Happy Families Shovel Snow All Alike

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

first snow

Our first snow in the new house!

An adventure as we debated exactly where the driveway was under eight or more inches of gorgeous powder. A disappointment when we realized the plows all dumped the heavy stuff from the road across the street right in our driveway. A blessing in that our endurance was just enough to accomplish the whole job in one marathon session.

Visions of Russian peasants who probably spent a fair part of their difficult lives wielding snow shovels flashed through my mind. After a two and a half month literary slog that was much tougher than today’s shoveling, I finally finished Anna Karenina last weekend.

With more spite than I intended, when I finished, I asked my husband if he was insane to count this epic of whining and jealousy and navel gazing among his favorite books.

I cannot remember having a more extreme love/hate relationship with a book. Few novels take up so much time, so I guess I had more time than usual to consider how Tolstoy was a genius, but a genius with a deeply disconcerting perspective on human nature.

Did Tolstoy hate humanity so much that he chose to expose only the pettiest, most deluded aspects of human nature? Or (and this is what I really fear), was he a master who brilliantly shed light on the private, claustrophobic confines of the unquiet mind?

Anna Karenina’s first line is so iconic, but what does it mean when a book that is an essential part of the Western canon takes such a dim view of happiness and contentment?

Of course, how would eight hundred pages of pleasure actually read? Tolstoy was definitely on to something when he operated under the belief that angst and intrigue were much better fodder for fiction than fulfillment and requited love.

dsc01497What is it that is so boring about happiness that we don’t much care to read about it and so many of us chase it out of our own lives in exchange for a bit of drama and excitement?

We don’t have to live out our lives like novels or movies, seeking out painful plot twists just to keep the audience interested. Pursuing and savoring simple old contentment can be the most fascinating occupations of all.

Happiness takes a trillion different disguises. Sweating and working and achieving something with your honey. Making dinner. Making love. Making up. Making out. How quickly would you lose count of ways to find your bliss?

There is something decidedly out of joint in a world whose headlines are all about the bad stuff in life. There’s real tragedy in the fact that entertainment so often relies on the voyeuristic impulse, the need to watch other people’s failures and heartbreaks.

Maybe it’s true, and there really is a great diversity in the ways that unhappiness can settle upon families and individuals. It certainly seems that such stuff sells and I know I love a good tear jerker every now and then. But that doesn’t mean that there are not myriad ways to be happy or that every narrative has to focus on disappointment and the denial of joy.


3 thoughts on “Happy Families Shovel Snow All Alike

  1. Ruaidhri December 20, 2008 / 11:16 pm

    aww!The second picture with the two of you in it is lovely!

  2. blisschick December 21, 2008 / 1:09 pm

    I had that same very strong, love/hate thing with Hardy’s Tess, a book I actually threw across the room at one point. A book I had to read for a class, but I sat it on a table and would sneer at it as I walked by, refusing to continue until Tess would take her life in her own freaking hands and take a little responsibility for bad choices. (ha! a control freak even with fictional characters.)

    I find your take on the Tolstoy line interesting because I’ve had such similar thoughts. I disagree with his assessment. I think it is the unhappy families that are all very alike.

    For a long time, I was obsessed with researching abusive and violent parents. Trying to figure out the “why” (when really there is none). Anyway, I found, through all my reading, that even though maniacal abusers like to think they are unique and special amongst all humans, that they are quite the opposite. ALL of them think that very thing. They all act the same way. And they all come from check-list type backgrounds.

    BUT they are easy to dramatize and so our love of them as characters.

    For me, it is the happy families that seem to weave very individual tapestries of happiness.

    Furthermore, isn’t our thought that happy looks the same for everyone what drives so many people to compete (quite unhappily) with the Jones’s?

    So, Tolstoy may have been a literary genius, but I stick my tongue out at him (and Tess and Hardy)! 🙂

    • girlwhocriedepiphany December 22, 2008 / 5:26 pm

      Dear Christine, I remember forcing myself through Tess’s nonsense, but really what I remember from the whole things was endless talk of “furze.” What IS furze?
      What a fascinating observation – if so many are chasing a cookie cutter happiness marked by getting a bigger better TV and a late model car, that really is the most damning interpretation of what happiness means. It is easy to describe the sort of good feelings that can be bought at a great after Christmas sale and if we can describe happiness that simply we can go back to focusing on our stories about our unhappiness. It all brings us back to why we westerners keep falling into the seductiveness of want and discontent, foolishly thinking it is the easy way out.

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