celebrating moms

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The beautiful women at my table.

Last Sunday, I attended a tea for moms who have children with Down syndrome. It was cleverly called Tea21moms. It was a lovely affair: held at a Fairmont Hotel with a high tea service of dainty sandwiches, pastries and of course tea. The service was gracious, the room was beautiful and there were generous door prizes and warm hosting by Tamara Taggart (herself a mom of a son with Down syndrome).

It was fun to get dressed up. I knew a few moms who have older kids, like me, and we sat together at a table. It was wonderful to catch up with them.

At the back of my mind, I felt a wee bit guilty at not having helped to organize the tea. It was the brainchild of Danielle and Tamara L, both moms of younger kids. Life is less hectic now that Aaron is 16 and his health is stable (knock wood) – why didn’t I think of hosting an event? Why didn’t I at least volunteer?

I expressed that I wanted to help, and Danielle gently said to me – we just want you to come and enjoy yourself. In the end, I managed to convince her to allow me to donate a door prize from our company. It was this gorgeous Mama Bear pendant from local Vancouver company Pyrrha Jewelry.

The poem that goes along with the pendant said this:
This talisman features a bear, a symbol of motherhood and childbearing. It represents ferocity in the protection of one’s family.

Every single mom in that room was a ferocious protector of their family.  To be truthful, it is really tiring to be a ferocious protector of one’s family.  Even real mama bears need to hibernate. As I wrote about a few days ago, we all need a rest from being brave and strong. This tea was a little rest for me.

In my last post I also talked about how hard I find it to let people take care of me. I looked around at the Tea21 room at the glowing faces of all the moms there. They were relaxed, not having to chase around kids or worry about anybody except for themselves two whole hours on a Sunday afternoon. I settled back and let myself be served and celebrated. This in itself was glorious.

We all deserve to be taken care of. We are all worthy of being pampered. Having a kid with a disability adds an extra layer of complexity to our lives as mothers. There are health concerns, therapies, IEPs, struggles with schools, friendships and belonging for both our children and ourselves. It can be a lot.

The tea was a way to recognize us and to let us know we were valued. What a gift that afternoon was to me. Thank you Tamara and Danielle for your vision and hard work. Creating a space for moms to connect is brilliant. We all need each other, more than we even know. The ‘system’ might call this peer support, but I simply call this a gathering of friends who happen to be woven together by a precious third copy of the 21st chromosome.

(This type of celebration of moms does not have to be restricted to moms of kids with Down syndrome!  Please be in touch with me if you are interested in how to organize a tea for your own community and I will connect you up).

the armour of the brave + strong

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My blurry little family in Norway, circa 2001

I was a single mom for a spell 19 years ago.  Despite (or because of?  I’m never sure) the trauma from losing my marriage, my house and even my car, I became fierce.  On principle, I never referred to myself as a single mom.  I took my kids to live in Norway.  I secured a paid contract after being at home with children for six years.  I discovered a new persona and crawled into the safe protection of the armour of the brave and strong.

When I moved back to Canada from Norway, I rented a crappy little house with my two young kids.  As is the way with houses, it required a lot of upkeep.  There were walks to shovel in the winter and lawns to mow in the summer.  I did all this myself.

One day I met this nice guy named Mike in the photocopy room at my work.  After dating for a few weeks, he offered to mow my unruly lawn.  “NO!” I said angrily.  “I can mow my own lawn.”  Later I was talking on the phone with a friend, telling her about his ridiculous offer.

“Oh Sue,” she said wearily. “Just let him mow your damn lawn.”

The rest is history.  I allowed Mike to begin patiently and steadfastly chip away at my armour of the brave and strong.  He’s been doing so for the past 17 years.

But when our son Aaron was born, I acquired a whole other set of armour.  Having a baby with Down syndrome made me feel really vulnerable and I didn’t like feeling that way one little bit. After finally letting go of my single mom armour, I tried on the ‘special needs mom’ armour for size.  It fit pretty well.

This new supersuit served me for 14 years.  I started a mom’s group, co-founded a peer support program and lobbied hard for a Down Syndrome Medical Clinic at our local children’s hospital.  I even began paid work in pediatric health care in the area of family engagement.

This over-achieving was really a way for me to stay warm and dry in my brave and strong armour and fill myself up with the busy life.  I was desperately trying to make sense of my new identity as the mother of a disabled child.  In this I did do some good, built some legacy projects, but I also totally lost myself along the way.

Four years ago, we moved 1,200 kilometres away from the prairies to the west coast.  My strong armour began to fall apart again.  I had no friends.  I had started a brand new job.  I had to figure out new supports for Aaron and help build him a community from scratch.  I was often hopelessly lost in the big city.

Then I had to leave my job to care for my son.  And three months after that I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  After my diagnosis, I lost friends and family.  My remaining armour fell off in big heavy chunks.

When I got cancer, many people told me I had to be brave and strong.  But I was tired of being brave and strong.  That armour is really heavy.  I said no, no I can’t do that anymore.  Plus, during my cancer diagnostics and treatment, I became exceedingly fragile.  I was more vulnerable than I had ever felt in my life. I was often literally stripped bare on examining room tables.  I had nowhere left to hide.

This brings me to today.  I have now lost my armour and I don’t want it back.  I think pretending to be brave and strong all the time does us women a disservice.  We never allow ourselves to take a rest.  We are always soldiering on.

Through many hours of therapy, I have discovered these simple facts:  It is ok not to be brave.  It is okay to be scared.  It is okay to be weak.  These are all qualities of simply being a human being.

If you are getting tired of being brave and strong all the time, I want you to know that it is okay to take off your armour.  Find your safe spaces with the people who unconditionally love you.  You can hand off saving the world to someone else.  It is okay to take a little rest now.  xo.

 

He is Down syndrome

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Photo by Goodside Photography goodsidephoto.com

The other day I was talking to Aaron and in the midst of our conversation I mentioned, “you have Down syndrome.” He looked at me, puzzled, and replied, “No, I am Down syndrome.”

I thought he had mixed up his verbs and corrected him,  “No, you have Down syndrome.”

He repeated firmly, more annoyed with me this time, “No Mom, I am Down syndrome.” He wasn’t mixing anything up. I was the one mixed up.

Who am I to say who he is or is not? He has the extra chromosome, not me.  I paused to wonder how often parents use language that makes us feel more comfortable and distances ourselves from disability. I know that I’ve been doing that for 16 years. I even used to lecture to health professionals about person-first language. Aaron was blowing person-first out of the water.

Speaking of which, I’m now asking Aaron’s consent to write about him.  (Contrary to popular belief, people with intellectual disabilities can understand consent). He said, ‘sure’ when I asked him about sharing this story.  Plus, he chose the photo that he wanted to accompany this post.

I’m finally waking up to the fact that it is Aaron’s Down syndrome, not mine. And so goes the hard work of parenting: allowing our children – all our children – to differentiate from us. He is not a mini-version of me, disability or not. It is high time that l take Aaron’s lead and govern myself accordingly.

Beyond Bubble Baths

I was honoured to have my story chosen to be shared on the This is Brave website.  This beautiful site was created to foster community and share stories of women’s mental health.

I’ve written snippets of my travels in mental health since my cancer diagnosis.  This story is a reflection on all I’ve learned the past 18 months about taking care of myself – more than that – about unpacking why I actually didn’t like myself very much.  Self-loathing is a horrible thing.  As Arthur Frank says, it is me writing as the Wounded Storyteller but now more from my scars than my wounds.

I tackled the old notion of self-care in this essay and called it Beyond Bubble Baths.  I also hope to put an arrow in the heart of the whole narrative of having to be brave and strong when you have cancer (or a kid with a disability or become a mother or your marriage breaks up or when you are grieving or during any other significant life event).  There is great pressure in our society to ‘present well’ ‘be strong’ ‘get back to normal’ because of people’s own discomfort with sitting with someone in their pain.

This is Brave is a popular Instagram site and it features the stories of younger moms.  I’m 50, hardly a young mother, so I wrote about what I wished I had known about loving myself as a younger woman and how that would have changed the way I mothered my three children.  I would have allowed the hard emotions, both in myself and my kids.  This was hard to admit and then write.  As I said, my children have had a strong mother, but not a happy mother.  For that I feel deep regret.

