hope you’re happy, too.
…sordid details following.’”
—David Bowie, “Ashes to Ashes”
At rest, my lips curl slightly downward. Engaged in an activity like talking or kissing or eating, my lips, not too thick or too thin, move. When something is funny or beautiful or delicious, their corners turn upward, and sometimes they draw back their pale mauve curtain to reveal a few off-white teeth. It is not infrequent. But in that split second when you or I take a picture of me, it might be gone.
No matter where I am or what I’m doing, strangers tell me to smile. I could be in line at the grocery store or walking down the street or at my desk or at the park enjoying a beautiful day, and someone will invariably confront me with his or her demand and, worse, adding fuel to my ire, a rationale for it: “Smile! It can’t be that bad!”
“Can’t it?” I’d always wanted to say. Instead, I’d alternate between scrunching up my face like a pet monkey to give the people what they wanted or ignoring them. A few years ago, I decided I’d had enough.
“How do you know my mother didn’t just die?” I said to the stranger in front of me in line at Safeway. My heart was beating out of my chest, as if saying that aloud could make it happen. The man was flustered and apologetic. “Well, she didn’t,” I said, with more admonishment than reassurance. “But how do you know? How can you presume to know what’s happening in a stranger’s life?” He paid and left, threatening to never ask another person to smile.
Once I got over the superstition hump—that making such a comment would actually make my mother die—it became easier to say to the next person and the next. And as I grew older, I could use real experiences—from the deaths of friends and loved ones to financial woes to back surgery and lymphoma. Still, some smilers are steadfast in their belief that merely waking up at all warrants a shit-eating grin.
What empowers people to tell pregnant women what to eat and implore non-smilers to smile?
My daughter is a non-smiler, too. The other day, she uttered these exact words, the words of my life, to her father: “My face is naturally like this.” She added, “I’m not not smiling. I’m just not smiling!”
Yesterday, I posted a photograph of my daughter sitting at the piano. She was waiting for her date to arrive and take her to the homecoming dance at his school. She was in a dress, her hair curled, her face clear and beautiful. I took a picture of her—an annoying habit of mine—and posted it as the daily picture in my photo diary on Facebook. A few of the usual suspects were moved to comment on her facial expression—or lack thereof. She was not not smiling.
But their observation went beyond her face to her spirit. “She looks happy,” someone said sarcastically. Another said, “just needs a smile.” When I replied that we’re not smilers, the friend said, “It’s ok as long as you are happy.”
But I’m not happy. For a long time, I thought something was wrong with me. I tried to diagnose myself. I believed I had dysthymia. I was convinced I needed medication for it until I realized that a.) lack of a consistently high mood doesn’t mean that my mood is low (“I’m not not smiling”) and b.) happiness is not normal.1
Are you happy? In general or just when you’re doing something you love? Perhaps you’re the rare sunny personality, and your smile lights up a room. Maybe you’re content or at peace with your circumstances. Maybe you feel sheer joy when the sunset is breathtaking. Maybe you wake up and thank your god or lucky stars that you didn’t stop breathing in your sleep.
But regardless of how you feel: do you think happiness is within everyone’s power or, more important, is everyone’s will?
It’s in our Declaration of Independence that we are guaranteed life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness! Because we are always going to seek that which brings us joy, but do we ever remain in a permanent state of happiness once we surround ourselves with those things we think will cause it?
“I’m stuck with a valuable friend,” sings David Bowie in “Ashes to Ashes.” “‘I’m happy, hope you’re happy, too.'” Enough already! I don’t want to be happy. I want to enjoy the things in life as they really are, as they move me. I want to revel in the barking of crows and their congregation at rush hour in the tree across the street. I want to get naturally high on the pride that comes from my daughter’s music. I want to lust after rock stars and eat the hell out of cake and red curry duck. And, yes, I want to wallow in the sadness of my father’s death until the day that driving past the hospital or the funeral home or a Lexus, seeing hospital socks in my drawer, hearing his voice in my head, or needing a rescue stops making me cry.
My poetry doesn’t come from tra-la-la-everything-is-beautiful feelings. Happiness is not necessary for me to go to work, raise a child, sing, write, take pictures, pay my bills, cuddle with my dogs, make love to my husband, cook dinner, breathe. I treat myself to good beer and pretty boots and original art. Happy? Who cares if I’m happy? Happy has nothing to do with it.
I’m not not happy. I’m not not smiling. What about you?
1Here are a few other things that aren’t normal: thoughts of suicide, the desire to hurt yourself and/or others, the inability to get out of bad, excessive sleepiness or excessive wakefulness, lack of sexual desire, constant despair. This is not a complete list. If you have any of those symptoms, please ask for help.