December 2023

“The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts.” —Marcus Aurelius

Photo by Elissa

Wearing all purple (even my socks!) in front of my collection of Great Teaching Courses.

Dear Friends,

I love you.

Happy 31 wondrous, festive, poignant, challenging, inspiring days of December! I can’t imagine what deep emotions lie ahead. My heart is so full of love and gratitude after experiencing such a beautiful, unforgettable, meaningful November. The more dark, brutal, bad news I absorb, the greater my resolve to seek and find beauty, goodness and kindness.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, this is the season to celebrate with one and all. We give thanks and show our appreciation for our abundant blessings by the simple, often unconscious small gestures of fellowship and kindness.

Before I leap ahead to the December holidays, I look back with nostalgic joy at my happiest birthday. Turning 82 is such a bonus gift of providence. Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens), the American author and humanist, believed we should all be born 80 and then live backwards. Did he truly know what he was talking about? He died at age 75! I know, first-hand, up close and personal, what I’ve lived through. I feel uniquely experienced and knowledgeable about one human journey. All the informative chapters of this earthly time arc from birth forward led me to this precious now. What lies ahead for each of us is a great, unknown mystery. This present moment is ours to cherish. We have and can hold gratitude, praise and love for being alive.

Thank you, dear friends, for your generous good wishes for my most happy birthday. Ever! I’m living a waking dream. I couldn’t ask for any greater blessing than to feel as fortunate as I do. Not only am I living my best life, but I’m celebrating in the festive spirit each sacred day.

Photo by Elissa

Amy spent two years knitting these gorgeous socks for me in my favorite color!

Robert Browning was spot-on: The best is yet to be. He died at 77. The best is now. When we live each chapter as fully as possible, our mind and heart improve our character incrementally. Another poet I admire is Emily Dickinson, who understood the vital significance of being alive, because each moment we live will never come again. “To live is so startling,” she wrote, “it leaves but little room for other occupations.”

Age has a way of changing our biology. We naturally slow down physically, offering spacious opportunities to magnify just how wonderful life can be at its best. The greater I pause, the calmer I feel. Life flows in a steadier stream when we dwell on all the goodness and beauty we encounter. As long as we’re awake and aware, wide-eyed to observe and intensely receptive to listen, we will be pleasantly surprised by the boost it gives us to feel positive reinforcement.

When we’re clear-headed and open-hearted, it’s amazing how many good-natured, good-humored, generous people appear in front of our eyes. We mostly recognize this when we’re a little more fragile than usual. Whenever we see or meet someone with whom we can relate, it boosts our mood. All we have to do is share ourselves openly with our focus on hearing and understanding the person we’re with. When we are genuinely interested in learning their stories, we soon discover things we have in common. Wherever we are, committing to be here now serendipitously brings us closer. The space between us is a bridge to meet at the center.  

Photo by Mary

Serving stuffing on Thanksgiving!

Ray of Sunshine

When I found out what my friend Mary was doing for Thanksgiving, I asked if I could join her. She had volunteered to serve Thanksgiving dinner at Christ Church in Westerly, Rhode Island. I was free until joining my family for our meal in the afternoon, so from 10 until 2, I immediately became helpful. I helped set tables, pour water, do dishes, meet and greet and serve the free feast open to the public. People began gathering at 10:45. A prayer by the priest at noon blessed the food and us.

A steady stream of guests came to enjoy a hearty banquet in fellowship with people from the community. The leader who held a group meeting asked for volunteers to serve each different food group. My station was stuffing, referred to by many as dressing. All the turkey was carved by men in the kitchen. They seriously knew what they were doing. There was a takeout station so family and friends who were homebound could also enjoy a delicious, hot Thanksgiving meal.

In these troubling times we’re going through, we often feel helpless. Being among friendly, good people, working together to add pleasure to others’ lives, brought me fulfillment. Whenever we feel we can’t make a difference, volunteer. The guests kept thanking us. We were enjoying ourselves immensely. Whenever we’re being useful, it acts as a counterweight to the inevitable emotional toll on us in today’s unease.

