Exhilarated Life is a chronicle of self-discovery, self-love and personal freedom through tragic, comedic and challenging life experiences. Humorous, intimate and lyrical, it's a profound guide to simple everyday happiness with proof that personal transformation can be an exhilarating choice.
Marilyn initially fights her husband's cancer diagnosis, and over time, comes to terms with the inevitable. Left alone with her sons, debts, an unsellable house and a troubled business, she holds onto a faded clipping from a magazine of Greek bougainvillea tumbling over a wall overlooking the sea: for her, an image representing peace, happiness and triumph over fear and uncertainty.
The challenges Marilyn faces become the tools to excavate the past's hold, and what begins to shine through this emerging freedom is the reality that our thoughts and actions create the life we experience. Ultimately, life takes Marilyn and her new love on an adventure from a country estate to the Toronto art scene and, by way of California, to a new home on an island in the Aegean. Happiness, Marilyn discovers, is distilling the complexity of life to the simple pursuit of our fullest potential, wherever we might find it.
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Happiness Ever After
By Marilyn Harding
Balboa PressCopyright © 2015 Marilyn Harding
All rights reserved.
Once Upon a Time
In the film As Good as it Gets, Jack Nicholson's character, Melvin Udall, responds to the comment that everyone has terrible stories to get over. "Some of us have great stories, pretty stories that take place at lakes, with boats, and friends, and noodle salad," he says. "Just no one in this car." I certainly didn't have pretty stories growing up notwithstanding the lake and boats, and if you are holding this book, then I guess neither did you.
We all have stories that shape us and inevitably they are the unhappy ones. This may be because they have more intense emotional charge or maybe because they weren't handled properly by the adults in our lives. I know looking back, that everyone—everyone—does the best they can with the awareness they have and in the circumstances in which they find themselves. If our perspective is distorted when we make choices, the consequences and the rippling effects will also be distorted and echo down the generations. What I can look at objectively as an adult, intellectually, is not the same as the reverb that unconsciously filters my experience and perspective if I let it.
The roots of many of our distortions lie within our families. We play out the scenes over and over, well beyond the family unit and into our social and work life, until at last we recognize the theme and are able to make clear, conscious, self-affirming choices. That is what this book is about. My resolve to change, and in changing, alter my experience of recurring themes, and from here to set my family and myself, and others who desire it, on a course of true and unshakeable self-esteem, confidence and complete well-being.
You cannot change history but you can change how history influences you: The past only affects you if you think it doesn't. I didn't want to share my story. For one reason, I have already picked those bones clean. At least that is what I thought until I began to write this chapter. The other reason being it goes against all my conditioning to "rise above it and get on with life." It seemed like whining and self-indulgence. After all, we all have sad tales. We incorporate them into our story and make the best of things; lead "normal" lives. But it is this very familiar theme of rising above it that continues to separate personal truth and self-acceptance from an idealized, unattainable perfection. Herein lurks the silent self-saboteur of happiness. The harder it was for me to sit down and write what I have recorded within these pages, the more I realized that I had no other choice.
My first memory as a child of two-and-a-half was my mother going "away." It must have been a Sunday evening because for decades later, those weekend twilight hours would be resonant with doom. That night my dad took my mother to the psychiatric hospital where she stayed for some time, undergoing insulin and electric shock therapy to relieve her depression. My mom would be "away" for five years. She wasn't in hospital all that time, but also stayed at a recuperation center in another city and worked as a nurse until she was "ready to come home." We went to visit her on occasion and sometimes she would be allowed to return for a weekend, but when the time was up, the parting was renewed sorrow.
My mother was diagnosed as manic-depressive and treated accordingly. I wouldn't know until I was much older that her father had committed suicide. She was fourteen when he called out to her, and she found him in the bathroom with his wrists cut and bleeding. He died, leaving his wife and three other younger children, my mother's sister and two brothers, one just a baby. I asked my mother once if she had truly grieved her father's death; her response to questions was always so emotionally intense, I wondered. That is when I began to suspect that we often label and medicate a perfectly normal response to a dreadful and traumatic experience. The family was Fundamentalist Baptist and I can only surmise the lid that was put on such an event, leaving it up to an external GOD to fix the emotional wreckage.
