How Do You Know What Makes You Happy?

How Do You Know What Makes You Happy?

Last night I attended a LinkedIn social networking event. I’d never done anything like it before, but I figured it was targeted towards writers and members of the non-profit community, so I might actually make a couple really good contacts. The first thing I learned? Such networking events should come with a big “J/K LOL!” stamp on them.

I met some people who worked for chocolate companies, for half a dozen investment firms, I met a lady from Wisconsin who tagged along because she was in town visiting her dad, and I met a few people who work at the Park West, which is awesome because that’s a GREAT venue to see a lot of shows (and we had some common friends)… but most people seemed utterly shocked when I told them I was there because I was looking for more opportunities to write and speak on behalf of non-profits. Most of them kindly said something about me being much too young to have three kids at home, and I laughed and accepted extra drink tickets from the organizers for actually being one of the youngest ladies there. Bars are bars, people.

The whole night seemed like it might be a bust- and then I met this woman. She’s 23 and a half, an “energy consultant,” but not in the crystals and chakras kind of way. She advises companies on reducing their carbon footprint. She asked what I write about and I gave her the usual spiel: “I write about 21st century feminist parenting, sex positivity and self discovery, that sort of thing. Also interfaith family, living with cancer, and a handful of recurring social issues.”

I know, I really need to clean up my elevator speech.

Rather than nodding and changing the subject like everyone else I’d spoken to before her, she said, “What do you mean, living with cancer?”

It’s funny. I know that this is a big reason people read my blog. I know that people want to hear this story, that it’s why people pushed me to write the book, that it’s why my agent decided to snatch me up, that it’s why I’m likely to go ahead and sell millions and millions of copies and do Oprah and Fresh Air and become BFFs with Terry Gross. (You just hush and let me dream!)

But people, in person, don’t ask. People are scared of cancer. People are scared of finding out the answer to their question is, “I’m talking to a person who is going to die, or who has lost somebody they care about very deeply, or who is going to tell me something that’s about to both bum me out and make me profoundly uncomfortable.”

There are exceptions, sure. After my reading at Blog U last summer, lots of people came up to talk to me about my story. But they had been invited by already learning big chunks of details. They weren’t attending to their own curiosity about cancer and life and death and my closeness to them.

Not this girl. She looked me right in the eyes, and she said, “I want to know.” So I told her. I told her that seven and a half years ago, my husband was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. She didn’t flinch.

“Why didn’t he die?”

Isn’t that the question? I told her about his medical trial, the arsenic poisoning, and that it seemed to have worked. But that doctors don’t know enough about gliomas to talk about “cured” or “remission,” they just talk about stability and that ever present when.


M and I, in the midst of his chemo and radiation

“What did you learn from it?”

Now I was caught off guard. I mean, what did I learn from this? What did I learn from spending two years of my life in abject denial, from refusing to consider the possibility that the experts on brain cancer might actually know what they were talking about, that statistics are generally reliable, that death is inevitable and it was coming? What did I learn from spitting into the wind, getting married to a dying man, getting pregnant with twins while he was still on chemo, buying a condo and raising a family all while the specter of when loomed over me?

“I learned that you have to do what makes you happy. That it’s not worth time, not doing what makes you happy. That if you know something is going to make you happy, don’t hesitate. Because you might not have brain cancer, but a meteor could fall from the sky at any minute. You could get hit by a train. There could be a gas leak in your house. The sun could explode. You just don’t know.”

She nodded, ordered me another drink, and thought for a moment.

“How do you know what makes you happy?”

I looked at this 23 year old woman. I was her age when my life flipped upside down. I was three months younger than her when I decided that it didn’t matter that M was supposed to die. That it didn’t matter that he was supposed to be sick. That he was just fine, thank you very much, and that we would be just fine, and we were getting married, like we planned, and that was that.

I was three months younger than her the night I slept on a couch I had bugged M to buy for months before we finally moved in together, because I couldn’t bear the thought of sleeping in our bed alone, and cried myself to sleep. The one night I let myself mourn. The one night I let myself imagine the life I was preparing myself for, watching M grow sick and die, burying him with my children at my side, burying him without ever reaching our wedding day. That night, I was three months younger than the girl drinking with me at the bar.

She looked at me as though I had the wisdom of the ages, and I felt like I’d aged a thousand years since we began our conversation.

How do you know what makes you happy?

“When you find it, you know.” I said.

She looked disappointed. “How?”

I wanted to tell her that this, this right now, this is why I’m a writer. Because in this moment I don’t know how to reach for the words to explain what it feels like to sleep for the first time, the first solid eight hours, uninterrupted by nightmares, in twelve years. In that moment I didn’t know how to say that sometimes you feel like your skin has dissolved and your muscles have evaporated and you’re nothing but the actions that brought you to that moment, and that’s how you know.

Learning what makes me happy hasn’t been easy, but it hasn’t been a search. It’s been giving myself the opportunities to feel. And in that moment, when I paused, wondering how to tell her how to know that she’s happy, I reflected on the moments in my life when I’ve known I’ve been happy, especially when I wasn’t expecting it.

There was a night when I was fourteen. I was painting. I’d picked up some wooden house numbers at a county craft fair, of my birthday. And I was painting them. I used watercolors, from a tube, and I played. I couldn’t remember, at fourteen years old, the last time I’d just played. And I loved it. I made something beautiful, if totally useless, with paint on wood… and I was happy. It was that moment that led me to painting classes, to portraiture, and eventually to the Art Institute of Chicago. Painting… that made me happy.

There was a day when I was ten. My art teacher had created an assignment- she explained how “Night On Bald Mountain” was music inspired by a painting, and she asked us to draw a picture, inspired by the music. That week, another teacher assigned us the task of writing a Halloween poem. I wrote my first real poem, and she liked it so much she had me perform it for the class. She submitted it to some journal, and got it published. That made me happy. Not just the success, but the knowledge that I wrote something and it was good. Maybe it was “good for a ten year old,” but still. I’m still writing, aren’t I? And it still does something to soothe my soul.

There was a night when I was sixteen. I had walked to the parking structure behind the fountain at the University of Michigan  League building, and I stood at the very top of the stairwell and sang. I listened to the notes of the Latin mass hang in the air, and I was happy. I went back over and over again, belting out “Songbird,” a la Mama Cass, or “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” from Phantom of the Opera, and after I ended the last note, I felt a lightness in my chest. Singing… that made me happy.

There was the first time I hugged M. He wrapped his arms around me, and we stood there. In the middle of my living room, at the end of a Halloween party, when I’d already changed out of my costume and into my pajamas. It felt like wherever he touched me, nothing hurt and before it had. I felt like I could lean on him, wrapped up in his arms, for the rest of my life… and never be anything but happy.

Most days, I walk past the playroom and notice DD has dressed RH up like a ballerina, has helped her get into a tutu and a crown and adorned her with as much jewelry as her little two year old frame can handle. And they look at me and grin and say, “We’re going to a ball!” and that makes me happy. When SI says she just feels like reading a book, and she curls up on her bed and reads her Audubon magazine… shouting out every few minutes, “Mommy! Did you know that LOONS have WHITE SPOTS on their FEATHERS?!?” That makes me happy.

I didn’t know any of those things would make me happy until I did them. I don’t know what might make anyone else happy. But I know I can go back in my memories and find those moments, those strangely clear moments, when happiness- contentment, confidence, security, optimism- was the only thing I felt or needed to feel.

“When you find it, you know,” I said, and I sipped my vodka cranberry.

And I realized why I was there in the first place. Because writing and speaking, that does make me happy. Because I want to do this forever, regardless of my role as a mom, or heath care advocate, or anything. I want to go out and talk to people and help them learn about things that are important to me, and should be important to them. I want writing and talking to be my career, not just what I do because I love it… because if it makes me happy, right?

That lady at the bar, she and I talked a bit more about writing, and then we said goodnight, and I came home and kissed my kids goodnight, and went to bed. I ate takeout sushi, because I love it and I was hungry, and I snuggled with M and watched “Breaking Bad,” and “Everything Wrong With” nearly all the Harry Potter movies. And every single thing about that made me happy. Everything.

The fact is that I’m not always happy. I’m often frustrated, I’m often overwhelmed, I’m occasionally depressed. But I do think that I have learned something from my life.

I do think I have managed to find what makes me happy. I think, in general, I am.

So I guess all I can think to say to that girl at the bar is this- try things out. Do some living. You have nothing to lose.

You never know when you’ll find the thing that works for you. You never know when the sky might come crumbling down. Just be kind to yourself. Be gentle with yourself. Give yourself a break, give yourself the benefit of the doubt.

And trust that there is no one thing. There is no one thing on this earth that does it. No person is only made happy by one thing. So even if you find something that does make you happy, keep doing other things. Because there’s no cap on happiness.

Good luck.




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