The Many Ways to Happiness

Grafton sky 2When 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.

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Spring Has Truly Sprung

Spring blossoms, white          When I was a child in grade school, each year our music teacher organized May Day celebrations. Every class participated, and a May Queen was selected from among the girls in the ninth, the topmost grade. The younger children had their own maypole. I found it hopelessly confusing. You had to go over one and under the next as you wound your ribbon around the pole, weaving it into the others until there was only a little left. After rehearsals, much to my relief I wasn’t chosen to do it.

There were dances and songs–I still have a printed paper program from then in a scrapbook made for me by a devoted relative. The songs were of British origin and invoked the days of “lasses and lads” who met and parted though the specifics were a mystery to my young mind. No one talked of the fertility symbols or the meaning behind the rituals centered around the day we were celebrating.

The first of May is the midpoint between the Vernal Equinox and the Summer Solstice. Nature is pushing forward. The increase of the light from now forward reflects the brightness of the days that begin their most obvious decline around the first of August. In the northern hemisphere there are many celebrations associated with this date. They reach far back in the history of humanity, symbolizing our connection with the earth and its fertility.

Most recent is of course the “May Day” workers’ celebrations of the former Soviet Union. My mother and I were in Moscow on that date twenty six years ago. I remember the colorful flags hanging everywhere, and the crowds of people in Red Square. However, from far back in human history, May Day has been one of the great spring celebrations of Europe and the British Isles. It is associated with fertility for both crops and farm animals, promoted through ancient rituals, many of which involved fire.

In these modern times we believe more in fertilizer than in fertility rituals. Few people these days will dance around a maypole–an obvious phallic symbol, or go off into the woods with a partner to insure that the fertility of land and pasture will continue. There is no need. Supermarkets are stocked all year round with almost every seasonal vegetable and fruit–no need to wait until June for strawberries or fall for apples. Those who have never experienced this timing cannot miss it, but in some ways I do.

Yesterday Stephen and I drove along a wooded country road in the sunshine. The light illuminated the unfolding blossoms of the trees clustered around it. The cloudless blue sky above and the sunlight filtering through the branches above us lifted our hearts and filled us with joy. Summer with its own delights is in the wings; spring is on the stage revealing its special beauty now. It seems important to take time to notice this delicate time of unfolding.

Fall In Its Variety

Fall in its variety fills the air with bright, brimming over with an ecstasy that brings us joy..

Fall gold 2The light shines upon the leaves and it reflects into our hearts.

Fall leaves 13 4 Then the leaves dance and their brightness makes us sing.

Fall Gold 3 Singing fills the air; light  glistens echoing our song.

stonewall and leaves 2 Until we too sigh and sweetly lie down to rest.

A Place of Peace by Tasha Halpert

Peace Village Bridge ReflectionIt is easy to get caught up in the busyness of everyday life. For me it is often difficult is to pause and to take the time for an opportunity to do some self exploration. Such an opportunity was recently offered me. At first I found myself wondering how I could fit it in to my schedule, as well as make sure Stephen would have good food to eat while I was away. Yet because it included time to be with my daughter I didn’t hesitate long before saying yes.

She invited me to go with her to a spiritual retreat at a very special center in the Catskill mountains in New York State. Peace Village, a tranquil place of residence halls and meeting rooms is run by the Brahma Kumaris, a worldwide organization that originated in the 30s in India. The organization is devoted to self study and progress toward enlightenment. The Brahma Kumaris have created an atmosphere there that is highly conducive to personal growth.

At one time I studied and taught yoga. Later after we moved to Grafton my husband Stephen and I for many years had an inner peace center in our home where we held weekly meditations as well as what we called Peace potlucks, monthly. Stephen and I meditate almost daily, so I anticipated enjoying my time at the retreat which was said to include that as well as other opportunities to learn and to grow.

My happy expectations were fulfilled. During the three day retreat called By Ourselves In Company, the twenty-five of us were given a exercises designed to help us to become better acquainted with ourselves, as well as other techniques we could use to learn and grow. The participants were all ages and in all stages of life, more women than men, and several married couples. There were chances for us to interact and to learn from one another’s experiences as well as to be by ourselves and explore our own responses and reactions. The process was well designed and helpful.

Most special for me was the opportunity to do something with my daughter that we could share in as well as share. She leads a very busy life and while we do get to see one another often, it is always in the context of our days. The atmosphere the Brahma Kumaris have created in Peace Village is gentle and flowing. There is no hustle or bustle, no noise or stressful energy. On the hour music would play and everyone would stop what they were doing, breathe and reflect on the presence of the moment.

Here it was easy for me to absorb the lessons given as well as to learn to know myself better. The lack of distraction was key in helping me to focus. Yet what I really learned there was how important a peaceful atmosphere is to the nurturing of my being. The challenge will be to recreate it or at least to bring about some of the elements of that peace in my daily life so that I can continue to learn to see and to know myself more clearly.

Smelling the Roses, by Tasha Halpert

Smelling the Roses

imageRoses in VAseWhen I was growing up my life was oriented around the calendar and the seasons. Living in the country I experienced the different times of the year vividly. Each time of year had its treats and its special occasions. That which was associated with them was not present at other times of the year. I am still very much in the habit of this kind of thinking. Most of all what I especially notice is the flowers that grow only at certain times of the year.

Driving along our country roads I am bewitched and blessed by the scent of the small white wild roses blooming along their edges. Essentially weeds, they are invasive in the extreme as I found out when once upon a time I planted some by the fence of our pool. It was something of a struggle to decide whether the lovely smell that lasted a couple of weeks was really worth the impressive work of trying to contain the thorny vines the rest of the time.

