My New Year's weekend was extraordinary. My two teen daughters, my friend Dianna, and I went on a road trip back to the little town in Iowa my family called home before last year. My girls and I planned for this trip to be reconnection with friends, and it was. Dianna and I planned for it to be a middle-aged slumber party, and it was. We didn't plan on it becoming a threshhold moment, but it was that too.
I'm the first to acknowledge that I have an amazing contingent of friends. Every one different, every one wonderful in her own way. Our first visit, on the way into town, was to my friend, Barb, who has just bought a very old farmstead about ten miles out of town. She's taken on a beautiful old three-story barn of a house in need of a good bit of sprucing up, as well as the care of several acres--all while she and her husband are in their fifties. They have plans to renovate the place, one room at a time. To take on such a project requires an iron will, a lot of hope, and no small measure of insanity, but as she said, "This is the first good night's sleep I've had in a long time." Nothing like a little elbow room, some fresh country air, and your very own quonset (look it up) to give you peace of mind. It was a lesson: Chase your dream til you catch it, even when it sounds crazy to other people.
That night, as we sat in the living room of our borrowed accomodations, my girls safely off to their sleepovers with their buddies, Dianna and I talked and drank herb tea til the wee hours. We've only known each other for less than a year and a half, so we haven't worn out old stories on one another, and we relived family joys and childhood traumas and strained relationships between sharing hopes and fears about our world and the one our kids will grow old in. Before the night was over, it felt like we'd been friends forever. It was a lesson: You only get close to people when you share yourself.
Our next visit was to my friend Carmella, who epitomizes down to earth grace and beauty. She lives on a farm a few miles from town, in a home that is like the scene of a novel. In warmer weather, a gorgeously tousled garden welcomes visitors. A huge kitchen always has something delicious and homemade waiting. Simple, beautiful, sturdy furniture looks like it's from a catalog, but is strictly made for living--no fussy stuff, and nothing that's only "for show." In Carmella's house, everything has a story, from the furniture that her husband found and restored, to the walls, where an eclectic mix of quotations are painted. It's probably the only place I've ever been where Alan Kay, Rhett Butler, and Billy Joel get equal billing. We sat for hours and drank coffee and talked, and felt as though we never wanted to leave. It was a lesson: If you want people to be around you, make the area around you a place where people feel comfortable and welcome to be.
That night was New Year's Eve, and while my girls took off to more sleepovers, Dianna and I stayed in. The girls asked what we had planned, and we told them we were going to have tea. When that was panned as too boring, we said we might order strippers. In the end, we forgot to call the strippers, but we did talk and laugh til well after the witching hour. We talked about the ways that we've let our lives run us, instead of the other way around. We talked about the ways we are each dissatisfied with where we find ourselves currently--living normal suburban lives when we are both anything but normal suburban people. We talked about running, fleeing the normality and the workaday reality we're in. But hours into the conversation, as if rung in by the arrival of the New Year, we suddenly began to talk not just about finding a better life, but about how we could make better the one we've already got. And in the end, we came to a very clear lesson: Happiness comes from inside when you make yourself forget that you might drown, let loose of the bank, put your feet downstream, and give yourself over to ride the flow of life's everyday joy.
The next visit was to my friend Jane. Jane is an old hippie, with an eclectic fashion sense, a couple of gold teeth, the recipe for the best deviled eggs I've ever had, and an intellect that you don't often see. She's the only person I know who would, this day and age, wear and love a cardigan with a giant bowling-ball-and-pins design knitted into it, and she's also the only person I know whose refrigerator is deep reading. She truly, honestly, right down to her toes, couldn't give a furry rat's behind what anyone thinks of her, and yet she's one of the kindest and most generous people I know. Jane greets every situation with a sense of humor and an absolute determination to enjoy it, learn from it, or both. She is at every turn both comic and philosopher, both jester and sage, and being invited to sit on old bus seats around the wood stove in her basement and talk is a greater honor to me than any state dinner ever could be. To be there was a lesson: Know who you are and be that relentlessly, and the people who hang around you will be the ones who love the real you.
On our journey, we stopped at the Ice Cream Capital of the World, in a town called LeMars, Iowa. More ice cream is made in the Blue Bunny factory there than anywhere else in the world. It's also the home of a wonderful replica of an old fashioned soda fountain with Blue Bunny souvenirs and great ice cream. After our sundaes, we went to buy souvenirs. Dianna and I talked about it a bit and decided that we needed to get out of our comfort zone. So we each bought a wildly colored tie dye sweatshirt that we would never have bought were it not for the lessons we'd learned on our trip. And we wore them. Two middle-aged women trundling through the midwest in eye-bleedingly-bright, tie-dyed sweatshirts. As I drove, every time I would look down at my arms clad in my rainbow hued sweatshirt, I smiled. Other people, seeing our crazy shirts, smiled or shook their heads, and that made us laugh, and suddenly, there was a lot of smiling and laughing going on. It was a lesson: A comfort zone may be cozy and familiar, but it hardly ever makes you smile ear to ear.
We finished our journey and came back to the same lives we left a few days before, but we're not seeing them quite the same way anymore. There's more understanding of how we dig our own ruts, how if you're not careful, you can easily lose the joyful parts of life--and we now know what to do about it. And that brought us to our last lesson--whatever it takes--appreciating the people in your life for their own unique qualities, or having tea, or forgetting to call the strippers, or wearing tie-dye-- the way to be happy is to figure out how to really enjoy the stuff you're going to do anyhow.
Happy New Year.