As I’ve been going through August, I’ve been diligent about publicly stating each day one thing for which I am thankful. At first I thought that my Facebook friends and Twitter followers might find my devotion to the exercise quirky or even a tad annoying. Really, who wants to read the status updates of somebody when all she does is focus on how wonderful a life she leads? What’s so interesting about that? Nevertheless, I persevered with my effort, and I have been pleasantly surprised.
I’ve received encouragement, praise and even commentary from a couple of people who said they like the idea so much they’ve decided to do it themselves. One particularly amusing comment from a woman with whom I attended high school a million years ago queried “Are you taking happy pills? If you are, sell me some!”
Of course, I can’t take the credit for the idea; I must defer to Gretchen Rubin and her book The Happiness Project, from whence I borrowed the idea. What I can do, however, is take credit for my implementation and follow through, as well as for the changes it’s generated in my life during a brief period of time.
The three weeks that I’ve been posting my daily thankfulness tidbit, and ruminating on the people and things in my life for which I’m grateful have brought much joy into my life. For the last few years, more often than I’d like to admit I’ve felt sad and downtrodden by life and my place in the world, but the last few weeks it is as if a cloud has lifted and the sun is shining brightly, illuminating all the dark spaces and chasing away the shadows. I made a conscious decision to be happy, and I haven’t let anything stand as an obstacle. I looked around at the happiest people I know and made a deliberate intention to be more like them, to stop battering myself.
Since I stopped incorporating negativity into my life, I find myself turning into an optimist, and that positive attitude is bringing positive energy to my life. My little gratitude experiment has made me happy. That one small shift in attitude has made me realize just how truly blessed I am to have the life I do, the family and friends I do, the husband and child I do. Because I love and cherish my people, and their meaning in my life, for the first time in a long time I feel and know that I am loved and cherished, that I am important.
Determining that I will be happy has given me to freedom to open my heart to all that I have in my life, and I’ve discovered how good giving of myself and letting people see the real me can feel. I’ve stopped hiding myself, stopped trying to protect myself from something I was sure was waiting around every corner, stopped presuming the bottom was going to drop out and instead started assuming that the best is yet to come.
I’ve ripped the tarp off of long buried family secrets and discovered that the dysfunction doesn’t define me, but instead makes me human, makes me approachable and real. I’ve stopped being ashamed of what I’ve survived, and intend to share it, to illuminate it, to confront it at last so that I can be free of it. No longer will I hide the secrets, keeping them in the dark to grow like so much fungus, afraid that if the world sees, it will pass judgment on me for the sins of others.
From the earth to the heavens, thank you. You make me smile.
I spent most of the month of June in my car. I’m not exaggerating. I started the month with just over 48,000 miles on my car. On the morning of July 1 when I took my son to camp, I saw a number in excess of 52,000 on the odometer. Barring a coast to coast drive, I didn’t think it was possible for me to put that many miles on my car inside 30 days. I did it, though, all the while listening to audio books, drafting stories in my head, revisiting my past, and blasting 80s music on Sirius radio.
To be fair, it’s much better now that I’ve ripped up the carpeting in the first floor hallways and put in a light grey ceramic tile floor.
The kitchen/living area now boasts a hard wood floor.
The front halls and upstairs hallway are now a glacial bluish-purple color, bringing in much needed brightness. The tchotchke-ridden walls are cleared of most clutter, and the shelves and closets have been cleaned of the books, movies and detritus that was the life of its former tenant. The showers have been re-tiled with bright white and non-moldy grout, there are new toilets. Soon all the remaining wallpaper and paint will be replaced, as we plan to replace the bathroom floors, vanities and all the remaining carpeting. Voila! The transformation will be complete.
Ironically, now that we are in the midst of renovating, it is becoming a place I might like to visit, to spend a weekend or even a week. If I could just get over the fact that it was once my husband’s ex-wife’s favorite place on earth.
I hated going there, resisted with everything I had. The facts of the long drive, none of my own things or my little boy’s toys being there, at least a thirty minute drive to the closest grocery store – hell, to civilization – no television or internet service unless I bring my mobile hotspot (or unless I want to pay for cable and internet service nobody will be using 99% of the time). All of it screamed flee, dig in your heels, hold on tight to your space and your familiar. After many years of debate on the subject, my husband and I agreed to renovate a little bit and put the place into the hands of the property management company for renting out as a vacation spot to skiers in the winter, hikers and bikers in the spring and summer, leaf-peepers in the autumn. Hence, I spent the month of June hoofing it up MA Route 3N from Boston to Concord, NH, US Route 93N from Concord to Waterville Valley, NH.
