Kintsugi

On a small table in my front hall, sits a lovely handmade pottery vase. The vase, pleasingly curvaceous, caught my eye and I was reasonably sure it was meant to be mine the very second I saw it. It was glazed in the shades of earth and sage that soothe my soul. Wrapped perfectly around its surface was a large oak leaf, gracefully rendered in natural, unglazed clay. This vase all but spoke my name. However, as is my habit, I didn’t buy it right then in recognition of the fact that I have way more than enough “stuff.” And, because it’s always possible the lovely things-I-see-but-really-don’t-need might be meant for someone else who would appreciate them more. The surest sign, for me, that a lovely thing-I-see-but-really-don’t-need is truly meant for me, is to find it still there when I pass by again at the end of the day. And, sure enough, the lovely oak leaf vase was waiting for me as I was leaving and so I knew, with certainty, this striking one-of-a-kind piece had been meant for me.

A year or two later, I had the unforgettable experience of welcoming to my home my best friend I’d never met. It’s a long story, how I came to be the best of friends with someone I’d never met, but regular readers will know that this was the woman I met online, in the early days of the Internet, while researching my options following my terminal cancer diagnosis. She and I spent hours sharing our thoughts, fears, hopes, and horrible gallows humor first by email, then by instant message and finally by phone. She also generously used her resources to find research and medical journal articles for me. Suffice it to say, I loved her as much as any friend I’ve ever met in person and, because of what we both went through together, I loved her more than most.

Well, you can guess where this is going. My friend, her sister and daughter all came to meet me (and my husband) as they were passing by on a road trip. We had a high old time actually seeing each other for the first time. We laughed uproariously, we cried with joy and relief, and generally went gonzo. When she was leaving, my friend (who may be an even bigger goofball than I am) decided that she would dip me as we hugged goodbye. She’s a pretty good-sized woman, probably six feet tall, but I’m a pretty good-sized chunk of ol’ broad myself. And, while her whim was absolutely hilarious, it became instantaneously clear that she didn’t have a lot of practice with dipping and, in that moment, things went   awry and the lovely little oak leaf vase on the hall table, which I accidentally kicked with all the leverage but none of the grace of a Rockette, was – thankfully – the sole casualty.

My friend was so aghast and apologetic, even though it was also outrageously funny all at the same time. In the end, I glued the vase back together so well you can barely tell it has been broken. Yet, despite its already unique nature, those cracks are what make that vase truly priceless to me now.

But, I wish I’d known then what I know now. Only recently have I read that Asian pottery craftsmen have a tradition of restoring handcrafted pottery (known in its Japanese iteration as “kintsugi,”) which, rather than take the impossible approach of hiding the damage, seeks to find and enhance the beauty in the irreparable harm by re-joining the pieces and filling in the lost fragments with gold or other precious metals. How perfect is that?

Image And, what does it have to do with the Happy LIFE? Well, because of the “happy habits” program we started at Life University, I received a call from a woman who helps organize a support group for grieving parents. She’d learned about The Happy LIFE from a student’s t-shirt advertising the program and asked about it. When she heard the activities included positive journaling, she was interested in having someone speak about the “happy habits” as a way to deal with grief. Even though I’ve experienced the loss of children through miscarriage and the loss of my only grandchild in the same way – along with what appears to have been my only possibility for grandchildren – I was uncertain I’d have anything meaningful to offer these grieving parents. They’d lost children after birth, or after their first few years, or as teenagers, or as adults. I was particularly uncertain because it seemed like a mockery to present the activities of The Happy LIFE as “happy habits” to people who had experienced something as traumatic as the loss of a child.

It was fortunate that I’d never really liked our use of the word “happy” in referring to activities and actions we can take to increase the meaning and satisfaction in our lives. While it’s a catchy concept, happiness is really too transient a state for any of us to expect to be able to hang on to it all the time, especially in the world in which we live or after something as traumatic as losing a child. I can imagine, closing my eyes and recalling my own intense feelings of a different grief, how hollow the word “happy” can sound. Still, making time for the five acts of gratitude and mindfulness that are part of the Happy LIFE has helped me find and build on something deeply fulfilling and meaningful for which I don’t even have a good word. Perhaps it’s resilience. Perhaps it’s optimal performance or authenticity. Or, perhaps it’s simply hope that there really is more good than bad in the world.

All of these thoughts turned out to be the perfect opening to speak with these brave parents. They were generous and receptive and it was an honor to be part of their group that evening. And, in the end, the thought of kintsugi – filling in our broken parts and missing pieces with shining memories of love instead of trying in vain to hide the damage – provided just the right closing for our conversation.

