Surprise and Delight Those You Love

December 3, 2015

“There is a secret about human love that is commonly overlooked: Receiving it is much more scary and threatening than giving it. How many times in your life have you been unable to let in someone’s love or even pushed it away? Much as we proclaim the wish to be truly loved, we are often afraid of that, and so find it difficult to open to love or let it all the way in.” {john welwood}

In my efforts to understand love in a deeper more mature way, I’ve found that my attention and research tends to bring up trauma. Understanding trauma and how we react physically, mentally, emotionally to trauma impacts the way we give and receive love. For example, I know from my education research that processing, decision making and emotional reactions and emotional attachment occur in the amygdala of the human brain. The cerebellum handles motor control, memory, mood and language. The amygdala and cerebellum work together to help us express and process, then decide and act. But when trauma enters the equation, our brain reacts which causes our emotions, actions and entire personality to react. When you are experiencing trauma (or attempting to recover from trauma) your pre-frontal cortex – the part of the brain responsible for learning, differentiating between good and bad, better or best, same or different – is taken offline. So the executive director of your brain is no longer functioning when you’re experiencing stress. It is difficult to be entirely present for a partner when your entire personality is offline.

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“My experience is what I agree to attend to.” {william james}

We have to strive to understand how we react during stress and how our partner reacts under stress in order to give them the adequate time for their brain to settle and for their personality to be restored. Whew. That’s heavy. That’s a huge task, especially if you’re in a particularly highly charged moment and language is firing off (though it isn’t firing off well, because your brain function to determine what is good, bad, better and best is turned off).

So how do we do this? How do we become solid ground and present to support the people that we love in feeling secure and calm so that they are able to function with their best, strongest and healthiest version of their brain?

Dr. Kristen R. Jamison has 4 suggestions, and I want to add one.

Worth: We need to instill within our partners a feeling of belonging, positive sense of self, foster self-determination and motivation within them by showing you support them. Let them know they are loved and cared for. Show them that they are seen, heard and feltEmotion: Help each other identify feelings, and acknowledge they are real. Learning what a feeling is and how to regulate it can help an individual return to a safe, happy and secure brain faster.

Empathy: Understand each others’ sense of self. Understand that you are both very different and experience the world differently. Practice acceptance instead of judgment.

Exploration: This is higher-order thinking because now we’re discussing problem-solving. As Dr. Jamison said, “It’s about getting messy to explore the world but it’s not OK to expect someone else to clean up your mess.” We can’t be reckless with another’s heart or time or energy.

Surprise and Delight: I’m adding this one because it’s special and I think it creates within your partner a sense of security, intrigue and validation. Finding small ways to surprise and delight your partner (or people that you love) reiterates to them in volume how important they are. It also shows your investment into the partnership and it keeps the brain elated, overjoyed and confirmed.

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Being present for them means knowing when your experiencing stress and that your personality may be offline. Being present for them means accepting and showing them their worth, and never taking that for granted. Being present for them means genuinely wanting their happiness and showing them through surprise-and-delight efforts. Being present for them means knowing when you or they are experiencing trauma and being there for them through that, in whatever what they need.

It has taken me a while to arrive right where I am with this. I’m still practicing. I still mess up. But as I dedicate time, energy and thinking to discovering what love is and how to accept and receive it, I’m learning more about what it takes to suffer alone and with someone. I’m learning what it takes to be present and proactive. I’m learning what it takes to make a choice and stand by it.

These lessons are refreshing and they’re opening up my world in ways I never anticipated.

Love Yourself Enough

November 3, 2015

I loved myself enough. I began leaving whatever wasn’t healthy. This meant people, jobs, my own beliefs and habits – anything that kept me small. My judgement called it disloyal. I call it self-loving.

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I have always been a mission-oriented girl. I’ve always been good at taking general excitement and making it specific. But there are things I’ve been terrible at: setting boundaries, saying “no,” using discernment when it comes to my time, efforts and energy. I haven’t been great at creating and sustaining balance for myself and my schedule. And I’ve had to come to a harsh truth with myself: I was being reckless with myself and with others who loved me. 

It’s easy to get caught up with hurriedness. In fact, I had gotten so accustomed to living like a tornado, that I couldn’t understand those non-tornado people around me. Didn’t they feel they were missing out? Didn’t they have somewhere to be? Didn’t they want to be somewhere? Here I was thinking that people who were doing nothing were causing the problems. It took me heartbreak to realize that the tornado is what causes harm and pain. Not the community of people it’s rushing through.

So I stopped.

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Children of the Dirt

October 13, 2015

Read this short story by Simon Rich (The Last Girlfriend on Earth):

According to Aristophanes, there were originally three sexes – the children of the moon who were half-male and half-female, the children of the sun who were fully male, and the children of the earth, who were fully female. Everyone had four legs, four arms and two heads, and spent their days in blissful contentment. Zeus became jealous of the humans’ joy so he decided to split them all in two. Aristophanes called this punishment the origin of love because ever since, the children of the earth, moon and sun have been searching the globe in a desperate bid to find their other halves. Aristophanes’ story though is incomplete because there was also a fourth sex – the children of the dirt. Unlike the other three sexes, the children of the dirt consisted of just one half. Some were male and some were female and each had just two arms, two legs and one head. The children of the dirt found the children of the earth, moon and sun to be completely insufferable. Whenever they saw a two-headed creature walking by, talking to itself in baby-talk voices, it made them want to vomit. They hated going to parties and when there was no way to get out of one, they sat in the corner, too bitter and depressed to talk to anybody. The children of the dirt were so miserable that they invented wine and art to dull their pain. It helped a little, but not really. When Zeus went on his rampage he decided to leave the children of the dirt alone. They’re already [bleep], he explained.

Happy gay couples descend from the children of the sun. Happy lesbian couples descend from the children of the earth. And happy straight couples descend from the children of the moon. But the vast majority of humans are descendants of the children of the dirt. And no matter how long they search the earth, they’ll never find what they’re looking for because there’s nobody for them, not anybody in the world.

[pause]

This story came into my life during a rough patch. I had packed my car and was driving home to get hugs from my mother, snuggles from my doggy, and walks on roads where the lines aren’t painted on. I needed that during this rough patch. NPR was on and this story was read aloud by the author. At the end of the podcast, they repeat at least 20 times: “They’ll never find what they’re looking for because there’s nobody for them, not anybody in the world.”

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When Your Soul is Well

October 7, 2015

How are you, lately? Strong? Flourishing? Living in integrity? Those are all lovely, empowering ideas but they’re hard to maintain on a day-by-day basis. Like flowers, we wither. Like pitchers of lemonade, we spill out.

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What makes us spill doesn’t have to be negative things like rude people, rush-hour traffic or feeling stepped on. It can be the life things we adore like giving to someone, carrying emotional load, or even doing a job that we love.

A dear friend of mine and I were discussing my struggles lately [granted, my struggles seem petty up next to some of my friends’ struggles] but they’ve left me shaken. He said to me, “You should avoid fighting negative energy with negative principles.” When he said it, it struck me. After I let the thought marinate for awhile, it continued to strike me. I felt like he hit the core of why I spill.

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Someone else’s “oops” helped me grow

January 4, 2015

I once applied for a job that I wasn’t ready for. I’ve always dreamed big, and I’ve never truly understood holding back or not going for it, so I applied. I had an inkling that perhaps I wasn’t… established enough, but I also believe in my ability to learn, grow and produce, so I applied.

I also got an interview!

I went in, shook hands, discussed possibilities, toured the facilities, and everything ended on a positive note. I was honestly happy that I had received any kind of response (seeing as I was 23 years old, hadn’t pursued my Masters degree yet, and was still relatively “new” at everything in life).

But the person I interviewed with had a boss. He – of course – had to report back to her about the interview and his impressions of me, and she – of course – got to comment on me.

Here’s the funny part of the story: I was accidentally copied on these e-mails.

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The person I interviewed with seemed to love me; he wrote to her quoting the examples I gave him in the interview about programming, plans, curriculum, goals, and he made a noticeable effort to point out my “passion.” That person’s boss, however, tore me to pieces: too young, too inexperienced, no Masters degree, no “reputable company associated,” “reaching too high,” and the list went on and on. She meant to send that only to her employee (whose name conveniently also started with the letters “S-h,” so in her rush she accidentally selected only my name and sent her assassination of me directly to me).

I read every single word with squinty eyes in total shock. It cut deep (which ended up being a terrific things 6 years later, but we’ll get to that).

When I got to the end of a very long e-mail full of detailed reasons, examples and arguments of why I’m not great, I felt acutely aware of everything. I could feel I hadn’t blinked in awhile. My hands here holding a lot of stress. My heart was beating really fast. I had no words. My spine hadn’t relaxed since I started reading the e-mail.

I wasn’t sure what to do. She had obviously spent a lot time constructing that e-mail (complete with an Internet search of who I am, links for examples and so on). I felt the person for whom the e-mail was intended needed to see her opinions.  So I forwarded it to him (copied her) and simply said, “I believe she intended this for you.”

In no time, I received an e-mail from her (this time talking to me instead of about me). She apologized for her oversight of who she sent the e-mail to and then proceeded to give me advice. I read her advice but I never wrote her back.

Six years later, I’m sure that woman is still in a director position making decisions on who is worthy and who is not (unfortunately, that must happen in life and someone has to make those tough decisions). But I want to thank her, not for her second e-mail on life advice, but for her first e-mail deconstructing who I was appearing to be to the outside world. She was simply going off what she was perceiving – without ever having spoken to me – and we rarely get a uncensored glimpse of what strangers think of us. We can’t just go up to a stranger on the subway and ask, “Hey, what do you think of me? First impressions, say anything, go!”

But I got that. And I’m thankful.

Since then, I have finished my Masters degree. I have since become associated with many reputable companies. I have hundreds of teaching hours under my belt. I’ve worked on major research projects and national initiatives.

So here is what I learned from this: 

You have to give life time so that you can develop who you are. My 23-year-old self is very different than my 29-year-old self. My 45-year-old self will be very different than my 29-year-old self (and I’m uber-excited to meet that person!) But you can’t let someone’s words stop you from your goals, your efforts and your passions.

This experience sticks with me for many reasons: 

1. I realized even super important directors make mistakes.

2. I saw how directors look at candidates (what they look for, what they dissect, what they analyze a little too much, what they jump to conclusions on, what they find important and interesting).

3. I saw how innocent and naieve I was at 23, but also how fearless I was (proud of myself for that).

4. I see how far I’ve come. Out of her checklist of everything I wasn’t, I now am. From my own doing, on my own time and terms.

5. I learned to not let words change my life plans or path.

I often wonder if she ever sits around a table with her friends with a glass of wine and tells the story of how on her first week at the new job, she sent an e-mail trashing someone TO that someone. And I often wonder if she ever wonders about that someone and if I listened to the unsolicited advice she gave me.

But, by chance, if she ever does wonder and, by chance, if she Googles me (the way she’s previously done), I hope she knows that I’m appreciative for the uncensored honesty she spoke. I learned to sit down, wait my turn, let life happen, work hard and keep going. I’ve also learned to “say yes” to responsibilities that seem scary, to collect moments, to learn new skills, to be brave on all fronts and I’m thankful for those lessons.

