The Smallest Things Can Mean the Most

This blog is called Beacon & Joy because I lived at the intersection of Beacon and Joy Streets in Boston, and I always loved the name of that place. But it’s also called Beacon & Joy because I am always looking for beacons of light in otherwise dark times and because I have trained my eyes to focus on joy. This is the best way I’ve found to move through my own life. I also hope to offer a beacon and some joy to others. It makes me happy to share the things that make me happiest. It’s why I started blogging in the first place.

Over the past year, I have watched my own reactions to cruel and heartless things uttered by our President. I’ve had days when I was undone by them, when I spent the entire day trying to make sense of why someone would say something like that, much less the President.

He did it again yesterday. And this time I watched my own reaction.

I still felt the heartbreak that has come to feel familiar. But while my heart was aching, I thought about what I could say or do to make even the smallest bit of difference in my own small world.
This is what I said, on Facebook:

I believe part of the reason we are all here together is to lift each other up.
All of us. Not just the President. But I miss having a President who tried
to do this— to inspire and to life people up. And who saw it as part of his job.

We are all in this together. And all of us can probably remember a time when
a kind word or a thoughtful gesture made all the difference. Let’s fill the gap
where our President is so lacking. We are all One.

 

These beliefs are central to who I am. They are what I’ve believed for decades, but these beliefs have only been reinforced by the challenges life has sent my way and only deepened in the past few years, as I have watched with heartbreak as I have watched the Presidency reduced to the feather in the cap of a man for whom ego is everything.

I cannot change the President right now. That’s not a power I have, though I have fantasized of possibilities for doing so. But what I can do is step out into my day with the intention of finding beacons and joys, and of being a beacon and a joy.

Has it ever happened to you that you’re having what seems like the worst day ever and then someone is unexpectedly kind to you, and it changes everything? Me too. In fact, it happened just a few weeks ago. And in those moments I am flooded with gratitude and reminded of how big small actions can be. A smile. A kindness. A hug when you really needed one.

So when I feel this heartbreak, I’m heading out into the world armed with the things I do have at my dispoal— my smiles, my kindnesses, my hugs. I know they can make all the difference.

Join me, will you? Let’s make this day a beautiful one, where we extend kindness and love to others, even in the smallest of ways.

The effect can be incredibly powerful. And you will be an antidote to the things that make our hearts ache. You will be a beacon and a joy. As you are.

Making New Year’s Resolutions from a Place of Self-Love

I am such a fan of New Year’s Resolutions that I’ve been known to go over-board and make ten different resolutions all focused on “bettering” myself in one way or another. But this year I’ve decided to do something different. And, just a few days into the new year, I’m already noticing a difference.

Resolutions can often feel like they are coming from a place of seeking perfection and can lead to feelings of shame when we (inevitably) slip up. So when we resolve to work out every day (with an image of a perfect body in mind) and then miss a workout or notice how far from “perfect” we are looking, it can leave us feeling bad— worse, even, than when we started with the hope and possibility that can come with the blank slate of a new year.

So this year I tried something different. For one, I added self-love to my list of resolutions. I’m trying to focus on being kind to myself, noticing what I’m doing right, rather than directing most of my energy at what I’m messing up. (The brain’s negativity bias, bred as a survival mechanism for our ancestors can be blamed for this, and it’s something we have to work to overcome. Focusing on the good helps us to do this.)

Each year, two resolutions that are invariably on my list are being more organized and eating healthy (in the busy-ness of the holiday season, the wheels normally come off both of these intentions for me— leaving me feeling a bit bloated and far from organized). But this year I added a caveat. I resolved to “clean and organize my home as a form of self-love” and “eat healthfully as a form of self love.” This has already changed everything.

