On wading in: Day 20. Throwing up my hands.

It’s another round of giving up (a fun feature of this daily practice is that you get to experience these little cycles WITH me), with the usual surprising corollary of finding greater peace, usefulness, and happiness as a result.  Apparently life works better if you don’t overthink it.

Yesterday as I’m running out the door to the first session of my public humanities reading group, I notice my neighbor’s dog (who I’ve never met) alone on the sidewalk across the street.  I ask her where her people are and she runs across to me, dashing up the stoop to lick my hands.  I scratch her ears for a second and then take her gently by the collar to bring her back to her house.  I’m met halfway by her owner’s son, who hadn’t realized she was missing until just then and who came running out concerned.  We all felt lucky — I got some dog love; Scott got his mom’s dog back; the dog got more attention than usual.  Win win.

I head downtown to the aforementioned session, arriving about twenty minutes early. As I’m pulling into a parking space, I see a friend I haven’t seen in ages and I shout hello out my window.  (She’s really more of an acquaintance I’d LIKE to be friends with, but we never have the time to see each other.)  She was hovering near her car (parked in front of mine), looking indecisive; as I asked about her new baby, she said that she was in a quandary because the new baby was in the car screaming and she had to run into the library to pick up her two elder sons.  I offered to stand near the car to make sure nothing happened, so she could negotiate the many flights of stairs/elevator and the boy-collection in peace.  And she did and was grateful.  And I was grateful that I could help, that I was early enough not to worry at ALL, and that I could finally do something nice for someone else.  A problem with living a pretty isolated life, as we seem to, is that there are few opportunities to spontaneously give.  These felt good.

And today, in line at the massive and wonderful Common Ground Fair, someone behind me was talking with her mother about how she forgot sunscreen and was worried her daughters would get sunburned.  I turned around and offered my tube of sunscreen, which she looked confused by at first, but then accepted, gratefully.

Why are we confused by kindness?  Why do we often struggle with what to do in even simple situations like these?  How have we become a people who can even CONTEMPLATE cutting food stamps, health care, and other support services for the very people most in need?  What is it that happens in our heads to move us from “gee, I have some sunblock — want a squirt?” all the way to a conviction that it’s okay to starve people, to make them watch their kids suffer?  I know the dangerous machinations of the intellect — heck, in college I was famous for my rationalizations about skipping class: if I hadn’t done the reading, there was no point in going because I wouldn’t understand it; if I had done the reading, there was no point in going because it would just be repetitious.  But seriously: when we start thinking that it’s okay to just think with our heads, that we can SOLVE things by rational processing (or irrational processing) alone, we’re in big trouble.  And guess what?  We’re in big trouble.

So it’s a nice little reminder, in my own quiet life, that giving up on control, throwing up my hands at the chaos, is a GOOD thing.  It slows me down, trips me up, and pushes me right back to ground level where all I have is my basic humanity. Too tired to rationalize, and without much hope of doing it right even if I wasn’t, I end up simply responding to humans as humans.  (And dogs as dogs, apparently.)  That feels, I’m embarrassed to report, like a kind of progress.

On wading in: Day 19. The Joy Plan.

There’s the Happiness Project, Your Happiness Plan, The Wholehearted Life, The Purpose-Driven Life, Authentic Happiness, and a host of others.  They all tell you how to be happy.

Then why aren’t we?

Happiness seems a little overwhelming to me.  Like it’s a constant state of whistling and skipping, and there’s lots of yellow everywhere. There’s no room for my bad moods, for a rainy day playing hooky from all the productivity, for the kinds of mistakes I make and then brood about.  Not like it’s a hobby or anything, but still.  I don’t want to be FORCED into some kind of mandatory cheerfulness.

I find it easier to think about joy than happiness, because joy is always with me.  It underlies everything else, and it shows up at strange moments in the form of gratitude, pleasure, rest, peace, or harmony.  But still, joy eludes me often; it’s not a chronic state, and sometimes it shows up infrequently, leaving me to wonder harder where it got to and what I did to drive it away.

This, I suppose, is precisely the point.  Joy only shows up when you let it, and the kinds of worrying/planning/spiraling/self-loathing/anxiety-mongering behaviors I specialize in don’t give it a whole lot of room.

So I figure I should develop a Joy Plan of my own.  It will involve, first and foremost, a concerted and ongoing effort to notice when I start spiraling, sorting, “doing,” and to take a deep breath.  I want to remember, at those times, that I’m here, now, and that I get to do the other things another time.  That’s going to be my catch phrase: I “get to” do it later.  It will apply quite seriously to the aspects of my life I like, such as planning public humanities programming or finishing a novel or an article; it will apply ironically to the habitual aspects of my life I’m working to release, like self-flagellation or inventing elaborate responses to absurd and painful situations that have never happened and probably never will.  Later, I’ll say.  Right now you can play with your kids in the sun; tonight you can come back to that unpleasant FAKE argument you were having with someone IN YOUR HEAD and really finish it off with a sweet one-liner. That’ll show ’em.  Er, me.  Whatever.

The Joy Plan will also involve chocolate, which goes without saying.

It will involve more walks with people I like; more singing; more saying “yes.”  It will include baking and dancing and reading good books and making things out of cloth and yarn.  I’ve really slowed down on my crafting lately, and it can’t be good.  (I will confess, I made Ezra a pair of pajama pants from dinosaur fleece that he chose, but they’ve gone unreported because, well, they’re a little wide in the leg.  Suffice it to say that Len thinks they look like the goat leggings from Dragnet.  And he’s not wrong.)

It will involve writing more of the things I WANT to write (polemics against current policy; fake dialogues with people that really need to get out of my head and onto paper; poems, poems, poems).  I will worry less about what I imagine people want to hear and more about what I want to say.  They tell me that’s how it works best.

What else is involved in joy?  I’d like to get back into running, if my shins will cooperate — it just feels free and easy and energizing.  I can do anything when I run.
Most of all, it’s an attitude thing.  I want a list of good questions to ask myself every day: what am I most looking forward to?  What am I most grateful for?  What is the most beautiful thing I’ve seen today?  What surprised me the most?  What can we make today?  What can I help someone with today?  How can I challenge myself today?  How can I share myself today?

What other important questions are there?  What other great resources for cultivating joy?

On kindness

On Sunday morning, we woke up to a 58-degree house.  Which is not much colder than we USED TO keep it, but since having babies, it’s been warmer.  Indeed, the discovery that the furnace had broken helped alleviate our concern about the youngest, who had been crying on and off since 3 am.  Turns out he was cold.

The good news was that the high that day was predicted to be ABOVE zero — 16 degrees above zero, in fact!  But since it would drop to zero that night, and since it was a Sunday and since our furnace is old enough that the one place our heating guy could get the right part was closed and no one was returning his phone calls…well, we got that basement woodstove going and started opening cabinets.  We had some good passive solar going, and of course there was the requisite emergency baking (for the heat of the oven, you know), but it still seemed clear that we’d need a better strategy.

We considered turning off the water main and taking up a friend’s offer to stay with them that night, but that would have meant letting the woodstove go out, and that just seemed dangerous (my dad said to put antifreeze in every drain — yipes!).  But then we thought about the offer in a different way: here were friends we like but don’t get to see all that much, offering us not just a warm dinner (and cake!  CAKE!) but the whole necessary array of beds and cribs and tubs and whatnot.  Maybe, we thought, we should throw ourselves on this kindness, and see if there’s more out there, too.  So we called neighbors and ended up with two space heaters — enough to keep the pipes on each floor in good shape.  And we knew that if all else failed, we could pack up and go in the middle of the night: not one but TWO sets of friends offered to leave a door open so we could just barrel in and find our way to a bed, no matter what the time.  My favorite line from the whole experience was from our excellent neighbor Bruce said: “Whatever you need, the answer is yes.”  I breathe easier just WRITING it.  It felt like we were taken in and held by all this caring.

As I was telling my dad how all this went, he mentioned his stepson had a similar experience recently — his car broke down in front of a stranger’s house in the woods of New Hampshire, and they invited him and his five-year-old daughter in for warmth and cocoa.  As they waited for AAA and assorted paternal types to deal with the car, these kind folks chatted with Jon and Amelia, learning a) that they live near a little lake, and b) that while Amelia has snow shoes, she does not have ice skates.  So what did they do?  Went and found an outgrown pair in the closet that will fit her small feet, and gave her them, asking her merely to pass them along to another little girl when she outgrows them.

We always hear about the shootings, the disease, the fistfights, the disruptions.  We hear about the agony and the ecstasy, but we rarely hear about the simple kindness, the interconnection.  Margaret Wheatley is right, in So Far From Home, when she says “most people don’t want to know they’re interconnected…[it] is too much of a burden.  It requires that we take responsibility for noticing how we affect other people…” (p.55).  And that is monstrously hard.  But still, my theory is that there’s more basic goodness out there than we know. I believe that most humans want the opportunity to be kind, to be treated with kindness and to receive it with grace.  Our innate generosity gets papered over with cynicism, defensiveness, and fear; our natural openness gets shut off and buried like some kind of dangerous supply line that might spurt everywhere if uncontained.  And you know what?  It DOES spurt everywhere. The whole world gets wet.  Kindness begets kindness and our very vision begins to shift, peering as we do now through the soft rain of basic human goodness, visibility low so that we have to look at who and what are here right now.  But what else can we do?  Of course we look a little goofy, with our wet hair and our smiles, treating people as if they have a right to be loved. We wring ourselves out, have a laugh, and lay down in the sun to warm.