The Normal State

During a recent visit to England, my friend Scott and I motored (Scott’s word) out to the Cotswolds. motoring

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?”

If I’d been the one at the wheel the car would have swerved into a hedge.    images

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?images-1

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 IMG_2885self-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. 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.Chopy watersThe 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. cave-south-australiaIt 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.

I offered chocolate.chocolate

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. Bonnet upAs 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.

25 replies
  1. Beth Kimbell Marchio
    Beth Kimbell Marchio says:

    I enjoyed this immensely, Sands! I am currently reading Finding Joy, 101 Ways to Free Your Spirit, by Charlotte Kasl. She says we get stuck on the unjoyful moments and don’t take enough time to notice the joyful moments…. and when we do notice the joyful moments we don’t revel in them but instead look to see where an unjoyful moment might be lurking in the future. On the other had whilst in the midst of unjoyful times, we often forget to look for a joyful time on the horizon. What I’m taking away from this book… and your wonderful post… is that joy will ebb and flow, and ebb and flow, from the moment we are born until the moment we die. I try each day to just live what that day has for me, joyful or unjoyful moments, and to know that the flow will follow ebb and the ebb will follow flow.

    • Sands
      Sands says:

      Perfectly put, Beth! I so agree with that. I can’t tell you what a huge shift that moment of laughter with my friend created. I understood something so essential, and it’s been part of my life since. Thanks so much for posting!
      xo Sands

  2. traction
    traction says:

    nicely done.
    my Rx for qualified happiness –perhaps defensive serenity– is selective memory. I can recall the anguish over chasms of misunderstanding but few of the combat triggers.
    on the other hand good times are crystal clear, however burnished they might be…
    and mostly to do with travel.

    • Sands
      Sands says:

      That’s a great RX, Tom. And i know what you mean about travel! I have so many good — joyous –memories of travel, many of them in your company. I recall that long long day, for instance, coming back over the border from Mexico, locating a place that had the right piece of glass for the window that had been broken in Oaxaca, the miracle that the car was working at ALL, and finding our way to a steak place — was in this in some unlovely section of San Bernadino? — and getting lost and finally arriving and following the waitress to our booth, unwilling to speak in case something else might get in the way — She gestured to our booth, we slid in, met each others eyes and clasped hands — this triumphant moment of We Did It!

      Not to mention all the games of Cribbage on British trains.

      xo –thank you very much for posting!

  3. Jeffrey Owen Moran
    Jeffrey Owen Moran says:

    Well put. If the definition of happiness is feeling or showing pleasure or contentment, well, cows seem very content, but we don’t want that sort of state for ourselves. I agree with you, Sands, happiness is a moment, and happy moments the bright notes that, strung together with the darker tones, define the degree of joy in the symphonies of our lives. As you imply, happiness is not a state we can summon, but we can, and should, stay wide open to the full experience of a happy moment as it occurs. Laughter is medicine, joy is love.

  4. Joyce Akerberg
    Joyce Akerberg says:

    Really enjoyed this Sands. Thought provoking. In the end I was glad to know that you are happy as I have always thought of you that way.

  5. suecook2009
    suecook2009 says:

    Chanting – Chanting calls forth an unmistakeable fountain of joy and happiness within me. I am simply repeating words or phrases, often beyond my understanding, be they in Sanskrit or Latin. Magically as if it were a morning train leaving Paddington Station exactly on the strike of 9, my mood pulls out of it’s dullish grey vaulted house and slowly gathers speed. Before I know it, I am rocking back & forth from the waist, head swaying slightly and voice rising to match the rhythm of the inner ticket conductor mysteriously clicking and hole punching his way up and down the aisle. When our chanting reaches it’s destination I am left with feelings akin to having witnessed the birth of a new baby, legs a little wobbly as I stand to return to the outside world. Refreshed, renewed and not just a little in awe of the priceless gift I have received, I can count on the undulating glow from that timeless journey lasting for hours.

  6. Randy McKean
    Randy McKean says:

    Sands–I love how you’re able to paint such vivid scenes–when you tell these stories I always feel I’m there experiencing the events along with you–all the while threading them with these profundities. This notion that neither of these states are Absolute is really important, one that hadn’t necessarily occurred to me–I love how you personalize it yet make it resonate with the (this) reader. I love the idea of writing about one’s moments of “happiness” and “un-“, the High and Low, and seeing that there’s always a bit of one in the other–I’m determined to do this for myself. I’ve felt the Seasonal Lows of Winter of late (SLOW?), trying to get through a seemingly unproductive time for me: I’ve decided I need an alternate label to “lazy,” which feels perjorative, and find one that recognizes the sowing of the seeds of future projects which I’ve got to hope is happening. In other words, looking for the positive in this mass of negativity. Thanks for the insights. And, again, I love how the structure of the piece mirrors the bigger topic–these big issues, but peppered with these specific personal moments and insights. And I love that this narrator is cheered by the Anglicisms of the friend (ah, in the end, we Yanks are suckers for the Brits), such a quirky, funny thing–that she is cheered by such a thing makes me really like her and at the same time brings the message home to me: that it’s these little things in the midst of the greater whole that make the difference. But I do go on…yikes. Thanks, Sands.

    • Sands
      Sands says:

      Beautiful, Randy! One reason I decided to get this one up on the blog is that I wanted to remind myself of this essential moment, that laughter over “half my size,” when something shifted so completely in my understanding and my consciousness.

      SLOW indeed! (Love that.) And not lazy! I agree. It is seasonal, and necessary (and it helps when there is rain and cold and early darkness, and sitting by a fire to help that turning in). Instead we are having these (admittedly beautiful) days that urge us to spring and summer’s feelings of activity, when in fact we need the fallow time, the slow turn through the dark season of the year.

      Thank you for reading and for writing so thoughtful a response!

  7. hipster1950
    hipster1950 says:

    Having always tried to muddle through with a kind of consistent cheerfulness, you challenge me to wonder whether this strategy actually blocks the kind of transformative rhythms you’re writing about. I remember a saying of Ken Kesey’s: “Parallel lines never meet.”

  8. K
    K says:

    Sands, I so appreciated reading this–it made me feel close to you here in Ca, thousands of miles away. And I love the motorcar with its bonnet and his torch.

  9. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth says:

    Hi, Sands,
    We’ve only met briefly. Betsy Fasbinder pointed me toward your blog. I’ve had moments when my gut is roiling with pain, my focus is fractured. I can’t work and I can’t heal. And then there’s a flip in nature, meaning my own personal atmosphere and things get better. Happy, no. But better. I can breathe and I can write again. As I begin digging deep into the character I abandoned while I wallowed in discontent, I realized something was missing. It was the pain and I realized that Pain provides a kind of addictive, almost tasty juice for a creative nature. That doesn’t mean I’m going to open the door and invite Pain in, Though the next time it knocks, I might step out onto the porch and Pain and I will have a conversation outside.

    • Sands
      Sands says:

      That’s a nice image, Elizabeth, having a conversation with pain on the porch, not inviting it “in.” Thanks so much for reading, and for taking the time to craft such a thoughtful response to “The Normal State.” Say hello to Betsy!

  10. Michael V Carlisle
    Michael V Carlisle says:

    Not Scott’s best day–he is with a beautiful articulate woman,—in a convertible— driving through arguably Britain’s best landscape, coming off a bad breakup, the car is over baked, which where he needs to make a plan not with a torch in the bonnet, or even the therapist, but with the nearest innkeeper. Don’t keep the lovely woman waiting, instead ask about her favorite bath salts or her favorite caress. And hope they’ve still got the room with the four-poster unoccupied.
    And who knows: her novel just might get finished when she returns! Writer’s block is part of the spooky art!!!!

    • Sands
      Sands says:

      Now you clearly have your attitude just right, dear Michael — love that about the bath salts and the four-poster not to mention the caress! But Scott is of a different persuasion, alas (I’ve told him that if he ever decides to stop loving men we should run off to Gretna Green). And the novel did get done, and it is a fine if complicated one, but a wonderful, a powerful agent, full of love and enthusiasm for it and its author, was unable to get it published. I think it will be. It’s a matter of time, and a rewrite…

      So good to know you read this, beloved one! Thank you!


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