Today I sold a pair of earrings and I wept afterwards. It is a strange moment to explain, but there I was letting go of one of the last connections I had to my dead mother.

Dead by almost 15 years.

I had held on to these gold earrings for a subconscious last ditch effort to control the world around me. You see, life has not exactly turned out the way I anticipated. I never thought I would lose my childhood home in a wildfire. I never thought I’d move to and live in Las Vegas for 13 years. I never thought I’d watch my mother die when I was in my mid twenties and just finally starting my career, the same she encouraged me to pursue.

Life doesn’t turn out as you plan.

So I stood there, almost shaking, my words jumbled and mixed in my mouth for my mother’s ghost was in my hands in the form of her earrings. I watched closely as they passed from my hands into my buyer’s hands. The money placed in mine felt weightless, meaningless. We parted, and I sat in my car for a few minutes, shaking, a creature pressing into my chest so I couldn’t breathe, a sudden influx of anxiety consumed me.

And I realized why quite quickly. It was just that: flux. An unexpected upheaval of my life again and again. That isn’t to say something awful happened recently, but my mother’s ghost is still with me, and flux seems to follow me ever since. I never let her passing go for I was too busy trying to control my anguish and loss; letting go of her ghost today was the best lesson I didn’t know I needed.

If you defined your life in one word, what would it be? Most days I would like to answer happy or adventurous. But the truth is that underlying all that is flux. Loss is certainly a repeated theme of flux in my life: my house, mom, grandmothers, dog, friend, two students, gone and all in my twenties. Later, I moved from everything stable to a new state and a new life for a job I later lost.

“The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” the poem goes. Yet though I am good at losing, I am not good at accepting loss.

My jobs now don’t pay well- yet- but they are jobs that fill my soul and that I know will soon enough pay what I need: part time English teacher, part time ski instructor, part time freelance writer, part time coach and tour guide. Yet I worry constantly that I won’t be able to cover myself next month. Trying to control the uncontrollable feels defeating.

And so goes the rest of the story, trying to control my life and know where I’m headed. I feel powerless most days, not knowing what my romantic or friend relationships will be tomorrow, or if I will ever have the things I have dreamed about my whole life like a house and garden or family of my own. I worry that the children in my life will somehow vanish at the hands of their parents or disinterest. I wish I could put in Google Calendar the dates I would like all my dreams to happen and magically my stable dream life will appear. But today reminded me that the more I try to control the past or the future, the less power I have. I feel powerless because, ironically, I can’t let go of control.

I take consolation now in knowing I cannot control where my relationships or jobs or dreams will go, but instead that this moment and the next are all I need to care about. It really comes down to just one other word: fear. I fear putting my heart into a world that might take away again. I fear if I do not wrangle with the powers that be, that nothing I desire will come to me. But my lesson is just simply this: less control and being more present will allow me the one thing I want most: to live happily.

“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”– Confucius

All through primary school, it feels as though teachers, parents, counselors, and relatives encourage children to believe that they can be whatever they can want to be. They organize dress up days where they learn about, explore, role play different careers: today be a nurse, tomorrow a firefighter. There is rarely a limitation on those dreams- kids can dream without being the smartest, the fastest, or whatever gender. Students open their arms and their minds to all the possibilities without concern for if they are qualified or how much the career makes. So what happens? How does this change when we get older? Why do we stop dreaming?

Blame it on high school testing, possibly, and what college one gets into, and what programs within that college at that. Everything seems dependent on ability as well as experiences.  The author of Outliers. Malcolm Gladwell, says “We cannot be separated from where we are from.” Are we limited or blessed based on parental influences, type of community, or even the school we get into? Or can we bypass all these societal limitations and just follow our hearts to happiness?

One of the keys to happiness is just that: following our hearts, filling our lives with the things that we love, that make our days feel more like play than work. This was true when we were children, but why cannot this be true for us now as adults? I am thinking now of my goddaughter, in her first years of college, and wondering what is limiting her, what messages are being sent to her that she doesn’t deserve to have her dream life or “be” the person she has always wanted to be. As a child, I was told I could be anything…as long as it made good money and didn’t embarrass the family. To an extent, I still agree with this, but what dreams I followed were limited because the deeper message was this- that which you love to do (write!) won’t earn you the money you need, so do something else.

