Sunday, November 18, 2012

I'm not not happy. Hope you're not not happy, too.


“'I’m happy
hope you’re happy, too.
…sordid details following.'”
—David Bowie, “Ashes to Ashes”

My face is naturally like this. 

At rest, my lips curl slightly downward.  Engaged in an activity like talking or kissing or eating, my lips, not too thick or too thin, move.  When something is funny or beautiful or delicious, their corners turn upward, and sometimes they draw back their pale mauve curtain to reveal a few off-white teeth.  It is not infrequent.  But in that split second when you or I take a picture of me, it might be gone.

No matter where I am or what I’m doing, strangers tell me to smile.  I could be in line at the grocery store or walking down the street or at my desk or at the park enjoying a beautiful day, and someone will invariably confront me with his or her demand and, worse, adding fuel to my ire, a rationale for it: “Smile! It can’t be that bad!”

“Can’t it?” I’d always wanted to say.  Instead, I’d alternate between scrunching up my face like a pet monkey to give the people what they wanted or ignoring them.  A few years ago, I decided I’d had enough. 

“How do you know my mother didn’t just die?” I said to the stranger in front of me in line at Safeway.  My heart was beating out of my chest, as if saying that aloud could make it happen.  The man was flustered and apologetic.  “Well, she didn’t,” I said, with more admonishment than reassurance.  “But how do you know?  How can you presume to know what’s happening in a stranger’s life?”  He paid and left, threatening to never ask another person to smile.

Once I got over the superstition hump—that making such a comment would actually make my mother die—it became easier to say to the next person and the next.  And as I grew older, I could use real experiences—from the deaths of friends and loved ones to financial woes to back surgery and lymphoma.  Still, some smilers are steadfast in their belief that merely waking up at all warrants a shit-eating grin. 

What empowers people to tell pregnant women what to eat and implore non-smilers to smile? 

My daughter is a non-smiler, too.  The other day, she uttered these exact words, the words of my life, to her father: “My face is naturally like this.”  She added, “I’m not not smiling.  I’m just not smiling!”

Yesterday, I posted a photograph of my daughter sitting at the piano.  She was waiting for her date to arrive and take her to the homecoming dance at his school.  She was in a dress, her hair curled, her face clear and beautiful.  I took a picture of her—an annoying habit of mine—and posted it as the daily picture in my photo diary on Facebook.  A few of the usual suspects were moved to comment on her facial expression—or lack thereof.  She was not not smiling. 

But their observation went beyond her face to her spirit.  “She looks happy,” someone said sarcastically.  Another said, “just needs a smile.”  When I replied that we’re not smilers, the friend said, “It’s ok as long as you are happy.”

But I’m not happy.  For a long time, I thought something was wrong with me.  I tried to diagnose myself.  I believed I had dysthymia.  I was convinced I needed medication for it until I realized that a.) lack of a consistently high mood doesn’t mean that my mood is low (“I’m not not smiling”) and  b.) happiness is not normal.1  

Are you happy? In general or just when you’re doing something you love?  Perhaps you’re the rare sunny personality, and your smile lights up a room.  Maybe you’re content or at peace with your circumstances.  Maybe you feel sheer joy when the sunset is breathtaking.  Maybe you wake up and thank your god or lucky stars that you didn’t stop breathing in your sleep. 

But regardless of how you feel: do you think happiness is within everyone’s power or, more important, is everyone’s will?

It’s in our Declaration of Independence that we are guaranteed life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness!  Because we are always going to seek that which brings us joy, but do we ever remain in a permanent state of happiness once we surround ourselves with those things we think will cause it?

"I'm stuck with a valuable friend," sings David Bowie in "Ashes to Ashes."  "'I'm happy, hope you're happy, too.'"  Enough already!  I don’t want to be happy.  I want to enjoy the things in life as they really are, as they move me.  I want to revel in the barking of crows and their congregation at rush hour in the tree across the street.  I want to get naturally high on the pride that comes from my daughter’s music.  I want to lust after rock stars and eat the hell out of cake and red curry duck.  And, yes, I want to wallow in the sadness of my father’s death until the day that driving past the hospital or the funeral home or a Lexus, seeing hospital socks in my drawer, hearing his voice in my head, or needing a rescue stops making me cry.

My poetry doesn’t come from tra-la-la-everything-is-beautiful feelings.  Happiness is not necessary for me to go to work, raise a child, sing, write, take pictures, pay my bills, cuddle with my dogs, make love to my husband, cook dinner, breathe.  I treat myself to good beer and pretty boots and original art.  Happy?  Who cares if I’m happy? Happy has nothing to do with it.

I’m not not happy.  I’m not not smiling.  What about you?




1Here are a few other things that aren’t normal: thoughts of suicide, the desire to hurt yourself and/or others, the inability to get out of bad, excessive sleepiness or excessive wakefulness, lack of sexual desire, constant despair.  This is not a complete list.  If you have any of those symptoms, please ask for help.





31 caws:

Sarah said... Best Blogger Tips

YES!!! I'm not NOT smiling. Love that. I'm not particularly happy, but I'm not miserable either.
I love the photo of your girl, I missed it on FB (but will go look for it). She's gorgeous and always looks serene (!) to me, never like a smile is missing.

sharon miller said... Best Blogger Tips

I hate to admit this, but I have moments that can actually be described as "my heart leaps with joy!" Strangely, it often happens on grey days in the fall, when a bit of bleak sunlight peeks through. I am not a smiler either--so you get if from my side of the family. But despite what you say, there is happiness in you--in all those joys you listed. So don't smile. Who cares? Just love some things about living, and stick around for those of us who love you.

Kristi Lenz said... Best Blogger Tips

I don't genuinely smile often, but I laugh often. Laughing restores me and helps me go on.

Kristi Lenz said... Best Blogger Tips

I don't genuinely smile often, but I laugh often. Laughing restores me and helps me go on.

Belinda said... Best Blogger Tips

This is a wonderful important declaration. Me? I can totally identity, and then not identify.
Explanation - I have lived with hearing "smile! it can't be THAT bad!" since I was a teenager. I was fairly reserved, somewhat shy. NOT a bouncy cheerleader. I THOUGHT I was walking down the halls of the school, looking/being "neutral" ( like you , and Serena) , but was always told I looked "mad". My mouth sort of turned down, or looked SET. SO yes, my face, when not grinning, looked oppressive, I suppose. I used to dislike having my photo taken, it made me nervous. But I had a friend in college, now successful photographer, who carried a camera around all the time shooting us, and i learned to get over it. Even to always "smile" at the camera, and it didn't feel fake, it actually made me feel better.

Next part, "are you happy?" you ask... I get your point, we can't always walk around whistling with glee , but I gotta say, that yes, I usually am. Not ecstatic, but quietly happy, content. When I'm not, it means I'm veering off for awhile, but my barometer usually returns to its own Normal: fairly "Happy", ( without thinking about it or parsing it out, of course.)

Now currently, I live with someone who is ALWAYS happy, and truly sees the world like that. Like a true Innocent. He doesn't have to TRY, it's in his genes. (His back-family, with some craziness -to-the-point of being locked up, however, what does THAT say ?)
It's authentic, and it can be incredibly annoying sometimes, but on the other hand, a gift I am learning to appreciate. I argue and debate for the validity of ALL feelings: anger, frustration, sadness, but it doesn't seem to "take" on him... I have told him I think he is from another planet, and I mean it when I say it. Because I don't know else to explain him....

PS - it NEVER occurred to me that Serena was 'not smiling' when I saw that picture. My first thought was only that she looked beautiful, and very mature: that there was much there beneath the surface...

CarlaJean Valluzzi said... Best Blogger Tips

Leslie,
I really enjoyed this piece! I am still learning how NOT to smile, for me it's some twisted (*Hahah, no pun intended!) coping mechanism . . . generally inappropriate, often goes against every fiber of my being, but sometimes it's just easier to appease than explain, in the moment anyway. I love the way you described the feeling of having realized it was just a "superstition", and the power that came with it! Brava!

wowpictures said... Best Blogger Tips

There are different kinds of smiles. Some smile with their lips, some only with their eyes, some with their actions. Life is damn hard. Sometimes its easy. Adapting and enjoying life while we are here is more important that any grin. However, I try my best to make those around me smile or laugh at least once a day. That in turn makes me smile. Which I do quite easily. Lately, I have very little to make me smile. Life is the hardest it's ever been for me. Yet, I keep on smiling through the rain. Wet Willie's song Keep On Smiling popped in my head once again. If you don't smile that's ok too. Just keep living.

