What makes a person happy? Aside from the question of whether happiness is the object of life or not — a debatable proposition in itself — happiness is a rather mysterious condition. I have a good friend who has a chronic debilitating disease, and he tells me he is much less depressed than he ought to be. Ought he be depressed because he is having difficulties? There’s a literature on it.
I have nonetheless found out over the last few years about some elusive things that make me happy. This being my “maiden” post of a new project, I am going to tell you about and it will be mememe. Grin and bear it.
I have always had some unnamed inchoate happiness memory around decorating for Christmas. We are not talking about setting up a tree, but rather about sticking candles in tangerines and table centerpieces and activities of a similar nature that are likely to involve balsam, pine cones, and various other traditional and semi-natural items with or without glitter applied. For years I stored this in the nostalgia file, along with windy spring days and other items that reminds me of my childhood in Holland– it’s there and you treasure it, but you sort of try not to look at it too often ’cause it fer sure ain’t coming back just as you ain’t getting any younger.
One day four years ago I find myself in a large greenhouse in Voorschoten, a small “market” town in Holland, with my sister. It is a few days before Christmas. Our mother has died rather suddenly and in a very difficult way a little more than a year earlier. I am in Holland to sign the papers on the sale of the house. My sister and I have worked very hard, individually and together, at clearing out the lifetime of possessions that packed three floors. I am bereft. If I say that it has not been a happy year, I am guilty of understatement. I am rather proud that my sister and I, never exactly masterful at getting along, have pulled it off collaboratively.
Enough already on the setting of the scene:
The greenhouse/store is comfortably cool and redolent with a heady mix of damp balsam, hyacinths, peat moss, moss, mushrooms, pinecones, and whatever else it is that makes up the smell of “greenhouse at Christmas time in Holland.” Casually I photograph some baskets of mosses for table decorations, confident that there are a few people back in the States who would be very excited at the sight of those mosses posted on Facebook.
Suddenly I am hit by a tsunami of well- being and I know this is it, this is the thing that makes me happy. This is my childhood, creating, mother, and life all rolled into one cool damp smell and cool damp feel. Essence of woods. Essence of world. Essence of experience.
That day capped the year in which I lost my bearings along with my mother. I knew my yearning for her was physical, along with missing the place whence I came and missing my youth. But then I realized I carry in me a world of meaning built around creating decorations with items from the woods with my mother — around making Christmas decorations as a Brownie and bringing them home — around the experience of being in the flower shop with my mother as a child. She loved being in the flower shop. She loved seeing little worlds in the middle of a different scene, maybe two flowers and a piece of wood, that together look like a gnome might’ve been living there. Trees and a bush arranged just so around a small clearing, evoking the park of an English manor. Or the world of pebbles on a beach washed by water, as in the last photo I shared with her.
Four days later I signed the papers, kissed my sister, and flew back to the US, knowing that my happiness was somehow wrapped up in the smell of a greenhouse in the suburban town in Holland.
My first day home was a soggy boggy squitchy meltingish day. The kind of day on which I disappear into the woods only to come back as wet as possible — and with a dripping dog –– some time later.
It was down in the corner of our property, among the tall pines, the melting snow, and the beaver bog I call Canada in Plainfield.
There, the smell was waiting for me: balsams, wet leaves, and water. Rich moist, cool, clear wetness. The smell, sheen, and feel of water running, dripping, freezing, melting and splashing.
(I’ve read somewhere that we start out 75% water and dry up as we go along, with middle-aged women at 55%, another 5% to lose as we age. Hell, no!)
Perhaps that explains why I have been chasing water ever since — that and the happiness that lies waiting down in that bog on squitchy days, of course. The happiness of being with and in and of and seeing and feeling water.