When people ask how I am doing these days, I usually say, “Fine.” As my friend Nancy Curtis, publisher of High Plains Press, pointed out in an email, “fine” is one of those evasive words we use when “we have no intention of elaborating.”
That’s true. The reason I’m not inclined to elaborate may be surprising though: I really am fine. I know I should be prostrate with grief, or at least miserable. After all, I lost the love of my life, my husband Richard, my companion of almost 29 years, to brain cancer less than two months ago.
Still, I’m happy most of the time. I’ve thought about why that is, and whether I’m just fooling myself. I don’t think so.
I’ve a pretty sunny temperament. That perennial cheer likely annoys some people, but it’s as fundamental to me as the sandy-blond hair that flares red in the sun, and the quick temper that goes with those natural red highlights.
What allows me to be happy now stems in part, I expect, from a life-event that shattered my first marriage and nearly shattered me: when I was 23 years old, I was diagnosed with an incurable, often-fatal autoimmune disease.
My prognosis: two to five years. With no known cure and no real understanding of what caused or could control the inevitable decline, my primary doc suggested two things: that I approach the illness as I would any research, seeing if I could find patterns in my symptoms and their occurrence; and that I take seriously some research suggesting that increasing my core happiness could change the outcome of the illness.
I took to both like the proverbial duck to water. I read everything I could find about autoimmune diseases, took notes on my symptoms, and began to notice patterns I used to adjust my life and lifestyle and improve my health. I also began to pay attention to what made me happy, and what didn’t.
(That decades-long and ongoing study inspired my memoir, Walking Nature Home, A Life’s Journey. It’s a love story, really, not a tale of illness. It’s available in print, in a Kindle edition, and as an audiobook, read by yours truly. And that’s the end of the commercial.)
Over thirty-plus years of learning to live with my particular and peculiar health, the lesson that’s probably crucial to allowing me to survive the journey with Richard’s brain cancer, and his death is this: It’s not what you get in life that determines your happiness, it’s how you respond.
I don’t mean to say that it’s easy–or simple–to cope with tragedy, either personal or planetary. But as I’ve learned from living with an illness that continues to surprise, challenge, and teach me, it is possible to figure out how to be happy, regardless. It’s a choice. Not necessarily an obvious one, but still a choice.
Thus, I choose to seek out what makes me happy, every day. I miss my love, and always will. In fact, his company in my life is part of what nurtures me now. I have the good fortune to live in the house he helped design and build, so I’m enfolded by the work of his hands, mind, and heart. That’s a gift.
The living world around me makes me happy: the beauty of sunrises and sunsets, the sound of cackling geese flying by at dawn, the feel of frosty air on my cheeks. The walks I take every day, the friends I have dinner with, the love that comes to me from all around–thanks to you all for that.
My work also makes me happy, writing and speaking about my love for this living world, a community that can nourish us if we’ll let it. That work is taking me to Miami on Sunday to teach at YoungARTS week, a national gathering of top high school students in the arts. It’s an intense week: 14-hour days of teaching, master classes, interviews, and performances. So I won’t be on the ‘net much. When I’m not teaching, I’ll be sleeping (and maybe taking a run on the beach).
Don’t feel sorry for me. I get to work with a tremendous panel of writers, plus inspiring young artists–and, I just realized looking at the schedule, the week ends with a master class from Robert Redford.
So yeah, I’m fine. Better than that, actually. I’m pretty-much happy.