It’s a dilemma: wanting to ride a motorcycle to work, but also wanting to wear a sundress because it has finally gone above 65 degrees and I can reasonably have bare legs in that weather (kind of).
My solution: leggings under dress. Jacket on top. Helmet smashing my curls, but that’s ok. Dress flying in the wind on the way to work.
There’s nothing particularly pastoral about this imagery. In fact, there’s nothing particularly pastoral about our world these days. But riding around town reminds me that in my little corner—this tiny edge of our country known as the Quimper Peninsula—the pastoral (the fields, the shepherdess and her sheep, the smell of hay in the warm sun) is the dream. The idealized rural life exists here and in the summer I get to partake: lying on a picnic blanket amidst fields of lavender, petting goats and watching teenage turkeys waddle around a farm. Picking flowers from the county right-of-way and delivering them to someone special, or having them be brought to me in what is now (only in my mind) a Floral Delivery Competition.
Lying there in the sun I wonder, what is happiness? Is this it? Picking one ripe raspberry and giving it to someone to enjoy? Or is it knowing that out there in the world, someone is writing about you in a three-page letter with perfect handwriting?
I’ve always felt two things about happiness: one is that it doesn’t exist and is something that people strive for, but can never really obtain. The other is that it’s eating a pink cookie.
My former professor (This is Bragging and Name Dropping) Zadie Smith has an excellent essay on the difference between joy and pleasure, parts of which I have always identified with:
“All day long I can look forward to a popsicle. The persistent anxiety that fills the rest of my life is calmed for as long as I have the flavor of something good in my mouth. And though it’s true that when the flavor is finished the anxiety returns, we do not have so many reliable sources of pleasure in this life as to turn our nose up at one that is so readily available, especially here in America. A pineapple popsicle. Even the great anxiety of writing can be stilled for the eight minutes it takes to eat a pineapple popsicle.”
For me, replace “pineapple popsicle” with “pink cookie.”
There is anxiety in happiness (joy, pleasure, whatever you want to call it). For example, does the fact that I am happy right now mean that I will be sad later? Should that affect my current state of happiness? When summer ends, when my idealization of the pastoral scene crumbles and is revealed to be a saturated field of mud and a smelly barn, will I suddenly be lost?
Zadie writes it beautifully:
“Occasionally the child, too, is a pleasure, though mostly she is a joy, which means in fact she gives us not much pleasure at all, but rather that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight that I have come to recognize as joy, and now must find some way to live with daily. This is a new problem. Until quite recently I had known joy only five times in my life, perhaps six, and each time tried to forget it soon after it happened, out of the fear that the memory of it would dement and destroy everything else.”
My fear is that I have an addiction to summer. The memory of it sometimes destroys the rest of the year, although it does spurn me on to keep living until the next summer. But living just for summer is like living just for the weekend. What about the other five days? I could just move to a tropical location. Or maybe I am actually just missing out on the beauties of fall and winter, which I have recently been told are just as good in their own ways.
July 31 approaches. I am happily riding my motorcycle around town in a dress. I hate that the days get shorter from now on. I want to pick all the flowers off of all the right-of-ways in the entire county. But I am also going to make a small pact with myself, to continue to find beauty, joy and the pastoral perfection in the Dark Days of winter.
Keats’ poem “Ode to a Nightingale,” is about death for sure. But let me take some of it out of context and fit it to the mood that I am in at this particular moment, where “being too happy in thine happiness” is running through my head on repeat.
‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,—
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.