Modern-Day Angels

Doors close. Windows open. Clients leave. Clients return. Items get lost. Angels find them.

Whenever something that could be perceived as “bad” happens, I take notice. Almost immediately, after the shock wears off, I ask myself: “What is the Universe telling me?” When I take that perspective, the ‘bad thing’ turns into a learning moment and suddenly the feeling of loss is replaced with something to gain.

I have this thing about losing items during taxi rides. I once left my camera in a New York taxi. A woman from Venezuela found it, discovered an image of a blog I had taken, left a comment there and returned the camera to me two months later.

Last weekend I had a new lose-an-important-item in a taxi experience. This time it was my wallet. By the time I discovered it the next day, ten hours had passed. I panicked. Slightly. It wasn’t the cash I cared about, but my driver’s license and green card-like EU visa that I was worried about. Then my dear friend told me what to do.

Cancel all credit cards. Block your debit cards. And don’t worry. It will come back to you.

How could one feel bad after being held in such light? So I did what she said, relieved by the caring tone of each customer service representative I talked with on the phone and by the presence of my friend who stood by me as I did so.

Yesterday my phone rang. It was my car dealership. The guy sounded a little uncomfortable, as if he had to tell me my car had ten days to live.

But it wasn’t that at all.

“I have someone on the other line who says he found some of your documents.” He said the guy had found the car dealership’s business card along with a pile of my cards. He gave me the guy’s cell phone number and wished me luck, but not before I blew him a kiss into the phone.

Angel #1!

It turns out the man who contacted my dealership owns the cleaning company that cares for the main train station in Freiburg. His cleaning personnel had found all my cards in a clear plastic bag in the trash. Apart from the cash, everything was there – every credit card, every loyalty card, everything. He insisted on bringing it to my doorstep the next day.

Angel#2 (guy who called) and Angel #3 (cleaning guy who was honest enough to give it to him)!

I blessed him (and offered him a finder’s fee, which he refused). Modern-day angels are everywhere. Trust them and they will find you.

Every time.

Difficult Conversations

The year 2014 is coming to a close. In a few weeks the holidays will be upon us.

I have never been happier to say farewell to one of the hardest years of my life.

In many ways, it has been a good year. I have developed new, positive, life-sustaining relationships that have given me so much strength in a time when I’ve really needed it. I have also had to allow some relationships to change dramatically, in the form of little to no communication and a distant well-wishing to ensure a healthy, new way of being.

Change is always difficult because it brings up a lot of things we’d rather not examine. It calls up our weaknesses and our blind spots. We are confronted, challenged and greatly unsettled by the newness of it all.

And yet change is also a way of tilling the Earth to bring in new, fertile ground. It is as necessary as oxygen. In a way, change means evolution. If we aren’t changing, we aren’t growing. And if we aren’t growing, we are dying.

And no one really wants to live in a state of death.

Ironically, change also brings death, the ending of the way we used to be. We have the opportunity to alter our thoughts, actions and behaviors to become more aligned with who we truly are.

Forgiveness can help.

It seems as though 2014 has been the Year of Difficult Conversations. I have had a lot of them – as recently as last week when a client admitted to me that he was sorry the way our project failed; that he appreciated my professionalism through it all; that he is embracing the Power of Slow as his world topples too. It was a magical moment of grace as I realized he could actually hear me say, “It was frustrating to know that my best didn’t yield what you were looking for.”

It was a conversation of forgiveness – and it moved me in ways I have yet to fully realize.

What I have also learned this year is that while difficult conversations may sting like hell, they are like wildfires that burn away the debris for new life to emerge. If we don’t express what we truly think and feel, those words burn us from the inside out.

Speaking your truth takes a lot of practice. A few things have helped me along the way whenever I’ve had to have an uncomfortable conversation:

  1. Prepare your key message. Practice what you are going to say. Start from the ending. How do you want the conversation to end? Begin it with that intention in mind.
  2. In some cases, it is helpful to actually say, “No matter what I am about to say, I want you to know that I care about you/the project/our collaboration, etc. You matter to me – my telling you this is actually an act of trust that you can hear me.”
  3. Do not take anything the other person says personally. It is not about you, your worth or your position in life.
  4. Actively listen to the other person. Do not allow distractions such as your smartphone or Facebook status get in the way. It shows respect when you give the other person your full attention.

