Influences: My Father’s Shining Example

Robert E. Marshall 1918-2009

Robert E. Marshall
1918-2009

In 1951, when I was nine and my brother eight, our parents sold our house in Sidney, Ohio, auctioned off most of our belongings, and moved to Tarpon Springs, Florida. Leaving our numerous playmates and beloved neighbors was not easy. I remember the morning we left, sitting in the backseat of the car with my stomach in knots, holding back tears as we said our goodbyes to John, Celeste, and Annie Voress, neighbors who were like family. I had no idea when we embarked on this one-year odyssey that it would have such a profound influence on me.

Dad dropped out of high school after his junior year. Sugar in his urine shattered his dream of joining the air force at the beginning of World War II and becoming an airplane mechanic. Never abandoning his fascination with flight and eventually the space program, he actualized his passion by focusing on car mechanics.

dads-gas-station

When we moved to Florida, Dad purchased a gasoline station. Because of the long hours involved, it became a family business. In order to spend time with Dad, Mom often worked there. Self-service was not yet a reality. Many a customer’s mouth dropped open when Mom approached their car to pump their gas. After school, my brother and I hung out at the station. I mostly remember causing trouble, but I’m sure we were given chores. I observed with keen interest this new environment, learning a great deal about the culture of The South, and being influenced by my father’s behavior and attitude.

The previous owner of the station attempted to teach my northern father how Jim Crow worked in The South. Jim Crow laws replaced earlier “black codes” which were designed to restrict and deny civil rights and liberties to African Americans. In 1951, they were part of the state constitution of Florida and mandated the segregation of public schools, public places, public transportation, restrooms, restaurants, and drinking fountains. The previous owner showed Dad how to cheat “negro” customers, though he used a derogatory term when referring to them. He didn’t need to tell Dad about the rules regarding the use of the one bathroom and one drinking fountain. “Whites Only” signs were prominently posted.

As soon as Dad took possession, those signs came down. I don’t know who influenced my father, but Dad always had a soft spot in his heart for the underdog. He treated his black customers with the respect they deserved. We developed a large black clientele.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” Matthew 5:7

When these customers needed work done on their cars but couldn’t afford to pay for it, Dad gave them odd jobs to do around the station in exchange. One day, a black gentleman approached my dad asking for a loan. Even though Dad wasn’t growing rich as a business owner, he loaned the man the money. I was there the next afternoon when this man, probably in his late 50s or early 60s, returned the money. “I didn’t need it after all,” he told my dad. Later, I overheard my parents speaking of the irony around the way blacks are viewed in relation to whites … comparing the integrity this black man displayed with the lack of character demonstrated by a white male employee who stole from us.

The Monday after Thanksgiving, I began listening to The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration written by New York Times Best Selling and Pulitzer Prize winning author, Isabel Wilkerson. Tuesday, I learned some shocking information about Florida I’m fairly certain my parents didn’t know … some facts that I’m sure the man who asked for a loan did.

Florida was one of the first states to secede from the Union in the months leading up to the Civil War and was one of the first in the South to institute a formal caste system designed to restrict black people after the war. Because Florida was shut off at that time from the rest of the world by its cypress woods and turpentine camps, it instituted its own laws and constitution, allowing this state to commit among the most heinous acts of terrorism perpetrated anywhere. Violence had become such an accepted way of life that a 1950 special investigation, just one year before we moved there, found that there had been so many mob executions in one county in the 1930s, there weren’t any negroes left to go to trial. In this culture, no negro man could have grown up without the fear of being lynched. That would have included the courageous man who asked dad for a loan.

I doubt when Dad removed the “Whites Only” signs and when he treated his black customers with fairness, he knew he was breaking the law, laws that continued in force until 1965. I’m sure he didn’t view this as an act of civil disobedience, even though that is what it was. I like to think his behavior wouldn’t have changed if he had known. It is the aspect of my father for which I carry the most pride.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” Matthew 5:6

I didn’t know until this week the enormity of the action my father took when he removed those signs. To him, he was only showing respect for another human being. To me, he showed compassion for the struggle of those relegated to the ranks of so-called “losers.”

Dad demonstrated that same soft spot in his heart after we moved back to Ohio. At that time, New Bremen had about 1500 residents. Sometime during the next eight years before I graduated high school and moved away, black people were employed by the alfalfa mill on the edge of town. They lived in run down houses near the mill. I don’t remember seeing them in town except for one high school student two to three years older than I, a beautiful young woman who had the courage to attend one of the weekly dances held for teenagers at the hall above the hotel. I admired the farmer boy who asked her to dance.

