By Regina Brett
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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 Regina's life experience and from the lives of others, especially those she has met in her 24 years as a journalist. Each chapter is a lesson that can stand alone, but together they form a handbook for seeing the miracle of change everywhere.
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.
Table of Contents
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We all pass by miracle workers every day.
Most of the time they're disguised as ordinary folks, teachers, hairdressers, nurses, secretaries, cashiers, cabdrivers, and the like.
I've never forgotten the day I was a ball of stress and stopped to pay for parking at an outdoor lot. In most parking lots, you pull up, the person sticks his or her hand out of a little booth, takes your money, gives you change, and you pull away. Your eyes never meet and neither of you remembers the encounter.
This time the attendant stood tall, popped his head out, and gave me the biggest smile. He looked me in the eye, greeted me, shook my hand, and gave me a blessing before I left.
He told me he loved his job and saw it as his ministry to bless people as they passed through his parking lot into the rest of their day. Where I saw a mere money collector, he saw a mission in life. He left me feeling renewed and calm.
We've all had moments like that. They happen when you are with people who know that everyone matters, that you don't have to make a lot of money to make a big difference, that you can simply start where you are and magnify the good.
It's so easy to feel overwhelmed by all the problems in the world. How many times have you heard someone say, "Why doesn't someone do something about that?" Or the words come out of your own mouth, as they have mine. We hear about bad news and whisper, "It'll take a miracle to fix that." And we wait and wait and wait for someone else to be the miracle.
We want someone else to act. But miracles aren't what other people do. They're what each of us does. They're what happens when ordinary people take extraordinary action. To be a miracle doesn't mean you have to tackle problems across the globe. It means making a difference in your own living room, cubicle, neighborhood, community.
For the past 26 years, I've had the privilege to be a columnist at the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and before that, work as a journalist at the Beacon Journal in Akron. I've had a front-row seat on life. Ordinary people from all walks of life have opened their hearts and shared with me how they've made the impossible possible. You'll meet some of them in this book, since some of these essays originally appeared in those newspapers.
My cancer journey inspired my first book, God Never Blinks: 50 Lessons for Life's Little Detours. I wrote my first 50 lessons in gratitude for being alive to see my odometer turn over to 50. When I was bald from chemotherapy and weak from radiation 13 years ago, I wasn't sure if I would get to grow old. Along the way, I met countless cancer survivors who taught me to get busy on the possible, regardless of the prognosis.
Those 50 lessons traveled the world, first as a column, then as an e-mail forwarded around the country and the world, then as a book. CEOs, pastors, judges, and social workers quote them. They've been reprinted in hundreds of newsletters, church bulletins, and small-town newspapers. People carry the list of lessons in their wallets, pin them to work cubicles, and stick them under refrigerator magnets.
I once heard it said that people read to know they are not alone. I hope these new essays, stories, and columns reflect personal truths that are universal to all. I hope this book will both help you embrace yourself as is and challenge you to be your best self to go make something possible.
We can't do everything, and what we can do, we can't do perfectly, but that's okay. All we need to do is make a beginning, right here, right now. If we just do that, it will make all the difference in the world.
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 presents 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."
- On Sale
- Jan 6, 2012
- Page Count
- 288 pages