Happiness Is A Place Where Flowers Bloom
Camille Booker (ANU, Australia)
Happiness all depends on the decade you were born in.
Think about your grandparents. The silent generation. So content to live their quiet lives, playing weekly rounds of golf, watching soapies, and complaining about the increased amount of traffic clogging the roads. Just happy that they were the lucky ones to survive the war and the hardships of the twentieth Century. Happy to live long enough to watch their families grow up.
Now think about the Baby Boomers. They seem to only be happy when they compare their material possessions with those of their peers and come out on top. But happiness – even if it is driven by a perpetual need to consume more and more – is still happiness. They are happy in the way they are taught by the media to fear killer magpies so they aren’t burdened with thinking about really scary topics, like the damaging effects of Capitalism, or how they basically destroyed the property market for their own kids. And then they tell you that happiness is tied like a noose to your job-slash-income.
Millennials get a bad rap. When they aren’t spending all of the money they should be saving for a home deposit on avocado toast, they’re depicted as spoiled, entitled and perpetually glued to their iPhones. Millennials are more interested in spending their superannuation on experiences rather than physical possessions, and the idea of buying a home is now so far out of reach that they have singlehandedly killed the ‘Australian dream’. Millennials are marrying less often and later in life. With more debt to overcome, they live at home with their parents longer, but they’ve replaced face-to-face communication with their smartphones. Millennials are told they are lazy, difficult to interact with, and too vocal with their opinions.
My brother has lived the majority of his life on the computer, in a messy bedroom. He passes whole days at a time in there, evading responsibility like the Black Death, alongside the old gym equipment from when he tried to “bulk up”, the dirty clothes that never made it to the washing basket, and forgotten cereal bowls. I don’t know what he does all day on that computer, but he tells our parents he’s applying for jobs or “studying” for one of many online courses he supposedly takes. Nobody says anything.
My brother, Sturt, zombies around the house in torn pyjama shorts, carrying his Scrabble mug with the letter ‘S’ filled with tepid Nescafé, from his computer to the TV to watch illegally downloaded episodes of Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings on Blu-ray. Over dinner of Chinese takeaway, he can spend hours debating topics that he’s “read about” online. Like why I shouldn’t drink the tap water because the fluoride levels are too high; or why he voted no to marriage equality because, according to him, there isn’t enough research on the long-term psychological effects of children growing up in families with same-gender parents; or whether I feel bad about not experiencing “real” childbirth because I had a caesarean.
Sturt, born smack-bang in the middle of 1990, is a Millennial. Except, compared to the rest of his generation, his pursuit of happiness is non-existent. In fact, I don’t think it ever really began in the first place. Sturt, named after the great explorer. The Desert Pea. Ambitious, unique. Resilient.
My Christian name is Charles Sturt and I am an explorer of the Australian continent and colonial administrator whose expedition is considered one of the greatest in Australian history. I learned many lessons during my first exploration of Australia. Exhausted and nearly blinded due to poor diet and overexertion, I spent two years in recuperation. But one question plagued me throughout my bed rest in England: Was the continent made up of only scrub and desert? Or did a lake or inland sea exist at its heart? I was driven to investigate the interior in the hope of unravelling these mysteries. I decided to return to lead an expedition. I guided a team of seventeen men, ex-convicts among them. We brought along animals to pull the wagons: mostly bullocks and horses, but also dogs. And sheep, of course. I insisted on transporting a whale boat and a sailor, for when we reached the sea.
We thrust our way into the Australian desert but after two months, the party started to express uncertainties regarding the sea. Our Aboriginal guides would not venture away from the Darling River. I, however, had no doubts. We pushed on without the guides, short of water, and suffering in stifling conditions of 44 to 47 degrees Celsius. Dust, flies, mosquitos. Stones on the ground were often too hot to handle. We had to take care that the horses’ shoes did not wear through the centre, because at that point the horses would become lame. Our own feet often bled.
About 20km north of Broken Hill, we noticed a profusion of a beautiful crimson flower with a black centre in splendid blossom on the plains. Like a creeping vine, it ran along the ground and was thriving in the red sandy soil. Its vibrant red leaf-shaped flowers blooming amid barrenness and decay. When we pushed further north, all we found were sand dunes. These caused enormous problems for the bullocks with their heavy loaded wagons. Wheels sunk deeply in the loose sand. Some of the men were affected by scurvy and dysentery, and the constant bickering among them meant we managed an average speed of just over 2km an hour. So far, my frantic search for an inland sea had resulted in crushing failure. With prospects and morals looking dim, we set up camp at Depot Creek. It was so hot that lead dropped from my pencil as I wrote in my log book. I tried to write with my pen but the ink dried before it could reach the paper. Hair ceased to grow. Heat ruined everything.
