The happy side of shadows

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Shades of Shadows on BeachLike millions shoveling out again, I’m ranting that the rodent saw his shadow. It’s not just about the six extra weeks of winter. No, I’m disturbed that Punxsutawney Phil continues to give shadows a bad name.

You’d think if he didn’t see his shadow – if clouds and bluster stole it away, like Wendy’s dog with Peter Pan – then we’d be in for the whopping weather. But nope. Shadows are our metaphor for gloom.

Only, this is just plain wrong, and now science is finally able to prove it. For decades, psychologists studied our dysfunction – why we’re depressed, what causes divorce, what motivates misbehavior. Then a new crop of researchers infused a Positive Psychology movement, which exploded over the last decade into an exciting Science of Happiness field – sort of the “glass-half-full” of the research set.

They’re using high def scans and state-of-the-art tests that offer windows into the brain and body like we’ve never seen before. And you know what they’re finding? That happiness actually changes our neurons, strengthens our immune system, and helps us to live longer.

So what does this have to do with shadows? Everything. Because, according to dozens of studies, one of the keys to happiness is compassion.

We all have dark sides, those dreadful-selves that we hide, feed, anesthetize or ignore; the ugly parts that we condemn in others. But, like upright posture, opposable thumbs and blushing, these shadows help make us uniquely human. And when we embrace them, comfort them, show compassion to the ghosts in ourselves and those around us, we all are truly happier.

In fact, when we add that “e” to make us humane, we’re biologically igniting the feel-good shimmy that we can’t help whenever we hear Pharrell Williams’ Happy

The happiness research is fascinating. It has pinpointed practical techniques that bolster our own compassion and inner peace, and has tremendous implications for our communities and world as well.  (I’ll be sharing some in future blogs, but if you’re interested, I highly recommend University of California/Berkeley’s self-paced, online Science of Happiness course.)Shadows of hikers

In the meantime, when you encounter a shadow in yourself or others, try to be kind. It is the surest way to weather the winter still to come – which, by the way, isn’t really poor Punxy Phil’s fault:  when Pennsylvania’s earliest settlers wanted to celebrate their German holiday of Candlemas (“For as the sun shines on Candlemas day, so far will the snow swirl in May…”), they grabbed a hibernating groundhog. And that’s how a sunny Feb. 2 continues to give shadows a bum rap.

Let freedom ring?

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Tianaman Square PortraitI just returned from China when NJ Gov. Chris Christie shouted down a sign-yielding spectator while speaking in my small shore town of Belmar yesterday. He was here to mark the two-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, which devastated the area. 

But when he eyed the poster-sized plea to “Get Sandy families back in their homes —  Finish the job,” the potential presidential hopeful switched mid-thought to his trademark snark: “Hey buddy, I see you. But we’re the ones who have been actually doing the work.” He called the sign-holder a “guy who doesn’t know a damn thing about what he’s talking about except to show off for the cameras.” As soon as the man tried to respond, Christie out-yelled him. “Turn around, get your 15 minutes of fame, then maybe roll up your sleeves and do something for the people of this state.” With cops closing in on his prey, the gov put icing on his vitriol cake, practically spitting the words, “Until then, just sit down and shut up.”

Jet lag does funny things to a brain. Or maybe just my brain. And maybe just jet lag from a communist country. But when I heard whistles and applause for yet another horrific gubernatorial performance, I fell like I was back in Tiananmen Square.

Then I glimpsed the target of Christie’s tirade and I was even more dismayed. Jim Keady grew up in my town. For weeks after Sandy, he led teams of volunteers – including my teenage son, Seán – into knee-deep muck to drain basements, tear out sopping drywall and haul moldy carpeting. He joined my husband and I as we helped deploy manpower and supplies from our borough-hall-turned-relief-center. We all gave a lot in those cold, electricity-less weeks following the storm, but I can’t think of anyone who pitched in more than Jim, a former pro soccer player who used to back up Olympic goalie Tim Howard. Now he dedicates his life to a number of causes. One of them is the legions of families not able to get back into their homes after all this time — hence the sign that set the governor off.

I know if this happened in China, Jim would surely be dragged away to jail, or worse, rather than making the rounds of national media to tell his side of the story. So, I guess this is the place where I’m supposed to say that we’re lucky to live in America, that democracy trumps everything. And I’m sure I do believe this. But in my stupor of 3 a.m., lying awake with my body still 12 hours ahead on Beijing time, I am disgusted by trPanda Cub in Beijing Zooickle-down politics cum reality TV. I yearn for a democracy built on civility and respect, where mean is not a synonym for freedom, and where our leaders embody the dignity of their office.

Maybe I just need to think of panda cubs for a while. That will make anyone calm down, smile, and hopefully sleep…

 

Happy “Talk Like a Pirate Day!”

