I’ve been thinking a lot about happiness.
For the last few years, I’ve read Fahrenheit 451 with my eighth graders; though written in 1953—making it a tough sell at first—the novel’s themes continue to be resonant on a personal and political level. Every year, the kids get into it.
From the political angle, there’s plenty to cover regarding censorship and totalitarian regimes, China and North Korea and the Arab Spring, revolution and the power (and danger) of knowledge.
From the person angle, take the question that one character (Clarisse) asks another (Guy Montag) very early on in the book: are you happy? The question serves as the inciting incident of the plot, and forces Montag to view his life with a new set of eyes.
In order to answer the question “Are you happy?,” we must first, of course, define what we mean by “happy.” We may even have to decide whether or not happiness is what we’re after.
In this recent article from The Atlantic, author Emily Esfahani Smith explores the writings of Viktor Frankl, well-known Jewish psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor who wrote extensively about his experience in Nazi death camps. (He was the only member of his family to survive.) Frankl is famous for arguing that man’s attitude need not be dictated by circumstance, and that making meaning, rather than pursuing happiness, is life’s ultimate goal. Happiness, Frankl argues, “can not be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.’”
Which brings me to the question of where we derive meaning. In our culture, I would argue, meaning and self-worth are equated with achievements, with successfully reaching our goals, with what we do. There is, of course, nothing wrong with accomplishments and goals—believe me, I’ve worked on my fair share—but the trouble comes when our entire identities, our sense of self-worth, our meaning, our measure of happiness, becomes solely dependent on them.
At least this is proving true for me. There is a limit, I’m finding, to my project-based identity. In a recent interview from the podcast “On Being,” John Kabat-Zinn said that he thinks about the experience of having children as equivalent to having tiny Zen masters parachuted into our lives; they show us things we never knew were there. This has proven true for me.
My “achievement girl, I-will-do-all-of-the-things!” identity is totally threatened by the idea that “Nishta” might actually be something other than, beyond, or regardless of what I do or don’t cross off of life’s “to-do” list. That there is an essential self underneath the kinds of things we list in bios or on resumes or holiday newsletters: the kinds of things that will someday be written in our obituaries when we die.
I’m with Frankl on the idea that we have the power to create our own meanings, regardless of circumstance. But I’ve realized that I have been living as if the things I do are equivalent to the person I am. But if I look back to Fahrenheit 451, Clarisse changes Montag’s life not by virtue of any grand thing she does, but simply out of being who she is. And when Montag begins to create his own meaning for his life, instead of simply accepting what’s been given to him, an electric aliveness–dare I say happiness?–emerges for him, despite some truly harrowing circumstances.
At their most powerful, books (or art in general) can force us to access and question the way we live. Which is why, of course, totalitarian regimes like the one in Fahrenheit 451 tend to want to burn them.
FRENCH ONION SOUP RECIPE
adapted very slightly from the Tartine Bread cookbook
As I always do when I want to invoke good cooking “juju,” I used Jill’s grandmother’s cast iron Dutch oven to make my soup. A coated enamel pot would also work well; just make sure you’ve got at least a 3-quart capacity to work with. The onions will cook down, of course, but you’ll have a hard time stirring in the beginning if your pan is too small.
4 large yellow onions, peeled & sliced ¼ inch thick
1 ½ quarts (6 cups) chicken stock, preferably homemade
1 ½ cups dry white wine
1 cup heavy cream
2 T unsalted butter
1 tsp. salt
half a loaf of day-old, crusty bread, sliced ½ inch or thicker
5 oz. Gruyere, thinly sliced
Combine the onions, cream, butter, and salt in the pan of your choice and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and growing translucent, about 10 minutes.
Adjust your heat so that the onions and cream come to a slow boil. Spread the onions as best you can along the bottom of the pan and turn up the heat just a bit; leave the pot alone until the bottom layer of onions begins to brown, about 5 minutes. Add ½ cup of the wine to deglaze the bottom of the pan, stirring with a wooden spoon to scrape up the browned bits. Repeat this process twice more, cooking the onions without stirring for about 5 minutes so that they brown, then deglazing with another ½ cup wine. In the end, the onions should all be deep caramel in color.
