Genuine well being for ourselves and the planet

Eleven years ago, I began creating a monthly gratitude painting. My topics included words, yoga, pumpkins and the spectacular trees our neighbors planted on our shared property line. The beauty of these paintings was not in the execution. It was the fact that I thought about the concept all month long, thus rewiring my brain to make me a more grateful person. Whatever I was experiencing, I would wonder, is this it? Is this the subject of my next painting? When I actually did the artwork, I had an embodied experience of gratitude for all the hours the painting took. That embodiment enabled even deeper rewiring.

It was an excellent practice, but it got lost in the general shuffle of life — until now. I am resurrecting this practice, starting with socks.

I live in Vermont. Of course I am grateful for socks. I love polka dot socks, and socks with hearts and stars. I have been gifted Jane Austen socks, octopus socks, protest socks, and socks that say, “This grandma’s seen some shit” (true). I have a special affection for the gift socks, which arouse feelings of gratitude for the giver. I love the texture of fuzzy socks. Sometimes I wear my Hindu goddess Lakshmi socks to church. I also adore my lotus blossom socks, perfect for meditation time.

What will December bring?

Socks keep me warm, offer protection from blisters, and provide the opportunity to wear something bright, colorful and silly even if the rest of my outfit is sober. Socks are a wonderful invention. If I have cold feet while lying under the covers, I can get up and put on socks. Problem solved. I like to go barefoot too, but socks are never far away.

I wonder what my December painting will focus on.

You may think this is a trivial use of the sublime grace which is gratitude. A few years back a friend questioned all the causal gratitudes she saw popping up on Facebook. “Isn’t that a little shallow?” she wondered. I say, no. If we see with grateful eyes and heart, everything is miraculous — pillows, toothbrushes, pizzas, hot water, cat food, snow shovels. In terms of happiness practices, it isn’t the object of gratitude that matters — it is how we practice that gratitude.

In an online course with Doctor Rick Hanson on rewiring the brain, he stressed that our brains quickly register negative experiences but that it takes much longer for positive experiences to become part of our brain’s topography. He said, the vast majority of our positive practices (gratitude, compassion, etc.) make no difference at all for building long-term positive wiring in our brains. All those wonderful lists people make, essentially, do very little good in making us more positive people. Instead, we need to really feel it, to be with it, to sit with it, think about the details — really register what this gratitude means deep within our being. That way, the gratitude can extend beyond the moment, and help make us better people.

Besides painting, I have also often written gratitude lists. After Hanson’s class, I stopped dashing off a list of 5 things for which I am grateful and now choose only three, writing a free-form paragraph for each. Maybe even putting my hand on my heart, trying to feel it. Trying to fully absorb the gratitude, and become a more grateful person.

Dr. Maria Sirois at Kripalu with the author

Despite abundant hardship and pain in all our lives, I believe we can also find abundant items for our gratitude lists, paintings, poems, candlelight toasts -or however else we choose to express it. We need only pay attention, devote some of our brain space, and perhaps shift our perspectives. Gratitude is a choice.

Dr. Maria Sirois — who is a masterful storyteller/teacher — taught this truth memorably one evening during a residency for the Certificate in Positive Psychology program sponsored by the Wholebeing Institute. We students were gathered at Kripalu, a yoga and meditation retreat in the Berkshire region of Massachusetts. Maria started her presentation by complaining about how little sleep she gets a Kripalu, how the food makes her fart a lot, etc. etc. It was quite entertaining. Then, when Maria had us all in the palm sof her hand, she shifted gears to talk about everything makes Kripalu so special, and for which she is grateful. That was nearly a decade ago, and I still remember it vividly.

Speaking of bodily functions, another friend who worked at a local hospital recalls learning that intestinal bowel obstruction is a very common reason patients get admitted for care. After considering how dreadfully uncomfortable it must be to be unable to poop, my friend began a regular gratitude practice for being able to successfully go to the bathroom. She says out loud, “I’m happy, happy, happy.”

On a more elevated level, Thich Nhat Hanh has written about the breath, suggesting we should always be grateful for breathing as opposed to only being grateful when breathing has been hard due to illness. Or being grateful that we don’t have a toothache. Etc.

My body is broken in various ways, but I still have so many working parts for which to be grateful. I imagine the same is true for most of you.

From our bodies to our sock drawer, most of the time most of us have quite a bit to be grateful for. And, taking the time to express that gratitude can literally rewire our brains and make us happier. It’s free. It’s a miracle. It’s pretty frickin awesome.

The author and my mother Doris Ellis, flanked by my son Ben Sassaman to the left and my brother Jerry Ellis to the right in a photo from last century!

Once we get over the election hump, we will be in the season of gratitude. Gratitude, as both research and my own personal experience tell me, is one of the most important happiness practices we can engage in.

Expressing gratitude can also warm the other person’s heart. There is a ton of research — I can, and have, preached on it from time to time (a sermon you can read in my book, Preaching Happiness: Creating a Just and Joyful World). And/or, you can can check out this amazing video from Soul Pancake, “An Experiment in Gratitude” in which participants call up the individuals toward whom they are feeling grateful, and read their gratitude letters to them over the phone. I suspect watching the video will make you a little happier, too.

Now, here’s my caution: don’t wait. Life is brief and capricious. I, sadly, waited too long to express gratitude to my mother, and it didn’t go well.

I don’t know why it took me so long to realize I needed and wanted to say thank you to her — not for the ordinary exhausting tasks of birth and raising a child but for the extraordinary help she gave me, my husband Bob and our young children. I guess I was too involved in my own growing up and my own motherhood work to recognize the enormity of her gift.

As I’ve written before, Bob and I got married when I was 17, a senior in high school, and 3 months pregnant — not a recipe for success. All our parents chipped in and helped us so that our relationship could, in fact, succeed. But no one helped more than my Mom. She created a small private apartment for Bob, me and the baby in her own house. Rent free for four and half years, until Bob graduated from community college and went to work for I.B.M. She babysat a lot. When I was still pregnant and a panicked Bob got caught shoplifting a yo-yo, his dad paid the fee and she gave us $5.00 to go out to dinner at Howard Johnsons (we had fried clams). When our kids were 2 and 4 years old and we finally moved to our own apartment, she gave us money to buy furniture.

