It is the middle of summer, the heart of the watermelon, and I’m sitting on a patio looking out at hills and cypress trees and listening to people splashing in a pool I’ll swim in later on. There are people in that pool murmuring in languages I don’t speak, but I can tell they’re happy. So am I–it would take an act of will not to be.

How does happiness happen? How does it happen to me? Do I need a pool and a patio and a white butterfly and just the right combination of breeze and Italian to strum the strings of my soul’s harp? Surely not! Maybe not. Um ….

Happiness comes and goes, and that’s OK with me. To poach a phrase from Wallace Stevens in “Sunday Morning,” I have no desire to live in a paradise where ripe fruit never falls. Happiness can and should be pursued, but sometimes the pursuit feels like an endless game of tag with Usain Bolt. On days like that, it’s better to leave Usain alone and just do your work, whatever that might be. If you don’t have any work, find some: mow the grass, change the litter box. Floss, whatever.

Often happiness is a remedy, a balm, a way out. And the balm, the escapism of it, can become a problem if you fixate on it. As a longtime student of the Beat Generation authors, many of whom played around endlessly with heroin and cocaine and blah, Benzedrine, blah, I’ve always prided myself on my complete disinterest in narcotics. Chocolate and/or wine will almost always suffice on good days and bad, thank you very much. But when I landed in the ER back in February, I was happy to make the acquaintance of morphine. I remember our one-night stand with great fondness. But: never again, if I can help it.

Happiness can bring tears, as it did two days ago when I stood at just the right place in the Uffizi Gallery and looked at Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and then at his Spring. There were hoards of tourists milling around me, but it was my moment nonetheless. I felt very large and very small at the same time. Maybe what happened to me in the Uffizi was not exactly the onset of happiness; maybe it was the pure joy of being human. And that is pretty damned good.

There was a time when doctors prescribed travel to people feeling melancholy. Why don’t they do that anymore? Why don’t they say, “Go on a trip, you slug-a-bed. Go to a museum in some place you’ve never been.” Even a trip to the next town over can pump up the dopamine. Or, if you are really, really depressed and unable to go far, take a stroll down the familiar aisles of Food Lion–or your own, fall-back supermarket. Just go.

In any case, here we all are–alive and breathing the air that inspirited saints and geniuses and rotten criminals and cats and dogs and rats for more centuries than I care to count. We must make something of this air, this day! If you hear a splash, that’s me!

La Primavera (Spring) by Sandro Botticelli

The Road to the Dump: A Love Story

To get to the county dump, I take Mount Sharon Road. It’s a quiet country lane lined with farmland and mountain views. In the late afternoon, the light is fantastic. One fall day, I stopped my car right in the road, stuck my head out the window, and took pictures of shadows falling across green lawns and golden fields.

There are a few steep rises so you have to be careful. More than once, my heart has leaped as another car barreled toward me taking up more than its share of the road. The perils of mortality are alive on Mount Sharon Road.

After another couple of turns, I go down another road and arrive, at last, at the dump. Wire-mesh gates stand wide open. Great big bins await the garbage of the local citizenry. Other bins beckon to conscientious recyclers of plastic, newspaper, tin cans, and glass. There’s also a place to dispose of old batteries and another place where you can deposit used clothing that some other person might still want to wear.

Sometimes, in a folding-chair far away, there sits a Man. If you have trouble with an extra-heavy bag, the Man will come and hoist the bag into the bin for you and talk a while.

The Man is not the only one at the dump. Fifteen or sixteen cats live there. You have to drive slowly when you arrive so you won’t disturb these creatures, perched like little sentinels all around the entrance.

I have been trying to get to know these cats. The first time, the Man came over to help me and talked about his own cats. He and his wife had way too many, and he finally took most of them to the animal shelter. He talked on and on about these long-ago cats.

Keeping up my end of the conversation as best I could, I eyed the residents of the dump. Some stood still; others darted out from under and around the bins. I was mesmerized. The Man said someone comes by to feed them. Behind the recycling bins I glimpsed plastic plates laden with half-eaten food—the Man spoke the truth. Unable to contain myself any longer, I called out to a cat, and she came running up to me. She was longhaired and sweet and should have been somebody’s pet. I noted her lopped ear—the universal sign that a feral cat has been caught, neutered, and returned to its home turf. She let me pet her and then went wild when I tried to pick her up.

On subsequent visits, I have lingered among the cats. The pretty, longhaired one seems to be gone; perhaps someone lured her into a cage and took her home. The others are not as friendly as she was. They let me get close but not close enough to touch them. I’ve been tracking a fluffy, mid-sized black cat that is ridiculously cute. I’ve noted several gray and tan ones. A couple of big muscular cats sidle back and forth as the young, leggy ones scuttle under the bins.

Conversations between county citizens go like this:

“They won’t let you catch them. I’ve tried.”

“I know. I have, too.”

“Somebody feeds them.”

“They look healthy.”

Then it’s goodbye, and people go back to their cars and trucks and go home. They forget all about the cats until next time.

I go home, too. On Mount Sharon Road, dusk is falling. I think about where we all end up: some of us in fine mansions, some in tidy little apartments, others in tents under bridges or walking stoned and bareheaded down a desolate road at one a.m.

The cats, too: some snooze on satin pillows while others, well fed, live out their nights and days at the dump. Meanwhile, their unneutered cousin lunges for a field mouse deep in the woods. Still another decides to cross the street at just the wrong moment, and the car’s driver (who had studied, in his modern poetry class, Wallace Stevens’s “The Man on the Dump”) barely registers the light collision as a life abruptly ends.

The next morning, a twenty-three-year-old will find the body and cry hard. She’ll cry again that night and still again on her way to work the next day.

Years later, maybe she’ll cross paths with the driver of the car that killed her cat, at the supermarket or gas station or the county fair.

Or maybe they’ll meet at the dump.

An old man now, he catches her eye and says, “Somebody feeds them.”

And she says, “I know. They look healthy.”

And the man goes home and so does the woman, and the sun goes down on the cats at the dump. And a car glides past another car tonight and the next day and forever and ever on Mount Sharon Road. And love shimmers everywhere–everywhere!–in the still country air.