So often, the stories we tell are not about happiness. A happy ending is only happy if there has been struggle along the way, and a struggle is only interesting when bookended by something better or worse on either end – the story itself is about the movement, not the moment.
It took me too many years as a hardcore partier to realize that no matter how many drugs I took, no matter how many back to back parties I hit up, and no matter how many friends I spent my comedowns with, the joy of the moment is, by definition, momentary. I could extend the moment, photograph the moment, or wish with all my soul that the moment would go on forever, but happiness just doesn’t work that way. There is always a struggle to come, and without that struggle the happiness will be meaningless.
These past few weeks, my life has been a struggle. And just as I know that my moments of happiness are but temporary, I know too that the struggle will subside. Knowing this, though, does not always mean that I remember it.
My pattern of forgetfulness usually begins this way: all of a sudden, my job will become more stressful and the baby will be up half the night with teething pain. My lack of sleep will then make everything more complicated. During weeks like these, I am certain to get stuck in traffic with a crying baby in the backseat, my work calendar will be crammed with boring meetings, and all my nice clothes will be stuck in dirty laundry purgatory.
It is in these times that it becomes so important for me to find the positive and focus on the positive. If I don’t get started on an intervention as soon as I feel that first shift downward, my spiral may travel a long way before rock bottom breaks my fall.
Though it pains me to say it when I am so busy convincing myself that my life is and always has been misery, there is something positive to be found in each moment, even (and often especially) when it is not readily apparent. So the baby cried all the way home through a traffic jam? She also tired herself out so much that putting her to bed was a breeze. A week full of crappy meetings at work? At least that means I’ll get to go outside and walk around campus. Oh, and did I mention I’m eligible for sabbatical soon?
I worked hard to cultivate this optimism as the armor against my sometimes grueling daily grind, but lately I’m feeling this armor wear thin. So today I’m going back to basics, to those places in my life that always hold happiness for me, the old standbys I use remind myself that this struggle is only temporary.
#1) Where I live.
I spent many, many years hating Los Angeles. San Francisco was nice enough, if you couldn’t be in Europe, but Los Angeles, yuck. Anywhere was better than LA, and I had a particular distaste for the suburb of Los Angeles where I was raised, Pasadena.
When I hit my thirties this all changed. Maybe it was my acceptance that I was now officially too old to relocate to Europe, or maybe it was the city’s shifting demographic, but in the last few years my view of the Los Angeles basin has shifted. The fact of the matter is I know this city like I know my own body, and I take great comfort in this. I also now realize that this awful suburb Pasadena is possibly one of the most beautiful cities in America to live in, and I was pretty darned lucky to get moved here as a little kid.
Instead of moving further away from the center of Los Angeles, I made a decision to commute to work, and the neighborhood I live in now, South Pasadena, can be a little difficult to get to. We have the old 110 (the first freeway in America!) and we have the Gold Line running through town, but other freeways are all forced to go around. The zigzagging route I must take to and from the freeway adds ten minutes to my commute each way, but South Pasadena is worth it.
Other than my job, everything I need is within easy walking distance – drug store, library, coffee shops, grocery and clothing stores, restaurants. And not only is it walking distance, but it is a walk dominated by early twentieth century craftsman bungalows, clean and safe streets, and a train stop in the middle of town at the historical museum. I can walk out of my house any day of the year and go for a run on the Arroyo Seco trail, and in the dark of early morning I am safe running along the path of the Rose Parade.
These may seem like superficial details, but on difficult days these details can make all the difference. We pay much too much in rent, our house is smaller than what we need, and the commute sucks. But when I get lucky and make it home with time to spare before Koukla’s dinner, she and I and her dad can all walk down to the farmers market together, or sit and talk on the front porch while watching the sunset, and these perfect little moments make up for every last hour spent sitting in traffic.
#2) My job.
It may seem odd to include my job on a list of things that bring me happiness, especially when my job appears to be the most frequent repeat offender when it comes to my struggles. My job is nearly thirty miles from my house. It is always demanding, often stressful, and often requires working hours beyond the standard working day. And my boss drives me crazy.
The downsides can be difficult to deal with at times, but the upsides are huge. My boss drives me crazy, yes, but she is also a kind and decent person whom I consider a friend. And yes, my job is demanding, but I am given vast amounts of autonomy and am challenged every day to learn and improve. I generally have enough flexibility in my schedule to take my daughter to the doctor whenever she needs to go, or to stay at home with her when she is sick, and when this is not possible Yia Yia’s house is only six and a half minutes away from my office door. I have opportunities if I wish to work for them, and I have the option to just sit back and be comfortable for a while (in case I were ever to rid myself of this cursed ambition I keep inside of me).
Oh, and then there is this little detail – every day when I go to work I feel I am contributing something positive to the world. I don’t know how many people get to say that, but I know I am blessed to be one of them.
#3) My Family.
My daughter is a given on my happiness list, just see any of my other posts. She is amazing. She brings limitless joy to my world, and I am so proud of the life my husband and I are creating for her. But this does not mean that being a mother is easy (this post, for example, is being written in ten and fifteen minute breaks from a teething baby), and it does not mean that being married is always fun.
More so than having a child, getting married was the most complicated decision of my life. For me, motherhood was a given. Marriage was not. I always knew that having a child would bring out my best (and so far, I think, I have been right about that) but I used to think it more likely that I would adopt, or elect to be a single mother. It’s not that I have anything against marriage, I am just enormously practical and unbelievably self-sufficient. I taught myself over many years to not need anyone’s emotional, financial, or logistical support, but in order to achieve this I cultivated a great talent for being alone. Marriage changed all this; it required me to shift some of my weight toward someone else, which all too often can upset my own equilibrium.
My husband and I are six years into our relationship and I still struggle to right myself some days. But there is a moment that I experience every time I come home from an early morning run: Dawn is breaking. I’m walking down a street lined with giant oak trees and tiny craftsman bungalows. I see my house among the many little craftsmen, and I see around the corner of my house that the kitchen light is on – MoonBear and the Koukla are awake! I rush up the steps to the porch and through the front door, and there is my happy daughter pulling every last book out of her toy box, and my happy husband reading Toes, Ears and Nose for the twenty-fifth time this morning.
In this moment I am happy. There may be struggle on my way to get there, and there will certainly be struggle as I push on with the rest of my day, but supporting me through these struggles will be that moment – Koukla jumping up and clapping because I am home, my husband smiling and handing me a cup of coffee in a weekend mug, just to remind me that it will be the weekend again soon. I know I can’t make this last forever, but I’d sure like to try.