I don’t think it was her family, but a fire destroyed the home of one mill family who bore the same last name as ours. Dad went around town collecting food, clothing, and household items for them. Someone asked him why he was doing that. He said, “They’re my cousins.”

“You are the salt of the earth;” Matthew 5:13a

001-2

2008

During the 2008 presidential election, Dad was an ardent supporter of Barack Obama. After the election, his health deteriorated rapidly as he grieved the loss of my mother who died early in the morning following Thanksgiving Day. He said he wanted to live to see how Obama fared in office. Sadly, he died on January 3, seventeen days before the inauguration. I have sometimes been grateful he didn’t live to witness the bigotry and obstructionism foisted upon our first black president. It probably wouldn’t have surprised him, but it would have only added to his grief.

In recent weeks I have been contemplating what influences people to be who and how they are. After twenty-six years as a political prisoner, Nelson Mandela transcended his anger and embraced forgiveness while his compatriots continued to harbor revenge? I read a story this week about a Muslim man who was shot in the face by a white supremacist after 9/11. His faith led him to forgiveness to the point he tried to save his assailant from death row and give his life to educating people about the transformative power of mercy and forgiveness. His actions changed the white supremacist’s attitude from hatred, which he had learned from his step-father, to admiration for this Muslim man and his parents who he realized were extraordinarily good people. These and other stories have caused me to reflect upon how influences in all our lives can be seen in our behavior for good or for ill.

I will never know the influences on my dad. Dad wasn’t a religious man, but in his interactions with those less fortunate than he, I see him doing his best to live “the way of love.”

“So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” I Corinthians 13:13

What I do know is that it is Dad who influences me to use my talents in the service of deeper spiritual values like respect, compassion, justice, forgiveness, authenticity, beauty. It is Dad who influenced me to write about Leymah Gbowee, Nelson Mandela, Victor Frankl, and Elizabeth Lesser, people who embody these values. It is Dad who influences me to continue to seek and lift up voices of wisdom, inspiration, and hope who bring light and enlightenment to our dark and murky world.

Thank you, Dad.

I have never been more grateful for your shining example.

1942

1942

1991

1991

1945


1945

Who has been a shining example in your life?

 What values have you adopted because of their example?

How have they influenced your behavior today?

In what way is your behavior contributing to “the way of love?”

Positive Exposure = JOY

When I learned about the Myotonic Dystrophy Conference in Cincinnati to be held October 22, I didn’t give my daughter, Nicole, a choice. I said, “We are going.” She didn’t fight me on it. Progress!!

She had no interest in meeting others with myotonic and almost always says “no” to my requests to participate in anything that smacks of a support group. That is one of the reasons why we have never made it to a national conference.

Then we received an e-mail telling us about Rick Guidotti, a fashion photographer, who would be at the conference taking pictures of individuals with myotonic. Kathleen Cail, organizer of the conference, asked us to indicate whether or not we wanted to partake of this opportunity.

Rick Guidotti

Rick Guidotti

I told Nicole and asked if she would like for him to take her picture. To my absolute amazement, she said “Yes!” I was overjoyed. It isn’t everyday you have a chance to have your picture taken by an award-winning fashion photographer. Nicole’s world has shrunk considerably since she had to give up working, so I was thrilled for her that something extraordinary was coming into her life.

I had no idea just how extraordinary this opportunity would be. I had no idea what an amazing human being Rick Guidotti is. He is a man on a mission and is making a hrick-photographinguge difference in the lives of many people who are not considered beautiful. Rick, however, is doing everything he can to change the way the world sees them. His mission is to change our perception of beauty, one photograph at a time.

Rick lives in NYC and one day he saw a tall pale woman with long flowing white hair waiting at a bus stop. He thought she was beautiful and he wanted to photograph her. Upon returning home Rick began a process of discovery – about albinism, about people with genetic differences and about himself. What he found was startling and upsetting. The images that he saw were sad and dehumanizing. In medical textbooks children with a difference were seen as a disease, a diagnosis first, not as people.

albino-woman-iiRick told us about what happened when he finally had the opportunity to photograph a woman with albinism. She came into his studio hunched over, head down, full of shame about her appearance. When she left, she looked like this.

Rick’s chance encounter on the streets of NYC changed his life. He has spent the past eighteen years collaborating internationally with advocacy organizations/NGOs, medical schools, universities and other educational institutions to effect a sea-change in societal attitudes towards individuals living with genetic, physical, behavioral or intellectual differences.

