Happiness Without Rollerskates (written 2014)
Perhaps it's just the mood of summer in Alberta, the season of rodeos, but recently I found myself humming an old country song. “Ya can't roller skate in a buffalo herd”, composed and sung by Roger Miller, is a classic from my childhood. Many country and cowboy poets, of course, are philosophers. Perhaps that began with the wide open spaces and lots of watching and waiting. Time to ponder the meaning of life. But as I hummed this song and the words came back to me, I got to wondering whether Roger knew he was spouting ideas at least a couple of thousand years old. Long before rollerskates.
The verses of the song outline a number of impossible activities. Besides rollerskating in a buffalo herd, you can't shower in a parakeet cage, swim in a baseball pool, fish in a watermelon patch, and so on. Yet every verse ends with the upbeat assurance that “You can be happy if you've a mind to.”
Is it just what the chorus claims then, “All ya gotta do is put your mind to it / Knuckle down, buckle down, do it, do it, do it”? Well, sort of. There's certainly work involved. But much of that work is of the watching and waiting kind that cowboys and poets are adept at and that all of us can master if we're willing to try and see the value in it.
I admit, I'm not all that interested in rollerskating anywhere, never mind in a buffalo herd, but if I look closely at the things I am interested in, that I do want, I see that many of them are even more impossible. I can't protect those I love so that they never experience injury or sorrow. I can't be thirty or even forty again. I can't make everyone like me. I can't eat anything I want and stay healthy. I can't have another conversation with my mom or my dad, both gone for over a decade now. Truth is, many wants have that melancholy flavor of the impossible.
Sometimes, of course, what we want is more mundane...a new car, a holiday, a different job, a different house, new clothes for the season. Or just plain getting my way, winning the argument. And often even these less logically impossible wants are frustrated by obstacles of one kind or another. We think that's what makes us unhappy. “If only I could rollerskate in a buffalo herd,( translation: get that raise) everything would be fine.”
But Roger doesn't claim you shouldn't want these things. He says, you can't have 'em, but you can be happy anyway. And this is the simple truth.
The buckling down, though, I would argue, isn't forcing yourself to be happy. It's not gritting your teeth, putting on a smiley face and keeping a stiff upper lip, a little difficult to manage simultaneously. It's buckling down to look long and hard at your own experience. It's not the wanting that is problematic. It's what the Buddha called “clinging”. Clinging is when we believe a fiction: I can only be happy when “x” happens.
When we see that happiness is possible, even when we accept that some other things are not possible, it's like a break in the storm clouds. A eureka moment. When we quit longing for something else, what is here is experienced more fully. When we quit longing for something else, we allow gratitude for what is to arise. We see that life is a mixed bag and we choose where to place our attention. But this takes work. It takes mindfulness and presence. So we see the desire for a new car, or to be young again, we sigh and we let it go, and we form the intention to see the happiness that is here right now.
With apologies to both Roger and the Buddha, I'd sing it this way:
“All you gotta do is see,
Knuckle down, buckle down, and learn to just be.”
For those overcome by nostalgia, or those who are asking”Who the heck is Roger Miller?”, here's a link to the song: