Once Upon A Time: Remembering Helen Kubik

Many of us, when we approached the age of reading for ourselves, selected books that offered larger-than-life stories with fairy-tale endings to somehow make our lives a little more fantastic. For those of us who went to Pine Grove Elementary in the 1970s, we lived that fantastic fairy tale, with open-space classrooms, a large reading area, energetic and life-inspiring teachers, and Helen Kubik, a principal as beautiful and as magical as Glynda, the good witch from The Wizard of Oz.

Mrs. Kubik – known to us in our earlier years at Pine Grove as Ms. Powell before she married Mr. Alex Kubik, an assistant principal at the school – was known for her effervescent personality, matched exquisitely by the L’Origan by Coty perfume she wore each day. Her voice was soothing, supportive, and always accompanied by a glistening smile. She towered over us as young learners, and we all looked up to her in innumerable ways.

I was six when my first-grade teacher, Ms. O’Donnell, appreciated an “essay” I had written about Abraham Lincoln. I was given the chance to share my writing with the rest of my peers at Pine Grove over the PA system during a week-long celebration of our presidents. I remember vividly standing in the office, gripping my essay with both hands, as Mrs. Kubik held the heavy, silver microphone just above me.

I looked up to her as she spoke. “Boys and Girls,” she said into the microphone with that sweet, sing-song voice. “We have some special students who are going to be sharing their own writing about our presidents to celebrate Presidents’ Day.”

She introduced us, and then she lowered the microphone to my level. She gave me a nod, and I inhaled the strong scent of her L’Origan, a fruity bouquet that smelled different than any of the perfumes my mother wore.

It was a scent that represented a presence of compassion, support, and safety. Around Mrs. Kubik, we didn’t feel intimidated; we felt invincible.

I started reading my essay, and when I got to the part of Abraham Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, I called her Abraham’s “beloved.” Ms. Kubik chuckled, and when I looked up, she was beaming with what I presumed was approval, and so I continued reading. When I finished, she looked at me with those eyes sparkling with hope and belief, and spent some time talking with me about how much she liked that part of my tribute to our 16th president of the United States.

And now, nearly 50 years later, I sit here realizing how much of who I am is because of this woman, the leader of my elementary school where so many other teachers from that era served as role models to me and thousands of impressionable children in the 1970s.

Helen Kubik was everywhere: in our classrooms, at our school events and plays, and in the hallways ready to offer a smile, especially to those who needed it the most. To me, as an emotional, yet happy-go-lucky kid who struggled academically but beamed on stage, she always put each one of her children first as the individuals they were, and not the statistical numbers they might add up to be for any data sheet defining success or failure in the classroom. At least that’s the way it always seemed to me.

Mrs. Kubik was a loving, compassionate individual who, above everything else, saw us as tiny, impressionable human beings that just needed somebody to believe in them. She allowed us to hold on to our fairy-tale dreams and moments of magical wonder while we worked hard at becoming lifelong learners. Instead of preparing us for any alternate “real world” where people were driven solely by numbers and bottom lines, she prepared us to believe in ourselves first, and to be there for others who needed us, for any reason. To accomplish this first would allow everything else to fall into place.

And it did. Here we are, 50 years later, living strong, productive lives where people still come first. As a teacher myself now for 30+ years, I look into the eyes of every one of my students, offering my own hope and belief in each of them as individuals who have dreams, ambitions, and simple desires to be acknowledged. I remember what it was like all those years ago when Mrs. Kubik offered that to us, and the need to be believed in is as important for our children today as it was for all of us, all those years ago.

When we completed our last year at Pine Grove in the mid-1970s and moved up to the scary and intimidating world of junior high school, Mrs. Kubik left us with the following words:


From Your Principal With Love,

Close to my heart is a secret place
Where dreams are stored away
And sturdy candles of faith are kept
Against a lonelier day.

My students are treasures I keep apart,
Cradled in hope within my heart —
Snub-nosed profiles, picture clear
Perfect moments, priceless-dear,
Etched in eternal time to be
My children,
The very soul of me.

Each child builds my world anew
A shaft of sunlight breaking through.
Each shape my tomorrow, change my life,
Banish my doubt and fear and strife.
Contentment now settles with this days sun.
My part is through, school years well done.
Pine Grove but a castle we built in the air.
Now it tumbles and leaves but a memory there.

These years that I have shared with you —
The tender, the frightened and fun times, too —
Your laughter and your precious pain,
Autumn leaves through summer rain,
My loving you — your loving me,
A kaleidoscope of memory.

