09/27/20

Forever Friends: Leaving a Legacy of Learning and Love

Friends Sylvia Patzlaff (left), Chris Clarke Epstein (middle) and me bed-dancing (instigated by Chris) at my first NSA Convention, 1987

One of my forever friends, mentor, colleague, instigator of all things creative and empowering, Chris Clarke-Epstein passed away on Friday from metastatic breast cancer. Whew. You think you can handle it and you should hold it together because that’s what she would do and want for you, and yet my walks are plodding and my heart hurts—for her, her family, for all of us who knew her and those who never will.

I know I’m writing a memoir here in this post and Chris would edit me for brevity but some moments, some lives, give and teach you so much, you ask for a one-time papal dispensation on word count.

Last Wish

I also know so many, many people are feeling as deeply as I am. Her leadership, reach, and impact on members of the National Speakers Association (NSA) and her local Wausau community are legendary. Our shared friends on Facebook number 319 and many have written such beautiful tributes and memories to Chris and I have loved reading all of them. If you didn’t know her, I hope you have a Chris in your life, and if you don’t, make it a priority to find one. And vote. Early if you can. One of Chris’s last wishes.

Along with the feelings of sadness, I’m equally grateful for all the life I was lucky to share with her and her family over the years, especially during the early growth of my speaking career and our leadership in NSA that gave me a life I never could have dreamed up on my own.

Big Sisters, Best Advice, Hardest Truths

Chris and I met at our local Wisconsin chapter back in the 1980’s. Wow, we were young and so excited to share our motivational messages and learn the speaking business. Similar to many of you, along the way Chris and I became close friends. She was the big sister I had always hoped for. She always had the best advice and sometimes the hardest truths, spoken with care and always with the intent to help me be a better me.

Chris celebrated me, encouraged me, made me laugh (including dancing on hotel room beds when we were conference roommates), lighten up, and step up, and cheered me on as we moved through NSA Chapter Leadership and into National leadership. She’s the one who whispered in my ear at a Wisconsin chapter meeting for board nominations, “Put your hand up. You’re ready. You can do this.” Two chapter presidencies followed.

“Yes, your decision is difficult for many reasons. So try this on: What is it that you most want and need? Decide for that and decide on a reasonable time to re-evaluate, let’s say, six months. And in between then, live that decision with your whole heart, no wavering or looking back, only forward until that future day arrives. Only then, evaluate and ask yourself, “Am I better off now than I was back then?” Likely you’ll be better off, but if not, you go back to the other choice or make a new one.”

Chris’s values, her belief in herself, and in me gave me the confidence to follow my heart and move to San Diego. Twenty-eight years later, it’s turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life.

A few months after moving to San Diego, 1992.
There is nothing like Big Talk on the beach with a best friend!

“Of course we’re here. Where else would we want to be but here!”
-Chris Clarke Epstein

My Mother, My Friend

After my mom died and while I was writing my book, “My Mother, My Friend,” Chris shared her stories and her mom JunieB with me. When the book came out, my first stop on the book tour was hometown Milwaukee at a Barnes & Noble where the most intimidating audience of family, high school and college teachers, and friends who had never seen me speak were coming. Chris and June drove four hours from Wausau and surprised me just before I was ready to go on with the biggest hugs and “You can do this.”

Chris, her mom JunieB, and me at my book signing, 2001

Happy Moments, Memories and Photos

As the years went on and our paths went in different directions, we didn’t connect as often but every phone call was as if no time had passed. Two summers ago I took her writing class and as always, her insights and edits made everything better. When her mom passed last January, Chris wrote on Facebook that she went through photos to remember her mom from her favorite memories and suggested that we not only do the same but that we remember to take the photos in those happy moments. I’m so glad I did. Over the past few days as I’ve been going through my photos, thinking about Chris, her fierce love, messages of lifelong learning, showing up, and embracing change, the words from an old Flavia card kept wandering into my mind. I finally looked it up. For those of you who knew Chris, I think you’ll agree that she was all of this and more…

“Some people come into our lives and quickly go. Some people move our souls to dance. They awaken us to a new understanding with the passing whisper of their wisdom. Some people make the sky more beautiful to gaze upon. They stay in our lives for a while, leave footprints on our hearts, and we are never, ever the same.”

