Discretionary Fun

Digital illustration/drawings: Mood & 'TudeI get the impression that some people treat non-work times as the only times when they’re allowed to be happy. I do understand the need for income that can drive one to spend time in a job that doesn’t fulfill any other need or desire in life, and many of those are in the least-compensated positions at low-paying employers’ as it is. Been there, done that.

But I can say, too, that the greatest misery in my work life was attitudinal, and the more I did to discover and avoid the things that made me unhappy in my work, the less miserable I was. The more I sought to learn what I enjoyed in work and chose ways to magnify that, the closer I got to contentment both at and out of the workplace.

I grew more cognizant, at the same time, of not wanting to waste precious time on work that challenged my inner playfulness or threatened my general sense of joy and purpose. I was given a great gift in being able recognize the longing and accept and pursue it by choosing a much lower-paying job (on paper, at least) with a great happiness-quotient. I’ve seen, over the years, that many of us are easily misled when we try to calculate what we think we need for our daily expenses, and how much it costs us to earn that. Yes, we get those paychecks, but if the job requires, say, clothes that we wouldn’t wear other than at work, child care, transportation, professional training and memberships, and that sort of thing, how much pay on an annual or monthly or hourly basis does it really cost to go beyond paying for those, at least far enough to keep a roof overhead and food on the table as well?

Nobody knows this awful kind of math better than the working poor. I’ve been in that category more than once in my life, but have always had safeguards others lacked—like friends or relatives from whom I could rent living space more cheaply than I could even a minuscule, run-down apartment in a scary part of town—so I also know that I am luckier than most. Now, when I am married to a person who is not only able to make enough income to support both of us but is willing to do so, I am among the most privileged and fortunate of creatures, and I know that, too.

But one of the best things I learned along the way when I was living on a very slender, sometimes sporadic, income, remains valuable to this day: if I spend so much time and energy on just ‘getting by’ in life and don’t put forth equal effort to enjoy, live, and love my life along the way, all of the pennies I earn are of little value at all. And while I can’t always afford the most thrilling and glamorous ways of keeping myself amused, especially when I do need to be working at any task or job, I had better find the simpler and cheaper ways and the most reliable ones to fill my life with happiness and contentment, I know by now that surrounding myself with people I love, admire, enjoy and respect is the very best solution. And if my job doesn’t allow for that kind of happiness and contentment, then it is costing me more than it pays, in the end.

Tough as Nails

Photo: A Little Rusty, Maybe

I may be getting a little rusty and weathered, but I’m just happy to be aging.

I’m managing to age. I’m glad. Though I’ve never had such a deep fall into my depressive and anxious episodes as to become suicidal, I’ve had times when I feared it might be hard to keep living, instead retreating into agoraphobic hiding in perpetuity. Those times, I am so very thankful, have been rare. They’re long past, too.

A couple of months ago, though, I had the first of some subtle indications that my longtime sense of shining wellness might have some tiny cracks forming in its foundations. A creeping unease entered into my confident good cheer. When I was first diagnosed and treated back then for my anxiety and depression, I had the strange sensation of learning what it felt like for my symptoms to recede, one by one, and as they did, I realized that the way I’d felt and the whole way I’d understood myself for all of my life before then, was in large part a collection of symptoms. Underneath it all was a different, happier and healthier self I have relished getting to know as I was unmasked by this progress.

I won’t lose that self again readily. I made tracks for the doctor’s office to talk about my options, because I don’t ever want to be held prisoner in that not-me state again. We’re checking my general health, the doctor and I, and plotting a course for reinforcement of the new-and-improved me while combating those things that threaten in any small way.

My greatest reassurance comes from living with the life partner who never ceases to love and support me for better, for worse, in sickness and in health. Backing him up in the task are the many relatives and friends upon whom I also depend. But I’ve come to realize that I have another resource on which I’ll be depending in this adventure. Surprisingly, that defender is me.

See, I understand now what I didn’t and couldn’t back in the day: I could never have made it to my first depressive crash and subsequent healing if I weren’t pretty tough inside. I have always thought of myself as shy, timid and easily cowed, but the truth is that if everything that seems ordinary and normal to other people in the everyday scheme of things—meeting a new person, answering the phone, taking a class—seems infinitely harder to a person with anxiety disorder or the chemical imbalance that causes chronic depression, then I must be stronger than I thought.

I’m planning to win. I don’t expect it’ll happen overnight, let alone permanently, but with my personal army at my back and the right attitude and resources of my own, I think I have a good shot at it.

Photo: Tough as Nails

For a marshmallow, I’m actually tough as nails.

