If you like Eckhart Tolle…, Part II: More about The Happy Wanderer, Anthony deMello

I have taken a good long break from writing, and not sure exactly why.   Shoot, my last post was about the election of Pope Francis, and look at all he’s done since then!  That tells you how long of a writer’s break I’ve taken.

But from time to time I’ll check stats here and I’ve noticed that the most popular, most viewed post by far is this one:  “If you like Eckhart Tolle, Byron Katie, With a Touch of Bill Hicks… You’ll love Anthony deMello.”   It makes me think that people get to the end of books like The Power of Now and realize there’s a whole other world out there where it may be possible to let go of attachments, be one with the present moment, and accept what is.

I hope that some people have been drawn to Anthony deMello as a result of reading that post.    He is so accessible, so light and yet so deep.   Since my last post, I learned that his brother, Bill deMello, wrote a biography about him.  It is called The Happy Wanderer, and it is a great, loving account of the road that “Tony” deMello took in his journey to mystic awareness.   But I will talk more about that later.

I’ve explored other deMello books in the meantime as well:  The Way to Love:  The Last Meditations of Anthony deMello and Sadhana:  A Way to God.  

  • The Way to Love is a series of short chapters, or meditations on topics such as how to unloose the false beliefs that keep us from happiness; dealing with feelings of insecurity, how essential it is to cleave ourselves from our attachments before we can love.
  • Sadhana:  A Way to God is a more structured series of spiritual exercises, described by Amazon as “Truly a one-of-a-kind, how-to-do-it book, this small volume responds to a very real hunger for self-awareness and holistic living. It consists of a series of spiritual exercises for entering the contemplative state — blending psychology, spiritual therapy, and practices from both Eastern and Western traditions.”  Apparently the word Sadhana means “A means of accomplishing something.”    Very useful tool.

Once you’ve read a couple of these books, you may be inspired to check out the credentials of the author.  After all, f you want to learn to paint, you look to Picasso.  If you want to learn to build a building, you look to Frank Lloyd Wright.  If you want want spiritual awareness and enlightenment, you look to one who has walked the walk.

And that’s where Bill deMello’s The Happy Wanderer comes in.  Bill gives us a window into the life of his extraordinary brother, but he does not rely on just his memory or experience with him.  He was just a young boy when his brother left home, so Bill has done extensive research and conducted interviews with friends and colleagues in the Jesuit community who knew his brother in order to give us an accurate and multi-dimensional picture of who he was. At the same time, Bill’s love and appreciation for his brother shines through the book, which becomes both tribute to Tony and spiritual inspiration for the reader.

“The Happy Wanderer” title comes from a song deMello loved.  And it is an apt title for how he lived his life, as a person with no attachments, a wanderer in God’s world;  joyfully inspiring us to pick up our knapsacks and bask in the beauty of every moment.  His books take us with him on that journey.

And by the way, click this link to go to Bill’s Facebook tribute to his brother’s writings–and “like” it while you’re there!

Why aren’t there more footprints in the snow?

footprintIt snowed in the Northeast last weekend, as everyone knows.   We got a decent amount of snow, but not too much to handle.

I took Nessie out this evening for her walk, and I happened to notice that there was only one other set of footprints in the snow out in the park, back by the creek where we routinely take her.  Maybe they were a neighbor’s–more likely they were my husband’s from when he took Nessie out yesterday.

I live in a suburb with hundreds of homes surrounding this little suburban oasis of a park.  But, with all those homes, there were no other footprints in the snow.   I don’t get it.

The woods were beautiful this evening–smokey grey and looking not unlike a Japanese pen-and-ink drawing.  The snow-protected creek bubbled with clean, clear, cold water.   The duck entourage quacked while navigating their way down the waterway.  And I couldn’t believe that perhaps I was the only witness.

The walkway into the park had been cleared by the township.  Perhaps the other dog walkers took that less-soggy route.  What a shame that we’ve moved so far from natural life that we think we should only walk on the cleared tarmac, and that we must avoid wet crunch of the snow and the icy, crackling, canopy of the woods.

The Road Trip

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”–Mark Twain

Late afternoon somewhere between Arkansas and Tennessee

Summer vacation time is almost upon us.   A lot of people have made plans by now.  Some haven’t.  So, here’s a suggestion for those who haven’t:  Plan a road trip.

Road trips are not universally appreciated.  These days people consider the journey the odious part of the trip.  They just want to get through TSA at the airport, suffer the waits, delays, and discomfort of travel and just get to where they’re going.

Not me.  I love the journey, whether it be by plane, train or automobile.  The destination is just a necessary ingredient:  kind of like the stake that holds the tent up.

