mirror mirror

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I hear perfect and think fulfillment.  When everything is just right, nothing needs to be added or taken away, and you can delight in the goodness of the present moment.  Does that mean a perfect present would be the perfect present? Hehe:)
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But in all seriousness, I cover my ears and look at my toes whenever someone says that the best is yet to come.  It seems to me that we must learn to find joy in the ‘here and now’ if we expect to find it in the ‘there and later.’
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If you’re sick or worried or anxious or overtired then you might be squinting and doubting and eager to disagree.  But life isn’t meant for all things to come together perfectly at any one time in our lives – we will always be struggling with this, that, or the other.  We will feel pain in the midst of our joy and we will find hope in our deepest struggle.

A heavy reflection for a casual Thursday, perhaps, but I toured Give More Than You Take with Kaitlyn, and the show provided a reminder of just how much our thinking influences our reality.
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That mirror painting above?  The artist, Jim Hodges, explained the work, “There is a synchronicity: you start thinking about something and all of a sudden it’s everywhere.  It happened to me with the mirrors.”  In my experience, it’s true that our thoughts become our reality.
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Despite hardship, we need to look at our lives and try to find happiness in every moment.  Look for small joys, practice gratitude, spread love, and try to make today, with all its pain and sorrow, the best you can.
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itsy-bitsy-one-in-a-million

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Post-op conversations with the doctor sent my mind whirling like a mathematical maelstrom.  There was a 1 in 1,5000 (.07%) chance that I would have gotten sick (due to a precondition).   If I were a betting girl, I would pretty quickly jump on an opportunity to place $20 on the odds that I would be 1 of the 1,499 (99.93%) that remained healthy.  

So when the doctor warned me that there was a 1% chance that the surgery was unsuccessful, I started to shake.  I’m over-reacting, right?  I mean, there is a 99% chance that I’ll be absolutely okay.  Problem is, the last time I played the odds I ended up being part of the ‘less than 1%’ that gets sick. A big loss.

The odds don’t mean as much when you’re part of the itsy-bitsy-one-in-a-million bad luck club.  In different words, yesterday was the day that statistics lost their importance.  It doesn’t matter if the chances are 1 in 500,000,000 if you’re the unlucky one, right?

I returned home anxious about the 1% chance that I would need further treatment.  What I wanted, more than anything, was a healthy diagnosis.  I wanted the doctor to promise  that I would be okay.  Is that too much to ask?

Needless to say, the past couple days have been filled with trying moments that make staying positive more difficult than usual.   I started paying close attention to the little things that make me feel better, and when friends offered suggestions for cheering up, I wrote everything down.  Below, I’m sharing my thoughts on making a difficult day a little more cheerful.  My hope is that the list will find someone that could use a smile.

1.  Get social.  Fill your calendar with dates to see family and close friends.  Being around the people that care about you the most is crucial.  These are the people that know how to make you laugh but are just as comfortable sitting by your side in silence. Knowing that you have relationships strong enough to weather good times and bad is reason enough to feel just a bit better.

2.  Plan a night out.  This might seem like the last thing you need, but simply showing up and being open to a positive experience will brighten your mood.  Take a shower, wear your favorite outfit, and try to notice how the little things – your favorite dinner, a funny film, a great conversation – add up to a truly wonderful night.  

3.  Phone a friend.  Sounds a bit like Who Wants to be a Millionaire, right?  The logic of calling your nearest and dearest in times of uncertainty holds true in times of hardship.  Friends know your history and your current situation, and they’re able to quickly remind you of your blessings.  Close friends have seen you through the good times and they’re ready and waiting when you need a pep talk, someone to cry with, or a bit of advice.

4.  Indulge.  Go ahead and enjoy your favorite treat.  It’s a cliché that girls reach for a large pint of ice cream after a breakup, but sweet treats are a proven way to feel good fast.  Love chocolate chip cookies?  Great, have one, and think about how something as simple as chocolate can make you smile.  It’s all about recognizing the little things.

