I’m trying to be happy. Actually, I’m trying not to try to be happy; I would prefer to simply notice and embrace any opportunities for joy that come my way.
It seems, however, that I’m not very practiced at this. Here I am, poised for summer, which I’ve been literally looking forward to all year long, and I don’t feel very happy. I can look around at all the parts of my life and recognize that there is lots to be happy about, but I can’t seem to muster lasting happiness. I don’t know why. I want to understand why, though, so that I can find it. I do think that it’s possible.
One of the things that Newman said during our last fight is that I bring him down. It was hard to hear. In fact, it was really, really hard to hear, and it’s been echoing in my head ever since. When he’s really frustrated with me, when he’s really, really sick of the way I challenge him and continue to push him outside his comfort zone, he retreats and tells me that I’m never happy, that I’ll never be satisfied. I don’t think that’s true generally, but I will admit that I’ve heard it before and that it’s something I worry about.
I’ve been stewing about this happiness issue for a while (like since about the age of 12), wondering if there’s something in my nature that cuts it off before it even stands a chance. I went through a long phase in my young-adult years of wondering if being extra-sensitive (and prone to depression) meant I wasn’t capable of happiness, and I managed to successfully ward off a psychosis of accepting a miserable state of being as just “who I am.”
My separation and divorce brought on a more mature, if also more painful, reconciliation of the specific demands of following one’s heart: being clear about what I want in my life and what negotiations I am willing (or not willing) to make as I seek it out. Although I recognize that I am still doing the work of letting go of what I must let go of as a result of leaving my marriage, I also know that I made the right choice and that much of the work is behind me already.
In other words, I know I am happier now than I was before, and that even though I am capable of feeling deep pain, I am also capable of feeling great, great joy, the kind that sustains you through pain and hard, hard emotional work. I know that I am not inherently bound to be miserable. That knowledge keeps me fighting and keeps me buoyed.
Ironically, having traveled these paths already and found this knowledge is what is helping me to listen to what Newman is saying and take it seriously as I look around and ahead to where I am now and what is still to come. It was hard to hear from him that I “bring him down” because it touches on familiar emotional battles–the fear and guilt that this is how I affected my ex-husband, for example, whether I stayed with him or left him, and a deeper nagging question of whether I could ever find lasting happiness for myself, regardless of whether I was with someone or alone.
I want to take a good look at things and figure out if indeed there is something (or some things) that prevent me from finding lasting happiness. I want to locate the barriers to my happiness, whether these are created by others or I subconsciously set them up myself, and when I’ve found them, I want to clear them away like so many dusty cobwebs, notwithstanding their sticky resilience and partially consumed insect corpses. Like so many overgrown weeds in my garden, I know that these barriers spread their lanky limbs everywhere, choking out the chances of truer, but still tiny seeds. I also know that when I get down into the dirt to locate and reach for these weeds with my hands, they have but one root that is easily removed.
Of course, hand in hand with this goal of seeing and destroying what stands in my way is that of finding ways to actively seek out and create happiness, or cultivate peace, as it were, for myself and those around me. Does happiness result from a way of being, a practice, a set of habits, a state of mind, a personality type, a satisfactory assessment of desirable assets, the achievement of particular goals? I want to locate and try out some strategies and figure out what I can actually change and control, and I want to learn how to let go of the rest. I want to be intentional, purposeful, and focused in my search for happiness. I believe I can find it, but I don’t want to waste any more time or energy complaining or throwing up obstacles I’m not even aware of that will slow me down.
Last night, I went downstairs to the basement to find some relief from the sudden onslaught of summer heat and from some unease I was feeling about all the chores that need to be accomplished in the house. Our basement is always at least 10 degrees cooler than the rest of the house, and even though it’s a finished, nice, open space, it’s the place nobody really hangs out in that much. My books are there, stacked on two floor to ceiling bookshelves that were the first pieces of real furniture I ever bought for myself. They are made of unfinished wood, sturdy and tall and smart with varying shelf sizes that hold all the literary remnants of my past lives. I knelt down in front of those lives and started to sort through them, shelf by shelf, weeding out the ones I was now ready to say goodbye to.
I moved in with Newman only a year ago, and I got rid of a lot of books then. This time around, I made a pile of about thirty more books for the donation bin and another twenty or so for my classroom library. I noted with satisfaction that Newman’s paltry collection has grown to three shelves worth: still not nearly enough to challenge mine, but enough to be noticeable, and I’ve cleared enough space that his all now fit comfortably with mine. He reads voraciously but doesn’t usually keep a lot of books around after the fact. I, on the other hand, have stacks of books I pored over and marked up in graduate school, and it’s taking me a long time to shed those old skins.
Last night, while I purged the shelves, I felt a little like I was starting to cut into muscle and tissue instead of just trimming the skin and excess fat. It was painful at first, but afterwards, it felt so freeing, just like when I bagged up all the clothes I had been holding onto in my closet “just in case” I found the perfect complimentary piece to finish the outfit or I lost or gained some weight. Pushing aside the baggage from previous lives–and all its weighty emotional layers of expectation and desire–is good to do. It’s something you just know is good when you do it. I love that feeling of knowing something is right. It’s certainly something akin to happiness. And I plan to follow that feeling.
Shedding those books, many of which were theoretical and historical tomes I felt I “should” read to fit the scholarly role I’d picked for myself, let me admit that I was never really all that happy in that role. I enjoyed parts of graduate school, but it was not the right life for me. I will always love getting lost in a book, or a library, or an idea–for hours and hours at a time, if you let me–but that is about all that I loved about being a graduate student.
I did find some books on those shelves that I’d never read before but seemed interesting, and I put them on the top shelf to read when I want to, but not because I have to. I’m determined to start a serious journey toward finding happiness, and this summer I will begin with intentional house-cleaning and home creation. I want everything in our home to reflect who we really are and to bring us happiness.
It seems fitting that I’ve begun the clearing-out process with clothes and books, as these are the most personal, important belongings I own. (On the other hand, someone could steal all my jewelry, and it would probably take me months to notice.) Now that I think about it, I tend to gravitate toward the twin processes of clearing out and searching out whenever I have spare time that is just for me. Whether it’s going through old things, shopping, getting on Pinterest, or organizing, I am going through the physical and mental motions of trying to let happiness in, and it’s time I started making this a more visible and viable process in all of the important arenas of my life.