Getting Beyond Random Acts of Kindness

Random acts of kindness are so overrated. I mean, really. It doesn’t take much to pay for someone’s coffee in line behind you at the drive-thru. And, sure, it’s wonderful to buy groceries for November food drives, but most of us aren’t putting our own groceries back on the shelves in order to purchase food for someone else’s Thanksgiving meal.

Every year, my church seeks out several families in the community who are experiencing a lean Christmas. We collect an offering, find out the families’ needs, and church volunteers shop for gifts. My friend Kathy, has typically been the angel shopper in our church, buying gift cards for groceries and gas; clothing and toys for children, and whatever else we find on a wish list. The lists can give you a glimpse at how basic some needs are. One year, a mother asked for feminine hygiene products for Christmas.

These are good things: buying coffee for a stranger; feeding the hungry; sharing with others in need. They are good things, but let’s face it, in so many ways, it is ever so much easier to swoop in and perform some quick, kind deed for a stranger than it is to be consistently kind and generous and thoughtful and self-sacrificing to those closest to us.  It can also be easier to hand over some money to buy a stranger some stuff rather than take the time to get to know people well and be personally invested in their lives.

A few weeks before Thanksgiving, my pastor preached a sermon about how difficult it can be to be close to certain people over the holidays, and yet how important it is for us to tend to those very pesky relationships. There were knowing nods and grimaces across the pews.

Sometimes, I’m short with my children even as I’m wrapping Christmas gifts for a stranger. I’ll be horribly impatient and annoyed with my parents as I’m rushing off to deliver items for an Angel Tree.

I don’t have any great insights to share here, just the thought that our moment-by-moment interactions with the people around us, related to us, should be every bit as grace-filled as our random acts of kindness to strangers. I don’t know why, but it’s just harder to do.

I’m also thinking about how to extend Christmas further through the year. No, I’m not planning to leave my Christmas lights up until June. And Kathy, you can relax. My Christmas tree won’t go up a moment before Veterans’ Day. I guess I’m thinking about the families we adopt at Christmas and wondering how I/we can walk beside them through January, February, March…

Do their children need some adults to help with homework? Are there parents who need transportation to doctor appointments? Help figuring out taxes, government forms, or healthcare forms?

Someone once spoke of the gifts of the Magi. The gift of gold denoted royalty. Frankincense was burned on the Altar of Incense in the temple, with its rising smoke, denoting the prayers of the people rising to the heavens. (In the temple, the offering of incense took place only after the sacrifice had been done, when Atonement allowed for communion with God.) And Myrrh, in those days, was used on burial shrouds to help prevent the smell of decay.

The gifts were, at once, both symbolic of Christ and immensely practical as the impoverished family of Jesus likely sold the precious gifts as they fled King Herod and escaped to Egypt.

The gifts of the Magi, it seems, were less random, more intentional. Maybe it’s time for our acts of kindness to be the same…

Neighborhood Sleepovers

It began with a tragedy. A couple, both physicians, were raising two young children in a nice suburb in Rochester, New York. And then one night, the husband shot and killed his wife before killing himself. Their 11-year old and 12-year-old ran screaming into the street.

Journalist Peter Lovenheim lived 8 or 9 houses away but hardly knew the family. What haunted him was that no one else in the neighborhood seemed to know them well either.

Lovenheim began to look into the story. On the day of the murder/suicide, the mother, fearing for their safety had tried repeatedly to call a close friend to see if she and her kids could spend the night. Her friend was out-of-town for the day. After school, the woman took her kids to the public library to do their homework to stay out of their house, but by 9 p.m., with nowhere else to go, she took them home and put them to bed.

Her husband had cancelled her cell phone service earlier that day and then disabled her car when she returned home. At that point, her best option would have been to seek out a safe haven with a neighbor, but despite the fact that the family had lived in their home for 7 years, she apparently didn’t know anyone on her street well enough to show up on someone’s doorstep. An hour later, her husband killed her and then himself.

Their children moved away to live with grandparents, and the house was put up for sale. Yet the neighborhood seemed unaffected. “Why is it,” Lovenheim wrote, “in an age of discount airlines, unlimited cell phone minutes and the Internet, when we can create community anywhere, we often don’t know the people who live next door?”

After thinking about what it takes to build a community for a while, Lovenheim came upon an odd idea: What if he had a one-night sleepover with each neighbor on his street? He started talking to his neighbors and politely inviting himself over to their homes. It was a way to really get to know people beyond what they did for a living and how many children they had. More than half of the neighbors he approached with the idea agreed to have him sleepover and then write about their lives in his book released in April, In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time.

Lovenheim’s daughter watched her Dad pack his overnight bag and head over to various neighbors’ homes for sleepovers and declared him nuts. My daughter Megan, would die of mortification if I attempted neighborhood sleepovers, but I happen to think Lovenheim’s onto something.

It’s hard work to know people well; to reach outside our reserve and reticence and get to know each other’s stories. Worse yet, knowledge might require us to get involved. In the course of Lovenheim’s sleepovers, he met a woman three doors away who was struggling with breast cancer and in need of assistance. He began to think of ways the neighbors might be able to offer her their collective support.

I’ve been fortunate to live in two neighborhoods where people intentionally reached out to one another. When my kids left on one of their first vacations with their Dad and his girlfriend, I was saying a teary goodbye in the driveway. My then next-door neighbor Allison came over to ask if I wanted to join her family for dinner. I was so relieved not to have to walk back into my silent and empty house.

Other neighbors down the street in my old neighborhood have a summer tradition of setting up an outdoor movie screen in their cul-de-sac and inviting the neighbors to come by with lawn chairs and snacks to watch family movies. Before they started the film, they helped us break-the-ice with neighbors we might not know as well by passing out “worksheets.” Find a neighbor who has the same number of kids as you do and have them sign this paper. Find someone who is traveling out of the United States this summer. And so on. It might be anathema for the introverts among us, but it always takes some effort to begin an acquaintance that could lead to comfortable, lasting friendships.

I was sad to leave my neighbors when I moved homes a year and a half ago. But Day Two in my new home, while I was messing around with the plumbing of a faulty toilet, the doorbell rang. My new next door neighbors had come over to introduce themselves and brought a dozen cupcakes as they had noticed my brood of children. If only I had unpacked my towels and had one in the bathroom! (“Hi! Let me shake your hand with my wet one. No worries, I’ve just been messing around with the toilet!” I’m sure I made a great first impression with them!)

My new neighbors host small dinner parties at each other’s homes, and I was soon invited into the fold. Three dinners at different homes so far and when we were all snowed in during an unusual Seattle snow storm last winter, most of my new neighbors in the cul-de-sac walked over to my house for a Christmas party.

Getting to know our neighbors doesn’t require slumber parties or even dinner-party efforts. Last summer, spur-of-the moment, I stopped by Trader Joe’s for desserts on my way home from work and then called the neighbors to stop by my house for dessert and coffee after dinner.

I heard about a neighborhood in Columbus, OH where, for 7 years, they have hosted “Wednesdays on the Porch.” To date, 85 neighbors have invited neighbors to visit and munch on their front porches (doesn’t even require a clean house).

In San Diego, one neighborhood hosts a parade on New Year’s Day. No one watches because everyone has to be IN the parade.

I’m curious to read about Lovenheim’s sleepover adventures. I guess I can’t help but wonder about a guy who would invite himself over to his neighbors for a sleepover and what his perspective is the morning after. Maybe after I finish the book, I’ll pull out my sleeping bag and think about which neighbors I want to know better!

FareStart

Many of my friends are amazing chefs: Tom. Ann. Angie. Bev. Eric and Allison. My sister, Charlene. (There are likely more of you, but since you haven’t invited me to your homes for dinner parties, chili-fests, etc. I am unable to acknowledge your culinary skills here. Just saying…)

I am not a great cook. I frequently request recipes from my friends. Then I shamelessly serve them their own dishes when I host something at my home. It’s never as good when I prepare it, which is why I also love going out to eat. No matter that I’m lugging four kids into a restaurant with me—you can’t let a gaggle of goslings slow you down!

Eating out was interesting when the kids were infants and toddlers. Ryan was maybe 3 years of age when his “o”s sounded like “u”s, and other letters were missing entirely from his diction. Fork, therefore, sounded much like f—k.

The waiter would seat us. Ryan would bang his utensils on the table for a moment and then drop his fork on the ground. “I need a f—k,” he’d yell. “I need a f—k right now!” Fellow diners would turn to stare.

I’d respond, equally loudly, “Of course you need a FORK, Ryan. I’ll get you another FORK in just a moment.”

Table manners do eventually set in. These days, Paige is quick to remind her siblings that napkins are folded in half on your lap at lunch and fully open at dinner. Paige also rates restaurants by the number of forks and spoons at her place setting. (Under this system, the Old Spaghetti Factory is a “nice” restaurant because tables are set with two forks.)

There’s a lot to learn about restaurants. Last night, FareStart was kind enough to allow the kids and me to take a behind-the-scenes tour of the facilities as part of our weekly Every Monday Matters adventures. FareStart isn’t just another swank eatery in downtown Seattle. It’s an innovative, 16-week job training and placement program for homeless and disadvantaged people.

FareStart students are at least 30 days through any type of addiction recovery program (alcoholics anonymous, etc.) and a recipient of food stamps among other criteria. Upon admittance to FareStart, the organization provides them with a comprehensive array of services from housing assistance to counseling as well as culinary training.

We watched a group of students turn out perfectly Julienne carrots. And we toured the kitchens where FareStart students practice their skills by preparing restaurant lunches for diners as well as 2,500 meals a day that are then distributed to area homeless shelters. These are formerly homeless people learning job skills even as they are feeding other homeless people. It’s an incredible concept.

The Emerald City gets it, and the program is engaging the community to be part of the solution to reduce homelessness.

Every Thursday evening, guest chefs from some of Seattle’s top restaurants (Palisade, Chez Shea, Purple) volunteer their time to work with students to prepare a three-course meal for guests. Community volunteers serve the guests so that 100 percent of the proceeds from Guest Chef Night go toward covering the expenses of the Fare Start program. It’s typically a sold-out event in Seattle.

My little ones were fascinated by the “gi-normous “ pots and pans and ovens in the kitchens. Megan was asking questions about other cities that have adopted this program. So far, more than 20 cities from Portland to Detroit, Boise and beyond have replicated FareStart’s model through its sister organization, Kitchens with Mission.

There are no easy solutions or quick fixes to homelessness. There are 8,000 homeless men, women and children in Washington’s King County alone. The obstacles from mental illnesses to lack of education and employment skills are significant. FareStart admits 300 students a year and graduates roughly one-third of them. Some find employment even before they graduate from the program, so their numbers don’t get counted in success scores. Others just wash out through a myriad of problems from relapses to addictions to personal issues. The good news is that 89 percent or more of those who do graduate are employed within 90 days of completing the program.

There’s a lot of talk these days about government subsidies and rescue plans and bailouts. It’s a bit too much for me to wrap my mind around. What I do know is this: If we are going to fork over assistance to people who are trying to model the hand-up over the hand-out approach, FareStart is a three-fork program.

www.farestart.org

Children of Privilege

Every time I travel with my kids, there’s a moment that gives me pause. It’s not the moment when I’m stepping onto a plane for five hours with four kids. That’s when I’m eyeing the emergency exit and wondering if I can make a hasty escape if the kiddos get too rowdy at cruising altitudes.

