Beyond Room 119

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Painting perils

I recently helped a friend paint a wall in his room. When he moved into the house a few months ago, he thought he wanted to change the color of his bedroom, so he painted samples of different colors onto his wall to try them out. It was a great idea, but it turned out that he liked the original color best, so he needed to paint that single wall the same color to cover up the other swatches.

Now, I’m always up for an adventure, so somehow I was easily shanghaied into this. I quickly learned it was quite the endeavor. Our first item of business was to go to the hardware store to get the tools he didn’t already have. I never knew there were different types of rollers for distinct surfaces or that there were different depths of rollers. As it turns out, not all walls are created equal.

Then came the preparation. The furniture was shifted to the opposite side of the room, squashed tighter than a game of Tetris. We carefully laid painter’s tape along the baseboards, the trim around both doors, the ceiling, and the opposing walls. We almost forgot to cover the air conditioning vent, the electrical outlets, and the light switch, but those too were eventually painstakingly covered. Then the drop cloth was shaken out and gently squashed it against the wall, taped in some areas so as to make sure the carpet was completely covered. Looking back, I think the preparation took longer than the actual painting.

At last we had reached the moment we had been waiting for: the painting itself. My friend opened the paint can that had been left in the garage before he moved in, poured it into the little painting pan thing, and the painting began. It was a fun process, but as I painted more and more of the wall, I realized it looked pretty uneven. In fact, it looked pretty terrible. After we finished the wall, there were splotches of dark paint right next to paint that seemed twelve shades lighter, alongside another swatch of dark wall. I didn’t want to say anything to my friend, but I was a bit concerned at how bad it looked. I knew the recently painted wall would look darker than the three other walls, but was it supposed to look that much darker?  I stepped back another few feet, my back against the wall, hoping that some distance might make it look cohesive.

Nope, no such luck.

We decided to meet up with some friends and give the wall some time to dry. It was probably a good idea to get away from the paint fumes, too, now that I think about it. As we hung out with our friends, I forgot all about the wall, only remembering from time to time when I looked down and saw green paint splotches on the back of my hands.

Eventually it was time to face the music. We wound up back at his house, and I don’t know about him, but I was holding my breath as he opened the door into his room. I haven’t painted in at least two decades, so I didn’t have enough of a sample size to know if the paint job would magically come together. We turned on the light, stepped back, and immediately breathed a sigh of relief. The wall looked absolutely perfect. The paint had dried evenly and the newly painted wall matched the other walls beautifully. A few days later after my friend had put all the furniture back where it was supposed to be and hung a few pictures, he let me know that he loved how the room looked.

I was thinking about this the other day and realized that’s kind of how life is, too. Sometimes we never know how (or even if) the different walls are going to come together and match. At times, we may feel like our lives are like the wall as it was drying: a mess, completely unorganized, and something that someone else is going to have to come and fix. We may feel like that poor wall looked at this point: a misfit that doesn’t belong.    

But the beauty of life is that where we see a period, it’s often a comma. Or heck, even a semicolon for some of those darker times that seem to last far too long. Regardless of the punctuation mark in use, what we think is the ending very rarely actually is. It took a little bit of faith, hope, the ability to step back, and some patience for us to come to see that finished wall as the beautiful thing it became. Yet too often, we fail to give ourselves the space for those things in our own lives.

I was reminded of this recently. As I was walking around campus one afternoon, I was delighted to discover that someone (or many someones) had chalked up campus with positive and uplifting messages. My favorite was, “After every sunset comes a sunrise.” I found it to be a beautiful reminder that no matter how dark this day may be, tomorrow brings a new day, full of hope, love, and new adventures to be had.

To me, the last half of 2018 felt very much like the process of painting that wall. I was preparing to make a change, getting ready for it, and then I made the change and it quickly felt a lot like how that poor wall looked: a complete and utter mistake that couldn’t be undone fast enough. During this time, an angel arrived in my life in the form of a new friend. Out of nowhere one day, she gave me a framed quotation by one of my favorite people, Bob Goff. It says, “Embrace uncertainty. Some of the most beautiful chapters in our lives won’t have a title until much later.”

Thinking about that gave me hope. Amidst all the unknown, I can stand firm in one known constant: the sun will rise tomorrow. And with that new sunrise comes another 24 hours with which I can continue to forge forward and trust that eventually, the walls will dry and those messy, unorganized chapters will each have a name.


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The art of solitude

I recently had a conversation with a friend about being alone and the struggles that this can bring. It’s a concept I’ve had to work through a couple of times in my life, and I think it’s one that is never fully put to bed for many of us.

I’ve learned that there is a distinct difference between loneliness and solitude. We experience loneliness when we feel completely and utterly alone. We might be in a crowd of people at Disneyland, but within, we feel like no one else bothers to see us. We might feel like we don’t matter, or that no one cares. Loneliness is often something we strive to avoid. We might plan nights out with friends or acquaintances, dinners with family, or binge watch the latest Netflix phenomenon with the intention of trying to erase feelings of loneliness.

Solitude is a much different experience. Solitude occurs when we embrace the silence and the experience of being by ourselves. Introverts may refer to it as their time to recharge, when they are simply present with themselves. Solitude can take on a number of forms- it might be meditation, a solo walk on the beach, enjoying a cup of tea at a coffee shop with a good book, working on a new chord on the guitar, and so on.

Solitude is one of many ways in which we can learn about ourselves. In a world full of chaos, news feeds, social media, and busyness, it can be easy not to let ourselves just be. As someone who is an internal processor (though I recognize not everyone works this way), I am very aware that I need solitude to process my thoughts, emotions, and whatever may be bothering me. Oftentimes I can recognize that I feel off in some way, and it isn’t until I retreat from the world that I figure out why and consequently, what to do about it.

I distinctly remember the first time I felt prolonged experiences of loneliness. I was a freshman in college, living in the dorms, and I didn’t know a single person who went to my school. My adjustment period was pretty rough, and it didn’t help that I had a tenuous family situation at the time. I tried all the right things- joining clubs, intramural teams (Ultimate Frisbee? Why not?), Greek life, choir, and more. I figured the only way to meet people was to put myself out there, so by golly, I did. And yet, nothing seemed to help. I struggled a lot, and the counselor I was seeing told me I had a mild case of depression, which naturally scared me even more. I didn’t want to be depressed! I wanted to have friends! To have fun! I wanted nothing more than to enjoy the “college experience” I kept hearing about.

I finally started having conversations with one of the campus ministers. He was a great guy who had seen it all and knew when to let me talk and when to nudge the conversation in a certain direction. I don’t really remember what we talked about, but I remember that I finally felt heard and my experience was normalized for the first time. Perhaps most importantly, he lent me a book, The Restless Heart by Ronald Rolheiser. In the book, Rolheiser talks about the different between solitude and loneliness and how we can use that struggle to grow in our spiritual life. To a seventeen year-old who was desperately searching for a way to both understand what I was feeling and figure out what to do about it, this book was worth more than gold, and it helped me to move forward in my college career.

There have certainly been other periods in my life when I’ve experienced intense loneliness. Teaching in rural North Carolina comes to mind, as does moving across the country away from many of my closest friends. There have been times when I’ve stopped talking about my experiences of loneliness to close friends because I felt like that was all I talked about and I was tired of beating the same drum over and over. None of these experiences have been fun in any way. In fact, they were pretty terrible. There have been some periods in my life that I think I kept Kleenex in business single-handedly. And yet, I wouldn’t be who I am today without them, and I would have missed out on so many important lessons that came from working through that pain.

I’ve learned that when shit hits the fan and you think there is no one else left on your team, you can choose to let God in or shut the door in his face. He loves to use the silence as his conduit, but it takes a willing listener to hear him.

I’ve learned that it’s in the times when we feel most alone that we find out who our truest friends are.

I’ve learned that from the forges of life can come true beauty and brilliance.

I’ve learned that no matter how bad it can get and how alone I might feel, after each sunset comes a new sunrise, ripe with the promise of a new day and new adventures to be had.

As I write this, I’m laying in the grass at a park that reminds me of my home in North Carolina, taking in the sunlight as the sun drops lower and lower in the sky. Four months ago, the very act of being here by myself in a city that felt so foreign, drab, and unwelcoming would have terrified me. And yet today, I’m basking in this time to myself. This opportunity to think through something that’s been in the back of my mind all day. This chance to pause, breathe, and hear God’s voice in the silence.

Perspective is everything.

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It’s been quite the thought experiment to start to unpack what I’ve learned from this most recent transition. Part of me thinks it’s too early to think about it and I need more time before I can look back, but a bigger part of me has already seen lessons that having been helping in getting adjusted to a new place now.

One thing that struck me, over and over again, as I said my goodbyes two months ago was how many people that I wish I had known better. There were far too many people that I genuinely liked and actually cared about connecting with, but I just hadn’t spent enough time with to develop our cursory friendship into something deeper.

These were the people that I saw at group events and always enjoyed catching up with, but never followed up on my thought of, “Hey, I want to grab coffee with them!” or “Dang, what a cool person- I want to have more of that conversation!”For some of these folks, these were the people whose schedules never intersected with mine- we were both fairly busy and the free time didn’t overlap enough to make it easy, and neither of us made the extra effort to reach out.  In other instances, these were the people I became friends with too late, in a sense – friendships that developed only during my last few months in town. Given time, some of those could have become much deeper, but I left before that could happen.

I had a “see you later” party before I left, and friends from all groups came- my church group, the running crew, the random group of girls I fell into, and more. It was special to see all my people come together and to watch the intersections. Friends from all levels were there – best friends who I’ll know forever, recent friends with more tenuous connections, and everyone in between. Seeing all these people together hit the point home for me: I had so many wonderful people in my life there, and I didn’t know many of them as well as I wished.

The second point that resonated with me during those last few weeks was that, for the most part, people are not told how valuable they are, that they are inherently worthy, and that they are pretty darn awesome. I was telling most of my friends how much I valued them, the beauty I saw within them, and how great they were because, hey, I was leaving! Who knew the next time I would see them again to remind them of these important things? I’m also a big believer that the only moment we have is this very one. The future is never guaranteed, so carpe diem, man, and just tell that person next to you how much you love them!

Now fast forward a few weeks to me trying to build connections and communities in a brand new place as an adult. Now, if you’ve ever restarted somewhere in your adult life, you know that it can be hard. Other people have lived there for a while and typically already have their social groups established. It can be daunting to be the odd man out and to try to nudge your way into the circle.  I’m well aware that this process will take a while, and I’m working on the whole “be patient” thing (easier said than done sometimes!). But I’ve realized that I’m learning from my experiences of just a few months ago.

As the newcomer, I quickly saw that people here already have their established social circles and full lives, as expected. Because of this, instead of re-inventing the wheel, I’ve decided to insert myself into them. In the last month or so, when I’ve met someone I liked (and I can usually get a good read on someone fairly quickly), there are two things I have been intentional about doing:

  1. Telling that person that I think they are pretty cool and I’d love to get to know them better
  2. Actually following up and reaching out to set something up

It’s exhausting, man. I like my own time to relax and recharge, and there are a number of solo activities I enjoy doing. I also have a pretty big family, and I’m basically doing the same thing with them right now too. (“Hey, bro, it’s been a while. Can I stop by for a bit/come over for dinner/play with the kids/find a time to connect?”) It’s been a challenge to expend all this energy while not quite yet finding how I want to balance all the pieces.

But I’ll tell you what: it’s important, and it’s worth the energy. In our world today, there is a strong lack of intentionality. We tend to go through life day by day, email by email, task by task, without being fully intentional with our actions. As a result, we often drift from our goals. We wonder why we aren’t getting any closer to these big dreams we have – a house, a life partner, a new promotion – without thinking through the steps it would take to get there. We wonder why so and so doesn’t reach out and invite us to invite us to that event or to spend time together without realizing we also have the power to reach out and nurture that connection.

Some people say it’s important to meet someone where they are, while others will preach that we must meet others halfway. I disagree with both viewpoints. If we want to live fully and love deeply, we need to put ourselves out there, regardless of what the people around us are doing.

If you wanted to build a shed in your backyard, you wouldn’t sit in the front yard and say, “I think I’ll wait for some carrier pigeons to drop me off some two-by-fours.” Similarly, you wouldn’t go to halfway to the hardware store and wait for the Home Depot dudes in neon orange vests to drive the cart full of supplies straight to you. No, you would make your shopping list, go to Home Depot, ask for help along the way, fumble around a bit, be awkward as you learned how to use new tools, and eventually, you would get it done.

