Dear Readers, I’m Sharing Secrets of My Happiness

Dear Readers,

Awhile ago, I wrote a piece for you called Dear Readers, This Year I Want to Write About Happiness. Since then, I’ve been through a storm of painful circumstances that is turning out to be a blessing in disguise.

“Oh, my God,” I told a friend who came to help, as we sat side by side at the edge of the millpond below my house. “It’s the joyous paradox, right here, right now!” And true enough: Now that I’ve come through the pain, rigorously choosing to be with it, accept it for what it is, and share it, I’m living in a broad and golden moment of relief, joy, and whole-heartedness. I am deeply and thoroughly happy.

So how did I get here? What’s the secret of my happiness? Here are three preliminary thoughts, plus a video of me singing.

1. We weren’t meant to do this work alone. Whether the pain is an old story from your past that comes up and wallops you in the face, which is what happened to me, or a new and menacing diagnosis from your doctor, or unrelenting cravings for alcohol or food, or the loss of a job, or the death of a loved one, pain needs help for healing.

All well and good, we might say, but it’s hard to reach out in the middle of an emotional storm. This brings me to point 2:

2. When pain hits, just breathe. When I focus on my breath, mindful of what I’m actually experiencing right now, in this moment, I’m helping my brain to activate powerful biological tools that calm the nervous system. I first learned mindfulness meditation years ago. Last year I renewed my practice with an eight-week course in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction with holistic nurse Pam Ressler of Stress Resources. I’m so glad I did. It really worked.

3. Restore your soul through music and other creative pursuits. Singing has become my most immediate refuge in hard times. I don’t really know why that happened. But when I look back, I can see a clear progression from singing the folk song “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad” on family road trips as a kid, to singing at the bedside of someone who is sick or sorry, to starting each morning with a meditative song that I made up myself.

I’ll have more to share about creative self-expression as a healing modality for patients and caregivers alike. For today, let me close with a short video of me singing the chant that I composed to get me through my recent storm. It’s called “In This Moment, With This Breath.”

Very truly yours,

Mary Ann

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Dear Judy, When My Mother Read the Part of Job’s Wife

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When I was little and living with my mother and my twin sister in a small house with a big garden in Napa, California, we used to buy groceries at Lyerla’s Market. You pronounced it “LIE-er-lahs,” with the accent on the first syllable. It had a wooden floor of long, narrow boards, always very clean. The man who most often checked out our groceries was nicknamed “Shorty.” My mother liked to say he’d scold her if she spent too much. I don’t know why she liked to tell that story: her extravagance, his caution. What would she be buying that cost too much? Ice cream, or preserved fruits for baking, or beef steak?

Once, waiting in line at Lyerla’s, I stole a single, cellophane-wrapped jawbreaker, the kind of thick, hard, red ball of candy that lasted forever in the corner of your cheek and stained your tongue red. I don’t know why I took it. I think I was surprised, a few seconds later, to discover myself still holding it in my hand. Nobody seemed to notice; not my mother, fishing for money in one of her smooth, dark blue or brown handbags; not my sister; not Shorty. In the car going home, I sat on the edge of the front seat of our scratchily-upholstered green Chevy and tried to suck the candy without being seen.

“Have you got something in your mouth?” my mother asked, sharply, taking her eyes off the road to glance at me as though through the clearer bottom half of bifocals.

“Uh-uh,” I said, somewhat thickly.

For some reason, she decided to let it go.

A few years later — I must have been eight — the Food Fair opened at the edge of town, out past the intersection where Imola Highway turned towards the state hospital. Food Fair was a modern market. When you went in through the glass doors, the first thing you saw was a yellow painted wooden bench filled with comic books. Donald Duck, Archie and his high school friends (I couldn’t stand Betty and Veronica), Little Lucy.

At home we were not allow comics, so these had me mesmerized, or would have if it weren’t for the drama of the rest of the place. There were pink lights over the meat packages, and wide white aisles floored in linoleum as clean and hard as bars of soap. The mirrors over the produce cases were tilted at odd angles. Grapefruit, tangerines, cantaloupe, Boston lettuce, bunches of radishes stretched away into forever. And the canned soups! My mother always made her own soups from scratch. Deep pots of chopped kale with ham, or chicken soup with all the vegetables mitered at their corners. Slightly watery pea soup you had to tolerate because we were of Swedish background and the recipe apparently came with the family. With all that, you can’t imagine how exotic those rows of red and white cans of Campbell soup appeared.

“Marsha’s mother gave us mushroom soup by Camp-Bell,” we told our mother one afternoon, coming home from lunch at a friend’s house. In our excitement, we pronounced the “p.”

“Oh,” said my mother, not as impressed. “From a can?”

But when a convenience store opened on a corner leading out of our development, my mother would walk with us down the street in the dry winds of California summer to buy Eskimo Pies after supper. There was a certain variation that came on a stick like an ordinary ice cream bar and had a thick glob of chocolate candy in the middle. We would walk home looking at the sunset in the wide sky, eating the chocolate coating off the bottom of the bar to control the drips, hearing the chain pull tight on our dog’s collar as she strained after cats, coming to the last bit of intense sweetness as we reached the steep driveway to our house.

Today when we met for lunch, you talked about how it is important for you in your life as a minister to be willing to be with people as they are dying. For some reason, when you said that I had a deep feeling of grief. Tears came in my eyes a little and I had to will them to be still.

Over the last few years, I have come to believe so much in the poignancy of everyday life. There is something about the awkwardness of unshed tears at lunch at the Gaslighter that is very valuable to me. Ice cream bars, comic books, jawbreakers, the small details of unsentimental reflection, flashes of conversation, embarrassment, longing, these are the things that seem to matter when I think about dying.

When I was a child in Napa, shortly before we left there, my mother began taking us to meetings of a Unitarian fellowship. There was a group reading of Archibald MacLeish’s play on the story of Job, “J.B.,” held at some fellowship member’s home. My mother read the part of Job’s wife. It was evening. I remember something about the living room, assorted stuffed chairs in a rough circle and standing lamps with dark pleated ivory shades and pull chains. I sat on the arm of my mother’s chair — I must have been ten or eleven then — and I remember the light falling on my arms, making the fine hairs on my skin look alternately dark and light.

My mother spoke. I think I must have been reading over her shoulder, or else I read the play afterwards by myself, because I can remember seeing the blocks of words down the page and knowing when it would be her turn to read them. There must be a part of the play where the voices speak of sorrow down and down, on and on, one after another, those words coming out into the empty light of the air the way they came laid out in spaces of black type on the lighted page. When my mother spoke the part of Job’s wife, the sorrow in her voice was so deep, so old, so large and so peculiarly slanted towards my life that I found myself weeping. It’s that rolling motion: there’s a certain form of grief in which you aren’t sobbing, your breathing is undisturbed, but the water rolls over the round sides of your cheeks like a warm and distant ocean. It’s so far away from you that you have a distinct surprise in being where you are. You remember what you have just been doing; you have a muffled worry about what the others in the room must think of you; you wipe the tears off with your hand; but at the same time you are relaxed a little, and they keep coming.

I hesitate these days to read “J.B.,” but sometime I would like to. Remembering my mother speaking that evening, I am sure she was doing that thing we call invocation, calling upon the things that are deep and touch us all. When my mother is speaking, in that memory I have of her, I believe she is speaking of her own dying, and mine. I believe she is saying, in the words she reads aloud in the circle next to the standing lamp, something that she can never say in real life. She has an ease in her grieving as she reads that never happens when we are together. In her reading, she is mourning, but she is also moving on.


Mary Ann

Editor’s note: I wrote this letter to the minister of my church on April 9, 1986, which is 27 years ago this week.

Dear Mother Lisette, May You Awaken in Paradise

Dear Mother Lisette,

May you awaken in Paradise.

It has been two years and 46 days since your death. This morning I am eating old-fashioned, steel-cut oatmeal for breakfast. Do you remember making Quaker Oats for us when Katherine and I were little? I didn’t like oatmeal then, though I thought that butter improved it. Once I took my bowl into the back yard and hid it in a little red polka-dot suitcase. When you found it later there was a thick trail of ants lining up for a taste.

I am sorry that I was not there with you when you took your last breath. As you know if you have been looking down on me from heaven, Steve and I were in Libertyville, IL the day you died, getting ready to go to the funeral home to set up the flowers and photographs for his mother’s wake. It’s odd that you and Gladys passed away exactly a week apart, though we knew you were both near the end. She was 96 and you were just a day away from turning 102.

“To everything, turn, turn, turn, there is a season, turn, turn, turn, and a time for every purpose under heaven.”

If I could go back to see you one last time at your nursing home in Concord, MA, I would sing you that folksong by Pete Seeger. We sing it in church every once in a while, music to acknowledge great political travail or steep, private passages from one stage of life to another.

If I could see you again, I would apologize for stealing that red jawbreaker from Lyerla’s Market when I was five years old. I wonder if you noticed me sucking it as we drove home in our bottle-green Chevy with the prickly upholstery. I remember grunting in answer to some question from you, not willing to risk your hearing my voice as I rolled the candy on my tongue and surreptitiously swallowed my saliva. Perhaps you did notice but were too tired from the demands of parenting twins to say so.  Continue reading

Dear Readers, This Year I Want to Write About Happiness

February 1, 2013

Dear Readers,

This year I want to write to you about happiness. My happiness, certainly, and that of my cat, Ginsberg, whose fond charms prompted me to write the first Letter of the Month. Perhaps your happiness, too. Blogging, like caregiving, is an intimate act. By opening up my window on the world to you, I may be offering you a chance to awaken your own sources of comfort and joy.

Tonight, as I write, I’m sitting in my favorite spot on the living-room sofa. Ginsberg is curled deep in an upholstered chair, at peace with a full belly and plenty of brushing. My husband Steve is off playing trombone in a Tom Nutile Big Band rehearsal in Needham, MA, something that always makes him happy.

“The thing about playing a low brass instrument like the trombone,” Steve tells me, “is that in order to get any kind of sound out of it, you have to relax your throat and pump a deep whoosh of air up from your belly. For the high brass, like the trumpet, your breath is constricted, but for the trombone and tuba, everything is open. That’s why the tuba player is usually the calmest guy in the band.”

Indeed, I have noticed a similar calming effect in myself when I sing, especially as a member of our soft-voiced pastoral choir at church.

Yet it’s been my experience in working with older clients that many people have difficulty taking the deep, diaphragmatic breaths, with a full inhalation and a long, slow exhalation, that serve to calm the nervous system. Maybe I should get Steve to come in for a demo on deep breathing and videotape it for Joyous Paradox. Based on my own experience with mindful breathing, I do believe that taking gentle, deep breaths in, and letting them out slowly, while paying attention to each sensation for the entire duration of the breath, will over time bring us closer to moments of equanimity and even joy.

Over the past year I’ve noticed that it’s actually easier to write about the pain or illness that needs attention than the joys that can come with good care and even healing. Similarly, when I first meet a new client I focus more on the things that are difficult in their daily life than the things that are positive, or self-affirming, or sources of delight. After all, the caregiver is usually called in because someone, the client or their family, has concerns about their health and safety. Perhaps they’ve been slipping and falling, or forgetting to take medication, or are just getting out of rehab following surgery.

Yet despite this understandable bias in favor of watching out for danger, I find that some of my most successful times with clients are moments when joy or lightness comes bubbling up to the surface.

I’m reminded of a visit with a new client six or seven years ago when I was first doing this work. I was helping her take a shower one morning and I bent down quickly to pick up a towel from the floor. She bent down at the same moment and we almost bumped heads together.

“Oh my gosh,” I said to her as we both burst out laughing. “Did you ever imagine, years ago, that you’d be in this room, in your own house, completely unclothed, with someone like me, a perfect stranger?”

No, she hadn’t imagined it, she said. And after she was warm and dry, eating breakfast at her kitchen table, I reflected that of course, stepping out of the shower in front of someone you don’t know isn’t what any of us expects to happen. It implies a loss of control and personal privacy that few in our society would tolerate without some urgent reason.

Yet that moment of shared laughter in the bathroom marked the beginning of a warm, trusting relationship between my client and me. In the end, I was able to be with her and her family when she died. So even in the most dire of circumstances, I think it’s worth paying attention to opportunities for ease, comfort, relief, and simple pleasure. The touch of a warm washcloth on one’s face. The silliness of a small dog chasing his tail. The smell of fresh pajamas warm from the dryer. The fabulous achievement, for someone recovering from a stroke, of squeezing the toothpaste and getting a good glop of it on the bristles of the brush.

Happiness, here with the breath. Breathing in, breathing out. Just being.

May you and your loved ones have joy in the moment,

Mary Ann

Dear Ginsberg, Please Don’t Lick the Wallpaper

January 8, 2013

Dear Ginsberg,

Oh, thank you so much for coming to see me this morning! It’s so cold, and I’m sitting up in bed with the big white comforter pulled up on my lap, watching you climb a stack of boxes on Steve’s bureau. Steve just brought me tea in the matte-glazed, black mug from the Museum of Modern Art that he gave me several Christmases ago. This Ceylon blend from Upton Tea is his ordinary morning selection, not one of those more specialized varieties with names like Risheehat Estate SFTGFOP1, a Darjeeling Super-Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe, grade 1. 

Dearest Ginzy, when you are finished rearranging the boxes — oops, that one just shifted beneath you! — please come back to bed and purr at my feet, settling into the downy squares of the comforter, your black-and-white, tuxedo-cat fur so tailored and crisp, blinking your eyes slowly with happiness.

For some reason I’ve been thinking about happiness lately. It strikes me that having a cat with multiple nicknames is a good indicator of contentment. I think that the neural circuits activated in the brain when we’re paying attention to a beloved companion animal must be related, somehow, to the playful use of language.

You, of course, dear Ginsberg Kitty, have many nicknames:  Ginzy, which is what author Ursula Le Guin might call your use-name, the one in use most of the time; Beauteous Person; Ginzu, Ginzutini, Ginzutechi,and Ginzarella; Wunder-Katzen; Katzen-Batzen. There’s a little coin from 16th-century Bern, Switzerland, the batzen, which was the inspiration for that last one.

Thank you, Ginzy, I like it when you sit on my feet. It makes me feel special. Oh, you’re so flexible. How do you manage to raise your back leg so high up behind your ear while washing your tail?

But anyway, as I was saying, the many-nicknamed members of a household must be wreathed in affection. I would be willing to bet that Rick Hanson, the neuropsychologist who taught the course on Taking in the Good that I took through IONS last year, would agree that spending time petting, stroking, brushing, talking, laughing, and just being with an animal we love is a wonderful way to strengthen the structures in the brain that are involved in happiness, love, and wisdom.

So really, Ginzy, you there curled up on my right foot, an island of mostly black fur in a sea of white, you are an inspiration and a comfort, a reminder for me that even when the world outside is cold and full of hardship, I can still be safe and warm.

Now, before I reclaim my right foot and go downstairs for breakfast, could I make one request? Please don’t lick the wallpaper. I know you love to work on that little piece that’s coming unstuck next to the radiator in the bathroom, but it’s really annoying, especially when I’ve hopped out of bed to use the facilities first thing in the morning. If you’ll just be a little more patient, I’ll serve your breakfast as soon as I possibly can.


Mary Ann

Letter of the Month is a new feature of  Joyous Paradox, a blog about health, healing, and caregiving. Readers are welcome to leave a comment or email Mary Ann at mabarton01 at