Musing (about loss) from a fulltime life

It’s been months since I’ve posted on my blog and frankly, I am sad that I haven’t been able to eek out some time to keep writing about life. When I took the job with Make-A-Wish I really had no idea how dramatically it would change everything in my life including my energy to jot my thoughts and observations down on any regular basis.

But this has been a summer of huge changes and I have been thinking for several weeks that I needed to finally sit down and write again on my blog. Today, I finally did. The first change is that I am no longer working full-time at the Make-A-Wish Foundation. I decided that while I loved the organization and their mission the shift from entrepreneur to fulltime employee wasn’t a good fit for me or my family. It was just after my son’s bar mitzvah in early July that I gave my notice. Working fulltime was  a very eye-opening experience and one that I am happy I had.  I learned a lot this year about balance and priorities. Ironically, I often felt that while my work was helping others connect to volunteering with Make-A-Wish my personal ability to give more or do more felt greatly reduced. That wasn’t something I’d expected working fulltime and surprisingly it didn’t always make me happy.

The greater change this summer was that just three weeks after my son’s bar mitzvah in mid-July my mother Ellen Pollens took her own life. It was a normal day, my family and I were in the car with a picnic headed to a local river for a fun day of swimming, when we received a phone call from the Beaverton Police that my mom was dead. Shock and disbelief were my initial reactions. That quickly morphed into sadness and reality as I began to learn more about the details of her death. My mother had suffered her whole life with mental health challenges. She was also someone who liberally took prescription drugs. Thinking back through my life so many experiences were marked by her mental health challenges. In seventh grade, I relocated to Vermont to live with my father and stepmother because my mom was hospitalized. I always worried that the self medicating situation would end poorly.  Our relationship was challenging to see that least, as we danced around her illness and I felt I needed to react to her behavior as it related to my own family. I had received counseling for how to enjoy the time we spent together but also create respectful boundaries that would protect and support myself and my family. It made for a complicated and difficult relationship.

I knew, however, that after my father died in 2006,  it was important to find positive ways to be together that would make memories for us. I worked hard to make sure we tried to create those memories. Sometimes we were successful and sometimes we weren’t.


Mom and I at October, 2013 Divaville Party, Portland, Oregon

One of my favorite memories (photo included) was attending a jazz party last October the night before my birthday and answering trivia questions about jazz music and musicians from the 20’s-60’s. My mom was a whiz and knew all of the answers. That was a special night.

My mother adored theatre, and we had attended at least one play together. Unfortunately, we had other plays scheduled that she didn’t attend over the past two years. Often she’d cancel in the days before the event saying she wasn’t up to it and I’d have to find a replacement for her ticket.

In April, she was hospitalized and I was only able to visit her once during the week she was there because of the limited visiting hours at the facility and my own work schedule. When she came home we spent a day looking at assisted living facilities.  She became upset and addled. She wanted to go home and didn’t want to talk more about the possibility of assisted living options.

She didn’t come to my son’s bar mitzvah in July but she also hadn’t come to my daughter’s three years ago. That was the last time she’d been hospitalized. I chalked it up to the stress of the family gathering. I fully expected that after the bar mitzvah she would come through her depression. If it hadn’t been so common for her to cancel plans and not come to family events I might have been more alarmed by this behavior but it seemed par for the course, until it wasn’t. Until she finally decided she’d had enough and was ready to be done with life.

The ironic thing about this summer is that Robin Williams taking his own life just three weeks after my mother was a strangely timed event. His death helped me in some ways make more sense of my own mother’s death. I realized no matter how beloved, adored or celebrated someone is when they suffer with mental illness sometimes the only choice they can see is to end their life.  It has made more sense to me that someone who suffers mental illness has demons that no one can help them with. When my news feed on FB was filled with quotes and thoughts and homages to Robin Williams just weeks after my own mother had taken her life I felt I understood her decision just a little bit more. After Robin Williams death, there were radio shows and newspaper articles talking about suicide. It all made me realize I am not to blame, no matter how busy I had been this past year. My mother was struggling with her own challenges, ones that had nothing to do with me. I know now that she is no longer suffering and I hope that in her passing I will find a suitable way to honor her as I did my father. She joked with me after my 1,000 Mitzvahs book came out that when she died, I’d have to do 2,000 mitzvahs in her memory. I am sure I rolled my eyes. Even with the challenging relationship we had,  I am her DNA. I don’t suffer the mental health issues that she had but I do share her love of music and language, theatre and public speaking and if you look at pictures of her when she was my age we do look-alike.


Mom and I in Israel 1986

In my yoga practice, my teacher ends her classes each week by saying “We offer gratitude for all the challenges and all the blessings of our life, Namaste.” Today, that is how I feel for both my mother’s life and death. I love you mom.



Mitzvahs and Magic

make a wish oregonMitzvahs and Magic

For the past several years, I have been engaged in such meaningful life work with the 1,000 Mitzvah project, speaking and writing and sharing the 1,000 Mitzvahs book. Several months ago, I began consulting around employee engagement knowing that my calling was connecting others to volunteerism and the value it provides in our lives.

