The Orphan Who Changed my Life: Monday Musings

I volunteer for a foundation that helps orphans in India called The Miracle Foundation.  I have been going to India since 2005 on “ambassador” trips to work as a volunteer at various orphanages for a week or so.  We have varied targeted projects when we are there.  Usually we are a group or 10-12, mostly folks from the USA, since the foundation is headquartered in Austin, Texas, USA.

Some of the people on these trips are first timers. And many return again and again.  The experience is tragically difficult and absolutely life-changing at the same time.  India has a way of assaulting your senses the moment you arrive.  I have traveled all over the world and have never experienced someplace so “foreign”.

The sights of color and filth, the smells of curry and sweat, urine and flowers, the stifling heat and smog from burning trash which wraps itself around you like a boa constrictor and takes the life out of you certain times of year.  The cacophony of sounds screaming all around you all day long….the call to prayer at the mosque, the children cheering during a cricket match, the constant horns on rickshaws and automobiles raging all day and night. And the crows. I find the crows haunting.

India punches you in the gut and then wraps her arms around you in a loving embrace.  Oh India, you gawd awful seductress.

On one particular trip, we were at an orphanage in a remote area of one of the poorest states in the country.  So far from civilization that most Indians are shocked when I tell them not only do I know of it, I have been there.

Our assignment on this trip was to paint the children’s home with focus on their bedrooms. You see, in most Indian orphanages it feels more like a jail than img_2162a home.  There is little color, little air circulation, and sometimes little hope.  The house mothers are even called wardens at the government homes. Fortunately for a home under The Miracle Foundation’s care, there is a lot of  hope and happiness.   Our job on this trip was to make it feel like a true “home” with colorful paint and hand prints of all the kids on the walls painted to turn into butterflies.

Each volunteer had their own “family” of children for the week. They varied in age and sex so it felt like a family…usually made up of approximately 8-10 children. This group would help us with each of our projects throughout the week.

There was one gorgeous little girl of about 10-12 years old who stole away my heart.  We were connected from day one. She had coco skin, deep soulful black eyes and an incorrigible little smile.  The entire week she would run to me when we arrived each morning from our little girl-with-hoopnearby hotel.

She would put my arm around her and melt her little body into mine.  “Auntie, Auntie, COME” she would call out and take me off to see something. A drawing or a trick or her bed or some kind of small accomplishment of which she was proud.  She learned to master the hula hoop from me with rapid ease.

We got on with our projects all throughout the week, painting walls, painting hands and virtually painting their names across our hearts. There was also plenty of time for play. Time for games and crafts and even a field trip.   It was exhausting and exhilarating.   They blossomed under our love. And we, of course, grew extremely attached to them.

On the last night the kids performed on “stage” for us and then it turned into a Bollywood dance party.  We were so proud of them, our hearts swelling with adoration. After the show, they came out to get all of the volunteers to dance with them.  Holding hands, swinging them around, laughing, singing, dancing.  The evenings do cool off and you can see the stars forever.   The breeze kisses your skin and the earth feels like it sends vibrations through you from the ground. This exceptionally img_2210magical feeling of India is something I have never felt anywhere else in the world.  It is like an out of body experience.  It is so hard to describe, like the Grinch’s heart growing three sizes on that extraordinary day.

The last night is always the trickiest.  That inevitable goodbye happens without knowing if you will return to see them again.  The children asked us to promise we willimg_2214 back next year.  But how can you make such a promise when you live on the other side of the world? One never knows where life will take you.  And then your tears start to mix with theirs as you cry for happiness that it happened, yet sadness because it is over.

Keep in mind, most of these children are orphans. Unwanted! The “untouchables” in their culture. We constantly reminded them how important they were by giving them hugs and kisses and holding their hands.  Remember, all they own are a change of clothes (when one outfit is on, one is being hand washed by a house mother and sun dried in the courtyard), a school uniform, books for school and a plate for meals.  Most other things are shared.  The girls have little bits of jewelry made of plastic or a cheap metal. Because let’s face it, what is an Indian girl without bangles???

