Progress report on the 2015 Happiness Jar

December 31, 2015

This blog post is about the first New Year’s resolution that I have kept in my whole life. For all 365 days of 2015, Al and I (and sometimes Megan) have written our happy moment of the day on a tiny scrap of paper and popped it in a glass jar that is known as the Surycz Happiness Jar. It is our record of good times. Tada!

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I remember the dark, confused and unhappy period when I lived in London and was in the throes of my job miseries. I told a friend that I was not sure what to do next. I explained that I was treading water and waiting to catch my next big wave. I will never forget his reply. He said, ‘Julie! Life is not about sitting about and waiting for waves. YOU MAKE THEM.’

That’s the point of the Happiness Jar. Every evening this year, we have identified and therefore appreciated the moment in the day that gave us the most joy. I’m trying to teach my girls that you cannot sit on your butt and wait for the future to unfold like an endless magic carpet. I’ve realized that you create your happiness by putting in decisive, specific effort. You have to angle your life in the direction you want it to go. Happiness is mostly something you DO, not something you wait or hope to FEEL. Joy doesn’t just fall on you like fairy dust. You have to go out and create it and I’ve realized that it is mostly to be found in the smallest, simplest experiences and in interactions with others.

happinessOne of the decisive actions I have taken to make myself is happier is that I have culled many of my Facebook friends.   Not literally, of course. If anyone shares anything miserable, weepy, fearful, illogical, obscene or dumb, then I defollow them and remove them from my newsfeed. I don’t want to know if the uncle Bob of a random person I knew at varsity just keeled over from a heart attack. I also don’t want to know about the girl in Minnesota who needs a bone marrow donor by tomorrow or else she will die. I don’t want to know that Telfon pans or WIFI cause cancer and that garlic cures it. I don’t want to be forced fed articles and links and videos about war, poverty, terrorism, Syrian refugees, natural disasters, illnesses and accidents. It’s too much. It is not that I don’t care for these things. I don’t have the emotional capacity to cope with the collective misery of the world. I attest to the fact that ignorance is more bliss. Now I control my newsfeed and it displays what I want to see, not what friends want me to see.

By the way, happiness is different to gratitude. This was not a gratitude jar. You can be grateful for certain perks in your life, but these things do not necessarily make you happy. Gratitude is no guarantee of happiness. I reckon gratefulness is more passive whereas happiness is not.

every-day-may-not-be-good-but-theres-something-good-in-every-day-6In summary, 90% of our happy moments were relational. Al’s happiest time most days was the moment he came home and the children squealed with delight when the front door opened. My happy moments were endearing things Megan and Jessica said or did, sunny days, an afternoon nap on the weekends, coherent French conversations, uninterrupted and focused chats with Al on long car journeys, quality time with friends and family, long summer evenings, walks out in the fresh air, picturesque views, yummy meals, edible books, tinkering on this blog and binge-watching DVD boxsets on the iPad at night (Suits, House of Cards and Modern Family). Material, physical possessions didn’t rock my world. I recall only one happy moment involving stuff and that was around July when we bought a very cosy fake Persian carpet for the lounge.

Even Megan thinks about happy moments now. One morning I asked her to wake Alastair, who was having a little lie in. She tiptoed over to the bed and shook him. ‘Daddy! Wake up!’ Then I saw her lift Al’s eyelids, bend over and whisper, ‘Daddy, what’s your happy moment for today?’

I have said before that parenting is full of paradoxes, one of which is that I have never been so happy in all my life but I have also never been so afraid either.

This Happiness Jar exercise has been a useful antidote to my constant fear. Al and I are the most unnecessarily petrified people I’ve ever come across. He is mostly scared of losing his job, our ability to retire, not being able to provide for his family and he worries our children won’t ever find work which will result in us supporting them financially until they are 50. I am less concerned about financial stuff but I would generally like to wrap my family in bubble wrap and stow them safely under the bed in order to protect them from any harm and misery.

While I am over the top in my worries, I think it is realistic to believe that life is generally angled towards the negative and is pretty hell-bent on bringing you down. If you want to feel miserable, just read the news for 5 minutes. I hope that this Happiness Jar will be a reminder of good times and a reservoir of strength and encouragement when things are tough.  I doubt that – I probably will still fall to pieces.