The tiny white petaled roses that grow wild everywhere they are left to grow are considered a nuisance and can be quite invasive. They are not welcome except where other vines grow wild. I am so glad when the season of their blossoming arrives. When I am outside I have my nose on the alert for their beautiful scent. There are a few growing near my porch. Every time I am there I am treated to their heady scent.

I also appreciate the profusion of daylilies that follow on their heels. The daisies that decorate the side of the highway are another welcome sight. There is something wonderful to me about the way different flowers arrive at different times, each bringing the gift of its color and scent to the eye and nose. Were they all to bloom at once they would lose their specialness and while they would still be lovely, they would not have the quality of unique appearance that enhances their presence.

Still, the roses are my favorite. The fact that the their season is so brief makes these tiny wonders extra special to me. Such brevity is growing rare in my life. Many foods I enjoy that used to be seasonal are now available all year round. Yet I wait to savor them in season. Local corn on the cob tastes finer than any other kind. No matter how good the peaches or plums from elsewhere might taste in the winter, I don’t buy them. I look forward to the local ones from the farm stand.

Growing up I enjoyed the different pleasures and treats that came during the year. I looked forward to certain occasions: the circus was one, another were the church fairs that I went to with my grandmother. When something nice is found rarely or seldom it becomes more special. When everything is within reach or readily available specialness diminishes. I don’t mind waiting for the Concord grapes of August. Perhaps like birthdays that come once a year, they taste better for the anticipation.

Smelling the Lilies

Star Lilies 4       Of all the flowers with delightful scents, there are three that are favorites of mine: Lilies, Roses, and Hyacinths. So it was that when I was shopping in Trader Joe’s last week and saw the Star Gazer Lilies for sale I could not resist buying a small bunch and bringing them home. As I had hoped they would they have filled our small apartment with their wonderful scent.

As I sit here writing my column I am breathing it in. As I do, these colorful lilies with their glorious perfume remind me over and over again how important it is to give to myself as well as to others. It has taken me more than a few years to recognize the importance of doing that. My dear mother called such thinking selfish. She was raised in a home where children came last, after guests, parents and other adults. To think of oneself first, if at all, was not encouraged.

There was no intentional cruelty involved in this attitude. It sprang from a different way of seeing the world and of acting on that viewpoint. There is a strong behavioral edict that sprang from traditional thinking that it is better to give than to receive. While it is good to give, there are psychological reasons that were not taken into account by this edict that need to be addressed. In addition there is the question of balance versus imbalance to be considered.

I was raised in much the same way. I remember once being surprised when a friend said that we must be home by four o’clock for her children’s TV program. That the wishes of children were something to consider was a new thought for me. As a young mother it never occurred to me that children’s choices were anything to be considered.

In the years since then I have done a lot of learning. A most important lesson of my lifetime has been that if I do not give to myself I will not have much to give others. My cup must have something in it before I can give from it freely. My giving must be in balance with my receiving. What I have discovered, sometimes the hard way is that if I give only to others and not to myself I develop unconscious resentment that can lead me to act unkindly, or be overly critical without meaning to. This can creep up on me and I need to make sure I notice it when it happens.

From the time I was small being kind has always been very important to me. Thus it has become vital that from time to time I assess my behavior to make sure I have been giving to myself enough to balance my graciousness to others. It is not always easy to remember to give to oneself. It often initially feels so good to give to others that it is easy to forget to include oneself. As I inhale the perfume of the wonderful lilies I am reminded again of how grateful I am for this gift I gave to myself, and of how glad I am that I bought them.

Text and Photo by Tasha Halpert

Keeping My Eyes On theRoad

There is something about New England that is very special to me, and a large part of it has to do with the fall here. I grew up in a town (now) called Manchester by the Sea. Every year I anticipated the joy of the fall leaves and the crisp air that made me feel so good. A brief seven year stay in Virginia only confirmed my love of New England. I thought the weather there was much too bland. Happy to return, I have found this area to be a special place to live.

These days as I drive along Grafton’s scenic roads my eyes are drawn to the brilliant changes in the foliage. The green of summer has faded and grayed the leaves. Now the cool nights and days transform the landscape as the dusty pallor of early fall gives way to fresh reds and yellows. I can’t help ooing and ahing while I work to keep my focus on the road. I am grateful for the speed limit. It is easy to maintain it because I simply cannot drive faster and also gaze at the enthralling color.

I have loved the autumn ever since I was a young child. The smell of burning leaves–no longer common in these days of pollution control, as well as the sharp, damp smell of the brown, fallen leaves after a rain have always warmed my heart. I even enjoyed going back to school because it meant a change from being bored at home. Fall meant new things to learn and new books to read.

There are many reasons fall is my favorite season. I am grateful for the bountiful harvest of fruits and vegetables that it provides. I also enjoy the crisp air, the opportunity to wear a cozy sweater and scarf. Most of all, I love it for its rich palette of color. In some mysterious fashion each fall seems the most beautiful. It seems to me that every year the previous autumn pales in comparison to the one I am entranced by now. In addition as the days grow cooler, my mind grows sharper.

This increase in mental acuity helps me to be more mindful. Being mindful is vitally important, especially at this season, because it helps keep me focused. It is all too easy to be distracted when I am driving along past the colorful autumn vistas as they unfold before me. My attention could be caught and held–dangerous when I am driving a car.

The years Stephen and I have spent meditating have had many benefits, but most especially I value the beneficial impact meditation has had on our minds. Meditation as we practice it is a way of doing exercises for the mind. The time we spend working to stay focused is like lifting weights or doing sit ups, only for mental rather than physical strength. As I drive through the autumnal glory I am grateful not only for the beauty that fills my eyes, but also for the ability I have to keep my eyes on the road.Light Through Leaves