Emote in haste, repent at leisure (Week 46 Review)

“Do you know,” said Anne confidentially, “I’ve made up my mind to enjoy this drive. It’s been my experience that you can nearly always enjoy things if you make up your mind firmly that you will. Of course, you must make it up firmly.”

From Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery. Spoken by Anne as Marilla is driving her to return her to the orphanage.

I’ve been doing my best to be enthusiastic this week, and I think it’s starting to work.

In fact, when we were house-hunting Saturday (we saw ten houses in one day. I can’t believe the kids lasted that long!), I went into one and just emoted all over the place. My husband asked what I thought of the house.

“I love it!” I said. I went on to detail, at my husband’s request, all of the things I loved about it: the fact that they kept two of the original 1900 windows (the year 1900, not that many windows) and the original wooden door, the beautiful cherry wood floors, the fact that the ceiling fans and chandelier were the same ones I’d been thinking of getting for our home in Utah, the cute little fenced yard, the quirky look of what I now know is called a “gambrel” style.

I really did love that house.

But in the evening, when the kids had crashed and the hotel room was quiet, I started to worry. I wasn’t worried that I’d assessed the situation incorrectly; I worried that I’d somehow messed something up—jinxed myself—by expressing how much I loved the place. I worried not that we wouldn’t get this house I loved, but that we would and I would regret it because I’d loved it too quickly and been blinded to faults in the house because of my love.

We’ve since looked at more houses and, upon further reflection, decided that another home is a better fit for our family. I like the second home a lot. I want that second home. It doesn’t inspire the strong, “I love it!” reaction, but I’m actually okay with that. I think it’s totally reasonable to find that the thing that inspires the strongest emotion isn’t necessarily the best for me.

That’s how I chose my husband, actually.

It wasn’t love at first sight. In fact, we didn’t really like each other when we first met. But our affection for one another grew over time. The flame of our love was fanned by familiarity, rather than firing up quickly only to burn out when reality set in. That doesn’t mean I didn’t like the thrill of crushes I had on myriad other lesser men/boys. It just means that I crave something stable and constant. I like kale smoothies. I keep careful records about the books I read. I’m not a thrill-seeker. And that tendency has served me well.

What concerns me isn’t that I had the “I love it!” reaction at all; it’s that I quickly became worried that simply by expressing that intensity of emotion, I was asking for some kind of retribution from the universe. I don’t believe that with my logical mind. It’s just an unbidden fear that arises.

Oddly enough, the house I loved (and still love) has over the kitchen sink that quote that goes, “Dance like no one is watching, Love like you’ll never be hurt, Sing like there’s nobody listening.”

Maybe that’s part of why I loved the house so much. I can probably put that quote up above the sink in the place that suits us better, though.

Standing on the Side of Love

Tucson, Arizona, with the Santa Catalina Mount...

Tucson, Arizona. (Image via Wikipedia)

A few weeks ago I wrote about how women’s experiences are being pushed aside and co-opted for the purpose of supporting a particular political ideology (See “You Don’t Feel That Way: Minimizing Women’s Experiences”). At the time, I had an inkling that this was not restricted to women’s experiences, but I couldn’t think of a compelling universal example.

Now I’ve got one.

The shooting in Tucson this weekend has been used both as a reason for more gun control (Loughner should never have been allowed to own a gun in the first place) and as a reason for less (had more people in the crowd at Safeway that day had concealed weapons, the tragedy would have been averted).

For a while, I participated in the debate, pointing out logical flaws in the arguments on both sides. But today I recognized this back-and-forth for what it is: ignoring the experiences and emotions of those going through the tragedy, including our own emotions, for the sake of supporting a cause.

I’ve decided that I will be more aware from now on. From this moment on, I will reflect before I respond, and if the discussion is simply for the purpose of furthering some political cause, I will either refuse to participate or call it out as such (the first is probably the better option, but sometimes I have trouble saying nothing in these situations).

This is a time to sit with our grief. It’s a time to think about the people involved both directly and indirectly: those who were shot, those who were killed, those who witnessed the shooting. Those who live in Tucson and are now trying to put into perspective this event that occurred in their home town. Those of us in the rest of the country who don’t know the victims or the perpetrator personally but for whom the world looks somehow different now than it did last Friday. And yes, even the disturbed young man who brought the gun to the Safeway that day and his parents who are trying to figure out how they got to this point.

The challenge is to just let it hurt without trying to escape it, without trying to distract ourselves with anger and blame, which are much less scary emotions.

We don’t need to make sense of this tragedy. There’s no sense to be made of it. The best we can do is vow to be good to each other, gentle with each other, and gentle and good to ourselves.

Diary of a Modern Frontier Housewife, Day 3

Caribbean hermit crab (coenobita clypeatus)

Image via Wikipedia

It is early. The morning sun has not yet revealed the outline of the mountains in the eastern sky. My children dream, warm in their beds, while I sip my decaf coffee with soy milk, and ponder.

The hermit crab travels about with her home upon her back. Wherever she travels, her dwelling follows. Never parted from it, she finds fault with the minutest detail. One day, another shell catches her eye, and she chooses to leave behind her old, flawed home for the new, better home. She cannot imagine as she settles in that she will ever be dissatisfied with this home. But within hours she’s finding fault again and yearning for just the smallest adjustment.

My beloved and I are so close in our daily lives that I find it difficult to see the beauty in him. In that sense, this separation is a blessing. It has removed him a far enough distance that I can see his beauty clearly while his faults have become indistinct. I do not need my husband for my physical survival the way that the hermit crab needs her shell. But like the hermit crab, I know that within all too short a time, I will become familiar with my husband’s habits once more and will find fault in the smallest detail.

In mere hours we will be reunited. In just a dawning, a day, and another sunset he will return. In a moment, the length of our separation will melt away. My heart beats in anticipation of his return, but in these hours, I will revel in his perfection, knowing that very shortly he will cease to be the perfect object of my hope and adoration and will become once again simply the man I love.

Hark! My son beckons. My moment of solitary reverie has passed like a cloud before the sun. Thus begins my day of caring for my children, preparing food, cleaning messes, supervising the creation of generic Shrinky Dinks, and awaiting the safe return of my spouse after the sun has set once more.

A Year with Frog and Toad

Panther, a cat using toilet, photographed in S...

If my cats did this, we could have left the house on time this morning (Image via Wikipedia, Photographer: User:Reward.)

NaNoWriMo Day 19 word count: 33,208

We went to see A Year with Frog and Toad, put on by the University of Utah Youth Theater this morning. We were supposed to meet some homeschooling friends out front at 9:20, and against all odds, we were making wonderful time. I stopped to fill up some water bottles (I have a thing about having enough provisions for any outing). I heard my daughter yelling from the laundry room.

“No! Put that down! No! No!”

I set down the water pitcher and walked to the doorway of the laundry room. I saw my daughter standing about a foot away from my son as he reached into the litter box with his hands, grabbed cat poo, and then put it into the small covered garbage can we have next to the little box for that purpose.

“Oh, for Pete’s sake!” I yelled (or something of that nature).”Why didn’t you stop him?”

“I was putting on my jacket,” my daughter explained. Well, I guess I did only ask her to watch him, not to actually intervene if he was doing something that needed intervention.

I grabbed the baby and shook his hand to release his grip on the turd he held, then I took him in to the sink to wash his hands, saying over and over, “We’re gonna be late, we’re gonna be late.” I must have scrubbed his little hands for a good three minutes before I felt satisfied that they were clean enough.

I got our water bottles and stuffed them in the diaper bag.

“I’m thirsty!” my daughter said. I pulled out her water bottle and shoved it towards her.

“Here, take it!”

Then the baby signed “water” and I handed him his cup, which he promptly dropped on the floor.

“Please carry that water for your brother,” I directed my daughter.

“I can’t,” she said, “I need to open the door. Mommy, why are you wearing your brown shoes instead of your shiny black shoes?”

“Because we might need to park far away, and my shiny black shoes aren’t very comfortable to walk long distances in.”

“My shiny black shoes are comfortable. What does ‘walk long distances’ mean?”

I stammered trying to figure out which part of that statement she was having trouble with.

“Let’s just go to the car,” I said, propping the baby on my hip, shouldering the diaper bag, and opening the door.

“I want to be the first one out!” my daughter whined.

“Fine!” I yelled. “Just get out there! We’re going to be late!”

I locked the door to the house while my daughter stood at the car pulling on the door handle repeating over and over, “Mommy, unlock the door! Mommy, unlock the door!”

“Does that help unlock the door?” I asked her as I hit the button to unlock the car. “The yelling and whining. Does that work? Because if it does, maybe I’ll try that next time instead of using the key.”

My daughter laughed. I fastened the baby into his car seat as he grabbed a stuffed giraffe from beside him. My daughter screamed.

“Dear God, what is it now?” I asked.

“That’s my giraffe!” she said and yanked the toy from her brother’s grip. He began crying, but calmed again when I handed him his Doggies book (by Sandra Boynton).

“Fine,” I said. “Let’s just go. We’re going to be late.”

“Mommy, it’s OK if we’re…”

“No! It’s not OK if we’re late! Have you ever been to a play? Do you know if it’s OK to be late?”

I didn’t wait for an answer. I shut the baby’s door, then went around the car and got into the driver’s seat.

“Don’t go yet!” my daughter yelled. “I can’t buckle it! I can’t buckle it!”

“You have got to be kidding me!” I yelled as I got back out of the car, opened her door and fastened her buckle. She started to cry.

“Don’t talk in that voice!” she cried.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I just don’t like being late.” I hugged her and gave her a kiss, then slid back into the driver’s seat.

As we backed out, my daughter asked, “Mommy, does it really take a half an hour to get there?”

We ended up getting there just after our friends arrived. We found them right away, checked in, and got seats with no trouble. The play was lovely. It was a musical, which I didn’t expect, but which kept the kids’ attention better than a straight-up, non-musical play would have, I think. The costumes were adorable, although perhaps a little subtle for the younger kids. There seemed to be kind of a 1920’s theme to the clothing and the music and the dancing. It was cute and quite enjoyable. The baby watched a good portion of it, grew restless, and then nursed to sleep. My daughter was frightened of the Terrible Frog (just like she is when we read the book), but otherwise loved the show.

After everything turned out so well, I was left wishing I could have gotten us there without the yelling that went along with our departure. Sure, it was stressful, but in retrospect, it was actually kind of funny. I’d like to be able to see the funny part better in the moment.

I’ve been anxious lately. I’ve managed to keep my inner critic fairly quiet about my novel, but that seems to have got her working overtime criticizing everything else I do. I’m just trying to sit with my imperfection and see all of the positives, but it’s a pretty big challenge. I’m fairly confident it will be worth it, though. It kind of already is.

But I’d still like to yell less.

Joyfully Moving

I got to attend the Monday night step class at my gym tonight, which I’ve only done once before, even though I loved it that one time I went. I’ve got the babysitter from 2-5 on Mondays and the class is at 5:30. Every time I think of how much I want to go to that step class and start to reason through how I can make it work to attend the class, I stop myself. It’s bad enough to take time away from my kids to go to the gym. I should just work out while the babysitter’s there and not try to take any more evening time. It’s too much trouble for my husband, it’s too much time away from the kids, it’ll mess up dinner time.

I recognized this attempt to avoid doing something for myself in the section of Marion Woodman’s Addiction to Perfection that I read last night:

For the perfectionist who has trained herself to do, simply being sounds like a euphemism for nothingness, or ceasing to exist. When the energy that has gone into trying to justify her existence is redirected into discovering herself and loving herself, intense insecurities surface. Abysmal emptiness questions whether she is here at all . . . To cease to give is to cease to mother, and where the ego is identified with mothering it doesn’t know at first what to do. It is so used to giving that it doesn’t believe it is worthy to receive, or else thinks that receiving is demeaning or selfish.

I smiled as I recognized myself in this passage. Then I took a pad of paper and wrote a note to my husband (who was already in bed) explaining that I was going to stick around home and clean out closets and get dinner ready while the babysitter was here, and then I was going to go to the 5:30 step class.

During the morning, I did manage to do some prep work for dinner (including making two batches of GF/CF pita bread, one that turned out more like GF/CF hockey pucks and the other that was softer but for some reason didn’t form the little pocket in the middle). But I ended up spending the entire three hours that the sitter was here on two closets, and I didn’t get any more done on dinner. I considered scrapping the step class idea, but in the end, I stuck with the plan and left my husband with a recipe book open to the falafel recipe and a bowl full of soaked garbanzo beans.

Waiting for the step class to begin, I scrutinized my image in the mirror (especially the tummy pooch I still have because I cannot seem to get my abdominal muscles to close up since they separated while I was pregnant with my son), compared myself to the other attendees, wondered if I should have worn long pants instead of shorts or a short-sleeved top instead of a tank top or if I was lame for having only one riser under each end of my step rather than two like most of the rest of the class had. But as the class began, I let these thoughts pass and focused on the beat of the music and my breath and the rhythm of my feet. I found that I was able to keep up with the cues better when I didn’t think about them. There were a number of times when I got to the end of a sequence and realized with surprise that I was actually on the same foot as the instructor and facing the same direction as the rest of the class without consciously trying. I also enjoyed watching how the instructor clearly enjoyed leading the class. I decided I really liked him, and I really liked my gym and Salt Lake City and my kids and my husband. I spent the class filled with love and joy, and I had just a great deal of fun.

I worry sometimes that the step class isn’t as intense or well-rounded a workout as my regular workout. As a result, I tend to consider it a treat to only take part in once in a while rather than as a core element of my exercise regimen. If I start going to the class regularly, I wonder if I’ll experience what Woodman describes: “once that forgotten energy begins to flow through dancing, painting, singing, joy is not experienced as selfish or luxurious, but as an absolute need.”

Woodman also writes about a lecture by Northrup Frye in which he points out that the word “rejoicing” in a passage from Proverbs is translated from the root word for “play.” One of the churches I’m planning to visit has this note on their website:

We Worship God Through Movement As Well As Words
Our bodies are God’s own creation through Jesus.  God knows what it is to be human.  Movement can be a way of giving ourselves back to God.  You will see many people crossing themselves, bowing, and kneeling at certain times.  When you come to worship try movement and see if your experience of God is made greater.  Movement, though, is not required. You may find it perfectly fulfilling without it.

I noticed that when I first read this, I felt a little uncomfortable. It seemed kind of hokey to me, and I felt a little nervous about what the service would be like with everyone moving around and giving themselves to God. But now I’m wondering if this could just be the reaction of that part of myself that is more comfortable with the “masculine” and resists any shift towards the more “feminine,” which would include the physical body rather than just the intellect. Maybe I feel more loving when I’m moving with the music in step class because I’m more complete and therefore more open to the spiritual. Maybe I’m rejoicing through play.

This morning while mixing up the first batch of pita dough, I put Chopin’s Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53, on the CD player. The baby smiled up at me and started dancing. He ran his little feet, flapped his arms, spun in circles until he fell down, and laughed when I joined him and danced across the kitchen. I remember dancing with my daughter when she was around this age. Her favorite was Bing Crosby singing Jingle Bells. I wonder if kids are born knowing how to rejoice through unselfconscious movement and we—well, some of us—just lose it as we grow older. Maybe we’re all born with the masculine and feminine fully integrated within us, and as adults, it’s simply a matter of rediscovering that balance.

Week 12 Review: The Dangers of Openness

As I’ve come to expect at this point in the month, I’ve started losing my zest for my resolutions. I’ve not done much decluttering this week since my mom left. I’ve been buying things. I’ve made some headway keeping daily routines and examining why I have trouble keeping the ones I’m not keeping. I did complete another nagging task by re-caulking the bathtub. This was actually a task on my husband’s to-do list (it’s been on there since we moved in in January of 2009), but it was nagging at me, so I just did it.

I’ve found that after two weeks in a row attending Mass, I miss attending church. I’m considering doing some church-hopping starting in November to see if I can’t find something that feels right for me and my family.

Something else I’ve discovered this week is that I’m feeling really emotionally raw. I think this might be a side effect of all of the mindfulness and openness and emotional awareness I’ve been fostering in myself. I just feel really sensitive to rough treatment and rough words, even those not directed at me.

A friend posted a link to a story about a 5-week-old baby who died of pertussis. I felt so much pain for the family who lost their little baby. I don’t even care to imagine what that must be like for that baby’s mother, father, and brother. After reading the article, I scrolled down to the comments, against my better judgment. Some were outpourings of emotion for this family, but for the most part, it was an argument about vaccinations and whether people who don’t vaccinate are evil or not and whether they ought to be imprisoned and/or have their children taken away from them.

I wonder if this is an example of giving over to the “masculine” side and using our intellect at the expense of our emotions. Perhaps it’s more comfortable for people to argue causes and lay blame than it is to simply sit with the pain of realizing that sometimes babies die.

I know a woman who is a labor and delivery nurse in a local hospital. Several months ago, pertussis went through the nursing staff. It took an alarmingly long time for anyone to recognize it for what it was, and the nurses continued working through their illnesses, exposing goodness knows how many postpartum moms and newborn babies before the illness was identified. In my experience, most nurses are caring, educated people who work awful hours and get paid not nearly enough for the intensity of their jobs and the toll it takes on their health and their personal relationships. Also in my experience, nurses are pretty big proponents of vaccination. If an outbreak of pertussis can happen in this group of people, it seems to me you can’t really link it to negligence or poor morals or just not caring about others, which were some of the accusations lobbed in the comments on the article. Sometimes shit just happens, even when we do our best to prevent it. Contrary to what some of the commenters suggest, I believe that no parent “deserves” the death or serious illness of their child as a result of the decisions they’ve made.

From what I can tell, as parents, we’re all doing the best we can. We all have our children’s best interests at heart, even when we disagree about what the best decisions are for our kids. We gather the information, weigh the pros and cons based on that information, and make very difficult decisions, many of which we won’t know the results of for years and years, if ever. Nothing is black and white. But I can see the appeal of trying to make it so when faced with a reality as painful as the death of a baby.

And it really hurts to be open to these things. My inclination is to shut myself off again, bury myself in Facebook or reading or frenetic decluttering, anything to turn up the mental noise and distract me from these feelings. But another part of me doesn’t want to close down. That part of me actually enjoys in a way the feeling of connection I get along with this pain. It kind of reminds me of how it felt to give birth to my son. The sensation was so intense that it was difficult to just surrender to it and let my body birth. Much of me wanted to get away, to run away, or specifically to crawl under the floor to escape the intensity of the sensation. But in the days following his birth, I found I missed the experience. There was a part of me that loved that intensity. I felt alive and connected and powerful even as I surrendered to the power surging through me. I cried and cried in the days following his birth because I wanted so badly to have that experience again, to be in the middle of something so big and all-encompassing.

Perhaps if I’m able to let go and birth myself in this new wholeness, I’ll look back at the pain and intensity of the process wistfully while at the same time reveling in the release of the complete—and joyfully imperfect—person inside me.

There’s No Place Like Home

Military brat (U.S. subculture)

Destined to wander? (Image via Wikipedia)

I’ve been thinking a lot about home lately, and apparently I’m not alone. My friends Victoria and Maggie have both blogged about this in the past couple of days.

Victoria lives aboard her sailing vessel with her husband and two young children, the realization of a dream she and Tucker have had for many years. She expected that once she was on her boat, anywhere she sailed would be—and feel like—home. But on a weekend excursion down the coast to Monterey, she was surprised to find herself homesick for their little slip in the San Francisco Bay, which led her to reflect on the nature of home.

Maggie is three months into a year-long trek around the world. Her most recent stopover is Bulungula in South Africa, where she seems to feel a strong connection to both the geography and the culture. “And, of course, there’s that lovely backdrop — scenery that stuns the eyes, holds the heart and inspires you to leave your own home behind,” she writes. “Yes, I could live here.” She doesn’t say, “This feels like home,” but rather that she could “leave her own home behind” and “live here.” Is there a difference?

Eric Weiner in The Geography of Bliss talks about the phenomenon of travelers for purposes of business or study—anthropologists, reporters—“going native,” that is, abandoning their professional objectivity and the home of their birth to immerse themselves in an adopted culture. How does one know home when they find it?

I grew up a Navy Brat. We moved about every three years. All of our moves were in the United States, and I’ve only left the country once when I went to Toronto with my high school band. I’ve never even had a passport. All during my childhood, I had a craving for “home.” The thought, “I want to go home,” would come to me, but upon further reflection, I could never identify where home was. The closest to home I felt growing up was when we’d visit my maternal grandparents in Ohio each year. Their home was a central gathering place for my mother’s seven siblings and their children. Everywhere we went, I was surrounded by people related to me. In the town where my parents grew up, it seemed cousins of various degrees were everywhere. Grandma and Grandpa had a garden, and even now I think of them when I work with my own tomato plants. There was a spooky basement with an old refrigerator that was always filled with glass bottles of pop, that, when empty, we would return to the grocery store for money in what seemed a kind of alchemy. There were pickled eggs in large jars, grape juice that we drank out of jelly jars, hulless popcorn, late-night horror films on TV, and the tandem bike I rode with my aunt. In the summer, we’d watch the Fourth of July parade come by the house, and we’d collect the candy they tossed from the fire truck before we walked up to the high school for the carnival. One year I won a goldfish by tossing a ping pong ball into a small fish bowl.

When Grandma died, this all began to change. Then Grandpa sold the house, and there was no longer a central meeting place. The close-knit feeling of the family faded, as did my sense of home. For years, I’ve still felt the “I want to go home” sensation, but it’s not been connected to any particular place. As adults, my husband and I continue to move every few years, trying out different locations, looking for home. I’ve lately come to fear that the looking has become such a habit that I won’t even recognize home when I find it.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve begun to dream of Ohio. In my dreams, it is home. It is the place I’m longing to be. I see the rolling, green hills of northeast Ohio and yearn to belong to them. When we visit, I love driving out into that farmland and imagining a little house amid those green hills. But I wonder if it would still feel like home if I actually lived there. When I was in college there, I couldn’t wait to leave. I hated it there. I couldn’t stand the overcast skies, the decay of the post-Industrial Revolution, the culture of depression and helplessness. It feels different looking at it now from a couple thousand miles and a decade away. Is Ohio truly my home, and I could only recognize it by leaving? Or if I lived there now, would it soon feel as oppressive to me as it did when I was 20? How long would it be before I went in search of my next home?

I have a suspicion that my longing for home isn’t actually a longing for a particular place, but rather a longing for a feeling. This feeling is one of belonging and of being loved unconditionally. It’s an escape from the alienation I often feel as someone who is carving her own path through the world. I made an off-hand remark to my husband last night: If you’re going to rock the boat, you’d better not get sea sick. Even though I have a consistent need to rock the boat, I seem to experience perpetual seasickness. I want to find my sea legs. I want to be myself but still feel like I belong. Even more than happiness, I want to feel wholeness. I suspect that this feeling is something I need to come to on my own, and if I don’t find it, no place is going to feel like home.

Conscious Sacrifice

Here’s part of what I read today in Marion Woodman’s Addiction to Perfection:

The overconscientious perfectionist knows she cannot control her obsession; she recognizes at the center of her whirlpool another power to which she is hostile. The whirling through her daytime efficiency and nighttime compulsion avoids as long as it can the confrontation with the Eye. That confrontation demands surrender of the rigid, self-deceptive “I.”

…The attitude of the ego towards the Eye is everything. If the ego is hostile, then it experiences itself as victim and sets itself up for self-murder. If the attitude is one of acceptance–not resignation, but open receptivity–then murder is transformed into conscious sacrifice. That change in attitude opens the heart to the power of love radiating from the Eye–the all-embracing, nourishing love that can support rather than destroy the “I.” Psychologically speaking, so long as conscious and unconscious are enemies, the ego experiences itself in constant danger of death. Once they are in harmony the ego experiences itself open and supported by the maternal matrix of love.

This idea of murder being “transformed into conscious sacrifice” is intriguing to me. In the book, Woodman writes about a woman who eats compulsively choosing to fast for a week. The choice to sacrifice through fasting yields remarkable insights for this particular woman. This leaves me considering what the difference is between the “Biggest Loser” boot camp model of weight-loss and the inside-out sacrifice of fasting.

Listening to RadioWest on KUER this afternoon, I caught a portion of an interview with Judge Thomas Buergenthal about his memoir, A Lucky Child, which deals with his past as one of the youngest survivors of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Buergenthal spoke about one instance in which prisoners were selected for hanging and then their close friends were ordered to perform the executions. One young man went to put the noose over his friend’s head. The friend took the noose and put it around his neck himself, kissed his friend’s face, then jumped from the platform. He turned a murder, literally, into a conscious act of sacrifice.

I don’t mean to imply that my situation is anything near that of a concentration camp prisoner or a compulsive eater, but I do think there are common human experiences from which I can learn. I don’t need to be a prisoner sentenced to death to engage in a conscious act of sacrifice. But the haunting story of this prisoner’s final act of rebellion, which was also an act of love for his friend, could give me insight into how I might move towards a similar state of psychological harmony.

Happiness in Marriage

Pride and Prejudice

Image by elycefeliz via Flickr

Today is my eleventh wedding anniversary.

In honor of this event, here’s a quote about marriage and happiness.

Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. If the dispositions of the parties are ever so well known to each other or ever so similar beforehand, it does not advance their felicity in the least. They always continue to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of vexation; and it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.

-Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

As far as I can tell, my husband and I have only grown more alike as the years have passed. I don’t know that this decreases “vexation,” though, as I am perfectly capable of arguing with myself. I do agree that it’s probably better for the defects of one’s mate to be revealed slowly over time rather than all at once at the beginning of the relationship. They may have scared me away had I known them all ahead of time, but as it happened, the revelation of both of our defects appears to have kept pace with the deepening of our affection for one another, which strikes a lovely balance, I think.

Happiness is Like a Butterfly

There was a poem on my bedroom wall when I was a child. It was something like,

Happiness is like a butterfly;

The more you chase it, the more it will elude you.

But if you turn your attention to other things,

It will come and softly sit on your shoulder.

This theme has been coming up for me again and again in the past weeks: If you strive for something, you can’t reach it.

The other day at the gym, I listened to an interview about writing with Lynda Barry on To the Best of Our Knowledge. Barry teaches writing classes and was discussing with interviewer Steve Paulson the methods she encourages her students to employ. Every task she gives them is designed to silence their inner critic. She wants to get her students back to an attitude of playfulness about their writing. Paulson asked her, well, at some point, though, you want to produce something good, you want to be a successful writer, right? Barry said that, if she thinks about whether her writing is “good” or not, it’s after it’s finished. If you start out writing with the idea that it has to be good or that you want it to make you a success, you’ll not be able to get anywhere with it. But if you write playfully and for no purpose but that of creating, you may well find success. I think it was Anne Lamott who talked about this in Bird by Bird, the phenomenon in which a second novel is a lot longer coming than a first, simply because now you’ve got something to live up to and that desire to be good—or to be better—gets in the way of creativity.

