The Problem of Happiness

fortune cookieOrdinary people write what is commonly referred to as the “nobody memoir.” We lack the plot line of celebrity. No rags turned to riches. No lonely child turned superstar. We are still working on, the arcs of our plots. Neither famous nor infamous, the typical “nobody memoirist” describes the most intense incidents of a lifetime. Drama emerges from adventure, adversity, angst or abuse. The protagonist climbs a mountain or rows an ocean, walks a thousand-miles on a treacherous seaside- trail, confronts an abusive past, recounts her recovery from rape, exposes a dysfunctional family.

Popular memoirs dig deep into the wounded psyche. Triumphant narrators emerge, healed by the crucible of experience. This creates a problem for writers whose lives are deprived of high stakes adventure, poverty or trauma.

My first experience with the dilemma of happiness was in a college social work internship when my supervisor observed, “You can’t fully understand your clients because you’ve never been poor.” Just as I once questioned my ability to be an empathic social worker, I now ponder my ability to write an engaging memoir about a happy childhood. Several questions emerge— What is happiness, exactly? Did I really have a happy childhood? Is it possible to write an engaging memoir about a happy childhood?

An Internet search of synonyms commonly associated with the word “happy,” results in cheerful, merry, gleeful, delighted and felicitous. None of these words describes my childhood.  So, I thumb the pages of the Oxford English Dictionary (aka OED). My condensed two-volume tome sits haughtily on its altar in my writing studio. The OED needs not share space with my other books —the essays, poetry, fiction and memoir. It is the root; they are the branches. As it turns out, “happiness,” is not exactly what I have always imagined. The word has as its root the Middle English word, “hap,” meaning luck or fortune. This is a revelation.

While pondering “happy,” I remember a scene. Our family had been traveling for hours when my younger daughter discovered the true meaning of happiness. At seven years old, bored by car travel, Liz sang loudly, a spontaneous lyric of her own invention—I’m hap-hap-happy to be myself. I make my life enjoyable. Succinctly, as is her habit, Lizzie happened upon two facts. She sang the root of happiness, “hap,” without consulting a dictionary. And she stated, with lyrical authority, that you make your own happiness.

If you consider the original definition of its root, “happy” does not describe pleasure or merriment. Many life events occur by happenstance. People are often hapless. Stuff happens. My fortunate birth was a chance event, a happenstance. I am the lucky offspring of educated parents who loved me, offered ample food, safe shelter and experiences that nurtured my curiosity, as well as a cache of clichés. Our father coached us to keep stiff upper lips and chins held high. When times got tough, the tough got going, because hard times build character. We smiled and the world smiled with us.

Mom and Dad ensured that I might endure the ordinary and extraordinary travails of life. And there were many, if you consider another etymological factoid—“travails” is the root for “travel.” Here is my childhood in a flash.

“You’re going to love living in Germany. It’ll be a great adventure.” My mother writes long letters to home on tissue-paper thin blue Air Mail stationary. “We’re moving to England!” Brit kids call me a “rich American,” which is only half correct. “You need to put that child on a diet,” the doctor says. Mom refuses. “You’re just pleasingly plump.” “We’re moving to Memphis, Tennessee!” The children laugh at my British accent. They call me Butterball and Lardo.“There is nothing wrong with her. You worry too much.” Neither can ignore the convulsions. “You’ve got to enroll that child in special education gym classes,” says the doctor. My mother refuses. “You are perfectly normal,” she says. “We’re moving to Chicago!” I hear Elvis sing, “In the Ghetto,” and my grief quickens. The Yankee teenagers laugh at my southern accent. They call me “Southern Fried Chicken” By choice, I lose weight. By happenstance, I grow out of epilepsy, 12 years after the initial convulsion. By circumstance, I have become the adaptable me who has no hometown, craves wings for travel and roots for a place called “home.”

What can I learn from this? No childhood lacks misfortune. The experience of happiness does not mirror the events of a life. Trouble—the stuff of storytelling— comes in many forms.

Recently, I read Dandelion Wine, autobiographical fiction by the late Ray Bradbury. It was his favorite book, years in the making— a process he describes in the introduction. “Along the way, I sat down to breakfasts, lunches, and dinners with the long dead and much loved. For I was a boy who did indeed love his parents and grandparents and his brother.” Indeed, a happy child with loving parents.

I remain a “nobody memoirist”—a situation I am unlikely to resolve. Yet, I am encouraged. Bradbury’s autobiographical novel, and other memoirs prove that one can write engagingly about a generally “happy” childhood.

Note to Readers: Alas, my experience with occasional misfortune does not release me from the real trick of memoir—the writing itself. So many elements of craft must converge. A cogent story that pulls the reader into to the narrative is important. The use of language is important. Details and vivid scenes are important. Complex characters and graceful structure are important. But, what truly engages the reader is the authenticity of the author’s retelling and the unsentimental affection for the characters. The best memoirs communicate the sense that writers enjoy telling their stories. This reminds me of something a chef once told me. “You must love the cooking,” he said. “If you are angry when you cook, people will feel the anger. If you love the cooking, people will feel the love.”

Love your life and the writing process.  Be yourself.  Enjoy.