I Still Can Be Happy

Dearest Rachel –

There’s a certain unfortunate bias in my letters to you. This is in part because I generally make a point of writing to you first thing in the morning. To a certain extent, this is so I can get the task out of the way, and get on with the rest of my day, which seems an awful way to look at it – talking to one’s beloved shouldn’t be considered some kind of chore, after all. But it’s not as if you’re here to actually talk to, and it’s considerably more difficult to arrange and write down my thoughts as opposed to simply conversing face-to-face.

Writing you early in the morning is also colored (so to speak) by the fact that I start out by lying around in the silence and dark, pondering what I want to talk to you about (assuming I haven’t had any really weird dreams). Sure, the darkness and the quiet are excellent for focusing one’s mind, but at the same time, they’re not exactly conducive toward happy thoughts. As a result, I’m sorry to say, you tend to hear from me at my most lugubrious; although it could be argued that there’s a certain sadness inherently engendered by deliberately talking to someone like you, who I know I can never see again in life.

My point being, I really do have moments of cheerfulness and energy; you just don’t get to hear me tell you about them often enough, in part simply due to the method and timing I employ to catch you up on my life. And that’s not really fair to either of us, since I don’t tell (and you don’t hear) the whole picture.

But after walking with Lars yesterday, and spending several hours together talking about so many different things, he observed (with some delight of his own) that he was able to see a certain light in my eyes that hadn’t been there in some time. Smiling and laughing, in certain points in our conversation, came unbidden to me, as natural as any other reaction. It may not have been obvious to me, necessarily, but he could tell that I am on the road to recovery – and indeed, he’d played a significant part in that process.

But it’s not something that I write to you about very often, and I apologize for that.

No innocent man buys a gun, and no happy man writes his memoirs.

Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days (1985)

In his book, Keillor appears to deflect the credit for this line, starting off with “It’s said that…” However, I can’t seem to find the ‘original’ source for the line, so I’m going to have to give him the credit for it regardless. In any event, he clearly believes it, otherwise he wouldn’t bring it up in the first place.

Now, I would take issue with the first part, although it probably depends on one’s definition of ‘innocent.’ You know I’ve never owned a gun, nor have I ever had any desire (or compelling need) for one; remember how gobsmacked we both were to find your dad’s old service revolver in that one cut-out book in his library? Needless to say, we both agreed to turn it over to Twofeathers for her dad to restore and use it as he saw fit. But to imply that anyone who purchases a firearm is guilty of something (while true, since we’re all sinners) strikes me as being, at the very least, uncharitable. The assumption that every gun is purchased with the expectation that it be used on someone is a gross oversimplification (and let’s remove hunters from the equation; any equivocation of animals and humans tends to denigrate humanity rather than elevating animal kind). Perhaps if Mr. Keillor lived in a certain section of his beloved Minneapolis two or three years ago, he might have had a different perspective about their efficacy as a means of protection, even if only brandished and not fired.

Then again, artistic types – and especially writers – grow up with literary devices like Chekov’s Rule, which instructs that a gun that shows up on stage be fired before the play is over, so perhaps this colors their mindset. While understandable, this does mean that they forget that life often doesn’t follow those literary rules.

All that said, my real emphasis is on the second half of the epigram, which is spot on. As much as we might do well to understand happiness (or rather, joy – more on that later), no one who considers themselves to be happy records his life as it dances around him for us to absorb and hopefully follow. There are so many reasons for this, I hardly know where to begin. For starters, who, while in the midst of enjoying a moment his life, is going to interrupt himself (and, likely, those around him), and say “hold on, let me get all this written down”? No, he’s going to do his level best to stay in that happy moment as long as he can; trying to record it – or worse, trying to analyze why, exactly, he’s happy in that moment, and how to replicate it for future reference – is a sure way to destroy that moment entirely. This is how I felt at times while Daniel and I were traveling with the group through Israel at times; there’s something wrong about my burying my nose in my phone to get all of my impressions of everything down on paper (at least, in digital form). It takes away from the enjoyment of the moment.

It’s not just those truly ecstatic moments, either; even on a long-term basis, it rarely occurs to one to write everything down. That’s the position I find myself in as I try to recall certain pieces of our life together that were so much better than things are now. The thing is, fairy tales often wrap up with ‘and they lived happily ever after’ at the point where the protagonist couple get married; in reality, at that point, they’ve ‘only just begun,’ as the Carpenters’ song goes. But the contentment of life doesn’t contain the drama, the angst, the adventure that makes for a good story. Even if someone were to write it all down (with the attendant interruptions to life that would entail, as I’ve just mentioned), it would likely strike the reader as boring and humdrum. And it is – I’ve said it before, adventures are generally only fun in the retelling, rather than in the experience itself. Until you complete them safely (and when you’re in the middle of them, there’s no guarantee), they’re more a source of terror than of happiness. You only find yourself happy in the survival.

On a more meta level, very few of us can claim to have the secret of happiness, and those of us who think they do probably haven’t considered the fact that what works for them won’t work for someone else. There is no one cookie-cutter secret to joy – which is different from happiness, in that one is a momentary emotion, while the other is a state of mind and being. It’s an undercurrent that tinges everything else, whereas the other are a series of brief flashes throughout life.

Just as an example, one of the things I wanted to offer as advice to younger generations had to do with not trying so hard to find that special someone (a decided source of earthly joy, even though that’s only based on my own narrow experience) was that it was best to simply give up on the pursuit, because friendship – and, by extension, love – can’t be chased and caught. Indeed, from my experience, it was from being a part of a group with absolutely no expectations toward finding more out of it that something more is found; poking at something with a stick, going ‘come on, do something’ is not the way to go about encouraging positive results. But now, I realize I have to actually get out of the house and hang around with people; they’re not going to come to me. It turns out that a certain level of pursuit and expectation is necessary for anything to truly happen. So yeah, I don’t have the secret, and I doubt any truly wise person – no matter how happy, or even joyful, they believe themselves to be – dares think they have it either.

All we can do is content ourselves with the fact that we can be happy, even joyful, and strive to ascertain the means to keep ourselves in that state as best we can.

And with that in mind, honey, keep an eye on me, and wish me luck. I’m going to need it.

Published by randy@letters-to-rachel.memorial

I am Rachel's husband. Was. I'm still trying to deal with it. I probably always will be.

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