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Spiritual Reflections


by Joyce Tompkins

Joyce Tompkins

Joyce Tompkins is the Religious Advisor to the Campus Protestant Community. Other Spiritual Reflections are available on the Religious Advisor's page.

You can write to Joyce at

"Happy!" The word spoke to me from, of all places, the paper towel I was using to wipe the kitchen counter top. There were pastel flowers printed around it, and small pink hearts. Further down in the corner was printed the word "Feliz!"

In our culture we are raised to expect happiness. It - or at least the pursuit of it - is one of our rights as Americans. It is promised us through a variety of means - love, career, wealth, material goods as banal as that paper towel I used this morning. I stopped to ponder the meaning of the pronouncement before I sacrificed the words to the spilled orange juice. "Am I happy? I mused to myself. I must admit that it's not a state of mind I spend much time contemplating. When I do, in rare times of leisure, it seems I always end up counting the impediments to happiness rather than enjoying the state itself. "Happy!" is more often a feeling that surprises me from behind when I am busy with something - or someone - else.

Happy! I think about my grandmother. She had come over to this country through Ellis Island, very poor, a young mother accompanied only by her four young daughters, her tea pot and her set of Dickens novels. She had an eighth grade education and moved into a cold water flat in new Jersey. Grandma made her living by taking in other peoples' sewing, and she endured occasional unwelcome visits from the drunken father of her children. Hers was not an easy life, nor, by our modern day standards, a happy one. Yet I clearly remember her instructions to me one day as a young girl when I was staying overnight with Grandma and confessed to feeling blue.

She looked up from her sewing machine - the old-fashioned foot-powered Singer model - and said this: "Three things to do you when you are blue. A cup of tea. A good book at the end of the day when your work is done. And doing something for somebody else." And she went back to work on her sewing.

My Grandma was rarely idle. She lived to be over one hundred, and even in her last days, she spent the daylight hours knitting sweaters for her great-grandchildren and socks for the sailors at sea. By then her eyesight was very poor, and she had to use yellow yarn because it was the only color she could still see. When Grandma died, I helped my aunt and my mother go through her things. On the night table by her bed were her knitting needles, stuck through a ball of yellow yarn, and a half-finished sock she had been knitting for the sailors at sea. Do sailors even wear socks any more? Is there some charity that still solicits and dispenses them? I don't know. But I like to think that somewhere in the middle of the ocean, some lonely man is taking a break from his hardwork on ship board and looking down at his bright yellow socks. I like to think a smile flashes over his face for a moment, and a word rises in his mind in whatever his native language might be. "Happy!"