As a person with a chronic illness, I’m often frustrated by how easily others dismiss illness and just say, if you set an intention to the universe to heal you will. Or what’s even worse is when people respond by asking, “Have you seen The Secret?” Yes, I’ve seen it, I know all about it. And I think people have taken it far too literally. I don’t think that just visualizing being well, or having a new home or a new job will actually cause those things to be a reality. In order for those things to happen, people have to put in the effort, and sometimes the stars don’t align and those efforts don’t pay off. Dreaming isn’t enough. Trust me, I know. If dreams were all that mattered, I would have been a pop star by the time I was 17 and I would have been driving around in an electric blue sports car, and I would have REALLY big hair in honor of New Jersey circa 1986. (I suppose it’s a good thing that dreams don’t always come true.) I turned in my Stiff Stuff hairspray ages ago and instead I own three different straightening irons: one at work, one for travel, and one at home. Well, I guess there’s an example of a dream that came to fruition. All throughout my twenties I wanted straight hair and then I finally, at some point in my thirties, I earned enough income to buy a proper straightening iron. My collection grew from there.
There are some aspects of this “secret” that I do find sensible. But here’s the thing that nobody seems to say: It’s not actually a secret at all. Smiles are infectious. Positivity attracts positivity. And negativity attracts negativity. That’s just common sense.
This past holiday season I had time to reflect on that a bit more than usual. 2015 was a mess for me personally. I bought a fixer-upper of a house and invited my carpenter extraordinaire boyfriend to move in with me. I took on the role of financier and his role was to be that of the contractor. I thought that if I could put a roof over my boyfriend’s head for a while, he would be more inclined to take a risk and start his own contracting business. I felt, and still feel, that he can make a killing doing this. He’s adorable (I’m biased but I’m pretty sure I’m right), charming, honest and skilled. (Those last two attributes are pretty unusual for a contractor. Anyone who knows me personally only has to recall the last time I bought a fixer-upper — that ended in a lawsuit — to nod their head in agreement.) I thought that once my boyfriend had a lucrative business going we could go on living happily ever after. But, well, all of my planning and alpha female ways kind of backfired. I realized that I can’t treat my relationship as I would a business plan. But that’s just what I did. I convinced myself that I could manufacture happiness but I can’t. (So in that sense, I guess I was inadvertently taking “The Secret” too literally.) The trouble is this: My boyfriend isn’t me. He’s lovely but he’s the beta to my alpha. He doesn’t move on my timeline. Also, he has a teen daughter who lives with us part-time and that has been unbelievably challenging. She has learned to mimic the worst of her mother’s traits, particularly being somewhat violent when she doesn’t get her way or people around don’t acquiesce to her. It’s not her fault. This is the behavior that has been modeled and idealized for her. But I wasn’t ready for this. I also wasn’t ready to become an instant stepmom. I thought I was, but I wasn’t. I knew we were headed for disaster and I asked my boyfriend to scale back his custody arrangements until we had all adjusted to one another, but he wouldn’t listen to my suggestions. This was his kid and in his mind, this is what I signed up for. And he still felt some obligation to his daughter’s mother, to whom he made a promise of maintaining 50% custody. I just couldn’t get it through to him that his circumstances had changed and that as much as I was unprepared to be an instant stepmom, his daughter was less prepared to have one. As I predicted, the kid’s mood continued to degenerate until my boyfriend had no choice but to reduce the custody schedule. But by that time the damage had been done. The dysfunction culminated with his daughter verbally abusing me and making an attempt to physically assault me. I was traumatized. This was not the dream I had envisioned when I bought my house. To make matters worse, the house was half demolished, leaving me no “out” until it was renovated and marketable. I felt completely stuck and out of control. It affected me physically and emotionally. I’m still recovering today (hence, it has been a while since I have written anything).
Shortly before the Christmas holiday I had a moment of feeling more optimistic. I took some time off from work, hoping to get my head together, and planned some time for myself. I decided to take a day and go to the gym for a swim and then to a salon for a manicure and pedicure. This is one of my favorite rituals when I want to honor myself. I arrived at the gym and prepared to get into the pool. I was pleased to notice that the temperature in the pool was just right. I submerged in the water and began to swim my laps, for once thinking of nothing else except for the wonderful sensation of the cool water against my skin and my breathing. When I was finished with my routine I stood in the pool and stretched, taking a few moments to come back to the real world. At that moment a woman jumped into the lane next to me and I commented that I liked her swimsuit. She told me with a big smile that she and her friend were doing it up that day, going for massages, spending time in the hot tub, and a host of other activities I couldn’t hear through my swimmer’s earplugs or read through my fogged up prescription swim goggles. Whatever this woman was describing obviously made her very happy because she kept “high fiving” me. She told me I should find time to “do it up too,” and I promised her that I would. As I emerged from the water another regular at the pool spotted me and he asked why I was smiling. I told him that the woman in the lane next to me was spreading her joy to me. This gentleman responded by grabbing my hand and telling me to have a happy holiday. I extended the same wishes to him. That optimism followed me for the rest of the day. I received each person I encountered with the same grin I had bestowed upon my fellow swimmers, and found that my happiness was returned in kind.
It’s now well into the spring. But so far things are starting to improve. I have tried to forgive my boyfriend’s daughter and make her feel welcome in the house. This has made my boyfriend happier, and as a result he has been motivated to work on the house. Things are coming together, albeit slowly. I even started a new job. (I wanted one, an opportunity came my way, and I grabbed it. How’s that for honoring the secret?)
I’m trying to learn that timelines are often mandates we make upon ourselves that can be easily forgotten if we choose to let go of them, just a little bit. Last weekend I chose to honor myself again. I went for a long swim and got my car washed, something that was badly needed after the incessant rains that have finally given way to sunshine and seasonable temperatures. As I left the car wash all of the workers took the time to send me off with a smile and gratitude. They acted that way towards me because that is how I treated them. When I got home from my me moment I took time to reflect on my recent accomplishments, to sustain my feelings of happiness.
The following day I met with my private yoga instructor and worked on relaxation techniques. And then I went for my manicure and pedicure. When my nail technician asked if I wanted a ten-minute hot stone massage, I responded that I did. After all, I said, “today is all about me.” All of the ladies in the spa who heard me utter those words giggled and shared a knowing grin. I also gladly accepted the champagne that was offered on the house. After my nails were dry, I proceeded to a café for a chai latte and to write. I recognized the young woman at the counter, just as happy as she was the last time I came in for a frothy beverage. I told her that I remembered her from the last time I visited, because she had that warm and welcoming smile. She smiled even more brightly and thanked me for treating her the same way.
This “Secret” is not as simple as people want to make it out to be. No, I don’t think that just visualizing having my en suite bathroom will make it so. Nor do I think that I can just erase my autoimmune condition. But it’s the little things that matter. And in life, sometimes it’s important to remember those moments that make up the whole.
Here’s to a happy and healthy summer season!