Are we ever conscious of when we have become happy?
I’ve grown to believe that I didn’t realize or have an “Aha!” moment when I apparently stepped across a threshold into happiness. Of course there have been spikes, a few fleeting highs that occurred upon learning that I had earned or attained something for which I’d been yearning; those are to be expected. But a pure consciousness of the moment to recognize that zenith, as Buddha at the moment of enlightenment, I now know that I did not have. The culmination of “happiness” as in living a life of contentment and pleasure where problems ebb and flow and crises are diluted by satisfaction, I believe, is something I see most clearly when I acknowledge where I’ve been and the steps and events that were interruptions along the way.
The Christmas that came shortly after my eighth birthday brought a toy that would become one of my most used and favored possessions as a child; a globe. About that same time, my mother bought an Encyclopedia Britannica set and housed it in my bedroom in a bookcase made by my great grandfather. I would put hours of use into these two items as a child normally puts miles on a bicycle.
I remember countless afternoons sitting on the floor with my globe in front of the bookcase, setting it on a fast spin with a fingertip lightly resting on it, feeling the smoothness of the oceans and the dimples and bumps of the mountain ranges as they slid underneath my touch. When it came to a stop, I’d open my eyes to see where my finger had come to rest, turn to the encyclopedia and devour ever morsel of information about that geographical mark, pulling out volume after volume, moving on to cross references that inevitably led to reading about another fascinating place or event. Soon geography as a subject of study came as naturally to me as reading and writing.
One day I looked up my uncommon name and surprisingly found it rooted in Greek mythology. From that day on, I was determined to walk amongst the ruins of Athens and the fascination continued on into college when Classical Mythology 101 was the class that stood to offer the least weight toward a degree yet was invariably the class for which I studied the most fervently.
I continued to spin the globe and read the encyclopedia about Europe, the cultures and history, the rulers and peoples. All along, it never occurred to me that I was building a foundation that I would one day indulge as my passion. I was still playing with dolls and Barbies and although a good student, hadn’t really given much thought to what I wanted to be when I grew up. I assumed I’d marry young, become a mother, and everything else would fall into place, just like many young girls growing up in the 70’s who fell under that Cinderella complex.
Then came sixth grade and in social studies we learned of cultures that were more ancient than I had yet come across. Mesopotamia, Sumer, Ur, Arabia. Soon, reading of these places just wasn’t enough. I wanted to go there, walk in the paths of the archaeologists that were unearthing all these artifacts that were being proven to record history thousands of years back. A new enthusiasm took hold and I actually started consider the possibility of a career in antiquity.
Eighth grade brought heartache and depression that nearly led to me taking my life. While many adolescents undergo a transformation, endure an awkward stage, I fell into an extremely dark place that I honestly did not see a way out of. I was wearing a Milwaukee brace for scoliosis and it couldn’t have come at a worse time. I was just starting to come out of my thick shell of crippling shyness when suddenly, I had to spend 23 hours a day in a contraption that in no way allowed me to be a wallflower. All that comes to mind of that school year was sleeping and waking up—and counting the hours till I could bury myself again at night and pray for death. Happiness was a word that couldn’t possibly ever appear in my vocabulary again.
At 14, I didn’t want tomorrow. I wanted out.
Twenty five years later, the little girl who played with dolls and felt her entire destiny was to be one half of a married couple, a mother, identified by that married name, cottage house with the white picket fence bordered with marigolds is gone. She faded from existence and I know I never even said goodbye. Well into my thirties, I felt that she was still in the back of my mind as I nursed heartbreak after heartbreak, thinking there was something wrong with me in that I had not attained that “Mrs.”, or come to know motherhood. Now I know that it was just her ghost in the back of my mind at that point because she had quietly and gracefully exited long ago. She knew this was not the life for her. She had a perception, a wisdom that led her out of me so that I could lead myself.
I’m still awestruck that at 42, unmarried and childless, I don’t see my past as a potpourri of poor choices that left me here. If that relationship with my first love had worked out, I would have followed him as a military wife, never left the country and probably forever stayed in his shadow. The breakup that I grieved for 3 years was the pivotal point that led me to a career that has allowed me to live in such places as India and Saudi Arabia. In my early 20’s had I not left the abusive miscreant that I had allowed to completely control my feelings and actions, I never would have seen the Eiffel Tower, the pyramids and Sphinx in Egypt, or the Coliseum.
Every step taken inside the city walls of Old Jerusalem, I checked myself, aware that my foot may come to rest on one of the very same spots that Jesus, Mary, or even St. Paul stepped. Wandering through London with its contrast of modernity up against antiquity, playing the movies of the British monarchy history in my mind as I walk the grounds of Westminster Abbey or Tower Hill, it’s in a split second of heightened awareness that I know that while I have been chasing, tracking down happiness, it was my happiness that actually found me.
Entering through the red stone ornate gateway to see the Taj Mahal for the second time, I choked up with such a joy that all I could do was stand there and drown in trembles while a continuous loop of audio played in my head, “I can’t believe I’m here. I can’t believe I’m here. Thirteen years after completing a work contract in Delhi and falling in love with this story, I can’t believe I got to see this again.”
I wish I could have written this letter to myself 20 years ago to tell that young woman to broaden her view of what happiness is and how to recognize its locks and keys. I never had the dress shopping, bridesmaids, and showers. I never relished the joy of telling my husband we were expecting or cozied up to him in bed as we looked through baby name books. I grew to believe that all those things were pinnacles of happiness that I had never been to and never would since I met my love much later than planned.
John Lennon is often credited with the quote, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” Oh, how insightful! Every time the gear touches down in a foreign country that I’ve dreamt of or read about, I know I’ve found my happiness–and I almost still can’t believe I’m here.