During a recent visit to England, my friend Scott and I motored (Scott’s word) out to the Cotswolds.
As he negotiated a series of roundabouts, he told me how following an extra-bad breakup with a lover, he’d gone to see a therapist. In one of the sessions he told her that he just wanted to feel normal again.
She said, “What do you mean?”
He said, “You know, happy.”
And the therapist said, “What makes you think that happiness is a ‘normal’ state?”
This was an astonishing idea. A dangerous one. Of course happiness is the normal state! Or, more to the correlative point, unhappiness is an abnormal one. And, therefore and furthermore, I have often felt not only unhappy, but abnormal.
What, for instance, could sound happier than two friends “motoring out to the Cotswolds?”
What could be a happier situation than spending an afternoon in the golden town of Stow on the Wold, eating fish and chips in a pub with a glass of beer, and walking by a meandering stream (presumably the Wold) while licking ice cream cones and talking of a shared interest in theatre?
But although it was a pleasant time, it was not a happy one; and I will relate what was going on merely as example; anyone can plug in the circumstances that put a dent in happiness. I’d left my home in California without having accomplished a self-imposed deadline of finishing a current novel, and I was distressed about what that meant in terms of both income stream and confidence, not to mention the sense that I had not “earned” my vacation. I was in the midst of moving through a romantic adventure with the usual shares of joy and frustration, but had left it on the frustrated end of things. I was also jetlagged and feeling flabby.
There were fleeting moments of joy that day, to be sure: the sun on the famous golden limestone of the region, the dark chocolate bits in the ice cream, the scintillating chat with a peer passionate about the differences in acting methods between the U.K. and the U.S. But no matter how much I tried to be grateful, to rouse myself into some form of happiness, a gray cloud hovered, a patch of something that blocked the sun of enjoyment.
And part of the cloud was composed of the idea that—even taking into account Scott’s story— I “should” be happy; that to be not-happy in such circumstances meant I was, simply, weird.
Later that same summer, at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, a fellow teacher and poet, Christine Hemp, gave a lecture called, “Yikes, the Underworld!” She talked of the difficulty of writing about happiness, and how it is impossible to know happiness, much less to write about it, without having grappled with or including an accompanying darkness, the “underworld.” As an in-situ exercise Christine had us all take out a piece of paper and note down “times you’ve been happy.”
At the best of times I am slow to engage with ”prompts,” but this one— “write about a time when you were happy”—stymied me. I couldn’t think of one that didn’t arrive with some caveat. Or without a sense that the happiness had been brief, a peninsula surrounded by the dark choppy waters of some concern or other.The morning I heard I’d sold my first novel followed the night of a huge fight with the man with whom I was living; we’d talked of breaking up, slept in separate beds, and the call from the agent came when my eyes were puffy with tears. Various balloons of happiness about falling in love or landing a role in a play or gathering with family seem to have been depleted by some aspect of the surrounding events. Every happy time had attached to it a negative—which, was, I suppose, Christine’s point, but I found it utterly dismaying.
Then Christine asked us to write about the Underworld: a time of darkness, of unhappiness. It was an exquisite relief to find that my mind processed this request in much the same way—as soon as I found a moment of despair, there was also the accompanying thought that it wasn’t all that bad, that there had always been alleviating aspects to whatever the sorrow was. For instance, I lost a coveted role in a TV movie to another actress but after crying my eyes out discovered with wonder that it meant I could accept what turned out to be a most successful and satisfying season at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego.
A few days later, after a long day of teaching, Christine called to chat.
“I’m so tired I feel half my usual size,” she said.
We were staying in a guesthouse provided by the conference, and bearing the foil-wrapped gift I ran up the stairs to her room.
Before I knocked, however, I went to my knees, so as to be “half her size.”
And when she opened the door she was on her knees as well.
This made it easy to fall on the floor laughing, which we did.
There are no shark-infested waters on either side of this memory: it is a moment I know I was happy. I wonder if something about processing the idea of happiness—in Scott’s story, in Christine’s prompt—allowed me to be aware of being happy right at that moment.
That is, perhaps awareness of the moment is part of a definition of happiness. Lying on my back, howling with laughter, shifted forever my idea of what happiness is, and my certainty that it is possible. I had been imagining that happiness was supposed to be a constant state, as if an entire life could, or should be lived happily.
But happiness comes to us, as all emotions do, moment by moment. The fleeting nature of that awareness is part of its power.
Which helps with the memory of the drive to the Cotswolds as well, of course. As when Scott stopped the car because it had started to overheat, and looked in the “boot” for a “torch” so that when he lifted the “bonnet” he could see what the problem might be.
In this case it is not so much the moment that makes me happy—in fact I was rather anxious—but that I was in the company of someone who used words like “boot” and “bonnet” and that we were “motoring”—
—and that I am blessed with such friends.