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In the Pursuit of Happiness

October 23, 2011

“When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down “happy”. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment. I told them they didn’t understand life.” — John Lennon

            I have for the last fifteen years made teaching my career.  For most of that time, I have been working with adults in a technical college setting.  My students are at times the aimless late-teenaged student whose parents didn’t know what to do with them for the next couple of years.  More often, though, since I teach nights, I enjoy the company of adults who are coming back to school for their personal enrichment, or in order to re-jigger their own career prospects a bit.  More rare, though perhaps the most enjoyable of all, are retired seniors looking to keep their minds active and learn new skills.  They are full of life, and stories, and excite their classmates and instructor in ways they can’t even perceive.

My colleagues in education often speak of those “Ah-ha! moments” that students have in the classroom.  These other professors seem to relish genuinely in seeing the light go on in the eyes of someone who has been struggling and who finally gains some insight into the subject matter.  While I enjoy seeing those moments occur as well, what I enjoy most about teaching is learning the stories of the people who are in front of me.  For me, that trail to interpersonal discovery, that getting to know my students and their own personal tale is rather like the eternal quest I find myself on in one of my favorite hobbies, genealogy.  You might say that I am a collector of life stories.

And, I readily share my story with my students because I have long thought that one of the key components to learning which is most often neglected in today’s educational system is the role of a good mentor.  My story may just provide the impetus that a student needs to think outside of the box, as we say, and do something in their life that they wouldn’t necessarily have thought of without having heard of my journeys first.  I know that my life is very different today because of the stories which one of my father’s Aunts had told me as a teenager.  My kind and gentle ‘Aunt Marguerite’ had spent her adult life working on the behalf of God himself as a missionary in Africa.  She had traveled and seen much, and shared her good fortune with me, introducing me to friends and relations from far and near.  She was perhaps the one who most encouraged my idea of studying languages as a way to find release from a life that I wasn’t interested in living in my hometown.

No matter the age or reason for the person’s being in my class, eventually one of my students asks my opinion as to what life path he or she should take.  I always respond, “Whatever makes you happy!”

            I don’t mean that remark to be flippant, ever.  I mean it sincerely, especially when one considers that the majority of our adult lives will be spent in the pursuit of survival:  money to buy groceries, money for t.p. and toothpaste, money for entertainment, money for housing and all of the regular monthly bills and taxes.  There are already so many paths clearly marked out in the world for the person who cares only about those things, and yet so few indicators leading us toward happiness.

            I always implore my students, as they hand me a copy of their resume to review or ask me for a letter of reference, to give priority to happiness over money.  In most cases, one can either learn to live with less, which is hard to do in today’s consumer society where we are forever being bombarded with advertisements for one product or another.  Or, one can contemplate the notion that with happiness, everything else seems to fall in place all by itself.  In short, the money will follow, if you are content.  Of course, I also think that if you are content, having a little less money doesn’t hurt so much.  If all you do is work for money and come up short, nothing but regret comes from it.  If you work for happiness and you achieve it, you realize that money isn’t everything.  Far from it.

From my own personal perspective, I adhere most strongly to the idea that there is real virtue in striving to live with less.  As we learn that we don’t really need every new gadget that is introduced on to the market, we also realize that the things that truly make us happy are rarely those things we buy, and even more difficult for a long-time teacher to swallow, those things we learned in the classroom.

            I am lucky in that I enjoy language and that my teaching allows me to share the gift of language with others.  In language there is hidden power.  Yet, I would be a bit of a liar if I didn’t say that I also recognize that only a small number of the people who have paraded through my classroom on the fourth floor of the technical college have ever really been interested in what I do for a living.  My course is a gateway course, one of those required courses that people have to take in order to fulfill a requirement.  Something which is required is rarely something which motivates.  I comprehend that, and have made peace with it.

            This evening, though, I received an email from a friend whom I have never met.  We became acquainted through a blog from France which  I read.  Since our interests are often similar, we have corresponded for the past couple of years on email.  We talk about all sorts of things, and it is always a treat seeing her name come up in my inbox.  My friend studied for her doctorate in literature, as I did, only she studied mythology and other ancient texts where I was focused on understanding the universality of the human experience in times of war.  My friend is also a former gymnastics coach and was one of those who was impacted by the boycott of the Olympic Games in Moscow in 1980.

            As my friend’s life has evolved and changed, so have her priorities.  She is now learning to cook better for herself.  In this she reminds me of another former student of mine (now friend), who goes by the pseudonym of Margaret on her own blog about life and adventure in Guatemala in  her retirement.   While my friend in Las Vegas is seeking to learn how to make salads that don’t contain lettuce, and to vary her repertoire of recipes beyond lemon chicken, my other friend in Guatemala is struggling to summon up the courage to make Hilachas Guatemaltecas, a shredded beef and tomatillo salsa dish typical in the new life she is leading.