Kimberly Hosey said... Best Blogger Tips

Oh my god. The only thing I dislike about this is that I didn't write it first, because I 100 percent agree and get you. I'm content, usually. Contemplative more than anything. And when my kid plays music, I cry from happiness, no matter how good it is. But I don't usually smile either. Neither does my son. I used to tell him to smile, mostly at the behest of people asking why he never did in my photos of him. But it was always fake. Now there's nothing I love more than what he calls his "at rest" face. Contempletive, like mine. So now I take dozens of shots of him contemplating the sunset, contemplating a bug, staring at nothing in particular. It's a deeper happy than "happy," at least for him (and me). The smile enforcers can suck it.

I'm not not smiling is a perfect way to put it. And I like your further point about happiness in general as well. Even when I used to believe fully in the whole heaven and hell bag, heaven bothered the hell out of me (pun intended, of course). For one, it sounded awfully boring. But once, just once, I sort of "got" the idea of pure and rapturous happiness that they might be talking about. And someone told me that that was what heaven was all about. That, only, and all the time. But that bothered me even more. What's the point? Where's the context? Where's the pursuit of happiness?

I love you and your real feelings. Thanks for this. Even if I do wish I could go back in time and write it first.

jo(e) said... Best Blogger Tips

My oldest son is not a smiler. People are ALWAYS telling him to smile. He just stares at them and says nothing because as he says, "What do you even say to something that stupid?"

I've always thought the "being happy" thing was kind of a weird goal. I don't care so much about being happy -- I just want to be at peace with myself.

learp17 said... Best Blogger Tips

Long ago I stopped searching for happiness. My pursuit is the pursuit of contentedness. As I get older my mouth is starting to turn down at the corners too. I love to smile and I love to laugh. And I am really pleased with all sorts of wonderful things in my life. But I am on a search for contentedness - the feeling that my life is what I want it to be, and while I can always strive for better, I am good with where I am.

Leslie F. Miller said... Best Blogger Tips

@Sarah, I consider you not happy and not miserable. And I love that. And when I saw Serena's expression in that picture, I thought it perfectly captured that "when will he be here, and when will this be over" feeling of nervousness. xo

Leslie F. Miller said... Best Blogger Tips

@Kristi Lenz I laugh a lot.

Leslie F. Miller said... Best Blogger Tips

@Belinda I have heard people say that when you smile, you feel better inside. And I think that's true. When you're in the habit of it, you tend to feel more like the reflection on your face. It's a pretend thing, and eventually it kicks in I guess. I don't know. I'm lazy with my face.

katt said... Best Blogger Tips

I, too, was blessed with a naturally not smiling face. I have been told that I look "miserable" or "angry." Most of the time, I'm neither. This dates back to adolescence (when it was more likely true.
I clearly remember being on a school bus when I was in Junior High, and catching a glimpse of myself in the big bus mirror. I was surprised at my own expression. My mouth naturally turns down at the corners and my eyes have a piercing intensity when involved in my own thoughts.
Truth is, I'm content and at peace with my circumstances in general, with flashes of true happiness. Of course there are times when I am down or angry (especially over the
ignorance of the selfishness of the people out on the road or in stores- then my face is truly reflecting my anger or unhappiness!)

Leslie F. Miller said... Best Blogger Tips

@CarlaJean ValluzziI was somewhere recently when I couldn't stop laughing inappropriately. It might have involved someone singing.

Leslie F. Miller said... Best Blogger Tips

@Kimberly HoseyWait, you didn't write it? I think I took it right out of your brain.

Leslie F. Miller said... Best Blogger Tips

@wowpictures Fucking smiler! ;-D

Trudi said... Best Blogger Tips

I'll go one step further and say that I distrust people who put out that happy-all-the-time energy. I'm more comfortable with someone who is unsmiling but seemingly content than someone who demands that everyone should be smiling.

