The Pink Notebook

Essays on Asking & Receiving

Afghanistan being rebuilt from the inside out

Vacation Becomes Gratitude Trek

On April 23, 2017, I left Seattle for a vacation to Japan, a country I had always wanted to visit. Flying into Osaka, I zipped across land on the Shinkansen (the infamous Bullet Train) to Hiroshima to meet up with my long-time Canadian friend, Shona, who was teaching and mentoring for her 7th year in a program sponsored by the United Nation’s Institute for Training & Research (UNITAR), the Fellowship for Afghanistan.  I was going to sightsee, of course, but also to observe some of the sessions in the two-week long intensive course provided to 30 Afghan Fellows at the end of their six-month program. My mission was to learn about the program, projects and the Fellows and do a feasibility study on how crowdfunding might be an alternative for those that were not fundable by their own organizations, government departments, or external Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs).

After two days of amazing sight-seeing in Hiroshima (for another post or two) at the Peace Museum, the A-Bomb Dome, Miyajima Island, Hiroshima Castle and the Art Museum of Hiroshima, I settle into my Fellowship experience.

I quickly learn there one is not allowed to just watch in the UNITAR family. Within the first day I am engaged with Fellows in conversations at breaks, listening to stories and taking photos. The next morning I meet with the staff to discuss the study. At lunch Shona and I meet with a Fellow interested in writing a book about Afghanistan.  When I ask him if he has any concerns for his safety if he was to write such a book,  he shrugs and says, “I might already be considered killable by the Taliban.” Then he smiles and laughs. I wonder if his reaction is a mask for underlying fear. How could you not be fearful with that kind of threat in the very air you breathe?

That evening Shona tells me of some of the many dangers faced by workers, women, families and others in Afghanistan…just a few of the many stories she has been told over the years by her students.  I had also seen evidence of the many social struggles in presentations made by the students during the workshop…issues of child labor, cultural lack of respect for and violence against women, and more.

Who are they?

The Fellows (28 men and 2 women) come from many walks of life–private sector, government departments, NGOs, universities and a good number from the Aga Khan Foundation. They are, as a group, demographically quite young, with the bulk of them being between mid 20s and mid-40s.  Many of them hold high-level positions in their organizations. The presence of only two women is a long-standing issue; creating a more representative number is one of the goals of former program director Berin McKenzie. “It’s very difficult, but I’d really like to see us figure out a way to get more women Fellows here. When they do come, they are very successful, and often become coaches or mentors for future Fellows.”

On the last morning of the workshop, the five groups make their final pitch presentations on their projects.  I am surprised by an invitation from the staff to join the judging panel, and am honored and humbled to do so. I am the only one of the panel who has no prior knowledge of the work that had transpired over the past six months, so I decide to focus on how I might react as if I was a donor. I try to provide whatever supportive comments and thoughts I can as the five presentations whip through at six minutes each. I feel this is a very small contribution, so I am overwhelmed at what happens next.

Enough love to go around

Following the commencement ceremony, thanks are given all around, and traditional gift-giving ensues. One of the Fellows calls up various staff and facilitators, bestowing beautiful handmade items from their provinces. It’s beautiful to watch. And then I hear my name called. I am bewildered, and filled with a sense of unworthiness. But I go to the front, and accept with great gratitude a beautiful lapis lazuli pen holder, so appropriate for my role as writer and communicator. Mina, from Kabul, hands it to me, with a hug and tears, describing its origin as she thanks me for my support. I am included thereafter in both formal and informal picture taking, and receive another gift from one student of a beautiful hand-made hat from his region.

Shona says to me, “They’re the most appreciative students you will ever see, and there is plenty of appreciation to go around.”

Mina from Kabul says to me later, “There are many of my friends [in Afghanistan] who think all Westerners are bad and don’t care about our situation and if they help us it is only to line their own pockets, but i tell them that I have seen so many examples that that is not true. Here, at the Fellowship, we see all of these Westerners who care very much. We are so grateful for any and all support.”

The love goes both ways

One of the long-time former staff and current mentors, James, says to me when I wonder at all this, “Now you see why people fall in love with this program. There is so much gratitude, for the smallest show of support. It just makes you want to do more.”  The resource people all volunteer their time, and they are folks who can, and do, charge a great deal of money for their consulting time in their professional lives. But this…this, they willing do for free. Said James, “I was at dinner the other night (with other mentors) and had a moment where it hit me and I said out loud , ‘Not only would I do this for free; I would pay to do it.'”

 

Michael, a senior executive at Microsoft in Seattle, is one of the earliest founding members of the program, and says, “Yah, I’m pretty busy, but this is the best thing I do every year.” (In addition to his full-time job at Microsoft, he teaches at Stanford and has numerous other commitments.) He tells the Fellows at the end of the workshop, “I am honored to watch you and work with you on this journey. It’s the highlight of my year, every year.”

