Illustrations by Abby Musial
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To be better is a noble quest, especially now, in 2020, when we seem to be at our most outspoken and most divided. The good news is we can learn from our mistakes and grow from our failures. We can heed the lessons of living through the best of times, the worst of times, and certainly the most interesting of times, to quote both Charles Dickens and an ancient Chinese curse. But how?
Courtney Gale, a computer support analyst at ChristianaCare, tells of a monk in Philadelphia who might offer one possible answer. In his room he keeps a fish tank, into which he occasionally tosses a golf ball for guests to retrieve. When they try, rolling up their sleeves and feeling around aimlessly in the murky water, Gale says the monk quietly grabs their hand. In time, the dirt will settle and the golf ball will appear, as if it were always waiting to be found.
The monk has shown us that activity does not always mean progress. Be still in the chaos and remain quiet amid the noise. It is difficult and uncomfortable, and it goes against our natural inclinations, but there is clarity beyond. And what’s a year like “2020” for, if not to see more clearly?
Of course, there is no one way, no right way, no all-encompassing way to be better. But there are opportunities everywhere, many in our own backyard. Read on to learn just a few.
Editor’s Note: This list was originally published in the January 2020 issue of Delaware Today magazine and updated March 2020. Delaware Today encourages readers to adapt the following suggestions to the current health climate, and to follow guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It’s said that laughter is the best medicine, and for good reason. It releases endorphins, strengthens the immune system, diminishes pain, alleviates stress, brings joy, crosses all demographics and connects us at a time when we all need a laugh. Simply put, it is “good for the soul and provides a relief that can lift your spirits,” says U’Gundi Jacobs Sr. As owner of the newly opened Laff House Comedy Lounge and Event Center in Wilmington, Jacobs hopes to inject more laughter into the state, which hasn’t had a dedicated comedy venue since the Comedy Cabaret closed in the late 1990s. While Delawareans have certainly been laughing since then, we could all use a little more, yes?
In Sussex County, Wellness Laughter Yoga is all the rage, with sessions offered at the Milford Senior Center (Thursdays, 8:40–9:30 a.m., $2 for non-Senior Center members) and at the Lewes Public Library (Friday, 8:40–9:30 a.m., free). Billed as a “unique social health promotion and disease-prevention” program, this prolonged breathing exercise aims to laugh away stress by laughing for no reason at all. “It’s as weird as it sounds,” admits Cicely Everson, who attended the library session with her 11-year-old daughter for the first time last summer. “And yet it’s contagious. Seeing someone else’s happiness makes you happy, and you start laughing for real.” The process, she says, strips away all judgment. Fellow laughter yogis were older, many with visible health problems. “But they were all so welcoming, encouraging and kind,” Everson adds. “Fifteen minutes in, I thought, ‘I get it. I see why people laugh with strangers for an hour.’”
Get comfortable being uncomfortable
Everson’s foray into an unlikely pastime taught her to let go of expectations, to loosen up, and to approach new things with an open mind and open heart. “You won’t lose anything by trying something new,” she says, “and you might just find you enjoy it.” Jasmine Lilly learned the same lesson last year when all of her friends bailed on a Chinese New Year party they had planned to attend. Instead, Lilly went alone and met someone who introduced her to the beauty pageant world, which she entered for the first time in 2019, earning second-runner-up as Ms. Big, Beautiful Woman of Delaware. Through pageants, she met someone else who connected her to art therapy, volunteer opportunities and, finally, to her current job as an AmeriCorps Public Ally. “It takes a risk to try new things,” she admits. “You have to get comfortable being uncomfortable. It’s hard, but it’s ultimately where you find the most growth.” As Everson puts it, “We have to purposely want to be better. We can’t reach that goal without becoming a different person in the process.”
Learn to let go
In 2008, Courtney Gale opened the door to his son’s bedroom and discovered he had no room to move. With toys and games strewn across the floor, Gale realized that “the things you own actually own you.” So he purged—not just the excess of his children’s belongings, but also of his own. Standing before his closet, he held the emerald-green shirt his sister had given him, gauging how much joy it sparked (long before Marie Kondo encouraged millions to do the same). Ultimately, he decided to part with it so it could “be a blessing to someone else.” He couldn’t possibly have known then that he would be the recipient of his own goodwill. Weeks later, a fire ravaged his home and he found himself standing in Goodwill, buying back his green shirt for $3. “The things I tried to hold onto, I lost,” Gale says. “But the one thing I was willing to part with was there when I needed it.”
