Sometimes people ask me when I first got the idea to “skip middle school.” The truth is, I thought about it for a long time, probably ever since I “survived” junior high school. But there is one more recent moment, about eight years ago, when I distinctly remember thinking that true learning was all about experiencing joy.
Alongside the white sands of Los Angeles area beaches runs a two-lane 22-mile bike path. One can’t help but feel a sense of peaceful calm, riding so close to waves crashing against the sand and breathing the clean ocean air. Natalie was seven-years-old the first time she pedaled her own bike on the path. She was riding a new light blue and white two-wheeler, and had attached streamers to the handlebars and colorful little buttons to the spokes of the wheels. As she pumped her legs, her braids swung side to side, while the buttons made a pleasant percussive clickity-clack as they slid up and down the spokes. She was in 7th heaven the entire time, turning every once in awhile to shout out to me, “Mommy, this is so much fun!” Her face was aglow with the happiness we feel when we are engaged in discovering something new and it makes us feel absolutely alive. I watched the faces of bike riders coming toward us. They couldn’t help but notice Natalie’s joy. They smiled, or called out a friendly greeting, or complimented her pretty bike. Whenever Natalie turned to call out over her shoulder – “Mommy, this is so much fun!” I experienced her infectious joy. That joy will make me never forget that bike ride. That joy is what I think learning should feel like. And as children become more adept and independent, allowing them to accomplish so much on their own, the joy of learning should increase. A sense of accomplishment should be experienced each and every day. The middle school years should be like this bike ride, but so often they are not.
Joy is such a vital concept for life. To thrive, we have to get the hang of joy and then find a way to hang on to it.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer almost three years ago, I knew that I needed to focus on my joys if I was going to get through the scary part of such a diagnosis. Furthermore, I knew that I must try to shrink the number of joyless pursuits in my life as much as possible. This meant saying no to some events, exiting from some relationships, doing a little less each day so that I could make room for more joy, and honoring daily little pleasures that are so easy to take for granted. I’ve gotten into the habit of thinking of my joys on a regular basis. Currently, three little joys I enjoy each and every day are:
1. My morning mug of excellent black coffee, made using my well-loved 30-year-old chipped ceramic drip cone with brown paper filter. I buy perfectly roasted beans and grind them at home just before brewing. All coffee beans are not created equal. Lovingly roasted ones smell divine. (Unlovingly roasted ones smell like ashtrays.) Coffee made from good beans doesn’t require cream and sugar. With my coffee, I have a piece of toast made from a multi-grain sourdough bread. I butter it with a bit of lightly salted Irish butter and a smear of apricot preserves. I love to read the NY Times while I have my coffee and toast, sitting next to an open window, and relishing 20 minutes of quiet time before diving into a busy day.
2. At the end of my daily 25-minute bike loop, I get to coast down a hill toward our house. This is so much fun, just like Natalie said on the bike path. It’s breezy and exhilarating and rewarding after pumping my legs up hills.
3. Sitting down to a delicious dinner with William and Natalie each and every night, which usually includes a small serving of fish or chicken that William has grilled; brown rice; a few vegetables from the farmers market; and my small glass of Six Grapes port wine. From our travels to small towns in Japan, I think these dinners take me back to my childhood roots in Japan. Also, this is when we share stories from our days.
And, I just thought of more joy. Getting into bed early enough, so that I am not too sleepy to read for at least a half-hour. I love ending a day with a good book. It makes me appreciate the nighttime quiet, my safe and cozy nest, and the power of story to see beyond myself.
I read recently about Barton Seaver in National Geographic Traveler. Seaver is a cook, National Geographic Fellow and author of For Cod and Country,
which he wrote to encourage Americans not only to eat more fish, but to also eat it mindfully (he developed the Seafood Decision Guide, which helps consumers make ocean-friendly choices). He also lectures at Harvard Medical School on the ways in which a diet that includes fish can play a role in preventing illness, curing maladies, and restoring health. He travels a lot and when asked about the places that have touched him, he included Cuba because “the people are joyful, honest, and respectful but struggle for fundamental things we take for granted in America: the right to express themselves, to debate, to work for what they deserve, to follow their passions and dreams. The situation was heartbreaking but inspiring, because the people hang on to their joy. They live for the future. They pour everything into their children. Everyone is waiting for their opportunity to bloom and flourish.” To read the full article “A Fisher of Men” in the October 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveler go to