The happiness question


Last week the Times reported on a growing “happiness gap” between men and women. Women are increasingly unhappy. Then came the earful of opinions about the many reasons for this. Why are women unhappy?

I can think of three very persistent reasons right off the top of my head. My husband. My kid. My dog. And then, the neighbor’s dog, the neighbor, money, not enough money, my work, my lack of work, my belly, my age, my wrinkles, the dust, the pollen, dog hair, the shoes in the hallway, the cooking, the laundry, the kitchen sink, the race, the chase, the nights, the days, the fleetingness of days.

What interests me is not why women are unhappy, because we each have ample, intimate knowledge of the reasons. What interests me is why women say they are unhappy. What interests me is not the answer to the question but the question itself. Could the answer be rooted in the question? Do we say we are unhappy because we are asked? Do we grow unhappy by thinking about it? By hearing about it? Does unhappiness exist outside our ruminations about it? Where does it reside? And if it only resides in our minds, as it does, do “external” circumstances have anything to do with it?

We can rationalize that circumstances keep changing and growing worse for women. More work, less help, higher prices, fewer husbands, less time, more isolation, less community, more stress, fewer options, higher expectations. But I spent a summer reading each of the nine Little House on the Prairie books to my daughter at bedtime, and I had a glimpse of how hard life used to be. No money. No help. No heat. No food. No medicine. No roof. No floors. No windows. No water. No crops. Plus flood, fire and pestilence. And these were on the good days!

Or I can recall my grandmother’s life. Up at dawn. Feeding the sheep and the chickens. Making daily bread and breakfast by the heat of the stove. Laundry in the washhouse. Curing meat in the smokehouse. The trek to the outhouse. Sewing, baking, canning, cooking, cleaning and raising five kids in four rooms during the Great Depression.

Was grandma depressed? I don’t think anyone asked. I don’t think she asked.

This news article on declining happiness appeared about the same day that Georgia walked into the kitchen for breakfast, still tousle-haired and sleepy-eyed. “Mom,” she whined, “can I get my ears pierced before I’m 10?” (Our pre-existing agreement.)

“When did you have in mind?” I responded.

“Nine,” she said, and thinking faster, “THIS SATURDAY.”

We were both upset by this exchange. It happened again a day later. I could say that my daughter woke up unhappy. But she didn’t wake up unhappy. She just woke up, her eyes blinked in the glimmering light. She cast a glance around her world, her sumptuous pink kingdom, her cotton candy life, and looked about for something she didn’t have.

I’m going to write about happiness this week. I want to examine that split-second between the waking and the finding, between the question and the answer, between the hearing and the speaking, between the being and the thinking, between the little girl with everything, and the one without holes in her ears, and see what’s there. It could very well be the happiness that eludes us, the contentment the pollsters can’t find.

Life interrupted


I know I said I was going away. I’ve swept the tea house, I’ve walked the dog, I’ve scooped the poop. Later, I’ll go to Target and you know what that means.

But right now, I need to pipe up and call a spade a spade. This is a lie. A deception. Nickelodeon network is going “dark” for three hours this Saturday and advising kids to go out and play. Not. Get in shape. Sure. And then come back inside before the day is done and watch a kid’s reality show about not watching TV. On TV. Cripes.

And look! The news media gives it a pass. They wave a flag at it!

This is called “getting in front of an issue.” This is called public relations. I give myself permission to sneer because this was once my chosen profession. By the time I left it I was jumping up and down, waving my arms and hollering, “Don’t believe a thing you read in the paper or see on TV!”

I liken this TV-network-on-an-anti-obesity-crusade to my experience doing PR for a beer company. You read that right. The big daddy of brewers. We spent a lot of PR time and dollars trying to convince the media that we cared about people drinking responsibly. We had a catchy slogan for it. We wrote speeches and talking points. Then one morning the regional vice president called me at home, before work, because he was watching the early morning local TV news report of an overnight, fatal car accident in which alcohol was implicated. The news report showed footage of the police officer at the grisly scene lining up a dozen empty cans of our preferred product, all retrieved from the mangled wreckage. The VP, my client, wanted to know why I didn’t have enough clout to keep the local station from showing pictures of our brand in such an unfavorable way.

I resigned from the job that day. Soon, I resigned from everything else. After that, I began to have a life. My own ultimate reality show. The money isn’t as good but the beer is much better.

