Alison Bechdel

No Pain, No Joy

June 25, 2021

“You can’t be happy unless you can also be sad. If you’re defended against feeling pain, those same defenses shut down your access to joy. You have to let everything in.”

Alison Bechdel, “Alison Bechdel: ‘I've Always Know Physical Exertion and Movement Are Vital Somehow for My Creative Process.’”

For the next couple of weeks I’ll be taking a break from posting on Catching Happiness. I’m finally traveling to California to see my moms  and will have limited computer access. I’m planning to indulge in some of my favorite simple pleasures and everyday adventures! 


Expanding, Contracting

June 18, 2021

For so many months I’ve felt confined to a narrow range of activities. For much of the past year, my world shrank to the few miles between my home, the grocery store, and the barn. And even though that radius has expanded to include the library, my hairdresser and a favorite coffee shop, I still feel my world has narrowed. And I know many people have left their homes even less than I have.

The Year That Must Not Be Named was a year of contracting for most of us. As the pandemic ravaged the world, most of us stayed close to home, limited our activities, and put plans on hold. My thinking undoubtedly became smaller as my day-to-day world shrank. Uncertainty, confusion, and limitations characterized 2020. And while the circumstances were undoubtedly unpleasant, if our reaction was to contract, that was entirely appropriate. In fact, the slower pace of life for many during the pandemic proved beneficial. As Amy Ward Brimmer wrote in “Expanding and Contracting,” “Contraction is an opportunity for mindfulness.”

If we allow it to, that mindfulness can guide us as we start expanding—allowing our thoughts and actions to widen again.

A natural cycle

The process of expanding and contracting is one of life’s natural cycles. Each condition is neither all good nor all bad; each practice serves a purpose. Just as breathing includes both inhalation and exhalation, so we also need times of contraction and expansion. As nature has times of expansion and growth, so it has seasons of loss and letting go.

Here are some examples of expanding and contracting:

Ways we expand:

  • Be open hearted—listen, help, love, give, to the best of our abilities
  • Plan future events and adventures
  • Learn something new, or deepen our understanding
  • Train our bodies for a physical contest, like a 5K or a charity walk; start an exercise program; or bump up one we already have
  • Try to understand another person’s point of view


Ways we contract:

  • Seek safety and comfort in the familiar
  • Take care of ourselves when we’re sick or injured
  • Withdraw to conserve energy, or think something over
  • Rest

Expanding pushes us outside our comfort zones. It can feel exciting—or it can feel scary as we reach beyond our previous limits. Contracting is a natural reaction to danger, threat, and even exhaustion. If we overextend ourselves while expanding, we may need to contract for a while to recover. (While working on this post, I realized that even my word of the year acronym—DARE: Dream, Act, Recharge, Evaluate—contains the concepts of both expansion and contraction.) 

We can also stay in a contracted state too long, fall into using false comforts or overuse real ones, thus stunting our own growth. We can make our world too small. This is where I am right now. I need to begin expanding again, finding inspiration, “filling the well.” I believe I can do this safely and responsibly, but I’m struggling. I shrink back from the very things that will inspire creativity and bring me happiness.

I’m still searching for the flow between expanding and contracting, as I imagine many of you are also. What feels right and safe and appropriate?

Let’s start simply: Take a big breath. Sit up straight. Smile. Now think of one little thing we could do to make our world bigger and brighter. Then do it! And let’s come back and share our experiences in the comments below.

As we begin to move back into more normal life, how can we expand thoughtfully while still being mindful of the benefits and need for contracting?


Bookish Plans for Summer 2021

June 04, 2021

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

My favorite thing about summer is more reading time. It’s too hot and humid to do much outside, so why not put my feet up, have a cold drink, and read a book? I have a lot more fun compiling a summer reading list than I do a summer fun list—all those luscious books waiting to be read! My problem is I always choose too many books to get through. But that’s OK, there’s always fall, and winter, and spring, and NEXT summer!

While my usual and very scientific method of choosing my next read is “it sounds good and I feel like reading it,” for my summer reading lists I sometimes add a couple of specific types of books: a writer’s biography, a classic, a comfort reread, a long book, and so on. I’ve also started mixing in a couple of Modern Mrs. Darcy’s Summer Reading Guide recommendations when I can get my hands on them (click here to get your own free guide). Since I tend to read mostly older books, the Reading Guide helps me stay in better touch with contemporary authors.

My summer reading list is not intended to be hard and fast—it’s just supposed to help me expand my choices a little from what I typically read. A gentle nudge rather than a push, so to speak. Here is a tentative list of books I’m thinking of dipping into this summer (all book titles are links if you’d like to learn more):


For my long book, I’m thinking of reading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. I’m not sure how to describe this one, except that it involves magic and the politics of the Napoleonic wars (?)  People seem to love it or hate it.

I’m very interested in Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, by Ruth Franklin for my writer’s biography. I also just received a copy of May Sarton’s Plant Dreaming Deep, which is more of a journal/memoir than a biography. It appeals to me because I loved Journal of a Solitude and The House by the Sea. Of course, I could kill two books with one stone (long book and writer biography) and tackle my still-unread Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1 (clocking in at more than 600 pages of dense type and footnotes)!

A friend gifted me Tirzah Price’s Pride and Premeditation and we’ll be reading it together. This “clever retelling of Pride and Prejudice…reimagines the iconic settings, characters, and romances in a thrilling and high-stakes whodunit.” Sounds fun!

This year, I’m throwing some poetry into the mix with Arias, by Sharon Olds.

I’ve been very slowly rereading Agatha’s Christie’s books in order, so I’ll probably pull The Man in the Brown Suit off my home library shelf to serve as my comfort reread.

I’m undecided on reading a classic. At the moment, I haven’t got one lined up, but that may change. 

I’m in the hold line to read Laura Dave’s The Last Thing He Told Me, a Modern Mrs. Darcy recommendation. Many people are ahead of me, so I hope I get to this one before summer’s end. 

In the meantime, I’ll likely pick up another Modern Mrs. Darcy rec that I already had on my radar: Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro. 

Between my own shelves and my excellent local library, I’m spoiled for choice. No matter how hot it gets this summer, my reading chair and a stack of good books will be waiting.

Have you read any of my summer book choices? What are you particularly looking forward to reading this summer?