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How Do You Make Your Life Beautiful?

My next store neighbor on 29th street in Manhattan is a woman named Nancy. She is a petite Hispanic woman with a mile wide smile and gorgeous, perfectly straight hair she dyes blonde. Every once in a while she will let it go back to her natural grey, and when she does, she is regal and quite handsome. When it is platinum she looks like a Latina Marilyn Monroe and she is all soft and bright and luminous.

For the first five years or so that I lived on my block, I would see Nancy with her two children, the tall and husky Eduardo and the Jon Secada look-alike Raphael, or Rafi as she called him. There didn’t seem to be a dad, but one day Nancy appeared to look pregnant and a few months later her daughter Nicole was born. Then they got Anthony, a giant rottweiller, who was a great big baby and never wanted Nancy to leave the house.

Nancy was also the super of her building and I would often see her outside, sweeping the sidewalk, taking out the garbage and vacuuming the apartment hallways. I didn’t really know her then, but we nodded when we passed each other. Back then I would only define our relationship as polite.

When I got my first dog Scruffy, I hired a dog walker who lived three doors down, and I got the full scoop on Nancy. The boys weren’t her sons, they were her brothers children. He apparently was in jail, and there was no mother anymore. Nancy took the kids in and raised them as her own. Maria, my dog walker, referred to Nancy as a saint.

Three years ago, Nancy started to garden in front of her building. The apartment she lives in had a large, empty front open vestibule where the garbage bins were held. She had Rafi and Eduardo move the bins up to the sidewalk and slowly, she started filling the space with large clay pots and containers. She planted roses of every imaginable color—radiant purples and pinks and fluorescent reds and yellows. She was out in her “garden,” as I referred to it, every single day as I came home from work, beginning in March and going way into the first frost in November.

Nancy’s garden gave me an opportunity to get to know her—I have a backyard behind my apartment—and know how brutal Manhattan can be to a gardener. I couldn’t help but be amazed and impressed at both her prowess and her easy skill.

Last year I decided to replace some of the containers holding the boxwoods in my garden. Rather than just throw them away or put them out on the street, I figured I would ask Nancy if she wanted them. I went to her building and buzzed. She let me in and for the first time, I got to see where she lived. Nancy lives in a one-room apartment. It doesn’t have a bathroom, she shares a bathroom with the other tenants on her floor. There is no kitchen, just a small area with a tiny fridge and miniature oven. There is a loft bed with a ladder to get you to the top. And there were a few chairs and a small round table, probably no more than 12 inches wide. If there was ever a moment in my life that I felt humbled, this was one. I thought of all the years I have lived alone and complained about closet space or a leaky faucet or ugly kitchen cabinets. I thought of all the times I felt that things weren’t good enough. As I looked at this woman who took care of three children and a giant dog in this tiny room, who had obviously struggled to make it the very best for herself and her family, I was ashamed of my good fortune and what seems to be my never ending quest for household perfection. I asked her one question: where do the boys sleep? She nodded to the floor. I looked at the boys and they could care less. They had a home and a wonderful, extraordinarily generous woman to take care of them and a good meal every night. To them, quite simply, they had it made.

Every year Nancy’s garden gets bigger and more beautiful. On the really hot summer days, some of the tenants in her building come out with chairs and bask in the beauty, others bring makeshift portable bbq’s and boom boxes. I was walking my dogs yesterday in Manhattan’s glorious 85 degree weather and saw that this year Nancy’s now seven year old daughter, Nicole, had brought out an inflatable pool. I complimented Nancy on another spectacular garden. The flowers were glorious, cascading everywhere, the color spellbinding and happy and carefree. When I told her how extraordinary it was, she thanked me and said simply as she splashed at Nicole in her plastic pool: Debbie…this is how I make life beautiful.

So I ask all the dear readers of Speak Up on a seriously beautiful spring day in New York City: how do you make your lives beautiful?

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ARCHIVE ID 2333 FILED UNDER Miscellaneous
PUBLISHED ON Jun.06.2005 BY debbie millman
DesignMaven’s comment is:

Beautiful Editorial, Debbie and Hearfelt.

I'm actually well GROUNDED. Don't take myself seriously. Never knew I was POOR. It still hasn't hit me until this day. Although, I am !!!!

Contemplating the sacrifices my MOTHER made for me to Achieve. I'm a RIVER of TEARS.

GOD First, Second and Last.

I'm Humbled !!!!!!!!!!!!

On Jun.06.2005 at 10:20 AM
gregor’s comment is:

Thank you Debbie,

Wonderful post: I complimented Nancy on another spectacular garden.

I'm sure we all make splendid things, some of us have our own gardens, etc. Seems what's hardest is thanking someone else for the beauty they bring in...

On Jun.06.2005 at 11:09 AM
Armin’s comment is:

As others have said… great post. Now, to the question at hand…

It's hard to answer really. I guess it's in the little things, from the candles you put on a windowsill to the bowls you buy for your cats. One thing we have in our apartment is the "Wall of Fame" where we have over 30 photos clumped together of family and friends. Since we are so far away from them it's nice — maybe not beautiful — to have them there.

It's also hard to answer this question without sounding, I dunno, superficial or frivolous. But I guess it's also about the clothes we wear, the sheets we buy for our bed, the way we comb our hair, even the way we prepare food. I think it's a certain lifestyle that leads to how you make your life beautiful. It's also about your friends, your neighborhood, your work… so many things that all contribute to the beauty of life.

On a less serious note, but somewhat related to this… While Debbie was out and about yesterday in the 80+ degree weather we were at home doing this and that and I suddenly noticed that one of our cats (the really fluffy and big one) was laying underneath the ceiling fan with a rather annoyed look on his face. I asked, what if we cut his hair? Would he be more comfortable? Before we know it, we were in the bathroom with one angry kitty, a pair of scissors and flying hordes of cat hair. Kitty was pissed. I was stressed. Bryony was smiling. After all was calm our cat had a very trendy hairdo (think… shaggy Brad Pitt) who was rather content of having less hair. Plus, we think he will shed less. And he looks awfully cute. All in all, a good experience in making our life, and that of our cat's, more beautiful.

On Jun.06.2005 at 12:22 PM
Rob’s comment is:

Debbie - a great post that hits where it means the most, in the heart.

As for me, this question is almost too easy. I make my life beautiful simply by hanging out with my wife and kids. They are the one thing in life that I feel really keeps me grounded in reality—being a designer sends one off on flights of fancy—and the joy their lives bring to mine is immeasurable. Much like Nancy's garden.

On Jun.06.2005 at 12:26 PM
pnk’s comment is:

I'm with Rob.

My kids especially let me borrow their perspective any time I want it, and I get to see the wonder and beauty of life through them. Watching my daughter just this past weekend, she followed a large black bumblebee as is explored the jasmine in our back yard. Everytime it dropped off a flower and took flight she gasped in amazement.

Like IS beautiful, among all the other things it also is.

On Jun.06.2005 at 12:49 PM
Don Julio’s comment is:

As hard as it sometimes seems in the daily grind, it is ever so important to not lose sight of what really matters most. Life is not about making do, but making a difference. I endeavor to make time rather than make excuses. Easier said than done.

Thanks Debbie for a heartfelt reminder.

On Jun.06.2005 at 01:09 PM
Bryony’s comment is:

In a similar situation as our wall of fame, my nephew’s favorite book is a photo album that his parents made for him with photos of everyone in the family. They update it to keep up with how people grow and change and he will spend hours pointing out: Tia, Oma, Amin, Abuelito… in this manner he is able to have his family close (across many countries) and he is also able to recognize them when they visit.

On the other hand, more than by what I wear or how I style my hair, I strive to make those around me smile. I think if you have a roomful of smiles few things can go wrong (and it is better than finding yourself surrounded by stressed out frowns).

On Jun.06.2005 at 01:15 PM
Tan’s comment is:

The most beautiful spot in our home is the door to the pantry closet. That's where my wife has taped all of the drawings, art projects, writings, and photos that my 6 yr old daughter and 3 yr old son have created. There are several drawn family portraits, and they're all happy and cheerful — thank goodness.

We have a fair bit of art and valuables throughout the house, but nothing's more endearing to our lives than what's on that door.

On Jun.06.2005 at 01:18 PM
Tan’s comment is:

Ok, I also have a less sappy answer than my previous one.

I think organization of your surroundings is a great way to beautify your space. My summer project, of all things, is to reorganize and paint my garage. I know it's stereotypic, but I consider the garage to be my domain and my sanctuary of sorts. It's a place that houses the tools I use to make and fix stuff. Big metal shelves, large hooks to hold tools and ladders, Craftsman benches and drawers with ball-bearing glides, and maybe a small TV.

Yes, that would be beautiful.

On Jun.06.2005 at 01:39 PM
Gregory Nassif St. John’s comment is:

It's such a beautiful story Debbie. And just for the record, it takes life experience to truly embrace the experience you wrote about and even then, not everyone has the depth and selflessness it takes to embrace it. Obviously you've been paying attention.

We spend so much of our lives trying to attain the things we think will make our lives beautiful; some indeed do beautify our lives - most fail to deliver. It's the "surprise' gifts the universe gives us that usually most fulfills our lives. Mine came as a consolation prize to one of the great blessings of my life: a house. After a year of living there I met my neighbor across the street, Peggy. She's 93 soon to be 94. I found out that her husband went off to WWII and he came back a parapallegic and she spent the next nearly 40 years taking care of him. She is person of light and smiles and happiness. She broke her arm on Christmas Eve this year and she's had some real challenges since, but she keeps smiling. I pick up things for her at the grocery when I go every week. When I say, "Peg, what can I do for you?" she says, "Just be my friend." Never was anything easier. And when she told me she had waited for a neighbor for 52 years, let me tell you that has been the greatest gift anybody could have ever given me. That's how I make my life beautiful.

On Jun.06.2005 at 01:55 PM
jenny’s comment is:

What a nice post! Thank you.

At least once a week, I try to visit, call, or send a note to someone who may need a pick-me-up: a friend who's sick or down, an elderly relative or friend. And I'm with Byrony on the smiles!

Seems what's hardest is thanking someone else for the beauty they bring in...

Today, I'm going to make a point of thanking Claire, an elderly woman on our street who goes out and cleans all the detritus off the sidewalks on our block every single day. We have one of the cleanest blocks in the city of San Francisco, which is saying something....

On Jun.06.2005 at 02:01 PM
gregor’s comment is:

and just one more thought on what makes life beautiful:

guiding our children thoughtfully and carefully.

On Jun.06.2005 at 02:42 PM
Danny’s comment is:

I think listening to music is an excellent way to make your life beautiful. Adding a soundtrack to your life by listening to music that suits your mood makes beautiful days more beautiful, and can also make sad days beautiful. And musicians probably inspire me more than any other type of artist.

Now Playing: Stan Getz & the Bill Evans Trio "But Beautiful"

On Jun.06.2005 at 04:07 PM
Michael Surtees’s comment is:

the simple act of walking helps.

On Jun.06.2005 at 05:25 PM
debbie millman’s comment is:

hey speakuper's...thanks for the cool inspiration. one other question--do you seek pleasure in finding things that are beautiful that are more hidden, or less obvious? things that are more on the ugly side, but because of their authenticity or purity they have an inherent beauty in them?

On Jun.06.2005 at 05:46 PM
gregor’s comment is:

beauty is easy to find, if not buy. but making beauty out of the ugly and sad is the challenge. While not always, that's the road I ultimately strive for and it can take the shape of sponsoring a Haitian child for 25.00 a month to feed and educate him, creating a piece of art, or politely asking my neighbor to mow their field (lawn) of overgrown dandelions.

