The Lessons Keep Coming: Seeing With New Eyes

First, I feel like I should apologize for not writing in a while, though to whom the apology is addressed, I’m not so sure. It’s not that I haven’t thought about writing, but that life, in all of its whimsical, hectic, and sometimes serendipitous nature, stood between the blog and I. In spite of all of life’s busy-ness, I’ve still found ways to apply what I’ve learned in Senegal to my context in the US. There are at least four lessons I’ve learned, or light bulb moments (maybe five) that I’ve had since returning home. I’m apologizing now if this post sounds “preachy”; feel free to bail out if you need to. I promise I won’t be offended.

The first “a-ha” moment I had, I think I shared before, but is worth repeating. Greetings are important. The simple act of acknowledging another person and their humanity has the ability to change someone’s trajectory in life, and I don’t mean that in the literary, hyperbolic sense. Sometimes people crave recognition because they feel rejected, cast off, or forgotten about. Perhaps your greeting reminds them that they matter, they are important, and that they have an unrealized purpose. A few weeks ago, I stopped at Walgreen’s to pick up something – I don’t remember what – and a gentleman gave me what I felt like was an obligatory greeting. When I responded like he was a friend that I hadn’t seen in a long time, his whole posture changed. His tone was friendlier, and his smile was brighter. We had a great conversation that lasted maybe five minutes, and we were both on our way. Just yesterday, a contractor working on a building shouted, “Ain’t nothing better than a woman with a smile.” To which I replied, “And why not smile? It’s so much easier,” and then I began to ask him about his work. The brief conversation ended with an exchange of names and an elbow bump – his hands were covered with paint and dust from work – and we parted ways. So, I guess the lesson or the lightbulb moment for me was more than about greetings. Our time is a gift that we can give to people. If you feel like you can’t stop and spend time with someone because it’s too valuable and you have so much to do, just imagine how the person feels who knows that you’re busy but took the time to visit with them, even if it is for just five minutes.

The Mayor of Dakar-Plateau (left center) and translator (far left), with his delegation and the Mayor of Pasadena, CA (far right).

Next, gift giving is a way to show appreciation. I think sometimes the act of giving a gift is marred by holidays – people expect a gift from someone because they gave them one at the last gathering. That ruins it. Gifts should be given as an act of kindness and love, not out of obligation or personal gain. It’s not about the amount or the size of the gift, but the thought and intent behind it. When I give a gift, especially if it’s after I’ve returned from a trip, it is because I have really thought about the individual, who they are, and what I think they’d like. Unfortunately, my bank account is not set up in a manner that I can give everyone a gift, but when I do, it really is heartfelt and I feel bad about not being able to spread the love to everyone. Just recently, my husband and I were at a reception celebrating the newly formed sister-city relationship between Dakar-Plateau, Senegal and Pasadena, California. During the reception, there were several gifts exchanged, to my delight. It took me back to the many school and home visits that I made with my host- and co- teachers while in Thiès. I smiled at the exchange. When it was noticed how many gifts were exchanged, I very enthusiastically replied, “Gifts and hospitality are important!”

While I don’t quite remember who gave this to who, the sentiment in the plaque is beautiful: working together for the upliftment of Africa.

Third, there is something magical about staying in touch with people. I think this lightbulb moment connects to the idea of greeting and acknowledging someone else’s humanity. Your contact may come at a point in their life when they feel forgotten about or alone in a struggle. If someone is important to you, if you value them, drop them a line so that they know it and feel it. Don’t leave it for people to assume that you think they’re important; show them. There’s an expression that I hear a lot, unfortunately, at funerals about giving someone their flowers while they’re still living to appreciate them. I haven’t always been the best at it, but I’m learning to be better little by little.

Beauty isn’t about how the package is wrapped, but the contents of the package.

Years ago, Maya Angelou wrote a poem called “Phenomenal Woman” and the first two lines of it brings me to the fourth lightbulb moment I had. The lines go: Pretty women wonder where my secret lies/ I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size … The “a-ha” moment was when I realized that what I had been telling my students all along was true definitely true for me too. I don’t have to “dress to impress” to feel beautiful or dress in a way that leaves very little to the imagination. Doing the former doesn’t make me any more beautiful and not doing the latter doesn’t make me any more of a prude or an old lady. True beauty comes from within. It sounds like a very simple statement to make, and some people might feel like, “duh”, but it took a lot for me to get to the point where I could dress in a way that made me feel comfortable and not care about the backlash or the furrowed brows. It is beautiful to be who you are. It’s complicated and simple at the same time.

Finally, words are powerful! As an English teacher, I tell my students all the time that there is power in the pen. As writers, they hold readers’ emotions in their hands. With the stroke of a pen and one word choice, they can evoke tears of sorrow or joy, gasps of dread or delight, or moans of agony! That’s powerful! The same is true for the spoken word. The book of James tells us that life and death lie in the power of the tongue. Thing about your last conversation or comment to someone. Was it encouraging or was it full of doubt and cynicism, masquerading as realism? With our tongues, our pens, and our keystrokes, we have the power to hurt or heal the next person. Even if they’re on the other side of the planet.

