Category Archives: Life Lessons

What I have been learning

Do it now

“Will this matter at the end of my life?” was a question posed in a book on prioritizing where I spend my time and energy. I read that book at least thirty years ago, but now that I am getting nearer to the end of my life, that question has taken on greater significance.

What will matter at the end of my life?

One thing I know is that I do not want to have regrets because I did not do something I had wanted to do.

While working at a cancer support center for the past seven years, I have met so many people who said things like, “I really want to see the Grand Canyon before I die,” or “Going to Europe is on my bucket list” or “I want to sky dive” (or any other risky activity). You get the idea—those things we think about and daydream about doing or seeing—and sometimes don’t get around to.

When I write my story, “What I have learned from working with people facing cancer,” one of the top things will be the importance of doing what you want to do now (NOW) while you still can. No one knows when cancer will be diagnosed, so if you have an impulse to do something, do it now.

My friend Ted wanted to visit the Missions in Southern California and Jim wanted to see the Grand Canyon. So why didn’t they? The answer is that they waited too long and then cancer stopped them.

So, the take-away is do it now. See the places you want to see. Write the book you want to write. Gather your courage and jump from a plane or zip line in a jungle or raft down a river. Or learn to fly fish or develop a meditation practice. Whatever it is that catches your fancy and occupies your daydreams—act on the impulse.

Making our dreams a priority will make our dreams come true; postponing dreams can easily lead to regret.

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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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.

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.

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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The best is yet to come

My life has been turned a bit upside down recently by my mother’s death and my leaving the job I have had for the past seven years. Two big losses at the same time and lots of empty space in front of me.

No more dinners with my mother or shopping for her or calling or stopping by to check in.

And no more work emails or office to go to or meetings to attend.

I have to admit that it is a bit scary to stand in front of this vast empty canvas without the commitments that have structured my life for the past years. And yet…

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I have decided to view the coming year as a sabbatical, a time to pause after thirty-five years of working in nonprofit management, to reflect on and say goodbye to what has been, and to prepare for what is to come.

Almost as soon as I made that decision, two retreat opportunities presented themselves—one is focused on discernment for people in transition and the other is for writers. I had not been looking for either one, but both seem opportune, and I signed up for them. One is virtual, and the other is in Texas—my first flight since the pandemic lockdown in March 2020.

As a child, I had no idea what I might be when I grew up—no passionate hopes or dreams to be this or that. As an adult, I tended to fall into jobs more than selecting them with a goal in mind.

So here I am in the third third of my life, still deciding what I want to be when I grow up. Only now, I have lots of experience and a pretty good idea of my gifts and talents.

And that knowledge and awareness energizes me—standing on the precipice of the next chapter in my life is thrilling.

My friend Jim used to say, “The best is yet to come.” I am in total agreement, and I am looking forward to what the next chapter of my life holds.

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My mom

“I want to live until I die,” my friend Jim said when he understood that an incurable brain cancer would soon end his life. He did not want to be kept alive by artificial means; he also did not want to live or die in a hospital.

My mother felt the same. When the doctor offered her a pacemaker after her first heart attack three years ago, she said, “No.” He explained that her heart would probably give out while she was sleeping and she would just not wake up one day. “That would be a blessing,” she said.

At the time of that first heart attack, my mom was ninety-two, still driving, going to card parties every week, living in her own home and enjoying life.

After that heart attack, she began to slow down a bit and cut back on some of her activities, but she continued to live on her own and to cook, clean and do her laundry. She was very independent.

Over the past three years, she has had several medical issues that landed her in the hospital for a week at a time, and each time, she returned to her home determined to live as fully as possible.

After an internal bleeding incident in January, her doc took her off heart medicine, and she went on hospice. Then we knew it was only a matter of time until her heart gave out.

When she started falling a few weeks ago, we knew she was getting weaker every day.

Her consistent wish was to live and die in her home.

With some help, my sisters and I were able to make that happen. The past three weeks, someone was with my mom 24/7.

Giving up was not an option for my mom. She had known people who did just that—they stopped doing what they had always done and just waited for death. She would say they stopped living before they died. That was not my mom’s way.

Just last week, she looked at a silk flower arrangement on top of a cabinet and asked me to bring it down. “I want to wash the flowers and rearrange them,” she said. I brought down the basket and helped my mom get to the kitchen sink where she washed the flowers. It was exhausting for her; it was also her way of living her life.

Last Wednesday evening, she ate her last supper. On Thursday, she was too weak to get out of bed and too weak to swallow. We made her as comfortable as possible and kept vigil over the next two days.