I’m also thankful to the random people and events (like her and her mistake) which have helped inspire me, teach me and guide me. Those are the stories that count.

I am transient, fleeting and that’s cool!

January 2, 2015

“It probably has to do with the ease of remembering versus the difficulty of imagining. Most of us can remember who we were 10 years ago, but we find it hard to imagine who we are going to be. And then we mistakingly think that because it’s hard to imagine, it’s not likely to happen.”

“The bottom line is, time is a powerful force. It transforms our preferences; it reshapes our values; it alters our personalities. We seem to appreciate this fact, but only in retrospect; only when we look backwards do we realize how much change happens in a decade. It’s as if the present is a magic time, it’s a watershed on the timeline. It’s the moment at which we finally become ourselves. Human beings are works in progress that mistakingly think they’re finished. The person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting and as temporary as all the people you’ve ever been.” – Dan Gilbert, TED talk, June 3, 2014.

I finished graduate school in May 2014. It was as simple as clicking “send” on an e-mail to relinquish my hours and hours of research on gifted children over to my advisor. Then I hopped on a train for New York City where I danced for three days straight (and shared a lovely meal with an ex-boyfriend while sipping wine on a skyscraper’s roof).

But after the rush was over, I wearily woke up, rubbed my eyes, hopped back on the train and headed back to reality… whatever that was. See, I thought that once you get a graduate degree, that’s when “real life” starts. (Note: I’ve been through this “Is this real life? Am I grown?” phase once before: when I graduated with my undergraduate degrees and landed my first full-time job. You can read all about that here, here and here).

At some point during 2014, I realized that there is no moment when I’ll recognize “real life” or feel “grown.” So when copious job offers didn’t come pouring in with $100,000+ offers for salaries, I accepted that a transition phase was in order. The difficult part about transition phases is that they’re extremely uncomfortable and mega stressful. It makes you start to have to have conversations about money, and health insurance (because you’re not 18 anymore, and that spot wasn’t there before), and retirement. I once had all of those things but I gave them up for my dream (which you’ve already read about if you clicked on one of the above-mentioned “heres.”) But now, I’m 29 and money, insurance and retirement are needing to be discussed again with a little more… focus.

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That being said, I still embraced the transition phase head on. I took 3 part-time jobs, all of them had to fulfill certain life thinggys that I wanted in my life: 1) I wanted to grow as a leader – I wanted to learn how to be more assertive and foster growth in others. 2) I wanted to have fun – I wanted a job that made me money and I could randomly dance/sing/laugh during my work hours without having to explain such outbursts. 3) I wanted to work with my community – I wanted to leave a mark. Lucky for me, three fabulous part-time jobs surfaced and they each fulfill 1, 2 and 3. I’m a lucky girl.

Here’s the thing, I am not eternally patient (though I’m working on that). I do understand that transition phases are necessary and you learn a lot while treading water. But I’m also saying that I’ve learned to value my transition phases not only as “moments of chaos” but as my life. I am not “done.” My life story is not done. I’m not wasting time or energy or finances. I’m collecting moments, memories, friends, skills. I’m 29, and if I choose to randomly change directions, then I’ll do it! Dressed cute and with an army of friends and family standing behind me.

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I’m not saying that my transition phase has been easy. It has been difficult. Long hours, little sleep, frustrations, inability to save money the way I used to, and I’ve had to ask for help when I need it (which was a valuable lesson for me to learn). But I won’t fall prey to “the ease of remembering” who I was – and repeating that – simply because it takes extra work to imagine who I could be. I’m willing to do the work.

My 2015 words of focus for my life are posted on my wall:

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Clarity.

Strength.

Minimalism.

Faith. Love. Loyalty.

Living in integrity.

Don’t try to fix the past.

Yoga. Every. Dang. Day.

Be guardful of my time.

Write once a week.

Live more genuinely.

Make time for me.

Pray more.

Make time for friends.

Trust the process.

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I’m headed into unknown territory of what lies ahead, and that is terrifyingly exciting! But I promise, as soon as I know, you’ll know! For now, I think I’ll imagine some wonderful moments for my future!

Living in Integrity

October 1, 2014

I have been thinking a lot lately about what it is to live in integrity with the people around you. These questions have been on my mind:

Are your commitments in line with who you are?

If you had to leave your house every single day, where would you go and what would you do?

Are you living accepting full responsibility for all areas of your life?

Are your daily choices aligning with your goals, values and beliefs?

Are you creating a future that otherwise would not exist?

Are your goals authentic to who you are?

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I had a friend recently tell me a story. She said every time you hit the snooze button in the morning, you aren’t holding integrity with yourself. You said you were going to wake up at that time – you set an alarm to make that so; to set that into action. But you shut it off. You shut down your original intention.

Eventually, that spills over into your life (you said you were going the gym, but you didn’t – you get the point). If you continuously hit the snooze button or don’t follow through with your own goals, intentions, values and beliefs than you start to feel like you can’t even rely on yourself.

I have been examining how I am living with and among other people in my life. My co-workers, my staff, my friends, my family, my followers (that sounds creepy, but I mean in an Instagram kind of way).

And I want to write them all a short letter.

Dear co-workers: I want to be solid ground for you. When you see me, I want you know – without debt or hesitation – that I am dependable. I want you to know that I will show up, that I will be present, that I will be positive, strong, willing to listen, open to feedback and always working with a sense of urgency. I want you to know that I won’t shy away from candor, that I’ll respect the space we share and produce results.

Dear staff (who I actually just consider my friends): I want to be an inspiring leader for you. I want to have an open door, I want to have answers (even when I may not have them right that minute). I want to make sure I’m there to check in with you on your work-life balance. I want to help elevate you from where you are to where you want to be. I want to help you work through whatever you’re struggling with in order to create a better, stronger you.

Dear friends: I want to be better for you. I will openly admit that I haven’t been the best friend lately. I’ve dedicated my hours and energy to self and service, and I feel as though I’ve let you down. I want to be there for you, spend time with you, build you up and share laughs with you. I need you in my life more than I’ve let on, and this is an area I am dedicated to working on.

Dear family: I want to be someone you’re proud of calling your own. I want to be someone who puts into the family as much as I’ve taken. You are the people who made me who I am today, and saying “thank you” would never be enough, so I dedicate my daily doings and my life’s work to you all. You are the ones who taught me about integrity growing up, and I am only able to move forward in life knowing you all have my back.

Dear followers (you know, in the Instagram/blog kind of way): I want to be the same person I am publically, privately and personally. I want you to see that my life aligns with my goals, visions and values and that living those things has made – for me – a life that I am happy to live. I want to challenge you, inspire you, make you think and make you question. I want to be a source of positive energy for you; a catalyst for something new in your life.

And most importantly…

Dear Sheena: I want to be solid ground for you. I want to be an inspiring leader for you. I want to be better, for you. I want to be someone you’re proud of calling your own. I want to be the same person I am publically, privately and personally. (See what I did there? hehe) But, seriously. At the end of the day, I want all of those things for everyone else and for myself because I want to be that good to the world and to myself.

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I’m learning that wishing, hoping and “shoulding” are not effective. That saying “I’ll try” is really just non-committal. I’ve learned that you have to change your inner voice. (How would you feel if someone started talking to you the way your inner voice does?) I’ve learned that the person who looked into the mirror and saw my 10-year-old self is the same person who looks in the mirror today and sees my 28-year-old self. Here I am. Here I always was.

I challenge you think about these questions mentioned here. Are you living in integrity with your co-workers, friends, family and most importantly, with yourself? And if you aren’t, what would you change?

How to Call Tinker Bell

January 19, 2014

The sweetest little conversation happened yesterday.

My little dancers from Dance Camp for Children of Prisoners and Local Youth and I were sitting in a circle for Circle Time. This is a precious time where we sit down to talk about their favorite, most memorable moments in class. They answer the question: “What do you hope you’ll never forget?” One by one they list the moments that were most special to their little hearts.

But quickly, a little background. The week before, Tinker Bell surprised the dancers and she came to Dance Camp.

She brought them all sparkly wands and goodies, then she helped them design their Dance Camp costumes for their upcoming performance. After that, she danced with them! Smiles were everywhere. Hugs were unstoppable.

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Tinker Bell brought magic into the room, and then when she sat down and helped the students design their costumes there was encouragement, love and happiness that I cannot explain in words here. There were special moments full of little hands covered in marker ink that waved Tinker Bell over. There were magic spells being cast with their sparkly wands. There were twirls and giggles. There were little princesses walking on the tips of their little toes. It was magical.

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Now flash forward to this past weekend of camp. We had accomplished a lot. We finalized our show order (which the kids chose), we talked about the upcoming performance and what it is to be a professional performer. Then, one little girl raised her hand.

“Miss Sheena? Will Tinker Bell be at our show?” Silence filled the room. All of their little eyes got just a little bit bigger.

“I think so!” I answered, although I was unsure. “I have to call Tinker Bell and ask her if she can come.”

The little girl immediately said, “But how are you going to call her?” (Quick Sheena, quick. HOW are you going to call Tinker Bell?)

“There’s this little tiny phone,” I said, holding my index finger and thumb together. “This little phone lives inside of a flower. I peel open the petals and I get the special phone, and then I can call Tinker Bell!”

“But Miss Sheena. Do you know what flower the phone is in?”

I thought for a minute. “No… I don’t! I’m going to have to search a lot of flowers to find this phone, aren’t I?”

But then the little girl stops me and says something I’ll never forget:

“No, Miss Sheena. There’s a Tinker Bell phone is EVERY flower!”

My heart filled with so much joy at this statement. One of the life lessons I hoped to pass on to my students was that there is always opportunity if we look for it. Within every life experience, there is always something magical: an open door, a chance for communication, an experience to grow from, a person to meet,  a connection to be made. When that little girl told me that there is a Tinker Bell phone hidden in every flower, I couldn’t stop smiling. Because – you know what – she was right.

There is a Tinker Bell phone in every flower as long as we look for it. If we peel back the petals, we find the prize. And that prize can connect us to new people, challenges and opportunities.

Here I was thinking I had to find a specific flower to find the phone, and this little girl reminded me that’s not my job! I don’t have to worry! I don’t have to assign a specific flower or moment in my life with so much importance. Every flower has the power; every flower is an opportunity.

So after Dance Camp had come to a close – all of the hugs had been given, the “thank yous” had been said, and the floors had been swept – I went immediately to find the nearest flower. And there, I found a Tinker Bell phone and I called Tinker Bell.

Dance Camp: Day 2

November 3, 2013

“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” – Ernest Hemingway

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Day 2 of Dance Camp: The “Littles” learn demi plie at the barre.

Our attendance grew by 10, making a total of 13 dancers. They came in smiling and ready to go. Some of them couldn’t take their shoes off fast enough as their bodies darted ahead to find a place on the floor.

I was feeling tired (I had just returned from reviewing a ballet in a different city for a newspaper as well as morning rehearsals), so I had an extra cup of coffee and pulled on bright blue yoga pants in an effort to up my energy. But as soon as these bundles of energy bounced into the room, my energy flew through the roof. They were ready, and now – thanks to their hopeful smiles – I was ready too.

One boy in the class came in frustrated from the day. He told me he hadn’t wanted to come because everything was going wrong that day and he was “over it.” I told him I have days like that, and dancing always helps me. He said he finally came to the conclusion that he “had some things he wanted to get off his chest” and he felt like dance camp was the place to dance those things out. I didn’t inquire about “the things,” and he didn’t press to tell me, he simply found a place in the room and danced.

We started with introductions and a follow-the-leader warm-up. In jazz, I taught them fundamental dance technique and worked on rhythm exercises, pattern memorization and shifting weight. I use the French terminology with them, which they pick up quickly.

I motioned for them all to come close and they tip-toed into me. We created a “secret code move” which only they understand (and the secret code move shall not be revealed here).

My goal for today’s camp was to establish trust.

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I wanted them to know:

… this is a safe place.

… this is a non-judgmental, fun space of learning.

… this is a place where acceptance, friendship and growth are encouraged.

… this is a place where we work hard but we aren’t hard on each other.

I placed many trust exercises throughout the class. The first was our “secret code move.” Every time I did the move, they did the follow-up action. The second way which I established trust was to show them that I trust them. I didn’t want to tell them I trust them, because that’s just words. I wanted to show them.

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We learned about grand jete by jumping over a small mat (which I called the “ocean full of sharks”). They had a few practices jumping over the mat until they felt comfortable. I noticed each time they jumped their jumps got higher and higher as their comfort level increased. Finally, I said, “I trust you guys so much and you’re doing so well, I’m going to let you jump over me!”

Their jaws dropped to the floor and their little hands covered their mouths. Some of them were ready for the challenge immediately, their hands shot into the air with a “Me! Me! Me!” chant. Others weren’t so sure about this…

I lied down on the floor on my tummy and said, “Ready? Go!”

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One by one little feet ran up to me and jumped. This was followed by a moment of sheer surprise and shock and then a huge smile.

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As I was standing up and putting the mat away, a little girl came over to me and tapped my shoulder. She said:

“I just now realized… I can do that!”

Yes, yes, you can. You can do that and so much more.

Read about how Dance Camp got started and how you can get involved here.

Children of Prisoners: Dance Camp

October 27, 2013

“When you believe a thing, believe it all the way, implicitly and unquestionably.” – Walt Disney

I, like many of Netflix’s 30 million registered subscribers, watched “Orange is the New Black.” The comedy-drama series produced by Jenji Kohan and based on the real-life experience of Piper Kerman immediately grabbed my attention. The psychology of figuring out how to survive in jail, the friendships and the women’s stories of struggle, loss and patience revealed an entirely different person than the one the jail had incarcerated.

I quickly finished the first season, and I was hungry for more. I purchased the book written by Piper Kerman, and it was in the book that I latched onto something: These women were watching their children grow up from afar. They witnessed their children’s lives through photographs, stories, phone calls and letters but they couldn’t do much as far as providing for these children. It seemed their most pressing involvement in their children’s lives was their consistent absence. So I wondered….

What do these children do to work through the heavy hearts they feel of not having their mothers?

In the back of Piper Kerman’s book, she lists resources of ways to become involved. I looked for all of the ones that included children. I visited their websites and I read about their services. I finally came across one that listed services for children of prisoners by state. I scrolled down to locate my state and there I found a name and an e-mail.

Without hesitation, I wrote to that mystery name. I introduced myself and said, “I have an idea!”

I believe, implicitly and unquestionably, in dance’s ability to refresh hurting hearts, to spark curiosity in minds, to wake up a tired body and to motivate an exasperated soul. I explained, with probably too much passion, how I thought a dance camp for children of prisoners would be healthy, inspiring and helpful in countless ways. I wrote, “Thank you for your time and consideration,” typed in my signature, attached a resume and hit send. I didn’t know what would happen. I figured that national listing of state resources hadn’t been updated in years, and I didn’t know if the mystery person still worked there. I half expected the server to immediately bounce my e-mail back.

A few hours later, I received an e-mail back from the mystery person with a phone number. “We’re interested! Call me!”

Within minutes, a meeting was set up and I was sitting in front of my laptop putting together a proposal.

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At the first meeting, I fell in love with the woman who runs the program for Children of Prisoners. Her passion for what she does was immediately apparent, as she took me around a tour of the 24-hour shelter. Two teenage girls were braiding each others’ hair and waved to me as I walked by.  The shelter takes in children who have run away, been removed from their home, or are facing a crisis. They work for reconciliation of families through counseling, communication training and offering hope, love and a neutral ground.

I knew 5 minutes into the tour that I wanted to do this program.

I had set out a simple plan during my proposal presentation:

  • 10 weeks of classes in different dance techniques: Ballet, Jazz, Hip-hop, Musical Theater, Ballroom
  • Volunteer teachers & donated studio space meant zero cost to the shelter or the children’s families
  • We will work towards presenting a showcase of dances
  • The showcase will be filmed and put on a DVD for the children to share with their families and friends

I didn’t know yet if I would be able to pin down any of this, but I presented it as if it wasn’t a problem. I listened to her explain their needs and the needs of the children, and I had no doubt in my mind that dance could take on such a huge responsibility.

I started planning.

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I used social media to help me find teachers willing to donate their time. I called studios looking for someone who would donate their studio space. I tweeted Piper Kerman to thank her for inspiring me to put all of this into action.

And then Piper Kerman e-mailed me.

She loved this project and wanted to hear more about it. She thanked me for getting involved. I was so giddy, I did a happy dance in the middle of a line at Starbucks.

The momentum was exhilarating. I was receiving e-mails from teachers who live in different states willing to donate their time. I found a studio right down the street from the shelter willing to donate space. I organized people willing to send inspirational and motivational cards to the students involved. We opened the camp up the local youth and any legal guardian, parent or sibling who wanted to be involved. The project grew naturally and substantially.

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On the first day of Dance Camp, I saw amazing work happen. It was me and one other teacher, a little girl, a teenage boy and his sister, two mentors and an intern from the shelter. With the door open, letting in the fall breeze, we danced.

The little girl refused to dance at first. She stayed close by her mentor, peeking out at the dancing. I kept waving to her, sending her smiles. Eventually, inch by inch, she came over and stood right next to me. By the end of the class, she was dancing her little heart out and using the French terminology of ballet. When we were doing plies at the barre, she would stand so close to me that her little hand rested ever so lightly on top of my hand.

On a quick water break, the teenage boy told me he had always dreamed of dancing like Michael Jackson. He has a natural movement ability but had never been able to take a structured dance class. I quietly slipped over to my iPod and changed the song to a Michael Jackson song. When I hit play, he jumped up and said, “This is my song!” He looked so happy, as if he wanted to cry but there was too much joy.

At the end of class, we talked about what we had learned and I passed out brand-new fancy pencils with designs on them (which I purchased from the $1 bins at Target). The children rolled the pencils around, examining each intricate design on the pencil, treasuring their gift.

“These are for you to take to school and work hard! They are also for you to write down your dance notes from today and write down any dreams and hopes you have.”

They smiled.

I waved goodbye to all of them, and one of their mentors came up to me and said, “I haven’t seen a smile that big on that little face in a long time.”

As I turned off the lights and locked up the dance studio, I felt nothing but love. Dance had worked its power, again.

If  you are interested in helping:

  • Purchase goodies for the children or send TAX DEDUCTIBLE funds to Seton Youth Shelters! Link: http://www.setonyouthshelters.org/
  • Send a card of inspiration to a child (e-mail balletshoesbobbypins@gmail.com for more information)

 

Something To Believe In

July 5, 2013

Here are some things that I believe:

An effective teacher stays in the hearts and minds of their students because they provide experiences so wonderful that they turn into lifelong memories. These same great teachers keep students wanting to come to class because the students are hungry for knowledge and they’re curious to know what their teachers will help them discover each day.

But here is what I also know:

It can be scary to be in such a position. There are many eyes and ears on you, waiting to see what you’ll do, what you’ll say, what’s next, and how you handle it. It’s a spotlight that follows your every move to the right, to the left, forward and backward. That light can get hot and full of pressure.

I am a dance educator who has worked with general education students and special education students. As I worked with my students, I began to see transition as a journey instead of a destination. I would ask myself each day: “Where are we today? How can we grow today? Where can move to?” My first experience was with general education students. The next year, we decided to have an inclusive classroom, where our general education students would work side by side with special education students. I was the “designated general education” teacher, and there was a “designated special education” teacher, but we were really, quite simply, a teaching team.

In my time spent working in classrooms, talking with educators and observing educators, I have witnessed some of the best and some of the worst. I have witnessed teachers take on Goliath-proportioned problems in educations, and win. I have also seen the opposite result. There are pros and cons, and perks and quirks to every classroom, and every classroom experience. So when I talk about “creating an inclusive classroom,” I am not talking about butterflies and rainbows. It isn’t perfect. It isn’t easy. It isn’t about being politically correct or even about overspecializing an idea.

It’s really about the kind of environment you desire to create, and the willingness to keep working at it.

Author Andrew Solomon wrote, “Defective is an adjective that has long been deemed too freighted for liberal discourse, but the medical terms that have supplanted it – illness, syndrome, condition – can be almost equally pejorative in their discreet way. We often use illness to disparage a way of being, and identity to validate the same way of being.” Solomon goes on to explain that physics research shows how light appears to be a particle if we ask a particle-like question, and it appears to be a wave if we ask a wave-like question. It can live as both, if we know how to talk about it.

Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “All I know is what I have words for.” Solomon suggests that it is this “absence of intimacy” that have starved different life experiences for language.

I want to dispel the rumors, demystify the fuzzy, clarify the fears because you can’t grow if you’re too afraid to try. Educators are more and more often being asked to create inclusive classrooms, and the first emotion they feel is not excitement. It falls under descriptors like fear, anxious, nervous, overwhelmed.

This led me to ask questions: How can we help our educators redirect these feelings to more pleasant feelings? How can we support our educators while they feel tossed into unfamiliar waters? How can we help them do a good job even while they are feeling they may not be capable of doing so?

First thing is first: Let’s put the fears of creating an inclusive classroom into words.

“I’m afraid I’ll say something wrong.”

This is a valid fear that isn’t solely about approaching special education. We are always a little afraid of saying something wrong at any moment in the day. But the feeling just becomes more concentrated in a “special education situation,” as I’ve heard it called. If you feel you lack the language to discuss something, or to ask a question, it’s OK. I’ve had to Google, and research, and speak with parents on countless occasions when I felt I lacked the words, or the knowledge. It is part of education, and the “Well, you should know that” attitude doesn’t help anyone in any situation.

My Suggestion

Create welcome packets for your parents and students. Let them tell you and show you who they are, how they communicate, how they problem solve and how they perceive their child, their child’s abilities and their child’s education. It’s important to know what the parents’ strengths and weaknesses were, as well as their child’s. I want to know what makes them happy, smile, curious and interested. The goal is to find find and provide opportunities for parents and students to find similarities and common ground. It is about becoming comfortable with differences from your personal life experience by hearing someone else’s experiences. In allowing them to show you their world, you are setting a foundation for community, open communication, and relationships.

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“I’m afraid to ‘go there.’ I could do something wrong.”

