Wednesday, September 30, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Rest and Relaxation

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that." ~ Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Though it's just turned to Fall, I've found myself drawn to re-reading one of my favorite essays every night this week - Winter by Nina Zolotow. I first saw it in Rodney Yee's book Yoga: The Poetry of the Body. I understand this essay now more than I ever have in the 7 years since I first read it. I pull it out in times of trouble, in times when I'm feeling sad and worn out and confused about how to move forward. Her conclusion makes me a feel a little better, gives me a bit more license to give myself a much-needed break. I love that the only period is at the end of the essay, and that all of the other sentences and phrases run together in one long, cohesive thought, just like life.

And now here I am at the final day of September, ready to release this month in favor of a happier, sunnier October. And some much needed rest and relaxation. A tired heart and mind can only be rejuvenated by rest and care, not by further trial and challenge. So that's my goal for the next little while - a simple one, really. To just take care of this heart who has endured so much this month, to surround it with love, to nurture it back to its original state. It has done some heavy lifting this month and earned some well-deserved down time. Just like the fig tree, it will certainly be revived.

Last night, I listened to Professor Michael Sandel's lectures at They were just what I needed. He spoke about how to value life and the utilitarian philosophy that seeks to maximize pleasure over pain. I was lulled into a relaxed state as he told me about Sophocles and Plato, J.S. Mill, and Jeremy Bentham. And fell into a deep sleep between my comfy sheets made of bamboo fiber and topped by a fluffy duvet. I buried myself into my new bed, cocooning and nurturing my weary body and mind, and didn't stir until the sun came up. So this is what it feels like to heal.

Winter by Nina Zolotow
"In their garden there was always a wild profusion of tomatoes ripening on the vine, and leafy basil, arugula, and lettuce, and glossy purple eggplants, and red and yellow peppers, and zucchini with its long, bright blossoms, and there was always lunch at the wooden table on hot summer afternoons, with plates of pasta and bread and olives and salads with herbs, and many bottles of red wine that made you feel warm and drowsy, while bees hummed and the sprawling marjoram, thyme, and rosemary gave off their pungent fragrances, and at the end of the meal, always, inexplicably, there were fresh black figs that they picked themselves from the tree at the garden's center, an eighteen-foot fig tree, for how was it possible - this was not Tuscany but Ithaca - Ithaca, New York, a rough-hewn landscape of deep rocky gorges and bitter icy winters, and I finally had to ask him - my neighbor - how did that beautiful tree live through the year, how did it endure the harshness of a New York winter and not only survive until spring but continue producing the miraculous fruit, year after year, and he told me that it was quite simple, really, that every fall, after the tree lost all its leaves, he would sever the tree's roots on one side only and, on the tree's other side, he would dig a trench, and then he would just lay down that flexible trunk and limbs, lay them down in the earth and gently cover them with soil, and there the fig tree would rest, warm and protected, until spring came, when he could remove its protective covering and stand the tree up once again to greet the sun; and now in this long gray season of darkness and cold and grief (do I have to tell you over what? for isn't it always the same - the loss of a lover, the death of a child, or the incomprehensible cruelty of one human being to another?), as I gaze out of my window at the empty space where the fig tree will stand again next spring, I think, yes, lay me down like that, lay me down like the fig tree that sleeps in the earth, and let my body rest easily on the ground - my roots connecting me to some warm immutable center - luxuriating in the heart of winter."

The photo above is not my own. It was taken in Centennial Park in Sydney, Australia by Mike Bogle. I can be found here.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Lunch with God

On Monday afternoon, I got angry. Throughout the day I found myself running into the ladies room for short spurts of tears, and then cleaned myself up and returned to my desk. I don’t like to work this way but the heavy load demands it at the moment. In the shower this morning, as I was crying, again, over the loss of our family dog, I started to shake my head in disbelief. How could the Universe let this happen?

At lunch time, I went to my favorite little sandwich shop and took a seat in Trinity Churchyard near Alexander Hamilton. I've been going to Trinity a lot during lunch lately. Last night I didn't sleep too well and I thought a walk over to Trinity might help me clear my head. And then something very odd happened, as if Hamilton's feisty spirit and his inability to ignore injustice inspired me. I was tearing up behind my sunglasses and then this burst of anger came to the forefront of my mind. It was a little un-nerving because I am not at all an angry person by nature. Anger, mine or anyone else’s, makes me very nervous. Without being able to stop it, I began to have a stern conversation with God, silently.

“I really hope you’re happy because now you’ve really done it. You have screwed up royally here. It wasn’t enough to have my apartment building catch fire, have me almost get trapped inside, and then destroy most of my belongings with smoke. You had to take my dog, too? Really? You must be really proud of yourself up there, divine and content, messing with all of us down here. My sister’s crying. My brother-in-law’s crying. I’m crying. I accept that most of the losses that I’ve had in my life were timely. Sebastian’s was not. He was only 7! Our last dog lived to be 17! A full decade longer! I hate to say it, God, but you were wrong on this one. Completely wrong. I must emphatically disagree with you; it was not Sebastian’s time yet. You pulled the plug on him way too early and I’m really pissed off at you for that. We needed some more years with him. He deserved some more years with us. I really hope the next time something like this comes up, you think a little bit harder about what you’re doing. And by the way, I have had more than my fair share of sadness this month. Actually, I’ve had enough for the remainder of the year, maybe for the remainder of the next few years so you are really going to have to back off. I’m sick of going through boxes of tissues in a day. I’m sick of feeling disappointed and sad and frustrated and scared. There’s a big ol’ lesson in all of this for me. I get it. I hear you. 'Nothing is permanent.' Fine. 'We have to be flexible.' Got it. 'We need to accept that with great love must also come great loss.' Check. 'Some days, we’re the pigeon and some days we’re the statue.' I understand that, and I’m telling you I’ve reached my quota of statue days. Enough!”

And then I let out a big, big sigh. I looked over at Alexander Hamilton, and then around at the other people sitting near me having lunch. And though my thoughts just now raged inside my mind, it seems that no one else heard me. Except God. He heard me. I knew he did, and I think he’s a little ashamed of his recent behavior toward me. And he should be. The piling up of this month’s events was really uncalled for. Whew – that was scary but it felt great. I needed to get that out.

As I got back onto Broadway and headed North, I found my smile again. I even laughed a little. I just yelled at God – really yelled at him. (I’ve never yelled at anyone like that ever. Actually, I can’t even remember the last time I raised my voice. I was probably a teenager!) Tiny little me, 5’2”, 110-pound me, just yelled at the Creator of the Universe. And he listened. He didn’t try to deny my grief or anger or sadness. He didn’t try to make it better or soothe my weary mind. He showed up and just listened. He eeked out a very small “I’m sorry” and I whispered back “I accept your apology.”