Photo by Elissa

I moved my beautiful geranium pots inside for the winter.

High-Energy Intensity

In the high bleachers of a stadium that holds 8,000 people, I viewed an electrifying men’s basketball game the Sunday after Thanksgiving. A friend had an extra ticket for the University of Rhode Island playing Yale at 4 p.m.

URI made the first basket, but it wasn’t until late in the second half that they caught up and were ahead by one point, 61 to 60. Spontaneously, we all stood up, clapping in unison as the dynamics changed. Both teams played hard and well. They were evenly matched, but URI was having difficulty at the basket until late in the game. Throughout the competition, Yale’s long shots were dependably swishing in the net. I was so riveted I had to remember to inhale! The clock was ticking, and with 11 seconds left, Yale called a time out. Then they had a foul. URI won by a few points. This was flawlessly thrilling from the first moment to the last winning swish. The fast pace, grace in movement and collective energy made it a thrilling and enormously exhilarating event to experience.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been a Yale fan. Both my first husband, Brandon Stoddard, and Peter Brown went to Yale. Last year I went to several women’s games at URI and became quite excited about their winning streak. No matter who won the men’s game, both teams played excellent basketball.

Photo by Elissa

My favorite flower and colors!

Quiet Moments of Reflection

The National Geographic Society published a series of books of daily photos and wisdom to “Enrich,” “Lift,” and “Nourish your Spirit” — Daily Joy: 365 Days of Inspiration (2012); followed by Daily Calm: 365 Days of Serenity (2013); Daily Gratitude: 365 Days of Reflection (2014); Daily Peace: 365 Days of Renewal (2015); Daily Love: 365 Days of Celebration (2016); and Daily Kindness: 365 Days of Compassion (2017).

Sitting down in a comfortable chair with a soft throw, my feet elevated on an ottoman, sipping a favorite tea (that suits my mood at the moment) and opening one of these gloriously beautiful, uplifting books is a spa for the spirit. Each book has a gorgeous, colorful flower blossom on the cover. Daily Gratitude has a blue hydrangea, and the end papers are an infinite blue-sky color, a shade stronger than my cottage shutters, the same color of the tissue box from Trader Joe’s and the same color of the batten board in the kitchen.

Photo by Elissa

I found this tissue box in my favorite shade of summer blue at Trader Joe’s, and stocked up!

Just opening the book mindfully creates a meditation. With the scent of a jasmine candle in the air, I browse in a contemplative, reflective, leisurely way. The months from January to December are “365 Days of Reflection,” with each month’s subject containing an important aspect, an element for us to look at and ponder. November’s focus is Wisdom (Love of Truth). December’s theme is Harmony.

The Buddha’s words in the November section ring true. “Our life is the creation of our mind.” Another wise reflection from the 16th century French essayist Michele de Montaigne (whose Essays is a great classic) understood:

“The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself.”

Photo by Elissa

A birthday gift from Tony and Paul!

The Tea Ritual

When I wrote Tea Celebrations: The Way to Serenity, I deliberately made the tea ceremony one of reflection on truth and beauty. Tea time creates a moment of reverence for a simple ritual we can all create with some hot water and a tea bag. In my book, tea is a symbol used metaphorically. In a quiet, soulful mood, I opened my copy of the book to a random page and cast my eye on a marginalia quotation:

“With all your science can you tell how … light comes into the soul?”
—Henry David Thoreau

Photo by Elissa

Continue to relish the beauty of every single blossom.

In these times of turbulence and seemingly intractable conflicts around the world, it is our responsibility to think seriously about our own values. We as adults need to decide what we believe as we question everything we have been taught. What can each of us to do cultivate more light and new thinking possibilities in our soul? One of the greatest pleasures of my lifetime is to absorb the wisdom and insights from the great thinkers of the past, who themselves learned from master teachers.

Invite giant visionaries to guide you in your studying and leisurely moments of questioning conventional wisdom. The ultimate truth is forever evolving as we collectively learn more. The past is ancient history in the light of today’s reality, but our knowledge will one day be in history books. Those men and women who expressed their truthful, genuine thoughts in the age and place where they lived are a trustworthy foundation for us to build on to guide us in our current lives. I rely on their timeless wisdom to teach me how to always do the right thing no matter how serious the repercussions. Their authentic legacy is a buoy, keeping me floating so I won’t drown. Their encouragement and strength increase my faith in humankind’s natural goodness.

