Be the Miracle: 50 Lessons for Making the Impossible Possibleby Regina Brett
That's the challenge Regina Brett sets forth in BE THE MIRACLE. To be a miracle doesn't necessarily mean tackling problems across the globe. It means making a difference, believing/strong>/i>
Want to live your dreams--or even surpass them? Want the world to change for the better? Want to see a miracle? What are we waiting for? Why not be the miracle?
That's the challenge Regina Brett sets forth in BE THE MIRACLE. To be a miracle doesn't necessarily mean tackling problems across the globe. It means making a difference, believing change is possible, even in your own living room, cubicle, neighborhood, or family.
Through a collection of inspirational essays, Regina shares lessons that will help people make a difference in the world around them. The lessons come from
With upbeat lessons from "Do Your Best and Forget the Rest" to "Sometimes It's Enough to Make One Person Happy," these lessons will help you accept and embrace yourself, challenge and change yourself, and better serve others.
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Be the Miracle50 Lessons for Making the Impossible Possible
By Brett, Regina
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2012 Brett, Regina
All right reserved.
The Fifty Lessons
Start where you are.
There’s an old saying: “If you think you’re too small to make a difference, you’ve never been in a tent with a mosquito.”
Every time I hear that, my ears cringe at the thought of the power that one pesky little bug has to keep me up all night and itching all day. The truth is, we’re all big or small enough or whatever size necessary to make a difference.
When I was a newspaper reporter in Akron, Ohio, I was once assigned to cover a breaking news story about a little girl who had been kidnapped one day in September. Jessica Repp was just nine years old that Monday afternoon when she left home on her pink bicycle. When she was two blocks from home, a man drove up and asked her if she knew someone in the neighborhood. Then he got out of his car, opened his trunk, and pretended to get something. Suddenly, he grabbed Jessica off the sidewalk, threw her into the trunk of his car, and sped away.
Jessica’s dad called the Beacon Journal newsroom begging us to write a story about his missing daughter. His call came late in the day, leaving little time to write anything beyond the few facts he knew and a general description of the girl. The police hadn’t yet confirmed any of the investigation details because it was all so fresh. There weren’t a lot of facts available. This was before Amber Alerts and 24/7 news on endless cable channels. One of our reporters, Sheryl Harris, stayed late at work that day to gather every scrap of detail she could from the dad. She made the extra effort to be sure we carried the girl’s photo in the next day’s paper. Sheryl barely had time to write anything beyond a description of the girl with the blonde hair and the pink T-shirt.
Jessica was still missing 24 hours later. By then the news had spread all over the media. I stood outside her home with a horde of reporters as we waited for the bad news that would surely come. Any law enforcement officer will tell you, once a child is missing 24 hours, that child isn’t coming back. Ministers poured in and out of the home along with neighbors and church people. It already looked like a funeral.
Can you imagine being the parent of a missing child? Praying and sitting by the phone all night, hoping each call will bring news of a miracle. Instead, Jessica’s mom, dad, sister, and brother awoke to police helicopters searching for her body; mounted deputies combing the nearby cornfields for her remains; the sheriff, FBI agents, and dozens of police scattered everywhere in their neighborhood. Deputies even took a boat to search nearby lakes. Police dogs sniffed Jessica’s favorite teddy bear and were out tracking the scent of the missing girl.
A lone boy walked up and down the street, pacing back and forth to and from the sheriff’s cruiser parked out front. Jessica’s brother, Jonathan, was 13. He kept asking whether his sister had been found. His eyes were bloodshot from crying, from waking up all night to check her bed, praying he’d find her safe and asleep in it.
As I watched the police efforts above and around me, I prayed for her and her family. I was standing on the sidewalk outside her home when all of a sudden it seemed as though the entire house screamed.
The police had found Jessica.
Her mom, sister, brother, and everyone burst from the home, weeping and praising God. Her dad had been running off more copies of her picture when he got word. He left the copies and ran to the hospital.
