Helen Garner on happiness: ‘It’s taken me 80 years to figure out it’s not a tranquil, sunlit realm’

What is happiness, anyway? Does anybody know? It’s taken me 80 years to figure out that it’s not a tranquil, sunlit realm at the top of the ladder you’ve spent your whole life hauling yourself up, rung by rung. It’s more like the thing that Christians call grace: you can’t earn it, you can’t strive for it, it’s not a reward for virtue. It exists all right, it will be given to you, but it’s fluid, it’s evasive, it’s out of reach. It’s something you glimpse in the corner of your eye until one day you’re up to your neck in it. And before you’ve had time to take a big gasp and name it, it’s gone.

So I’m not going to spend what’s left of my life hanging round waiting for it. I’m going to settle for small, random stabs of extreme interestingness – moments of intense awareness of the things I’m about to lose, and of gladness that they exist. Things that remind me of other things. Tiny scenes. Words that people choose, their accidentally biblical turns of phrase. Hand-lettered signs, quotes from books, offhand remarks that make me think of dead people, or of living ones I can no longer stand the sight of. I plan to keep writing them down, praising them, arranging them like stepping stones into the dark. Maybe they’ll lead me somewhere good before I shrivel up and blow away.

On a shop window, somewhere up in Coburg: “Halal Meats, All the Fishes and Groceries.”

Related: Helen Garner: I always liked my diary better than anything else I wrote

“Resentment is like taking poison and hoping that someone else will die.”

The under-16s footy coach leaning on the fence and muttering between clenched teeth, “Don’t turn your back on the play.

The fact that the footy season exists, that it’s coming around again. The poetry of footy journalism: a player who “slides out of the pack like a gymnast’s ribbon”.

A family who, in the Age death notices, salutes their father in two words: “Our champion.”

Twenty minutes into a bout of gardening, when I notice I’m moving very slowly from task to task; when haste and impatience have left me.

One driver to another, on the 59 tram: “Quin. She was heavy drinker, you know? Quin? Of England? She die ressently, you know? She drink every day. That why she live a good age.”

An art critic on Delacroix: “… the deep appeal of violence in life and art, and the place of aggression in any realistic account of human purposes.”

My grandsons, who once curled in my lap and sucked their thumbs, striding down the steps into my kitchen: a room suddenly full of man.

The closing words of an article about a theatre company: “For the loneliness. For the forgiveness.”

Sitting shoulder to shoulder with the murdered man’s mother, leafing through magazines, laughing and sighing over trashy celebrities and pretty, ill-cut Chinese garments you can buy online. How hard she hugs me, when I leave.

Gospel shouters. The fact that Aretha Franklin once walked this earth.

The theatre nurse gripping my hand at the moment the anaesthetic knocks me out.

The surprise of feeling my face soften at the theme music of the Japanese series Midnight Diner.

Realising that I have an enormous vocabulary.

How one of our chooks crouches and shivers and tramples with her feet when I open the gate.

My granddaughter getting a mullet and a job making cocktails and a gig singing jazz in a bar.

Finding a clean hanky in my apron pocket.

Learning how little it takes to please me.

Stuck in traffic on Brunswick Road, listening to Glen Campbell singing By the Time I Get to Phoenix. I know every note, every pause, every beautiful American place-name – Albuquerque, Oklahoma – and the freight of what’s left unsung. Why is he leaving? Why didn’t she believe he would? The singer’s voice hovers over the woman, her door, her work, her bed, while he vanishes down the endless highway – he’s a tail-light, a pin-point, and he’s gone.

  • Helen Garner is the author of The Spare Room, Joe Cinque’s Consolation and Helen Garner’s Diaries, volumes 1-3