You may feel like a toddler, waddling from one piece of furniture to the next as you hang on for dear life whilst falling periodically on your butt. But I promise you it will get better, your relationships will grow stronger and the ones that end as a result of your honesty were not meant to be in your life anyway.

The Secret to Happiness

Life can be hard. People can be harsh. Situations can lead us down the path to Hell. In all my years on this Earth, I have learned a few things that have become unshakable truths.

No one can make you happy or unhappy. You are the source of all joy and all sorrow. The way in which you experience things comes from within.

That may seem like a huge weight to bear, as if you are responsible for simply everything. Not so. All you can do is decide how you will respond to what happens.

Don Miguel Ruiz, an international best-selling author from Mexico who embeds his beliefs in the ancient Toltec tradition, offers powerful guidelines to maximizing our happiness. I discovered his book, The Four Agreements, about a decade ago. They are simple truths that have helped me on numerous occasions when things seemed to be falling apart.

Taken from the Toltec Spirit Website, Ruiz’ agreements are listed below:

1. Be Impeccable with your Word: Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the Word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your Word in the direction of truth and love.

2. Don’t Take Anything Personally: Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.

3. Don’t Make Assumptions: Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.

4. Always Do Your Best: Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse, and regret.

As with anything new, applying these agreements to our lives takes time. We are entrenched in habitual behaviors that aren’t easy to break. While we may not always remember to honor these agreements, life seems to go more smoothly when we do.

Some of you may master several of the points well while struggling with the others. For years I took things personally, acted defensively when I felt attacked and avoided conflict as a result. With tons of practice, I have been able to free myself from taking on other people’s projections and making them a part of me. I see them now for what they are (raising teenagers has helped me tremendously with this issue. You simply cannot live with a teen and take everything they say to heart.) And they are not a part of me at all.

Healthy distance and a loving heart can heal the trauma that created our bad habits. Happiness, after all, is not a destination, but a state of being. I would love to meet you on your journey to peace.

The great news is we get to decide anew every day for – or against – our own happiness. How will you choose?

Chasing the Light

The days have shrunk to half their size. The grandiose power of the sun has been replaced by a weaker version of itself. The sky is grey. The Earth is balding.

Winter is almost here.

I have noticeably started organizing my activities around the waning daylight. The abbreviated days have placed me in a rather petulant, rushed state.

“Do things by 4 p.m. Otherwise, it’s all over.” I make sure I place myself under the clouds in hopes a UV ray or two will plunk me on the head. My sun-simulating lamp stands at the ready because soon, even 4 p.m. will mean it is nearly pitch dark outside.

Foto-3It is hard to be productive when ever fiber of your being is shouting, “Why aren’t you hibernating?”

I am a light chaser. If I had my way, I’d live half the year in a very, very warm place. Warmth means sunshine, a rare commodity at this time of year in the Northern Hemisphere. I try to take things with humor, even as the dimness nibbles away at my well-being. I am like a wilted flower when the world turns cold.

Because I have chosen to live in cooler climes, I have learned to simulate light, not only in the form of lamps, but also in the form of food and connection. Vitamin-rich foods have felt the same sun I now miss, so when I eat them, I eat the sun too. Or I will connect with my sunnier friends, the upbeat ones whose inner light makes me want to wear shades.

And I am certain to turn on my own heart light, even when it’s hard and unfairness seems to rule the world.

Light dances between the shadows. If there is darkness, strike a match.

There is always a way to the better side of things. Sometimes all you need is a torch to guide you to that place.

Quieting the Complaining Mind

Between the hours of two and four in the morning, my mind enters the Fret Zone. I worry, complain, argue and fight about the weirdest things. It is as if all the frustration from the day comes tumbling into one pile of yuckiness. And if I am awake, those thoughts try to convince me that they are right.

