Peter van Straten Art by Peter van Straten

In defence of happiness

How very wonderful are these trees in this park in which I sit! Like silent giants they are, gently swaying their arms. Unencumbered by any need to affect events.

I’ve been sitting for an hour just watching the trees, the people, the park and the lake, when a little girl comes up and sits beside me. There are many benches around here, all empty, yet she chooses to sit here.

She doesn’t greet me, or even look at me, and for a while we just sit together, she and I, watching the park.

“They’re not like giants at all,” she suddenly says, looking at me for the first time, “they’re just trees.”

I watch a family of Egyptian geese, magically supported by their own reflections on the water and think about what she has said.

“How did you know what I was thinking?’ I say.

“It’s an obvious thing to think,” she says, looking at me again, then back at the trees.

“Well,” I say, “I like thinking about the trees as giants. They seem more real to me then.” As the words leave my mouth I am struck for the very first time by the delicious irony of this line of thinking.

I look at her. She seems to be about six years old and wears a pretty white dress. Her little feet in slip-slops kick backwards and forwards as if she’s running in mid-air.

“My father says that poetry is an unnecessary substitute for reality.” She holds my gaze. “He says reality is more than enough to keep one busy for a whole lifetime. He says there’s no chance you’ll get through it all.”

I look away from her, at the grass, the fallen leaves, the footpath and the geese.

“Well,” I finally say, “your father is probably right, in a way. But I don’t like to be told what to do by ‘reality.’ I like to look at things in a way that is the most enjoyable for me. And I happen to know that if I think about trees as giants, I’m going to have more fun than if I think about them as trees.”

“But life’s not all about having fun,” she replies thoughtfully, and little uncertainly, as she looks down at her lap.

“Is that what your father says?” I ask her, my face still turned away.

“No, it’s just obvious,” she replies.

She stretches her fingers over her knees, and looks at her fingernails which are bright red and very messily painted.

I am quiet for a while, watching her watch her fingernails.

“I think,” I say, “that happy people give more to this world than unhappy people, and in order for the happy people to remain happy, it is very important that they have fun.”

She looks up from her nails.

“What do you think?’ I ask her.

She looks at me, taking her time.

“I think you’re actually a bit right,” she says at last.

She looks at me one last time, very seriously, then gets up and walks away. For ages I watch her walk along the path, growing smaller every second until, turning a corner, she is gone.

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