My Happiness Project

I’m in the middle of reading Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project. In fact, I’m in July. I thought the book sounded annoying: too chipper, too cheerful, too prescriptive. And at times, it can be all of those things. But, for the most part, I find it charming, informative, inspiring.

Rubin noticed one day that although she was reasonably happy with her life—and her husband, her two young daughters, her work as a writer—she always had a nagging feeling she should be happier. So she created the Happiness Project. She assigned themes to each month (of course, this made me happy, because this is what I did in My Year in Flowers book). Her twelve themes for the year were:

January: Vitality
February: Marriage
March: Work
April: Parenthood
May: Leisure
June: Friendship
July: Money
August: Eternity
September: Books
October: Mindfulness
November: Attitude
December Happiness

She spent each month reading about the topic and applying certain principles she distilled from her reading to her own life, for example, during the month of July (Money) she worked with these concepts: Indulge in a Modest Splurge, Buy Needful Things, Spend Out, and Give Something Up.

Naturally I was enchanted by this idea. I love putting things in boxes (hence my fascination with planners) and, in fact, I was contemplating posting a monthly theme on my web site. So I decided to create my own Happiness Project and these are the themes I chose (carefully chosen to be seasonal, naturally):

January: Serenity
February: Relationship
March: Health
April: Clarity
May: Beauty
June: Play
July: Creativity
August: Spaciousness
September: Mystery
October: Work
November: Legacy
December: Gift-Giving

I’m still tinkering with these. I stole some from Rubin. Others are my theme words for 2011. I’m already sad I missed some (Play!) but they’ll come around again next year (my Happiness Year apparently starts in July).

Right now I’m having a great time figuring out what to do during the month of Creativity. My principles so far are Borrow Creativity (a trip to a museum or attending a concert or maybe just looking at an artist’s site each day). Go on an Artist Date (I’m planning a trip to my local art supply store; maybe I can count a perfume shop as another one). Try Something New: I want to try a different artistic medium each week, but am having a hard time figuring out what besides my two favorites (outside of writing): photography and collage. Attend Art Events: Luckily I am already attending the opening of the Long Shot photo exhibit at Photo Center Northwest on July 23 (I’ll have a photo in the exhibit! As will everyone who participated).  I also found some great events sponsored by the Henry Art Gallery: a workshop on art books (maybe I’ll be inspired to make one) and a talk on the future of book stores by one of the people who is reshaping publishing, Matthew Stadler.

My assignment is already reshaping the way I approach my life/time. I spent a couple of happy hours this morning looking at various visual artist’s sites and following a chain of links to all sorts of cool projects that parallel my own, like the Long Walk,  a project by artist Susan Robb and this article on Hamish Fulton, who makes art resulting from the experience of individual walks, which also led me to an article on How To Get Lost in a City, about Amira Hanafi, who produces art from walks she takes. I have no idea what a situationist derive is but I think I should learn. (Actually I just found out by going to Wikipedia: it means taking a drifting (unplanned) walk through a city, noticing ambiance and what appeals.) Come to think of it, this will be my fourth art form: a walk. Which is really the subject of My Year in Flowers book so it all wraps around in a neat circle, like the seasons.

Photos by Waverly Fitzgerald

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Flower Art for Corpus Christi

Thursday, June 23 is Corpus Christi, a Catholic holiday that arrived on the Church calendar fairly late (the 13th century), a holiday devoted to the veneration of the Blessed Sacrament. It is often celebrated with a procession in which the priest carries the blessed Host (which represents the Body of Christ). I remember it from my Catholic childhood as the most golden of holidays, with the priest wearing gold vestments, and walking under a gilt-fringed canopy, holding aloft the gold vessel containing the host, flanked by altar boys swinging glittering thuribles emitting the smoke of frankincense.

The most amazing celebrations of this holiday have evolved in Spain and Italy where people create carpets of flowers over which the procession can pass. I wrote about this in 2007 in my blog when I discovered some fabulous flower art in my neighborhood.

A few months ago, I happened upon a form of flower art that is even more simple but in some ways more poignant. I was on my way to the University of Washington when I spotted this flower, poised on top of a concrete-filled pipe, obviously carefully placed there. I was so surprised and moved, I took a photo. Then a few steps further on, I found another camellia tucked into the corner of a re-paving project.

So I challenge you to create some flower art of your own on Corpus Christi. Find a flower, and place it where someone else will find and enjoy it.

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Walking Tempo

There’s a section in my Slow Time book about tempo. Researchers have found that tempo is related to environment. The bigger the city, the faster the tempo. Heat is also a factor. Slower cities tend to be closer to the equator. A study of  36 big American cities done by Robert Levine (A Geography of Time) found that Boston was faster than New York City and Los Angeles was the slowest.

I was thinking about tempo recently because I was walking behind two guys who were walking really slowly.  I was, of course, trying to get past them but they were hogging the sidewalk, so I decided to start walking at their pace. And it was really interesting because I found that by slowing down to their tempo, it actually changed my attitude. I felt much more relaxed and sort of curious about the world.

This is an experiment I think I will repeat, although there is one warning. If you are walking behind someone, don’t be too obvious about copying their walk or they will get nervous.

That’s my friend, Art, walking down the steps at a museum we visited in San Francisco. It turns out I don’t take many photos of people walking.

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Driving Kindness

Lately I’ve been thinking about driving more kindly. It doesn’t come naturally.

I have a lot of friends who are angry drivers. I hate riding with them. They yell at other drivers as they drive. “What do you think you are doing?” Or make impatient noises indicating their disgust. Or tailgate slow drivers to try to make them uncomfortable. Or complain about how poorly everyone else is driving.

I used to feel a bit superior because I don’t do this. But the other day as I was driving home, I realized how judgmental I am. I may not be yelling or tsking or tail-gating but I’m still thinking those things. “Could you move a littler faster?” “What do you think you’re doing?” “You really think I’m going to let you cut into this lane just because you were too impatient to wait with the rest of us?”

I decided to try driving with loving-kindness. If I drove with loving-kindness, when I’m behind a slow driver, I would simply slow down, keep a respectful distance and think, “Hmm, maybe I need to be reminded to slow down,” or “Maybe they are looking for an address. I hope they find it.” If I drove with loving kindness, when someone tries to sneak into my lane, I’d think, “I bet they didn’t know they had to be in this lane,” and let them in. If I drove with loving-kindness and someone else tail-gated me, I’d say, “Oh, do you want to go by? I’ll move aside.” When I came to an intersection where it was confusing as to who should go first, I would not decide when to go by what is right (“I was here first”) or logic “(Well, he’s waiting for a pedestrian, so I should go.”) No, I would take my turn in the way I assume would make everyone else the happiest.

I have tried to put this into action. I don’t drive that often (maybe once or twice a week) so I haven’t had much practice. I have to tell you it is extremely difficult (at least for me) but it turns driving into a totally different experience.

That cute car is my three year old Ford Focus: Sunny.

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First Scent of Spring

This year I first smelled the scent of spring on Monday, January 10.

I usually associate it with an unusually warm and sunny winter day but on Monday it was snowing in Seattle: soft, clumpy flakes drifting down from the sky on and off all day long, leaving a frosting of white on the grass and car windows.

Still when I left work that afternoon, I passed through a zone of piercing sweet scent that I immediately recognized as sweet box (sarcococcus humilis, I believe, though I am a little confused by my sarococcus species).

The scent is hard to describe but almost everyone describes it as piercing. For instance, I found this blog post by Barbara Wilde who gardens in Paris and found it wafting out of Parc Monceau. She describes it as powerful and piercingly sweet.

Another common description, and one I have used in the past,  is the sensation of being stopped in your tracks, as described by Sue Taylor in an article at Dave’s Garden. She compares the scent to honey.

This year my first thought was of violets. Mary Robson at Muck About describes it as vanilla and honey. She brings in branches in November and “forces’ them to bloom indoors.

I have tried this myself as a way to extend this delicious scent but the scent really loses its charm after a few hours in a warm house and becomes cloying. I prefer that elusive, piercing, evasive scent that surprises me on a winter day with its promise of spring.

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My Top Ten Books of 2010

As part of my year end review, I always make a list of all the books I’ve read during the year and then determine my favorite ten books. I was just planning to publish a list as I did in 2009 (and I will—see below, if you’re impatient). Then I realized I wanted to write more about each of these books and what they mean to me.

I’m making a commitment to blog more frequently in 2010 and I plan to blog each week about a book I am currently reading. I could post these reviews on Library Thing or Good Reads, the sites my friends are using to keep track of books they’ve read and are reading, and I probably will post there as well.

But I don’t want to review every book I read. I hate writing bad reviews (I was a book reviewer for a short time and hated it: both reading and writing about bad books) and I didn’t finish a lot of the books I started last year.  I follow famous librarian Nancy Pearl’s rule. She says that up to the age of 50, you should read 50 pages of any book before deciding if it is worthwhile or not. After the age of 50, you can subtract one year for every year you age, so that by the time you are 90 you only have to read 10 pages. Life is too short to waste time reading bad books!

Most of the books on my Top Ten list this year were non-fiction. Only two novelists made it onto my list. That got me thinking. I realized I go to novels for entertainment and story-telling and these days, I get a lot of those desires satisfied by watching TV. Yes, I am about to come out of the closet about my plebian tastes!

When I want short stories featuring a character with a problem, some conflict and a resolution, I turn to court TV and get two or three of these stories in an hour. If I want to experience a longer journey–about a character on a quest, struggling against obstacles, finding allies and mentors, learning lessons and eventually achieving a goal–I watch reality TV shows, like Survivor or America’s Next Top Model or Top Chef. And finally if I want a really good dramatic show, something with the density of a Dickens novel with complex characters, multiple plot lines and layers of theme, I can watch dramatic series like Mad Men or True Blood or Big Love. So maybe next year I will have to write a top ten list of my favorite TV shows. I didn’t even keep track of them this year.

Most of the books on my top ten list are books that changed the way I live or the way I think. I also notice that three out of ten have the word “home” in the title. Not sure about the significance of that but it was a year when I stayed home a lot.

Here’s my list. I’ll do a countdown starting with #10 and working my way up to #1, in the tradition of all Top Ten Lists, over the next ten weeks. By then I should have read enough good books to keep me posting reviews every week all year long.

Fox Woman by Kij Johnson

The Chet and Bernie mysteries by Spencer Quinn: Dog Gone It, Thereby Hangs a Tale and To Catch a Thief

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

Goat Song: A Seasonal Life, A Short History of Herding and the Art of Making Cheese by Brad Kessler

The Thoughtful Dresser: The Art of Adornment, the Pleasures of Shopping and Why Clothes Matter by Linda Grant

Reading the Mountains of Home by John Elder

Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship by Gail Caldwell

Circumference of Home: One’s Man Yearlong Quest for a Radically Local Life by Kurt Hoelting

Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science by Carol Kaesuk Yoon

Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl by Stacey O’Brien

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Spiders of the Season

I’ve seen many spiderwebs in the last few weeks. At first, I thought I was just noticing them more, perhaps because of a trick of the autumn light. But when I went to my garden, there were webs all over my bay tree.  One spider had a striped grub all wrapped up in the middle of the web. I tried to trim the tree without disturbing the spider’s web but I accidentally tore one of the threads and watched the spider scuttle to safety on the topmost twig of the tree. I think it was an orb weaver: a big, round golden spider. It looked very healthy.

A little bit of web research (none of it definitive) suggests that many spiders only live for a year. The orb weavers I am seeing are probably females who are waiting for males to find them so they can mate and lay eggs. The males will die shortly after mating while the females will survive until the first frost. Other spiders, like hobo spiders, hibernate in the winter.

It took me a while to recognize that I had just posted a message to subscribers to my weekly Calendar Companion suggesting they look for an animal ally. So I wondered if I was noticing the spiders because they had a message for me. In Medicine Cards, Jamie Sams and David Carson say that Spider’s message is to create, create, create. That makes sense as I’m currently working on revising a novel, revising one flower essay and creating another one. So I’m definitely in the throes of creative chaos.

Sams and Carson also say the appearance of a spider might remind you to look at what you’ve caught in your web. That makes sense to me as I just learned I was awarded an Artist Trust grant to write the final essay for my book of essays on flowers. It’s the first time I’ve ever received a grant after many applications and I’m delighted.

The great photo of a rain-dotted web was taken by Shaw Fitzgerald in October 2013.

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Personality Type and Time

I asked the students in my current Slow Time class to take a version of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), a test which categorizes people based on certain personality traits, because I was curious about how these traits might affect a person’s relationship with time. (As far as I know the MBTI must be administered by someone who is certified in the method; the test I suggested to my students is a free variation which I found at this web site).

I’ve always enjoyed personality tests and have used my understanding of the MBTI for many years, primarily as a way to understand differences between my approach (I’m an INFJ) and that of those around me.  Wikipedia  has a lengthy article on the MBTI which describes its development and provides charts showing the percentages of types in the general population and the labels associated with the various types.

There are two traits that I’m pretty sure affect tempo, if not approach to time. One is the measure of introversion/extraversion. I’ve been reading a lot about Introverts recently (including Networking for People who Hate Networking by Devora Zack) and the article “Revenge of the Introverts” by Laurie Helgoe in Psychology Today (Sept/Oct 2010)). Introverts need more alone time than extroverts. Zack also encourages introverts to pace themselves, allowing for plenty of quiet time after intensely social activities. (I’ve found that my introversion has increased as I grow older. I used to be able to sustain the extended extroversion of a writers’ conference for a whole weekend. Now I’m a TV-watching-vegetable after one full day.) So introverts would want to plan for solitary time in their schedules.

But those two words—plan and schedule—are problematic for the P’s among us. This is another trait that is expressed in the Myers-Briggs test as P (perceptive) or J (judgmental). The labels are unfortunate as they are often misunderstood. P’s are impulsive and spontaneous, they like things open-ended. I always use the example of cupboard doors. P’s leave them open; J’s close them. J’s love making schedules; they probably love routine as well (I do). But P’s don’t like having things locked down; a full schedule makes them feel hemmed in. They want to be able to choose an activity based on how they feel at the moment.

J’s love calendars and deadlines, schedules and plans. That’s how they get things done. But P’s want to accomplish things as well. I always recommend they use a more intuitive approach to goal-setting, like mind-mapping. You would put the desired goal in the center of a page, then branch out from it, writing in tasks, outcomes and qualities. A P could then feel free (I imagine) to tackle any of the steps in any order.

The other two traits identified in the Myers-Briggs type come from Jung’s four personality types. He believed people had a preference for either Thinking or Feeling (that is acting from logic or acting from the heart) and a preference for either Sensing (practical, hands-on experience) or Intuiting (a more mental, future-oriented approach to the world). I’m not as sure how these traits might affect your relationship with time.

This website which uses the types to discuss dealing with work issues suggests that Sensing types will be more rigid about sticking to a time schedule. I’m not so sure about that. That assumes that time is actually measurable and quantifiable. I would think a Sensing type would be just as likely to eat when hungry (they would sense that it’s meal time) as to eat when the clock says noon. This web site also believes that Thinking types will plan their day rationally while Feeling types would plan their day according to the personal encounters they want to have. Again, I think that’s probably reductive. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say a Thinking type might be more motivated to achieve certain outcomes while a Feeling type would be trying to cultivate a certain quality of experience while moving through time.

What do you think? Can you make any correlations between your MBTI type and your relationship to time?

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Lotus Moon

To honor the sixth new moon in the Chinese calendar, the Lotus Moon, I’m posting a photo I took of the water lilies in a pond at Volunteer Park.

I had just been to see “Fleeting Beauties,” an exhibit of Japanese woodblock prints (including the famous Hokusai “The Wave” which I sometimes claim as my logo because of my name) at the nearby Seattle Asian Art Museum. I imagine I was influenced by those designs when I composed this photo.

I always spend at least one day during the month of the Lotus Moon, on the lake, in a rowboat or kayak, admiring the water lilies that thrive in Lake Washington.

If you want to learn more about water lilies and lotuses and the distinctions between them, read the article I wrote on the lotus as the flower of July.

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Fourth of July as Midsummer

I like to think of Fourth of July as a secular version of pagan Midsummer festivals.

Like many historical holidays, Fourth of July seems to have co-opted many of the symbols of the earlier celebrations at this time of year. For centuries at Summer Solstice, people stayed up all night, dancing around bonfires and rolling burning wheels down the hillsides, to honor the sun. On Fourth of July, we set off pinwheels in the street (evoking the circle, the symbol of the sun), wave sparklers around in the darkness (they look like the embers dancing up from a bonfire) and gaze at fireworks blazing overhead late into the night.

Many families spend the daytime hours on Fourth of July, at parks and lakes, enjoying a picnic lunch and eagerly waiting for the sun to set on the longest day of the year. We worship the sun and may pay for our devotion with sunburns.

Both Midsummer and Fourth of July are associated with heavy drinking. In fact, Fourth of July is one of the deadliest holidays in America due to alcohol-related traffic accidents. The traditional Fourth of July BBQ combines many of these elements: drinking and fire and spending hours outdoors with friends and family.

Midsummer has always been a time of revelry and romance. A Swedish proverb says “Midsummer’s night is not long but it sets many cradles rocking.” The Fourth of July places a little more emphasis on family than on coupling, but there’s no denying the romance involved in lying in your lover’s arms in a grassy park while watching fireworks burst overhead.

Of course, there are many differences between Fourth of July and Midsummer. Midsummer festivals also celebrate flowers and herbs, and often include the element of water (which we acknowledge here in Seattle by setting our fireworks off over Lake Union). Still, when I’m annoyed by the drunken crowds or frightened by the sound of firecrackers exploding, I remind myself this is just the traditional way to celebrate the height of Summer and the glory of the Sun.

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