WHAT HAPPINESS ENDURES?
For an essay on “happiness” the just previous Medium essay was pretty grim, talking about a lifetime of people who didn’t come through and weren’t happy anyway. But the basic idea was that if a person had a richly sensory and embraced first few years, that would be enough to find happiness again. Awkwardly, one cannot remember those years because the brain mechanisms haven’t developed enough yet. But with a bit of work, the results can be found. Maybe photos or old toys.
Alongside many fake and flimsy people there was one demographic that infused me with inspiration and idealism that have never been destroyed, though they’ve sometime had to adapt. The teachers of my public school years were mainly women born in or about 1900, which I code as “Edwardian”. They never married, mostly because of WWI which killed their prospective husbands, so they never had children and poured their lives into teaching at a time when humanities were still powerful and confident. A few did become what we now call “lesbian” though it had little to do with sex but a lot to do with a partnership to maintain a successful household.
Looking back now, I somehow got the idea that a person should become great by devotion to something like great art or fine scholarship. My theatre classes (Alvina Krause 1893–1981) confirmed and intensified this, though it was also clear that I was not personally a theatre genius. The promise was that I could write. This turned out to be true.
When I got to Browning, I went looking for someone to be a friend, I found Bob Scriver. We shared intense young experiences in Chicago where he excelled at Vandercook School of Music not far from the U of C. Decades apart we prowled the Field Museum of Natural History and admired the work of Malvina Hoffman. Bob was an engulfing, driven, and overwhelmingly sexual man who exceeded his opportunities.
When I showed up, he had just suffered an eye infection and narrowly avoided blindness at the same time as a rigid fish and game warden threatened to close down his museum. His most recent intimacy had fallen apart. His parents were touching ninety. I was ready for sex and he was the right initiator, though I had no idea how many females had preceded me. When I got the picture, I was swept with jealousy because I had no confidence and idealized pair-bonds beyond reason. But before that, the years were the most purely happy of any in my life because of how highly I valued his art and how completely I was embraced. Also, about the skills I was acquiring, the grasp I expanded, the impact I had on what was happening. It was deeply integrated with the landscape and the history that had crossed it, clear back to the dinosaurs whose bones we found. We owned the same books about such things.
Eventually I had to leave. It was no compliment that things fell apart with me gone. He had had a heart attack and probably small strokes, but was successful enough to attract the usual parasites including his fourth wife, and to be consumed by production. Reaching back into the past when times were happy, he renewed friendship with his second wife’s family from the WWII years in Edmonton. His Blackfeet foreman, David Cree Medicine, as well as the grown children of his co-foundry inventor, Joe Evans, acted as family who took care of him.
Civil Service has been one entity that has treated me fairly. It was just the beginning of pulling in women and blacks. The panel that hired me, which included a young black man, was impressed by my stories about Browning. The job was animal control officer, a sub-category of sheriff’s deputy. The top boss was a wealthy orphaned Portugese Hawaiian who had been raised by a bank. He got his job courtesy of his father-in-law, a county commissioner, and also ran a riding academy that was always full of pretty young women. He always had a pocket full of airline tickets to Hawaii and I suspected he was trafficking.
Animal Control was barely beginning to professionalize and understand itself. The Humane Society was no better. When the first boss left, the new man in charge, Mike Burgwin, took hold and asked me to develop an education program. He had much to do with my growth and pride. An old cop himself, he said I “had balls.” Portland was quite different then. In the course of work, I knocked on what seemed like every door in SE Portland, “nice” or not. But I yearned for the kind of education I’d heard could be gotten from the U of Chicago and under cover of the idea of ministry, I managed to get there. The PNW UU ministers I so much admired were my role models. I didn’t find out how empty and fake many were until years into my own ministry. The education from the U of Chicago Div school and from Richard Stern, the novelist, has never let me down. It remains classical, historical, and responsive. But it has never suggested that it could make anyone rich or famous.
As I sit here typing, long past the ministry years and the City of Portland clerical years that pay for my retirement, a flock of little birds is passing through my tangled yard, bare of leaves. I only see their moving silhouettes so I don’t know what kind they are, but it pleases me greatly to understand their migration and see their dance of seeking through the branches. I’ve moved my idea of Christian salvation by virtue escaping death, to a far more salient idea of participation in the complex world of shared ecosystems, phenomena from north lights to the kittens wrestling at my elbow. The Buddhist exhortation to “pay attention” is always relevant. There’s always more to notice and think about in the same way as those Edwardian natural history people whom my teachers valued. The taut peneplain of the prairie stretches out to the east and the erupting stone of mountains back-up the west. The sky covers all but is never still.