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Value One - Celebrating Life
Keep a green tree in your heart and perhaps the singing bird will come.
On November 28, 2004, a chartered plane carrying Susan Saint James' family crashed upon takeoff. Her fourteen-year-old son, Edward Ebersol, was killed in the crash. In an interview several months later, Susan Saint James was asked if she was angry about the errors that might have caused the crash. She responded, 'Holding on to resentments is like taking poison and hoping the other guy dies.' Instead, she focused on her blessings: the fact that her husband and older son had been saved, the joy Edward's life had given her and all those who knew him, the heroism of her older son, and the outpouring of support her family had received from people throughout the world.
Many people suffer enormous trauma and loss in their lives, yet somehow grieve fully, let go of resentments, and enjoy and celebrate the gifts life offers. Others stay stuck in their feelings of victimization or guilt and hold on to lifelong resentments that slowly poison their lives and relationships, which can affect their physical and emotional health.
It isn't possible to live life without problems or some degree of suffering and grief. Yet there are those who focus their energy on unfairness or casting blame rather than seek a solution to their problems. The more we focus only on our problems, the bigger they become and the greater the likelihood that we miss seeing the gifts that enter our lives. A father might focus his energy on the unfairness that his neighbor has a new car and miss the joy of celebrating his child's first smile.
Early one morning a number of years ago, I was sitting on a bench in the beautiful garden of the hotel where I was staying. I was enjoying the beauty around me when an older man sat down beside me. 'Ah, I so love the sounds of birds early in the morning and the sweet smell of flowers and freshly mown grass,' he said, taking a deep breath.
As we talked, he told me about the diabetes that had robbed him of his sight, and I responded that it must have been difficult to lose his sight. He laughed, 'Oh, yes, it was until the day I realized how fortunate I was to have discovered that my sense of smell and hearing became much more acute. You know, I used to take all this for granted,' he said, gesturing to all that was around him. 'For years I never smelled the grass nor heard the birds. In my loss, I have gained so much.'
Later that morning, I was sitting in the restaurant of the same hotel. The couple at the next table spent their entire meal loudly complaining about the restaurant service, the laziness of the housekeeping staff, the temperature of the pool, the hardness of their mattress, the cost of their room and the weather. In fact, complaints were the sum total of their breakfast conversation.
The lesson I learned that day couldn't have been more obvious: celebration of life is not dependent on what has been received, nor is suffering always the outcome of what has been lost. Some people continually focus on what is not, whereas others live their lives celebrating what is.
Celebrating life isn't only allowing joyfulness, but it is also embracing loss, grieving fully, then letting go, all the while learning the lessons that both joy and sorrow have to teach. Loss is not optional in life; yet how we face loss, problems and suffering is a crucial element in determining the quality of our lives. Opening ourselves to joy and celebration is a priceless gift we give ourselves and our children.
Today a new sun rises for me; everything lives, everything is animated, everything seems to speak to me of my passion, everything invites me to cherish it. . . .
—Anne De Lenclos
Five-year-old Lily joyfully splashed in the water, celebrating her birthday and her brand new patent leather shoes. She loved walking through the stream by her uncle's house. She was enjoying herself so much that she didn't stop to think that her mother might be angry at the damage she was doing to her new shoes. She loved life and celebrated every part of it until the day she died.
The story of Lily Berger is based on an interview with her granddaughter Lisa Tener. Lisa is a published author and book coach who helps people bring their books to life. She thanks her Grandmother Lily for helping her believe in herself and her gifts. Lisa's Web site is www.LisaTener.com.
Her blue eyes sparkling, Lily loved to tell her grandchildren stories of her life in Austria: the music, feasts, dancing and the lambs that would come only to her on her uncle's farm. 'Grandma loved to tell us stories,' her granddaughter Lisa said. 'She told us about living in Vienna as a young girl. Her mother would invite all the young people to her home on Wednesday night. They would all bring their musical instruments and play late into the night; then they would all walk to a café, eat together and talk until the wee hours of the morning. Grandma loved music, playing the piano and dancing.'
Celebrations, family and roots were vital to Lily. She was the one who laid a firm foundation, created a safe haven and demonstrated joy for her family, despite all that she had gone through as a child and all she had lost as a young woman.
Lily was born in Vienna, Austria, on October 17, 1906. She loved Vienna but was often sent to the country to visit her uncle and cousins when she was a small child. Although under the guise of 'fattening her up,' it was more likely that her parents sent her to the country so that she could be farther away from the war that was blazing through Europe. World War I cost Austria thousands of lives, including Lily's father's.
On the eve of World War II, the Nazis invaded Austria. Austrian Jews were forbidden to work, but the owners of the soap factory that Lily's husband, a highly respected perfume chemist, managed ignored the law and allowed him to continue his work. But one day the Gestapo came to Lily's home looking for her Jewish husband. Lily never lied, and in this case it was her undoing. She told the secret police that her husband was at work. He was arrested there, and by the end of the day he was imprisoned and was later sent to Dachau concentration camp.
Several things worked in Lily and her husband's favor, however. Early on, he had seen the handwriting on the wall and had put their names on a list to immigrate to the United States; the Nazis had not yet implemented the 'final solution' at Dachau; and an influential family friend was able to get Lily's husband released from the concentration camp. He and Lily were then able to immigrate to Brooklyn as planned. Unfortunately, the rest of Lily's family realized too late the seriousness of Austria's political situation and were not allowed to leave the country. Her family died in Treblinka at the hands of the Nazis.
'I remember hearing the story about the day my grandmother received a letter from the Red Cross telling her of the deaths of her mother and sisters in the camp. She was overcome with grief, and my mother's older sister, Aunt Anne, who was really small then, put her arms around her mother, promising that she would never let her die,' Lisa said tearfully. 'The horrible inhumanity was too much for Grandma, yet in order to live her life and celebrate it as she always had, she somehow was able to grieve, then put the pain behind her, grateful for her safety and the safety of her husband and children.'
Rather than feel continued bitterness about all she had lost, Lily focused on what she had. This incredible ability to celebrate life was passed on to her children and grandchildren. To Lily, everything was a celebration of life and family. There were celebrations of every holiday: Jewish New Year, Thanksgiving, birthdays, even Christmas. There were always lots of people, food and laughter filling Lily's grandchildren's young lives. 'We had a German shepherd and Grandma even celebrated the dog's birthday. We'd eat the cake, and the dog would eat the ice cream,' Lisa laughed.
Lily celebrated every achievement, milestone or rite of passage of her children, then grandchildren. There was always a party with lots of food. She would ask her grandchildren to perform again and again the childhood plays they created, and Lily applauded loudly each time. 'She always celebrated our achievements no matter how small. I will never forget the black-and-white television she bought me and the party she gave when I got my first period,' Lisa laughed.
Lily had a big house that she shared with Lisa and her family. She also rented out a room, usually to someone who had just come to the United States from Europe. Everyone who rented the room ended up calling Lily 'Muti' (Yiddish for 'grandmother'), although Lisa's family and friends called Lily 'Grandma.' 'She attracted people to her because of her joyfulness,' Lisa said. 'She sparkled and had a genuinely open heart. What amazed me about my grandma was that she'd come to the United States with her husband and baby, all her family left behind, yet was able to create a strong family for her children and grandchildren with a firm foundation of tradition, safety, security and values. She had a life force inside her that was special to everyone who met her.'
Lily Berger died the way she lived, celebrating life and family. Very sick and close to death, Lily had already said good-bye to her family. Every movement and word was an effort for her. Yet when her granddaughter Diana made a zucchini casserole for her, she rallied once again. 'Because she always celebrated our every accomplishment, she asked us to bring her from the bed to the chair so she could eat some of the casserole, as sick as she was,' Lisa said. 'She took a few small bites and spoke very slowly, every word labored. It seemed to take forever to get the sentence out. 'I have just one thing to say; that zucchini casserole was terrific!'
'Later that day, my sister and mother got into an argument over how to get someplace. My grandmother told a joke that broke the tension and made us all laugh. She was so good at that, even when she had so little breath to speak.'
Lisa feels that her grandmother's joyful spirit will be with her for the rest of her life. 'Her presence gives me faith that spurs me on. Her laughter, open heart and joyful celebration of life are inside me, guiding me in everything I do.'
Celebrating Life Consciously
When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened to us.
Start Each Day Intentionally
• Begin each day by focusing on how you would like the day to be and what you need to put into the day to make it that way. Think of things that may be important for you to celebrate today: your child's first day of school, trying a new recipe, the first day of spring. Ask yourself how you will celebrate today. Write down your intention for the day in the Celebrating Life section of your 'Values Journal.'
• At the end of the day, evaluate it. Has it gone the way you desired? If so, celebrate! (Take a bath, using candlelight and music; play your guitar; take a walk; enjoy the garden in the moonlight; or dance around the room with abandon. Do whatever pleases you.)
If things didn't go as you intended, focus on what can you learn from today, which will be gifts of understanding for the future. Were there losses, conflicts or disappointments that you will carry into future days? Did you solve your problems, or did you make them bigger?
Journal Active Problems and Let Them Go
• Write in the Celebrating Life section of your 'Values Journal' every night about current problems you are experiencing and attempted solutions that may not be working. For instance, you have a friend who is putting you down, and your solution has been to ignore her words. Ask yourself if ignoring her criticism is working. Cross off the failed solution, and write another solution that you feel might work. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, 'No one can make you feel bad about yourself without your consent.' Always put your journal away before going to sleep. Continually focusing on problems only makes them bigger. Sometimes allowing a bit of distance helps. Once you have resolved each problem, add the lessons you've learned to the Thankfulness section of your journal, and find a way to celebrate.
Take Time to Celebrate
• Celebration is an important part of everyday life. Whether it is celebrating a child's passage into adulthood, taking notice of the first snowfall of the season or celebrating the completion of your first quilt, don't let opportunities for celebration pass you by. We often become so caught up in schedules or problems that we bypass special things in our lives. Become aware of at least one thing each week worthy of celebration. Find creative ways to mark those important times in your life and in the lives of your loved ones.
©2007. Jane Middelton-Moz. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Values From the Front Porch: Remembering the Wisdom of Our Grandmothers. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street , Deerfield Beach , FL 33442.