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Being in Paris

I was a free man in Paris
I felt unfettered and alive
No one calling me up for favors
No one’s future to decide
You know I’d go back there tomorrow
But for the work I’ve taken on
Stoking the star making machinery
Behind the popular songs.

– Joni Mitchell

My wife has been aching to go to Paris for the entire 20 years we’ve been married. I have never had any objection to going. I like to travel. On the other hand, I didn’t know enough about Paris to ever develop an interest. I was also concerned that my wife had grown so much baggage, invested so much anticipation, the reality of going might be a let down. So when the trip came up as a possible way to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary, I threw my enthusiasm behind it, determined that if we were going to do this, we would do it right.

We dropped the big dime on Business Class so we would not arrive exhausted. We took enough tech so she could run her business on the road, which meant she could enjoy herself not worrying about lost deals back home. I also understand big experiences are made up of small moments. So to maximize the Paris experience, I quietly made sure she got the window seats and the seats that faced the best sightseeing and people watching. I did not deny myself anything. I got to see and do everything fully. On the other hand, I wasn’t the one with a dream to live up to.

I think the thing I least understood about Paris is its complexity. The crisscrossing one way crowded streets, the over-complicated metro rail system, the reliance the language puts the slightest inflection and pronunciation, the cosmopolitan melting pot of races and places of origin. After a few days, what had first looked like a blur began to emerge as an impossibly intricate clockwork, like the magnum opus of an obsessed engraver; the longer you look, the more you see and the more it makes sense.

Moreover, I realized the thing that holds it all together, the answer to why all these people come from all over the world to live with the noise and the high prices and the frustrations, is their joy. Everyone is just so happy to be a part of Paris.

You can see it in their faces. They get off work and hang out with friends, filling up bistros on sidewalks, not eating dinner until nine or ten, as if they don’t want to let the day end without one more round of celebration. Despite the insane tangle that masquerades as a street map, taxi drivers are genuinely courteous to one another. Pedicab drivers laugh at themselves for getting stuck in wrong way traffic. Waiters maintain a level of service that far outstrips the fact that tipping is unusual. Folks hold impromptu dance parties on the river bank. Parisians just love being in Paris. And it is infectious.

Picturesque? Beautiful? Fascinating? Yes. Yes. Yes. Romantic? Clearly. But when they call Paris the City of Love, a big piece of that is the love the people have for their city. I’ve seen and lived in a lot of cities. I have never seen or felt this vibe on this scale before except in places where employees are paid to look happy like Disneyland.

On my last full day in Paris I found myself reflecting on how I would transition back to my usual life. I don’t take vacations often enough to be familiar with exiting and re-entering my life in progress. The song lyrics above randomly floated into my mind and I realized I had been swept up in the joy that is Paris. I also realized how little of that joy was in my usual life.

I take on too much responsibility. I joke that I can’t complain about the difficulties in my life because I make all my own trouble. I firmly believe we are primarily limited by self doubt. At the same time I feel obligated to honor this gift of intelligence I was given by doing something constructive with it. So I pick up the slack. For everyone. My wife is on call 24/7, so I often act as a single parent to our two active daughters. My own job has me assisting literally everyone in the company to get their projects done within government specifications. I exercise my hero complex on my own time too, whether it is having someone over to dinner nearly every week, or helping a friend finish a costume before a show, or writing advice for aspiring writers, I find great satisfaction being the grease in other people’s machines. I also try to leave the world a better place through my storytelling.

While all of this activity pushes my usefulness buttons, I have come to see that satisfaction is not joy. Late at night when everything is done and everyone is asleep and I sit down to commit my thoughts to paper, like now, the fun I have and the warm fuzzies I feel are from doing something. The joy of Paris was to just be in Paris. Is it possible to be happy just being in your life?

Diversions bring joy without work. Watching a film or a game, reading a book, or hanging out with friends all bring an effortless happiness. Growing up near a coast, I recall wiling away hours on the beach. But even these things require going somewhere and exiting your usual life for a spell.

Is appreciation the key to finding joy in just being in your life? Does counting your blessings and checking your privilege give you a better perspective to see how happy you should be?

Was it the buzz? Lord knows my sphere of contact in the Bay Area is as busy as central Paris, even if I can, by contrast, navigate it adroitly. Lost or not, I don’t think the buzz was what set Paris apart.

I do hope you’re not expecting me to solve this puzzle because I do not have a solution. Maybe it is unsolvable because it’s not Paris but rather the way I have learned to live my life.

When Superman isn’t helping other people, by rescuing treed kittens or repelling alien invasions, he enjoys loving Lois Lane and visiting his mom on her farm. He is capable of so much, in his down time how does he decide not to do anything and just be happy?

The Dalai Lama, who I do believe has lived fourteen lives and retained all that wisdom, says our purpose on Earth is to be happy. He defines happy in the highest ethical standards of harming no one or anything, and he talks a lot about leaving the world a better place than you found it. On the other hand, all eight Buddhist paths (right speech, right thought, right work, etc.) require doing something.

What combination of right attitude, right appreciation, and right perspective brings you to a nirvana of taking a big breath full of simply glad-to-be-here?

I do not want to unpack my life of obligations. Adulting is hard but very satisfying. Even though I am inevitably the one who picks up the dirty dishes, I honestly do not resent folks taking a break when there is work to be done. Sometimes it’s okay for work to wait. People need breaks. I take breaks. Breaks lead to rest, not joy.

I was chatting with a friend who has been to Paris a few times and loves it. He summed up the Parisian joie d’vie saying, “They know how to live.” One of the 400 pictures I took was an empty bottle sitting on a curb at the north Paris flea market. It was Vieve Cliquet champagne.

Although I am still processing all of this, I think I may have found a starting place. They say a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. This axiom is only useful if you know where you’re going. My first step is to re-prioritize. Yes, there will still be 150 mile days of running the kids to too many activities while still working. But instead of spending the unexpected free half hour catching up on Facebook, there will be more poetry reading, lovemaking, and wine drinking. Instead of staying up late trying to get one more thing done to make the day count, there will be more listening to music and cuddling the cat. I don’t think I will find the contentment I seek unless I first slow down and stop constantly challenging myself to do more. Less can be more. Tomorrow is another day. Today doesn’t have to have skid marks on it for tomorrow to start well. We’ll see if an accomplishment junkie can find happiness purposely accomplishing less.

As much as less sounds like a working key to happiness, I have to be honest about how I spent that enlightened week in Paris. I was busy. We saw a museum and took in sights every day. We were in motion all the time. We had to buy better walking shoes for my wife. Yet the joy seeped into me all the same.

There was a difference. Being addicted to “done” and being the parent of teens, I work logistics like an air traffic controller. If something slips off the rails I normally stress until I can juggle a new sequence into place. When we were in Paris, setbacks upset our plans several times. A Metro line we were recommended to was on strike for the summer. A church we planned to see closed earlier than we thought. That put us in a distant part of the city with nothing to do.
Somehow these interruptions did not trigger the usual stress. We were, after all, still in Paris. We could reshuffle our itinerary and find something else to see or do. When an entire city is your candy store, ending up in an unplanned aisle is an unexpected treat, not a ruined day.

So the difference was flexibility. I don’t normally have flexibility around when the kids need to be at school or at practice. My boss is pretty easy going, but I don’t really get to exercise flexibility around when I go to work. Then there’s mealtime. My family wants dinner, every damn night, like I don’t have anything better to do. I may make the schedules, but I can only schedule around fixed points in time (Doctor Who much?).

Here I am trying to accomplish a formula for finding Parisian joy in my daily life, only to find the key may be something I have systematically removed from my life by taking on responsibilities that make my life complete. Bummer. While it may be a useful tip to build in flexibility, it’s not helpful to discover this after the fact.

Less each day would allow room for more flexibility. Flexibility gives room to dodge stressful road blocks. Less stress leaves more room to appreciate life and let in joy. I may not have this all figured out yet, but I now have an hypothesis.

So I will remember Paris, but not wistfully or longingly. I hope to go back, but I will not miss it. I will remember the joy it showed me, and use that memory to remind myself to make room for that joy in my life until I return.

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Categories: Parenting, Writing
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