The Art of Happiness

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Let me just start this by saying this is not an advice post. I love stories, but I don’t know the hard details of yours. The things in here that were true for me might not be true for you, and I know how much it can hurt to be in a vulnerable place and hear exactly the wrong advice. So let me say again: this post is just me, sticking a peg in the ground to mark where I am today. So I can look back and remember.

Anyway.

When Iris was about four months old and Carl was just hobbling back to work on crutches, needing rides everywhere and help in the shower, I have a vivid memory of one particular afternoon, pacing from the front door to the back in endless repetition while Iris screamed in my arms (she cried before every nap and woke up 3-6 times every night at that age). And I remember the total exhaustion of misery, just luxuriating in all sorts of self-destructive fantasies.

You know. What they used to call having a good cry before we all became our own psychotherapists.

And somewhere in the middle of all that pacing, I stopped at the front door and stared out the window and realized that I wasn’t going to end my life, and I needed to knock it off already.

I needed to figure my life out. Now. For real.

And I no longer cared if it made me selfish or superficial or unspiritual to admit it: I wanted to be happy. Not just “joyful” or whatever people say when they really aren’t happy but are trying to make the best of it. Happy.

In the last two years, let me tell you, I have read so many books and articles on happiness and psychology and positive thinking and random life stories I’ve lost count. My news feed is stuffed to the gills with articles about productivity and motivation and peace and joy and gratitude and YES, I MIGHT BE INSANE. I KNOW. There are so many awesome ways to tear apart this kind of process that I wasn’t particularly vocal about my intentions. This is not the kind of thing you want to bring up at holiday dinners. But that’s what I’ve been up to for the last two years, give or take.

Here’s the thing: it’s impossible to really, confidently assign cause and effect in something so huge and complicated and interrelated as 2 years of living and 2 new babies and normal life growth.

But I can also tell you: I’ve never been happier.

Not like: today was a good day! Like: I have been pretty much happy for two or three months straight. If this is normal life for you then you go, Glen Coco, but it’s not been normal for me. It’s been so abnormal that I’ve spent the last couple of weeks mulling it over, trying to figure out if it’s just random life stuff (I have cute kids! My marriage is good! I don’t have to juggle working outside of the home!). Granted, it could be. I’m in a pretty sweet spot right now.

But I also read a lot of books on parenthood and talk to fellow parents of young kids, and according to every study I’ve ever read having young children actually makes you less happy. Less satisfied with your marriage, more stressed, less happy. So, yes, I have a lot of awesomeness going on in my life right now, but based on the entire course of my life—and anecdotally from plenty of survivor stories both big and small—I’m going to go out on a huge limb here and say that, for me anyway,

Happiness seems to be an art.

A habit.

A gift only I could give myself.

So there you have it. And what does all that mean? I don’t know. Maybe tomorrow I’ll wake up totally depressed and angry at the world. It’s possible. But it’s also just possible that all of the crazy things I’ve been doing, the habits I’ve been learning, the questions I’ve started to ask myself ARE paying off in small, tangible ways.

And on the outside chance that’s true, I’m going to go on a farther limb (a leaf?) and list the most helpful ones here. So I can find them again when life gets rough. On the off chance that there’s somebody out there who’s where I was two years ago, looking for company on this particular journey.

1. You are the mountain, emotions are just weather. (Also known as: read a crap load of zen books). I love reading zen books for a lot of reasons, but the two most helpful things for me have been 1) the practice of noticing my emotions rather than inhabiting them (wow I’m really frustrated right now, I should proceed with caution vs. volcanic eruption of frustration, blame, and self-justification). And 2) stop believing every storyline my emotional self offers me. Emotions are good at telling stories, and they’re always high drama. The baby goes down late so you don’t have time to get out like you planned and suddenly THE BABY TAKES UP ALL YOUR TIME. Or your husband forgets to do something he promised and YOU HAVE TO DO EVERYTHING. Or God forbid you yell at your kid and YOU HAVE DESTROYED HER SPARKLE FOREVER.

2. Say what you need to say, and do what you need to do. The path to enlightenment is littered with people who tried to control their emotions by just stuffing them. I know because I have regular smashups. But emotions are like good lies—most of the time there’s a kernel of truth in them. Deal with the kernel before it sprouts into something bigger.

 

3. Make friends with failure. There is a zen story about a master who was asked what he would do if he met his worst enemy outside his house. His answer? Invite him in for tea.   Do you want to know what my writing goals are for next year? To get rejected 10 more times. Do you want to know what my writing goals are every work day? One sentence. And yet… I started the novel I’m working on right now when I was four months pregnant with Oliver, and I’m 40,000 words in. I am perfectly happy to fail all the way to the finish line. Fear of failure is the biggest time waster in the world. For sure it never added one iota to my happiness.

4. You can’t love your life until you accept your limitations. I am me. I will probably never make as much money as my brother Aaron or live in exotic places like my brother Michael or invest in as many people as my brother Jon or be as focused about paying back debt as my brother Dan or have the sly joie de vivre of my brother Stephen or the academic sharpness of my brother Joel. (I have a lot of brothers). I’m not going to be the next J. K. Rowling or Anne Lamott either. That’s ok. The giftedness of others doesn’t lessen the value of my gifts. It just makes the world a better place.

5. Stop trying so hard to fix your problems and start trying to enjoy your blessings. I have plenty of problems. My house is rarely clean. Iris watches too much TV. Starting an interesting movie in the evening or leaning in for a kiss pretty much guarantees that Oliver will immediately wake up and cry. I wish I was able to contribute financially to our family, and I wish Carl had more time to be home. I hate winter. I have a few loved ones struggling with various and sundry. But you know what? All of those things are either out of my control or waaaaaaaaaay too far down the priority list for me to worry about right now. Which leads me to…

6. Practice gratitude. Practice the heck out of it. There are a million ways to do this and all of them are good. I think about my 3 favorite moments from the day before falling asleep. I look at newborn pictures of the kids and am blown away by how sweet the days have been. Carl and I remind each other of fun or funny things that happened years ago. When I see myself in the mirror and think inevitably about those last 10 pounds of baby fat, I thank my body for giving me two amazing babies. I don’t make as much time for prayer as I’d like, but the prayer I always have time to say is simple. Thank you.

That’s it. That’s what I’ve been learning lately. Nothing too earth shaking. Nothing you couldn’t read someplace else, but so beautifully happy-making in practice I can’t resist writing it down to keep like a lucky penny.

As I like to remind Carl when Iris spills her milk across the table and Oliver is howling because I’m not shoveling the bananas in his face fast enough, THESE ARE THE GLORY DAYS. My biggest goal, the biggest change, is just trying to enjoy the ride.

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Basically, It’s a Disease

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You guys. I am so hooked on my productivity plans. And lists. I cannot stop making lists. The funny thing is that I am actually getting stuff done. Like, not Steve Jobs done. I will not be featured on any magazine covers for this. But done like “I have one kid in the carrier and one toddler” done. Like I washed my counter tops today AND got dressed AND refilled the bird feeder.

It’s fabulous what can be accomplished with a little motivation, a little coffee, and a lot of lists.

OH. And I am still keeping up with my Project 52. Two weeks ago I wrote a 16 page chapter, and last week I did a mixed media picture that was hanging in our bedroom for 2 days before I pulled it back down because it’s not finished, and I figured out what else it needed. I just haven’t quite gotten to it yet.

Ha.

Life is good. If I could figure out where to find the time for blogging, it would be better still, but I’m working on it. Actually I’ve also been doing a lot of brainstorming on the blog front, but that’s a whole separate conversation. Right now, in the sliver of minutes before Iris gets bored playing by herself and Oliver wakes up from his morning nap, all I have time for is to say….

