"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" ~ Mary Oliver

Tag: be happy

“be happy!” . . .

DSC_0721_2“Be Happy!” That was what my favorite cousin who died a year or so ago, said to me on our last visit together. I was reminded of Pei-Fen today when I saw a photo in the NYTimes of the Martha Graham dance company dancers in motion. Pei-Fen had danced with Martha Graham and Ted Shawn in the last mid-century. Her second husband was composer and clarinetist, Meyer Kupferman. I read in one of the chats online that people lined up to visit them not just for music camaraderie but especially for Pei-Fen’s cooking.

On that note, her cooking was very individual and representative of her nature. The last time we had a meal together in Rhinebeck, New York, she served a single dish for our lunch: Buddha’s Delight on wooden plates. I’ve sampled this dish elsewhere since it’s a favorite dish, and was delighted that she had made it for our leisurely lunch, but also so that I could get a glimpse of how she had prepared it. Everything was cut meticulously. That’s the main message of her dish–the soaked cellophane noodles, tiger lilies, dried shitake mushrooms reconstituted in warm water, tree ear (an important textural element), a little sliced cabbage and seasonings. When I make it, the dish tastes all right but the texture is not the same–I haven’t managed to get everything sliced and trimmed as tidily as she did when making this dish. Her Buddha’s Delight dish was, well, buddha-like in its harmonic simplicity. There was a peaceful aura about it too.

In any event, the photo of Martha Graham Company dancers in the Times today brought back this instant image, memory and message from Pei Fen. “Be Happy” she had said to me, holding my hand, knowing about my family background, my parents and how life had unfolded for me. I took her advice to heart. I remember it when I am feeling down or depressed about things. And how is it that one can uplift one’s spirits to be happy?

Simple: take away what is not working in one’s life and put it aside. Be in the moment of a winter’s day with the sun gilding the horizon, trying to come out in the mid-morning light. Marvel at the whiteness of the snow that has blanketed everything. Be thankful that our hot water tank is working again and it was only the pilot light that got blown out by a draft last night, sparing us the expense of having to call the plumber and replace it on a Friday before the weekend.

Observe how actually nothing is wrong, right this moment. Rejoice that my vertigo is diminishing simply from performing some simple gravity-driven maneuvers called the “Epley Maneuver” for a benign crystal floating around in my inner ear rather than something that might be more serious.

Be glad that my husband and I are so lucky to be together even when things are hard around us that are outside of our control. And let go of how others behave–you can’t do anything about it anyhow by reacting to it. Save and conserve my energy instead of letting it dissipate willy-nilly.

We have a local Councillor with the initials “PP” who has been loyal, consistent and gone to bat for our causes in the past decades: defeating a wetlands development plan two or three times so far; advocating for protecting uninfested trees from rampant clear-cutting during an infestation of beetles in our town. Two years ago during the holidays, I made some mince pies using my Breville pie maker after coming upon jars of British mincemeat at a local emporium. We gave some to PP, family and neighbors.

G. saw PP last night at a hearing to try and save more trees (5000 of them) from being clear-cut by the USDA. We suspect that authorities are more interested in spending their budget so that they can ask for more money rather than doing right by our trees. In any case, I’m going to pick up some prepared pie crusts to make some of these miniature mince pies this weekend and brighten up the kitchen with the delicious smells–and for G. to bring some over to PP as a thank-you for his efforts. He loved them before and there was a twinkle in his eye last night when G. mentioned that there might be more coming soon.

Robertson’s Mincemeat ingredients: apples, raisins, sultanas, candied mixed orange peel, lemon peel, treacle, currants, sugar and spices, everything nice!

So, there you are. Being happy is easy when I focus on what I am grateful for and to do something that makes someone else happy. Mince pies are perfect! They smell divine while they are cooking and are so tasty eaten with a wedge of cheddar cheese.

Being happy is a choice and I choose it! Thanks, Pei-Fen.


rebirth et al. . .

IMG_6027You know how they’re always talking about rebirth at Easter time a few weeks ago? Coincidentally this year, the world also saw the convocation of a new Pope for those who are Catholic. Obama, at his visit to Israel, intentionally spoke with a phrase in Hebrew at each place that he visited. He also gave at least the younger generation of Israelis some hope that “peace is possible!” That’s a rebirth of an idea in that tense region.

In reflection over these last few weeks, the most profound thing that happened to me is that my cherished relative, Pei-Fen, whom I visited in the beginning of March, died soon after at the age of 92. She seemed to be hazy and floating in and out in consciousness after having had a recent stroke. But when I saw her, and when I asked if we could take a photo together, she straightened up and looked directly into the camera. Then, she made such an effort to tell me to: “Take care of your family. Take care of yourself. . . and BE HAPPY!”

I think she wanted to tell me this because she knew, even if we hadn’t been in touch that much, that I had not been very happy for much of my life.



What I have done since I heard of her passing, was to remember that she had given me an old Victorian amber pendant when I was about college age so many years ago. I myself had later given it to a young relative in hopes that it would carry some meaning, and so, at this point in time, I didn’t have it any longer.

So, I turned to eBay to see if I could find a piece of amber that “looked like Pei-Fen”and would be something I liked so much that I would wear it all the time so that it would remind me to be happy each time I touched it. Sure enough, I found one that was not round and not oval, but more like a fat ellipse, an old golden brown piece of amber with the rough side of the petrified resin visible on the underside. The crude surface of the natural amber was part of the worn out look of things, the patina of life, that duly attracted each of us in our lives.
pei fen amber frontpei fen amber back
I like things whose beauty has been softened by age: hence “as is” is a familiar description for things that I have picked up for a song in my antiquing days long ago. That means there are usually hairline cracks, chips, repairs to things that don’t look pristine but whose beauty glows nevertheless.

Come to think of it, it’s sort of like people we know who age well (like Pei fen!) hold themselves with good posture and have grace in their faces that shows they have learned many of the things that bother us when we were young no longer matter at all. Most things don’t, I have found. And what a relief that is, come to find out!

So, here we are in mid-April, a time for rebirth as Spring begins to unfurl the crocus, daffodils, narcissus, hellebores. The roses also begin to wake up a little as the old thorny stalks are pruned away. Even my money tree inside, which has had a blight which has caused it to lose almost all of its leaves, is beginning to recover. I favored soapy eco-friendly pesticides for awhile but they didn’t work. So last Wednesday, I went to Home Depot and looked for the strongest pyrethrin spray I could lay my hands on. It seems to have done the job.

            at last!

at last!

What I have also been learning is that even though it’s great to look forward to what happens with your children, and then with your grandchildren, the truth of the matter is that no matter what one’s age is, and no matter how much time we think we might have left, the most important thing, I believe, is to live for oneself and not for others. To see each day as an opportunity to nurture one’s self with enough rest, modest meals, to do the washing up in the kitchen, do the laundry, to clean up the garden beds and to hang out our clothing on the clothesline in the cool Spring air because it means that one is taking care of oneself and the things that matter to us.

So, given Pei-Fen’s final exhortation to “be happy,” I think I’ve learned from it and am now happier, wearing an old piece of amber I know she would have loved. I remember to be happy each day, for my own sake, according to my own taste in all the little bits of happiness, cracked, chipped and worn but still beautiful.

That’s a lot of rebirths, don’t you think?

meaning. . .

What gives meaning to a life? I have been thinking about this since returning from visiting my 92-year old relative this past weekend who is weak and yet still lucid enough to send me off with an instruction to “take care of my family, take care of myself. . . and be happy.”

Is that all it takes? I take care of my family all the time, probably a little better than I take care of myself. But I think that last part about being happy is both the simplest and the hardest to carry out.

For example, I think one can DO lots of things to make yourself happy–and only we know what those things are that we especially treasure and enjoy. One of my discoveries of late is a “Rondo” movement of a Beethoven sonata played so tenderly and beautifully by a British pianist named Paul Lewis. (It’s the fourth movement of Sonata #4 in E-flat major, Op. 7.) G. and I went to a concert at Jordan Hall in Boston and heard Lewis play Schubert sonatas this January. Listening my way through these Beethoven recordings, I am amazed and taken aback by the freshness of the interpretations, so musical, clean and touching in its beauty of melody and line. Rapture is one way to describe it, I think.

[Here is a link to the piece on Youtube played by Daniel Alvadaras, someone other than Paul Lewis, but you can get a sense of the piece. Lewis’s rendition is available in the collected Beethoven sonatas.)

Actually, it has made me think about my mother and how important music was to her, all the way to the end. When asked why she went to the Unitarian Church that she had belonged to for decades when she said she didn’t believe in the afterlife, she answered simply, “for the music!” She sang in the choir and played recorder too, although she didn’t think that counting beats or measures was that important. I think one of her greatest wishes in life would have been to play an instrument as well as my sister played the violin and viola and I played the piano.

So, listening to Paul Lewis play this Beethoven “Rondo” makes me very happy today. DO-ing something like this makes me feel that BEING happy is a state of grace, whenever it appears. I am also struck by how individual our moments of happiness are. Someone else might not hear or experience what I am when I’m listening to this music. So many of the things around us that we cherish and enjoy are mere objects to other people. A line in a book or poem, flowers in a vase tilted in a certain direction; a meal, simple and warming may have meaning to us and make us happy but might not suit anyone else. But, if we’re happy, that’s a good thing.

Has something made you happy today?

Postscript: Icing on the cake tonight! Finding a YouTube clip of Paul Lewis and Imogen Cooper playing Schubert’s Fantasie in F minor. Luscious! Here it is!