Rick went on to found and direct Positive Exposure, an innovative arts, education and advocacy organization working with individuals living with genetic difference. Positive Exposure utilizes the visual arts to significantly impact the fields of genetics, mental health and human rights, exhibiting in galleries, museums and public arenas internationally.

Rick’s book features the beauty of individuals with all kinds of genetic and physical disabilities.

Grace, the daughter of Kathleen Cail, the organizer of our conference, represents the myotonic dystrophy community with her photograph in Rick’s book. Her photograph is shown here on the left in an exhibition held in Cincinnati.

grace-at-exhibition

Nicole and Rick Guidotti

Nicole and Rick Guidotti

Rick must have spent 15 to 20 minutes taking pictures, not only of Nicole, but of both of us. His camera clicked away as he marveled at Nicole’s beautiful blue eyes. Stiff at first, she finally couldn’t help but give him a big smile even better than the one in this photograph I took of the two of them. At the end of the conference, he presented a collage of pictures he took that day. There is a beautiful one of Nicole.

Rick comes to conferences like ours and photographs free of charge. At some point, we will receive ours. I’m not sure when and how but when they arrive, you can be sure they’ll be showing up on this blog.

Rick was so generous and genuinely interested in our story and the memoir I am writing about my spiritual growth as a result of living with family members who went for so many years without a diagnosis. He excitedly shared with me his experience in the editing process of his book. Our connection with him endeared him to us.

In the morning, the doctors and researchers gave us HOPE.

In the afternoon, DM Warriors engendered ADMIRATION.

Throughout the day, Rick mixed in

JOY.

Thank you, Rick. You are one extraordinary human being.

Being True to Me

After I posted my last blog entry, “Bearing My Cross,” Cindi, my friend and one of my biggest cheerleaders, called. She, too, is serving as a caregiver for a family member. She overflowed with enthusiasm for what I had written. She said, “You write at a level of depth that is so real. Most people don’t want to go there.”

I said, “I can’t stand skimming the surface.”

skim-surface

Since then I have been pondering her words and the force behind my response.

I grew up with disapproval for being “so serious.” As a result, I found it safer to write about sorrow and anguish than to talk about it. My writing became a spiritual practice. Throughout my life, I’ve written letters to the Divine in my journal, pouring out my struggles until some deeper wisdom flowed from my pen.

writing-in-journal

Being a witness to this deeper wisdom emerging from somewhere deep inside continues to awe me. It is what helps me grow spiritually and not just survive the vicissitudes of life. That is the spirit I bring to my blog posts and my memoir, A Long Awakening to Grace.

I experience this sharing of my struggle with personal foibles in my process of growing spiritually as a calling. Still, every time I reveal what is “real” for me, I risk receiving the same censure I received as a young person.

“Most people don’t want to go there.” 

I struggled with the truth of Cindi’s words in the light of the reality in today’s publishing industry. Authors are expected to do 98 per cent of the marketing for our writing. Like most writers, I am an introvert who hates the whole idea of selling myself and my work. Yet, every writers’ workshop is replete with tips for “finding your tribe,” those readers who resonate with your writing. Some people make a living advising writers on how to successfully find readers. I wondered if I needed to change myself in order to appeal to a wider audience. But …

“I can’t stand skimming the surface.”

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you;”  ~Jeremiah 1:5

Then, last evening, I watched a recording of Oprah’s interview with Glennon Doyle Melton on Super Soul Sunday. And I received just the glorious validation I needed that finally inspired me to get this blog post beyond the pondering stage into writing. Glennon validated what I had already concluded: What is most important is being true to who I am. This is how I came into the world. This is who I am meant to be.

Glennon Doyle Melton

Glennon Doyle Melton

love-warrior200nyt

Glennon is new to me and I have not read her memoir, “Love Warrior” or her “very popular blog, Momastery. But these words in her interview with Oprah resonated deeply with me:

“I no longer think I am broken. I think I am a deeply feeling person in a messy world.”  ~Glennon Doyle Melton

“Pain is like a travelling professor. The smartest people I know are the ones who say, ‘Come in and don’t leave until you’ve taught me everything I need to know.'”  ~Glennon Doyle Melton

“Suffering is when we try to skip over the pain and get to the resurrection before the crucifixion…trying to rise before we fall.”  ~Glennon Doyle Melton

Glennon recounted several stories of disapproval she has received for her “truth telling.” Revealing what is “real” is risky. I am grateful to have found this kindred spirit and to witness her success. There are people out there who thrive in the presence of authentic revelation.

I remind myself that despite our flaws and sometimes because of them, we can be powerful channels of the Divine. I relax in this awareness because I find nothing more gratifying than hearing that someone, like Cindi, has found my writing to be validating and inspiring in all its realness…to know that what I have written has made a difference to someone. That makes the journey worthwhile.

