"My father was dead three weeks. That's not enough time to accept a reality that has changed reality. I plummeted into a gray siege-state, wordless and un-selfed. Still, my sons and friends expected me to wake, use a fork, drive a car. Months earlier, I'd committed to teaching in rural New York and had promised my 13-year-old he could come, although leaving Montana in July is crazy.
"A friend said, 'People are allowed to not show up at times like this.' I wanted to go, though. One afternoon, my son and I floated in a hammock beneath a span of branches as geese called and landed on the lake's shore. I was trying to like this, to feel, but grief waited for my feet to touch the fallen pine needles. Grief pinched my arm as we walked to dinner, jerked my hand as I served salad. It ran conversation, draining all color and tone.
"In the city, we met my friend Eric for a drink. Eric said to me, 'Want to come to my karaoke birthday party?' Suddenly, I wanted the birthday cheer. 'You have to sing,' he said. My word meant nothing; I'd never even witnessed karaoke."
"My family and I recently attended an experimental percussion concert that turned out to be so bad -- so band-saw-to-the-ears discordantly dreadful, these five guys playing rubbery, awful instruments that sounded like a cross between children screaming and cats screaming and that seemed calibrated to make you claw at your own face in misery -- that halfway into it we grabbed our jackets and bolted. It was one of the finest moments of our lives together, all four of us spat from the humid, noisy music hall into the crisp, starry night, laughing. 'I'm so glad we went!' our 11-year-old Ben said joyfully. 'It was worth it just to leave.'"
-- Catherine Newman is the author of "Waiting for Birdy."
"We bought land last year with fields that disappeared into the distance by a reservoir. We're city dwellers at heart but made the switch for the school system and the dream of growing our own food. We pictured it: bulbous tomatoes and erect ears of corn so ready for picking, the silk split the seams and spilled down in strands of gold. We got the acre for a song; the previous owner had scraped off the topsoil. We'll renovate, we thought. We harrowed the subsoil and invested in rich black loam and bags and bags of grass seed, which we scattered with our hands in the good dirt -- where, we believed, they would grow green.
"Come April, we waited to see the pasture prickle forth. Sure enough, as the forsythia bloomed, we saw seedlings emerge. After a week, we realized the seedlings were growing at an alarming rate and had ceased to be green, their stalks the purple tint of a bruise. A pasture specialist told us, 'Instead of grass, you got deadly nightshade,' a lethal weed that would, if eaten, kill a child or an animal."
"As a journalist in my twenties, single and living alone, I always seemed to file stories at 3 a.m., with only my cats to congratulate me. This night, having enjoyed a self-satisfied stretch and a glass of wine, I was about to slip into bed when my seven-foot bookcase broke. Overstuffed with magazines and hardcovers, jammed rudely between bed and nightstand, the structure had simply collapsed, expelling a library's worth of books across my bed. I might have just swept them to the floor to be dealt with in the morning. Instead, I got out my rarely used toolbox and stood amidst the scattered volumes on my mattress. I began to fix my bookcase.
"Driving metal into wood from every angle, I hoped my neighbors wouldn't guess mild-mannered me was making this racket. When I was done, the bookcase's edges looked like Frankenstein's neck. But I put weight on them; they held. I looked at my bed, littered with dust jackets, screws, and yawning felines. By the time I replaced each book -- right side up, spine side out -- and put my tools away, the sun was up.
"I have thought of that night as one of my loneliest, in which the implications of single life hit hard: I understood that there was no one but me to fix the bookcase, no one but the cats to observe my success. But I also recall it when I consider how my years alone were among my happiest. There is joy in competence and independence; giddy satisfaction in working, having wine, and fixing things without permission, help or encouragement from partners or parents. The bookcase was held together, crude but sturdy, and so was I."
-- Rebecca Traister is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry."
"I'd heard that Cher once had a rib removed to slim down -- I was having mine taken out for a much different reason. A surgeon was going to extract a rib and a chunk of my sternum, then use the bone to replace the cartilage in my nose and sinuses that I'd lost due to a rare autoimmune disease. My face looked like I'd been punched square in the middle of it. I had a flat nose, no bridge, and two sad little nostrils poking out at the bottom. The chance to get my old profile back was worth a risky eight-hour procedure, but all that anesthesia scared me. What if something went wrong? What if I woke up and wasn't me anymore?
"I remember being wheeled into the O.R., horrified by giant images of my non-nose on the walls -- and then coming to with a ring of faces above me. 'Wendy? Surgery's over, hon. Everything went fine,' a nurse reassured me. 'Can you say something?' My throat was sore from the tube that had been shoved down it for an entire day, but I croaked out, 'Was it a boy or a girl?' A joke. I'd made a joke! I knew the surgery was a success. My sense of humor was intact."
-- Wendy Shanker is the author of "Are You My Guru? How Medicine, Meditation & Madonna Saved My Life."
"Some truths are self-evident. Money can't buy happiness. Appearances don't matter. So it's easy for me to say no when my 11-year-old daughter resumes a noxious whine for skinny jeans or a bazillionth pair of dime-store earrings. I'm not the mom who shops. I'm the mom with the $12 haircut, in the same faded khakis you saw me in yesterday. I am the one with a half-empty closet, a near-empty wallet, and a brand of religious devotion that keeps them that way. I'm a Buddhist priest. I'm not the mom at the mall.
"That changes one day on the way home from school. 'Can we go to the mall?' my daughter asks wearily, and instead of refusing again, I turn onto a street I never take, into the asphalt sprawl. The two of us are fairly airborne as we enter the cool cavern through the automatic doors and ride the escalator past the food court. Striding beside me on the concourse, my daughter tightens the subtle distance she has begun to keep from me in public. I notice her head tops my shoulder. Her face has narrowed, and her lips have grown full. She flashes me a comrade's secret smile and reaches for my hand. 'Mom,' she says, 'I don't think Dad gets this.' In one unexpected turn, I've entered the exuberance of her girlhood, a treasure too fleeting to resist. It's true, appearances don't matter, and what we bought won't last, but I found something I'll always cherish -- the closeness of her company before she outgrows me for good."
-- Karen Maezen Miller is the author of "Momma Zen" and "Hand Wash Cold."
"The key ingredients to my happy childhood were my three sisters and our Fisher-Price toys; specifically, these dolls named Mary, Jenny, and Honey. We played with them every single day for years. When I found out I was pregnant -- before I even knew she was a girl -- the first bits of 'baby gear' I got were a Jenny and a Honey from eBay. (They were in good but not mint condition or even 'new in box' -- who wants a toy you can't play with?) I then went on an eBay tear and bought a number of the toys that I remember loving so much: a patent-leather-shoed Dressy Bessy, a Mattel Tuff Stuff pull-string sewing machine, a Tuff Stuff grocery carriage.
"I waited patiently for Evan, our daughter, to be old enough to do something more than blink at them. And it was well worth the wait: Now she'll lie in her crib and hold Honey over her head to chat with her, or push her around in the shopping cart, or rest her over her shoulder to burp her and comfort her. Watching Evan, it almost feels like something out of Madeleine L'Engle -- she and I experiencing the exact same kind of simple childhood joy, in little time capsules 40 years apart."
-- Rory Evans is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, New York.
"Being happy in the midst of the difficulties of human life is a wonderful art, a great accomplishment," says Albuquerque-based psychologist Thomas Bien, Ph.D. "Learning to be happy is perhaps the most important skill we can develop in life."
So how can we learn? Adapted from Bien's recent book, "The Buddha's Way of Happiness," we found three key lessons to get you started.