Lynne Golodner: Healing the World with Story

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For this year’s Jewish New Year and high holidays, we invited Jewish writers to contribute columns about ways to make a positive difference in the world. Our ongoing motto at ReadTheSpirit is: Good media builds healthy communities. No one embodies this in a better way than columnist, media expert and author Lynne Meredith Golodner. This is her story.

‘One Earth Writing’

By LYNNE MEREDITH GOLODNER

I grew up in a suburb of Detroit where most of the kids looked like me.

During the Jewish holidays, teachers didn’t assign work because so many students in my school were absent. There might have been five or six African-American kids in my high school, and no one wore a hijab in public.

My city is magnificent and unique but it is certainly segregated. And if today’s newscasts are any indication, then it’s not just my city.

I remember spending a Good Friday in Dublin, Ireland, in a Catholic church and feeling that the musical, candlelit service was strikingly familiar to my Reform Jewish services back home. I remember on my second plane ride to Israel, sitting beside a Palestinian man from Denver headed home to visit his relatives. We had deep, powerful conversations and came away feeling that we could be friends.

As a writer, I’ve spent decades seeking out stories about the ways in which people are similar, the beliefs we share, the customs we have in common. And so as I began to look for something I could do to make the world a better, more peaceful place, I realized it was staring me in the face.

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Lynne Meredith Golodner (left) with students in a workshop.

One Earth Writing is a new nonprofit that brings together youth from different communities for writing workshops where they explore identity, belief and community. If we can plant seeds early on that people are people, help young people see that despite different skin color, clothing or religious beliefs, they look into another person’s eyes, see the familiar sparkle when excitement takes hold, they will grow up knowing that humanity is a universal truth.

And maybe, one day, that will lead us to a world populated with stories of harmony and peace rather than a desire to eliminate all people who are different than us.

As the mother of four—two of whom are teens—I know this is a difficult age. They are grappling with who they are and what they believe and that’s why this is the perfect time to engage in such meaningful explorations.

My kids don’t see difference. They see people.

But somewhere in the future, if we don’t act quickly, they, too, will join the throngs of people who perpetuate stereotypes, who fear whole communities or religions because they are unfamiliar. It must stop. And we can make it stop by replacing the unknown with the known.

When we sit at a table and share our fears and desires, our hopes and dreams, we connect. That’s what the youth who write with us do. Paired with same-age, same-stage peers different from them, they ask questions, finish each other’s stories, listen to the poems and paragraphs that are produced. They learn about themselves in the context of the other.

We talk about the words used to define ourselves, and decide whether those words work. Bossy can become leader. Big mouth can become outspoken. We make the conscious choice to use words the build an identity we can live with, rather than crumble under.

Sometimes, we write about those universal truths that we all know—the role of food in making meaning, anger at a parent, fear of not being liked. Emotions connect us, bolster us, give us the confidence to go forward.

Many people struggle with who they are all their lives. One Earth Writing seeks to change that. Once we know the sweet taste of yes, that’s me, that’s who I want to be, we can begin to leave our mark on this world.

This fall, we will welcome our first class of ambassadors. These are kids who apply for a six-month program to write monthly and co-facilitate some of our workshops with other teens. I’m willing to bet we’ll see some of those kids leading our world in the not-too-distant future, and doing so with respect and understanding for the differences that make our world so beautiful.

I don’t believe that I alone can fill the world with peace. But I do know we have to start somewhere, start small, so that each ripple of transformation leads to another and another and eventually, we are so far-reaching, we can’t help but have an impact.

We live in a big world that has been made small by technology and social media. I believe these conversations, these writing workshops, these simple exercises of choosing to discard words that don’t work for us and actively pursue those that strengthen, is the first step in ending the trend of hatred.

I can’t help but take my talents and my passions and share them with others. I have to believe we each have a purpose in this life and my purpose is to show everyone how similar we all really are.

It’s the least I can do—the least any of us can do.

Lynne Meredith Golodner is author of eight books, including The Flavors of Faith: Holy Breads, and she is the founder and executive director of One Earth Writing, www.OneEarthWriting.org. Learn more about Lynne at www.LynneGolodner.com.

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What are you building this spring? How about a new home?

Mother Shannon hugs Johannah and Isabelle Chatman

Joy and pride pour out as the Chatman family finally knows … they’re home! (All photos by Lynne Golodner.)

A SURE SIGN OF SPRING is the flurry of activity as groups nationwide prepare to help with Habitat for Humanity projects. Here at ReadTheSpirit, we’re proud that one of our authors Lynne Golodner works with Habitat and we asked her to write about how one build transforms the life of one family—in this case, a US Army veteran and her daughters. Here is Lynne’s story …

By LYNNE GOLODNER

Johannah and Isabelle Chatman breezed by on their scooters on a recent Saturday morning, the last frost-bitten fingers of winter extending into the promise of budding spring. Their smiling faces turned up to the bright sky as people crowded into their front yard, excited to celebrate the dedication of their new home in Springfield Township, Michigan.

The Chatman girls, along with their brother Chance and mother Shannon, now live in a beautiful home on a lovely green piece of land, thanks to the efforts and beliefs of My Habitat Clarkston, a movement in the Clarkston community as part of the mission of Habitat for Humanity of Oakland County.

My Habitat Clarkston is a unique part of the worldwide effort to build houses, communities and hope one family at a time. The collaborative initiative brings together Clarkston Community Church, Calvary Lutheran Church, Clarkston State Bank and others—the library, an interior design firm, the local school district, a communications specialist and the local newspaper—all for the purpose of making home ownership a dream-come-true for Shannon Chatman.

A beautiful quilt from friends at Calvary Lutheran Church

A beautiful quilt for the Chatman family from friends at Calvary Lutheran Church.

Habitat for Humanity was created in 1976 by a vision that every hard-working family achieve the dream of home ownership. In America, buying a home always is a challenge. But, since the mortgage cloud burst in 2007-2008, the mortgage industry has been ever more gun-shy about approving home loans, making it even harder for deserving families to become homeowners.

Shannon Chatman’s story is one of those just-beyond-her-grasp situations. A veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces who has a flourishing social work career in foster care, Shannon has served our country, serves her community and is single-handedly doing a magnificent job of raising three incredible kids. She just happens to be passionate about and employed in a low-paying career field.

Shannon Chatman’s whole life has been dedicated to helping others. Before her current career, Shannon was an active duty Army officer, stationed in Germany and traveling the world before motherhood inspired her to return to the States to raise her family. Dedicated to helping others achieve success, happiness and stability, Shannon was frustrated that she could not guarantee her own family a stable home life.

“My income is not high enough as a single parent to provide stability for my family, but I know what I do as a social worker is important and helps families,” she says.

Shannon is the kind of person whose smile inspires others to smile. She is grateful, humble, energetic. Her petite presence belies a strength that many covet. At the home dedication, her arms wrapped around her girls and they snuggled in for the reassuring hugs guaranteed by a mother’s love. She didn’t stop smiling through the speeches and the gifts, the prayers and the hugs, and the final presentation of the key to her purple front door.

Over the past year, scores of people have volunteered on the build-site to erect Shannon’s home. That’s the nature of Habitat for Humanity—people coming together to build a home for a deserving family. They pound nails, pour concrete, carry long pieces of wood together. They dig in the dirt and deliver lunch, they laugh and hug.

Last fall, Shannon’s build site was the lucky location of a spontaneous visit from the world-famous country music duo Florida Georgia Line, securing nationwide TV news coverage in a flurry of excitement. All the while, Shannon humbly hung back, not in any way desiring the attention, just hopeful that one day, she could provide a home for her children.

After moving three times in six years, searching for a safe, affordable place to call home, Shannon was approved to become a Habitat homeowner in 2012. She says the experience was inspiring. Her home sits on a beautiful open lot framed by trees and quiet breezes. “Finally having a safe, secure and stable home to raise my family will give me peace of mind and set my children on the path to success,” she says.

Habitat for Humanity of Oakland County CEO Tim Ruggles

Habitat for Humanity of Oakland County CEO Tim Ruggles

Habitat for Humanity is a grassroots organization dedicated to the elimination of poverty and substandard housing. Habitat accepts donated homes or lots, and builds or renovates them in partnership with qualifying families, who pay an affordable mortgage provided through Habitat. Worldwide, Habitat has built and renovated more than 1 million houses since 1976.

Celebrating its 20th year, Habitat for Humanity of Oakland County has built and renovated homes for more than 190 families in Oakland County, Michigan, during its two decades in existence. Its very first homeowner, Doreen Marquis, was able to send her children to college because she was secure in the knowledge that her home was safe and affordable. She advanced her own career after becoming a Habitat homeowner and now has grandchildren—the third generation to achieve and thrive all because their family was built on the foundation of homeownership.

Habitat’s vision is a world where everyone has a decent place to live. The non-profit is driven by this mission: Seeking to put God’s love into action, Habitat for Humanity brings people together to build homes, communities and hope.

At Shannon Chatman’s home dedication, Habitat for Humanity of Oakland County CEO Tim Ruggles, a very tall and commanding leader who speaks in strong, measured steps, handed an envelope to Shannon. It contained a gift certificate he’d won at a My Habitat Clarkston benefit event, offering a weekend with a Cadillac and four tickets to a Beatlemania show.

“I never win anything,” Tim said to the crowd on Shannon’s driveway and in her yard. Except for his steady voice and birds chirping in nearby trees, the morning was perfectly quiet. “And as I lay in bed last night, about to go to sleep, my wife said, ‘We have to give this to Shannon.’” As he said the words, his voice choked with emotion, his eyes glistening with tears. He handed the envelope to Shannon and clasped her in a big bear hug.

American Legion Post Number 63

Shannon Chatman is a US Army veteran. American Legion Post #63 posted the colors and stood, rifles at their sides.

The men and women of American Legion Post #63, in full uniform, posted the colors, rifles and American flags at their sides.

A woman from Calvary Lutheran Church presented a handmade quilt to Shannon and her girls.

Friends of the Springfield Township Library brought a bag of books and gift cards, artist Tim Yanke’s Yankee Doodle painting was presented in a substantial black frame to hang on her wall.

In the end, the journey toward home ownership is one that most people cannot do alone. It is the American dream, to have a place to call home, a safe place to come back to every night, to swing on tires roped onto a tree branch, to coast on scooters down the dirt road to the homes of newfound best friends.

Community makes a life worthwhile. And in this case, it takes a community to build a home, to put down roots in the soil and trust that with water and sunshine, they will grow tall, strong and far-reaching, many years into the future.

Want to get involved?

Immersed in the spirit of tashlikh as a family

As part of our coverage of the Jewish High Holidays, ReadTheSpirit magazine welcomes author Lynne Meredith Golodner, writing about her own contemporary experience with tashlikh.

Throwing Away Mistakes:
It’s that time of year

By LYNNE MEREDITH GOLODNER

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe will walk through the cascading hills of Cranbrook’s grounds, between and among the tree-shaded trails. The kids will climb into the arms of a steady old tree, balance in the fork of branches, jump down without fear. We will debate whether to take the path that leads to a carefully scripted line of boulders, where they can dance and skip from rock to rock, or take the other path, the back way, and end up at a grand finale of stones.

At some point in the middle of this autumn hike, my four children, husband and I will pause beside the water. Most years, it’s the drumming river next to the Japanese gardens, but last year we sat on a platform beside the still and silent pond. Either way, we’ll open the bag of old bread and crumble pieces into crumbs to disseminate over the water’s surface, letting the current take last year’s choices and regrets away forever, making room for this year’s clean slate.

This is the tradition I’ve built with my family in the spirit of tashlikh, the Jewish practice on Rosh Hashanah, or sometime between the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, 10 days later. Tashlikh is the ritual of throwing away our sins so that we may start anew, start fresh, in the dawning of a new year.

It’s a cleansing, so to speak, of the soul.

When I became a single mother of three young children in 2008, I began my journey toward personalizing my spiritual pursuits. I grew up as a secular Reform Jew, doing my duty–services twice a year, where my sister and I camped out in the synagogue bathroom and commented on other people’s outfits. Bored by the observances, we muscled through until the time when we were set free into the parking lot and onward to home, to imbibe chicken soup and matzoh balls and revel in the day off from school.

In young adulthood, I chose Orthodoxy, my form of rebellion. I spent a decade in the ritualistic rigidity of very traditional Judaism, learning the roots of my heritage, observing as much as I could stomach. I sat in long services on two days of Rosh Hashanah, trying not to fidget from the not-knowing, the lack-of-understanding. My rabbi had compassion; he encouraged me to attend a learner’s service, admitting that the high holy day observances are heavy, too much for someone not raised in the culture of immersion.

I dreaded the 25-hour fast day of Yom Kippur, though I did it, muscling through in the way that I did as a child in my liberal synagogue. Either way, I didn’t find my place in my religion until I set myself free from an unhappy marriage at the age of 37. It was then that I felt brave enough, confident enough, strong enough, to create my own rituals, and involve my children in tangible observance of our long tradition.

The first time I took the kids to Cranbrook for tashlikh, I made a conscious choice not to use the word “sin,” which is the common construction for this practice. The bread crumbs symbolize our sins, which we cast off for the moving waters to carry away from us. And then we are free, free from sin, a clean canvas with which to start a new year, in hopefully better spirits and character than the one just ended.

I didn’t want to teach my children that our religion is a punishing one. I wanted them to embrace themselves in success and in failure, and the word sin has such a harsh connotation. So I used the word “choice,” asking the then 2-, 4- and 6-year-old sweet ones what choices they would like to make in the coming year.

“I will be nicer to my brother,” said one of my children.

“I will listen to Mommy more,” said another.

“I will read more books,” said the third one.

And I joined them, admitting my own human-ness in front of these precious souls.

“I will try not to yell,” I said. It was hard being a single mother; I was easily excitable in those early years trying to figure it out for myself. I threw that regret into the waters and watched the bread crumb dissolve into nothingness.

After the bread supply was depleted and I had just a plastic bag left to carry home, we continued on our journey. The Pewabic tiled fountain under leafy pine and maple. The cairn beside the swampy pond. Overgrown shrubbery nearly obscuring the narrow path toward the majestic old house with its fountains and gardens.

We dipped into the Greek amphitheater and the children ran up and down the rows of seats, called with echoing voices from the open stage. We were free in the forest, reveling in our connection and in the freedom to be reborn after making mistakes, grateful for second chances.

My children are older now and I am thankfully calmer. We still do our tashlikh routine, a favorite of mine at least, with each passing year. We go to synagogue to mark the significance of the holiday season with community, but it isn’t until we get out in the open air and sunshine that we feel energized to start anew.

I have two middle-schoolers who roll their eyes at me even as they snuggle in close. I have a third-grader and a fifth-grader, too. All are wrapped in their version of good and bad, their understanding of the way our world rejuvenates itself.

I still use the word “choice,” preferring its participatory connotation over the finger-wagging “sin.” As we stroll along the pine-scented trails, I listen more than I talk, letting them take the stage, letting them share their revelations of what it is to live a good life, what it is to release regret into the warm hug of the generous world.

Lynne Meredith Golodner is author of eight books including The Flavors of Faith: Holy Breads. She owns a public relations company called Your People LLC, guiding spiritually-focused businesses and nonprofits in storytelling and relationships to build their reach, and blogs daily at www.lynnegolodner.com. She lives with her husband and four children in Huntington Woods, Michigan.