As I earned my undergraduate degree, I threw aside the scowls and went for a degree in English literature (with an emphasis on creative writing) and a minor in cultural anthropology. I love both immensely, so studying felt like exploring the world (and myself) and I know I became a better human at graduation than when I was an entering freshmen. And to add to this, I became more passionate about writing, reading, and human culture. I swore I wouldn’t be a teacher because my true passion was just writing. After a time I caved, I gave in to an ill mother’s request to do what the rest of the family did and I earned my masters of education degree. Overall the experience of teaching has been a blessing. Students, in general, are uplifting, a gift, funny, insightful, and inspire me with their hard work. I never had the chance to have children although I wanted them so badly: teaching is my way of having kids, in a sense. For that brief time I teach your child, I treat and love them as though they were my own. But there are times this career hasn’t been so wonderful.

At ten years of teaching, I knew I needed more, not only professionally but personally, too. I needed my passions to be reignited, my passions for writing, snowboarding, mountain biking, just being active and outdoors. I didn’t write much anymore since there was little time after coaching and grading and sleeping. Teaching creative writing classes helped, but the flame still sputtered and needed more air. Volunteering for ski patrol at the local hill helped ease my pain to snowboard all the time, but the desert isn’t the best place for a ski hill of great magnitude. Eventually, I moved schools and my life to Utah. Much to my dismay, I ended up at a school that as I say semi-jokingly “ate my soul.” I was miserable and tried to make it through three years of professional torture, all the while thinking about writing, obsessing over “someday.” Again, I was still tumbled in a world that didn’t really allow me to follow my passions, especially my passion for teaching. This flame was almost completely doused by weird expectations and commands that were devoid of educational purpose.

Someday finally came. I left the school (though not on good terms) and found a job as a part time teacher at a school that spoke my language (as the kids were all snow athletes), and started my own job as a part-time freelance writer. I teach April to November so my “summers” are actually “winters” off, which means my other great passion of snowboarding is really possible. Like, every day possible. I set my own schedule for writing so if I don’t feel like working, I don’t, or I might flip day hours for night hours if I want to mountain bike all day during the day.

Here is where my point is: my life as I wanted it to be finally came true, 25 years after I started dreaming about it. It would have happened sooner if I had just followed my heart. Though I have been reminded that all our experiences end up creating who we are at this exact moment, I know I would have enjoyed starting off with my dream life. All that said, I’m blessed to have it now. Though I do not make much money, I do enjoy and love the students I have, the ability to write for money, and the freedom to enjoy the life I have always wanted snowboarding, mountain biking, climbing, or napping almost whenever I desire. Living a life where I can follow and embrace my passions is what makes me happy.

Therefore, to have happiness, follow your heart, and dream big dreams. As the saying goes, “if your dreams don’t scare you, then they aren’t big enough.” Go forth and live passionately!

Modern society has swallowed its own tail: in trying to make ourselves happier through modern advances, we have made ourselves instead the opposite. In a 2013 study of those adults who found themselves to be happy, only 55% of those interviewed of Gen X admitted to deep happiness, while other ages groups (like Baby Boomer and Millenials) scored quite similarly. In essence, only roughly half of the United States admits to happiness. Though in decades past happiness may have been measured differently, if measured at all, the greatest change is how happiness is defined. While statistics show that Americans are more glum, the questions remain: how do we define happiness, and how can we change our state of being?

PBS published happiness as “…the good life, freedom from suffering, flourishing, well-being, joy, prosperity, and pleasure.” But what does this mean? Perhaps the definition ultimately comes down to the individual and his or her situation, but one might venture a guess that true happiness begins with the most bottom tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy of need, so once we have safety, food, and comfort, we can begin our journey to happiness. If we feel successful in some manner (either professionally or personally), have self-esteem, laughter, and are able to participate in things we enjoy, we will find happiness. This still seems a superficial answer, and I intend to take the next few weeks to investigate what truly makes us joyful and happy.