Nor is it that earlier moment when we’re standing in line at airport security, and I recall Garrison Keillor’s rant about the shoe bomber. Thanks to Richard Reid’s foiled attempt, all of us must now bare our feet to walk through metal detectors. What would have happened, Keillor wonders, if the guy had made an underwear bomb? Would we all have to remove our underwear to walk through security?

No, no we wouldn’t. Because new millimeter-wave scans have replaced metal detectors at six U.S. airports, essentially giving TSA personnel Superman’s X-ray vision to see through your clothes. These scanners, soon to be rolled out across the nation, may make TSA positions the most sought-after jobs in Homeland Security. Especially if they’re hiring teenage boys.

My reverie is abruptly interrupted by the fact that I’m holding up the line. I snatch a couple of rubber bins, and my children begin to empty their electronics into them: DVD players. MacBooks. Nintendo DS games. They aren’t required to fully empty their backpacks of the DVD case that houses the millions of movies intended to keep them occupied on the flight. Or their nanos and iPods.

This is what gives me pause. (Mental pause. I don’t dare hold up the line again as there are enough people looking reproachfully at the distracted woman with too many children.)

I’m pushing my shoeless (and perhaps underwear-less…forgot to check ‘em on the way out of the house!) kids through the metal detectors and shepherding their belongings through the security machines, but I’m seeing all their STUFF. And I hear Madonna singing We are living in a material world, and I am a material girl in my head. It’s a bad sign when you hear Madonna singing to you in the airport.

It’s not just that my kids have so much, and they are boarding yet another plane to a magic kingdom or a balmy beach. It’s that my children, and most others living in American suburbs, are privileged and blessed, and we rarely acknowledge that fact. Our kids are largely sheltered from malnutrition, war, hard child labor and emotional abuse. (Ryan might take issue with the last two assertions since he considers making his bed an unfair labor practice and contends that growing up with three sisters constitutes emotional abuse.)

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not raising a Paris Hilton or Suri Cruise. I try to have my kids work for the things they want in life. And I work to teach them that life is not about things. I hope to inculcate them with the notion that they can and should give back joyfully and generously.

Even so, there’s a scene from the movie Schindler’s List that haunts me. Near the end of the movie, there is a line of Polish Jews (saved from concentration camps by Schindler) waiting to have their gold fillings removed from their teeth. The gold fillings are melted down and made into a ring for Oskar Schindler that reads: Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.

The gift breaks Schindler. He weeps and wonders how many more lives he could have saved. Would his watch have saved a few more people? What could he have given up that would have been insignificant in his life, but would have meant life itself for another?

The scene has stayed with me over the years, oft resurrected by the reality of working in an international children’s charity. I hesitate to write about this stuff for a variety of reasons: I’m involved with this all day long at work. It’s guilt-inducing. It’s hypocritical given the chasm between how I live and how I know I could give.

Maybe it’s important to exist in the dichotomy. One week, I’m singing Zippity Do Dah with my kids on Main Street, Disney, and the next, I’m listening to stories of little girls who are sold on the main streets of too many of the world’s cities.

My colleague, Richenda, recently sat me down to answer some questions about motherhood for a video blog she’s creating for Mother’s day. “Has working at World Vision had any impact on my experience as a mother?” she asked?

I’m not a great interviewee on camera, so I have no idea what I said in response. What I know is that World Vision has been a reality check to my whole life for the past 16 years. Convicting, but not always comfortable.

I was four months into my first pregnancy, when I headed off to Romania to work on stories for the magazine. Eric planned to paint the nursery and put up the border we had selected while I was traveling and away from the paint fumes. Friends were talking about baby showers for us and so I had stopped by Target to complete a baby registry before my trip. Baby bottle options spanned 4 shelves and overwhelmed me. There were diaper genies. Wet wipe warmers. And bathtub water thermometers to ensure that you wouldn’t scald your baby. (Can’t you test the water with your hand?)

