A Post With No Pictures

Ever noticed how violent some photography words are? Like capture, frame, shoot?

Don’t get me wrong. Photography is one of my hobbies, and I like composing a good image and goggling at beautiful galleries as much as the next person. Maybe even more.

But especially in this age of social media, of iPhones and Instagram, I think photography can be overdone.

This week has been really busy for me. Besides being a writer who has less than 100 days until the publication of her second book (eep!), I also work as an editor and an English tutor. All of these jobs were chugging away at full blast this week, leaving me pretty tired.

Sometimes you have to choose between taking pictures and enjoying experiences–between looking happy and being happy. Sometimes you just don’t have the time or energy to do both.

This week, I chose being happy. So this post has no pictures. There are no photographs of the moments of rest and smiles I found this week. Because I was busy enjoying them.

Like a melty, gooey chocolate chip cookie in the afternoon.

Or the moves I make when I’m enjoying the stretchiness of yoga pants.

Like my first pumpkin spice latte of the season.

Or a floor full of beautiful pictures as I sit planning with my illustrator.

Like a well-placed comma finding its way into a manuscript.

Or a friend who watches in amazement at the melding colors of M&Ms melting into a bowl of vanilla ice cream.

We can spend so much time trying to capture, frame, shoot our moments, forever preserving them like scientific specimens in formaldehyde, that sometimes we–I, at least–forget to actually live them, enjoy them.

And sometimes it’s nice to take a break from the shutter button for exactly that purpose.

Happiness Haiku

About two years ago, I read the book One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp. It inspired me to start keeping a thankfulness journal.

Thankfulness has long been touted as an important spiritual discipline. But recent psychological research shows its connection to a happier mindset as well. Writing down the good things that happen in a day helps bring the positive things to the top of our minds and overcome our natural human “negativity bias.”

Over the long term, I think my thankfulness journal has really improved my mood and, more importantly, begun to discipline my mind into a habit of focusing on the positive things. Every night, look back over the day and write down the moments that brought me happiness. Sometimes they’re things anyone would consider happy–like getting a call from the Los Gatos Library, inviting me to their literary fair next month (see my note in the sidebar!). But more often, I write down the little things that brought me a smile or a heaven-sent moment of relaxation in the midst of a stressful day. A sunny morning walk. Classical music playing over the gas station speakers. A yummy cup of coffee.


This past spring, I decided to take my one-line thankfulness notes to the next level for an extra boost of happiness. First thing in the morning, I would look back over the last night’s thankfulness notes, pick one, and immerse myself in that memory. Then I used it as the subject for a seventeen-syllable haiku poem (5-7-5). Haiku is short, rewarding, and emphasizes life’s details–a perfect form for this exercise.


A haiku a day

Lupin beside the asphalt

Gratitude snapshot.

Photo credit: Tom Flemming

Writing a happiness haiku first thing in the morning had two benefits. First, it started off the day with a focus on something good.


Shopping bag of smiles

Rainbow Skittles, photos, frames,

A little goes far.

Photo credit: Dano Nicholson
Photo credit: Dano Nicholson

Morning haiku also had an unexpected perk. It got the words flowing. When I was done with my seventeen syllables (sometimes counting to seventeen before coffee was harder than it should have been), I wanted to write more. Which was perfect for someone working on a second novel.

#23-Cactus Flower

From among sharp spines

Pale orange petals shimmer.

Fierce, lovely triumph.

Photo credit: Seen Not Heard

It’s been several months since I wrote my last haiku, but now I have a collection of these short, intensely focused memories of happiness, like tracks showing me the road I walked. At the moment all my words are going into The Book, but maybe when it’s done, I’ll pick back up on this habit of capturing the ephemeral blessings in daily life.

Definition: Twentysomething

I’ve had a lot of conversations lately where people I haven’t seen in a while stop talking. They look at me. They squint. Then they go, “You’re not in college anymore, are you?”

Nope, Toto. Not in college anymore. 

In fact, I’ve passed the 1-year mark since college graduation. I have over 12 months of experience living in the “real world.” And the topic of twentysomethings, “boomerang kids,” and the new, extended adolescence keeps coming up in conversation. Adults of the last generation often shake their heads when I tell them I’m living at home, cobbling together freelance English work. “That’s not how it was when I was growing up,” they say. “Kids moved out to go to college and never came back.” 

And we twentysomethings look at each other in desperate frustration. 

The thing is, we’ve been handed a different world than the one our parents grew up in. With digital technology making many human-powered industries obsolete and a global economy that’s in the tank, many of the jobs our parents inherited no longer exist. Opportunity has looked in the mirror and found itself slimmer. 

Life between college graduation and age 30 has always been fraught with decisions. But in this day and age, it’s even more charged with expectations and anxiety. Being a twentysomething can feel like setting out on a cross-country roadtrip with only a city map (or spotty satellite signal, if you take your GPS). You’re young, a little stupid, pretty naive, and doing ping-pong between immense enthusiasm and deflating depression. Most of your life experience comes from hearsay. And yet the decisions in these pivotal years set the course for the rest of your life. I find this quotation by Soren Kierkegaard, Danish theologian and one of my most-admired authors, very true: “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forward.” 

This is the time when soap-bubble dreams, spacious and unlimited, start to pop or settle down into the more tangible, more limited suds of reality. To choose your life’s course, you want to be a little informed about what you’re supposed to be doing here…what life is about…how to be happy and find meaning on a road that can feel confusing, dangerous, and sometimes disappointing. 

So what do you do with a time when it feels like you’re blindly charting the course for the rest of your life? 

Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist writing for the LA Times, pounces on this decade of frustration and anxiety to scold twentysomethings for not growing up at a satisfactory pace (you can read the whole article here). Stop acting like kids and start passing the milestones that will make you an adult, she says.

And what are those milestones? “Make money, get married, buy a house, go to graduate school, start a business, save for college and retirement, and have children.” 

So life is about making money and wearing a ring on your left hand? Whoops. 

An article by economist John Kay paints quite a different picture of purpose (read it here). Forget racking up a fat bank account or having 10 kids. He says that happiness is reached only by a principle he terms “obliquity.” It’s like looking at faint stars: when you aim your eyes directly at them, they disappear from your vision. But when you look just to the side, focusing on something else, you can see them quite clearly. 

Kay quotes John Stuart Mill in saying that “aiming thus at something else, [happy people] arrive at happiness along the way.” To be happy, to enjoy this space of years we are granted, we need to not make “being happy” our goal. We must aim at something bigger than ourselves, bigger than our finances, our relationships, our legacies, in order to truly hit on what matters, what will satisfy the big, dark, frustrated hole inside most twentysomethings. 


Not that finding love or having a savings account can’t be part of that bigger goal. I caught an episode of the show “Secret Millionaire” last night and was inspired to see the enormous power for good in the hands of people blessed with wealth. But buying a house and saving for retirement aren’t like the hokey-pokey: they’re not what it’s all about. 

Kind of a paradox, isn’t it? In order to really be satisfied with life, we have to lose ourselves in working for something bigger. We’re whole only in self-forgetfulness. Jesus said almost just that: “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” 

So yes, I’m a twentysomething, a year out of college, still living at home, learning how to make a living by my pen. But ask me what I’m doing that’s bigger than myself. Who knows? I might even ask you the same question.