How to be happy even if you're English

what is happiness and how to get it


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How our thoughts define our experience

F.E.A.R.  False Evidence Appearing Real. That’s a helpful tool at times, when our minds take us to scary places.

Stories can be great illuminators too. Here’s a lovely one to illustrate how our thoughts can affect our everyday lives.  And I do mean every day. You may have heard it before.  This version is from Philippa Perry.  I like Philippa, not least because she’s married to Grayson.  It’s from her book How to Stay Sane, a pocket-sized jewel.

The Jack Story

The deserts of America are lonely places; miles can go by without any other cars or a single house.  In one of these wildernesses a driver heard his tyre blow.  He was more annoyed than worried, knowing that he kept a spare tyre and a jack in his car boot.  Then he remembered; he got the jack out last week and forgot to put it back.  He had no jack.  But things could be worse, because he passed a garage about three miles back.  As he started walking, he talked to himself: ‘There aren’t any other garages around here.  I’m at the garage man’s mercy.  He could really rip me off just for lending me a jack.  He could charge me what he wanted.  He could charge $50.  There is nothing I could do about it.  Goddamn, he could even charge $150.  People are terrible to take advantage of others like that.  Hell, what bastards people are.’ He continued absentmindedly telling himself this story until he got to the garage.  The attendant came out and said in a friendly way “How can I help you?” and the traveller said “You can take your damned jack and you can stuff it.’

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We all carry personal versions of this story with us.  The trick is to recognise them when they rear their heads.  If we did, the world we experience could be a very different place.


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A beautiful story about love, time, and spoons

In Africa I learnt how ancestors live on until their name is forgotten, which resonated with me.  This story is by Philippa Perry, with a similar theme.  I’ve lifted it word for word from her gorgeous book ‘How to Stay Sane’ published as part of a series by the School of Life.  It’s my kind of story, now shared 🙂 I hope you like it.

My Wooden Spoon

I sometimes look at a busy street and think: in a hundred years, we will all be dead.  On this same street a hundred years ago, perhaps another woman thought the same thing.  Perhaps, however, like me, she consoled herself with the thought that love is generative and lives on in the next generation, passed on in the habits of love we inculcate in our pupils, children and friends.  I have my late aunt’s paintings around me, my late mother’s ring on my finger and her words inside me still urging me to tell my daughter to ‘be careful’ every time she leaves the house.  My grandfather’s gruff sarcasm lives on in my father and in me, so he is not really dead.  When my daughter lays out a sewing pattern, my fondness for needlework lives on in her.

This deeply moving process, that connects human to human in a cascade of memory passing through generations, can be symbolised by particular objects that are passed down along with the knowledge of our ancestors.  I am the proud owner of a wooden spoon that is worn into an un-spoonlike stump.  In the pre-electric whisk days of the 1960s, my aunt taught me to cream the butter and sugar for a cake mixture; we always used the same spoon.  Even then the spoon was worn out.  My aunt had, in her turn, used it as a child.  I use a whisk now; but the sight of that spoon in the drawer brings tears to my eyes if it catches me unawares on an hormonal day.  My aunt will be forgotten eventually; my daughter will teach her own children to make cakes.  Along with cake recipes she will pass down the love I received first from my aunt.  Oh yes, my aunt will live on, even if her name gets mentioned less and less and her spoon is thrown away.

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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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Don’t wish you did it. Do it.

Once my house was broken into. They took the kids’ DVDs, rifled through my underwear drawers looking for cash (none found, obviously) and through my jewellery box. None taken.

They made a mistake there, because amongst my small collection of insanely cheap jewellery that no one but I would choose, lurked the valuable gold charm bracelet my great aunt left to me.

Aunty Win was my godmother and a very special lady. She was tiny and twinkly-eyed, with a false hair-piece and a black poodle. She loved a cocktail and had a wicked, ready and throaty laugh. The kind you don’t hear any more.

When I wear the bracelet I can see and hear her.  The charms are tokens from Uncle Frank and keepsakes from exotic travels. Her life.  There were five unattached charms when I inherited it.  My friend Matt, a goldsmith, added them for me.  My present to Aunty Win; an intention completed.  A thank you, for a beautiful gift and a beautiful person known.

There are two other pieces I value.  One is my own silver charm bracelet, given to me when I was eight with a solitary St Christopher charm.  Over the years others were added from holidays with my parents, birthday gifts.  They are tiny.  Running my fingers over them each one has a familiarity and a story that makes it feel huge.  Each is a small world within my life.  They evoke rooms, smells, events. When I wear it a soft tinkle accompanies me. The weight of it reassures.

I used to wear it every day. But the safety chain broke, and a charm fell off.  It seemed tired.  So I returned it to the box with an intention.

The other is a silver bracelet I made as a student 25 years ago. My friends still remember the sound of the saw I used to shape it. It’s a distinctive, weighty piece and the only remaining piece of silverware I made. It looks good with black and gives me a sense of my skills, resourcefulness and creativity. I feel taller when I wear it.  The design is asymmetric and one piece is very slender. A few years ago it wore through, and was also resigned to the box.

Last week I passed a jewellers. I’m not one to spend out on items, but was conscious of the absence of specialness. Time, perhaps, for something new. A treat.

I let the thought sit.

It sat.

Today I called in on my friend Matt. I collected a beautifully shiny hoard of silver; a bundle of trinkets assembled on a simple chain, and a smart, proud bangle beautifully resurrected and polished.

It cost a fraction of what I’d anticipated to be mended, and I have a priceless gift in return. My bracelet is back on my wrist, and I can stroke the charms with my fingers as I walk. My whole life revisited, brand new.  And a magical tinkle to boot.

Intentions are only that, until they’re actioned.

Things are really just things, but small actions can resurrect lives.


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rules, perceptions of rules, and strange Sunday connections

Two days ago I re-organised my living room.  I placed a chair from the living room tidily in the communal hallway, next to a matching chair.  Yesterday I found a note placed on the newly added chair.  It said ‘dear Jane.  I think that’s one chair too many.  This might be a fire hazard according to the rules.  Please remove’.  I obligingly moved it to the garage after a tantalising 24 hour gap.

Today’s a lazy, balmy Sunday. Coming home, I was thinking about how society happily encompasses a framework of rules, by-rules, personal versions of rules, rule-aversion and blatant rule abuse.  There’s an awful lot of room in all that. It’s quite a playing field. Quite extraordinary that we bother with it at all. We must rather enjoy it. (Honestly, that’s the kind of thing that finds it’s way into my head, even on a Sunday).

Walking down our road towards the flat, I see billowing smoke from behind the building (I live at the rear). Hmm, thinks I.

Venturing closer, a concerned elderly resident is curious about the source. She’s on her balcony, with a mystic haze of smoke veiling her. She’s on the front side. What will mine be like? So much for my anticipated coffee break on the balcony.

Around the back, my new young neighbours are looking agitated. We all stare at the billowing smoke permeating through the willow branches.  There are large trees and a brook bordering our property. Beyond the brook are the backs of the gardens opposite.  It’s from there the smoke issues.  Someone’s having a bonfire.

Taking charge, I venture “Er…excuse me” in the most English of ways. Not too confrontative. Inviting discussion.

A male face through the shrubbery.  Definitely a hint of ‘I’ll do what I like’ about him.

The conversation ran thus, with trees, shrubs and brook in the middle;

“Excuse me what are you doing?”

“I’m having a bonfire”

“Well we live here and the smoke’s going in our flats”

“Well I’m having a bonfire what do you expect me to do about it?”

“Well you could put it out”.

“I’m not going to I’ve just started it”.

“How long will it be?”

“About an hour.”

“An hour? I’m sure you shouldn’t have a bonfire on a Sunday. I’m pretty sure there’s a bylaw about it”.

“I don’t know about bylaws.  I work.  When else am I going to have a bonfire?”

“I don’t know.  But perhaps you should read up about bylaws before lighting a bonfire.”

Of course, the fire persisted another couple of hours.  Which gave me time to google ‘UK bylaws about bonfires’. There is no bylaw about bonfires on Sundays.  Only persistent bonfire lighting, which this was not.

Here’s a multiple choice question:

Which neighbour is the most un-neighbourly; the one that lights the bonfire, or the one that moans about it and gets on their high horse?

Answer:

1 There’s no smoke without fire

2 There are no rules without interpretation

3 He who casts the first stone

4 Planks in my eyes, etc…

5 There is no answer

It turns out that the young neighbours had called the fire brigade.  I hope no-one thinks it was me, the neighbour from Hell.

Happy Sunday, everyone.

 


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a long, sweet and surprisingly small story about making a bed (honestly)

On Tuesdays I have a part time cleaning job. On alternate weeks I’m required to change the sheets in either the adult or kids bedrooms. Today is Big Bed day. Sue leaves the selected fresh bedding on the appropriate bed for me. Fitted sheet, flat sheet, duvet cover and four pillowcases.

The bed is the first thing I do when I arrive. That way I can wash and dry the covers whilst doing my remaining tasks, then iron them and replace in the airing cupboard. I put little post-it’s on (KS flat sheet/ fitted double etc), which are kept to hand in the cupboard. It’s a good system. Foolproof.

This morning I wasn’t the brightest button in the box, but set about undressing the bed positively, amassing a vast cloud of laundry. I try to be tidy (experience tells me this makes jobs simpler) so filled the machine before re-dressing the bed.

It’s a funny thing, making beds. If an alien landed in the room I’d be hard-pressed to explain what I was doing. An oddity of the developed world. I find it curious, amusing, unfathomably laborious and tiresome. But also inexplicably wonderful and rewarding (“Humans do what? Really? That’s so funny”. “Ah yes but it does look nice. All neat and flat and just so. It smells good too”).

I begin with the fitted sheet (beautifully folded. Well done, Jane).

Then flat sheet. Perfect.

Duvet cover; corners together. Hold fast and pull back. Great. Big muscular shake, and voila!

Actually that doesn’t look quite right.

I’ve changed this bed fortnightly for 6 months. It’s a king sized bed. Unlike my bog-standard easy peasy double, this quilt is rectangular. Just occasionally I fit the cover the wrong way. Never mind. I rectify my mistake and smooth the cover.

Now that’s odd. I’m sure I rotated the cover 90 degrees. But it’s definitely not fitting. Don’t tell me it was right first time!

I put it down to fuzzy-headedness, and try again. It’s hefty work, all this duvet lifting. Muscle building. Third time lucky.

Oh. Now that’s odd.

Whats happening here? I may not be a rocket scientist, but I’m not dumb either. Time for rational thinking.

Perhaps the labels got switched. Ah, that’s it. The spare room has a double bed, and a similar cover. I must have mis-applied the label. That’ll be it.

To be extra clever (never assume. Cover the angles), I put my head round the spare room door. Within, the bed is made up beautifully with a well-fitting white waffle cover. Well there’s a thing.

It must simply be speed. Perhaps I judged my actions too hastily, and placed the wrong verdict. Go slower, Jane, and be more focussed in your assessment…

Have I placed the quilt the wrong way four times? Is that humanly possible?

If I were home I’d have a coffee, do something else, come back later. But this is my job. I’m supposed to be a professional! last time, then. You must be looking at it from the wrong angle. There’ll be some thing, some small detail, you’ve overlooked.  Maybe you’re trying too hard. Go steady. Nice and slow. Think. Breathe.

Unbelievable. Un-be-lieve-able.

What other rational explanations could there be? Had I inadvertently fallen through a crack in the universe? (Really, I was starting to think this way by now). One more time.

I’m not making this up. Aged 48, with hundreds of successful bed-making episodes under my belt, it took me seven stoic attempts to get it right. Seven! Thirty-five whole minutes later, success. No erroneous selection, no shrinking in the wash, no mis-orientation.  It fitted. Smooth, aligned, level, gorgeous. Just lovely. Like Cinderellas slipper.

Never has a bed looked so good. You would never, ever know. And I have no idea how.

Of course, I couldn’t share the story. That would be folly, as I would only expose my incompetence. The joy, though; the pride in my perseverence, my maintained application, my solid reasoning. Sheer resilience. Priceless.

There are ways of perfecting competency that delight us by their artistry.  Other times artistry hides it’s face, but the result can be just as delightful. Even more so when it illuminates our humanity. And often it’s a case of looking from a different angle. The more you look, the more angles there seem to be.

I hope you find the right one.

The end.

 

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