It was 1996. Six years since communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was executed, and television news crews exposed the world to the horrific conditions of Romania’s orphanages. Even with great improvements, the orphanage I visited in Bucharest still housed 100 babies, their metal cribs lined up in rows across the single room. No Pottery Barn baby bedding there.

When Ryan and Paige were born in 2001, I thought of the mother of twins I met in a village in Tanzania years earlier. She had lost three babies before World Vision drilled a well in her area for clean water and built a health clinic for the community. When I met her, she had healthy twins: A girl named Emma; a boy named Emmanuel because “God is with us now,” she told me. We had given her two booklets to record the dates of immunizations for each child. She led me to her hut and showed me that she kept the booklets in the flyleaf of her Bible.

God gains pleasure from watching children thrive and play. I know this because after years of exuberant excitement awaiting Easter baskets and egg hunts and Christmas mornings, I’m on the other side of the events now, hiding the eggs and wrapping the presents. If anything, there’s perhaps even more appreciation in the act of planning for someone’s pleasure and watching the unmasked joy of tearing open a gift.

The goal is not to live in deprivation and beat our selves up for being born privileged. It’s more the recognition that no matter how tight the economy, how middle-class we feel, how dire our circumstances seem at times, we have so, so much more than most of the world around us. And we have the ability to make such a huge difference in even the small things we choose to do with the resources given to us (time, talents, treasure).

I’m kind of hoping that in my family at least, I’ll be able to make tweaks and adjustments to my consumerism so that I can walk through airport security without Madonna singing songs in my head.

I’d prefer to make the journey to whatever gate thinking about the other Madonna. And her Son.

And the fact that His life, I guess, makes us all children of privilege.

 

A Meal With the Millennials

Last night, I had dinner with seven young men—the equivalent of a Texas posse, I suppose. We walked out of the Halcyon Coffee Shop together, and, because Don Miller hadn’t immediately dropped to his knees and proposed to me, I decided the next best thing to do was to accept the dinner invite to hang with the guys who read Don’s books.

One of the guys confessed that he was rarely ever star struck but when Don entered the café, he was working very hard to be cool. “I didn’t want to go up and go, ‘Wow. Like can I have your autograph?’ But this guy changed my life. His books have been huge to me. I was thinking, maybe I could take a discreet photo of him with my cell phone…”

I stepped into his car and there was one of Don’s books on the seat. Ralph Waldo Emerson, too. (Emerson’s book, that is. I’m pretty sure ol’ Ralph is dead.) I honestly try not to judge a book by its cover, but I do form opinions about people based on the books they read. Can’t help it. I’m shallow. The guy driving the car was not.

Dinner confirmed two things for me. One, everything is bigger in Texas. Particularly the cockroaches. One crawled up on the windowsill behind our booth and was quickly squashed by one of my brave dinner companions.

My second finding is that there really is a movement afoot of social entrepreneurs—a whole generation of people passionate about ending poverty; bringing clean water to the world; caring for homeless people; starting up socially conscious, ecologically friendly businesses. Living simply so others can simply live.

When I was in college a decade and a half ago, the movement was just beginning to emerge. Pepperdine had a handful of students in a new major called, “American Humanics” who were learning the ins and outs of non-profit management. Students across the university showed up en masse for Step Forward Day, the university’s day dedicated to volunteer outreach to the community. (I know. I hear the jokes already: What’d you do? Helped Malibuites with their spray tans?)

There was certainly a renewed concern for the world that seemed to emulate the social concerns of the ‘60s, but students weren’t marching and protesting as much as they were beginning to shun traditional corporate jobs for “meaningful work.”

Today, a whole millennial generation (kids born between 1980 – 2000) are socially conscious and savvy about the needs of the world. Research on college majors indicates that students are increasingly preparing for jobs in public service or the social sector instead of traditional work in (formerly) profitable careers in finance or engineering or law.

