Quest for Happiness

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At last week’s book club meeting, we discussed our monthly selection, Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder. Everyone there was amazed by Deo, the young man who escaped genocide in Burundi and Rwanda and came to America.

Surviving homelessness and hunger, Deo is befriended by a number of people who have faith in him, and he becomes a doctor. Yes, a doctor, a medical one. He doesn’t do it for fame or fortune, however, and Deo uses his education, experience, and expertise to return to Burundi to set up clinics.

As we discussed this outstanding person and his many attributes, we began talking about one of my favorite topics of late, happiness. I jumped on Gretchen Rubin’s bandwagon a couple of weeks ago when I first began reading The Happiness Project. While I agree with Rubin and all of the psychologists and philosophers she quotes about the importance of happiness, my book club and I wondered if people who are in survival mode also ponder its importance.

While Deo and his countrymen were literally running for their lives, did they wish for happiness, or did they simply want to survive the day, the week, or the month? When Mormon pioneers were crossing the Rocky Mountains in freezing weather, often having to bury their dead children along the way, were they thinking of how to be happy or how to make it to Salt Lake (a destination they weren’t really sure of yet)? Did the prisoners of concentration camps in Germany and Poland dream about “oh happy day,” or were they wishing for an extra crust of bread?

I don’t know the answers to the above questions. It does, however, make sense to me that when a person’s physical and material needs are supplied, then she begins to think more about wants, personal fulfillment, and yes, happiness.  What do you think? Is happiness something everyone thinks about and desires, or is it something that people are more likely to consider after their survival needs are satisfied?

Let’s Get Happy!

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It’s been a sad season in our household for the past couple of months, but I’m coming around. Part of the reason for my resurrection is my innate temperament, and another part is a book I’ve been reading, Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project. About temperament, Rubin’s book reminded me that genetics accounts for about 50 percent of one’s emotional set point.

Since I’ve been teaching psychology since, well, let’s just say a long, long time, I already knew most of the things in Ms. Rubin’s book, but I haven’t thought of the host of interesting and doable applications that she suggests in The Project. While many people think that lots of money, parenthood, or age are major factors in happiness, they really aren’t.

I’ve already put some of Rubin’s suggestions to use and can tell a difference, not just in my elevated mood but also in that of others that I’m around. That’s not surprising. After all, one of the concepts of psychology is emotional contagion, a phenomenon in which people “catch” emotions from other people. I’d rather infect my friends and family with good cheer instead of gloominess, hadn’t you?

While we were discussing my quest for more sustained happiness, my brother asked, “Why not joy?” I replied that I’m not sure that joy is as attainable and sustainable as happiness. Rubin quotes one of her blog readers who said, “But happiness is more accessible. We can be miserable and then find ourselves laughing, even if it’s just for a few seconds. It reaffirms the will to live and from there we can branch out.”

During a Celebration of Life following the funeral of a loved one last week, I saw and heard several people laughing—people who deeply loved the dearly departed. Although their hearts were broken, they could still find something funny or uplifting enough to laugh about. A quick example is of a cousin who whispered the name of her unborn child to her grandmother who was in a comatose state. No one else knows the name of this soon-to-be-born baby boy except for Nana, and as my cousin was relating the story, she smiled and laughingly told of how she had to make sure that her own mother wasn’t eavesdropping.

“Oh, your mom would never do that. If she told you that she wouldn’t listen, then she wouldn’t,” I said.

“I don’t know,” she said with a lilt in her voice. “Mom’s the one who always shakes the Christmas presents in our house.”

The conversation was mood elevating to me. The room was filled with people who lived and breathed because of Nana, and although she had “passed through the veil,” she took the secret of her new great grandson’s name with her. I love it. And so did the people who were listening, people who loved Nana’s daughter and granddaughter.

Happiness is my word for 2014. Like Rubin, I’m a happy person. BUT as she said, “I wasn’t as happy as I could be, and my life wasn’t going to change unless I made it change. In that single moment, with that realization, I decided to dedicate a year to trying to be happier.”

Me too. I’m going to continue reading and rereading The Happiness Project and apply many (most?) of the recommendations to my life. I’ll be writing about my successes and failures here and hoping that you’ll be inspired to jump on the happiness bandwagon. What have you got to lose except a sour attitude?

Unspeakable Sorrow

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Just because I haven’t been writing doesn’t mean that I have run out of ideas or that I’m giving up on it. Giving up on writing? Ha-ha. Might as well give up on breathing. It’s something that I’m compelled to do even if it’s just to jot a few items in my gratitude journal. Even if no one reads what I have to say, I still have to do it.

