Happiness is…

This morning when my husband and I decide to take the grand dog to the dog park, the temperature is a pleasant –6 with patches of blue sky showing through thin cloud cover. As we stand on the deck out of the wind, I wonder if I’ve overdressed and will soon be sweating. In the car, I am too hot.

By the time we arrive at the dog park, the sun looks like an ivory disk under a gossamer veil. Out on the open field, the clouds move in, hanging low with their bellies ragged and torn. The wind blows over the land with icy cold gusts. Gooseflesh pimples the skin under my jeans. I pull down my hat and put up the hood of my jacket. My husband’s fur-lined aviator hat protects his ear, but his nose, chin and forehead are very pink.

The dog, however, doesn’t care what the thermometer says; he’s always up for chasing the ball. Today, his doggie smile stretches from ear to ear. I can’t help but smile too. Condensation from his huffing breath whitens his whiskers with frosty rime just like the earflaps on my husband’s hat.

I’m freezing. My cheeks are stinging. My husband’s face is red and raw. All I can think of at that moment is, “Give me a hot chocolate and I’ll be content.” Now that the dog is happily exhausted, we walk briskly to the car, and I tuck my chin into the furry collar of my jacket. My glasses fog up and my nose runs. I feel alive and invigorated by the cold. My senses are tingling.

I love the delicious feel of being alive.

So often, I hear people say, “I’ll be happy when I’m out of debt.” “I’ll be happy when I can go on a cruise.” “I’ll be happy when I can find the right home.” I wonder, “Is it really true that they’ll be satisfied?” When those things happen (or not) the wish list increases. The desire for more is always at work. All those If’s and when’s take over, and suddenly they’re expectations.“

If I lament missed opportunities, I’m also creating a list. “I wish I had…” “Why didn’t I…?” “What if I had…?” Now I’m on a trip down memory lane!

A friend of mine calls this phenomenon time travel. The grand dog’s happiness appears to be a function of time travel. He has expectations for the future when I say, “Dog park” or “Walk” He’s learned from past experience. “Oh boy! Oh boy! Here comes a treat!” Like me with a hot chocolate! Give him a chew toy. Throw a stick. Scoop out a dishful of kibble. He’s delighted.

For me, the gift at the dog park is Presence. One half hour there and my heart sings “Happy!” Afterward, I’m aware of the savory spices in the turkey soup we eat when we get home, warm air flows from the furnace, and the physical weariness that comes from fresh air and exercise is exquisite.

The grand dog is a Teacher. I am a willing Student. Today’s lesson? “Happiness exists right here, right now. Not tomorrow. Not last week. But here in this present moment.” Good doggie.

Camping Revisited

 

I can revisit places and experiences from the past when I write stories, essays and poems. Now that I am older and wiser, I see things in a different way. On our last camping trip of the season one year, I discovered that storytelling also contributes to my growth.

Early in the summer, we took our RV to Long Lake Provincial Park, a well-kept, family-oriented getaway spot. Most campers abide by the late-night quiet rules, and aside from busy weekend afternoons when the jet skis and power boats roar up and down the lake, we take the most pleasure in nature at the sites with a view of the lake, some tall trees, and a reedy beach for the dog to have a swim.

Now, on our last outing of the summer, the cool October wind blows across the lake and makes us shiver as we step out of the truck to set up our trailer. Golden aspen leaves shush above us and a lone gull cries as it skims the whitecaps. After lunch, we hike up the trail and sit at the picnic table we used in early September. The breeze funnels down the road and whisks the leaves into mini-tornadoes. The grey ash in the fire pit is cold and lifeless with no hint of the snapping, fluttering and huffing warmth of our previous visit. No campfire smoke hangs in layers in the treetops either, and only the smell of leaf rot rides on the wind.

The sun is a white disk hidden behind a thin layer of cloud. The watery light intensifies as clouds thicken, and then, without warning, sunshine comes up like theatre lights. It sharpens the angles of the wooden posts, and defines the shadows of picnic tables on the grass. There are no lawn chairs in the sunny spots and no awnings for shade.

Down on the beach, the playground swings are pushed by ghosts, and the squeals and shouts of kids are silenced at the water’s edge. The only creatures on the sand are three gulls sleeping with their heads beneath their wings. I miss the sounds of summer the most: the laughter, the weekend neighbour tentatively playing Puff the Magic Dragon on a guitar, wind chimes plinking at the trailer down the way, and the faraway murmur of people in boats out on the evening water.

I take the best from each campsite: the view of the lake with boaters buzzing by, seadoos bucking and kids on tubes screaming with excitement; the one close to the boat launch where the dog has the best spot to dive into the cool lake and fetch her sticks, then return to shake water all over me. At that one, I could lie on the dock at night and see starlight reflected on the water. A third one has a picture window view onto the wilderness, spruce trees towering above dead poplar trunks full of sapsucker holes, the setting for a moose dripping marsh grass from its muzzle.

I have memories of childhood camping beside a stream somewhere in Ontario where raccoons ate the marshmallows right out of the picnic box; my sister’s pet turtle got away into the forest; we slept in a canvas tent big enough to fit all eight people in our family; my mother mending a rip in the roof with a curved surgical needle, dental floss and paraffin wax. I remember the taste of hot chocolate at the campfire and the evening warbling of loons.

I know I can never go back to these special moments from childhood or to the adult camping trips at Long Lake but I can recreate the emotions they engender. I can take details from a movie, pictures from a magazine or a story I read, and mix them together. Then I can recall the sound of the wind in the trees, the way ducks fly in formation at the edge of the lake, and how the stars pop out at night just when the light is nearly gone from the sky, and write to record.

The truth is, I can revisit my whole life this way. I can retell a story in a poem or a short vignette to re-experience pleasure or fun. I can also bring to mind a painful story and give it a new ending from the lessons I’ve learned. I can rewrite my life to heal.

The past is gone. All I have is the present moment when the Storyteller in me connects to you, the Reader, through our shared human experience. Our stories can unleash powerful emotions, allow us to explore difficult topics, bring new self-understanding and awareness of what is important. This is the gift of writing as legacy.