Give Thanks by Doing Good

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My grandmother instilled a lifelong practice of expressing gratitude. Whether it’s a handwritten note, an email or merely uttering those two simple words, giving thanks is important.

Not too long ago, my husband asked me to bake something for Russ and Louise, two vendors he befriended at the Farmers Market. It was so heartwarming to watch Russ open the box and take in the smell of a freshly baked apple pie. Small tokens of gratitude not only make others feel appreciated, but it can make you happier and change your attitude about life as well.

With one week to go before the Thanksgiving holiday, we ought to consider doing a little more to show appreciation for our many blessings. Spend extra time with your family. Donate to a favorite charity. There are many families who lost everything during Hurricane Sandy. Even though soup kitchens typically see an increase in donations over the holidays, charitable organizations along the East Coast are going to be besieged with people who have been displaced by the storm. Consider donating time, money, food or all three. Check out this useful Gothamist article for specific ways to help in the New York City area.

How will you make this Thanksgiving more meaningful?

As for myself, I have decided to volunteer with a mentorship program, dedicated to raising the aspirations and self esteem of young women and girls. I am so thankful for the mentors who, through their own examples, have taught me to approach everything with integrity, hard work and kindness. Now it’s time for me to pay it forward.

Thanks, and be kind.

Everyday Saints

Perhaps we all can’t be saints like Mother Teresa, but there is so much we can do to help others in our own individual ways.

Today is All Saints Day, and as I follow the media coverage of the Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts, I give thanks to all of the saints who are taking food, water and other supplies to those whose lives have been upended and in some cases obliterated by Hurricane Sandy. I have been so proud to see my former colleagues with the Progressive Caucus of the New York City Council busing food and water and coordinating other efforts to provide relief to residents of the areas hit hardest by the storm. New York City residents looking for ways to help should visit this site http://nycservice.org/  for a comprehensive list of volunteer opportunities from donating money, goods and services to cleaning and restoring the city’s parks.

Even if you don’t live in a hurricane-effected area, there are plenty of other ways to be an everyday saint. Rake leaves for your neighbor.  Bake someone a pie. Drive a neighbor to vote on election day or volunteer to watch their kids while they go to the polls this Tuesday. Love your family.

Make the effort, no matter how big or small. Devote a few minutes or a couple of hours to making someone else’s day a little better and a little brighter. These acts of kindness may not always be easy, and may even come at a small personal expense. But it’s worth it. Experience the superiority of love over selfishness.

Thanks, and be kind.

thank you to my subway superheroes

Have you ever seen someone faint on the subway before? Well last week that someone was me. I unexpectedly had blood drawn during a trip to the doctor’s office. It was one of the hottest days of the summer, and the 5 express train barely made it one stop before a man turned to me and asked, “Are you okay?” Instead of answering, I passed out.

I awoke to discover that three men carried me off of the train and over to the steps of the Wall Street station. A young man in a suit. A man with a physical handicap. And, the only man who’s name I got, a sweet, middle-aged Italian guy named Vito. Vito was the one who asked if I was okay. He said I turned the color of my crisp white button down work shirt just before giving in to gravity.

All three of the men were kind enough to stay with me until the police came. Since we were in downtown Manhattan, Homeland Security responded. It felt a little funny to have two guys from Homeland Security as babysitters until the paramedics arrived, but they didn’t seem to mind. I guess the 96 degree heat was more of a terror threat that day.

I’ve been feeling guilty about not having time to post this, and even more guilty because I don’t know the names of the other two gentleman who came to my rescue. It was extraordinary that not one, but three people, went out of their way to assist me on a horribly hot day. It was scary, but also very affirming to know that there are so many kind people willing to help a stranger in need. I’m pretty sure I tried to say thank you to each of them before they left, but much of the incident is fuzzy so I’m not sure if those thank yous were real or imagined. I hope they know that I’m extremely grateful to my subway superheroes.

Thank you, and be kind.

The smell of nostalgia: chocolate fudge and horse manure

It’s funny to look at a photograph from your childhood and your first thought is of chocolate fudge and horse manure. It’s an odd, but nostalgic combination of smells.

