“A mindful happiness knows, and acknowledges, everything from which it has been excluded or freed. It often has a frame of suffering around it.”
—Charles Baxter, “Regarding Happiness”
A few years ago, someone decided it’d be a good idea to talk up heaven with my older kid. I guess my daughter would have been around six or seven at the time. I can’t recall who this someone was, though the intent probably had something to do with my daughter’s antics. Oh, my goodness, this kid of mine: honest, bright, funny. Willful, hot-tempered. Disinclined to please. (I frequently admire that disinclination. She did not inherit it from me.) I can picture a well-meaning adult trying to modify my kid’s behavior with the promise of heaven, suggesting it awaits all good girls and boys with happy angels, cheerful flowers, merrily bubbling streams, and everyone living together peacefully. Just hanging out. Maybe picking the flowers.
Whatever this person said about heaven, it didn’t impress my kid. It bothered her and not because she felt the threat of losing a spot in eternal paradise. It was the description of paradise, itself, that filled her with consternation. She told me she only wanted to go to heaven if heaven was like here and now. I think she sensed, even at that young age, that some darkness was in order, some tension, even deprivation, for a person to truly recognize and experience joy. Also, as she put it, “Heaven sounds boring.”
I just finished Charles Baxter’s wonderful collection of essays on fiction, Burning Down the House, and particularly liked his piece “Regarding Happiness.” His reflections on the story of the Garden of Eden (“Adam and Eve do nothing in particular; they are virtually non-narratable”) reminded me of this incident with my older child. Baxter’s essay also got me thinking about how happiness functions (or doesn’t) in literature and how fraught happiness has become in my life.
In the beginning of his essay, Baxter discusses how his students groan that he only assigns depressing stories or novels. I can relate. “Why can’t we read something happy?” I’ve heard this question again and again for twenty-two years now. Baxter suggests that the only stories worth studying are the works that don’t qualify as “happy.”
This made me wonder: Are any stories happy?
I don’t think so. Not completely. Plot, though fueled by desire, travels in the alarming clunker of conflict, so bad things happen to characters in every novel and story, from paperback romances to Pulitzer Prize-winning works of contemporary literature. However, there is a gradation of darkness, the gray of a protagonist losing her job to the unbearable lightlessness of the protagonist losing her child. The paler hues are more palatable, less distressing. And what’s wrong with that? A disgruntled student might ask, “Isn’t life hard enough? Who needs this sad book?”
Well, some readers do, maybe because they relate to the story’s tragedy or feel compelled to bear witness to suffering. For those who don’t, I’m in no position to criticize them. I have my own aversions. I’ll steer clear of those novels that focus on the loss of a child. They stir my worst fears.
But lately, I’ve also steered clear of novels that lean lighter. And I think this is because I’m struggling with happiness. I don’t mean I’m depressed. I mean I’m…uneasy with happiness. Our country is in trouble, our world is in trouble, our planet is in trouble, and this enormous bleak backdrop complicates simple joy. Happiness, in the face of so much pain, corruption, and injustice, can begin to look odious, begowned in blithe indifference and accessorized with the gems of privilege.
I am not refusing joy, but there’s a keenness to my experience of it these days, an enjoy-it-now-because-it-won’t-last hyperawareness. A guilt, too. I’m self-conscious about sharing happy moments. I don’t think I’ve ever posted a pretty picture on Twitter and wished my followers a happy day without first hesitating. Though I’m certainly hoping happiness reaches them and certainly acknowledging a moment of joy as I gaze at, say, the fresh snowfall cloaking my front lawn, I’m also cognizant of the insidious murk eating at the edges of my peace: an impeachment trial, a refusal to hear relevant evidence, an undeserved acquittal, a surge in coronavirus cases in China, an earthquake in eastern Turkey, a landslide in southeastern Brazil, a collapsing cease-fire in Libya, a plague of locusts in Nairobi, a warming Arctic, a melting permafrost, not to mention troubles in my own family, the heartaches closer to home.
Baxter argues that self-consciousness makes happiness impossible: “Happiness…usually has no consciousness of itself,” and “happiness is typically blind to its own situation.” I’m not sure about that. Sometimes I think the opposite is true—that seeing and acknowledging one’s joy, in the face of whatever threatens, undermines, and contrasts with it, hones the joy. Allows it to be felt sharply.
So what’s my point about happiness? Maybe that it’s laden. And problematic for adults, if enjoyed blindly. And that it should be problematic. Happiness, like fortune, entails responsibility.
I recently decided to devote a week to writing short personal narratives. My jaunt down memory lane did not go well. Some of what I came up with tipped toward sentimentality, so much so that even the “darker” elements, like a roadside spanking, took on a quality of quaintness. The rest seemed too bleak. I felt like I’d painted pictures that either idealized or vilified people close to me. I became aware that the truth of any story—the complex combination of brilliance and shadows that a lived experience delivers—is hard to convey. I also realized that there were things I wasn’t willing to share, and that my commitment to my privacy made the entire weeklong task I’d set for myself a flop, insofar as writing went.
It did, however, awaken me to some old memories. Since my reading of Baxter’s essay “Regarding Happiness” coincided with this writing exercise, I found myself wondering which of those memories were my most joyful. When was I especially happy as a child?
Spending time at the laundromat with my mom came to mind.
I would have been in primary school at the time. Along with the dirty clothes, we’d bring the coupons from the Sunday newspaper. Mom would hand me her scissors, and I’d sit in the slippery orange seat and clip coupons, while the machines clanked and whirred and the smell of bleached flowers wafted.
Clipping coupons was a happy task. I wouldn’t pick and choose which to cut out. Rice-A-Roni, Scott 1000 Toilet Paper, Wonder Bread, Preparation H: I clipped them all. Strangers would pop in to drag wet clothes from a washer and stuff them into a dryer. Not too many stayed, like we did, Mom with her newspaper, me with my coupons. Though Mom would rise to switch laundry or fold it, she mostly read. Me, though: I’d work nonstop.
I don’t remember my siblings accompanying us, and though these laundromat trips would have preceded my parents’ divorce, I don’t remember my dad coming along either. What I remember was the joy of clipping coupons, the prospect of so many things made attainable by the savings, and the seriousness of it all, a much more serious enterprise than cutting out the fancy gowns for my Lettie Lane and Dolly Dingle paper dolls. The coupons—a quarter off, fifty cents, a whole dollar—seemed like money.
Clip, clip, clip went the scissors. Flump, flump, flump went the spinning clothes. I’d get dizzy with excitement, thinking, maybe we’ll buy this or this or this.
Yes, I was happy clipping coupons, happy making the otherwise impossible possible. I only had to wait and see what Mom would bring home from the grocery store. There was hope in that waiting. Never dread. Just joyful anticipation.