We have a funny relationship, God and I. Throughout my life I have at times adored him and doubted him. Sometimes I have flat out walked away and left him in the dust. And then I realized that I wanted him back, and when I peeked around the corner of faith again, a little embarrassed that I stormed off, there he was. Right where I left him. Waiting patiently, just like Sebastian would wait for us to get home. They're more alike than I realized. Animals are more virtuous that we recognize - they might be the closest we ever get to a holy presence on Earth. I think God and I are going to be okay now. And I think Sebastian is okay, too.

As I got closer to my office, I felt that awful terrible weight from Sunday lift off my heart slightly. It’s still there. I got over my apartment and belongings going up in smoke, though I really miss Sebastian, and always, always will. I miss knowing that he’s not in the world anymore. That I won’t be able to hug him again, or take him for a walk, or rub his cute little belly. I would have liked just one more hug, and sadly that wish will not be fulfilled until I cross over to where he is now. Waiting for us, as he always was here on Earth. God better make sure Sebastian’s up there, well taken care of, and ready for me to take him for his walk when we all get back together again.

My friend, Amy, is a conflict resolution and trauma expert. I spent a long time on the phone with her on Sunday night, talking through what I’ve been feeling this month. She refers to this process of grief as the glass of water analogy. We can think of difficult times as being a specific amount of water and ourselves as glasses. Each time we encounter something difficult, the respective amount of water gets poured into our glass. I could have dealt with any one of the sad circumstances from this month, but putting them all together within 3 weeks' times was just too much and my glass has overflowed with sadness.

The overflow happens sometimes, and as my pal, Laura, said to me "it sucks and it's okay to feel like it sucks for a while." Eventually the only thing to do is to sop up the excess water and start to empty our glass, even it’s just one little teaspoon at a time. The love and support from my friends and family this month has been such an amazing source of strength, and they're helping me bail out the water from my glass. It’s going to take me a little time to get that glass emptied but I am 100% committed to getting it done. Alison Krauss, one of my favorite musicians, sings a song that goes “Just get me through December, A promise I’ll remember, Get me through December, So I can start again.” Her December is my September, and I am almost through it. After a very long, sad month, I feel like I’m moving in the right direction.

The photo above is not my own. It can be found here.

Monday, September 28, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Sebastian

"Dogs are good people." ~ A very wise man

"Animals are reliable, full of love, true in their affections, predictable in their actions, grateful and loyal. Difficult standards for people to live up to." ~ Alfred A. Montapert

September certainly has been a rough month. My most recent loss, the passing of our sweet family dog, Sebastian (known to us by the affectionate nickname of "Val"), broke my heart. The other losses I've incurred this month were painful certainly, though the loss of a family member who's love never wavered, who always wanted to be around us, who saw us through so many days - good, bad, and indifferent - is almost too much to bear. If I had to sum up our brave little dachshund in one word, I would have to say that in everything he was constant: constant hopefulness, constant love, constant loyalty.

My sister brought him home in the winter of 2002, and immediately upon meeting him we fell madly in love with one another. He was the best snuggler. He always knew exactly what we all needed - a smooch, a smile (yes, he actually did smile!), or a funny pose to make us laugh. I learned so much from him. In all his wonderful dog-ness, he made all of us more human.

Early on Sunday morning my sister, Weez, called to say that my brother-in-law, Kyle, had taken Sebastian to the animal ER. His back legs had given out and he was unable to walk. At the ER, they took some x-rays and found that 4 of his vertebrae had collapsed together, putting tremendous pressure on his spinal cord and leaving him in a lot of pain. Because this ailment is very common to the breed and almost near impossible to treat, there isn't anything the vet could do that would cure the condition. Now that it had happened once, it would continue to happen, and each time would be worse. The only humane and decent thing to do was to let him go to greener, pain-free pastures. And though rationally we know that this was the best choice given the circumstances, the loss is still so difficult to bear. It was pouring rain, everything outside seemed wet and gray and sad. In other words, it fit the news of the day.

Harry S Truman once said, "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog." How true those words are, not just for Washington, but everywhere. A dog is the one presence in our lives that never disappoints us, never lets us down, that always, always makes every situation we face better. Somehow we are braver in their presence because they are always so willing to bear our burdens and share our joy with us. They always show up. If only people could be more like dogs.

It's with a heavy heart that I imagine the upcoming holidays without him, this year and every year going forward. I always made him his own special Thanksgiving plate and we unwrapped Christmas presents with him. He always had a Christmas stocking with his name on it stuffed with doggy treats. I looked forward to naps with him as we curled up on the couch after a good meal and watched TV. We sang together, danced together, ran together, played together. That backyard at my sister's house suddenly seems very empty without his tiny stature standing in the middle of it.
After these awful events unfolded, I had to get out of the house. I took myself for a walk in the rain, minus the umbrella, to the grocery store. Though the rain was falling heavily at the time, I just couldn't feel anything. I was numb all over. I'd been through several boxes of tissues by then and quite frankly needed some more, along with some kind of food since I hadn't eaten all day. I passed by the Petco ("where the pets go"), my neighborhood vet, and an all-natural pet supply store. Reminders of Sebastian everywhere.

Coming straight at me was a long-haired black and tan dachshund, bigger than Sebastian, with nearly identical markings. He was galloping along, just like Sebastian used to do, chasing a couple of pigeons. I smiled. I've long-considered dachshunds that cross my path my good luck charms. I couldn't help but think that our brave little friend sent me that dachshund to let me know that he is okay now and that I shouldn't worry about him. And then I started to cry all over again, right in the middle of the sidewalk. I guess there's no way past this kind of pain except through it.

After the grocery store, I went up to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. On Sundays at 4:00 they have an Evensong service. I sometimes like to go hear the opening number and stop into the Children's Garden that depicts Noah's Ark. In the Garden, they do the blessing of all the neighborhood animals every year. I'm not much for organized religion, but that Cathedral is a special place. I feel like I enter another world when I walk through those doors. I can take my sorrows there and cry them out, drowning in that glorious sound from the choir. In those walls, I am certain that the Universe can hear me and comfort me. I lit a little candle for Sebastian and for my family who is taking this loss so hard. I tried to smile, but my face wasn't having any it. Not today. Maybe tomorrow. After all the good days that Sebastian gave us, I can spend this one just remembering him and paying tribute to his indomitable spirit.

Of all the dogs I've loved in my life, and my family has been beyond fortunate to have had so many over the course of 40+ years, Sebastian was the one I loved the most.

August 10, 2002 - September 27, 2009
R.I.P. Sebastian, our best and most faithful friend

Sunday, September 27, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Demolition Depot

On Saturday I took the bus up to East 125th Street to a place that's fascinated me for some time. About 6 months ago, I was coming back from LaGuardia Airport on the M60 bus and went by a store with a strange looking sign that read "Demolition Depot". At first I thought it may be a construction (or rather destruction) company. I imagined backhoes and front-loaders and items like that inside. But the shape of the building didn't seem to fit that kind of business. I went home and Googled it to find that it is a place that houses dismantled building treasures from 5 continents. It is the dream house of many a film art director, or a writer like me. This is where old New York (and every other major city for that matter) finds a home for what remains. Inside its wall are thousands of stories waiting to be told.

