Reaching a Plateau of Happiness

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I’ve told people lately “I’m in a good place.” To my husband, I said, “I think I’m as happy right now as I’ve ever been, if not happier.” Why? I agree with Leo Babauta’s latest blogl He describes his happiness and it’s not having a large house, massive wealth, a fancy car, powerful job, or (gasp) cable t.v., because he doesn’t have those things. Neither do I. What he has is time, relationships that matter, meaningful work and health. So do I. I’m working on gaining more time, but I’ve made decisions that valued time over money and it’s improving. In fact, it’s funny. Our first home had four bedrooms, 1.5 baths, a kitchen, dining room, living room, porch, garage and basement and we bought it (we had no kids yet). We now live in ~700 square feet with 1 bedroom, 1 bath, a kitchen, living room and a little storage (our kids are grown and gone) and we’re renting. Seems backwards and some would say irresponsible. If so, I wish I would have been irresponsible sooner in life.  As Leo says:

I am very happy. It’s not a peak of happiness, but a plateau of happiness that can go on for as long as I live.

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“R We Dancing Saturday Night?”

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Spontaneity is underrated. And often counterintuitive (isn’t the prudent thing to plan early and often?). But especially after this weekend, I highly recommend it.

It all started when some friends of mine and I decided some months ago that we weren’t getting enough dancing in our lives. There aren’t venues in this college town that cater to 40+ somethings. Seems like every place with music doesn’t get started until 10 or 11 p.m., has crazy loud head-banging music and is filled with people who probably had fake IDs within the last year (or maybe still do).  So….we put our energies into creating our own dance party. We rented out a local coffee place, a DJ, bought some beverages and snacks and sent out the Evites. Just for fun, I sent an invitation to a couple who live in Michigan that have been our friends forever. I never expected them to travel for a casual shin-dig in North Carolina, but wanted them to know we were thinking about them.

Two days before the party we got a text that simply said, “R we dancing Saturday night?” Within the hour they’d booked their flights and I had a permanent grin on my face until we met them for drinks late Friday night. It must have been adrenaline that kept me awake. Breakfast at a local deli that makes fabulous southern biscuits, a little shopping, talking and laughing was followed by pedicures for the ladies. Our late afternoon lunch held us over until it was time to dance. And dance we did! For hours.

Celebrating life. Celebrating friendship. Celebrating spontaneity.

Some Days You Should Just Stay in Bed

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Alarm Clock 3

I awoke on the morning of my recent birthday convinced I was losing my mind. I’ve heard aging can have that effect but I didn’t expect to notice it in a day. We were supposed to meet our adult children for a birthday breakfast in a nearby town. I awoke, showered and was getting dressed when my husband asked if this was the weekend the time changed. My eyes widened and my adrenaline started pumping.  “Oh my gosh,” I said with my voice rising on every word. “Yes!  The time moved forward so we’re an hour behind schedule. We’ll never make it,” I said pacing the floor. Never losing his calm demeanor he said, “this clock says 6:20.”  I lowered my voice to near normal octave, realizing my alarm clock is now my cell phone. “Oh…that’s right, the phone automatically changes, so we’re alright.”

And then just as quickly, I forgot that I’m not the only one using modern technology. “The kids will never remember the time change,” I said, speaking more quickly than my normal rapid pace. “We should call them.”  Apparently some habits, like manually changing clocks, become so ingrained that logic flies out the window. First, I called my son who most detests mornings. He seemed to be awake, although I suspect my call woke him, and said he was on track. I texted my daughter and heard right back.  However, she called within 10 minutes asking for confirmation of the time because her cell phone switched back to the old time after waking her up at the new time. As a result, she was giving her husband mixed messages—“Wake up we have to get going (to which I imagine he began stirring).” Oh wait, no…you have tons of time (to which I’m sure he immediately went back to sleep).” To the final decree, “NO WAIT…get up NOW, you only have 15 minutes left.”

My husband and I got to the restaurant 10 minutes early. Where we’re from ten minutes early is on time, on time is late. (Can you relate?) My daughter and son-in-law strolled in about ten minutes late and a call from our son ten minutes later revealed that he was at the wrong location altogether. It continued to a comedy of errors all morning.  Which was oddly comforting.  Maybe I wasn’t losing it after all.

A Virtual Toast to Virtual Dinners

“How small are you chopping the dates?” Tim asked my husband as they stood in their respective kitchens cooking. “About like this,” he responded holding up a date piece to the computer’s camera lens. The screen showed dual pictures, one of Tim holding up a date piece to compare to the one we could see in the other screen showing my husband’s hand. They looked about the same size. “Let’s chop them a little more and that’ll be good,” they agreed.

It was almost like being together in the same place, cooking, talking, laughing, as we have done so many times in the past 26 years of our friendship. Yet we now live 700 miles apart and find our get togethers too far and few between. “Should we open the wine yet?” my husband asked Tim. “Well, I think it’s a critical part of cooking,” he said and a glance at the screen showed he was ahead of the game.

