Saturday, March 1, 2014

Lessons & inspirations

I have learned a lot over the years, and some of the most powerful lessons I have learned have been outside of a classroom. Many times, I didn’t even realize I was learning a lesson until much later when I reflected back on it.

Shower Rods and Apologies

The lessons started when I was very young. I was blessed to learn about unconditional love and friendship and laughter and respect all in one place, which was the home of my best friends. I’ve mentioned Jackie and Janet before, and I probably will again, because I don’t have many memories of my childhood that don’t involve them, and so very many memories involving them are happy ones.

For reasons I never really knew, but for which I’ll always be grateful, I was treated like a member of their family. I can picture their home as if I were in it yesterday. One particular memory stayed with me always, and it came rushing back to me years later when I had to discipline my own girls.

Jackie and Janet and I were horsing around in the bathroom one day, and I’m guessing we were probably swinging on the shower curtain rod, because it came down in our hands. Their mom, Dee, came rushing in, and once she saw we were okay, I could see she was very angry. I braced myself for the screaming and the yelling and the horrible things we would be called, and to my great surprise, none of that happened. In response to our apology (actually their apology because that was a foreign concept to me), she said she accepted it (also shocking to me), but she was very angry and she needed some time to cool down, so she asked us to go outside and play. What? Where was the yelling and the screaming? I actually felt good about myself after helping to break their house. This was entirely new to me.

Years later, my girls and a number of other neighborhood kids were rollerblading out on the forbidden busy road behind our house, and I happened to drive down the road and busted them all (good lesson here: don’t misbehave on a busy road that happens to be within spitting distance of your mom’s work). To say I was angry was an understatement, but I thought back to that shower rod day, and not only did I not kill my children, I told them I was so angry I needed some time to calm down and talk to their dad before we determined their consequences. So I said I was going back to work, and we would deal with it later, which we did. I totally channeled my inner Dee that day, and not only did I appreciate what she unknowingly taught me, but my children should always be grateful to her as well.

Babies in Car Seats

Not long before I had children, I read a letter in one of the newspaper advice columns. It was from a mother whose baby had died in a car accident. Car seats were still relatively new, and she had chosen not to put her baby in one because she was just going to the post office, which was very close to her house. As she was driving, another car ran a stop sign, crashing into her car, and she described her baby daughter as bouncing around the car “like a ping pong ball.” I can picture that horrible image even now as I write this, and because of her, I never went anywhere without buckling up my children. I can only imagine how many children she probably saved by writing that letter in the midst of her grief. I’ve often wished I could thank her.

Making Molehills out of Mountains

I’ve had a number of bosses over the years, and I learned things from all of them. Some of what I learned from some of them was how I would not want to do something. Actually I learned a lot of that, but I won’t mention those lessons here… least not now. I will relay one from a boss who was a great mentor and is still a good friend.

When I worked for the Forest Preserve District, an issue arose when neighbors were up in arms because the power company was trimming trees under power lines, and a number of the trees were on forest preserve property. We have learned from a few nasty ice storms that trees under power lines cause major problems when the power lines are weighed down by ice, but at the time I don’t think we were as aware, and the idea of cutting down trees was very upsetting to some people, which is actually a good thing most of the time. So they called the Forest Preserve District to enlist our help. This quickly went up the chain to the top because of the potential public relations issue.

As the PR person for the agency, I sat in on our director’s call to the power company, not knowing what to expect except that I guessed it would be heated. What I heard surprised me, as my boss said into the phone, “What can you and I do to keep both of us off the front page?” I clearly was not the only surprised person, as the power company executive was stunned as well.

They went on to discuss their reasons for needing to cut or not cut various trees. My boss, John, said there were a few trees that were particularly valuable and worth fighting for, but he could give in on some of the others. The power company guy did the same, and lo and behold, they worked out a successful compromise that solved the problem and ended the controversy, which kept us out of the news because there was no story to tell. I sat there in awe as I watched this play out, and I learned that a lot of problems can be resolved by simply talking to opponents with respect and then working to reach a compromise. What a simple concept that I wish all people, especially our elected officials, would embrace.

Beautiful, Amazing Ashley

And then there’s Ashley. Ashley B. has become one of the greatest inspirations I think I’ve ever known. She used to play softball with my girls, and I didn’t know her extremely well during those years, but I liked her and was glad she was on their teams. I actually was better friends with her mother.

Ashley is now 30 years old and the mother of a beautiful little girl. Not long after her baby was born, Ashley was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer, obviously an incredible shock to her and everyone in her world.

The amazing part of this story is how she has responded. It’s hard for me to even find the words to describe the fight and strength she has shown the world. I’m sure she has difficult days, and I know she worries about her daughter, but there is no sitting and crying for this girl. She has wrapped herself in a huge support network and is choosing to live her life. Every day. She does this with grace, with humor, and with tremendous strength. She’s even speaking to student groups about finding inner strength when life gives you a nasty blow. For a better introduction to her, you should read her blog “I Dressed Cute 4 Cancer” at It’s so well written and heartfelt and funny and inspiring. Everyone needs to know this woman.

This is the thing that makes me admire her the most. On her daughter’s first birthday, she posted this: “Happy 1st Birthday to my sweet, sweet girl! You make every day worth living, and this has truly been the best year of my life because of you!!!”

There was no mention of cancer or sadness. She doesn’t dwell on pain or fear. Ashley doesn’t know what her future holds any more than the rest of us know ours, so she’s choosing to live her life. And she has inspired everyone who knows her, and even many people who don’t know her, to do the same.

So my goal, in honor of Ashley, is to try to live every day of my life as she has chosen to live hers. We all can learn a lot from this strong and amazing woman.

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