Happy Hour

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Happiness is a tenuous state, vanishing under the slightest scrutiny. As soon as we become aware that we’re happy, we break the spell. Most of the time.

I have found a wormhole to happiness, a way to enter and possess this fragile condition, at least for an hour or so.

It starts on my drive home from work, as I reach the neighborhood I live in. Darkness falls early now and I drive with care, watching for evening walkers, a loose dog, a child. I consider how quickly life can cave in, the countless hazards I’ve been spared, through vigilance or luck. The close calls I know nothing about.

I get out of the car and pause on the walkway to admire the silhouette of the giant cedar in my yard, the cold bright stars above it. The air smells of fall leaves and wet tree bark. The porch is lit, waiting for me. I can see the living room through the window, the string of willow lights on the mantle and the mountain sculpture above it. I am smiling already.

The front door is a portal to another realm. I cross the threshold into a place of rescue and reassurance, a habitat my spouse and I created to calm ourselves and honor the natural world. Here is a sconce fashioned of paper birch and manzanita branches; here is a hawk with moonlight on his back; here is a carved wooden owl taking flight from the wall; here is a large photo of a deeply fissured redwood in a forest of ferns.

My wife greets me with a kiss, just like in the old movies, then heads into the kitchen to shake up the martinis—one apiece, never more. Fine gin is strong medicine and should be handled with ritual and respect.

We take our drinks into the living room and sit down to discuss the day. Settled into my recliner, I look over at the electric fire with its obedient orange flames, and the carpet with its undulating lines that remind me of wave-lapped sand, and my wife, whom I have loved every minute of our thirty-eight years together, and my joy is so great I cannot speak, can only wonder how, in this world of microbes and menace and mad men, we have been kept safe, why we were born here and not Somalia. How have we managed to hang onto our vision, our limbs, our minds? How have we survived our blunders, our fathers, the things we will never, ever speak of?

A second thought, the slightest change on any given day, and we would not be sitting here now. Had we been moving toward each other all along? Did our detours bring us together, or did we meet, magnificently, in spite of them? To think that we began our lives no bigger than a grain of sand, then had to swim, crawl, walk, run, bike and drive to reach this precarious moment.

I lift my drink, which never fails to knock the rough edges off my work day, and turn to my wife. I can hardly wait for whatever she might say.

It is this way every night.

For Audrey

One of our customers died last week. I didn’t know her well. I just knew that I liked her, that I wanted to see more of her, that I wish I could have told her what she gave us.

Audrey was her name. Tall, generously proportioned, she always came into the store smiling. Because of this, everyone wanted to assist her, to be part of this easy joy. We would ask her what she needed, and she would invite us to help her choose, would listen closely to our recommendations and defer to our knowledge of the plants and products we sell. Audrey never objected to our prices, higher of course than the box stores, evidently understanding that independent nurseries are struggling to survive. Each time she came in she told us how nice the stock looked, and she thanked us for the time we spent with her. How she loved flowers!

She was not elderly; her death was sudden and wrong. I am still recovering from it, trying to understand my feelings so that I may move on. Not that I expect to make any sense of her death. We live in a wild world of chance, and asking: why, why her, is a pointless pursuit. People die too soon all the time. What does bring me comfort is the certainty that she was happy: people mired in suffering don’t offer themselves so freely. Audrey’s was a spill-over joy, something she couldn’t help, something that rose from a private, boundless well.

Can I dig such a well for myself? Now there’s a question worth asking. Certainly we are born predisposed to certain behaviors. Joan Didion wrote that some people (especially writers) are “anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.” I do believe that many of us are glass-half-empty people, and we must work harder at finding the things that bring us cheer.

Working in retail has given me ample opportunity to study the various ways people engage with the world. Some are meek, some are nervous; some are resentful, others punitive. I recall a woman who stunned me with her rancor. I had rung up her purchase and carried her plants to her car. As she was starting to drive off I wished her a good day, and she stopped short and glared at me. “What do you care? You don’t know me. You shouldn’t say things like that to people you don’t know. It’s phony. It’s meaningless.”

I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. My heart was beating in my ears. I did the oddest thing then: I waved good-bye, helplessly—a gesture that probably irked her even more.

As I walked back into the store, my shock gave way to indignation. I probably should have let it go—I couldn’t. All the rest of that afternoon, I fumed over this meanness, this assault. I wondered how much wreckage, in just one day, this woman left in her wake. I found her charge slip, noted her name and copied her address from the phone book. By the time I got home, I knew what I was going to do.

In the drawer of my desk I located a blank card with bluebirds and flowers on the front. Using a pretty font on the computer, I wrote a note, printed it out, then cut and pasted it into the card: “Some people, with their charm and warm smiles, make the world a better place. You are not one of them.” I typed her address and supplied no return identification.

Though this deed brought me ample satisfaction, it was not the end of the story. A year later she came back into the store, utterly changed. She was kind and complimentary, and when she signed her charge slip that day, she told me we had a nice staff. “If you can’t be nice,” she said, “then what good are you?” She looked up at me when she said this, but there was no malice in her eyes, and if she suspected that I was the card-sender, I saw she held no grudge. I carried her plants to her car and once again wished her a good day. “You too,” she said. She started to drive off, then stuck her head out the window. “Hey. I like your hair.”

I am a fretful sort, a woman too quick to retreat, a woman who doesn’t smile often enough. There is plenty in me to work with. Change is what life wants.

Though Audrey might have been born good-natured, she was a mortal like the rest of us and must have known pain and loss and fear. But what she put forward was her best self, the side of her that made us feel better.

This is for you, Audrey, with love and thanks.

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