Rolling With Joy

When Missy gets hold of a pair of dice, watch out. Magic is likely to happen. 

“YEAH!!” 

Missy’s developmental disabilities make it difficult for her to take part in a lot of games. But when dice need rolling, cards need drawing or any kind of random factor enters in, she quickly takes the spotlight. Not only does Missy roll with gusto, she typically rolls well – to the point where we’ve sometimes claimed her as our family’s secret weapon at holiday board games. 

It’s given her an impressive winning streak against my wife Heather at Candy Land. 

It helped her trounce all comers – roughly a dozen players or so – in a sprawling Yahtzee battle. 

And yes, it gave her just a little frustration at our last gathering when that famous luck went south for a while, producing 1’s and 2’s on the dice instead of 5’s and 6’s. No one’s perfect, right? 

Even so, I’ve still been tempted to have her pick our lottery numbers. We’ve learned to respect the gift – and more importantly, to appreciate the glee. 

You see, that’s the best part. Missy LOVES being “the roller.” It lets her play on an equal level with everyone else. More than that, it lets her be appreciated, even celebrated at times. 

For her, it’s a pathway to joy. 

And she’s far from the only one. 

I don’t want to throw the word around casually. I’m not  just referring to a brief burst of happiness, though that’s often a side effect. Joy is tougher than that, something that sustains you even when the circumstances don’t. If “hope” is the willingness to work toward a positive outcome that you desire but can’t yet see, then “joy” is the fuel for the fire that keeps you moving, letting you hold each moment close for what it is.

That’s not an easy thing. Especially these days. 

Many of us are tired. Many of us have losses. And when everything in the season starts shouting at us to “Celebrate! Celebrate!”, sometimes it just piles more on. We feel out of place … if we have the energy left to feel anything at all. 

But when we find a place – not the one the world wants to give us, but one that’s truly our own – something opens up.

When we can share appreciation for another – however simple and small it may seem – that something spreads.

Remember the Charlie Brown Christmas tree? Bedraggled, overlooked, but able to flourish with some support and love. Not unlike Charlie Brown himself, for that matter: mocked in the role that others tried to give him, but triumphant despite himself when he put it aside to reach out to something neglected.

We all have light to share. Not “jobs to do,” with the grinding sense of obligation that can imply, but a little spark that’s part of who and what we are. Maybe it’s just a glimmer, barely visible to anyone else.

But if you put enough glimmers together, they become a chandelier.

That’s what joy can be.

That’s what we can be.

May we all share in that gift, this season and beyond, with a joy that not only sustains but welcomes. May it become second nature, but never taken for granted.

Magic happening? Why not?

After all, this is how we roll.

A Break in the Action

Gil leaps into discovery like only an 8-year-old boy can. All the fields lie open –  space, sports, cryptography, music – and he eagerly throws open the door to each new passion, exciting him and his parents alike.

Now my nephew is learning something new. Namely, the breaking point of a human wrist after falling from a moving scooter.

Yeah. Ow.

So, Gil’s left arm now sports a bright red cast. It’s a minor bump on the road of a grade-school summer. After all, it’s hard to play tennis or piano with one hand down. But there’s still robotics, camping, clubs, a steady flow of books … just about everything that doesn’t involve experimenting with how to pop a wheelie. (Ahem.)

This IS the injured kid, right?

Cast or no cast, Gil’s still moving. It’s what he does.

But then, whatever the shocks, life keeps moving. It’s what it does.

Sometimes whether we’re ready for it or not.

***

You know what I mean. We’ve all been there. The broken places. The moments where life throws up a big stop sign for a moment and says “THIS. THIS is what you will be paying attention to.”

Sometimes we’re lucky. We get the temporary hurts: the broken foot that heals, the smashed-up car that’s insured, the explosive argument that eventually slips into the past.

Sometimes … not so much.

Sometimes it’s a tragedy, whether personal or national, that leaves a hole in the heart that will not go away.

Sometimes it’s the painful calls of your own mind and body, the illnesses that don’t heal, the weights on the soul that just hang.

Sometimes it’s a break in the road. A realization that life is going to be different from this particular point forward, and there’s no way to turn around  and get the old journey back.

Time moves differently in the broken places, or it seems to. Outside, the world flashes past at high speed. But closer in, things just … stop. Time has been condensed into one event that must be lived, one tale that must be told. Sometimes repeatedly.

I’ve mentioned before how offensive it is to tell someone to “move on” after a loss of any kind, how you don’t just discard grief or pain or emptiness like a worn-out T-shirt. But there’s another side to it, too.

Namely, that you don’t have to feel guilty for being happy.

We’re good at that, you know. We find ourselves re-entering time and letting ourselves forget for a moment – to laugh, to enjoy, to marvel – and then feel bad because we know the cause of the hurt hasn’t gone away. As though we’re betraying a memory, or getting distracted from a crucial issue that needs our focus.

I’ll say it simply. It’s OK.

It’s OK to not think about hurting all the time.

It’s OK to enjoy things again.

