The Side Effects of Spreading Joy

I’ve often thought that if I had to stay in an emergency shelter due to some natural disaster, I’d volunteer at that shelter. It would sure beat sitting there, feeling terrified or in shock or completely and utterly helpless. What can I do? Scrub toilets? Do paperwork? Read to children? Pass out toothpaste? Anything?

I’m now even more convinced that I’d want to do that. I created a project for myself recently, and it was even more satisfying than I anticipated. I learned so much from it. Much of what I learned I wasn’t expecting.

It occurred to me that due to the pandemic, a lot of people would be struggling to give gifts this holiday season. Having identified a problem in my mind, I set about trying to think of ways to solve it. Gazing out the window at my little free library (I do that more than I care to admit), it occurred to me that books make great gifts. But I’d want people to be able to give brand new books, and they aren’t cheap.

Okay, first I needed to obtain the books. So I set up a Gofundme campaign, asking for donations. I set a goal of $500. It started off slow, because folks were more focused on the election and all the stress that was causing. But once that was behind us, people really became generous.

When I got 550 dollars, I was thrilled! I started doing research as to where I could get the biggest bang for my buck. I asked people on the Little Free Library Stewards Facebook group, and got a lot of great suggestions about bulk sellers and scholastic type organizations. There are dozens of publishers out there if you search.

Finally, I settled on Usborne Books, because Jordan, their independent consultant, contacted me and said that for every dollar I spent, they’d give me an additional 50 cents worth of books! So my 550 dollars turned into 825 dollars just like that! Woo hoo! And I have to say that the quality of the books I received was outstanding. (Here’s Jordan’s webpage, if you’re interested in working with her.)

With Jordan’s expertise, I was able to focus mainly on book collections where the individual books could stand alone. I didn’t want books that required reading book one before you could move on to book two. But book collections are much more affordable per unit than individual books are. After I placed the order, two big boxes of books arrived at my door in no time flat. They were for a variety of age groups. I was so excited!

And then, after that, another 50 dollars rolled in. What to do? Get more books, of course, but where in this short timeframe? I went to the dollar store and got a bunch there. Then I happened to look at the books at Costco, and found some collections there. Not as cheap as I’d like, but not bad. So I threw in a collection of Dr. Seuss books and a collection of Newberry Award books, such as Charlotte’s Web. I received a few donations of new books as well.

I went home and piled all the books on the dining room table. 180 books in all. Holy cow. That’s a lot of books. The pictures below are only a few of those.

I knew I didn’t want to gift wrap the books in advance, because every child, every person, is different. I also knew that parents would prefer looking at the books to make sure they were appropriate to their values and their child’s interests and reading level. But the theme of this whole project was that books make good gifts, so I decided to cut some Costco wrapping paper to the proper size for each book, and put that wrapping paper inside the book. Once the gift was chosen, they would then have the wrapping paper to wrap it with.

Speaking of the appropriateness of this project, I wanted to appeal to the widest audience possible, so I made sure that none of the books were religious or political. And I also used neutral, or, at the very least, winter-themed wrapping paper. These books don’t have to be Christmas presents. They could be for Hannukah, Kwanza, Winter Solstice, Festivus, Birthdays, whatever. That was very important to me.

Not for nothing, cutting wrapping paper for 180 books is quite the undertaking. Yes, I watched Netflix as I worked. Even so, thank goodness Dear Husband lent a hand, or I’d probably still be sitting there, aching back and all.

Here’s the part of the project where I started to panic. How would I get these books into the hands of people who needed them the most? This was more of a challenge than I first thought.

Not even in my wildest dreams would 180 books leave my little free library within a month, unless I really advertised. Unfortunately, if I spread the word on community forums, I would also risk attracting book resellers. These resellers have been known to steal the entire contents of little free libraries, and then sell the books on Amazon. That would defeat my purpose of getting these books to people who couldn’t afford to buy books. All my work would have been for naught. So I would need to get creative.

Where would I find families in need? Hmm… my first thought was the local women’s shelter. And then after listening to a heartbreaking story on NPR, I also thought of the food bank. I contacted both agencies, and they were quite happy with my idea. So I divided the books into 3 piles: 60 books for the women’s shelter, 70 for the food bank, and 50 for my little free library.

The women’s shelter was easy. I simply dropped off the box of books with the director. They were very happy to have them. Done.

The food bank turned out to be a lot of fun. We were allowed to set up a table, outside, next to the food bank line, and we could talk to people as they came in. “Would you like to give someone a book? It’s free.”

There was a bit of a feeding frenzy at first. Some people took more books than they had children. I had to put a stop to that. I wanted to spread the love. Some people were really shy, and had to be encouraged to take one for each child. Others thought they’d have to pay for them.

A great deal of the people in line at the food bank barely spoke English, and were thrilled to get books so their children could assimilate into the culture in advance of going to school. And reading those books to the children would help them practice the language, too. I could just imagine a mother sitting with her toddler, saying, “See? In English, a dog says ‘woof’.”

In about 2 hours time, the food bank books were gone, and I had a silly smile on my face. Now I was left with just the 50 books for the little free library. I didn’t want to put them out all at once, because of book resellers. I decided to put out about 8 at a time and replenish as needed.

Unfortunately, they weren’t moving. I even did a big sidewalk chalk sign that said, “Books make great gifts!”. Still nothing. Sigh.

Finally, I decided to post information about it on my little free library’s Facebook group page and hope for the best. After chatting with a few of the regular patrons, they asked for some books for families they were trying to help out. They gave me the ages of the children in question, and I put together packages for them to pick up. It was fun, choosing the books for each child. I felt like Santa’s helper.

I also reached out to a few local educators that I know, and asked them to spread the word among parents. I have about 30 books left, and that’s a workable number for my little free library. It’s amazing. I’ve given out 150 books so far!

As I said, this project has taught me much. First of all, I’m getting back just as much joy as I’m giving out. This has been a truly gratifying experience. Second, I’ve met a lot of amazing, generous, and hardworking people that I would never have talked to otherwise, and that has been a thrill during all this isolation.

That leads me to the biggest lesson of all. I’ve been spending a lot of time, just like everyone else, stressing out about the pandemic, the social unrest, the political unrest, and the environment. I have been in a very dark place, as have we all. But while I worked on this project, I didn’t focus on any of that. I didn’t think of Trump even once. I just poured everything I had into this positive act, and I can’t begin to describe how good it felt.

So my recipe for getting out of a dark place is to shine a light. If you do that, it will come back to you. And there’s nothing like it. Those who are obsessed with greed and hate have no idea what they’re missing.

Happy holidays, dear reader.

An attitude of gratitude is what you need to get along. Read my book! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

Having Something You Rock At

I was just about to blog about the importance of having something that’s yours, all yours, that you do well. It does wonders for your self-esteem and it helps you find joy in life. It doesn’t necessarily have to be your career, and you don’t necessarily have to be the best of the best at it, but I think everyone needs to feel, at least part of the time, that they’ve got this, whatever “this” may be for each person.

But just as I sat down to write, I came across this quote. Trust Kurt Vonnegut to make me see things in a whole new light. I still believe the above, but now the below adds nuance to my theory.

“When I was 15, I spent a month working on an archeological dig. I was talking to one of the archeologists one day during our lunch break and he asked those kinds of “getting to know you” questions you ask young people: Do you play sports? What’s your favorite subject? And I told him, no I don’t play any sports. I do theater, I’m in choir, I play the violin and piano, I used to take art classes.

And he went WOW. That’s amazing! And I said, “Oh no, but I’m not any good at ANY of them.”

And he said something then that I will never forget and which absolutely blew my mind because no one had ever said anything like it to me before: “I don’t think being good at things is the point of doing them. I think you’ve got all these wonderful experiences with different skills, and that all teaches you things and makes you an interesting person, no matter how well you do them.”And that honestly changed my life. Because I went from a failure, someone who hadn’t been talented enough at anything to excel, to someone who did things because I enjoyed them. I had been raised in such an achievement-oriented environment, so inundated with the myth of Talent, that I thought it was only worth doing things if you could “Win” at them.”

-Kurt Vonnegut

So, in light of this new insight, thanks to one of my favorite authors, I now have this postscript. I genuinely think that people should try a wide variety of things. And I agree with Kurt that the experience is the thing. You learn from everything you do. It adds to your skill set. And it makes you a well rounded individual.

I still think you should find something you rock at, but I think that trying a variety of things is how you will find that special thing that will give you joy. I also think that you shouldn’t be so hard on yourself. That one thing doesn’t have to be huge, like becoming president. It might seem small to someone else. They might not see making delicious cherry pie as a life-changing skill. But that pie (or whatever else) might be where you find yourself in the zone. And that is an awesome place to hang out every now and again.

Rock on, dear reader. Rock on.

Check this out, y’all. I wrote a book! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

The Tail End of Depression

I’ve struggled with depression my entire life. It’s like having an unwanted roommate living in my head. No, that implies multiple personality. It’s more like a heavy, wet, woolen blanket that settles down over the top of me at unexpected times, for an unknown duration. And it blocks out the sunshine. Yeah. That’s it. And while the blanket is weighing me down, the air is the consistency of chocolate pudding, which makes it really hard to move.

So depression, for me, is a heavy, chocolate pudding-covered, sunshine-blocking, wet woolen blanket. One that nobody can see but me.

Jeez, that makes me sound unhinged. Ah, well. So be it.

But in a lot of ways, I’m really lucky. I hear that some depressed people can’t sleep. That must be horrific. Not me. When I’m depressed, I can sleep entire days away if given the opportunity. I actually look forward to it.

And some people live in a state of perpetual depression. What a nightmare that must be. Fortunately, my depression comes and goes like the tide, only with less predictability.

Because of that, there’s this sweet spot between depression and normalcy that I cherish. It’s always very abrupt and unexpected. One minute I’m plodding along, and the next… whoosh! The blanket gets whipped off, the sunshine dazzles me, and the air is fresh and clean. All tension and pressure is relieved. It’s like some blockage has been released. Blessed relief. The hills are alive with the sound of music. I get to embrace the normal again.

I have no idea what causes this mood conversion. I wish I did. It would be nice to be in greater control of my brain chemistry.

I’m glad I don’t go the opposite direction, though, into mania. That’s a roller coaster ride that I wouldn’t want to be on, because I bet the end of mania is like the very opposite of my sweet spot, and that would be my definition of hell.

On a brighter note, my depression has really made me appreciate those times when it’s not with me. I can’t imagine taking normalcy for granted. I will always know its value. I may not always have joy, but I’ll always have gratitude. And that’s a good thing.

I wrote this for those of you who can relate. Maybe you’re unable to express yourself in this arena, but need to hear your struggle put into words. Maybe you can share this post with loved ones who don’t quite understand. Regardless, please know that you’re not alone. I’m sending you some sunshine to see you through.

glory-sunshine-from-the-edge_1152x864_71915

Cultivate an attitude of gratitude! Read my book! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

 

So Lucky to Miss You

A lifetime ago, I was traveling with a friend and having a wonderful time. But at one point I did mention to her that I missed my boyfriend. (I can’t even remember who the guy was, which tells you a lot about the passage of time.) To my shock, my friend got really, really angry with me.

Apparently, she was of the opinion that if you are busy missing someone, you can’t also be enjoying yourself, and I was therefore allowing myself to spoil the trip. To this day, I can’t relate to that mindset at all.

You see, when I am having a great experience, that’s when I tend to miss people the most, because I would dearly love to have the people I care most about with me to share in those joyful times. I can’t imagine thinking otherwise. It seems like a natural conclusion to draw.

I’m not going to start avoiding the good times, just so I won’t miss my loved ones. That would be absurd. And besides, I don’t think that yearning for someone’s company is necessarily a negative emotion.

I genuinely believe that I am lucky to have people that I miss. It means I’ve built up strong relationships over the years. It means that there are people who matter a great deal to me. It means that I know what it is to love.

Life will take you to many places. Sometimes the people most significant to you will be unwilling or unable to follow. They have their own journeys, after all. And sometimes their lives will be cut short, leaving you to forge a path on your own.

So cherish the missing. Revel in the fact that you have someone to miss. Be glad that love is a part of your life. What a gift! It doesn’t get any better than that.

i_miss_you_like_crazy_by_musiciseverything16-d3d6e4r

An attitude of gratitude is what you need to get along. Read my book! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

Dance, Dance, Dance

Okay, I confess. One of my guilty pleasures is the show Dancing with the Stars. I just love watching people do something well that I can’t do at all. (Oh, I can boogie with the best of ‘em, but formally dance? Not me. I can’t even walk in heels.)

There’s just something so wonderful about being able to express your emotions with your body. It’s as if dancers project their joy from the very tips of their fingers and toes. It’s beautiful to see.

At the end of this most recent season, I impulse-bought myself a ticket to their live tour, something I’ve wanted to do for years, so several days ago I got to experience that joy firsthand. I was rather star struck, because I feel like I’ve gotten to know all these people, and now here I was, breathing the same air! It made me feel like I was back in junior high school or something.

I was really glad that I brought binoculars, though, because I was in the nosebleed seats, and half the time I wouldn’t have known who was dancing without their help. But once I was able to suss out who was who, I could put the binoculars down and just enjoy the big picture. I left there feeling so content.

It’s magical to bear witness to such glorious artistry. We all have so much potential. There’s just so much opportunity for magnificence. I don’t know about you, but that makes me feel like good really is capable of triumph.

Here are some of my blurry photos from the tour. What with all the light and motion, my camera wasn’t exactly up to the task, but you get the idea.

Like this blog? Then you’ll LOVE this book! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

Moving Moments

My friend Jim told me the other day that when he saw the Grand Canyon for the first time, he was moved to tears. I totally get that. Sometimes you are just struck by the pure, intense beauty of the moment.

Since, for me, these moments are rare, they seem all the more precious. Because of that, they reside firmly in my memory. I would posit that when you are moved to tears, you are never more firmly in the moment, the now. You are there, man. Totally there, and completely grateful to be alive. It’s the best feeling on earth.

I love both experiencing that and also witnessing it in others. When someone cries while saying their wedding vows, it completely does me in. (And I don’t even like weddings, usually.)

I remember when I took this picture. I had finally gotten my first bridgetending job, after a lifetime of jobs that I absolutely hated. I was standing on the balcony, watching the sunrise, and thinking how lucky I was to be able to witness this miracle, and to be getting paid for something I love to do. I’m glad the camera had automatic focus, because it was hard to see through my tears.

Wishing you moments of absolute and utter joy, dear reader.

25963_4416092000718_1762803552_n

An attitude of gratitude is what you need to get along. Read my book! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

Finding Your Joy

Recently, a friend introduced me to this Youtube video of S. White, a Taiwanese street performer. Now I can’t stop watching it. Not only is she a very talented drummer, but I can’t look away from the pure joy she expresses while she does her awesome thing.

I can’t help but envy her. She’s 23 years old, and she clearly loves what she does. I didn’t find something I loved to do until I was 36. I was meant to be a bridgetender. (It’s not nearly as exciting as what S. White does, but it suits me.)

What shocks me is that so many people never find their joy. I think the mistake people make is focusing on the big money instead of the personal bliss. Yeah, you’ll probably always be sitting pretty, financially, as a lawyer, but what’s the point if you wake up every morning dreading the day ahead?

Life is what is happening day in and day out. You can’t live for the occasional high of the next big purchase. There are too many long stretches in between. And while a Mazerati may make you smile while you’re driving it, it won’t make you smile when you tuck in to bed at night and look back on your day. Things won’t keep you warm. Experiences will.

Instead of finding a career and trying to cram yourself into it, find out what you need in life to be satisfied. THEN find the pastime that will provide you with those things. I guarantee you that if you do that, everything else will fall into place.

S White
S. White. The epitome of joy.

Hey! Look what I wrote! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

Unexpected Rainbows

The other morning, I went into the kitchen to fix some breakfast for me and my dog, and the entire room was full of rainbows. It didn’t last long, and no, I wasn’t hallucinating. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Diamond-like drops of water were hanging down from the awning outside my window, and the sun was out for a change, and at the perfect angle to cast its light through those drops, causing the rainbows. The mirror in the kitchen also happened to multiply them. I stood there for a moment, embraced by color, thinking how wonderful it is to be alive. What a wonderful life I’ve had and am still having!

Afterward, while poaching an egg, I wondered if my loved ones know I feel that way. You see, I do struggle with depression. I have done so my entire life. I suspect I’m better at hiding that from strangers than I am from the people who are closest to me. I can see how it would be easy to assume I lead a joyless existence.

That’s the beauty of having a blog. You get to put your thoughts and feelings out there for all to see. So, in the event I’m run over by a bus tomorrow, here, for the record, is how I feel about my life.

On the whole, I try to look at every day as a precious gift. I’ve been given ample opportunity to learn and to travel and to experience amazing things. I’ve loved a lot of people, and I’ve been loved in return. I’ve had quite a bit of good luck, having been born in a relatively free country with relatively good opportunities, at a time in this nation’s history when women have had relatively few restrictions, and I have cherished that independence.

If anything, I’ve eaten too well. I’ve mostly experienced decent shelter. I have taken advantage of the brain that I was born with. Even in my darkest hours (and there have been plenty of those), I have never forgotten that most people are far less fortunate than I have been, and I try not to forget that I’ve done very little to deserve this privilege.

There have been enough unexpected rainbows in my life to make me feel grateful. I am, right here and now, happy with how my life has turned out, and excited about what’s to come. Because of that, I fully intend to look both ways before stepping into any bus lanes. I hope you will do the same, dear reader.

IMG_1710
Me, standing in a rainbow, beneath an oculus in Split, Croatia, in 2006. What a life!

An attitude of gratitude is what you need to get along. Read my book! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

 

Keeping Christmas

In A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, Scrooge utters a line that I’ll never forget: “Keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.” As detestable as Scrooge may be at first, that sentiment has always made sense to me. Christmas should never be forced upon anyone.

Part of the reason that I see a spike in jumpers at my drawbridge at this time of year is that when you’re depressed, being told that you’re supposed to be merry simply because it’s that time of the year is, well… depressing. It’s almost as if you have to bear an additional burden of guilt during this season, because you’re not feeling all Joy to the World.

And people seem to forget that there are as many ways to celebrate the holiday as there are celebrants. Some people are extremely devout and focus on that aspect of the holiday. Others are secular and celebrate mainly due to family tradition. Some people go all out, filing their yards with a million lights, synchronized to music, and buying gifts for even the most distant of relatives. Others are very quiet and discrete in their observance of the day. Some don’t celebrate Christmas at all. Everyone has a right to keep Christmas (or not keep it, for that matter) in their own way.

I must confess that for a few years, there, I wasn’t really keeping Christmas at all. When Chuck, the love of my life, died in 2014, I just couldn’t find it within me to even acknowledge the day, really. I didn’t put up a tree. I didn’t exchange gifts or go to any holiday events. In fact, I basically did my best each year to keep my head down and pretend the holiday didn’t exist.

Since I’m not a Christian, my Christmas focus has always been about love and family and warmth and togetherness. And suddenly I found myself all alone. I really didn’t see the point in even trying to go through the motions, when that tsunami of grief was liable to wash over me at even the most unexpected of times. I wandered through an emotional wasteland, where all the mistletoe had long-since withered.

This year, though, I’m starting to slowly lift my head and come out amongst the living again. I’ve attended a lot of holiday events both alone and with friends. And while I still can’t justify the expense and effort of putting up a tree and decorating it when I’d surely be the only one to see it, I did decide to decorate in my own special way. The first step was taking my Christmas box out of mothballs.

I pulled out my Christmas lights, and affixed them to my bedroom wall in the shape of a (decidedly abstract) tree. (Those Command removable hooks are one of life’s great inventions.) I replaced those lights that had burned out, and that process made me reflect on the passage of time.

Decorating was a bittersweet experience. I realized that on some level I had really missed my Christmas ornaments. They’re almost like family members that I had been neglecting. Each one has a story. There was the Nisse that my grandmother brought from Denmark. There were the many ornaments my mother made for me, and some that I made as a child. Many are keepsakes that I got during various vacations, which brought back happy memories. Some were gifts from friends. I chose a few of my favorite ornaments to hang on my abstract wall tree, and I must say, they made me smile.

And then, like a blade through my heart, I came across this ornament that I had made for Chuck. I had forgotten all about it. I held it in my hand and tried not to cry. But I decided to hang it anyway, because he will always be a part of me.

IMG_2982

Another hard moment: Deeper in my Christmas box I came across the stocking that I had cross stitched for Chuck. I can’t remember if I ever had the opportunity to fill it for him. We only had 4 years together, and I don’t know when I made it. But I decided to hang it on my mantel so that the stocking I made for myself wouldn’t look quite so lonely. (I haven’t had a mantel since 2010, so it seemed worth decorating. Nice to use it for something more than a place to show off my book, which incidentally, makes a great gift. Just sayin’.)

After I finished decorating, I looked around, and felt rather proud of myself. Yes, I’m still alone. Yes there were tears in this process. There will probably always be tears. But I’m home. It feels like home.

To celebrate, I participated in one more tried-and-true holiday tradition: The annual humiliation of the uncooperative dog.

IMG_2979

From my house to yours: Happy Holidays!

Oh, Happy Day!

One of my favorite sayings is that a fish doesn’t realize it’s in water until it jumps out of it. I can totally relate to that. I just jumped out of something myself. Epic revelation!

I just got some really, really, really good news, which unfortunately I can’t share with you, dear readers. Just think about the best news you’ve ever heard in your life, and it’s on that level. The news is so good, in fact, that I’m feeling a little nauseous from sheer relief.

And therein lies the situation I just jumped from. Yes, I knew I had been under an incredible amount of stress. Yes, I knew it was making me miserable. But having the problem whisked out from under me like a tablecloth yanked out from under my mother’s best china, with nary a break, is, well, life-changing. There’s adrenaline involved, for sure. I don’t think I realized just how much the situation was impacting me on the most fundamental of levels.

I. Am. Free!!!!!!!!!

That’s an odd feeling. Because up to this moment I didn’t realize I hadn’t been free. I didn’t truly get how shackled I was to my stress and anxiety.

I feel like jumping in puddles! I feel like kissing someone! I feel like a new person. What a gift!

It’s moments like this that make life truly worthwhile. I hope that you get to have a similar experience at least once in your life. And when you do, I hope you recognize it for what it is: a leap out of your personal pond. Revel in it!

Joy

Check out my refreshingly positive book for these depressingly negative times. http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5