I’m standing in my bedroom alone, after a day’s work, looking out the window, at Mt. St. Helens. For no particular reason, suddenly I’m aware how wonderful it is to be alive. I stand there, tingling, a great refreshing breath sweeping through me, my body light and alive with pulsing energy, poised where tears and laughter meet, feeling exhilarated, deeply appreciative of everything in my awareness, all of it charged with some unspoken meaning, and somehow I know I might return to this crossroads at any time.
I got interested in what common points underlie the peak-experiences or happiest moments I remember best. I listed twelve or thirteen moments, and went to work and to play with them. A few themes emerged. . . .
Being open to surprises — even in the daily routine, events and appearances that make today unique. Being clear about what you want, going for it, enjoying the going. Keeping some appreciation for whatever gets in the way, that it too has a useful or positive function or intention. There’s a kind of ecology to it all, and always something to learn. Aiming for happiness, or not aiming, either way. Just remember that you aren’t able to be happy right now, unless you immediately for one moment think of turtles.
Coming home from telephone soliciting, I walk hurriedly down Pearl Street in the darkness. It’s only three blocks, but it seems much more — it’s the time of the day when I’m most alone. Pearl is an old street in the shadow of elms; turreted stone buildings rise behind trim lawns. It has a reputation for violent crime.
Sometimes I stop for a moment and look at the sky — still the deepest blue, as yet with no stars — and feel a kind of triumph: not that I’ve escaped New York City, not that I’ve endured four more hours on the telephone, not that I live in a place where I know no one and no one knows me — but that the sky and I still survive, after a million years.
I eased into a seat near the back of the theatre. The audience shifted restlessly on all sides of me. Then, the lights dimmed. “And now, we hope you enjoy Threescore and Ten, a play by Barbara Mitchell!”
Polite applause. A few coughs, more restless shifting around me, while I sat rigid.
Suddenly, there it was — spotlights focused on the small restaurant with its few tables and chairs, the brass cash register, catsup and mustard bottles, dishes, glasses, a coat rack. One actor, seated at stage right, was eating a hamburger and sipping coffee. Two more actors entered at stage left. The actress who was playing the waitress scurried back and forth, coffee pot in hand. Dominating the entire scene was a soda fountain with a large banner that read Charlie Kaplan’s Famous Hot Fudge Sauce.
Terry, my husband, had built the set and was now backstage as the play’s director. I had no moral support as I waited for the first line. I could feel the press of the audience around me.
Then the actors began to make my play come to life. I spoke every line with them, made every move with them, all the while becoming a human antenna, sensing the slightest reaction in that audience. Would they laugh and cry where I hoped they would? Would they love Charlie? Would they care what happened to him? Or would they be bored? Would they not care at all? I had no way of knowing.
About three minutes into the play, I waited for the lines that were supposed to bring the first laugh. By this time, the audience was attentive and very quiet. Too quiet? I closed my eyes when the actors delivered the lines. There was a split second of silence, and then . . . laughter! The audience laughed! Not only that, they relaxed and settled in. I could feel the tension break.
Next, the actor who played Charlie made his entrance. He was magnetic. He captured the audience. They laughed with him and cried with him. They cared what happened to him.
When it ended, the audience applauded loudly and sincerely. I looked at their faces. Some people were smiling; some were wiping away a tear. I was gloriously happy. I didn’t come down for days.
And my happiness and fulfillment were twofold. Professionally, I was ecstatic. After all, what more could a writer want than to see his or her words come to life on stage and move an audience?
But the other part was more personal. I had written Threescore and Ten for my father. It was my tribute to him, written from deep within the pain of missing him. Now, amidst the laughter and the applause and the tears of the audience, I was finally able to let go of my grief. It had become joy.
Park Forest, Illinois
My happiest moment will come when I realize that being happy is not what life’s about.
I can’t remember a happiest moment. I hope my happiest moment is yet to come. I hope my death is my happiest moment, because if my happiest moment comes before death, then it’s all downhill from there, isn’t it?
But can I really compare moments? Can happiness be measured in terms of the quality of moments? I like to think of happiness as a state of being that transcends moment-to-moment life; I can’t bear to think that happiness rests (precariously) on moments.
But of course it does.
But moments are a subjective unit of time and they can be infinitely stretched. This moment, for example, is a lengthy one. It’s the same moment as when I started writing this. My essential mood hasn’t changed, the continuity hasn’t been broken; this is a discreet, uninterrupted moment of consciousness.
And now it’s over. But it was a good one, so maybe I’ll call the writing of these paragraphs my happiest moment, since it’s the happiest one I can remember right now. Maybe that’s our saving grace: we don’t really remember the textures of moments that well. If we did, our experience would be too diluted with comparisons, which, now that I think of it, it already is.
I am sometimes accused of being an unhappy person by people who presumably feel happy. (Otherwise why accuse?) The odd thing is that I never feel the least bit envious of my accusers, which makes me think I don’t relate to the concept of happiness at all. Indeed, I accept that a heavy burden that defies happiness is built into human life. This burden manifests in many ways, but one could say its root is human consciousness itself, particularly consciousness of death, or identity aware of its dissolution. The only people who I feel are really happy are those who shallowly deny this gift/burden (whistling past the graveyard) or those who have not quite reached human identity (like a retarded person) or those who have passed beyond it (like a Christ).
My most satisfying moments are quite painful (and only satisfying in retrospect) in that I am fulfilling my potential to the point I am stretching it (i.e., going beyond a previous limitation). This always involves facing a fear and thus feeling pain and confusion and thus appearing to be unhappy. At the point of stretching limits, the burden of life feels the greatest, and yet these times are clearly the best for me. In this sense, Christ’s “happiest” moment must have been inexorably involved in the burden of dying on the cross, facing in action the final fear consciously, awake.
In the wonderful movie, “Twenty-six Days of Dostoyevsky,” Dostoyevsky’s young, idealistic stenographer (later to be his wife) asks him if he was ever happy. He says, ponderously, no, he has never known happiness. Then he stops himself and remembers: once he did. He was one of fifteen political prisoners lined up in three rows of five in front of the firing squad. He was in the third row, and as he witnessed the first two rows shot to death, he wanted desperately to live, to have another chance to do it right, to make life work. Then his row came forth, hoods in place, and suddenly an officer stepped in and read the reprieve: four years in Siberia at hard labor. That was the one moment, he confesses, that he knew what happiness was.
Happiness is the pearl of great cost. It has nothing to do with drifting pleasantly through life. In its highest forms, it is a frightful prospect.
Petersburg, West Virginia
In 1956, I was a young, ignorant girl who’d gone to New York and met another ignorant girl my own age from Grenoble, France. One night, we were sitting on the roof of the YWCA, where we lived, when we sort of invented socialism for ourselves. We got so excited talking about it that we stayed up all night.
In the nearly thirty years since then, I’ve learned a lot more about Marxism, and I have to say that I’m still pretty much convinced. People who have never experienced this dream of creating a utopia on earth don’t understand the events shaping the world today. Even my friends who were intellectually converted to socialism in college don’t have the vision I intuitively grasped that makes these events fall into place; as a society, we are blind to ideas that are perfectly clear to illiterate peasants in other parts of the world.
I was an atheist for many years, but finally I’ve become a Christian (without repudiating my Marxism). This conversion has brought a peace to my heart that was absent before. But as far as a feeling of intense happiness, I have to say that those first moments when I became a socialist were the peak experience of my life.
When I was four years old my baby sister was born, and the family took a trip to visit Aunt Elma and Uncle Arthur. I remember Queenie and Prince, the two beautiful, huge, red dogs who lived on the farm with my aunt and uncle, and I remember waking up in the morning to the smell of bacon and eggs cooking on a gas stove, and I remember my cousin Freddie cutting my cantaloupe into perfect little orange squares. One morning we all took a walk down to an old wooden dock which stretched into the bay. Thirty years ago, standing on the dock with my mother and brother and sisters, I had the happiest moment of my life. A blue dragonfly darted over the water and hovered in front of me, and I was suddenly transfixed with indescribable ecstasy. Magnificence! The electrifying, blinding, pure, pure blueness . . . the humid, silent air filled with songs of praise and thanksgiving . . . a joy so overwhelming as to be almost paralyzing engulfing me. And yet so calm, so deeply calm, so safe . . . every thing, every small thing, all of the universe holy, singing, unafraid. . . . I struggle to describe what this four-year-old felt, but my heart remembers it well.
I don’t know how long this moment lasted. I must have understood that no one else saw the dragonfly; no one remarked upon anything out of the ordinary. I myself didn’t speak of it for another fifteen years, not because it was a secret; it was a moment of reality in my life. I suppose eventually we walked back to Aunt Elma’s house.
I’ve had other moments of happiness, but none so alive, so certain, so un-self-conscious. Perhaps only a child or a child-like heart can receive a divine visitation with such un-self-conscious acceptance. I still feel a thrill of happiness whenever I see a dragonfly, but I don’t look for another experience of transcendent ecstasy. It may be that one need stand only once at the center of the universe to be satisfied and to remember.