Jumping in at Hoyo Azul Cenote in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic

When traveling somewhere new, it’s important to leave the resort in order to say you’ve been there. I loved my time at Secrets Cap Cana in the Dominican Republic, but my desire to leave the comfort of the resort in order to see something unique was powerful. With limited money due to our unexpectedly extended vacation, and Mike’s desire to not be gone from the resort too long, we agreed on the Hoyo Azul (blue hole) cenote. A cenote is a natural pit, or sinkhole, resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater underneath. The photos I had browsed online were of gorgeous turquoise clear water. But a friend warned me it was “crowded and cold.” Nevertheless, on the second to last day of our vacation, Mike and I ventured outside of our resort to Scape Park in order to visit Hoyo Azul and see for ourselves.

Scape Park

Scape Park Cap Cana is a natural theme park with several attractions including a waterfall expedition, ziplining, cave tour, and its most popular, Hoyo Azul eco tour. Upon arriving at Scape Park I was immediately turned off by the tourist trap that lay before me. Cafe, gift shop, professional photographers snapping photos they hope you’ll purchase later, and lots of people waiting around. I was not impressed.

Ticket costs vary depending on the attraction and there is a discount for multiples. Our tickets for the blue hole were $69 each and included transportation. Once you identify your guide for the attraction for which you purchased tickets (they have signs) you wait for more people to arrive. Tours leave twice daily at scheduled times, but you don’t have much control over how early you arrive since you rely on Scape Park’s shuttle service from your resort. I am certain they intentionally get you there earlier than necessary in hopes you’ll patron the shops.  Fortunately, there are some animals to look at and we enjoyed the monkeys in particular. I also found myself draped in an enormous python. I have no photo to share, though since the photographer shouted at Mike when he tried to take a picture.

Mike and I waited nearly 45 minutes until we finally set off for the mile or so “hike” to the cenote. I say “hike” because it was really more of a leisurely stroll through the jungle with more stops than are necessary: water break, bathroom break, and photo break. What should have taken no more than twenty minutes took more like forty. As far as “eco tour,” that is also a bit of a stretch. It’s a walk through the woods with a few orchids crudely attached to trees with wire.

After the space and exclusivity of the resort, I found myself annoyed to be in a large group of people, at the mercy of the tour guide. I didn’t need breaks on a short walk and was fully capable of following the trail myself. So far, I had found the entire experience a waste of time. But I kept my hopes up that the blue hole would be worth it.

Hoyo Azul

The trail to the blue hole winds up some steps and onto what is more or less a wooden deck. Around us was an enormous cavern. Below us was a natural pool filled with the most beautiful turquoise water I have ever seen. All my frustration melted away. I realized Scape Park was simply the gateway to something magnificent, and worth the minor annoyances.

We descended a flight of wooden steps onto another large deck, much like a dock at a bay, where you could stand against the railing and look directly down into the blue hole. It was conical shaped. Shallow and rocky along the perimeter, but plunging downward to depths unknown to me in the center. A few more stairs on the left lead down to the water’s edge. On the right was a 14 foot high ledge for jumping. I was overjoyed to see it, but more than anything I wanted to feel that water against my skin.

“What are they waiting for?” I asked Mike. I looked around at the forty or so people in our tour; everyone busy taking selfies and gazing upon the blue hole through the lenses of their cameras and phones.

“I’m going in.”

I slipped out of my skirt and pulled my tank top over my head and walked in only my bathing suit down the staircase to the wooden landing beside the water. Lowering my feet onto a wooden board submerged in the water, I felt the cool freshness against my skin. I lowered my eyes and inhaled deeply, taking it in.

This. This is what was missing on our trip to the Dominican so far. I had so badly wanted to see something new, something natural, something besides our beautiful resort to make me feel as if I had the right to say I had been to the Dominican Republic. And for a blessed moment, it was all mine. I was inspired by the magnificence of my surroundings.

“Is it cold?” Remembering I was not alone in this beautiful space, I looked up and saw dozens of pairs of eyes gazing down at me. Me, in only my swimsuit. Them, hanging over railings awaiting my response.

“Not really,” I said. And then, with all eyes on me, I dove off the little step into the cool water the shade of blue like nothing I had ever seen. And for several more wonderful minutes, Hoyo Azul was all mine.

Hoyo Azul
Jessica with Hoyo Azul all to herself.

Jumping In

Diving in from the ledge was one thing, but jumping from fourteen feet was quite another. I jumped from a twenty-five foot high ledge when I was a tween, but my fear of heights has grown in intensity as I have grown in inches. As I stood at the ledge of the blue hole, fourteen feet up, fear gripped me. I took a step forward, then back, forward, then back. And finally, shook my hands in frustration, fists balled, and stepped aside, encouraging someone to go ahead of me. I know this so well because Mike recorded my first attempt. He also recorded my second attempt when I chickened out again.

By the third time, I was frustrated with myself. I knew I had to jump, but every time I tried, fear held me back as if ropes had emerged from the cavern and knotted themselves around my arms and legs. A few people shouted that I could do it. And I believed them. So I stood at the edge and waved my arms in such a way to universally signal the need for applause. Everyone cheered and whistled. And there I stood, self-conscious in my bathing suit, but not just the heavy woman afraid to jump. I was the woman who created her own cheering squad and knew how to overcome her fear. It was time.

And so I took one small step forward… then back… then forward once more and off the ledge into the blue depths below.

Applause erupted as I emerged from the surface. My body was shaky and flooded with adrenaline. My smile was brighter than the sun. I could watch the video all day of that brave woman taking a leap in spite of her tremendous fear.

Not jumping was never an option. Letting people go in front of me was one thing, but never once did it even occur to me to exit the line. The energy of the crowd inspired me and gave me courage. Jumping cemented the image of the Hoyo Azul in my mind. It is no longer just a gorgeous cenote in the Dominican where I went swimming, but a place where I encountered a fear, and beat it back.

This story would be quite different had I ran out of time. Afterall, Scape Park didn’t give us much time – fifty minutes maybe. They need to get you back to the hub to sit around and spend more money on $12.00 photos. In my October post, Facing and Embracing Fear to Avoid Regret, I wrote: “Imagine if I had let my fear get the best of me that day on top of that cliff? This would not be a story of courage, but one of regret.”

I could say the same exact thing now. Once again, I wrote a story of courage.

Hoyo Azul selfie
Jess and Mike at Hoyo Azul

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Bucket List in Reverse: Expressing Gratitude for All You’ve Done

Aspiring to do and see things is healthy. But unfortunately, once we’ve done or seen them we have a tendency to move right on to the next desire. We tend to cast away our past experiences into a ‘been there, done that’ box. The key to happiness is to compare ourselves not to those more fortunate, but those less fortunate. I think we should apply that philosophy when it comes to our “bucket list” desires. Rather than (or in addition to) list all the things we want do and see, we should list all the things we have done and seen. By creating a bucket list in reverse, we can see just how full our lives have been and how much we’ve done. Then we can look back with gratitude, rather than ahead with longing.

Bucket List in Reverse

I wrote a sixty item long bucket list in April, 2010. Following are the items I accomplished; my bucket list in reverse if you will:

23. Get my Bachelors degree (achieved May, 2014 – was also the commencement speaker.)

bucket list in reverse

27. Own a hammock. Use it all the time. (Purchased in 2014. I adore laying in it.)

29. Run on a beach during low tide. (I’ve done this several times and always love it – it’s the little things.)

31. Stay at the Bed and Breakfast Angels by the Sea, with my mom. (We went for the weekend in December, 2011.)

bucket list in reverse

33. Have a compost pile. (I love that I listed this as an actual bucket list item. We purchased a compost bin after we bought a home and it is full of beautiful compost.)

39. Learn yoga so that I can practice independently. (I have learned enough that I am comfortable practicing independently. I also finally have a regular and consistent yoga practice, something I have wanted to achieve for years.)

41. Go on a vacation with just my best friend. (I have done two overnight trips with two different best friends and loved it.)

42. Sit in a tube and float down the Delaware River. (I did this with my husband, Mike; brother, Doug; and sister-in-law Kristin in July of 2014 and it was a lot of fun!)

44. Adopt a sick or unwanted dog. (I am amazed this was on there since I never cared for dogs. But just a few months later in August, 2010 I found a dog dying of heat stroke in a park. That dog is our beloved Cooper and you can read all about how he came to be with us in Chicken Soup for the Soul’s “My Very Good, Very Bad Dog.”

45. Stop smoking forever. (FINALLY achieved July 23, 2016. It hasn’t been “forever,” but it has been 212 days as of this posting, which feels like forever.) Here’s a photo of me taken on February 7, 2017:

48. Eat lamb, duck, foie gras. (Done! And no, not all at the same time!) 

58. Own a home. (Mike and I purchased our home in June, 2011 and I am grateful for it every day.)

59. See Pearl Jam live. (I saw Pearl Jam in October, 2013. It was an incredible show. Crossing that one off the list was huge.)


I’ve yet to achieve many items on the original list. Some have simply fallen off as my priorities have changed. I could also probably write a whole new 60-item list right now. But there are also many incredible things I have done in addition to the list, because I pursue life and living. I will continue to do so.

This quote has a double meaning to me: “I’d rather look back at my life and say “I can’t believe I did that” instead of saying “I wish I did that.” Yes, we should live our lives and do the things we wish to, so that we don’t die with regret. BUT we must also appreciate the things we’ve done so that we die with gratitude for our experiences, rather than lament the things we didn’t get a chance to do.

And that is why I intend to keep reverse bucket lists… so that I never forget how fortunate and full my life has been.


What items are on your reverse bucket list? What have you done that continues to bring you gratitude and joy? I’d love to hear from you.

 

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What I Learned From My Happiest Moments

“What was your happiest moment this year?” That was the daily question for December 30 in Questions For Life. Even though I wrote the questions, I am experiencing them for the first time as I use the journal for myself. This question stumped me; it made me think. What was my happiest moment? Many memories flashed before my eyes and I recognized a spectrum of nuanced emotions. It took me some time to hone in on the answer. Once I did, I realized the question had a deeper meaning. And that’s when I discovered there was much to learn from our happiest moments…

Through my daily journaling practice throughout all of 2016, I paid close attention. The year isn’t a blur for me. And specific moments of happiness stand out amongst the countless joyful ones I am incredibly grateful to have experienced. Pinpointing my happiest moments was such a good exercise because in identifying and acknowledging our happiest moments I think we are more likely to strive to recreate them. Many people, sadly, don’t seem to know what makes them happy. We generally don’t give our happiest moments the credit they deserve. We allow them to be fleeting.

My Happiest Moments of 2016

1. Beach Days: Reflecting on the year, many of my happiest moments occurred at the beach. The sun, the water, my paddleboard, a good book, relaxation, friends, laughter… it’s a recipe for joy. Emotions are tricky because they are so nuanced. As I sat in my beach chair in shallow water at my favorite spot and looked up from an excellent book and felt the sun on my face and inhaled the scent of saltwater, was it happiness I felt? Or was it joy? Or peace? A combination of many different emotions, I think. My jaw hurt from laughing with special people, my shoulders were at ease with no presence of stress. Days like that are the good stuff. I felt happy…

2. Travel: Other happiness highlights are also peppered throughout my week vacation to Asheville, NC. Quality time with family made me very happy, as did seeing new sights and being surrounded by mountains and fresh air. New experiences, however, made me feel exuberant. Standing in the middle of a forest in the pouring rain waiting my turn to slide down a natural waterfall. Later, swimming full force at the bottom of a waterfall in frigid crystal clear mountain water. Hiking. White water rafting… Travel thrills me! It makes me feel alive.

what I learned from my happiest moments

3. Conversation & Connection: Good conversation and human connection has the same effect on me as travel. There were some amazing moments this past year with people I cherish. How incredible to feel so happy just being given the opportunity to listen and to be heard, to love and be loved. It fills my heart. Without these connections, a large part of my joy would go missing.

4. Accomplishment: And finally, how I love my productive days and meeting goals! I may be confusing accomplishment with happiness here, but damn, I LOVE the way I feel after a good workout, work session or when slashing things off my to-do list. I crave it.

What My Happiest Moments Taught Me

Now that I took the time to reflect and identify what made me happiest in 2016, I know exactly what I need more of in my life in 2017. I need more:

  1. Beach days
  2. Travel
  3. Conversation & Connection
  4. Accomplishments

This is clearly the good stuff in my life that brings me the most joy. I’d be a fool not to seek more of it in my life. And that is what my happiest moments of 2016 taught me… they taught me what to go after.


So ask yourself: “What was your happiest moment this year?” Explore what makes you feel most joyous, most alive. And then, pursue it as if your life depended on it. After all, our life does depend on our happiness.

P.S. And if you want to be asked 364 more thought-provoking questions like this, then order your copy of Questions For Life: Two Year Guided Daily Journal For Intentional Living and begin your daily journaling practice.

 

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Feeling Alive on Family Vacation: Asheville, NC

Cold water rushed over my feet as I climbed the natural staircase in line with those of my daring family members. We excitedly waited our turn to slide down a 60 foot natural mountain waterfall and splash into the frigid plunge pool below. Sliding Rock is located in Pisgah National Forest and is only one of the many fun things I experienced while on vacation in Asheville, NC with Mike’s family last week. We all enjoyed quality time with one another and the beautiful views. What I loved most of all, however, was the new life experiences and feeling alive. I was in awe of and inspired by my surroundings.

Nature is incredible and mountains are magnificent. I’m falling more in love with them after every trip to Colorado, Washington, Vermont, and now Western North Carolina. The slower pace, fresher air, darkness and quiet inspires and refreshes me. I’ve grown so accustomed to the crowds and congestion of Philadelphia and public transportation that I rejoiced in having so much space. I spread my arms at every opportunity as if I could embrace the breathtaking horizon of jagged greens, grays and blues.

Vacation in Asheville, NC. View from Blue Ridge Parkway
Panoramic view from the Blue Ridge Parkway

The trip was one of many firsts for me, including the fact that it was my first ever family vacation. All thirteen of us stayed in a beautiful home fifteen minutes outside of Asheville. The views from our porch were splendid.

Vacation in Asheville, NC. Full Moon over Blue Ridge Mountains
View of the full moon from our porch in the early morning

Everything was within an hour’s drive: white water rafting; hiking; the Biltmore Estate, the largest privately owned residence in North America, where we toured the meticulously manicured gardens, house and winery; Pisgah National Forest where we also swam in Looking Glass Falls; Lake Lure where Dirty Dancing was filmed and we had a pretty epic water balloon fight; and Asheville where we shopped, visited breweries and bars and even went to a minor league baseball game.

Vacation in Asheville, NC. Looking Glass Falls, Pisgah National Forest
Looking Glass Falls in Pisgah National Forest.

The entire area is wonderful and Asheville is a cool little town with a chill vibe. It reminded me a lot of a smaller Boulder, CO minus the legal marijuana. Not only was it great spending a full week in such a fabulous location, but it was wonderful spending it with family we don’t see often.  The trip afforded us an opportunity to spend real quality time with one another.

Our final night in the house Mike’s cousin and wife, whom I had a wonderful time bonding with, made homemade empanadas. Latin music rang out from the portable speaker. The kitchen truly is the heart of the home. In no time nearly everyone was cooking, dancing, chatting and laughing.

