It’s 1963, and I’m in Mrs. Fridley’s first grade class in Salsipuedes Elementary School in Watsonville, Calif. I’ve been handed a thin piece of 8 1/2 by 11 pulpy muddy-white paper, set on a landscape view, the top half empty for a drawing, the bottom half set with wide pale blue lines.
Our assignment? Complete this sentence: “Happiness is …” I tell you all these details — the cold wet February day, the zping, zping, zping of the radiator, Mrs. Fridley wearing a red cotton dress and a white sweater — because it is one of the few days of elementary school I remember. This day, two months after my father died in a car accident, my mother shattered by his death, my brother and I left alone to work out our own grief. Happiness is …
On the top half of the paper, I draw a house with four windows, curtains, a big front door, tree in the yard, and a stick figure family, yes, complete with a father. And in the blue lines I write: “Happiness is Everything.”
Looking back on my small self, I am certain this was not a cop-out. This was my mien, my own natural disposition, sunny in its belief that happiness was all around me. And even with that tragedy on my early childhood CV, I continued to be struck dumb with gladness over little things: the pure white laces on my red Keds, the infinite soft comfort of my grandmother’s skin, my grandfather singing “zit-ti-zit-ti-zit,” his gnarled hands wrapped around my waist as he bounced me on his crossed leg.
I have always been joyful at the small graces, marveling at them. I wondered if setting a month aside to register my happiness might be a “Duh!” moment, like, hey, I already knew that! I already let people go ahead of me in line. I already listen to a song all the way through. I already get up early some mornings, relishing the quiet house, its floors not yet creaking to my footsteps as if it too, like my dear Stu, was still asleep, leaving the morning to me and me alone.
But there is a difference when you must make yourself take notice, write it down, count it up. This is the difference Weight Watches began promoting a lifetime ago: count the calories. Step on the scale. Be accountable.
Sometimes, during this “Duh” month, I had to go deeper than the pink flush of goodness derived from a weighty winter squash at the Farmers’ Market. What of the days when stressful moments outnumbered the easy-breezy ones? What is happy-making about a burned hand or a clogged drain or a daughter who is exhausted after teaching sixth grade math all day? That little girl in Mrs. Fridley’s class had the right answer. The answer is that happiness is simply a way of life, if we choose, a filter left perpetually on the lens of our lives, a way to look differently at an exhausting day or a visit to the emergency room or a hand-shake with a plumber. In perhaps my most favorite line in American literature, Emily in “Our Town” asks, “Do any human beings ever realize life as they live it — every, every minute?”
For one month, I made myself take note of what was all around me, if not every minute, then quite a few of them. And I realized something. Happiness is everything.