“NC Tomorrow”: Speech for North Carolina Regional Council of Governments

I confess:  I am about to give you the fourth speech I have written for today. As humbling as it is to admit, I procrastinated. I knew, since February, that  I would be speaking today,and yet I stalled…until it was almost too late.

You see, part of my excuse is that I’ve been spending a lot of time lately, both as Mayor, and also as Chair of the Metro Mayors Coalition, talking about proposals in the General Assembly, specifically those on sales tax redistribution. And my mantra of late has been to say that if our state is to be able to compete against other states, if our future will have better paying jobs and more job opportunities, if our infrastructure needs are to be met and planned for, then why are we talking about taking sales tax away from some regions and giving to others? Why on earth are we not talking about a vision to make every region successful?

Two years ago, I went to China on two extraordinary trips. It took leaving our borders for me to learn that technology and manufacturing jobs are no longer the sweat shop jobs that some of us have assumed. The knowledge of computer programs and the handling of highly technical equipment takes study and aptitude and skill.  Coming home, my own children proved to me that our family is the microcosm of what our State’s vision of the future should be. With me today is my youngest child, Sydney, who will spend her junior and senior years of college studying in France…the first student at NC State to participate in this program. At the end of four years of college, she will have two degrees…one in business administration and one in international business. Back in Huntersville is my 22 year old son, who I envisioned would go to college to be an architect or an attorney. His grades and test scores indicated those as potential paths. And although Zack loves to learn, in fact craves it, he wants hands on, trial and error experience. Today, he is a diesel mechanic. He has the same chances of job success and satisfaction as his college educated sister.

The mayor of Plano, Texas told me last week that he believed, as I do, that as elected officials, our job is to be the leaders of our communities not as they are today, but as they will be when they reach their potential. In North Carolina, we talk about bringing in a car manufacturer, as if that is the Holy Grail. There is so much more out there…medical research and development companies, robotics, 3D printing, energy efficiency and sustainability companies, technology startups, video game manufacturers and incubators of all kinds. A car manufacturer may be a good goal, but all the rest should be what we strive for as well. With a strong emphasis on workforce development, apprenticeship programs, and a concentrated effort on STEM careers of the future, we develop a foundation for moving forward. That is precisely what NC Tomorrow is doing today.

We are ONE North Carolina. In this next stage of our Regional Council of Government’s framework for our future success, OneNC should be our rallying cry. As late night talk show host Jimmy Fallon would say, “Hashtag OneNC” and tell our citizens and elected officials that we will settle for nothing less. We are One in competing for outside investments, One in raising the bar in job opportunities, One in setting the standards we expect to achieve. As OneNC, we can be our best. The best.

I procrastinated in writing my words for you today. If I had shown up with no speech, I would have let you down, and myself down.  North Carolina simply cannot afford to procrastinate in moving forward on laying the groundwork for creating jobs for our future, because the consequences will be much more dire.

Clearly, my voice is loud, but with you joining me, we can have a chorus…and all we need is the drumbeat. Let’s start beating our drums today!

See Those Clouds? It’s Sunny Here in Huntersville!

I won’t lie. It’s hard to be an optimist. I guess real optimists don’t say that. They probably say they welcome the days they can reject pessimism.

Although I see wonderful things around me every single day, I’ve found it difficult to savor them lately. Perhaps it’s the weather, the dead of winter, the long days where I sequester myself inside to spare me from the cold. Perhaps it’s the realization that I’ve lived half my life and that suddenly I have to catch up on all the things I haven’t done, and I haven’t even figured out what’s on that list.

I admitted to someone yesterday that my patience for humanity was running thin this month. In my job as mayor, it seemed that I was getting a lot of emails with complaints; why didn’t the town plow their street, a certain stoplight stays on red too long, why did we allow a certain business in town, why did we not have a leaf vacuum, a neighbor’s dog relieved itself in a different yard, people judging others without knowing them….  All of the complaints were valid to those individuals, but I freely confess that the weight of them felt heavier in February.

And then it snowed. And despite the inconvenience to some, despite another day of school out of session, despite the slippery spots in the road and the frozen pipes and the one power outage and the cloudy skies, the sun came out.