Hospice nurses came every day, and each one said some version of, “You girls are doing a great job with your mother.” We are not medical people, and their affirmations were appreciated.

After only two days in bed, my mother died peacefully on Saturday morning, surrounded by family. She truly lived until she died—a role model for living a full life.

Check your ego at the door

I once belonged to a networking group of about a dozen people, all leaders in our field. One of the ground rules for our networking sessions was to “check your ego at the door.” We all claimed to be “servant leaders” which would imply that our egos would be kept in check, but the reality was that when two or more successful people got together, a game of one-upmanship often ensued.

Some of these people had international reputations; others were leaders in our local community. The “ego” rule made it possible for us to meet as equals. If someone started name-dropping or praising their own achievements, another member would gently recall the rule. It got to the point that only one word was needed to rein in an inflated sense of self. “Ego,” someone would say.

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I have often thought of that rule, especially when working with nonprofit boards which are usually made up of successful community leaders. I gently remind them that the most important thing about nonprofits is the mission, and I invite them to stay focused on advancing the mission of the organization rather than focusing on their individual contributions.

I am fortunate that my dad was not into hero-worship; he often said that everyone “puts his pants on one leg at a time.” No one was any more important than anyone else in my dad’s eyes. His attitude has stayed with me, and I think it has served me well. (I do have to admit, though, that I was somewhat starstruck the time I was standing next to Ray Charles at JFK Airport and when I was sitting just a few feet away from the Pope.)

Competition is a cornerstone of capitalism, and it is common to encounter successful people who love to tell you how they built up their company or scored some big deal. My eyes tend to glaze over during those monologues; I am much more interested in those who praise all the people who made their success possible.

My friend Ted was one of those people. He was a successful lawyer, well-known in his field and treated like a big deal at his work. He was very generous with his resources and often donated to the nonprofit where I worked—always requesting anonymity. “Don’t let your right hand know what your left is doing,” (Matthew 6:3) was one of his favorite Bible quotes.

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I think all of this has come to mind because I am leaving my profession to embark on the next chapter of my life. When I told my boss I was leaving, she repeated something she has said to me several times since our two nonprofits merged a few years ago—she is amazed that I gave up my job as executive director and set aside my ego for the sake of the mission.

Perhaps it is unusual; for me, though, it was remembering to stay focused on the mission and to check my ego at the door.

Seeking justice

A large plastic bin has been sitting in my garage since I moved here eight years ago, and I finally got around to cleaning it out. At the bottom was a scrap of paper with a quote from Helen Keller.

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I have been pondering where I might “soar” as I contemplate the next chapter of my life, or as one friend put it, my “last act.” Yes, I am in the third third of my life and it is time for me to consider my last act.

What shape this chapter will take is still a mystery; it is a mystery I want to explore.

One “scene” (to stay with the play metaphor) is speaking out about being a rape survivor, and particularly being someone who was raped by a man in law enforcement.

I want to reach out to others who have been sexually assaulted by law enforcement officials to let them know they are not alone—and that there is help, hope and healing. Prosecution may not be a realistic expectation or option but moving from victim to survivor is.

One of the presenters in my Internship in Ignatian Spirituality course said, “Justice is what love looks like in public,” which got me thinking more about justice.

Upon hearing my story of being a rape survivor, several people have asked me about justice—or rather the lack of justice because the man who raped me never faced prosecution.

I have to confess that when the #MeToo movement started, I felt that justice had finally come, because I imagined the man who raped me having to wonder if anyone would say his name. It is a bit perverse (and perhaps not very Christian), but I got a little thrill from thinking that his foundation may have been shaken by wondering if he would have to face his past actions.

Another law enforcement person put it this way to me: “He has to wonder if someone is gunning for him.”

But now I am thinking about justice a bit differently. I have come to a deeper understanding and acceptance of the fact that people do cruel things out of their own brokenness. I am not excusing cruelty; I am allowing for redemption.

Reflecting on my friendship with a woman who committed a heinous crime because of her mental illness has helped me deepen my understanding of justice.

I did not know this woman before the crime, but afterward, once she decided to take her prescribed medicine, she was a different person. Instead of hurting, she began helping and instead of ranting, she began listening. She developed compassion, and she became someone who used her abilities and talents in service of others.

Where once she was intent on destroying, she became committed to building up. Her transformation helped me see how someone can grow into the person God sees, how love can restore wholeness.

That looks like justice to me.