It’s not the perfect analogy for building relationships since I also believe it takes two to tango, and in relationships, the other person needs to also put some effort in. Regardless, the point stands. Be brave. Be bold. Decide what you want and what it will take to get there. For me, I want to build solid friendships and create strong communities. So I make a list every week of who I want to connect with somehow and the groups I want to attend, and then I reach out to make it happen. It takes time. It takes patience. It takes energy. It’s hard to balance with work, family, and personal time. It takes putting yourself out there, again and again, even when you’d rather stay home and watch the Bachelor. But both the present and future you deserve it, so we’ve gotta work our tails off to make that happen. Because let’s be real here: it’s not gonna happen on its own.

There’s a beautiful relationship  between taking action and trusting that things will happen as they need to. I’ve known people in the past who have prayed for something and just assumed it would happen because of that. I’ve also known folks who have just waited for parts of life to come together in its own time. I’m not saying either of those are bad, and I absolutely believe having that faith and trust is important. However, it’s not enough on its own. We have the power to be the change both in the world outside us and within our own lives, and if we want something to happen, there is something to be said about taking the steps to make the dream a reality. Otherwise, it remains out there in space, floating around with all the other space debris.

One thing I’ve learned is that life is too short, and it’s not guaranteed. Why waste the precious time we have here waiting for something to happen to us? Today, choose to be the author of your own life, decide how you want the story to go, and go make that happen.

If you have a dream, go chase it
If you feel hope, don’t waste it
If you find love, embrace it
And never take a single breath for granted
The story’s yours, go write it
Tomorrow’s undecided
Our days are counted on this planet
Never take a single breath
Take a single breath for granted
(“Granted” by Josh Groban)


This month’s playlist

I’ve always loved music, and that love has intensified over the past few years. My repertoire was small starting out since I grew up with pretty much just the Beach Boys, Tchaikovsky, and Enya, so it’s grown a bit over the past few decades. I’ve written about this before, so that’s nothing new. What is new, though, is that I’ve realized over the past few months, I’ve had to keep an eye on when I’m using music to process or calm the chaos in my head and when I’ve been using it to drown out the other thoughts and emotions going on and.

I’ve also realized that music is a good way for me to check in with my emotional state right now. Six weeks ago, when the song “I Lived” by OneRepublic came through my speakers, I couldn’t listen to it without crying. I felt like it personified so beautifully my time in North Carolina and those emotions were far too raw to listen to a rehashing of that chapter at that time. Now, I play it intentionally to remind myself of what I had and how beautiful, intricate, and full that time was. I’m considering writing to OneRepublic to rename it “Anthem to the Tar Heel State.”  

Hope when you take that jump / You don’t fear the fall

Hope when the water rises / You built a wall

Hope when the crowd screams out / They’re screaming your name

Hope if everybody runs / You choose to stay

Hope that you fall in love / And it hurts so bad (Yeah)

The only way you can know / You gave it all you had

And I hope that you don’t suffer / But take the pain

Hope when the moment comes, / You’ll say

I, I did it all

I, I did it all

I owned every second that this world could give

I saw so many places, the things that I did

Yeah with every broken bone

I swear I lived

I went to a Big Daddy Weave concert with a good friend of mine back in April, when thoughts of transition and moving were still in flux and I was trying to discern my next steps. In fact, this concert shed some light on what I was feeling at the time and helped me figure out some of my priorities. When my friend  hears songs by that band on the radio now, he often sends me a note to let me know he’s thinking of me. Some songs by that band helped me through a difficult transition and remind me where I wanted to keep my faith and trust. Those songs encourage me to stay strong and are a reminder that when I feel a void, I know who I want to fill it.

I need to hear You now

I need to know it’s You

I’m standing on your promises

I know your Words are true

You’re bigger what I see

That it’s You in exchange for me

‘Cause even the impossible is your reality

Jesus I believe

Speaking of concerts, I saw U2 with some friends before I left the East Coast, and it was such a fun weekend with wonderful experiences. I’ve been listening to their album, Songs of Experience, so much lately that I’m a bit concerned my CD player will burn a hole through it. They sing of love, of pain, of experience and innocence, and their song “13 (There is a Light)” speaks of finding the light in the darkness and keeping it alive. It’s been a mantra for me lately.

I’ve got a question for the child in you before it leaves

Are you tough enough to be kind?

Do you know your heart has its own mind?

Darkness gathers around the lights

Hold on

Hold on

There is a light

We can’t always see

If there is a world

We can’t always be

If there is a dark

That we shouldn’t doubt

And there is a light

Don’t let it go out

My man JG recently released a song about going down to the river where the water can remind you that your troubles aren’t the end of the line and that through the confusion, frustration, and pain, we can emerge stronger than before – if we choose to. Given that the ocean has always been my place where I go to find peace amid the chaos of life, this one speaks directly to my soul (and is another reason why we would be perfect together..if he only knew I existed..).

So I walk down to the river

Where the troubles, they can’t find me

Let the waters there remind me

The sun will be there when we wake

I walk down to the river

Though I might not understand it

It’s not always as we planned it

But we grow stronger when we break

So I walk down to the river

I walk down to the river

I have some musically talented friends who create incredible things. One of them wrote a song that is one of the most beautiful lullabies I’ve heard and it makes me pause every time I hit play. When I hear it, I am reminded that it’s okay (and necessary) to let others help me bear the burdens I carry. I listen to it to help me breathe, to calm down, and to remember the importance of letting down my walls.

Easy there baby, open your eyes

Saddle up for your long ride

Stay the course, follow through

There’s nobody left who’s chasing you

To the other side, to the other side

Save your life, not your pride

You don’t have to carry on that same way

You don’t have to carry on that same way

It’s funny looking at patterns. When I first moved out here, I couldn’t listen to any of these songs. They were too raw, too encouraging, too empathetic, in a sense. I didn’t need someone to cry with me then; I needed something more akin to Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger” or Halestorm’s “Here’s to Us” to push me through to the next dawn. Now, I’m a bit more emotionally stable (thank goodness) and the softer, more gentle music reminds me how far I’ve come and that somehow, it’s all going to be okay. As Gary Allan croons in one of my favorite songs,Every storm runs out of rain, just like every dark night turns into day / Every heartache will fade away, just like every storm runs, runs out of rain.

I’m reading The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle and it’s been giving me some food for thought. Last night, I came across a nugget that has stayed with me: “Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it.” We live in the present. Not the future and certainly not in the past. Personally, I know I get caught up in futuristic thinking far too often. You know the type: On Friday, I’m doing this. And then this weekend, this is happening. And next weekend is this other cool thing…and so on and so forth. And in times of transition, it’s easy to reminisce about the past…over and over again. The challenge before us, as Tolle says, is to “allow the present moment to be.”

I can’t speak for you, but when I get completely immersed in a song, the only place I can live is in the moment- in the present. I’ve heard it said before that when words fail, music speaks. These days, it’s speaking to me with affirmation of what I’m doing, validation of what I’ve done, and encouragement to keep moving forward. 

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Growing pains

There have been so many times in the past two months that I’ve thought, “Oh, that’s a great thought/idea/concern/sore spot for me to unpack later. I’m excited to do that.” And then packing up my life and selling my furniture became a priority, then moving across the country took priority, then settling into this new place became important. Needless to say, there have been far too many introspective moments that I’ve put off in the last month or so.

It’s been nineteen days since I left North Carolina and two weeks to the day since I drove into southern California. In those fourteen days since I’ve arrived, I’ve been to the beach a total of 10 times, I’ve played with my nephews five times, I’ve seen my new niece three times, and my sister has visited from south county both weekends. In between, I’ve seen my mom, my dad, my grandparents, three of the brothers, and my one college friend who lives in town. I’ve worked a total of seven days so far and started to build relationships with the seven people in my office. I’ve gone on five runs and two bike rides.

All in all, it’s been a busy couple of weeks. This afternoon might be the first time I’ve had more than a half hour to sit and breathe.

The silence is deafening.

