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December 6, 2007

The hap-happiest time of the year. Except in traffic, of course.

Recently I got an email from a reader giving me advice on just hanging in there through the holidays ("hold on for one more day") and sharing with me some of the challenging holidays she'd had back in the day and how she and her son just hung in there, persevered, so keep your chin up, you may look back one day and realize it wasn't that bad, etc.

It was quite a sweet note and I appreciated it, although she must be reading my morose 2005 holiday columns or maybe last year's little bit of maudlin. I haven't mentioned the holidays at all this year, have I? Mostly that's out of sheer lateness, I'm still in October in my mind (but my neighborhood does look like Santa Claus threw up on it. And to represent, my Jewish neighbors have replaced their large blow-up menorah this year with a big lighted one that blinks, and next door to them the giant lighted inflatable nativity scene is back as well.)

That email from a concerned, kind stranger made me think of family, and our roles in it, and advice in general, the way the world sees us. You know how you have that one person in your family who -- no matter what you have accomplished or how old you are or where you are in your life -- they still see you as a goofy 13-year-old kid with bad posture, braces, and no life skills?

That happens sometimes. People meet you when you're at the very bottom of your life and some assume you're still there. Or that you spent thirty-three years of your life crying in the fetal position before beginning to write about it and you are only just now taking the fledgling steps toward being an adult.

Well, there is some truth in that last statement. I think I only became a real adult in the past few years, through my divorce and eventual re-singlement. I like being in my life. Sometimes I have growing pains -- for example, when I see where I want to be so clearly and then I see where I am and they're two very different places.

Does that ever happen to you? You're looking the map of your life and you see the dot says, "You are here." And you're studying this map, poring over it, planning your trip, planning your ultimate destination (down to the shoes you will be wearing in the picture in your mind) and you so clearly know where you want to be, where exactly you'd like to see your dot rest on that map and you just aren't there yet.

There's a big gaping valley between You Are Here and You Want To Be Over There. And if I look backward on the map of my life to where I've been, I see that almost all my time has been spent inside that valley between where I am and where I am going. Because if we're being quite honest, it takes a long while to get from Here to There, and by the time you finally arrive at your new destination you have changed along the way. By the time you get to that push pin, the one you assumed would finally complete you and make you live happily ever after, you're... different. You've changed. And now this "here" looks an awfully lot like a place you're just hanging out at while your REAL happily ever after has just been pushed a little further down the map, way Over There ...

Maybe the trick is becoming comfortable in that valley in between? Maybe the real happiness in life is something you take with you across the whole map, carrying it inside you (or if you have a lot of happiness, maybe you have a backpack, too) and you move from plot point to plot point in your life with your soul intact, not always so desperate to get to the push-pin on the map that finally says, "You are Happy Here. Right here. Finally." Because what if you never make it to that exact push pin? You'd spend your whole life waiting to be happy, waiting until.... until what?

At my very first Q&A session after the reading in Los Angeles, a lovely young woman in the audience asked me about happiness. She asked, "How do we find happiness if we're not married, don't have children, when we are single women of a certain age...?"

It was a really good question, one I have thought about a lot both before and since that day.

I used to think happiness was a place, a destination, a state I would arrive at after I checked off the many to-do lists of my life: Go to school, graduate, get a nice car, find a husband, have a good job, get married!!!, find a nice house, have children... then what? I don't know what the next milestones were to be on my list, since I only made it to the married part.

After that path came to an abrupt end, I had to change. I didn't want to change at first, I wanted to hold onto my old map and sit in a corner and eat my hair. But after a while it became clear that my life had taken a turn on the map and I better get with it. I was going to end up somewhere, and I could pick: Better or Bitter. I had to re-define happiness and see it less as a destination and more as a day-to-day job. It's not easy and sometimes I forget and complain and get grouchy and wonder why I am so tired, begin focusing on all the things that just aren't right yet, why why why....

But that's poison, and anyway it doesn't help. You keep your feet on your life map and keep walking firmly in the direction of the next map point but in the meantime, inside the valley between here and there, you start to maybe wonder if we don't always live in the valley. Maybe we spend our whole entire lives between "here" and "there." And if that is the case, I better learn to be happy along the way.

And I do live in the valley, after all. It's not such a bad metaphor.

Something strange happened to me this past few years, all this thinking about valleys and maps and plot points. My old Life's To Do List started to look like someone else's idea of a life. I realized that some of the items on my big Life's To Do List weren't really things I wanted at all! Some were socially acceptable things so I accepted them, too. I must have decided somewhere in the past, "It is what is expected of me. This is how it is done. This is what will make me a normal, socially acceptable, pleasing American woman."

Or perhaps the items on my To-Do List were what others wanted for me. Some things were what others wanted for themselves so I assumed I should want them, too.

Obviously my list has changed a lot. I am thirty-six years old and I am not married and don't have children and don't own a house and don't live near my family ... and yet I enjoy my personal life and I like the work I'm doing and I have all sorts of new plot points on my personal map that don't involve the words "socially acceptable" at all. Mostly I am concentrating on finding day-to-day happiness, finding a way to be OK with not being THERE yet.

The map of my life is hard to read sometimes and feels confusing at others, and at least I know where I am right now, and since I'm here I might as well enjoy it. I am here, after all. Me and the lighted menorah and the inflatable nativity set and my cats and my friends and my family and hopefully my little backpack of myself that I can take with me from Christmas to Christmas, no matter where I end up. As if we ever "end up" anyway.

So this Christmas is nothing that has to be plodded through or persevered or chin-upped. The only thing which must be endured is holiday traffic, and Lord people have lost their damn minds on the roads. This is the first Christmas maybe in my entire life that doesn't have to be anything special, or symbolize anything, or have any pressure at all. It's one nice day in a pretty good year that is hopefully in between now and then, wherever then may be.

Posted by laurie at December 6, 2007 9:13 AM