Let there be Light.
Eight of my last 18 professional years have been an adventure with children and adults from all over the world. They brought with them endless gifts of their cultures, and I gave them the English words to express their beliefs, hopes, and dreams. My students have come from Brazil, China, Colombia, Cuba, El Salvador, Finland, France, Germany, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Senegal, Spain, Thailand, Vietnam, among other countries. The secret is that we have taught one another more about Life than any English lesson could encompass. Mutual respect for ideas and differences, along with acceptance, has always been our agreed cornerstone of the classroom.
The challenge as a teacher at this time of year is trying to weave together every culture’s celebration, which all float around the Winter Solstice. How do we explain in simple words, beliefs, religion, and celebration from each corner of the globe? The answer: Seek the Light. I ask my students to share how Light factors into their celebrations at this sacred time of year. So with both excitement and reverence, my students teach each other and me about Diwali, and Hanukkah, which are both called Festivals of Light. They are happy to tell about the illuminating floating boats of Loy Krathong in Thailand, the Chinese New Year Fireworks, the Colored Lights of the Tet Holiday, the Little Day of Candles in Colombia, and varying Christmas Light traditions in Europe and South America.
The lesson then is that we all Seek the Light in the darkest point of the year, the Winter Solstice. But it has to be about more than just culture and religion, doesn’t it? It has to be more about our human spirit. One of my new heroes, Malala Yousafzai, taught us this year that, “We realize the importance of Light when we see darkness.” The Buddha taught that, “If you light a lamp for someone else, it will brighten your path.” We seek the Light of others often when our own lives are darkest, when we have no answers, and when we need warmth. We seek out their Light when we need inspiration.
Inspire means, “to breathe in.” Whose Light causes YOU to breathe in?? Whose Light fills your darkness? Most often the Light we need comes from those with whom we share our home. But who else floats into our lives and brings us warmth, new hope, and joy? Who else Lights our way? How can we thank them? How can we fan their flames so they continue to shine? Find a way to reflect their Light. Find a way to express gratitude for their illumination. You will see that the Light will get bigger. The flames will be grander. Find a way to celebrate those who bring the Light, for their flames ignite the Good.
Conventional wisdom tells you the Beach is a silly idea in winter. Conventional wisdom says you are setting yourself up for disappointment: cold, clouds, wind, more cold. Most people have lots of assumptions about what to expect. But I tend to stray from the conventional….
The truth is the Beach in winter is a different delight. It is sharper, crisper, and bolder. There is an intimacy that doesn’t exist when you share the Beach with the summer crowd. There is vulnerability in walking in the cold sand. The seashells are in tact. The sunset casts wonderful lavender over everything in sight. There is the shock of a few brave souls plunging into the frigid tide. And when we come without supposition, when we come with out prejudgment, we find that the Beach in winter is a marvel onto itself. And there is, in fact, unexpected warmth and sunshine.
Accepting ourselves, accepting our life situation, and most of all, accepting others is much like accepting the Beach in late December. We have to surrender our expectations. We must surrender to the changing current. We have to be willing to embrace that those we encounter may be in the midst of a season of sadness, or a season of loneliness, or uncertainty. We have to accept ourselves when we are weak, when we face the unknown. We must be ready for our own changing seasons when we shed old ideas and allow new green shoots to emerge. And when we do accept others as they are, in the moment, the same unexpected sunshine is allowed to emerge. Goodness can take hold. The intimacy of friendship can exist.
Something that has been on my Bucket List for as long as I can remember is to be at the Beach for New Year’s. There’s something cosmic about the ebb and flow of the waves—bringing in the new to the shore, and taking away the old. So I am overjoyed to be here. And yes, I will be one of the few brave, silly souls running into the chilly water at the stroke of midnight—because I embrace the thrill of what is ahead. I am happy to defy the conventional wisdom.
