Saturday, July 27, 2013

What I Learned from a Mass Shooting at My Church

On July 27 of 2008, a lone gunman entered the sanctuary of the church my family and I usually attended. He was carrying a shotgun with the barrel cut off, hidden in a guitar case, and managed to get three shots out before five fathers and grandfathers in the congregation submitted him and took the weapon away from him.

Miracles Happen

Five years ago, on that day, I had irrefutable proof that miracles do happen.

On the weeks and months following the shooting there were multiple mentions of the phrase "line of fire." I didn't understand what it meant in the beginning, thinking that it referred to the people closest to the shooter. What it actually meant was the fan like pattern that the pellets in the shotgun followed in their trajectory, including their reach to the exit door at the back of the sanctuary.

That morning there was no regular service, but a children's play – the culmination of a summer camp that had been held at the church. All the children, who on any other day would have been at the opposite wing of the building in the religious education area, were in the sanctuary, yet not a single child was physically hurt.

There were plenty of children in the "line of fire." Some were sitting on the laps or right next to a parent who was injured, yet not a single pellet reached a child. What are the chances of that?

Miracles happen.

The Meaning of Aftermath

You always hear on the news, after a terrible tragedy is mentioned, the words "and its aftermath." I never really understood what these words meant until this tragedy hit so close to home.

I never knew that the events of one day – mind you, the shooting took less than a minute – could create so far reaching effects. Several people whose health was already compromised, especially the elderly, left their bodies as if in a domino effect in the next few weeks after the event. I remember a friend mentioned how his heart sank when he had to dress up for yet another funeral – the sixth in a period of two weeks.

I saw beautiful couples, who still loved each other, divorce. People who had always been fit, inexplicably gain weight. And of course, an increased incidence of illness and surgeries.

Every so often, we hear of one more person who has become unable to work. There are pains so great we can't event talk about them.

There is this silent anxiety lurking in the depths of our consciousness that may probably only go away when every one of the children who was there that day shows evidence of being a happy and healthy adult.

Evil People Do Exist

Before this happened, whenever I heard in the news that yet one more "nutjob" had done something crazy-evil, like a school shooting, I always assumed the people in question must be crazy themselves. Not so after the unfortunate reading of the gunman's "suicide letter." Here was a person with full use of his capacities, who chose to, day after day, feed his mind and heart with hatred. A person who could even explain his reasons coherently right before he set out to open fire a in a room full of children.

After that, I had to admit that some people who are in full use of their mental capacities simply choose to do evil.

It is Good to Listen to the Inner Voice

I had promised myself that I would take the children to see the play at the church that day, and that we would be, not only on time, but early.

However, that morning things didn't go as planned. My husband was running late and told me to go ahead with the kids and he would meet us there later. When I was picking up the boys' lunchbox that he had prepared, I heard this soft, gentle, loving voice that said, "It is more important to be together as a family, than to be on time."

I listened. We arrived at the parking lot of the church exactly three minutes after the shooting, right after the first police car.

Pay attention to the inner voice.

Bad Memories Can Be Overwritten

The gunman carried his shotgun hidden in a guitar case. It is natural that from then on the sight of a guitar case, or even a guitar, could bring up fear and other negative emotions, especially among the children in the congregation.

A special service was designed to reclaim the guitar case and the guitar as instruments of creation and not of destruction. At the end, the minister walked down the hallway where the shooter set up, playing the guitar and singing with the children. 

That day I learned that bad memories are recordings in a cassette tape, that can be overwritten by simply recording a better memory on top of that one – no need to erase first.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

A Feng Shui Journey to Self-Acceptance 

I recently read a post on Facebook that said that the way parents talk to their children becomes their "inner talk." I agree with this statement.

It has taken me many years of healing therapies to learn to talk to myself in a way that is loving and nourishing -- unlike the way my parents talked to me or about me.

My father was constantly ashamed of me. In his own words, he was ashamed to learn he had had a daughter (not man enough to produce a second son instead), he was ashamed to see that my skin was olive and not the rosy pink of my brother's, and he was ashamed months later when the dark baby hair fell off and was replaced by brown hair -- instead of blonde.

As I grew up, he was ashamed that I was not athletic, and he was ashamed that I got good grades. He was mortified that I was not skinny, and embarrassed because I was shy. My good grades, he said, made my brother look bad, and made him fear that I would never find a husband. 

As I grew older he found more reasons to feel shame, like the acne on my face, or the slightly downwards turn of the corners of my mouth that revealed the native South American ancestry he would have liked to deny.

When I was offered the equivalence of a valedictorian he tried to make me refuse it. He was glaringly absent from my graduation from high school, and didn't even bother to get out of bed the day I graduated as an Architect.

Nothing I did could get good feedback from him. For example, when I was 24, the first short story I wrote won the third prize on a national short story contest, which came with a considerable cash prize. Instead of feeling pride, he felt deep embarrassment over one sentence in the story which he declared as "suggestive."

Throughout my life, I felt like my father had pre-decided to disapprove of me and anything I did. It was almost as if he had decided to dislike me the day he learned of my conception, and from then on stayed true to his purpose. My mother just went along with anything he said.

I don't know what would have become of me if I hadn't also had a grandmother and aunt who did the exact opposite. They adored me and approved of anything I said or did. I was the spark in their lives and I know for a fact that they pre-decided to love me and approve of me on the very day they learned of my existence in the womb. Being a girl was an added bonus for them, since they already had a grandson/nephew, my gender only completed their happiness. I was always sure to be welcomed at their place, never denied a hug, constantly told how wonderful I was and how much they loved me. When a friend who had known me for years met them, she told me, "Now I understand why you turned out so well. God may take something away with one hand, while giving to you with the other hand."

However, it is not the voices of grandparents or aunts and uncles that become our inner voice, but the voice of our parents. I have done a lot of work over these issues over time. Now I am ready to make a quantum leap in my self-acceptance. Will you make one as well?

How does the voice of your parents' criticism show up in your daily life?

How can you create a new script for your inner talk? One that is healthy and rooted on that immeasurable self-worth that comes to you from the simple fact of being a spiritual being?

These are the questions we explore in the Feng Shui Journey for Self Acceptance. To come with me and other like-minded people on this journey, all you have to do is join the Facebook group and commit to making very small changes at home during the next seven weeks. It's free! Click here to go to the Facebook group.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

When Career and Life Mission Don't Match

Our chosen career is what we do for a living – in other words the kind of work that we do in order to get money.

Our life mission is that which we are meant to do – the task or tasks that we came to accomplish in this life time.

As I have written before, when I first started my Feng Shui career I used to believe that the two needed to go together in order for a person to be truly fulfilled. After the financial collapse at the end of 2008, though, I saw that my clients who had more than one skill to "fall back on" where the ones that adapted better to the rapid economic changes. I saw then that there is an inherent value in having a job or a career that allows us to contribute to our society and in exchange get enough income to live in a way that all our needs and at least some of our desires are met.

During the financial collapse I also saw people who were very skilled, and had more than one skill, but who had been "ruined" by their belief in New Age teachings and books that claimed that any person should be able to manifest their ideal job at any time, if they desired it strongly enough and raised their vibration high enough. These people rejected job offers that would have allowed them to make a good living because they were not for work that was aligned with their dream career and/or sense of life mission.  A couple of these people I know ended up being evicted from their homes and having to file for bankruptcy.

I now believe that for most people life mission and career don't come together. Sometimes, they aren't even in the same field of work, and most of the time this is not a problem. However, when a person's career is in opposition to their life mission, I have seen people express deep dissatisfaction and engage in self-sabotaging behavior.

To illustrate this point let me give you two examples:

Client A is a woman who is a healer and a Reiki master and believes in the healing power of the human body and soul. She herself avoids taking medication, and she uses herbal remedies as the first recourse when she or a family member are feeling ill. Client A works for a pharmaceutical company.

Client B is also a woman who is a healer and a Reiki master, and just like Client A, she uses herbs and other natural therapies to tend to her healing needs and those of her loved ones. Client B is a nurse.

Both women would describe their life missions as "Increasing awareness in the larger community about alternative and complementary therapies." Client A is very unhappy. She has a positive attitude and uses a very disciplined spiritual regime to keep from plunging into depression. She manages most of the time, but at a great energetic cost. Hard as she might try, her alternative healing ventures do not succeed. From time to time, her health suffers.

Client B, on the other hand, is very happy and healthy.  Notice that both women work for institutions that promote conventional medical care as their main job, and have healing practices on the side. Moreover, both women feel that conventional medicine is something that is contrary to their life mission. So why is one of the women very unhappy, while the other one is very happy?

Client B noticed a long time ago that what is usually called "health care" is really only "sick care," in the sense that all their treatments are based on drugs, surgery and radiation, to control illnesses that have already manifested in a person's system, while very little effort is made to foster health so that most people would not need "health care." When she was confronted with this realization, she quite her job at a hospital and took some time to try and do healing full time. She did well for a while until – you guessed it – the financial crisis of 2008. Client B took some time off to search her soul and find where she could fit in the apparatus of conventional medical care where she would feel that she was not betraying herself and her life mission. She finally went to work doing hospice care, where she could offer compassionate care to people at the end of their lives, as well as to their loved ones. Thus, she is able to provide for the needs of her family, while staying true to her life mission. Client A, on the other hand, works directly helping people get medication which she believes may be doing more harm than good. (Please notice that I am not making any judgement regarding the effectiveness of conventional medicine or alternative therapies, I am simply presenting the views of the two women in the example.)

So what can Client A do?

1. She can recognize the value of having a job that pays her bills, even if it is not her dream job, and if it is in opposition to her life mission. She can also start actively looking for another job, while continuing to work at her present job. The new job doesn't have to be in alignment with her life mission, but it ought not to be in opposition to it.

2. Client A can also change her Life Mission, or the part of her Life Mission which she describes as promoting alternative and complementary healing techniques. It can be done. Some spiritual healers would make you belief that Life Missions cannot be changed or moved, but that is not true. You can truly let go of a Life Mission – other times people realize that what they thought was their Life Mission was actually a simple belief that something needed to be done and that they should be the ones to do it.

There is no greater value in choosing either option, but she needs to make a choice. A person's soul cannot be divided for a long time without seeing some negative effect. Most people who have actually connected with their true Life Mission or Missions, however, tend to decide to pursue them, because of their own strong desire to go in that direction, more than from a sense of obligation. A sense of obligation, on the other hand, can often be a sign that the perceived "Life Mission" is actually an idea that was picked up from sources other than the person's soul.

Dr. Susana Kronfeld, practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine and a good friend of mine has designed a healing poem to help people re-align with their life mission. You do not have to purchase the poster, just work with the thumbnail below or simply memorize the words. If you feel you benefit from the poem after a few days, consider purchasing the poster, which contains healing frequencies by healer and artist Bill Austin. When we "put our money where our beliefs are" we give more power to our creative powers. :) Click on the Sky Blue for more info on purchasing the poster:

It is likely that the words in this poster don't make a lot of sense to you, but they are very powerful. This poem was designed from a deep knowledge of how the five elements (water, wood, fire, earth and metal) work and how they interact with the three levels of existence: Heaven (thoughts), Earth (physical action), and Humankind (emotions). Art, like poetry, can sometimes achieve amazing transformations in the human soul.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Listening to the Voice of Love - Remembering July 27, 2008

I wrote this shortly after the shooting of July 27, 2008 at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist church. Our family was supposed to be there that morning, but we only made it after the first cop arrived at the scene.

I wrote about how banana pancakes and my husband being tardy saved us from a direct exposure to the horrors of that day. 

There were things I did not talk about back then, which were important factors in this story. Some I didn't mention because things were too tender, others because I wasn't ready to reveal certain aspects of myself. 

The first thing, which no one but my husband and me have known since then, it that the previous Friday we had a horrible fight, and I spent all Saturday without talking to him. I can count in the fingers of one hand the times in our marriage of 18 years when we haven't talked to each other a whole day. This was one of them. That morning I was still not talking to him, but during breakfast I made an internal shift and started communicating with him again, hence the question of whether he wanted to come to the church with us.

My plan was to get up that morning, feed the boys a quick breakfast, and then leave to the church without my husband. My plan was thwarted by his decision to get up earlier and make us a nice breakfast.

The second thing that only a handful of people know, is that I had been beating myself up about not registering my oldest child, then 5, for the musical theater workshop. I knew he wanted to be in it, but I had not done it for purely selfish reasons: I did not feel like driving back and forth for rehearsals. I didn't feel like having to entertain my youngest son, then 2, by myself at church while I waited for the workshop sessions to end. Because of this guilt, I had promised myself that I would take the children to see the show and that we would be there early. I also promised myself that the next year I would register them for the musical theater. (Of course, there was no musical theater workshop the next three years.) If we had been early, as I had planned, the boys and I probably would have been sitting in the line of fire, because that was my favorite side to sit on.

The third thing, which very few people know, is that I didn't just have the thought that staying together as a family was more important than being on time -- I actually heard a soundless, gentle voice inside my head say exactly that: "It is more important to stay together as a family than it is to be on time." I had "heard" this gentle voice before and always had very good results when I listened to it: it once woke me up to suggest that I register at the school of architecture, which I did. This voice once told me to get off a bus (even though I was only halfway to my destination) and walk to the school of architecture "to check things out." When I got there, I found I was about to miss an important deadline for my graduate thesis. This is also the voice that told me one summer morning in Mississippi: "write a book on Feng Shui."

I believe this voice came from the collective made up of my guides and angels, my own high self and my own personal connection to God -- which I call my Magnificent Spiritual High Crew. I hadn't shared this before because I feared that my Unitarian Universalist friends would think less of me or take me less seriously if they knew that I believe in guides and angels and that I listen to their advice. 

Here is what I wrote at the time:

Last Sunday morning my husband made banana pancakes for breakfast. I was sitting there admiring the eating capacity of our two boys, 5 and 2, and how my husband has been increasing the quantities in his recipe over the months to satisfy their morning hunger and still have some to carry in their lunch box to go to church. After breakfast I got the kids and myself ready to go.

Then I saw my husband walk to the bathroom saying he was going to shower. We were already running a little bit late and I was surprised to see he wasn't ready and hadn't even showered yet. He said, "Why don't you go ahead with the boys and I'll meet you there later." I agreed, but when I got to the kitchen to fetch their lunch box with the pancakes I changed my mind, and decided that it was more important for us to be together as a family on a Sunday morning than to be on time. I could as easily have left, annoyed at my husband's tardiness on such a special day as this. You see, I had promised my kids that I would take them to see the play "Annie Jr." that the children of our church had put together during summer camp.

That morning I listened to the voice of love, instead of to the voice of annoyance and I will forever be grateful for it.

We got to the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Church in Knoxville, TN at 10:21, right after the first police car arrived. In fact, the police car passed us on Kingston Pike and I felt the first pang of fear when I saw him turn on the driveway to our church. The second pang came when we saw the officer get out of the car with what looked like a sniper's rifle. Then a couple of young women told us there had been a shooting and while I was trying to convince myself this was probably a quarrel or a burglary, they shouted "people have been shot, you have to leave!"

At that time they didn't know that the perpetrator had been submitted and disarmed by members of the congregation. I am sure you have heard the rest in the news.

Now that the initial shock is over, I am once again reminded that there are many things in life that I cannot control, some over which I don't even have a say, but there are also many things in my life in which I can make a difference. One of these is my home, what I put in it and how I take care of it. The care of my home cannot be separated from the care of my family.

At times like these it is even more important that I create a tranquil and loving atmosphere in our home. We have many friends that were touched by this tragedy in a variety of degrees. It is important that we stay loving and centered ourselves so that we can provide support and comfort where needed. This applies to us adults as well as to our children.Work to make your home into an embrace of love. Let go of things that you don't use, don't like, don't love, and those things that are reminders of bad times. Make sure all the living beings in your home, people, pets and plants are thriving. Fix what can be fixed, hire help for what you cannot do yourself.

Make a plan, budget your time and your resources. Make sure to leave some time every day to recharge your batteries, to do something that nourishes you and that you enjoy. These are the basics of a happy home.And when you need to choose between the voice of love or the voice of fear, anger or annoyance, always choose the voice of love. May you be blessed by Feng Shui!

Monica P. Castaneda

Saturday, July 14, 2012

A Question to Help You Look Into Your Soul - Life Mission

When I teach Feng Shui classes or workshops I use a technique to help participants connect with each other and with their own emotions. This technique first asks a question for people to answer to themselves -- write it down if they wish, then share it with the person sitting next to them. Each person talks for a couple of minutes while the other one listens. When every person in each pair has had a chance to confide, then those who choose to get to share their answers with the group.

One time, back in Iowa, I was teaching a class on the Nine Life Areas in Feng Shui and we were discussing life area #1: Career, Life Mission and Individuality.

To help participants connect with their own inner sense of their life mission, I asked them to ponder this question: "If many years from now you were lying on your death bed, and had the chance to look back at your life, what would be the thing that would hurt the most to know that you didn't do, learn, or accomplish?"

It is a very powerful question. I present this question to you now. Take a few minutes to think about it, if you wish to, write down your answers. Then seek a person whom you trust and know that seeks your highest good, and tell them your answer. If they are open to it, have them do the same exercise.

One of the most interesting answers I heard during that class came from a woman who worked at a bank and was at the time pursuing certification as a Feng Shui consultant. Her answer was that it would hurt tremendously to look back at her life and find out that she didn't dance enough. The reason I find her answer so ineresting is in part that this is something I did not know or expect about her, but also that shortly after she enrolled in ballroom dancing, and later on became a teacher, as well as a Feng Shui consultant. I'd like to think that something shifted inside her that evening as a consequence of pondering this question.

Something else happened that evening. Someone in the class threw the question back at me. I was not prepared for this -- actually I had been avoiding this question for myself. I had to come up with an answer on the spot, and this is what came to me: "I would feel like a failure if I reached the end of my life and was never able to get a handle on my weight, eating and physical strength."

My own answered surprised me because I would have expected that it would include something about Feng Shui or space arrangement, for which I have great passion. It also surprised me because when I was in my twenties I had already been in control of my weight, my food and my strength. I was living in Quito, Ecuador, almost 10,000 ft above sea level, in the middle of the Andes mountains. Most of my exercise was provided by vigorous walking up and down the hilly streets in my city, the reduced oxygen due to the height added to the demand on my lungs and heart. I ate at the Macrobiotics center The Art of Living, where I met with most of my friends for lunch. We shared some of the most amazing natural foods, prepared in the best ways. Sometimes our lunch meetings lasted up to three hours of animated conversation and laughter. The macrobiotics diet, one if its secrets being that there is never a sugar spike, is designed so that there are no sudden insulin dumps in the bloodstream. It is insulin that gives the signal to the body to convert excess sugar into fat.

When I moved to the United States, I lost my community and my challenging walks. I was also exposed to lots of food and non-food ingredients that I had not come across before. For example, I did not know about "cheese products," I only knew real cheese. I would get a sinus infection after every single party I attended the first year. I joked with my husband that I must be allergic to parties. We later found out that I had a sensitivity to the yellow coloring used for yellow cheese. I did not know about high fructose corn syrup and the hidden sugars in most crackers and bread. I did not know that eight ounces of bottled fruit juice (one cup) bought in the United States had four times more grams of sugar than the home made juices I was used to drinking back home.

In short, I gained a lot of weight. For the first time in my life I had to make time for workouts, which I did not enjoy. I found out that even though I had had a handle over weight, food and exercise in my native Ecuador, I had not clue on how to be fit in the United States.

It took over a decade for me to figure out the ins and outs of nutrition in the US. I learned to do "defensive grocery shopping," I started making my own bread and my own juices. It took me a lot longer to find exercise that I actually liked. What I found, also helped me reconnect with the roots of my original culture and helped reduce home-sickness. If you didn't already guess, I am talking about Zumba®. Now I teach Zumba® and the love for exercise only grows.

It was through asking and answering this question though, that I discovered that every aspect of this life area: Career - Life Mission - Individuality could stand alone. Until then I had believed that all three aspects had to be connected for someone to be truly happy. Through my experience of becoming a Zumba® instructor while continuing to grow my Feng Shui business, and since the financial crisis of 2008, I have also seen in my clients the value of having a job, even if it is not their dream job, or even if it is not aligned with their life mission -- indeed, career and life mission can be separate.

In my next blog post I will share with you more about life area #1: Career, Life Mission and Individuality and the role each of its aspects has in our lives.

In the meantime, you can check these resources in the free learning sections of my site:

Love and Blessings,


© 2012 Monica P. Castaneda

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Living a Life of Freedom and Balance

I am a fan of Ted Talks, and now that they are available on Netflix, I try to spend at least a half an hour a day learning something new through these videos.

I recently watched a video on success by Alain de Botton: A Kinder, Gentler Philosophy of Success.

I enjoyed this video very much, and agreed with much of it. At some point, Alain made a comment along the lines of how, whenever we choose something in which we want to succeed, we are at the same time choosing to neglect something else. While I can see truth in this statement, I also have a different perspective, from my practice of Feng Shui.

Feng Shui identifies Nine general Areas of Life:
  1. Career, Life Mission and Individuality
  2. Marriage, Relationships and Partnerships
  3. Health, Family and Community
  4. Wealth, Prosperity and Self Worth
  5. Center of Good Fortune and Gratitude
  6. Spirituality, Helpful People and Travel
  7. Children, Creativity and Fun
  8. Wisdom, Self Knowledge and Calm
  9. Fame, Reputation and Social Life

All of the above Life Areas have to be tended to for a person to be truly happy, prosperous and free. However, not all these life areas have the same importance during all of the stages of our lives.

Moreover, if we dedicated the same amount of energy and time to each of these life areas at any given point in our lives, we would end up with a very unbalanced life. To give you an example, consider life area number 3: Health, Family and Community. This is a life area that you have to tend to every day, and devote at least a few hours every day to prepare/eat wholesome meals, walk or exercise a few times every week, and attend your church, clubs or organizations at least once a month to feel connected to a community. Now compare that to life area number 7: Children, Creativity and Entertainment. This is a life area that depending on the circumstances and stage in your life may take over most of your day (e.g. taking care of a baby or toddler), or just need a couple of hours a week to satisfy your need for fun or entertainment at a movie theater. Of course, ideally, you would be able to make time every day to nurture your creativity and to have fun, but these may not be realistic at certain points in our lives, say, for example, while going through a graduate program or during the first few years of a career.

The dilemma is: how to know how much time and energy need to be devoted every day to each life area in order to live a balanced life?

I don't believe there is an intellectual answer to this question. Whenever we try to give intellectual answers to the bigger questions of life we fall into the temptation of assuming that life can be lived based on recipes, instead of feeling the authenticity of each moment. I believe, however that there is an intuitive answer to this dilemma, an "inner knowing," so to speak.