So, road trips are great for me.  Just give me the destination to aim at and I’ll be sure to get there–eventually–after I’ve hit up a few diners; meditated on a few vistas; let some loud sing-songs waft out the car windows and chanced upon a few happily unexpected meetings.

Here are a few rules for enjoying road trips

  1. Accept that the journey IS the trip, not the destination.  Slow down.  Look around.
  2. In order to appreciate the time (notice I didn’t say “kill” time, or even “pass” time), listen to your favorite songs and sing along.   Listen to some great podcasts.  Listen to great audiobooks–a good suggestion is any of Bill Bryson’s books, but particularly his travel books, like the hilarious A Walk in the Woods.   Chat.  Be silent.  Look around.
  3. Get out of the car frequently.  When I went on a road trip with my Uncle Bill along the Mississipi in Minnesota/Wisconsin, he would pull over periodically and announce, “THERE’s a nice vista!”  And we would just stand there and soak it in–the sight of a  farmhouse nestled in a valley, cradled by the green hills around it.
  4. Snap photos on the way with an app like Momento and keep them private or share them.
  5. Go with like-minded travellers–nothing is worse than to be trapped in a car for hours with someone who is bored and/or impatient.
  6. Plan to drive only 5-6 hours a day, so you have time to relax and sightsee.
  7. Have a flexible itinerary:  half the fun of a road trip is the unexpected.   Map out things you’d like to see between Point A and Point B, but don’t be too rigid.  Go with the flow.
  8. If you can, work in visits with relatives on the way that you don’t get a chance to see much
  9. Be adventurous. It’s nice to see the standard tourist stuff, but it’s even better to be surprised by an experience you didn’t expect.  When I was in London one year, we missed the bus to Haworth, site of Wuthering Heights, and so we didn’t get there until after dark.  Rather than succumbing to the disappointment of not being able to see the heather on the hills in the pitch dark, we trudged up those hills anyway, until the lights of the village was below, the purple sky was above, and we were knee deep in heather that we picked, but didn’t see, until we got back to town.  It was an awesome experience.

One of My Favorite Road Trips

One time my daughter offered to drop off a friend at his home.  She lived in Washington DC at the time.  He lived in Texas.  I thought that was pretty considerate of her, going a mere 1500 miles out of her way to bring him home.

I heard about this when I was on the road, and when I asked how she was getting back to the East after dropping him off, she said, “I’m driving home myself.”  “Oh, no you’re not” I told her.  In a stroke of providential serendipity, I just happened to be flying on business for two days to the friend’s home town.  So I cancelled the last leg of my plane itinerary and told her I’d meet her and we’d drive home together.

This was such a last-minute decision there were no big plans, no building up a lot of excitement and anticipation.  It was what it was–and it was wonderful.  I have such great memories of my daughter and I bombing across Arkansas, Tennessee, West Virginia and up the East Coast in the little VW Beetle.  We had a loose itinerary; we decided we were going to enjoy the trip and not just try to fly home quickly.  We didn’t book hotels until we got to where we were going, and we just had fun.  Take a look at the pictures.

Moorjani: You Are Love: So Allow Life, Live Fearlessly, Have Fun!

The title of this post is my attempt to cram in the message of a book I read this weekend called Dying to Be Me by Anita Moorjani, which I felt compelled to find and download while watching Wayne Dyer on PBS.

By all accounts, Moorjani had a miraculous life event.  She was rushed to the hospital one night in 2006, reaching the end of her two-year battle with cancer.  Doctors told her family there was nothing else they could do–that her death was imminent.

There, she had a near-death experience, about which she writes in detail in her book.  Many elements of her experience match that of others who have reported NDEs:  the amazing feeling of peace, connection with loved ones previously dead, an inexpressible sense of Oneness and a place where linear time is simply irrelevant.

She was told by her father (who had died previously) that she could go back if she wanted.   She chose to do that, while she witnessed the events in her earthly life unfolding:  her husband grieving, her mother crying, her brother who, having had a strange foreboding, had jumped on a plane to go see her before it was too late.

She knew if she returned, the cancer would be resolved.

So, she returned–30 hours after having lapsed into a coma, and over the next few weeks, her cancer shrunk and then completely disappeared.

That’s the background–which is interesting in itself.  But the main idea:  the main message is in the rest of this coherent book.  a message shared by a lot of saints, mystics and gurus throughout the ages.