Know wherever, whatever your future may be
You are treasures that none can take from me.
Now go freely to conquer your world,

Fly free,
     My students,
          My children,
               The soul of me!

There are so many of my peers whose lives were formed, strengthened, and empowered by Mrs. Helen Kubik to love ourselves, to love others, and to live our lives driven by compassion for all. She was more than a principal to us; she was magical, and will always be, faithfully and forever: Once Upon A Time.

A Declaration

When I was much younger, I would stand on the side of the road watching the fireworks being launched off of “Luskin’s Hill” just about a mile from my home. With each new sonic boom and brilliant blast of color, amidst the chorus of “oohs” and “aahs” that weaved through the crowd like the ripples of the American flag, I was the kid thinking about those “bombs bursting in air” and if they really looked like the fireworks that were exploding in front of me.

It was always impressed on me that the fourth of July was about what we went through to earn our freedoms, the sacrifices we made and the gutsy courage we displayed to build the foundation of a democratic, independent nation. I wasn’t ignorant to the fact that it has often been ugly. I had read Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. I knew we weren’t the Rockwellian image we’ve always hoped we might be. But what I extracted from these fireworks was a responsibility, a duty to those who gave us these freedoms, this independence; we owed it to the men and women who established a foundation of comfort, compassion, and opportunity for all within our United States.

Even as a kid, I felt obligated to uphold the legacy of what it means to be an American 200-plus years after the bursting of those bombs and the defiant red, white, and blue still waving in that dawn’s early light.

None of this has changed for me as I have gotten older, especially as I have learned more about the horrors of assimilation, the ugly demonstrations of cultural appropriation, and the despicable existence of racism still today. Yet, we believe that this is a time for us to boast our mighty strength and freedoms to the world, as the bodies of immigrants washing up on shores goes largely ignored.

Maybe that’s why things seem a little, oh, hollow these days when it comes to waving and praising that good old red white and blue. When I revisit the Declaration of Independence, I am reminded of why we broke free from Great Britain, and how we opened our arms for those in greatest need. The words of Emma Lazarus, who penned “A New Collosus” that is etched into the base of the Statue of Liberty, ring true:

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she / With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” 

Have we forgotten this? Have we forgotten the actual text of the Declaration of Independence that outlines, very clearly, what we were breaking free from?

I offer you the complete text of the Declaration of Independence, below. Please read every word. Every single word.


The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. — And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

On this day of independence, on this day that we celebrate everything that America stands for, I offer a Declaration that is a little less of the grandiose and a little more of the introspective contemplation of what it means to be “American.”

  • I declare that, as an American, I respect the rights of my neighbors, regardless of political affiliation.
  • I declare that, as an American, I open my arms to the homeless, the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses. 
  • I declare that, as an American, I embrace the independence and individuality of my neighbors as long as that independence and individuality does not bring harm or injustice to others.
  • I declare that, as an American, I shout my encouraging words, my art, my music, my ideas, my beliefs of what is right for all to the world regardless of the risk of suppression or judgment.
  • I declare that, as an American, I work hard to support my community, to be honorable in my efforts, and to offer good will toward others who contribute to the wellness of our country.
  • I declare that, as an American, I embrace inclusion, not exclusion, and my words and efforts shall carry opportunities instead of consequences. 

These declarations do not hinder or dampen our parades, our fireworks, our backyard picnics; instead, they shift our focus to what really makes America a united, independent nation that was once revered as the greatest place for opportunity and freedom.

Instead of excluding political opponents, instead of casting blame on each other, instead of beating our chests with mighty tanks and powerful flyovers, instead of using bellicose language and building ourselves up by putting others down, instead of turning away those in need, instead of abhorrent tweets and social media bullying, choose the essential elements upon which our country was founded: Life. Liberty. Happiness. For All.

Catcher in the Sky

It is late Friday, just after 10 p.m., and I turn off the news and walk toward the bright red bullseye on the front of the plain brick building. The news reverberates in my mind as I walk through the glass doors, a rush of cold air greeting me, a sterilizing splash that neutralizes the world still spinning out there.

Virginia Beach, 11 dead, 6 injured, suspect dead.

My daughter reminds me why we are here, in Target, and we march along the silent aisles, just like I did on that clear night nearly 18 years ago.

Planes into buildings, thousands dead, suspects sought.

I feel embarrassed, out of place, a fool for going about my business picking up cream for tomorrow’s morning coffee while families are being notified that their loved ones are dead; their lives will never be the same.

And yet, here I am, seeking normal, craving sterilizing silence, desperate for a task to keep me busy, occupied, distracted from what awaits outside those smooth sliding doors that seem so protective, comforting.


