Thursday, December 31, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Castles in the Air

"Do not worry if you have built your castles in the air. They are where they should be. Now put the foundations under them." ~ Henry David Thoreau

This is my 365th day of actively seeking out and writing about hope. This was my one New Year's Resolution for 2009: to feel more hopeful and record what I found here on this blog to help others feel more hopeful, too.

On this day last year, I had no idea that my life would look as it does today, in any respect. I can say with great confidence that this has been a year filled with more change than any other year I have had. Part of me wonders if that is actually my doing: did I precipitate all of this change or did the change just happen to me? I suspect it’s a mix of the two. I can also say with great confidence that today I feel exponentially more hopeful than I did one year ago. And I hope that these 365 blog posts have made others a little more hopeful, too. If so, then I achieved what I set out to do in my writing in 2009.

There are so many reflections I have on this year of writing about hope, so many things I’ve learned about myself, about others, about my community, and about the world as a whole. However, one revelation stands far above the others: when I actively, passionately search for something, I will inevitably find it because I will not give up until my task is done. And the truly remarkable thing is that yes, if I span the globe I can find millions of pieces of hope “out there”, though the pieces of hope that mean the most to me are with me all the time. I carry them inside of me.

Now what will I do next? I’ve got overflowing buckets of hope; how can they be put to the best use? My pal, Laura, asked me this question about two months ago while we were at dinner. Without missing a beat, I told her that for the next year I’d do one thing every day that used all that hope to build an extraordinary life. The answer just sprang from my mouth, no thought required. It was a wish my heart made.

So here we go: beginning tomorrow, I will write a post every day in 2010 that will describe the one thing I did that day that put me one tiny step (or one great leap) closer to living an extraordinary life. The wheels of change are well greased from the events of 2009, so I expect more big changes in 2010. My friend, Kelly, has had a mantra all year of “begin again in 2010.” She’s a wise woman, someone who is both a friend and a mentor, and I’m taking her advice.

The final thought I have as I close out this year relates to nature, a topic from which I’ve drawn a lot of hopeful examples. It’s a butterfly analogy, though not the stereotypical one of beautiful re-birth. When a tiny catepillar wraps itself up in a cocoon, it purposely constructs the cocoon to be very tight so that the butterfly has to struggle to emerge. It has to wiggle and turn and twist, completing exhausting itself inside the too-tight casing. There are oils on the inside of the cocoon and when the butterfly struggles the oils are distributed over its wings. It will not be able to free itself until the oils are distributed evenly over its wings. Those oils build a layer over the butterfly’s wings that keep the wings from breaking apart when it flies. Without the oil coating on its wings, the butterfly would break apart the moment it tried to fly.

I think about my own struggles, and the struggles of the world, through the lens of the butterfly. The twisting and turning is a painful process. It wears me out, and yet that struggle is so necessary to my development and success. I would never be able to fly without the distribution of its lessons throughout my life. I have struggled long enough and my struggles have done an excellent job of building up the foundation of my life. So let the flight begin toward my castles in the air.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Journeys We Don't Plan

I recently saw the movie, Up!, an animated feature about Mr. Fredrickson, a grumpy old man remarkably similar in appearance and demeanor to Mr. Cunningham from Happy Days. All their lives, he and his wife dreamed of an adventure to South America, and she passed away before they had the chance to go. Wanting to fulfill the dream to honor her, he uses the asset of being a balloon salesman to sail south of the border, house in tow. That’s the adventure he planned.

He didn’t count on one of his neighbors being on the deck of his house when it took off. He didn’t think that he’d ever meet a rare bird named Kevin who would need his help so desperately or his greatest idol who would turn out to lack integrity. This was the part of the adventure he never imagined. Along the way, he lets goes of old heartaches and material possessions, makes new friends, and discovers how much courage his old soul can muster. These are the parts of the adventure that make his trip unforgettable.

My Christmas trip was a bit like Mr. Fredrickson’s. I had planned to stay home to study and write for the week between Christmas and the New Year; I hadn’t planned on going to Alabama at all. The opportunity presented itself, and I took it. On the banks of the Tennessee River in a small town named Tuscumbia, I learned how the term “Southern hospitality” came to be.

My brother-in-law’s family welcomed me with open arms, literally. His mom, Trish, had an extra chair at the table, an extra room where I could sleep and study, and extra gifts under the tree just for me. She taught me to make chicken and dressing, proved that any food can be whipped into a delicious casserole, and exhibited all of the love and graciousness that you’d expect from a woman whose greatest joy is her family. I learned about their complex family history, and was included in their family photos. In truth, an outsider looking in might never know that I was a guest who’d never spent a Christmas with that family. They took every opportunity to make me one of them.

Having grown up in small town, I appreciate the warm, cozy feeling of having memories in every nook and cranny. Kyle, my brother-in-law, showed me where he went to high school, where all his childhood friends lived and hung out as teenagers, and where his dad’s artwork (and therefore his spirit) still exists even though he’s no longer with us. I saw their old family photos and then understood the resemblance my niece, Lorelei, has to that side of the family. So much of their history and culture exists in their food and the memories of togetherness that their meals invoke, and I got to be a part of it. It was easy to see why Tuscumbia is a special kind of place.

On the long drive back to Florida, I thought of Kyle’s family a lot: how lucky I feel to have met them all and how much I appreciated being able to spend a holiday with them. I’ve always found that the experiences I love most in my life are the ones I don’t plan for – the job that came my way quite by accident, the friend I never planned to meet, the spur-of-the-moment trip that I never imagined I’d take. My trip to Alabama showed me how much joy we can find in the unexpected and unplanned, and I’d like to figure out how to make that kind of joy and the circumstances that create it a little more common in my life in 2010.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - The Center

"The artists' role is to do what's honest for them. So if you're in New York and everyone is looking at the floor, you can look up. It's not your role to follow the others. It's your role to go to your center and then reflect that, not just to be a mirror to what's happening." ~ James Hubbell

Here is a tricky balance to keep: how can we be mindful of what's happening around us and also learn to follow our own hearts? It's easy to get swept up in the moment, in the emotions and circumstances of others. In its best form, we know this as empathy. In its worst form, we know this as distraction. How can we see the whole picture, and also our own role in it? How can we see both the forest and the trees? The role of the artist, in any medium, demands this balance, and that balance is our Center.

Our Center is an elusive thing. We clearly know when we have moved away from our Center: it's apparent in our lack of energy, enthusiasm, and joy. Finding and holding the Center, particularly in our daily adventures in chaos, is a tough thing because it sometimes requires that we disappoint others to be true to ourselves. It requires that we believe in ourselves and in our own abilities more than we believe in anything else. It asks us to take our future into our own hands.

There are three ways to know if we've found our Center:
1.) It makes time pass by so quickly and effortlessly that we barely notice how long we've been there.

2.) The activities we perform at our Center give us energy and we never grow tired of them.

3.) Our Center is the summation of the very best gifts we have to offer to the world.

For me, my Center is found in writing and yoga. I've been writing daily for three and a half years, and intermittently as far back into my childhood as I can remember. I've had a steady yoga practice for 10 years. Time has flown! These activities give me boundless energy and let me show my most joyful face to the world.

And so, I am taking James Hubbell's: in 2010, I will go to my Center and reflect what is there. By the time 2010 is singing its swan song, I'll find a way to make writing and yoga the Center of my life. I'll find a way to earn my living through them. The 'fierce urgency of now' is calling me far too clearly to spend my life any other way.

