1,000 Mitzvahs: How Small Acts of Kindness Can Heal, Inspire and Change Your Life shares Cohen’s two-and-a-half year journey from sorrow to inspriation through simple daily acts of kindness. She presents each mitzvah as a short vignette and the myriad forms they take – from helping the elderly to donating to good causes to baking and collecting food for others – highlight the many ways in which one person can touch the lives of others. As she pursues her quest, Cohen finds that her life is improved by these small acts – that every time she goes out of her way to do something good for someone else, she enhances her own well-being.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in learning more about volunteer opportunities at Make-A-Wish.
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.
Each 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.
On the eve of Shabbat, as I am making challah and preparing some dinner, it seems like there isn’t much more that can be added to the conversation during this difficult week in Boston, but I’m a writer and I process by writing so here is my two cents.
On Monday morning, I had a client meeting and when I mentioned to the client that I grew up outside of Boston, she asked me if I’d been watching the marathon that morning. This was early in the day before anything terrible had happened. I thought briefly in that moment about the year after graduate school when I got my first job in Boston how happy I was to have another paid day off in honor of Patriots Day. I didn’t know much about marathon running or even follow much about the race at that time but enjoyed the springtime vacation day just the same. Later Monday afternoon when I learned with the rest of the country about the terrible bombing that had occurred, I was dumbfounded. How and why would someone do something like this? After listening for an hour to the news, I purposely changed the radio station to our classical station because I know that I can not handle the 24/7 coverage that occurs tragedy after tragedy these days. I know that may sound like I am sticking my head in the sand but I know for myself that being plugged into the media coverage makes me sad and angry and scream out loud, “What the hell is happening in our world?” Instead, I’m likely to try to find the stories on the internet about all the heroes. Monday my google alert for acts of kindness sent me half a dozen stories of those citizens who rushed to the aid of the wounded. Personally, I prefer to read those stories instead.
Yesterday, when I went to the gym, the television was broadcasting the live Interfaith Healing Service being held at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston. It may have only been words that Cardinal O’Malley and President Obama and other faith leaders offered but they felt like hope and light amidst the darkness. The President started and concluded his speech quoting a scripture, that said “run with endurance the race that is set before us.” He told us that as we do this to hold God close and that God would help us remember those who’ve been taken from us too soon. God would comfort their families. I know they were just words but having faith in God felt reassuring.
When my 12-year-old son got home from school, I mentioned that I had watched the healing service earlier in the day and found it comforting to hear what the clergy and the president had to say. He wanted to know if the speeches offered by the speakers would have made me feel better if I had lost my legs or my child in the bombing on Monday. His question floored and saddened me, it’s hard to even believe that a 12-year-old is thinking about these kinds of things. No matter how we try to protect and shield our children and try to have them experience a childhood like we did, times have changed and we no longer have the innocence of childhood that we once did. 12-year-olds know about bombings, shootings, war and other atrocities that seemed unfathomable just 20 years ago.
These are new times we find ourselves in. Times when raising children can seem joyous in one moment and fraught with fear the next. I know that even with the darkness our children must know, they will still know the kindness, love and beauty of others. There is too much light in this world for the darkness to prevail. Spreading kindness, light and hope has become our responsibility as parents and as a nation.
This evening whether it is your custom to do so or not, I invite you to light Shabbat candles to remind yourself of the light, hope and peace that we must fill our world with.
Wishing everyone peace and light this Shabbat.