There are eight million artist stories in the city. This is mine. This is “Sing A Happy Song.”
In the early spring of 1974 I was sitting in a bar about a mile and a half from Salem State College. It was mid afternoon. The name of the bar was “In A Pig’s Eye”, and there was a sign on the wall over the bar that read “Suck Em Down and Screw”. I liked to drink were I felt welcome – high class places.
I may have been skipping a class, or not, things were a little wavy back then. In either case I was sitting at a small round table, drinking a glass of draft beer, and reading a copy of the local newspaper – The Salem Evening News – thinking, perhaps, that this intellectual exercise more than made up for any absences from class. The important thing was I believed it. Anyway, I’m sitting there and these two young women walk in and one of them is someone I have major fantasy designs on. And have for a while. She lives in an apartment across the street from where I live. So they take a table beyond mine and I continue reading the paper while casually glancing over its top to check them out, and then I see the woman of my dreams get up and walk over towards me. And a moment later she is standing before my table – yes, Virginia, there IS a Santa Clause – and says to me, “Can I ask you something?” And I say, “Sure.” And she says, “Are you happy?” Hmmm. And I answer, “Yes.” To which she replies, “Then why don’t you tell your face about it.” She then turns and walks back to her table. I wonder how I could have even for a nanosecond wanted to hang out with her, and I go back to my beer and my paper, as if nothing had happened.
This is a story about happiness. And choices. You see, 13 years later and down the road from college and cutting classes and reading the paper in a bar room’s soft afternoon sunlight, I was in a meeting with a group of people and when it came to my turn I said what I said. And when the meeting ended someone walked over to me and, in a tone not so different from the young woman in the bar, said “You sound like Polyanna.” Like it was a critique, like it was an insult. And I simply laughed to myself, and said to The Universe, “Thanks.” It’s a long way from being called a miserable asshole to being confused with Polyanna.
The world doesn’t change. I mean, obviously, the world changes in some ways after some periods of time. I am talking about your world, my world, the world I wake up to every day – if I’m lucky – and fall asleep to every night. When I was first getting sober a mentor of sorts said to me, “Just because you are trying to get sober doesn’t mean they are going to close the bar rooms and the liquor stores down.” The world doesn’t change, he was saying, even as I was in the initial stages of making dramatic life-changing changes. It is still true, true to this day. I get in my car and drive from Wareham, Massachusetts to Portland, Oregon and there isn’t a parade for me when I cross the city limits. You know why? No one noticed. No one cared. Now if I were to reverse my course and move back to Massachusetts there would be some people noticing and caring, really glad to see me in fact. But there wouldn’t be a parade, and the people noticing would very quickly go on living their regular lives for that day.
This is a convoluted way of getting to the point that the ways of the day are as they are. I may be able to have some very slight impact, but traffic will stop, and rain will rain, and people will arrive at meetings late, and my big pile of CDs will remain right where they have been the last year, sitting on the bedroom floor – unsold and unwanted – and people will understand me or be lost in their own world – you know, big wheel keeps on turning. And I will be left with a choice. What do I do with it all? How do I react to it all? How do I move through my day? Is my face confused for the “before” picture in a prozac ad, or are people making fun of me because I sound like Polyanna?
I can choose. Abraham Lincoln said “Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” And he wasn’t saying that while sitting on a beach in Hawaii. I read in books and articles that it makes sense to not watch the news, not read the papers, all of that “news” will bring you down. I do understand not wallowing in horror and outrage and sadness and grief, and yet things that are wrong need to be fixed. The world would be a far lesser place if Martin Luther King Jr or Sojourner Truth spent all their time on a beach in Hawaii. This is a story about happiness and so how do you stay happy and acknowledge injustice? E. B. White has a good quote: “ I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”
I don’t know the answers. But I do know the day is completely different – no matter what is going on – when I am smiling and happy instead of being angry and negative, feeling sorry for myself, having and holding resentments. And that is entirely my choice. And beyond that choice is this truth: the more I hold happiness, and spread happiness, the more I feel gratitude for just waking up, and I take the time to truly experience the awe all around – all around – the better.
Anyway, it is better than sitting in a bar at three in the afternoon drinking and reading the daily news and being called a miserable asshole.