The Simplicity of the Happy Place

I have recently been reading Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, by Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat, Pray Love fame). This was a clear example of my regular spontaneous purchasing tendency on Kindle. While I could never live without real books, I do love the fact that with a Kindle the whole world becomes a book shop. I take continuous delight in being able to buy books while lying in bed or even sitting stuck in traffic. And no one knows. A real guilty pleasure. Somehow, I found myself clicking “buy” yet again one evening, encouraged to explore the connection between creativity and fear, in some deep rooted way seeking to address anxiety which takes a greater place than it should in my emotional life.

I am still reading Big Magic, dipping in and out and finding that some of the ideas and stories in the book take me on a journey. I was particularly struck by the discussion about finding one’s perfect creative space, or as I interpreted it “the happy place” where you feel your shoulders relax, an gentle smile creep onto your lips and a feeling of genuine happiness.

The particular story which connected so strongly came in a section talking about “creative living” and Gilbert’s exploration of what that means. She emphasises that this does not mean an exclusive commitment to an art, especially professionally. If you do not “make it” as a full time, financially sustained painter, or poet, or actor then that does not mean you do not or can not live creatively. She describes creative living, as “living a life which is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear”. That took a moment to crystalize, but it drew me right in. Yes, I want to be driven by curiosity. I need to shaft away from fear and anxiety being the pull. I then went on to read the example she provided. I mostly paraphrase from the book now.  Gilbert talks about a friend who took up figure skating when she reached forty years old. In fact, she was not a complete beginner as she had competed in figure skating when she was much younger, and while she had always loved it, she was not quite in the “champion” league and winning trophies. So she stopped skating. What was the point? When she reached forty, she found herself feeling listless, restless, drab and heavy and started soul searching.

Gilbert writes:

She asked herself when was the last time she’d felt truly light, joyous, and – yes- creative in her own skin. To her shock, she realized that it had been decades since she’d felt that way. In fact, the last time she’d experienced such feelings had been as a teenager, back when she was still figure skating. She was appalled to discover that she had denied herself this life-affirming pursuit for so long, and she was curious to see if she still loved it.

So she followed her curiosity, she bought a pair of skates, found a rink, hired a coach. She ignored the voice within her that told her she was being self-indulgent and preposterous to do this crazy thing. She tamped down her feelings of extreme self consciousness at being the only middle-aged woman on the ice, with all those tiny, feathery nine-year old girls.

She just did it.

And so this 40 year old woman changed her routine and her life, getting up three mornings a week before dawn and skating before she went to work. She found that she loved it just as much as she always had, but without the pressure of competition. “Skating made her feel alive and ageless”. Gilbert goes on to stress that her friend did not give up her job, there was no fairy tale story of becoming a star and winning medals. But this was revolutionary in her life. She still skates three times weekly because, as Gilbert puts it ”skating is still the best way for her to unfold a certain beauty and transcendence within her life that she cannot seem to access in any other manner”. And that is what she calls creative living.

Recently my daughter told me that her steam cleaner had broken. It seemed to me that she was disproportionately upset about this and while I did try to conceal my puzzlement at her distress, it still must have come across.

“It’s my happy place” she told me, just before Christmas.

With the steam cleaner she could lose herself in a world where she found that satisfaction and creativity. By methodically working away at stubborn stains, and restoring carpets, upholstery and possibly even the cats, to a pristine condition, she found herself in that zone of creativity and lightness.

And then I got it. Then I understood. This was her own, deeply satisfying space. The failure of the steam cleaner was far more than a mechanical breakdown. It closed the door on her access to peace, achievement and guaranteed happiness at a time when buying a replacement was just not an option. She was quite delighted when the New Year sales turned up a far superior model of steam cleaner. Some kind of Rolls-Royce-Jimmy-Choo-steam-cleaner-machine well beyond my comprehension, and at half the price of the original. Paradise truly re-found.

I am fortunate as I know that I have more than one happy place. Mornings are a happy place, if that makes sense. Despite the struggle in getting out of bed early in the morning, I know that as soon as step out into the lanes, that I am in an inspiring and happy space. I used to love cycling through the lanes, silently witnessing everyday rituals at the nat tree, stopping to pick up fallen frangipani blossom to take home, smiling at those two elderly gents out walking with their helper supporting them by the elbow, spotting the dogs stretching through their partner yoga routines as they lazily came to life on the dusty roadside. It is a consistently happy place, which only fades as the day becomes busier and cars and general busyness start to take over the tone of the day. When my back issues stopped me cycling through the lanes, I found the same lightness and sense of true emotional wellbeing early in the mornings, walking and wandering those same lanes at a different pace.

yangon lanes 3

yangon lanes 2
I find a happy place when I am in nature, when listening to frogs and geckos chirruping and chuckling, or watching birds flitting around the branches. I can watch the light and shadow play games as the sun filters through leaves and turn each leaf a slightly different shade of green. I can listen without tiring or becoming bored, to the sound of the monsoon rains pound down, to thunder shaking the walls and the crack of lightening nearby. There are many happy places, most of them not complicated nor hidden. Waiting patiently for us to see them.