If I could shamefully present her message in a four-bullet powerpoint presentation, these would be my key takeaways:

  • You Are Love:  We are all part of this Great Whole.  We draw from it, we give through it, we are it.  There is no separation between us and other life forms.  As a result, all fears driven by separation and all judgement is suspended.  We’re like a big reflecting pool:  We see ourselves in the sparkles of the light reflections on the water, but we can’t separate the drops one from the other.  This Big Pool is unconditional love.
    • She feels that her cancer (while being careful not to blame others for their sicknesses) was due to her repression of her self, and lack of acceptance of herself in an effort to please everyone.  She entreats everyone to realize their own magnificence.
  • Allow Life: Because we are Love and part of this Oneness, anything we do to force what we think should happen (as the result of judgments, perceptions and beliefs) is going to impede the life flow from going through us–it’s going to dam up that Love and render it ineffective.
    • So we need to find our center, we need to get to that Source within us and stay true to it.  We must not betray our own essence.  If we let life flow through us, the Love will emanate, and we have no need to fear.  Life will unfold as it’s meant to.
  • If we allow, and if we trust, we can then live fearlessly.   We can stop worrying; we can stop controlling ourselves and others.  We can just be.  That doesn’t mean we just sit around navel-gazing (although there’s a place for that).  But we accept the purpose of our lives as it unfolds.  If we listen to our inner selves, we will be drawn–we will know–what the next steps are, and we can follow them without anxiety.  It will all feel Right–we can stop trying to make the Universe a creation of our own limited projections.
  • Finally, don’t take life so seriously!  It’s a Garden of Eden still, in many ways.  If you draw away from Love by attempting to do the “right” things, you might feel like you are in a constant state of self-denial.  But following rules to “be good” for the desired effect, says Moorjani, is a backwards way of looking at things.  There is no punishment for the “wrong” way:  there are only misguided ways in which we fall away from the Source.   Instead of saying “If I do this, I will lose weight” or “if I do that, I will make my spouse sorry he hurt me,” simply fall back into line with the Source, and your actions will follow in tune.  For instance, instead of dieting, you may feel like you want to eat better because you honor your Self, and instead of controlling your spouse, you may stop wanting him/her to fulfill all your emotional needs–you have all the Love you need already and you’re ready to share that no matter what he/she does to you.
  • Bottom line:  “Your life is your prayer,” is what Moorjani says.  And prayer shouldn’t be a chore.  Your prayer should be your life  blurting out gratitude.
So, with my deep apologies to Anita Moorjani for paraphrasing her wonderful message so crudely, here is the main truth (You Are Love) and four implications it:  Feeling love and honoring your divine self, you are free–to allow Life to flow through you; to abandon your fears,  to act on the direction of the Voice within you, and to enjoy every moment!  Life is a ball!  Realize your magnificence!

Pay Attention. Be Astonished. Tell About It.

New Jersey back yard, May 2011.

I just changed the subhead of my blog to the above–“Pay Attention.  Be Astonished.  Tell About it.” by the poet Mary Oliver.

If you read my last post, you know that I sequestered myself for six weeks to try to listen to the “still, small voice” within me.  Part of this effort was my attendance at a Lenten series at Stella Maris, a retreat house on the Jersey shore.  One Monday night, Sister Ann Marie passed out a very homemade bookmark with this on it, from Oliver’s poem, Sometimes:

Instructions for Living A Life:
Pay Attention.
Be Astonished.
Tell About It.

“Pay attention” is a hallmark of so many spiritual leaders.   The Zen Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh, whom I so greatly admire, is one of them.  Paying attention is SO important.  What else do we have, but these precious moments of our lives to which we should pay attention?

“Be Astonished.”  It’s so easy to just take things for granted, but just imagine you are an entity new to this creation.  How astonishing is it that life on this Earth is so prolific?  How astonishing is it that we have the ability to cry at the mere experience of a rainbow?   How astonishing is it, to see the perfect symmetry, the perfect order of the petals of a simple garden flower?  If we all took just 10 minutes a day to act as if we were new to this earth, how would that change our lives?

“Tell About It.”  And here is where I can thank God that there is a blogosphere.  There are so many wonderful writers who are telling what they see, what they feel, what they hear about the miracle of Life, and I’ve learned so much from them.  And of course, thank God as well for all of the authors who have paid tribute to the pure miracle of life and our human experience.  I’m humbled by them, and I thank them all.

On this topic, one of my favorite diary entries was written exactly 43 years ago to the day, when I was 16.   It speaks of one simple moment when I was paying attention, was astonished, and was driven to tell about it.  I pray to God that I can continue to experience more of these precious moments.  There were a LOT of moments between 1968 and 2011 that I’ve wasted in this regard, and I don’t want to waste any more of them not living out Mary Oliver’s advice:

Connecticut back yard, May 1968

May 22, 1968

I must write to you now because everything is so beautiful.

I am filled to the brim with (I don’t know what to call it!) extreme happiness.  I have never seen so much beauty as I do now in this simple situation.  Everything is perfect.

A couple of weeks ago I made a little window seat in my room.  Between my bed and my closet is a space about 3 feet wide with a window governing this tiny wall.  Here I am sitting–reading The Thread That Runs So True while my white voile curtains flow over my legs.  I have finished cleaning my entire room (it took two weeks–I’m lazy) and it is beautiful.  I painted it scarlet, and it is my private place, with the pure white curtains and bedspread, my statue of Mary and my guitar on my wall…it is so beautiful I could cry while I lean on the window sill, part of Mother Nature herself.

I looked especially good today.   My hair, for once, looked as I have always wanted it to look.  I am wearing the dress that Ann Marie  today told me she loved.  I made it–a Swedish print dirndl and matching gold jersey top.  My complexion is free from blemish for a change, and my eyes looked more sparkly and expressive.

The weather is a huge part of the way I feel today.  Every day for the past three days it has been shining one minute–raining the next.  So, while reading my book, I was paying equal attention to the sun.  Suddenly, a big black cloud hid the sun and it poured.  Hail was falling by the buckets.  It was beautiful.  The thunder pealed and hailstones bounced off my screen. That was an hour ago.  Now, the rays of the sun are abundantly overflowing on the violet lilacs and freshly washed leafy trees.

I love this new type of weather because it gives me a chance to appreciate all of God’s gifts at once–the sun, then the cleansing of the earth, and then the flowers’ and trees’ appreciation to God for their bath.

Words cannot describe the beauty I see from my seat tonight.  There IS no word to tell you the happiness I feel in my soul.  My heart cries out thanks to God for bestowing me with so many rare and wonderful gifts.

Tonight, indeed, I am the luckiest person alive!!!

A Christmas Treehugger Says Farewell to a Friend

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree!

I have had many live Christmas trees in my day.  My family of origin always had a real one.  I don’t remember them all of course.  I actually only remember the Christmas tree-trim in aggregate–the rituals of hanging those big bulbs that were common in the 50s and 60s, big heavy colored globes that you would sometimes clip on to the branch and then monitor how far down the branch would droop with the weight.  You wouldn’t put the expensive bulbs on the weaker branches.

Conversely, I remember the light-as-air silvery strands that we would dress the tree with after all the ornaments were hung.  My mother instructed us to hang them almost singly and very carefully so you wouldn’t wind up with a clump of silver like a tacky bird’s nest perching on a branch.  No, the strands had to resemble as closely as possible their namesake:  icicles.   If they were done properly, the light from the big bulbs danced off them as if they were fine shimmery mirrors just like the frozen spears hanging off the eaves.

When we had done with all the magic of Christmas, the denuded, dry tree would be dragged out of the house and dumped on the curb, as usual.  But when I was a child, it  seemed as if a dear friend was being just kicked out on the street with no gratitude, no respect, no consideration for the joy it had given us.   I would cry to see my “friend” treated so cruelly.

Many, many trees are under the bridge in my life–58 to be exact.  So I don’t know why, this year, I feel like that little girl who once wanted to cling to the life of her tree-friend.

This year’s particular tree had a very unceremonious introduction to our family.  Even though my children are adults, we have stuck to the family tradition of picking out the tree together–all six of us, even though we are living in three different states.  But this year, it was almost Christmas Eve, everyone was busy, and so one night, my husband, brother-in-law and I just decided abruptly to stop off on the way from the supermarket and grab a tree.  No camera, no kids, no comparing this tree to that one to find the perfect fit, the perfect shape, the perfect height.  Pulling down our hats and wrapping our coats around us in the freezing cold, we did indeed “grab” a tree, tell the guy it was in no way worth the $45 he was charging and that we would pay no more than $33 for the shrimpy, sorry tree we were holding up.  He took our offer quickly–confirming our description of it, and we shoved it in the back of the car on top of the paper towels and dog food, and brought it to its new home.

When we fit it into the tree stand in the living room, my husband and I looked at each other with looks that said, “Oh, no.  The kids are going to kill us for not waiting for them.”  Because the tree looked like a scrawny little tree-weed standing there.  Not only that, but it had a physical deformity no tilting or turning was going to hide–the top of the tree, which should stretch joyfully to heaven like a yogi in triangle pose, was bent at the trunk, as if it changed its mind about wanting to point the way to God.

So, my son came the next night, and kindly didn’t chide us beyond a shake of his head and a few futile attempts to turn, tilt, reset the tree.  He helped me put the lights on.  We decided to put LOTS of lights on, to just smother the little tree in every string of lights I had.  We had to give this tree some panache, after all!