True. You could. But you have to be willing to walk around in their world to better understand what is going on. The same way that they need to understand how you work, as a teacher and person, in order to understand your approaches and perceptions.

And here’s the thing:

Parents are just as worried about messing up and doing something wrong too! Many parents of special needs children are experiencing what is called children with horizontal identities. Vertical identities include traits that are shared with parents (ethnicity, language). But children with horizontal identities, which means they possess a trait completely foreign to their parents, are living lives completely foreign to their parents (Solomon, p. 2). They are learning to. They are experimenting with what works and what doesn’t work, and you are a member of that team. That is quite an honor! That is something to be excited about! Instead of repeating the question, “What if I do something wrong?” in your head, try on a new question. Something like: “How can we all figure this out together? Teacher-Parents-Student team unite!”

“What if the other kids are mean?”

Kids can be mean. They have bad days, they say cruel things, and they come to the classroom with preconceived ideas that they’ve picked up along the way from who knows where! The good news is that you are there to help them grow, and you live inspired, they will be inspired.

Know this

Know going in that you will have to deal with conversations that include racial tensions, gender bias, Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered (GLBT) youth, cultural differences, religious differences, and varying attitudes on individual differences. Know that you’ll have single-parent families, divorced families, adopted children, foster families, child abuse and potential substance abuse. The goal in helping students and families through tough situations and topics is to foster self-awareness, develop self-advocacy and leadership skills, promote self-esteem and always, always serve as a positive role model. If we can help our students and their families understand their feelings, fears, concerns and doubts, then we can better address the situations and lead them from high tension to peaceful learning experiences.

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“How can I get the students involved and focused?”

This is a hard question for all educators. Some days we do a great job at keeping their attention, and some days… we struggle. Preteaching helps gets students excited. Tell them a story about what the material is “so cool.” Get them curious. Then, get down to business. Everyone loves a good story, and everyone loves to feel productive. Have the students write “I will” cards. This establishes what they will be doing and will do after instruction has passed. For each child, the “I will” bullets may be different, and tailored to their process of learning. Do not fear this. Let them help you by showing you what they need. If a special education student needs you to describe something in numbers instead of pictures or words, their “I will” card may state: “Write down the numbers the teacher says.” If a general education student needs to write down plot points instead of the conclusion, their “I will” card may state: “Write down points to form conclusion.” They are all learning how to learn, and what they need in order to do so. They are also learning clarity of thinking, of which, we are all capable.

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“What if the special needs kids hold back my general education kids?”

This is one of those “full of fear” questions. It’s the question that creeps up because you haven’t put a lot of thought into it yet. Kind of like when you go skydiving, the first fear question is: What if my parachute doesn’t open? And yet, hundreds of people skydive every day.

My Suggestion

Stop assuming any of your students are going to do anything. Stop assuming the special education students will require all of your time and energy, and stop assuming your general education students will perform as stellar students every day. It’s just not how the day-to-day education process works. All of your students will have good days, and all of your students will have very bad days. Don’t change your expectations for anyone. Know exactly what behavior you will accept, and what behavior you will not accept. Know what you are teaching and how you will assess their learning of the material. Figure out what is “normal” for each student, and if they are not progressing, pay attention to that. The work is right there. If they are misbehaving, the consequences are the same. While your discussion or approach may be different, the consequence and the expectations remain the same.

Conclusion

Being a teacher is hard because it’s not just about delivering material. It’s about creating and helping little humans transition into fantastic adults, regardless of their individual differences and life experiences. You have to forget what and who society thinks will be successful. You have to believe in yourself and your teaching techniques. You have to stand firm on those bad days when students (special or general education) will step on every last nerve you have. You have to be willing to throw good lessons plans out of the window if they don’t work. You have to be willing to sit down, and say “Well hello square one. We meet again.” You have to smile when people think you’re crazy. You have to explain things in 100 different ways, and not lose patience. You have to trust, listen, record, track, and discuss over and over again. Every day.

But if you do this… if you keep an open heart and mind, you will see progress. You will see growth. You will see the good come out in everybody including yourself. You will see test scores rise, writing and reading skills advance, clarity of thinking progress and friendships you didn’t previously imagine develop. You’ll see people step up who you thought never would. You’ll see students make better decisions. You’ll see problem solving, and creative thinking. You’ll see kindness win.

If you’re scared, it’s OK. Say so. If you’re overwhelmed, it’s OK. Say so. But don’t fear the responsibility. Don’t pass up on the opportunity.

When you have the chance to create experiences which will turn into lifelong memories, that is a beautiful thing. Even if you feel like you failed, your effort and your positivity will be remembered. Try hard. Work hard. And keep going.

Inclusive classrooms are something to believe in.

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Don’t Feed the Fears

May 22, 2013

The little girl sat with her back against the mirror. I watched as she crossed her arms over her bent knees, and rested her chin there. I walked over to her, and slid down to the ground right next to her.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said, muffled. But she knew. So I simply sat and waited.

“It’s all too hard,” she began. “I have these tests at school. And if I don’t pass them, then they will hold me back. Then, I come to dance and you want me to remember all of these steps. I’m not smart like you, Miss Sheena. I’m just a girl.”

I stopped her there.

“But you are such a smart and strong girl. You don’t need to fear those tests. Those tests should fear you! You are prepared and ready. And same goes for these dances. I’ve seen you dance them; and you have them.”

We talked until she smiled and returned to the dance floor. But I took away a very important lesson from this conversation which occurred huddled in a corner of a dance studio in small whispers and ballet shoes.

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I am a teacher. That means I’m in the business of worrying about the type of people I put out into the world. And I can promise you this: I am more concerned about the people my students are becoming and who they will be, than I am concerned about their test scores or the schools they’re accepted into.

We have to place the spotlight on their strengths, and help them understand how to work with their weaknesses.

We have to teach them how to see and preserve the good, while working through the bad.

Instead of pointing out all of the reasons they should be afraid, I like to point out all of the reasons they absolutely shouldn’t be. This is their world, and their time, and I want to show them how to make the most of that.

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Photo Source

We all have reasons to be afraid. The world reminds us every day of everything that could go wrong. Statistics predict the likelihood of our failure. And then there are those who shake their heads “no” and back away, or find reasons not to believe.

But, what if through all of those reasons we still… just believed? What if we let something play out and see what happens? What if we trust our little people to make good choices, to help when they’re called upon, to allow kindness instead of hatred, to think clearly about a subject even if they aren’t quite sure how to express it yet?

Let’s not feed the fears. Let’s not feed our own personal fears, or project them on others. Let’s not terrorize our children with threats.

Let’s work hard to be still, to find the happy and to stay there. To encourage. To believe. To trust. To listen. To celebrate.

Learning Patience

January 31, 2013

I spent an entire year of my life learning patience.

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Photo by: Alexandrena Parker

That may sound funny, and you may immediately think, “Ha! I’ve spent my entire life learning patience, and I still don’t get it.” And you’d be correct. I’m still learning. But there was a year of my life where, lesson after lesson, I started to realize that the intended goal of these lessons was to teach me patience.

At night, I would lay in bed, tense from the frustrations of the day. Someone wasn’t doing something on my timing, or the way I wished them to. Someone hadn’t called or I had forgotten something. Regardless of what happened, the result was the same. I ended my days frustrated and asking, “Why?!”

Silly me to assume I deserved an immediate answer to my rather ridiculous questions. And crazy me to feel like I was in a place to demand such answers.

The year of “Learning Patience” (as I call it) stripped me of these darker human emotions.

But it took a conversation.

Me: I just don’t get it! Why?! I’ve thought about it over and over, and it doesn’t make sense. AND I’VE PRAYED FOR IT.

Friend: Well, what are you praying for?

Me: PATIENCE.

Friend: You’re praying for the wrong thing.

Me: ….what? How can you pray for the “wrong thing?” There is no right and wrong in prayer and hope.

Friend: If you pray for patience, you are asking God to put trying moments in your life so that you are provided the opportunity to learn and practice patience. You can’t just pray for patience and get it. You have to do the work in the moments that call for it.

This was the moment that I realized how silly I had been. I thought I was the “bigger person” praying for patience, when really… I was getting exactly what I was praying for and I wasn’t listening. I wasn’t willing to do the work. I wanted patience wrapped in a box with a polka-dotted bow to apply to my life as easily as spritzing Chanel No. 5 on my neck and wrists before work.

I will never forget that year of my life or that conversation. Each day that has passed since then, I ask myself what am I really praying for? What am I really in need of? What am I really hoping for? And why?

Instead of closing my eyes, clasping my hands and demanding answers from the man beyond my bedroom ceiling, I started asking myself the hard questions. I started to cut away the fat from the meat of the situation.

And it has made all the difference.

 

War in Sudan

March 8, 2012

With the recent social media push to make Joseph Kony famous (prompted by Invisible Children in an attempt to bring down the head of the Lord’s Resistance Army) I wanted to share with you a piece I wrote in 2006 about my friend’s life growing up in a refugee camp after being chased throughout Sudan and Uganda, only to end up in the camp in Kenya. This is a true story.

Born in the midst of Sudanese Civil War… my friend shared with me his story.

Awer Gabriel Bul spent his childhood running from flames and bullets only years after he learned to walk.

Bul, a self-taught artist, is now a sophomore painting and printmaking major planning to double major in kinetic imaging. To Bul, who grew up in the midst of the Sudanese civil war, “there is no limit to school.” He plans to teach art in America as well as return to Sudan throughout his life to teach art workshops.

The war tore Bul from his parents when he was 7 years old. Many different people raised him, which paved the road to his future in art.

Photo by: Cynthia Merchant

“What brought this art to me was the war,” Bul said. “I was not under a special training or anything. I just used it to express my ideas.”

As a young child, Bul sat in refugee camps confused about the war but unable to ask about what was happening. He passed the time perfecting his art.

“It’s a way for me to speak out,” he said. Bul used whatever art tools he could find to draw his point of view of the wartime suffering. He drew “people in danger and war and tired,” Bul said. “I started to draw my life story and tell people who I am by doing art.”

Sudan was established as a British colony in 1899 and declared independence in 1956. The Sudanese were over­joyed, but the celebration was short-lived. After the British occupation ended, Sudan was left vulnerable and unprepared to brace itself for what happened next.

Arab Muslims moved in and “assassinated many people,” Bul said, especially their tribal leaders. The Arab Muslim majority of northern Sudan, who wanted to enforce Islamic Sharia law, took over the country, Bul said.

“They took over the schools and tried to make us become Muslim,” he said. “We didn’t want that to happen.”

The Sudanese rebelled against the government in 1983, and civil war between northern Islamic and southern Christian groups raged into action. That same year, Bul was born.

Bul lived four years untouched by the war. He passed the quiet days with his family in the self-sustaining Dinka tribe, embracing the traditional culture and beauty of Sudan.

But in 1987, the northern forces attacked Bul’s village and the Dinka tribe scattered.

“People were just running from any direction,” Bul said.

The entire village was burned to the ground. Bul, only 4 years old, stayed with his parents while his older brother, Abraham, fled to Ethiopia. He and his parents hid behind the safety of bushes and “tried to establish a new life,” Bul said. They started farming and lived in a mud house. When Bul was 7 years old, Arabs found them and shot at them.

