"I wanted to tell the stories of ordinary people who had changed their lives in small doable ways. I wanted to show that we are happier when we connect in an authentic way to each other, to something greater than ourselves, and to the natural world."
By Pamela Tanner Boll
I recently finished making A Small Good Thing, a feature documentary. The film asks the question of what it takes to live a good life in America right now. Is more always better? We have one of the highest standards of living, yet greater income disparity than ever before. We are always connected through the Internet and our seemingly-constant texting, yet people say they are too busy and too stressed to meet with friends and family in person. Our forests, streams, oceans, and soil are dying. We lose species every day. We cannot seem to find a way to address these issues effectively.
The film follows six people in the Berkshires who have made small but powerful changes in their lives in an effort to address these issues. We meet innovative farmer Sean Stanton, social work student Tim Durrin, and yoga teacher Mark Gerow, all of whose earlier careers in the armed forces have shifted to service of a different kind. We get to know Jen and Pete Salinetti, a college-educated couple with two small children who have chosen to be farmers as a way to connect with their community, and Shirley Edgerton, a community activist and founder of both the Youth Alive Step Team and the Women of Color Giving Circle. In exploring the changes these six people have made in their lives, we bear witness to the hope and possibility of small but meaningful transformations that offer a sense of personal fulfillment and nurture connections to community and to the natural world.
I began thinking about these issues about five years ago. I was recently divorced, my children had left home, and I had directed and produced my first film, Who Does She Think She Is? It was a time of great change and loss: the loss of a long marriage and the dream of family happiness; the loss of everyday mothering; and the loss of the sense of security in being a part of a couple and a community. At the same time I was grieving these losses, Who Does She Think She Is?was out in the world receiving awards. Audiences connected deeply to the stories in this film of five women who were both artists and mothers and how they were able to do the work that called to them while still taking care of those they loved. I was grateful for the success of the film and grateful that my vision resonated with so many people, and yet, the success of the film could never make up for the more personal losses.
During this time, I often found myself in some far off city alone and lonely in a hotel room following a spirited discussion about the film. Frankly, however, being home was worse—the rooms were haunted with the life of before. I sobbed at TV commercials featuring families “reaching out” via phone and of dogs playing fetch. Even the TV shows on nature—the loss of elephant habitats, the logging of old growth forests, and the drying out of fertile lands—made me cry.
I woke, night after night, sweaty and breathing hard. How was I going to get through? In the mornings, I would wake knowing I had many blessings. My divorce had been amicable—we divided our life without lawyers, and I was not going to be out on the street. My children were doing well in the world. My sisters, brother, and my father stayed in touch. Some friends remained despite the divorce. I found great solace in walks in the woods with those who stayed by my side.
Through this period of my life, I learned that effort, hard work, and success at love and life did not protect me from despair. Nor did bingeing on TV shows, shopping, or drinking wine. I knew that I was not alone in such suffering. Every day tragedies—many much worse than mine—play out in neighborhoods around the world. Nobody escapes loss and sadness. I had been reaching out to those in need my whole life. I felt ashamed at being so undone by such ordinary unhappiness. I did not know what to do to move forward.
So, I did what I always do when I don’t know what to do—I began reading. How can we live in a better way? The American Dream—getting ahead in life through hard work and raising our standard of living—had served some of us in the past, but I wondered how well it was serving us now. Better living through plastics, chemicals, and electronics had the downside of polluting our bodies, our minds, and our planet. I wondered if we could live in a way that honored all of human experience—the good, the bad and the ugly—as well as the natural world that is our only home.
I read books on mindfulness, meditation, and yoga as well as books on the benefits of being out in the natural world. These were not particularly new readings for me, but I went at them with more urgency. I needed to change the way I lived. I yearned for some positive stories and models of living in a better way.
After a couple of years of reading, I began putting some of these ideas into practice. I wallowed less on the couch with a sitcom for company. I exercised more. I sat in meditation. I began to see that there were actual things that an individual could do to change the way she felt and even thought. I witnessed how changing the way I felt could change my circumstances.
But, changing some of my own habits felt like a beginning not an ending. I decided to make A Small Good Thing. I wanted to tell the stories of ordinary people who had changed their lives in small doable ways. I wanted to show that we are happier when we connect in an authentic way to each other, to something greater than ourselves, and to the natural world. I wanted to demonstrate that we are happier when we are fully engaged in our work—when we are so absorbed by our tasks that we forget ourselves. This full-on engagement—which might be called spiritual—can happen in working for the greater good, in worshiping in a church or synagogue, in spending time with animals or in the wild places of the world, and in so many other ways. It can happen in the small moments between two people, in collective experiences with hundreds of people, or alone.
Little did I know that the making of this film would be my most important teacher in how to live in a better way. The film began as a way to highlight the latest research on happiness, but it became an exploration of how to hold to one’s true course despite disappointment, failure, and lost love. The journey of this questioning and discovery nearly broke me; the project made me question my work, my place in the world, and my very being.
It took three years to make A Small Good Thing. Nobody makes a film alone. I love the camaraderie of being out in the field and finding great subjects and working with talented camera and sound and producers. I love the collaborative process of creating film.
For this film, I chose to work with people I knew from past projects. Each was a professional and a friend. They had not worked together, but since each wanted to work with me, I didn’t see this as a problem. How wrong could I have been!
From the start, there was tension in the production and with the crew. There were accusations of nepotism—I wanted my sons to work on this production and that did not sit well with some of my team. The cameraman and producer were at constant odds. I felt responsible for helping everyone on the crew see one another’s perspectives. I prided myself on being a good listener and a mediator, but over the course of filming, the discord hardened. The suppressed anger and resentment became the focus of my attention rather than the work. I kept trying to solve the problems, but nothing worked. Here we were making a film about happiness, and I found myself avoiding certain people because of the unspoken tensions.
Two years into the making of A Small Good Thing, I shut down production. The edit that we had made was flat and boring. I could hardly watch it. I closed the office in New York City. I let go of my staff. People felt angry and betrayed. I felt like a failure. All I knew was that this film was costing me too much. It was draining my energy, my store of optimism, and my resources. I knew I had to leave the city and the project.
I spent forty days and nights at a retreat center in the mountains. I hiked. I meditated. I cried. I joined a women’s spirituality group. Slowly, I began to forgive myself. I realized holding myself solely responsible for all the tension and discontent was arrogant. Why did I think I was in charge of everyone’s happiness? We all had the job of helping achieve the vision for the film. I was ashamed to admit that my attempt to talk things out had been an attempt to keep people from being angry with me. All this conversation about differences was out of fear of confrontation. I wanted everybody to love me—even if it killed me or the film.
My long time producer and friend, Paula Kirk, stayed by my side following the closing of production and helped me see that, despite all my talk about connecting to one’s self and purpose, I had been easily sidetracked by other people’s agendas. My sons pointed out the ways I had let some of the crew take advantage of me. I hated hearing these things but knew them to be true.
My forty days and nights of retreat became a time to build my sense of self and reclaim my vision for the film. I turned all of the reading and ideas I had been talking about into pragmatic action in my life. Instead of simply talking about meditation and mindfulness, I began to do it. Instead of drinking wine and hoping for an escape, I fed myself nourishing food and began to sleep better. Hiking reminded me again how much I loved moving my body and being in the natural world. Laughing with my new found women’s group reminded me of how much I needed to be with friends.
Following the retreat, I went to Colorado to visit my sons. I simply wanted to be around family and show my boys love. I did not know what I was going to do about the film, but after a few weeks, I reached out to a filmmaker, TC Johnstone, who had made a film I admired, Rising from Ashes. I asked if he would watch the current edit of A Small Good Thing. When he got back to me, he agreed that it was a mess but felt that there was something there. We talked. He sent me notes. We agreed tentatively to work together. He wanted to try a different cut. I did not fly into an immediate partnership as had been my wont in the past upon meeting a like-minded soul. Slowly, we built trust and began to work together in earnest. He and Paula met and the three of us began again.
Eight months later, we had a finished film. It is a film that honors my original vision as well as the authentic collaboration of each and every person involved in its creation. Two of my sons worked on the film. They shot and edited portions. My middle son composed some of the music. My youngest son gave me valuable feedback. The original edit lives in the new version. The original camera work is there alongside the new.
Most importantly, the film does have some things to say about how to live in a better way. It shows examples of how we can choose to live lives of joy, purpose, and engagement despite circumstances, serious financial difficulties, sickness, or terrible loss—personal, communal, or environmental.
This film has been my teacher of the value of small good things. Over the course of production, I learned how to take better care of my self and of my vision. I am able to pay attention to the state of my body and mind rather than blindly powering through work. I take time to cook fresh food grown locally. The result is that I live with fewer “what ifs?” and “ I shoulds.” I live more with the simplicity of what is. I forgive myself as though I were a friend. I am trying to tell my friends and family what I need even at the risk of disappointing them. I wake early to listen to the birds singing, and then I take up my pen to write.
I have moved to Boulder where I have a practice of walking to the grocery store, the café, and the mountains. As I walk, I focus on my breath, the clouds roiling blue-black over the mountains, and the yellowing leaves scudding across the still-green lawns as autumn begins.
I am making new friends and colleagues. I practice staying present with each encounter. Rather than galumphing into a new partnership, I pause and check in to see how I feel. I am more mindful.
The film has taught me that to live in close but authentic connection with others—without losing one’s own direction—is the hardest and most important work there is. Staying present to my life, even in the face of disappointment and failure, is not something I have learned or lived easily. But, the more I practice, the greater compassion I feel for myself and for all of the earth’s beings.
The best lesson from making this film is that I have learned to be happy with the small good things in life.
"A Small Good Thing" is beginning to go out into the world. It won Best Documentary at the Boston International Film Festival and had a sold out screening at the Berkshire International Film Festival. Audiences have responded with both laughter and tears. This is a complex movie that people will want to see. For information about A Small Good Thing and to learn about how to bring this film to your community, visit the film’s website at asmallgoodthingfilm.com.
Pamela Tanner Boll is an artist, filmmaker, writer, activist, and mother. She is the Co-Executive Producer of the Academy Award-winning documentary "Born into Brothels" and many other film projects. Pamela directed and produced "Who Does She Think She Is?", a film that follows five women who are mothers and artists. She also directed the film "A Small Good Thing," which asks the question how can we live in a better way.