The recent loss of my stepson has unearthed many memories. Here are a few, all of which remind me (us) that human suffering is universal. While that knowledge doesn’t make grief disappear, it does help somewhat to know that if others have survived, so can we. Except for my great-grandmother, I’ve changed the names.

One fall evening many, many years ago one of my daughters and I were visiting an elderly lady who was a member of our  church.  We were chatting with her about a variety of topics while enjoying the ambience of her home and the sweetness of her company.  As we discussed the upcoming holidays, she told of her excited anticipation about seeing her son and his family.  Then she mentioned a daughter. A daughter?

“I didn’t know you had a daughter, Margaret,” I said.

After a moment, “Yes, she would have been 56 this year.”

Speechless (I know, strange for me), I waited quietly and then finally asked, “What happened?”

“She fell on her head out of an upstairs window when she was 3,” she said.

Totally caught off guard, I’m sure I gasped and asked, “Oh Margaret, I’m so sorry! How did you ever get over it?”

“I never did.”

A couple of summers ago my husband and I were traipsing around a cemetery outside of Ellenboro, NC, and I spied some headstones with Padgett on them. I took notes on some of the names and dates of their birth and death dates, and after a few minutes, I simply started taking pictures with my phone. There was so much to remember!

I saw a tiny grave marker and leaned down to read it. “Darling daughter” of Sidney and Minnie Padgett, I realized with a start that this was my grandfather’s sister who died several years before he was born!

Her name was Lillie, and she died when she was but 5 years old. How? Was she sick? Was her death an accident? My grandfather wasn’t born until three years later, and I wondered about my grandmother’s heartache. Was the untimely death of this small child the mystery behind all of the sad pictures of Grandmother Minnie?

On the way back to SC, I called one of my aunts to inquire about Lillie, and she confirmed what I had recently learned. She couldn’t add much to the story, however, and I realized for the umpteenth time that family history is rich and that we need to ask, ask, ask the people who carry it in their heads.

If I had known about my great aunt Lillie, I might have named one of my daughters after her. In fact, I’m sure of it.

And then there’s my friend Amy whose heart hurts for her son every single day (minute) of her life. His mortal life taken in an automobile accident when still a teenager, Matt’s early demise left a gaping hole in his family circle. After ten years, I continue to pray for solace for my friend.

And then there’s my Grandmother Padgett who lost a young child to scarlet fever. And there’s Sarah whose child was killed in an accident on Hwy. 17 years ago, an event so painful that Sarah got through her days “breath by breath,” not minute by minute. And there’s Traci whose daughter died shortly after giving birth to her fifth child. The horror of this event still haunts me, especially if I allow myself to think of Traci’s plane ride across America, desperately trying to get to her daughter’s side.

Then there’s my stepson’s death on Thanksgiving day.  Though his death was not quick and unexpected like most of the above, it was/is painful nonetheless. We’ve realized that while there are words like orphan and widow to describe the survivors of some deaths, there is no word in our language to describe the parent of a deceased child. No word to describe the unspeakable sorrow that my husband is experiencing.

I’ve only scratched the surface of the tragic losses experienced by parents. Last week, we learned of dozens more, thus making us realize the universality of pain and loss. It doesn’t make it any easier, but it does increase our empathy and our faith.

Higher Than My Ways

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You might call it mustard colored, but I see my new journal as saffron, a beautiful shade of golden yellow. I bought it at the Time Out for Women Conference in Columbia this past weekend, and I’m reserving it to record thoughts and impressions that take me “higher.”

Let me explain. The conference theme was based on a verse from the Old Testament, Isaiah 55:9: “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” The moment I read “so are my ways higher than your ways” on the front of the journal, I recalled a chilly autumn afternoon as I sat beside my father’s bedside.

My family and I had come home for the weekend, and upon our arrival, I learned that my father had been hospitalized for an upper respiratory ailment, the same one that would take his life years later. As I walked into the room that afternoon, I could see that he was sleeping peacefully so I didn’t disturb him. This was back in the days before e-readers and iPhones so I was stuck with sitting there with my thoughts, none of them good. Having never seen my father so fragile and weak, I was distraught with worry and concern.

I picked up a Gideon Bible and began thumbing through it. Almost immediately I came across the verse from Isaiah. I read it again…and then again. “Hmm,” I thought. “This is so true. I don’t like it, but it’s true nonetheless. He’s God, and I’m just a mortal living down here on Earth.”

Since that Saturday afternoon in my father’s hospital room, I’ve quipped those phrases to almost any and everyone who is suffering and can make no sense of it. My precious daughter had a stillborn baby, and there I was with, “For as the heavens….” I don’t know whether that comforted her or not, but it was the only thing that made sense to me (us) at the time. More times that I can recount, I’ve thought, “The heavens and His ways are higher. You just don’t have the big picture, Jayne.”

But here’s what happened Saturday. The light came on and now I see that verse in a different and more enlightened way. I often tell people to “go for it,” to use their gifts, and now I can see how this scripture applies to positive aspects of our lives too. We can’t possibly know or see what He does, but we can be certain that His plans and thoughts are higher than ours.

When I was a younger person, I often heard the expression, “I know I’m somebody ’cause God don’t make no junk.” At the time, I thought it was catchy and cool, both because of the way the phrase was worded and because of the sentiment itself. This weekend’s conference echoed basically the same thing. You and I are somebody. Isaiah 43:1 says, “I have called thee by name; thou art mine.” We are His. He has plans for us and thoughts about us. We need to find out what they are and move forward in faith.

Here on Earth there is sickness, frailty, contention, distress, and aging. There are weeds and spiders and sour milk and cancer. Stress abounds and so do chaos, loss, tragedy, difficult people, and things that go bump in the night. Heaven is higher. That’s where He is with His thoughts, ways, and plans for us.

When heartache comes along (as it surely will), the knowledge that His thoughts and ways are higher than ours can be comforting. What’s equally awesome is knowing that the same thing is true for positive events. To reach “higher,” we might have to stretch a little, but that’s a post for another day.

Clouds with Silver Linings

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I’m feeling a bit philosophical after yesterday’s birthday and am determined to find a way to use this great photograph in a post. I was standing in a classroom in Blanding Elementary School in Rincon, GA during an Open House last week, and my granddaughter Brooke looked out of the window and said, “Oh look, there a cloud with a silver lining.” It was gorgeous!

Don’t think I have a lot of cloudy weather in my life today. I don’t, not unless you consider my brother and I having issues with our meal last night or being disappointed with the movie afterwards. Those are minor things, and fortunately, we both have the ability to say, “That chicken is completely tasteless and definitely not grilled,” and move on. We can watch a disappointing movie and say that we learned something from it. What was Matt Damon thinking???

That’s not to say that I haven’t had my share of storm clouds. Like everyone else who walks the planet, I too have experienced loss, disappointment, and the doldrums. No need to go into detail here. What I will say is that storms always pass. It’s nature’s way for the sun to come out again. It’s also true that often there is something good about clouds and storms and fog so dense that you can’t see through it.

Last week when Brooke pointed out the cloud with the silver lining, I asked, “What exactly does that mean to you?”

“It just means the sun is behind the cloud but about to come out.”

“Oh,” I replied, impressed with her knowledge. “How’d you know that?”

“Daddy told me,” she said, leaving my side to go find her father and show him the beautiful sight.

Later, I told her that there would be times in her life when she felt sad or gloomy, and that she just needed to remember the cloud with the sun behind it. “Sometimes tough times in our lives teach us lessons,” I said in my best grandmotherly voice.

She tilted her pretty face up to look at me as she pondered that remark, and although I don’t know how her 8-year-old mind processed that information, I hope she’ll remember our conversation. One day, it will make more sense to her.

There are so many applications of clouds with silver linings. A person could lose a job and find that it offers the opportunity to go back to school and prepare for a totally new and more rewarding career. Someone could get her heart broken so badly that she feels she can never trust or love again. Later she realizes, with relief, that she “dodged that bullet.” A family could be hit with sickness, loss, or disability, and while it’d be hard to find the sun behind those clouds, perhaps the situation will give them increased strength, faith, or courage.

What about you? Have you experienced rainbows after rain and sunshine after clouds? Have there been times when there really were silver linings (lessons, blessings, insights) in the cloudy times in your life?

No Uninteresting People

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I’m tweaking G.K. Chesterson’s quote about there being no uninteresting things, only uninterested people. The more I live and observe, I truly believe that there are no uninteresting people, just uninterested ones. On a recent getaway to the mountains of NC, this belief was verified several times.

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On our way to Bryson City, NC where we had rented a cabin, we stopped at the NC Welcome Center and were delighted to see a man dressed as Uncle Sam. There was a festival going on, and I met a couple of fascinating people, Jerry Wolfe and Max Woody. Jerry, a Cherokee Indian, is a living, breathing advertisement for the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. In fact, his picture is on the front of the pamphlet that he autographed for me. And Max Woody? He’s a sixth generation chair maker who crafts ladder-back chairs and rockers without using nails or glue. I would have enjoyed listening to these men longer, but since we had miles to go before we slept, we left the festival and traveled north.

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When we weren’t hiking and marveling over waterfalls and beautiful vistas, we spent a lot of time browsing through the shops in downtown Bryson City. It’s a delightful little town that we hope to visit again. Not too far from Waynesville, Bryson City has a number of interesting people who reside there.

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After a delicious and reasonably priced breakfast at Everett’s Diner, my husband and I parted company for a while so that he could shop to his heart’s content in a hardware store while I visited a couple of the quaint shops on the other side of the bridge crossing the Tuckasegee River.

Intrigued by the original art work in a shop window, I walked into the store and started a conversation with the mild mannered man behind the counter, the owner of the establishment. I was the only customer in the shop at that time, and before I knew it, we were discussing his life story and the circuitous path that led him to his current location and career. Talented and with an eye for business, he creates 3-D artwork, furniture, and even birdhouses. As he showed me some of his creations, I was immediately impressed with his originality and passion for his work.

He mentioned that he had dropped out of college years ago because of the combined stress of being a father, breadwinner, and student. I told him it was never to go back and finish his program of study, but the longer we chatted, I realized that he was doing what he wanted to do where he wanted to do it. In midlife and content with his life, would a degree really help him? IF he were the type of person who wanted a degree just to prove to himself that he could do it, then yes. But he isn’t. He’s comfortable in his own skin. I enjoyed chatting with him about his children, his time in the Army, and one of his former jobs. We even talked about the Bible a little bit, and when I left, I asked him to share a word or two from the good book. Glad to oblige, he shared something he’d been reading when I came in.

I walked into Second Hand Rose, a consignment shop, and saw a young woman going through some clothes. From a New England state, she had moved to Bryson City and fallen in love with it. Although the job she had come for had fallen through, she had quickly secured another one and was looking forward to beginning her new job on Monday.

“Weren’t you afraid to leave Maine and come to the South?” I asked.

“Sure, it was hard. And I had to do a lot of planning and taking care of things,” she answered.

“I admire you,” I said. “So many people live lives of shoudas and wouldas, and then one day they wake up and it’s too late to do those things they’ve been procrastinating.”

“You really think so?” she asked, glancing away from the merchandise she was scanning.

“Oh yeah!  I think if people could kick the person most responsible for their lost opportunities and crummy lives, they couldn’t sit down for six months.”

She smiled a little, probably wondering who this kooky person was who persisted in distracting her from shopping.

My bibliophile friends will be happy to know that there’s a wonderful bookstore right on Everett Street, the Friends of the Library Bookstore. Well-organized, the layout of the store made it easy to go to just the right section, and none of the books that I purchased were over $3. The woman working in the shop was a volunteer, evidently one who believed in the power of words to transform lives.  I could have stayed there for a couple of hours just dipping into books and picking up tidbits of information and inspiration, but DH (Dear Husband) was ready to move on to the Cork and Bean for a triple chocolate brownie a la mode.

Back at the cabin, I sat on the deck reading the journal of entries left by former visitors to the Dogwood cabin. As I read and listened to crows cawing, birds tweeting, and dogs barking, I thought again, “What interesting people there are in this world!”

Other Blogs

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Quick post to say that this blog appears to be my primary one, and I can’t change that (have dutifully followed instructions several times). I have three blogs, and this one is more about personal experiences and ponderings in the day-to-day life of a mother, grandmother, wife, teacher, sister, friend……..you get the picture. It’s a potpourri of many different topics, so if that’s what you’re looking for, then this is it. Since Mom’s Musings is the first blog I started, that’s probably why it’s still listed as my primary one regardless of my attempts to change its status.

My other two blogs might interest you too. Or rather, they might interest you MORE than the above mentioned one because they’re focused on specific topics. Gossip and Solitude (http://jaynebowers.wordpress.com/) is a weblog about my writing experiences and is an attempt to meld a website and blog together. Not only do I post about the fun, woes, rewards, hassles, disappointments, and triumphs of writing, but I also post book reviews.

The third blog, Beating a Path, is about teaching experiences. I’ve been teaching in the SC Technical Education system since 1975 (ouch…long time!), and this blogs includes ideas, suggestions, and stories. I’m still teaching part-time, mainly because I just can’t leave the magic of the classroom. Educational practices and trends continue to change, and for a number of years I’ve also taught online classes. The link to Beating a path is http://www.jpbowers.wordpress.com.

I hope you’ll check out the other two blogs, especially since I think a lot of people are directed to Mom’s Musings by accident…or rather because of a wordpress issue that I can’t figure out.

Happy Blogging!