Tag Archives: Optimism

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.




There is a Light that Never Goes Out

26 Mar
Chicago Winter. Photo by MAG

Chicago Winter. Photo by MAG

The first time I’d seen him, he was bundled in a camel overcoat, fast asleep.

I thought I was extremely lucky when I hopped on the almost empty El car at the Chicago stop and grabbed a seat during rush hour, but once the doors closed, I quickly realized why the car was deserted.  The stench coming from the corner made my eyes water and I followed the lead of the man next to me and pulled my scarf up over my nose and mouth to filter the air enough to be able to make it to the Clark/Division stop where I quickly changed cars.

I didn’t really think much about it after that.  Over the past year, I’ve become acclimated to riding public transport and have learned to adjust to the inevitable clash of cultures, and this brutal Chicago winter has made me even more aware of the challenges faced by the city’s poor and homeless residents.   The CTA became a refuge from the subzero temperatures, and to their credit, the CTA employees who run the trains did their best to shepherd the all-day riders onto one car in order to keep an eye on people and make sure no one froze to death.

Last week, I saw him again.

I recognized the tattered camel overcoat, and the smell.  As he walked the platform the crowd of people parted and gave him a wide berth.  When he found a bench to settle down on, the man sitting there got up and moved ten feet away.  Everyone on the platform turned their backs and looked away as if not looking would make the man – and the smell – disappear.  I wanted to look away, too, but I’d just written my last blog entry about how I was going to smile at strangers and help when I could, so I looked.

The man sat on the bench fiddling with a pair of ripped gloves that barely covered his fingers, a tattered black plastic bag at his feet.  He stared at the ground as he tugged his coat, pulling it more tightly around his body, as I debated about what I should do.  And then in an instant, I knew.

I walked over and leaned down close enough to say, “Good morning, sir.”  Startled, the man looked up and then looked away quickly.

Taking a deep breath, I continued, “Have you had breakfast?”

He looked back up, confused for a moment, and asked, “What?”

I repeated, “Have you had breakfast yet?”

He ducked his head and gestured toward the black bag, “Not yet, but I’m going to have a bite soon.”

I reached into my messenger bag and pulled out the PBJ sandwich that I’d packed before I left the apartment that morning and offered it to him, saying, “It’s just PBJ, but you’re more than welcome to it.”

He smiled a little and replied, “Oh no, ma’am, I’m fine.  I’ve got breakfast in this here bag. But thank you.”

My first impulse was to press further and make him take the sandwich, but I quickly understood what he was saying and backed off, tucking the sandwich back into my bag.

Sometimes preserving one’s dignity trumps hunger.

I smiled at him, and asked a question that I would spend the next few days kicking myself for asking, “Do you need anything else, sir?”

What kind of idiot question was that?  Of course he needing something else.  He needed a lot of things, but since he’d refused the sandwich I didn’t know what else to offer and I didn’t want to insult him by assuming I did.

He smiled back at me, and replied, “Oh no, I’m fine, ma’am.  Thank you.”

As I looked at him and nodded, he lifted his head and looked right into my eyes as he smiled in a way that could only be described as serene and said, “And God bless you, ma’am.  God bless you.”

I returned his smile and his blessing, and then stepped on the train leaving him sitting on the bench.

As the car sped down the tracks I felt sad for a moment because I hadn’t been able to do anything for the man.  I hadn’t been able to give him anything or help in any measurable way.

And then I thought about the way he’d looked me in the eye, raising his head and smiling as he blessed me.

Maybe the greatest gift we can offer another person is the dignity of being seen.

Downtown Train

6 Nov


Photo by DMT

I love public transportation.

When J. and I visited New York City three and a half years ago, I fell in love with the subway system.  There is something so amazing about hopping on the subway with millions of other people and being transported from one part of the city to another with speed and ease.

Photo by DMT

I’ve fed my fascination with the NYC subway by listening to the Bowery Boys podcasts, which detail the history of mass transit in New York City, and this has made me love it even more.

The story of Alfred Ely Beach and his pneumatic transit system captured my attention.  In 1869, Beach came up with the idea of utilizing the pneumatic technology used to move letters and packages to transport people from one location to another and began construction on what was supposed to be a small tunnel for pneumatic tubes.  He built a larger tunnel that could accommodate human traffic, and opened his block long system in February of 1870.  Believing that an extended system of transit had potential,  Beach lobbied the New York legislature between 1870 and 1873 for permission to build a city-wide pneumatic “people mover,” but his idea was opposed by politically connected property owners on Broadway, Alexander Turney Stewart and John Jacob Astor II, who felt the construction process would damage buildings and interfere with surface traffic.