Suicide without a Corpse

digital illustrationMichelle, a writer I greatly admire, just offered a post on her blog, wherein she details some of the characteristics of her daily experiences in life as a person with depression. As always, she makes me think. It’s not simply that I, too, am such a person—albeit one whose version of depression is as unique, individual as hers and everyone else’s—but that there are a few aspects of depression that, if not exactly universal, are amazingly common. First of these is that being sad is not depression. Sadness is to depression about like a paper cut is to getting an ice pick stuck in your eye.

I will not belittle the paper cut, real or metaphorical. Pain of the physical and the psychic sorts will always be relative to our own experiences and our own moments, and pain of any kind is inherently unpleasant and undesirable. That, I think, would be hard to argue.

But I might also say that it’s less accurate to equate sadness with depression than to call being sad, however jokingly, being “differently happy”. Sadness is a passing, ephemeral experience of the sort where the last scoop of one’s favorite ice cream flavor has been dished up and handed to the person just before her in the queue. Depression is when she has the dish of that flavor sitting right in front of her and not only doesn’t have the strength to reach over and take a spoonful of it to eat, she thinks she isn’t a good enough person to do so, if she can form such a solid thought at all, and if there were a super-powered sleeping pill that could put her peacefully to sleep forever sitting right next to the ice cream and she longed beyond words to die, she mightn’t have enough strength to reach over and take the pill either.

Suicide is a hideous thing, if you ask me. It’s tough enough that anyone would hate or fear her life and self to the degree that she sees no alternative but to end it, but of course she either knowingly accepts whatever horrible consequences her death will have on the entire rest of the universe, starting with the people who love her or she is no longer capable of recognizing that there are such people or consequences or caring about them. Beyond that, it inevitably is simply messy in the practical and logistical and legal senses. Someone will have to clean up after the fact, and the suicide doesn’t or can’t care that this will require others to deal with her corporeal remains, the legal messes she’s left behind, the tasks unfinished, and most of all, with the incurable suffering that follows when survivors realize that they couldn’t save her, might indeed have been utterly forgotten by her in the abysmal darkness of her depression.

Every individual’s best response to depression is as different as his or her version of the ailment. I am one of those whose unique combination of depression and other physical and emotional characteristics and components resisted all non-medical interventions until despite my vigorous resistance to the idea of chemical treatment I learned that that was the only useful method for me. Rather than diminishing my sense of self, it allowed me for the very first time in my four-plus decades to experience what I now believe is (and yes, probably always was) my true self. It still required being dedicated to a variety of other forms of non-chemical rehabilitation and therapy; talk therapy, meditation, and my practice of various arts and exercises mentally and physically that please and heal me all contribute to my wellness along with my meds.

I was fortunate in a way that many clinically depressed people are not: I never seriously contemplated committing suicide. I would go so far as to say that I considered it as a rather detached philosophical argument, inwardly, but I never reached the point where I so lost my will to oppose the idea of killing myself that I could let go of all the external reasons not to do so, those messy consequences others would have to undo or survive. If I valued myself so little as to want to be dead, I suppose it could be said that at least this made me think it would be that much worse of me to impose so terribly on those around me for something that wasn’t directly their problem. This sort of tautology clearly says to me that I wasn’t in imminent danger; I was busy arguing myself out of something that I didn’t really have the strength to do anyhow.

What I didn’t recognize in the midst of all of this soliloquizing was that I was committing a form of suicide, if an invisible one. True, there would be no stinking remains turning into human soap and sliming the rubber gloves of some poor janitor, no internecine paperwork to be sorted by attorneys and opportunists. But the burden on the world around me would have been just as heavy, the struggle of my loved ones just as inexorable, if I hadn’t rather literally stumbled into the intervening care that brought me to this lovely resolution where I find myself dwelling so comfortably today. Because, in my depressive brain fog and fear and self-loathing and ennui, I was rapidly forgetting how to be alive. It’s quite possible, I discovered, to die without stopping breathing, without even losing all conscious thought. A walking coma, an animate death is entirely possible in the midst of true depression.

And for that reason, I am all the more grateful that by virtue of being surrounded by people who helped to guide me in that direction, combined with being blessed, lucky, fortunate, or whatever combination thereof you prefer to name it, after my years in the dark I fell into the combination of elements that conferred a kind of wellness on me that I’d never known before. I am among you today not just as a happy and contented person, full of gratitude and amazement at what a good life I have, but also as a testament to the unfathomable differences and distances between existing and living, between something indescribably yet terribly akin to sleepwalking through life and waking up every day a little bit more…alive.

