The Full Measure of Happiness

The happiest moment of my life was the day I got married. I didn’t really think it would be.

I thought my wedding would be really, really nice. Pretty. Simple. Fun. But the best moment of my life? I didn’t believe I could plan something like that. I didn’t think you could choose a day and make it the best.

Charlie and I worked on the details for months – The taco truck that would pull up in our driveway. The place under the tree in our yard where we would stand on a star quilt given to us by our spiritual guide and Auntie, Stephanie. Charlie asked someone we knew to help pass out drinks behind a bar we set up by the garage. She also helped with the flowers, whites with little fillers and eucalyptus spilling out of jars on the high top tables around the house. We set up speakers in one corner of our tiny lot and moved the picnic table for the dancing we hoped would happen after the ceremony. We invited our friends.

For months we poured over the details. How many chairs? Who’s RSVPed so far? Did we get enough food? Shorts or pants with the jacket?

Our families flew in and two days before the wedding, everyone was outside weeding the mulch and hanging bistro lights and white pennant garland everywhere.

The day before the wedding, our friends Jesse and Heather hosted our bachelor’s dinner in their backyard. I was anxious getting there. So many details were left to do still at the house. Charlie’s family was on a run for ice. My parents had already arrived to Jesse and Heather’s to start putting together hamburger patties and setting out the fixin’s.

The sun on that afternoon was bright, warm, falling away over the horizon so very slowly. I walked through the side gate into Jesse and Heather’s backyard, past raspberries and the rainwater tank, and I was consumed by a tidal wave.

Have you ever been caught in a tumbling roil of wild water? Have you ever been turned upside down over and over and over, turned and turned until you’ve lost the sense of the world you knew? Have you ever been carried away so absolutely that you let go of all expectations, fell completely into your self and let your body become part of the wash?

I was consumed by a tidal wave of absolutely happiness. Complete. Not a speck of my life wasn’t washed from the shore. Happiness a hundred feet tall and miles wide rolled straight into my heart.

There she was in the kitchen window, my mom chatting and making dinner with two beautiful married women, the three of them delighting at the company in the backyard and the camaraderie they felt in each other.

There they were, my two very best high school friends, Manny and Maria, older now, the way the noon sun feels older than the morning’s, and with smiles just the same. I knew their hugs before I felt them, wrapped around me after so many hours of driving from Texas to Minnesota.

There she was, my angel Zoe whom I’m certain some goddess placed in my first Peace Corps training village, the first stranger to love my gayness, revel in it, delight in every opportunity it would grant me. She hugged me through tears I shed in those first weeks of Peace Corps, held my hand, sitting across from me in an old house in a tiny village in Armenia. There she was shining on this summer afternoon in my new American city.

There were so many of my most beloved friends standing in that backyard. My Carla who shared some of the biggest laughs of my life, including making me laugh after I came out to her, came out for the very first time to anyone, joking that on that day I made her birthday about me. John who’s boldness as a gay man living in Armenia made me bold, who’s constant welcome and passionate politics woke me up to all I could give as a gay man in the world. My sister, Lisa, who’s tears matched mine so completely when our brother left home for college, who held on to me tightly as I held on to her, watching our family change and feeling years we loved come to an end before we knew they could end at all. And next to her, my baby sister, Macey, born a brilliant surprise, who’s birth changed all of us, who’s life shows us that there is so much more joy than we could have imagined at the start.

That backyard was filled, too, with friends who traveled from out of state and so many of Charlie’s dearest ones who’s love was made from years and years of shared time.

Right before dinner began, one last friend arrived. Katie, my pen pal, walked through the back gate, past the raspberries and the water tank after a driving in from Missouri.

That was when the water, that rushing tidal wave of love, finally filled me up and overflowed. I wept in her arms.

Katie is a friend I have barely ever seen in my life. We spent two weeks together at a summer camp in Arkansas in high school. We started writing then, letters that became art projects and notes on the lives we were living. We had been writing these letters for almost ten years when she arrived in that sunny backyard.