And, as was tradition, all the kids came on Christmas Eve and put the lifelong collection of ornaments on it.  I had rearranged the furniture differently this year–making the tree the focal point of the living room, and setting the love seat in a spot that make it seem like the tree was a orchestra quartet performing chamber music.  We gave it that import, that attention, that love.

And it rose to the occasion.  Every night, when I wanted peace and quiet, I’d take a cup of tea and my new Kindle into the living room and just sit.  But most of the time, I couldn’t get interested in the book, because I was mesmerized by the beauty of the tree.  For some reason, because the tree was not as plush on its own as most trees we’ve had, it showcased the ornaments like no other.  Each little memory of my family’s life–the first Christmas, the gifts from friends, the souvenirs from family vacations, were given their due, framed selflessly by the humble sprigs of the tree branches.  I had even filled in some of the balder spots with springs of berries, and they complimented the tree the same way my Gucci scarf deflects attention from my sagging neckline.   In any case, the tree and I had bonded.

Now it is January 17, and I’ve been resisting the dismantling of this tree for too long.  The neighbors’ trees have long been picked up by the trashmen.   Today is the day I must say good-bye to my tree.   After I’ve accepted it.  More than accepted it.  Embraced its imperfections.  Marveled at its transformation.

With gratitude for the beauty it has given the family this season, I will unceremoniously drag it out to the curb, and then sweep up the dead needles it leaves behind.   I may not cry the way I did when I was a child.  But I will be sad to see it go.

Simple Home, Beautiful Home, Part II: Stripping of your life

The cart before the horse is neither beautiful nor useful.  Before we can adorn our houses with beautiful objects the walls must be stripped, and our lives must be stripped, and beautiful housekeeping and beautiful living be laid for a foundation…”  –Henry David Thoreau

“…and our lives must be stripped,”:

Years ago, I took this picture of my own dining room table when I saw the irony of where the bumper sticker, a gift from my son who had visited Walden, wound up.

Years ago, I took this picture of my own dining room table when I saw the irony of where the bumper sticker, a gift from my son who had visited Walden, wound up.

If I had a chart that showed the times of my life at its most frenetic, and overlaid it with a chart that showed the times of my life when my house was the least welcoming and the most cluttered, they would line up nicely.   It’s hard, if not impossible, to maintain peace at home, when your life is out of control.

A study, “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness” by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers was recently released and highly publicized in the news.  It showed that despite great strides in the women’s movement, women are actually unhappier today overall.  Why would that be?  We have spent the last thirty years bringing home the bacon and frying it up in the pan.  Does that mean we have time to eat it?

Perhaps a correlation could be made in a book about another paradox, “The Paradox of Choice” by Barry Schwartz, which makes the case that too many options does not create feelings of well-being; on the contrary, too much choice winds up being overload for our psyches.  So, the myriad of options that opened up for women in the last few decades has actually left us wondering, “What now?” in a way that is disconcerting and confusing.  And for society in general, we are simply overwhelmed.

Thoreau tells us to strip down our lives, which can be taken to mean, choose!  “Let your affairs be of two or three, not of a hundred,” he wrote.  Choose your value system, choose your day, choose your desires, and leave the rest alone.   Richard Foster, in his book “The Freedom of Simplicity” tells us that the first step is the most important:  “First seek God’s kingdom.”  Seems easy, but what does that mean?

Maybe we can learn from the choices made by some of the more spiritually evolved.   St. Francis sold everything in order rebuild the church.  That was how he sought God’s kingdom.   In one of my posts, “Decluttering, Purging, and Peace Pilgrim,” I talked about the woman who made her life’s work walking across the country time and again for peace.  That was how she sought God’s kingdom.    I was lucky enough last week to see the Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh at the Beacon Theatre.  He has made it his life’s work to teach people to be compassionate through mindfulness.  That is how he sought God’s kingdom.  I’ll bet that none of these people have spent an inordinate amount of time wondering whether to buy the LG flat screen TV or the Samsung; whether they should go to Cancun or Paris on vacation; whether they should stay in their marriage or leave.  If you’ve ever owned a good SLR camera, when you focus on something through the viewfinder, the rest blurs out of sight.  I imagine that’s what seeking God’s kingdom is like.

I’m not sure how to begin the life stripping-down process, but here’s a little brainstorming:

  • Let go:  of stuff, of worry, of anxiety, of things you can’t control.
  • Stop being a people-pleaser:  Say no once in a while.
  • Be happy with what you have:  Cut the coveting.
  • Don’t go it alone:  Ask for help, hired or otherwise, to share your burden.
  • Recognize that’s it’s impossible to have it all.  What are you trading off for your life?
  • Be easy on yourself.

