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Long-Awaited Karma

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I was recently doing work in an upstairs café in the middle of Ho Chi Minh City, like any good digital nomad. I arrived in between the breakfast and the lunch rush, grabbed a seat near the electric plug and set my laptop up after ordering one of Vietnam’s famous coffees. I had already sampled cà phê sūa da, the classic iced milk coffee. I loved the cà phê dùa, the coconut coffee, and cà phê trung, an egg coffee, was a real treat. So, my eyes lit up as the waiter smiled at me as he brought over a hot coffee topped with a phin, which is a little metal filter that allows the brew to drip down into the cup.

I wore this well.

We were both smiling, in fact, until the last moment, when he proceeded to spill the entire cup all over me and my makeshift desk. His eyes widened as his saw the grinds and coffee all over my shirt, my bag and the floor. He immediately started apologizing and scrambling. Seeing that my computer was fine, I continued to smile.

See, I had it coming.

Rewind 23 years ago, and I did almost the exact same thing to someone else. I was sitting in a college lecture in New York City with what I can only remember as the biggest coffee ever. My beverage of the Gods (just some black mud purchased from a vendor on the street outside, certainly) was perched precariously on the narrow desk. It was the kind of writing space that attaches to a seat, which in turn is attached to a row of the same seats and desks in an effort to churn out as many debt-inducing graduates as possible. There was no place for a jumbo-sized reusable mug of joe. And I proved that point by knocking the entire thing over on to the girl in front of me.

Then, the most fascinating thing happened: She smiled. She shrugged. She actually acted like it was an improvement to her outfit to have an entire coffee spilled all over her. She gave me absolutely no ill will at all, and I totally deserved it because I was definitely negligent. I apologized, and she even waved that off. She was so cool about it. 

And there in Saigon, upstairs at the M2C Café, I finally had the opportunity to return the favor. This is called karma, and I had waited all these years to be as cool as that girl was. So, I was. The waiter was sweating and shaking about the spill, and I put my hand on his shoulder and shook my head. It was really no problem, I told him. I rinsed my shirt in the bathroom and moved my stuff to another table. I smiled when he brought me a new coffee. I even paid for it. And I tipped him. 

The best part? Somehow my shirt was completely fine. All the coffee came out in the laundry. 

Endless cafes to try in Saigon — including many in this photogenic converted apartment building

Karma, of course, is not always so direct. This law of cause and effect can also take lifetimes, if you believe it that. It’s an awfully good reason for why “bad things happen to good people,” though. See, that woman who was my coffee victim could have been a royal bitch, but that would have been on her. The fact that she reacted the way she did so many years ago simply served to remind me not to make that guy feel any worse than he already did. 

In fact, I was thankful to that clumsy waiter. I was able to turn something that could have easily ruined my day into a gift. He gave me an opportunity to get rid of whatever I had coming to me, whatever I had done to make a little pot of coffee spill all over me. 

You may be thinking that I didn’t really have anything to do with that spill. But, of course I did. It’s not as if the waiter tripped. No one pushed him. The only reason was that I had it coming. It was a little test to see how I was going to act. Was I going to keep negativity in my life and get pissed off? Was I going to play the victim? Or was I going to use it as an opportunity to make someone smile? It was really nice, when I left, to see that waiter smile at me. 

Then, driving home on my scooter, I had to fight through crazy traffic. Saigon wins for the craziest traffic, with hundreds of scooters and cars coming at you from all sides, all the time. Everyone is constantly cutting in front of you and driving the wrong way. I bumped into a woman on an electric bike at a stop light. I turned and saw she was rubbing her hand. I asked her if she was OK. She nodded, and we exchanged understanding smiles. As I drove off, I was grateful that I had the wherewithal amidst all the chaos to care. It’s so easy to just push your way through life and forget that all the people around you are your neighbors.  

I’m not kidding about the crazy traffic here. We’re all scooting each other home … Ram Dass said something like that.

I remember about six years ago I was in Costa Rica, traveling from San Jose to the coast when my bus stopped at a little bodega for refreshments. As I was picking out a snack, I heard a crash outside. I looked up and saw a car had rear-ended another. The driver from the second car, the one at fault, got out first. He was a teenage boy, and he put both hands on his head in horror at the damage he caused. The second driver, an older man, got out and approached the kid. And I witnessed something else amazing: Instead of yelling at the kid, the older man gave him a hug. Shit happens. That doesn’t mean we have to be mean to each other. 

See, the random people around us are actually more than our neighbors. They’re also our teachers. That’s really the lesson of karma. We can all go up into the mountains, get away from everyone and meditate all day. But then we’d miss out on all the spiritual lessons from all cause and effect resulting in actions by the people around us all the time. Only when confronted with challenging situations can we decide how to live your life. Living in a city with more than 8.6 million people, I have a lot of opportunity to figure that out. Luckily, there’s lots of coffee to keep me going.

Damsel in De-stress

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Recently, I got to flex my rusty acting skills in a YouTube video about the differences in American and South Indian culture. I ran around Chennai, Tamil Nadu for a couple days, hopping on buses and into auto tuk tuks, laughing heartily with my new friends. My job was to basically be a naïve foreigner. A role I was born to play!

India is by far the most vibrant place I’ve ever been. At all times of day, the streets are filled with life. Women are selling flowers, herbed buttermilk and mangos. Men are smoking together in groups or racing past on motorbikes, sometimes in the wrong direction on the busy streets. Hurling past bicyclists, dogs and families, buses straddle lanes and barely notice street lights. Cows are everywhere, and they tend to mosey out in front of you while you are driving. Friends gather to play cricket or football, have a chai or take care of the business. 

Sometimes the traffic is really moooooving really slowly in Chennai.

Everywhere, India is simply buzzing with sounds, smells and sights. Loud speakers blast prayers from roadside temples, as whiffs of spicy sambar float by. Clouds of dirt get in your eyes as you drive past fresh fish for sale on the road. Beautiful sarees, wrapped masterfully to cover voluptuous bodies, create a rainbow of color from the ocean to the depth of the city. 

Close up of the feast for the eyes that is the Kapaleeshwarar Temple in Mylapore.

It can be a little overwhelming – especially over my last 72 hours.

On one of my first days in the country, a man named Nihal – his name means happiness – took me for filter coffee and a walk along one of the city’s slightly less trashed-strewn beaches. We were greatly enjoying each other’s company when he looked down, pointed and warned me to watch my step. 

“You must always be alert in India,” he told me. “You must always be present, or, well, you might step in shit.”

Of course, staying present is a constant practice, as the present is now. And now. And now. Even with my daily yoga classes, propensity for spiritual texts and meditation work, I often find myself lost in a memory or planning ahead. It’s really easy to step in shit, both literally and figuratively. It felt like that a few days ago, with the first of two quintessential Indian moments, which I shall refer to as “The Watchman Incident.”

TL;DR: The security guard at my apartment grabbed my breast.