In real life, there’s a place to put Nickelodeon and this stunt that really is dark. Where the sun don’t shine. Then go out and play and don’t come back in.

Room with a view

Recounted in honor of the garden’s inclusion in this weekend’s California Garden and Landscape History Society tour of Japanese gardens:

I brightened in the backseat as the real estate agent detoured down Lima Street to tell the story of Italia Mia, the estate built in Sierra Madre at the century’s start by a southern heiress who fell in love with Italy but ended up here instead, a bon vivant who lavished her home with hillside gardens including this one – we stopped –now the oldest private Japanese garden in southern California. The little house came later behind this wrought iron fence bordered by a thicket of bamboo, beyond this garden gate with the kanji inscription that foretells mosses abundant as ocean waves, and farther on, inside the front door carved with bluebirds on a blossoming branch, and out back again into the open-armed garden, intact and exquisite, its ponds and rocks poised in amazing place since 1916, under the shifting shade of ancient sycamores, the water falling in the hushed company of a tea house, the pines pining and each perfect plant waiting patiently for a gardener.

The whole thing was built for Zen, the realtor added unknowingly, knowing nothing about us, knowing least of all how to judge the silence that had frozen us in place, breathless and still with the stunning arrival in a story that was suddenly ours.

P.S. All this, plus liftoff and effortless steering, too. Happy weekend, everyone. Happy everyone.

And back next week with more on this business of happiness.

Airing dirty laundry

I once wrote a post titled “Hand wash cold.” That post generates more traffic than any snake oil in the blogosphere. It snares Googlers from Portugal to Peru, from Little Rock to Lichtenstein. These searchers come from the very places where garments that need to be hand washed cold are actually manufactured. I feel bad for these suds seekers, because they aren’t looking for anything loftier than laundering instructions. So I decided to give them what they came for. In the process, I realized that this is a zen meditation of its own kind.

1. Wipe the shaving stubble from a sink or rinse the motor oil from a pail.
2. Fill same with cold water.
3. Add a drizzle of gentle (read: expensive) laundry detergent or a spritz of dishwashing liquid to the water. Note: can also use bar soap, hand soap or no soap.
4. Slosh the water around to conjure up a few bubbles.
5. Submerge subject garment in water.
6. Let it sit.
7. Hours–or even days–later, remember.
8. Rinse it in clear, cold water. This special item is probably not the kind of thing that can survive twisting or wringing or even washing for that matter.
9. Which means that when you take it out you’ll have to hang it up over the bathtub to let the water drip out of it.
10. And that will probably cause the fabric dye to drip out of it too, creating streaks of variable density and lasting annoyance. Remember too late that the garment had some kind of warning about this too.
11. When it dries, the item will be six inches longer than when you purchased it. Or six inches shorter. Or six inches longer on one side; six inches shorter on the other.
12. You might wish that you had laid it flat to dry, which would take so long that it mildewed before you could wear it again.

All of this effort will allow you to wear the item once before you resolve to (a) never buy anything else that has to be hand washed cold, or (b) never wash it, thereby transcending all questions and eliminating all doubt.

In love with another woman

Dyson_DC18_All_Floors_Vacuum_CleanerWhen we kids used to ask my mom what she wanted for her birthday or Christmas, she would say something like, “panty hose.” No, she wouldn’t say something like panty hose. That’s exactly what she said. She said panty hose, or stationery, or stamps, or Tupperware lids. (Not needing the bowls, you see, but the lids that always came up missing.) These answers were ridiculous to us. We cracked jokes about them. We cracked jokes about her. We didn’t believe anyone could be so unimaginative, so uninspired by the opportunity to improve herself. She was only interested in the trifling, mundane things she could actually use. Snort.

I’m probably remembering this now because my birthday is this week. Birthdays are rather significant to me. I am of a substantial age. And the product you see pictured here is my heart’s desire. I realized recently that it has long been my heart’s desire, but I have not been open enough with my own heart to express its desire. I am over jewelry; I don’t object to it but I just don’t wear it. Books find their way in and out by themselves. Fine cookware, of late, has energized my meal-making, so I’ve restocked. But otherwise, when I’m asked what I want as a gift, I have to say nothing, in the most sincere way. I’m through trying to dress up the scenery.

Until this year.