“Beach operated his demonstration railway from February 1870 to April 1873. It had one station in the basement of Devlin’s clothing store, a building at the southwest corner of Broadway and Warren St, and ran for a total of about 300 feet, first around a curve to the center of Broadway and then straight under the center of Broadway to the south side of Murray St” [Scientific American 2010].  [Interesting side note: Beach published the blueprints for the railway system in the 1870 issue of Scientific American, a magazine he and Orson Desaix Munn bought in 1850 for $800.00 – that’s $23,000 in today’s dollars according to the consumer price index].

Beach lost support for his system when William Tweed’s Tammany Hall political machine was disgraced in 1871.  The Panic of 1873 dried up any possibility of funding for the project, and by that time other investors had begun building the elevated rail system that would become the 19th century’s answer to transportation issue in New York City.

Photo by DMT

The history of the subway system adds to my fascination with the actual experience of riding it.  Every weekday over 5 million people ride the subway, and this excites me because this means that there are hundreds of opportunities every day to meet new and interesting people on trips up – or down – town!  I imagine the conversations, the connections, the adventures, and the new discoveries made possible simply by stepping on a subway car!

Ever the pragmatist, D. has reminded me that this also means the possibility of “meeting” the germs of those 5 million people.  He keeps me grounded in reality and cognizant of the fact that my pre-move to do list will need to include a flu shot and investment in lots of hand sanitizer.

Photo by DMT

Given that my experience with the subway system is extremely limited, I’m fairly sure that I’ve romanticized what it will be like.  I know Rod Stewart will not be down in the tunnels late at night pleading to know whether he’ll see me tonight.  I also know that it’s highly unlikely that eye contact with a stranger will lead to love at first sight like in a Savage Garden video.  However, if I have romanticized it, I’m okay with that.  I think the New York City subway system could use a little romance.

And with 5 million daily riders, the possibilities are seemingly endless.


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Live as You Dream

30 Oct

Central Park. Photo by DMT

I’m keeping my New York City dreams alive.

In part two of my “Optimism 101” course, I’d like to offer a list of movies and videos I frequently watch in order to remind myself to keep dreaming and, maybe even more importantly, to keep believing in my dreams.

These movies and videos inspire me for a host of reasons, not the least of which is that each one of them gives me faith.  None of the “heroes” in these digital motivators is perfect.  In fact, that’s precisely what I love about them.  Infallible heroes are not interesting or inspiring, what’s inspiring, to me, is the idea that the challenges presented by human frailty are used to shape spirit and mold character.  I love the flaws, and I love those who can get knocked down over and over, and yet continue to rise.  I love the heroes who have faith in their convictions, but who also aren’t afraid to admit when they’re wrong and change direction.

Oh, and I’m a sucker for great quotable lines.

Optimism 101 Movie List

1. Peaceful Warrior [2006] – This movie is based on the real life story of Dan Millman, a former UC Berkeley gymnast who underwent a personal transformation after a terrible accident and later founded The Peaceful Warrior’s Way, a self-help motivational teaching movement designed to help people empower themselves.  The movie is a cross between a drama and a philosophical life lesson, and it does an incredibly good job of driving that lesson home through the lessons that Dan learns when he meets a gas station attendant, Socrates [convincingly played by Nick Nolte]. My favorite lines in the movie are “Take out the trash. The trash is anything that keeps you from focusing on the only thing that matters – this moment.  And when you’re truly in the present, you’ll be surprised at what you can do, and how well you can do it.”

2. Interstate 60: Tales of the Road [2003] – This movie is a hilarious trip down the fabled “Interstate 60” as Neil searches for answers to his life’s purpose after meeting the elusive O.W. Grant [Gary Oldmam].  Neil’s lesson is about how to let go of the need to look to others for answers and to trust what he knows is right for him.  One of the best scenes in the film is when Neil takes a woman to the town of Banton to look for her missing son, and ends up in the office of the local sheriff [Kurt Russell].  There he learns an important lesson about the ways in which trading individuality for the perception of happiness is an incredibly dangerous choice.  My favorite line is uttered by Bob Cody [Chris Cooper] who tells Neil, “Say what you mean, mean what you say. You know that if everybody follow that rule, there’d be a lot less trouble.”

3. Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford Commencement Address – This video makes me simultaneously cry and cheer when I watch it.  Jobs reminds the audience of newly minted graduates that they should “follow their bliss” and do what they truly love.  It is very simply the best reminder that while circumstances and events in your life are not within your control, your choice to see them as obstacles or life lessons is.  My favorite lines are after Jobs explains that Macs have such beautiful fonts because he dropped out of college. He says, “Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college, but it was very, very clear looking backwards 10 years later. Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backwards, so you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something–your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever–because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well-worn path, and that will make all the difference.”

4. Tombstone [1993] – I love this movie because it is about loyalty, friendship, love, and the strength of believing in one’s convictions.  Wyatt Earp [Kurt Russell] follows his conscience – and his heart – and does what he believes is the right thing to do, knowing that it might very well cost him his life.  The friendship between Wyatt and Doc [Val Kilmer] is an amazing thing to behold, and is the source of my favorite quote.  On his deathbed, Doc tells a conflicted Wyatt, “There is no normal life, Wyatt. There’s just life, and you live it.”

5. Simon Sinek – How Great Leaders Inspire Action [2010] – This talk is based on Sinek’s book Start With Why.  In it, Sinek discusses “The Golden Circle,” the basis for his theory on why great leaders and corporations inspire action and loyalty.  My favorite line is Sinek’s thesis, “People don’t by what you do, they buy why you do it.”

6. Freedom on My Mind [1994] – This California Newsreel documentary about the struggle to gain voting rights in Mississippi in the 1960s should be required viewing for every American.  The film goes to the heart of the movement and combines actual footage shot during the Mississippi Freedom Rides with 1990s interviews with the people who were involved in the rides and in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.  I love this film because it illustrates the enormous complexities that were involved with the struggle without trying to provide a monolithic narrative.  My favorite line is from Endesha Mae Holland who, at the time, was viewed by the town as a teenage girl with no morals.  She recalls, “The whole town looked down it’s nose at me, but the movement told me I was somebody.  They said I was somebody.”

7. A Man Named Pearl [2006] – In 1976, Pearl Fryar was s a black factory worker who bought a house in an all-white Bellville, South Carolina neighborhood.  When the real estate agent informed the residents of the neighborhood that a black family would be moving in, they were upset because “Black people don’t keep up their yards.”  As a result, Mr. Fryar, who had no artistic or horticultural experience, created a yard that is now considered a topiary masterpiece in both the art and horticultural worlds.  My favorite line comes from an interview with the Reverend of Mr. Fryar’s church.  When people ask him how an old man can do what Mr. Fryar does [he was in his 50s when he started the garden], the Reverend says, “Sometimes blessings come early and sometimes blessings come late, but they are always right on time.”

8. Braveheart [1995] – The epic story of the fight for Scotland’s freedom, William Wallace is one of the best heroes on film.  He loves his country, his friends, his family and his late wife, and while he isn’t perfect in any way, he is deeply committed to doing the right thing to the end.  There’s a tie for my favorite lines in this film, it’s either “Every man dies, but not every man lives.” or “In the year of our Lord, 1314, patriots of Scotland, starving and outnumbered, charged the fields of Bannockburn. They fought like warrior poets. They fought like Scotsmen. And won their freedom.” The last one leaves me sobbing every time.

These are a few of the films that give me hope, and allow me to keep my faith alive.  If you’d like to share the movies or videos that lift your spirits and help you keep your faith in your own dreams, please do.

I’m always looking for new inspiration — and my students would probably appreciate it if I’d add some new quotes to my repertoire.

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Live Like We’re Dying

26 Oct

Photo by DMT

I am a sliver lining kind of woman.

No matter how awful things seem at any given time, I always seem to be able to find the good side of any situation.

A few weeks ago, J. asked me how I maintain my fairly consistent positive outlook on life.  I had to think about it for a while because I had no clear cut answer for her.  Some days, I’m not really sure how I do it [many of my students might suggest it’s the result of watching the film Peaceful Warrior twenty-five times], and some days I’m not very successful at it.  I thought about her question for a few days, and took a close look at what things contribute to my ability to maintain an optimistic attitude, and I’ve come up with a few lists of things that help me.

For the next few posts, I’d like to offer up these lists and ask those of you who read, to contribute whatever it is that helps you maintain an optimistic outlook on life.

I’d like to say from the outset that these are the things that have worked for me – your mileage will vary – so take what you can use and set the rest aside.  Trust your instincts and do what feels right for you, but keep an open mind and remember that what doesn’t work today, might work tomorrow or next week or next year.

Optimism 101- Mary’s Reading List

1. Simple Abundance – Sarah ban Breathnatch — I’ve read this book of daily meditations for women for the past four years.  Some of what she writes is unrelated to anything in my life, but a lot of her short essays hit at the heart of something I’m struggling with, and I’m finding that with this latest reading, the essays are like old friends that I love, but haven’t seen in a while – familiar and comforting, but new again.  [Lest you think I’m a goody-two-shoes, on my earnest days, I jump in ready to believe, but on my cynical days, I roll my eyes and wonder who in the world could be this optimistic.  That usually makes me laugh at myself].

2. Choosing Happiness – Stephanie Dowrick — This book is made up of short readings about how to develop, cultivate and maintain happiness.  It is full of helpful offerings that are designed to give the reader a way to envision their life in a more positive way, and then to follow through to reflect that outlook.  I frequently turn to this book when I am experiencing a difficulty that causes me to revert back to unproductive [read: negative] behaviors.

3. A Girl Named Zippy – Haven Kimmell — Forget the fact that Kimmel is the author of my all-time favorite book, The Solace of Leaving Early, Zippy is quite possibly the single funniest memoir I’ve ever read.  Seriously, how could you not love Zippy’s mother? She tells Zippy that instead of being birthed at a hospital, she’d been acquired in a fair-ground trade with wandering gypsies in exchange for a special purse. As Zippy is taking in this information her mother throws in an “oh by the way” comment that Zippy had been born with a tail, which they’d had removed so she could wear pants.  When I need a laugh-out-loud read, I reach for this book.

4. Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand — This might seem like an odd choice for me since Rand’s book basically extols the virtues of unchecked capitalism, but I read this book with D. last summer and I loved it.  I read it less as a treatise on how to get rid of socialism, and more as a psychological drama about how individuals wrestle with making decisions about what they “should” do and what they want to do.  I loved Dagny Taggert because she was a strong woman who wanted to do what was right for herself, her company, and her dream – and none of her decisions were easy.  I liked the book even more after a new biography about Rand revealed that she violated the ideals she’d written about in Atlas in order to get the book published.  Breaking rules in pursuit of a dream makes me cheer!

5. Stone Butch Blues – Leslie Feinberg — If I could make this required reading for every individual in the world, I would.  A novel based on Feinberg’s real-life experiences being gay and transgender in Buffalo, New York during the 1950s, 60s and 70s, this book breaks down the ways in which homophobia is insidiously woven into the fabric of every aspect of our lives.  And yet, even in the most horrendous experiences, Feinberg manages to hold onto the thread of human dignity and the power of friendship and kindness.  If you can walk away from this book unaffected, then you need to find the Emerald City and ask the Wizard of Oz for a heart.

6. Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live – Martha Beck — This book took me a long time to read because it was frightening to have someone who has never met me, seem to know me so well.  Dr. Beck is a well know life coach who has written numerous books and also writes a monthly column for Oprah Magazine.  I love her writing because she is forthright, but understanding and kind.  This book helped me understand what it would take to actually live the life I love, and love the life I live.

7. Life Strategies: Doing What Works, Doing What Matters – Dr. Phil McGraw — I love this book because it is a no-nonsense, in-your-face, wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee kind of book.  When someone recommended this book to me, I rolled my eyes and sighed heavily, the person recommending it said “I know, I think he’s hokey too, but give this book a chance!”  I’m glad I did.  Dr. Phil’s ten Life Laws are probably the most helpful pieces of advice I’ve ever read, and I love his unsentimental approach.  He recognizes the difficulties we all face, but ultimately says “Man up, and do something about it.”

8. The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency – Alexander McCall Smith — Actually, I own the entire series of the Mma. Ramotswe mysteries, and I love every book in the series.  Mma Ramotswe is a wonderful, beautiful, and resourceful character who is absolutely human.  I love her acknowledgment of the ways in which all of the pieces fit together – of a mystery or a community.  She radiates love, and as a result, I love her, too.

9.  A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose – Eckhart Tolle – This book surprised me when I read it because I was expecting to cast it aside after a chapter or two.  I thought Tolle’s combination of philosophy and spirituality would be far too over the top for a pragmatic dreamer.  I was wrong.  What I found when I read this book was that I was fully engrossed in what Tolle was explaining, and I actually ended up reading the entire book in a weekend because I couldn’t put it down.  What resonated the most for me, at the time, was Tolle’s explanation of how the ego drives negative action through fear.  Critics argue that Tolle’s discussion is nothing new, but it was a new way for me to understand my own life, and I appreciated it.

10. The Women of Brewster Place – Gloria Naylor – This is one of the most beautifully written novels I’ve ever read.  Naylor captures the spirit of a community of women in a way that no other author ever has.  This book is uplifting and heartbreaking.  It underscores the courage and dogged determination of the women who live in Brewster Place, and the writing is absolutely breathtaking.

I know this seems like an odd mishmash of reading materials – it is.  It is in no way comprehensive [as if any list ever could be].  This list simply represents books that have been useful to me as I’ve searched for answers to my millions of questions.  And after reading these books, I find that not only do I not have any definitive answers, I have actually come up with more questions.

Read it Again Books, my local used bookstore, and Amazon.com love me.

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