Thursday, December 23, 2010

Chapter Eighteen: To get HAPPY, just switch the C and the A

By Claudia Ricci

How do we stop being scared of life, and of death, and of everything in between? How do we find happiness, living with whatever life deals us? How do we learn to wake up every morning and smile into the day, embracing the hours and tasks that we face as opportunities for discovery rather than as a series of boring or mundane chores to be endured or avoided?

Basic questions, difficult to be sure. But if I may, as we end this year, I’d like to share my insights, because I feel as though, after decades of living scared, and depressed, I have finally figured out how to replace the anxiety with a feeling of peace. And joy.

The last year or so has been pivotal. I am not altogether certain how it happened, but I feel as though I have turned a corner. As in, I’m not living in a narrow grey tunnel, holding my breath, or in a dark cave, with my arms over my head. I am not buried underground anymore.

Just this morning, I was looking through the files on my laptop. In quick succession, I happened on a couple of pieces that I wrote while living in DC last year. I was astonished. Honestly, it felt as though another person had written them. (Which makes you wonder about the “self” that is in constant transformation; this is one reason why it is very wise, as I keep telling my students, to keep a regular journal!)

Anyway, I wanted to share one piece I wrote, because I think it suggests how we might all get from A to B, or in this case, from C to A.

It is a beautiful spring evening in Washington, D.C., a Friday late in April. The sky is a pale crystal blue, and I have just finished teaching for the semester. I spent a couple hours this afternoon volunteering at a local women’s health center, where I took photos of mothers and babies for the annual report. Then I went to Starbucks where I sipped iced coffee and started to grade final papers.

But now I sit here in a state of absolute fear and panic, a condition that lately is more and more common. The problem is both simple and very complex:

I have reached a kind of crisis point in my life when I feel like I have run out of dreams. None of the things I used to do seem to matter. Nothing on the horizon excites or interests me in any deep and meaningful way.

I keep praying that this will change, and I am trying to take steps to stoke up the fires, so to speak. And oh yes, I am seeking so-called professional help.

But right now, I don’t think I have ever been so frightened. I am frightened even to admit these feelings in print. I am frightened just to write them down. I am frightened not to. I pray that somehow, by writing them down, something will shift, the cloud will lift and I will find a way out of what feels like the worst crisis of my life.

Anyone who knows me will be surprised when I call this the worst crisis of my life. Because my life has not been a stranger to crisis. Seven years ago, in 2002, I suffered from a serious and life-threatening case of lymphoma. I needed some additional treatment in 2003.

I should be reveling in the fact that I am enjoying good health today. I should be, and I must say that I am often in touch with a deep sense of gratitude that I feel so healthy. But in some sense, that makes this present crisis all the worse. On top of everything else, I feel guilty that I am at such loose ends and feeling so lost and unhappy.

My husband calls it an existential crisis, brought on by the empty nest syndrome. Maybe. But my son, the last one to leave the house, is finishing his sophomore year. As a friend pointed out recently, this empty nest thing has been going on way too long. She didn’t say “way too long,” but I will. It’s been going on way way too long.

Another friend, who is a bit older than me, and retired from university teaching, says that I am not alone. Most of us when we get to this point in life, have to reinvent ourselves. She keeps herself busy with voice lessons and yoga, writing and social activities. She also says she is trying to “learn, just how to be.”

What a thought, just “BEING.” Without being busy, without being productive.

Still another friend, also in her 60s, admitted to me that she faces the same kind of life crisis. And she says there are many other like her. In her words, “We’ve had our children, we’ve had our marriages, we’ve worked jobs, we’ve built houses and gardens, and now we don’t see anything on the horizon that excites us.”

Yes, so, I guess I take some comfort in knowing that I am not alone.

And yet, that knowledge doesn’t always keep the moments of absolute despair and desperation at bay. I am working with a therapist, and exploring acupuncture (and medication) as well as meditation and breathing techniques to help with the anxiety and depression. I am not really tempted to try suicide, although I have thought about it (in the same way one thinks about vacations and everything else that one could do in life.) The truth is that I really don’t want to die. I have a daughter getting married in November, and there are so many family members whose lives I would wreck that I cannot imagine letting them down.

No, I don’t want to die. What I want to do is to find a way to be happy and to feel productive again. Anyone who knows me will say, but you are already so productive. You teach, you write, you paint, you play guitar, you garden. What more do you want?

Again, I’ll say it, but feel sheepish as I do. I keep having this terrifying feeling that none of it really makes a bit of difference. As in, if I didn't do it, who would care? Not me.

And therein is the key. I think as I am writing this that I am actually for the first time beginning to understand something that my wonderful massage therapist said to me the very first time I saw her. In her soft but very reassuring voice, Lucia (who also does talk therapy) said to me, “I think the first thing I want to ask you to do, is to slow...way...down.”

Her objective: to help me figure out how to nurture myself, in big and small ways. As I lay on the table, and she very gently manipulated my arms and legs to try to reduce my anxiety, she suggested that I start developing as many nurturing activities as I could. “And that may be something as small as a favorite blanket,” she said. “What matters is that you pay attention to how your body feels, and feed it what it needs and wants.”

It’s funny, but when she said that, the words passed into my ears and I heard them and yet, it isn’t until RIGHT now, as I am writing her words down, that I am beginning to really understand what she meant. I need to find and to rediscover ways to reconnect to sensations of pleasure.

It isn’t as though I’ve never known them.

There used to be a time when writing fiction, for example, made me supremely happy. And then, maybe because it was so difficult to get published, the whole writing enterprise started to feel absolutely futile.

Lately, when I think about writing fiction, it just seems rather pointless. And painful. I didn’t want to write about the feelings that I am describing here because, well, it’s bad enough to have to feel the despair and desperation, who wants to delve into it further in fiction?

But now I am realizing that maybe there is a way out of this feeling that I am locked up in a box. And maybe writing, and art, are the key.

Last week, in my second visit with the massage therapist, Lucia said something else that stuck with me. Looking at me with those magical eyes of hers -- they are the blue crystal color of an evening sky, she told me that she thinks I am on “a sacred journey. “

“Trying to find new meaning in life after your children are gone can be challenging,” she said. But again, she came back to the notion that we start to find meaning when we pay attention to our bodies, when we encourage ourselves to find pleasure in activities big and small in all kinds of venues, activities that feel nurturing to the soul. A visit with a friend. A walk down a country road. A cup of tea with a good book. Activities that are soothing.

Meanwhile, though, something rather profound occurred to me this week. I was walking to the Metro station or maybe it was a teaching day and I was waiting for the bus to get to campus when I realized that the word SCARED is almost identical to another word.

Just make a tiny switch, reverse the position of the C and the A in one word and, well, there you go.

So maybe that is the key here, maybe that is what I am trying to do here. By writing this, maybe I can somehow switch the c and the a. Take the panic that is pressing against my heart and turn it into a different feeling: the feeling that I can build a kind of shrine inside myself, a place in which to retreat when the world feels like it makes no sense, a place in which to carve a new identity and a new sense of purpose.

I pray for this, and ever so humbly, I ask for divine help."

Like I said, I am still marveling that my prayers were answered. But I know for sure they were.

I sit here this morning, the 23rd of December, 2010, just watching the snow fall outside the window over the pond. It is a fluffy winter wonderland out there, and I could, literally, stare all day at the beauty and mystery that is snow.

What I've found is that I spend a lot more time marveling at the "small" miracles -- flowers growing, snow falling -- and that is what brings me joy. And peace. If you can stare out the window all day (and if you are LUCKY enough to have a house, and to have some time just to sit and stare) well, then you are really OK.

I try to live in this moment, and really see the mysteries and miracles that are constantly unfolding around me. A warm crackling fire in the woodstove. And then, the artful patterns of fire and light in the window of the woodstove! I could stare at those all night!

Decorating our 12-foot Christmas tree with my amazing daughter, Jocelyn, and her incredible husband of a year, Evan. Now that was fun!

My son Noah driving 12 hours from North Carolina, arriving home last Saturday night, to be here for the holidays.

These "small" joys are the real blessings. Finally, now, I get it. I really understand that, to be happy, one need only figure out how to remain in a kind of sacred awareness, a mindfulness, of the moment. A switching of the A and the C!

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