Author Archives: Madeline Bialecki

Creating my vision board

I recently created a vision board, something to help me focus during my sabbatical year—travel I am planning, the things that bring me joy and goals I have set.

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Even the first step of writing down what is important to me was helpful in identifying what I do and don’t want to do.

Without a job to go to or my mom to care for, I have plenty of free time, and I want to focus that time on exploring the next chapter of my life.

I scoured magazines for pictures to illustrate my dreams, goals and vision; and in the process, I realized how people my age are often portrayed. We are the parents who have memory issues and need care (often shown as an elder with a fifty-something adult child sitting on a park bench). Or we are the empty nesters looking to downsize (which usually means moving to a planned community where everyone is our age).

Where are the pictures of people like my friend Betty, who for her eighty-eighth birthday went on a twenty-mile bike ride? Or my mother who lived in her own home until she died at ninety-five?

Where are the pictures of us hiking at a state park (as I did with some friends a few weeks ago)? Playing cards (our memories still intact enough to remember the rules)? And gardening, kayaking, walking, running and biking?

Where are the pictures of us in classrooms, learning new languages, skills and hobbies?

Or in classrooms teaching younger generations skills that will help them in life?

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I am not denying that with age comes decline. I cannot run like I did when I was forty, and I am usually asleep by 10:30 p.m., 11:00 at the latest. I no longer go to bars for nights of drinking (not that that was ever a good thing to do), and I am much more conscious of my calorie intake (I use fewer calories as I am aging).

I do, though, still look forward to the future. I am excited about the prospects of my next chapter and am still discerning where and how I can best use what I have learned in my life. I want to follow my mother’s example and live until I die, open to new ideas and learning new things. I want to keep discovering what brings me joy and where God is calling me to share what I have learned from life.

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Linger

Sit by the water’s edge

and rest.

Linger here,

without worry or hurry.

Feel the breeze that

brings life,

swirling around,

wild and untamed one minute,

gentle and caressing the next.

Listen for that little voice,

that tiny whisper,

inviting you to

immerse yourself in the silence surrounding you,

to dip into the quiet and

let it speak hope to your heart.

A shared experience

Twenty years ago, I was the director of a lay mission program, and I had gone to New York City on September 10 for dinner with two missioners who were heading to Swaziland.

The afternoon of the 10th, they had gone to our mission in Chinatown and climbed to the rooftop to take pictures—with the World Trade Center in the background.

Their families had come in from out of state, and after dinner, we had all gone to JFK to see them off.

I stayed in New York overnight, and the next morning, September 11, I was going to walk from Gramercy Park to Chinatown. I remember leaving the building that morning and looking up at the sky—it was clear blue, a perfect day for a walk.

And then the first plane hit, and then the second plane, and then there was chaos. Sirens blared and police cars and ambulances headed south—while cars, buses and pedestrians, covered in white dust, headed north.

I joined co-workers watching television coverage. One woman paced. Another prepared food. We all deal with shock in our own ways.  

I remember taking a walk in the afternoon and seeing a line of people waiting to use a pay phone (cell phones were not working). “I’m okay,” each person said into the phone and then quickly hung up so the next person could make a call.

I remember thinking that we were not okay. All around us, people were dazed, crying. We were frightened and wondered if there would be another attack.

Nothing made sense.

By evening, the streets were deserted. No taxis, cars or buses. Very few pedestrians. Just a very large security presence on every corner.

All trains had been halted, so I had no way of getting back to Philadelphia that night. Instead, I watched the burning rubble of the Twin Towers from my bedroom window—and called Amtrak every hour to see when trains would run again. I just wanted to get home.

I left for Penn Station around 4:00 a.m., walked up 19th Street to Broadway and turned right. As far as I could see, Broadway was deserted—no people, cars, buses—just total emptiness. The terrorists had succeeded in terrifying us.

Penn Station was filling up by the time I arrived, but it was unlike the Penn Station I had known just two days earlier. We had all experienced something unimaginable, and that experience created a bond stronger than any differences we may have had on September 10. Courtesy, kindness and sympathy shaped our interactions. Tears flowed freely. We were grieving.

