Happiness is Whatever I Choose It to Be

As the fall semester of my sophomore year comes to a close, thoughts of my first year as a college student keep wandering into my mind. In high school, I wasn't really into creative writing. I was used to writing research papers. And I thought myself horrible at writing! Then, I entered college and my English professor, Mr. D., encouraged us to be creative... WHAT?! Never in my schooling had a teacher wanted me to write creatively. Which, as I think about it now, was odd since I attended an arts high school. We were encouraged to be creative for our projects and arts classes, but never really in our writing. In fact, we had strict guidelines for our papers that, if crossed, resulted in docked points and lower grades. So when Mr. D. said, "be creative with this," my mind was blown. But, in the spirit of trying new things, I ran with it. And I can't thank Mr. D. enough, because that one sentence, that one bit of encouragement, opened my eyes to a whole new world. A world that, today, I don't think I could live without. 

Without further ado, I give to you one of my first pieces of creative writing. I hope you enjoy!!

Yours truly,

 


Happiness is Whatever I Choose It to Be

Gail Johnson trudged up the stairs of her old apartment building on Wale St between Kathleen and Kristen Ave. The elevator, old crappy thing that it was, broke last week. Luckily no one was in the damn thing when it broke halfway between the floor 5 and 6. Unluckily, it just happened to be on its way to get her that beautiful Monday morning, and she was late to work because of its sputtering halt, right below her wretched floor. When she had finally made it to the main building of Caster Middle School, the principal had scolded her in front of at least 30 students, half of them hers.

“How can we expect our students to follow the rules if their teachers don’t even follow them?!” Mr. Harding had practically shouted for all the world to hear. It was like he wanted the whole school to know she had messed up.

“I’m so sorry Mr. Harding. The elevator in my buil-”

“No excuses Miss Johnston! Get to class!” he’d bellowed before stalking back into his office and slamming the door, leaving her to skulk to her home room class half an hour late. It had been humiliating! It’s not like she wasn’t keenly aware that she was the youngest staff member. Or that he always called her the wrong name. Johnston. With a [t]. Why couldn’t he just call her by her name, J-o-h-n-s-o-n. No t, damn it.

An exit door on a floor below her slammed, bringing Gail back to the present hike she had embarked on to get to her apartment on floor 6. She was so exhausted. She didn’t even want to think of all the papers that needed grading, waiting for her in the box she had pinned under her left arm. Don’t think about it Gail. Its Friday. We’ll deal with the papers tomorrow. Right now we just need a nice warm bath, a glass of wine, and our favorite book.

The key to her bland apartment door clicked, the door swung open, and she was inside. Keys in the bowl on the armoire to left, coat in the closet to the right, papers and laptop bag on the desk in front of the window.

Her apartment was small. A desk perched to the left of the living room, a comfy sofa sat centered in front of a small TV that hung over the fireplace, and a dining table sprawled before a white kitchenette on the right. Down the hall from the kitchen was her bedroom and bathroom.

Gail grabbed a worn copy of Eat, Pray, Love off of the couch, and a bottle of her favorite pear wine out of the fridge. After pouring herself a glass and replacing the bottle in the fridge, she headed straight for the bathroom. Hot water filled the tub and steam filled the rest of the space as she stripped off all her clothes. They landed unceremoniously in a lumpy pile on the chilly floor, and she vowed to leave all of her stress in that heap with them. Now was time for relaxing, not stressing.

In no time, she was wrapped in the warmth of the water and reading her book. This was the third time she had read Eat, Pray, Love but even so, she never tired of it. She started up where she had left off at the beginning of chapter 90, and after a minute something caught her eye. Printed on the page, standing out as if highlighted and typed in bold, were a few sentences she couldn’t stop rereading;

People universally tend to think that happiness is a stroke of luck… but that’s not how happiness works. Happiness is the consequence of personal effort… You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings.

After reading the sentences a few times, Gail laid the book down on the chilly floor of the bathroom. Cupping her wine in both hands, she slid down further into the tub. For the next 40 minutes, Gail soaked, lost in her thoughts as they swirled around her like the water in the tub. What is happiness, really?

Suddenly, she was out of the tub, half wrapped in a towel and sprinting for her desk. Closing the blinds with a quick pull of a cord, she rummaged around her desk for a pen and paper. When both were in front of her she sat and wrote. She wrote, and wrote, and wrote; about her own thoughts on happiness, and other possibilities on the subject, and what the implications of that train of thought could be. When she was done she pulled out a large yellow sticky note and wrote “PROMPT: WHAT IS HAPPINESS?” in her thick bold scrawl meant for important ideas.

She had just discovered her next writing assignment for her sixth grade English students.

~

“Alright class, settle down. I know its Friday, but we still 15 minutes before the end of class,” Miss Gail said to her 7th period English class. It was the last class of the day and all 27 of Gail’s sixth grade students were eager for school to end and the weekend to begin. But Gail had one more thing to spring on her kids before they left. She had been dying all week to give them this assignment and had specifically left it until the end of class to make her students think during the coming weekend.

“Before you all leave for the day, I have as assignment that I want you all to think about for Monday. This will be the prompt for your next paper.” A collective grumble filled the room as Gail started writing on the board. “Oh common guys, it’s not that bad. You are all good writers and I’m interested in what you have to say about this topic.”

Bits and pieces of hushed conversations wormed into her ears as she continued to jot down the prompt.

“Really? Why can’t we…”

“…always have homework…”

“I hate these writing assignments…”

“Omg, did you hear about…”

“…that Science project due next…”

“I hope this isn’t due Mond…”

“I hate these…”

“BORING…”

“I’ll just do it next week…”

“…how many words this time…”

As students started reading what she was almost done writing on the board, the whispers started to buzz in a new sort of way.

“Wait, what?”

“Happiness?”

“What does she mean…”

“Well, this is gonna be…”

“Happiness is definitely food…”

“I think happiness is falling in love…”

“…not having homework…”

“…uggg…”

“…kind cool…”

Perfect. Now they’re thinking.

“I want you all to think about this and have a brainstorm or mind map ready for Monday. Your brainstorms are worth 10 points! Do one and you’ll receive credit. Don’t, and you’ll receive a zero. The final paper will be due next Friday. If you have any questions write them down and bring them with your brainstorms to class next week. Ok, have a good weekend; you are dismissed!”

~

Chin propped up in one hand, Tina Kade starred at the oak kitchen table she’d been doing homework at only minutes before. Pieces of paper and books were scattered across the smooth worn surface, and in the middle of the organized mess was the most recent prompt she’d been given in English class.

What is happiness? When her doe eyed teacher Miss Gail had first introduced the prompt in class a few days ago, Tina had known exactly what to write about. But since then, her ideas had all dulled, seeming too insubstantial to explain what happiness really is. For that matter, what is happiness really? How could she, a mere sixth grader, have the answer to that question?

The front door slammed, startling Tina out of her question filled daze. Her sister stalked into the kitchen, propping her skate board up against the wall and opening the fridge. It was bare except a few cokes and a half a package of bacon on the cusp of expiration.

“Hey, where are Mom and Dad?” Sam asked, spying Tina at the table.

“Work. Emergency at the hospital.”

“What about dinner? I’m starving.”

“I don’t know. Mom and Dad put you in charge before they left, so I figured you’d whip something up for us, Saaamm,” Tina said sarcastically.

Sam rolled her eyes. “You know I don’t cook… not without burning something.” It was true. Sam was an atrocious cook.

“Dad left some takeout menus and cash on the counter,” Tina said pointing to the stack of well-used paper menus to Sam’s left.

As Sam snatched the menus off the counter, kicked off her shoes, and hopped on the counter, Tina returned her gaze to the papers scattered on the table. She could ask Sam for help but that would probably backfire on her. She’d probably say something along the lines of “How should I know? Do I look like Gandhi to you?” Despite the likelihood that she was about to be bitten, Tina took a deep breath, preparing herself for the myriad of possible snarky remarks about to be thrown her way once she asked.

Before she could utter a sound, however, Sam asked, “Chinese or Pizza?” Tina, mouth still open, paused before replying, “Chinese.” Sam glanced up, noting Tina’s pause. “What’s up?” she said returning her attention to the menus she’d been flipping through. Within seconds, she’d found the one for their favorite Chinese place and had magnetized the rest to the fridge.