The reporters all raced to the hospital. Police there wouldn’t say what had happened to the girl. When they had asked her for details, she wept.
It turned out that at 5 a.m. the kidnapper brought the girl into a Dairy Mart in Barberton. A convenience store clerk—one of those lowliest of workers on life’s career ladder—had been diligently waiting on customers when a man walked into the store with a little girl who looked terrified. The clerk stared at the girl then stared at the photo of Jessica Repp in the newspaper article that Sheryl wrote. It matched. The clerk called the police.
That convenience store clerk saved the girl’s life. The clerk identified the kidnapper, who had been there before as a customer. A while later, a clerk at a gas station called police after a man came in acting strange. The store videotape confirmed it was the kidnapper. He had stopped to buy cigarettes. Just before 11 a.m., police spotted his car in a parking lot. The little girl was sitting next to the man.
Police said the man involved had a history of untreated mental illness and erratic behavior. Officers said he most likely would have soon panicked and killed the girl.
My friend Sheryl went on to win a Pulitzer Prize—the biggest award a journalist can win—years later for her work on a big series the newspaper wrote about race relations. Sheryl doesn’t even remember writing that small story on Jessica Repp. It was too small to make a difference in her career. It wasn’t award-winning journalism, but I always think of it as something better. It was lifesaving journalism.
The most important story she ever wrote was probably one of the smallest. It might not have even carried her name, I don’t recall. But it helped save a child’s life.
I never knew what happened to the gas station attendant or the convenience store worker who was the first to report seeing the girl and the kidnapper. So often those workers are anonymous people we don’t even look in the eye when we buy a gallon of milk, a pack of cigarettes, or a tank of gas.
But that story changed the way I see those we pass by every day who work in jobs most of us wouldn’t want. Those workers taught me that no one is unimportant or too small to make a difference.
If you want to change the world in a big way, you do your small assignments with greater love, greater attention, greater passion. Simply embrace the job you have, the family you have, the neighborhood you have, the task you have been given.
You never know what can happen when you simply act on the possibilities right in front of you. When you start where you are, you could simply ring up milk, cigarettes, and gas. Or you might just save a life.
Get busy on the possible.
The impossible can start with something as small as a lump.
For years I heeded the warning: Do monthly breast self-exams. Like most women, I did them on a “sort of” basis. Every few months I’d sort of do a quick feel, but never as thoroughly as the doctors urged. I didn’t want to go looking for trouble. If you look for it, you might find it. Looking for cancer is unsettling. Thank God I looked.
One night when I ran the pads of my fingers in a circle around my breast, my fingers came to a halt. How long had that hard spot been here? It was probably nothing, but it wasn’t there the last time I checked. That nothing turned out to be stage II breast cancer. A surgeon removed a tumor the size of a grape.
When you hear the word cancer, it’s as if someone took the game of life and tossed it in the air. All the pieces go flying. The pieces land on a new board. Everything has shifted. You don’t know where to start. The fear subsides once you can actually take action, once you get busy on the possible.
Before I started chemotherapy treatments, I wrote down the best advice from doctors, family, friends, books, and survivors and created an Owner’s Manual to help me take care of myself. It would remind me that cancer is doable. I made a plan to get through four months of chemotherapy and six weeks of daily radiation. My manual began with a vow to survive:
I, Regina, vow to get well. I vow to participate in my treatment, even if it means enduring temporary physical, emotional, and mental changes in my life. I vow to stick with this course of treatment and not look back. I vow to do everything in my power to heal and to live.
When you have cancer, it’s like you enter a new time zone: the Cancer Zone. Everything in the Tropic of Cancer revolves around your health or your sickness. I didn’t want my whole life to revolve around cancer. Life came first; cancer came second. So I came up with a game plan: Celebrate life in the midst of cancer. Enjoy time with all the people I love, read all the books on my to-read list, watch all the movies I had missed, and buy the piano I always wanted. My plan was to keep as much of my life intact as possible: write my newspaper column, play volleyball, teach my college writing class.
