Poets, Artists, Lovers: A Novel (PAL), Serialized. #18 (“Happiness and health. Almost as hard to find as happiness and virtue”)

Poets, Artists, Lovers: A Novel, by Mira Tudor

Today’s post is the eighteenth installment of my serialized novel Poets, Artists, Lovers (PAL).

You have all the previous installments HERE.

And here’s the whole novel, with the various Amazon links and a book description.

Please note that these posts go online on Saturdays and Wednesdays, and I will then take them down a month afterward. Enjoy!

#18: “Happiness and health. Almost as hard to find as happiness and virtue”

The following week Henriette visited Ela again. “So how do you understand this love through reason?” she asked her friend as they discussed Plato’s rational love of beauty. “Doesn’t love come from the heart?” She refilled her plate with cooled Galia melon cubes from a bowl in the middle of the large round table of Ela’s bedroom.

“In my view, it can also start with a three-pronged awareness,” Ela began, once again in lecture mode, a stance she had honed through many book reviews. “You take mental notes of what makes you happy: the smells of nature, the beauty of flowers, a hug, a good book, a painting, and so on. Then you feed your sensitivity to beauty by learning more about these things: about flowers, literature, paintings, hugs, and so on. Thirdly, you learn about the hormones and neurotransmitters that make us feel happy and/or in love, and you figure out ways to produce more of those as well. You may not want a lot of norepinephrine or estrogen and testosterone, but you may want more dopamine and oxytocin, a.k.a. the ‘hug hormone,’ or serotonin and endorphins,” Ela said.

“What a cold way of looking at things,” Henriette said, putting her fork down.

“But it makes sense,” Ela replied with a smile. “The small discoveries in beautiful things trigger dopamine, and dopamine makes you more alert to details. It all works.”

“That’s wild, though,” Henriette said, shaking her head in dismay.

“Why?”

“Because apart from the oxytocin, you can increase the levels of all the other chemicals by yourself.”

“But that’s the idea,” Ela insisted, helping herself to more melon. “To live in love and happiness in a way that benefits other people rather than expect them to make you happy.”

Henriette smiled, perplexed, and pondered out loud her own notions of love and happiness. Love, in her view, was about sharing your journey to self-fulfillment and purpose with someone else and growing stronger together in the face of life’s pain. Happiness seemed to her more complicated. While it was often fueled by different varieties of love, it was also in great measure about finding beauty in things—as Ela was saying. But there was more to happiness than that. What Ela failed to consider was the beauty of happiness that defeats our mental strategies: happiness that just happens upon us, in ways we barely understand, when we achieve a good balance of body, mind, and soul.

“But how do you see this love through reason benefit other people?” Henriette then asked.

“You discover more beauty around you and become more responsible to nature, to the beauty in other people. Your eyes open. And your heart,” Ela said, her lips curled into a small smile.

“It’s an intriguing theory,” Henriette relented, taking a deep breath as she leaned back in her chair. “Even though it sounds like a rationalization of what the hippies were trying to do, minus the drugs. The caveat, of course, is that someone has to deal with the least savory aspects of existence, or else we wouldn’t have lawyers and government officials.”

“Yes, but they need to care more for nature and beauty too,” Ela said, fired up.

“Yeah, well . . . maybe they don’t need that as much,” Henriette said sarcastically.

“But everybody does,” Ela countered. She was on a roll now. “You can’t have happiness without it. And is happiness that useless nowadays, with all the diseases we’re facing? Because happiness is not just that, a measure of how joyful and contented we feel in our skin and mind; it also correlates to how healthy and good we are. And if we’re not very healthy and good, we can’t do that much good, can we, no matter how talented we are.”

“But you’re being idealistic again. You’re assuming that happier people do more good than less happy people,” Henriette argued.

“But it’s true. I read it somewhere. They’ve done psychological studies on it. Happier people are more altruistic,” Ela asserted. She served Henriette more melon and then took the last few pieces herself.

“Maybe those who are more altruistic are kinder to begin with,” Henriette put in.

Ela took a deep breath, sat back in her chair, and then leaned forward again. “Maybe. I forgot about it, but I’d thought of that too. But to go back to what I was saying, there’s now this whole new field in psychology showing the positive impact happiness has at the workplace and in society. Happier people are not only more generous with their money, time, and energy but also better at relationships—which makes for happier workplaces, social networks, families, children. And happier people are also better leaders, more eager to take on challenges, more creative at solving problems, and more resilient in the face of adversity. What does all this say to you?”

“That happiness has been underrated?” Henriette quipped.

Ela smiled. “That happiness can be a means to so many other good things at the workplace, community, and society level.”

“And why is that so interesting?”

“It’s interesting because Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics saw happiness as the ultimate goal. But now psychologists say that happiness is desirable for the sake of other things as well,” Ela reiterated.

“I think you lost sight of what Aristotle means by happiness,” Henriette said, her eyes alight with amusement. “He uses the term eudaimonia, which means having a good daimon, or guiding spirit. And he uses it to refer not only to this approximation of what we call happiness but also to the thoughts and actions that derive from it—from a place of good spirit and virtue.”

“Oh. Well then, forget Aristotle,” Ela said, dismissing her previous argument with conviction. “I’ll have to rewrite that review, by the way.” She halted and explained, “I used that argument in a review.” She then looked intently at Henriette. “But since when are you so conversant with Aristotle?”

“Oh, I’m not. But you know how Alice says that philosophy enriches her art history. She keeps giving me books to read now, saying I should be more like Har. Apparently she really liked Har.” She gave Alice one of her ready grins.

“How is Har?” Ela asked, interested.

“He’s good,” Henriette said distractedly, glancing out the window at the tart cherry tree in fruit in the small front yard. “But to return to happiness and better creativity and resilience and leadership and all that, I imagine few people think about it this way. It’s more companies trying to boost productivity, that sort of thing,” Henriette said, forking another piece of melon.

“You’re right. Another difficulty is that people are often stuck in a rut and don’t think much of what could make them both happier and healthier, and how that could benefit other people.”

“Happiness and health. Almost as hard to find as happiness and virtue,” Henriette quipped.

“I think it can be found,” Ela said with resolution.

“By the way, how are your French classes going?” Henriette asked.

“They’re going okay,” Ela responded. “I was hoping to get to study with a native speaker, the way Anca did with Alain back in the nineties. But I’d rather not study with Alain. He seems rather wild.”

Henriette chuckled.

“Anca says there’s a French guy at Arte as well, but he doesn’t teach beginners. I figured I’d study with Anca for a while.”

TEN

Anca had been teaching at the Arte Educational Center for a year when Ela asked her to tutor her in French, and as she was back on her game as a teacher, she agreed.

Then Marcel found out about it. “You want to give Ela French lessons?” he asked one morning as Anca was getting ready to go to work.

“Yes,” Anca responded, looking out the kitchen window.

“Aren’t you trying to do too much?” Marcel went on, feeling a bit heated. “You’ve taken on translating again, and now this. Why do you do it?” He took a drag off his cigarette. “To annoy me?”     

“You kill me with your smoking,” Anca said, waving away the tobacco fumes.

Marcel put out his cigarette. “You haven’t answered my question.”

Anca found it hard to look at her boyfriend. “You know why I do it,” she said after a long moment. “You know me.”

He lit up another cigarette absentmindedly.

“And I know you too,” Anca went on. “You’re so much more than this.”

*

“He’s so twisted,” Anca told Alice when they met in the city for coffee that day at lunch. “He resents me for living with him in a house I had no merit in building, but he also doesn’t want me to give him back the money. I told him once that I’d like to be able to pay him back, in time, for each day of living there, and he said it wouldn’t count, because without him I would still be paying rent. I don’t know what he wants from me! How I could make it right, I mean. And it’s not even his money. His parents sold their downtown apartment and some artwork and built this house. And bought an apartment for themselves and his grandma.” She ran a hand through her short hair. “There’s no way out of this, and it’s ruining our whole relationship.”

“It also seems to be ruining your life. I noticed you’re always thinking of ways to make more money,” Alice said.

“Yes, but I’ve always been that way,” Anca said, sighing. “We were so much happier before. He didn’t question my feelings for him. Now he’s picking on Phil. He’s so insecure. I don’t even know how to behave anymore. And the more I try to make money, the more I resent him for being so complacent.” She lay back in her chair.

“How is he being complacent?” Alice asked.

“He’s content to be just a high school teacher. He doesn’t give private lessons, he doesn’t translate, even though he’s more talented at languages than I am. . . . And he doesn’t cook, either. He’s too much of a man. And when we split the receipts, he pays me only for produce and other foodstuffs. My time and effort don’t count.”

“Then don’t cook,” Alice said, slowly breaking a piece off her croissant. “For a while, at least, until he sees what it feels like to go through a week or two without real food.” She tasted her croissant, crispy on the outside and smooth, stretchy, buttery on the inside. “You could eat in town. You have the money.”

“I could . . .”

“If all else fails, you can leave him,” Alice said, looking sternly at her friend. “Speaking of which, why don’t you leave him? For a trial period.”

“Because it could turn out to be for good,” Anca said. “And I’ve invested too much in this relationship.”

“Really?” Alice said, in mock surprise. “That’s your argument?”

“I love him,” Anca said powerfully. “Not for what he is now, but for what he was and what I think he can be again. He’s not being himself these days. He’s either trying too hard or sabotaging any chance at happiness.”

“If you say so,” Alice put in, skeptical.

To be continued . . .

Poets, Artists, Lovers: A Novel (PAL), Serialized. #13 (“Pretty excited about the cherries this evening”)

Poets, Artists, Lovers: A Novel, by Mira Tudor

Today’s post is the thirteenth installment of my serialized novel Poets, Artists, Lovers (PAL).

You have all the previous installments HERE.

And here’s the whole novel, with the various Amazon links and a book description.

Please note that these posts go online on Saturdays and Wednesdays, and I will then take them down a month afterward. Enjoy!

#13: “Pretty excited about the cherries this evening”

That summer many conversations turned around food in George and Ela’s household too, as in the first phase of her depression Ela had experienced a loss of appetite, and when she started to enjoy food again, in the winter of 2001–2002, she commented often that the extra treats helped her focus better on her work. So after a while George found himself thinking about cooking more interesting meals—despite the fact that Ela was now gaining more weight than she had previously shed.

George’s intentions, however, encompassed broader concerns: he wanted to make Ela consider embracing more variety in her life. If he could reach her that way through the medium of food, then he’d turn into more of a chef. He would have liked to take her on walks too, but she was adamant that she needed the comfort of their home rather than the hubbub of the city.

“May I join you?” he asked one day upon entering Ela’s room and seeing she was engrossed in a movie. He sat down on her bed. “What are you watching?”

Ela turned off the TV and rolled onto her back. “A movie about teenagers. I’ve seen it before.”

George stood a moment watching the blank TV screen and then walked to Ela’s bedside table. “Psychology,” he said, sweeping his gaze over the covers of her books.

“Yes.”

“Anything interesting?” George asked, picking up a paperback.

“Have you cooked anything tonight?” Ela asked, changing the subject.

George put Ela’s book back on her nightstand. “You hungry?” he asked, a smile spreading on his face.

“Very,” Ela responded, getting up.

George gave her a peck on the lips. “How are you feeling today?” he asked, encouraged by how warmly Ela accepted his gesture.

“Oh, same, not that great. If only that pain and sinking feeling would disappear at all. It may take a while, though. It still takes me hours some mornings to get rid of them. I’m glad I have the books and my poems to give me a feeling of purpose strong enough to beat the ache out of my system. Or maybe it’s the concentration that does it. I’ve been able to concentrate better lately. Hard not to, with your cooking,” Ela said as they moved into the kitchen for a late-night meal and occupied their spots at the table. “I’m glad you’re here,” she added, getting up to hug him.

He embraced her tightly.

She walked over to the stove. “What have you made?” she asked, lifting a lid. “Oh, shrimp? What’s the occasion? And do we even have money for shrimp?”

“We do and we don’t,” George responded with mirth in his eyes. “You spend all your time here, so I thought I’d surprise you. And as it’s hard to create something special indoors, I thought I’d vary my cooking.”

Ela sat down and George handed her a plate.

“How did you prepare the shrimp?” she asked admiringly.

“With cornstarch mixed with garlic and sugar,” he responded, all the while thinking he was feeling light, blissfully relaxed.

Ela tasted the shrimp stew, and her eyes glimmered with excitement. “Where did you find the recipe?”       

“I bought a cookbook with foreign recipes,” George said. He was amused at how much a new dish could lift his girlfriend’s spirits.