I’ll just say it— cleaning and organizing is not my favorite use of time (though I love the outcome). So it can feel (literally) like a chore and a bore. And, even though it’s always on my list of resolutions, somewhere a few weeks into January, I start to try to avoid it (and then feel bad about that fact). But using cleaning as a form of self-love feels totally different. I’ve found myself stopping while I’m washing dishes and actually ENJOYING it (what?!) when I’m doing it from a place of self-love and love for my home rather than as a quest for perfection. Just last night, I found myself smiling and feeling a huge sense of accomplishment as I rinsed the last grains of rice from my family’s dinner down the drain of my now-clean sink. Normally I would have been feeling kind of put-out about having to spend time cleaning after a long day and making dinner. But not now; not when I am seeing it as a way of extending love toward myself and my home.

And same with eating healthily. I can make it on sheer will for a few weeks or maybe a month (studies show 80% of people give up on their New Year’s resolutions by February 2) when I’m doing it in a quest for perfection. But when I’m eating healthily as a way of loving my body, it feels entirely different (and leaves more room for real life).

Sometimes you may want to eat a piece of chocolate cake from a place of self-love too. And that feels different too! Rather than eating the cake with guilt and disappointment in ourselves, we can just fully ENJOY it— and then get back to eating healthily from a place of self-love. And, after all, eating healthily is not a demand of perfection. It’s completely healthy to dig into chocolate cake every once and a while. And better to enjoy it while you’re eating it than hating yourself for doing it.

What if we tried to love ourselves with our resolutions, rather than set ourselves up for failure and shame? What if you resolved to love yourself through your resolutions? How might it look— and feel— different?

Holding Hands

One day when Gabby was still a baby I was in the back of a cab descending down the steep hill of Beacon Street in Boston when I saw a mom and her young daughter at the corner holding hands. The sun streamed around them, lit them from above, and I couldn’t pull my eyes from them. I felt my heart squeeze tight, as I wondered if Gabby and I would ever look like that, casually holding hands at a street corner. Something inside told me it would be a while, if ever. That feeling inside made me nervous. I didn’t know where it was coming from. And I so yearned to be like that mom and daughter at the corner of Beacon and Tremont Streets. I didn’t know if it could be, but I held onto the wish, the longing, tucking that image into my heart and hoping we’d one day find ourselves there.

Gabby resisted holding hands for a long time. It was one way her developmental delays exhibited themselves. She had been late to walk, late to talk. And though now she was walking (and running), she was still hesitant holding hands. I can’t say for sure why, but I think she was afraid you’d go too fast and she wouldn’t be able to will her body to keep up. She needed more control than holding hands allowed. Sometimes you have to hold hands, of course, for safety (like when you’re in a cross walk). We always did that. But when we reached the other side of the street, Gabby would pull her hand away. If she didn’t need to hold hands, she’d avoid it.

It was a long time before Gabby wanted to hold hands.

I don’t remember the first time Gabby wanted to hold hands, the first time she slipped her hand into mine at her own direction, but I remember the feeling. It was like exploding fireworks of joy inside my skin. Like the first time a boy I liked first slipped his hand into mine, except better.

To this day when she slips her hand into mine, unbidden, or asks to hold hands, my heart skips a beat and I remember the mother and daughter holding hands on Beacon Street. At moments like that, I feel like I’ve made it.

Just last night as we walked home from the park, Gabby placed her hand into mine and gripped tightly. It felt like heaven in a touch. I listened to what she said; I smiled at her as we walked. But my heart was in our hands. In the moment, noticing how it felt to have my ten year old daughter reach for me, want to hold my hand.

That dream finally came true for me— Gabby reaching out to hold my hand. It happened for the first time years ago, but each time she does it, it stops me in my tracks. My heart seizes and remembers how long I yearned for a moment like this. We walk along, with the breeze in our hair, the cool San Francisco evening air enveloping us. But the warmth of our hands, together, it feels like a promise made so long ago, and fulfilled in this fleeting moment. I want to hold on forever. But instead I try just to live in the moment, to feel our hands together, to breathe in the air and thank God for this moment. This moment I dreamed of years ago in the back of a taxi cab.