On the morning of the first chemotherapy appointment, I filled my backpack with a water bottle, my Owner’s Manual, a notepad, pens, hard candy, a CD player, CDs, headphones, and books. The appointment would last only an hour or two, but I was ready for anything. I sank into the recliner as if it were a beach chair, adjusted the headphones, and listened to Louis Armstrong sing, “I see trees of green, red roses, too, I see them bloom, for me and you. And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.”
And it was a wonderful world, even though it seemed to revolve around cancer for a year. When I got breast cancer in 1998, there was nowhere in the area to go for support groups that didn’t require money or insurance. Each hospital had its own program, but there was no central place to be with other survivors and try yoga, massage, Reiki, exercise, journaling, and other holistic healing aids.
A year into my recovery, Eileen Saffran showed up in my life. She had a dream. Eileen wanted to create a place where anyone touched by cancer could come and get every bit of support she or he needed for free. I sat at the table with dozens she invited to that first planning meeting. Her dream seemed too big, too vast, too impossible. I doubted it could ever become a reality, so I bowed out. I was still weak from radiation and the lingering effects of chemo brain and couldn’t imagine how her plan could ever get off the ground.
Eileen was a clinical social worker whose parents were diagnosed with cancer within six months of each other. Her dad had lung cancer; her mother had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Her parents died within three years of each other. Being with them through their treatments made her realize people needed a place to go for help. Eileen envisioned a center that didn’t smell, feel, and look like a hospital. A place where people didn’t need the right insurance to get counseling. A place where people didn’t need a referral from a doctor for a massage. A place where anyone touched by cancer could get free support services. A place where people didn’t feel so alone.
Eileen worked with oncology and psychology patients. She assembled an advisory board, met with cancer experts and organizations. She researched wellness centers all over the country. She launched the website touchedbycancer.org. She opened the doors to The Gathering Place 18 months after that first meeting. I never figured out how she got it up and running. How did she do it?
“Optimistic naïveté,” she confided.
When I visit The Gathering Place I think of that line from Alice in Wonderland when the young girl says, “There is no use trying; one can’t believe impossible things,” to which the White Queen replies, “I daresay you haven’t had much practice. When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
If you want to accomplish the impossible, get busy on the possible.
Eileen created the Switzerland of health care. It’s a stand-alone, independent, community cancer center. There are no territorial battles between hospitals. It doesn’t matter where anyone got medical treatment. All are welcome. Every service is free to anyone touched by cancer. The center offers massage, hands-on healing, journaling, tai chi, yoga, nutrition programs, exercise, and support groups for nearly every type of cancer. There are support groups on how to move forward, look better, find inner peace, and programs on forgiveness, pampering, and healthy cooking. A medical librarian provides consultations on medical bills, clinical trials, and cancer treatments. Volunteer attorneys write living wills and help with estate planning.
It’s a place of healing and hope. A place where you are never asked to pull out your insurance card. A place that doesn’t feel like an institution. There are no shots, no blood draws, no medical treatments or tests. It’s more like a home with a fireplace, original art hanging on the walls, and cozy furniture. Everything has been donated by individuals or organizations.
The Gathering Place started in a storefront in 2000 with 6,100 square feet. It doubled its space and went from an annual operating budget of $360,000 a year to $1.8 million. The building is already paid for. The place runs solely on contributions from individuals and organizations and with the help of 350 volunteers.
Where there was once a pile of dirt, a healing garden flourishes with fountains and waterfalls, stone carvings and bird feeders. Iron gates depict, intricate labyrinths. A storybook maze about transformation leads through a metal caterpillar cocoon to a giant silver butterfly. It’s a place that reminds you it’s a wonderful world, even if you’re fighting cancer or helping someone you love face it.
We don’t yet have a cure for cancer, but people like Eileen cure the fear of cancer by offering hope. So can the rest of us. We do it by getting busy on the possible, no matter how impossible it seems.
You can make a big difference, no matter how little you make.
As a journalist, I’ve been branded Sally Social Worker for trying to help people too much. It’s no insult to be called a bleeding heart when I think of all the things social workers do to stanch the bleeding, to help the lost, the lonely, the forgotten.
A few years ago when I was asked to give the commencement address at the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University, I wasn’t sure what message to give. Before addressing the graduates, I asked all my friends who are social workers what I should say. They told me to be funny. Social workers could use a good laugh. Tell jokes, they said.
Jokes? I didn’t know any jokes about social work, except the ones my friends sent me:
How many social workers does it take to change a lightbulb?
None. They empower the bulb to change itself.
How many social workers does it take to change a lightbulb?
None. The bulb isn’t burned out, it’s just differently lit.
How many social workers does it take to change a lightbulb?
None. They set up a team to write a paper on coping with darkness.
And my favorite:
How many social workers does it take to change a lightbulb?
The lightbulb doesn’t need changing. It’s the system that needs to change.
They also told me the old story about the mugger with a gun who confronts a social worker. The mugger yells, “Your money or your life!” “I’m sorry,” the social worker answers, “I’m a social worker, so I have no money… and no life.”
The same could be said of police officers, nurses, teachers, and so many others who are on the front lines of life. They matter so much, yet often make so little. Last time I checked, the starting pay for social workers hovered around $28,000.
No, they don’t make much. Or do they?
The poet Taylor Mali changed my mind. His powerful words about what teachers make have been forwarded all over the world in e-mails. He inspired me to rethink what social workers make.
Teachers don’t get paid what they are worth. They don’t sit around boasting about their salaries and summer homes and vacations in the South of France. The paycheck and perks are probably pathetic compared to the endless hours and passion put into planning lessons, grading papers, counseling students, and pulling parents off the ceiling.
Mali summed up how teachers matter by making children work harder than anyone ever imagined possible. Teachers can make earning a C+ comparable to winning a Medal of Honor if a child did his best. They can also make getting an A– feel like getting an F if the child could have done better. Teachers have the power to make parents tremble in fear at a teacher conference and follow-up calls home.
Mali made me think of Mr. Ricco, my ninth-grade English teacher. He could have been anything. He could have gone anywhere. He loved opera, poetry, and fine wine. But there he was, teaching surly ninth graders at Brown Junior High in Ravenna, Ohio, how to write one good, decent paragraph.
There was Mr. Maske, the high school choir teacher. When I sing in the shower, sometimes it’s the alto part to the score of West Side Story he taught me. I envied the sopranos their melodies, but he taught me that all the parts matter—even the small ones. I didn’t believe him until we piled onto those bleachers in the school auditorium. Damn if we didn’t sound almost like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Every time I hear “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” I see his hands dancing in the air, blending our wobbly voices into one beautiful song.
Then there was Mr. Roberto, who told me at least once a week, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch, Brett.” That science teacher used your last name as if it were the period to every sentence. He was our own personal Marine Corps drill sergeant. He’s the reason I recycle. The reason I pick up rocks in a creek to see what’s crawling underneath. The reason I snip the tops off plants to make them grow bushier. The reason I wanted to be a forest ranger.
There are so many more teachers whose names faded but whose imprint never will. Because of a teacher, I can balance a checkbook, figure compound interest, and calculate how much paint covers a 10-by-16-foot room. Because of a teacher, I absolutely LOVE to read, and when you love to read, the whole world opens up.
So many people do that in their occupations. They open up the world. Unfortunately, too many of them are at the bottom of the pay scale. Which brings me back to the lowly social worker.
Social workers, like most teachers, don’t make much. Or do they?
What do they make?
They make an infertile couple celebrate a lifetime of Mother’s Days and Father’s Days by helping them adopt a crack baby no one else wants.
They make a child fall asleep every night without fear of his father’s fists.
They make a homeless veteran feel at home in the world.
They make a teenager decide to stop cutting herself.
They make a beaten woman find the courage to leave her abuser for good.
They make a boy with Down syndrome feel like the smartest kid on the bus.
What do they make?
They make a ten-year-old believe that he is loved and wanted, regardless of how long he lasts in the next foster home.
They make a teen father count to ten and leave the room so he won’t shake his newborn son.
They make a man with schizophrenia see past his demons.
They make a rape victim talk about it for the first time in years.
They make an ex-convict put down the bottle and hold down a job.
What do they make?
They make a couple communicate so well they decide not to get divorced.
They make a dying cancer patient make peace with her past, with her brief future, with her God.
They make the old man whose wife has Alzheimer’s cherish the good times, when she still remembered him.
They make forgotten people feel cherished, not-so-beautiful people feel beautiful, confused people feel understood, broken people feel whole.
What do they make?
As Mali said about teachers, they make more than most people will ever make.
They make a difference.
Magnify the good.
They carry the labels the world gives them—bum, loser, ex-con, alcoholic, prostitute—until they meet Larry Petrus and discover those labels are all wrong.
Few people who walk through the doors of the West Side Catholic Center in Cleveland make a good impression. They lead with their anger. They mumble requests for money. They smell of last night’s Wild Irish Rose. They wear clothes that haven’t been washed in weeks.
Larry, who was 76 when I met him, didn’t see any of that when he volunteered at the Cleveland agency on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Larry doesn’t have 20/20 vision when it comes to the poor. He doesn’t see the grime, the failure, the shame.
He slides a pair of bifocals over sea-gray eyes and there he is, face-to-face with God’s own sons and daughters.
“I go from what God thinks of them,” he said. “God does not regret any of His creations.”
When he started volunteering more than ten years ago, he sorted clothes. Then one day someone asked for help writing a résumé. Pretty soon everyone was asking him to write them. They started calling him the Résumé Man. They hung up a sign urging people to see Larry if they needed a résumé.
“The résumé is like a label on a can. It tells a person what they are, what they got inside of them, what they have to offer,” Larry said in a voice so soft I had to lean in to hear him.
The man with the baby-fine white hair and black eyebrows that hang like thick question marks doesn’t sit down to collect a history of jobs held and dates worked. He digs deeper, asking, “What did you accomplish there? What are your dreams? Your hopes? Your hobbies?
“There’s always something hidden in their lives no one has ever asked,” he said.
Larry never delves into why or how they ended up poor. “Society makes them feel guilty enough,” he said. He listens as reverently as a priest to anything they feel the need to confess and offers absolution in every hug.
He leaned in and rested his elbows on faded blue jeans to whisper about the woman who had been drinking since she was a child, but is now married and sober. “You wouldn’t believe the stories,” he said, “the life of prostitution, incest, beatings. You see them with black eyes and broken jaws.”
Larry doesn’t give up on anybody. “As long as they’re alive, there’s always hope,” he believes.
He tells each of them what a good person they are, tells them to be who God thinks they are. He collects the pieces of themselves that they’ve lost. One man who was 45 had held only menial jobs, cleaning the Cleveland Indians ball field and working as a dishwasher and a busboy. Larry found out he’d attended college and had wanted to be a teacher. Larry typed under Personal Objective, “I would like to continue college work and pursue a teaching career.”
Larry discovered one man had volunteered at a hunger center, so that went on the résumé. Another man worked for a cleaning outfit and supervised ten employees. Larry taught him to say, “I was responsible for…” not just, “I worked for…”
Larry doesn’t merely write down that someone was a punch press operator. He mentions he did 500 parts per hour, that the press weighed 600 tons, that he worked 12-hour shifts. “All these skills!” Larry says, excited over each bit of gold he finds in every prospect.
