One day this fall, I was sitting at a stop light on Thatcher in River Forest. To my right was the non-descript, overgrown side yard of Trailside Museum near the Des Plaines River — at least that’s how I used to think of it.
Now I think of it as a happy place, filled with warm memories of time spent with my two grandsons, who love the nature playground Trailside has created there: logs to climb on, a teepee made of tree branches, a graduated water table that runs downhill like a cascading river.
Most people probably don’t even know about it, but after spending time there each of the last three seasons, it turned into one of the bright spots in my year.
Which made me wonder how many of these places we have in our lives, and how many we overlook — because the quiet happiness we experience there is easily eclipsed by the busyness and uproar that characterize the rest of our lives.
Many of these moments are stored in memory, our mechanism for imprinting snapshots from the past, which bob to the surface of awareness when we least expect it. They’re practically medicinal, which makes me wonder if we can’t access more of them more often.
I’m talking about the quiet moments of contentment that add up to a life worth living. I call it “the good stuff,” which we’re inclined to dismiss because it’s often so ordinary. Yet they are preserved in memory, waiting to be recovered and reclaimed.
Woody Allen once asked, “Is a memory something you have or something you’ve lost?”
A line in a song I like asks: “Are your memories like mine, or have they let you go?”
But they don’t let go. We don’t lose them. I suspect we have within us an inexhaustible store. Close your eyes and a moment may spring to mind. With enough time, more will likely surface. Pass the place where it happened and we are reminded (“re-minded”). Usually we say memories “come back to us,” but don’t we really come back to them? The places where we experience happiness become sacred ground.
Why wait for the grand life review after we die to reveal that we had it better than we knew? The good stuff in our one precious life is eager to flash before our eyes.
Happiness may be a more frequent visitor than we realize, even when life is difficult, even when it’s awful. How that happens is a mystery. Maybe somebody “up there” likes us. Maybe it’s just the way we’re built.
We may wonder why something, seemingly so inconsequential, is preserved in our minds as an “active” memory. Chances are it’s those moments of contentment.
If you’re lucky enough to have small children in your life, such moments occur with frequency. These avatars of un-self-conscious being reinstruct us in delight.
But it also happens during meals with friends or during long walks with someone you care deeply about. What Kurt Vonnegut called “the long walk to forever.” Moments that you never want to end, that you feel you could spend the rest of your life living. They are simultaneously fleeting and our only true taste of eternity.
Psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Flow, calls this the state of “optimal experience.”
To be sure, unhappiness stakes its claim on memory as well — the more painful, the deeper the impression, which may feel more “significant” than mere happiness.
But if we pay attention, we begin to notice how often happiness sidles up to us, offering to overpower our misery or self-pity or resentment or worry or disappointment — our default negativity.
It’s easy to obsess about the bad stuff and spend all our time trying to avoid it. It’s harder to embrace the good stuff. It takes practice — and overcoming conditioning.
Look around and you’ll see the places happiness visited. My hunch is that happiness is always close at hand.
It may be as simple as sitting around together in a living room following a holiday meal. Content. At ease. Small talk. Comfort zone. You can’t live there the rest of your life. That’s not how life works. But such moments are a big part of what makes life so good — and worth remembering. Might be a good starting point for your end-of-year life review.
The holiday film “Family Man” captures this.
“It’s a glimpse,” the main character is told. “A glimpse, by its very nature, is an impermanent thing.”
A glimpse of eternity — the good kind, optimal experience, the long walk to forever.
The kingdom of heaven.
When people get married, I don’t think they marry each other. I think all of us, at some point, must marry life — for worse, but at least as often for better. The good stuff, interrupted by the bad, until death parts us from “the country they call life,” as Rilke called it.
“We declare that life is worth living — and we choose to live that life together.”
We don’t get happily ever after. Life is not that kind of deal. What we get is happiness interruptus. If you were offered a life with brief, tantalizing glimpses of eternity — which cannot last but keep returning, possibly increasing if you stay open enough — would you choose it? Not that you have a choice, but would you choose it wholeheartedly?
Life is that kind of deal.