The Power of One Writer
Back Yards, Ethiopia and Children's Books

I just wanna be happy

I had one of those driveway moments when I heard Peter Sagal talking on the radio about whether maybe humans are wired to always want more.  As he says, “A medieval emperor would look at my stocked refrigerator, my closets filled with clothes, my powerful machinery, and immediately start coming up with ideas for a new Web site, so he could live the dream.”

My dad was once the scrappy fourth son of a family that fanned out over the Oregon prairies to gather sagebrush to burn to keep warm.  He woke with snow drifting over the quilts on his bed.  He had to lift things too heavy and pluck chickens and go up and down rows picking the neighbors’ vegetables. 

Like a lot of scrappy little kids, my dad developed his clown side.  He liked to tell stories and act them out.  (The song he learned when he dressed in this so-called Scottish kilt tormented us on those mornings when all we wanted to do was sleep.) 

He liked to laugh.

Last year, just before Christmas, my dad died from the tumor that crowded its way into his brain.  I’ve been missing him–and feeling glad I got him as a dad–and wondering why the emotion of gratitude gets so easily leached out of our lives…especially when we have so much: cozy quilt mornings, feasts that the Sun King would envy.  Our brains are busy focusing on more, more, more.  But this is the week of Thanksgiving, and this week I’m thinking about what my dad gave to me and to my siblings, some of my favorite people in the whole wide world. 

All six of us like to tell stories.  Maybe because we grew up without radios, we all put time–some of us a lot of time–into creating our own music.  Every Sunday, some of my siblings gather around my mom’s piano and sing.  My brother was playing songs on that piano when my dad slipped away…and let me just say right now I hope my brother is around to sing me out of this life when that time comes for me.

So much of what my dad treasured lives on.

His children…his grandchildren…and now his great-grandchildren…love many of the things he loved.

I think of my dad when I look at my middle son’s powerful photos: and think about how some of them would make Dad tear up, but he’d be proud of that new way of storytelling.  He lives on for me in my daughter’s back yard garden and when my oldest son sends a picture of his tomato plants.  My children didn’t see their grandpa Kurtz all that often, but I can see his idealism has rubbed into them.

Many of the things Dad loved have become the threads of our lives.  As I was writing the Lanie stories, I put my older sister with her cello in–those music genes we got from our dad–and also my dad’s recent food explorations and my dad’s wildflower garden.

My dad’s love of his garden has had a stong ripple effect.  One of his grandchildren is in Peru right now, planting fruit cacti and shoveling manure.  Four of his daughters faithfully coax along their vegetables and flowers and fruit bushes every summer.  (I, sadly, don’t dig in the dirt these days, but, hey, since I gave Lanie his garden, I get to show it far and wide!) 

Yes, my dad’s stories and hard work and music and silliness and stubborn hope in making the world better all bubble away in all his children and grandchildren.  His treasures are the kinds of things we can all have more more more of if we choose.

When we Americans travel to Ethiopia, we often find ourselves baffled.  How can families who live in one small room…who have barely any stuff…be happy? 

Recently, I keep stumbling onto that 26-year German study about how to be happier.

Marry someone who isn’t neurotic.

Get outside and move at least a little bit.

Pat on the fears that lead you to think you will be safe and happy if you have more stuff.

Pay more attention to friends and family.

Figure out what you can do to make the world a better place.

1 thought on “I just wanna be happy”

  1. Beautiful! And just the reminder I needed as we head into a crazy holiday season that leaves many of us feeling like we also have to keep DOing more, more, more. I think I will go outside now and “move at least a little bit.”


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