Each year a certain mainstream magazine publishes its Women of the Year. Their choices range from the obvious to the obscure, featuring women who have made remarkable impacts on their little corners of the world. That got me to thinking: What women have made a difference in my life in the last year? Who would I dub my Women of the Year?
2017 was one of the most extraordinary years of my life. I had recently resigned from a 24-year career in teaching and had more flexibility than before. I traveled to places I’d only dreamed of: Israel, Alaska, and Poland. I saw my only daughter marry into an absolutely terrific family. I began and ended a second career. 2017 was hard and wonderful and everything in between.
As I reflect on the last twelve months, the people and experiences that shaped me, I see that two very different ladies have taught me the same very important lesson: gratitude.
From the time I met a group of Holocaust Survivors four years ago, I began praying about going to Israel. It is a tiny, mysterious land, ripe with historical and spiritual significance. It was also home to some new friends who had almost immediately wrapped themselves around my heart. But making a trip to Israel is no small feat. There are places where it simply is not wise for a woman to go alone. I have never been farther than the shopping mall by myself, and I can get lost going somewhere I’ve been a dozen times. There was no way I could do this on my own. Enter Karen. I shared with her my dream of making the trip to Israel: I had the time and the money (a totally cool story in itself) but I needed someone with experience to go with me. She immediately volunteered.
Here’s the thing. I could not have chosen a more perfect travel companion if I’d tried. Karen is a former airlines employee who has literally been all over the world, including several trips to Israel. While I am a very much the introvert, Karen has never met a stranger. She has contacts in most any country or culture you can possibly imagine…and even when she doesn’t, she knows someone who does. She’s also extremely laid back, which was a much needed balance to my OCD tendency to over-plan and then nut up a little when the plan doesn’t work. So this woman, this amazing woman, at her own expense, gave up a month of her life to accompany me on the trip of my dreams. Wow.
That’s not even the best thing about Karen. Karen is a woman who has this uncanny ability to breathe in chaos and breathe out peace. If you are around her for more than five minutes, you will hear her say, “I’m so grateful….” All day. In any situation. Now most people have a pet saying, like, “You know what I mean?” or “Ummm” or some such. That can get annoying. Once you notice it, you can’t un-notice it. Not so with Karen. A genuine heart of gratitude continually flows out of her. It is, without question, who she is. And after spending time with her, it starts to color who you are and how you see the world around you.
More than once we got lost in questionable neighborhoods and the two block walk back to our lodging might easily turn into a mile or more. Somehow we always managed to find our way back, fueled by her optimism and excellent memory. Even the wrong turns became mini adventures. I saw new places and ate new foods and tried new things that I probably never would have on my own. And I am grateful for the experience.
The second woman who has taught me gratitude is my friend Hawa. She is from Sudan, the mother of nine of the sweetest children I’ve ever met, and though we are different in practically every way imaginable, she is my sister and I cannot imagine living my life without her.
I first met Hawa a little over a year ago when I began volunteering in an English language class. The second week, the leader asked me if I could give Hawa a ride. I was so nervous about having someone in my car who I could barely communicate with. But we both survived it, and I drove her again the following week. Somewhere along the way, things just sort of clicked. A few weeks later I spent the day with Hawa and she taught me how to make a traditional Sudanese meal (which was unbelievably delicious!) Periodically I go over to visit her and play with the children. We will build with blocks and put together puzzles. Before too long, someone will bring out a book, and we have an impromptu English lesson. Two of my favorite memories were last year when my family had the opportunity to introduce Hawa, her husband, and all the kids to their first American Thanksgiving and Christmas. We played in the floor (all of us), ate together, then taught the adults and older children how to drive the golf cart. Now THAT was hilarious! Language can be an issue sometimes, but never a barrier. Usually our miscommunication moments leave us laughing, and laughter is the same in any language.
One of the things I’ve learned from watching Hawa is how naturally the social graces are a part of her DNA. She always asks about my family and friends that she has met, then shares greetings from her friends I have been introduced to. And she feeds me. Have mercy, she feeds me! A visit to Hawa’s house is always accompanied by coffee (which she confessed she doesn’t really like, yet she always makes and drinks some with me) and snacks, or even a light meal. This beautiful woman spoils me rotten.
My Sudanese friends have a close bond that many American families would envy. It is not at all unusual to find the entire family together outside, sitting on a blanket in the sunshine, drawing pictures, practicing writing English words, or kicking around a soccer ball. They are affectionate and kind and always take care of each other. You have not lived until you have held a sleeping Sudanese baby. They just sort of melt into you…melting your heart at the same time. Hawa’s family lives very modestly by American standards. Their small home is humble, impeccably clean, and somehow there’s plenty of room for everyone. There is no pretense. No putting on airs. What they have is enough. They are grateful for it, and more than willing to share.
Karen and Hawa have both quietly made an incredible impact on my life, not so much because they set out to teach me lessons in tranquility and gratitude, but simply because that is who they are. It is impossible to be around them and not soak that up. I am a better person, calmer and more loving, for having spent so much time with these two special ladies.
For that, I am truly grateful.