Happiness

A Game of Thrones Travelogue: Or, Finding Community in a LaQuinta in Orlando, Florida

Like all GoT fans, Sarah and I had been awaiting Season 8 for two years. For the last month, we’ve been organizing our weeks around Sunday nights at 9:00. We’ve organized our Sundays around that one hour. This week, for the series finale, we had a minor change to our normal routine of gathering around our tv with tailgating snacks. We were in Orlando for a math conference. No problem~~we’d just watch it on HBO at the hotel. On Friday night, we discovered the LaQuinta provided complimentary Showtime. Not HBO. We had 48 hours.

Saturday was spent researching, me poolside and Sarah from a panel session. We called Buffalo Wild Wings, who was running commercials nationwide showing the Mother of Dragons. This probably meant they were going to have their monitors blaring with the final episode. Nope~~they didn’t have an HBO subscription. Could we live stream through our cable provider? Apparently not unless we were in proximity of our cable box. Did we know anybody who actually 1) lived in Orlando and 2) had HBO? Time was running out! Game of Thrones, GoT, LaQuinta, Orlando, Florida, Community, Entertainment

Thanks to Google, we discovered HBO Go and made plans to stream on our laptop that evening. Since Sarah’s high school friend–an engineer–was hanging out with us, we’d watch in the lobby. It was the best we could do. We started set up early, an hour ahead of time. Putting our heads together to make the most of our viewing environment, we got up our courage to ask the receptionist if she might dim lights and lower the volume of the lobby monitor blasting out Men In Black, which she was clearly watching from the desk. I was elected to ask.

“Lights? No problem!” replied desk clerk Julie to my first request. “I’ll dim what I can.” “Would you like to hook up the computer to our HDMI cable so you can watch it on the big tv?” A viewing event was going to happen after all! We grabbed the engineer and it was ON! Lights dimmed and the three of us planted ourselves on the comfortable LaQuinta lobby furniture just as the announcer began, Previously, on Game of Thrones. 

Then a woman walked by and saw Lord Tyrion walking through the ruins of King’s Landing, above. “Oh my God, it’s ON!” We invited her to join us. She ran down the hall and returned with a hotel pillow. “Hi, I’m Sandy,” she said, not waiting for returned introductions as she snuggled in. Sarah texted her math pal Laurie, also at the LaQuinta, to join us; she appeared, giddy with excitement. The family checking in turned and looked at us and the tv. Their teenage daughter drifted over as her mom said, “Yeah, you can just stay right here and watch.” The teenager took a seat at a table behind us, on the margin. “Come on, join us~~it’s ok!” She took a seat on the couch. Sarah made a mad dash to the room to grab our road trip snacks–grapes, Triscuits, Babybel cheese.

We were, for that hour, persons of a common union, communing around an entertainment event. Sentimental sap that I am, I looked at us, and it felt good, comfortable. We didn’t talk~~except when Sarah’s friend enthusiastically punctuated each scene with a question. Is Lady Brienne pregnant?? Is Jon going to kill her?? I heard there’s a poison chalice!! There’s one in every community, and we love them anyway. Sandy’s phone buzzed non-stop, except when it was ringing. She eventually tucked it under the pillow. And, keep in mind we were in a hotel lobby; I’m heartened to know the Orlando LaQuinta is doing such good business from 9:00-10:00pm on a Sunday night. There was a steady stream of check-ins.

As the last scene faded and the credits started to roll, Julie turned the lights back up. As if on cue, our little viewing community began to stir, turning away from the big screen, where we had–finally–found out who would rule the 7 Kingdoms (sort of, fans will know what I mean) and watched Arya head west of Westeros. The most some of us could utter was, wow. Although some elaborated with expressions of disbelief–or validated predictions, whichever.

Our little band milled around, gathered up our belongings, and began to drift off. “A selfie~~we need a selfie!” Sarah insisted. “Gather around, everybody.” I looked at the teenager, “What’s your name?” “Chelsea,” she grinned. Game of Thrones, GoT, LaQuinta, Orlando, Florida, Community, Television

Communities are like families: they come in different shapes and sizes. Sometimes we don’t get to choose its members. They give us a sense of belonging, if only for an hour in a hotel lobby. They can be chosen, but sometimes they form spontaneously. Sometimes they are temporary, like this one, never to be exactly replicated again. Thinking about it now, my heart is warmed, and its strings are tugged. I hope it happens again and again, random people who share a few moments. I think world peace and reconciliation could happen that way, friendly gatherings. Maybe not over tv; maybe over food or sports. Is that naive? Yes, of course. But there is something child-like in naivety–an openness to wonder and whimsey, to connecting. As a concluding thought, I was going to do as I usually do and end with a well-placed quote from Game of Thrones, but upon checking, I couldn’t find one that captured the spirit of anything other than violent-war-and-slaughter or mockery. So I settled on one of hopefulness and determination and purity of heart and, well, of openness–not unlike the promise of community. Hold the door!