– Flavia
Mentors matter. These three women leaders (top/Leslie Charles, center/Chris Clarke-Epstein, right/Marilynn Semonick) mentored me through my speaking career.

Who is a Chris in your life? Do they know? I encourage you to write them an email or handwrite and send a letter, or better if you can, go visit them. Tell them what you’ve learned from them while you still have time. Chris would love that.

PS. And remember to vote. And vote early.

09/19/20
Ruth Bader Ginsberg doll at San Diego Administration Building Women's March, 2019

What Would RBG Do? Democracy, Death, and Mindful Photography

Ruth Bader Ginsberg doll at San Diego Administration Building Women's March, 2019

“Fight for the things you care about,
but do it in a way that will lead others to want to join you.”
-Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court Justice

Rest In Peace and Justice, Judge Ginsburg. 

You know a person has reached iconic status when dolls, puppets, cartoons, t-shirts, posters, political signs, avatars, coffee mugs, buttons, Saturday Day Night Live, and little girls dressed in black Judge’s robes with white lace collars and black glasses for Halloween trick-or-treating are showing up everywhere in photos and memes on social media and public outings.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg gained that iconic status for many honorable reasons. Her fight for human rights, her integrity, impeccable attention to facts and detail, her work ethic, stamina in the face of multiple cancer diagnoses in her later years, and her serious nature tempered by her dry humor, are legendary. All of these qualities and her lifelong commitment to social justice, in particular the rights of women, continue to inspire me and millions of others.

Hearing about her death felt monumental for many reasons, including learning that her last wish spoken to her family was that “I not be replaced until a new president is installed.” Think about that for a second. One of the most respected humans in the United States is not just thinking about her family’s future as she’s dying. She’s thinking about all of us and our country’s future. What does that say to you? To me, it says many things, but most importantly, that going forward I live my life and use my voice and vote in a way that honors her legacy.

Mindful Words and Photos

At some point, we all learn from experience that words and images can make one person think and feel a certain way — especially politics and death in an election year — and doesn’t always lead others to the same thoughts and feelings.

As someone who has learned through uncomfortable trial and error at times to be more mindful of the words I post and the photographs I take and post publicly, I hesitated to post the RBG doll photo I took at the 2019 Women’s March here in San Diego out of concern for seeming disrespectful of Justice Ginsburg’s passing and trivializing her significant contributions to our country and its future. But the image kept showing up in my thoughts and I’ve learned to pay attention to that creative calling.

I’ve also found it helpful to apply my mindful self-compassion practice to my writing and photography, so with those guiding principles to make a decision about the image, I read through tributes and stories about Justice Ginsburg’s life and went back through my photos from that day at the Women’s March.

What’s the Deeper Message?

There are so many beautiful photos and meaningful tributes to Judge Ginsburg’s influence and passing online, which convinced me to keep exploring the deeper message of this iconic photo that kept looping in my mind but that I hadn’t looked at in over 18 months.

As I scrolled through my phone looking for my Women’s March photos, I finally found the image, remembering that I took the photo spontaneously when the homemade RBG doll popped up in front of my face and made me smile while I was listening to very serious speeches on human rights issues in front of our City of San Diego Administration Building that day.

“Think back to 1787. Who were ‘we the people’’? … They certainly weren’t women … they surely weren’t people held in human bondage. The genius of our Constitution is that over now more than 200 sometimes turbulent years that ‘we’ has expanded and expanded.” -Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Georgetown University Speech, 2015

Just after the mini RBG photo, I scrolled to another photo and remembered an equally humbling and energizing interaction that day. An older woman in a wheelchair was being pushed by her daughter, holding a sign that said, “I didn’t go through hell and proudly study to become a U.S. Citizen for this crap. #WomensWave #immigrationreform #healthreform.”

