Grocery Shopping: Lessons in Compassion

At the grocery store the other day, I was struggling to hold a crying three-year-old with one arm while using the other to put my groceries on the conveyor belt when I noticed that there was a man standing there impatient that I was holding up the line (and partially blocking the way to the adjacent line between my body and my child’s body and my cart). I felt irritated that he didn’t even ask me outright to move, much less offer to speed things up by helping me with those last few items. He just stood there with obvious impatience. In my annoyance, I imagined that the man saw me as just a stranger holding up the line because she can’t handle the kids she probably shouldn’t have had in the first place.

Then it dawned on me: I don’t have to feel this way. Read More

Double Vision: June Review/July Kickoff

Today I misjudged how long it would take me to get lost and then get back to meet up with a group of moms I was meeting for the first time. I ended up being more than an hour late getting together with them. I mentioned my concerns about time out loud while driving the kids back west from Needham.

“We’re going to be really, really late meeting these moms,” I told my daughter, who was riding in the backseat with her brother. “I hope they aren’t upset with me for being so late.”

My daughter was quiet a few moments before saying, “If I were a grown-up and I had kids and you were supposed to meet me at the park, I wouldn’t be mad at you for being late, Mommy.”

Why the reassurance of a six-year-old would help, I’m not sure, but it really did. It helped me pause and reflect on all of the things I was saying to myself about myself because I was late, that I was over-scheduling myself, that I was going to seem flakey, that it was going to seem like I didn’t care about meeting with them, that they would dismiss me as a possible friend because I wasn’t reliable.

My daughter’s comment helped me realize that she loves me unconditionally, and that that’s the kind of friendship I’m looking for. If a group of moms refuses to even consider me as a friend because I’m late getting to the park, that just narrows the field for me. I don’t want that many friends anyway.

As it turns out, the reception I received when I arrived at the park—one of the moms walking over to my car when I’d barely gotten out of my seat, giving me a big smile and introducing herself with a handshake—was more in line with my daughter’s reassurances than they were with my worries.

In Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, Inman fears his experiences in the war have made it impossible for him to mix back into society. During his long travels back towards his home in western North Carolina, he happens upon a woman who’s lived alone with her herd of goats for nearly three decades.

The image that comes to mind when I think of these two characters is of that test they give at the optometrist where they give you double vision and then gradually make an adjustment and you’re supposed to tell them when the two images match up. I imagine Inman and the hermit woman are one image and the other image is the place they’d fit in the rest of the world. But instead of matching up seamlessly, these two images never quite fit. The edges always overlap slightly. They look like they ought to fit, but they don’t.

I frequently feel this way myself. Mostly it’s confusing, and kind of lonely. I try to suss out what I could be doing differently to fit better into my world, and no matter what I do, I never quite line up with the space available for me.

I realized this month that part of my reason for undertaking this Happiness Project is to try to fit better in the world. I’d just like to feel less disoriented in social situations. The Friendship focus in April and June’s Sharing Happiness focus are particularly oriented towards this goal. Neither has really shaved off my edges enough for me to fit comfortably, but this month I have sensed something of a letting go.

I still feel nervous getting together with people, but for the first time, I don’t feel particularly embarrassed letting people know that I’m trying to connect with them and build a friendship with them. I’ve begun voicing the things that feel uncomfortable in a conversation (mostly things that I do but would rather not, like responding readily to questions about myself but not easily coming up with questions about the other person), and thanking people with a smile for things they’ve done that have helped me feel happier or more welcome.

In a way, I’m allowing myself to feel more open and vulnerable. This is either wonderful timing for making new friends in a new part of the country, or it’s horrible timing because these are tough-skinned New Englanders who are going to see my exposed underbelly as an opportunity to wound. I tend to think it’s the former, and so far my experiences have borne that out.

When I expect people to be kind and helpful, they generally are.

