Gratitude Tweets

Two weeks ago, my dear friend Susie came to visit. We spent two days engaging in intense girl talk, the conversation was never ending. I wanted the visit to last forever. Susie is this incredible wordsmith. She will casually mention something she’s thinking about and I will find myself stopped in my tracks, pondering all the ways in which I agree. She often slightly alters my outlook on the world for the better.

One of the many striking things she mentioned during her visit was:

“I needed to remind myself that there are things in life deserving of gratitude; so every day for a year, I updated my BBM status to state what I was grateful for that day.”

Show stopper.  

Not having BBM, I missed my opportunity to witness it and partake. But I wanted in. I wanted a reason to remind myself of the wonderful things I am grateful for.  I came up with a little plan, inspired entirely by Susie.

Gratitude Tweets // Likes to Smile

Every day during the month of November, I’m going to tweet something I’m grateful for and I’m going to sign the tweet with my #gratitudetweets hashtag. The “tweets” in the hashtag is purposefully plural, to remind myself that lots of wonderful things happen every day.

I think this project is especially poetic, as this month will end with American Thanksgiving.

I would be over the moon if you’d join in and play along! Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see lots of reasons for gratitude popping up all over Twitter?! My heart warms at the mere thought of it all.

My first #gratitudetweets for today:

I’m grateful for friends like Susie, who inspire me to both think and take action.

Here I am with Susie at the reading of her book of poetry, “How to Get Over Yourself.”

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And you? What are you grateful for today? Will you also play along with #gratitudetweets this month (daily or otherwise)?

Until next time!

xoxo,
Stacey

Postscript: Susie has this unbelievably amazing poetry project called “The Starbucks Poetry Project,” where she writes poems based on tidbits she overhears while waiting for her coffee. Absolutely worth checking out! Start with two of my favorites: “Xray Judgement” and “On the Menu.

Enjoy the Wonder

I haven’t written about friendships in awhile. I think it’s time.

Lately, I’ve been feeling a bit overwhelmed by life. Some of my feeling overwhelmed is from very good things. And some of it is from the kind of things that make others say to you, “this, too, shall pass.”

I didn’t grow up in New York. But there are a lot of people here who make it feel like home. One of those people packed his car on Monday morning, driving off in search of better things.

I was so nervous I was going to miss saying goodbye to him that we ended up saying goodbye twice. Thinking he was already gone, I raced to his door, arriving out of breath. He answered and said he was behind schedule. I stood there chatting with him admist mostly packed luggage. I kept thinking to myself, “this is the end of an era.” I’m just not sure whose era was ending.

Two hours later, the car was loaded. This time, he was the one out of breath, knocking on a door. I’m sappy with goodbyes, so we just stood there lingering.

“It’s your job to look after him now,” he said about another friend. I was baffled that the baton had been passed to me.

Hours later, I realized the friend who left had always been the one to do the looking after. He was a man’s man. The kind who would break down your door if ever there was a fire.

This is a person I’ve been friendly with for years. But over the last two weeks, we’ve become real friends. We had both “fallen” down the same rabbit hole at the same time. He was this kindred spirt who just “got it.” You showed up as you were and traded truths. There was a certain toughness about him that I admired, wimpy he was not.

He did the smart thing in leaving. I’m waiting for the text messages to come through with great news.

I emailed my oldest friend, lamenting the rabbit hole and telling her how strange it was that he was gone. T. (the T. we met here and here) wrote back with this response:

Enjoy the Wonder // Likes to Smile

T.’s absolutely right. I have to enjoy the adventure that comes with life (and this rabbit hole). I have to enjoy becoming even better friends with an old friend. We can find joy in the rabbit hole and bring it back out with us. We can find wonder, too.

I wonder who’s going to look after you in your new home. And I wonder who’s going to look after me (what if there’s a fire?). But don’t worry. I’ll look after him.

Go find the joy and bring it out. Send me a great text message.