My mother’s challenge in the last few years has been for us all to come up with ONE word we wish to be the focus and definition of the year ahead. When she was writing her dissertation for her Ph.D., her word was FINISH. The next year, her word was READY. What is your word for 2014? Can you come up with just ONE word? I’m having trouble narrowing it down to one. My working answer in this moment is “Write a New Story.” But I’m not ready to say for sure. I have a little more than a day to decide. What will your word be for this New Year?
This week they returned! Out of nowhere, and much to my excitement they returned, hunting real estate. It’s the time of the year when I begin my courtship, assisted by freeze dried meal worms, enticing the bluebirds back for what I Hope will be a successful year of bluebird baby watching. Once they choose their favorite box, they will stay through the duration of summer. I Hope to make them believe my backyard box is the TajMahal of bluebird boxes. You see, the bluebirds are my first Hopeful sign of the spring to come.
I must admit winter is difficult for me. I do my best to find the Good in it. I struggle with being confined inside. The nights are so cold and dark and long. I’d much rather be on my deck enjoying the sunset, and listening to the birds.
Most of us have had times when Life seems like winter—cold and dark. We’ve encountered times when we feel so claustrophobic we can’t breathe. We get over-run by sadness or grief and we come to understand a new meaning of “alone.”
There are times when we get the feeling that we are living the “when it rains, it pours” adage, and no one can possibly understand how we feel. And that is true- no one really knows how we feel. Sometimes these feelings are consequences of our actions, and sometimes they are just circumstantial. Nevertheless, we feel that all of the evils and sadness of the world have come knocking at our door.
Do you recall the story of Pandora? You probably remember that her curiosity inevitably led her to open the box that she had been admonished not to open. In opening the box, Pandora found herself unleashing the horrors, evils, sadness, sickness, and pestilence on the world. We always remember this part of the story with clarity. But we forget the most important plot twist!! When Pandora went back to look, remorseful for her behavior, the last thing to emerge from the box was Hope. Hope fluttered in the form of a butterfly.
There’s a thin line between stepping out of your comfort zone and remaining within the borders of common sense. As we drove through the neighborhood, so many of the homes were boarded up, or crumbling. That didn’t threaten us. Men were gathered on the corner, deep in discussion. That didn’t threaten us, either. Knowing we were in the zip code identified as once having the 6th highest rate of crime in the nation, well, that gave me a bit of pause as we made our way to my little boy’s basketball game this week.
We were having trouble finding the gym. There was nowhere to stop to ask for directions—no gas stations, no grocery store. So we asked a kind man near a church, and he explained the facility was a block over and a block down, right across the street from one of the storied public housing sites in the poorest zip code in the city.
We followed the directions and soon found ourselves in a state of the art facility—two gyms, a computer room, indoor area for a variation of soccer and martial arts, classrooms for tutoring. But that wasn’t the best part—the best part was the laughter, the smiles, the kindness, and a myriad of ethnicities interacting. As we like to say—It was ALL GOOD.
The ministry was built with private funding, and is staffed with volunteers. It’s mission is to “engage, encourage, and empower” children in one of the toughest neighborhoods in the city. Instead of fearing poverty, they are facing it head on, and doing what they can, as they can. It is truly an oasis in a neighborhood where the average income is less than $10,000 and there is a 35% unemployment rate. Yet somehow, GOOD prevails, and for at least four hours after school each day and on weekends, the neighborhood children have a support network. They have caring adults to help them. They have the resources they need to succeed in school. They have an oasis. They have a wellspring of Good to soften the harshness of poverty. They have a safe place.
Not all of us are in a position to help on such a grand scale. But we all can choose to be an oasis of Good for people close to us. We can choose to love them in the way they need love the most, rather than in the way we think we need to love them. We can be a safe place of acceptance, of laughter, and of joy, despite the circumstances that surround us. Happiness is a choice we commit to each day. We can choose to be content in this moment. But more importantly, we can choose to be an oasis of Good.