5.  Get active.  This step becomes particularly important if you’ve spent a lot of time on #4.  Personally, I find that a long run or a yoga session helps clear my head pretty quickly.  A bonus? The positive effects last much longer than the time spent on the treadmill or the yoga mat.

6.  Laughter is the best medicine.  We know this instinctively and the advice is as timeless as the old ‘apple a day keeps the doctor away.’  Sitcoms, Improv and sketch comedy are quick ways to get a fast laugh.  If you’re lucky, you can also just cozy up to the goofballs, class clowns and comedians that you call friends.  

7.  Sing in the shower.  Have you ever seen someone upset singing in the shower?  Is it even possible to be sad while singing in the shower?  I sort of doubt it.  I wonder if that is why people are told to sing in the rain?  When everything is falling down around you, blast some jams and sing it out.  If you’re me, this means listening to 90’s pop/rap and belting out the tunes of your childhood.  You, however, can interpret this any way you want.  The important thing is that you’re listening to tunes that elevate your mood.

8.  Play with your pet.  Don’t have one?  Borrow one.  A study in the American Journal of Cardiology found that spending time with animals is an effective way to lower stress levels.  Still skeptical? The University of Louisville brings therapy dogs to campus to help students remain calm during finals.

9.  Catch some zzzz’s.  Put on your pajamas, turn off the lights, and shut down your mind. Are you familiar with the saying that everything is better in the morning?  It’s the truth.  The thing is, sleep gives your mind time to process the things that are happening to you.  With any luck, a good rest will leave you feeling more in control of the events in your life.

10.  Take a walk.  Thoreau said that an early morning walk is like a prayer for the entire day.  I ‘Thoreauly’ agree, but I go a step further and say that walking has great value at all hours of the day.  A long walk might make your feet ache, but it’s likely to leave your mind feeling rejuvenated, refreshed, and reset.

11.  Clean.  I’ll do just about anything to avoid cleaning on a good day.  Who has time for chores when you’re visiting friends, baking cakes and celebrating birthdays?  No one.  When things around you begin to feel less than steady, however, I’m going to suggest you grab the broom, load the dishwasher, and dust the shelves.  Removing the clutter from your surroundings will allow you to focus your attention on internal issues.  

12.  Get au naturel.  Hehe. That was a little joke.  Get naked if you want, but what I’m trying to suggest is that you get outside and commune with nature.  Might sound hippy-ish for some, but contemplating the grandeur of nature will provide a reminder of our small place in the universe.  Swim the sea, hike the mountains and explore the woods.  It will feel good, I promise.

13.  Do something for someone else.  Investing your time and energy in another human being almost always provides a positive return.  Thinking about others allows us to turn our attention away from our own problems and focus on improving life for someone else.  Does a friend need a ride to the airport? Take them.  Know someone that could use help with a big move?  Bring over boxes.

14.  Plan for the future.  Studies show that the anticipation of an event can be just as enjoyable as the event itself — so why not start making some plans for the future?  Happy plans, that is.  Always wanted to take a trip?  Now is a great time to make it happen.  Give yourself a good long time to think about where to go, what to eat, and whom to have by your side.

15.  Remember a sad time.  This sounds illogical, right?  No matter, scientist Sonja Lubomirsky conducted an experiment that had students record past experiences into a tape recorder for 15 minutes each day for 3 weeks.  Group A spent 3 weeks reflecting on a positive experience while Group B spent the same time remembering a negative experience.  Lubomirsky’s research demonstrated that the students who spent time processing a negative event became happier over the 3 week study, and the students who reflected on a happy event ended up feeling less fulfilled by the end of the experiment. 

16.  Recall a happy memory.   Sappy, I know, but the same study as mentioned in #15 found that people can increase their happiness level by spending a few minutes contemplating a happy event in their lives.  Immediately after, they should think about how their lives would be different if the same event had never occurred.  An easy way to reflect on our most important blessings. 

