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day 1442: we are all indeed water, wally

I have been sitting on this post for some time - in part because certain themes - like the ebb and flow of a (mini) tidal wave, flirt with you, intentionally and begrudgingly over time.  They hover over you like the paw of an annoying but adorable cat.  And when this happens, you have to let the lines sit with you, seep into your skin, and then you just kick back while the words march out, all stacatto like, in a metronome delight. 

In the title of this post, I give homage to Wally Lamb and his novel We Are Water.  I am a Wally Lamb freak, to be sure; and while I adore the prose of I Know This Much is True, We Are Water evoked or perhaps more appropriately dislodged a series of emotions in me - some curious, some comfortable, and some entirely unsettling.  Beyond the story itself, the tale it weaves is one of the power of water, the way it can subsume you with the velocity of Katrina, or the way it can free you with the sublime of the ocean on an utterly peaceful day.  It is a power without limbs, yet it can grab you, embrace you, overwhelm you in moments you are least equipped to accept it.  And it reminds me that this is the grace, or the un-grace, of our lives - of the times when we are taken by surprise by ourselves, our leaps or non-leaps, our unspokens, our out louds, our demures and our on-tens.  And it provokes me to think about what would happen to the sea legs under me, to the moving walls around me, if every time I was about to return to the coda of comfort, I instead chose to go through fear. 

It seems no wonder that I started to put pen to paper on this piece after my first official rehearsal of Fear Experiment - a kind of double dog dare you approach of helping you Mr. Koolaid through your fear.  The way this works is that 30+ strangers are picked to dive into one of three art forms (this time around: a capella singing, storytelling and step dancing), practice for a few months, and then get up and (gulp) perform in front of 700+ at the Park West.  The good news is the audience is our collective friends and family - a very receptive audience to our effectively adult recital. 

In my sub-group of step dancing, there are 12 of us - a motlier crew I perhaps have never seen.  We are all at different stages in our lives, in our careers, in our healing, in our stories.  We are funny, and kindhearted, and social, and silly.  We are fearless, even the ones who stand in the back (often me); and we are broken, even the together ones.  And I am reminded that I am, we all are, a host of contradictions that when unpacked, can be the most delightful gift of all. 

With this as the backdrop of Fear Experiment, I’m even more grateful that The Cara Program has been chosen as this year’s Do Good Partner!  We share in the discovery that overcoming fear and recognizing the leadership within you is as much a part of getting back on your feet as is the process of getting a job.  And we’ll have the chance to share one student’s story on stage that night – to celebrate, alongside the 33 risk takers, the power of squashing fear and reclaiming your mojo in the process. 

So that I can level set expectations accordingly, if you join us in this evening, expect to be inspired, and expect us to have a blast, but know that I squarely understand what my day job should be.  I haven’t found in step dancing my “spontaneous genius”, as my friend Julie G would say.  But I’m cool with that.  Because what I’ve found instead is this desire to – as much as I fear water and am not the best swimmer around – stay in the deep end, and keep on keeping on.  I want to be the type of wife, daughter, friend, leader and colleague who embraces her not-so-spontaneous genius and works really hard at doing that which seems silly or hard or rough, because the pathway through the other side is filled with deep ocean faboo.

To my friend Julie, I say: I dig your not-so-spontaneous g.  And to my friends that want to know what unspontaneous genius looks like, please join me on November 21 at the Park West and together, let’s love up on the art of breaking through our fear.

Maria Kim


day 1225: is it really a snap?

For those of you who are unaware, SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as the Food Stamp Program) and is made available to individuals and families in need of an extra safety net support to afford food. That's the practical definition of the program. The impractical, or perhaps more real, definition of the program is that it's a vital, critical, we must have it so our families may eat and therefore learn, live and grow, program; but it is also rough. Indeed, it is not a snap.

In an effort to better understand the challenges faced by the individuals we serve, some colleagues and I at The Cara Program decided to take the "food stamp challenge" - an effort inspired by the leadership team at the Greater Chicago Food Depository (& other leaders in the food bank effort including Mario Batali). Following the GCFD model, our challenge was this: eat on $5 a day for seven days straight, and see if you can hack it.

It wasn't pretty.

