Interview: Margaret Roach.
I love reading accounts of other people’s happiness projects — whether it’s Thoreau moving to Walden Pond or Alisa Bowman working to save her marriage. So when I heard about Margaret Roach’s book, And I Shall Have Some Peace There: Trading in the Fast Lane for My Own Dirt Road, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.
With my own happiness project, I never left my own neighborhood; for her happiness project, Margaret left New York City and a big job with Martha Stewart Omnimedia to move to upstate New York to reconnect with her first passion, gardening (she also has a very popular blog, A Way to Garden). Her account of what happened, and what she learned, is very powerful.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Margaret: I have gardened for more than 30 years, but it never fails to evoke the joy of “beginner’s mind,” a sensory newness and sweetness. Even a basic chore like weeding puts me into a yoga-like state of moving meditation, bringing me into connection with the natural world—which is when and where I am happiest. Interacting with the garden equals an immediate attitude adjustment.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
That, trite as it sounds, it doesn’t come from finding the “right” man or landing the “right” job—though I have been blessed to enjoy happiness from relationship and career at various times in my life. The biggest happiness comes from right living—that is, from listening to the essential self, the voice I stifled by saying “I don’t have time for that” all those years of my later corporate career while I risked actually running out of time by staying “too long at the fair,” as the song lyric says.
Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
A very close friend says I am not Type A, but AAA. Even since I left my “successful” career a few years ago to live in my rural garden, away from the city and largely in solitude, I remain inclined to take on too much. It’s something I have to note daily, and work on still. Overdoing leaves insufficient time for savoring.
I think this is a compensation tactic I learned after dropping out of college repeatedly; I was just never able to focus enough to finish my formal education. I am a do-er, and I went to work full time in what would have been my sophomore year, and school gradually took an increasingly farther-back seat. I make up for my earlier “failure” with the way I work, work, work.
Today, thankfully, I am able to look at the to-do list and say, “I cannot do all this” and jettison something, but the Triple A essence of me wants to do it all—and more. Down, girl!
Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a happiness quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful? Or a particular book that has stayed with you?
The same phrase, written in chalk in my hand, has been on the kitchen blackboard for decades: “Be grateful to everyone” (attributed to an ancient sage called Atisha, I believe). Which means: Don’t just thank the ones who come bearing gifts, mind you, but those who would drive you nuts with the challenges they present.
So many thousands (millions?) of times over the years when I was about to react negatively to an external influence—to let a bump in a relationship or business dealing or some other interaction erode my peace of mind, my happiness—I’d think of that phrase, and try to turn the situation into a chance for awareness and growth. Not always easy with the people I find most difficult, but that’s the point: Be grateful to everyone.
As for books: I have a giant floor-to-ceiling bookcase filled only with what I call “woo-woo books.” The ones I recommend most and give regularly as gifts: Jack Kornfield’s A Path with Heart, Pema Chodron’s Comfortable with Uncertainty, and Daniel Ladinsky’s interpretations of the poems of the Sufi poet Hafiz in The Gift.
If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost? Or, like a “comfort food,” do you have a comfort activity? (mine is reading children’s books).
You mean besides 88 percent dark chocolate (tee hee)? I am rarely blue, but I sometimes feel whipped because of my can-do-and-then-some motordrive, and that blurs my mood.
The view out my windows and the light on the rural landscape here always provide some relief. Loud, very familiar music—Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Cash or Lucinda Williams, perhaps—with louder singing along helps in more serious cases, as does binging on BBC crime series like “MI-5” or “Wire in the Blood” while under the duvet. Being self-employed and working at home allows for any or all of those on an as-needed basis.
Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to their happiness, or detracts a lot from their happiness?
I love that studies now confirm what the peace activist and monk Thich Nhat Hanh has long taught: that smiling is “mouth yoga,” and good for you and your happiness, whether there is a funny movie on or someone’s telling a joke or not.
Have you always felt about the same level of happiness, or have you been through a period when you felt exceptionally happy or unhappy – if so, why? If you were unhappy, how did you become happier?
My early teen-age years were probably one of the least happy: hormones, boys who teased at school, all the usual awkward-stage reasons. In my mid-20s, my father died and my widowed mother got early onset Alzheimer’s, so obviously those were very hard years that changed the course of my life in some ways.
I think I am probably happier now than I have ever been in my life; aging seems to agree with me, as does solitude, which I never got enough of in my hectic corporate-career years in the city. I highly recommend its restorative value, and its boon to creativity. I suspect most of us are “quiet time” deprived.
Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
My own happiness project has been finally allowing myself to take the leap and leave the city and my job and live quietly and closer to nature—a dream I held for more than 25 years before walking away. Writing And I Shall Have Some Peace There was really bearing witness to the process, the work, of crossing that threshold at last.
Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
I must confess that I really did think the secret to life was in finding the right partner, and spent a lot of time looking for the Jerry Maguire moment of “you complete me.” Today if someone asked my advice on romance, I’d say not to go looking, but to do what makes you happiest and intersect with love as a natural outgrowth of that. Remain open, but don’t undertake a man (or woman) hunt at the expense of the other things on your wishlist.
For more than 30 years, I also over and again sought the next brass ring of success—another promotion, raise, bonus that was just slightly out of reach but attainable, I’d tell myself, if I only tried harder/stayed longer. But I confused the boost of self-esteem that such achievements provided for an elusive deeper joy, which for me requires more peace, and an outlet for creative self-expression—things that got stifled or pushed aside by all those meetings that used to fill my dance card day after day.