Happiness

For years, I was involved in a bad relationship. It’s not that the man I was involved with was a bad person or ill intentioned. In fact, he had a lot of great qualities. Nevertheless, being with him felt off, a slight but constant irritant that eventually became an abrasion as if sandpaper were rubbing against my soul.

Once we parted ways, I realized that not only had I become the worst version of myself, but I had started to protect myself against his fear and negativity by putting up walls that eventually turned into fortresses against which nothing could permeate. For a long time, nothing touched me – not pain, not pleasure. It was as if I existed in an emotional wasteland where reactions beyond a narrow range were frozen in ice – I could see the emotions in others, and even identify them by name but could no longer feel them myself.

As I emerged from my turtle’s shell, it was as if I were watching the icy barrier around the world slowly thaw and the innate beauty of my surroundings come back to life as they shimmered with vibrant colors, textures, and emotions. And while I often found myself tearful or veclempt for no obvious reason other than something mundane touching my heart or a feeling of general gratitude overwhelming me, one day I woke up to the sure knowledge that I was happy. The world was once again a sparkling and welcoming place in which I could dance.

Reflecting on the notion of happiness, I realized that happiness is not about always having a smile on your face, being positive, or even laughing with joy. Instead, happiness is a more encompassing state defined by being fully present in each moment, open and vulnerable to whatever arises without judgment, withdrawal or self-condemnation. Ultimately, happiness is the acceptance of what is and the freedom to feel any and all emotion that arises while holding the intention to feel good high in your heart. For it is in the fullest experience of emotions coupled with complete acceptance of what is that the richness of the universe presents itself, the miracle of life can be felt, and you can take the next step on your journey with grace and ease.

As a parent, what I hope to pass on to my son is the knowledge that while no one can make him happy, surrounding himself on an ongoing basis with those who have a negative perspective or who operate from a place of fear can whitewash the color from his life and lower his own vibrations. By nurturing the seeds from which happiness can thrive I hope to help him develop a nature that is positive in orientation and open to the richness and complexity that a full life provides so that when encountering adversity or negativity, instead of buckling inwards, he can hold true to his innate self, retain his vulnerability, and remember to surrender to and rely on his own happy nature.

Freedom from labels

Sitting on my patio, drinking a glass of wine while listening to the rain fall like soft silver bullets of mercury against my protective nylon shell, I smell the scent of freshness and imagine that I can hear the greenery of my grass, flowers and fresh herbs pushing against the solid earth, trying to become the form that they are destined to be. And then I think of how humans, unlike other non-sentient beings, are mutable and unpredictable in countless ways.

As my mind drifts through time, through my past, present and future, my body reminds me that I have not done yoga in a week and I notice that not only my body but my mind misses the calming experience of engaging in a multitude of poses and postures that mimic the range of human complexity and emotions.

As I delve into this thought, I reflect on some of the various yogic poses. From child’s pose requiring a relaxed vulnerability and utter trust in the world not to harm, to warrior pose that requires a strength, alertness and all-consuming intention from which no one can take you unawares, through powerful pose which, if done right, allows you to be a pillar of strength from which others can draw support if needed, to eagle pose that creates a sense of freedom from gravity, as if one could soar forever above the clouds, defying the conventional laws of gravity with wonderment, and goddess pose in which you salute the simple beauty of life and the universe acknowledges and salutes your strength and inner beauty back, in an unspoken dialogue, to side plank that requires you to be rigid enough to  build on your strengths in order to achieve an unthinkable balance between a shimmering lightness and earth’s grounding pull, and happy baby pose in which there is overwhelming relief in just letting go and being in the moment without thought of before and after, simply releasing into the pleasure of the here and now. The ability to experience such emotional and physical intricacy within the simple time span of an hour seems remarkable.

As I think about my son, I realize that it is only remarkable for me, an adult who has internalized many of the oftentimes conflicting labels assigned by society and those who love me. My son, who is exploring the world, his place in it, his abilities, talents, interests, and everything that is new, wonderful, and undiscovered in the world, is free and accustomed to being who he is, whoever that may be in any given moment, while trying on and exercising different parts of himself.

It hits me then that the thing that marks me as different from my son is that he has not yet realized that labels pigeonholing and limiting him can be assigned and unwittingly integrated into his perception of self, narrowing who he can envision himself as and circumscribing the world in which he operates. And I suddenly realize that, as a parent, one of the biggest gifts I can give my son is the ever-present awareness that the most remarkable aspect of being human is the ability to choose: that who we are at any given moment is not defining and that we always have the ability to use what we know of ourselves, our strengths, weaknesses, vulnerabilities, desires, and talents, to become the god or goddess of life that we know lies at our core.