Yet, it was only when my mother was close to death after a 40-year bout with breast cancer that I felt the urge to shower her with gratitude. We drove to visit with her just a week before she died. I held her hand and poured out my thanks. But it was too late. Though she was conscious, she was beyond wanting or needing to hear anybody’s thanks for anything. My thanking her just made me feel awkward and inadequate.

I feel like Scrooge in the Christmas Carol when I say to you, please don’t make my mistake. Thank abundantly and frequently. Now’s the time.

There is still a happy ending to my story, though, for which I am profoundly grateful. My daughter Jennifer joined us for that last visit with her grandmother. Jennifer did not use words, she used touch, sending love to her precious “Ninny” through gentle massages. The last words I heard my mother say were addressed to my daughter, “You’re so wonderful.”

What a gift. Thank you Mom, and thank you Jennifer for this incredible memory.

With my young family, photo by Woody Neighbors.

The first time I set foot in an ob/gyn’s office was two years before Roe v. Wade and a few days after my 17th birthday. I had come to this esteemed doctor because a friend said he could perform safe abortions. Sure enough, during the exam, the doctor said I was definitely pregnant and he would give me an abortion if that was what I wanted. I said no, my boyfriend and I were in love and wanted to get married.

Indeed, that boyfriend — Bobby, now my husband of 50+ years and with a lot less hair — expressed great joy and enthusiasm about getting married and starting our family together. I was wildly in love with him, and had long ago decided he would make great daddy material. But I was also ambitious, and hadn’t planned on taking this step while I was still a senior in high school.

A tense meeting with our parents was called to settle the matter. My soon-to-be mother-in-law started the conversation by saying that she thought I should have the baby, give it up for adoption, and that Bobby and I should not be allowed to see each other ever again*.

My mother said, “That’s the worst thing I have ever heard of! You do not give up your own flesh and blood!” Pause. “She should have an abortion.”

Bob’s mother replied, “That’s the worst thing I ever heard of!”

To which my soon-to-be husband, who was brilliant but floundering in his classes at the local community college, said, “We want to get married and have this baby.” I was sitting on his lap (in retrospect, a peculiar choice for the occasion). I guess maybe I nodded, but I could see a lot of problems with all the options, especially the marriage idea. Bobby at that point didn’t even have a driver’s license (neither did I) and his job was as a paper boy. I wasn’t sure he was good husband material.

Our nuclear family unit

But I loved him, and I knew he was truly nice. And somehow that was a compromise our parents could accept. So we got married and had a baby. And then another — planned this time. With a great deal of help from our parents, we went to college, moved forward with our lives, and raised two very fine humans.

For years, I thought I might want to have more children, but Bob never did. I didn’t ever push him on the question because I wasn’t quite sure myself. While I loved the baby years, I was not wild about going through the school years again. Nor, most definitely, the teen years. Finally, on a trip to California to celebrate our 20th anniversary, I made the firm decision to get my tubes tied. No more babies.

But … funny thing. On that trip, I also got pregnant again. We didn’t do anything any different contraception-wise than we had been doing for years. Thus, it felt like an extraordinary cosmic joke, or challenge. Like God or the Universe or whatever you want to call it was taunting me, “Are you sure????”

It was a tough choice. I was sure that I did not want to raise another human to adulthood. But a baby … my babies were so beautiful, I loved babies! At the same time, I knew that parenthood is only about babies for a brief period of time. Choosing to bring a baby into this world is a commitment to a minimum of 18 years of hard, hard work, assuming all goes smoothly! I had agreed to this commitment when I was 17, but I did not want to re-enlist.

Equally important, Bob was not ambivalent at all. He most definitely did not want to become a father again. The abortion debate focuses mostly on women, but this man had been — and still is — a very involved dad for both his kids. I believe he may well have changed more diapers than me, even. He didn’t want to re-enlist either. If I had chosen to keep that pregnancy, he would have stepped up again and been an awesome, hands-on dad. But I didn’t want to force that on him. His life mattered, too.

So I decided to have an abortion. I had to change ob/gyns because my regular doctor wouldn’t do it. The second doctor said he would, but he had a practice full of women my age (37) who were trying desperately to get pregnant. He asked me for an explanation. I said, I just can’t do this all over again! I’d been a mom my entire adult life — really, since before I was an adult. I wanted my own life.

The night before the operation (both the abortion and getting my tubes tied) provided an excellent illustration of how hard parenting can be. We were already in bed when our son came to us for help. He knew about the operation, and he apologized for waking us up, but his best friend was threatening to commit suicide and our son didn’t know what to do. So we got out of bed and went down to the teenage hangout in the basement and dealt with that crisis. Parenthood, anyone?

After the operation, I cried and grieved for a month. I hadn’t only said goodbye to the possibility of that baby, but also to the possibility of any more babies of our own, ever. Yes it was my choice, but emotions are complex. Just because I thought it best to close the door on child bearing didn’t mean that choice didn’t also bring sadness.

To be clear, I did not think that there was a “baby” inside of me — yet. There was potential life in the cells that were growing and multiplying. If the cells had matured to a viable state, well, that would have been a different story. But it wasn’t. I had two full term pregnancies in my life, and no one can tell me that I “killed a baby.” I know better. It was a bunch of cells on their way to becoming a baby but not there yet.

People have their own beliefs. Personally, I believe — or at least would like to believe — that there was a soul who chose Bob and me for its parents, but just waited too long to come to us. I apologized to that soul and explained that it was just too late. I also believe that soul found other parents and was born to them and is living a very fine life.

You might think my views are strange, but hey, I’m not trying to force anybody else to make critical life decisions based on my spiritual beliefs. The idea that somebody else would presume to insist on my giving a bunch of cells hitch hiking a ride in my uterus preference over everything else in my life is unacceptable. Completely infuriating. Preposterous!

My abortion story might not be the most emotionally compelling, but, it was my life and my choice. Along with Bob, my treasured husband, co-parent, and now, equally wonderful grandparent — it was his choice, too.

Doing yoga with our granddaughter

So now we have a granddaughter in our lives. She is the next female in our family who will face questions of if and when and how she wants to give birth. It’s not an issue on the horizon for her at the moment, but I will fight like hell to make sure she, too, can make the choices that work best for her. For her and every other human during child bearing years — reproductive liberty is fundamental to their happiness, and no one has the right to take that away from them.

*My mother-in-law’s words sound so harsh in retrospect, but truly, she was a very kind and loving person who was understandably worried about her son in that moment.

How can we be our most thriving selves when life seems more a bed of thorns than of roses? One key is awareness, not only of the outside world but also our interior landscapes. That awareness can help us understand when we need extra help, and find the courage and faith to reach out.

My “alternate bed” — also known as the living room sofa.

I didn’t sleep much last night, even though I was tired after a long hike through snowy woods, and I was quite warm and cozy in my auxiliary bed — ie, the sofa. On nights when I toss and turn in my own bed, next to my beleaguered husband whose slightest sleeping sound or movement is somehow exponentially magnified, I often grab my pillow and a couple of blankets and head to the living room. The sofa is actually quite comfortable, and this change of venue usually works.

But lately, I am carrying something else with me from bed-to-bed: anxiety. It was anxiety that kept me awake most of the night, despite trying multiple meditative breaths and other relaxation techniques. Anxiety over the ways Covid is impacting my family kept coursing through my veins and nagging at my tired mind. I understood what was happening, and my rational brain had all kinds of sensible answers for anxiety’s frightening suggestions — but mostly, anxiety won and sleep lost.

Last night was just one more sign that anxiety is getting the best of me. I need help.

Covid hasn’t hit my family directly, but we are definitely caught up in the pandemic’s mental health crisis. I have never experienced problematic anxiety before, but then again, I’ve never lived through a worldwide pandemic either. I’ve heard about this very serious and widespread crisis from friends who are therapists on the front line. I’ve read post after post on Facebook and serious articles in The New York Times and The Washington Post. And I’ve heard extensive coverage on National Public Radio and Vermont Public Radio. Just a few days ago, VPR reported that nearly half of all Vermonters say they are now suffering from anxiety and/or depression. Alas, that includes me.

Given my life’s emphasis on cultivating happiness, I sort of feel like the “happiness gods” are testing me. “Whaddaya got now, happiness lady???” I’ve got resilience, yes, but also mindfulness and discretion. Genuine well-being must be grounded in reality, which sometimes — putting it indelicately — sucks. I may have a full happiness toolbox, but like everybody else, I sometimes need tools from somebody else’s toolbox. That could be a retinal special for a physical ailment, or a mental health counselor who knows a lot more than me about how to cope with anxiety.

I’ve been thinking about a dinner party more than a decade ago, when another guest practically assaulted me with this verbal arrow: “You’ve got two kids, right? What if they both went to a concert tonight and got killed in an accident on the way home? How happy would you be then, huh???” I mean, what kind of human do you take me for? I, too, am susceptible to pain.

Also, in case you missed it, one reason to build your happiness muscles when life is easier is to be better prepared when the going gets rough. I will always remember one of my meditation students who lost a loved one to suicide. The student thanked me for giving her tools that helped her get through that painful time.

I do think the happiness muscles I’ve built through years of practice have served me well during Covid times. I still meditate and practice gratitude. I exercise, especially by taking long walks in nature. I try to be kind, serve others, and keep my brain engaged with daily online Spanish lessons. Plus I know from previous experience that everything is temporary, including the bad stuff. All of that served to bolster my equanimity through more than a year of Covid, with all its death and disruptions (including within my own home). It has also been a bulwark against years of constant and horrifying political turmoil.

But now, I feel flattened. Just hammered.

The good news is, I have finally found a therapist! I say finally because here, too, there seems to be a “supply chain” problem. In Vermont at least, with overwhelming need, there just aren’t enough mental health providers to go around. I went through several rounds of getting therapist recommendations from friends, calling those names, and usually not even getting a return call. The one person who called me back couldn’t accept my insurance.

But finally, finally, I have an appointment. I am so relieved! I like sleep. I like happiness. I hope to have more of both in the not-too-distant future. And for all of you who are similarly struggling, I wish you perseverance in getting help. I send you my love. Pandemic or no, may we all find our way back to happier times.

Two nearly simultaneous events on New Year’s Eve illustrated the importance of community to individual happiness — or lack thereof.

New Year’s Eve fireworks in a beach town.

It was our final night on vacation at the beach. My daughter and granddaughter had to be at the airport at 4 AM for a 6 AM flight back home. My husband also had to get up at 2:30 to drive them there. None of us had any intention of staying up till midnight. We shared our resolutions at dinner, lit a few sparklers, and went to bed.

But not to sleep. The vacation revelers across the street had their own plans: fireworks, and lots of them. Mind you, this was in a quiet residential neighborhood, with houses packed closely together. Our rental house had multiple reminders to please be respectful and keep noise down after 9 PM. No rational person could have believed this was a good place to launch massive fireworks.

Sure, on New Year’s Eve, there are likely to be a handful of fireworks in any neighborhood. Not like this, though. Our temporary neighbors had brought a wide variety of fireworks including large industrial ones — the kind crowds oooh and ah at during municipal displays, with spectators safely distant from the explosives. Our beach neighbors seemed to think launching fireworks from the middle of a small public street was safe enough. They began shooting fireworks around 8:00. We were outside with our sparklers, and the first massive boom literally made me scream. Our next door neighbors, who had a six month old baby, came running out to report that fireworks debris had fallen into their backyard swimming pool. The neighbors closest to them called out, “That’s not appropriate!” The fireworks were beautiful, but LOUD. And dangerous!

Another neighbor, though, egged them on. “I live here!” we heard him shout. Maybe because so many tourists were upset, he loudly and enthusiastically cheered on those setting off the fireworks. Clearly, neither he nor the firework launchers cared about the surrounding community.

