Joy

Do you remember when you were young and you would spin in a circle with your arms spread out, whirling and whirling until you dropped to the ground from the dizzies? You’d watch the clouds spin from your ground-level vantage point, if it didn’t make you too woozy. Essentially, you were self-inducing the same feeling you would later come to recognize as drunk. The point is, though, that you would spin in the circles for the simple joy of it. No need for someone to correct your technique or tell you that you were spinning wrong, there was only this moment when you played with gravity and gravity may have pulled you to the ground, but you still won. It was wondrous.

Then you “grew up,” stopped spinning because you realized that it gave you an upset stomach, or too closely reminded you of being drunk and nauseous. Other activities induced similar feelings of ‘glad to be in the moment’ for you: maybe it was spending time with friends, or spending alone time with a special someone, or reading a book, jumping from planes – whatever it was, you did this thing for the simple fact that it brought you joy.

Being joyful is a tricky proposition during adulthood because there’s so much that threatens it. How can a person be joyful when there’s so much pain? Joy isn’t a constant, or at least not for me, but it is there among the other emotions and deserves its nurturing too. We do ourselves a disservice when we refuse to allow ourselves that small respite from everything else we’re supposed to be doing to engage in the activities we love. I submit that our capacity for joy is one of the few things that makes life bearable. It isn’t money, or 500 skamillion friends, or an overabundance of things to do: it’s an appreciation of the moment, a connection to the very things that make us glad to be hanging around on this planet in the first place.

I am serious about protecting my own joy. This is an awkward time of year for many people, and definitely for me. I don’t handle conflicting demands on my time very well and instead usually opt to behave in a zombielike fashion because it’s easier that way. That is until this year when I promised myself I’d simplify. So far, and I admit it’s not even Thanksgiving yet, I’m doing well at cutting the excess out from the to-do list so that I can enjoy myself (go figure).

One of the most enjoyable activities for me this time of year is sending holiday greetings. Even though I’m killing trees and spending money on postage, I like to send a happy hello to another person that they can hold in their hands – like a 49 cent hug, I suppose. I know email is quicker and the graphics on my social media are all cute and what-not, but I haven’t put my hand to pen to cardstock so it doesn’t give me the same happy feeling that getting paper cuts on my tongue from licking envelopes does. That’s my unapologetic nod to doing a thing that makes me happy.

The other nod is that I love movies. On the big screen, popcorn beside the point. I love hanging out in an alternate reality for a length of time so that I can feel the feels without any sense of responsibility for them or any need to make them better. It’s the same reason I like to read, but my more immediate circle of friends understands the reading more than the movies. Why would I love to go spend too much money for a couple hours of escapism? Well, because it’s fun. The movie I saw yesterday, for its entire 130 minutes, momentarily filled a place in that part of me that still believes there is no problem that can’t be solved as long as we have hope. I left the theater with the same feeling I had when I used to whirl around in circles until I fell: a little woozy, but joyous.

As a warm-up with hopeful carryover beyond the New Year, I encourage us all to engage in the activities that bring us joy. They aren’t less important than our other commitments; that’s like saying our commitments to other things are more important than our commitment to our own health. That said, with all movie-going, card-sending joy in my heart, I encourage you to do the things that bring you joy. If it’s spending time with people, go do it. If it’s sitting around the house eating Cheetos, bring extra napkins to wipe that orange-y goodness off your fingers. If it’s writing your story, or telling your truth, or walking the dogs, go. You deserve the joy.

Just Checking In

In my previous post I mentioned that the death of a friend sent me into a bit of a mental fog so I needed to follow my routine in order to get myself through the grieving process. It has helped, and going to the funeral allowed me to celebrate her and thank the universe that she was in my life. The church was full – as in, standing room only. This was a quiet person who habitually checked in to see how people were doing. She wasn’t obtrusive, didn’t need to be the center of attention; she just cared about other people – and she let them know.

She called me once a year, usually between Thanksgiving and Christmas, to find out about the kids and tell me she loved me. She didn’t believe in social media, preferring a phone call or sitting around a coffee shop talking face to face to a post on a website. She made a difference by working hard and being kind.

In fact, she so fervently believed in working hard that, for reasons that are still unclear to me, she had me washing walls one day in the classroom we both served in. She told me there was nothing that a good bleaching couldn’t get rid of (this was in the days before we knew bleach was a problem) and that the classroom needed a good cleaning. She was also the boss of me in personality if not officially, so I swallowed my snark and got busy. While we washed walls, we chatted about the students, our own kids, the teacher we worked for and adored. When I left that classroom to teach in my own, she reminded me to keep the classrooms clean and bright. I know she meant that both metaphorically and literally. I have not washed walls since then, but I do believe in the joy of shared effort.

I looked forward to those annual calls, whether we’d seen each other the previous week or not for a few months. Sometimes I even called her first, but not often enough. “I love you, keep working hard,” she’d say before she hung up.

I love you too, my friend. I will.

Endurance

If you are a breathing, sentient adult-type person, life will occasionally whoop your ass. I don’t swear in print often, but when I do, please know it’s not for extravagant effect; it’s because no other word will suffice. We all get our asses kicked, by situations within or outside of our control, by events, by illness, by the death of loved ones, by financial stress, by whatever Life with a capital L decides to throw at us. I don’t care if the Good Luck Charm o’ Life has been hanging around you like a happy monkey of joy feels, there will come a time when that charm gets ripped off your neck. Not my usual lighthearted introduction, I know, but take heart: there’s a reason for this.

One of the most harmful phrases in the human language is “I should.” I should be doing this thing, feeling that thing, living that life, having these types of people around me, and so on. The only “I should” that we should be should-ing is “I should be giving myself permission to be a human person.” My heart breaks and then heals again on a pretty regular basis, but never moreso than when someone I love is hanging around in the land of “I Should” or the flipside, “I should not.” It’s not that I don’t think we need to hold ourselves accountable for our actions, it’s that we deserve to treat ourselves with at least the same attempt to understand that we treat others. For example, after a fantastic conversation with one of my favorite people today, I was struck with how my perception of him is so vastly different from his perception of himself. I see him as powerful, awe-inspiring, brilliant, loving, passionate – he sees none of these qualities in himself.

I hate it that I’m reminded of an internet quotespiration at this moment, but here it is anyway: I wish we could see ourselves the way others see us. Self-concept gets distorted over time, particularly in times of stress, when we’re most likely to isolate ourselves at a time when we would least benefit from doing so. Stress, my good friends, is no stranger to any of us. In fact, with each passing year of my life, I am increasingly convinced that the Bogeyman living under the bed and hiding in the closet, lurking around the finish line of every goal we achieve, every obstacle we overcome, is Stress. My stress looks different from your stress, but it’s still an ugly beast. Do we tame it? Do we fight it? Do we ignore it? I don’t know about the last one; ignoring stress is rather like pretending that everything’s okay when it isn’t. Sometimes it works, sometimes it backfires. Just saying.

Back to my lovely conversation and “I should.” My favorite person felt like he should be climbing his mountain of stressors more victoriously, a Rocky Balboa of life endurance. With all due respect, no. Absolutely not. When life has broken out a can of whoop ass so severe that there are no lemons to make lemonade with because the lemons have rotted, what do you do then? Some people pray, some meditate, some gather their loved ones around, and that’s all great, but in the quest to climb that particular mountain, sometimes the mountain itself is too high. What then?

Step. Breathe. Step. Breathe. Having faith that everything will all work out with cookies and back slaps for all is too high an aspiration for the types of life-altering stress that I’m referring to. Instead, step, breathe, step, breathe. There’s a rhythm in that, a cadence. In a quote usually attributed to Martin Luther King, the phrasing goes, “If you can’t run, walk. If you can’t walk, crawl. But keep going.” My friend was ruminating on how to overcome all these stressors, and was looking for faith in the fact that the answer would be found. It would be vapid for me to suggest that of course he’ll find the answer, even when the question itself is elusive.

