When I was in fifth and sixth grades, I attended that alternative, art-oriented, "hippie" school called Centering School (see blog from 2009-02-02). It was a great place. There was a student named Tammy, who fascinated me from the first time I met her. She was two grades behind me, but that didn't seem to matter much at such a small, non-hierarchical place. I could somehow sense that Tammy didn't necessarily come from a perfect home-life (her mom, in her red Volkswagen Beetle always seems kind of "scary" to my young eyes, to be honest, and I knew her dad died in Vietnam). I think knowing about some of the difficult and complicated and fractured home-lives of some of my peers at Centering School was the first time I had the thought: my family may be weird and crazy, but it's maybe not as messed-up as some others.
Anyway, despite her background… despite the occasional flashes of sadness… she was an amazing, intrinsically happy person. Infectiously cheerful. For no apparent reason. And so, because that was mysterious to me, and unfathomable, I decided that Tammy was magical. That was all I could figure out.
But when I graduated sixth grade, and plunged into the trauma of the public middle school in Arcata, I mostly lost touch with the former friends and playmates and denizens of Centering School. But I never forgot about Tammy. In fact, there were times, when I was struggling to make myself feel happier about life, when I was feeling down, or alone, or overwhelmed, sometimes her name and goofy smile would come to me, and I would think: well, SHE can be happy; why can't I?
Still, I couldn't ever really successfully articulate Tammy's magic. It was just strange and impossible and yet something to aspire to. Until I was teaching at LBridge in Ilsan, Korea. I had a student named Jenny (see blog from 2009-02-12), who seemed like a reincarnation of Tammy. I even remember thinking that about her. And then one day, Jenny, who was fond of writing little "stationary aphorisms" in English on the corners of her assignment papers, wrote the following: "I am happy because that is the most important thing."
It was like a weird epiphany, when I realized this wasn't a syntactical mistake, it wasn't a logic mistake, but rather, that it was simply true and obvious. And it was like, in that instant, that all those years of cognitive behavioral therapy, all those years of puzzling over Tammy's magic or the mystery of human happiness, congealed into a moment of insight.
It was around the same time that I reconnected with Tammy, after over 30 years. Such is the magic of facebook and the internet. And last night, I stayed with Tammy and her husband and two daughters.
Life is never perfect. Happiness is sometimes elusive, even for Tammy, in her updated, adult form. She's been through a lot, too. At least as complicated and traumatic as my own life, if not more so. I suspect she's not always "simply happy." But she still has that weird ability to look on the bright side of things. She jokingly said, "I can cut off my arm, and see all the blood and feel the pain, and think to myself, 'well, but I've still got my other arm! things aren't really all that bad.'" That's Tammy's magic. And Jenny's wisdom, which finally allowed me to understand it.
Tammy in 1976, exactly as I remember her:
Jenny in 2009: