Learning Laughter

My wife Claudia has a great laugh. Tonight she’s been net-surfing for fun: laughing at badly made cakes, cheeky garage-sale signs, lost-bird posters and the shenanigans of elderly people in America. Claudia has a deep voice and a throaty laugh. Tonight she has been chuckling, ha-ha-ing, exclaiming ‘Oh no!’ and ‘Eeuw!’ slapping her thigh and stamping her foot -- laughing so hard I could hear her trying not to cry. Isn’t it wonderful how much joy a badly made cake or an old lady riding a shopping trolley can bring the world?

Over the past several weeks, she had been working several hours a day (and night) finishing a photographic assignment that pushed the technology on her computer to its limit. On top of that, she occasionally got called in as the ambulance driver, which meant even longer hours work at night. Then her exclamations were starkly different: the moans of a body stiff from sitting,  frustrated groans when yet another computer crash annihilated hours of painstaking work.

So it’s good to hear her laugh. And she’s good at it. Claudia laughs at movies. She loves slapstick. She’ll laugh at the home videos shows where the bride falls through the stage or the man gets a face full of cow manure.

It’s especially a joy to sit next to her on long haul flights as she rocks and squirms in her seat trying not to laugh too loudly. I’ll be sitting next to her, my heart heavy after watching an intense drama or my head buzzing with ideas from a documentary. Don’t get me wrong – Claudia will delve deep into a doco, too. It’s just that she’ll just as soon watch an American college road-trip movie because laughing is as delicious as intellect.

I’ve never been good at laughing. From my earliest years I had too much sympathy for those injured in zany trips and falls. I thought farts were too rude to laugh at.  I never understood why Benny Hill was funny chasing the big-breasted leggy women across the hills. I was a clever, observant girl in search of her sense of humour. Sometimes I was laughing on the inside. Sometimes I just didn’t get the joke.

These two definitely get the joke. Photograph by  Nathan Anderson .

These two definitely get the joke. Photograph by Nathan Anderson.

In my late adolescence I spent too many years among people who took everything too seriously. It was infectious in those eighties campuses – at least in the faculties I frequented: literature, politics, philosophy. As a young mother in my early twenties my earnestness was so severe it came to feel potentially life-threatening. My child (and his dad) delighted me. But I realised I was only ever laughing on the inside – too shy or anxious to laugh with them. One day, at the grand age of twenty-three, I began to realise that I no longer knew how to laugh.

I had a friend in those days, a fellow mother, whose company, and especially laughter, I enjoyed very much. Of course there were other laughers in my life before her. One of my feminist friends had a dark chuckle – bitter as tonic water. Another friend from school and university had a booming, resonant howl of a laugh. One of my best friends when I lived in America as a teen had a delightful laugh with tee-hees and dangs in it. She still does.

But this friend of my mothering years had a laugh I not only enjoyed but warmly related to.  Instinctively, I sensed that I might have a laugh like that in me. I decided that I wanted to be able to laugh the way she did – unselfconsciously and wholesomely. So I copied her.

Girlfriends. Photo by  Pamela Whitehead .

Girlfriends. Photo by Pamela Whitehead.

For a month or three my laugh sounded a bit odd. It was a version of my friend’s laugh coming from me. I practised it when I was alone or alone with my baby, who was born, like all babies, non-judgemental about such things. After a little while the laugh became my own. I heard it with relief. There was laughter inside me. All was right in my small part of the world.

Nowadays I laugh at my work everyday. My patients make me laugh. I realise that doctor’s jokes, like their ancestor, the dad jokes, are meant to ease situations of awkward power balance. I no longer sneer at them. When my patients hear me laughing through the thin walls of our little clinic as they wait (and wait, and wait) they could get resentful and sometimes do. But mostly they know that humour is healing and look forward to cracking some good jokes themselves. Theirs are usually better than mine.

We all know that laughing, chuckling, guffawing and sputtering are essential to good health. We’ve all heard about the fella who recovered from serious illness by watching all the funniest movies he could find on a binge of distraction and emotional release. I’ve seen the laughing yogis, who come together to purposefully laugh for fitness and health.

I’m grateful that I share my life with a woman who laughs almost every day. And even on the days when she’s ready to break her computer into pieces with bare hands, she makes me laugh. As long as I have Claudia and as long as people are still willing to share their terrible cakes, I can have my laughing yoga, right here at home.