Real Good, Real Life, Real Results with Wellness Coach: Koren Barwis

Why I joined Moms Demand Action

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Loudoun Chapter Moms

In August, I attended Gun Sense University in Albuquerque. The annual event run by Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America was a 3-day marathon of speakers, group sessions, and breakout workshops. One of the breakouts I attended was “Telling Your Story” described as helping attendees learn how to speak about what brought them to Moms.

One mom shared her story of complete despair and helplessness after Sandy Hook. Another spoke of her daughter being on a college campus with an active shooter.

As someone who enjoys writing, I thought this workshop would be a slam dunk for me. But as I sat there trying to pull together my story, I struggled with trying to figure out “the moment.” I was surprised when I realized that for me, it was not a shooting that made me passionate and vocal about preventing gun violence in our society.

It wasn’t Columbine — the first mass shooting that I felt viscerally. I was too self-absorbed at the time for it to really register. Just 26 years old and I didn’t have kids yet.
It wasn’t VaTech — even though I lived in Virginia and now had kids. None were in college and Blacksburg seemed so far away. Note, my stepson Robb now attends VaTech.
Nor Aurora — despite that I love movies and now can’t go to one without looking for an exit or thinking of how I would shield my loved ones if someone came in with a gun.
Nor Sandy Hook — although I sobbed and mourned and cried some more.
Nor the Washington Navy Yard — a shooting in the very building where my husband worked. He just happened to go in late that day.
No, it was actually a non-shooting.

I had just dropped Ruby off at her middle school and was driving to work. Two police cars flew past me, going in the opposite direction — the direction of Ruby’s school. Their sirens were blaring and lights were on. I immediately thought “I pray there isn’t a shooter at Ruby’s school.” The knot in my stomach grew as all those previous school shootings — Columbine, VaTech, Sandy Hook — played in my head.

When I got to work, I was somewhat relieved to learn that it was a bomb threat at another nearby school (turned out to be nothing, just an abandoned backpack)…but something in me snapped. I would not wait until something did happen to my family to act; I found Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action on Facebook. I signed up on the Moms website and was invited to a local chapter meeting by the incredibly smart and ridiculously funny Amy McPike. I went and was shocked to learn about some of the lax gun laws in Virginia and the strength of the gun lobby.

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A few months later, I attended lobby day in Richmond with Ruby. And now, a year and a half later, I’m part of the Loudoun leadership team, attending GSU.

Speaking up about gun violence is not always easy. It is a controversial topic and I have friends on both sides. I’m sure a number of folks have unfollowed me on Facebook or have tired of my “Likes.” But then there are the moments where we find common ground and those make it all worth it. Most of us can agree that there is too much gun violence in America and that certain people should not have access to guns.

What I love most about Moms is that we are all about common sense solutions. These are intelligent, passionate people (we aren’t just Moms…we’re Dads, grandparents, sisters, children and even some gun owners). Being around other like-minded people is inspiring and comforting.

Sadly, since I joined Moms, the US had its worst mass shooting in Orlando and we continue to lose 91 people a day to gun violence. Sometimes, the fight feels overwhelming, but then I’m hit with the energy and love that emanates from this organization and feel empowered, optimistic, and just a little less helpless. I am doing something.

My C-Word Confession

I have a confession to make — I go to church every Sunday and I love it. Saying that and putting myself out there spiritually doesn’t come easily. Telling friends that I’m going to church does not roll off my tongue and makes me feel super vulnerable. I imagine folks judging me, a lot like I tend to do when others come off as overly devout. So what is it about the word “church” that makes me so uneasy? It wasn’t always this way.

I grew up a Christmas and Easter Methodist in Rochester, Michigan. We lived conveniently just one block from St. Paul’s Church where the Reverend Dr. Hickey preached on Sundays. He was a kind man with jet black hair and a dynamic yet reserved preaching style. More than the sermons or the actual beliefs, I loved the routine of church; saying the same things, singing the same songs. Even in my youth I was a creature of habit. And while I wouldn’t say I enjoyed getting up early on a Sunday, my overall impression was positive.

Christmas Eve’s candlelight service was my favorite. Mom, Kirsten and I would get dressed up (yes, Mom in her plaid frock ), bundled in our coats, and walk the five minutes to church. The choir would sing traditional Christmas songs and ring large, beautiful, brass bells. At the end of the service, they gave everyone, even us children, a small glass votive with a lit candle. We’d walk home with our candles, being super careful not to let the little flame blow out. The candles sat front and center in our picture window until they burned out a few hours later.

Most of my friends attended the nearby St. Andrew’s Catholic Church, whose parking lot I cut through on my way to elementary school. I marveled at its grandiosity, its Jayne Mansfield to my St. Paul’s Sophia Loren. My friends all had elaborate first communions, complete with quasi-bridal white dresses, gloves, and big celebrations. And their Sunday School wasn’t just Sunday School; it was “catechism” or CCD. Everything just seemed fancier in the world of Catholicism. Yes, I had religious envy.

It didn’t help that my parents had neglected to baptize me as a baby, leaving me to feel like an adolescent atheist. My older sister had been baptized with the full shebang — lacy white gown, Mom dressed in matching crisp, high-collared white blouse, proud godparents, photographs galore. Me, aka second born? I’d be going to Hell according to my Catholic friends. Thankfully, I didn’t die before I was baptized in my teens during Confirmation (and upon further research later in life, I could have still be let into Heaven), but the seed of my disenchantment with Christianity had been planted.

I struggled to accept the core tenants of Christianity, especially evolution. Adam and Eve were said to be born roughly 6,000 years ago, but I had visited museums with 3 million-year-old human fossils. Beyond that discrepancy, I’ve always believed that humans are fundamentally good, not born in sin. And that God or god or spirits or fate or karma are not punishers; at worst they are non-committal and at the very best they are looking out for us.

As I leaned away from Christianity, Eastern philosophies kept surfacing around me. In high school English class, we read Siddhartha. Buddhism and enlightenment intrigued me. Then, my Mom gave me a copy of  The Tao of Pooh for my 18th birthday. I gobbled it up; the concept of yin and yang made sense. I saw balance everywhere in nature. In college, I studied World Religions and found incredible similarities in all the major religions. I took my first (crazy) yoga class where the instructor wore a “diaper” and kept telling me to clinch my root chakra. I didn’t go back, but the fundamentals of mindfulness and breath resonated within me.

“The way is not in the sky. The way is in the heart.”  — Buddha

Abandoning Christianity while aligning with Eastern philosophies was one thing, but finding a religious practice that suited me turned out to be a significant challenge. Most of the Christian alternatives were a little out there. I tried non-denominational Christian churches, but as soon they cracked open the Bible or referenced Jesus, I emotionally check out.

I was technically a “None.” No, not a nun, but a None — someone with no religious affiliation. According to some recent studies, over 25% of Americans are now Nones. (This recent National Geographic feature has some really interesting insights on Nones.)

As I got older and had a family, I longed for a spiritual community. I stumbled upon Unitarian Universalism after taking a quiz on beliefnet.com. I tried UU Reston and UU Fairfax, two nearby Unitarian Universalist congregations. Like Goldilocks, UU Reston was too political (at the time) and UU Fairfax was too far a drive.


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In February of 2013, I was invited by a friend to attend an event at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Sterling. I met Reverend Anya, the strong, quiet, youthful minister who leads UUCS. Her sense of calm immediately put me at ease. We had a brief conversation about my inability to find a place where I felt like I spiritually belonged. She urged me to give UUCS a try.

The following Sunday morning, I optimistically and nervously walked into UUCS for my first service. I was warmly welcomed by a greeter who reminded me of my mom. She gave me the introductory schpeel and had me create a name tag (oh boy, not a fan of name tags). I took a seat in the sanctuary, which wasn’t a traditional sanctuary. A non-traditional religion, I guess it makes sense that the setting isn’t typical. UUCS sits in a nondescript, red brick office building. The sanctuary is a large, double-height room with lots of windows and rows of maroon chairs. There is no cross or stained glass, just a simple altar with flowers and at the time, an interesting pattern of copper suns on the front wall (the copper suns were recently replaced by a stunning custom painting by one of the members).

Sitting there, I started to feel very emotional, yet strangely grounded. The pianist began the prelude, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” a song with intense personal meaning. I shook my head and tears started flowing. It was a sign (yes, I believe in signs) — I belonged here. UUCS was “just right.”

My husband took a little (a LOT) more convincing than I did. A born skeptic, he was raised Protestant; he missed the organ and the stained glass, growling about the office building setting every time he walked in. He didn’t buy in until we went to a relative’s baby shower at a Catholic church. The priest read the following passage from the Bible:

“So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to its normal course when the morning appeared. And as the Egyptians fled into it, the Lord threw the Egyptians into the midst of the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the horsemen; of all the host of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea, not one of them remained.”

We sat there in disbelief. How is the death of Egyptians relevant or appropriate? We had attended baby dedication ceremonies at UUCS, which were positive and joyful. At UUCS, the congregation together commits to helping this little person become a better human being and water is put on their forehead with a flower. People laugh and there is no talk of killing Egyptians. Seeing the stark differences made my husband more appreciative of UU’s approach.

(Here is a little about Unitarian Universalism)

Unitarian Universalism was started in 1961 when the Unitarians and Universalists joined forces. Here are the basic guiding principles:

  • All religions are welcome (great for multi-denominational families)
  • Inclusion of all people (strong LGBTQ and social justice elements)
  • Non-believers and atheists are welcome (just because you don’t believe in God or god, doesn’t mean you don’t want to be part of a community that believes in doing good and being good).
  • Questioning is good (there are no absolutes and you are encouraged to make your own conclusions)
  • Diversity is key (we learn from each other)
  • Music and meditation are cornerstones
  • Sermons are derived from many sources (traditional religious texts, poems, essays, songs, life)

Yes, UUs are generally pretty liberal and accepting, which does come with some drawbacks. Timeliness isn’t highly regarded and disorganization can be overlooked. But for the most part, we respect and support one another and our varied beliefs.

“But it’s not easy to unite people around not believing in something.” — Gabe Bullard

Over the past three years, I have leaned on my new community during both personal and worldly trials. When I had to put my beloved chocolate lab Winnie down, my heart was broken. I couldn’t even speak about it in Joys and Sorrows (our time for openly sharing with the congregation), but just lit a candle of remembrance. I came back to my seat sobbing. Someone I didn’t even know handed me a tissue and put his hand on my shoulder — such kindness from essentially a stranger. And when news of all the countless shootings, physical disasters, political injustices break, I find comfort in my church.

I’ve grown while at UUCS. I joined the Writers’ Group (open to anyone – members and nonmembers) where I’ve become close with my fellow writers, including an older African man and a talented painter. They know more about me than many of my family members. Also, I stepped out of my comfort zone and participated in my first Jazz Poetry Slam. And on Raptor Night, one of the monthly family-friendly Friday night events, I sat in a room with falcons, hawks, and owls. While at UUCS, I’ve heard some of the best music in the area, from the Gay Men’s Chorus (performing this Saturday) to our children’s choir that my daughter participates in and loves.

Being a part of a community does come with some expectations, mostly showing up and volunteering. I’ve been asked to help in different capacities. For three years, I worked on the stewardship campaign, aka asking people for money to support the church. This role was WAY outside my comfort zone, but I just tapped into what I knew — marketing, communications, innovation, and honesty. And now, in July, I will be taking on the role of the Board President. I keep thinking they’re going to call me and tell me it is all a joke. Not sure I’m totally qualified for the role, but I believe in the people who nominated me and am honored to serve.

So why did I write this post? Partially to claim my faith — something I’ve feared doing up until now — and to address my fear of the C-word (church). But more so because I know there are other Nones out there who are looking for a place like UUCS, a spiritual home or even just a positive community that they can connect with. Maybe UUCS isn’t it…but maybe it is.

A few weeks after my first visit to UUCS, the friend who had originally invited me there was diagnosed with breast cancer. The UUCS community swooped in to support her. I thought about my life and who, other than my close friends and family, would support me if I were diagnosed with a brutal illness? What would become of my family? Who would attend my funeral? I also thought about my mom and how she died — with friends and family, but no faith, no extended community. I wanted more for myself and for my family. I thought about who I was and who I wanted to be…a better, more compassionate person. I wanted to give back and now I do. And I go to church (almost) every Sunday and yes, I love it.

My Word for 2016 – Part 1

 

prioritizationWriting this post in April tells you how the beginning of 2016 went for me. Typically, I’d post this in January, or February at the latest, but life has been crazy since Christmas. Jumping from obligation to obligation, I’m just now coming up for air. The chaos made my word for the year — prioritization — even more important.

Prioritization. Not the sexiest word or the most lofty. And on the surface, it seems rather practical and uninspired, but this word has tentacles that reach into my life’s every nook and cranny.

At the beginning of each new year, I set goals and pick one word that represents what I want to accomplish in the coming 365 days. The word is like the year’s theme. Last year, my word was “soar” because I wanted to step outside my comfort zone, take more chances and conquer some fears. Check, check, and check. (Read about 2015 here.)

My goals typically focused around a few key areas — career, happiness, but mostly and sadly my weight. Weigh X  and you’ll have achieved greatness! The X has shifted up 5, down 10, maintain…depending on some random expectation I had in my head. When I finally realized in the last few years that acceptance trumps the X, my weight stabilized. Crazy how that worked out.

So now what? I have room to explore other goals. Holy sh*t, what I could have accomplished all these years if I had been so focused on weight. Well, where to start? As I pondered that question, I came across this story about a jar, golf balls, and sand. It’s taken a few forms and some credit it to Steven Covey. The moral is you have to make room for the big things, aka golf balls, first and then fill in with the little things like sand. If you start with the little things, there isn’t enough room for the big things. My golf balls: family, wellness, writing, and work.

Family

Self-explanatory. I truly like spending time with my family (and a few very good friends who are like family). They make me laugh and are my people. Yes, my hubby can get a little needy (Pisces), so I always try to make sure I have plenty of time set aside for him. If forced to make a choice, family comes first.

Wellness

Working out and eating well are super important to me. Now that I’ve found my happy place physically and mentally, I don’t want to lose it. On weekdays, I get up at 4:45 A.M. so I have time to get my workout in and walk my pups before getting Ruby off to school. That is my time and it keeps me sane. To get up that early, I have to get to bed around 9ish and yes, some of my friends call me Grandma. The main sacrifice is watching TV, but with my lovely DVR, I can catch up on Game of Thrones or Younger while I workout in the morning — two birds, one stone!

Sadly, my social life sometimes has to take a back seat to wellness. Too many parties, happy hours, and dinners out overtax my willpower. So I prioritize the things I want to attend and skip those I don’t. Many times I’ll attend an event but won’t eat or drink, which throws some hosts (or fellow guests) into a tizzy — something about others abstaining makes people feel icky about themselves. Peer pressure is real yo.

Writing

Writing makes me happy and nourishes my soul, but it takes time, focus, and mental energy. When I’m slammed with other obligations or at work, my writing drops off (note, very few posts in Jan/Feb/Mar when I was super busy).

Work

I’m lucky to have a career that pays well, is social, fulfilling, and relatively flexible. Work pays for everything else, so it falls high in the prioritization spectrum.

As I plan out the rest of the year and really, the future,  these are the four areas where I will focus. Next up, thinking about how I manage the resources — time, money, and breaths.