When I was younger, I was claustrophobic so the traffic jams between New York and New Jersey in the Holland Tunnel were panic-inducing, even at a young age. My mother would calmly instruct me to breathe and count the buses I saw or how many T’s were on the license plates around us. I also had an intense fear of flying, and my mom would sit next to me and count the seconds between take off and when the pilot tucked the wheels under us, explaining every noise and shake. I learned from an early age that counting helped me survive and over the past 35 years it has manifested in some interesting and important ways.
This morning, I had breakfast with my children and we had a lazier than usual morning, and I started decorating bags for Kids Food Basket. I love to draw, and they give my drawings a purpose by sharing my decorated lunch sacks with one of the 7,500 low-income young people that receive nutritious meals from them every day. As I colored in the blue waves on one bag, I declared that I wanted to decorate 1,000 bags this summer. My six year old is living in a world of “Why?” right now and of course, upon hearing my declaration, he asked, “Why 1,000?” I didn’t have an answer and started to tell him that I thought it would be cool if we could help that many people. He tried again and asked, “But why do we have to count them, why can’t we just draw them and make a pile?”
I’ve been consumed with his question and have spent most of the day thinking about why I count things. I have a spreadsheet in which I track the thank you cards I send, to whom and why. I know that I’ve collected 328 pairs of shoes for Kyler’s Kicks since I met him in December. I’ve decorated 1,117 bags for Kids Food Basket over the 10 + years I’ve known their incredible Executive Director, Bridget Clark Whitney. I know how many months (and weeks) my husband and I have been together. I know how many miles I’ve flown on Delta this year, how many flights I’ve taken, and I still count the seconds between take off and when the wheels tuck safely underneath the plane. The counting is a two-way street though, because I also know exactly how much money has been donated to Born This Way Foundation in memory of young lives lost too early to suicide. I count the number of parents, friends, teachers, and employers that reach out to me every day – across every platform – to ask how to help a loved one that is suffering. I know that one morning in April, I measured the shoes of 420 elementary school students, many of whom did not have shoes for themselves or their family members, and I know how many students across eight states were trained in the lifesaving teen Mental Health program over the past six weeks. I know the number of active rescues that a high school in West Virginia has had over the past month and I know the number of losses that a college in Nebraska has had over those same thirty days. Somedays, I feel like I know too much.
In the work that I do, we know who we’ve lost but we won’t often know who we’ve saved so it seems I started preparing early for this heart-wrenching work. I count the good things, the things that I can control and calculate and I cling to them desperately because it represents the good I want to put into the world. It is the data that I need to counteract the loss, trauma and sadness that fills so much of my day. I can’t tell my six year old that yet so I told him that I want to have a summer that counts and now, I’m fumbling through this piece trying to define for myself what a summer that counts might look like for me and for my family and invite you to do the same.
I want to start each day with kindness, acts in service to someone else without the expectation of anything in return. My children go back to school on August 13th so over the next 53 days, I want to share at the dinner table the kindness that we’ve put into the world. Today, we decorated bags for Kids Food Basket (please, join us!) and tomorrow, I promised them we’d ride bikes and pick up trash around our neighborhood. I want to be present, driven by the data on how quickly life changes around us. A blogger that I admire, @simplyonpurpose, is spending a week per month this summer offline and that may be your approach but for me, I need you and these spaces to process and share so while I won’t check out, I will work quiet and focus into the rhythm of my family this summer, and I’ll do my best to listen to a full four year old story about the soap opera that takes place between her unicorns during nap time.
My brain is trained to count now … from the vowels on the poster in line at the post office and the reflective strips in the crosswalks on my morning run to the number of desperate requests for help and obituaries that I have to read, numbers are constantly calculating in my head. I will decorate 1,000 bags for Kids Food Basket (and I’ll keep you posted along the way) and I’ll donate much needed school supply items to White Pony Express and I’ll participate in #BeKind21 again this year (and I hope you’ll join us too – follow @btwfoundation for more details!) and try and best last year’s total of 440,000 people signed up and more than 8,000,000 acts of kindness, and I’ll do my best to take what I know – what I can count – and apply it to the unknown, working to eliminate the stigma around mental health and validate the emotions of young people around the world. This will be a successful summer – A Summer That Counts – if I’m able to meet one, ambitious metric. I want to learn how to lose count by saying I love more times than I could ever possibly count. If there’s anything I want to metaphorically draw and make a pile of – repeatedly – it’s love for my children and for people in general. I want it to be overwhelming, incalculable and immense.
If you’re having a relaxing and fun summer, enjoy it. If you’re having a difficult and painful summer, survive it. Please don’t give up, because each and every one of you (and you know now, I take roll call) are part of my count this summer, part of my pile of love.