My father, whose three older siblings all enjoyed university and college educations, was left to fend for himself after a wheat blight in the west wiped out the family fortune. At a young age, with little by way of formal qualifications, he began a sales career. When my mother became ill, he took to the road and travelled, and was always away one or two weeks at a time. I dreaded those days and would lie in bed at night, fearful he would be killed. I would later wonder if this was his way of coping with a home life that was too emotionally demanding. At that time we had a housekeeper who came with her son, between my second brother (five years older) and me in age.
I absolutely adored my older brother, ten years my senior, and would watch him comb his hair into a waterfall curl in the front and a "ducktail" in the back. He called me "Pigeon" and taught me how to dance the Twist. He would roll his pack of smokes in his fitted white T-shirt sleeve and head out for adventure. Then, at fifteen, he was considered too much to handle at home and was sent to live with an aunt and various other families until he went to university. I missed him terribly. I can only imagine what this banishment did to his self-esteem.
Evidently my mother was resisting treatment at the recuperation center and the director advised my father to tell her he wanted a divorce, so her emotional support network would be removed and she would be forced to rely on her treatment alone to recover. I guess that did the trick because it set her determination to return home. In the meantime our housekeeper, as I was later told, was hoping to stay, and planted seeds of doubt as to my mother's capability to manage her family. But my mother won out, and that summer she returned home. As it happened, the housekeeper died of breast cancer that same summer. Her son, who was like a brother to me by then, was collected by his uncle one day and went to live in another quite distant city. I only saw him once after that. Nothing was ever discussed. Mother was back. The housekeeper was gone. My suggestion that we all live together was coldly ignored.
In these few sentences I am speaking dispassionately of events that rode on massive emotional turmoil. I have no doubt that the adults involved were treading a minefield without a map. I also know that their words and actions spoke one thing, and the energies were entirely discordant. There was always a strong religious influence on my mother's side, particularly, and on my father's the determination to do the "right" thing, based on his private Masonic-based convictions.
I was alone a lot, especially during summers at the family cottage north of Toronto. My mother had seen the tiny log cabin perched on a hill of red granite and fallen in love with it. It would become her refuge. Nature and the trees and rocks and lake would soothe me too. My relationship with God was a very personal and accessible one, like an "imaginary friend." But the GOD worshiped by my family was another matter altogether. My mother's brothers had joined a group in their teens called Moral Re-Armament, MRA, which was in retrospect a cult. They were volunteers and travelled the world for "The Team," making films about peace and racial equality. The creed was "absolute purity, absolute honesty, absolute unselfishness and absolute love."
My mother and aunt were greatly influenced by MRA. The recovery program which helped my mother re-enter family life and maintain her tenuous emotional balance was actually the basis of The Twelve Step Program later used by AA. It would be hard to argue with those values. It was a strong, cohesive entity tightly bound together by absolutes, and overseen by a strict GOD with a world-changing ideal. It would be a logical refuge for siblings traumatized by their father's suicide. GOD was in charge of everything if you just "towed the line." However, projecting the leaders' own distorted view and magnifying it through the voice of GOD was the edict that sex was for procreation—period. And any married couples that participated in the act for pleasure were considered to be destroying the family bond if there were children, and simply aberrant otherwise.
This point is rather important because it would explain why my mother (who became pregnant with me at the late age of forty) would drop into depression. Was she happy before that? I don't know, but she wrestled with depression forever after. Shame is a terrible, terrible thing but an extremely powerful, controlling device that continues to resonate. I once read a scrawled entry in a pocket diary of the year I was born. In my mother's familiar handwriting were words of such despair my heart broke for her. This moral imperative might also explain my aunt's suicide some years later, six months after her youngest child was born, also the result of a pregnancy in her late forties.
My aunt's suicide occurred the year following my mother's return and our move to the house down the street from my aunt's family. The memory of that Sunday morning is indelible on my mind; being wakened to my older cousin bounding up the steps, shouting to my parents to come quickly. I was nine. My adored cousin, three years older, and I then stayed behind closed doors in my room reading Anne of Green Gables, while I can't even imagine what was happening up the street.
Ironically, it wasn't until I was in high school that I "heard" that my aunt had committed suicide. I went home and asked my dad if it was true. He said it was, but it didn't really matter how she died—did it? Looking back now, I wonder at the tightness of the cap that was ratcheted down on that little fact. How could I forget that morning and the actual, terrible words I heard? My brother, two cousins and I were sent off to family we didn't know somewhere snowy for a week until some equilibrium was achieved.
I think it mattered very much how my aunt died. The energy and seismic waves of emotion are consistent with suicide and tragedy. From the time my sons were little I told them about the suicides. I did not want any fascination or allure to this way of solving problems. When my oldest son was five, he would comfort me as I cried for my beloved older brother who, in his late forties, killed himself as well. Not all family members agree with my transparent approach, but children's radar picks up all the subtleties of communication. In fact, our whole bodies are receivers and we get information on levels way above and below any conscious filter.
The morning after my brother died, I called my mom. Her first words were, "You know, I just saw a picture in the paper of a house that looked like yours." "Oh, Mom ..." was all I could say at this deflection, and then she sighed, "At least I don't have to worry about him any more." At the funeral, I was devastated to hear the minister speak solely of my mother and her two sons. It was as if I did not exist. The revelation was that my mother's depression and subsequent shock treatment had seared out any memory of me as a child. In a time of trauma she defaulted to a place before I was born. It also shone a light on the fact that while we had a "good" relationship, there was a detachment that I know I felt but could never pinpoint.
The reality was that my mother was "well" when she had two sons and "unwell" with the birth of me, her daughter. My mother would often say, "I love you in spite of yourself." I never knew exactly what she meant by that, but I know how I felt when she said it. When I was pregnant, each time I was determined that it could only be a boy. In my experience, the worst thing that could happen would be to have a daughter. And in writing this book I finally recognized the source of that belief, and my abiding lack of self-esteem.
When my first son was born, a family friend, Martha G. Welch, M.D., who was conducting research at Columbia University for a book on mother/child bonding called Holding Time, contacted me. She was concerned with my ability to bond with my child, as she was familiar with the circumstances of my birth and formative years. I engaged with my son, eight months old, in her therapy and found it amazingly effective. She was keen to have my mother and me do it, but I could not face it. I just couldn't bear the thought of looking deeply into my mother's eyes. I was afraid of what I might see. I could not risk the chance of a direct experience of rejection again.
None of this was on a conscious level at the time, of course, and through my teens, my family life was normal. I loved my mom and dad and continue to hold some of their values dear to me. I don't recall them ever saying an unkind word about one another and they had a good relationship. My mother was on lithium at this point and doing well, but there was always an underlying sadness. How could there not be? But the unwritten family law was don't upset your mother. As a consequence, I would spend most of my life trying not to upset anyone. People in my experience did drastic things if upset. It was better to absorb all fault and responsibility for anything that might go wrong. It was as if I was, in fact, the "original sin." This fired an intensely independent nature and a detachment from family events where underlying currents were always palpable and unpleasant to me.
It was my instinct as a mother that—unless I consciously shifted—I would either parent the way I was parented or the opposite, neither of which is appropriate for the nurturance of a new soul. I bucked family tradition when it came to refusing having my mother stay with the newborns, purely because I was intent on breaking the influence. I also began my own active healing journey with the assistance of a wonderful Jungian analyst, and one without a prescription pad: Dr. Lois Plumb, the first truly wise woman I met.
In the years after her sister's suicide, my mother was determined to find an answer for her condition and the family dynamic outside the mainstream pathological labeling and medicating. She became a pioneer in alternative treatments, vitamin therapy and nutrition. Being a nurse, she understood how little the medical world knew of the power of food to heal, nor the affect of good health on our mental outlook. It was a path that was unpopular in those days, when doctors were losing their licenses for referring patients to vitamin or nutrition regimens. Within the family, my mother was looked on as eccentric, and her theories (now mainstream) largely ignored.
I admired my mother hugely for her research and determination. I owe her my own passionate pursuit of wholeness, which has taken me through the constraints of past influences and into an even broader approach to wellbeing. But first I had to take a few detours myself into relationships that let me play out my sense of unworthiness. I attracted just what I expected I deserved, informed by those silent self-saboteurs. I ended up in a miserable, debilitating relationship and making my own lame attempt at suicide, shouting out in the hospital as I was being wheeled to have my stomach pumped that, "Everyone in my family did it!"
When I met George, who would become my husband, I was absolutely astonished at his state of happiness. He was a successful and much revered innovator and fabricator in the construction industry. Even his brothers and friends were happy, and when they gathered, they spoke of wonderful things; accomplishments, challenges—having fun! They were playful and guilt-free. I was twenty-seven and had never seen anything like it. But happiness without judgment was not something I trusted, and being loved for myself was completely beyond comprehension. I did everything I possibly could to dissuade George. One day I finally shouted at his gentleness, "Just wait, when you get to know me, you will hate me too!"
Where this self-loathing came from I can surmise, but why it stuck escapes me except that I never challenged the truth of it directly. Like my mother's eyes, I didn't want to see too deeply. Fortunately I believed what I saw in George's eyes and we had an incredibly happy, creative and constructive life together. His four children from a previous marriage became my family and our two sons were born in the greatest joy and into a loving, extended family. George was a beautiful blend of manliness and sensitivity. A supreme father and adored by all his children. His motto was: "Teach your children self-love and self-esteem, and they will never hurt themselves or another." When our children were born, we engaged a nanny who instantly became a member of the family. We soon determined that, instead of looking after the children, she would look after us so we could devote ourselves wholeheartedly to our sons.
We loved working together, and built and lost and rebuilt several "successful" businesses. My own father, whose family had lost everything in the 1920s, would caution our risk-taking. He would tell of how at ten years old he walked down the steps of the family main street mansion for the last time, holding his mother's hand and carrying only what fitted in their arms; forced to leave the rest of their possessions behind. His words would trigger an anxiety in me that kept me constantly on the lookout for disaster. Indeed, disaster struck and we lost our house during a recession. I would come close to losing our home again after George's death, but the memory of this story became a determinate to change that karma.
Excerpted from Exhilarated Life by Marilyn Harding. Copyright © 2015 Marilyn Harding. Excerpted by permission of Balboa Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
i. You Can Get There From Here, 1,
Once Upon a Time, 3,
And Then, 15,
ii. Writing My Way Through, 23,
Athens 2013, 25,
Opening the Shutters, 27,
Canada 2008 – Greece 2013 via Hollywood, 33,
Rose Petals, 35,
My Mother Didn't Cry—She Wept, 41,
Eating Artichokes Whole is Prickly, 45,
I Planted a Flower but Desired a Fruit, 51,
The Dragon Dies (1 of 3), 57,
The Dragon's Teeth (2 of 3), 63,
In the Eye of the Dragon (3 of 3), 67,
The Wrong End of the Telescope, 73,
When do you Give Up on Yourself?, 79,
In Pursuit of Happiness (1 of 3), 87,
Does God Have a Sense of Humor? (2 of 3), 93,
Happiness—The Real Deal (3 of 3), 99,
Eden and I, 105,
If You Never Lie, 111,
Awash in Lemonade, 117,
Let the Bells Ring Out—I Get It!, 123,
Finding Your Pole Star, 129,
The Free Range of Business, 135,
The Black Hole of Indecision, 141,
The Midas Touch, 147,
Surrendering to What Is, 151,
What If the Resurrection Never Happened?, 157,
Mother's Day 2011, 161,
Pale Pink Cashmere Mind (1 of 3), 165,
The Shame of Happiness (2 of 3), 171,
The Myth of Happiness (3 of 3), 175,
Santorini Sunset at Oia, 181,
After Santorini, 187,
The Meaning of Courage (1 of 3), 191,
Sympathy vs. Empathy (2 of 3), 197,
Lies Are Like Mice ... (3 of 3), 201,
Love Like There is No Tomorrow (1 of 3), 207,
Love the Earth Like a Mother (2 of 3), 213,
Love Is All There Is (3 of 3), 219,
The Shattering, 225,
I Looked Down and I Got Scared, 231,
Hollywood Hooray!, 237,
Morning in Athens, 241,
Aegina Island 2013, 245,
Sailing on Cerulean Seas, 247,
iii. Happiness Ever After, 253,
Will to Happiness, 255,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I didn’t really know what to expect from this book. I was in a funny place when I read it, and as it charts one woman’s voyage through bereavement towards happiness I was worried that I would only become more depressed. But that couldn’t have been further from the truth. For the author has managed to encapsulate the very essence of happiness and crystallise it in a series of poignant, perfect essays, or diary entries. Her gentle musings probe beneath the surface of what most of us only ever sweep beneath the carpet, and find there hope, humor and self-acceptance. I will treasure this book, dipping into it any time I need a lift, and I will be giving copies as gifts to my nearest and dearest in times of need. Ultimately uplifting.
That Book you refer to ALL your friends Exhilarated Life is a book of truths and possibilities exploring the What ifs. What if you’re already perfect? What if you already have everything you need? What if you no longer have to strive and instead you can simply and gently thrive? Marilyn paints possibilities in her careful yet revealing words, so that you can’t help but believe that the What ifs are in fact true.