Submitted by Sheila Grinell
When I was in my early forties, someone asked me about my goal in life. Without hesitation I said, “to live to 100 with all my juices flowing.” That was shorthand for leading the full, colorful life that I thought would maintain juiciness into old age. I still stand by that goal, although now that I reside in a retirement community among nonagenarians, I see that without good health and good luck, it’s hard to meet.
Notice I didn’t say anything about happiness. Happiness comes and goes, to my way of thinking, and is distinct from contentment. You can be content with a job, or a partner, or living in a particular place, or, if you’re really lucky, all of the above. Contentment is the product of reflection, attained over the years. It forms a background for the activities of life. It feels comfortable, like a warm blanket.
Happiness, on the other hand, comes like a bolt out of the blue (to be more technical, a spurt of neurotransmitters). I experience two different kinds of happy lightning: big swells, which are rare, and little hits, which are frequent.
The big swells seem to be attached to complex situations. For example, at the New York Hall of Science after a couple of years of vigorous effort to re-invent the museum, we held a formal re-opening ceremony, and I stood in the audience next to my mother. At some point as a politician was talking, she turned to me and said, “This is your doing, sweetheart. Only you could make this happen.” She was right—my dear friend Alan was “the boss” but I was running the place for him—and somehow, without discussion, she knew. My mother’s words produced a swell of happiness that I can still recall decades later.
The little hits can happen any time, and they happen all the time when something strikes my fancy. Take this morning, for example. I was riding my bike along the bank of a canal where workers were repairing fences. I’d been puzzled during the last couple of bike rides because it seemed the workers were ripping out perfectly good concrete pillars. Today I happened to notice that the uncovered base of one of the pillars was secured to a steel plate with four bolts, and the worker at the next slot where a pillar had been removed was drilling holes. Ah, ha, I realized. There’s nothing wrong with the concrete, it’s the footing that needs repair! An instant flicker of happiness.
Not all my little hits are cerebral. The smell of fresh-cut grass always thrills me, as does the view of a city skyline—in New York, from the Triborough Bridge ramp approaching Manhattan, and in Phoenix, where I now live, on southbound State Route 51 at Northern where you crest the hill—or the first bite of a perfectly seasoned salad. Now that I am writing every day, I take pleasure in every well-turned phrase, mine or anyone else’s.
It’s a blessing to find joy in the little things, the many little things that populate a day. I’m convinced my little flashes of happiness are counteracting the strains that aging and my husband’s illness impose. They’re helping me live longer. Maybe not to 100, but I’m content with progress to date.
About the Author:
After having spent 40 years developing science museums, I turned to fiction in my sixties. I’ve published two novels, both set in contemporary USA, with She Writes Press, and am working on a third set in post-pandemic Arizona. My all-time favorite novel is “Angle of Repose,” by Wallace Stegner. My favorite memoir is “Life and Death in Shanghai” by Nien Cheng. I don’t have a favorite nonfiction book, but “A Feeling for the Organism,” by Evelyn Fox Keller is up there. It’s the story of Barbara McClintock, a biologist who went her own way, sticking it out for decades until the rest of her profession came round. She eventually won a Nobel Prize.
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