Photo by Elissa

A delicate Kalanchoe succulent and my miniature beach chair on the windowsill bring sunshine to the winter darkness.

I remain full of hope. Because I’m an optimist, I can easily be shocked and disappointed by people’s prejudices and lack of goodwill. This past Thanksgiving season has made me more determined than ever to bond with fellow souls, who are strangers until we make a human connection. I’m fortunate to know love and appreciate people of all ages, interests and cultures who reach out to me, adding light to my soul. You, my friends, are givers and light bearers. I treasure our mutual respect and fondness. During this exciting, festive holiday season, I’ll be with you vicariously. I send my loving energy out to the universe and feel a warm sense of connection because of the power of friendships and gratitude. All the twinkling lights and decorations lift our spirits and add so much to our mutual happiness.

I’m an afficionado of affirmations. I’m enlarged when you confirm and strengthen my belief in life’s wondrous bounty and beauty. Each of us can practice counterbalancing any negative energy or emotions with positive beliefs in the collective goodness of our intimately shared humanity and fellowship. In the spirit of gratitude, I’m humbly grateful for all the good, decent people I hold in my heart.

Photo by Elissa

My flower boxes are bursting with festive greenery!

I feel a palpable sense of relief when a stranger smiles at me — when we can share a momentary pleasantry. It warms my heart to compliment a stranger and see their eyes light up and sparkle. As a pedestrian, when I walk on a crosswalk, cars stop on either side of me. I often show my thanks by crossing my hands over my heart. We may never meet again, but our lives are intertwined. This flash of recognition for each other is grace. There are these seconds-long moments of harmony that support our feeling of inner peace and calm. We all know that world peace begins with this inner beauty in our own heart and soul. It is up to each one of us to keep the light burning brightly in our hearts in order for us to be a source of strength and encouragement to others.

Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century political philosopher, believed, “The first and fundamental law of nature … is to seek peace and follow it.” I hope he is watching over us in a 21st century in great need of his wisdom. We have to imagine a state of peace on earth, goodwill to all.

Photo from the New York Times

We all feel the palpable love between Jimmy Carter and his beloved wife Rosalynn.

An Epic Love Story and Friendship

I wrote about President Jimmy Carter’s 100th birthday two months ago, in October. He knew his wife Rosalynn all her life (his mother was the nurse who assisted her birth), and they celebrated their 77th wedding anniversary in July. They were true, equal life partners. Rosalynn was 96 when she entered hospice care at home, holding hands with her beloved, who has been in their care since last February. Three days later she died.

In her obituary in The New York Times, her exemplary life was eulogized. “Over their nearly eight decades together, Mr. and Mrs. Carter forged the closest of bonds, developing a personal and professional symbiosis remarkable for its sheer longevity.” Their years together were substantive.

When Mrs. Carter’s husband was sworn in as president, I met her briefly at the reception at the White House. We all know her from her extraordinarily important role as a one-term first lady and their work as past president and first lady. Until 1977, Eleanor Roosevelt was the most powerful president’s wife. I hold both women in high esteem. The Carters’ mutual devotion and understanding is inspiring, and it is relationship I intimately relate to in my equal partnership with my beloved Peter. The former president called his wife “my equal partner in everything I ever accomplished.”

The most touching, tear-inducing photograph was of Rosalynn with her husband in 1976 in Pennsylvania at the primary election. Both had toothy, beaming smiles. She held her right hand and arm high up in the air, with her left hand at her waist. Jimmy’s right arm was wrapped tightly around her, with their fingertips touching at such a pivotal time. This photograph captured their intimacy, their true love. They were inseparable. The tender, poignant moment echoes Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.

Peter and I are together for all the holiday celebrations.

