The Work of Happiness
Last Wednesday I flew to Orlando (singing the song from The Book of Mormon in my head) and arrived at the hotel where the conference for the Fantastic in the Arts was being held in time to get the conference program and take it out to make my choices beside the pool in the Florida sunshine. Eleanor arrived around 8 pm that night from Tucson. She was the first and third runner-up for the Dell Young Writer’s Fiction Award, and I was presenting a paper on satire in The Highest Frontier, by my friend Joan Slonczewski.
Friday morning at 8:30 I presented my paper, followed by one on Felix Gilman and another on the work of Daryl Gregory. Joan was in the audience to cheer me on, and Daryl Gregory was in the audience to cheer on the guy who’d written about his books (he focused on Raising Stony Mayhall and We Are All Completely Fine). Eleanor and her friend Irene also came, and Eleanor asked one of the few questions afterwards, about how close to real life some of the talk about politics is in The Highest Frontier.
I went to several presentations on Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant novels, which—as I was telling some of the Dell Young Writers when he walked by out at the pool—caused an entire generation to choose white gold wedding bands. At one of them I asked a question the presenter couldn’t really answer, so then I got to ask the author himself, as he was standing there in the aisle. (He couldn’t give me a good answer either, and said “there’s your paper topic for next year!”)
On Saturday morning, I met an older couple who were looking for the table to attend a breakfast Joan had arranged. I showed them the right place and then they introduced themselves—it was Gay and Joe Haldeman, the latter a figure seemingly right out of my bookshelf and into real life.
Holly Black was here and there, her blue hair always in the middle of an adoring group. I saw Patricia McKillip on a panel, wearing a tiara and a sparkly bodice. Rachel Swirsky came over and said hello to us, remembering our names from last year. I went to listen to Delia Sherman, Ellen Kushner, and Peter Straub read from fairy tales they have written, and Ellen sang a song from her text with a kind of rhythmic breathing that made it seem like she never stopped to take a breath.
As I was walking to the awards banquet, Daryl Gregory saw me and said that he had enjoyed hearing my paper, and I said oh thank you and that I enjoyed his books. After the banquet, where I had been identified as the mother of one of the fiction writers, he saw me again outside by the pool bar and said something that was probably more clever than I remember but meant “oh, and good job with the talented kid, too!” My heart was going a million miles a minute.
The talented kids, a group of six, including one from Kenyon who works for me in the writing center, got lots of congratulations after the awards banquet. It was flattering, because here were all these authors from our bookshelves materializing out of the dark to wish them well. I also imagined the people who came over as readers desperate for new fiction, and depending on the young writers to come up with something new.
Now I am home, with my cats and my bookshelves, and must read and shelve all the books I brought home from the conference. That is definitely The Work of Happiness, like the title of this May Sarton poem:
The Work of Happiness
I thought of happiness, how it is woven
Out of the silence in the empty house each day
And how it is not sudden and it is not given
But is creation itself like the growth of a tree.
No one has seen it happen, but inside the bark
Another circle is growing in the expanding ring.
No one has heard the root go deeper in the dark,
But the tree is lifted by this inward work
And its plumes shine, and its leaves are glittering.
So happiness is woven out of the peace of hours
And strikes its roots deep in the house alone:
The old chest in the corner, cool waxed floors,
White curtains softly and continually blown
As the free air moves quietly about the room;
A shelf of books, a table, and the white-washed wall—
These are the dear familiar gods of home,
And here the work of faith can best be done,
The growing tree is green and musical.
For what is happiness but growth in peace,
The timeless sense of time when furniture
Has stood a life’s span in a single place,
And as the air moves, so the old dreams stir
The shining leaves of present happiness?
No one has heard thought or listened to a mind,
But where people have lived in inwardness
The air is charged with blessing and does bless;
Windows look out on mountains and the walls are kind.
A shelf of books…The Forever War is sitting on mine, waiting for me to re-read it in the wake of seeing its author emerge and walk towards me in the brightness of a Florida morning.