What’s the difference between a parent who suffers the loss of a child and learns to go on and still love life, and a parent who suffers that unspeakable loss and then goes on to lose everything else, too? The possibilities are infinite, of course, but each and every possibility is first directed into a binary stream, at a simple “yes” or “no” junction, and then a new binary stream results from each of those “yesses” and “noes,” and so on, each unto its own new infinity. I know that might sound hippie-dippy or loopy to some, but are you with me so far?

Now, sometimes, as a result of primal grief, a deeply instinctual response to tragedy, most of us don’t have much choice. We simply have to find a way to live, moment to moment. But, sometimes, our responses are purely a matter of choice and when that’s the case, the first binary yes/no stream is created based on “conscious” or “unconscious” decision.

If we want to have a fundamental choice about how we respond, or be able to make a conscious decision that will affect a situation’s outcome, we can prepare ourselves to direct the flow of what happens next and whether we will do harm or provide help. In our grief, there will eventually come a time when we can decide to continue to hurt or begin to heal. We can get better and better at asking ourselves what river of time we want to enter from this point forward. Do we want to create a stream that flows from wonder or one that flows from judgment? Do we want to come to the fork in the river and step into a stream of fear? Or into a stream of hope?

If we direct that flow into a stream of fear, we can be said to be “living in scarcity.” Our thoughts and choices are directing us into a channel that says, “I am going to protect what I have because there won’t be any more.” If we direct that flow into the stream of hope, we can be said to be “living in abundance.” If we can do that, our thoughts and choices are directing us into a channel that says, “I am going share what I have because it could create more of it for everyone involved.” The thing that people who think this way sometimes forget is that both love and hate can be created in abundance. It’s as if they’re stuck on the law of attraction while forgetting (or ignoring) the equal and opposite law of repulsion. Still, a sense of scarcity can create a stream of hatred or one of compassion, but I think only a sense of abundance can create a stream of nurturing love.

Now, clearly some things are always in scarce supply based on their rarity. And some things are temporarily in scarce supply because of the inevitable ebb and flow of nature and its forces, which are far outside our control (no matter how much we want to believe otherwise – just look at the weather, if you don’t believe me). Natural forces are both creative and destructive and we mere mortals can’t always tell the difference from where we sit on the cosmic consciousness food chain.

At first, in the initial loss of grief, we are focused on scarcity. We are only able to focus on the gaping hole that has suddenly been created in our lives. It’s all about what we’ve lost, what we can never have again, and it’s overwhelming. Something fundamentally defining about who we are as a person has been taken away from us. A parent who has lost a child is no longer “a mother of two” or, perhaps with the loss of this child, learns that she will never be a mother at all. Or a husband who has lost a faithful marriage can longer think of himself as “happily married” with a sense of pride and security. And, for a long time, it seems there will never be another moment when it doesn’t hurt.

After a while, it becomes possible for us to begin to notice and appreciate what we still have instead of focusing only on what we’ve lost. We can begin to have a sense of hope that there is life after loss. We begin to see that there are still people and things to love in the world. We begin to experience hope again and it can be said that we are learning to live in abundance. We may even begin to learn that the void created by loss is filled more completely when we’re able to share our pain with others who have suffered in the same way, transforming our loss into compassion for others. We may learn that each new joy we experience in life is sweeter when we’re able to think of a lost child and how much he or she would have enjoyed the experience, too. Or perhaps we are able to discover that the more forgiveness we find within ourselves for those who’ve hurt us, the more we are able to dampen our own capacity to hurt others.

In our loss, our hearts become that broken vase. Through our grief, we begin to mend our broken hearts. We can choose whether we try to mend our broken hearts so that the damage doesn’t show, but there will always be voids created by the missing fragments that are gone forever. Or, we can choose to fully acknowledge our loss, understanding that we are no longer untouched by its sorrow, and fill our broken hearts with that which is precious to us, no matter how much work it takes to discover, mine, and refine it. In the end, and with enough time, we can choose whether our loss is something preserved in its pain and sorrow or whether it is transformed into something beautiful that makes us more compassionate toward others and more aware of each moment as the gift that it is.

 

 

The Prequel to the “Last” Christmas

I’ll start with the punch line:  The doctors were wrong and I’m still alive.

But, they could easily have been right and the terminal diagnosis they gave me finally made me walk the walk of the philosophy that I had embraced in every major aspect of my life but one:  Off and on (but mostly on) ever since I was fifteen, I had smoked.  I could not possibly have done anything more antithetical to the way I lived and approached most of the rest of my life.  Well, except for food but that’s another sad tale, though it does play a part in this one.

So, there I was, minding my own business, trying to see a new doctor about some middle aged menstrual hijinks I was dealing with, when the doc ordered a chest x-ray because I was smoker.  Let’s call that x- ray the first domino in the cascade of medical encounters I was about to experience.  It came back showing a suspicious lung nodule.  The subsequent CT of the suspicious lung nodule came back showing a suspicious kidney mass consistent with renal cell carcinoma.  Put the two together, the kidney mass and the lung tumor now consistent with metastatic disease, and they equal a cancer that is considered incurable.

I was told that I had six to eighteen months to live.

So, I went for a walk.  Fortunately, I had recently begun a campaign to improve my lifestyle habits mainly because smaller fat women were starting to orbit me.  Walking and healthy eating had become my weapons for improving my life.  I knew smoking and overweight were interferences that had prevented me from remaining healthy.  The irony is, even as my new doc was telling me that I had incurable cancer, he was also telling me how healthy I was because my blood work looked fabulous, I had low/normal blood pressure and was completely symptom-free.  How mind bogglingly insane is that?

My understanding of health – an understanding we at Life University call vital health* – was already serving me well because, as a fat smoker with cancer, I understood the fact that I was unhealthy as hell.  On the other hand, the doc’s way of thinking allowed him to tell me I was a dead duck in one breath and how healthy I was in the next.  It was clear to me that, in my doctor’s mind, all my “health” would do for me would be to extend the inevitable for a few months – I had no chance to survive.  At that point, there was little chance for survival in my own mind.  I did know that if I had any chance at all to survive, I would have to remove the outrageous interference from cigarettes.  My understanding of vital health told me that life could find a way but I surely had given death a head start.

Smoking had interfered with the expression of health in my life and now I was determined not to let it interfere with the expression of health in my death.  Vitalism had always told me that death is a natural part of life and has its own wisdom, just as life does.  In order to die a healthy death, I would not be one of those people who pull poison from a cigarette with her dying breath.  I would walk and be as active as my performance status allowed.  I would give my dying body the best foods in their most unprocessed state.  If doing all that allowed me to survive, it would be a gift.  But, I was more motivated by the desire to not interfere with the natural process of dying.  If my body’s life was designed to express health without interference, I trusted that death was designed the same way.

So, facing a terminal cancer diagnosis, I stopped smoking.  I’m told now by many ex-smokers that a terminal disease would be like a ticket to smoke again.  I’m told by current smokers that there is no way they could stop smoking under that kind of stress.  For me, the possibility of dying a healthy death finally congealed the vital health truth I’d always known but had been unable to live.

As a spectacularly slow learner, I salute each and every one of you who are able to live your lives free from self inflicted interference with your innately engendered health.   And to those of you who have come to your health through the side door, welcome.

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*Vital health” is a model of health care that includes modern vitalism or neo-vitalism, which Life University defines as the “…recognition that the universe itself is self-conscious and, as such, continually creates itself as a dynamic system wherein living organisms are self-developing, self-maintaining and self-healing.”

Post Script to the Prequel:  After several weeks, from Thanksgiving to the end of January, I underwent a multitude of doctor visits, tests, scans, consultations, culminating in surgery on February 5.  I had simultaneous thoracotomy (removing a lung tumor) and nephrectomy (removing the cancerous kidney).  Pathology showed that the lung tumor was benign, meaning my kidney cancer was not Stage 4 Renal Cell Carcinoma that had spread to my lung, as the doctors had thought.  It was actually Stage 1b and thankfully still confined to the kidney.  I am starting on my eleventh year in remission – still trying to learn how to be so grateful for my life that I can be grateful for all its lessons, even death.

Post Post Script to the Prequel:  How is this about the Happy LIFE and the year of living positively?  Well, for one thing, after this experience, you’d think I’d be the most grateful person on the planet, wouldn’t you?  And, I believe that I was indeed thankful to God and every person who graced my life during that time.  Ten years later, a simple little program of “happy habits” has made it clear that gratitude cannot only be something that we feel; it must be something that we do.  One of the simplest actions of gratitude is to count our blessings and, by committing to writing down three of them each day, I learned how much richer my life could be.  And, just so you know, I count each person who reads this far as a blessing.  Thank you.

(Note:  This post, aside from the countless postscripts and notes, was adapted – only a little – from one of the “Vitalism Signs” columns I had the great privilege of writing for Today’s Chiropractic Lifestyles, a publication of Life University.)

My Last Christmas

As some of you may know, this holiday season has been a real milestone for me because this is the tenth anniversary of “My Last Christmas,” as in my final Christmas on earth.  Ten years ago, the week before Thanksgiving, on the day before my 45th birthday, I was told that I would not likely live to see another Christmas because I had terminal kidney cancer.  I spent the entire holiday season – and beyond – in doctors’ offices and hospitals, reading medical journals, finding hope, then losing hope after having tests that always seemed to bring worse and worse news.

Now, at this point, let me say, I can hear you thinking.  And what I hear is:  “Well, this is certainly uplifting.  What’s THIS got to do with the Happy LIFE?”  Well, please bear with me just a bit longer because here’s what I hope:  that thinking about what kind of Christmas you’d have if you knew it was going to be your last one, might help make this the best Christmas of your life.

Here are the top ten things I learned from my “last” Christmas:

1)   When you don’t know what else to do, go for a walk.  Or, take a bath.  Depending on how cold it is outside.  And don’t confuse the two because good walking shoes are not waterproof – and the neighbors won’t appreciate seeing you naked

2)   It’s OK to pray for healing but you’d better pray for strength and acceptance, too.  And the simplest act – from cleaning the kitchen to walking around the block – can become a prayer of gratitude for each moment that you have

3)   No matter how hard it is to wait for the right time, and no matter how far away they are, deliver bad news to the people who love you in person

4)   The people you’ve always laughed with before, may – or may not – be good at finding the humor in dying.  And the people you least expect may end up being the most comfort

5)   As hard as it is, dying is a lot harder on your family than it is on you – and they will become a whole lot closer to one another over the prospect of losing you

6)   A final family portrait is a good idea – and giving each other rabbit ears in a photo booth is the best portrait of all

7)   When it comes to spending your time, “who” is far more important than “how”

8)   Happiness really is a choice – and we can make a different choice every second of every day

9)   Christmas is about what’s in your heart, not what’s under the tree

And the biggest thing I learned from being told – ten Christmases ago – that I’d never live to see another Christmas:

10)  Don’t believe every freaking thing you hear.

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Note:  This post is adapted, just a little bit, from the remarks I was asked to give as “Holiday Sunshine” at a local Kiwanis Club (of which I am honored to be a member).  This is something I’ve been thinking about since I realized, around the time of my birthday this year, that it was the tenth anniversary of my “Last” Christmas.  Since this is also the year of “The Happy LIFE” project, it occurred to me that the Happy LIFE isn’t always sunshine and lollipops, either – so this is what came out when I sat down to write my Holiday Sunshine remarks.  And, in the interest of full disclosure and painting the fuller picture of the things I learned during that time, I’ll add this:  according to our daughter, one of the things I learned is how NOT to be such a [jackass] about putting up a Christmas tree.   I’m not fully cured of that one yet, though. 

Applied Happiness

If you were told you could do a few simple things and be happier, what would you do?

A:  Say, “Is that so?  Tell me more?” and be open to giving it a shot?

– Or –

B:  Run like a scalded cat the other way?

It’s an important question.  How you answer it may be the difference between being alive and living.  We’ve seen both answers along the path to the Happy LIFE – a self-propelled journey into creating “happy habits” – that is starting to make the rounds to employees of companies who think like we do at Life University.  Perhaps predictably, their experience has been similar to ours at at LIFE U.

An esteemed colleague (translation:  He’s a VP and way above my pay grade but I like him and he’s always been great to work with), summarized our Happy LIFE implementation like this:  “All, here’s the truth for me.  Remembering to compliment people is a challenge for me.  After sending “gratitudes” through Happy LIFE, I now express my appreciation more. The program will sound kooky to some, but it works in at least one way for everyone.”

I’d have to agree with my esteemed colleague.  But, unlike him, I’d say I’m fairly fluent in the language of affirmation (I have to be in order to balance out all the snarky things I say to get a laugh; in fact, I’d add Sharing Laughter as the sixth love language).  That means that I love to notice things that I can genuinely compliment people about.  For those who’ve read Gary Chapman’s book, “The 5 Love Languages,”* you’ll be familiar with Words of Affirmation as one of the five languages people use to express and receive love (and I’d say the same idea applies to kindness, too).

But, I digress.  What I found was this:  As a result of writing emails expressing appreciation for those who’ve made a real difference in my life, I’ve become less self-conscious about following my natural tendency to be complimentary.  Now, I don’t feel like a complete fool for complimenting even strangers if I happen to notice something I admire about them.  And, best of all, I’m finding that, even if a couple of the people I compliment make cracks or look at me like I’m deranged, most people seem pleased as punch to be complimented and thank me for it, often quite warmly.  It’s like we’ve just given each other gifts that are free and that fit perfectly – gifts we can wear in our hearts.

So, if some ol’ broad passes you on the street and says, “That color is perfect for you; everything you wear should include that color!” just believe her.  You look great.

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*Gary Chapman’s 5 Love Languages are:  1) Words of Affirmation, 2) Acts of Service, 3) Receiving Gives, 4) Quality Time and 5) Physical Touch.

Batman

How, you may well ask, did I recently find myself swept up in the arms of a Batman impersonator in the heart of Times Square?  I assure you, no one could be more surprised than I was.  I would not believe it even now but for the fact that there’s photographic evidence.

As another matter of fact, a lot of interesting and amazing things have been happening to me since I started saying “yes” to life more often.  Don’t get me wrong.  I still say “no” a quite a bit and probably miss out on a lot of fun and opportunity for growth in the process.

I promise you I tried – really, really hard – to say no (and make it stick) to the Batman impersonator’s offer.  But, alas, once he’d managed to get my attention, he was so completely and charmingly sincere in his conviction of the great value afforded by his photo op, he had me – to paraphrase “Jerry McGuire” – past “Hell, no.”

For reasons by which I am increasingly astounded as I reflect on them, I simply could not say “no” to this man.  He overcame my every objection with such earnestness and enthusiasm, telling me exactly what he was offering and how we could work together to make it happen.  He wanted me to be a completely satisfied customer.  He would provide the opportunity for me to be captured on camera in any one – and it was completely my choice – of three dramatic action poses.  Action poses.  Now, there’s an oxymoron for you, if ever there was one.  But, as usual, I digress.

He went on to describe the three poses he provides and the visual merits of each pose.  There was “The Chase,” “The Rescue” and a third one, the name and description of which escapes my middle aged (yeah, “middle,” like I’m going to live to be a hundred and eight) memory.  Following Batman’s pitch, one of my cohorts commented, “Well, I would want the one with the dark background and all the drama.”  Uh oh.  Clearly, Batman had been successful in exploiting at least one chink in our collective armor as women in the big city.  Now, there was one of us to egg on – and even though, at our respective ages, there probably aren’t that many eggs left between us – the next thing I know, he’s overcome every objection, and photos are being taken and I’ve got a choice to make.  Not a “yes” or “no” choice.  I’m a goner now.  It’s just a question of which pose.

Batman is really pushing his best seller, “The Rescue,” in which I will place my left arm around his neck and he will lift me up in his arms, in picture perfect fashion, to capture a beautiful moment in time.

“You cannot be serious,” I say.  “I’m a big ol’ girl and you could die.”

“I got this,” says Batman.  “Just put your arm right here,” he says, gesturing the action he needs me to take without ever touching me.  This guy is good – and admirably respectful in his insistence.

But, I needed reassurance.  “Are you really strong enough to hoist me up in the air?  Let me feel your arm.”  At this point, let me just say that my hand came away convinced that Batman has really been working out to stay at the top of the photo op game.  And, mere moments later, I found myself cleanly lifted off my feet and into the arms of the caped crusading human photo prop.

We did make a small contribution for Batman’s efforts and, the more I think about it, the more I think I should have given him at least a hundred bucks.  Hell, I should have introduced myself, asked for his name, and learned how he came to express his entrepreneurial spirit as an agent of free enterprise on the streets of New Your City – because he was a phenomenon.  He provided me with a stunning demonstration of maintaining unmitigated focus on an objective:  A swift, impulse sale resulting in a completely satisfied customer.  I wish I had recognized in the moment instead of afterward, the quality I’d responded to in this ersatz Batman, rather than wondering as I was walking away, “What the hell was that?  Did I really just let some strange man lift me off my feet, in public, for a photograph?”

Image

As I headed back to the hotel, I began to realize the gift I’d just been given in return for a small sum.  What I’d just experienced was something so special that you don’t get to see it just any old time.  I’d seen unadulterated wholeheartedness.  Because of this Batman’s sincerest efforts, in one swift move, I had been transported from a person who often says “no” to novel experiences to a person who said “yes” to this one.  In that instant, I became someone who appreciated the efforts of a street performer who’s perfected the art of wholeheartedness in his work.

So, what did my brush with this fellow’s wholeheartedness cost?

Five bucks.

What was the value of being so thoroughly convinced to step light years outside of my comfort zone?

Priceless.

Why?  Because it enabled me to say “yes” to something I never would have imagined in my wildest dreams was possible.  And, now, because of that, what else might be possible?

It’s a Catastrophe

I’m still shocked at how much simple habits of gratitude are turning my life upside down.  Before taking on the Happy LIFE, I don’t think I was particularly aware, extravert that I am, of my internal dialog.  I sure didn’t notice how negative – and how completely automatic – it can be.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if self-consciousness were the same thing as self-awareness?  If it were, I believe I might be sufficiently enlightened to ascend bodily into eternity.  As it is, I’m just embarrassed a lot.

Speaking of embarrassment, there’s the matter of self-disclosure, otherwise known as throwing your own self under the bus.  So, speaking to you from the underbelly of a Greyhound, I’m disclosing that I just caught myself in an amazingly negative thought process.  I was speaking with the customer service department of the Reader’s Digest, to which my mother has a lifetime subscription.  I called at a time of day that I assumed, right off the bat, would have a negative outcome.  I was so sure that that I would not be able to speak with a real human that I was shocked spitless when a pleasant-sounding young woman named Courtney answered the phone on the third ring.

Then, she asked me for my account number.

