One shining moment

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Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

I like to think I’m a deep, complicated person, but really there are just a few things you need to know about me to really know me. I love family, dolphins, Jesus, the Rockettes and sports. Not necessarily in that order. And before you haters get all judgy – and you know who you are, for me, sports and family have always been deeply intertwined. I’ll get into that later. Oh, and the other thing I love is being a Virginian. Yes, I’ve lived in North Carolina since 1995, but I will always – always – be a Virginian.

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Home is where the heart is. For reals.

This revelation was never more apparent to me last week when the University of Virginia Cavaliers played Texas Tech in the finals of the NCAA basketball championship. ACC basketball is a religion if you live around Tobacco Road as I do and UNC, Duke, and NC State are the Holy Trinity. UVA is treated as that second cousin by marriage that you can’t quite remember how you’re related to.

I was born in Virginia and lived in several cities there for the first 39 years of my life, but none longer than the dozen years I lived in Charlottesville. I can’t imagine that I’ll ever live in a prettier place and it is not surprising that C-ville often pops up on lists of one of the best places to live in the US.

My father was a UVA alum and I grew up going to a lot of Cavalier basketball and football games with him. They lost a lot back then, but it never seemed to deter his enthusiasm for the ‘Hoos – the unofficial nickname for sports teams of the school. He would always say, “We’ll get ‘em next time, Adda (his nickname for me).” Most times, next time took years.

Dad had great seats for UVA basketball – on the floor a few rows back from the team. You could hear the squeaking of the players’ sneakers and the coaches yelling at the refs. As a kid it was all pretty exciting, especially the coaches cussing, and we enjoyed some glory years when NBA Hall of Famer Ralph Sampson led Virginia to two final four appearances.

When my dad passed away in 2002, UVA’s fight song was played on the church organ at his memorial service and his absence was a strong presence on Monday night as I settled in to watch the game. I could almost feel him next to me on the couch. Our father/daughter bonding was mostly done over watching games and I’m so grateful that I inherited his passion and appreciation for sports. Sadly, my dear wife cares less about sports than anyone I have ever known, and she went to bed before tip-off. I was left to virtual watch with my sister in California and my dear friend Chris who lives in Crozet – a charming little town just outside of Charlottesville.

UVA led for most of the game but lost a 10-point lead late. That’s when I grabbed a

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How my sister “watched” the game.

picture of my dad off my bookcase and held it the rest of the game. Laugh if you must, but I don’t think I would have made it through those excruciating last minutes (including an overtime, are you kidding me?!) without him. My sister had stopped watching on TV late in the first half – she couldn’t take the tension and relied on me for text updates. I felt like an old-time Western Union operator sending telegrams. UVA is up by two. Stop. Texas Tech just hit a three. Stop. I’m having a heart attack. Stop.

As victory seemed so secure that even UVA couldn’t blow it, I texted her to turn the TV back on so that she could bask in the victory. When it was over – really over and we had won – I called her and we both sobbed. No words. It was one of the most joyous moments of my life. Oh, and just to be clear –sure, I was thrilled that UVA won, but those tears weren’t for a basketball game. No, they were for my dad. I got to witness one of my father’s wildest dreams come true and that, my friends, truly was priceless.

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My Instagram post after UVA won. And, yes, those are tears in my eyes.

That night – actually, the next day – when I finally got into bed at 2:00 AM, a montage of all the games I’d seen with my dad went through my head. I’m sure I smiled the whole night through and I wasn’t even tired when the alarm went off at 6:00 AM. And the first thing my wife said to me was, “Well, I guess your team won.” Bless her heart.

Yes, “my” team won, but it was so much bigger than that. Charlottesville won. Ever since the Unite the Right rally in August of 2017 when self-proclaimed members of the alt-right and white nationalists marched to promote white supremacism, Charlottesville has been identified with harrowing images of hate. None of us who love Charlottesville will ever forget those images – angry white men marching with tiki torches  on UVA’s main quadrangle and chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” We were completely gutted.

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Get off my lawn. Seriously.

That’s why a basketball game felt so important. It provided some healing, if just for a few hours, for a community that really needed it -in the transcendent way that few other experiences can. Chris texted me a few days after the game – she had been down to the notorious Corner – a seven block area of bars, restaurants and shops that serves as the hub of UVA social life. It is the home of Mincer’s, a fourth-generation family owned business selling UVA merchandise since 1948. Mincer’s was where most of my dad’s Christmas presents came from every year, because one really can’t have too many UVA coffee mugs.

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Dad’s Christmas haul always included lots of UVA merch.

Chris had gone to get her championship T-shirt – the exact same one that the team wore after their victory. She has lived in Charlottesville for over 40 years and those events almost two summers ago wounded her deeply. She texted me an adorable picture of herself in her shirt, and wrote, “It was so cool to see so many people, townspeople mostly, not students, so excited to be buying shirts – young, old, black, white. This is the Charlottesville I know and love.”

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Winning fits Chris to a tee. We have been through a lot of losses together – in all manner of ways.

I am far from naive. I know a basketball game can’t resurrect Heather Hyer, the young woman fatally run over on the Downtown Mall while peacefully protesting the Unite the Right rally, or erase the years of bitter racial conflict surrounding Mr. Jefferson’s University that was built by slaves. As UVA Associate Professor Lisa Woolfork reflected in an op-ed piece for CNN, “They are NCAA champions. They are students who worked diligently in their courses and on the court. They are not hand sanitizer. Their accomplishments should not be used to conveniently expunge traumatic racist history or clean the reputation of this city.”

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I made a somber visit to Charlottesville a few weeks after the Unite the Right rally.

She’s right. We all love a happy ending and often gloss over the ugly origin while skipping through the agonizing middle, but there can be no shortcuts on the road to redemption. And it can never be a tidy process. We must continue the difficult conversations and we are compelled to sit with discomfort. Our country is deeply broken, and no sporting event on earth can eradicate the deep and painful scars of the past, but for one shining moment in April, Charlottesville felt whole again.

And I was home.

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A community celebrates a championship…

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and the journey to redemption for this city I love continues.

 

 

 

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Perhaps

Perhaps
By Carla Kucinski

On the last day of the year, a dense fog rolled in,
thick and hazy like a Whistler painting.
This day feels heavy,
the year’s final, long sigh—an exhale of the sorrow, the joy, the pain, the beauty.
Ahhhhh.
Tonight, I will go to sleep and lay to rest this heavy heart,
let go of the weight,
all that it has carried and endured.
Perhaps my head will be buzzing from the Moscow Mules I will sip with dear friend M,
counting down the New Year.
10, 9, 8, 7 …
Perhaps my heart will feel light like December’s first snowflakes—joyful, swirling.
Perhaps I will close my eyes and recognize that the lightness I feel is gratitude,
gratitude for it all—the darkness, the cracks of light—there is always light.
Perhaps everything has a purpose.
Perhaps next year will be easier—a break will come—
some peace will settle from the cloud of dust of 2018.
Perhaps I’m stronger than I think.
Perhaps this new year will feel like a warm blanket.
Perhaps that’s the beauty, the not knowing.
Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps …

***

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Photo by Carla Kucinski

I was born this way.

***

It is October. My health has been deteriorating, but I continue to operate at full throttle. This is all I know. This is my way of being for the past 38 years. I convince myself that I can still go through life the way I’ve always done, doing ALL the things, giving everything 110 percent—school, work, counseling, my friendships, my marriage—everything except me. I feel empowered. (I have no control.) I feel strong. (I am so tired.) I am kicking my lung disease’s ass. (It’s winning.)

Perfection and over-achievement, this is what I strive for. It’s also killing me. I am losing myself. Basic human necessities are becoming less of a priority. I am so amped up all the time that I stop noticing hunger cues to alert me to eat. When I do eat, I am so anxious that my body burns it up, hungry for nutrients. I eat trail mix for dinner. Every time I try to eat, I have a coughing fit. I cough so much that my trachea becomes inflamed and all I can eat for one week is chicken broth and vanilla Ensure shakes.

I drop 13 pounds in one month. I cry a lot on the couch in my husband’s arms.

***

My chronic illness this past year has felt like a tide pulling me in. Several times, I have felt like I am stuck in a rip current, treading water, fighting to keep my head above the ocean, my bare feet kicking furiously as I struggle to find solid ground. I felt like giving up so many times. I grew so tired and did not have an ounce of energy left in me. When I saw my new pulmonary doctor at UNC in late October, she asked me on a scale from 1-10 how I felt overall. I answered a solid two. Even my husband was surprised by my response. I’ve gotten good at faking appearances and keeping myself in denial about how sick I really am. “You don’t look sick,” people often say to me.

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Everything is always changing. That’s what my chronic lung disease has taught me. Just like how the tide rolls in and rolls out, so do the moments of our lives. Stuff happens. Sometimes things we don’t expect. Every day I wake up not knowing if it’s going to be a good breathing day or a bad breathing day. But this pattern of not knowing has helped me become more accepting of what is instead of how I think it should be. That’s not to say that on the days where I cough and wheeze for hours to the point where my bones feel like a rag doll that I don’t rage against the universe asking, “why is this happening?” or scream in frustration or cry in disappointment. Because I do.

Since my MAI diagnosis a little more than one year ago, there has been an ongoing tension between my lung diseases and me, a push and pull. This summer, every time I ran an extra mile or beat my previous time, it was like a big FUCK YOU to my chronic illness. I felt empowered. I felt in control. But when September came, and the fatigue drifted in like a dense morning fog, I started to feel like I was losing this fight again. By the fall, my illness began to pull me back to the sea and drag me under. I wasn’t expecting it. Allowing my doctor to hospitalize me in November felt like raising a little white flag, tattered and frayed. I surrender.

***

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I took this picture in October when I was too tired to leave my bed most of the weekend and wondered if I would ever feel “normal” again.

Late October. I have contracted another new, rare infection that is difficult to treat—and pronounce. It begins with an “S” followed by a train of many, many letters. My doctor’s words sound like white noise as she explains that I am “too young” and that we “need to be aggressive.” Over and over, I turn over in my hands the lavender Amethyst grounding stone I always carry with me to appointments. I hear “a couple of days” and “IV antibiotics” and something about a PICC line. She turns the computer screen toward me and points out the white puffs of cotton sprinkled throughout my left lung and the ominous black hole that is still visible one year later. “See this. I don’t like this,” she says, pointing with her index finger. She explains how we will work as a team and uses a beautiful metaphor of the both of us in a canoe rowing in unison in the same direction. She is my angel in a white lab coat. The doctor I have been waiting for. I am scared. I am in shock. But I believe in my heart that she will help pull me out of this rip tide and bring me to shore. She gives me hope.

***

That black hole on my CT image haunts me. Since my diagnosis a year ago, I often visualize what it looks like. When I run, I imagine that it’s shrinking in size. When I meditate, I think about transforming the blackness into a beautiful, white light with a purple ring of haze glowing around it. In my mind, I imagine my body healing itself.

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Lately, I’ve been thinking about a painting I came across one year ago on a December afternoon. Its image made me pause. Standing before this abstract piece felt like looking in a mirror. I saw myself, or rather, a part of myself: a blob of thick black paint with layers of gray underneath and surrounding it. It’s how I imagined the inner terrain of my damaged lungs, and the recent cavity that has formed due to my MAI. It looked like an abyss of blackness, a pit. I felt consumed by its size, its darkness. It brought me to tears. In my mind I could hear my doctor’s voice explaining to me the black, shadowy splotch on my CT scan three months prior, and how he described it as a ball of glue. As I stood there, I thought about when I had my aura read a few years ago and the image it produced of a splotch of darkness in the center of my chest. This was before I or my doctors knew what was happening inside my lungs, the disease that was beginning to colonize in my upper left lobes. As I studied the painting longer, I noticed that a light hue of pink the color of bubblegum revealed itself under the dark glob. I smiled recognizing this detail. To me, that color symbolizes hope, that underneath all the crap that life sometimes deals us, there’s always a shade of pink–if you look for it.

That pink hue is the raft I cling to when the tide tries to take me out. It is the line my loved one throws me when I feel I cannot tread water any longer. It is the fire burning in my belly that I inherited from all my ancestors that came before me, who were tough as nails. It’s what pushes me every day to get out of bed and face whatever may come. That is the great victory. I am resilient because like Lady Gaga I was born this way. I am resilient because that’s who my family is. I am resilient because I watched my family overcome impossible things. My grandfather fought in and survived two wars, numerous floods, and lived to be 97-years-old. 97! My grandmother came to America thousands and thousands of miles on a boat as a young girl with her mother and siblings and built a new life and a family in a little coal mining town in Pennsylvania. She worked in a factory, became a young widow and lost one of her breasts to cancer. My mom quit decades of alcohol abuse on her own, cold turkey, and possesses an unbelievable drive and strength. She is always everyone else’s rock, including mine. My dad survived an aortic dissection, that statistics show he should not have outlived. He flat-lined during his emergency surgery and slipped into unconsciousness afterwards, and yet he is still on this earth with us cracking jokes and doling out wisdom to his three daughters. That’s what my family does. We carry on. They are survivors, and so am I.

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Feeling mighty at UNC Hospital after making it through my first PICC line insertion.

***

Let go or be dragged

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What it feels like sometimes to have a chronic illness.

This blog has always been a place of healing for me. You, dear readers, have contributed to creating this safe sanctuary with your comments and stories, sharing your hearts, your struggles and your fears. Vulnerability breeds vulnerability. But for these past few months, hitting the publish button on WordPress has been a terrifying idea for me. To share what has really been going on in my life comes with risk, mostly the fear that I will invite in pity and that no one would understand.

What has pushed me to finally tell my story here is my frustration over the last few months of the lack of personal stories around chronic illness, particularly young adults living with chronic illness. In other words, stories like mine.

As a lover of non-fiction and memoir, I have listened to, watched and read accounts of people’s chronic illness experiences, mostly about those who are living with and/or survived cancer. I turned to others’ stories of sickness to try to understand mine. I longed to find stories that helped me connect with someone else who might be going through/or have experienced similar challenges. I found some nuggets of comfort in their stories, points of relating, but I have since come to realize that every person’s story is unique, and so is mine, and it is one worth telling.

During this past summer, my health was relatively stable, and I started to feel like I was getting my life back and getting ME back. I was running again for the first time in years and I cannot tell you how good it felt to reclaim that. I felt normal again–hopeful. I ran 4.8 miles in a relay race and signed up for my first 10K. I spent the rest of my summer training for my 10K in September—the 10K that never happened.

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Me over the summer when I was back to running and feeling strong and on top of the world. 

For the past month, my chronic illness has flared because of a virus that I contracted. Over these past few weeks, I’ve been re-experiencing what it’s like to have a chronic illness rob me of big things like my identity and little things like cooking dinner. Anger and frustration have been building inside of me. I feel like I have control over nothing and it scares the hell out of me. While these emotions don’t always feel good, they’re fueling me to feel more empowered in this mess and not be afraid to use my voice to share my story and also advocate for myself in a healthcare system that downright just sucks.

***

Chronic illness can be a lonely journey. Throughout mine, I have often felt that no one could understand what I was experiencing, and so I isolated myself. Beyond my immediate family, only a handful of my close friends know about my illness. I coped by not talking about it. When you say things out loud it feels too real. I no longer want to stay silent.

Over the summer, I finished reading Natalie Goldberg’s latest memoir about her journey with cancer: “Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home.” In the preface, she writes “a writer has a second chance to digest experience.” For me, writing has always helped me make sense of the world, process what feels unexplainable and painful. But for the last nine months or so, I have been so immersed in my health that I no longer had the energy to digest my experience. It was easier to shut down and numb out. All my strength was poured into grad school, doctor’s appointments and medication changes. I fell into my default mode of pushing through. During that time, the pages of my writing notebook and journal sat mostly blank, except for some random entries about doctor’s visits or quotes that moved me. It wasn’t until May that I cracked open my notebook again while lounging on the beach listening to the constant calm of the sea and trying to make sense of the past year. It felt equally freeing and scary to put words to paper and face those difficult emotions.

The thing I wanted to write about, the thing that had become a constant presence in my life since August, I have been most afraid to write about. To write about anything else would have felt false, inauthentic, which is why you haven’t heard much from me in the last year on this blog.

There is a Zen proverb “let go or be dragged.” Writing about my illness has been part of my grieving process and has helped me accept what is and let go of what was. And yet I’m constantly being reminded that the grieving process is never linear, and I find myself these days revisiting the stages of grief that I thought I was done visiting.

Holding on to the past keeps me stuck in my suffering. Writing has always been my therapeutic release. Lately, I have been writing just for me, but now I feel called to share it because I hope my story may help others in their chronic illness journey, but also because selfishly I need to share it for my own healing.

***

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This is the first picture I took of the regimen of pills I was first prescribed bc I’m weird like that and like to document things. :p This photo was taken in Sept. 2017. Since then, my medication has morphed into four different medications totaling close to 3,000 mg a day. 

Every new diagnosis comes with grief—a loss of health, a loss of normalcy, frustration, anger, fear, anxiety, sadness. Just when my health reaches a period of stability, it seems something else is positioned in the wings, waiting to reveal itself. Chronic illness has the worst timing.

Barely a few weeks into my first year of grad school, I was diagnosed with Mycobacterium avium intracellulare, or MAI, a rare and serious lung infection. MAI is an atypical nontuberculosis germ that lives in the environment. It is not contagious. However, it is difficult to treat because the bacteria is slow-growing and thus it takes longer to eradicate. Treatment is further complicated if the infection has formed in the cavity of the lung, making it difficult for the medicine to reach the infection, and putting a patient at higher risk of permanent lung damage. It is a lifetime disease with a 40 percent reinfection rate, which is a high and sobering statistic. I, unfortunately, contracted the cavitary type. This also means that for the past year, I’ve been on a regimen of nearly 3,000 mg of antibiotics daily—three different oral medications and one inhaled. In addition, I take eight different supplements daily to counteract the effects of my drugs and my disease.

My MAI diagnosis in September 2017 marked my fourth confirmed lung disease at age 37. Living with this disease in addition to three previously diagnosed lung diseases, one of which is in remission, has been an exhausting and tumultuous journey that has turned my life and my family’s life upside down. Having lung disease often feels like having the flu—you lose your appetite, your muscle aches, your body feels weak and tired. And one of the most frustrating parts is that you never know when it’s going to strike, and you have to spend the weekend in bed.

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Nurse Molly at the ready when I am not feeling well. 

***

My health history is like a domino effect. Nothing lives in isolation. One disease breeds another disease breeds another disease. Between 2011 and 2017, I had a few periods where my health felt stable. But every day I lived in constant fear that I’d have a flare up or some new and rare illness would surface. That anxiety has never left me.

“You can feel the pain, but suffering is when you want it to be different, when you want to be a horse instead of a donkey, an éclair instead of a slice of bread. Suffering is when you want the pain to stop,” writes Natalie Goldberg in “Old Friend From Far Away,” a beloved book I often find myself returning to. …

I want to be the horse. …

I want to be the éclair. …

***

Desperately seeking Atticus

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I believe her. I will always believe her.

I need your help. I need your help to get through the next couple of days. Probably longer. Probably a lot longer. It’s as simple as that. And I promise to help you, too. The faux FBI investigation of Brett Kavanaugh is “completed”, and he will most certainly be confirmed by the Republican majority in the Senate. And after we scream and rant and weep, we will desperately try to hang on to everything we thought we knew about truth and justice and…kindness.

Kavanaugh’s confirmation was perhaps inevitable, but I had a flicker of hope after Dr. Ford’s wrenchingly raw testimony last Thursday that maybe, just maybe, this seminal moment in our nation’s history would not be viewed in only red and blue lenses. Truth has a crystalline quality – it makes everything more clearly apparent.

That faint hope was decimated Tuesday night when I saw the president of the United States cruelly mock Dr. Ford’s testimony in front of a frothing white crowd who laughed and applauded his unhinged performance. Every time I saw the clip, I could feel my ears flush with white-hot rage. RAGE. What do you do with rage? Where do you put it, so you can kiss your wife goodnight and go to sleep? Sleep. I try to remember what that feels like – a good night’s sleep. Tylenol PM helped me remember on Tuesday night.

Yes, even my sleep aids are blue.

When I woke up Wednesday morning, my rage was gone, vanquished in the dark of night and replaced by a paralyzing hopelessness. My legs felt as heavy as my heart as I tried to start moving through my day. I felt trapped – caged in by despair. I started a dozen tasks and abandoned them all. I finally just sat down in the reading chair in my home office and cried. Not an ugly cry – Lord knows I’m capable of that – but a cry of helplessness. I just did not know what to do to make it – anything – better.

And then the damnedest thing happened – I was resurrected by a post by a friend on Facebook. Okay, I know that sounds a little like a Hallmark movie, but it’s the truth. My friend Kristin lives in the DC area and founded an innovative fundraising company that supports some outstanding non-profit organizations. She’s a chronic do-gooder in her professional and personal life and she’s a smart cookie, too, so I try to pay attention to what she’s saying. This is what she posted yesterday morning:

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Yes, it was Facebook, but it was a lifeline to me. I immediately scanned through my inventory of postcards. Sidebar: My dear Aunt Phyllis sent me a postcard from every place she every traveled and it instilled in me a great love of  handwritten correspondence. I found one that seemed like a good fit and wrote my brief message to Dr. Ford. And I felt better. No, I felt good! And I got to thinking about what Kristin wrote – “to counteract every act of hate with an act of kindness and support.”

This sounded like a feasible plan to me, folks, so I reposted Kristin’s post on my Facebook and Instagram accounts and the posts went moderately viral – at least by non-Kardashian standards. As I write this, almost 500 people have “liked” or commented on the IG post and that makes me feel a lot less helpless than I did yesterday morning.

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And it wasn’t just Kristin. My friend Jimmy is an addiction counselor in long-term recovery. He is honest and open about his journey and I have great respect for him. Yesterday morning he posted this message:

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Followed a bit later by this one:

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Jimmy got some very thoughtful responses including these:

Mr. Rogers had the best advice for trouble times. Always look for the helpers. You will find them all around you and friends that care and people with good hearts. Look in the mirror to start with. We are not alone.

If we don’t transform our pain we will most certainly transmit it. I personally take comfort in the certainty that all things change… The best way to find yourself again is to lose yourself in the service of others.

Take a break and watch Mean Girls – it’s October 3rd! 

Okay, that last one just made me laugh and I thought you could use one, too.

Last night, Jimmy posted the Tiny Buddha meme below and it made my heart sing. That was about all I did yesterday, too, but it was enough.

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#goals

This morning, it was my dear friend Jeff who gave me some hope. I adore Jeff but he would be the first to admit that at times, he can be a crusty curmudgeon and doomsayer. And then he’ll surprise you with a post that’s so optimistic and inspiring that you can almost hear a choir singing. He did it again today. He heard historian Doris Kearns Goodwin on the radio on his long commute into work this morning. She was addressing the great division in our country – liking it to the Civil War. Goodwin painted a pretty grim picture of what’s going on and said that we need a figure to rise above the division and bring us back to the central idea that we all want what’s best for our country.

I’m sure dear Doris would really appreciate Jeff’s summation of her thoughts and would smile at his post:

Things are going to get far worse and I think the chances are high that they’ll never get better. Even so, I will not let these dark days dampen my enthusiasm for the election in November. All we can do is continue to fight and hope that a hero, regardless of if the cape he or she wears is red or blue, emerges from the current dumpster fire and saves us from the abyss.

Jeff is right. All we can do is continue to fight and hope. We are the ones who must save each other. Yes, by all means VOTE and help get out the vote and drive people to vote and ALL of that, but also – be kind. I love Michelle Obama, but I’m not espousing her “When they go low, we go high” mantra – I’m just not that good and I will sometimes still have to bitch slap Lindsey Graham on Twitter, but I can commit to not letting those who do not believe the way I do – in the things that I hold most dear – diminish me. I cannot let my own rage diminish me.

If you’re not familiar with the author and activist Glennon Doyle, you should be. She has been a balm for me of late on social media with her wise words and truth-telling. Today she posted a passage from To Kill A Mockingbird that I have printed out and put on the bulletin board in my office. I will read it over and over again during the next few days, months, however long it takes…

Atticus is trying to explain to his son, Jem, how someone can do the right thing and still lose. Here’s the passage:

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you are licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

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Damn. Where is a good Supreme Court nominee when you need one?

We will see this through the way we always have – together.

And I think we will freaking rock a cape. And it might even be seersucker.

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One size does not fit all.

 

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What she said.