Life Advice from the Back of a Shampoo Bottle

A few years ago, a shampoo bottle gave me life advice that I’ve been trying to follow ever since. I know this sounds ludicrous, but this wasn’t your ordinary shampoo bottle. This one had been through some stuff and wanted to share its sage advice.

Most shampoo bottles just say: “Lather, rinse, repeat,” and really, it would be difficult to apply that to any part of your life outside the shower. This one was different. It’s guidance really hit home and stopped me in my tracks the moment I read it.

This shampoo eschewed the advice of all the shampoo bottles that came before it and took a whole different tack. It told me to “Lather. Indulge. Rinse.” I could hardly believe it. Indulge? Was my shampoo bottle telling me to slow down?

I think it was. When do you ever hear the word indulge outside the context of talking about food? And don’t the food connotations of food feel kind of negative? Is that just me?

Well, this shampoo bottle didn’t care about negative connotations of indulgence conjuring laziness and gluttony. This shampoo wanted me to savor the moment it was in my hair.

And the conditioner bottle had even more specific instructions: “Massage, indulge (for at least one minute), rinse.”

I took those suggestions very literally. I made mental note to stay there, chilling with the conditioner in my hair, for what I could only guess was at least a minute (since I don’t have any waterproof time-telling paraphernalia to bring into the shower with me).

It’s probably just a sign of the obedient child I was and always will (kind of) be, but I followed the demands of that shampoo and conditioner. I stopped and noticed where I was. I ceased feeling like my five minutes in the shower (particularly the few minutes washing and conditioning my hair) were just a means to an end. A necessary evil.

No, this was a precious moment to “Indulge,” for crying out loud!! It was an order. It was printed in gorgeous serif font right there. I’m not gonna ignore this wisdom! Especially because the bottle cost $36 and makes my hair look like Gisele’s (or as close as it’s gonna get, anyway) and smells like heaven. This is no freaking drugstore Prell (which I always wanted to buy when I was little. Do they even make that beautiful green shampoo jello-like concoction anymore?)

So I slowed down and enjoyed myself because my shampoo told me to. I think about it literally every time I take a shower now. And sometimes when I’m not in the shower too.

Because everything is moving so fast these days. And it’s a rare moment that technology isn’t crowding out your brief moments of unspoken-for time. But there are moments worthy of indulging in, savoring, enjoying (you catch my drift), and I think life is better when we do that.

And if we can slow down and indulge for the minute we have shampoo or conditioner in our hair, what else could we savor and appreciate more? A sunset? A delicious meal? A moment of familial tranquility? A drink with a friend? A page of a favorite book?

Now, listen, I am no expert on this. Far from it. I mean, I still have to stop and remember what the shampoo bottle says when I’m in the shower. But every time I do, my body relaxes palpably. The commandment to indulge does something to me.

It reminds me there’s another way of doing things.

And it took a shampoo bottle to remind me.

Stalking Fed Ex

My ten year-old daughter has become obsessed with Fed Ex trucks. An unusual obsession, to be sure. I think it all started when I was waiting for a package one day and asked everyone to be on the lookout for the truck, so we didn’t miss it. And ever since then she gets super excited each time she sees a Fed Ex truck.

It makes her so happy that now it makes the whole rest of our family happy too. Like we squeal with delight every time we see one, and if possible, I try to capture a picture of it, so I can show my daughter when she returns from school.

It reminds me of when my son was about three and every time we saw a firetruck we’d all get so excited, anticipating his excitement. I still get excited when I see a firetruck, even though he’s long moved on. Inside, a surge of unbidden joy erupts, before I remember my son doesn’t care anymore. But the joy is there, nonetheless.

So that’s how we are about Fed Exes now too. We cheer, all of us, when we see one. A whoop goes up, even from my son, knowing that it’ll make my daughter happy that we’d seen one. I snap a photo for what I’m starting to think will be a book of pictures of Fed Ex trucks that my daughter can page through when she needs a smile.

The cool thing about all this is we have a new, random thing to be happy about. Another sign that the Universe is full of bright signs and little bits of joy.

