“You go first, Nana, to break a path.” These are my instructions from six-year-old Josh. I plunk onto a sled in the sub-zero Canadian air with eight-year-old Rachel bundled in front of me. Off we go! Flying down the hill, the fluffy sparkling snow is dusting our cheeks and catching on our eye-lashes. We tumble, laughing out loud, into a drift at the foot of the hill and then trudge up to do it again with Josh on front this time. After an hour in the cold we go in for hot chocolate and the warmth of the fireside. The children are not long defeating me at bowling and para-sailing video games.
When I tuck them into bed that night I think what a beautiful day of pure, glowing joy it has been for me. And all it took to make it happen was one spontaneous decision made two days prior, an overnight in an airport hotel, a rise at four in the morning and an international flight with a stopover in the crazy zoo of an airport, along with three hours driving. That was just to get here, not counting the equivalent to get me back home. When a friend staying with us in Florida received a call that she had to return to Canada for a family funeral, I decided to accompany her and get in a surprise visit to my grandchildren.
“Will you play chess with me?” says Jacob. I confess to him that Nana doesn’t know how to play chess but readily accept his offer to tutor me and vow to learn as quickly as possible. I fail miserably but Jacob bears with me and rejoices in his victory.
Breaking a path, playing, especially outdoors, learning new things, risking failure, these are the lessons I have learned from children that have released great heaps of satisfaction in my life.
In my pursuit of happiness, maturity has taught me you can’t have it all and sometimes difficult choices must be made. I have also learned I don’t need “all” to be happy. Life gets complicated, rushed, and turbulent at times. Years ago, when my parents were both alive, we went frequently on family picnics to scenic parks with fresh woodsy paths and gushing brooks. Often on hikes we would come to a stream, and my mother would teach each of her five children, and later her 13 grandchildren, to seek out the high rocks protruding in the water and step gingerly from stone to stone to cross the brook. The grandchildren still speak of this lesson taught to them by their grandmother, who was lively and nimble well into her 80s. This simply lesson taught me a method of being happy in life: seek out the high points and go from one to the next. Let the stream flow on.
As life continues to rush along, I have learned to truly cherish the moments.To do this we must be alive and at least somewhat cognizant of our surroundings. There are many attempts today to anaesthetize us into a blind dumbness to details and to enter a blurred awareness of immediate surroundings. While there are many benefits to technological connectedness, the downside is that we can be so “plugged in” to people out of sight that we ignore those in our presence. We can be texting a colleague and missing the one beside us needing a hug. We can be so tuned in to viewing pictures on screens that we miss the butterflies perching on the hibiscus right under our nose.
I make it a habit to enjoy my surroundings wherever I am, to take note of little things. I am writing this in the skies aboard a flight to Florida. Passing out pretzels, the stewardess leaves a fresh citrusy perfume in her wake. My seatmate has an elegant bronzy-gold scarf draped over a matching handbag. A student across the aisle wears a neon lime and fuchsia fleece as she pours over her biology text. There’s a pillow-top mattress of clouds flung over the wings of the plane. A mood of eager anticipation, evident in the murmur of jovial conversations, is released as we soar higher and higher into the opalescent sky, leaving behind the wintery skies and slushy roads of Maine.
There is often little we can do about the big things in life—deaths in the family, losses from broken relationships, deteriorating health or dwindling finances. We may feel helpless when a job is lost or our best friends get transferred across the country. We will always be challenged by difficult people or impossible circumstances. But rare is a day when we cannot control some detail of our lives in terms of our choice, our response, or our attitude. We can pour our tea into a fine china cup, or scatter seed for the finches. We can use a fragrant hand lotion or squeeze lime juice on an avocado for lunch. We can listen to Chopin for a few minutes instead of rehashed news. We can send a friend a handwritten note or hold the door open for a young mother with a baby in arms.
It’s time now to prepare for landing, and the hassles of flying will soon be forgotten. I am grateful that I live in a world where I can take for granted cloud-hopping the streams of distance, almost as casually as my mother rock-hopped across the streams of my youth.
Phyllis McKinley has received awards for her works including first place in Florida's Royal Palm Literary awards in 2006, 2008, and 2010. Author of four books of poetry and one children's book, she has had poems and stories published in various individual journals.