A retired salesman for a nut and bolt company, Larry types up his notes at home, runs off copies of the résumés, and pre-sents them in a nice folder. When he’s done, his paycheck is the look on a face that says, “Wow. I really am something. I do have something to offer.”
“I get them to dream of what they can be, to not just be satisfied with where they are. I try to leave them with hope,” he said. “And it’s free.”
He finds the hidden worth in every lost soul who walks in the door because he’s trained himself to see it. When you look for the good in everyone, you not only find the good, you magnify it. He reminded me of that line in the Bible, the response Mary gave when she learned she was pregnant. “My soul doth magnify the Lord,” Mary says.
My soul has a bad habit of magnifying what isn’t so good and godly. Too often I focus my inner magnifying glass on the nasty comment some stranger made, and it grows. Or I put it on the past, on a teacher who made fun of me in third grade, on friends who disappointed me in high school, and the wounds grow deeper. Or I put it on the future, and the endless stream of fear, anxiety, and worry expands into a river that sweeps me away.
What would it mean to have your soul really magnify God? If you saw the good in everyone, the God in everyone, like Larry does?
It would mean that every minute of every day you walked around with a special magnifying glass. In everything you trained it on, you saw God.
Imagine seeing God in your boss. In the woman in the next cubicle. In the driver in front of you on the freeway. In the neighbor who doesn’t mow his lawn. In the loud guy on the subway selling candy bars.
Imagine seeing only the good in your spouse. In the husband who snores too loudly and doesn’t put down the toilet seat. In the wife who nags too often and never stops talking long enough to listen.
Imagine seeing only good in your children. In the toddler who throws a tantrum in the cookie aisle. In the ten-year-old who refuses to clean her room. In the teenager who wrecks the car he never asked to borrow.
Imagine seeing God in the cancer verdict you just got. Or in the layoff notice. Or in the pregnancy test that came back positive… or negative.
What if you focused your magnifying glass on the good in everything that looks and feels dead in your life, in the marriage you want to give up on, in the job that bores you, in the family that frustrates you, in the person in the mirror?
Whatever I see through that magnifying glass grows bigger.
It’s up to me to decide where to aim the lens.
Do your best and forget the rest. It could simply be too soon to tell.
The worst newspaper column I ever wrote turned out to be one of my best, thanks to a teacher.
Jo Anne Hollis was named Best Educator of the Year at the local vocational school in the town where I grew up. She loved to teach home economics to the learning disabled and students with multiple handicaps. She saw the promise in them that everyone else missed. Her specialty was to make people feel important. Jo Anne was dying of cancer when I interviewed her a few days before Easter for a column that would run on Easter Sunday.
The day after I met her, I wrote a column for that Thursday that turned out to be the worst column I had ever written. I tried to be funny and failed. It was the best I could do on a day when my muse went AWOL.
I wrote an entire column calling Easter the grossest holiday on the calendar. Here’s part of the column that ran with the headline “Easter Treats Can Make You a Basket Case”:
From a dye-it-eerie point of view, it’s enough to make the Easter bunny barf. Every candy maker thinks consumers buy sweets on the basis of color—the brighter, the better. Pepto-Bismol pink is still the No. 1 shade, with Vile Violet a close second.
And why does everything have to come shaped like an egg? Who decided this? Surely not the Easter bunny. Left to their own devices, eggs are downright nasty. The only good egg is a deviled egg.
Robin’s-egg-blue candy eggs? They’ve been around forever, but what kind of kid would want to eat a robin’s egg? And just what kind of parent would let him?
Chocolate bunnies are still best sellers, but good luck finding one that doesn’t taste like it came from a wax museum. If you think I’m the only one fed up with the candy situation, just wait till Sunday. Don’t be surprised if the Easter bunny leaves some little brown droppings by your basket. And they won’t be Raisinettes.
