choice to actively seek out and acknowledge the many reasons to feel hopeful about the possibility of change.

This week I read Jorie Ella’s piece “Let’s Keep it Real: The ALS Bucket Challenge is an Embarrassment” and then I read Amy Phillips’ “I Don’t Care if You Think it’s a Gimmick: Please, Please Keep Dumping Ice on Your Heads” — and I felt hopeful.

Whether the challenge is deemed useless or useful is a matter of perspective, but the one thing that has become clear is that the Ice Bucket Challenge is inspiring strong reactions and pushing people to engage in discussions that extend far beyond ALS.

People like my beautiful friend, Courtney, whose strong, brilliant father has been stolen from her by this horrible disease, have said, “It makes me feel like the world is behind me!”

And maybe that’s enough to make it worthwhile.

Other people have opposed the challenge because they view it as a shameful waste of water, ALS as a disease that disproportionally affects middle-aged white males, and the social media frenzy surrounding the challenge as a colossal waste of time and is distracting people from the real issues like the war in Gaza, the outbreak of Ebola in Africa, racial and socio-economic injustice in Ferguson, the militarization of police forces in the US, the failure of the US educational system, and countless other issues that deserve attention.  People are being criticized for dumping buckets of water on themselves before donating to ALS research, but those who oppose this waste of water have extended the discussion to include the global need for clean drinking water and conservation efforts, whlie others have found creative ways to participate in the challenge without wasting water.

But here’s the thing…

Everywhere I look, people are engaging in conversations!  Conversations that include links to alternate perspectives, and questioning of ideologies.  Conversations that involve voices from around the globe.  Conversations that often become heated, but attempt to maintain (for the most part) a certain level of respect.

It’s not that I think people should avoid disagreements or that they shouldn’t express their outrage over the ongoing violence and injustice; it’s just that I don’t see how problems are ever going to be solved unless people feel like they’re being heard.  And my experience in classrooms has taught me that once people feel like they matter – like their voice is being heard – anything is possible.

It’s this possibility, and the small, every-day miracles, that propel me forward and keep my optimism alive.

And if my optimism is what makes a difference to even one person, then “I’m too too happy” to be one of the millions who continue to strive to be a small part of the change they want to see in the world.




Break Free

20 Aug
Reflection/Perception - Photo by Lisa Kolanowski

Reflection/Perception – Photo by Lisa Kolanowski

I had to laugh a little when, this past week, my friend Rachel and I were discussing an exchange I’d had with a guy in St. Louis who was angry with the protestors in Ferguson, Missouri, and how I’d approached the situation from the standpoint of asking questions and listening to the response rather than jumping to conclusions – and down the guy’s throat.

Rachel commented, “I think you’re able to see things that many others don’t take the time to see …You take the time and you dissect the situation…you don’t jump to any conclusions.”

I laughed, and replied, “Oh, I always jump to conclusions!  It’s just that I’m learning to keep quiet until I know what’s going on!”


Two week ago, I was ready to call the police on a neighbor who’d left his windows open and allowed his dog to bark non-stop for five hours.

I was absolutely furious that someone would be so rude and insensitive, and as I called the rental company to report the dog for the third time in a week, I wanted to go down and give the guy a piece of my mind.

To their credit, the rental company responded immediately and addressed the issue, but it didn’t stop the problem; it simply cut the barking time from five hours to three.  I grew increasingly more irritated as, in our u-shaped complex, the barking bounced off the brick walls and felt like it was coming from inside my apartment.

Three days ago, I went out for my afternoon walk and as I was exiting the front gate, I was lovingly accosted by a very friendly five-month old Labradoodle named Vanessa.

As I stopped to pet her, I exchanged small talk with her owner; asking how old she was and where he got her.  He confessed that his uncle had pushed him to take her after his dog had had a huge litter of pups, and that she was causing him all kinds of problems with her barking.

Suddenly it dawned on me that this was the barking dog that was driving the neighborhood crazy.

As we talked, her owner told me about how he was afraid of being evicted, but that he didn’t know what to do to stop her. I told him I was one of the people who’d called management — because I was concerned that something was wrong since she’d barked for five hours straight (sometimes a spoon full of sugar helps the message go down).  He apologized, and told me what had been going on.

He said he’d never raised a puppy before, and had been trying to figure out what she was doing by sitting outside the apartment and waiting for her to bark, and then going in and scolding her, but that he was frustrated because it wasn’t helping.

Having spent almost a decade partnered with a veterinary technician who brought home every orphaned animal on the planet, I immediately understood his problem.

As we talked, I slipped suggestions about toys he could buy that would keep her occupied and techniques he could use to stop her barking into the conversation, and warned him that if he didn’t nip the bad behavior in the bud now, he was going to wind up with a very bad adult dog.

He laughed and said she did, indeed, have him wrapped around her paw, but that he didn’t know where to begin to break the bad habits.

I told him that the first thing he had to do was to make sure that he only reinforced the good behavior.  No more going out, waiting for her to bark, and the going back in because it only rewarded her by giving her what she wanted – his presence.

I told him that he needed to ignore her (unless she was doing something that was dangerous) until she behaved the way he wanted her to.  A confused look crossed his face, but as I got up to go on my walk Vanessa, who had been laid out dozing on the walk next to her owner, gave me the perfect “teachable moment.”

She jumped up and put her huge puppy paws on my stomach as she begged for attention.  I took both of her paws in my hands, put them on the ground, and said, “Vanessa, SIT!” as I held up my index finger in the universal sign for sit.  She looked at her owner, and then jumped up on me again.

Again, I put her paws on the ground, but this time her owner held up his finger and firmly said, “Vanessa, sit!”  She looked at him for a moment, and then sat nicely, and I swooped in to kiss her soft fuzzy face as I praised her lavishly for her good behavior.

The third time she jumped up, I pushed her off, folded my arms across my chest and looked away as her owner said, “Vanessa, sit!”

Vanessa immediately sat, and looked up wagging her tail as I bent down and gave her all the attention she wanted.

Her owner looked at me in amazement as I said, “It’s as easy as that!  But it’s the constant reinforcement that’s going to be hard because she’s so adorable!”  He laughed and waved goodbye as I headed out for my walk.

As I walked, I thought about how the conversation had completely changed my perspective on the situation.  My neighbor was no longer “the rude guy with the annoying barking dog;” now he was “Vanessa’s owner” who was trying to figure out how to train her to be quiet.  We had listened to one another and helped each other find solutions to the problem rather than escalate the situation to the point that I became an enraged tenant, and he got evicted.

I’m not saying that all problems can be fixed as simply as this, but I do believe that, for me, half the battle was deciding that being the change is more important than being right, and then changing my behavior to reflect that belief.

In many ways, I do think that Rachel was right when she said, “Really it just comes down to you listening.”

And as I sit here typing – and listening – I am happy to report that I haven’t heard a single bark all week.

The next time I see Vanessa, I’m going to give her a big reward!


Saudade Vem

11 Sep

9/11 Lights - photo by DMT

I’ve been feeling saudade lately.

A few years ago, while attempting to make sense of the emotions I was experiencing after a devastating loss, D. introduced me to this 13th century Portuguese term, which describes a longing or yearning for something from the past that no longer exists in the present.

One definition of saudade is a “vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist,” and another, stronger definition, is “the love that remains.”  It is a kind of melancholy that leaves one longing for what used to be, but also encompasses a “paradoxical joy derived from acceptance of fate and the hope of recovering or substituting what is lost by something that will either fill in the void or provide consolation.”

The feelings brought about by saudade connect both the past and the future to the present, and are not only used to describe the feeling in relationship to people, but also to places [like one’s homeland] and traditions or “the old ways.”  It recognizes that what has happened, can’t be changed – only remembered.

On September 11, 2001, so much was lost by so many that the pain of loss still permeates the fabric of New York City.  It’s not that people haven’t moved forward with their lives, they have, and the evidence of the strength and resilience of New Yorkers rises from every corner, but saudade sneaks through the cracks.

I wasn’t in New York City on 9/11, nor did I lose anyone close to me in the attacks, but the account that D. wrote for me a few years ago [The Rising: 9/11] helped me begin to understand the depth of pain that he, and other New Yorkers, felt as their city was attacked.  The first time I read D.’s account, I remember sitting in front of my computer, openly sobbing. As I read, I felt waves of anger, fear, despair, and pain wash over me, and I wondered how in the world D., and his fellow New Yorkers, had coped with all of this up close and personal.

As I read on, I realized that they dealt with it by being kind to one another, by finding commonalities, and by doing whatever they could to help.  As D. writes, “…people actually looked at each other in the streets and subways. We made eye contact and nodded to each other. There was a feeling that we were all together in the suffering and anger and fear.”  The tragedy that ripped the city apart brought New Yorkers closer together – because they remembered.


This summer, while in New York, the emotions I felt while reading D.’s account came rushing back when he and I were out touring the Financial District.  We had just rounded the corner in front of the World Trade Center when two guys selling commemorative souvenir photo-booklets shoved them in front of us and asked if we’d like to buy one.  Without looking at either man, D. muttered a terse, “No” and kept walking.  Not being used to this daily profit-driven reminder, I was outraged.

I remembered D.’s vivid descriptions, saw the pain these “souvenirs” caused my friend, and I wanted to rip those books out of the hands of those selling them and ask them if they’d stopped to consider how much pain they were causing by hawking their goods. If I’d thought it would have done any good, I probably would have, but I didn’t want to draw attention to something D. had obviously found a way to endure, so I shut my mouth and silently hoped that the warehouse containing the remaining “memorabilia” would burn down while all of the sellers were home for the night – out of harm’s way.

And yet, I also realized that these “sales people” are also a sign of saudade.  New York City experienced a devastating tragedy, mourned the losses, and began to rebuild.  The souvenir sellers make their money by selling memories of the past – albeit not ones that anyone wants to return to – in order to ensure that no one ever forgets what used to be.  I’m not saying they do it for sentimental reasons or because they love New York, I’m saying that they remain in business because people buy the booklets, and those who buy them remember.

And it’s those who remember who are making a difference – both in big and small ways.

There are many people who remember 9/11 and are committed to helping prevent an attack like this from ever happening again.  Many of those people [such as the 9/11 widows who started Beyond the 11th] have become involved in projects designed to put an end to that which causes people to believe that attacks like these are a solution to the problems of poverty, oppression, illiteracy, and religious intolerance.  Only by remembering the past and working toward change in the present can the future be altered.

What does this have to do with saudade?

Saudade is the longing for what has been, the knowledge that it can never be again, and the yearning for what has yet to be.

As the world commemorates the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I think saudade is a useful term as to describe the feelings many of us are struggling with as we try to make sense of all that was lost on that terrible day, the uncertainty we live with in the present, and the world we hope to create for the future.

May peace – and saudade – be with us all.

The Rising

11 Sep

Today is the ninth anniversary of 9/11, and people continue to feel pain, grief, outrage, and anger over the loss of loved ones and an attack on the city that embodies so much of what Americans love about their country.  No American — and no citizen of the world — has remained untouched by the after effects of 9/11.

Before I became friends with D. I hadn’t known anyone who’d been in New York when the Trade Centers were attacked, and after we became friends I hesitated to ask him because I didn’t know what he’d experienced, and I didn’t want to stir up painful memories.  A year ago, I worked up the courage to ask D. what it was like to be in New York City on 9/11.  I asked him to write about it, if he could, and he told me he would.

I don’t remember how long it took him to write out his memories or what he told me when he sent them to me.  The only thing I remember is sitting at my computer, sobbing openly as I read his account of the events of 9/11 [and the days following it].

D.’s writing is a perfect example of the mixed emotions that so many Americans felt, and still feel, about 9/11.  His language is clear, concise, and absolutely devastating in its raw emotion — and he does not offer any answers or simple solutions.  Instead, he lays it all out there and leaves it up to the reader to draw their own conclusions.

After I’d read this piece several times, I asked D. for permission to share it with my students and my family, and he agreed.  I am sharing it here, today, in hopes that this powerful piece of writing will serve as a reminder that when working toward tolerance and understanding, we need to consider not only the communities, but also the individual experiences and feelings that were the result of this tragedy — on all sides of the issue.