Besides witnessing this woman’s anger and activism, I was immediately transported back three decades, remembering how I wheeled my mother around in a wheelchair for four years after botched spinal surgery and before her death from ovarian cancer. Preparing her for an outing, getting her in and out of the car, lifting her and the chair over bumps in cement sidewalks and damp grass required herculean strength that often exhausted and frustrated me to tears in addition to the sadness I felt for her lack of personal mobility.

Immigrant American citizen mother in a wheelchair holding a sign at the 2019 Women’s March in San Diego.
2019 Women’s March, San Diego | Photo by Mary Marcdante

With my mom’s memory in mind, I asked them for permission to take their photo, and they both nodded yes. Beyond the mom’s sign, her wheelchair, and looking frail, I don’t know the rest of their story, but I do know that people don’t go the effort that she and her daughter and millions of others around the United States continue to do in the name of racial and social justice without themselves or someone they love having personally suffered so much that they would give their life energy and risk their safety to do it.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg fought every day in the highest court in our country for 27 years for all citizens’ rights to freedom and during that time also fought her own battles with colon and metastatic pancreatic cancers. Why did she fight so hard?

“Women belong in all places where decisions are being made. It shouldn’t be that women are the exception.” -Ruth Bader Ginsburg on CNN, 2009

What Would RBG Do?

As I felt my way through the photos and memories, a burst of doubt and then cynicism surfaced. My thoughts included, “Is this too trite?” followed by “Seriously, you’re stressing on a stupid photo? Post it already — or don’t, but stop thinking you’re so important that it matters.” Ugh. Inner voices can be as mean as people in real life. Sometimes worse. These are times when I’m so grateful for mindful self-compassion meditations.

I stopped and did a one-minute compassionate breathing exercise. When I finished I had this idea to ask Justice Ginsburg’s spirit, “What would you do?” The answer came quickly. “Do a search on Google for my quotes.” So I did. And I found so many inspiring ideas and more than enough responses of “I never thought of that!” my energy shifted and sparked that same empowered feeling I had that morning at the March.

“People ask me sometimes… ‘When will there be enough women on the court?’ And my answer is, ‘When there are nine.’ People are shocked, but there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.” -Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 2015

I also found articles on RBG’s humor and this comment about how she felt about her pop icon status by Betsy West, the director of her documentary, RBG: “In many ways, I think she’s embraced that [pop icon status] as an opportunity to reach a wider audience about the message of democracy and the rule of law.

2019 San Diego Women’s March Participants Marching and Chanting, “This is what Democracy Looks Like.” Video by Mary Marcdante

So…does a photo of an RBG doll honor her death and legacy and spread the message of democracy and the rule of law a little bit further? What do you think?

I think Judge Ginsburg would affirm the decision. Photo posted.

PS. Your vote matters more than ever on Tuesday, November 3, 2020. Check your U.S. voter registration status or register to vote here and vote early if you can.

05/30/20

Fierce Compassion: Speaking Truth to Power

Fierce Compassion: Speaking Truth to Power | Photo of Agapanthus buds by Mary Marcdante

May we all speak truth to power with fierce compassion—for others and ourselves.

On several of my walks this week, I was captivated by this same lavender-colored Agapanthus pod of buds, all crowded together like its own little flower community getting ready to bloom something beautiful. Then I noticed one bud that was somehow forced out and laid deflated on top of the others. With the next breath of wind, it would soon fall to the ground and never get a chance to bloom like the others.

As I’ve been reviewing my photos from the past few days, I paused again at the image several times. I’ve never thought about flowers that way. “Why now?” I asked myself.

I closed my eyes and took a few breaths, sitting with the question. My answer surprised me:

Maybe because it’s easier to watch a flower die than a human?