I was digging through some old family photos recently when I ran across this picture of my brother and I as kids. Our family was on vacation on Mackinac Island, the site of an American Revolutionary War-era fort, which is best known for two things: its ban on motor vehicles and fudge. The small island’s population includes an estimated 600 horses and only 492 year-round human residents. It is less than 4 square miles in area yet has at least 15 or so fudge shops. The smell is unforgettable.

The photograph evokes two strikingly contrasting emotions. The first is joy. My brother, Jeffrey, looks around 8 years old, which means I am 9. It’s the 80s and I’m wearing coolots. Jeffrey’s arms are wrapped around me, hugging me tightly. We are so close.

Simultaneously my heart aches with the pang of sadness. My brother died in 2003. Years later, I can’t help but wonder, were we as close as I remember or do I remember us being as close as I wish we were? It’s a question I often ruminate. I’m not sure I’ll ever settle on an answer.

Then I look at the photograph and study his little boy hands, grasping my waist, and our faces, grinning with unfettered joy. In that photograph, we are the happiest kids on earth. And in that moment, I have no doubt that we were inseparable. It comforts me and I feel overwhelmed with gratitude that of all the photos from the trip – of us eating fudge, of us riding horses – that my parents took that one.

Thank you, and be kind.

snow globe

As I was going for my daily run along the Brooklyn promenade it felt like I was running in a snow globe. We got the kind of big fluffy snowflakes that look like feathers from a goose down pillow.

With each wet flake that landed on my nose and face I felt a palpable sense of awe of all the little miracles around us. I felt more connected to my surroundings. It was such an incredible opportunity to practice awareness and live in the present. And I wondered, how many moments do we have like this but fail to savor the experience?

As a child I remember being impressed by so much – dinosaurs, airplanes, the construction of a bees’ nest. But as we get older we are harder and harder to rouse. Which leads me to add one more resolution to the doozey of a list I’ve already developed for the new year: to be dazzled and amazed by life’s small wonders. This means shaking up the way I view the settled particles of my daily life – things easily taken for granted, such as a good meal, the changing of seasons, a sparkling night sky – and celebrating these experiences as small marvels.

As I set to work on the things I’ve resolved to do and learn in 2011, there are three words I aspire to keep at the front of my mind as much as possible: Notice. Listen. Connect. Thank you, and be kind.

giving thanks

For a person who tries to make thankfulness an everyday habit, I’m a little ashamed that I didn’t write a proper blog post about giving thanks on Thanksgiving. As a child my grandmother taught me the skillful art of a well-written thank you letter. By the fourth or fifth grade I was so well trained that upon opening any gift I would immediately retreat to my bedroom to compose a thank you note.

Today you might say I’m even a bit overzealous with feelings of gratitude. For example, I’m thankful for nice weather during my morning runs. I am thankful that I can eat my favorite fruits even when they are no longer in season. I even regularly thank my boyfriend Siddique for our phone conversations, even though we talk daily and often multiple times in one day. This may weird him out a bit.

The thing is I have so many things to be thankful for that writing this blog post seemed incredibly overwhelming. It still does. Especially after this past month.

To start, my grandmother, who is an incredible lady, turned 80 years old on Nov. 9. I am fortunate to have a grandmother who was extremely involved in my childhood, not only attending just about every pageant, play, concert, and award ceremony when I was in grade school, but she baked the most delicious angel food cakes for my birthday, which have since become cakes of legend among my childhood friends.

My grandmother also supported me when I made decisions that didn’t necessarily please my parents. Like when I attended an out-of-state college. Or when I moved 1,600 miles across the country to New Mexico. Or the time I quit my good-paying job to attend graduate school in the most expensive city in America in the middle of an economic recession. I am sure that I disappointed my grandma at times, but the thing about grandmas is they will never let on. They just shower you with unconditional love. Despite all my grandma has taught me about thank you notes, I don’t think there’s anything I could write that would fully express my gratitude for her love and kindness.