Family cooking empanadas on vacation in Asheville, NC
The kitchen was the heart of our temporary home

 

Empanadas for dinner
Our final meal together

As we feasted on our delicious dinner I asked everyone to share their favorite part of the week. Responses varied from Sliding Rock, to the baseball game, to rafting, but mine remained: the new life experiences. When I plunged into the chilly water at the base of Sliding Rock, my body flooded with adrenaline from fear and the shock of the cold water. My heart hammered as I climbed the rocks with weak knees. It poured down rain as we rushed back in line in the middle of the forest at nature’s own personal water park. I took it all in: the rain, the sounds of rushing water, the chill, the fear, the excitement of my family members… I felt ALIVE.

Is there anything better?

Flowers at the Biltmore Estate Gardens. Vacation in Asheville, NC
Flowers at the Biltmore Estate gardens.

I would feel alive over and over again throughout the week on vacation in Asheville, NC. As we walked the grand gardens on a beautifully sunny day at Biltmore, whooped as we white water rafted down Pigeon River in Eastern Tennessee, spun in a circle taking in 360 degree views at the peak of Craggy Gardens Trail on the Blue Ridge Parkway, swam full speed at the base of a waterfall only to be held back by its awesome force, and many more times in between.

I remained in awe of the passing mountains on the ten hour drive home after seven full and exciting days. The time away from reality, the break from work, the fresh air and nature all inspired me.

As the mountains grew smaller and eventually disappeared entirely, I missed them and our vacation in Asheville, NC. Mike, who is often content not to do things twice, turned to me and said, “Don’t worry. We’ll be back.”

I certainly hope so.

Biltmore Gardens in Asheville, NC
Lily at the Biltmore Estate gardens.

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A Day Like Chocolate for My Soul

This summer got off to a late start. In retrospect I think that also contributed to my depression the past several weeks. I love the beach and usually get down there starting in May. But this year my first beach day wasn’t until June 25. Very late, indeed. But better late than never. The day proved to be precisely what I needed and rejuvenated my spirit, like chocolate for my soul after a good cry. I am once again feeling like myself after a day of sun, water, laughter… and a bit of an adventure, too.

My husband, Mike and I left early Saturday morning to meet up with our good friend, Rudy. After an early lunch and a stop by the Cape May Hops Festival for a beer and look around, we headed over to “The Spot,” our favorite secret location to fish, drink, paddleboard and spend the day. We’ve been going there for years and it feels like home. The guys fished and I paddled and read in my beach chair submerged in a few inches of water. We told stories and caught up after not hanging out for a couple months.

We were having a good laugh when I noticed something floating out in the water quite a ways.

“What is that?” I asked, pointing in the direction of the object.

“Some sort of raft, maybe?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“You should go get it,” Rudy suggested.

“I should! A rescue mission!” I jumped out of my beach chair without hesitation and reached for my paddle. “I’m off!”

“Oh no, this can’t be good,” Mike said as I dragged my paddleboard toward the water. The object was pretty far out and moving quickly in the wind and current so I paddled hard to catch up with it.

As I approached the object I realized it was indeed a raft. I had wanted a raft to float on and was entertained at the notion of garbage picking the ocean. Some kid must have let it blow away. I slowed once I was within a few feet and drifted the rest of the way. As I came upon it, I got my first glimpse of the design and instantly recognized the brand blazon across the brown and orange square raft. I laughed so hard I nearly fell off my board. “But, of course,” I said, smiling as I plucked the raft from the water and placed it on my board in front of me. The raft was much wider than the board and kept lifting slightly in the wind. I realized very quickly this was going to be a tad difficult to negotiate.

As soon as I turned, the wind caught the side of the raft and I quickly pinned it down with my paddle, struggling to keep my balance on the board. Every time I stopped paddling to secure the raft, the current turned me back toward the horizon. After several more failed attempts to turn toward shore, I carefully sat down on my board and draped a leg over the raft to prevent it from blowing away. This made me incredibly unsteady, and paddling very difficult, but abandoning my booty was out of the question.

I finally managed to get myself turned around and was quite stunned at how far I had drifted from shore. I studied the divided sections of sand between the jetties looking for our camp, but couldn’t pick it out among the other umbrellas and beach goers. I lifted my gaze toward the roofs dotting the road behind the dunes and sought out the red one of the house near where we parked our cars. My eyes lowered from the roof back to the beach and I recognized a pin prick of orange, the color of the shirts Mike and Rudy were fortunately wearing.

They were three jetties to my left and hundreds of yards of water to the shore. The current had carried me very far and very quickly…

Relieved to at least have identified my target, I paddled hard against the current. A boat approached in the distance, full speed, its wake trailing. When the boat passed full speed between me and the shore, it dawned on me just how far out in open water I was. I braced myself for the wake, which had diminished by the time it even reached me.

I was getting nowhere and losing steam. I could barely make out a figure in orange waving at me, so I waved back, unsure if it was Mike or Rudy. “I see you,” I said. Then they waved me toward shore. “I’m trying!” I shouted. “Geez, I’m not sitting out here for my health,” I said to the raft. I was Tom Hanks in my personal Castaway story, my raft my Wilson, and I was not letting it go. I kept paddling, my arms burning.

I finally got close enough to make out that Mike had waded into the water a few jetties closer than where I was headed. Rudy was carefully stepping his way out along the jetty. Rudy pointed toward Mike and Mike waved me in. I realized they were signaling me to stop fighting against the current and just make straight for shore. That hadn’t occurred to me, I confess. And if you’re asking yourself why I didn’t deflate my raft, well… I didn’t think of that, either. I can tell you, though that this story wouldn’t be as good if I had.

So I worked my way straight toward shore. By now I had carefully gotten back on my knees, slamming a hand down on to the raft every few strokes to keep it from flying away. Once I was out of the current, and heading perpendicular to the shore things were much easier and I finally made some headway. I saw Rudy begin to make his way back to the sand from the jetty, satisfied I had gotten the message. Mike continued to wave me in. “I’m trying!” I shouted. “I’m tired!”

Once I was within 50 yards or so, I clutched the raft to my chest, displaying it for him to see. “Totally worth it!” I shouted. And everyone could see that I had risked life and limb for an inflatable Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup.

Peanut Butter cup

Mike lowered and shook his head, but I could see his smile. Of course his wife would find a giant peanut butter cup at sea and worry him sick in order to bring it back. I finally floated aground, exhausted but laughing hysterically.

“I figured you were okay once I heard you laughing,” Rudy commented as he approached.

“I was pretty far out there!”

“Yeah you were! You were caught in the current.”

The guys grabbed my board and paddle. I clutched my prize to my side as we walked back toward our things. “Nice job!” someone shouted. Apparently the whole ordeal had gotten the attention of some of the beach goers who witnessed me retrieve the raft and then struggle back to shore. A few women cheered softly.

“Totally worth it!” I replied. They agreed, understanding the special relationship between a woman and her chocolate.

Once we got back to our spot, I collapsed into my beach chair, exhausted and laughing, and heard things from Mike’s and Rudy’s point of view and just how worried they had become, especially when I stopped making any progress and the boat sped by closer to the shore than I was.

“You were a speck out in the water. I’m pretty sure you were closer to Delaware than New Jersey,” Rudy joked.

“Thanks for your help, guys!”

“I was worried you might be giving up,” Rudy said. “Why the hell didn’t you deflate the raft?”

“I didn’t think of that.”

Mike was quiet – I had worried him – but smiling at the absurdity of it all.

“I nearly busted my ass on that jetty. It was slippery as hell,” Rudy said.

“Something bit my toe and there was blood everywhere,” Mike added.

“I almost got lost at sea!”

“So we all could have gotten seriously injured all because of a peanut butter cup,” Rudy said.

“Technically, Rudy, it was your idea,” I said.

We would laugh about this for the rest of the day. Mike poured beer into our cups and we toasted to an awesome beach day, not being lost at sea, to a good story, to chocolate, to everything…

My heart filled with gratitude for such a rejuvenating day.

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I Opened My Heart & It Didn’t Get Hurt

At last the cool, wet weather that consumed what should have been spring here on the east coast passed. Kathy and I resumed our daily walks. It was the day after my birthday and I was trying to find words to express what I could only describe as my heart having grown a size.

“I feel… special. It’s weird. I wonder if maybe I’m easier to love now, or if I’m more open to receiving love?”

“I think it’s both,” Kathy said.

My heart felt enormous. The previous week was intense: preparations and cleaning, house guests, estranged family, worrisome visits, carefully navigated conversation, managing expectations… I approached all the experiences with authentic vulnerability and openness. Over the course of the long weekend there were opportunities to lose patience, have hurt feelings, place blame, judge and inevitably fall asleep crying. Yet despite wearing no armor, my heart remain unscathed! How could this be? Because in staying open and leading with my heart, I didn’t identify those opportunities for pain. Instead I found the opportunities to show love, compassion, forgiveness, and understanding.

I often wore armor in the past. I closed myself off in order to protect myself and maintained a defensive and judgemental stance. In doing so, I realize now I only attracted blows to my defenses, invited others to test me, and created opportunities for judgements and stories about me, bringing upon myself precisely what I was trying to avoid. My armor didn’t protect me; it damaged me.

When I decided to leave myself exposed, I tried not to attach expectations. I knew by anticipating the worst I could create a self-fulfilling prophecy. I tried to leave everything unknown and focus on keeping my heart open. Although I didn’t anticipate it being broken, I never thought it could be strengthened! Yet despite wearing no armor, my heart was reinforced. Did my love protect me, or did it attract love in return? Like Kathy said, I think it’s both.

My defenses only attracted negativity. My love attracted positivity. Maybe our energy really does have influence… that’s what Elizabeth Gilbert says.

“Your energy has an effect on every single person you encounter throughout life. You have influence over people sometimes even if you don’t speak to them directly; they can still feel your energy, and your energy is a powerful and deeply contagious force.” – E.G.

It makes perfect sense. Don’t we avoid those we identify as “standoffish” and gravitate to whom we find welcoming? Have you ever felt great then been exposed to an emotional vampire and felt drained of positivity, or allowed your mood to be enhanced by someone in good spirits? I’ve experienced both too many times to count, and have also been the vampire. I just never made the connection with an open/closed heart before. Perhaps my open heart drew people in? Guarded people allowed themselves to be vulnerable, at least briefly. People softened in my presence, becoming more at ease. I witnessed all this and it was beautiful.

Influence
Meme by Helen Boggess: http://www.lightandpine.com

Anyway, my birthday sat at the finish line of those intense 5 days and I was too exhausted to celebrate, opting instead for a low-key day and postponing any celebration until the weekend. The love continued to pour, though, and my heart filled with gratitude for all the incredible thoughtfulness directed my way.  I felt light on my feet and special, special in a way I haven’t felt in a very long time. Maybe, and I’m only realizing this now as I type, it’s because for the first time I feel worthy.

I seem to have silenced the sabotaging voice that says I don’t deserve friends, or to be loved, or to feel special. I displayed in my living room all the birthday cards I received over the past week. I walk past them several times a day and I smile. Not only do the cards themselves express beautiful sentiments of love and friendship, but the words handwritten inside do as well. I’ve worked hard to repair, strengthen and create relationships. Can my interactions over the weekend and those cards and all the beautiful sentiments be proof I’m succeeding?

In letting people in and showing my authenticity I allow myself to be open and vulnerable. Maybe the law of attraction is at work here, after all. How can we receive anything if we’re not open? For so long I was closed off, angry, and defensive. Is it any wonder I didn’t receive anything but more negativity?

So I think Kathy’s right; it’s both. I’m easier to love now because I’m open to receiving love.

With love and gratitude,

Jessica


Are YOU open to receiving love? Are you living authentically? Give it a shot. Take off your armor when you’re ready, even one piece, and put yourself out there. You may be surprised how people respond when they can actually see you.

Never Feel Guilty About Your Pleasures

Guilty pleasure – what an asinine expression. I’ve used it, of course. But I’m going to stop because I’ve realized how awesome it is to be able to recognize what makes us happy. Many people can’t. We should be celebrating those things, not keeping them to ourselves or sheepishly admitting them in a whisper. We judge ourselves enough – do we really need to judge the things that give us and others pleasure, too? Do we really need more to be self-conscious and judgemental about?

I say hell no!

Dear Readers, I PLAY DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS EVERY OTHER THURSDAY NIGHT! (That’s me screaming from the mountaintop.) I have been embarrassed about this, admitting it with a laugh and making fun of myself before anyone else has a chance, but guess what? I love it! I get to play make pretend, be someone else and visit a fantasy world twice a month. Instead of judging me, you should be jealous! If it wasn’t fun, people wouldn’t play it. And guess what? Lots of people play it, and not just in their parents’ basements.

If we should be hiding anything, it should be our poor attitudes, sarcasm, judgements, and other crappy characteristics. But for some reason, that’s all completely acceptable. Instead we hide that which makes us happy if it’s not generally held in high regard.

Lame.

Last year I read Jenny Lawson’s Furiously Happy and the following stayed with me:

“It is an amazing gift to be able to recognize that the things that make you the happiest are so much easier to grasp than you thought. There is such freedom in being able to celebrate and appreciate the unique moments that recharge you and give you peace and joy. Sure, some people want red carpets and paparazzi. Turns out I just want banana popsicles dipped in Malibu rum.”

Jenny doesn’t fail to appreciate the good things in life. She is successful in recognizing what the good things in life are for her. Let the noise fall away and ask yourself: what are the good things in life for me? Who cares if it’s dipping saltines in grape jelly while reading People magazine. A lot of people like People, and the wonderful combo of salty and sweet. (I took that example from Sex and the City when the ladies are talking about the stuff they love to do but would never let their boyfriends see. Speaking of Sex and the City, I have seen every single episode of that brilliant show at least three times but when I’m scrolling through the guide on tv and I see it’s on, I still stop everything and turn up the volume. Day over! But I digress…)

I asked my Facebook friends what their guilty pleasures are. For my friend, the beer snob, it’s cheap and sweet Bud Light Lime-a-Ritas. For two of my old co-workers, it’s reality television. And I don’t mean the decent reality television like Top Chef (pleasure!), we’re talking about the BAD reality tv of hair pulling and spit hurling. I’ve listened to these women whom I adore and respect dissect the previous night’s episode of whichever horrendous show was on last with intense passion, as I sat laughing and wide-eyed. I love that they love bad tv!

For my writer friends, it’s comics, World of Warcraft and heaven forbid, Twilight fan fiction. Awesome! I love the idea of my friends putting their kids to bed at night and escaping to their bedrooms to anxiously indulge in these things! What would life be like without these simple pleasures that are always within our grasp?

For more than a decade my personal philosophy has been that life is made up of the little, wonderful things that are too often overlooked in search of something bigger. These “guilty” pleasures are some of those little, wonderful things!

Please, don’t overlook or look down upon those things that give you pleasure because you think they’re too little or held in low regard or worried what people will think. Pick those things up, embrace them, and shout them from the mountaintops. I have learned that people everywhere are looking for permission to do the things they enjoy. Look how popular adult coloring books have become! Someone was smart enough to say, “Hey, adults like to color!” And now they’re rich. But we needed the person who came up with the idea to give us permission to color again.

Middle-aged moms who dream of taking ballet class don’t because they talk themselves out of it even though there’s a dance studio two miles away. Men who love comics haven’t set foot in a comic book store because they feel they’ve outgrown them. If every time you’re in the checkout line you look longingly at gossip mags but you never buy them for whatever reason, I say buy them! Put away the groceries, make a beverage and settle in and see if Bennifer is really getting back together. (And let me know, okay? I heard they’re not – Ben wants to, but Jennifer is too smart for that.)

Enjoy the stuff that makes you happy, loud and proud! Let’s start a revolution!

Shout it from the mountaintops – or in the comments section – what’s your formerly-known-as-guilty pleasure?

Practicing Mudita

I know someone who has trouble being happy for me when I talk about the simpler pleasures in my life. I don’t think this person means to be envious, and I know it’s more about them than it is about me and my life, but it’s a real drag. This person has a tendency to lament the experiences of mine they deem to be lacking in their own life, and vocally wishes their life could be more like mine. If it were an acquaintance, I’d likely avoid talking to this person altogether because these conversations often result in me feeling badly. But it’s not, so I tend not to share much of these smaller positive tidbits to avoid the ensuing sad soliloquy.

I don’t need anyone to be happy for the way I live my life. It’s my life and I built it, and there’s plenty of not so great things in it as well. But I do not see the reason for anyone being made to feel badly after sharing something positive about themselves. Envy is so ugly. How sad it must feel to resent the good fortune of others.

I tend to be in awe of people. Talented writers, world travelers, highly skilled yogis and athletes, artists, humanitarians… all average people with extraordinary lives, because they built them for themselves. Who am I to resent someone for working harder on their craft, body or dreams than I?

My oldest brother and his wife spent two years traveling the world by bicycle. I hung on every blog post and word shared with me during the time they were away; fascinated by their photos, the foods they ate, the people they met. Not one second did I feel envious of their adventure. They spent five years planning and preparing. Do I experience a longing to one day see even a fraction of what they have? Of course! But is it a resentful longing? Not in the slightest.

But to say “I am happy for them” doesn’t do it justice. To say I am happy for the members of my writing group when they get published doesn’t seem adequate either. Back in October my husband and his entire family went to Florida to celebrate a cousin’s wedding. I couldn’t go due to a work function. At no point did I feel envious or lament my not being there. It would have been wonderful, of course! But I never once complained. And by then there was a new word in my vocabulary to help me to understand why.

Mudita. Sympathetic joy unadulterated by self-interest; the opposite of envy. This is what I felt reading or listening about my brother’s travels. This is what I feel when someone I know is met with success as a result of their skills and efforts. This is what I felt for my family laughing on the beach together and drinking and dancing at the wedding.

I feel joy at the expense of others. I am able to completely separate myself and my feelings and bask in the happiness of others with an open heart. Many people can, and what an incredible feeling it is to be embraced by someone who is feeling Mudita for you! These are your cheerleaders. These are your friends.

But beside every wonderful cheerleader is someone who begrudges your successes. The important thing to remember is that it’s not about you. I believe that what people envy is simply something they regret not working harder for, whether they can admit that or not. I’m sure there was a time when I felt jealous of women who have the body and clothes I desire for myself. But I realize now I wasn’t envious of their bodies, I was envious of what I perceived their lifestyles to be.

The person I mentioned earlier whom I don’t feel comfortable sharing much with? I don’t think they are resentful that I have walking buddies or can go sit and read by a fire in a coffee house on a weeknight if I so choose. They are unfortunately just disappointed by their own circumstances. It’s sad. And it’s sad that people have such a tendency to immediately compare. I have written before that one of the keys to happiness is to not assess life by what you feel you don’t have, but to look at all you DO have. And that is once again where gratitude comes in.

Imagine how much joy could be added to your own life if you were to feel genuine happiness as a result of other people’s successes and happiness? Misery begets misery. Happiness begets happiness.

So ask yourself:

A Year Well Spent

The first and last days of the year are my favorite days of the year. On one is all the hope, excitement, and motivation the dawn of a fresh page brings. On the other, all the reflection and gratitude only the end of a last chapter creates.

Every year is another volume in an amazing chronicle detailing our lives. My 2014 Volume may be called The Darkest Days, but I’ve decided to name 2015: I Became a Better Person

By “better” I mean the standard definition: “less unwell; partly or fully recovered from illness, injury, or mental stress.” It’s so fitting. In 2014 I don’t think I could have felt more unwell or more mentally stressed. I was injured and ill on levels that permeated my soul and transformed me into someone I hardly recognized.

But the dawn of 2015 came and I was inspired and motivated to continue the journey I embarked on in late November, 2014. I spent the entirety of 2015 on a wonderful path, navigating my history and future, learning about myself and others, challenging myself repeatedly, picking up tools and skills, and learning from others who have walked their own paths. It was a year well spent and I am a better person for it. My heart is full of gratitude that I was able to walk this earth another year.

Between this blog, my Happiness Jar and three journals, which serve different purposes (2 of which are 5-year journals so my previous entry is directly above the new entry), I have a detailed record of the year. I will record 2016 in the same manner. I enjoy keeping these journals. They are something to learn from, but also a wonderful reminder of how far I’ve come.

And that’s so important – recognizing progress. The new year isn’t just a time for lamenting all the things we didn’t accomplish; it’s a time to acknowledge our own evolution. 2015 felt bigger and longer to me than any year before it. The daily journaling caused me to reflect on all the thousands of little things I experienced. As a result, I don’t look back on the year and see only the extreme highs and lows – I see all of it; all the small pleasures and peaceful days; minor accomplishments, as well as setbacks.

I see a year well spent.

The new year is also a time to reflect on what we set out to do at the start and assess how we did. As for my seven written 2015 goals, I only failed horribly at one — losing weight. Everything else – not too bad, I’m happy to report. Some room for improvement, but definitely not too shabby. I’ve certainly been more consistent than I ever have before and that is a tremendous accomplishment in and of itself. EVOLUTION.

As for the weight, well, at least I didn’t gain any. I’m pretty much ending exactly where I started. Although it took an entire year to figure out, I think I finally understand why I keep failing at losing weight, and what the root of the problem is. I am excited to report I will be trying some things differently. Spoiler alert: I’ve already begun. After all, isn’t the definition of crazy trying the same thing over and over and expecting different results?

So losing weight will be another primary goal for 2016. I may continue to write about the process from time to time because the tools I’m learning apply to all areas of life and are helpful to everyone.

As for other goals… I don’t know. And I am totally okay with that.

So many positive things have naturally become a part of my life over the past year that I don’t feel the need to express their continuation as “goals.” I know I will continue writing here weekly. I know I will continue practicing yoga and meditation, although I’d like to do both more often. I know I will continue to not smoke cigarettes regularly and will work to not do so socially, either.

I will also continue to write (my goal for 2015 was to submit three stories/essays for professional publication). Well, I submitted two.

But one of them was published! Please save the date: February 9, 2016. My story One for the Roadwill appear in Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Very Good, Very Bad Dog. That news was certainly a highlight!

I may have only submitted two stories, but I did something in 2015 that was not even remotely on my radar at the start. I participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and drafted a 50,000 word novel.

So yeah, that two out of three thing – I’m cool with it.

Which brings me to something else I learned this year. Life is what happens when you’re busy making plans. I’m all about goals and challenges and plans. I LOVE them. But I’ve relaxed a bit. I realize they’re more like guidelines. I didn’t submit three stories, but I drafted a freaking novel.

See my point?

Whether or not I write several goals down for 2016, I know I’ll be alright. It’s all part of the process, though, to figure that out. I know what I want to do (travel more, save more, etc.) and what I have to do (lose weight, continue writing, etc.). But write it down? I think I’ll pass this year.

I will continue to do what works, including minimizing my belongings. You may recall that last year I ran a Minimalism Challenge #minsgame created by The Minimalists. I found that starting the year by getting rid of crap and getting organized set a lovely tone for the year. (You can read about it here.)

Well, we’re playing again! Please click here to visit the Facebook event and read the very simple rules. It’s a lot of fun!

So that’s that. Tomorrow night this year will be behind us and we will wake up on Friday to a fresh page. Let’s all make it a year well spent.

Happy New Year!

My Secret Tip for Overcoming Dread

I have to work an event on Saturday and I’m really dreading the long night on my feet. Adding insult to injury, my husband and his family will be in Florida attending a wedding in Palm Beach. I can’t go, thanks to this obligation.

I’ve accepted the fact I can’t go to Florida with little complaining. I’ve also accepted I must attend this event. What I won’t accept is the feeling of dread, which is a crummy, useless emotion and a waste of energy. What dread does is take something you’re already apprehensive about and place it in the foreground of your thought. Whether it’s a test, a test result, a conversation, or an event, dread doesn’t achieve anything but dampen life leading up to the big moment, which won’t come any faster or slower no matter how hard you wish it away or to hurry up.

Thankfully, I happen to know a secret to overcoming dread! 

The trick is to give yourself something to look forward to immediately after the thing you’re dreading. A carrot, if you will! You need to be able to look forward to that thing more than you dread the thing before it. This way you can keep your eye on the prize!

I’m not really dreading Saturday. In fact, I am looking forward to going home after the event, washing up, rubbing cream on my feet, putting on the comfiest clothes and softest socks, and drinking celebratory cranberry wine with my friend, Kathy, whom is staying at my house after the event.

I am also looking forward to waking up on Sunday to the realization that the event is behind me. I am looking forward to an autumn morning walk around the lake near my house, followed by soft boiled eggs and rustic bread for breakfast. Then, once Kathy heads home, I will have the house to myself for most of the day. I plan to start watching Downton Abbey and enjoy a large homemade chopped antipasto salad for lunch.

You can see I’ve given this some thought — sure beats thinking about how much I don’t want to work this event. The comfy clothes and wine are the metaphorical beer waiting for me at the finish line. Hmmm, maybe I’ll make myself a Bloody Mary on Sunday, too!

So that’s my secret. Don’t dread it — plant a carrot! It really works to have something positive overshadow the negative. Instead of dread, you end up with anticipation. Reward yourself for getting through it. And if it what you dread is emotionally taxing, like a tough conversation, you’ll be so glad you planned something nice and comforting for yourself. Your future you will thank your past you for such a kind gesture once the moment of comfort arrives.