A Pursuit of Happiness

February is six months that I have been working with a trainer. I had hoped that working out would decrease the pain and increase the ability of my muscles to handle exertion, but it has not done so. I have gained muscle, lost fat, and seen my body reshape itself into a somewhat leaner one. My health and diet seem to be improving.

Because the pain medications I take do not address the underlying cause of my problem and because vitamin deficiencies I have are associated with these medications, I am in a slow, long-term process of testing whether I can reduce and eventually eliminate my pain medications.

Despite all this, I have been feeling blah and apathetic. I have made few attempts at writing in the last few months. I have been wasting a lot of time reading online news that depresses me; I seem to be addicted to certain Internet sites.

I am struggling with my online habits. I need to stop the time wasting and get back to the activities that made me happy last year: writing every or most days. I have been happiest when I have pursued activities that interest me, and I need to get back to that. I want the kind of happiness that is acquired via the pursuit of fulfilling activities. That’s writing. Exercising. Eating well.

And training my brain to be more upbeat and positive. Not working towards goals only keeps me feeling ‘depressed’ where ‘depressed’ is code for ‘bored’ and ‘not doing anything fun or useful to oneself.’ A dear friend posted a link to Shawn Achor, Harvard positive psychology professor and author of several books, including The Happiness Advantage and Before Happiness. First, I watched a 12-minute TED talk called The Happy Secret to Better Work followed by an hour-long talk he gave at Google. The Google talk includes the same content and wording that is included in the longer Google talk. I also bookmarked a few other talks on the subject of positive psychology.

In Shawn’s TED talk, he put up a slide called Creating Lasting Positive Change. Achor suggests that, for a 21 day period, you do the following:

  • Write 3 things for which you are grateful every day. Each day, write about 3 new things (Emmons & McCullough, 2003);
  • Once a day, journal about one good thing that happened to you in the last 24 hours. Our brains get to relive a happy memory twice, enhancing its effect (Slatcher & Pennebaker, 2006);
  • Exercise so that you train your body to know what feeling good feels like (Babyak et al., 2000);
  • Meditate to help your mind dampen down the negative states (Dweck, 2007); and
  • Perform random acts of kindness to share your positivity and goodness with others (Lyubomirsky, 2005). Goodness knows that the world needs it – desperately!

The effect of doing this is that it helps rewire your brain to start looking for the positive. We know how much negative news is out there. In fact, it’s almost like the understanding is that it’s not really news if it isn’t awful. I feel it happening to me when I read my news sites, when I scroll through my Facebook feed. Rants about politics, stories about people performing acts of hatred, mutilation, and murder on one another.

And then what? I’ve just spent hours reading negative material that drains my energy and doesn’t do anything for me because I’m not doing anything. How does something like that enhance me, my relationships, and the rest of the world? The short answer is that it does not. Something must change.

And the only thing that I can really count on to change is myself. I am the one who has to take the next positive steps – to stop reading news for hours, to put my writing first, to defer time wasters to the evening in timed segments so avoid the endless negative news absorption, and to change my outlook.

And begin writing every day again.

I can do this.

You can, too (whether writing or otherwise).

43 Things I Am Thankful For

On this Thanksgiving day, I wanted to reflect on the positive things in my life. I feel it’s important to spell these things out because it can be easy to take one’s blessings for granted. I chose 43 things not because I felt I should have at least as many things to be grateful for as the number of years I have spent on this planet. They are in the order they popped into my head and not necessarily in order of importance.

43 Things I Am Thankful For

  1. The gift of Life
  2. My decision to move back home to be near my parents
  3. Living in a warmer climate after 24 frigid winters in Massachusetts
  4. Spending a lot of time with my Dad before he passed away last year
  5. Becoming closer to my mom than ever before
  6. My devoted, selfless, loving husband
  7. My sisters, brother-in-laws, niece and nephews
  8. The 18 years I got to spend with my cat, Hunter, who passed away October 16th
  9. My kitties Gwenny and Normie, their crazy antics, and their adorable vocalizations
  10. A safe and secure roof over my head
  11. Plenty of good food to eat
  12. The ability to pay my bills
  13. Never having been physically or sexually assaulted
  14. Growing up in a relatively safe and peaceful town
  15. My poor health, which motivated me to finally start taking care of myself
  16. Finally learning to love working out and lifting weights at the gym
  17. The ability and opportunity to attend college and grad school
  18. My sense of humor and personality, which people seem to enjoy (for the most part :D)
  19. Physically living closer to my family
  20. The encouragement and support of my friends and family who believe in me
  21. That I learned to love reading
  22. Social media that allows me to keep in touch with friends and family far and wide
  23. Easy travel access to New York City
  24. The ability to eat, sleep, walk, dress, and wash myself without assistance
  25. GPS/Phone capabilities that give me directions whenever I need them
  26. Learning to drive and getting my driver’s license
  27. Learning to live without a TV and cable
  28. Online streaming of the few shows I want to watch
  29. The staff at Bregman Veterinary Group for all the care they gave Hunter in the last year of his life
  30. My former vet who let me pick his ear about Hunter’s medical care near the end of Hunter’s life
  31. My EMDR therapists who helped me through some rough situations
  32. The ability to see and talk to friends long distance via Facetime
  33. Volunteering with kitties in need of forever homes
  34. My daily meditation routine that transformed my life
  35. That I can afford the medication I need in order to function as a person with fibromyalgia
  36. The friendly, supportive staff at the LA Fitness gym in Lake Success, NY where I work out
  37. Spending holidays with my family
  38. A home that is an oasis from the world
  39. The privileges that have allowed me a better life than other people and better treatment from other people
  40. Access to great dental care by a funny, talented, and singing dentist whose office staff puts me at ease
  41. Warm socks
  42. A cup of hot tea on a cold day
  43. The year 2014 that brought me writing, blogging, and more writing

