There are so many amazing people who inspire me to think outside the foster care box every day. The majority of them are children. I discovered just how much I am inspired by children who have experienced foster care while recently reading ten years worth of gratitude journals.
Every night I ask myself:
· What surprised me today?
· What am I grateful for?
· What inspired me?
· What moved me?
There was at least one child mentioned on each page of my journal. 365 x 10 years. Those are powerful numbers!
Then there are my wonderful friends, family, colleagues, mentors, and all of the generous individuals and philanthropists who have supported me since I became a full time child advocate.
Books have been a major source of inspiration for me since the first grade. I can’t go into a bookstore without coming out with at least one new book… My daughter Jenna and I have piles of books by our beds and are always passing them back and forth. Bedtime stories are a favorite family ritual. Right now my third grader and I are reading one chapter book a night. One of my fondest memories was reading The Witches to my son Jesse when he had the chicken pox. I was nine months pregnant. Reading and floating in the pool were such great pastimes that August!
For the past two years I have been very grateful for Rachel Naomi Remen. Her book, My Grandfather’s Blessings, is always by my side. Today I am most moved by her wise words regarding service:
“True service is not a relationship between an expert and a problem; it is far more genuine than that. It is a relationship between people who bring the full resources of their combined humanity to the table and share them generously.”
“Service goes beyond expertise. Service is another way of life.”
“Service is the work of the soul. We might view moments of genuine service as movement toward the soul, a return to what is most genuine and real in each of us.”
“A helping relationship may incur a sense of debt, but service, like healing, is mutual. Service is free from debt. The wholeness in me is as strengthened as the wholeness in you. Everyone involved is fortunate to have had the chance to participate.”
“Service is closer to generosity than it is to duty. It connects us to one another and life itself.”
“Service has a life of its own. A single act of kindness may have a long trajectory and may touch the lives of people we may never meet or see. Something we casually offer may move through a web of connection far beyond ourselves to have effects that we may never have imagined.”
“Being of service is about taking life personally, letting the lives that touch yours touch you.”
“Perhaps our greatest service is simply to find ways to strengthen and live closer to our goodness. This is far from easy. It requires an everyday attention, an awareness of all that diminishes us, distracts us, and causes us to forget who we are.”
Recently I came across a letter written in 2000 addressed to Paul Newman. I had been a foster parent for almost a year and was pondering how to best support kids in care. I love summer camp. I admire and respect Paul Newman. His style of philanthropy is definitely out-of-the-box and I love its widespread appeal. He has fun being a philanthropist and he plays the role with panache. When I read about his Hole in the Wall Gang Camps I was definitely inspired. So I picked up a pen and wrote him a letter. Treehouse was on its way….
“Dear Mr. Newman –
I am writing to express my deep appreciation for your style of philanthropy. I love the way you combine great marketing with outstanding business skills to benefit those in our country who need our help the most. I have been in business for almost 20 years and am constantly delighted by your expanding product line. My one year old adores frozen Fig Newmans. My 13 year old loves your Peanut Butter Cups. At this moment she is in the process of a taste test – Do Newman’s Peanut Butter Cups taste better frozen or unfrozen?”
The letter goes on to ask questions about the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp. About two weeks later I received a call from one of his team leaders. They took the time to answer all my questions, gave me a full tour of the camp, and I was on my way! What a stellar organization. I loved that experience. I got a glimpse of excellence that I will never forget. Five years later, after I had launched Camp To Belong in Massachusetts, I received a letter from Paul Newman with a check for $10,000.00. That moment, when I opened the letter and the check fell out, stood still in time. The letter was one page. It was typed on a typewriter. I read Mr. Newman’s words of encouragement slowly. It felt like he was tipping his hat to the children, innovation, my efforts, and the organization I was building. I closed my eyes and said, “Thank you”. What an amazing life experience!
My maternal grandmother was a tiny woman who possessed great strength and seemed to be made up of abundant goodness. A mother of nine, she was born in California in 1882. Her family raised sheep in southern Cailfornia. When she was 13 years old they gathered up all their belongings, rounded up their flock of sheep, and headed north to San Francisco in covered wagons. I remember sitting at her feet as a child listening to stories about that great adventure.
I loved my grandmother with all my heart. She was wise, kind, respectful, and full of grace. She adored children. Her grown children, my cousins and I all flocked to her, our beloved matriarch.
She raised her family on a ranch in northern California with her big tall husband who hailed from Virginia. She and her five daughters got up “every morning of the world” and made biscuits and gravy for the hired hands who helped on the ranch. She tended a beautiful garden outside the farmhouse and shared her loving energy with her family and large community of extended family members.
When her oldest daughter died in childbirth, my grandmother got on a train and headed to Los Angeles. She comforted her grieving son-in-law, scooped up her beautiful little 2 year old granddaughter, and embraced her infant grandson.Together they headed back to the ranch where she raised the children as her own. She was 50 years old.
When my son was born I couldn’t wait to fly home to California and place him in her arms. She loved babies and was anxious to meet him. I remember dressing him up for the occasion. With great excitement I drove my mom’s car over to her place and bounced into her room. She looked up with a big smile on her face and said, “Oh Judy! He’s just beautiful… Bless him. Bless his little heart.” While she held him in her arms she cooed to him and said, “ Welcome to the world beautiful little one. You are straight from Heaven and we will love you and cherish you the way we do all children sent to us from above.” We spent the next couple of hours sitting side by side, loving that sweet little baby boy and each other. The room was full of peace.
When my grandmother died a few months later at the age of 99 I held that memory close. I felt such gratitude for her abundant grace and her ability to fill people’s lives with goodness. When I read the story about the little five month-old baby boy being kidnapped from his crib I immediately thought of my grandmother and her words to Jesse. I knew what to do – get out there and bless the lives of children as she had taught me to do.
Another late winter storm has arrived. They say six to ten inches in our neck of the woods. I am upstairs gazing out the window at falling snow. It seems as if someone is sitting on a cloud over our house with a hand held sifter, gently sifting powdered sugar down on the bushes, trees, and grass.
I have finished shoveling the driveway – a task I have done so many times over the past twenty years that I could do it blindfolded: grab a warm jacket, pull on some fleece gloves, step barefoot into a pair of comfy lined boots, and wrap my favorite blue scarf around my head. The shovels are lined up on the porch.
I love the peace and quiet that the snowfall brings. All ambient sounds are muffled so it’s easy to get lost in one’s thoughts. Shoveling is always a welcome task at the end of a February school vacation week. Head down, I occasionally hear the sound of a neighbor’s shovel scraping the driveway. I think about heading out behind the bunny cages with my snow shoes and the dog, but once the driveway is snow free, I go into the garage and climb into the car to retrieve Abigail Thomas’ stellar memoir, A Three Dog Life.
I love this book. I need this book. Abigail Thomas is an honest writer who beautifully describes her husband’s traumatic brain injury and the impact it has on their lives. My dear brother in law, whom I have known since I was 18 years old, was just diagnosed with stage four brain cancer. A team of neurosurgeons removed a tumor the size of an egg from his left frontal lobe. Soon he will begin a three course treatment of full brain radiation, chemotherapy, and a clinical trial drug.
Abigail Thomas’ words soothe me. I climb into the driver’s seat, open the book, and read until the light in the garage disappears. Then I come inside and head upstairs to my daughter’s beautiful orange room. This has become my sanctuary since she went to college. Her cozy bed, piles of books, and beautiful windows overlooking the backyard give me a fabulous view of snow falling softly. I climb in, pull up the comforter, and lose myself in the story. When I finish the last page Abigail Thomas feels like an old friend. She likes her truth close to the bone and I feel inspired by her storytelling. She has made me chuckle and provided me with a reference map I can refer to as my family enters this unknown territory. Feeling much more confident, I place the book on the shelf, head downstairs to get the dog, pull on some old comfy boots, and go outside to play in the snow. I am grateful for the inspiration that comes to me from so many treasured people, pets and places.