And my friend Shona, a very talented, smart and gifted facilitator and consultant, says this. “Every year when I get ready to leave Hiroshima I look around the room and think, I’m going back to my safe and secure home, and they’re returning to violence, instability,  and all the issues they face as people trying to be positive change agents in a dangerous environment. It’s very sobering, very emotional.”

On the way out of the building and onto the bright, warm streets of Hiroshima, we encounter some of the mentors having coffee and celebrating another successful year. Apparently there is no rest for the weary–within minutes of the final ceremony Jennifer, a finance officer with the US Treasury in Washington, DC, is bubbling over. She comes up to me and says, “I’ve got it! I know what my next project will be! I want to create a training program for women in the Ministry of Finance [in Afghanistan]! We can train Afghan women to train their colleagues.” I respond, matching her enthusiasm, because it truly is infectious.

A strong focus of the program (and what makes it unique among many others) is the focus on capacity-building among Afghans, rather than the traditional (and egotistical) colonial approach of doing for them. The program wants to create sustainable, capacity-building skills and experience in those who are committed to creating change from inside Afghanistan.

Of the 128 projects previously created in the years of the program, 55% have become funded and implemented. They range from …finish

Why Hiroshima?

They study in Hiroshima at the end of their program to immerse themselves in the environment of a city that completely rebuilt itself at great effort over the past 71 years since the A-bomb dropped, eviscerating the cityscape and surround landscape for a five-kilometer radius.

There is hope for you, Hiroshima says to the Afghans. We did it. You can do it, too.

And you feel from these courageous, talented, smart people that they will go home, and they will make change.

 

 

12 Days of Christmas Inspire Goal Setting

So this year I was thinking about a new approach to goal-setting. Especially as it relates to self-responsibility, something folks in any recovery program are familiar with as an important topic. I thought about the 12 Days of Christmas tradition, which means a loved one receives one gift a day for the 12 days preceding Christmas. If I was to turn the idea of that from a gift into a goal, and the 12 days into 12 months, I could come up with looking at 2018 as a year to bring myself into further alignment by taking responsibility for things I wouldn’t want others to have to deal with if something happened to me. Continue reading

Actually…Who Knew? 10 Things My Mom Got Right

When I was a rebellious child and teen, my mother wasn’t right about anything that related to me. She thought she was, but she wasn’t.

Now that I’m in my 50s, it turns out she actually was right. Unfortunately, she didn’t live long enough for me to get it and acknowledge it to her. So sorry, Mom. I hope my daughter gets it before I’m gone, but if she doesn’t, well, it will probably just serve me right.

It’s not perfect amends, but maybe a Mother’s Day retrospective will go some apologetic distance, and maybe get some of you reflecting on what your mom may have actually known. If so, and she’s still alive, please tell her so.

Here are some of my revelations that Mom tried to convey way back when…

1. I actually do look better in short hair. I finally cut it all off a few years ago, mostly because I got tired of trying to make it work. Turns out it didn’t work because I stubbornly refused to listen to Mom when she said, “Your face shape is perfect for a pixie cut.” They called them that back in the day. “Just like Mary Martin in Peter Pan.” I prefer to think of Ellen, but yah, I have found the hair that fits my face. And I’m so happy. Complete strangers come up to me in weird places and tell me that I’ve “inspired” them to do it, too. Crazy, but nobody ever said that to me when I had long hair.

2. Blue actually does look good on me. When I was a fashionista teen, I hated that my mom kept telling me “blue was my color.” I don’t know why really; maybe it just wasn’t a cool color when I was in high school, unless it was the denim blue of jeans. But now I find that my skin tone, eye color (blue) and hair color really light up when I wear some shades of blue – like turquoise, or teal. Red is still my favorite color, but I have blue things, and I’ve made my peace with the idea that it’s a good color.

3. Being over-dramatic isn’t just annoying and stressful to others, it’s actually self-damaging. I was the ultimate drama queen. Everything was a story…everything was emotion-filled. I yelled and slammed doors when I was mad. Everything was a big production. Not surprisingly, I did well in high school theatre. But the older I get, the more I realize how much anxiety and pressure I dumped on myself when I expended so much energy in catastrophizing everything. Seeking peace in my life started with first asking, “What’s the worst that could happen here? Really?” and going from there. The annoying to others part…that’s really covered in #4.

4. I actually should think before I speak. (Corollary: Not everything I think necessarily should actually come out of my mouth.) Yah. Big one. I always thought that being totally honest meant you had to say what you were thinking in every situation, with everyone. I didn’t understand what discernment, or filters, or boundaries, were. Not all the way there yet, but I’m definitely working on it.