This small, old man has a wild puff of gray hair and no more than four teeth, all tragically discolored and jutting out in a wide variety of directions. His job is to open the gate when I come and go from the apartment. He speaks no English. For the first few weeks, I enjoyed smiling with him. A clown and possibly a drunk, he would do a funny, little jig as he opened the gate. He cleaned my scooter and made sure I had always locked it.

Acting as my advocate, Tarun tells off the watchman who assaulted me.

In many ways, I loved that man. He made me feel just slightly safer in a country that isn’t exactly known for a good treatment of women. I gave him a mango once. I even made origami cranes for friends and made one for him. I always had a smile for him. 

But our relationship was not smooth. A couple weeks ago, I invited Nihal over for dinner one day, the watchman took great exception. He tried to stop my friend from coming upstairs, even as his backpack was filled with ingredients for our meal. When we ignored him, he banged on my front door and threatened to call the building owner. Here I was, a 41-year-old woman who travels solo internationally, and some old uncle was forbidding me an unchaperoned evening with a man I had met in public enough to trust. Interestingly, it didn’t matter that I told him it was fine. It really didn’t matter what I thought.

Then recently, I met another friend who had experience with Reiki and was interested in receiving an attunement. We worked out a trade, shook hands and made plans for the class at my apartment. As we were walking up the stairs to my door a few days ago, the watchman came running up, again trying to stop him. I asked my friend to explain that he was my student, and that it was fine. We ignored the guard’s protests, went upstairs and had a wonderful morning of healing energy work.

But my friend is a nervous type, and as we finished with the class he asked if I would accompany him while he waited for his Uber. He was scared of stray dogs, which roamed around my neighborhood with big, freedom-filled smiles and wagging tails. I knew they were harmless, but nonetheless I walked down the road with him to wait. On my way back to my apartment, I lingered in the road and picked a few fragrant flowers, thinking about how lovely my time in India has been. 

As I walked through the gate, the watchman approached me. Remember, he doesn’t speak English, but he prattles on as if I understand Tamil. He pointed up to my apartment, clearly displeased that I hosted yet another man. I assured him, in English, that it was fine, that I appreciated his concern but it is OK. Then, he looked at me, pointed to the apartment and then to himself. He seemed to suggest that he wanted to go up to my apartment. 

The bells were ringing, but not loud enough. He was such a clown!

I smiled, again reassuring him that I had everything under control and thanked him for his concern. I shook my head and reached out to give him one of the flowers I had picked as I started to head up to my apartment. I had never been so close to the guard before, and there was a moment when I was transfixed by his horrendous dentistry. That’s when he reached out and grabbed me. 

In fight or flight, I always pick flight – so I ran upstairs, locked my door and sat on my sofa for a moment, feeling his bony handprint on my breast. I remembered when my friend dropped her cell phone in the river. She shrugged and said, “Well, that happened.” I had the same sort of feeling.

At that moment (Jai Ganesha), my friend Tarun sent me a note about stopping by my place. My wifi was out at home, so he hadn’t been able to connect with me for a party the night prior. I told him what happened, and he was outraged. He came over immediately, and in the guard’s language we confronted him. The son-in-law of the building owner overheard us and came out. He apologized to me and promised to fire the watchman. Both Nihal and Tarun followed up that evening and the next day, but it’s been a few days. The guard is still there. Indian culture is different than American culture, after all … I participated in a whole video prepping me for this. 

Still, I felt like I had stepped in shit. I may have played a naïve foreigner in a video, but I have no interest in playing a damsel in distress. Fortunately, I had a phone with a SIM card filled with cheap data to connect me with people who cared about me. I went to yoga, slept in and ate a big piece of rosewater cake and drank basil tea with my friend, Shanna. I was a damsel in de-stress.

Maybe a bit too colonial for my style, but that was a mighty fine piece of rosewater cake with a cup of basil tea at the Flower Power Tea Room.

But I had more karma to burn. The friend from yoga class who helped me get my SIM card – it is difficult for a foreigner to get a phone number in India – had been texting me constantly since we had spent one day exploring the city together. He kept wanting to hang out, but I had been inundated with work. I’d see him at yoga class, and we were friendly. But I thought he had a strange energy, and the frequent “What are you doing now?” texts were getting old, fast. Yesterday, he evidently ran out of patience.

As I’m out running errands, I see messages from him about how he suddenly wants the SIM card back. It’s free, by the way, and residents can have as many as they want. I had paid the $3 for basically unlimited data for the month. I told him I needed it, and in fact, I had just recharged it for another month. I had no wifi at home, so I was using the card for work as well. I thanked him again for his help but told him I needed it. He demanded it back. He was clearly mentally unstable. 

I refused. But because we used his information to sign up for the SIM card, he was able to cancel it – and, abruptly, did. At 9:30 p.m., I had to walk in the dark out of my apartment, past the guard who had previously assaulted me, to go to the nearby restaurant to beg for a hotspot so I could yet again reach out to my friends for help. 

I was wading waist-deep in shit!

So many friends came to my rescue this week, including my video co-star, shown here “acting” like hanging out in the cell phone store was the last thing she wanted to do.

In the morning, as I waited for my friend Shruthi to pick me up and bring me to the cell phone store and get me a new SIM card, I am thinking about the lessons I can learn from these dirty dealings. First, I am wiser about offering kindness to someone who doesn’t have the capacity to understand it. That guard obviously judged me harshly as the typical Western whore he’s seen in porn and yet was also enamored with me – a winning combination, right? I see now how I can avoid that situation in the future, when the sexual assault could be a lot worse than a cheap titty grab.

Second, I am reevaluating what are considered gifts. In the Yoga Sutras, we are encouraged to follow a yama called aparighraha. This Sanskrit word translates to non-possessiveness and non-attachment to things. Owning only what I can carry, I thought I was doing pretty good here, but another element of this subtle teaching is the instruction to not accept gifts. Gifts create strings, as was clearly the case in the mind of that “friend” who obviously thought he was owed some of my time in exchange for help with my phone. 

Yet, I give and receive kindness all the time. I consider kindness a gift. When friends are late, even, I am never mad; I thank them for the gift of time. Gifts are a language of love. But as I’ve certainly learned over the last five years of full-time travel, we don’t always speak the same language.

Thus, all I can do is wash the shit from my shoe and continue on, integrating into the flow of the organized chaos that is India. While waiting for Shruthi, I finished my breakfast, which included a homemade, ghee-rich dosa made by the housekeeper for me. I spent three more dollars on a SIM card and smiled at all the times before and all the times later that I’ll manage to sidestep a pile of shit right in front of me.

Rewriting My Life Story

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Everyone needs an editor!

“Hommage” by Leopoldo Maler, on display at the Hess Gallery in California.

That’s one of my favorite quotes that I’ve learned over the years as a professional writer, because it’s so true. There are typos and clichés and bad commas in everything you read, if you read enough.

But only recently have I taken this truism and applied it to my own, personal life story. You know, when people ask you questions like, “So, where are you from?” Or, “Oh, when did you start doing that?” You tell them a story. You’ve probably said the exact story over and over. It’s your story. It’s who you are, right?

I recently was interviewed on a fledging podcast about my last five years as a digital nomad. The host was so interested about my story of how I transferred from an office job to freelancing that I barely said anything about my new online course on how to be a remote-based, professional writer or even the book about music festivals that I wrote and published. I hung up and immediately felt foolish — the whole point of the interview was to bring attention to my current work. I did a bad job.

I was so caught up in my story. And that little story I just shared about the podcast? Yeah, that’s part of it too.


Who knows your story better than yourself? There is no other common denominator in every story about your past that you tell — either aloud or in your head. I certainly have a story about myself as a running narrative about who I am in my head. I bet I’m not the only one. It’s the history of your egoic presence in this human form, in a somewhat chronological order, based on external and internal experiences.

Spiritual teacher and writer Jack Kornfield wrote in A Path With Heart that these stories are your greatest hits, the “Top 10” on the radio-in-your-head. These stories can be the thoughts that come up during a meditation practice or are deep down in your subconscious, quietly driving your decisions and behavior patterns.

That story about flubbing up the interview is part of one of my greatest hits and a very popular story. It’s called, “I Didn’t Do Good Enough, and I’m Not Good Enough.” Or, simply, “I’m Bad.” Sometimes, the story is entitled, “I’m a Bad Person.”

Do you know that story about yourself? Have you ever felt that you’re simply not good enough?

I can tell you my version of that story, from the start. And when I felt the shame of that interview gone poorly, I actually felt the shame in my heart. I recognized that feeling of shame. It’s the same feeling every time I feel like I’m not good enough. And I feel that way when I revisit the story of me as a bad person.


Now, a general life goal of mine is to feel good — not in a hedonistic way, but in an inner-peace way. So, in an effort to take the power back, I’m going to hire myself as my own editor.

I am rewriting my own life story.

Rewriting my story? It seems like an illogical concept, like revisionist history or denial of facts — the kind of thing that gets entire nations and racial factions in deep and deadly trouble. But anyone who’s read “Lies My Teacher Told Me” knows that history can be looked at from many different angles, and it’s really just a matter of who is writing the textbook as far as who is benefiting.

When it comes to my own life story, though, I am the only one who could benefit — or my harm. Of course, the way that I tell my story has everything to do with whether I come out ahead in life. For many people, when they tell their story, they’re the victim. Life has treated them poorly. Without a doubt, in many parts of my life, I am one of those people.

What if I’m able to edit my own story, so that I’m always a winner, surrounded by love, understood, respected, appreciated, cared for and listened to? What if I always did a good job so that everything happens in a way that gets me further on my spiritual path?

Why, that sounds like a very nice story to me!


The origins of the “I’m Not Good Enough” story is different for anyone who tells it. Usually, it starts because someone told you that you were bad when you were a kid, and on some level, you believed them. There was no one that necessarily disagreed loudly enough on your behalf to make you think otherwise. Authority figures — parents, teachers, religious leaders, anyone really, when you’re young enough — will say this to kids in a variety of ways.

As an adult who works to be impeccable with her words, as is one of the Four Agreements, I shake my head at the adults who told this to me.

One was my third-grade teacher. She wrote on my report card the sticky, official proclamation that I had a “bad attitude.” When I was a senior in high school, my drama teacher — I’m pretty sure she was high on some kind of pills at the time — took me by my shoulders, looked me in the eye and said, “You are bad. You are very, very bad.”

Sometimes, our peers or our lovers are the ones who tell us that we’re bad.

In fourth grade, a group of my best friends decided that I was no longer good enough to hang out with. For three months, I was ostracized and cried all the time. Finally, my mom called one of the friend’s mothers and the next day, they all talked to me again.

Now as a fully grown adult, I’m not friends with any of my ex-partners. They all think I’m bad and have all told me so, definitively, with a wide variety of vocabulary. Don’t get me wrong; I replied in kind with my own version of the truth. My own story.

Maybe you think the events in my story are nothing compared to yours. Maybe you feel like you’ve been told that over and over, from all kinds of worse angles. Well, you can rewrite your story, too.


My life is a comedy, not a tragedy. There’s a happy ending and lots of laughter.

When I remember the points in my story that cause me shame, the times when others told me that I was not good enough, I can feel my cheeks flush and a slight pressure in my heart. When I really dig into some parts, my eyes well with tears. I’ve actually been letting these people write my story.

But I’m a writer. I’m also an editor. It’s time for a rewrite on my own, personal narrative.

I started with research. I asked my mother about my report card in third grade. She had no recollection of it whatsoever. She actually thought it was laughably cute that a grown, adult woman, who is traveling solo internationally and living a completely independent lifestyle, would possibly care about what her third grade teacher thought of me.

I went back to that 9-year-old version of me, who hung her head in shame from the criticism.

So, here’s the edit: After the report card came out, I was looking at myself in the mirror. It was after one of my famous “luxury baths,” a self-care ritual that I implemented early on that involved bubble bath, Beethoven and candles. I wiped the condensation from the hot bath from the mirror over the bathroom sink, and I stared straight into my young eyes. I remembered that I was a good, loving kid who cared for others and was loved. That I was a positive person who was helpful in what little ways my kid-self could be, who made others smile and who rarely got in trouble. That I was energetic, precocious and extroverted, making it tough for teachers to keep me challenged and quiet. That my friends — either male or female, either in fourth grade or now–loved and accepted me as I was, just as I do for them. That we’re all working on being the best we can be at any time, and we’re all at different places in the journey. That it’s OK that not everyone likes me.

The editing continues as I broaden my perspective. Would anyone even hear that podcast? If someone does, perhaps that will create a more meaningful connection that has nothing to do with my work as a writer.

Yes, my story goes that I’m doing great, and I am enough. I may be my own cheerleader and publicist, but at least I’m telling a story in which I’m winning.

Judgement for others is just as destructive as judgement for yourself. I was allowing and participating in both sides of that coin. But that’s the old version of the story.

It’s not even close to the end.

Flowers in Tokyo

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I arrived in Tokyo right in time to enjoy the last week of the cherry blossoms blooms. I took a walk down to a beautiful park near my apartment and was taken aback. Clouds of white and pink petals floated on the branches overhead and rained down like snow from the gentle, cool springtime breeze. I wasn’t the only one standing there mesmerized, either. Everyone in the park was looking up in awe. Appreciating the beauty of flowers in Japan even has a term – hanami – that’s been around since the 700’s. It was perfectly normal to take time out of your day to look up at the sakura blossoms and simply admire.

Cherry blossoms in Tokyo are long gone, but the sweet fragrance lingers in my life …

And like all good things, the blooms soon past. A couple solidly rainy days, during which I stayed inside as if it were a snowy blizzard, put an end to it all rather abruptly. Since the timing for my visit was due more to the end of a visa and a relationship, I felt immensely blessed to have been given the gift of this ephemeral beauty. I needed to heal after months of someone taking his own pain and anger out on me. Tokyo reminded me that life is beautiful – even if that beauty comes and goes. 

And just like the love of that relationship, the blossoms died and were swept into the gutters. Yet, I noticed something else. As my physical and emotional detox proceeded, I found myself jogging through the streets and becoming overwhelmed by fragrance. White jasmine bushes cascaded down walls. Red roses reached hopefully from the tops of patios. Nearly every home in my neighborhood, it seemed, offered a rainbow of colors and fragrances that brought a smile to my face. With each bit of aroma, my wandering mind would race to the present moment. And this moment in time, was, indeed, a present.

Just one of many digital flower-filled rooms at the teamLab Borderless exhibit

Paintings of flowers filled the walls of the art museums I visited. One exhibit, called teamLab Borderless, projected digital displays of flowers all over the walls, floors and ceilings, so that you were actually walking through fields of petals that danced all around you. With each delight of the eye and generous sniff of my nose, I was beginning to understand how the beauty and art of life is worth appreciating only because sometimes it’s just not there.

But when your world is filled with this sweet, natural goodness, well – rejoice! This morning, I couldn’t help but purchase a small pot of pretty purple “pink kisses” carnations for a new friend who invited me to her vegan cooking class. I had been looking for vegan cooking classes since I arrived, after a dear friend suggested it, but all I could find were, oddly foreshadowing, Indian. But Rina, of BentoYa Cooking, was offering a lesson in making vegan ramen and gyoza. I jumped at the chance!

First, she took us to the supermarket and talked about interesting vegan foods. Japanese markets are a lot like the markets in Korea – it’s very hard to figure out what the heck you’re buying. There’s only so long you can stand there with your Google Translate camera before you are embarrassed by your own ignorance. In fact, there is an entire Facebook group in Korea dedicated to helping English speakers figure out what they’re eating. So far, I had been eating almost entirely whole foods, which isn’t exactly a bad thing. But to learn that the weird, soft, long white thing was actually pickled radish and not fish was pretty exciting.

Another kind of flower … a gyoza flower! I learned how to make vegan dumplings, thanks to Rina at Bentoya Cooking School.

Back in Rina’s kitchen, we learned how to prepare a simple Japanese broth of shitake, kombu kelp, salt and water, which serves as the basis for both ramen and miso. Then she taught us how to create the distinctive shell pattern of a stuffed gyoza, which is a fried or steamed dumpling. We cut up veggies for the ramen and cooked up some seasoned tofu, which we sprinkled over our yummy noodle soup with black sesame seeds and chili oil. Then she brought over the pan of gyoza for us to flip. They are fried in a circle, so you have to use chopsticks to skillfully break them apart to enjoy.

It was called – wait for it – a gyoza flower!

And so it goes. Whatever you look for in life, you will find. That one of the secrets of the universe. If you look for problems, misery and reasons to be anxious and unhappy, you will surely find them. But if you look for the art and beauty of everyday life – the gifts that are all around us, all the time – you will find those instead. When you’re in a challenging situation, like I had been for months, it isn’t easy to search for the blossoms and fragrances of the world. The key is training of the mind to focus on gratitude for the gifts that have already and are soon coming to you. 

When I came to Tokyo, I wasn’t sure that the cherry blossoms would still be on the trees, as it was the end of a very short season – but they were. And now, in spring so lovely that I sold my coat, there seems to be nothing but flowers in my life. I finally have the space and time to complete projects that are important to me. I’ve been able to focus on my own physical and mental health, and I am planning for my future. I’m meeting new people who remind me of the power of my own high vibrations. I am connecting with old friends who help me as much as I’ve helped them.

I am so grateful for my friends because, really – aren’t we all flowers? You know, I’m excited for your time to bloom, too.

Mr. Handsome Hates Me

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Is there not something deliciously poetic about being a single woman in a strange city, tasked to care for a cat named Mr. Handsome, and he’s totally not that into me? Well, this is my life, people.

Talk about the “hairy eyeball.” Mr. Handsome is glaring at me from across the room.

As faithful readers know, I’ve been traveling the world for about the last four years. One way that I do that is by trading free housing in exchange for caring for a household’s cat or dog. Not counting the cute and perpetually grumpy-looking Figero, my friend Tara’s cat, my first real catsitting experience for strange cats came in New Mexico. There were three cats, two fish, a dozen bird feeders, two ponds and plenty of plants to water. As I wrote in an earlier blog, I felt an overwhelming sense of peace by performing this service. 

I like caring for cats, and dogs on occasion. All the dogs that I cared for were pretty cool. Chula and I would take long walks by the Rio Diamante, where we witnessed the aftermath of a murder. And Noodle the labradoodle was, officially, the cutest doggie in all of Chiang Mai.

I say all this to paint a picture that I am a good catsitter and not a scary, mean person. I do not abuse really any sentient being. I’m even vegetarian! But tell all that to Mr. Handsome.

When I first talked to the homeowner about three weeks before I flew from Melbourne to Tokyo, I saw Mr. Handsome via Skype. He was a fluffy, long-haired lover with brown and black streaks. He was walking all over the owner, getting comfortable in his lap and cuddling. I was so excited, imaging the cuddles and purrs coming my way. I was telling my friends about my months in Tokyo with Mr. Handsome. There was another kitty, too, but I didn’t see her in the video so I figured she would be sleeping and minding her own business, as some cats do.

I arrive after my 10-hour flight and 2-hour train ride, exhausted, of course. Koshka, the other cat, is shy, but Mr. Handsome is waiting for food. He didn’t let me pet him. 

“Would you like to feed him?” the owner asked.

So, I take a packet of wet food and start to put it in Mr. Handsome’s bowl. He hisses at me. I go to sleep.

Thankfully, I have one furry friend! She’s really sweet!

The next day, the owner was taking care of whatever business he had to wrap up while I basically chilled around the house and did a little work. Koshka introduced herself, and Mr. Handsome kept his distance. When I tried to engage him to pet him, he hissed again.

Convinced Mr. Handsome would come around, the owner took off to his trip to America. I realized the apartment needed a really good cleaning, so I went to work. Mr. Handsome was on the owner’s bed, which was about to be my bed for the next two months. I started to remove the sheet gently. He hissed at me. I swept the floors. Hiss. Give him food. Hiss.

One day Mr. Handsome didn’t hiss at me. But I was also wandering around the city, basking in the fact that the cherry blossoms stayed on the trees long enough for me and everyone else to enjoy them. The whole city was caught up in the act known as hanami, or the custom of taking in the transient splendor of flowers. I wasn’t going to let Mr. Handsome kill my buzz.

Toyko is beautiful in the spring!

But he sure tried. Over the last two weeks, he’s done a lot of hissing, as well as yowling extremely loudly all the time. He especially likes to yowl whenever I lie down for a nap or take my daily bath. The bath, by the way, is operated with one push button. It fills up and heats it to the perfect temperature, and then it plays a little tune to let you know that it’s all ready for you to relax. He also enjoys yelling around 5:30 a.m. This morning, I think he was performing a tap dance in the litter box. 

When he’s not doing all of this, he’s usually found somewhere within a 2.5 meter radius, glaring at me. 

Early on, I did trick him with Reiki. He was sitting on the bed, miserable, and I started to give him Reiki. He started relaxing. I continued to give him healing energy, and he actually started purring. Then I took a chance and reached out to pet him. He let me. Then, before I could push my luck, I left. After that, it was as if Mr. Handsome was mad that he had betrayed his plan to hate me and double-downed on the anger.

Look, I get it. He really, really loves his owner. They’re best buddies. I’m sure Mr. Handsome has made up a story about how I planned this whole thing to get rid of the owner so I could waltz in here, clean up the old bachelor pad and take baths whenever I very well pleased. Nevermind that I feed him daily and clean his litterbox. Forget about the fact that Koshka seems to think I’m OK. She has a cute habit of running up to my lap and actually throwing her paws around my neck. It’s adorable. 

I have to admit, I also call him Mr. Asshole sometimes, like when he wakes me before dawn for no reason.

Back to Mr. Grumpy, er, I mean Mr. Handsome. He’s totally creating his own misery, of course. He’s missing out on all kinds of petting and purring and grooming. I can see this. It’s just another example of being around a being who is trying to take out their misery on you. It has nothing to do with me. 

It makes me think, of course, about so many people in the world who cause their own unhappiness. It’s so easy to make up stories in your head that cause you suffering. It’s hard enough to get people who do this every day see it. Imagine trying to help a cat. You cannot. I’m just giving him a wide berth.

But isn’t it hilarious that out of all the cats I’ve cared for over the past four years – Figero, Chicha, Nikki, Charlotte, Dilma, Trixie, Bob, Liz, what’shisname in Taiwan, Muds, Koshka and Mr. Handsome – the one named Mr. Handsome hates me? Like, he’s JUST NOT THAT INTO ME! I get it. We don’t have to go out. I just thought, you know, it could work. He is pretty cute. Ugh, I feel like he’s just another in the long line of males that I’ve attracted into my life that I shouldn’t have!

Earlier today, as I was fixing my matcha green tea, I made eye contact with the glaring Mr. Handsome.

“My charm is just not working on you, is it,” I said. His eyes simply narrowed.

 And I’ve been keeping a pretty low profile, since I’m in the middle of the longest fast so far. (I completed a 14-day water fastnot quite a year ago, and I’ve been completing three- to five-day fasts for the last few months.) That means, really Koshka is my best friend in Japan. Mr. Handsome certainly isn’t.

Conscious Uncoupling

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Like the few others in the world who happened to be paying attention at the time, I heard of the phrase “Conscious Uncoupling” about five years ago, when actress Gwyneth Paltrow split with her husband. They made a joint statement to the media, didn’t make big fighting scenes and generally seemed to be OK with the reality that their 10-year marriage was over. As a woman who has had more than her fair share of adult relationships fizzle, I was amazed. I was envious. I decided the next time, if there were a next time, if I were to break up with someone I once loved, it would be in a way that was respectful to both of us.

Easier said than done.

Some times along my journey I am in a relationship and some times I am not. I still find love everywhere.

The concept is quite similar to one of the habits of highly successful people: Always go for a win-win. That is, there’s no reason for one person to be the winner and the other to be the loser in business or in a relationship. The key, of course, is self-awareness as a foundation. With conscious uncoupling, you are using each and every moment as a teaching opportunity to look within yourself to identify the past hurt that the situation is bringing up in you. You become thankful of the lessons the other person teaches you, and you forgive yourself and love yourself. This is also the essence of Radical Forgiveness, which is a worthy process for anyone hanging on to a bunch of old hurt.

Sure is a nice concept, isn’t it? Turns out, it takes two to uncouple, and it’s unimaginably difficult to have both parties be mindful all the time.

At least, that’s what I realized this week as I waited on the street, now for the third time in my life, for a girlfriend to pick me up on the side of the road, help me gather my meager belongings and let me sleep at her house for the night instead of being alone and homeless. All three times, the relationship was crashing down around me and abusive, mean words filled the air. When someone tells me to get out, I will.

Anyone who’s been through a breakup knows how ugly it can get. I’ve witnessed more than one punched wall. One ex got so mad that he slammed a glass-paned door, shattering it everywhere. Another ex called me more than 50 times in a day, begging me to take him back despite his compulsive lies, naked pictures of women and habit of constantly interrupting me. Yet another, I had to sue to try to retrieve thousands of dollars I lent him. I won in court, but I never saw the money. Instead, I heard all the horrible things he would say behind my back.

And why? Simply, it’s the old adage: “Hurt people hurt people.”At some point, we decide the best way to alleviate emotional pain that’s been locked deep down inside is to try to dump a little on someone else. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work. It usually makes things worse. Because I’ve had so much experience in this department (and years of work on myself to release my own stored-up hurt), when my last partner would lash out at me, I was able to not take it personally. I tried to create a safe space for him and clearly express how I felt when this would occur. I wouldn’t fight, and I would never say something I didn’t mean (Being impeccable with your words is one of the wonderful Four Agreements). He would apologize and eventually it would blow over – until the next time.

Eventually, too much love was lost. After weeks of thought, I decided to go. We talked really calmly about it, and he seemed to understand. I was so grateful – it was going to be my first successful conscious uncoupling! It didn’t have to be a disaster! It felt like a golden ticket to adulthood. He told me that I showed him a lot about himself, and I told him how blessed I felt to have been able to travel around Australia in the cute tiny home we built together.

As I was packing, I let myself feel my emotions. I would cry over my disappointment and over my doubt as to whether I deserved love, all those sad stories you tell yourself. My partner would be there and held me. In some ways, that also felt difficult. Because of all the times he tried to fight with me, I had lost trust in his love. But it was so nice to have someone to soothe me. He cried a couple times, too, and I held him. It was hard, but we were honest and authentic. 

In the days leading up to my flight out of the country, however, I started to notice he was acting oddly light and cheery. He would bop along to the music in the restaurant, acting like it was his favorite song but then not knowing who sang it. He wanted to buy me a massage, treat me to dinner, and told me that he wanted to drive to the airport with me and see me off. I looked at the calendar and realized that it had been about 10 days since he lashed out. He never went more than 10 days. (Read “The Power of Now” to understand this cycle.) I found myself getting sad and thoughtful. In the last months of the relationship, I found myself not talking much and instead just thinking. It was lonely. 

And that’s when it happened. He wanted to buy me a beer so he could tell me about all his latest big plans for his life. This was common, me listening politely as he tried to figure his life out. I wanted him to figure his life out. I really wanted to help. For some reason, I brought up the last time he lashed out at me. I think I wanted validation for my pain, maybe one more apology. Well, I didn’t get it. He dug his feet in, finally over it. He told me I had been overreacting to everything and wanted me gone immediately.

So, there I was, on the side of the road in the middle of Melbourne, unconsciously uncoupled. I had hoped for a hug goodbye and an ex that I could call a friend. But you can’t always get what you want. You get what you need– and I guess I needed a little more practice in patience, self-love, compassion and mindfulness.

The Real World

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OK, let’s get real, shall we?

There’s a great Col. Bruce Hampton song with the lyrics, “Got to keep it real … compared to what?” Consider it the soundtrack of this blog post.

See, I was camping in my tiny home right on the waters of the Friendly Beaches in Tasmania recently. The park had a breathtaking view, with the corpuscular rays of the setting sun bouncing off the salty waves as pademelon – those are miniature kangaroos for those who haven’t been rambling around this Australian state – hopped past your site. There was no internet there, no phone service … just the rush of the ocean and the clear, mountain air. Nearby, someone was packing down. They said to their neighbor, “Well, it’s time to return to the real world!” 

Piers Greville’sPedder Prime Cuts, the winner of the 2019 Glover Award in Evansdale, Tasmania. It’s a landscape. Does it look like your reality?

What does this even mean? As someone who is never and always on holiday, as I like to quip, I never am taking a break. Even though I am constantly traveling, exploring, going to new restaurants and seeing parts of the world I once never even dreamed of experiencing, it’s simply my life. I’ve lived in certain places throughout my life for long enough to develop lasting and meaningful friendships, but there’s no returning to these places as if it were more real than my life today. My life today is my real life. 

Now, as those familiar with this blog’s soundtrack may know, I have spent many years of my life attending music festivals. I even wrote a book about it. All that glitter, laughter, lack of responsibility and good times … it sure seemed like an escape from the real world. It’s like I felt the real world was filled with people who weren’t nice and days that were boring. Isn’t that sad? But it’s real, too, isn’t it. The real world is filled with people who lack compassion and days when I don’t have a lot of work so I just hang out, practice yoga and read.

Six years ago: I’m in a suit, make up, pearls and heels, drinking wine because that somehow made my reality better.

If I were to be working an office job, would that be more real? If I were to go back to sitting in an air-conditioned room, under florescent lights, wearing high heels and make-up, is that really real? If I commute in my vehicle during rush hour, buy lots of stuff I don’t really need, get pissed off at other people around me, find myself overwhelmed by social obligations and sit in front of the television for hours … would I be a member of the real world?

Judging by what that woman said at the campground, the real world sounds pretty awful. Why would you create a life for yourself where you want to escape?

Now, of course I understand. Five years ago, I was doing all those things. A former co-worker just emailed me to ask how I was, and he said I sounded a lot happier. I guess I am, but I’m not sure I had really considered myself unhappy when I was working a 9-5 job (along with a few other side gigs). In fact, I likely would have told you that I was very happy. And yet, I also went out of town almost every weekend. Little did I realize, I was trying to escape.

There is no escape from the real world. 

I recently read an article about perimenopause, and I felt so bad for the woman who wrote it. She was so unhappy and challenged by her roller-coastering hormones that she would lock her door to keep her loving family out. This is the same type of friend who would post about how excited they were to drink wine after work. I still drink wine – heck, I’m in the wine region of Tasmania right now – but I also go months without drinking. When I was a 20-something newspaper reporter, I remember coming home to my soon-to-be ex-husband and fixing myself a tall glass of liquor. I really was unhappy. I didn’t like the real world.

But, like I said, you can drink yourself stupid, exercise like a maniac, lose yourself in a novel, go to every music festival you can or set up a tent in the wilderness, but you can’t escape the real world. The trick, then, is creating your own reality.

Remember, you got to keep it real, compared to what? What do you want your life to look like? I have a friend who has traveled as a digital nomad for years and is embarking on a career to coach other people to do the same thing. As a fellow life coach, I encouraged her to do what she dreamed of … even if she was nervous about it. She should go for it, just as you should go for whatever you are thinking about doing. Why? Because your real world is what you make it. 

That’s right! You make your own reality. If you’re not happy with it, there’s no one to blame but yourself. And on the other hand, if you are happy with the real world, guess what: High fives all around! Look, I’m not saying this is easy. But it’s possible.

Two years after that suit photo … I learned how to sail, sold all my stuff and left on a worldwide traveling adventure, which continues. I created a new reality, and you can too!

The first step is accepting your current state of affairs – which is no small undertaking, believe me. You need to take a good, hard look at the life you’ve created for yourself. Figure out what you like and what you don’t like. The way to do that is through detachment. Take a step back and be honest. Figure out what it is that makes you unhappy, what makes you want to escape to a fantasyland? 

The next step, then, is to start building that fantasyland. What is stopping you from living in your own reality? You already are. Time to make it even better. The foundation for reality is your own thoughts. They create your attitude, your belief system and your ideas. That’s on which you can build your behaviors. Continued behavior is how you make habits. Habits are the process for life. What you do every day, what you see, who you talk with and what you think about it all is your reality. It’s time to get real with yourself!

Talkin’ Trash

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It’s a good thing today wasn’t a bunch of rubbish at the Newkind Festival, because I wouldn’t have been able to throw it out. That’s because there are no trash bins at this festival. There are no recycling bins, either. There’s only a compost bin, and it’s located next to the dishwashing station. That’s right, this social justice conference-slash-festival is completely waste-free.

That was a surprising development to me, as someone who’s been to more than a hundred festivals. Some just heap rubbish in big piles, from which you are required to turn your head. Others create teams of volunteers to sort the trash to get all the recyclables out. But I’ve never been to one that simply did not have any trash.

A great workshop today at Newkind Festival on eco-feminism

The meals they served consisted of whole foods that came straight from the farmer or from bulk food. It was pretty standard fare: usually brown rice or millet with a vegetable stew, sometimes with chickpeas or lentils. There was a salad offered, along with tahini-based dressing and some seasoning. In the morning, there would be porridge and freshly baked bread, with peanut butter, muesli and jam. Coffee, teas and cacao were freshly topped up in reused glass jars.

There were no straws, cups, plates, utensils, napkins, paper towels or candy wrappers. Everyone was required to bring their own bowl, cup and utensils. We washed them with spray bottles – one with “bubs” and one with rinse water. It was an alcohol-free event, so there were no cans or bottles. Anything that you brought with you, you have to pack up and leave with when the festival ends tomorrow.

It’s Saturday night now, and I’ve been here since Monday. It’s pretty cool to realize that the only waste I created is actively composting at the bottom of the toilets. It made me realize that I could probably do this in my everyday life, too.

What does it take to be waste free? I attended an inspirational workshop with a woman named Asher, who goes by Naginya in her movement classes, and her partner, Che. Asher has been waste-free for eight years, and Che joined her two years ago. They had plenty of tips for not generating any waste in your life. 

Not only did my new thermals fit perfectly (it’s cold in Tasmania), you can see my little jar of toothpaste behind me. And look at those pearly whites!

Before I get into the tips, think about how often you empty your trash. What’s in there? It’s likely a lot of food waste, first of all. The second most common thing in trash cans is plastic. You might be feeling good that you’re more likely to fill up your recycling bin (which is definitely where I am). But the reality is that most communities barely recycle 30 percent of their waste, and most of that is tree trimmings. That’s because there simply isn’t a big market for government and waste management agencies to sell glass, plastics, cardboard and cans. It’s expensive to separate everything out, and even when they do that there’s no guarantee that anyone wants to buy it. What happens if there’s no buyer for the, say, brown glass you throw in your bin? You guessed it: It’s just dumped in the landfill. 

It’s easy to be bombarded with trash. All pre-packaged food, by definition, has packaging. Beauty products usually come in a box and a jar, and then of course when you buy it, the cashier puts it in a bag. Would you like a free sample with that? It’s just more trash. Junk mail – in fact, any mail – goes straight in the bin. I just took a flight. That airplane tag is unavoidable trash.

Somethings are unavoidable, but the majority of trash is completely unnecessary, especially if you are interested in living a healthier life. By now, I hope you are saying no to plastic straws, bringing your own reusable bags to the grocery store and having a reusable coffee cup for your hurried morning trips to the café. Water bottles can be filled quite easily in most places with drinkable water, even though we have spoiled ourselves by thinking we need spring water (which is often just good old tap water anyway). But are you bringing your own Tupperware for takeaway food? Are you making your own toothpaste? What about when you go shopping for groceries?

Being a conscious consumer is the first step. Recognizing all the packaging on the food and products you buy is a great start. Instead of buying the fruit that’s wrapped in plastic wrap and sitting on a Styrofoam container, just, you know, buy fruit and wash it. In Europe, people protest by throwing those containers back at the stores. Americans are too lazy to do that. They just think it’s OK to recycle it, but who’s buying old Styrofoam?

You can do more than that. You can shop at bulk food stores. Those are places where you fill up your own small cloth bags and old glass jars with dried beans, rice, laundry detergent, agave nectar and most other things you need to cook and bake all kinds of amazing meals at home. For produce, go to the farmer’s market with your own bags or even a wicker basket. Those farmers are happy to reuse their cardboard pints instead of giving it to you to throw away. 

Besides buying the stuff you need smarter, there’s another level to reducing waste: Just stop consuming stuff. If I’m out and I am thirsty but I don’t have a water bottle, I usually just go thirsty for a bit. When I’m on a flight and they try to give me a pack of peanuts and a sip of water in a plastic throwaway cup, I refuse. Sometimes I ask them to fill up my reusable bottle with water, but usually I already did that before boarding my flight. I often tuck an apple in my bag if I think I’ll get hungry.

Thinking ahead is key. If you pack your own lunch, you won’t have any waste. If you have a healthy snack ready to go, you won’t need to buy a sugar-laden, fatty faux-food product at the convenience store. Being waste-free can help you be healthier and even save money, too. 

The closing ceremony of Newkind involved Aboriginal traditions, which honor connection to country. Note the complete lack of rubbish bins.

That’s why I’m in. And so is my boyfriend! We have committed to dramatically reducing our waste. We both eat whole-food, plant-based diets, with intermittent fasting, so I’m hoping our lifestyle will make it easier. It will be interesting to track how we do by saving a month’s worth of trash. We’ll have to find community gardens to take our compost and search out bulk food stores on the road (There’s an app called Bulk that will help). But it’s a project that’s not only good for us, it’s good for the Earth.

And that’s just one thing that Newkind helped inspire in me. But I’ve recognized, too, the inter-connectivity of how caring for yourself, caring for your community and caring for the Earth all works together. The foundation to making a difference in the world is personal responsibility. I’m starting by going waste-free. Will you join me?

Inspiration Move Me Brightly

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It’s been a pretty heady few days at Newkind Festival, so I was excited to take my friends up on the offer to walk together down to the Marion Bay beach after yoga and breakfast. I felt a little like I was playing hooky from class, missing out on a morning speaker and the first sessions of the day, but then, isn’t everything a class?

Beautiful and chilly Marion Bay, Tasmania

The walk down to the beach took about 20 minutes. After leaving the campground, we meandered down a dirt road and then turned left to cross a field of ankle-high wild grass. Slipping through the fence, we crossed a muddy patch and crossed a small, wooden bridge. Our walk continued as we crossed a slightly bigger river, admired small succulent ground cover plants, saw a mysterious animal skull with big fangs and then, after climbing a small dune, arrived at the ocean. The musical sands squeaked under foot as I stripped to my bathing suit and ran wildly into the frigid ocean. It was refreshing, to say the least!

Back on the beach, I let the sun warm my back and learned more about some of the activism work my friends did. Liz, while living in Hobart, travels to Ecuador to help the indigenous people there fight the destruction of the rainforest caused by Australian mining companies. She’s connected with people she’s met there, and they message each other frequently. She talked about the challenges she had both working with people from a different culture as well as the obstacles she faced working with people in her own town. She talked about finding connection with others, and how sometimes it’s easier to do so with people who did not share her culture. Indeed, I relate: Just because someone is an American doesn’t mean that we share the same ethos. That may sound obvious, but it’s an eye-opening moment when you realize how much you share with someone who, otherwise, seems completely different than you.

Liz is an inspiration, but the thing that’s special about this festival is that she is one of nearly 500 inspirational people. Everyone that I sit next to at dinner, stand in line with for the toilet, wait with while my green tea brews or share a bench at a lecture is doing interesting work. They don’t have to be anywhere near the microphone for me to learn something from them.

Delong showed me how to load his antique Box Brownie camera over lunch.

Take Delong. He is a photographer who is also on the media team with me at Newkind. I was interested in his work because it’s so different. He uses an old-fashioned Box Brownie camera and shoots with black and white film, and I’ve watched him document workshops I’ve attended. He lines up the shot and sits with the frame for a minute before shooting. He doesn’t have the luxury of the constant digital, spaghetti-against-the-wall clicking. He values quality over quantity. He values things that take time. 

It was interesting to learn about his craft and his life today. He lives in the small town of Esk, Queensland and helps his parents run their Thai restaurant. This conference has inspired him to work with other restaurants in his friendly community to limit food waste. He’s considering starting a community garden with the compost.

Then I met Amy. She received a scholarship to Newkind for starting what became 44 Facebook local groups called the Good Karma Effect. When her cat went on an extended walkabout years ago, she realized how much her neighbors cared and wanted to help. She didn’t think it was just her neighbors, but that everyone wanted to help. So, she created a group on Facebook that allowed people to ask for help and receive it, for free. Now, she shared with me, she was making plans to launch a new website to connect like-minded, caring individuals from throughout the globe who want to help one another. She was interested in inspiring others to start their own project, just like she did.

Liz, Delong and Amy aren’t presenting at the conference, but they taught me about how simple it is for one person to make a difference. Activist Aidan Rickets took to the stage right before dinner and reiterated what I was learning: Connection is the key to success.

Even the steps up to the main lecture hall are inspirational here.

“Real resilience is connection. If we connect into our communities and to our planet, and connect out to our universe, we will find that Gaia will survive,” he said. “We are the same as the universe. What is inside this bag of skin is the same as what is out in the universe. We are able to face our fears.”

Aidan talked about how we must accept the way that things are in the world – no matter how much you don’t like it – so that you do not succumb to anger and make your own body the battleground. Only then can you find a resourceful way to move forward. I understand this. I suffered from what can only be called a clinical depression when Trump was elected and America began its years of moving toward fascism. At the time, I was in a loveless relationship, and I was not speaking to my brother after a nasty confrontation. I did not fit into my relationship. I did not fit into my family. I did not fit into my country. I was paralyzed and lost. 

It took a lot of self-work over the next two years to get to where I am now. I’ve been facing inward as I wrapped my arms around myself. I did help others, in my way: I taught yoga, helped people get unstuck through life coaching work and modeled behavior that I wished to see in the world. This week, I’ve been blessed and buoyed with the hope that, perhaps now, I can start to give back on a larger scale, just like my new friends are doing. I am impressed by the people I am meeting, even more so than the people who are presenting panels on positive messaging, entrepreneurialism and direct-action activism. I’m not just impressed … I’m inspired.

What’s Cool For School?

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This morning at the Newkind Festival, after a yoga class with a DJ dropping some electronic beats and a big bowl of vegan berry porridge and muesli, I wandered over to a panel discussion entitled “Teaching Peace.” The question raised to the experts on the panel was how we ought to create a school system that creates a generation of peaceful, caring children.

I come from a long line of educators. My mother was an elementary school principal, and my father was a high school economics teacher before becoming a copywriter. My grandfather was a principal, and my grandmother was a teacher, too. Education is important in my family, and I was lucky to be raised by parents who read to me and encouraged me in school. I attended a good private school, even though clearly the rest of my classmates were much richer than I was. It was cool to be smart in my school, and I had the opportunity to be lead in plays, captain of my field hockey team and editor of the literary journal. I graduated with honors and went on to graduate Phi Beta Kappa from a good university, which I thank my other grandfather – an investment wiz – for buying IBM stock when I was a kid. That stock was cashed in for my education. I actually graduated university early and began a career in journalism, which had me learning new things almost every day.

It’s true that there is less and less play in schools today, which may explain why there are so many people who have trouble having fun. Did I mention I scrapped my elbow on a playground slide last week?

School was a success for me, but the take-home message of the panel discussion today was that school is a source of a lot of society’s problems. Kids aren’t encouraged to follow paths that interest them. Instead, they are forced to learn a lot of stuff they’ll never need “in the real world,” and many become institutionalized. Psychologist Robin Grille talked about how school made kids “resilient,” which was simply another way of saying it prepared kids for the drudgery of a workplace.

I have mixed feelings about this. The structure of the modern-day school system creates a foundation of a work ethic that is needed in the adult world. As a freelance writer and marketing consultant, I love the freedom that my job gives me. After 20 years, I can choose the clients I am interested in. But somedays, hey, I’d much rather take a walk in the woods. I’d rather kick back and play my ukulele. My years of school taught me that sometimes you have to do stuff you don’t really want to do. That’s just a fact of life in this modern economy.

But then, when I was sailing, I saw a bunch of kids from sailing families who were homeschooled. By the age of 5, they were not only driving the dinghy, they were taking apart the outboard motor. These kids were learning lessons that immediately applied to everyday life. Due to the close proximity of their parents/teachers, they’ll learn stuff like how to be financially stable and how to cook healthy food. Many kids today graduate and never learned these basic life lessons – and we wonder why so many flounder.

Just a moment-in-time of my life-long learning … Day 3 at the Newkind Festival in Tasmania

Socially, school can be extremely difficult, especially for children who are outside the norm. Schools that are overcrowded make it almost impossible for teachers to provide individualized attention that students need. All the compulsory testing of particular skills often forces teachers to skip over important lessons – and perhaps this is the heart of the matter. There are some things that are not taught in schools that need to be taught somewhere.

Children need to learn empathy and critical thinking. They need to be able to challenge authority in a constructive way. They need to learn the joys of positive debate and the ability to work collaboratively with those who are different than they are. They need to learn compassion.

Educator Melanie Lotfali was also on the panel. She talked about the importance of spiritual education for children. She told the audience about how she offers an exercise to children where she gives them a bowl of dirt and asks what it is. “It’s dirt,” they’ll say. Some smarty-pants will point out the sticks or the little pebbles. Then she’ll ask them to dig around in the dirt. She’d hidden gemstones at the bottom of the bowl, and the kids get excited to find them. 

“Those bowls of dirt are like people,” she tells them. “The gemstones are kindness and goodness. Sometimes, in people, it’s very difficult to find the gemstone, but it’s always there.”

I used to love reading Richard Scarry’s books when I was a kid, so I was pretty stoked to find this at a vegan takeaway in Castlemaine, Victoria

When children have meaningful spiritual education (and I’m certainly not talking about the weird brainwashing I got from Catholic classes as a kid), they learn to respect themselves and others. They understand their place in the world better. They build the capacity to investigate reality and cooperate with others. 

My mother, the retired principal, is now a spiritual advisor to adults. There are a lot of adults who are troubled – and that, I think, is an even bigger issue. Troubled parents raise children who are bullies, who don’t know how to care for another and who enter the adult world as mean-spirited, self-centered robots. Who could blame them? Their parents are the same. I believe the root of this problem – that so many people work jobs they hate, drink too much to “escape” their lives and live unhealth, TV-centered lives – is because of the multi-generational cycle of trauma in troubled families. 

I used to work for an after-school program, so I know how amazing, curious, kind and creative kids can be. I also know how troubled they can be. No child is ready to learn if they’re not eating enough nutritious food, if they witness or are a victim of domestic violence, if they live in a house with an alcoholic or drug addict, if their parents are too busy working a bunch of jobs to show that they care. Children need to feel special. They need to be cared for. They need positive adult role models.

Can teachers be those role models? Perhaps. But there is a lot of work that needs to be done in the classroom. In the age of the Internet, children can look up just about any information. But that doesn’t mean that certain historical topics and concepts should not be introduced. Just because babies are playing with iPads now doesn’t mean that children shouldn’t take math classes. Fundamental skills taught at an early age pave the way for success. Yes, lessons can be taught more creatively. But kids need to be guided down the path.

A keynote speaker on Thursday continued the thought-provoking, inspirational workshops. Excited for another day!

It’s a given that parents need to play a big role in the development of their children, but not every parent has the ability, the resources and the time to be a good parent. I imagine this is where the rest of the village comes in. Communities that foster families supporting one another can help bridge the gaps where school and parents fail. In Australia, there are active community centers in nearly every town. Ballerinas scurry down hallways that lead to art classes or other workshops. Perhaps this kind of resource, and the people who use these centers, can help create the peaceful, caring children who will grow into tomorrow’s enlightened world leaders.