A lucky moment, I caught Wangari’s smile while photographing a meeting at UNEP in 1987.

Environmentalist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai is being eulogized by presidents and prime ministers. She died in Nairobi on Sunday at the age of 71. Yet, to me, the most impressive testament to her legacy is the list of condolences from names you wouldn’t recognize. In a multitude of languages, these condolences are being posted in record numbers to her Greenbelt Movement website by regular folks around the world whose lives she touched with her warmth and genuine kindness as much as with her brilliance and her passionate dedication to protecting the environment and human rights. I am one of the many “regular folks” who share a fond remembrance of Wangari Maathai and mourn her loss.

Fresh out of college, I landed in Nairobi, Kenya in 1987 to work for the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).  I staffed a committee of women who were advising UNEP’s Executive Director. Professor Maathai was one of those women and a mentor to me in those months I spent in Kenya. In my journal, I marveled at her ability to translate her wisdom into messages that compelled people to action. Her ideas, I wrote then, “come through in her writing very clearly–down to earth and to the point, yet reflecting the depth and breadth of her training as a biologist. She captures thoughts and creates solutions that are often downright brilliant in their simplicity.”

Beyond what I learned from her writing, I received the enormous gift of her friendship during my stay in Kenya.  She always greeted me with a smile.  Her joyful laughter infused our work with the best of energy.  She gave me rides in her big Greenbelt Movement van, amused, I’m sure, by a wide-eyed, young American woman off on a Kenyan adventure. She also gave me one of the nicest compliments I have ever received.  At my going away dinner, she said, “I like Lucy because she has such an innocent face– a face that wishes all the good things in the world, and to which all the good things come.” I can still hear the cadence of her voice as she said it. The thought brings warmth to my heart and a smile to my face even now.  I have been trying to live up to that compliment ever since.

My life intersected with Wangari Maathai’s for only a short blip in time.  I never saw her again in person after my stint in Kenya more than two decades ago.  And yet I have carried her presence with me for all these years because of the depth of her kindness.  The wealth of condolence notes on her website from “regular folks” like me lets me know that I am not alone in this experience of her.  Surely there should be some kind of prize– even bigger than the Nobel, I think– for people like her who can touch, move and inspire us in the short time our lives intersect and change us for the better for the rest of our lives.

Rest in peace, Wangari Maathai.

To read more about Professor Maathai’s work at The Greenbelt Movement, visit www.greenbeltmovement.org

To hear Wangari’s voice and read another beautiful tribute to her, visit the Being Blog at  http://blog.onbeing.org/post/10684547786/wangari-maathai-dies-but-spirit-lives-on-in-song

In this day and age, with all the demands on our time, resources and energy, many of us learn to stay afloat and keep our sanity by drawing our boundaries– by “just saying no.”  While boundaries are important and knowing when to say no is an invaluable skill, I would like to extoll the virtues of “yes.”

A recent project took me to Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis to film my friend Barbara McAfee singing her song “Yes.”  I heard her introduce this song in concert once, saying that when she began writing music as a twenty-something, one of her first compositions was entitled, “No!” She said it took her 25 years to write “Yes!” I laughed and thought of the classic behavior of two-year-olds, when they discover the power of the word “no” and can hardly be convinced to answer a question with anything else.

But what about “yes?” In the fast-paced daily grind, do we lose sight of the many things– big and small– that make us make us leap for joy, that comfort us when we need it, that sustain us?  Barbara’s song is a jubilant expression of just these kinds of moments and a beautiful reminder to pause and “just say yes.”

For the video, Barbara’s friend Tom Peter, The Tree Guy, known in the Twin Cities for his artistry with wood, loaned us his Crystal Canoe and joined us to help with filming.  I had no idea what a stir a seemingly invisible canoe could cause.  Everyone who saw us was mesmerized, from toddlers to hipster teens to leather clad motorcycle dudes to gray-haired grandparents.  Each and every passer-by broke into a huge smile and stopped to talk, both to us and to one another.  Many even sang along as we filmed around the lake.

As I witnessed the laughter, the conversation, and the joyful commotion– not to mention the sunlight on the water, the heron taking flight and the lily pads in bloom– I knew I was in the midst of a golden “yes” afternoon.

May we all dwell in the spirit of yes!

Barbara McAfee’s music is available at iTunes.  Her website is at www.barbaramcafee.com.  The Tree Guy can be found at www.respectfultransitions.com.

When you think of the word “home,” what comes to mind? A favorite room? A refuge from the hectic pace of daily life? A space for family meals and traditions?  A gathering place for celebrations?

If we polled an audience with this question, we would likely have as many different memories, dreams and stories as people in the audience. I would venture to guess that no one would chime in with words like, “Lumber! Drywall! Nails! Plywood!,” because home goes so much deeper than the walls and shelter a house provides.

