Interview: Heather Harpham.
A friend recently gave me a copy of Heather Harpham’s new memoir Happiness: The Crooked Little Road to Semi-Ever After, and I whipped through it.
First of all — the title. Of course. Plus, I love memoirs generally, and among other things, this memoir covers the time during which Heather Harpham’s young daughter went through a bone-marrow transplant.
I’m hugely interested in the subject of transplants and organ donation generally (read here if you want to know why, and about the happiest day of my life).
Heather Harpham also writes fiction, essays and reviews for many publications, has written and performed multiple solo plays, and teaches at various colleges and universities.
Gretchen: What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?
Heather: Walking in nature. Specifically, the aqueduct that runs parallel to the Hudson River, and cuts through my small town. In summer, it’s a leafy green lacy canopy. In winter, it’s bare and you can see the water. I love it there. Typically, I walk with my friend Barbara Feinberg, who is also a writer and a teacher and that means we get to talk shop, and gossip, as we walk. Secondly, eating (very consistently, almost every morning!) a croissant from Antoinette’s French bakery. I’m a giant believer in butter and flour as a habit that brings happiness. And in pausing to pet the cat, if you’re lucky enough to be allowed. Petting the cat might be the key to happiness.
What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
That habits of the mind far outweigh habits of the body. How you think is everything. Everything. It’s the one and only thing we have control over, our perceptions and reactions, the loop our mind runs. I think of political prisoners—Geronimo Pratt in this country, or the South African writer Breyten Breytenbach are just two examples of so many who endured decades in prison without losing hope, without becoming like their jailers. Resisting bitterness or despair, simply by tending their thoughts. That amazes me.
I had no idea of this possibility before, say, 30. I would willingly junk up my mind with any kind of self-destructive or judgmental nonsense that occurred to me. The world was much more comfortingly black and white, good guys and bad guys; I was often furious with unseen forces. Or with myself. Not in a productive, how can I change this behavior kind of way, just idly furious. After college, I made a choice not to become an attorney because, as much as a life fighting for causes appealed to me, I feared I’d lean too far into the angry, intolerant side of myself. And that turned out to be a good decision because being a writer has gradually nudged my mind into better habits. Storytelling forces a slower pace, a wider lens. If you want to describe someone, or someplace well, you have to widen your field of vision. You have to divine, or try to, motive and subtleties. Writing invites the act of empathy, even when empathy is out of reach. Somewhere, a staggeringly compassionate soul is maybe—through the acting of writing—figuring out how the small boy who was Donald Trump grew into a guy capable of demoralizing, alienating and insulting millions with a single Tweet. Hats off to them! I’m not there yet. That’s the big leagues. But I do believe kindness or empathy, as a habit of mind, can be cultivated.
Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?
Thinking I’m right. It astonishes me how reflexive that impulse is; I almost always, in any conflict, assume my own moral ascendancy. And that’s really too bad because when you think you’re right, you generally stop listening. Why would you listen when you already know the answer? My kids, as you can imagine, are not great fans of this quality. Ditto my husband. Luckily, happily, I’ve had almost two decades of partnership and of parenting to help remind me that there is another way to look at what I think I see clearly. Having a sense of humor helps in this cause. Kids don’t let you get away with arrogance; with other things maybe, but not that. They are great at pointing out your inconsistencies, your hypocrisies. I’m so thankful to them for that, but only a week or so after the fact.
Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you changed a major habit very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?
When we were living in Durham for my daughter’s medical care and I had to watch her and many other children around us suffer on a pediatric bone marrow transplant unit, I began, not quite consciously but not totally unconsciously either, to restrict my eating. Obsessing over body image or food had been a habit since puberty, and this was just another iteration on that stale refrain. I’d drift through the day on coffee or a chocolate bar and then drink half a glass of red wine for dinner. I liked it, honestly. I liked fulfilling an ideal of “thin” as competent or in control. I was so out of control over what happened to my daughter that even an illusion of control was comforting.
One day it hit me that this was actually a very selfish thing I was up to. It’s a fantasy to think you can limit your self-destructive practices to yourself—they spill over. Any drug addict will tell you that, any alcoholic. When I realized that restricting my eating meant I had diminished energy, physically and emotionally, to give to Gracie and Brian and Gabe, I was very disappointed. I thought, I like this, I don’t want to give it up. On the other hand, I suddenly saw it as a kind of stealing. Hungry, I was often short tempered or fuzzy headed; I was taking away a good enough mom and replacing her with mediocre one. So, reluctantly, I began to eat normally again. I didn’t want to, and I was still in a loop of mental mishegoss over body image (what a waste of so many women’s TIME!). But I recognized that this was a behavior that could be stopped. And, once I was well fed, I did in fact have more conversation, more caring, more jokes, more flexibility, more of whatever the heck the self is made of—to share.
Has another person ever had a big influence on your habits?
I have three people whose habits I try to adopt daily: a humanist-atheist (the novelist Brian Morton), a Buddhist (the improviser Ruth Zaporah) and Jesus, the original Christian, who appears in my imagination as a kind of Casual Friday Jesus, but Jesus.
Brian is my husband so I get to watch and learn from his habits at close range. He’s phenomenally disciplined as a writer and always has been. He writes daily, or tries to. Every single day, in his view, is a work day creatively speaking, and that’s a beautiful thing. He’s taught me that if you want to be taken seriously in the world, if you want the privilege of sharing your work with others, then step one is to take yourself seriously by showing up for work. I love that.
Ruth Zaporah is a master teacher who I’ve studied with for almost 30 years. Her art form is improvised physical theater, predicated on the belief that attending to the present moment is the only way to be vibrantly alive, imaginative and inventive on stage. She views the body’s sensations as potential narrative gifts, little benedictions that appear at the exact moment we need them. To enter this state, we have to pay keen attention, beat by beat, in a way that’s antithetical to the receptive, passive state that many of us default into with technology (i.e. the iPhone stupor). It requires a kind of galvanized attention, which can also help transcend our unconscious ruts, to refresh the brain. Training with her has re-aligned my thought patterns in the best way possible, it’s helped me be more awake, not just on stage but out in the world.
And finally, Jesus, who’s habits are hard to argue with: wash the feet of those who need it, stop to help, look out for each other. I’m a big fan of those core Christian ideals, even while failing at them every day. I grew up Greek Orthodox; the presence of a religious instinct has been, if not a habit, a touchstone that’s sustained me since I was a kid. The beauty of the physical building (our cathedral had a copper domed ceiling painted with a very beautiful, sexy, dark-eyed Jesus, surrounded by his twelve apostles) together with the beauty of the rituals—the music; the communal standing and sitting and walking together towards the alter—acts moved me in a way I found hard to articulate. Later, when I could absorb the actual teachings of Christ (minus, if such a thing is possible, the horrific crimes committed in his name) I was deeply moved in a whole new way by the simplicity of the message—practice kindness. Act out of empathy and caring, especially towards “the least of these.” What a beautiful basic plan: make compassion your first move, your habit. Even if we only get to that ideal some tiny percentage of the time, what a great thing to reach for.