Finding Community in a City

“Community is not an ideal; it is people. It is you and I. In community we are called to love people just as they are with their wounds and their gifts, not as we want them to be.”-JEAN VANIER

I’m living in the midst of a holiday season in a metropolitan area.  It’s a time when cities feel frenetic.  Locals are shopping for gifts for loved ones.  Tourists inhale the Christmas spirit each store window has to offer.  And often we may feel overwhelmed and exhausted.  Being an outsider who is residing in a foreign country, where I don’t speak the language, oftentimes I just observe. Paris seems in some ways like any other big city.  Many people live alone in their tiny apartments, and interact with their romantic partners or close friends for lunch or dinner.  It doesn’t seem as if people go outside their own little bubbles.  I’ve accepted this, as it what I am used to.  But last week I had two experiences which warmed my heart and reminded me a sense of community can exist anywhere. 

I was in my favorite gluten free boulangerie last week, which was crowded.  There was minimal seating available.  I asked a woman in a communal table if the space across from her was free.  She nodded.  I began to sip my coffee, and she tried to speak to me in French.  My French is horrible, so then she began speaking in Spanish.  This happens often.  I am mistaken for being some type of Latin.  I answered in Spanish that I was from the United States, and she transitioned to English.  Claudine was this woman’s  name.  She hailed from Morocco, but who has been living in France for years.  A mask covered her face, and a cane graced the table.  As we spoke, she noted how lovely the lattes were.  She stated she should know because she came to the Chambelland boulangerie daily.  Claudine began to tell me she lives in an apartment behind the boulangerie, and each day a staff member will help her walk the steps to her home.   I could have closed our interaction and typed on my computer, as I had planned.  But I welcomed in the moment with this stranger.  As our conversation continued, workers would stop and check in on her.  Claudine created community in this popular establishment, with her loyalty and regularity.  As she was about to be escorted by a worker, she asked me to visit her house.  I agreed.  All three of us walked to her apartment, and thirty minutes I was a guest in her home.   She offered me another coffee, as I continued to eat my pastry from the store.  As we bid farewell, she left an open invitation for me to return to her home. 

Later in the week, I went to a tiny Vietnamese restaurant where I had a similar experience.  My friend Isabella and I grabbed lunch, after a macaron making class at The Galleries Lafayette.  We sat at a table next to these two older women.  At first, they seemed shock that we would sit next to them.  The restaurant was tiny, and they appeared as if they didn’t want to be bothered.  There seemed to be an apparent free spot at a table next to a woman dining alone.  After time, their energy settled.  The older woman sitting next to me attempted to start a conversation with me.  Again it was in French, and again, I simply smiled and noted “Je parle un peu francais.”  I only speak a little French.  She offered to transition to English, and queried where we were from.  When we shared that we were from California, she noted that her grandson lived there and she visited once.  As she spoke about it, it appeared as if it was ages ago.  This woman than said she’s nearly 100 years old, and whispered to me her real age of 98.    We continued to politely chat, and they received their meals first.  Her and I ordered the same dish, a shrimp stir fry. 

At one point the woman got some of the stir friend noodles she was eating on her shirt.  I didn’t notice this, but the waitress did.  The waitress came over to her to wipe it off her shirt and then placed a napkin over her shirt like a bib.  The elder woman told her “Toi es gentille.”  You are kind.  At first, I thought this was strange.  I didn’t know how I would feel if a stranger did this to me, wiping me down, and doting on me.  But then the older woman stated she comes to this specific restaurant daily. “I live above here and I’m too old to cook,” was her response.  When I inquired her favorite dish, “all of them, I rotate,” was her response.  What I was witnessing in this moment was another act of kindness.  Two days after my interaction with Claudine, I observed this.  It was another older woman, who made this Vietnamese restaurant her third space.  Her home.  The staff member cared for her like a family member.  It was beautiful to witness this.  

These two single older women lived alone in Paris.  Their family members did not live in the city, but they created family.  They created community in third spaces.  The staff members at these food establishments went above and beyond their duties and job descriptions and offered support, care, and love to these women for small moments each day.  It was beautiful to observe these warm acts during these cold Parisian days.  And it wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t present enough to chat with these women in my poor French and be willing to go with the flow and engage in conversations with strangers. 

Searching for the Good

I am someone who generally finds myself very optimistic.  For over ten years, I write my daily gratitude.  I hand out these kindness cards (which you may have received).  But I find out that if I am in a funk, I see the negative lining in every situation.  This is normal, we are human.  Life is full of blessings and tragedies.  It’s okay to feel down or to seek out the negative when you are on that pessimistic train.  But sometimes, it takes something for you to make a shift.   You need to step back and see how the world has your back.

This is the current state of my life.  I have been planning this next move in my life for the past several months.  It’s taken many detailed specific steps to get here, but for some reason my next phase of life is not turning out as I planned.  And as I met with friends and family throughout America these past several weeks, this is the story I shared with them.  The story has been what has been going wrong in my life. 

It’s as if your hopes and attachments are temporarily tied to one particular dream, and you have a narrow focus to only see that reality.  But if that reality doesn’t turn out as planned, then what?  I can tell you from experience.  If your goal and dream doesn’t come true, due to circumstances out of your control, you go through the stages of grief.  Yes that’s right, Elizabeth Kubler Ross named these stages of grief with the following emotions:  Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance.  And this is what I went through, perhaps you as well.  This may have been for a recent dream or an old one, that you had to let go of.  Grief is hard. I am not going to drag you throughout the entire journey (as this website is called it only takes a smile) but there is a shift that occurs when you get to the acceptance phase.  You begin to see how the universe is working for you.

Acceptance.  This is where I am at.  

Currently I am in New York City for the third time in almost six weeks.  I am lucky that a high school friend has offered me to stay in her flat, as she travels to Europe.  In exchange, I watch her cat.  I have never been much of a cat person, as I am allergic.  But something shifted in this trip.  In addition to being on a daily dose of Zyrtec, I began to see the kind and curious nature of cats, as I visited family and friends.  I saw them differently and they began to see me differently, and interacted with me in a whole new way.  It was comforting to cuddle with a cat at night, as I am away from my dog Bella and still grieving the loss of my bulldog Puzo.  As I cuddled with cats on this trip, my friend reminded me that cats are a symbolic of “rebirth and resurrection.”  

Recently, I met up with a friend and her friend at a NYC restaurant.  We ordered many things off the menu, cocktails, lattes, appetizers, many courses.  Because her friend’s husband is the head chef, the meal was comped.  All we needed to pay was the tip. Another blessing.  Yesterday, I began to realize on this trip, many people who I have spent time with have offered to pay for meals or drinks, because I am not currently employed.  They’ve offered me the fortune to stay at their homes, and I am so appreciative.  Regardless where I have lived, I have offered the same to others or to pay for meals or drinks.  In fact, while I was away from Paris, people have stayed in my home.  One particular friend is staying in my home the entire time to watch Bella.  Kindness is being paid back.

         Before I had the meal with my friends, I stopped by TKTS to buy last minute tickets to a Broadway show.  The associate said, “do you want orchestra seats center for $89?”  For a moment I thought, that may be too costly. Shouldn’t I buy the cheapest ones available?  But then I thought, why not treat myself for an additional $30.  He replied, “I will get the best tickets I can for you.”  I got the sixth row center for the show new musical 1776. When I looked online how much those tickets sold for, it was $255 each.  Thank you TKTS worker.

         Then yesterday morning, when I popped to Starbucks, I ordered a large coffee and used rewards for a free banana loaf bread.  The staff member got me a medium coffee, I was confused as I ordered a large. I didn’t complain, as I was going to simply take the medium coffee.  It was not a big deal.   But they said, you can keep this and I will get you the large.  Wow, thank you Starbucks worker.  I then noticed the pattern the past six weeks.  People have continued to be gracious and kind to me, and although I was appreciative of this, I didn’t live in a state of gratitude.  

         Last week, at an alternative healing conference, I had various interactions with healers and psychics.  So many people told me that the beauty in my life that was unfolding.  One intuitive woman began giving me an impromptu reading and offered to share with me the gifts that are occurring, and how my purpose may currently be redirected for a higher purpose. 

         There have been so many amazing words and kind gestures offered to me, but I was blind to them.  I was in my own embarrassment and sorrow for my future not going as planned, that I refused to see the kindness that was occurring in that moment.  I am thinking back to the day five weeks ago, when I received difficult news that things may not go my way for this next step in my life.  I was so tearful as I walked the streets of New York with my mother.  But strangers tried to comfort me in the city, whether they offered me a compliment on the dress I was wearing or make me smile by saying a joke as a driver walked by.  They attempted to make me smile and get me out of the moment of grief.  I couldn’t see that.  I saw only my own misery.  But now I do.

Even friends and family continuing to reach out to see how my status in on this new goal and collectively empathizing with my frustration, those small moments of thoughtfulness matter.  And I appreciate it.  I may not have showed it at the time, but I appreciate it now.  I think that this is something to keep in mind.  Yes, writing your daily gratitude is important, but we can habituate to it.  Just like any activity in life, it can lose it’s essence.  It’s important sometimes to step back slow down, and not just verbalize gratitude, but feel it in your body, sense it, recall it, look people in the eyes when you say thank you.  Reflect on it at a later point, and pass the positive energy on.  I actually have run out of my tangible gratitude cards on this trip, which rarely happens.  I usually have an abundance of them.  But so many people were kind, that I gave them all out.  And still there’s so much more I want to give back.  

So as I write this blog post, I want to offer this to you. Take a moment to see how things are going right in your life.  Notice the support others are offering to you.  This may be in the guise of animals, strangers, friends, family, or opportunities.    Allow yourself to grieve for the dream you may have to let go of right now.  But also realize the universe does have your back.  There may a greater dream the world has planned waiting for you, but you have to have your eyes open to see it. 

“Trust that your wounds are exactly as the Universe planned. They were divinely placed in your life in the perfect order so that you could show up for them with love and remember the light within.” ― Gabrielle Bernstein, The Universe Has Your Back: Transform Fear to Faith

From Stress To Happiness

“If you don’t trust life, the worst has already happened.”-Brother David, Benedictine Monk on Stress to Happiness Documentary

Yesterday I felt guided to watch a documentary on Netflix entitled Stress to Happiness.  The film pulled me in with the initial song by Paz that played in the background “I Am,” which is on my beloved Puzo’s favorite playlist.  It was filmed in Argentina and follows Alejandro, a 39 year old husband, father, and filmmaker who has had increasing amounts of stress. He is seeking mentorship and guidance from Tibetan Buddhist Matthieu Ricard, who has been named the happiest man on earth.  He earned this title after he was part of a 12 year neuroscientific study that looked on meditation and compassion.  

The one hour documentary was simple.  A brief description of the struggle Alejandro is facing, and his wife trying to support him on his journey of seeking a calmer state.  They host Matthieu Ricard as he travels their home country, and head to Patagonia and Mount Fitz Roy.  As they film and take Matthieu around, they pick his brain as to how to achieve this calmer state during these times.  

When they are in a small cabin by Mount Fitz Roy, they engage in a loving kindness meditation. Metta, or loving kindness meditations, encourage us to send loving thoughts to ourselves, loved ones, acquaintances, those we dislike, and the larger world.  What I found fascinating as Matthieu offered the meditation, the audience can meditate as well.  Background images of a fireplace is shown or a beautiful snow capped mountaintop. 

The film served as a beautiful reminder to focus on what matters in one’s life and to not get caught up on our attachments to things, situations, or people.  This is a prominent teaching in Buddhism, attachment is the root of all suffering.  There were numerous questions that Alejandro asked, and although not all were answered, what arose seemed to be the importance of reflecting on this.  

Why am I stressed? What is meditation and what is it for? How to get out of anxiety? How to get out of fear? What does neuroscience have to say about it? What is the purpose of life? How do we develop a life of purpose? How do we build trust? What is the best way to make use of our life? And what are the questions that really make sense to ask ourselves?

What seems most important is to sit with the following question, which poet Mary Oliver asks in her poem The Summer Day
 Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?


Kindness as Purpose

The past month I have been travelling in America, visiting family members and friends.  But also during the journey I explored New Orleans.  It was the first time me or my mother went to New Orleans, and we wanted to experience Halloween there together.  Viola!  We did. 

It’s definitely a city of contradictions, and I think I will need some time process the experience there.  The resilience, mixed with poverty, history, tragedy, joy, celebration, and traditions.  There’s a lot to unpack in this one city.

But one thing I found fascinating was the kindness I experienced there.  Regardless if the person we were interacting with was a taxi driver, store shop attendant, tour guide, waiter, or an African drum circle drummer- there was pure kindness.  Nobody asked you about your profession.  Some people opened up with ease and told their life stories.  After doing so, they encouraged us to experience the best their city had to offer.  I appreciated that.  I gave out many of these Puzo Bella kindness cards, perhaps you received one (if you are reading this).  I wanted to return any kind of warmth and gratitude back to them. 

  I couldn’t help but wonder, what if our perspective of purpose was all wrong.  What if our purpose here on Earth was to simply be kind to others?  This is all.   It impacts others’ lives, it’s positively contagious, and others’ lives are momentarily lifted.  Life doesn’t have to be so complicated with the questions of “what should I do with my life?” or “how can I leave my mark on the world?”  It could be as simple as how can I express kindness today?  Perhaps that is enough. 

I hope this moment of clarity stays with me in this next phase of life.  As I explore the next phase ahead of me and contemplate on what my purpose is and how it is directed, can I remind myself my purpose today can equate with kindness?  It could be words of encouragement to a friend or family member.  A smile to a stranger.  Or a momentary conversation with an acquaintance, where your entire presence is made available.  Kindness is priceless.  It can be enough.  

“Spread love everywhere you go. Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier.” —Mother Teresa.

Vision Board Synchronicity

“When you visualize, then you materialize. If you’ve been there in the mind, you’ll go there in the body.” —Dr. Denis Waitley

I’m in a coffee shop in my hometown, and this woman next to me is doing a vision board.  I comment on how I like her vision board, and she can’t believe I know what one is.  I’ve led many vision board workshops in my day, and have been doing them for nearly 15 years.  I take for granted that this is not part of everyone’s life and that the concept may be new to anyone.  But I appreciate her freshness about it and the excitement that goals can be manifested.  I offer some tips with regards to vision boards: to put images of herself in them, to do them with friends as they can enhance each others’ dreams and goals, and that it is a process. 

I want to also add that vision boards aren’t the only way to manifest and it isn’t always about the end result.  It’s not what we just want to achieve but how we want to feel.  And how attainment of goals doesn’t always make you happy.  What are your values and how do you want to feel emotionally and energetically? But this is a good start. 

She is surprised I have taught them and asked if I am a teacher.  I respond that I am a psychologist.  But perhaps in some ways I am a teacher.  I try to teach other people aspects of living a balanced healthy life, and I have transitioned from individual work to group work.  So, yes a teacher. 

I let her get back to her vision board.  This year I’ve already created two vision boards, because my life has been redirected.  What I thought I wanted has shifted.  I realize this is another aspect of goal setting.  Allow oneself to surrender to what unfolds.  Although we set goals and there is determination, there must also be fluidity and flexibility for this to shift.  This is something I am still learning.  This middle way of fluid achievements.  Let go of my stubborn nature to achieve, and give space for the universe to guide me.  Free will and guidance: how do we balance this?  This is what I am navigating.  

Observing her detailed interest in the manifestation board in front of her, I watch with a smile on my face.  She mirrors for me a reminder to seek clarity within in what I want to attain.  Could I today quantify my desires for the upcoming year on one board?  Perhaps.  Her vision board is on a cork board not glued down to construction paper, therefore malleability is possible.  Maybe there are some things I can learn from her in manifesting this next phase of my life. 

Luxury Latte

A coffee purchase has always been a special treat that wasn’t a daily task, but a weekly splurge.  This is different when I travel, and don’t have my own luxuries at hand.  I buy coffee frequently when I am on the road, as a way to merge with the time zone I am residing in, get wifi, or even as a way to bond with my mom over a latte.  

But what has happened to people and their caffeine purchases?  Starbucks drive thrus are the rage in American suburbs.  And when you enter the infamous facilities in NYC, there are less and less Starbucks that have tables.  People aren’t standing at an espresso bar taking their espresso shops with other customers.  They are taking their orders and leaving.    People have a mobile order, enter a coffee shop wearing headphones, search for their printed name on cups, and do not even have to greet the baristas or any other people in the shop.  Human interaction and engagement is limited.   

What has happened?  I think what many coffee chains have turned into is simply adrenaline stations. It’s as if everyone has morphed into zombies and this is a zombie station.  We travel to and from work uber caffeinated.  We are paying loads for a caffeine boost, but do we even taste what we are drinking anymore?  Although espresso has caffeine in it and it definitely fuels you, the point of drinking a latte is to drink it slow.  Mobile orders are the rage here in America.  The world is not immune.  I recognize people opt for Uber Eats deliveries at my local Parisian Starbucks.  

Is cafe culture dead? 

  If I could, I would sit in coffee shops for hours.  But it seems others do not look forward to this.  They want a packaged prompt drink, not a crafted experience that takes time to appreciate.  This is all an example of time poverty.  We may be an affluent culture that can spend money on luxury items, but many are lacking the luxury of time.  This is a concept in positive psychology called time affluence.  We feel we are abundant with time in our lives.  This concept is not reserved solely for the youth or the retired.  Anyone can have it?  It’s how you interact and engage with time, with your commutes, with your loved ones, and even with your latte.

So next time you order a latte, slow down and drink it, maybe even while sitting in a café.  

Softening your Traveler’s Gaze

What would happen if instead of viewing what went wrong in our day, we focused on what’s right?  I know many people have a gratitude practice, where you reflect either at the beginning or end of your day about what positive things have occurred.  But can we do this now in real time?  

I am at the airport flying to the states for one month.  Travelling can always bring about stress for people.  Everything has to align up perfectly for you to take your flight.  My friend Isabella arrived yesterday from America to Paris to watch my dog for the next month.  There were many mishaps that could have occurred but all was well for her journey, which in turn impacted my journey.  I pre-booked an Uber for this morning at 5:50 am.  The driver could have cancelled last minute (as has happened before), there could be traffic, or an accident.  But he was on time and friendly.  I was surprised to find a bit of a line at the airport at the check in area, but I chose to listen to a meditation when in line.  I closed my eyes and surrendered, I gently peaked my eyelids open at times to ensure if I needed to waddle several steps forward.  As I met with a staff member to ask questions of why I was in Paris, I was calm and peaceful.  She even inquired of the details of my book.  It was as if the universe was continuing to nudge me to get back to writing.  Another staff member who printed my ticket and complimented the color of my luggage.  Since my flight is nearly full, she offered to check in my carry on for free.  I obliged.  It’s always a pleasant turn of events when things line up.  I couldn’t help but compare it to last week’s flight to Spain, where there were so many missteps.  But we still landed on time. 

When we can focus on what goes right as it is happening, versus taking it for granted, there is beauty in this.  We can enjoy life as it is occurring, not just in retrospect. We can also show appreciation for those we interact with, friends and strangers, in real time.  Look them in the eyes and say thank you.  Giving out these Puzo/Bella gratitude cards (which you may have received once if reading this) helps slow me down during this process and be present with who is in front of me.  It reminds me there is an opportunity to be grateful and personable at any moment.  

Perpetual Decluttering

“Clutter is nothing more than postponed decisions.” ― Barbara Hemphill

Over the past several years I have gone through a constant process of decluttering.  Last year it culminated in me getting rid of 1000 items in one year.  That was everything from pens to a wedding dress.  I was moving from a four floor house in the UK to an apartment in Paris that was less than 300 square feet.  This year I stopped calculating.  I knew I could not keep excessive items, because there literally was no space for them.  But today I gave away several items, and I felt a tiny sting.

One of these items was a backpack, which I have worn the past two years on the Camino de Santiago.  These were walking pilgrimages that lasted for days.  It held significance for me, and I would have kept that backpack for longer, but it began to fall apart.  I also gave away a tank top, which I wore on many first dates this past year.  It was a flattering color, but I admit it has seen better days.  I parted with a light sweater which brought warmth on numerous trips. 

I realize for me decluttering is an ongoing cleansing I must do.  Certain items are easy for me to get rid of, but others I have been putting off.  I want to keep these items until they must be disposed of.  But I can’t help but wonder why.  Why am I waiting till these items are in torn conditions?  Don’t I deserve more than this?  I am not struggling.  I have more items to utilize.  These items do not have to last forever, so why do I wait until they are totally worn to release them?  I wonder “What does that say about me and how I value myself?” 

How am I trying to show my value and worth to the world if I continue to wear these clothes to the ground?  If I keep everything, there is no space to let in new experiences.  Having these thoughts, I wanted to make a different choice. And with that I let them go.  

“Clutter is anything that does not support your better self.” ― Eleanor Brownn

me, my bookbag, and my friend Isabella on the camino

Missteps of a Traveller

Last week, while my mom and I were on the Parisian metro from the Opera to the 7th arrondisment, where I live, she was robbed.  It was the only time on the metro where she was not standing next to me.  These two twenty something women created a distraction and when my mom tried to walk towards me, they told her to stay there.  She listened. Within one stop they were on and off the metro, and when I was next to her again, things were different.  I noticed her wallet was out of her purse and in her shopping bag.  Gone was 100 euros in cash. The wallet was empty.  We were both in shock, as we only had five stops on this metro in total.  Immediately we both shared the positives in the situation: they didn’t take her passport, credit cards, ids, purse.  She wasn’t injured or threatened.  Simply the cash was taken.  

I repeated the scene over and over again, wishing my mom hadn’t brought so much or having had her pay instead of me treating that day.  In that case, at least we would have used more of her money.  I questioned why she didn’t stand next to me.  I didn’t want to blame the victim, and knew that this is what was occurring in me.  These girls were professional criminals, and we simply were the ones on the path that day.  

Hours later I said to my mother, “I can’t believe you are handling this so well.”  I was impressed. I would have been any one of the following emotions: furious, frustrated, sad, self-critical, or anxious of future crimes.  She said “I’m handling it well, you are the one who won’t let it go.”  She was the one who was robbed and I was the one stuck with the upset emotions.  It was true.  I couldn’t believe we were violated. I wanted to protect her, but this still happened.  

When she said this, I realized I had to check my own emotions.  Things had to change if we were enjoy the remainder of our trip.  And with that, I allowed myself to let it go.  

Sometimes when we travel, this stuff happens.  People take advantage of those that appear to be tourists, who are wide eyed or speak a different language.  There is a trust we have in the world and those that are in our environment, but we have to be more discerning and on guard.  But perhaps for me a greater lesson is that I need to learn to let go of events that have happened, particularly to others.  If it is not bothering or concerning them anymore, why should I be the one to carry the burden?  

Are you carrying unnecessary burdens in your life? 

Some of us think holding on makes us strong, but sometimes it is letting go.
Herman Hesse

Our Mysterious Dance with the Sun

t was only several weeks ago, that the majority of us were fleeing the sun.  Her rays were so intense, we had to sneak out to get fresh air before she awoke.  Our working hours were spent seeking refuge from the power that emanated from her and remained stagnant in our homes.  There seemed to be no escape of her presence.

And just like that, things changed.  

She appears in our lives for less hours each day.  Her beams are hidden among the clouds.  The more she leaves, the more attracted we are to her.  Her absence profoundly impacts our lives.  Dynamics are turned.  She’s become that unrequited love we seek.   And she responds with going further into hiding.  Knowing this, how can we long to stretch each moment in her atmosphere? 

This is our mysterious annual dance with the sun. 

And this is what I witnessed each day at the park now.  People squirming to get every last bit of love from the sun, including me and Bella.  With a drop in temperature, some rainy days, and an earlier sunset, the beauty of the sun has increased it’s value in our hearts.  

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