Friday, April 5, 2013

Happiness and Perspective

I heard a line from the AMC TV show "Mad Men" quoted the other day on the radio.  The commentators were discussing the topic of materialism and how they feel it has affected our children's generation as a whole.  On the TV show, which is about an advertising agency in NYC, the agency's Creative Director Don Draper is disturbed by his observations of the actions of people whom he feels were motivated by their greed for money and success.  Don starts to reconsider his own definition of happiness and in the process comes up with the line from the episode that was being quoted on the radio:  

"What is happiness? It's a moment before you need more happiness."
That quote got me started thinking about the way so many of us set up happiness to be something that isn't really obtainable - or at least that isn't sustainable.  Maybe that's what makes some people feel like rats running on a wheel, as if they are "caught up in the Rat Race," always chasing after one more thing instead of taking the time to appreciate what is already in their possession or what has already been achieved.  

Something I've learned over the last couple of years is that happiness is a feeling that is often easy to attain in the moment but difficult to maintain over time.  Happy moments can be both big and small; happiness can come when its arrival has been anticipated, or it can come by unexpectedly, as a welcome surprise.  For most people, happiness is transient; it ebbs and flows depending on so many other factors.  The way one feels going into a situation or even at the start of the day does not necessarily determine the way one feels at the end; in the same way that you can start off on a run feeling great and end up limping home, you can wake up happy and end the day feeling miserable.  Happiness is unpredictable and oftentimes completely out of our control, which is exactly what makes it a defective goal.  In many cases, it's nothing more than perspective.  

It also strikes me that happiness isn't something that translates into goodness; a bank robber or even a serial killer can feel happy with what they have done.  A life can be full of happy moments but be lacking in meaning and impact, yet another reason that in my opinion happiness isn't a suitable goal.

Another lesson that I have gotten from life over the past couple of years is that during those times when happiness is in my grasp, when I am fortunate enough to be in the midst of joy, pleasure, or contentment, I need to breathe it in, to savor it and to remember it, because life is nothing if not uncertain, and we need all the reserves we can get.  


Sometimes happiness is really just as simple as making a choice to appreciate and be grateful for what one has, instead of thinking about would have/could have/should have been, instead of worrying, instead of comparing what one has to what someone else has, and instead of wishing for something more or something different.  To me, it seems that happiness comes much more from perspective than from reality.

"Happiness is in the heart, not in the circumstances." ~Anonymous

One of the things that has brought me the most meaning in my life has been motherhood.  It has also brought me considerable happiness, even though not every moment of every day is filled with sunshine and singing.  In the words of an extended family member of mine, "Mothering is the hardest and the best thing that you will ever do."  I'm sure this extends to fathering, too.  Parenting is difficult, but it's an investment, a legacy that will continue far longer than the days we have left on this earth.

When I think back on some of the biggest moments of my life - graduations, weddings, vacations, things like that - so much of what happened then is a blur, and I don't think that the only thing that plays a factor in that is my increasing age and decreasing capacity for remembering things.  I wonder if I was present enough in those moments; I wonder if I took the time during those events to breathe in the happiness and the joy that I was experiencing.  If I did, maybe I should have done even more of that, enough to make more of what I felt in those moments carry over to my memory. If I didn't, I am regretful that I might have been thinking more about things that I perceived as being not just right, or about things that were bothering me or stressing me out in the moment, or about what came before or what was to come afterwards.  In either case, one thing I have learned is that sometimes all I can do is try to learn from the past - and try to do better in the future.

I thought about happiness and memories and perspective a lot during my sister Nancy's labor and delivery a couple of weeks ago.  "Remember this," I said to her several times during those hours before and just after she became a mother: "Remember this; be sure to remember this."  I hope she remembers it all -  and I know I will, because it was nothing short of wondrous.   As the newest member of our family was born, everyone in the room knew what happiness was: it's being together with the people you love, it's the warmth that comes from working together for a common goal, it's the promise of good.

"Remember this."//

As Lao Tzu said, "Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are.  When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you."