Monday, December 28, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Full-time Social Activist

Social activism has often been associated with people who work for nonprofits or for social enterprises, people who spend every waking moment on the front lines of generating social change. In actuality, social activism is everyone's profession. With our every purchase, we make a statement about about how we wish to live in the world and the way we want our world to be. All of our choices reveal a piece of our character, reflect our values, and tell the world about our priorities. We don't choose whether or not we are a social activist, we choose the social ideas that our mandatory activism represents.

On Christmas Day, I received one of my favorites gifts via email, and it clearly reflects my work as a social activist. A few months ago, I lent money through to a woman in Ghana who wanted to open a hair salon. On December 25th, notified me that the loan had been fully-repaid months ahead of schedule. I was shocked and thrilled by the news! Now I have the choice to withdraw the funds or lend them to another entrepreneur. Given my positive experience with Kiva, of course I will loan the funds again. I believe in the power of entrepreneurship to transform lives, and I want to support the desire for self-sufficiency among people around the world, a desire I share and deeply understand.

To further reflect these beliefs, I have also loaned money to Grameen America, a brand of Mohammad Yunus's incredible organization. It cost me $10 and about 30 seconds of my time, and gave me the opportunity to make a difference in the life of another New Yorker. There are plenty of opportunities for social activism around the world, but we should not lose sight of the opportunities for social activism that lie just outside our own doors.

Philanthropy is not the only way to choose the how of our activism. We can give time, raise awareness about organization we admire, purchase goods and services from respectable companies, and use our own personal talents in direct ways. For the past two years, I have spent the bulk of my volunteer time on public education. I've taught high school and middle school students in Lower Manhattan and the South Bronx, and I am a book buddy to a local third grade student. On this blog and through my column, I have highlighted organizations whose work inspires me. I try to support local, organic farmers through my grocery shopping. The project I am most excited about in 2010 is my participation with Citizen Schools; I will pilot an after-school program in East Harlem to teach 6th graders about entrepreneurship, product development, and innovation. These accomplishments are not at all extraordinary; they're just choices that reflect my core beliefs.

We have more influence over our world and on others than we realize. There are so many options that it can be difficult to know where to begin. We need only to pick a cause that lights a fire within us, get out there into the world, and let our voices be heard. Invariably, we will find other voices that echo our own.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Chasing Down Inspiration

"You can't wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club." ~ Jack London, author

Before 2009, I used to think of inspiration a something that just hits us. I kept a folder of inspirational pictures, stories, quotes, and clippings that I trolled through when I needed some uplifting thoughts and none seemed to find me. I believed in writer's block and the mystical muse of creativity who decided if, when, and how to show up in our lives. No more. After a year of actively seeking out hope and writing about it every day, I believe in the Jack London method, my inspiration-chasing club always at the ready.

In New York City, we're lucky that chasing down inspiration means just putting on a pair of shoes and walking outside our doors. Inspiration is everywhere. We have a host of amazing museums that I visit frequently (thanks to my employer's fantastic perk that gets us into almost every museum in New York for free!) Central Park and Riverside Park are two blocks away from my apartment. Broadway, off-Broadway, and off-off Broadway are burgeoning with some of the most inventive work to come along in decades. Bookstores are on nearly every corner, and there is no shortage of fascinating lectures, readings, and continuing ed classes in every subject, at every level. And if all else fails, just take a walk around the block, any block. You're sure to find some characters.

In other cities, some much smaller than New York, inspiration abound as well. In Orlando, Florida, I found the largest collection of Tiffany glass in the world. In Charlottesville, Virginia, I had some of the best meals of my life. In my own hometown of Highland, New York, the view from the Catskill Mountains still takes my breathe away. In Providence, Rhode Island, I saw one of the finest productions of Moon for the Misbegotten that I've ever seen.

Inspiration is everywhere - all we need to do is get out into the world and look. We can travel thousands of miles from home, or we can hang around in our own backyard. What matters is the pursuit: do we want to be inspired and are we willing to "sift the sands of the desert to see what we can find," as Clarissa Pinkola Estes says so eloquently in Women Who Run with the Wolves? If the answer is yes, then there are adventures upon adventures just waiting for us to hope on board. And if you can get your hands on a big club, that may help, too.
The image above is not my own. It can be found here.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Think of Today

"I never think of the future. It comes soon enough." ~ Albert Einstein

December 26th, forever relegated to its place as 'the day after Christmas'. A lot of people sleep in; many are on vacation; it begins the long, slow slide into the new year. A day of "lull", and well-deserved after the shopping, eating, visiting frenzy induced by December 25th.

Given that Albert Einstein was one of the greatest visionaries to ever live, I'm not sure that his quote above is entirely truthful. He actually thought about the future quite a bit, particularly when it came to his work on General Relativity and the Manhattan Project. What I think he was doing was trying to remind us that if we focus too much on the future we lose sight of the opportunities right in front of us today.

It would be easy and quite understandable to let this week float on by as just the week between Christmas and New Year's. It may even cause some of us to build up some nervousness about the impending new year, or we could just look at 2009 as a lame duck year, almost finished and therefore not worth any more effort. With some creativity, we can still get our much-needed rest and make this week a happy and productive one.

If I learned anything in 2009 it is that our days, all of them, are terrible things to waste. This week I'll curl up on that comfy couch and reach for that magazine or book that's been waiting for me. I can relax and spend time with my family and friends without feeling rushed. I can get my plans in order when it comes to my impending GRE. I'll take time out for yoga every day as preparation for my yoga teacher training class that starts in February. Whoever said that productivity and relaxation had to be mutually exclusive activities?

Friday, December 25, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Thanks for Making My Childhood Dream Come True

Last year I wrote a few posts about Randy Pausch's Last Lecture. I first watched him give the Last Lecture on YouTube through tear-filled eyes and had to take myself for a long walk 3 months later when I read about his passing. His Last Lecture, devoted entirely to his pursuit of childhood dreams, reminded me of how important our earliest dreams are and how they shape us in adulthood. Randy Pausch reconfirmed my belief that childhood dreams, those daring, bold expressions of our deepest desire before we ever realize we have limitations, are some of the most valuable things we own. We should celebrate them and go for them with gusto, no matter what our age is.

This morning, I watched Lorelei, my two year old niece, open her gifts with wild abandon. She threw her head back and laughed with each one, regardless of how big or small it was. She liked the wrapping paper and boxes as much as the gifts inside. Watching her, I wondered how she would remember our Christmases together when she gets older. I want to do everything possible to make her childhood a blissfully happy period of her life, a time when great dreams were formed inside her beautiful heart.

Children change us, whether those children are our own, in our family, part of our friends' families, or children we work with in our communities. We rediscover a sense of wonder and magic through their eyes, and Christmas magnifies that wonder. They use that same wonder about the world to formulate the ideas that will become their childhood dreams, and if we spend enough time with them we'll find that they can help us formulate new dreams, too, while also reminding us of everything we dreamed of as children.

When I made up my list of childhood dreams, one of the big things I wanted to do was to be a published author. I thought that meant convincing a publisher that I was good enough for print. I never imagined there would be free (on-line) tools that would make this dream possible to achieve regardless of whether or not any publisher believed in me. I did spend a good amount of time worrying that no one would ever read what I wrote. In the past two and a half years writing this blog, I realized this incredible childhood dream with your help and support, and I wish I knew how to thank you all enough.

