Friday, November 23, 2012

Anderson Mambwe: Best Foot Forward

Inspired by the courage displayed in the characters of Kathryn Stockett's Best Selling Novel The Help, Anderson Mambwe channeled his own courage by openly sharing stories of his own. What began as post-its on the counter, jotted down ideas on a notepad, and "what if" conversations over breakfast, the stories as told by Anderson and transcribed by Laura Schneider have settled nicely into an impressive outline of a memoir. Anderson Mambwe: Best Foot Forward tells of the journey from life as he knew it to life as he'll know it after a handful of angels in disguise extended unprecedented amazing grace.

Facing double above the knee amputation or certain death at age 17, Anderson was shepherded into the country by OMNI: Orphan Medical Network International and Seeds of Hope Ministries in pursuit of a future he never dreamed of having. On a mission to prove disability is not inability, Anderson tells of his life in Zambia, his time in the United States, and his excitement to return home after a life-altering journey to America and 21st century medicine.

Anderson wished to share this piece of his writing with all who have walked this path with him along with his deep gratitude for all of the assistance he's received and the support he's been overwhelmed by.

Anderson Mambwe
Mambilima School - September 2011
Excerpt from Anderson Mambwe: Best Foot Forward:
I am so grateful to all who have helped me and to all who have healed me on this journey. Great thanks to Dr. Remine and Mrs. Remine who have graciously cared for me as their own son. Thanks also to my best doctor, Dr. Chuck for his kindness and for giving me the chance at a future I never would have had. When he told me he was going to save my legs, I couldn’t believe it. He didn’t just save my legs, he saved my life. Thank you to Seeds of Hope and my sponsors for everything they have done and to Lewis-Gale Medical Center for their generosity. Thank you to Dr. Dan and Mrs. Gil for being so kind and for all of their help. Thank you to Ms. Jane for her paintings. Thank you to my friends, Mr. Bruce, Mrs. Stephanie, Maddy and Tee and to my sister, Laura for helping me write my story. 

I will return back to Zambia able to walk on my own two feet, in shoes, for the very first time. I can’t begin to describe how amazing that feels. I was scared and excited about the surgeries, but am so thankful for the experience I had with the doctors and nurses who treated me so well. I look forward to returning to my school and my village as someone who will be able to participate in the community instead of living in isolation. I don’t know what its like to be unashamed of my feet, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

I am returning to Zambia having seen the hand of God at work in my life. I hope to return to my country with hope for the hopeless and with faith for those who need it. I have truly been blessed by great people in America – I will never forget them and I hope they will never forget me. 

Anderson Mambwe
Roanoke, VA - November 2012

Angels in the Architecture

I have always been a fan of Frank Ticheli’s Angels in the Architecture. Ticheli’s notes read

This ‘angel’ — represented by the singer—frames the work, surrounding it with a protective wall of light and establishing the divine. Other representations of light — played by instruments rather than sung—include a traditional Hebrew song of peace (“Hevenu Shalom Aleichem”) and the well-known 16th-century Genevan Psalter, “Old Hundredth.” These three borrowed songs, despite their varied religious origins, are meant to transcend any one religion, representing the more universal human ideals of peace, hope, and love. An original chorale, appearing twice in the work, represents my own personal expression of these aspirations.

In opposition, turbulent, fast-paced music appears as a symbol of darkness, death, and spiritual doubt. Twice during the musical drama, these shadows sneak in almost unnoticeably, slowly obscuring, and eventually obliterating the light altogether. The darkness prevails for long stretches of time, but the light always returns, inextinguishable, more powerful than before.

I had my iPod on shuffle as I was cleaning my house and beginning to wrap my brain around the week ahead… While this Thanksgiving Break is perhaps the least stress-ridden academic break of my college career, it packs no less of a punch as I come to terms with an inevitable goodbye looming at the finish line. Just as the floodgates behind my eyes breech maximum capacity for the countless time, Angels in the Architecture begins to play. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a religious experience, but I will confess that in that moment, the presence of angels has never been more apparent.