            What strikes me about both of these women is that they are both seeking a level of happiness that they had not previously enjoyed.  I have sent recipes and tips to the one, while actually giving a cooking lesson or two to the other because, as you already know by reading my blog, cooking and sharing good food and conversation are some of the things that make me the happiest.  One was a private Spanish student of mine (and one of the most successful I have had), and the other and I share a love for things French.  Getting to mix my professional passions with my private passions then has been exciting when speaking with either of these two women.

            I only teach part-time, and most days that is a quite sufficient test of my patience and caring.  I suppose that I could work full-time, but I enjoy having the extra time in my life to pursue my other passions.  Just today, for example, I put some 180 bulbs in to the ground for next spring.  Daffodils.  Tulips.  Hyacinths.  (If I hadn’t gone on to study languages, I would likely have studied botany.)  I love the complexity of plants and how they spread and multiply.  I revel in the idea of putting something in to the ground that will grow and become something beautiful, even if I have to wait (impatiently) until Spring to see the results.

            My dad’s aunt Yvonne is perhaps the person who showed me that I indeed had a green thumb.  My mother certainly cannot make this claim.  When I left for college, there was a fantastic collection of plants in my room, lush, green and flowering.  By the time that I returned for break, she had the cactus doing the backstroke and the others all gasping for droplets of moisture.  Any moisture at all would do.  The leaves were brown, the flowers faded.  In short, my efforts were all dried and dead in less than three months.

            Yvonne was a quirky sort of individual.  She had a unique sense of humor that some in the family found off-putting.  She smoked like a chimney and also loved plants, but had come to realize that her love of plants was not always reciprocated.  Time and time again, Yvonne had sent plants home with me after one of our visits to her Levant, Maine home.  She was sending them to my place to be doctored and mended.  A few months later after talking, singing or playing the piano for the plants Yvonne had sent with me, I took them back full and lush as they were meant to be.  (One has to hope that someone had given her some plants to enjoy in her room as her Alzheimer’s disease took over more and more of her life prior to her passing.)

            My grandmother’s best friend, Helen True, was also inspiring to me as my healing powers in the plant kingdom grew.  I was a youngster who was often looking for ways to spend days of summer outside.  Helen helped to run a local green house.  Toward the end of the season, there were many plants which were still in their little plastic containers, but no longer in the kind of shape which would inspire anyone to purchase them.  My folks didn’t have a budget for ornamentals.  Dad worked all the time to keep us all clothed, fed and content.  He was a wonderful provider.  But Helen offered little pots of magic.

            I transformed the area near the mailbox with fieldstones that I collected.  Helen’s misfit plants, which she gave me willingly, came home and with a little attention made gorgeous bedding plants in my flower beds and gardens.  I am eternally grateful to her for the gifts, since I could never have afforded them on my own at that age.  Even today, the plants that I cherish the most in my yard are the ones that came with a story, donated from a friend.

            This year alone, I put some 200 tulip bulbs in the ground because a friend of mine, Sandra, who works at one of the cities “period gardens”, a Victorian park of tremendous beauty, thought of me and my green thumb before pitching the bulbs from last year out on to the recycling pile.  I have added with the help of my partner, Gregory, continuously to our gardens since we moved to the house our friend Henry left us four years ago at his passing.  Our friend Lori has given iris and yucca plants.  Gregory’s mom gave us roses and lilacs.  Colleagues of ours from the Capitol filled in our screening shrubs with dogwoods and more.  Our gardens, which Henry had beautifully started and maintained in his living, continue to expand and as I pull a weed here and there, I hear the stories that each of these plants came with when they arrived from a friend’s home.

            And what a delight it is to have these living memories in my yard!  This year, which has been particularly difficult for Gregory and me from losing his father and uncle both in April, to dealing with legal battles of the most crazy and frivolous sort from a woman who was supposedly to take care of our ailing friend with Alzheimer’s Albert, to an ugly and very protracted probate process which has at times sucked the life force out of us—yes, this year, more than any, I am glad to have my non-professional passions to occupy me and recalibrate my sense of normal from time to time.

            I shudder to think of the emotional state that I would be in if I had not had my love of good food, good conversation, and beautiful gardens to ground me and keep me focused on what is truly important this year.  As I get ready to write another letter of reference for a student in need, as I prepare to answer questions of young people who are seeking a path for their own future, I indeed strive to keep my own standard answer in mind.  Do what makes you happy first, and the rest will follow.

            I for one am lucky to have friends like the one who sent me the email today describing how she is learning to bake and cook, like those who gave of themselves so that I could escape for a while into the plant world… I for one am lucky that I can say that no matter how much it would be nicer to have a bit more money, I have worked tirelessly to achieve my main objective:  happiness.  And I am doing it quite well.

            What do you want to be when you grow up?  Happy.  He may not have understood the assignment as the teacher wanted, but John Lennon was right.

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