I wept. I felt love in my gut, the kind of love that you can’t name yet, the way you feel the ground shake before you can say ‘earthquake’.

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I can name it now. This afternoon of my life, this tidal wave a hundred feet tall and miles wide was made up over every tiny moment I shared with these incredibly beautiful people. Every letter sent out into the wild that made it’s way to Katie. Every giggle inducing note Manny, Maria and I passed in church. Every pie I baked and Lady Gaga video I watched with John in his Armenian apartment. In this tidal wave was the afternoon Carla and I jumped on the beds of our hostel after a terrifying overnight bus ride on a Halloween in Panama, laughing till we finally fell onto the covers. In this tidal wave was the night before I left for Peace Corps when Lisa and I had our biggest fight, me screaming outside our childhood home, and in the wave, too, was the night months later when we talked on the phone and wept about how much we missed each other. In this tidal wave was week Macey and I spent camping all over Texas, floating down the Guadalupe, listening to Alice in Wonderland on tape.

In this tidal wave was the fear in all of our eyes when I came out to my parents, and at the very tip of that wave, the very edge of it, was my dad, now in that backyard, standing on a chair, giving a toast to me and my soon-to-be husband, words of love filling the air as he cherished each beautiful friend who came to celebrate.

When I wept in my penpal’s arms, iI was feeling in my gut the truth that it all matters. Every stroke of the pen on it’s way to a dear friend. Every night you sit up with someone crying over their ex-girlfriend. Every dance party. Every picnic lunch you pack. Every hug. Every ‘hello’ that starts the long catching up over the phone. Every game night and fight and helping a friend rearrange furniture and every postcard and walk around the lake and every time you show up to every baby shower and every funeral. I felt all of it on that afternoon.

The next day, we got married, Charlie and I. I saw in him my greatest wish granted, a handsome man with a beautiful soul, generous and kind, so loving that he was surrounded by love, a best friend I could spend every day with forever. On the day of our wedding, the tidal wave of happiness wasn’t a wave at all, it was an ocean, and we swam in it.

Hours after the sun went down, a friend was headed home. She said, “It was like a huge bubble filled with love grew and grew and grew and grew around your house, and then it burst and all of us here and every molecule of your house absorbed all of that love.”

Here now, almost three years later, I can name what I felt during my wedding. That was a day I felt for the first time the full measure of happiness.

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Struck with terminal cancer at 21, Christopher Aiff shared the wisdom he found at the edge of life. He said, “The decision to be positive is not one that disregards or belittles the sadness that exists. It is rather a conscious choice to focus on the good and to cultivate happiness.”

You can’t always see how it all adds up. When you set about to cultivate happiness in your life, to nurture and care for the things and people that make you happy, sometimes, most times, it does not feel like a celebration. Sometimes, it honestly just feels like work. On the worst days you don’t feel the happiness at all. You look around your house, your neighborhood, sometimes into the faces of your favorite people, and you just don’t feel it. If you can, you just get back to watering, pruning, digging new holes in the dirt and planting more seeds.

And then there are days that the sum of all those little tiny bits adds up to a feeling so huge it is undeniable – every tiny little effort, every time you said ‘yes’ to something good, it mattered.

I will remember my wedding, not just as the turning point of my life, but as the day I saw it, the sum of every small act I took toward the people and places and practices I love. I will remember that day as the day I saw so clearly the brilliance and beauty of happiness.

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I’ve loved writing about happiness this week. This post is the fourth in a series. You can read the first post here, the second post here, and the third post here

2 Comments

  1. Zoe Armstrong

    what a lovely honoring of a sacred rite..and all the wonderful souls in your life…thank you for what you said about our time – it makes me cry whenever i think of it – it indeed was a joy-filled powerful couple of days :) i always imagined it would be amazing if i could have everyone i love spread all over the world come together in one place – it is like your personal village came back home to see you…beautious!

    cyber squeeeeze….

  2. Zoe Armstrong

    and now you have a KID! huzzzzzah!

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