AUTHOR | SPEAKER | PHILOSOPHER | DESIGNER
As we all know, “we never know.” We, as humans, understand that we live with uncertainty. None of us knows what may happen at any moment. Just hours before Elissa was going to swing by to pick up this letter to you for the June website, baby Jonathan, just one year old, had an allergic reaction to something he ate and ended up in the emergency room at a New York hospital. They are now back home in Rhode Island and Jonathan is doing better. My heart is with Elissa, Colin and Jonathan.
We Write to Each Other
I write to you out of a heart full of love. When I read your letters and communications, I feel fortunate that we can be in touch no matter whether we met face to face or through my books. I thank you; you thank me—the mutual appreciation and affection are invaluable to our well-being.
We are all being challenged now. The longer I live, the more strongly I feel about our commitment to ourselves to choose happiness. Our getting discouraged by all the sadness around the world only adds to the problems. We want to be in the best possible shape in order to be useful to those who are suffering.
Each one of us finds our own way to flourish. To maintain and sustain vibrant vital energy, our chi, we need to pay attention to our habits of mind, body and spirit. We have free will to choose to become more excellent human beings. This requires the discipline of mindfully taking care of whatever is needed to use our energy in constructive, worthwhile ways. Our choices will direct us to act according to our highest standards of decency and goodwill.
This commitment to live well, to act in life-enriching ways—with ourselves, our friends and our family—boosts our love of life, our energy, our mood and our productivity.
Regardless of whether I have any more books published, I now write for my own pleasure as a daily discipline. Each time I see the words on paper, I learn more about my own longings and passions. Being happy no matter what obstacles come my way is my best choice, a firm commitment that I renew every day. Whatever happens that is not in the power of my will, I must put in the loving hands of the universe. Whatever is in my will to improve, I intend to address and do my best.
Epictetus, a former slave who became a teacher, told his students that freedom is the greatest good, and no one who is really free can be unhappy. David Fideler wrote in his delightful book, Breakfast with Seneca: A Stoic Guide to the Art of Living, “For the Roman stoics, the practical goal of philosophy was to develop a sound or excellent inner character. … To be free is to remain undisturbed by anything that is ‘not up to us,’ anything that belongs to the realm of chance or fortune.”
The choices we make are to build this inner character, because “having a good character and happiness (eudaimonia) go together,” as Fideler wrote. We make the choices that will build up the virtues of justice, honesty, discipline and courage. It was Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, who taught that the good life is one of lasting excellence of character, an enduring, continuous and relatively stable state of mind.
David Brooks wrote about how we act in a recent column in The New York Times:
Moral behavior doesn’t start with having the right beliefs. Moral behavior starts with an act—the act of seeing the full humanity of other people. Moral behavior is not about having the right intellectual concepts in your head. It’s about seeing other people with the eyes of the heart, seeing them in their full experience, suffering with their full suffering, walking with them on their path. Morality starts with the quality of attention we cast upon another.
Character is not measured by a person’s beliefs but by the ability to see the full humanity of others. It is not automatic. It’s a skill acquired slowly. It’s about being able to focus on what’s going on in your own mind and simultaneously focus on what’s going on in another mind. It’s about learning how to minutely observe, absorb and resonate with other people’s emotions.
When we see others with “eyes of the heart,” as full human beings, we will naturally become more loving and sensitive to innocent people who feel pain as they experience unspeakable losses and injustices. On May 27, Brooks was on PBS Newshour with Judy Woodruff expressing concern that the cruelty seen on television’s breaking news will lead to an erosion of empathy. Turning our back is not a solution that will lead to necessary reforms. We must stay engaged. This is our time to find solutions to problems.
The lives of good people who came before us set examples for us to follow. They took responsibility for their behavior. Great leaders demonstrated remarkable strength and courage in their ability to inspire us to believe in our higher angels. Exemplary lives have and will continue to inspire us to live by our convictions no matter what frightening experiences we face now and in the future.