So I’m thinking again of my mother and what a mystery she has been to me in so many ways. This anniversary of my birth is the anniversary of her, long ago and far away from her family, barely 23, a good girl, smart, hard-working and fresh-off-the-farm in love with a reckless and insecure boy of 25, giving birth to her second baby in as many years. There would be one more and then she would be 27 and done with the having babies part.

But not done, indeed, never done, with the raising kids, keeping house and doing laundry part; the cooking and cleaning part; the shopping, clipping coupons and scrimp-and-saving part; the worrying night-and-day part; the folding grocery sacks and changing the vacuum filter part; the get-up-and-go-to-work-part; the night school, the ever-onward to the next credential; to overdue promotions; to conventions and committees; to daily troubles and nightly heartbreaks; to writing weekly letters and stamping endless envelopes; and storing leftovers in Tupperware after every meal.

It took me more than 40 years to comprehend a fraction of my mother’s life: the parts we shared and especially the parts we didn’t. But I’ve been coming around on this front, just as you have. We all understand our mothers better now, or so I hope for your sake. My mother wasn’t what I thought she was. She never stopped improving things. She alone kept things going. She took every opportunity to make things better. She knew all along what I’ve only learned lately. Once you put yourself into the effort, your whole heart, your undying love, there’s really nothing else you need.

But the Dyson DC 18 Slim All Floors Vacuum? That little dazzler sure can turn your head.

Written with love to my forever mother.

Your middle one,
Karen Kay

Girl on the verge

Of a wardrobe malfunction: “Starting now, I’m choosing what I wear every day.”
Of dropping out of 2nd grade: “We don’t even have Share Day!”
Of following in my footsteps: “Do these panties make me look fat?”
Of blowing her mind: “What are tampons for anyway?”
Of losing the battle: “I got all my toys out, so it’s only fair that you put everything away.”
Of stopping me in my tracks: “When am I ever going to get my own agent?”
Of waking me up at 5:30 a.m.: “Can I go on your computer?”
Of saying goodbye: “I’m 59 pounds!” *

*See “California Child Restraint Law,” or just ask Georgia, the resident expert.

Still crying it out

“Not knowing is most intimate”
– Zen koan

I’ve been writing more than reading lately, and I’ve just backtracked to a fascinating article in the Sept. 17 issue of The New Yorker. Fascinating because it is sublimely inconclusive and oh, so close to home. I wish I could link to it, but it’s not online: “Crybabies” by Jerome Groopman. “The conundrum of colic” is the subtitle. My life had that exact subtitle too, for a few months back in 1999. The colic, of course, is ancient history, but the subtitle still lingers, and fits every now and then as I enter some new, inscrutable chapter.

If you’re intrigued, you can read abstracts here and here and another mother’s perspective here.

I love to read Groopman for his open-eyed examination of how little is known by medical science. I love to read him because he is a doctor, and he knows what he doesn’t know. He also knows what the medical establishment doesn’t know, the kind of unknowing that few doctors – and patients – can honestly admit or accept.

Colic seems to be related to maternal temperament. Or not. It seems to be tied to immature digestive systems. Or not. It seems to improve with babywearing. Or not. It is sometimes associated with diet. Or not. It seems to be relieved by antacids, herbal tea, rocking, swaddling, cuddling, and motion. Or not. It seems neverending. But it’s not.

Colic arrives just as you begin to think you have a grasp, a handle, a way of living in the new world. It tears that grip away from you. It steals every ounce of optimism, every hopeful conclusion. It shreds every fix and remedy. It leaves you with nothing to try or trust. Nothing but time.

Colic is the last thing you expect to give birth to. No one wishes it on anyone. But in its own ravaging wake, it leaves a gift. That’s the gift of not knowing. Not knowing when or how or if. Of surrendering to futility. Of succumbing to the tears. Of accepting the certainty of nothing but another day, and a different ending.

Everyone always outgrows colic. But I’m not sure anyone ever outgrows colic. Least of all the parent.

Here’s the 25th hour of your day

Not one thought deserves a second thought. – Dogen Zenji

What if you had one extra hour in the day to use to your heart’s content? To have fun, relax, exercise. To write, run or sleep. To start a book; to finish a book. To plant a garden; to cook. To play with the kids. To do something big. To do nothing at all.

