“Stay Put”: Musing on Jane Kenyon’s “Happiness”
by Crystal Hurd
As a child, my Mom told me that if I was ever lost, I should stand still. Stay put, she said. Stay put and I will find you.
But I was not one to tolerate loneliness. I remember one instance where my Mom and I were in Hills Department Store. She generously allowed me to peruse the Barbie section all by myself (that’s significant progress from a child’s perspective!). For a few short moments, I was enamored and sufficiently distracted. The excitement perished when the aisle ended, and then I was suddenly overwhelmed by a lack of security. Instead of “staying put”, I weaved frantically into the surrounding sections, panicking more as I searched. Where was she? Surely she didn’t leave me? I began pacing the middle aisles, hoping that I would finally find a familiar face in the scattered strangers. But every row, like the one before it, only left me wandering further. I circled the store a couple of times and in my hopelessness, began to cry. A friendly woman approached and calmly inquired, “Are you looking for your Mommy?” I nodded. She led me to the front of the store, where a helpful, red-vested employee did an all-call. Relieved, Mom arrived swiftly and embraced me at once. She had returned to the toy section to find her wayward daughter absent and had also begun to despair.
But if I would have just stayed put, she would have found me.
All of my life, I have preserved an aspect of that unsatisfied child in some form or fashion. I chased happiness until I was breathless and exhausted, looking nervously for that one familiar emotion. But happiness, like so many things, cannot be predicted or controlled. It cannot be trained like a pet to respond to your demands. It cannot be summoned by a chant upon your lips. It cannot be purchased, nor can you find it in someone else. You can achieve it, but not always through the avenues you intended to. Happiness can often be the result of ambition, but it is inconsistent, never guaranteed. That’s why I am so pleased to welcome it when it arrives, rain-soaked and tardy, on my doorstep.
This element of astonishment is what Jane Kenyon captures so poignantly in her verses. The prodigal’s father opens his arms, crying tears of joy for the return of his son. A distressed sleeper wakes to find that an uncle has sought him/her out. Its true charm is that it often visits us unexpectedly. This is illustrated by Kenyon’s fourth and fifth stanzas. Here there is a mixture of images – some typical, others extraordinary – all sharing a similar emotion. For example, some of the images conjure up bliss: a monk experiencing communion with God in his cell, a lover, a dog chewing a sock, a boulder protected from the heat of the sun, the basketmaker’s pride in his/her handiwork, the thirsty sea being quenched. Others, however, show a brand of happiness that captures us at rare, even inconvenient moments. We see a woman scraping the street with her birch broom, the drunkard’s child, a clerk stacking cans of carrots in a grocery store, and a tired wine glass. In these instances, happiness is not one to make a flamboyant entrance; it creeps quietly behind you while you are engaged in your work. When you discover it there, in the middle of your dizzy routine and nagging worries, you have to pause, smile, and be grateful. Ah, happy chaos.
Instead of running aimlessly around searching for happiness, perhaps I should just stay put and let it find me. It visits me when I teach my students, when I read a really good book, when I curl up in bed with my husband and two dogs, when I reminisce with family and friends, when I eat sushi, when I see the first flower of spring emerge from the soil, when tree branches swing in the breeze, when my neighbor’s ducks waddle across the street and scour the yard for worms, and sometimes even when I experience writer’s block. I don’t need to look for it anymore. It seeks me out, when it is ready. I carry on with my work and eventually it finds me, often to my great surprise and pleasure.