I hope you’ve been inspired by my list. Go ahead! Write yours out, too.

One Positive Thing Leads to Another

This morning I did something different: I played music while stretching, and I took the time to notice tension release after some poses, which are a combination of yoga and physical therapy stretches. After a few days back into my stretching routine, I am feeling better.

The stretching and the physical therapy exercises I do in pools helped me feel really good before my recent descent into despair. Like I person who thinks she can stop taking the medication that are making her sane, I stopped the stretching and the gym earlier this month. I get lazy. I think I can get away with it. I get proven wrong.

The gradual release of tension in my body of the fibromyalgia pain lightens my body and my mood. I start to float through a lot of things I want to do: writing, being creative, finding inspiration, moving forward. I considered getting up earlier and how doing so would allow me to get to writing earlier in my day. I considered this body-mind-mood connection.

But my brain felt as empty as stage with only a spotlight on it. Usually, this worries me. Today I thought. Is that so bad? If my brain was an empty stage, what characters might come out? What stories could I write?

I sent my short story to three friends. Two read them and gave me comments. Whee! I have never willingly asked anyone for feedback on something I wrote. That’s a new one for me. All of this is new. I reminded myself that I do not produce widgets. I build worlds in stories.

How fucking awesome is that?

Then it hit me: I am incredibly blessed! I have so much privilege of which I am not even aware most of the time. My life is amazing, just the way it is. I have love, a home, companion animals, awesome friends, loyal family, access to healthcare for mind, body, and soul, and all the food and Starbucks coffee that I could possible want.

I have books, a bed, and a safe environment that I can make my own and create in. I have the power to move my life forward in any direction I want. My life is the way it is because I allowed all of it in. My relationship with my mother has improved immeasurably, one sister wants to be closer to me, and the others are in good standing. So much Love exists in my life. So much PeacePower, and Privilege.

Yes, I have been through health and surgery hell. I survived J– R–. I survived years of head-banging therapy. I survived jobs I despised and toxic friends.

Every time I listened to my desires in recent years, I came face to face with the answer I needed. My desire to grow brought me to a book to EMDR to M– P– who helped you with IFS, ACT, and EMDR to missing my family to moving home for my father to a vastly improved relationship with my mother to diving into a writing career to being self-directed, and to speaking your truth to your family and finding that you can live through it all even when doing so is scary.

All told, I wrote a full 8.5″ by 11″ page of things I can be grateful for. That must be some kind of record! All that writing gave me a renewed sense of Hope and Faith in myself. I can do it. I will do it. I am doing it.

Hope is my word that Buzzfeed says best describes me. Hope is a cat in the Garden City Petco that I want to adopt. Sweet, soft, and loving, Hope was found impaled on a fence. She let me pet her through the window.

I am humbled by the ability of abused souls, human and animal, to continue loving even after torture and pain, accidentally or not.

I think we need new Internet shorthand. Instead of SMH, we should start thinking talking and sharing SML – So Much Love.

Go spread some love.

Risks and Parachutes

This morning, I did one of the scariest (and dumbest) things that I have ever done: I walked over half a mile next to a road with no sidewalk and a tiny to non-existent shoulder alongside fast-moving traffic. I’m not sure whether having my mother and husband with me makes me feel better or worse. Instead of one idiot, there were three.

On our way back, I began to notice all the car crash debris on the side of the road. I thought of drunk drivers who careen off the road and kill people. While working as a NYS trooper in his 20’s, one of my elementary and high school classmates, Rob Ambrose, was killed when a drunk driver careened into the car he had pulled over and was ticketing. I feel beyond blessed to have escaped unharmed on my morning walk despite my own poor decision.

