PURPOSE: My Feet Tapping

by Lia Avellino

Age 27. New York, NY

I was born and raised in New York City.  I learned the art of striving at a very young age.  My father, raised by a single-mom who immigrated to Pelham Bay in The Bronx from a fisherman’s island in Italy, managed an Italian restaurant by night and worked in the garment district during the day.  My mother, raised in Westport, Connecticut, sold men’s fragrance at Saks Fifth Avenue.  As a hippie turned-born-again-Christian, my mother taught us to believe in the value of good works and self-regulation. Work, for me, became compulsory; defining and all encompassing.  The goal was always “more,” and it had to be more of everything.

The goal was always “more,” and it had to be more of everything.

By the age of 26, I worked as a fashion model in NYC, worked on a team to redesign the way the chronic ill in New York received health care, taught a memoir writing group to teens from at-risk environments, got married, managed a national component of President Obama’s 5-year initiative to reduce teen pregnancy, enrolled in graduate school at Columbia to study social work, provided counseling to over-aged and under-credited youth in the foster care and juvenile justice systems, and worked for one of the most well-respected media moguls in the world, traveling globally and nationally.

However, I couldn’t tell you what month the trees began to bloom in my neighborhood, or what the large piece of art hanging in my therapist’s office looked like.  I woke up at 5 am daily, sometimes earlier, to get a workout in and then rode the subway, feeling anxious that I was unreachable while someone “needed” something from me “immediately.”  I developed something of a covert narcissism, which many of us New Yorker have–the belief that everything we do matters and so much is hinged on our participation and decision-making.

However, I couldn’t tell you what month the trees began to bloom in my neighborhood, or what the large piece of art hanging in my therapist’s office looked like.


I identified that I was petrified of stopping.  Of what I would find in myself, if I didn’t hold it all together.  I wasn’t ready to act, but I was ready to listen.  So I listened.  I turned to my sisters in feminism, literature and film:

to writer Joan Didion, telling me to “play it as it lays”

to feminist bell hooks, reminding me that “to live consciously means to seek to be aware of everything that bears on our actions, purposes, values and goals”

to Maude (of the 1971 film Harold and Maude), who emboldened me by saying “Look.  See, some are smaller, some are fatter, some grow to the left, some to the right, some even have lost some petals.  All kind of observable differences.  You see, Harold, I feel that much of the world’s sorrow comes from people who are this…yet allow themselves to be treated as that.”

to poet Dylan Thomas, who said to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light”

to a New York Times Modern Love columnist Gary Presley, who told me to act “against head-logic.  With heart-dreams.”

and lastly Toni Cade Bambara whose words ring in my ear daily, “To be trapped in other people’s fictions puts us under arrest.  What you are doing matters.  Remember that.”

I collated all of these wisdoms on a blog, and read them daily.  I saw, and began to believe that there was nothing more I needed to do.
I simply matter, just as simply and beautifully as you matter.

Purpose in saying hello to the fear, welcoming it in, understanding it, dismantling it, and then hopefully, to release it and dance.


One morning when I got to my desk, I made a list of all my personal values, and asked myself if I was living life in accordance with those values.  It was a very simple exercise, but it gave me that nudge to move toward trying something different. My list and my life were misaligned.

I made the hard decision to leave my job.  To stop.  To wade in the middle of the ocean, without the directive flashing lights.

I am deeply afraid of what I’ll find, but there is purpose in this alone.  Purpose in saying hello to the fear, welcoming it in, understanding it, dismantling it, and then hopefully, to release it and dance.

I know I want to dance, I feel my feet tapping.

PURPOSE: Stories About Bill

by Brian Davis

Age 50. La Grange, IL

It was 2012. Many of us in our close-knit neighborhood were pushing 50 when several male friends and neighbors died suddenly…these were terrific, fun-loving, community-minded people in an idyllic suburban community in Chicagoland.  At one of these funerals, we got a bit of a shock. Three of us were asked to speak, and we shared our stories about Bill. Later in the same ceremony, three of Bill’s California friends spoke. We had heard of these guys — people Bill and his wife had befriended in Orange County in the 80’s when they were young and married without kids. As the three spoke to the mourners, it was different. They reminisced a bit about the old days, but then then shifted to a discussion on a more spiritual level. They talked about praying with him over the phone on Sunday nights during his long battle with cancer.  They talked about their relationship with God, and Bill’s relationship with God (how on earth would they know, right?!).  They talked about flying into Chicago before one of his major surgeries and anointing him — a quick plane trip in and gone the next day.

