My friend Sophie has a large standard poodle with a curly brown pompadour that flops in his eyes. On his hind legs, he’s as tall as I am, and with his long face, benign expression, and distinctive nose, he’s a dead ringer for country music great, Lyle Lovett.
Lyle wants a relationship. He moons around after me, gazing up reproachfully from under his mop. Every time I walk into Sophie’s kitchen, I have to tell him, “It isn’t happening, Lyle; not today, not ever.”
Sophie is studying Traditional Chinese Medicine and this afternoon I’m her practice subject. She is taking my pulses because she suspects my chi is not flowing properly. My impairment has something to do with my wood element.
I learn my yin organ is my liver and my yang organ is my gall bladder. “Your color is green, and your smell is goatish,” Sophie says, “but practitioners don’t attach judgment to those labels.” Lyle gazes at me without prejudice.
“I don’t want to be wood anymore,” I tell her. It’s supposed to be a joke.
“Of course, you don’t, ” she says, with complete sincerity. “I’ve never seen anyone try harder to be happy.”
It’s true. I’ve tried energy readings, meditation, exercise, therapy, therapy, therapy, and volunteering. I’ve seen a massage therapist and a palm reader. A young man at the Renaissance Festival even talked me into taking off my shoe so he could read my bare foot. Looking deep into my eyes he promised to read my sole. Of course, I heard “soul” and off came the shoe.
I’m healthy, love my family, own a beautiful home, and have a calling. So why has happiness always been the intriguing neighbor I’m afraid to invite over?
“Were you ever happy?” Sophie asks. I replay my life from zero to now on fast reverse.
I want to get the answer right both for me and for you. I’m familiar with every other emotion, particularly love. You’d think love would make happiness a given.
But love makes anxiety a given. And happiness makes vulnerability a given.
Maybe all happy people were adored children, or maybe nothing bad has ever happened to them. Maybe they’re not very bright, I think when I’m cranky. I pick up one of Sophie’s acupuncture needles, and the ever-alert Lyle is on the move. He’s slinking over, stops when I turn to look at him, and collapses with a sigh.
The problem is that all my life I’ve thought longing was the preferred connection to God. That not being quite happy was a form of humility and an insurance policy. God, check it out. You don’t need to take anything away because I’m not totally happy. Deal?
But acupuncture holds promise and hope is the emotion I know best. As I leave Sophie’s house, I glance back up the walkway to see Lyle standing on his hind legs looking out the picture window like a somber old man. Maybe he’s a prince in disguise awaiting unconditional love to reveal his identity. That would be transmigration, the return of the human soul in animal form, which seems ridiculous until you are loved by a dog.
At home I review the names of acupuncture points: Spirit Hall. Fly and Scatter. Soul Door, Heaven Rushing. When I was a girl, my mother told me suffering would make me a better person and there are so many people out there hungry, sick and sad. To feel joy in the face of suffering would be insensitive, wouldn’t it? A bit tone deaf to the times? But can I be sad enough to affect even one person’s wellbeing? Sick enough to make even one person well? Can I worry enough to keep even one person safe? What could joy do?
Martha Washington, wife of our founding father, thought happiness was a decision you make. A choice. Joy just because.
Because in some way we don’t understand, this all works. The cosmos contains more matter than antimatter, and the slight fluctuations in the early universe caused that matter to clump and galaxies to form. And a planet called earth coalesced in the goldilocks zone of a yellow star called the Sun. That rocky planet was knocked 23.4 degrees off her axis by a collision that gave her a solitaire diamond moon, seasons of growth, seasons of harvest. This season of harvest.
And dogs. That’s a lot of reasons for joy.
I’m beginning to think happiness isn’t a choice, it’s an obligation. Joy is your work, your offering, your gift to this beautiful world.
Joy is the secret subject of every story we share. Happy Thanksgiving. I’m grateful for each and every one of you.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.