Thursday, June 28, 2007

Ducks & Happiness

Walking home from grabbing lunch with my best friend, I decided to take a detour through the park. Sure, it looked like rain, but I could make it home in time--and it had been so long since I'd walked through Panther Hollow, with its skinny little creek slipping through the deep green woods. And, you know, as long as I was walking through the park anyway, I might as well take the Lower Trail instead of the Upper Trail, since it's just a little bit longer and it skips along over all those gorgeous, aged stone footbridges that I just love to linger on, running my fingers over the pocked, rough rock and the bits of moss and wildflowers that have somehow wound their roots down into each crack. And, you know, as long as I was taking the Lower Trail home anyway, I might as well follow that skinny creek to its mouth, where it opens out into the wide reservoir, and maybe take a quick stroll around--as I just love the smell of a pond in summer, the muddy scent of algae and the sapphire dragonflies circling the murky waters. Sure, it looked like rain, but I could make it home in time.

Last night I saw an interview on the Colbert Report with Daniel Gilbert, author of the book, Stumbling on Happiness. According to Gilbert, people are generally very bad at predicting what will make them happy, and planning to bring about that happiness for themselves in the future. Since watching the interview, I've been thinking.

I think that I am, in general, a rather happy person. One trick that I learned in high school--those long, scorching summer days on the parking lot macadam, learning how to march, breathe deeply and hold my flute steady at the same time (yes, I was a band geek) while "dressing front" with my feet pointed awkwardly at ninety degrees to my shoulders (not as easy as it sounds.... seriously--get up right now and try it.... and hold it... and hold it... ... hold it...)--ahem that is, one trick I learned in high school is that if you act happy, you can fool your body into being happy. If you smile, skip quickly back to your mark, cheer along with the band director, and tease the sun, taking him on with plenty of SPF 100--you actually start to enjoy a process that would otherwise be, well, awful.

One thing I also learn is that this only works for about three days--and then you hit the wall. Every year. And you never see it coming. But on that first Wednesday of band camp, after three hard ten hour days in the hot sun learning how to all lift your feet at the same time and walk exactly five yards in two measure of 4/4 time, you go home sobbing and telling your parents you can't do it anymore, you just know this year will be the year you forget all the music and forget all your marks and end up slipping in the grass and falling on your ass ...uh, butt, or wandering off into the end zone and crashing into some unsuspecting refreshment-stand attendant or creepy still-a-high-school-football-fan-even-though-his-kids-all-graduated-ten-years-ago old man.

So you go to bed. And you wake up feeling great and going right back to that sticky, sweaty parking lot and screaming "FUN!!" as if your life depended on it every time the band director prompts you with, "BAND IS..?"

So I've been thinking about how exactly Gilbert's theory of happiness and its elusiveness fits into this picture. After all, psyching yourself up through psychological-physiological tricks is only one way to "get happy." It's only one way to make the present moment just as much of a "pay-off" as that first time you step onto the field in front of an indifferent football crowd and feel the energy sizzle through all your fellow band members, turning a march into a dance and your breath and tongue and lips and fingers transforming simple air into a music that echoes and vibrates through every common body... You don't need any psychological tricks to find happiness in those moments of connection, creativity, camaraderie and play. And after a few weeks, you don't even need to trick yourself into looking forward to those long band practices after school, either. In fact, you kind of miss them.

But this is about ducks.

Strolling leisurely around the concrete edge of the reservoir as gray clouds skirted across the sky, I noticed a family of ducklings, newly grown out of their down and in that funny adolescent stage that even animals seem to go through, when everything is a bit too long and skinny and awkward. Eight of them. And as I approached, slowly and almost silently in my sandals so as not to startle them, they looked up and began to waddle towards me eagerly, greeting me with low-pitched peeps that seemed to crack sometimes into quacks the way a young man's voice cracks when he asks a pretty girl to a middle school dance. Today, I got to be that pretty girl. Surprised at their forwardness, I stopped walking and stood still for a moment, allowing them to approach. When they'd come within a couple feet of me, and I'd made no motion to throw any tasty bread crumbs their way, they settled down in the grass still damp from the morning showers, as if I were just another duckling spending this muggy afternoon in the shade on the bank of the pond. And, you know, as long as they were all settling down around me, it would be a shame to disturb them by suddenly walking off, and since I was here anyway... I slowly sat myself down in the grass with them to watch.

