Happiness interview: Priscilla Gilman.
I’ve never met Priscilla Gilman in person, but I feel as if I know her, because I read her wonderful memoir, The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy. It’s an account of her life as a mother during the early childhood of her son Benjamin, who exhibited remarkable precocity in certain ways–which turned out to be signs of a developmental disorder, hyperlexia.
It’s a unforgettable, fascinating book. I know that Priscilla has done a lot of thinking about happiness, so I was eager to hear what she had to say.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Priscilla: Meditating. The summer between college and graduate school, I took a class in Transcendental Meditation at the TM center in downtown New York City. I wasn’t convinced by the videos of “yogic flying,” but I did find the mantra extremely useful. I’d tried various forms of meditation before and my mind tended to wander all over the place, so the non-judgmental, gentle reminder to return to the mantra as a kind of structure was very effective for me. I attribute my ability to handle the rigors of graduate school and later the stress of juggling a full-time job as a professor with finishing a dissertation and parenting two small children to the respite and restoration that meditation gives me. If I meditate, I have more steady energy, I’m less irritable and reactive, and I’m able to face challenging situations with greater equanimity and clarity. and that =s a happier Priscilla!
Others: looking at photos of my two boys (now 13 and 10) at all ages and stages; hugging my husband; eating dark chocolate; drinking Egyptian Licorice tea; writing thank-you notes!
Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Spending too much time on the internet. The primary culprit is Facebook, where I love to catch up with friends, interact with my fans via my author page, read news articles, share links, etc. I inevitably lose time that might be better spent writing, and I’m considering investing in technology many writers use that blocks the internet. But then again, I’ve “met” so many interesting people, discovered so many fascinating articles, and established so many genuine and meaningful connections via social media that I’d have to say it has also boosted my happiness!
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?
As a former English professor, lifelong bibliophile, and passionate collector of quotations (like you!), I have reams of quotations and books I could mention, but I’ll share six quotations as a way of crystallizing the important components of happiness as I conceive it.
Here’s one that I used as an epigraph to a section of The Anti-Romantic Child and later wrote a piece about for the Barnes & Noble Nook More in Store program:
Books, we know,
Are a substantial world, both pure and good.
Round these, with tendrils strong as flesh and blood,
Our pastime and our happiness will grow. William Wordsworth
Another that I love, from a book I adored as a young girl:
“People always think that happiness is a faraway thing … something complicated and hard to get. Yet, what little things can make it up.”
Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
This from one of my favorite poets, and Gretchen, I know you love it too!:
“Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure, nor this thing nor that, but simply growth.”
W. B. Yeats
From a book that was recommended to me a few years ago and has since become one of my favorites:
“Happiness! It is useless to seek it elsewhere than in this warmth of human relations . . . Only a comrade can seize us by the hand and haul us free.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Wind, Sand, and Stars
From a great theologian:
“The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel
From a writer my parents taught me to love:
“Let us be grateful to people who make us happy: They are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.”
Taken together, these quotations associate happiness with books, simplicity, growth, human connection, wonder, gratitude, and the blossoming of souls.
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).
I love the way you put this question, Gretchen, because for me, feeling down, depressed, or sad has always been worded as “feeling blue.” My sister and I used to have regular Sunday night conversations to help each other out of what we called “blue-y moods.” In addition to talking to my sister, here are some comfort activities that inevitably give me a happiness boost:
- Reading, especially beloved children’s books, favorite poems, spiritual non-fiction (Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Mark Nepo), Jane Austen novels (I wrote my dissertation on William Wordsworth and Austen), and inspirational non-fiction/self-help books (including yours!) that make me feel serene, peaceful, and grateful.
- Watching great figure skating (especially Michelle Kwan, Paul Wylie, and Brian Boitano, and especially in my sister’s company)
- Buying gifts for people I love. I can spend hours online or paging through the Bas Bleu and Chinaberry catalogs happily bookmarking or circling potential gifts for my loved ones. Whenever I find a great gift, I experience an instant happiness boost. You discuss this phenomenon so well in Happier at Home.
- Listening to music: to feel upbeat and playful, I’ll listen to peppy, fun pop from my adolescence in the early-mid 80s (Squeeze, Duran Duran, Journey, Men at Work, GoGos), for a deeper sense of poignant joy, my go-tos are the soundtrack from West Side Story, William Alwyn’s Lyra Angelica, and Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, for an exuberant, passionate, vibrant sense of happiness, I’ll play The Who, The Stones, The Band, and the Levon Helm Band, and to cultivate a grateful, peaceful, serene sort of happiness, I’ll play quieter tunes by the Grateful Dead, Iron & Wine, James Taylor, Cat Stevens, Simon & Garfunkel.
-SINGING! I sang as a child and teenager in many musicals and a Vocal Jazz Ensemble, and gave it up when I entered Yale. Coming back to singing in my mid 30s-I took voice lessons and performed as a backing vocalist with various friends who are singer-songwriters- brought a new level of happiness to my life. Now I sing with my husband, a guitarist and a public school music teacher, and I sing with my older son, Benj, now 13 and a very accomplished guitarist who loves to improvise harmonies while I sing melodies. We sing in the evenings rather than the mornings (because we are owls and not larks!), but we share your belief in the happiness-enhancing powers of singing!
Is there some aspect of your home that makes you particularly happy?
I moved about six months ago after getting married for the second time, and it’s taken a while to feel at home in the new space. Even as the boxes piled up around me and the walls stood empty for months, I arranged the shelves in my office right above my corner desk with reminders and tokens of what’s meaningful, important, and uplifting to me. An inventory of what’s on these shelves provides quite a window onto my values, interests, and passions! On them I have:
-Photos: of my new husband and my three children, of me as a baby with my Mom, my Dad, and my Grampy Merle, of me as a child with my sister and my half-brother, of me and my dear friend, singer Jamie Leonhart, singing together at a mutual friend’s wedding,
-Quotations: Rilke’s lines about loving the distance and seeing others whole against the sky written out in my handwriting on a small piece of paper, Jane Austen’s “We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be,” and a photocopy of a Wallace Stevens poem called “The Well-Dressed Man With A Beard,”
-Books: a few standing up and facing out including a wonderful little book called Live Now: Artful Messages of Hope, Happiness, and Healing, The Cloud Collector’s Handbook, Thoreau’s Where I Lived and What I Lived For, a Jane Austen Journal I bought at the Morgan Library when they had their Austen exhibit a few years ago, an early edition of Le Voyage de Babar which my husband gave me when he proposed to me in the summer of 2011 before taking me up in a hot-air balloon.
-Objects: a Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own mug; a small paper box with sunflowers on it that says “We have been friends . . . In sunshine and in shade” on the inside that my sister gave me when I left for graduate school; small stones and shells my boys have collected and given me.
-Art: a postcard of my favorite painting, Matisse’s “The Blue Window,” and a box of note cards from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (my favorite museum) called “New York in Paintings” with a painting of Central Park (my favorite park) on the cover.
-My Finalist badge from The Books for a Better Life Awards ceremony (The Anti-Romantic Child was nominated for Best First Book)
-Children’s Books and Childhood Inspirations: A stuffed animal based on one of my favorite children’s books Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (the stuffed donkey is holding a pebble but reverses into a big stone), a drawing from Frog and Toad Are Friends, a Flora (of Babar fame) stuffed animal given to me by my amazing mother-in-law the Christmas before she died, a Super Grover doll that reminds me of my late father, a bookmark sent to me by the Fred Rogers Company that says “Everything I ever need to know, I learned from Mr Rogers.”
-2 bluebirds of happiness, the glass one I bought after I read The Happiness Project and another on the cover of a box of Bird postcards.
My apartment is filled with over-stuffed bookshelves crammed to the gills with all the books I’ve accumulated and cherish, but I’ve deliberately left these corner office shelves somewhat emptier (one in good Gretchen Rubin fashion is completely empty!)