It’s OK to  let other things into your life.

You’re not doing anything wrong.

Yes, we all need time apart. We all need time to heal. We all need to acknowledge the hurts, however that has to happen.

But it’s OK to look out from there if you feel like it. To see. To do. To live. To let light shine on the broken places.

As a friend observed, that’s how you make mosaics.

***

Gil’s cast will be off before we know it. Soon, he’ll be more unstoppable than ever, full-speed ahead, charging into all that life has to offer.

But then, his motion never really stopped. It just changed direction for a while. That’s a useful thing to remember.

Along with being really, really careful about those wheelies.

The Saving Power of Silly

I’ve seen Missy the Charmer, Missy the Artist, even Missy the Ninja. But once in a while, our amazing lady decides to be Missy the Rebel instead.

Toothbrushes are firmly handed back, or dropped in the sink. “No.”

A sit-down strike begins at bedtime. “Don’t wan’.”

A storm begins on waking up, where every little thing seems to be wrong. “Noo!”

Sometimes it takes reason. Sometimes it takes time. Most of the time it’s challenging. When a disabled adult isn’t happy about something, but has trouble forming the words to say why, it often leaves you to go on guess, or inference, or memory.

Thankfully, on the stormiest days, I’ve got an ace in the hole. You see, I’m not just Scott the Writer, Scott the Guardian, or even Scott the Amateur Actor.

I’m also, when I need to be, Scott the Irritatingly Silly.

“Hi.”

Missy turns away, shaking her head.

“Hiiiii.” (Little kid voice)

Missy’s face scrunches, one hand making the “go away” gesture.

“Hiii.” (Gollum voice)

More waves, but now she’s fighting a smile.

“Hiii.” (Monster voice.)

The smile wins, turns into giggles.

“Isn’t he awful?” my wife Heather says from behind me, smiling herself. The impressions keep coming, Mel Blanc with twice the energy and half the talent, until all of us are laughing helplessly – Missy included.

What can I say? Silly works.

I’m not always sure why.  But I know it’s true of more than just Missy. Sometimes, at my own moments of low ebb and lower motivation, all it takes is a bit of the ridiculous to get my balance back. One recent round of the blues was shattered beyond repair by a long exchange of jokes about turning The Lord of the Rings into social media “click-bait.” (“Nine People Who Decided They Could Just Walk Into Mordor, And The Surprising Results!”)

OK, I’m a geek. But you get the idea.

Mind you, I wouldn’t try this at a funeral or to someone with chronic depression. But sometimes we just get ourselves on a feedback loop. Annoyance leads to annoyance, frustration to frustration, and each new irritant is harder to get rid of because we haven’t unloaded all the old ones yet. You know you’re grinding yourself down, but you’re not quite sure how to stop – sort of like being a Rockies fan in mid-July.

At a moment like that, it’s not always a bad thing to throw a wrench into the gears.

And silly makes a great wrench.

It interrupts the cycle. It reaches past the wall of thoughts and tweaks the instincts, for an immediate reaction. It turns the world upside down for a second, and gives you a new, more ridiculous angle.

It gives you permission to laugh. No, that’s not quite right. It surprises you into a laugh, and takes permission for granted.

Done right, that surprise moment of feeling good can start a new feedback cycle. One that leads in a better direction.

Maybe it’s appropriate that I’m thinking of this at Super Bowl season. After all, what could be sillier than watching a few dozen men in bright orange juggling a football? But for many, it reaches to the emotions in a different way, pushing aside other concerns in a burst of sheer exhilaration.

Instead of brooding on the past, or chewing on the future, you’re in the moment. And the moment doesn’t seem so bad.

Does it really work? Ask Missy sometime if you like.

Make sure to say hi.

Tree Cheers

Tree Cheers

 

Missy loves to help. We love to let her. But we’ve learned she can get a bit – er, enthusiastic.

Give her a cloth and spray, and she will gladly clean a mirror. And clean it, and clean it, and clean it, until the glass retains a 50 percent Windex content.

Leave her in the vicinity of her sneakers and she will lace them up. Elaborately. To the point where two laces emerge from the same hole in a wonderful Gordian knot after a long, winding trip up the shoe … which, in turn, may be jammed firmly on the wrong foot.

All of which explains why our Christmas tree is a bit crowded this year.

I had been out on my usual Tuesday night jaunt, covering the Longmont City Council for the paper. (Before you groan, remember that city government is a lot like watching a soap opera: initial confusion followed by almost addictive interest once you learn the characters and storylines.) With a quiet night ahead, my wife Heather decided it was a good time to put up ornaments – well, minus one that I dropped on the basement floor earlier and that we didn’t really need anyway, right?

Missy, our developmentally disabled ward, took to it with a will. And with a LOT of ornaments. Three, four, even five ornaments could be found hanging from a single branch. Candy canes collided with landscapes as teddy bears jostled with Christmas mice; the tree-topper angel, safely above the fray, had to be wondering if her perch was being turned into a high-rise.

