The Art of Happiness
By Karen Winters Schwartz
Her hair was the brightest of reds. The sort of red that makes you wonder, “Who comes up with these colors?” And she was crying, for the third time in less than ten minutes. Which is the exact amount of time I’ve known this woman. Her name is Betty and she’s in her late fifties, American, and extremely unhappy. Seems her mother, who had Alzheimer’s, had died -- nine months ago . . . Sharon is nearby. I’ve known Sharon for about twelve minutes. Sharon is in her thirties, a Garifuna living in Chicago, who is back in Belize for a beluria. Sharon is a little drunk -- maybe a lot drunk and she is extremely happy.
We are all on the beach, dressed in bathing suits and sunshine. We are on the north beach of Hopkins, Belize, Central America. My husband and I discovered this wonderful country in the late nineties and built a house south of Hopkins two years ago. Hopkins is a village along the southern coast, in the Stann Creek district of Belize which consists of about one thousand souls, primarily the Garifuna. The Garifuna people are known for their warmth and welcoming attitude, so that there is also a rich blend of Maya and Guatemalan workers, Creoles, red-eyed Rastafarians, Chinese restaurant and grocery store owners, retired expats, fortune seeking and displaced foreigners, transient hikers and tourists -- all who roam the pot-holed streets and beaches of this small coastal village. Although it’s not yet possible for us to live there fulltime, we spend as much time there as we can. Sarah decided to spend two months of her summer break from college in Belize and I deemed it necessary to accompany her. We have long term renters living in our home who work at North Hopkins Bay, so we have a sweet little arrangement allowing us to stay at the resort on those visits where we don’t demand the use of our own home. We stayed at the resort for a week, before Sarah moved in with the friends that she was staying and I flew back to my home in Central New York State.
Sharon is telling us about her grandmother and the beluria. A beluria generally begins on the Friday after a love one has died and climaxes on the ninth night with a festive party of drumming, dancing, drinking and feasting. Sharon’s grandmother died a year ago. She explains that a beluria can be called for every year. It is an opportunity for the departed soul to reach out to the living, letting their worries or concerns be known by entering the body of a living loved one. Sharon doesn’t believe her grandmother is unhappy -- she doesn’t expect she’ll have a lot to say during the night’s celebration.
At the mention of the dead grandmother, Betty cries for the first time. It quickly becomes obvious that this woman’s sorrow is inconsolable. “Baby,” Sharon tells her, taking her in her dark arms. “Your mama wouldn’t want you to be so unhappy.” Betty wipes at her tears with her beach towel. “It takes a year,” Sharon assured her. “You have four more months and then you will be over your mama’s death.”
Well, I wasn’t so sure about this. Betty seemed the sort of sadness that time could not fix. Later, when Sharon had wondered away with her beers and Betty had stumbled off in her misery, I tell my daughter, Sarah, about this encounter. We’re sitting by the sea and Sarah is reading the first few pages of The Art of Happiness she’d ordered used and over the internet to bring with her to Belize. She was complaining that it was way too simple for her. She’s been studying Buddhism and working towards enlightenment for awhile now and she is way beyond the basic concepts of this book. “Maybe we should give this book to Betty,” she jokes.
“Hey!” I agree. “That’s not a bad idea.” “We could just leave it laying about where she might find it.” “Well, we’d want to make sure she found it . . .”
A few days pass. I’ve seen Betty coming out of one of the villas, so I know where she lives. We were on our way to dinner with a couple of friends and I say, “Right there. That’s Betty’s villa.”
“We should leave her the book,” Sarah says. But neither of us are brave enough to walk onto her porch and leave the thing.
“I’ll do it!” says one of our friends, Valerie. She steps onto the structure without hesitation, carefully sets the book open and upright, then we hightail it out of there.
The following day we’re on the beach, facing a prefect sea and Betty comes out of nowhere and asks me, “Did you lose a book?” I look at her with confusion. I’m lucky as I have my sunglasses on -- hiding the partial lie -- the partial truth -- and shake my head no. “Well, it’s so strange,” she says. “On my porch -- open to a page, was The Art of Happiness, a book my mother told me, before she died, that I should get. I thought, because I was crying the other day that it might be from you?”
I shake my head some more. “I didn’t put it there . . .”
“Well, its so strange. Maybe it’s divine intervention.”
“Yes,” I agree. “I think it’s from your mother.” Betty is smiling as she says, “She told me I should get it. I just never did.”
She left after awhile -- after we’d talked about books and living in Belize -- about a lot of different things and you know, she didn’t cry once. And I believe -- I truly believe, that the book wasn’t from me, or from Sarah, or from Valerie, but from all of us and from everyone --but mostly from Betty’s mother.