How to live a meaningful life

Rules for happiness: something to do, someone to love, something to hope for. 
-Immanuel Kant

So simple! I found the German philosopher Kant (1724 - 1804) and his quote after I turned to my iPhone and asked Siri, "What's the meaning of life?"  Her answer came in a second.

"I Kant tell you - ha!" (thanks, Siri)

The reason I asked Siri? It was inspired by a friend I've never met.

Let me explain: I have a separate gmail account to subscribe to blogs and e-newsletters. Maybe you’ve already done this, or have another system for catching content you like that doesn’t have to be read right away. It keeps them from clogging up my other email account. My collection is skewed to writers and marketers. As though they're sitting on bleachers, the group hangs out on the sidelines, friendly, talking among themselves, no pressure -- “read me when you have time!” — it’s an eclectic mix, women and men, and because their names have grown familiar, it's as though if we were ever at the same party, I just know we’d all be friends.

One of these friends is Alison. Last year she caught my attention when I read in a blog about how she packed up her life (and her 90-year-old mom) and moved to Italy. Just up and moved from Arkansas to Europe to pursue writing after spending nearly her entire life in the Midwest. Had never traveled overseas. Doesn’t speak Italian. Every few weeks she sends out a newsletter/journal entry, promoting her Arkansas writing school programs, sharing what her Mom is saying, and the exploits of her tiny poodle, Prose (the section's called "a dash of Prose" - ha!) 

Recently, she wrote about ideas I want to piggyback on today. They come from the book, The Power of Meaning, Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness by Emily Esfahani Smith. To be clear, I haven’t read it, but my friend Alison has and assures me there’s a ton of research behind its identification of the four pillars to a meaningful life.

Let's see what you think of them. As Alison observes, you’d probably guess the first three. The last pillar could surprise you. 

  1. Belonging and Connection. This is an intuitive pillar. We've probably all felt the pain of not belonging, not sensing connection, and the loneliness of not feeling accepted. I’ve found that the less sure I am of belonging, of course the less I reach out for connection, and the isolation perpetuates itself. Touch, the nerve receptors under our skin, fires instantly when coming into contact with something. The absence of connection heightens this sensitivity. There's research about how infants that are held and touched do better -- physically, emotionally and more -- than those who are touched less. This pillar makes me think of two things: Rebuke isolating self-hate self-talk and reach out, reach out, reach out, even if there's no immediate return. 

  2. Purpose. “It’s not always easy to find our purpose, but it’s a product of our unique talents, background and interests.” -- so says Alison. The tailwind behind my decision to become a full-time writer came from a potent, nagging mix of restlessness and anxiety, as though I was running out of time, as though I'd overstayed an old purpose and a new one insisted on being found. I believe that we have more than one purpose (even as I nod to Joseph Campbell who said “follow your bliss," perhaps he should have said bliss-es). Sometimes we are called to be there for another — that’s purpose. Sometimes we are called to get through very tough things (betrayal, loneliness, fear) obstructing our purpose. Sometimes purpose can be simple - celebrate a wedding, a graduation, appreciate another. It's the reason we are here. My protagonist Jo struggles with purpose.  “Purpose,” though is not within demographic identifiers - job title, age, wealth, social status. Those labels are impostors to purpose, and like barnacles sail along unseen on the bow of your life until you realize they’re slowing you down. 

  3. Transcendence. Oh, an elusive, favorite pillar for me. Not religion, per se, or doctrine or ritual or culture. Rather moments that crack open a brief awareness of the grand magnificence of existence. For instance, I’ve had moments of transcendence watching my son run in a race of raw heartbreaking dominion. Slow down enough and nature can turn the key to a transcendent opening. I remember one night a few years ago, on a girlfriend getaway to Santa Fe, that we four women piled into a car and drove out of town, far away from the city’s lights. After driving up a climbing country road, tall corn stalks on either side marking a long corridor, we pulled over, turned off the car and got out. It was quiet, a light breeze ruffling corn tassels. Looking up, we drew in our breath. The sky was jammed with light — packed with pinpricks of stars, a beautiful tapestry of glittering incandescence — the Big Dipper difficult to find with all the crowded blinking around it. We stared upward. Under such immensity how small, infinitesimally small, our troubles were...then, a stirring in the corn stalks. Another, a few feet away...a chain-saw toting murderer? We jumped in the car. Peeled away. We city girls can’t be too careful.

  4. Storytelling. Surprise! Think of it - storytelling is a pillar of a meaningful life. It’s literally a way to make sense of what you've experienced. It’s the means to determine what’s important to you, what your values are, how you went astray and how to find your way forward. Why you’re here. Around the holidays I went to an open house at my financial adviser's office. I met a woman there named Rita. I ended up becoming completely absorbed by her story — her husband’s death, her taking up marathon running, an interest in racquetball, a new companion in her life. I was drawn in, an instant connection. Then about a month later I was helping out at a Christmas charity event, wrapping presents of clothes and toys donated to kids. Over a table of wrapping paper scraps and scissors, Rita and I looked at each other. “How do I know you?” It took a minute to know when we'd made a connection, but not whether we had one. Telling her story had done it, as well as my listening to it. 

I’ve come to realize that in writing my book, while I’m writing Jo’s story, of course, I’m also trying to make sense of my own.

Speaking of which... here's the book update:

How I’m Writing the Book

Weekly Page Submission. After taking the holidays off I’m back on the treadmill of submitting weekly pages to my book coach. My deadline is on Wednesday so each week on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday a healthy deadline panic typically sets in. My goal is to try to finish the first draft before Cristina and Jay's wedding.