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Pirate IllustrationShiver me timbers, it’s International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Can’t tell the difference between a bilge rat and a bung hole, but I be certain that Walt Disney warn’t blowin’ no smoke when he said, “There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate’s loot on Treasure Island.” 

Arrgh! I’ll raise me grog to that! And be forever grateful for me bountiful booty of books. What might ye be readin’ in celebration, matey?

Bones and nests and webs, oh my

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Close up prayer flags in TibegBeen a while, and my mind is so stuffed that it’s bursting at the seams like my youngest son’s t-shirt drawer. I hadn’t looked in his dresser in years. You see, my husband insisted our kids do their own laundry in high school “so they would know how” (wink-wink.) I always figured Seán left his clean shirts piled in the basket because he was too lazy to put them away. Now I know.

I opened his drawer yesterday, a month after he left, and stumbled into a cram-packed memory lane. I found thread-bare soccer jerseys… a faded Bob Marley… a silly Spongebob… and a rainbow of festivals and fundraisers. Like scarves in a magician’s hat, they seemed endless. One at a time, I lifted, folded and smile-cried my way through his cotton-poly fingerprints.

Sigh…

I had wanted to weed out Seán’s room with him before he headed to Loyola. Yep. I also planned on college shopping, eating out too much and making him ride waves with me one more time before he ventured to his new life as a freshman in New Orleans.

The universe, though, had other plans.

I’ll skip the details (and some choice words), but let’s just say it involved a white van cutting a corner into my bicycle. In the blink of an eye, I traded my pep-rally role as chief transition orchestrator and dorm decorator for a totally unfamiliar one: spectator.

I watched from a living room recliner as my youngest prepared for his big change. I had to sit by while my daughter, Aislínn, got ready for a long-dreamed semester abroad in Beijing. And I remained propped up with pillows when my drumming firstborn, Ciarán, did a post-college backpack through Vietnam for six weeks then headed away to start his “real” life.

None of them could hug me goodbye; broken bones don’t do well under the pressure of love. Neither do empty nests.

Today is eight weeks since the accident. Patience has never been my strongpoint and inactivity is a foreign land. Yet maybe there’s a reason I needed to sit still. My helplessness helped my offspring fly the coop with stronger, more graceful wings

As my body parts continue to heal, I’m trying hard to adjust to my new life – where tWeb of Pray Flags on Tibet mountaintophe only one I pick up after is my old dog, Scout. And when I hear from my boys in NOLA or Skype with Aislínn in China, I know – like the beautiful webs of prayer flags in her photos from Tibet – that I am truly connected with my children, no matter where we all are.

.. now, to clean out some of those t-shirts!

It’s all legal now!

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MerryWith3KidsNo, I’m not talking about the recreational pot shops I saw in Colorado last week. Today, I’m celebrating something else: everyone in my family is an adult.

There’s nothing like having my youngest turn 18 to toss me down the rabbit hole in a swirl of melancholy and joy.

I almost got lost in a royal maze so strewn with neon reminders like “old,” “wrinkled,” and “empty nest this way,” that I wanted to beg the queen, “off with my head!” But I escaped and swigged a potion that swelled my brain with memories of everything from giving birth to going on college tours.

There was Ciarán’s extraordinary culinary experiments, Aislínn’s impressive leading roles, Séan’s elaborate Beanie Baby productions. And who could forget all things Star Wars?  For years, the boys wouldn’t get in their bunk beds without the Essential Guides” to droids, vessels, planets and intergalactic characters. Then came our trip to Maine, when I read the first Harry Potter out loud for most of the 10-hour drive – without a single fight in the back seat!

Like the Cheshire Cat, I could smile and disappear into this reverie forever:  the hikes, the first teeth, the traumas we’ve turned into jokes. Yet when I come up for air and look at my three adult children, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude and pride. They’ve introduced me to so much, from dinosaurs to Louis C.K. They’ve brought more curiosity, amazement and patience into my life. Plus, they’ve always made me laugh.

But more than anything, they’ve grown into people who I truly like and respect. And while I know I’ll always be their parent, I’m happy to be welcoming the phase where we also are friends.

The universe hears your heart

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Earthways Art Shadow KissWhen I backpacked in South America years ago with my friend Susan, I never worried. We got warnings from the US State Department about traveling in Peru, landed in Lima to a reception of armed soldiers, and were two gringas wandering alone in a country besieged by guerrilla warfare.

People thought I was nuts. But I wasn’t listening to them. Instead, I was guided by my heart.  I know It sounds like a corny New Age mantra. Yet it was one of the first times in my life that I walked the Earth in a way that I felt connected to something greater.