Second on the list are my teeth. I know. This sounds strange. Last Monday, I hugged my orthodontist Jenny Zhu when she informed me that my braces were scheduled to come off December 13. It was hard to hold back tears when she told me I was lucky to have so many people on my side. She was right. I am lucky. I have been shown the most remarkable support from my parents, friends, family and at least a half dozen dental professionals through the very long and expensive process of repairing my teeth following a bicycle accident in May 2008.

It hasn’t been easy being a 30-year-old with braces. Time after time I have been overwhelmed by the kindness people have shown me through this process. Friends, like Vicki and Lynne, who took me into their homes, made sure I was eating even if it was through a straw, who took me to doctors appointments, and who sometimes spoke for me when I wasn’t able to do so myself. I’m thankful for people like David Coss, the mayor of Santa Fe and one of the best and most understanding bosses I have ever known; for Carla and Sevastian, former co-workers who were always so much more including being unbelievably compassionate even when it meant that they had to double their own workload; and the support of so many good friends including my dearest and most beloved: Shannon, Becky, Priscilla and Katharine for whom my love is infinite.

The next step in my tooth saga is an implant, which is going to be performed by my dad’s cousin. Initially, I was a little suspicious of this as my dad is known for hatching some pretty far-fetched though well-intentioned schemes. I had visions of some guy working on my teeth from the back seat of a Cadillac with his tools powered by an adaptor plugged into the car’s cigarette lighter. But Dr. Cheslin is a great oral surgeon who kindly offered to do the procedure at cost, saving me about $6,000. After waiting for what seems like forever, I’m on track to have a new smile by May of 2011, just around the time I’ll have finished my master’s degree.

Next, I spent much of Thanksgiving Day reflecting on how many wonderful people continue to be in my life even when I haven’t made the best effort to keep in touch. These people include Jill, my cross-country teammate and an amazing and inspiring mother; Shira, my sweet and lovely college roommate (not to mention her awesome and loving parents Sonia and Marty, who have made me feel like an honorary seventh daughter); Leah, who has been a roommate, neighbor and friend in New Mexico and New York; Sam and Pari, two extraordinary friends who no matter how infrequent our visits may be always make it seem as though no time has passed; Matthew and Aming, two wonderful and newly-wedded souls; and Mary, who I jokingly refer to as my friend from the womb because she has been part of my life since we were newborn babies in rural Michigan. The very fact that for the second year in a row I spent Thanksgiving at Mary’s cozy apartment in Queens is something of a miracle to me.

And finally I am so thankful for all of the new people in my life, my New School classmates, who bend and expand my mind daily; my roommate Eilon, who is not only incredibly cool and considerate, but a masterful chef in our tiny kitchen; and my boyfriend Siddique, whose abundant virtues start at intelligent, thoughtful and sweet but are too exhaustingly extensive for me to write or for you to read.

I know, this is starting to sound like an Oscar speech that continues after the music starts to swell. Perhaps I have blathered on a bit too long. By now I could probably use the assistance of two elegantly dressed women to drag me from the podium. But before I conclude this post there is one person who I wish I could thank, but can’t. My brother Jeffrey died from suicide in March 2003, and even though he is not here his life undeniably shapes the way I live my own. His memory is a constant reminder to try and be the best person I can be, to reach out to others who are in need, and that no matter how difficult or painful life may seem at times, it will get better.

There are so many people (far too many to individually name) who make my life better, each and every day. And for each and every one of you I am everlastingly and unabatedly thankful. This day and every day. Thank you, and be kind.

who nose how to get a laugh on the subway?

To the unidentified man wearing a black, hooded sweat shirt and a red clown nose on the F train Saturday: thank you. In the oft-contested debate on clowns – funny or scary – I generally side with scary. But the clown nose gave me such an unexpected burst of laughter and recurring smile that I may have changed my position.

Maybe it was the venue. The clown nose was an unexpected and welcome break from the stone-faced subway riders. It’s an unfortunate fact, but people on the subway generally do not look happy. This may be part of New York City subway rules of conduct in which you are supposed to avoid eye contact, look apathetic and keep to yourself. According to one guide to urban etiquette:

Read your book, listen to music (whether portable or imagined), stare at your feet. Don’t engage other passengers in mild conversation; they’re preoccupied with the same activities and usually don’t wish to be disturbed. The very act of riding the subway is a performance in itself. While many riders may secretly wish to have a chat with you (you may be very hot), they are far too involved—as should you be—in complete submersion in their chosen character: that of the mute.

While I agree that there are a number of things best not shared on the subway – germs, religious convictions and sloshing foods or drinks immediately come to mind – I’m an advocate of sharing laughter or a smile.  Laughter is a way to transmit kindness, goodness and happiness; unlike germs, it’s a contagion worth spreading.

Sadly, the clown nose didn’t appear to have the same make-‘em-laugh effect on others that it had on me. Still, I’d like to think that at least a few subway riders were laughing on the inside. Maybe they even laughed out loud after leaving the subway like I did.

Subway decorum aside, there is a special kind of joy and humor that comes from the unexpected. Fear of clowns is understandable, but don’t be afraid to share or provide a laugh. That’s really scary.

Thank you, and be kind.

mixtape

Swoon. I got a mixtape in the mail today.

OK, it was a CD and not an audiocassette tape. But “mixtape” sounds so much better than “mixCD.” Besides, the word mixtape is imbued with a saccharine feeling that the term mixCD simply cannot convey.

For those of you who were born PCE (Post-Cassette Era), perhaps it’s important to explain that a mixtape is a careful selection of songs recorded in a specific order. The mixtape could be an audio anthology of the sender’s soul, a musical manifestation of a theme or a simply a hit parade of the creator’s favorite songs. I suppose since people share playlists these days the concept isn’t anachronistic, but in the days of the audiocassette this was a popularly practiced tactile artform. It required painstaking effort including planning out the songs ahead of time, mastery of the art of holding the pause button while recording to reduce the clicking sound in between songs (a real mood breaker), and forethought to avoid inordinate amounts of blank tape at the end of each side for easy listening, not to mention mixtape “album” artwork!

Because it was a labor-intensive project, if you sent someone a mixtape in the Cassette Era it meant something. You were into them. You wanted them to be into you. More than mere compilations, a carefully crafted mixtape was a highly personal form of expression. I made mixtapes for my friends, boyfriends, boys I wanted to become my boyfriend, my sixth grade English teacher … OK that last one may seem a little odd, but my sixth grade English teacher was highly influential and the complex and emotional R&B ballads of Boyz II Men seemed like the ultimate show of appreciation to an awkward sixth grader  in 1992.

In any case, it was surprising and sweet to get a mixtape from Lupine, one of my newest friends, on a rainy Thursday afternoon. Lupine and I only met this year while she and my dear friend Priscilla rented an apartment in New York City for the summer. Along with the CD, she sent me some photographs from a summer picnic in Central Park and other goodies, including chocolate (a sure way into my heart).

As explained in “High Fidelity”, the most important part of a mixtape is the first three songs. I don’t know Lupine that well, but three songs into her “Fall Mix” and I feel like I already know her a little better. Sure, a mixCD may not require the rigor of a mixtape, but it’s still a special way for two people to connect, be they friends, lovers or an awkward sixth grader and her English teacher.

The video below is for “West Coast” the first song on my newly arrived mixtape. Thanks for such a thoughtful small act of kindness Lupine! Be kind.

one in a hundred

You can learn a lot from the riding the subway. Today’s lesson was one of perseverance.

I was riding the downtown F train on the way back from a morning run in Central Park when a homeless man entered the subway car, rattling a tin can filled with change  as if it was a maraca. “I don’t mean to be a bother, but I’m hoping you can spare a couple of dollars or a dollar or some change,” he said. His plea provoked the man sitting directly across from me to reach into his pocket and pull out a quarter. We were both surprised when the donation was met with an ungrateful, “Is that it?” Through raised eyebrows, we communicated unsaid acknowledgement of the fact that the man tried to do a nice deed, but his gesture wasn’t appreciated in the way he expected.