I merely asked people to post their snow pictures and they came in,

with happy facessnow fort

and silly snowmensnow princess

and happy dogs dolly in snow

and a shoveled sidewalk shoveled snow and more.

where's your brother

Huntersville residents, you brought the sun. I went out a little while ago to simply drive around, do an errand or two and check on our roads. As I headed home on Stumptown Road, a young woman with a South Carolina plates on her car had somehow ended up in the ditch on the wrong side of the road. 022615 car in ditchAs I slowed down, another couple and a young man had pulled over and walked over to help the young woman. She was stuck, very definitely stuck in the mud and snow and slush.

I, too, pulled my car over, thinking I could help push or pull or stop traffic and as I walked over, another man in a white van stopped and got out. In a Hispanic accent, he said he had a tow rope in the back and he would help. He opened the back of his van, brought out a tow rope and a jack and began lifting the woman’s car so the other two men could attach the tow rope.

022615 car in ditch2One man got into the woman’s car, straightened her wheels and the man with the white van slowly pulled her out.

 

 

This is “my” Huntersville. We, no, YOU, have Heart.  stamey smiles

Thank you.

In God We Trust

The heavy doors to the courtroom closed with determination. Everyone in the room knew the time was nigh. The clerk took her seat, the attorneys waited anxiously and finally, the judge appeared and everyone rose out of respect.

When he gave his nod, the people in the courtroom sat collectively and waited for the trial to begin… They weren’t sure what the trial was about, there had been so few of them lately. But when activity occurred in the courtroom, it drew a crowd. Today was no different.

“What do we have before us?,” the judge’s deep voice boomed. “Who will bring forth the case at hand?”

A tall confident attorney, dressed in his dapper gray suit stood up, pushing his antique chair behind him. His tie stood out, not blue or red, but an unremarkable pattern with an even number of colors distributed equally in the pattern. The glasses on his face disguised the color of his eyes and refused to give away his emotions.

“Your Honor,” he said with a small smirk, “We actually have no trial today. I’m afraid we’ve wasted your time, Sir. But we’ve lessened your workload considerably.”

“What?! No trial? I was told I needed to render a verdict!” exclaimed the judge.

“Well, no sir, we’ve taken care of that for you,” the attorney responded. “In fact, we actually rendered the verdict before this case could come to trial.”

“You see, Sir,” the attorney went on, “we almost brought you a case about how the President was overstepping his Constitutional rights, and even though he received 51% of the country’s vote, we waited just long enough in his term for his approval ratings to go down and we sent out media blitzes and social media innuendos and 63% of the country has now judged him to be incompetent.”

“So we thought we’d then bring you a case on abortion. But a group of church leaders got together and condemned all those young women who had abortions, so they took care of that verdict. And then, as luck would have it, other church leaders condemned those who didn’t help the young women in need, so the first group of church leaders was also found guilty.”

The judge sat back in his chair, silently shaking his head as the attorney continued.

“Of course, then we had to look at those church leaders who also said that all Muslims weren’t bad. Well, it only took a little research to find people who would disagree and proclaimed all Muslims guilty. To be fair, we found other groups who proclaimed guilt on the Catholics because of the priest scandals and because of their involvement in wars throughout our history. Of course, some religious leaders didn’t follow the rules in the Bible, per our interpretation, so we found them guilty, too.”

“The blacks found the whites guilty and vice versa, and then everyone lumped in the rest of the nationalities because they really didn’t know much about them, so they figured they had to be guilty.”

“Environmentalists just went too far with their issues and protests, so they were condemned for their efforts and developers probably were found guilty faster. After all, people associated the developers with all the construction and stripping away of our natural resources, which of course led to the discussion on social media and in the news media and that made those guilty verdicts against all corporations happen very quickly. Of course, the small businesses were ruined by association, but that helped weed out potential criminal behavior. Oh, and our neighbors were guilty of invading our privacy and our relatives were condemned for not adhering to family traditions. And the LGBT population, well, someone found them guilty. Quite honestly, I can’t remember their case, it happened so quickly.”

“We would have had police here, sir, but as you can see, they are absent from the room. You must know, because you’ve read the headlines, that all police are guilty…of something. It’s in the paper, so it must be true. Same with the Republicans and the Democrats — they must be guilty also because someone posted it on Facebook. And the unaffiliated? Well, we figure they are guilty simply because they weren’t willing to take a side. I think we’ve cleared your caseload, Sir, so you can rest easy now.”

The attorney rested a moment when he sensed the judge was about to speak. The judge opened his mouth, shut it again and sighed. And looked down at his gavel and then up again at the people in the room.

“It seems like light years ago that I worked so hard to set up a system to protect good over evil. I worked with people and countries and had my name invoked on documents detailing a fair and equitable system to determine who could be considered innocent and who could be considered guilty. Even those who were proclaimed guilty by courts of law, could still have one last opportunity for their salvation here, in my court. I know there are people of heart — I gave them breath. I know there are people of conscience — I gave them free will. I know there are people worth saving — I give of them myself.”

The judge looked around the courtroom and shook his ancient finger at the few who remained. “You have made yourselves the judges and the jury!” he angrily shouted to the people. “And in doing so, you have lost your purpose, you have lost your compassion, your hearts, your souls. Indeed, you have lost me!”

He stood up to leave, with his back to the room and his head bowed. He prayed silently as one solitary tear fell down his robe to the floor of the courtroom. He prayed for hope and he slowly turned to tell the people in his courtroom that he prayed for their redemption.

When he again faced the room, however, he saw that everyone had been taken away. The big courtroom with its history, its solemn and stately furnishings seemed hollow and without purpose.

Suddenly the big courtroom door then opened for one man, carrying a ladder. The judge watched as the man set the ladder on a steep incline just above the judge’s desk and climbed very carefully up each rung. The man reached the top rung and stretched his arm to pull down the heavy medallion that had quietly overseen years and years of deliberations. Just as the man touched the medallion, it fell beyond his grasp and with a solid crash, landed in a few pieces on the courtroom floor. The judge knelt down to pick up the largest piece and only then did his tears flow with unabashed emotion. The jagged edges of the piece against his fingers even furthered his pain as he read aloud the damaged words he held in his hand, “In God We Trust”.

Finding Your DNA — It’s All Relative

This past week has been a whirlwind of activity and news from far away. It has been extremely enlightening. At my age, being enlightened is almost a craving — to be challenged and educated and still yearning for more information is invigorating.

Over the past six months, after a poignant visit with cousins in Oklahoma, my mother decided to see what was in her DNA. She paid for and received her mail-in DNA kit and promptly send her DNA sample back. The result: Inconclusive and they sent her another test. The second test was also inconclusive. After the third try, she had them send the test to me. At the same time, she had two separate tests from a different company sent to both my sister and myself. While I am still waiting from the results of my first test, the one my sister and took show, actually, that we do not share any DNA. In fact, my first three “likely” regions were Saudi Arabia, Rwanda and Brazil. My sister’s most “likely” regions were Russia, Asia and Venezuela.

mom joelyn and me in Claremore

What is even more interesting here is that two years ago that my application for official status into the Cherokee Nation was accepted. With much research from my sister and mother and cousins, I received my official membership card as did my children, who are the last of our bloodline to receive the designation. My grandfather, I had been told for years, had original Cherokee fishing rights in Oklahoma. missy beth and momA distant relative’s name is actually on the Dawes Roll, which was “Officially known as The Final Rolls of the Citizens and Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes in Indian Territory, the Dawes Rolls list individuals who chose to enroll and were approved for membership in the Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole.) Enrollment for the Dawes Rolls began in 1898 and ended in 1906.). Nowhere, on any of the completed results did we show Indian ancestry in our DNA.

Today I went to the dentist. My hygienist, Marilyn and I clicked immediately. In fact, her explanation caught my heart: Every day, you meet someone who shares your spirit. Marilyn shares mine. Marilyn is originally from the Congo. She has been through challenges in her life, she knows she must write a book someday, she loves her children unconditionally, she is a strong woman and she has a sister in Atlanta. I can honestly say that we have all of those things in common. Every single one.

I told Marilyn about my DNA, that the first test showed I could be from Rwanda. In fact, I joked, with all the other things we seem to have in tandem, maybe that means we’re sisters. While we laughed about it, I have become more and more convinced that somehow, there is a connection to all of us that is deeper than we realize.

dds marilyn

Lately, in my mayoral role, I’ve been hosting roundtable discussions about race and policing and I have learned a lot. I was raised to believe that colorblind is a good thing, that appreciation for culture is invaluable. Lately, I have learned that acknowledging race, to some, is also acknowledging culture. Without the open, respectful dialogue, I may have missed opportunities to have meaningful relationships. All it takes is dialogue to learn, and respect for both shared opinions and the space to allow a difference.

My family acknowledges that our first DNA tests were probably a scam. There is no sign of Indian blood in our tests. Our great-grandmother on our father’s side came here from Poland — that didn’t show up either.

But I don’t care anymore. I’m claiming Rwanda and Saudi Arabia and Brazil as my history, because maybe that will be the icebreaker. Perhaps I can start, in my own small way, to say that it doesn’t really matter what branches have grown out of our family tree, as long as we grow together now.

IMG_0043Syd in Haiti

 

Walking Into Stories

Last season, I was on the phone with an old friend while I was taking a walk around town at night. The night is the perfect time to walk, because it is silent and houses are lit up and sometimes, you can witness little bits of family life in the front rooms of the house. I mentioned to my friend that I was passing a house that had a beauty salon hair dryer in the living room and he told me to write a story about that. I came upon the story today and thought I’d share:

Her name was Ruth, he wanted to tell the young kid with the moving company. The kid, with his company baseball cap on backward, tufts of hair sticking out above his ears, had muttered, “She probably won’t even notice this,” as he backed into the doorway. His partner, an older silent man simply pushed the load a little to the right, just missing the door frame and expertly guided Ruth’s chair into the living room.
He had them put the chair in the middle of the living room, right in front of the big picture window, so she would always have the morning sun on her shoulders. That was when she usually sat in the chair, in the mornings. She’d wake early, as she had for over 70 years – he wondered if she’d been an early riser the 14 years of her young life before he’d met her – wash her hair and carefully, very carefully, section and roll her hair.
She’d done this for others much of her life. In fact, she told him when he was away at war during the early years of their marriage, the hair dressing kept her connected to people. Ruth would make sure her shop was the center point for women who missed their husbands, and was there to encourage them to always look their best for themselves first. Many photographs sent to husbands overseas were in fact, taken at Arthur’s Studio, next door to Ruth’s salon, right after she had made sure her women had perfect hair.
When he’d returned from war, he took a job selling encyclopedias door-to-door. Ruth told him he’d be perfect for the job, because of his world travels, his inquisitive nature, and, she teased, “his questionable nature”. She maintained her salon at first to help support them while he started anew. But once he moved on to more successful sales positions, finally landing a lucrative position with a printing company, he told her she could stay home, that they didn’t need the money.
He remembered her eyes on the day he’d said that to her. She looked straight into his own with her deep hazel eyes, her eyelashes quivering only slightly. She hesitated and then reached for his hand.
“I may not explain this well,” Ruth began slowly, “But a beauty shop is a place of refuge for some. Women come to me and want to feel better and I can help them! When I wash their hair, I see their stress flowing down the drain. When we comb them out, or cut their hair and put the final touches on, the moment they smile is special to me. But the best part for me is when I put them under the hair dryer, I give them time for their thoughts and I can tell by their eyes – open or closed – if their thoughts are pleasant. I see their eyes looking into memories past, watch their smiles move inward and their hands resting calmly on their laps and I feel like I am a witness to a very private, but happy moment.”
She’d held his hand for a very long time, her warmth moving from his fingers to his heart and he knew how lucky he’d been to have her.
It was only a few years ago that she’d left the beauty shop, when she’d forgotten where she’d put her scissors, forgot how to turn on the dryer and became frustrated when she couldn’t remember the names of her lifelong customers. He’d encouraged her to take time for herself, closed the shop and tried to occupy her each day with long drives and stories of their days together.
Often, when she’d sit alone in their living room, with her lovely hands quieted upon her lap, he’d watch her eyes and could read nothing. And then he realized what he’d had to do.
The kid with the baseball cap handed him the cord from the chair and asked him where he wanted it plugged in. As they moved the chair a bit to find the outlet, the hair dryer on top hit the window, making a shallow ring across the room and he looked up to see Ruth’s head tilt a bit to listen to the sound. Once plugged in, he tipped the men, thanked them and told them, “Ruth and I appreciate your help.” He wanted to make sure they knew her name and would perhaps remember the simplicity of this effort when their own wives needed a lifeline.
“Darling,” he said to her as he pulled her off the couch. “It’s time to dry your hair.”
He fumbled a bit with the dryer, turned it to the lowest setting and set her slowly into the chair. He felt her relax as she fit into the familiar feel of the seat and put her hands delicately on the armrests. And ever so carefully, he pulled the dryer over her head and watched with anticipation to see if her eyes were looking into memories past, and he hoped he was there with her.