The night of Bill’s funeral we drank many Guinnesses. A group of locals, including me, kept coming back to the same topic, beer in hand:  How had we not realized that Bill had such a spiritual side to him? We had spent so much time with him at kids’ games, playing golf, going to events, drinking beer. But he had something deeper with the California crew.

A few days later one of our circle of friends, Jack, had the courage to send an email to a group of about 50 men who we knew well (or thought we did). His message: How come we didn’t know Bill was so close with these guys and had such a close relationship with them on a deeper level?  And why can’t we do that now with each other?  He invited us over for an hour of fellowship — to talk about being a better husband, better father, better community member…and to talk about our weaknesses, our relationship with God, etc.

Fast forward to 2015. Our every-other week fellowship meetings are going strong. Any where from 12 to 20 of us show up.  We talk about deep topics — from mental illness to our relationship with God to how to have meaningful vacations with our kids. We’ve gotten to know each other at a much deeper level. We still drink a beer or two.

And we took it one step further. We started a non-profit in 2013 (www.TheLegacyGuild.com) to provide college scholarships to any student in our school district who has lost a parent. This year we’ll give away more than $80,000 in scholarships to 34 students — including Bill’s son.

What’s our purpose?  To go beyond ourselves. To dig deeper into who we are. To support each other during difficult times. To never forget those who have left us too soon.

PURPOSE: 387 Different Operas

by Carole Berglie

Age 69. Sea Cliff, NY

Character builds slowly.  First, parents who loved one another and applied commonsense and intelligence, and love, to raising me as an individual, a girl in a lower middle-class neighborhood, of lower middle-class parents, where I was the only girl (Queens, NYC) to go to college.  But mostly, my character was built through a partnership with another woman that lasted over 30 years, 26 of which we had with the Sword of Damocles overhead, called breast cancer.  When life’s on the line, you learn what’s important.
Also, going freelance (editor) early on taught me “you lower your life requirements but you live a better life.”  Time is the greatest asset, far better than any material thing.

“You lower your life requirements but you live a better life.”  Time is the greatest asset, far better than any material thing.

Lastly, a second very wise, second partner (after death of first)taught me to inject “a little fun” into every day.  And as a scholar, she taught me the thrill of autodidactism, the pursuit of an idea purely for its own sake.  In my case, it was opera–to learn all I could about it and see as many performances as I could in my lifetime. (Pretty good so far–387 different operas.)

Have always been an eager, wide reader with strong lit background, and enjoy Conrad, Dickens, Eliot, Balzac, and Nabokov. I continue to read the classics mostly. Revelations come as epiphanies–the juncture of ideas is, perhaps, the most euphoric experience ever, when that “connection” happens.

I take philosophy classes with other oldsters; we thrill in the exploration of ideas without the trivialities of youth

Now old (69), I take philosophy classes with other oldsters; we thrill in the exploration of ideas without the trivialities of youth.  The Ancients dealt with “character”; it’s part and parcel of their worldview.

Yes, I have found purpose in life and am very happy; my goal now is to be a well-thinking person who tries to see the best in others, and to help those who have difficulty coping with life’s stresses.  I volunteer, and I help my friends.  My sources of strength are my memories of having been influenced by good people in my life.  Books give strength, but people give even more.  (And I say that as an editor.)

PURPOSE: I Dreamed of Grandeur

by Elisabeth Jordan

Age 30. Dallas, TX. 

All my life I dreamed of grandeur. I wanted to be somebody important. I put a lot of time and energy into daydreaming about fame.

I chased these ideals for years, even working in the music and entertainment business for a time. Then, I lost my entertainment-business job, and I was left to reimagine myself.

All my life I dreamed of grandeur.


Who did I really want to be?

During this time out of work, I reflected on my life and realized that some of the times I felt most alive had been in high school when I traveled to Peru, living off of a tributary of the Amazon River, caring for “street boys,” young boys orphaned and left to fend for themselves.

I wanted to find out how to capture the essence of what made me come alive in Peru in my hometown, Dallas.

I soon learned that Dallas has extreme poverty; whereas I had grown up in one of the most affluent areas of the city, not but a few miles away, people lived without the resources that had been handed to me my whole life.

And so I began a journey to discover this “other side” of my city. I started spending time on a street corner, near where a large portion of Dallas’ homeless reside. Soon, what began as a volunteer gig became a job.

In essence, I found my purpose, but it was not under bright lights, as I had always pictured. It was in a forgotten part of my city with people whom many of us write off.

In essence, I found my purpose, but it was not under bright lights, as I had always pictured.


I have never felt more alive or more joyful. I no longer care about “being known” because sitting on street corners with my homeless friends has given me something no years of chasing fame ever gave me: the homeless have given me themselves. And in giving me themselves, they have gifted me back myself. They have healed my insecurities by loving me just as I am. And they invite me in. Whereas so many of us spend so much time hiding – hiding behind lovely homes and pretty clothes, the homeless let me enter their darkest moments …
Now, with a small team and a new non-profit, we have the privilege of showing up at 5 a.m. to take them to rehab. We help them get into domestic violence shelters. We hold recovery meetings outside on the streets. We go to them. And, even though we aren’t homeless ourselves, we live in community with them.

I have never felt more alive or more joyful.


I would never trade this new life. Even if I didn’t do it as a job, I have realized nothing about my life would change. This is my new way of being. Yes, I still get dressed up to go to cocktail parties, and then the next morning I sweat it out in the hot sun doing life with my homeless friends. I am both people, and I have learned to love myself. What a beautiful life!

PURPOSE: For Husband and Son

by Joan Hansen

Age 63. Losa Angeles, CA

My life fell apart when my athletic and loving husband hit a guard rail coming down a mountain in the French Alps on his bicycle 3 years ago.  He survived but is now a quadriplegic. All of our dreams of the third part of our life disappeared on that mountain in France. Then my youngest son dropped out of college, and is hiding in his bedroom at home trying to find himself.

My purpose?

To get over my own hurting and grief and help them. I am the one who is not damaged, except for my great sadness. I can go to work, work out, and leave my room each day. My husband and son are not so lucky. My purpose is to put them in front of my own pain. It is a struggle, but then many purposes in life are.

PURPOSE: Four Steps, Each Three Feet Long

by Claire Larson

Age 17. Oregon

Four steps, each three feet long, can make all the difference. These steps are crucial in a “course-walk”, equestrian jargon for going out onto the course to analyze the best path for horse and rider to take. The technical aspect of this course-walk is based on the fact that every four steps roughly equate to a horse’s stride at the gallop. As a very young girl, I found this fact quite boring and irrelevant when my trainer would shout, “Two strides between those fences, Claire, not one!” as I shot like a missile out of the saddle and through the air leaving my pony standing there, just as baffled as the trainer. Needless to say, I quickly learned the importance of paying attention to the details of the “course-walk”.

I see my life as a show jumping course.


Years later at an important competition, my coach drew a parallel between riding and life. Walking in between two fences in the pounding Oregon rain to calculate the number of strides in a seventy-two foot line, my coach said, “You know, Claire, a show jumping course is kind of like life. In order for it to be what you want, you need to have a plan and ride each stride with passion and focus. Not every stride will be smooth, but at the end, you want to feel like you did not miss a beat.” Her words have echoed in my mind ever since. It was a defining moment as I realized that I could still stay true to that fearless little girl while also executing a carefully planned and focused ride.


I vividly remember the ride after that course-walk. Eager as always, I wanted to get into the arena and demonstrate to my coach that I was truly inspired by what she had said. Riding into the ring, I swear my horse could sense this light that had illuminated in my head. His whole demeanor was amped up as his weight shifted back and forth. The connection between my hands and the bit in his mouth showed me that he was seeking cues to take off.  I was completely ready to harness this energy and put together an unforgettable round. My horse and I worked together to meet each obstacle with just the right momentum, flying over each fence powerfully. The buzzer sounded the victorious tone. It was evident that the intricate details of my “course-walk” combined with fearless teamwork between me and my horse had made it possible to face daunting obstacles.

I want to be present every stride, every step, and every beat of my life.


I see my life as a show jumping course. There will be times that I fall and have to pick myself up and instances that feel out of my control. Yet, I am going to face life’s difficult challenges in the same way that I navigate and skillfully clear large obstacles. The combination of my fearless mentality and meticulous preparation is essential in my life both inside and outside of the arena. I am confident that I can embrace my future with boldness because I can always draw on the foundation that I have built in my life’s course-walk. I want to be present every stride, every step, and every beat of my life.

PURPOSE: Jiminy Cricket Had It Right

by Nanette Fynan

Age 59. Santa Rosa, CA. 

I think happiness is important. It is the purpose of my life.

