Please note the following are notes to myself, rather than advice for others. As a writer, I am reflecting back on ten lessons learned in the past ten years, and speaking to myself as the “you” in this case.
Early this decade, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer on both sides. She had a double mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. She walked miles for the Survivors Walks for a couple years. She also walked right out of her flip flops in the parking lot without realizing it, because the neuropathy was bad. People gave her many pink things. Then the cancer metastasized; she had tumors on her bones and brain, behind her eye and pressing on the area that controls memory. She forgot our names and then came back to us. One tumor broke her femur when she was standing at the ATM. She got back on her feet, over and over and over again. And then she got in the water; for most of her life she wasn’t a water person, but in her last weeks she defiantly rode on the front of that speedboat and laid back on that floaty. Hearty, healthy humor was one of her greatest gifts; she even had the chaplain who gave her last rites rolling in laughter.
Lesson: A loving passing is as important as a loving birth. Obituaries are difficult to proofread through your tears and the funeral home won’t help with that. Making sure her story is told is now your responsibility — as is Thanksgiving dinner and family mediations. Mom will keep you laughing. She’s now your parachute.
This was the decade of #MeToo. In 2012, I published a blog post telling my story of a sexual assault that I had survived but never reported. I wrote the post without ever telling my family about the incident. Five minutes after posting, my mother called. She opened with, “It happened to me too.” She sounded so disappointed that the world she faced as a girl hadn’t changed for her daughter.
Lesson: We, collectively, need to find sexual assault/harassment unacceptable and address rape culture in all its forms. Maybe the next generation will be free from this societal disease while also pushing past inaccurate and dangerous constructs of gender and sexuality. Love is love. Consent is consent.
During this decade, I had the beautiful honors of working closely with Syrian and Rohingyan refugees, children facing childhood cancers, residents of Section 8 housing, and community members of Flint, MI. One commonality among these incredible people is a desire for agency and de-victimization.
Lesson: Charity can only be a first action step, but must never become a mindset. Power sharing, power shifting, and friendship are often better gifts than a box of your old clothes. Recognize assets and gifts as equal to your own. Realize we all have an important role. Be open to help and advice, don’t just dole it. Outreach and giving back are centered on yourself; rather, try just being there and being yourself.
Halfway through this decade, we found a kitten near death under a parked car in Cairo. She was filthy, in shock, and barely breathing. We scraped her onto a piece of cardboard from an old pizza box. We didn’t want her to die in any pain, so we took her to a vet. Turns out Lamara was stronger than any of knew. Despite her Cerebellar Hypoplasia (a kitty condition similar to Parkinsons meets Cerebral Palsy), she lives, she thrives, she astounds. She climbed a full flight of stairs. She taught herself to drink water sitting up. She is unable to land on her feet, but dives head first off of furniture without fear. She plays up her condition to get what she wants. She officially owns much territory in the house. She is a great yoga partner and knows when it is time for shavasana. Folks can follow her on Instagram.
Lesson: After a lifetime of being a dog person, it could be a cat that could change your life. Like Lamara, demand comfort and joy. Live your life fully and lovingly. P.S. Love might require butt washing.
In this decade, I celebrated entering my 40s by going sky diving, getting my first eye exam and prescription glasses, committing to a Duolingo Plus subscription for Arabic, bonding closer with my family (now both in Michigan and Egypt), and finally succeeding in a New Year’s resolution (365 yoga sessions in 365 days).
Lesson: Dive belly first with your head and feet out of the way. Know that you might need a little push from behind. Love the free fall but you must then endure the nauseating parachuting, knots in your hair, and the hefty price of documentation. Your aging body and mind are wondrous. Keep a lens cleaner handy.
In this decade, I was supported by fellowships to travel to Qatar, Azerbaijan, Morocco, Kosovo, Belgium, Ireland, Northern Ireland, France, and Egypt. Crowdsourcing and opportunity got me to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Thailand, Kenya, Uganda, Israel, Palestine, Scotland, England, as well as the German Mission to the United Nations, Brigham Young University, New York University, SUNY Purchase, and University of Maryland. I was also sponsored to travel back to my alma mater Millikin University in Decatur, IL as the 2014 Commencement Speaker.
Lesson: See travel as necessary for global citizenship, rather than a luxury only for globetrotters. Share your stories with transparency, spread resources both vastly and directly, and get your ideas out there. It is actually helpful to others and inspires them to take action on their own great work. Keep your eyes and heart open, and invitations will find you. Allow yourself to be surprised and challenged. Absorb new concepts and learnings along the way. Be proactive in reciprocity.
From Tahrir Square and a 33-day artist occupation in Cairo to Trump-era dance demonstrations in Chicago, this is the decade I took action. Inspired by new friends on different continents, I couldn’t sit in my anger like I had during the Bush years. In 2017, Newcity Magazine gave me the Best of Chicago honor: Best Use of Dance as Political Protest. During a Black Lives Matter march, the cops pulled my friend and I (both white) aside and gave us the option of being arrested or not.
Lesson: Having a voice can be spoken, written, or embodied. Revolution requires you to be willing to go to the Square; all you need to bring is your artistry and charged cell phone. When the pizza delivery guy shows up, offer him a mask and treatment for the tear gas. If you can’t be present, get the word out through citizen journalism or petition, or provide comfort or distraction. Know what your post-protest actions will be. Express yourself and activate your citizenship but be aware of your capacity and safety are coming from a place of privilege. Know that the democracy in revolution can be safer than the security in autocracy.
This is the decade that I ran a national US State Department program in Egypt. Then I returned to Chicago and couldn’t find a good fit in a full-time job. I held up to six jobs at one time and decided not follow the path of becoming the executive director of a non-profit. I became a freelance writer, artist in residence, independent contractor and consultant. With this new direction, I both paid off my student loans and went on Obamacare.
Lesson: Surprise yourself professionally. Be gratefully open to people who believe in your potential, no matter how you perceive yourself. Professional development = lifelong learning. At the same time, acknowledge what you suck at and have no honest intention of improving. At the same time, lean into your strengths to pay your bills and get that debt weight off.
This was a decade of me waking up regularly to tragic news, shared by us all. This was a decade of friends and family “checking in safe” on social media. There were so many terrorist attacks, mass shootings, hate crimes, gun violence, state-sponsored violence and incidents of gross misconduct by police that we allowed this all to be normalized. We lost count. Most violence this decade passionately ideological in nature and motivated by political, economic or social intent to cause widespread fear. We lost so many people and we lost so much. But we now seem to be at a loss.
Lesson: Whether it is a case of us digging in our heels or us dragging on heels, we are moving backwards on building a peaceful world. In the next decade, we have no choice but to collaborate on every possible solution, on all levels, in all sectors, with all we have. I must do something.
This was a decade of discovering dance’s importance in certain moments in people’s lives.
Lesson: If dance is what you bring to world, bring it.