Do you ever have one of those worst-case-scenario daydreams? It creeps up from behind when you least expect it. Then bam! You are rattled by a catastrophic thought.

Watching the evening news only reinforces the anxiety that the world is going down the tubes. I recently had to walk away from the television because every single story had a negative ending.

Clifford Nass, a professor of communication at Stanford University and co-author of the book The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships (Penguin 2010) suggests that negative and positive emotions are handled in different hemispheres of the brain. Negative emotions, he suggests, generally involve more thinking so the negative information is processed more thoroughly than positive ones. As a result, we tend to dwell on unpleasant experiences and use stronger words to depict what they felt like than happy ones.

An experiment conducted by Roy F. Baumeister, a professor of social psychology at Florida State University and co-author of a Review of General Psychology journal article “Bad Is Stronger Than Good” (2001) reveals how the same experience in reverse offers different intensities of emotion. The loss of $50, for instance, resulted in a stronger negative reaction than the happiness stemming from gaining the same amount. 

Of course it comes down to survival. Those who anticipate bad events tend to be better prepared for them. Back in the Cro-Magnon days, it was important to be a little pessimistic about the future. Your cognitive functions were necessarily on high alert so as not to slide into a false state of security. Any Mammoth hunter knows you need to get it before it gets you.

But today? Do we really need to be plagued by all those negative thoughts? In our relatively safe environment (and I speak only for myself – I am aware that someone in Syria certainly may not feel this way at present), we have a lot to be thankful for.

Therein lies the solution. I have found there is no room in my brain for the complaining mind to voice its opinion when I am feeling grateful. A state of gratitude is easily come by. All you need is to look at what you have, say a prayer of thanks and recognize the abundance around you.

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, recently said in an interview that she has long practiced daily gratitude by writing down the best thing that happened to her that day and dropping it in her so-called “Joy Jar”. Whenever she’s feeling blue, she picks out one of the pieces of paper and reminds herself that good things do come her way (I mean, Julia Roberts played her in the movie version of her book. I’d ride on that one for a couple of months, wouldn’t you?).

So the next time you’re up at 3 a.m. wondering why the world can be so mean, remember the good things. Think about them hard. Revisit your jar of joy – in whatever form it takes — and remind yourself that Universal Goodness does indeed exist.

How can you get your daily dose of joy? Well, my friend, as with all things – large and small — it starts with you.

Love in the Land of the Lost


The book pulled me in and kept me there, until last night when I turned the final page. Eleven Minutes by Paulo Coelho is a haunting story about a young girl from the backwaters of Brazil who seeks love in all the wrong places. She lands in Geneva, Switzerland, a place I know well. My heart broke there — several times; and so did hers. Despite the floral clock and the water and the banks, Geneva was a lonely place for us both.

The protagonist’s search for love is akin to most anyone’s experience. Sustainable love can only come when we reach inside ourselves and realize we are the generators of our own joy. When we love without clamoring, we are set free. She was willing to let her deepest love go because she knew that her attraction to his beauty stemmed in great part from the freedom she felt to leave.

Coelho’s own story fascinates me too. At the tender age of seventeen, his parents put him in a mental institution — twice — claiming he was mad. But his spirit and his creativity were not broken. He followed his path, discovering much later in life that he could indeed find expression for all those thoughts inside.

Coelho reminds me of Sebastião Salgado, another Brazilian artist whose breath-taking photography will leave you hungry for more. Much like Coelho, Salgado found the way to his art form later in life. After moving from Brazil to Europe, he decided to leave his well-paying corporate job in Paris at the age of 30 to do photography instead.

Wim Wenders’ documentary film The Salt of the Earth, which I recently saw with my love at the theater, is an epic narrative about Salgado’s journey as a photographer. He travelled to the farthest reaches of the Earth to document the human condition. When he finally landed in Rwanda during the mid-1990s, he lost all faith in humankind and stepped back from the subject of man. Later he discovered Nature and rekindled his belief in the universal goodness of life.

