New Year’s slogans

I don’t have a strong feeling one way or the other about new year’s resolutions. I am (perhaps annoyingly) one of those people who sets goals and doggedly works toward them. I don’t always achieve what I set out to accomplish (mastering salsa dancing, learning to crochet, speaking fluent French), but I have started an exercise routine in January and kept it up for five years, so.

20150207_070133This is not about my tenacity, however. It’s about how I went to a birthday party years ago and heard a really cool woman explain how, instead of resolutions, she makes slogans. Simple things like, “TCB” (Taking Care of Business, for the two non-Elvis-fans on the planet) or “Dance My Ass Off” (for those who are better at salsa than me). The point is just to come up with a tagline for what you hope the year will bring. Something fun and punchy, but also personally motivating. Continue reading

In dog years

In dog years

I used to think it would be hard being a dog, not knowing what was going to happen next — when the next meal would land in my dish, when the people would come home, where the car was going and when the ride would stop. It would be nice to be fed and walked and petted. It would be nice to not be expected to do the laundry, sweep the floors, pay the bills or hold down a job. But the thing I couldn’t give up about being the human in the relationship, I always told myself, was being in control of the whats and the whys and the whens.

I liked being the one driving the car. I liked being the one knowing where we were going and when we’d arrive.

But now my dog has cancer, and my whole year has not gone according to plan — at least not any plan I came up with. You don’t have to feel bad for me. I’m not sad. (Okay, sometimes I’m sad, but it’s not the overarching theme of my days.) In some ways this has actually been my best year, because I’ve learned a lot. Probably the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that I’m not driving the car. I don’t, as it turns out, have a clue where we’re going or when we’ll get there.

I’m starting to think my dog has it right. When he gets in the car and it stops at the vet, he looks a little bit disappointed. But every time he gets in the car, he acts like he’s going on a hike. Even if eight out of 10 trips lead to the vet, he still anticipates a hike. He still wags and barks and thanks the universe for the woods and the trails, the streams and the good smells. He’s fully invested in that hope, without any disappointment of a dream unfulfilled. The dream is always fulfilled — it’s fulfullable, which is basically pre-fulfillment — because it remains a possibility. This trip might stop at the vet, but that means the next one is the hiking trip, right?

And anyway, there’s always the whole drive to wag and bark, to anticipate and hang an excited nose out an open window.

I, too, want to live in that hope, and part of that hope comes from not knowing. Ultimately being the driver gives us about as much control as captaining a ship through a typhoon. Just because we’re holding the wheel doesn’t mean all that much. Nature, other drivers, fate, destiny, good luck, bad luck, potholes.

All these decades have I really successfully fooled myself into thinking I knew where this was all heading? How long I have, what I can accomplish, what my greater purpose is? Hell no. Those questions fill me with existential dread. I’m intimately acquainted with anxiety, with teeth grinding and clammy-palmed fear. I long for control because I can’t stand this feeling of free-falling. And yet to be human is to make peace with (or not to — many of us don’t — it’s a legitimate option) an existance shrouded in mystery.

The one in control is the one hanging an excited nose out an open window and anticipating a really good time around the next bend.

If not this bend, then the next.

That’s the meditation: be happy in the now. Wag, sniff, eat treats, relish walks.

Pet a dog.

Living with heart (or why I don’t chase happiness)

Living with heart (or why I don’t chase happiness)

According to the tag on my Yogi Tea bag, “You will always live happy if you live with heart.” And it’s a nice (if vague) idea, but I have to disagree. Here’s the thing: while I prefer terms like “soulful” and “an examined life,” I suspect that they share DNA with living with heart. And none of those experiences is particularly happy. Horizon broadening, mind-expanding, life-changing and growth-inducing, yes. All of which can lead to a better quality of being, a greater capacity for love, understanding, and even heartfulness. But growth is hard and challenging and often real soulful living makes the heart ache more than smile.

That’s not a bad thing. Personally — and I realize this is not going to be a popular opinion — I think happiness (along with fun) is overrated. It’s a wonderful side effect, but should never be the goal. And yet there’s this kind of first world idea that we all deserve unlimited quantities of happiness (and fun) and anything that is not happy-making is to be avoided. That might be oversimplifying the situation, but I feel like our collective march toward 24/7 entertainment, gadgetry, consumerism, single-use, throw-away, increased stimulus, newer, faster, louder, shinier and more is a kind of kid-in-candy store approach to being.

Being a kid in a candy story is fun! And then you have a sugar crash and everything gets really ugly.

I’m not against social networking. I don’t crochet my own pants out of recycled earbud chords. But of all the apps I’ve installed on my phone, my favorite is the Insight Timer I use for the mini-meditation sessions I squeeze in between the obstacle course activities of my daily to-do lists. The app does nothing but count down from 10 or 15 minutes and sound a soft chime when time is up. That, and it tells me how many other people around the world were meditating with me, using the same timer. That’s pretty cool, to think that for 10 silent minutes I’m in community with 500 or so complete strangers who share my goal of stilling my chattering brain and carving out a little space among the clutter.

Meditating hasn’t made me happier (though I’m pretty sure that’s a major selling point of the current mindfulness trend). It has given me some tools to calm down, take account of my current situation and ditch a few to-do list items that maybe don’t really need to be done. It’s given me a little perspective and, more importantly, a kind of shelter in the storm of changes, excitement, discouragement and other swells.

Publishing a book hasn’t made me happier, either. That’s been a dream of mine for nearly 20 years and to finally realize it has been pretty incredible. It’s been a roller coaster ride — thrilling, rewarding, and a great sense of accomplishment. But it’s also come with an intense amount of work that I never could have predicted, and its own kind of hard knocks. Anyone who’s ever attempted to learn anything knows that success/defeat ratio. Very few people get good at anything without sucking first, and it takes a special kind of courage to persevere.

Perseverance is its own reward. Again, it’s not necessarily a happy thing. Summiting a peak is a triumph — often at the cost of scraped knuckles and utter exhaustion. Most marathoners, upon crossing the finish line, look more like they want to vomit, die or punch someone than do a happy dance. But no one ever ran a race to get happy. We run to get healthy, to prove it to ourselves that we can accomplish a goal, to compete, maybe to win, but mostly just to finish.

I understand why my tea tag doesn’t say, “You’ll probably finish more stuff if you live with heart.” Or, “You’ll learn more in life if you put yourself out there, risk defeat and care more about the process that what kind of selfie you can post on Facebook.” The bubbly quick-fix of “Happy” makes better marketing sense than the dogged determination of “Hang in there.”

But hanging in brings better results. Hanging in gets us all closer to the finish line, and — more importantly — it keeps us on the journey. Plus, sometimes (many times!) happiness happens along the way, like a good tail wind, like a cheering section, like a double rainbow out of a storm-dark sky.