A few thoughts on happiness

by Kathy Larson

Feb. 16, 2022

I just finished reading The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. This wasn’t a book I sought out on my own. It was given to me by my sister-in-law, Connie. She said it was okay; I said I’d give it a try.

From the beginning I was a little skeptical about someone writing about trying to bring more happiness into their life, or, more specifically, about them trying to determine if they were happy in their life. I thought it would just be another one of those painful self-awareness books exhorting us all to be our best selves!, or live our best life!, topics for which I have very little patience.

In hindsight I think that could have been a clue.

It didn’t take long for me to figure out that I didn’t have a clue about whether I was happy or not. I thought I was happy, but was I? Really?

Certainly, life had not turned out the way I had imagined it would some forty-odd years ago when I was a 21-year-old bride staring into a future that seemed to stretch on forever.

We think we know ourselves when we’re that age, think we know EVERYTHING, and think there is nothing we can’t do. Then life happens and before you know it you’re struggling to keep up, struggling to change with every new day, every new challenge. You’re learning that you don’t really know who you are, don’t really know anyone, for that matter, and it scares you. Luckily, you also learn how to grow up, to face your fears, to meet your challenges, and, even if the results are not always what you thought or hoped they’d be, you learn to accept them and ready yourself for whatever comes next.

Then, forty years go by. One day you look at yourself and wonder who you are. Wonder who the man you married is. Wonder where the people you thought you were went. You start reading a book on happiness and your mind is flooded with questions. All of them leading to one single question: Am I happy?

If I rate myself according to Rubin’s Eight Splendid Truths I would say I am semi-happy. I try to make others happy by being happy myself; like most people, though, this is tough to do ALL. THE. TIME. I try to focus on things in my life that make me happy. This one is even tougher to accomplish, because I tend to end up feeling guilty and selfish if I spend too much time focusing on things that only make me happy. Then, I don’t feel happy anymore. Catch-22 anyone?

Her Fourth Splendid Truth states that ‘you’re not happy unless you think you’re happy”. Huh? I’ve tried going about my day telling myself ‘you are happy!” over and over again, but when there is evidence to the contrary floating all around me I end up feeling silly and beleaguered and resentful. Anything but happy.

I won’t go through all the Splendid Truths, just suffice it to say that they boil down to something we all know and have heard a million times – you alone are responsible for your own happiness and no one else’s. You can make people happy by being happy, but, no one can make you happy, and you can’t make someone be happy if they choose not to be.

Generally speaking I’d say I’m a reluctant optimist. I believe that things will work out — eventually — and I accept that they may not work out exactly as I’d like. I believe that most people are good at heart — even though they may do things that would seem to prove otherwise. Though the glass is half full for me, I’m extremely careful about where and how I set it down — in case it spills and I’m left with nothing. My proven strategy to getting through life is to expect the best and prepare for the worst.

Perhaps not the best recipe for happiness, but it’s gotten me this far.

After finishing The Happiness Project I immediately began contemplating starting my own happiness project. Because it’s apparent that I could stand to be a little more happy. The problem is that thinking about getting started has made me feel very unhappy. At this particular time in my life I’m dealing with a whole lot of stress and uncertainty and though it sounds counter-intuitive, taking time to focus on my personal happiness just seems impossible.

So, I’ll keep doing what I’ve always done — take each day as it comes — and approach it every morning with a positive attitude and the belief that today will be a good day. Maybe it won’t be a particularly happy day, but it can be a good day.

I liked Rubin’s book; it gave me a lot to think about. In the end, though, I think it’s as simple as this: Happiness is a choice — you can choose to be happy or you can choose to not be happy. Maybe choosing happiness is the harder choice, but it’s also the better choice. As the Grail Knight says to Indiana Jones: Choose wisely.

Crockery

by Kathy Larson

I don’t mind
the crooked bowl,
the cup with a chip, or
the mismatched plates.

It’s the life I chose.

The life I love.

These small
imperfections
These minor
flaws
Are daily reminders
that though
I thought
I sought
perfection,
Perfection,
it turns out,
is just
a bunch of
crock – ery.

Wash, rinse, repeat. Retirement + COVID = boring.

by Kathy Larson

Yes, this is another one of those laments about how COVID 19 has affected life. My life.

I woke up this morning and the first thought to pop in my head was: wash, rinse, repeat. I knew I was thinking about the day ahead. And it wasn’t going to be about doing laundry.

I retired a couple of years ago and so far I’ve enjoyed not having to live according to a work schedule. I got through the honeymoon phase all right — sleeping in, staying up late, reading books ALL day, then moved into the ‘it’s 5 o’clock somewhere’ phase with total enthusiasm and now I’m in the ‘so, what will I do today?’ phase.