Thank you for making NY feel like home. I’m going to miss you.

xoxo,
Stacey

Superhero Statement – Soldiers Who Salsa, Joe’s Story, Part 2

Yesterday, I interviewed Jen Ables of Soldiers Who Salsa. Due to the length of that post, I promised to share Joe’s awe inducing success story today.

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Without further ado:

In the words of Jen Ables, Executive Director, Soldiers Who Salsa, here is Joe’s Story:

(all names, ranks, and military affiliations have been changed to respect patient privacy)

When I first met this soldier, he was sitting in the corner of the room, lights off, hooded sweatshirt pulled over most of his face, headphones on, and arms folded across his chest. I was told that I would be getting a few new patients that week with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and some that also had Traumatic Brain Injuries. I had no way of knowing which of the conditions this gentleman had, but the symptoms of avoidance, withdrawal, and isolation were clear. I got barely a nod when I introduced myself and welcomed him to class, but attempted to start a conversation anyway.

Me: “So, how did you hear about class?”
Him: “My therapist told me I should come, so here I am.” No enthusiasm, no excitement.
Me: “With all the activities you have to choose from, why Salsa dancing?”
Him: “I already know how to dance, and I like the music. I’m Latino!” Now, a little pride.
Me: “Well then, I’m glad you’re here. Maybe you’ll be able to help some of the newer people.”
Him: “Yeah, maybe. I don’t know.” Back to being despondent.

Class started, and it was clear to see that he sincerely enjoyed both the music and the dancing. He smiled a little bit, and I could tell he was really “feeling” the music. At the end, I complimented his skills and said I looked forward to seeing him the following week. Again, he just nodded and walked out.

As the weeks went on, Joe began to show up early for class and would be seen socializing with others in class, building friendships with other men and women and even relying on them when his stress level got too high. He would turn to his fellow servicemen when he needed help, as sometimes his anxiety levels left him unable to concentrate at all. Like many others I have met, he eventually went into a special inpatient program to deal with his PTSD.

During the time Joe was coming to classes, more and more of his upbeat personality would come out, and I could always count on him cracking a joke, or trying to get the rest of the class laughing with him. He rarely missed a week, and would tell me in advance if he wouldn’t be there. When we hosted outside events, he was first on the list to sign up. And unlike others whose anxiety would stop them from actually attending an outside event, he would press through it and face his challenges. He always said it was tough, but that he wanted to get through it, and that dance was helping to force him into a safe social environment, and he knew that is what he wanted.

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Now, several months after starting with our salsa program, I rely on Joe to actually assist me with new people in class. Without me having to ask, he has started encouraging new participants to join, he cheers on others who may be struggling with a step, “Don’t worry, just keep practicing and you’ll get it!”, and keeps the class going with a positive and upbeat vibe. He has shared with me that even though he already knew how to dance, the reason he keeps coming back to class is that it is a fun and social environment where he gets to be himself again. He knows that salsa provides a social outlet outside of our class setting, and by participating he has met new people and gone places he says he would not have pursued on his own. He is looking forward to going back home and dancing with his family, as this is an activity they as a family have always enjoyed.

I was struck at how far Joe has come by an event that happened in class recently. A fellow patient was having her own anxiety issues, and couldn’t seem to concentrate on anything else even though she said she wanted to dance. She sat in the corner, with her sweatshirt pulled over her face, headphones on, and arms folded across her chest. Without any kind of prompt, Joe went over to her, took her by the hand, and led her outside of class so that she could talk through her issues. She trusts him because he has been where she is now, and they have built a rapport through dance classes and our other dance outings. They talked for a good 45 minutes, and just as we were finishing the last few steps, both of them joined class with a smile, and ended the session with the rest of the patients. Joe had gone from the guy needing the help to the guy who others now turn to for help. I couldn’t be more proud of how far he’s come, and I feel fortunate that the work we do has provided a forum for service members to connect and socialize on a level like this where they can help each other through tough times. Joe exemplifies the warrior code of “never leave a fallen comrade,” whether that comrade is on the battlefield or the ballroom floor.