When I say that, I kid to a degree, because we were able to do it. (Heck, Mario's posse did it for $31 a week or a buck 45 a meal.) Some of us were experts - having grown up doing this as kids, or having lived through this as adults. Others were more novice - but for all, the opportunity to learn was high, and enlightening, and uncomfortable - the perfect recipe for building empathy. In a nut shell, here were some of the lessons learned:

1. In a society of folks who like to consume in abundance, the reality is we live in lives of waste. You can actually buy a lot of food, and make terrific, family-friendly meals, even on $5 a day. It just requires a lot of pre-thought, which is a euphemism for time - a luxury many of us, in particular those affected by poverty, simply do not have.

2. Frugality is key, though. And it comes with its own special dose of social injustice - felt closely as we counted pennies in line at the grocery store, scraping for every last cent, and as we felt the stares of those before us and after us, wondering why we were wasting their time. We knew that we were feeling just one ounce of the shadow some of our students feel when using their Link Cards, or worse yet, using their cards to purchase what is considered a 'luxury' choice like a bag of potato chips. We were forced then to imagine what it would feel like if our most inconsequential, innocuous choices were always scrutinized by perfect strangers.

3. If you don't have the luxury to plan well (e.g. you are a single parent, juggling job(s), transportation and childcare), you can go - on this kind of budget - very, very hungry. And hunger messes with your mind. It distracts you from your own agenda and makes you focus on its. Hunger is unequivocally trump.

4. And so to quiet your stomach, especially if you don't have the time to stem that tide, you buy what's decent, generic, processed and cheap. The convenience of food is not just intoxicating, it's downright compelling - especially when you have so many other demands tugging at your sleeves. You tend not to eat healthily of course - and you get bored - so utterly and completely bored of eating the same thing over and over again; but, on a fixed income, bulk purchasing on the cheap makes all the sense in the world.

5. Over time, you start to experience food envy - wanting food you cannot have, having your stare linger ever awkwardly over your colleague's meal in the lunchroom, etc.

6. And you become excruciatingly aware of the role that food (and thereby the money needed to buy food with some controlled abandon) is an inextricable piece of our social fabric. It's how we create community, how we remain connected. And if you are the guy or gal who says "I'll just have water" to the waiter, eventually you'll just stop coming, because you'll grow tired of feeling as though you're disappointing your friends, the service staff, your network.

7. Some of our staff began to creatively combat that paradigm, for which I'm super grateful. They quickly realized that although they were resource constrained, that didn't mean they had to lose access to people, so they took the initiative to identify and drum awareness for those great things you can do in this exquisite city for F-R-E-E, and they encouraged their friends to hang with them on their journeys and save their meals for at home.

In a nutshell, we learned that adhering to the food stamp challenge could be done, but has costs that are not just financial, but emotional, social, intellectual and physical. Now imagine all these challenges compounded - ie existing not in the safe ecosystem of a social experiment, but in the brutal reality of your every day life. Overlay this with the challenge of living in a shelter and needing to partition your food from others, or the challenge of living in a neighborhood without a grocery store, and so you travel - by bus(es) x miles out of your way to get lettuce because you want your kids to have a salad.

Imagine all these disparities, all these tough choices, and you are slapped in the face with the reality our privilege extends - far beyond our socio economics, our geography, our block, but deep into our very bellies, it holds onto our core. And as we do all we do to build bridges to opportunity for all, we should realize that so easily our bodies would atrophy under the weight of prepared food, and our minds would flatline if hunger were our coda every hour of every day. And we should use this awareness - this acute and still so small awareness - to get hungry for justice, get hungry to help, get hungry to build solutions that don't just eradicate poverty at the top, but also provide critical supports at the bottom to help those in need.

We did this "experiment' almost a year ago, but the lessons learned and the ick I feel that we had the luxury to do this as research, rather than as life, weighs heavily on me to this day and hopefully for decades to come.

We should get hungry, people. Get hungry and remember that this isn't such a snap, after all.

Maria Kim


day 1129: leggo my ego

New Year's Day 2014. Two. Thousand. And. Four. Teen. I'm having a bit of a Bridget Jones moment, seeking to chronicle the calories I consumed, the cigarettes I (wished I had) smoked, the moments of mirror-facing melancholy and reflection, the crash of new tidal waves and old ones, the shock and the ho-hum of new freaking omg-ing years.

So here we are.

And as I do this kind of reflection, I think of the inflection points all around us, these junctures, joints, meetings of this and that; and I wonder: is it any coincidence in this year of conjoints and disjoints that this is the year my literal joints have started to hurt? That I'm more acutely aware of my knees than I ever have been? That I sleep with a pillow beneath my knees - larger and more fluffier than the one beneath my head, in the vain hope that this night, opposed to all the nights before it, they may feel less punctuated, less pressured, less piqued than they did the night before?