Part of the This is Brave experience is that the writers are gifted a photo shoot.  Although the idea of getting my picture taken made me break out in a fear sweat, I gamely drove out to the studio.  Julie from Julie Christine Photography was lovely and immediately put me at ease.  It is weird to see photos of me as usually I’m the one taking photos of my family (or of food).  I know that having photos of myself mean that I’ve stepped out from beyond my various roles (of mother, wife, children’s health advocate) to become more visible on the road to fully embrace myself.

Here is one of my favourite pictures. I am wearing pink because I hate the whole breast cancer awareness crap (also known this month as Pinktober) and I’m taking pink back. It is a sad picture because it is okay to be sad.  If you feel sad that means you have a chance to feel joy too. xo.

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moms + mental health

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this super cool pin is from http://www.noraborealis.com

I hesitate to write about the effect of having a child with a disability has had on my mental health. This is for two reasons.  First, my thoughts are kind of a mess.  The second reason is because this child, my son Aaron – who is now 14 years old and has Down syndrome – is a beloved and wanted child. I fear adding to the bad rap that haunts disability.  The truth is that the important stuff in life is hard. If it wasn’t hard, it wouldn’t be important.

(Please note that I write about moms because I am a mom, so I don’t assume I represent other moms, people with disabilities or dads or brothers or sisters.  Their feelings are valued and significant too.  But their stories are different from my story.  Here goes…).

If I am honest, being the mother of any child is fraught with looming and inevitable loss. You help them attach to feel secure in the early years only to gradually let them go. This is heartbreaking work. There are many joyful and painful aspects to being a mother in general and being the mother of a kid with a disability is no exception.

When Aaron was born, I had the added work of grieving for the baby I expected in order to accept the baby I got. I had many years to figure out with my other children that there’s no such thing as a perfect child. (Usually this truth smacks you in the face in adolescence when the school principal calls you). With Aaron, the realization that no child is perfect came when he was a baby – instantly, right at his diagnosis.

This grief has faded but it has not entirely gone away. Some parents feel sad on their child’s birthday. I feel sorrow when I spot a group of teenage boys at the mall. Aaron is not part of that group and this causes a sharp pain in my heart.  I think this has to do more with me than him, as I have always felt left out and have struggled to find belonging. Unwrapping my feelings from his feelings is difficult but essential work.  I also grieve for my older two children who have grown up and left the nest.  I miss them a lot. There is loss there too, but in a different way.

Having a child with a disability makes me feel particularly vulnerable. In a world where we are supposed to be strong, feeling vulnerable is extremely uncomfortable. This is especially true if we’ve adopted the ‘mama bear’ identity to advocate for our children.

People tell me I’m brave and strong. This is a façade. Mostly I am scared and weak. I cover up my vulnerability with anger that is specifically directed as outrage at the health and education systems. (See my Twitter feed for evidence of my outrage).

Many families get caught in the ‘busy trap’ to avoid feeling pain. They sign their child up for all the therapies in an effort to have the ‘best kid with Down syndrome ever.’ We did this too.  Being self-aware of the reason you engage in therapies is vital: is to help your child be the best they can be, or is it to fix them, to make them as ‘normal’ as possible?   Be careful, for you can lose both you and your child in the fixing. Accepting all your children for who they actually are – not for who we want them to be – is a long, never-ending journey.

There can be struggle to make meaning. Some of us try to change the world in an effort to find purpose from our child’s diagnosis. This is exhausting. The world doesn’t want to change to accept our children. We can only change ourselves. It is our job to equip all our children the best we can to allow them to grow up in a way that they are true to themselves – disability or no disability.

In my humble experience, the most important thing you can do for your own mental health is to allow yourself to feel all your feelings. Surround yourself with people who love you unconditionally.  Don’t be afraid of being still.  Find other parents and lift each other up. Be as kind and gentle with yourself as you are with your own children. All this can help you find peace in your heart. (Note: I struggle to find peace in my heart every single day.  This is okay because I’m perfectly imperfect too).

I am grateful to Dr. Yona Lunsky for inspiring me to speak up about my mental health and to write this essay. xo.

leaning out

This essay was first published on January 19, 2017.  It is worth a repeat because Dr. Yona Lunsky recently asked me for a few words about having a kid with a disability for a talk she did this weekend for the Down Syndrome Research Foundation conference.  I scratched out a few thoughts for her and will follow up with another post, specifically about moms’ mental health.   But first, this… 

Leaning Out

…or the work-life balance and how I’m totally faking it all the time.

I’ve never struggled this much to prepare a presentation.  I was asked to speak to the Rare Disease Foundation‘s parent support group in Vancouver on the topic of work-life balance.  I pulled some quotes.  Wrote speaking notes.  Created some questions.  The presentation was last night and still I floundered.  I have no definitive solution to how to achieve work-life balance, especially if you have a kid with a disability, like I do.

How do you balance work and life?  I have no freakin’ idea.  I didn’t know how to do it when I had two typically-developing kids in the 1990’s, and I most certainly don’t know how to do it now, with my remaining complicated kid in my nest.

I called my talk Leaning Out to temper Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Leaning In.  Her book is described as ‘compelling women to reach their full potential at work.’ Well, in November, I had to resign from my job because I couldn’t figure out how to be available to my kid and to keep working in a staff position.  So I’ve leaned out.  Way out.

I used to believe that you can have it all, but not all at the same time.  My youngest son has taught me that having it all is overrated – what is this ‘all’ anyhow?  A big house, full-time job, annual tropical vacations?  I think we’ve been sold a big fat lie about what’s really important in life.

My talk was a jumble of what I’ve learned over the past 23 years of motherhood.  In the paid work world, I’ve worked full-time, part-time, on contract and as a freelancer.  Other times I’ve immersed myself in unpaid work.  Some days I fill with grocery shopping and sitting on a log, watching the dogs at Kitsilano dog beach.  In leaning out, I’ve been humbled about how much I don’t know.  It was so easy to adopt an identity when I had a job – it was handed to me in a position description. Now, I’m making it up as I go along.

Here is some inspiration that I lean on instead to find my way.  As Ian Brown says, having a kid with a disability means recalibrating all the time.   Most of this is not in your control. In redefining my own identity, these three philosophies help.

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1. Reject the Perfect
Brene Brown describes this best in her TEDTalk, The Power of Vulnerability. She says, “imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that we’re all in this together.” We must stop pretending everything is okay all the time and allow ourselves to be vulnerable.  To do this, we have to find safe places to let our guards down to stop being ‘special needs mom’ cheerleaders – like with other moms over coffee or Facebook and in support groups like one I spoke to last night.  It is so important to find people who demonstrate that they’ve got your back, no matter what.  (That, and never clean your house before another mom comes over – this sets a really bad precedent).

 

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2.  Embrace the Slow 
Having a kid with a difference forces you to get off the ‘regular person’ treadmill of life.  Life is busy, yes, but in a different way.  You get transported to a different planet that you never bought a ticket to – one with great frustrations with hospitals, society, social services and education systems.  There are times of great slowness – while helping a child get dressed, or waiting for a whole sentence to come out, or summoning all your patience for a kid to finish their meal.  In these slow times, it is so important to embrace the small joy, as Lisa Bonchek Adams gently reminded us.

I’m also fond of this New York Times Essay by Tim Kreider called The Busy Trap.  In it, he says, “busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day”.  Carl Honore’s In Praise of Slow book and movement also offers similar sage guidance.

 

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3.  Remember that unpaid work is work too.
Finally, I suggested banning the words ‘just a mom’ and ‘volunteering’ from your vocabulary.  Work is work is work.  We focus so much on what we do and how we do it, we forget about the why, as Simon Sinek reminds us.  Caring for another vulnerable human being is the most important work there is.  It is what makes our world go round. Our society doesn’t value unpaid work, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t value work that doesn’t come with a paycheque.  Think about writing a Mom Resume that outlines all the skills you’ve acquired since your child was born.  Writing it down gives it power and makes it real.

