|Photo credit: Maria Krovatin
A Conversation with Anna about A Short Guide to a Happy Life
This book was inspired by a commencement speech you gave to a graduating
high school class. Why did you choose the topic of happiness, as
opposed to more familiar topics, like civic achievement and academic
excellence? Is the advice given in the book something you think
you needed to hear at the same age in your life?
A: I know lots of people
of great accomplishment who seem to take precious little pleasure
in that accomplishment. And I know people of achievement who seem
to have let friendship and family fall by the wayside. So I believed
that young people were growing up in a culture in which they heard
over and over again that they would want to accomplish great things
but were not hearing enough that they would want to appreciate the
small ones. It's a lesson I learned early in life, but which I've
kept on learning. In fact one of the things I said to the graduate
was that they might not appreciate what I was saying as they sat
there, but that perhaps my sentiments would come back to them at
some time when they really needed them. Their parents, however,
came up to me afterwards and said they wished they'd heard this
message many many years before.
Short Guide to a Happy Life, you mention many people, but
in particular your mother. Why do you think it was the loss of you
mother that taught you about true happiness, and how do you think
you pursued happiness before her death? What role does family and
close friends play in a happy life?
A: I have attended several memorial services in recent years at which family and friends noted
that the deceased has understood what really mattered in the face
of terminal illness. That's so sad. That's a knowledge we would
have long before we get a bad biopsy results. But of course I know
that that's how I understood the importance of living life to the
fullest, from watching my mother lose it by inches. She wasn't clinging
to life so that she could write a bestseller, or make a million
bucks. She just wanted to watch the sun come up one more time, or
to hug my little sister, or to listen to "South Pacific" on the
stereo. And that teaches you something. It teaches you that so much
of what you take for granted is the bedrock of happiness. You know,
one of the most affecting scenes in any play for me is when Emily
is watching the mourners at her own funeral in "Our Town." And she
asks the other dead around her whether living people ever understand
how wonderful life is. And one of them replies, "That's what it
was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up
and down trampling on the feelings of those about you. To spend
and waste time as though you had a million years." I refused to
live with that inevitability.
Who are the people in your life who have informed your thinking on what's important in life most?
A: Well, certainly my mother,
who was a humble woman with a great capacity for unconditional love.
And now my kids. Because you can reexperience the world through
the eyes of your kids, whether it's the first time they catch a
fish or dive off the board, or read "To Kill a Mockingbird." I feel
infinitely more alive and aware of the world since I had children
to show me the way. I could never do enough to repay them for that.
(And, no, honey, you can't have a motorcycle!)
Several times in the book you quote writers, like Gwendolyn Brooks,
and you incorporate their wisdom about life into your own. Which
writers and books have influenced you the most and helped you to
form your own philosophy about living?
A: Reading is another thing
that has made me more human by exposing me to worlds I might never
have entered and people I might never meet. Actually it's poetry
that more than any other form makes me feel the quiet overwhelming
joy that points the way to emotional satisfaction. Yeats, for example,
whose poem I used for the dedication to "Thinking
Out Loud." Elizabeth Bishop. William Carlos Williams. John
Ashbery. Robert Lowell. Sometimes you read a novel and it's like
a symphony playing in your head, Anna and Vronsky and all the rest,
the rich Tapestry of Faulkner's language. And it takes the one of
two perfectly placed words in a short poem to pick out the truth
on the strings of your violin-heart. How's that for an overwrought
How has your own writing contributed to your happiness and satisfaction
with your life, both in a day to day way and in general?
A: There's no greater happiness
than doing something every day that you love, that you feel you
do in a satisfactory fashion, and which both supports and gives
you time to support your family. I felt so lucky to have all that.
But I am also happy that it provides me a measure of immortality
with the people I love most. When I am gone my children will be
able to sit down and read "A
Short Guide to a Happy Life" and remember me, and remember
what I cared about and held most dear. That's enormously soothing.
Beautiful, happy, and uplifting photos appear throughout A
Short Guide to a Happy Life, and they capture what you are
saying perfectly. When choosing these photos, what were you looking
for? What role has art played in your own life, and how do you think
it contributes to the pursuit of happiness?
A: Louis Armstrong once said
when someone asked him to define jazz, if you have to ask, you'll
never know. I just knew that these pictures belonged. Call it a
chemical reaction. Their emotional content just seemed consonant
with that of the book.
Many of these photographs are of beautiful landscapes or people
surrounded by nature. What role has nature played in your understanding
of happiness? Why do you think it is such an apt metaphor for rediscovering
the wonder of life?
A: There's an Emily Dickinson
poem - now that I'm on the subject of poetry - that ends with the
words, "How much can come/and much can go/ and yet abide the world!".
That has something to do with it, that sense of clinging to what
will remain after we are gone.
In the book, you stress the importance of women realizing and being
thankful for being alive during such a healthy, prosperous and peaceful
time. Women now seem to have more opportunity than ever to pursue
their dreams. Of what importance are issues of womens' rights to
you? Has your involvement in women's issues in the community contributed
to your own happiness?
A: I've been a feminist since
I was a teenager, but originally it was because I wanted to make
the world a better place for me. Now I just rejoice in the opportunities
for so many. What could make you happier than to make a better world,
a world that is fairer, more egalitarian, that works better for