“Oh, great, I got someone on the phone but now it’s going to fall apart,” I automatically and immediately told myself despite the pleasant surprise of a live person that I’d experienced just seconds before.

“I don’t have the number,” I told Courtney, “because my mom hasn’t been getting the magazine at her new place and I don’t have any old issues on hand at my place.”

“No problem,” said Courtney. “What’s her name?”

No problem?  Well, this response certainly didn’t fit my negative expectations.  I told Courtney Mama’s name and she looked it up.

“I’m sorry.  I don’t find that name.”

A little spark of fear had flashed earlier and was going off again.  Courtney, still trying to be helpful, says, “What other name could it be under?”

“None, really,” I said, and I was thinking to myself, Mama subscribed to that magazine when she went to work at seventeen and I know she received it under her married name my whole life, in excess of fifty years.  It was starting to seem really weird at that point.  I felt a little gust of worry, fanning another little spark of fear catch the tinder of doubt and begin to burn.  What if Mama’s been targeted for some sort of identity theft?  What if her accounts have been changed to some other address?

Suffice it to say that, in the end, it wasn’t a problem with her account.  And, please allow me to reiterate that, prior to the Happy LIFE, I truly don’t think I would have been aware of all the dire things I was speculating about what could have gone wrong just because my mother wasn’t receiving a magazine.  I suppose I could choose to be comforted by the fact this negative thought process is so common it has a name.  I was “catastrophizing.”  I was stringing together every worst-case scenario I could think of and, because I’m somewhat creative, I could think of a lot of catastrophes that an AWOL magazine could portend.

I’m grateful that I revisited my catastrophizing in writing, too, because it took me along another path where much sweeter thoughts have occurred to me.  I’ve thought about how the Reader’s Digest has followed Mama and, in a way, served as a chronicle of her admirable passage through the world, from dirt farm to comfortable retirement.  It has also served as the source of her (and my own) vocabulary; it has helped shape her worldview; it has served as an object lesson and example of a world where we pay increasingly more for goods and services that offer increasingly less value, where almost everything in our lives is “commoditized” and we can’t be sure what to believe and who’s selling what.

I know that a some intellectual or “now a go go” contemporary types find magazines like Reader’s Digest to be laughable artifacts of a time that was naïve at best and socially repressive at worst.  Still, for me, it will always serve as a symbol of a generation that considered the greater good, who thought of others before themselves, and knew what it meant to sacrifice and delay gratification for future rewards.  I appreciate that, these days, we have a more acceptable outlook on many things that would have been taboo in the Reader’s Digest of my mother’s heyday and my own childhood.  I want to believe that it – and other chronicles of my mother’s generation – will always carry their spirit and provide a voice of reason and decency in a word that increasingly lacks both.

Acceptance

I believe that I’ve mourned the loss of our first (and last) grandchild, who did not survive past the first half of his life, on the way to his birth.  I was only able to meet the idea of him before he was gone and still, he changed my life.  Through him, I became aware of – and have opened up to – this phase of my life as the third (and last) chapter.  It’s been difficult – though it’s been made more bearable by having to accept the loss of my own ability to have children back in those days.  Blessedly, that loss came after receiving the gift of my first (and last) child.  I still find occasion to cry over the loss of our grandchild but I feel as though I have managed to grieve his passing, not as a glancing blow of loss but as a lingering gift of spirit.

What I have only recently begun to understand is that I have also been grieving another loss, the loss of the possibility of grandchildren.  Awareness of that loss came as a second wave, keenly felt when hearing about new arrivals in friends’ and family’s lives.  That stab of self-centered grief was tinged with a little longing and, no matter how quickly it might have passed, the longing was always there.  And, I suppose, there will always be reminders of it, slipping in unexpectedly with a surprising stab of lingering loss.

Recently, though, I’ve been making gratitude something of a habit and things have begun to change.  I find myself experiencing the babies and children I encounter with the most surprising mix of feelings, whether I know them and their families or not.  I’m discovering as I write this that tears still find their way to my eyes when I think of kids in the world and the hope and dreams they represent.  What I’m especially surprised to feel is deep gratitude to all the children we’ve seen out and about who’ve waved and smiled back, and to all the parents who’ve stopped to chat.  I’m even grateful  to our little dog because she loves children and children love her; she is a kid magnet.

The highlight of my holiday weekend was having three children literally squeal with delight at seeing our dog and, because they had great parents, approach her excitedly but with appropriate care and respect for her space.  It was a clear display what happens when children experience loving and effective parenting.  It was a snapshot of kids whose parents were showing them exactly the kind of gentle – but definite – attention the children were giving our little dog.  And, in that moment, I was struck by a sense of acceptance, though still inescapably tinged with sadness.  None of the children I ever encounter will be my own grandchild but, in some unfathomable way – through gratitude – they are all are.

Blue Moon

I’m fond of saying, “People who are good at math shouldn’t be allowed to teach it.”  If that strikes you, like lightning, as the absolute truth, this metaphor’s for you.  If not, you may just have to bear with me a minute.  Here’s what I think I’m trying to say:  People who are good at math, those to whom it comes easily, are simply not equipped to communicate mathematical processes to those of us who don’t speak number.  If the English language made any sense, the word “innumerate” would not mean “uncountable;” it would be the opposite of “illiterate,” which would not mean “unable to read and write;” it would mean, “literature deficient.”  Oh!  Maybe we should just coin the word “illiteraturate.”  But, I digress (shocking, I know).

So, in effect, what I’m saying is this:  the “illiteraturate” shouldn’t be allowed to teach the “innumerate.”

In fact, as an adult, I had the good fortune to re-enter college under the wondrous tutelage of an Algebra teacher who chose to teach math precisely because she wasn’t good at it.  She wanted to spare other “innumerate” students from the pain of being taught by math whizzes.  The math whiz approach is similar to trying to teach your child to drive by thoroughly taking them through the intricacies of disassembling an internal combustion engine.  In the same way, you probably shouldn’t ask people who “speak happy” to explore and communicate the effects of speaking happy.   If you really want to observe the effect of taking happy actions on happiness, you might get more bang for the buck if you have people who aren’t that great at being happy to test drive activities meant to enhance happiness.  If that’s true, I have to admit that I was a great choice to test drive that effects of the Happy LIFE’s “happy habits.”

Now, don’t get me wrong.  Overall, I’d have to say I break even on the happy/sad dichotomy.  But, I’m pretty sure plenty of people break way more toward the happy side than I do.  Sure, I know how to have fun – a lot of it – but I have sometimes found myself serving in the ranks of the unhappy.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I once served a two-year hitch under the command of Major Depression.

So, it’s taken me by surprise that that The Happy LIFE is having what seems to be a profound effect on me.  The “Gratitudes” phase, which was the last of the five “happy habits” of the Happy LIFE has been, interestingly, the first one that I’ve carried on past the first 21 days – and I think it may be changing my life.  In all honesty, when the Happy LIFE started, the naïve, idealistic part of me (which is inexplicably still hanging on after more than a half-century) was open to giving all the happy activities a try.  What the hell, right?  Yes, I have a fairly large sappy sucker side.  But, then the “dark side” popped up immediately.  That (hopefully smaller) dark part of me kept whispering – a little snidely, I must admit, “Oh, good Lord, this is just a load of happy horse piles.”

And, that dark little side might have won out because it can be very persistent, telling  me I’ll look foolish, that people will think I’m a dope for buying into it, that it’s a waste of time.  If I hadn’t been asked to take on the Happy LIFE as a work project, I’m not sure I ever would have gone this far with it – and I would never have learned that, with work, it’s possible to recognize and overcome our inherent negativity bias by actively focusing on and retaining the good things in life.

The other night was the blue moon and it was the end of a remarkable day in my Happy LIFE, presenting me with gifts that may indeed come only once in the proverbial blue moon.  I’d had an inexpressibly excellent dinner with friends and as, things were winding down, I happened to catch movement from fellow diners across the room, who were also getting ready to leave.  It was a young couple and their small daughter, about two years old, was standing beside the booth and waiting patiently as her parents gathered their things.  Our eyes happened to meet and, because it’s my habit establish eye contact and smile at people when that happens, that’s what I did.  Except, with kids, I tend to give it a little extra, making solid eye contact to say, “I see you.  I know you’re in there, the seed of everything you’ll ever be, smart as anything and able to understand and communicate more than we adults can usually believe or handle.”  This little girl got it, even from several feet away, smiled around her “passie,” looked pointedly down at her feet, and back up at me, clearly “saying” how much she liked her shoes.  I gave her the thumbs up, nodded, and mouthed, “Yes, they are very cool shoes.”  The little girl went stock still, as if in surprise, but only for an instant.  Then, she looked down at her shoes again, looked back up at me as if to be sure we’d really just had a moment and, when I again gave her the thumbs up and mouthed “Cool shoes, very cool,” her smile got even bigger.  She even swayed from side to side a little, in that way only small children can do when they are bursting with pride in their abilities.

And, as her parents passed to leave, I said, “That’s quite a little girl you have.  She was so patient as you got ready to leave – and she’s very proud of her shoes.”  Her mother, who was thanking me in passing, stopped in her tracks and started laughing, saying, “Oh, wow.  She LOVES shoes!  And she really loves that pair.”  I said, “Well, she managed to tell me that without a word, across a room.  She’s very special.  You’re doing a great job.  Keep up the good work.”  The mom laughed again and said, “Well, as a matter of fact, we’ve got another one on the way.”   I congratulated her and told her that I had no doubt the next one would be just as special.

Before the Happy LIFE, I’m not sure I could have “heard” that child so clearly or had such a delightful interaction with complete strangers.  Without the Happy LIFE, I don’t think I would have been able to believe what an even more wonderful world I can see.

Critically Happy

If we’re going to have a chance of flourishing as a society, we’re going to have to agree that critical thinking is, well, critical.  As we move into the Babel of perception that the Internet is creating – with its Google “search bubbles” keeping the information we see narrowly confined to the context of information we’ve searched for in the past – we are going to come unmoored from a shared reality.  I just read (but may not believe) that more people are convinced the conspiracists’ versions of the JFK and Bin Laden assassinations and the 9/11 attacks are real than believe the mainstream media’s versions.  In fact, one person of my Facebook acquaintance recently seemed to have posted that information as “proof” of a bit of clearly manufactured news he’d posted as factual and then vehemently defended after having been roundly burned by those pointing out the easily discerned falsity of his post. 

If we lose our ability to think critically at the same time we’re all being enclosed in bubbles made only of what we want to believe or already know – in conjunction with special effects technology that allows the complete shattering of the notion that seeing is believing – we may not be able to believe even the evidence of our own eyes. 

Somewhere between the whole-hearted acceptance of utterly unexamined nonsense and the scientific extremism of “if it can’t be measured, it doesn’t exist,” there must be a middle ground.  As far as our shared understanding of reality is concerned, if we ever hope to create a path toward the Happy LIFE, the middle ground is where we’re going to find it. 

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Compassion Courts

Today, as I’ve traveled along the path of gratitude on my way to the Happy LIFE, I’ve been thinking about how grateful I am that I’ve never succumbed to addiction in a way that landed me in jail.  If you could be convicted for being overweight as proof positive of a food addiction, I’d be in the slammer for sure.  How lucky am I that my circumstances never put me at sufficient risk to discover that a substance other than food (or cigarettes, back in the day) has the same nearly irrepressible sway over my better judgment?  And, I really do think the difference between me and many of the people who find themselves on the skids comes down to the luck of the draw, mainly in the form of being born to parents who were fortunate and functional enough to provide decent nutrition, appropriate clothing, a stable home along with a focus on education, hard work, common decency, love and affection.  All of those things also likely came together to provide me with robust physical health and at least a semblance of mental health. 

My generation was lucky, too, at least when it came to the relative danger of the illegal “drugs du jour” and I can’t help but be grateful for that as well.  Back then, the drug scourge consisted primarily of marijuana, powder cocaine, heroin, LSD and a few pharmaceuticals.  As much devastation as that era of street drugs caused compared to the 21st century’s underground pharmacopeia, today’s law enforcement, penal and social systems might consider those the “good ol’ days.”  An old friend, who is an addiction counselor, told me years ago that he thought cocaine had the most destructive power when it came ripping someone’s potential apart – until crack came along with an exponential increase in its ability to tear up lives.  Then, along came meth, which upped the ante and raised crack by another factor of ten.  My generation may have faced a barrage of potential addictions that were largely unknown and unfathomable to our parents but this generation is faced with addictions of mass destruction that are largely unknown to us.

Between addiction and mental illness, I learned today, we have the root cause of the incarceration of 60% of women, and 30% of men, in our state’s jails.   However, slowly but surely, “drug courts” are being established to prevent our jails from being filled with the addicted and mentally ill at the expense of our ability to incarcerate violent criminals.  Cutting to the chase, our judicial and social agencies are working collaboratively to help non-violent offenders who are able and willing to help themselves – but only those who request access to the services it provides after they’ve served their sentences.  Violent criminals, no matter what their mental health or addiction issues, need not apply.

These drug courts provide the support to get addicts off illicit drugs and get the mentally ill on licit ones.  As strongly as I believe we, as a society, are over (and often unnecessarily) medicating heartache (and a host of other temporary, adaptive responses), I believe just as strongly that some people have chemical imbalances in their neurochemistry and need to be and stay on some high-powered psychoactive meds.  The alternative is for them to be in and out of jail, eventually losing their ability to secure either work or housing, at which point they end up back in jail where they are more expensive to house than if they were out in the world, living in subsidized housing and working as productively as possible.

So, today, I’m grateful to live in a time and place where our community leaders are working to find a more compassionate – and cost effective – way to support people who find themselves where, but for the grace of God (and lack of exposure), might have gone I (or you).  If the butterfly had flapped its wings differently, who’s to say I (or you) wouldn’t have ended up trying to keep body and soul (and an addiction) together by committing crimes like shop lifting, writing bad checks, theft and so on – all the things that people who are living on the edge might do to keep from falling over.

I greatly admire the people who’ve found their way back after falling over the edge.  And I’m very grateful to the people who’ve shown the compassion to help them do it.