How to be happy even if you're English

what is happiness and how to get it


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Desires? Moi?

 

 

 

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There’s a message in my inbox.  ‘Submit to your desires, Jane’ it says.  (I’m not kidding).

Ooh, I thought.  (What else could I think?) A melty feeling washed over me.  Nice.  I watched it doing it’s melty thing, recognising an unusual experience.  And in recognising it, the thought came in; ‘what desires?’

The thing is, as nice as the thought of submitting to them was, in that moment I didn’t actually have any.  I was desire-less.

It was beautiful.

Last year my values became my motto.  Authenticity and simplicity.  I’m aware it could sound pompous and lofty, but it works.  When I’m not sure, I go back to it.  I test my thoughts (my wants, generally) against it to see where they fit.

I’m a shopper, hands up.  I was trained by shoppers disguised as bargain-hunters (now there’s a skilful deception) and I’m left with a trolley-load of meshed consumer habits to unload.  I’m skilled and abhorrent about shopping.  It’s a tough life. A day shopping could feed a month in therapy for me.  But ‘authenticity and simplicity’ sorts the men from the boys.  It’s put the brakes on. It’s given me space.  Sure, old habits die hard.  But I see them for what they are, at least.  It’s a relief to walk away.

I have no idea what the content of that email was.  Or who it was from.  Some gifts are best left unopened so I pressed delete and sent it packing.  On this occasion, no content could have exceeded the packaging.  I’m a grateful receiver of a large slice of wrapped space with a label attached, like an illustration from Alice in Wonderland.  A sensual reminder of how stuff consumes me and how not pandering to it leaves space for a whole lot of other stuff, of a much better kind.

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Poetry in motion

 

 

 

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Remember the end of Thelma and Louise?  When they drove off the cliff?

It was gut-wrenching tragedy, understated glory, hand-on-heart, of-the-moment completion.  That final scene left them, and the viewer, suspended over a chasm.

There was no right way, but there was a way that felt right.  However hard.

 

I wouldn’t advocate anything quite as bleak (it still haunts me now).  I’m more of a Waltons girl;  give me an all-rounded happy ending any day, all cornfields and turquoise dragonflies.  But there’s nothing as achingly, hauntingly satisfying as a space, or an action, created in honour of a truth.

Truth might not be comfortable, like an episode of the Waltons.  But it lasts. It hangs in the air.  I’d be pushed to justify two women driving off a cliff, or even to explain how it was a fitting ending for a film. It wasn’t an ending.  It was an open space.

There aren’t many open spaces in our culture.  We have right actions and wrong actions.  Correct and incorrect answers.  We’re not comfortable with the unresolvable.  We don’t chew much.  We want an answer, and to be the first one with our hand up.  We even try hard to meditate correctly.

Perhaps that’s why Thelma and Louise resonated.  Because that space we were left with, that openness, left a big wide space where we could suspend what we think we know.  A space where our assumptions, our beliefs, our cause-and-effect, our moral high-ground, all got scattered about a bit.  A space for review.  For looking afresh.  For revisiting truth.

That’s a lot of long-winded thinking.  The Dalai Lama says something more simple here:

 

 

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But be prepared.  It can feel like this:

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It’s in the name

Next month my passport’s up for renewal. The question is this; do I make a straightforward renewal in my married name, or revert to my maiden name?

This wouldn’t be an issue at all if

a) I’d stayed married

b) I hadn’t taken my husbands surname or

c) it didn’t matter. But here we are.

I guess that

a) was ultimately my decision (I never should have gone there, though I loved him to bits).

b) also my decision, though long deliberated over. My guiding thought here was having the same name as my children, who already had their father’s name.  Goodness, we complicate things.

c) in a way doesn’t matter, because who I am remains unchanged no matter what name I answer to. But having adopted authenticity as my guiding principle, it kind of does. I was given a name at birth. That is my name. But to change back requires an immense rigmarole, affecting all my accounts and trappings.

I’ve no preference to either. They’re both fairly standard, get-on-with-it kind of names. Very practical.  My married name’s longer, so my signature drops off the planet at the end, which my first never did.  There was a directness, a vibrancy, in a short surname that I liked. Only two syllables in the entire name, which is as punchy as you can get. It irked when I was young, but now that simplicity appeals.

If I had my ex’s attributed name, things might be different.

My ex likes his coffee.  A lot.  He likes it particularly hot, so walks backwards and forwards to the counter in cafés getting it re-steamed.  This earned him the honorary title ‘Walks with Fresh Cup’, which is poetic for an expensive habit that became less poetic over time.

