On Over (and under) Thinking Happiness

For our final class, my nonfiction professor invited all his over for for a potluck, a book swap, and the (required) opportunity to deposit with him six essay-filled envelopes that he would, the following day, ceremoniously send to literary magazines on our behalf.

Also in attendance (and, presumably, relieved of the above-mentioned duties) were his wife and two young sons: aged eight and ten.

While the rest of us ate dinner–taquitos, calabicitas, salad and pita pizza–I glimpsed the eight-year old, straddling the back of the living room couch with a pile of three Garfield books in his lap. The expression of pure, unadultered, consuming joy I saw–not just in his face but in his whole, lanky little-boy body–awed me. I made eye contact with my professor and gestured with my chin.

“I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen anyone that genuinely, completely happy,” I said. My professor nodded.

“That one’s kind of an old soul, “ he said.

That moment has been on my mind for the past twenty-four hours, as I’ve walked around Washington DC with an expression not very dissimilar from that ecstatic boy’s.

Last night, snuggling fireside with my friend L on our friend A’s couch, my insides humming with childlike warmth and orange rye punch, I had a doubting moment—the first, it would seem, of several.

“Is it wrong that this feels worth flying across the country for?” I asked, weaving my fingers in and out of his, interrupting a conversation about our latest reading material.

“Not at all,” he assured me. It seems important to mention that L is not a particularly close friend. I don’t even think I have his number in my cell phone. But he’s part of the larger family of people who I hung with when I lived here and who I see when I come back. And there is something about being in the bosom of that group that fills me with a singular, giddy sort of pleasure.

But this silly, swollen joyfulness didn’t just happen mid-snuggle. I felt it yesterday afternoon as the plane descended above a snow-coated Capital buildling. As I rode the Metro past Pentagon City and walked, freezing, through my old Northeast neighborhood. I felt it as I sprawled, pre-party, with my friend S on her studio floor: painting nails, trying on dresses and watching “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” I felt it this morning, making banana pancakes with my friend R and checking out the red pandas at the Woodley zoo.

I know. I’ve written about this before. Recently, I wrote about planning this very visit in order to attend last night’s party upon learning that my friend D—who, I wrote, had the terrible audacity to (like me) up and leave DC—would also be flying in for the occasion.

The reason for that impulsive decision, and for my general extreme warmth toward this place and these people, is probably not–as I wrote–that complicated. Washington is the first place where I built my own community. I built it, basically, from scratch. It wasn’t easy, and it took time. For the first two of my three years here, I felt lonely and adrift. I felt certain that I did not want to live in this place—not then, and certainly not in the future.

Now, as you might imagine, I’m not sure.

As I strolled with R this morning and cuddled with S this afternoon, I begged their counsel.

“I feel so warm and just, so, happy when I come here!” I gushed. “Do you think that means I should move back? Or is it the kind of feeling that would fleet after a weekend?”

Neither of them, of course, could really answer the question. Both, of course, said they’d love it if I were to move back. Both said this with the caveat that, by the time my program ends in a year and half, life might have taken them elsewhere, too. Both punctuated their replies with the question, “Don’t you think you want to live in New York?”

Which, as I told them and as you all know, is a question I basically always come back to.

And, what do you know, it’s not one I’m going to sort out during my five days in Washington or subsequent two weeks in New York.

This afternoon, as S and I lay around snacking on apples and raspberries, I again reminded myself of that boy’s expression as he settled in with those delightful books. I reminded myself that he almost certainly wasn’t thinking critically about why they happened to make him so happy. I reminded myself that, as I should with this moment too, he simply, ecstatically,  enjoyed it.


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