On Jun.06.2005 at 05:53 PM
Bryony’s comment is:


Beauty in the unexpected, though not necessarily hidden. It just might be sitting on your desk on a daily basis.

beg your pardon

quiet mouse

swaying hips

luscious green


take a seat

a prayer

minute musing

fantastic brushstroke

broken laugh


the show begins

On Jun.06.2005 at 06:53 PM
HQ’s comment is:

How wonderful and timely a post, Deb. I was thinking this morning as I watered my garden and cleaned the last vestiges of the fragrant Catalpa flowers from the lawn chairs just how beautiful life was when kept simple. I smiled to myself thinking how lucky I am to be doing what I love and finally working with people that I really like; having a great musical husband and grown sons who I get to see often because they decided to live nearby in our old inner city neighborhood.

For me it is the simple but artful things that make the difference; that I value most. Though I must admit I am quite fond of my Ipod, my bigass computer system and all my books and photo albums. Can't (and won't ever) totally rid myself of my material girl-ness!

On Jun.06.2005 at 07:43 PM
feelicks sockwl jr’s comment is:

nice post, D.

damn, you got me all misty and shit.

Immigrants: thats what makes the City great.

My super was an Alberian mobster who

assaulted yours truly and five other residents before

the Co-op had him removed (but it took 3 years

of litigation.)

Oh how I miss the smell of 85 degrees in the

City when the urine rises up thru your nostrils

like a sweet sweet rose. Its Mmm Mmm good.

On Jun.06.2005 at 08:06 PM
vibranium’s comment is:

I grew up in new york. In the 70s and 80s. It wasn't beautiful. Unless it rained. I was the only person who would charge out INTO the rain. In those days it seemed...transportive (Is that a word?)

Living now in the south, beauty is something only for the hungry. It's rarely at arms length, you have to search for it. It's one of the good things about where I live, it keeps you reaching...

My new (2 mo) daughter is beautiful at 4AM, when the constant breastfeeding is too much for my wife and I take her and hold her and enterain her through bleery eyes...and in the words of my (6 yo) son, who has adopted frog "hunting" as his lifes passion. And who reads bedtime stories to his tadpole.

On Jun.06.2005 at 08:23 PM
ps’s comment is:

nice post debbie.

i like getting rid of stuff.

no clutter feels good.

and of course watering the bamboo is a daily dose of therapy. i figure one more summer of good growth and the ugly apartment building close-by will have disappeared behind our green bamboo wall.

On Jun.06.2005 at 08:26 PM
Tselentis’s comment is:

Walk through the toy store, and look at parents treat their kids to new goodies.

Take your dog for a walk (or your child), and hear the people 'oh' and 'ah' over his/her cuteness. Marvel at how they smile.

Go to the park. Lay down on the grass and take a nap. Wake up refreshed.

Close your eyes and think about a color. See that color. Feel that color.

Do a small favor for somebody, without letting them know you did it.

not intended to be read as a poem

On Jun.06.2005 at 09:59 PM
Steve Mock’s comment is:

Hidden and lessobvious?

I think rusting metal is mighty beautiful. Or peeling paint.

Sometimes I walk along the railroad tracks and glean old rusty spikes, pieces of broken glass, wire. Greeny copper is the best find.

Making something new out of broken things. I like that.

On Jun.06.2005 at 10:12 PM
Kevin Lo’s comment is:

For those who know Montréal:

Strolling through the mile end in the evening, with the unimaginable quality of the light of dusk coming through the alleys, the smell of fresh bagels and italian coffee wafting in the air, and the girl you love wrapped around your arm.

On Jun.06.2005 at 11:11 PM
Unnikrishna Menon Damodaran’s comment is:


A real touching post.

no design. no clients. just beautiful life.

how do you make your lives beautiful?

well we are not really making it. it just happens. Nancy just said it because you have made her life beautiful by complimenting her. the same way she made your life beautiful by thanking you. it was not mere sound of letters. it came from her heart.

now , how i am making it?

by keeping a positive attitude even at hard times. whatever is happening is for your good-that is the Hindu way of looking at life. i am just trying to do that in this hot summer in Saudi Arabia with my family!!

On Jun.07.2005 at 04:31 AM
the pessimist’s comment is:

standing in the sand, looking at the ocean, riding the waves...

On Jun.07.2005 at 12:19 PM
kittenspark’s comment is:

reading marian and debbie on speak up

On Jun.07.2005 at 12:21 PM
kittenspark’s comment is:

oh and design maven too!

On Jun.07.2005 at 12:22 PM
Chris Rugen’s comment is:

More and more it's my wife who makes our life together beautiful with her craft and handywork skills. I spend more time making other people's lives beautiful, at least for now.

I'm fortunate enough to live in an area with a lot of encroaching nature (woods, trees, rivers, streams) close by, so I make my own life beautiful by taking what time I can to notice, appreciate, and walk amongst it.

I also try to wash my dishes, instead of letting them lay around our apartment.

On Jun.07.2005 at 01:48 PM
beto’s comment is:

Tell you what - with all these testimonials, "beautiful" should be considered for a future Word It don't you think?

The visual responses would be highly interesting.

On Jun.07.2005 at 02:09 PM
Pesky Illustrator’s comment is:

Beautiful like:

Coming home to beloved New Orleans after being away for days...

Admiring the stunning color and patterns of our Tabriz carpet as I hunt for the irregular spot of cat puke...

On Jun.07.2005 at 04:51 PM
RJ’s comment is:

Debbie, wow! not only is this post beautiful, but it shows your true beauty as well. You must have a very beautiful personality to see the beauty you saw/found within Nancy and her story! Thank you for posting it! :)

I make my life beautiful by . . . seeing my Mom and 13 year old sister as much as possible . . . even that doesn't seem to be enough though! I love them both sooo dearly and they bring out the best in me and my life, no matter how bad things are for me, I can always turn to them for inspiration, love and encouragment. That truely makes my life more beautiful! Simply thinking about them and our time together makes me happy!

Also, spending time at the beach - I'm a Florida native so the beach is always a retreat - reminds me how beautiful life is. I always remind myself how fortunate I am to have that opportunity, to surf, to be free, to be happy, to be me. That makes my life beautiful. So far away from the city, traffic, honking horns, angry road raged drivers, clients, computers, problems, issues, etc. It's an escape...it is beautiful. I soak up every second of it too! Pure thearpy!

Thanks for the post! Cheers!

Ps - spending time with friends and other family also needs to be noted b/c I cheerish my time with these people deerly! I have lost six close friends in auto accidents, four by DUI's and I always tell my friends and family how much I love them. Tomorrow isn't promised! The time I spend with my loved ones is beautiful!

On Jun.07.2005 at 05:33 PM
DesignMaven’s comment is:


oh and design maven too!

Many, many thanks. I actually didn't think

anybody was paying attention.

David Weinberger, great friend and Kicka... Identity Designer has always informed me people were reading my post. I thought he was joking. Guess he was working his majic reviewing his Qualitative Analysis.

Debbie and Marian are TOPS. Great inspiration to all of us. To include, BYRONY. All three are the Glue that keep Speak Up together.


You're off the HEEZEE for SHEZEE !!!!!!


I just like doing whatever it takes to assist someone to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Often times, listening to people VENT frustration

is better therapy for them as oppossed to talking. On occassion I'm a BIG SPONGE.

Where I live, is on the Waterfront. I love nature seeing a family of Ducks in the water. And the baby Ducks following their mother every step of the way.

I can sit in the park and see the commercial airlines take off from Reagan National Airport. Wonder, when I'm going to get a chance to get my Airline Identity in the HEAVENS.

Definetly serene to see sail boats and Seagulls.

Ultimately, I'm happiest with Family and Friends. Good Conversation, Good Food, and Designer WAR STORIES.

On Jun.07.2005 at 07:45 PM
Casey Hrynkow’s comment is:

do you seek pleasure in finding things that are beautiful that are more hidden, or less obvious? things that are more on the ugly side, but because of their authenticity or purity they have an inherent beauty in them?

It's funny, but when I first moved to Vancouver, the fir trees looked like a solid wall of dull green that was a barrier between me and everything I knew much further east. As time has gone by, I now see a plethora of subtle colour and texture and I delight in every change in the trees as they go from wet to dry and back again. The mist plays around them and changes their colour. The more distant they are, the softer blue they become. I wonder if this is a change in my state of mind or the ways of seeing I have learned as a designer or age, or a little of everything. My point is that something that was, to me, the antithesis of beauty has become a daily delight.

On Jun.08.2005 at 02:44 PM
Ram’s comment is:


Keenly thought provoking post. I am slowly realizing the most beautiful thing in life is the serenity and confidence that comes with one truly knowing who he/she is and having fun with it. I am young and I am going through a process of self realization for the very first time in my life, thanks to my experiences here in NYC, and that is making my life absolutely beautiful. So right now, I guess I should say, getting to know me is what is making my life beautiful. And of course, sitting in a brand management meeting and looking at the people around me talk out of thier ass also make my life very interesting! Perks with my job I guess.



PS. Debbie, I work right across the street from you at the big french agency. May be we should touch base sometime.

On Jun.08.2005 at 05:17 PM
shuang’s comment is:

smile, and the world will smile with you...

On Jun.09.2005 at 08:04 AM
Shahla’s comment is:

This wonderful post calls for a lengthier comment than usual which constitutes a meander.

Aside from the more pleasant experiences of being �Mommy’, better-half ; ) , sister, friend, daughter, seer, designer, consumer, reader and listener — I make my life beautiful through choosing to view it that way.

Looking at it through a viewfinder; a quick browse of our family photo albums, the consensus could be that the shots are well-composed, chronologically ordered (with a 5% margin of error) and mostly �matte finish’. And my daughter wants me to �digitize’ these that cover her lifetime along with the older format non-uniform sized photographs spanning my childhood all the way back to black and whites of my great-grandmother and great grandfathers : )

I try to please.

On looking at what is not generally known as beautiful, try looking back at the garbage wordits and you’ll see what I mean.

I’m reminded of Bryony’s cooking ordeal chopping hot peppers!

By the way, that name wordit by Bryony is truly beautiful.

(I should be double posting)

Please don’t go �digging and poking’ there Armin! Next time it happens Bryony, stay as calm as you possibly can, take deep breaths, gently stroke ever-so-lightly the top and bottom eyelid from the outer edges of the eye towards the nose until the invasive particle moves to the inner corner of the eye. It doesn’t always work and you may need an eye wash and Armin’s Q-tip enhanced dexterity, but the process of trying to relax helps the nasty experience feel less so.

I once saw a funny photograph of a cook sporting a clothespin on his nose to shut out fumes from freshly cut peppers and onions based on the assumption that teary eyes are mainly a result of stimulation to the olfactory system.

Wordit creations can make life beautiful.

Back to address Debbie.

I finally got around to listening to your interview with Michael and I must compliment you and him on the quality of the recording. The interview with Sean and Noreen left me wondering whether Sean was given any tips on how to speak into a microphone? Or was it a hardwiring flaw in his mouthpiece?

On Jun.10.2005 at 11:43 PM
Shahla’s comment is:

Also, will Marian’s �Blackletter feast’ posted about on What’s in Your Eye be viewable on Speak-Up? Either on this thread, as I imagine it qualifies, or there.

On Jun.11.2005 at 09:55 PM
mazzei’s comment is:

We have alot of records we have people over and they play as many songs as they can find in the pile (over 1,000) sometimes people tell a story as to why a ceratin song has significance to them, I love that. Also, we don't have a pets but over the weekend I feel asleep on our couch with the door open and woke up to a pigeon sitting on our chair next to me. Pigeons always get a bad wrap, you know the flying rat thing, but somehow they seem rather "ghost like" I just looked at it and tried to not to jump so it wouldn't get lost in the apartment, after a while he headed for the door...that was pretty beautiful. I like stories an moments as many as I can gather and write about...I like to mail them to people that I know...that's beauty to me.

On Jun.14.2005 at 05:26 PM
Lyndi Parrett’s comment is:

making my life beautiful is surrounding myself with inspiring people, talking to my mother every few days, washing my sheets

so they have that nice crisp feel in the morning, my hummingbirds looking in my windows, a cup of coffee, a smile, a hug. making my life beautiful is just surrounding myself with love.

On Jun.14.2005 at 08:13 PM