Nevertheless, the Happiness Jar has forced me to notice and appreciate that my glass is definitely half full and that one of the keys to a rich and splendid life is to create joy out of small and simple things. As the poet Jack Gilbert said, we should have ‘the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.’ I’ve noticed that the people who are most fun and interesting to be around are those who have the stubbornness to accept their gladness. They radiate light and positive energy and make the world a better place. Choosing to be a happier person is a special gift that you can offer both yourself and the people around you.

We are continuing the Happiness Jar every day, every year from now onwards.

I got the Happiness Jar idea from my favourite writer Elizabeth Gilbert so it feels right to end this with a quote of hers:

I am so stubborn about living a happy life — about pushing toward the light, climbing up that hill toward wonder. I don’t know if people realize sometimes what a full-time job it is. Waiting for happiness to fall on your head out of the sky isn’t going to get you there. Stubborn gladness doesn’t come out of nowhere; you fight for it. You push back against despair. I look hard for miracle and beauty and joy every day. I could look just as hard for misery and sorrow every day (and would not have any trouble finding it) but I aim myself in the other direction, with real focus and determination. It’s a big job, staying afloat on contentment, but it’s such a worthy job. 

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Talking French in my shoe for a mile

December 22, 2015

Today I rallied my troops to leave the house and, as usual, Megan was half naked as I was exiting the front door. It was zero degrees outside, I was late and Megan drifted about inside. I pretended to leave the house without her. Eventually I picked her up under her armpits, near her chest and carried her to the car. She said, ‘Ow Mommy! You’re hurting me near my breastmilk!’

The other day Megan called out to Al. He was distracted and didn’t hear her. ‘Daddy!’ she said.  No response from Al. ‘Daadddddyyyyyy’ she shouted. ‘Hey! Prince Charming! I’m calling you!’

Jessie booLittle Jessica’s new habit is to push her plastic chair around the house, stand on it and then grab and fiddle with things I have deliberately placed out of her reach. The other day I caught her pawing Al’s iPad. Little monkey!

I know that talking about sweet things your children have said or done is a lot like describing wild and nutty dreams you had in the night – it means more to you than it does to others. But this is my blog after all and I can’t resist! How cute are they?

I’ve had a wet, cracking cough for three weeks. It’s gross and sounds contagious (and it probably is). People take a few steps away from me when I start coughing. ‘Do you think I have TB?’ I asked Al. Then this weekend, what rotten luck, I sprained the intercostal muscles in my ribs during one strenuous coughing session. Now it’s agony to sneeze, cough, blow my nose or even breathe. The doctor says I have normal, ho-hum, seasonal flu but I’m still feeling rather sorry for myself.

I hope Megan and Jessica don’t get sick this winter. Jessica has never ever in her 16 month life been to the doctor for anything other than the standard, obligatory check-ups and Megan hasn’t had an antibiotic in years. I’m chuffed with that record and want to maintain it. The problem is that the colder the weather, the less Megan wishes to wear. The costume with the ice cream motifs from last year made a comeback and Megan wears it out and about almost every day. We’ve compromised and I said she can wear it as long as she has warmer clothes underneath it.  Stylish.

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Remember I said I was taking French lessons from 20h00 to 22h00 every Wednesday? I looked forward to the classes ending in February but I’ve decided to continue until the summer. Our class is becoming chummy and we even have our own whatsapp group.   Most of the group is made up of young, exuberant Spanish aupairs and I feel ancient in comparison. In typical Spanish fashion, they speak at the rate of knots and even their French words race out beginning with thhhhh in that thSpanish lithp.

One problem I have with these class-based lessons is that they finish so late. I’ve fallen asleep twice because, these days, 22h00 is way past my bedtime. I once nodded off briefly and then jerked my head upright. The other time I properly fell asleep and came to with the whole class laughing at me. It was embarrassing but I couldn’t stop myself. I told the teacher, ‘It’s not you. It’s me.’

The other problem I find with classroom-based French lessons is that there is always someone who talks the hind leg off a donkey and hogs the conversation. I’ve done many different French courses during the five years I’ve been in Switzerland and, without fail, there is always an extrovert in the class that I would like to squirt in the face with a water pistol so they shut up and give the rest of us a word in.

I need these French lessons along with my Skype ones because I like to feel I am always moving forwards and making progress. I still mix up ‘he’ and ‘she’ all the time. Just the other day, one of the assistant teachers at the nursery school remarked on how Jessica is growing so fast and I said, ‘Yes, he is!’

Last week I took the girls for a walk and I bumped into an old man along the path. He watched Jessica tottering along and said that, for a 15 month old baby, she’s stable on her legs. ‘Yes I know’, I replied. ‘Today she’s eaten particularly well.’ I mixed up to walk (marcher) with to eat (manger). Oh for goodness sake Julie.  I get so cross with myself. I talk about religion, politics, hopes, dreams and the meaning of life with my Skype teacher yet I still make these sorts of basic duff ups.

I enjoy the sitcom Modern Family. I especially love Gloria the Columbian. Her English isn’t perfect.  In one episode, she says to her husband Jay, ‘Do you know how tiring it is to translate everything in my head before I speak? Do you know how clever I am in Spanish? Try talking in my shoe for a mile!’ That’s me too.

Do you know what I love most about this time of year in Switzerland?  It’s this:

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Most shops display a sign with their Christmas hours.  25 Dec – closed.  1 Jan – closed.  2 Jan – closed.  My two favourite restaurants are closed completely between Christmas and New Year.  Stuff our customers!  Stuff all the money we could make!  You may think that businesses in Switzerland can afford to shut up shop and take long breaks but the first photo is of a newsagent.  They sell magazines and cigarettes and, in this day and age, they aren’t exactly booming yet they still decided to take time out with no work no pay.  I like that.

One of my American acquaintances says she is treading water here in Switzerland and can’t wait to ‘quit this joint and head home’.

‘Why?’ I asked, stunned.

‘Because it’s dead. Boring. Dull. There’s not enough action. The Swiss drive me nuts. They are too fussy, square and anal-retentive.’

‘Wow,’ I thought. ‘What she hates about Switzerland, I love. Her hell is my heaven.’

She is mostly frustrated by the inconvenience and backwardness of some aspects of the Swiss culture. I love it that it is culturally acceptable to shut your doors and take a break, recharge and disappear for a holiday.  I’m over rampant consumerism and the commercialisation of Christmas.  I’m tired of the relentless pursuit of more, more and more.  I don’t want to be another rat in the rat race.  I’m all for calmer and slower living.

MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!!!

 

 


December already?

December 7, 2015

On Sunday morning I bestowed on Al the gorgeous, luxurious gift of a lie in (30 minutes max). When I decided his time was up, I opened the baby security gate at the bottom of the stairs and let the girls loose. They burst through like two pent-up racehorses. They tore into the bedroom and dive bombed on top of him.

‘What are we doing today?’ I asked.

‘Julie,’ Al said as he yawned and stretched. ‘Why do we always have to DO something and GO somewhere? Why can’t we just stay at home and chill?’

Mwahahahahaha. What a laugh. Dream on, buddy. Megan and Jessica don’t know the meaning of the word ‘chill’. The irony is that the best way to handle general exhaustion when you have kids is to keep busy. Children are binary – they are either on or off, like a blender. They don’t relax, or my children don’t yet anyway.

winterLittle kids need daily fresh air and exercise. In this cold winter weather, I sometimes forget that children are only as warm and comfortable as their smallest exposed body part. Dealing with this rule is paramount for the enjoyment of any outdoor activity. They may be roasty toasty in their jackets but if they only have one glove or a cold nose, this makes the walkabout slow and tearful.

kid2So, on Sunday, we went to a coffee shop for breakfast. This was lovely, happy family time but still kind of tiring. Jessica is 15 months old and I find this an awkward, busy age. She thinks she’s independent and she demands to be independent but she is not at all capable of being independent. She can’t understand instructions properly.  She constantly slides out our arms and refuses to sit still. She rips serviettes into shreds. She shakes croissant flakes on the table and floor. She wants to climb on the table. She squirms in our arms and lunges for coffee cups and almost always tips over beverages. She bangs spoons on plates and glasses as if they are musical triangles. She then slides off the chair and wobbles around the restaurant, beelines for steep staircases and teeters at the top and makes as if to bungee jump down. We invariably leave the coffee shop walking backwards while bowing as we apologise for the mess we’ve left in our wake.