This search began after several conversations with friends recently, both instigated by myself and the friends, regarding our state of well-being. One friend offered that he had lost the will to do any of the activities he once loved, which was a heavy load to hear since he was the man who taught me how to love the world around me. Another friend found herself several times either in a fury or in tears because she found herself in her mid-forties and childless. There are more still, those who have found sadness dwells in their souls instead of the burning excitement for life they once held.

When I began my research, one very common theme arose multiple times: do not compare yourself to others or to an unrealistic expectation. We will begin here. Happiness is your own journey, as is life. Our paths may be different, but one is never more important or successful than another. High school reunions too often spark such feelings: that perfect kid in high school is now president of the world? Worse yet, we become consumed with images on Facebook of these perfect lives of our virtual friends, and instantly we see ourselves as failures because we haven’t had the apparently required two kids, gotten engaged, gotten married, bought a new car, went on a trip around the world…twice. Whether or not social media virtual friends are honestly showing their true lives in irrelevant; what is relevant is your true life.

If you find yourself a bit glum these days, here is your step one homework for happiness: count how many times you honestly check social media sites each day. Do this for a matter of days, take the average, and now cut that number in half. So, if you pop online 20 times during the day (mostly at work when you don’t want to do that report, I suspect), half of that is obviously 10. For the next two days, go online no more than 10 times. Then, cut it in half again. Two days you may only check 5 times a day. Then…you got it…cut it out completely. Go for a week without checking, if you can, and then limit yourself to one time a day at most after that.

Here’s why: staying off social media first will make you more productive in general. You will be more focused at work, and more mindful at home. Mindfulness is an incredibly important part of our happiness. Without comparing ourselves to other people, we can focus on each moment of our day, which is essentially what the makeup of our lives really is. Spend time noticing the world around you: the colors of the room, the temperature of the air outside, the shapes of the clouds, the way your lunch really tastes, the way your favorite lotion smells. Be present in each experience, without judgement of good or bad, just observing life. Observe your own life and ask what makes you happy, what makes you feel good. Honor your sadness or whatever emotions you may feel, embrace it, speak to it, and start to let it go. Most importantly, remember that you cannot compare yourself to anyone else because you are unlike anyone else. This is your homework. Step 2 will come shortly.

Expectation is the mother of all frustration.

Antonio Banderas

Frustration attacks us, overpowers us. It makes us respond inhumanely at times, angrily or mean, short-tempered and sometimes just spiteful. Frustration rears its ugly head when we are “in situations where a person is blocked from reaching a desired outcome,” (Berger). While this emotion is overwhelming and elicits our worst behaviors, it also is an indicator that something is not working, thus we should be motivated to fix the problems through changing some facet of our lives or just the issue at hand.

Often, frustration surfaces when we have put so much time and effort and energy into something, and the result we want just isn’t coming. We have internal expectations or wants and desires, either realistic or otherwise, which cannot be met. Or perhaps it is a reaction to wasting time stuck in traffic or losing money by not getting the highest amount at your latest garage sale. External influences can often be unavoidable- we cannot change traffic patterns or force patrons to pay full retail for that used lamp without a cord. But we can find ways to deal with frustration, both internal and external, to better create a positive environment.

Try first some meditative chant, such as the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” Remember that we cannot change the external world around us, but we can change the way we react to the world. However, such a phrase may not be enough to deal with the emotional surge responding to said situations. It takes time and practice to deal with the most common emotional responses to frustration, such as: giving up, losing confidence, stress, depression, or using unhealthy coping mechanisms like overeating or alcohol.

For me, anger is the response that I most express in frustrating situations. As a teacher, frustration (especially with the freshmen boys I teach) becomes overwhelming and personalized. I worked for an hour putting together a twenty-minute assignment that for some reason they cannot understand. A couple students talk over me when I give directions, and then as repeatedly how to do the assignment. Students make inappropriate comments that they do not understand are inappropriate. If I were to watch myself when consumed with anger, I’m sure that both I would be embarrassed, but also the phrase “Frustration begets anger and anger begets aggression” would be on my t-shirt.

Frustration, and the subsequent anger, also arises for me when I cannot complete a task, generally out of fear. Climbing is the most prevalent example. I rock climb…a lot. I love the challenge of going where, in theory, I really shouldn’t be able to, finding a solution to what to many is an invisible problem. What most keeps me from success, though, is fear or not understanding how to complete the problem. “I can’t do it,” I often yell to my patient boyfriend belaying me from below. He merely sighs and yells up at me, “You can do it.” Each time, I use “I can’t do it” in frustrated and near tears shaking voice, I’m actually saying that I am scared or that I am frustrated because I cannot accomplish what I want. I begin to shut down, I get short tempered, and while I should be addressing why I am responding as I am, instead I am ending up going with my emotional expression, not a logical interpretation of it.

So how do we, or more specifically I, deal with anger associated with frustration? How do I keep my boyfriend from rolling his eyes at my responses to not being able to do what I need to do? How do I keep my temper when Johnny Freshman asks me the same question for the fourth time? It is my intention that this week, especially tomorrow, I will focus on being a better human by focusing on expressing or identifying my frustrations.

First is the hardest: the identifying. Hindsight offers a vantage point of each incident of nasty comment or near crying and what prompted the behavior. However, how often can we see in the moment? Emotional responses for me are often volatile, so quickly running without controls. Instead, this week my first goal is to be more present in each moment and each emotion as it arises. If this means possibly saying aloud, to no one but myself, “I’m starting to feel upset,” then this may lead to future quicker and more apt understanding of my conflicted inner self.

Second is then acting upon the identification of the frustration. Taking a moment to breathe, to consider the context, to remove myself from the situation is key. For example, my freshmen often find that one nerve to pick at. Removing myself from the situation means not taking their actions personally- and consider their true psychological motivations. They aren’t necessarily specifically attacking me; any number of reasons could be to blame. Hormones, boredom, a lack of understanding the material all might lead to their behaviors. Perhaps something terrible has happened to them at home, like a family member dying or having to move because of a divorce. Remembering that other’s motivations are not inherently an attack on you is optimal in avoiding anger.

Also, I must be forgiving of myself, and my students, too. What most often causes my frustration is the expectations that I have for myself or for others. Perhaps I had a partially unrealistic perception of myself finishing a climbing route without any major difficulty. Or that I would have lost five pounds doing a new workout, yet instead gaining three. Or that my young and immature students would act like seniors. Allowing for “human error” or merely to remember that we are all fallible will allow opportunity to see the problem, and fix it, rather than just become angry about it.

This week, as I deepen my understanding of frustration and being human, I plan to improve my volatile emotional responses by connecting to my chakras, specifically my third eye chakra. Moodiness and volatility are developed when the chakra is out of alignment. Once balanced, you feel “clear and focused,” able to see the “big picture.” Healing and balancing this chakra includes meditative and relaxing yoga poses such as Child’s Pose. During this position, repeating positive affirmations, can help focus the power of your positive self. Luckily, it is also recommended that foods to heal this chakra are blueberries, dark chocolate, and omega-3 rich foods (like nuts and fish). Surround yourself with the color indigo and scent your world with lavender. All these suggestions are meant to focus on the self, the third eye, and to visualizing the world around us.

Yoga and meditation, breathing into the moment, and detaching myself from self-blame will be my focus this week as I become less frustrated, less angry, and more open to the universe. The more I embrace frustration as an indicator for change, and act on that change, the closer to becoming a better human I will be.

12 Days of Happy

In the tradition of the 12 Days of Christmas, I am beginning a movement toward happiness for all called the 12 Days of Happy. For the 12 days following Christmas, we will celebrate how beautiful and amazing life is by suggesting ways to make life richer and more beautiful.