On that magical last night after dances and endless hugs, my girl pulled me aside from the madness. I crouched down to talk to her and she made me open up my hand and put it in front of her.  She tugged the little heart off her plastic beaded necklace and placed it in the palm of my hand. She closed my fingers around it and put her little hand over my fist and said, “Auntie, auntie, so you will never forget me.” I was choked with emotion in a way no other child had ever made me feel. Like I would EVER forget her??  I hugged her close and whispered in her ear a “thank you” which came out like a croak, I was so overwhelmed with sentiment.2013-03-11-11-01-51  When someone who owns NOTHING gives you something, your paradigms shift in the most powerful way.  That day I realized she did not have “nothing”, she was filled with love. And she passed on the best lesson I could ever learn.

It got me musing today….wondering where is that beautiful little girl?  Her particular home is not under the same partnership with the foundation, so they no longer take volunteers to work there. But maybe I can return on my own one day? She is a teenager now.  Is she still filled with love?  Is she happy and healthy? Do her deep soulful eyes still have the sparkle of hope? Does she know I often think of her? Did I help change her life as much as she did mine?  I hope so.

Monday Musings. Make this life count. Have a great week ahead.

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Is one cancer “sexier” than the others? Monday Musings

Before you get all up in arms about me using the words “sexy” and “cancer” in the same sentence, calm down. I don’t believe there is anything sexy whatsoever about the C-word. It is a horrible disease in every form. Read on and you might understand my point here.

As we close out the month of October, I reflect on a season when weekends are not really my own. Yes, in the USA that means  “American” football season. And if you follow a team as a true fan, you are there at every  game you can see. These are the days when you and your friends and fellow fans do all the football traditions.  You tailgate at gawd-awful hours for the morning.  You wear your lucky _________(fill in the blank…socks, underwear, T-shirt, earrings, whatever). You eat too much tailgate food and you often drink too much ______ (yep, fill in the blank again with your alcohol of choice…beer, wine, whiskey, tequila shots).  You travel to away games to cheer on your team, while spending lots of money for hotels, dining out, etc.  Autumn is the season, for me, which leaves little time for other weekend activities.  It is also a time of year that brings you together with a whole bunch of crazy, fun people cheerilonghorn-fansng for the same thing; a WIN!  In an extremely polarized country at this time in history, it is the one thing that brings democrats and republicans together.  They sit next to one another, they cheer, they high five, they hug; even though their religion and skin color and politics might be polar opposites.  That comradery is one of my favorite things about following a sports team.

A few weeks ago I was watching a pro football game (Indianapolis vs. Houston) on TV and I noticed the players were wearing hot pink gloves and socks and towels as part of their uniforms.  Not a particularly masculine color. What’s with all this pink?  Ah right, October is breast cancer awareness month. You would have to live under a rock not to know that. Not only is pink all over social media, we find it on product packaging for the month in grocery stores, we see it on buttons and stickers and flags, and we see it all over one of the most masculine and difficult sports.  Football has really embraced this breast cancer thing, it seems.

And it got me musing about breast cancer.  I cannot think of a cancer that gets close to this much attention (or funds). There are other cancers, of course, which claim lives every day.  Do we shower attention and public service announcements and money towards cervical or ovarian or bladder cancer? How about colorectal?  Who wants to talk about rectums?  Beyond your proctologist, I just do not see it as cocktail party conversation.

To be fair, breast cancer is the leading diagnosed cancer for women.  Not far behind it is lung cancer, colorectal and uterus.  But the number one leading cause of cancer death in women is NOT breast cancer. It is lung cancer. Fairly far ahead of breast cancer deaths.

