Preschool wisdom (or what a 3-year-old could teach Joan Didion)

By Day 2 of the Snowtober power outage, we were all feeling a little ragged, and apparently the three-year-old Baskinette had taken note.

“Amy Gutman, listen to me” she said authoritatively. “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.”

It was close to the most brilliant thing I’d ever heard, and I was a little bit stunned. Who are you and where did you come from? I remember thinking.

As I later discovered—and if you have kids or teach them, you probably already know this—the saying is a standard part of the preschool repertoire. But I instantly knew that it needed to be a standard part of mine. (The 16-year-old Baskinette kindly transcribed it, and it now has a prominent place on my refrigerator.)

Of course, there’s nothing new in the basic idea—we’ve all heard it zillions of times in zillions of different forms: Want what you have. It is what it is. Take life on life’s terms. And my all-time favorite formulation from Buddhist teacher Cheri Huber “[T]he alternate reality in which everything is exactly as you think it should be exists only in your mind, and it exists primarily to torture you.”

Moreover, such insights are backed up by hard data. Research suggests that people who want what they have are actually happier than others.

And yet—like so many obvious truths—it’s one many of us seem to have a hard time grasping. This crossed my mind the other day as I listened to a friend angsting over a single less-than-perfect development in a pretty terrific life. I found myself thinking—in the nicest possible way—“You really need to grow up.”

Now it’s just possible there was a tiny bit of envy and resentment there. From where I sat—more than two years into a job search with its attendant financial pressures—my friend’s worries seemed pretty minor.

But I also think my reaction spoke to a larger point. Something happened to us here in the United States over the past few decades—at least to those of us who began with winning numbers in life’s lottery: We started to believe that we were entitled to perfect lives.

This thought came back to me again while reading Joan Didion’s memoir Blue Nights, which deals with the stunning aftermath of her daughter Quintana Roo’s death. There’s no doubt about it: Didion endured an unimaginably painful stretch of loss, with her daughter’s death coming shortly after the death of her beloved husband, writer John Gregory Dunne (itself the subject of her best-selling The Year of Magical Thinking). Still, for all the very real tragedy, I was jarred by her recurring refrain that this was never supposed to happen.

Make no mistake, Didion’s baffled outrage isn’t limited to the deaths of her husband and daughter—it’s pretty universal, extending to the fact of her own aging, including a frustrating inability to continue wearing (at age 75) her favorite red suede sandals with four-inch heels. In Didion’s worldview, these things were (apparently) not supposed to happen to someone who could look back and write: “There had been cars, a swimming pool, a garden . . . There had been English chintzes, chinoiserie toile. There had been a Bouvier des Flandres motionless on the stair. . . .”

In sum, Didion devotes her considerable gifts to marveling over the shocking fact that she, like the rest of us, is vulnerable to life.

What struck me as odd wasn’t the awareness itself but rather how it seemed to come as an unexpected blow. It seemed so, well, childlike—this notion of a personal exemption, coupled with the implicit expectation that we readers would share her astonishment and chagrin. (Which may go to a separate, if related, point. In her mesmerizing piece on Didion in the current issue of “The Atlantic,” Caitlin Flanagan quotes one critic describing Didion and Dunne as having possessed “a perfectly complementary narcissistic personality disorder that was shared beautifully between two people.”)

Tellingly, it’s a perspective that has long been mined for dark humor. “You know, funerals always make me think about my own mortality and how I’m actually going to die someday. Me, dead. Imagine that,” Elaine Benes marvels in one of my favorite “Seinfeld” episodes. More recently, Sarah Miller made the same point in her witty and insightful send-up of the New York Times’ much-ballyhooed magazine story about the dangers of yoga. “You can’t expect the Sort of People Who Tend to Read The Times to freak out about Amber Alerts and Child Molesters,” she writes in “The Awl.” “About the only thing that will get upper-middle-class coast dwellers into a frenzy is the idea—the word ‘fact’ is so black and white, n’est-ce pas?—that Some Day They Are Going To Fucking Die.”

Indeed.

At several points in Blue Nights, Didion seems to recognize she’s at risk of losing her readers. Her response is defiant. She resists the notion that she (with her 13 home telephones, none within reach when she took a fall) and her daughter (with her 60 baby dresses) lived lives encased in privilege. “’Privilege’ is a judgment. ‘Privilege’ is an opinion. ‘Privilege’ is an accusation,” she writes.

But privilege is also something else: An observation, a statement of fact. And because we are all human and mortal, it is also always temporary.

What I’ve learned from following my bliss (straight into the wall)

I Dream of Empty Chairs

I arrived home last night to a great surprise via Google alerts: Plan B Nation—described as “a smart blog by writer and lawyer Amy Gutman on ‘Iiving creatively in challenging times’”—had been dubbed Website of the Week on the SecondAct blog.

Woo hoo!

There’s something especially sweet about recognition that comes out-of-the-blue, and I quickly shared the news with my wonderful friends, who were duly delighted for me.

“That is fabulous—congratulations,” exclaimed one lovely Facebook pal. “As says Joseph Campbell, Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls.”

On the one hand, I loved the sentiment. On the other, I had to laugh. I can’t count the number of times when no such thing has happened. I’m living proof that you can follow your bliss headlong into a wall.

It’s true that in recent months, my life has been on the upswing—I’ve been picking up paying work and this blog (which I love writing) has been featured on New England NPR and otherwise gathering steam. But it’s also true that I’m just emerging from two quite difficult years. And I got there (just as I got here) by trying to follow my heart, my bliss, or whatever you want to call it.

I use the word trying for a reason. We often talk as if it’s easy to know the right thing to do, you just need the courage to do it. I don’t quite see it that way. To me, the whole process of charting next steps is endlessly mysterious (as well as endlessly fascinating).

For example:  How do we know that we’re listening to some true, higher, authentic self (assuming that such a thing even exists, which, as I’ve written before, is subject to debate) as opposed to internalized parental tapes or other conditioning?

The best answer I’ve ever gotten to this question (which I’ve asked more times than I care to count) came from Stephen Cope, author of the terrific Yoga and the Quest for the True Self. What he proposed—and this was a long time ago, so I may not have it exactly right—is to focus on two questions:

1. Is this desire one that has stayed with you over time?

2. How does your body—your physical self—respond to this desire?

Over the years, I’ve referred to these questions a lot, and I’m pretty sure they’ve helped.

Still, as I think back over decades of decision making, it strikes me that my more problematic choices have stemmed not from a failure to consult my heart but rather from careening between extremes.  

Not happy being a newspaper reporter in rural Mississippi? Fine! Why don’t you go to Harvard Law School and then practice corporate law in Manhattan?

Not happy practicing corporate law in Manhattan? Fine! Why don’t you quit your job and study yoga and write mystery novels?

And so on.

It’s not that any of these choices were inherently bad ones—I liked law school. I had fun writing thrillers. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to do any and all of these things—just  that they probably weren’t the shortest or simplest path to a stable and sustaining life.

Those who follow a macrobiotic diet believe that when we eat extreme Yin foods (sugar, alcohol) we crave extreme Yang foods (red meat, eggs).  It’s best to avoid such foods, they say, as we are healthiest when we mainly eat foods at the middle of the Yin/Yang spectrum.

Similarly, I’ve come to think that I make better decisions when I’m operating from a baseline of equanimity, not when I’m attempting to race from one peak experience to the next. You might say I’ve adopted a macrobiotic theory of life.

In the end, though, I don’t really see any way around the fact that life is essentially messy and unpredictable, regardless of what we do. It gets bad, then it gets better, then it gets worse, then it gets really really great, and then it sucks, then it’s okay for a while. You can follow your bliss to . . . well, bliss, or follow it into a wall. If you live a long and full life, you’ll likely do both more than once.

Plan B Nation life hack #1 (a holiday survival tip)

Snowman Bokeh  (Explored) 10,000 visits to this photo. Thank you.

I love the idea of life hacks: practical shortcuts designed to ease lives burdened by overload and over-stimulation.

The life hack concept (like so much else) emerged from a digital subculture looking for ways to deal more efficiently with an incessant barrage of information. The goal: increased productivity and happier, more satisfying lives.

As described by British tech guru Danny O’Brien, who coined the term in 2004, life hacks are all about putting aside a larger problem to focus on a small fix that will get you through the task at hand.

In recent days, I’ve found myself reflecting on how this concept might be extended from the world of email and terabytes to the challenges of daily life.

In life (and especially in Plan B Nation) it’s easy to obsess about big questions with no clear answers. What am I doing with my life? Why do I keep having the same argument with my spouse, my child, my friends, my [fill in the blank]? What is wrong with me? What is wrong with them?

Such questions are likely to be especially freighted during the holidays. Hard as we may try not to, it’s easy to approach the season with out-sized expectations, both of ourselves and others. Moreover, we’re likely to be more exhausted than usual, closer to our snapping point. Those notorious holiday arguments, hurt feelings, and frayed nerves? This is where they come from.

Here’s one life hack that might help.

The larger problem: The holidays create a perfect storm of exaggerated hopes and expectations and (for many of us) depleted emotional reserves. This is particularly true for those of us residing in Plan B Nation, where anxieties about work and money can easily leave us feeling alienated amidst the festivities.

The hack: When you feel an urge to say something sharp or critical, stop and stay silent. Do this three times every day. Make this a practice.

I learned this strategy from a meditation teacher, who said that one of her students credits it for saving her marriage. One thing I love about the approach is its specificity. The practice isn’t to hold back forever and always. You only have to do it three times. That’s it. Then you’re done for the day.

