The Trouble With Happiness

lock bridge



On gratitude and guilt- the text of my latest post up at Huffington Post Women:

During my recent week in Paris, the mornings came quickly. I felt pressure to do something important with my limited time, as if there was a tick tock soundtrack to my days. I mostly didn’t listen. What I did: met friends for dinners and drinks and lunches and more drinks, saw the fantastic Surrealism exhibit at the Pompidou, bought a pair of boots and an orange glass ring; sat alone and ate a duck fois gras and fig tartine that might have been the best thing I’ve ever tasted.

I crossed the Seine one night on the Pont des Arts (laden with thousands of pad locks, inscribed with messages of love) while the full moon hung in a gauzy web of clouds above me, the water beneath shimmering under the amber streetlights. Gratitude broke over me like rain.

And then just as quickly, I felt guilty. How corny and sentimental– to stand on a bridge over the Seine in stupid too-expensive boots and feel lucky, feel happy. In an instant, I became a grotesque shadow version of the person I was not three seconds before. I had been feeling pleased with my sporting attempts at French, but suddenly felt foolish and embarrassed. I had felt aware of the delicious cold air on my face, but suddenly became aware only of my stumble on the cobblestones, my perpetual clumsiness.

Whenever I feel joy, I’m sure I’m going to be punished for it. How dare you be happy when you’re so far from your family? How dare you, when the bodies of typhoon victims line the streets of the Philippines? How dare you, when children are starving? How dare you, when your ancestors were herded onto railroad cars and then gassed and burned in Poland? How dare you be happy in this world of such enormous suffering?

I have a similar train of thought about my writing. How dare you take these hours to write? How dare you when your child needs you right now? How dare you when you are a clown compared to the brilliant writers that came before you? How dare you sit around writing about your silly life, in clunky and clichéd prose? How dare you when your house is a filthy disaster area? How dare you when you could be doing more important things for the world? And on and on.

I imagine that I am Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, during the scene in which she has just been coiffed and pampered and is skipping merrily around Oz, waiting for the wizard to grant her deepest desire. It is at just this moment, of course, that the witch appears, interrupting the giddy song by skywriting in black smoke:

Surrender Dorothy

For years, I read it as a call to Dorothy to surrender, but that is incorrect. That would be Surrender (comma) Dorothy. No, this is a call to the city itself to give up the cursed girl. But Oz doesn’t surrender Dorothy. Instead, Dorothy walks out herself to meet the witch.

I had lunch with a Buddhist expat friend of mine at a delicious hole-in-the-wall restaurant in the Marais, and we talked about my inability to experience joy without guilt. He spoke about developing a consciousness that allows you to observe the emotions as if they’re waves in the ocean, cresting and receding and then cresting again. Joy and guilt and despair and exhaustion and anxiety and curiosity and complacency and awe and longing and disgust and bliss. Again and again. Until you can watch them all and not attach so desperately, but rather see them for what they are: feelings — mutable, neither good nor bad, but human.

In the end, Paris did not surrender me, in spite of the old demons that flew around leaving trails of smoke in the soft grey sky. Instead, I kept my stupid-but-still-very-sassy boots firmly planted on its cobblestones, one foot after the other, as the waves of emotion rose and broke and rose again. And I found that the joy was there– somewhere in the lacy foam on the very crest of the wave, impossible to grab and even more impossible to keep, but there.

Je Suis Arrivè!


Settling into my friend’s place in Paris right now. The sky is soft and grey and I’m drinking a strong coffee and staring out the window at the last of the fall foliage and thinking about a remarkable book I devoured front to back on the plane- Elif Shafak’s memoir, Black Milk: On The Conflicting Demands of Writing, Creativity and Motherhood. Of course, this very conflict is at the forefront of my mind, as I embark on a week away from my little guy. Once again, the synchronicitous universe drops exactly what I need to hear right into my lap.

In the book, Shafak talks about two dominant images of motherhood, from which we are expected to choose:

1. The traditional mother- a paragon of selflessness and self-sacrifice. We give up every trace of individual desire so that our families might thrive.

2. The quintessential superwoman- effortlessly juggling husband, career, kids, and home, all without breaking a nail or skipping a Pilates class. You can have it all. If you don’t, you must be doing it wrong.

Shafak writes:

As different as these two views seem to be, they have one thing in common: They both focus solely on what they want to see, disregarding the complexity and intensity of motherhood, and the way in which it transforms a woman and her crystal heart.

Throughout the book, Shafak regularly converses with six, finger-sized women she calls “Thumbelinas,” or her “inner harem.” These colorful and divergent little gals represent some of the distinct, persuasive and often conflicting voices inside of her.

I found the idea so intriguing and resonant that it inspired me to conjure my own Thumbelinas. I didn’t intend to write this for anyone’s eyes but mine and frankly I’m a bit embarrassed by how naked it is, but I found the exercise so thought provoking and useful that I thought I’d share it.

My Thumbelinas (inspired by Elif Shafak):

Ms. Dignified Artist
Weathering a life of both hardship and triumph, she ages gracefully. Famous photographers take black and white photos of the dignified lines on her face. Capable hands, clay under her nails. Her emotional life is intensely feminine but her assertion of voice is masculine. Clothes like a Maoist. Could forget to eat. Could live alone in the desert and kill rattlesnakes with her walking stick, its tip sharpened to a point for just this purpose. Secretly tossed in turbulent waters of insecurity and doubt. A lifetime of painful and storied relationships that never quite worked, but instead were transformed to art by alchemy.

Mrs. Trophy Wife
Eternally coiffed, nails done, fingers wrapped around the steering wheel of a luxury SUV, no tattoos, expensive clothes and lots of ‘em, feet never see a flat shoe, waist never sees a size beyond 2. She is smart enough not to care about being smart- would far rather be powerful. Uncontrolled by sentiment, she’s my funniest Thumbelina. And my meanest. Lives on juice cleanses and laxatives and Chardonnay.

Miss Boozy Good Time

Fat fingers, sun damaged, inked to the gills, everything been pierced at one time or another, needs love more than money but never quite gets enough of either. Muffin tops and eyes sinking into face bloat and cleavage spilling out of the top of her shirt. 20 years and 20 lbs ago, she was so punk rock. She knew everything. She was unafraid of consequences. She was bold and ready to join the carnival and unaware that any of the other Thumbelinas existed or ever would exist. She can take it on the chin. She can laugh at herself.

Ms. Busy Busy Bookworm, Phd
She has always been most comfortable hiding behind a pair of thick-framed glasses. Her happy place is the library. Her treasure is her Grandmother’s first edition of The Magic Mountain in German. She keeps it where a picture of a boyfriend would be on her desk. She favors clothes that make her look like Sylvia Plath at Smith in the 50s, like cashmere twin sets (bought vintage of course, her adjunct professor job doesn’t allow for new cashmere). She’s a little bit chubby because she eats while she reads and she reads a lot, the pages of her books stained with peanut butter and mocha lattes. She doesn’t think about her body much at all- she feels like a head on a stick. She plans every year to go to temple for the High Holidays, to make her parents happy, to stay connected to something, but she never does. She is happiest in a world of ideas.

The Patient

She would like to think that she wears her hospital gown like Angelina Jolie in Girl Interrupted but more likely she looks like Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. She is sick. People take care of her, until they don’t. No makeup, big eyed, at odds with her body and her nervous system and always, always in pain. She watches hours and hours of television. She doesn’t eat regular meals; her days have no shape. She eats comfort food- grilled cheese, macaroni- exactly when she wants to. She likes the shades drawn. She is always planning to get better. There is always another illness.

Mrs. Mommy Martha Stewart
Tying little shoelaces (little shoes! adorable!) and cheerfully cleaning up pee accidents on the kitchen floors (everyone has accidents sometimes, honey!) making snacks and helping with homework and blowing kisses at school drop-off and texting the other moms about soccer drama. Dressed in workout wear or nouveau-hippie silverlake garb. A pretty mom. A nice mom. A mom who gets a little snarky on the wine at back-to-school night but what the hell. Full of advice. Goes to church on Sunday. Good at solving problems. Good at making quiche.

This is just a beginning.

If you feel inspired to share in the comments, I’d love to meet some of your Thumbelinas!