(Adapted from Unlikely Teachers: Finding the Hidden Gifts in Daily Conflict, by Judy Ringer)
Over the spring and summer, I'll be posting favorite stories from my book, Unlikely Teachers: Finding the Hidden Gifts in Daily Conflict. As I mentioned in May, each Ki Moments post through Aug. 7, will contain a new story, full of practices and helpful hints.
Life Is What You Make It
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
My Aunt Mimi was a teacher, mentor, second mother, and bright spirit in my life. By her side I learned knitting, sewing, the social graces, and much more: I learned how to flow with what life offers.
Looking back, I see my 12-year-old self working the pedal of Mimi’s old, black Singer sewing machine. She’s beside me, watching approvingly and giving gentle hints.
It's Christmas Eve at my grandparents’ house—Mimi lived with them—and I’m opening a present from her. It’s a “Handmade by Mimi” poodle skirt with a beautiful felt cutout design. All the girl cousins receive one, and we immediately put them on and start twirling.
Mimi took us to the movies, on walks around the neighborhood, and shopping downtown. A bunch of cousins would pile into her car, and she’d drive us to Play Land--an amusement park where we would ride the Ferris wheel and eat cotton candy while she looked on.
Mimi helped me pick out my first mini-skirt and then stood by when my father saw it and hit the roof. For the first time in my life I was able to express what I was feeling to my dad, because Mimi said, “Go ahead, Judy, talk to your father. What do you want to say?”
Angels appreciate things about you that you thought no one else ever noticed.
What I haven’t told you is that Mimi lived most of her life in a wheelchair.
At 13, she played the piano, sang, took ballet class, acted in school plays, got top grades, and enjoyed good health and high spirits.
She began to experience pain in her back in 1934, and physicians couldn’t find the cause. After weeks of progressive decline, she received a diagnosis of transverse myelitis with epidural abscess, which had partially severed her spinal cord. Mimi lost the use of her lower body.
In spite of a bleak prognosis, with the love and care of family and her own positive outlook, Mimi’s body healed. Although she would remain paralyzed, she grew strong and able in other ways, and her spirit never faltered.
So what is this story about? Why does my aunt come to mind nearly every day? What does she represent, and how do I live a happier life because of her story?
I never saw Mimi as handicapped, probably because she never saw herself that way. She lived life as if she had no impediments.
She learned to get in and out of her wheelchair on her own, move the chair up and down stairs, and drive a car well into her 70s (she was one of the first to own a car with hand controls).
When I become anxious or troubled, I see Mimi and the grace she displayed in meeting challenges I can only imagine.
In the face of one of life’s ultimate “bad breaks,” she was a warrior. I know she didn’t think of herself that way. Yet everyone who knew her says the same thing: she was an extraordinary human being.
Mimi lived a life of discovery and courage.
She took risks, transformed obstacles into opportunities, and did it all with a sense of perspective about her condition that taught me more than all of her loving words and caring acts.
As she so often told me, “Judy, life is what you make it.”
Without fanfare or stress, without knowing that she was even doing anything special, she lived these words every day.
Mimi died at 83, with her sister by her side and her positive outlook intact, still in discovery. It is impossible to predict what each new day will offer.
We do, however, make choices in how we receive each offering—as a burden or a gift.
Mimi taught me to discover the gift, and for that I am very grateful.
Who is your Mimi?
What models do you have who encourage you to live more courageously?
What do they represent, and how do you live differently because of them?