Sunday, December 29, 2013

2013- My Greatest Teacher


Just after Christmas, as I was cleaning my room and desk, I found a sealed envelope in which I had written my prayers for the year. When I opened it, I was astounded:


Though I had all but forgotten this written prayer,  it had been answered. Maybe not in exactly the way I expected, but answered nonetheless.
I was able to do the work of my soul. Though my book has not (yet) sold, in the wake of Newtown, I worked for gun reform all year. I never saw that coming, and yet it was the most important work I could do - and had to do.

My family was blessed with good health, Stitch is still with us, and we have peace and resolution.

And this, the answered prayer I didn't think was possible : my grandson Ayumu and daughter-in-law Aya came home from Japan. They moved back in with us. Ayumu enrolled in preschool and learned to speak English and ride a bike and fly on his scooter alongside Evan. My daughter-in-law excelled in school and got her green card. This was beyond a dream come true.

At the same time, this year my career fell apart. I now had two little kids to take care of, and as they adjusted to this new living situation, there was a lot of love/hate. Lots of slammed doors and yelling and making up. My days were filled with time-outs and potty-training and driving to and from two schools. Between them and my activist work, I had no time to write, or do much of anything else, but at least I had work coming up. And then all the work I had booked for the summer began to cancel...boom, boom, boom like dominoes falling, until everything was gone. And with Aya and Ayumu returning home, we had two more mouths to feed. I started hustling, sending out hundreds of resumes, sending my new book out hoping to sell it- and nothing. I was crushed. Scared. Broke.  Though Troy was working 6 to 7 days a week, our bills had doubled and soon we were upside down financially. Our ship was sinking.

There were many fearful days I thought we wouldn't make it. I worried we would lose everything. We had to cut loose a few things just to stay afloat; mine and Troy's super-expensive health insurance and our home phone line were a few of the casualties of summer. I feared our house would be next. But what happened was that those times drove me to my knees, which was exactly where I needed to be.

I immersed myself in prayer and meditation. I prayed for courage and wisdom. I prayed for balance. I prayed to find my way out of fear and back to faith. My prayers (or thoughts, whatever works for your belief system) were once again answered. Stepping out of fear restored me, and though we still didn't have the money we needed to right our ship, I felt peace, and chose to believe that it would all work out.

When I focused on the lack and the problems, it only grew larger, looming over me every waking moment, keeping me up at night. But when I put my focus on gratitude, when I put my energy into faith, I slept. I felt happier. I breathed easier. And though the bills were piling up, I stayed present in the moment. I reminded myself: The lights were on. We had food in the cupboards, coffee brewing in the morning. In the present moment, we were okay.

So here we are at the end of the year. Thanks to Troy's hard work, our bills are getting paid down. We are stable. And in a few days, our family's new healthcare plan kicks in. Obamacare is saving us $700 a month- this is a life changer!

Winter came, miraculously, with an unexpected free trip with the kids to Vegas and Disneyworld (thanks Wilson Phillips), and then a free trip to Jamaica for my 50th birthday. Free! These were events I could not have possibly imagined six months ago. The year ended with my daughter getting her Masters degree in psychology, and a new job possibility for me.

Do I believe in the power of prayer? Hell, yeah.

I also believe deeply in the power of our thoughts, our intentions, and our words.

2013 was both my savior and my greatest adversary. But I know that every adversary is a great teacher.

Here is what 2013 taught me:

Everything eventually works out, somehow.
I am always okay.
Life regenerates after loss.
Fear and worry is a HUGE waste of time.
Asking for what I want from life, and believing I deserve it, is essential.
Daily gratitude is as important as oxygen.
Love heals everything. Period.

And the biggest lesson of all: No matter what each year may bring, there is always a gift. Always. 

In that spirit, I greatly anticipate 2014, and vow to embrace every moment. I will stay rooted in gratitude and love, be clear with my intentions and my words, and keep exercising that faith muscle.

I am grateful for the beautiful circle of people (all of you) that surround my life, and the love that holds me up. I hope to do the same for you.

Here's to a beautiful 2014. Let's embrace it- all of it.




Monday, December 16, 2013

I Had a Crazy-Beautiful Dream....

circle around the moon
The other night I had a beautiful dream -- one of those crazy-beautiful dreams that you never want to wake up from.


I saw many people walking over a green grassy hill, coming toward me. Just a few at first, and then there were hundreds. They were all colors, all faiths. They gathered together and began to speak of peace. They were going to change the world, and end violence, and stand up for children. There were warriors and patriots and parents, some whose children were taken from them, but these parents had faith. They knew their children were angels in heaven, and for a moment I swore I could see their wings shimmering above us. 

Faith leaders began to appear one by one. Muslim, Christian, Jewish…wearing colorful robes and yarmulkes and taqiyah prayer hats.
They were both women and men and this made me smile. They laughed and talked and embraced each other like great friends. They spoke to us and said that together we would usher in peace and end the culture of violence, and we believed them. 

Then, because dreams are crazy and can take any turn they want, there was a superhero, and beautiful TV star standing in the crowd, holding a candle and radiating joy, and then my childhood idols Jackson Browne and Rosemary Butler were suddenly there singing, and all of us sat like children on the grass, listening to their songs of hope. 

And through it all I could hear bells ringing. Twenty six bells, ringing and ringing and echoing across the country, and that’s when I realized that there weren’t just hundreds of us, there were thousands and maybe millions all over America, ringing the bells and lifting our voices together in hope - and then a choir began to sing, "Go tell it on the mountain that healing is everywhere."


At the end of my dream, a beautiful woman wearing a yarmulke stood before us and spoke of a new world that we would co-create – all of us together. We looked up and we believed her. She told us all to come close and we did. She told us all to hold hands, and we did. And then we began to sing together. Hundreds of people of all races. Reverends, Rabbis, Muslims, Buddhists, Jackson Browne, the superhero and the beautiful TV star, all holding hands and singing together a song we had never heard before and yet somehow we knew the words, as though we’d always known, “I will be a sanctuary... I will be a sanctuary…”


And the best part of this dream was that when I woke up Sunday morning, after blinking my eyes a few times, I realized…it wasn’t a dream.