I continue about my shopping while the weeping of mayors seeps through my veins.

Cream. We have come here for cream.

I stand in some random aisle and listen to the swelling silence around me. There’s a hint of a page over stereophonic walkies. It only adds to the dystopian nature of my time here in the wake of tragedies that cry out for anything but the normal response.

Thoughts and prayers, more gun control, we demand action.

I remember a shot-less victim’s voice on the news telling me through tears that all she thought about was getting home to her 11-month-old baby.

The lives of many change in the hours after such a tragedy.

And yet,


We say our prayers. We take to the streets. We demand change while the next suspect is loading up another cartridge and sets his sights on the ones who have made him feel this way.

I walk up to the cashier and a man half my age with the name tag “MR. BILL” helps me navigate the transaction. I am more flustered than I had originally believed. But of course, I’m also looking out for pickpockets, thieves, and gun-slinging disgruntles that make me want to know what the afterlife is really all about, if it is about anything at all. 

I think about other-worlds up there with the victims all together, gathered for some purpose or energy that they hope we can hear. They are the wise ones, after all. The whispers of first graders gunned down, of college kids and grandmothers, of high school seniors, all part of a club clamoring for some kind of voice, some way to break through the stratospheres of chaos and rain some wisdom upon us.

My daughter tells me it’s time to head home, and she leads the way through the double doors that slide open. The air out there is heavy, and yet


I step through and slug through the night, heavy boots heading home to busy routines that mute the madness out here.

The next day I stay off the news, walk to the beach, and fill my head with jazz blues and the sounds of Miles Davis. I allow the notes to resonate, marinate within, a certain swirl of temporary healing until the next tragedy that breaks through my feeds, trumpeting fear, madness, and that same heavy weight of helplessness, searching for that bullseye target of sterility to get me through.

In my Miles Davis-infused meditation, I slip into a dream of weightlessness, and I become the Catcher in the Sky, building an out-of-sight high rise to reach the victims. Help them. Apologize for our ineptness at fixing this fixation with guns and violence and death. If I can’t save them here on this gravity-soaked America, I might as well grab my hammer and nails and climb high, leave behind the memories of senseless deaths and join them at their common-place space, an exclusive club they never wanted to join.

How do we stop it, I ask, hammer still in hand. How do we mend fences and rest weapons in weightless bins, send them beyond this common-place space? How do we dissolve the membrane between us and allow zero-gravity wisdom to rain upon us, teach us, save us?

They smile resolutely with unwanted experiences, but offer no words. Instead, I feel their wish in the aether around me. I absorb their wisdom and close my eyes, desperately holding on to the wistful permeations all around – and in – me.

I understand, I nod, as I feel myself being pulled down, hammer first, through the membrane that separates us, down and down and down, past the thin pieces of pine at the top of my high rise, past the three floors already built, and on to the sandy ground.

Terra firma.

The waves encourage me, and I turn back to my house and emerge with new wood and tools. My daughter joins me.

Maybe this will make a difference, she whispers.

I pull a thick black marker from my pocket and pick up a fresh piece of pine, two inches by ten inches by twenty-four inches. With quick precision, I pen the letters as big and as bold as I can. When finished, I pull six four-inch nails from my other pocket. She holds the handmade sign centered atop the front door, and I pound the six nails into the wood – bullseye strikes on each nail – securing the sign to the frame.

I step back, envision the Miles-high high rise climbing in the sky, the open pine planks, so skeletonesque, transparent. Welcoming. My eyes fall floor by imaginary floor: three, two, one, and settle on the black letters etched across the just-nailed plank.

I smile, resolutely, and raise my hammer to the letters as my daughter raises her hand, effortlessly as in zero gravity. We tap the pine as we walk through the gateway, and the passers-by stop, read the sign, and approach.

There is hope, they think.

There is hope.

Gretchie’s Gifts: Free December Download

For the month of December, I am offering Faith, Hope, and Legacy: a Collection of Christmas Reflections, which features “Gretchie’s Gifts,” at no cost to you.

“Gretchie’s Gifts” is the story that kicked off our annual gift drive for the children at Sinai Hospital’s PICU. The story behind the story is compelling, and it took me over a year to finally compose it and share it with all of you. When I released it two years ago, it became an Amazon bestseller almost immediately. Since then, I have shared the story with thousands of readers, and now I want to share it with you – for free.

Please enjoy your free download of Faith, Hope, and Legacy: A Collection of Christmas Reflections, and after you read “Gretchie’s Gifts,” please consider donating to our drive or purchasing a gift from the wish list.