Because, at that moment, we were all in community. We ALL lived there for that night. It could have been joyous. Instead, there was a lot of unhappiness. I assume those shooting the fireworks found it to be a very pleasurable experience, but at the expense of everyone in nearby houses. Someone apparently called the police, who came cruising by within the half hour. There were multiple cars, or at least multiple loops right over the fireworks launching site. Even though the police didn’t stop, the fireworks did cease. For a bit.

We all went to bed. Then the fireworks started again, smaller ones at first before the frightening industrial booms — right outside our bedroom windows — once again lit up the night. The booms made it impossible to sleep. I finally called the police. I didn’t know it at the time, but my daughter also called the police. She watched them pull into the street at almost precisely midnight, as the firework shooters launched major and highly illegal fireworks skyward.

The next day, I read that the minimum fine for such activities was $500. Thus I believe that their self-centered, anti-community activities ultimately led to an unhappy night for them too.

At the same time, my daughter was getting devastating news from another community, the gymnastics studio where her daughter is a competitive gymnast. On New Years Eve, Jozef Safko, co-owner/coach/mentor/vital life force of that studio, died from Covid. He was only in his 50’s, with young children, athletic, still capable of doing back flips across the mat. He was kind and generous, and his death was heartbreaking news for hundreds of families.

Jozef and his wife Wendy were beloved by their gymnastics community, which immediately came together to support Wendy and the kids as much as possible. Brother David Steindl-Rast, one of the world’s leading gratitude experts, has said that we cannot be grateful for every situation but in every situation there is something to be grateful for. The GoFundMe set up for Jozef and Wendy reported that both of them were grateful for all the support they received. Donations of time, food, and money continue to pour in.

Community can not erase the pain. But for everyone involved, there is much comfort in the coming together. Community matters.

I know nothing about the individuals who shot off the fireworks. Perhaps they, too, are beloved members of their home communities. But we are always in community, whether we are home or not, whether we are aware of it or not.

A day after we drove through Virginia on our way back north, hundreds of vehicles on I-95 got trapped by a snow and ice storm and remained stranded for more than 20 hours. Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) was one of those stuck in his car overnight in the frigid temperatures. He told the story of another family driving north from Florida with a big bag of oranges. In true community spirit, that family went vehicle to vehicle handing out oranges to whoever wanted one. Everyone was still cold, and still stuck — but what joy those oranges must have brought, to both the givers and the recipients!

Oranges or fireworks? Happiness or unhappiness for those with whom you’re in community? The choice is always there.

Sherri Mitchell’s wisdom in a book for which I am most grateful.

Ever since I read Sherri Mitchell’s book Sacred Instructions: Indigenous Wisdom for Living Spirit-Based Change, I have thought a lot about the values underlying the dominant white culture’s view of right and wrong, proper behavior, relationships, and what we should aspire for. For example, the notion that children, when they grow up, should move out and often far away from their families of origin. Why? Why is that considered the right choice?

Mitchell, who is also known as Weh’na Ha’mu’ Kwasset (She Who Brings the Light) in her Penobscot tribe, did indeed shed a lot of light on the matter for me. Our individual and collective decisions are often based on a set of values which we are mostly not even aware of.

We don’t all have the same values, of course. And we can interpret those values differently, and to vastly different extents. Over the weekend, I heard a radio report about a man who had built the world’s biggest private house. The details were outrageous, including the fact that this private house has a garage built for 50 cars! To me, that’s repulsive — but don’t I also want to own my home, and have a variety of personal comforts? Have we internalized the same basic values, perhaps with different checks and balances? I can scoff at that man with his 50-car garage, but what do I need to see and perhaps shift within my own self?

Some of this is ridiculous, like the “rule” that you mustn’t wear white shoes after Labor Day. But other values may be limiting our capacity to be happy, sapping our souls, harming our communities, and may even lie at the heart of our failure so far to adequately address climate change. Why, when climate change is an obvious and existential threat, why aren’t we doing what needs to be done?

Maybe it’s our values. And maybe we need to look at, and change some of those values.

This is why, on Indigenous Peoples Day 2021, I am grateful: in her book, Sherri Mitchell makes it easy to see and understand both the dominant cultural values (what she calls “Euro-American Values”) and what she calls “Native American Values.” The light that she shines allows us to learn, grow, and perhaps make better choices.

I don’t want to romanticize the relationship between Native Americans and nature because a) that feels like stereotyping to me and b) what do I know anyway? Instead, I will just say, I find Mitchell’s listing of the often conflicting values to be compelling. She suggests that “the contrast in these basic values has influenced the conflicts that we’ve experienced, and … the values held by the larger society have led to division, breakdown, and destruction of our key relationships, including our relationships with Mother Earth and the rest of creation.”

I won’t list all the values, because that is Mitchell’s creation and her intellectual property. Instead, I urge you to get a copy of her book (from the library, perhaps), and read it for yourselves. But I will share just a few:

— Native American value, cooperation; Euro-American value, competition

— Native American value, harmony; Euro-American value, conquest

— Native American value, sharing; Euro-American value, saving

Mitchell doesn’t just list these values, she explains her thinking with evidence, experience and wisdom. I, for one, was convinced that my/our values need closer examination and an overhaul. It is knowledge for which I am grateful, and which I wish to hold up to the light on this day.

What if being happy was as simple as making the choice to be happy? Ha! It can never be that easy, because when it comes to humans, nothing is ever simple. Still, in almost every moment of every day, we can make the happy choice or the less happy choice. Or not choose at all — which, unless you’ve worked really hard to rewire your brain for happiness, likely means a less happy choice by default.

Paradise in my pocket: a stone painted by my granddaughter.

Fortunately, I have been working on rewiring my brain for more than a decade. Covid has given my happiness a run for its money, but even so, happy choices are frequently my default mode.

Here’s an example: last week, I had more bad eye news. I’ve written about my eye problem before — something called neo-vascularization, or bleeding in the retina. Untreated, this condition leads to blindness. I was diagnosed five years ago. For a while the treatments — injections in the eye, but that’s not as awful as it sounds — seemed to be working just fine. I went many appointments without any injection at all.

