but first, coffee.

ImageSo often when we think about the phrase “if you can’t say anything nice don’t day anything at all” we apply it only to people.  But why leave out the sister nouns: places and things?  Sure, leaving them out leaves us more room to complain about lukewarm burgers and messy bathrooms and cloudy skies, but why waste time on those things?
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I volunteered at the American Girl Fashion show to help the Junior League raise funds for closing the achievement gap.  The cause is reason enough to help, but I was also excited to chat about the American Girl books while helping models (girls 4-8) pick out their favorite Felicity or Samantha dress for the runway.
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Instead, I was asked to volunteer at the concession stand, “Could you make the coffee and serve the hot dogs?” Ah!  Gotta help where needed, right?  I wouldn’t get to see the show or meet the girls or chat about the books, but so it goes.  I put on my apron and headed to the kitchen and told myself to be excited about it.
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Time whirled by as I learned how to make cappuccinos and lattes and mochas and cheese bourekas.  Gaining skills, right?  The best part, however, was that the other two girls in the kitchen were absolutely sweet and funny and intelligent – their company made the morning better than anything I could have planned.  We all three exchanged numbers before we left, and we have plans to hang out this weekend.ImageI went home grateful that I suppressed my urge to complain, and it got me thinking about how lodging complaints (to the people around, above, or beside us) never really does any good.  
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When we decide to accept our circumstances (whatever they may be), we open ourselves up to new experiences (cappuccinos and friends, in my case), lift others up (instead of chatting about missing the show, we joked about opening a food truck) and remember to be grateful for the good things all around (in the scheme of things, any complaint I make is going to be pretty petty, right?)

I will not complain this week.  Bring on icy-rain and long waits and traffic jams, and I’ll use that inconvenience to practice acceptance.

mind your mittens

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Too much of a good thing is… well… impossible.  Thing is, if you have lots and lots of something good, that means you have the opportunity to double-up and pass it around and do all sorts of sharing.
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 That’s exactly the position I found myself in after buying 3yards of this navy & tribal & gotta-have-every-bit-left-in-the-barrel fabric to make a scarf.  3yards to make a scarf? Like I said, it was lots & lots of a good thing. 
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So much goodness, in fact, that I was able to double up (make two) and try to share with someone that might need an extra bit of clothing to keep warm.  I’m volunteering as a home interviewer for Habitat for Humanity (assessing the needs of people who apply for housing), and so I brought the scarf along as a donation tonight.
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Except, and I guess I should have known this, Habitat doesn’t take clothing donations. Oops.  What to do with the second scarf? Any suggestions?

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 🙂

wishes grow on trees

My greatest argument in favor of the Christmas wish-list comes from my allegiance to Angel Trees.  Instead of ornaments, Angel Trees are usually decorated with little angels that contain a name of a community member in need, their age, and a short list of what they want for the holidays.  I’d bet $5 that you could find one of these trees at your local church, Salvation Army, or city hall.

I worked for a community action agency that used Angel Trees to collect gifts for families living in homeless shelters, and, let me tell you, the gifts collected from the simple holiday drive truly bring joy to the people who need it the most.

If you’ve never participated in an Angel drive, it can be a little daunting adding another Christmas Wish List to your already packed shopping trips.   The reality, however, is that you probably haven’t seen a holiday list so sweet and humbling in quite some time.

Last year, Jon and I shopped for a single mom with two children, and the mom requested bath products, the son requested socks and art supplies, and the daughter requested warm pajamas.  Simple, right?  We picked up all the items at Target, and felt warm fuzzies knowing that the family would have fun opening the gifts on Christmas morning.

Do you shop for families with Angel Trees? Or do you have a different tradition for giving back during the holidays?

happy contagion

The pursuit of happiness is a bit selfish, right? Well, no, not really.  Happy individuals are more likely to contribute to society, and their joy is capable of increasing the happiness of community members.  Does the logic sound sketchy?  Here are some facts:

  • Personal suffering takes up a lot of time and energy.  It’s difficult to think about the concerns of the community until you’re comfortable with your own situation.   Happy people, by contrast, are less concerned with their own well-being, and more likely to spend time solving social problems.  Scientists have confirmed a link between happiness and volunteerism.  It seems happy people are consistently looking to give back to the community that fulfills them.  You know the saying misery loves company? Well so does happiness. When you’re happy, you want to share your joy with the people around you.
  • Scientists have confirmed that the happiest people are social creatures that are actively involved in the lives of the people around them.  Surprised?  As a category, social people are more likely to be happy than individuals with hefty bank accounts, regular exercise regimens, or rewarding careers.  A strong social network ensures that we’re aware of the needs of the people around us.  Your sister is going to the airport?  Offer her a ride.  A friend is nervous about a doctor appointment?  Tag along for moral support.
  • Happiness is contagious (emotional contagion) and simply being happy increases the joy of the people around you.  You know about the yawn effect, right?  You yawn and then suddenly the people around you are yawning too?  Well emotions, including happiness, work in a similar way.   Notably, social scientists have confirmed that happiness extends to 3 degrees of separation – that means that your happiness is capable of increasing the happiness of your sister, your sister’s friend, and your sister’s friend’s mom.  Incredible, right?  What’s more, if you’re going through a slump, having a network of happy people increases your chances of becoming happy in the future.  Investing in happy friends almost seems like an insurance policy for a happy future, right?

If being happy is key to increasing the happiness of others, then it almost seems like a duty to make ourselves happy, right?  What little things do you do to increase your own happiness?

party in the streets for my favorite dead author

i spent six months teaching english at a school for impoverished children at the municipal dump in puerto vallarta, mexico.  you probably just read that sentence twice for all the abnormalities– as in, this girl taught english at a dump?  and the dump had a school?  the short answer is yes, yes i did.  i volunteered to teach english (as in zero pay) six hours a day to 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th grade students living off the waste found in the area.  many of the families living at the dump built homes on the side of the pit, and they sold recycled waste to tourists in trendy downtown puerto vallarta. a group of canadians opened a nonprofit english school near the dump so that the children would have a healthy breakfast and learn enough english to work in the tourist zone.

i made a game of finding english books by scouring hostels, coffee shops, and, when necessary, simply asking tourists if they had recently finished anything.  i got lucky when I found Walden Pond in a hostel while visiting the fishing/surfing village of sayulita. i knew a little about the author, Thoreau, from my philosophy minor, but i had never read about the transcendentalist’s solo sojourn into the woods. the first chapter convinced me that we were kindred spirits, and I finished the nearly 500 page novel by the end of the weekend (as in, no surfing or swimming for me – i never left the hammock).

three years have passed since I volunteered in mexico, but I still try to live by the simple wisdom imparted throughout Walden Pond.  this year, i decided to celebrate thoreau’s 197th birthday with the people of minneapolis.  now, you’re probably wondering who celebrates a dead author’s birthday? quite simply, i do.  i baked cookies to look like Walden Pond, and i made cards out of my favorite Thoreau quotes.  with treats in hand, i took to the streets to get the party started:ImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImage