High clouds, no rain. The grass is long and wet. Pink salmon are pushing up the rivers and dying along the banks. The alder trees are beginning to turn, and a few leafs are falling across the lawn. The paving project in town continues and seems to be coming to an end for the season. People making those Davis-Bacon Wages are penciling out their vacation plans. Jan and I took a trip to Seattle to go to a surprise birthday party for my Sister Jane in Seattle.
Surprise parties can be a dicy deal but this one worked out perfectly. My sister was whole heartedly surprised and delighted. It was a beautiful evening with a gorgeous sunset overlooking the city. There was a lit lawn for lawn bowling as the sun set and the full moon rose. We all dressed in white, and laughed, played the game and visited and shared stories about my sister. It was a lovely time and I thought of the famous opening line of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
The line perfectly launches that novel but too many people hang on to that line as some kind of truism, when it quite obviously is not.
That all happiness is chipped from a monolithic block of sameness does have some superficial believability at first, particularly in the twentieth century American mind: the Cleavers and the Brady Bunch come rushing to mind: the American Velveeta family. But going back to Leo Tolstoy for a moment, he was beginning a thousand page novel not only about the interconnecting relationships of family members, he had his sights set on the realistic description of class, gender, religion and society of his teetering Mother Russia. His country was an unhappy family and it had better be interesting in it's own special way or he was in big trouble right there at the beginning of that fat boy.
But going back even further, unhappiness is more interesting than happiness. Satan beats out God as a character every time. The character of Satan in Milton's Paradise Lost helps to form the mold for the modern detective hero. The fallen angel...and the tarnished knight. Without the fallen angel... without Satan falling from heaven and brooding at his fall from grace, there would be no McNulty in The Wire, no Cecil Younger.
Anyway... all our interest in unhappiness tells us really, is that most of us start out happy. Happiness begins as our default setting no matter how screwed up our family life was, we came out of the womb and somebody held us and we weren't eaten by wolves.
When we were held we first looked up and we were happy. We couldn't differentiate between ourselves and the person holding us. We couldn't differentiate between ourselves and the food that came into our bodies. As long as we didn't starve, the food was good. When it came into our mouths and we weren't in pain everything was good. Then we developed a little more and and everything goes to shit... but there for a good long developmental moment it's just us, the world, everything: Good. That's why unhappiness seems so interesting. Unhappiness is the first spice.
And it is, don't get me wrong. But happiness is interesting too. (Of course you are free here to comment that only a depressive would take time out of his day to make a big deal that happiness is interesting... duly noted) But I was thinking about this fact .... the fact of interesting happiness while at my sister Jane's seventieth birthday party. Not all of my family could make it. My oldest sister from California could not make it because of preparations for her granddaughters bat mitzvah which is happening this weekend.
I am the youngest if five, if my sister, her children and spouses had attended, just in my family you would find, people of various income levels from the unemployed and living with their parents to the multi millionaires. There are gay people and straight people. There is a Filipino woman, and people of Irish, Welsh, German, French and many many other Heritages. There are Jews, and Buddhists, Christians, agnostics and the youthful undeclared. There are engineers, and a great many teachers, lawyers, a Doctor, TV producers, scriptwriters, poets, novelist, one person who was in this years Time Magazine as one of the Top 100, there is a boy who is 6' 1" at 14 , and a girl who loves candy. I believe all of them are either Democrats or Independents.
The one thing that I think makes them interesting to me is that they love to laugh and they are all kind and generous. Not just kind to each other, but kind to others. They unfailingly raise money for good causes, but more than that they give things to people in need. Nephews have given houses over to friends in need. Children have bought houses for parents. Siblings, open their house to troubled youth who need a place to live and finish the school year. Or they sponsor refuges and have them into their home and find them places to live and keep a watch on them. And no... these are people with trouble of there own as well... you can look at this family of mine and see hardship. The sister we were celebrating had almost died of a stroke 40 years ago, and we all bless this day we cam be with her now. Two of the others at this full moon party have cancer now, yet they joke and bicker and fight over politics and family. One nephew works for a public interest law firm and is beating his head against the wall on a class action law suit representing prisoners who are mistreated in jail. He sufferers depression that runs in our clan and he rolls in the gloom when the judge decides against "his prisoners." While my other nephew works is an executive of a multi billion dollar a year corporation that gives free health care and education to all it's employees and talks of working side by side with the servers in the stores and seeing how hard they work.
Not all happy families are alike, I can't imagine another one quite like mine. Yes, they are easy to reduce to cultural stereotype. My father was a clerk in Des Moines, Iowa and he worked for the Phone Company for 48 years, back when people did that. I asked him in 1970, if we were rich, and he said, "I will always work for wages. In America you'll never get rich working for wages, but if you work hard, you have everything you need." He believed that. It's not true anymore. Not for everyone. A lot of the energy my good and interesting family has goes back into realizing that modest principle he expressed.
My sister's kids had arranged the surprise party, and we were told to wear white. Jan and I went to Goodwill and I bought some white pants that afternoon. As the bone white moon rose over the Cascade Mountains I watched all the children and old people dance across the close cropped lawn I was still amazed at how happy and loving my family was. There was not an ounce of nervous undercurrent or worry, Not a whisper of "what will she say" or "My God...what is he going to do this time?" There was only laughter and hugging and joking.
No, we are not perfect by any means, we have mental illness, and alcoholism, and deeply different opinions on things, and maybe the party didn't last long enough for the bad behavior to come out, I'll grant you that. But allow me this near perfect memory tonight: That we are rich because we love each other, and this... for the time being keeps us out from under the wheels of any Russian locomotive coming our way.
Silver evening sky
the beginning of autumn.
I reach out for you.