“Animals were killed,” Bul said. “People were get­ting killed.”

The family left what little they owned in their mud hut and didn’t look back.

“People just kept on running, and I just kept following them barefoot,” Bul said. “I didn’t have any shoes or clothes. I just kept on running, running, running.”

Once again, everything was burned.

Bul was separated from his parents in the rush. He walked through flooded areas, night and day with strangers. There were no clothes to protect his skin from the sun and no shoes to protect his feet while running over sharp rocks and through muddy water.

The only thing he knew was to stay with people who looked like him and to keep moving. He ate wild foods, not knowing if they were safe, but he had to eat to keep running, he said.

Bul and his fellow refugees, which included many young children, headed to Uganda, which is south of Sudan. There they found a refugee camp congested with thousands of shattered and starving people sit­ting and waiting.

After days of running, Bul thought he could disappear in the mass of people and rest. But as the sun slipped below the horizon, anti-government rebel groups attacked the camp.

“They come at night and run into the camp,” Bul said. “They shoot people and take away our food.”

Exhausted, Bul ran from the camp back to Sudan in hopes of finding his parents.

“I didn’t know where my parents were,” he said. “I kept thinking I would see them one day, but it never happened.”

When he arrived in Sudan he saw his country still overwhelmed with war, so he continued on to Kenya.

Bul arrived in Kenya in 1994. Another camp, similar to the one in Uganda, welcomed him.

“The life was the same,” he said of the camp. “They didn’t have anywhere to go but just sit in the camp. It wasn’t happy.”

One day Bul was sitting with thousands of other refugees when a group of them recognized him. They found a strange boy and brought him to Bul.

The boy was his brother, Abraham.

“I didn’t even recognize him,” Bul said. “People recognized us as brothers, and I was excited because I had forgotten him for most of my time.”

Together the brothers would share what Bul called “silent moments” and think, “Where is my father and mother? And the rest of the children?” The brothers waited for someone to recognize their parents among the thousands of people in the camp. No one did. They waited for a letter, but none came.

“We kept on praying that someone would come to us and say, ‘We have seen your parents back in Sudan, and they are here,’” Bul said. “It never happened.”

The boys passed their days by attending school in the morning. But the schooling was poor and inconsistent, Bul said.

“In the camp was a boring life,” he said. “There was nothing to do.” So the boys helped find food, dropped from United Nations airplanes, for those in the camp.

“They would drop food anywhere,” Bul said. “Then we’d go and find some food in the bushes. But the food was not enough for the people,” he said. “We used to support ourselves as a group. If I ran out of food, somebody may just give me a little bit of his food so I could wait for when the food would come.”

The camp was lo­cated in one of the most arid parts of Kenya, meaning they also went without water. During the rare times it rained, the harsh wind blew dust into refugees’ eyes and lungs.

But more severe problems brewed.

A Kenyan tribe claimed the land on which the camp was located. They used the trees for charcoal to sell, but with so many people clut­tering the land, the resources were unreachable.

The frustrated Kenyans began attacking the camp at nightfall, to which the defenseless refugees could not respond.

“They would come at night and shoot people,” Bul said. “And we didn’t have a choice to go anywhere, so we just sit there and wait for your day to come and see what will happen.”

One day Americans came to the camp to offer aid. Language, however, created a barrier between the refugees and the Americans, so the refugees had to pantomime their pains.

“We had to show we’re here in the camp. We don’t have parents; there’s no good life,” he said. “And we proved to them that we didn’t have any good life.”

After witnessing the lives of the refugees, the U.S. government labeled them “the lost boys of Sudan.”

There were no young girls in the group, as they were sold into slavery and prostitution, Bul said. Men were killed by the northern forces, which feared reprisal.

“The Arab people think we may come back later to them, and we may establish another government or kill them,” he said. “So mostly guys ran away.”

Bul and his brother decided to go to America after American volunteers proposed the idea to them.

“We didn’t have a dream of what America looked like or a good place looked like,” he said. “Coming to America was only for the rich people.”

In 2000, Bul and his brother came to America under the care of Catholic charities. Bul lived in the Virginia Home for Boys in Richmond for three months and attended J.R. Tucker High School. The charities put his brother, 18, in an apartment and supported him for six months until he found a job to support himself. While his brother searched for a job, Bul struggled through high school.

“I couldn’t really speak any English,” Bul said. “The first test I did, I didn’t do well.” Though his limited English made classes difficult, he was determined to finish high school. He worked for hours every day on math, English, history and science until he graduated in 2004 at the age of 21.

Then, with the help of vol­unteering churches and his friends, Bul applied and was accepted into VCU’s School of the Arts as a painting and printmaking major.

Five years have passed since Bul lived in the camp. In the summer, he returned to Sudan to meet his father, whom he could hardly remember after 12 years. He no longer has contact with his father, but hopes one day his father will travel to Kenya where he can access a phone.

After arriving in the United States, Bul learned that his mother was alive, but other family members had been killed in the fighting, he said.

His mother came to America in July with his two younger brothers and sister. Another sister lives in Australia. Bul and his family are saving money to bring her here.

The Rev. Dr. Fred Skaggs, a minister at County Line Baptist Church in Ruther Glen who Bul considers a hero, said Americans know little about the problems facing Sudan.

“So much of what’s gone on in Sudan, we have not known about,” he said. “We knew about Af­ghanistan. We knew about Iraq and Somalia, but we’ve not really known a lot about what’s gone on in southern Sudan.”

Skaggs’ church and others helped raise funds for Bul to attend summer school and for his recent travels to his Kenyan camp to hold an art workshop.

Bul used money from selling his paintings to purchase art tools for people in the camp. His goal was to teach the people still suffering how to express their feelings and communicate, he said. He wishes for them to see what they have never seen before.

“These people are blind,” he said. “They have never had a chance to do what they want to do.”

Bul continues to paint his feelings and observations to complete his studies at VCU. “Everything you see around you is all art,” he said.

I met Awer Bul while I was in college. My grandfather had been helping him raise money for his efforts, while helping him with miscellaneous expenses throughout college. I was instantly inspired by his spirit and his drive. Today, Awer Bul is a husband and father. He travels back and forth from Richmond to Sudan in order to create opportunities for those suffering.

You do have the power to change the world. Start by touching someone’s life in a positive way. And then keep going.

26 Acts of Kindness

December 18, 2011

For my birthday, I decided to start the next 25 years of my life off right. I wanted to spread some joy, send some smiles someone else’s way. I have been tremendously blessed in my years 0-25, and I wanted to share the joy! Below are my 26 Acts of Kindness (which I will carry with me always). I met some beautiful people and learned of some amazing organizations. I received some letters of thanks (which made me smile) but mostly… I was able to make a difference in a stranger’s day.

Since starting this project, I’ve received e-mails from people who have also completed kind acts! This brought me even more joy.

Thank you to everyone who helped me during this project, and thank you to everyone who has made my life so beautiful. I can’t wait for the next 25 years of my life! Here’s to Year 26! I’ll take it!

My 26 Acts of Kindness:

1. Ballet shoes: Purchased a gift card ($22.05) in the amount of a pair of ballet slippers and left the gift card with the store owner. The next time a dancer comes in to buy some ballet slippers… they’ll use the gift card! Now there’s another pair of ballet slippers out in the world. Let the hard work begin! Thank you to Ellman’s Dancewear for helping me with this project!

Update: I received an e-mail from the recipient of the gift card. She is a small business owner in Richmond, who has been struggling lately (so much so she will be forced to search for employment in January 2012). She said she walked into the dance supply store knowing she couldn’t afford the shoes, but needed them for her performance at church for the holidays.

2. Writing Journals: I sent writing journals (composition notebooks) and color pens to Richmond’s Full Circle Grief Center, an organization with trained grief counsels who work with children struggling with loss.

3. Coffee Needed: Paid for the car behind me in the Starbucks drive through (in honor of this stranger).

4. Tutu for a New Family: Bought a brand new family a gift card to Target and, of course, a little tutu for their baby girl.

5. Groceries for a Family in Need: Purchased a $5.00 box at Food Lion of pre-boxed food which will be given to a family in need. This so inspired the person behind me in line, that they purchased a box too!

6. Push and Pull: Helped the Food Lion employee push the carts back into the store.

7. One Roll of Tape: Bought a roll of tape ($3.49) and went to the Post Office to help people close up boxes and send gifts to their loved ones this season.

8. Holiday Greetings and Chocolate to Overcome Addiction: After speaking with the Executive Director about what the patients may need and want, I sent stationary (so they can write to their families) and chocolate candies (for a delicious treat) to Human Resources, Inc., a local non-profit organization offering substance abuse treatment to individuals suffering from opioid addiction, illicit substance addiction, cocaine abuse and alcohol abuse.

9. Book Inspiration: During my Kindness Project, I ran across the book You Changed My Life: Real Stories of Real People With Remarkable Hearts. In the book it says, “Kindness not only makes the coffee. Kindness says good morning.” I made the coffee and I said good morning (but mostly, I make a daily effort to be smiling, friendly and kind to my co-workers.)

10. Car Repair: After an unfortunate, minor accident I had to have some work done on my car (silver lining: this allowed me to drive a 2012 car for 2 weeks). On the day I went to pick it up, I brought the rental car guys and the repair guys some M & M’s! They were so happy, they opened them immediately with a huge smile.

11. Gave up my Perfect Parking Spot: I found THE perfect parking spot (in the midst of holiday shopping chaos). I moved on, and waved for the car behind me to take it.

12. Happy Hair: I gave a stranger a compliment on their hair (which was perfectly curled and made me green with envy!)

13. Water Bottle Relief: I brought a man on crutches some water, as he sat down to rest.

14. Feelin’ Good: I sent beauty products to female troops serving overseas. (I may have slipped some chocolate candies in there too, post-photo!)

15. Camp Items: I sent sharpie markers and little tubes of sunscreen for the children who participate in Comfort Zone Camp. A bereavement camp that gets kids out and moving in nature! I spoke with one of the volunteer coordinators for the camp, who went through the camp as a child after losing her father, and she said little gifts make huge differences, and the camp changes lives. I hope my small gifts help children have fun on their camp!

16. Surprise Moments: I wrote sticky notes, and left them on the driver side of cars parked at the busiest mall! Notes reading: “You are appreciated!” and “You are loved!” and “Stay amazing!” and “Your Dreams Will Come True!” and “Happy Holidays!” I’m hoping these happy notes will make some people smile!

17. Holiday Cheer: I sent holiday cards to a nursing home for residents who don’t receive holiday cards.

18. Cookie Delivery: I made cookies for my mailman!

19. “New” Clothes for someone: I donated barely used clothes to Goodwill.

20. Buying Time: I paid for a stranger’s parking meter.

21. Tortillas for Education: I donated $25 to Luz Idalia from San Lornezo, Honduras (via Kiva)! Luz is 36 years old and lives with her three daughters. She makes and sells tortillas for a living. She makes them in two shifts, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Her customers come to her every day (from Monday until Sunday). She will use her loan to buy supplies to make tortillas. At the moment, her clients’ orders have increased and she hasn’t been able to meet all of their demands because she needs more capital to be able to produce more. Luz Idalia’s goal is for her daughters to graduate from school.

22. Pizza Delicioso: I took a piping hot pizza to my local fire station. They work long, hard hours and risk their lives daily to keep our lives and our property safe.

23. Never forget to tell those you love that you love them: I reminded my family how much I love them (by an e-mail / card / hug / just saying it!)

24. Conversation: I sat and talked to a little girl for an hour while her parents worked. (Note: Her parents own a business next to the dance studio where I teach. They work 7 days a week, 10 hours a day. Since she is little, she stays where her parents work and occasionally comes by to visit). I learned about her school, her hobbies, her day, her ideas, her dreams.

25. Go ahead of me: I let someone go ahead of me in line at Target.

26. Playing Santa: I helped purchase some gifts for a family in Idaho (two young girls) who had a family member who was wounded in battle. (If you want to be involved, check out: Code of Support)

 

So what did I learn?

1. You don’t have to be rich to make someone’s life a little better.

2. There are beautiful people and organizations right here in my city.

3. People, regardless of who they are or where they are from or what language they speak, people appreciate kindness.

4. Kindness is infectious.

So go on. Spread some kindness. Show some love. Give some smiles this holiday season. You won’t regret it, and you’ll make someone’s day / life.

Happy Holidays all! And thank you for being a part of my life!

 

 

26 Years/Acts of Kindness

December 7, 2011

Well, on December 18, 2011, I will turn 26 years old. Yes, that’s right. I’m moving into a new bracket of age! No longer will I be in the lower 1 – 25 quarter of life. I’ll be in the 25 – 50!

Now this is something I’ve learned during years 1 through 25:

So I’ve made a decision: I want to bring in the next fabulously, wonderful quarter of my life with kindness.

I will complete 26 acts of random (by random I mean: deliberate and planned out) kindness.

Please leave me a comment with your ideas on kindness acts that I should do! For example, buying a gift card at the grocery store and then giving it to the person behind me.

I’m excited for the next quarter of my life, and I want to share the joy! Help me come up with some ideas! 

The Love Story: Part III

September 30, 2011

Together we had struggled through eight long and hard years to finish a three year course. Graduation was a day I sometimes felt would never come, but it did. My brother and his family were there as well as my mother and father. After the ceremony, coming out of the auditorium, the graduates were swamped by family and friends, and so was I.  As the hugs were shared, I glanced around and there was Jane, standing off to the side so others could get to me.  A piercing emotional pain hit me… here is the one who made so much of this possible, and she’s standing off to the side, not being noticed or getting any credit for it.

I went to her, kissed her and said with all the conviction of my heart, “Honey, we made it.”

I later finished three masters degrees and a doctorate, but none of them had the emotional impact of the first one, and Jane was always there—in the shadows—but she was there for every one of them.

Dr. Fred R. Skaggs

My grandparents have been married for 58 years, and they are still in complete love. My grandfather opens every door for my grandmother out of respect for her strength and patience and endless love. My grandmother adores and listens to my grandfather’s stories, of which she always remembers the little details. I watch them with such admiration, and who I am today is because of the solid foundation my grandparents have created for everyone – starting with their love and relationship, then moving to what they created for my mother and her 4 siblings, and then for all of my cousins, my brother and myself.

So what is the secret to such deep, unwavering love? I asked them:

(1)  Be sure it’s true for each of you: “I love you as I love no other.” There are a lot of people who can’t say that to the one they are marrying, unfortunately.

(2) Remember:  Lovers turn into strangers when they stop doing the things that made them fall in love. Set aside some time, even if it’s just going for a walk, in which just the two of you can be together, can talk and share as lovers, as friends.

(3) Be openly honest with each other. Tell the truth. When you’re hurting, say so.  If things are not going well for you in any area of your life, share that with the one you love. When they’re going well, share that too.

(4)  Learn to listen. Most of us try to come up with an answer for a problem when there may not be an answer to the problem; your mate just needs you to listen to how they’re feeling.

(5)  Agree that the two of you will not always agree about many issues, but that’s okay. Unless it’s an issue that demands an immediate decision, for which outside help may be necessary, you can agree to disagree and move on to other things.

(6)  Practice good manners. Never be nicer to strangers or outsiders than you are to your mate. Thank your mate for ALL the nice things they do for you. Don’t assume they know of your appreciation. They don’t.

(7)  Look your mate in the face everyday—outside of the bedroom— and say, “I love you” and mean it.

(8)  Work hard at being “best friends.”

(9)  Make the practice of your faith a major commitment in your life.

(10) Participate, as much as possible, in the interests of your mate.

(11) Develop a sense of humor. Life can get awfully frustrating at times. A sense of humor will not only help your marriage, it’s good for your heart.

I hope my grandparents know how much I adore them and need them in my life. I hope they know THEY are my example of true love; THEY are my example of Romeo and Juliet. And since there is no physical gift I could give them to show my appreciation, I will live my life to the fullest every day and do my best every day to make them proud and carry on everything they’ve taught me.

I love you both, to the edges of the world and back.

The Love Story: Part II

September 27, 2011

Part Two of the Love Story: Those who told them not to get married

There were many of my male friends who told me I was wasting my time trying to establish a relationship with her because she was just biding her time until her boyfriend returned from Korea.  I was told that many times, and naturally I had some serious questions about that issue myself.  It was a huge struggle for me. I was told many times that “You’re going to get your heart broken” when he gets home. I had some say, “She’s just using you. Why do you keep hanging on?”  (I’ve since wondered why they were so concerned about me. I’m now convinced that they wanted to go with her, and they wanted me out of the way.)

On several occasions, when it was clear to me that she was not going to make any decisions until this friend came home from Korea, I began to feel that maybe these “friends” were right and that I probably should go on with my life because after a few weeks of dating her, I was absolutely sure that “this is the woman I want to marry.” (She was cuddly, like a little rabbit, and the sweetest person I had ever known.) I had gone with a number of fine girls, but there was not one that I was sure I wanted to marry…until I met her.

Guy Mitchell had put out a beautiful version of Hank Williams’ popular song, “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still in Love With You.”  The words went like this:

 

Today I  passed you on the street

And my heart fell at your feet

I Can’t Help It If I’m Still In Love With You

Somebody else stood by your side

And he looked so satisfied

I Can’t Help It If I’m Still In Love With You.

I used to sing that to her as we waited on the corner for the bus to come. (I didn’t have a car at that time.) She didn’t care much about my singing, but she liked the song.

The struggle about what I ought to do about this relationship got harder, but my final decision to stick with it and fight as hard as I could for her regardless of the outcome hung on two things:

I prayed every day “Lord, if this is not the right thing for me (us), please bring it to an end as hard as that will be.”

Then one day I heard Merle Haggard’s song, “Today I Started Loving You Again,” and that absolutely settled it for me. “I can’t quit now.” Win, lose or draw I determined to fight to the end. AND I GOT HER!

When I learned the morning after she had told him that she was choosing me, I felt like I’d won the lottery. I walked on air the whole day. I kept thinking, “She’s mine! It has been worth it all.” And she still is mine! And she is still very special to me.

We were told—at least I was told—that I was too young. I was. I was 19 years old when we got married. We were told we shouldn’t get married at that time. That was true. I was a junior in college. We didn’t have any money. That was true.

But through all of the hard times, I’ve never regretted marrying Jane. Never.

Looking back on all of the struggles, it has been worth it. I think, and Jane agrees, that we are most proud of five wonderful, smart kids whose lives today demonstrate the character, the principles, and the morals we dreamed and prayed that they would have…and eight precious grandchildren who are perfect in every way.

 

The Love Story: Part I

September 23, 2011

Today I went to lunch with my grandparents. This may not seem like a big deal to many, but to me: It’s a huge deal.

You see, I love my grandparents more than I can express. Any time I get with them, I treasure. They have been my example of true love, romance, encouragement and trust throughout the years. They are my vision of a successful, nurturing relationship. They have been my solid ground since the day I was born. They have inspired me, listened to me cry, watch me grow, help fund my dreams. They have picked me up from school, clapped for me at the end of shows, purchased countless bouquets of flowers. They are not just my mother’s parents. They are so, so very much more.

A while back, I asked them some questions about their story. I was going to re-write it, but after reading their responses, in their own words… it is too beautiful to tamper with. I will be telling their story in a series of posts.

Today is Part One: The Meeting {How my fearless grandfather and my beautiful grandmother met}

My Grandfather’s Story: In September, 1951 I went to the very popular Tobacco Festival Parade on Broad Street in Richmond. At that time, it was the biggest thing in town every year. Princesses from many parts of the state vied for the title of “Tobacco Bowl Queen.” Jane {Sheena’s Note: my grandmother} was “Miss Blackstone.” I watched the princesses ride by, each seated on the back of a fancy convertible automobile. As she came into view, I saw her waving to the crowd and was immediately and absolutely smitten by her beauty. I thought and said to the one who was with me, “That’s the prettiest girl I ever saw.” I never expected to see her again.

In late October, 1951, Jane and her sister, Jackie, visited at the evening discipleship session at Grove Avenue Baptist Church (in Richmond), were I was president and leading the meeting. My brother was there also. He greeted Jane and Jackie and before the night was over had their telephone number. I didn’t know her name, but I remembered that beautiful face. It never dawned on me that I would be able to date her. In fact, I learned that she was “pre-engaged” to a fellow who was serving in the armed forces in Korea. He was not expected to return for at least another year.

Hoping that I might get lucky and have a date with her, I asked my brother for her telephone number. He wouldn’t give it to me. I tried several times but to no avail. I offered him $5.00, which was a lot of money in those days, for it, but still he refused.  Determined as I was, I knew that she and her sister had signed a visitor’s card when they visited the church, so I got two of my friends to go to the church office with me to look through a large stack of cards. “Bingo!” I got it!

I was shy around girls in those days—I was seventeen years old and a freshman at the University of Richmond, and I thought that it would be a waste of time to call and ask this girl if she would go to a movie with me (I was into big time entertainment in those days), but I wanted to try. I figured she was booked up for weeks and wouldn’t have time for me, but I called her. We talked for a while, and I asked her out. Just as I thought, she couldn’t go. She was going home to Blackstone to see her parents that week-end. Disappointed but not surprised, I asked about the next week-end, and holy mackerel she said, “Yes!” I like to have fainted. I was a nervous wreck. I didn’t know what else to say. I thanked her and hung up the phone, so excited I felt like I had climbed “Mt. Everest” on my first try. All of a sudden, it dawned on me that I hadn’t suggested a time to pick her up. So I had to call back and apologize, but we got it settled. I don’t remember a lot about that night, but I do remember it took me a long time to get to sleep.

My Grandmother says: It was in a discipleship group at Grove Avenue Baptist Church, and Fred had the program; it was good. Dating him never crossed my mind as I thought I had found the one I wanted. He was in the service, stationed in Hawaii, finally ending up in Korea. However, Fred called and asked me out, and we had a good time. I continued going out with him until it got to be every night he would come over.

After he got a car, he would come in the mornings and take me to work and sometimes meet me for lunch. He “grew on me”, and I was falling in love with him. But first I felt like I had to wait for Jack to come home before I made a decision, even though I knew what that decision would be. I had been praying for God to lead me to the one I was to marry, and he did.

When asked, “What was the first thing you thought when you saw each other?” My grandfather said, “Infatuated, stunned.” My grandmother said, “Impressed with his leadership; and I thought he was a nice guy.”

My grandparents recently celebrated 58 years together. One of their mutual, lifelong friends said this: “I’m not family so I can be a little more direct about what happened 58 years ago and suggest they are qualified to serve in high places.  Considering what Fred pulled off, the country needs him negotiating for the State Department.  And, Janie has proven to be qualified to address the United Nations on world peace.”

Read Part II here!

Read Part III here!

 

400 Feet in the Air

July 27, 2011

Here’s one thing you should know: I’m a fighter.

I fight for what’s right. I choose what corners to stand in, and there I stand.

I support my family and friends, co-workers, bosses, students, my students’ parents and my community. Everyone that makes up my circle of life: I support.

Did that sound like a pep talk to you? …that’s because that’s exactly what it is… because I may have to step off the edge off a 25-story building that’s 400 feet in the air! {All for a good cause}

I am honored to say that I’m currently raising money for The Special Olympics. I am doing so in honor of the Arts and all of the fantastic performers I have met along the way.

Photos from We Are Artists 2009.

But mostly I am doing so to create funds (which create opportunities) for growth and development and sharing. That’s what I’m fighting for.

Now, yes, walking down the side of a building 400 feet in the air is absolutely terrifying to me at this moment in time… But I can do it. For a good cause!

My nightmares currently looking like this:

What if I can’t let go?

Oh my gosh. No.

Maybe this was a bad idea…

But no. I won’t allow myself to think like that. Everyone deserves opportunities and the chance to thrive. I will do this. I will overcome my fear, breathe and do this.

{The Catch}

I have to raise $1,500 in order to complete the rappel. This is where I need you to be a fighter and believer.

If you would like to donate {remember, any amount helps and is directly sent to the Special Olympics!} you can donate here: I BELIEVE!

Send the link to your friends: http://www.firstgiving.com/fundraiser/sheenajeffers/dancerappeller

I cannot thank you enough for your belief in the Special Olympics and in me.

 

 

Forgiveness

June 30, 2011

Forgiveness is a pretty large concept for such a chaotic, relentless world. Lately, I’ve been trying to wrap my head around this huge idea, not because anyone wronged me, but just because I now feel… mature enough [old enough] to accept it. Fully. No “but I” attached.

The first thing I did was track my personal experience with forgiveness.

Little girl phase: Forgiveness 101

“Sheena, your little brother said he’s sorry for taking your toy. Give him a hug.”

School-age phase: Intermediate Forgiveness

Person A: “I’m sorry I read that note.” Person B: “It’s OK. No big deal.” Person A: “Still friends?” Person B: “Sure.”

[For those who grew up with a religious background] “Jesus loved you so much, and he forgave all of your sins. Washed them away!”

Note: This is where things became a little confusing. Washed them away? But… my mom’s still upset that I talked back to my teacher, so God-slash-Jesus forgives me but my mom doesn’t? But it’s washed away? Am I getting this all down? [I learned the power of all of this later in life].

High-school phase: Forgiveness Angst

“Listen, I didn’t mean to kiss him. It just happened.”

College phase: Forgiveness?

Professor: “So actually, how your parents have been voting is completely wrong.”

Young-adult phase:Welcome

So I’m in this phase now. I’ve spent a lot of time unlearning and re-learning lessons (I’ll call them “baggage”) that weren’t necessarily positive influences on my life. Is that forgiveness? I’ve spent a lot of time dealing with the “baggage” of my family members, friends, boyfriends, students, on and on. Is that forgiveness? In that case, a third party is involved. No one has directly “injured” me but I’m having to deal with the results of the injury through someone I love; so I too am called to forgive whomever / whatever caused the person I love to be the way they are.

I’ve come to the conclusion that forgiveness goes hand-in-hand with acceptance, which then frees me from guarding the wall I had put up.

Dr. Frederic Luskin, of the Stanford’s The Forgiveness Project, says there are “core components of forgiveness: taking less personal offense, blaming the offender less, and offering more personal and situational understanding of the offender and of oneself.”

I think the key words in his components are: taking less, blaming less, offering and understanding more.

There are many times I could have taken less [time, energy, focus, offense], while blaming less [you, me, time, God, love, bad day], and offering more [time, space, understanding, listening ears], in order to understand more [oh I get it now].

The problem is, our body has a physical reaction to whatever it may be, so we don’t have time to process. Our heart starts beating fast, our mind starts pulling examples from the past to put on as evidence, adrenaline and cortisol [released by our nervous system] shoot through our body, our muscles tighten, our breath quickens, and suddenly… we have the senses of the super hero! We can hear, see, smell, taste, feel anything. We are now in “survival mode.” What are you going to dare say next?

So see. Just like that we lose sight of a situation. Then we say and do things that will require more of this magic potion called “forgiveness” later.

I’ve thought about everything forgiveness could be: Glue, Water, Sunshine, Fairy dust

I’ve thought about all of the tools we use while attempting to execute forgiveness: A hug, a smile, a beer, a joke, a nudge, a gift, a letter.

But really, forgiveness is so much more than a thing that needs to be done. It’s more personal and intimate than that.

Dr. Luskin’s advice:

1. Know exactly how you feel about what happened and be able to articulate what about the situation is not OK. Then, tell a trusted couple of people about your experience.

2. Make a commitment to yourself to do what you have to do to feel better. Forgiveness is for you and not for anyone else.

3. Forgiveness does not necessarily mean reconciliation with the person that hurt you, or condoning of their action. What you are after is to find peace.

4. Get the right perspective on what is happening. Recognize that your primary distress is coming from the hurt feelings, thoughts and physical upset you are suffering now, not what offended you or hurt you two minutes – or ten years – ago. Forgiveness helps to heal those hurt feelings.

5. At the moment you feel upset practice a simple stress management technique to soothe your body’s flight or fight response.

6. Give up expecting things from other people, or your life, that they do not choose to give you. Recognize the “unenforceable rules” you have for your health or how you or other people must behave. Remind yourself that you can hope for health, love, peace and prosperity and work hard to get them.

7. Put your energy into looking for another way to get your positive goals met than through the experience that has hurt you. Instead of mentally replaying your hurt seek out new ways to get what you want.

8. Don’t focus your wounded feelings, thereby giving the person who caused you pain power over you, learn to look for the love, beauty and kindness around you. Forgiveness is about personal power.

9. Amend your grievance story to remind you of the heroic choice to forgive.

[Read more about The Stanford Forgiveness Project here]

I am learning to let go of whatever object I’ve focused my wounded feelings on. Because, hey. I am tired of guarding the walls.

“To forgive is the highest, most beautiful form of love. In return, you will receive untold peace and happiness.”

Happiness is a Rather Large Task

June 13, 2011

Within the last two years I have realized something that I was never told would be my own responsibility. My parents, my school teachers, my Sunday school teachers, the girl who taught me how to swim, my dance instructors, the teenagers who came in as part of the DARE program telling me to “just say no” to drugs, my college professors: Nobody, not a single one of those, told me.

How was I supposed to know I was responsible for my own happiness!

Growing up, it was always something or someone else that made me happy. The cartoon character on TV made me laugh, my mom’s pancakes made me feel good, my Sunday school teacher told me God was here to make me feel good (which, when you’re a little girl, means you equate God to mom’s pancakes). 

We spend a large portion of our lives allowing, then expecting, other things and people to make us smile, laugh and feel complete. 

About two years ago, I had one of those moments. “Whoa wait. Something is way off here.” My parents told me college would make me happy, so I expected college to make me happy. It did. Then college told me a full-time job would make me happy and be a sign of success, and I suppose it did and was. My full-time job told me to keep working hard to make more money, and that would make me happy. That’s when I had the moment.

I had been on a train of happy expectations. I moved from one external source of supposed happiness to the next, like a child expecting magic from every stranger they meet. Focus was never my problem, oh no. I could stay focused and achieve whatever was required of me to unlock the happy (like I was playing some video game).  I kept moving to each new level, slaying dragons, following directions, until I held the prize. What I began to realize was that somewhere along the way the prize and the feeling of happiness lost its relationship. So while my life looked good on paper…I wasn’t genuinely happy…but I had nothing to justifiably complain about.

That’s when it hit me: Happiness is a rather large task; and it’s my own personal task, nobody else’s.

I have had to dig down deep to figure out exactly how I’m going to approach this task, seeing as the end goal (of being happy and then being content with that) is very complicated. Here’s what I’ve mapped out thus far:

1. Forgive yourself… thank yourself… live again. A choice is just that, a choice. Yes, it changes our lives’ path and requires investments (which take time and money) but in the end, it was just a choice. It may be good or bad, but we learn from it regardless. What we must be careful of is to not let a choice water us down. Whatever results a choice has produced, deal with it accordingly and then, live again. Make another one.

2. You must allow yourself to be inspired by everything. Our world is packed full of beautiful things, which includes grief. Grief, though we hate it, is a step toward healing. All of the dark and dirty and ugly things in our world need our attention, as much if not more than all of the beautiful things. So while you’re off taking photographs of a raindrop resting on a flower petal, remember to be inspired to act when one of the dirty, ugly things comes into your radar.

3. You have to chase down all your demons. Why do you do what you do, say what you say? What made you do it/say it? What makes you angry? What makes you cry? What makes you nervous? Figure out what’s holding you down, make peace with it, so that you may carry on. You can’t fully love the world around you if you don’t fully love yourself.

4. Understand, that if you keep comparing yourself to others and their situations, you will always end up losing. You are not them. You don’t come from their background; you aren’t working with the same game pieces. Different rules apply.

5. Make up your own definitions for the following words: Success, Happiness, Relationship, Love, Marriage, Career. And then live your life, and adjust your expectations, by your own definition.

6. We are the only species that must start planning for their retirement (60 years in advance) at the age of 22. That’s a lot of pressure, and a lot of feeling like we’re doing something wrong. Be willing to give up some control when it comes to your future. Stay aware while trusting at the same time.

7. Understand how the grass works. When we first imagine or see or hear about a new idea, the grass looks sparkling green! Fresh! Inviting us to roll all around it, run through it with our shoes off! But after all of that activity, the grass is smooshed. Then the grass runs out of rain and starts to brown. It becomes lifeless, crunchy and it hurts when stepped on at the wrong angle. Ideas, jobs, imaginative play works the exact same way. Don’t mentally torture yourself; educate yourself before jumping onto unknown lands.

And when you still feel like something is missing and you just are not and cannot be happy…

8. Sit down and think really hard about putting that something into your life. How would your life change? If you make that phone call, if you quit that job, if you sell that house, if you give up, if you hold on…what will that change? If you don’t know the answer to that, play it out in your head both ways: Positive and Negative. If you are still lost, sit down and write out everything in your own current life: Positive and Negative.

Happiness is a task and it takes work. It takes work to be content and at peace. If you’re exhausted and drained…you aren’t doing it wrong. In fact, you’re doing it exactly right. You’re on the path to creating and maintaining happiness within yourself. It’s a dizzying, tiring task. But it’s the task we’ve been given, and it’s only ours. No one else can figure this one out for us.

 
 

Happiness is, by nature, a subjective quality with a definition like a moving target.

 

Love v. Money

April 15, 2011

There have been two times in my life where I can say I felt completely lost.

The first time, I was 18 years old, graduating from high school, applying and auditioning for colleges. I received acceptance letters and rejection letters. But mostly, I was hit with a myriad of decisions and painful ideas. I had decided to not major in dance, which in many ways… shattered me. Today, I am thankful for the path I chose. I ended up attending a college I adore, continued dancing, met my best friends and molded my life into a happy and complete life. I still, however, remember the wounds from that difficult time, and while the scars have faded, I remember them.

The second time, I was 22 years old, single and yet again graduating from another major event in my life. I had finished 4 years of college with two degrees and a minor, made spectacular grades, and here I was once again facing decisions, except this time it was far more serious. My health insurance ran out the day I walked across the stage to accept my degrees. I needed to find a job, and quick. But for me, a job wasn’t good enough. I wanted a career. So I convinced myself that love didn’t matter, only money. Focus on only myself. Focus on money.

Well, I was wrong.

In my quest for the logical-only pathway of moneymaking, I ignored my heart. I sold my soul to working 9-5, and while I was able to purchase and pay off a brand new car within a year… I was miserable. I would sit in traffic on my ride home and cry: What had I done all day?  What had I really accomplished? What had I become? I felt numb, physically and emotionally.

Two years, an unhealthy relationship, and many tears later, I realized changes had to be made. I returned to my heart: Dance, family, God, music, reading. I found a way to put dance as much in my life as my day job. I restored my life by creating a balance between love and money. The “Real World” had beaten me down, and it had won. I needed to take back control of my priorities to keep going.

Now I’m 25; and even though I still work 60+ hours a week, I now have my heart back and I know that all of my hard work is pushing me to my final goal. Every time I clock in at my day job, I know I’m handling my business and saving for my future. Every time I pull on my leotard, I know I’m nurturing my body, spirit and soul. At the end of the day, I sleep. I sleep knowing tomorrow I’ll do it all again, because that’s the life I’ve created for myself: one of financial and spiritual balance. Looking back, I had put myself in that situation by expecting money to solve all of my problems. I should have never looked to money or someone else to fill a void I had created in my own life by ignoring my heart and passion.

“Why am I doing this to myself?

Losing my mind on a tiny error.

I nearly left the real me on the shelf.

Don’t lose who you are in the blur of the stars.

Seeing is deceiving; dreaming is believing…

Sometimes it’s hard to follow your heart.”

Know yourself. Keep what you love close to your heart and high on your priority list. What you love, and who you love, are part of the building blocks that make you who you are. No amount of money is worth giving that up.

You can still be a go-getter taking your heart along for the ride.

Relationships

April 11, 2011

There are all types of relationships. Mother-Daughter. Father-Son. Siblings. Friends. Lovers. Business. Pleasure. Cousins. Aunts. Uncles. Grandparents. In-laws. Teachers. Loving from afar. Girlfriends. Boyfriends. Marriages. Dating. Recently, I’ve been thinking about relationships, and how they directly shape and influence our daily lives. I’ve come to the conclusion that everything boils down to a relationship and the relationship rules that guide that interaction. The below realizations apply to all types of relationships:

1. Our similarities bring us comfort, but our differences makes us who we are. We are not always going to agree on everything. In fact, who would want that really? The simple fact alone that I am different from the people I love proves that the love is real. Regardless of my bad days or silly ideas or crazy theories, these people remain. Because, hey, “That’s just Sheena!”

2. Patience with others is Love. Patience with self is Hope. Patience with God is Faith. The key word here being: Patience. Every relationship is going to have its curve balls and mountains. There will be times when your emotions roll down the wrong road, or the person you care for is on a different path. Patience, breathing, never giving up allows that person, and yourself, to grow and see the big picture.

3. A man who treats his woman like a princess is proof that he has been born & raised in the arms of a queen. Appreciating family and others’ families open a world of opportunities and possibilities for more love. Lessons are passed on through families and hugs and appreciation. Our families make us who we are. Share that.

4. Don’t make decisions when you’re extra angry, and don’t make promises when you’re extra happy. In other words, don’t fight dirty. Be aware of your emotions and your decisions. Relationships are strong, so they are meant to pull people through, but they aren’t meant to be battered and disrespected.

5. You can’t talk your way out of a situation that you behaved yourself into. Actions in a relationship build trust (or non-trust). Remember you aren’t the only one in a relationship. There are always other factors. When you throw a rock in a pond, it leaves ripples that go on and change the surface.

6. Love is when you take away the feeling, the passion, the romance and you find out you still care for that person. Life is going to throw a lot of challenging things at any type of relationship. The tests will try to strip all of the joy from the relationship, but if through it all you can look at them and think, “I still care…” then it’s real, it’s worth fighting for, it’s worth being patient for.

7. When the I in “I love you” becomes more important than the “you,” the word in the middle just fades away. Try very hard to not let your ego, insecurities, needs, wants, demands interfere with your relationships. Stay open minded, trust, give time, believe and most of all always believe in the factors of the relationship.

8. We need each other to have, to hold. It’s true. Can you live without a touch? A hug? A moment of care? Comfort from a parent or a friend? A puppy’s snuggling? I can’t. I need my family, my boyfriend, my boyfriend’s family, my puppy.

9. Take the time to figure them out. Make time in your schedule to learn who you love and who they love. You will end up blessed.

10. The person for you is the one who pushes your buttons, makes you mad on a regular basis and makes you face your issues head-on.  I am thankful for the people who bring me back to earth when I’ve lost it somewhere in outer space. I’m thankful for a mother who has always kept me grounded and helped me focus my over-dramatic dreams. These are people who were put in my life for a reason, and it’s for those frustrating reasons that I love them and need them.

The truth is… you just cannot give up. You cannot use “let’s break up” as a way to hurt the person you love. You can’t spit terrible words then run away. You can’t discredit their feelings. You can’t pretend it doesn’t matter to you. They do matter. They always will whether you believe that or not. Relationships are with us always, and they stay right here in our daily lives providing opportunities of growth, celebrating the wins, supporting through the lows. They lift us up, they knock us down, they chip away at us to make us a more perfect version of ourselves. Never forget who loves you, and never forget to love them.

Chelsea Millunchick Photography

Discovering Friendship

March 2, 2011

Growing up, I had a much skewed view of friendship. I would sit back in elementary school and pair up who I knew was “friends.” But as far as I could figure, all that meant was who would be sitting next to whom when our class was ushered into the cafeteria, or who would end up passing the precious time of recess with whom. Nothing more, nothing less; because let’s be honest. We all know the birthday invitation lists were influenced, produced and distributed by our parents’ choices.

In middle school, my family moved from Richmond to Virginia Beach. I missed everyone and everything, as one large collective idea. Once I reached high school and started at my arts school, friendship took on a competition-esque flair. Who could out perform whom? Who would be standing front and center? Who would be singing the solo or dancing the break? I let my trust in friendship go about as far as I’d let my little dog run out in front of me. It was a – mostly – controlled environment. Sometimes, when I got too comfortable and cozy, I was quickly reminded why I always chose to listen to my iPod or read a book instead of building a friendship. During those pre-driving days, I was the girl slouched down in the seat on the school bus with my knees on the back of the tall seat in front of me; I’d look out of the window or keep my head in my book. Eyes, mind, heart, goals, interests focused elsewhere. Even the bus driver couldn’t see me.

High school drained me. There are still sharp edges of memories that creep up, catch me off guard and hurt. There are also beautiful memories that I’ll never let go of.

I entered college with the same defensive mentality on friendship as I left high school with. Focus only on myself and what I bring to the table. I knew I wouldn’t join a sorority, and I felt pretty confident that my choice of major would keep me tucked in a corner of the library keeping the drama limited to Shakespeare’s tragedies and the struggles of female poets in 1800s publishing world.

I say all of this to show how very appreciative I am that certain girls have stuck with me through all of my attempts to keep friendship exactly where I wanted it.

It has been post-college that I have found my friends. A group of girls who I know this about:

If I ever needed someone, they will be there (whether it be via phone or e-mail, a hug, a martini)

When I’m being who I am (overdramatic, emotional, over-analytical), they will accept that and understand.

They are not afraid to ask the difficult questions to help guide me to a much-needed conclusion.

They celebrate the highs with me; they listen through the lows.

They inspire me, challenge me, and keep me guessing while maintaining their presence in my life.

They have made me a better person by learning how to accept and provide friendship.

These are the girls I will always fall back on, when I need to fall back; these are the girls who will share with me this life-thing we’ve been tasked with to figure out. Together, we will keep smiling, and supporting all of our dreams and goals, while loving and learning all the while.

The Business of Life

February 25, 2011

I recently sat across from a nurse while eating dinner with friends.

“So,” she began, swishing her wine around in her glass. “How exactly do you live?”

This was her response to my telling her I am a dance teacher. I smiled, laughed to myself.

“I didn’t mean that in any way other than: How did you turn something you love to do into an income?”

Thus, I explained my double life.

Yes. There are dancers who go on to join ballet companies or spend a few months on contract with a Broadway show here and there. There are dancers who get hired in universities, dancers who rock out the Video Music Awards, and dancers who contract a quick 3-minute appearance on “Dancing with the Stars.” You can find dancers on tours (national or International), on cruise ships and in amusement parks.

But you can also find dancers booking workshops at studios across the country, waiting tables, and – in some cases – sliding down poles (I had to include this because well, it’s sometimes true).

Since dance is not quite as defined as a desk job things such as 401k, medical benefits, PTO are not always discussed. (Side note: Unions do exist for dancers, in which benefits are discussed. Dancers in major opera ballet, classical ballet, and modern dance corps belong to the American Guild of Musical Artists, Inc. of the AFL-CIO; those who appear on live or videotaped television programs belong to the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists; those who perform in films and on television belong to the Screen Actors Guild; and those in musical theater are members of the Actors’ Equity Association. For more information: Bureau of Labor Statistics).

But beginning dancers take opportunities because they feel it will lead to another potential opportunity, and that sometimes puts dancers in financially compromising situations.

I was 18 years old when I had the inevitable dancer wrestle: “Do I move to New York / Los Angeles and try to ‘make it’ or do I go to college and try to make it?”

I chose college. I chose making it.

But I also chose to continue dancing at least 20 hours a week to maintain my technique, flexibility and contacts in the dance world.

This began my blend of two worlds, while adding more skills to who I am as a person and what I have to offer.


So I learned to type as fast as I can bourrée.

I refocused the application and logistics of my dream.

I did some math: 24 hours in one day could break down to –> 8 AM to 5 PM job + 5 PM to 9 PM dance = Health insurance, 401k, medical benefits, solid income, dancing, paying off car/college education and saving for my future studio.

Throughout the process I’ve learned that businessmen and ballerinas are actually more similar than one may think. We all hustle. We all have a marketable service. And we all end up dancing in one way or another– whether it be literally or figuratively.

I work 8 AM to 9 PM (and sometimes later) every day. I come home mentally, physically, emotionally exhausted. But I sleep like a baby at night knowing this: Every day, every dollar I am closer to my dream.

“So this,” I explained, “is how I live my life.”