Tue 18 Sep 2012
According to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, 42 is the answer to the meaning of life, the universe and everything. And because that book is based on science, I know it’s true. So because today I am 42, I now know the answers, and I’m going to share them, even if it’s cheating to share with those of you yet to reach this meaningful age.
The first answer is that *of course* I don’t *really* have the answers, but I’m ready to take a stab at it. This is a shamelessly self-indulgent post, because it’s my blog, and my birthday, and because one of the answers is ‘be fearless’ or at least act like you’re fearless.
Deathbed Test and Regrets Rule
We’ve all seen wise words tendered by the elderly as they near death, my favourite of which is ‘never regret the things you did, only those you didn’t’. I try to live by that one. I don’t always succeed, either in doing rather than not, nor in resisting the lure of regret. But I try. And I’ve been trying since I was young, just ask my parents. I’m not interested in figuring life out right as I leave it. I conduct the Deathbed Test on most of my decisions.
I apply the Regrets Rule to food. Last week I ate some cheese and bacon cheezels at work. They were profoundly unsatisfying, leaving my mouth with a cloying sheen of artifice the likes of which I’d not known since my teens. I don’t regret that I ate them. In a way, I’m glad I did – now I know what I’m ‘missing’. I’ll stick with almonds, thanks. Had I not eaten that little fundraising bag of frankenfood, I would have wondered whether some secret, salty pleasure lurked inside the foil. Five minutes of a poor choice, six orange, sticky digits, and seven cheezel-lurid teeth later, I knew. So what, I ate some bad food. It’s not like I live on it.
My mum was diagnosed with cancer this year. It took me three days to book a flight on which I hurtled my fear and love stateside five days later. I spent a month with Mama and Dad, feeding them, nourishing our collective thicker-than-water blood, reconnecting after two decades of a Life Away. I am grateful I had the means to make the trip, and that they raised us to know, feel, and act on our commitment to each other. I will never regret the money nor the time spent to be there, and know the regret would have been long and harsh had I stayed away in the interest of pragmatism. I’ll be back there next week, then again with all my Jonai for Thanksgiving, for what we all hope (and have reason to believe) will be a celebration. I will continue to make more time for my mum and dad, for ultimately, what is life but those we love?
Death is Part of Life
Food and cancer have made me reflect on death this year. I won’t lie, I was frozen in the headlights on the subject of death. I *think* I’ve now leapt to safety, into the old-growth forest where the soil is fecund with rotting life. I have always believed in cycles and systems, and each of our own small parts to play in a much larger drama (or tragedy, comedy, or even just a sitcom). But I was frankly terrified of the stark reality of a use-by date for my beloveds. I *think* I’m less afraid now. The oft-cited rhetoric, ‘you only get one shot at this’ has fallen from my own lips many times, but now I get it a little bit more. Not in the way of a 96-year-old, nor even a 65-year-old, but a lot more than my 33-year-old self, or even my 40-year-old self. I am not sure I get it when it comes to senseless loss of those too young. The mere thought of losing one of my own brood buckles my knees, so here’s a caveat to my understanding – it’s still pretty limited.
Be Kind and Respectful
Like most people, I try to be kind. Sometimes I’m unkind for base reasons, like jealousy, resentment or pure thoughtlessness. All I can say is ‘I’m sorry’, and try to understand my motivations so as to do better next time. Perhaps I’m too forgiving of myself, but then I’m pretty forgiving of others. When we get to resilience, it will be clear why forgiveness is part of choosing happiness.
Sometimes my desire to be honest makes me unkind. I guess this is why some people say to me, ‘everybody knows you mean well’. To counter unkind honesty, I aim for respect. If I apply both kindness and respectfulness filters, I can usually make people happy. This might lead me to say, ‘I just want you to know that those words make me feel sad, maybe you didn’t know that when you said them,’ instead of ‘what the fuck is wrong with you?’
I’m not really sure how to give you examples, actually, without being disrespectful and unkind towards those who may have lived them with me over the years. So I’ll just say, like the deathbed test, I apply the kindness and respect test -
‘if I say or do this, is it kind to X and to me?’
‘if I say or do this, is it respectful to X’s needs and mine?’
This test offers me a lot of scope to still aim for what I want while being mindful of how to get it without hurting others.
Mindfulness is central to what I’ve learned in my 42 years. I remember years ago seeing a book called ‘Mindfulness in Ten Minutes’. I suspect the people who read it may not have become remarkably more mindful. In my experience, mindfulness takes all the minutes, all the time, lifetimes. In my life, I have played a ‘got it, lost it’ game with mindfulness. But when I’ve got it, there is a visceral sense of well being and well doing. Me being mindful is my most Earth Mama self – when I’m connected, caring, nurturing the people, animals and land around me, and me as a result. Nurturing others is my shortcut to nurturing myself. Mindfulness is the country highway to that shortcut.
Be Outraged… Mindfully
Outrage is a favourite distraction of mine (you too, you say?). A few years back, I recognised that outrage at All The Things was an excellent substitute for mindfulness and dealing with issues in my own backyard. I’m okay with this, but I try to be mindful of it. Sometimes a bit of public outrage is just what I need to keep walking that day, to avoid despair and Hard Things. It is also an honest response to things that are outrageous, of course. But feeding on it, while not dishonest, is not perhaps as straightforward as it may seem. I know when to indulge my Queen Outragerati, and when to exile her to distant climes while I read the local barometer instead.
Passion is Awesome
Passion is of bewildering origins, but much beloved. The meaning of life for me has often been passion, deeply linked to joy, but I have yet to plumb its depths to understand from where it really comes. I cannot offer words of wisdom to those who know not their true passions. Mine have always been there – I was the girl who dashed about caped with a tie-dye peace sign as we packed up camp on the library steps where we had protested the 1991 Gulf War for two months; later the young mother who organised a feed-in of breastfeeding mamas at a lolly shop in solidarity with a friend who’d been evicted from it for feeding her infant son inside (!!); more recently my passion is as a crusader in the movement for food produced and consumed ethically and with ecological integrity. I guess the root of all my passions is the global good, manifested in both public and private personas. I am as yet an infant in what I have yet to learn to contribute through this passion for the collective.
Resilience Helps You Be Happy
I hope that resilience is something that those who were shortchanged as children can learn when they’re older. I believe (and ‘research shows’) that resilience is deeply tied to happiness – so each day I choose to be happy. On the occasions where I don’t, I’m conscious it’s a choice I’m making, even if there are many difficult things making the not-happy choice seem unavoidable. Sometimes I simply choose to let myself be sad, but try to be cautious about that – the longer I choose sadness, the harder it is to choose happiness again. A simple way back to happiness for me is to cook. Whether chopping garlic or simmering a sauce, I try to sweeten the most acidic days by spending time over a long-simmered anxiety reduction.
Happiness is a Series of Choices as Well as Events
I’ll finish with some thoughts on happiness, ever-wedded to the Regrets Rule. I find happiness in my children’s laughter, or a new insight they share at the dinner table. I find it with my fingers deep in the soil, or swinging a mattock to make room for new roots to take hold. I find it in my lover’s arms or strolling to the back paddocks with him to check the fences. Happiness is a stimulating debate about methodology or multiculturalism, it’s the cream on raw milk. Happiness is everywhere, and yet some days it’s so elusive.
Occasionally I search for happiness in the wrong places – a bag of chips, one glass of wine too many, the admiration of those I don’t admire. When regret comes knocking, I tell it to get lost – ‘I don’t choose you’, I say. Next time, I try to make a better choice. It is the Regrets Rule/Resilience part that makes happiness less elusive – I’m less reliant on events, and a more active participant in the creation of my own happiness.
Finally, along with the obvious caveat that like everyone else, I’m still working on this… remember the Be Fearless rule and…
Don’t be embarrassed to write a self-indulgent, motivational blog post on your 42nd birthday. We should share our happiness strategies more.
- On milk, farming, and life
- What are ‘good parents’? or ‘Thanks, Dad & Ma!’
- Making meaning in Kolkata