Day One: Sleep Well and Wake Happy

WebMD reports that 20% of Americans sleep less than 6 hours on average, which falls way below the recommended 7-8 hours for adults. Work, financial woes, stress, a virtual 24/7 society of social media and gaming prevents us from scheduling an appropriate amount of sleep. Caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, poor diets, worse workout habits all contribute to a lack of sleep. While we sense the obvious ill-effects of this–exhaustion, moodiness– we need to consider the other consequences: “poor work performance, driving accidents, relationship problems, and mood problems like anger and depression. Heart disease, diabetes, and obesity” (WebMD).

Just like healthy eating, healthy sleeping is important, too, but so often set aside because we prioritize other things (an unfinished list, family care, work, house duties, etc). Starting today, focus on less alcohol and caffeine, especially close to bedtime (starting in the late afternoon). In the hour or two prior to bedtime, focus on quiet and calming activities that don’t involve eating, exercising, or even watching television. Fitness Magazine suggests an 8-Minute Yoga Workout before bed to relax us, and to deepen our sleep. If these suggestions still do not help deepen your sleep, consider if it is a self-fulfilling prophecy (“I can never sleep so therefore I won’t be able to sleep tonight”) or if there is a greater issue that should be addressed by a professional.

The self-fulfilling prophecy is also applicable to how we wake up, too. The Greatness Zone suggests going to bed (and/or waking up) grateful. What three to five things are you appreciative of? What good things do you anticipate throughout the day to happen? One of those things should be something you love to do: dancing, singing, cooking, running, calling your best friend, whatever suits your fancy. Interacting with close friends and family, those who share your same values and who respect you are vital in the process of being happy. Finding yourself frustrated throughout the day, take a moment to meditate and quiet the internal conflicts and external pressures, essentially a quick “restart” button. Find a few moments for yourself and follow the advice of Dr. Weil and Thich Nhat Hanh for simple meditations.

Of course, the most important element is doing that which makes you happy as far as career. This is not a minor adjustment, but consider if you are in the position to do so, change to a career or job that reflects your passion. If this isn’t possible, following the above suggestions may help you come to peace with your job or daily expectations. Having peace in your daily life might then make going to sleep each night easier and better, and thus begins a healthy and happy cycle.

In recent years, I have seen a vast amount of changes both in my external world and my internal landscape. From US politics to the world’s environment, from where I live now to my overall health, change has been the most constant part of my life (as the saying goes).  A year and a half ago, I was just barely packing up a life of 13 years to move out of state…more because I felt like it than anything else. I’ve gotten a tattoo, done a triathlon, started a new job, picked up writing and editing jobs, jumped out of a perfectly good plane, learned to downhill mountain bike, began surfing again–all amazing and wonderful experiences I would never have had if I allowed fear to control me.

However, fear still lurks everywhere. This month, January 2013, my goal is to face and conquer as many of my fears as possible. The reasoning? Let’s take skydiving. My friend, Stacey, invited me to her birthday-skydiving extravaganza. At first I heartily refused, but when I considered WHY I was so eager to decline, it occurred to me it was primarily terror. There was no rational explanation or discussion regarding my hesitance, but the turmoil must have stemmed from the unknown. As we watched the “safety” video, a friend snapped a picture of me…having a panic attack. The attack didn’t abate. I pretended all was well, but once airborne the panic set in hard. Hyperventalating, near tears, and shaking, the jump instructor next to me locked me to him to keep me calm.

But it wasn’t until my instructor scooted me toward the door that I thought I might die. Sweat rivulets everywhere, hard breathing, a slew of swear words, and then…

…we were out! Dancing through the air, I instantly fell in love. No gravity, no concerns, and no fear. It was the unknown that had prevented my desire to jump, but facing that horrid, sickly panic head on made me feel powerful, confident, strong! At landing, I couldn’t stop smiling. My throat was sore from screams of joy. “Again?” I asked, half joking, but also half very, very serious.

Had fear stopped me, I would never have known this joy, and I would not have this memory.

Years later, this experience still stays with me, reminding me that facing fears makes me stronger. If I can jump out of a plane, surely I can…[fill in the blank].

The Missouri Department of Mental Health states that fear is most common if it includes such things as:

  • Dread: Dying in a terrorist attack tends to seem more frightening than dying of aheart attack in your sleep because it is more “dreadful.”
  • Awareness: Right now terrorism seems more frightening than mad cow diseasebecause it is on our “radar screen.” The media plays a major role in definingcurrent concerns.
  • Familiarity: New risks tend to be more frightening than those with which we arefamiliar.

and continues by saying “We can choose to avoid feared situations (such as riding in an airplane) or we can choose to encounter the feared situation (riding in a plane despite feeling fear).”

So this month, I choose to face the situations that most hold me captive: karaoke (more so being vulnerable in front of a group of people, or just the fear of judgement), icy slopes and big jumps, submitting my writing, surfing “big” waves, and just trust in general. Though I may not conquer all of these, I certainly will become a stronger woman by facing fears each day! Using The Yamas and Niyamas as my ethical guide, I will look into the heart of my fears because “to create a life and a world free of violence is first and foremost to find our own courage.”

Day 17: Wake Up Early

We all do it. The protests, groans, slurred sailor speak. The alarm sounds at ridiculous o’clock and suddenly it is grounds for throwing pillows or whining. While this may have been more acceptable as children, as adults we need to embrace that pre-dawn alarum. The questions linger, in a fog-like delirium as we wake from slumber: how and why?

Howtowakeupearly.com is just the site to get one started on the road to “oversleeping recovery.” Boasting nine reasons for rising before the third pounding of the snooze, one might be convinced there’s something better to do than sleep. Might. Suggestions include “me time” by developing personal goals, working out, preparing for whatever the day might hold, meditation time, and more. Perhaps this quiet time is perfect to finish that lesson plan or to just soak in the quiet before the kids wake up.

Lifeoptimizer.com then feeds us the how. With 25 solid suggestions, there could be no more dawn fits. Find a goal for each day to really get started on the right path: Today, I want to be more productive in grading papers or Today, I’m going to finish that report. Once we have a goal, we ought to get right to completing that goal, which means no snooze button. Maimondes Medical Center states that “People who are reliant on their snooze button can diminish the positive effect of a good night’s rest because they are constantly drifting back to sleep only to be abruptly woken up a few minutes later. This causes a shortened, disrupted sleep cycle right before a person starts their day.”

To wake early and feel refreshed, one must also sleep well. This can be accomplished by creating a healthy night time ritual. This may include diet (not eating just before bed, no caffeine after noon, etc.) as well as behaviors (no TV or social sites just before sleep). Instead, find a ritual that soothes you: meditation, praying, a warm bath, really just whatever helps calm and focus the mind. Perhaps you might enjoy a sound system or falling asleep to music like Brain Sync’s Sound Sleep which utilizes specific brainwaves and “soothing sound waves [to] ease your brain out of the rapid rhythms of Beta, down through the relaxing states of Alpha and Theta, into the welcoming depths of Delta.” However, avoid the “easy” traps–alcohol before bed may help you sleep faster, but for not as long while sleeping pills (even Advil PM) can cause drowsiness the following day.

Still need help waking up? Perhaps a gadget like the Philips Wake Up Light can help. Softly coaxing you back to an awake state without startling the system, this is the answer to the harsh alarm. Need something more substantial? Try Tocky, the runaway clock. The complete opposite of the calming Philips alarm, this clock instead runs away from its owner, continually screeching. Just don’t hit the snooze button.

In recent weeks, I have been attempting to apply this theory. I will at no time admit that a “slumberhound” such as myself can easily convert to early riser. I am, by nature, on the body clock time of 9am till 12pm. During the summer months or long vacations, I fall back into this natural rhythm. We all have these rhythms specific to ourselves and that groggy, grumpy feeling is often your body fighting your job’s schedule. That said, I have found that getting to work well before my colleagues and especially students affords a few quiet moments to set up my classroom and absorb the plans for the day. I feel more prepared, then, and so much less harried that, dare I say, I actually enjoyed waking early. While I would still prefer to fall back into my natural rhythm of sleep, I know that waking outweighs the sleeping in the long run.