What struck me most about his life’s work was the support his wife gave him throughout all those years of travel. Raising two children in his absence must have been hard, but she understood his need to do what he did. She, like Coelho’s protagonist, was willing to let him go time and again.

The result is a collection of amazing imagery for which our world would be poorer if Salgado hadn’t followed his calling.

Love is what makes art possible. See for yourself.

 

Facebook Fatigue: The Search for Less Input

Bing. Buzz. Ping. Riiiiinnnnng! The invention of the smartphone has altered our lives forever. But has it improved them?

On any given day, I will receive, delete and answer over one hundred emails. Newsletters I never subscribed to pop into my inbox, multiplying no matter how often I unsubscribe. Text messages come from all corners of the Earth through Facebook, WhatsApp or the conventional iPhone delivery service. And I know I am not alone.

Every day we are inundated with information. I daresay 98% of it is useless or simply annoying. It sucks our time and our energy.

And yet we continue to pursue the data flow as if our lives depended on it.

Many of my friends have expressed Facebook fatigue. They post stuff, some quite successfully. They get a quick high from yet another like, but that fades fast. I have found myself begging my kids to allow me to post photos of them (which they despise) in hopes I will draw attention. But for what purpose?

WhatsApp, the multi-featured messaging system that was acquired by Facebook in February 2014, has found an astounding breadth of users in a relatively short time. According to a recent Huffington Post article by Peter Diamandis, this highly disruptive service is growing fast. He reports:

Quick Stats on WhatsApp:

  • 64 billion messages processed per day – 20B sent and 44B received
  • 465 million users on platform
  • 1 million join platform every day
  • 70 percent of users come back every day

If the average text message takes even ten seconds to write and send, you can image how much time we spend with our devices.

Or try on this for size. According to the blog Digital Marketing Ramblings, 72% of online adults visit Facebook at least once a day. In Europe there are 206 million active daily Facebook users; in the US and Canada it is 152 million. And the average time spent on Facebook — per day per person — is 21 minutes.

Don’t get me wrong. I love knowing what other people are doing and keeping up with friends and family. I also adore receiving photos, audio notes and messages from loved ones scattered across the globe. But the pull to pay more attention to my iPhone than my real life has me disturbed.

So for the next week, I am trying a little experiment. I am not going to check Facebook. Not once. Thankfully my social media clients are on a hiatus so I won’t have to.

Time saved thus far: over an hour.

Number of nerves saved: countless.

I’ll keep you posted. Pun totally intended.

Done, Not Perfect

“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”   — Maya Angelou

Beloved creativity. It can be an angel or a monster. It can haunt dreams – and fulfill them too.

Many of my friends are what I term “Creatives”. They see life — no — feel life in a remarkable way. They see beneath the surface of things, sense the pulse of the Universe that pushes blood through veins and capture the very essence of being. It is humbling to be friends with such people. In honor of their talent, I strive to do my own creative impulses justice.

Nothing gets my creative engine revving more than a walk through the woods. It is my oxygen tank, my life support system, my place of solace when the words just won’t come. Actually, I know they are there. They are always there. But sometimes the layers of life’s distress cover the thoughts needed to express that inner world just crying out to be unleashed.

A stressed Creative is uncreative. And there is nothing more frustrating than creative constipation.

Perhaps that is the real reason why I advocate The Power of Slow. Without allowing for our customized pace, life’s creativity would wither on the vine. Existence would be flat, accompanied only by the squeak of the hamster wheel we’re on.

Sound dramatic? Consider how many great ideas go unrealized because we say “I don’t have time”. In essence, we do. We just divert our attention to certain things while ignoring others. We prioritize to fit in that which we think we should be doing, all the while forgetting what we are meant to do.

If you want to unleash your inner Creative, the first step is to silence the inner Critic. We all know that voice inside that tells us lovely things such as “You don’t deserve it. You’re not good enough. Who do you think you are?” Prepare some canned answers when that voice shows up. “I so deserve it. I am more than enough. Who am I? Watch, and you will see.” In reality, that inner Critic is our fear, like a well-intentioned parent trying to protect us from harm. The trouble is most of what we imagine is harmful is imagined harm.

