Today’s Ask a Siren question comes from a deep soul, and cracks at the very hearts of our
When did you first become aware of the possibility of happiness and how did that affect your work as an artist?
My pursuit of happiness is intrinsically linked to my pursuit of a career in the arts. I grew up loving science and art equally, and had great difficulty deciding on a major when I got to college. I decided to double major in both Physics and English, with my extracurricular course featuring classes like philosophy, religious studies, and engineering. (I tried to sneak 2D/3D art and music in there, but that never really worked with my schedule.) My plan was to finish the Physics degree first (since it was more “work” than “fun”), but somehow I was nudged off-track in my studies (as many upper-level courses are only offered once a year). To fill in the gaps in my schedule, I jumped head-first into writing and literature courses–and relished every second of it. It wasn’t even “work” for me. It was pure joy.
The next semester, when I delved back into the Physics courses, I realized quickly that I was completely miserable and this sort of life (for me) was unsustainable. Rather than wallow in pity, I felt empowered. I knew I was in control of this aspect of my life and knew that my decisions directly impacted my happiness. Even though several people had tried to talk me out of a liberal arts education, calling it “impractical” or a “waste of my talent,” I knew at the most basic core of my being that I deserved to do something with my life that truly made me happy. Physics was not making me happy anymore. But my English classes were. So I chose happiness. And I haven’t turned back.
There was a bit of a learning curve for me, as I’d been so steeped in the sciences I’d almost forgotten how to “art.” I redoubled my efforts and worked extra hard at mastering my craft and catching up to (and then exceeding) where my classmates were. Liberated from the shackles of worrying about other people’s opinions or how I would earn enough money to live off an English degree, I gave myself permission to pursue what I loved. I had no more boundaries. I had no more fear. I did what I needed to do to graduate on time (with full honors), and the results are better than anything I could have ever dreamed of.
I went on to complete two graduate programs (an MFA and Publishing Institute), and now I have a career as a professor. I love my job. It’s certainly hard work and has its fair share of frustrations, but most of the time it doesn’t feel like work. It’s not soul-sucking. I’m happy with what I do. I still get to write creatively. My Physics training still kicks in every once in a while, so it’s not like I abandoned that side of me, either. I’ve found a happy medium that works for me.
If I can successfully pursue happiness and art, anyone can. It’s just about listening to where you are and what you’re doing, and making decisions based on what you actively have control over. I make it a rule to do a mental-check-in every few months to see how I’m feeling about my life. Am I happy? Great, continue on. Am I not happy? Okay, why not? What can I do to fix this? If there’s something I can do, I go ahead an do it. Problem solved. If it’s something I can’t do, I figure out how I can better tolerate the situation and work toward getting into a position where I can solve the problem. Usually there are short-term, middle-term, and long-term goals associated with this, and it helps me stay on track with where I want to go in life. The process hasn’t failed me yet. 🙂
The smartass me wants to answer this with, “There’s a possibility of happiness?” And maybe not just the smartass me, but also the Buddhist me. Because the condition of human existence is the condition of dukkha, often translated as “suffering” but perhaps more accurately described as “dissatisfaction.” Why? Because we live in time, aware of both past and present. Because we worry about the future and yearn for certain things to happen and dread other things. Because we mourn or miss the past. Happiness is not really possible, some Buddhist doctrine says. But, with meditation and mindfulness, we can sometimes access the present moment and work towards accepting both past and future with equanimity. In this way we open up the possibility of joy. Which, I would argue, is different from happiness.
But I can imagine this questioner saying, “Yeah, ok. That’s semantics. Cut the bullshit. Tell me something real.”
What’s real is that I don’t think I became aware of the possibility of happiness until I was nearly 40, when my father sent me a book called Calming Your Anxious Mind. He sent it because I was having a near-breakdown after my mother’s death and a move to Florida. He had been talking to me about meditation for years, but though I agreed in principle, it never stuck because nothing I read described it in a way that made sense to me. This book made sense. It was a bit scientific, practical, honest. It said, “In truth, we are not quite sure why it works, but it does work.” It said, “Don’t sit and try to be calm; as soon as you find yourself striving, you are undermining the point. Just sit. Nonstriving, nonjudging.” Even in my anxiety and panic and certainty of doom, I could do that.
What’s real is that when I was 10 and we moved away from the horse farm where I’d spent all my life up to then, I thought I would never be happy again. Happiness was that place. Only later did I come to understand that it was not only that place, but that time in my life, and that time in history.
What’s real is that in college I found poetry, and poetry and learning made me happy. In my personal life I was haunted, as so many are. But my mind was expanding exponentially, and I thought I could control the professional trajectory of my life. So when I fell in love with writing and teaching, I thought, “In work, at least, I will be happy.”
What’s real is what most writers and MFA graduates know: you do not control the professional trajectory of your life. You are lucky, or you are not, or you are somewhere in between. I was not lucky.
What’s real is that, when I discovered meditation, I struggled with the issue of how it might affect my art. I knew by then that my poetry came from that uncomfortable itch, the sense of something a little bit wrong, a question in need of some kind of answer, a problem in need of exploration. I worried that the possibility of happiness would smooth out those itches, render them less urgent. I thought perhaps I would not need to write—me, who had written my entire life, from poems and stories in first grade up to now. Who would I be if I didn’t write? If I wrote from some other place than need, would I feel like a fraud?
What’s real is that now, having struggled hard with depression in the past year, having recognized that my self-esteem eroded away to nothing during my unsuccessful years in the field I loved so that it became a trauma as much as my father’s alcoholism or my childhood abuse, I am ready to give up much of what I once valued for happiness. The writing will come, or it won’t. I suspect it will come, but it will change. Right now, writing blog posts—a type of nonfiction—comes easily, feels right, and poems don’t. Having stepped away—for now or forever—from academia, I am redefining what I think of as “art,” what I think of as worthwhile uses of my time and mind. Self-publishing is no longer something I am ashamed of, nor is accessibility, or writing for the aim of helping people. And I am happier now in some major aspects of my personal life than I have ever been.
The possibility of happiness? It’s there, still. In meditation, and with help. My art? I believe it is also still there, but maybe not in the forms it used to be. Or rather, I believe my life itself is an artwork I am consciously crafting, trying to create meaning in new ways in this strange second act that my college self could never have imagined. It is freeing, in some ways. My poetry, I think, if and when I come back to it, will be both stranger and more accessible. Maybe I will call it essays instead, or memoir, or something else entirely. Maybe I will help someone who needs it. Maybe that’s what’s most real to me now.
The question of when did I “first become aware of the possibility of happiness” has me thinking about the role if language in the stages of childhood cognition–and I’m stopping myself from researching those concepts right now. I’d say I first became aware of happiness by the combined experience of being joyful with a dog and observing their joy. Dogs seemed lovable, loved, and happy, so I must have equated happiness with being loved. It must’ve been sometime around my third year when I noticed the happiness-dog-love triad, because when I was three I declared I was a dog, changed my name to Flower, refused to answer to any other name as well as to walk on two legs, and so became the embarrassment to my parents I am to this day.
The species change didn’t work. I’d say around my fourth or fifth year I became aware that dogs were better than I was at getting themselves loved, and I had better study them hard if I had any hope of happiness. Try as I might, I never could carry out that endearingly unselfconscious authenticity a dog has.
Around the age of seven, however, I discovered that if I told a riveting story, at least for the duration of the tale, people tolerated my presence and some even enjoyed it, especially if I walked on two legs and used utensils while eating. I still have my grade school report cards. Teachers gleefully report that I entertained the entire class with stories of my early years in Africa. I must say, I cringe to think of my young self holding forth on fufu and fire ants, but I wish I remembered those stories now.
Naturally I read deeply, widely, precociously, marveling at the neurological sway the authors had over me and loving them for it. While reading, I felt loved; someone who didn’t even know me had done the generous work of telling me a story. I especially enjoyed stories about dogs and begged my parents for dog. I got a paper route so I had an excuse to hang out with other people’s dogs. I discovered ghost stories, sat in a tree we kids called “the slanted tree,” and retold these stories to the other neighborhood children. I even made some up, like the one about the zombies buried in our backyards whose half-rotted hands at any second could reach up and grab your ankle, which is actually what happened to little Michael when we all thought he just tripped. They loved me for it. At least the older ones loved me, the ones who didn’t run home with faces smeared in tears and snot.
The problem was, storytelling separated me, set me apart. As the one who cast the spell, I didn’t share the experience of being under it and had power over the others. In English class the teachers held my essays and stories up as models, which brought me pride and prestige and the stink eye. Not love. Not happiness, not exactly. I was alone on my side of the page.
In college I tried a few majors. English at least let me study the power of language, hone my gifts, and get lost in flow, which, they say, is a form of happiness. In that sense, majoring in English made me happy even while it felt foolish and impractical. It’s a happy enough thing simply to do something you know you’re good at. It’s important to our wellbeing to feel useful too, and depending on the subject and situation, writing skills can be immensely useful in a wide range of fields, from engineering to medicine to arts and entertainment to the care and keeping of anything at all, such as aquatic birds, carnivorous plants, and the 1963 Chrysler Turbine. If you’re talented enough to convey to others how to write well, you may be also useful to many grateful students. However, because joy is had in the doing and the teaching, many have accepted insufficient recompense for the hard-won skill of writing well and teaching writing well, as if we writers and teachers ought to “get real jobs” or find a sturdy bridge to live under–or jump from. The state of artists and educators in this country has made me unhappier than I can say. We must do better to love and respect ourselves, and it’s time we banded together and demanded better.
In the decades since college, I realized that I didn’t just love dogs, nor animals, but life itself–my own and everyone and everything else’s, and that language is somehow essential to that love. God created the world with the Word. To love words is to love life. To work with words is to put that love into practice. To create with words is to celebrate and to add to the abundance of creation.
Although it isn’t as immediate as the happiness between a person hugging a waggly dog, I’ve learned it’s enough to love writing to the stranger on the other side of the page. Some of my happiest days are spent alone, taking pains to build a story, one word after another, for people I love without knowing them at all, just as other writers have loved me enough to tell me a story long before I ever picked up their pages.