It’s almost 2012 and I’m once again faced with my annual task of thinking about making resolutions for the New Year. “Thinking about” is the key phrase here, as I’m really adept at thinking about change and less apt to actually implement my list of resolutions in any concrete way.
So this year, I’ve decided to try something different. This year, I’m not falling into that same pattern of setting myself up for failure by trying to reach for goals that are unattainable. This year, I’m making only one decisive resolution:
I’m going to work hard to stop working so hard to be happy.
Sounds simple enough, right? Well, I can assure you, it will be a genuine challenge for me. I’ve spent a lifetime searching for happiness. I’ve carried around the ridiculous notion that if I could make other people happy, I’d be happy, too. Yeah—right! It’s only taken me almost half a century to realize that my hypothesis is completely unsound.
I also thought that if I could only get to point “A, B or C” everything would finally fall into place and I’d reach that state of bliss that has always eluded me. Yet no matter what I’ve accomplished, I’m still that little child, who after unwrapping dozens of birthday presents, looks around at all of the gifts and toys and thinks, “Is that all?”
Well, I’m almost fifty years old, and I’m tired of not being satisfied. I’m also exhausted from worrying about other people’s moods and actions, as if I actually had some control over their behavior. I’ve come to the realization that it’s now or never– I’m running out of time! If I can’t learn to be happy by now, I probably never will be.
I hate that it always takes a cataclysmic event in my life for me to stop with all of this internal angst and nonsense and focus on what’s most important in life. You’d think I would’ve gotten the point by now. Almost ten years ago, I lost my niece, Gillian when she was six years old. Then, of course, my daughter Isa was diagnosed with leukemia. I’ve often talked about how these experiences, although thoroughly devastating, were also positive in many ways, and they allowed me and my family the chance to change and grow into the people we’re supposed to be. And although I’m grateful to have learned so many valuable life lessons from these experiences, I think that quite possibly I’ve had enough schooling to last me a lifetime. But I guess I’ve not listened attentively enough, because the universe still thinks I need educating and is handing me yet another lesson.
Three weeks ago, my husband’s sister Norma suffered a brain hemorrhage. Although we’ve known that Norma’s health has not been great these past few years, (she is diabetic and is on dialysis) it’s still a shock that at the young age of fifty-two, something this dire could happen to someone whom we love so much.
When I met Rene almost twenty-seven years ago, no one from his remote village in Oaxaca, Mexico had ever dated a white person, let alone married one. Let’s just say that they were not too pleased that one of their own fell in love with a girl whose skin was lighter than the maza they used to make their tortillas.
Back then, I was naive and idealistic and couldn’t understand their reluctance to accept me. Ignorance crosses all racial lines, though. Because we we’re not always familiar with the way other people live and interact, so many of us negatively stereotype those from other cultures. I was dismayed to learn that my own mother was troubled by our impending marriage because of “the vast cultural differences” that Rene and I faced, and she tried to talk me out of it. And Rene’s family had the insane idea that because I was a white woman, I would use him, cheat on him, and ultimately break his heart. They told him they would not accept me.
Except, that is, for his sister Norma.
The first time I met Norma was on a hot July afternoon in the summer of 1986. Rene had rented a studio apartment with two of his brothers near downtown Los Angeles on Mariposa Street. Mariposa is Spanish for “butterfly” which was odd because I don’t recall ever seeing a butterfly anywhere in that neighborhood. In fact, there was hardly a plant or flower in sight among the grimy brick and stucco apartment buildings that stood crumbling with neglect.
It always seemed hotter on Mariposa Street because there were no trees around except for the towering palms that left only a hint of shadowy lines crisscrossing the street. Against the backdrop of the smoggy L.A. skyline, their hairy fronds crackled like dried-out paintbrushes in the hot summer wind.
Norma had heard about me, and had insisted to Rene that he invite me over for an early dinner that afternoon. I was nervous as I entered their apartment, the smells of fried carne asada and onions saturating the stale afternoon air. I was so eager to make a good impression on his older sister, but there was no need to worry. Norma, upon seeing me reached out and gave me a tight hug. She smiled without judgment or criticism, and then fed me the best meal I ever ate.
Norma’s life has never been easy as she’s struggled with health issues since she was born. A life filled with poverty and loneliness can suck the hope and joy right out of a person and Norma is no exception. Yet faced with such difficult circumstances, Norma has always managed to be generous with what little she’s had to give.
Norma is now in a nursing home, paralyzed on the left side of her body, a feeding tube permanently attached to her stomach. She can barely talk, and is only able to move one hand to make slight gestures. Once in a while, she can offer a half smile. The wonderful thing is that she’s still Norma—she is cognizant of her surroundings and most importantly, she still has her feisty personality.
Rene’s family has rallied, as families often do in times of tragedy, and has grown even closer over these past few weeks; they trade-off spending time with Norma so she’s not left alone during the day. Their lesson, I believe, is that no matter what their differences are, they need each other for support and there’s no way any of them can do it alone. They’ve also realized that it could be one of them lying in that hospital bed the next time. I’ve realized that someday it could even be me.
Perhaps my lesson is to understand that I need to appreciate that I am blessed with the kind of life that others only dream about. I’m not saying I don’t have my struggles; life is difficult for all of us at one time or another, especially during these rough economic times. But I take comfort knowing that I’m not alone—that all of us share some form of pain and sorrow as we go through life. I also know that we share the same joy and laughter as well—and that love will always carry us through the dark times.
So I’m starting my New Year’s resolution right now: I’m going to take a break from trying to be happy and just be happy. It’s that simple. I encourage you all to stop trying, too.
“Happy” New Year to you all—this time I really mean it.