Tag Archives: happiness

Tropical Depression

We are still drenched in the feeder bands (like that weather report lingo? yep, we’re fluent in New Orleans) from this almost-hurricane Alex. They promise it won’t disturb the oil spill. Thank goodness. I’d hate to have anything mess that up—it’s been going so well. Speaking of lingo and fluency, I remember years ago, way before Katrina, someone told me, “There’s a depression out in the Gulf.” I puzzled over this for some time, wondering why she was telling me about a person suffering from chronic emotional distress out in the water. Should we get that person some help? A therapist? I was confused. Not any more. Now I know the short-hand terms better than I ever wanted to know. Although, it’s no accident that “tropical depressions” are called that. No mere weather pattern, these low-pressure systems infect our emotional core with an inexplicable heaviness. Anxiety, sure—that’s a conditioned response, rising from our collective memory of five years ago. But the hard-to-pinpoint sadness, the low-grade, enveloping grief that makes us move and think with a strange slowness—these seep into us from the air all around. An invisible density bores down on our brains from the Gulf and the past at once.

Makes me want to move to Canada for lots of reasons, not just the good gun control laws. Sheesh, don’t get me started.

Emily refused comment on the recent Supreme Court decision that overturned the ban on hand-guns. She’s only mildly interested in the weather. This was all she had to say:

#359, c. 1862

I gained it so —
By Climbing slow —
By Catching at the Twigs that grow
Between the Bliss — and me —
It hung so high
As well the Sky
Attempt by strategy —

I said I gained it —
This — was all —
Look, how I clutch it —
Lest it fall —
And I a Pauper go —
Unfitted by an instant’s Grace
For the Contented — Beggar’s face
I wore — an hour ago —

It’s true. Nothing like a moment’s happiness to make a person all that more aware of her misery. “Happiness makes up in height what it lacks in length,” said another dour New Englander.

Emily goes further. She says that her moment of happiness made it impossible for her to be content with mere existence. She might have been satisfied with trundling along, not expecting too much, but then she couldn’t resist reaching for that treasure up high, that bliss. Now, she’s had it once, she is ruined, spoiled for regular life, which is never characterized by sustained Bliss.

So she asks us to ask ourselves: Is it worth it? Clearly she believes it so. But she can’t help falling into the shadow surrounding Bliss. It’s the memory of Bliss in the shadow that spoils her. When she removes herself from experience and dwells in the memory of experience, then she finds the source of her melancholy, or rather her sense of herself as a Pauper. She sees Bliss as something that belonged to her, an object she clutches with desperation. When it slips away, she feels depleted, as though someone drained her bank account. Interesting that she doesn’t know how to be happy as a dog. She had plenty of good teachers for that. Sorry to roll out the clichés, but that’s what they mean when they say, “Ignorance is Bliss.” That and a failure of memory too.

My grandmother was the happiest she has ever been during the last few years of her life when her memory left. It was replaced with doughnuts covered in powdered sugar and round-the-clock cable TV. There was a program that showed a continuous loop of random amateur wedding videos. My grandmother watched these and imagined she was actually in attendance at the wedding, that these strangers on TV were her nieces and nephews getting married, and she was witnessing a real and true blessed event. It made her happy because she loved weddings, especially the cake at the end.

So my grandmother spent her final days as a perpetual wedding guest, smiling with powdered sugar dusting her chin and blouse. That was her bliss. Hard to argue with that. More of this tomorrow.

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Lenten Promise

So I gave up wine for Lent, and I’m real cranky about it. Now, seems as good a time as any to review my progress. I do not enjoy this business of imitating Christ’s suffering. If he wanted to fast in the desert for forty days and grapple with Satan, that’s his decision. What does it have to do with me? Still not sure what benefit I am supposed to derive from this practice, except that I get to observe how angry I am when I can’t have a glass of wine with my dinner. Sure, observing one’s own anger is always useful. Yep, there goes my anger again. I’d recognize that anger anywhere. No mistaking it, that’s my anger, all right. Hey, know what would help my anger? A glass of wine. Thank goodness for the loophole. Ya’ll know about the Great Catholic Loophole, right? You can break your fast on Sundays during Lent because it’s a sin to fast on the Prince’s Feast Day. Sometimes my Sunday comes on a Thursday, but I figure if I make it up later, then I’m in the clear. It all comes out in the wash. For the love of Christ, Easter can’t come soon enough this year.

(Being Catholic isn’t a struggle. Being polite is a struggle. Catholic is easy. It gives me something to write about for all my life.)

Speaking of art forms that spring from repression . . . I went to hear Zachary Richard, the Acadian activist rebel poet, play last night. He told us a story about his earliest memory of music. He sang in an all-boys church choir in Lafayette. The bishop had envisioned something like the Vienna Boys Choir in Southeast Louisiana. Richard was first soprano. Later when he got to be a teenager, he decided he preferred the Devil’s music and started a garage band because he thought that would help him meet girls. The history of rock and roll could be written with that one sentence.

Entirely by chance, I received this comforting note from Emily this morning.

#1101, c. 1866

Between the form of Life and Life
The difference is as big —
As Liquor at the Lip between
And Liquor in the Jug
The latter — excellent to keep —
But for ecstatic need
The corkless is superior —
I know for I have tried

When she writes the difference between “Life and Life”, she means the difference between potential and expression. The inner life and the outer life. Both are alive in that they have force and movement. Both are informed by spirit. Without clubbing us with her joke, she puns on spirit(s) so both resonate at once—the alcohol and the eternal aspect of ourselves, the ghost in the machine. Further to be “inspired” is to be intoxicated with spirit, or out of your everyday head space where mundane tasks are accomplished.

Get drunk on joy, she advises. Allow yourself to be overtaken by this expansive wave of power and creation. It carries you (against your better judgement) out of the usual sober sense of duty into a realm without boundaries. Here is a place of perfect indulgence, where you can’t put a foot wrong. You move perfectly in time to the music. Everyone likes you, and your jokes are always funny.

Emily has been there, she says. She also says that we need this indulgence, this departure from sobriety into unalloyed happiness. That it fails to resemble a workable everyday life is not the point. The point is to be released from restrictions to make real what had existed as potential. Emily says, you must drink deeply of yourself and become intoxicated in order to write that poem. Or converge toward whatever center your life demands.

She calls this an “ecstatic need”. Imagine if we treated transcendent joy, the pure pleasure of being alive, as something we needed, like vitamins? Emily says we are nourished when we release the contained self outward into expression. Probably a lot of us keep that potential creative expression stoppered-up in a sober safe container because if we do drink deeply of ourselves and go on that antic joyous spree . . . we’ll be out of control and probably look silly. Then what? We’ll have some explaining to do. Some mopping up, maybe. Big deal. Fortunately, no one has ever really died of embarrassment.

Emily says, it’s a waste of fine spirit(s) to hold your creative gifts in a state of contained potential. Lose yourself, once in a while, to find yourself.

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The Force of Happiness

Today a marathon is running through my neighborhood. Lance and I watched the lead runners pass the 14-mile mark. The lead female runners—two unbearably skinny women—one right on the heels of the other, came just a couple of minutes after the lead male runners. The gap is closing fast. They were all running sub-five-minute miles.

When I watch these elite runners go by, it seems I am in the presence of super humans. The cyclists buzz all around the front runners to make sure nothing happens to their delicate ankles on the course, I guess. The guys on bikes have to pound just to keep up with the athletes on foot.

I enjoy watching these elite runners because they run on ordinary streets in my ordinary neighborhood. It’s a very different experience than seeing the Olympic downhill skiers race on TV. Or even being in the Dome for a Saints game. In the latter example, although I am technically seeing these athletes in person (definitely more exciting than TV), there is so much distance, noise, people, equipment, rows and rows of stands, cameras, coaches staff, between us that we might as well be on different planets. In those instances I don’t get a lived sense of the athlete in the way I do when I stand on Esplanade Avenue at 8:00 in the morning and see a sinewy man run really fast. His quadriceps bunch, the sweat flies from his chin, his face twists in a grimace. Is it ecstasy? Pain? Hard to be sure, but it’s definitely something out of ordinary human experience. He moves at such a clip that the men on bikes have to hustle to keep pace, and I have to drink in every detail of his exertion in a flash that goes so fast, I almost wonder if I really saw it.

Esplanade Avenue is mostly empty, save for me, Lance and a man taking pictures as he waits for his wife, running in the half-marathon to come by. She will arrive much later in the pack. Most of the people who live on Esplanade Avenue are still asleep, I imagine, or just pouring their coffee. They may never know that some of the fastest men and women in the world have just run past their sleepy bedroom windows. I am reminded of the purity in a good run. You don’t need anything but a pair of sneakers, the road, two good legs . . . decent weather would be nice.

Humans in motion. No, I mean super humans in motion. I can make an effort to finish a 10K without dying. That makes me merely human. When I watch these magical, ropy, ephemeral creatures, I witness a moment of grace. There I see what may be possible in human form. (Not my human form, mind you.) These runners display something extraordinary. They vaguely resemble us fellow humans, our general shape. We have the same number of arms and legs. Yet, they transcend the regular definition of being human. They defy physics and overturn the usual expectation we have of our bodies. They leave us onlookers momentarily amazed. “Look!” is all we can say and point. Quick, before this grace passes. You can miss it, if you’re not paying attention.

Here is a note from Emily.

#787, c. 1863

Such is the Force of Happiness —
The Least — can lift a Ton
Assisted by its stimulus —

Who Misery — sustains —
No Sinew can afford —
The Cargo of Themselves —

Too infinite for Consciousness’
Slow capabilities.

Emily says, and I agree, that super humans, like those running at the front of the marathon, transcend ordinary physical limits because they have contacted something non-physical. Or extra-physical. Emily calls it happiness. The force of happiness makes a person super human. Anything is possible once the mind finds joy. Or as Huggy Bear once said on “Starsky and Hutch” (my favorite TV show when I was a kid), “When the spirit is willing, the flesh can do all sorts of groovy things.” I don’t know if the philosophy of Huggy Bear was informed by a close reading of Dickinson’s work. I do know that happiness has as much power in the world as a gun, or a car crash, or an earthquake.

The only note I’d add here is that we tend to think of happiness as an accident that happens to us, rather than something we actively create on our own. Thus we remain powerless and weak in despair when considering happiness and its force in the world. In that brain wrinkle, happiness is something that happens to other people, if they’re lucky.

Then I see a runner like the ones I saw today. They get that way by putting on their shoes every day and hitting the road. Happiness or the state of being super human is a practice. It is a cultivated state that accumulates force over time, preparing the body to receive that grace. Unanticipated grace is the other part of this equation, sublime and quickly passing. When a habit of mind meets a world disposed toward movement, anything is possible. You have to be ready.

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