The men had gone to the same grocery store at the same time but in our respective states. They spent nearly an hour on the phone walking through the store figuring out a culinary treat for dinner. They bought all the same ingredients, down to the dark chocolate for dessert and, of course, the wine. We opened our bottle as his wife arrived home from work and walked into their kitchen and our view. Four friends together again. We lifted our glasses toward our laptops, toasting another treasured evening together.

Despite the occasional audio stuttering and fluttering image, which usually evoked more laughter, Skype allowed us to transcend the barrier of distance and get a friends fix that made an ordinary weeknight seem like a holiday. Dinner was served in both states at the same time. We sat close together to fit in the camera’s view, commented on our fabulous meal and caught up on life.

Given our geographic distance, getting together usually takes significant planning and big chunks of time. But technology brought us together for a couple of hours, and with no travel, just as if we lived nearby. Between the gourmet meal, the joy of an unexpected evening with them and new possibilities for more connection, I’ve been energized for days.

Silence…the elixir of life

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We are often afraid of silence, because its emptiness feels idle, boring, unproductive, and scary. And so we fill our lives with chaos, noise, clutter. But silence can be lovely, and therapeutic, and powerful. It can be the remedy for our stress and the habits that crush us.

English: Summer Down, Imber Range Living up to...

I paused and read again the lines above in a recent blog by Leo Babauta. Silence can feel idle, unproductive, boring. I love music, talking, laughing, movies. And silence usually requires stillness. Please don’t make me sit still. I have a list, a routine, obligations.

And yet, as my husband and I work to downsize our belongings, I need to stay focused on, as Leo says, subtracting. An executive coach recently told me that most of us (especially women) try to be all things to all people all the time. “I think life has stages,” she said. “For certain periods of time it isn’t feasible nor healthy to be involved in lots of community activities, for example. And during other stages you have time and space to volunteer more.” It reminded me of a saying I once heard and often repeat. “You can have it all. You just can’t have it all at one time.” And the trick to discovering that balance? Silence.


It’s On Me

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English: A photo of a cup of coffee. Esperanto...

I’ve been to Bluffton, SC and it’s nice. Small town feel, nice people. Really nice people as it turns out. A recent issue of Good Magazine highlighted a “pay it forward” story from there.

It all started two years ago at Corner Perk, a small, locally owned coffee shop, when a customer…left $100 extra…to pay for everyone who ordered after her until the money ran out…The woman has returned to leave other large donations every two to three months.

It took a while, but word has started to spread around the tiny coastal town, home to about 12,000 people. Now, more and more customers have been leaving money to pay for others’ food and drink. Cooke says some people don’t even buy anything when they come in; they just stop to donate and head right back out.

Seems like it might be good for business at the coffee shop, too. I admit I might stop in every now and then just to see if I hit it lucky. The story does have me thinking, though, about my tendency to over think (ironic, I know) even with things like charity. I sometimes feel the need to research charitable organizations, compare their missions, figure out exactly how donations are spent. Embarrassingly, I end up stifling my own giving in the process.

Once when I was much younger I bought a (very) used car. One of my first. I pulled in to the gas station and realized I didn’t know which side of the car the gas tank was on. I probably repositioned the car or did something to make it obvious this was a recent purchase. Either that or it was the rusty car combined with my youth that gave someone an idea. I remember being completely shocked when the clerk said my gas had been paid anonymously. I was incredulous. I asked him to repeat what he said and questioned who did it. “They’re already gone,” he said. It’s been more than 20 years since that happened and I still remember it. I wonder how many “planned” donations make that kind of impact.

Paying for a cup of coffee, a first tank of gas, or any number of things may seem like small gestures. But they could change someone’s day. Or even more.

The Urgency of Slowing Down

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" Even in the quietest moment "

Image by gmayster01 via Flickr

In Pico Iyer’s “The Joy of Quiet” published in the New York Times, he states:

The urgency of slowing down — to find the time and space to think — is nothing new, of course, and wiser souls have always reminded us that the more attention we pay to the moment, the less time and energy we have to place it in some larger context….the French philosopher Blaise Pascal famously remarked that all of man’s problems come from his inability to sit quietly in a room alone.

Over the holidays, I had time off and chose not to schedule much.  Unstructured time…what a luxury. Or is it? My natural tendency is not to indulge too long. After all, work, goals, plans, lists, these are the things of a productive and worthy person. And yet, as I slept according to my body’s clock not the alarm clock I felt rested and restored. I exercised at different times of the day and captured the best weather and opportunities to join friends. I lounged on the couch without time boundaries which provided space to reflect on the past, consider the future, share time with my husband, and gain insights that may shape a better 2012.

Today we picked out a movie at Blockbuster and because of a plan we’re on the movie has no return date. The clerk was cheerful and after ringing us up said, “There you go, return it when you’re happy.” I paused. Return it when you’re happy. The power of not living by deadlines. Return when you’re happy. I go back to work tomorrow. And after my slow vacation…that’s exactly what I’ll do.

A Simple Gesture Connects Two Strangers

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I’m not normally the quiet sort. But for some reason, my extroverted self stayed home when we went to the local diner for breakfast this morning. We were seated at a two-top with a chair on one side and a long bench that stretched the length of the wall on the other. Two-tops were lined up side-by-side and next to us was an older woman sitting alone on the bench side. I slid in beside her. At first I felt frustrated. I wanted to have breakfast alone with my husband. Not with him and a complete stranger. Clearly she would hear everything we said so I felt less inclined to start a conversation. Not that I intended to talk about anything super private. Still.

She got up, leaving her purse and coat at the table where her herbal tea was steeping. I  suddenly felt protective of her things. Not that anyone was within reach of her purse, but she was here alone after all. There was nobody for her to say, “Could you watch this a minute?” A luxury I have often.

She came back shortly with the local paper thick with Sunday ads. I had a sudden urge to also read the paper over coffee and was deciding whether I wanted to get one too when she looked our way and said, “You can share the paper with me if you like.” And then she looked at my husband and said with a smile, “but I have the sports section.”

After thanking her and saying the sports section wasn’t his favorite part, I took the front page and handed my husband the arts and living page. We were all quiet a minute and then she said something about making assumptions that he would want the sports section. “I like arts, too,” she said. “I smiled and said not to worry. People have made plenty of assumptions about us, meaning women, though I’m not sure if it was clear. She smiled. Such a simple gesture, sharing the paper. And yet so rare.

I wish we’d have continued engaging with her but the paper called and we were each engrossed in our sections. And then the food came and everyone knows it’s not polite to talk with your mouth full. Mostly, though, I was just finding my way out of the box I was in. A little scrooge-like, resistant to reaching out but now greatly intrigued.

As she was ripping out a coupon I untied my tongue and asked, “Are you all ready for Christmas?” And that was all it took. We learned that she had lived here in the 60’s and 70’s. She moved back over six years ago from Virginia after leaving her husband, a very popular doctor there which apparently meant she lost the majority of her friends. Her grown children live 3 or more hours away and said she is getting used to them not being nearby. Clearly dealing with issues of aging and major life transitions, she was interesting and I could had kept talking but our bills came cueing us to leave.

“You can take the paper if you want,” she said. “I’m done with it.” Like the breakfast she ordered and only ate part of, the paper was simply a method of connecting with the world. And the fortunate diner at the next table.

Simplifying Christmas

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ImageIf you had to choose, would you keep Thanksgiving or Christmas? If recent conversations are a clue, many of my friends would say Thanksgiving. They say it’s all about expectations. Thanksgiving is simple. Time spent with those we love, eating a great meal and reflecting on our blessings. (I suppose it may also includes naps, football and parades.) Christmas, despite it’s origins, is saddled with a very high bar of expectations. It’s no longer about expressing love. There are “time-honored” (and often guilt-motivated) traditions to uphold. These include tree buying (or dragging from the attic) and trimming, house decorating (inside and out…a constant untangling of lights), baking cookies, attending holiday parties (with a dish or a gift), caroling, volunteering, donating, pulling off secret santa shenanigans, sending out Christmas cards (after finding the right sentiment, updating the address list, buying Christmas stamps and writing a detailed annual letter ), watching holiday classics, attending church services and, of course, buying just the right gifts for everyone (including the mailman) while remembering to fill the stockings. All this squeezed into already over-scheduled lives with the added headaches of coordinating complex family schedules (and perhaps dealing with challenging dynamics).

I’ve had many Christmases like that. There are good moments…and lots of stress. Our commitment to simplify has encompassed Christmas in the last few years. Cutting back on activities, expenses, the number of gifts, etc. This year, our (adult) children agreed to not exchange gifts. Instead, we will have an experience together (yet to be determined). I love the simplicity of that plan, made even sweeter by the promise of time together and shared memories. We have a few decorations in our house but no tree (which I could never quite reconcile anyway given my reverence for nature). Since we’re all complaining about weight, there’s on pressure to make cookies. And I gave up Christmas cards years ago when the stress of meeting my own expectations outweighed the joy. Instead, I’m seeking other ways to embrace the season. Holiday music played anytime. Treating a friend to coffee. Attending (only one or two) seasonal events (like neighborhood caroling or a musical meditation at church). It leaves time for reflection, restoration and gratitude. Space to be both humbled and inspired by the meaning of the celebration. And a calmer entry into the new year.

Shhh…Ahhh.

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There’s not enough quiet in this world. For as much as I love talking, laughing, listening to music and generally having fun, there are times when I long for silence. Sitting without hearing motors, music, talking, yelling, phones, televisions, barking, or anything at all. A little quiet stills my mind and reminds me that being busy doesn’t define my worth. It’s time standing still, a moment to soak in and be grateful for all that is good in life. It’s like an anti-Black Friday routine. The rounding out of a full Thanksgiving day. A way to enter the Christmas season without frenzy.

Today, my husband and I are having our coffee in a quiet house. He’s reading, I’m writing. I feel connected to him by a level of comfort where questions don’t need to be asked and conversation can wait (perhaps only women can appreciate this…as most men I know don’t have a problem with silence or less conversation). It’s like sitting in the sun on a winter’s day. Especially during the holiday season, finding such moments can be tough. Yet if this morning is any clue, it will be worth the effort.