End Story.

Never leave a fallen comrade. What an amazing two-part Superhero Statement, right?! I have had them up my sleeve for three weeks and my initial feelings of being awestruck are still just as strong.

I would like to thank Jen Ables of Soldiers Who Salsa for allowing me to interview her for Likes to Smile and for sharing Joe’s story, as well. So inspiring!

And you? What do you think of Joe? Do you have soldiers in your family? What are their stories?

Until next time!

xoxo,
Stacey

Postscript: All images and photographs in this blog post are courtesy of Soldiers Who Salsa.

Superhero Statement – Soldiers Who Salsa, Part 1

Three weeks ago, my Mom returned from a business trip to Cancun. “How was Cancun?” I asked. My Mom replied, “I met the MOST amazing woman. You have to hear her story.” My Mom proceeded to tell me about Jen Ables, a woman who created a non-profit to teach wounded warriors to dance.

On this Memorial Day, I could think of no better Superhero Statement than to share Jen’s story. I emailed her and asked her if I could interview her for my blog and she enthusiastically agreed. Reading her responses to my interview questions will leave you in awe. What a woman,what a Superhero! A golden heart, indeed.

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1) How did you get involved with Soldiers Who Salsa?

Jen: When I moved to San Diego at the end of 2009 (12/29/09 to be exact!), I had no job here, no friends, no family. Having taught ballroom and latin dancing with Arthur Murray since 1998, I went in search of a dance studio to see if I could find work as a teacher out here. I stopped in to Mary Murphy’s Champion Ballroom Academy (Mary Murphy is one of the judges on the Fox TV show “So You Think You Can Dance”) for a night of dancing, and was thrilled to actually meet Mary herself! We met the next day and she offered me a job teaching there, but also asked if I would be interested in going to the Naval Medical Center in San Diego to teach a 6 week salsa class to patients there. One of her former students, Mike Podlenski, had been teaching amputee patients some dance steps in the physical therapy clinic, and he wanted a teacher to do a formal class there. It was only originally set up for 6 weeks…we are now in YEAR 4!

When the funding for the original class ran out, I asked an attorney and former student of mine if he would help me form a non-profit – I believed with all my heart that there are people out there who understand the joy that comes from dancing and would want these wounded warriors to be afforded that same opportunity, and would therefore help fund these classes. In looking for a catchy name that would tell you what we do quickly, “Soldiers Who Salsa” was born. I remember creating the Facebook page telling people about it, and watching it go from 2 “likes” to 4, to 20, then to 100 in a matter of days. It helped confirm my gut feeling that this is an idea people will support.

What told me that we had to continue to offer this was a moment I will never forget, and still makes me cry to this day. There was a patient, we’ll call him John (names changed to respect privacy) who had been coming to class for just a week or two as part of physical therapy after having undergone multiple surgeries from injuries received in Iraq. At the end of class, John asked if he could bring his wife the next week. As we are always looking for female partners (the majority of the wounded, ill, and injured are males), I was elated to have him bring a partner. John’s wife, Ann came to class the next week and the smile on her face lit the entire room. At the end, Ann came up to me with tears streaming down her face. I panicked…had John re-injured himself? Was dancing painful? And then Ann said to me, “”Thank you so much. This has been the best day – we haven’t danced together since our wedding. For all his other appointments I sit and read as I wait for him, so to be able to do this with him was amazing. Thank you so much.” And then I cried, too! Tears of sheer joy, to be able to make a difference in their lives like that was the most rewarding feeling I’ve ever had.

When I was told that classes would have to end I thought about John. And I thought about Ann. And I thought about the countless numbers of spouses who may be going through this very same thing. I asked for permission to keep classes going while I started researching how to form a non-profit. And here we are, 4 years later, with an official 501(c)(3) status!

2) How would you explain your role with Soldiers Who Salsa?

