I probably could have found justifications for not being happy if I had wanted to. Parents who were divorced when I was young. Some pretty messy heartbreaks. Some of those insolvable family tensions.
But to me happiness was always a given. Those things were just bumps in the road of a pretty great life.
It’s only relatively recently that mentality has taken more convincing. Somewhere along the line, those things I thought I always would have never came. Those things I took for granted went away. But most disconcertingly, the faith I had securely renewed began taking a beating. It’s like someone began pushing back my fingers one by one from the grip I had on it.
And so my soul slid into this melancholy. I feel like I have been fighting off the black tar of self pity. Sometimes I let it linger before shaking it. Sometimes I reel back from it, but it still crouches in a corner of my mind. It brings a numbing lethargy.
Still, there are these moments of reprieve.
I am sitting beside a fire in the mountains of a far off place. The flames lap at the cold air. A friend stands at a make-shift table nearby, pouring me a glass of wine. We swing between goofy and thoughtful. In this moment, I am happy, I think.
Later, I lay in a tent with the doughy material of my sleeping bag pulled in around my face. Our words float up around us as we lay there, shrinking from the bite of the cold. This is nice, I think.
In the days after, I hold to the handlebars of my bike, letting it glide on the ups and downs and sways of a powdery trail. The movement feels exhilarating, refreshing.
Tonight, I am sitting in a wooden pew, letting the mellow sounds of blues wash over me. I tilt my head back on my seat and watch as the singer’s hands weave up the stem of his guitar. Something about his voice, his music, is like a balm to those parts of me that have felt a bit tender.
Sitting here, I don’t want to go back to the dim light of my present outlook. I want to bathe in the respite that moments like this bring. They are like bread crumbs God has doled out in the midst of a season of bare cupboards.
Some say happiness is based on events. It is joy you should seek, which doesn’t come on the tides of circumstance.
To me, they have always felt like the same thing. Because I knew how to be happy about the good things that often come side-by-side with the bad. I hope this deviation from my norm is a momentary detour back to a road I’ve paved.
In the meantime, I relish these reprieves.
I am focused on her feet in front of me. Sand and black remnants of lava crumble from each of her footprints as she takes another step upwards. Then I follow suit.
My lungs are desperately sorting through the air I breathe for molecules of oxygen, which are evasive at 10,000 feet. The summit is a jagged black promise across a field of snow.
Two days ago, I wasn’t sure if I would make it here. Three jobs were demanding a lot of me. Deadlines were looming. I was exhausted from a series of out-of-town excursions. I had worn out the same words praying for my dad’s health as he recovered from chemo. A stubborn injury and some health-related bills had left me disillusioned. It’s too much, I thought.
But for some reason, I summoned the little bit of energy I had and got in my car and drove for hours. Past hay fields and mountain passes and tiny towns with rusty water tanks.
At the top we let our legs hang off a ledge while we eat bagel sandwiches and carrots and trail mix. We laugh, and I forget all about home. The air has a bite, but the sun on my jacket is warm. Peaks ripple below the tips of our shoes. And suddenly everything, even the things that had loomed above me days before, seems very small.
This scene is over-saturated with color in surreal proportions: the red of the rock, the blue of the sky, the teal green of a glacial lake. I’m drinking in the colors with insatiable thirst, as if they will somehow refill my empty reserves.
There is something intoxicating about the color and the air and the sun at 10,000 feet. And there is something refreshing about the 10,000 steps it takes to get there.
A podcast takes me on a journey, as the miles tick by. I am engrossed in the controversy described within a school board in New York, to the point I begin to outline the argument I would make if I spoke at that meeting. I think with righteous indignation: I am going to go there and tell them what a mess they are making, for the children! Of course, I am not.
Fields of brittle grass seem to hover unchanged on the sides of the highway. The road is unnaturally straight. Like someone took a chalk string, strung it out for 400 miles and snapped it on the ground, then built a road on that chalky line.
It’s funny how eight hours trapped in a small moving compartment can be so freeing. Electric poles sweep by methodically, setting a rhythm to the drive. My car’s engine is soothing, like a cat purring. A smokey smell wafts from the back, where my camping equipment sits in tangled heaps and pasted with dried mud and leaves.
A few hours earlier, tufts of fog twisted and glided between hills of caramel-colored trees. The sun sat glimmering between the mountains, just having peaked over the horizon. The road pitched up and down hills. How the scenery has changed in just a few hundred miles.
Now, the heat from the sun’s rays are bouncing through my windows, pushed back by the fervent work of my AC, as it breathes cool air through the vents.
I play a game of leap frog with a few familiar cars.
The haunting feeling of reality is settling in the closer to home I get. There, I will have to unpack and do laundry and buy groceries and do all the normal every-day things I do all the time. I sigh. The more trips I take, the harder it is to return to normalcy.
For now, though, I’m content in my car, snacking and listening to conspiracy stories, contemplating the origins of such a stick-straight highway.
Airport security is a trail of chaos.
A family wrestles a stroller through checkpoints. A woman in uniform eases a man in a wheelchair around rolling luggage. A man with three bags whips off a belt and empties his pockets, his fingers fumbling as he rushes.
Security is a great equalizer. We are all reduced to a childlike state, as business men and teens in sweat pants and women in dresses stand barefoot, without accessory.
Early in my traveling, I decided not to let the delays and inconveniences of this scene phase me. As the turmoil ebbs and flows on all sides, I watch without emotion. It’s the only way to navigate this process without inducing anxiety.