This Christmas, I am deeply grateful to all of you who have come to this blog to read about my journey. Your comments, emails, text messages, conversations, and face-to-face opinions and advice mean more to me than I could ever adequately explain. You made one of the great dreams of my life come true - you made me a writer. I hope you'll stick with me, and that my writing will continue to be helpful to you. I hope we'll be able to build some more dreams together. Wishing you a very Merry Christmas, this year and always.
The image above is not my own. It can be found here.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Balancing Writing and Living in Alabama

Writing has a funny little dichotomy: it is a mostly solitary activity whose content is greatly influenced by social interaction. That balance between living life and writing about it can be a tricky one to manage, particularly if you write on a part-time basis while working at another full-time job. And yet, that balance is critical to creating a body of writing that is poignant and relevant. Without the social interaction piece, writing becomes flat and dull.

This week I'm in Florida with my sister, brother-in-law, and niece. They are packing up on Christmas afternoon to head to Alabama to see his family and I was planning to stay here at their home to study for the GRE and to write. Yesterday at lunch, we started talking about the possibility of me going to Alabama along with them. As it turns out, that ride will give me a lot of time to study and I'll have my own toasty bedroom to write and learn GRE vocabulary words until my heart's content.

At first, I immediately thought that there is just no way I can go to Alabama. I have a to-do list that needs doin'. And it's so much time in the car, and I'm already traveling to Fort Lauderdale to celebrate the New Year with friends. I mean, I need my rest!

And then I thought, well, what exactly is it that I'm resting up for? Should I stay home alone with my GRE book and my computer, or would it be better to be with people I love and get all of my work done, too? With that thought, what other choice was there? Staying home alone just felt like a horribly empty option, especially at this time of year. All I could think of was an image of the Grinch high up in his home, alone for the holidays. Life was a lot sweeter when he came down off his mountain, and I bet his writing was better, too.

For me, the holidays are about family and friends and dashing here and there and loving it. My writing is about that, too. So my books, my laptop, and my family are hitting the road to Sweet Home Alabama in about 24 hours to see what we can find. If nothing else, it's got to make for some interesting writing and fun holiday memories.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009 5 Tips to Help You Create and Achieve New Year's Resolutions

So here it is: time to crank out a list of lofty resolutions that you know will never last past January 31st, right? Don't do this to yourself. Please. You'll feel like a failure, and that's just not fair to do that to yourself. knows this, and they've asked all of their writers to share tips on how to make readers wildly successful with their New Year's Resolutions in 2010.

I just posted 5 tips, followed by a personal story of my 2009 resolution, that I hope will be helpful to you as you begin to turn your attention toward a bright new year teeming with possibility. For the article, please click here.
The image above is not my own. It can be found here.

My Year of Hopefulness - Alfie

“You see, life is a very special kind of thing.” ~ John Denver

I remember the day John Denver died. I was a senior in college, working on a period theatre production as a costume designer. My assistant designer loved John Denver as much as I did and we spent the afternoon perusing thrift shops and commiserating over the loss of this beautiful, troubled man.

John Denver’s Christmas album with the Muppets remains one of my very favorites and I’ve been listening to it constantly this season. It’s like a warm, comfy hug for me. My sister, Weez, and I have been known to sing along with it at very high volumes. There’s one song on there, titled simply “Christmas”, which always makes me tear up a bit. It gets right to the heart of how I think about my days: life is a very special kind of thing…for each and every living breathing thing.” And if we could just tailor our every action, our every word to that sentiment, think what kind of world we could have. We could make a lot of our problems vanish over night if could consistently act according to this belief.

It sounds so simple, and it is, if we could just stay out of our own way. Think how all of our relationships would be transformed, how our environment, our government, our careers, and our communities would be if respect for the value of every life was always the priority. This Christmas, that’s my only wish: to recognize at every moment that life is a very special kind of thing for everyone.

For those who have never heard the song, “Christmas”, here is the poem that John Denver reads at the beginning of it. Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas.

“Did you ever hear the story of the Christmas tree who just didn’t want to change the show? He liked living in the woods and playing with squirrels. He liked icicles and snow. He liked wolves, and eagles, and grizzly bears, and critters, and creatures that crawled. Why bugs were some of his very best friends, spiders and ants and all.

“Now that’s not to say that he ever looked down on a vision of twinkling lights or on mirrored bubbles and peppermint canes and a thousand other delights. And he often had dreams of tiny reindeer and a jolly old man and a sleigh full of toys and presents and wonderful things. The story of Christmas Day.

“Oh Alfie believed in Christmas alright. He was full of Christmas cheer, all of each and day and all throughout the year. To him it was much more than a special time, much more than a special day. It was more than a beautiful story; it was a special kind of way.

“You see some folks have never heard a jingle bell ring and they’ve never heard of Santa Claus. They’ve never heard the story of the Son of God and that made Alfie pause. Did that mean that they’d never know of peace on Earth, or the brotherhood of man, or know how to love, or know how to give? If they can’t, no one can.

“You see life is a very special kind of thing, not just for a chosen, but for each and every living, breathing thing. Not just me and you. So in your Christmas prayers this year, Alfie asked me if I’d ask you [to] say a prayer for the wind, and the water, and the wood, and those who live there, too."

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - We Could Learn a Lot from the Muppets

On Sunday night I watched A Very Merry Muppet Christmas on TV. Kermit and his pals realize their dream of having their own theatre only to have it threatened by a scheming landlord who wants to shut them down to open a posh new nightclub. Kermit blames himself for losing the fight to save the theatre, confiding to an angel that he wishes he was never born.

As the story unfolds, we see how the lives of his friends would have been different without Kermit. All of them, without question, would have achieved far less without Kermit as their friend. Through this lesson, the angel teaches Kermit that our actions and words have a greater impact on people than we realize - a good lesson for all of us.
This lesson prodded me to think of all the ways in which we influence one another.

The encouragement that we offer to others, our belief in one another's abilities to create change, and our own willingness to take a stand on issues of great importance all have deeper reaching impact than we know. With our words we can foster dreams, ours and those of others. Our simple belief that someone else can achieve a lofty goal can provide a much needed boost to someone who lacks personal confidence. If and how we work on issues such as healthcare, education, poverty, and the environment conveys who we are on a very deep and personal level.

Not only do our actions and words have impact, but our lack of action and the sentiments we do not convey have an impact as well. When a friend or colleague turns to us for help and support, do we stand with them or do we turn away? When someone tells us they don't think they can achieve their dream, do we doubt them or do we encourage them? When something in our community, or in the world at-large, has gone haywire, do we accept the current situation as is or do we decide to change it?

Our answers to these questions also reveal our integrity of character.
So often, we think life lessons have to come from books of philosophy or in the classrooms of the Ivy League. My experience yesterday watching the Muppets reminded me that inspiration exists all around us, in every conversation, in every TV viewing, and in everyday experiences. We would be wise and the world would be a better place if we could pay greater attention to the callings and reminders that show up at our door all the time. We never know what pearl of wisdom may fall from the lips of a lovable, unassuming frog.

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

Monday, December 21, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - I've Got It Easy

As I trudged out of my apartment and through the streets to the M60 bus, I was silently cursing the incompatibility of snow banks and rolling luggage. I was hopping over the snow banks still stacked high on the sidewalks of my neighborhood, my rolling luggage clumsily in tow. In 5 blocks, I reached the bus stop, and was glad I would shortly be on my way toLaGuardia airport, albeit with a slightly sore lower back.