The danger of being a shadow of yourself

When I split up with my husband and entered the dating scene, a friend told me that it was a minefield – if I didn’t watch where I stepped, I could get blown up. As predicted, I soon entered a rebound relationship: it quickly heated up with promise of the future and crashed and burned soon thereafter.

In dissecting the spiral of events, one thing became crystal clear. The man I had been dating was terrified of being alone, to the extent that the four days between our commute were too much for him to handle.

As I thought about it, a memory of my aunt came to mind. Years ago, she recounted to me about how she once asked her pre-school aged daughter who her best friend was. When her daughter answered ‘me’, my aunt said that she knew that she had done her job. As depicted by a note my cousin left her years later that currently hangs in a frame on her corridor wall, stating ‘Mom, I went outside to play with myself’, her daughter was perfectly happy having a party of one.

As a parent, this entire dating episode taught me a valuable lesson. In order for my son to have fulfilling and enriching relationships, he needs to have one with himself: if he doesn’t find himself good company, no one else will either. And, he will always make the coward’s decision of grasping on to the person closest to him to act as buffer against himself and a reflective mirror from which he can draw an image.

In noting this, I think of Dr. Seuss’ book Oh the Places You’ll Go. I remember the passage that talks about the different places you’ll go in life – some joyful, some exciting, some just waiting, some unpleasant, and some unhappy, but all part of the journey of life that leads to learning, self-discovery, and the magical unfolding of life’s surprise twists and turns.

With this thought, I realize that I need to teach my son to not only believe in himself but to enjoy the time he spends with himself and his own self-discovery as a complete relationship. This means helping him to develop the courage to face the unpleasant in himself head on and stay with himself through the painful and lonely times while being able to give of himself and remain true to his inner worth.

By imbuing him with a trust that the future will take care of itself and a firm belief that he doesn’t have to settle for less than he deserves or make choices from a place of fear, I have confidence that he will be able to stand tall, do the right, not necessarily the easiest thing, in most situations, develop himself and all his talents, push himself to be his own best version, and, ultimately, lie outside the danger zone of becoming a shadow of himself.

Humor

I come from a family of talkers. As a close friend of mine often reminds me, it’s no wonder that my son is so verbal – he has to be in order to get a word in edgewise. We talk about what we’re doing, what we’ve done, what’s happening in the world at large, our dreams and secret fantasies. For us, it’s our primary means of connection.

As a kid, we did the usual things a family does – picnics, camping, exploring the city, playing at home, and taking road trips into the unknown. Although these events blur into one another in my memories, creating a canvass of a seemingly ordinary life, what stands out in my mind are the running jokes we used to create.

From the silent Mr. Strange who was our ever-present and unpredictable companion on our long road trips across the country to the delightfully erratic and fickle characters my father would introduce into our bedtime stories, humor was the currency that united us. And so, now, although we don’t always see eye to eye on all matters, sometimes disagreeing on the way in which we want to live while having to renegotiate the boundaries and roles that we will play in each others lives, I know that no matter how serious the atmosphere gets or how hurt someone feels, a perfectly aimed humorous comment can remind us all of the deeper connections that we share, reuniting us into the loving entity that we are.

For myself, I’ve also found that this ability to notice the lighter side in life has helped me to see the humor in the direst of circumstance, even if hidden under a dark and dreary rock, ultimately enabling me to cope with situations that initially make me feel like curling up in bed and covering myself up with blankets until the year is done. And, it’s these stories, carefully woven of joy and pain, that have created the landscape of my existence, allowing me to see blessings that are initially disguised, fostering forgiveness for perceived transgressions, and helping me to create closer bonds with those I love.

As a parent, I take my cue from my father who, accompanying me on an early expedition in my parenting career in which my six week old son developed an acute case of road rage anytime the car fell below twenty kilometers an hour causing me to near a level of nuclear exasperation, decided to write a verbal letter of complaint to the mayor from the future pint size citizen sitting in the back seat about the decidedly unnecessary extensive roadway construction. As he infused the monologue with humor, my mood lifted and I was once again able to view my son’s unhappiness with compassion and tenderness for the pain he was feeling but incapable of articulating.

And so, as our days drift by in a haze of similarity, I try not to engage in battles over the little things, using humor to get my son and I to the end point that I think we need. And, in the telling of ridiculous stories that I make up to get my son to see the reason in my requests and the in-jokes that I try to make, my hope is that as he grows up, not only will he be able to see the humor in most situations while dealing, gracefully or not, with the obstacles he encounters, but that humor will become an intrinsic component of his internal topography, weaving a magical spell that he can speak at will, lightening his load while enriching his daily experiences.

