by Jennifer Sey
My mother in law is worried about me. She thinks I'm unhappy. First there was my book digging up all the childhood trauma – abusive gymnastics coaches, neglectful parents, shattered self – esteem, blah blah blah. I intended the memoir to be more of a coming of age tale than an I'm so miserable, let me confess all the horrible things that have happened to me as a kid saga of self-pity. But the reader gets what the reader gets.
Then there are the columns. Everything I write is relatively angsty, I suppose. It isn't that I'm UNhappy. It's just that the things I ponder are the things that eat at me. Usually they are deep in my gut surrounded by piles of happy. But I like to go right to the center of what causes me pain, irritation, anger, shame. Shame, in particular, is a subject of endless fascination for me. It feels so noxious and damaging, I hate for it to sit there untended to. It might spread and take over my entire body, causing sepsis and ultimately death by self-degradation and fatal humiliation.
Cliché as it sounds, I work out the angst by writing about it. And I make an assumption that others like to read about the human struggle. It unites us to know we're not alone in what causes us pain, no matter how stupid and insignificant that pain-causer might be. I LOVE reading things that are ponderous and sad. I find them inspiring if they are well considered, well-written. The beauty in dark resonant prose lifts my spirit, as counter-intuitive as that may seem. I hope that one day, after years of practice, I might achieve something of that for a reader.
Just as unlikely as finding uplift in the morose, I often find happy in the mundane or the dreadful. In an effort to answer my mother in law's question – are you happy? - herein I will iterate just a few things that make me buoyant. My happy list is derived from some absurd sources including work in the corporate machine, getting older, public transit and in-laws. But the saddest book ever, Revolutionary Road (yes the movie with Kate and Leo) makes me joyous because it is so artfully crafted. Thus perhaps I'm just topsy-turvy in my world view.
#1. I love that I am about to turn 40. Because I am old enough to feel proud of my accomplishments. I feel highly competent in my corporate day job. I even enjoy work sometimes. Gasp! In fact, I just spent the week in an “off site”, the oft mocked and dreaded corporate equivalent of a colonoscopy. Only more boring. And it was fun! I led a group of global marketing executives from Japan, Brussels, Brazil, Singapore, US and a host of other countries through an arduous process focused on growing our business (yawn, corporate talk, sorry) and we all had a ball. Most of us, anyway. We did the work while bickering with each other but ultimately got a kick out of the whole thing and came away more appreciative of each other. I felt like an important part of that productivity. Proud happy girl.
#2. I write stuff. This pleases me to no end. I do it in the wee hours of the morning either at the end of a long day or before a brutal one, but it's worth the bleary-eyedness. I toil over book ideas, fiddle with articles and drop loads of unfinished snippets. The unfinished snippets dig at me a bit. They poke around in my brain begging to be completed, mocking me for ignoring them. They eventually quiet down because I don't feed them enough. But mostly I feel happy that I write anything at all and it's worth being exhausted all the time. I was fearful of writing throughout my twenties (something for “creative” people, not me) and I now do it frequently and fluidly without fear of failure.
#3. When my kids aren't driving me nutso, they make me happy. Given that I work long days, often like a dog, and only spend dinner and a short time before bed with them during weekdays, the weekends are ours. Saturdays, in particular, are fun mommy/boy days. This past weekend we went to see Pink Panther 2. I caught a good nap during the show and enjoyed hearing them guffaw in between my dozing and shoveling over-buttered popcorn down my gullet.
We had lunch together, we talked, we rode the bus. It was all happy inducing.
In point of fact, the bus was the most eventful part of our outing. As we boarded the Hayes #21 to head home, there was a young, quiet man seated in the back whom we found ourselves across from. He smiled periodically at my kids who were alternately licking the windows and poking each other in the ears. His near grin was oddly disengaged and I wondered what was going on with him. Was he eye-ing me up to bonk me on the head and grab my almost empty purse? Was he tired? Was he drunk or high?
He kept looking at us, without much intent, but without interruption. Eventually, about twelve blocks from our stop, he bolted straight. Looked me right in the eye. And vomited.
He puked all over the back of the bus, within inches of spraying us with his last meal. Yep. I love the bus. Public transit is the absolute best for stories. And that makes me happy. He said nothing to acknowledge his transgression. No “I'm sorry”, no “Oh I don't feel well”. He just got up and got off while his regurgitated detritus swirled beneath our feet.
We got a good laugh out of that as the bus descended the steep San Francisco hill to our house and the bodily fluid lolled its way to the front of the vehicle, slickly covering the floor while leaving unidentifiable chunks in its wake.
I have never laughed so hard with my boys. I had to smell imagined vomit for the rest of the day while listening to my kids fake retch but it was worth it for the initial gut busting laugh.
#4. My mother in law reads and wants to discuss everything I write. She enjoys talking with me about matters of substance affecting my life and hers. In this, I feel lucky. We recently exchanged emails about her challenge to me to write something less gloomy. Ultimately, she acknowledged that I should write what moves me, that the writing is about self-investigation, not celebrating. She understood me better now, she said. Would never judge me, she said. But would continue to check on my level of happy, as that was important to her. Her generous spirit brought tears of joy to my sometimes unhappy eyes.
My mother in law makes me happy. The bus makes me happy. I MUST be one gleeful gal.