As I was lamenting my difficult walk, across the street came a man in a manual wheelchair, young and entirely unfazed by the slushy snow that was much harder for him to navigate than it was for me. I felt like such a whiny, mealy-mouthed jerk. Oh poor me! I have nice luggage with wheels to load up on a bus that will take me to a plane that will take me to warm, sunny Florida where I will spend the holiday with my fabulous, adorable, loving family. Oh the tragedy! However will I make it?

Sometimes terrible things happen to me, and yet when life gets me down I remember my mother’s constant phrase during my childhood, “there is always someone in the world worse off than you.” Her point was that I should stop whining about whatever was bothering me, and she was right. Whining never got anyone very far in this world. In the midst of tough circumstances, perspective is difficult to come by. When I pick my head up a bit from my own difficulties, I find other people who are getting by in life with far few blessings than I have. I’m grateful for the reminders of how truly lucky I am.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - The Whisper of Snow

And the snow fell and fell and fell. Some people will hunker down during a snow storm, watch a movie, play a board game, read. And some of us will run out into that snow and feel proud that they didn't let the weather get them down. The people in this latter group are insane, and I'm one of them. I made my way down to 36th Street for dinner with my friend, Monika, last night and then got across town in record time (underground) to my friend, Cindy's, holiday party.

Cindy's parties are always an interesting mix of guests, and I am guaranteed to meet someone (or 2 or 3 someones) new every time. With the company of Anderson Cooper's lead cameraman to a talented animator to one of the head stylists at Bumble & Bumble, there is never a shortage of cool stories, laughter, and delicious cocktails and food. I like to bring someone along every time to further liven up the mix. This time I brought my good pal, Jeff, who is always very outgoing and loves meeting new people as much as I do. After a good number of hours of merriment, I decided to head back out into the snow and get home.

I stepped outside into a world of sparkly white. The snow was breath-taking. Maybe the first snow fall always has a magical quality to it, though last night's snow seemed to be something special. I never saw it glisten that way (and no, it wasn't the candy cane eggnog I had at Cindy's!) It felt like I was in a movie, as if a painter had taken a brush to my life and made everything around me glow.

So how would I get home in this foot of snow? At that time of night the subway is slow and I would have needed 2 transfers to get home anyway (getting across town in New York is rarely easy!) Cabs were getting stuck and spinning out everywhere I looked. Buses were no where to be found. My mom said to me that when she lived in New York, her best mode of transportation was a good pair of shoes. I had two inches heeled boots, and still I thought of her quote and didn't think twice about making the hike on-foot. On a nice day, it would be a good, relaxing walk. In the snow at night, it would require a little more willpower and caution. I was up for it.

I skipped over and through the snowbanks, wound my way along the 79th Street passage through Central Park, and the whole time thought about how beautiful this city is. It was so quiet that I could actually hear the snow falling. The sky had a pink tint to it. The cold wind had died down. I felt a huge wave of gladness.

It was my next to last night in New York for 2009 since I'll be leaving for the holidays in Florida on Monday. This snowstorm was a little gift for me, and I could swear I heard the world whispering, "Yes, you made it. You can file away 2009 as a year of experiences that opened your life to new possibilities, a year when so much fell away so that you could find new ways forward. This year, in a time of great loss, you received the opportunity to re-imagine and re-craft every area of your life. Put this chance to good use."

When the subways are crowded, the streets are jammed, and the noise reaches levels you never thought were possible, New York can frustrate even those of us who love it most. It's times like last night, in that beautiful, mystical snowfall, that remind of how much of a home this city is for me, how much of a home it will always be for me. There is a certain crackle of life that lives here, and I feel blessed to live among it.

The image above is not my own. It was taken by Seth Wenig/AP.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - I'm Rich

"Wealth consists not in having great possessions but in having few wants." ~ Esther de Waal, author of Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict

Trish Scott, one of the readers of this blog (and a wonderful blogger herself), recently left a comment that got me thinking and connecting some disparate dots that have been showing up in my life. She asked me to consider how I might feel about leaving empty moments empty for a little while. Especially during this time of year, there is an urge and a propensity to fill up everything to the brim: stockings, large holiday dinner plates, space under the tree, our schedules, and the list goes on. Hurry hurry hurry - Christmas is only x number of days away and you're in your house missing out on all the cheer outside of your door. No wonder we all settle down for a long winter's nap on December 26th. We're exhausted! So what if we could just sit, for a moment, and be glad to feel a little empty? What would that do for us?

This Christmas I didn't make a wish list. For the first time ever I realized I am rich because there isn't anything I need that I don't already have. I'm now exactly where I always wanted to be in my financial life. I don't want for anything; I feel steady and secure financially, despite that the economy is in constant turmoil. With this thought, I felt a tidal wave of gratitude. By Esther de Waal's beautiful definition of wealth, I am rich. I sat for a moment today and took that feeling in. After so many years of working so hard, wanting so much to not worry about money, I realized I had arrived at my destination. Today, I got there. My heart started humming.

And then I took a look at my busy December. I didn't get to see everyone I wanted to see. I didn't get to every outing I was invited to, nor every holiday gathering. I had to take some time for myself, and to do some selfless volunteer work which is so needed at this time of year. So I missed out on some experiences. And yet, I feel so extraordinarily lucky that I have so many incredible people in my life to spend my time with, that I have so many projects that I am happy to spend my time on, that I have places to be where I am needed and wanted. I sat for a moment today and took that feeling in. About this time 7 years ago, I decided to leave my job to settle in one place and start to build a life, a community where I felt like I belonged. Today, I realized I had gotten exactly that after so many years of building. What an amazing feat! My heart began to sing.

So now we wait indoors for the Blizzard of 2009 to arrive any minute. We're supposed to be snowed in with 12 inches of gorgeous, puffy, white snowflakes. Let it be. Snow me in, world. Make me sit down and reflect on the many, many blessings I have in my life. Some of them were hard won, and others showed up like little miracles from thin air. For all of them I am thankful. So here I'll sit for a bit today, sip some tea, listen to Christmas carols, light a candle that smells like cinnamon, and be glad to just be right here, right now, pinching myself to make sure that this rich and magical life I lead is real.

Friday, December 18, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Learning to Love Through the Particular

"The love of humanity is a noble sentiment, but most of the time we live our lives by smaller solidarities. We learn to love humanity not in general, but through its particular expressions." ~ Montesquieu

Michael Sandel used this quote by Montesquieu in one of his recent lectures on Justice. I spend a lot of time being of use to people I don't know, many of whom I'll never meet, many of whom I'll never even know by name. They are the people I help through my volunteer work, who come across this blog though never reach out to me directly, people who are helped by the nonprofits I donate money to.

I learned to care about the hungry because when I was a kid, I knew what it felt like to be hungry. I learned to write some inspiring words because the inspiring words of so many other writers helped me when I really needed to hear words of encouragement. I learned how important alumni donations are because some alumni helped me receive financial aid through their own charitable contributions; their donations helped me get the education that changed the course of my life so now I donate to my schools so that others like me can receive the help they need. I learned to love children because of my niece, Lorelei, and I learned to love people in general because of how much I love my own family and friends. My particular circumstances shaped how I look at the world as a whole.

