Poster_Patti_Be_Happy_in_Advance-page-001_large1150-1200; Middle English wante < Old Norse vanta to lack

1. require, crave. See wish. 3. need. See lack. 11. desideratum. 13.dearth, scarcity, scarceness, inadequacy, insufficiency, paucity, meagerness. 15. privation, penury, indigence. See poverty.

Yeah, there’s that. Want, require, crave, lack. How does that string of words make you feel?

It makes me feel like NOT wanting.

Yesterday morning, I took Pearl to Sam’s Outdoor Outfitters, to get a new pair of winter boots. I was glad I had enough money to get her and her sister boots. She picked a pair she didn’t love, and when she started to complain just a little bit after we left the store, I told her we could return them. But we didn’t. Instead, we sang Don’t Stop Believing, the version from Glee her sister belts out and she rarely gets to sing herself. It was sweet, those few minutes with her in the car, just the two of us. I just like her company, that one.

We had also bought a pair of winter boots for Aviva, in what had turned into a bit of a comedy of boot-buying errors, but the ones we picked up were too small. I had a moment. The really-you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me kind, when I realized I would have to make yet another trip down Route 9 (this would not be the fourth, or maybe fifth, boot expedition in as many days, and I was beginning to feel ridiculous and resentful). But then I stopped myself. I get to spend some time with my twelve-year-old daughter in the car. I get to get her winter boots, since her feet have grown exponentially since last year (they’re bigger than mine, now, and she loves to parade around the house in platform shoes, sidling up to me, almost eye-to-eye now).

So, we did that. We drove BACK to Sam’s. And she tried on a few pairs, not finding exactly what she wanted. What she lacked. But finally settling on a pair. And as she always does, she turned up the radio on our way back, and there were Christmas songs and we sang along and she said, laughingly, “I’m a bad Jew,” to which I responded predictably that there is no such thing as a “bad” Jew, and she said that despite her preference for bacon cheeseburgers, she is glad she’s Jewish. I asked her why. “Because Barbra Streisand and Idina Menzel are Jewish.” You’re in good company, I agreed, and then we turned up Sam Smith’s latest single and sang along, and for once she didn’t shush me or roll her eyes. And it was good, this time with her, just the two of us, in the car.

The evening before, Thanksgiving, after we came home from the afternoon at my parents’ house, I joined the two of them on the air mattress on our living room floor (a regrettable couch snafu left us couch-less, so we have to save for a new one) to watch Ramona and Beezus. For maybe a half hour before an inexplicable meltdown left both kids crying and our movie time cut short, we snuggled up, the three of us, in a way we don’t do all that often these days together. Pearlie’s head on my belly, V’s pushed up against my shoulder, blankets and pillows all around and below and on top of us, the overhead light out but the twinkle lights I strung up after our wedding making the room glow. We could have been watching Godzilla and I’d have felt all tender and lovey-dovey. Nothing fills me quite like snuggling up with my girls. (Though I have to self-correct; Pearl would rather I say, “My kids.” I’m working on it.)

Yesterday, we all went to Waltham for Thanksgiving Number Two, at my cousin and her wife’s house (is that my cousin-in-law?). Aviva got to ride shotgun with my oldest sister, who blasts music just the way V likes it. Mani read to me from our latest book, Hardwiring Happiness. As I drove, I noticed the clouds and the light, paid attention to how nice it was, to listen to her reading. I noticed how inclined I was to focus on the knot in my left shoulder. Instead, I listened:

 The norse root of the word want means “lack.” Wanting is different from inspiration, aspiration, commitment, intention, ambition, or passion. Can you aim high and work hard without getting caught up in drivenness? Based on a deficit or disturbance, wanting activates the reactive mode of your brain and feels contracted and stressful. Consider this saying: Liking without wanting is heaven, while wanting without liking is hell.

I remember when I was younger, and also not so much younger, liking an experience and not wanting it to end. Wanting to hold onto it, even as it was happening. Family gatherings had this quality, sometimes–the feeling of togetherness, always concurrent with fleetingness, that knowing that it will not last, knowing we will all part, later in the day, later in life.

It’s like the awakening all children experience, when they realize that everyone they love will, eventually, die. When this first dawned on Pearl–she was in maybe first grade–she was so sad, so frightened. She would cry, imagine me and her dad dying, all the older people in her life she loved, and worry that she would be all alone. I remember just holding her, and telling her that there would be new people–always with a God willing, because we never know what order things will happen in–that by that time, she would have grown up and met lots of other people who she would also love.

But it’s a very hard pill to swallow, when you’re little. Not necessarily that much easier, when you’re not so little.

We want–I want. I want to hold on to the together. I want to sing in the car with my kids. I want to call everyone on the phone not twenty minutes after a long Jewish goodbye to say thank you, to say I love you. I want to snuggle. And so I snuggle, and then Aviva throws a squishy ball at the TV for no apparent reason, and I asked her why she did that, and Pearl is mad because it’s her ball, and suddenly Aviva is slamming her door and blasting her Jewish heroines with all the lights out, and a tired third-grader is crying and asking for mac and cheese, and I’m glad, that for those few minutes of movie time, we snuggled. I’m glad, when a bit later, we’re all piled on our bed talking about who-knows-what, Aviva with bright pink lipstick and her Broadway fedora and Pearlie in her monster pajamas that are surely two sizes too small on her but she is nostalgic for being little because two was “her best year,” and this, too, is together.

Writing is how I remember: I want all of it. And I lack nothing. When we went around the table on Thursday, that was all I could really think to say: If you have food to eat, water to drink, a roof over your head, and people to ask for a hug who love you–everything else is extra. There is nothing more to want, no poverty here though sometimes I worry about things like getting winter boots for my growing kids, the day of the first big snowfall.

We drove home later last night, after visiting with my extended family, the ones I grew up celebrating Thankgsiving with year after year. My heart had a pang of goodbye in it, but knowing Aviva and Pearl were cozied up watching Frozen on a movie-sized screen with their cousins and second-cousins and second-cousins once-removed (we just call them all cousins for simplicity’s sake), I exhaled and decided to be happy.

At the toll booth, the young black man working made eye contact with me when he handed me the ticket I’d need 64 miles later at the Palmer exit, and I looked back at him, and we had a moment. It was fleeting. I wanted it to last. I told Mani, after rolling my window back up against the single-digit cold, how it seems like such a small thing. Not so small, she said. And I thought, yeah. If every black person and every white person had a moment, a moment of looking at each other, imagine how the world could be different.

Then she played music for us on her phone–Tom Waits, Shakey Graves. When we lost service because T-Mobile thinks most places are remote and wild, we turned on the radio and blasted Sweet Home Alabama as we cruised west on the Mass Pike.

I didn’t want anything. I was happy. Happy to be driving at night. Happy to be sharing Mani’s company, to be going home with her.

Today, we stayed inside until around 1:00pm. Then we went to the Hospice Shop, to donate a bunch of things we set aside when we moved in September. Naturally, we decided to look around. And we left $25 later with about ten new pieces of clothing–a super-cute plaid shirt with an $88 price tag for $2, a pair of $100 jeans for $7. I felt rich. I felt even richer when we bought Pearl a yo-yo, the fancy kind, for one of her Hanukkah gifts. Boots AND yo-yos. Family gatherings AND a quiet day with my woman. My wife! Heat that works. A moment at a toll booth. Kids who have cousins. Music and more music. What more could I want?

Yes, of course, I want. I could make a big long list and send it to the North Pole or to Hanukkah Harry and whomever. But seriously. The more I train my brain to return to the good–whatever in this very moment feels good, is fulfilling–the less I lack. And while the wanting doesn’t disappear, what does dissipate is that sensation of deficiency, of entitlement, of… WAH. And WOE.

It’s only through this practice that  inspiration, aspiration, commitment, intention, ambition, and passion come alive, that I am able to actually feel these things–and see how they affect my mood, my way of seeing and interacting with the world around me and the people in it, be they my nearest dearest, or strangers I’ll only encounter for a passing moment.

Happy. I’m not so sure we have to choose happiness. I think we just have to allow it. Or, as Patti Digh writes, maybe it’s something we actually decide:

Happiness is a decision–decide to be happy in advance. That’s happiness as an intention, rather than as a reaction to circumstance.

Some nights it feels like a matter of life and death, how we decide to live, in the very best way. Because it is. Is really is. It is so precious, to be here.

Image: Poster from Patti’s Life Is a Verb shop, where you’ll find “tools for loving well, living mindfully, and making a difference.” (She’s the real deal. And so are you.)

6 thoughts on “WANT NOT

  1. Pamela says:

    Oh Jena. I love this and all your girls (And Sam Smith). I am a wanter. Big time. This was so good for me to read. I love reading about your life – all the little moments – and I hope you keep doing it. I think my favorite part was about how you only got 30 minutes through the movie because that is how my life is most days. All those squishy balls who belong to someone else!! Thank you.


  2. Erin says:

    When ever I stop by to visit your page, what ever I need is right there. Thank you so so much. Someday, I hope to meet you in and around the Boston area.



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