Assay: I have a friend who is a working artist. She told me, “When I was starting out, I made money by working as a receptionist at a gallery. When my art career advanced enough so that I could quit that job, another artist friend told me, ‘Now you’ll be working all the time.’”
“What exactly does that mean?” I asked.
“He meant—I have to be looking, thinking, all the time. I have to notice and consider my reactions to everything. Why do I love this display of Christmas lights? What makes this restaurant so ugly?”
I’ve noticed a similar thing happen to me, with happiness. Now, whenever I feel a surge or drop in my happiness, I think: What’s happening, what triggered that? If I’m feeling happier, how can I ramp it up? Why do I suddenly feel blue? I’m trying to be more mindful about my fleeting reactions to thoughts and experiences, and I’m often surprised by what I notice.
For example, I found myself thinking about a famous piece of public art—a luggage trolley apparently halfway through a brick wall at London’s King’s Cross station.
If you’re not a Harry Potter fan, the trolley is a reference to the fact that when magical children leave London to go to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, they take a special train, the Hogwarts Express, which boards from Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross. One of the first things Harry Potter does as part of the magical world is to run through a brick wall to get to the platform hidden between 9 and 10.
This public sculpture doesn’t just make me mildly happy. I love it; I get choked up thinking about it. It gives me a feeling of elevation – one of the most delicate pleasures the world offers. So, I ask: why does it make me feel this way?
First, it’s a celebration of something I particularly love, children’s literature. Second, it’s an acknowledgment that the love for Harry Potter is so ubiquitous that this artifact makes sense. We all love Harry Potter! And I love the collision of literature and real life. And this trolley sculpture is so funny, so playful.
How could I dwell on this happiness? One of my resolutions is to Find an area of refuge, and I’ve spent quite a lot of mental energy, in the last few days, fantasizing about what delightful surprises I would plant around New York City, in the manner of the Kings Cross trolley.
All my examples comes from beloved classics of children’s literature; it would be just as fun to have examples from adult fiction, but I couldn’t think of any.
This is what I would install:
From Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach, in Central Park: a giant peach pit, with a door and a nameplate reading “James Henry Trotter.” I’m actually surprised this doesn’t already exist.
From E. L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: a book bag tucked behind a drape behind a statue from the Middle Ages. And also in the Met…
From Jacqueline Preiss Weitzman’s You Can’t Take a Balloon into the Metropolitan Museum: a yellow helium balloon tied to the outside stair railing. This would be so inexpensive and fun!
From Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family, in the Children’s Room at a branch of the New York Public Library in the Lower East Side: a copy of Peter and Polly in Winter, placed in the “Returns” section.
In a similar project, a few years ago, I made a long list of children’s books and where they take place in New York City. In many cases, a reader can locate the character exactly, like Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy who spies on 84th and East End, and Peter Hatcher, from Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, who lives at 25 W. 68th Street.
I used to try to stop myself from spending the time and energy on making these kinds of lists, but now I let myself take notes without a purpose. In fact, I spend hours taking notes without a purpose. Or, I should say, without a known purpose. Why should I take the time to dream up New York City public installations to celebrate children’s literature? Why not? It makes me so happy! Taking notes is how I think, I’ve realized, and these days, I let myself go, and try not to worry about efficiency.
New York City did rise to occasion of the release of the movie of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1, with a sign at Union Station.
I love New York City, and I love Harry Potter. It makes me so very, very happy to see something like this.
From 2006 through 2014, as she wrote The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, Gretchen chronicled her thoughts, observations, and discoveries on The Happiness Project Blog.