The very serious of this world have made a point of telling me how foolish I am. Foolishness is its own reward. My day is made every time I lighten somebody’s heart. If I can unburden someone and take them out of themselves, I’ve done my job. I’m a musician. I don’t perform music, I share music. Music is the language that touches people deep inside in a way that words never will. I didn’t take my calling seriously until our pastor explained that having the skill and insight to provide a moment of happiness is the most rare gift. People need to see the funny and fun sides of things.

Jiminy Cricket had the right idea. Somebody has to fiddle to keep the workers steps light and joyful.

Somebody has to have the vision to take life and put it into perspective. Jiminy Cricket had the right idea. Somebody has to fiddle to keep the workers steps light and joyful. And for that I have received uncounted rewards; smiles of happiness and gratitude.

PURPOSE: A Letter From a Teacher to His Students

by Jim Burke

Age 53. San Francisco, CA

I am a high school teacher (and author) who teaches English to all seniors, so after our last class I wrote the following letter to them all (and their parents). What follows is the letter I sent them all:

Today we held the last class. Though we will see each other throughout the next week leading up to graduation, I wanted to offer a few closing thoughts since there was not really any time in class today. In a way, a class is not so much different from an essay: it begs for some conclusion to give it a sense of an ending.

Today we held the last class. Though we will see each other throughout the next week leading up to graduation, I wanted to offer a few closing thoughts

I created the attached document to give you this morning as a parting package of thoughts, but without any time to explain it, it seemed as though it would have been mostly lost in the rush of the day. So here is some brief variation on what I was trying to convey for those who find time to read it.

In the coming year you will—or at least you should—find your mettle being tested, whether you are in college, the military, or the early stages of your career. Most of you have been able to rely on family and teachers for help these first 18 years; now you begin to move out into the wider waters of the world and will soon realize, though these same people are there to support you, you must represent yourself, must make a name for yourself in the world you are preparing to enter.

This means passing through the fires of those trials you set for yourself or unexpectedly face along the way. It means testing your mettle against the world to find out what you are made of, even as this process helps to strengthen you. We have written essays all year, but in looking up this word mettle, the word essay also came up to my surprise. It turns out it derives from the French word and the idea of attempting to accomplish or understand things we find difficult to comprehend. In the process of essaying, you further prove and improve yourself, thereby further strengthening your mettle.

In the coming year you will—or at least you should—find your mettle being tested, whether you are in college, the military, or the early stages of your career.

Last weekend, I was honored to attend and speak at Scott Taggart’s Eagle Scout ceremony. Returning home from the ceremony, I looked into the idea of merit and merit badges, thought about all the ways Scott and others–not just Scouts–continually test and try themselves, and realized they are constantly testing their mettle by setting themselves challenges, most of them outside of others’ views. Such work is often the slow private work of nurturing one’s passions, or trying things out in order to discover one’s strengths and passions.

The poems I attached are two poems I never have cause to bring into class, but which have been important to me for years, for they capture the deeper part of my relationship with my work as a teacher and a writer, so much of which goes unwitnessed. This was a very difficult year for me for many reasons, most of which taught me essential lessons about what matters most and what I can handle. For everything you thought I did poorly, I assure you I could find five more; but that’s what I love about the work: the quest to always do it better, get it right next time. As I have said, I think you work in the years ahead is to find a question or a problem you find so fascinating you want to spend the rest of your life, or at least the next decade, trying to solve or answer.

But at the moment, you are like the Wanderer we met the first day of class so long ago in August. Back then, you looked out over the senior year ahead and could see little of what would come to pass due to the fog. Now you look ahead to the next stage of your education, wherever it will take place, and it is shrouded in fog also. If you can manage to maintain faith in yourself and your ability to orient yourself when you feel lost, you will find yourself on the other side of that fog having learned another year’s worth of lessons, having further tested your mettle, knowing a little more about yourself and the world in which you must now begin to make your way.

I thank you again for all you gave me the chance to learn from you. Keep in touch.

Mr. Burke

PURPOSE: A Jolt From Smug to Giving

by Zaf Iqbal

Age 69. San Luis Obispo, CA

I came to the U.S. in 1964, after I graduated from high school in Pakistan. I had no family or friends in the U.S. I worked my way through schools, receiving B.S. in Accounting from University of Nevada-Reno, MBA from Northern Illinois University and PhD from University of Nebraska-Lincoln. After receiving PhD, I started teaching at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly). When I retired from Cal Poly in 2006, I was a full professor, had served as chair of accounting department, and as associate dean of college of business…

My wife and I have been married for over 43 years. We live in the country club area in a beautiful house with a large garden. Our house and the garden have been featured in the local newspaper three different times. By any standard, we have a comfortable life, free of any financial worries.

