So, I just returned from a seven-day vacation in my hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I ate lots of meat and cheese (my mom wants you all to know that they do not normally eat like that, and also there were no weird preservatives in that spinach artichoke dip), and willfully screwed up my digestive system, but I enjoyed every minute of it.
I realize Iowa in the middle of winter does not sound very vacation-y, but it gave me a chance to relax, escape from my life for a bit, and hang out with my grandma.
Let me tell you about my grandma. She’s in her mid-80s and has to use an oxygen tank full-time now because of COPD. She’ll be the first to tell you that it was 30+ years of smoking that put her in this predicament, even though she quit cold turkey decades ago. Instead of beating herself up over it, she accepts her current situation and makes the best of it.
My grandma is a study in the power of a positive attitude. Even with the oxygen tank, she continues to bowl with her league once a week, and go to the exercise center at the hospital to work out twice a week. She likes to buy pretty new blouses that are embroidered with birds. Her garden is smaller now, but is still well cared for. She likes to visit the casino, and is known to enjoy a glass of wine or a Fuzzy Navel now and then. She can rent a portable tank and go practically anywhere.
Jeff commented that my grandma is very Zen. Her house is peaceful and calm, as is she.
I used to stay with my grandparents a lot when I was a kid, since my single mom worked full-time. I consider that house my true home, and, in fact, when I was doing hypnosis to prepare for childbirth (remind me to write about this sometime), the place I always envisioned as my “happy place” was my grandma’s house.
I spent some time at her house last week, just sitting in the kitchen and clutching a mug of tea. She has a couple of bird feeders hanging right outside her kitchen window, and I had a moment where I was watching a bright red cardinal -- we were separated by the window, but it was so close that I could see the mechanics of its beak breaking a seed open -- and I was so blissfully happy to just be.
Sometimes I forget how to be. I get really caught up in the daily routine of my life, and I can’t sit still. My mind cannot rest. It’s just the way I am, always working and thinking and doing. And occasionally I have these moments of clarity, where I almost feel as peaceful and calm as I did sitting in my grandma’s kitchen and watching the birds.
I used to make jokes about becoming my grandmother, but now I'm dead serious: I strive to achieve that calm happiness that seems to surround my grandma. She is not some new agey hippie, but she is a living example of how we each create our own happiness. While many people her age and with her health issues might decide to never leave their houses, my grandma recognizes that she is only as happy as she allows herself to be. She finds joy in what she can.
There is a not-insignificant part of me that wants to move away from the “excitement” of Los Angeles and back to my low-key hometown. I miss my family, for one thing. Also, the cost of living there is something like one-third of my current cost of living. Like Kate, I, too, am having a moment where I wonder whether my city is really worth the cost.
If I lived in Iowa, I could probably afford to buy a house, and take a nice vacation once a year. It's not only the financial stuff, though. I could join in holiday celebrations, and have the support system that I’ve lacked for the past 14 years. I feel like if I moved back to my hometown, my life would be much simpler, even if only because it takes 15 minutes or less to drive anywhere in town. But would it make me any happier?
I was going to write about this Gallup poll (like two weeks ago, oops) that found that the happiest people live in the poorest countries. This might be because their lives center around their families, instead of material wealth. Whether the poll data is reliable or not, I don’t doubt that people who live simpler lives might tend to be happier overall.
I realize that money can’t buy happiness and all that, but money does make life much easier, right? I’ve been both dirt poor and financially very comfortable, and I can tell you which I prefer.
But I feel like lately, my priorities are all askew. I’ve been stressing out too much about how my iPhone is acting wonky and I’m not getting some of my voicemails or texts until a day after the fact. I am trying to decide if I should sell my car, because the payments are too high for me right now.
Oh, boo hoo, self. I am distinctly lucky to have these sorts of problems. Since I quit my day job, I may have to budget my trips to the grocery store down to the penny, and maybe I can’t afford to get my hair cut as often, but at least I have access to fresh food and clean water, you know?
What I don’t have is my family. They are thousands of miles away, and they aren’t going to get any closer -- I’m unfortunately kind of stuck living where I do because my ex-husband must live in the Los Angeles area to tend to his budding screenwriting career (Pro tip: if you want to write movies, you have to live where movies are made, no exceptions). And I would never, ever take my son away from such a good dad. We are all in it together, whether it is inconvenient for me or not. But I wonder how much happier I might be if I could be surrounded by my family whenever I wanted to be.
Last year, I read this New York Times article about the Greek island of Ikaria, where the residents live long lives and enjoy good health. One man lived in the U.S. for years and then found out he had cancer. He was given just months to live, and instead of starting treatments, he moved back to Ikaria to enjoy his remaining days. Decades later, he’s still living, and the cancer is gone. (Fascinating read, go read it, seriously.)
The key to the residents’ long lives and happiness seems to be in the simplicity of their lives: waking up when they want, doing work that is satisfying, eating wholesome food, and spending time with friends and family. No smart phones or social media. Just actual social contact with their neighbors and family. These people are not wealthy, in terms of money, but they have abundance in other ways.
I may not be able to change my current situation in terms of proximity to my family, but my goal for 2013 is to enjoy the simple things in my life and not worry so much about the little things, like the fact that I missed this week’s “Downton Abbey” season premiere due to a migraine (no spoilers, please, thanks).
Today? I’m enjoying the fact that I get to detox from my Iowa Meat Fest (I regret nothing!) with a giant plate of vegetables, which I am able to acquire because I live in a state where such things are available year-round. And after lunch I’ll go out and buy a bird feeder to hang outside my kitchen window.
What little things make you happy? Do you have a busy brain that won’t shut up, like I do? Any tips for slowing down, taking a moment, and being grateful for what you do have?
Somer is on Twitter: @somersherwood.