Claire_Hoffman_Greetings_from_Utopia_Park

Claire Hoffman is the guest on the latest episode of the Otherppl with Brad Listi podcast. Her new memoir, Greetings from Utopia Park, is available now from Harper Books. 

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Listen. Happiness? It just looks different on people like me.

                                            —Lidia Yuknavitch, The Chronology of Water

 

 

In Ithaca, New York, Tibetan prayer flags hang from the eaves of rambling Victorian houses, and quaint little carriage houses, and dilapidated A-frame houses with Pabst beer cans lining porch railings. Their lilting red, blue, orange, white, and yellow squares make no sound in the breeze, so thin and soft is the translucent fabric. On Aurora Street, in Ithaca’s Fall Creek neighborhood, the Namgyal Monastery Institute of Buddhist Studies sits nestled in a nondescript turn-of-the century house painted a deep burgundy with gold trim. The prayer flags alight the house like year-round Christmas decorations. Down the narrow alleyway running just behind the monastery, Cascadilla creek burbles over shalestone, plastic bottles, discarded road signs, and outposts of tall, thick grass that curve like spider plants.

The day’s first sound was its most abrasive, the bell’s vibrations heavy in the pre-dawn mountain thick. The tolling came closer, so close it was no longer possible to assimilate it into dream, and faded, leaving the air behind it changed. The subsequent lull was slowly filled with the shuffling of blankets against bundled bodies, clumsy footsteps making their way to the light switch by the cabin door, the swishes of clothing being doffed and donned, the key in the latch.

Tuesday is the winter solstice. The shortest day and longest night of the year; the sun’s daily maximum position in the sky is the lowest. This, apparently, is more evident to those in high latitudes. Portland may not be the highest latitude, but when it’s dark outside by 4:00 PM and I go to work in the dark and I come home in the dark, I’d say we’re high enough. According to Wikipedia, “worldwide, interpretation of the [winter solstice] has varied from culture to culture, but most cultures have held a recognition of rebirth, involving holidays, festivals, gatherings, rituals or other celebrations around that time.”

For me, this year’s winter solstice marks the end of a ritual, not the start.

I am firing my ego on the summer solstice. At least, that’s what I’m going to tell everyone when they ask.

“Hey, Gloria,” they’re going to say. “I couldn’t help noticing you’re bald now. Interesting. And what caused you to make such a noticeable and off-putting decision?”

I know I’ll be asked and that I’ll need to have a pat answer ready. I could tell them that I’m in solidarity with a friend who is going through chemo. I could tell them that it was a dare. Basically, I could lie. But I don’t want to lie.

This is what I’ve decided to say, “Why yes, coworker/associate/check out clerk/person on the bus, your astute observation is correct. I am in fact bald now. I’ve also quit looking in mirrors between now and December because I have a book to write. I had to fire my ego.”

I figure this answer is esoteric enough to preclude further interrogation, yet full of enough truth to satisfy. They’ll nod their heads knowingly, as if fully understanding that one must shave her head to accommodate the muse.

At least that’s what I hope will happen.

The biggest mistakes I’ve ever made have all stemmed from the fact that, at the time, I didn’t stop to think about what I was doing.

That and a lack of adequate sex education in high school.

Was just one class on how a bra strap works really so much to ask?

One night, a daddy longlegs came into my room and sprinted toward my bed.

Or, I should say, it sprinted toward my futon mattress, which rested on the floor of my basement apartment. I didn’t really have a bed.

And when I say “sprinted,” I mean it. It was like it was on a mission.

I was used to this sort of thing. I lived in a basement apartment.

Happy is the new skinny. Being happy is cool. Being sad, unsatisfied, depressed, lonely, moody or anxious is totally unattractive. Being bubbly, funny, enthusiastic, imaginative and wild is hot. Everyone wants to be happy, and everyone believes they deserve to be happy. We read books, listen to podcasts and subscribe to blogs all about how to be happy. I’ve listened and re-listened to Gala Darling’s podcast on happiness, and I find it inspiring. I’m even following some of her advice, and I’m starting to believe that it may actually be as simple as choosing to be happy. But it strikes me as odd that as a culture, we Americans claim to believe happiness is a natural right. We even wrote it into the Declaration of Independence. We are pretty dedicated to happiness, and yet, we have an awful time finding it.

Of course, there are the naysayers. There are people who believe we have become happiness addicts. There are people who believe that our obsession with being happy is naive, childish, and a waste of time. I wonder if they are happy.

They have a point, though. Our obsession with being happy can make us unhappy. Perhaps you’ve had a period of depression in which the realization that you are depressed actually makes it worse. It goes from depression to despair. “Oh God,” you find yourself sobbing into your pillow. “I’m a lost cause! I’m a mess. I’m going to end up killing myself one day!” The really nuts thing about it is that you never had any real intention of killing yourself, but the despair over your mental state, and the thought that you might be capable of committing suicide, actually drives you toward it. You start to think things like, “How will I know if I’m really suicidal?” And that thought doesn’t even make any sense. If you actually did want to die, you’d probably know it, Yet, you’ve seen those commercials with people sitting on the couch looking sad as the voice over says, “If you experience sleeplessness, loss of appetite, lack of interest in things you once enjoyed or thoughts of suicide … “

You begin to evaluate yourself as you watch the commercial. You tick off the list: You are, in fact, sitting on the couch looking sad about a sad looking person sitting on a couch. You sometimes have trouble sleeping. You once loved baking, finger painting, paper dolls and anything involving Elmer’s glue, all of which you have lost interest in. Are thoughts of suicide next? And then you realize you’re thinking of suicide right now.

“In fact, I think of suicide all the time: when I’m watching commercials for anti-depressants, when I’m stuck in traffic on a rainy night and no one will let me merge, when I don’t want to pay a bill or when I think about losing all my teeth in old age. Also, sometimes when driving on an empty road late at night, I wonder what would happen if I ran my car off the road. I don’t particularly want to die at that moment, but I’m sort of OK with the fact that it’s possible; so I probe the possibility with my imagination, but I have not yet intentionally swerved off the road. Not even just out of curiosity. So I guess I have no real death drive at the moment. But I could. And for that, I might need Wellbutrin or Lexapro or Zoloft or Prozac. Maybe I should ask my doctor, just in case.”

No one wants to be unhappy. If you’ve ever experienced true unhappiness, you know it’s not only miserable but sometimes terrifying. You feel alienated from yourself and everything that matters to you. Something always seems to be missing. You become insecure. It is not fun times. But the kind of happiness pushed on the public in the form of products, services and medications is not the kind of happiness that treats these wounds. Well, ok, for some, the medications help. But not for everyone. Drug companies know that deep down all of us have a bit of unhappiness, and that’s exactly why they invest in TV commercials. We see the sad person getting happy on TV thanks to some miracle drug, and we identify with that and think “Maybe they can make me happy, too.”

Just like the drug commercials that promise to change you from a sad little blob to a happy little blob (both mostly mindless but one clearly preferable), beauty product manufacturers promise to enrich your life by bringing out your natural beauty. I laugh when they end with faux fierceness: “You’re worth it!” Right. Worth what? An hour and a half of bleaching your scalp, poking yourself in the eye with a stick, and razor burn? Oh, those tricksy advertisers, trying to tell me I am worth the trouble of going out and buying their products and maiming myself with them. Oh yes, that is how I express my value.

We have our suffering and our insecurities, and we keep them quiet so that when advertisers at them, we’re ready to buy whatever they’re selling to medicate or mask our secret shame. No one talks about their weaknesses; that would leave them exposed to scrutiny. You don’t tell your boss, “I don’t feel good about my work, and I’m deeply concerned about the direction of my career.” That doesn’t usually lead to a promotion, and a promotion is what we want, right?

A promotion would make us happy … maybe. It’s the kind of happiness toward which we clamor when we come up short on ways to soothe that deep soul ache. If not a promotion, then at least a good bikini body, and if we can’t have that, then at least we can milk all the pleasure there is to be had from a cupcake. But is there a happiness that lasts longer than a cupcake? Something that can stick with us when we no longer want to be ogled on the beach? Is there anything in the world that, unlike that promotion, will ask nothing in return? I want the kind of happiness that doesn’t cost money, doesn’t go away when I age, and doesn’t require me to be on call to answer to come corporate jerk who cares not a whit for my personal time. And I want the kind of happiness that doesn’t cost sixty bucks a month because the drug is so new that there’s no generic alternative. Where can I find that kind of happiness?

What do I even mean when I say I want to be happy? I want to be healthy. I want to be skinny and pretty and smile a lot. I want to make enough money. I already make enough money, but I would really like to make a little more money. Or a lot more money. Enough money to buy a bigger house and not have to DIY all the renovations. That would be enough. Oh, and enough money for a new car because mine is getting old, and a pair of diamond earrings because every girl needs a pair of those, and one pair of really good expensive shoes. And a job that’s closer to my house so I don’t have to drive so far, but it should still pay me well and involve doing cool stuff with cool people. I want to spend more time with my family and friends, but not too much because most people annoy me after a while. And I want another drink, but I don’t want a hangover, and I don’t want to cross that line into being an alcoholic, although I’m not sure where that line is, and I’m not sure anyone else is either.

We seem to think we can’t live without happiness, but we’re not even sure what it is, so how would we know? Was Mother Theresa happy? What about Michael Jackson? George Washington? Your grandmother? My grandmother was extremely poor. She dropped out of school after the seventh grade, married young, had six children, and raised them all in a house the size of my first apartment with one bathroom. Her husband died 20 years before her, and she never dated again. She didn’t have a dishwasher or an air conditioner. Was she happy? Did anyone ever ask? I think it’s a safe bet that “happiness” was not the priority for her that it is for me, and for this, I feel rather foolish and selfish. Her life is anathema to me — tiny house, no money, no education, a boatload of kids — but perhaps in avoiding what I view as her pitfalls, I am denying myself a certain organic kind of happiness. After all, her kids grew up to be good people, each successful in their own way. All of them married and had children. She became matriarch to an ever-growing family who loved her. But I don’t know what that meant to her or if she was happy.

In a recent interview with Oprah, Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hahn said, “It is possible to live happily in the here and the now. So many conditions of happiness are available—more than enough for you to be happy right now. You don’t have to run into the future in order to get more.” That thought is profound and genius, but a bit over my head. I instinctively reach back to the experience of my day and think, “Is he trying to say I can be happy even with a full time job? Even without my new running shoes? Even stuck in traffic?”

When Oprah asked him to define happiness, he said “Happiness is the cessation of suffering. Well-being. For instance, when I practice this exercise of breathing in, I’m aware of my eyes; breathing out, I smile to my eyes and realize that they are still in good condition. There is a paradise of form and colors in the world. And because you have eyes still in good condition, you can get in touch with the paradise. So when I become aware of my eyes, I touch one of the conditions of happiness. And when I touch it, happiness comes.”

Reading his words stops me in my tracks. It makes me forget what I thought I knew. It pours the thoughts right out of my head and leaves me sitting in my skull like a lightening bug in an empty jar. I’m just blinking around in the emptiness.

And then I remember this: I was searching for happiness, and I was motivated by fear. The fear of unhappiness. The fear of unhappiness causes unhappiness and sends me on a wild search for that which is not my fear, but because I don’t know what it is, I can’t see it even when it surrounds me. The search is dizzying and distracting, fun and frustrating, and thoroughly intoxicating. The search is elating because it sometimes leads us to art and orgasm. Other times, the search is a bad trip and leads to sobbing into pillows, terrified at the thought of what we might do to ourselves if we had the courage (and we are quite glad we don’t have the courage).

Photo Credit: Pink Sherbet on Flickr