Monday, February 27, 2017

Love Thy Neighbor, Love Thy Self

Genevieve died on an unseasonably warm Saturday in the penultimate week of January. She was alone, her body cold by the time her son found her.

I didn't find out until a week later. As I jogged past her house, a gathering of people on her porch and front yard slowed me to a near walk, and I watched as if they were onstage; accordingly, the actors didn't watch me back. Sons led elders by bony elbows to and from vehicles, and packed boxes filled with trappings of a good, long life into backseats and trunks. Two great-nephews posed in casual conversation on the porch, one with an upper thigh resting on the low cement wall and the other leaning against the supporting column. A collection of women in their Sunday best leaned sideways in lawn chairs to hear each other above the clatter of great-grandchildren squealing in pursuit or complaining of itchy tights and chokey clip-on ties.

On my run the day afterward, I mustered the nerve to approach the balding, heavy bellied man vacuuming Genevieve's porch to ask the fate of my neighbor. Kind toward my inquiry, her son told me his mom had been 90 and in good health and that she had lived a good, long life but was ready to go. Was Genevieve's life good? Was she ready? How did he know? Odds are, he didn't. It's just what you say when an elderly person passes. It's better than saying So-and-So was a miserable wretch or hadn't amounted to much or had struggled for decades with some affliction or another. Or in some cases, maybe it is true: Maybe a lucky percentage of us learn to eschew or at least better manage the crises of existence—like angst, regret, depression, anger, anxiety—to be still in the contentment of simply being alive.
Although I had only been neighbors with Genevieve for seven months, I had grown fond of the old woman who was on that stark-white cement-block porch with the lion's share of potted plants every time the weather allowed. Every once in a while, her voice, soft and slow as its owner, would drift outward on a peony-infused breeze to greet me with cute quips as I huffed and puffed my way up one last hill before home. On many a run, I'd resolve to stop and get to know her a little better. Next time, I'd promise myself. As life demonstrates over and again, time is indifferent to our resolutions.

While I explained to Genevieve's son how her spunk had endeared her to me, so much so that I'd written about her a few months prior, a second son, also balding but slimmer with a sharp nose and Siberian Husky eyes, found his way to the porch. As he thanked me for memorializing his mother, I felt grateful for the sunglasses hiding my distress and cursed the post-motherhood hormonal changes that have turned me into a water balloon ripe for bursting with a slight poke of sharp emotion. Or maybe I've always been that way. Dreamers tend to feel emotion to its fullest, for better or for worse. As I walked away, I discovered a last name painted on a small, black sign hanging from a pole in Genevieve's front yard—the kind of sign that always includes an apostrophe that makes the last name possessive for no good reason. I used that sign to look up her obituary later that day.

Two days past Genevieve's funeral reception, the Blessed Mother statue in her yard was gone. All that was left was an empty stone box. Her once-lush porch was bare too. Past the cold emptiness at eye level, in the lone front window on the upper level sat her Singer, now more memorial than machine. I'd seen it many times before and had imagined her sewing curtains and pillowcases and mending polyester old-lady pants like my Nanni did when I was a child. Damn it. Why did I never stop to talk? Now Genevieve's obituary was my only window into her world: She was a widow and had worked in publishing at the university in my city. Publishing! Was she a writer or editor like me? Did she get a rush from a beautifully crafted sentence like I do?  I'll never know. I'll never get to ask her what it was like to be a working mother at a time when that was far from the norm. I've lost the chance to learn about her youth or tell her that her love of plants and porches reminds me of my mom's mom. I'll never get to convince her that thong underwear are actually comfortable or hear her opinions on government and God

My impression of Genevieve matched the assurances her sons gave. With a green thumb, quick wit, and a likable demeanor, she struck me as someone who found pleasure in the small things. But that word impression begs further discovery. Think of a footprint in the mud: In order to create that impression, something—more mud, in this case—had to be displaced. There's always something displaced or suppressed or dismissed when we make impressions. Each of us is exactly how outsiders perceive us, and then some. After my neighbor passed, I lost the chance to know her, and especially to know how and why and when she found happiness.

Once a month I dole out advice as a contributor to a health and wellness blog. My editor allows me creative license, which makes it fun; I also take it seriously and feel a responsibility toward the readers. I choose my words with purpose and awareness, lest I fall into the trap of providing hyperbole for the sake of creating traffic. Marketing wellness is big business these days, and it's not uncommon to find advice that proclaims anything from gardening to speed dating to drinking bone broth is going to produce benefits that will supersede genetics, disease, and other contributing factors to the problems in our lives.

It's all part of the "cult of happiness" in America. In the form of blogs, books, and webinars, it tempts us to think we're doing it all wrong. We are urged to find joy in every waking moment and to feel required to see the good in anything bad. I find this insulting to the fact of being human and thus being equipped with multiple emotions, all of which have a purpose and none of which can exist in a pure state. There's a lot of pressure in the realm of mass-produced self-help. The headlines are on constant rotation, reminding us that if we would just do the "Five Things Happy People Do" or learn "The One Way You'll Attract the Right Partner" or avoid the "Top Ten Interview Mistakes," we'll get life right. The cult of happiness sells the idea that we are always one numbered list away from achieving nirvana. It's insidious. 

What is happiness, anyway? 

In the southern part of my home state of West Virginia, a region often disparaged for its backwardness and certainly not heralded as a bastion of joy, a beacon of wisdom goes about his days infusing average lives with hope, faith, and charity. His name is Samuel. He has no wife, no children, and no job other than serving his parishioners at the Greek Orthodox church. I've never met nor laid eyes on him, yet I've easily become a fan. By proxy, Father Samuel has helped me better understand happiness

That proxy is a cherished friend. I'll call her Loretta, as a nod to her love of my impression of Loretta Lynn in "Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man." We met during college and, as they say, we've been together ever since. In 16 years, she's proved to be one of a few soulmates I've had the great fortune to find. About five years ago, Loretta became a member of the Greek Orthodox church along with her husband, whose existence I discovered about as quickly as her rogue move on religion (orthodoxy being an unorthodox step for a lifelong Baptist). My dear Loretta has always been full of surprises, though: like how she didn't let on her real age for the first six months of our friendship; or how as a barista she informed a regular that she didn't have to like her to pour her coffee; or the time she punched a classmate, sending her glasses flying off her face, for giving a catty critique in painting class.
During our somewhat-regular phone dates, Loretta gives me updates on the picture of her world as colored by a rock-solid marriage, a precocious preschooler, a firebrand attitude, and life-altering depression and anxiety—all kept on the canvas under the auspices of an Orthodox priest with a knack for reconciling human nature with God's grace. As an advisor, Father Samuel is both mirror and crystal, reflecting the darkness that naturally comes from life's trials and the light that persists through good deeds and better judgment. His West-by-God wisdom travels upward past strip mines and sulfur creeks, hills and hollows, rhododendrons and roadkill. When his advice finally reaches me secondhand, I'm reminded that happiness is not a science.  

Trying to follow the cult of happiness with all its statistics, rules, and prescriptions might even lead to less happiness. The looming expectation to be happy, be prepared, be vigilant—right now, all the time—is a lot. We aren't doing ourselves a disservice by feeling negative emotions. We will still raise decent children even if we don't follow the rules set by the free-rangers, the helicopters, or any other -ers. We won't meet the right person by following a handbook. However, we can nourish our lives with a little more peace and progress by picking through all the heaps and piles of advice to discover morsels that make sense for each of us as individuals. Sometimes those morsels are easier found when digging with a partnera seasoned neighbor, a trusted confidante, or an enlightened fellow in a white collar. 

One Sunday during the Christmas season this year, Father Samuel told his parishioners, "Charity isn't about hugging a stinky person." And thus my admiration grew. The man has a way of putting our foibles into focus. Loretta will be leaving him soon, moving out of state. We're both a little worried about what she'll do without him, but if his secondhand impact on me is any indication, I think she'll be just fine. 

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