Tuesday, March 15, 2011

How Do We Get to a Happy Place?

I’ve shared my happy-place birth story before, but it bears repeating here given my recent thoughts on happy places.

When George and I took childbirth class, our teacher was a German woman with a very deep, heavily accented voice. At one point, she ordered us to "exp-herience da relax-A-tion." Her voice was so not relaxing that George and I started to giggle. She suggested we find our happy place and meditate on it during labor. My happy place was a North Carolina beach, with steady, peaceful waves lapping the sand and pelicans flying and a Scot in full Highland dress playing his bagpipes to the rising sun.

I actually experienced this very scene on an early morning beach walk years before, and it was so incredibly peaceful. Well, and sort of weird with the kilted Highlander, but then, the best blessings in life often are a little weird.

Ahhhh, relaxation.

Fast forward to labor. It hurt so much that I could not find my happy place. Every time I closed my eyes to conjure that Scot by the waves, the only image my brain could pull up was of the Pacific coast, specifically some cliffs we'd visited near San Francisco in 1988. In my mind I went back to that overcast and gloomy day, with waves crashing violently against the cliffs and, oddly enough, a German voice-over shouting "Exp-herience da relax-A-tion!"

This was not my East Coast happy place at all. I could not get to my happy place because my giant watermelon-size uterus was teaching me a whole new definition of pain. I begged for the epidural man, who quickly came and took all the hyperventilating pain away. I loved him and would have married him if I weren't already having someone else's baby. God bless the epidural man.

And that is how I flunked natural childbirth. Whatever.

Still, the idea of a happy place intrigues me. What exactly is a happy place? Is it a literal place or can it be something more metaphorical? Do we need a happy place to be, well, happy?

Real places are important formative influences in our lives, and I’ve lived in a lot of different places. Since age five, I’ve lived in Tifton, Georgia; Charlotte, North Carolina; Durham, North Carolina; Sacramento, California; Oscoda, Michigan; Abilene, Texas; Wichita, Kansas; Columbus, Georgia; Boise, Idaho; Rapid City, South Dakota; and Springboro, Ohio.

That’s eleven towns in nine states over thirty-nine years. Not all of these were happy places for me. Oscoda and Abilene stand out as the duds on the list. Oscoda was cold, tiny, isolated, and unfriendly. The nearest mall, pathetic as it was, lay over an hour away in Alpena. The Dairy Queen and movie theater closed for the winter, and the Read-More Bookstore leaned heavily on westerns, romance, and used paperbacks. As an added bonus of misery, we lived in military base housing that would have been condemned by HUD as unsuitable for homeless people.

Then there was the whole Southern-girl-stuck-in-the-Great-White-North thing. Once, in two-degree weather, I shoveled two feet of snow off our driveway and sidewalk, as per military regulations. At that same moment, George was in Key West sailing on warm, blue water and getting sunburned because his B-52 broke down there and he was stuck for two weeks waiting on a replacement part.

Life is not fair. Not fair at all.

Abilene had its own special set of icky characteristic. Primarily, it smelled like cow poop due to the huge feed lots in the area. I didn’t have a car for the six months we were there and so spent an unhealthy amount of time in our appallingly nasty apartment. I couldn’t walk on the carpet in white socks, and the sofa George rented for our six-month stay was patched with duct tape.

On the upside, however, Abilene had a decent mall and some of the best beef and Mexican restaurants in the country. The movie theaters were open year-round, and it had a Hastings bookstore (not a Barnes and Noble, but after the Read-More, I wasn’t inclined to be picky). Most importantly, Abilene was warm, so I had a chance to thaw out after almost three years in Oscoda. In fact, in comparison to Oscoda, Abilene was paradise.

That’s when I decided icky was very, very relative.

Of all the places we lived, Boise was our favorite. Nestled in the foothills of the Rockies, Boise was beautiful in a sage brush and cactus sort of way. We hiked and skied in the hills, and partied downtown. Boise is a largish city, the state capitol, with major medical centers, a university, plenty of movie theaters (including an indy theater that served beer and wine), and lots of fabulous shopping.

But what made Boise my happy place were the people. As always, we had the military, which often made making friends easy, and many of the folks who were stationed there were people we’d known for years. But Boise had the best civilian setting of my whole time as a military spouse.

