Category Archives: Get Your Happy Here

Why It’s Imperative for You to Find Your Joy

I once read a theory that left a big impression on me. Imagine a room full of light— the sun shining in through every window, shadow-filled corners illuminated by table lamps and wall scones. Now try and bring some darkness into the room. Just hold a fistful of it in each hand and then release. The darkness evaporates before you can blink.  Try bringing in armfuls of it, suitcases packed with bleak abyss, it won’t matter one bit. It will all disappear, swallowed up whole by the sun’s rays and the electric glow. Now take that same room and draw the shades, turn off the lamps and wait until nightfall envelops it all. Step inside and light a single candle and watch the light it radiates spread, casting shadows on walls, revealing swatches of furniture fabric, the glint of a mirror.  Where there is only light, darkness cannot thrive and where there is only darkness, the glow of a single candle will ever so gently spread across a room.

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With all of my travels, I had never seen a sunset on the Pacific until this past January. Watching the sun sink into the ocean was everything I hoped it would be.

Two weeks ago was the International Day of Happiness. It was also the first day of spring in the Western Hemisphere and Navroz, the New Year across much of the Middle East and Central Asia. It was a day filled with light, both literally, as the scale tipped towards daylight ever so slightly, and figuratively, as families, neighbors and friends came together to celebrate. I even went to Bowling Green on the southern tip of Manhattan to try and balance an egg on its end at the precise moment of the Equinox. Kids and adults sat with their noses an inch from the ground, both delighted when their egg stood tall. The day was full of joy and a relief at the coming of spring. The #happinessday tag branded photos of puppies, smiling couples, best friends and indulgent meals across social media. The world was on a quest to find the happiness hiding out in the wrinkles of their day. And yet.

Everyone concentrating on keeping their eggs upright

Everyone concentrating on keeping their eggs upright

And yet Russia had just invaded Ukraine, butchering ties with the U.S. along the way. More than twenty countries were still hopelessly looking around the Indian Ocean for a ghost plane that disappeared with more than two hundred on board and we can be sure that somewhere someone discovered grief for the first time.

Amongst all of that pain we still came together and consciously chose to feel happy. We made the effort to celebrate instead of lamenting the woes of the world and there is no shame in that. Someone once said that we cannot get sick enough to heal a single person. It’s tempting to think that carrying the weight of humanity on your shoulders is a way of paying your respects to those who are suffering the worst of it, but we do not dishonor those who suffer by being happy. We dishonor them when we squander the opportunity for joy.  Put another way, by locking myself into a pitch-black room with you I am doing neither of us any good.

While at the airport in Los Angeles last fall, a gunman opened fire at the security point where one of my friends was checking in for her flight to New York. She ran for her life and hid in the first place she could find, a closet. With no way of knowing what was going on outside the door, she sat in fear for her life while the gunman shot down the terminal. The experience changed her, initially leaving her with severe trauma that lingered for weeks after the shooting. She has been on a long road to recovering her former self. Here was a darkened room, indeed.  What could I do for her? What would you do if it were your friend? Would you board up the windows and shut off any remaining light by incessantly reminding her of the horror she had gone through? Send her articles about the shooting, making her relive the event over and over again? Unless you are a really crappy friend, I imagine you wouldn’t. Instead, I think you would bring some light into her life, pointing out the ribbons of sun coming in through the cracks in the blinds, change the lightbulbs in the wall scones and maybe even coax her to take a peek outside. You’d make her laugh, you’d let her know she’s loved and you’d tell her that you have unwavering faith that it will get better, even when she doesn’t believe you.

Three moths after LAX, my friend put this charming homemade smiley in my coffee.

Three months after LAX, my friend put this charming homemade smiley in my coffee. Happiness is everywhere once you start looking for it.

The way I treated my friend after her ordeal is how I like to treat the planet. The world is not our enemy, but a really good friend who is going through a terrible time. Focusing on what has gone horribly wrong will only throw it further into darkness. So what’s the solution? How do you stay happy, bring about social change and stay present to the current state of affairs without drowning in the darkness that stains almost every sphere of our communal life? The author Thomas Troward once said, “The art of floatation was not discovered by contemplating the sinking of things.”  If love, hope and peace are the things that we collectively want, then we have to think of how to create more of them rather than focusing on their absence. I say, let’s turn on the light.

P.S. It is really difficult to be a beacon of hope for the world when you yourself are in trouble. If you are the one in need of a friend right now, share with someone who can shoulder the burden of your pain. If there is no one close to you, find a hotline that you can call to speak to a counselor. If there are no services available where you live, send me an email and I will do my best to help.