Angels in the Architecture is a fifteen-minute piece and for all of those fifteen minutes I sat and listened as I thought about the angels in my life. I thought about who they are, where they come from, where I’ve found them, and where they’ve found me… On any given day I am graced with more angels than I deserve, but today I’m focusing on one: Anderson Mambwe.

Anderson arrived in America March 8, 2012 by the grace of OMNI: Orphan Medical Network International and Seeds of Hope Ministries to have a reconstructive surgery on both feet that were severely misshapen due to a rare birth defect - an operation that, if performed in Zambia, would have resulted in a double above-the-knee amputation. On a life-altering journey to America and 21st century medicine, Anderson has been a source of pure joy for those of us who have shared in the pieces of his journey.

Anderson possesses an infectious love of life, a contagious wonder of the world and all things in it, and a smile that puts the lights of NYC to shame. He has taught me more about the good side of humanity than I ever knew existed and I can’t begin to imagine what my life would be like having never met him – just as I can’t imagine my world without him as a part of my daily life. 

I have read and re-read a column by Stephanie Koehler called “Waiting for Fireflies” and I’ve found this segment to best exemplify life in the presence of this young man. “I too, know people I would characterize as fireflies. People who go unnoticed in the glare of sunlight – but given the right circumstances, they give off a spectacular glow. They are not typically “flashy” people. Quite the opposite really. They don’t really try to shine – it’s just who they are. It’s part of their being. The source of their light is often mysterious – or at least not obvious – but they are undeniably attractive to be around.”

Anderson is a firefly.

He’ll begin his journey back to Zambia tomorrow morning able to walk on his own two feet in his very own shoes for the very first time in his 18 years of living. In his wake, Anderson leaves behind former strangers turned forever family by the bricks and mortar he may never know he so significantly placed.

As I put together a scrapbook that can’t help but fall short of doing justice to the undeniable impact Anderson has had in all of our lives, I think of the moments when these weren’t memories. While I am deeply saddened by the rapidly disintegrating time to create more, I’m forever grateful for the opportunity we’ve had to make them in the first place. I am constantly amazed by the mosaic life creates in passing, and I treasure that he has been a part of mine.

This will be a goodbye of record-breaking difficulty. There will undoubtedly always be an Anderson-shaped hole in my heart – but perhaps it’s the perfect treasure chest for these memories to weather the test of time.

I will greet the shadows that will surely follow his departure with open arms knowing that the sun must set to rise. I have all the faith in the world that as the sun fades on his chapter in our lives, he’ll rise with it tomorrow, brighter than ever before ready to change the world one sure-footed step at a time. His future is locked and loaded with more potential than the average human would know what to do with – but he’s no average human.

We talked one day about the 7 wonders of the world and as he flies into the sky on his journey home, I’d like to offer an 8th. You see, the stars are a unique bond that binds this universe. At any point, from any place on this earth, we share the same stars – the only difference is the vantage point. So when I miss him more than words can say, I will look to the sky and know that we share that piece of architecture. 

To the world, I challenge you to find the people who are the angels in your architecture. Life has a funny way of teaching you that time is really all you have – someday, you will wake up and realize you have less than you think. So I challenge you not only to find them, but also to let them know they are valued as the vital pillars they so obviously are – today, not tomorrow. 

To my brother, Anderson Mambwe, who’s inextinguishable light transcends every shadow of the valley of death, thank you for the hope you’ve given me, the faith you’ve restored in me, and for the light you are in my life. I wish for you safest travels home and the very best this life and this world has to offer. You will always be an angel in the architecture of my life – my world is forever a better place and I a better person for the time I’ve spent encompassed by your unconditional love and vibrant light.

Though the miles lie between us, we're never far apart, for friendship doesn't count the miles...
It's measured by the heart.

I hope and pray to the heavens and back that the winds of life will blow our sails in such a direction that eventually our journeys overlap again, but until then, I will look to the sky, I’ll pick the brightest star and I’ll watch you shine.

