So blissed out, I'm beginning to worry...
In the second of our series exploring the emotions, Julia Myerson confesses that she has more than her fair share of moments of pure joy
Tuesday 13 August 1996
He folds his arms and stares out at the grey choppy sea. "Hmm. I'll come back to you on that one."
"No really," I say, "I need to know. Please try and think."
"Sex? Cricket? Absolute solitude?"
"Other then sex," I say, changing gear, "I don't mean orgasm and obvious things like that, it's too easy."
"Define what you mean by bliss then," he says testily, knowing he's being backed into a corner. "It's a silly word."
"No it's not."
"It's a girl's word."
"I knew you'd say that."
"It's true, isn't it? Only girls go round thinking about when they do and don't have bliss. Men are too busy getting on with it."
"Like when then?"
"All right, all right, that moment when you hit a cricket ball so perfectly, so brilliantly timed, that you literally do not feel it. It's as though the ball was never there."
I pause, encouraged. "Yes, I can understand that, like in tennis?"
"Nothing like it."
"Well, that zingy feeling when it's right in the middle of the racquet."
"It's not remotely the same," he says huffily, "Cricket balls are harder."
"OK," I move swiftly on. "But does it always have to be sport or sex?"
"What else is there?"
"I'm being serious. I get a lot of bliss - I expect a lot of it, all through the day. Little moments of euphoria. I just wonder if that's my problem, if it's too much."
"Your expectations of happiness are too low," he observes.
"Too high, you mean."
"No, you obviously garner these moments at the drop of a hat. They're not exactly hard won for you."
But that's just the problem - I have a strong sense of happiness. I love my life, my children, my partner, the sea, my body, the view from the window, my work." And, importantly, I know I do; I think about the fact that I do. In fact, I'm happy that I do.
I wake up happy, I go to bed happy. I am happy. But guilt and fear lurk on the other side of happiness. I'm so deliriously happy that I've become convinced that Accident, Cancer, Burglary, Electrocution and Child Kidnapping are just around the corner. And I feel intensely self-indulgent at the amount of time (several hours a day) I waste on these thoughts.
"I'm too happy," I confessed to the kinesiologist, the blonde, white- clothed muscle therapist (and miracle worker) who helps sort out my chronic back condition, "I'm just waiting for it all to go wrong."
"Why should it go wrong?" she said in her exquisitely neutral voice, her fingers resting lightly on my temples.
"Well, why shouldn't it? How can things be so good for one person?"
"You feel guilty. Why?"
I frown. That seems a touch too easy. Do I feel guilty? "Well, life is so uneven, so difficult for so many people. There's so much unhappiness. Why should everything be so nearly perfect for me?"
"You feel happy all the time?"
"Except when I'm worrying about feeling too happy, yes."
She didn't laugh (I'm paying for this, after all). But I later made the mistake of relating this conversation to Jonathan. It's a push-over for him. "Now hold on here," I can see the sarcastic indignation swelling behind his eyes. "You're saying you actually pay to lie there and worry about the fact that you're too happy?"
"Well, no, she helped me over this actually," I blush.
"Great, you paid her money and now you're unhappy again. This is medical capitalism at its most blissful!"
"No, she told me something to repeat over and over to myself when I'm feeling worried, and it does seem to help."
"Let's hear it," he smiles wolfishly, ready to gobble me up.
"I'm not telling you." I run away and lock the door just in time, "I shouldn't have brought this up."
"Too late, Space."
As a student, my nickname was Space, short for Space Cadet, because of my (apparent) renowned ability to be "spaced out" while sober, to achieve a natural state of euphoria while all around me others were forced to do it with marijuana.
I wasn't against drugs in principle, I had just never learned to smoke and didn't particularly want to. Inhaling anything made me want to gag, and my body gets no kicks from ingesting foreign substances, has never enjoyed feeling sick or dizzy or artificially high or out of control.
But I was madly in love with a bearded American geology student with whom - among others - I shared a house. He smelled of fresh air and fair hair and he played the guitar. In winter he wore a long grey overcoat and black fingerless mittens, and spent each evening in a weed cloud listening to "The Dark Side of the Moon" and staring at the wall and laughing about nothing. I didn't want to be left out.
There was plenty of competition too. Girls seemed to turn up at the house all evening - spiky-haired, laid-back types with beaded earrings and throaty, public-school laughter, girls who knew how to suck the spliff with narrowed eyes and look away into the middle distance as they passed it on. Girls who didn't seem to care about anything and would crash out anywhere and appear, panda-eyed and undaunted, from any old bed in the morning.
There was, especially, a French and history student called Eunice who could join up Rizla papers like patchwork and would then lean back, narrow- eyed and cross-legged against the skirting board, her hair a sexy, unbrushed curtain over her face.
