Integrity Has Grit

ImageIt’s easy to focus on the negative in this current climate. Like Elizabeth Gilbert said in yesterday’s Instagram post, “Before I start getting high off the crack pipe of outrage, I decided to do an integrity check on myself.”

Integrity. What a word. All Germanic and noble-sounding. Like a pillar, a Greek column to hold up our society.

Who has integrity? Who has grit? (The word ‘grit’ is actually found within the word integrity.) There is so much I’ve learned from educators like Angela Lee Duckworth who has proven that grit predicts success better than intelligence or talent. Creativity predicts success too.

I have worked with many colleagues who have integrity. They’ve not been perfect people. Lately, I’ve been wondering why the bond I had with my colleagues at the United Methodist Church was so strong. Was it that we had each other’s backs and we sought equity and inclusion? We did. We could never travel for work, representing only one race or age or gender. We had to be a diverse team. It was an unwritten mandate.

The most beautiful part of camping this summer with St. Paul and St. Andrew community was the final words from Pastor K. Karpen, who said, and I’m paraphrasing, ‘Jesus traveled with a ragtag group. It wasn’t the ‘best people,’ or the most winning team.'” It was tax collectors and women who washed feet and mothers and fishers of men.

Yesterday, Gilbert asked, “Do I preach love and courage and peace and inclusion, but then use my social media platforms to spew rage and fear and panic and condemnation?” Yes, for sure, I am high on anguish and muted on hope.

How can I not be? I freakin’ hate intolerance. I hate the idea that this country is penning up children who are simply seeking sanctuary. I hate white male privilege. I hate I hate I hate. I have a righteous indignation. How can I — in my desire to overthrow an unjust system — not become the thing I hate? In making the world better every day, spreading my radical love and courage and peace and inclusion, how do I not destroy myself?

On a practical level, I can push myself to show courage. To have grit and integrity — to use my passion and persevere. To forgive people who do not think like me or act like me or love as well as I do.

I have a fatal flaw of righteousness. I like to be the designated driver, the responsible one. And I look down on those who have lost their compassion, humanity, responsibility for the least of these, for women and children who have suffered and are suffering.

This dichotomy of this showing off-ing kind of humility was on display yesterday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the exhibit on Heavenly Bodies. The Catholic Church, notorious for covering up statues of nude bodies in the Vatican, inspired designers to glitter up the body-denial clothing. As if to say, ‘Yes, this nun’s frock is inelegant; yet in that black habit, there is a beauty and a style and hey, let’s throw some rhinestones on the bodice too.’

So let me dress up my humility — like fashion designers dressed up the spartan attire of holy men and women. It’s easy to hate the opposition as enemies. It’s too easy.

Like Versace’s excessive accessorizing, let’s take our self-denial to the nth degree. Let’s have integrity and courage by NOT hating. Add sparkles to the activism.

That after all is the secret to creativity. Throwing opposites together. I seek to love the intolerant. Love them into change — not hate them for their inelegant and false integrity. To be creative: take two opposites and make something new and better out of them.

Sometimes, I think, I’m going to be okay, but will this country? I  don’t know. Sadly, I’m actually not in charge of this varied and vast country.  I’m only in charge of a small piece of earth for a small piece of time. Myself. I can only take this one little mind and heart and body — and use my gifts of hope and courage and love. And while I’m at it, throw some glitter on my grit and integrity. Make integrity a pillar of society.

Integrity = Latin adjective integer, meaning whole or complete — having moral uprightness.

Grit = sand, gravel. Pluck, spirit, firmness of mind.

Change is good

It’s bittersweet. The General Board of Global Ministries, (a.k.a. The Board, Global Ministries, and GBGM) closed its New York doors on Friday. When I started working there — at the Women’s Division, which was then conjoined with GBGM, I could not believe my good luck — a beautiful office space, amazing intellectual and faith-based women leaders, and wonderful multilingual coworkers.

I was going through a divorce and this job was a happy distraction from my loss. I threw myself into my work.

My position lasted six months and then I was let go. See, at the time, the staff association prevented any temp from staying longer than half a year. But I came back a few months later, as a consultant, supporting the United Methodist Women by helping write a handbook, policies, and international reports.

When the web was being developed, I became the part-time reporter for GBGM, writing about the agency’s national work . When my daughters were three years old, I started back full time at the Women’s Division. And then within a few years, I was staff writer on the communications team for GBGM.

I was there until 2012 but I never really left. Since I first set foot at 475 Riverside Drive in something like 1991, I have always loved the vibe — the internationalism, the celebration of diversity, the empowerment of women, the concern for the marginalized.

While the office is closed, some staff continue — having moved to a smaller space in Atlanta. United Methodist Women will remain in the New York space. But almost everyone in my beloved Communications team of GBGM has been let go.

The empty 14th floor at 475 Riverside Drive

It’s sad. I will not be able to stop by and share coffee or tea with colleagues whom I’ve known and loved for decades.

the view from my old office.

I don’t want to idealize my experience. It was not always sunshine and roses. Like in any job, there were some tough times — when I felt I was not paid as well or respected as much as my male colleagues. I was bypassed for promotion.

But, all in all, I learned a lot. I grew a lot. And it seems like a lifetime ago that I went to GBGM for the first time — I had taken the 2 or 3 train, instead of the 1 train to the wrong stop, arriving all sweaty and out of breath to report to Sister Mary Louise Head, the office manager at the Women’s Division.

I’m proud of my work at GBGM. And now, over these few years, I’m amazed I’ve been able to reinvent myself as a teacher, also work I am challenged by and love. It’s meaningful. I like making a positive difference.

There is no substitute to good, purposeful work in contributing to a sense of happiness. I’ve been blessed and continue to be blessed with good work. This makes me happy.


On Retreat

Leaving beautiful NYC today.


I need a minute to unwind with a magazine or a walk or a good long conversation with a friend. (Or even the discovery of a cozy quiet corner to go back to work on my big project.)

When my kids were little, my friend K.P. told me that every year she tried to get away for a retreat – I think she mentioned Kirpalu. But the expense!

When I was on salary as a staff writer, biz trips served as a retreat in a way. I could focus solely on work. I didn’t have to cook meals or clean up.

I don’t really travel for work anymore, living the freelance life. So I’ve joined the lovely St. Paul and St. Andrew community for a day apart.

Here are some pics from Quinipet on Shelter Island.





Not Worried About Ebola

When I saw that the NYC doctor with Ebola had worked at Columbia Presbyterian ER, I did feel a little a butterfly flutter in my stomach. That’s where Coco and I spent the night on Friday. (And I had told her, at the time, “Let’s get out of here as fast as we can. You can get infections in the hospital.”)

But I’m not scared. I’m proud that our favorite hospital’s doctors work with Doctors Without Borders.

Borders are made up. Borders are moving. We are all brothers and sisters in this world. Trace us back, and we all descended from some fireside circle. We come from hunters and gatherers — women and children gathering berries in handwoven baskets. We are all eking out our survival. Even now.

I got so lucky in my adult life when I worked for so long (too long?) for the Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church. I met so many brilliant people — people very similar to Dr. Craig Spencer. They are trying to lift the whole world out of particular miseries — illness, poverty, loneliness, oppression. Through their efforts, for example, and in a joint effort with lots of other do-gooders, malaria is practically history.

I’m also not worried about Ebola because I know that the things that will get you in this life are not the flashy front page diseases or airline crashes. But the less sexy — heart disease, cancer. And it’s better to take care of your daily health — floss, eat right, exercise — than stew about infectious diseases.

That’s why today I’m going for my annual physical and my twice-a-year dermatology exam; on Monday, I’m going for my annual gynecological exam.

I remind myself in this media swirl: It’s the little things that will kill you, not the big things. And I’m trying to take care of all the little things today.

The ER at Columbia Presbyterian – great people doing great work:


Status Update

So this week the kids went back to school. This is always a bittersweet time and a time to take stock. Here’s what’s going on.

My kids.

My son is in his last year of high school. All these years I’ve pulled him close and now I’m pushing him out of the nest. But his newly found independence comes with my hope that he make wise choices — around alcohol, relationships. I worry. So far, he’s been pretty good at keeping his midnight curfew on Saturday nights. My girls, too, are finding new friends, new activities, new ways of being in the world without me holding their hands. Though I still love to hold their hands.

My kids are my alpha and my omega. They are why I wake up in the morning. Them and coffee.

My writing.

I finished my novel and sent it to an agent and to Kindle singles. I think I may have to send it to more than one agent and one publisher. 😉 I like it. I think it’s breezy and fun. I say it’s like Breaking Bad for the suburban mom. People in my writing workshops who have read bits and pieces like it too.

bar on the corner
2A on the corner of Avenue A and 2nd Street. I’m reading Mon., 9/8/14 — show starts 8:15 ish.

I am psyched to be invited to read at a fun venue tomorrow night, Monday. And I do think my funny, short essays are the pieces that I can sell most easily and people love best.

My small biz.

I have a crazy patchwork quilt of work. But my most important and steady work is my writing, web and social media work for SPSARV. I love Juliana, Art, Christie and Rhina so so much. In every gratitude list, I include SPSARV because I am so crazy lucky to work with such super smart and super nice people. They are my mainstay.

My biz teaching writing workshops is on hiatus — I have hosted dozens of awesome weekends, meetups, and classes over the last two years. And been a guest speaker at a bunch of conferences. I know it takes three years to get a business going. The things is: I’m just barely breaking even at Boot Camp for Writers. Maybe it’s the cost of renting space that’s killing me.

I’ve gotten other teaching work steadily. I have been tutoring and teaching 12th graders for college applications. Next week I start teaching a creative writing and reading class for first and second graders. So excited. And, on occasion, I still help with videography for Columbia University and corporate trainings.

My marriage.

I don’t know what to say. It’s not easy. I love my husband. It’s no secret that chronic illness throws a wet blanket over the romance. And maybe after 19 years and 3 kids, no marriage is lovey dovey, flowers, candy and joy joy joy.

Still. Chris and I are best friends. We go to a lot of movies and theater together. We love our family dinners, card games and conversations about the kids. But he has been thoroughly obsessed with his new translation of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country which will open in January ’15 at the Classic Stage Company. (The cast will include — name dropping alert — Peter Dinklage and Taylor Schilling.)

I cannot begin to say how important and meaningful life is for my husband because of his amazing talent and creativity. And steadiness. Despite his limitations (read Parkinson’s Disease), he still makes a huge contribution to the theater community.

My fine art.

I have not been making short films or fine art lately. I may go back to my collage class at Art Students League. I love getting my fingers dirty with paint.

My spiritual life.

At times, I doubt God exists. The randomness of illness and war is just too senseless. I try to act as if. I try to believe that I am not alone. I am a part of a bigger picture.

But I have big questions, Why Gaza? Why Ferguson? Why the beheadings of journalists? We are all humans. We would love each other if we sat down and shared a meal together. Instead, we’re bombing the shit out of each other. It’s too much.

I’m so sick of our countries spending billions to guard borders. I believe in social justice, the kind I’ve learned about in places like the United Methodist Church. We have to build bridges, not walls. We have to open doors of understanding. We have to talk less and listen more.

My friend Hillary

I was just in Louisville, Kentucky for the once-every-four-event of Assembly for United Methodist Women, April 24 to 27. I was doing reporting for Response magazine. And I was thrilled to be there with 6,500 women of faith, including Hillary Clinton.

Now, many people who know me know I love Hillary Rodham Clinton. After all, we are both from Park Ridge, Illinois. We went to the same high school. At this point in the conversation, someone might ask me, “Did you know her?”

Puh-lease! She was a few years older than me! Still, I am her comrade and sister nonetheless.


I was so proud and moved by her speech I was bawling.

I was first blown away by her concern for women and children when I heard her speak at the UN Conference of Women — what that 20 years ago? oh my god! — in Beijing, China. I was at this conference performing comedy near the technology tent with fellow stand-up Emmy Gay. It was at this conference Emmy and I first learned how to email! And look, now we know how to blog.