 

 

Music Therapy in a Parlor in Harlem

Surrounded by the faint, copper-green glow of a single lightbulb at the end of the hallway, she is dancing to the mad piano solo. She turns, and claps, and throws her arms up and spins and stomps. The light illuminates  the halo of  hair around her head, then a muscular bronze arm. A turn of her kitten heel and you can see her back in a black and white sleeveless sheath dress. How old is she? Twenty, if you look at the well-defined arms. Twenty-five, if you watch her hips thrust with abandon. But look at that halo of hair, an ashy, wispy dandelion. Is she sixty? And look at the weight in her shoulders, the curve of the spine, could she be seventy?

On the other side of the wall, in the parlor room a man is hitting the keys. Perfect, harmonious wilderness erupts from the piano. Only jazz can make an organized chaos sound so beautiful. I watch him from the hallway through the doorless archway. The light there is red and blue and moody and not much brighter than out here. How old can he be? Forty? Fifty? Somewhere in between? My only clue to his age is that he is her son.

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She is Marjorie and every Sunday dozens of people– strangers, friends, tourists and neighbors make their way to her apartment in Upper Manhattan. If you arrive early enough, you’ll snatch a seat in the parlor, come late and you’ll have to take a seat on one of the foldout chairs in the hall or stand in the kitchen doorway. And then just listen. Listen to Marjorie as she plays Duke Ellington, a tribute to her late husband, “Al always brought this one out.” Listen to the young bass player wearing a fedora, the guy on the clarinet, a trumpet and what sounds to me like two saxophones, though I can’t be sure, because my seat in the hallway has a limited view. And then listen to the young girl who is shy and shaky and nervous, but always on key. Her vulnerability reaches  parts of the crowd’s hearts that a polished voice could not. Could she be Marjorie’s granddaughter?

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In between the singing and the playing, listen to Marjorie talk about what these Sundays mean to her. She is gracious and warm and has been receiving crowds like these in her apartment for twenty-two years.  As she speaks, I can hear her gasp for air in between words and  again, I look to her tired lungs for a clue to her age. Throughout the afternoon, she lights up pieces of her biography– she had three sons, but two are gone. Her husband was also a pianist who played with some of Harlem’s greats. One of her dear friends, a bass player named Bob Cunningham who always came on Sundays is very ill. “He can no longer do what he does, load that bass up on his back and then pluck it, and run the bow on it. So we are going to do it for him and hopefully that love, that will be enough,” she says as the band gets ready to play one of Bob’s favorite tunes and then adds “you know we are connected, we are all one.”  She says beautiful, earnest things about her gratitude, her joy at seeing all of us, her love for her sons, her love for the musicians, for their talent. Every time a song finishes, she claps fervently as though she was hearing it for the first time. Everything, seen through her eyes is new and wonderous and worthy of being praised out loud.

I look around the room for more clues about Marjorie’s life, faded posters and yellowed newspaper clippings are taped to the wall, too far away to read. The piano, which is about all I can see from my seat in the hall is covered in photographs. The largest is a portrait of a smiling black man, wearing a graduation cap. Next to the photograph is a folded American flag, the kind that widows and mothers get from the military. Is that her son in the picture? Was he the one killed in a war? There seems to be a layer of dust on the flag. How long has it been since she lost him?

Piano full view

By the end of the second set the audience and the band are ecstatic. We clap, and tap our feet and sing harmony to “When the Saints Go Marching In,” the last number.  The apartment explodes with applause and smiles and you can feel the joy vibrate in the walls. For a moment we are as happy as we always knew we were meant to be. All day I had been chasing details that would help me name this experience, and size it up– people’s age, the history of this apartment and the family that made it a home, the names of the musicians, the instruments and faces of the band. But in that final moment I realized that we are perfect when we tear ourselves away from our histories and our identity. You are not the shivering, grumpy silhouette in the rain on Monday morning.  You are not that pang of jealousy or that careless word that escaped your lips. You are not your past failures or even your successes. What you are, is what’s left when you take away your grief, your vanity, your insecurity and your fear. And Marjorie, for all of her enormous personal losses, seems to know that better than most of us.

Before we started putting on our coats, I heard Marjorie say one last thing from the other side of the wall, “If you take away only one thing tonight, let it be that I care about you and that I am grateful for you and I carry you with me, right here in my heart.”

I could have come home after the show and tried to find out more about this woman and her life. But I didn’t, and I don’t want to. She is ageless and magical and luminous when she dances. And that’s all anyone needs to know.

