Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin (2012)

Although I read several books each week, spend most of my free time reading, and even maintain this blog as a tribute to those books, I have to admit I hardly ever read while traveling. Don’t get me wrong, I always carry at least two or three books on every trip, not to mention the magazines I download onto my IPad, but I never seem to get around to reading them. Generally there is just so much to do while traveling: museums to visit; delicious restaurants to try out; friends or relatives to catch up with; and free HBO in the hotel room. Not to mention that when I travel with my three children, it takes all my mental reserves to keep up with their needs and wants. (One notable exception: when I fly alone I always dive into a book — the juicier, the better — since there is no one to make conversation with or be interrupted by!)

During the past five days while traveling with my husband in Philadelphia, I decided to bring along one of my favorite non-fiction books, Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin, for another re-read. It has become something of a New Year’s tradition for me to re-read at least one of Rubin’s books every January, and this year was no exception. My tattered, underlined copy came along in my carry-on and I found that while I could not find time to start a new book, there were plenty of pockets of time to re-read from a beloved old book.

Here is the original post from September 30, 2015, enjoy!

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Happier at Home focuses on the physical spaces we inhabit and the people with whom we inhabit them. Here Rubin looks at her belongings, her relationships, her neighborhood, and her work for ways to enhance happiness for all. (Being kinder and less rushed, holding doors, stopping to say hello: all small ways to strengthen happiness of family and strangers.) Reading along with Rubin, I began to see my small home and its treasures — both living and inanimate — in a whole new light.

How can our home be more “ours”…a better reflection of our past and better equipped for our future? The book inspired me to examine the possessions filling the shelves in our rooms. Which items really bring us joy and which ones are taking up physical and mental space in our lives? Out went the boxes of “freebies” (free plastic novelty cups, birthday party gift bag toys) filling two corners of our basement. Also in the donation bag went the dusty knick-knacks and junky souvenirs, freeing up room for collections — such as the rock and shell collection from our month-long honeymoon —  and photos that remind me of loved ones and favorite adventures. As for bringing us joy, the original art we have carefully collected since our wedding tops the list, in particular a gorgeous, wall-sized painting by our one-time neighbor and good friend Rachel Zur.

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Our favorite art work: a wall-sized painting by Rachael Zur.

On a roll, I turned to Happier at Home again! Next up, more carefully creating spaces and sanctuaries in our home to nurture our pastimes and make our time spent at home more pleasurable. We upgraded the broken, minuscule TV in our bedroom to a large one we can actually hear and invested in several scented candles. Suddenly we feel like we are in a hotel room while we watch movies on Friday nights! We also rescued a large hammock from the neighbor’s donation pile, repaired and painted it, and now we all have a shady, relaxing place to read books outside on cool afternoons (perhaps with a glass a wine for the grown ups nearby.)

Determined to focus more attention on the relationships that fill my home with love (or tension), I resolved be more loving toward my husband, so it is easier for him to be more loving towards me. I resolved to offer my kids my full attention, so they can feel that their interests (Pokemon, Ironman, NFL football) are ones I also share and value, even if I have to occasionally fake my enthusiasm. This time of year also brings to mind how much our celebration of holidays — especially Halloween and Christmas — brings us all so much joy and gives us wonderful reasons to spend extra time together. I plan to redouble my efforts and cheerfulness about hanging decorations and watching holiday movies together, something we all agree makes the holidays more meaningful.

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My son, enjoying three of our family’s favorite things: reading, our hammock, and Halloween-themed books!

Two of my favorite pieces of advice from Happier at Home, however, are the ideas Rubin presents for finding our personal “holy places and private landmarks” and “practicing non-random acts of kindness.” Reading this passage, I literally felt a light-bulb go off! One of my favorite places in the region is a local nature preserve. Several times every week, all year long, we go there: to jog, hike, sled, watch turtles, make iMovies, or just enjoy a few moments of peace and quiet. I am amazed how much more I love the park now that I think of it as one of my personal holy places! Another is the small waterfront restaurant where my husband and I got married by the local clerk of court fifteen years ago. We love to drive past it and remind the kids where it all started!

As for the non-random acts of kindness, I was very moved at Rubin’s call to help people with what they actually need rather than jumping in with “random” acts that might be meaningless or even unhelpful. It means much more, I realized while reading, to offer people specific help with immediate needs — giving my seat on the bus to a pregnant woman or helping an older shopper load bags into her car at Trader Joe’s — in contrast to more random or anonymous acts (paying for the car behind us to cross the bridge). Non-random acts bring me closer my neighbors and allow me to know my help was appreciated. After all, Rubin points out, the man in the car behind us on the bridge could be a millionaire…won’t it be even better to help a neighbor who comes up short on her cup of coffee?

You can read reviews of Rubin’s two other books here: Better Than Before http://wp.me/p6N6mT-l and The Happiness Project http://wp.me/p6N6mT-6

Happier…On Vacation

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Photo my husband captured on our beach trip of the full moon over the Atlantic Ocean.

“We should be working to discover the laws of our own nature. I had to build my happiness on the foundation of my character; I had to acknowledge what really made me happy, not what I wished made me happy.”

I cannot think of a better way to spend a beautiful, relaxing family beach vacation than to relax, oceanside, and deeply contemplate happiness. Last week, I did just that by re-reading my three favorite non-fiction books of all time: The Happiness Project, Happier at Home, and Better than Before…all by Gretchen Rubin.

Even after multiple re-readings (my copies are dog-eared, heavily underlined, and battered from use) Rubin’s books still offer me deep insights into the nature of happiness. Throughout the week, read-aloud passages from her book sparked deep and heartfelt conversations with my family about ways many ways we can welcome more happiness into our lives and the lives of our loved ones. I cannot begin to explain how, well, happy it makes me to be reminded that I can have a profound affect on everyone around me simply by making small decisions every single day to be more kind, loving, enthusiastic, and fun.

Here are my three original posts about her books, enjoy!

https://ivejustfinishedreading.wordpress.com/2015/09/29/gretchen-rubin-part-1/

https://ivejustfinishedreading.wordpress.com/2015/09/30/gretchen-rubin-part-2/

https://ivejustfinishedreading.wordpress.com/2015/10/01/gretchen-rubin-3/

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert (2015)

What is Creativity? It is the relationship between a human being and the mysteries of inspiration.

This latest work of nonfiction from Elizabeth Gilbert is less of a book and more of a manifesto, a call to arms, an urgent plea that we all make room in our lives for our creative spirits to thrive. Gilbert, of course, is famous for her book Eat, Pray, Love which seems to be equally loved and hated by audiences. I fall in with the readers who loved the book, her writing style, and the things she had to say — quite eloquently, I thought — about living life.

This new book is not a memoir, nor is it a self-help book, but rather is comes to us more as a motivational tome: you can do it, Gilbert is cheering, I believe that you have something magical inside you waiting to break through! In the introductions she writes, “the universe buries strange jewels deep within in us all to see if we can find them. The hunt to uncover those jewels — that is creative living. And the often surprising results of that hunt — that is what I call Big Magic.”

Creative powers are at work inside all of us, Gilbert argues, we are all called to do or make something unique and beautiful. It is not a lack of inspiration or talent that stops so many of us but rather busyness or obstinance or fear getting in the way of listening to the call. What we might feel drawn to make or do is not narrowly defined either. The author in no way suggests that only “art” in the traditional sense, such writing or painting, should be pursued. Her expansive list of examples of art waiting to be created include: writing songs, making candles, shaping pottery, decorating a beautiful home, starting a nonprofit, choreographing dances, farming a piece of land, writing a sermon.

There are no check-lists in this book nor bulleted “to-do” suggestion boxes, only a series of inspirations that show us that magic — the ability to make something wholly of ourselves to present to the world — is already alive inside us. We are capable of creating if we only try. Never once is it suggested that you must discard your life, wiping it clean, to begin again as a “pure artist.” Quite the opposite is proposed: humbly attempt something new, find something that moves you and calls to you and actively pursue it. That is it, simply answer the call. An entirely new life is not required, but taking action — however small — is required: take the time to jot down a poem on a grocery list, finally plant a garden, take a class, prepare a gourmet meal, perfect you clog dancing, rediscover a beloved pastime long ago discarded.

As we pursue a life filled with more creativity and magic, we are never to feel tortured, never to feel beleaguered or doomed when our attempts fail. Instead Gilbert wants us to feel joyful that inspiration has paid us a visit and proud of our courageous attempts to do something we have not tried before. We made not receive accolades or celebrity, but we have reached for the bigger life and that is its own reward.

Personally, I felt I took a huge leap starting this blog. It represented the most writing I had done in years and it required that I do something that felt very intimate to me… sharing my thoughts about books I dearly love with a world that may not love them at all. I was fearful of many of the things Gilbert mentions in the book: that I had nothing original to say, that there were already many, many other blogs about books being written, and that my opinions about books were not learned or expert enough. I cannot tell you how glad I am that I ignored all of those concerns! Writing this blog is never a chore, it is a total joy. Now while reading I think even deeper about the meanings and messages of the books I love, getting more than ever from my beloved pastime. “Take your insecurities and fears and hold them upside down by their ankles and shake yourself free off all your cumbersome ideas about what you require and why you are not enough. You are already creatively legitimate by nature of your mere existence.”

The gorgeous book is like a hand being extended to us all. “You are already a creator, you do not need permission, you are perfectly capable right now of finding your own buried treasures” the author tells us. Gilbert is a kindly advisor urging us to make peace with our fears and accept that failure will not kill us. We must welcome and befriend the ideas that inspire us and to stay the course while we create something bigger with those ideas. “A creative life is a life that is amplified, bigger, happier, expanded, and interesting,” she tells us, “a life that is more strongly driven by curiosity than by fear.” There is never any need to operate from a notion of scarcity or give credence to the belief that there is not enough to go around, there are boundless works of art waiting to be born and everyone is an artist capable to gifting that art to the world. The question is not can you live a creative life, but rather “Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden inside you?”