When I was young and still had a fairly regular relationship with my biological father, he lived in Nashua, NH with his second wife and her two daughters. On the occasions he picked me up for the weekend, on time or at all, we would drive up MA Route 3N to exit 7W. During my regular drives to Waterville Valley during June, I drove past that exit every time I headed north, every time I headed south. Each time I saw a different piece of my childhood cloud my vision. Most of them weren’t pleasant.
There was the fact of the second wife, my step-mother in name. A woman who called herself my mother’s best friend, who encouraged a close friendship between her own daughters and me, who ultimately slept with my mother’s husband and broke up their marriage, albeit, not without significant assistance from my biological father. A woman who deliberately set out to destroy my mother’s marriage and my life simply because she was a lazy cow who couldn’t be bothered with the consequences of sleeping with her best friend’s husband. A woman who, when my biological father adopted her two daughters, told me – a five year old child – that he was their daddy and could no longer be mine; I’d have to find another daddy.
She was a beast, and on days I look pityingly at the misery, the ultimate disaster her marriage became and how it destroyed her two innocent children’s lives, I remember her telling me I had to find a new daddy, and my hatred for her burns infinitely hot. For while she wrecked my home, I ultimately did find a new daddy. In fact, I lucked out and got the best father any child could have asked for, a man who loved me and supported me, adopted me and gave me his name, and never for a moment has treated me any differently than his own biological child, my sister. A man who gave me the love, support, guidance and courage to live my life and make mistakes, so that I could grow up without fear. A man who adopted me at age 21 just because he loved me and because I asked him.
Her own children were not as lucky. My step-sisters, two young women who were adopted by my biological father and were truly my sisters in emotion. I loved them like sisters. We fought like sisters, laughed like sisters, shared like sisters … almost. They were destroyed by their mother’s second marriage, and for that I blame my former step-mother, among others who failed them. I grew up with them, but when their mother’s marriage exploded in horror and insanity, I lost them. My luck in finding a new daddy saved me from the horror they lived, and I was a constant reminder to them of that awful time in their lives, so I lost them. Two of my sisters, a chunk of my childhood gone. Despite the access to information granted us by the internet, I have not seen either of them in over twenty years.
I think of my sisters when I drive past exit 7W. I think of sleepovers and letters written in wavering childish scrawl sharing the little tribulations of our pre-adolescent lives. I think of the bike rides, the shared adventures exploring the woods around the apartment complex where they lived. I think of the time we were all laughing so hard while riding our bikes that I couldn’t see the parked car in front of me and so slammed into its back bumper, causing the metal handlebar edge to gouge an inch-long hole in my left leg at the edge of my kneecap. I remember screaming and screaming until my biological father came and picked me up to carry me back to the apartment. I remember his wife running cold water in the sink, and him holding me while the water ran over the hole and poured red down the drain to reveal the wound, so deep we could see the bone. And I remember him driving me to the emergency room to get my knee stitched up – garishly so, given that it was 1975 – holding my hand while the kindly young man sewed up the hole, marking me forever.
I am so used to the nasty scar on my knee that I hardly notice it unless questioned about it – usually by my son or another small child – but I have been thinking of it almost incessantly since I started my marathon drives to New Hampshire in June.
Just before exit 7W is exit 6, which leads to Silver Lake State Park in Hollis, NH. I think about swimming in the sandy lake with crystal clear water, frolicking and playing with my sisters as though we were little fish, getting my first sunburn, just two rings of red on my eleven year-old shoulders. I remember the square dancing my biological father and his wife did, my sisters and I watching the broad skirts of the women spinning like great snowy tornadoes as they kicked and leaped with into and through their partners’ arms. And I remember my older sister playing on the seesaw with some other kids whose parents were dancing, as well. Until the other child jumped off the seesaw while she was in mid-air and the board came crashing down to the ground, her face hitting the handle hold, her lips opening, blood spraying as if propelled from a pressurized can, fine mist covering the toy and those of us standing nearby as her vocal cords were rubbed raw by her guttural cries. Then my biological father sprinting across the playground area, gathering her up in his arms, carrying her to safety and first aid.
I asked him later how he knew it was her; he said that he just knew her screams. I puzzled at that as a child, but knowing what I now know, perhaps it was more than that. There is part of me that will always surmise it was more, despite my certainty that no matter what the background if my little boy screamed, I would know it, feel it in my bones.
Of course, all the memories triggered by exit 7W lead me down the street called stream of consciousness and onto so many other paths, into dark corners and my own personal nightmare on Elm Street, but those I can’t relive in a single motion while driving. For those, I need the security of my family, the safety of what my hard-fought battles have reaped. I cannot do it while operating an automobile at 75 MPH on the highway. I need my couch, a blanket, a good stiff drink and my husband’s arms around me while I cry.
My familiar happiness muse tells me that July is a month for buying myself some happiness. Without further ado, here’s how I plan to acquire happiness during the month of July.
a) Indulge in a modest splurge. I need a new pair of eyeglasses this month, and rather than head straight for the sale rack at For Eyes, I plan to stop by the fancy-schmancy eyewear store in the next town and pick up the beautiful pair of Tiffany brand glass frames that I’ve had my eye on for a couple of years.
b) Buy needful things. I’m an under-buyer married to an over-buyer. I guess on some level we balance out one another’s purchasing insanity, but rather than accepting that logic, I’m aiming to bring both of us towards the center.
c) Spend out. Over the past few years, I’ve gotten quite good at this. I get rid of worn out or no longer useful items in my household. What I cannot do is apply the same guidelines to my writing. If I’ve written something, even if I know it’s lousy and will never develop into anything other than what first comes out of my pen or keyboard, I am simply unable to get rid of it. I must learn that the delete key can be my friend.
d) Give up something. I’ve given up my bad habits over the years: too many margaritas or glasses of wine, too much partying, driving overly fast, the occasional social cigarette, eating a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Bonnaroo Buzz in one sitting when I’ve had a bad day. I’ve eliminated all of those bad habits as I’ve aged. To be fair, I still do crave that ice cream on really bad days.
One thing I haven’t given up, however, is my worst habit ever. I yell. I have an explosive temper, most especially when I feel defensive. So that’s what I’ll be giving up for the month of July, and I hope for good. I don’t want to yell at my child or my husband anymore, even when I’m seeing red.
I recently discovered the blog The Orange Rhino, written by a mom who decided she was fed up with yelling so much at her kids and decided to stop. Her commitment was 365 days without yelling; I will commit to 30 days and when I fulfill that obligation to myself and my family, I will recommit to the next 30 days.
One-third of the way through the month of June and I’m finally getting around to composing my monthly happiness guide. According to my happiness muse, life in June should consist of the following items:
a) Remember birthdays.
I’m actually pretty good at this. Of course, I don’t remember everyone’s birthday, but for the inner circle people, I never forget. However, just in case, I’m creating a birthday calendar that will go up on my kitchen wall over the computer desk where I will see each day’s contents while making my morning coffee.
b) Be generous.
I don’t think there is anyone in my life who would argue that I’m not already really good at this. Too good, in fact. I would much rather do things for others, spend time helping others, or creating the perfect gift to bring a smile to someone else’s face than almost anything else on earth. My family routinely tells me I do too much, and that I spend too much time and energy doing for everyone else; I should concentrate on myself a little more. I like how I do it, though, so I don’t plan on making any change. I love making people smile, and it’s so easy to give of myself for that purpose. Making my friends and loved ones happy makes me happy.
I do realize that makes me sound like schmaltzy goody-two-shoes, but it’s the truth.
c) Show up.
See above. The person who loses out in this arena most of the time is me.
d) Don’t gossip.
I’ve gotten better with this as I’ve gotten older and have had an opportunity to see how harmful gossip can be. I’m not talking about the garden variety celebrity gossiping we all love to do about dresses and haircuts and the silly choices young starlets make, but about the stuff that is just plain mean and spiteful. The stuff that lingers and stays with anyone who has ever been so victimized. Leaving it behind will pose no hardship for me. In fact, I’m happy to have an excuse and a reason to turn that page for good.
e) Make three new friends.
This I am working on. I’m reaching out to other mothers at my son’s school, pushing myself to be more open and less guarded. I’m opening up more to women with whom I already have a passing acquaintance, and in one of those cases, I discovered a whole side of her that I never suspected. I’m smiling a lot more and saying hello more often. I have stopped thinking that women I’ve known for a long time, like those I attended high school with, wouldn’t want to be my friends now because we never were friends before. I have stopped presuming to know what people think of me and instead am giving them the opportunity to show me what they think with their behavior. I have also reached out to family members from whom I’ve long been estranged, and in each case, I’ve received notes saying, in effect, “I’m so glad to hear from you!”