Dear Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Dear Amy Krouse Rosenthal-

I read your essay last night, the one looking for a new wife for your husband because you are terribly sick.

I had avoided it for two days. I saw it there in the New York Times, titled “You May Want to Marry My Husband,” and I intentionally kept turning the pages. I had a feeling I knew where it was headed, and I didn’t want to go there. But for two days I saw repeated mentions of it, and finally I broke down and read it.

And then I broke down for real.

First of all, you are far more gracious than I am. For years I have tried to get my husband to agree to mourn my loss for years if I die early. Isn’t that the right thing to do? The thing you do if the raddest person ever, the center of your world, makes an untimely exit? I think so. After all, men can be kind of bad at acknowledging women’s importance during life, so at our untimely deaths it seems like the right thing to do to spend years wishing you’d shown her how much she really meant (though you couldn’t see it or admit it at the time).

But you clearly do not agree. So with what may have been your last essay published by the New York Times, you tried to find a suitable next wife for your husband. And you incredibly graciously left the end of the page blank “as a way of giving [them] the fresh start [they] deserve.”

Um, what? Incredible!! You are really making my plan for years of posthumous worship and self-imposed alone time for my husband look super-selfish (which, okay, it probably is, but. . . well. . . I was feeling pretty fine with that until now.).

After reading and feeling really affected by your essay, I went and read some of your previous writing. I found a piece you wrote for Oprah’s magazine talking about how much you appreciated your life and sort of worrying (at age 40) how many more times you’d get to do even mundane things in life.

It’s like you knew. You knew, didn’t you? (In a cosmic sense, that is.) And that makes me feel all kind of weird. Because I don’t know you, but I want you to stay. I don’t want you to go. I don’t want your husband to have another wife (and not just out of solidarity with my lonely husband if I am ever to leave prematurely). I want him (and us) to have you. Your gifts of putting things into words so perfectly. Your reminders about how important life is. Even the small things.

If that is not possible (or even if it is), there is a lesson here, right? Enjoy the little things. Enjoy all the days. Because you were sad when you were 40 and you thought you only had 40 more years left. When, in fact, you had a lot less than that. You only had eleven years. Which means your calculations were off by a lot. And those days were even more precious. Is that possible? That a day is worth more when you have less of them? Maybe, right?

Well, Amy, I want to say thank you. For your essay. For using your power with words to connect to the rest of us. For living your life out loud and wanting more days (when so many of us, myself included, sometimes take our days for granted, assuming we’ll have a million more of them).

I am grateful for you and your words. I wish you a million more days.

And, if anyone deserves worship (posthumous or otherwise), it’s you.

I Want to Be Annie

When I was growing up, the movie Annie really lodged in my brain and informed my ideas of awesomeness for quite a long time.

I wanted to be Annie.

I loved her red curly hair, for instance. It was only at some point after college that I stopped yearning for red hair (and carefully trying to hone my own strawberry blonde version with the assistance of the boxes lined in Aisle 2 at CVS). I just loved that look.

As a result, I had short curly (permed) hair in the 80s. Sadly, however, I also had glasses and braces (Annie, decidedly, did not). I looked, literally, nothing like Annie. My curls were too short, too kinky. I had convinced my grandmother to take me to get a perm on a visit to her (Dang! My parents must have been shocked when they picked me up!). Maybe this was my first lesson in describing things well to a hairstylist, because the look just didn’t translate on me.

But there was something about that spunky orphan. The way she made Daddy Warbucks (and Grace) fall in love with her and want to adopt her. The way she just powered through life’s difficulties (like the Depression and parentlessness). She was one tough motha.

And she rocked her look like nobody’s business.

I wanted that.

So I tried to emulate her look for a long, long time before realizing that wasn’t really my look (how many people can pull off red curly hair?).

But I tried and tried just to be sure.

