I usually feel an incredible relief at the start of the new year. Arbitrarily, and somewhat dishonestly, it feels like a new beginning, an unsullied sheet in a notebook with a crisp binding, ready to take dictation with a swift pen – defining in clean concise terms a brighter future with kooky, creative doodles for a better day. This year, despite the numerical date shift forward, the rodent is still scuttering behind my eyeballs, the boa constrictor feels tight around my organs, my kidneys, my heart, and the shrieking monkey of guilt and obligation has rendered me permanently deaf in one ear. When I look back over my shoulder at the last few years, I find only marginal progress and lateral moves, I find sighs and irritation, a sprinkling of iodized salt. Hope is a dusty well; I am feeling old and unhappy.
If you asked me, up until quite recently, I think I’d describe myself as someone who is always trying to do the right thing, a person that sacrifices my needs for others, I give, give and give and I take what I see as the burden of family and work and life and I grin and bear it. I am a good friend. I am a good daughter and sister. I am a good girlfriend and a good co-worker. But, it’s not as easy as all that, because if I look closely I am also a bitter, crabby, exhausted old dog. I am impatient. I am frustrated. I am regretful. I am angry. My life is a ridiculous waste of time, I contribute little, and what I contribute I do slowly and poorly. I burden others, my family, my friends, my co-workers, with my bad attitude and inflexibility.
Over a year ago, during a conversation with my sister in which I was complaining about my frustrations probably for the millionth time, she said to me, “Joce, I just don’t think you’re ever going to be happy, your standards are too high and you’re too hard on yourself and others.” At the time, it seemed like an unfair jab. Now, I realize it’s true. I am never going to be happy. It’s not in my temperament. But I wonder, why is happiness the goal anyway, and is it actually possible? For anyone?
Happiness is perfection, it’s when absolutely everything comes together and the angels sing and nothing is ugly or off key anymore and there are no problems, just swift solutions and tidy bows and beautifully arched brows and sweet smiles. Happiness is a lie perpetrated by Oprah and Vogue magazine and the self help machine. It’s one more way in which society makes us feel like we’re failing because we aren’t living up to a completely out-of-this-world ideal.
Maybe you’re one of those people that does feel truly, completely happy. I congratulate you on your engagement, your meaningful but very expensive wedding, your pregnancy, your photogenic new baby. I'm thrilled about your new house, new car, new job, (big raise! big bonus!) and your subsequent new boat (used, but still). Your tropical vacation looked amazing, especially those pictures of you in your bikini looking like a fitness model (is that a new nose? boobs?), posted from your brand new iPhone 5s/mini iPad. Last month, you ran three marathons AND got your doctorate AND volunteered in a third world country building bridges. You are an inspiration. And for my next trick, I will pretend that I'm not comparing myself to you. And also, that I believe you, because I don’t.
When you have a blog about an endless string of bad dates and bad relationships, people inevitably tell you, “it’ll all work itself out eventually. You’ll meet a great person and things will come together.” It’s the same if you’re struggling with a job, a dysfunctional family, money, it’s the same thing, “It’ll get better. Hang in there, things will improve.” But, you know what? I know lots of people who have struggled their whole lives and never got a love story with a fairy tale ending, people that ended up instead with a string of heartaches and pain and sadness. Lots of people die broke having never had a moment of richness. Lots of people are burdened with tremendous suffering, physically, emotionally, psychologically. Some of us lose when we should have won and it’s not impossible to try and try and still fail. Bad things happen to good people. Bad things happen to all people. So, why is it so important for us to tell ourselves, tell others, that it everything will be all right? That it should be our goal to be happy, despite it all? I’m starting to realize that maybe it won’t be alright and that I shouldn’t focus so closely and so insistently on happiness. In 2014 I’m giving up on happy and am reaching instead for happy-ish.
Three years ago I left my desert home in Tucson, Arizona in a panic. My boyfriend, in order to get out of the complicated relationship web of his design, took out an insurance policy on my life and took me on a scuba trip to drown me off the coast of Puerto Peñasco, Mexico. The drowning attempt failed though he did manage to flood our home for the insurance money and leave me with nothing but a bunch of waterlogged furniture and moldy clothes. I couldn’t envision living in the same town with him going forward, the sight of any white pickup or a tall man in camo gave me the animal fear sweats, so I sought refuge with my family in Idaho. It was a hard transition. I have yet to acclimate back to my home state for whatever and many reasons.
Just last week I took a trip back to Tucson. It seemed like nearly instantaneous transition from the cold, dreary inversion of the north to the sunny warmth of the southwest. Immediately I felt lighter, I felt cheerful, I felt positive and relaxed. But, on the way back I felt overwhelmed with sadness and I started to cry, uncontrollably, as the cloud shadows across the Catalina’s disappeared into the distance. I hadn’t expected to be so sad. I’ve visited before. It’s always hard to leave my friends, leave the warm for the cold. But this time it was more, it felt like I was leaving myself behind. A different, less brittle self.
When I lived in Tucson I had a large community of friends. Both close friends and interesting acquaintances: enough friends for a backyard barbeque and best friends for a weekly dinner. I had an easy job that I mostly liked, a beautiful office in a beautiful building. I had hobbies. I had friends that shared my hobbies. I had favorite restaurants. I had shopping buddies and enough money to occasionally go shopping. I took classes at the Y, which was close enough that I could walk there. I lived in a cool vintage adobe row house with creaky wood floors and a fancy kitchen. I tended my herb garden. I had time to read. I did sewing projects. I kept up with my blog. I liked to cook and cooked often. I loved to walk around the barrio and watch the monsoon clouds gather over the mountains and take a dip in the pool. I loved the one-wardrobe climate and the well-worn, casual town.
In Idaho I have a small community of friends. Most of them are charming people that my sister introduced me to, but they have lives and interests far different from mine. They are all much younger and have functional relationships and marriages and baby fever. When I socialize I often feel like an interloper that doesn’t have much to contribute to the conversation. I don’t go skiing. I don’t run. I don’t ride a fancy bike. I don’t know which exit to get off the freeway for the best river access. My days are spent at my day job and my evenings and weekends are dedicated to the family business, or feeling guilty that I’m not doing more for the family business or chores. I can make anything a chore. Dinners and holidays with my family revolve around doing work or talking about work. I don’t sew. I don’t read. I haven’t picked up a pen or a paintbrush in years. It takes me months to write anything. I’m always broke, all of the time. My boyfriend doesn’t care if I cook and doesn’t really want to help with the dishes, so I rarely make a meal that isn’t just a serviceable soup for myself. There are few restaurants that I enjoy and no money to enjoy the ones I do. I like my little house but let the landlord tend the yard. I take only short walks around the neighborhood. The long fall, cold winters, and wet springs have deprived me of my usual Vitamin D. I go to the Y but don’t love the classes. I have gotten fat. Jowls are forming, more from the frowns than the fat.
In my life I’ve been rotten about setting goals. I’m reactionary, always on the defense instead of on the offense. So, it’s no surprise that I ended up here, so far from where I want to be, so far from who I want to be. I give up too easily. I let myself be ruled by obligation and guilt and anxiety. I am motivated by fear and worry. I run away when I can. I feel selfish if I put my needs before those of my family, if I put my wants as a priority.
Living in Tucson was far from perfect. I had terrible boy problems. I felt far away from my family. I was mostly broke, most of the time. Summers were scorching hot. But, in there, and I only see it now, were golden sunshine nuggets of happy-ish. I want them back.
Fuck happiness. It’s never going to happen. But, I’m gonna death grip the next moment of delight in a shared secret. Give me a tiny sliver of bliss in a sneaky kiss. A snort and a belly laugh with a new friend, an old friend. Give me fresh sunny air. Give me the joy of whipped cream on my tongue, the feel of soft fur under my hand as I pet my pet. Give me gladness. A morning of peace, an evening of comfort. A minute of harmony, of safety, of beauty, of mutual understanding. 2014, give me happy-ish, as much as I can bear.