be happy is to know that pain is both relative and absolute.
But happiness is just as real.
give us pleasure in the flowers today;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.
I had started out to write a som- ber column. It was to be
a column about the lousy mess of the world, the misery of
the human condition, the rainy weather, our political leadership,
the tormented religious landscape. It was to be a catalogue
of existential woe. Only, I got distracted.
In my scruffy garden there are bright yellow squash blossoms.
My lettuce, in its disorderly little plot, tastes delicious.
And I am wearing a billowy skirt made of bright bands of color—watermelon
and coral and rose.
And last night I sat with friends in my backyard eating and
talking and drinking until well past sunset. There were tiny
new potatoes and ears of sweet corn. And fresh-picked strawberries,
blueberries and biscuits, still warm. There was whipped cream
sweetened with real maple syrup.
The air was heavy and it threatened to rain. But the rain
didn’t come, only warm winds that made the candles flicker
like an image in a flipbook.
The day before, my daughter, Linnea, and I, had driven out
to Schoharie to take a walk up Vroman’s Nose. Vroman’s Nose
is very big for a nose, very small for a mountain, but just
the right size for a short hike. We stood at the top and looked
out at the land, some fields still submerged, the Schoharie
Creek swollen and churning. But the rain had stopped, the
sun was out. And my 15-year-old daughter wanted to be with
Happiness, I’ve decided, is a matter of the microcosmic. To
be happy is to be, however fleetingly, undistracted from all
that you taste or see or smell or touch or hear. To be happy
is to know that, yes, pain is both relative and absolute.
But happiness is just as real.
I remember being 10, the day of my sister’s wedding. I had
been a bridesmaid. Yes, a bridesmaid! That had to mean I was
important. And I got to wear pantyhose and shoes with little
heels. I was almost a woman. After the ceremony we got into
our cars to drive around and around (the reception was in
the church hall, so it wasn’t as if we had anywhere to go).
People still used to honk their car horns for newlyweds and
as we drove the air filled with lovely, staccato beeping.
I couldn’t have said why, but all of a sudden I felt so happy
I thought I’d burst right out of the lime-green satin bridesmaid
gown my mother had made for me to wear.
But then, like a slap in the face, came dread: It would end,
this happiness. There would be not simply the things of daily
life, but the awful things of our sometimes-tragic lives.
I hated the happiness. It scared me. I didn’t want to remember,
later, what it felt like to feel so good.
I know better now.
I know that happiness is small. Large enough, but still small.
I know, too, that there is no logic in happiness. The things
designed to make us feel great sometimes feel like chores—another
year of Christmas shopping, another vacation to plan, another
room to redecorate.
Other times, what makes us cry makes us happy—a poem so gorgeous
your voice cracks trying to read it, the shape of your daughter’s
neck when her hair is upswept, Elvis Costello singing “My
And, like they say a woman forgets the pain of labor—a myth,
by the way—I do think we forget we were happy. So when we
are happy again, it catches us off-guard. It is new each time.
There is never anything but this moment of happiness. The
poet Galway Kinnell writes:
which tells you, “here,
here is the world.” This mouth. This laughter. These temple
With happiness there is nothing more to be done than to really
be in it.
We can’t photograph it with our hearts and when we speak about
happiness we have to reduce it to the dimensions of metaphors.
In the ancient Hebrew poem, the Song of Solomon, the speakers
Your hair is like a flock of goats,
moving down the slopes of Gilead
Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes
that have come up from the washing . . .
Your two breasts are like two fawns.
Goats, shorn ewes, fawns? Metaphor doesn’t do the lover’s
body justice—and yet which one of us hasn’t looked into somebody’s
‘pool-blue eyes’ or caressed ‘velvet soft’ skin? Has anybody
ever told you that you were cute as a button?
Forgive them. All they are trying to say is that you had made
The other night there was a firefly in my bedroom. It was
like having a traveling star in the room, brilliant sparkles
in unexpected places. I lay there thinking, happiness is like
this firefly—both unpredictable and certain.
Of course, I was all wrong. Happiness isn’t like a firefly.
Or a rainbow or any kind of silly metaphor. Happiness isn’t
like anything. It simply is—a span of randomly timed seconds,
the time in which we know, past doubting, we are awake and