May your holidays be filled with love and light,


The Story Behind Our Toy Drive for Sinai PICU

Here’s why we do this for the beautiful children in the Sinai Hospital PICU:

 In 1981, I owned a 1968 Ford Falcon – my first car that was desperately seeking love. I was reminded of this at every red light, when I would have to throw the car into park, rev the engine just enough as if I were soothing its little hood, and then drop it into drive and push on before it stalled out. We named her “Deuce,” and she became the vehicle, both literally and figuratively, for my first group of high school friends to explore life beyond the boundaries of home, and beyond the tired old wheels on our rusty bikes.

Given that first taste of freedom, my friends and I chose to brighten the lives of some individuals who were less fortunate, or who might be spending the holidays alone. We created a group called The Smile Merchants, and we spent 30 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas visiting 30 hospitals, pediatric cancer wards, senior centers, and nursing homes bringing smiles to those who would be spending their holidays away from home.

My short story, “Gretchie’s Gifts,” embodies that power. Gretchen was a friend from high school whom I wish I had taken the time to know better. We were like toddlers, always practicing parallel play in our circles, never really connecting but always aware of what each other was doing. We did connect a few years agoat a viewing, and she reminded me that she had never been a Smile Merchant but had wanted to be one. That night, I dubbed her an honorary merchant of smiles (nobody had a more beautiful smile than Gretchen), and we stayed in better touch after that. We chatted online whenever our paths crossed, usually very late at night. In our last chat session, Gretchen told me this most extraordinary story of the greatest gift she had ever received. “This is a story that you need to tell,” she wrote. “I will,” I said.”I promise.”

Soon thereafter, Gretchen died.

The story stayed with me for a year, and then in November 2016, I finished writing” Gretchie’s Gift.” While it is a work of fiction, its foundation is grounded in fulfilling Gretchen’s wish to tell her story.

There’s something deeper, though, that I need to share with you. For good or for bad, I have always had a sense for the fragility of life, and in my journey, I have had the honor and privilege to meet or know of people that are true champions at living. Meggie Curd and Emily Davis, along with my sister Cindy, are three such individuals.

Meggie Curd and Emily Davis were never students of mine. I never even met Emily in all her young years as she changed the lives of so many while battling cancer. Yet, I am a member of the community comprising thousands whose lives were touched deeply by such an inspiring, courageous girl, a 15-year-old artist and hero who shared the passion of living and loving so strongly that it reached us, stayed with us, forever changing our lives and making us better individuals toward each other.

Emily’s love and inspiration touched those who knew her well so deeply that, in knowing them, I was touched forever by her strength in working with others, helping them see beauty within themselves.

That love, that courage to make the most of today and to allow others to see it as well, is with me as strongly today as it was when Emily died.

Here’s why:

When I was much younger, still a teen in high school, I took a class called Education for Responsible Parenthood taught by Mrs. Falcone, and in that class I met a wonderful young girl named Meggie Curd, who, at the age of 8, was battling cancer. Now, this was 34 years ago that I met Meggie, and I did not get many chances to spend time with her or even get to know her well as I might a friend I see every day. But the frequency of visits did not matter at all. Meeting Meggie just those few times was all I needed to understand that we all have choices in our life in how we use our precious moments here on Earth. We can spend our time in sadness or grief over our past or our present, or we can embrace the new moments that are here now, and are yet to come, filled with possibility and with hope, filled with whatever we choose to make of them.

Meggie did two things: She decided to see love in those moments, and she decided to share that love with others, so strongly and powerfully that it stayed with them so that they, too, could share that magic and that love with those they met along the way.

When Meggie died, we all cried and mourned her passing. But when we hugged each other in support and in comfort, we knew that each of us contained a gift from her to carry with us for the rest of our lives. She allowed us to see the beauty in these moments that we experience, and we have the awesome responsibility of sharing that love, that beauty, with all whom we meet.

That responsibility, that love, stays with us forever.

In 2005, a year after Emily died, I was at a local restaurant with a good friend when I saw a few members of Emily’s family a few tables away. I wanted to let Emily’s mom know that her daughter, through her friends and her family, had touched me deeply with that love and seeing the beauty in each moment. A few others from the Davis party joined us at our table, and I shared my story of Meggie with her, telling her that Emily’s memory will not fade away; it will stay strongly with us just like Meggie’s memory is still with me and so many others.

One of Ms. Davis’ friends who joined us at the table had been Emily’s nurse. She looked at me and smiled. “Meggie Curd?” she asked. I looked at her, a little incredulously and nodded. “Meggie was my patient,” she said. “She touched people like that. She’s still making a difference.”

