Ghosts, Goblins and Great Decorations in The Big Apple

“They call it the ‘Big Apple’ because that’s how big our apartments are!” – Billboard on the Hudson River Parkway, NYC (2012)

Anyone familiar with New York City knows that tight, close quarters and a small amount of personal space is a sacrifice that must be made for living in what has been deemed, somewhat ironically, “The Big Apple.” Indeed, on a 13.4-mile island populated by 1.6 million people, space is a luxury that many – though not all – can’t afford, which is why New Yorkers are often compelled to get a bit creative.

Such creativity is witnessed firsthand while strolling through the neighborhoods of Manhattan in the weeks leading up to Halloween. With a truly limited and “tricky” amount of space to work with, the elaborate displays, spooky props and ghastly décor that line the stoops, gates, stairs, windows and doors of many apartment buildings is rather impressive – and a pleasant “treat” that lifts your spirits to the festive fun of the season.

Below is just a sampling, all taken within a 10-block radius on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Happy trick-or-treating!

See also our list of the top 10 scariest movies of all time as well as our recipes for all things apples. And…are you a curmudgeon

Halloween in NYC

Halloween ideas NYC

Where to trick-or-treat on Halloween in NYC

Halloween costumes NYC

Best Halloween displays NYC

spooky outdoor halloween decor

Scariest Halloween Decorations

Unique Halloween Props

Scary Halloween Scenes

Halloween decor ideas

Halloween spider decorations

Scary Halloween costumes

Mistress America: So Much To Be, So Little Time

Mistress America Movie ReviewNoah Baumbach’s latest film, Mistress America, is an unexpected delight first and foremost for the abundance of laugh-out-loud moments and the many quotable lines delivered in Woody Allan-esque, rapid-fire sequences.

A classic “coming of age” story set in New York City, it follows Tracy (Lola Kirke), a freshman and social outcast at New York City’s Barnard College who finds herself captivated by the seemingly glamorous life of her soon-to-be 30-year-old stepsister, Brooke (Greta Gerwig), only to become disillusioned by the fact that Brooke’s life isn’t as “together” as it appears.

What makes this film particularly brilliant, however, is its ability to capture – with a rare, authentic awareness – both the exhilaration and lamentation of the endless career possibilities available in today’s world of entrepreneurial pioneers.

Admittedly, part of my enthusiasm stems from having lived in New York City for the past three years – a city I have come to know well, where ambition is not just a prevailing attitude, but a means of survival.

It is Greta Gerwig’s character that embodies this so humorously (and with pointed relevance), as we learn that Brooke – who radiates an infectious energy and charisma inherent in the city itself – is a freelance interior designer, high school tutor, Soul Cycle instructor, all while attempting to secure investment for a restaurant she envisions as a “community shop, general store, bodega”-like place called “Moms” where “it will always feel like Fall inside” and where you can eat, take cooking classes, “but also where you cut hair.”

Brooke is, as Tracy narrates, “kind and fearless,” someone who “spent time purposefully”; “Being around her is like being in New York City…[making] you want to find life, not hide from it.”

Indeed, to say that she is the ultimate “go-getter” – not to mention a seemingly confident, independent and bold woman (“there’s nothing I don’t know about myself, that’s why I can’t do therapy,” she says) – would be an understatement.

Greta Gerwig Mistress AmericaWhat soon becomes clear, however, is that while she appears to be “doing it all,” she is barely doing anything, slowly becoming unraveled by all of her “creative and great ideas.”

“I think I’m sick and I don’t know if my ailment has a name,” Brooke says to Tracy toward the end of the film, explaining that she has been “staring at the internet and TV” for hours on end, followed by bouts of excitement for various ideas she has, but doesn’t know how to implement.

“I just can’t figure out how to work in the world,” Brooke finally states. “I wish we lived in feudal times, when your position couldn’t change…if you were a king or peasant, you had to be happy with just who you were.”

Brooke’s momentary romantic reflection on the feudal past and the simplicity inherent in a concrete social hierarchy of kings and queens, princes, princesses and peasants – where one’s days are not spent on an arduous quest for self-definition – is one of the more poignant moments in the film. She becomes fully and painfully aware of her whirlwind quest of “how to work” in a world where anyone can invent, reinvent, define and redefine themselves on their own terms and in their own way.

“I’m going to be worse off now than before I started to accomplish stuff,” Brooke says at one point.

Such freedom for invention and reinvention is certainly liberating, but as Baumbach captures so astutely, it can also be severely, detrimentally paralyzing.

“The world was changing,” Tracy narrates at the tail end of the film. “And her kind had no where to go.”

Noah Baumbach Mistress America

Where should I go? What should I do? Who should I be? These are all questions that we confront in life, which is partly why this 84-minute journey with the character Brooke is highly entertaining and relatable.

Indeed, as a young woman in one of the biggest cities in the world, where I step out my apartment each morning energized by knowing I can do and be anything, it gave me a bit of solace to know that I might not be the only one trying to “figure out how to work in the world.”

Mistress America is currently playing in New York City’s Landmark Sunshine Cinema. Watch for its DVD release on December 1, 2015.

#Kindness4Colleen, Kindness For All

“Tenderness and kindness are not signs of weakness and despair, but manifestations of strength and resolution.”

The above quote, attributed to the Lebanese-American author Khalil Gibran (1883-1931) most well known for his book The Prophet, has always been one of my favorites. Serving as a counterpoint to a prevailing cultural ethos that too readily equates strength with acts of self-empowerment and self-aggrandizement, it is a reminder of a “quieter” strength, one that doesn’t seek the world’s attention and approval, but instead manifests itself in acts of humility, sacrifice and loving kindness when no one is looking.