It was also at that UN conference that Hillary coined (or maybe coopted?) the phrase ‘women’s rights are human rights.’ And she and I are still going strong advocating for women and children. She’s involved in an effort to advance maternal health internationally. And I’m encouraging women to share their stories of transformation through writing. (shameless promotion: come to our writing workshop May 29 to June 1 Adridondack Writers’ Weekend)

Hillary knows the power of women of faith by her own experience in church, Sunday School and from her parents. A youth group leader took her from “lily white” Park Ridge into the beautifully diverse city to learn about the world.

This is one reason I love Methodism — their concern for neighbors outside of their own backyard. But when Hillary grew up, that was the radical ’60s (love, love, love). Since then, religion’s gotten a bad rap. Maybe, deservedly so. Maybe some religious leaders have chosen to played it safe — instead of loving neighbors outside of their church, they loved only those in their own church.


The teleprompter says it all!


Being a member of the press has its privileges. I schmoozed with fellow press. I learned that Hillary discouraged the Louisville Democratic Party and Democratic mayor from attending this United Methodist Women gathering, telling them, “This is not for you. It’s something I’m doing for my faith.”

Also, the press noted that she paid her own way and declined the honorarium – you know those United Methodist Women, good stewards of their funds, appreciated that show of frugality.

I have never met Hillary in person although my husband did. He met her backstage after a Broadway show, Democracy, that he was in. Hillary and Bill had come back to congratulate the actors.

“My wife is from Park Ridge, Illinois, too,” Chris told Hill.

“Really?” He said her eyes lit up — that she was excited to learn of the connection.

He told me later. “She’s really beautiful in person.”

“More beautiful than me?” I asked him.

“Yes,” he said. “She’s more beautiful than you.”

I’ve never let him forget that. I’ve never forgiven him either.

But we are all beautiful women, each in our way. This weekend, United Methodist Women and Hillary reminded me of that.

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Giving Up For Lent

I’m not giving up red or white. I’m not giving up sweets, trashy TV, gossip or coffee. Been there, done that.

In fact, I might even drink more, watch more Shark Tank, eat more sweets, dish on the neighbors, and hit the latte bar.

Seriously, you know, I’m a righteous soul. I’ve got to do something for Lent.

I’m going to take up some things that make me happy:

  • Decluttering

    my wine
    wine in the Adirondacks. waiting for summer.
  • Blogging
  • Traveling
  • Eating a plant-based diet*
  • Having people over for dinner*

*These last two were inspired by Pastor Andrew’s sermon a couple of weeks ago at Rutgers Church.

On second thought, having dinner parties may be challenging, given that I’m going to be traveling too. (My friend Barbara Wheeler-Bride just wrote an awesome blog post about one of my parties, Thank you, Mary Beth, at Busted Halo. Thank you, Barbara.)

If you want to join the decluttering challenge and do some synchronous cleaning, I can add you to a super-secret Facebook decluttering group. Just message me.

I want to blog more because I have been learning so much through starting my own business. I want what I’m learning to be useful to other people.

And why travel? Just because. I’ve been a little down this week. And travel always makes me happy. In fact, I’m writing this from beautiful Nokomis, Florida. (Thanks, Nicole and Brendan for hosting me!) Next week, the family and I will be on spring break at Circle Z dude ranch in Arizona. Then, just my son and I head to Charlotte, North Carolina to look at colleges for him.

While in Charlotte, I’m offering a really fun and creative workshop, Spiritual Journeying, with Cindy Sloan. We’ll be making collages and writing about moments from our lives. We’re offering the workshop on Sunday afternoon, March 23 at Dilworth United Methodist Church ($29). Please come and tell me what you’re giving up for Lent. Or if, like me, you are just giving up.

Thanks, Hal Sadler, for this awesome ad for us!
Thanks, Hal Sadler, for this awesome ad for us!
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Self Employment Assistance Program

Off and on, since September 2012, I have been on unemployment. I have also worked as a substitute teacher, after school teacher, tutor, videographer, journalist, copywriter, workshop leader, graphic designer, photographer, and more. I like doing a variety of work.

I have wanted to get my small biz off the ground, providing coaching for writers and creative content for companies. Yet unemployment stipulates that you mustn’t start a new business, only look for an existing job. Otherwise, it’s fraud, my friends.

So, what to do? I just found out this week that I am accepted into the Self Employment Assistance Program, SEAP, which means I have to take 20 hours of entrepreneurship classes and meet with a mentor a few times. I have to fill in a bunch of progress reports. In return, I can receive full unemployment benefits for another four or five months, and keep my earnings from my biz.

I have had an entrepreneurial streak since I started babysitting at 12. Even before that, at 10, I started a nursery school with April Fisher. We set up a blackboard in my basement. But one morning, before our neighborhood kids arrived, April and I messed around, wrestling, and I broke my hand, and any way, our summer school was cancelled.

My next biz? In high school my dad had a newfangled personal computer as big as a pony, whom we fondly referred to as Norty (for NorthStar). I intended to start a label-making company. I did not get past the company-naming part of a small business. I came up with the name, get this, Ready, Willing, and Label. Clever, no? See, I was always good at snappy prose.

In college my best friend and I started a biz, selling earrings on a corner near Tower Records in the Village. We made and sold earrings from pieces of film we swiped off the editing room floor. We never really got that biz off the ground, but again, you can see, great idea.

So, I’ve always loved freelancing and starting companies.

Now, back to unemployment, the last time I reported to the office on Varick Street, I was among about 40 people — the majority of whom were middle-aged white men. I thought why don’t they just group us by our skills or areas of expertise and we could start our own companies? Or at least schmooze?

I became eligible for unemployment over a year ago, when I took the company buyout, offered to all of the 300 or so employees of the global agency of the United Methodist church. I basically knew that jobs in communications would be shuffled and that my position as staff writer for the mission agency was precarious. (After all, why pay tens of thousands for a salary when you could pay a couple hundred per article?)

My particular buyout offer at GBGM came to about eight months pay and the possibility of unemployment. I took it. And it turns out, I’m glad I did.

Because just this week, my dream came true. I’m a legit small business start up. And this time, I won’t mess things up by wrestling with April Fisher before the day starts and breaking my hand and having to cancel the whole damn biz.

English: Interchurch Center in New York City
My old workplace at the Interchurch Center in New York City (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


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Change Is Good

“The framers of the constitution meant for it to be continuously updated,” my 11th grade son said at last night’s late-night dinner. “Jefferson and them would’ve thought it was a joke that we still have the right to bear arms and all that.”

This shocked me. Is not the constitution like the bible — holy, sacred, untouchable? Maybe when we lock up our books instead of live them, we lose our self determination. We entrust our happiness to people who wrote documents hundreds of years ago. And not realize we have powers ourselves.

“Other countries amend their constitutions all the time,” my son told me.

I thought of South Africa – in my lifetime – my adulthood, no less – it has revised its constitution to make it more inclusive, more just. The South African constitution has allowed gay marriage, abolished the death penalty, and guaranteed the participation of women and immigrants.

Thank you, South Africa and Nelson Mandela!

I was thinking about all this while I was stuck on a subway bound for New Work City Chinatown. On my iPhone I read the St. Paul and St. Andrew Advent email message from my friend Peggy. She advocated for the United Methodist Church to continue to grow and find new ways to love one another. Like new life on a tree, religions could include and love everyone, regardless of how or who they love.

Beautiful, living, and valuable books and sacred institutions, like religions and marriages, must grow too. Or whither and die.

Today’s daily prompt is about learning. I am lover of learning. I am especially curious on how framers and faith leaders write sacred books and readers read them.

I love learning about happiness and rewiring myself to have a happy life, or at least a meaningful life, given challenges which include patience around my husband’s chronic illness.

Let’s seize our right to grow, even in our constitutions. Let’s seize the day.

