When I was a girl, my mama and my father, in a grand show of a happy family outing, took me to a small, local fair. There was popcorn and cotton candy and booths that sold you the opportunity to palm and fling a square bean bag. There were booths that sold balloons.
I got a pink one. It was always pink with me back then. I was obsessed.
The pink balloon was a frail little sparkle of joy bobbing above what was for me a massively tense event. The strain between my parents was ever present. It made my palms sweat. It made me flash my eyes around everywhere, constantly, yet see nothing; I was aware of nothing so much as I was the tones of my parents' voices, of their body language at any given moment. If mama didn't walk exactly beside my father, if my father twitched the muscles in his jaw, I knew it, and I knew what it meant.
Happiness, true happiness - not just joy, which in my definition is smaller and more fleeting, less solid - has nothing to do with whether or not you are at a fair toting a pink balloon, or at the beach in a Tweetie Bird swimsuit, or at the foot of a Christmas tree surrounded by a pile of presents that you don't have to share with siblings (all of which can bring joy, or glee, but not true happiness). Happiness is something you carry around inside you, or not. Happiness is brought on by peace, sustained by stability. It can be destroyed by worry or, more acutely, fear.
When I got the balloon, mama worried that I wouldn't be able to hold onto it, that the giftwrap ribbon they used to tie around the balloon's knotted end and let dangle in a long, loose curl would slip through my fingers and the balloon, the joy, would be lost.
My mother didn't know how careful my eye was, how closely I always watched to see if something that was frail and artificial in the first place were now slipping away.
Mama tied the balloon to my wrist, but she wasn't sure she got it knotted right.
We approached a ride, some sort of go-cart or four-wheeler, I don't know what, it's been a long time, but it had a small, shallow hatch in the back and the idea was to stick me in the hatch, ride me around in a circle, then return me safely back to my parents.
I was lifted into the hatch behind the driver, and while she thought I was buckling my safety belt, I was checking the knot that tied the balloon to my wrist. The driver took off, and I was thrown, like a bean bag, from the back of the vehicle.
The next thing I remembered was looking up from my completely prone position on the ground into a canopy of concerned, adult faces, blinking, then finding and watching my pink balloon float endlessly up into a soft, blue sky. The balloon became a pin prick, I was pronounced conscious, then I was quickly remedied to my feet. Joy lost, but I survived.
Mama was in despair over the lost balloon, the last pink one so she couldn't replace it, but I remember that I didn't care. I watched the balloon rise and rise and I simply thought, "There it goes..." and "Maybe my head hurts a little..."
As I said, happiness is made of two things more ephemeral than even a balloon's fragile, floating, pink skin: peace, and stability.
For those who don't have a lot of peace in their lives, who don't know the comfort and safety of stability (for instance, people living in dysfunctional families, and/or people who are themselves dysfuntional) joy - small, fleeting - can become an accessible, thereby acceptable, alternative to happiness. Hence pink balloons. (Hence stilettos. Hence heroin.)
Neither peace nor stability have been very present in my life - not then, and not now. No longer a child, no longer subject to the chaos of domestic violence, I still somehow struggle to find and keep some measure of stability, of peace, of happiness for myself.
I grasp at the pink balloons of adulthood - a job, a home, a car, nice clothes, a dish to eat from, a watering can for the plants, plants, and I let those joys stand in for happiness.
And again and again, I find myself watching the pink balloons of my life float up and away.
Most recently, I've watched the pink balloons of my life float away as some chronic health issues have reared their ugly heads. Dysautonmia affects my heart rate, my digestion, and several other major functions. Usually, I'm able to keep a lid on it, but over December and January I visited the emergency room a total of five times. I've now decended into a flurry of specialists and appointments, tests and procedures. I had so much blood drawn at one visit that, as the nurse was trying to coax a few more drops from a vein, I gave up squeezing a fist, slumped forward, and broke out in a sudden, cold, profuse sweat.
As a result of my health issues, and my anxiety over those issues, I've left my job at the steakhouse, with my riotously funny, unique, young, heartbreaking, beautiful coworkers, whose wit and remarks and drama and hope and determination and everyday resiliance made the fact that working there meant I'd have to clean out the used tampon depositories at the end of every shift worth it.
I've left my apartment, the first place I ever lived by myself, on my own, with everything in my name, like an adult, with cats, and a dog, and bamboo plants.
I've left the city where I fell deeply, deeply, tragically in love, where, for the first time, someone told me they loved me first, before I had ever said it out loud to them.
All those balloons I had, floating away.
Now I'm staying with my mother, in her apartment. I'm nearly constantly anxious, about my health, about the procedures I'm undergoing (colonoscopy, for example), about living with my mother and both of our sets of pets in a cramped apartment. I have bad dreams, nightmares, as I've found that I do sometimes when I'm going through an intense and fierce and long-lasting amount of stress, like this is. I have them during the day, too, although I guess you could call them visions, or less melodramatically, misinterpretations. Coming out of the gastroenterologist's office the other day, I thought I saw two crows - one living, one dead. They both seemed sinister, then sad. Terrible. Then I realized they weren't crows at all - they were inanimate bits of industrial matter. The crows were a figment of my soul's imagination, of my loss of joy with no happiness to fall back on, a metaphor for what anxiety - lack of peace - does to a person.
Several months ago, I misinterpreted a small tree stump as a beheaded bird.
Several years ago, I had to leave a teaching position because I was a mess of poor health - physical and mental.
These breakdowns keep happening, physical or mental or both. I tie a pink balloon to my wrist, and while I'm focused on the knot of ribbon that tethers it to me, something happens that knocks me on my ass, and I watch it float away.
Clearly, there is a lesson I am being taught. To recognize what is joy, and what is happiness. To distinguish between them. To not be sidetracked by joy when trying to pursue happiness, peace, stability. To realize that a job, or a home, or a car, or a spoon, or publishing a poem, or any other achievement or possession is a joy, is a blessing, is a privilege, but is not happiness; those achievements are not, nor do they even contribute to the thing you carry inside of you that is born out of peace and stability of self.
Just like the joy of a pink balloon does not make a happy family, or a happy child. Joy is fine, and you should be grateful for it when you have it, but it's fleeting, not sustaining. Don't pursue it to the exclusion of all else, using it as a band-aid when what you need is stitches in the back of your head, when what you need is happiness, is peace, is stability of your inner self.
Also, stay away from four-wheelers.