Author Mylo Schaaf: How to Live with Joie De Vivre, Even When It Feels Like The Whole World Is…

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Author Mylo Schaaf: How to Live with Joie De Vivre, Even When It Feels Like The Whole World Is Pulling You Down

Challenge yourself to an adventure, the size is up to you. It can be a skill you learn, a race for which you must train, a place you long to visit, a journal you want to keep. The criteria: it must be an activity that creates no harm and it must be a close-held dream that brings you delight.

As a part of my series about how to live with Joie De Vivre, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mylo Schaaf.

Mylo Schaaf, author of Blown into Now — Poems for a Journey, trained as a journalist, an editor, and a physician engaged in global, low-resource settings, before she took a left turn into poetry. After a shocking phone call revealed the passing of her 24-year-old son Alex, grief carried Mylo on a 12-year exploration. Poems demanded to be written and became a guide from hopelessness toward joy, describing actions and practices that Mylo wants to share with those who mourn. Alex Lowenstein’s photos of wild and beauty accompany each poem, providing a pause from grief and a glimpse of something we want and cannot name.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I struggle with what to call my “career path,” from journalism to editor for a book press, primary care doctor, addiction medicine specialist, global health physician/student advisor /mentor, bereaved mother, and now on to poet and writer. If I stir all these into a pot, I’d say my career is to learn about suffering and reprieve.

There’s a backstory with an inflection point, which occurred one summer when I was traveling alone through North Africa. As the bus reeled across dust and gravel, I was sweating against my seat and praying my bag hadn’t fallen off the roof rack. I turned to open my window wider, and saw a mother in the seat behind me. She was cradling a child who had discharge pouring from her eyes. The child’s suffering pulled at me and there was nothing I could do. She propelled me toward medical school a decade later.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

After my son died, I was stuck smack in a fog of disbelieving grief, and then a friend told me to watch for secret signs. These are unusual occurrences tied somehow to nature, he explained, and you must be alert. The person you long for is not gone.

I wrote about these occurrences: the lime-green praying mantis watching us leave the funeral home or waiting for me at the most exactly shocking times and places. Before my son passed, I hadn’t seen a praying mantis in the twenty-five years I’ve lived near the Golden Gate.

Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?

I had been asked by a small NGO to assist with the training of village health workers in a remote section of Liberia. Eagerly I agreed, happy to buy a ticket on the same plane out of Germany as my supervisor. Just before the flight, he texted me that he’d been delayed and would arrive one day later with most of the team. I landed in Monrovia on a black and moonless night. I crossed the tarmac, past the guards holding guns. As I approached the immigration line, my sleep-starved brain thought to wonder what I could do next and where could I go, having no other local or NGO contacts (not even their names), no knowledge of the language, no idea on how to get from the airport to a city hotel at night, and no functional internet or communication device in my pocket.

A blond woman stood before me in line. She looked over her shoulder, and burst out, “Are you Mylo Schaaf? You fit the description: little person, brown hair, brown eyes.” My brain tried to faint with relief. But I got control and I hugged that woman. We had our passports stamped, exited into the crowded darkness, and she waved to the escort driver, who carried a sign with her name.

Lesson: When traveling, know the details of the plan.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

People talk these days about achieving success by corralling a proper mentor or two. This could be someone with certain skills, knowledge, power, or contacts. I seem to have missed that message growing up and getting through school. Then three years ago I took an online class from a remarkable poet/novelist who could tell me precisely which word, phrase or verse didn’t work. But her more essential gift was her belief I could write. I could work to fix that poem until beauty spilled out of it. Share a toast with me for Diane Frank, Bluelight Press.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently rated at #18 in the World Happiness Report. Can you share a few reasons why you think the ranking is so low?

That question seems to view the glass as half-empty. I’m surprised that the United States is as high as number 18 on the World Happiness report. I’m not surprised by the 6 key factors that this report identifies, listed in descending importance: GDP per capita gap, differences in social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom, corruption perceptions and generosity.

But if you cloned two people and gave them identical amounts of these 6 factors, what else could account for variations in happiness? This is important because we can control some of these additional “American” factors:

  • Comparing ourselves to others, which is monsterized by the social media. Everyone outstrips me: more amazing friends/body/job/partner/kids/dog/tennis racquet…
  • Rushing toward the next whatever-it-is. We fit as much as possible into each day, eating on the run, skipping sleep. Life blurs, and when you look into the mirror again, a wrinkled face stares back
  • Believing that more means more (stuff –> happiness). This is a very old, well-known problem, but we have trouble implementing a different path and demonstrating it to our children.
  • Forgetting the sweet delight of meaningful action, bringing resources to those in need including our dear earth.

Can you share with our readers your 5 strategies to live with more Joie De Vivre? Can you please give a story or example for each?

  1. Spend time with wild nature
  2. Be with the ones you love.

My intrepid husband and I had been hiking for several hours where the tail of South America falls into the sea. Torres Del Paine, proclaimed the most beautiful place in the world was greeting us with cold rain, snow pellets, shards of sun, and behemoth wind. Gasping up the last sheer ridge, we stepped into a rocky circle of magic. A poem from my book, Blown into Now, describes that moment:

Held by Breath

Suppose you are wandering, not quite lost,

toward a shout of Sun. Cold has vanished

your face and limbs. Before you, the unknown

cirque of rocks, tumbled together

as if by giant troglodytes,

long before prayers became songs.

Snow drapes itself, fresh as an evening

gown, and the pool twinkles back sky, flaunting

a blue you wish you could taste or hear or remember.

Everything around you breathing.

2. When your dear one passes, watch for secret signs.

After a big argument (I won’t say with whom), I hopped into a car and found myself driving past an unknown, unfenced pasture, at the edge of a creek. The burble and murmur drew me closer. I sat on a hard flat rock in the shade, closing my eyes. Could I see clearly again the face of my father, who had passed on some weeks ago? I can’t explain if I heard something or felt something, but when my lids twitched open, I was surrounded. There were hundreds of white butterflies flittering around my head and shoulders. I lost track of time, but for some minutes they greeted me and then disappeared. In other cultures, the white butterfly signifies rebirth or transformation. I still see them frequently and they signify a salute from my father.

3. Consider that “It is possible to make one’s life a perfect work of art.” (Eknath Easwaran)

Like–I would guess–many parents, Dan and I weren’t sure we were doing an OK job. Then we received a letter from our eldest son, who was writing from weekend training session with the National Guard. At this time the US was heavily involved in the Iraq war, and pulling in soldiers from the state reserve units. We had spent uncountable hours trying to convince Alex that he should finish college before enlisting. From the training camp we received a 3-page letter, wherein he explained how perfect had been his childhood, and how much he loved us. Then he quoted that sentence, which we had all learned from a beloved spiritual teacher. He was proud and happy to give back to his country, which had given him so much.

4. Challenge yourself to an adventure, the size is up to you.

It can be a skill you learn, a race for which you must train, a place you long to visit, a journal you want to keep. The criteria: it must be an activity that creates no harm and it must be a close-held dream that brings you delight.

Sometime in the middle of my life, a deep desire to ride a horse (skillfully) bubbled to the surface of my mind. This was not convenient, cheap, or without pain, and I ignored the little voice. But when I found a stable not too far away, I enrolled. Those of you who ride know you can’t make much progress in once-a-week lessons. I persevered for four or five years. One day in the ring we were practicing the canter. Once again I signaled my rented appaloosa, and we took off. For several seconds I actually became part of the horse, like a rib or a hoof or a mane flying free. I didn’t know that this feeling was what I wanted until it happened. I think I cried with happiness.

Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources that most inspired you to live with a thirst for life?

I go by standards, not favorites since taste in all things is quite idiosyncratic. I look for books that are not dark or violent or demeaning. I look for complex characters who battle their flaws and adversities, and sometimes win.

However, I cannot help mentioning “The Detectorists,” a TV series that bewitched and delighted me.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote” that relates to having a Joie De Vivre? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Do the best you can under the circumstances.”

Frederick Schaaf

My father, a man of few words, rarely repeated this quote. It took me some years to see the wisdom. You should stretch to reach the pinocle, but you might not make it due to circumstances, and that is OK. You haven’t failed.

“When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest.” E. Hemmingway.

I often think of this quote. I am lucky. I have the freedom to choose happiness.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I’m doing my best.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

My current project is to help people heal from grief. We have an enormous burden of suffering and loss right now in all parts of our world: war, terrorism, floods, COVID, drought, insufficient food.

Please visit to read my poetry and keep up with all the latest excitement.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

That we begin by respecting each other.

Here’s the rest of the pipe-dream: Respect –> talk –> understanding –> generosity –> an equitable world order without starvation or billionaires.

Thank you for these excellent insights!

Author Mylo Schaaf: How to Live with Joie De Vivre, Even When It Feels Like The Whole World Is… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.