Flip-flop: the word sprang from my mouth with an energy all its own. As it bounded out in conversation and danced around, coming to life as I explained the flip-flop phenomenon to my friend, she laughed and said, “You sound like your old self again.”
Wow, could she be right? I have had a bad year. No, bad year doesn’t cut it; “bad year” are words a meteorologist uses to describe a winter full of blizzards or a summer with drought conditions. And speaking here as a self-professed, self-absorbed suburban female who only recognizes drought when it affects citrus prices, I can say without too much guilt, I’ve had a horrible year. It’s been my “annus horribilis,” as Queen Elizabeth so aptly and anachronistically described hers. (Hey, if she can complain, damn it, so can I!) But could a flip-flop exchange bring me out of it? Could the mere act of opening an annoying chain letter that includes a retail experience quicken my step and lighten my heart? Could the simple action of buying one pair of flip-flops, sending them off in a manila envelope to someone I don’t know, then awaiting my altruistic gift to be rewarded in the form of thirty-six more pairs of flip-flops actually shift my consciousness that much? Is this the proverbial butterfly landing that can tilt the karmic wheel?
If so, I’m in trouble … or maybe, I’m lucky.
I read a study on happiness once; well, not so much read the study as read the article that described the findings of the study, and not so much read it as scanned it at a doctor’s office. However, what I gleaned from it stuck with me, its message memorable enough to lie in wait in my trivia-filled brain and jump out at me years later. The study found that people who feel happy the most often are people who find happiness in the little things they experience throughout a day, whereas people who look for happiness in the larger picture—such as goals met, ambitions set, careers on path, or relationships formed—often are disappointed and left feeling empty or disillusioned.
I translate this to mean that when I walk into Starbucks and see smiling faces and hear chipper voices asking what I want; when I stand in this place of familiarity amid other caffeine junkies (tuning into Dylan’s poetic verse or swaying to a samba); when I smell the aroma of my personalized coffee—less complex an order than the person’s in front of me, more complex than the person’s behind me—rise from its cup (realizing on some level that I’ve come a long way from the Folger’s of my deprived youth); when I feel its heat in my hands and bring the cup to my lips with anticipation—I know, thanks to this insightful article, that I’m happy. I feel happiness because I’m living in the present and I’m not bogged down with worries for the future or regrets from the past. As a French Buddhist drinking an espresso might say, “Tres Zen, n’est-ce que pas?”
And there you have it: the Holy Grail, as it were, can be found by taking small sips of life in the mundane moments that make up each and every day.
A lot of big things happen in a lifetime. Generally speaking, this idea gains momentum as a reality for all of us sometime in our twenties. Even heading into adolescence you might sense it. If you’re lucky, these big things are happening to other people and, in the innocence of your youth, you can view them as distant and unrelated to you. If you’re not so lucky, they hit home.
Shortly after I turned fifty, my husband of sixteen years suddenly left. The unraveling of a relationship that needed mending came as a shock to me. I frantically grabbed my sewing kit just in time to hear the bedroom door closing behind him. Just like that. The kids felt it, I felt it, I felt what the kids felt, the kids felt what I felt—round and round.
I can’t say that big moment didn’t create change. A ripple began in my universe that can spread out all around me if I let it. My thoughts can become dark if I permit it. My worries can overwhelm me if I allow them to. Some days my regrets loop like words to the Sinatra CD I hear in the background while waiting for my coffee. But if there’s a silver lining; if the Phoenix can rise from these ashes (or my preferred visualization: if Scarlett O’Hara can stand after throwing up that wretched turnip, raise her fist to the sky, and vow never to go hungry again—or never to eat a turnip again unless it’s properly sautéed), I know I will get through this big thing and I’ll do it, just like the study suggested, by relying on the little things.
When I laugh with my kids over some silly joke, when a friend calls, when I transplant a Japanese maple and it thrives … or when I get an annoying chain letter that involves articles of clothing and exchanges of said items … these little moments that bring me joy, serenity, contentment or inspiration. Our lives are defined by our feelings, not our memories of the past, nor our projections of the future. Bad things happen that turn lives upside down—they’re part of the human learning curve. But they fall together a little easier for me if I focus on the Little Nows that make up the Big Picture. It’s what we have, not what we haven’t.
By Beth H. Allen