After an evening of performance back in December, I came down from the stage and was greeted by Wizard, our local Peace Crier. He doesn’t ring a bell and call out, “Oyez! Oyez!” but he does walk up and down the highway around here, carrying a sign that reads, PEACE. “How are you, Wizard?” I asked after he told me how much he enjoyed the show. He graced me with his usual, beatific smile, and declared, “I’m happier than I’ve ever been.” And just like that, I suddenly felt happier too.
It was such an uplifting thing to hear that I immediately found myself wanting to share it with others, to give them the same kind of feel-good sense that Wizard had given me. But I couldn’t quite let go of the words, fearing that somehow, they implied that I haven’t been as happy at other times in my life. And yet I have. But I’m also very happy now. So which is greater – those past joys or today’s contentment? I couldn’t decide, so I let the words sit on my tongue while I reflected on them, as if Wizard had given me a piece of candy, a sugared almond, that I was rolling around in my mouth, sucking on its sweetness, waiting for the kernel of truth at the center to emerge.
As I did so, I happened upon an article entitled “Forty Portraits in Forty Years” in the New York Times Magazine. It’s a piece about a photographer who took a photograph of four sisters in Rhode Island back in 1975 and then went on to take their photograph in a similar pose every year for forty years. I find this kind of thing fascinating, not because I’m so interested in the physical changes in a person but I am interested in the changes I can see in their eyes, their smiles, their body language. Age takes from all of us physically but, if we’re lucky, while it’s taking from the strength of our outer core, it’s nourishing our hearts, growing a garden of colorful, sweet smelling memories deep inside us. And as time goes by, those memories begin to reveal themselves through our eyes, presenting us with flowers that we can share with the people around us. This is what I saw in the four sisters over time; bouquets of deep-rooted, well-tended flowers held out to be enjoyed by all.
Coincidentally, a friend came to dinner at our house just after I read this article and snapped a photograph of me in our kitchen. I looked at it and remembered a similar shot of me in a kitchen in NYC, 30 years ago. I dug that photo out and studied it, wondering if I could spy the same changes in myself that I saw in the four sisters. I was still savoring the sweetness of Wizard’s statement and looked for the telltale signs of past and present happiness in myself.
Could I see, for example, in the older me, the sweet bliss I felt when I held my newborn babies in my arms? The sense of euphoria I got when I figured out how to restructure one of my plays to make it more compelling? And the big one – the huge one – the incredible, overwhelming contentment I experienced when I forgave my dad? I went around for months after that one, feeling warmth radiating through every ounce of my being, as if someone had planted a ray of sunshine in the pit of my stomach. I always thought that forgiveness had to do with letting the other person off the hook, but I was wrong. It had to do with me. And, dang, did it feel good! I wasn’t sure exactly why it felt so good. I thought, in my case, it had something to do with the fact that it was unexpected. I wasn’t looking to forgive my dad nor did I even know I had to – I just stumbled into it through my writing. And like the card says over my desk, given to me by a friend on my 25th wedding anniversary, “Often when we make an effort to find the bigger, grander things in life, we are wonderfully surprised by the discovery of other, equally significant things along the way.” But Wizard’s statement caused me reflect on the why all over again and I came to the conclusion that forgiving someone you think has wronged you, sets your soul free. You are you and nobody else. And like a mother feeling the quickening of her baby inside her, you feel your soul swimming unfettered and exultant inside you. And it feels incredible.
But then how could I ever beat that feeling by making a definitive statement about my level of happiness today? I pondered this as I looked at the photos of the sisters again, then the photos of me in the two kitchens, and the last of the sweetness coating Wizard’s statement dissolved, allowing me bite down on the truth. The flowers in my heart are perennials, not annuals. Which means that my happiness today is the accumulation of all the moments of happiness from my past and something that I should not be shy to share openly, freely with others.
So yes, I’m older, heavier, my hair is turning grey and my fingers don’t always work as easily in the mornings as they used to, but—I’m happier than I’ve ever been.