Maira Kalman

And the Pursuit of Happiness

“Everyone is beautiful. Everyone makes you proud. Everyone Breaks your heart.”

The road trip of discovery is an uniquely American thing. Living as an American abroad, I miss American junk food and the endless stream of road. That untouchable horizon, the promise of new people, ventures, even a new self to be scooped up and carried.1

For Maira Kalman (born 1949), the road trip is a way of seeing before it is a thing of doing.2 In her joyful Principles of Uncertainty, Kalman suggested we should walk behind someone and take note (in a real, playful not figurative sense). She brings that precious nearsightedness to bear in And the Pursuit of Happiness, a book of illustrated thought published in 2009 following Barack Obama’s Inauguration.

Illustration of American flags by Maira Kalman featured in Kalman's "And the Pursuit of Happiness" in the Examined Life Library.
Washington, D. C. “Hallelujah for the vast sea of nearly two million people holding madly fluttering flags in the bright noonday sun.” Illustration by Maira Kalman. Courtesy of the book.
“Look! the velvet Bible Lincoln used!” Kalman writes, “That Obama used… and why do we use a Bible and not the constitution? Hmmm…”

Kalman exists in questions. The best questions, the obvious questions buried under niceties, boredom and hate. Questions about the complexity of the American spirit, as summarized by American novelist Marilynne Robinson in her elegy for American democracy.

We have entered into a period of rationalist purgation. Rationalism and reason are antonyms, the first fixed and incurious, the second open and inductive. Rationalism is forever settled on one model of reality; reason tends toward an appraising interest in things as they come.

From Marilynne Robinson’s When I Was a Child I Read Books

Against this devaluation of democracy, Kalman proposes: “‘Think small’ is my new motto. It helps me handle the complicated too-muchness of it all.” While grains of truth are not necessarily found in the small, at least the small allows for a lapidary process of thought.

Is there such a thing as a person born with a military gene?
Don’t we need both the warriors and the artists on this planet?
What if I were in the Army?
Apart from an impeccably made bed, I can’t imagine what else I could do.
Fly a chinook? Peel potatoes? Or maybe be a hostess?

As she tours America, its Presidential homes, government buildings, military camps, Kalman sits in the small and asks the big questions.

Like how do we reconcile the repugnance of war with the honorable and true people who engage in it? Where is the line for appropriateness of war, or actions taken in the name of preparedness? And who draws that line and enforces it?

Illustration of U. S. Pentagon by Maira Kalman featured in Kalman's "And the Pursuit of Happiness" in the Examined Life Library.
U. S. Pentagon. Illustration by Maira Kalman. Courtesy of the book.

How do we reconcile the lavish, toddler-like messiness of politics with the “smart and good” individuals who practice it?

I meet John Rhea head of the New York City Housing Authority. The daunting job of creating affordable housing for hundreds of thousands of people falls on his shoulders. He is working with Megan Sheekey, President of the Mayors Fund to Advance the City of New York. I love that fund.

Illustration of Abraham Lincoln by Maira Kalman featured in Kalman's "And the Pursuit of Happiness" in the Examined Life Library.
“I look deep into his eyes and found that I was falling in love. In love with A. Lincoln.” Illustration by Maira Kalman. Courtesy of the book.

How do we move forward on things that matter now without disrupting the fragile things that mattered then?3

Of Thomas Jefferson:

The man who wrote the Declaration of Independence said of Slavery, “This abomination must have an END,” was the owner of several hundred slaves. The monumental man had monumental flaws. Barely 30 years after his death (on July 4, 1826) the Civil War exploded. And what about is relationship with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves? It is believed that she gave birth to six of his children.

“We hope. We despair. We hope. We despair.” What will happen if we stop?

Illustration by Maira Kalman featured in Kalman's "And the Pursuit of Happiness" in the Examined Life Library.
Town meeting in Vermont. Illustration by Maira Kalman. Courtesy of the book.

“Everyone is beautiful. Everyone makes you proud. Everyone Breaks your heart” writes Kalman. I wonder what it was like for her to write this book. To make these observations, to sit in places and moments. Kalman was born in Israel but has lived in the New York City for decades.3

Everything is invented.
Language. Childhood. Careers.
Relationships. Religion.
Philosophy. The Future.
They are not there for the plucking.
They don’t exist in some natural state.
They must be invented by people. And that, of course, is the great thing.

What Kalman finds through this ample, focused, and jaunty sidelong glance at America is what you might find in most nation states. Family. Food. Sky above. Ground beneath. Flags in our hands. Change agents like Benjamin Franklin, Irving Berlin, Obama. The people you’d rather forget and the people you enshrine in perpetuity. Until we become the past of someone else’s present.

From the architectural eggs of the New York sewage disposal system to the sublime lift of Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp Chapel. From a cherry pie in the canteen of army training in Fort Campbell, KY to an alcoholic/chocolate cake baked by RBG’s husband, from leaves outside Lincoln’s birth cabin to leaves outside Jefferson’s Monticello, surely this is the most diverse and most flexible country that has ever existed.

Illustration of cherry pie by Maira Kalman featured in Kalman's "And the Pursuit of Happiness" in the Examined Life Library.
Cherry pie from the Fort Campbell, KY canteen. A moment of bliss. Illustration by Maira Kalman. Courtesy of the book.
And you could say your America is entirely different and your experience as an American is entirely different and I would say yes, that too. You too. Yes (sweeps arm broadly) all of this.

Reaquaint yourself with your America with a trip through the personal narratives of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Durga Chew-Bose or Henry David Thoreau. Slip into the poetic being that is Walt Whitman or Ocean Vuong and imagine what connects these men beyond space and poem. Contemplate the America that is forged by a sense of brotherhood, or slipped over our heads in times of crisis or shaken out of complacency when it falls woefully short.

Photograph of shoes by Maira Kalman featured in Kalman's "And the Pursuit of Happiness" in the Examined Life Library.
“You would need to walk to California…which is what I did. In my head.” Photography by Maira Kalman.

A road trip isn’t a road trip per se, it is the possibility that you might yet discover who you are and what America is, and that you might yet discover it completely differently depending on what turn you take or how fast or slow you go. That is what I miss most. The multiple avenues, the changing face, the craziness tethered together by feathers of individuality, freedom and caring deeply for whatever it is we care about.

I miss all that. And junk food.