In the silence, I look at the North Carolina license plate that sits crooked against my desk, missing its old home on my silver Camry. I see reminders of the friends and communities that I willingly left everywhere around me – the photo collage, the bracelet, the leftover snacks from my road trip with notes lovingly still attached to them, emails from dear friends, and more. I hear my mother’s voice saying, “You know, everyone’s been asking me and I’m wondering it, too. Why did you choose to leave that beautiful place?!” On my runs, I marvel at the intense lack of greenery in the neighborhoods. At work, I haven’t put up any of the pictures of my friends that were in my old office yet because I’m afraid that looking at them will make me cry. On my drives home from work, sometimes the “what if’s” start to creep in. In those moments, the thought inevitably makes its way to the surface: did I make a mistake?

I think I’ve been running away from the silence because I was afraid of where it might take me.

Teaching in rural North Carolina and all the struggles, doubts, and difficulties that came with it used to be the hardest thing I’d ever done in my life. By now, moving from North Carolina to California ties with it. I knew this would be hard. I look back in my journal from this spring as I was job hunting, and I wrote about how I knew it would be painful, lonely, and difficult. But I don’t think anything could have prepared me for this.

I miss North Carolina with my whole heart. I miss the greenery and the trees. I miss my rose garden, my favorite museum, and all my favorite running routes where I processed so much of life. I miss southern hospitality and the easy drawl of the South. I miss the empty roadways and the downtown that I love so much. Above all, I miss all my people. I can’t even list them here because that would be too hard.

I’ve been processing these emotions with a few people and they’ve had a lot of wisdom that spoke to my heart. One friend told me that when you have multiples homes, you’re always homesick. Another reminded me that although I love so many people in North Carolina, I made this move because there are people I love here too, and I decided it was their turn. Yet another told me that effort is never wasted – even if a plan doesn’t seem to turn out as I hoped, in the end there will be some good that comes from it. Others have stepped in during my times of doubt to remind me of the reasons why I chose to come here and the validity and presence of those reasons, even in the darkness. Through it all, I’ve felt so much love and support from so many people.

I know good will come from this. I’ve already seen the smiles on my nephews’ faces as I walk in their house and pepper them with kisses for the second time that week or I show one of them the book I brought to read before bedtime. I felt the happiness radiating from my grandparents when I visited them yesterday and promised to be back soon, instead of in six or eight months. It was strange but wonderful to say goodbye to my sister today and promise to connect in person sometime next month. I’ve noticed the peace I feel anytime I sit and stare at the majestic ocean, a mere two miles from where I live now.

I know the pain will fade. I know I’ll find my communities here and build meaningful relationships here. I know that reconnecting with the family will take time but it will be worth it. I know I came here for a reason, even if I don’t know all of the reasons. These things I know, and I believe them with all my heart.

But man, does it hurt. In a way, I know it’s a beautiful kind of pain. It’s a pain of belonging, of deep friendship, of love, of home. It wouldn’t hurt this much if I hadn’t invested so strongly and cared so much about the people in my life. I wouldn’t feel like this if I hadn’t made any efforts to make North Carolina home. I loved my time there and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. If this is what I get in exchange for those incredible, beautiful years, well, I guess I’ll take it.

One of my favorite quotations to revisit in times of hurt is from C.S. Lewis:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

To love is to be vulnerable. To put yourself out there means to get hurt. To get scars. To put any kind of effort at all out there means that at some point, at some time, we will care, and in caring, we will inevitably get hurt.

To love fiercely, to live deeply, and to enjoy the moment – this is what I have done for years and this is what I will continue to do. New state, new challenges, new adventures, new people, same girl. To quote Desiree, one of my spunky but determined students from five years ago:

Let’s do this.

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When I got home from work yesterday evening, I took a walk around the neighborhood and wound up at the park across the street. This is one of the best parks I’ve ever seen, with multiple slides, a giant moving boat, areas to climb, crane-like things that move sand around, and more. Because it’s so legit, it’s always crowded, with joyfully screaming children running around with their parents watching from the sidelines.

Yesterday, though, I found a family where the adults were having just as much, if not more, fun than the kids on the playground. It started with three adults, a swing set, and a volleyball. They were using the posts of the swing set as the “net” for a volleyball court and were just playing around. There was no technique, no plays being run, no sets or spikes – this was just hitting the ball back and forth for no other reason except that it was fun. They were laughing back and forth after almost every hit and shouting at each other in Spanish. As I walked by, they smiled at me. I smiled right back, gave them a thumbs up, and said, “Looks like fun!” One of them motioned for me to join them. I thought, “Why not?” and we started playing the most casual game of pick-up volleyball that I’ve ever seen. Shoes were tossed off to the side, the ball was ricocheting off the swing set, and most rallies were followed by unabashed laughter from all of us.

After a while, their kids saw how much fun we were having and decided to join. In all, there were two young teenagers (a boy and girl), two girls that couldn’t have been more than 8, the three original players, and me. From a technical perspective, it was probably the worst game of volleyball in the history of the sport. The little girls liked to watch the ball drop in front of them, one of the adults had a habit of hitting the ball twice in a row (which isn’t allowed in volleyball), and oh man, don’t even ask me about the serves. Because, well, they didn’t really exist. The ball was sort of thrown into the air and then bumped to the other side.

As we kept playing, I was continually struck by how much joy was present. The teenage boy had decided to keep score (though I’m not really sure what his criteria for a point was – his scoring method was a little suspect), but no one cared about that. We just kept hitting the ball around, missing the net, watching it hit the pole and bounce back at us, serving too far and making the other team gingerly tread the wet grass to get the ball, and throughout it all, laughter was our constant companion. The little girls were self-conscious about trying to serve at first, so I kept tossing the ball over to them and we all encouraged them as they tried, failed, tried, and eventually succeeded (sometimes). By the middle of the game, they were clamoring for the ball and wanted to keep trying. Everyone was fully engaged and present in the moment.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen that much laughter and that many smiles in such a short period of time. I was so struck that all it took for the eight of us to have a good time was a fifteen dollar volleyball and a swing set at the local park. In a world where we tend to want the latest tech gadget or the newest toys, it was a refreshing reminder that joy can be found in the simplest and most unassuming of places. After I said, “¡Adios!” and headed home, I couldn’t help but keep smiling. Beware: It turns out that joy is contagious and can have long-lasting effects!

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Pranks, Josh Groban, and connections…oh my?!

I’m in the middle of a prank war with one of the campus police officers at work. It all started innocently enough a few weeks back. As I walked into my office one day, I noticed that my “Words of Wisdom” jar had been turned upside down. A little while later, Andrew, one of the police officers, walked by and flashed me an impish grin, and I immediately knew who the culprit was.

The next week, as I opened the door to my office in the morning, I noticed a water bottle on the desk. “That’s weird,” I thought. A moment later, I noticed Andrew sitting in the corner of my office and nearly jumped out of my skin. He later told me he had originally been planning to stand up and say something, but he thought that would be too much. (I don’t know if worker’s comp covers heart attacks, so I’m glad that he thought better of that.)

Soon after, I couldn’t walk into my office because a giant sandwich board was on the other side of the door, blocking it. I’ve also encountered a chair in the same situation once or twice, which means I have to awkwardly move the door back and forth to dislodge it just enough to sneak an arm around the door. 

Andrew’s next attack was a bit more in-depth. Before I describe it, though, some context is necessary. I’m a sticky note kind of person. If it doesn’t get written down, chances are it ain’t gonna happen. As a result, I generally have anywhere from 3-8 sticky notes on my desk at any given time, and that’s not even counting the motivational quotes and items I have for quick access taped just below my computer screen. One morning, I walked into my office one morning and found sticky notes all over both my computer screens.

None of these attacks have fazed me. On the contrary, I enjoy them and I’m pretty sure I’ve laughed out loud at every single one of them. But sometimes, a girl’s gotta strike back. Now, this is a bit tricky because Andrew has two very crucial advantages over me: as a police officer, he has a key to my office door. And second, he shares an office with all the police officers, so I can’t really attack his office space.

These two components eventually lead to me walking down to the parking deck last week in the summer sun with a full deck and a half of sticky notes in my hand. For the next ten minutes, I gleefully stuck them all over his car windows. As I walked back to my office, I laughed at my ingenuity. Little did I know that the joke was on me. Later that afternoon after I came back from my lunch break, Andrew had put the sticky notes all over one of the walls in my office. Every. Last. One.