This holiday, I wanted to do something special for some people close to me, and in honor of those people, I wanted to do something special for others that I don't know personally. I bought individual Christmas cards for my relatives. After a few recent passings in my family, I realized that I had no more need for a box of Christmas cards. I only needed a handful. I teared up a little in the greeting card aisle and then smiled as I picked out individual cards for my aunties, uncles, and cousins. I packed up a great big box for my immediate family filled with all kinds of goodies - some shared and some individual ones. For New Year's, I'll be having a little party in Florida for some of my very favorite friends. I am so happy to be able to do special things for people I really love.

And for the long-term impact: I have always bought Sebastian, our wonderful family dog, a present for Christmas. This is our first holiday without him, so in his honor I donated to the ASPCA. This week I received a magazine in the mail from Heifer International. It told the stories of the many people that they have helped to reach sufficiency. The stories were so moving that for the first time, I donated to their organization, asking that my contribution be put toward their honey bee program. The hives that my money will provide to several needy families have the ability to turn around an entire village in a very short period of time. So many people helped my family when we really needed the help, and this is a way to pay that kindness forward. It feels good to spread the wealth, to return so many of the favors that I've received over my lifetime.

This Christmas I've enjoyed spending a little time reflecting on my own particular circumstances. I've been thinking about the times when I really needed help, and who helped me, and how. And now that I've come through some tough situations, I want to help someone else, equally in need, whose needs I can identify with. I do believe that the Universe helps those who help themselves, and I also believe that every once in a while the Universe could use a little help and by being that help, we find that our own riches grow.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Empty Moments and Shark Jumping

"What do you think is better: the store brand or Breyer's?" And so began a conversation at my local Whole Foods this week. Breyer's ice cream and the Whole Foods brand ice cream were the same price. Recognizing that clearly I am an ice cream connoisseur and that I know my stuff when it comes to the delicious frozen treat, a fellow customer was asking me for my opinion. Even for me, this questions was a toss up. I went for the Breyer's - it had a nicer picture and I could see the black flecks of the vanilla bean in the photo. (For the record, I've never tried the Whole Foods brand, and it well may be much better. I'll try it when I'm next in the store!)

This got me thinking about what names stand for, and how important authenticity is. A lot of people believe we need to strive for authenticity. Brian, my therapist, adamantly disagrees. This week I was telling him about some big steps I have taken in my life recently and how easy they were to do when I just got out of my own way. "That's because the authentic self wants to come through and the only thing stopping her is you," he said to me. I can't argue with that - being authentic is so much easier than trying to be someone else, whether you're a human being or ice cream. Authenticity is easy; being comfortable with personal authenticity is the tough piece because is demands that we stand up, make our case for who we are when every piece of veneer falls away, and then asks us to support that authentic self, lovely or not.

My friend Anthony opened my eyes this week to the concept of "jumping the shark". When a TV series has run too long, and loses its way, those in the biz call that "jumping the shark". ( Jumping the shark occurs at that point where a hit show gets away from what made it a hit in the first place and takes a turn for the worst. This idea made me consider how tough it is to stay authentic and be successful because we have this idea of what success looks and smells like. It's too easy to let others define us, and before we know it we have to live up to some high ideal we didn't create and don't even want. Instead of just being Breyer's, we now have to be Breyer's and compete with Whole Foods. Instead of following my dreams and speaking my mind, I need to conform to an accepted ideal in every area of my life. Or do I?

This is the tough part - knowing when to walk away. When do we get off the circus train? When do we decide that being ourselves is much more important, and also more gratifying, than trying to be anything or anyone else? The truth is that we can get there so long as we discover what it means to be who we are when everything else falls away. Who are we in the empty moments?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - The Beauty of Restlessness

"The purpose of this course is to awaken the restlessness of reason, and if we have done at least that, and restlessness continues to afflict you in the days and years to come, then we together have achieved no small thing." ~ Michael Sandel

Michael Sandel's online class at Harvard, Justice, ended a few weeks ago. Over the course of the semester it became my weekly ritual every Thursday to watch the class via YouTube and then participate on the online forum. I will admit that I miss the class. Professor Sandel has a way of creating restlessness, discomfort, in his students that keeps them pondering his points and those of the philosophers he highlights long after the class ends. He inspires curiosity.

It's this inspiration that keeps teachers going. I consider some of my very best teachers, inside and outside the classroom, and everything that they did to help me get far beyond my circumstances. The best of them didn't have all the answers. They just had more questions. Beautiful, articulate questions that made me restless. Questions that still keep my restless, years and years later. It's this restlessness, and the ideas that cause it, that expand our visions. These ideas imagine what's possible rather than accepting what's probably. They push boundaries; they build dreams.

In addition to inspiring curiosity, my teachers also inspired me to aspire. Not for a title or a certain amount of money or power or influence. They inspired me to aspire to get every last drop of value out of this one life that I have. They poured a lot of grace into my dreams so when I consider what I'll do with my time, it isn't just my own days that I need to live to the fullest. Reaching and then exceeding my potential isn't just about my own sense of achievement. I live part of my dreams for them, too. For all of them. It is a responsibility that I willingly, gladly accept because grace is a terrible thing to waste.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - You and Me Against a 50% Graduation Rate

“None of this was beyond my potential. It was just beyond my reach” ~ 13 year old apprentice in a Citizen Schools after-school program

Today I had the great good fortune to hear John Payton, President of the Legal Defense Fund, speak. Long considered one of the finest practicing attorneys, particularly in the field of Civil Rights, Mr. Payton exhibited passion and grace when articulating the complicated issue of racism in America, and its tragic legacy. He helped me to see that we the people, all of us, have to get involved in this issue, regardless of our race, because it is plaguing our society to such a degree that it is tough to see a way through.

The statistics that Mr. Payton discussed are the same we see everyday on the front of every newspaper across the country. And they’re horrifying:

- 86% of black 4th graders read below grade level
- Black men make up 41% of prison inmates while only 4% of all higher education students are black men. 1:3 black men will spend a portion of their life in prison
- 30% of children in poor elementary schools, mostly blacks and Latinos, have a vision problem that could easily be corrected with glasses if they had access to an eye doctor. They have insurance through Medicaid, but no access to care. Because of poor vision, they are labeled as “slow learners”
- 50% of black students in New York City drop-put before graduation. In Columbus, Ohio, 60% drop-out and in Baltimore 65% drop-out

And the list of sickening statistics goes on and on to the point that we almost grow numb to the numbers. They are too big, too awful to fathom. So we move to the suburbs. The problem becomes so unnerving that we can’t look it in the eyes anymore. It seems like there’s nothing we can do.

Except that there is something you and I can do. It would be easy, at least in the short-term, to just go back to our little desks in our little cubicles and work away trying to keep our jobs so that we can feed and clothe and house ourselves and our loved ones. Sometimes it seems that this is all we have the energy for, and yet if we don’t do more than we think we can do, these statistics as bad as they are will only get worse. And we can’t afford worse.

So here’s what gave me hope today in the wake of Mr. Payton’s talk: Citizen Schools. Last night I went to the Google offices here in New York. 250 concerned committed adults gathered to talk to four groups of middle school students who learned how to write code to create video games, cell phone applications, and artificial intelligence. 6th, 7th, and 8th graders, with the help of many dedicated Googlers extended their reach far beyond what they thought was possible.

Lennon, a very poised 7th grade student, took the podium to open up the evening. He talked about how Citizen Schools helped him gain confidence and improved his grades. He learned how to make friends and collaborate with others on a project. For the first time, he realized how his studies apply to life and he’s started to think about a career. Dedicated individuals, just like you and me, shared what they know to help these kids like Lennon get another chance to better their own lives.

Turning around these statistics won’t be easy and it will take a long time. It will require great faith in ourselves, our talents, and our ability to make a difference. We can do this, together. 10 kids at a time, one program at a time. A drop in the bucket? Certainly. But consider this – by participating with Citizen Schools, we have the opportunity to save, literally save, 10 lives from becoming part of those scary statistics that John Payton discussed today. How much would you give to save 10 lives? You can start by giving 2 hours a week for 10 weeks through Citizen Schools. To get involved, please visit

Monday, December 14, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Moments that Made My Life

My friend, Josh, over at World’s Strongest Librarian wrote a post that is so beautiful and profound that I had to share it here. I haven't been able to stop thinking about it all day. He talked about the defining moments of his life in terms of when they happened, how he felt about them, and what they meant to him. It’s a form that I love so much that I created my own snapshots of when. So many thanks to Josh for inspiring my writing and my life. Here goes…

When I first saw my niece, I realized why it was so important to have children in our lives.

When my heart broke, I realized that it didn’t take as long to heal and love again as I thought it would.

When he passed away, I didn’t feel as relieved as I thought I would – it was then that I started down the very long path to forgiveness.

When I crossed that finish line, realizing a dream years in the making, I was more grateful for the strength of my body than ever before.

When I decided to keep loving through the hurt, I realized that on the other side there was more love.

When I graduated, I knew at that moment that I could do anything I set my mind to.

When I looked out at the wild surf of South Africa, I realized that I had traveled very far from home and still felt like I belonged.

When I stood in front of a classroom for the first time, I had much more to offer than I ever expected.

When I chased a dream as far as I could and it still wasn’t enough to make it real, I was amazed at my resilience to just get a new dream.

When I said a final good-bye to my dear and faithful friend, I found that not everything or everyone is replaceable. Some parts of our lives and hearts can never be reclaimed, and that’s okay.

When I first put my writing out into the world for everyone to see, I found that there was a lot more support for my ideas that I ever knew and much of that support came from people I didn’t even know.

When the curtain came down and I heard the applause, I knew I had been part of something much greater than myself.

When I almost didn’t get a tomorrow, I understood how precious every moment is and that dreams can’t wait.

When I lost almost all of my belongings, I found that I didn’t really need any of them to survive and thrive and for the first time in my life I felt truly free.

When I found the courage to tell my own story, I discovered that I had the ability to inspire the same courage in others.
The image above is not my own. It can be found here.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Playing Games

I woke up this morning to rainy skies and a little knot in my stomach. This is the week that I begin my verbal review for the GRE, and I'm having some anxiety over it. My friend, Allan, made me stop beating myself up over my seemingly large deficiency in vocabulary. Honestly, I don't recognize half of the words on the GRE as English. Allan clued me in to the fact that no one recognizes these words as English because no one actually ever uses them. I felt mildly better. No matter - they're showing up on the test, and I have to learn them.

When I was little, I used to play the dictionary game with my mom. I'd open the dictionary to any word, and she would give the definition of the word. I never, ever stumped her. She knew every word, no matter how archaic it was. I couldn't understand it. How did she know all of these words? And how come I didn't know any of them? Why do I still feel like I don't know any of them now?

Begrudgingly, I went to my 3 inch thick GRE prep book, and started making my flashcards with a heavy heart. And then I decided I had better get with it. I had better make a game out of this or I am doomed to not do well. And I can't afford a low score. I just can't - PhD programs are competitive and every piece of an application counts.

The GRE book is full of helpful hints, and as I learned each hint I saw puzzle pieces falling into place. Now I know how my mom could figure out all of those words. She took many years of Latin, requiring her to learn a variety of roots, suffixes, and prefixes. Our language is largely made of little pieces that are recombined again and again in different ways. For example, "mal-" means bad, so words beginning with "mal-" likely have a negative meaning. It also means bad in Spanish, so knowing a foreign language helps enormously when deciphering new vocabulary words because English is largely a language of other languages. My mother speaks French and Latin, so it's no wonder the size of her English vocabulary is through the roof!

As my GRE studying progressed, I found myself getting more and more excited about it. I found myself finally, finally understanding pieces of our language I never knew before. Studying for the GRE isn't just to gain entrance to a program; it's actually beneficial for my life and for my writing. Now when I read, I have an eye on roots and suffixes and prefixes. I see arguments being pieced together with new insights that I never saw before. I see polygons and parallel lines and acute and obtuse angles everywhere I turn. The basis of the GRE is all around us. And while I've seen all of these things before, I'm now noticing them with new eyes and a new found curiosity.

My learning took a great leap forward today. It's so easy, and more than a little tempting, to get lost in our books and studies. The real power of our studies is when we can pick our eyes up from our books, look out into the world, and see that opportunities for learning, and application of our learning, is all around us. Or better yet, our learning helps us to see what could be out in the world, and gives us the tools and the resolve to go make it happen. Whoever said games were only for kids?

Saturday, December 12, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Spirit on Bone

"Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don't want it. What appears bad manners, an ill temper, or cynicism, is always a sign of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen. You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone." ~ Miller Williams

I was struck by the last line of this quote by Miller Williams because it relates perfectly to a situation that a friend of mine encountered this week. My friend was in town for a business meeting, and when he went to say good-bye to his boss, his boss pulled out a holiday gift and card for him. The card detailed everything he admired about my friend, and given my friend's talents, I am sure that the list of admirable qualities was long. The oddest thing about this encounter is that my friend's boss never gives Christmas presents, never says what he admires about others, and would be hard pressed to give anyone a heart-felt compliment unless there was some personal gain to be had from doing so.

My friend's boss was saying good-bye with this gift and card. It appears that his boss's time is up at their company, and parting is a difficult thing for someone who thought he was playing the game by all the right rules. He probably was; the trouble is that with this economy the ground shifts so quickly, and with it the game and subsequent rules change as well. It's just that no one tells you when a change has occurred. My friend's boss learned this lesson the hard way.

For about a year, I've been upset with my friend's boss. He's been manipulative and cruel, someone who took some kind of sad, sick pleasure in making someone else feel small. He was the consummate bad cop. Now, I'm not so sure. Maybe that bad cop was a front. Maybe there was always a good guy underneath that tough veneer. Maybe there was a heart there all along.

I guess we never really know what's going on inside someone's mind and soul. All we truly know are their actions and words. I suspect that my friend's boss was motivated by fear, and that caused him to behave so badly for so long. Now his number's up, and he's regretting some of his actions and words, wishing he could change them and knowing that it is far too late to fully make amends. The gift and the card is the best he can do, and perhaps that's enough.

A number of years ago, I had a boss who impressed me with one lesson that I think about all the time. A team member of ours was horribly rude to my boss, in public, and a few days later the team member came into my boss's office to apologize. My boss accepted the apology, no questions asked. I was stunned.

"How could you do that?" I asked him.

"Christa, asking for forgiveness is the hardest thing we do in life. You have to let someone apologize. If someone has the courage to come to me and apologize, then I can have the courage to forgive them."

It was one of those light bulb moments for me and I try to keep it close to my heart, even when someone has hurt me terribly. We have to let people say they're sorry, in their own way, in their own time. Sometimes it's in the form of a present or card, as it was between my friend and his boss. Sometimes it's a phone call, or an email, or a simple face-to-face conversation. By asking for forgiveness and granting it we can help one another to ease any tension that arises where the spirit meets the bone. And that might be the greatest gift we can ever give or receive.