“Wow, George, you’re becoming adventurous,” Ela offered playfully.

George gave her a small smile, knowing that she was both complimenting him and picking at him at the same time. “Perhaps one day we’ll travel to see these places,” he said in a pensive voice, looking into Ela’s soft yet sparkly chestnut-brown eyes.

“What have you used for the sauce?” Ela asked.

“Soy sauce, sesame oil, and Chinese rice wine,” George said, leaning against the kitchen counter, enjoying the sight of Ela’s happiness, the beauty radiating from her face. It was a different beauty now, with her weight gain and her broken spirit, but to him it was as beautiful as the songs of his favorite musician and poet, Leonard Cohen.

“You bought all that?” Ela asked, taken aback.

“I kinda had to,” George responded with light in his eyes, still reveling in the wake of the spine-tingling sensations from their earlier hug.

Ela ate some more of her food. “It’s good. I approve of this recipe.” She flashed George a ready smile.

“I’m glad you do,” George responded, and then, before he could stop himself, he walked up to her and ran a smoothing hand over her tightly curled hair.

“You could try it with meat next time,” Ela said, seemingly absorbed in her meal.

“By the way, I’m now reading psychology books too. They’re quite interesting,” George said, waking up from his reverie and turning back to the stove to ladle some of the stir-fry for himself as well.

“Are you trying to make sense of what’s happening with us?” Ela asked in between mouthfuls. Her voice was a little shaky.

“With us and other people,” he said, sitting back down at the table with her.

“Somebody upset you?” she asked, raising her eyes to meet his.

“No, it’s not that,” he said. He moved his spoon about in his stew. “I want to understand why people do what they do.”

“Then you should read more fiction too,” she said distractedly.

He looked into her velvety brown eyes. “I’m interested in the science of it, though,” he said. “Have you heard from anyone today?” he then asked, keen on communicating more with Ela now that he’d caught her in a more expansive mood.

“Just Alice,” Ela responded between mouthfuls.

George got up to retrieve two mugs, filled each with water from the water filter, and placed them on the table next to their plates. “How is she?” he asked as he eased himself back into his chair.

“Always trying to get in some exercise and never quite succeeding,” Ela said with a smile. “She says she’s gained some weight. She complains that as much as she loves to write, she dislikes living the kind of unbalanced life that she does, being stuck at the computer all day. Well, except for the occasional walk in town on errands, or in the park with one friend or another.”

George drained his glass. “Have you two seen each other at all this year?”

“No, I’m not ready yet.” She pulled at one of her curly strands, looking at it as she did so. “I noticed the other day that I’m getting gray hairs,” she said with a forlorn, rueful smile.

George laughed softly. “It happens. Have you seen mine?” He tilted his head forward so Ela could have a better look.

SEVEN

After a protracted bout of bickering, slowly but steadily Anca and Marcel worked out their issues regarding Pamfil to a degree where they decided to enjoy together his July party, with its many cherry pies and cherry ice creams.

They were in such good spirits that evening, that when they arrived at Pamfil’s at ten, Annie Lennox’s multilayered voice, weaving about the place, made them leave their dessert gifts on the kitchen table and start dancing on the spot, Marcel placing his hands on the small of Anca’s back under her jacket, and Anca wrapping her arms around his neck. Pamfil, who had greeted them at the door, shot them glances with a knowing smile, all the while keeping himself busy with the food so as to grasp more of their couple dynamics.

Marcel caught Pamfil’s smirks and faced him with an impenetrable gaze now and then as he danced with Anca and whispered self-consciously in her ear. They swayed together through the next slow song too and then took off their light jackets and started to put away the sweets they had brought over—only to find that Pamfil’s freezer was almost full. When they approached him about it, Pamfil laughed, made a joke about how the tree alone is worth his rent in June, laughed again, and then stepped out to offer some of the ice cream to his landlady.

On his return, he was all smiles.

“I gave her very few cherries this summer. Told her some of my friends are starving artists, and she was more than happy to let me feed them,” Pamfil said to Marcel and Anca, who were now seated on his bed. “She’s nice. Puts up with the violin and piano playing too.”

“I’ve never seen you play the piano,” Marcel said, intrigued because he had studied piano too as a child and teenager.

“I play it sometimes, but violin is my first instrument,” Pamfil said, a little uncomfortable.

