Maybe it is because I turned 50; or maybe it is because I'm thinking a lot more lately about what you can accomplish in your lifetime, as my dad is in still the hospital (thank you so much for your kind comments. He's doing pretty well, recovering from surgery, but it is going to be a long time before he is home, mobile, and back to leading a normal life).
But I find myself thinking a lot lately about the meaning of life, or more specifically, the meaning of my life.
I recently attended a seminar on resilience and lawyers. It turns out that we aren't a particularly resilient bunch; we tend to be be highly self-critical, very sensitive to criticism when offered by others, and less than optimistic about life, perhaps because we spend so much time imagining what might go wrong, and trying to write contracts to minimize risk. But it turns out that optimism is an essential component of happiness, and happy people are also more resilient. How you choose to react to things that happen in your life determines to a surprising extent how they impact you, both in the long and short term. Resilient people, who take things in stride and move forward without getting bogged down in regret or second-guessing, tend to live an average of 9 years longer! (And I'd like as much of my second half-century as I can get!)
Fortunately, optimism is a learned trait; you can become more optimistic by modifying your behavior, by digging a new mental pathway, shaking your wheels out of their old well-dug negative ruts. And lawyers are very good at learning things, and are generally disciplined enough to stick with it. The first step is to work on a gratitude journal; I've done this from time to time, but haven't stuck with it, so I started a new one, to make me more conscious of all the good things in my life.
Maybe I heard this message just at the right time in my life, but I was inspired to buy all the books the resilience coach discussed; books about resilience, and optimism, and love, and working from your strengths instead of focusing on trying to improve on areas of weakness. I'm going to start reading and working through them and reporting back what I've learned, just in case I find something really wonderful and worth sharing.
But today I'll share with you that one of the secrets of happiness is a sense that your life has meaning. So, I've been thinking a lot about what gives meaning to my life, and how that has changed over time, as I've grown and as my situation has changed.
When I was young, I think I assumed that my life's meaning would come from romantic love; that my life's purpose was to find that special person with whom I was meant to experience the world together. That didn't work out, exactly; at least not yet.
In my 30's, when I had my son, and during the years of raising him, the meaning of my life has been centered on parenting; I've never been happier than the past 16 years, watching Nathan learn, and grow, and become a really good person. All my highest values are reflected in my son; he is smart, funny, thoughtful and kind. But he is also 16 years old, and gaining in wisdom and independence every single day; soon he won't need the same level of attention and care, and will in fact go out into the world by himself.
So, what else makes me feel my life has meaning, has value?
Making things with my hands has always been one of the greatest pleasures of my life; I'm never so content, so "in the zone," as I am when knitting, or baking, or writing. But the meaning of these acts doesn't just exist in a vaccuum; doing things for other people, or giving things to other people, is the way I tend to show my love.
These thoughts have reminded me of a book I read some years ago, The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman. Although it is a bit goofy and self-helpy, I think his observations about love ring true, at least for me. He believes that we tend to show (and perceive) love, in five key ways: words of affirmation, quality time, physical touch, receiving gifts, and acts of service. They way you like to show love is usually the same way that you perceive being loved, when it is offered to you. And when people in a relationship don't "speak the same love language," they can end up feeling unappreciated, unloved, misunderstood. (If you are curious to learn your particular love language, you can take a quiz at www.5lovelanguages.com.)
It turns out that for me, receiving gifts isn't that big a deal (which is lucky, since I haven't really ever had a significant other who showers me with gifts). Physical touch is important to me; this might explain why I so treasure my dachshund, Madeline. After all, 16-year-old teenage boys aren't exactly at a cuddly stage. I also realized that I have friends who hug me, like after knitting night, or even when we meet at a work event, and that I treasure those hugs very much; I take strength from contact, from touch.
Words don't apparently mean much to me, which is ironic because a lawyer's life is one continuous web of words! But I do value spending quality time with people I love (which is why I hate it when my son is at his dad's for the weekend), and acts of service.
I think that is why I enjoy knitting things for other people so much; the knitted gift reflects an investment of time, and the act of knitting to create a sweater or toy for a baby is in itself an act of service to the baby, the baby's parent, and a way of sending out kindness, good will, positivity to counteract the negative things in my life, to enhance my resilience and optimism.
Speaking of baby gifts: I've been working on "Baby Sophisticate" sweaters. This pattern is apparently all the rage on Ravelry right now. The first one, I made out of Lion Brand Tweed Stripes, for a friend's second baby:
I think next time, I'll make the body a bit longer; and then I'll finally be happy with the shape. I liked making this sweater a lot; it is shaped from the top down, and the sleeves are done in the round on 4 needles, so when you are finished the only seams to sew are a little hole at each underarm.
I also made this cute hoodie (the "Favorite Hoodie" pattern from the Lion Brand website) for Asa's older sister, Liliana:
Finally, I made one of those sweet little horses from The Workshop Book of Knitting by Ursula Von Wartburg, which long-time readers of this blog might recall was the book, and the pattern, which inspired my lifelong love of knitting:
I spent some time Thursday at a kick-off event at the future home of Gilda's Club Twin Cities, Inc.; volunteers and contributors were invited to tour the site and view the plans for the upcoming interior remodelling, which is starting soon. Maybe my passion for getting Gilda's Club up and rolling is part of this new urgency to find something meaningful; I know part of the reason I want to get the doors open is because the psychological and emotional support services they will provide, would have meant so much to people I have known who have lost their battle with cancer, and their families.
During the tour, I realized that I might be able to help out when the Club is operational, by doing the thing I love best - knitting! Not only will the members need things like shawls and hats; they might also like to learn how to knit themselves! Knitting would be such a calming, soothing, meditative skill to develop, to help handle a stressful life experience. I can imagine setting up a regular knitting event there to teach all comers, as well as creating a group that would use some of their time and talents to create comforting gifts for members and their families. Would any of you like to help?
I was speaking with Dick, Eva's husband, who is donating his time to help coordinate the remodelling, and he mentioned that the final interior wall and remaining ceiling was going to be removed on Saturday. I was envisioning a big group of burly men showing up with sledgehammers, and offered to make a coffee cake and bring coffee. He warned me that the work was starting at 7 AM, but I figured I could make the cake Friday night, and just get up early on Saturday.
I worked late on Friday, stopped at the grocery store with my new coffee cake cookbook on the way home to get ingredients (I chose a recipe for strawberry coffee cake with almonds and cream cheese), and cooked while catching up with The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert in the background. But when I showed up early Saturday AM, the only people there were Dick and one other volunteer, Justin! So, I put down the coffee cake and coffee (yum -- at the age of 50 I'm finally experiencing the Joy of Java!):
And then I put on some gloves and asked how I could help. As Dick and Justin removed the drywall panels, I loaded them in the dumpster; and then I gathered up and took the metal bars out as they disconnected the framework from the ceiling which used to hold up acoustical tiles.
I ended up driving away feeling oddly, extremely happy! (Well, sore, but happy.) It was tremendously satisfying to see how the various pieces of an office interior fit together, seeing the pipes between the walls which function to provide a conduit for electrical wiring to outlets, figuring out how the venting works, and how those tile ceilings are actually constructed). and it was REALLY fun to drop stuff in the dumpster with a BOOM! MUCH louder than what I do for a living, for sure, and far more physically strenuous. You end up a completely different kind of tired. I've been taking a great deal of Advil ever since, but I still feel goofily pleased with myself.
Off to catch up with Game of Thrones, and finish (yet another) baby sweater!