The line before the body scanner begins to swell as a TSA security man ushers the bewildered mom herding her son through the proper channels. I watch my crates stack up on the other side of the ex-ray machine, folding into others without their owners to collect them.
As I pass through the scanner, a security woman stops me.
“I need to look at your hair,” she says.
“My hair?” I laugh, trying to imagine what they could have seen that would resemble a security threat tucked in my layers.
“A little head massage…” she says, scratching my head with the blue fingers of her gloves.
“Oooh I love your highlights!” she says.
Her friendliness draws me out of my stoic stupor. I turn to look at her, smiling in surprise.
“Thanks! I just got it done,” I reply. Her own hair is twisted into black dreadlocks, which she has collected into one cord with a rubber band.
“Really? Did you do it yourself?” she asks.
“Are you kidding?” I say. “No way. I do not trust myself.”
We part with a nod of understanding. I comb through the wreckage the conveyer belt has produced and gather my bags, bemused at this refreshing deviation from the stale enounters I usually have at security checkpoints.
If you look carefully, there are usually bright spots amid the blur of chaos.
Ruthild always left vases of flowers on the dining room table. The kitchen often wafted with a bouquet of scents from the variety of confections she baked. In the mornings, opera or classical music floated from a small stereo on a bench in the dining room.
Then, Ruthild sat with her coffee, cheese, bread and homemade jam spread out on the table and read the newspaper. During the two months I I rented a room from her in Berlin on a fellowship, my breakfast frequently coincided with hers. We sat and chatted, often about trivialities like the weather, politics or our weekends.
One particular morning, the paper lay folded neatly to her side when I pulled up my chair with my granola and tea. She sat with her chin in her hands, gazing out the fifth-story window at the grey that masked Berlin from the sun.
We started with our usual conversation: It’s supposed to warm up later in the week, she said. I had a great time in Potsdam on Saturday, I offered. She rode bikes with her boyfriend along the river in the small town of Walldorf, where she often spends the weekends, she mentioned.
At the time, Ruthild was a retired 50-year-old who grew up in eastern Germany. In her retirement, she was a part of a project to educate people about various religions. She moved to Berlin when it was a divided city, and watched in disbelief as the pieces of the wall came down one day at a time. I would later glean a deeper understanding of her experience of that era, but only after this morning set the stage for a closer relationship.
When I first arrived, she was on vacation and had left a list of rules likely puzzled together with a dictionary. Those who grew up in the east learned Russian instead of English like those in the west. Maybe as a result of her limited English vocabulary, the rules were strict in tone: Take off your shoes when in the flat; quiet after 10 p.m.; close the window and lock to door when leaving the flat. The quiet, gentle manner about her when we finally met were hard to reconcile with the author of those rules. She pronounced her words clearly and slowly, as if paced by a metronome, and almost sang my name before she began a conversation with me.
This particular morning, I ventured beyond previous boarders of our regular morning conversation. “Do you own a house in Walgart?” I asked. Yes, she has a house in this small town on the coast, she said, her eyes brightening. It was more like a hut, with one room with only a bed, toilet and kitchen. It is enough, she said.
“I’ll show you,” she said, pushing back her chair and padding up the stairs like a child on Christmas morning. She returned with a small photo album, filled with pictures of the home. They show a small rectangle house, trimmed with grass and set with a view of the sea.
Ruthild’s pride was a garden that grew wildly like unbrushed hair. Daisies and irises were its centerpiece, near a small brush labyrinth. Other photos boasted apple and plum trees heavy with fruit. A small table and two chairs sat in the backyard waiting for tea.
Ruthild and her boyfriend, Bernd, bought the house about five or six years prior, she told me. She was looking for a getaway and saw an ad in a paper after a fruitless search through other means. The pruned gardens stacked next to each other like playing cards on the street leading to the house almost turned her away when she went to see it. Then she arrived at the one for sale, on the end, with a beautiful view and an untamed garden instead of the rigid rows of her neighbors.
Yes, the “rules of the house” were an unfair introduction to Ruthild.
He left early to catch a cab to the Salzburg airport.
I woke late to the light streaming through my windows.
A note rested on my bedside table, a thin, torn-off piece of college-ruled paper.
He had scrawled in pencil in his loopy cursive.
“I love you – Dad.”
They are words he doesn’t say often but shows every day in manners never supposing thanks.
I still have that note, 13 years later.
It’s exactly 10:50 p.m., the time my flight was to arrive home.
Instead I am right where I started, slumped in a leather airport chair with my feet on one of the short, round, multicolored seats drilled into the floor around a bright red table. It looks like furniture from a McDonald’s play area. The seats are short enough for toddler legs.
It seems like an outlandish accessory for the grayness of the airport.
Across from me, cables link a half dozen phones to the ports lining the back of a high counter.
Next to me, a blond woman with a scarf and visible hairspray and a greying man in black slacks and a polo shirt lament the delay. “Well do we know why?” the woman asks the man. We don’t know why.
A perky announcer informs us it’s because our pilots were stuck in Houston due to previous delays. Those delays remain mysterious, but adequately deflect blame. Our plane sits at the gate, eager and waiting outside the tall windows, so full of potential, but with no one to take the helm.
There is something so futile about a flight delay. It’s like being a willing captive. Only less scary and more boring. There is nothing I can do. There is nothing the couple next to me can do. There is nothing the announcer can do.
I calculate what this all means for the time I get to lay my head on my own beautiful, marshmallow of a pillow. The result of that equation is an hour that is too far on the morning side of night.
I sit back stoically and read my book, my feet propped on the circular kid chairs. Waiting for delayed pilots to come signal my freedom.