Each of our lives has a purpose. Finding our personal ways to contribute to society is our responsibility. Our highest priority, of how we choose to use our God-given talents and gifts, is ours alone to cultivate.
Winston Churchill’s World War II words to his fellow citizens, “The price of greatness is responsibility,” ring true now, tomorrow and always. V for victory. Each one of us, right now, today, can achieve victories in the thoughtful ways we act. Our humanity is our essential nature. We have the power of our will to do the right thing at the right time for the right reason. We, as critical thinkers, are continuously in the process of change, renewal, transformation and, ultimately, transcendence. When one thing changes, we have to rethink everything.
Nature’s Magic Wand: Our Healer
The merry month of May set my heart on fire. From the beginning, throughout all the days, I savored springtime. Due to my great good fortune, many of my friends and I have shared “tootles.” I love to go on road trips, observing the awesome beauty of Southeast Connecticut’s shoreline and the scenery of 18th and 19th century houses amid fields and meadows, with mountains in the horizon. I relate to the old farms with their stone fences, barns and farm stands that make my heart sing.
It is thrilling to be out and about here in springtime in Stonington Village and in the surrounding towns and villages. Watching the magnolia trees bloom, the dogwood, the azalea bushes in their riot of pinks, is awe inspiring. I treasure our outings, often with a favorite restaurant in mind, a “restorative” (the root word of restaurant) that I always appreciate.
This time of year is what we New Englanders live for, and we’re abundantly grateful for the parks and nature preserves that are able to keep developers at bay. Having lived in New York City since 1959 and only having lived in Stonington full time since 2008, I feel so abundantly grateful and blessed to see the sunrise and sunsets without buildings blocking the light or the extraordinary views of nature’s magnificence.
I spent the entire month of May celebrating. Every day was the first day of spring. My spirits were soaring to a new summit. At the same time, my body was in quite a bit of pain. Mobility was difficult. No matter how happy I am at any given time, that does not mean I’m without pain. I’ve made my choice to be happy. I not only accept this reality, but I embrace each new physical challenge as it comes, continuing to do everything I’m able to as well as I can. In the process of living through pain, I’ve asked for help in all directions. I’ve let go of the way things were and am embracing the reality of the way things are as I look forward to each fresh day as a bonus gift.
As counterintuitive as it sounds, my current physical limitations heighten my gratitude for all my radiant good health I enjoyed until last year. When we age, inevitable changes happen in our body, and some cause pain. My hero, Peter, never complained. Never is a word I rarely use, but he loved life so dearly and was so happy to be alive into his 10th decade. His pain took a backseat to discomfort and was not something he dwelled on.
When my seatbelt is buckled and I’m in a car tootle, I savor the longer, winding country roads with their honest beauty and rich history. The soil is rich. We pass by working farms, horses and cows, vineyards, pastures, cornfields with old stone walls, split-rail fences, and plenty of forks in the road not taken. Nature’s wondrous beauty inspires awe in these car rides.
Spring fever makes poets out of us all. We live inside the beauty all around us. Once home, when the birds are singing, the bees are buzzing and the powerful beauty of flowers surrounds us, we are drawn to plant in our gardens. To spend time in our own garden, being co-creator, and spending soft quiet moments in instinctive contemplation of the vast miracles in our immediate midst is a blessing and a privilege we can never afford to take advantage of. Even if we don’t have an outdoor garden, gardens are where plants grow. Grow them indoors.
The beginning of the month, a friend and I went to “Wicked Tulips” in Exeter, Rhode Island. The owners planted 550,000 tulip bulbs, and we were able to wander in the pathways, literally being enveloped in countless different colorful varieties. A day later, I joined two friends to go to Preston, Connecticut, where the same owners planted 450,000 bulbs. At the end of each visit, we were given 10 free tulips with the ticket price. We could pick as many as we wanted for an additional $1.00 a stem. I’ve never been to Holland during tulip time, but this mini Holland experience has the special advantage of being near where we live and away from the madding crowd when we go during the weekdays at off-peak times. Wicked Tulips is “where happiness blooms.”
One week later, I went back to Preston with a friend who volunteered there three days a week for the month they were open to the public. Every experience in life is different, depending on who we’re with, the time of day, the weather and a host of circumstances we can mindfully learn from and appreciate. Each time, seeing the fields of tulips, creates a sense of sacred awe. Because a week had gone by since I made my first selection of what to bring home and to share with friends, I was able to fall in love with several varieties I had not previously experienced. I roamed around both fields, admiring each row, and then circled back to let the tulips speak to me. Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote in Gift from the Sea that we can’t take the beauty of the beach home with us. Whether you’re in a field of flowers, a botanical garden or at the beach, nature casts its spell. It gives us continuous gifts to enjoy. I delighted in the magnitude of tulip mania while it was so welcomingly available. The experience was multiplied by the magnificent friends with whom I shared my complete joy.
Perhaps the luxury I feel in this life’s chapter is the gift of sacred time. The best, most meaningful way to live the good life is to deeply participate in the opportunities available to us right in our midst. The greater our awareness of our true nature, the more moved we are by the awe-inspiring beauty of our natural world. We are a vital part of her spectacular, breathtaking creation. My time is well spent whenever I’m aware of my actions as well as my inner mental musings in the present. Once you expose yourself to this beauty, it lives with you when you’re going about your daily life. It stays with you.
I Flew Away!
Before the second Preston visit, I flew down to Washington, D.C., to visit my daughter Alexandra. The trip was timed in order for us to go to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, a Smithsonian Institution museum built in 2016. Sharing this experience with Alexandra was thrilling because of her great knowledge and focus on American history. Because we couldn’t possibly absorb the whole museum on one visit, we concentrated on the past, not spending precious time viewing recent, familiar history.
My last travel experience was at the end of February 2020, in New York City, before the pandemic reared her ugly head. I stayed at the same hotel in Bethesda, Maryland, a few minutes away from Alexandra’s home. The whole visit was so uplifting because I realized I’m able to resume lots of the joys of pre-pandemic days by stepping out now that I’m vaccinated, boosted and, when appropriate, masked.
I was giddy happy, both in anticipation of spending one-on-one, relaxed, unhurried hours with Alexandra—a rare, memorable and illuminating experience—and also because of the exciting, breathtaking views of Washington in its advanced spring. The mere fact that I had my surgery behind me and I’m able to move about, even slowly, was most encouraging. Upon my return home, I was slow to unpack, and my re-entry was smooth and most happy. I couldn’t have enjoyed myself more, and I intend to carry the pleasant glow with me as a reminder of how much love we’re capable of sharing.
On Mother’s Day there were a few surprises. My theater buddies Regan, Douglass and I had planned to go to A Midsummer Night’s Dream but learned the performance had been postponed. Not laughing at a Shakespeare comedy as expected, we took a road trip in scenic Rhode Island, stopped at a modest, quiet little country restaurant and all enjoyed a delicious meal, anticipating going for ice cream on the way to a favorite plant nursery, The Farmer’s Daughter. Sauntering around the various greenhouses in the warm sunlight, feasting on their most tasteful, subtle displays, watching happy mothers being treated tenderly by their families made this May Sunday another one of the days as big as years.
Because of my desire to have all my time spent in positive, fun, life-enriching ways, I feel I lived as well as I ever have the entire month of May. I so loved celebrating Peter and my 48th wedding anniversary with good friends on May 18th. The day’s entry in The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living, by Ryan Holiday, was, “How you do anything is how you do everything.” The book quoted Marcus Aurelius’s message to us: “Pay attention to what’s in front of you—the principle, the task, or what’s being portrayed.”
We’re not always able to go on joy rides in scenic farm country in the heart of spring in the dappling sunlight. When we pay rapt attention to whatever we’re doing, we can do our best. Every action of ours represents who we are at our core. In order to live well when we do whatever is necessary that is in our control—keeping the big picture, the greater good in our hearts and minds—we will be free and, as a grace note, happy.
Happy June. Let it bring joy to your heart in all you think, feel and do. Great love to you.