All Things in Due Season

digital illustrationBoon Companions

When shadow steals across my eyes, when chill sits in my soul, when cries

Of hopelessness and bitter cold would turn me hard, regretful, old,

I turn my memory to when I cradled happiness, and then

Remember that what shaped me so was love, the kind I came to know

From those great luminaries whose wisdom it was to seek and choose,

From the remotest needful place, pursuit of happiness and grace,

Who told in kindly, teaching voice that peace and joy are bought by choice,

That when the frozen dark descends, we’ll find our light

among our friends.digital illustration

A Glimmering of Sweetness Exceeding All that has Gone Before

This is my wish for all of you as the new calendar year begins. May you find goodness and contentment all around you, and may you in turn share and propagate it everywhere you go in 2014. Peace and abundant happiness, my friends.photoI rarely have an actual Plan for the upcoming year, but this time around I do want to move toward a few specific things. First and foremost, I want to be more deliberate about finding ways and excuses to be an even happier person, and to leverage that happiness to spread it as far and wide as I can to other people. Call it intentional optimism, call it doing random acts of kindness, call it whatever you want, but I think it’s more likely to be good for the overall tone of the year than not, and that alone is worthwhile.photoIn addition, I intend to start making money this year again, however little it may be. I have no delusions of getting rich, but would love to put my own tiny dent in our family expenses, savings, and/or retirement. It’s been a long time since I got any actual dollars for anything other than a present, and I know that, however unlikely a choice I may be on paper for anyone who’s hiring, I will find a way. Or two. It may not be a regular job, or it might be a conglomeration of tasks and sources. I’ll keep you posted, friends, but if anyone happens to have any brilliant insights before I do, chime in; I’m listening! Meanwhile, I’m happy to keep working on increasing the happiness quotient however I’m able. That’s Job #1.

Search Engine

I tend to believe that things happen the way they’re supposed to happen. Doesn’t mean I’m always going to enjoy or approve of either the process or the results–many things are hard to live through and accept in the average life. All the same, and even if it’s a touch fatalistic, I find a bit of useful equanimity in the idea that the greater balance will eventually prevail one way or another. Whether I can foresee or understand the outcome of any of life’s mysteries or not, this thought tempers my natural impatience just a little.

Would I rather that every loved one who has suffered or died had not? Of course! ‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished. But even if I could choose such things, how can I know which way the universe will tilt in response? Might the unseen, unplanned measure of counterbalance damage other loves, other lives? Much as I fidget inwardly, pretending at god-like wisdom and magnanimity, the responsibility is truly far too great a burden for me to desire. I’m always pulled up short by intimations of an unwelcome butterfly effect.

Even in smaller and more mundane things, I dread to think too much on what might have been or how I would choose to make anything significantly different. The choice is so likely to hold hidden traps and snares that I can’t bear to imagine how dreadfully I might skew the universe awry with one misstep and would rather not carry the burden of it. So no matter how I may long for a difference in the moment, if there’s no obvious way for my intervention to have a positive on the outcome of events I will likely continue to flap my wings in a rather guarded fashion, hoping that anything I stir up will only join the stream, the current that flows toward the greater good, even if I can’t begin to see it yet. My inability to recognize the larger pattern doesn’t in any way prove that it isn’t there.photoSo I watch and wait. But in the meantime I plan, always, to keep living. Moving forward is the only useful reality while I’m waiting for any additional facts to appear. And a much happier and more entertaining way to spend my time than in anxious huddling in corners. See you out there!

Be It Ever So Humble

I had such a grand week at the conference. The 11th through 15th of March was my spouse’s purported Spring Break from the university, but as so often happens, most of the week was filled up with work. In this instance, the work was exceedingly pleasurable, but as it was the conference of the American Choral Directors Association, it was, as are most tremendously enjoyable activities, exhausting. Two, three or four concerts a day, master classes, seminars and sessions of all sorts, wandering the exhibitors’ booths, networking and lots of socializing and late, late nights are all piled into the ACDA conferences. By the end of the week, going home sounded beautifully and truly welcome.photoIt might surprise some people to hear it, but by nature I’m an introvert, shy, and I used to have a fairly nasty perpetual case of social anxiety. Yeah, all that fun stuff. I spent a lot of years feeling scared and sick over every new meeting, every unfamiliar place or event. Luckily for me, there are such things as therapists, medications, and lots of family support and training. As a result, going to the various conventions, festivals and conferences that bring together the choral world from time to time has gone from what was, the first time I attended one with my then new husband, quite overwhelming and nerve-wracking to this last, which like its latest predecessors was a much-anticipated ‘family reunion’ with a great number of beloved friends and colleagues from all over the world.photoSo I certainly had a grand week. Meeting with longtime friends from various places we’ve lived, choirs my husband’s conducted, and from our school days, and with ever so many outstanding colleagues, we got to celebrate with them all over music, lunches and dinners, receptions, walks-about-town, drinks and quiet conversations. We laughed and hugged and chattered with current and former students, with composers and conductors and publishers and singers and players, so many friends, and it was all tremendous fun. It made for long days and for short sleeps, for incredibly dry eyes from staying up way too late and for teary eyes from amazingly sweet meetings, no matter how fleeting, with our long-absent dear ones. Stellar music performed by both friends and strangers moved me to both sniffling and silly grins (sometimes simultaneously). It made me as happy and full of love for music and friends and life as I can get, and it made me so tired I could hardly move ten of my cells at a time. And it made me look forward with great intensity to the splendors of home. There, I can relish in retrospect all the sweetness of the multitude of marvels granted by a superb week. And I can revel in Just. Plain. Being. Home.

Crazed Weasels and Other Objects of Affection

The Georgian era gave us, along with a whole raft of other creative gifts for sweethearts and mementos of important occasions, the piece of portraiture-cum-jewelry known as the Lover’s Eye. Something of an oddity, to those of us in the modern day who don’t happen to be of that individualistic bent that swallows capsules of a late wife’s ashes with daily vitamins, wears vials of a lover’s blood as a pendant or keeps the deceased boss’s body as a nice piece of taxidermy so that he continues to sit in on board meetings in perpetuity. Yes, all realities for some folk. Not so much for Average-Joan. Portraiture is generally so very much more socially acceptable.digital collageA portrait of a lover’s eye, even if it happens to be shown without reference to and other, presumably equally adorable, parts of said person, isn’t quite so unsettling and freaky then. Of course, that assumes that one’s dearest has eyes, at least one eye, that is pretty attractive in its way. I got to thinking about this whole little question when I had the allergic attack recently that made my eyes so distinctively disgusting. However, I was reminded by that very episode that love is genuinely, in its way, blind. My darling husband didn’t cease to treat me with the usual kindness and affection and sweet intimacy, and while I know there was for both of us an underlying hope, nay, assumption that this was a temporary appearance for me, the possibility of permanence existed as well.digital collageWhat did this prove? Nothing in and of itself, really. It did, though, remind me ultimately of the age-old truth that love makes us see the objects of our affections as good, desirable, as beautiful. That beauty is in the eye of the beholder. My spouse saw the Me he loved, without necessary reference to how I looked at the moment. And he does, after all, love me either despite knowing I’m a little bit weird and kooky, albeit (I hope) pleasantly so or, weirder and kookier yet, because I’m that way. Probably not especially hankering to wear around any new jewelry, my beloved. Least of all, jewelry with a little picture of my eye staring at him all of the time, as if my gawping at him in person, however admiringly, isn’t enough to send him up the wall. I’m not absolutely certain that a prettified version of my healthy eye would be markedly better than a silly and outrageous portrait of my eye in its bizarrely bloodshot wackiness, as jewelry goes. But my guy, he looks pretty fabulous no matter what he’s wearing. So there’s that. Wink, wink.

What’s-in-My-Kitchen Week, Day 7: Love & Happiness

photoIt’s said that Cleanliness is Next to Godliness, and regardless of your beliefs, a clean kitchen is surely going to keep you closer to the desirable state of ideal health and well-being than a slovenly one. A rotten, filthy kitchen, on the contrary, may well send you off to meet your maker (or annihilation) with unwelcome rapidity. In my experience, Good Eating is Next to Perfect Happiness.

Simply eating well–whether of the most esoteric or exotic or splendidly gourmet meals, or of the handful-of-greens with some impeccably ripe apricots, a speck of salt and pepper and a drizzle of lemon-infused honey pristineness–that act of tasting and enjoying is its own reward. Love of good eating and the happiness that accompanies and follows it are worthy sorts of pleasures.photo

The process by which the meal or nibble is achieved can be grand delights, too. Just happening on the desired food serendipitously, even sometimes without having realized there was a desire at all, is lovely. Planning a dish, a menu, an event can be a satisfying challenge and adventure. Hunting (in field, stream or market) can be your surprisingly meditative, endorphin-brewing action sequence to prepare for the meal making itself.

Along with all of this is the primary joy of dining with others: the communal happiness and yes, meaning that can be cultivated in shared eating. The love of good food is magnified, multiplied exponentially, by the reflection of that affection between those at table. With strangers and acquaintances, it is the magnanimity–the largeness of spirit–inherent in hospitality that binds and bonds us. Among friends and loved ones, the food is both expression and enhancement of the finest graces in our connections to one another. And I can think of no lovelier thing to stock in my kitchen than that.

photo

Pull up a chair and have a piece of pear-blackberry pie with me!