“Happiness cannot be traveled to, owned, earned, or worn. Happiness is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace, and gratitude.” – Denis Waitley
Earlier this week, my last living grandparent turned 96. I couldn’t see my grandmother because of quarantine, and I couldn’t send her any flowers because of a global pandemic that doesn’t deem flower deliveries essential– at least not in my state. Shopping for a 96-year-old is almost impossible, so I did the only thing I could do: call.
“Grandma, that’s a major accomplishment living to 96,” I told her over the phone, loudly, so she could hear.
“Well…,” she dithered. “I don’t know about that.”
Maybe on the surface living another day isn’t a big deal, but there must be a reason why we have a tradition of celebrating birthdays. For most of human history, living another year was truly fortunate during times when there were numerous reasons to die. Abraham Lincoln had four sons, but only one made it to adulthood. There are endless examples of the historical figures we learned about who had lives filled with unthinkable human loss. In 1900, 30% of children died before the age of 5, and the average life expectancy in the United States was 46.3 years for men and 48.3 years old for women. Geez! I’d be set to die in approximately ten years.
We may take for granted in modern society that we collectively live longer than ever, but I don’t think we should ever stop celebrating the gift of another day or year. We are promised absolutely nothing.
Right now, over 100,000 people have died in the past few months from COVID-19 in the United States alone. We are all grappling with how to move forward in the middle of a global pandemic with not enough answers yet. Still, in the context of human history, it is a miracle that we even have the luxury of experiencing a pandemic with the resources we have at this particular moment in the timeline. I certainly would not have wanted to try to survive the Black Plague.
Now that school is out, I’m in a bit of a lull. A transition into more of the same, but different. Right now the kids and I should have been in Japan and Thailand. We had dreams of elephant sanctuaries and finding Pokemon. We haven’t stayed home during the summer in 8 years, and lately I’ve been mourning the loss of our adventure. Except saying that out loud feels like the most ridiculous first-world problem ever.
I’m so embarrassed by my pandemic privilege that I have been going out of my way to do my part to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and be a responsible community member who does not easily give in to her every whim. If Anne Frank persevered in an attic, wearing a mask and staying home is nothing. It’s the least I can do. Out of all the problems humans have faced, this is not the worst thing that could have happened to me. I want to always remember that. I want to be grateful for our health. Grateful for what we have. And when I feel the normal human pangs of discomfort– when I’m dwelling in my own thoughts and desires– I want to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. That can only happen through a willingness to sit with the feelings and reflect on the experience. I want to find clarity in a messy and fleeting life.
One of our quarantine pastimes has been raising monarch caterpillars. When you look at their little life cycle, it is fragile and destined to fail. Less than 10% of monarch eggs survive to become adults in the wild. There are simply too many odds stacked against them. First, the monarch butterfly has to find milkweed to lay her eggs– that is the only plant the caterpillars can consume. Modern urban neighborhoods no longer have a lot of these plants, so the little butterflies must scour neighborhoods searching for the sustenance to preserve their genetic line.
Suppose a lucky monarch finds milkweed for her eggs. The eggs and caterpillars now have to survive incredible odds, dodging other insects, birds, and disease. They are extremely susceptible to pesticides, and climate change continues to destroy their habitats and migration.
In the past month, we tried our hand at raising monarchs in captivity. Three trips to the nursery and 11 milkweed plants later, we took in enough eggs and fed endlessly hungry caterpillars to get 20 to pupate. During this time, we lost several caterpillars to undiagnosed ailments (we’re still mega amateurs), and our first one to pupate made it all the way to the final stage– we could see its butterfly wings in a translucent pupa ready to bust open– but it never came out. Even in captivity, their lives are a precarious struggle to thrive. This week– finally– we released fourteen fully grown, beautiful orange and black monarch butterflies.
“Look how happy it is,” I said to the kids, watching our first female monarch flapping its wings in the cool breeze of freedom.
We watched until it disappeared, wishing it good luck, imagining all of the places it would go with the pride of helping it get this far. Now it must go on to the next stage of its life cycle on its own, against considerable odds.
The next time you see a monarch, hopefully you’ll remember what a miracle it took for it to be here despite a 90% chance of death. We see these butterflies frequently enough that we tend to view them as common, but the few seconds of beauty you see fluttering by took enormous struggle.
Kind of like our days. They begin to feel common to us. So common, that we forget everything it took to get this far.
Maybe my grandma was right though in her skepticism about living another year. Perhaps there is more to consider about life than a number. You could make an argument that while living a long time is great, it also matters how you spend your time– the quality of your days.
We recently hung a clock in our living room. It plays a melody every hour and makes us feel like we’re on an amusement park ride. Every time I hear it chime I can’t believe another hour has passed. Hour by hour. Day by day. Time slipping away, 78 days into COVID-19 quarantine.
I discovered that trampolines are the new toilet paper– high demand, no supply. The latest rage. Two attempts to purchase one both fell through. I think I may have just secured one on my third transaction, but I had to spend hours and hours researching and scouring the internet and paying an overinflated price just to have one this summer. I want to make our home a place where my children can play and use their imaginations. Until there is a vaccine, we are looking at another year of no playgrounds. Transforming my backyard into a suitable playground has become one of my goals in an attempt to maintain the magic of childhood.
In addition to trampolines and toilet paper, there is another COVID-19 bestseller flying off the shelves: cats.
The kids had been nagging me for a cat, especially my daughter, who wore cat ears almost daily for two years in a fierce commitment to felines. I never had a cat and there was honestly nothing very appealing about them to me.
“Just because you don’t like cats, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have one,” my daughter argued, hands on her hips. I could not match her sass, toothless smile, or 7-year-old sound logic.
We weren’t going anywhere anytime soon anyway. I guess why not?
After a ton of scouring and submitting inquiries, we finally found an orange tabby kitten and we named him Teddy. He is perfect and sweet– a best friend to everyone in our home except when he climbs on our heads in the middle of the night. I had no idea I would actually like a cat as much as I do, but as I type this, he is curled up against me, proof that there are lots of things I still don’t know about life yet. And to think he would not have been brought into our home without a pandemic and our cancelled vacation. Life is funny like that.
The jacarandas are in full bloom and the streets and yards are littered with a carpet of purple. When I was a kid, the jacarandas signaled that summer was near. The best time of the year. Last year during this time I was in Spain, where there were also beautiful jacarandas in bloom and warm late nights of tapas and music and daytime bike rides along cobblestone streets. This year we’re social distancing at home, checking on caterpillars and watching movies in the living room with a cat on our laps, vacation plans cancelled, retracing our steps on the sidewalks in our neighborhood past jacaranda trees we’ve passed numerous times on streets we know intimately.
Ethan and I were recently taking an online Buddhism class that discussed the movie Groundhog Day. We decided to watch it for ourselves so we could better understand the lessons from the movie– I was just a kid when it was first released. I had no idea what an interesting play on time it would be. The movie did an excellent job exploring the main character Phil’s authentic struggle with not being happy with himself and his life. Phil goes through the stages of grief as he wakes up every single day to the same day, trapped. Same people. Same circumstances. Same scenery. After years– some estimates put the years in the thousands, although the movie doesn’t reveal exactly how long– Phil finally masters the art of monotony. He overcomes his prison sentence of living the same day by coming to peace with it. He finally figures out what perspective and attitude can do for his life and how to be happy in his current circumstances by being curious and giving to others. You might have to kick and scream and resist reality before opening up your heart to the possibility of having that kind of happiness, but it is right in front of you. It begins within.
Right now feels like being trapped in a kind of cycle. We’re experiencing limitations that were not previously a reality. For many of us, we continue to quarantine and social distance, and each day can feel like the previous one, blending together, repeating on a loop.
In a world where only a small percentage of circumstances can be controlled by us, our power is in how we choose to show up to each day.
Right now, I have a kitten and butterflies. I’ve been gardening, cooking, writing, reading, exercising, and spending lots of time with my kids. We started a family tradition of evening walks with no technology. Yesterday on our walk we passed by a neighbor’s house. The kids were humming and singing, skipping and jumping up and down to grab the seed pods off the old Tuckeroo tree growing on the boulevard. My elderly neighbor watched the kids and smiled.
“They’re happy, aren’t they?” she said.
“Yes. Very much,” I answered.
At the end of the day, that feels like something. Our choice. Turning quarantine into kittens and butterflies and rainbows and unicorns. Kids are good at that. I try to re-learn this way of looking at life through their beginner eyes. I’m not always good at it, but I’m trying to get better.
If I can live 96 years this way, great. I would be a very fortunate woman.
But if I don’t, at least I had it today. And I would still be a very fortunate woman.