Walk tall, stand strong & love fearlessly.
It doesn't matter how far you are, we're right behind you. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Pursuing "X"

It is no secret to anyone who knows me that I am plausibly the world’s worst mathematician. Long division is a lost cause, in Algebra I drew caricatures of my Charlie Brown droning teacher, in Geometry I drew graffiti, and if I’m being completely honest, even basic addition and subtraction has always been a bit of a challenge… but my longstanding nemesis has always been solving for variables.

It used to infuriate me when teachers would tell me to solve the equation for "X". How? You tell me what "X" is and then I’ll solve the math problem. I have never understood why "X" was allowed to be the sacred placeholder for whatever value the cruel textbook curator wished it to be – until now.

I have given absolutely no consideration to math outside of necessity since I completed my last required math class two summers ago, but I’ve found myself in the position to re-visit solving for variables. When solving for variables, there are multiple things to consider – the constants, the functions, and the variables themselves.

This past year has been a hell of a roller coaster. I have been up, down, and upside down more times than I can count. I have sucked the poison out of parts of my life only to inadvertently contaminate others. I have played with fire and gotten burned. I have poured concrete into new foundations only to realize I was standing in it, but somehow, despite the odds and often thanks to others, I have managed to move forward. I have been abundantly blessed with opportunities to actively engage in things that I believe in, work that I love, meaningful education, and substantial personal growth. All of these factors have contributed significantly to the metamorphosis of my bigger picture and to the variables in my equation.

I have known what I wanted to do with my life since I was in 8th grade. I’ve wanted to teach music forever: it was a straight-laced math problem. Case closed, done deal – except that it’s not. In fact, I’ve been having quite the identity crisis about it. It’s not that I don’t want to teach music, I love it more than I love a lot of things – but I have an ever-expanding laundry list of things worth pursuing.

I am ready for the next chapter in my life… I am hopelessly addicted to new beginnings and admittedly guilty of wishing time away to pursue them. I have always been an old soul and I’m not sure I could ever reverse that even if I wanted to. Life has often taught me lessons the hard way, serving as jet fuel to an already ambitious fire… I have always colored outside the lines, and any time I’ve spent “inside the box” has been spent thinking of ways to get out. Patience has never been a strong virtue of mine, but it’s one I’m working on channeling now more than ever.

Two weeks ago I was apartment hunting and interviewing for jobs for the year I was planning on taking off of school – but you could say I had a bucket of ice water dumped on my head last week and that idea froze alongside me upon contact.

You see, I’ve been doing it wrong. I’ve been solving for variables by trying to establish the constants when in reality, there really aren’t any. Opportunities come and go, friends come and go - lets face it, even family comes and family goes. I am the only constant in my equation - if I cheat myself the education I know I’m capable of and have already invested in, I’m only robbing myself… and by “taking the year off” I’m simply operating on borrowed time.

I want that year "off" more than I can begin to describe, but the longer I put off grad school the more time I spend postponing the inevitable. I can't not finish what I started. I see the value in taking the sanity time, some days I’m not sure I can make it without it, but if I spend 365 more days committed to finishing what I started, I have the rest of my life to solve for variables… and the best part about that is, I get to define "X" in my own textbook.

I could take the year now, never go back, and spend the next twenty years of my life justifying the lack of credentials one more year could have gotten me – or I could put my best foot forward, whether I want to or not, and let the variables solve themselves. I will openly say I don’t remember ever being so unsure of myself, but this is also the first time the bigger picture has morphed into panorama.

I call it the "X Factor." 

"X" is untapped potential. "X" is the future, and "X" is mine for the taking. 
I’m not a sideline sitter – never have been, never will be. I’m a go-getter, or at least I try to be. I don’t always make the right decisions, but I try to make smart ones. I certainly don’t know what lies beyond the crossroad where opportunity meets reality, so for today I'm defining "X" as possibility. 

I am absolutely aware that opportunities fall out of reach just as quickly as they fell into your hands in the first place, and I hope by postponing a full-fledged new beginning I haven’t imposed a premature ending - but I have to believe that either way, the door will continue to revolve. Everything in this life is a variable and subject to change. God knows I have no idea how to solve this equation, so perhaps I’ll take a backseat for now and let time do what it does best. 

Contrary to my passionate hatred of mathematics, I am a believer in the variables.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Piecing Puzzling Pieces

I’ve always enjoyed puzzles. The mindlessly simple ones, to the ones that make you think, to the ones that blow your mind – I like them all. I thoroughly enjoy the concept of taking lots of little images and seeing how they all come together to create the big picture. Some obviously take longer than others, but the fix I get from the “voila” moment when clarity strikes always makes it worth it. There is only one problem with my puzzling habit – I am a chronic user of the box. I want to know what I’m looking for, I want to see the big picture before it’s created, and I want to know – more than anything else – that I’m headed in the right direction. Simple, right? Sure – if only it were actual puzzles I was referencing.

Rule number one – nothing is ever as easy as you hope it will be… especially when there are no instructions. There are not many things about my life that I would go back and change – I mean that. I have learned a lot from where I’ve been and I’m not sure that going back to re-hash or re-do anything would be worth the risk of losing what I know now that I didn’t know then. I firmly believe there is a reason your windshield is bigger than your rearview mirror - however comma there are days where I really wish I could look further ahead… and this is one of them.

I have a lot of ambitions. I always have, I suspect I always will. They are ever-changing as I progress in life and again, they always have and I suspect they always will. I have wanted to be a forensic investigator, a veterinarian, a psychologist, a massage therapist, a writer, an artist, a head chef at a 5 star restaurant, a photographer, an interior designer, a band director, a public relations guru – but the one thing I’ve unwaveringly wanted to be for longer than I can remember is a Mom.

It is no secret to anyone who knows me that I have fought tooth and nail for this right for more years than I’d like to think about. I have been a case study, a cutting board, a mystery, a lecture topic… you name it. I have been treated extensively for endometriosis, and five years and four surgeries later, have found myself, yet again, back at square one. There is nothing more depressing than the moment the pain returns… the pain that is indicative of the imminent downward spiral you’re headed for. There is nothing to be done about it – its cyclic and it doesn’t go away… unless you have a baby, or a hysterectomy… and those, my friends, are the two choices I am rapidly approaching as my only options.

As you can imagine, that went over about like a led balloon. I mean, could continue to have relatively minor surgeries that impose substantial damage to my body for minimal relief, but approaching the fifth surgery, one has to be a realist - at what point is enough, enough? There are a lot of risks associated with not taking conclusive steps in making this go away, but for the same reasons I am nowhere near ready to be married, I am not ready for a baby. Granted, odds are I won’t be able to have one anyways, but I am 100% less than ready to give up on that permanently… It is physically painful to watch parents of kids who so obviously don’t want to be bothered by raising them knowing that I may never have what they never wanted.

But what if there is a flipside to all of this? If I take a giant step back and take an objective look at my life there is one subliminal message that is blatantly obvious. The last thing family is defined by is DNA. The times when I have had less than desirable relationships with my biological family cultivated a deep appreciation for people who so effortlessly became the family I was in desperate need of. I celebrate more people each Mother’s day than the average person celebrates in a lifetime – the most beautiful part of that statement is that half of them are mothers, the others are not. They are each incredible women who have shone a motherly light in my life whether they held the title or not… I am eternally grateful for their light because it is in these moments that their illumination permeates the darkness of probable reality with hope.

What if all of these people who have stood in front of me, beside me, and behind me through thick and thin were lighthouses amongst a sea of people who will need someone to do the same for them? Come to think of it, so many of the people I love and care deeply about have fought their own battles in this arena and/or have adopted children who would have been in the world of parents who simply couldn’t be bothered to care. There is no black and white here. I am trying to solve the puzzle without giving the bigger picture a chance. Don’t get me wrong - if push comes to shove and biology fails me, there will we a deep sadness in the crater where the bottom of my world used to be… it is inevitable - but this isn't the end of the road. It is the letting go of a lifelong dream, but it’s not letting go of THE dream. I have witnessed love withstand the war that family cannot… and I have seen family cultivated where love was not.