These are the things we think we would do with extra time. But in truth, this is how we’d probably use it, because this is how we use most of our time:

It’ll never work. I’m not good enough. I can’t do it. I don’t know how. I don’t have what it takes. I’ll never finish. It’s a big mistake.

And the classic:

I don’t have time.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not suggesting that you replace these self-critical thoughts with something else. I don’t peddle positive thinking. I peddle positive non-thinking. Not all thinking is a waste of time, just the non-stop negative self-judgments that occupy nearly every waking hour. Cutting back on that will open vast new frontiers of (get this) empty space and time.

Of course, learning to disengage from habitual, self-limiting thoughts takes practice. And who has time for that?!

This concludes my three-day treatise. About time.

I’m teaching a one-day Beginner’s Mind Retreat at the Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles on Sunday, Nov. 4. Is it time? Find out more.

Using what’s at hand


Using what’s at hand, he finished up the yard. He could use it and know when to quit.

–Zen koan

In my aim to demystify time, I’m devoting today’s post to the magic of the plain, old, ordinary list.

1. Make a list every night before you go to bed.

2. Use whatever you have at hand: the back of an envelope, a scratch pad, even waste paper. You do not need a special system or calendar. You do not need technology. You only need discipline and a moment’s attention. Do not let anyone convince you this is more complicated than it appears, although many people are in the business of doing just that.

3. Keep your list simple.

4. Put the things on it you want to do tomorrow, even things you don’t need to list in order to remember. Scratching things off the list is a marvelous activity, and marvelous activities tend to be repeated. For instance, write “Do laundry.” Notice that I did not say, “Finish laundry” because that isn’t realistic and your reward would be too long delayed. See item 5.

5. Be realistic. For instance, do not write “Lose 10 pounds.” Write instead “Walk the dog.” Do not write “Become millionaire by 30.” Write instead: “Skip Starbucks.”

6. Do not list things to think about. Write only things to do. Contemplation is overrated.

7. Now the magic part. By writing things down, you take wandering thoughts and persistent anxieties out of your head and bring them out into the real world.

8. Things in the real world have form.

9. Things in the real world take place. You will be amazed at what you do simply because you wrote down that you would, even if you never look at the list again. But do yourself a favor and look at the list again. Keep it at hand and use it.

10. At the end of the day, be satisfied with what you did, and make a new list.

Having the time of your life


I often tell people they have all the time in the world. They look up from their frantic scramblings, their scattered minds, feeling overwhelmed and bogged down, and they think, to put it nicely, She’s insane.

So let’s say a word about time. But let’s not say what everyone else says. Let’s not say, for instance, that time flies, or time runs out, or that time waits for no man.

Time itself is being, and all being is time.

Time isn’t something we think we have. We think it escapes us. We think it flees. We think it sneaks up behind us and delivers a sucker punch. Time’s up! Time, it seems, always has the upper hand.

We see this front and center in our lives as parents. Even though our children change every day, we don’t always notice it. We don’t notice it until we clear out the baby clothes, then – snap – how did all that time disappear? What seemed like forever is now forever ago. And all of those special times we intended to have! All those precious moments we were counting on! We use most of our time feeling displaced and distraught, or even depressed.

Time is not separate from you, and as you are present, time does not go away.

We think of time as being separate from us, an entity – no, an adversary – unto itself. A grandfather, robed and bearded, keeping score and exacting a toll; a swift second hand; a relentless march. What looks like time passing is actually evidence of the profound, true nature of life: impermanence. Everything changes. But time doesn’t change. It’s always the same time. It’s always now.

Life, we think, could be so much more, if only we had more time. When real life seems to detour us from happiness, it can seem like we’re held prisoner by time. We feel as though we’re held in place, only marking time, only serving time.

Things do not hinder one another, just as moments do not hinder one another.

These days, I can see too clearly what time it is. The broad canopy of my giant sycamores turns faintly yellow, and the leaves sail down. This would be a poetic image except that they fall into my ponds where they temporarily float and eventually sink until I hoist a net over my shoulder and scoop out the mucky yuck of wet leaves that would otherwise displace the pond itself. Someone has to do it. (Someone being me.) A part of every day from now until December finds me fretting and fuming at the simple sight of falling leaves. Then, I get on with it.

Tell me, while I’m scooping and hauling leaves ’til kingdom come, is it getting in the way of my life? Is it interfering with my life? Keeping me from my life? Only my imaginary life, that other life of what-ifs and how-comes: the life I wish and dream of.