When I was growing up, my mother used to scare the shit out of me because all my plans were greeted with tales and questions about terrible things that were going to happen to me if I dared wanted to go anywhere outside the house except for my backyard. After we returned, I couldn’t believe that my mom didn’t think it was too risky to chance to go for a 2 mile walk yesterday along that same road.

It must be the purview of parents to terrify their children out of doing the things that they themselves wouldn’t think twice about doing. The more time I spend with my mother, the more I understand why she drives my sister M mildly crazy with her poor decisions. God watches over fools and babies (and other idiots).

Taking risks is an interesting subject. Today’s walk opened my eyes to the difficulties that parents must face in trying to teach their children what’s a “good” risk to take and what’s a “bad” risk. This kind of fear/excitement that I felt while walking on the road is like jumping out of an airplane in a parachute. Some might call the risk of dying unacceptable (like me) while others acknowledge it, take precautions (parachutes), and jump anyway (like friends of mine).

Now I have a new perspective on the title of the book What Color is Your Parachute? by Richard Nelson Bolles. When we choose a path for ourselves, we are moving forward into the unknown, much like jumping out of an airplane. The parachute, aka our professional lives, might take the form of education, training, internships, volunteering, recommendations, and a clean background check. We dye the silk cloths with our interests, best skills, and preferences. With the job application, we leap out of our plane and pull the parachute strings hoping to land safely on a job.

Taking the “bad” risk, making it through, and sitting down to write about it illustrated the book’s meaning in a major way. The mental experience of my breakthrough felt like the pieces of a magnetic puzzle pulling together in perfect form. Afterwards, I have the feeling of having been pulled into a new dimension of understanding. There was the Before, and Now is the After.

In The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, she recommends twice weekly brisk walks for 20 minutes. I am wondering if a pre-breakfast walk each day might make my morning pages a more interesting place to explore things after I explore the outside. I might consider giving this an experiment next week. That might mean I get up earlier (heaven forbid) or end up writing my morning pages. I’m not sure how I feel about that. I guess I will have to experiment.

But I’m pretty sure that this idea is one of those good risks to take.

Forget the purple slippers

This morning I finished reading Andrew McCarthy’s 2012 book, The Longest Way Home. In the chapter on Kilimanjaro, his guide Zadock tells Andrew:

Old women are the best to guide. They listen, they go slow, and they nearly always make it to the top. I had an eight-two-year-old last year. She was great.

Now I know when I must go to Kilimanjaro: when I am an old woman. I already wear purple and clothes that don’t always go together. I already eat poorly and have my quirks about what I will spend on money. My husband and I have been together 23 years this summer. During that time, we have hoarded pencils, pencils, and erasers in a box. They will outlive us. If growing old means I spit without shame, then I am willing to keep some of that kind of propriety. And is it a good thing really to plan on growing fat?

I understand the poem’s message. Don’t wait until you are old to show your individuality. Don’t be so obsessed with appearances or what other people think. Cut yourself some slack instead of trying to be perfect. I get it. I really do.

However, when I get old, I will go to Kilimanjaro while I wear purple. I will don my hiking shoes and bring extra layers of clothing. I will follow the guide, and take deep breaths. Step by step, I will walk up dirt roads. I will sleep under stars posing in the open evening skies at base camps. I will look into a crater at the top, rejoice that I made it, and then head back down. When I finally get back home, I will know that I can make it no matter what mountain looms in front of me. I can see the mountain now, but I am not sure that I believe it exists.

Until I get there, I will conquer each Kilimanjaro I encounter. I will try to remember that it is the experience of the journey, the connection with others, and the growth in myself that matters. If I am wearing purple plaid or purple sweaters, I will move and grow and learn until my last too-brief day upon this blue pearl that I call home.

Near and Dear: Courageous Cats of Valley Stream

When I lived in Boston, I volunteered every week with my friend Alicia. On Sunday mornings, we would take care of and play with cats and kittens for a couple of hours.  After moving to NY, I knew I had to continue with volunteer work helping animals.

In NY, pet stores like PetCo and PetSmart sponsor feline animal rescue organizations. I happened to drive by a new PetSmart that was opening up in New Hyde Park. After they opened, I asked for the contact information for the rescue group, Courageous Cats.

Every Monday night since December 23rd, I have been going in for a couple of hours to clean cages, wash dishes, and feed and play with the cats. I even received a year-end thank you gift from Maria who runs the rescue group. Now that’s graciousness.

Today I was feeling a bit adrift and having trouble staying focused on what needed to get done. After a couple of hours with the cats, I felt a renewed sense of happiness and focus. Getting lost in the joy of caring for animals reminds me that my purpose in life isn’t about me; it’s about what I can do for those around me, humans and animals.