By Trisha Federis
A life in fragments, made up of people and places, memories and hope.
“Each person’s happiness is a good to that person, and the general happiness, therefore, is good to the aggregate of persons,” says John Stuart Mill, in Utilitarianism.
Do we all wish for happiness? I for one revel in mild discontentment. This shade of blue suits me; I wear it like a favorite pair of socks. It clears my head. It helps me write. I can only put order to my thoughts when I’m in a pensive mood: so I go for long walks on cloudy days. I stay in bed for as long as I can. This feeling — wistfulness directed at nothing — is where I live. But if I told this to just anyone, it would unsettle them.
1 + 1
I can count all of the times I’ve been truly sad on one hand. It’s four. But to count the times I’ve been happy? Impossible.
UNITS OF MEASUREMENT
At any rate, things that make people happy tend to defy measurement. How can you count the quickness of your heart when someone’s hand rests on your thigh? The warmth you feel when beholding a litter of kittens? Though you can list the number of times you have gone to a symphony, it can’t be compared to the breathtaking image of, say, a single figure on a frozen lake.
My family laughs a lot over the dinner table. We often shout at each other, and even throw some punches; but laughing usually cures it. I guess it’s infectious. It usually starts off with our dad telling a disappointing joke, followed by his hyena-like hee’s grating against our ear, and he’d keep laughing as if his persistence will convince us that what he said was funny. It’s never the joke—it’s his shrill hoots that after five minutes make us each go mad. Pretty soon, my mom joins in, then my sisters, my brother, and me. We must sound weird to our neighbours.
I wonder if there is a sound that could instantly provoke a climax of pleasure. I imagine it to be either a high-pierced female scream, or a low orca hum.
I easily view my life as a scale in which happiness and sadness sit on opposing sides. On most days I wake up, and depending on the events from the night before, or plans for the oncoming day, I start with the scale uneven to one side. Then, throughout the day, the scale tips and I have to recalibrate. Sometimes I end up at the same place I began. If I feel the exact opposite from when I woke up, that’s when I know it’s been a life-changing day. And it goes on each day thereafter, the scale slightly tipping this way and that. At the absolute end, if you’re lucky, you’ll reach an equilibrium of happiness that Mill recommends: “The happiness which they meant was not a life of rapture; but moments of such, in an existence made up of few and transitory pains, many and various pleasures, …”
“…And having as the foundation of the whole, not to expect more from life than it is capable of bestowing.” But doesn’t a life of rapture sound more exciting? Though I’m cautious by nature, I often find myself gravitating towards people who live spectacular lives. The ones who buy one-way plane tickets to South East Asia and drink mushroom tea at a party in the woods. They have the best stories, which either end in an incredible standoff with death or shoeless on the side of an unpaved road. The more volatile their life seems, the more I wish I were they.
A SHED FULL OF BOOKS
On the other hand, there are times I yearn to live comfortably in the middle. Nothing beats that simple desire to have a roof over one’s head, and perhaps, a shed in the backyard full of books. I saw my future at a house party just outside of Prague: a family owned a four-story tower lined with books, and a staircase winding up and up to a single bed in a sunlit loft. I will always remember walking across their lawn through the rain, wiping my feet dry on the mat, and being greeted with the smell of old, dampened pages. Happiness may not be determined by the number of books you own, but in my case, there would be some kind of correlation.
One euphoric moment, almost forgotten: sitting next to friends on a rooftop at dusk, watching the lights slowly turn on across the bay, and realizing what to do with your one, remarkable life: work in publishing. (The briefer that moment of clarity, the more ecstatic the feeling).
LITTLE THINGS, PT. 2
6) Parties. The best thing about your mom having twelve brothers and sisters is that “having a party with only a few cousins over” generally means an all-out celebration. The more the merrier, as they say.
SCALE, PT. 2
“A life thus composed, to those who have been fortunate enough to obtain it, has always appeared worthy of the name of happiness.” A delicate balance must exist because if we lived our lives ecstatically, our senses would be too dull to recognize how pleasurable it is. But let’s shake it up sometimes. Smaller pleasures are nothing compared to the vast, startling kind, and vice versa.
“But don’t even beautiful things make you cry? Because they remind you of how impermanent everything is?” “No,” he said. “I mean, I’m generally a happy person. When things are really down, I know they’re going to be happy again. Don’t you think that?” “I think there’s a fundamental difference between us then,” I said.
Airports are, I think, inherently sad. Much like Christmas. On an airplane runway back in Ontario, it occurred to me that nobody asks: “What’s your greatest sorrow in life?” People are always asking about their greatest joys in life, their hopes and dreams. Nobody wants to know what causes his or her sorrow.
When I was twelve, puberty hit me hard. I suddenly felt self-conscious, perpetually sweaty, and uncomfortable. I wept a lot. Once, in the parking lot of Walgreens, my dad got tired of me crying and asked what was wrong with me. I didn’t know the answer then. I still don’t know it now.
FAMILIES, PT. 2
True, having more cousins makes more parties, but they also increase the amount of tragedy. Who can forget the uncle who died before you were born? The grandfather who perished after jumping out of a plane? Sadness is like arthritis; it is a chronic pain that you must inherit.
With some immigrant families, depression doesn’t exist. If one has a stable job with healthy kids that get passing grades, or a house with two cars and a backyard and an avocado tree, you are not allowed to be sad. You are not allowed to seek therapy. To those back home, all of those things signify that you’ve made it. What more do you need?
Some could also say that with four bustling children of various ages who need to be picked up from three different schools from the hour of one to three, there’s no time to be depressed.
FAMILIES, PT. 3
When we were children, my sister, Melissa, used to take the longest naps of the rest of us. While we’d wake up after a few minutes and return to the TV, she’d be the only one left behind in the piles of sheets and pillows. Whenever she awoke, she’d open the door and walk around the house calling, “Mommy? Daddy?” with her hands pawing at her eyes. My dad once said he was in the garage and didn’t hear her; and it was only by luck that he found her wandering down the street, the front door left wide open.
This is a constant fear of childhood: nobody being there when you wake up.
Last summer, Peter died. He was young and the way things added up, happy too. He was in his third year of med school. He had one proud mom and countless friends. They said he came home one day, went down into the basement, turned on the television, and hung himself.
I didn’t know him that well, other than the fact that every summer he would come to California to stay with some of our family friends. This was over ten years ago. I was twelve, my sister was seventeen; and he was a shy, gangly sixteen-year-old. We used to go to the pool together, and he would hang around my sister and not say a word. I think he was her first kiss. But people don’t look the same way they did ten years ago. My sister doesn’t—she’s more beautiful now, less awkward, and even more generous than before. She’s engaged and will be married next summer.
“A state of exalted pleasure lasts only moments, or—in some cases and with interruptions—hours or days. Such an experience is the occasional brilliant flash of enjoyment, not its permanent and steady flame.”
It would be unwise, possibly too cruel to bring Peter up, because these days her scale is tipped too far into happy for me to want to shake it so. But if she had the choice to sit in a permanent and steady flame or to experience a brilliant flash of young love again, I wonder which she would choose.
MICHIGAN, PT. 2
I can’t imagine walking through Michigan in the dead of winter; trudging home early on frosty streets, everything colored like frozen grass. I wonder if, when the scales have tipped too far in the direction of melancholy, how much would you have to add up in order to keep going?
Though my brother is nine years older, we have a lot in common. We have the same taste in music and film, and an all-or-nothing desire to live the way we want. The last is what worries me. I was at the kitchen island making oatmeal when he came in and asked if I heard about Peter. “Do you know if he left a note or anything like that?” “No. It’s kind of selfish, to be honest.” “Cowardly. You at least need to leave a note. If you’re going to do something like that.” We moved around the island for a while, banging around pots and pans. And then, simultaneously, we both said, “Don’t you fucking do it.”
Because that is what having a family is. You give birth to your children, you feed them, you clothe them, and you expect nothing but foul words to come out of their mouths during the ages of twelve to eighteen. But that’s not entirely true. For in between the cuss words, they’ll laugh at your jokes one or two times, and maybe ask how you’re doing. And maybe, when you’re old enough for them to clothe you and feed you, you’ll hear them say that you were right. And that they love you. Those words, I imagine, cancel out the rest.
LITTLE THINGS, PT. 3
8) Looking at the mirror and recognizing your parents in the reflection, and after all of these years, you’re not angry about it. 9) Thumbing through a dog-eared book and reading an old lover’s note.
MICHIGAN, PT. 3
A single figure standing on a frozen lake.
Sometimes I wonder, like everybody else, how I will go: with a bang or quietly in bed, surrounded by friends and family? When people die too young, they say, “Oh, she was a happy child” or “Ah—he was headed for great things.” Let’s forget that she suffered from anxiety; or that his dad was in the Philippines, and he had a stepsister this whole time. I wish there was a space in eulogies where we could acknowledge both the immeasurably happy and the unmistakably sad.
LITTLE THINGS, PT. 4
One time I laughed so hard at the table that a piece of rice came out of my nose. Just one. I sneezed into my hand and there it was. My sister, who was eating her lunch next to me, was already laughing; but when she saw what happened, she laughed even more. She couldn’t stop! It was so funny, and so disgusting, this grain of rice that she started to hiccup and then a grain came out of her nostril too! It happened the same exact way. She swallowed so much air she couldn’t breathe, and then something tickled her nose and she sneezed into her hand and there it was: single, un-chewed, whole. We held them in our hands in awe.
Trisha Federis is a writer and reader living in Oakland, California. She is the co-editor-in-chief of creative writing publication Oatmeal Magazine, and writes about place and memory on her blog, A Worldly Word.