I got over the initial surprise that Emily’s nurse had also known Meggie as well. And today, I take great strength in the way our lives cross in such important ways. It reminds me that the ripple of love, of courage, of hope never ends as we carry with us the people in our lives who have passed on.

There is grea tsadness in the passing of a friend, a loved one, especially so young. But their lives, and the way they lived them, serve as reminders to us all how there is much to savor in a single moment. Each passing second contains an opportunity to make a difference, to reach out and remind each other that we do have a choice. In Meggie and Emily’s memory, and in the memories of Gretchen and so many others that have passed on so early in their lives, I choose to see that love and pass it along.

My sister Cindy, who has battled cancer since 1990, continues to be a daily inspiration to me. She chooses to live, every day, with positivity and love. In everything I write there’s a thread of my sister’s will to live, her belief in the beautiful, and her courage to face life’s greatest demons with a smile and an unwavering, indomitable strength to carry on.

Each of these amazing individuals – and countless others – inspires me to share their stories and how they have lived their lives. Each of them has taught me that all we need is a single ray of hope, whether that comes from a letter, an ornament, a greeting, a smile. We cannot control how or when it will be received; it is our job to merely offer it, and offer it as often as possible.

As I get older, I sometimes see myself as that broken-down Falcon, chugging along and throwing it in park a little more often than I might like. But thanks to all of you, and especially my faithful readers, for being that light that lets me drop it in drive each day and continue along on my own little journey. May you continue to see the light, and be the light, to all in your lives.

Your donation to Gretchie’s Gifts for the children at Sinai is so appreciated. As you begin your holiday shopping, thanks for thinking of Meggie, Emily, and Gretchie, and all of the beautiful children at Sinai.

Focus on One Thing

I made some pretty bold moves this weekend, and I’m a lot better off this Sunday night than I was just 48 hours ago. It’s because of some advice that I received last week, on something totally unrelated to what I just discovered.

A little backstory here is necessary. Since the 2016 presidential election, I, like millions of others, have been pretty gripped with the polarizing politics here in the United States. It doesn’t matter what side you are on; it’s been emotionally draining for everyone. Relationships of all kinds have been strained, and I’ve acknowledged several times here and on social media how I have been overwhelmed by it all. It has affected my writing, my art, my love for music, my everything. I’ve been passionate about fighting for what I believe is right, and as a result, so much around me has suffered.

Fast forward to last week, when I turned in my article to my Catholic Review editor. After he had a chance to read it, we had a phone conference about the story. His bottom line: Focus on one thing, and then write about that one thing.

Let me repeat that:

Focus on one thing.

In the context of writing, it is a fairly rigid rule to keep it simple and be direct. It’s good advice that I’ve heard, and shared, over the years. My editor was spot on.

So fast forward five days, and here I am, still struggling with fluctuating polls, vitriolic tweets, hypocritical rants from all sides, and paralyzing gridlock in my newsfeed. I texted a friend of mine that I had lost my love for reading, for listening to music, for going on photo shoots. It was as if I had picked up a handful of crayons and had scribbled relentlessly through my thoughts, scrambling any coherent idea or passion that was possible.

No passion. No focus.

Then, for whatever reason, my editor’s words popped into my head: Focus on one thing.

It would be easy for me to apply this advice by ridding my life of the distractions that are keeping me from my art. Delete the politics, and the focus returns. That would certainly work, at least in the short term.

But when I meditated on my editor’s advice, I realized something a little deeper.

If I focus my energy on my own gifts, and how I can make a change in this world through deliberate acts, then I will no longer be paralyzed by the things I cannot control.

I immediately thought of my mentors, including my patron saint Francis de Sales, and Mother Theresa, Ghandi, and Thich Nhat Hanh. While each of them might have been political, all of them were driven by their gifts of benevolence, peace, and charity. They looked for the common ground and not the things that divide us.

In other words, it’s not enough to delete the politics from our lives. I’m actually suggesting just the opposite. We need to, first and foremost, focus on the one thing that we are best at when it comes to making our communities healthy. Once we do that, everything else will take care of itself.

For me, these acts are done for – and through – God. And if I can offer contributions to my community that improve its overall health and wellness, then we are shielded from the things that are tearing others apart. In fact, it diminishes that contentious hold on us and begins to return us to a higher ground of respect toward all.

So as we navigate our energies through these turbulent times, focus on that one thing that you do well for others, and don’t worry so much about the things you can’t control. I believe that if more of us contribute kindness to others in our own communities, we will begin to feel a shift in our country’s larger energy for the values we believe are essential, not only for today but for our children’s future.