Reduce your carbon footprint
The earth is running a fever, and as more people on the planet consume more natural resources, the prognosis looks even worse. The most recent United Nations warning gives us 12 years to cut emissions before they have severe, irreversible effects, lending urgency to our collective efforts. As individuals, we can drive less, adopt a more plant-based diet, and, most importantly, make conscious decisions and move toward a zero-waste lifestyle. Fearful that individual action won’t be enough, environmentalists are working to expand the so-called “carbon tax” on big polluters, which they hope will spur innovation and incentivize polluters to find cleaner fuel sources. “Seven billion people won’t all do the right thing,” says Beth Chajes, president of the Newark Citizens Climate Lobby chapter. “But by changing the system, we can make it easier to make the right decisions for the planet and for our public health.”
Eat the rainbow
To feel better is to eat better, and that includes a diet rich in whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats. Megan O’Day, a clinical dietitian for Beebe Healthcare in Lewes and the communications chair for the Delaware Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, has noticed the growing trend toward restrictive diets and instead suggests people “avoid added sugars, increase fiber and eat the rainbow,” making sure your diet is rich in colorful vegetables. She recommends joining a community supported agriculture (CSA) program at a local farm, which delivers fresh seasonal produce weekly or biweekly. But O’Day also recognizes that “not one way of eating will work for everybody.” From people who work nights to those without regular lunch breaks, we all have a range of needs that a registered dietician can address, she says. “As dieticians, our job is to help people find the best way to eat healthy that fits their lifestyle—without stressing them out.”
Stretch, breathe and release
Stress is everywhere. You can see the way we carry it in our bones and back, our posture slumped, the weight of our day dumped into ourselves. Lauren Reid, a yoga instructor at the Hockessin Athletic Club, has even noticed it in herself, how she stands on one foot while washing the dishes, “like I’m constantly waiting to do the next thing.” But yoga, she says, gives you the time and space to reconnect with your mind, body and breath. By linking your breathing with your movements, you’re brought closer to yourself. “We carry other people’s energy with us,” Reid says. “Yoga helps you release what isn’t yours and work on what is.” No time for a yoga class? Find 15 to 20 minutes a day to stretch, advises Farrah Breaux, who teaches yoga, meditation, mindfulness and soul-centered life guidance at the Center for Conscious Healing in Middletown. (The center offers numerous alternative therapies, including teletherapy video counseling, a spiritual medium and acupuncture, plus traditional counseling and more.) Adds Colleen McGinnis, the center’s founder and a licensed clinical psychologist: “As beings of mind, body and spirit, we recognize that deficits in one area will travel to others.” Stretching, according to Breaux, is yoga’s next best thing. “Whether in the morning or at night, before a run, or even on your rest day, take time to touch those toes (or try) and lengthen your spine,” she says. “You will find that your muscles will be more limber, feel more open, and you’ll even see improvement in your golf swing.”
Fix your finances
Start with honesty, says Luke Chapman, financial planner and president of SFS Wealth Management in New Castle. “Ask yourself, ‘Am I where I want to be? Where I thought I would be? Do I feel financially healthy?’” If the answer is no, then the problem is likely cash-flow management. “No one likes to set a budget, and fewer people enjoy tracking and following one,” he says. “Yet financial success starts with awareness.” Bonnie Meszaros, who has taught economics education and personal finance to K-12 students throughout Delaware since 1974, agrees. She points to shocking statistics of people who have not saved for retirement (nearly 1 in 5, according to the most recent Northwestern Mutual study), and encourages parents to make budgeting more than a conversation. “Turn back-to-school shopping into a budgeting exercise,” she suggests. “Help kids see for themselves that if they spend money in one place, they can’t spend it somewhere else.”
Learn self-defense (and kick stress to the curb)
The benefits of training in martial arts are vast and valuable, according to John Sarmousakis, who has been teaching Kenpo at the American Karate Studios in Newark since 1973. He finds that adults often begin lessons to get in shape, relieve stress and learn self-defense. “So, what they truly want is the confidence that comes from feeling fit and having the ability to protect oneself,” he says. “But stress relief is not really achieved by punching and kicking pads (though we do that, and it may temporarily aid in achieving that goal).” More importantly, he adds, martial arts help prevent stress by teaching the physical and mental techniques, like breath control, which allow people to center themselves and refocus their energy in a calm, deliberate way.
List your roles and goals
Kickboxing, like karate, offers more than physical gains. The high-intensity workout strengthens muscles and improves form, says Stephanie Preece, owner of Ignite Fitness in Dover and Rehoboth Beach. But more than that, it enhances self-awareness, promotes discipline and offers boxers—female boxers, in particular—a chance to “refuel.” She says that women who continue daily to give of themselves often don’t have much left to give to themselves. A working mother of three, Preece makes a deliberate effort to “walk the walk” and invest in areas of her life that matter most. That often begins on Sunday mornings, when she sits with a planner and writes down all of her roles—mother, wife, friend, business owner, self—along with the goals she has for each one. It could be 15 extra minutes with her youngest or getting her car washed and vacuumed. “It’s never this mind-blowing thing,” she says. “It’s just something that I consciously work toward to be a little bit better the following week.”
Be more mindful
Distractions abound in our increasingly noisy world, but there are moments of serenity and silence if we seek them. Mindfulness is one such technique to quiet the chatter. Middletown-based counselor Mary Ann Korb’s patients often ask her, “How do you ‘do’ mindfulness?” She tells them it’s more about “being” than “doing.” Mindfulness is the opposite of mindlessness, she says. “When we mindlessly go about our day, we get lost in the content. When we are mindful, we are present in the moments.” One simple way to be better in 2020, Korb suggests, is to be “more present and intentional about our choices, to be mindful without judgment of the experience.” To just be.
Detox from digital devices and commune with nature
Every day we are inundated with information from work, from home, from one another. “We are constantly taking it in, but not finding time to receive, process and release,” says Farrah Breaux, of the Center for Conscious Healing. To detox from technology, she suggests baby steps: Walk by yourself without your electronic devices, gradually working your way up to 24 hours without your phone (or your Netflix account). “When we welcome silence into our lives, we allow ourselves to process information, come to conclusions and release what we no longer need,” she says. “We become better thinkers, creators and listeners, not just for ourselves but for those around us and in our lives.” To replace the buzz of social media feedback, spending time outdoors provides a natural serotonin boost. From the beaches of Sussex County to nearly 16,000 acres of Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, our small state is rich in natural beauty. Embrace the solitude of a self-guided stroll or bicycle ride along one of our scenic trails and pathways (delawaregreenways.org) or take advantage of the many activities and events at our 17 state parks. Visit destateparks.com/programs for dozens of suggestions.
Imagine standing at the edge of a diving board. To submerge yourself in water, you don’t need to jump, you simply need to lean in and allow gravity to take over. The same concept applies to our brain. Just like our egos, always hungry for more—more money, more happiness, more success—our minds, too, thirst for something deeper. “We’re often stuck in a state of active, thinking, choppy chaos,” says Vincent Garone. “But the fourth state of human consciousness (beyond waking, sleeping or dreaming) is a state of deep rest.” To reach it, he says, we must simply practice 20 minutes of transcendental meditation (TM) in the morning, and another 20 in the early evening. Garone offers certified monthly TM classes in North Wilmington. The training ranges from $380 to $960, depending on family income, and entails four consecutive days of 90-minute sessions. The practice itself is “extremely easy,” according to Garone, and involves repeating a mantra that propels an “inward, effortless dive into a quieter level of mind.”
Mingle with your mutt
Animals not only improve our mental health but also soften our hearts, making us kinder and more compassionate. They beckon us outdoors and to exercise, even helping us socialize and connect with others. The Delaware Humane Association (DHA) partners with many restaurants to host “Happy Hours with your dog,” giving two-legged and four-legged Delawareans a chance to meet and mingle. But if you’re more of a cat (or fish or turtle) person, there are still numerous ways to give back to animals in need. “Adopters gain joy from giving a cat or dog its forever home; our foster program gives our most helpless animals a second chance; and our volunteers provide direct love and care to animals during their stay at our shelter,” says Hannah Jones, marketing manager for the DHA.
Set aside time for self-care
According to aesthetician Maria Scholato, “a facial is like going to the dentist or getting an oil change—but for your face.” The owner of Nativis Skincare, Scholato offers a wide range of affordable, high-quality services, from chemical peels to enzyme exfoliation. “People sometimes think this is a luxury, but it’s not,” she says. “You have to take care of your skin.” The same is true for your hair, says Ryan Pepe, owner of Salon De La Warr in Middletown. One way to help strengthen and preserve natural oils is to wash it less. He recommends using a dry shampoo and suggests working with your stylist to know where exactly to spray and how much to use. In fact, Pepe would like to see more collaboration between clients and stylists. Put the blow dryer or flat iron in your own hands to learn the techniques yourself, he says. And while you’re at it, embrace the gray with a demi-permanent color to help blend the colors—“a great option for men, too!”
We track our weight, our steps and our sleep. But do we monitor what we’ve read or learned? Delaware Libraries offers downloadable journals at guides.lib.de.us/unleashinnergenius to do just that—keep track of books we’ve read, jot down concepts and phrases we’ve learned, draw or doodle, record favorite passages and otherwise journal our reading travels. Reading is the most inexpensive, mind-expansive form vacation we can take. It “opens you up to new ideas, fosters curiosity, interconnectedness and independent thought,” says Beth Borene, manager at the Hockessin Library. “Reading deepens empathy, hones concentration and improves vocabulary,” adds Kevin Swed, manager at the Appoquinimink Library. Best of all, every Delawarean can get a free library card and access to a wide range of services.
Make something new with your kids
The Maker Lab at the Route 9 Library in New Castle offers 3D printers, laser cutters, and video- and music-editing equipment—all kinds of tools to make your own creations. Families can use the equipment for free if they bring their own material and first take a scheduled safety orientation class. In the mood to make music instead? The same library offers “Sing Like a Star” karaoke on the third Tuesday of the month (6 p.m., all ages). Further south, in Lewes, you’ll find The Great STEMporium, where science projects, not food, are on the menu. There, a lab assistant takes your order just as a restaurant server would, and the revolving selection of projects consists of things like slime and volcanoes, clocks that run on water instead of a battery, lie detectors and flying saucers. The best part, says owner Cari Miller, is the family interaction. “The cellphones are down, and the wonder and excitement are there between adults and kids,” she says.
Choose your words wisely
We live in an age of constant communication, and our words are always open to interpretation. When Jason Casper’s pro-gun Facebook posts came under fire during his run for the Red Clay School Board presidency, he learned the power of his words. A driver’s education instructor by day, Casper wants his kids to “put the damn phone down.” Looking back on his own experience, he recognizes that he should have perhaps done the same. Today, his social media barometer is to consciously ask: Is it true? Is it hurtful? Is it necessary? If not, then don’t post it. “Anything you say will be used against you in a court of public opinion,” Casper warns. “And anything you say can be interpreted to suit a personal agenda.”
Following Casper’s public castigation, more people began attending school board meetings. Was the change a good one? “Not good,” he emphasizes. “It’s been great.” He ran for a school board seat in 2018 because “nobody else was stepping up,” and he has been encouraged to see more local engagement, especially when the needs in education are so great. “We have to listen to kids,” he says, “and give them the best education, the best resources, counseling, and support.” Sade’ Truiett, who worked as a program director for a Dover high school and was the only black woman in a leadership role, would likely agree. When three students kept knocking on her office door to talk, she began a Saturday morning program that grew to include 60 students and eventually became Girl Talk, a mentorship program for at-risk students in Kent County. “I want to be for these girls what I didn’t have for myself,” she says. “You are your best self when you’re serving others.”
See the good
Through the energy healing practice of Reiki, practitioner Tiffany Fede uses her hands (and sometimes crystals) to transfer negative energy away from our chakras, the innate points of attraction and energy in our body. If it sounds a little “hoo-hoo,” to use Fede’s term, it might just be our reluctance to try new things. But energy is tied deeply to intention, she explains. “What you focus on is what you’ll see more of.” Courtney Gale, who gained a new perspective on life after losing his home in a 2008 fire, echoes this sentiment. “The world is getting better every day,” he says. “The ones who are terrible are just loud.” Divert your energy away from the nasty, he suggests. “See the good in each day, and let it motivate you to be better.”
Published as “Your 2020 Vision” in the January 2020 issue of Delaware Today magazine.