When I was growing up there was local horticultural society in our town. They had a show every year, and I participated in the children’s class, always happy to compete for the prize money awarded. One easy win was to collect 50 wildflower species and label them. This was easy for me, as we lived in the country and there were plenty of them around in August when the show was held. I diligently combed the fields around our home and won. First prize: five whole dollars, was a princely sum for a ten or twelve year old. Later when I studied the medicinal qualities of wild as well as cultivated herbs I learned to value them even more. Now though I no longer live in the country I still feel fond of the weeds I studied as a child.
Each spring, whenever I walk through the series of parking lots across the street from my building, my eye is drawn to the weeds decorating the barrier between two of the lots. All year long I watch them grow, flower, and then succumb to the cold, their length still softening the hardness of the barrier they have grown against. I also often notice the weeds growing next to concrete highway dividers. They struggle up through tiny cracks in the pavement, signaling the persistence of nature against human concretization. Soon now snow will fall and the remaining stalks I see when I walk will cast their shadows on the snowfall, reminding me of the inevitability of spring regardless of the current winter weather.
Despite the gardener’s dismay, weeds are flowers too. In addition to their roadside beauty, their seeds feed birds and the roots and leaves may be medicinal and even nourishing. Many of the weeds we have today formed a significant part of the diet of those who lived here before the Europeans arrived. The early settlers who planted them to harvest for food and medicine brought others. The virtues of a plant that we call a weed may be many. Now that I no longer have a garden I can appreciate their beauty even more. A weed is by definition something that grows wild, that grows where it has not been deliberately planted: an unwanted, uninvited guest in the garden. In a metaphorical sense, weeds could be defined as the unwanted catalogues that keep arriving in the mail, the undesired emails that show up in my inbox, or even those annoying begging or advertising phone calls from telemarketers.
How are these flowers in the garden of my life? Perhaps because as I eliminate them, they call me to pay better attention. I could also see them as helping me to be grateful that once they are gone I have more space and a better awareness of what I wish to keep for myself. These weeds are persistent in the gardens that we call our lives. However at least they do not require my bending over to remove them or to dig out their roots. As I appreciate the beauty of the actual weeds when I see them so too I can rejoice for that beauty that comes uninvited yet welcome to my view.
When my children were young we used to gather colorful leaves and iron them between pieces of waxed paper to preserve them. There is something magical about the wonderful colors of fall leaves. They are everywhere, now, and people echo their beauty with doorstep pots of chrysanthemums in yellow, red, gold and rust. When I was growing up people didn’t decorate for fall or Halloween. People gave parties—I remember one year my parents gave one for adults. This was once also a popular time for divination games, which often centered around finding one’s true love.
I am enchanted by the colors of the trees at this time of year. I could almost believe that if I were pulled over by a policeman I might appear intoxicated. That’s a joke, of course, as for many years my body has not tolerated more than a sip or two of alcohol, and that only on rare occasions. No, what I would be drunk on is the beauty that glows along the roadsides. As I drive around on my errands these days, the slanting rays of the autumn sun shine through the reds and golds of the turning leaves, leaving me breathless.
I feel fortunate that I have the eyes to see it and the heart to appreciate it. I remember a conversation I had once with someone who was chronically depressed. When I said something about the beauty around us she shrugged and told me she couldn’t really appreciate it. Although she didn’t say it I could tell that she was simply too sad to do so. Her mind was totally preoccupied with her troubles and sorrows. I felt for her.
The gorgeous display that is the essence of a fall in New England is something many people travel here to see. It’s one of the reasons I prefer to live in this part of the USA. Nearly thirty years ago, before we moved to Grafton I spent seven years in Virginia. While we were there I found that the leaves that turned did not do so with much intensity, and I missed the brilliance of our autumn very much. When a great many years ago I was in southwest Texas in the fall I felt the same. I was three I have lived here in New England since I was three years old, and perhaps it is in my blood. One thing is sure: each year I look forward eagerly to the changing of the season and the beautiful colors.
One of the houses we lived in had a window that looked out over a very special Maple tree. The colors that brightened the leaves would begin with a single branch, sometimes as early as late August. How I enjoyed it when that patch of leaves burst into color. The loveliness of nature in autumn warms my heart in a way that enlivens my whole being. I am so very thankful for this special gift of loveliness, free for the gazing, billowing over the hills and presenting on yards: our New England fall.
When I was a child one of my favorite occupations was to rearrange my mother’s pantry shelves. I delighted in doing this. It seems to me that I was born with a need to accomplish. In many ways, this has been a source of my happiness and a way of making myself feel good. I can remember when I was a young mother that time spent in the kitchen helped to heal any disappointment or dismay. Baking cookies for my children did wonders for my spirits and helped keep me cheerful. Even simple tasks like the ironing I did then were useful to me in lifting my spirits.
I learned long ago that whenever my spirits need lifting I have a choice. Beyond dwelling on whatever it is that may be bothering me, I can seek happiness or I can stop and look around me for something to be grateful for or to enjoy. When I do I have taken a significant step toward being kind to myself as well as making myself feel better. But there is more: I can keep reminding myself to take note of the many things to appreciate that surround me. My happiness is made up of small smiles harvested daily.
While the link between accomplishment and happiness is still strong within me, this other link is even stronger: the opportunities to notice what makes me happy. It functions for me whenever I notice whatever is beautiful around me; it is delivered in the joy I receive when I walk with Stephen in the mornings and listen to the birds twittering and chirping around us. When I get a phone call or an email from a friend I haven’t seen or heard from for a while, my heart fills and I smile. I feel happy when I read the morning newspaper and find interesting stories from it to share with my husband.
It is truly said that happiness does not work as a goal. If for instance I buy something I have wanted, it may make me happy for a little while yet that kind of happiness does not last. Not unlike taking a drink of alcohol or indulging in sweets, the good feelings gained this way dwindle soon. This diminishment is one of the stimuli for addictive behavior. Once the good feeling is gone it is normal to wish for more in order to regain or prolong it. This experience leads many people to practice self-destructive behaviors.
However, the happiness that comes from the appreciation of what is given is not addictive nor can it be sought. It comes from the practice of awareness, of noticing some small joy or gladness that comes to us as a kind of gift. It also helps to have an understanding of what makes us feel happy so that we can take extra care to notice it when it is given to us. I must open my eyes and ears to notice the beauty around me in order to appreciate it. I need to remember to look out the window to see the lovely sunset when it glows there. This kind of happiness lasts beyond the experience and nourishes me always.