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A Parenting Psalm: Wisdom Prayer for My Children

I remember as a young girl my Daddy pointing out the difference between knowledge and wisdom. Wisdom comes with age, he said. Well, he finished, it ought to. It occurs to me—I am trying not to worry about it, really—that because of life’s circumstances, there are many “words of wisdom” I have not taught my children and may not ever have the opportunity to tell them. Help me, oh God, put some of them down here.

Be happy with how you look—love your body; it contains your beautiful spirit. Your body will change as you get older; help it along with kindness. You don’t ever have to think of unpleasant or embarrassing moments from your past; banish them as soon as they enter your mind if they bring you pain. Try to forgive your parents; they are deeply flawed. Know that you are loved, and it’s ok to feel the love from generations before you. Fill your life with non-human animals; you already know they love you unconditionally. You can feel it. Carry yourself with pride without being prideful; it just means admire yourself with humility. If you have children, teach them the Bible stories and make them learn some verses; if you have forgotten, learn them again. Don’t be afraid of the dark; don’t be afraid to fly; don’t be afraid to travel. Stay away from negative people; trust your instincts if you have doubts about someone’s integrity.

Never settle when it comes to a partner; never be with someone who is settling for you. Go outside. Go see some old ruins. Go to New York City and Washington D.C. and New Orleans. Go to the Pacific Ocean. Go stand in an old cathedral and an old country church in the woods. Remember to look up at stars. Find a job you like and stick with it. Save enough money, but don’t worry about not having a lot of it. Don’t accumulate a lot of things; curb your desire for things. Let yourself be enthusiastic. Let yourself be awed. Remember that children are raised to grow and go—whether it is you or your children. Read. Pray for guidance when making decisions: let your litmus test be, Will I regret more if I do it or don’t do it? Sing. Learn to do something fun that you are proud of. Eat dessert now and then. Keep a journal. Know that when most people say “happy” they mean “instantly gratified.” Those aren’t the same: be happy. Be kind. Let yourself be a nerd when it comes to learning. Never stop learning. Have integrity. Look at some art, and learn something about it. Take care of earth however you can; we’re using it up and won’t get another. Help people. Take help from people when you need it. Learn poetry. Believe in God so that you can know that God is with you and has been there through all of it.

This is my prayer, God, for my children. Amen.

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(An) Embodied Prayer

Marching with the AFB

Even though this is one of the happiest moments of my life, I never published this photo because of how I looked. Doing so now is an act of love, kindness, and prayer.

Two words concerning prayer life resonate with me this week: intention and attention. I sometimes fret about my prayer life, especially when I hear my fellow seminarians openly talking about theirs; I even have a professor outside of this class who returns our attention to prayer life. This week’s reading reminds us that naming our longing to be always in relationship with diving (intention) and by paying attention to where we see God in our daily life (attention) remind us of divine presence and grace.

Reflecting this week, I sought connections between my praying self and embodied self. I realized that an important connection is the esteem in which I hold my spiritual and physical being–or the regrettable lack thereof. So I would like now to discuss body issues and return to embodied praying.

I came across two pictures of myself a few months ago. The first was of myself on my wedding day, taken by my new husband. It was a snapshot, and I was looking at him over my shoulder. My first thought was how young and beautiful I was–and at the time I did not realize it. I was never not weight conscious. Realizing the many gaps of pertinent information here, I will say that my husband, who struggled with his sexuality throughout our marriage, had no words to express his inner turmoil; however, he did have words to turn his issues around toward me. One example: I never fixed a plate of food for myself in sixteen years that he did not look at and comment about my weight. As you can imagine, this affected me deeply. I have apologized to the girl in the first photo.

The second photo is of me at about age 37. I am bloated and look unhealthy. No longer married, working on my doctorate, in a new relationship, starting a great adventure in a new state–my body tells a deeper tale. It is one of insecurity, uncertainty, and a different kind of unhappiness. More gaps, I know, but I was struck by this picture in which I looked like a completely different person, one who was dancing–and apparently eating–as fast as she could. I apologized to the beautiful woman in that picture, too.

Reaching middle age–I am 55–has forced me to communicate with my body. I am aware of new aches and pains; it takes me a few seconds of walking before the muscles catch up (I call it having a “hitch in my getalong'”); and I am having to become acquainted with the grayed and wrinkling woman in the mirror. Thing is, I know this body has fewer days left than it has experienced, and that’s ok. When I do see that lady in the mirror, I assure her that she is beautiful and that I appreciate her–that face, that body. I promise her to live in such a way that I will mindfully value her now, in this moment, so that I never look back with regret at failing to do so.

This is what praying with my body feels like–gratefulness to God for my body as a presence in God’s divine creation–no fear of scales or mirrors or photos. Just thankfulness for this familiar likeness.

Coda: I read somewhere that 65% of women report that they have cancelled a doctor appointment because they do not want to step on the scale at check in. I myself have done this. Yes, read that again because it is in fact incredulous. Last week I had my check up. In I walked with the nurse who held my chart and directed me to the scale. “We have to do this,” she said, “but don’t worry, it’ll be over in a minute.” I boldly stepped up on the scale, keeping my shoes and jacket on this time. “It’s ok,” I replied, “I’m good.”

Lessons from My Face

Prompt from Mindfulness: A Journal (Price, 2016)
Make a list of ten everyday activities that you find relaxing or soothing–even those as small as calling a friend or making a cup of your favorite tea. Try it! Do one of the activities on your list and write about your experience. 

The List, in no particular order:
1. read–theology, queer theology, JFK assassination theories
2. watch television–documentaries, period pieces, docu-dramas, biographies
3. having my afternoon cup of espresso made with my luxury-item coffee maker
4. playing piano
5. tidying up
6. singing
7. listening to music, which kind of music depends on my mood
8. reverie, including porch time with close friends
9. meditating with my Calm app

I realize this is probably a sad little list for many people. I can’t even think of a last item offhand. But I think my simple list hints at my capacity for finding joy in the simplest of experiences, noticing a blue bird, for example. This capacity, in turn, points to my state of being generally, happy. I have, though, always had a facial expression that belies this inner state; I found out it has a name: bitchy- or angry-resting face.  Challenge enough, without the surly-resting face that Bells Palsy begat. These days I have to work to put my best face forward.

It has almost been a year since Bell’s Palsy took over the left side of my face. I’ve written about it~the depression and frustration and then hope-full-ness. So, after a year I realize that I have some important takeaways from the experience. The most important is when God wants to get your attention, God finds a way.

What else have I learned? Well first, people look instinctively at the face for a clue as to how any given interaction is going to go, whether it is saying hello or engaging in conversation. I have learned to flex my smile muscles when I’m walking down the hall or into someone’s office or into a meeting. Otherwise, I can see in their eyes that they’re bracing themselves. This is different than before the BP~~now I can actually feel the muscles pull when I try to look pleasant, or when I smile. If, as the author of The Surprising Psychology of Smiling, below, is correct and smiles tell you something important about the wearer, I must intentionally craft a message of authentic friendliness if I expect folks to tell my important thing!

The Surprising Psychology of Smiling

I don’t have a poker face; I cannot remain neutral whether I am pleased or aggravated. The other day I learned the term for this: microexpressions. A microexpression is an involuntary facial expression that occurs in around 1/25 of a second and exposes one’s true emotions. Wikipedia tells us that they occur when a person is trying to conceal all signs of how they feel about an interaction or situation. Microexpressions seem to be universal; everybody has them. People with good social skills learn how to recover from them faster than others. Still, I am not sure there is much “micro” about my expressions. They go directly to macro. Now I actively practice relaxing my face so that it can achieve a neutral expression, and I savor the feeling of the muscles at peace.

My face isn’t always doing what I think it is. This is particularly noticeable in the morning when my face is waking up with the rest of me. It takes a second of extra effort to raise my left eye completely. One morning I looked at myself in the mirror while I was singing. The sound was coming out as usual–I sounded like myself. But only one side of my face was animated and expressive; the left side was still lagging behind. My mouth looked more like a “D” than an “O.” I’ve really had to practice this one. During choir, I have to work those same smile muscles in both my mouth and my eye while singing. And while it feels from the inside like I have a pageant smile on my face, it’s actually forming my old singing face. This reminds me of how you have to exaggerate expressions and voice on the stage during a play. It may feel like over acting, but it comes out sounding natural.

I have learned to take cues from my face. When I become frustrated or irritated, I can feel the large muscle in my cheek–the one that runs from my eye to my mouth, which makes it a serendipitous mindfulness check. Stress almost certainly triggered the BP in the first place, so I use its manifestation to my advantage. And, I continue to search for a spiritual meaning in it all.  For example, one charge to Christians is to see the face of Christ in everyone we meet, which is another kind of mindfulness cue~~one toward compassionate service, of love. I like the thought of this, of seeing the face of Christ in ourselves and others, but Jesus’s expressions were not just happy ones. He suffered from emotional, psychological, and physical wounds. Jesus got mad; he too was under stress. I guess that is really an important lesson I had not thought of~~to accept my new natural face. If ultimately this is the most muscle control I ever recover, which I reckon to be around 87% (when I can whistle properly, I’ll round it up to 90%), then I must lovingly cherish my face, deliberately, as I have not had to do before. I mean, of course I used to wish that my nose were pointer and my smile bigger, but it was my face and I loved it. I am learning to love it again now, and in the process I am learning so much more.

Billy Joel “The Stranger”

God Laughs, or Fun with Bell’s Palsy

You make your plans, and God laughs. That’s what happened to me over the weekend. Let me go back, though, and start with discovering the Atlanta Freedom Bands, which I wrote about here in November 2014. I recollected how finding the band made me realize how much I had missed making music, marching in parades, performing in concerts. How after more than 30 years, finding the AFB was like discovering a new, yet long lost treasure. Last year, I marched my first season of parades in various Atlanta community festivals. It was wondrous. And at Christmas, I performed in my first concert playing French Horn in 35 years. Last Saturday morning, I marched mellophone with the AFB in the Atlanta St. Patrick’s Day parade. Afterwards, members of the band had lunch and drinks and fellowship at a local restaurant, which is the custom with this group.

Saturday night, kept waking up with what felt like a neck cramp. When I woke up early Sunday my speech was slurred, which I chalk up to needing a little more sleep, so I went back to bed. When I woke up again, I couldn’t blink my left eye. I ended up Sunday at the emergency room in Marietta. After they have ruled out a stroke, which was probably the best news I have ever received in my life, they told me I had a textbook case of Bell’s palsy. After a lot of googling I found out that it’s caused by virus, kind of like shingles. Likely because I had the flu, and that virus was in my system, it ended up attacking my facial nerve, causing it to be droopy and paralyzed. Like shingles, it was likely triggered by stress. In addition to facial paralysis–a word, like biopsy, fills me with terror–I have heightened ear sensitivity in my left ear, so loud noises, including my own sneezing, amplify like I’m standing in front of a Bose speaker. By all accounts, I will (should?) regain use of my facial muscles. Most well-wishers report success stories. It is totally unrelated to a stroke, and contracting it one time does not mean I will get it again. Those are the things I know. The worst part is that I can’t blink, so my eye gets dry and irritated. And that can lead to all kinds of trouble. I have to keep eye drops in it and wear a patch. Having only one eye affects depth perception and means I can’t drive. I can’t whistle or smile or buzz my lips. And buzzing one’s lips is essential to playing a horn.

Even though I realize I am very blessed in that this could’ve been so much worse, I’m still having to learn to deal with it. There are lots of adjustments I’m having to make pretty quickly. I’m learning how to have meals with straws and napkins. I’m learning how to turn my head in order to see better with an eyepatch. I’m learning to enunciate words using one side of my mouth. I’m learning how to encounter other people whose first response is to look away from me. I tried to go to the office yesterday, and by the end of the day I was exhausted from having to compensate physically in order to get from point A to point B, or participate in meetings. Talking and looking took a lot of energy that I had taken for granted. Part of the dealing with is going through my own stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Sunday and Monday I was in denial. I jokingly made a list with Sarah of one eyed characters for costume parties. We go back and forth with one-eyed jokes. In case you didn’t know, there are many one-eyed one liners. Believing the doctors that taking the meds would speed up recovery by months, I thought, Well if I can’t play horn, I’ll just break out the old flute and play that! I tried for half an hour to form the embrasure to blow air across the mouthpiece.  I waited to blink at any minute. I planned to go to choir. Tuesday night begin my descent into anger. I kept a dinner engagement with some visitors to campus, old friends from my curriculum world. When I entered the restaurant, Marlows Tavern, which I had been to so many times over the past few years, the hostess looked at me and then looked away. Same thing happened when the waitress came to take my drink order. I realize now that I do the same thing automatically–probably most of us do.  The next day, I mentioned choir to Sarah, who slowly turned and looked at me and said, Honey, you’re not going to choir. When I looked back at her in one-eyed disbelief, she started singing a little bit of the Hallelujah Chorus, which we’ve been working on for a month. I thought my left ear would blow out. No, I wasn’t going to choir. When she dropped me at the office,  just walking from one building to the next took all my energy to keep my eye covered so it would not dry out. I had two meetings where it was very important that I be able to speak, and that was extra energy. My colleagues, wonderful people, tried very hard to look at me in a normal way–and for that I will forever be appreciative. Nevertheless, I feel different, I talk different, I look different. And that was psychological and emotional energy spent that I wasn’t used to spending.

I’ll let you know when I’ve moved from anger to bargaining. Till then, in order to work through some of that anger, in order that something generative and therapeutic might come from it, I decided to pick up the blog again. It’s always been my favorite, preferred mode of writing. Academic work is important, but it isn’t accessible, and it limits my flow of thinking since I have to measure my tone and phrasing as well as the thoughts themselves. Here, I can have a conversation, if only with myself. Plus, Sarah approves of it since it will help keep me out of trouble–like trying to do home-improvement projects with one eye that doesn’t need to get dust in it. Most important, this is all helping me put my life in perspective and put the parts of my life in priority. It isn’t an overnight revelation, but I realize that stress is counterproductive and can be harmful. I reaffirm that life is always already about the people in it. That being present and being mindful is living. I am intentionally choosing hope and happiness. Hope and happiness are not default properties, and being intentional about them makes a difference. As I think about it, coming to this place is a kind of bargaining. I will trade impatience for writing, frustration for processing, sight for insight.

Band friends at Sr. Patron’s
Mellophone

 

A mello-photo bomb

Getting Happy

Somebody I used to know once told me she thought happiness was overrated. I’ve thought about that statement for going on a dozen years now, and I think she was wrong. Well, I think she was talking about pleasure, about following one’s desire, about gratification–and all of these are different from happiness. Not only is happiness not overrated, I don’t believe it is rated nearly highly enough on our collective list of priorities.

I was recently on a long, 9-hour drive from Atlanta to South Florida when I began running through my usual thoughts: money, work, goals, writing, weight. I was even running scripts through my mind of events that I envisioned happening so that I would have a ready response. For example, I pictured a scenario in which my boss asks me to assume additional duties at work. I was amazing myself at my sardonic, pointed remarks to her. Then I thought to myself, “I have a 9-hour drive and I am going to sit here and make myself miserable the whole time? This is my vacation, what if I only thought happy thoughts the whole drive, heck, the whole trip?” So I practiced. I made myself happy, or so I thought at the time. Looking back, I think it’s more accurate to say, I rejected negative thoughts for positive ones. Happiness, a deceptively simple notion, is more complicated than it seems.

I’m reading a book by Barbara Ehrenreich called Bright-sided: How positive thinking is undermining America. Ehrenreich has nothing against positive thinking per se, but she argues it has become a tool to lull Americans into compliance with a neo-liberal, consumerist culture. It is, according to her, in the best interest of institutions to keep the population thinking positively because it deflects attention off inequities of capitalist society by focusing on ourselves. Be positive, work harder, pick yourself up, you can do it (!), you deserve it, and my own personal favorite, “everything is going to be just fine/work out….” Ehrenreich goes on to present some amazing survey results: even though we Americans have embraced the power of positive thinking, we don’t report that we are very happy. There are plenty of other, frankly, negative countries whose people are happier than we are. Being happy is not the same as thinking positively. Positive thinking is something you can choose to do; and while I’ve heard it suggested that we “choose happiness,” I think it is more of a state of being. I”m sure the two are connected somehow, and maybe I’ll think about that later.

I can be negative. I am often cynical and suspicious (of politics and banks, for example). I get the blues and feel lonesome. I come from a long line of worriers–it would have been a piece of cake to have found something to worry about the whole drive down to Florida. But, I am a happy person. I am not jolly, and I don’t feel euphoric all that often. So am I sure about this happiness thing? Yeah, I’m sure. I haven’t figured out yet whether happiness is situational, contextual, or even genetically influenced. In fact, I have just begun to think about it at all–apart from that comment about it being overrated all those years ago. Lots of thing “make me happy”: music, Taco Bell, marathons on TNT, watching the ocean, people in my life. But really, I think these things bring me some joy; they bring me feelings of happiness. Happiness, it seems to me, is what you are left with if feelings were stripped away. I think it would and should be articulated differently by different people. For me, it is serenity of the soul. But that’s just a way of saying it. Can one “get happy”? What is happiness? How does happiness fit in with the violence all around us? That is, can our own happiness intersect with that of others? What does that look like? What good does being happy do us? That’s a lot of questions for something so taken for granted.
More on this later.

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