Whether home is an apartment you rent or a house you own, having a decent, safe, affordable place to live gives us a foundation to hold all the other layers of our existence– family, work, school, play, hopes, future.

The faces in this video tell the story better than any words can capture. The photos come from two very different places, but reflect the same joy. In Winona, Minnesota, we watch as a single mom receives a home for her family through the “Women Build” program of the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity. In Zacapa, Guatemala, an extended family of two parents, children and a grandmother gain a home of their own through Habitat International.

I had the chance to visit this terrain of affordable housing, which was my field of work many years ago, because friends of mine, Jean Leicester and Barbara McAfee, asked me to create a video for their song, “More Than A House.”

Barbara– a singer-songwriter and a wise teacher on how to find and use your own voice– sings the lead and is backed up by the Twin Cities’ reggae band New Primitives. Topping it off, the chorus is sung by members of  the Morning Star Singers, a local hospice choir, who volunteered to help. Choir member Julie Bonde, who is a Habitat volunteer, generously offered photos and video from her building trip to Guatemala. Jean, also a long-time Habitat volunteer, gathered images from a project in her community that she helped build.

As the saying goes, “many hands make quick work.” I would add that many hands joined in the spirit of love and directed toward a common cause make very  joyful work, as well.  This is certainly true of the writing and recording of this song, with so many talented voices lending their time to bring Jean and Barbara’s creation to life.  And it certainly can also be true of efforts to make a difference in addressing the need for affordable housing.

In 2002, one of my dearest friends was diagnosed with breast cancer. In her late thirties, with a wonderful spouse and two young sons, I watched as she navigated surgery, chemo and radiation, as so many women do. Beyond the grueling aspects of treatment itself, there was the enormous heart space to travel: How do you talk to your kids about having cancer? How do you maintain your closest relationships when you are going through something most of those around you can’t understand first-hand? Bigger, yet, how do you face your own mortality?

My friend and I live more than 1,000 miles apart.  When you’re that far away, you can’t pitch in to do the things that are most tangible– picking up the kids from school, running errands, making dinners.  Yet, I desperately wanted to give her my support and love.  So I went to the archive of our past history together– old letters I had saved from our decades of friendship, beginning in high school, spanning through college and our early years in the work world, to getting married and having children.

Each week, I sent her a package containing one year’s worth of her letters to me, beginning in 1980 and ending in 2000. I marveled that we had traded letters in every single one of those years. I was awestruck by the depth of what we shared with one another. I lamented the fact that we slowly stopped writing real letters with the advent of email and arrival of our children. I copied each letter (no, i didn’t part with the originals!) and wrote commentaries in the margins about our escapades. I laughed and cried as I revisited memories and hoped that they would be a good distraction for her after each weekly chemo treatment.

My tiny window into her world during that year made a huge impression on me. Since then, so many more of my friends have been diagnosed. Gradually, I have become more and more involved in the cause to help find a cure for breast cancer and support women going through it.

I always knew that someday I wanted to tell the story I had witnessed.  Yet, often, the stories that are closest to our heart are the most difficult to express. It wasn’t until I saw a neighbor of mine– newly diagnosed and on a walk after chemo– that the words to this story came tumbling out. Though it is written specifically about women and breast cancer, the message applies to any major life challenge. Every picture and every journal entry is from a woman who has been through it. More than 30 women shared their private moments and thoughts to offer comfort to those currently on the path. . . one step, one true step, at a time.

Hindsight: Why Stories Matter

Don’t we all wish we had the 20-20 vision of hindsight in the moment an event is unfolding? We would have all the insight that retrospection brings, without having to wait. I used to believe that if we thought hard enough, studied and scrutinized long enough, then we could do all the right things, take the shortest route, make no mistakes. Of course, life doesn’t work that way.  And if we believe in that fallacy, then we’ll spend lots more time feeling we’ve failed than feeling we’ve succeeded.

In truth, hindsight can only come with time and reflection. Often, it’s only by looking back with the perspective of distance that we can see the turns we missed, or the steps that could have made life easier, or the ones we took that were right on the money, even though we made them without fully knowing which direction was best. Perhaps that’s the point, after all– that we cannot know everything. We can only do the best we can in each moment. It’s not about being perfect but about learning.

Maybe the real purpose of hindsight is to help us make sense of what we’ve been through, to sort through the messy details of the ups and downs and turn them into a story with a beginning, middle and end. And, ultimately– if we are willing– to offer our story to someone else.  Because in sharing our own story we can help others feel less alone, more connected, more empowered or simply comforted in the midst of their own moments of not knowing. In return, we might be lucky enough to have someone else’s story reach us at the moment we need it most.

We all have wisdom to share, usually more than we realize. Start telling your story. Trust me, it matters.

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