If you’re not getting happier as you’re getting older… then you’re fucking up.
– Ani Difranco, If Yr Not
Randomly, one afternoon last week, I experienced that heart-swollen feeling of looking at the image of a child that you love so much you have nearly no words for it, not the right ones anyway. Words are not enough for that kind of love, for the way the sight of them almost hurts, makes you ache with what it is that bursts open inside of you.
I was looking at a lovely picture that my sister-in-law took of her middle son – a simulated superman pose in goofy goggles and cowboy boots, a boy on the ground who appears to be floating above a chalk and asphalt skyline. I literally felt the pressure of my chest swelling, pushing out. I almost wanted to cry for how perfect I think he is without missing, ever, all of his peculiar traits and inevitable imperfections. He is my happiness, incarnate, as are his brothers.
Abstractly, I know they bring me joy – real, pure joy. But it is these tiny moments that resonate, that ring through my bones, prove to me that love is tangible and real. And my life is full of these moments. Of my littlest nephew’s heavy head against my shoulder as his almost-too-long-to-be-on-my-lap body twitches and writhes and fights sleep as we sit in the sun on a gloriously sunny day at the end of January. The way I feel when his body relaxes and his breathing steadies and he gives in to sleep, right there on my chest and in my arms. My arms are sore, I am sweating everywhere he is on me, but I can’t move. I won’t. Because he will be too long for my lap soon. And this is heaven, this precise moment, the particular feel of his weight gone fully slack against me.
The way the oldest nephew slumps his shoulders when I say the words he hates to hear me say: I have to go. His reluctant hug as I squeeze him tighter and tighter until he complains. The smell of his sweaty hair after he’s been rolling in the grass all day long playing football. The rock on sign he flashes me as I walk away.
My heart swells. All of the time.
Toward the end of 2010, I was haunted by the image of me standing on the bank of a river, readying for the kind of leap I feared most – one that meant leaving love behind, making one of life’s most painful choices. I knew I was making the leap, would have to, but I was planted firmly in the dirt, unable and not ready to jump, for so many reasons.
Throughout 2011 I used the term treading often. I was treading constantly: no permanent home, no steady work yet, no idea what to do with a love I still have trouble containing that is neither here nor there and all over the place. I was emotionally stationary while in constant motion in the middle of the deep blue sea, feet kicking, arms circling, neck muscles tense and stiff and elongated, water lapping at my chin. Every muscle in my body working to keep my mouth and nose above water. I dreamed about floating as though it were a fantastical place only elves and gnomes could find, longed for it with every fiber of my body.
By the opening of 2012 I had crossed over, fully, but I was still gazing back at the other side of that river. Necessarily. To feel it all, completely. Then I bid it all farewell. And I’ve spent the first handful of weeks of 2012 remembering how to float, reacquainting myself with that calm, lovely place that is once again right here with me.
Through it all, I’ve never lost sight of the happy in my life – there are so many happys in my life – but the happy was overwhelmed, overshadowed by the treading, the settling, the mourning. What I have done in the last year and a half is absolutely right – for me. Where I am now is exactly where I should be. And there is so much that makes me smile and laugh and gasp with the best kinds of surprise. There is so much happy to be had.
A friend of mine, Jen Neitzel, posted a New Year’s project in January to help focus on the happy in your life. She shared a picture of herself holding her own list of directions for naming thirty things that make you authentically happy. Such an essentially simple idea. Such an amazingly powerful idea.
I made a mental card and slipped it into my brain’s card catalog (yes, I am that old). I saved that idea for a future date. This week something triggered a thought that reminded me of her post, reminded me that I wanted to take her idea and make something out of it – make a board of some sort where I could pin or tape or velcro words or pictures or memories of things that make me happy, that fill my bones, that expand my ribs with love. Something I could keep up year round, for years to come, something I could edit and adjust and keep as an evolving depiction of all the things that make my heart swell.
So I did.
The same afternoon that I saw my nephew in superhero pose, I also read My Girl Thursday’s post about Sarah Rooftop’s 3 Things February. She challenges us to end our day with writing down three things that made us smile or laugh that day. Three happy things. As MGT says, you don’t have to worry about the pressure and weight of gratitude – you simply remember three things that brought you happiness in a day. I have started this and am going to continue at least through February.
So far, in only a handful of days, I have been brought to hysterical tears while sitting in a charming new restaurant only blocks from my house and felt the warmth of that first thick, sweet sip of a small batch American whiskey and shared it with my father, comparing notes, toasting to all of this time we now have together.
I have stood outside in the cold after midnight on a ‘school’ night having a serious conversation with a hysterically funny and rambunctious new friend after spending an evening being ridiculous together at an SF dance club. I have laughed, a deep belly burst of laughter, after seeing a stranger’s face when I told him to take it easy with my friend because I have brass knuckles implanted under my skin.
I have lost my train of thought while my eyes scrunched and I nearly snort laughed as my sister’s nine-months-pregnant-belly jiggled dramatically from a tiny little laugh that escaped her mouth.
I have walked, for hours, in the winter sun, around this island I love to call home and walked out of the hardware store and went across the street to the beach where I could take off my shoes and sink my toes in the sun-warmed sand. I felt the deep-chest-love of seeing the world seem to disappear on the horizon, water trailing off into nothingness, that feeling of being right at the edge of it all.
And there’s more. A lot more. In only the first five days of this month.
I am lucky. Truly.
Being on this side of the river is returning me to myself. If 2011 was that river that needed crossing – tumultuous, choppy, crucial – then 2012 is the far bank, the one I was aiming for, the one I needed to get to, come hell or high water. And I’m here. I made it through the swim, I survived the climb back up and the view is pretty fucking stunning no matter where I turn, even when the sky splits open and churns the air at a dangerous speed. I am here. Where I was going.
I finally have the kind of time and energy and focus to do what I do best: Do. Make. Create. Laugh. Even when life is hard. Especially when life is hard. I spent one quiet evening with myself, making this board that brings to life the moments that light through my veins and swell my heart.
Because life isn’t what happens when you’re not looking. Life is what happens in every moment – in all of the good and the bad and all of the in-betweens – and you best look, best see it and know it and smell it and try to get it down, however you can. Life is better when more of those moments are remembered for making you smile, for making your eyes sore with laughter, for falling over from the funny of it, for the way your heart will grow, grinch-style, with every beautiful thing surrounding you. For remembering the things that hurt in the best of ways, that make you ache at the sight of them, the beauty that’s always there no matter how much shit life hands you.
Here is my Swollen Heart Board (and here is how I made it, with only things I had in the house). I will change it out regularly to keep myself focused on the moments we all live for, the ones that get us through, the ones we earn with every hard choice, with every devastating scene or decision or fact of life. The stuff that is always worth it. Bliss, micro or otherwise.