Thursday, March 22, 2012

locus - the art of becoming an "innie"

(This was my belly)

 When I was about 12 months pregnant (just kidding, but it felt like it) with my first child, I joked about the turkey timer of my bellybutton popping out from its usual "innie" status to becoming an "outie".  I thought it was a lovely visual analogy for my sense of focus: deeply inward during early and mid-pregnancy, moving slowly outward as it became time to prepare for birth and mothering a child.

My sense of happiness is linked inextricably to motherhood in many, many ways - both my own, and my own mother's.  As a young girl, I was steeped in my mom's favorite sayings, like these beauties:
  • if you smile enough, you'll feel happier
  • things will always look better in the morning
I watched her own struggle to apply this approach to her own life.  I saw where it bolstered her, and where it sometimes failed her and left her with nothing but her inherent strength to keep her upright.  Oh yeah, that one too:
  • keep your chin up
I also watched her struggle with the overwhelming melodrama of dealing with an almost-out-of-control early teenager.  Trying to teach me how to control my own responses to the difficulties a complicated family life and financial hardship was handing me, trying to show me the beauties that were still there.  I didn't pick that up well at all, not for quite a long time.  I put everything I was - or thought I was - into friends or boys, many of them fleeting, some of them even borderline abusive.  Then, at some point, one of mom's sayings clicked for me:
  • we make our own happiness
Being angry wasn't getting me anywhere, and there wasn't a single person I had met in my limited years who had been capable of "making me happy".  What a shocking revelation, because isn't "you make me happy"  a key part of all teenage romance stories?  (for that matter, 60% of adult romance stories too, with the remainder composed of, "change because you love me").  I eventually started to pull my sense of self away from the equally-struggling people I had entrusted with it, and remembered that I had a usable brain, a sense of humor, and a sense of ambition of my own.  I found myself gravitating
(This is NOT my belly)
toward friends who already knew or who were discovering the same things.  Somewhere further down the road I read a page in a psychology book detailing the concept of "locus of control":  your locus can either be internal (meaning the person believes that they control their life) or external (meaning they believe that their environment, some higher power, or other people control their decisions and their life).  It was around that time that I had also come to a slow and painstaking conclusion that organized religion didn't make sense to me at all, and the idea that the heartwrenching sense of being at loose ends throughout adolescence could end with me holding the reins of my own life ... nothing before or since has been so empowering.

Of course, in my early days with my husband, I probably still would have said that he made me happy.  Looking back now at our 19 years together (we're one of the weird and lucky couples who met at the end of high school and still like each other), I can say that isn't correct.  I feel good about who I am in his eyes.  His support has helped me to realize and develop my own strengths.   He says things that tickle our shared humor and I enjoy a laugh with him.  When he remembers details about my likes and needs I feel treasured.  When we had difficulty getting pregnant, I was consoled by sharing the stress and pain.  When we were successful and had our daughters, my joy was multiplied by seeing the same in his eyes.  Does he make me happy?  No.  I am happy that I am with him.  But he doesn't MAKE me anything, which has been an absolute key element of our relative success to date.

The very definition of "outie"
So often now I find myself gazing at the petulant face of a peevish 5 year old (yes, there was a birthday party at our house last week) who is screeching, "you do NOT make me happy" at her sister.  I wrack my brain to find a way to share those insights on her level.  I find myself saying, "we make our own happiness...".  I come up short, of course, every time.  She's simply developmentally not ready to be an "innie" yet.

locus:  a center or source, as of activities or power

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

appliance - refrigerator as sage

A magnet on my refrigerator reads: “I have decided to be happy because it is good for my health.” Research supports the connection between emotional wellbeing and health. But what about the notion that happiness is a choice? Though I tend to think more about contentment and joy than happiness, I subscribe to Abraham Lincoln’s belief that “most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” As it happens, contemporary studies bear this out as well. (A WebMD article summarizes some of these studies in lay terms.)

If we can indeed choose happiness, the obvious question is: How? As I pondered this question, it occurred to me that I could once again look to my refrigerator for my response.

Commit to the Choice 

You probably know people who believe happiness depends on external circumstances. I’m in regular contact with one of these people, and you know what? That person is right. If you give other people and events the power to determine your happiness, they’ll generally oblige and you’ll generally be miserable. If, on the other hand, you claim responsibility for your own outlook, you’ll enjoy an immediate sense of efficacy that leads to positive thoughts and actions. I’m not talking The Secret’s Law of Attraction or even Norman Vincent Peale’s Power of Positive Thinking. Happy thoughts won’t erase poverty or war, bring back lost loved ones, restore sight to my right eye, or land me a job. But my thoughts govern my reactions to unhappy circumstances. If there are practical ways I can make a bad situation better, a positive outlook gives me the confidence to attempt those changes.

Cultivate Gratitude

Even under crummy circumstances, I seek to recognize and appreciate the many good things in life. Most days, I’m bowled over by the extravagance of these things: vision in my left eye that is better than it was ten years ago, two garbage bags filled with hand-me-down clothes for my daughter, free books at the library, a dog who greets my arrival like I’m a rock star, a piano from an older woman at church, a piano teacher who lives next door, fuzzy socks, windows that open to the spring breeze, a lovely paragraph in Ted Kooser’s book on poetry, visits to a hometown where I can see the stars at night, hearing my daughter’s Big Bad Wolf voice as she learns to read Little Red Riding Hood, hearing my son pick out a harmony line to the 1970s song Magic of all things, the purple door in my bathroom, my $75 refrigerator.

