Monday, May 4, 2009

On Bliss: Or the reason why it hurts to breathe

I began to wonder, a few years ago, whether or not people practice the art of "happy" on a regular basis. The whole concept of happiness has confounded me since childhood. My mother, an unlikely font of wisdom on the subject, used to say "Happy just doesn't happen to you, you have to make it happen." I tucked that one away in the Aristotelian section of my brain labeled useful information. It is true. Most of the advice my mom ever gave me was, and still is, true. Even when I don't want to listen to her. Even when the spite takes over and I feel there is nothing more I have to learn from her, I have something left to learn. Olive oil really is good for my hair and skin. I really did need those books on writing and publishing, I do need to make more time for myself. Oh well, back to happiness.

I believe the opposite of what most people believe on the subject. I am convinced that life is a difficult journey filled with loss and discontent, peppered with moments of pure and excruciating joy. Not happiness, note I did not use that word. This flies in the face of what others of my species seem to think. Most go around thinking that life is full of sunshine and rainbows peppered with moments of tragedy, loss and unthinkable grief. Hmmmmmm. Who is right? I am.

In sharing this belief with those around me I am often told I am depressed. I am not. I know what depression looks like. I don't have it. Some call me a doom prophet, hypochondriac, paranoid, anxiety riddled freak. Say what you will. I contend I am right and everyone else is living in a delusion filled anti paradise where they are consistently unprepared for misery. How could you live like that? Yuck.

The interesting part is that I am an enthusiastic, glass half full kind of person. And I can tell you right now that I experiance bliss on a regular basis. Not happiness, that is a different beast altogether. Sometimes I feel too much. It hurts. Bliss is raucous and inappropriate. It melts the rubber soles of my keds right to the sidewalk and then I can't run away from it. It drips down its thick, sweet stickiness into my brain and makes me slow. That's what happens during times of bliss. I become slow. We all do. Think about it. Is it or is it not true that the most tortured of us are the most brilliant? Are not the songs and poems and paintings created out of mind numbing sorrow the ones that end up most adored? The great thinkers of our time, Marx, Foucault, Lock, Einstein, Hendrix, Lennon, Eliot, Warhol, etc... were they not spending time with loss?

I guess now would be the time to state the obvious. I am talking about two different things here, no? Happiness vs Bliss. Let's look up the different definitions and then we can explore.

Happy: Feeling or showing contentment or joy

Bliss: Perfect Happiness, spiritual Ecstasy

See, huge difference. No wonder I have been so confused. I am a subscriber to the notion of bliss. I feel it, I always have. But we can not confuse it with happiness.

I think I was five or six years old when I caught a very bad flu. I remember it so vividly. I was deeply tired and cold and my head was pounding. My mother, at that time, owned a big house in a ritzy part of New Haven. It was mansionesque. There were five bedrooms, three bathrooms, high ceilings, a sweeping staircase, the whole nine yards. And the thing was falling apart, hippie style, with pretty, exotic smelling antiques and linens strewn here and there to cover up dilapidation. We moved when I was seven, to a home that suited me, but not so much my mom. Another story for another day, that one.

Her bedroom in our bohemian mansion was my sanctuary. Crisp linens, huge windows with soft fabric curtains created for sway, ornately framed mirrors, and the all important television set. My mother had a lot of jewelery. Not the kind that belongs in safes, the kind that delights the senses and is yet sensible. Costume. She love to display all of those lovely, eclectic, sparkly things and she had a creative way to do it. She used an expandable coat hook, wooden, the kind you hang on the wall. Instead of coats, she draped beads and necklaces of all sorts over the pegs. She affixed pasted jewel pins onto some of the longer pieces, and even kept a scarf there to showcase earrings. It was a work of art. I loved it. And it was just above my reach. I couldn't even touch it on my tippy toes. Though my mother indulged me in most things, there had been an episode when I was three where I found her jewelry and buried it. It was never found. It is understandable why these things were now off limits. But I wanted them. I especially wanted a strand of pink beads. I don't know what material they were made from, but they looked like little berries that someone took and rolled in pink sugar. They glistened in the sun and my fingers itched to hold them. But, no, I was barred from the "pretties."

Back to being sick. I was laying in my mothers bed. My father was there. This was a wonderful feeling, having them both there together. And they were arguing. My father wanted to pull the covers back and let the cool room take down my fever. My mother insisted that I was cold and should have extra blankets. In truth, my father was right, but who cared! I was covered up tight, seeking even more warmth from the heavy covers, and delighting in the fact that they were arguing over me. At some point my mother and father came down to my level (their heads looked like they were floating) and asked if there was anything they could do to make me feel better. I asked for the beads. My mother didn't hesitate for a second. She walked across the room and took them down from the hook where they lived. She had to take a moment to untangle them, and I remember that some of the sparkles came off in the process and floated like fairy dust to the floor. And then they were in my hands. Bliss. I can still feel their roughness, see that color pink, rich and deep, like the sun setting in the winter. I can still feel my parents next to me, soothing me to sleep as I held the dusty beads to my face.

Happiness is harder to find, because we do have to make it. If someone were to ask me, "Are you happy?" I might laugh. Happy? What is that? I am busy. I am relieved when the people around me are happy and then I feel like I can sleep. Martyr? Maybe... but don't forget the bliss factor. I don't have time right now to make happiness for myself, but I also don't feel its lack. My life is full of too many of those dastardly moments of bliss. They are shocking, and not gentle. They punch you in the gut and force you to swim back up to the surface of ordinary.

Two weeks ago I woke up to find a white rose, obviously a boutonniere of sorts by the cut stem, placed in a tiny bottle my husband and I collected from the sea. Yeah, they exist and are amazing, little bits of bliss all on their own... sea glass bottles. Anyway, he didn't tell me he left it for me. I just knew it. I could see him walking out of the restaurant after a hard night in the kitchen, and in his chef whites he spied a discarded boutonniere on a table or even on the floor, and he thought of me. He came home, chose a bottle that would accommodate the squat stem, and put it on the counter where he knew my morning would start, lucidly, by the coffee machine. When I saw it, I experienced one of those moments. How do I deserve to be so loved? To be surrounded by such quiet, respectful, non boastful love? I am graced that way. Blissed once again.

And so I think happiness will be something I might have time for one day, when everything calms down, and I am not so busy. It is a day I fear.Working on being happy might take away the spontaneous moments of bliss that I have come to count on as my drug of choice. Ah bliss. Delicious, dangerous, and unforgettable. The reason it hurts sometimes to breathe.

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