I went out to dinner with a very dear friend the other night. When people say things fall apart, her current situation is pretty much an illustration of that. She was laid off from a high-level position, within weeks got a cancer diagnosis, and days later watched her apartment flood. She left the state to move back into her parents’ home to live there while she received treatment. Sixteen months later, she returned to the city and found things had dramatically changed. Among them, the friendships she had nurtured for years were no longer the same as people had moved, gotten married, had babies. Suddenly, the life she knew was not just interrupted, it was no longer graspable. As she spoke to me about her feelings, I felt her despair very deeply.
I couldn’t stop thinking about her and what she could possibly do to emerge from this place she found herself in. I had given her my very best advice: throw yourself into one of the projects you are thinking about. Slowly, as your focus is on something new, you will be able to create a new life. But I wasn’t sure that was the best advice because what was she supposed to do in the meanwhile, tonight, today, tomorrow? How was she supposed to live with the heaviness in her heart?
Days later, I was watching Sesame Street with my kids while getting them ready for school. Suddenly, Jason Mraz appeared singing “I’m Yours” and something shifted inside of me. Just like a scent that wafts into your airspace and unlocks a memory, the melody stirred something in me and shifted my mood. The thought came to me: when the big picture has crumbled, focus on the small delights.
Interestingly, this was my strategy as a child. I cannot complain about my life because I had a mother and a grandmother who loved me unconditionally and created a safe haven for me. My father, despite his many faults, was also present, always provided for me, and I knew he loved me deeply in his own way. But he was an alcoholic. We were also a blended family plagued with deep hurt, jealousy and rivalry. I was sent to boarding school a continent away at the age of 11, and while I always cherished the experience, it wasn’t always easy dealing with the emotions of finding myself on my own 7 time zones away from my mom. Again, I recognize I have a charmed life, but the situations I had to deal with were often difficult.
Aside from leaning on the knowledge that I had my mom, I got through it all by focusing on the small, like taking a break from playing outside to sit on a bench and bask in the sunlight; reading a quote on the magic of the universe; plunging into a good novel; enjoying a scoop of my favorite Haagen-Dazs Macadamia Nut Brittle ice cream (why was this flavor discontinued?).
Of course, there is something about adulthood that makes this approach somewhat more difficult. Suddenly, problems don’t just surround us, they envelop us like a heavy winter coat. We also feel responsible for them and feel the burden of having to do something about them. Issues also stay with us a little bit longer; we can no longer just shake things off. From this perspective, it’s hard to enjoy the small wonders.
How can we slide into the mentality of enjoying life's little graces as adults? I always think about Eckhart Tolle’s words to stay focused on the present. He says even the biggest of problems doesn’t really have a place in the now, unless it is being addressed directly. He says, while you are eating breakfast, sitting by the window, are your problems in front of you? They usually aren’t, so focus on what is before you--like a delicious omelet or stack of pancakes, a steaming cup of coffee, a crisp newspaper--instead of the issues that are plaguing you.
It took me years to understand what Tolle meant since a problem seems to hang around us like a bad smell. Sure, I can be indulging in the most delicious chocolate cake, but the energy of the problem would still surround me. But one day I finally got Eckhart Tolle. And I realized that it’s just about settling into the present moment and being open to experiencing the good it has to offer. So, it’s not just about focusing on the now, it’s also about deciding to be open to enjoying the small. One way of doing this is recognizing it could always be worse and being grateful for the things we still have. It is also crucial, and I mean this, to get as much sleep at night as you can get. Eating good, clean meals also helps as feeling as good as you can physically helps your emotional state tremendously.
When I was 31, my sister died in a plane crash. She was five years older than me and for all the pain I am sure my birth caused her (she was the youngest from the first marriage, I am the oldest from the second), she always wanted to be a big sister to me. Some of my very first memories are of playing dolls with her. She was the person who looked most like me in the world. On my wedding day, she was adamant about sitting me down and sharing what she learned from her divorce, that I should never let go of my own identity.
Her death shook me to the very core. For a whole year after her death, I felt like I was under water. I couldn’t understand when people laughed--I didn’t see what was funny. I was a newlywed and decided I would not have children since there is too much suffering in life. I would be going about my business, and the sudden memory that she was gone would hit me so hard I would literally lose my breath.
One of the moments that gave me deep respite was a visit to the Frick Collection in New York City. After brunch with a friend on a cool autumn morning, we walked through the museum. When I got to Francois Boucher’s paintings, I stopped. The woman depicted in Winter, 1755 looked back at me with liquid eyes that stirred something in me. I continued to walk through the museum, being absorbed into the different, faraway worlds. It not only took me outside myself, looking at the work of master painters reminded me of the incredible abilities of the human spirit--abilities worth living for--and showed me the world has survived, with all it’s ups and downs, for centuries. I wasn’t healed (is one ever?), but feeling gratitude at having experienced those paintings was the first baby step in my emergence.