Personal, Stories Told

Re-integrating joy

My dad once told me that I was the most joyful little boy he had ever known. During my first few years, he said, I seemed to constantly have a big beaming smile on my face, and everything seemed to make me happy. Now, I’m sure I didn’t enjoy it when I got in trouble or got a shot. I’ll take his statements to mean, on the balance, he found me to be unusually joyful. The few memories I have of my first three years seem to support his perception. Here are all of them:

Dad and son, 1970.

First, I watched Apollo 11 land on the moon on TV. I don’t actually remember the landing — I remember that it was sponsored by Gulf Oil, with its big red-circle logo and its name in tall letters within. Mom says that at every commercial break, I excitedly pointed at the screen and said, “Gulf!”

Next, I used to get up when Dad’s alarm went off at 5 a.m., go quietly into my parents’ room, and lie still on the corner of their bed in the dark while Dad dressed for work. Dad said I could be there as long as I didn’t wake up Mom. The radio played softly, always on the Hit Parade station. I heard Karen Carpenter sing and when I closed my eyes her voice made me see colors that flowed and shifted with her song. I hoped to hear her song every morning.

Finally, I woke up in the hospital after surgery groggy and angry, but very glad when Dad came to take me home. He picked me up and, as I moved through the air on my way to his chest, my anger faded. I felt secure way up there with my head on his shoulder, looking down at the recovery room. He says that I said to him, “They’re not doing that to me again!”

These memories suggest to me that I took life as it was and easily experienced the feelings that went with it. No wonder I found it easy to feel joy. I felt easily.

My next memories, of Kindergarten, are vivid and detailed. My school looked like a castle in red brick trimmed in white with a slate roof and copper gutters. Room 001 was just inside the east entrance, and although the room had two entrance doors, you had to go in the far door because the near door was always locked. The room had a dim cloakroom with cubbyholes for coats and rubbers, and I’m pretty sure there was a tiny restroom in there with just a sink and a toilet. There were five or six low rectangular tables that held six children each, and the teacher had placed a big wooden block on each one, each block a different color, to identify the groups. We did most things with our color groups. Another part of the room had a tile floor, with an inlaid red circle big enough for the whole class to sit around, where the teacher read to us or we showed our toys at show and tell. We also laid mats down in that part of the room when we napped. Behind the teacher’s desk just off the red circle was a nook chock full of toys including a huge child-sized kitchen and a big gray wooden box with an old Ford steering wheel and column sticking out of it. The teacher was a stout, grandmotherly woman with sliver and white cat’s-eye glasses and white hair. She drove her gray 1968 Chevy Malibu coupe (which had a black vinyl top) one whole block from her home to school every morning, where she parked on the street across from the school’s east entrance. Curiously, she always sat in her car for five minutes fiddling with her purse before coming inside. Clearly, my memory had switched on.

I often felt lonely in that room with 25 kids. I often drove the pretend Ford by myself, in part because I liked cars but also because it was safer not to risk playing with others. The boys pushed and shoved and chased each other and sometimes I got hurt. The girls never caused pain, but I didn’t enjoy always being the husband or the son in their endless games of House. Also, at a time when schools didn’t teach reading until the first grade, I started Kindergarten already able to read. I was proud to be able to read, but the teacher didn’t believe I could. When I read her a page from a book, she seemed annoyed rather than pleased. I was crushed that she wasn’t as happy with my reading as I was. I also have a couple vague memories of her forcing me to write with my right hand, which confused and upset me because I was just as good with my left hand and liked writing with whichever hand felt good.

I faced school as earnestly as I could, but I was not happy. When my first report card came, the teacher had remarked in it, “Jimmy should smile more. He’s so serious.”

What in the hell happened?

Maybe I wasn’t quite emotionally ready for school. Perhaps my parents inadvertently or unintentionally squashed those parts of my personality that they couldn’t handle; psychologists say it happens to many children. Perhaps I was just depressed. Who knows; I can’t reach those memories.

The Wall, 1984

A clue came when I was 16. I was selected to spend a summer in Germany on an Indiana University exchange program where I would deepen my German language skills. Even though my family always lived on a tight budget, my father stunned me by making the funds appear to send me on this trip. After my plane landed, it took me a couple weeks to let my hair down and find my groove, but once I did I had the time of my life. I made some friends, lived with a nice family, studied German language and culture intensely, and traveled around Germany. I walked 539 steps to the top of the Cologne Cathedral. I drank beer in a little pub in Duesseldorf with a crusty but amused barkeep who explained the secret of the beer coaster and why you never turn it over. I got lost in West Berlin with a friend and spent an evening wandering streets to find our way back to the hostel. I touched the Wall and heard the stories of many who died trying to cross from east to west. I toured a prison where Nazi political enemies were hanged. I stood on the ground where Christian writer Thomas a Kempis lived. I took a slow boat down the Rhine River and saw the Lorelei. I swam at a pool where clothing was optional from the waist up for everybody. I drank beer with East German teenagers and found that our differing political ideologies mattered not at all compared to our common desires for girlfriends, cars, and beer. It was heady stuff that produced a natural high, but I also was given the freedom and trust to handle myself over there. It let more of the real me come out — and so joy returned. But when I came home, I experienced more than the natural letdown from such a wonderful trip — I found that the world to which I returned didn’t fit the joyful Jim; instead, it was shaped for the serious Jim. With sadness and resentment, I put joyful Jim away, and then the black curtain fell on my first major depression, which did not lift for months.

20 years or more ago popular psychology started talking about how everybody needs to get in touch with their inner child. I thought, “Oh, gag,” then, and I think, “Oh, gag,” now. But as I’ve worked over the years on my various issues, joyous Jimmy kept appearing and asking for an audience to air his grievances for being put away for more than a quarter century. As I have listened to him, he has slowly been returning to his place within me. My, um, inner child is back! But I also find that the serious Jim isn’t going anywhere. They are both parts of me. Maybe the inner-child crowd really means to say that without being all of who we are, which means bringing back all the parts of us we put away when we were little, we will always struggle to find wholeness, contentment, and peace.


4 thoughts on “Re-integrating joy

  1. Dani says:

    My folks used to say the same about me (being a smiley happy child before going to school) and we’ve said the same about Ben. We used to joke that Ben’s happiness was due to my being on Prozac while pregnant with him. Fortunately, Ben has kind of evened out. I’ve wondered that maybe being a painfully shy only child growing up in the boonies with no nearby neighbor children contributed in part to losing the “happy-go-lucky” personality. Mom has said on more than one occasion that she wishes she had put me in preschool; maybe Kindergarten wouldn’t have been so intimidating. Academically I was a step ahead, socially and emotionally I was a basket case. From that time on, I felt I was different and never really fit in.

  2. I find it really interesting that you say that, Dani. I grew in the city with gobs of other young families — 31 other kids in my neighborhood! — but I didn’t play with them until I reached school age. I might as well have lived in the boonies as much as I got out. My parents knew I wasn’t emotionally ready for school, but I was reading everything they put in front of me so they decided they couldn’t wait. But I was shy and sensitive, and had no way of knowing what the outside world could be like, and therefore no coping mechanisms.

  3. Scott Palmer says:

    (( I heard Karen Carpenter sing … I woke up in the hospital ))

    It’s Madonna who has that effect on me. Karen Carpenter, I like. :-)

    But seriously, I think that life is fundamentally about joy. We find too many ways to deny joy to ourselves — mostly by focusing on this or that bit of unpleasant trivia while ignoring the grand and glorious blessings that God gives to us in every moment. I’m as guilty of that as anyone, but I do try to pause several times a day to remember how good this world is and how good my life is.

    I believe that if God is about anything, He’s about love and joy. I think that He created us in part so that He could share love and joy with us — just as, on our own little scale, we like to share our own good experiences with other people. He wants us to be happy and to get our heads on straight so we can enjoy all the blessings He gives to us: to be “on top of the world, looking down on creation.”

    Alexander Pope said that “Hope springs eternal in the human breast; Man never is, but always to be, blest.” If we choose, we can always find things to make us unhappy. By the same token, however, we can look for things that will make us happy — the things God wants us to notice.

    Btw, I think that I gave you a book by Thomas a Kempis a few years ago. I didn’t realize that you were already familiar with him.

  4. You did give me that book, Scott… and I didn’t realize then that Thomas a Kempis was the same as Thomas von Kempen, as I knew him from my time in Germany. I had not read anything by him until you gave me that book, which affected me like only a few others: Mere Christianity by Lewis, The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence, and The Cost of Discipleship by Bonhoeffer.

    Even today is full of events that make my stomach knot, but that knot loosens when I’m reminded of how bright today really is. I am easily reminded because the serious difficulties I’ve lived through have made me more sensitive to light.

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