If you don’t try, you’ll never know. And who would want to be in the dark about their own potential?

One of the best lines I ever learned came from my sister who helped me see perfection wasn’t worth striving for. “Done, not perfect.” Call things complete. Move on. Enjoy the ride. Do what you can in the time that you have. Trust me. It’s not worth stressing about.

So go out there and create. The world will be richer for it. Truly.

Bad Choices, Good People

Sometimes it takes a series of really bad choices to finally make the right ones. But we can’t even know we’ve made bad decisions until we take a moment to step back and look at what we are actually doing — and why.

Even when we find the ‘why’ of things, it may take another good, long while before we actually take action.

That’s why I plead for time outs – for everyone. We need it. If you think you don’t need time off, think again. Even just a few minutes of solace makes you more efficient.

Change is hard. Really hard. We fear we will lose ourselves because we have ‘always done things that way.’ We identify so much with our own personal process — even if it harms us — that we forget to alter the course of our direction.

Change takes courage and insight and time and patience. But as my mama says, the one thing you can count on in life is change. Life is a bit like building a Lego house, brick for brick. You’re not sure what the end result will be, but you figure if you keep building, something will come of it.

The great thing about Legos — and life — is you can take things apart again if you need to. But as you know, that too takes courage and insight and time and patience.

I find travel makes accepting change a whole lot easier. Going new places opens my eyes to extraordinary experiences, even in the ordinary. It shifts energies, adjusts attitudes, moves the heart. It takes us away from the everyday to a new place, which makes us more receptive to new ideas and ways of thinking. And with every interaction we have with new cultures, a new piece of ourselves emerges.

Maybe you have made bad choices in your life. But they have shaped you into your unique form. Good people make mistakes. Everyone does.

The questions is: What one thing will you do differently today?

Island Time

The United Airlines clerk looked puzzled.

“Um, you want to go to Boston?” he click-clacked on his keyboard. His furrowed brow told me my flight wasn’t going to depart any time soon.

“Not from this airport. You’re in Richmond. Your flight leaves from Washington, DC.”

Funny.

Thankfully, we were driving my mother’s Crown Victoria, the type of car reserved for sheriffs and other persons of justice who need to drive fast.

By some miracle, we made it to the right airport – on backroads — in record time. We actually did the speed limit and somehow the traffic lights gods were with us.

Rushing through the massive international airport, I even made it to the gate in time. Only to learn that the flight was delayed by an hour. Then another. Then another.

We got on the shuttle to the airplane, only to be asked to turn around. Thunderstorms hindered take-off so we waited another hour. Then we got to board.

I sat next to a lovely student of veterinarian medicine. She lived on the island of Grenada and was as relaxed as I had ever seen a person be.

The airplane hopscotched across the sky. My guess was the pilots were trying to dodge the lightning. At one point, I asked her if I could hold her hand.

“Sure,” she smiled.

In that moment, an enormous lightning bolt flashed dangerously close to the left engine. I saw my life roll before my eyes to the beat of the thunderclaps. I really thought we were going to die.

I am not the greatest fan of air turbulence and I was grateful for her kindness. It had been, after all, quite a day. And I thought it wouldn’t be nice to end it with a crash landing or anything like that.

“You sure are calm,” I quivered as I eyed more lightning from my window seat.

“Once you’ve lived on an island, where everything moves slowly, you just learn to go with things. We’ll be fine. Trust me.”

Her depth of belief moved me. Sure enough, we landed safely and I invited her to my book signing the following week.

“Oh that’s my birthday!” she exclaimed.

I thought for sure she wouldn’t show.

But she did.

I will never forget that moment. Island time made her happy. I wanted what she had. So I started to think more carefully about how I perceived things.

Wrong airport? No problem. Get to the right one, then see what happens.

When you’re open like that, you meet the most amazing people. I’m looking forward to my island time this week. Kissing the Spanish sun is exactly what the doctor ordered.

Ya, man.