Chronicle of a Summer

There's a scene in Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch's classic 1961 documentary Chronicle of a Summer in which their assistant, the writer Marceline Loridan-Ivens, stops people on the street and asks them: Are you happy? It's a simple question that elicits a range of responses, from annoyance to candor. At one point, Marceline asks a man if he is happy and he replies that his sister just died and he's grief-stricken.






Are you happy? It seems like such a simple question but, like most things in life, it's complex and conditional. We use the word "happiness" often and aspire to a state in which we are happy, but grief has changed my relationship with happiness. 

Today was my birthday. I should have been happy. But, ever since my father died, time and age and birthdays mean something completely different to me. His death made me aware of my mortality. As I get older, I only think of all the time that's lost, how I'm creeping closer to death, how each year takes away more than it gives back, how I'm not living as I want, how I'm running out of time.

If Marceline confronted me on the street with her question, I'd say no, I'm not happy. I haven't been happy since he died, not fully, not completely, not for a sustained period of time. I've known moments, but not an extended happiness. I wouldn't dream of ever feeling it again, for he was my happiness, my everything.

Later, Marceline wanders the Place de la Concorde alone, talking to herself and conjuring her own dead. During World War II, she was deported to a concentration camp and so was her father. He died in Auschwitz, and he haunts her.  






Just this year, in 2016, Marceline wrote a book about her father. It's called But You Did Not Come Back, echoing her words in the documentary. All these decades later and she remains in dialog with her father, attempting to come to terms with the traumatic loss she experienced. For some of us, grief really is forever, it's for a lifetime, it never abates. After such trauma, how can she be happy again? What does happiness mean within the context of grief and mourning? A person who was always there no longer is. We try to go on. We try to keep feeling and surviving, but I understand what Marceline means when she says "My heart was a stone." Something hardens, calcifies. You try to stay tender, but the pain changes you.

I'm reading F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night and I read this stunning passage:
One writes of scars healed, a loose parallel to the pathology of the skin, but there is no such thing in the life of an individual. There are open wounds, shrunk sometimes to the size of a pin-prick but wounds still. The marks of suffering are more comparable to the loss of a finger, or of the sight of an eye. We may not miss them, either, for one minute in a year, but if we should there is nothing to be done about it.
I've always resisted the narrative of healing, the metaphor of open wounds that can be closed. The reality is so much messier and it's less comforting and less poetic. I made a pact to myself at some point to write the festering, to write the wound, to write the blood, to write the cutting open, to write the sorrow, to write the darkness, to write and write and write until people said shut up, until people said why can't she just move on and stop talking about her dead father, until everyone was sick of hearing me and reading me but at least I would know I said the truth. And this is the truth. The hurt is the truth. The blood is the truth. The grief is the truth. The man in the street grieving his sister is the truth. Marceline talking to herself and her dead father is the truth.

Are you happy? I'm surviving. Are you happy? I'm alive. Are you happy? Maybe, sometimes, once in a while, at moments when I forget that this man I loved stopped breathing and disappeared forever. Are you happy? I'm crawling. Are you happy? I'm waiting for the pain to stop but it won't stop. Are you happy? I'm weeping. Are you happy? I'm alone. Are you happy? I laugh until my laughs become sobs. Are you happy? I remember and I want to curl up inside my dreams and leave this world behind. Are you happy? I am loved. Are you happy? He is dead and I'm alive and I don't know how to be okay. Are you happy? I'm writing. Are you happy? I've yet to write everything that is inside me and I fear I never will. Are you happy? I had a father once, and I'm dying from grief. Are you happy? Are you happy? Are you happy?