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

 

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

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!

Lessons in letting go

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Pine cone peace sign at Peace Pilgrim's grave.You think I’d know by now – even when everything goes “wrong,” Peace Pilgrim still prevails!

It happened again last week with my Author Talk & Film at Wall Library. The original date got changed twice, their slide show hook-up didn’t work with my Mac, and the wrong documentary was played.

But you know what? The room was still packed, I winged my way through what would have been my Power Point, and even though the film didn’t feature The Dalai Lama and Maya Angelou as promised, everybody loved the original documentary from Friends of Peace Pilgrim.  One woman told me afterwards she was more inspired than she had ever been in her life. So, really, none of the “mistakes” mattered. (Although I still urge anyone with an hour to watch  the beautiful Peace Pilgrim: An American Sagereplete with His Holiness and others who love Peace.)

It goes to show, once again, that everything works out the way it is supposed to. Just ask my friend, Neil Scheck, a fellow author and long-time pacifist (although you’d never know it by the gruesome death in his hilarious upcoming book Blue Balls: The Adventure Begins – click here for a sneak preview.)

He was so inspired after reading Peace Pilgrim: walking her talk against hate that he decided to walk to my library presentation –  four miles away.

“It seemed like the thing to do,” he told me later.

Once he got there and learned the library postponed the talk because the room was needed for primary elections, he decided to take the long way home and enjoy a wooded bike trail part of the way.

“I kept thinking that I should have some peace-making adventure, break up a fight or talk about pacifism or something, but without the attention-catching ‘tunic’ I just said hi to the few people I passed and had a very peaceful contemplative walk,” he said.

“I did pick up a coffee cup and two beer cans and carried them for a couple miles before I reached a garbage can, so that was something anyway,” he recalled, adding, “The home stretch was a little tiring.  But I kept telling myself that Peace Pilgrim would cover this much ground before breakfast. It really was a great walk!”

See, you never know what wonderful things “mess-ups” will inspire!

Peace (Pilgrim) in the Heights

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Letter from Spring Lake Heights 6th Grader

The sneakers always get them!

Sure, the 28 years without money (or anything else) is amazing. And hearing about someone older than their parents walking alone across the country is pretty startling.

But, it’s the old blue tennis shoes that really bring Peace Pilgrim’s story home to kids. And when I pulled the sneaks out recently at Spring Lake Heights School, the students (and their teachers) quickly leaned in to hear more.  After all, it’s the details in writing – and life – that are important, and what says more than holes in the toes, rips near the heel and cracked rubber soles?

I’ll never forget the first time I saw the shoes, along with her navy blue PEACE PILGRIM tunic. I got chills. And I’m blessed that the Friends of Peace Pilgrim have entrusted me with these treasures to share in my talks. I still get goosebumps every time I show them. They open a door to how Peace was given everything she needed as she spread her message of peace one step at a time – in shoes that were purposely one size too big and that usually lasted for 1,500 miles!

So it’s little wonder that many of the fabulous thank you letters I got from Mrs. O’Leary’s sixth grade class mention the footwear (like the excerpt above). But they also sparkle with so many other gems, like these:

“You picked a truly great person to write about… I hope I grow up to have the same attitude as the Peace Pilgrim.”

“When we went into social studies, all of us were telling Mr. Preston about [Peace Pilgrim] as if we were one big voice.” 

“You have inspired me to follow my dreams, just like the Peace Pilgrim.”

“Peace is very hard to come by, as Peace Pilgrim tried to emphasize, we need more peace. War is just killing.”

Peace Pilgrim's Blue Canvas Sneakers

I know life is busy, even crazy sometimes. So of course students’ enthusiasm might turn to other things after I leave, and their motivation might get shelved along with their copy of Peace Pilgrim: walking her talk against hate

But I’m thrilled to plant the seeds wherever I can. Who knows what a peek at these old canvas sneakers might inspire!

(Click here for a flyer describing available Author Talks/Presentations.)

Peace now, you idiot

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Storm Cloud PhotoIt was the 1960’s and college students screamed “RIGHT ON” and “YEAH MAN” as silver-haired Peace Pilgrim stoked the anti-war energy at campuses across the country.

When she asked if they felt like shaking the congressmen who voted to send more soldiers to Vietnam, their cheers reached a deafening crescendo.

Peace let them shout for a while, then simply said, “Oh, you would act the same way as those who make you angry?”

Talk about a silencer!

It was then that she was able to bring home her message of inner peace; that when  enough of us truly feel peaceful within, the ripples will spread outward. Only then will our families, our communities and our countries naturally “operate on a philosophy of peace.” 

Whew. What a wake-up call – then and now. How many of us say we believe in peace, support peace efforts or even, like me, write a book in the hopes of promoting peace? Then, without thinking twice, we badmouth those we disagree with, mistrust those we don’t know, yell at our kids, curse out crazy drivers.

Human nature? Need for group allegiance? Maybe. But just look around: Congressional discord’s at fever pitch. FOX vs. MSNBC is a team sport. Taking sides is the new black.

So I think Peace Pilgrim’s words are more relevant than ever. Perhaps the only way to find a silver lining in these clouds of chronic conflict is to start within.

I’m trying to do that in my own life now. It isn’t always easy and it doesn’t always work. But I know that unless I attempt to walk my talk, I am a hypocrite with a capital “H!” So my new mantra reminder is, “Peace in = peace out.”

How about you? What can you do today to be kind to yourself and, in turn, share that kindness with others?

(For a free copy of Peace Pilgrim’s wonderful booklet, “Steps Toward Inner Peace,” available in 29 languages, visit PeacePilgrim.org)