Our actions today are developing their focus for tomorrow; let’s make sure they focus on one thing: benevolence toward all.


Understanding Our Frustrations And Realizing New Pathways To Resolutions

America is facing its greatest crisis in my lifetime, and I am realizing that each of us is called to react and act in ways that define our communities, large and small.

In the simplest of terms, here’s how I see it.

In our lifetimes, we are presented with scenarios that are not always directly related to our actions. In other words, we didn’t ask for the things that are bringing us stress. In such moments, we are presented with options of how we can react. Some of us turn inward; others seek spiritual guidance; many seek out advice from others. On some level, we combine these approaches to understand our frustrations.

Keeping this in its simplest terms, we have ourselves, we have spirituality, we have books, and we have others to guide us.

Most of the things that frustrate us are fleeting events where our reactions are governed by basic morals. Somebody has 30 items in the “fast lane” checkout at the grocery store, and we make a choice to wait or seek out a faster lane. We can control an immediate action and solve the problem to our satisfaction.

But with the things that frustrate us longer, such as socioeconomics, health benefits, or the conditions of our communities, we don’t have quick answers, and we seek comfort and camaraderie in the time we are frustrated. This, too, is natural.

We create websites, social media groups, attend meetings, and seek out leaders who understand us and who can help us with our frustrations.

This is where each of us matters in how we handle our frustrations and how we choose the leaders we listen to.

Over time, an energy is created out of our frustrations. if we spend more of that energy seeking out acknowledgment and justification, rather than working individually and collaboratively on solving those frustrations, the energy focuses on the problem and not on the solution. It becomes easy to accept the acknowledgment and the rhetoric used to make you believe you are heard and understood.

This is what political campaigns usually do. They rally an understanding of frustration and say, “Believe in me. I am the only person who can fix your problems and relieve your frustrations.” There is a promise made built on the energy manifested in that emotion and that frustration.

This is common in all sides of politics: something isn’t working; I can fix it. It isn’t Democrat, Republican, or any one individual; it’s the nature of politics when we have elections.

The problem we face today is that the pre-election frustration that was manifested into energy still exists, and it continues to manifest into something dangerous. It has momentum; it was given promises, it was given compassion and recognition, and now it is taking on a life of its own with the very people who justified it and are doing nothing to stop it.

Here’s the point. When protesters showed up in Charlottesville armed with weapons and shields, they personified the manifestation of that energy’s breaking point. When an individual made the decision to drive his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, he, too, was a manifestation of that energy.

But that is all that it is: energy. The very simple thing I know is that the only way to stop energy such as this is to cease feeding into it. Release the energy that fuels the frustration and make the choice – today – to return to the origins of your frustration and start again.

We can turn inward, we can counsel spiritual guidance, we can read books, we can seek solace and understanding in a community.

But this time, we must let our morals, our ethics, our spiritual compass, guide us in a direction of peace. Let there be a manifestation of energy that does not require physical weapons and shields, that the only daggers we use are words to slay the hatred and give peace a chance to manifest in a new way for all.

Dare to strike a new path, a new approach toward resolving the things that frustrate us. What we are doing is not working.

It’s not too late. May we come together to recognize our frustrations. May we work together to resolve them. May we all stay together as we forge a new era of peace here in these United States of America, and across the globe.

Rus VanWestervelt (@rusvw13, rus.vanwestervelt@gmail.com)

Faith, Hope, and Legacy: A Collection of Christmas Reflections

Sharing with all of my Baltimore Writer followers…

Thank you very much for your interest in Faith, Hope, and Legacy: A Collection of Christmas Reflections, featuring “Gretchie’s Gifts,” my latest Christmas story in memory of my dear friend, Gretchen Trageser Smith.

This is a 121-page eBook (PDF format) that can be opened on any smartphone or tablet. It includes three short stories, a collection of essays, and a series of Christmas song reflections.

This is currently a FREE publication. I am asking for donations, however, and ALL proceeds received for this eBook between December 8 and December 18, 2016, will be donated to the PICU at Sinai Hospital to ensure that the children who will be spending their holidays (and beyond) in the Intensive Care Unit will have a little light during this time of year. Faith Smith, Gretchen’s sister, and I will personally deliver the donation to Sinai before Christmas.

To download your free copy of Faith, Hope, and Legacy, click HERE.

To download your free copy of Faith, Hope, and Legacy in ePUB format, click HERE.

To download your free copy of Faith, Hope, and Legacy in MOBI format, click HERE.