Finally, the other night, Thich Nhat Hanh told the sell-out crowd that the kingdom of God is right here.

My dining room table today

My dining room table today

Right now.  Right now you can only be in one place.  Right now you can only do one thing.  Right now you can only think one thought. Be present right here, right now in this beautiful moment and you have found the kingdom of God.

For me, that’s where the stripping down starts.

Up the Down Staircase to Happiness

updownThere was a popular book by Bel Kaufman in the 60s, followed by the movie with Sandy Dennis, called Up the Down Staircase–about a new, struggling teacher who made the mistake of climbing the staircase in the school that was used for “down” traffic in order to go up.  She found herself, struggling, pushing against the tide of students pressing down on her as she fought her way to the top.

It was a great metaphor for a self-imposed struggle to getting somewhere, unaware that you are headed in the wrong direction–persisting in the struggle instead of simply finding the right path.   Instead of “going with the flow” you fight it and wind up further from your destination.

There is an article in Time Magazine this week called “Yes I Suck:  The Power of Negative Thinking,” and it highlights a study just published in the journal Psychological Science which says trying to get people to think more positively can actually have the opposite effect: it can simply highlight how unhappy they are.

The study’s authors, Joanne Wood and John Lee of the University of Waterloo and Elaine Perunovic of the University of New Brunswick, begin with a common-sense proposition: when people hear something they don’t believe, they are not only often skeptical but adhere even more strongly to their original position…

And so we constantly argue with ourselves. Many of us are reluctant to revise our self-judgment, especially for the better. In 1994, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published a paper showing that when people get feedback that they believe is overly positive, they actually feel worse, not better. If you try to tell your dim friend that he has the potential of an Einstein, he won’t think he’s any smarter; he will probably just disbelieve your contradictory theory, hew more closely to his own self-assessment and, in the end, feel even dumber. In one fascinating 1990s experiment demonstrating this effect — called cognitive dissonance in official terms — a team including psychologist Joel Cooper of Princeton asked participants to write hard-hearted essays opposing funding for the disabled. When these participants were later told they were compassionate, they felt even worse about what they had written.
Wood, Lee and Perunovic conclude that unfavorable thoughts about ourselves intrude very easily, especially among those of us with low self-esteem — so easily and so persistently that even when a positive alternative is presented, it just underlines how awful we believe we are.
The paper provides support for newer forms of psychotherapy that urge people to accept their negative thoughts and feelings rather than try to reject and fight them. In the fighting, we not only often fail but can also make things worse. Mindfulness and meditation techniques, in contrast, can teach people to put their shortcomings into a larger, more realistic perspective. Call it the power of negative thinking.

When it comes to seeking happiness, steering your focus on finding happiness or self-worth to the exclusion of activities that will actually make you happier or feel better about yourself is a case of going up the down staircase.   Forcing the issue by constantly affirming to yourself, like Stuart Smalley, that “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and, doggone it, people like me!” may actually sentence you to never-ending struggle to get to the top of the happiness staircase.

Wise people have told us, in many different ways, that the minute we stop focusing on ourselves, the struggles stop and the door to happiness appears.  All the theories about ego-consciousness points to this (read Eckhart Tolle).   Tolstoy told us this in the parable of the Emporer’s Three Questions.  All the wisdom of the saints tells us this.  That famous peace prayer attributed to St. Francis tells us that in order to get, we don’t strive to get, we give.   In finding love, we don’t demand it, we simply perform acts of love towards others.   We don’t beg others to understand us, we listen to them and we seek to understand them.

In one of my favorite Dick and Jane stories from my grammar school reader, a dad gives his son and his daughter their own gardens, and tells them it is theirs to tend.  Each of them starts with the same number of seeds, and soon both gardens are blooming.  The boy starts giving his flowers away–to the elderly neighbor next door, to his teacher, to a sick friend.  The girl refuses to cut off her beautiful blooms, preferring to keep the beauty to herself.

If you are a gardener, you can guess the end of the story–the boy’s garden flourished because when you cut one bloom, you get two back.  On the other hand, within a few weeks, the girl’s garden had spent its blooms and sat there, lifeless and sparse.

I subscribe to Self-improvement ebooks, and they recently sent me an article on “The Secret of Abounding Happiness.”  The recipe, in short:

As you rise above the sorded self; as you break, one after another, the chains that bind you, you will realize the joy of giving, as distinguished from the misery of grasping–giving of your substance; giving of your intellect; giving of the love and light that are growing within you.  You will then understand that it is indeed ‘more blessed to give than to receive.’

Lose yourself in the welfare of others; forget yourself in all that you do; this is the secret of abounding happiness.”

So instead of running to your therapist, run to your local food bank and volunteer.  Instead of buying stuff you don’t need to make you happy, give away stuff you don’t need.  Instead of looking down into the depths of your own unhappiness, get off that DOWN staircase, find the UP one and ascend with ease.



The cottage

Me, sitting on the steps of the cottage

“If I died and found myself at Madison, I’d know that I’d made it to heaven.”

That’s what I said in my early 20s, speaking of the spot on the Connecticut shore where I had spent my childhood summers.   My mother sent me there to stay with two great-aunts and my grandmother for a few weeks every summer from the time I was about five .  She had spent her summers there, too, so she must have wanted me to have that special experience.  The cottage had been built by my greatuncle and greataunt in 1910.  It was a true cottage, with no insulation, and no heat.  The framing was exposed on the inside, and it had a rustic stone fireplace and Arts and Crafts-style windows.  It was a regal, cedar-shingled 4 bedroom home, sitting back from the beach road, atop a slight incline, where the beach breezes swooped on up and kept the place much cooler than the waterfront cottages across the street.

It was a safe haven.  My own mother had her hands full with four young kids and my alcoholic father.  Life at home was pretty chaotic, and I never knew what each day would bring.  Would I be able to have friends over, or would Dad be drunk?  Would Dad show me how to oil paint the way he did so well, or would he slur insults from the dark corner of the living room?

But at Madison, nothing ever changed.  The “bowl-o-beauty” rose paperweight sat on the same corner of the living room table year after year.  It didn’t move.  The kitchen beams were lined with linaments and oils that had probably been ordered from the Sears catalog in the 1920s.   My aunt could be relied upon to tell the same stories every year–stories about her marriage to her beloved Edwin that always ended with a chuckle.  All her stories had happy endings.  The only story that didn’t have a happy ending was the one she never told–about her son, John, who died of pneumonia when he was three, after it had taken her nine painful years to conceive.  I only knew about John from the sepia photograph of the small boy with the bowl cut and crisp white shirt on her dressing table.


Aunt Florence, knitting.  She was always embarrassed because the wing chair was frayed, so she would drape her sweater over it.

Aunt Florence, knitting. She was always embarrassed because the wing chair was frayed, so she would drape her sweater over it.

The daily routine was… well, routine.  And at that time, I hated it.  I’ve grown to appreciate the luxury of rising at the same time every day, spending the better part of the morning preparing breakfast, served on a six-piece place setting of Victorian rose china.  Then performing the clean-up.   Then taking the trip “up town” to buy groceries and produce.  Then going right into lunch–a large midday meal.  Then again the clean-up.  Then, and ONLY then, did I get to meet my friends at the beach.  That routine probably saved me from skin cancer, because I never got to the beach before 2 p.m., and of the few things that frustrated me about Madison, that was #1.  


Oh, I could say so much more about Madison, but it wouldn’t be interesting to anyone who hadn’t lived it.   It sounds mundane to hear about my evening walks down to the stone pier with a book or a camera or drawing pad with which to watch the sun go down.   It’s not too thrilling to hear about the afternoons which, when they were not spent at the beach, were spent learning how to sew on Aunt Florence’s old black Singer, or stretched across my bed, reading, while raindrops pitter-patted in a magnified way because of the lack of insulation in the ceiling.  Or who would care about the delight of blueberries and cream with sugar sprinkled on top, or slices of summer-ripe cantaloupe.  Or the aroma of salt-laced timber, or enamel pans filled with Ivory Snow and Aunt Florence’s soft, silky slips.

It all seems other-wordly, but at Madison, I was not completely isolated from the world.  When I was young, I was given the privilege of watching As the World Turns with the great-aunts, although they didn’t 100% approve because of the “risque” story lines.  At 17, I watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon–the same moon that was reflecting in the waters off the Connecticut coast right outside our door.  In 1973, the “Summer of Judgement,” Aunt Florence and I sat glued to the Watergate hearings. 

Sometimes I become obsessed with Madison.  I wish I could go back.  I suspect my memories are hopelessly romantic, and thus, perhaps skewed.   I tend to dream about it when my own life becomes chaos-infested and unsure, and I remember that safe haven and want to go back.  

Yet, I’m not sure I’d want to go back, because the Bowl-o-Beauty would no longer be there, nor the pink Victorian china.   And Aunt Florence’s presence would only be there in ghost-like form.  I’m not the same anymore, either, nor should I be.  But perhaps I can bring a little bit of Madison to my life today–a little of the routine, the simple joys, the beauty.   I can find the Aunt Florence within–calm, and orderly, and cheerful.  If I can do that, then I can create that little bit of heaven, right here, right now.

