Category Archives: Joy

Theodore Roosevelt and MacGyver

Theodore Roosevelt has been my inspiration this month.  I have been frustratingly limited by new health issues since October, which has provided ample time for reading.  In Doris Kearns Goodwin’s new biography of Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft I found this gem:

“If you are cast on a desert island with only a screwdriver, a hatchet, and a chisel to make a boat with, why, go make the best one you can. It would be better if you had a saw, but you haven’t.”*

Teddy Roosevelt said this was one of the most important lessons he learned during his years serving in the New York Assembly.  When first elected, he wanted to work only with men like himself and considered everyone from a lower social station boorish, illiterate, and repulsive.  After a series of legislative debacles, he adapted, learning to work with people of all stripes and circumstances with whom he found common purpose.  Politics is not the art of the perfect but of the possible.

So is life.  We take what we have and with it make something better, needful, or beautiful.  In our work and personal life, we are like Teddy Roosevelt at the turn of the 20th century. If you’re a T.V. buff you might say we are like MacGyver, the good-looking guy who solves crime, saves the innocent, and escapes danger with stuff like twine, an emery board and a light bulb. In less than ideal circumstances McGuyver solves every problem in fewer than 60 minutes.

Part of the joy of life is to look at what is and see what can be.  I know it’s hard and frustrating, and sometimes downright depressing.  We can wish for more money, “better” colleagues, a less frustrating boss, more time, better health, a less dysfunctional family, or the presence of  loved ones who have died.  It would be better if we had a saw, but we don’t.  So we build the best boat we can with what we have.

That’s an outlook worth celebrating and the basis of a life worth living.

Every one of us can be a Teddy Roosevelt or MacGyver.  The basic question is whether we want to stay on the desert island or not.  If we want to get on the water, we set aside our frustration, negativity, paralysis, and limited thinking.  We look in new ways at what we have to work with. Remember, boats don’t have to be perfect or match our original plans to be sea worthy. You may not have every tool you want, but go ahead and make the best boat you can.

*The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Simon & Schuster, 2013, p.85.
**Photo by Lori Waselchuk for the New York Times

Do You Dance in The Rain?

“Those who think sunshine brings happiness have never danced in the rain.” That anonymous quote takes me back to my childhood in Ohio.  In bright rain slicker and rubber boots I used to skip and splash along my quiet street when it rained.  I jumped in puddles to see how deep they were.  I stuck out my tongue to catch raindrops and twirled with arms spread wide.  I sang and danced in delight as water dripped from my sleeves.

When I was a child, it sometimes rained for weeks in a row and, more than once, my friends and I counted to see if we would reach the biblical 40 days and nights of Noah’s time.  If we waited for sunny days to be happy, we would have had miserable childhoods instead of the happy ones I remember.

I doubt that I have intentionally splashed in rain puddles since my own children were young.  If I step in one now, I am more likely to curse than sing out in joy.  In Southern California where I live, rain is a rarity.  If sunshine brought happiness, everyone who lives here would be perpetually joyful.

In both cases, rain or shine, happiness springs from inside, not from external conditions.  Circumstances make life easier or harder, and some situations are so difficult that any scraps of joy are small indeed.  Nevertheless, happiness and joy depend on us, whether or not rain is falling from grey clouds overhead.  We are open happiness and joy, or we are not.  We cultivate them in our life or we don’t.

Even knowing this, I have slipped at times into the belief that I will be happy when I have a new boss or a new job, when I lose weight or have more money, when all my debt is gone, when the turkeys in my life become eagles, when I win the lottery, or when I am healthy.  The longer I spend in this unproductive thinking, the more negative I feel and the worse my life appears.

Certainly joy is easier with a good boss and enough food, shelter, money, and health to meet basic needs, but these don’t create happiness.  Joy is a state of mind we create and consciously nurture that makes it possible to sing in the rain and splash in mud puddles.

I began this post one morning while my husband was on a short hike with our dogs.  I stopped writing when he came home with the news that one of our dogs had rolled in human excrement on the trail and needed a bath before she could come in the house. As we ate breakfast and I tried not to think about the disgusting task ahead of me, the kitchen sink started gurgling.  It needed a plumber.

Before tackling the dog or calling the plumber, I sat down to write again…but couldn’t.  I couldn’t write honestly about being happy when life was raining you-know-what.  I was so unhappy right then that the hard part of walking my talk couldn’t have been clearer.  If I wrote about dancing in the rain, then I would somehow dance, even on that day.  I stepped away from my desk and walked down the street to inhale into my soul the beauty of our local mountains.  I hung pictures on a bare wall in my office after two years of procrastinating. I started singing and wrote a little more.

I hadn’t planned to wash the dogs that day, but oh, well.  They got clean and fluffy a few days earlier than expected.  I realized that if the plumber cleared the kitchen drain now, it was likely to stay open through the holidays and I could cross it off my Worry List.

Since then, I have had plenty more occasions to practice dancing in the rain as my health put my energy in the gutter this week and kept me from writing.  All things considered, however, I’ve done a lot of dancing in the midst of it.

Maybe I will buy a pair of brightly colored rain boots at DSW, put some plants in them and set them by a window as a reminder to myself that one doesn’t need sunshine to be happy.

Come rain, sun, or snow, it’s up to you and me to keep dancing.

*Photo by Mark Smutny

The Benefit of Imperfection

Herbie Hancock, one of the all-time great jazz musicians, remembers when he played a wrong chord on the piano while performing with Miles Davis in Paris years ago.  Hancock was horrified by his mistake but “Davis didn’t hear the chord as wrong.   He heard it as something new and went with it.  There was no negative judgment,” said Hancock in an interview on National Public Radio.

Last December, I experienced similar newness birthed in imperfection when I was too ill to decorate for the holidays and a friend offered to decorate for me. The only opening in her schedule, however, was a time when I wouldn’t be home.  “No problem,” she said.  “Tell me where your decorations are stored and the house will be finished by the time you get back.”

That evening I stepped into a home that radiated hospitality and Christmas welcome, my home.  Since my friend didn’t know where each angel and bit of greenery traditionally went, she had put them wherever she wanted.  I no longer felt badly about not being well enough to decorate my own home.  My “imperfection” let in the light of newness from a good friend.  How could one ask for a better gift?

Perfection certainly has an important place in life–when building the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, making a souffle, or developing a website for the Affordable Care Act, to name a few examples.

On the other hand, if we try for perfection in every part of life and beat ourselves or others up for not achieving it, our drive for perfection causes damage.  It constrains us and strains our relationships.  It fills backpacks with impossible expectations, and our lives with unnecessary judgment and stress.

One of the unexpected gifts of my life having turned upside down a few years ago is that I am constantly invited (or should I say, challenged) to accept vulnerability and imperfection in myself, and to welcome the grace and newness imperfections make possible. In the words of Canadian composer and singer, Leonard Cohen,

The birds they sang at the break of day
Start again I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what has passed away
or what is yet to be…
Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering,
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.

 From “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen