Inspiration at 37,000 Feet

December 13, 2008 in It is what it is - opinion column | Comments (6)


Her name is Delia Gottlieb.
As I sat typing these thoughts last Friday, whooshing along at a comfortable 521 mph while 37,000 feet over the Atlantic, Delia was settled in a few rows ahead alternating between quick naps and reading a book by Bruce Chatwin that she brought on board (along with at least one newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, I think) for the flight back to the US from Paris.
I know a little about her. I know she’s 89 years old and originally from New York. I know she has several children (four), a passel of grandchildren (seven) and sprinkling of great grandchildren (three). But in the brief conversation we shared at the airport, and a more extended chat during which I knelt in the aisle by her seat, Delia shared many words of wisdom – some of which resonate still in my heart several days later.
Actually the words she uttered weren’t hers. She was relating a story, and the words she shared were from someone she knew – Eleanor Roosevelt.
Yes, that Eleanor Roosevelt.
Delia was a young girl at the time. Her father was involved in government dealings, and so the phone would ring at her house with the President or First Lady on the line. (For the record I don’t know precisely what her father did, we didn’t get to that part.) This phrase, said to Delia by one of the most oft-quoted First Ladies in American history, went like this …
“Hello dear, are you ready to serve?”
Are you ready to serve?
What a question.
It’s not the clarion call of Kennedy’s famous inaugural speech challenge, but can you imagine picking up the phone and hearing someone of the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt asking if you’re ready to suit up and get involved? Can you imagine answering that query with anything less than a hearty YES!?
Even standing by the coffee machine in the airport lounge at Charles de Gaulle airport (which, btw, made superb espresso), a slight ripple tickled the follicles at the base of my neck. Because, I realized that I am, indeed, ready.
I’ve written before about my status as a newly hatched activist, and certainly have been more engaged politically in the last month than ever before in my life. But a steady drumbeat of lessons set a strong rhythm last week in Paris – a syncopated pattern expanding and expanding in my head, rife with the roll of timpani and rat-a-tat-tat of snare drum.
Dinner with Paulo Coelho on the night of my arrival, (an experience that carried its own set of life lessons) set the foundation. The next night I attended the Every Human Has Rights media award ceremony, celebrating the journalistic triumphs achieved by powerful story-tellers from around the world. And of course December 10 marked the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
A document shepherded in part and signed by … Eleanor Roosevelt.
Which brings me back to Delia.
She and her companion, Max, were in Paris to attend the Global Zero conference and as we stood musing on pain au chocolat and coffee, she fixed me with a crisp yet deeply warm, blue gaze and said in a voice tinged ever-so-slightly with the tones of New York:
“It’s a mess – a real mess. (The world) is in big trouble, kid – big trouble; and we have to do something about it.”
Are you ready to serve?
The more one reads the paper, watches television or dips into the flood-level rushing information waters of the Internet, it would seem that our situation already has passed the point of no return.
But it has not. And today, unlike any other time in our history, we – and by “we” I mean folks who don’t necessarily flit in high-end Beltway circles, have the opportunity to the mountain tops of Davos or Sun Valley – actually can do something. We need not sit idly by, waiting for government officials or well-heeled philanthropists to set the course.
Are you ready to serve?
Of course it would be nice to be one of those who can dedicate their entire life to addressing the world’s issues. But this isn’t a luxury most people can afford, so here is my clarion call to you.
Pick an issue – any issue – something that matters to you. Whether it’s providing clean water to tribal cultures in Africa, addressing political issues in war torn countries, or something more simple and local to you like the plight of local homeless or mentoring underserved children or even getting that pot hole filled on your street – get involved.
And by get involved, I don’t mean open your wallet. Sure, any such cause likely needs money, and I’m sure they won’t turn your checks away. But I’m talking about rolling up your sleeves because what they also need is help. Take the time, even if it’s just a couple of hours a month, and do something – anything.
I feel as though I returned to the US prepared to ratchet things up a hefty notch or two.
First stop – marriage equality – and I’ll ride that train as long as it takes to reach the final destination. And then, I’ll check the schedules and pick the route for the next journey.
What about you?
Are you ready to serve?


6 responses to “Inspiration at 37,000 Feet”

  1. elizabeth mcmahon says:

    Nice story. I like the parallels and conclusions you draw.
    Did you happen to learn how Delia herself served? She didn’t mention anything about being a public librarian, did she?

  2. Cathy Brooks says:

    In fact no … but funny you should bring up Delia as I’m hoping to see her when I go to DC next month. I’m hoping she’ll do a video interview with me with which I can amend this post!

  3. Diane Courtney says:

    I know Delia and she has been an inspiration to everyone she’s ever met. One terrific woman!

  4. harry says:

    Delia is my great aunt. Her mother was the youngest of six or seven girls. My grandmother Frieda was Delia’s mothers older sister. She visted my family in Tiburon Ca with her famous jazz photographer husband William Gottlieb whose pictures are in the Smithsonian.
    Oh…………just to fill you in on Delia’s father. I believe he was a labor leader. Head of the unions. That type of thing.
    I am trying to contact my great aunt as i understand she is studying the geneology of our family tree. Anyone that could help with that would be appreciated. Harry

  5. Cathy says:

    Wow! Thanks for writing Harry! I actually have been meaning to get in touch with Delia as I have a trip planned to DC in the spring and am hoping to see her again. The inspiration she offered on that flight remains with me today!

  6. Cathy says:

    So glad to hear it!