It Just “Happened” to Happen: My Couch Cushion Story

Before Christmas, my sister happened to text me that a neighbor of hers was moving and selling off most of her quality furniture at very good prices. “Do you need anything?” was the text that started everything.

I’ve lamented before that working in public service means working for very little money but greater personal rewards, so know that especially at Christmas, my budget for anything was limited. So I asked my sis if they happened to have a nice couch. Well, they did — a sectional actually. I told my husband, he said no. I mentioned it to my son, he said yes. When I’m thinking yes, I usually go with my son. But…I said no. And then my sis texted me, “She’ll just give it to you.”  Well, who can turn down free?

The trick was that it was close to Atlanta and I had no way to get it. So I happened to post the question on Facebook, asking if anyone could advise me on the least expensive way to rent a truck locally (or from Atlanta). Hours later and lots of suggestions later, I happened to get a private message from a man offering his truck anytime. Now, I don’t know this man well. He had posted on Facebook months and months ago that he was teaching a guitar class and looking for students, and I just happened to repost for him and he gained a couple of additional students. How lovely of him to, as he said, “pay it forward.”

With Christmas coming and all of our rainy weather, it was difficult to figure out a time/day to trek to Atlanta to pick the furniture up. So my sister had it moved to her basement to await my arrival.

Right after Christmas, I was trying to schedule a meeting with two women to talk about an Alzheimer’s initiative in town. One woman, Michele, emailed that she couldn’t do it right before New Year’s because she was going to Georgia to visit family. I just happened to ask where in Georgia she would be going and when I found out it was close to my sister and parents, I told her to look for me on the highway and honk and wave…..

Well, it just so happened that New Year’s Day had a clear weather forecast and I messaged Jim, the truck man, who said he just happened to be taking his kids to the Great Wolf Lodge that day and wouldn’t be needing his truck…So we met early that morning and I drove happily to Georgia, saw my parents for a quick half hour, helped my nephew and a friend load and tie up the furniture and I was back on the highway. I got on the highway at Georgia exit 126, after stopping on the ramp to pull a sofa cushion out of my line of sight and into the inside of the truck and within 4 hours, with lots of looking behind me, I was home.

The men in my family unloaded the truck, set up the sectional and…one couch cushion was missing. I called my parents, texted my sister — did we accidentally leave the cushion behind?  Of course, the answer was no.

On a lark, I emailed Michele, the woman who was going to Georgia and mentioned that if she happened to be driving home, to please look for my cushion. All I told her it was that it was beige. I posted on Facebook that if anyone driving home from Atlanta happened to see a beige sofa cushion, to please pick it up for me. Several people promised to be on the lookout, but I wasn’t feeling optimistic. I started thinking about how I could have another cushion made for me or fill in the big empty space. I went to bed with visions of going to the fabric store in the morning to see if I could find a similar fabric, justifying that the cost to make a new cushion would be okay since I really didn’t have to spend any money on the couch itself….