With no itinerary, we climbed into the clouds on the Andes, trekked the lush jungle, roamed tiny inland villages, then headed for the coast. When we happened upon a wild-animal rescue center and archeological dig, we spent days sifting for Incan pottery shards and feeding droppers of milk to an abandoned baby ocelot in return for a room, running water and meals. Oh sure, we had bug bites, stomach woes and our share of grumpiness. But not once in all those miles did we feel fear. Every stranger we met showered us with kindness – from the young man who shared his cuy so Susan could try this roasted delicacy [yes, it’s guinea pig], to the shaman who blessed my surprise pregnancy.

It was as if the universe laid lanterns for our safe passage.

I’d love to report that my “walking the Earth” connection stayed with me when I returned to my life in New Jersey. Truth is, I lost it quickly after I started changing diapers and swirling in the pressures of motherhood, money and moods. I tried to wish it back. I tried to meditate on it. I tried to forget about it.

Yet that taste, that touch of being in sync with my heart, would fill me like a burst of sunshine when I least expected:  while body surfing with my kids; while doing my digital art; while walking the beach with my old lab, Scout; while talking about Peace Pilgrim.

And it just happened again, on this full moon Valentine’s Day.

Normally when I run, I listen to the Red Hot Chili Peppers or an audio book. But today I was mulling, once again, over what I’m doing with my life, and for some reason I instead hit “shuffle.” Suddenly Loggins & Messina’s Peace of Mind burst through my earbuds. I smiled, thinking “this is cool,” and started to jog. No sooner had it ended when the notes began for the Eagle’s Peaceful Easy Feeling. Wow! Now I was paying attention. My music library has over 1,000 songs. Funny to get two in a row about my most passionate topic, peace, especially as I’m wondering whether my efforts on behalf of Peace Pilgrim are making any difference.

When the next song shuffled on, i could hardly contain my joy. I can’t remember the last time I heard Peace Train by Cat Stevens, who isn’t even Cat Stevens anymore. But I rode that train all the way back to the knowing I had in South America: that the universe hears our hearts. And even when we’re too busy, distracted or unsure, it paves the way with lanterns.

Happy Valentine’s day!

iPads over World Peace?

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Imagine Peace on Scallop ShellWhen 1,200 Brits were asked what they wanted most for Christmas, iPads trumped world peace almost 2-to-1.

Ok. It was right before the holidays. And the survey sponsor is the Consumers Electronics Association. But really?!?

Perhaps the delighted iPad owners never used their devices to read about another annual survey of 1,200 people –– this one by the Center for Preventive Action. Only instead of cool tablets or sports cars, this ranking includes Syrian unrest, China-India border clashes, Jordanian turmoil, and a deadly terrorist attack on the U.S.  As The Atlantic modestly observed, “the findings are alarming.”

Granted, the Preventive Priorities Survey asks experts to rank global conflicts that might pose the greatest threat to the U.S., so I shouldn’t dis the Brits for missing it. (Although I can’t imagine that our once-motherland is immune from these potential crises.)

Yet this isn’t about who chose an iPad over world peace. I have relatives who’d do the same thing. It is, however, a stunning reminder that coverage of Sudanese atrocities or videos of Ukrainian unrest register in our inundated brains sort of like a streamed episode of House of CardsWe bemoan the dark side of human nature. Then we move onto something else.

You know. Cancer. Floods. Job loss. Heck, even diaper dilemmas or doggie tales. The “story” doesn’t matter. Only when we are directly affected, only when it is our story, do we really care.

That’s why I love Peace Pilgrim. She knew this better than anyone –– that peace is an inside job. She spent 28 years walking across the U.S. with only the clothes on her back meeting people face-to-face, making peace personal. How? By talking about inner peace, by helping people let go of hate, anger and judgment in their own lives. Because, she knew, world peace will only happen when enough of us find inner peace.

So, maybe the CEA can learn from this when they plan their next survey. World peace is a tall order for someone simply jonesing for a little holiday happiness. But I bet if they pit iPads against inner peace, the outcome might be different. What do you think?

Tough Love on “Stuff” Love

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Palm Bark MaskWhen the plaster came crashing down from my ceiling a few weeks ago, I’m lucky I was putting on PJ’s instead of sleeping in my bed, where huge chunks landed in a loud mess.

But even more overwhelming than the explosive scare or the insurance adjustor’s “accidental-collapses-aren’t-covered-by-your-policy,” was having to clear everything out of the room before repairs. 

Funny how you can live in a space, see it every day, and not realize just how much stuff  you really have –– until you have to pack it all up. Anyone who’s ever moved or cleaned out a loved one’s home knows what I mean. But who would’ve thought I could cram so many things into a small Victorian-size bedroom with one tiny closet?

Even worse? It all piled up while I’ve been embracing “simplicity.”  No kidding.

