The Pursuit of Happiness


I hate writing. I love having written. So said Ernest Hemingway, or maybe it was Mark Twain, I'm not entirely sure. Regardless, the sentiment is worth exploring. There are many activities we enjoy solely in hindsight, the point of which is only to reflect on their occurrence, rather than enjoy the process. Why am I thinking about happiness in the rearview mirror? Because I just finished the latest Iron Druid short story collection by Kevin Hearne, Besieged. Excellent as always, and I even got a signed copy when I went to see Mr. Hearne speak at a D.C. bookstore last month. I totally geeked out. It was awesome. But I digress. Although not really—see what I did there?  I told you about an experience that I had, partly so I could relive it and review the memory that I made by going to see a favorite author promote his work, and partly to inflate myself in your eyes. Adding to the considerable street cred I received as a result of my adventures, when I introduced myself to the Kev, he actually knew who I was and complimented my work!  I'd have died a happy woman on the way home from that talk. As long as I'd broadcast my brush with the celebrity who knew me before my untimely demise, that is.

What am I talking about, you may wonder? It's this: as Granuaile, the Iron Druid's beautiful protégé, observes while she and Atticus attend a traveling carnival looking to send some demons back to Hell, "There's no happiness here."  In fact, opined the lovely lass, we seem to pursue happiness even when it runs away from us. Sad but true, in both truth and fantasy.

What prompted these dystopian findings by the one who would come to be known as the "Fierce Druid?"  Granuaile noticed that:

People come here to be happy, but I bet they wind up in a fouler mood than when they walked in. Kids want plushies and rides and sugar, and parents want to hang on to their money and their kids. And everybody wants to go away without digestive problems, but that’s not gonna happen.

All too true. How many times have we gone to a concert, or a festival, or a party, convinced it will be fun, only to subject ourselves to the bitter disappointment of frustrated expectations?  We do it all the time, egged on by partners or sometimes pals, who assure us that we’ll have the time of our lives. I'm positive that no one has ever had the time of their life at the annual school auction. Mostly, we suck down drinks in the hope of becoming distracted enough to engage in the same chit chat with at least fifteen different people without vomiting into our mouths. Does anyone really care about the achievements of casual acquaintances' children?

And as we drive home from the event, whatever it is, my husband and I would bemoan the fact that we'd gone there instead of spending the evening at home. Sorting our spice rack. Or consolidating ketchup and mustard in the fridge. But then the next morning rolls around and the memory becomes fonder; we saw friends, shared laughs, were mutually relieved that we didn’t win the condo in Rome, as we had no plans to visit Italy any time soon. Yes, in retrospect, the night was enjoyable and, more importantly, we get to be part of the club with the rest of the parents who were roped into the ballroom with us.

And therein lies the true value of our actions. I hate writing. I love having written. I love the postpartum evidence of time well spent, or at least time I can build up to seem well spent. And if it's not writing, it's a night at the carnival with the kids, chasing happiness, finding it only when I'm able to post the pix of my sons riding the Ferris wheel and proudly displaying the plushy Dad won for them by strangling a bottle's neck with a rubber ring. On Facebook, or Instagram or shared texts and emails, the time spent frazzling my nerves and my digestive tract at the local fair is transformed into a Kodak moment to be displayed like jewels that prove our wealth. The wealth of a happy, perfect family. Look, look at us on a fun-filled outing! We're so blissful and so normal. Or not.

I've been suspicious of this chasing happiness phenomenon since I observed my mother "enjoying" her extended family. She'd worked hard to bring her two kids, their spouses and her grandchildren together to celebrate a milestone birthday. She twittered to all her biddies about how marvelous it was that everyone was coming to wish her well and be together—captured, of course, by the professional photographer who’d preserved it for posterity. Which was all fine and dandy. Except when I saw that my mother was hiding in the kitchen, failing to interact with said family, ignoring the grandchildren in favor of washing dishes the housekeepers were paid to clean.

It hit me then, like halitosis from an enthusiastic ticket taker at the movies who leans in to wish me a good time. My mother wasn't interested in the actual experience of hosting her family, just the ability to tell all that she'd done so, to inspire envy, boat loads of it, amongst her blue haired set. High school athletes keep score by sexual conquests. Old mothers by how many times their families visit, young mothers by how often they take their children to the museum or the science center—and how well their photos show off the brilliance of their progeny. It's not the activity but the bragging rights that follow it that count.  The process of writing sucks.  But showing off those bright shiny words…. Well that’s so, so sweet –even if you only view them yourself.

I had a friend once whose husband admonished us for talking while the kids were outside on a cold winter's night in the hotel's hot tub. "Hurry, they're making memories," he gushed, grabbing his camera and rushing to the scene of the memory-in-the-making. I was confused. It was the kids making their own memories, which would be more memorable without the ‘rents horning in on the action. It was a perfect example of ruining the moment by trying to capture it. Happiness doesn't want to be found when it's chased. It comes when we enter the present and live there.

I love Atticus, the Iron Druid, and also Granuaile. What I love most about them is that I'm rarely more fully in the moment than when I'm wallowing between the pages of a captivating book, immersing myself in the world of a talented author's imagination. Those are some of the best moments to be had. Ironically, I love reading. I hate having read.