17.  Cry it out.  There isn’t any scientific research to credit this recommendation, but it works for me.  Instead of bottling-up your emotions, allow yourself time to feel sad or anxious or confused. Then, just as patiently, notice how the sadness leaves and becomes something else entirely.  Each emotion has a lifespan.  The pain will eventually pass. 

18.  Practice gratitude.  Make a list of your blessings and hang it somewhere as a daily reminder of the things that make you feel grateful or happy.  If the list includes people, take a moment to let them know how much they mean to you.  If you need proof that this step works, watch this video.

19.  Be silly.  You’re probably wondering how something as important as silliness lands at #19.  It’s definitely a questionable numbering system given the importance of letting yourself be quirky and unique and weird and/or whatever it is that makes you perfectly you.  Need inspiration?  Check out Mrs. Natalie.

20.  Change the scene.  Just like a scene changes in a film, change the scene in your life to something more enjoyable.  Sound complicated? It’s not.  I’m not suggesting anything drastic, but it might help to try something new that changes your current mindset.  Visit a foreign place or start an interesting book or try a new hobby.  Whatever it is, the experience will inspire new thinking, and, hopefully, replace some of the negative thoughts in your head.

21.  Got game?  If only for a short while, make your worst problem going to jail without collecting $200.  An hour or two of hotel strategy will give you something new to think about, and since you can’t do this on your own, you’re also fulfilling step #1.  

22.  Make handmade.  Take your attention off your thoughts and focus on creating something new.  Bake a cake.  Build a bookshelf.  Paint a picture.  Whatever it is, allow yourself to focus on the act of creation.    

23.  Have hope.  I’m not suggesting that you start wishing upon stars and dandelions and eyelashes.  What I am suggesting, however, is that tomorrow is a new day with  new opportunities.  In my experience, it’s often surprising how quickly everything can change for the better. 

25.  Mantra.  Do you have a personal mantra that keeps you authentic?  Something that helps you navigate through difficult times and decisions?  Mine is a derivation of a Goethe quote: “Always be willing to sacrifice the things that matter least for the things that matter  most.”  The simple mantra reminds me to rank my affairs in order of importance.  When things get tough, I ask myself whether anything important is at stake, and, if not, I don’t waste energy on the issue.  If, on the other hand, something crucial is at risk, I devote my utmost attention to getting things back on track.  Priorities, priorities, priorities. 

27.  Fresh blooms.  Saturday mornings are best spent biking to the farmer’s market for flowers, bread, and cheese.  The new purchases get put in my wicker basket, and then I picnic at the lake with my husband.  The bread and cheese usually disappear at the picnic, but the flowers remain on my kitchen table for at least a week.  Without fail, I smile each time I pass the large and colorful bouquet.  The lesson?  Fresh blooms are a simple way to guarantee a smile. 

28.  Surprise!  Surprises are at the top of my list of things that make me happy.  Just knowing that someone conspired to make me smile provides instant happiness.  And the only thing better than being surprised? Planning a surprise for someone that I love. 

29.  Volunteer.  When we volunteer, we focus our attention on the well-being of others, and the activity helps us feel more connected to our community.  Jordan Grafman, neuroscientist at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, published a study suggesting that philanthropy provides the same high as eating chocolate cake or winning at the blackjack table.  Philanthropy just feels that good.  

30.  Be happy for a friend.  Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky researches the nature of human happiness, particularly why some people are happier than others, and how we can train ourselves to be more happy in general.  She identities an individual’s response to social comparison as a key factor for determining their personal happiness.  Her work suggests that someone who consistently compares themselves to others will be less happy than an individual who focuses their attention inward.  Furthermore, happy people are more likely to celebrate the success and good fortune of their friends, while unhappy people are more likely to feel jealous of their friends.

31. Think happy.  Ronald Dahl says that “if you think kind thoughts your face will light up and you will always look lovely.”  I tend to agree.  I take it a step further, however, and think that if you act according to those thoughts then you will actually be lovely.  Actions speak louder than words, right?  Focus your attention on making the world around you a better place, and, with any luck, it will slowly become that way.  Change your thoughts and change your life.