Business schools across the country are introducing more courses on social entrepreneurship, and a ton of major universities host competitions for business students who are considering startups of such things as micro-finance institutions (groups that give out small loans to start-up businesses in the developing world).

I told the Texas guys about Seattle Pacific University’s social venture project. They told me about UT’s social venture competition which is like SPU’s…on steroids. The first place winner at UT’s social venture competitions is awarded $50,000 of venture capital as seed money for their business proposal. As I was saying, everything is bigger in Texas.

Over dinner, one man told me about his work placing abandoned children with foster parents in Honduras. Another started an organization to rescue young girls out of sex-trafficking, provide a safe house for them, and help them with trauma counseling and job skills. I was enthralled listening to all of them and resonated with their passion and zeal for improving the world.

It was very cool that they had deeply thought through their theology about God’s concerns for the poor even as they were fairly realistic about what the tensions would be between living wholly sold out to do this kind of work against the realities of supporting spouses, having children and just living life in a way that makes your ideals achievable.

There is so much need. It’s going to require a whole generation and more to even begin to address the problems at home and abroad. If I have any hesitations at all to the bursting enthusiasm of these people, it’s only a few things that give me pause:

First, poverty is complex. We shouldn’t throw up our hands and say, “Can’t change anything. Why try?” But we also shouldn’t be naïve when we endeavor to do good. Take, for example, the noble idea of putting together a short-term mission project for teenagers to build a school.

Assuming that a group of students have suitable construction skills to build a classroom that will hold up under hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes, have they considered the whole context of need in the area? Does the village have a trained teacher for the building? Does the village have the means to pay for a teacher? If the school is built, are kids healthy enough to attend? Do parents have the means to buy them the requisite uniforms and school supplies a child will need for school? Will girl children be allowed an education or will traditions require that she remain at home to help her mother or marry early? Will a child be able to attend school at all, or will she need to care for a parent dying of AIDS? Or remain at home to care for younger siblings already orphaned by AIDS? Is there stability for children to attend school or are people frequently displaced by warfare and civil strife in an area? A building remains empty unless all of these impediments to education are addressed.

Second, I wonder if so many social startups are reinventing the wheel and failing to leverage the expertise and reputations of more established organizations. Bear with me if this sounds self-serving from an employee of a large and an almost six-decades-old humanitarian organization. But larger and older organizations benefit from experience—we’ve learned from our history of mistakes. Sure there are down sides to size as you sometimes lose the ability to be nimble, entrepreneurial and so on. But established reputations mean fewer dollars are diverted into marketing and fundraising because we already have a dedicated group of faithful donors.

New organizations have to constantly create awareness of their work; market themselves to raise funds, develop systems to provide feedback to donors and gain the trust of the people they want to work with. It’s a bit inefficient to start-up something, when dozens of organizations already exist to do the same kind of work. I’m not advising that start-ups are wrong, just hoping that they have a unique niche to fill that isn’t already being addressed by other groups. International Justice Mission, as one example, does fantastic work advocating to end sex-trafficking and rescuing young girls out of prostitution and they have the connections and infrastructure to do this well.

World Vision has extensive history, and therefore trust, built up with communities, generally hiring national staff who speak the language and intimately know the nuances of the culture and traditions.

Third, social work has to be well-conceived both with the service provided as well as the process for how you raise awareness and funds for your work. It’s harder than it seems. Don Miller is onto something with the observation that sometimes people invest little of themselves—they make a purchase or hand over some money and feel good that they’ve done their part. (Click on a vocabulary test that promises to send a grain of rice to a hungry nation for each correct answer. Purchase RED products.) But real change takes an investment of time—on the part of the donor and the recipient.

All of that to say, I loved my time with those guys. It was a totally great last supper in Austin. The guys were smart and passionate and informed about the issues. They were engaged in topics that I care deeply about. It was a posse full of possibilities, and I wish them well on the journey.

