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Entries in The Cara Program (3)


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 69: orange pinkies and dodgeball

So, I was having dinner on the eve of snowpocalypse 2011 with two girlfriends.  A simply elegant dine-in meal of Indian food.  Divine.

Conversation stacottoed for a moment, when our eyes fell upon one conspicuous plate, replete with carrots - cut julienne and neatly nudged to the corner.  When my friend asked our non-carrot loving diner, "What gives with the carrots?", she proceeded to share the story of how when she was little, she had coke bottle glasses (me too!) and was told that if she ate lots and lots of carrots, her vision would get better.  So she dutifully ate as many carrots as were in sight, and over time not only did her vision not improve, but her pinkies (and likely her other digits too) had turned orange.  Like the kind of orange you would want to purport was every day cheeto dust, but unfortunately: no such luck.

Coke bottles and orange pinkies? Game over.

And in that moment, she decided "no more carrots."  Ever.  And it stuck.  Now, decades later, carrots have no shot at eeking back into her life.  There was too much collateral damage done at a formative time.  Too much impressed, depressed, compressed at such a young age that the choice to reject carrots - once made - was irreversible. 

And it was in that moment that I remembered: we are - in so many ways - mere echoes of who we were as little people.  Images and actions and interactions that may seem a blip on the map across a large landscape of life can irrevocably stay with us, the hint of it stuck to the belly of our minds like syrup to the inside of its jug. 

My syrup moment was somewhere around nine, when kids in gym class were being picked for dodge ball.  And though this won't be a surprise to those intimate in my life, for you strangers out there - I am admittedly not the athletic type.  And as predictable as it was that my mother would give me a Dorothy Hamill haircut every chance she got, it was equally predictable that I would be the last one chosen for a sports team and the first one chosen for a spelling bee. 

I hated dodgeball days.  I was never chosen. 

In fact, I was "that girl" - the one who wasn't selected, but who was punted to the chump who ended up with the last draw.  He or she was never happy about getting the raw end of the deal.

And I have come to realize, some decades later, that this notion of not being chosen has, by hook or by crook, stuck with me.  You see, over the years I have bumped into my fair share of 'picks' along the way - some have rolled in my favor, and some biggies have not.  Of note I can say that my father hasn't chosen me, and though I'm surrounded by great and arguably epic love, others haven't chosen me either for a variety of reasons.  But in this pity party of who's zooming who and who's choosing who, I forgot the most important person of all.

Me. I can choose me.  In lots of different ways, and for all of my days, I can choose me.

The first time I spoke of this idea of being chosen was in the 'Motivations' circle at The Cara Program.  On that morning, the question of the day was "Every struggle has a silver lining. Name a struggle you're going through right now, and share its silver lining."  And I talked about what I mention above - from dodgeball to dads to new days, and through that disclosure, I realized that my silver lining is and has been within me all along. 

We can live our lives in the negative space of what we lack, what we don't have, or who hasn't chosen us. 

Or we can live our lives into the positive space of who we are, what we have, and what we choose. It only took me a few decades, but I think I finally get it.  And I pick me some door # 2.

With love and sympathy to those left a hue other than their skin, to those who were left on the court, or to those who have just plain been left, I choose you.  And I hope you choose you back.

Maria Kim


day 24: tween-kle, tween-kle little star!

Often we think of ourselves - the sage, yoda-like, wise adults that we are - as the single force whose words and actions will ultimately save our young people from the inevitability of their own missteps.

But this week I've found that I've got that all wrong.

I realized we are echoes of each other, until we actively and abruptly choose to stop the sound.

Recently, we were visited by students from EPIC Academy, a charter high school in South Chicago.  (Disclosure, this is no coincidence - I have the good fortune of serving on the board.)  A cohort of about 15 unsuspecting sophomores came to visit The Cara Program, as part of a week-long expedition on homelessness and homelessness prevention.

In their time with us, we decided to flip the script a wee bit and facilitated an exercise between our students (adult learners affected by homelessness and poverty for whom the average age is 40) and theirs (early teenagers).  We began by asking the teens:

"What do you want to be when you grow up?"

And we got the usual suspects, "doctors, lawyers, teachers, athletes."

Then we turned the mirror to cara students, and asked (in a different tense), "Back when you were their age, what did you want to be when you grew up?"

And we heard similar answers, "doctors, lawyers, teachers, athletes."

We then asked our new young friends:

"What do you think might get in your way (from getting to where you want to be)?"

And after some uncomfortable shifts in chairs, and staggered glances across the room desperately seeking who would go first, we got to these truths:

"Well, if I started smoking weed, if I joined a gang, if I got pregnant, if I didn't study, if I dissed my parents ..."

And our students shook their heads, subtly not overtly, and eventually said:

"What got me off my path was when I started smoking weed, when I got swept up by a gang, when I got pregnant, when I dissed school, when I moved away from my parents ..."

And in a moment, that moment, we realized how saran wrap the distance is between tween and adult, between today and tomorrow, between hopeful and homeless, between opportunity and poverty. 

And so it was.  This mirror of adults and their youthful hopes was enough on that day.  Enough to tell our young people how thin the gap is between "us" and "them", and enough to compel them to reclaim their youth and reinforce their commitment to the a+b+c that will lift them out of a poverty cycle.  And enough to tell our students at The Cara Program how utterly and completely and humbly powerful it is that they seek to reclaim their roles as moms and dads and futures and role models, so that this next generation can ascend into adulthood with tremendous grace. 

Reflecting on the meeting, some of the youth said:

"Yesterday helped me to realize you always need to be planning for your future.  You always need to be prepared because if you make mistakes they can cause you problems later on."

"It was really cool to see how supportive the Cara [students] were with one another.  Words weren't needed to show they are close.  As we get to know one another more, I hope EPIC can be like that."

And so I was reminded, we are echoes of each other, until we actively and abruptly choose to stop the sound.  And when we do, may we not be so brash as to forget the sage and honest and sobering lessons of those who have endured before us ... for misteps are just those, nothing more, and above all else help to inform a brighter, more vibrant tomorrow.