I have been struggling to write you a seasonally and COVID-appropriate letter for several weeks and not coming up the words to express how I feel, and how we are experiencing life in this time. Last night I was listening to an audio book of Viktor Frankel’s lectures, just published in English for the first time… lectures that he gave in 1946, just a year after he was freed from Auschwitz. The title of the book is Yes, To Life, In Spite of Everything.
What I realized is, quite simply, that I am happy, right now, in this moment. There have been quite a few moments in the past year when I have been happy, though I have also had my meltdowns and times of both fear and grief. It seems so politically incorrect to fess up to being happy as if implying an obliviousness to the suffering in the world, the 3000-plus COVID deaths each day, global warming, the disaster that was Trump. It seems so utterly unjustifiable. Actually, it absolutely is unjustifiable because happiness is a gift that defies justification.
The suggestion, enshrined in our constitution, that one can pursue happiness is a chimera. In contrast Frankel suggests that happiness is the consequence of the act of listening and responding to the unique questions that life poses to us each day, each moment.
So what are the sources of my happiness? It is a mystery. As soon as I try to put into words what has made me happy, it seems either boastful or trite. There is also specificity that is resonant only to me, though a generous reader might empathize.
I was happy on Christmas day when I tasted the green tomato pickles that my friend Jim showed me how to make, using the fermentation process. To be precise, it wasn’t so much the taste (tangy and crunchy) that was the source of happiness, but rather the fond associations to Jim who came over, stood in my kitchen with his mask on, and instructed me with a scientific precision that translated as a kind of love.
I was happy just yesterday, when I walked down the slope of our northwest field to find my wife lopping off dead low-hanging branches from oaks and jack pines with the chainsaw I gave her for Christmas. When was the last time you saw a 76-year old woman happily wielding her chainsaw? (Ok, yes, I am boasting.) Together we found a perfect “Y” at the base of a small pine, where I could rest the long branches while Sharon bucked them into logs for our wood stove. Then we loaded the logs into a small cart. I pulled the cart, while Sharon pushed it up the hill, to our woodpile.
I was happy while talking with my cousin’s son, Tamás, who is a first-year student studying animation at university in Budapest. A slight, quiet spoken young man, with near-perfect English, Tamás explained to me his own theory of cartoons and animation, melding abstract forms with linear storytelling. Tamás in Hungarian is Thomas in English. He is named after me, just as my cousin Pál was named after my father, Paul. I am so proud (and happy) to call them my family. At some point during our conversation, Tamás turned his laptop to show me an ingenious homemade animation stand fashioned from a glass-topped coffee table with a light underneath. He’s using it to make an animated architecture sequence for The Restless Hungarian.
I was happy recently when I rediscovered on our bookshelf a book of Rodin’s erotic watercolors which Sharon had given to me when we were courting.
I was happy when I had a breakthrough in editing a scene in the second draft of the Restless Hungarian film… especially when I’d been banging my head against a proverbial brick wall for several days
I was happy at the sheer visual beauty of Terrance Malick’s Days of Heaven which we watched last night.
I marvel and am happy about how, in the past months of sheltering-in-place, the small frictions in Sharon’s and my relationship, have dissipated, to be replaced by gratitude for each other. This didn’t just happen. We worked at it. We each kept our own counsel while, listening more deeply to each other, listening to both words and their subtext.
It is impossible for me to fathom the depth of the unhappiness I would feel if Sharon were to leave me, to die. How could I go forward without her? Fortunately we are in pretty good shape and that is something else to be grateful for.
Happiness is the visceral experience of gratitude.
Maybe the key to happiness is that it is now. To be happy is not to deny the possibility, even the certainty of grief, sadness, and unhappiness in the future. But is it not our responsibility to be obedient to happiness when it comes to us, for ourselves, for those we love, and for all of humanity?
I wish for you happiness in the New Year.