Sustainable Joy, Sustainable Living: Appreciating the Little Things
I believe that the little things can make a big impact on how we feel in our lives, whether it be how we try to solve a problem or heal, or how we integrate joy into our daily living. In a consumer culture that markets extravagant catharsis as a means for having a positive quality of life, not to mention the superficiality of goods, people often don’t see that living well can be inexpensive, practical, and something that we can have on a daily basis.
I have spent the past year thinking hard about the life I want to lead. I am tired of being on what feels like a hamster wheel. Indeed, the hamster on the wheel could be our modern day metaphor for Sisyphus. I would argue that Sisyphus would be a major improvement. At least he gets to pause and reflect, even if his Sunday night is mildly spoiled with thoughts of Monday morning. As I get older, I notice that time seems to be sparser and a healthy lifestyle seems to feel like more of a challenge due to the amount of work I can sometimes take on. I have been examining my values regarding my daily lifestyle, and one thing becomes apparent to me, over and over again: the things that bring me the greatest joy cost next to nothing, and I need to commit my time to those joys. Perhaps I don’t need to work so hard for things that don’t really make me happy? I’ll take a lovely walk in the hills over a widescreen TV any day.
I had a flood in my home about 15 months ago. I had to have my floors torn out to avoid molding in the plywood. My insurance company wouldn’t cover the damage due to some clause about “tree roots.” In addition, my stove, dishwasher, refrigerator, and water heater all went on the blink at the same time. It was horrible timing. The appliance gods were having cocktails and watching to see what I would do. I slowly replaced what I needed immediately, but it took me more than a year to get my floors, and when I got them, I thought, “Wow, I love my floors, but I really did okay this past year with plywood in my bathrooms and kitchen. I didn’t really suffer.” It was a good insight that has caused me to pay better attention to the things that matter to me more than appliances and floors.
In addition to dear friends, family, and my kitty cats, if I could name the things that make me the happiest, they would be so simple. I think they merit description:
Swimming at the YMCA twice a week and sitting in the dry sauna. Now, this requires a gym membership, but I still think this qualifies. I feel meditative when I swim. I talk to people in the spa. I know people’s names. I get out of the pool and am surprised that I don’t feel tired, and that the pain in my body I carry from years of accidents and movement foibles is gone. My body feels refreshed. I feel like a million bucks, and on average, each swim costs me less than $10.
I go to dance church for two hours every Sunday morning and pray with my body. I don’t perseverate about my worries when I’m there. I communicate intimately with dozens of diverse people with their own personal internal gods expressed through dance, and we do so without words. I experience a level of freedom and self-expression in that space that has not yet been surpassed. I pay $15. It’s not a trip to the Bahamas. It’s a trip to the local school gym. I walk away feeling vital.
I hike local hills about three times a week. There is a lovely grove of redwoods that turns into a forest if I really decide to trek it to the top. I see cows. I see deer. I see lizards, salamanders, quail, turkey vultures, squirrels, snakes, butterflies, dragonflies, hawks, and an entire variety of birds that if not seen, are heard along with frogs in the springtime. And that’s just the animal world. The vegetable world of trees, lichens, different varieties of grass, flowers, rocks, and bodies of water are ever changing with the seasons and times of day. One hill hides what is called “Frog Pond,” and it is only full during the rainy season. When I am in nature, the way I think shifts. I actually do a lot of thinking in nature, but it tends to be more fluid and less fixed. There are pauses built in to my hikes that are like mini-respites. Most importantly, I look around at the wildlife and my problems seem so irrelevant: so small. I think, “This is free.” Many people say that freedom is not free. When I’m in nature, I question that notion. I suppose it depends upon how we define freedom and the context in which we exist.
I shop the local Farmer’s markets. There is something about shopping a local Farmer’s market that is surprisingly “un-hamster wheelish.” I get to know the people who grow and sell me the food, and sometimes we have interesting conversations that would likely not occur in the supermarket. There is music and art, and everything is not fabricated replicant plastic or questionable regarding one’s health. People are sampling the food and discussing it with other merchants. It is true commerce, and so much more is being exchanged than just food and money. Shopping at the Farmer’s market feels far more consciously relational. I see more of the person selling the food, and I believe that they see more of me. One man recently was selling his fruit by reciting poetry about it. There is life at the Farmer’s market.
And then the food…this improves my existence on so many levels. The most basic level is that putting healthy organic food into my body improves my mood. I have noticed a difference over the years in my emotional response to the quality of my food. We are what we eat, and the less processed and more indigenously natural and local, the better. That’s just the inherent nutritional value. For less than $20 per year, I get a food and wine magazine and rummage through looking for healthy and tasty recipes. When it comes to food, I have found over the years that I need to feel as if I have variety and choices. I will admit that I am a person who will get bored with eating a plain old carrot every day. I would fast resort to a Hostess cupcake simply to feel like I’m eating something indulgent. It’s really dreadful, but I’ve learned how to curtail this bad habit. Take those same carrots and add some cooking sherry, currants, parsley, honey, salt, pepper, olive oil, and pine nuts, and I feel like I’m eating a work of art. That is critical to me. I believe that food is perhaps one of the most underestimated works of art, and yet, we need to eat food every day. Experimenting with flavors and textures, and even being as creative as trying to figure out how to economically and originally prepare the excess leftovers in my refrigerator has proved to be far more fun than I would expect. Food brings me tremendous pleasure every single day. I would advise to maximize on its benefits.
Keeping my garden of flowers in order is another simple pleasure. Yard work is meditative and gets me outdoors and active. Eating outside in the warmer months and enjoying the flowers I’ve planted over the years that return seasonally is another simple pleasure. I get to be in nature in my own backyard, even if it is well-manicured nature.
Last, but not least, I write something creative just about every day, be it poetry or prose. Sometimes I only write for 15 minutes. It doesn’t matter if I think what I write is good or not. Creative writing slows down my thinking, and oddly enough, engages my senses and other aspects of consciousness that I don’t access if I engage in passive entertainment. Poetry is surprisingly sensual. And it costs me nothing to write. Even if I didn’t have my laptop, paper and pen would suffice.
Other people may find their simple pleasures in different ways, but the point is, a sustainable, enjoyable, and rich life is far more accessible than people realize, and I guarantee you more than the corporate media wants you to realize. Our daily bread can be so many things.
One of the things that attracted me to existentialism was the depth of ideology, and yet, the older I get, the more I realize that existential depth is not necessarily tragic or complex. I am not saying that there isn’t value in tragedy or complexity. I am saying that I think we sometimes lose sight of a different kind of depth, and that depth can exist in simple pleasures that involve our daily living. I will never forget when I used to care for young children training in Magda Gerber’s methods. She talked a great deal about not taking the daily routine interactions with young children for granted. Feeding one’s child, changing a diaper or clothing, bathing, helping clean up, and all of these daily necessities are opportunities for deep and meaningful connection. Why not notice the value in this in our adult interactions as well? We human beings exist as natural creatures that must engage daily cycles, but those cycles need not be mundane or boring if we know how to be present to them and maximize their multiple benefits. The goal is to be awake and present. If we can appreciate the little things, we can sustain that without necessarily having to work the hamster wheel too hard. We can love our simple, beautiful lives. It is perhaps one of the most therapeutic things we can do, yet also one of the most underestimated.
Joy is not expensive. Joy is sustainable. It is in the way you do anything you want. You just have to do it. You just have to live your life.
-- Candice Hershman