The plan for July, the last month of my year-long happiness project, is to take what’s worked for the other eleven months and apply those resoutions with renewed vigor. An earlier bedtime is something that worked well for me, as was eating no sugar and drinking no alcohol. Noticing judgmental thoughts has become a habit with me, but breathing several times a day could use a little more attention. I’d like to get back to taking a picture of the kids each day and making a point of acting silly with them. Decluttering is sure to accompany unpacking our possessions at the end of this month. I’m guessing other resolutions will rise to the surface as the month wears on.

By the end of the month, if all goes according to plan, we should be moving into our new home. This is exciting, but it also means that much of the month will be spent living in a hotel. In such close quarters for so long, I might find myself longing for the goat-herding and cheese-making life of the hermit woman in Cold Mountain (who am I kidding? I already do), but what better time to focus on happiness and what works to increase my happiness and bring me closer to my family?

Elevating Life Through Friendship

From E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. (Wilbur is the first speaker. (If you’ve not read the book, Wilbur is a pig whose life was saved by Charlotte, a spider)):

“Why did you do all this for me?” he asked. “I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.”

“You have been my friend,” replied Charlotte. “That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.”

If you follow the Imperfect Happiness page on Facebook, you saw a portion of this quote yesterday. I’ve read the book several times, but listening to the audio book with my daughter yesterday, this portion struck me. Not only is it a wonderful description of how friendship exists simply for the purpose of friendship, but it also answers the “what’s the point?” question I asked about friendship in my Existential Angst and the Cross-Country Move post.

The point I read in Charlotte’s comments to Wilbur is that life is a mean and tedious undertaking, and we know how it’s going to end. But we can elevate ourselves above the mundane mechanics of life through our friendships and by helping other people. It also says something about how letting ourselves be helped can be a blessing to the person giving the help.

A friend came tonight to pick up a table I’m parting with. She hugged me, and she told me about how much my words and encouragement during her early months nursing her son helped their breastfeeding relationship to succeed.

“I don’t think you know what a difference you made to us,” she said. Before she left, we were both crying.

So, yes, two hundred years from now, nothing much will remain of me. And yes, once I leave Utah, I will be making a life for myself 2,400 miles away. But I’ve left a piece of myself in the care of the women around me. And goodness knows they—and Utah—have left their mark on me.

Disappearing isn’t possible. And that’s a great comfort to me, even as I recognize that it’s the very reason that leaving is painful.

June is “Sharing Happiness” Month!

G.-B. Duchanne de Boulogne, Synoptic plate 4 f...

Image via Wikipedia

I’m not a terribly emotive person. It goes along with introversion to be understated about my emotional expressions, and it’s okay. It does, however, sometimes hinder connection with others who perhaps aren’t as tuned in to my subtle expressions (and who maybe read my “I’m concentrating” facial expression as “I’m really angry with you.”).

The thing I want to work on for June is expressing happiness to others.

Although I set up my monthly areas of focus back in July 2010, I don’t know that I could have timed this one any better had I tried. Now that we’re moving and starting over in a new location, smiling when I’m happy might just help me in making connections with people I meet in our new home town.

June 2011 – Sharing Happiness
Focus: Find and utilize ways in which to express my happiness in order to share it with others.


-Smile when I feel happy. This seems like a simple one, and I do smile. But I realized years ago after looking at myself in pictures and in the mirror that often what feels like a smile to me doesn’t look like much of anything from the outside. I’m going to make a point of smiling bigger, and perhaps even showing some teeth.

-Tell people when I feel happy. This one could get really corny, really fast, if I let it. I picture that strange smiling kid from A Christmas Story. You know, the one in line to see Santa behind Ralphie who’s wearing the aviator helmet and goggles and speaks in monotone about how he loves The Wizard of Oz? Yeah, I don’t plan on doing that. I can see smiling people and telling them, “That tickles me!” or “That delights me!” or something to that effect. My purpose is just to let people in on my happiness. Not only do I think that will help me make a connection with them, but I think getting used to telling someone when I’m happy might help make it easier for me to ask for help or support when I’m feeling down.

-Use hugs as a greeting and a goodbye. I’m not really a hugger. I’m notorious for the awkward hug: stepping on the other person’s foot, deciding at the last moment to put my face on a different side of them than I’d started to, or just not knowing how to initiate a hug so I announce it (“I’m going to hug you now,” which is very spontaneous and inviting). But I like hugs, and I think they’re a great way to make a physical and emotional connection with a friend. I’m thinking I might get better at administering them (and receiving them) with practice. Once again, with a whole new set of people to meet, I can try out my new persona as a “hugger.” Although I might start with a hand on their arm or shoulder before I go straight for the embrace.

-Laugh out loud. I tend to be noncommittal when it comes to laughing. My husband says I end up many times just sounding nervous when I give my lackluster, “Heh, heh!” Sometimes, though, I break out with a huge guffaw and then I feel self-conscious, mostly because my guffaws are generally met by silent stares from those I’m speaking with. I was at dinner with two friends a few years ago, and one friend was talking about how her husband had been out of work and he was beginning to get on her nerves. She was speaking in a lighthearted, funny way, and one comment struck me as particularly amusing and I guffawed. Rather than laughing or even smiling with me, both of my friends stared at me blankly and in silence. I was immediately struck with terror that I’d misinterpreted the situation and was laughing inappropriately at a painful story my friend was sharing. I actually couldn’t sleep that night for fear that I had made an enormous social faux pas and wondering if I should call my friend the next day and apologize for laughing so loudly. I finally got back to sleep after some deep breathing and some EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique, which with I was toying at the time. It was helpful, but just as helpful for me are brief mental body scans which don’t have all of the tapping of acupressure points and so are easier to do in public without looking even more socially odd than I already do). At any rate, I just want to feel confident committing to a laugh and just laughing when something strikes me as funny. Even as I type this, I realize I’m unlikely to follow this resolution because I would be too worried I was misinterpreting the situation, but I like the idea of it anyway so I’m going to leave it on here.

So, that’s what’s on tap for June! With any luck, all of my happiness techniques will come together and help me enjoy a week of six hours in the car each day with my husband, my kids, and my cats. And with any luck, I can find a balance between my introversion and sharing my emotions with others in a way they can understand.

Sound Decluttering

I had a mute massage yesterday.

My massage therapist, also a dueling pianist (pronounced pi-AN-ist) at the Tavernacle Social Club, is on doctor-ordered vocal rest. She offered to postpone my massage until after she could talk again, but that would be after we are planning to be on our way cross-country, so I kept my appointment.

It was interesting lying there and observing my reactions to the silence. Of course, she can still hear so I could have spoken to her during the massage, but it just felt right not to.

My main reaction was one of relief. I like silence, but I didn’t realize just how much effort it takes me to make conversation. It ended up that it felt more natural to stay silent than it did to speak, so I stayed silent.

In spite of the comfort I felt keeping silent, I found myself thinking of things to say. I think I recognize that silence is, for many people, not so comfortable, and I’ve programmed myself to fill in silence as a courtesy.

Trouble was, all of the things I could think of to say were questions soliciting information from my massage therapist. I wanted to know how her silence was going. She’d posted on Facebook that it was getting more challenging, and I wanted to hear more about the ways in which it was challenging. I wanted to know how her silence was affecting her family and more about the ways in which her daily interactions had changed.

But since I knew that I wouldn’t be able to get answers to these questions while lying facedown on the massage table, I lapsed back into my comfortable silence and thought about how great the massage felt and about my periodic thoughts of engaging in a vow of silence of my own.

I read a story a couple of years ago about a guy who took a vow of silence and didn’t speak for 17 years. He also didn’t ride in any conveyance powered by fossil fuels. Then finally a few years ago, he broke his silence and bought a Prius. The idea intrigued me (minus the buying of the Prius…nothing against Prii, I just found the silence part more compelling. Buying a Prius is pretty mundane, but buying one after a 17-year vow of silence is something else entirely).

I think of a vow of silence as a decluttering of sorts. As I’ve mentioned, talking to people takes a lot of energy for me. Remaining silent would be almost freeing, I think. I imagine that it would create space in my life much as decluttering stuff does in my physical environment. I like the idea of being released from the obligation of social chatter, free to simply smile and listen (or not) to the conversations around me.

My massage therapist talked—or rather, wrote—about how strangers seem to assume that since she doesn’t speak, she can’t hear either. They direct their verbal comments and questions to the people she’s with rather than to her. I think she found this amusing and enlightening and at the same time inconvenient and annoying, and perhaps kind of offensive. I can see having all of those reactions, but I keep coming back to that feeling of freedom I imagine.

I’ve realized for a while that I’m better at abstention than I am at moderation. I keep telling myself not to yell, and I keep yelling. So I figure that perhaps if I don’t allow myself to talk at all, I might finally be able to stop yelling.

So with all of the things that appeal to me about a vow of silence, why don’t I take one? It wouldn’t be that long. Maybe two or four weeks, just to get a taste of it.

I think I’m afraid of how silence would change my relationships.

I homeschool. Could I do that silently? Would a month of mommy silence hamper my son’s development of verbal skills?

What about my friendships? Could they exist without me speaking? I could do everything online, but there are so many miscommunications that come of that kind of interaction that could be resolved in a short vocal conversation.

I’m getting ready to move to a new state. Would a vow of silence diminish my ability to make new friends and build a social network? It would certainly influence how the people I met treated me. But then, I’m always wanting to meet more introverts. Perhaps staying silent could help draw out those people who find too much talking uncomfortable. Perhaps it would give the introverts around me the space to speak.

I couldn’t speak for my daughter when she’s feeling shy or translate for my son when he launches into a toddler-talk monologue with a stranger. But maybe that would be good for them. Maybe they could become more confident if I weren’t always there to bail them out.

Unable to make the decision to implement a vow of silence, I put the idea on the back burner again. Maybe when my kids are older, or when we’re planning a “summer vacation” from schoolwork anyway, or after we’ve all taken an ASL course, or after I’ve got well-established friendships in our new hometown.

Or maybe I could take the middle ground in each conversation and just let the silence be rather than feeling compelled to fill it.

Have you ever taken a vow of silence by choice or by necessity? How long were you silent? How did your relationships change during your silence? How did they change when you broke your silence?

To read about one person’s month of silence, visit My Vow of Silence (start on February 1, 2009).

All in the Family

Chart displaying the various names and relatio...

By Apartmento2 (Own work). Image via Wikipedia.

This trip, I’m noticing that my children look different to me when they’re with their relatives.

I can’t always define what it is that’s different. Sometimes I’m just aware of a subtle shift in how they look to me. The first and most pronounced occurrence of this wasn’t of my kids with their relatives but when I saw my daughter on the ultrasound. My experience of her for the first 18 weeks of my pregnancy had been expansive, eternal, and not reliant on the visual. Then she was reduced to an image on a screen that I found incongruous with my experience of her.

The experience of seeing her with her relatives isn’t quite as profound as that.

With their grandparents, who’ve been engaging in outdoor activities for the past month, they look pale. With their second cousins (or are they first cousins once removed? The internet has given me conflicting information about the relationship of my children to my first cousins’ children), their legs look longer, but their faces look rounder. With her aunt, my daughter’s features look more defined and it seems like I can see the shadow of the woman she’ll be in 20 years. With his great-grandma, my son looks more like a baby than he usually does to me.

Having especially my sister here highlights the similarities between her and my daughter. My daughter cleared her throat this morning and while I knew it was my daughter, I thought of my sister.

I’m looking forward to seeing my grandfather and my son together. Even without my dad present, I can see his expressions on my son’s face (especially when my son has been drinking a smoothie and has a little mustache on his upper lip). I’m curious to see if the similarities between my father and his father manifest themselves as similarities between his father and his grandson.