I went up there today on a little writing adventure. I've been working on a fiction piece and thought that a trip to Demolition Depot may help jog some kind of inspiration. It did not disappoint. It reminded me of an old, 4-story barn. The smell of the place brought a smile to my face - musty and oddly comforting. I picked up a clipboard with an inventory form just in case I found some artifact that I wanted to take back with me.

My favorite spot of all was the garden, an area out back that houses giant gates and doors and wrought-iron screens - exterior pieces that on the street we would have to admire from afar. Here I could get up close and examine their details, every twist, turn, and adornment. Gargoyles and ornamentation and stained glass windows that took my breathe away. Who lived among these items? Where did they go? What did they do? What did they learn?

I felt as if I was walking through someone's house, as if I was trespassing and wasn't supposed to be there. I just loved it so much that I couldn't turn away. I just spent hours weaving through the four floors and the garden. Taking pictures, making notes, even sitting at some of the table settings, two of which I immediately loved and wanted for my home.

The trip accomplished exactly what I had hoped. I walked away with images and ideas that will be cropping up in my writing for many months to come. I understand that material items are of little value when compared to the value of personal relationships in our lives. What I appreciate about the one of a kind items housed at Demolition Depot is that they have borne witness to extraordinary and ordinary events of the lives of thousands of people. People passed through those doors, looked out from those windows, told time by those great giant clocks that now lay in wait for some lucky new owner. A majestic treasure trove of history just waiting to be remembered and re-told.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - The History of Where We Live

I crunched along on the few fallen leaves on Columbia's campus walk yesterday and smiled wide. A perfect fall day took me back to being a student in Philadelphia, the tall, impressive buildings lined with names like Sophocles, Vergil, and Plato reminded me of the joy of academia.

Late in the afternoon I was on my way to see Inna Guzenfeld, an archivist at the Avery Architectural and Fine Art Library at Columbia. The papers and drawings of Emery Roth, the architect who designed and lived in my apartment building, are housed there. During the 1920's Roth was the busiest architect in New York City, and many regard him as one of the founding fathers of the art deco movement. Until I moved into my building two weeks ago, I'd never heard of him and now I think of him and thank him every day.

"No bags, pens, no flash on your camera, touch the plans only on the edges, and we close at 5:00 sharp," said Inna. She had everything laid out for me in perfect order, and all of the materials exactly as I had asked for him. She is the hallmark of efficiency.

There was an architect there doing research. Maybe in his 40's, Elvis Costello glasses, lean, and intense. He looked up at me with some interest.

"Are you an architect?"

"No," I fumbled. "I'm a writer."

"Why are you interested in that building?"

"I moved into it two weeks ago."

"Who's the architect?"

"Emery Roth."

"You live in an Emery Roth building?"


"What floor?"

"Top floor."

"Really?" he said as he quickly removed his glasses. "You know those buildings are stunning. I've had the chance to work in a few of them. Are they doing work on your building?" he asked.

"No, it's actually perfect," I said.

"I'm not surprised," he continued. "That man was a genius."

And then I knew I was on to something.

I have been having architecture dreams, dreams where I feel my way along passages in my building, curling around dark corners to find some secret way through to the light. I've found myself waking up in the middle of the night with complete clarity and scribbling down notes as fast as I can before the images fade from my mind. So it was with great excitement that I learned that the actual building plans, made on linen, were preserved just 15 blocks north of my building by Inna and the team at Avery.

The Archives were freezing, a preventative measure to preserve their contents as well as possible. I peeled back the plans one at a time, pouring over dimensions and lines and descriptions of the very walls I wake up in every morning now. Their pungent, historical smell reminded me of the Fischer Fine Arts Library at Penn where I spent many hours studying and reading as a student. To this day, Fischer is still one of my favorite places on Earth. The floor on my side of the building remains exactly as it was then, in 1924. These were the maids' quarters.

Inna also provided me with the autobiography of Roth, which I quickly devoured, and a book about his work entitled Mansions in the Clouds. Closing time was fast approaching so I was running through the text as fast as I could, continually fascinated that Emery Roth and I share some striking similarities, from the tone of our writing to our family lives as children. His writing style is so relaxed that I felt like he was reading to me, telling me the story of his life. I wondered why an architect committed such personal thoughts and feelings to paper while I also wondered if it was possible to fall in love with someone through his writing, someone I've never met who passed on decades before I was even an inkling in my mother's eye. And then I was reminded of Thomas Jefferson and my affection for him as I read everything he ever committed to paper. Yes, love through writing is possible.

In the final 5 minutes of my time at Avery I found the gems I was looking for. A "Tower Room" was designed for my building, though I have yet to find it. What could someone house in a Tower Room? My mind is reeling with possibilities. Roth lived on the very floor where my current apartment is, on the other side. I found the plans and photographs of it. I believe it's still in existence, exactly as he had designed it for himself. There are numerous references in his autobiography and in his drawings about his desire to build fire-proof buildings - it was of critical importance to him to protect his work from going up in flames. Chills ran down my spine.

What's more, the building where I live provided the pinnacle of happiness for his wife. He designed the penthouse specifically for her. It was the living space she dreamed of, and then a sad set of circumstances set in for her in that very space, and she was never quite the same. The writer in me has been working overtime since leaving Avery. The fact that there were so many photos and that Roth wrote personally about the space in my building where he lived left me with a feeling that there is a story here that can and should be spun out and told.

As I packed up, Inna asked "did you find everything you needed?" "Absolutely," I said, "thank you." The architect next to me looked up and smiled. I suppose my giddiness at my findings showed, and he understood them well. The places we live house special meaning. They aren't just a collection of walls and doors, but they contain intense, personal moments that define our lives. This new space is a new chapter for me, in my life and in my writing.

The image above is not my own. It depicts the lobby of Devonshire House, a building in Greenwich Village of New York City, that was design by Emery Roth in 1928.

Friday, September 25, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Imagination and Limits

"My favorite place is my imagination." ~ Jackie Pagan

On my way to see Muhammad Yunus earlier this week, one of the subway posters caught my attention. It said "Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world." It's a quote from Arthur Schopenhauer, the German philosopher. It made me think of how often our own reality and experience limits our ability to realize, work for, and achieve change in every aspect of our lives. How do we begin to expand our limits to imagine a wholly different existence, for ourselves and for others?

I find that reading helps. I read a lot of biographies and autobiographies, and reading about the accomplishments and motivations of others gives me inspiration and courage. Stubbornness and a desire to seek out and generate understanding can go a long way toward imagining a different kind of world.

