There is great joy in children. You can see it when they catch snowflakes on their tongues or jump in mud puddles. For a child, joy is found in the everyday but as we grow we begin to push it down. Instead of looking for it in the everyday we begin to think joy comes from what we are, what we do, or what we have. We search for it in the bottom of a bottle or other unhealthy ways, all the while shoving it deeper into the recess of our souls where it becomes shackled to the darkness. I have done all of these things and more. I have focused on what was not rather than on what is, leaving me nothing more than a vessel filled with poison and self-loathing. Becoming a dad shone a glaring light on how shackled my joy had become, and as the boys have grown that light has only become brighter.
I thought that good manners and a stern word was what was important in parenting. These, I surmised, would be what be the lessons my dad would certainly be passing along to me if he were still alive. I was wrong. And in being wrong I missed the most important lesson that he had taught me all my life. The lesson of joy. Dad was one of the few who did not shackle his joy as he grew older. Despite his trials or perhaps because of them, despite the insecurity and worry, Dad was quick to be grateful, and circumstances did not diminish his joy, which he passed along with his laugher and his wonderful hugs. For the first ten years of parenthood, I missed this lesson. Instead, I held fast to all the wrong things and allowed myself to be directed by my moods and circumstances. Worst of all, I’d forgotten how important it was to hug.
Joy was the hardest tenet for me to reach even though it was shackled inside of me. Maybe it took me so long because of my depression or maybe it was because I was afraid to let the authentic me out. I had, after all, grown so comfortable in putting on different masks to suit my emotions, even though putting on those different masks was a driver of my self-loathing. Whatever the reason, I now know that joy does not depend on circumstances but rather, as the The Book Of Joy points out, “Joy is the happiness that does not depend on what happens; it is simply the grateful response to the opportunity that life offers you at this moment.”
All the wealth, social status, and material possessions in the world will not make you joyful. It is something you must find inside yourself in the gratitude of the everyday, no matter what that day brings. For me, I needed to hold fast to the Lord then slow myself down before I could find joy. Maybe for you, it will be the other way around. However you go about it, all it takes is small movements in your daily life to arrive at a monumental shift. I know this because I am slowly walking the path where hope and gratitude converge, and this has allowed me to unshackle the joy I have ignored for so long.
Mantra Part I – Hold Fast Mantra Part II- Slow Yourself Down
It was on the island of Kaua’i that I saw the hand-painted sign on rough dark wood; SLOW YOURSELF DOWN. Those words were a revelation that awoke something deep in my soul.
Until I was forty I had played the what-if game and tried to figure out who I was. I moved through life trying to be the person I thought I should be, I focused on the future not the moment, trying to hurry the clock along because I thought that if I just got this one item or this one place in time, then things would be better. I would be better.
It never worked of course. Even after I realized that I was doing the work God had called me to do, joy was still missing–and I did not find it until I learned to slow myself down.
Compounding the what-ifs and the searching I allowed myself to be pushed and pulled by my emotions, social media, my phone, and the number of commitments I’d take on. We race from one point to another distracted by a constant stream of information. We believe that being over scheduled is a sign of progress when in fact all of the aforementioned are a sign of destruction. An emotional shell game that we can never win, one that pulls our attention from what really matters. Our children notice, our loved ones notice. We neglect the moment because we think that peace, joy, and happiness are just over there and our souls are empty because of it.
We don’t have to turn our lives upside down to slow ourselves down. All we need to do is to be more mindful in the moment. Listen to the birds, the wind, the people you are in conversation with. When we listen instead of just hear, we learn.
When we slow ourselves down we open our eyes, ears, hearts, and minds to the beauty, diversity, and love the world is offering to us, and from this hope, joy, and gratitude grow outward.
In this rural corner of the country, cash is still the Maine way (pun intended) to pay, and we find ourselves counting quarters to cover the entry to Quoddy Head State Park, the nation’s most eastern point. Exact change is recommended as there is only a self-pay-box. The park is wrapped in fog an average of fifty-nine days a year, but today we can see across the channel to the cliffs of a Canadian island and the Bay of Fundy beyond. Maine’s coldest summer temperatures are recorded here and that, combined with the fog and typography of 90-150 foot cliffs, helps to create coastal peat bogs. The scale and beauty here rival that of the pink granite cliffs of Acadia National Park to the south.
Quoddy Head is Passamaquoddy (People of the Dawn) for “fertile and beautiful place.” The lighthouse, which was built in 1808, is still in operation today. Painted with red and white stripes to make it more visible in fog and snow the light itself shines 15-18 miles out to sea and was originally fueled by sperm whale oil.
We stroll down the coastal trail to Green Point, keeping an eye out for various birds and the whales that frequent the area in the summer. On another day, we do see a couple of seals and a pod of dolphins or porpoise just off the beach. After tide pool exploring and a snack, the boys begrudgingly follow us to the peat bog. I tell Erin she should bring a coat to the peat bog. It is an arctic peat bog after all. The land on either side of the trail is covered in a lush layer of dark green moss. It looks like an enchanted land and I tell Luke that this is certainly the habitat of hobbits, elves, and dwarfs. When we read about dwarf trees while walking the boardwalk in the peat bog I say, “See? I told you there were dwarfs here.”
He groans, rolls his eyes and wanders off to look at a carnivorous plant.
Just off the parking lot on the Inland Trail, we find an elf village set among the trees. It is amazing to see what folks have built here, and Noah is fascinated and begins to build a house of his own. We will come back to this spot two more times to create more homes.