I still exist!

I’m still project-ing like mad!

Here is some cuteness to brighten your day!!

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Resolutions

 

IMG_2744I am wedged between two sleeping babies, propped up in bed with a Japanese cartoon still blaring, my laptop open and a nice inroad made in my Christmas shopping. These are the moments I have.

It’s always tempting to describe my life as so busy, but it’s not really the busyness that gets me. There are lots of people who are so much busier. It’s more the constant flow of things that gets me. Like there is nothing particularly frenetic about trying to organize a closet and buy a couple of Christmas presents and make dinner, but when you add the needs (both real and imaginary) of two kids it somehow feels incredibly blurry and busy.

It takes effort not to believe the hype, especially when I am my own best spin doctor.

So I’ve decided that I really only need two resolutions for this January: to work harder and to be less attached to the results.

By harder, I don’t mean busier. I don’t need to do more stuff. I do stuff every minute of my waking life. But it’s not always the stuff I want to be doing. I do a lot of unintentional, mindless stuff. A lot of reactive stuff—letting my day be dictated by diaper changes and juice requests and wow-it’s-been-a-long-time-since-I-loaded-the-dishwasher. I would like to be more intentional about my days with the kids and more disciplined about my own work.

(Speaking of, I finally got my files back from the laptop that died right around the time Iris was born. 3 novel manuscripts, hundreds of pages of notes, poems, essays. I spent an evening going through them… now I just need to make a plan for where to best focus my time and get back to work.)

So yes. More focused, more proactive and less reactive.

But less attached to the results too. That’s the other thing that causes a lot of frustration and ego bruising. I feel like I work really hard to keep clean laundry at the ready and the kids happy and meals prepped and a certain number of words chalked up at whatever deadline I have set for myself. So it’s frustrating—either I actually get to everything on my list and it STILL doesn’t mean the house is tidy or the kids are happy or the book is worth reading, or I don’t get to everything on my list and am frustrated for obvious reasons… or maybe I do get everything done and everyone’s great but somehow I feel like I should really get a little more appreciation.

Because ultimately I still believe that the results of my work say something about me. I actually believe I have control over them.

I’m sort of addicted to label sticking. Gold star if the day goes well! Like I have control over whether or not Iris slept well or Oliver decides he only wants to take milk from a bottle for the day. (Whaaaaat? Yes. He’s a slow eater and occasionally decides he would rather have pumped milk from a bottle because—contrary to what most of the books will tell you is normal—my body is sort of like “oh, you want milk? I’ll give you milk. IN YO FACE!” And also contrary to what you might assume, kids can be completely different. Iris had no problems except her own impatience—at times she would literally cry if I tried to feed her from my not-quite-so-fast side. Go figure).

Yeah, this is not the stuff I can control.

I would like to do my work because it’s the work I’ve chosen to do.

And that’s it. Anything else seems to lead me into the swamp. If I “have to” do it, then I become bitter. If I’m doing it because it makes life better for my faaaaaaaaaaaamily, then I start feeling like they owe me. If I do it because it’s commendable to be hardworking and achieve stuff, then I feel badly about myself if the day doesn’t go as planned or (even more annoying) find myself saying mildly defensive things about how busy life is with kids when I’m chatting with friends. Busy is a spectrum. I don’t even know what busy means anymore. I’m just raising kids, and sometimes I enjoy the sensations that go along with that and sometimes I don’t. That’s all.

I think maybe it’s called integrity, that thing where you do the stuff in front of you to the best of your actual ability (and not your imagined ability, because we’re all awesome in there) and don’t get all freaked out and needy about the results.

Yeah. I think maybe I’ll just grab me some of that next year.

Anyone else have resolutions brewing?

 

We are THAT family

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I asked Carl what he wanted to do tonight thinking, I dunno, maybe take the kids for a walk or try to get some cleaning done before bath time. Nope. It’s the 4th of November and Carl wants to decorate for Christmas. So that’s what we did. We put up our Christmas stuff three weeks before Thanksgiving.

We’re that family.

And we love it.

Deck the halls, yo.

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Coping

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People do all kinds of crazy (and utterly sane) things to cope with challenging situations. Some coping is healthy. Some isn’t. Sometimes I eat half a bag of candy bars while pacing with a crying baby, and sometimes I meditate after the baby finally falls asleep.

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Buddhist books.

It’s not that I’m particularly interested in being Buddhist, whatever that may mean. I’m happy with the essentials of my faith, but most of the Christian reading I’ve come across lately feeds into the—for lack of a better term—codependency Christianity I’ve practiced before and still sometimes fall into. So much garden-variety Christianity is about change—how to pray for change, work for change, desire to change. You have to change your attitude; change your heart; change your actions. You pray so that God will change your circumstances or at least change the way you perceive them.

Change, aspire, grow—anything but stay where you are and accept who you are.

I’m not saying there’s not some truth to this sort of thinking. I’m just saying I have thirty years familiarity with it and it’s gotten me a bit lopsided. Sort of like a potted plant on the kitchen window. Plants grow toward whatever light is available, and if there’s only light from one direction you can safely bet your plant’s going to get a bit leggy on the other side. I’m well-aware that God is powerful, that I am not God, that there is a very real sense in which I need salvation.

But the salvation imagery can become so habitual to a Christian that suddenly we think we need salvation from EVERYTHING. I’d like to be saved from Oliver’s fussy evenings and my irritation at being woken for the fifth time at night; I’d like God to save me from being a crap mom when I don’t sleep and by 6:30 I REALLY want Carl to save me from parenting solo. I’d like my friends to save me from being lonely and my books to save me from being bored.

I want things to change, and my mind is constantly bent on figuring out who should change (ok, sometimes I admit I’m the one that needs to change, but it would be super convenient if it was other people) or what should change in order for me to suddenly exist in a nirvana-like state of bliss on earth.

I mean, that would be great, right?

Too bad it’s completely absurd.

So I need the gentle reminders of my Buddhist books. And even though there are Bible passages to support most of these concepts, the treads are worn thin on them for me. I need to hear them in a fresh way. I need to hear that everything about my life right now—both precious and crazy-making—is impermanent, a short season that will never come again. I need to know that difficult circumstances are a given but suffering is optional; I need to hear that my children are holy beings and be reminded that suffering is an inevitable byproduct of trying to control other people.

Pema Chodron helped me through Iris’s infancy, and last week my copies of Buddhism for Mothers and Zen Momma showed up at my door. I won’t say they’ve completely changed my life (there’s that word again). In fact, the computer ate my first draft of this post—a draft written with my only writing time in a week—and let me promise you I received that news with all the grace and acceptance of a two-year-old Attila being escorted out of Chuck E. Cheese. But you know. Acceptance is a spectrum. Life is long. Lessons recur.

I actually sat down to write this post in the first place because I was inspired by an off-hand remark made in one of the books that it can be important for mothers of young children not to get too attached to the idea of “me time”—not because it’s not important to take time away for yourself to recharge and be alone, but because a too-literal reading of that can leave you believing that all the rest of life is “not me” time. It becomes all too easy to spend entire days counting down to tiny slivers of time.

And I am SUPER GUILTY AS CHARGED. I can’t even look at a clock anymore without calculating when Carl will be home or the play date starts or I finally get to go to bed. It’s honestly sad.

So the pictures up top are from the day I decided to start working harder to enjoy the times I do have instead of waiting for the ones I think I want. I don’t have time right now to experiment with painting the way I’d like to, but I DO have time to paint with Iris. So that’s what we did. And it was great. She loved it, and I was able to play on the canvas with a freedom I couldn’t have had if I’d been trying to seriously create something.