Old Friends, Female and Fifty-Something

Halloween festivities at Marymount 1973

Halloween festivities at Marymount 1973

It’s Friday, and I’m looking forward to the weekend.  I was actually going to include “Friday” in the title of this post, but figured that would be alliteration overkill.

In any case, not only do I have the New York City Coalition Against Hunger Benefit Fashion Show to look forward to this evening, but on Saturday and Sunday several of my old college friends are gathering in New York City for dinner, a show, Mass at St. Patrick’s and a Sunday brunch.

My roommate Paula and friend Adriana, enjoying a spring day on the green

My roommate Paula and friend Adriana, enjoying a spring day on the green

I have always deeply valued the friendships I made at Marymount College.  Even so, decades passed with little contact among us.  I remember trying to say good-bye to my dear, best friend Adriana, who was going to be returning to her home in Colombia, South America, and she kept stopping me.  “I don’t say good-bye.  Don’t say good-bye,” she insisted, diverting my desire for a last hug, steeped in awareness that we would travel miles and miles, literally and figuratively, before we would ever meet again.  I never did get to say good-bye, and I’ve never seen her again.

But most of the time, it isn’t anything dramatic that keeps friends apart over the years.   Life gets in the way.  We might see each other at weddings, but then it’s off to build new lives with significant others, and kids, and careers with a whole batch of new friends, and years and years pass.

In my case, not only did my friends fade into the distance, but my college, as of a couple of years ago, is no more.  Marymount College celebrated its 100th year anniversary in 2007, and it was a bittersweet anniversary and final reunion, because the college was closing.   With declining enrollment, perhaps due to lack of interest in same-gender schools, Fordham University had taken it under its umbrella and tried to keep it alive, but finally, we got a letter stating that they had sold the beautiful campus overlooking the Hudson River and Tappan Zee Bridge, and that Marymount would cease to exist except for representation by an alumni association and a collective body of memories.   Lots of Marymount alumni are left alma-materless, including the notables Rosalind Russell, Geraldine Ferraro, Susan Lucci.

My son, who works in Public Affairs for Rutgers University, was in on the huge transition that Rutgers had last year,  centralizing all of the various colleges that made up Rutgers.  One of the most controversial issues was what to do with Douglass College, Rutgers’ women’s college.   The argument was that women’s colleges are no longer relevant in today’s society.   I’m not sure that’s true.  There have been studies showing that women flourish in women’s colleges–when in a single-sex environment they are more active collaborators, have tighter student-faculty bonds, experience more support and intellectual challenge.   When Marymount started facing pressures to go co-ed, like many colleges in the height of the women’s movement, their slogan was “Marymount separates the women from the boys!”   When I went to college at Marymount, there was only intellectual growth unencumbered by intimidation; inquiry unencumbered by male ego, creativity unencumbered by sublimation.

But I digress.  Now that life has gone on and even my college has passed on, time seems to favor reconnections with old friends.  When we meet this week, we don’t need hotels–one friend is staying at her daughter’s up by Columbia University, one at her daughter’s in Gramercy Park, I will be staying at my son’s in Union City.   Our kids have their own activities now, leaving us to pick up where we left off with our own friendships.

For a while, I bemoaned not having the women friends of my youth, but my friendships weren’t gone–they were only in hibernation as we all moved with the speed of light through weeks and months and years of being wives, and mothers, and Domestic Chieftans.  One of the best things about getting a bit older is being able to reclaim some of that time for ourselves, and just be the people we were in our college years, but a bit wiser.

Returning to these ties may be good for our health, according to the UCLS study on friendship among women.

Study after study has found that social ties reduce our risk of disease by lowering blood pressure, heart rate and cholesterol. There’s no doubt, says Dr. Klein, that friends are helping us live longer…Friends are also helping us live better. The famed Nurses’ Health Study from Harvard Medical School found that the more friends women had, the less likely they were to develop physical impairments as they aged, and the more likely they were to be leading a joyful life.

Yet if friends counter the stress that seems to swallow up so much of our life these days, if they keep us healthy and even add years to our life, why is it so hard to find time to be with them? That’s a question that also troubles researcher Ruthellen Josselson, Ph.D., co-author of Best Friends: The Pleasures and Perils of Girls’ and Women’s Friendships (Three Rivers Press, 1998). Every time we get overly busy with work and family, the first thing we do is let go of friendships with other women, explains Dr. Josselson. We push them right to the back burner.

So time to put the friends back on the front burner.  I’m going to dust off the Christmas card list and take up a few friends on their offers–“Let’s get together in 2009!”    But not just because it will make me healthier, or live longer.   Because they give me strength.  They make me laugh.  They’re fun to be with.  And, after all these years, I still adore them.