Making a Happy Life
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Making a Happy Life


This post was originally published on July 31, 2013.

One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began,

though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice—
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.

But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do—
determined to save
the only life you could save.
—Mary Oliver

I recently pulled out this poem while thinking about one of my student’s essays. The overall message seemed applicable. But really, after a reread, I think the piece applies to everyone, in one way or another. I first read this when I was twenty-five and in family therapy with the whole gang. (Oh, the memories!) This idea of listening to one’s inner voice resonated, especially within the familial context. That year, I had a vivid dream that I was walking dark, empty streets, looking for a bar called “Life.” Years later, the poem’s message still feels true, even though I am in a completely different phase of life, no longer looking for that bar.

In one example of listening to my own voice, I quit drinking seven years ago. This May, around the anniversary, I meant to celebrate. After all, seven is a good number, a faithful number. But the weekend passed, and I completely forgot. When I thought about it, there had only been one time that I actually remembered on the actual day. In 2010, I was in Tuscany, at a villa with my then-boyfriend and some friends. We’d had a lovely day, lounging by the pool, eating pasta, enjoying the magical view. At the end of the night, I was doing the dishes, when I realized that on this date four years earlier, I’d gone to the beach, stared out at the ocean and decided I was done with drinking. The simple decision had been a long time coming. When I actually stopped for good, I hadn’t really been imbibing all that much. This prompted questioning from a few friends who said, “Do you really think it’s a problem?”

I did. Though I had always preferred being sober to tipsy, in the spell before I quit, there were a few times I went out with the intention of not drinking and ended up far exceeding healthy limits. The gap between reality and my intentions was too stark to ignore. A few months into my thirtieth year, waking up with a hazy hang over, I thought, I am too old for this. Looking back, I don’t think age has a thing to do with it. What mattered, then and now, was engaging fully with my life; sobriety, for me, was and is an essential part of this. How else to get drunk on the sweetness of existence?

My father also stopped drinking when he was 30 years old. I’d grown up hearing him say that his creativity subsequently blossomed. This resonated. A few months after I made my decision, pages and pages started pouring out of me, with an ease I’d never before experienced. This felt like a reward.

But back to Tuscany. When I turned to my then-boyfriend and said, “Hey, I just realized something, today marks four years of sobriety.” Clutching a beer bottle, he leaned in and did his best drunk person imitation, slurring his words on purpose. “Congratulations….you must be so proud.” I laughed. He was partly making fun of himself, because he had been knocking back beer for a few hours. I was glad that he was having fun; drinking wasn’t an issue for him. He and I would break up just weeks later, but I already felt the rumblings of separation. This didn’t feel bad, just inevitable. Before bed, I walked outside to look at the nearly full moon lighting up the valley. The stars were bright, so bright. Under this open sky, solitude was perfection. I did not feel alone.

Over the last seven years, the only time I rued my decision was after a bad weekend of travel in southern Thailand. I was with Will and Raina, a couple I’d met in Vietnam. The three of us had been happily situated at a place in Koh Lanta, where for days on end, we ate and swam and googled just about everything we could think of. One of our meandering internet searches was inspired by a conversation I’d had with the woman staying in the bungalow next to mine, after she told me about meeting her twin flame, or the other half of her soul. Despite her frequent comments about how only a spiritual person could understand (and therefore telling me was a waste of time, I guess she was implying?) my neighbor described her first meeting with him. “I went into his office for an appointment. He’s a chiropractor,” she said. “And then I, like, heard this guidance, that I should, um, be in a certain position.” I can only imagine the look on my face that prompted her to add,  “Well, it’s just that I was told to, um, pick up my legs and wrap them around his, um, waist. Then, um, he’d know.” Even though she finished up with a vague statement (“And then this thing happened”), I understood, somehow, that rapture followed. As someone who ascribes to reverent irreverence, I believed her wholeheartedly, while also finding the story funny. Really funny. Who could even make this stuff up?

Although Will, Raina and I had a nice routine going, we decided to skip off to the south, to a coastal area known for rock climbing. When we got there, the rainy weather prevented us from going to our island destination. I don’t remember the specifics, only that we missed a series of boats and cabs and wound up stuck in a touristy seaside town. Despite the fact that the clock was ticking, we held true to our plan, finally arriving on the white sandy shores of Koh Poda, where a member of the hotel staff greeted our water taxi. “Don’t stay here,” he said, waving his arms. That was a bad sign.

Turns out, we were the only guests at the island’s only hotel. After Will made a joke about The Shining, I asked if we could all bunk together. While getting ready for dinner, I pulled out a sneaker from my bag and watched in horror as a small white egg fell out, rolling across the tile floor and eventually cracking. I screamed, louder than I knew I was capable of. (Later, I’d learn that it was a gecko egg.) After a bad dinner, the three of us sat silent in our room, soothing our frayed nerves and listening to “You’ve Got a Friend.” Exhausted, I turned to them and said, “God, I could use a ^&*% drink.” And this was before I found a huge centipede in a pair of pants I was packing. (Now, that was a scream to end all screams.)

This year, after missing the exact anniversary, I realized that a formal celebration is not necessary, not when I’m grateful and humbled most days. I have learned so much in the last seven years, including what I need to close my porous borders. I have a more nuanced appreciation for my own sensitivity, as well as the sensitivity of others (because we are all sensitive, in one way or another). Case in point: I recently walked into a party and felt instantly exhausted. I wasn’t sure what was happening, only that I needed to lie down, stat. When I did, I broke the chaise lounge. Horrified, I apologized to the host, who said, “You weigh 93 pounds. I doubt this is your fault.” (She was exaggerating. I don’t really weigh 93 pounds.) In a way, though, breaking the chair made perfect sense, for it matched the sudden heart heaviness I felt. I still don’t know where it came from. Perhaps I was just dehydrated, or perhaps I was picking up on some unacknowledged emotional knot. Pre-2006, I would have gone straight for a margarita. Now, all I had was my steady breath and kind friends who brought me coconut chicken skewers and a fresh fruit cocktail as I curled up on a different chair.

Two nights ago, I had a funny dream. A psychic friend brought her client to see me, to help her break her addiction to chocolate fudge brownies. “Well, I’m no psychic, but I guess I can come up with some ideas,” I shrugged, wondering why she called me, a writer. In the dream, I was laughing at myself. Here I was, speaking authoritatively about “the right way” to kick brownies (which, full disclosure, is not an issue for me), looking at my friend and her client, wishing they were in on the joke. I mean, what I was saying—something about triggers and removing the black line that separates us from our higher selves—could very well have been rooted in truth. But I’d never had these thoughts before (in the dream or real life), so how on earth was this gospel? And why were they nodding so emphatically, in such earnest? Didn’t they see how funny this all was? (Like a scene from You, The Living.) The whole set up, going to see an unqualified person for advice, felt like a total farce—a worthy farce, in that in these seeking moments we come face-to-face with our own belief systems, but a farce nonetheless.

Booze or no booze, fudge brownies or no fudge brownies, in the end, these choices might very well be drops in the ocean. As Marcus Aurelius said, “Remember that very little is needed to make a happy life.”

Why not do it your way?

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About Author

Suzanne Guillette's work has appeared in Tin House, Self, O Magazine, Publisher’s Weekly, The Rumpus,and Time Out New York, in addition to other publications. Her memoir, Much to Your Chagrin, was published by Simon & Schuster in 2009.