May 21st my parents and I celebrated 28 years since we left our home in the former Soviet Union to try and make our way to the United States.
It's one of my favorite days of the year. We call it America Day, wear red white, and blue, and celebrate it with burgers or pie or pancakes -- or all three.
May 21st is a day when I get to remember the incredible courage my parents had to bring us here, leaving everything behind but 6 suitcases, $600 dollars, and a lot of hope. We spent several months in refugee settlements in Austria and Italy, before receiving permission to come to the US as refugees. My daughter is almost 13 (OMG), which is the same age I was when we made the journey and I can't even imagine starting life over as a family, in a brand new country, speaking very little of the language, and with just welfare and food stamps to get started.
My parents have always been my heroes, but not just because they managed to bring us here. They are also my heroes because they've always practiced what took me decades to learn and what I now feel is my mission to share through Happier:
How to be OK even when life isn't OK.
How to find moments of joy, beauty, and human connection, even when life sucks.
How to embrace what is rather than always look for happiness somewhere in the future.
I want to tell you a short story.
Our first stop after we left Russia was a refugee settlement in Vienna, Austria. We lived in a dilapidated, crowded apartment building with dozens of other Russian Jewish families trying to make their ways to the US. My parents and I shared a tiny room; they had one of the small beds and I had the other.
My dad found a way to make a little money by unloading crates at the nearby food market. The idea of my brilliant father unloading food trucks for a few dollars still ties my stomach into knots, but he never saw it as anything other than a way to help take care of us.
One morning he came back from the market as my mom and I were just waking up.
"C'mon, girls," he said, "Let's go see the Vienna Opera House. They have free tours inside and it's supposed to be really beautiful."
"You're crazy!" I told him. "We're living in this disgusting place, we have no money, we have no idea when we will even get to America if we do, and you want to go sightseeing?"
Sure, I was being a stubborn teenager and it's your job as a stubborn teenager to disagree with your parents. But mostly, I truly couldn't fathom how we could go enjoy something while our life sucked that badly, while we lived with so much uncertainty and worry.
"You're right," my dad told me. "Life sucks right now, absolutely. But we have a choice. We can either sit here and wallow in that or we can go see something beautiful, to enjoy our time here together."
I didn't listen to him. I went along with my parents to see the Vienna Opera House that day, but I made certain that they knew I thought it was a crazy idea.
Waiting in line to get in for the free tour, my dad befriended this older gentleman behind us. After the tour he offered to take us all out for ice cream at the cafe across the street.
There is a photo of us from that day. Everyone is smiling ear to ear because we're in Vienna, outside the Opera House, having just had ICE CREAM in a cafe! Everyone, that is, but me. A few years after we came to America I cut my face out of the photo because I couldn't stand my look of stubborn unhappiness.
You see, I couldn't allow myself to enjoy the moment. I was convinced that you don't enjoy little moments when your life sucks. You suffer, you wallow, you own your struggle. To find a moment of joy or kindness or beauty when life wasn't OK felt like cheating on reality.
It took me two decades of chasing happiness in all the wrong directions to learn the lesson my dad was trying to teach me 28 years ago:
Happiness doesn't arise from making everything in our lives OK.
It comes from embracing our life as it IS and finding small moments of gratitude, joy, kindness, beauty and human connection within it.
I used to think that accepting the present moment was a form of giving up, of resigning to the fact that things won’t ever change or improve. This is why I was so afraid to take a break from suffering to enjoy a moment of joy when a kind stranger bought us ice cream.
But it’s the opposite:
Allowing ourselves to embrace things how they truly are creates many opportunities to not only find moments of gratitude, meaning, or kindness within them, but to create a path forward that is rooted in acceptance and inner strength rather than fear or avoidance. In this way, embracing our reality as it is offers us the best chance to create, build, or achieve the many wonderful things we dream about... like coming to America:)
Thank you for being part of my American Dream and for letting me share this moment with you.