How Stuff Can, Actually, Make You Happy

ba83d10b931c6575d7f311b262fb00dbI was excited about coming to Pittsburgh, but I was nervous about coming to Becky’s house.

Becky has always described herself as being “one box away from a hoarder.” Jared’s been watching Hoarders – those houses do not look like they’d be fun to visit. Of course, people joke about their eccentricities all the time and usually exaggerate, but I’d been shopping with Becky often enough to know that she could very easily be serious. The girl likes her trinkets, is what I’m saying, and I was kind of terrified how my minimalist habits would clash with her collector tendencies.

I stepped through the front door of her house with one eye closed and my head turned towards the escape of fresh air, an impractical yet instinctive attempt to brace myself for the chaos. I was surprised to find a freshly vacuumed carpet in her living room and no immediate traces of paper piles. I slowly turned to fully face the room, unclenching bit by bit when I wasn’t encountered with stacks of crap. The room was… cute. And clean. And… it didn’t look like a hoarder lived here.

I made my way into the dining room and then the kitchen, impressed but also surprised to find an adorable home that was clean and organized. There was no crap to be found, not even in the most likely places like table tops or counters.

“Um, Becky? This place is really… great.” It was a question as much as a compliment. I was pleased but also confused. Where was the mess and clutter and life-sucking stuff I’d been lecturing her about for months?

“Well, you know, there’s stuff everywhere,” Becky said.

She was only partly right. While the tables and counters were free of garbage, the walls and shelves were joyfully decorated with photos and art and placards of positive affirmations. The window ledge in her kitchen was dotted with happy figurines and the refrigerator was covered with magnets from friends and adventures.

But it wasn’t just stuff. It was a collection of beautiful things and a visual representation of who Becky is as a person: happy and joyful and intentionally grateful.

“Becky, this place is wonderful. It’s not at all what I was expecting. It’s… it’s you. Everything here is great.”

“I remember hearing once that there should always be something that makes you happy in your line of sight,” she told me. “If you’re looking somewhere and what you see doesn’t make you happy, get rid of it and replace it with something that does. Maybe that means a blank wall or maybe it means a happy sign. I don’t know.” She said it casually and with a half laugh at herself, the way she always does when she says something that could be misinterpreted as profound.

I love the idea. I love the idea of surrounding yourself with reminders to be happy. That might be clean spaces, family photos or green plants. It might be a hell of a view of a place that you love. It might even be stuff that someone else would call clutter.

Are there things that make you happy?

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Happiness Highlights: Falling in Love with Pittsburgh

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New York City. San Francisco. Pittsburgh.

One of these things seems like it doesn’t belong, but they are all cities I have eagerly anticipated visiting during our year of travel.

Yes, Pittsburgh.

Becky, one of our favorite people, lives in Pittsburgh and she has raved about her hometown for years. We were all looking forward to seeing her city through her eyes and especially excited to have a month to spend with her. (And I do mean we Jared and the kids lover her as much as I do, if not more. Jared and Becky are like cosmic soul mates, which probably explains why they are both so important to me.)

Still, I was surprised how quickly we fell in love with Pittsburgh.

The city is beautiful. It was the first observation I made upon seeing the tree-covered hills and yellow bridges that connect the city across three rivers. You don’t expect a place built by coal, steel and iron industries to be beautiful, and yet it is. Undeniably.

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We spent the week getting caught up on work, but we also made time for museums and sightseeing tours. We took the kids to their first college game and sat in on yet another family’s Sunday dinner.

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There’s something unique about this town and its people that I haven’t quite been able to put my finger on. Jared and I keep struggling to describe it accurately to each other, this undefinable quality that makes this city so easy to love.

The history is fascinating and I can see why the people who live here are proud of their geographical heritage. But it’s more than a long list of accomplishments and notable citizens. It’s a rare blend of ingenuity and hard work seasoned with the salt of the Earth. It’s passion and heart without glamour. It’s a place driven as much by sports as by medicine and technology, as much by industry as culture.

It’s an anomaly and we love it, so much so that the four of us have agreed we could easily imagine calling this place home.

If only it didn’t get so damn cold here.

We’ll enjoy our autumn visit nonetheless.

What made you happy this week?

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Meet My Republican Friends

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I get asked often why I decided to take this trip, this year around my own country. There are many answers I give, depending on the time allotted and the perceived interest of the person asking. Once in a while, if I suspect someone really cares about hearing the long answer, I’ll talk about my desire to understand the meaning of American.

There are a whole lot of people that use that word to describe themselves, I explain.

I took this trip, in part, so my kids and I could see with our own eyes and hear with our own ears the various definitions of American.

That means getting up close and personal with diversity. It means cancelling a trip to a museum to accept an invitation to dinner in what can only be described as the ghetto. It means remembering Shabbat with a family of two moms and two sons. It means building forts with children who are first generation Americans and listening to stories from parents of border crossings and naturalization ceremonies. It means parking in cities, suburbs and dirt drivways; hearing about layoffs and failed businesses and empires started in living rooms.

As a self-proclaimed liberal, progressive, Democrat, modern-day hippie, these encounters are easy for me. It’s a source of pride for us granola types to familiarize ourselves and our children with the marginalized sectors of society. “Look at how worldly and tolerant we are,” we say, as we snap pictures of our kids playing in the dirt with black and brown babies.

But that’s only one half of the American story.

Where there is a minority, there is also a majority. Where this is marginalization, there is the comfort and security of mainstream. And where there are Liberals, there are also Conservatives. I would be a fraud to claim an interest in understanding American if I ignored my counterparts.

I said as much to my dad while talking to him on the phone from a campground in Connecticut a few weeks ago. “I have to be careful not to just surround us with a bunch of other liberals and stuff. Guess I need to find them some narrow-minded conservatives to hang out with for a bit, too!” I joked.

“Bring them home to visit Papa,” he joked back.

A week later, as fate would have it, we were sitting on my friend Pauline’s back porch. I don’t even remember what we were talking about exactly, but I remember clearly her covering her husband Jeffrey’s hand with her own and saying, “You know, we’re Republican and pretty conservative.”

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There was trepidation in her voice when she said it, and I understood instantly why. You have only to sit with me for about five minutes to gather that my politics lean more left than right and that I lean that way with passion.

I laughed.

“I was just telling my dad I needed to hang out with some Republicans!”

I relayed the story about seeking Conservatives and assured them both that they weren’t really the only Republicans I had ever met or even befriended. But still, we all agreed, the timing was comical.

“Actually, it’s rare to find immigrants that aren’t Republicans,” Pauline said. I cocked my head to the side in confusion and she continued, “We ran from communism. We know what socialism looks like and the consequences of the government trying to make everything the same for everyone.”

Pauline and her parents fled communist Poland when she was a child. Her father, a talented engineer, came to America initially as an illegal immigrant and eventually built a successful retail business in Chicago. While he’s financially successful now, he never worked as an engineer again, despite years of training and work experience. They gave up a lot to escape demoralizing breadlines and a government that “took care of” its people.

I couldn’t look this woman in the eye and tell her it was stupid for her to use the word socialist. I couldn’t tell her she didn’t know what she was talking about or that she was exaggerating or being ridiculous. I couldn’t throw Medicare or Social Security in her face.

This woman, this American, this friend of mine had lived communism, and the only sane thing I could do was listen and try to better see from her perspective.

“How do you feel about what the Republican party is doing with immigration right now? I mean… you know…”

She did. Of course she did. She looked sad and shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t like it,” she said, and her body language and tone reminded me of the way I react when people ask me how I can still be a Catholic despite… you know…

Ironically, I didn’t feel an urge to convince her that we would honor her immigrant status better. I didn’t want to change her mind or use her party’s disrespect of her story against either of them.

I wanted to defend her to her party. I wanted to march into the offices of the Republican powers that be and say, “Honor her! She fights for you, she stands for you. Do better for her.

It was the first time in my life I ever wished for the Republican party to succeed at something.

I didn’t go to bed that night any less of a Democrat; my own thoughts on public policy have not changed drastically. But I did feel like I understood at least one aspect of the other side a little more, or maybe understood a little less the notion of sides.

No, I didn’t leave Pauline and Jeffrey’s house a Republican.

I was simply more American.

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I Did My Scary Thing to Challenge You

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I did it.

I said enough with this fear and procrastination crap, and I emailed out my first pitch letter to a major magazine.

And then I went and spent $35 on magazines for the purpose of research and ordered a copy of the 2012 Writer’s Market.

I did it because I have proof that I can lead any kind of life I want as long as I take responsibility for that power, and I refuse to be the reason I don’t live my dreams.

And I did it because of you.

I did it because you believed in me. I did it because you made the realities clear when my insecurities tried to twist them. And I did it because I cannot stand the idea of you being afraid or settling for less than everything you deserve.

I needed you to know that you can leap even when you are afraid, that you can do anything. Anything. But how can I have more faith in you than I do in myself? How can I want more for you than I do for me? And how can you be so confident in what I can do, and still be unaware of your own amazing gifts? We can’t keep doing this to ourselves, you and I.

I thought that maybe if I did this thing that scared me, this thing that was easy on paper but terrifying in my head, that you would know that you could do your scary thing, too.

And so I did it.

Will you?

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Happiness Highlights: Trapped on Kelleys Island

Emma, these ferry tickets cost $150. No one pays $150 to die – we’ll be fine.”

I played my own words back again in my head as I dug my fingernails deep into Jared’s forearm and swallowed hard in an effort not to throw up. I could see the gray water of Lake Erie in front of me over the sidewall of the ferry, a view that was only possible because the boat we were on was more perpendicular than parallel. The cost of the ferry tickets had been covered by the Lake Erie Shores and Islands‘ tourism marketing department, and it occurred to me that maybe that’s how the Universe would get around me sinking to the bottom of Lake Erie with my family, SUV, and pull-behind RV.

Of course, I didn’t die on the ferry to Kelleys Island, Ohio, but it was an ominous start to the week just the same.

After making our way safely to land and driving the five short miles across the island to our campground in the mostly deserted state park, we discovered we had no cell or Internet service on our iPhones. The wind and rain that had plagued our water crossing continued, leaving us trapped in the RV. It looked like it was going to be a long three days on a remote island in the middle of a Great Lake. I reminded myself (and my family) repeatedly that we weren’t paying for our lodging for the duration of the three days and that someone had gone through a lot of work to make this quick visit fun, even if Mother Nature had other ideas. We would be grateful, damn it.

We made s’mores that first night over the open flame of our camper’s gas stove and giggled endlessly at the sweet, sticky messes running down one another’s chins.

The next morning we woke to more rain and puddles that threatened to overtake the island. We laughed a little at the irony considering we’d evacuated a campground just a few short weeks earlier in an effort to avoid an onslaught of water. I walked through the wet wind to a spot with cell service and canceled the ferry ride and attraction visit we’d had planned for the day. The island, it seemed, was determined to hold onto us. We drove around looking for wifi and got busy with school and work.

A few hours later, just as we were shutting down the laptops and preparing to make our way back to the RV for a day of hibernation, we noticed the rain had stopped and the wind had calmed. We spotted small specks of blue in the sky and felt a bit of sun on our faces. We made a mad dash back to the campsite, determined to make use of the reprieve.

And oh, what a glorious afternoon we had.

 

We biked and we climbed and we hung upside down from monkey bars at a playground. We ran from snakes and tip toed around fresh bird poop. We found fossils and read about glacial grooves and walked backwards on a curved balance beam.

We played. We played hard for as long as we could, because we had no idea how long our moment in the sun would last.

There was still no internet or cell service and the wind and rain came back with a vengeance in the middle of our second night, but the joy of our afternoon spent frolicking – and there is no more perfect word to describe how we spent the day – sustained us when the weather turned cold and wet again.

This week my happiness was found in seizing the day and in remembering that both day and night, rain and shine, are but a temporary break from the other.

Where did you find yours?

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No, We Haven’t Killed Each Other. Yes, We Have Been Tempted.

I mentioned on Facebook this week wanting to send Emma to her non-existent room. My stepsister laughed at my pain virtually and said what most people say when I talk about someone in my traveling party driving me crazy: I can’t believe you haven’t killed anyone yet.

No, we haven’t killed anyone yet. Despite living with four people in a tiny space and spending almost all of our time together, everyone remains totally alive and mostly bruise free. How do we do it? The same way you do it.

We remember that both abuse and murder is illegal.

It’s not that I think domestic violence is funny or a viable option. Really. It’s just that of course we get on each other’s nerves. My children roll their eyes and my husband bites his tongue. He also makes this spitting sound occasionally that is the. most. annoying. noise. ever. We snap at each other and say things that are unkind. We stomp, we slam, we refuse to speak.

And then we realize that the only option we have is to work it out.

Jared and I separated two years ago after what seemed like a fast and furious explosion. The reality was that our relationship had been slowly deteriorating for years, resentment and unsaid things eating away at our connection to one another. What we learned in putting our marriage back together was that it was not being unhappy or angry that was the biggest threat to our relationship, but the tendency to let the anger and unhappiness build up under the guise of “letting it go” or “keeping the peace.”

What does that have to do with living in an RV together?

It’s really, really difficult to pretend to let things go when you’re all up in each other’s space all the time.

Of course, we try.

Fighting in front of the kids sucks and we are almost always in front of the kids. Dealing with a pissed off spouse sucks, and so it is tempting to just “let it go” instead of “starting a fight”. Letting someone know you’re hurt or upset or even annoyed requires a certain amount of trust and vulnerability, and sometimes I’m just not in the mood to be trusting and vulnerable. All of those seem like very good reasons for not telling each other when something is bothering us.

But then the resentment builds up like steam in a very small pipe and BAM! It has to go somewhere. Before, we could go to work or talk to a friend or do any number of things to let off a little pressure temporarily, enough to get by as if nothing was building under the surface. The pressure valves are limited now and so we have to let it out. We have to work through it.

We don’t get along better than you imagine you would with your family because we’ve mastered familial relationships. We get along better than we thought we would because we have to.

We’re still trying to figure out how to prevent the steam from building up in the first place.

Have you ever been forced to get along with someone? What techniques did you use to make it work?

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And Sometimes Decluttering is Total Crap

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Sometimes you need to declutter to move forward. Get rid of stuff. Clean out. Make room.

And sometimes that’s total crap.

Sometimes decluttering is just a really convenient excuse for not doing the things you know you need to do, or rather want to do but are afraid of. I’ve been decluttering for weeks now, months really. And it’s important, it is. But it’s also no substitute for sucking it up and doing the things that scare you, the things that matter.

Instead of doing, I’m getting ready to do. I’m learning. I’m making space.

I’m updating Facebook.

I’m cleaning out my twitter stream.

I’m hiring a graphic designer to make me a logo.

I’m making lists and setting goals and tweaking budgets and catching up on email and look! I’m so organized now! I’m ready to – oh, wait. Let me just take care of this one final loose end…

I still haven’t sent out a single query for a magazine article. Not one.

I’ve purchased a membership to MediaBistro so that I can get examples of queries. I’ve read them. I’ve emailed samples to myself. I’ve made lists of story ideas and possible publications and even half typed one query. I’ve put it on my to-do list, and then I put “write pitch letter” on my to-do list because I thought taking smaller steps would help get me going. That’s why I have the half typed one.

I’ve tried questioning the validity of the goal. I mean, maybe writing articles for print publications isn’t that big of a deal anyway. Maybe the only reason I want that is because of some convoluted notion of legitimacy that is more about societal values than my own. Yeah, that’s it – it’s not even that important to me!

Except that it is. It’s so important that I’m hiding from it.

The other day I thought about getting myself an accountability partner. I’d find one person with a similar goal and we’d make ourselves go through the steps together, like how a gym buddy helps you get your butt out of bed in the morning to workout. But even as I formulated the plan in my head I knew it was just a new scheme for putting steps and distance between me and the actual doing.

The truth is that I’m scared, and so I’m just not pulling the trigger.

I have the time and the resources and the general knowledge necessary. I may even have the skills.

It’s the guts I’m lacking.

I’m also fresh out of excuses.

Are you putting anything important off?

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Declutter to Refocus

From time to time, we find ourselves in a slump. We go through the motions, check off the most pertinent items on our to-do lists, and we get by. From the outside, you might never even know we were in a slump.

But we’re not moving forward.

We know it, even if we try not to think about it. The momentum is gone and the time for enjoying a respite has passed. The procrastination is no longer funny and restlessness has slowly morphed into discontent and maybe even a sense of urgency.

We know it’s time.

But how do we get moving again? Which direction do we go? Restarting an object that has come to rest requires more power and juice than what’s needed to just keep on. Inertia’s a bitch and that’s what you’re fighting when you’re faced with a slump.

Get rid of the excess.

When it’s time to refocus and kick things up a notch, I know I need to eliminate unnecessary distractions. This is when I let go of jobs that aren’t in line with my goals, cleaning out spaces both physical and mental. I break up, throw out, and release. I acknowledge what’s no longer working and start asking myself the hard questions about what takes up time and space in my life.

Does this contribute to the life I want to live and the person I want to be?

If the answer is no, I let it go.

Do you need to let go of anything?

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Happiness Highlights: Best Friends in Cleveland

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Today is my last day in Cleveland, and I’m surprised to say that I’ll be sad to leave. It’s not the city and its various attractions that I’ll miss, but the people who have given us a place to call home on the road.

First was Pauline and her family – and it was her entire family that enveloped us as their own. The kids bonded over frogs and tumbling routines and the adults talked into the wee hours of the night over jugs of beer and glasses of wine. Both of my children begged to stay longer and it took every ounce of responsible grown up I had in me to insist that we move on when the time had come. It wasn’t just the indoor plumbing, separate bedrooms and amazing cooking that enticed us all to stay; it was the joy. Joy bubbled from their home and flowed over us, soaking our souls in laughter and lightness.

As I have multiple times on this trip already, I found myself impressed by the ability of practical strangers to play with and care for one another.

I haven’t come to believe that everyone is inherently good, or even that the quantity of generous people is greater than I had previously thought. What I have noticed, however, is that there are pockets of intense generosity and kindness. Humanity’s capacity for good is inspiring.

Cleveland063After leaving Pauline’s, we headed to another home in Cleveland, a one bedroom apartment that I’d never even seen pictures of before. It took less than an hour for that apartment to become home.

This was the home of one of my oldest friends, Kristin, my roommate in college and maid of honor in my wedding. Kristin and I hadn’t seen each other for five years and my children barely knew her when we arrived. Within a day my daughter was letting her braid her hair, an honor reserved for absolutely no one, including me.

 

I’ve missed that comfort, the easiness that comes from settling in with someone who has known and loved you forever. I keep thinking of the Girl Scout anthem that encourages us to make new friends, but keep the old, because “one is silver and the other gold.” And oh, how true it is.

I’m so lucky to have a handful of girlfriends that have grown up with me and remained treasured friends. These are the friends that require no small talk, no catching up and making polite. You drop your suitcase in the corner and plop your butt on the couch and within moments you’re conversation is weaving with ease between memories and modernity.

Kristin is like a sister to me and this week she got to be an aunt to my kids. I’ll be sad to leave, but it’s comforting to know that time and distance can’t diminish our relationship. In a world when we have to embrace the temporary to survive, it’s nice to be reminded that a precious few things are, in fact, permanent.

What made you happy this week?

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My VOTY Video and TV News Debut {Videos}

If you’re at work, you might want to bookmark this post to read over the weekend. Because, you know, you surely do not want to miss the chance to see me on video twice.

First up, in August I read was a Community Keynote speaker at BlogHer 11 in San Diego. Here’s me reading this post:

Next up, my TV news debut! I was in Cleveland this week thanks to a last-minute twitter invite from my friend Pauline, a Cleveland blogger. Within a few hours of being in her home, she and her friends had gotten in touch with a producer at the local FOX affiliate and BAM! We’re on TV.

It all sounds very dramatic, doesn’t it?

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