I remember standing in line at a bakery in Penn Station the morning of September 12, exhausted and somewhat anxious about getting on a train. I ordered a bagel and coffee, and the man in front of me said, “Let me get that for you.”

I cried at his kindness.

It saddens me to see how divided our country has become over the past twenty years.

Let’s talk

I was the Survivor Speaker at a recent fundraiser for Turning Point, our local domestic abuse/sexual assault resource center. It was the first time I publicly shared my story of being a sexual assault survivor, and I was nervous.

After many years of public speaking in my nonprofit work, my jitters surprised me. Usually, I have a healthy adrenaline rush before I speak, but I am not usually nervous. I think of public speaking as one of my best gifts for nonprofit work.

That night, though, my knees were shaking.

Perhaps I was nervous because the story is so personal, and this was the first time I was sharing it. Also, I am feeling somewhat vulnerable because of the recent changes in my life.

But there I was in front of more than 400 people, talking about how my life was changed forever because of what happened to me on one Friday night.

As I walked back to my seat, I heard the emcee say, “Let’s keep that standing ovation for Madeline going,” and I looked around and saw that, yes, people were all standing and clapping. I was overwhelmed.

One of the women at my table thanked me for having the courage to tell my story; she, too is a survivor. Several people approached me afterward and thanked me.

One line in my talk is, “I talk about being a rape survivor because I want other survivors to know they are not alone and that there is help.”

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A few days later, I told a friend about the talk, and she shared a story of someone she knows who is a survivor. “We don’t talk about it,” she said.

That is the thing—we don’t talk about it. Like other taboo subjects—domestic abuse, incest, suicide, mental health, etc., rape does not come up in polite conversation. We just don’t talk about it.

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It is estimated that one in six women in the U.S. is a victim of sexual assault.

My first six years in Michigan, I facilitated an annual morning of reflection for a group of post-college volunteers. Each year, eight to fourteen young adults would gather, and each year, at least one of the women would confide that she had been raped.

At a recent writers’ retreat, we were encouraged to write an article for a magazine oriented toward young adults—about a topic where they could affect change. I thought of suggesting a gathering of young women and have them count off, one to six. Even in a group of twelve, it is likely that two have been assaulted. The visual of that might be alarming enough for more conversation. Awareness and conversation are two steppingstones to change.

At the end of my talk, I encouraged the audience to pay attention to the people in their lives and if they notice a change—weight loss, increased anxiety, mood swings, etc.—to show their concern and ask what is happening. “Listen and believe what you hear,” I concluded.

Watching the horizon

Twelve seagulls sit along the cottage rooftop,

scanning the horizon,

like tiny white sentinels,

poised,

watchful,

alert.

Are they offering a lesson in mindfulness?

Teaching me to sit still,

to linger,

to pay attention

without agenda or need,

without expectation or hope.

Watch the horizon, they seem to say.

Be open to what appears.

Unfinished

After my dad retired, my parents spent winters in Florida. Without her home and family to occupy her time, my mother took up a variety of hobbies, including painting. Lessons were offered at the community center in their RV park, and my mother became a prolific painter.

After she stopped going to Florida, my mom set up her easel in an upstairs bedroom at home and painted through her Michigan winters.

When we were clearing out her house last month, we found a painting she had not finished.  

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I took it home.

Something in this painting speaks to me—perhaps just because it is unfinished. It reminds me that we all leave things unfinished.

And I am not talking just about death.

When I left my job in July, I left plenty of things unfinished, projects for someone else to complete—or not. Once we are gone, someone else will pick up our works-in-progress and determine their fate.

I think that every time we make a change something goes undone.

With my work, I had to walk away without knowing the outcome of unfinished projects. I also walked away from work relationships—some old and some just beginning—leaving them without knowing where they might have gone, how they might have developed.

Every letting go is practice for the final letting go.

While looking for something in a closet a few months ago, I came across a white box I did not recognize. Inside was a knitting project I had started maybe fifteen years ago and had set aside when I switched jobs. The new job zapped all my energy, and I stopped knitting for a few years. Once I started knitting again, I hadn’t remembered this sweater, and it has sat unfinished all these years.

I was delighted to find it, and it brought back memories of a trip to Seattle and my visit to a well-known yarn shop where I bought this yarn.

Like my mother’s unfinished painting, this sweater reminds me of my own unfinishedness, of being a work-in-progress.

I am comfortable with being in process, comfortable living in the in-between spaces. Someone recently suggested I am standing on a precipice, and I agreed. My mother has died, and I have left my work—two cornerstones of my life, gone. What comes next is not entirely clear, and I want to stay open to the possibilities.

For now, though, I am trying to stay in that in-between space, where grief intersects with hope.

Weaving

Keep moving forward, the sage advises,

but what if I missed something as I sped by?

Some bit of wisdom or insight that

blurred at the edges and

seemed inconsequential as

I careened through my days

like a meteor on a collision course,

zigzagging to avoid encounters that could blind or maim.

Slow down,

look up,

pause for a minute,

turn around,

pick up the threads that dangle along the border and

weave them into the tapestry.

Rich interior life

I used to joke that I was going to wear something by Eileen Fisher when I went on the Oprah Winfrey Show. That line contained two examples of my rich interior life—that I would ever be on Oprah’s show and that I could afford Eileen Fisher clothes.

People who didn’t know me well would be confused—more about the Oprah part than the Eileen Fisher part—and ask if I was really going on Orpah’s show. “In my dreams,” I would say.

In truth, I never saw the Oprah Winfrey Show because I worked during the day, but I heard a lot about it, and it seemed like a show one would want to be on—a bit of a fairy tale. (At some point, a friend suggested I change my aspiration to the Ellen Show, which I had also never seen, but seemed just as attainable.)

As to Eileen Fisher, I sometimes browse in her store at the mall. Most of her clothes are in neutral colors, but occasionally, she will have something in a bright color that catches my attention, and when that happens, I imagine being wealthy enough to afford the piece and therefore famous enough to be on television.

A few weeks ago, I was on the road with some friends and one of my favorite dance songs came on the radio. “I am going to dance to that song when I go on Dancing with the Stars,” I said (out loud).

I have watched DWTS, and I do know I not a likely contender, but I love to dance and if I get famous enough to be on television…who knows?

I think lots of people have rich interior lives, but they don’t tend to say out loud what is going on in their heads.

My friend Ted used to tsk, tsk when I shared my inner thoughts and dreams, which was kind of funny because Ted would share some of his inner thoughts with me. They usually ran along the lines of some very attractive woman being romantically interested in him.

“In your dreams,” I would respond, but he would insist he had picked up some vibe. “You have a rich interior life,” I would say.

I have been thinking of Ted’s rich interior life lately because a couple of men have recently chatted me up—one while waiting for a take-away order and the other while walking in a park. Ted died a few years ago, so I cannot call him to tell him about these encounters.  

I imagine, though, that Ted would appreciate my rendition of these chance encounters and indulge my fantasy about returning to those places to see if I can recreate the experiences.

It is all in good fun, and I think the world needs a bit of fun, a bit of fantasy.

And who knows? Maybe one day there will be a television show featuring ordinary people living ordinary lives, and then I will get my big break.

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Making room

My tears flowed freely, and this time

I did not stop them.

Loud wails rose from deep within,

and I did not stop them.

Each sob seemed to come from some deeper place,

breaking apart layers of scar tissue,

unblocking paths I hadn’t known were there.

Could I risk plunging in,

free-falling into the abyss,

letting myself go under, and

be completely submerged?

Could I risk feeling that kind of deep sorrow,

immersing myself in it and

letting it take me down

until I feel like I am drowning,

until I cannot catch my breath.

Is that the way through the pain?

Is that the way to move beyond

the grief I carry inside,

to empty myself and

make room to live and love again?