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The International Writers Magazine: Greece - From Our Archives

Happiness Manifesto
Julia Reynolds

Today I spent a sunny morning doing a bit of housework, picking flowers from the garden to brighten up the house, then walking down to Parangha Beach, Mykonos, Greece for a brief and chilly swim and a little time to myself for reflection. Days have been lazing by like caterpillars, pliant and undulating like the bamboo giving way to the breeze, each one not dissimilar to the one preceding, but with the addition of one red poppy in a field of hundreds, one new face in the beach taverna, a brighter patch of sunlight on the terrace in late afternoon. The honeysuckle tumbles in a heavy cascade past my bedroom window filtering the searing gold of Mediterranean dawn, and encouraging languid mornings tucked in bed, time flowing viscous as molasses.

The word “productivity” has shifted meaning for me during these past six months I have spent in Greece, from the black and white clarity of financial gain or career advancement to the opening of new doors of perception, a new piece of knowledge secured or a new angle of consciousness discovered becoming as meaningful and indeed precious as more tangible attainments. Perhaps in my embracement of this concept I am merely indulging my own lackadaisical tendencies and a long habit of procrastination. If we define success in terms of productivity, and the boundaries of productivity are so elastic and subjective, then what is success?

In order for one to attain one’s own sense of accomplishment, satisfaction, and ultimately happiness, it is necessary to be in touch with the priorities he or she holds most sacred. To unveil the mystery of one’s personal happiness, I believe one must analyze with childlike simplicity the elements of life that provoke the most intense sensations of passion, pleasure, awe, and inspiration. For me these elevatory responses seem to be derived predominantly from the following sources, listed not strictly in order of importance, but simply in the order they occurred to me:

1)     The experience of being the giver and receptor of genuine human love in all its complications and diversities- romantic, familial, platonic. Broken down, this includes the divine comfort derived from the unprovable but nonetheless solid confidence in knowing one’s love is reciprocated, also the sense of self-confidence bolstered by achieving this highest form of praise from an individual one holds in equal esteem. Part of the intense bliss of romantic love is undeniably sexual intimacy, both the obvious physical pleasure involved and the bonding induced that in long-term relationships inspires feelings of warmth and deepens trust.

2)     The sense of wonder, overwhelming in its impact, inducing an indescribably intense pleasure that tends to translate physically into a sort of shudder that travels down one’s body in nearly ecstatic proportions. I am speaking not of religious or spiritual wonderment, which will be touched upon later, but wonder at the beauty of the natural world in which we live, inspired on a strictly individual basis, different visuals creating a greater or lesser degree of emotional impact dependent upon one’s personal taste and experience. It may take a dramatic sight, e.g. the Grand Canyon or the mountains of Nepal  to create this response in one person, while another can be similarly stimulated by a particularly beautiful sunset or  the way the heavy light of late afternoon picks up the gleaming mica on the sidewalks of otherwise dull city streets and turns bleak skyscrapers  to molten gold. I tend to think that purposefully opening one’s self to these simple and everyday occurrences our environment has to offer is a key element of a more pleasurable existence. Just as we must occasionally remind ourselves to show our appreciation for the ones we love, in the same way we must sometimes revive our sensory awareness, open our eyes wider in order to truly see.

3)     The sensation I can most accurately, if not articulately describe as “connectedness”. I don’t know if this applies universally, but I find it to be a key component of my own contentment. I use this term broadly to describe firstly the wordless camaraderie one senses with others with whom we may not have an established personal relationship, but to whom we are inexplicably drawn, individuals  that seem to radiate a positive and embracing energy. This illustrates the longing we experience innately to be a part of something larger, a member of an extended community encompassing not the entire human race, instead restricted to a certain group of people that share the same basic values. Another way this “connectedness” makes itself apparent is in more of a spiritual sense, made attainable by meditation that elevates one to a slightly higher plane of consciousness, wherein one may experience an elevation of pure, unencumbered joy, a sensation of being wrapped in warmth and color. A visual description might consist of beams of light extending from the soles of the feet downward into the earth and from the crown of the head skyward. The novel “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coehlo does an excellent job of translating these sensations into words, making the abstract concept of being connected to a universal pulse tangible.

4)     Music and art. I have chosen to group these together not because they provoke the same response in me, but because they are both creative achievements produced by man, the best of  examples of which are produced in extreme and urgent fits of inspiration with the greatest of passion along with skill. On a personal basis, although I am an ardent admirer of art and have been both awestruck and inspired by great works, for me music is the blood running through the veins of life. For me, life without music would not be life. Music can produce such a visceral, impassioned  response when the only sense that is directly stimulated is auditory. And yet there exists music that moves something deep inside of us, stirs us in a way that is nearly painful. Music can catalyze a myriad of emotional and mental responses that can do anything from spurring tears to commanding movement. Music can elate us, help us cope with sorrow; touch us in a thousand ways.

5)     Physical exercise. I tend to believe that physical exertion in any form is an essential part of a truly happy, healthy, balanced lifestyle. Whether it is dancing (which has the added benefit of incorporating music), swimming, running, walking, anything that stimulates the cardiovascular and circulatory systems. Besides the obvious physiological health benefits I find it additionally improves mental health. The physical exertion can serve to clear the mind at least temporarily and often one emerges from this exhilaration feeling simultaneously drained and refreshed. Different forms of exercise also produce varied responses. Personally, when running I focus mostly on the intake and release of breath culminating in a meditative state. The pressure of racing thoughts is alleviated as the “runner’s high” takes over, the rush of adrenaline causing a strange elation. This combined with a racing heart and warm, perspiring skin can make one somehow feel more alive, reaching an unparallel level of serenity, accomplishment, and grace.

6)     Laughter. If there is no life without music, also there is no life in the absence of laughter. I feel incapable of painting an adequate picture of its origins or power to delight. Every person I have ever truly loved has been what I would describe as a “belly-laugher”. These are the people who will unselfconsciously allow themselves to be consumed with helpless and contagious laughter when they are genuinely amused. Braying, rasping, wheezing, however raucous the sound it is always pleasing to the ear, and its healing power is never to be underestimated.

7)     Freedom. This is an aspect of life we tend to sadly overlook, taken largely for granted and gravely unappreciated. It is also a basic human right that an atrocious percentage of our race still does not retain. When I find myself feeling trapped or anxious I have to force myself into awareness of the immense degree of freedom with which I am blessed. I am not destitute, imprisoned, homeless, unfed, or unloved. Beyond this I do not have any dependents or a high pressure occupation that requires stability. Because of these components of my life at the present I am utterly unencumbered and exhilarated by having the option to leap to any destination I may choose to explore at any time in any part of this vast and magnificent planet. This degree of freedom is genuinely exhilarating and for this reason I hold it most dear. It is the unopened doors of not knowing where one will end up next, what lies on the next unturned page, the next chapter, the infinite, marvelously blank pages waiting to be inscribed with life. This creates in me an almost jealous, immediate need to see all of this world I can, to consume its energy, to swallow it in great gulps and translate it to the best of my admittedly meager ability into words. Even the most evocative, searing, powerful words in any language will fall forever short of accurately conveying certain surges of emotion we experience in life, but isn’t the bittersweet futility of this pursuit the driving force behind art in all its forms, that urgent, fiery  itch to say to the world, “LOOK, this is how I see it…”

8)     This brings me to my greatest love, the source of my most intense epiphanies, the medium I can best utilize to convey my passions, torments, desires, opinions, and dreams, at times even my savior: the written word.  For me the greatest writings are the ones that reach down inside of us with a magnetic force that pulls out the elements of ourselves we have always strived to articulate, words that have a ring of familiarity that causes us to wonder if we could have written them ourselves in some past blessed life. At times books have been my most cherished company, relating past to present, comforting, taking a dark space and filling it with brilliant light. Words give us this power, the power of mystics. A delicate image crafted in words is like blown glass capturing a dream. “She walks in beauty like the night”: the meaning is not clear compared with a declarative statement like “that house is red”. Instead we are instilled with a sense of intangible, mysterious, and fleeting beauty like a young girl shrouded in a veil of stars or a graceful ghost floating in subtle vapors of moonlight. The visual images conjured will be as varied as there are words in any   language, as will the emotional reaction, according to the reader. And yet the greatest works of literature live on and on, resonating through the generations, because the greatest writers are magicians and the worlds they have created never dissolve in the haze of crystal balls but brand a permanent lexicon on the printed page.

With all emphatic tendencies embraced, I hope the potential reader will forgive the crudity of this…dissection, exploration, exposition, string of self-indulgent ramblings? It is what it is, and however impractical or inarticulate it is my heartfelt and earnest love letter to a world that, while shadowed with ignorance, cruelty, misery, and hunger, is also filled with staggering, excruciating splendor, a quality of which I hunger to express even the most miniscule percentage. 

The components of happiness I have outlined are but a sprinkling of all the joys this universe has to offer. There are infinite others I have either overlooked focusing on the ones most apparent in my own existence or some that I look forward to experiencing in the future and which I do not feel at liberty to explore at this moment.

     Life is woven of a deeply complex fabric, shot through with threads of so many shades representing so many facets of life. I visualize love in gold, laughter in yellow, freedom in bold red. And at the edge, tattered and frayed, lie a thousand drooping strands waiting to be stitched in new patterns, intricate, alluring, and unrestricted by straight lines or rigid definitions of productivity.

     As a final note, a sort of coda that might illustrate more clearly and succinctly the well from which I draw my deepest inspiration, I (again most humbly) offer the following, something I would place tentatively in the category of free-form poetry, but I’ll let the reader be the judge. the fuel of my life.

I touched a phrase you uttered and it drifted and dissipated like a bubble--what's the sense in empty conversation, scattered words like salt sifting, every sentence is an object without shadow, a bone drained of marrow, pale skeletons, irrelevant. Conversations shaded beige and gray fading into woodwork, seeping under windowpanes, paintings unframed, unfinished, pencil sketches of rain. I want words thrown at me like stones, words scrawled in red sharpie on white walls, graffiti words, rainbow rocks, colliding waterfalls. I step in words that crunch under my feet like glass and puncture my heels to leave scarlet trails as I pass. I inhale rantings and ravings and spit them like nails to purge myself, I eat words like fruit to satisfy my cravings--raw, ripe, sweet. repeat. Raw, ripe, sweet.

Words like jalepenos to sear the tongue with their fire, caliente, words to leave me gasping, red-faced, grasping for pitchers of water, pitchers of cool words from which I slurp, sling back my neck to open my throat, swallow the waters upon which rafts of words float. I wash my hands of oily words that contort to spoil time, serpentine words that fall uselessly, cruelly, in coils. I filled a vial with words and injected a dry monologue, a  tidal wave montage, a stanza of Maya Angelou, black and lyrical, a fragment of Vonnegut, wild and satirical--they flooded my veins to leave my wrists bulging like purple grapes, my mouth agape, rockets in my veins, freight trains of thought fly off track to escape me. Words I hate, that make my knees buckle, that change my shape. Words like broken bones, like rusty nails, a slew of  "I know what you mean"s is just a rag to wipe dirty words clean. I rub the dirt from words into my skin to make my silouette clearer, the darkest words are still dear to me. There are abrasions on my limbs from words I've tripped over trying to articulate that which I fail to convey, stray words that slip away, unexplained, pencil sketches of rain.

© Julia Reynolds October 2008

Joys of the Meditteranean Lifestyle 
Julia Reynolds
As an American freshly residing on the serene Grecian isle of Mykonos, there is a certain notable discrepancy between the sets of traditions and priorities existing in the respective cultures of Greece and America upon the significance of which I would venture to explore.

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