In most families, there is a favourite child. Parents deny it, and maybe they truly don’t see it, but it’s obvious to the children. My sister will tell you that it’s hard to be the favourite. It’s a burdensome thing to be. The same goes with being the baby. Lucky for me I am the cursed middle child – perpetually overlooked and underestimated. I am also stuck in the vortex between Generation X and the Millennials. I belong to a microgeneration who don’t feel a connection to either age group. Technology affected my childhood and adulthood differently. Being born in the fuzzy borderland between generations, I was able to adapt to it but wasn’t as beholden to it as my younger brother. I got my first mobile phone well into my teenage years. The internet was not a part of my childhood, but when we got our first family computer, there was something special about using it. I use social media but can remember life without it.
I know she had good intentions, but our Mother babied my brother whenever she could. From childhood to adulthood, Sturt let her do everything. And now – with his inability to hold a single job, to cope with depression and anxiety, his lack of social skills, street smarts or self-esteem – she wants him to take responsibility for himself, become more independent. Mothers all have an innate desire to protect and provide for their kids. Yet at some point they must ask themselves if they are doing too much.
The only job Sturt’s ever had was during his late teens at the local Blockbuster (laid off when it closed down – RIP video stores). The most ambitious thing he’s ever done in his whole life was to grow out his hair, right down to his waist, because he’d heard that Peter Jackson was filming the Hobbit and might be on the lookout for extras to play the part of elves. Maybe a part of him felt compelled to join Bilbo Baggins on his expedition through Middle Earth in some obscure nod to his namesake’s journey of adventure and discovery through the centre of Australia.
After pushing still further, we reached the Simpson Desert. As I considered crossing it, my sunburnt men waited expectantly and wordlessly, astride horses that were leg-weary and reduced to skeletons. They were all prepared to follow my orders to the death. Despite their bickering, they were very brave men. Gaunt as scarecrows, ill from exposure, scanty food and muddy water. In a last desperate effort, we killed some of our bullocks and used their hides to make bottles and on the 7th of September 1844, we decided to turn back. I felt utterly defeated, being on the edge of the Simpson Desert. Only 150 miles from the centre. The whale boat was left behind, after having been dragged for thousands of kilometres through creeks, mud and over hundreds of dunes. I had hoped to be stopped by a large body of water. I was stopped by sand.
The biggest irony is that Charles Sturt and his troop were actually standing on the world’s biggest inland sea – only it was underground. He came a million years too late. Like the great explorer’s search for water, my brother has always been drawn to it.
Sturt was born partly deaf and always had trouble with his ears. Grommets in, adenoids out. At pool parties, he was that one kid who wore a swimming cap and ear plugs. But it didn’t seem to bother him. He was so happy, always smiling. I remember one Summer he was having so much fun pretending to be a dolphin. His skinny back arced and his legs flipped like a tail, then down he went with a splash. Up and down, his pearly-blue silicone swimming cap leapt from the surface then plunged, face first, back in. Up and down, up and down. He was so happy he forgot about the side of the pool. The pearly-blue head came down one last time and his face smashed on the jagged rock wall. The serrated edge knocked out the entire front row of his teeth.
That was the year Santa brought him a Nintendo 64 for Christmas and he spent the rest of the school holidays playing Zelda, Ocarina of time. I watched him play it like a never-ending movie. But then I got bored and carried on living. He kept playing. Nobody said anything. Soon after, we got our first family computer. He was constantly on it. I would pick up the home phone to make a call and the crackle of the router would bleed in my ears. The desktop got moved down to the basement, so he moved with it and we got a second phone line. He was allowed to stay down there. He was out of the way, after all. Problem solved. Nobody ever said anything.
When he started high school, he sprouted warts. They just showed up. Everywhere. Warts germinated on his knees, on his fingers. His face. He just wanted to hide. Nobody blamed him. He asked if he could dye his hair black. Except when our Mother did help him dye his hair, he had an allergic reaction to one of the chemicals in the cheap packet dye she used. His face swelled up like one of Pluto’s moons. His eyes stretched and it looked like two billiard balls were stuck in his cheeks. A few weeks after the hospital, the swelling went down but his hair began to fall out in patches. The skin on his scalp turned red and blotchy. Alopecia. Our Mother let him have months off school. I think she felt guilty.
The one social thing he did during his senior years was play drums in a band. Start from Scratch, that was their name. It was good for his confidence and, for a while, he seemed happy. He had tight friends, high school celebrity status, a girlfriend who was a Twilight fan and seemed to notice similarities between my brother and Edward Cullen. They would practice and hang out in our basement. I only watched them play one gig and they were pretty good. I think they must have broken up on bad terms right after high school because I never saw any of them again.