When I first read and followed the activities in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, I became annoyed because so little of it seemed to focus on actually working on projects. What on earth could a daily walk have to do with writing? Writing was one thing I absolutely couldn’t do while walking. And what was all of this about making collages and writing three pages a day that I’d never look at again? How would I have enough time to write if I did all of this stuff? At the time, I sort of took it on faith that the professor who recommended the book to me had done so for a reason, and I just trudged through the activities. But now, years later, I think I’m finally starting to understand the sneaking up on creativity that Cameron was trying to lead her readers to.

This has been showing up in reference to happiness, too. I saw it in a comment on Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project Facebook page. I read it in Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss, in which three groups were asked to listen to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The group given no instructions found the music more enjoyable than the group told to monitor their happiness while listening or the group told to “try to be happy.”

I stumbled upon it while perusing my friend Rebecca’s blog:

I did on [sic] the work once on “I should be happier”. In a nutshell, I realized that this belief actually moves me away from happiness because when I am not happy and I believe this thought, I judge myself, compare myself, feel broken, etc. I lose sight of all happiness I have when I believe that thought. Without the thought I am free to be happy or not, but free – and much more likely to be happy, because there is nothing to fight against, no guilt, etc.

Like I said, this is coming up for me everywhere now. When I first think of these things, the first thought that comes to my mind is, “Oh, crap. And here I am doing a Happiness Project.” But then I take a step back and a deep breath and remember that all I’m doing is trying to set the stage for a peaceful, meaningful, joyful life. I don’t tell myself, “I will be happy. I must be happy. I should be happy.” (Or at least I don’t set out to say these things. Sometimes they just kind of pop in there.) Happiness isn’t the goal; it’s a guiding principle by which I judge my actions and resolutions. I look at my life and see that there are many things that hinder my mood and my relationships, especially with my children. I’m grouchy when I’m tired. Well, let’s see what happens when I get more sleep. I feel annoyed and even fearful when I find myself wishing the moments away during the day. OK, so I’ll take a deep breath and be in the moment, and see how that changes things. I do hope that, by doing these things that are kind of tangential to happiness, I might just find myself feeling happier. But if not, I’m still eating healthier, sleeping more, yelling less, deepening relationships. These are things worth doing regardless of the size of the payoff in bliss.

I’m reminded of Isaiah 58:9-12 again-

If you take away from the midst of you the yoke, the pointing of the finger, and speaking of wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. And the Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your desire with good things, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters fail not. And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in.

If you do x, y, and z for the purpose of receiving good things in return, you’ll be disappointed. You do these things because they’re the right things to do, and if you do this work in that spirit, you just might get even better things in return than just a transient elevation of mood. I’m looking for something deeper and broader and longer lasting than my own happiness. I’m looking to “raise up the foundations of many generations” the only way I can: by working on the things I can reach.

At the beginning of this project, I found myself hung up on the idea that happiness results from virtuous action. I think I’m starting to understand this concept a little better. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl tells a story about working with his fellow concentration camp prisoners out in the bitter cold with inadequate clothing and no subcutaneous fat to help insulate them. They would look forward all morning to the time they would get to spend a few minutes warming themselves at a small stove. When the time came, their pleasure at this small amount of warmth was immense. They were practically joyful, even in the middle of such brutal and miserable circumstances. But there were guards who seemed to derive equal pleasure from denying the prisoners this comfort. Not only would they not let the prisoners warm themselves, sometimes they would knock over the stove and scatter the coals through the snow.

While virtuous action leads to happiness, someone who appears happy has not necessarily become so by engaging in virtuous action. It’s like how hard work can lead to material success, but material success isn’t always the result of hard work. The best bet appears to be focusing on the virtuous action rather than on the happiness. But what’s the difference, really between the two types of joy, that derived from an appreciation for the relief of suffering and that derived from the infliction of suffering? The sense I get is that the latter type involves a bitter core of experience. It’s not a joy originating from the soul, but one that lays on the surface, protecting the person experiencing it from opening themselves up and exposing their inner selves to the light. The former is a simple joy, but it’s an honest, transparent joy. Clearly, for Frankl it was also a sustaining joy.