LP April 1It is no secret that my “go to” happy place is my swimming space. It is physically refreshing, but far more than just exercise. As soon as I get into the water and settle into a gentle rhythm, I feel that lightness and true happiness and am always glad that I have taken just that little extra effort to make time to swim.

Frangipani blossoms floating in the pool

When the pool I have been using for many years closed its doors last year, I knew it would be tough. I looked at many options and tried out a number of different places and types of swimming facility. None quite worked. Even the main outdoor pools only a couple of kilometres away and probably within a walkable distance had some disadvantages. Then just a few weeks ago,  a friend asked me if I had tried the little pool at a small guest house nearby. I had seen signs for the place, but never visited it, and it did not occur to me that it might have a swimming pool. So eventually, I called by and asked if their pool was open to non residents, and how much it would cost. Expecting confusion and no such system, I was delighted to be told that the guest house does indeed allow non residents to use it, and at a reasonable cost. The pool is small, but set in a beautiful tropical garden and immediately felt right. A few days later, I called back ready to try it out and as soon as I got into the water and pushed away from the side into my swimming rhythm, I knew that this was my happy place. This was the perfect swimming spot and finally I had found that lightness and release that the happy place brings.

home sweet home 3As we are surrounded by stresses of 21st century living and its high expectations and sophistication, it is so important to hold on to what really brings satisfaction and happiness. It is essential to recognise what that is for each one of us. What it is that brings our happiness, and intentionally seek it out.

And so often it is right in front of us, if we only open our eyes and souls.

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Morning Walks

This is a beautiful time of year – the start of the dry season, relatively cooler and drier air and disappearance of the thick clouds. Mostly. This year the rains have been teasing us with frequent reappearances, and some very heavy rainstorms. Every time we think we have seen the last of the rains, we are surprised by another downpour. Now we have had a few days with blue skies and slightly cooling mornings and evenings for a little longer. We quietly whisper to ourselves that the rains have now finally departed. The mornings are cool and dry. Perfect for early morning walking.

I have frequently said that I am not a natural “morning person” in that I always want to turn over and have a while longer in the comfort of my bed. But I know that once, I am up and especially once I am out of the door, then I have a sense of something akin to pride and appreciation that I have made the effort.

This is also a special time of year in that it is in between the full moon festivals of Thadingyut and Tazaungmon in Myanmar, which I wrote about last year here:

Throughout the wettest days of the monsoon, between the July and the October full moons of Waso and Thadingyut , there is a period which is often called  “Buddhist Lent” in Myanmar. During this period, it is usual not to begin new ventures – not to start a new job or move house and not to get married. At the Thadingyut Full Moon (usually in October) there is a great sense of festivity and the city is bathed in lights and candles. The temples are packed and shops full of gift packs of monk robes and appropriate gifts.  The night sky is punctuated with lanterns floating upwards.

During the daytime, the streets are nowadays a-buzz with post election smiles and purple-inked fingers, with the trucks with money frames and thumping music, daily bustle and most folks holding umbrellas to shield them from the sun.

Yangon days

However, the early mornings are completely different in nature. The streets and lanes are misty, there are few cars but more than a few people with early morning purposes. Before the sun rises too high in the sky, the air is cool and the light is mellow. It is a very special time. I have been able to re-establish an early morning routine which replaces swimming for now, with a morning walk.

imageDuring my walk the other morning, I passed a group of young nuns, collecting alms as usual on certain days of the lunar month. In their pink robes, lit gently by the soft sunlight and with shy smiles we each walked on towards the coming day.

imageI hardly noticed the man on the bike, until I was alongside him. I did smile to myself when I spotted his wallet sticking out of the back of his lyongyi, reminding me of how many things have not changed here. It is not so easy to hold on to your wallet if it is on display in most other places.

So what did surprise me, was  seeing the reason that he had paused on his bike. He had a smartphone pressed to his ear and was in deep conversation. And that is something which is very different. When I arrived in Myanmar in 2009, mobile phones were few and far between, incredibly expensive ($1500 when I arrived) and not easy to obtain. I had no mobile phone for my first 3 years in country. We used to write phone numbers in little notebooks and use landlines. Now almost everyone (in urban areas at least) has a smartphone.

imageSo this image captures much of what I love here. My morning walk would have been very similar 6 years ago. However, while we are indeed surrounded by change, there is much which beautifully preserved.

Sometimes the richest of experiences are simple,  free and quite literally on our doorstep.