“It Was Like This: You Were Happy”*

If I had thought last week that I would be writing about rainbows and butterflies, I would have felt immediately compelled to dress in black, light up a smoke, and drink JD straight out of the bottle.  That’s my delusional edgy writer persona talking and it says things like, “What is this, the Hello Kitty Blog?  The Snow White Blog?  Are you going to be posting pictures of yourself with tiny birds perched on your finger and furry woodland animals gathered around your feet next?”  And then my you-can-be-a-normal-person-and-a-writer-at-the-same-time-voice says, “HEY!  If rainbows are good enough for Maya Angelou, they are MORE THAN good enough for you!  So GET ON with it!”

 Yesterday we visited the Butterfly Conservatory, which is as close to magic as I can imagine.  In case I’m ever trapped in some kind of meditation situation where I have to “picture a calm and peaceful place,” I’m going right to the butterfly house in my mind.  It was so warm and green and lush, and the air is filled with tiny, delicate, colorful winged creatures who can’t hurt you, and who, in fact, care absolutely nothing about you.  They are just utterly themselves.

Almost as interesting as watching the butterflies was watching people watching butterflies.  Almost to the person, (myself included) people walked into the conservatory, turned to the left, took out their cameras, and focused on a 6″ by 6″ space where one butterfly perched on one leaf.  Then they stood there for 5 minutes trying to get the perfect picture.

Photography has an acquisitive nature, and vacation photography perhaps even more so.  When I am in a lovely new place taking pictures, I feel like with each click, I am going capture, capture, capture.  I’m much more concerned with taking what I want, getting the perfect shot than with just being wherever I am, letting it all sink in.  I’m embarrassed to say that at the bottom of Niagara Falls I took a picture of the rainbow that we saw with MY CELL PHONE and tried to text it to my sister, but it didn’t go through.  There I was, with an enormous rainbow in front of the enormous Falls, and I was looking at my cell phone. 

But the Butterfly House has a very soothing quality and eventually you are lulled into putting away the camera and just being there.  Watching the old German ladies take pictures of orange butterflies on each other’s heads, the little boy laughing at the white butterfly that landed on his grandmother’s chest as she sat on a bench looking tentative and pleased, and Jacob, with observation and patience that he did not inherit from me, trying over and over and over to get the brown and blue butterflies to land on his finger. 

There is a popular quote by Nathaniel Hawthorne: “Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”  But happiness is Big Business these days:  The Happiness Project is an NYT best seller, Harvard University President Derek Bok is currently talking about “The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being,” and right here in our little town, psychology professor Ed Diener and his son are quite well-known for their book, Rethinking Happiness: The Science of Psychological Wealth. 

My friend Barb shared this quote from Viktor Frankl in one of her comments on my posts:  “Again and again I admonish my students: ‘Don’t aim at success – the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it.  For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.  Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success; you have to let it happen by not caring about it.”

I love this quotation, but it also confuses me, as does the Hawthorne quote.  In fact, both have elements of weirdness, meanness, and truth in them.  The weirdness is that I don’t need any help at all finding negative emotions, so if happiness is just a location on the full spectrum of human emotions, why is it harder/more work to experience than sadness, boredom, disappointment, loneliness or fear?  Is there something “special” about happiness that causes it to require so much effort, study, thought?

The meanness element in these quotes is along the lines of telling people who are trying to get pregnant or meet their life partner, “It will happen when you stop trying.”  Honestly, is there anything more obnoxious, confusing or unkind than that?  Are you supposed to TRY or NOT TRY, for God’s sake???

And the truthful aspects of both of these quotes is that the pursuit of happiness is not happiness itself.  Trying to be happy is not the same as actually being happy.  For me, “happiness” is such an overused word, an overexamined concept, that it doesn’t really mean anything anymore.  The word itself is no longer precise enough, or descriptive enough, or evocative of a direct life experience.  And when you lose the language for something, you are in big trouble. 

The word that resonates with me these days is “participation,” which has nothing to do with happiness.  It just asks us to consider the question: am I in my life or not?  And the answer is not always the same, but it generally leads to more interesting questions, like, “If I’m not in it, why not?” and “What does participation feel like, right now?” and “What would I like to participate in more?  Less?”  What does participation feel like for you? 

“Happiness” feels like a retrospective emotion, sort of an evaluative perspective on something that is past.  And that seems okay.  It’s a good thing to be able to say about something, but it’s not the thing itself.  It doesn’t actually have anything to do with the thing itself, and to me, that feels incredibly freeing.  Taking my eyes off of the ideal of “happiness” feels like deciding to stop staring at the sun.  Instead, I can look around and see what is around me, reflecting that sunlight, making those rainbows, warming up those precious, indifferent, exquisite little butterflies.

Today’s poem is a beauty.  It’s by Jane Hirshfield and it’s called “It’s Like This: You Were Happy.”

It Was Like This: You Were Happy

It was like this:
you were happy, then you were sad,
then happy again, then not.

It went on.
You were innocent or you were guilty.
Actions were taken, or not.

At times you spoke, at other times you were silent.
Mostly, it seems you were silent — what could you say?

Now it is almost over.

Like a lover, your life bends down and kisses your life. 

It does this not in forgiveness —
between you, there is nothing to forgive —
but with the simple nod of a baker at the moment
he sees the bread is finished with transformation.

Eating, too, is now a thing only for others.

It doesn’t matter what they will make of you
or your days: they will be wrong,
they will miss the wrong woman, miss the wrong man,
all the stories they tell will be tales of their own invention. 

Your story was this: you were happy, then you were sad,
you slept, you awakened.
Sometimes you ate roasted chestnuts, sometimes persimmons.

*Jane Hirshfield

8 thoughts on ““It Was Like This: You Were Happy”*

Add yours

  1. Leslie,
    Thank you for this post. I especially liked your analogy about staring at the sun. I suspect from what I’ve enjoyed reading on your blog that you are already familiar with the TED talks. Here’s a link to one that resonated with me about the notion of happiness as it relates to memory. Maybe other readers will enjoy it. Subscribing to your blog has been one of the most influential choices I’ve made in recent months. I love reading your thoughts, learning about your experience, adding mine and . . .the poetry. I’m deeply invested in the almost daily doses of poetry you are providing to our little corner of cyber space. Thank you. I also started reading Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat Zinn. If you are not already familiar with this, you might check it out. He is a mindfulness guru. But I find myself really connecting to the poetry/prose he includes from Ancient Buddhist thinkers to Thoreau.

    I’m headed on my own road trip tomorrow for a long weekend with my spouse and three children. Our destination won’t have any butterflies; we’re going to a cheezy indoor water park near Dayton, OH. In any case, I’ll think of you when I do a “shoe” check before departure. BTW, I once took my 4 year old to preschool without shoes. Thank you Meijer for being open at 7:30am for emergency shoe purchases.


    1. Hi Jennifer, I LOVE TED–one of the greatest web sites in the world. I will definitely check out this link–thank you very much for reading and sharing! Enjoy your trip. Niagara was pretty cheezy at times too, but such is life with kids, vacations, and not unlimited resouces. 🙂


  2. Definitely not Hello Kitty. This one once again lives up to what I’ve come to expect from your writing, Leslie. Your thoughts and the poem both have that sometimes startling, sometimes edgy, honestly self-reflective quality of an active and observant mind. I woke up with the lyrics to “Castles Burning” in my head this morning. Find someone who’s turning, and you will come around. You definitely keep me turning.


  3. Leslie: I regret not writing a response daily to every “butterfly” of an essay you have written. I thoroughly enjoy them all. Too busy at work and home. Today, I was feeling happy for “no reason.” Once again, I realized, I don’t often question a bad mood. Actually, I bought a guitar in part to help an unemployed friend but I was not sure that I could afford it now. The purchase made us both happy and she has two other guitars. I liked what you wrote about children, our fears for them which I still have despite children in their thirties. I am also proud of all the risks they take and I know they inherited that tendency from me. I recall my son telling me that he was jumping off the pier into the Portland Harbor, and I said, “I am your mother, do you think I should know this?” It became a classic question. And, my mother often said, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” With her passing, I say it more than ever; it is a prayer of gratitude.
    In any case, I embrace your delightful observations as I embrace my happiness. Thanks, Colleen


    1. Dear Colleen,

      Please don’t feel obligated to respond to the posts! Just knowing that you are reading is more than enough for me, though of course I love to hear from you, and am so so grateful that you are enjoying being here. I love your comments–whenever they appear! Leslie 🙂


  4. Leslie, what a delightful essay. I love the idea of replacing happiness with participation. Or engagement. Or perhaps presence. You know, just being there for whatever is going on. But perhaps we can also reclaim the word “happiness” from the fangs of Disneyesque smiley faces. You know, I want to reserve the right to be happy while being grumpy and annoyed. Ahhh, so liberating! Just as it’s worth reclaiming the word “God” from the stranglehold of religious orthodoxy. I’m just learning to say God for the first time in my life, and it’s kind of cool, in a very subversive sort of way. Anyway, your writing is just utterly on fire and it makes me totally happy, in that smiley sort of way. 😉


    1. Sven, Thank you so much for visiting and leaving this comment! Interesting about saying “God.” I feel sort of weird saying it because I feel as though if I’m not 100% on board with religious orthodoxy, I don’t really have the “right” to say “God.” But I’ll join you in your subversion and keep trying!


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