Sure, I was wearing a skirt just short enough to make sitting on the ground a bit awkward and possibly earning me a fine for public indecency--but there was no one around to see anyway because, after all, it looked like rain--and I could still make it home in time.

I've been thinking that I am, in fact, a happy person, which is not to say I'm not also a sad person. It seems that I've spent a lot of time crying these past two years--but I've also spent more time laughing, dancing in the rain, making bad puns and sometimes just staring deadpan at a person in just the right way until they lose it entirely and snort Pepsi through their nose (which is just as funny and painful as it sounds). I've been thinking that I am much happier with my life and the choices I've made and that, in some ways, this happiness itself serves to deepen my sadness when I feel frustrated, rejected or isolated. Not because these things are unexpected or unpredictable, but because they are all symptoms of a failure to connect, to commune, to share. Those aspects of my life which make me happy don't stop being a source of happiness on lonely nights. I didn't wrongly predict that writing poetry and studying Druidry would make me happy simply because I'm not happy all the time I'm doing such things. Sometimes I write poetry because I'm lonely and I miss my ex (these are usually bad poems--go figure). Can joy and sorrow comingle? Can the tension between longing and fulfillment push a person towards a peak experience beyond mere satisfaction with the daily ins and outs of life?

Is it just me? I wonder about research like Gilbert's--if it's about "how people are" naturally or essentially, or if it's more a reflection of how people have taught themselves to be in our modern Western society. After all, our consumer culture benefits from that kind of confusion over what happiness is and how to "get it"--people are always moving from one thing to another, trying to predict what will make them happy without giving any one thing a chance to do so. Maybe they treat happiness like a buzz, as if they'll know it right away when it happens, and if it doesn't happen right away, they move on... If something does give them that buzz right away, they want to count on it always giving them a buzz--and upping the doses or varying the stimuli a bit to keep it always fresh and new. But is that really what happiness amounts to--predicting exactly what new thing you'll want and exactly when you'll want it? Is it possible that the very act of predicting such a thing flattens the experience, tames it into just an expectation of newness that, in having already been imagined, always disappoints once it's been realized?

Have you ever really watched ducks? I mean, sure, you see them paddling across the water, scooping up bread crumbs and bits of floating plant material from the water, or nestling down in that perfectly symmetrical pose, webbed feet tucked neatly up under their feathery, oval bodies. You see ducks as amusing bread-eating machines or scenic backdrops to complete the pond that reflects the sun behind the pretty young couple kissing on the screen, or maybe even that gorgeous mallard in flight above the field of brown grasses which always implies the hunter leveling his gun and the yellow labrador poised to chase it down as it falls. But have you ever really watched ducks being ducks, when they're completely ignoring you?

I sat still in the damp grass, only occasionally hoping I wasn't getting too much mud on my skirt that I'd have to strategically hide with my purse for the rest of the walk home... watching. Some ducklings settled down to nap right away. Others kept shifting, preening first their fanned tail feathers, then under one wing, then running their leathery bills through the freckled feathers on their pillowy breasts. A duck preens in a way entirely unlike a beaked bird such as, say, a parakeet. Watching a duck preen is like watching someone comb his hair with a spoon.

Eventually, all the ducklings settled down to doze off in the warm afternoon. Have you ever seen a duck stretch, or yawn? (Do ducks even yawn, or was this something else that just looked a lot like yawning?) A duckling who'd been sitting nestled politely in the acceptable bird-sleeping posture we all expect, would roll slowly to one side, bracing himself up with his right wing while stretching out his left leg as far as he could, all his little webbed toes spread wide, his left wing opened and fanning out, too. Then, tucking up the wing again, he'd slowly drift off to sleep, one leg still outstretched, as if propped up on his elbow, head resting on his shoulder. Who knew ducks had such personality? One duckling, I swear, began to snore gentle or murmur in his sleep, his peeping sometimes cracking into a quack like an adorable teenage-duckling. Once, he quacked so loud, he woke himself up, startling all the other ducklings so that a few sprang to their feet, looking sleepily around for the source of the noise.