It seemed inevitable that my American geologist would end up wanting to go out with Eunice, because she was so cool - it was only a matter of time and my heart was breaking. So I acted crazy, stoned, I giggled. I said outrageous things to show how euphorically relaxed I was. I ate a daffodil head, leaves and stem - to get his attention.
And it worked. They called me Space, and Eunice and the others eventually trickled on home. And one night when the room was a smoky haze of bodies on foam sofas, Pink Floyd spilling out into the darkness, the American pulled me to him and kissed me.
Bliss, rapture, euphoria, ecstasy.
My favourite is bliss. It's a tiny, dazzling, perfect, cool, neat word. I see a face upturned in sunshine; freckles, closed eyes, lashes, lids. It's close to blue, to blood, and shares a hiss with kiss. It's a pinnacle, a heightened moment, yet it's ongoing - it pinpoints a perpetual, momentary state of lusciousness.
Bliss is a peak of creative concentration, an intense feeling of love, a true moment of oneness, an emotional orgasm - or just an orgasm. I have bliss instead of God. My own sense of bliss helps me to understand other people's sense of God.
Like orgasm, it's an overpowering discovery and then - if you want to repeat it often - a knack. OK, so it can creep up on you, ravish you, surprise you, move you to tears - but I am also convinced you can work hard at it, stay attuned to the possibility of it, learn to get it as often as possible. All you have to do is to look for it in the smallest of things and be ready to find it.
But then, I've never had to work at it. As a child, my capacity for bliss, for optimistic self-delusion, was massive, embarrassing even. I inherited it from my mother who, when sent far away to boarding school at the age of five, imperiously insisted to the teachers that she was a princess - and believed it - and was punished accordingly.
By the time she was my mother, she was unhappy, lonely, constrained, but she didn't show it. Her self-belief remained inspiring, impeccable. She turned life into a picnic, a Hollywood musical, a fairy-tale extravaganza. Our father hit her, but (according to her) luck, change, extraordinary, life-enhancing magic was always just around the corner.
She could transform any situation, promise amazing things - in other words, she knew how to create a sense of euphoria around her. She was Mary Poppins. In fact, she was once stopped at a motorway service station and asked to autograph a paper napkin. It wasn't because she looked that much like Julie Andrews, but that she exuded, without trying, the some sense of starry optimism.
She gave us the best gift you could give your children: she told us that anything was possible, that we could do anything we wanted to do. She read us Keats, Longfellow, Tennyson, and, though I didn't understand a word, their combined effect sent shivers down my spine. I decided to be a writer because of that state of bliss, because of what words did to me. I was obsessed, drugged, enraptured. Reaching precarious adulthood, I knew I had to recreate this euphoria for myself.
"Great day," I wrote in my diary on 23 October 1973, aged 13, "Watched Upstairs Downstairs on TV, baked a cake for Grandma, played three sets of tennis (lost all three), finished my novel." My "novel" was 30 typed (with two fingers) pages which I stapled in the top left-hand corner and sent to Jonathan Cape, asking him to publish it. If possible in time for Christmas.
"OK, if you're so aware of it all, tell me when you feel this so-called bliss," says Jonathan, "Yes, yes, apart from when your babies were born."
"I was just coming to that," I say with dignity.
It was l0pm on 31st January 1989 and I was kneeling up clutching the grey steel of a St Thomas's Hospital bed, and I thought I would split open like a bashed, bruised piece of fruit. And then my first child's head crowned.
They warn you about all that pain, but no one ever really prepares you for the pure, devastating bliss of delivery - the transforming moment when you open up and feel all that life rushing and falling out of you. Or maybe they do and you don't believe them (though you're so ready to believe about the pain).
My boy was black-haired, blue-skinned, surprised, shouting. Two hands passed him towards me. I saw his long legs kick, his fingers and toes. He seemed majestic, impossibly individual, bursting with attitude. Holding him, putting my lips against his cheesy hot-yeast hair seemed incomprehensibly rapturous. It was nearly too much. My heart was empty and full, open, numb yet touched.
"I said 'apart from having babies'," Jonathan insists. "I mean, obviously you were going to hit on that one."
OK, OK: being a child standing on blue shingle on the beach or trying to catch bats in my fishing-net at night, or finding china clay pipe heads in a frosty ploughed field at dawn. Reading Wuthering Heights for the first time. Falling in love properly when you can't help it. Finishing my first novel, aged 31 (243 pages).
"And now, today, yesterday?"
"I'm not telling you, you'll only laugh."
He goes away, to watch the Test match, so I'll whisper it: the smell of my children's heads when they haven't been washed for a while. The black, downy monkey hair on my four-year-old's back. Mashed potatoes. Lemons, lavender oil, my old pregnancy bath drops. Rosy, icy mornings. Sleeping in the same bed as someone you like. The Jewishness of my man's face. Sitting in bed watching Friends with him and a soft boiled egg.
"Watching Friends?" (He's come back) "That's your definition of bliss?"
"With you, yes."
"You're a sad woman."
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