For a moment I stopped and looked at our elegant house and the beautiful garden. I felt smug and proud.


About five years ago, my wife was visiting her brother and his family in Maryland. During her absence, one day I was working in our garden. For a moment I stopped and looked at our elegant house and the beautiful garden. I felt smug and proud. I told myself that I had been able to achieve all that through my own hard work and I am not obligated to anyone for all my successes. It is all due to my own efforts.

Suddenly a thought came into my mind: There are hundreds of million and perhaps billions of people in the world who are smarter than I am and work harder than I have ever done, and they work under harsh conditions. Yet, many of them go to bed at night hungry. I experienced a jolt. I no longer  felt smug and proud, instead I became very depressed. I started questioning myself how could have all that I do while those people live such a miserable life. Images of the workers I had seen in the Middle Eastern countries flashed in my mind. All of those workers were imported from poor countries  like Bangladesh, Philippine, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. I remember skinny people working on construction projects, lifting and carrying heavy loads exposed to the sun while the temperature was 112-120 degrees. And even though they were working in oil rich countries, they were very poorly paid and had to live in camps outside towns which were literally slums. They were bused-in to work in the morning and then taken back to the camps in the evening. They were treated like slaves. They were there because it was better than being unemployed back home. The more I thought about it, the more depressed I became. It went on for days. I felt guilty that I had so much while more deserving people had next to nothing. I had no basis to believe that I have earned, what I have, solely due to my work.

 

***

One day, I ran into a friend of mine who is a retired computer science professor. “How are you?” he asked me. I asked him if he wanted me to give the customary answer or the truthful answer. He wanted the latter. I summed up my condition in two words, “Very depressed.” And then I told him why I felt the way I did. He said that I had no reason to feel guilty or depressed about the misery that inflicts so many people in the world. He asked me if I had acquired any ill gains? Had I succeeded through immoral and unethical means? Had I defrauded others or was dishonest just to get ahead? I told him no; I accomplished what I did with integrity and hard work. He said that then instead of feeling the way I do I could do something else: I could help as many people, who are in need, as I could. “Listen, there is no way you can make everyone’s life better, but you can make a difference in the lives of some.” This was like a revelation and transformed my life forever.

“Listen, there is no way you can make everyone’s life better, but you can make a difference in the lives of some.”


Now I am involved in many volunteer activities. Some of those are Hospice, working with disadvantaged children, providing transportation to elderly and/or disabled people to doctor appointments, grocery stores, pharmacies, etc. I volunteer in a program that provides the opportunity to do house chores for frail, sick or disabled people like washing dishes, cleaning bathrooms, vacuuming floors, buying groceries or doing their laundry.

I have never felt happier in my life and my mind is at total peace. My wife is also actively engaged in volunteer activities. In addition, we financially support six charitable organizations that are doing vitally important work to help the disadvantaged in the community, e.g., food bank and homeless shelter.

I would say that we are not giving but receiving. And what we are receiving is so precious that all the money in the world cannot buy it. We are receiving the satisfaction that we are making positive difference in many lives. We are truly blessed.

 

PURPOSE: Blessed to be on this road

by Gina DiVincenzo

Age 40. Huntington, NY

I think I am one of the lucky ones…finding my purpose early in life.  I lived around the world for most of my childhood; experiencing foreign places, cultures and people.

By the time I entered college, I knew I wanted to work with people on a clinical level.  That’s when I met my independent study professor who advised me to go to grad school for clinical social work.  I would graduate in 2 years and be out in the world helping people!  I began working in mental health and then I found oncology social work.  I had an incredible mentor who guided me through the world of psychosocial oncology care.

My passion is supporting and guiding people through one of the most difficult times of their life

My passion is supporting and guiding people through one of the most difficult times of their life; coping with a cancer diagnosis and treatment.  I feel purposeful every day.  I have learned to use my listening skills, empathy and emotional availability to really be in the moment with people… to feel their pain and help them find a way through it.  I have also found my purpose in my private life… learning and growing as a mom, a daughter, sister, friend and partner.  I consistently work on being mindful of my patterns and behavior and ways to cope with what life brings.  I am blessed to be on this road…even with all the heartache, obstacles and challenges life brings.