Movie about a Strong Woman. My friend (in person, not just inbox) Joyce and I saw On the Basis of Sex, a drama telling the true story of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the case that overturned the first of hundreds of laws that discriminated between men and women based on gender. Interestingly, it was a case that discriminated against a male. Pair this with the documentary, RBG. Justice Ginsburg is an inspiring example of a purposeful life.

On my refrigerator

On my refrigerator

 The wedding is 40 days and counting down!

I got my first facial peel last week (recommended 6 weeks out before the wedding). A little stinging, not really painful, but what I didn’t realize is that the banana-yellow peel (think Jim Carrey in The Mask) needed to stay on my face for 3-4 hours after it was put on. And I already had booked a hard-to-get appointment with a tailor to alter my Mother-of-the-Bride dress just a few hours after the peel! I called the tailor to explain my face. She said, “No problem.” When I arrived at her work-from-home location, there were four cars in her driveway. Oh dear. I kept my head ducked getting out of the car, skulked up the driveway and rang the doorbell, standing a little off to the side. The door swings open. A woman with straight pins in her headband gazes at me. A few seconds tick by... “You might glow in the dark, honey.” On that note, I think I need to become philosophical again with another quote from Kant: 

Look closely. The beautiful may be small. 

Be well.


No Better

Whatever your life's work is, do it well. A man should do his job so well that the living, the dead, and the unborn could do it no better. 
-Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Who am I?

What is my purpose?

Do I have a destiny?

This is the mental territory I've been exploring for my book's plot this week. Since it is Martin Luther King Jr. Day today he dominates my thought as a role model of someone who pursued a purpose with determination and passion in spite of enormous resistance. 

Why am I here?

This deep question is the key to what drives my protagonist Johanna's struggle. Because this novel is based on a true story -- Johanna eventually succeeding at gaining recognition of Vincent van Gogh as an enduring artist -- the reader knows at the outset that she will be successful. 

However, what the reader won't know is how did she get to her answer to "Why am I here?" and what she felt along the way. So, I'm about 5,000 words into the the cause-and-effect trajectory of the story. Without giving away specific events that happen, here's an idea of some of the plot components:

The path to answering Who am I? takes...
Unrelenting pursuit
Initiating risk
Finding supporters
Threatening the status quo
Encountering opponents

So Johanna will need to experience...
Being persistent despite setbacks
Curiosity taking her into danger
Encouragement (such as from her future husband, Theo)
Resistance when she challenges the traditional gender role for women
Facing a difficult moral dilemma

And she will feel...
Determination and despair
Excitement and naiveté
Love and unselfishness
Shame and humility
Longing and hope
And more...!

Here's the funny thing. If done right, the real journey is not the protagonist's experience, but yours as you read it. Readers agree or disagree, argue or approve what a character is doing and in this way have their own experience with the book. Finding out "who am I?" is a universal theme; one we each grapple with in our own way. For authors, I've read that a common mistake is not sharing enough of what the protagonist is feeling so that the reader can identify with what's going on. So, I'm trying to identify what Johanna feels now in order to keep this top of mind. 

Meanwhile, in the midst of doing this vicarious soul-searching with Johanna, I had a few emotion-stirring events in my own life this past week. 

  • Attended my last two retirement dinners.... feeling a big mix of cheerful and grateful and sad.
  • Got a surprise "Facetime" announcement from our daughter that she's engaged to boyfriend Jay... feeling HAPPY and, funny, Cristina's news made me look forward even more to my son Eric's upcoming wedding to Angela. (2018 is turning into a big year!)
  • Reveled in a home-cooked dinner of Juan's chicken marsala... feeling the LOVE from his perfect result and his intentional adding of extra mushrooms for me.

How I'm Writing the Book
Highlighter Exercise: Book editor Sheila Athens gave me an exercise with highlighters I finally tried this week. You might want to try it out of curiosity. Its purpose is to see how to strike the right balance of current action and back story without slowing down pace. One of my favorite books is Sue Monk Kidd's The Invention of Wings so I took it off the bookshelf to mark up. The goal is to identify each sentence: Yellow is inner monologue (what the character is thinking), pink is dialogue, orange is the current scene and blue is back story. Surprisingly, I found most pages had all four colors. I noticed that Kidd sometimes slips in even a single line of back story to give the reader context yet does not slow down the scene's action. Try it!

Books I'm Reading:  I finished The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. It is so useful as a model of how to tell the story of a famous individual through the eyes of someone close to him/her -- in this case, it's about Ernest Hemingway through the experience of his first wife, Hadley (for me, Vincent van Gogh through the eyes of sister-in-law Johanna). I also slowly read through The Wisdom of Sundays, a compilation of conversations Oprah Winfrey had with spiritual thinkers on her television program, Super Soul Sunday. It really provoked my thinking around this blog's theme on "Who am I?" 

Finally, it's not a book, but I watched a Netflix documentary, "Joan Didion: The Center Can Not Hold," (thank you, Elyse!) that also made an impact. It was inspiring to see how Didion's literary work is an outcome of her life. From her candid reporting of deep personal grief to the chronicling of the unsettling shock of the '60s, Didion shaped "new journalism," or using essays to communicate facts through narrative storytelling. The 90-minute documentary was released just a few months ago and is spell-binding. 

As I close, Martin Luther King Jr. has words of encouragement for discovering your unique purpose and finding out what you can do better than anyone else:

Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase.