Late 1960s Happiness came easy, like falling asleep in the car, like Santa. Roadrunner’s beep-beeps. The wayback of the station wagon. This smell, or the arc of water my grandmother sprayed while ironing shirt after shirt of the laundry she was paid to do. A small doll with tufts of blonde hair named Pamela. I named all of my dolls Pamela, I’ve been told.
1970s Colorforms and colored pencils and Spirograph. Searching for buckeyes with Kim. Learning to barrel race Blackie. I actually had a pony, it’s true, and according to the culture that should be happiness enough right there, and in many ways it was. Blackie would always direct my brother directly to the blackberry thicket, but never me.
He ate apples from my outstretched hand and downed the last of the beer from my dad’s can and pranced triumphant in parades. The pursuit of happiness via words and games and Girl Scout badges. Book after book after book, and laughing so hard I’d lose my voice an my face would ache. Happiness was a place you could get to if you just kept running in the way that Blackie ran with the old mares on the farm that took him in when we moved.
1980s Not happy. Not happy at all. Happiness was not a place but a lie, a deceit, a street clamshell game. Those things I forgot when waking up and immediately began escaping into a new book? I couldn’t forget them anymore. Tried, though: turned the Dead Kennedys or The Ramones or Queen or U2 louder, played Sinead O’Connor or R.E.M. on repeat again, kissed harder, pounded the typewriter until the keys jammed, took whatever I could score.
The lack of happiness was a leather cord I tied around my wrist, protesting more against nukes/apartheid/Reagan/war/African hunger/rape/School of the Americas/racism/oppression/poverty/bourgeois corruption & consumption and more for reproductive choice/peace/working class rights/gay rights/equal rights/Central America/Green Party/funding for the arts/city services.
Politics as foreplay was the proxy for happiness. I never though we would actually achieve those things check check check, like earning Girl Scout badges or degrees. I burnt manifestos and cigarettes and short stories and bridges like fatback kindling, though the blazes were never as grand as they were in my dreams. My breakdown was, though.
1990s I left ACORN and the city, left poetry slams, a lying lover and the shards of my broken heart, took it all off the grid. Got quiet, got clean as only a dirty hippie in the woods can get. Bought an IMB Selectric that hummed, traded brochure copy for raw honey and warm eggs, learned to ask and interview and listen instead of debating. Had babies. Beautiful babies!
Learned to cup their faces in my hands, learned to make them laugh — so sweet and good and saw delight all around them — and somehow this pushed me to see myself, and everyone else, in the same way. The politics of protest turned into social service–showing women what latch-on meant, helping others make safety plans, bringing books and food and diapers and ideas down dirt roads, teaching throwaway teens–and then in a few years political again, forming outreach programs and coalitions, grantwriting, lobbying.
And all the while, happiness became the opposite of a thing to rail for or against, it was a walk on a warm day with a child on my back. Even when I pulled back into the grid, even when I left a marriage, happiness followed my boys and me like a loyal pup. Happiness was a good day’s work, a swim in a spring fed lake, laughter on a porch, a soccer game on a dewy field, sliced tomatoes with dinner, learning to drywall a worn spot in my own bungalow.
2000s Somehow, those babies have grown into men. Beautiful young men! It turns out happiness is recursive, and my burning desire for them to be happy gave it to me, a mise en abyme of contentment. Though not without complexity: I faced walls and dead-ends, hit ceilings so hard they made me see stars. I decided happiness rarely has a boss. made and sold businesses, and then made more.
I fell in love harder than I ever thought possible, and I’ve managed to stay. Maybe happiness comes from having complete confidence that I can bear quite a bit, can reinvent, can identify horseshit a mile away, can still cup a face with sweetness and delight.
Happiness became time to follow an idea. It’s an iced Campari and soda on a porch stoop after the children have left for the movies. It’s laughing so hard –because the people who’ve made it this far with me, who make the cut, are so brilliant and wicked and wise–laughing so hard I lose my voice and ache and ache as if I am ten again.