Several weeks ago, I answered an ad for a position as the Volunteer Manager for Make-A-Wish Oregon. While I knew of Make-A-Wish peripherally (and had included them as a resource organization in my book), I had never had first hand experience with the organization. I truly believe when we are on the right path the right opportunities show up for us. Apparently, the folks at Make-A-Wish believe the same. I am delighted, excited and humbled by the opportunity I will have to serve others as the new Volunteer Manager for the Portland chapter of this organization. I honestly could not have imagined how quickly I would realized that this is the work I was meant to do and this is a perfect organization to do it with. I just started this week and know that in my role I will be able to connect volunteers to an incredible life changing volunteer experience.

I expect this new part of my life journey to be a deep and enriching opportunity and I am grateful and blessed to accept it.

Feel free to connect with me at if you are interested in learning more about volunteer opportunities at Make-A-Wish.

Appreciating your Volunteers

As a consultant working with companies around their Employee Volunteer Programs, I teach companies how to recognize their volunteers. This week, however, I was the unexpected recipient of some recognition that happily caught me off guard.

After my son moved to a new middle school this year, that is part of a K-8 program, one of my neighbors suggested I volunteer as a Reader Responder for our RHS Publishing House program. Essentially, all of the children in the school are invited to submit their writing and art work for the monthly magazine that is produced and goes on-line for our school community. Here is the newest edition.

RHS publishing House graphicEach month, the volunteer editor, sends out a list of all the articles and asks the volunteers to choose who they’ll respond to and send a written letter with feedback to the student. I remember the first newsletter that arrived in my email and reading through some of the student’s articles. Of course, the submissions vary widely since they are submitted from kindergartens through eighth graders but it’s always easy to find something to compliment these writers on. Their articles are often deeper than you might expect and very thoughtful. Kids just write what they see and know. I have enjoyed this volunteer job, and even though I am only able to reply to a couple of submissions each time, I try to put some thought and heart into each one.

On Tuesday, when the request came out from the editor to choose our assignments as Reader Responders (RR) for this edition, she also included a P.S. that said, “Here’s a good line from an RR to an 8th grader that points to the heart of these letters.” The quote was from one of my last letters! I was so excited and surprised. I sent her a quick thank you note but realized how that simple recognition, made me especially proud of the volunteer work I had done and eager to do more.

Don’t underestimate the value of recognition. Even an “old-timer” volunteer like me can be moved and elevated by some unexpected recognition. Be sure you are giving this liberally to your volunteers. Do it with heart and your volunteers just might increase their sense of commitment to their project or your company or organization.

To learn more about improving your Employee Volunteer Program or increasing your recognition to your volunteers. Feel free to contact me.

Searching for Meaning

552009_339609489436023_1481374226_aThe Search for Meaning Book Festival has a fairly big name wouldn’t you say? This is the second year I have been invited to participate in this interesting conference sponsored by the School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University. The conference is completely free to attend, and I loved what the dean of the school Mark Markuly said when he welcomed us for the opening keynote, “Our human search for meaning should not be something you have to pay for.” He did also mention, however, that the conference is generously underwritten in large part by the charity of a few specific donors.

This one day conference is an ecumenical dialog about religion and meaning and I was once again inspired to be part of the community for thoughtful discourse about the search for meaning.

I was fortunate to lead one session and though it wasn’t a packed room , those in attendance shared that they felt connected and engaged by the conversation. I have learned during my time as a speaker the past few years, I should not measure the success of a talk by the amount of attendees but by the connections created. I was also delighted to stumble into a session by accident led by Rebecca Walker, whom I didn’t even realize until after the talk, was the daughter of Alice Walker. She discussed her book Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood After a Lifetime of Ambivalence. I also learned about her book Black, White and Jew and ran to buy it after the session. I am already enjoying it.

photo-165One of my favorite, interesting little offerings at this year’s conference was a “5 senses” interactive art stations area. They had tables set up with activities to stimulate our senses and help us connect to our senses viscerally.

I especially loved Station 4 or Sense of Smell. I closed my eyes and lifted each paper bag to my nose waiting to see what memory or thought would be evoked with the scent wafting into my brain.

I tried not to look at the table where other people had been encouraged to write what the smell evoked for them until after I had smelled the bag and had my own scent memory. With the scent of dried leaves I remembered my childhood, raking leaves on our farm with literally acres of maple trees.  I thought of the long nights my father spent boiling sap into syrup in his makeshift maple sugar house – I could almost smell the syrup as well from the scent of those dried leaves. A second bag held something that reminded me of chai tea evoking a sense of comfort and nurturing since my husband and I have a custom to have a cup of tea most mornings together before he leaves for work. I loved the cinnamon which smelled like my grandmother’s kitchen in New York City and immediately made me think of her old world Jewish cooking. It was incredible to me that these simple bags with a scent in them could evoke such instantaneous and strong memories. But they did.

At the other stations, we used our other senses to answer questions like,   “What is sweet in your life right now?” when we tasted a sweet treat on the taste table or “What are you searching for?” when we had our hands in a bowl of sand searching for the hidden marbles on the table for the sense of touch. It was a wonderful interactive exhibit of how our senses influence our thoughts which can ultimately influence how we feel and think about things.

Perhaps the search for meaning is simply the ability to be in a moment and live that moment completely and fully. Whether that means enjoying the ray of sunshine on your face, connecting with a stranger by listening and engaging with them, or noticing the food you are consuming and tasting it fully. I love the opportunity to spend time with others searching for meaning, it is always such an incredible and thoughtful group. Perhaps next year you’ll want to join in the search. Save the date for next year’s Search for Meaning 2014.