Then in December, the doctor was alarmed at my loss in vision. I thought it was just a scratched, used-up pair of glasses and finally got a new prescription from the optometrist. I did much better at the next appointment with the retina specialist, but really, not good enough. The vision loss remained.

This week, again, my vision was worse (and boy have I come to hate those eye charts!). The doctor wants to see me for treatments more frequently. Nothing was said out loud, but the subtext was, I am gradually losing sight in my left eye. The injections will slow down that process, but they can’t stop it.

So could I, in that moment, choose happiness? Well, sort of. At the same time that I was feeling anguish as I tried to process the reality of failing vision (in only one eye, thank goodness), I was also working hard at holding on to the good. I wanted to be honest, to give myself grieving time, while also being aware of everything I have to be grateful for: I am getting excellent medical care, by a retinal team which is kind as well as knowledgeable; the drugs used to keep blindness at bay are still relatively new, so I am fortunate to be benefiting from them; my treatments are covered by medical insurance; and my very loving husband takes me to every appointment and waits patiently to tend to me when the appointment is over.

Plus, it was a gorgeous early spring day in Vermont. Bob and I had plans to walk on the bike trail next to Lake Champlain. We’d been on the same trail three weeks earlier when the lake was totally ice-covered and the trail itself had plenty of snow and ice, too. Now, Lake Champlain’s blue waters were shimmering in the sun, with the majestic Adirondack Mountains rising up on the other shore. Our walking trail was clear and dry. It was a blessed day. I was sad, but happy too. Both. Absolutely both.

It’s not that I intend to ignore my eye problem. How can I, when every six weeks or so I have to get an injection in the eye? Nonetheless, I want to savor all the happiness that’s available to me. That’s my choice.

The sadness in any given moment isn’t the only obstacle to choosing happiness. More often, we just forget. Our brains are wired to be on the alert for threats, not joys. Yet, as with my day by the lake, the joys often exist side by side with sorrows and threats. The trick is, remembering to look for your happiness.

For me, that’s the point of putting a slice of paradise into my pocket. It’s a remembering stone.

My happiness bracelet.

I have been aware of the value of having a happiness remembering device — specifically, a happiness bracelet — since studying for my Certificate in Positive Psychology (CIPP) with Tal Ben-Shahar. Tal was an understated dresser, not the type to wear a bracelet. Instead, he wore a rubber band. I love the simplicity of that choice. I don’t wear much jewelry myself, but decided to wear a happiness bracelet when I found the one pictured here at a second hand store. I adored wearing my used bracelet until one day the elastic gave way and beads rolled all over the floor.

One of my CIPP classmates, Laurel Burns, a marriage and family therapist and artist, even started a business making happiness reminder bracelets!

My wrist has been bare lately. Maybe it’s covid fatique. Plus, I don’t really go anywhere these days.

Then the other night, the happiness bracelet morphed into a paradise stone. This wasn’t my idea. Rather, I found it in the poetry of Roger Robinson, via the Onbeing Project. The project published Robinson’s poem, “A Portable Paradise,” which I shared with my weekly Tuesday night meditation class. I chose to share Robinson’s poem because it spoke to me of being mindful of the good in our lives (in the poem, the paradise can be found in a pocket). I really appreciated his awareness that we can carry a piece of personal paradise with us — a profound happiness reminder of not just the joys but the actual paradise that is there within, if only we remember to pay attention.

The next day, I decided to make my pocket paradise a bit more tangible. I looked around and found a small stone my granddaughter had painted to look like a present. The stone was no big deal. In fact, when she and her mom moved from Wisconsin to join us in Vermont during the time of covid, the stone was supposed to have been thrown out. It appealed to me, though. I stuck it in a pocket on moving day and brought it back to Vermont.

Now I stick that stone in various pockets, depending on what I am wearing. No big deal? The stone represents love, art, everyday beauty … all the joys and gifts in my life. I need only stick my hand in my pocket and rub the stone between my fingers to remember that my life is filled with enough good and happiness to create my own personal paradise. Paradise does not equal immortality for me or any of my body parts. But it does equal smiles in the storm and serenity in the sadness. It equals happier choices — and that is priceless.

One year ago today, after several days of driving from dark and snowy Vermont, we were just hours away from our sixth annual, two-week Christmas at the beach on Florida’s Gulf Coast. This was a big splurge. I saved all year to pay the beach house rental fee. The island we like to visit has been getting more and more expensive, but it the high quality family time we enjoyed together made it all worthwhile.

The sea turtle my granddaughter drew for me during our Christmas beach vacation last year.

This year, thanks to our intergenerational living situation, we will still be together, but nowhere near the beach. It was 9 degrees below zero when I got up this morning. I hope to go for a walk after it warms up a bit, but it will be a far cry from bare toes in warm sand.

There’s also a lot to be said for spending the holidays in Vermont — normally. It is still lovely outside, with shiny diamonds gleaming in the snow. But the caroling party, the Hannukah party, the Yankee Gift Exchange, the annual service at the Old West Church, various open houses … all canceled. Happily, some of these celebrations will still be offered online, but, of course, that’s hardly the same.

I am not complaining. I know we are fortunate. Our barn-turned-house provides plenty of inside space, room for two Christmas trees this year. Outside, we have some small but serviceable sledding hills. We have heat, we have food, we have each other. And Christmas cookies, board games, colored lights, and presents under the tree. I know life is a real struggle for millions of Americans right now, and I am deeply appreciative of my family’s gifts and comforts. No complaining, for sure.

What I am doing is pondering the nature of celebrating in a pandemic. Recently I have started watching Nicole Wallace’s broadcast on MSNBC. Each night at the close of her program, she airs “Lives Well Lived,” a brief segment lifting up some of those who have died from Covid-19. Last night’s segment told the story of eight nuns in the same religious order in Milwaukee. All eight of these women, who had retired after lifetimes of service, died in one week. One night, Nicole told us about a baker in Brooklyn who used to put out free bread to feed the hungry during the pandemic, until he, too, was claimed by Covid. Another night it was a five year girl. Then there was a pregnant woman in her early 30s; the baby made it, but she didn’t.

