Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Happiness is people

"When your aspiration is to lighten up, you begin to have a sense of humor. Your serious state of mind keeps getting popped. In addition to a sense of humor, a basic support for a joyful mind is curiosity, paying attention, taking an interest in the world around you. Happiness is not required, but being curious without a heavy judgmental attitude helps."--Pema Chodron, from Comfortable with Uncertainty

I saw a movie on Sunday night called Wendy and Lucy. It's a very simple story, starting with a girl and her dog on their way to start a better life in Alaska. I read somewhere that Michelle Williams, who plays Wendy, was very good in the role. And she was, very believable, heartbreakingly so. But god, was it a depressing movie.

I had posted last time that I wanted to try to lighten up, to laugh more, maybe see a comedy or read a funny book. Instead, I'm watching depressing indie flick #347 and reading a novel by TC Boyle, The Tortilla Curtain, about the battle between a California town's white, well-to-do population, and the immigrants coming illegally across the border. In Boyle's novel, no one comes out looking like a winner; certainly not the main character, who runs a Mexican off the road and then hands him $20 for his troubles. And not the immigrants--particularly the men--who sometimes prey on their own people. It's an absorbing story but definitely another downer. I came home last night, covered in sweat from my humid walk, sat at the kitchen table across from Mike, and basically just gave him a look of impending doom.

In my search for happiness and a life that's worthwhile, I've tried to reduce my "hooks"--shopping (Paris doesn't count), drinking too much red wine, eating cereal for dinner, trolling for the next "essential" beauty product, reading People magazine. Meanwhile, I'm trying to figure out what it means to be a good person, and how I can spend my time more wisely, open up more, and drop my snap judgments about people and situations. I'm trying to face the world without so much armor on.

But there's so much discouraging news out there. And without the hooks to distract me, the world seems so...harsh. I can see one of the reasons why people have children--or maybe it's just a perk that comes with the job--but if you're busy chasing around a little one or changing a diaper or yelling at your teenager, then you don't have time to think about much else!

I did do one positive thing this weekend. Despite having a nasty cough and cold, I went up to the family cabin in Maine over the weekend so I could see my New York friends Alina and Eric who were coming to stay with us. Originally, I was going to wrap myself up in my cocoon of soft sheets, and go through a box of tissues hacking my lungs out, scaring the cat off the bed, and basically waiting for Sunday night. But then I thought about something I read in Social Intelligence, a pretty good book by Daniel Goleman (despite the complicated brain studies.) He said that what makes people the happiest is relationships with others. That's pretty much it. Yes, you need the basics--shelter, food, clothes, the ability to pay your electric bill and have money left over for dinner and a movie. But once you've hit that baseline of comfort, it's all about being a part of a community, having quality relationships with people. You live longer and are more content if you have a close network of people in your life.

Now between my mucuous-laden cough and my gloomy worldview, I didn't think I'd be very good company for anyone. And the first night we were there, when I was quarantined to the bunkhouse to sleep alone lest I wake everyone up with my coughing and spewing, I wondered if I should have stayed home. At home there weren't ten thousand blood-sucking mosquitoes angling for a piece of me. There might be some old cough medicine in the bathroom closet under the beach towels and more pillows on which I could prop myself up. No one would have to look at me across the dinner table in my sad state. But eventually I fell asleep.

Saturday morning, I woke up late, expecting that everyone had already eaten Mike's delicious whole wheat buttermilk pancakes and were probably deep into the discussion of the day's plan. Surprisingly, though it was after 11, they had waited for me before eating. "Well of course we waited," they said. It was a small thing, but it filled me with gratitude for my thoughtful friends.
And by Saturday afternoon I was starting to feel slightly better--courtesy of Mucinex--and I was allowed to sleep in the big house with everyone else, and we ate Maine lobster and this Russian cucumber, dill, and tomato salad that Alina prepared, and we talked and laughed, even when we were in the midst of a swarm of bugs that surrounded us when we went outside to get in the car. If I had stayed at home, I would have sulked and sweated and thought of all the reasons why the world is a cruel place. But instead I spent time with my friends whom I love. At least I got that one right!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Do Make Me Laugh

"One of the key teachings of Zen is awareness, and laughter can be a tool to reinvigorate alertness to the present moment."--From the article "Lighten Up for Enlightenment" in the August 2009 issue of Ode magazine

Laughter is essential. I have been thinking about that, becoming more aware of when I laugh. Laughter prolongs life and helps people bond. Who doesn't like a person who can make you laugh? I once worked with a guy who used to paper my office door when I wasn't there with funny pictures: "Squiggy" from Laverne and Shirley--hand-drawn hearts around his portrait; John Travolta when he did the awful, unintentionally hilarious follow-up to Saturday Night Fever--Staying Alive; a picture of an innocent looking kitten that he colored an acidic green so it looked demonic, a zombie kitty more likely to play with a corpse than a ball of yarn. Since I worked from 10-6, I would come in later then most of my colleagues, and I would laugh at the discovery of each new picture on my door, one more outrageous than the next. He also had a knack for saying absurd things, and you couldn't help but laugh while you puzzled over what the heck he was talking about. He was a fun and well-liked co-worker.

I'd like to laugh more. People tell me I have a deep, hearty laugh ( surely a nice way of saying "loud".) My mother claims I inherited the laugh from her father, who died before I was born. I would have liked to have heard my grandfather's laugh, or ask him what made him laugh.

It seems that whenever I leave a job and get a farewell card from my colleagues, there is always someone who writes, "I'll miss your infectious laugh." Unfortunately, the person who writes this is usually someone who sat far away from my desk, which makes me blush thinking everyone in the office can hear me. But I also value that comment when I get it, because I usually think of myself as the serious, moody type, courtesy of my Scandinavian roots.

I'm trying to think about what else makes me laugh. People say Will Ferrell movies make them laugh, and I did like Anchorman but didn't laugh that much watching Old School. The British (and sometimes the American) version of The Office makes me smile, in a wincing, teeth clenching sort of way. Those old Airplane and Naked Gun movies do the trick because of the barrage of silly sight gags appearing in the background. My husband makes me laugh--sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. When I ask him how he's enjoying his book and he goes into a long description, punctuated by a knowing chuckle at some author's wittiness, I can't help but laugh--not at the witty author's remarks, but because of how much they've managed to amuse my husband. We often laugh at different things, though we both thought the French movie The Closet was hysterical.

I laugh at my mother's funny-looking animal knick-knacks. I laugh when my friend Tiffany tells me about her ridiculous boss. I need to learn to laugh at myself more (ie. lighten up.)

There are days when I feel that I haven't laughed at all, thinking too much about the state of the world, or the future, or my myriad faults. Not enough laughter, and your risk of future cardiovascular problems increases. Laughter really is good medicine.

What makes you laugh? I'm interested to hear.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Lazy Bones

"Laziness is a human trait. Unfortunately, it inhibits wakeful energy and undermines our confidence and strength. The first kind of laziness, comfort orientation, is based on our tendency to avoid inconvenience. We want to take a rest, to give ourselves a break. But soothing ourselves, lulling ourselves, becomes a habit and we become jaded and lazy. This particular brand of laziness can make us aggressive. We become outraged at inconvenience. Comfort orientation dulls our appreciation of smells and sights and sounds. It also makes us dissatisfied. Somehow we always know in our hearts that pure pleasure is not the route to lasting happiness."--Pema Chodron, from The Places That Scare You

Ever make a list of five things or less that you want to change in your life? Ever put it on the refrigerator, above the Belle Epoque magnets, and the clipped recipes, and that mini "Mile 0" sign you got from Key West that everyone gets in Key West? Did you make an effort to make small changes in your daily routine so you could reach those goals? Did week two come and did you "lose" the list, or slide it to the bottom of the refrigerator where it could easily be knocked off by the cat?

Change is hard, in particular when you're lazy like me. There, I've said it. It's not that I'm always lazy, or that I like being lazy (or even that I dislike it!) It's just a general truth about me. My laziness usually takes the form that Pema describes. I hate being inconvenienced and I like to take breaks. I like lots of time to daydream, read, or sleep. I prefer taking a cab to any other mode of paid transportation, which is a sore point between my husband and I. When I'm out past 9PM, I rationalize to myself that all the drunk and stumbling college kids will be on the train, falling down and throwing up around me. So I hail a cab, sit back, and enjoy being spirited away to my apartment. It's like this little royal treat I give myself sometimes.

Or when I cook. As I've mentioned in other posts, I love to cook, but I'm not so good at the cleaning up part. Somehow I manage to scatter bits of ingredients into a colorful mosaic on my kitchen counter. The dishes in the sink are piled so high that you would think I was preparing a meal for ten, not two. But do I clean up while I go along or afterwards? No. I put away any food that might rot or get swiped by the cat, and then I wander off. When I lived in Queens, I could never get away with this behavior because of the roaches. But in Brookline, the only thing that happens is I wake up in the morning and have to push aside a bunch of dirty pots to get to my coffee grinder. Or my husband does the dishes while I'm still in bed contemplating getting up.

When Mike and I were in Sweden a couple of weeks ago, visiting my relatives on my mother's side, I was amazed by how "together" they all were. Their houses were tastefully decorated (of course, they're Swedish, they know from design!) and not too cluttered. They all had ample living space and seemed very serene, even though most of my cousins have small children running around. House after house that I toured left me aching with envy, while at the same time in awe of my relatives. Not only were they neat and well-organized, but they were also hard-working (one set of cousins built this beautiful green-efficient house in the country.) But not SO hard-working that they seemed stressed. I can only speculate that they know how to manage their time better than I do.

Another blogger spoke about time, and how to use it. He talks about an epiphany he had--inspired by a quote from Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hahn--that all time is actually "me" time, and that only he could determine what he wanted to spend his time on and what he would ignore. Saying that I don't have enough "time" to clean up, or to start a new project, or call a friend, or submit an essay to a magazine is nonsense. Of course I do. My husband likes this quote that I'm going to paraphrase here--everyone has the same 24 hours in a day. If I give up just 1/2 hour of laying around, I can keep the kitchen counter clear. If I cut one hour of TV watching, I can vacuum the apartment and dust off all the bookshelves. If I get up a little earlier in the morning, I could work on an essay to submit to a magazine or do a load of laundry.

There's also of course the Benjamin Franklin quote "A life of leisure and a life of laziness are two things. There will be sleeping enough in the grave." As much as I cling to a life of leisure, I might do well posting "that" on the fridge.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Enough Already

"We live in wondrous times, astoundingly fast times, Blackberry and instant-message times, humankind accomplishing a swelling tidal wave of feats that would have scared Leonardo DaVinci witless.

Almost every day I encounter people, who, like me, do not feel empowered by these abundant times. Some are mildly unsettled; others near to drowning.

Someone says, "The more they talk about being 'connected,' the more isolated I feel."

Author Maggie Jackson claims information overload is crippling our ability to think deeply; what matters is now veiled."--From Islands Apart: A Year on the Edge of Civilization

I've been away from the computer for two weeks. I returned to work to find close to 500 emails, and on my Gmail account, there were hundreds more, though many were email newsletters and store sale announcements, most of which I deleted without reading. I gravitated toward the few personal emails I had received. Those I kept.

I missed writing on this blog, but I didn't miss all the noise of commerce, celebrity gossip, news of wars and murders and abuse, the latest political harangues. I was blissfully disconnected. I didn't even have a cell phone. I heard of Michael Jackson's death on CNN World News, but didn't hear any of the ensuing details. Oh, and I heard from a frenchman that one of our senators ran away to South America to be with his mistress, but I didn't hightail it to the nearest internet cafe to read the latest developments.

I was in Paris for a week in a small apartment near Pigalle, home of the disappointingly-dinky Moulin Rouge and steps away from every food shop one would ever need to live a happy life and die smiling. I wanted to live in the moment, soak it all in, but even living my new, disconnected life, I found my brain racing with too many thoughts, my mind consumed with hungers. I had never been to Paris, and there was so much to take in, so much to sample, look at, experience, purchase. At times I felt like I had to go back to the apartment and close my eyes--that was how much of a sensory overload it was for me. If I was sitting at one cafe enjoying a cafe au lait and a pain du chocolat, I was thinking about what I would be doing next. When I went to one fancy department store and bought a charming little blouse for 55 Euros, I was already thinking about what other pretty clothes awaited me in the next store. If I was eating a Religieuse pastry, I was wondering what the Macarons tasted like. In the Jardin des Tuileries I was happily lounging under the shade, reading a book, my head resting comfortably and surrounded by beauty everywhere I looked. But I found it hard to just stay, to just be. Even in the best possible circumstances, I'm thinking about what's next.

So I was away from the information overload that is the internet, free to experience the real world rather than the virtual one--but I was still struggling with living in the moment because of my habit of wondering what I'd find behind the next corner. I was like a baby who doesn't want to go to sleep because he's afraid he'll miss something. Happiness is contentment, and I wouldn't be content until I had seen and experienced everything the city had to offer--which of course is impossible. Because contentment is about being happy with what you have in front of you, and I just wanted more, more. If I was happy now, would I be even happier at the next cafe, the next sight, the next charming boutique?

When I'm online, I want to be clued into every good site, blog, comment, essay, news posting, etc. that I can get my hands on. But disconnecting from the computer was not enough to control my greed--I also had to disconnect from my "monkey mind" of always wanting more, better, best so I could fully experience the great things that were happening to me in the present. It was incredibly hard to do, but by week two in Sweden I was starting to get it. I was thinking more clearly without all the distracting buzz in the background (no, the only buzz was coming from the biting flies that come out in summer there.) I was recognizing how fleeting my vacation (and time itself) was and so I tried to savor it a bit more. I came back from the trip more relaxed, refreshed, and ready to practice being present here at home.