The Breakup

When I wrote before the election that I knew there would be a lot of emotions that needed to come out after the election was over, I couldn’t have predicted what some of those emotions would be for me. To be honest, I thought I’d be feeling elation at the election of the first woman President; relief that years of inequality (at least on that front) had come to an end; release of the fear and tension that had built up throughout the election.

Instead, I just realized that I feel like I’ve been through a breakup. What clued me in? Tears that started flowing whenever I worked out, heard a sad song, or thought about explaining the whole thing to my kids (among other times).

I feel like I just broke up with who I thought we were as a country. Yes, I feel pleased that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote (that helps me to feel hopeful about what we care about as a country), but I had really hoped that we would continue moving forward toward greater equality and openness as a country, when it seems a great deal of our country wants to move back to a time that has passed.

I am worried about the hate that emerged during the campaign and the rise in hate since the election. I am concerned about the safety of immigrants, people of color, LGBT people, Muslims, and women in this country. I fear that there is a sizable portion of the white people in this country who want to go back to a time when white privilege went unchecked.

I don’t think that everyone who voted for Trump is sexist or racist or xenophobic, but in the course of the campaign, Trump constantly uttered statements that were sexist, racist, and xenophobic, and I think people had to, at the least, look past those things in order to vote for him.

That’s not the country I thought we were. Though we have a history of racism and sexism, I really believed that we were doing the work necessary to move further away from that history. There was still plenty of work to do, but I thought we were moving in the right direction. I no longer feel that way.

I’ll be honest– I’m still heartbroken. But I feel like I’m having a different breakup too: a breakup from who I used to be. Something about the way this has all gone down has me going deep into who I am to find what matters the most to me; what I can hold onto when so much seems so uncertain.

It has made me pull back in some ways in order to gather the energy to figure out who I want to be going forward. And, in some ways, it feels comfortable to feel like the underdog again. There’s something about that energy that feels true to who I am. I’m okay being one of the ones fighting for change from the outside.

But I also realize that I have to fight. I cannot sit by and watch my country slip backwards without fighting for what I believe in, without supporting people who feel afraid about their place in our country. If Hillary had been elected, maybe it would have felt easier to sit back and coast. Now, coasting is not an option. We all have to stand up for what we believe in and ensure that our country doesn’t become the worst of itself.

I will be giving to organizations that protect women and minorities. I will be joining forces with racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, LGBT people, and people with disabilities in fighting for equality and inclusion. I will be using my power to help protect people who might be feeling threatened. I will be as outspoken as ever about my feminism.

I’m back to avoiding George Stephanopoulos (and other political pundits) and limiting what news I pay attention to. I think it’s the best for me right now.

But I have changed. This “breakup” changed me. And I’m starting to feel just fine about that. Because I like the me that’s left behind.

The Lip Gloss

I went to a Christian summer camp one year when I was about 12. It was, overall, a hideous experience. There was peer pressure to become a “born again Christian,” for instance, which wasn’t exactly what I was looking for in a summer camp. When people talk about loving sleep away camp, I assume they went to camps that looked a lot different than this.

This camp also had a pool filled with swamp-like water that had leeches in it. Needless to say, I’m in no rush to send my kids to sleep away camp.

But there is one other memory that sticks with me. A good one, even. A memory that informs my concepts of beauty and desirability.

There was this girl. I think her name was Jenny, but I’m not sure if I just think that because it was the ‘80s, and every third girls’ name seemed to be Jenny.

She was beautiful. She had blondish wavy hair and was tall and just seemed older. My memory is that all the boys fancied her, but I don’t know if I just think that now because I, personally, thought she was otherworldly and fabulous. Chances are I wasn’t super well-connected to what the boys around me were thinking.

Anyway, she wore this amazing lip gloss that was pale pink with tiny rainbow glitter flecks in it. I coveted that lip gloss. It seemed like the holy grail that would transform me into Jenny. One swipe of that lip gloss would instantly convert me from a gawky, curly haired and bespectacled nerd to this heavenly creature that seemed to float above the trivial concerns that bogged down my twelve year old thoughts.