One reason that I think the strategy works so well is that it shifts our focus. Instead of fixating on that infuriating thing someone did or said, we’re focusing on our goal—checking off one of the three things. This feels both empowering and satisfying.  In my experience, it can really help to diffuse a creeping sense of victimhood.

Twelve-steppers often joke that alcoholism is a three-part disease: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s.  And the fact is the holidays do carry with them a new set of challenges. At the same time, we’re not powerless. There are resources we can call on. The trick is finding strategies that work for us—and remembering to use them.

If you try out this life hack, I’d love to hear your experience. In the meantime, best wishes to everyone for a healthy and happy season.

Wherever you go there you are? Not necessarily

kitchen1

A year ago today, I was packing up my Cambridge apartment a stone’s throw from Harvard Square and preparing to return to Northampton, the bucolic western Massachusetts college town where I’d previously lived for two years in the early aughts.

I’d been in Cambridge for six years, and a hard six years it was. I’m still not quite sure why. It was the third time I’d lived in the storied educational mecca, home to Harvard, MIT, and countless brilliant minds. I’d been there twice as a student. This time I was back for a job at Harvard Law School, where I ultimately wound up writing speeches for then-Dean (now U.S. Supreme Court Justice) Elena Kagan.

It was a pretty great job in a pretty great city, but for some reason my life never really came together there.  Most difficult—and puzzling—of all was the fact that I couldn’t seem to make friends. Being single, my friends have always been especially important to me, and not having any good friends close at hand—well, it was quite a challenge.

In fairness, by the time I moved, I’d manage to collect a handful of intimates, but given the time and effort I put in, the results were pretty paltry.  Was it me? I wondered. It had to be me. After all, who wouldn’t like Cambridge?

This was pretty much the way my thoughts were going when my boss decamped for Washington, D.C., and my Harvard job abruptly ended in the spring of 2009. At the time, it seemed to make sense to just stay put. I had a strong professional network in the Boston area, and even with the Great Recession upon us, the region’s job market was still relatively robust (at least compared to other places).

Over the next year-plus, I picked up freelance projects and other short-term work, but more and more, I found myself pining to return to western Mass. While I’d last lived in Northampton a decade before, I’d made frequent trips back to see friends, and I loved my weekend visits. Still, I sternly reminded myself, mini-vacations are not real life. Making a move wouldn’t change any of the very real difficulties facing me. I’d still be jobless, looking for work, still financially strained. I’d still be single (which is great if you choose it, but the fact is, I had not).

Also: I already knew from experience that just because I thought a change would make my life better didn’t mean that it would. Psychologists have a fancy name for this—affective forecasting error—the idea being that we humans are notoriously poor predictors of what will make us happy.

Wherever you go there you are. The saying stuck in my mind. Everyone knows that you can’t change your life by simply changing your surroundings–and lest you have any lingering doubt, research bears this out.  In one often-cited study, researchers found that people who believed they would be happier living in California actually would not be. I couldn’t help but suspect that Northampton might be my personal California (albeit a far chillier and less sunny one).

And so it went until my unhappiness reached the point that even an unlikely option seemed worth the risk. I didn’t know what else to do. Plus, I couldn’t help thinking—or at least hoping—that a move might serve as a jump start.

I was encouraged to find some support for this notion in journalist Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success. There, Gladwell recounts the story of Roseto, Pennsylvania, a bustling self-sufficient town established in the nineteenth century by immigrants from a single Italian village. In the 1950s, a physician discovered that the town’s residents enjoyed astonishingly good health, with men over 65 dying from heart disease at half the rate of the United States as a whole, and with death rates from all causes 30% to 35% lower than expected. After significant research aimed at controlling for variables–diet, genetics, exercise–researchers concluded that, remarkably enough, residents’ health could be traced to nothing more than the fabric of town life, with its rich social bonds and traditions.

Maybe I was grasping at straws, but this seemed promising. It seemed to suggest that while “moving to California” might not in itself boost happiness, the sense of belonging to a vibrant community could have a profound impact. The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that this made total sense. After all, wasn’t it likely that I’d be happier in a place that I knew and loved, surrounded by people I cared about and who cared about me?

Moreover, I was able to garner research to back me up. Again and again, close relationships with family and friends have been shown to be one of the strongest proven predictors of happiness.

Reader, I moved.

And as I approach my one-year anniversary in Northampton, I’m delighted to tell you that I am indeed far, far happier than I was before. While the move certainly hasn’t fixed everything—I’m still looking for work, still looking for love—I’m deeply grateful for my life here. Along with the welcome infusion of human warmth and connection, I cherish the texture of daily life: stopping by the farm down the street to pick up eggs, playing board games with my friends’ kids, working with Friends of Children and Treehouse, local organizations doing cutting-edge work aimed at transforming the nation’s foster care system. The list goes on.

The moral of the story? Changing your surroundings won’t necessarily change your life. But then again: It might.