For this reason, when Florida healer and artist Bill Austin and I were working on the Feng Shui Healing Book Feng Shui Cures for the Life Areas, I asked him to create a piece of his vibrational healing art devoted to this subject. Then I placed his abstract art into the shape of a wheel. The life areas, when used in Feng Shui, are placed in an arrangement that resembles a wheel, called the bagua. I call this wheel, the Wheel of Life Areas. Below you can see an image of the Wheel of Life Areas. If you click on the image you can check out the various products available with this image:
Please visit our CafePress store Feng Shui Cures to explore 6 different products you might get for your home or office that contain this image, to assist you in your sincere intent to live a balanced and happy life.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Are You Truly Free?

Freedom is defined as "the capacity to perform choice, and not being under the domination or control of another; not being bound or enslaved."

I was born in what some call the Third World, in a little country called Ecuador, about the size of the state of Colorado. There, I never experienced anything but freedom.

When I was very young my father was a great admirer of the United States of America and tried to follow their lead. When I was a pre-teen my father started studying Sociology at the University and became enamored with Marxist theory, which came with a deep hatred of the United States.

My perception of the United States came to me, not through my parents beliefs, but by what I saw in movies and TV series, and by what people who had lived in the US told me. As a teen, I thought the USA was full of libertine people, who practiced free sex anywhere (like in "Dynasty") knew nothing of loyalty and murdered each other routinely.

As a young woman, I watched the news and read newspapers and became acquainted with US foreign policy. I couldn't help notice that the US always used freedom as a supporting philosophy of all their actions, but adapted the definition of freedom to the situation. For example, they opposed Castro's government in Cuba based on the fact that it wasn't a democratic government, while vigorously supporting Pinochet in Chile, one of the most vicious dictatorships in the modern history of the planet.

When I first moved to the United States I thought to myself, "This is the country of freedom?" I looked around and all I saw was people working too hard, sometimes two or three jobs, to make ends meet, or to fit a standard of living that they had not chosen themselves, but which had been suggested to them by the media.

I saw people who had the freedom to get credit cards, to then have to pay liberal amounts of interest. I met women who chose to go to work, even though they had the freedom to stay home, because their neighborhoods were desolate during the day and there was no one with whom to interact.

I mostly saw people who were good and lived by a set of decent morals and values – nothing like the people in most US TV series or movies -- caring people, with good intentions, willing and ready to offer help. I was surprised to see so much natural beauty and so many people with such a strong interest in the environment.

I now realize that compared to some countries in Africa and the Middle East, the US is really a haven for freedom. Compared to Latin American countries, I am not so sure. As I write this, I am aware that my perspective comes from living a life of privilege, and not a life of poverty, in South America.

The only freedom I saw in the US that I didn't already have in my native Ecuador, was the freedom to publicly criticize or even make fun of the president of the country without getting in immediate trouble.  But what good is freedom of speech when you don't have time to exercise your freedom of thought?

We need to make time in our busy lives to enjoy our blessings, including our freedom. If we feel we desperately need a vacation, maybe it is time to make some changes to our daily lifestyle.

These are some of the best resources I have found to make significant changes in the way we live, which is a direct result from our daily choices:

• The Simplicity Movement - especially the book Circles of Simplicity by Cecile Andrews, which is basically a manual to simplify your life in order to live your passions, while at the same time building friendships and stronger communities.

• The book Making Room for Life by Randy Frazee.

Our family has made choices that baffle some of the people who know us. I started saving money four years before I got pregnant to get the equipment that would enable me to work from home and stay with the children. We homeschool. My husband left a job managing a Chiropractic practice for a large corporation to open a home based practice, so he can be close to us and not miss the children growing up. In some ways, we have traded income for time, and our wealth, happiness and quality of life have increased.

I invite you to explore ways in which your own life might be simplified. I invite you to live a life that responds to your own values and standards and not to what other people have led you to believe will make you happy.