Wednesday, January 26, 2011


Cleaning out my dad's house is an emotional roller coaster. My family is there in the tangibles, but very absent in reality. We've found Weekly Readers, constellation projects, old letters written between my parents, our fragile, falling-apart scrapbooks and theirs.

We've pored over pictures, identifying those we know and wondering about those we don't. We agonize over tossing the ones we can't identify; I've been to too many thrift stores and berated families for giving away their pictorial histories for strangers to go through. But now I understand. We've folded and unfolded sweaters knit by my mom, afghans and shawls made by our relatives. We know we can't keep everything but deciding is difficult.

It's understandable that the pictures and clothing and letters would bring out our deepest emotions, but sometimes grief springs from the oddest places. After a day of cleaning out the hard stuff, we decided to go through my dad's food cabinets, boxing cans for the Food Bank. And in the back of the cabinet, there was this:

It was a grocery bag with eight jars of pimentos, used by my dad to make his famous pimento cheese. He always had a container ready when we came home, extras to send home with my sister and for people who were sick. When he came to visit, bringing oranges and newspaper articles and DVDs of must-see recorded shows, the pimento cheese was always there too, in a Styrofoam cooler.

When my grandmother was ninety-nine years old, she had her pacemaker replaced. And on the day my dad went to the grocery store and bought those eight jars of pimentos, he displayed the same hope for more days of living, more days of sharing his pimento cheese with us. And that, dear friends, is the sort of thing that does me in.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Yesterday was my 59th birthday and I try to think that every age is the prime o' life! It might be getting a tad bit harder as I inch toward six decades of living on this planet.

My family believes in birthdays, so my day was filled with chatty conversations with my children and my siblings. Needless to say, I didn't get a lot of work done!

Something that I didn't anticipate was how my birthday would trigger a deep sadness about my dad. He always sent a store-bought card with their sentimental messages, signed simply, "Love you, Dad" or "Love, Gandan" (what the kids called him). And he called, one of the first of the day, to sing Happy Birthday to me.

A friend of mine leads grief support groups, and I told her the other day that I was going to start compartmentalizing my sadness. Say, at seven o'clock each night give myself permission to think about my dad in an effort to organize my grief. "Let me know how that works for you," she said, without a hint of sarcasm or judgement. But she must have known that grief can't be corralled, and that it will hit me when I least expect it. Like my birthday.

I had asked my daughter who makes books to make a cover that I could use for my essay notebooks. I take notes about others' writing in our writing class, so buy these little gems by the dozen when they're twenty-five cents at Target.

She went above and beyond my expectations. This is the cover that she made:

Isn't it gorgeous? I'm trying to think of other ways to use those black notebooks so I can show the cover off.

She also made two others. The first is cloth (her favorite) and the other is leather and suede. Maybe at my next writing workshop I'll take all three, show off a little.

It was a good day, all in all, and even grief has a place alongside our happiness, as I said in the last post. And I have a whole year, full of promise, waiting for me. I'll start right in on it today.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

I'll Take "Happy" for $1000, Alex

Last year (but not too long ago), I read this post on DailyOm about analyzing our happiness. In part the post says:

"Those of us on the path of personal and spiritual growth have a tendency to analyze our unhappiness in order to find the causes and make improvements. But it is just as important, if not more so, to analyze our happiness.

"Recognition is the first step in creating change, therefore recognizing what it feels like to be happy is the first step toward sustaining happiness in our lives. We can examine how joy feels in our bodies and what thoughts run through our minds in times of bliss. Without diminishing its power, we can retrace our steps to discover what may have put us in this frame of mind, and then we can take note of the choices we've made while there."

After reading this, I wondered, "Do we need to analyze our unhappiness at all? Why not just concentrate on all the things that make us feel good and leave it at that?"

So I took the question to my blogger therapist friends.

First Joseph Burgo, PhD:

"I agree that it's important to take a look at our own happiness and what triggers it; I especially agreed with the point made about choices." He goes on to say, "I encourage a kind of neutrality in that way -- what you feel is what you feel, and all of your feelings have value and meaning. I think striving to have certain feelings is what leads to wordy thinking where we try to talk ourselves into those feelings; it also promotes a dishonest relationship with yourself because you've decided in advance that some emotions have more value than others."

Then I posed the same question to Virginia S. Wood, Psy D. Here's what she said:

"We always ask, from the very first session, what the person has tried in the past and how that's worked for them. And whenever a person reports the slightest, most fleeting improvement, we want to know, 'What happened?' And we take that tiny spark and help them fan it into flame." She adds later in the email with regard to a specific patient, "We analyzed her happiness, even though at the moment she was quite low on the misery-happiness scale, relatively speaking, and learned something new that she could not only amplify in the moment but can also use later." And, "Unfortunately, I would have to say that the majority of psychotherapists, as in mainstream medicine, focus on fixing what's wrong. But there's a sizable minority of us out there who see whole persons, and focus on their strengths as well as their troubles."

I have reached my own conclusions from my "investigation":

1. All of my emotions have equal weight. To cry is as important as to laugh.
2. It is helpful to examine our happiness and try to re-create it.
3. I shouldn't over-think when it comes to my emotions.
4. My happiness and unhappiness come together to make me a complete person.

I know that sometimes I get what I would call "a good feeling". When that happens, I take a moment to think about what is making me feel positive. Usually it's something I've written or a photograph I've taken, or maybe something I've done for someone else. Sometimes I get a guilty feeling or "bad feeling" and I think about what caused the negative emotion. It could be something I've said that was inappropriate (I do this way more than I'd like to) or maybe a regret I have. And I know that in both cases, there is a little voice in my head that either directs me to "do it again because I like that feeling" or "don't do it again because I don't want to feel that way."

Thanks to my experts for helping me think about this post. It really gave me pause, seemingly a no-brainer at first, but on closer inspection, not quite so simple.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Looking ahead

The other day, I had a revelation about why my life seems to speed ahead now. I live my life a month at a time, sometimes a quarter of a year at a time.

I had my calendar out trying to make plans for a writing workshop I've scheduled in February, set up an art class in March, a new gallery opening in April. There was a whole third of the year in my head.

As an accounting person, I have to do this at work too: January 31, February 28, March 15, April 15 and 30th...and so on through the year. I'm planning my job a quarter at a time.

I do this on a monthly basis too. I write down all the definites: writing class, yoga, birthdays, doctors' appointments. Then I look at the blank days and nights and fit in dinner with friends, trips to Greensboro to deal with my dad's estate, R&R weekends at the coast.

The time flies.

We all know how it was when we were young. We lived one day at a time, the anticipatory moments few and far between. Birthdays, vacations, Christmas. They took forever to get here.

So is it that my life is too busy? That I have to schedule too rigidly? That there aren't enough big things to look forward to, just little moments of happiness in the sea of obligations?

The time is precious now - I'm almost 60 years old - and I don't want to waste any of it. I want to think that I'm making good use of my days and weeks; I just wish they went by a little less quickly.

NOTE: The photograph is of one of my daughter's handmade datebooks. An excellent way to keep up with the year. You can find them at Rockpile Bindery