“Happiness isn’t something you experience; it’s something you remember.”

— Oscar Levant

I like to think that when happy times come my way I am able to immerse myself in those moments and feel the warmth that happiness brings to my heart.  With our holiday celebrations a not-so-distant memory, I find it easy to access the happy times we shared as a family; but being together with other human beings is so much more than that.  If we are real with each other, we share the good and the bad, the ups and the downs, the happiness and the sorrow.  We live together, we laugh together, we agree, we disagree, we cry, we shout, and sometimes we mourn.  This is the human experience; and if we are very fortunate, the happiness outweighs the sorrow and we say that we are happy.

The subject of happiness has come up often this past year, usually in conversations with my elderly father whose ninety-first birthday is just around the corner.  His world has grown very small.  His freedom has been compromised by the increasing needs his age has heaped on him — needs he is no longer able to meet for himself, or for the woman he loves.  Yes, my ninety-year-old mother still sits by his side.  Most days, she sleeps more than she is awake; and there is no doubt that my father’s life has more moments of sorrow than of joy.  He has to reach far into the past some days to find a bit of happiness to embrace, and often bitterness wins out and leaves him angry, sad, and alone.

The reason we have talked about happiness is that my father, sitting in his tiny world, sees my life as ideal.  He weaves his own version of how wonderful my world must be.  He fantasizes that my many children and grandchildren swarm in and out of my house to do homage on a daily basis, that they live to assure that my happiness is complete.  “What you have going for you,” he tells me, “is that you are happy.  Never forget how lucky you are to have happiness,” and what is omitted, I know, is that he has none.

I try to tell my dad that being happy is a choice I have made.  There are those who would look at the life I’ve led and some of the challenges it has contained and would tell you that I have more reasons to be miserable than to be happy.  This is where the choice comes in; and as 2012 winds to a close, I must thank my father for a happiness-related legacy.  In his own funny, backward, and sometimes miserable way, he has accused me of being happy.  Yes, it is an accusation, especially when it comes from someone who thinks that happiness has passed him by.  My father’s legacy reminds me to continue practicing happiness and not to wait for it to appear magically in my life.

I am a gardener.  There is a great deal of happiness for me in encouraging things to grow; and the solitary time I spend among the plants fills me with perspective.  Being happy is very much like gardening.  We do not simply walk to the garden one day and discover a beautiful tomato.  That moment is a joyous one, for sure, but it is the culmination of many other moments that may not be so exciting.  We dig the soil and enjoy the pleasure of its pungent aroma, but we remove the rocks that might crowd our seedlings.  We stake and support the growing plants, but we pull the weeds that want to take up the space they need to grow.  We pinch off the diseased leaves that might compromise a vine and we do our best to keep insects and birds from stealing away what we have worked to cultivate.  When the growing season is over, I remember the avalanche of sweetness that has overflowed into my home and into my belly.  I let the hardships of the garden fade into distant memory.

Perhaps it is true that our real experience of happiness takes place in our memories.  It is important when the insects come to destroy that we remember them in isolation.  The same is true for the sorrow and the grief and the anger.  They belong to our lives, but we must keep them in perspective.   Happiness is different.  Just as the gardener remembers the bounty of the harvest, we must let our happiness accumulate in one place where we can go and visit it in our memories and remember what we choose to pick and keep and what we choose to touch briefly and leave along the way.

Today I will visit the huge storehouse of happiness that lives in my memory.  I will be attentive to the events of my day and pay attention to adding any good thing that comes my way to the bountiful supply that my life has offered.  I will live every aspect of my life, but I will choose happiness.  My father has taught me how important that really is.  It is his legacy.