I recently ran across a story from Mary Pipher in her book “Writing to Change the World.” Visiting her dying grandmother, Mary Pipher asked if she had had a happy life. Her grandmother responded: “Mary, I don’t think of my life that way. I ask, ‘Have I made good use of my time and my talents? Is the world a better place because I have been here?’”
Reading her grandmother’s words was like reading the answer to a question I’d not quite formed and hadn’t yet asked. Her response stayed with me, and gave me an understanding of something I had not before been able to articulate.
All through my years of life-coach training, there was this underlying philosophy that if you did the “right” things and got yourself and your life “under control,” happiness awaited you. Happiness was set up on high like the holy grail of a successful life. I continue to see it all around me, this emphasis on happiness. As if it is some achievement we all can reach with the proper combination of actions and attitudes.
This insistence on happiness as life’s definitive goal and accomplishment has left me feeling uncertain and uncomfortable. It is a bit simplistic, superficial. It seems to leave a lot of people out. In our world, with so very much wrong, and so many people suffering, it doesn’t sit well with me that I should single-mindedly pursue happiness when someone else is single-mindedly pursuing survival.
Being happy is not a bad thing in and of itself. But I do not agree with it being the ultimate criteria for which to measure one’s life. On the other hand, the outlook of Mary Pipher’s grandmother sits very well with me. Her queries are a compass pointer, a guiding principle, to keep on the path forward. It is fertile ground from which I learn how to contribute to my family, my friends, and my community.
I want to be clear that with this idea of making a contribution, I am not talking about one person saving the entire planet. The seemingly small things we do on a daily basis are what add up over time to creating a meaningful difference. Simple actions and attitudes are how we connect with our world: other people, animals, even plants. Krista Tippett, in her podcast “On Being,” discusses the practice of “taking in the good.” Taking a look each day to witness the goodness of others, the goodness happening right in front of our eyes. Here a few items I’ve “taken in” recently:
It is tempting to overlook or brush aside these actions as inconsequential. But that would be a mistake. Taking a moment to note these simple acts has the capacity to change one’s perspective on that minute, on the world within reach. There is the possibility of greater connection to the beings - human, animal, plant - right there around us. That sense of community in turn creates a sense of safety and comfort. Of hope.
Chocoholic, noun: a person who is addicted to or excessively fond of chocolate.
Chocolate and I were pals. Best pals. Lunch on my second-grade school trip to Disneyland was a gigantic Hershey’s chocolate bar. On a summer day in my late teens, I sat watching my dad’s boogie board contest, toes covered in sun-warmed sand, and consumed an entire two-pound bag of M&M’s. I didn’t share.
In my forties, gluten and excess sugar became a bane for my digestive system and general health. But I could eat very dark chocolate. My favorite brand was low in sugar, high in quality, and supported endangered animals - perfect. I’d unwrap a bar from the stack in my kitchen cupboard before preparing dinner. I had several stashed in my backpack for all-occasion chomping: waiting to pick up my daughter, between massage appointments, the drive home. The bittersweet yumminess filled in for all the things I could not eat, and was my go-to during emotionally draining days. I consumed voraciously, shamelessly.
Until the morning a couple of years ago when I woke up with what I thought was a spider bite on my right hip. A large bite. I freaked myself out picturing the size of that spider. A few weeks later, another bite popped up, in the exact same spot. It seemed I was dealing with an amazingly accurate arachnid.
As it turns out, this “bite” was actually some sort of reaction. An opportunistic hive lurking behind the scenes, ready to rise up at the slightest provocation, the slightest whiff of…chocolate.
Desperate to support my decades-old habit, I went into denial and workarounds. I tried different brands, and every form of chocolate I could get my hands on: chips, cups, candies. I baked it. I microwaved it. I literally tried sneaking it past my body: “oh, that ole hive won’t notice if I just eat this one little handful of chocolate chips. Or this second one. Or third.” Inevitably, after one of those “sneaks,” I’d be awakened in the middle of the night (why is it always the middle of the night?), intense heat and itching from the latest volcanic emergence on my hip.
After months of body-bargaining and cocoa-negotiating, I had to face facts. I kept worrying that the hive was just an outer symptom of how my body was responding on the inside. The way a smoker’s cough is just a small sign of the crevassed and blackened wreckage of lungs within. The hive reaction was telling me something very clearly and it was time to listen. It was time to quit.
Writing this, I am floored by my tunnel-vision, my determination to find a way to keep ingesting chocolate. By my unrelenting refusal to give up something that was causing me such discomfort. The power of my emotional wanting, craving, was kicking my willpower’s butt. I suppose, in the end, the days-long pain of the hive was not worth the small moment of taste bud chocolate joy.
Though I miss chocolate, I don’t miss the itchy nights. When I crave chocolate nowadays, it gives me a moment to check in with what would truly benefit me. Do I need a walk? Some water? A nap? Dinner? I have options. Maybe someday chocolate and I can be friends again. Until then, that smooth melting across my palate is a bittersweet memory.
On Main Street in downtown Grand Junction stands a bronze sculpture of a man with a sighting scope held to his eye. He’s astride a horse, and accompanied by a dog.
I’ve just finished a run through streets lined with mature trees and blooming tulips. The faint smell of lilacs hangs in the early morning, lemony-gold sunshine brightening dark green leaves. I’m curious about the sculpture, so I wander over to check it out. When I see that the man and I share a birthday - although not birth-centuries - I want to know more about him.
The man is John Otto, the Promoter and First Custodian of Colorado National Monument. Otto was immediately taken with the canyons of western Colorado when he arrived on the scene in 1906. He decided that this was a place others should experience, and began a sustained campaign of letter-writing and fundraising. His dogged determination got results. In 1911, President Taft signed the Colorado National Monument into being.
According to the plaque at the base of the sculpture, he married Beatrice Farnham shortly after the monument became official. The marriage lasted all of two weeks. She said that she tried to live according to his ways, but it was difficult to be with a man “to whom even a cabin was an encumbrance.”
Otto spent his days in hard work, building trails in the monument while earning $1 per month (equivalent to $33/month in 2022) as the monument’s first superintendent. He retired after 16 years and headed to Yreka, California. When he died of heart failure in 1952 he was 81 years old and had less than $50 to his name.
John Otto was a man ahead of his time. He was a fierce supporter of workers’ rights, women’s voting rights, and Prohibition. His own short-lived marriage notwithstanding, his views on marriage differed significantly from the social norms of his era:
“Marriage can only be founded on love, and it’s silly to try and read into the ceremony to ‘honor and obey.’ I never heard of a woman obeying- her husband, anyway- and what is the use of making them lie every time they stand up before a minister. If the present marriage system was right, we wouldn’t have all these divorces.”
Standing there in front of his bronze likeness on a May morning in the year 2023, I am struck by John Otto’s focused and unflagging determination to create Colorado National Monument. He took meaningful action for something in which he deeply believed: a desire to preserve and share the beauty of western Colorado with others.
"I came here last year and found these canyons, and they feel like the heart of the world to me. I'm going to stay and build trails and promote this place, because it should be a national park."
National Park Service Article: John Otto
There’s a nearby road I run up early in the morning year-round. In winter there’s the softly falling pre-dawn snow, bright stars shining down through the frigid dark air, and sometimes I see elk or moose. In spring and summer the birds sing out, solo or part of a choir, as the sun paints the barest of pinks, yellows and oranges across the first hour of blue sky.
In the last few days as I’ve kept a sharp eye out for tiny spring blooms popping up their heads, the receding snow has instead revealed a treasure trove fit for a rat. Garbage in gullies, culverts, snagged in the lustrous needles of evergreens and budding-out branches of shrubs. So much debris that I decided to improve my outlook and go pick up that trash.
Monday May 1, May Day, seemed a perfect choice for my rubbish walk. I suited up with blue nitrile gloves, grabbed a sturdy trash bag, and headed out the door. I figured it would take me about an hour to cover two miles of road, four miles total of detritus gathering.
Two hours later I trudged up the driveway, staggering under the weight of my ripping garbage bag. The muscles of my arms and back were so maxed out I had to count my steps the last quarter-mile to focus on the finish line of home. Sunburned and thirsty, I peeled off my gloves, and inside each finger-tip was a literal puddle of sweat.
The photo above was my take for the day. What you can’t see are the dozens of cigarette butts, broken glass bottles, car parts, a rusty bike chain, and so much more. In the first half-mile of my trek, I was dismayed by what I was picking up and how much of it there was. I was disgusted by humans who cared so little about this beautiful place that they thoughtlessly trashed it.
That began to give way to what I found highly interesting: the reaction of the people around me to what I was doing. Many cars passed me. Some slowed down, even gave me a little space, many did not. A few sped by so closely I wondered if they were aiming for me. One driver called out “thank you” through their open window. In two hours’ worth of cars, one single motorist acknowledged the clean-up.
Four cyclists, a skateboarder, and a pedestrian - all passed by without saying a word. In fact, they turned their heads away as if they were embarrassed to see me. One person on foot called out a “thank you for picking up,” and my very favorite, a runner cruising by, said “thank you, thank you for doing that.”
To be clear, I did not do this in order to be thanked. My motivation was self-serving: I wanted to enjoy my morning run sans litter. But the plethora of trash and the majority of encounters on the road Monday left me with a distinct awareness of human disconnection.
The three people who made the effort to express appreciation made my May Day. When they did that, it helped me feel a connection to them, for just a brief moment. A reminder that we are on the same team, all human, all in this together.
Jacqueline Denny, ACC, CHPC, LMT