Every Monday Matters – Part Deux

The kids have been celebrating Every Monday Matters for several weeks now. We’ve planted bulbs in flower pots to welcome new neighbors; baked brownies for some friends; wrote and decorated appreciation cards to people this month. I know. We’re the best boy scouts ever!

Truthfully, we’re going a little stir crazy with Seattle’s long, dark tea-time of the soul, aka the Endless Winter of 2009. I’m also up for any excuse not to go out in the backyard with the pooper scooper. Come to think of it, my neighbors might possibly be more delighted with my diligence in that area than with our gifts of flowers.

Still, we are persevering. Tonight, we made St. Patrick’s Day buckets and took them to a nearby retirement home to hand out. Lest this sound simple, I assure you, it was not. While trying to decide what to put in the green buckets, I was recalling the church group of my youth and the effort we took to make beeswax candles for the elderly at Christmas.

We sang carols at a local retirement home and handled out our sweet, homemade candles. The next year we were informed that we could visit and sing again, but our well-intentioned gifts had nearly burned down the retirement facility when residents lit them and fell asleep. Incredibly, our church leader had us make candles anyway…just minus the wicks. It must have been so meaningful for those dear folks to receive a glob of wax that year…

I swung by Target after work looking for age-appropriate gifts. I saw denture cleaning kits. Bathtub rail grips. K-Y Jelly. Nothing seemed quite right. Except, perhaps, the K-Y Jelly. (My mother used to work part-time as a medical records consultant for several convalescent homes and observed that many of them resembled Peyton Places with geezers claiming senility for being in the wrong beds.) But I didn’t want to explain K-Y Jelly to my kids.

We ended up assembling buckets with vaseline lip balm, travel packets of tissue, hand and body lotion, and scented shower gels. Also chocolate kisses. We salvaged a few that Katie and Whistler hadn’t yet eaten during assembly. The kids labored over cards. Paige and Katie made hearts and flowers and stamped balloons on colored construction paper. Ryan decided to draw street signs that read: “Keep Out.” And, “No Trespassing.” Ominous cards, but what a GREAT speller!

At the retirement home, we explained what we wanted to do at the front desk. We didn’t have enough buckets for the whole place, so we asked who might most need a visitor or a gift to cheer them up. The staff had a spirited debate over who deserved a gift. Who needed someone. Who was too gruff to even merit a visit from small children. Then they had to discuss who was diabetic. Who had a roommate which required both residents to receive our St. Paddy’s Day treats. It was a delivery deliberation process worthy of a government Special Ops team.

Finally we were armed with a list of room numbers to visit, and we were off. Katie was beaming. Ryan was shy. Paige was winsome. Megan was observant as we handed out our buckets to ensure that we didn’t give lilac-scented bath gel to the gentlemen racing their electronic carts through the hallway.

Back in our car, we talked a bit about growing old. And maybe lonely. And maybe outliving your children or friends or spouses. Ryan wondered over how weathered and worn one man’s feet looked peeking out of the bed covers. Paige promised that she’d come and visit me when I get old one day—even if it smelled where I lived. That’s a nice promise.

It’s just that eventually you reach the point in the journey when your feet are weary and tired and where every day possibly blends into the next even as there are fewer days left to look forward to. I’m glad that not only does every Monday matter, but the days in between are rich with life’s moments too. Gotta make ’em count while you can…

Every Monday Matters

I am so not a morning person. But when Seattle Pacific University invited me last spring to their annual business breakfast to hear Carly Fiorina speak, it was enticing enough to make the sacrifice.

I set my alarm for 5:30 a.m. and drove into Seattle to eat a fruit compote and listen to the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard. I am sometimes suspicious of hype and fame, and had certainly read a bit about the controversial Carly—consistently Fortune’s #1 most powerful business woman in America.

Carly exceeded my expectations. She was articulate, intelligent, intuitive, and insightful. She spoke about the humiliation of being ousted from HP; she talked about staying relevant in the business world; she discussed her current efforts with micro loans to women in the developing world. But it was her discussion of the differences between managers and leaders that intrigued me.

Managers, Carly said, are those who keep things going in the business world. They ensure that teams meet their targets; policies are followed; products are created to meet consumer demands. Leaders, however, have different roles. They focus on leading indicators rather than lagging indicators—trends and new directions instead of last quarter’s financials.

Under Carly’s definition, leaders should anticipate the future, and prepare and shape the workforce to be ready to handle the changes and challenges on the horizon. (Were the leaders at Polaroid considering the shift from film to digital photography?)

Her presentation certainly made me think about my role as a manager and a leader at work, but it also made me think about my role as a manager and a leader at home. My household needs a manager: someone who pays the bills, makes the beds, prepares the meals and essentially keeps things running like a well-oiled machine. But frankly, if I’m just handling “manager” duties in my home, I could probably hire competent help to handle most of these chores. My children need more than Mom-the-Manager. They need a Mom who thinks like a leader—a parent who looks into the distance and ensures that day-to-day moments are informing their character, shaping their values, and preparing them for the future.

As a mom, I tend to over-focus on management and less on leadership. On any given day, when I’m not working outside the home, I spend the bulk of my energies on chores and preserving order. I like to rationalize that organization—a place for everything and everything in its place—allows me to be super spontaneous with the kids. Wanna go sledding? I know exactly which labeled storage bin contains mittens, hats, and snow clothes. Wanna head out of town for the weekend? I have pre-packed toiletry kits for everyone.

Don’t compliment me on this stuff. It’s a serious disorder. Telling me I’m uber-organized is akin to telling an anorexic person that she looks lovely. I took 10 weeks off work when the twins were born. When I wasn’t feeding, burping and changing Ryan and Paige, I was re-organizing the kitchen cupboards and cleaning closets and organizing my socks. The week I returned to work, I asked Megan, 4 at the time, if she was sad that I wouldn’t be at home as much. “Well,” Megan said, “the house has been really, really clean while you’ve been home, Mommy.” Ouch.

So there’s a constant voice in my head prodding me to align my goals and values with my time and action. Ask me what I want my kids to be like when they grow up, and I’d answer that I want them to be caring, compassionate souls. I’d love to see them passionately engaged in work that makes a difference. I’d like them to be fun, joyful people who know how to play well and work hard. I want them to know God intimately and be able to love deeply because they know they are well-loved.

At the Q conference in New York last year, I received a terrific book called, Every Monday Matters: 52 Ways to Make a Difference. The idea is that everyone loves Fridays and dreads Mondays. Why not turn Mondays into an amazing, incredible day to do something meaningful? The book suggests 52 activities to engage in each Monday: Write a note of gratitude. Mentor a child. Learn CPR. Pick up litter. Help the hungry.

Four years ago the kids and I came up with backward dinner night on Thursdays. It’s crazy but fun, especially when friends come over or when the kids get to explain to waitresses at restaurants that we’re having dessert first.

This year, with the gnawing sense that I need to re-evaluate my priorities, we’ve started celebrating Every Monday Matters. The kids helped me shop and make cards to welcome a neighbor’s baby and then walked over to their home to deliver the basket. We made dinner together to deliver to a sick friend. We mailed a care package to the cousins this week.

It’s not just that I want my kids to think outside of themselves, though I certainly want that. I’m hoping that it helps them form an everyday habit of gratitude for what they have and a sense of pleasure and fun for doing things for others. Problems like world hunger, AIDS, war can seem daunting, but I’m hoping my kiddos will get a glimpse of what can be accomplished or changed by their efforts.

I’m grateful that Friday is here. It’s a great day heralding the weekend ahead. But looking further down the lane at those “leading indicators”? Well, I hope my kids will one day remember Every Monday Matters.

[You can check out Every Monday Matters at: www.everymondaymatters.com