I suggest most humbly, most excruciatingly, lovingly humbly, that this wasn’t the question he was trying to answer. The question, as I see it, is “Is all this trouble worth it? Am I worth it?” I happen to have the answer to that. You are emphatically worth it. You are essential, necessary. I have faith that there is a time where you will see yourself the way I see you. Until then, breathe and step; breathe and step.

Spring Cleaning Part Two: My Closet

Yesterday I mentioned that it was time for me to sort through the closets to free up some space. I don’t believe that hanging on to items I don’t/won’t use serves any purpose except for making my closets looks full of miscellaneous stuff that sits there sullen, judging me for not using the items or not taking care of them properly. It’s Toy Story in my closets, but without the toys. Today, I decided to begin spring cleaning in my own closet. The bulk of dubious items included my wedding dress, bridesmaid’s dresses, shoes through the ages, and really what amounted to piles and heaps of random stuff.

I laughed as I put aside the bridesmaid’s dresses, a tribute to the 80s, 90s, and early millennium. My wedding dress, while highly sentimental, isn’t going to be passed down from generation to generation. My daughter is four inches taller than I am and is built differently. I still have the photos from my wedding, and aside for some residual smugness over the fact that I can still wear the dress, the fact that I’m not going to wear it again begs the question of what it’s still doing hanging around the house.

I did some checking, and now I know of plenty shops, consignment and otherwise, that accept formal wear. It would make me happy to know that another person could wear the wedding dress, and hopefully they’d be as happy as I’ve been. I don’t hold onto memorabilia as a method of making me happy. It makes me just as happy, if not moreso, to share with someone else. Those bridesmaid dresses, though. Maybe someone can repurpose them and turn them into skirts, tops, or maybe throw pillows.

I didn’t have any trouble tossing out the shoes from my quest to find the perfect pair of black flats. I now know that the perfect pair doesn’t exist, so I have since settled on three: penny loafers, oxfords, and ballet slippers. All the rest went happily into the donation pile. I have one lettered shirt from my sorority days, and one logoed shirt from my days of wearing spirit wear at my old school, but other than that, the only clothes in my closet are the ones I wear–and my daughter’s dresses.

The crafts and treasures from my kids are all in my “special” box, labeled that way and on the shelf. I’m not ready to get rid of those, but they also don’t take up an unnecessary amount of space. My daughter’s forays into the world of art include bodiless people that are still charming to the rosy-hued glasses of momma love. My son’s truck and train pictures still make me smile. I will give these items to them at some point, but for now, that’s one of the few boxes in my closet that I don’t’ need to use on a regular basis.

The corner where I keep my grandma’s craft supplies whammied my emotions. We enjoyed a particularly complicated relationship, and while I loved her dearly, about the only thing we had in common was crafts. We both liked needlepoint and crewel. We could spend hours together working on whatever projects we were in process with at the time. I have no doubt that this is part of the reason she had me go to needlepoint club with her. I remain grateful for the gift of time and creativity that she gave me.

When she died, she willed her crafting supplies to my sister and me, and we shared the vast array of creative potential. Today, when I opened up the boxes for the first time in probably seven or eight years, I was hit with the double whammy of completely knowing why I hadn’t used the items in the boxes and knowing that no craft should go unfinished. There were patterns for table runners and holiday decorations, skeins of yarn for needlepoint, canvases and more. Now that my kids are grown, I could theoretically begin working on needlepoint projects galore, but I know I won’t. When grandma died, my desire to needlepoint and crewel went with her. I have, on the odd occasion, picked up needle and thread and created a gift or two, but otherwise, nope.

This is no sadness to me. What I regret is that someone else couldn’t enjoy these materials sooner. I wasn’t ready to part with them, but now I am. If grandma were standing beside me, I can guarantee you she’d say, “About time.”