A love story – the final installment

My grandfather told me this whole story and so, until recently, I only had his perspective on the matter at hand. However, a few months ago, over Chanuka dinner where my grandmother became uncharacteristically sentimental, she gave me the gift of her take on this particular point in the story.

With her heavy frame digging into the gray plush sofa, contrasting boldly with the family portrait  that stood above her displaying her as she stood sixty years ago, she told me that she had been looking forward to seeing my grandfather again since they had been writing to each other frequently. When he didn’t show up as planned she was disappointed. After all, she reminds me at this point, she had given up going to Madison Square Gardens with Ira Gershwin in order to meet him. To be frank, she was also a little teed-off. However, once he called and told her the circumstances he found himself in, and promised to book her a nice, clean hotel (even back then my grandmother had a thing for cleanliness – but that’s another story in itself) and take her out on the town, she allowed herself to be corrupted on the condition that her parents agreed. To be honest, she wanted an out. It was the 40s and women, never mind my grandmother who was a lady, simply didn’t travel alone. And she was scared. She had never taken a train before, never-mind ridden one alone, and she wasn’t quite sure what she was getting herself into. Nonetheless, something in her made her call her parents to ask. And, in the retelling I can see how surprised she was when amazement lights up her face as she tells me, “They said yes. So I went. Ayh what a good time we had that vacation. I had never been to Montreal alone before I’ll have you know.” When asked why she went to meet him in the end, she answers somewhat mystified herself, “I don’t know. There was just something about that Meyer. I don’t know what it is. But I’ll tell you one thing, I always had a good time with him. He sure could make me laugh!” That is the fundamental truth to my grandmother. Deep down, she knew what was what. She was on the bus so to speak. Laughter was the key and although she took herself seriously, she knew how to laugh from the belly on up.

According to my grandfather, he went all out for her that week. He booked her a nice hotel and brought her home to eat all of her meals with him and his family in the apartment above the store. He took her to the theatre and for sleigh rides in horse-drawn carriages over the frosted mountain that lay at the heart of the city. As a grand finale, they went, along with a huge group of his friends, up North to a chalet that they had rented in the Laurentians for the New Year’s celebrations. According to my grandfather, they had a great time. They went skiiing, skating and tobogganing during the day and, at night, stayed up until four in the morning talking alone in one of the rooms.

At this point, I can hear my grandfather’s voice booming in, begging to take over and I’ll allow it to. Nothing happened between us mind you, but by four in the morning we had reached some kind of unstated agreement and we both knew it. We continued our correspondence and that spring I went down to visit your grandmother in New York. Her parents, but especially her mother, loved me. Now, your grandmother always had problems with her mother, but me, I never had any kind of problems. We got along perfectly. She loved me from the moment that she walked in on me dressing. You see, what happened was, I was sleeping on the couch in the living room. She had to walk through the living room to get to the kitchen to make breakfast for the family. She thought that I would be asleep and didn’t want to disturb me by knocking. Instead, she found me in the middle of getting dressed and saw that I was wearing Tfillin. At that time, most modern Jewish young men weren’t wearing them anymore. The practice was already fading. When your great-grandmother saw that I was wearing them she got very excited. The next thing I knew I overheard her telling your grandmother that she shouldn’t let me get away since I was a great catch, even if I wasn’t a wealthy man. I only hoped that she felt the same way. I soon found out.

 On the second to last day that I was in New York, we went for a walk in Central Park. It was a gray day in April and it was damp. We walked about forty-five city blocks and talked the whole way. At this point, my grandfather tends to drift off in a haze of remembering and needs to be prodded with the question, “What did you two talk about?”

We talked about how our life would be if we agreed to marry each other. We talked to each other about how we wanted to live and the type of life we would have. I said that I couldn’t promise her diamonds and furs, but I did promise her that if she’d marry me she’d always have a good life. And I prayed that that, with my love, would be enough. As we walked into the Park, the sun suddenly came out and struck us in the eyes. And your grandmother agreed to marry me. At this point, I can see him mentally tallying the score: Schecter one, Gershwin zero. We went back to her parents that evening and told them the news. We were married that fall and your grandmother moved to Canada. Later we had the four boys and your grandmother’s mother came to live with us. But those are other stories, to be told some other time….

That was a typical ending for one of my grandfather’s stories. It left you satisfied but with enough room left for one more. As my grandmother edged into the room during the first telling of this story and my grandfather put in his last few words, I realized that it ain’t ever over until it’s over. One thing that I can tell you though is that I wouldn’t trade any of it for the world. When I look at your grandmother after all these years, I know that I got the best bargain around.