32. Appreciate small things.  Adaptation Theory suggests that seemingly negative and positive events don’t affect our happiness as much as we would expect.  Something absolutely wonderful, like winning the lottery or marrying your sweetheart, for example, will make all ordinary pleasures less exciting by comparison. Eventually, the theory maintains, you will return to your initial state of happiness.  The theory also works in reverse, where if something terrible happens, like a paralyzing accident, you will begin to be more grateful for small things, and, eventually, you will grow accustomed to the pain that once troubled you.  Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how good things are around us– what matters is our ability to appreciate them. 

33.  Build compassion.  My experience with suffering has taught me that supportive social networks can improve our lives and make us happier.  Sharing our stories of hardship and happiness allows us to connect with the people around us.  We’re not meant to go through this life alone, and each of our experiences connect us to people with similar backgrounds.  When you’re suffering, know that you’re not alone, and hope that your story will one day make someone else feel more connected.

endless hope

My favorite time of day is the first couple of hours before the sun comes up.  The quiet of morning makes me feel quite alone in the world, and I enjoy strolling the vacant streets with a cup of coffee.  The walk wakes my body, the coffee jolts my mind, and, ever so slowly, people begin to trickle out of their homes and into the streets.

If you look closely, everyone seems to understand their place in the world around 8am – business associates hop determinedly onto buses, students crack open their books, and shopkeepers swiftly sweep the floors.  As the day progresses, people inevitably feel tired or angry or sad, but in the morning, it just seems like endless hope.

That’s all for now, but tell me – what’s your favorite time of day?

survive on sunlight

ImageI had received my acceptance letter to the University of Illinois at Chicago, and I was grateful to have a clearly identified purpose in life: I was no longer a struggling cocktail waitress, but a graduate student en-route to becoming an art history professor.

Or so I had imagined when I filled out the graduate school application.  Problem is, acting in the best interest of others is so.gosh.darn.addicting.

I went home from the orphanage feeling fulfilled after every.single.day of work.  How many business professionals can say that?  How many art historians can claim the same thing?  Would I find the same satisfaction writing persuasive arguments about art?  Could the hours upon days upon weeks upon years spent researching in a library compare to volunteering at the dump?

I took a walk along the Puerto Vallarta beach to consider my options and clear my head.  On the one hand, I was grateful to be admitted to the program and happy to be working toward a personal goal of mine.  On the other hand, I wasn’t so sure that the life I wanted would make me happy.  Get what you want only to learn it’s not what you need, right?
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And then I crossed the bridge.

Literally and metaphorically, I walked over a wooden bridge in downtown Puerto Vallarta and my perspective was irrevocably altered.

The small footbridge ran over a stream that led into the ocean, and I paused midway to look at the sea.  I’m not trying to recreate a Virginia Wolfe novel, just paint a picture of me looking out at the beach and noticing all the happy tourists sunbathing and wave-jumping.

I smiled at the happy families and celebratory college students, thought about how their decisions might be conflicting like mine.  I wondered if their life goals would make them happy or not.

Feeling too morose for my own good, I decided to head home and hang out with my roommates.  Make margaritas and blast Spanish radio.  Maybe even call the boys volunteering at the orphange from Australia.  Learn a thing or two about their Aussy accent.

I turned around, now facing the stream that flows into the ocean, and my heart nearly melted away with the current.  It’s hard to describe the beauty that overcame me, but let me try.
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A young woman walked into the stream wearing only a silk Flamenco skirt spun from gold, maroon and navy threads.  Droplets of water glistened off the top of her brown chest, and her long skirt billowed in the water around her waist.

She signaled toward the shore, and two skinny naked kids splashed through the water to join her.  The boy, approximately ten, held a bottle of shampoo, and the girl, only a year or so younger, held a bar of soap.

Yes, I realize how creepy it might seem to watch this family bathe in the stream, but I couldn’t take my eyes away.  The young mother washed their hair with shampoo, covered their bodies in soap, and then encouraged them to rinse off by playing together.  As they splashed in the water, the soap from their young bodies filled the stream with suds.  The sun shone down on the soap bubbles and made the entire scene sparkle like a painting.  It was beautiful. They were beautiful.