Let me tell you, this phase has its challenges — and they’ve only been exacerbated by COVID.

Having all the time you want to do all the things you want is, in theory, a wonderful thing. Ah, to write, to take photos, to paint the house, to renovate the kitchen, to spend time with family, to travel, to have lunch with friends, to take all those lessons in all those interests that you’ve put on the shelf for all those years. . . The list is endless.

And, before COVID hit I was accomplishing some of that. But. . .

. . . it became apparent rather early on that just because I had all the time in the world and no schedule to adhere to, didn’t mean that others didn’t. Or, that those friends of mine who were also retired didn’t also have their own free-time plans that simply did not mesh with mine. It was all very disconcerting and more than just a little inconvenient.

Retirement, it turns out is a solitary journey.

There is no lunch room, or coffee breaks where you get to sit and gossip or talk about last night’s episode of The Amazing Race. There is no stopping off for a drink with friends after a trying day, or holiday parties to plan for. It takes a little while to get over that and to discover that you can find ways to fill those voids. And, that they are equally as enjoyable. But. . .

Enter COVID 19 and being confined to home.

Visits with family and friends screeched to a halt, holidays got cancelled, celebrations got shelved, renovations got delayed and classes got suspended. Indefinitely. Anything I wanted to do I had to do on my own. If I didn’t know how to do it I had to teach myself, or learn from YouTube videos.

Being self-sufficient, independent and reasonably able to follow instructions I’ve made out okay. But, it’s boring. With a capital B.

In the past 8 months I’ve learned a bunch of new stuff. Like how to take an online class using Zoom,. I’ve taught myself to knit (slippers are my current obsession). I’ve become more proficient with both my SLR and phone cameras and better at editing photos. I’ve experimented with numerous recipes and learned how to bake a beautiful bagel. I’ve started painting with watercolours — an online course sparked the interest and a few video lessons with my talented sister-in-law later I’ve discovered I even have a bit of a talent.

So, imagine being bored when you’ve got all that going on. Absurd. A year ago it would be.

When I got out of bed this morning it wasn’t with a sense of enthusiasm for taking on any of the many projects I’ve got on the go, it was with a sense of weariness and boredom. Sadly, this house, my home, the place I most like to be has become too familiar. Because I can’t leave it.

I can’t, on a whim, pop out the door and drop in on a friend for coffee. Whenever I do leave — usually to get groceries or the mail — I have to ensure that I have a mask in my purse, in my pocket and in the car, along with a good supply of hand sanitizer. I can’t sign up for classes at the local pool, I can’t attend the monthly book club held at our local library, I can’t go grab my grandkids and take them for lunch just because I feel like it.

Visits with my grandkids have to planned weeks in advance, and are subject to being cancelled on a moments notice. I can join online fitness classes, book clubs, painting lessons, cooking lessons, knitting lessons and have virtual visits with my mother and siblings. I’ve done all of that, and I’m tired of having to do it that way.

I’m whining and I know it. But I don’t care. When every day is a carbon copy of the previous one it’s hard to look with enthusiasm at your options and be inspired.

Today I’m going to make cinnamon buns, zucchini muffins, and English muffin bread. Then I’m going to go for a walk in the cold sunshine. Then I’m going to practice painting trees. Then I’m going to finish that pair of slippers. . .

Fields of Gold

August 14, 2020

by Kathy Larson

As I set out on my walk this morning I took in the stunning view of the fields of grain in the morning light. The word’s to Sting’s utterly beautiful and heartbreaking song, Fields of Gold, slipped into my mind. As I walked, I looked around me and noticed all the simple, commonplace objects of the lives of the people I share this town with.

Gardens tended with care and love, trailers parked in driveways, wind chimes hanging from the corners of decks and roofs, bird feeders busy with early morning gatherers, cars, toys, bikes, flower pots, curtains fluttering in open windows, the sound of a baby crying. It all made such a beautiful picture.

And my heart filled with joy and with sadness. Because it’s been a tough year, and the last couple of weeks have been tougher still. I cling to the idea of beauty and of hope and with Sting’s words washing through me I smiled as I made my way through the sleepy streets of my little town.

“Many years have passed since those summer days among the fields of barley
See the children run as the sun goes down among the fields of gold
You’ll remember me when the west wind moves upon the fields of barley
You can tell the sun in his jealous sky when we walked in fields of gold
When we walked in fields of gold, when we walked in fields of gold.”

(Fields Of Gold lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC)

RIP Mr. Prine

Apri; 8, 2020

by Kathy Larson

Sad news today. John Prine, one of America’s best songwriters died from complications related to coronavirus.