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

World Autism Awareness Day

There are many people who played a role in my career choice many years ago, and I regularly think about the fact that I am so lucky to have found a profession that is fulfilling, challenging, and rewarding on a daily basis.

Once I decided on and then entered the Occupational Therapy program at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, though, there were still several different career paths within the field of O.T. that I could choose, based on various demographics of the patients with whom I would be working in the future - from very young to very old, by diagnostic grouping like "hand therapy" or "neuro rehab," and/or in different treatment settings such as an inpatient hospital or a school system.  In fact, the diversity of the options within my chosen field was one of the main things that drew me into Occupational Therapy initially.

During my final year as an O.T. student, I landed a part-time job working for my favorite professor, the woman who taught the pediatric-focused courses in our program.  Some of the work I did was data input, mainly typing the treatment notes that she had recorded on a mini-tape recorder and entering appointments into her schedule on a brand-new Mac Classic computer that seemed so high-tech and cool to me at the time.  I liked that work; it allowed me to learn a lot about computers and my teacher's clinical practice from the sidelines.  A second part of my job was to go to the medical library and research topics about which my instructor needed more information; through this, I learned to love research and to how to be organized in my approach to finding out what scientific studies and data said about a particular subject.

There was one more part of my job, though, and it was the part that I thought was the best: going with my instructor to clinical visits.  I primarily served as a hauler/transporter/equipment cleaner at the treatment sites, but, rather than feeling like a grunt who was limited to schlepping and scrubbing, I felt like I was a sponge, soaking up knowledge and inspiration from all around me.  Two of the children in particular who were being treated by my teacher that year ended up influencing my decision to set a goal of practicing in the field of pediatrics as an O.T.; after getting to know each of them, I was certain that my future was in working with the younger population.  

One of these kids was a boy named Johnny who had cerebral palsy that affected all four of his limbs, his trunk, and his speech.  A couple of month after I'd met him, my instructor had me sit with him while she left the room to take a phone call.  I had to focus and listen closely to make out what he was saying as he chatted away about his love of the Cardinals, St. Louis's major league baseball team.  After a couple of minutes of that, he abruptly changed the subject by asking, "What does it mean to be handicapped?"  His question took me off-guard; I spent several seconds trying to think of the best way to respond.  He beat me to the punch, though, blurting out the answer to his own question before I could say anything: "Oh, I know: it means you have to work harder to do things,"  and then he went back to talking about baseball.  I thought his answer was perfect, and I knew at the time that I would never forget this exceptional child or his profound words.

The second child was a girl named Casey who was at a different facility than Johnny.  Casey was a six year-old girl who had been diagnosed with autism.  She was verbal but had many social and other challenges that affected her ability to interact with the world in what is considered to be a "typical" manner.  Casey wasn't as touchy-feely as Johnny was; in fact, she didn't like to be touched at all, but I still found her to be very lovable and sweet.  She had some "quirks" - some habits and patterns of behavior that I found to be both interesting and endearing during the year that I knew her; one of these idiosyncrasies was that she coped with stress by pretending that she was interacting with a cat that she kept in her pocket.  Cleverly, I thought, she used this as a way to divert attention to something other than herself whenever she felt like she was being put on the spot; instead of answering a question or completing a task that she didn't feel like doing, she often emulated taking the cat out of her pocket and petting and talking to it.  

I was fascinated by this tactic; I thought the fact that she had devised such a creative strategy for gerrymandering was brilliant in many ways.  Some of the people who worked with Casey scolded her for talking about or to her pretend cat; I, in my squeaky-clean lab coat and with my very limited knowledge base and experience in the clinical world, tried to find out more about her and her world by playing with her and by asking her about the imaginary creature.  In turn, she often made better eye contact with me, and she talked and talked about things that were on her mind, all while pantomiming holding and/or petting the make-believe cat.  

