May 10

A Different Way to Celebrate Mother’s Day

Traditionally Mother’s Day is a time for family to share together and includes Mother’s Day greeting cards, flowers and gifts, and a meal at Mom’s favorite restaurant. This year Mother’s Day took on a slightly different hue because of a little “cookie love” I shared in 2 different Drop In and Decorate Cookie Donation events held in honor of Mother’s Day.

First I attended a Drop In and Decorate event in Rhode Island at the home of professional food writer and blogger Lydia Walshin, the founder of Drop In and Decorate. There I got to rub shoulders with some veterans in the craft of artistic and creative cookie decorating. In honor of mothers everywhere, we decorated 325 cookies for: SSTARbirth in Cranston, a shelter for chemically dependent, pregnant or postpartum women and their children; Abby’s House in Worcester, a multi-purpose resource center for homeless women; and Our Place in Cambridge, a day-care center for homeless children and their moms.

Cookies decorated at RI event

Lydia kindly sent me home from her 3rd annual event for Mother’s Day with leftover icing and some cookies so that I could use them at a Drop In and Decorate event I organized at the library where I work in Dartmouth, Massachusetts.

On Tuesday May 4th, the library enjoyed its second Drop In and Decorate event, having previously done one in December 2009 to give cookies to the local Senior Center in town. This, our second ever event, saw us expanding our community connections with 250 cookies for the event baked and donated by the New Bedford Vocational Technical High School Culinary Arts Baking students.

The actual decorating event was shared by local Boy Scouts, TCAN/Key Club students from Dartmouth High School and various community members and library patrons.

The cookies decorated at the library were given to the Women’s Center of New Bedford and Fall River. 3 shelters run by them each received a tray of cookies along with a smaller tray for the hard-working staff as well. We hope the cookies are a nice Mother’s Day touch in their lives today.

Here is a video on YouTube which shares about the event:

Dec 20

Revisiting Acts of Kindness Day

Last year this time, I was in the midst of nine days of activities starting on the Acts of Kindness Day at Bloggers Unite on December 17th, 2007 and continuing until Christmas day. Bloggers Unite is a group within BlogCatalog that seeks to harness the tool of blogging in support of various social causes. Blogging about Acts of Kindness inspired me to explore different kinds of kindness – some intentionally “random” and others for people who I knew.

As this year’s Christmas season approached, I wanted to make it a tradition to continue some of the activities from last year and also to explore new variations on the theme. Repeat activities from last year included taking part in the Toys for Tots drive and buying children’s winter coats to donate.

And new variations? I wanted to bake cookies again this year but give them away to more than just my chiropractor, co-workers, etc. However, I figured that most food banks need donations to be non-perishable. With unemployment higher in my state of RI than anywhere else in the country, I wished I could somehow donate cookies to unemployment offices and reach people recently out of work.

After finding out that this part of government has mostly gone the route of e-government with filing by phone or Internet, I stumbled across this novel nonprofit  Drop In and Decorate – started in Rhode Island no less – by food writer and Nine Cooks blogger Lydia Walshin. She started a nonprofit that guides people in how to bake, decorate and donate cookies to community organizations. While I did not do an actual Drop in and Decorate party to bake and decorate sugar cookies, I did find out from Lydia that the Ronald McDonald House in Providence takes baked goods and yesterday morning I brought them some chocolate chip cookies with Ghiradelli chocolate chips and some pumpkin muffins that are delish – here’s the recipe I used. What an unexpected gift to learn about this important community service provided by the Ronald McDonald House located near the hospitals in Providence – it gives families a place to stay while their children/siblings are in the hospital.

Spirit of Giving Holiday Drive at Children's Friend
Spirit of Giving Holiday Drive at Children's Friend

Then it was just around the corner a few blocks away to stop in at Children’s Friend & Service Family Support Center. With a big snow storm forecast to arrive later that day, the drop off area was like a bustling den of Santa’s elves. Bags of gifts from sponsors that adopted families were piled skyward in every direction. I was more than humbled as I dropped off my own small drop in this ocean that offers holiday presents to children in almost 600 families. What another unexpected gift to take part in this wonderful organization’s efforts during the holidays – this one discovered at the Volunteer Center of Rhode Island website, the same resource that led me to find a place to help serve Thanksgiving dinner to the community at a local church in years past.

Last but not least in finding new variations on last year’s activities was the discovery that the Salvation Army now has an online kettle initiative – a response in part to the fact that more and more people shop mostly online for their holiday gifts.  You can create a kettle and invite friends to donate to it or join a pre-existing one by donating over the Internet. CNN featured the new trends with giving to the Salvation Army 21st century style – via cell phone, credit card swipe at a rea kettle, via Twitter or online at places such as
Facebook. In the article, they state:

Contributions to the thousands of iconic red kettle donation stations that dot the nation each holiday season are slowing, officials say, and demands for help are rising…Hoping to harness the generosity of millions of online social networkers, the Salvation Army now has a Twitter feed for so-called “tweets” about its Red Kettle Campaign. “Chris Rock and his wife were at The Salvation Army / Target event today!” wrote a Twitter user named “bansheewigs” on November 12.

While the method may change with changing times, the underlying message upholds a time-honored tradition. The holiday season is a special time to remember strangers and friends alike with a spirit of kindness and giving. My meditation teacher Sri Chinmoy’s philosophy emphasized the importance of a concept he called “oneness” – a belief that all people are inextricably linked as one world family. His life’s work and message touched people all across the globe inspiring them to cross over boundaries of religion, culture and separation. In a series of books that transcribed hix various interviews, he states:

If we want to become good citizens of the world, we have to be part and parcel of the world. We cannot enter into the Himalayan caves and ignore the world. If I consider my fellow citizens to be members of my family, then there has to be mutual give and take. I give you what I have; you give me what you have. One person does not and cannot have everything. But if we are united, I offer you my goodwill, good wishes and whatever I have, and you offer me what you have. Only in this way can we establish a oneness-world-family.
-Sri Chinmoy, Sri Chinmoy Answers, Pt. 11

As Christmas Day fast approaches, I smell the aroma of gratitude and goodwill as much as the scent of pine needles, snow and cookies baking. I am especially grateful to the folks at Bloggers Unite for including an Acts of Kindness initiative as part of their humanitarian efforts. I find it continues to resonate one year later after first taking part in it. I hope it continues to inspire a tradition of linking kindness and Christmas for many more years yet to come.

Mar 17

Acts of Kindness Day Revisited – from the Big Give to to Remote Area Medical

The recent prominence of the new reality TV show called Oprah’s Big Give has brought my attention back in time to a blogging initiative from exactly three months ago today. BlogCatalog’s group called Bloggers Unite sponsored an Acts of Kindness Day last December with the intent of bloggers engaging in an act of kindness followed by blogging about it. In part a contest, one of the judges, Richard Becker, has kept the spirit alive by profiling various winning participants on his blog Copywrite, Ink.

Many of the participants weighed in on the contradiction of drawing attention to themselves and the preference for anonymous self-offering. Yet we also discussed how kindness can be contagious and that in talking about it seeds of inspiration for future kindness might grow.

One possible window beyond this conflict over intentions and charitable actions comes from Eastern spiritual wisdom. My spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy created an international humanitarian aid organization as part of his spiritual mission but emphasized that a spirit of superiority/inferiority would taint one’s efforts. Instead he taught and expressed a spirit of oneness and universality. He named the service organization run purely on volunteer efforts Oneness-Heart-Tears and Smiles. Sri Chinmoy states,

“Our humanitarian service is not our self-motivated, condescending act of charity to the poor and needy. It is a gigantic opportunity to feed, nourish and strengthen our own poor brothers and sisters so that they can, side by side, march along with us to proclaim the world-oneness-victory of God the Creation.”

Another renowned figure in India’s spiritual lineage, Swami Vivekananda, echoes the same perspective of viewing all human beings as being important in the eyes of God and that the person doing the giving receives more than the person receiving.

“Do not stand on a high pedestal and take five cents in your hand and say, ‘ Here, my poor man,’ but be grateful that the poor man is there so that by making a gift to him, you are able to help yourself. It is not the receiver that is blessed, but it is the giver.”

Vivekananda also eloquently expresses this concept of the brotherhood and sisterhood of all with his following words:

‘Ask nothing; want nothing in return. Give what you have to give; it will come back to you – but do not think of that now. It will come back multiplied – a thousandfold – but the attention must not be on that. You have the power to give. Give, and there it ends. ” Thus SpakeVivekananda

Since I felt like the Acts of Kindness Day (in my case 9 days of activities) did indeed impart a host of special blessings and learning, I eagerly tuned in to Oprah’s reality television show with the theme of charitable giving. While the three episodes I watched brought tears to my eyes in heart-rending and poignant moments, I ultimately am finding it hard to resonate to a show steeped in some of the structural limitations of so-called reality TV which pits contestants against each other, eliminates them until only one remains and seems to subtly reward outrageous interpersonal behavior over quiet integrity. I guess its value may outweigh these limitations if it spreads a spirit of contagion for giving.

My vote for a recent television spotlight on a charitable organization rather goes to 60 Minutes for their coverage of Remote Area Medical. Watch the episode here:

The nonprofit charity provides free medical, dental and vision care in weekend clinics. The relief efforts began primarily in under-developed countries but lately have concentrated sixty percent of their efforts in the United States serving uninsured or under-insured individuals. The founder Stan Brock, born in England, lives very simply and gives his all to offering health care to those in need. After you watch this video about this amazing spirit of self-giving and teamwork, I think you will agree that this effort is nothing less than heroic and makes you wish you were a doctor just so you could take part in this very worthy cause.

Feb 23

Increase Gratitude with the practice of Japanese Naikan

The Importance of Gratitude

“My own gratitude heart is all that matters.”
-Sri Chinmoy

Down through the ages, great thinkers in religion and philosophy recommend cultivating gratitude as a key to happiness and satisfaction. A task as simple as keeping a daily gratitude journal in which one reflects on one’s blessings can powerfully transform life. Yet what if you get stuck in the starting gate with only a blank mind or or cliché ideas that don’t resonate in your core being when you try to count your blessings and cultivate a thankful spirit in your daily life?

The Three Questions of Naikan

One tool to increase gratitude in your life is a process of self-reflection called Naikan originated by Yoshimoto Ishin, a businessman and Buddhist practitioner of the Jodo Shinshu sect in Japan who lived from 1916-1988. Naikan literally means “inside looking” in Japanese and the core practice in this form of psychology popular in Japan is to ask yourself three questions while contemplating your interdependence with the world around you – whether family, friends, work, pets, things, our higher self, etc.

Question 1. “What have I received from ________?
Question 2. “What have I given to ____________?
Question 3. “What troubles and difficulties have I caused __________?

Taking the time at the end of your day to spend 20-30 minutes to look back over the day’s experiences through the lens of these questions can create a radical shift in perspective towards one of increased gratitude. The first question prompts a serious inquiry into all the gifts large and small that we received from others. The second question helps to counteract a spirit of expectation that the world owes us special treatment. Instead of taking the results of the first question for granted as our due, we stop to ask what have we given back to the world around us? Question 3 is the biggest shift of all for those moments when it is easy to dwell on life’s misfortunes and what we didn’t appreciate in someone else’s actions. By turning that perspective on its head, instead try to honestly assess in what way you might have been the source of hassles for others in your day’s interactions. Naikan’s founder Ishin actually recommends that you try to spend sixty percent of your efforts on the third question since it is endemic to human nature to think that the weaknesses of others are insufferable yet our own deserve to be downplayed and minimized.

My own test of trying Naikan in relation to a recent work situation proved very revealing to me. As I embarked on a new project in my job to run a book group, I sought out and received advice, mailings, faxes, phone calls and meetings/conversations that guided my nascent efforts. As I plowed ahead trying to keep up with this task in relation to numerous others, I have yet to formally thank a single person for their time and assistance. Oops!! Naikan has just opened my eyes to some tangible gifts I received to assist me in accomplishing a task and the wisdom of me finding time to write some thank-you letters that won’t require mental gymnastics to express sincere appreciation. This personal experience with the three questions finds me saying Naikan works! Use these three questions in your life to increase and cultivate gratitude. Gratitude achieved, happiness won.

“I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” –G. K. Chesterton

Dec 23

Kindness and the Unexpected

Acts of Kindness at Bloggers Unite
Acts of Kindness at Bloggers Unite

When I first wrote a post taking part in the Bloggers Unite Acts of Kindness Day on December 17th, 2oo7, I did not know yet what unexpected stopping points this girl on a road would encounter. I am taking a moment to write again now that my goal fast approaches of completing 9 different actions leading up until Christmas Day.

I feel a little embarrassed in writing because my actions were eminently ordinary as far as charitable giving goes during the holiday season. However, unexpected moments and serendipity accompanied me along this journey offering me far more blessings than any I might have shared.

My journey began with the great and noble inspiration found in ten year old Laura Stockman who decided to share some form of kindness from December 1st through December 25th in memory of her much loved deceased grandfather. With nine days between December 17th and December 25th, I chose to strive for 9 acts of kindness, however simple.

9 Activities
(when things like answering Dear Santa letters at the post office didn’t work out)

1. Create a Candle Group at Gratefulness.org for a hospital bed bound friend.

2. Donate to a family in the town where I live at Gem Plumbing’s “Random Acts of Kindness” holiday initiative. I first learned of this local effort while listening to Lite 105 FM’s continuous Christmas music on the radio during December. I was in tears listening to one story of help given to a family whose father had been badly injured on the job.

3. Buy toys for the U.S. Marines “Toys for Tots” drive.

4. Buy 2 kid’s new winter coats with matching hat and mittens and one of the same for an adult. Almost gave to Burlington Coat Factory’s Warm Coats & Warm Hearts Campaign but am offering directly to a community center seeking winter coats.

5. Put a 20.00 bill into the Salvation Army Kettle instead of a 1.00 bill.

6. Baked cookies and brought as gifts to various places such as my doctor’s offices.

7. Wrote a check to the campaign to keep a public library operating despite budget difficulties in the town where it is located.

8. Gave a grocery store gift card to a friend who lost his job and has not started collecting unemployment yet.

9. Brought back the library books of the woman whose husband had died that day and gave away a 20 percent off total purchase coupon for the Christmas Tree Shops to a woman who had a carriage overflowing with holiday items. Ironically, I would have saved 12.00 myself by the time I left the store if I had kept the coupon instead of giving it away. I knew that these coupons almost never exist and that the newspaper it ran in might not be something the people at that store would have seen since the newspaper was in the adjoining state.

Two moments that struck me deeply during these nine efforts involved death – something I have myself been processing recently with the passing of my dear spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy on October 11th, 2007.

First Unexpected Moment
When I tried to make arrangements to visit a local friendly 91-year old man that I first met while walking in the neighborhood during my job’s lunch hour, the phone number I hunted down said it had been disconnected. With further detective work, I managed to find the phone number (at least I hoped it was it) of his grown daughter who lived next door. I left a voice message and when she returned my call later that afternoon she said that her father had passed away a couple of weeks ago. Then she said that her husband had just died today and that the funeral home had just recently come to the house to help her make arrangements for her husband’s funeral and burial.

Since I work in a library, she mentioned how one of the things she would have to do included returning his currently borrowed library books. I instantly offered to pick up the books and return them. I ended up coming over to her place after leaving work and tried to offer comfort and company as she awaited the arrival of one of her grown sons who worked up near Boston. She showed me the obituary for her father and gave me a Catholic memorial card for him as well. I never expected that this intended effort would turn out as a gesture of sympathy with such uncanny timing.

Second Unexpected Moment
One of my other intended activities from my post on Acts of Kindness day was to bake gingerbread men/women and bring them as a holiday offering to places such as the doctor’s office where I had an appointment later that week. True confessions! While I have been the lucky recipient of goodies during the holidays at the public library where I work, I had never reciprocated before by baking cookies for others besides co-workers.

Please now picture very red shades of embarrassment when I admit that those cookies were not an easy task. The dough kept sticking to the cookie cutter no matter how much more flour I added and the decorator icing didn’t harden – something I neglected to notice when I purchased it. With waxed paper to the rescue, I was up until the wee hours of the morning trying to get these cookies together to bring to the doctor’s office, the physical therapist’s office and the library in the town where I live.

When I arrived the next morning for my appointment, the ever sweet secretary asked me if I knew that the doctor’s 52-year old sister had just suddenly and unexpectedly passed away the prior week. She showed me the obituary and I recalled how she used to work in the office taking blood pressure when her father was still alive and part of the medical office. I felt so humbled that every drop of sweat on my brow while making these cookies was a drop of insignificance and I was so grateful to suddenly have a gift that could also serve as a consolation offering.

Lasting Impact?

I am really grateful that Bloggers Unite decided to suggest an Acts of Kindness day in which bloggers all over the world could focus on sharing gifts of kindness large and small. Spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy writes:

One brave step is not too much to take.
Take one brave step toward your
destined goal.
One kind word is not too much to say.
Say one kind word to the lost,
orphaned world.
One soulful smile is not too much to offer.
Offer one soulful smile and transform
the face of the world,
Within and without.
-Sri Chinmoy

I do hope that this focus during the holiday season can blossom into an outlook in which Sri Chinmoy’s following words can also resonate:

May my morning begin
With the breath of kindness
And sweetness.
-Sri Chinmoy