Stu Watson’s Happiness Experiment

Enlisted in the exercise of documenting and reflecting on happiness and gratitude and kindness during the month of October, I first thought it pointless, at least as far as I was concerned.

If happiness was the goal, I had already arrived.

Bringing my focus to bear on the subject, however, seemed a worthy endeavor, if only to test my smug sense of living in a state of almost constant joy.

I wasn’t always this way. We live busy days, rushing to and from work, shuttling kids (or dogs) around, gathering in the raw materials of dinner and habitation. Hop on board this rocket ride, and the dominant feeling is probably more one of gratitude that you haven’t fallen off and broken your neck. Survival, to the point, is something for which we all can be thankful.

That, however, doesn’t necessarily into joy. I took my own survival for granted. We all do, until something or someone comes along and whacks us upside the head.

For most of my professional life, I lived on deadline. Newspaper people have little time to dither, when the clock is ticking. Productivity becomes the higher good, followed closely by polish. Quantity and quality, locked in a death struggle with the fleeting hours of a production schedule.

Meet Mr. Stress. It’s not a pretty place, but it works – and gets work done. Still, after years of trying to cram more into an hour than is humanly possible, and then staring up from the curb at the boot of technological disruption, I came to a disturbing realization. I was just a tool.

Not to oversimplify, but we have two choices. Give up. Or hop a ride on the new locomotive. Enter the Internet, and the potential to work remotely. No more a captive of the job and its location, my wife and I could pick a place on the planet. Choosing Hood River and moving here, taking that level of control over my life, was as seismic for us as the Internet has been for the planet.

A year into our time here, we realized that we had achieved something greater than physical relocation. We had readjusted our view of the world. We were driving around the Gorge, crossing the river, some days playing on it, and looking up and around at this place and metaphorically pinching ourselves.

Every day, from different angles, we would find ourselves thinking “This place is so amazingly beautiful. We are so damned lucky to be here. And, yes, thank you, Holy Spirit, for helping us make it happen.”

So I credit the Gorge for washing me clean of stress and disgust with the corporate rat race. From that perspective, I started noticing other people sharing the same knowing glow, people for whom a vacation somewhere else always led to a mild sense of disappointment but an effusive elation upon their return. For them, as with me, driving home from the airport, passing the Sandy River, was always a tipping point.

“Ahhh, we’re home.”

The trees. The waterfalls. The amazing geology. The quiet. The darkness. The clouds and the wind and the massive moon on the horizon.

It was only natural to grow increasingly protective of this place, defensive of it. When I finally convinced my parents to move here in 2008, I got a clear view of the divising line between “us” and “them.”

During the three years before they moved back to the Bay Area, my mother on several occasions referred to the Hood as “this shitty little town.”

True, no Macy’s. But really, Mom? The poor lady suffers from something clinical, so I won’t beat up on her here, but her disdain for limited shopping options shone bright light on the huge gulf between our views of the world.

I see beauty and great people and community spirit.

She sees the dark walls inside the cracked egg of her own spirit.

Looking at her, I often ask myself how I and my two brothers came to our sunny dispositions. All I can offer in explanation is that our deceased father loved to laugh, never met a story he couldn’t tell the 1,000th time, and favored ratty sweatshirts over coat and tie.

He was bright in my mind as September arrived this year, the month when I had helped him and Mom move south. The recent Eagle Creek Fire was still raging when we headed off on a long-planned trailer trip to a part of California that would later experience worse than we had feared for ourselves. It was a chance to revisit sacred wild places where my parents had dragged me with their trailer around 1960.

Walking through Patrick’s Point State Park after collecting agates on the beach below, I recalled the first time I had visited there. Suddenly, our little cocker-poo Pepper started to run, and my Dad broke from a walk into a full-out sprint.

Dad and dog, side-by-side, racing through the trees. Dad was happy here, sitting in the sun on his deck, sharing tales with the Hospice nurses.

If he had been a few decades younger, I’m sure he would’ve let me teach him how to windsurf.

When my wife and I returned mid-month to our house, not yet a pile of ashes, we felt gratitude like little we had felt before. The threat of a firestorm had both of us fearing the loss of our happiest home.

It was a moment not unlike the relief we felt three years ago after the surgical removal of a frighting mass identified only after my physician suggested I finally get a colonoscopy.

I am grateful every day for her nudge. I am hopeful every day, now, for her own victory against cancer.

With big and little reminder whacks like these all too common with each passing year, I find myself  riding a daily wave of joy at just being here.

No, I’m not traipsing around China with a press corps behind me. I have better things to do.

Walk my dog on the tunnel trail.

Rake some leaves.

Write a new poem.

Give my wife a hug and not let go.