Reach, Grasp, Happiness Project and My Labyrinth

posted May 12, 2013

I want to build a labyrinth.

This is possibly the weirdest result of reading Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, a book which (in case you’ve been living on Mars for the past four years) champions happiness as a goal and exhorts its readers to make their own Happiness Projects by thinking about their lives in terms of what feels good, what feels bad and what feels right.

Like the author, who was a classmate of mine, I don’t want to change much about my life. I’m pretty happy. I don’t want to move to a new city, I don’t want to switch careers, I love my husband and children. I just want to be more present to it all, to appreciate my life more fully, to be honest about who I really am and what I really like. One of Ms. Rubin’s Personal Commandments is to “Be Gretchen,” and she argues that the road to happiness is in finding what’s truly happy-making for yourself, and not worry whether or not it might impress others. Though I’d like to think of myself as “Easy People,” the truth is I’m a major striver. I know for myself that what makes me happy is to feel that I am reaching a little beyond my grasp, and maybe possibly getting close.

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?-Robert Browning

And so I particularly love Gretchen’s nod to Ben Franklin, he of the famous Virtue Charts. Setting about to perfect himself, he drew these up and gave himself check marks at the end of every day. He never achieved perfection, but he said by reaching, he became a better and happier man from the attempt.

My problem is, my reach exceeds my grasp in every aspect of my life, and instead of smiling and enjoying the Grasp, I frown and squint and focus on what’s just out of reach. Here’s what’s just out of reach:
My idea of where I should be in my career.
My idea of what my waistline should look like (“A waist is a terrible thing to mind.”)
My idea of how uncluttered my house should be
My idea of how all my friendships should be (much more correspondence, much more time for hanging out)
My idea of how happy I should be making everyone
My idea of how big my royalty check should be
My idea of how often I should be blogging
My idea of how beautiful and well-kept my gardens should be
My idea of how rigorous my yoga practice should be
And on and on and on.

But back to the labyrinth.

We have a generous lot for our small city—a little over half an acre. There’s a corner in the back that our catty-corner neighbor wants to buy, and in truth, we ought to sell it to him. We’ve let it go to brambles, whereas he would adopt it gratefully into his yard, a yard that seems to have a bite taken out of it—that bite being our unruly corner. But we said no because…our reach exceeds our grasp. And we can’t stand the idea of letting part of our plot go. (This attitude contributes to the stacks on stacks of unread books in our attic, the piles of paper, the storage boxes of unused clothes, the crates of LPs in our attic, basement and barn. But that’s for another post.)

Anyway, this corner of our lot, brambly though it is, has a certain charm. It’s wedged at the nexus of our two neighbors’ properties (perfect for spying), it’s a bit sunny, and there are two gorgeous cherry trees breaking into the clouds. Last year, we had some tree work done, and the fellers left the remains of the trees as neatly stacked logs, stumps cut down to stool size, and a giant pile of wood chips. I saw these raw materials and got an idea. I’d build a labyrinth with them. My writers could come to this back corner, walk the labyrinth with their muses, and end up in an Adirondack chair under one of the cherry trees where they could sit and write.

Then I realized how much hauling of wood was involved and I decided to farm out the project. I priced it with a couple of landscapers. One suggested pea gravel. One suggested a backhoe. One suggested I plant wild mountain thyme, which of course I thought was a great idea, until she priced it. Plus there’d be weeding. It was all too much. I turned my back on that untamed corner of the lot and went inside to do my inside things: write songs, play guitar, write my books and blog posts, tend to my family.

I’m working, as you know, on doing less, on striving to be that Easy Person (or Easier, anyway). It’s killing me, but I really am doing less. To wit: Jay and I rode bikes to Elle’s pick up, and instead of spending the rest of the afternoon at the Y, we hung out at the playground where I made a new friend. Then we bike-ambled home through the park, doing an extra loop or two, breathing in the flowering trees. Ah, but a woman should bike with her kids and smell the flowers, or what’s a May for? We got home, and for once I didn’t have everything written out in a little chart to follow. So I took my bike back to the barn and ventured around the corner to appraise the dreaded brambles. I noticed a stack of old pallets that had once served as a makeshift wall for our gigantic compost heap. I was seized with a desire to build, the way my kids descend on a pile of Legos. I dragged them one at a time over to the brambles and lay them down, making a rough bridge. But there were rusty nails in the crates, and so I pulled them up, using them as a fence to give the area some definition. I propped them up with the logs and the tree stumps.

Then I attacked the woodchips with a kid-sized snow shovel. Shovelful by shovelful, I shook them out, lining the path with a seemingly never-ending supply of bricks I found scattered around the property, and the limbs of the felled trees. I varied the path with some leftover slate from our new mudroom floor, and some leftover tiles from our kitchen walls, and soon there was a walkway around the Adirondack chair, a rough circular pattern, hardly a labyrinth at all; more like a moat around the island of chair.

“Process not product” is my motto of late, and the labyrinth is hardly a thing of beauty (not to mention, as I did mention, not a labyrinth). What interested me was the feeling in me the hauling aroused. I felt like a kid, breathlessly pacing our property for bricks and sticks and logs and stumps, for rocks and slate and woodchips. I felt overtaken with a frenzy of creation, the desire—who knew it could be so strong?—of making order out of chaos. And when I took a break to sit in that chair in the center and admire my handiwork, I felt like Alexander the Great surveying my vast empire. And just for a second or two, I was there in full appreciation of my grasp.
This is the sweet spot, isn’t it? This is why I run writing workshops where writers work on first draft material. I am obsessed with that creative spark, as I am obsessed with the raw materials that go into those first drafts. The irony is not lost on me that my great creation (labyrinth) would not have been possible had we not been such pathetic cluttery slobs who had left all sorts of debris around the property. In a way, my fervor contributed to a great clutter clearing: there is nary an extra brick or stone anywhere save in the northeast corner of our lot now. But had there been no mess, there would be no work of art. As artists, of course, we need both the mess AND the inclination to order it.

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