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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

This Whole World Keeps Changing - Come Change with Me!

What a great idea, right? And I'm not going to wait for the New Year to start because I want to start right now. I read a few lines from Gretchen's (yes, we are on a first name basis) book to Bekah last week while she made a chocolate cheesecake in her lovely kitchen soon to be abandoned by her and D-Mac for the even rainier (!), sleepy town of Astoria. She amused me but didn't seem too into the idea. I was kind of trolling for a partner in crime. Alas, I'll have to look elsewhere. It's an experiment, I'm allowed to fail. Rule #1. Because if I try a thousand things that don't bring me happiness, like Thomas Edison said, I will at least know 1,000 things that don't work (to bring happiness for me, to serve as a filament for him).

So, some background: Gretchen Rubin is the author of The Happiness Project - Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to SIng in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun. She identified 11 major areas of her life from which she felt she could cull more happiness and set about methodically tackling each area, one per month, saving December for a "bring it all together" time of reflection. Throughout the process she cultivated a list of truths (I'm working on my own) and another list of commandments (she chose 12, I'm having trouble getting there) that she felt held validity when applied to each of her 11 areas of endeavor. And then she went for it.

I started the process by lining my apple slices up on my windowsill, putting on a chunky knit sweater and slippers and putting pen to paper - throwing down ideas onto a list I initially called Ideas to Live By, which is grammatically incorrect. And since grammatical correctness is important to me, I decided that rather than be sheepish about how anal I am about grammar, I would amend the title of my list to Ideas by which to Live. But there's nothing happy sounding about that. So let's just call it Stuff for now. This is incomplete. I might yet add to it, might strike out a few things. I'll hopefully solidify the contents before starting month #1 on November 1st.

Ideas by Which to Live
1. Failure is inevitable. And it's okay.
2. When everyone else goes home, I have to live with myself.
3. If it feels good, do it. Just don't bitch about the consequences later.
4. When in doubt, wear the cowboy boots.
5. Know who you are. Be who you know yourself to be.
6. I am surprisingly resilient.
7. "Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be." -Abraham Lincoln
8. Take time to be alone.
9. Clean the sheets before the weekend.
10. Allow yourself to be sad sometimes.

I then brainstormed a list of things that bring me happiness:

health/energy/fitness professional development time management forests organization being a friend snail mail ceramics paper-cutting flower arranging feeling/being prepared writing playing guitar and singing running family listening to music being outside decorating reading sex yoga biking hiking cooking gardening eating out being alone/quiet reconnecting my dog feeling adequate volunteering investing in myself trying new things swinging scarves windows down/heat on clean sheets/shaved legs TNT hot chocolate walking looking nice outdoor markets the beach traveling clothes shopping visiting art and natural history museums

When I got home from work on Friday I turned my phone off and settled in with Gretchen's book and my notebook and began crafting more specifics of my project. I identified the area with the greatest potential and need for improvement, my starting point: work. The goal is not perfection. This is not the perfectionist project. This is about happiness. But I get a sincere thrill out of doing something well. Nothing else is quite as satisfying. I wrote at the top of my notebook page - November: Anything worth doing is worth doing well. And November also happens to be the busiest work month of the year for me. In November I put a grant pipeline together for the coming fiscal year. I have several important grants to finish up before the end of the year. I get a newsletter put together and mailed to our member base. I craft and mail out a year-end appeal for funding. I attend or contribute in some way to several board events. I attend professional development workshops. And this year I also happen to be in charge of launching our new website and moving our office. Phew!

I wrote out a long list of work related goals and aspirations and went to bed about midnight, determined to wake early, grab a coffee (a weekend only luxury) and trek up Mt. Tabor - one of my favorite, long neglected, morning habits. I was pretty pleased with myself.

I'm a generally happy person. I wake up most days with a smile on my face, in a good mood. I know that one's level of happiness is largely determinant on genetics and I've just been blessed in that way. I guess I don't anticipate this project increasing my happiness, per se, but rather helping me relish it more. But I also am a little obsessed with happiness. The pursuit and acquisition of happiness, to be exact. I'm particularly interested in the maintenance of happiness when life throws little curve balls at me, or, as a friend said at lunch on Friday, "when life serves me shit burgers." On Saturday morning, life served me a shit burger.

