Joy Hovers

A hummingbird has been trying to tell me something this week. He hovered outside my window for a few seconds one day, expending probably hundreds of his precious heartbeats to make sure I’d notice, then zoomed away only to return several times during the morning for a repeat performance.

According to a book I once read on Native American understanding of animals, hummingbirds bring joy and the nectar of life. The first day, I went outside to see if something remarkably joyful might bump into me. A tree had opened up the first of its delicate white blossoms, but that didn’t quite seem to be it. I stood under the tree waiting for a long-lost friend to happen along, but nothing happened.

The next day I was still trying to figure it out—I had a blog to write after all—but I wasn’t making much progress. Then he came back and hung out so close to the window it looked as if he could tap his beak on the glass.

I confess I wasn’t doing a great job of practicing joy on these days. Most of my practice consisted of self-imposed stress and feelings of inadequacy. Not everything that happens in this life is joyful. There’s more than enough pain and grief to go around. But I know there are plenty of opportunities for joy that I don’t take, that it’s not regularly my baseline approach to the day.

As I was driving home that second day, it occurred to me that perhaps there’s nothing to figure out. Joy is there waiting for us and all we have to do is open the window.

Let’s Play!

The answer to the world’s problems might be a good game of tag.

Everyone who walks into my office comments on how good the view is. It takes in our shiny new science building, the nearby volcanic peak, and a range of hills farther off. Earlier this week, all that was eclipsed by between fifty and a hundred grade school kids running around on the lawn outside the building, playing tag and laughing.

It looked like so much fun just to chase someone. College students don’t do that, and neither do university employees. Which I think is mostly too bad because joy was spilling off those kids. (OK, a friend and I chased each other down a hallway in the new building before it opened, and it was awesome.)

I think that would be one of the great gifts of parenthood—the excuse and the opportunity your child gives you to play and be silly. I don’t think we stop needing to do this as we get older, but sometimes we forget we need it.

Play renews us. It loosens our hearts and spirits and helps us take everything a little less seriously. There are plenty of serious things in this world—disease, the loss of a job—but there are many more things that we blow out of proportion. I suspect that many of my catastrophes would melt away after chasing someone around the yard, having a tickling match, or jumping on the trampoline.

It’s so easy to forget the importance of having fun, and I am grateful to those giggling kids for reminding me that running can be much more than exercise, that life is more fun when we’re not worrying about who’s watching, and that joy is as easy to find as a game of tag.

Losing the Edge

The edges of my life are fraying. I like edges. They look clean and crisp and clearly mark where one thing ends and the next begins. I never was a color outside the lines kid and didn’t appreciate it when others played fast and loose with the boundaries in my coloring book.

But life apparently prefers watercolors and things are bleeding into each other at an alarming rate. By things I mean work and life because clearly work isn’t life; it’s some alternate universe we enter at eight and leave at five. Through the door in the toadstool after eating the mysterious cake.

The idea that a little less than 5/7 of my time doesn’t count as my life is a little absurd to begin with. It’s even stranger if you consider that people from work become good friends and are invited into the other realm. And of course no membrane prevents work experiences from infiltrating the way I think about the world or vice versa. To switch metaphors, the peas got mixed up with the mashed potatoes long before now.

Yet I’ve always considered work as other, probably because then it can be contained in a neat, little package and dropped at the side of the road when my real life comes along. If work doesn’t count, then I haven’t, for example, irrevocably not published a book because I’m not truly committed to anything else.

Maintaining this level of self-delusion requires serious talent. Let’s examine some evidence. If the amount of time I spend thinking about work while cooking dinner or taking a shower is any indication, I do value my work, thank goodness. Who wants to spend all that time doing something that feels like a waste? And believing that holding work as unimportant will help me accomplish other goals is like training for a marathon by not swimming.

It’s scary, though. If I give work official life status, what’s to keep it from smearing purple crayon all over the coloring book? This concern is probably as relevant to my life as the fear that I may become a couch potato, which, when discussed with a friend, elicited the response, “As if.”

What Grit Will Get You

I learned from a friend this morning that new Marines take three tests: intelligence, fitness, and grit. The greatest indicator of success is a recruit’s score on the grit test. (Caveat: I didn’t check this fact for the Marines, but I did find this article in The New York Times that says something similar about West Point cadets and college students.)

A few days earlier I had re-watched Little Miss Sunshine, one of my favorite movies, whose moral could be summed up as: things may not work out as you hoped even if you score 5 out of 5 on the grit test. (Spoiler alert: if you haven’t watched the movie and don’t want to know what happens, stop reading now.)

A thousand pushups won’t help colorblind Dwayne become a pilot in the Air Force. Frank has forever lost the pinnacle of Proust scholarship, and Olive will certainly never wear the Little Miss Sunshine crown.

But the movie is very much about how grit matters despite all that. From the eternal pushing of the clutch-less VW bus to stealing grandpa’s body from the hospital, this family epitomizes the refusal to give up.

Not the refusal to fail. They do nothing but fail, as measured by society’s standards and their own goals, in the entire movie. But they never give up.

Olive doesn’t win the pageant; Richard doesn’t get the book deal; and Frank doesn’t get the boy. I think life is like that sometimes: grit doesn’t necessarily get you what you’re aiming for, but it might get you something better.

What’s better than winning life’s many beauty pageants? Dancing to “Superfreak” on stage surrounded by those who love you.

Note: My friend Anne Ford will be guest blogging while I’m on vacation for the next two weeks. Anne is the author of Peaceful Places Chicago and is wonderful and funny and by the end of two weeks you will wish she had her own blog.

Creeping Contentment

Last Saturday I had a few moments of not wanting my life to be any different. And even worse, I was not at all scared of this clearly unreasonable contentment.

You might be saying to yourself, but why is this unreasonable? Your life is pretty darn good. Yes, actually, it is, but popular thought in my brain holds that if you say that above a whisper, the complacency monster will jump out and gobble you up.

Though a few weeks back I proposed observing my life to see whether anything was truly running amuck, I didn’t really intend to do that for more than a couple of days. Any longer and this whole acceptance thing could get way out of hand.

Then obligation and discipline both took a long vacation. Two people I told about this said, “Oh, it’s summer,” dismissing any need for continuous improvement for at least another month.

So I floated around for a couple of weeks, not trying to increase my holiness quotient, reduce my impact on the environment, clean, or win a Nobel Prize. In other words doing what I usually do but with much less guilt.

Come Saturday I had succumbed to such an extent that I thought, wow, I like this. Even my usual “you will become an eternal couch potato of contentment” thoughts seemed inconsequential and possibly unlikely.

Couch potato fear does have reinforcements. The next attack goes something like, but you haven’t achieved everything you said you wanted to and since you are not a) actively pursuing it or b) feeling like you should be actively pursuing it, you are screwed.

I suppose this may be true. It may also be true that enjoying where you are helps you get where you want to be. But don’t tell anyone I said so.

My friend Mary Ann may be dying. It’s hard to tell because she is still so filled with joy (see Just Marvelous).

When my grandmother was dying, I found it difficult to be in her physical presence because the changes in her body so clearly spoke of death. On the way to visit Mary Ann, I worried that I’d have the same reaction.

magnolia treeMary Ann wears a wig, which I had never before seen her without. Her natural hair is short, sparse, and gray. She sat amid multiple afghans in a partially-raised recliner, and her legs had some bruises. I prepared to grit my teeth and be uncomfortable, but then she saw us and lit up.

This astonishing burst of Mary Ann-ness came pouring out of her. She was delighted to see my mom and me even though she may not have known who we were. Even in ill health and loopy on pain meds, she still manifested an incredible optimism and enthusiasm for life.

She almost immediately said, “God is good.” This is not always my favorite phrase, but when uttered not as a saccharin-sweet coating but with all sincerity by a ninety-year-old with a broken pelvis, it’s hard to argue with.

Mary Ann wasn’t slipping away as I’d feared; she was distilled down to the radiant heart of her being. It made me wonder what my essence is, what I would emit in a similar situation.

Shortly after finding out Mary Ann had taken a turn for the worse, while standing in front of a magnolia tree with only two pink blossoms left, I felt this surge of joy, and I thought, if I’m going to send Mary Ann anything, it should be this feeling. She sent it right back.

Stop Thinking So Much

If I had stuffed the ballot box at the Academy Awards, Hugo would have won best picture. It reminded me of all the things that matter: magic, dreams, love, belonging, persistence, hope, purpose, creativity. All in two hours.

I have recently spent a lot of time thinking really hard about complicated stuff. It can be fun. It sometimes makes my brain hurt and hopefully helps someone in some way. But I don’t believe even the clearest thinking will ever cause the type of transformation that happens in Hugo.

A brief synopsis without spoiling the plot: a young boy’s tenacious search for love renews several lives and brings some magic back into the world, the kind of magic that helps us understand why kids need to believe in Santa Claus or convinces us to clap to save Tinkerbell’s life.

It’s difficult to believe in fairies as an adult and even more difficult to admit it. Growing up is a tricky business. Real things like mortgage payments and having enough to eat take a lot of our time and energy. Bigger real things like war and global warming can dwarf stories and imagination, which may then seem so small as to be not real, especially if we rely on logic alone.

The movie works because it takes you out of thinking and into a world where dreams come true if you hold on tightly enough to what is important to you. I think this world is as real as any other, but sometimes it slips our mind because dreams often don’t come true and many people never become what they were meant to be, or at least so it appears.

I forget all the time, like when I arrive at work on Monday morning and realize it is only five weeks until The Visit that follows The Report, or when I have, for the umpteenth time, let taxes, sleep, procrastination impinge on my writing schedule. But our forgetting something doesn’t mean it’s not there.

So go see this movie. Because when you leave the theater or turn off the DVD player, you’ll remember what lifts your heart up, and whatever that is will cause greater change and more joy than all the thinking in the world.