Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Where the missteps lead

I packed the wrong bag. Really, I wish I had a better opener to explain one of the most powerful and profound moments of my year, but I realize in many ways, it comes down to something as simple as that.

But I guess it really all started in 2003 when I realized I’m a horrible cement mixer. This was when I was down in Tijuana, Mexico with Loyola Marymount University on one of their weekend service and immersion trips called De Colores. If you were as bad as I was at mixing cement you had two options: You could perfect your cement mixing abilities, or you could inconspicuously sneak away and play with the kids from the community who came with their parents to the house build projects.

And so it was that I came to know Eric, and countless other kids in the local community called Tecolote that we worked in. Eric and his siblings grew close to many of us, so much so that one of Eric’s youngest siblings is actually named after a friend of mine who went on these trips. On my last trip as a student, another friend Diego gifted Eric a beanie with the logo of the service organization called Magis we were a part of. 
Eric, with Diego after being given his Magis beanie.

After I graduated, the beauty of Facebook updates from friends still at LMU allowed me to learn bits and pieces of how Eric and his family were, and time and again, the beanie was in the photos. But the photos and updates gradually disappeared as the work De Colores was doing moved away from Tecolote and into another community- El Florido. And before I knew it, I was left wondering about Eric, where he was, and what he was doing.

This past September, I became the interim Director of the De Colores service program, meaning I am now the one responsible for bringing LMU students down to Mexico. On Friday, I was frantically packing to get ready for the trip and for reasons I’ll never fully understand I walked right past my usual Mexico duffle bag and instead grabbed a bag off my closet shelf I haven’t used for a couple years now.

Fast forward to Sunday, and Build a Miracle, the nonprofit we work with in Tijuana hosted a holiday party for all the people who have received a home through their organization. A young man who looked to be about 20 caught my attention. He looked different, older obviously, and yet something inside told me it was Eric.

I got to spend a good amount of time with Eric and his family that Sunday. We exchanged stories and updates; them asking me about other students that had been part of my time period, me asking about members of the community that treated me like one of their own. Eric asked about Diego, and some of the other guys in the service organization, and told me he was an unofficial member of Magis even though his beanie had been stolen long ago. And it was then I knew, I hadn’t packed the wrong bag after all.

You see, the night before, I had been looking for my toothpaste and some other items I forgot to bring because I always keep them packed in my trusty blue duffle bag. I was frustrated and cursing my error when I felt something at the bottom of the bag: My Magis beanie. Seeing it Saturday night instantly brought back powerful memories of Eric, his siblings, and other members of the community I came to care about that kept me awake for much of the night. And here’s the thing- if I had the right bag, I never would have had the beanie and I probably wouldn't have thought about Eric and his family that night. I really don't think I would have recognized Eric that next day, he would have just been a face among the hundreds there that day.
Eric, with his new Magis beanie

God has a great sense of humor. Just when I think I have every detail choreographed, a wrench is thrown into the plan. Isn’t that life, in ways big and small? The challenge then isn’t avoiding the missteps, but rather in remaining constantly open to where and whom they might lead you to. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Generational differences on remembering 9/11

I realized last night speaking with a couple college students I work with at Loyola Marymount University that young men and women in college today were young elementary school students when 9/11 happened 11 years ago. In speaking to these students, I was momentarily taken aback by how it was one of the few times this particular conversation was driven less by raw emotion and reflection on a personal level of what that day meant and more almost like a history lesson. It was the first time I felt compelled to tell my own 9/11 story not for my own comfort, but to hopefully educate someone else. 

I was a senior in high school, and like many kids with parents were going through a divorce, my relationship with my parents wasn't great. I was difficult to communicate with, and so had spoken little with my dad but knew he was scheduled to be on a plane that day. Before those planes hit the towers, my biggest concern was a test I failed to properly study for and the status of Ed McCaffrey, a Broncos wide receiver who broke his leg on Monday Night Football the night before. That morning, the hours dragged on, leaving me wondering if my dad was alright. The petty reasons we shut off communication with people weighed heavily on my mind, as for the first time I contemplated a world where not talking to him was not a choice, but a brutal reality forced upon me. That feeling of relief when he called is vivid in my memory to this day. 

Watching the towers fall, surrounded by classmates who first screamed and then sobbed as we watched events unfold, those are the types of sounds you can almost hear again so clearly when you just recall the memory. To this day, when I go to Mass, I kneel, even when most in my local church no longer do. On 9/11, my school came together to do the only thing that made sense: pray. Being in a gym, we never knelt during Mass but this day was different. One student dropped to his knees, and then another, and in under a minute, the entire gym was on their knees. That moment was the strongest I felt that entire week. 

Each time I am in a Church I kneel and it brings me back to 9/11/01. I am reminded to pray for anyone who saw life close it's final chapter too soon, and those who silently shoulder the burden of that loss. But it's also a hallelujah song of sorts, a Thanksgiving  for the incredible comfort I felt in that moment, knowing there was a community around me ready to face what uncertainty lay ahead. 

I found this reflection from Vice-President Joe Biden and was profoundly moved by it. Vice-President Biden  lost his wife and daughter in a horrible car accident when he was only 30 years old. When he speaks to victims there is this clear and undeniable connection that I can only imagine comes from knowing real tragedy too early in life. 

I didn't lose anyone that day but like millions of people old enough to recall those strong emotions, the national loss is still a very real part of my personal identity. I think older generations have an important role in telling the stories that lurk behind the events of history. The things I remember most about some of the biggest historical events aren't what I learned from my history book, they are what was shared with me by members of generations who remember those moments as anything but a page in a history book.

Monday, August 27, 2012

I haven't worn pants in two months- and other stories from working at a startup

I haven’t worn pants in exactly two months. I suppose there are more appropriate ways to announce I am now working at a startup but a bit of embellishment about my pure joy of not having worn a pair of dress slacks for months was more likely to grab your attention.

When I was contemplating the jump to a startup a good friend urged me to take some time to think about it. “Why don’t you wait a few years, build up your savings a bit more, and then think if something like this makes sense?” He had a fair point. I worked with great people and was working a job that I liked. But I could feel the passion that I used to use as a beacon for life choices slowly fading away. If I waited until I was in my thirties, got accustomed to a nice salary and the perks that accompany it, who’s to say I’d still have the courage to make that jump? I believe we’re equally accountable to both heart and mind, and the heart was demanding I fight for it’s very survival.

Transitioning to a startup can be intimidating. We all have those days where we feel unfulfilled, but very rarely do we ask what we would be willing to give up in search of meaning? It’s one thing to declare you’ll follow your dreams, it is quite another thing to do just that when you realize that dreams, the really good ones at least, often come with great risk, cost, and sacrifice. This can be manifested in simple ways like letting go of your comfortable salary or company sponsored health insurance for example. Or it can be as vexing as a creeping feeling you’re not the passionate person you once were or the capable person your new company thinks they hired. When push comes to shove, it sure seems lot easier to never take the risk to discover if our greatest fears about who we are or who we are becoming are true or not.

My first weeks at InVenture have been exciting. And it’s not just about reporting to work most days in jeans and flip flops. There is something bigger going on. I’m surrounded by other people in their 20’s and 30’s who believe their work matters enough to have meaning. There are people all around me who are as curious as they are passionate, and that informs my work in incredible ways.

I don’t know what the future holds. But I do know that for so long I felt that emptiness in my soul that one feels when they aren’t pursuing the work they are called to do. We can ignore the longing by trying to fill the emptiness with meaningless distractions. Or, on trembling knees, we can face our greatest hopes and fears, often woven into one package.

Work here is anything but easy, but that hollow spot in my soul is being filled by a passion almost lost, compassion refueled, and curiosity pushing me to the limits of my own understanding. This is not to say I have attained the meaning I so desperately crave, but damned if I am not pursuing it... in my jeans and flip flops! 

Thursday, June 28, 2012

I am a pre-existing condition

I consider myself a great many things: a runner, an entrepreneur, and a storyteller are among just a few. But unfortunately, over the last few weeks my experience trying to obtain health insurance has forced me to see myself as something else: a pre-existing condition.

I left my job at USC, excited to join a great start-up working to create financial access for millions of poor entrepreneurs in India and elsewhere. The organization is visionary, but they’re also young and thus unable to offer health insurance for their employees at the moment. In my excitement to do something I am passionate about, I never imagined the struggles I would have to obtain health insurance on my own.

The cost is exorbitant. Typically $170 a month will get you a modest plan. Two to three visits a year to the doctor for a $40 co pay. I pay any costs beyond that, out of pocket, until I reach my $3,500 yearly deductible. After I have paid $3,500 out of pocket, the insurance company pays 70% and I pay 30%. So something like a broken leg, can easily set you back $7,000, and that’s with insurance!!!

But if like me, you have asthma, things are even worse. Many are denied health coverage because of their pre-existing condition. Me, I underwent multiple humiliating interviews that made me feel like a second class citizen before a top carrier agreed to carry me, for a $50 a month surcharge.

The letter I got from one health insurance company

I am a runner, having competed in multiple half marathons and marathons. I have controlled my asthma since 1995, and never once had an asthma attack. But these facts matter not. At the end of the day, we have a healthcare system built less on cura personalis (care of the entire person) and more on bottom line. Insurance companies see me as two things: a pre-existing condition and $$$.

The Supreme Courts decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act is a landmark moment for our nation. But it is also an intimately personal victory for me, and the countless individuals like me who don’t think asthma or some other controllable condition should in any way be able to influence or limit their desire to be entrepreneurs.

I try to avoid politics on this blog, but this decision feels more than political to me, it has become deeply and agonizingly personal. The Affordable Care Act, Obamacare as some call it, has countless stories and human faces beyond the thousands of pages and heated political debate. I am one of those faces, one of countless stories affected by this decision.

America, at long last, moves slowly toward a standard of care seen in every other industrialized nation in the world. And come 2014, health insurance companies will be forced to see me as anything BUT a pre-existing condition. 

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The light is always better than the darkness

There is a story circulating around TV, radio, and the internet about the incredible cruelty four middle school boys showed to an elderly bus monitor this week in Greece, New York. Moments after I brought myself to watch clips of this saddening video, an old professor emailed me a story he had received from Jesuit Volunteer Corps. He simply said: 

"I don't know why, but somehow knowing that 21 year old college graduates like Brittney are spending a year thinking and praying about experiences like this makes me feel better about where we are going as a society."

There is a story of heartless and immature cruelty that is the talk around so many tables and water coolers this week. But reading the reflection that was shared with me yesterday, I was profoundly moved and like my professor, feeling better about the direction our society is heading. I, like many others, have also been inspired to see people all around the world giving small sums of their own money to a fund to help this bus monitor go on a vacation and retire. Last I checked, the fund reached $550,000. The light, it seems, is still better than the darkness, even when it's seems we are surrounded by the night.

At the end of the day, we must not forget, the light is also so much stronger than the darkness in this world, if only we choose to let it be. I hope you enjoy this story as much as I did. It truly was my redemption song yesterday.

Redemption Song

A reflection from Brittney Cavaliere

A second-year JV working in Washington, D.C., at Joseph's House, which provides hospice care for people who are homeless.

A dear resident lost his battle with liver cancer earlier this year. My heart ached for him, wishing he was sitting on the front porch to say, "Good morning, Shorty," or in his room listening to Bob Marley.

Watching him die was one of the most challenging experiences, but also a very rewarding one. It was a time when I felt God's presence so clearly, when I was able to bear witness to the beauty that rises out of death.

I spent most of that morning by his bedside, writing him a little thank-you note. There'd been a major change in him from the day before. His breathing slowed, there was no longer moaning or wincing, he was free of pain. As he slept, I watched, wrapped up in the mystery that surrounded me.

In the afternoon, our nurse came to find me. "He is nearing the end. If it's important to you, and I know it is, you should go to his room."

As I entered, I knelt at the foot of the bed and placed my hand on his foot. That's where I remained until he took his last breath. I stayed there for many moments after. He died peacefully, just as I'd prayed all week.  
Three friends and co-workers entered the room soon after. Balaji placed one hand on my friend's leg and took my hand in the other. Tina and Sam joined us in our chain as we mourned together, grieved together, remembered together.

We began the Joseph's House rituals and lit a candle by the bed. Someone turned on his stereo. Bob Marley's Redemption Song played. The word "freedom" kept repeating itself.

That was when I knew he was free. He left this life for one of true joy, singing his redemption song.

The world lost a love-filled man, a teacher, a passionate human being, but we gained an angel. For that, I am eternally grateful.