My closet is now clean(ish) and ready for the boxes my kids want to store in there. I don’t usually personify things like closets, but they are the anthropological evidence of who people are. I am always going to be fond of hand-crafted needlepoint projects, whether or not I’m the one making them, and I am definitely my grandmother’s granddaughter. My closet is now both physically and metaphorically clean. Not bad for a couple hours of labor.

First, Be Kind

 

Of all the misunderstood character traits, kindness tops my observational list. The world is much better with it, but many people assume that simply because a person is kind that they are weak. In fact, kindness is what keeps me out of arguments. If I don’t have something productive to say, I don’t say anything. Consequently, I’ve been fairly quiet lately. Please don’t misunderstand that: I’m not letting my resentment simmer until it explodes and I break out a can of whoopins upon someone. I’m just refocusing my energy until I can talk to that individual without swearing and hurling insults upon them. In behavior management terms, I believe that’s called “time away.”

The world isn’t kind, I hear you protest. Well, the world is spinning on a 23.5° axis, so I’m pretty sure manners aren’t necessary. People are mean to each other, unfair. Sure, and so the answer to that is to be meaner and more unfair? Of course not. Martin Luther King has been credited as saying, “Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.” We’re not getting very far in global relations if the answer to someone else’s situation is to hate them, so I submit that being kind is far more productive.

I’m not saying that the secret to Peace on Earth and goodwill to all is simple kindness. I am, however, suggesting that it doesn’t hurt to try kindness first. Give the benefit of the doubt. Try to reframe a situation so that you can understand from another person’s perspective. We practice that exercise in social skill building and conflict resolution all the time. Stephen Covey made a whole truck-ton of money writing the Seven Habits series in which one of the habits is “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” This way, we’re listening more actively, and less with the intent to listen just long enough to get our position across.

Kindness actually comes with a pretty good-sized backbone attached. It takes kindness to understand another person’s perspective without judgement, and even more kindness (some would call it compassion) to be useful to someone else without the expectation of a favor returned. Mother Theresa included this little snippet of wisdom in one of her speeches: “If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives; Be kind anyway.”

It is interesting, and a little sad, to think that if you are taking a genuine interest in someone else’s well-being that people tend to think you want something in exchange. I’d rather that, though, than to behave as though I’m indifferent to what happens around me. I may have to zip my lip, but at least I don’t have to lock down my heart and my compassion. I’m almost convinced that indifference is worse than hate or anger anyway. With hate and anger there is a certain type of energy that can be refocused; indifference means that I don’t even care enough about a person to take any interest in them at all. I’d rather try being kind.

I Want A Pony

My extended family used to utter a phrase when we wanted extra attention for no particular reason: “I want a pony.” Were we an equestrian family? Nope. I am guessing here, but I think the only types of horses any of us rode were of the petting zoo variety. Well, except for that time that I went to the rodeo and sat on a really tall thoroughbred. That beautiful horse judged me, wouldn’t move, didn’t care that the owner was cajoling it to “trot.” It walked maybe four steps and then turned and entered the corral. I’d been dismissed by a horse. This is only to illustrate that I have no particular interest in horses, ponies, donkeys, or any other neighing and braying critter.

Except for when I want attention. Then I want a pony, a parade, cookies, streamers, and crowds of people cheering. Recently, after five years of treatment for a jaw situation, I had run the last lap of orthodontia and went to my getting-the-braces-off appointment. After the doctor, who I adore by the way, removed the last bracket and buffed my teeth to opalescent, coffee-stained goodness, I looked at my slimy teeth and grinned. I had made it through this odd and tangled adventure of pain and procedure, therapy, and finally, braces. I hugged everyone in the office, which surprised one of the staff members because I hadn’t met him before. I really didn’t care; I was celebrating freedom, the ability to eat nachos, peanuts, and even a – hands on heart – Snickers bar. Wow. Goodness. I had to sit and think about the choices.

