Re-integrating joy

16 comments on Re-integrating joy
7 minutes

As I remember my father, who died last month, I want to rerun this story I first published here in April, 2007.

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. The few memories I have of my first three years seem to support his perception. Here are all of them:

First, I watched on TV as Apollo 11 landed on the moon. I don’t remember the landing, but I do remember that it was sponsored by Gulf Oil with its big red-circle logo and its name within. Mom says that at every commercial break, I pointed at the screen and exclaimed, “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. The radio played softly, always on the Hit Parade station, while Dad dressed for work. 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.

James Monroe School

My next memories, much more vivid and detailed, are of Kindergarten. 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.

At the other end of the room was a wide fireplace, and before it a red circle laid into the tile floor. The whole class sat on the circle when Mrs. Coles read to us or we showed our toys at show and tell. We also laid mats down there when we napped. The teacher’s desk was by the fireplace; behind it was a nook chock full of toys including a child-sized kitchen and a big gray wooden box with an old Ford steering wheel and column sticking out of it. Mrs. Coles 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 Mrs. Coles 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 lost. When my first report card came, the teacher had remarked in it, “Jimmy should smile more. He’s so serious.”

I’m not sure what changed in me. Maybe I wasn’t quite emotionally ready for school. Perhaps something about my upbringing squashed my natural joy. Perhaps I was just depressed. Who knows; I can’t reach those memories.

PICT0610 sm

A clue came when I was 16. I spent 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. 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 intensively, and traveled around Germany. I walked 539 steps to the top of the Cologne Cathedral. I drank beer in a little pub in Düsseldorf 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. Then as now, the idea makes me want to gag. But as I’ve worked over the years to improve myself, 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.


16 responses to “Re-integrating joy”

  1. J P Cavanaugh Avatar

    I was not among your readers when this first ran so I am glad you chose to run it again. I suspect that life begins beating most of us up from a fairly young age, some more than others.

    I am always amazed at how strong and vivid early memories are and how they bring with them the feelings that were associated with them at the time.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      So many things are new when we were small. It was easy for those memories to imprint. But yes, some of those memories will always include the ways in which life wasn’t kind to us.

  2. Sam Avatar

    This reminded me of my own struggles in school it wasn’t always fun. Thanks for sharing this!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Sorry to connect you with some unpleasant memories today!

  3. Jim Grey Avatar

    Oh, by the way, since I originally wrote this I got to tour my old elementary school, which was completely renovated. My old Kindergarten room now houses first graders. The tile floor is covered with carpet so you can’t see that red ring on the floor, but the fireplace is still there.

  4. Dani Avatar

    This post resonated with me. Both Ben and I were happy children before becoming students. And as for Germany, those 10 days I experienced last year were the most joyful days I have felt for quite some time. For a short time, I was me again.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      What I want to know is how to hold onto that me-ness without having to be on perpetual vacation. Life can be hard. We sometimes do have to just soldier through. But under normal life circumstances how can we keep more of who we are at our core?

      1. Heide Avatar

        I wish I could be more of my “vacation self” under normal life circumstances too. Maybe it starts with not putting so much pressure on ourselves, and being just a tiny bit less diligent? If you figure this one out please let me know, Jim.

  5. DougD Avatar

    I too never read this one before, thanks for re-running it.
    I remember the moon landing, but only because I remember my mom telling us we had to watch this because it’s important. Don’t remember actually watching it :)

    I have somewhat the opposite problem with joyful Doug. Every report card, every annual review at work is along the lines of “If Douglas would settle down and apply himself he would be less distracted and be a much better _________”. I would have saved myself a lot of time just bringing my Grade 1 report card everywhere and saying “Yeah, I know, read this”

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I think I apply myself a little too much sometimes!

  6. tajmahalentertainment Avatar

    thankyou so much for share your seeing , feeling and exploring the past memories that refress the old memories that is very difficult……..awesome

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thank you!

  7. Lynd Avatar

    Jim, thank you for sharing your thoughts…. in some way I feel very envious that you are able to go that “deep” So please…. the next time the glass feels half full, look back at this posting and raise your head up high eh….. I know for sure that I couldn’t put together a detailed inspiring honest post like this…. I doff my cap to you sir….
    Thank you …
    BR Lynd

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I am deep to a fault! But I’m gratified that you appreciated this story and what went into writing it. Thank you!

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