Chasing the Evanescent Glow

Happiness is not cozy.

 It gleams most vividly against a background of black.

By: Nuala O’Faolain

W HEN I THINK ABOUT HAPPINESS, IT IS NOT AN IMAGE I SEE, though I know the ads that show perfectly matched children hugging their toys or an impeccable couple strolling on the beach at an exclusive resort or a silver-haired pair holding hands beside a golf cart. My happiness moves. Where I live in the west of Ireland, often in the evening a bar of golden light blazes along the horizon of the ocean. Then small clouds, ragged and wistful, drift across the radiance and obscure it and thicken, and that’s how the dusk comes. There’s nothing I can do to make the gold arrive, and of its nature it dissolves . After dusk departs, the dark is not just dark. It contains the memory of what it was. And that’s what I think happiness is like—radiant like the last of the sun, but always in the process of disappearing.

In the afterglow I hurry across the grass to the shed to fill my basket with sods of turf for the fire. The dog throws herself in front of me quivering at the amazing possibility that we’re going for a walk—not one dog molecule of skepticism kept back to protect herself with. She lives entirely in the present moment. But happiness is conscious of the before and after—it is the brimming water in the bowl of a fountain that the slightest disturbance will spill. On my way to sleep I’ll remember with satisfaction how high the turf was piled. If a rain shower spinning in from the ocean rattles the window, I’ll feel how warm I am, and safe. I’ll count the abundance of food and fuel and folded linen within my sturdy walls, and even though I’m on my own and my body is lonely—in the ads happy people are never alone—there are times when satisfaction grows to a state that is like a dense calm. The minute dot that is myself will be in balance for a while with the great universe.

This happiness was born back when I was small. It’s the payback for years of want. If I had always had enough, what would it mean to me to have enough now? Some pattern of light and shade was laid down, once upon a time, in that place that is both heart and mind where the state of happiness lurks, and the pattern comes with each person on the crooked path out of the past and is part of their unique being. And therefore what makes us happy can divide us from each other, though the myth insists that it unites us. One person has found completion in looking into the eyes of a partner across the head of their newborn child, but the partner wants to sing an aria as perfectly as it can be sung. Another person, exhausted with pleasure, prolongs a tender and grateful kiss to a lover; the lover is restlessly waiting to be released to check the stock market. Even the classic happy experiences—the letter that says the job is yours, the first crocus piercing the snow an enemy routed, a candidate elected, a horse storming home to win by a neck at 10-1—have something solitary at their core. The admen pretend that happiness is a package, the better to sell it. But there is no warm, shared bath out there. Happiness is not cozy. It gleams most vividly against a background of black.

Because nobody can summon it up, nobody can say that it will never come again. But nobody can stop it from disappearing either. From one second to the next my rich balance abandons me. Rain streams down the window. I look up at the ceiling, my eyes imploring the dark. Is being happy like a current that disturbs the seabed? I was floating, and then anxiety swam up from underneath, and discontent, and regret. The old voice started crying again, Why am I not loved?

The waiting for the next time begins.

My great-grandfather told how during the Great Famine, when everyone around his part of the country was starving, a crow flew past with a potato in its beak, which meant it was a good potato, not diseased, and men, women and children set off after the crow stumbling into ditches, falling, jostling each other to be the one to get the food if the bird dropped it. That’s what the pursuit of happiness is like . This is one of life’s mysteries there’s no coming to terms with—that as long as we have breath we have no choice but to go running after happiness, our poor faces strained upward as if we cannot get enough of it, as if happy is what we were meant to be, as if without happiness we would starve.

As we would.

Nuala O’Faolain, author of Are You Somebody?, is now writing a book about an Irish-American conwoman called Chicago May


TIME Magazine, Inc.

January 17, 2005. (Pg. A62)

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