“She was having fun,” Heather said later with a smile. “As long as she was enjoying herself and the branch wasn’t going to break, I thought ‘Go ahead.’”

Not a bad rule of thumb. And for more than just trees.

At this time of year, a lot of people write about “Simplifying Christmas.” I’ve done it a couple of times myself. It’s an easy target, after all, with the peace and joy at the heart of the season often crowded out by crowded parking lots, frantic Santa-themed ads and the musical Chinese water torture session otherwise known as “The Little Drummer Boy.” A space to step back and reflect seems welcome, even essential.

So far, so good.

But at the same time,I don’t want to build the monastery walls, either.

I like Christmas lights, even when they reach levels of glorious excess. (Maybe especially then; they make better stories.) I like wall-to-wall holiday music, both sacred and secular. I have friends who are energized rather than stressed when they “deck the malls” to hunt out presents for family, moving down the list like Peyton Manning driving for the end zone.

It’s noisy. It’s chaotic. And – forgive me, Linus – for some of us, it’s darned fun.

And that’s part of the holiday, too.

It’s no sin to enjoy the time of year. After all, this is a time of transformation: lights rending darkness; snow making familiar landscapes into something new; calls going out to not just exist, but to look neighbor-to-neighbor and live. Anyone who can stand unmoved by all of that is a stolid soul, indeed.

But remember the Missy Rule. Are you enjoying yourself? And is the branch breaking?

Both sides are important. When actions are done out of grudging obligation rather than honest delight, it can turn even the most joyful season into a miserable slog. When the buzz and activity no longer enhances the important things, but crowds them out, then it’s time to hold off and listen for cracking bark.

But if the stress isn’t building to dangerous levels, if it’s still a joy and not a chore, if peace and family and so many other good things are still in sight and close at hand – well, have at it. Tear into the season like a 3-year-old into wrapping paper and don’t look back.

Do look up, though.

After all, that Christmas mouse above you can only hold on for so long.

How the Worst was Won

Thank you, Forbes. It’s always fun to start the day by being told your job stinks.

For those who missed it, Forbes just put out its annual list of the worst jobs in America. You know the sort I mean: the jobs with either low pay, or high stress, or no future, or a work environment that goes beyond the challenging.

Jobs like the infantry, where people, you know, shoot at you from time to time.

Or working on an oil rig, where the hours are long and family often distant.

But the job that rated the worst of all – below the chancy life of an actor, the injury risk of a lumberjack or a roofer, or the downsizings of the post office – was newspaper reporter.

Really?

Seriously?

There must be some mistake. I mean, sure, the pay is nothing to write home about. Sure, there’s enough long hours and deadline pressure to make coffee a viable tax write-off. And yeah, a lot of papers have been closing down, laying off, or thinning out. But still, that’s no reason to ….

Hmmm.

I hate to admit it, but they may have a point.

From a coldly clinical point of view, this is not the line of work that every parent dreams their child will someday pursue. Doctor? Sure. Lawyer? Why not? Teacher? Of course. Ink-stained wretch? Keep the room furnished, they may be moving back into it soon.

It’s folly. It’s absurd. It’s crazy. It’s ridiculous.

And I wouldn’t do anything else in the world.

I’ve wanted to be a reporter since the eighth grade, ever since the day in Ms. Shopland’s Spanish class where I couldn’t find the word “author” in my glossary for an exercise, but could find “journalist.” And despite every pothole I’ve mentioned above – and quite a few I haven’t! — I’ve never seriously regretted the choice.

To be a reporter is to be a storyteller, with the chance to meet intriguing people and relate interesting situations.

To be a reporter is to be a translator, making the complexities of a government, or a process, or a problem understandable to the average person.

To be a reporter is to be part of a heritage, measured out in crinkled headlines. It means being part of a profession so necessary, it’s cited in the Constitution; or being the first one to hear what’s happened; or seeing people at their best and worst, and remembering that they too are humans with a story worth telling.

It means diving into the pool of words, immersing yourself in the beauties of English. Even if it means arguing endlessly with an editor over using“cement” or “concrete” in a sentence.

And for me, it means doing what I love.

And really, that’s the important part, isn’t it?

We’ve all taken jobs because we had to. Life goes on, and it demands food on the table and a roof over the head. But to do what you love, to do a job you know you can do well and delight in the doing of – that is heaven and earth with a fistful of rainbow sprinkles on top.

It may even keep you alive and alert, as well as happy. There’s been more than one study out there showing that high job satisfaction is good for your body and good for your mind. And really, it’s just more fun to be around someone who enjoys what they do. Even if it’s not the glamorous or “practical” choice.

The science fiction author Spider Robinson once wrote about coming to a crossroads in his life: should he take the plunge and try to write full-time, or chuck it in and concentrate on his less enjoyable but more secure day job? His editor at the time, Ben Bova, gave it a week of thought before finally telling him “Spider, no one can pay you enough money to do what you don’t want to do.”

Words of wisdom.

Oh, the job that Spider walked away from?

Newspaper reporter.