Pour in the stock and bring the soup to a simmer over medium heat. Cook for at least 15-20 minutes to infuse the broth with onion flavor; I let mine simmer longer, to reduce the liquid a bit.
In the meantime, preheat your oven to 400°. Lay the bread in a single layer on a baking sheet and toast until dry, about 15 minutes.
When ready to serve, ladle the soup into heatproof bowls or ramekins, filling almost to the rim. Top with a piece of toasted bread and layer generous slices of cheese on top of the bread. Transfer the bowls to a baking sheet and bake until the cheese is bubbly and brown, 20-30 minutes. Serve hot.
I want to tell you what the forests
I will have to speak
in a forgotten language
I want to tell stories. I want to talk about what is lost when the storytellers leave us, even if their stories remain.
I want more words. I want a word for the feeling that fills my chest when I lean over to kiss my sleeping baby in his crib, before I go to sleep myself at night. I want a word to call my friends for whom “friend” sounds a cheap and flimsy wrapping given what they know of me, what they’ve witnessed, what they have vigiled at my side.
I want my students to come alive. I want them to unabashedly give a damn. I want them to know that I see them, that I can see under their fourteen year old skins, straight through the girls’ ponytails piled impossibly high and the boys’ hair tousled just so, right into the heart of who they are, who they are trying to be, and they are so beautiful, even when they are being complete and total pains in the ass.
I want to say it forever, all of the time, to everyone; I am here. You are here. This is all that there is.
I want to write more letters. And a play someday, too.
I want to speak about the good work being done in the world, like the juvenile court judge we know who changed his court hours to remain open late on Tuesday nights so that the kids won’t have to miss school to come to court.
I want to carry the sharp-edged knowledge of what constitutes “real” that I felt in the weeks following my father’s death and during the daze containing Jill’s rounds of chemotherapy, around with me in a jar, like a potion or an essential oil.
I want to point out that breathtaking acts of love and compassion happen all around us, all of the time.
I want to speak about how these things are connected: the happiness of friends with new lovers, the fear of friends with secrets, the way good changes can still leave you mourning what was lost, and the strange shape of what’s left over when you discover a part of yourself you had no idea was there.
I want to tell the truth. I don’t want to be afraid.
The name of this salad came off of a little recipe card that accompanied a gift of farro that my friend Courtney brought me from the Eugene, Oregon Farmers Market. According to her, the two delightful older ladies who sold the farro were very insistent that Courtney also take some recipe cards along “for your friend.” One of those recipes was for a version of this very virtuous, filling, and tasty salad, which I (the aforementioned “friend”) have adapted. And so, my thanks goes out to the Farmers Market ladies of Eugene for their insistence and the inspiration.
There are certainly many variations to be had here: substitute red onion for the green, throw in handfuls of fresh herbs, use black beans instead of soybeans, etc. The recipe makes a large amount, but the good news is that it gets better as it sits in the fridge for a few days. The dressing recipe was inspired by my lovely friend Jess over at Sweet Amandine.
for the salad:
1 cup farro (rinsed & cooked)
1 cup quinoa (rinsed & cooked)
2 cups shelled soybeans (I used frozen & steamed according to the package)
2 cups cubed & roasted sweet potato
1 cup pomegranate seeds
1 cup feta cheese, crumbled
½ sliced or chopped almonds
1 bunch green onion, sliced into thin rounds
Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and toss to combine. When ready to serve, portion individual servings into bowls and drizzle with dressing.
for the dressing:
1/3 cup olive oil
2 T pomegranate molasses
1 T fresh lemon juice
2 tsp Dijon mustard
Combine all ingredients in a jar and shake to combine. Taste and adjust, adding salt and pepper at the end.