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

Owning Pink Feature

I am so honored today to have my writing featured on Owning Pink at I'm excited to see the response to the question: "What will you do with your one wild and precious life?"

Friday, December 11, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Writing Ourselves Free

"Words do not label things already there. Words are like the knife of a carver: They free the idea, the thing, from the general formlessness of the outside. As a man speaks, not only is his language in a state of birth, but also the very thing about which he is talking." ~ Inuit Wisdom

Today I finished up the book The Soul of Money by Lynne Twist, and the Inuit quote above kicks off one of the last chapters. So many of her ideas about money helped me to reconsider the role of money in my life, both when I was very young and had no money and now when I have a well paying job. Her words helped me to see money as just another form of energy which we can utilize to shape the world around us. In her words I was able to make peace with finance, a difficult thing to do in our consumer-driven, debt-ridden culture.

Words are powerful tools not just for communicating ideas, but also to form them. So often I come to a blank screen on my computer, unsure of what I'll write or where my writing will lead. Over time, I've learned to trust the process of writing the way that a carver trusts his knife. In my imagination there is always a story waiting to be told, similar to the figure that is within a slate of marble. The skill of the writer or artist releases the form.

I'm now weeks away from meeting my goal of writing about hope every day for a year. I started this journey as someone who felt let down by the world, someone who was worried about her future. Now that I have spent nearly 365 days actively seeking out what's hopeful in our society, I am emerging from my quest with a confident, revitalized soul. I wrote myself free form the burden of worry.

So often we think a lack of commitments frees us. We give up relationships, jobs, materials goods, and tasks in pursuit of greater flexibility and freedom. And sometimes that works. Though before I give up anything or anyone, I remind myself of Willa Cather's quote in O Pioneers! - "Freedom so often means that one isn't needed anywhere." I want my freedom to mean that I choose to do everything in my life, not that I am forced to do something which I don't want to do. My writing frees me because it lets me express what I'm feeling, and gives me the opportunity to connect with others. I've found that my connections to others frees my own heart rather than binding it up.

I found my writing voice not by closing down and shutting off, but by opening up to the experiences of the world and making the commitment to come here to this blog every day and share those experiences. I became a better writer by committing to the craft. I think life is shockingly similar to writing in this way - we live it better by practicing, by stepping out and stepping up, by committing our heart to others and to the world around us. And as we do this, I hope we'll all take some time and write it all down. Having the courage to tell others our own stories ironically frees them to do the same.

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

Thursday, December 10, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - More Than We Can Do

"I have always admired the ability to bite off more than one can chew and then chew it."
~ William C. deMille, American screenwriter and film director

Challenge is an important thing in our lives. Without it, we lose a certain zest. We become too complacent. By taking on more than we think we can handle, we rise to greater levels than we ever imaged possible. I highly recommend it.

It's with this thought in mind that today I submitted my application to Columbia's Teachers College. I have applied to their PhD program in Anthropology and Education. I've been thinking about a PhD since graduating from business school. I thought a PhD would be something I'd get to somewhere down the line. I have known for some time that I love teaching, and that a PhD was the best way for me to do that with a great amount of freedom. I just didn't think I had enough to offer students until now. And after my 2009, I realized that we don't always get to decide when "down the line" is. "Down the line" has to be now if we want to do something phenomenal with our lives.

After so many months of standing on the edge, I took the plunge today and threw my hat into the ring to the best darn education PhD program out there. As luck would have it, "out there" is 20 blocks up the street from my apartment (literally!) I went to the orientation and I felt right at home, a similar feeling to the one I had when I went to visit Darden. I knew I belonged there.

There are certain places on the Earth where we feel ourselves fall right into the flow of life. There are times when we know we are on the right track because it all seems to fall in line with an uncanny timing. All of a sudden what seemed to be disparate parts of lives fit together perfectly and a new dream for our life emerges. For me, now is one of those times. Perhaps it's biting off more than I can chew, but then again, I wouldn't want to live my life any other way.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Teaching butterflies to fall in line

"The best speakers know enough to be scared...the only difference between the pros and novices is that the pros have trained the butterflies to fly in formation." ~ Edward R. Murrow

I have a little secret - all my life I have had a terrible battle with stage fright. Job interviews, first dates, meeting new friends, first day of class. Any new experience with new people has me quaking in my boots for weeks beforehand. I combat this with a brave face and decent acting skills, but it's painful. In college, I lost 10 pounds in a week preparing for the play, Agnes of God. I kept getting sick right before every rehearsal and then right before every show. I have a hard time watching debates on TV because I get sympathy stage fright!

This weekend I read the book Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun. The book is riotously funny and Berkun is an endearingly honest writer. He makes no bones about the knocks he gets for his profession, and yet his humor brings about such a sense of respect and admiration for what he does day in and day out to earn a living.

The quote by Edward R. Murrow is one of my favorites that Berkun uses, and the chapter of the book that follows this quote is better yet. Berkun lists the top 14 fears people indicated in a recent survey. Speaking before a group was the greatest fear people had. Death was #7, loneliness was #9, and escalators was #14. Crazy when we consider that for the most part we can avoid speaking in public, and we can't avoid things like, oh, death. We're most afraid of something we can control. What does that say about us?

Recognizing the ludicrous ranking, Berkun goes on to talk about his own fear of public speaking, and the fear of speaking publicly that many of the world's notable speakers have (Bono, Elvis, JFK, and Barbara Walters to name just a few.) The trick isn't eradicating the fear; it's figuring out how to use it to our best advantage that counts. Get the butterflies to fall in line. For me, my fear is best used to teach and my defense is to prepare, prepare, prepare. And if you're thinking about that ol' "imagine everyone in their underwear" trick, Berkun will give you his perspective on why that is a very, very bad idea.

In Confessions of a Public Speaker, I realized that the fear of public speaking is really about being afraid we just aren't enough. Essentially, public speakers of every variety stand up there and put themselves in the perfect position to be knocked down and dragged by the hair to the back of the room. They tell themselves "what if I'm not good enough, smart enough, or entertaining enough?" The fear of public speaking is really the fear of not being accepted for who we are.

Later on in the book, Berkun discusses the reasons people go to hear public speakers, including the desire to learn something, be inspired, and have a positive experience they can share with others. Simple reasons really, and when looked at through the lens of "give the people what they want", the butterflies begin to work together to create one gorgeous pattern, each lending their own unique flair. For the many of us who suffer from stage fright, I'm convinced that Berkun is on to something here.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Sense of Wonder

This morning as I flipped through the latest copy of Fast Company on my way to work, I came across a short article featuring Nicole Lazzaro, a passionate game developer and the designer of Tilt, the first iPhone accelerometer game. She talked about the phenomenon of mobile gaming as having "a lot of curiosity, wonder, and surprise, which is very powerful because wonder is a hard emotion for adults to feel." That statement hit me like a ton of bricks. I then walked into a Starbucks and saw a sign by the cream and sugar area that read something akin to "I wish that adults could dream like children." Coincidence, or is the world giving me something to seriously think about?

Have we let the world make us so bitter that we lost our sense of wonder? If ever there was a time of year that we could, should, and must look around us in wonder, it's Christmas time, a season of dreams, a season that is grounded in faith and belief, even in things that seem impossible. It is a time of miracles. Christmas always arrives just in time to rekindle my spirits and give me fresh hopes and dreams for the new year. Christmas keeps me going.

There are a few traditions I have, things I do that restore my sense of wonder every Christmas. I wanted to share them with you in case you need a bit more dreaming in your life. I'd love to hear yours, too!

1.) I always take a trip down to Rockefeller Center to see the tree. I like to go very late at night or very early in the morning when it's dark out and there aren't many people around. I stare at those lights until they go a little fuzzy and there's a glow across the whole plaza. And then I soak up as much of that glow as possible and carry it with me wherever I go.

2.) When I first moved to New York 11 years ago, I wanted to figure out how to get a job dressing windows at Bergdorf Goodman. Maybe I've seen the movie Mannequin way too many times. There is something so magical about those windows. I'm always amazed that they can top themselves year over year. In 2010, I'm going to find a way to do something for one of those windows. I don't care if it just means tearing up tiny bits of paper that a collage artist uses to make something magnificent - I just want to see the process of how it all comes together!

3.) I walk up to St. John the Divine and light a Christmas candle. I spend some time in the Cathedral mulling over the year that's almost behind me and considering what I'd like to do in the year ahead. I ask God for some help and guidance, and I thank him for continuing to show up in my life in mysterious and surprising ways.

4.) A visit to Balducci's is one of the single greatest memories from my childhood. I would wonder around the store with my sister, Weez, and brother, Joey, and we would take in all of those delicious scents. At Christmas time, the store reminds me of the wonderful heritage I come from.

5.) I make my end-of-year charitable donations: money, clothing, and food items. This simple act reminds me how lucky I am, and how much I can help others.

6.) Prime time TV is bursting with Christmas specials in December. I try to catch The Grinch and Charlie Brown's Christmas at the very least while sipping hot cocoa and remembering how my family used to gather around the TV to watch those very same shows so many years ago. They hold special memories for me.

7.) Christmas concerts of all kinds are happening all over the city this month - I love to stop in to a few of them, especially if it's permissible to sing along! You can also find me spending some amount of time each day in December cranking up Christmas tunes in my apartment and having a little dance party as I rock around my very tiny Christmas tree - Brenda Lee would be proud.

8.) About this time, the weather starts to turn a bit colder. As I get out my winter coat and bundle up, I stop to consider the miracle that here we are on the same planet, with the same sun, moon, and stars, and depending on a slight axis tilt one way or the other, we get a heat wave or a blizzard. Amazing.

9.) The Christmas markets in Columbus Circle and Union Square are some of my favorite places at Christmas time. I get a donut, a cup of apple cider, and browse around for a few unique gifts, all while pretending that I've stepped back in time when markets like these were the primary shopping destinations for gifts.

10.) Marking time is an ancient, sacred act. Before we know it, December 25th will have come and gone from our lives for another year. As I try to rush to get everything done in time for the big day, I remind myself that in every countdown is the embedded message that time is precious. And is there anything more full of wonder than the passing of time itself and our own ability to survive, adapt, and thrive in this ever-changing, challenging world?

Wishing you a season full of wonder-renewing moments!

Monday, December 7, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Just Enough

"Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished." ~ Lao Tzu

We live in a deadline-conscious world. Every day there is another to-do list, another crisis to attend to, another stress we didn't count on. Sometimes I feel stressed by my to-do list. This weekend even though I had a lot to do, I focused on enjoying every task. Even studying for my GREs. My stress of to-do's comes from always thinking about the next item I need to accomplish on my list. By enjoying every moment, even the busiest ones, I felt a greater sense of satisfaction, and I got my list completed faster than I thought I could.

I wonder if nature takes this same approach with her own to-do list. Nature operates on the principle of "just enough". Just enough consumption and production. Natures conducts life in seasons, surging at certain times and resting at others. Renewing and replenishing when needed. Taking the opportunity to grow and flourish when the conditions are just right.

As I worked through my to-do list this weekend, I wondered if we could build lives that more closely resemble nature's way of working. Could we place just the right amount of effort into the different parts of our lives? Could we learn to eliminate waste in all its forms as much as possible, take advantage of positive circumstances, and learn to retreat and wait when the skies above us grow dark? Could we find a way for all the pieces of our lives to integrate into one beautiful landscape? Can we gracefully adapt to change?

With nature as such a healthy example, I'm hopeful that we can find greater harmony, within ourselves and with others if only we set our minds and hearts to it.

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

Sunday, December 6, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Treasure Hunting

Life is a treasure. The deeper you dig, the more you will find. You've got to get underneath, find out what brings about true joy, what opens our hearts, what inspires us to go further than we ever thought possible. In December I always feel compelled to keep on digging right through to the new year. The lights that fill New York's streets at this time of year match the light I always find in my own life during the holidays.

December always seem to fly right by me. I blink and it's New Years Eve. Maybe it's the jobs I've had. Maybe it's that I always seem to be in the middle of a personal project during this time. It could be the incessant countdown that seems to get faster with each passing day this month. Most likely, I think it's the fact that time flies when we're enjoying ourselves, and this is my very favorite time of year.

I always find that my sense of hope is renewed in December, too. My faith in the benefits of hard work, determination, and steadfast empathy is met with continual new opportunities for learning and personal growth this month. I often find myself skipping down the street, driven by an overwhelming sense of gratitude for my good fortune. In other words, it feels like Christmas.

This year, I'm making a pact with myself to seek out the treasures in my life, hold them up to the light, and give thanks for each of them in a way that I never have before. To spend as much time with friends and family as I possibly can. I'll forgo a little more sleep than usual. I'll take long walks, even though it's cold outside, so I can soak up every bit of cheer I can find. I'll sing and dance and groove to my favorite Christmas tunes. I'll watch the specials on TV, bake cookies, trim a tree or two, and donate time and money to causes I care about. That's my gift to myself this year: the treasure of joy, and as much of it as I can muster.

Book Buddy Letter 2

Dwight, the 3rd grader I write letters to as part of the Learning Leaders Book Buddy program, just sent me his first letter. We are reading Charlotte's Web together and we write letters back and forth at designated points in our reading. As promised, here is Dwight's letter to me, and my letter back to him.

"Dear Christa,
I like writing letters to you, too. This is one of my favorite books, too. I enjoy reading, too. I find inspiration in my reading, too. I grew up in Queens. My favorite part of Charlotte's Web is when Wilbur and Charlotte meet.

Your Book Buddy,

"Dear Dwight,

I enjoyed reading your letter. We have so much in common! We both like to write letters, we both find inspiration in our reading, and we both like meeting new friends.

Another activity I really enjoy is helping my friends and family members, just like Charlotte
helped Wilbur. It is a very special thing to know that we have skills and resources to help someone we care about when they have a problem that they need to solve. I am very close to my family and friends, and they are a very important part of my life.

We are at an interesting point in Charlotte’s Web. Her solution to use her webs to talk about Wilbur was really creative! I like that she chose interesting words and phrases that were very different from how people usually described Wilbur. What did you think of Charlotte’s plan?

Now that they are off to the fair, I wonder if Charlotte will continue putting words into her webs or if she will think of something different to do. Wilbur is really counting on her to help him win the competition at the fair. What do you think her plan for the fair will be?

I’m looking forward to getting your next letter!

Your Book Buddy,


These letters remind me of how important it is for children to have adult role models in their lives, people they can talk to about their thoughts and opinions. Articulating our own stories is an underrated skill, and one that I hope I can help Dwight with through these letters.