Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Happiness Smells Like Coffee and Paper

I think nirvana must look like an Internet cafĂ©. Mine does, anyway. It doesn’t look like the earth rising up toward me as I fall from an airplane. It does not look like a field of knee-high golden sunflowers to skip through while holding hands with my One True Love. It does not look like the ticker-tape parade someone would certainly throw for me when my as-yet-unwritten Great American, nay, Great Universe Novel sets records even the lovechild of Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code couldn’t break, even with Oprah’s help. Instead of those big dramatic things, my happy place has Morning Glory chai, dark chocolate-hazelnut cookies, local art on the walls, and free Internet. Friends are always telling me to live life more dramatically – “put yourself out there,” they say. “Get your nose out of that book.” “How are you ever going to be truly happy if you spend all your time on that stupid computer?” “You need to go skydiving, or something. Do something every day that scares you! You have to do something BIG if you want to be happy in a big way! Hits on your blog can’t make you Truly Happy!”

It’s a valid point, friends. I do have strong hermetic tendencies. I can see why a person would want to live life in a dramatic way. I like the fantasy of big things that make you happy as much as the next idealistic young college student. But what would a big thing be? You can’t go skydiving every day of your life. You can’t be perfectly, incandescently happy every single day of your life. Even if you did have a very dramatic life in which you woke up, flew to Ibiza, met your one true love, stumbled into a million dollars, and won an Oscar, all before falling asleep on the billion-count sheets in your free penthouse at the Four Seasons, that would be ONE DAY in your whole entire long life. It’s foolish to even want that kind of life: it’s either impossible to ever have, or at the very least, impossible to maintain. I get the feeling that everyone over the age of about 23 already knows this, and knows enough about life to not even really be sad about it. As my mother used to say when I would tell her she is silly to get so thrilled over something such as a comic strip or a cute little gecko on the garden wall, “It’s the little things, Anna.” I scoffed at this, naturally. The only people who need little things to be happy, thought I, in my preteen arrogance, are people who don’t have big things to make them happy. I was going to meet my One True Love and have my Dreams Come True and be Truly Happy and live Happily Ever After. I thought being easily amused was for those of weak constitution, though I now see that quite the opposite is true. I thought then that the people who wanted dramatically were the ones who loved, and lived, and felt dramatically, and that such big and exciting sweeping desires were the only way one ought to live. (Here is where I take a moment to reflect upon my own stupidity, perhaps the only truly dramatic thing about this story.)

When I was maybe eight or nine I had a bit of a breakdown about this while setting the table. I remember my dad asking me what was wrong, and I said, “Are you happy, Daddy?” I remember thinking that my parents lives must be so boring, they must feel so stifled, they must be so disappointed in how their lives have turned out. He looked at me quizzically and said, “Yeah, I’m happy enough.” That response left me blubbering tearfully into the silverware drawer. Happy enough? I remember thinking, that’s so awful! It took me this long to realize the wisdom of his response. (Congrats, Dad, you’ve learned a lot in ten years.)

There is no such thing as being Perfectly Happy. You would have to be blind, dumb, selfish, and calamitously arrogant to ever think it is a remote possibility, or even a possibility you would want. There are still things in life that are sad, or a day won’t go your way, and you can still be happy – happy enough. As far as I can tell, in my recently recalibrated view of the situation, my parents did marry each other’s One True Love (or as close to as possible), and most all of their lasting Dreams did come true. Yes, they have bad days, they have disappointments, and they have frustrations. But they still act happy. They are still absolutely tickled by small, silly things like a good meal, or a good joke, or something funny the dogs did. They genuinely (as far as I can tell) enjoy each others’ company. As boring and dismal as their life seemed to my eight-year-old self, they are happy. Happy enough to not be a burden but a delight to the people around them. Happy enough to still acknowledge that sometimes life is unjust, unfair, and irrational, for other people as well as oneself. * My mother has been telling me this for, gee, let’s see, my entire life, and it took me all eighteen years and seven months to start to understand what she means: attitude is everything. If you act happy, if you let little things like a card from a friend or a phone call from your misguided daughter make you happy, you are for more likely to be happy.

Happiness isn’t a destination, or a location, or a promotion, or a goal. Happiness is a decision. Happiness is a state of mind. So while I have not done anything classically “adventurous” in the last three days, I have been to five coffee shops (gluttony, I know). That’s as dramatic as I need. Now that I understand this about happiness, I am the happiest – in any kind of stable, lasting, or maintainable way – that I can ever remember being. I’m not wanting too hard for anything, but that’s good. Now that I stop to think on it, I am almost afraid of the kind of Klimtian happiness I once vowed to pursue; it can only be achieved through heavy drug use or heavy delusion. Earl Grey and a book from the library make me happy, not almost dying because it will make a good story. Happiness doesn’t shoot through your veins. Happiness grows from a fertile, ready home.

There’s this Buddhist principle that says that all the suffering in the world is created by desire and that nothing you desire will make you as happy as you think it will. Not until you learn to let go of all this desire, some say, will you ever be able to reach nirvana, the purest happiness. The way I understand it, you ought to just not want too hard for anything, and just enjoy things – “the little things” – as they come. By this standard, all the dramatic wanting and the broad sweeping acts and the desire to be literally or metaphorically skydiving will not only not make you happy, but it actually prevents you from being happy. My parents would never say they are Buddhist, and I doubt they even know this wise Eastern mantra exists. And, yet, they have been living this example for my entire life (and much, much longer, I am sure). So thanks, Mom and Dad, for always telling me I could achieve everything I ever wanted. Thank you even more waiting around for me to realize that I all I ever want is to be happy – that is, to be happy enough.

If you read this parental apologia/metaphysical funhouse in the first several hours after I posted it, the prose contained several mis-typings and other mis-takes. For this travesty of my own doing, I apologize to the fullest extent that I am grammatically capable. As we see, that is not a very great extent. Cheers and thank you for reading.

*While I had hopes to also address this epic dilemma in this post, with the word count nearing a thousand, I had more of an epic-length saga on my hands. So I shelved it, to spare you, dearest readers. So: next time. Or the time after that.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Three Cups of Coffee: Causes, Calcutta, and The World's Best Cappuccino

On my Thursday afternoon jaunt into downtown Seattle, I continued my lifelong mission of finding the best mocha latte in the world with a trip to Fran’s Chocolates. It was a truly indulgent experience, from the choice of the percentage of dark chocolates I wanted in my espresso to the salted golden caramel that arrived with my steaming cup. As I settled in to sip my frothy perfection in this confections shop in the lobby of the Four Seasons Resort, I spent a moment appreciating how incalculably lucky I am before pulling about a book to enjoy with my classed-up cup-o-joe.

As I sat paging and sipping in the sanctuary of sugar and privilege, I began to taste the bitter more than the sweet of the beverage for which I have been scouring the world. As my cup emptied and the page numbers climbed higher, the air-conditioned cool turned to a chill. The paperback book accompanying my cocoa cappuccino? Three Cups of Tea, by David Oliver Relin and Greg Mortenson. The irony did not escape me. It hardly ever does.

Three Cups of Tea is the story of Mortenson’s mission to found and maintain schools for children in the impoverished communities of northern Pakistan and Afganistan. After a harrowing failed climb of K2 in 1993, Mortenson lost his way and wandered into the village of Korphe, tired and emaciated. He was so moved by the hospitality of the people and the sight of Korphe’s children studying alone with no walls, he promised to come back and build them a school. Since then, the schools Mortenson founded with his Central Asia Institute have educated over 28,000 who would otherwise have no education or opportunities at all. Mortenson himself lived on very little while founding the organization, instead saving the money for the people of a country with which the US is at war. As quoted in the New York Times Bestseller, Mortenson says, “If we try to resolve terrorism with military might and nothing else, then we will be no safer than we were before 9/11. If we truly want a legacy of peace for our children, we need to understand that this is a war that will ultimately be won with books, not with bombs." When I closed the back cover of the book (which I highly recommend), I was very nearly crying into the remains of my mocha (and my dignity). What a message. What a mission. What a life.

What was I doing? I asked myself, there with my shiny empty mug and my chocolate and my soft, worn paperback? I had to go there! I had to stop this mocha nonsense, and get on a plane to Pakistan! Now! I had to ride my sugar rush out into the world and do something big! Those children needed me! But then I remembered something I’d read Mother Therese had said, that Saint of the Gutters who also makes an appearance in the tome: find your own Calcutta. When volunteers streamed into her Calcutta shelters to offer help to the people no one would touch before she made them famous, the woman turned them away. She spoke often of the fact that there are many people in the world who need help, not just the ones her work had brought into the spotlight. Was the Central Asia Institute really my Calcutta? Mortenson had stumbled into this town, and it became his life. What stumbling had I done? I should not act on the basis of a story I like to direct my life – especially as I was obviously not the only person touched by the #1 Bestseller. This was Mortenson’s Calcutta, not mine. I needed to take a breath. I needed to take the last sip of my mocha. I need to find the cause of my heart, not someone else’s.

I would have loved to leave that chocolate shop and stumble into a homeless shelter, or something. I would have loved to find my Calcutta in a truly novel-worthy metaphor scenario. But all that happened, as I walked out of the air-conditioned hush into the abnormally bright, obligatorily crowded downtown, was that a kid working for the ACLU asked me for money. In between mumbling, shifting his weight, and shaking my hand like his training had taught him, he told me that for the price of a cup of coffee a day, I could make sure that, “the rights of society's most vulnerable members are not denied.” I was tempted; what is the universe trying to tell me? I thought. But I kept walking: I don’t even agree with much of the ACLU. If I know one thing about stumbling into one’s Calcutta, it is that one will not do so in the passive voice.

In the Pakistan Mortenson so loves, they have a proverb that says, “Trust in Allah, but tie your camel.” I have one, too: “Enjoy your mocha, but stumble onward.” There is no way to rationalize away the gross discrepancy of luck and of wealth between me, a female university student in the US, and the girls in rural Asia that no one would help until Mortenson wandered in. I must see the queasy juxtaposition of my drink of choice and my book of choice. As much as I would like to, I can’t prematurely become a barnacle on someone else’s cause. I must live in the active voice, not the passive; I must be the cause, not the barnacle. Not everyone feels compelled to devote their lives to such a cause, but Greg Mortenson’s was a lucky wrong turn, for both him and for the world. If I never fulfill my lifelong mission to find the world’s best creamy-earthy-frothy magic liquid that fills my heart to brim, I hope that I can at least find a cause that fills my heart like Mortenson’s and Mother Therese’s did theirs.

Someday, maybe, I won’t even need the mocha.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Flight Attendance: Leaving, Living, and a Little Girl

Hello, readers! Apologies for the extended delay, I hope to be posting at least once a week for the summer months. I thank you, as always, for reading, and I ask for your feedback: Are the posts too long? Too short? Too personal? Too general? Too serious? Too conversational? Do you prefer the social commentary, or the introspection? Do you enjoy reading, or do it only because I so forcefully suggest you do so? (I love you guys!) Anything you have to say, I would be thrilled to listen. Please comment! I promise to incorporate and improve by your suggestions. -- Anna

Whenever I see an airplane interlacing its contrails high across the “wild blue yonder,” as my mom calls it, I feel a little tingle of excitement and jealousy. “Wow!” I always think. “Those people are so lucky! Those people are going somewhere!” When I was a little girl I spent hours trying to figure out some way I could know where the tiny white jets were heading, why the people on the plane were going there, whether they were going away or going home. Part of my mind was always on that plane, like it was trying to hitch a ride to whatever exciting destination to which they were flying. I also spent hours trying to figure out a method by which to measure the height of the towering white clouds I almost never saw in Arizona, and I had no progress on that topic, either, except that now I spend hours figuring out what the psychological meaning or impact was of my young self so frequently craning my neck to ponder the cerulean-and-cirrus cosmos.

My recent flight from Arizona to western Washington State, where I am spending the summer, really excited that little girl I guess I still am. In the airport I studied to arrivals and departures boards, thinking, “Wow! There are people going to all those cities!” and, “There are people out there existing, right now, in all those places! Just like I am existing here! Awesome!” I almost missed my boarding group because I was so enthralled by all the exotic possibilities. Even when I was waiting on the tarmac to deplane in Seattle, I watched a plane take off and thought reflexively, “Those people are so lucky! Those people are going somewhere!” It took me a second to realize that I was already on a plane, I was one of those lucky people. Even when I am in my desired destination, my subconscious is jealous of people jetting off elsewhere.

Why is it that I am so drawn to leaving? (Or is it going, or coming, or something else?) I have been talking to my friend Danny about this compulsion to “escape”: when you are going somewhere, you should be sure that you are going for the action of going to your destination and not going for the action of leaving the place which you were previously. You should beware of what it reveals about the place you are most of the time (the place you probably call your home), Danny and I have determined, if you are more eager to leave that place than you are to arrive another place. In this psychology of geography, you’re pretty much okay if you at least want go “home” after a little while of being away. But for me, at least, I always seem to caught up in the act of going, of wishing I was in a plane zipping across the globe. In an old episode of Bones I was watching last night, Agent Booth was talking to Brennan about his upcoming trip to Jamaica, and he summarized the leaving/going paradigm like this: “I always think about not coming back.” I think a lot of people do this, but I am more filled with the wing-footed restlessness of always wanting to be a departure, never a return.

I know all this can be explained by my age, my circumstances, and my head-(literally)-in-the-clouds inclinations. It could be both dangerous and foolish of me to live a life according to these airy desires, and though I don’t think I could quite do life as a homeless vagabond, the idea can be sort of seductive. Like the first three-quarters of Into the Wild, I love idea of leaving the lifeless life that I fear will await me in middle-aged wasteland for an alternate path of taking chances, casting off the constraints of society, and leaving it all behind. This, of course, would be going to leave. While McCandless did some amazing things – kayaking down the Colorado all the way to the Gulf of California, for example – I think he was mostly leaving to leave, not leaving to go. If I can learn something from the story of this man who died too young because of his desire to be gone, it is that the ties that bind, the ones that seem to constrain us, are the ones that tie us down, from floating off into the vast lonely blue unknown.

In my deeply youthful and selfish desire to live a life that is adventurous and exciting, I always wish I were going somewhere new. The sound, like one escaped from the inside of a seashell, of a jet across the sky makes me become that girl with her eyes on her only limit. But as much as my subconscious is excited about my life and my body always being up in the air, I am trying always to learn and enjoy the good in arrival, in coming home, in existing fully where I already am.