These individual stories bring the pain and grief alive in a way the experts warning us to stay home, and the astonishingly high daily death toll, don’t. The stories make me cry. These brief segments feel like a daily gift: they allow me to honor some of the lives lost, and to feel some of the overwhelming national grief. But, as the pandemic goes on and on and on, so too do our everyday lives. It seems intuitively obvious to me that celebrating the good in our lives is just as important as grieving the sorrows. And the older I get the more the phrase “life is short” resonates with me. We need to seize our celebrations when we can, in part because we really don’t know how many opportunities to celebrate we’ll have.

Plus, not surprisingly, Americans as a whole are not doing well, emotionally. We need to grab onto what can help us feel better and get through. New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo calls our mental state, “The Hidden ‘Fourth Wave’ of the Pandemic.” He writes, “Nine long, deadly months into the pandemic, Americans report severe psychic distress. It’s dark, we’re stuck inside, and we’re isolated from friends and family. Politics is fevered, the economy continues to struggle, and the coronavirus rages on. Many of us may be at a breaking point.”

So here’s something that feels helpful to me: holding on to both the grief and the joy simultaneously. That’s life. Both are going on. So, yes, cry. And also, celebrate — safely, of course. And perhaps with some consideration of the massive personal challenges all around us.

That’s my belief. But I also wanted to know what science has to say on the topic. On the Psychology Today website I found a column by Polly Campbell entitled, “Why You Should Celebrate Everything” She says that “moments of celebration make us pause and be mindful, and that boosts our well-being. … when we stop to savor the good stuff, we buffer ourselves against the bad and build resilience—and even mini-celebrations can plump up the positive emotions which make it easier to manage the daily challenges that cause major stress.

Ross Wilson of the Growing Organizations website goes so far as the say that celebrating helps keep us sane. In his “Straight Talk” column in June 2020 he wrote, “While we cannot ignore the challenges of the current climate, it’s dangerous to dwell on these and let them overwhelm us. … Psychologists agree that 3 things are crucial to keep us sane during difficult times: 1) practicing gratitude and celebrating even small successes, 2) focusing only on what we have control over, and 3) maintaining a positive environment.

Which brings me to my big celebration a couple of weeks ago: Bob’s and my 50th wedding anniversary.

The first wedding I ever attended was my own, on a dreary November day in 1970. I don’t think many of the guests were in a particularly celebratory mood. The reception in my mother’s living room was subdued, with lemonade and cake — but no alcohol. After all, neither the bride nor the groom was of legal drinking age. And the bride, a senior in high school, was also three months pregnant.

I was wildly in love with Bobby Sassaman, but I didn’t have any confidence our marriage would last. Both my mother and grandmother had gotten divorced. I suspected I would, too. It didn’t help that Bobby’s job was being a paper boy — the only job he had ever held. Nor did it bode well that he was a freshman at the local community college, despite his awesome brain power (he got a perfect score on the math section of the SATs). I also knew the odds did not favor teenage newlyweds with a baby on the way. I didn’t have a job at all; I’d recently been fired from my job in the kitchen of a family-oriented restaurant, because, the manager told me a few years later, I was pregnant.

Bob, though, always believed our marriage was of the “till death do you part” variety and, amazingly, he was right. For 50 years, so far. There are many reasons we have thrived, not least of which is the financial and emotional support we continued to receive from both sides of the family. Analyzing our successful marriage deserves its own essay, but, especially given our starting point, I thought our 50th anniversary was well worth celebrating. Not just still married, but actually thriving. Happy to still be with each other..

Bob & me on our 5oth anniversary, photo by Susan Bull Riley

Our anniversary was November 28th — 50 years after the wedding, 51 years after our first kiss, and two weeks after the Governor of Vermont issued tighter Covid restrictions, banning any size social gathering, indoors or out. Hmm, so how to celebrate?

I know that question has arisen over and over for so many celebrants of all ages this year, whether for weddings, graduations, birthdays, even celebrating the end of life. In our case, we don’t even normally celebrate our anniversary. It’s just another year gone by. Plus the timing is never good, since it usually falls just days after Thanksgiving. The past seven years we’ve been in the middle of a two-day car drive coming home from our daughter’s house. But early in 2020, I decided this year would be different. Fifty seemed like a noteworthy number, for sure. Neither Bob nor I are fancy, so there was no thought of anything grand. Also inclusivity is very important to me. I hate the idea of inadvertently hurting someone’s feelings by shutting them out of the party. So inviting everyone far and wide to an open house seemed the way to go.

Obviously, the pandemic forced me to change our plans. Instead, we got a firepit for the front yard and put up a tarp with colored lights. The idea was to have friends stop by, just one or two at a time, masked, and enjoy each other’s company outside for a few minutes. The Governor’s order against even outside gatherings nixed that plan, too. So we dropped back to a Zoom gathering, along with an invitation for friends to drive by and honk-and-wave as we sat alone by the firepit. Since we both believed going inside a restaurant for dinner was a very bad idea, covid-wise, and neither of us wanted to cook, we had microwaved TV dinners by the dwindling fire on a chilly November night.

Our cold and lonely firepit.

And it was all wonderful!! The Zoom format allowed us to welcome and share with friends and loved ones from all over the place, both geographically and in terms of their roles in our lives. From the neighbor across the street to a classmate from fifth grade, we got to feel the love of a lifespan — so much so, I almost missed the honk-and-wave because the Zoom was too wonderful to bring to a close. But that part, too, was so much fun. And TV dinners, in the right frame of mind and with a little red wine, are just fine.

This probably sounds like a line from a Hallmark Christmas special, but my experience was that the celebration that mattered was in our hearts. Honoring this day as meaningful allowed Bob and me to pause, and consider our lives and love together in a way we rarely do, and that made us both happy. Sharing the occasion with family and friends far and wide was a way of giving and receiving love and joy in a time when we all need it. I was positively blissful by the end of the day.

So here we all are, in a time of celebrations that on the outside may not live up to anyone’s hopes or expectations. But on the inside … ah, my friends, may you celebrate till your hearts are full.

Candies I was given on Election Day, but have no desire to eat. Nonetheless, I was thankful to receive them.

Sometimes I am asked, which sermon do I like best in my book, Preaching Happiness: Creating a Just and Joyful World. That’s like asking a mother to choose her favorite child. Not possible! But I will say, one of the chapters for which I have a particular fondness is the one on kindness.

That is not only because kindness warms my heart and seems ever more necessary in our tumultuous, pandemic world.  I also enjoy the fact that the kindness sermon sneaks up on people with some unexpected observations.

For starters, I emphasize that kindness is not a fluffy extra – it is fundamentally important to human life. The Dalai Lama has said, “If we stop to think, it is clear that our very survival … depends on the acts and kindness of so many people.” Beyond survival, without kindness, what kind of quality of life would we have? Every day the news brings dreadful stories of humans behaving in ways that are wrenching and horrifying.  The bleakness of a world without kindness to balance the scales is beyond imagining.  

Yet kindness can not to be taken for granted. Buddhist meditation teacher Katy Brennan sees kindness needs as a moral discipline. “Although human kindness is deeply natural and instinctive,” she writes, “it can also be shaky and unstable. In our present mode of existence, selfishness and mindlessness compete and often trump kindness and mindfulness.” 

I know what she’s talking about. I have saved a piece of turtle shell, a turtle I could have been kind to, but wasn’t. It was trying to cross a quiet country road. When I saw it, I thought the turtle might not make it, that I should maybe carry it to the other side. But … I kept driving. Selfish? Mindless? I don’t know. The next day, I came upon the flattened turtle. Pieces of shell were strewn over the pavement.  Of course, I felt terrible. If I had stopped to help, that turtle presumably would not have died. The shell fragment is a reminder to heed my kindness instincts.

I immediately understood Brenan’s concern, but Psychology Today blogger Karyn Hall’s observation took me by surprise. She wrote, “kindness has a connotation of meaning someone is naive or weak,” though she hastens to assure, “that is not the case. Being kind often requires courage and strength. Kindness is an interpersonal skill.”

Courage and strength, yes. But Hall’s statement that kindness is seen as naïve or weak definitely shook me up.

Even worse news awaited me in the book On Kindness by Adam Phillips and BarbaraTaylor. Their dispiriting history of kindness eventually arrived in today’s “outrage culture” where “kindness …has become a sign of weakness (except of course among saintly people, in whom it is a sign of their exceptionality).” They write that contemporary society believes “kindness requires a dangerous crack in the armor of the independent self, an exploitable outward vulnerability – too high a cost to pay for the warm inward balm of the benevolence for which we long in the deepest parts of ourselves.”

This is heartbreaking. We must do better.

But not all the unexpected pieces in the sermon are upsetting. Some just take on cliches, like rejecting the old truism that it’s better to give than to receive. Both are important. Afterall, if we’re all intent on giving, who will receive our kindness?

Indeed, both giving and receiving kindness can generate happiness, for giver and receiver. Positive psychology is clear that when we give, we receive many happiness benefits ourselves. Whereas, receiving, done well, benefits the giver. It’s almost like a riddle my 8 year old granddaughter might tell: “What can you give that you will receive back immediately? Or, what can you receive that you will return immediately?”  

The answer, of course, is kindness, when given and received in a heartfelt manner. Condescending giving or grudging thanks are far less psychically rewarding.

Here’s a quick story to illustrate: a couple of winters ago, a passing stranger saw me struggling to get my car out of an iced-over driveway. After my car was unstuck, and I offered heartfelt thanks, he replied, “No, thank you for giving me the chance to do something nice today.”  My receiving was actually also giving to him. And apparently, his giving to me also allowed him to receive. Not a riddle at all – rather, a reality.

Understanding this equation shines a new light on the idea that anonymous giving is somehow more valuable. I question that. One memorable morning, when I was walking on the same road where the turtle died, I saw five one hundred dollar bills in the grass. There was also some mail that presumably identified the owner. This was just down the street from a middle school, so I went there and learned that, yes, the name on the mail was one of their parents. When I handed over the money, the secretary asked for my name. I demurred, saying my identity wasn’t important.

But maybe it was. I didn’t need to be thanked, but maybe they needed to thank me. That is, I needed to receive their thanks, for their greater happiness.

Receiving what others have to give can be challenging. For example, with compliments, we’re taught to modestly say something like, “oh it’s nothing.” Or with all kinds of presents, from a home cooked meal to a bouquet of roses, we might say, “oh you shouldn’t have!” But such responses diminish the gift, and, by extension, the giver. Better to say, and mean, “thank you.”

Like most happiness practices, this is an area where I’m still trying to improve. One of my friends has thanked me repeatedly but also genuinely for getting her involved in our church choir. I finally said, “please don’t thank me anymore!” But she has thanked me again, just a few days ago. Fortunately, I’m learning to be kinder. This time, I simply said, “you are welcome.”

I don’t just preach happiness. I practice it with a variety of tools: exercise, meditation several days a week, spending time in nature, and a nightly gratitude journal including a quick description of the “Best Moment of the Day.” This last practice I picked up after watching one of my positive psychology teachers, Maria Sirois, describe it in an interview with Action for Happiness. It is an uplifting exercise, no matter the day.

Because happiness is like a “use it or lose it” muscle, I track all of the above along with creativity, learning, and taking the time to be with friends on a daily chart. But for several weeks in September, I stopped any formal version of my happiness practices. The chart stayed blank.

Sunset on our private beach, camping at Burton Island State Park

At first, I stopped measuring specific, defined happiness practices because that felt gratuitous while we were on vacation, camping in Burton Island State Park, where many campsites have their own private beaches on Lake Champlain. I didn’t need a journal to feel gratitude; I could just look around. But, while we were there, the sadnesses began to arrive.

First was an email on Wednesday from my oldest sister letting my other siblings and me know that our youngest sister Marybeth had only a few more days to live. This was not a surprise. Marybeth went on hospice in mid-July, thanks to a devastatingly aggressive case of Parkinsons Disease. Despite Covid-19, I had driven to Pennsylvania to be with her one more time, and say goodbye.