I texted friends and family that my teeth were unshackled, sang songs the whole way home, and entered the house rejoicing. You can predict this: it didn’t matter to anyone. Not my husband, who has had to kiss me with all my appliances over these years; and certainly not my son, who didn’t care what my mouth looked like. I posted a quick text on my social media, and was congratulated with happiness and celebration. But where was my pony? I could now chew, yawn, and grin without reflecting light, so there should be some sort of festival in my honor, right?

Wrong. The world did not know how much it hurt to chew because I never said anything. No one much cared that I looked a little funky; they’d comment, and then move on with the course of their day. I remain grateful for this. Occasionally someone would mention what a trooper I was being, but that was also only in passing. After all the treatment, I wanted a super duper trooper poster with a balloon bouquet, even though it would have been silly to receive one.

I type sheepishly now because I know that I was being self-centered. My jaw situation (TMJ for those who like maxilofacial conditions) was remedied. My doctor was amazing, patient, told jokes, and let me talk incessantly about my job and whatever else was on my mind at the time of the appointments. I’m pretty sure if anyone deserves a pony, it’s probably him for having to put up with my threats to shoot at him with the rubber bands of my braces.

Last week my in-laws sent a package to the family because they’re cool like that. In it, they included a card with a note congratulating me on making it through my treatment. I cried. Ponies come in all shapes and sizes, and mine was a quick note. I write this rumination now because I know it’s my turn to give someone else a pony. After all, the whole point of the metaphorical pony is to let someone know you’re thinking of them even if their situation isn’t that big a deal.

We Interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Inspiration

It’s Sunday night, and because I’m supposed to be doing my homework, I’m scrolling through my social media. By now, you know my ability to task avoid could win me a gold medal if it was an Olympic Sport; on this particular Sunday I am outperforming my usual excellence in not doing what I tell myself I’m supposed to. I begin watching a sweet video about people giving advice to their younger selves; I had just begun the inspired rapid eye blinking that signifies a heartfelt “Awwwwww” is about to escape, when my husband interrupts me with the dulcet tones of, “Whatareyoudoingwhat’sfordinner?” He says this as if it’s one word, so read it that way.

We pursue our inspiration differently, my husband and I. His is more along the lines of finishing a project and finding satisfaction in a job well done. Mine comes from looking around, taking stock, celebrating the moment, and sharing that with others, usually the family. Sometimes that blends, sometimes it doesn’t. Sunday night, for example, he has taken a break from his newest project related to restoring an antique Ford pickup truck (forest green, 1963 F150 for those of you who speak Car and Truck). He’s inspired, gratified, motivated, and quiet obviously, hungry.

If I were a subservient wife, I would stop watching my video clip and hunt/gather/prepare dinner. I am not such a person. Make of this what you will. I finished watching the clip, and then called husband and son to help me with dinner. What we lack in culinary prowess, we more than make up for in ability to transform a humble meal into a social occasion. We eat in the dining room this Sunday evening, largely because my homework occupies my kitchen table. We don’t’ light the candles, but we sit and visit, laugh and tease, have a serious discussion about adulthood, and a lighter one about my unfinished sewing projects.

We clean up the table together and retreat to our own caves: Husband into the garage, though he welcomes us all to join and grab a wrench; Son to his room to listen to his newest music find (Salsa? Calypso? I can’t quite tell which); me to my homework to wrestle with the twin desires of completing work ahead of time and the equally provocative notion of finishing the book I’ve been reading.

I finish the homework, smug and self-satisfied for completing it early, and then grin when I realize what I would have contributed to the video of what I’d tell my younger self.

“Hey! Son!” I holler over the salsa/calypso/happy music playing in his room.

“What?”

“I love you, and I think you’re really great!”

He doesn’t respond because that’s not his way, but his happy chuckle is better music than the tune on the radio.

“Hey! Husband! I love you!” I call over his swearing at the truck’s reluctance to part with some mechanism or other.

His grimy, smiling face pops out from under the truck. “Love you too. Will you pass me that wrench?”

Task accomplished, I am now ready for my turn on the video. My advice to my younger self: don’t miss a chance to tell people you love them.

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