"The moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too," Goethe said. It's true in business, in personal relationships, in rising above challenges. If we commit to being present and persevering, somehow we make it through even the most difficult of times. Somehow the way ahead opens before us. There's real magic in commitment.

There were plenty of times in the past three weeks when I thought I might fall apart; when I felt scared and alone and filled with anxiety. And the moment I felt those old familiar feelings creeping in, I promptly slammed the door on them. I couldn't let myself feel defeated; that's a road to nowhere. I had to keep digging deeper for strength. I had to imagine a different reality where I was grateful for who and what I have in my life, rather than being resentful for what I had lost. I could not let my previous vision of my day-to-day life limit how I looked at my life for all of my tomorrows. I had to commit to a new way forward where I seek to love this and every moment. It's a commitment I'm making every day.

Our imagination is powerful beyond measure, so powerful that we can barely even comprehend our full capabilities for change. We are the only ones who place limits on our vision. The world is a wide-open space, a blank canvas that we color in to our own liking. If only we could recognize that, we'd be able to keep from painting ourselves into a corner. We can and should invent and re-invent ourselves over and over again. And as we take on that challenge of re-invention we inspire others to do the same. In truth nothing has to be as it is; it can all be changed.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Programming and the Mind

I seem to be receiving a “critical update” from Apple everyday on software that’s installed on my computer. I’m not really sure what any of the fixes are or why I need them, but I trust Apple. If they say I need them, then I assume that I do. So I click the little button that says “install now” or something to that effect. I go about my business while Apple magically repairs all of my software problems in the background. I’m an efficiency junkie so I’m a big fan of parallel-pathing.

Writing works a lot like those critical updates from Apple. Friends, family, and co-workers always ask me, “when do you find the time to do all of this writing?” Truthfully, I’m always writing. Sorry – this is my confession. My writing mind is always working in the background while I go about the rest of my life. When I’m having dinner with friends, at movies, at CVS buying shampoo, at work, I'm writing, tucking away little bits and pieces to use later. I’m one of those hopelessly nerdy people who always has a pen and piece of paper in my bag. Even when I’m heading to a big night out. You just never know when something interesting will happen. And I can’t be held responsible for keeping it all stuffed in my brain. I need that pen and paper.

I also purposely try to put myself in interesting situations. I seek out new people, go to lectures, book readings, and art exhibitions all the time. It’s one reason I am so in love with New York, and fall more in love with it everyday – there’s always something new to see, do, and try. New York and I have had a long and sordid history together. 11 years running. At times, we’ve been blissfully happy to be with one another and at other times, we’ve each gone running for the hills. But we always somehow end up back together, New York and I. This is my third time moving here, and I imagine you’ll find me here for a very long time to come. There’s just too much going on here for me to be away for that long. My writing lives and breathes here.

I’ve been wondering how Apple knows what to fix and how to fix it in these updates. My only idea is that it goes out into the world and takes stock of the latest software landscape to make needed improvements. I do the same thing in my writing. In the past year, I’ve been sending myself out on little writing adventures in New York. Odd-ball museums, sitting in a crowded area and eaves-dropping, going to parts of town I never frequent without a map and getting as lost as possible. On Saturday, I’ll be heading to the Demolition Depot on 125th Street. It contains 4 floors and a garden full of architecture pieces from every conceivable period. When buildings are dismantled all over New York City, most of the pieces end up at the Demolition Depot.

Can you imagine what crazy things that place stores? While I’m sure there’s a fair amount of mundane items like antique faucets, I’m equally sure that there are valuable items that will inspire my writing. A fireplace that I’ll imagine someone sitting before, a gargoyle who faithfully watched over a busy street for many years, a mirror where a young girl watched herself become a woman. You see – inspiration is everywhere; you just need to keep looking, especially in unlikely places.

My fingers are getting itchy. Just writing about writing is giving me some ideas. This writing mind of mine is working in the background and it’s almost time for me to reboot to see all of the changes that have occurred in the past few minutes. In the time it’s taken me to write this post, some more dots have connected, and I have to make sure to get this all down before it’s hopelessly lost in the abyss. I’d like to think I’m a recovering multi-tasker, though as with most addictions, I guess I’ll always be in a constant state of recovery, never quite cured of my desire to do multiple things at once. Thank goodness for background processing!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Muhammad Yunus

"I am always optimistic. There is no other way...I am not interested in a person's past. I care only about their future." ~ Muhammad Yunus

Many economists tell us that so long as there is capitalism, there will be poverty. So long as there are "haves", there will be "have nots". Tonight I went to 92Y to see Muhammad Yunus, Founder of Grameen Bank, Noble Prize winner, and an economist who has stood up to the cynics time and time again. The most remarkable thing about him is not that he blatantly defies his peers, but that he defies them, has proven the fallacies in their beliefs through the outcomes of his own actions, and garners the respect of his detractors.

When I consider what it's like to live an extraordinary life, Professor Yunus is the first person I think of. His indomitable will, compassion, love, and concern for others is unmatched, particularly in the financial field. He is my hero so it was with great excitement that I sat in the audience at 92Y waiting for him to be interviewed by Matthew Bishop from The Economist. Yunus did not disappoint. From the moment he stepped on stage, he glowed with goodness.

The more he discussed microcredit and entrepreneurship, the happier I became. I could feel his goodness making its way into my own heart. His calm, charming confidence is something to behold and emulate. I could barely take my eyes off of him.

Then a strange thing happened. Professor Yunus began to talk about how to get started, how to begin building a life that truly contributes to the benefit of humanity. "Make a pact from where you are, now, to help 5 people up out of welfare." He discussed how he didn't try to tackle the whole country of Bangladesh in his early work. He worked with a handful of people in a very small village. And when that seemed to work, he ignored the nay-sayers, as always, and helped a few more people. And encouraged those he'd helped to help others in the same way. Take tiny, tiny steps to help others, and never, ever give up. "That," he said, "is the miracle seed."

It was in that instance, in Professor Yunus's miracle seed comment, that my heart and mind joined forces and took a decided turn. I could feel a physical, mental, and emotional shift within me. At the conclusion of the talk, I ran home, literally. My friend, Richard, is always encouraging me to write to anyone and everyone who interests me. This advice as served me well in the past, so I got home and cranked up the letter writing machine.

On my way back through Central Park, I composed a letter in my mind to a very wealthy businessman who runs a company that has recently set up a very profitable service. I've written to him before, once by name and once anonymously, offering up thanks and suggestions to him, respectively. Today, I asked for his help is using a very, very small portion of the money his service has made to set up a small test of microcredit in New York City, similar to the work that Professor Yunus's Grameen Bank is doing in Jackson Heights, Queens. When I got home, I typed up the letter, printed it, signed it, and stuck it in an envelope. I ran out to the mailbox on the corner outside of my apartment building, and dropped it in. I had to get it written and out the door before I got too scared to send it. So now I'll wait and see if a response comes.

It's an odd thing when we hand over the reigns to our future. When we leave rational thought behind and follow our hearts, it's amazing what we find, what we can accomplish. Professor Yunus closed the talk by telling a story about Dannon yogurt. He kept pushing them and pushing them to develop a yogurt product, in a special edible container, that would benefit the children of Bangladesh. (Half the children who live in Bangladesh suffer from malnutrition.) "An edible container?" they asked him. "Yes, yes, we must," demanded Professor Yunus. He thought they'd be angry. Instead they thanked him for pushing the boundaries of their work. "How can we answer something we are not asked?" they said. Perhaps this businessman I wrote to will feel the same way.

And now the fear is setting in. What have I done in writing this letter? Who do I think I am to go around suggesting that a large financial institution consider taking a tiny slice of their profit during a recession and using it for a microcredit program? And then I smile, and think to myself "I just let my inner-Yunus run free." If I'm scared, I must be doing something worthwhile. What could our world be like if we all did just that? What if we suggested the impossible and then went for it?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - In the Beginning

"There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. That will be the beginning." ~ Louis L'Amour

Today marked an end and then a beginning, in one single action. After almost a year of considering how I might help children in public schools in New York City, I mailed off two packages, one to Bronx Charter School for the Arts and one to M.S. 223. Inside the packages is a folder with a cover letter, my resume, and an 8-page concept paper that outlines an after-school program that I'd like to pilot beginning in January 2010. The after-school program uses theatre to teach innovation, product development, and entrepreneurship to 6th grade students.

The journey to the concept paper was a long and winding road:

Early Summer of 2008
Began to consider how I could build an on-line innovation kit for kids

August 2008
Changed jobs and got involved in an at-work volunteer program with Junior Achievement of New York. Wondered if I missed my calling and should become a public school teacher.

December 5, 2008
Volunteered for a day-long program at M.S. 223 in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the South Bronx. Felt scared, responsible, and at home, all at once. I taught economics for a day to 7th graders. I got more of an education than the students did that day. Have been thinking about those kids every day since.

May 17, 2009
Started building my first draft of the concept paper, initially named "Innovation Workbook". It was terrible. I was afraid to show it to anyone because I'd thought they'd laugh at the idea. Put my fears aside and kept working.

June 3, 2009
Wrote the first draft of a mission statement, or what I termed "A Reason for Being". It was awful, though I began to think that I might be on to something.

mid-June 2009
Began to talk to some friends about the concept. No one laughed; they got very excited about the idea and that got me more excited. They had great ideas. I used all of them to build a better concept. My friend, Liz, offered the idea to make this an after-school program rather than try to build it in to the traditional curriculum.

July 4th weekend, 2009
I started sending a rough draft of the concept paper to my friends who offered their ideas and were excited about the project. I knew the paper was terrible but the idea was getting better. My friends offered more help, more advice. The concept kept getting better.

July 23, 2009
Named the project Innovation Station while laying on my couch, unsuccessfully trying to take a nap. Decided to use short theatre scripts as a way to communicate the material.

Early August 2009
While reading the book, Eiffel's Tower, decided to feature famous innovators throughout history as part of Innovation Station.

August 2009
Continued to revise the concept paper, did more research. Many friends suggested I dig into data to prove the need and value of my program. Was startled by the statistics I read about after-school programming and public school education in inner-cities. Kept shopping around my ideas and taking any and all suggestions. Wrote 8 full drafts in total.

September 15, 2009
Heard about Bronx Charter School for the Arts. Researched them and thought they may be a good fit for Innovation Station. Put them on the very short list with M.S. 223.

September 22, 2009, afternoon
Made a few last minute edits, and dropped the proposals in the mail to M.S. 223 and Bronx Charter School for the Arts in the hopes that one of them will be the pilot program location.

September 22, 2009, evening
Waiting. Hoping. Nervous Excited.

My friend, Jamie, went to the post office with me to put the packages in the mail. I adore him, even though he can be a little curmudgeonly at times. He is exceedingly generous with help, advice, and contacts, despite his rough around the edges personality. It comes from being so brilliant and highly educated. He is one of the friends I count on to keep me grounded. I try to add more whimsy into his life. "So what do you do now?" he asked. I hadn't thought of what I'd do now; I guess I have been worried that I'd just edit myself to the point of being paralyzed. I never imagined myself sealing up the envelopes and dropping them in the mail. I guess I was worried that I'd never figure it out. "I wait," I said to Jamie.

This morning, my old friends, Fear and Self-ridicule, were back with a vengeance. Maybe this was a stupid idea. Maybe it would never help anyone. Maybe no school would ever be interested. Who am I to think I can write curriculum? I began reading and editing again. And something truly miraculous happened. As I re-read the proposal, I got more excited. I began to think that maybe, maybe, maybe this was the beginning on the a life-changing road for me. Just as I was finishing the proposal, I thought "this might be the beginning of something really exciting. I just might be able to help some kid who's facing the same circumstances I faced when I was that age." And with that thought I sealed up the packages and headed for the post office.

Fearing that I'd have a last minute panic attack, I quickly put the packages under the slotted window for the postman to grab and stamp. There was no turning back once he tossed them into the bin. And away they went, into the abyss of mail, on a very simple mission to try to make a difference in one kid's life. I ran for the door and never looked back. I had to get on with my beginning.

Monday, September 21, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Ancient Wisdom

"The interdependency of Humankind, the relevance of relationship, the sacredness of creation is ancient, ancient wisdom." ~ Rebecca Adamson

On the 17th floor of my apartment building, I feel a little closer to what's miraculous and sacred in our world. In the past few weeks I have felt some energy driving me toward something new; I've felt my life taking on a different kind of meaning. Last night as I was getting my apartment ready for the movers to arrive, I had my music on, washing my new kitchen supplies and watching the sun sink down behind those lovely water towers. In one moment I felt intensely overcome with gratitude, as if my heart had opened up in a way that it never has before. There seemed to be so many opportunities laid out before me and all I had to do was select one, like taking a book from a shelf.

I began to tick through my personal relationships and all of the strength and hope and inspiration that I find in each of them. I started to recall kindnesses and favors and support that I've been offered, not just in the past few weeks but as far back as I can remember. I wanted to give the whole world a great big hug, followed by a great big thank you, for everything.

I wonder if this feeling, this sense of belonging has been available to me along and I just didn't see it or didn't know how to tap into it. I'm intrigued by the difference between looking and seeing, by how often we run around desperately seeking that which inevitably ends up being right in front of us. What if we just stopped, for a brief moment, and saw with a new kind of clarity the many blessings we have, recognized are tremendous capacity for change, for goodness, for creation.