“Sam… what do you think happiness is?”

“Hmmm?”

“Happiness. What is it?”

“I don’t know Tina… Doing what Mom and Dad say? They definitely seem to think so.”

“What do you mean?” Tina asked.

Sam laid the yellowing paper menu for Happy Garden Chinese on the counter and met Tina’s eyes. With deliberate slowness, Sam said, “Mom and Dad seem to think if I just do what they want, and become a doctor like them, I’ll be happy.” Tina cringed at the venom lacing Sam’s voice. This was an ongoing topic that had created tension in their household for a while now. Tina didn’t understand why her parents couldn’t accept that Sam was a talented singer song writer or that she might be able to make money with her music. Or that she loved skating just as much, if not more.

Sam hopped off the counter and slid over to the table. Bracing her hands on the oak surface and leaning over Tina she said, “I know that Mom and Dad don’t pressure you about your life choices yet, but someday they will, and you’ll understand.” She pushed off the table, grabbing her skateboard and heading upstairs.

After a few long seconds, Tina called after her sister. “What about dinner?!” She shouted from the kitchen.

“Just order whatever you want, I’m not hungry anymore.”

~

As she walked home from school the next day she realized she really didn’t want to go home. She stood there for a minute staring at the modern two story building with the neat little lawn called home. It was like it had been taken right out of a magazine and pasted onto their street, looking a bit out of place against the other houses. Their original house, which had looked similar to the rest of the houses on the block, had burned down when she was three. Her parents had had this house built in its place. It was sleek with its clean lines and a dozen or so windows facing the street. True to Colorado style however, the house had real wood paneling on the outside top level and a beautiful wood deck and balcony in the back.

The building was usually comforting, the way it stood tall, proud of its unique style. It had been her home for most of her life, but today it felt colder than usual, like it was staring at her in disapproval.

She knew if she went inside her mom would be home and sense that something was bothering Tina. Sometimes Tina thought she was psychic the way she always knew when something was bugging her. She would want to “help”, pestering Tina until she spilled the beans. But Tina couldn’t tell her mom about her conversation with Sam. First Sam would get in trouble and then Tina would be in danger from Sam. It was so unfair of them to put her in the middle like this.

Tina turned from the disappointed building and headed up the street. A cute cottage-like yellow house stood sandwiched between two larger houses a few doors down. Tina headed straight for it. The owner of the house was an older lady who had babysat Sam and Tina when they were smaller. She was like a sweet grandmother or awesome great aunt.

Tina walked up to the yellow house, the red of the door now fading with age, not bothering to knock as she strode in. She plopped down on the sofa in the living room, slinging an arm over her eyes and sighing. She hadn’t even bothered to take off her backpack before sitting. It just seemed like too much work.

Angie watched her from the kitchen. Except for the sound of running water and dishes clinking softly, the house was quiet. As Angie finished the dishes she asked, “Are you just here for the pastries about to come out of the oven or would you like to tell me what’s wrong?”

“Pastries?” Tina said avoiding the real question, “What kind?” Bolting off the couch she headed to the kitchen.

“Apple and blueberry strudels,” Angie replied smiling warmly at Tina as she slung her backpack off and took a seat at the round table in the breakfast nook.

“My favorite! You’re the best Angie. Wait a second… did you know I was coming?”

“I had a feeling you’d pop by soon.” Angie also always knew when Tina was in distress. “So what’s this all about,” Angie prompted. As they waited for the strudels to finish baking, Tina told her about the writing assignment and the conversation she’d had with Sam. She explained that she had had ideas but since then, her ideas had fallen flat. She complained about how unfair it was that her family had stuck her in the middle of their disagreements. And she lamented about how hard this paper was going to be. Angie sat and listened, politely nodding when necessary, but staying quiet for the most part.

When Tina finished her story, Angie stood and went to the oven to check on the pastries, saying “It’s a good thing I made more than I usually do, cause girl you need some baked goods right now.”

Tina laughed and went to the fridge to get out the milk while Angie took the trays filled with flaky deliciousness out of the oven. “What do you think happiness is Angie?” Tina asked as she slid back into her seat with two glasses of milk. Angie glided over with two plates and a platter of pastries and sat. “Besides baked sweets and good food?” Angie asked. Tina laughed again and said, a smile tugging at her lips, “Yes besides those.”

“Well,” Angie began, “Do you know what I wanted to be when I was a girl?”

“No, but what does that have to do with happiness?” Tina said quizzically.

“Patience child, patience. When I was girl I wanted to be the best pastry chef in all the world.

“OK. And you went on to become the greatest pastry chef in the city. Again what does this have to do with my paper.”

“Did you not hear what I just said?” Angie reprimanded, giving Tina a look that said girl, don’t you test me. Tina rolled her eyes, but stopped asking question.

“Despite my dreams, my mom and dad wanted me to become a track star. Believe it or not, I was quite the runner in my youth. But my passion was baking. We argued all the time about it, and eventually I gave in to my parent’s demands. I got a full ride Track and Field scholarship to UCLA, which held the National Track and Field Championship at the time, I’ll have you know. After I graduated from high school, I moved to L.A., made friends with others on the track team, and started dating a guitarist named Dilan Spencer in my sophomore year. All of my friends at the time would have told you that I was happy. Happy to be in L.A. Happy to be dating a chill guy who was in a band. Happy to be running. And I was.

But I wasn’t nearly as happy running and living as a track star in L.A. as I was when I was baking. When I was in my junior year, I got a part time job at a bakery a few blocks from campus. I needed some extra cash; my scholarship didn’t cover the new the apartment I’d just rented with my best friend. After a few months I realized that I was happiest when I was in that little bakery on the corner. The smell of flour and fruit and cheese. The feeling of dough between my fingers. The smiles of the customers as they tasted my treats.

Making baked goods and watching people enjoy them is what makes me happy, Tina. There is nothing like the feeling I get when I see someone really enjoy one of my creations. I knew then, that if I ever quit baking I would never truly be happy.”

“So happiness is baking…” Tina said after a pause.

Angie laughed. “No, Tina my darling. Happiness comes when you let go of what other people want and discover what you want. And once you find what you really want out of life you must hold on to it with all of your might. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t or shouldn’t. Make your own decisions and follow your own dreams. And when one dream is fulfilled find a new dream to pursue. Never settle. Never stop dreaming and never stop following your heart. True happiness is finding what fills you with joy, curiosity, and desire.”

“Hmm,” Tina murmured, “So if Sam just holds on to and pursues her dreams no matter what, she will find happiness?”

“That’s right, baby girl.”

“But what if she doesn’t make it as a musician? What then?”

“Then she should find something related to music to pursue. Or find a new dream that excites her even more. Doing what you love is the best thing a person can do. Then work is no longer work, it is passion.”

Tina sat and contemplated all that Angie had told her while she finished her last blueberry strudel. She stared out the window and watched the birds flit from tree to tree, singing to each other. When Tina was done eating, Angie cleared her plate and cup, washing them before sitting down with her latest book in her favorite armchair next to the couch. Angie knew that Tina had some thinking to do and left her to her thoughts.

~

The halls of Caster Middle School were abuzz on Tuesday morning as Tina wandered from her Life Science class with Mr. Dr. Brown, to her English class with Miss Gail. Everyone knew that it wasn’t proper to call him Mr. Dr. We had all been scolded by Ms. Kelly, the seventh grade English teacher, whose classroom was next door to Dr. Brown’s, at one point or another. But they all did it anyway. It was fun.

Not really seeing where she was going, Tina joined the flow of students streaming through the halls. This wasn’t the first time she’d spaced out that day. Tina had been distracted through all her classes thinking about her English paper. She’d already been called on it in three of her classes that day, but still she couldn’t seem to stay present in any of her classes.

What Angie had said had struck a chord in Tina but she was still trying to figure out what that chord meant to her. She liked the idea that happiness can be self-constructed but she still didn’t see how that was possible. How could she make her own happiness? And how could she ignore others opinions of her life choices? She appreciated others’ feedback.

“..ina! TINA!”

Tina started abruptly as the sound of her best friend Mark yelling her name brought her back to earth. She’d made it to the doorway of Miss Gail’s classroom and had been about to walk in when Mark’s shout made her turn and look for him. He was bolting down the hallway, to the chagrin of the teachers that made a point to stand in the doorways of their classrooms and greet their students as the entered. Mrs. Sampson and Mr. Jackle yelled after Mark as he blurred past them.

“No running in the hall!”

“Slow down boy; you might hurt someone!”

Crashing into her, Mark pushed Tina into their English class, ignoring the teachers, and started chatting a million miles a minute.

“How’s your day been? Wasn’t Mr. Dr. Brown’s lecture AWESOME?! I totally didn’t know that about plants. Have you started your paper for English? And what about that project in Math? I’m almost done, but not yet.”

And on and on he went. Never really letting Tina answer. Which was fine with her. He led her to their table and they both sat down. Tina absentmindedly got out her notebook and pencil and Mark chatted on about something-or-other that had happened earlier that day. Rī, Tina’s other best friend, turned around in her seat in front of them and made a remark about the topic that Mark had just been “discussing” with Tina. They started debating and Tina dropped her chin in one hand, twirling her orange mechanical pencil in the other. She stared out the window to her right and let her thoughts drown out the din around her. They wandered in and out of her mind like breezes blowing through a meadow.

“Tina?” Miss Gail said returning Tina’s attention back to the class at hand.

“Yes Miss Gail?” Tina said.

“Are you with us? Cause I can mark you absent if you’re not,” she said with a sly grin. Tina blushed, replying, “Yeah I’m here. Just a bit distracted. Sorry.”

“That’s alright. Just try to stay present,” Miss Gail said before continuing roll call.

Class drifted by quickly as Tina drifted between earth and clouds. Half way through class Miss Gail announced that they had the rest of the class to work on their happiness papers and that any questions or concerns should be asked now. Tina slammed back into class, jerked down out of her latest cloud of thoughts by the announcement, and her hand shot up in the air like an arrow.

As Miss Gail made her way to Tina everyone broke out into to chatter, put head phones in, pulled out laptops, and moved to the computers lining the back wall. Pulling out Mark’s vacated chair (he’d hopped onto the nearest computer) Miss Gail looked at Tina, concern flitting across her big green eyes.

“I’m fine, Miss Gail. It’s just that this paper has had me in a daze all day.”

“Why’s that?”

So Tina explained her conversations with her sister and Angie to Miss Gail as she sat and patiently listened.

“So… I don’t really know what to write about happiness. I agree with Angie but what Sam said is still bugging me. What do you think about happiness, Miss Gail?”

“Well, Tina, as my favorite author puts it ‘people tend to think that happiness is a stroke of luck… But happiness is [really] a result of personal effort.’ I believe that happiness is when you find fulfillment in the effort that you put into something. For example, when I write a paper or a story and I feel proud at my accomplishment. That is my happiness.”

“So pride in ones’ accomplishments and happiness are the same thing?”

“In my case yes. But I want you to write about what happiness is to you, Tina. I’m glad you’re doing all this research… but I want your opinion. “What’s the first thing that you think of when you hear the word ‘happiness’?”

“Laughing with friends. And how I really want my sister to be happy.”

“Then write about that,” Miss Gail said as she stood to go help one of Tina’s classmates, Dimmia, across the room.

Tina returned her gaze to her table, not feeling very satisfied with the info she’d just collected. She had hoped that Miss Gail would go more in depth on her thoughts about happiness. She didn’t feel any less stuck than how she’d felt before she had talked with Miss Gail. Tired of being stuck, Tina looked around her classroom at her twenty plus classmates, her eyes coming to rest on Mark’s back and the sound of furious typing coming from his keyboard.

Plopping down it the empty chair next to Mark, Tina sighed and waited. After a minute Mark glanced at her, his fingers still typing vigorously. She always found it amazing how fast he could type… and that he could do it without looking. “What’s up?” he said as he finished a paragraph and hit enter to start another.

“How’s your paper going?”

“Good… But is that really what you came over here to talk about?”