But sadly for last night’s audience, I had no real wisdom, no solutions, no fixes, no way to achieve this elusive work-life balance. I mostly talked out of my butt, and used other people’s words as inspiration.  I was pleased to spark conversation, and it was heartening that others felt safe enough to open up about their own struggles.

Accept that recalibrating is okay and to be expected.  Talk about your imperfect life in safe spaces.  And value the work you do, even if others don’t.  As I seek acceptance of my current messy life so I can find peace in my heart, I hope you can too – in your own way and in your own time. xo.

How to make it ok (part 2 of 2)

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@yogimemes

A shorter, less profanity-laced version of this essay is up on Huffington Post.

My husband/editor read my previous post and asked in his typically pragmatic way:  so what are you going to do about it?  This is a fair question.  I presented the problem of mothers with kids with disabilities being forced out of the paid workforce. Now what is the solution?

Well, it turns out there are lots of answers to this question, because families of kids with disabilities are incredibly resourceful.  We make lemonade out of lemons every single day.  Sometimes we rant but then we dig deep, put on our big girl pants and get shit done.

So family-friendly employers are rare and our governments don’t care about us.  Here’s what we do instead:

Connect

Whether you call it your herd or your people, it is so important to reach out to find like-minded families.  Before I had Aaron, I called these wonderful women my mom friends – in the disability world, the term is medicalized and called peer support.  No matter – the result is the same.  This means having other women you can talk to who get it.  When my now-adult kids were young, I met my best mom friends at playgroups, La Leche meetings and in the school hallways.

With my third kid, I’ve had to expand my definition of  connecting. Connecting happens through Facebook, Twitter or email in 2016, and that’s ok.  The days of meeting around the kitchen table are rare. I have to be more creative in the ways I get together in this era of busyness.

The mom network of information sharing, particularly in the complex world of disability, is very powerful.  A few months ago, I was in a meeting with health professionals. One of them asked me:  what clinician has taught you the most about resources and services?  I actually laughed when I responded and said:  it wasn’t clinicians who taught me; it was other moms.  It is always other moms.  Recently, on Christmas Eve, a mom emailed me asking a question about renting a pediatric wheelchair.  I didn’t know the answer, so I emailed three other moms and one clinician.  Within 4 hours on Christmas Eve, I heard back from all three moms with detailed responses.  The calibre of the women in my universe continues to impress me.

Alas, adult relationships also take time. I’ve learned to be patient with this process, especially since moving to a new city two years ago. Sometimes I’m lonely. Success to me doesn’t mean having a dozen girlfriends I go to Mexico with every year (although I’d be open to that, ha).  It means having different women at different times to lean on, to ask questions, to bounce ideas off of and to vent with.  One mom and I have an amusing relationship sharing GIFs on Twitter.  Another mom has kindly included me in her group of moms who have a subscription to a local theatre company.  A mom I met at work invited me to her yoga class.  These pieces of friendships make me feel less alone and these women are my great source of support and love.

Organize

I can attest that the only way change has ever happened is when regular folks organize together.  Governments and systems never change on their own – never ever ever.  They only respond to pressure from outside groups to do the right thing.  So much has changed in the disability world over the past 50 years.  People with Down syndrome are no longer automatically institutionalized at birth. Now our kids are included, for the most part, in their community schools. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that heart defects in babies with Down syndrome were even surgically fixed – before that, babies were left to die because of ‘quality of life’ bullshit.   Do you think this positive change happened because of bureaucrats?  No way my friends.  These advancements happened because families stood up, organized and told their stories.  They insisted that the status quo wasn’t okay anymore.  Change came from the people, not from bureaucrats, who, save for rare champion, are only invested in keeping things the same.

Celebrate unpaid work

A long time ago, I belonged to a Ottawa based group called Feminist Mothers At Home.  This group of moms was lobbying the government for recognition of the value of all unpaid caregiving work – including caring for children, elderly parents, or loved ones who were sick or had disabilities.  My involvement with them taught me an early lesson: in society’s eyes, you do have to be counted to count.  Other wiser moms taught me that women are often silenced and the value of speaking our truths.

I’ve never used the terms ‘volunteering’ or ‘stay at home mom.’  I prefer to say unpaid work.  This work is important – uncounted, undervalued, unrecognized – but caring for others is the glue that holds our whole world together.   If I meet someone new, I ask – do you work outside the home or at home?  Because work is work is work – whether you get paid or not.

Recalibrate

When I heard Ian Brown speak in October, he said his son Walker has taught him to constantly recalibrate.  It is true that our kids show us what’s important in life, but I’ve been guilty of ignoring that, or fighting it if it isn’t in alignment with what I thought was true.  A big part of paid work is identity.  I’ve had to constantly adjust my identity over the years and this has been hard.  Give yourself time to grieve for the loss of the so-called perfect life, in order to accept the life you have.  This might mean mourning career plans or graduate degrees.

In some ways, it is easier to wake up, get dressed up, arrive at my office, go to meetings, feel important.  When I have a job, the ‘who’ part of who I am is pre-packaged and handed to me for 7.5 hours a day.  When I’m set adrift on my own, I have to make this up myself, every single day.  Recalibration is about constant change, but recalibration must be done to find peace in your heart.

Open your own damn business

Four years ago, I was a lonely freelancer, picking up writing gigs here and there and working from my desk at home in between school drop off and pick up time.  I never got invited to anybody’s work Christmas party.  I knew that I wasn’t the only independent feeling that way, so my husband and I started a company called Bird Communications.  It began as a community, with photographers, designers, writers, editors, researchers – who all, for their own reasons, didn’t want to work for the ‘man’ in a staff position.  We met once a month for Bird Gatherings at a local coffee shop.  We got to know and care for each other.  We hosted our own damn Christmas party at our house, which was packed with Birds and their young families, all pining for a different model of work.  Slowly we transformed from a social, networking and learning community to a true health communications company.  We began to win paid work projects.  We never promise full-time work, and we place people the best we can, so this model doesn’t work for everybody.  But we help our Birds find contract work and make sure they get paid – an important factor for freelancers.

The lesson here is if you build it, they will come.  The composition of our (now) 26 Birds is interesting – we have many mothers just off maternity leave, or whose kids just began school – and they didn’t want to go back to full-time cubicle-land work.  So they joined us instead.  Of late, we have a number of smart creative moms who are communications or health professionals AND who have kids with disabilities.  They are an untapped, ignored, and simply awesome workforce.  We feel fortunate to have them amongst our midst.

Paid work

I’ve learned some hard lessons from the paid work world.  If I do venture back into that arena, I’ll choose my employer more carefully.  At my interview, I’ll ask some hard questions, like:  what happens if my child is hospitalized and I have to take time off work? How flexible are your hours, really?  I’d ask around about the work culture to see if it is an employer more interested in delivery of work than the optics of me sitting at my desk every day.

I’d better inform myself about benefits and paid leaves.  When my son was in the hospital last year, I was told that there was no paid leave for me to take time off work because I was in an out-of-scope position.  At the time, I was so whacked out with stress that I didn’t question this – I merely dutifully took a week off without pay.  Later, I found out there was a provision for such an absence.  It was my own fault for not contacting human resources and knowing my rights.

Part of having children is redefining what success looks like.  This is different for every woman.  For me, this means more leaning out, more acknowledging that 18 months in a position isn’t a failure, recognizing that I need to be fluid with both my identity and how I define myself.  Sometimes work is sometimes paid and sometimes it is not.   This also means suspending judgment and supporting other women in their choices.  The mommy wars is so distracting from the real issues at hand – you never know what your decision would be unless you walk in someone else’s shoes.  We are all doing the best we can.

Finally, 2016, I’m exhausted from keeping the system’s secrets.  I’ll cycle back to the cheeky quote at the beginning of this long essay. My 2017 resolution is based on a rather irreverent book I picked up over the holidays:  The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k by Sarah Knight.  Be irreverent about things that don’t matter so you have time to be reverent about stuff that does.

Stand up.  Band together.  Use your voice.  You are bad-ass.  You are a sorcerer of divine light.  Don’t ever allow anybody to take that away from you.