Wow, how is it already December? Where has this year gone? My thirties have been my favourite decade so far, mainly because I am no longer wrestling with my life like it is an out-of-control crocodile. Sometimes I feel I’m not savouring these calmer, happier years enough. I want to wallow in them, to marinate in them and truly enjoy and appreciate all the blessings I have and I don’t feel I do this as much as I should. Time is moving very fast. I feel constantly windblown, as if life has me by the hand and is pulling me along so quickly that my feet don’t touch the ground and I feel like I’m flying.

We’ve started our December advent calendar. Last year I ate our entire Lindt chocolate one by the 5 December. This time I vow to display more self-control. It may just be Switzerland, but I’ve noticed the advent calendars are more OTT this year. You can get advent calendars for every brand of sweets and chocolate. You can also get playdough ones, Brio train ones, LEGO ones, Playmobil ones, Barbie ones and Frozen-themed ones. When I was a kid, our advent calendars had a simple picture behind each window and we were happy with that.

photo 2Talking about Frozen, I’m over Elsa and Anna now. I’ve passively watched Frozen at least 200 times. I am not so much tired of the movie Frozen as I am with all the Frozen merchandizing and then arguing with Megan in shops when she says she needs, really needs Frozen pajamas, hairclips or wrapping paper. Retailers slap Anna and Elsa’s image on to the most random of things. I came across frozen yoghurts the other day. They weren’t frozen as in cold and icy but the packaging was Frozen, as in covered in Olaf. I couldn’t even tell what brand or flavour it was. Of course Megan wanted it, and she doesn’t even like yoghurt.

Part of the reason why I feel as if time is flying is because Megan seems, all of a sudden, less babyish and more mature. She’s playing better with her mates. It used to be a challenge having playdates with children the same age as there was no automatic hierarchy. This resulted in a power struggle and fight for dominance. It’s much better now although our playdate on Friday went pear-shaped when both children (same age) refused to share or compromise. They snarled and circled and then tore into each other like rabid Rottweilers. ‘Why are you behaving like such a primal savage?’ I seethed at Megan.  It’s embarrassing but, thank goodness, relational hiccups are rare these days.

Megan is doing so well imbibing French at preschool. Whenever she talks French she does so at a higher pitch than in English and it’s very cute listening to her squeak away. Her Christmas concert is next Friday. I can’t wait. All weekend she sang French Christmas songs with uninhibited joy and gusto. I’m not familiar with the words and can’t make sense out of what she’s saying. I remember seeing a Madam&Eve cartoon where little Thandi sang ‘We Three Kings’ but she had no clue what the words meant so belted out ‘…Bears and gifts, we travel so far. Feeling fountains, moving mountains. Following Jan the Star’. Megan sings her French songs in a similar random fashion.

Jessica’s erratic and light sleeping is still nightmarish although, after some formal sleep training, things are improving. I still can’t sink into a deep and restful sleep because I know I will be up within the next two hours and it’s likely to be rock n roll most of the night. To be fair, Jessica did get eight teeth, four of which were molars, all in one go.

Changing the topic … the other day one of my girl friends said that she and her child were discussing penguins. She explained to her daughter that penguins only come from the Antarctic, not the Arctic.

penguin‘That’s idiotic,’ I thought. ‘Everyone knows that penguins live in the poles, either north or south.’ I’ve always thought Eskimos, polar bears, igloos and penguins go together.

That evening I shared the story with Alastair and I remarked on how doff my friend was that she thought penguins were purely a southern hemisphere phenomenon. He suggested we google penguins to be 100% sure before we pass judgement. It turns out that penguins are only found in the southern hemisphere and there are indeed none to be found in the Arctic. Wow, fancy that! Did you know that? I didn’t. There’s some fascinating random trivia to end this off.