Shedding Light on Jane Kenyon’s “Happiness”
by Andrew Lazo
My fellow muses have eloquently stated their takes on Jane Kenyon’s “Happiness;” I find myself here at my computer grateful both for what they’ve said and the space they have left for me to worm my way in a bit.
About the concept of happiness itself, I have little enough wisdom except to echo the poet’s wry appraisal of that emotion’s unpredictability. Who can say the hows and whys of when the feeling comes, and, more lamentably, when it slips away?
Maybe happiness acts as a kind of vapor arising from the distillation of circumstance. When things come together just as they should (and often enough in ways beyond our control) happiness arises. And when it does, it can fill our senses and spin around our heads and hearts, even as it evaporates almost as quickly as it appears. In this, happiness reminds me of nothing so much as the springtime scent of star jasmine sneaking up and flooding me with pleasure when I least expect it.
Kenyon captures this, especially in this stanza:
No, happiness is the uncle you never
knew about, who flies a single-engine plane
onto the grassy landing strip, hitchhikes
into town, and inquires at every door
until he finds you asleep midafternoon
as you so often are during the unmerciful
hours of your despair.
Although Holly Ordway has already written artfully of this stanza, I have to comment as well. Several times during my childhood, my wildly adventurous uncle Forrest would fly into town in his Cessna and knock at our door in the middle of the night. And by the middle of the morning, we’d be aloft over our little lumber town, taking the controls of the plane for a few terrified moments.
But mostly, Kenyon seizes my attention when she reminds me how happiness can sometimes search me out as I sleep the afternoon away during “the unmerciful hours of [my] despair.” Having struggled through a season of sadness some time ago, I can only nod knowingly as I read these lines. On those nights that seemed as though the weeping would never end, it shocked me when joy would sometimes come in the morning. But even so, happiness seldom comes when I call.
Thomas Jefferson seems to have known this when he wisely promised newly-minted Americans not happiness, but “the pursuit of happiness.” And, much like C. S. Lewis, who spent half his life hunting for Joy, seeking happiness might well prove a more reliable good than the rare chance of finding it, and make me mindful of the sheer impossibility of caging this feeling and pulling it out like a pet whenever I want to hear it purr.
For pursuing happiness might very well mean setting up my life to make a permanent place for the very means of this ephemeral emotion—layering up good friendships, making and sharing delightful meals and serving them in a homely house, building into my days interests and professions that offer the chance to make a meaningful contribution. And so I do. But I’ll quickly admit that crafting my little life like this doesn’t provide me with a recipe for happiness—in fact, I know of no such script.
But I believe that maybe these daily and deliberate doings can form up the sets and the stage where happiness may just arrive unannounced. We paint and saw and build, we memorize our lines and practice them aloud with each other, we get the word out, and somehow after all of that, the play arrives and lifts itself up, and us with it too. Sometimes, the small best we can do each day allows for something joyous and ephemeral to arise out of our most everyday efforts.
And so I’ll listen closely for echoes of laughter—laughter for plays past and future. Even in the majority of those moments when happiness doesn’t dance around me, I’ll stay busy in providing for it a place to settle for a little while when it finally “turns up like a prodigal.”
I wish I had some wisdom or advice about happiness. I don’t. Nevertheless, I’ll still do what I can, and when the play is over and the sets are down, when despair sets in and all is emptiness, I’ll leave a single light burning, right there near the middle, and hope that it will light my way back.