Jen: I am the Executive Director, and I also continue to teach the weekly classes at Naval Medical Center San Diego and Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton. I wear many hats (shoes?!) in my role, as it is just me and my Board of Directors currently. I am marketing, promotions, fundraising, communications, education, and development all at once. I do presentations to providers to help them understand which patients this might be appropriate for, and what their patients can expect. I also speak to different community groups to raise awareness for our classes and seek out potential partners for fundraising. I am busier than I have ever been in my entire life and I couldn’t be happier. It is a blessing to be able to serve these heroes in the way that we do.

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3) What is your favorite aspect of Soldiers Who Salsa?

Jen: It’s hard to pick just one, but I’ll give you my top 2:

#1 is being witness to the social transformation that someone goes through when learning to dance. Someone can start out very quiet and withdrawn, because let’s face it – dancing can be intimidating to many people. But once that person starts coming in week after week, picking up the steps, you see them creating a bond with the others in class and that once withdrawn person is now smiling and giving high-five’s as they walk into class. There is a certain confidence that comes when you start to learn to dance. The fact that you are tackling a fear and learning a challenging skill, shows you that if you give it a try, you can learn just about anything.

My #2 favorite aspect is being able to get a service members’ family physically involved in the healing process. Like I mentioned with John and Ann, many couples haven’t danced together since their wedding. A patient who is learning to balance on a new prosthetic or after a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) needs someone to be there for them – physically, yes, but it’s such symbolism. To be able to say to your partner “I’ll catch you if you fall” takes on a whole new meaning.

4) What is one success story that you could share that highlights the mission of Soldiers Who Salsa?

Jen: John and Ann. I’ll also send you one about Joe separately**.

**Note: Jen did send me the story of Joe. I am publishing it as Part 2 tomorrow, as a special Tuesday post. Trust me, you don’t want to miss this post, it is so touching, tears welled up as I read it. “Never leave a fallen comrade.”

5) What is your proudest moment?

Jen: The first testimonial I received from a patient. We all need validation in some way, shape, or form. I knew we were doing good work, I knew people were having fun, but when a patient told me in his or her own words what this has done for him or her, it really solidifies the mission. When days are rough on the business side (raising funds, making business decisions, etc.), all I have to do is look back on the testimonials patients have sent in.

6) How do you think learning to dance impacts a Soldier’s physical and emotional recovery?

Jen: Dancing requires that the brain operate from both hemispheres simultaneously. There is a logical part of movement which requires balance and control, and there is also a creative part when putting moves together. Physically a patient is engaging the whole body and also gets quite an aerobic workout. Mentally a patient has to learn a sequence, execute it, all while trying not to step on his or her partner! We picked Salsa because it is so social by it’s very nature. You dance with another person, so you have to find a connection. Once you learn to dance, you enjoy social outings more because you are part of the action, rather than sitting on the sidelines, or hugging the wall. Many patients with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have trouble being in crowds, meeting new people, and being around loud noises. If you think about a salsa club, all three of those challenges are going to be front and center – clubs are crowded, strangers may ask you to dance, and the music blares from big speakers. Having a safe and fun way to tackle those issues helps the service member re-integrate back into society. Too many patients have told me that because of their PTSD they end up isolating themselves, unable to connect with others. We provide a way to bridge that gap and get them back out with others again. If you learn a skill like salsa dancing, you can take it with you wherever you go. If a patient leaves San Diego and moves back home, he can google “salsa dancing near me” and instantly find a place to fit in.

7) What one thing do you wish more people understood about what it’s like to be a Soldier returning to civilian life?

Jen: More people need to know and understand that not all wounds are visible. As a society we have an easier time when we see a physical injury such as the loss of a limb to know without question that something happened to him or her. With TBI and PTSD, someone can appear “fine” on the outside but we have no idea what’s going on inside. If you meet a veteran, thank him or her and be as open and compassionate as you can be. For starters, I think that’s how all beings should relate to each other, but if you know that person served in the military, tack on an extra serving of love, respect, and compassion.

8) Do you have a favorite dance to teach?

Jen: Salsa is of course my #1 – it’s young, it’s fun, and it’s hard to sit still to music like that! Plus, if I ask a 20 year old Marine if he would like to learn the Waltz, my hunch is he’d immediately have a list of 20 things he had to do. But when I say “want to learn to salsa?” guys know the basic truth: Chicks Dig Guys Who Can Dance.

Because of the great training and all the studying I did as a professional at Arthur Murray, I know several other dances. Our patients have learned Swing, Tango, Foxtrot, Merengue and Bachata. No one has asked for Polka yet, but I am ready when they do!

9) Which is your favorite reality dancing television competition and why?

Jen: I have been a HUGE fan of “So You Think You Can Dance” since Season One. At the time I was recovering from a back injury, so I would DVR the show and then all my dance friends would come over to my place after work and we’d have a SYTYCD viewing party. We’d all pick our favorites and even try to re-create some of the moves ourselves! That show celebrates the talent in all these amazing dancers regardless of their training or background. The icing on the cake was how I randomly moved into the neighborhood in San Diego where one of the judges owned a studio. Mary took a chance on me and gave me the most amazing opportunity to serve a community so near and dear to my heart (I’m an Air Force brat, and several family members on both sides of the family have served) and she is now the Advisory Board Chair on my Board of Directors!

10) What are your three favorite songs for dancing?

Jen: Tough one! Juliana by Cuco Valoy (but I also love DLG’s version), Lloraras by Oscar de Leon, Nadie Como Ella by Marc Anthony.

How amazing are those 10 answers?!?! I wish I had thought to ask Jen Ables 10 more questions. I am awestruck by her work and want to thank her for sharing Soldiers Who Salsa with us today. What an amazing way to honor so many veterans. I made a donation this morning in Jen’s honor, as a thank you for sharing her story with Likes to Smile.

And you? What do you think of Soldiers who Salsa? Are their veterans in your family — what are their stories?

From the bottom of my heart, I would like to thank all our military members (active and inactive) for keeping our families safe and secure. I hope that you and your families are safe and secure, as well.

Until Tuesday, for Joe’s Story.

With gratitude to Soldiers Who Salsa!

xoxo,
Stacey

Postscript: All photographs and images in this blog post are courtesy of Soldiers Who Salsa.

Superhero Statement – Look for the Helpers

During a crisis, Twitter curates news quickly enough to keep up with my urge for more information. With the tragedy of the Boston Marathon, I spent Monday refreshing my twitter feed in search of updates. It all seemed so senseless, I didn’t realize how heavy hearted I had become. While reflecting on the wisdom of Fred Rogers, I experienced noticeable relief.

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(Image via)

My Superhero Statement Column was created to honor those ordinary people who take extraordinary measures to make this world a better place. While there were countless heroes in Boston on Monday, I felt it was only appropriate to honor but a few of those hero helpers here today.

Like:

The first responders that never hesitate to run into danger.

The U.S. Army soldiers who ran the race and then also ran back into the fire to help others.

The man in the cowboy hat who attended the marathon to honor his sons and provided aid to many others.

The Boston resident offering orange juice and a bathroom.

The Chicago tribune reminded us that a true sportsman understands the ties that hold us together.

Joe Andruzzi, the former New England Patriot, wouldn’t share his personal story, to allow the heroism of first responders to shine.

Marathon runners crossed the finish line and then ran to the hospital to donate blood.

News outlets were able to create lists of heroes, including the list of those opening their homes to those in need.

And this reminder to have faith in human nature: that there were more volunteers than good deeds to be done.

Thank you, dear heroes and super helpers, for reminding me that even in the face of evil, we are surrounded by good. I have great faith in human nature. In the wake of this tragedy, may we all find some peace. I hope that you and all your loved ones are safe.

xoxo,
Stacey