Thinking about it, I could have been Jane-who-walks-with-walks-with-Fresh-Cup once we married.  You’d walk tall with a name like that, but it would be harder to fit on the signature line. Logically, post divorce I’d be Jane-who-used-to-walk-with-walk-with-Fresh-Cup, which doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue but is certainly memorable.  Not a name to mess with.

I’m digressing.

Its a mystery to me why the Western world pays so little deference or creativity to names.  It wasn’t always thus.  Not so long ago we had names like Constance, Faith and Grace. Names that spoke gravity and purpose. In Africa I met a fabulous dynamic young woman whose parents had the foresight to name her Independence. She was that, personified.

Oh to have a glorious name like Crazy Horse, Wind-in-the-Face or Touch the Clouds. Who wouldn’t follow a name like that?  A name that would lead a Chief to glory, despite himself.  A name to live up to.   A guiding light.

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Western names are veiled, and unless you’re royalty or somesuch (Lord Louis Mountbatten springs to mind, though there are better examples).  I swear they do it to keep us down.  (No aspirations for you, my girl; Plain Jane will suffice).

Jane has Hebrew roots and means ‘God is gracious’, which is rather lovely and reflects a sense of cerebral gratitude. But you’d never know, unless I wore it on a T shirt. We just don’t seem to be that interested in our names.  So how can we grow into them?

When my first son was born, I wanted to call him Clay.  A name that was rooted, grounded.  Something about this new being inside me seemed to need anchoring.  But the resistance around me was palpable.  Clay was not to be.

Instead we called him Jasper (I discovered later it’s a common name for a dog), considering that it held a certain dignity.  And yes, we could envisage it on the side of his briefcase.  He could be a solicitor with a name like that. Or a musician.  Whatever his life holds, Jasper will deal with it bravely.  He has that in him.  A nobility.  It’s in his name.

The thing with names, I’m learning, is they are just the beginning.  We absorb them, and they can bring us forward in the world, but ultimately our actions, our being, can surpass them.  Whichever surname I go with (I could lump them together, but it seems a little OTT for someone who advocates simplicity) will be just fine.  My job is to be the best that I can be, and lead my life the best I can, whatever my name might be.

And quite honestly, I could do without the added paperwork.


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When is a tree not a tree?

When is a tree not a tree?Yesterday a fabulous beech tree was felled in our car park.  It’s days were numbered since a huge branch split in a storm, with substantial repercussion on a whole bay of tin garages. Since then I’ve looked at it each day and thought ‘enjoy your moment while you can’.

In the morning, an ominous array of cones ringed it’s vicinity. On my return, where once a life form spread it’s leaves to the sun, a new view and heap of massive wooden slices rang the changes as if they had always been there and no crime committed.

It had to be. The height was such that any split in the opposite direction would have caused catastrophic damage to the flats themselves. But a sad event no less.

Many years ago I was set a philosophy essay with the intriguing  title ‘when does P1 become P2?’. It’s the only essay title I remember. A juicy one, abstract and whimsical. The subject here was the nature of change. One of the examples examined was a willow tree; at what point is it a tree, and when does it cease to be so? When it’s a seed, a sapling, in maturity, dying, decaying? Is it still a tree when it’s a cricket bat, or sawdust, or a pencil?

Here was that essay, illustrated.  Splendid wide rings illustrating a point as big as you like.  The birds still sang, the grass still grew. And by 5 00pm the last evidence had disappeared in a white pickup.

And all around, unnoticed, more examples. Even me. At what point will I or have I become P2, or 3, or 9? How much will I be redefined before I’m irretrievably morphed?

All that going on, round and round… And I’m thinking abstractly about letters and numbers. P1 and P2.

Goodbye tree. Hello view.

Beam me up, Scotty.


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Sweating the small stuff

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“You’re a brave blogger” a good friend offered. “Your posts are very personal”. Well, maybe. It’s true I sometimes hesitate before pressing ‘publish’. Occasionally it takes several days to recover, which is odd really. As if it really matters.

Because although it’s out there, on the big web thingy, for anyone to see, the likelihood is that the anyone isn’t a someone who actually knows me from Adam. Most likely, you don’t know me personally.

This isn’t a journal. It could be, but it’s not. It’s an evolving vehicle for my observations. And because the observations are mine, they inevitably involve some elements of personal experience. It can’t be helped. This is my life and these are the things I see. Her comment was helpful though, causing me to ruminate on just why and how my posts appear personal. Why is that difficult, and what does that mean?

I don’t have a problem with ‘personal’. In fact looking at it, ‘personal’ is what interests me most in the world. I’m interested in individual experience.

It’s the small, everyday stuff that grabs me; the profound in the ordinary. The wise in the mundane. For me, the beginnings of understanding humanity stem from the communication of personal experience.

As a species we’re an organism. As I see it, if we don’t share we don’t grow. Sharing the small stuff, the gritty everyday, illuminates the personal. And it’s the personal that counts, because it’s dangerous to perpetuate what we assume rather than what really is.

Years ago, I was peripheral to a conversation about homeless people. The contributors were all professional, well-meaning, educated. “What I don’t understand” one of them said, “was how people can get themselves in that state. If they run out of money, why don’t they just sell some of their shares?”.

I was gobsmacked, but illumined. A fabulous lesson in the prevaillance of misconception.

Situations, values, persuasions; all these are transient, but we elect to see them as fixed. If we were less fearful of sharing our circumstances and perspectives, our perceptions and our politics would be far more embracing, conciliatory and mobile.

No, personal doesn’t scare me. For me it’s a tool for growth and understanding, and I cherish that. Whether it’s brave or not is a different story.


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The grumpy guide to happy food

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Many of my best memories are butter-fed.

Gigantic foil-wrapped potatoes, baked in the fire embers all evening until singed,  burst open symbolically with a deep cross-cut and excitedly stuffed with slatherings of Slightly salted. Bliss. (Years later, at uni, I had my first and last microwave-baked potato. Stunned by its fibrous texture and thick odourless flesh, I developed an immediate, irreversible aversion to the appliance). Dad’s egg sarnies, delivered with love for Sunday tea, were legendary. Thick fresh bread, soft yellow, melt-in-your-mouth. Made as the sun went down over the church, somehow a little of its warmth fell into the filling. Unbeatable. Even mums charcoaled toast was made delightful by the boats of butter that swam on the surface.

Somehow butter, custard, egg, yellow, sun and happiness all became an infused entity. Just as deep green foods to me represent calm and sustenance, and pink foods (beet root, tomato, red cabbage, onion) warmth and vibrancy. It’s a colour thing.

Never margarine. Not ever. Not in our house. Our food was resolutely wholesome, homemade, local, thoughtfully cooked and presented. Mum knew food mattered. Wonder products and cholesterol threats come and go. Good food and margarine didn’t couple easily.

Do anybody’s eyes light up at the sight of toast dripping with insipid marg? I don’t think so. If food doesn’t make you happy (the sight, the smell, the look and the taste) then in my book, it can’t be good for you The proof is in the pudding. If it tastes good, and delivers beyond its promise, then it’s good food. Job done. (Clearly there’s no scientific substance behind my theory. I simply uphold a suspicion that if what goes in makes you happy, it must be good for you).

Does that mean I should consume shed loads of chocolate and marzipan?

On one level, perhaps but Ive tried it and the result wasn’t happiness, not even the second or third time. No, experience tells me that a small amount of fabulous food is, simply, fabulous. More of the same isn’t more fabulous, or fabulous-er. in fact it makes you feel sick. Nothing fabulous about that.

A thin square of dark chocolate, then. Just the one; eyed with pleasure and expectation, experienced with the nose, melting on the tongue, savoured.

That to me is happiness. And I know (though I’m still not wise enough to follow) that a second piece only brings nostalgia of the first. Nothing beats the first sip of Baileys at Christmas, the first crunch of roast potato. Subsequent helpings are simply a clamour for a repeat hit of joy. It never comes.

Moderation, then. Lovely food, small helpings, enjoyed and appreciated.

This week I’m elated. I’m vindicated. It’s official: Butter is good. Not only that, but it seems that exercise isn’t the key to good health after all. Food is.

Really?

I wouldn’t uphold for a minute that exercise isn’t good for you. I know that my 15 minute cycle ride into town leaves me happier, stronger, and flatter-stomached. Again, moderation. I’ve no desire to do the Tour de France, and I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t make me all that much happier. Being fit is good. Super-fit just doesn’t seem necessary or desirable.

It’s tiresome, all this coming and going. Jumping from one uncertainty to the next, one fad to another. Are we looking at things from the wrong angle?

Instead of cholesterol levels, calorie intake, fibre quantity, in a culture that has the enormous good fortune to be able to do so, shouldn’t we be concentrating on enjoying food that is very simply delicious? Food that makes us happy? Have we forgotten how to celebrate? Is it taboo to enjoy taste?

I’m on a campaign to love food, and be thankful for it. I didn’t ‘get’ saying grace as a child, but I do now. I’m thankful for avocados, pineapples, mangos and fresh peas. I’m thankful for lime, coriander, mint and nutmeg. I’m gloriously thankful for raw chocolate, raspberries, blueberries and emmental.

But I’ll pass on the margarine, thanks. And you can keep the microwave, I’ve no need of one. Ever.

 

 

‘Proper’ info on happiness boosting foods available here:

http://greatist.com/happiness/nutrients-boost-mood