Category Archives: Joy

Growing Happiness

“There’s an idea I came across a few years ago that I love,” says Michael J. Fox.  “My happiness grows in direct proportion [to] my acceptance and in inverse proportion to my expectations….That’s the key for me.  If I can accept the truth of ‘This is what I’m facing–not what can I expect but what I am experiencing now–‘ then I have all this freedom to do other things.”

For Fox, acceptance translates into a positive attitude in the face of his Parkinson’s Disease.*

During four recent months of health setbacks and gradual recovery, I worked hard to “grow happiness” instead of just being frustrated and depressed.  It was nearly four months of seldom leaving the house, of rarely attending church or being able to hold a conversation, of not seeing friends or going out even for coffee, of cancelling trips and seldom being on the computer.

In order to grow happiness instead of frustration, I had to accept my limitations and adjust my expectations to what was possible.  Aargh!

80919389_0ea063f00b[1]My technique was each day to imagine myself holding a salad plate in my hands.  I imagined life as a feast spread on a banquet table before me from which I could fill my plate.  Because I had a salad plate instead of a dinner plate to fill, my options were more limited than usual and I did best if I was intentional about my choice.  Imagining a smaller array of items on my plate helped me focus on what I could do instead of what I couldn’t.  It helped me remember that every choice I make about how to use my energy and time is important.

Dietitians say that when we eat from smaller and not larger plates we are more likely to eat healthier sized portions of food.  We tend to savor each bite of food more and feel satiated with smaller portions.  We avoid the guilt and physical discomfort that often attend gluttony.

Sometimes I made it into the Clean Plate Club.  Then I might choose to go back for more.  But if I could not finish what I had with anticipation put on my plate, I found my disappointment was less than if I had filled a larger plate with an overabundance of expectations.  I grew happiness by putting life on a salad plate.

For over a month I had to downsize to a saucer, which meant limiting myself to only one or two choices per day.  I kept my focus, put one foot in front of the other, and eventually changed back to a dessert plate.  I hope to step up to a salad plate this week.  Hooray!  It is incredibly exciting to plan what options I might choose.  Strange….but true:  Acceptance of the truth and expectations right for the day do grow happiness.

Of course, I still wish I had a larger plate, much as I wish my metabolism was as fast as when I was 17-years-old.  I still dislike turning away from food I love and stuff I want to do.  But whether I had health issues or not, I know that trying to consume or do everything I want makes me unable to enjoy anything as much as it deserves.  Small plates are a good idea for many reasons.

*”Feeling Alright. Oh, Yeah.”, by David Hochman, AARP Magazine, April/May 2013
*Photo “Russian New Year’s Feast” by Adam Baker, Baker


Flower garden in bloom

The Beautiful Blob that Swallowed Barbara

I’m back again. The past six months have been exciting, frustrating, life-giving, challenging, depressing, affirming, and anxious. It was six months of short-term projects, learnings, accomplishments, and frustrating health problems.  I want to share what I’ve been doing.  I am going to try it again, with a few tweaks.

In my most recent experiment of how to live well in this part of my life with its health limitations, I invested myself in a cluster of short-term projects.  I chose each one to express a different part of myself, use different skills, and nourish me in different ways.  I tried to stagger the times when each project would place the greatest demands.

Ah, “the best laid plans of mice and [women] oft go astray.”  Yes, it was fantastic to bring my skills, experience, and personality to the Greater Good in ways that made a positive difference.  I felt more alive and engaged than I have in ages.  I wouldn’t trade that stretch of time for anything.

However … I was like a gardener who wants her flowers to bloom sequentially across the seasons, but instead, they all bloom at once.  Or, I was like a cook who puts too much yeast in her dough, the loaf expands beyond all expectations, and then falls.  Or, my activities became like that B movie from the 1960’s, The Blob that Swallowed New York, spreading out to encompass every cranny of my life.  Truly mixing metaphors, I think my life became an extravagantly colorful, yeasty-smelling blob of goodness that eventually needed to be calmed down and cleaned up.

Every project grew faster and bigger than I had planned.  After three months of a full calendar and rest breaks when possible, I went into hibernation with (in sequence) a pulled muscle in my back, a powerful cold, the flu, a sinus infection, and laryngitis.  I recovered from those in time for a wonderful Christmas with four generations of family filling our home.