My colleagues in the newsroom rolled their eyes when they read it. I overheard one of them say that I must have been running on fumes when I wrote it. A few readers called to criticize it. I felt embarrassed. I had done the best I could with what I had that day, but their criticism hit my INTERNAL DOUBT button, the one that plays the same recording: “What the hell is wrong with you? Can’t you do anything right?” The voice of my dad at his worst still plays on inside me on those days when I judge myself too harshly or someone else does.
That voice wore me down until the day I spoke to Jo Anne’s husband after my column about her ran on Easter Sunday. I wrote about how the teachers from Maplewood Joint Vocational School in my old hometown, Ravenna, had given her the Best Educator of the Year award.
Jo Anne was 44 and dying of uterine cancer. In just five months it had spread to her colon, liver, lungs, spine, and brain. It was almost harder for her to learn that she wouldn’t return to her classroom than to hear that the cancer had spread.
Jo Anne no longer had a classroom but still had lessons to offer from the hospital bed in her home. The first thing she taught me was to look into a person’s eyes and call him or her by name. Once her hazel eyes caught mine, they wouldn’t let go.
When I interviewed her, she was bedridden, her bald head wrapped in a lovely silk scarf. She beckoned me to come closer so she could look into my eyes as we talked. She exuded a warmth I’d never felt from anyone before or since. It was as if her whole body radiated a light that you couldn’t see but you could feel. I felt like I was in the presence of pure love and grace. The closer you got to her, the less you noticed her hair had fallen out, that her skin was growing transparent.
She told me busloads of teachers had shown up in her yard with signs proclaiming WAY TO GO, JO, WORLD-CLASS TEACHER, and TEACHERS TOUCH LIVES. Each one walked across the lawn and stepped up to her bedroom window to thank her. Jo Anne spoke in the present tense about her job even though she knew she’d never go back. Hard coughs punctuated each sentence. She told me why she loved to teach handicapped students.
“When they come into your classroom they look at the floor,” she said. “They don’t have any self-esteem. They don’t have the idea that they are good people. People have put them down. People have shoved them in corners. People have shunned them. One of the greatest gratifications for me is to watch those eyes come off the floor and meet mine and you know they’re going to make it.”
Her job was to place students in service jobs.
“They can learn job skills anyplace if people have patience with them,” she said. “It’s a little tougher to learn the life skills.”
When she took a vanload of students to get fast food, she stopped at each child’s favorite restaurant to let them exert their individual choices. At the United Church of Christ where she was a Sunday school teacher, she started the Intentional Care Unit where members visited the sick, sent cards, and offered rides to the hospital.
As a Girl Scout leader, she put fun first. Her Scouts didn’t always rough it when camping.
“Once a year we go to the Sheraton,” she confided, whispering like a child passing along a secret. “If the girls want to spend their cookie money there, that’s fine with me. I just like to have fun. You make it fun and they’ll remember it for the rest of their lives, whether it’s schoolwork, housework, or church work.”
The most important job she worried about leaving was motherhood. She wanted to live long enough to see her son, Tony, who was 16, become an Eagle Scout, and her daughter, Dawn, who was 14, be confirmed in the church. She knew she wouldn’t live to see them graduate or marry or have children. She wanted them to remember how much she loved them. She wanted them to know that the beauty and wonder of each day were theirs to celebrate simply by waking to it. Jo Anne loved the dawn.
“Oh, it’s beautiful. You see that sunrise start to come up and you know that’s the glory of God,” she said in a voice that was fading fast.
She wanted her children and her students to share her life’s job description, which she found in her favorite book of the Bible, Ephesians: “Walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love… Now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of light.”
Her light went out on Easter Sunday. Jo Anne Hollis died at dawn, her favorite time of day.
When I heard that she had died, I called her husband, Bill.
“You know that column you wrote about Easter candy?” he asked.
I braced myself. Oh, no, I thought. Did it push her over the edge? Was it that bad?
He wanted me to know that he had sat next to her hospital bed and read it to her.