I really thought that lip gloss held all the answers. Trapped at a sleep away camp in the woods of New Hampshire without any access to a store of any kind meant that that lip gloss could not yet solve all my preteen problems. The answers would remain at arms’ length. That pale pink liquid gold could not yet be mine. So I spent all my time coveting it and generally trying to figure out what Jenny’s other secrets might be (while trying to block out the other realities of this camp that made no sense to me).

I don’t remember how long after I got back home I found a lip gloss similar to Jenny’s. Chances are it wasn’t long at all. But there was an unexpected twist. Even after I found the coveted gloss, I discovered that it looked totally different— and, frankly, bad— on me.

The pink glitter gloss didn’t transform me into Jenny (or any other replica of an older, attractive teenager). Instead, it made my full lips look enormous, my braces more prominent; and the glitter didn’t look cool. It looked all wrong.

It was the first lesson I would get in someone else’s look not working on me (a lesson I relive every time I try to replicate the look of a supermodel or a boy-shaped actress).

But I still have a weird affinity for pale pink glitter-flecked lip gloss. I am still drawn to it, even though it still doesn’t look good on me (though, mercifully, my braces are gone). It was my entree into a world where I noticed beauty and a world where it could transform a situation I’d rather not be in.

There were so many lessons in that pink lip gloss. And somehow my twelve year old self just knew it.

What the Olympics Do to Me

I am currently preparing for the next Olympics. Where is it again? Oh yeah, Tokyo.

What will I be competing in, you ask? Um, I’m not entirely sure. Probably gymnastics. Or maybe I’ll push up my training and compete in figure skating at the Winter Olympics in South Korea in 2018. If so, I really need to get a move on.

Because the pesky truth is that I cannot do a cartwheel, and haven’t been on ice skates in maybe two decades.

But that’s what the Olympics do to me. They make me think I can do it. That if I just buckle down and focus, I, too, could be doing an electric floor routine that rouses the crowd to clap to the beat of my funky, off-beat music while I complete incredible body-thrashing flips without breaking a sweat.

I literally had to remind myself twice while watching the coverage of the Rio Olympics last night that I am not a good swimmer and cannot perform a single cartwheel. Because I was honestly starting to think about what it would take to be in the next Olympic Games. Feeling like I had a shot. But then I got to wondering, if I’m not going to win first place, is it worth all the preparation? As though I have a hope of coming in fourth (or eighth or sixteenth) among the world’s most elite athletes in anything.

Perhaps my delusion is just proof of the effectiveness of the televised coverage of these Games. The commentators give you a quick primer on what a double salchow is and what you should look for in judging these athletes’ performances. And, two minutes later, you’re like, “Ugh!! She’s totally going to have a deduction for that bounce!!,” as if we know what the hell we’re talking about.

Is it just me? I sure hope not.

The other thing I do when I’m watching the Olympics is cry. A lot.

I think it’s due to a combination of factors. Firstly, I think about all the Olympians have sacrificed. All those movies, fast food outings, extra sleep sessions and dates they missed because they were training. The hours and hours of toil and sweat and tears.

Then there’s the fact that, as a parent, I now identify with their parents as well. I know how much they, too, have sacrificed. And how their hearts must be in their throats. Their lives put on hold to travel to their child’s meet of all meets with prayers of winning (not to mention prayers that they don’t get hurt). One look at gymnast Aly Raisman’s parents in the stands this go-round showed you the torment of being an Olympic parent.

Finally, there’s the sheer exhaustion. My exhaustion, that is. From staying up late night after night to watch these Olympic dreams unfold before my eyes (while seeing dreams I never knew I had resurface, same as they did four years ago during the last Olympics). Sure, I know these athletes have worked their bodies to the bones, but do they know what it’s like to stay up past midnight every night (with a fast 6:00 am wake up call from one’s own children) watching other people chase their dreams? I bet not.

Anyway, it doesn’t matter. I have to get training.