So why do the other cancers not get their fair share of voice in all the clutter? Is it that  breast cancer is the “sexy” cancer?  It because all these other cancers happen to organs hidden within the body?  Are we a society generally so obsessed with breasts that the otb-cancer-tata-tshirther cancers do not deserve the same research and attention?  What about men’s cancer?  The number one cancer for men is prostate cancer. What about testicular cancer?  Yes, there is a testicular cancer awareness month. It is April.  But I bet most people have no clue about that.  There are no blue flags and towels and ribbons. No T-shirts emblazoned with “Save the Balls”.  And if you wore one, no one would take you seriously anyway.

And then there is the stigma about some other cancers.  I was recently reading about a woman who had lung cancer and was going through horrific rounds of chemotherapy that ravaged her body and made her hair fall out. She was wearing pink in the grocery store and a seemingly well-intentioned woman came up to her talking about how she had survived breast cancer. She wished her well with her fight. When the woman explained she was going through lung cancer treatment, the woman recoiled and tartly said, “Oh, well you must have been a smoker.”.

What happened to “keep up the fight” encouragement ?  You see, some other cancers have a stigma and are often judged.  Liver cancer? That is what you get for all that heavy drinking. Lung/tongue/throat cancer? Well you never should have smoked.  But no stigma with breast cancer. What if a woman had to live without her breasts to survive? Oh the horror.  As if a woman is not a complete human being without them.  When in reality they are pretty worthless as a functioning organ (except for feeding a baby, of course).  Besides, there are plastic surgeons to recreate them. Try to live without your liver or lungs or pancreas. I am pretty sure there are no fake livers or lungs that can keep you stay alive.  So why not donate for more research to invent those?

I would love to see a general cancer awareness month.  Educating people of all the deadly cancers out there. Why can’t fundraising be shared for all cancers? Like some sort of national cancer fund?  Don’t most cancers cells work in a similar fashion anyway? If we were sharing the wealth, perhaps a cure could happen quicker for all.

Monday Musings. Have a great week.

Good Investments: Monday Musings, Oct 2016

It was a brisk and misty rainy day in Deadwood, South Dakota. Deadwood Gulch, is a true wild west town…which boomed to well over 5,000 inhabitants during the gold rush of the late 1800’s. It cycled into a massive state of disrepair afterwards as the population fell to less than 1000 throughout much of the next century. However, Kevin Costner’s involvement in the region and the wildly popular HBO series “Deadwood’ brought it screaming back to its booming former self in the 2000’s. As the final resting place of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane, it has long romanticized the gunslinging, whiskey swilling, larger-than-life characters of the American Wild West.

Once you have toured Mt. Rushmore and Custer State Park the Black Hills and the Crazy Horse Monument what is a tourist from balmy Costa Rica to do on such a chilly, misty day? Wine tasting seemed like the obvious choice to keep warm and happy.

A cute little Sturgis satellite winery of Belle Joli on the outskirts of Deadwood offered a winevery limited selection of generous wine pour flights for just $5. We chatted with the pretty black-haired hostess with deep blue Pacific eyes. One of the first questions asked in a tourist town is, “Where are you from?”. Well, kinda Texas via Costa Rica. But I told the story of how this tour was inspired by my writer friend who started a campaign #50by50, to visit all 50 USA states before the age of 50. I decided it was time to see my final 4: Idaho, Montana, South Dakota and lastly, North Dakota.

Pacific eyes girl was an enthusiastic listener and was impressed by my domestic travel goal. She said she lived in Deadwood, but was originally from North Dakota, having visiting this area often throughout her childhood. She gave me the impression that saving North Dakota for state number big 5-0 was quite uninspiring. She suggested driving a short loop into the state and then out again. She told me there was nothing there to see. “Really, just miles and miles of nothingness and quite boring.” was her overall critique of her home state.

Another couple in possibly their late 50’s or early 60’s had arrived at the winery and they were browsing around the gift shop, while the tasting bar was fully in action. We moved over to allow them space to enjoy some wines, as well. Number one question from Pacific eyes to them was, “Where are you from?” and their reply was, “North Dakota and we bet you are going to back pedal about what you just said.”

She actually didn’t back pedal, but we did have a nice conversation with this couple about the merits of North Dakota and its beauty. As well as its brutal winters and the occasional dying livestock from cold and starvation. They introduced themselves as the Snyders and Mr. Snyder had an accent just like a good friend of mine in Austin, who is originally from North Dakota. It was fun to hear that upper midwest/Minnasota-y accent fooling my wine buzzed brain into thinking I was there talking to Ron.

Mr. Snyder was impressed with my journey to see all 50 states. He asked a lot of questions about which state I found most beautiful (Are you kidding? How can one answer that, when all have beauty?) But high on my list were Alaska, Hawaii, California, Texas and rugged beauty like Arizona, Utah, Oregon, etc. I also noted some specific journeys like the drive from Miami to Key West, Niagara Falls, Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and seeing New York City for the first time.

Then he asked something that caught me off guard. Was there a defining moment in my life that allowed me financially to afford extensive travel like that? I explained there really was not. I didn’t win the lottery, I had not received an inheritance and I was not a trust fund baby. But I explained that my father, Ace, had instilled in me to save money at an early age, to invest and diversify and never live beyond my means.

As I described my father’s early advice, I could picture him all those years ago sitting downinvesting-2 at the dinner table with me talking about savings and 401K accounts and stocks and IRA’s for retirement. Imagine being a late teenager and early 20-something meeting with your father to talk about retirement? I remember my glassed over eyes. “Retirement? Are you kidding? That is like light years from now.” I said to myself silently.

I remember buying that amazing forest green BMW 325i convertible years ago. His words still echo in my mind, “A car is to get you from point A to point B. You need nothing more”. I remember all his crappy used cars (alright, that is not fair, some were perfectly fine used cars, but lacking any glamour whatsoever). I got my drivers license at 16 and if you didn’t own a car back then (many kids didn’t), you borrowed your parents every chance you could. My mom owned a pretty cool Cadillac, in which I loved to cruise. But when I had to borrow my dad’s car? I always hoped a friend could drive instead.

The Snyders agreed with my way of not living beyond your means. It is probably a salt-of-the-earth conservative core value that is very popular in North Dakota. They have 3 kids in which they have instilled that same way of thinking. Although they are concerned about one of them. Mr. Snyder laughed at my extravagant car purchase story. He said sometime you have to live a little. He then whipped out a couple of photos from his jacket pocket. He showed me the beautiful 1950’s car he is spending a lot of money restoring and his brother’s airplane. Yeah, sometimes you to have to live a little.

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The North Dakota Snyders.

Ace was very methodical in his retirement advice, helping me max out every employment 401K with profit sharing, ESPL (employee stock purchase plans) at a discount, helping with down payment loans for real estate, etc. He would roll his eyes when I was not following his advice and occasionally I would get a “What the hell do you think you are doing?”. But mostly he was supportive and assertive with his advice. Somehow something must have sunk in. Because his advice was golden and has allowed me to live the life I dreamed of at an earlier age than most.investment

It got me to musing…..it is never to late to change your lifestyle to live within your means. Start spending less now. Of course it is really damn hard. We are bombarded with over 10,000 advertising messages EVERY day. This is outdated, your phone is a dinosaur, you will be sexy if you buy this, you will be happy in/with ______ (fill in the blank). I am guilty for falling for it from time to time. After all, I am a product of my generation and culture.

But it can be done. Just like better eating habits or quitting smoking or working out, it takes serious willpower and commitment. Make a budget. Stick with it. Start putting money away or invest it. Do it before it touches your wallet so it will not tempt you. Pay off your debt and make THAT growing account be your sexy new purchase. Nothing will feel better.

As for that that amazing BMW I used to have? I am now driving a 10-year old car with a bunch of kilometers on it, in both countries. Nope they are not sexy. Nor are my unpainted nails or my no-name clothes and accessories. But I would like to think my life is. And I owe much of that to saving and investing the old fashioned way. My dad, Ace, rocked.

Monday Musings. Have a great week.