It actually happened.


That night there was a beautiful circle around the moon, and I knew the peace we spoke of would become truth. I drifted into sleep again, knowing I would have many more crazy-beautiful dreams.


* On 12/14/13, the one-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook tragedy, I worked with my allies in gun violence prevention to produce the REMEMBER. RECOMMIT event at the Federal Building in Los Angeles. There were over 70 similar events all over the country.

Shakeel Syed (Muslim Shura Council) Rev Sandie Richards, Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels, and Rev Louis Chase.
The Reverend and the Rabbi

The beautiful TV star: Marcia Cross and her husband, marching with us for peace.
The Superhero: ready to spring to action to protect children.
Standing between my childhood idols Jackson Browne and Rosemary Butler

the hundreds who appeared over the hill


LaWanda Hawkins of Justice for Murdered Children imagines a future where her group has no more members.
The amazing, generous, social activist Jackson Browne

the ones who will usher in change


Pastor Ruett Foster and his wife, whose seven-year old son Evan is an angel now, asked us to make this world better.
All faiths, bowing their heads together.

Rabbi Aaron Alexander, Reverend Ed Bacon, and Rabbi Sharon Brous  (and Rev John Cager of 2nd AME) part of our beautiful closing program, helped us to envision a better world, and told us it is our duty to be responsible for one another.
*** Thank you to Erin Doyle Debi Champ  and Mark Noad for above photos










Tuesday, December 10, 2013

You'll Find What You're Looking For

This morning, while meditating at the end of my yoga class, these words came to me, "You'll find what you're looking for." And at first I didn't get it, because I wasn't actively "looking" for anything right at that moment, except peace. But as I ruminated on it, I realized these words are true. I have always found what I'm looking for.

When I approach my day looking for beauty, I find it everywhere. Likewise, when I walk into the world expecting trouble, rude people, traffic...I generally find it.

 This rule applies to all of us.

If you look for grace and kindness, you will find it
If you look for conflict and trouble, you will find it.

If you look for goodness in a person, you will find it.
If you look for a reason to be disappointed, you will find it.

If you believe that work is hard and grueling, you will find that it is.
If you believe that work is a blessing and a godsend, you will find that it is.

If you believe the world has shortchanged you, you will find that it has.
If you believe that the world is abundant and plentiful, you will find that it is.

When we fight and engage in conflict with others, it's because that's what we were looking for.
When we find ourselves surrounded by love, that's what we were looking for.

So as I was driving home, these thoughts were swirling about in my head : Why don't we stop looking for reasons to defend ourselves, and start looking for beauty in the world?
Why not look for goodness in others?
For reasons to be grateful?
For peace?

And this song came on the radio:
It's Christmastime; there's no need to be afraid
At Christmastime, we let in light and we banish shade
And in our world of plenty we can spread a smile of joy
Throw your arms around the world at Christmastime
But say a prayer to pray for the other ones
At Christmastime


And at that moment in front of me was a car with the world's best bumper sticker:

"God Bless The Whole World. No Exceptions."

I'm always looking for meaning, even in the smallest moments.
In that moment, I found what I was looking for.
 



DREAMS COME TRUE

A free, all-expenses-paid trip to Jamaica for my 50th birthday?
Don't mind if I do.

Thank you Universe!


DREAMS

COME

TRUE



Sunday, December 1, 2013

Faith Vs Common Sense


 "Faith is believing in something even when common sense tells you not to." 
- Maureen O'Hara,  Miracle on 34th Street

This Summer, in the midst of financial crisis that overwhelmed us, I knew we wouldn't  be doing anything for my "landmark" birthday in December. Common sense told me that that though I had set an intention for my family to travel this year,  there was no possible way. On top of that, three work trips I had booked for summer were cancelled. It just seemed to be the way my luck was going.

But then I decided to step out of my rut and change my perspective.

For the past several months I have prayed, meditated or journaled every day, and made a conscious choice to:
* keep my focus on what I want, instead of what I don't have.
* Feel gratitude for all the beauty in my life, instead of worrying about the things that were going wrong.
* Stay centered in who I am rather than letting negativity and rejection get the best of me.

Through daily meditation, I became a more patient mom. A happier, less overwhelmed wife. The brick walls that I kept hitting all year began to erode, and doors began to open.   In October, I was able to take the kids along on Troy's Wilson Phillips gigs in Vegas and Disneyworld, FLA.  We had two incredible family vacations full of happy memories. For free. 

Today is the final day of my most recent 21-Day Meditation Experiment. I'm centered. Positive. Hopeful. Oh,  and Troy and I are leaving for JAMAICA.  For FREE. And I'll wake up there on my birthday.

I won't say it's an outright miracle, but my life has definitely shifted since I changed my energy.

Here's how it happened. Recently we got a phone call from close friends of ours. Through their work, they were gifted an all inclusive, all-expenses-paid trip to Jamaica, but they didn't want to go (I know, I couldn't believe it either). They knew we loved Jamaica, so they gave the trip to us. And it just happens to be the week of my birthday.

My common sense did not see that coming. 

There really is something to the energy we create in our lives. Positive attracts positive, negative attracts negative. Meditation keeps me living in the positive, even when negative is whirling around me.

Whether or not there is any magic to it, I have seen logically that life just works better when I'm focused on the positive. So I will keep meditating, and keep my gratitude journal full. I will trust that things will work out, even when I can't see it in my own limited mind.

I will have faith, even when common sense tells me not to.

"I believe...I believe..."
Natalie Wood, Miracle on 34th Street

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

THANK YOU for your support of Wind to Wildfire



To all of you who read the excerpt from my new memoir Wind To Wildfire (posted for the 24 hour period on the anniversary of the fire) I thank you, thank you, thank you.

Words are insufficient to express my gratitude for your encouragement and support. I am warmed that so many of you were moved by it. My heart is overwhelmed.

I've now taken the post down and continue to send the manuscript out - hoping it will find it's way to publication.

If it weren't for all of this outpouring of love I probably would have been more bummed out this morning when I got another rejection from a publisher, who said that the book was in the "inspirational" vein, a vein that had been tapped out. In said publisher's opinion, inspiration is a one-dimensional subject that has been done to death. What more could I possibly add to the subject? And why would anyone want to read it?

Hmmmm....

Because we're human?

Anyway, I love you all and thank you for the MANY ways you have held me up through my life journeys, from the Stitch trial, to losing and finding my grandson again, and now to this book.  Your words have given me more strength than you can imagine. I will persevere until Wind To Wildfire finds its way out to all of you.

I will never lose hope in this world because there are so many beautiful people - and you, YOU who are reading this, you are my proof.


Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The 21-Day Meditation Challenge

"When your actions are inspired by love, you can do less and accomplish more because all of nature is held together by the nature of love."
 -Deepak Chopra


What do you think? True or not?

I'm willing to give it a try.

I signed up for Deepak Chopra's free 21-day meditation, along with several of my friends. Although I'm not new to meditation, I decided to take this challenge and journal about the changes I see in my life. I'm experimenting, approaching it like a scientist. Today was day 3,  and so far it feels great. I feel centered, calmer, and more at peace with everything that is swirling around me. This is a major bonus for me as I have to deliver a speech tomorrow at the Women's Leadership Legacy Conference. I am told it's sold out, and they are expecting 600 people. No pressure.

Let's see how meditating gets me through this, and through the everyday pressures of a 3 and 8 year old, my job with Moms Demand Action, and my writing and singing gigs. I've got a lot to balance right now, so I'm hoping if I keep myself heart-centered I'll glide through with less stress and struggle.

Most stress and struggle is in my head anyway- I do know that. I wrote about releasing struggle in "What I'm Giving Up."

If you want to try the meditation challenge, sign up for free. It's not too late to start. And if you miss a day, no worries. Just do what you can.
Chopra Center Meditation

Here is an excerpt from the thought for today:
"The Spiritual Law of Least Effort tells us that we can do less and accomplish more, an idea that seems at odds with what many of us have been taught throughout our lives. We’ve been told that success is the result of hard work, struggle, and sacrifice. Today we will tap into the ever present flow of natural ease that is available within, as we plant the seeds to live our destiny each and every day.

The universe has infinite organizing power, and as conscious beings, we have ready access to this realm simply by spending time in stillness and silence. The same consciousness that orchestrates the myriad rhythms of the whole world dwells within each of us. As we cultivate present moment awareness and remain open to the many opportunities life offers, we open to the power within us to realize all our dreams with effortless ease."


Wishing you all an effortless, love-centered day.

Monday, November 11, 2013

On Veteran's Day


This is a photo of my grandfather Ben - a young man heading off to war. After World War II, Ben became an alcoholic, prone to fits of rage and violence that destroyed his family. Ben had always wanted to be a writer, but his life turned out very differently. Sometimes I think it's part of my inheritance that I pick up the loose threads and carry on -  maybe that's why I feel compelled to write.

Here is a poem Ben wrote in his later years:

ON LITTLE BOYS

When he's small and he's sad, and he wants to cry,
He's told, "Stop! You mustn't do it!"
And whenever he asks for reasons why,
"You're a boy! That's all there is to it!"

So he hides it inside him where no one can see,
Cries in secret whenever he can,
For his parents have shouted, "Don't you dare shame me!"
"Stand up! Don't be soft! Be a man!"

Then he's told to follow that horrible star
Brutish God of gross barbarism
"Take up your weapons and be off to war!"
For scheming and false patriotism.

Those frightened young boys who march away
To send other young boys to their grave,
Who go off to kill or be killed in the fray,
For they're boys and must always be brave

Will justify their meaningless death
to themselves by being so brave,
As they senselessly die, give up their last breath,
the most precious of gifts that God gave.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Picture Perfect

Yesterday I posted this photo on facebook for #throwbackthursday. This is mini-me with my grandma Helen, my mother is center, and my Aunt Laura in yellow. I think my mother was 19 or 20, and my aunt was still in high school.

The photo got a lot of happy comments. So beautiful! Precious! Love it! Things of that sort.

It's one of those picture-perfect photos. But what no one knew is that my grandmother, just years later, would die of cancer. That my grandfather was a violent alcoholic who used to beat her. That my father, at this time, had just gone to prison. That there was incest, violence, alcoholism and drug abuse in this family. That years later the family would be shattered. That to this day we are estranged.

These are the characters in my first memoir which I will most likely never publish. 

For those of you who are writers, this is a great writing prompt. Look at a family photo, and write (imagine) the story. I guarantee you it is ten times deeper than what you see.

On the lighter side, I am grateful for my life. Everything I have experienced has grown my soul, and helped me to have empathy for others. I love my crazy, damaged family even though I don't see them.

Just a reminder that every person you see walking down the street has a rich and complicated story.  We are so much more than what we appear to be.


Thursday, November 7, 2013

How to Push Through Resistance

 
-->


To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Remember that from science class? And so it is that in every positive action you take, you are sure to encounter resistance in some form.

Resistance with a Capital R
Stephen Pressman, bestselling author of novels like Bagger Vance, says in his book The War of Art that resistance, like gravity,  is a natural force in the Universe. You will meet it all throughout your life. He says that you will especially find it when you are taking a big step in a positive direction. The pursuing of any creative dream, social activism, new relationships -  all will fall prey to the big R at some point. The point is to not be deterred by it. Here was the huge lesson for me. I have encountered resistance in the Universe every time I have tried to create positive change in the world. I’m certainly finding it, big time, in my activism for gun reform. I experienced huge resistance with my nonprofit programs for at-risk youth (lost funding, the flailing foster care system, difficult people who blocked our progress, etc.). I took it all very personally. After 8 years of fighting resistance I sort of felt the Universe was punishing me. I eventually gave up.

But now I think I get it. Every success is at some point met with failure. Think of every successful person you know. They are sure to have overcome a huge obstacle to get to where they are. We don’t take it personally that we are tethered to the ground by gravity. Nor should we be set back by resistance.

But resistance is not always an outside force. Often, Pressman says, resistance comes from ourselves in the form of the ego. But here’s where it all shifts for me. He says those resistant voices in your head that say You can’t do it.  You’re crazy. You’re not good enough, smart enough, educated, talented, tall, short whatever it is you’re not enough…none of that is you.

Huh?

That’s right. He says that voice is just resistance, that natural force in the universe. Resistance is not you. YOU are a pure, creative, loving spirit. Anything that is not pure, creative and loving is not the real you. How do you like that? So the next time that negative voice starts yammering away in your head, you don’t have to listen to it. It’s not you! Tune it out.

So what do we do when we meet with resistance? Pressman says we acknowledge it for the harmless natural force it is. We don’t take it personally or get upset. We persevere, and we push through it. Success and happiness are on the other side. Keep your eye on the prize.

Or to quote Pressman, "Put your ass where your heart is."

Check out this interview with Oprah and Pressman on Super Soul Sunday:

Why Oprah Had Trouble Writing Her Harvard Commencement Speech
Author Steven Pressfield says that in order to find your calling, you must put your "a** where your heart wants to be." The one thing that keeps us from sitting down, he says, is resistance. Watch as he helps Oprah work through why she procrastinated on writing her Harvard commencement speech. Plus, learn why every dream encounters resistance along the way.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Yes Is the Word



Years ago, my husband Troy (a professional musician/composer) took a comedy improv class. For him, it was like bungee jumping-- saying yes to something that scared him. He ended up staying in the program and performing every Friday night for over a year, and sees it as one of the best things he ever did.

In improv, you always say yes to the scene. If your scene partner puts a leash on you and begins to parade you around the stage, then yes, you are a prize pooch in the Westminster Dog Show. Of course much of this is fun and games, but on a larger scale Troy learned how to say yes to life, rather than resist the “scenes” that were handed us. For instance, when we were in our forties with our daughter in college and son in high school, I sat Troy down and told him I was pregnant. He didn’t freak out (though it would have been justified). He said yes to that scene. All through my pregnancy with Evan, I attended Troy’s Friday night comedy performances. I loved it, and I too learned the importance of saying yes. A few years later when our son Taylor sat us down in the living room and told us his Japanese exchange-student girlfriend was pregnant, we said yes to that scene, too. And to many more scenes since…

One of my favorite comedies was “Yes Man” with Jim Carrey. In the film he is sort of a pessimistic curmudgeon who is challenged by a motivational speaker to say yes to every opportunity that comes his way. He begins to say yes to danger, risk, love and adventure. Of course a few things go haywire because he has no boundaries and doesn’t say no to the things he should. But by saying yes to opportunities he once hid from, his life opens up. He finds love. His career takes off. His friendships deepen. The deepest desires of his heart, ones he had not allowed himself to feel, begin to take root

This word yes is popping up for me a lot lately, and I am paying attention. Last week on Super Soul Sunday, Oprah was interviewing pastor Rob Bell (author of Love Wins).
“How do you define prayer?” she asked
“One word,” he said, “Yes.”  Bell says we should wake up every day and approach our lives with wonder. Greet the morning with, “Yes, I’m open. What’s next?”

Author Steven Pressman (The War of Art) also believes in the power of yes. He says that we all have two lives; the life we are living, and the unlived life. The only reason we have an unlived life is because we haven’t said yes to it.

Our friends Julie and Mary set a fine example. They have an engraved brass plaque on their front door which reads, “The House of Yes.” And these are two women who are definitely living the life of their dreams.

This morning in my meditation, I said yes. Yes. I’m open. What’s next? It feels both scary and exhilarating, but I am ready to step into the fullness of who I am, who I can be. I’m ready to stretch my limits and explore my potential. I am ready for new experiences and adventures. I am ready to approach my life with love and wonder.

YES.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Reclaiming Joy IV: Standing in My Own Shoes


Recently while hiking in the mountains, my friend Terrah and I sat on a rock in the middle of a silent canyon and had a long talk. Both of us had gotten to a “stuck” place in life, and we wanted to bust out. I was telling her about a book I’d been reading (E Squared) where author Pam Groust likens life to a skyscraper. Most of us, she says, are living on the second floor, while everything we desire is on the 17th. But we’ve never seen the 17th floor, therefore we don’t believe it exists. We also don’t see electricity, but we don’t hesitate to turn on a light. We believe the light will be there, and it is. So, I was telling Terrah, I have to get to the 17th floor.
“It’s not about getting to the 17th floor,” Terrah said, “it’s about living there.” She explained to me that she teaches her acting students to “inhabit” the person they want to be in ten years --walk as that person, talk as that person, LIVE as that person.  I was mesmerized- what a concept.

Later I talked with Troy about this. We’ve been hit with some pretty big financial setbacks this year, and it’s had us feeling beat down and defeated. So I told him what Terrah had to say about it, “How about we start inhabiting the selves we want to be, right now? How about we live on the 17th floor?”

He said he loved it, and talked about who he wanted to be in the future.
I said, “I think who you are now is pretty great.”
He said, “The guy I want to be is not worried about money, spending all day writing a song about a hayride.” And this goes to show you, it’s all in one’s perspective. I saw him as a success and he was feeling like a failure.
“But…the way I see it, you are greatly successful!”
“Tell that to the mortgage company,” he said.
“But you write music that educates children, and helps autistic kids. You just played a Wilson Phillips gig in front of 8000 people and opened for Brian freeking Wilson. Why not inhabit the person you are now?”
And of course he very sweetly pointed out that I could take my own advice.

Ultimately we decided that while striving to inhabit our better ourselves, we would be happy for what we’ve been able to accomplish so far in our lives, and stand solid in our own shoes.

I mean, if you really stop to think about it, just look at the things we’ve all accomplished in our lives. You, me, all of us. So many of us have raised kids, taken care of a sick friend, survived cancer, built a successful career, traveled, rescued an animal, been courageous beyond our wild imaginings…We are teachers, friends, mentors, activists. Why don’t we give ourselves credit? Why don’t we stand tall in our own shoes instead of wishing we were in someone else’s? I think change comes when we take note of the things we’ve done,  reminding ourselves daily that we are better than we know. Rather than ignore our past successes, we can use them as touchstones to build future success.

So Troy had a gig in Vegas over the weekend. I tagged along with Evan and Ayumu and we made a crazy road trip out of it. We kept ourselves in a good mental space all weekend, and in spite of a few colossal challenges, we stood steady in our own shoes. We walked a little taller and felt a lot stronger. And when we got home late Sunday night, there was a box on the porch. We rushed inside to open it were shocked to find that Troy had won an award (proving my point that who he is now is indeed pretty great- thank you very much.)

It was a Telly Award for his compositions on the ABCMouse website. (Other recipients have included ESPN, OWN, Discovery Channel and many more.) This came completely out of left field. We didn’t even know he was in the running.

But this is the beauty of claiming who you are. Troy stood tall in his own shoes and the Universe met him there. I am ridiculously proud of him. For starters, I’m going to send this picture to the mortgage company. 

Troy Dexter: "Award-winning composer"  Yay!

*And thanks to Terrah Bennett Smith for starting a great conversation that had a domino effect...

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Reclaiming Joy III: Gratitude



“A miracle is a shift in perception.” – Marianne Williamson


In my last post, I talked about the scientific fact that nature abhors a vacuum, and that when you release negative energy from your life, something else will rush in to fill that space. And wow oh wow has that proven to be true in my life.

After my negativity fast, I made gratitude the centerpiece of my "reclaiming joy" experiment. At night, I journal about the moments I was grateful for that day. As a result, what happens is I am always looking for things to record - and that in itself brings me into the present moment. There are so many tiny moments that I would have missed if I was caught up in my head, only focused on my problems - like the kids playing and laughing together, a rare bird on my deck, a smile from a stranger. Suddenly the world seems full of things to be grateful for simply because I am awake. I am feeling a shift inside. Marianne Williamson would call that a miracle.


But an even deeper proof was yet to come.


With this new, lighter, positive heart, I believe a space was created for the Universe to meet me where I am. And here’s what happened:



Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth … that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too.

-W.H. Murray


Sunday, as I was getting ready to perform at the Veteran’s hospital (another way to immediately feel happy- do something kind for someone else) I got a random email. This woman said she was a segment producer for Huffington Post Live, and she had read my blog and wanted to know if I would be on the show the next day. What?


I called and asked how she found me. She said, “We are doing a show on the nature of suffering, and Nancy (the host) asked me to find someone who had lost everything and was still grateful. So I googled, “How I Lost Everything and Why I’m Grateful” and there you were.” I was floored. She googled the EXACT title of the blog I’d posted on the anniversary of my fire last year. Coincidence? Or Providence?


The next day, a little online interview that I thought three people would see, got picked up by AOL’s Top Stories, breathing life into this book (Wind To Wildfire) I’ve been trying to midwife into the world for over a year now. 





If this isn’t evidence that this reclaiming joy stuff is working, I don’t know what is.



The Path to Gratitude

There have been times in my life where I have been so low, I could not think of a single thing to be grateful for. But now, when I sink to that dark place, this is a little game I play with myself. I call it the Castaway Game.


I pick up my pen and paper, then imagine myself stranded on a desert island with no food, and nothing but a volleyball named Wilson to love. And then I start to write all the things I would pine for. Suddenly, every person in my life, every circumstance, becomes a blessing. Even the garbage truck with his noisy clanging while I’m meditating, the annoying dog that barks all day- even those things. Suddenly I become aware of the great cup of coffee I’m drinking and the fresh fruit on my table and I feel so damn lucky.


So if you’re ever feeling down on your luck, try this game. Put yourself on that island with Wilson and let the words fly.  And then... see if the shift in perception becomes your very own miracle. 

Here is a short excerpt from the Huffington Post Live interview, where I talk about what I learned from losing everything. 






 


Saturday, September 28, 2013

Reclaiming Joy, Part 2



-->

Letting Go of What Doesn’t Serve Me:

Recently I read a story about a nun who had prayed every day for 30 years for God to take away a lifelong problem she’d had. Finally, one morning as she was praying once again, she heard a gentle voice in her head- I can’t take it unless you give it up.


Give It Up:
I can’t get rid of any problem that I’m not willing to release. Most of us hold tight to our grudges, our worries, our problems, our conflicts. On some level, we are addicted to them. I used to have a strange subconscious (deeply subconscious) belief that worrying about my kids would keep them safe, like some kind of bass-akwards prayer. But now I know that worry is like praying for something I don’t want. Unless we are in this moment hanging from a cliff by our fingernails, our problems aren’t really problems anyway. Most of our “problems” are created in our mind, where we are fixated on something in the past, or worried about something that might possibly (but probably not) happen in the future. How do worry and negativity serve my life? How does anger, judgment or resentment make any situation better? Those emotions are like uninvited guests who live rent-free in my head.

In order to reclaim joy, I have to create space for it – I have to kick those Randy Quaid-like uninvited guests to the curb.

It’s Science:
Science has proven that nature abhors a vacuum, and that everything in the Universe is made of energy, including you and I. So when I release negative energy from my life, there is a vacuum that pulls something new and positive in.

Time and again I have seen proof that this works, and yet it’s so easy to slip back into old habits. So once again I’ve made a conscious choice to release negativity, worry, fear, insecurity and feelings of worthlessness. Already I’ve felt the immediate benefits of being more centered and calm. But life will always throw a few challenges. For instance, yesterday my phone line went out and my computer broke down. I had to cancel a conference call and lost a whole day of work.  It took 3 and 1/2 hours at the Mac store to get my computer fixed. Needless to say this was not the day I had planned. Usually, I would be really upset, but what purpose would that serve? I decided to release being upset and be at peace with the situation I was given. When I released the negative emotion, some wonderful blessings flowed in to fill that space. Instead of working, I was able to go hiking in the beautiful mountains, spend time with friends and have some really inspiring and uplifting conversations. It turned out to be a great day.

