By way of background, July was my month to “Buy a white t-shirt, throw away a white t-shirt,” with the related resolutions to “Indulge in a modest splurge” and “Make purchases that will further my happiness goals.”
The Upper East Side has several stores that, though small, carry a bizarrely enormous range of goods—everything from Halloween decorations to vacuum cleaners to fancy candles—packed into a tiny space.
I had a few minutes before a meeting, so I wandered into one to see if I could spot anything we needed (a January resolution: “Buy needful things”).
I found myself staring up at an array of little, realistically carved, battery-operated birds—complete with motion sensors so they move and twitter when anyone walks by.
I would never have noticed them, except that my mother has the goldfinch in her laundry room. It was fun to walk in with a load of dirty clothes and be greeted by bird song – although it’s true I jumped out of my skin almost every time.
I wouldn’t even have considered buying one of the birds, except that I noticed that one of the birds was a bluebird.
A surprising number of people don’t know about the deep connection between bluebirds and happiness. As far as I know, this connection arose from Maurice Maeterlinck’s wonderful play, The Blue Bird, which was a great success in its time. It’s a wonderful play—and also a 1940 Shirley Temple movie, which is terrific, for those of us who appreciate Shirley Temple.
In The Blue Bird, two poor children, Tyltyl and Myltyl, are ordered by the Fairy Berylune to go out in the world to find the Blue Bird. She tells them,
“The Blue Bird stands for happiness. I want you to understand that my little girl must be happy in order to get well. That is why I now command you to go out into the world and find the Blue Bird for her.”
The Blue Bird is crammed with obvious symbolism and is highly didactic – just the kind of thing I like. For example, when the children fail to find the Blue Bird, “Light” says to Tyltyl,
‘You did your best. And, although you did not find the Blue Bird, you deserved to do so, for the good-will, bravery, and courage which you showed.’
Light’s face beamed with happiness as she spoke these words, for she knew that to deserve to find the Blue Bird was much the same thing as finding it. But she was not allowed to say this, for it was a beautiful mystery, which Tyltyl had to solve for himself.
Then when the children at last come home, having failed, they find the Blue Bird there. “It’s the Blue Bird we were looking for! We’ve been miles and miles and miles, and he was here all the time! He was here, at home!” You get the message.
I’d been talking about adopting the blue bird as my personal motif. I’d become charmed with the idea of personal motifs — not that I did much about it. I did mention it to a friend, and in one of the best gift-choosing strokes of all time, she gave me an old bracelet that spells out “Bluebirds,” meant for girls who were members of the “Blue Bird," a group like the Camp Fire Girls. I love the bracelet so much that of course I don’t wear it (breaking my resolution, “Spend out”); I should probably get it framed.
Anyway, I stood transfixed in front of the blue bird gadget. My usual resistance to buying things was there: it’s a waste of money, it will clutter up the house, I don’t need it, I don’t want to take the time to make a purchase. All true.
But then I thought—it would be fun to have it. At $12, it was a modest splurge. Also, it could further my happiness goals: every time I walked into my office, it would sing, and I could use this as a prompt to reflect on my happiness, my gratitude, my resolutions. And it would reflect my personal motif.
So I bought it. And now it's sitting on the shelf, right next to the Winston Churchill mug the Big Man bought me to celebrate my finishing Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill. And I must say it makes me happy to see them there together.