Not long after my job working with Casey ended, I decided to get a kitten, and, as I looked through the want ads in the newspaper, I knew already that I wanted to name this cat Casey, after the child that first drew me into the world of autism, a condition about which I was sure I wanted to learn much, much more.  I ended up getting a male cat instead of the female I had envisioned, but I still went with the name Casey for the first pet I had as an adult, the cat that was with me as I graduated from college, found my first job, moved into my first apartment, met and later married my now-husband, and had both of my children.  

Like Johnny and his words of wisdom, I will never forget the girl named Casey, the child who drew me into one of the main fields of interest in my profession.  Today, on World Autism Awareness Day, and on many other days, I will think of her and the cat in her pocket and hope that she is somewhere doing something she enjoys.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Memories on April Fool's Day

Twenty years ago today, my then-fiance and I went to the County Courthouse during our lunch break and got our marriage license.  We had intentionally planned to get our license that day: I've always loved April Fool's Day - even if I don't have a good idea or an opportunity to pull a prank on someone, I love the idea that I COULD - and also it was the only day that we could coordinate our schedules to make it downtown during business hours before our wedding date less than three weeks later.  

It's a good thing we did it that day, because, as it turned out, on April 2, the next day, my grandmother died.  

My maternal grandmother was the grandparent to whom I was the closest at the time; I saw or tried to see some of myself in her - or I guess I should say I tried to see some of her in me.  Anyway, even though she had been sick for awhile as she struggled through a relapse of breast cancer, I was shocked by the news.  I was grateful that my grandmother had hung on long enough to meet my husband-to-be and to hear about my wedding plans - and most importantly to meet her youngest grandchild, whom she held in her arms not long before she went on ahead, but I was so saddened by the loss that I could hardly put one foot in front of the other.  It was the first death that I had experienced of someone to whom I was close, and I was at a loss of how to even try to cope.  

Needless to say, the next few days were a blur as we made our way to the city where she lived and gathered together as an extended family to pay our respects.  I remember that I didn't think I would be able to sit through the service in the church without bolting for the door because I was afraid my cries would be too loud.  I remember hardly being able to bear the pain of looking at my mom, at my two aunts - one of whom had a two year-old and a two-week-old baby - and most especially at my grandfather, whose sky-blue eyes held such endless sadness that there seemed to be no possibility of ever being able to comfort him.  I remember that I stood with one of my cousins and my fiance long after the rest of the people had gone back to their cars at the cemetery; the funeral director had dismissed us after they'd lowered the casket into the ground, but I just couldn't bring myself to walk away before I'd seen her body buried, one final thing I felt I could do, if not for her than in her honor.  We stood there by the headstones of the other graves around her plot, and I looked for four-leaf clovers while the dirt was placed over her beautiful silver casket, adorned with beautiful tiny daisies.  I remember that I was a little bit comforted by wearing one of my grandmother's sweaters to the funeral; it was the only thing I had of hers besides the opal ring she had given me - "October birthday girl to October birthday girl,"she'd said - when I celebrated my sixteenth birthday.  Years later, I pulled that sweater from the back of my closet and wore it to the funeral of a friend, and in the pocket I found the handkerchief that my dad had given to me at my grandmother's funeral, a reminder of both the tears I had shed and of the love my family shared as we tried to support each other through those rough days.  

I knew my grandmother well enough to know that she would absolutely have wanted "the show to go on," and so, just a couple of weeks after we laid her to rest, my dad walked me down the aisle and I said "I do" to my new husband in front of many of our family and friends, at sunset on the banks of the Mississippi River.  I wore the gerber daisy wrist corsage that was intended for my grandmother during the ceremony; I felt my her absence profoundly that day as I have many days since. 

Wearing the corsage meant for my grandmother

Today, when I think back on that April Fool's Day at the Courthouse, to the days afterwards leading up to the wedding, and to the wedding itself, so many emotions run through me.  I feel lucky, I feel loved, I feel happy for what I have learned and shared and survived.  Twenty years, wow.  Pretty incredible.

My grandfather, at my wedding, just two weeks after he'd lost his wife.
"I'm here for two," he said, and I knew just what he meant.