…And when I turned my cell phone on the next morning, there was a message from Michele, with a picture of the cushion and the words, “Is this it?”  Found, by mile marker 128! What were the chances?

Now if you have stayed with me through all of this, there is a bit more. A friend of mine owns a restaurant. She has never, ever gone on vacation since owning the restaurant. She even missed her sister’s wedding. But she had the chance to go to her brother’s wedding out of the country….IF someone could manage her restaurant while she was gone. So along with another man, I volunteered. My gift to a friend. In turn, she provided me with a gift certificate to give Jim, the truck guy.

My friend Gabi told me today that this entire scenario was the Universe (or a god), testing me, giving me something good and seeing if I would receive it with grace because I thought I was deserving of good. My first inclination is to say that it wasn’t because I deserved it, it was because I happen to know people of good hearts. Because it’s difficult to receive a compliment. But now, to me, this story has a much deeper meaning. If I don’t accept the compliment I have been given in being surrounded by giving souls, then I also stop the chain of kindness from continuing. Yes, I am deserving of good things because I know that I have the ability to encourage the good things to happen to others, simply by giving of my heart.

People from other states across the country, commented on this Facebook story. It has become much more than a story about a couch cushion. It is a story about hope, about human kindness, about worthiness and receipt. It’s about sharing the story with others and being a conduit for good happenings.

If you want to tell me your story, please do. Or if you want to come over and chat, well, I have the perfect place for you to sit.

May you have a couch cushion experience soon….

Merry Christmas. Always.

It is Christmas Eve.  Around the world, it is a night of faith and religious contemplation and celebration. Some people see tonight as a night of reflection and a night of deep gratitude for the blessings we have received. And of course, there are those of us who still believe in Santa and angels here on earth.

I am deeply grateful for the blessings that are around me as I write this, and because 2014 has been probably the most difficult and challenging year of my adult life, I savor all the positives so much more intensely. Perhaps because of the challenges of my own 2014, I want my Christmas gift to others to be the words, “I understand”. I know that sometimes the world is lonely, sometimes we have family members that are ill and we feel as if we are on an island of despair. I know that some of us have financial woes that drag us down so far that we think we can never get above water. I know that some of us get the feeling that a deep breath is just too hard to take because the pressure on us is so heavy that we can’t get air. I know. And I understand.

But I want you to know that there is light at the end of the tunnel. There is always, always light. We just need to remember to look for it. We need to prepare ourselves for the fact that the light will appear sometimes out of nowhere, but if we are ready and open, that light can become brighter with each passing moment. And we can’t quit giving of ourselves. Because, as Khalil Gibran said, “I slept and I dreamed that life is all joy. I woke and I saw that life is all service. I served and I saw that service is joy.”

For those of us who are in the midst of our holiday festivities, I’d ask that we be cognizant of our own gifts during this holiday, but be also aware that there are those amongst us who may be fighting their own battles. They could be silent and smiling and participating in our holiday events, but could be suffering from depression or addiction or loneliness for home and familiar surroundings. Our neighbors and friends, although we believe ourselves to know them, may have family members that are struggling and in turn, causing strife in their daily lives that remain hidden from us. Your awareness and compassion for their challenges could very well make the difference in their day, their month or more.

Only two months ago, a kind word from a loving heart brought me to tears because that person took the time to to not only ask how I WAS, but she waited for the answer. She looked me directly in the eyes, touched my arm and after I said, “fine”, remained there, showing me that she truly wanted to know. She didn’t ask in passing. She asked in caring.

When I found myself bogged down with the weight of the world and I needed a friend, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to share my personal woes with anyone else. But there appeared, out of the most unlikely scenario, angels from far away, who protected my emotions, shared their own hearts and lifted me up in unexplainable ways. Their friendship made me able to breath in more deeply and feel my blessings more intensely.

This holiday, as we tear open the wrapping paper of our many gifts, let us also peel away the deep layers of the people close to us and listen to their struggles, their challenges and let them know they are not alone.

I wish you all joy this holiday and forever, because you have given me so much in your simple acts of kindness and love. “For it is in giving that we receive,”said St. Francis of Assisi, and oh, was he right.

God Bless Us Everyone.