Letting Go:
This is my favorite one-minute meditation. I close my eyes and slow my breathing, listening to the rhythm of my breath, accepting all the background noises as part of my natural surroundings. Then, I let go of all my problems for one second. In that one instantaneous moment, I feel a shift. This is the most transformative one-minute meditation, and anyone can do it. I did it this morning and feel like I just had a mini-vacation. 

Go on, try it. Let your worries go for one second.  Just one second. See if your mind allows you to do it. (Don’t worry, they’ll still be there after the second has passed.)

If you are resistant to trying this one-second experiment, ask yourself why? Are you hesitant to let go of your problems and let joy occupy that space?

If you tried it, please comment below and let me know how it felt. I'd love to hear!

*For more on this, read my blog: What I'm Giving Up
 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Reclaiming Joy, Part One

 
-->


"We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them"
-Albert Einstein


For months now, I have been in a funk. And then I got sick of it. This is how it started.

All year I had been looking forward to summer. I was going to be teaching workshops in Costa Rica (at a five-star resort in the rainforest), Woodstock and Berkley, and my husband and I had been gifted a free trip to Jamaica for our anniversary in August. I was giddy with anticipation.

And then every one of those events cancelled…boom boom boom. And on top of the profound disappointment, I was scrambling to replace the work and income I’d lost. I sent out resumes all summer and didn’t get a single reply. Instead of teaching and lounging in hot tubs in exotic places, my summer days were spent mediating fights between my 3 and 7 year old, scouring the want ads unsuccessfully for writing gigs, playing “bill-roulette” and feeling completely defeated. And then I got a string of rejection letters on my new book. And my dishwasher broke and I didn’t have the money to fix it, so I was up to my elbows every day washing dishes by hand. And the worst of it, people I loved were fighting cancer and I was helpless to stop it. All of this in 105 degree weather.

It turned out to be a crummy summer and I was miserable. But I know that happiness is a choice. I had to stop focusing on all that had gone wrong and change the way I was thinking.

The first thing I had to do was to unplug from all negativity. On top of the frustration and helplessness I was already feeling, I sure didn’t need bad news pounded into my head.

I unplugged from the internet except to check in once a day- I did not read the facebook newsfeed or look at pictures of abused dogs in shelters or read about toddlers accidentally being shot with their fathers’ guns.

I turned off NPR (the hardest thing to do) because sometimes you just have to take a break from hearing about body counts and wars all over the world.

I didn’t allow anyone else’s negativity come into to my sacred space.

I played music all day, every day.

I read uplifting books that made me feel anything was possible.

I prayed for my loved ones, meditated and practiced yoga.

I got outside in nature every day, even if for a short time. 

It didn't cost me a dime to walk by the bay, but it was more valuable than therapy.


And for the first time in months, I FELT GREAT. I was happy and energized again. I was more patient with the kids. More patient with myself. More confident that somehow everything would be okay.

Once I was back in this positive space, things started to flow again. I got offered four gigs, plus a copywriting job. I was able to heal a friendship that had been fractured for five years. Two agents asked for my manuscript. My loved ones were managing and maybe even healing cancer.

I am now thinking more clearly, feeling hopeful. Everything once again feels possible.

So I have decided to continue with this. For the next couple weeks, I am going to write about the steps I’m taking to reclaim joy. I hope you’ll join me on this journey.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

You are Rich- and Here's Why

 
After sending out over 200 resumes and getting no response, in a moment of quiet desperation, a young woman named Vicki Harrison ended her life. I was devastated to read about this poor girl's tragic end, and yet, I could empathize. I too have been sending resumes out for three years, and have not gotten one response. I’ve owned a national company, have run 2 nonprofits, spent ten years teaching arts workshops, published a book, and yet, I can’t get a job. My husband’s income alone is supporting our family of five. Insurance is nearly capsizing us (health, car, homeowners, fire, flood, life). There are many days I feel overwhelmed and hopeless.

But what I remind myself every day, and wish I could have told young Vicki, is that in comparison to the rest of the world, we are incredibly wealthy and blessed. It's only our perspective that is lacking.

Living in America or any westernized country, its easy to get caught up in that keeping-up-with-the-Joneses thing. We are blasted with advertising every second of the day, subtly persuaded to believe that we are not enough without that car, that flat screen TV, that newest model of iPhone/computer/iPad, anti-aging-anti-cellulite-anti-everything cream…You're not enough, not enough, not enough. You don't have enough: food, things, money...

Here’s the thing. All of this is an illusion. Step out of westernized thinking and culture for a minute, and consider the way the rest of the world lives. Here's why you and I are some of the richest people in the world:

Do you own a car? If so, consider yourself one of the elite. Less than 9% of the world owns a car.

Do you own a computer? Have internet access? Only 22% of world population has access to the internet, and many of those do not personally own a computer.

Do you have running water? More than one billion people globally lack access to safe drinking water.


Let’s bring it back to just America:

Do you make $33,000 or more annually? If so, you are in the top 50% of wage earners in the United States. According to the Census Bureau, the median income for an American family of three is a total 52K.

14% of Americans are living below poverty level- an income of less than $22,000 for a family of four. (Globally,  2.8 billion people survive on less than $2 a day)


So take heart, and count your blessings. Yes, we’re in a recession. Yes, it is really, really hard to find a job. And yes, many of us are making less now that we did in previous years. But in the eyes of most people in this world, we are rich beyond their wildest imaginings. 



Any of these people would love to trade places with us.



A perspective of lack and hopelessness ended Vicki Harrison's life. She had enough to live on, and family and friends to support her. Eventually, she would have found a job -- in fact, it could have been resume #201.


For more perspective, here's a great article:


Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Today I Feel Like a Failure

(This was originally my private journal entry today - but I decided to out myself on the chance that some of you, maybe many of you, have felt the same.)


Today I feel like a failure. There. I said it.

The past couple weeks have been the worst: chock full of disappointments, rejection, disagreements. My career is flailing. Three big workshops I was supposed to teach were cancelled. I’m getting paid peanuts to write boring research articles that no one will ever read. My tax returns are an embarrassment to all tax returns. My little ones are fighting constantly and I’ve tried everything I know to stop it, but Friday ended in them injuring each other, and me crumpling to a heap and sobbing. (For the record, I don’t cry very often, so this is kind of a big deal.) And then I got on my damn knees and prayed. And cried. And prayed some more.