Healing the World

holding the world

As the world around me swirled (I awoke with vertigo this morning), I began listening to Chapter 2 of Krista Tippett’s new book, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living. I had barely begun listening when words of wisdom about the mystery and art of my own life circumstances emerged. 

“We are all healers of the world. It isn’t about healing the world by making a huge difference. It is about healing the world that is around us. That is where our power is. How would I live if I were exactly what is needed to heal the world?” ~Rachel Naomi Remen

Remen’s words remind me how important extending “conscious love” to my daughter is—the treasured “opportunity” that awakened within me while rummaging through the darkness that emerged when it became clear she would be living with me full-time for an extending period of time.

Remen’s wisdom, learned from her Hasidic Jewish grandfather, places this “opportunity” into a larger context. I am exercising my power to change the world.

My True Self, the higher part of me who already knows how to love, watches. I move through my days extending love in quiet ways no one around us would notice. The difference I make is not huge, but, in the week since I’ve been “consciously loving,” I do see a difference for my daughter…and for me.

I will continue keeping Remen’s question before me: “Am I living as though I am exactly what is needed to heal the world?”

The question Elizabeth Alexander asks at the end of her poem below touched my soul:

“And are we not of interest to each other?” ~ Elizabeth Alexander

Ars Poetica #100: I Believe by Elizabeth Alexander

Poetry is what you find

in the dirt in the corner,

 

overhear on the bus, God

in the details, the only way

 

to get from here to there.

Poetry (an now my voice is rising)

 

is not all love, love, love

and I’m sorry the dog died.

 

Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)

is the human voice,

 

And are we not of interest to each other?

And Fr. Killian McDonnell’s reminder in his poem below bestowed levity:

Perfection, Perfection by Killian McDonnell

(“I will walk the way of perfection.” Psalm 101:2)

I have had it with perfection.

I have packed my bags,

I am out of here.

Gone.

 

As certain as rain

will make you wet,

perfection will do you

in.

 

It droppeth not as dew

upon the summer grass

to give liberty and green

joy.

 

Perfection straineth out

the quality of mercy,

withers rapture at is

birth.

 

Before the battle is half begun,

cold probity thinks

it can’t be won, concedes the

war.

 

I’ve handed in my notice,

given back my keys,

signed my severance check, I

quit.

 

Hints I could have taken:

Even the perfect chiseled form of

Michelangelo’s radiant David

squints,

 

The Venus de Milo

has no arms,

the Liberty Bell is

cracked.

Such a rich way to begin my day. Thank you, Krista and Company!!

Synchronicity: Anonymous Gifts from the Divine

I do believe in an everyday sort of magic — the inexplicable connectedness we sometimes experience with places, people, works of art, and the like; the eerie appropriateness of moments of synchronicity; the whispered voice, the hidden presence when we think we are alone.  ~Charles de Lint

Recently I’ve been reflecting on the journey I’ve taken in writing my memoir. With amazement, I noticed several synchronicities that tell me a power beyond my own is supporting me in writing and publishing A Long Awakening to Grace.

Julie and Linda

Julie and Linda

I never intended to write a book about my life, but there was this nurse who emphatically told me I needed to do that. My July 5, 2014 blog post is about Julie. It took me eight years to heed her encouragement. Once I made the decision to do it, synchronicities began to emerge.

First, the title came to me and seemed a gift from the Universe.

Then, in 2012, I found the perfect writing partner for me at our senior citizens’ center. I wrote about Nita and some of our adventures together two years ago today, on April 27, 2014. She has been such a gift to me and if we hadn’t met every two weeks to read our work aloud to each other, I never would have made it to the editing process where I am today. Writing a memoir is quite a task. My friends keep asking, “When am I going to get to read it?”

All I can say is, “I’m getting closer to publication.”

In addition, without Nita’s support, I probably never would have had the courage to pitch to a New York agent. Rita Rosenkranz’s comment about my story having a compelling narrative arc has kept me going at times when I have doubted myself.

Being introduced to Brené Brown’s work is another synchronicity. Following her modeling and guidance, I have developed the shame resilience needed to tell my story honestly, even the parts that reveal my less than desirable qualities. Next to learning the craft, this is the hardest part of writing a memoir and will prove the most challenging once it is published.

Local writer, Jude Walsh, introduced me to the Story Circle Network (SCN), an online organization for women writers founded by New York Times best-selling author, Susan Wittig Albert.

Susan founded SCN because women write better in community. Jude recommended me for the Works-in-Progress discussion group. Two major synchronicities have followed from that.

Susan Tweit, one of my sisters in the SCN Works-in-Progress discussion group, provided one of them. Just at the time I needed to find my core message, a spirited discussion about this topic arose in our group. Susan’s contribution helped me dig deep. What a joy it was to meet her in person at the SCN Conference this month (April 14-17). When I found her waiting for the shuttle to the Austin hotel where the conference was held, I literally jumped for joy, shouted Susan, and ran to give her a big hug.

In addition, I found the perfect editor for me in the SCN Works-in-Progress group. In October 2014, Judy Plazyk talked about how she works with authors. I was impressed with her commitment but my manuscript was not close to being ready for editing. When she talked about being her author’s biggest cheerleader and greatest fan, I was sold. She and I have developed the perfect author-editor relationship. I feel so blessed to have found her. (Unfortunately, I have no picture of Judy to share with you.)

Then, I think I’ve found my publisher at the SCN Conference. Brooke Warner, one of the founders of She Writes Press, was our keynote speaker. I am so inspired by what she had to say about She Writes vision and mission, (Click here to see what inspires me).

Brooke’s keynote took me back to 1975-1976 when I was a student in seminary and women were knocking on the door of the church, a male-dominated institution, and saying, “Hey, we are called to serve as parish pastors. Let us in.” I am proud to have been a pioneer in that movement.

She Writes Press has been founded to champion women writers, as has SCN. Women’s writing and life stories are not valued in the publishing industry. A gender bias has existed for centuries and even today extends to awards, prize winners, book reviews, and job opportunities. How exciting for me to be a part of a movement to address this inequity. I find it immensely rewarding. That makes She Writes the perfect publisher for me. We’ll see if that is what the Universe has in store.

If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be. ~Joseph Campbell

follow-your-bliss

Memoirs That Inspire Me: Confessions of a Latter-Day Virgin

Writers are encouraged to read widely in the genre in which they are writing. As a result, I have been reading and listening to a lot of memoirs. It only recently occurred to me to share the bounty with you.

When someone has the courage to allow their life to be guided by their authentic spirit within, I am inspired. That is especially true when everything in their external life tells them they should be someone else.

 
Confessions of a Latter Day Virgin

Confessions of a Latter-Day Virgin
Nicole Hardy

Nicole Hardy’s memoir is funny and thoughtful as she allows us into her most intimate struggles with remaining faithful to her desire to be a writer and not the homemaker, wife, and mother that is supposed to lead to her eternal reward. As a single Mormon, she risks separation from all she holds dear to be true to herself and live a full life that includes expressing herself physically as well as emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. 
 
Nicole Hardy

Nicole Hardy

Inspired by a professor in her MFA program, “Write what you fear,” Nicole wrote about her struggles with celibacy and read to a writer’s group of mostly strangers. They received her with great enthusiasm and encouraged her to send her essay to Daniel Jones, the New York Times editor of the Modern Love column. He found her essay, “Single, Female, Mormon, Alone” intriguing and published it. It was chosen as “notable” in 2012’s Best American Essays.
Most touching for me was the way her parents struggled to understand and accept their free-thinking daughter’s choices while never withdrawing their love for her, finally realizing the gift she had given to others in their faith by being her authentic self. Without knowing it, Nicole gave voice to the struggles of many Mormons, opening dialogue between parents and children and the church-at-large, creating the possibility of finding a better way of nurturing the singles in their midst.

Memoirs that Inspire Me: A House in the Sky

When the radiance of the human spirit shines through in a transformative way, I am inspired. That is especially true when the transformation happens in the midst of a journey into darkness.
 
A House in the Sky
A House in the Sky
Amanda Lindhout & Sara Corbett
 
Amanda Lindhout’s memoir is an amazing account of transcending one of the most horrific of life experiences. She developed compassion for the Islamic extremist who held her in captivity for fifteen harrowing months.
 
Amanda Lindhout www.AmandaLindhout.com

Amanda Lindhout
www.AmandaLindhout.com

 

Upon her release, she emerged as a sought after speaker on topics of forgiveness, compassion, and women’s rights. 
 
Inspired by a woman who tried to help her escape, she founded the Global Enrichment Foundation to provide scholarships to Somali women to attend university. When asked why she did this, she responded, “Because I had something very, very large and very painful to forgive, and by choosing to do that, I was able to put into place my vision, which was making Somalia a better place.” She believes that if her captor’s mothers had such an opportunity for education, they would have treated her differently.
 
http://globalenrichmentfoundation.ca/