Bellingham by the Bay, Features

The uses of disenchantment

I have a friend who called from Europe the other day and explained for no apparent reason that for the first time in her life she is absolutely totally happy. I was pleased of course; then again a little envious. Sue does not need a man, she says. Sue does not need the approbation of the multitude. I always thought that was helpful. Sue Gurnee has both the endorsement of the outer cosmos and her own inner world. She’s a healer. I’m not kidding. Not in a conventional sense. But she makes people feel well again. Conventional in the way that Lorezepam can end my days of insomnia. Sue talks of energy and of chakras. It came as a chakra to me, but I started to understand we are beasts on the planet, and we must care for ourselves and for each other. Sue is invited the world over by prominent people – and yet she still speaks to me. I am a poor patient, or client, if you will. Sue lives on a farm in North Carolina. When I was a kid, I wrote a rock ‘n’ roll song for her, called “Beef Stew.” One line included: “I found a city girl with real country charm …” We recorded it at Decca Records in New York, and gosh, that was elation. Is elation happiness? I wonder. On a cold rainy day in San Francisco, I will take either.

You see I’m not sure what happiness is. And if I did, I would not follow directions well. My eldest brother, Paul, used to admonish me as a kid: “Happiness isn’t everything, kid. There are other things, you know.”

I still puzzle over those other things to this day.

What other things are important? Is success happiness? I dunno. I feel happy when I watch an old movie like My Man Godfrey.

I was a little older than Susie Gurnee when I first met her all those years ago on the psychedelic high school schoolyards of northern New Jersey in the 1960s. Sue could paint, invent; her parents were in the National Geographic Society. They were expert spelunkers – that is, cave explorers. They were in dark caverns a great deal of the time. I was roasting on top a hot corrugated tin roof of a Chinese restaurant like Peking Duck. I painted houses and restaurants after high school in New Jersey before I went to NYU. As a painter, housepainter, that is – white was the order of the day – I saw a whole white wall that was blank and faced the busy street in Tenafly, New Jersey, and hired Sue to paint a red dragon on the wall. Her dragon was redder than red. It was so real that children backed away in terror. Then they giggled. Happiness. Its source is often being scared. Susie painted the dragon splendidly. Yes, I believe it made us all happy. Being so outrageous is part of the thrill. Mischief is part of happiness. It gives one a sense we’re getting away with something – something others don’t want us to have. That makes it all the more palatable. It’s lascivious. It’s fun. It’s private. Fun brings happiness. Spontaneity brings happiness. You know, the sense we hadn’t planned this at all – but doesn’t it feel great?

I spoke of envy earlier. What’s a newfound liberation for me is not to envy another person’s success, but to revel in them. How could I enjoy another person’s successes when I had nothing to do with it? It would not suit me well at all. It would be like me fitting into Lady Gaga’s bikinis. (I only do that on the weekends.) But success suits Sue Gurnee well. And I am glad of it. That goes for other people I know and love. They work on this newspaper. They have moments of travail of course. But they also know there is blessed spontaneity, a crush of fun we might call, just for now, happiness.

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