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.

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.

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

Prison and Peace

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cell in Alcatraz prisonJohn Grisham might spin a legal thriller like no tomorrow, but his New York Times opinion piece, “After Guantánamo, Another Injustice,” gave me more chills than any of his best-selling fiction.

It’s about a young Algerian caught in the post-9/11 frenzy for justice, who has spent 11 years at Guantánamo Bay. (Some of Grisham’s books, it turns out, are banned at Gitmo; the author wanted to meet one of the detainees who enjoys his writing.) He learned horrifying details of the inmate’s confinement, more startling because of the man’s apparent innocence.

“Nabil has not been the only ‘mistake’ in our war on terror,” writes Grisham. “Hundreds of other Arabs have been sent to Gitmo, chewed up by the system there, never charged and eventually transferred back to their home countries.” It is this return home that spurs the “injustice” headline: once there, these men are often homeless, destitute and ostracized – in other words, their lives are needlessly shattered by imprisonment.

But it’s not only foreigners bearing the brunt of a justice system run amok. Take Edward Young, a Tennessee stay-at-home dad of four who’s serving 15 years without any chance of early release because of a mandatory sentence for possessing old shotgun shells. In another eye-opening essay, “Help They Neighbor and Go Straight to Prison,” columnist Nicholas D. Kristof says Young’s nightmare captures “all that is wrong with America’s criminal justice system.”

“We have invested in mass incarceration in ways that are crushingly expensive, break up families and are often simply cruel,” he continues. “With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States has almost one-quarter of the world’s prisoners.”

What’s even more insane? There’s growing evidence that prisons don’t really work. Yet Kristof says that doesn’t stop states like California from spending nearly $180,000 a year on each juvenile in detention, but less than $10,000 for each school student.

When I read these kinds of articles, two things happen. First, I’m awed by the power of writing to expose unfairness. Second, I think of Peace Pilgrim, who never stopped believing in the innate goodness of people. And instead of feeling paralyzed and hopeless, I am more determined to use my words to promote peace and justice, as well.

What re-ignites your flame of activism?

Very hungry caterpillars

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Monarch CaterpillarI’ve been raising monarchs for years. Or, rather, I’ve had the wondrous gift of watching a biological miracle.

All I do is look for teeny white eggs on the underside of my garden milkweed each summer, then put stems in a tank on my porch.

When they hatch, the caterpillars are scant threads, too small for me to see. I only know they’ve emerged by the pinprick holes in the milkweed, signs of their first meals.

But you know the rest of the story:  they eat and eat and eat, hundreds of times their weight each day, causing a swarth of destruction to their ecosystem, until they’re too bloated to continue – sort of like the restaurant patron in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life. Only, instead of taking one more bite and exploding, they hang themselves up, shed their skins and harden into a chrysalis.

But here’s the thing. Inside the green gem with its gold rim is an astounding action flick where enzymes digest the caterpillar’s tissue, leaving a rich formless goo. And little cells, called “imaginal disks,” start growing like crazy. Similar to embryonic cells, there are four imaginal disks that will become wings, others that will become legs, antennae, organs, everything a butterfly needs, all feeding on the nurturing soup around them. Then in less than two weeks, often as little as seven days, a beautiful monarch is ready to fly.

It’s a miracle of metamorphosis, and only happens in insects. You’ll never see anything like this in mammals, or any vertebrates for that matter.

Yet there’s something about the meaning of life and imaginal disks, maybe because of the name of the cells. But stay with me.

What if we’re truly like hungry caterpillars, eating, eating, eating, obliviously causing a swarth of weather extremes, terroristic conflicts, class disparities, species destruction or even just our own unhappiness?

For the first days inside the chrysalis, there’s a battle between the caterpillar’s immune system (fighting to save it) and the imaginal disks, which finally triumph. What if we have our own kind of imaginal disks trying to transform our world? (I know Peace Pilgrim was one of these magical morphers.) Maybe the frenzy in our world means we’re reaching the limits of our gorging and we’re poised for metamorphosis. Maybe it means that peace and beauty will prevail.

I didn’t make up this monarch metaphor but I certainly like it. As I watch my caterpillars get bigger every day, I can’t help but imagine. Or should I say imaginal…

Monarch Caterpillar Large

Hanging Caterpillar

Monarch Chrysalis

 

 

 

 

Caterpillar shedding skin

Monarch Chrysalis Clear

Butterfly Leaving Chrysalis

Freedom from our stories

Sean, 4, fishing on Rideau CanalSorry. It’s a trick headline. You might think I mean the power of tales to ignite independence, especially since we Americans are celebrating the Fourth.

But actually I’m obsessing a bit over the stories that keep us trapped.

It started with my youngest son Seán. For years, he was convinced that his big brother was a bully. He had elaborate recollections of how Ciarán – for no reason at all – tormented, wrestled, pinned and made him cry. The older he got, the more the memories magnified. Then this Mother’s Day, we watched some long-forgotten videos that their dad dug up and transferred onto DVDs.

In one hilarious segment, six-year-old Ciarán is playing with Seán, then three. Out of the blue, Seán sucker punches his brother, pulls him down onto the carpet and jumps on top of him. Ciarán is momentarily stunned, then giggles. He stands, helps his little brother up and leans in to hug him. Just as quickly, Seán barrels forward to head-butt his target again. And when Ciarán rises a second time and decides to run away, the ever-tactical Seán slides in front so his brother trips over him and crashes onto the floor once more.

I don’t know whether I got a bigger kick out of watching the footage, or watching Seán, who was so shocked he uttered, “Wow, I’ve had it wrong all this time.”