Their grandson Josh said they still held hands on the same sofa they had at their peanut farm in Plains, Georgia (population 550), before leaving for Washington as president and first lady of the United States. In a recent photograph of this close, loving couple, they’re side by side, arms touching and hands intertwined, as though they were woven together. President Carter described their relationship as “like one person acting in concert” and acknowledged that her instincts were better than his.

The presidential historian Jon Meacham, whom I greatly admire, praised her as a remarkable woman who was a key adviser to her husband, “Mr. President.” As history knows, President Carter didn’t always take her advice, but he weighed her counsel thoughtfully. Meacham believes “disagreement doesn’t need to be dis-union.”

Mrs. Carter was obviously fortunate to be at peace when she was diagnosed with dementia. Their grandson Josh was quoted in an interview in September saying, “She’s very happy. She’s reminiscing and remembering some of the great times she’s had.”

Jimmy Carter said, “She gave wise guidance and encouragement when I needed it. As long as Rosalynn was in the world, I always knew somebody loved and supported me.”

Our thoughts and love reach out to the Carters, their family and their loved ones during this holiday season. I think of their relationship as a shining example of excellence: Aristotle’s definition as two bodies, one soul. There is no end. Their souls commingle, now in a higher, deeper realm. Their hands are still touching, invisibly united.

“Ah, it is well to be humble.” —Abraham Lincoln

Photo by Elissa

The cottage is perfumed with the scent of lilies.

“Humble and Kind”

My friend Susan pulled me aside the other day: “Do you have a minute?” She wanted me to listen to Tim McGraw’s country-western song “Humble and Kind.” The lyrics end with “Always stay humble and kind.” Another example of serendipity that came at a perfect moment. I had been musing about the character traits of the people I most admire and choose to emulate. Mrs. Carter’s death is so fresh in my thoughts, leading me to reflect soulfully about the humility of President and Mrs. Carter, President Lincoln, his Holiness the Dalai Lama, Marcus Aurelius, Jesus and Gandhi.

I’m fortunate to have ancestors who were extraordinarily humble and kind: my grandfather Benjamin Morley Johns and his oldest daughter, Ruth Elizabeth Johns. Of all the clients I encountered professionally, one stands at the apex of humility and kindness: Tommy T. B. Koh, ambassador to the United Nations from Singapore. All my life I’ve been blessed when I encounter a truly humble and kind individual.

Illustration by Elissa

This is one of the Christmas cards Elissa designed for book lovers. (If you click the image, it will take you to her online store.)

The great aspects of a human being’s character are the felt but subtle qualities of modesty and gratitude. Grace is unearned, but these people are gifted with dispositions that are generous-spirited, good-natured and full of goodwill. It is these warm-hearted, decent, honorable, trustworthy souls who restore and renew our faith in humanity. Without exception, all these humble, kind people work hard to improve themselves in order to be in a position to help others.

My friend Cherié sent me a note on November 13, honoring World Kindness Day with words from the German writer, scientist and philosopher, Goethe: “Kindness is the golden chain by which society is bound together.”

Kind people show sympathy and understanding toward human beings collectively, encouraging human dignity, respect and civility.

Tree lighting, carols and “the stroll” in the village are today, December 1. I’m off to New York City with friends to go to an art exhibition and see the tree lights on Park Avenue and the tree at Rockefeller Center. Brooke and I are flying to Washington for family time when Alexandra’s three children are home from college. There are several musical theater events planned for December. I’m embracing the miraculously infectious joy of the charms of lights, trees and decorations lit up in the dark as we drive around the village and the surrounding towns.

Light the lights!

Merry Christmas and Happy holiday season. Great love to you.

Love & Live Happy,

This month, I’m letting go of a lithograph by Roger Mühl if anyone is interested in adding it to their art collection; please contact Pauline at Artioli Findlay (artiolifindlay@gmail.com) for more information.

Roger Muhl (French, 1929 - 2008)
Provence VIII, Les vergers d’oliviers
Limited edition French lithograph 
16 1/2 x 12 1/2 inches
The image is printed to the edge of the sheet of paper.
Edition #VII of XX
Executed/printed 1986
This French landscape of the classic olive orchards of Provence is outstanding.