Choosing joy over suffering
Stonington — About a month ago, when Alexandra Stoddard sent the completed manuscript of her 29th book off to her editor, she stopped in the borough’s flower shop and bought herself a bouquet of long-stemmed yellow roses.
Then she took a piece of stationery and wrote herself a congratulatory note and signed the names of her late husband and late editor.
“Peter made me promise that I would always, always do the things that he would have done for me, and I know that Peter and Carl would have sent flowers,” said Stoddard, 76, the acclaimed author and pioneer of the so-called “happiness movement.”
Her husband of 40 years and four months, Peter Megargee Brown, died in September 2014, and her former longtime editor and friend, Carl Brandt, a year before that, and she stopped work on the 29th book, “Joyful Living in the Real World,” after Brandt’s death.
But about a year ago, Stoddard realized she needed to finish the book, and rewrote the entire manuscript, a collection of 31 essays focused on accepting pain and sorrow.
“Suffering is a choice,” she said, over tea served in Quimper French pottery in her bright and sunny Stonington Borough kitchen.
“All the disappointments and pain are inevitable. We can choose to live in joy and enjoy every single moment of our lives, to live to the hilt. We need to serve others, and learn how to uplift the world,” she said.
With candles flickering on the country table and nearby countertops, Stoddard explained she accepted her beloved husband’s death without sadness and still finds joy in everything she does, despite her losses.
When she married Brown, an accomplished New York City attorney and author in 1974, he was 20 years her senior. He was 52 and it was his third marriage, and she was 32 and it was her second. She had known him since she was 13.
She knew then that she would likely outlive him and someday be a widow. But they were attracted to each other; he was enamored that she was studying Aristotle, and she was drawn to his intellect and accomplishments.
They lived in New York City until 2008, when they moved full time to Stonington Borough, into the home she had purchased in 1988, with funds from some of her early book deals.
The couple was a fixture in the village. Walking the streets hand in hand, with Stoddard guiding Brown as his agility failed him, and dining out regularly at many restaurants.
Brown, who usually dressed in a Madras suit, was gracious to everyone he encountered, and devoted to his wife. She has always dressed in Lilly Pulitzer-like hues and fabrics — bright and colorful and meticulously coiffed and jeweled.
Stoddard said she had ample warning that her husband was dying, as he slowly failed, losing his maneuverability and his vision. “There were many hospital visits, many stumbles,” she said, and added, he would say things like, “I’m slowing down,” “Day is done,” and “I’m tired.”
Following Brown’s death, Stoddard said she experienced “a hiccup in publishing, not writing,” before she came back to finish “Joyful Living in the Real World.”
“It was just a huge detour that I took,” she said, explaining that for a time, “Joyful Living” didn’t “speak” to her.
“It was temporarily a thunk, bricks on my shoulders, it was an obligation and not a joyous feeling to finish the book,” she said.
So, she wrote about what made her smile.
“I wrote about Peter and I wrote about Peter and I wrote about Peter,” she said, “and that made me happy.”
And then she realized she needed to go back to Paris, where she and Peter had visited multiple times annually for 40 years, and finish the book that had been lingering.
Doesn't believe in grieving
She and Peter had made a pact before his death that they would meet up again in Paris, and she had delayed going out of concern that perhaps she wouldn’t find his energy and spirit there.
So, she finally went last fall, and she’s been back four more times since. She goes to the same hotel where she and Peter stayed, and she rearranges the room, brings her own light and writes. She walks the streets and dines in cafes, and says she’s with Peter.
“I didn’t know I would get the heebie-jeebies, the tingles up and down and all over my body when I went to Paris, but I did. I do,” she said.
Told that people might think she’s kooky, she smiles and answers that she should have gone back to Paris sooner.
“I have to tell you, I don’t believe in grieving and I don’t believe in mourning and I don’t believe in wearing black except for feeling sexy and adorable,” said Stoddard, explaining the only time she wore black for grieving was following the Newtown elementary school massacre.
People need to create their own happiness, she says. They can’t dwell on the negative. She recalls a time in California where participants in a group where she was speaking were asked what was the worst thing that had ever happened to them. A girl in the audience replied that she was born with just one arm.
“Well, it’s a good thing you’re right-handed,” Stoddard told her.
Happiness is contagious
Her book titles include "Things I Want My Daughters to Know," "Choosing Happiness," "You Are Your Choices" and "Time Alive."
In early October, a full house at the borough’s Indulge coffee shop attended a happiness workshop where Stoddard shared her philosophy, as a benefit for the Stonington Community Center. And she recently hosted a multiday event at the Stonington Inn, where a couple of dozen fans from across the country attended one of her happiness gatherings, and another is planned for February.
At her workshops, Stoddard talks about making happiness a priority. "Do you have to work at it?" she will ask. And then answer, "Oh, yeah." She preaches that negative emotions will get you nowhere. To look to the simplest things for joy — a warm cup of tea, a slice of lemon, a colorful painting, a glorious sunrise — they all evoke warm and happy feelings for her. She fills her rooms with color and flowers and candles. She recently convinced a neighbor to change the color of his home from taupe to a pale shade of pink, so she could turn her writing desk in the direction of his home. It's a much happier color, she says.
"Happiness is deeply contagious," she told the crowd at Indulge. "And I look for as much beauty and joy and light and happiness as I can. The wisdom of happiness is simple."
Stoddard has little tolerance for people who assume she’s sad or lonely since losing her husband.
“I felt a great sense of transcendence when Peter died because I knew that he would never leave me and I would never leave him,” she said.
Happiness, she explained, requires some effort.
“You make the best of what you have and you just don’t dwell on what you don’t have,” she said, adding that lighting a candle or having a bite of chocolate helps make her happy.
“If 85 percent of what comes out of our mouth is negative, don’t you just think you have to have an antidote to it? Don’t you have to work a little bit harder?” she asked, and then answered, “You don’t find happiness, you create it, cultivate it, generate it.”
She believes that “Joyful Living in the Real World” is the most important book she’s written so far.
It’s not about Peter Brown, but he’s a huge part of it, she said.
When she bought the long-stemmed yellow roses at Verdant Floral Studio on Oct. 19, she purchased 15 of them, “because a dozen just didn’t seem to be enough,” she said.
And then, clutching them to her chest, she walked from the florist shop to the nearby Water Street Café for a meal.
“Everyone was asking me, ‘What’s the occasion? Who sent you flowers?’” she said. “And I told them, ‘I just finished my 29th book and these are from Peter and Carl.’
“And they liked it," she said. "They know me.”
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