Willa Cather on Happiness

Photo by Lila Cheekytree

I’m currently reading the book My Ántonia by American writer Willa Cather. Written in 1918 it depicts the early American push to expand westward.  I came across this beautiful passage and dog-eared the page so that I could come back and read it again:

The earth was under me, and warm as I crumbled it through my fingers. Queer little red bugs came out and moved in slow squadrons around me. Their backs were polished vermillion, with black spots. I kept still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.

I had not heard of Willa Cather until recently when I listened to this CBC podcast on Ideas with Paul Kennedy, it’s worth listening to. She was an exceptional woman and a great American writer. If you’re already familiar with her, here are 10 things You Probably Didn’t Know about Willa Cather according to Publisher’s Weekly.

Romeo or Butter?

Original artwork by Lila Cheekytree

How would you define happiness in just one word? The answer says a lot about a person.

I had fun imagining how some famous women throughout history might reply to this telling question:

Juliet Capulet might say Romeo

Amelia EarhartAdventure

Emily Dickinson Solitude

Carol Burnett Laughter

CleopatraPower

Mother TeresaService

Queen Elizabeth II Corgis

Frida Kahlo Imagination

Martha Graham Movement

Julia Child Butter

In one word, how do you define happiness? Tell me.  I really want to know.

Happiness and Sorrow in Larch Valley

On Sunday, August 21st we gathered at the shore of Moraine Lake in Banff National Park. Our two families were instructed to meet at 12:30pm by the canoe rentals, not far from the parking area. We greeted each other with warm hugs and hellos. As we waited for everyone to show up, we busied ourselves applying bug spray and sunscreen, eating ham and cheese sandwiches, and taking one last trip to the loo before the hike up to Larch Valley.

“I have them with me” said Mary as she glanced behind at the backpack she was carrying.

Our group, 33 people aged 6 to 71, spread out quickly as the hike is challenging. Along the 4.2 km trail, we climbed through the forest along a series of switchbacks – a zigzag path that snakes left and right up the steep hill.

As we climbed higher and higher, we could see through the trees, Moraine Lake’s turquoise blue water glimmering below.

It took us a little more than 2 hours to arrive at the pretty meadow known as Larch valley – filled with countless wild flowers, larch trees, a meandering stream and breathtaking views of the Ten Peaks that surrounded us.

We were here in this meadow to spread the ashes of two young people we loved dearly. A married couple, both aged 39, who loved the Canadian Rockies. It had been almost eight months since the fatal car accident that claimed their lives and the life of one other beautiful soul. They were all driving home from a day of snowshoeing in these mountains, when their car hit an icy patch and drove into a lake. Standing in the meadow today was the sole survivor of the car crash. She had lost her husband, her brother, and her sister-in-law. She had almost lost her own life. Now a single mother of two young children, she had a challenging journey ahead. As I watched her on this sunny afternoon, I was inspired by her strength and courage. And I felt overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude that she was here with us.

We could not have asked for a more beautiful day. The sun shone brightly. The wind gently cooled us from the heat. The majestic Mount Temple stood silently to the north.

As I write about this experience, I wonder what really happened in Larch valley. And I can’t help but think there is a metaphor in the series of switchbacks, the zigzag trail we climbed to get to there.

Peaks of Happiness. Valleys of Sorrow. If peaks and valleys can exist beautifully together in Nature, then I guess feelings of happiness and sorrow can exist in us at the same time too. Perhaps this is what our journey is all about; learning to live in duality – to experience a series of switchbacks, of joy and sorrow, all the while moving up and onward.

Death feels like a dark cloud, but for me, Death has also been illuminating.  I now feel a deepened awareness of how precious life is. How much my family and friends mean to me. How lucky I am to live my life. How beautiful today and everyday is. For that, I am grateful.