to Be Cheerful
know full well I am irredeemably squeaky, the last of a dying
breed of Pollyannas. I don’t care. I know all about the bitter
and the brutal, the passing fancy, the soul-castrating irony
that passes for so much of our humor. I want something sweeter,
something that lasts.
The other night I was at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center
watching the spectacular manipulations of the new ballet Morphoses.
I was torn between sadness that my ballet-class days are long
in my past and wonder that I still feel the movement in my
muscles, as if years of practice had fossilized inside me.
It felt like a gift, this sense of remembered kinesis. Later
I wondered if that would always be the case: that no matter
how old and possibly infirm I might become, I would both watch
and feel dance at the same time.
I began to wonder what else I would never have to give up,
no matter how old I become. I could see this trajectory might
lead to that lousy I-am-all-alone-in-this-world insomnia that
is the raison d’etre for Valerian. I was afraid that
everything I’d think up would be something I’d eventually
have to give up.
But there are things that last. My short, solid list
emerged pretty quickly. Only seven items, but that’s OK. Seven
is a holy number.
I Never Want To Give Up
I confess, it was first on my list. Someday I may be so old
there will be nobody left who’ll want to listen. On the other
hand, most of my friends don’t want to listen to me read poetry
now, so it won’t really matter then. In the
meantime, there is nothing with less cholesterol and more
flavor than a mouthful of well-made words.
2. Using My Body
While there may come a time I am too old to stand on my head,
there’s also this: Galway Kinnell writes in a poem about an
old man receiving a massage. “How could anyone willingly leave
a world where they touch you all over your body?” I still
marvel at bodies. We have sexualized them to such a point
that it’s hard to say anything without being misinterpreted—which
is a shame because it narrows the pleasure of simply being
in one’s body. I’ll never outgrow loving the feeling
of exhilaration that washes over the body after exertion.
It’s as though the usual disconnect between the mind and body
gets bridged and suddenly it becomes clear how the skin is
no less a wizard than the brain, or the hand a less reliable
navigator than the eyes.
laughing, actually. Laughter is cheaper than therapy, but
not everybody laughs well or often enough. Like sex, it is
an underrated healer. And there isn’t much that’s more intimate
than the language of laughter or the wacky lexicon of family
jokes—all of which I have been sworn to secrecy not to reveal,
although certain readers might recall the Naughty Chair, the
Relationship Rug or even Guadeloupe.
I have never known what it is about writing I love so much.
Part of it is physical: I love the feeling of keys under my
fingers. I love the shadowy line of my Zebra .05 lead mechanical
pencil. There is something satisfying about leaving one’s
mark, however ephemerally. But certainly part of the joy in
writing is that it closes me off completely from everything
and everyone else. I am immured when I write, while the playful
gremlin of imagination holds total sway over me. As a kid
it was the best way to get away from family kvetching and
turmoil, even if I was in the middle of the living room.
5. Cooking For and Eating With Loved Ones
I’ve probably read too much M.F.K. Fisher for my own good.
But if I had my way, all meals would be long, slow, conversational
and tasty. And preferably eaten in the south of France. But
being a realist, or at least, trying my best to be one, I
can’t deny that all meals cooked for or eaten with the people
I love have a sacramental quality to them. No wonder feasting
is such an essential component of religious life. One of the
best ways we get to know each other is in the breaking of
If I were a turtle, my shell would be a claw-foot tub. I’m
not sure there is much that a bath can’t ease. People get
this idea that bathing is about luxury. Really, it’s about
utility. You can accomplish so much in the tub it’s a wonder
Franklin-Covey doesn’t have hints in their planners about
how bathing can enhance productivity. Of course, you have
to be honest about what you accomplish in the bathtub. You
can’t pay bills, for example. It’s not a good idea to talk
on the phone. But you can read books, sip wine, listen to
music, talk to your kids as they sit on the edge or dip the
cat’s tail in the water as he sits on the edge. And
if your tub is big enough, you bathe a deux and double
what you accomplish. Best of all, we never outgrow the need
to get clean.
7. Singing in Church
Weird, probably. But it was as a kid in church singing the
flowery words of 19th-century hymns or the spare words of
early plainsong that I learned about rhythm and language.
Singing hymns is the church’s version of yoga: The breath
is the heart of it. And there is something vulnerable and
rich about hearing the voices around you—shy or tuneless,
mellowed or confident, young or shaky—joining together as
if they wanted to prove the truth of what the poet Richard
Wilbur said, that we are “obscurely, but most surely called
can contact Jo Page at