I had this strange dream early Saturday morning that I was heading downtown on my bike, on a beautiful fall day, (a rare occasion in Portland, but not unlike today, actually) when I felt a lurch, looked down and noticed I had a flat tire. In my dream, one flat tire did not necessitate dismounting and turning back, so I continued on. Soon enough I felt the same lurch again and looked back. My rear tire had flattened too. "Son of a -," I got off my bike, by this time I was at the bottom of the 20 block long Salmon Street hill, and turned for home, dispirited and irritated that I had a huge incline to surmount before getting home.

I woke up from this dream, just one of three incredibly vivid, strange dreams I had that morning, and immediately began dissecting it for meaning. It was gray and cold outside - nothing like the beautiful day of my dream. But I almost immediately remembered a friend's wedding that was happening that day - a wedding that I couldn't attend, for reasons both personal and geographic, and represented the end of an emotional era for me, so to speak. "Flat tire #1," I thought to myself. I wonder what #2 will be?

It occurred to me that I might swap my planned trip up Tabor in exchange for a trek downtown to the PSU Farmer's Market and I picked up my phone to text Bekah to see if she was planning on going too. One of my favorite sisterly bonding activities is meeting Bekah at the Spunky Monkey coffee cart in the middle of the market and then wandering around. She always buys her produce from Groundworks Organics because I think the guy that runs the stand is cute. I always resolve to buy actual produce but usually end up going home with nothing but flowers. It's a lovely tradition. She texted me back: "I need to talk to you real quick. Call me." Weird, I thought, but I called her right away. "I have to tell you something," she said. She paused, I waited. The next word out of her mouth, I knew what she was going to tell me, because her voiced cracked with emotion and Bekah is not a particularly emotional person. "I miscarried my baby."

As if on queue, the hardships surfaced not twelve hours after I made all these lofty goals for the start of my happiness project. Not that this is about me. At all. But flat tire #2, with an asterisk.

I can't have children myself and truthfully have never really liked them much, but when Bekah called me to share her news while I sat on the lawn at McMenamin's Edgefield waiting for a Decemberists show to start the evening before my birthday, it felt like a present. At the farmer's market the next morning we began discussing names. They wanted to name a child after a historical person of great character (cool) and had already decided on Theodore for a boy. I pointed out that given we are from Springfield, IL and that Lincoln was arguably the best president we've ever had anyway, Lincoln would be a much better name. They thought Lincoln was too trendy though. "I don't know any kids named Lincoln," I said, but then again, I only know two kids right now. I acquiesced. (Acquiesced? Ha!)

They, as far as I knew, hadn't reached a decision on a girl's name though and I offered the following suggestions:

Irena - after Irena Sendler, the Polish Catholic woman who started Zegota, an underground organization that placed thousands of Jewish children in Catholic homes to save them from the ghettos and camps. And Irena means serenity or absolute peace.

Josephine - after the literary character, Josephine March. So not a historical figure, but my favorite from fiction. And Josephine means "she shall increase in wisdom." I can't help but wonder if Louisa May Alcott knew that when she wrote Jo's character. She must have.

Rose - after Rose Valland, the French art enthusiast and Louvre employee who single-handedly made records of every work of art as it was squirreled away into the French countryside to keep it out of the hands of Hitler and his treasure-pirating henchmen. Her records are the reason that museum was reconfigured so successfully after the war.

Amelia - obvious, maybe, but any baby born to an Oldani is destined to be a bad ass, just like THE Amelia. Plus it means industrious and independent.

These are women after whom I would proudly name my own children.

I hiked up Mt. Tabor and sat there in the cold as long as I could. I could see my breath. From where I sat, looking west toward downtown Portland, it was so foggy that I couldn't even see down to the bottom of the hill. I determined to incorporate regular ambles up Tabor as part of my happiness project. Then I headed down to face the music, see my sister and wish her husband a happy birthday despite everything.

Saturday evening I went to a Mason Jennings show with M. Mason has such a beautiful way of weaving melancholia into rousing anthems touching on humanity in the most uncannily accurate and piercing way. A la U2, but, you know, not cheesy. I wanted to hear Sorry Signs on Cash Machines, because I wanted to feel sad and sorry for myself and feel those haunting lyrics wash over me, making my heart sink to the bottom of my stomach. Instead, he played Be Here Now.

"Be here now/no other place to be/all the doubts that linger/just set them free/and let good things happen/let the future come/into each moment/like a rising sun . . . sun comes up and we start again/it's all new today/all we have to say/is be here now. Be here now/no other place to be/this whole world keeps changing/come change with me/everything that's happened/all that's yet to come/is here inside this moment/it's the only one."

And then I got to meet him.

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