“Well, kinda. I mean… what are you writing your paper about? I’m having writers block.”

Mark’s fingers stopped dead and he stared.

“What?” Tina asked in a voice that was a little too high.

“You… writers block… I never thought I’d hear those two words in the same sentence…”

“Actually it’s ‘I’ and writers block that you thought you’d never hear come out of my mouth,” Tina corrected, snark and sass lacing her words like twin snakes out to bite her best friend. Mark’s grin spread so far across his face that she thought it might just jump off and start running around the room like a mad man… smile… thingy. Tina blinked trying to clear that image from her mind as Mark began to say something.

“I’m just shocked.”

“And clearly amused,” she cut him off.

“That too,” he grinned ruefully at her, “but I’m glad to help anyway I can.”

“Oh, shut up.” She said.

“What did I say?” he said playfully, pretending to be innocent.

“It’s what you didn’t say that I want you to shut up.”

“Now, that doesn’t make sense.”

Tina rolled her eyes. He knew what she’d meant and they both knew it. Avoiding his comment and returning to the topic at hand, Tina exasperatedly repeated her earlier question, “What’s your paper about, you doofus?”

Mark stuck his tongue out at her but then excitedly told her all about his paper. He was writing about what made him feel the happiest. A good approach Tina thought as Mark chattered on like a squirrel. “Thanks Mark,” she said cutting him off midsentence as she stood and headed back to her desk.

“Ok, well if you need anything else let me know, k?”

“Yeah,” Tina said not really paying attention. It occurred to her as she sat down that it was a good thing Mark knew her cause if anyone else had cut him off like that he probably would have been pissed. Turning back around she called to Mark.

“Thanks, dude,” she smiled.

He smiled back and then they both turned around and wrote with a tenacity that made Miss Gail gaze proudly at them as she passed by to check on them.

 ~

Friday evening, after school had ended, Miss Gail lounged on her comfy red sofa reading her students happiness papers. She had been so eager to read them that she had started to take the stairs up to her apartment when one of her neighbors called from the elevator, offering to share it with her. In her rush, she had forgotten that it had been fixed earlier that week and had started to take the stairs out of a growing habit.

She sipped her decaf coffee as she began the fourth paper she’d read since sitting down. Her feet were tucked under her and a green afghan covered her legs. Soft jazz played over her portable speaker and wafts of the chicken potpie cooking in the oven emanated from the kitchen.

She was impressed by her student’s papers so far. For the most part, they had really put some thought into what happiness meant to them. And they were rather insightful.

She finished reading Dimmia Lock’s paper and sighed. Dimmia was one of those people that thought that happiness was chance and luck. But her paper was decent so she would get pretty high marks.

The next paper she picked up was Tina Kade’s. For a brief moment, Gail’s thoughts flashed to earlier that week when Tina had asked her for her opinion on happiness. She smiled to herself at the memory. She had purposely been vague and kept the conversation short because she hadn’t wanted her opinion to sway Tina very much. She knew it had irked Tina, but it had also led her to ask her friend Mark for his thoughts. In the end, they had both written like their lives depended on it, all the way to the end of class, never stopping.

Tina had titled her paper “Happiness is Whatever I Choose It to Be.” Good title. This should be interesting. As Gail read through the paper she forgot about the coffee she held. Forgot about the music that played softly in the background. Forgot about her dinner in the oven. Forgot where she was.

The only thing that existed were the words leaping off the page in her hands. Dancing around her in a melody that was familiar yet new. A powerful confidence radiated from them. Tina’s idea that she was the creator of her own happiness was compelling, swaying even. It made Gail want to be the creator of her own happiness too. The idea that she was in control of her own life and was the only one who would have power over her own happiness resonated in her heart. How had a sixth grader written a paper with so much truth and power?  She wondered.

When Gail finished the world rushed back. The oven beeping. The phone ringing. Her cat, Kiki, who had curled up in her lap, purring. For a moment Gail sat, stunned, not moving. She stood, coming to her senses, and placed the paper next to the rest of the stack on the worn redwood coffee table. She hurried to the oven and checked her chicken potpie, answering the phone at the same time, I am the creator of my own happiness running through her head on a never ending loop.