While I did not know her, and was made aware of her only recently through a friend, I get the sense that Colleen Ritzer – a Massachusetts native and high school math teacher whose life was tragically and mercilessly stolen from her at the age of 24 – was one of these people.

Described in this Boston Globe article as “a paragon of caring” who was “lighthearted, kind, and genuinely nice” and in this CNN article as a “dynamic and brilliant ray of light”, a “young caring girl” who was “energetic and compassionate” and “extremely approachable”, and again in this Huffington Post piece as a “very, very respected, loved teacher” and “gentle, with a big smile,” the impact Colleen has had on her friends, family, students and strangers is certainly palpable.

Colleen Ritzer legacy
Colleen Ritzer and her best friend, Jennifer Berger; Summer 2013

“I really do believe the reason why so many have connected to Colleen since her passing is because she was simply good to people in an effortless way,” says Jennifer Berger, a close friend of Colleen’s since kindergarten. “For example, she’d always greet you with a big smile, or let you know she was thinking about you by sending a card when there was no occasion.”

She added: “Colleen was a genuine person who cared about people and was always thinking of others…she valued her family and friends to the utmost [and] was an amazing role model.”

On October 22nd, marking the two-year anniversary of Colleen’s death, Ms. Berger is organizing a “Kindness Campaign”, asking people to perform acts of kindness and share them online using the hashtag #Kindness4Colleen, to help honor her legacy and the values by which she lived.

“The goal of the #Kindness4Colleen campaign is to turn the day that will always be sad, the day we lost Colleen, and try to make it a little better,” she says. “I have always wanted to find a way to honor Colleen’s legacy and I couldn’t think of anything better than asking people to spread kindness in her name.”

While there are certainly many different ways of exhibiting kindness – from smiling at a stranger to helping an elderly person cross the street – Ms. Berger says that, to her, being kind is thinking beyond yourself and being considerate of others.

“Kindness can be big or small and sometimes it’s the little things that can have the greatest impact,” she says. “From a really young age, Colleen and I learned to treat others as you would like to be treated,” she continued. “Colleen was the epitome of that and more.”

In fact, a favorite quote of Colleen’s, attributed to Taylor Swift, comes from her teacher twitter account, which she regularly used to connect with her students, posting homework assignments along with inspirational messages: “No matter what happens in life, be good to people. Being good to people is a wonderful legacy to leave behind.”

That Colleen practiced such goodness in her own life, thereby creating a lasting impression and “wonderful legacy”, is evident in the campaign that Ms. Berger is organizing – and serves as further proof that kindness carries with it a quiet strength and power that can trump all else.

As seekers of all things good, it is my hope you’ll join us on October 22nd in honoring Colleen’s legacy by spreading kindness and sharing it on the campaign’s Facebook and Twitter pages with the hashtag #Kindness4Colleen.

After all, as Maya Angelou once said, “At the end of the day, people won’t remember what you said or did. They will remember how you made them feel.”

You can read more about Colleen’s legacy and the #Kindness4Colleen campaign on the Colleen E. Ritzer Memorial Scholarship Fund’s website.

This piece also appeared in The Huffington Post.

The Perfect Homemade Cookie for Any Occasion

One of my favorite childhood memories is baking homemade cookies with my mother. Standing on a wooden stool next to her in the kitchen, she would measure the ingredients and allow me to pour them into the bowl before mixing. The best part, of course, was sneaking tastes of dough along the way and licking the bowl clean at the end.

Thanks to her loving guidance, it wasn’t long until I was baking them on my own. From chocolate chip to oatmeal raisin, sugar and molasses, lemon butterscotch and more, I have baked over hundreds of dozens of cookies for dozens of people and events throughout my junior high, high school, college and, now, early adulthood years.

There is one cookie recipe in particular, however, that has become my “go-to” for whenever I need to bring something to a party, housewarming or as a thank you. It is a cookie that, over the many years, has consistently received rave reviews and one that people always ask the recipe for, as was the case when I brought them on a recent weekend getaway trip to Maine.

A perfect combination of peanut butter and chocolate, they truly are a crowd pleaser (and were irresistible even for my golden retriever who once ate 18 of these scrumptious cookies all at once)!

Below please find the recipe for Chocolate Chip Peanut Butter Oatmeal Cookies. Hope you enjoy!

Chocolate Chip Peanut Butter Oatmeal Cookies

Ingredients:
Homemade chocolate chip cookie recipe1 stick butter (room temp.)
½ cup peanut butter
1 cup sugar
½ cup brown sugar
1 egg (room temp.)
½ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
1 cup flour
1 cup oats
1 cup Nestlè Toll House semi-sweet chocolate morsels

Instructions:
Preheat oven to 350 degree F. Mix the butter and peanut butter together in a bowl. Add the sugar and brown sugar and mix. Add the egg and mix. Combine the flour, salt and baking soda in a separate bowl. Pour mixture into the original bowl a little bit at a time. Add and mix in the oats. Finally, add the chocolate chips. Bake for 8-10 minutes.

Shining A Hopeful Light on Usher Syndrome

Usher syndrome symptomsWhen I think of Emma, my 1-year-old niece and goddaughter, I think of her big, bright blue, angelic eyes. They are staring up at me, at seven months old, trusting, innocent eyes that eventually succumb to the spellbinding power of sleep in the arms of someone she had not yet come to know.

I remember thinking how miraculous it was that, at such a young age, babies could not only convey a feeling, thought or emotion with one simple look, but could gaze so deeply, so intently, as if, for a moment, they were imparting years of life wisdom that we typically only acquire with age.

It was her eyes in this moment that flashed through my mind as I learned three months later that her hearing loss would not be the only challenge that she would come to face. That what had once seemed like an unlikely possibility had revealed itself as a new reality when the test results diagnosed her with Usher Syndrome – the most common cause of combined deafness and blindness that affects about four babies in every 100,000 births. An inherited disease, it is thought to be responsible for about three to six percent of all childhood deafness and about 50 percent of deaf-blindness in adults.

Emma’s hearing will stay the same – moderate to moderately severe loss – but her vision will progressively worsen, a result of retinitis pigmentosa that causes night-blindness and a loss of peripheral vision through degeneration of the retina, beginning in adolescence or adulthood and leaving her legally blind by the time she is in her 20s.

Sitting on the phone with my brother, his silence spoke loudly enough for me to know that fear was the predominant emotion governing his reaction. Fear for Emma’s wellbeing, fear for her happiness and fear for her future in the face of a syndrome that brings with it an unknown set of challenges, in addition to the inevitable tribulations each of us face along life’s journey.

Indeed, as adults, the life experiences we have acquired, coupled with a finer understanding of the workings of the world, makes it nearly impossible to receive such news without an overwhelming sense of fear. We know the beauty and joy that life can bring, and the goodness that exists, but we also know the ugliness – the parts filled with hatred and loneliness, judgment and unkindness.

Usher syndrome children

It wasn’t until later, however, when I began to think that, in circumstances such as these, it might do us well to have the eyes of a child, to view the world as fearlessly, innocently and joyfully as children often do – as Emma does now, and will in the coming years. To daringly dream and boldly believe, to trust unyieldingly and have faith and hope in the endless possibilities that we so freely envision when we are young. To know and see nothing but the good. To believe in magic. To not fear.

For, while our instinctual reaction is to fear, Emma fears not. She smiles her heartwarming, beautiful, divine smile. She waves in utter exultation at strangers. She coos and squeals with merriment as she tries to keep up with her equally fearless, vociferous older sister. She is entertained with a laugh. A hug. A kiss.

And she looks at you lovingly with those precious, warm eyes – eyes that will see mountains and streams, forests and fields, oceans and lakes. Eyes that will see sunrises and sunsets, rainbows and stars, lightning and fireflies. Eyes that will see city lights from a plane and the depths of the earth from the sea floor. Eyes that will see the world because we will show it to her.

Together we will show her, just as together we will walk, this Saturday, September 19, in honor of the first global Usher Syndrome Awareness Day, a day uniting all affected families that precedes the autumnal equinox, which marks the start of days containing more darkness than light.

Information about Usher SyndromeAs we walk with Emma – and in spirit with Galen, Xanthe, Hunter, Lizzy and all other Usher children across the globe – let us not become blinded by that darkness, by that fear. Instead, let us walk with the eyes of a child – of these children – who sees beauty, magic and hope in the most unexpected places. Who wishes upon a star so fervently that even we believe we can fly.

To be a child, writes the English poet Francis Thompson, is “to have a spirit yet streaming from the waters of baptism; it is to believe in love, to believe in loveliness, to believe in belief; it is to be so little that the elves can reach to whisper in your ear; it is to turn pumpkins into coaches, and mice into horses, lowness into loftiness and nothing into everything.”

It is, essentially, to turn darkness into light, fear into hope.

On Saturday, the Usher Syndrome community will do just that, walking together in hope – because we do have much to hope for. Hope in the Usher Syndrome Coalition’s movement for increased awareness and commitment to building a network of support. Hope in the dedicated team of Usher Syndrome researchers throughout the world – from Sweden to Iowa – who are collaborating tirelessly to find answers. Hope in all of the remarkable stories of success and accomplishment achieved by those with Usher Syndrome – such as 36-year-old Rebecca Alexander who just this past summer climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.

And hope that, in an era of unprecedented, rapid technological and medical advancements, a cure for Usher Syndrome will be found.

Here is to that hope. Here is to owning the equinox.

Please consider supporting the Usher Syndrome community and helping us spread awareness by visiting this link.

This piece was also published on The Huffington Post.

James Harrison: Wise Words From A Man of Steel

I imagine that one of the most empowering aspects of being famous is the ability to have your voice heard: to fearlessly and boldly share your thoughts and opinions knowing that people are listening and responding on a national or international level.

While their qualifications to speak on certain topics and issues can at times be questionable, the influence public officials have is truly immeasurable, stirring a debate or movement with a simple act, speech or – in the case of James Harrison, the NLF linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers* – a post on social media.

This past Saturday, the notoriously aggressive professional football player used social media to lambast “participation trophies,” writing a paragraph-long post explaining that trophies should be awarded based solely on merit, not for simply trying.

The full post reads:

“I came home to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing, participation trophies! While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy. I’m sorry I’m not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned and I’m not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best…cause sometimes your best is not enough, and that should drive you to want to do better…not cry and whine until somebody gives you something to shut u up and keep you happy. #harrisonfamilyvalues.”

As you might expect, his words elicited a debate and spiked conversations both online and off from those who applaud his sentiment against the “culture of entitlement” and those who were taken aback by the “harshness” and “cruelty” of his message.

James Harrison Participation trophies

This certainly isn’t the first time that Harrison has caused controversy. He made headlines in 2008 when he was arrested on charges of assault and criminal mischief when he allegedly broke down a door his wife was hiding behind during an argument over whether to baptize their son (the charges were dropped when he agreed to undergo anger management and other counseling).

Harrison was also fined $125,000 for illegal hits and $75,000 for a helmet-to-helmet hit in 2010, and was eventually suspended for one game without pay in 2011.

Needless to say, there’s a reason Harrison has a reputation for being a fiercely competitive, intense and daring athlete (HBO’s Hard Knocks once labeled him “The baddest man in football” and in an ESPN poll, NFL players chose Harrison as “the most violent, dangerous player in the NFL”; his nickname is “Silverback” and his teammates have referred to him as Deebo, from the character in the Friday movies).

There are people who have – and will – point to his past imperfections or errors as proof that his “participation trophies” post and message about entitlement should be disregarded. To do so, however, is to cast an unjustly harsh judgment on someone who, like the rest of us, is human and, like the rest of us, has at times faltered.

While no one is required to agree with Harrison’s message, the fact that it comes from someone who is living proof that success is earned and achieved through hard work should not be overlooked.

Indeed, his career as a professional athlete was anything but handed to him. Harrison wasn’t recruited by Kent State University – he played as a walk on. And he wasn’t even drafted by the NFL (he was labeled “too short” at six feet tall).

The Pittsburgh Steelers signed Harrison as an undrafted free agent in 2002, making him the first Kent State alumnus to play at linebacker for the team since Hall of Famer Jack Lambert. It wasn’t until 2007, however, that his career really took off, as he was cut four times by NFL teams before actually appearing in a game. Since then, he has earned two Super Bowl rings, five Pro Bowl appearances and has the record for the longest interception in Super Bowl history (100 yards).

Accordingly, Harrison’s thoughts on today’s culture of entitlement has merit – and is certainly not hypocritical. He is right to say that success does not come from being handed opportunities or from being told that we are good, great or worthy. It comes from working hard, being determined and persistent, and having a positive attitude; from making your own opportunities, continually improving, and trying over and over again until you get it right.

There’s a reason they say anything worth doing is worth doing well. Ask any of the most “successful” people in our world today and they’d likely tell you that, at the end of the day, their accomplishments were achieved through nothing but hard work.

In a culture overly saturated with “political correctness” – where the slightest comment challenging social norms is vociferously attacked – it was refreshing to read a post asserting that any honor or success must be earned and not assumed. And, as far as I can tell from reactions on social media and news commentary, other people found it refreshing, too.

Admittedly, it also doesn’t hurt that I come from a long lineage of diehard Steelers fans who, thanks to Harrison, have just one more reason to wave their terrible towels with admiration and pride on game day.

To anyone who says Harrison is made solely of steel, I say this: he may be intense, aggressive and forceful, but he is not without emotion. In an interview on ESPN, when told that he was one of the best outside linebackers in Steelers history and showed a tape of veteran defensive coordinator Dick LaBeau, this was his reaction.

*The Pittsburgh Steelers have a long history and great reputation of producing outstanding linebackers; Andy Russell, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd, Levon Kirkland, and Joey Porter were some of the most productive linebackers to ever play in the NFL.

To note: The 2009 book, Never Give Up, chronicles Harrison’s life, revealing the hardships he’s faced and adversities he’s overcome through persistence and hard work.

This piece was also published in The Huffington Post.

The Truth Behind Einstein’s Letter on The “Universal Force” of Love

Albert Einstein famous quotesOne of the greatest things about discovering something new is the path it leads us down and doors it opens into new insights and findings that we otherwise might have never known. An article we read leads us to a new author or book. A conversation we have leaves us “googling” something or someone we’ve never heard. A segment on the radio inspires us to learn more about a business or topic being discussed.

Or, as most recently happened to me, a letter circulating via social media leads to the debunking of a myth surrounding its alleged author.

Perhaps you’ve read it: Albert Einstein’s letter to his daughter Lieserl regarding the “universal force” of love. It’s a beautiful read, offering a universal message that speaks to the essence of the human condition and our incessant yearning to believe in love’s conquering force.

That such sentiments were seemingly written by Albert Einstein, the most revolutionary scientist of the 20th century, only solidified its potency and widespread appeal – hence it going viral on social media.

But, as we’ve been forced to learn in our rapidly expanding digital age, you can’t always trust what you read on the Internet, particularly when it lacks an original source, as was the case with this supposed letter from Einstein.

Struck by its beauty, however, I began researching its origins in hopes that it would confirm Einstein as the author and give way to a post about the unlikely musings on love from one of the world’s most brilliant scientists.

What I discovered, however, was a heap of controversy pointing to the fabrication of a letter falsely attributed to Einstein in an attempt to legitimize its words and message.

The preface of the letter explains that Einstein’s daughter, Lieserl, donated 1,400 of his letters in the late 1980s to the Hebrew University with orders not to publish their contents until two decades after his death; this letter on the “universal force” of love was supposedly one of them.

Interestingly, however, further research indicated that Lieserl herself might not be the most reliable source, given that very little is known about her. In fact, her existence was largely unknown to biographers until 1986 when a batch of letters from 1897-1903 between Einstein and his first wife, Mileva Maric, were discovered by his granddaughter Evelyn (in which Einstein mentions Lieserl; these letters were published in the book The Love Letters in 1992).

Furthermore, a 1999 book by Michele Zackheim, Einstein’s Daughter: The Search for Lieserl, argued that Lieserl was born with a mental handicap and died of scarlet fever in 1903 when she was nearly two years old (Lieserl was mentioned for the last known time in a letter from Einstein to Mileva on September 19, 1903). Others, however, have maintained that she was put up for adoption.*

After a search in Hebrew University’s online archives (which houses the Albert Einstein Archives) and the Collected Papers of Albert Einstein failed to yield any results, I was nearly convinced that the letter was, indeed, fabricated.

But, before resting the case, I turned to Diana Kormos-Buchwald, a professor of physics and the history of science at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), whose name I happened to come across in an article in the New York Times while researching the letter.

Einstein's daughter lieserlAs director and editor of the Einstein Papers Project* – which just last December launched The Digital Einstein Papers, making 5,000 documents spanning Einstein’s first 44 years of his life available online – surely Dr. Kormos-Buchwald would be able to provide some clarification regarding the authenticity of this letter.

Her response?

“This document is not by Einstein. The family letters donated to the Hebrew University – referred to in this rumor – were not given by Lieserl. They were given by Margot Einstein, who was Albert Einstein’s stepdaughter. Many of those letters were published in Volume 10 of The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein in 2006 and in subsequent volumes, in chronological order.”

As disappointing as it was to learn that Einstein didn’t pen the letter, it was equally exciting to discover a plethora of documents I hadn’t even known existed. What became a fervent search for validation evolved into an utter fascination by some of Einstein’s authentic writings, many of which are, in fact, written to family members, friends and colleagues.

While the question of who is behind the “universal force” of love letter still remains a mystery, part of the truth has been revealed – and that is what seems most important. That we always remember and strive to seek the truth in all things. That we not shy away from asking questions and challenging notions. That we remain curious.

As Einstein himself once said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”

Dr. Kormos-Buchwald is director and editor of the Einstein Papers Project, established in 1986 to assemble, preserve, translate and publish professional and personal papers from Einstein’s literary estate along with those from other collections. When completed, the printed series is expected to contain over 14,000 scientific and non-scientific documents that will fill close to 30 volumes. The project is sponsored by the Princeton University Press and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and has been housed at Caltech since 2000.

*Further reading:

This piece also appeared in The Huffington Post.

The Charleston Tragedy: A Conversation On Faith & Forgiveness

Please note: this piece was also published in The Huffington Post.

Charleston shootingWe often hear about the power of forgiveness. Its ability to transform and heal, freeing us from the weight of bitterness and resentment that anchors itself all too comfortably in the depths of our soul.

The concept, in theory, is familiar: to forgive is to recognize the reality of human fallibility and our finite understanding of the cruelty and injustice we at times bear witness to in an imperfect world. In practice, however, forgiveness is more uncomfortable, challenging us to confront our pride and redirect our inherent desire for revenge and ill will with a purity and grace that seems more well-suited for a heavenly, divine people.

Perhaps this is why the nation stood in awe in the days following the June 17 shooting at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where nine people were killed during a Bible study session by a troubled, 21-year-old boy, Dylann Roof.

There were no protests or riots. There was no violence. There were no evil words. There was simply – standing in stark contrast to the emotionally charged reactions of Baltimore and Ferguson – a message of wholehearted forgiveness.

Even Rev. Joey McDonald, Pastor of the United Methodist Church in Bluffton, South Carolina was taken aback by the overwhelming message of forgiveness that the families of the nine victims offered to the accused murderer.

“When those people forgave, it touched something in me,” he said. “I’m a believer. I’m a Christian minister, and I’ll be honest with you: I really believe that, at the end of the day, I could have forgiven this guy.” But, he said, “It would have taken me a lot longer.”

Just two days after the shooting, the family members attended the bail hearing of Dylann Roof, where they were given the opportunity to share a statement with the young man who had so heartlessly stolen their loved one’s life.

“When the family members of these folks – whose lives were ripped apart by a violent, murderous, heinous crime – went and saw the guy who was accused of doing it, they didn’t take a vote, they didn’t have to think about it, they didn’t have to band together; they came in and said, ‘We forgive you’”, says Rev. McDonald.

“And not only did they say that,” he continues, “some of them started ministering to the man and said, ‘Look, if you’ll confess your sins and come to Jesus, you’ll be ok’…I mean, that is the most Christian thing I think I have ever heard about in my entire life.”

A Forgiving & Gentle People

Speaking with Rev. McDonald – a South Carolina native who has just started his 22nd year in ministry and sixth year at his rapidly expanding church in Bluffton – you get the sense that, as unexpected as the reaction in Charleston was to many across the country, those with a Southern heritage might not have expected anything less.

“I think there’s a lot of gentleness about being in the South that I have not discovered in other places,” he says. “Certainly not in everything we do, not by a long stretch – and we have our issues – but there’s a gentleness that I experienced growing up that I don’t experience when I go to other places in the world.”

In fact, Rev. McDonald attributes one of the reasons the families responded the way they did to the fact that it happened in the South. “If this tragedy in Charleston had not happened in the church, I still think it would not have turned out like it did in other places [i.e. Baltimore and Ferguson], because of that very gentleness.”

But, he says, “Since it did take place in a church, that guy [Dylann Roof], when he wanted to start a race war, the worst thing he could have done is go into an African American church.”

Inside the Bluffton United Methodist Church (undergoing an expansion)
Inside the Bluffton United Methodist Church (currently undergoing an expansion) where Rev. McDonald ministers

On a whole, African American churches tend to be much more forgiving than, for lack of a better term, ‘white’ churches – and it isn’t entirely difficult to understand why, Rev. McDonald says. “African Americans over the last couple of centuries have had to be more forgiving because they’ve had more atrocities [to overcome] – it’s been part of their history.”

Interestingly, however, he acknowledges the difference between how African Americans in Charleston responded compared to those in Ferguson and Baltimore who began rioting after Michael Brown and Freddie Gray were killed at the hands of white police officers. So, how can that be explained?

“Well, we’re getting to a finer point”, he says. “The thing that was first and foremost [in aiding their forgiveness] was because they were believers.”

Rev. McDonald points to the words of a woman preaching during Senator Clementa Pinckney’s funeral who, in an attempt to explain to people who were questioning why they didn’t take to the streets and riot, responded with: “They just don’t know who we hang out with. We hang out with Jesus.”

“And that’s the point right there,” says Rev. McDonald. “When people go through something like they went through in Charleston, I don’t know how you make it through something like that without faith, quite frankly.”

Several Sundays ago, Rev. McDonald preached on what happened in Charleston, noting how the shooter was listening to the wrong “voice” – a term he uses to describe the many influences we are surrounded by in life.

“These people in Charleston,” he says, “they listen to the voice of their Savior.” And their forgiveness “was an extension of who they are. It was like it was just part of them, as if they said ‘of course we’re going to do this, we can do nothing else.’”

The concept of forgiveness, in the face of such a heinous act, can be difficult to accept. Indeed, some people have questioned its merit, arguing that it is the “easy way out” and emboldens people to continue committing egregious crimes.

“That’s a worldly point of view,” Rev. McDonald says. “The world says, ‘If someone slaps me on one cheek, I’m gonna knock your lights out.’ That’s what the world says. My savior says, ‘If you slap me on one cheek, I turn to you the other.’”

He notes, however, that there are always people who will take advantage of that. But, he says, “there are other people who will be transformed by that forgiveness. I know, because I am one of them.”

The Confederate Flag

I happened to interview Rev. McDonald on the day the Confederate Flag came down from the South Carolina statehouse. He explained to me that he was not in favor of the flag, but wasn’t one to staunchly advocate for its removal since he has always been able to see the other side of the issue.

“While some people might say, ‘We’ve seen people use the flag in situations where they were racist,’ I’ve seen them in situations where they were not, so really you can argue that back and forth,” he says.

Witnessing the reaction of the people in Charleston on that fateful day, however, Rev. McDonald was a bit transformed himself: “If those folks in Charleston can respond like that, then the least the rest of us can do is to take the flag down and stick it in a museum.”

He called upon a scriptural reference to further exemplify his point. In the time of Jesus, it was considered sinful for believers to eat meat that pagans had scarified to idols. The Apostle Paul, however, reminded followers that, “In Christ, you have the freedom to eat” whichever meat you choose – with one caveat:

“If in exercising your freedom,” he paraphrased the words of Paul, “you offend the conscience of your brother or sister, then don’t do it.”

Given that we have freedom in our country, we should have the freedom to fly that flag, he says. “But, as a Christian, if this offends my brothers and sisters in Charleston, who can forgive like that, then just take it down.”

He adds: “It was because of the way those people in Charleston responded, more as Christians – I don’t care what color they are – that the flag came down today.”

Faith in Our World Today

While you would never know it by looking at the United Methodist Church in Bluffton where Rev. McDonald ministers – since he became pastor, the church has grown financially, in membership and now physically with an extensive addition currently under construction – Christianity is very much on the decline in America, as a Pew Research Center survey recently confirmed.

“In America, we’re kicking God out of everywhere we can possibly think to get him out of and shaking our fist in his face,” says Rev. McDonald. Part of the problem, he explains, is that we are an overly affluent society, noting one’s natural tendency to attribute their success to their own doing.

“The more affluent I am, the more I think I’m doing on my own. I don’t realize I am still a recipient of God’s grace,” he explains. “People say, ‘If I can do this all on my own, why do I need a God who places demands on me?’”

And God does place demands on us, Rev. McDonald stresses. “In fact, the more you get to know Christ, the more demands he places on your life. He says, ‘Pick up your cross and follow me.’ That’s not an easy thing to do. He says, ‘Deny yourself.’ He doesn’t say go and float around in your excess.”

It’s not that God doesn’t bless, he adds. “He certainly does. But, when we start focusing more on the blessing than the blesser, we start to have all kinds of problems.”

Bluffton United Methodist Church
The Bluffton United Methodist Church

One of the problems facing many Christians today is a society that is quick to dismiss and reprimand believers who, by the very nature of their religion, hold certain beliefs and opinions.

“It’s become harder and harder in this society to be a Christian without being persecuted,” he explains. “So often we think of persecution as prison or death, but there’s emotional persecution, too. And there are the ‘I think you’re an idiot’ or ‘how can you believe that’ comments. All that stuff hurts because, as a Christian, what we are called to do is, emotionally, we are called to open up and be vulnerable.”

He adds: “That’s what Jesus means, or part of what he means, when he says to turn the other cheek.” Sadly, however, “this world will tell you that if you’re vulnerable, you’ll get devoured in two seconds…which, you will.”

Growing in Faith After Charleston

We could all learn something from the people of Charleston and their reaction to the forces of injustice and evil that descended upon their city the night their family members were taken.

How easy it would have been for the community to break out in protests and riots like those we saw in Baltimore and Ferguson. Instead, thousands gathered peacefully and in unity on the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge – just four days after the tragedy – with signs that read, “We Will Rise Above The Hate.”

The ability of the Charlestonians and the affected family members to so readily forgive their perpetrator is not an indication of an apathetic people, nor does it signal the ease with which one is able to forgive. Rather, it is a manifestation of how strong their faith really is – a term Rev. McDonald prefers to distinguish from the notion of “religion.”

Broad Creek Marina Hilton Head
South Carolina Lowcountry

“I like to say ‘people of faith,’” he explains. “I think of the Pharisees as religious people…they had a structure built over what they believe; they put God in a box.” But, when Jesus came along, from outside their neatly arranged box, they had no room for him – and so, they rejected him.

“Faith is much more pliable,” he says. “That doesn’t mean there aren’t absolutes and it doesn’t mean there aren’t anchors, but sometimes the Spirit will lead you in places you really don’t want to go. And if you follow the Spirit, there’s a whole matter of blessings. If you stay where you are, you begin to shrink. If you follow the Spirit, you begin to grow.”

He adds: “It’s a difficult thing to grow.”

It’s also a difficult thing to forgive. The people of the AME Church in Charleston, however, have blazed a path for the world, gracefully reminding us of what can happen when you flourish to the most heavenly heights in your journey of faith.

“Now, I don’t know them. I do not know them at all,” Rev. McDonald says. “But, I imagine their faith had grown to the point where you really couldn’t tell where their life ended and where their faith began.”

*  *  *

Much like forgiveness, we often hear about the power of faith. Its ability to transform and heal. While the concept is familiar, it is its practice that poses a greater, more demanding challenge. But, the people of Charleston are proof that it is not impossible to live it. And to live it is not to blindly surrender to acts of cruelty and injustice.

On the contrary, it is transformative. It is powerful. And it is a reminder to all of us that goodness can, indeed, rise above hate…rise above the forces of evil.

La Vita È Bella – In America, That Is

Statue of LibertyIt can be surprisingly easy to neglect the history and symbolism of July 4th, otherwise known as Independence Day, when surrounded by family and friends, a picnic table full of delicious summer treats and an explosion of red, white and blue fireworks.

The rhythmic nature of our daily routines and habits does not lend itself to a full appreciation of the basic principles and values upon which our country was founded – including freedom, security and lawful order – particularly when we have never encountered an experience that denies us those very things.

It was an unexpected sequence of events in Italy several years ago that led me to this stark realization, where I not only gained a greater understanding of the cultural and societal norms of another country, but developed a newfound appreciation for “all things good” in America and was reminded of how much there is to be thankful for in this great “land of the free, home of the brave.”

When it comes to things like train and bus schedules, hotel chains and post offices, things in America are, generally, consistent, reliable and safe. You know what to expect and are fairly certain that your expectations will, indeed, be met.

It was a different story in Italy.

It began in Florence when my mother and I found ourselves in an escalating argument with a hotel housekeeper (and her partner in crime) while I was trying to explain (in Italian, no less) that we had returned to our room from a morning of sightseeing to find our door not only unlocked, but wide open:

“Siamo tornati e la nostra porta era aperta!”

Trying to convince us that she had just left the room to retrieve a light bulb (the light bulb was working when we left), something wasn’t adding up and after another unsettling feeling that someone had gone through our things, we checked into a new hotel.

While this was certainly the most disconcerting incident we had, daily and comical inconsistencies would contribute to one of our most memorable adventures and heighten our sense of relief – and gratitude – upon returning to the United States.

Take, for instance, something as simple as hotel maps. Having lost a local neighborhood map we had received upon checking into our hotel in Florence, we requested a new one only to find that it did not resemble – in no way, shape or form – the one we had been given the day before. It was not that they had run out of the earlier map, so much as it was that their stack consisted of maps of all different sizes, shapes and types – some of which were not even of the surrounding area.

Similarly, on one particularly hot afternoon, my mother and I stepped into a small convenience store to buy a bottle of water; nothing in the shop had a price tag on it. The next day, the same bottle cost an extra euro. As I would soon come to learn, such discrepancies are characteristic of the “Italian way” – that is, doing (or charging, for that matter) whatever they deem appropriate at that moment.

Even signed shop hours were open to interpretation. Similar to other European countries, Italy has a “riposo” (“rest”, or “siesta”) in the afternoon where shops close for an allotted amount of time. After learning that a TIM (Telecom Italia Mobile) store would reopen at 3pm, I purposely came back at the appointed hour and waited until 3:30pm before giving up. I’d be inclined to say this was simply bad luck, but quickly learned that it was just another aspect of the “Italian way” that I would be reminded of on numerous occasions.

Perhaps my favorite example comes from a bus ride I took from the outskirts of Rome with the intention of ending up on Via del Corso – a mile-long shopping avenue in the historical center of Rome. Four stops into the journey, the bus driver stopped five stops short of where I needed to get off – and where that bus was scheduled to go – threw up his hands and announced that he was “finito” for the day and was not going any further. Laughing, I eventually made my way to the Italian metro station to wait for a train that would show up ten minutes behind schedule.

Anyone familiar with Italian culture likely wouldn’t be surprised by any of these stories. In fact, they are some of the very stereotypes that I learned about as an Italian minor at Holy Cross (this video says it all), and some of the very memories I fondly recall with a knowing smile.

While poking fun at such mishaps and cultural differences is easy to do for anyone traveling outside their homeland – I’m sure many Italians would describe us Americans as “irrispettoso, scortese e odioso” – there is also something to be said for Italy’s ancient history, architecture and art, along with its social, demonstrative, animated people, endless varieties of homemade pasta, scenic landscape and strong family unit; such things have led me to return time and again, keeping my long-held passion for “all things Italian” steadfast.

But, as the saying goes, there is no place like home. Despite my attempt to act, dress and speak like “una signorina italiana”, I left very much an American – one who will forever treasure my time in Italy, but one who has come to treasure even more the safety, security, reliability, order and freedom that define America.

This Fourth of July, I will be grateful for those very things. While we are far from a perfect nation, we have remained a leader in the world for a reason – and I truly am proud to be an American.

See also a collection of photos of the U.S. from “sea to shining sea” and our recipes for a Fourth of July picnic.

Sharing An Adventure On Father’s Day

“Men wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success.”

The above advertisement – largely recognized as one of the most famous in history – was placed in London newspapers in the early 20th century by Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton (1874-1922), the famed polar explorer who led one of the most remarkable expeditions of all time: the 1914 journey to Antarctica that left him and his crew living on floating ice for months on end after the sinking of their ship, Endurance.

best survival books non fictionAs the daughter of one of Shackleton’s biggest fans, I became familiar with the written account of Endurance at a young age – a story that brilliantly captures man’s yearning for adventure (not to mention his will to survive) and serves as a testimony to the pivotal influence of strong leadership in the face of insurmountable odds.

Sharing his own yearning for adventure – or at the very least, yearning for adventure stories – my father has passed along to me many other riveting reads throughout the years, such as Alive by Piers Paul Read and The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz (synopses below).

With a collection spanning everything from lost-at-sea to hiking Mt. Everest, such books have proven to be reliable gifts – for both adventure aficionados and those looking for an enthralling page-turner.

And so, this Father’s Day, consider helping your father “discover” one of the thrilling disaster survival stories below. A mere sampling of an extensive list that we’re forever adding to, we promise these won’t disappoint!

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage (1959)
By Alfred Lansing

Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors (1974)
By Piers Paul Read

Alive tells the story of a team of young rugby players from Uruguay who were headed to Chile in October 1972 when their plane crashed into one of the remotest parts of the Andes Mountains. After a rescue team fails to find them during a short-lived search, 16 of the 45 survivors of the flight are forced to do whatever they can to keep themselves alive in sub-zero temperatures.

The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom (1956)
By Slavomir Rawicz

In 1941, the author and six fellow prisoners of war escaped from a Soviet labor camp in Yakutsk, heading south in an attempt to find freedom. The Long Walk tells the awe-inspiring story of their 18-month-long journey on foot with little resources and food, covering over 3,000 miles through the Gobi Desert, Tibet and the Himalayas before finally reaching freedom in British India.

Adrift: 76 Days Lost at Sea (1986)
By Steve Callahan

Preceding The Perform Storm and In The Heart of The Sea, Adrift chronicles one of the greatest sea adventures of all times, providing a riveting firsthand account by the only man known to have survived for more than a month alone at sea. Drifting for 1,800 miles in an inflatable raft after his boat capsized in the Atlantic Ocean, Callahan fights off sharks, captures birds, repairs raft punctures and collects drinking water from two solar stills in order to survive.

Michael Tougias’ Books

Finally, Michael Tougias, an award winning, best-selling author known for his fast paced writing style and character-driven stories, has written and co-authored 23 books. Below are five of his most exceptional, all of which are truly amazing reads:

Michael Tougias biography

Ten Hours Until Dawn: The True Story of Heroism and Tragedy Aboard the Can Do (2005)

In the midst of the Blizzard of 1978, the tanker Global Hope floundered in Salem Sound off the Massachusetts coast. Ten Hours Until Dawn tells the story of a Captain’s decision to ready a forty-nine-foot steel boat, the Can Do, and enter the maelstrom after learning that a Coast Guard patrol boat succumbed to the ocean’s turbulent forces and failed to reach them.

Fatal Forecast: An Incredible True Tale of Disaster and Survival at Sea (2006)

Fatal Forecast provides a moment-by-moment account of 72 hours at sea in the lives of eight young fisherman who, in 1980, were caught in a furious maelstrom off the coast of Cape Cod that battered their boats with sixty-foot waves and hurricane force winds.

The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue (2009)

In the winter of 1952, during one of the most brutal nor’easters in years, two oil tankers in the Atlantic ocean split in two, leaving dozens of men on board trapped inside the broken halves of the two ships. The Finest Hours tells their story of survival, as the men hurl themselves into the raging sea, fighting off treacherous winter winds and waves.

Overboard!: A True Blue-water Odyssey of Disaster and Survival (2010)

Overboard! recounts the 2005 story of a 5-day voyage on a forty-five-foot-long sailboat from Connecticut across the Gulf Stream to Bermuda that leaves two crewmembers fighting for their lives in a tumultuous sea, while the others attempt to stay aboard a vessel that is slowly being torn apart by the storm. The search and rescue mission proved to be equally dangerous, and was later selected as the Coast Guard’s “search and rescue case of the year.”

A Storm Too Soon: A True Story of Disaster, Survival and an Incredible Rescue (2013)

A 2007 disaster-at-sea that prompted one of the largest and most intense rescues in Coast Guard history, A Storm Too Soon tells the equally riveting story of three men – including a Captain who was suffering from 9 broken ribs – fighting for their lives on a raft 250 miles out to sea in the Gulf Stream, and the ensuing rescue mission that seems nearly impossible. Both men and Coast Guardsmen battle hurricane force winds, eighty-foot waves and a question of how – and whether – they will ever make it out alive.

For more nonfiction adventure and survival book recommendations, please feel free to contact us. You can also share your favorites by leaving a comment below.

See also our post on the perfect Father’s Day song.