Monday, October 3, 2011

Happy All The Time

***I wrote this essay three years ago in grad school. It's funny how quickly things change: blackberry's (who still uses those?), jobs, cities, perspective. Despite the datedness of this piece, it's still a good reminder that I'm not in control of life, but I am in control of how I respond to it.***

Happy All The Time

The best part of my day is coming home. I put my silver key in the lock of apartment number 200 of my Arlington, Virginia condo, and I can already feel the excitement building inside. In fact, if I’m on my blackberry I usually have to hang up for fear of mentally abandoning the person on the other end once I get inside. I step in the front door and I hear a soft shuffle on my bed. With my purse still in hand, I fling open the bedroom door and with wide eyes and a huge smile shout, “Tater!”

Without hesitation, the seven-point-two pounds of apricot fluff leaps from the bed and lunges toward my arms whether I’m ready to catch him or not. My one-and-a-half-year-old toy poodle kisses my freckled face with his thumb-sized slobbering tongue until I laugh so hard I’m forced to set him on the carpet—that just so happens to swallow him up in its matching color tone.

That is our routine—everyday.

Tater Tot is an anomaly. When I walk in, whether I've left five minutes ago or five hours ago, he lights up when he see me. He epitomizes happiness—quick to love, ready to play, and always with a smile plastered across his doggy face. When I think of happiness, I think of Tater.

Why can’t humans express the same unconditional happiness? It’s a question I’ve pondered for years.

Growing up, I lived for Sunday school. Each week I would wake up, pick out my cutest outfit, brush my teeth, comb my hair, grab my Precious Moments first communion bible, and yell at my two brothers to “GET IN THE CAR!” I refused to be late. When we arrived, I would race up the steps of the church atrium and quickly, yet very collectedly, rush my little legs into children’s church. I loved it. Maybe it was the cute boys or the latest gossip from the girls, but I think the real reason stemmed from the desire to be someone else, if only for that hour. In public, no one could see the stress of home.

In the first few minutes of church, we were allowed to greet a few hundred of our closest friends. Then, we would stand up from our chairs while Aunt Peggy, as we not so affectionately called the children’s church emcee, gave directions in a loud, whiney, over-modulated voice through the microphone. Aunt Peggy stood about five-foot-three, weighed in well over two-hundred pounds, and sported a short brown bob. The woman laughed like the Wicked Witch of the West and was rumored to have turned little kids into ice with just a glance. She had three kids of her own, and on Sundays during church she would send them around the building scouring for little children hiding out in the bathrooms or the church kitchen. And if one got caught, he or she might not have made it out alive. She was brutal.

One Sunday, I snuck out to a bathroom with some girlfriends and a big bag of candy fireballs. Scared one of Aunt Peggy’s bounty hunters would find us, we all sat in separate stalls, feet on the toilets, in complete silence sucking on our candy.

Known for her harsh tone, this lady made the room fall silent when she spoke, and when she sang, we had no choice but to join in.

“I’m inright, outright, upright, downright happy all the time,” she would belt out on a tone-deaf note. “I’m inright, outright, upright, downright happy all the time," she sang while clapping off beat. “Since Jesus Christ came in and cleansed my heart from sin, I’m inright, outright, upright, downright happy all the time.”

I sang that song like I really believed it. I had asked Jesus into my heart at just about every summer camp for as long as I could remember. Since I truly loved Jesus and he really lived in my heart, I should be happy—all the time. Maybe that’s why I got so good at saying the sinner’s prayer. Deep down, I wasn’t happy. I was in hell.

Our household was a war zone, and the general of this army had to have been the devil himself. My parents split up before I ever knew they fought, and my father’s departure had a horrible effect on our family. Mom struggled to put food on the table each night, dad cancelled court-appointed weekends on a weekly basis, and my youngest brother, Chris, was in and out of the mental hospital for a bipolar imbalance. Hostility brewed in our home, and I could feel the heat of the battle each time I walked in the door.

It’s interesting to look back and think that that was my life. Here I am, now grown and living the life I had only imagined in daydreams as a child. I’ve traveled the world and have achieved every career goal years faster than I thought I would. I am comfortable and have all that I need. Like my dad’s favorite t-shirt reads, life is good.

Good doesn’t always equal happy though. Life is messy and painful and real. It’s not humanly possible to be happy all the time. Even the apostle Paul spent time in prison and was beaten for his faith, yet in his suffering he chose to rejoice; he didn’t say he chose happiness. Instead said, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”

Last November I flew home to Omaha for a much-needed Thanksgiving vacation. I had taken on more responsibility at work, was enrolled in a full load of courses in my Masters program, and I was tired. After a restful three days with my family, I woke up early Sunday morning to fly back to Washington, D.C. Before I left, I made the decision to leave Tater with my mom until Christmas. It would be easier as I finished up the semester. Maybe because of lack of sleep or lack of coffee, I started to cry. Tears streamed down as I said goodbye to my best friend, my dog. I held him and wiped my eyes. I didn’t worry about leaving Tater as much as I worried about being alone in a lonely city.

I tried to sleep on the plane. As the minutes ticked away and the distance to Washington D.C. grew smaller, the stress piled right back on—my work, my school, my social life, my nonexistent dating life, worry for Tater, worry for my family, worry that life was passing me by. When the 727 landed at Reagan National, dark clouds loomed around me.

Waiting in the freezing downpour for the train, I prayed it would clear up before I walked home. It didn’t. Three minutes down the bike path, with drops of rain pelting my face and my apartment faintly in the distance, I had a terrible thought: my house keys were in Omaha. The cold rain somehow felt more painful mixed with the hot tears soaking my cheeks. How could the day get any worse? Emotionally drained, I didn’t have energy to think, but, like a default song playing through my mind on repeat, I felt my lips subconsciously mouthing familiar words, “I’m inright, outright, upright, downright happy all the time.” I started to laugh. When I got to my door, I wiped the tears from my face, pulled out an old credit card and jimmied my way inside. The only real loss turned out to be a broken fingernail.

Life isn’t always happy. Life sometimes is really painful. And even worse, I have little control. Three years ago, my youngest brother, Chris, held up a convenience store with a BB gun. He terrified the clerk behind the counter and got busted when the police showed up in time to watch the entire heist unfold. I didn’t sleep for weeks after his arrest. I lay in bed night after night imagining how I could get him out of this unthinkable situation. I spent the next three years vowing to help him change his life when he made parole. I flew home for his release, poured hundreds of dollars into helping him set up a new life, and returned to D.C. praying it would be enough. That was eight months ago. Last week he landed himself right back where he started, this time, on a much more serious charge.

The older I get the more I realize my limitations. I can’t control work, and I can’t make good choices for my brother. Shoot, half the time I can’t even get Tater to listen. I’m learning that life isn’t measured by the game I talk, the level of success I achieve, or how fast I get there. It’s about rejoicing through the journey—despite the journey. Live in the moment, I now tell myself. It's the only one I know I have for sure. On this day, life is good. I have all that I need.

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