A minute of silence passed. Then the man across from me said, “You know, this is the second time. I try to do something nice and they want more. I don’t know why I bother.” He was a city bus driver who ran the Bx7 bus route Sunday night. He told me that as he was driving along Broadway he saw a girl waving her arms to flag him down. Because of safety rules, he wasn’t supposed to pick her up from an undesignated stop, but it was after midnight and he decided to pull over anyway. “You know the odds of that happening? You could flag a bus down, chase a bus 100 times in this city and you’d be lucky if anybody stopped once for you!”

Far from saying thank you, the girl refused to pay the fare, stating that she had wanted to take the 1 train, which was out of service after midnight due to construction. It sounded like the girl and the bus driver went back and forth, and that in the end she never did pay the fare. “The thing is,” the bus driver said, “if she would have told me she didn’t have any money, I would have let her ride for free. No problem. But as soon as she got on the bus she started arguing with me, blaming me for the train. It really got under my skin. Didn’t she know how lucky she was I even picked her up at all? Her chances were one in 100!”

I tried my best to convince him not to give up on people.  It’s much better to do something nice and thankless than to wonder what could have happened to that girl who was out on the street alone after midnight. And hopefully later, after her frustration wore off from not being able to take the 1 train, she may have realized how very fortunate she was that the Bx7 bus stopped at all.

The idiom is “Give an inch and they’ll take a mile.” Make a small concession and you set yourself up for someone to take advantage of you. But what a terrible way to view the world! Small acts of kindness may not always get “thank yous” or even get noticed, but they are worth it. Every time. I believe it was a Taoist philosopher who said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” It’s small acts of kindness that will make the world a better place.

Eleven stops later at Jay Street, the bus driver was convinced. “Ok, ok,” he said. “I’ll keep doing my thing. I’ll keep doing my thing.”

Thank you, and be kind.

a weekend of awe and awwww…

I was the lucky “plus one” at a vintage western wedding in Montana this past weekend. The last time I visited Big Sky Country I was just a kid. I can’t remember if it was the summer before or after 6th grade, whether I was 11 or 12, but I’m certain I wasn’t nearly as thankful as I should have been to visit one of the most beautiful places in North America with my family. Back then we went to Glacier National Park, and to this day my mother insists it was one of the happiest times in her life. After this past weekend I can see why. I’d argue with any etymologist that the word “breathtaking” surely originates from Montana. The twinkling night sky is joy, poetry, and heaven manifested.

While the brilliant evening stars and endless mountain views inspired awe, the wedding was pure awwww… Every detail was sweet and highly personal. Although I was just the “plus one,” I felt like I really got to know Marisa and Bill through their wedding, from taking a hike near the Branham Lakes in the Tobacco Root Mountains where Bill and Marisa had their first date (and where Bill proposed) to the location (the wedding was held in Virginia City, where Marisa and her daughter Maya lived when Maya was two years old), to the way they incorporated their friends and families in every aspect of their special day (I told myself I couldn’t possibly cry at the wedding of strangers, but when Bill’s two sisters gave their heartfelt speeches, the tears were unstoppable).

It was a weekend when I couldn’t help but love love. One of the sweetest elements was the handmade gift bags made by Marisa and Bill’s mom, which featured a quote from Maya and said, “I love you more than I love you.”

And lest I forget, this wedding was incredibly fun! It was a vintage western wedding, set in a place that is perhaps best described as a living ghost town. Back in the day (1864) the gold mining town boasted 10,000 people. Presently the population tops out at precisely 132 residents, according to the local Chamber of Commerce. The ceremony was held in Nevada City on museum grounds composed of an assemblage of original gold rush-era buildings as well as historic structures from all over Montana. Guests were encouraged to wear vintage attire, and all I can say is that couple’s friends and family are a wonderfully playful and creative bunch. An assortment of extravagant characters participated in the theme, representing just about every era since the American Civil War, from Victorian top hats and petticoats to the Zoot suits of the 1930s and 40s to hippie bellbottom pants.

If the energy that Bill and Marisa put into their wedding and their attention to the tiniest of details was any indication of their devotion to each other then these two hearts are destined for wonderful and lasting love. Now back in NYC, I’m feeling very grateful to have participated in their special day and for the newly imprinted memory of that miraculous Montana sky. Thank you for reading, and be kind.