“I see Vlad is in charge today,” Anca said, nodding toward Pamfil’s desk, where Vlad was manning the playlist.

“So he is,” Pamfil said, noting Vlad was playing a song about lovemaking. “He’s discovering our music.” He beamed at Anca. “Well, not quite, but still,” he added, drawing out the words, before heading over to Vlad.

Marcel narrowed his eyes at Anca and shook his head, fuming inside. In response, Anca rolled her eyes in mock despair and walked over to Alice.

Marcel stood fixed in place for a few moments, watching Anca pull away from him. Then he shook himself out of it and went to the kitchen to start exploring the pies and sangria.

Anca eased herself down on the couch next to Alice. She smoothed her knee-length, waist-cinched, strapless chiffon dress and turned to face her friend. “Hey! How are you doing?”

“Good! Pretty excited about the cherries this evening,” Alice said, sliding her teaspoon into her slice of cherry pie. “Have you had a piece of this pie?”

“Whose is it?”

“Mine, technically, but it’s actually Ettie’s,” Alice said through mouthfuls.

“Let me have a taste,” Anca said. Alice handed her the plate. “Better than mine!” Anca declared a moment later with a quick, expressive shake of the head.

Alice took her plate back, and as she did so her gaze paused a moment on her friend’s shapely bare shoulders. “Glad you like it,” she said unsurely, her mind elsewhere.

“It seems like tonight we’re in a cherry paradise,” Anca said, smiling warmly. “I don’t think anyone brought anything other than cherry pies and cherry ice creams.”

“Vlad brought a savory pie,” Alice said sternly, despite herself.

“Really?”

“Yes. He had shepherd’s pie at an Irish pub and was very impressed. So he made one at home but with top and bottom crusts.” She wanted to sound cheerful, but the bounce in her voice was gone. She shared with Anca so much about Henriette, and yet here was Anca, playing games with Pamfil. What other reason did she have to doll herself up like that?

“Wow. I’ll go try it,” Anca said, getting up. “Do you want some?” she added, turning to look at her friend, who, she thought, was gaining an inordinate interest in food, and piling up the weight along with it.

“No, thanks. I can’t after this,” Alice said, putting her empty plate on a coffee table and picking up the glass of homemade sangria she had left there a brief while earlier.

By the time Anca came back from the kitchen with a slice of Vlad’s meat-and-potato pie, he was playing Buena Vista Social Club. The upbeat music inspired Alice to tell Anca about Wim Wenders’s documentary about the Cuban band, mentioning their zesty joy of life and their childlike delight at seeing the skyscrapers of New York City. When the playlist got to a melancholy-tinged track about yearning for lost love, Alice, who spoke some Spanish, translated the lyrics for Anca.

“Seems like I’ve been stuck indoors at my desk way too much,” Anca said. “When was the movie released?”

Alice tilted her head back and took a seemingly longing look at her drink. “In 1999.”

“Ouch,” Anca said with a smirk.

Alice set her glass down on the coffee table and turned to face her friend with renewed vigor. “You know what I think? Some of us love some people once, and then we love them forever.” She watched Anca finish her pie. “Ettie made some really good ice cream too. Do you want some?”

“No, I’ve had this pie and would rather not overdo it,” Anca said. “I’m gaining weight if I’m not careful.” She gave Alice a sly smile.

“You are a sylph,” Alice said, dismissing her friend’s concern with a shrug of her shoulders, as if she were tired of pointing out the obvious. “You look as if you couldn’t gain weight even if you tried.”

“Oh, no. I watch my diet very carefully. Now that I’m twenty-five I can certainly notice a change in my metabolism. Been noticing it for two, three years now, actually.”

“Then exercise more!” Alice said.

Anca smiled and nodded her head. “That I should.”

Alice warmed to her again instantly. “I’ll put on some Etta James for you. It’s what Ettie listens to at home these days,” she said, before adding the song to the playlist. She put out a hand to Anca. “Dance with me?”

Anca smiled and got up. “Sure.”

“How about some Janis Joplin?” Anca asked from the computer when the short Etta James song ended.

Gotta loooove Janis,” Alice said, extending a hand.

They danced together to Janis’s raspy vocals.

Marcel watched them from an armchair, smiling to himself.

To be continued . . .