What I Require to Be Happy
Three years ago, I traveled from New York to Viet Nam with my husband and daughter. For months, we planned our adventure, and I had looked forward to exploring a place in the southern regions of the earth’s hemisphere; a place with a complicated past, a place with a microclimate that makes it hot and dry in one region, while another is deluged with the rains of a monsoon season. In particular, I was interested in Viet Nam’s culinary vista; a place that had been influenced by as many foreign occupations and neighboring countries as there are varieties of rice in South East Asia: the technique and tradition of stir-fired dishes from China; baguette sandwiches, stuffed with pate, hot chili peppers and a healthy dousing of nuoc cham as the result of France’s long hold on its colony; Japan and the aesthetics and symmetry as seen in Hue’s Imperial culinary presentations; and even America and her ubiquitous symbol of occupation: Coca-Cola. The heat and harmony of Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and India could be savored in dishes that included green curry, tamarind, and coconut milk.
What I could not have anticipated was what I have come to refer to as “the gift of jet lag.” Lying in my hotel bed, night after night, as my otherwise clock slowly worked its way from Brooklyn to Hanoi, an eleven-hour time difference, I entered what was to become the vehicle that would transport me to a better understanding of what I believe it takes to make me happy.
In my first night of sleeplessness, I raced through several issues of old New Yorkers, and relished uninterrupted time for reading. I consulted the guide books, and hatched our plan for a walking tour of the Old Market where streets are named for their respective trades: Tin Street, Paper Street, Musical Instruments Street, and so on.
By the third night of sleeplessness, however, I was without reading material, and I no longer had the desire to craft an itinerary. But in fact, even as my husband lay next to me snoring, and the steady rhythm of my daughter’s breathing sounded from across the room, I felt plagued with anxiety. My heart was pounding, and my mind raced from one unreasonable scenario to the next. At one point, I was able to take myself by the shoulders, to step out of myself, to converse with myself, and ask myself this question: “what is it that you are so worried about?” And the answer was this: the constant and relentless notion of my “to do” list.
And so I did this: I laid in my foreign bed, in a time zone that was neither here, nor there, and I cataloged all of the items that plagued me: a bigger career, a better salary, a title with greater status, a more tony zip code, a house in the country. Then I weighed that list against the things that matter most to me: my daughter, my husband, my family and friends; meaningful work, more time to do the things I love: reading, writing, riding my bike, listening to music, traveling. And soon I was able to draw upon a wish list that spoke to my greater self; a catalogue of desire that ridded my body of pounding anxiety, while guiding me toward another definition of “more.” None of these items has anything to do with making more money or spending more time in an office. In fact, they have more to do with scaling back from the relentless production of a lifestyle than demands bigger, better, faster.
Last fall, after months and months of a renovation that had been preceded by years and years working toward the goal of my ideal kitchen, my daughter and I watched as a 30-foot sweep of bird’s eye maple cabinets cabinets quietly slipped down, and then vomited forth, the entirety of otherwise culinary life. Five sets of dishes flew toward us with the force of nature. The chaos was deafening, and as my the contents of my cupboards kept roaring and forward with the shocking force that rendered a blur, all I could manage was this: my kitchen has become the Niagra Falls. And then then it stopped, and my kitchen looked as though a bomb had gone off.
By some miracle, my daughter and I were not hurt. We could have easily have been blinded or sustained head and neck injuries. Our cats had been smart enough to scatter, and Sarah and I plucked rose-thorn glass shards from our calves. Beyond that, our only real injury was one of trauma; one of having been inside of a momentary storm.
But in the end, the accident was an opportunity. It was presented to me as a moment in which to explain to my traumatized daughter that we were lucky not to have been blinded or sustain head and neck injuries, that our cats had been smart enough to “scat”; that our only real injury was having been inside of a momentary storm, that much of what was shattered could be replaced, that ultimately, this is only “stuff” and that it was her and her safety and my own safety that had been at stake, that the calico print candy dish that my Grandmother had adored would be missed, but that it was not the dish that we would long for. The dish embodied the memory of what I adored: long summers in Iowa during which we played endless games of Hearts, and chased fireflies; ate fried chicken and drank root beer floats after naps. The object is long gone, but memory remains, and so there is no real need or incentive to want to replace the thing that is lost or destroyed.
This summer, we packed up our lives and moved across the country, from our beloved Brooklyn to Los Angeles—with somewhat of a lesser load to pack and move. When the moving van pulled away, I asked my husband how he felt about seeing our life drive off in a moving van. “Truthfully,” he said, “most of it could fly away, and I wouldn’t miss it.”
I couldn’t agree with him more. Half of our belongings are in a storage unit, and I can’t imagine that I will begin to miss any of what we didn’t feel the need to use on a daily basis. And now I am ensconced in a perfectly awful kitchen. But this kitchen has already proven useful, as it has taken me back to that first trip to Viet Nam and one of the more memorable meals that I had in one of the many street-side Pho shops. Along the bustling streets, women arrive in the pre-dawn hours to set about lighting their large charcoal bricks that will render enough heat to result in the otherworldly symmetry that issues forth from their cauldrons: beef bones, ginger, anise, cinnamon, fish sauce, rice noodles, scallions, fiery hot chilies, and the elixir of lime juice and a sprinkling of basil, mint and cilantro. Such miraculous concoctions are crafted every day in the open air—without a Viking stove or granite counter top or bird’s eye maple cabinets.
I believe that as time progresses, I need less and less of a material world as the means to define and quantify my happiness and productivity. The old axiom that was the hallmark of my grandmother’s generation remains: less is more. Heat is required in order to cook.
I believe that nearly every aspect of our lives is on loan to us. Every object that I have cherished is part of the ephemeral, and each object—my daughter’s pink baby hat, festooned in white downy plumes, an umbrella with a red bakelite handle, a toothbrush–is precious only because it embodies the memory of a given moment in time. I believe that I am less governed by a desire to obtain and consume, and more driven to work toward time with my family, meaningful and purposeful work, participation in the natural world, a good meal at the close of a day, and conversation with those that I love most. This is what I require. This is what makes me happy.
Submitted by Jane Otto, Oct. 17, 2006
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