Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Happy is as happy does


JoEllen Collins

A few weeks ago a parent at my school approached me and said, "I hear you are really happy!" I was pleased that she had paid attention to the good news about my life and that she cared. So we chatted a bit longer, and I enjoyed sharing the most recent chapter of my soap-opera saga existence.

After she left, it hit me, though. "I hear you are really happy" struck me as something most people would usually say about me. I deeply believe "happiness," that overused word, is a product of luck (such as being adopted into a loving family in this country), inherited abilities, effort, and a deep set of convictions about oneself and of the love and beauty available to us. I have written before about being a cockeyed optimist, a Pollyanna, of my rather naive belief in fairy tales, and of my conviction that around the corner must be some good surprise. Rose-colored glasses fit me well, even as my bifocal prescriptions get stronger and stronger.

Of course this perception of myself might overlook my sadness at tragedies like the tsunami. It may also forget times when I have experienced such grief that I didn't want to wake up, did wake up with the sudden perception of the loss hitting me in the middle of the night, felt horrible despair and wallowed in tears and calling friends. Agatha Christie said it best: "I like living. I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow, but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a good thing."

Like Christie, in the midst of the inevitable and natural times of sadness I have somehow maintained with a stubbornness that amazes even me the capacity to look forward to the end of the "bad." Perhaps it was the cliches my parents ingrained in me: my mother always reminded me that "things would be better in the morning" (they weren't always, but then I would think about the NEXT morning.) She also said that 10 years from the particular moment it would be forgotten. My father kept talking about "light at the end of the tunnel," even when, as he neared death, my brother didn't visit him at all. His last words to me were full of the firm belief that he would see my mom again after death. As a confirmed optimist, I should agree with his commitment to his faith; I'm not sure I do.

I am enough of a realist to take my latest upswing with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, now I feel I actually deserve what I am experiencing. I have paid for it with hard work, faith, good friends and a dedication to those I love, my work, and my abilities. I'm even O.K. about writing three novels, a collection of poetry and more without finding a publisher. The process itself has been richly rewarded through the self-examination it requires and by the legacy that my scribblings will leave for my daughters. They will see what life was like for an average woman of the 20th Century and, perhaps, understand why I never give up hope.

I might as well share some of my good news with you, as my columns have always revealed too much about me, anyway! I "retired" January 26 and (here's the romantic part) headed two days later for Switzerland for a couple of months with a grand former love of mine who came back into my life a year ago. We hadn't seen each other for more years than you could imagine, but reconnected as though we were our younger selves. Whatever happens in that relationship, it has confirmed my belief in the possibilities for "happiness" even after acute disappointments. Marguerite de Valois, who lived over three centuries ago, sums it up for me: "Tears may be dried up, but the heart -never."

I will always return to my beloved home and the rewards of the life I have built in this Valley. I can indulge in time to work on my fabric art, write, and even engage in some part-time work when I am here. With the freedom to travel more, the wheels on my feet will be well-oiled.

So farewell for now, for just a little while. I will send a column from somewhere in the Alps and remind you all that I haven't shut up yet. May the year provide you all with the joy I feel this moment!

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