We can construct a richer, happier, more meaningful existence, for ourselves and others, by tapping into the wisdom that is all around us, by recognizing that we are all always in this together. All of a sudden when we realize we aren't alone, when we recognize that there are ancient, fundamental learnings that connect us across generations, across the globe, across time continuums, our feelings of loneliness and isolation are replaced by community and love. The impossible becomes not only possible, but imminent.

The Journal of Cultural Conversation: What Can You Do To Help The World's Women?

Last weekend, I went to 92Y to hear Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn discuss their new book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. The book chronicles their travels through Africa and Asia, interviewing women who are enduring unbelievable circumstances and exhibiting equally unbelievable strength. It is filled with data, facts, and figures that methodically document the travails of women in the developing world. Their stories simultaneously broke my heart and lifted me up. They are issuing a call to action, today, to each of us.

To read the full article, please click here.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - At the End of the Test

One can't learn much and also be comfortable. One can't learn much and let anybody else be comfortable.

On Friday night I went for a walk with my friend, Dan. We wound our way through Central Park talking about recent events in our lives, challenges we're facing, things we're excited about. We got onto the subject of testing. When recently talking to a friend of his about a particular circumstance he's working though the friend said, "Like Job, you are being tested." Dan's response was a simple question, "What do I get if I pass the test?" I've been thinking about that question all weekend.

As I was working through my yoga practice this morning, I was thinking about the idea of comfort versus discomfort. Times of testing are often uncomfortable times. We just want to get through them as quickly as possible. We want the shortest path to relief. Yoga teaches us to be comfortable being uncomfortable, sinking into the pose, going deeper, as opposed to pulling away often helps us. Perhaps the shortest relief to discomfort is through, similar that old saying of "If you're going through hell, keep going." Every day that saying makes more sense to me.

Maybe Charles Fort is correct: If we shrank away every situation that was challenging, every situation that brought some kind of fear or discomfort, perhaps we'd never learn anything. If we embrace fear, discomfort, and confusion for the sake of learning, maybe challenging times become easier to bear. Maybe learning is the prize at the end of our test. All that's required of us is patience and commitment. We just have to keep showing up, for ourselves and for one another.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Trinity Churchyard

A happy side effect of losing close family members at a young age is that I never feel uncomfortable with the concept of death. I often talk to my relatives who have crossed-over. I think about them all of the time; I find reminders of them everywhere; I feel their presence in my daily life. On and off in my life I've done volunteer work in nursing homes, with hospice, and in critical care facilities in hospitals. It's something I'm considering doing again - there's so much to be learned about life from the dying.

Because of my comfort with death and dying, I find comfort in places like cemeteries. They're such peaceful places. On my lunch break yesterday, I went to do an errand and went past Trinity Churchyard, this tiny plot of land that sits at the corner of Wall Street and Broadway. It's a small green haven among the concrete and constant construction in the area. It is the final resting place for a number of famous New Yorkers, Alexander Hamilton being the most iconic figure there. I couldn't resist stepping inside for a moment. Once I crossed through the gate, the noise of the city seemed to dissipate. I don't know how that happened. The sunshine seemed a little brighter, the air felt a little sweeter. It actually felt homey.

Much to my relief, many other people were seated on the benches that are dotted along the cemetery paths. People enjoying their lunch, talking with friends, sitting quietly, thinking. It was a sweet thing to see the living and the dead co-exist in such an easy harmony. It's exactly what a final resting place should be.

I felt drawn to take a look into Trinity Church as well. I felt like I was peeking into someone's home. It's a fairly small church when compared to the likes of St. Pat's or St. John the Divine, but it feels warmer, like a place where you could take your problems and worries and ask for help. In the main hall, I felt like I was so close to something holy, a kind and empathic ear.

In the back of the church there is a small chapel meant for quiet contemplation and prayer. There was a man at the front weeping, softly. He must be going through a very hard time. I lit one of the candles just outside the chapel and took a seat in the back. I thanked God for helping me through these last few weeks, offered up my immense gratitude for my wonderful friends and family who have been so supportive and helpful.

Just before I left, I found myself saying a little prayer for the man at the front of the chapel. I don't know him, will probably never know him. I don't know what he's going through but it must be something very difficult. I prayed that the same strength I've found in the past few weeks will touch him as well, that somehow the strength and positive outlook that's been such a gift to me will find its way to him also. With all of the abundant blessings in my own life, I felt that it was the least I could do.

Friday, September 18, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Motivation and The Little Prince

"If you want to build a ship, don't herd people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea." ~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I love The Little Prince. It was one of my favorite books as a child. I love his wide-eyed questioning of life, and his desire to explore things that are strange and unexplained. As children often do, he was able to make connections between seemingly disparate activities and relationships, and in the process showed us how to think about our lives in a larger context than just our day-to-day collection of tasks. He asks us to consider our role in and contribution to humanity as a whole.

I was thinking about The Little Prince this morning, eating my Cheerios and looking at the water towers that dot my view from my apartment. The water towers look like brave guards, standing watch; they almost seem to breathe. They make me feel safe. The city looks so different from 17 floors up. I'm always struck by that - as I get down to the street-level, my neighborhood transforms. Up above, I have the ability to be more idealistic. The height helps me dream and consider my larger motivations in life, apart from the actual tasks I'm engaged in; it helps me think like the Little Prince.

This quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery is helping me frame up my own desired contribution to humanity. I want to help as many people as I can to use their creativity to improve our world. That's not going to happen in a business plan; it's not going to happen through mandates and time lines and a to-do list. It can happen if I follow Antoine de Saint-Exupery's advice in every area of my life, with every interaction I have with every person I know and meet. It's that desire to play a part in building a better world that I must foster in all of my relationships. Individuals will find their own way to make a contribution. They all have their own talents and interests that can be used toward this common goal; my role is to be their biggest cheerleader, their champion, their advocate, and where applicable, their guide.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Daniel Ellsberg and John Dean

On Tuesday night I attended an event at the New York Society of Ethical Culture. The event was a talk moderated by Ann Beeson, Executive Director for U.S. Programs at the Open Society Institute and former Associate Legal Director at the ACLU. She interviewed Daniel Ellsberg and John Dean on the eve of the release of a documentary entitled The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, the film makers, were in attendance as well. I'm looking forward to seeing it some time soon, and you should, too. We all should. While its set around the events of the 1970s, its moral implications are just as relevant today.

From the moment the footage began to role, my eyes started to tear up. With scenes of the massive amounts of missiles that we poured into Vietnam, 7.8M tons, it was hard to not consider all that we have been doing in Afghanistan and Iraq for years. And while the specific circumstances and players may differ, the outcome is likely to be the same. Innocent people are placed in the line of fire, and harmed. Those people are looked at as casualty numbers, the equivalent of statistics in some government report. In truth, those people are someone's parent, sibling, child, friend, neighbor, lover. And after years of watching the news night after night, watching the death tolls climb higher and higher, I can't find a logical reason to have incurred any of those losses.