Buck Buckman said... Best Blogger Tips

I hear from the "smile cult" a lot, too, most often in the form: "You should smile more in your profile pictures." I have much to say on the subject, but I won't bore you here. I will say, simply, that I do not like to smile. I do, on the other hand, like to be happy, and when I'm happy sometimes (although not always) I also smile.
- Doug Gambrinus Sandhaus

Leslie F. Miller said... Best Blogger Tips

@katt Yeah! Though I probably cause a lot of other drivers as much distress as they cause me. Yikes.

Leslie F. Miller said... Best Blogger Tips

@Buck Buckman I think you smile A LOT, Buck. But I think we make each other smile. When we're not arguing about the Beatles and such.

Teena Wildman said... Best Blogger Tips

I thought I left a comment, but I'm not sure because I didn't get that notice that you have to approve my comment. I'm a public smiler and a private frowner.

I do think you hit the nail on the head with this piece.

Belinda said... Best Blogger Tips

I just remembered from reading someone above that I was ACTUALLY told once, "you know, you would be quite attractive if you would just Smile more"... !!!! [ "IF"...]. I can't remember the context, except that I wanted to kill whoever said it... it may have even been a relative.... I can only imagine what THAT comment did to my face... Grimace with urge to kill?

Belinda said... Best Blogger Tips

Leslie, the notion that when you smile by design it starts to truly catch on? It does sort of work, it's true. And what I learn from Bill is that having that "it's all good" approach really does help too. Shocked me, but it does! Also, about the Face? I read this article once about how changing one's outlook can change the face too, as in no need for plastic surgery. Debatable, but interesting... I have this deep groove between the eyes, from many years of stress + sadnesses? It's actually disappearing now. And I used to have a stroke-victim smile, one half only, and have again now started to smile with both halves of my mouth, for the first time in years. There's something to be said for contentedness....

Aliza said... Best Blogger Tips

Oh, Leslie, I'm so not not happy almost all of the time. Not not happy is my baseline. xoxo

ChartreuseMonkey said... Best Blogger Tips

Yeah I'm one of those "grinning all the time" people but when I don't smile, people hide. So it's a blessing and a curse. I LOVE LFM's words because they are real, they sparkle, and they are quiet too. Talking from the other side of happy, it's all good.

Jennifer Summer said... Best Blogger Tips

Absolutely right on. I can't tell you how many times I would get comments on photos of Dakota that said things like, "He's not smiling. He hates having his photo taken, huh?" or, "Oh, no! Why is he sad?" He's not fucking sad. He's THINKING. He's THOUGHTFUL. Gah. I feel you. This is beautifully written, and you are beautifully you. xo

megg said... Best Blogger Tips

I regret that I don't know who said this: "I've never had a happy day in my life, but I have known ecstatic moments." I wish I had said that. I DO say it, just not originally. I DO smile during those ecstatic moments but not always. I also believe smiling CAN (not always WILL) put one in a better mood. All that sai, I've always thought/ felt/ believed that connection is by far more important than "being happy." I'm not miserable--I used to be.

Triborough said... Best Blogger Tips

I come from a long line of stubborn unemotional Germans. I really don't smile and tend to be relatively stoic and don't outwardly show emotion often, but tend to be the calm one in crisis. No belly laughs, more that's so funny. (Of course the funny thing is I don't look very German or have a German name, but I really inherited the personality.)

I think a lot of the whole you should smile more thing seems to be done by these perpetually smiling seemingly phony happy people. They scare me.

Last year out in Wisconsin, surrounded by normally stoic Germans at my great uncle's funeral, everyone was crying, which was sort of out of character, but given the sudden nature of the event it packed a bit more punch. That is why everyone was more emotional than normal.

Still, I don't smile much or cry or get that emotional other than that.

Being too emotional is overrated.

Richard Gilbert said... Best Blogger Tips

I'm not a smiler, either. Used to be able to, could summon a decent one on demand, but that stopped when my mother died. I hope it changes; maybe it won't. I believe in smiles, sure. And now that everyone has a camera they're at least useful to summon.

Richard Gilbert said... Best Blogger Tips

I'm not a smiler, either. Used to be able to, could summon a decent one on demand, but that stopped when my mother died. I hope it changes; maybe it won't. I believe in smiles, sure. And now that everyone has a camera they're at least useful to summon.