I feel like a complete failure in my career, an even bigger failure as a parent, and a general failure as a human.

One of my friends was shocked that I could be having a bad day. “Your life looks pretty great from what I see on facebook.” And to that friend I said, everyone has a bright and shiny life on facebook, because we post only the highlights. We don’t post things like “My kids are at each others throats and I can’t find any work and I haven’t made one dime on my book.”  Another friend said CHEER UP! which is the most invalidating thing you can say to a person who is hurting. Even during trying times we all have much to be grateful for – I absolutely know this. But it’s a challenge to enjoy the lovely weather while your ship is sinking. I need to acknowledge the fact that my ship is sinking. I have to figure out how to fix it, or jump out and learn how to swim.

Over the weekend, bolstered by the kindness of friends and my husband, I pulled myself up by my proverbial bootstraps and by Monday I was ready to take on the week. And then wham-o. At 8am, major rejection from an agent who had read my full manuscript. And it was a nice, thoughtful response. She loved my writing, said the part about us being trapped in the burning house had her on the edge of her seat and near tears. She liked the drama and the dark parts. But some of the other parts she found “banal”. I’m sorry, she said, I’m sure that time in your life didn’t feel banal to you.

It’s been running through my head ever since. It’s not just my book she’s talking about. It’s my LIFE.
Here’s how Websters Dictionary defines it.
Banal: So lacking in originality as to be obvious and boring.
Synonyms: trite - commonplace - hackneyed - trivial - platitudinous

I know, I know…She’s just one person. That’s just one opinion. J.D. Salinger got rejection letters, too. And it shouldn’t bother me but it does. You put years into a book, you put your heart out there, completely vulnerable, and it’s hard. I had pain in my stomach all day yesterday, as if I’d actually been kicked in the gut. 

But listen - this blog is not a pity party. I’m not posting it so everyone will say “You’re not a failure!” This is a moment in my life – a shitty moment – but a moment nonetheless. I don’t intend to stay stuck here, but I’m giving myself a minute to grieve over dreams not panning out, the powerlessness I feel, my inability to find work, getting older, the fear that I’ll never amount to anything, the worry over my kids. That’s all real stuff. I can’t change it if I don’t acknowledge it.

I also know that this feeling is just part of being human. Everyone has failed. Everyone has felt terrible about themselves at some point. It’s what you do after you’ve failed that makes or breaks you. I could throw in the towel. I’ve done that before. Or I could decide not to give up, like these people did.


  
Here is what author Kathryn Stockett has to say about rejection: 

 “I received 60 rejections for The Help. But letter number 61 was the one that accepted me. After my five years of writing and three and a half years of rejection, an agent named Susan Ramer took pity on me. What if I had given up at 15? Or 40? Or even 60? The point is, I can’t tell you how to succeed. But I can tell you how not to: Give in to the shame of being rejected and put your manuscript—or painting, song, voice, dance moves, [insert passion here]—in the coffin that is your bedside drawer and close it for good. I guarantee you that it won’t take you anywhere.”

So I’ll keep sending my book out until I find the agent/publisher/editor who gets it because I know there are people who will find hope in my book- and hope is a much needed commodity in this world. And I’ll write these cheap research articles until something better comes along. And I’ll try each day to be the best parent I can be even when it doesn’t seem to be working.

Susan Sarandon said that every time she faces rejection, she celebrates because she knows she is being moved closer to what is right for her. I don't know if I'm that evolved, but hell, I like champagne.

Onward…

Sunday, July 21, 2013

"35 Years Ago, It Could Have Been Me"

 

“35 years ago, this could have been me.” These were President Obama’s words about Trayvon Martin in his impromptu speech on July 19th, following Zimmerman's not guilty verdict for the murder of Trayvon.

And it hit me in that moment. 35 years ago, theoretically, it could have been me, too. But it wasn’t.

For 16 months, the right-wing media has been on a nonstop campaign to portray Trayvon Martin- the murder victim- as a thug who deserved what he got. He was, after all, suspended from school for having traces of marijuana in his backpack. And he sent a few inappropriate tweets.

Let me tell you about my own teenaged past.

Like Trayvon, I was a good student, getting mostly A's and B's.
I also smoked pot.
I drank at parties.
I was picked up by the police for truancy, even handcuffed and taken in to the station.
I was in trouble with the principal for forging absence notes.
I sent inappropriate notes to friends filled with bad words (my day’s version of tweeting)
I once shoplifted, to see if I could get away with it. I did, because security never follows me in a store.
I got in a few fistfights when I was younger. (Like Trayvon, I defended myself against bullies.)
On my way to or from parties, I was often walking in wealthy neighborhoods late at night, where I didn’t belong.

But no one ever thought I was a bad kid. No one ever bothered me when I was walking in wealthy neighborhoods late at night because I looked like this:


  
And though I was a poor kid from the other side of the tracks, my mother never had to worry about someone shooting me for walking in the wrong neighborhood.

And then there’s my friend Dennis. He and I grew up together since the first grade. We lived in the same neighborhood. Had the same friends. Went to the same parties. But Dennis is black. His experience was very different than mine. Dennis served in the military just out of high school. He was stationed in Coronado, a very wealthy, very white neighborhood in San Diego. Every weekend when he was on leave and in civilian clothes, he would get pulled over by police and questioned: What are you doing here? Where are you going? What's in your car?  

Can you imagine serving in the U.S. military, and facing that humiliation week after week? And the thing is, though Dennis and I have been best friends for 45 years, he'd never told me that before. Immediately after the Zimmerman verdict, Dennis called me, and for the first time ever, we talked about race.


If there is any silver lining in this Trayvon Martin tragedy, it's that it has opened up some necessary wounds, and given us all a strong dose of reality. It’s time we all start sharing our stories. It's time we really listen, and try to understand another person’s point of view.