 

If you want to see Marjorie, come by on any Sunday just shy of 4PM to 555 Edgecombe Avenue
(at 160th Street), and ring the bell for apartment 3F.

Lessons From the Camino, Part 3

When I was preparing to walk the Camino de Santiago, I imagined a perfect narrative for my journey.  I expected that I would first be challenged physically– out of breath and close to madness in the summer heat, with feet that looked like they had gone through a meat grinder. Then I would rise above the discomforts of the material world and take on the hurdles of the emotional one.  I pictured days of crying over the spilled milk of my youth, asking for forgiveness for my anger, my ignorance, for the cold and cruel rejection of a boy’s offer of a dance, for the envy I felt when a friend succeeded where I had failed to even try and of course, for failing to try in the first place.  Once I was granted pardon, which I assumed I would, I’d arrive in Santiago, my body shattered but my heartstrings finally perfectly tuned.  Isn’t that the classical story of any quest? You travel, you suffer but you trust that it will work out and when you cross the finish line, it does.  I expected this. I was ready for this. This was exactly how it was meant to play out.

Except it didn’t. The sensation of peace that I expected to find at the end of my journey I experienced almost instantly.  Before my left foot formed its first blister, l  was free of the weight of past decisions. There was no drawn-out atonement for my sins, no carving up of old wounds. I was even spared the misery of the physical burden of the pilgrimage. I was exhausted and sweaty but I  loved how my body ached at the end of each day, I reveled in the feeling– a reminder of what I had already accomplished, a temporary memento of the day’s climbs and slips. It all seemed so easy, like I got a free pass, like I took a shortcut somewhere. And I had to ask– what’s the catch?

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Two weeks in I realized that I hadn’t wormed my way through a spiritual loophole after all. It was when were staying in San Bol, a unique pilgrim’s hostel that sits alone at the edge of a wheat field with no other people or houses for miles in any direction. By that point, “we” was no longer just Anya and I.

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Apart from Melanie, who was instinctively maternal despite being younger than me and Paul, whose kilt got its own post, there was also Lucas, a thoughtful twenty-one year old Brazilian. What made San Bol a favorite destination for pilgrims was a magic spring whose waters had been rumored to heal sore feet and more.  We lounged here in the afternoon, taking turns dipping our feet into the icy water, Anya brushing my freshly-washed hair, all of us happy and eager to become a more intimate circle of friends as we passed a bottle of wine around.

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The hostel itself was tiny with five bunk beds on the main floor and a mattress in the attic. There was also a round stone room just big enough to seat all of us for dinner and where the owner served us paella from a skillet that took up nearly the whole table.  After dinner, once we were all done cleaning up the owner left us the keys and drove home. Alone, without electricity and full of excitement we decided to forego our beds and sleep on the hay mounds that edged along the field. We were an invisible speck of life, giggling into the darkness as we climbed into our sleeping bags and eventually dozed off.

I woke up  while it was still dark and walked out into the middle of the field. The Milky Way was directly above me. a diagonal swipe of stardust extending from the upper corner of the sky all the way across to the horizon. Everything was perfect.  Paul’s sunburnt nose, Anya’s laugh, Melanie’s blond pony tail, the way Lucas scrunched up his nose when he was thinking, my own laugh, my own sunburnt nose and scrunched up face, all of it was exactly as it should be. The whole world was one breathing, gyrating ball of perfection and the closer I looked at each miniscule part, the more beautiful it became. “If I could spend eternity in a moment, I’d choose this one,” I thought.

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And then my heart dropped. In two weeks this will all end. These perfect people will scatter. This journey which brought me so close to the person I’ve always wanted to be, will end. This road will forget me.

From that day on, I counted every kilometer left to walk as if I were counting the remaining hours of my life. I was horrified when we began to make better time. I joked about becoming a recluse, living in a room wallpapered with photos from the Camino, reliving the best moments out loud to no one.  Walking into Santiago, clutching Anya’s hand was both brutal and poetic and I will be haunted by the unique bittersweet flavor of that moment for the rest of my life, I think. But I figured out what my challenge was, why everything was alarmingly easy for me. There was a lesson here that was tailor-made to fit the contours of my emotional pitfalls.

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Sometimes You Have to Let Go

I am still struggling with this one. I have spent years hanging on to people and places that I still wish I could bottle or carry in a locket around my neck. These were experiences that were so intertwined with the fabric of my life, that I feel naked without them.  But I am learning. I can’t say that I let go of the Camino with dignity and grace once it was over. To be honest, I walked away in sobs, with a tattoo of a scalloped shell– a symbol of the Camino de Santiago now permanently emblazoned on my ankle. And in fairness, I have decided to spend a year walking around the world, which some might consider the opposite of moving on. But I prefer to think that it is because I have been able to let go of the perfection I found on a road in Spain that I can picture myself reclaiming it on roads thousands of miles away.

Lessons from the Camino, Part 2

Melanie, Anya and I looked like flustered chickens at the start of a chaotic mid-afternoon feeding time as we simultaneously tried to mop up the spilled Rioja from the plastic picnic table with our napkins, dab at the burgundy stains setting in on Melanie’s tan hiking shorts and pick glass shards out of a plate of potato tortilla, gradually turning pink as it floated in a puddle of wine. The broken glass and the wine it held but seconds ago were mine. The stained shorts and soppy tortilla— Melanie’s. The cause of these developments was, as it usually is a perfectly timed and executed leg jerk from me. None of this would have been so bad had Melanie not introduced herself to us  just moments before and asked, her rosy face beaming with the promise of friendship, if she could join my cousin Anya and I for lunch.

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Anya and I were five days into the Camino de Santiago and Melanie was one of the hundreds of  pilgrims that we would eventually cross paths with at the pilgrims’ hostels, over shared dinners in dark taverns and at our ritual morning coffee breaks when the sun’s lazy, sleepy rays were still cool and soft. There was nothing odd about Melanie asking if she could join us for lunch. All of us shared both our destination and the path we were taking to get there which made us a traveling community, a human caravan of sorts. We were spiritual gypsies who shouted out cures for blistered feet across cafés and shared our anxieties about what came next on roads lined with silent sunflowers, indifferent to our worries. We talked to people we would never see again as if they were family and sincerely wished them a safe journey before we caught their name.

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The Camino served as a great equalizer— in dusty hiking pants and floppy hats, our faces exhausted and sweaty, without makeup, hairdos, tie-dyed shirts or three-piece suits it was impossible to tell what rung of the social ladder we belonged to and difficult to judge someone as friend or foe, as we sometimes do when we project our stereotypes on unsuspecting strangers. “What do you?” is a question that starts many conversations in New York, but here on the Camino that question seemed absurd since in that moment all any of us were “doing” was trying to get to Santiago in one piece and hopefully find a little redemption and clarity for our troubles. Most conversations began with what brought us here in the first place. What sense of loss, desire for attonement, curiousity or chain of inexplicalbe coincidences made us take the leap? The more pilgrims I met, the more I understood the following two things:

For Better or Worse, We Are All in This Together 

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It doesn’t take much to view the Camino as a perfect metaphor for the road of life that we are all on. Just like pilgrims walking to Santiago, we all end up in the same place and we have our fears about what that place might look like. On the way there, we come up against the same obstacles, are haunted by the same worries and asking the same questions. No matter our political stance, spiritual inclination or sexual orientation our bodies feel the same joy when we embrace the person we love and we ache the same way when that person is lost. We succumb to age and disease, and if we are lucky, we will live to see wrinkles form around our eyes and fear in the faces of children on the beach when they see our bikinis and speedos. We have so much in common, including that not one of us knows exactly how to to do this life thing. We’re all improvising. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could remember that as we make our way, wishing each other a pleasant trip and offering support instead of judgement when one of us take a wrong turn? Wouldn’t be wonderful to be able to turn to the person next to you on the train or in the post office and say “I’m having a really crappy day” and hear back “just hang in there.”

We All Want the Same Things

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I can’t speak for the members of our species that become sociopaths, sadists, dictators or form a dislike for kittens but the rest of us really do want the same things— to be loved, acknowledged, understood, to express ourselves and to feel safe.  Any bravado, ego or judgement that we see in each other is either an expression of a lack of those things or a skewed perception of lack. If you can remember that the next time someone takes out their inadequicies on you, try to find some sympathy for them or even give them a hug or my favorite tactic, just smile and say “you know it will all be okay, right?” It will disarm them and I promise you, the more you can see past their hostility, the more clearly they will be able to see themselves.

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In case you’re wondering, Melanie was quick to forgive me and my out-of-control limbs. She not only took a risk and let me buy her lunch once the Rioja situation was addressed, she spent most of the pilgrimage walking by my side. She was one of the last people I embraced in the plaza in front of the Cathedral de Santiago. Months later, I hugged her again in a hotel room in Kassel, Germany and this time both of our faces were beaming because the promise of friendship had been kept.

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