I felt tears well up and let my heart keep talking. Between mounting COVID deaths—my Aunt Francie included, the horrific murder of George Floyd, and the riots in Minneapolis and protests around the country attempting to speak truth to power and be heard by people with that power, this heart aches—again.

“I can’t breathe.” George Floyd

I can only imagine and barely touch the grief family members are experiencing as they lose people they love through racism, agism, narcissism and every other “ism” that divides rather than encourages the gifts and answers that a diverse community and world offers humanity, nature and the earth. I know others who are feeling this, maybe you are too?

Every flower bud and every human being needs a safe home and community that protects, provides and motivates them to grow into their full potential: Agapanthus buds, Torrey Pine trees, George Floyd, Armaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, you, me—all of us, and the rest of the world.

What will it take to create that space for everyone?

I’m discovering one answer for myself through the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion: F I E R C E C O M P A S S I O N. Even when it’s scary, maybe especially when it’s scary, learning to use your anger at injustice to motivate you, your courage to protect yourself and others, and your voice to provide awareness, understanding, and connection within your community, your friends, your family, and most importantly, within yourself.

“It only takes one person
and a good idea to start a movement.
-Maren Johnson

What inside you is waiting to be listened to and compassionately acted on by you today? What in your world needs your voice to speak up with fierce compassion?

May we all find and use our courage and voices to help the world bloom into all the beauty, joy, and love that lives within us.

Agapanthus blooms by Mary Marcdante
“Riots are the language of the unheard.” -Martin Luther King Jr.
May we all listen to each other for
greater understanding and connection.

05/8/20

Bioluminescence and Mindful Self Compassion

Bioluminescence at Scripps Pier, La Jolla Shores on May 7, 2020. Unedited iPhone 11 Max Pro photo by Mary Marcdante.
Bioluminescence at Scripps Pier, La Jolla Shores on May 7, 2020. Unedited iPhone 11 Max Pro photo by Mary Marcdante.

Full moon bioluminescence at La Jolla Shores just before midnight—a welcome respite and reminder of nature’s gifts to inspire and renew in troubling times.

I took three walks today trying to shake off this sadness that’s been welling up. I find myself thinking more and more about how many people have died from COVID and all of the underlying manmade causes contrasted with the spin so many people are trying to put on the unbelievable suffering the world is experiencing—“But look how many people have survived and how many of us are still alive.” I understand it’s a way to assuage fear and stress but it’s not working for me right now. My healthy and privileged life for which I’m incredibly grateful also secretly feels shameful these days. I’m beginning to understand what survivor’s guilt might feel like and how important it is to acknowledge and feel the thoughts and feelings rather than dismiss them or spin them and then…

I’m learning, I hope, from my mindful self-compassion teacher training that when I notice struggle in myself to pause and name it; remember all people suffer in various ways, some like me and I’m not alone; and then do something kind for myself so that I can be more fully present for and kind to others.

So I went to see the bioluminescence. Do you know what that spectacle really is besides magic? I didn’t. I just knew that it sounded cool and I wanted to see it. So I went at 11 o’clock at night and for the moments the waves sparkled against the night sky, I felt my spirit leap and my heart connect with others who were wearing their masks and socially distancing along side me while we “wowed” in unison each time a blue wave crested.

Now that I’m back home sitting with the magic of the blue waves and the COVID news reports, and having looked up what bioluminescence is, the inner darkness has lifted a bit. I realize there is a link for me between nature’s bioluminescence and all the healthcare and “essential” workers showing up day after day in service to saving lives through this COVID crisis and actually, every day of our lives.

The definition of bioluminescence is “the production of light by living organisms.” All these frontline healthcare and essential workers–and you, and me–are human bioluminescence producing light. And what is light but love made visible?

You are light. Live the bioluminescence you already are.

05/4/20

Inspired Action: The Power of Savoring

S A V O R . . .

What did you savor today? What could you savor now?

Since quarantine started over a month ago, I have been aching to stand on the sand at sunset at Torrey Pines beach. Tonight was no different. I felt the familiar disappointment as I walked out my door for a walk in my neighborhood at sunset. As I reached a canyon overlook where a tree had recently been cut down, I felt sad for the loss of this beautiful tree and then happened to glance over my right shoulder and saw the sky melting into shades of butter that reminded me of the butterscotch oatmeal cookies I’d baked earlier in the afternoon that called for two sticks of butter—haha, with half the batch already eaten and savored.

I paused to drink in the sky and felt tears well up. I took a deep breath and inhaled the scent of eucalyptus, one of my mother’s favorite fragrances. I heard the wind rustle through the canyon and felt it brush my cheeks. I could still taste the butterscotch and oatmeal cookies in my mouth. I also noticed I was smiling without trying and felt a warmth flow into my heart. To paraphrase a prayer from childhood, “Blessed be life. Blessed be nature. Blessed be me.”

We double our pleasure when present moments and past enjoyable memories meet. Triple delight when we pause long enough to allow the thoughts and memories to flow from our mind into our body and practice savoring through sensory awareness.

One of the key elements of mindful self-compassion to lessen feeling bad and increase feeling good is using our senses to savor a beautiful moment or anything that we find lovely, inspiring or touching. So often we don’t even notice the exquisiteness around us because we’re caught in a negative thought loop us or we move on so quickly and forget to feel the good feelings moving through our senses. Yet, savoring is one the great gifts of being alive.

Next time you notice something that makes you smile or feel good, slow down and let yourself enjoy it a little longer. In your mind walk through your senses—What am I seeing? What am I hearing? What am I smelling? What am I tasting? What am I touching? What am I feeling emotionally? Where am I feeling that emotion in my body? Or…you can just pause and smile and bring your hand to to your heart and say thank you.

It’s all good.

“If the only prayer you ever said was thank you, it would be enough.” ~ Meister Eckhart

What did you savor today? What could you savor now? Please share your thoughts in the comments below—I’d love to hear from you.

07/28/15
"Inspiration lives in the possible." Mary Marcdante

Inspiration Lives in the Possible. Gnarly Trees, Dr. Seuss and Chainsaws

Gnarly Old TreeThe light on this twisted tree limb called to me from a distance. My first thought was what happened to it to cause such a crookedness in its growth. When I got close enough to really look at it, I had the strangest sensation of awareness run through me. Suddenly, just for a few seconds, it was as if I was looking at an gnarly old man crossing his legs while enjoying the view of the sky. Then it morphed into frog legs. And then I saw Dr. Seuss characters starting to appear.

And then, back to reality by the sound of a chainsaw across the street being started by the landscape team in the neighborhood.

Tree, Mary. Old tree. Branches. Blue Sky. Walk. Get going. You have work to do.

Right. Work. And then Dream Time. Maybe. If there’s time. And now yesterday’s moment is a memory and this morning I’m thinking again about that tree.

When an image is that strong for me, I’m always curious to revisit it to see if there’s a deeper meaning, message or metaphor for me. It’s a way for me to access ideas and insights and problem-solve.

Scanning through my iPhone photos this morning, there was that gnarly old man tree again standing with crossed leg and now he was smiling and reminding me to let go of preconceived notions, to enjoy the freedom of the moment, to see beyond appearances and truly feel the beauty, inspiration and creativity of the natural life that always surrounds us and lives within us…if we will only pause long enough to drop the judgment, open our minds and hearts and then take the risk to create from this space and share our creative expression with others so we can all feel more alive in this wild adventure called Life.

I flashed again on Dr. Seuss. One of the most creative minds and greatest teachers in my book. He lived just a few miles from me. The trees in his neighborhood are similar. What if the Cat in the Hat and the Grinch got their legs from Dr. Seuss pausing long enough to look up at his trees and let them talk to him? Wild. I know. But possible. Inspiration lives in the possible.

What possibility is calling for your presence today? It’s out there waiting for you to feel it.

And I’m here waiting to hear about it. Have a creative and beautiful day and let me know what you experience.