It’s painfully obvious that there is no box to look at, no instructions, no dimensions – nothing. I don’t know how this will end up and I don't know what I'll do because I don't know what to do. I wish I could see ahead here, but I cant. I don’t have to make any decisions today - but I can’t not think about it. Instead I’m going to choose to think about it in a way that allows love to come from wherever it may. Mother’s day may never be a holiday I see the other side of, but I’m going to hope, fiercely, that I may be a light for others that so many have been for me. I am not looking forward to what appears to be inevitable, but I am going to try my best to take a backseat to the bigger picture – because the only way to piece the puzzling pieces is to be at peace with every piece. I'm not yet, but I am trying. I always feel like the beginnings of this downward spiral are like taking a step into a dark tunnel… but I think its time for me to start taking the advice I’ve been giving to everyone else.

“Never lose sight of the light that it always at the end of the tunnel. Follow the light to wherever it may lead you – let the rest of the pieces fall into place where they may.”

Saturday, September 1, 2012

101 things I learned from Route 101

      The road from Tucsan, Arizona to Novato, California is long but so breathtakingly beautiful. A lot of that drive takes place on or near US Route 101, a road I found to be particularly loaded with inspiration. So, in an effort to give pause to the many things I learned along the way, here are 101 observations, lessons, experiences & thoughts that I gleaned on my journey from the East to the West.
1)     Desert Storms are simply indescribable.
2)     Juxtaposition is the 8th wonder of the world.
3)     Even if you only bloom for a day, it’s worth waiting for your whole life.
4)     Beauty is everywhere. Find it in everything and everyone – including yourself.
5)     The desert is a place of survival – any human could stand to learn a thing or two from the things that survive.
6)     Find a passion and pursue it wholeheartedly – inspired by a 12 year old tiny dancer. 
Photo by Stephanie Koehler
7)     Good people forgive accidents, really good people forgive accidentally dumping Dr. Pepper all over their entire house.
8)     Each of us has something to offer one another.
9)     Read the newspaper, but question everything you read.
10)  Drink coffee, for the love of God, drink coffee – and drink coffee with others.
11)  Initiate inquisitive small talk over coffee – you may find it to be more awakening than the caffeine it’s loaded with.
12)  Breathe deeply in the presence of good air. You need more oxygen than you think.
13)  Be flexible. 
14)  Appreciate your body. Treat it well. Push your limits, but accept your limitations.
15)  “Wear Sunscreen”:
16)  Eat at In and Out burger at least once in your life… more if possible.
17)  Seek out Whole Foods and eat better than you usually do when you’re able.
18)  Screw the box of chocolates: Life is like a bag of onions, so are people. You can’t see what’s inside unless you peel away the layers.
19)  Don’t be afraid of peeling said layers, especially your own.
20)  Wear your seatbelt. Life is a bumpy ride with lots of blind turns.
21)  Sometimes good people let you down, but sometimes, good people are actually great people.
22)  Appreciate the times in your life when you find yourself in really good company. “The world will give you that once in awhile, a brief timeout; the boxing bell rings and you go to your corner, where somebody dabs mercy on your beat-up life.” –The Secret Life of Bees
23)  Buy a map – figure out how to use it.
24)  Play in the sand, even if you aren’t dressed appropriately.
25)  Take time to smell the flowers – especially lavender.
26)  Shoot out of the sunroof – you really do miss 100% of the shots you never take.
27)  Always, always, always say thank you. Showing gratitude is so important.
28)  Cursive is a lost art form, embrace it.
29)  Observe with your ears.
30)  Learn with your eyes.
31)  Listen with your heart.
32)  Work with your hands – help with them too.
33)  Love with your soul.
34)  Live fearlessly – no regrets.
35)  Respect large bodies of water. 