Take time to see the beauty in the world and all the lessons it has to offer! #DontMissYourLife

If you’ve read to this point, congratulations. You’ve reached the end of this post and my musings for today. Feel free to comment or ask questions. I’m more than willing to share. It’s all in love. #TakingSenegalWithMe #DontMissYourLife #AlwaysAnAdventure

Remember to Look Up: A Personal Revelation

The simple pleasures are all around us, the things that make us smile, if only we’d let them…if only we’d look up every now and then.

Years ago, there was a public service announcement featuring basketball star, Isaiah Thomas, reminding its young citizens of Oakland County to “look up” and be aware of power lines when playing outside. As I visited various regions of Senegal recently, I was reminded of this same lesson, to look up, but for very different reasons.

Living in a first world country (who decides that, really?) has afforded me with lots of comforts, technology being one of them. Alexa will give me the news, read me a story, give me the weather, play me a song, and even tell me a joke if I request it. More and more my smartphone is glued to my hand and my screen time increases with each passing week. I look down…a lot. And as someone who professes to not miss her life, I have to confess that maybe I have been, to some extent. Let me explain what I mean.

A sunny Saturday in Thiès brings everyone out, but I would have missed it had I not looked up.

In Senegal, both in Dakar and Thiès, there was so much to see and do. As a visitor to the country, I wanted to make sure that I saw everything; I didn’t want to miss out on anything. I looked out of the window and was on high alert for new and interesting people, events, buildings, monuments – whatever, it didn’t matter. While I was on lookout for things, what I found was something intangible. I found a deeper connection to the people I was with and the places I had traveled to, all because I looked up. I was present for each and every encounter.

I’ll admit, that’s not a groundbreaking revelation and I’m almost certain that people have been saying that for decades. But it’s like when your parents tell you something versus you experiencing it. Sometimes you just need to see it and feel it to believe it for yourself. I could feel the difference there, but what did that mean for me back home?

This morning I decided to stop and get a grande soy hot chocolate with extra chocolate on my way to work. I was in great spirits and felt like I was wearing a smile. I shared that smile with everyone that met my eye. “Good morning, how are you?” was sometimes met with a smile and a greeting in return or even a quizzical look. An elderly women that I spoke to happen to be reading a book that I’d picked up in my living room just this morning. “I have that same book!” I exclaimed. She beamed and immediately we engaged in conversation. It wasn’t much, it didn’t take much, and it didn’t cost a thing except a few minutes of my time. But wasn’t it worth it? It absolutely was, and I would have missed it all if I hadn’t taken the time to look up.

This was taken on the way to school in Sanghe. I was sitting in the back seat, enjoying the view.

I realized, as I got in my car and went off to work, that it’s not about obligation or status when I speak to people, or even a game of chicken – holding out to see who, if anyone, will greet the other first. It’s about genuine human connection. The connection that I felt to the morning coffee goers, the connection that I feel to teachers and students at my school, and my neighbors, and the people at the grocery store or anywhere else I go, are the sparks of energy that make my life interesting and bright and colorful. We need each other. Well, I need you. And not in the needy, I can’t survive without you, sing sad songs on rainy Saturdays kind of way. I need you in the very basic, want to make sure we’re all alright and thriving not just surviving kind of way. I like it when we’re smiling. I love it when we’re laughing, and most days I really enjoy connecting with people. I’ll admit, sometimes the world feels too people-y, but maybe what I’m feeling is the energy.

Like I said, the realization to look up and be present is not new or earth shattering, but my trip to Senegal was a personal revelation and confirmation. It’s when I unplug and step away from the screen that I experience the unfiltered beauty and wonder in the world. They say that old habits die hard, but I will be working very hard to put my phone down, step away from the screens, and see life up close and personal. I’m making a commitment to look up, notice, engage, and enjoy. #DontMissYourLife

It’s very much a part of the culture to visit neighbors in Thiès and the surrounding villages.

The Journey Begins

Years ago, my family and I went on a vacation that took us to the island of St. Lucia. While on a guided tour, our very nice taxi driver whose name, very sadly, I have forgotten, stopped at the side of the road for us to patronize one of the vendors. Not really wanting to, my cousins and I opted to stay in the air conditioned van. This, however, was met with mild disapproval. After seeing us sitting in the van, he kindly opened the door and encouraged us to at least take a look. “Don’t miss your life,” he said to us.

It was so simple but it has guided me in the years since. When opportunities present themselves that seem challenging or out of my league, I remember his words and go for it. The worst that can happen is I miss the mark and learn a lesson.

And so, it is with those words that I embark on a two-week journey to Senegal. Excited and filled with butterflies, I go because opportunities like this don’t happen often. I refuse to be guilty of missing my life!

Thanks for joining me!

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton