To Be Happy

…And she realized she was old and alone. She wasn’t old really. And she was still beautiful if you took the time to notice but she was pretty sure most people didn’t have that kind of time. And there she was, walking down the street, holding tightly onto that tiny little three-year-old hand. How she envied his way of being alive. His other hand happily strumming along the slats of the wrought iron fence they were passing, giggling at leaves dancing in the wind. And yet she still couldn’t erase the image she’d seen of herself in the tinted car window they’d passed. So old so sad so damaged. What had happened to her? She gave herself the usual pep talk- there’s only two ages, alive and dead. And she knew it was true. But still she wished for things to be different. How she envied her son, waving hello to slobbering dogs, stopping to celebrate a garbage truck a tow truck a dislodged chunk of concrete. Not needing to know there was anyone else doing anything better. And she felt ashamed for wishing things were different.

It was such an old habit really. She’d been wishing for things to be different almost her entire life. Since the very first time she discovered all the other people who had so many more reasons to be happier than she did. And somewhere along the course of her life, she’d lost the ability to feel what felt good and mostly anguished instead about whatever she’d happened to be thinking about. No, not thinking. More like obsessing. Or strategizing. Well whatever it was, it rarely accomplished anything other than interrupting whatever pleasant feeling had already been there. Always reminding her of all the good reasons why she should be working harder to make things different. And there was her little boy, his little nose sniffing high into the air, announcing so earnestly how he could smell every single flower on the earth. And she was grateful for him, for reminding her to feel the spring breeze. And it did feel delicious. And she smiled. Even though in the background she wondered if anyone passing by still thought her smile was pretty. And then she no longer felt the breeze, only embarrassment and shame to still be wondering how she looked in profile to men half her age that she didn’t even care about anymore. Another old habit. To exist in the glances of others rather than through her own experiences of the world.

Her mother had told her that when she’d been her son’s age she used to say hello to everyone. Wanted to be friends with the whole world. Even she could remember being that way. Always wanting to connect with everyone, experience the beauty of life together. That was the original reason behind her beautiful smile. Not to lure the opposite sex into her bed. These people who’d been lured to her bed in the past had just been the only ones who’d noticed her smile or at least the only ones who had answered the call to connect to the best of their ability. But what she’d really wanted and still longed for was old-fashioned company. Nothing resembling the sad days of her own childhood but the kind of company she imagined from lifetimes ago when she’d laughed in meadows gathering things like nuts and berries with other women while their children happily played together nearby.  Way back when, before someone introduced the idea of something better to do and ways to make life so much easier in the meantime; back before everyone had thought themselves to death.

And this is what she thought about while being dragged by the arm by her excited little boy down the stairs and into the library playroom. To sit amidst all these other moms and nannies who didn’t formally know each other but who looked so very much the same checking their emails in between smiling at whatever victory their offspring had achieved, getting up only to resolve the occasional tug-o-war over some prized piece of wheeled plastic, or to rescue their little one from some snot-filled potential case of measles. She felt badly for being one of those germ phobic moms. Hated her under-the-radar messages that other people were contagious. Yet how fiercely she needed to protect him from these others- from their ways of oppressing innocent souls with their criticisms their judgments and their germs.

Her own mother had never let her play with others.  Her own mother had never let her play outside for that matter. From the parking lot and into Saks was the extent of her outdoor experience. This was probably one reason she’d chose to live in the woods. In a rural area. Besides the fact that she’d found some miniscule amount of peace amidst the beauty of nature amidst the absence of people and her preoccupation with wondering whether they noticed or did not notice her existence, her potential. And she was able to appreciate her son’s love of the outdoors, digging till his nails were black, rolling down grassy hills smiling through dirt and leaves without pain, without fear of animals or bugs or their excrement. But still in the background she felt alone in the woods just as she had in the city. Just as she felt no matter where she was. Abandoned by everyone. Forever fantasizing about some grand elsewhere amongst people she felt connected to.  Truly connected to. People she could sit with on a giant gingham tablecloth spread out on some community patch of grass delighting in each other’s aliveness. A dream she’d held onto for years. And yet could never get close enough to see with her own eyes. And now time was slipping away. She could feel it.

When had she gotten so old?  She remembered so clearly wanting desperately to get older- longing for real homework, for her driver’s license, for college, to graduate from college. And then she’d finally entered the real world, armed with such a beautiful collection of meticulously carved out plans for her life. Plans she treasured and with secret confidence, secret assuredness, knew she’d turn into her future. But once she’d found herself surrounded by the world, she didn’t quite know how to let her secret out. And others didn’t quite have a clue it was even there. And she began to wonder and then doubt if she’d really had anything as glorious as she’d been so sure she’d had after all.

And then somewhere along the way, she realized time was passing. And quickly. She could literally feel it speeding up, the seasons spinning around and around as if down the drain of a flushing toilet. People all of a sudden began treating her differently; her grandmother who’d been so sure she was destined for Broadway was now asking how she was going to pay the bills. And then there was the time she’d mentioned to her mother how a friend had started stripping to make some extra cash so she’d still have time to do her own thing during the day, and her mother had gasped, She’s too old for that!  But they’d been the same age. It was the first time she’d been too old for anything. And it hurt to imagine it was true, that even something as ridiculous as taking off her clothes in public had become out of her league. And so she’d tried to slow things down, to find whatever brakes she could and screech them to a halt. But things still went faster. And there came a rush to live life. To hurry and make those secret dreams come true before it was too late.

And then she’d met her husband. Who didn’t really have any dreams as far as she could tell. But who could still feel the breeze, and didn’t need to make sure another knew he’d experienced it to make it valid or beautiful. And he’d driven her to the mountains Upstate and to the woods and they’d hiked barefoot over rocks and roots and she’d fallen in love with the wildness of her own feet traipsing along the earth and yet she’d still been obsessed, wondering if she was pretty enough charming enough. Thankfully she’d had the self-control not to ask and she laughed to herself years later when he’d told her how much he appreciated that she’d been able to quietly enjoy his favorite places with him. And then one day she’d overheard him telling a friend how he’d designed a ring.  And she’d felt so sorry for him, for not noticing she’d been close enough to hear. For his inability to notice anything going on around him, really. To even see who she really was. Or that she’d been suffering. And because of this, she hated him. Not entirely. She’d eventually had a child with him after all. This little boy she adored more than anything, more than even all the glorious plans for her future. This little boy who was presently running so self-assuredly over to a crying little girl on the other side of the library to ask what was wrong, if she was ok, if someone took her ball. How she envied her son. For already being so aware, but with the autonomy not to make everything about himself. How she wished she could be more like him. More present. More content with what already was. More than anything, she wanted him to be proud to have a mother like her. Maybe it wasn’t too late to make her dreams come true after all.

But if it never panned out… then what? Maybe it wouldn’t be such a nightmare. She did love so much about her present life. She loved being a mother, loved that she and her son still slept together, cuddled and whispered jokes that only they could understand while her husband snored in another room. And she was grateful he was ok with this arrangement, grateful that he adored the relationship she had with their son and grateful he knew he was always included. But yet she was secretly starving. Not like the people her friend had been feeding in West Africa but starving in an American way. Stripped of her connections to the earth and to all the others who lived there until she couldn’t figure out where she belonged or who she needed to be to feel worthy of spending time with. The people she called family were all a tedious phone call away.  And they never seemed in a hurry to visit, preferring to send checks or gifts instead. She couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t have wanted to be there with her. Why they so stubbornly refused to be the family she wanted and needed them to be. And yet she felt ungrateful to want more. But all she did was want more. And she hoped her son wasn’t picking up any of it. Thankfully it didn’t look like he was, playing so beautifully at the train table with a boy around his age, saying excuse me instead of pushing him down as they vroomed around and around, singing together – choo choo! Perhaps his joy made him immune to all negativity. At least so far.

And in a chair nearby, sat this boy’s mother, smiling, asking how old her son was. Wow, almost the exact same age. It was so hard for her to make friends with other moms. And yet there they were, talking about diapers. How both their sons were still wearing them. She’d decided to be herself, she was too tired not to, and so she shared her horror of public restrooms and to her surprise this other mom not only laughed but pulled out of her lovely diaper bag a portable potty and then unlatched it so that it popped up into position right there. And they’d both laughed. Maybe they could be friends, she’d thought. Maybe they could get together for a weekly play date. And then she felt ashamed. To feel so desperate for companionship. Not only for her son but for herself. She was too old for these feelings. And besides, this woman used a straightening iron and lipstick. How could she be friends with someone like her? She hadn’t used a blow dryer since before she’d gotten pregnant. And there she was again canceling out a possibility before trying.  She did this constantly.  Her best ideas took only a few more thoughts before she realized they would never work out. She was incapable of making friends. She’d become too strange, too damaged from too much time alone. But what about her son, her son who just put his pudgy little arm around this other little boy and said, You know, I used the big boy potty this morning, while this other little boy said, Wow, looking so very impressed.  She had to laugh. And the other mother was also laughing. They’re so precious together, they both agreed. And then she did it. Suggested they get their boys together sometime. And she’d agreed. And they entered their numbers into their little phones they’d both still been holding onto and she felt a little lighter washing her son’s hands in the bathroom before heading back upstairs and back outside.

And her son ran down the long ramp that he ran down everyday because he loved to run. Loved it so much that he laughed out loud the whole way. And she wondered, what did she love?  She wasn’t sure she even remembered. She’d long ago forgotten how to play. She had only a memory of shiny brown buckeyes, wanting to touch and gather them and bring them home, but having her arm pulled nearly out of its socket by her mother who always had something better to do.  Had she turned into one of those women? One of those women whose todo list had gotten the best of her?  Who became furious, almost murderous every time her husband left a mess? But who could blame her, really. She could hardly handle that her dreams had all but fallen apart; she was not about to let the one thing she did have, her home, turn into anything less than perfect. And she called out to her son, reminding him to stop before the street, and he stopped in his tracks, out of breath, Did you see me, Mama, did you see me running so fast? And she was glad that she had seen. Glad she could multi-task between the incessant narrating of her pain and her pure delight with this little boy. And she smiled and kneeled down to kiss his nose. I love to see you run, she told him. And he took off her glasses and stared so sweetly into her eyes with kissing noises that she returned. She was always happier when she couldn’t see too far. When she was physically unable to see the everything beautiful and happy out there that she was so sure she was lacking, the only frown in some giant dance of laughter. Maybe there was a reason she was born nearsighted. So she could focus instead on her son’s beautiful face, those bright blue sparkling smiling eyes that looked just like her own. And she realized she was happy. Yes, she was happy too.  And suddenly her heart felt so full she didn’t know what to do with herself so she started to worry about losing him. The most terrible horrible thought she could imagine. Maybe that’s why she chose to think so much. Thinking was the cushion that protected her from the unbearable pleasure of the present moment. And she held her son. Told him how much she loved him, cherished him. And he said he loved her too. So much. And she thought about what her mother had accused her of the other day while they’d been on the phone, after she’d finished broadcasting yet another stream of worry. “You’re guilty of dissecticide,” her mother had yelled. “Off with your head!” And she smiled because she knew her mother was right, even if it was probably all her fault. And she took a deep breath and felt a space inside herself; the space she’d abandoned. And so she took another breath. And another. Until she was back beneath her flesh instead of out there, in some no man’s land looking at herself through all the imaginary critical eyes from her past. And she was grateful to remember that through her own eyes her life was beautiful. And she prayed not to forget again that she was worthy enough to be alive, to feel happy right where she already was. But of course she did forget. And then she remembered again. And then sometimes she’d forget to remember…

 

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