Daniel Ellsberg and John Dean, government insiders, stood up once they realized that we could not win in Vietnam, once they had proof in black and white, via the Pentagon Papers, that there was no morally, ethically, or even legally correct reasoning for our occupation of Vietnam. At great personal peril, they risked everything, even their own freedom, their own lives, to reveal these findings. It would have been easier, far easier, to turn a blind eye - at least in the short run. In the long run, they just didn't feel like they could live with themselves if they didn't release the classified information they had that showed the fallacy of the war. They saved, literally, thousands, tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands, of lives by standing up with every odd stacked against them. Their courage is immeasurable.

As I sat in the audience I considered the bravery and fear these men must have had for years, how they risked everything of personal value for the good of the world. It was completely humbling to be in their presence. The most fascinating piece of the talk was the last question they answered: "What would you say to other potential whistle blowers out there who are contemplating taking the path you took?" John Dean couldn't recommend it. Daniel Ellsberg asked those people to seriously consider taking the same road he took. I left understanding both of their points of view, wondering what I'd do, what my friends would do, if faced with similar circumstances.

I fell asleep Tuesday night thinking about the Dalai Lama's letter to the world after September 11th. We later found out that he didn't write the letter at all; it was a hoax written by someone else who was very concerned that in the wake of the attacks, we would find ourselves entering a deadly war that we could not win. The author may have felt that it had more relevance coming from the Dalai Lama; perhaps the author felt more people would listen to its reason. Perhaps that person didn't have the ability or the knowledge to be as courageous as Daniel Ellsberg and John Dean. No matter; the author's intention was the same - he or she felt compelled to stand up, speak up, and try to encourage others to do the same.

The letter is a beautiful one and bears repeating. I still cry when I read it; it's that powerful. It's reproduced below and can also be found on the website of The Government of Tibet in Exile. Daniel Ellsberg and John Dean seized the time of their teaching. I wonder if we will have the courage to seize ours, too, not just in issues of war but in issues of every day life as well.

"Dear friends around the world,

The events of this day cause every thinking person to stop their daily lives, whatever is going on in them, and to ponder deeply the larger questions of life. We search again for not only the meaning of life, but the purpose of our individual and collective experience as we have created it-and we look earnestly for ways in which we might recreate ourselves anew as a human species, so that we will never treat each other this way again.

The hour has come for us to demonstrate at the highest level our most extraordinary thought about Who We Really Are. There are two possible responses to what has occurred today. The first comes from love, the second from fear.

If we come from fear we may panic and do things -as individuals and as nations- that could only cause further damage. If we come from love we will find refuge and strength, even as we provide it to others.

This is the moment of your ministry. This is the time of teaching. What you teach at this time, through your every word and action right now, will remain as indelible lessons in the hearts and minds of those whose lives you touch, both now, and for years to come.

We will set the course for tomorrow, today. At this hour. In this moment. Let us seek not to pinpoint blame, but to pinpoint cause. Unless we take this time to look at the cause of our experience, we will never remove ourselves from the experiences it creates. Instead, we will forever live in fear of retribution from those within the human family who feel aggrieved, and, likewise, seek retribution from them.

To us the reasons are clear. We have not learned the most basic human lessons. We have not remembered the most basic human truths. We have not understood the most basic spiritual wisdom. In short, we have not been listening to God, and because we have not, we watch ourselves do ungodly things.

The message we hear from all sources of truth is clear: We are all one. That is a message the human race has largely ignored. Forgetting this truth is the only cause of hatred and war, and the way to remember is simple: Love, this and every moment.

If we could love even those who have attacked us, and seek to understand why they have done so, what then would be our response? Yet if we meet negativity with negativity, rage with rage, attack with attack, what then will be the outcome?

These are the questions that are placed before the human race today. They are questions that we have failed to answer for thousands of years. Failure to answer them now could eliminate the need to answer them at all.

If we want the beauty of the world that we have co-created to be experienced by our children and our children's children, we will have to become spiritual activists right here, right now, and cause that to happen. We must choose to be at cause in the matter.

So, talk with God today. Ask God for help, for counsel and advice. For insight and for strength and for inner peace and for deep wisdom. Ask God on this day to show us how to show up in the world in a way that will cause the world itself to change. And join all those people around the world who are praying right now, adding your Light to the Light that dispels all fear.

That is the challenge that is placed before every thinking person today. Today the human soul asks the question: What can I do to preserve the beauty and the wonder of our world and to eliminate the anger and hatred-and the disparity that inevitably causes it - in that part of the world which I touch?

Please seek to answer that question today, with all the magnificence that is You. What can you do TODAY...this very moment? A central teaching in most spiritual traditions is: What you wish to experience, provide for another.

Look to see, now, what it is you wish to experience-in your own life, and in the world. Then see if there is another for whom you may be the source of that. If you wish to experience peace, provide peace for another. If you wish to know that you are safe, cause another to know that they are safe.

If you wish to better understand seemingly incomprehensible things, help another to better understand. If you wish to heal your own sadness or anger, seek to heal the sadness or anger of another.

Those others are waiting for you now. They are looking to you for guidance, for help, for courage, for strength, for understanding, and for assurance at this hour. Most of all, they are looking to you for love.

My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness."

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Living With Less

My friend, Laura, and I have made a pact of simplicity, a promise to keep each other on the path of less is more. My apartment's furniture consists of a yoga mat, my friend, Jamie's, air mattress, and a couple of IKEA plastic chairs that I plan to use on my little patio. It's sort of like camping indoors. I lie awake at night staring out the windows at the beautifully illuminated view, and I say a little prayer in the hopes that I will always feel this content.

I don't know that I've ever been happier with the decor of an apartment. In my old apartment, I was in such a rush to get it "perfect". I actually made that statement out loud several times and each time it felt wrong. Now that I think back on that old apartment, there was always something just a bit off about it. I felt shut in despite all of the space. Now with less room in my new apartment and fewer belongings I feel a freedom that I don't think I've ever felt before at home.

On Tuesday I saw my first sunset from my patio. I face west toward the Hudson River and my view is dotted with those beautiful water towers that are found everywhere in New York City if we turn our gaze upward. The sky was a deep ruby red and lined with puffy clouds that took on a dusty blue hue as the sun sunk down behind New Jersey. There's an odd, comfortable feeling of belonging in this new space. I can't explain it except to say that it feels just right, imperfect and unfinished.

My life prior to this most recent move was too full. I felt too obligated, too burdened, a little claustrophobic and over-committed. I just didn't know how to simplify, how to free up my energy and my time. Now that I am through the stress of the most recent events, I am searching for every bright side possible. I'm too grateful for today, for every day, to not look for the bright sides. I'm turning over every stone to make sure I find as much happiness as possible.