Sturt never studied for his high school certificate. Our Mother did all his assignments for him. I guess she was thinking, “If I can just help him get through his exams, then he will be alright on his own.” It goes without saying that he remains unemployed and on the dole. Now he’s pushing thirty and he will never have a career. So, I guess, in the eyes of the Baby Boomers (our parents), he will never be truly “happy”. Isn’t that the worst possible thing you could bestow on your own kid? By babying him that whole time, he never learned to do anything. And now he refuses to.
We text mostly, Sturt and I. That is the extent of our communication. I don’t know what we would even talk about if we were to speak on the phone. I try to send him a meme a day, just something to stay connected and let him know I’m thinking of him. Something funny, something that I think will make him laugh, or at least smile. There’s a lot of subtext in those memes, but I don’t know if he reads into it that deeply. He usually doesn’t write back.
When they named him, our Mother said she chose his name for the flower, the Sturt Desert Pea. It’s strong and masculine, conjuring up endurance, survival. Few plants, let alone flowers, can survive, much less thrive, in such harsh conditions as the Australian desert. It is a flower with devoted stories of romance and grief and loss. With Aboriginal legends told and retold, like this one:
In the Dreamtime, an Aboriginal tribe is camped in the desert.
The country is in severe drought.
A young, black haired maiden is promised to a warrior.
The warrior is sent in search of food. He leaves her with a coat made of red parrot feathers.
The lonely maiden awaits his return.
The tribe decides it is time to move on, but the young maiden refuses to go.
Their final view is a red cloak surrounding her black head as she kneels on the ground, waiting patiently for her lover.
When her people return, they do not find the lonely maiden, but in her place, there is a carpet of red and black flowers, as far as the eye can see.
Flowers bursting in a flame of red, with a black eye at their centre, right where the maiden was left kneeling in the sand.
Academics have identified elements of a theory of happiness. According to one study, the components of happiness include things like our human capacity to adapt to changing circumstances, our culture and worldview, and our values and goals. It also suggested that there are both biological and social-cognitive components of well-being. The research on happiness over the past two decades has expanded our understanding of its effects. Happiness is not only a desirable end but also a means to other good ends. According to this research, happy people tend to be healthier and longer-lived, thanks to a stronger immune system, better cardiovascular health, and healthier behaviours (exercising, wearing seat belts, even using sun screen); have better relationships, have more friends, more often get and stay married, and rate their marriages as better; are more positive and are engaged citizens; and succeed more at work. Researchers have even found strategies for increasing people’s happiness. Just like our genes and metabolism determine our weight—which can be tweaked by diet and exercise—so can happiness be tweaked by exercising gratitude, optimism, and positive actions.
I got a text from Sturt, just the other day. It said: “Sorry I didn’t get back to ya been busy with this new job training, going good”.
The more recent research suggests that there are four traits that mark happy lives: optimism, extraversion, personal control, and self-esteem. An article titled “Explaining Happiness” tells us that life events such as marriage, divorce, and serious disability all have a lasting effect on happiness. How can I understand my brother, who is defined not only by the stereotypes of his generation, but a name that imposes so many expectations on our cultural narrative? What is it to bear the name of such an ambitious historical figure? I had a childhood, youth and adolescence free of having to worry about the pervasiveness of technology, of social media posts and of smart phones. Perhaps my perception of him as lazy is unfair and I judge him too harshly, for who could possibly live up to the expectations of a great Australian explorer? Have I failed him as a sister?
A person’s happiness is derived from the quality of experiences they have had throughout their life. The present is fleeting, but memories and evaluations of our past endure and populate the mind. When we think about our lives, therefore, we have nothing to work with but memorised assessments and assessments of memories. Is it too late for him to be happy?
I hope he is in a place where flowers bloom.
Reference List of works consulted
Kahneman, D., 1999. Objective happiness. Well-being: The foundations of hedonic psychology, 3(25), pp.1-23.
McKay, H.F. ed., 2001. Gadi Mirrabooka: Australian aboriginal tales from the dreaming (pp. 57-60). Libraries Unlimited.
Myers, D.G. and Diener, E., 2018. The scientific pursuit of happiness. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13(2), pp.218-225.
Rudolph, I., 2014. Sturt’s Desert Drama. Boolarong Press.
Camille Booker is a trained high school languages teacher – French, Latin and ESL. She has a Bachelor of Creative Arts, majoring in Creative Writing, through the University of Wollongong and is currently completing her thesis in French linguistics at the ANU. Camille has published short stories in the Underground Writers Journal and the Lockdown Journal, and an academic paper in the European Journal of Education Studies. Camille’s debut novel, What If You Fly?, was Long-listed for the 2019 Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize. Camille went on to be runner-up in the 2020 Hawkeye Publishing Manuscript Development Prize, later being signed by Hawkeye for publication in late 2021.