My friends Liz and Deena and Cheryl and Randy and almost everyone I worked with at Micron made me happy to be alive. My job wasn’t all that exciting (proofreading computer memory chip specifications for weeks on end is boring), but I loved the people. I worked hard cultivating relationships, too. Every week, I asked people out to lunch, organized a monthly birthday lunch for our department, took in baked goods and left them out for anyone who wanted them.

Shared food and celebration are excellent ways to build friendships.

By living in so many different places, I learned that happy places are not really about place. Oscoda was a pit, but I lived there during a tough time in my life. I was coming out of a serious depression and not sure who I was or even wanted to be, but I knew that I was not a good little officer’s wife. We didn’t have children, so most of the other military wives had little to say to me. Those few who did become my friends (hi, Carrie and Sharon!) were people who also didn’t comfortably fit the tidy mold of officer's wife. Putting a young woman in the midst of self-discovery and recovery in a small town with extremely limited resources wasn’t healthy. Or happy.

Over the years, however, I learned that almost any place can be wonderful depending on what can give to it. One of my favorite songs is You Get What You Give by The New Radicals.* (I first remember hearing it in the animated movie Surf’s Up, but it’s a 1990s song. I’m really slow….) The line that stands out every time I hear it is the line that gives the song its title:

“Can’t forget we only get what we give.”

I didn’t have much to give to Oscoda. I was too raw and confused. Boise, however, came at a time when I could give and did give a lot to life. Now, our time in Ohio is similarly fruitful for me. I’m giving a lot, and getting even more in return.

I’m in my happy place. Again. Who knows where I’ll be five, ten, twenty years from now. But if I keep my head on straight and my heart open and giving, I bet it’ll be yet another happy place.

Now it’s your turn. What’s your happy place…real or imaginary? Are you there? How do you deal with longing for a happy place when you can’t go there? Is there a figurative epidural man to help you through that longing?

*You can hear the song on YouTube HERE.


  1. So much of what you've said rings true to me, Susan. Life is what you make it, including the places you live and visit.

    My own happy place, the place I imagine in my head when I need to meditate or find room to move heavy thoughts, a sun-dappled patch of fallen leaves in the shelter of a hollowed oak tree on the side of a mountain overlooking the coast of Maine, was found during the darkest months of my life.

    I think you don't drop into depression, you kind of tumble down a steep, rocky hillside that might as well end in the bowels of the earth for all it feels like it will end. Occasionally you'll find outcrops to slow you down, give you rest, or even a chance to secure a line. That secure little hollow, passed by on a hike to the top of a mountain, was exactly that kind of spot. It captured my attention. And held it for nearly ten years because I needed something to reach for as I stumbled and fell through life.

    I know now that I gave it significance because I needed it. I made myself a happy place in the middle of the wasteland that was my life so I could rest. Even now, when I feel like I'm living in a good place, I remember that spot and endeavor to make my ordinary days feel that comfortable, secure, and inspired.

  2. Happy place- I'll have to think about that one... I agree so much with "shared food and celebration are excellent ways to build friendships." Our Bible study group meets in each others' homes two times a month. For the past year, we've been having dinner together at someone's house once a month. You know you're with good friends when you can begin (or end) a deep or decidedly not deep conversation with someone around your dining room table by stating, "Oh, by the way, there's a piece of ***fill in the blank, whatever was just served*** between your teeth." I've been on the giving and receiving end of this statement. Good times!

  3. I just want to say:

    1. What is it with the Scot in full Highland dress playing his bagpipes to the rising sun? There was one on my beach on Sanibel Island, FL, one year. He just walked into the surf. There was also one in Fells Point, MD, (Baltimore) next to the harbor (not that you'd walk in THAT surf). Weird.

    2. I've been to Oscoda, MI! A friend of my family has a house in Greenbush, just south of Harrisburg, and when I lived in MI, we'd drive up from Flint every summer. Small world. And yeah, tiny little towns along Rt 23 & Lake Huron.

    3. I never found my happy place when I was giving birth. I needed drugs. Lots of drugs.

    4. I love your blog. Just sayin'.


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!