To download your copy of Faith, Hope, and Legacy in the KINDLE store for just $0.99, click HERE.

If you would like to make a donation before or after you download this publication, please do so below ($5, $10, or $25). If you are interested in donating a different amount, please contact me directly at rus.vanwestervelt@gmail.com.

*** Please share this link with your family and friends. We want to do everything we can to brighten their Christmas. To learn more about the Children’s Hospital at Sinai, go HERE.

REMEMBER: ALL donations made between December 8 and December 18 go directly to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, MD.

To make a donation, please go HERE and scroll to the bottom of the page.

THANK YOU! I will keep everyone updated on how much we have collected for the PICU at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore.

as always…………………rvw


In the Wake of Tragedy: Choose Peace Advocacy

Is there anything sensible left to write when it comes to the tragedies like the one we are facing right now in our lives? In the last week, Orlando has experienced three horrific events that have shocked us as a nation, sending ripples of grief worldwide.

While each of the events is tragic in its own right, the Pulse night club massacre where a gunman opened fire and killed 49 innocent individuals punches us so deeply for its senselessness.

“The shooting resulted in 50 deaths, including the gunman, who was killed by police after a three-hour standoff. Another 53 were injured. The attack was the deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman and the deadliest incident of violence against LGBT people in U.S. history, and also the deadliest terrorist attack in the U.S. since the September 11 attacks.”

Such attacks are not new in our country, and after each one, we refresh the wellness initiatives, employee assistance programs, and countless other proactive plans and strategies we have created to provide help and build strong community and organizational foundations.

And, I am certain that these programs have assisted many individuals in overcoming their anxieties and illnesses. Believing that these programs are ineffective or a waste of money is completely ridiculous. We must do more — not less — to help others, in all ways.

With that said, it is becoming very clear to me that, despite the work of many millions of caring individuals, we cannot close this ugly and once unimaginable door that has been opened. It is horrific, it is unconscionable, and it is a part of our existence that we cannot deny.

The vast majority of people who have committed such atrocious acts as the Orlando massacre are not those individuals who were denied services, who fell through the cracks, or who were just looking for a little attention. Something went wrong internally, and they shifted their focus to the evil residing in that Dark Place.

Perhaps Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold opened that door on April 20, 1999, when they murdered 12 students, one teacher, and injured an additional two dozen others at Columbine High School. Since then, more than 50 massacres have happened in the United States, with 27 of them occurring since 2007. These are not isolated, retaliative attacks against one or two individuals; these are full-blown assaults against innocent individuals, regardless of race, ethnicity, age, or gender; although the Orlando massacre occurred at a gay nightclub, it is still uncertain how sexual orientation might have played into the gunman’s decision of where to carry out the attack. As new information is learned, there is a speculation about the gunman’s own sexual orientation.

An infinite number of security systems, wellness programs, and lines of love are not going to close this door. They help tremendously, and we need to continue to support them unconditionally.

But completely close the door on such horrors? Impossible.

Goucher Easter 011This is why we need to shift our energy, our thinking, our focus.

Friends on social media have been pleading the case for love, not war. Hope, not hate. Life, not death. Their words have a powerful impact on me and, I hope, many others. Yet, with the presidential campaign using this massacre as a means of condemning candidates, we are left with a less unified reaction. We are quick to blame instead of being quick to love.

Instead of blaming others, though, I think we need to be aggressive in our activism for peace.

So, in addition to the thoughts and prayers, in addition to living the lifestyles of gentle peace, I believe we must now live our lives with aggressive intent to be peace activists, and recognize the value in having a genuine awareness of the beauty that not only surrounds us, but absolutely bursts from within us. We need to harness that energy and use it purposefully, mindfully, and with serious intent.

We need to see that, despite these horrors that are now a part of our world, we possess an infinitely greater power to change lives for the better, starting with our very own. It takes action, though, to be engaged in the solution, to be cognizant of those around us who are in need or who are hurting, to reach out in ways that lead to solutions.

The gunman who slaughtered 49 people in Orlando talked about his intentions. He wrote about them. He was investigated twice by the FBI for reasons that placed him on a terror watch list. Even on a personal level, there were opportunities for individuals to say something, to add new information to existing files.

These three simple rules to living a purposeful life with an aggressive advocacy for peace can save lives.

First, you need to find the Prism of Life in every moment. You need to recognize and embrace life’s beauty. Even in the darkest of personal times, beauty still surrounds us. See it and absorb it. Let the prism of life radiate through you, not around you.

Second, you must believe in your power to radiate an infectious, inspiring, and unconditional love. Your energy, limitless in abundance, can and will change lives of the people you meet, interact with, and share a space. We do not need to know when we change lives, or even the specific actions that we have done that have been effective; we just need to know that our actions of peace and love make a profound difference in our communities, both virtual and real.

Third, you need to know, with your entire being, that all we really need is love — to feel, to give, to live. You need to understand that we are not alone in our bouts of confusion, anger, sadness, and frustration. These emotions are just as real and genuine as joy, happiness, and calm. They are allowed to occupy our minds, our hearts, and our souls just as freely. In understanding that these emotions and feelings are real among the millions of Americans and individuals throughout the world, we begin see people in a different light. We begin to approach our relationships with empathy and understanding, with compassion and love, with action and with support.

Yes. There are differences in belief systems that drive some individuals to carry out horrific acts. But these individuals share their thoughts, they throw signals of intent, they talk, write, and publish their plans. If we, with a heightened sense of peace and love through advocacy and activism, can report such signals and provide support for the individuals in need, then we are contributing to more peaceful communities and diminishing the chances of such horrific acts from ever taking place.

Love. Act. Serve. We cannot wait for the next tragedy to advocate for peace. The days are long gone for us to talk about how bad it might get. We are already there.

New Light, New Hope for Baltimore


All photos taken by Rus VanWestervelt. Copyright 2016.

IMG_5278April in Baltimore could very easily be remembered as one of the darkest times of the year for our Charm City, following the riots in 2015.

Oh, what a difference 12 months make.

It was nearly 600 years ago when Chaucer wrote the timeless saying, “As tyme hem hurt, a tyme doth hem cure.” We know it by its more common aphorism, “time heals all wounds.” It’s a phrase that is most aligned with wounds created by personal hurt, or a sudden void created by a loss or tragedy.

Certainly, after the riots began in Baltimore last year on April 12, we all thought that it would take a long time (maybe not 600 years, though) for Baltimore to heal from the wounds we felt during those tense hours and days in April. After all, the images and the acts were horrifying to see, and we all knew they represented a problem that was simmering for some time. We were raw, exposed, vulnerable; worse, we didn’t know what to do about it. We sought quick-fix solutions, but soon realized that the problems we have will take many years of hard, united work to solve.

IMG_5314I remember wondering in those weeks and even months that followed what it might take — and how we would even  begin — to recover.  Who would have thought that, in less than a year, Baltimore City would take such a short amount of time to make great strides in the process of beginning to heal their wounds. If this past week is any indication of Baltimore’s health, I would say this city is well on its way to a full recovery.

IMG_5292I write this having just returned from spending our Saturday evening in downtown Baltimore with tens of thousands of city residents and visitors, celebrating the sixth day of the first annual Light City: A Festival of Light, Music, and Innovation in Baltimore. The event, which ends today (Sunday), has provided Baltimore with seven days of hope, illumination, and possibility, just in time for the world to see how we respond to tragedy, how we bounce back and put on a first-class show that helps bring the city back to life.

IMG_5341My wife and I are not frequent visitors to downtown Baltimore, and to be honest, I was very hesitant to put ourselves and our two younger children in a public venue with thousands of people crowded around us. Yet, every aspect of this event sparkled and dazzled us. Police officers were laughing with visitors, taking selfies with them and posing for impromptu pictures. We didn’t witness a single incident the entire evening (and we covered a lot of ground). Even when we were caught in a bottleneck of thousands of individuals barely able to move along the front of Baltimore’s World Trade Center, nobody panicked, and we worked through the gridlock together.

That experience — seeing all of us work through those challenging, tense minutes — served as the symbolic hope representing who we really are, and what is truly possible.

IMG_5366Everybody demonstrated respect, kindness, and especially patience as we stood in line and waited for our chance to see or participate in a particular display or event. Genuinely, we were in this together, and everybody got along in a way that, frankly, I didn’t think was possible.

IMG_5382Now I do, though, and I extend that beyond the Light City experience we had Saturday night. If Baltimore can pull off such a monumental event like they just did, I believe that anything is possible to build on our year-long healing and establish a new, firm foundation epitomizing every positive aspect of this past week.

Focusing more on what brings us together (even as generic as the power of light and energy via an art installation) unites us all. Festivals emphasizing universal art, seasons, and our City’s history offer opportunities for us to realize what we share, and not necessarily what ways we are different.

In this light, may we all see that we can embrace our differences and still find common ground to celebrate who we are, just as importantly where we are. Baltimore IS a great city, and in this past week, we have shown the world that our proud and beautiful, collective light will always overcome our isolated moments in darkness.