Yesterday I went to a Berkshire Festival of Women Writers workshop facilitated by psychologist and inspirational speaker Maria Sirois. The workshop was called “Happiness: Writing as a Path to Positive Transformation,” and since I am always looking for ways to link all those terms—happiness, writing, path, positive, transformation—I was eager to see how Maria would lay it out for us.
I was not disappointed. She quickly got the group writing about happiness, and not surprisingly, when I started freewriting about joy, it wasn’t long before I began writing about my childhood summers spent at my family’s country house…long, endless, happy weeks where my brother and I seemed to be perfectly in synch with our mother’s rhythm, where life was peaceful, idyllic and beautiful…the epitome of joy.
Later, when we went around the room and everyone shared a short bit of their freewriting, I was struck by how many of the women present (we were all women that day) associated joy with childhood, and with nature.
Many people shared moments of joy connected with childhood memories of trees—climbing trees, wandering in the forest, listening to the wind in the trees. Others had written about communion with animals, or remembered ecstatic time spent by the ocean in childhood.
What I remembered was watching my mother dig a rock garden out of the cow pasture in which she and my father had built their small country house when I was 5 years old. Here are the two sentences I wrote during the workshop, and shared aloud:
“My mother would be quietly exultant as her shovel and trowel revealed new curves or deep, smooth walls of rock, and at the end of a hot morning’s work she would stand, sweaty and red-faced with a fine layer of black earth coating her bare shoulders, drinking iced tea out of a tall green glass and surveying her landscape with a squinted sculptor’s eye. The work progressed slowly, since it was all done by hand, just one small, determined woman with a strong back and great patience, tracing out the rock with hand tools and as much love as if she were carving out the sweet, benevolent face and voluptuous body of the Earth Mother herself.”
Later in the workshop, Maria shared with us a memorable formula for happiness.
Happiness, she said, is the balance of pleasure and meaning.
If life is all pleasure, it can feel empty and meaningless. If it’s all meaning, then you’re working too hard.
But if you can find the right balance of pleasure and meaning, you can hit that sweet spot of joy, in which you thrive and grow like a well-cultivated garden.
Maria suggested that there is something about creativity itself that brings us to this sweet spot.
My mother, spending her summers relaxing with her children and turning her surroundings into a beautiful landscape sculpture, was drinking from that creative well.
For me there are various creative taps I draw from: writing, teaching, creating programs like the Festival, bringing people together in harmonious, productive alliances.
My brother recently observed that our mother has always been a wonderful model of someone who is completely focused, passionate about and committed to her art—whether that art is tonight’s dinner, or her magnificent pottery, or her lovingly tended garden.
Since earliest childhood, it has always been clear to me that she put every ounce of creativity she possessed into everything she did—not for external recognition or praise, but just because it was the right way—the most pleasurable way—to approach any task at hand.
Pleasure plus meaning equals happiness.
It strikes me that although my mom has had her share of ups and downs, hers has been by and large a very happy life.
No wonder when Maria asked me to write about joy, I went straight to my primary teacher: Sue Browdy, my mom.