Since I didn’t write this piece myself, I have created a separate page for the essay and the photo that D. took last year of spotlights aimed into the inky New York City sky, illuminating the space where the Trade Centers used to stand.

9/11: DMT’s Story

May peace be with you — and with us all.

Chimes of Freedom

24 Aug


One World Trade Center construction. Photo by DMT


Intransigence frustrates me.

The current controversy surrounding the construction of a mosque near Ground Zero has brought out the worst in a lot of folks in this country, and I wish there was some way to get all of the different sides to actually listen to one another. The problem is that the force of emotional fear and defensiveness has taken the place of the ability to rationally evaluate the situation and consider the options.

It’s certainly understandable why so many people are so opposed to the mosque. This is the physical location that quite literally trapped the painful memories of so many Americans in millions of pounds of concrete and steel. The site represents not only the destruction of the Trade Center itself, a feat of architectural engineering that many claimed was impossible and came to represent the “can-do” attitude of Americans, but it also represents the destruction of the hopes and dreams of the people who died in and around the Trade Center – and those of the countless numbers of people who loved and cared about them. No American has remained untouched by this staggering loss, so it makes sense to me why the emotions run high.

Globally, roughly 1.57 billion people identify as Muslim, and approximately 7 million of them reside in the U.S. The hijackers who carried out the 9/11 attacks numbered nineteen. Of course, this doesn’t include the people who helped them carry out the attacks by funding their activities or providing them the training they needed, but even if those numbers are in the hundreds – or thousands – they still represent only a small portion of the Muslims who wish to do harm to others. My p0int is that the people who intend to worship at the mosque are not the people who perpetrated the attack.

Those who oppose the mosque argue that to position it near Ground Zero is an insult to those who died because it allows Muslims to worship near the site. The fear is that since the men who carried out the attack [and those who later claimed responsibility for planning it] identified as Muslims, this mosque has the potential to be used as a “command central” for coordinating new attacks on the U.S. In reality, the mosque initiative is headed by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, a moderate Islamic leader who has written numerous books and who has consistently argued for tolerance and understanding on the part of both Muslims and Christians. His goal is to use the mosque as a place of worship for Muslims who support the Cordoba Initiative.

Imam Rauf has been criticized for a 60 Minutes interview following the 9/11 attacks in which he said that while the U.S. did not deserve to be attacked, the leaders of the U.S. needed to acknowledge that their economic and political decisions in the global sphere had helped create the conditions that led to the attack on the Trade Center. The reactions to Imam Rauf’s comments have been about labeling him “for us or against us,” when, in fact, the Imam’s thoughtful and complex discussion of the tragedy are exactly what has been needed. In order to prevent another attack, U.S. leaders have to be willing to openly and honestly acknowledge what has been done [in as much as any government can acknowledge their activities], and work toward a more peaceful resolution of the issues.

I’m not so naive that I think this will be an easy solution, nor am I saying that the U.S. is entirely at fault. What I’m saying is that the defensive stance has been proven to be detrimental to the societies in which it’s been taken [has anyone been paying attention to the situations in France and Britain?]. And this is not just a religious issue! Historically, the people who have felt that they mattered the least in a society have banded together – for better or worse – and worked to create change. Sometimes the results have been positive, but sometimes the levels of frustration have led people to believe that violence is the only way to get someone to pay attention to them.

My idealistic take on this issue is that hatred and fear, and the violence that is born out of them, are the result of ignoring the value of individuals as individuals. We all need to feel that we matter, and when we don’t feel like we do, we hurt. How that hurt gets played out in the future is the question.

What I see happening with the mosque issue is that as the debate grows more heated each side becomes less willing to even listen to what the other side has to say [and for the record, I believe that those who support the mosque need to listen just as carefully as those who don’t]. If each side is able to, at least, acknowledge the feelings and thoughts of the other side, and then there is hope that both sides can work together to figure out the solution that would have the greatest likelihood of ending in peace.

As I frequently say to my students, “Act as if what you do makes a difference because it does.” Wouldn’t it be nice if the residents of New York City were able to pull together and provide the template for the rest of the country on how to hurt…and then heal?

In the end, I think we can all agree that what we’d like most is to see the chimes of freedom flashing – for everyone.

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