And it hurt my heart to watch them.  I ached, intensely, when I turned around and saw the tourists baking like Lobsters and sipping Sex-on-the-Beach not 20 feet away.  How could these two events be spontaneously occurring in the same place?
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The unadulterated beauty of the natives seemed lost on the sunbathers.  This family was, without a doubt, unable to afford running water, and yet tourists were happily sipping $20 cocktails just a stone’s throw away.  Did the tourists see them?  If so, did they care?

Why was the distance between these two groups of people so much greater than the small bridge that separated them?  Was it possible to bring them closer together?  To help people learn to see one another with clear eyes?

I felt, deep down, that it was possible to act as a bridge between two worlds.  It suddenly became important to show the affluent how to live on sunlight alone, and to provide the impoverished with the opportunities of the wealthy (health, education, shelter, etc).  More than anything, I wanted to illuminate the similarities between people and demonstrate the power in unity.

I forgot about the margaritas and the Aussies, and I walked home with my head whirling like a monsoon.  As I walked, I determined that I would complete my masters in art history, but I would use the graduate program to study different means of overcoming social differences with art.

*I was sorting through holiday boxes when I found a journal I kept while in Mexico. I hope you don’t mind that I shared an old entry — the post still resonates with me, and I thought you might enjoy the read 🙂

the smallest detail

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My favorite time of day is the first couple of hours before the sun comes up.  The quiet of morning makes me feel quite alone in the world, and I enjoy strolling the vacant streets with a cup of coffee.  The walk wakes up my legs and the coffee jolts my mind, and, ever so slowly, people trickle out of their homes and into the streets.  The poetic and incredibly beautiful thing about people in the morning is how determined they seem to begin the day just right.   

If you watch closely, everyone seems to understand their place in the world around 8am – business associates hop determinedly onto bosses, students crack open their books, and shopkeepers swiftly sweep the floors.  As the day progresses, people inevitably feel tired or angry or sad, but in the morning, it just seems like endless hope.

I woke at 7am the first time I slept at Jon’s apartment.  It was a Saturday morning, and I figured he wouldn’t stir for at least another 3 hours.  When I  rolled over, however, I found him watching CNN and sending emails on his laptop.   He kissed my forehead and hopped out of bed:  “You’re up — Let’s get coffee.”  I wiped the sleep from my eyes and thanked my lucky stars for finding me an early riser.  Two mugs today, please.

We crossed the street from our downtown apartment and entered the coffee house on the corner.  I just about keeled over when he grabbed The WSJ like a reflex.  The WSJ is my favorite paper.  

We ordered two black coffees, snuggled into a booth, and divided the paper.  We spent the next few hours reading out loud, swapping stories, asking for opinions, and laughing over the same events.  We occasionally turned away from the paper to indulge in some quality people watching.  
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This is a long story, Reader, but I’m trying to convey the magnitude of our first, seemingly ordinary, Saturday morning together.  Three years later, the Saturday morning routine has become a relationship habit — we wake, brush our teeth, and then we go searching for caffeine and news.  

We were in Chicago this past weekend, and even though we were on vacation, we woke Saturday morning and went searching for the local coffee shop, hand-in-hand.  The power of our relationship ritual was too great to be broken by something as simple as a vacation.  The consistency of our ritual, of the shared morning, coffee, and paper, is something that we look forward to and depend on.  We repeat this Saturday morning tradition, time and time again, because we both find it so fulfilling and happy — down to the smallest detail.   All of our Saturday mornings play out exactly the same way, in a sort of domestic haze, simply because we wouldn’t want them any other way.  We found a moment that we choose, time and time again, to recreate exactly.
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Do you have any relationship rituals?  Families, couples or friends?  Is there something that you look forward to doing, time and time again, with the people dear to you?

Here are some pictures from the weekend Chicago trip:
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