But it also got me thinking. Of course Ciarán snuck in his share of knocks over the years, but certainly not enough to do what it did to Seán’s psyche. Yet we all – as individuals, tribes, nations – have these ingrained narratives.

My sons Ciaran &  Sean

Some, indeed, can launch liberty, link generations and kindle love. But many fuel resentments and perpetuate conflict. And that’s why I think we need freedom from our stories.

So, here’s to sifting through our tales – personal and global – and releasing the ones that keep us locked in. That’s real independence, and peace.

Peace Village Nirvana

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Foot bridge at Peace VillageGetting lost on a muddy hike for hours… No cell phone service for days… Food so full of beans that it raised the sheets at night (if you get my drift.)

Hmmmm, not your idea of the perfect get-away?

Well I’m here to tell you: it was an amazing weekend and I hope everyone gets a chance to spend time at Peace Village.  (No kidding, there really is such a place.)

It’s a center in New York’s Catskill Mountains built on the conviction that world peace starts with inner peace. Of course it sounds familiar – it’s the same message Peace Pilgrim spread as she walked across the U.S. seven times.

I learned of Peace Village from my friend, Susan, who backpacked with me through South America decades ago. We lost touch until recently, but that’s a whole other story. When we met at the retreat a couple of weekends ago, we couldn’t wait to scamper past a labyrinth, around a pond and into the 300 acres of woods. Before we knew it, we were sloshing through trails flooded by days of torrential rain and climbing over downed trees, but, like old times, we didn’t care. We were determined to do a long loop that would take us back to the main building.

Thing is, after an hour or so of following what seemed to be the right, albeit soggy, trail markers, we realized we kept passing the same tree, like Winnie the Pooh and Eeyore in one of A. A. Milne’s tales. To make matters worse, Susan is recovering from a knee replacement and I’m not as balanced crossing rocky streams as I used to be.

But here’s where the magic of Peace Village came in, and it has to do with thoughts.

In sessions the night before and that morning, the teachers talked a lot about how our mind dictates who we are. It’s nothing new in the “thoughts ‘r us” camp (i.e., “Whether you believe you can or can’t, you’re always right.”) But the Peace Village twist is that when we give ourselves time, even 10 seconds, to withdraw like a turtle into a shell of quiet, we remember who we really are: beings of love. Then we can respond to situations in a centered, peaceful way rather than a reactive burst.

So, there we were, lost in the the woods, leaning towards buggy, cranky and tired, without any cell phone service to cheat and look on Google maps. But we turned toward each other, took a long breath, and laughed.

Obviously we made it out, although we never did finish the loop. We spent the rest of the weekend soaking in the spirit of the place. OK, we also cracked up at the abundance of flatulence caused by the delicious vegetarian fare. But the real movement was in our hearts.

It’s amazing what a few days of good food, electronic embargo and mindfulness can do. Here’s a toast – of silence – to Peace Village!

Top of the food chain

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Food Chain photoJackie races out of the woods, breathing hard, eyes darting left and right. The sound of snapping twigs sends the 12-year-old sprinting forward, determined to survive.

No, it’s not a video game or dystopian plot. Jackie is a real New Jersey sixth grader, and she’s one of busloads of school kids who come to Kateri Environmental Center to play Predator-Prey Simulation Tag. In acres of fields, forest and streams, they must find food, water and shelter to stay alive – as animals. That’s right, animals.

A few get to be coveted predators, the fierce foxes, awesome owls or those voracious killers, ladybugs. Most become skunks, rabbits, sparrows, swallowtails, frogs or a host of other prey who have to give up their lives (symbolized by small pieces of ribbons) when they’re tagged. Lucky for them, there’s a “reincarnation station” so they still get to play. But whether they last as a chipmunk or return as a milkweed beetle, the anxious fauna have two choices: RUN or HIDE!

It’s only when they take a “human” lunch break that their heart rates return to normal and they stop tensing like bunnies in heightened alert. Nervous energy morphs into giggles as we ask about their survival strategies.

  • Who roamed together in groups (like ants or deer)?
  • Did anyone pretend to be dead already (like possum, which even lower their respiration and emit a decaying odor)?
  • How many entered into predator-prey partnerships (like tiny remora fish that clean sharks’ teeth)?
  • Which prey posed as a predator (like the Blue Moon Butterfly with large threatening “eyes” on its wings)  and vice verse (like a snapping turtle with its tongue looking like an innocent worm)?
  • Was anyone a scavenger (like vultures)?
  • Did any predators fight to the death, or did they shrug and go their separate ways?

There’s always a few students who initially think classmates cheated. But with each question, the kids realize their tactics, the entire game in fact, pretty much reflects life in the wild. As they sit in a cool, comfortable carriage house munching on lunches packed from home, the youngsters really get what it means to be at the top of the food chain – and they leave with more respect for all living things, including each other.

I’ve helped lead Predator-Prey at Kateri for years and always love being part of the fun, the faux fear and the final aha! moments.

After a particularly great day last week with a super group of kids, I listened to the news on my drive home. And it suddenly hit me. I wish the game was a requirement for Congress, for factions fighting in Syria, for feuding foes anywhere around the globe who need a reminder that even the lowest ranks on the food chain don’t engage in pointless bickering, arbitrary warfare and senseless genocide.

Maybe a rousing game of Predator-Prey Simulation Tag would inspire them to act like the caring, thoughtful, ingenious and blessed human species we are meant to be. (And, no, you don’t get to make some of them slugs or cockroaches.)