“She laughed and laughed,” he told me. “Later that afternoon, she slipped into a coma. She never woke up. I want to thank you for that column. It was the last time we ever laughed together.”
That was Jo Anne’s gift to me. To know that even at my worst, I can still be a gift. To know that even meager efforts can touch one person in a profound way. To know that the results of what I do are none of my business.
I think of Jo Anne Hollis every time I judge myself or someone else too harshly. How do we really know the worth of our work? It’s not our job to judge the worth of what we offer the world, but to keep offering it regardless.
You might never know the true worth of your efforts. Or it could simply be too soon to tell.
We all do the same things. It’s how we do them that makes the difference.
Everyone brought a gift for the wedding shower, but one stood out. It was so lovely, the bride-to-be didn’t want to unwrap it. The box was wrapped in a silvery white paper and tied with gold, green, and burgundy ribbon and had a cluster of the most real-looking grapes spilling out from the center. It was absolutely stunning. It looked more like a centerpiece for the wedding table than a gift for a shower.
We all oohed and aahed, gushing over the package, wondering out loud what store had done such an incredible job of gift wrapping. It turned out that the woman sitting next to me had wrapped it herself. I’ve never forgotten what Sandy Horton said when I complimented her gift.
“Someone taught me long ago, we all do the same things,” she told me. “It’s how we do them.”
I think of that often, especially when I meet people in average, ordinary jobs who add a flare to make them extraordinary. Anyone who has ever stepped foot into Valerie’s Happy Restroom never forgets how she does business.
“Welcome to Valerie’s Restroom,” she calls out. Her motto is “Don’t worry. Pee happy.”
My daughter ran into her on a stop at the Charlotte airport in North Carolina. It’s Valerie’s job to clean the restroom. She never stops smiling or singing.
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,” she sings to every woman who walks in.
“There are plenty of seats for you. No line, no waiting. No waiting, no line,” she says as she dances along, opening stall doors to invite patrons in. “If you can’t have fun at work, don’t go. It’s the VIP. It’s very important that you get a seat in Valerie’s Happy Restroom. This is where you go to pee happy!”
This is a woman who cleans a public restroom all day long. This is a woman who could see herself on the lowest rung of life’s career ladder. Instead, she elevates everyone’s spirit, no matter where they stand on the rung of life.
“Gotta go, gotta go, gotta go right now,” she sings, and claps gloved hands.
You’ve got to admire her joy for life in what—pun intended—could be a pretty crappy job.
There are others who bring that kind of joy into their work. I once read an obituary of a nurse who sang to patients. The patients all treasured her songs and asked for the Singing Nurse.
Then there’s Robert McIntyre, who works as greeter at the Cleveland Clinic. It’s his job to offer a hand, a wheelchair, or directions to patients and their families as they enter and leave the cancer center. Robert does it with flare: he wears a red coat and a black top hat and sings to everyone.
He never aspired to be a singer. He joined the church choir once, but they couldn’t rein in Brother McIntyre. He’s supposed to be a tenor, but his voice wanders wherever it wants to go.
Excerpted from Be the Miracle by Brett, Regina Copyright © 2012 by Brett, Regina. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Regina Brett has been a newspaper columnist for eighteen years, ten of them for Cleveland's Plain Dealer, where she was a finalist in 2008 and 2009 for the Pulitzer Prize in Commentary. Her last book, God Never Blinks, was a New York Times bestseller. Regina hosts her own call-in talk show, The Regina Brett Show, on WKSU, the Northeast Ohio NPR affiliate. She speaks regularly to companies and not-for-profit organizations.
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So inspiring and uplifting. Really good.
Quick. Inspiring. Powerful. A must read for anyone looking to make a difference. Fantastic book!
This book is great
Be the miracle will inspire you. This book leaves you feeling blessed by the simple things and makes you want to go the extra mile. I plan to buy more copies to gift to friends and family. I'd recommend it for just about anyone. A great read!
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