Raising Happiness

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Lady Mantis, in all her pregnant glory.

This past weekend, I remembered that I had a kitchen. It is a fact that escapes me for most of the summer months. Entranced by my garden and all of the precious tiny creatures who visit me in surprising fashion each day, food and cooking is the last thing on my mind from April to September.

Usually in September a day will come when the slant of the afternoon shadows finally touches me on the cheek, and autumn whispers a quiet greeting. When this moment happens—and each year it is, indeed, a precise moment when the realization that summer is leaving hits me—I take a sharp inhalation and murmur, “Oh… Oh.”…

Shortly after will usually come a day or more of welcome rain to quench the summer-burnt yard, and I will hurry inside and start cooking. Last week, the rains came and I got busy inside for the first time in months: Fermented pickles and vegetables, homemade yogurt, bone broth made with chicken heads and feet, sugar-free banana bread, sourdough pancakes.

Let’s not discuss housekeeping at MillHaven in the summer. Suffice it to say that dust motes, dog hair, and fluffy cosmic dirt webs are very happy at my house. While I cooked up a storm, I tried to keep my eyes off the floor and the furniture tops. Dust beckoned, but I’m not listening yet…

Weaving new beehives for next spring!

The energy of the autumnal equinox is one of going within, reverie, celebration and grief for dreams that flourished and dreams that died on the vine. I take this energy seriously. Fall is an intensely reflective season for me as I take stock not only of the joys and sorrows of the past year, but of my life in its full totality. Am I making any progress toward becoming more fully human, I ask myself. Am I becoming more whole? Am I of benefit?

About 15 years ago, I decided that I wanted to raise my happiness “set point.” Science says that we all have a happiness point that we return to after the glow of a new delight fades. They say some folks are simply born with a greater capacity for happiness, but also that we can teach ourselves to be happier. I decided to try to cook cup some happiness, since my set point—owing to a long journey with depression—was not stellar.

And I’m here to tell you, it can be done! It’s taken me years, but I find myself smiling more all the time. Small grievances and even big shocks don’t rock me like they used to, and I can come back to laughter more quickly all the time.

That’s my pollinator hotel up on the left, tucked among flowers and weeds.

For this huge accomplishment, I credit Nature, meditation, and all the tiny avatars that grace my yard, some with four feet, some six or eight.

I want to make a strong, STRONG pitch here for meditation practice. Over the years, it has changed me, healed me, and transformed me. I honestly don’t see how anyone, unless they are born a saint, can find self-awareness, peace, and happiness without some sort of regular spiritual practice. If you don’t have one, I beseech you—find one NOW!

Meditation has allowed me to vastly deepen my nature awareness. By teaching me how to focus and be still, I find that little miracles in my yard that I would simply have missed years back when I was still a mental dullard are made visible to me: The sun on my duck’s back that looks like a patch of melting butter, the standoff between a small jumping spider and a bee, a dragonfly preening herself on the edge of my bathtub pond.

All these tiny moments I see, and what’s more important, I feel. I feel the sense of the sun on the backs of my own hands. I feel the peace of the dragonfly at the water’s edge. I feel the deep intimacy between a bee and her flower, between my dog and my husband, among the birds conspiring on the vine maple branch. These moments of awareness—of course—raise my happiness quotient and help it stay there.

Here’s a story for you about small, happy things: A couple of weeks ago before the rain came, my friend Pixie and I went to cut down the last of our basket weaving grasses. We were nearly done when Pixie exclaimed, “Oh! Hello!” I hurried over to see her face-to-face with a beautiful praying mantis on a grass stalk. We decided Lady Mantis needed to be in the safety of our yards rather than so near a road, and I said “You take her Pixie. You were the one to find her.”

I gathered the insect in my hands and brought it over to the fence by the volleyball court and called over the team that was practicing. “Have any of you ever seen a praying mantis?” I called. I never miss a teaching moment!

The kids and their couch came over to me and oohed and aahhhhed, and the coach mentioned that the female mantids eat the males after mating. Not missing a beat, I looked into the eyes of each teenager and said, “Yes. Making an egg sac takes incredible body energy for an insect. Food is scarce in this world. The male mantis essentially sacrifices his life for the good of his children. His body will provide the nourishment the female needs to create her next generation.” I allowed a pregnant pause, then continued, “Isn’t this the kind of man you want to be?” I looked at the boys. “Isn’t this the kind of partner you want?” I looked at the girls. “A father that will lay down his life to protect and care for his family?” All the kids nodded among themselves.

The coach laughed “How do you know these things?!”

I said, “I’m a beekeeper. I know everything.”

Pixie took the mantis home, while I tried hard not to covet her bug. You see, I’d not seen a single mantis in my yard since months before when an ootheca (mantis egg) had hatched on the side of my beehive. And I missed them. I mean, who doesn’t get excited to see such insect nobility in their gardens?

It’s a bird! It’s a bee! No, it’s a bee-mimicking hover fly!

Weeks later, just after the rain that turned me back into a kitchen maid, I was deadheading blossoms out by the garage. The sun was at my back, warming the south-facing garage wall. I lifted my eyes and there she was: A huge tawny mantis making her way slowly, slowly along the garage wall.

I ran to tell Carter, my husband, and he came out to greet her. As we watched, I noted her very slow, almost tottering walk. I saw that she was carefully peeking along the cracks of the garage siding, that she looked to be searching.

“She’s looking for a place to lay her eggs,” I heard myself say without thinking. “She’s heavy with eggs, that’s why she’s walking so slow, and why she’s on this warm wall, looking.”

Carter watched for a time and headed off. I kept at my work with the flowers, and kept Lady Mantis in the corner of my vision. Meditation has taught me how to be still. So I noticed in stillness the sharp black shadow she cast on the garage wall, the warmth of the sun on my back, the faint breeze. I watched her antenna move, and her legs taking such long steps. I watched her abdomen sway from side to side as she proceeded. And I felt a quickening in my own heart, as she must have been feeling in her body. Something exciting is happening! A celebration is happening! Be still, watch and wonder!

A half hour had passes when Lady Mantis came to the juncture of the garage wall and the red rain downspout. She poked her arrow head to search the small space between the spout and the wall. With great delicacy, she shifted her body around—like a large ship moving in still waters—until she slid her belly behind the drain pipe. Wth all six legs, she hung onto the pipe.

Duck of Earl meets his new children for the first time. He is very gentle with them.

Yes, yes, I am easily amused, but really, seeing a mantis lay an egg? This was a true wonder! A moment of magic, of intimacy, of communion, of creation. All that. Right there at the downspout.

I peeked around the other side of the pipe, and there sat the soft mound of ootheca “goo” surrounding an egg cluster. The goo would harden like spray foam, and protect the mantis eggs all winter through ice and storm.

I get no thrill from stock market reports, or new cars, or the news about yet more new technology. I get my thrill from insects hovering over flowers, from my dog rolling on his back in green clover, from a bit of warm sourdough bread, from my husband hiding a tiny garage-sale gift next to my coffee cup.

Each of these moments have one thing in common: They are immediate and in real time. They are not a hope, not a musing, not a plan, a fear, nor a story I tell myself. When I fully allow these moments to enfold me, I experience the world as shiny perfect in just…this…moment.

Yes, there may still be utter insanity reigning in the human world, but in the world of small miracles—if you can fully give yourself over to them—you can have moments of deep joy and absolute holy perfection many, many times a day.

These small moments I’ve entrained myself with. This is what has raised and sustained my ability to feel joy: This going down, going within, going deep, and keeping it simple.

Please, travel this path with me. You have nothing to lose but your mind-numbing, world-distracting misery. Just out your door is happiness. All you need to know is where to look and how to listen.

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