Giving it all up

The best part of travel is not the places you go, but the people you meet when you get there.

Lorenza Andrade Smith, Kathy Noble and MB Coudal talking about technology while waiting for the commuter train in Albuquerque. (Photo by Neill Caldwell)

After the conference, I was on the Rail Runner train with a dozen old and new friends, including Rev. Lorenza Andrade Smith. She was our keynote speaker at UMAC (United Methodist Association of Communicators). I was glad to get to know Lorenza on the commuter train trip for an hour and a half between Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

In her address, Rev. Andrade Smith had told us how she went to prison to stand with immigrants who were rallying for legislative passage of the Dream Act in Texas.

She went to prison wearing her clerical collar and heels without stockings. At the prison entrance, she had to turn in her heels, “Because they could be weapons.” Every time she sat in the prison cell’s communal toilet to pee, someone would kneel beside her and ask for prayers. She had to learn to pray while peeing.

Finally, when she found space alone in the cell, she fell asleep, cold on the floor. When she awoke, she was wearing a coat and socks. (Sometimes prayers are answered, even when we don’t know we pray them and we become covered in someone else’s warmth.)

Lorenza is a veteran and a pastor. After our conference, she was visiting a homeless Facebook friend in Boulder, Colorado, then returning to San Antonio, Texas to live among homeless female veterans for a while. She was given a bus pass on Greyhound. Lorenza has renounced her salary and her belongings to live among the homeless and to advocate for immigrants. She has speaking engagements all over, but looks forward to a silent retreat months from now.

She wears a long, but somehow-stylish, black or grey tunic-type outfit that seminary students have made for her. She keeps all of her belongings in a small rolling cart. In it, she keeps a change of clothes, a sleeping bag, a wool blanket and a small amount of toiletries. She said she uses panty liners to preserve the wear of her undies.

“That’s probably too much information,” Lorenza said. Not for me. I love TMI!

She also carries a communion set, a plate and a chalice, but was refused admittance into one shelter because, “It could be used as a weapon.” (Communion cups and high heels, you see, are dangerous!)

So that night when she refused to give up her communion set, she slept on her favorite bench in the park at the Alamo in Texas. She slept too late, and was ticketed for camping. At the courthouse for the hearing, the judge fined her 10 hours of community service to be served at the shelter, coincidentally the one that had turned her away for carrying the communion set.

Lorenza has a smart phone and updates where she is and where she’s going on Facebook. Her bishop had insisted she do this for her safety. I have befriended Lorenza Andrade Smith on Facebook and suggest you do too.

Being a huge fan of sleep, I asked Lorenza if she sleeps well on the street. She answered, “No,” with a laugh. It takes two nights of sleeping safely, like in a hotel, before she can sleep through the night. The nights at the Albuquerque Hotel were restorative, she said, yet they reminded her, as many such opportunities do, that she is privileged and cannot escape her privilege.

“The sleep deprivation is the hardest part,” Lorenza said.

Every time she speaks to groups, she is asked the same questions –

“What’s in your bag?” And sometimes she empties her bag to show them.

“How does your family feel about this?” She speaks openly about being in the process of separating from her husband whom she had already lived apart from. “People who are homeless have to be open and so do I. I have to live honestly.”

Wow. I was blown away by Lorenza. Talking to her has made me question myself, my attachment to my things, my place of privilege and my honesty.

When she decided to divest herself of everything, “The big things were easy to give away, but the small things, like the photos of my son when he was little, those were the hard ones.” She found a home for her photos with extended family members, who, by the way, are supportive.

Lorenza chats with Lester under a bridge in San Antonio. Photo by Mike DuBose.

I asked Lorenza about this photo, taken by Mike DuBose. I have been lucky to work with Mike on assignment and we always have a lot of fun. Before Mike took the photos, Lorenza asked if the people minded being photographed. She said that two out of three of her friends were agreeable and even spruced up a bit before the photos were taken.

Mike has an easy-going, friendly, and respectful manner with everyone. Mike DuBose is one of my heroes. And so, too, is Lorenza Andrade Smith.