I don’t know what precisely will be the outcome of my experimentation, but if I can count three more women among my contact list – even if they are not women I would go out to eat with or have to my home for an intimate tete-a-tete – then I will consider my experiment a success.
According to my magical happiness tome and my spiritual diva guide, Gretchen Rubin, February is the month to Remember Love. Her suggestions for working on her marriage are categorized as follows:
a) Quit nagging. This is pretty self-explanatory, and I’ve actually been doing this fairly successfully for a while. I find I’m much happier when I just let go and take care of myself and my actions, rather than worrying about what everyone around me is doing. I try to look at it as successfully managing my stress levels. The more I nag, the more my blood pressure rises and the higher my anxiety goes, so I stopped. Mostly. After all, nobody’s perfect.
I wasn’t sure how my little experiment was going to go as there was a part of me that viewed my inability to motivate action with my nagging as a sort of personal failure. Occasionally I think if my husband truly loved me he would do as I asked instead of ignoring me. Am I alone in having that thought once in a while? Probably. Nevertheless, I decided to try not nagging for a week and see what happened. The funny thing is the very things about which I had been nagging him began happening – WITHOUT ME EVEN HAVING TO OPEN MY MOUTH!
I gave it another week and got similar results. So I’ve kept my experiment going for a few months now, and I’m finding that more gets done when I keep my mouth shut and just take care of my own business. When I nag, not a whole lot gets done. It’s quite liberating, and I know my husband appreciates it because he smiles a lot more.
b) Don’t expect praise or appreciation. I’m pretty good with this. I keep my house clean for me, not for anyone else. I do the laundry not because I want people to be appreciative of the fact that they have clean clothes, clean towels and clean sheets, but because I want clean clothes, towels, and sheets, and it’s just as easy to do everybody else’s stuff when I do my own. Plus, I want my child and my husband to look neat and clean, but again, that’s my issue, not theirs. It’s taken me many years, but I’ve finally come to terms with the fact that I’m OCD about my living space, and the craziness I impose is for myself alone. Consequently, I don’t expect a thank you when I clean up the kitchen after dinner or put clean clothes in their drawers. I do things because I want to, not because I want people to thank me. It’s just how I roll.
c) Fight right. Many years of dysfunctional relationship and lots of psychoanalysis during my teens, twenties and into my thirties has made me hyper-aware of how to fight so that it’s constructive instead of destructive. There are certain lines you just don’t cross, even with a spouse, or perhaps especially with a spouse. Children grow up watching their parents interact, which includes sometimes disagree or fight, and I don’t want my child to learn bad communication and interaction habits from me. I want him to learn how to cherish the people he loves, and if there is a disagreement, how to resolve it in a way that both parties feel heard and appreciated.
Of course, nobody’s perfect, so this will be an on-going project for the rest of my life. After all, I’m only human.
d) No dumping. Finally, something I’m great at! I don’t dump anything on my husband because I know he’s got his own concerns and stresses at work, plus a whole host of other weighty things on his mind. Consequently, unless it’s something really important or something that requires his counsel, such as decisions regarding our child’s education or medical care, I talk to my girlfriends, my sister, my mother, and leave that stressful part of my life behind when hubby walks through the door. He doesn’t need to hear how I’m wondering if I’m a bad mother because I don’t arrange enough playdates or because I do too much for our son.
e) Give proofs of love. This is hard because we’re both so busy, but that’s no excuse. A quick hug and kiss in the morning, a note tucked into his wallet, a brief touch just to say “Hi, I’m here,” can make all the difference in the world, can easily brighten a day. I know my husband sometimes feels – like every other man whose wife is preoccupied with preschool age children – that I’m distracted and am so focused on our son that I take him for granted and forget about him, so I need to change that. I’m going to start hugging more; hugging relieves stress, after all, and boosts feelings of closeness. Everybody can use less stress and more feelings of closeness. I’m also going to figure out a way for us to spend some more time alone, other than late evenings after our little guy is asleep.
I can’t forget why I fell in love with my husband in the first place. After all, the life I have now, the life I love, my miracle boy … none of that would have happened without my husband. So I devote the month of February to showing my husband just how much he means to me.