5. Actually, I can be my own worst enemy. Sad, but true, Mom. She always would say this when some disaster befell me, and it was always in a voice tinged with sadness, and a shaking of the head. I thought she was just being dramatic, so it made me angry. I now see that it actually hurt her that I was self-destructive. I see this now so clearly that I’m a mom. Moms’ hearts hurt for their kids when they see them hurting themselves. It will ever be thus. Sadness for what they have to suffer, and acceptance of the reality that as a parent you are helpless to prevent it happening to them.

6. It actually does matter if a family sits down to at least one meal a day together. This I didn’t figure out until my daughter got into her teens and started missing the dinner meal with me. Our daily connection didn’t happen, because that was the one time of day we had been able to count on, if no other.

7. Life actually is short. Is this something we ever get when we’re young? Probably not. And maybe that’s as it should be, but I sure get it now. Approaching the big 6-Oh! this  year makes me crystal-clear on that subject.

8. It actually doesn’t kill me to say I’m sorry. This one I wish I’d gotten a lot sooner in life. As a result, I have a long list of life amends to make now, and I’m getting busy with that. I’m also learning that there are right and wrong ways to do it.

9. I really don’t know what I’m talking about. Okay, okay, I said it. I had no idea what I didn’t know when I was young. The more education and life experience I got, the “smarter” I thought I was becoming. And then a funny thing started happening. Everything I learned begged 10 more questions to which I didn’t have the answers. It was as if there was a natural formula of the universe revealing itself to me, and it looked like this: Knowledge > = Knowledge <

Happy Mother’s Day in heaven, Marguerite Alice Freidenberger. You were right all along.

10. Mother really does, actually, know best. It is true that our elders know more than we do and they deserve our attentive and curious ear. But moms (and dads) even more so. Nobody on earth will ever know you or love you with the fierceness and hope for your life success of your parents. They are not be perfect, or always healthy enough to love you in the way you should be, but no matter who they are, they have a bond with you that nobody can ever share.

If you’re a mom, Happy Mother’s Day. If you’re a son or daughter, think about sharing this with your mom on Mother’s Day. It may start a conversation you’ll remember forever.

Ask, and you shall receive…

Playing Solitaire with God: Lessons on Asking & Receiving

I don’t naturally enjoy working out in a gym. But, I’m doing it more now, along with other healthy things. I gravitate toward times when the gym is otherwise quiet. One day recently I took my iPad along and propped it up in front of the screen that keeps you up to date on your workout. I’m always looking for ways to distract myself from the lack of oxygen and joint pain that comes along with a lengthy elliptical workout, and I thought maybe playing games would help. Continue reading

Seeking Your New Story: Facing Your Inner Narrator

I always know there’s a post formulating when I have multiple conversations in a short period of time on the same subject. This week, it was three conversations in less than 24 hours, and they were all about the stories we tell ourselves.  Continue reading

Are You Ready?

So, Suzanne, what are you ready for?

The woman I’d just met on Skype blinked and waited for my response. I blinked back at her, and frowned. Then I suddenly felt a wave of something…relief, or freedom…? Or…? I don’t know, but it was big. She was asking me a legitimate question, and perhaps the most critical question I could ask myself, not just at this moment, but every day. Continue reading

I’m Sorry…But

The Art of the Apology

The famous line from the ’70s movie Love Story was Love means never having to say you’re sorry.  I’m sorry, but what horse poo that was! A more appropriate line might be love means knowing when you need to say you’re sorry and having the cojones to do it.  I realize that’s not as elegant sounding, but it rings a lot truer to me. Continue reading

Mind Your Own Business…No, Really

The other dayI had a flashback to when I was about 13, all full of teen-girl hormones and unpredictable rages. I was on about some girl at school and her attitude and how she was mean to other girls and I really…My mom, making beef stew at the stove and a little hot and grumpy herself turned to me and said, “Really! Why don’t you just mind your own business?”

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Just the Way You Are: Demonstrations of Unconditional Love

We can do this now. A video we make of a gesture can find and touch millions of hearts, as this video did when it was posted on Facebook six months ago. A man asks a choir to sing Bruno Mars’ hit song Just the Way You Are to his wife on their anniversary. His wife, as it happens, is chair-ridden from advanced multiple sclerosis. He does this because he wants, he needs, her to know how cherished she is, and he needs to do it in some undeniable, public way.

If you haven’t seen it, or even if you have, I want you to consider a few thoughts before you watch it now…You’ll have to let this video buffer, and I suggest you do that with the sound down while you make a cup of tea and read this post…by the time you’re done, it should be ready to play straight through…

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A New Year, A New Way

In 2002 or so, I wasn’t in the best place…physically, mentally, or spiritually. I was struggling with my life and music was my savior. I was actively writing songs for myself and for a friend’s band I played in called Jo’s Diner.  One day, for whatever reason, I decided to make an EP (a short version of what used to be called an “LP”…a long-playing record, or album.) The EP was called Fragile Heart and it contained six songs, five of which were mine. A colleague I performed with graciously agreed to play sax on the little project, and we recorded it in another friend’s studio in Saskatoon…

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