“Well, shoot!” I thought. “I’ve been outmaneuvered – again!” So I did the only logical thing I could do: I called up an expert that very night. “Dan?” I said to my brother after he picked up the phone. “I know we haven’t talked in a few weeks, but I need help.” For the next 25 minutes, my brother listed prank after prank after prank. Some of them were too in depth, some weren’t feasible with the conditions at work, and some were just way too much. The pranks involved dead cockroaches, saran wrap, wrenches, freezing nuts and bolts, social media, anonymous notes, Craigs List, water, and so much more.  Finally, he shared one that I thought was doable. Before we hung up, I had to ask. “How did you come up with all of these off the top of your head?” Knowing my brother, I should have expected his response. “Oh, it was easy. I’ve done all of them before.” I thought back to the prank he described to me involving the parts of a doll, a dead cockroach, and notes signed raZ (with the Z in size 72 font), and I made the wise decision not to ask any more questions. (Plausible deniability is a real thing, or so I’m told.)

A few days later, I created a flyer. In big, bold letters at the top, it said, “PUBLIC MASTICATOR” and underneath was a picture of Andrew that I had found from his wedding website. Below that was my favorite part: “If seen, please call Campus Police immediately.” Now, to masticate means to chew or grind to a pulp. Thus, a public masticator is one who chews in public…or in other words, any of us. But for those of us who don’t know what a masticator is, well, it just sounds like a really bad thing.

Dan’s suggestion had been to put a hashtag on the flyers and post them all around campus so that students would actually start calling Campus Police. That was a little too intense for me, so I just posted a few of them on his car and again, laughed my way back to my office as I patted myself on the back for a job well done. Another police officer had warned me that Andrew was planning something similar for me, so in anticipation, I posted a few of the Public Masticator signs in my office before I left for the night.

The next morning, I entered the main office with a little bit of nervousness and a good bit of anticipation. Andrew was there, talking with our office assistant, ready to see my reaction. Without saying a word, I just shook my head at him as I walked in. Taped to the outside of my door were two pictures of Josh Groban, and I burst out laughing. Andrew had suddenly materialized behind me. “That’s only the prelude,” he warned me. As I opened my office door, I found pictures of Josh Groban everywhere. Andrew had cleverly taped some pictures of Josh over the pictures of himself on the Public Masticator signs. There was a picture of Josh hiding under my keyboard, and there were three different pictures around the room of Josh with another woman, who conveniently had my head taped over hers. As I kept laughing, I saluted him for a job well done.

These pranks have no deeper purpose than to get a good laugh, but each time one has happened, it’s brightened my day immensely. As I was thinking about it the other day, I realized this is for two similar reasons. The first is that I grew up with five older brothers, where teasing was synonymous with “I love you.” I was never bothered when one of the boys said something silly to me because I knew that if they didn’t care, they wouldn’t bother. It’s a comfortable feeling to get to that level with someone outside of your family.

The second reason relates to connectedness. I’m in the middle of Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly right now, which is about shame and vulnerability. Before she gets into her research on vulnerability, she first defines what she calls Wholehearted living. She writes, “We’re hard-wired for connection – it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. The absence of love, belonging, and connection always leads to suffering.”

As human beings, we crave connections with others. In elementary school, connection looks like playing with other kids on the playground or eating lunch with your friends. As we grow older, the ways in which we connect evolve and multiply. We might connect with others through volleyball, through a book club, through meaningful conversations at work, on long walks with friends, and so on. In this instance, Andrew and I are connecting with each other and creating a sense of belonging based on laughter, childish glee, and playing tricks on each other.

Are Andrew and I best friends, and would I suddenly trust him with my deepest secrets? Of course not. There are different levels of connection and various types of friendship, and very few make it to that highest level of friendship. In fact, Aristotle says that in our entire lifetime, we’ll be lucky if we have even a few of what he calls “perfect friendships.”  But connections exist in a number of different ways and serve varied purposes. Ultimately, our lives are richer for those connections, as they create the beautiful tapestries of our lives.

Now that I’ve got this connection solidified, it’s time for my next prank. It might be time for another phone call to my brother…