My husband and I have spent many Saturday mornings—one of which was our first date—browsing garage sales. We have seen a refrigerator at a garage sale exactly once: the weekend after we moved into our current home and inherited a refrigerator that constantly sounded like it was making ice, even though it wasn’t equipped with an ice maker. The location of the garage sale? One block from our house. Some neighbors had remodeled their kitchen and were reselling their four-year-old fridge for $75. As a bonus, walking a refrigerator down the street turns out to be a great way to meet the rest of your neighbors.

Give Back
When you begin to see abundance around you, the desire to give back comes almost automatically. What is the purpose of those benefits if not to benefit someone else? International child sponsorship is not without controversy, but our family has chosen it as a way to support communities in other parts of the world from our home in Minnesota. The point is not how you give, but that you give in whatever way you can. You can always find reasons for tightfistedness—most of which reveal the desire to control the way a recipient uses what we give—but I believe it’s almost always better to err on the side of meeting the need in front of you. That might mean giving my gloves to a homeless man, shoveling a neighbor’s sidewalk when she’s recovering from a shoulder injury, inviting a woman with three items to move ahead of me in the checkout line, or sending a thank you card to someone I appreciate. I don’t do these things because they make me happy, but I’m happier having done them.

Ask for Help

Conversely, we’re all needy at some point. My personal wellbeing has depended on admitting my needs and asking for help, most significantly when I took a semester off college to seek treatment for bulimia. Because of that history, I chose a doctor with a mental health background when we moved to Minnesota. She’s one of the people I routinely ask for help.

Invest in Relationships
Of course, many of the people who help me are friends and family members, and I hope they would say I help them in return. Healthy relationships are well-established contributors to overall happiness, but they can be elusive. Making meaningful connections requires time, commitment, and (gulp) vulnerability. Even when you’re a supportive friend or devoted family member, there’s no guarantee the other person will meet you halfway. In the end, though, I think relationships are what life on earth is about, and it’s hard to imagine happiness without them.

Tend to the Soul

My beliefs about happiness, as well as my happiness itself, are linked to my thoughts about eternity and my place within it. I think of my soul as the eternal part of me, the part that connects me to all things mortal and divine. I tend to my soul by participating in a religious community, appreciating the natural world, praying, reading religious texts, and enjoying artistic interpretations of the human experience.

There are other things that promote happiness: physical health (represented by the food in my refrigerator and the YMCA schedule on the door), meaningful work/activities (the calendar on the side of the fridge), humor (several magnets that make me laugh). Just as I’ve unconsciously furnished my kitchen with these values, I’ve somewhat more intentionally taught them to my children. Their happiness is not my primary goal. I’m more concerned that they recognize and pursue their purpose and give more than they take. If doing these things sets them up for happiness—well, that makes me happy.

appliance - 1. a device or instrument designed to perform a specific function 2. the use or application of a technique 

Sunday, March 11, 2012

insouciance - when did holidays get so noisy?

I'll be honest. This is a difficult post for me to construct. You see, Hallmark holidays were rarely celebrated in my house growing up, and I've kept up this “tradition.” I'm the parent who says, “oh nuts, it's Valentine's day tomorrow? We'd better run to XYZ store and pick up some cards.” “Oh nuts, it's St. Patrick's Day tomorrow? Do you have anything green and semi-clean to wear?” You get the idea.

Don't get me wrong. This isn't an intentional political statement on my part – after all, the word intention suggests a certain level of deliberation. It's just that I don't understand the fuss.

Furthermore, I – like all of you – am busy. Busy, in a way that consistently surprises me. Busy, after 8 years of parenting, that doesn't seem like it SHOULD surprise me. Busy, with laundry to wash – kids to transport – dog poop to scoop – professional obligations to meet – PTO meetings to try and attend – desperately needed new socks to buy – the list is endless, isn't it? And I have the luxury of a partner who works diligently to share these responsibilities.

Hallmark, and other noted-on-the-calendar-but-in-my-heart, holidays contribute to the noise that surrounds this busy-ness. Noise which makes individual events less decipherable, and which takes away from my mindfulness while doing them. You probably know this noise. The “sound” in your head which reminds you that the grocery store is on your way to buy new socks, so maybe you should run in quickly and pick up that gallon of milk. The “sound” of guilt when you're opting between that PTO meeting when you'd really rather spend time snuggling with your oldest to read Harry Potter together. The “sound” of angst when you realize that you'll be returning from a conference on a day developed to celebrate loved ones – without any physical object to symbolize that love.

Frankly, Hallmark holidays represent just another noise to me, in an often-times cacophonous world. That said, my personal resolution is to minimize these and other noises that take away from my ability to be present with my family, other loved ones, and myself. One of my fellow bloggers noted the importance of random acts of kindness, and how these stand to change the world. To that end, I've just decided to make my slow adoption of Hallmark holidays intentional (and maybe even political), and focus on demonstrating love for my family and others around me when the feeling strikes, not when the calendar tells me to. By doing that, I'm hopeful that I will learn to turn down the volume, and not be overwhelmed by the different noises confronting me.

Simultaneously, I want to thank those around me who enjoy holidays – all holidays – and use them as ways to be present and foster love with their loved ones. I so enjoy seeing how you, and your little helpers, meticulously plan the ways that you're going to share your love of holidays with others around you. It's too much noise in my life because holiday preparations are on the fringes for me. However, some of you embrace these as opportunities to develop connections, and live in the moment. I will continue to be inspired by your intention, while living in my own sense of insouciance when it comes to Hallmark holidays.

insouciance - blithe nonchalance.