NEW YORK — It’s late afternoon on Thursday and hundreds of women in trendy outfits and high heels, many of them in their 20s and 30s, wrap around a city block in Midtown Manhattan, waiting to get into a conference to learn how to breathe, eat right, get more sleep, volunteer and, the hardest task of all, turn off their cellphones. The symposium site, a 93-year-old Moorish temple, somehow seems an appropriate choice of location for learning how to wind down.
As guests spread out through what is now called the New York City Center, taking their seats (priced $299 to $999), Gabriela Olvera, 34, stands out in her black catering outfit, checking coats, briefcases, even a few suitcases. She plays a small part in a large catering operation involving several companies providing food for 1,800 people for an evening and a day — 7,000 bottles of assorted juices, 5,000 bottles of water, 1,500 Luna Bars, 4,500 packs of freshly popped popcorn, 5,000 brownie bites and 240 gallons of coffee and hot water for tea. (There is also a “green room” with 120 highballs at the ready, but no one seems to know where it is.)
Olvera came to the United States at age 18, fleeing her home in Ecuador, she said, because of an abusive husband. She left behind three children, now 14, 16 and 17, whom her father, a cardiologist, and mother have raised.
She hopes to bring her children to the United States someday, but for now every weekday morning she leaves an apartment in the South Bronx that she shares with two roommates to work in Manhattan as a temporary medical assistant. On weekends, she works for the catering company, which brought her to the conference.
“The hard times I’ve had have made me stronger,” she said. “The key to succeed in life, even though I have to work a lot, is to know myself, to meditate, to know what I need for happiness and what others need.”
The conference is called “Thrive.” It is one of several events being put on by Huffington Post President Arianna Huffington, author of a book by the same name, and Mika Brzezinski, co-host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” Over the past year or so, Huffington, 63, has assumed the mantle of a Greek prophet to overworked women (and some men), exhorting them in her book, online, and quite possibly in every elevator she’s in, to do four things: take care of their health, recognize the wisdom they already possess, search for examples of wonder in the world and serve others as what she calls go-givers rather than go-getters.
For conference attendees who had read Huffington’s book, or knew about it, the themes were familiar: Our lives should be more than our jobs.
Speaker after speaker — actress Julianne Moore, journalist Katie Couric, designer Kenneth Cole — used different words and different examples but all said essentially the same things: Americans work around the clock to be a success, wearing exhaustion like a badge of honor. In the process, they miss a lot of important stuff. Success is less about money and more about valuing wisdom and wonder, giving to others and well-being.
Mark Bertolini, chief executive of Aetna, told the audience that he was lucky to be alive. Several years ago, he hit a tree while skiing and broke his neck in five places. He had four surgeries, then tried acupuncture and weight lifting to get back in shape. Ultimately he turned to vini yoga. He was afraid he would never be the man he was before.
“I’ve lost all my stuff. Who am I?” he asked himself. Through yoga, he realized, “who you are never changes.” That was a good thing. But his body changed — back almost to its old self.
Not wanting to keep the magic to himself, he said, he asked his employees to take a stress test and then use varying techniques to reduce the stress. After a period of time, their stress levels were measured again and showed a dramatic drop, and their productivity increased.
Olvera and the rest of the staff — about 50 of them — were, of course, the last to leave the building Thursday, about 10 p.m. Olvera, a Buddhist, said she got home to the Bronx that night and chanted before going to sleep, before starting her routine all over again. She wasn’t one of the women in fancy clothes who paid hundreds of dollars to be there. But there she was, listening, peeking through a nearby door between coat checks to hear what the speakers are saying.
“For me to be in that event was so amazing, that’s the kind of thing I’m looking for,” she said. “We all have different struggles. We all suffer, we all enjoy. We create our own peace.”
Laura Sessions Stepp is a freelance writer.