Indian Pipe Rising: a sure sign that Summer is nearing its end
Summer’s almost over. Sort of. What I mean is, it’s almost August, and August is the last month of summer. But also there’s a shift that happens in early August, right at the pagan holiday Lammas, or Lughnasadh, when some trees start dropping leaves, and the ironweed and joe pye weed start to bloom. Something changes and honestly I don’t know exactly what it is, but I can feel it. And I felt it today, for the first time. So I know, summer’s days are numbered.
The approach of summer’s end brings the calendar to mind. It’s time to plan our Fall activities, and stretch our wings for a two-week camping trip. As I try and hash out an itinerary for our trip and a fall schedule of activities for my middle-school-aged, unschooled kids, I find myself fraught with tension. How do I meet their needs as well as my own? How do I manage my other, more domestic, responsibilities alongside these needs? And perhaps most importantly, how do I, in the course of a highly-scheduled life with myriad points of focus, make space for excitement and playfulness? How do I cultivate a life filled with aliveness and vitality? How do I cultivate happiness?
I read a post on Penelope Trunk’s blog--I appreciate her candid style and willingness to be contradictory to mainstream thinking, though I don’t always agree with her–in which she linked to an article to back up her statement that “women get more unhappy as they age.” The article she linked to was pretty lame, actually. But I found this line particularly interesting: “Specifically, after the age of 48, men’s overall happiness exceeds women’s happiness.” I’m not making this a contest or anything, after all, we start out happier, and we probably squeeze more happiness out of life by virtue of our capacity for connection, but I am challenged by the thought that my happiness might decline as I age.
So what’s with this trend of declining happiness? Do we sideline our dreams, and nurture only one aspect of ourselves, when we are a sea of possibilities? Do we lose our connections to our families? When do I feel unhappy? Where in my life is unhappiness taking root?
First off, as a sort of disclaimer, people have their own default setting for happiness, which may be low, or high. (I learned about this in the documentary “Happy”, which I highly recommend.) And I’m pretty sure my default setting is pretty high. I am naturally happy. It’s the luck of genetics, perhaps. But I am challenged, and I think many women are, by the multitude of roles we play in society. We are women, capable of making our own careers, and families, maintaining homes and gardens and all that other fascinating stuff. It’s an elaborate dance requiring balance and grace. My poet-friend Laura Hope-Gill once said, “Women are symphonies of attention.” I love that statement so much. I think it sums of this unique capacity and challenge of being a woman. We nurture and connect and create and clean.
But I know that one of the sources of my unhappiness has been my struggle to make a career for myself. This is what all those great women artists out there are doing. They are having gallery shows or selling tons of prints. They have well-trafficked blogs and their work appears in magazines. Me, I’m not well-suited to the marketing environment of today, or any day for that matter, and I know this is partly because I prefer quiet and solitude–careful contemplation trumps the etsy listing every time. But also I have issues about my self-worth being connected to my external success, and I have issues with art married to capitalism. I really would prefer to give my art away to someone I love than to sell it. I’ve read all manner of books on creating an art career, stocked full of marketing tips and resume templates, and hated myself, ever so subtly, for not following through with these assorted action plans. I’ve journaled ad nauseum about how I need to get my work out there, and then hated every moment of that type of work.
And what does the movie “Happy” say about our sources of happiness? It’s not making money, or buiding that career. Happiness comes from being in nature, being of service, experiencing flow or play, and being connected. Deep in my heart I know this is true, but the personal tapes inside my head, the ones that constantly critique my every choice, don’t seem to have gotten that memo. If my happiness declines as I age, then its because I’ve listened to those damned tapes in my head for too long, and have ascribed my happiness to the wrong things.
Last month my uncle came for a visit. I took him up to my studio and showed him some of my paintings. “Where do you sell it?” he asked me, and I stumbled around the answer, berating myself for not having the time or wherewithal to have my work properly displayed in a gallery. And then he asked me this one question that startled me a bit. “If you’re not going to sell it, then why do you do it?”
It seemed an almost innane question. The kind only a left-brain logical person would ask. But I am glad he asked it. Because the answer is so much better than I was able to articulate in that moment. Why do surfers play with the ocean? Why sing when your not a vocalist? Why write poetry, or sit by the river? Because the soul desires that joy.
There are the needs of the body. I am blessed that I have a partner whose work meets those needs. I do not need to build a career out of financial necessity, but only because I have deemed it necessary for my own happiness. Looking closely I can see that my failures in career-building have brought me needless suffering. And that if I were to succeed, that would also bring me suffering, because I get immensely stressed out by deadlines and to-do lists that are too long. The belief that my self-worth is connected to my commercial success has obstructed the flow of my happiness.
There are the needs of the soul. The soul thirsts for joy, for connection and aliveness. In my life, I don’t have time for society’s scripts of what is important. And these scripts, the ones that play out in my head, announcing me as a failure at every opportunity, are insidious and will, no doubt, return when I am not vigilant. But today I am vigilant. I am armed with the vessel of my heart, and aware of the needs of my soul. I will not sacrifice her to some false god. I will experience the conscious rise of happiness. And I hope I can remember, in a month’s time, at the turn of the year, and onward past forty-eight, that the sweet elixir of happiness can never be bought, but bubbles up from play, and love, and spills out of the dark sweet earth like life-giving water.