When I started working in gun violence prevention after Newtown, I began talking with a lot of parents who had lost children. Many of those parents were black. They too were moved to action by Newtown, but their words to me were: This has been happening in our communities for a long time. Our children are dying every day, but no one notices. It took the murder of 20 white children to get America's attention.

Linda Jay, one of the most courageous warriors for gun reform that I know, holds a picture of her daughter who was murdered.
Before I met these parents, I didn’t really know how deep the problem was because the media’s coverage is so minimal. Until I was standing in the streets marching with these mother and fathers, I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t really know.

Now I know. We all know. And it’s up to us to take action. No mother or father should ever have to lose a child, or to face this kind of injustice again.

If Trayvon Martin was a thug, then I was a thug, too. But because of the color of my skin, I got to finish high school, go on to college, and have a family, a full life and a rewarding career. I want all children to be safe on the streets of America. I want them to be safe in their neighborhoods, in schools, in movie theatres. I want them to be safe from dangerous Stand Your Ground laws devised by the NRA. All children deserve to grow up to have the opportunities I had.

Currently 24 states have Stand Your Ground (or similar) laws. I will stand my ground as a mom- and campaign until the last of these laws is overturned.


(Click here to read my blog on the roots of racism: Lizard Brain Strikes Again )

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Black in America- a guest post by Marquis Alexander



Today I turn my blog over to guest writer, Marquis Alexander. My husband Troy became friends with Marquis while the two of them were in an improv troupe. They spent a year laughing and performing together. Marquis is one of the funniest people I know. He is smart, highly educated, a political activist. He is friendly, outgoing and kind.  He also happens to be a black man, which has rendered him subject to experiences that many of us could never imagine. In the wake of George Zimmerman's "not guilty" verdict, I think we all need to wake up. We need to share our stories, we need to listen more. This is Marquis' experience of being black in America.

The Zimmerman Verdict Through the Eyes of a Black Man
By Marquis Alexander
 
We live in a nation that is terribly divided. A nation where some of its citizens are letting out cheers of joy because the shooter of a teenager walks free while others sheds tears of sadness because they feel that yet again our justice system has declared that while all men are created equal, all men are not regarded as such in the eyes of the law. Let me be clear, I feel no hate or ill will towards George Zimmerman. He is just another actor in this tragic play called America. I don't think he woke up in the morning looking to kill Trayvon on that fateful day, but I feel he was certainly responsible for the unnecessary death of a young man who was just trying to go home. In theory, when the gun toting George Zimmerman chose to get out of his car and "make sure the little punk didn't get away" instead of allowing the police to do their jobs, he then assumed responsibility for all that would follow. That's the way it should work, in theory, anyway.

Unfortunately, the jury and a large swath of America don't see it that way. As a black man what this judgment underscores isn't a lack of justice for Trayvon, but a deeper, scarier truth that I am not a man, but a suspect. This verdict says that if my mere presence as a black man is enough for you to feel threatened, and if you act from that place of fear your actions will be justified under the law and you will face no consequences if you turn out to be completely wrong and I end up completely dead.

The most difficult thing with this case is trying to explain to white people what it feels like to be a suspect every moment of your life. I'm sure every black male has a story of when they were pulled over for driving while black, walking while black, or hell just breathing while black. I'll list just a few of mine:

 I was 12 the first time I was randomly stopped by police and questioned because I was walking through Broadview (a white suburb of Chicago) on my way to my aunt's house in La Grange. After convincing them that I wasn't up to no good, they told me to hurry it along. When I was 14, I was a freshman on the football team at Proviso East High School which happened to be all black. After getting our asses kicked by Downers Grove South, we were walking to the bus to head back home. A few Downers Grove policemen pulled up, jumped out of their squad cars, hands on guns, and asked our white coach "Are you okay? Are these guys bothering you?" Even after he had assured them that the large black men WEARING FOOTBALL UNIFORMS were his team and that he was fine, they still asked him "Are you sure?" When I was 17 (same age as Trayvon) I was pulled over while biking to my father's house in Palos Hills. After explaining to the officers that I was coming from work (mind you I'm wearing my Burger King uniform and Burger King hat) and heading home, they commenced to tell me I was headed the wrong way and that the Trace (the subdivisions where the poor and middle class families lived) was that way. Giving him my best what the fuck are you talking about face, I told him "My father doesn't live in the Trace."

I could go on and on with these stories, like the time my white friends got a DWBIPS that's driving with blacks in the passenger seat or the time I almost got shot by police for having the audacity to be standing outside of the apartment building I manage, but that would be like shooting a dead horse carrying a bag of skittles.

Marquis addresses a large crowd at USC.
I know what some of you are thinking, "This is different, this Trayvon kid got kicked out of school for having marijuana and fighting. You went to Northwestern, there's no way you would end up like that." To that I say, google Robert Russ. Robert was a year ahead of me at Northwestern and was so easy going he was given the nickname “Fluff”. Now mind you he played defensive line so he was a BIG dude, a big BLACK dude. One night, just a few days before he was supposed to walk across the stage and get his diploma from a top 15 university, Fluff was shot and killed by police. The officer claimed self-defense, saying Fluff reached for the officer's gun and was cleared by the department. REALLY?!? An honors student AT NORTHWESTERN reached for an officer's gun. REALLY? Luckily for Fluff's family, the jury in the civil trial saw through that horse shit and gave them a sizable judgment. Though they may have felt a small bit of vindication, the fact is no amount of money his daughter, girlfriend, and mother received, is going to bring back Fluff.

The scary part is that I know there is no way for the police or any overzealous vigilante to know who I am or what I've done while I'm walking down the street. They wouldn't know that I've opened up for The President in front of forty thousand people or that I was the only man who spoke on a Ladies Night fundraiser with The First Lady and Jill Biden. They wouldn't know that I graduated from Northwestern, or that I built a robot to win my 8th grade science fair. They wouldn't know that I've raised money for the arts and the environment, that I've tutored young people and taught at one of the worst schools in Chicago. All they would know (which is the same thing that George Zimmerman knew about Trayvon) is that I am a black male, which in turn makes me a suspect, and you will receive no penalty for treating me as such.