Over the years I’ve thought happiness was a place to get to. Nine enormous lit-up letters, nestling in the hills somewhere like the Hollywood sign. And as soon as you get there: pow, like a comic-book sock in the face, you see stars. Hello, life. You can start now. I’m happy. And happy is how I’ll eternally be. Of course things will go wrong: I’ll forget to buy butter, and cats will still vomit, and Mailer’s Law decrees that every writing class I teach will contain a student who’s hell bent on being a bell end… but once you’ve arrived at Happiness you’ll manage these things happily and all shall be happy, as Julian of Norwich nearly said, and all manner of things shall be happy.
Of course, this is bullshit.
There’s a story about the Hollywood sign. One ordinary Friday evening in 1932, when the sign was only nine years old, a young actress called Peg Entwhistle climbed to the top of the letter ‘H’ and dived to her death down the side of the mountain.
If you go about life thinking ‘happy’ is somewhere uphill and you’ve just to climb to the summit then rest up forever, you might go the way of poor Peg.
That’s why happiness isn’t a place, or a state, or an end in itself. That’s why happiness, I think, is a little kid next to a river. And the bank’s a bit slippery, and he’s not really watching his feet, and his laces have just come undone, and that’s dog poo he’s about to step in, and who’s that weird man in the bushes – are those binoculars he’s holding?
And you, yeah you, are responsible for that kid. If you don’t keep your eye on him, unhappy things are going to happen.
Happiness, too, has got to be kept an eye on. As any fule kno it looks perfickly lovely from the outside, watching kids play by the river. But under the skin of the outside it’s different. If you’re the one tasked with ensuring that child returns safely alive at the end of the day it’s less perfick and lovely than constantly stressful in small sorts of ways: like a kettle that can’t ever come to the boil but keeps trying to start. (Just been teaching my daughter about systems of imagery for her poetry paper this morning, and boy does this blog post need one…) You can’t close your eyes for too long, you can’t properly read, you can’t talk without having to check, check, check – and each check is accompanied by a squirt of adrenalin and after all, before you know it, this isn’t actually as much fun as you hoped it would be. Roll on bedtime.
That’s life too, right? Sometimes (not always) it isn’t as much fun as you hoped it would be. And then there are days, of course, when it’s downright fucking awful.
Even on downright awful days you can still be jolly.
By deciding to be. By tending to your happiness the way you’d tend a tottering two year old by a fast-flowing river. By looking out for it.
It’s not in the big things: the new job, the fancy house, the lottery win. It’s a known fact that people who break every bone in their body can end up as happy, eventually, as a person for whom the giant sparkly finger said, ‘It’s you!’
As hard as it seems to believe when you’re going through shit, it’s not actually life events that make you happy. Except momentarily, fractionally, fleetingly. It’s a tiny bird hopping beside you when you walk into town, or treating yourself to sugar in your tea. It’s a text from a friend. It’s playing the ornaments in a Chopin nocturne exactly the way you meant to (fingers don’t always do what they’re told, as any piano-playing fule kno). It’s noticing colours, lights, sounds, faces. It’s walking along a warm street lined by trees and remembering that, even though you hate your legs in every cosmetic sense, you’re incredibly lucky to have them. It’s finding the right word. It’s cuddling a person you love. It’s throwing a bobble for your cat to chase. It’s being told you’re the staffroom pin-up in your new job because your students gave you such glowing reports, and that teachers you’ve never met in a school you’ve never been to are supporting your campaign against academisation and know who you are, and think you’re kind of cool.
In other ways the week’s been shitty. Campaigning is scary and stressful. I haven’t been sleeping, and eating’s gone out the window too (even Sainsbury’s knock-off nobbly bobblies have lost their appeal: don’t buy the real ones, people, because: Nestle…). I’m waking at 1.45, or 2.25 if my brain’s being kind, and I re-plump my pillow and pull down my eye mask and try to get back to the dream I was having, but this happens:
Twice this week I’ve been marking at 4 a.m. which doesn’t seem fair or proper for someone so poor she has holes in 87% of the clothes she owns, but there we are. Life is what you make it. You have to keep paying attention: and, yes, your purse has just dropped down a drain with your house keys in it, but maybe you never liked that purse anyway. And maybe you’ll have to ask help from a passing stranger, and maybe that stranger will have a long pole, and it might be the start of a beautiful friendship, etc.
My cat’s on the bed and he’s well cute. I had five hours sleep last night instead of two, so yay me, I’m winning at that, and I’ll bury my face in his floofy belly and not care too much about big things going well or wrong or so totally tits up you can hardly bear to think about it. All there ever is, in life, is this moment. The thing I just wrote? It’s already the past.
So is this.
Now is life.
And now can have happiness in it, no matter what, if you just keep an eye out.