I will be unable to accept my MacArthur Genius Award at the present moment because I am scooping leaves from the pond.
I missed the call from Oprah’s producer but at least the ponds are clean.

A sudden gust kept me from writing an international bestseller.


At the moment I’m in the muck, at the moment I’m doing anything, it is my life, it is all of time, and it is all of me.

We look for time the way we look for meaning, purpose and happiness. We never find it because it is already in the palm of our hands.

I am time. You are time. But this is getting long, and I don’t want to unduly occupy you. Come back tomorrow, same place, same time, for more timeless, wide-open secrets to mastering time.

You can spare the wait, because you have all the time in the world. And every moment is nothing but the time of your life.

All the quotes herein (other than those of the neurotic voice in my head) are from “Time-Being,” a teaching by the 13th century Zen master, Dogen Zenji. Please don’t confuse one for the other.

If you lived here


When I stepped outside the door a few months ago I was hoping to run into some familiar faces. That I did, but I also nosed around the neighborhood and discovered the most fascinating strangers right next door. You’re invited to a block party this weekend to mingle with:

Anonymous Mama – who writes about biracial marriage, autism, love, longing, and every sort of addiction between s and x with such power, passion and truth that she regularly singes my eyebrows. She brings us a main course every time she drops by.

Rabbi Mommy – who flavors her cooking with unexpected combinations, and tosses up the kind of hearty and nutritious dishes you’ve never tried before.

Utah Mom – Faithful and freethinking, she dollops her confections with an irresistible streak of rebellion. She brought me this cup of sugar today.

And you? Just bring an appetite for adventure, and make yourself at home.

wash your bowl

blue-bowlA monk said to Joshu, “I have just entered this monastery. Please teach me.” “Have you eaten your breakfast?” asked Joshu. “Yes, I have,” replied the monk. “Then you had better wash your bowl,” said Joshu. With this the monk gained insight.

Two days ago I had a letter in my mailbox from Seattle. I let it sit a bit before I opened it, while I percolated to ripe fullness with its fragrant possibilities: the gushing thanks, the unexpected accolade, the irresistible offer that it contained.

I live this way a lot, squinting around the curve, anticipating what I’m about to get. Don’t we keep expecting to get something? In particular, to get “it”? To figure “it” out? To reach a culminating resolution, reward, complete understanding, wisdom, clarity, closure, the right answer, the holy grail? That very expectation fills us up and weighs us down.

The letter was nothing I dreamed of. It was a note from a long-lost cousin lately relocated from Japan here to the States. She has adopted a daughter, a Japanese girl, and wouldn’t it be lovely for our sisterless girls to each gain a cousin?

I cried at the long circumference of the circle.

She told me that she had a woodblock print of a fountain at the inimitable Ryoanji Zen temple in Kyoto. The print reads, “I am content with what I have,” she wrote. No, not quite, she corrected herself, capturing the subtle depth of the teaching, “I am content with what I lack.”

 

Dropping off

Let go and make yourself independent and free, not being bound by things and not seeking to escape from things – Yuanwu

It’s remarkable how profoundly intense the first 90 minutes of the morning can be for a mother like me.

Gotta get up, gotta make coffee, gotta make breakfast. Gotta pack lunch, check homework, gotta get her dressed, hair combed. You’ve gotta brush your teeth! You’ve gotta change those shoes!

Oh!

Gotta feed the dog, gotta unload the dishwasher, make the beds. Gotta feed your fish!

Oooh!

Gotta jump in and out of the shower, gotta get myself dressed, gotta do something with this hair, gotta grab a hat!

We gotta go!

Gotta hurry, no time to walk, we gotta drive!

With minutes ticking toward the 7:40 a.m. school bell, the pace pounds.

Gotta find a place to park, gotta get out and walk her into the playground, gotta see her off and in line with her teacher, gotta be a good mom, gotta do it right, gotta do it all, gotta run because I’ve made us late, late again!

Then from the backseat, with the sagacious calm and steady poise of her eight years, with her serenely impeccable timing, she offers the morning’s benediction, the first sane words that have passed between my ears since I flew into action at dawn.

Mom, you can drop me off.

She turned a rosy cheek to me then, like a gift, a floral tribute. I kissed it, and that was that.

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