36)  Cross bridges, but always look both ways…
37)  Stop for pedestrians, they’re going somewhere too.
38)  Pull up your pants, you don’t want to be put on someone’s team. ;)
39)  Do one thing every day that scares you.
40)  Greet new places with enthusiasm and release any expectations upon arrival.
41)  Turn off your screens at least once a day – while you’re sleeping doesn’t count.
42)  Be where you are when you’re there. Be present. 
43)  Thou shall not lament for where you are not.
44)  Sometimes you have to disengage to engage – let it go & let it be.
45)  Tides come and go – let them wash away what they came for.  
46)  Don’t apologize for re-charging your batteries.
47)  In order to be good to others you must first be good to yourself.
48)  Listen to new music and embrace it.
49)  At new restaurants, find something on the menu that looks vaguely familiar then take a risk.
50)  Give pause to tragedy other than your own. It breaks and binds us all. 
51)  Tell stories, but more importantly, listen to them.
52)  Preserve the relationships you have with good people – they will be your pillars.
53)  Take a lesson from the Redwoods. They grow in a circle. Stick together.
54)  Don’t criticize others, empathize. You have no idea what you would have done in their shoes, so don’t be a fool by trying to fool yourself.
55)  Be kind to animals.  
56)  Focus on the things that matter, forget the things that don’t.
57)  Always be prepared. You never know who you’re going to run into…
58)  If you have the ability to make someone else’s life easier, do it. Why wouldn’t you?
59)  Support local businesses.
60)  Appreciate genuinely good food.
61)  Eat food where it comes from whenever you can. 
62)  Take pictures. Lots of them. You can’t get the moment back, but you can look back fondly.
63)  Read the signs.
64)  Break stereotypes.
65)  Always carry cash.
66)  Work hard, play hard, party harder.
67)  Hand-write letters. It’s becoming such a rarity.
68)  You get what you pay for.
69)  Take red eyes home – they’re worth the time.
70)  Carpe Diem – all day, every day.
71)  Learn from previous generations every chance you get.
72)  You don’t need as much of anything as you think you do.
73)  Center yourself. Finding a balance is more important than you think.
74)  Everyone needs something to believe in.
75)  Look for inspiration in unexpected places. 
76)  Always travel with your pillow.
77)  When you feel like your head is in the clouds walk barefoot – its always good to know whether or not you’re feet are on the ground.
78)  Good news is best received when totally unexpected.
79)  Home is wherever you find it.
80)  Drink water… seriously.
81)  Secret Beauty Tip: Blow-dry your eyelash curler – it’s better than any mascara.
82)  Time is precious. Respect everyone’s – including your own.
83)  Chai tea is the secret nectar of Gods.
84)  Famous people are people too.
85)  Over appreciate the people in your life who are constantly underappreciated.
86)  The healing process is exactly what it sounds like – a process.
87)  Nothing about life is black and white – see it in color.
88)  Some music needs air, roll down the windows.
89)  No matter what the occasion, the view is always better from the high road. 
90)  Yoga by the ocean is an unparalleled peace.
91)  There is nothing wrong with being a wanderer, just be aware of the general direction in which you are headed.
92)  Sometimes, you just have to look at things… and when you do, look closely.
93)  Stop, turn around, and look at just how far you’ve come.
94)  Carry what you believe in with you wherever you go.
95)  Always stop at flea markets… its an opportunity to dig for buried treasure.
96)  Let your hair down – its okay to stop caring what you look like. 
97)  Go the scenic route at least once – it’s not always about crossing the finish line first.
98)  Have faith in something.
99)  There is never a testimony without a test – don’t lose sight of the light that is always at the end of the tunnel.

100) When bad rains down on good people, be an arc, not an anchor… the last thing anyone needs is someone else bringing them down. 

101) Wander along the path less traveled by, it really does make all the difference.