Thursday, August 6, 2009

Picket Fences don't equal Happiness? What?

Picket Fence Lilies Pictures, Images and Photos

I used to think success was measured by landmarks. A certain grouping together of things achieved. I also made a false connection between success and happiness. As if one were related to the other? As if....

I had a child when I was young. I hadn't planned her, though I am glad she came. I hadn't planned much. What was there to plan? The first thing I did when I looked at her, all wrapped up in the NICU (Newborn Intensive Care Unit. We were both running high fevers when she was born) was begin making plans. I would be successful. I would be happy. I had to make lists.

I mapped out my life as if it were a novel, never knowing I was a secret novelist. In truth, it was my first book, this life I have now. Here is a list I took out of my journal from the time right after she was born. February 1994. Anyone remember the snow? I do.

  • Find her a daddy (anyone can be a donor. I need a DADDY for this sweet thing)
  • Buy her a house (by the ocean?) white picket fence, all the trimmings
  • A dog
  • A full time job teaching (so I can be with her)
The fulfillment of this list was the measure of success I set for myself at barely twenty three years old. How I longed to cross the items off that list. And I did!

First I finished school (cum laude thank you very much!) and I walked across that stage with a toddler on my hip.

Then I met Bill, who fell in love with her first and me second. She made the choice, and what a choice she made. I am forever in her debt. Daddy, check.

Then I received a scholarship to get my Masters/PhD from Fordham university. I packed her up and off we went. I was able to teach after that. Full time job teaching, check.

Then Bill asked me to marry him. And then we bought a house. By the ocean. I insisted we put up a fence (for the dog of course) House with all the trimmings, check.

It took me seven years to complete my list. And success was mine! Or was it? And happiness was mine! Or was it?

The night before we moved in to our cute little house, I had one more chore. I went there alone to wash down the wooden stairs with Murphy's Oil Soap. We tore up yucky carpet the day before, and I knew I could make those beauties shine with just a bit of elbow grease. Bill wasn't so sure. I was out to PROVE a point.

It was going well. I was almost to the top. Washing and brushing and waxing and wiping. It was tiring, and late.

I sat on one of the top steps to rest and look down at my work. And that was when it hit me. And I almost fell down the stairs. It didn't matter. I was still the same me that I was at the beginning of my journey. Still stubborn, still defensive, still moody, still living on the verge of rage at every moment. Still teetering on happy. How could it be? How could I have done everything on my list and still not be the me I thought I would be at the end? The happy me? The fulfilled me? What?

I realized I needed a revision. And the revision was much more difficult than the first draft. Success doesn't equal happiness. Happiness doesn't equal success. Happiness is something you work hard at, every day. Success is more subjective, more like luck with a pinch of persistence (or the other way around)

Nothing on my list had anything to do with me. It was all geared towards other people and other things. Sure, I was the beneficiary of all those sweet and tidy wishes... but where was the me in all of it? I wasn't there. But I was on the stairs. And I had no choice.

At that moment the main character that is me emerged and began to grow. It took another seven years or so, but I would have to say that I am on the map of my own life now. I am no longer in survival mode. I am on coast. And boy, do I LOVE the coast!

What about you? Ever made some big plans that you realize later were merely survival techniques, not plans? Funny how that happens. What a luxury it is to get past that and onto real dreaming.


  1. Plans? For me, for my whole life, seems like plans are made so something else can happen. Seriously. I've found that sometimes I feel like things are just happening to me, regardless of my efforts. But thinking of it as being the mc in my own life and being an active participant (as I've read on so many writing sites), really puts things into perspective.

    Wow. Thanks, Suzanne. I think you just helped me reach something I've been searching for for a while now. Sounds kind of lame and I probably should have been able to figure this out on my own, but when you get into that rut, sometimes you just need a little nudge to get you going in the right direction. Awesome, awesome post!

    And yea for you for setting goals and reaching them. Even if they don't have the result you're hoping for, that's really says a lot about you and the kind of person you are. You're awesome!

  2. Goals, happiness and perspective weave through live and change like chapters in a book. Wonderful, thought provoking post.

  3. What a beautiful post, Suzanne! (I'm all choked up :)

  4. Not only are you the most gut-wrenchingly honest blogger I've met, you write with the lyric quality of a poet. I read this and think 'What good use you've made of life.' I have to think about this post a lot today, because I'm always in survivor mode. I don't want the book to slam shut on a life unrevised.

  5. A very thoughtful post to start a Thursday with, Suzanne. Thank you for sharing your journey, and congrats on hitting that "coasting" point in your life.

    I was raised on the philosophy that happiness is a choice. That I could choose to be happy no matter what my circumstances were at the time (and I watched my parents choose to be happy during rather trying times, so it wasn't hard to buy into). Now I know I was very lucky to be taught that from the beginning, as so many people have to reach that point on their own.

    I've certainly made some choices that have been all about survival. And I can't say I chose to be happy about every one of them. But I don't regret them, since they all have (and continue to) define me as a person...and I am happy with who I am.

    It sounds like you are too. :-)

  6. I have learned to be happy NOW. No matter what. Not when my husband finishes school or we buy the house or I get an agent. But just NOW.

  7. Abby: Oh wow! I am moved by your comment. Thanks!

    Willow: Thought Provoking is a new measure of success. Thanks Willow, honest.

    Corey:Thanks You!

    Tricia: Too honest methinks! And you are always so kind!
    Jaimie:Lucky Ducky! Yes, I am beginning to see the picture with a bit more clarity.

    Elana: I try! I swear I try!

  8. Beautiful post! You should seriously write poetry. I feel like I've been in survival mode for a long time, but each struggle has made me stronger. Even with some of the hard times, I've had a truly fortunate life. I love my husband, my children, and my writing. I feel like everything has happened for a reason, and all the hard times have made me wildly appreciative of these good times.

  9. That is such an immense realization! I know the theory, that nothing will bring me happiness except for my own decision to just be happy, but to really understand it, it's so hard. Beautiful post!

  10. What a great and honest post! I'm always thinking if I can only achieve this, then I'll be happy. That in itself robs me of the happiness I could be enjoying every day. Thanks for making me stop and think!

  11. Another wonderful post - every time I come over here I am struck by the poetic beauty of your words. Like Jamie, I was raised with the "how you feel is up to you" attitude. So I've always tried to choose happiness, despite what may be going on in my life. And like you, I had the realization a couple years ago that the "me" was missing in my life. That is when I started writing again, when I went back to school and got my masters. Putting the me in my life is still a constant struggle. I think when you have kids, that is just the way it is.

    I didn't get the "success doesn't equal happiness" part until just recently, when I finally landed an agent (for my non fiction). I thought I'd be ecstatic...and I was for a couple days. But once that contract was signed and I had a book to finish and a proposal to perfect and a list of publishers to impress...I realized there is always going to be another level of success I want to achieve. I've come to think it isn't the success that will bring me happiness, but the joy I find in the journey. And if there is no joy in the journey, I'm on the wrong trip :)

  12. BJ: Thanks, I do... sometimes write poetry. But it sucks rocks. really. Pukeadosious. :)

    Lori: Thanks, it is mind numbing sometimes, no?

    LW: Me too! I always need reminding. Today I was reminding myself, I think ;)

    Michelle: That is where this post springs from! I got another couple of requests for Anne (even though I had sort of given her up for the moment and immersed myself in the WIP...) and I began to wonder if I would be HAPPY with an agent. The answer was so simple. I'll only be happy when I take the time to remember happiness is something we DO. I love your comment!

  13. The tea can be wonderful, even from a cracked cup.

  14. Wow that was wonderful! I know what you mean about being in survival mode as opposed to coasting. All those struggles are behind you now, enjoy!!!

  15. I always thought that getting an agent would be the best thing that could happen in my life. Then I had baby number three and life has been out of control! I thank my lucky start every day that I don't have an agent right now! I would be MISERABLE and thoroughly overwhelmed (actually, I am overwhelmed). But am I happy? When I lay my baby down in her crib at the end of a busy day, and make sure the older two are covered and fast asleep, the answer is yes. What makes me happy? My family.

    Thanks for writing a post that actually made me sit and think.

  16. Are you kidding? I only started living last year! My pages have been blank for years!

  17. glnroz: And sitting in a field of bluebonnets.

    T.Anne: I'ma tryin' I swear.

    Bethany: WELCOME! And yeah... from one mom of three to another... that third one really throws you off your game! I was like, What?

  18. Yes... for the longest time, I planned to get my MA, followed by my PhD, obtain tenure at a university, and then teach & take sabbaticals for research where I could do my fiction writing.

    Two years ago, I received a full scholarship to a prestigious MA program. It was then that I realized - the day before the program began - that my 'plan' wasn't what was going to make me happy. It was a survival plan for my life, and I was miserable every single day because of it.

    So, I dropped out of the program, shocked the pants off everyone who knew me, and decided to pursue my dreams NOW. Why wait until I'd reached some goal 15 years in the future? I still have days of unhappiness, but I haven't regretted my decision for even a single second.

    Thanks for the inspiring post :)

    Faith @

  19. Revisions are always harder than the first draft, aren't they? I'm with Elana, I think we all need to teach ourselves to appreciate the present. It's tough to do sometimes, but it's worth the effort.

  20. That was a beautiful story. Thanks for sharing. I've made plans like this before and still do. I often get caught up in doing things the "right" way. I'm trying and learning slowly to recognize which choices to make because they're "right" and which choices to make because they're right for my life.

  21. Your blog posts always make me feel like writing. I love the way you think.
    And I so relate to this post.
    I refuse to live a life unwritten by my hand. I refuse to live a life unrevised by my personal growth.
    I love this post. So true Suzanne. Happiness based on happenings falls a long way short of joy.

  22. I'm right in that phase of making plans. Problem is, I'm good at planning, not very good at deciding. It's a lethal combination because I feel like I'm planning a million things at once, and 2 million things to back up the first 1 million, in case something fails.
    One of my biggest fears is getting to a certain point and realizing it was all for naught.
    My hope is that even if the first draft sucks, it's nothing that can't be fixed with some persistence and serious revisions.
    I'm learning to be happy now and I'm always glad for the reminder.
    As always, an awesome post!

  23. This is a gorgeous post. I love so much about it. As for my own plans, I think I'm barely getting into dream phase. I'm so happy that you're happy. Keep going. You're awesome.