Mary O'Connor has a mission — to spread more joy in the world. But it is a mission as gentle and unassuming as the Old Lyme resident.
The writer, poet, painter, and nature lover doesn't lecture or insist that there is any one way to live a more joyful life, but instead, she stresses how important it is "for all of us to have our minds open to joy and all the beauty that's out there."
Her newly published book, "Life is Full of Sweet Spots: An Exploration of Joy" is an unusual travel guide. It includes descriptions, listings, and links to physical places worth exploring — from state parks to botanical gardens to art galleries — the "sweet" spots or special spots that O'Connor says, "delight and bring us pleasure."
But the book goes deeper with the author's thoughtful commentary about how anything we do from gardening to stargazing to collecting shells can create emotional wellness and contentment, and hence, a more joyful way of living.
So, where did this discovery of O'Connor's own artistic voice and subsequent journey to joy begin?
"Two things," O'Connor says. "My love of nature and writing. It was really triggered in the '90s when a friend had cancer and I wanted to give her something, but I didn't want to give her the traditional flowers. I wished I were an artist; I would paint her a picture. I wished I was a musician and I'd write her a song. So I decided to write her a symphony of words in verse about the four seasons."
O'Connor recalls her friend's surprise.
"She said, 'Mary, I didn't know you were a poet' and asked me to write her a poem every week," O'Connor says. "It never occurred to me that it was poetry," she says. "I hated poetry as a kid growing up. I found it dry."
And yet, she decided to take a summer course on writing poetry at Wesleyan University and began composing poems, mostly about nature, inspired by the serene, expansive views of the tidal marsh and Long Island Sound outside the light-filled home she built in 1984 and has lived in since.
"I would look out and see all these beautiful things," O'Connor recalls. "I'd write simple little verses and observations. People would say, 'those things are outside my windows, too, but I don't see them the way you see them. You know, there really is a lot of joy out there. You've really captured something here.' And then they would tell me all the places where they found joy."
She started submitting her poems, several of which were published in poetry journals and anthologies, and in 2007 — the year she retired from a long career in public relations writing and marketing — O'Connor published a book of poetry titled "Wings of Dreams of a Wingless Child," and donated all proceeds to Freedom Writers Foundation, which provides empowerment training for educators and students.
As an active community volunteer, this led her to facilitate poetry writing workshops for the women at Niantic's York Correctional Institution.
Her next creative challenge after poetry was painting.
"I've always loved watercolor and wished I could do it," she says. "I realize I'm the one who could make that wish work. I couldn't even draw a stick figure in school and watercolor isn't that easy, but I just decided I could do it."
And so she took a class at Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts and the next thing she knew, she was painting the birds and beautiful scenes outside her windows.
It's about taking the leap, she says.
"Never mind the big leap, just take the little hop to try something new."
Sweeter by the minute
All of these threads of creativity, spirituality and love of nature came together in "Life is Full of Sweet Spots." But O'Connor didn't want the book to be only in her voice. She wanted share the voices of others.
A psychology major in college with a background in journalism, she points out, "Observation and writing so go together. I did a lot of interviewing in my career and decided OK, I'm going to interview people and ask them what do they do within those everyday places in life to uncover joy? I have some stories, but the world is full of all kinds of stories that we can all learn from."
And so O'Connor interwove her narrative with personal reflections of more than 40 people, from as close as Old Lyme to as far as Australia, that she gathered via her own connections and Google searches on the Internet.
O'Connor believes the distinction between joy and happiness is very important.
"There's the short happiness of winning a lottery, eating an ice cream cone. But when the money (and ice cream) is gone, what has it done for your spiritual life? Joy is fed from the internal, from yourself. Happiness is short-term, fed from an external event."
Although O'Connor loves the Internet and how much it's helped her write this book, she notes, "In a world that is so upset, the Internet feeds that. Our minds are so busy. There's so much clutter inside of us. That's why so many people are having to search for joy — why they aren't seeing it. It's because they can't or don't slow down and be still.
"It's reinforced for me, too," she adds. "There are always rough edges in life. There's nothing particularly bad in my life, but, on the other hand, I realized it could be so much fuller if I slowed down and looked.
"Strengthen within you that which will allow you to move forward in a contented way," she suggests. "That's why I'm trying to identify these sweet spots and help other people figure it out."
"Life is Full of Sweet Spots: An Exploration of Joy" by Mary O'Connor is $18.99, softcover available at local bookstores and shops and on her website www.mary-oconnor.com. You can visit her blog at http://lifeisfullofsweetspots.wordpress.com