The more I read about acceptance and happiness, the more I think it’s truly a skill set that has nothing to do with circumstances. The only way to become more skillful is to practice daily. When I don’t have time to paint, when the computer eats my draft, when I’m watching Winnie the Pooh for the eighth time or trying to read with both babies asleep on me… I can practice wishful thinking or I can practice acceptance.

So far acceptance has been a much better time.

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PSYCH!!

IMG_2478 copyOur days continue to be full of sweet, nuzzle-y moments (exhibit A, Iris playing with Oliver after tub time). Our nights, however, have mostly gone to hell. Not that Oliver doesn’t sleep; he actually sleeps pretty fantastically after eleven or midnight. Until then, he mostly screams/fusses/requires 100% of at least one parent’s energy (sometimes both. It depends) starting about the time we put Iris to bed. Since he is otherwise all sunshine and rainbows, I think it’s either normal baby stuff or maybe we just make colicky babies? (And if this is normal baby stuff and you don’t have kids yet, the Gandalf FLY YOU FOOL gif might just continue to be one of the more relevant ones out there). I really have no idea. He naps well, eats on demand, spends most of his day in the carrier…

He’s a happy, healthy little chunk. Just not between 8 and 11pm.

Basically, they tag-team us. Oliver keeps us busy until 11 when we collapse into bed, then they take turns getting us up in the night, and Iris pops up for the day somewhere between 5:30 and 6.

I. Am. Dying.

Not just from the sleep stuff, although that sucks, but with Oliver’s colicky evenings I literally have no breaks for the mental health stuff—the creative pursuits and showers sans crying babies. I’m actually writing this standing up at the kitchen counter because Oliver’s napping in the carrier on my chest and he’ll wake up if I sit down. Iris is asleep upstairs, but she only went down for her nap because I drove her around for a while in the car—although I can’t let her STAY asleep in the car, because then Oliver wakes up and (yes) cries. My days are pretty much one of those nonsensical logic puzzles Lewis Carroll excelled at.

But that’s life. Those are the problems inherent in the life I chose, and I know it won’t be like this forever.

It just is right now.

So until it stops, I’m pretty much putting everything else on hold. Project 52, better blogging, having a schedule for Iris other than Netflix… I’m going to have to figure that out later. Maybe that can be my goals list for 2014.

And in the very short-term, maybe I will even go upstairs and change the whole changing table since Ollie soaked it when I changed his diaper mid-paragraph a few minutes ago. Who knows. I might even get something legitimately clean before Iris wakes up and wants chicken nuggets.

IMG_2479 copyBut yes. This photo (exhibit B) is pretty much why everything in my life right now. Babies are magical little monsters, and that shaggy forelock is killing me. She looks, running around the house with smears of chocolate and dirt, a lot like a wild pony from Chincoteague.

 

 

Me Again

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Asleep in the car after dropping Carl at work

For the first time in weeks both babies are asleep and I am—by choice!—not also napping. Woot woot! We’ve had a lot of sketchy nights in the sleep department, including a stretch where Iris woke up a couple of times in the night and then was up for the day at 5:30am. Carl and I have become quite good at strategizing while half-asleep, and since the air mattress is still set up in our office, there have been a couple of mornings where we either divide the kids up or just take turns getting that last half an hour of sleep in peace.

Eh. We knew there would be hard moments.

There are also a lot of incredibly fun and sweet ones, and in what other job would I get to have two super cute babies fall asleep snuggling me every day? I’m more aware this time just how fast infancy goes, and the awareness makes me enjoy it so much more. It’s hard to believe Oliver is almost a month old already.

Although there are tell-tale signs…

For starters: I’m not asleep right now. I feel pretty great physically. We’ve stopped eating both freezer meals AND fast food. And, maybe most telling, it’s starting to make me twitchy to not be writing anything.

You know you’re getting to the end of recovery when resting, ironically enough, just makes you more restless.

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