Maybe happiness is, itself, a process--not something that exists once and for all that we can obtain and hold on to, predict and plan for. Maybe that's why we imagine ourselves happiest when we're looking forward into a bright future, or reminiscing about a golden past. Do we seem happier over these courses of time because we are seeing happiness for what it is--something that happens, something that can only be seen as a whole over time, not all at once?

As I sat there watching the ducklings, it began to rain. The rain moved over the water in invisible flocks of raindrops, leaving patterns of speckled ripples in one place while, just a few yards away, the water was still, shimmering only with the light breeze. It was hot enough that I didn't mind getting wet, and peaceful enough that I couldn't have wanted anything else. At that moment, the happiness that I had slowly been cultivating all day caught up with me, a wave tripping on the shore of the present moment and sweeping me up in its momentum. I slowly stood up and began to walk home, listening to the murmur of the ducklings objecting to the sudden disruption of their naps, then stretching like awkward, unabashed ballerinas in the rain.

Today, the feeling of contentment that I often feel overtake me when in the company of my best friend--the sense that everything is perfect, being and doing exactly perfectly what it was meant to be and do--today that feeling just settled down like a little duckling in the wet, shady grass of my soul, as if to say, "I'm not going anywhere, so relax and enjoy." If I hadn't made the whimsical choice to allow it to happen, I would have just walked straight home and an opportunity for noticing happiness would have slipped by. And maybe that's why people don't know what makes them happy--because they think it's about control, about controlling all the circumstances and variables to the best effect, instead of allowing happiness to happen... Maybe that is why Gilbert's study found that having kids doesn't make a person happier, whereas Colbert argued that the feeling is not "happiness" but a sense of the sublime. What is sublimity except something that awes and overwhelms us, something of which we are not in control, and yet we can still participate in and be intimate with?

In the end, I don't think I've ever really tried to be happy. I've just tried to be a good person, to do what I think is right, and to make time for the things I believe have value and meaning, even if they are difficult or dirty or unpredictable. To let happiness happen if it's going to... and if not, to let it not happen, too, and be okay with that. I think that if I tried explaining this whole duck experience to most people, they would see it as a kind of quirky novelty or funny story--not as something that actually just happens naturally if you let it. They'll go out to the pond tomorrow, wanting the ducklings to stretch and model for them, and they'll be disappointed. Because it wasn't the ducklings at all--it was the slow process of centering myself within the world, allowing myself to move gently into a sense of time that didn't demand I have direction or purpose, that didn't worry about how unhappy I would be to get caught in the rain, that didn't worry that a passer-by might think I'm a weirdo for settling down among the ducklings and fixing up my own hair in the heat as if I, too, were some adolescent aquatic fowl. Happiness isn't sitting with ducklings in the rain--it's sitting with yourself in the present and giving the process of sublimity a chance to catch up and carry you forward. Into that next moment, when you turn the corner onto your street and realize you're soaking wet and dancing all the way home.


  1. Wonderful! This is just what I come here for.

    tease the sun, taking him on with plenty of SPF 100...

    Is your sun deity male?

  2. Don, I don't have a sun deity, per se (especially not back in high school when I was still very much Christian). I've always had a tendency to sense "personality" within or behind certain things in nature--the wind, the ocean, the sun, the heat, the rain, etc. I never really thought about it in terms of deity--but more like acknowledging nature itself as animated, responsive and participatory. As far as the gender--I suppose usually I refer to the sun as a "him" if I'm trying to evoke that sense of personality (rather than "it"), but it depends. I've sometimes referred to the moon as male and the sun as female... depends on what kind of feeling I'm trying to evoke or describe. :)

  3. Ali,

    When I read this a few days ago, I was so struck and amazed at what a beautiful piece it was that I simply could not think of anything to reply to it. It was whole and complete as it was.

    I still have nothing to add, and I'm still just as dumbfounded.

    Thank you. It's just an amazing work.

  4. Jeff, I really appreciate that you took a moment to comment. :) I'm always a little worried that posts like these are too long or "poetic" to sustain an online reader's attention. It's really heartening to know some people out there do take the time and appreciate what I write. That sounds corny, but I really do mean it.