January is a quiet month. The gathering, the giving, and the goodies are behind us. And we are left with the quietest month of the year. We hunker down on the cold nights, and we see the gray stillness. Does quiet bother you? Do you fill your quiet with noises: drama, contention, a constant need to be busy? Or can you be quiet? Can you be alone in the quiet? Or do you fear it? How long can you go without checking your Twitter, or Facebook, or Instagram? Can you put your phone in another room and walk away from it, and the “noise” it brings? I learned a new acronym lately: FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). Do you have that fear?
Quiet denotes respect. Hospitals, Holy Spaces, Libraries, and Museums are all quiet places. We respect that they are places of healing, reverence, thinking, and wonder. And we go out of our way to adhere to the agreed upon silence to respect these things.
Yet we are so quick to disrespect ourselves by filling our lives with unnecessary noise. Life comes with enough pain and noise, yet it is so easy to fill it with unnecessary clamor that detracts from our happiness. In little and big ways we find a means to add noise instead of taking it away. I am a big fan of music, but I worry when my kids constantly have to have iBuds in their ears and claim “its just white noise…”
Noise tends to make us believe we have a place, a purpose, and a mission. This time last year I interacted with 1500 people a day in a very busy, noisy environment of teaching young children how to speak English. Everything I did was about making noise and getting them to make noise. I loved it, and I thrived doing it. But I was very, very sick. And healing meant that I had to learn to control my autoimmune disease. Lupus is very loud, oppressive disease; I needed to tame it. My only choice was to discipline it. That entailed me having to leave my job, and the constant interaction. And things got quiet in a hurry.
It’s been almost a year since my firm diagnosis. And I’ve learned that the quiet forced me to focus on critical issues. As long as I was focused on the responsibility of working and productivity, I was avoiding the fact that my autoimmune disease was getting much, much worse. The combination of everything was a cacophony. And the Good I have found is that my Lupus has been silenced for now. I am better able to create Good for other people.
It seems we can’t go a day without seeing or hearing what surprising thing Pope Francis has done. We can’t get enough of his smile—he smiles with his eyes, doesn’t he? Maybe it’s because he pays his own way, and doesn’t wear fancy shoes that we find him so charming. Maybe it’s because he sneaks out in disguise in the middle of the night to feed the poor. Is it, instead, that in him we see an example of Humility missing in a culture that made “selfie” the word of the year?
No matter our political beliefs, religions, or lack thereof, we often hear about “VALUES.” Defending our values, standing up for our values, protecting our values are all phrases that get ramped up in election years. But who can really aptly define Values? They tend to be relative to our situation in life, much like the value of the stock market, different from one day to the next.
Perhaps what we see in people like Pope Francis are examples of Virtues— ideas of moral excellence put into practice. Honesty, Integrity, Tolerance, Justice, Peace, Courage, Humility, Compassion, Generosity, the list continues, are all fixed, apolitical, non-denominational principles that strengthen the Side of the Good.
Thinkers from Aristotle to Benjamin Franklin to Thoreau and beyond have recycled the importance of Virtue as a step in the direction of greatness. But to be on the side of the Good, we don’t have to achieve perfection, nor greatness. Instead, maybe we look within and find which of these Virtues is lacking in our own lives? Which are most important for our children to learn? Maybe we need a bit of Francis’ Humility? Perhaps we need Courage. I always need that. Maybe our children need to work on Integrity, Tolerance, or Grit?
It’s certainly not easy, and we won’t be perfect. But we can find a comfortable balance that strengthens the Good. And as we take these steps in growing the Good, in growing our hearts, maybe we, too, will find ourselves smiling with our eyes.
How much do you allow Fear to walk through your door? How often do you get overcome or overwhelmed by seemingly insurmountable obstacles, only to discover they were never really there at all? When we were young it was the monster in the closet. Does the tale really change as we grow older? So often our Fear is a narrative we have written—a self-made boogeyman with all the gory details. It is so easy to lose focus and breathe life into things that don’t exist rather than giving life to that which nourishes us.
We live in a culture of comparisons:The Facebook Age, where there is never a bad day, and everyone’s lives are “perfect.” Our children can’t just play recreational sports—it has to be competitive. High school students fill up their weekends with projects designed to pad a resume that will set them apart from comparable students in the eyes of prospective colleges.We watch reality TV and inevitably compare and contrast ourselves with what we see, both the ludicrous and the glamorous. And all of this is a fine, and well-intended part of our culture, until the point that the Fear of Inadequacy or the Fear of I’m-Not-Doing-Enough creeps in and casts us as our own worst critic.
Cultivating Goodness doesn’t always mean reaching out to others. Cultivating Goodness sometimes requires a focus on the self. No, I’m not advocating selfish behavior, or brooding on self-worth. Instead, we must make a point to offer ourselves the same Lovingkindness we would give to those we treasure.It helps to make a point of giving the World 10% less some days in order to invest that same amount of Kindness and Nourishment to our own peace of mind.We have to give ourselves a break and recognize the beauty of where we are on OUR OWN journey, and not look over our shoulders at someone else’s mile marker.
When we invest in our reliance, we find ourselves stronger than we could ever imagine. When we offer ourselves reassuring thoughts for what we have to offer the World, the same that we would give anyone else, we learn to cultivate Joy.That Joy is what will eventually spread to those around us.We are stronger than we know, and most of us need to give ourselves credit where credit is due. Be Kind to one another--- but don’t forget to be Kind to yourself.
Back in January I wrote about finding a Focus Word for the New Year. You can read that post here.Some of you responded in comments below the post, but MANY of you messaged me privately and shared some FANTASTIC ideas.Revisit that Focus Word this week. How’s it working for you?I’ve got mine written on my chalkboard in my kitchen. It’s serving me well.Does your life situation still support that word, nearly six months later?Would love your feedback, either below in the reply section, or if you are more inclined, you can hover over my picture and click on the “message” tab. Give yourself permission to give 10% less somehow this week. Cultivate more Joy within.
It’s often said that it is like no other place in the world. There’s so much truth to that. Imagine performers paying thousands of dollars so the audience can enjoy the show for free. Imagine a place where you can sip champagne in the street on Sunday morning while you people watch, make instant friends with strangers playing touch football, and spontaneously dance and sing with family at the top of your lungs—in front of God and everybody. This is what Mardi Gras is. The place of my birth, my New Orleans, for me is all about family, all about culture, all about GOOD.
New Orleanians have perfected the art of working hard so they can play harder. The core of their nature is to celebrate each and every moment to the fullest. I was reminded of that this week as I traveled home for our Mardi Gras Family Reunion. The perfect escape where laughter, joy, and a constant reminder to throw your cares away—quite literally during parades—is the essence of GOOD.
Maybe it is the sticky masque of blue cotton candy on the face of my little cousin that makes me laugh. Or perhaps it’s the enthusiasm of high school students marching night after night after night, so that you can feel the beat of their passion in your chest, in your heart, as they prove to themselves that they have talent and a place in the gumbo of New Orleans tradition. It’s the spur-of-the-moment- grabbing-of-an-umbrella to join in the Second Line Parade without a care in the world. Every bit of it is a reminder to seize the moment, to live more than to worry, to embrace more than to retreat.
And, no it’s not a perfect place. Far from it. Hurricane Katrina is a fixed marker of time, life before and life after. But it is the locals’ ability to rise above the water, to rise above challenge, to rise above the everyday problems of life, and know the importance of celebrating life that is worthy of our admiration. Hurricane Katrina did not have the power to wash away tradition. Instead New Orleanians clung harder to their culture, and it’s ingrained even more than before the Storm. I met a young man at a parade who recounted to me the story of rescuing his mother and his auntie, a double amputee, from the Superdome during the nightmare days of Katrina. He recalled how he had 20 people living in their portable trailer, because that was all they could do. But he said, “That’s history now. Now we play. Now we celebrate that we made it out. Now we live.”
Celebrating life, family, and playing hard isn’t available only in New Orleans or only at Mardi Gras. They’ve just opted to make a point of celebrating GOOD THROUGH BAD, GOOD DESPITE BAD. Celebrate for the sake of celebrating. You really only do live once. It really IS ok to go on and on about how good last night’s dinner was and how good tomorrow’s lunch will be. Sip champagne from a Solo cup in the middle of the street and people-watch. Dress up in a crazy outfit. Laugh, love, and remember with your family. Why not throw your cares away? Why not sing with strangers? It’s a choice to celebrate GOOD wherever you are. Despite what's going on in your life, despite pain you may feel you, too, can grab and umbrella and join the Second Line.
Our home has been turned upside down by the second leg break of the year. First my little boy, who was in a full leg cast/wheelchair for 13 weeks of the Spring, and most recently my 15 year old daughter, 5 weeks so far in the cast/wheelchair. The first was a roller skate mishap, the second a backyard oops.
Needless to say we collectively shook our heads saying, “You can’t make this up! Twice in one year?” We all have had our bouts of grouchiness and aggravation in having our ambiguity tolerance tested in such a way for the second time. We’ve laughed at both events happening on the 13th day of different months, in 2013. And yes, we’ve all reminded each other at different times—this isn’t cancer. It’s inconvenience, it’s annoying, it’s a pain in the – legs. But this, too, shall pass.
Right on key, the Universe, beautiful and bountiful as it is, always proves to be the Master Teacher, providing us with lessons we need when we need them. This time it was on an out-of-town conference trip. I sat in a Baltimore café, listening to my daughter tell me over the phone about the horrible day she had had, piloting her wheelchair through her overcrowded high school. She had had enough, I had had enough of her having enough…. And then I looked up and shut up.
There before me were two men in the middle of Baltimore’s busiest intersection. One, a man with crutches and legs that clearly were atrophied and dragging through the intersection, and another man with no legs and in a wheelchair, directing and stopping traffic so that the other could cross the rush of oncoming cars. The wheelchair gentleman maneuvered himself directly in front of an impatient driver so the other could feel safe.
The greater lesson is not about us getting over our broken legs setback—we did, in short order. The greater lesson was witnessing great and selfless kindness—that could not possibly be repaid. The next day I walked by the same café, and the gentleman in the wheel chair was doing the same thing for a woman with a walker, soothing her day with a stroke of compassion. I give thanks for many things I learned on this remarkable trip, but none more than the reminder that compassion is one of the greatest gifts on the Side of the Good.
“No they aren’t. They’re in intensive care,” I corrected my loving children. The Intensive Care Unit is a small corner of the dining room with more sunshine, than say five feet over, where the rest of the outside plants have taken residence through this bear of a winter. The three ivies are well on their way back to life. A greenhouse would be more efficient, but not nearly as eventful.
The collection of 15 different varieties of outside plants has become a great presence in our tiny house. Affectionately known as Jumanji, in reference to the Chris van Allsburg children’s story, the plants have been brought in and out and in and out more times than I can count. It’s not just an issue of lugging them in and out, you see. The pots are all made of terra cotta. We must take great care in the shuffling of Jumanji.
We go through long stretches of nice days, when the plants can be outside. Then we get slapped with cold again, or something we didn’t even have in our vocabulary word bank—a polar vortex. And, we are back to stepping over, and tripping over Jumanji. The cat doesn't mind, in fact, she is very happy coexisting with Jumanji, but getting to her dish means risking life and limb. I knew I was in trouble the day I heard a loud, unhappy yell of “JUMANJI. IS. IN. THE. SHOWER.” Sadly, no one appreciates my genius plan of keeping the plants watered.
It has been worth the effort. On one of the ugliest days, a pink geranium forced open as a direct result of the delicate care. It is worth investing the time and the intensive care, to recycle all of these lovely things so they see a new phase of life in Spring.