In the past few days, I've found myself more relaxed and at ease, reluctant to rush or buy much of anything, reluctant to give away my time and space for anything less than those people and things that I truly, truly treasure. It's a sweet feeling to be surrounded only with what fills us up with joy.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Dreaming in Bits and Pieces

“The end of wisdom is to dream high enough to lose the dream in the seeking of it." ~ William Faulkner, American novelist

Now that life is returning to normal, I’m turning my attention back to my education project. I’m in the early stages of contacting public schools to find one that will serve as a pilot test. In a nutshell, I am looking to use theatre as a tool to teach innovation and product development to 6th graders at New York City public schools. The program will be of no cost to the school or to the children who participate. I just need a space, an internet connection (if possible), and 10 curious 6th graders. I would personally finance the pilot. The idea is to run it for 12 weeks beginning in January of 2010.

At this point I’ve had about 15 people read the proposal and provide their feedback and suggestions. Their creativity and excitement has spurred me even further. They’re helping me dream bigger, far beyond the pilot. Just as Faulkner suggested, this thinking bigger has allowed me to move beyond just seeing this program as a dream. It’s something that I must do. It’s quickly becoming my greatest passion, and that’s exactly what I need to happen in order to get it off the ground.

For the past few days, it’s all I’ve been able to think about. Things I see and experience and read are all tying back to this dream. This morning I was so excited about it that I could barely stay in my chair at my computer. I’m getting little inputs from everywhere – what schools I could partner with, what material I should include, what mechanisms I should use to deliver the material. Like small interconnected building blocks, all these bits and pieces are fitting together, filling in the canvas I’m dreaming on.

The more I consider the pilot program, the more I realize that it is inevitable. All the clues I’m picking up are showing me that there is much more need for this program than I ever realized. It began as this tiny speck of an idea, and the more I nurture it and love it, the more new opportunities it presents. It’s the most beautiful thing about ideas and dreams, and people for that matter: the more care you put into them, the more understanding and freedom you provide to them, the lovelier and more viable they become. They reveal mysteries to you that you never even knew were possible.

The image above is not my own. It can be found on the Cardiomyopathy Association site.

Monday, September 14, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Happiness is Contagious

In this weekend's New York Times Magazine there is an article about the contagious nature of happiness. I've been thinking a lot about the connection between the mind and the body lately, how easily our emotions manifest into physical conditions. I usually think about this in the negative sense, most often considering the effects of stress on the body. The article in the NYT Magazine points out that good conditions like physical fitness and happiness are contagious, too. You want to be happier and healthier, hang out with happy, healthy people. You're still going to have to do some work, though it certainly makes the work easier if you have some inspiration around.

Some of my friends and co-workers are a bit shocked to see that a week after I lost my apartment and a good amount of my belongings that I'm walking around grinning. Today, one co-worker commented to me that if this happened to him he'd be "in the fetal position in a corner crying his eyes out." I never got there. I was a little shocked, a little worn out, and tired. For a few minutes I was really angry at the woman who set the building on fire. And when I said out loud how mad I was at her, I immediately felt terrible. I still feel a little terrible for that moment of anger.

On a couple of occasions, I've found myself bursting into tears for the past week. For one moment, I'd become overwhelmed by the thought of what could have happened if I'd waited a few seconds longer to get out of the building, or if I hadn't heard the kitchen floor crackling, or if I'd still been in the shower. It sends a shiver down my spine. And then I take a deep breathe and remember that someone, somewhere was watching out for me last Saturday, keeping me safe. And I am okay. Better than okay. In one week, I put my life back together while holding it together for most of the time. How could I not be happy? My smile returns.

On a more serious note, happiness is helped along by a good sense of history and remembering your own personal triumphs as well. There are defining moments when we learn just how strong we are, where we learn our capacity to recover, where we find our smile after a long period of difficulty. That defining moment for me happened a long time ago. And while it was devastating to have it happen to me at such a young age, in many ways I am grateful for it. It's helped me weather many storms since; it most certainly made the loss from the fire last week far easier than it would have been otherwise.

It's a funny thing about happiness - it so often occurs right alongside great unhappiness and has little to do with the actual events. In many cases we have the opportunity to choose happiness or sadness, we get the chance over and over to decide how we will react to a situation and what we will take away from it. We're always so much better off choosing happiness, and so are the people around us.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Value we can't see

A week ago, I found myself in Barnes & Noble nosing around in the children's fiction department. In order to begin working on the scripts for my education program, I wanted to get a feel for a 6th grader's vocabulary, sentence structure, and plot complexity. I was wandering around the store feeling underwhelmed. Where were all of the good children's books?

And then just as I was leaving a small set of books caught my eye. Published by Scholastic, Blue Balliett wrote a set of kids mystery books that involve several main characters that carry over in the series. I picked up The Wright 3, a book about three 6th grade friends who find themselves in a race to save the Robie House, Frank Lloyd Wright's Chicago masterpiece, from demolition. I found it oddly comforting over this last week because of several key messages it offers in a very forthright fashion - just the way that kids do.

1.) "Don't give up. In darkness, much work can be accomplished." I think about how much darkness was in that stairwell of my old apartment building during the fire. So much raced through my mind as I scrambled down the stairs - from "stop drop and roll" to things I never got a chance to say people whom I care about to "I will get out of this building unharmed". In darkness, we develop a keen sense of sight and insight for things that we cannot see in broad daylight.

2.) "Sometimes when you lose something, you end up getting something else. Only you can't know about the second thing until you've lost the first...losing is sometimes gaining." It's human nature to lament a loss of any kind whether it's our home, our belongings, our jobs, a relationship. What's so often under-appreciated is that losing something makes room for something new, and often better than what we had before, and it gives us a new appreciation for the things and people we do have in our lives. It takes a while to see that trade-off as a good one. In the past I have hung on to a sense of loss for far too long. I am trying to change that.

3.) "It's sometimes hard to tell the line between real and unreal." This world and the energies it contains work in mysterious ways. Magic and things that cannot be explained are constantly at work. Our life is full of coincidences. People appear in our lives, then disappear, then reappear again. An opportunity comes around, we may pass on it, and then it comes around again for a second and third chance. This world always has something to teach us.

4.) "Sometimes little things can appear big, and big things little." This idea is especially powerful for me this week. I used to think I needed so many things. My apartment was filled with things I loved, things I could not imagine living without. In the end very little of it mattered. Actually, none of it really matters too much. My health and the people I love are really the only things that matter to me now.

5.) "What you notice first isn't always what you're looking for." This is my favorite idea from The Wright 3. We're so quick to judge, categorize and title a person, place, or thing. And sometimes the value we connote to an item or a person isn't permanent. Some things and people become more valuable to us with time, and it can be a long, slow process to figure out just what the right value should be. We owe it to ourselves to give things and people a chance to prove their worth. The reality of a situation is not always what it initially presents itself to be.