Puzzles[1]The pieces of my life in the last few months:

  • I organized a 60th wedding anniversary party for my husband’s parents in Twin Falls, Idaho, while living in Pasadena, California.  A small catered party for fifty people grew to 200+, gathering in late October to celebrate Jo and Al’s love and let them know how many lives they have touched for good with their love.
  • No longer a pastor, I can now get involved in electoral politics, so I jumped into the Obama campaign with both feet and became the organizer for phone banks in Pasadena.  My teams made over 25,000 calls into swing states.  My youngest volunteer was 16, the eldest was 102.  Our eclectic mix of rocket scientists, veterans, teachers and nurses, small business owners, college deans, laborers and contractors, consultants, unemployed folk, retirees, students, and at-home parents formed a short-term community as we worked for a common goal.  I ended each phone bank proud of our country and the citizens who make our democracy work.
  • When my pastor took a three-month sabbatical,  helped with pastoral care.  Being with people in their times of need and being a presence through whom the love of God is experienced is an essential part of my being.  We brought the presence of God to each other.
  • I agreed to chair the adult education ministry at my church.  I figured the load would be light until after the party, election, and sabbatical were finished.  Silly me.  The Education Minister resigned in June and I learned my team is responsible for the entire Christian education program–cradle to grave.  We needed renovations in the nursery, new teachers, and curriculum.  As Team Leader, I was also automatically part of the Search Committee for a new Education Minister.  That project hit high gear in August and continued after the others were finished.

These are the major items, each chosen in advance for its meaning and limited scope. With each one, its meaning and scope became greater than I could have imagined.  I met new people, learned skills, and made a lasting difference.  What more could I want?  More time and energy, I suppose, but that would be greedy.  I’m grateful for what I could do. Whenever my health crashed or I needed to rest, others picked up the task and kept it going.  It was fantastic.

Now I am coming out of hibernation and poking my head into the world again.  After six months of not having the energy to keep up with friends, family, personal email, and blogging, I think I’m back in action.

That’s it, folks, more or less.  The anniversary party and election are long past, my pastor is back from sabbatical, a new Education Minister was hired, and my health is on track.  It is time to start the next group of short-term projects.

Although it might have been a blob that swallowed my life, or yeast that expanded the loaf until it fell, what I like most is to think of these months as a garden that went into extravagant bloom all at once, and when spent, entered its dormant phase.  Get ready.  Dormancy is over and the seeds are stirring in the ground.  I’m eager to see what sprouts this spring.  More later……….

California in Springtime

Mark and I are driving from Pasadena to San Francisco when spring first shows herself in runs of orange poppies up the dry foothills beside the freeway.  Mile after mile, they add splashes of color to the tan slopes dotted with chaparral.

As we descend from cobalt blue lakes and deep green pine forests, I realize that I’d never thought about how almond tress look in the spring.  Now I know and let me tell you:  rows of almond trees in spring bloom are spectacular. Now that I’ve seen almond blossoms, I wonder what they smell like.

Our route leads us through rolling California hills on our way to Gilroy, “The Garlic Capital of the World.”  Rounding one bend and then another, the hills are chartreuse with spring grass.  Yellow mustard and blue wildflowers join the poppies and grasses.  California Oak with their classically spreading limbs dot the slopes on each side.  Gorgeous.  Conversation drifts into silence as we absorb creation’s beauty.

As we reach the pass, roiling storm clouds mix with the blue sky, but we move through them and descend into fruit orchards in bloom:  white blossoming trees perpendicular to the road with the ever-present orange, yellow and blue of wildflowers running beside us.

We head north again towards San Francisco, surrounded by the pink and purple of plum trees joining peach trees in blossom.  The trip flies by in beauty.

And then…we climb the steep hill towards our children’s home and hit a wall of solid fog.  It seems we’re going to fall off the earth.  No accidents, no injuries, and eventually an exquisite view out back window of their home into grey fog, fine mist, and narrow tree branches that contrast with the city’s vertical lines stretching across the San Francisco hills.  No poppies or peach blooms in sight, but beautiful, nonetheless.

On the way home, everything is in reverse:  fog, fruit trees, poppies and wildflowers, blue lakes and pine trees, chaparral trees.  This time, however, we are racing ahead of a massive winter storm.  We reach home before the deluge hits and awaken in the morning to snow-covered mountains beyond our front door.  Springtime in California includes a little of everything!

The best part of all this spring beauty, however, is the smile on my granddaughter’s face as she looks up from my arms and laughs.  It’s as if Creation’s spring beauty has created the perfect bowl into which nestles the most beautiful sight and sound of all.

Whatever the purpose of life is, savoring moments of such beauty is central to its meaning.  Look around and say “thank you.”