I was introduced to the music of John Prine many moons ago when I was just a young girl. My Uncle Paul, one of my father’s younger brothers had come for a visit. He and my father would get out their guitars and sit around playing while us gaggle of kids watched and listened in awe. It was at one of these musical interludes that Uncle Paul played a song called “Dear Abby”. The song was funny, and that’s what caught my attention, but it was more than that. It was smart and it was making a social comment, something that at that early stage in my development I was just learning to tune in to. I’m not sure who asked who the artist was, but I’ve never forgotten the name: John Prine.

Over the passing of years I’ve listened sporadically to Mr. Prine’s music. I think that somewhere, hidden away with all my other albums is a copy of Souvenirs, an amazing little album of stories and songs. One of my favourites is “Grandpa Was a Carpenter”. It’s just the perfect example of his amazing ability to put life into words, to translate the emotions and feelings of everyday, ordinary existence into something we can all relate to and understand.

You’ll be sadly missed, Mr. Prine. Rest easy.

For a sample of his gentle genius check out this link: https://youtu.be/2xhmPectY9U

Home-bound

by Kathy Larson

March 19, 2020

So, we’ve been social-distancing and semi-self-isolating for four days now. Honestly, it hasn’t been that much of a change in normal for me. I stay in most days, happy to read or crochet or dabble at writing. I get the housework and laundry done, listen to music, do a crossword puzzle, maybe go for a walk if it’s not too cold. The aquafit classes I attended were my biggest social outings, but that was only two or three times a week. Walking/jogging on the indoor track at Mac Island, though done in the company of others, was also, mostly solitary. With my headphones on I cruised around the oval for 45 minutes then took myself down to Second Cup for a honey tea latte, half-sweet. Please and thank you.

I don’t care to shop — never have. Going to movies is fun, but costly, so we don’t do a lot of that. Eating in restaurants tends to be disappointing, so don’t miss that, and we’re past the age where going out to the bar or a nightclub is even a consideration. Once in a blue moon we’d go to the casino and lose a hundred dollars, but, again, not something we do on a regular basis.

Sadly, neither of us volunteers anymore, so we have nothing to miss on that score. I keep saying I’m going to find something to volunteer for, but haven’t yet, and now, with COVID-19 in our lives most opportunities have disappeared.

It’s funny, when our son was young and I worked full-time and had a busier social life I volunteered a lot. Both my husband and I did. We were always engaged in some community group or other and it never seemed like we were overwhelmed. Now when I think of the time I’d have to commit to something I find all kinds of excuses and reasons why I’d rather not. Maybe that’s just age. I don’t know. I do know when this is over that I’m going to have to change my thinking.

I tried the online grocery order thing. From Superstore. Because of the current state of things I got less than half of what I had ordered. No toilet paper, no chicken, and most shocking — no chocolate bar! Oh, and the bag of avocados was rotten. The process was pretty easy, actually, and I’d definitely try it again. Say, perhaps, when we’re getting back from a holiday. Some day. In the future. When the coronavirus is no more.

After picking up my half-order of groceries from SS I drove over to Save-On to see if they had what I wanted. They did, though it was considerably more costly than SS. We are now well stocked with toilet paper, chicken and giant bottles for water — just in case.

Save-On had some lovely ahi tuna steaks in their meat section so that’s what we had for supper last night. Maple-mustard glazed tuna steaks (get the recipe here: https://cooktoria.com/ahi-tuna-steak/) with sweet potato oven fries and a fresh salad. Yum.

Being sequestered at home at first seemed like A BIG DEAL. For us, really, it’s not. We watch a couple of shows in the evening, play a couple of card games, then head upstairs to bed around 10:30. Nothing different from our normal routine. Other than the ever-present reality that we can’t go anywhere simply because we want to.

I can see isolation being tougher on families with small children, those with medical problems, those with addiction problems, those with anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues. My heart goes out to them, but that is all. This virus makes it virtually impossible to do anything other than sympathize.

It’s hard to think of anything positive during this global crisis, but if there is anything good at all to be gleaned from it, it is this: Maybe, with all this time for reflection and self-reflection, there will be a returning to the meaning and importance of family and community. By being forced together maybe people will discover, or, re-discover, the simple joy of time well spent in one another’s company. That’s not going to happen for everyone — that would be fantasy — but if it happens at all it is something definitely worth celebrating.

For Dad

I wrote this for my brothers and sisters last July when we gathered at my sister’s cottage in Ontario to spread our father’s ashes. He had died the previous October and this was to be our final, group farewell to the man we called Dad. Like him, it isn’t perfect, but I think it captured who he was pretty well.

Here goes:

Dad
he loved licorice all-sorts
and off-coloured jokes.
he loved a girl named Sheila.
and his eight brothers and sisters,
though he did once tie them to chairs.
he liked crossword puzzles, Tim Hortons coffee and McDonalds.
he said things
like “pass the salt and pecker” at the dinner table and
we’d snicker and giggle
while mom gave him ‘the look’.
he loved walking and riding his bike.
he was an explorer.
he took us through abandoned farm houses when we were kids;
loved getting us all in the car just to go for a ride.
to this day I love doing that, too — going
for a ride with no real destination in mind.
it’s the journey and the togetherness that matters;
that was his lesson.
oh, and it’s okay to share a bag of chips and a pop
with your brother or sister.
he told stories — some true, some half-true and
some just plain fantasy — but they were all enthralling.
he loved people, and though he pretended to hate
some of them some of the times,
his big heart always betrayed him.
he could be infuriating, embarrassing,
and exasperating.
he never apologized
for who he was,
and that is a rare and noble thing.
not many in this world are strong enough
to be who they are.
he loved the eight of us — Kathy, Tracy,
Duane, Scott,
Shawn, Lori,
Carey and Jennifer.
and though he could, at times,
be tough on us, he could also
be incredibly soft.
he never had much
in the way of material things,
I remember a pair of alligator skin cowboy boots,
and he loved the 12 string guitar his brother Stewart
made for him,
but, really, that was about it.
in the end, and yes, this is a cliche,
it’s not about how much stuff you have,
it’s about how much love you have
and how much love you’ve given.
Dad,
we miss you.
I wish I had told you that more when you were with us,
but, there’s no sense in having regret,
something else you taught us.
I only hope you know how much you are loved
and that to us
you are everything.

Ginger Shampoo

woman taking a shower
Photo by Leah Kelley on Pexels.com

by Kathy Larson
© 2019

 

I am in the shower, at my parents’ place. I left in such a hurry to get here that I forgot all the essential stuff — shampoo, conditioner, body wash, deodorant — all of it. There hasn’t been time yet to get out and buy replacements, so I’m going to have to use theirs. Through the water running over my face and in my eyes I scan the shower caddy in the corner of the tub looking for shampoo.

Mom’s got some Vo5 that’s supposed to smell like green apples. Pass. There’s another bottle, nearly empty, of some dollar store brand I’ve never heard of, and then, I see it. Body Shop Ginger shampoo. Ah, that’s what I want.

It’s dad’s shampoo. He uses it because of his psoriasis. I remember telling him about it years ago.

I’ve got sensitive skin and an especially sensitive scalp, so I’m kind of picky about the products I use. When I told him about it, I remember, he was dismissive like I was trying to lay some kind of quackery on him. He was like that. You’d tell him about something you liked, or something you’d heard about that was a bit different and he’d say something like: “There’s probably no damn ginger in there. Just a load of bs. I like my _________, thank you.” And then, like with the ginger shampoo, you’d find that he tried it. And liked it. That was dad.

It makes me remember Neil Diamond and his album Hot August Night. I was fifteen or sixteen and was upstairs in my room listening to said album for about the zillionth time. Like most moody teenagers I spent as much time as I could shut up in my room whenever I could get it to myself. With seven brothers and sisters we all had to share a room with a sibling. I shared with my sister who was a year younger than me.

Dad usually gave me grief about whatever I happened to be listening to. He particularly hated Queen, couldn’t stand Joni Mitchell and just generally despised anything that wasn’t country music. And I mean country like Charlie Pride and George Jones. To this day I can’t stand either of them. When The Snakes Crawl at Night. Please!

So, when Dad came pounding on my bedroom door I readied myself for another fight about my music. When I opened the door he surprised me by asking what it was I was listening to. Being all prepared for an argument I didn’t know what to say right away. I guess I just gave him a blank look. This was confusing — he never showed any interest in anything that I liked; I just didn’t know how to react. Then I managed to collect myself and told him who it was and showed him the album. He stood there looking at the pictures of a wild-looking Neil Diamond and reading the liner notes for quite a while. We listened to that amazing record together and I played him a couple of my favourite songs. I really like this, he said. And I felt ridiculously, incredibly happy and proud.

Why am I remembering this now? While I dance around in a shower that refuses to stay one temperature — it either blasts me with cold water or scalds my boobs with hot. I want to scream. My heart hurts. It’s been an exhausting three days since we found out my mother fractured her leg. And that both she and my father are in the hospital.

I’ve come home because he is dying. He has end-stage kidney cancer. The man who was once larger than life, who in turns terrified me, frustrated me and, who, more than anything, I wanted to make proud is small and frail and frightened. He needs me and I’ll be here until he no longer does.

I pour his ginger shampoo into the palm of my hand and as I rub it into my hair begin to cry.