Long before I saw the 1990’s documentary, AffluenzaI was anti-overconsumption. I told anyone who listened (or read my eco-column at the time) about the toll products, packaging and production were taking on our poor Earth. I championed experiences over expenses, and  I compiled lists of places for people to recycle things they didn’t need. For years, I wouldn’t even take my kids to the mall.

Yet I walked around my bedroom this weekend and saw collections of clutter everywhere.
I can’t remember the last time I looked at most of the old tapes, DVD’s, books, or half-finished projects on top of my radiator and floor. Maybe there weren’t a lot of new clothes in the closet, but it harbored crowds of sweaters, skirts, shoes, belts and pocketbooks that I’ll never wear again. I even unearthed a mix of mystery items squeezed into a corner between two dressers.

And as I schlepped it all out and found places for temporarily storage, I suddenly started to smile. Just the weekend before, I spoke to an audience of environmental educators about Peace Pilgrim’s life of simplicity. I could almost hear her words:

“Unnecessary possessions are unnecessary burdens. If you have them, you have to take care of them! There is great freedom in simplicity of living.”

What an aha moment! Like health gurus who are too busy to eat right so they run in for burgers and fries, I was happily still preaching simplicity while surrounding myself with dust-collectors.

It’s not that I don’t love some of my stuff. I have souvenirs that bring me back to South America, gifts that fill my heart, skirts that make me young and projects that I will complete. I doubt Peace Pilgrim expected others to live just with the clothes on their back, like she did. Instead, her real message is to make conscious choices.

I realize I’ve latched onto excuses that added to my ownership:
→ I hate contributing to the overburdened waste stream, but it takes time to recycle different goods the right way. (So, I’ll just hang onto it for now.)
→ I can’t throw anything out if there is a chance it can be used in the future. (You never know when you might need molded cardboard for an easel, or a ratty feather boa for a Halloween costume.)

But I’m onto my charade now. It’s the gift in my plaster disaster. And after the repairs are done, one thing I know for sure –– everything will have to pass the two-question test:

Plaster hole

1.  Do I still need or love this?

2.  Could someone else use it more than me?

This way, the only stuff coming back into my room are the things that add value to my life. And that will mend a lot more than the hole in my ceiling!

 

Whooooo’s talking about Peace Pilgrim now?

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Eastern Screech OwlFrom screech owls to extremophiles, the 29th annual Alliance for New Jersey Environmental Education (ANJEE) conference swirled with cool ideas for the hundreds of attendees to bring back to their worlds. I’m thrilled to have added Peace Pilgrim to the mix. Barely anyone in the amphitheater for my Saturday morning keynote heard of her before and were amazed that:

  • Peace Pilgrim was the first woman to complete the Appalachian Trail in a season.
  • she gave up everything, including her name, and walked across the country seven times with only the clothes on her back to spread her message of people.
  • her words live on in booklets and other materials sent free to millions of people around the world.
  • she’s honored with a statue at the U.N. Peace University in Costa Rica (along with Mahatma Gandhi and Eleanor Roosevelt.)
  • she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1981, but her untimely death that year prevented her consideration. (We’re trying to have Peace Pilgrim inducted into the 2014 NJ Hall of Fame, so stay tuned on voting for her in April.)

Her life story and her simple messages of love and peace seemed to have touched a chord in many. So I hope the pebble I threw into the pond at ANJEE has ripples that spread to classrooms and environmental centers around the state.

Wouldn’t it be great if a new generation of eco-citizens in her home state were inspired by Peace Pilgrim, along with Otis the wingless screech owl, the extremophiles and all the tremendous resources at ANJEE? [OK, there weren’t any real extreme life forms at the conference  – but there was great info about wetlands and their connection to NASA’s search for extraterrestrial life 😉 ]

Wood Walking

 

New moon magic

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moon sliverNew year, new moon, new beginnings! Whether you love left brain logic or right brain whimsy, it’s pretty cool to start 2014 with a new lunar phase!

Astronomically, this means the moon is closest to the sun; they share the same ecliptical longitude. I doubt if ancient Hebrews knew this geek speak when they began each month on the new moon, or if science was behind the purely lunar Islamic calendar. But the nearly invisible nighttime crescent continues to play a huge role in Hindu, Chinese and so many other cultures. People all over the world wait for the waning moon to disappear and re-emerge in its waxing cycle before launching projects, starting journeys, setting goals.

For astrologers – who see all things lunar as our subconscious, while solar reveals our ego – the new moon brings the two together. For one day a month, we can peek inside our inner dreams and pull them into being. Goethe must have been under the new moon influence when he wrote, “Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius and power and magic in it.”

That a new moon welcomes us into 2014 is certainly a sign of genius, power and magic. It urges us to think about what’s important, to bring it into action. Some people might be making resolutions. But me? I’m going to embrace tonight’s new moon and embark on a New Year filled with love, compassion, connection and peace.

What is your lunar intention?

Phases of the Moon