Archive for the ‘happiness’ Category

treesToday was the kind of day that makes life worth living — and I took a photo of what I mean by that just so I’d never forget. Gorgeous day in early spring, a walk across my beloved Central Park just north of Sheep Meadow, cherry trees in bloom, and an ice coffee and chocolate chip cookie in hand.

I was thinking about what small pleasures, exactly, MIGHT actually make life worth living because I was on my way to New York Hospital, where Ur-Momma has been since Thursday. After 30 hours in the ER she was finally given a room, and it’s a surprisingly nice one; she’s been at this hospital a couple of times in the past 4 or 5 years, and never before has she had a bed with a window, and a window that looked straight onto the East River. On a sunny Saturday, that’s pretty great.

cookieIt would be more great, of course, if Ur-Momma could remember why she was there (GI bleeding and severe anemia), or could remember that she was in a hospital at all. But she was alert enough during my visit this afternoon — she even had gotten dressed and was sitting up in a chair, eating her cherry jello and clear chicken broth and reading the New York Times — to tell me that the days at home have been passing very very slowly for her, and she feels very very lonely. Can a person be truly demented if she’s able to describe her own isolation as “feeling de trop“?

She did come up with one thing that might entertain her — being brought to the Met and pushed around in a wheelchair to look at the paintings. I think this is something I’m going to see about having her aide do one day soon. Not yet, though. First we have to figure out how to make her bleeding stop (it doesn’t seem to be doing it on its own, so there might be a colonoscopy and cauterization on the horizon for Monday), fix her anemia (after 4 transfusions, her blood count is now pretty much normal, but we have to see if it holds), and let her get used to being home for a while. In the meantime, many people who love her — her sister, THREE of her grandchildren, her daughter-in-law — called during my 4-hour visit. So clearly, her feeling of being de trop is mostly a mind set. And, I guess, a reflection of the fact that when you’re 90 years old, no one needs you anymore, so the definition of happiness can’t be the sense of being needed. When you’re 90, frail, widowed, not especially mobile and relatively alone, you have to come up with a new definition of what makes your particular life worth living now.


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tumblr_mzita5pAb01sn7wjto1_1280Last night iDaddy and I watched “20 Feet From Stardom,” a wonderful documentary about backup singers (or, as they called themselves, background singers) for pop stars like Sting, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, and the Rolling Stones. The women in the film were amazing singers, and a couple of them wanted to break out from the background and become solo successes. They made some recordings, gave some concerts, appeared on some TV shows — and then, almost to a woman, they flamed out. (The exception was Darlene Love, who, after a series of bad breaks and setbacks in her youth, finally made it big, and a couple of years ago even entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.)

Why weren’t these background singers bigger successes? They had the voices, and the yearning, and the willingness to put in the time and to work hard. The film suggested some explanations for why some made it while others didn’t: Luck. Pluck. Looking right. Sounding right. Hitting the right market niche. Getting the right record producer, the right manager, the right moment in the sun. Following up a first success with a second one; following up quickly enough.

It all sounded painfully familiar to me, a perenially midlist author forever striving for the bestseller list. Is this what happens to writers, too? Does success in publishing also depend on a series of incalculable lucky breaks? Are talent and desire never enough?

And is it time for me, at the fading end of my professional life, to start redefining what success even means?

The film was great fun to watch, especially the concert scenes, but in the end it was quite sad. It was all about fame and not-fame, about making it just when you wanted it most, and especially about deciding whether the goal is to become famous or simply to become as good as you can be. The women who tried and failed to go solo seemed happy, because they said that when it came down to it, all they really wanted to do was sing.

Now that I’m 60 — an age that, frankly, I still can’t wrap my mind around — I’m starting to think that it might be time for me to gradually, and graciously, begin handing the reins of success over to the next generation. In my case, my professional next generation includes my own literal next generation, my two daughters. In a way this complicates things; in a way it makes things easier.

I was glad that I was, by coincidence, watching the film on the very day I had gone back to posting on this blog. If the background singers can decide that all they really want to do is sing, no matter who’s listening, maybe through this revitalized blog I can see whether, in the end, all I really want to do is write, even if there’s no one there.

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happy yet?

The lovely fiction writer Amy Bloom has an essay in this week’s New York Times Book Review that’s supposedly a round-up of happiness books — something close to my heart because many years ago (long before this current publishing phenomenon) I wanted to write a book about the science of happiness.  The books she describes seem pretty annoying, especially the mega-seller by Gretchen Rubin called The Happiness Project.  But Bloom, who is usually a very incisive writer, isn’t quite snarky enough in this essay for my taste — she seems to think that Rubin, who spent a year trying to follow get-happy advice, is at least”pleasant company.”  Really?  A woman who writes about how organizing her closets is one of the surefire routes to happiness?

What I want to write about here, though, is Bloom’s insight at the end of her essay.  I knew she’d get around to something brilliant eventually.  Happiness, she concludes, is inherently transient; in fact, its transience is what gives it meaning.  “To hold happiness is to hold the understanding that the world passes away from us, that the petals fall and the beloved dies,” she writes.  “No amount of mockery, no amount of fashionable scowling will keep any of us from knowing and savoring the pleasure of the sun on our faces or save us from the adult understanding that it cannot last forever.”

It seems that if I read these lines closely enough, I can find in them some wisdom about what it means to parent grown-up children.  I used to say that parenting was the cruelest job in the world — you give your children every ounce of your love and attention, all your passion, all your concern, and if you’ve done your job right, after 18 years they leave you.   I know now, almost 30 years into this cruel job, that it doesn’t really end, and that it isn’t really cruel.  It creates moments to savor, moments that constitute some of the deepest joys of your life, but those moments can’t last forever.  Not only can’t they last — those ephemeral moments are, maybe, the whole damned point.

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Years ago, I had plans to write a book about the science of happiness.  But in a very short time, I decided against it — and this decision took some doing, since I already had a signed contract with a book publisher and an advance that I had to give back.  I’m not sure why I soured on the idea exactly (it didn’t help that I heard rumors of several similar books in the works, books I was sure would out-sell my more measured, less famous-authory one).  But I think it had something to do with how annoying I found, and still find, happy people.

A NYT review by Neil Genzlinger of tonight’s first installment of a three-part PBS series, This Emotional Life, got me thinking about that old book idea.   There’s much to learn from scientists about what goes on in the brain when we feel happiness, and much to learn, too, about how we can construct our lives to feel it more.  Even more interesting, at least to me, is what happens in the brain when we feel negative emotions like fear, anxiety, depression, jealousy.  A psychologist I know told me recently that the book I should write next is one about, as she put it, “the ugly emotions,” and that idea appealed to me a lot more than a book about happiness.  (What does that say about ME, I wonder?)  Something to consider.

The thing that brings the TV show “This Emotional Life” all back to my main and heartfelt writing interest — writing about mothering grown-ups — was a short snippet from tonight’s, or maybe it’s tomorrow night’s, episode that features one of my favorite oddball comedians, Larry David.  His parents, he says, probably loved him, but he experienced them mostly as “two people that were older than me who gave me money and fed me.”  I realize that part of Larry David’s comic brilliance is his tendency to exaggerate — but part of it, too, is how he manages to reduce the unspeakable things we all feel to their essence, and then to speak them.  In a way, he’s right, isn’t he?  Hasn’t he put his finger on what what parents are, essentially: two people who are older than the kid who support the kid for a while?  How amazing, when you think of it that way, that so much lifelong emotional complexity is laid on top of that simple, immutable truth.

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