(And I realize [much to my chagrin] - yes, it's just a coincidence. My knees are not a metaphorical sign of the inflections of my life. They are merely reminding me that they're there and they're older. Bummer. I was hoping for a deeper meaning than that.)

So back to Bridget Jones. Today I ate two baby pancakes with a dollop of syrup, one crispy slice of bacon and some coffee. Just as easily I could have had a waffle. An eggo, which brings us to our post.

I have friends, who like to drop gauntlets. Who like to make commitments, out loud, in front of others, to declare their unabashed fearlessness to get a goal done, even when they're shaking in their boots, even when they know not what they do. And that's super cool to be on the receiving end of, so long as there's no expectation of reciprocity, no hope for a saw to their see, no ante up.

Only my friends don't roll like that, and if they're going to throw down, well you should at least have the moxie to throw right back.

Recently, I went to a panel discussion on all things "leaning in" - featuring three women, at different points in their career and different levels of household management and family partnership - telling us what leaning in really means to them. And one of the women's comments stuck with me the most:

"It's a little bit about who you're being."

Now this is a woman who's fairly bad ass in her job, and I would imagine in her larger life. She was spewing wisdom like candy out of a pinata, and the crowd was lapping it up.

"It's a little bit about who you're being" has stayed with me like the whisper weight of a veil, like the patch I used to wear behind my ear before a flight so I wouldn't puke - seeping into my bloodstream slowly but substantively until the medicine made my body ok with the tumult of flight.

"What do you want to be?" my friend asked me. I didn't have a great answer back then; and I think part of the reason might be because I was asking the wrong the question. "Who do you want to be, Maria?" might have been more a propos.

I told my friend that I worry about me, that I have a hard time sometimes articulating what I want to be or where I want to be because it is wrapped up not in what I empirically want or desire, but (gulp) in where I feel the most valued. Indeed, where others might want me to be, rather than where I want to be myself. Hell, I need the edification of others' boosts for me to make me feel like I'm home. And at this inflection point, I am lost more in the noise of where my ego feels most fed, rather than where I might learn the most, might risk the most, might grow.

That is just so. not. hot. In fact, on the greater pendulum of things, that leaves me more "saw" than "see", more Bridget than Sheryl, more me.

But as my friend wisely told me, the truth is: we all want to be wanted. As creatures, as humans, as lovers, as leaders - we all want to be wanted. The trick is knowing enough about the deepest pit of yourself to ensure that not only do you not get lost, you emerge - like "Lynda-Carter-Wonder-Woman-out-of-water-emerge" in the process.

Yes, indeed it's a lot about who you're being. And on the teeter between this moment and that, this step and that leap, this faith and that fact, I need to leggo my ego, and step with intention into my choices, into the balance, into who I want to be.

Scratch that, into who I am. Wish me luck.

Maria Kim


day 1062: go on and show up

So I've been thinking a lot lately about risks. And the fact that inherent in each risk is a bit of a leap. Leap of an entrepreneur, leap of a relationship, leap of faith, and leap of disclosure that brings you closer to (or further away from) your goal.

Those of you who know me well know that I am - plainly put - risk averse. Or at least when I do stuff that flies in the face of the risk inherent in it, I do it with my eyes wide shut, and with a relatively real fear that I'm going to pass out, throw up, fall over and die (sometimes not necessarily in that order).

Truth be told, I'm scared sugar-honey-iced-tea-less of lots of things. Of the most banal things like falling forward as I walk down a staircase, to confronting a revolving door as though it were my first rodeo in double dutch.

Even when I went skydiving, I was pukish from 14,000 feet in the sky to zero on the ground and for the three hours that followed after that. All this while my other friends descended in their parachutes in slow motion, and as they touched ground, they looked like Charlie's Angels whipping their long and short locks in the sun - just another bad ass activity in a regular day's work. I couldn't quite get the rhythm of it. I felt hasty, or too slow, and conscious - ever-conscious of hitting something. Hard.

I think this latent fear puts a pallor (maybe not so much a pallor, but an unexpected hue) on many things. It keeps me comfortable in certain seats, and in my professional life, has made me master at being a solid #2. A person behind a person doing some wildly cool things, but still one step shy of being the person at the helm.

Now I could easily share countless reasons as to why this is the case - everything from "I'm good at it." to "I believe in distributed leadership and isn't it better to have a band of merry fellows rather than a solo artist?" But the real answer is: I'm just plain scared. (Sorry Sheryl Sandberg, I said it.)

One day, as with others on my tripped out bucket list (skydiving? check.), I will do it. I will sit in the seat of the Lord Mayor and be good at it. But I will also want to throw up, make an ass out of myself on occasion, and be scared to death most days in the process. And maybe that's a cool thing. Maybe that's a more than cool thing. Because it is the leadership that ascends by accident even - in spite of our scary selves and because of our scared selves - that makes us ever stronger, ever real, and hopefully ever impactful.

One day I'll do it. I'll double dutch my way into it. And while I may be more Charlie than Angel when I land, it will feel good - scratch that, great - to have taken the risk.

Go on and show up with your bad self. Go on and do it.

Maria Kim


day 915: to fall, to get back up & to smile a little bit

Last Wednesday, a small community of friends and family said farewell to a woman far too young to see the omega of her days, but taken swiftly and without haste nonetheless. It was a terrible day, cloaked in fatigue and weary and sadness so thick it dwarfed even the heavy drape of rain. She lost her life in a whisper or a shout, and her loved ones mourned her absence, her palpable, humid absence, as they leaned in to each other for strength.

As with most celebrations of life, the words and musings of the family - each with their own layer of honesty, broken, heavy and light - got to me, most especially those of the older brother. He began with the words: "to fall, to get back up and to smile a little bit," and then shared a story of a video his parents had taken of his sister when she was maybe four or five. She had just received Barbie roller skates for Christmas and could barely wait to put them on. She scooted out to the patio, took her first bold steps and quickly fell flat tush-side down. Only instead of wailing for someone to pick her up (as I undoubtedly would have done), she caught a glimpse of herself in the glass, checked herself out, eked out her smile (that apparently was 'signature' even at this early age), and wiggled her way back up to do it all over again. The next time was barely better, but the routine remained the same -

She fell down, got right back up, and smiled.

In looking at her life in arrears, the brother had realized that his sister had lived all her days with this same kind of fearlessness. She lived her life out loud - without border, with full embrace, and with a century-deep capacity for love and forgiveness. This same fearlessness also got her into some bumps in the road, that pushed her proverbial tush-side down in the decades that followed her innocent run on the skates. Her big brother, trying to make sense of her loss too soon to seem real, saw that those early days were in some measure a bittersweet foreboding of what was to come. We may not be able to make sense of why his sister left us so soon - not now, not this time when so much was going 'right' for her (new place, new job, new friends); but we can take solace in the fact that those closest to her got their sister, daughter, and friend back, even for a short while over these past few months, and in the purest, most complete sense of the word.

Sometimes at funerals, I feel a voyeur - peeking too far behind a curtain that is not rightfully mine.

But quickly I'm reminded that the passing of a life - whether in a whisper or a shout - is a fast forward, rewind, slow motion and aspiration of moments of wonder with people and things. I'm also reminded that despite all we do to keep it together, the reality is that we are all in recovery. It is most palpable when we lose someone like this family and this community had, or when we don't live fully with the family we have and the family we choose. Life is often by accident, and if we're lucky by intention. And as I reflect on why this funeral has weighed on me with the thud of a heavy heart, it is absolutely because we lost a lovely young woman way before her time, but also and perhaps consequently because we are faced with a choice to live life alive. To allow ourselves the terror of a first date, to discover and rediscover our partner with each passing year, to pause to understand our parents as they were before mom or dad, to unearth the bunker of his or her story, to choose the tougher more awkward conversation, to confess the blues even when we don't know the root cause, to forgive and forgive, to call out our own bull shit, to recognize our beleaguered muffin tops and to be pissed at the original architect of that horrible term, to grieve our losses of friendship and family equal to our losses of truth, to have the strength and humility to defibrillate the ones that will bring us back, to stutter and trip as we become our own version 2.0, to learn and be learned, to believe and then to be someone worthy of this walk around the sun, someone whose footsteps will mean something, will crush and be crushed, will form a constellation with equal wonder and bemusement as the galaxies above.

Some folks live a lifetime without living it out loud, and with this much capacity for innocence and adventure. And for this, her family and friends will forever be changed and will always be grateful.

May you rest in peace, dear C. And like the deluge that passed through our sky on the day you were put to rest, know that the trees and the flowers are brighter and bolder because you stormed through town and kissed the breeze along the way.

Maria Kim