Lubec, the easternmost town in the country, is a quaint hardscrabble town that seems shuttered at the moment. The only open restaurant is The Fisherman’s Wharf restaurant, which is perched above an operating wharf. The view encompasses the harbor, Popes Folly Island, and Canada just across the Lubec Narrows. If the border were open, we could take the bridge across for even more exploring. After dinner, we wander down to the wharf where a few men are standing around the back of a dented and rusted pick-up talking while they wait to unload the clams they have dug today. They tell us that with three men it takes about four hours to harvest the four large containers that fill the back of the truck.
Reversing Falls is a 191-arc preserve that allows for views of the largest set of tidal falls on the Maine Coast. The water lulls us into a state of relaxation as we sit on a rock outcropping watching it rush by at nearly fourteen miles an hour. Late in the afternoon, we venture to Hersey Point Preserve–the description sounds promising but the trail is overgrown and dotted with fire ant hills. One section of the beach has Luke and me sinking up to our ankles in mud. We do find a Lion Jellyfish that has washed up onto the beach. It is almost two feet across and feels like jelly.
The Cutler Coast is our destination the following day. My mind has become clouded with the thought of a secluded beach accessed only by a wooden ladder. This drives me to push the family on an epic six-mile slog. We never make it to the ladder beach, but we do see a beach that we cannot reach. It seems to too many people just like us have tried to scramble down the ravine thus causing it to greatly erode. We do reach a beach that is nothing to write home about, and that is saying something for this area of Maine. We conclude that hiking is not our favorite thing to do, and we would have been much happier just turning around after the first mile where we stopped to have lunch on an outcropping a hundred feet above the water that supplied us with a dramatic view of the coast.
Bog Brook Cove Preserve–Moose Cove on the other hand provides more exploring than hiking, it is also far less busy than the Cutler Coast. With a beautiful cobblestone covered beach, rocks to climb on, and tide pools to explore we are in our element. We meet a biology student from Northeastern University who is studying the effect of the invasive Green Crabs on the Welk. The crabs have been on the southern Maine shores for a hundred years but more recently have begun to move north.
“I’m impressed at how easily you move over the slippery seaweed and rocks,” I tell him.
“Oh you’re fine until you’re not,” he says. “Somedays I look like a newborn giraffe.”
The tides our last two days here are nearly three feet below sea level. This gives us two gobsmacked days of exploring the seafloor. We find hundreds of Sea Urchins, the Blood Sea Star, Purple Star, and the Common Star. We find Limpets, Sea vases, a Sea cumber, strange multi-legged worms, and a small minnow type of fish that is incredibly fast and seems to use its front flippers as legs to dig into the mud and disappear. At one point a Lion Jellyfish swims by. We discover Colonial Tunicates, an invasive species but still an amazing and beautiful life form. They look as if someone has spilled orange, purple, and red paint all over the rocks. I reached out to the Gulf of Maine Research Institute for help with the Colonial Tunicates identification and one respondent told me that they are more closely related to vertebrates than they are to the invertebrates that you will find in the same tide pools.
We spend hours exploring the ocean floor–until the tide chases us back to dry land. How blessed we are to have had this experience. If it were not for the pandemic we would have never come to this magnificent corner of the world.
I sauntered for an hour and a half on the beach this morning, down to the cluster of tires, nearly 4’ high, that had been unearthed by the shifting sands of Lake Michigan. I once ran this section of beach, three miles from my in-laws, to the power plant and back. I thought I had to run to stay on an even keel–only to find that I often would end up tipping the other way, becoming hyper focused on running, feeling that when I did not run I was failing. But today I am flabbergasted, and feeling exceptionally good, at the discovery that just walking with no real goal can accomplish the same thing as running. There is also the added bonus of being able to bring my coffee and stop and write or just sit if I am moved to do so. A quote from Ranger Randy Morgenson comes to mind; When you half your pace you double your fun.
I often whistle, but lately I have been humming because my therapist told me it would be calming, something that makes sense since we hum to our children. I love music but whistling and humming are the pinnacle of my musical ability. I have the rhythm of a cod fish, and that is insulting to the cod fish. Regardless, I am feeling so good this morning that I decided to put a little pep in my step. It is more of a stiff bodied herky-jerky two-step shuffle, but it has this amazing effect of unshackling joy I did not know I had and allowing it to bubble to the surface. A huge smile spreads across my face. Even writing about it months later propels the joy back up.
A little farther on I’ve added singing a nonsensical song to go along with my bopping around like a drunken prizefighter. To my surprise I pass a young woman sitting in the dune grass reading. I abruptly stop my singing and two-stepping and say hello. She glances at me with a shocked and puzzled look and then quickly goes back to her book. Right away I begin chiding myself for acting the fool. Singing ridiculous songs while walking along the beach, you really need to act more appropriately. This went on for several minutes before I was able to stop myself with the perfectly logical thought of. Who cares what some random stranger thinks? Besides, all that goofy singing and dancing made me feel incredibly happy. More importantly who makes the rules on how one should act while walking along the beach? I didn’t know it then but this seemingly benign interaction was a small step in the larger part of my healing and taking back the lead of the tango I have with depression.
I don’t need to be on vacation or walking on a beach to put a pep in my step. In fact, I got up and did a little jig while writing this. This world could benefit from halving its speed and putting a bit of pep in its step. The next time you’re waiting in line at the pharmacy or grocery store, do a little shuffle. When you do you’ll not only unshackle your joy but also the joy of those around you.