Now, while camping, there was nothing left to do. We couldn’t even get off the island for a couple of days, since the state park ferry wasn’t in service again till Friday. So I tried to put the sad news aside and continue relaxing amid the simple pleasures of hiking and campfires.

I didn’t sleep well, and I wasn’t super cheery, but I did okay until Saturday morning. My husband Bob kindly let me drink my coffee before telling me the next sad news, which he had learned a few hours earlier: Ruth Bader Ginsberg was dead. I started crying almost immediately — not little drops sliding down my cheeks but loud, gulping sobs. RBG’s death at an advanced age was not personally tragic, but I believed that her death was also a death knell for the Supreme Court, and many of the fundamental human rights that Court has historically protected. I have revered the Supreme Court since my early teens. Thurgood Marshall! William O. Douglas! Brown v. The Board of Education! Roe v. Wade! Now, I feared the Supreme Court might be irrevocably broken. Nothing left for me to revere.

So I sobbed, for the Court, for our country, for imperiled democracy, for the people likely to suffer the loss of protection. The sobs likely also unleashed months of pandemic and political anxiety. As well, I was undoubtedly crying for my sister.

This time, there was a) a ferry available and b) no way of pretending I was okay. Plus, the campground had filled up for the weekend, and I imagine none of our neighbors enjoyed hearing me bawling. It was time to go home. We decided to pack up as fast as possible, and get a late morning ferry to the mainland.

At some point, during repeated trips between our campsite and the ferry — we believe in comfortable camping, and had a lot of stuff — Bob got an urgent call from our daughter Jennifer. Once again, Bob waited till a reasonable moment to tell me her bad news.

That moment came as the ferry pulled away. We were the only passengers on the lower level. Bob told me, our son Ben had been worried about our family friend Chris, who rented the A-frame adjacent to our house. It had been a few days since Ben saw Chris, his buddy for decades, since high school. Ben went to the A-frame and found that Chris was dead.

I screamed, I just screamed right out loud in shock and disbelief. Chris, just 47 years old, a big bold character brimming with life and plans was dead? And my poor son had discovered his friend’s body? And our daughter had to call the police? The police were coming to my house to take away a dead body?

There was no way I could process this news. But I was somehow still able to make an important “happiness” choice when the ferry landed. Thanks in part to the pandemic, our two adult children and one grandchild are all living semi-autonomously on separate floors in our house built within an old dairy barn. Sometimes we’re together, sometimes apart. Coping with the shock of Chris’s death, my children would surely want us to be together. But it would at least a hour and a half to drive home from the Burton Island parking lot. So I reached out to friends. I sent a frantic email to several BFFs with a quick explanation of what had happened. Please, I asked them, can you go keep my kids company till we get home?

The drive home was rough, especially since we had packed so much camping stuff we had driven two cars to hold it all. Now, we were each alone, speeding down the interstate in a state of turmoil. In my car, among so many other thoughts swirling in my brain, I told myself, pay attention. Be safe. Take your time. But I also thought, what now, happiness lady? How does a “happiness expert” approach a situation like this?

The answer, of course, was to be sad. I knew I was in shock. I knew this was a terrible event for my whole family.

I also knew, at some point, the trauma and grief would end. I’m resilient. Five years ago, another dear friend died suddenly — murdered by her husband who then committed suicide — and after a certain amount of grieving and healing, I bounced back to my normal happy self. (To be clear, and fair to his memory, Chris’s death was not violent or suicidal, just shockingly unexpected.) Knowing that I would eventually be happy again gave me the freedom to lean into the grief and trauma — mine, and everyone else’s in the household.

At the same time, because I regularly train my brain to focus on gratitude, I remained acutely aware of the good which surrounded us. For example, my friends did show up for my children, who deeply appreciated the support. Indeed, both my daughter and son may well remember the moment those friends showed up for the rest of their lives. For each of them it was a moment of love and kindness in the midst of chaos — demonstrating yet again one more way relationships are fundamentally important to human happiness.

As a family, we also experienced deep love and bonding with one another. and very special times with each other. I presume no one is eager for our times of grief, but connections with loved ones in grieving times is definitely a silver lining — giving and receiving kindness, cultivating and reaping the rewards of strong relationships. I may never forget how and when I learned of Chris’s death, but neither will I forget how we supported each other.

So there we were, quietly putting one foot in front of the other. I was very tired. I had plenty to do but I didn’t push myself.

And then, just a little more than a week later, my sister Marybeth died.

It was a lot to cope with. I’m not even sure I had the emotional space to grieve for my sister — that space was still pretty full. But I am sure that relationships once again came to the rescue.

I have found that my emotions can be quite complicated when someone close to me dies. In what may be a defense mechanism to buy me time and let the grief seep in slowly, I tend to get angry at the deceased rather than remember all the good parts. Fortunately, two of my dearest friends are psychotherapists. Each of them gave me the gift of a long walk when I could say whatever I needed or wanted to. I cried, I raged, I laughed, and eventually I felt better, calmer, sad but peaceful.

And again I found comfort in familial love — my siblings and nieces and nephews this time. As we planned the memorial service (mostly a zoom affair), and together laughed about Marybeth’s well-lived life, our bonds were also strengthened. We have a shared history. We’re still alive.

Since then, I have had many days of being tired and feeling a little bleak and blue. I have wondered, is it grief? Is it pandemic and/or political anxiety and exhaustion? Is it the normal progression of the seasons, as the darkness arrives earlier and earlier? Is it all of the above? In response, I have tried to work when I had the energy and napped when I didn’t. I’ve been gentle with myself. I’ll be happier again. And some days, I am! Especially when the sun is shining.

In my ongoing meditation classes, I often suggest that it’s best to build our meditative skills when life is more benign, so that these tools are readily available to us when we need them the most. I think the same is true of happiness practices. It’s great to feel happy in good times, but even more helpful to tap into the knowledge and benefits of happiness practice when your life hits a rocky patch. September was rough, but it likely would have been a lot worse without my inner wells of happiness. I am grateful.