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Orange Drink and a Door

October 6, 2014

Today I watched another press conference about an American being treated for Ebola back here in the US. During the press conference, the head of the nursing team (at the hospital in Nebraska where he’s receiving treatment) said that he’s being cared for by forty health professionals who all eagerly volunteered to help.

I burst into tears.

FORTY people gathered around him, monitoring his every moment – supporting in every way possible while he fights for his life.

I cried because I thought about this girl – and how all she had was a sidewalk and an orange drink.

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“The girl in the pink shirt lay motionless on a sidewalk, flat on her stomach, an orange drink next to her, unfinished…The girl’s mother had died, almost certainly of Ebola. So had three other relatives. The girl herself was sick. The girl’s aunt, unable to get help, had left her on the sidewalk in despair.”

And here’s the thing – the relative who left her on the sidewalk with just an orange drink – she did the RIGHT thing, the thing that every Liberian is being advised to do. NOT have contact with sick people, not catch and spread Ebola. That was her BEST option. To give that drink. To leave her there.

I lived in Liberia and I know these people, dying on sidewalks and outside of treatment centers, unable to get a bed. I’m not blaming anyone, just the inequity of it all gets me.

It reminds me of when I was in Haiti after the earthquake – and there was a man who was badly injured who was sleeping outside in the courtyard at the main hospital. There were no beds left but his family had found an old door, and had put him on it. I tried to do what I could to get him medical attention but at the end of the night, I left to sleep in my tent with a sleeping bag and a hot meal, while he stayed outside on his door and his family slept on the ground beside him.

As I got to the compound where I was staying, I had a horrible feeling about my privilege. I wanted to go back and get him, to bring his family to the compound, put him in my tent and give him food. The people I was with told me to calm down and to get rest, so I could help more people in the long run. I didn’t go get him. I slept in my tent. He slept on the ground.

But it never felt right. I had to consciously work to push away the fruit of tree of knowledge. There was NO good reason I had a tent and he had a door. It WASN’T my only option. It’s the one that I chose because “that’s the way things are.” I’m ashamed of that.

40 people to help one man.

An orange drink left beside a little girl.

That’s all I have.

Lovetta Arrives: 2006

August 24, 2013

She Made It

August 23, 2013

Seven years ago, I wrote the email below. Today, that little girl I wrote about flew to Paris to start university at PARSONS PARIS – one of the top design programs in the world.  It was an adventure getting her there, in so many ways – but that’s another post altogether.

Here’s the flashback to 2006:

“Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow, grow.’ ”

Dear Friends,

Right now in Ghana, a young girl is boarding British Air Flight 78 alone in the middle of the night. She is excited, brave, and resourceful. Her name is Lovetta Conto and she’s fourteen years old.

She’s coming here as the first participant in a program that has been my own life-long dream and which I’m launching with a group of wonderful fellow adventurers called “The Strongheart Fellows Program.”

This is a program – supported by strong, compassionate people – dedicated to taking exceptional young people from extreme circumstances and giving them the kinds of resources and support that will encourage them to develop into exceptional leaders wherever they go in life; essentially, whispering to them, ‘Grow, grow.’

Here’s our official description:

“The Strongheart Fellowship provides the opportunity for exceptional young people from extreme circumstances to attend a one year residency program in Los Angeles, California. During the term of their residency, each recipient will work with Strongheart Fellowship to create, plan, and execute a social entrepreneurial project to benefit others, using resources and contacts developed throughout
their residency. Additionally the recipients will receive the highest quality academic education through scholarships to progressive area schools.”

The name of the program comes from the Ernest Hemingway quote: “The world breaks us all, and afterwards some are stronger in the broken places.” We are looking for the kinds of young people – and supporters – who have faced significant challenges in life but are “stronger in the broken places.”

Lovetta was a 12 year old refugee when Kristi and I met her. She was separated from her mother in the civil war in Liberia when she was a baby. Her father was living outside the Liberian refugee camp in Ghana, trying to earn a living. She was living basically on her own in this camp – but you would have never known it. She has the kind of charm, humor, and self-possession that comes from growing up a beloved child in a loving Universe – or just knowing it innately despite harsh circumstances to the contrary. She also has another ingredient crucial to success: the ability to reach out for help. Quite simply, she has an inner resilience and presence.

Since then we’ve been back to see her many times, worked to build a school in the refugee camp (with her as part of the team), and ultimately repatriated her and her father back to their home country of Liberia. Most recently, our team has helped her father get set up in a business to sustain himself and Lovetta. We’ve worked intensively to set up our Strongheart program, knowing that Lovetta will be the first of many young people to benefit from our work. Finally two weeks ago – we were granted her visa by the US Embassy in Liberia. Two days ago, we purchased her plane ticket.

While Lovetta is here, she will be targeting the issue in her home country of: “exceptional kids orphaned by the war.”  She’ll be working with a group of us to develop a plan to provide a group home and center of excellence for a select group of young people in Liberia. It will be also be a “Medici Effect” community, where visitors from all over the world and from many different fields can participate in hands-on projects for a better world alongside the kids who live there. We’ll be launching the project in Liberia next summer upon Lovetta’s return home.

I am emailing you to ask for your support on behalf of Lovetta while she’s here for the next year. (We are currently a project under our nonprofit sponsor Creative Visions – our own paperwork is in process
but all donations are tax-deductible.)

Her school – the excellent New Roads School in Santa Monica – has offered a significant scholarship and I’ll be providing housing but we have additional expenses that we’re seeking partners to help cover.
(These are related directly to her – we’re all volunteer.)

Would you be willing to help us? Any amount would be helpful. (Example: $5 will allow us to buy a phone card so that she can call home.) We have a complete but lean budget that we can share with anyone who is interested or would like to make a larger donation or commitment to her. (Our total budget is $14,385 for the year. Not too much to change someone’s life – and sense of what is possible – forever.)

Another way to participate: we’ve put up a big green bulletin board in her bedroom. We hope to post photos, quotes, and notes from anyone who wants to join “TEAM LOVETTA.” It will be a source of inspiration and encouragement as she adjusts to the US and begins creating her plan for her future. Please send any notes or photos via email to me and I’ll print them and have it waiting for her. You never know if what you share will be the thing that will make all the difference in the world to her. (Can you imagine what your life would be like if you had a board like this to greet YOU every morning? :) )

We will be throwing her a shower here in Los Angeles in a few weeks so that many of you will be able to meet her. I’ll send out additional details as we have them. If you have any questions or thoughts, please
feel free to call me.

It’s taken me a few minutes to write this email (and check my spelling) so I’ve just received word that Lovetta’s plane is in the air. In seven hours she’ll be landing in Heathrow – changing terminals on her own – and boarding another plane for the US. At 2:20 pm tomorrow, she’ll be landing at LAX – and facing a challenging but grand new adventure here with all of us for the next year. I hope you’ll be a part of it.

Best and Fondest Regards,

Your Pal-



my big deal

January 10, 2013

This morning I found out that I got nominated for an Academy Award. A real one. I still can’t really believe it. I don’t understand exactly what it means.

I turned on the tv this morning to see if we would be chosen. We knew we were short-listed. They announced all the big ones – the famous people. I was half-awake but my heart was still beating fast. I hadn’t planned on even watching because I didn’t want to be disappointed. I had told myself I didn’t mind if I didn’t get the nomination and truly, I think I wouldn’t have been devastated because I hadn’t really even let myself want it too much. I’m like that these last few years – cautious with my hope but also with my despair.  A rune stone I seemed to draw constantly in my ever-hopeful but terribly difficult twenties warned me frequently to “not collapse yourself into your highs or lows.”  I didn’t listen for a long time but now it’s a well-practiced skill. Even so, I turned on the tv.

And we got it. I verified it on the internet and there it was on the official Oscars page: Nominee. I didn’t quite know what to do.  I practiced a few things in my head. “Do I scream?” “No, I don’t feel like screaming and it will sound inauthentic and then I’ll remember this moment as inauthentic and I don’t want to be inauthentic.” Authenticity is the Holy Grail. It’s to the grown-up me what cool was to the junior high me. True but embarrassing and purpose-defeating to admit I want it. Spoils the effortless effect I’m striving for.

So I decided to take my cue from someone else, to see if it was a big deal based on how they reacted. Except the only people immediately available to me were the Strongheart Fellows. These are incredible young people that I currently live with, who would probably be impressed with what the Academy Awards are except they’re from places like Liberia and Afghanistan and were most likely too busy trying to grow up and survive Charles Taylor and the Taliban to watch Billy or Whoopie or even Jon Stewart, who is much more their taste and demo. Gabriel, the brilliant music-producer-in-training that I’ve known since he was a 15 year old in a refugee camp in Ghana, was the first person I told. He hugged me. He looked at me, trying to gauge my feelings. I looked back at him, trying to gauge his. “It’s a big deal,” I said, trying it on for size. “It is,” he agreed. Okay, we got that straight. Big deal. Check.

I went into a Starbucks and made a point of ordering my latte with whipped cream. “It’s a special occasion,” I announced to the barista. “I got nominated for an Academy Award today.” They all made a big deal of it in line and behind the counter. They gave me chocolate sprinkles on top. I felt lame and happy all at once.  “It’s a big deal,” I told myself.

The rest of the morning went by in an unshowered blur. The facebook response was huge, and yes, it was a big deal. Not many people called. Maybe I’m unpopular. Maybe most people were just giving me “space to absorb” as one friend said when I reached her. I think everyone thought I had “special” people to talk to – but the truth was, I wanted to call people from my past. People who had known me when I was just starting out, who had been markers and guides, who would know truly what a big deal it was.

I’m staying in Austin, Texas right now  – a town I used to live in full-time but now only know as a part-time returnee. This means I don’t have many friends here anymore but everyplace I turn is imbued with memory and meaning from my ever-hopeful but terribly difficult twenties. After I exhausted the Starbucks love (because it does get awkward after a while – a very very short while for them, I think), there wasn’t anyone to really go hunt down to share my good fortune with so I chose to go a very fancy grocery store that I used to love to wander years ago. I went inside and meandered around, gathering expensive cheese and fancy cookies, blood orange juice, random celebration foods. As I turned a corner, I suddenly felt myself whoosh back in time. I remembered walking in that exact place, almost twenty years ago.

I was homeless at the time. Not sleep-on-the-street homeless but close. Sleep-in-a–camper-on-a-friend’s-driveway, shower-with-a-water-hose, use-the-gas-station-bathroom homeless. It was this low-low, this period where nothing I touched seemed to go my way, that finally forced me to pull everything I had inside me to pack up and go to LA to try my dream in Hollywood. I had been in this exact spot in this exact store, wandering the aisles, killing time, and hoping for free samples when I decided to leave for LA. It wasn’t a graceful exit. It was hard and uncertain and scary and rough. I was homeless in LA (another camper, another driveway) but had eventually found my place and my people and my dream, which happened to be in the form of both film and the aforementioned young people from challenging places.

A therapist I had once (and I’ve had many – mostly great – ones) said “Where you have cried, you must go back and dance.” While I hadn’t cried in that spot and so didn’t need to return to dance, I think I must have done the zombie equivalent and gone numb back in that day, just to try to get by. Because what I felt suddenly today, as I whooshed back into the past, was deep deep feeling – unnameable except for relief. I cried, standing there with my fancy cheese and my expensive cookies that would have looked like a feast (and rent) to the homeless me. I cried hard and ugly, shaking with relief. Because I wasn’t that me anymore, because I had moved on finally, I was okay, I survived and I even did okay. I exhaled a breath I had been holding for twenty years.

It was a big deal.

January 19, 2011

My (True) Fairy Tale from Strongheart on Vimeo.

This Piece of Truth & Beauty

April 11, 2010

“When all the words have been written, and all the phrases have been spoken, the great mystery of life will still remain….The world is a great mysterious place, and its possibilities are infinite, governed only by what our hearts can conceive. If we incline our hearts towards the darkness, we will see darkness. If we incline them toward the light, we will see the light.

Those of great heart have always known this. They have understood that, as honorable as it is to see the wrong and try to correct it, a life well lived must somehow celebrate the promise that life provides. The darkness at the limits of our knowledge; the darkness that sometimes seem to surround us is merely a way to make us reach beyond certainty, to make our lives a witness to hope, a testimony to possibility, an urge toward the best and the most honorable impulses that our hearts can conceive.

It is not hard. There is in each of us, no matter how humble, a capacity for love. Even if our lives have not taken the course we had envisioned, even if we are less than the shape of our dreams, we are part of the human family. Somewhere, in the most inconsequential corners of our lives, is the opportunity for love…. There is no tragedy or injustice so great, no life so small and inconsequential, that we cannot bear witness to the light in the quiet acts and hidden moments of our days.

And who can say which of these acts and moments will make a difference? The universe is vast and is a magical membrane of meaning, stretching across time and space, and it is not given to us to know her secrets and her ways. Perhaps we were placed here to meet the challenge of a single moment; perhaps the touch we give will cause the touch that will change the world.”

Kent Nerburn wrote this. It’s almost unbearably beautiful to me.

Remember the time…

April 10, 2010

…we hung out in Nigeria, built the school in Ghana, worked our a**es off in Liberia…and met all these beautiful people?

I feel like Emily in Our Town. The heartbreaking final scene:

“Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.”

All of Us

March 19, 2010

all of us from Strongheart on Vimeo.

authentic adults

March 16, 2010

“The most potent seeds of cultural renaissance come from the uniquely creative ventures of authentic adults, those who have consciously discovered and committed to the one true life they can call their own, a life that emerges from the largest conversation one is capable of having with the world. All such adults are, by definition, true artists, visionaries, and leaders, whether they live and work quietly in small arenas or very publicly on grand stages.”


For My Strongheart Fellows.

February 16, 2010

“Your identity is not equivalent to your biography. There is a place in you where you have never been wounded, where there’s a seamlessness in you – and where there is a confidence and a tranquility in you. And I think the intention of prayer, and spirituality, and love is now and again to visit that inner kind of sanctuary.”

Again, the beautiful John O’Donohue.