Small snippets of joy in daily life
Modern life challenges us in many ways. Those challenges often cause us to become quite serious – about life, the world, our work, our children and our relationships. Seriousness and intensity have their place in our lives, no doubt.
Even more, we need moments of levity, laughter and humor. We need to reclaim the glint of youth in our eyes. We need a smile to break out and broaden our faces into snapshots of delight and joy. We need more than serendipity to pull us into laughter. We need tactics too. It is not enough to assume delight will find us. We need to arrange life so that we encounter delight.
One of the tactics I use to continually encounter small snippets of joy – on my computer desktop, I keep a folder named “Smile Photos.” It contains about 30 photos from my life that make me smile. I open it every few days. Sometimes I open it randomly and sometimes when I need my spirits lifted. And sure enough, every time I scroll through the photos, I smile. More than a grin; a big, bright smile that lights up my entire face – and my body. I feel myself soften and lighten from head to toe. The emotion of the remembered moment washes over me, cleansing the worries of the world away and renewing my feelings of love, daring and simple fun.
Let me share some of my “Smile Photos” with you.
This photo was taken on the day of my wedding in Asheville, North Carolina, against the glorious backdrop of Pisgah National Forest. Some people say I resemble my Dad. Others – to Dad’s amusement – have even asked if we are twins. I assume they meant Dad looked wonderfully young, and not that I looked, well, older. Seeing it reminds me of Dad’s poignant toast of Kathleen and me at our rehearsal dinner the night before. I smile as I recall the verdant forest nearby; Dad and me looking elegant and dapper with a splendid view of the forest; a short wall that could have been built two or 200 years ago; and the expansive, hot August afternoon sky. I find that mix of culture and nature pleasing to behold and to ponder. My Dad would pass away less than a year after my wedding. It’s a sweet photo and I cherish it.
OK, guess where I am in the photo? No, that’s not me on the far right – that’s my Dad. I’m the (cough) devilishly handsome fella on the far left. We took this family photo in 1980 or 1981. It was early in life because I didn’t have glasses yet, and I started wearing them at age 5 or 6. Look at those jackets my brother and I wore – how fabulous are they!? Growing up, I thought we looked ridiculous. Now, I would love to wear that blazer! (Although I would skip the white turtleneck.) Mom and Dad look so young and fantastic. I love this photo. And, I still remember what we ate for dinner after taking these photos – hot dogs sliced open, stuffed with cheese and wrapped in bacon. Delicious!
This photo captures me (second from left) with some of my best college friends. We were celebrating our friend Cain Pence (far left) winning our debating society’s top prize, the Merrick Medal. Cain always loved this photo because he thought it subtly revealed an insight into the character of each of us. For a long time, I didn’t like the photo because my body and face angle so strangely toward the camera. Over time – and with hundreds of photos with my body in a weird position later – I’ve gotten over it. I agree with Cain, which of course reveals the immense power of photography. I’m still in touch with all of these friends. Ah, we felt young, brash and daring – what a combination!
Two roommates and I dressed up as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle for Halloween in our Classical Political Philosophy class. Fr. James V. Shall, SJ, taught it – a wonderful teacher and a wise man. As you can tell, on occasion, my roommates and I cared less about being wise men, than, say, wise asses.
I’d love to have a beard. My wife doesn’t share that particular enthusiasm. So we compromise – I don’t grow a beard. But for six weeks after my open heart surgery in 2014, I did. This is the bushiest I’ve ever looked. A real mountain man, huh? Look at the smile on my face then – only a few weeks after open heart surgery. Seeing this photo reminds me – if I can smile after that ordeal then I can face almost any challenge with perspective, humor and good cheer.
In June 2022, we had to put our lab, Teddy, to sleep. This photo captures his essence perfectly! He loved chasing tennis balls! He was a beautiful dog and a rare sort of lab. He had a red or rust-colored coat, thin body, and long legs. I miss him every day. More often, I think back on the fun times we enjoyed together for almost 12 years – going for walks and playing catch. He loved to eat, maybe even more than chasing tennis balls. He could barely wait for me to put his bowl down.
Life springs eternal. A couple of months after Teddy’s passing, we needed another dog in our life. We loved the Havanese dog our neighbor has, so we decided on that breed. Our daughters begged us to get two dogs. My wife and I flatly refused. Nope, no way, too much work and time to take care of two puppies. While the kids visited their grandparents over the summer, Kathleen and I met the breeder. The litter had five puppies, four males and one female. Only a few weeks old, each pup fit into the palm of our hand. We were smitten. On the car ride home, Kathleen and I turned to each other, and nearly in unison, asked, “Well…what about two?” In August, we returned to the breeder with our daughters. Three puppies remained – two boys and a girl. As our daughters played with the puppies, we said, “We have a surprise for you.” They quieted down. I exclaimed, “We are not getting a puppy today. We are getting TWO!” Their eyes exploded in surprise and joy. They could barely believe it. They felt so happy. My youngest daughter did take the opportunity to syrupily sweetly ask, “There is going to be one puppy left and he’ll be sad. Can we … get all three puppies?” To this, my wife and I stood firm – two puppies only. Nice try, though. We drove home, one puppy in each girl’s lap, a car brimming with glee. Otis (left) and Olivia have already brought so much fun and euphoria into our family!
My wife and I popped into the Vineyard Vines store while visiting Washington, DC a few years ago. We saw their Kentucky Derby clothes; being from the home of the Derby, I couldn’t resist trying on some of them. This isn’t how I usually dress. I promise. This isn’t how I ever dress – I took a hard pass.
Hmmmm. Maybe I should not say “I don’t ever dress” questionably….Here’s the story on this get-up and the newest photo in my “Smile Photos” folder. I coached my oldest daughter’s volleyball team this year. In August, I missed the first game due to a family commitment. One of the assistant coaches told the girls, “If you play hard all season, the coaches will wear a tutu for the last game of the season” The girls worked so hard all season and improved immensely. I had terrific fun coaching them. The last game of the season comes around…and that assistant coach had to miss the game due to a family event! So he made the bet and I paid it! Rainbow tutu, rainbow socks – to match the rainbow hat and rainbow shoes I already had in my wardrobe, thanks to my friend Jack Carlson, founder of Rowing Blazers (both items sold out, alas). I figured, if I have to pay off the bet, I am going all-in! The team love… Love…LOVED the outfit – and that’s all that mattered.
Prince of Wales Island, Alaska, September 2016. Prince of Wales Island’s environment contains mostly rainforest – an oddity in Alaska. My father-in-law, brother-in-law and about 15 other friends went salmon fishing for more than two weeks, each hoping to bring home about 50 lbs of salmon meat. This day wasn’t especially cold – maybe high 50s – with light rain on and off throughout the day. I bundled up because I become cold quickly in most settings. A few of us hiked about half a mile into this stream. We’d hooked a few salmon on the fly, but hadn’t landed any. A big strike hit my line and bent my rod. It took me about 20 minutes to land this one. Worth every minute. I ask my brother-in-law to snap a photo. He lined me up for a good shot. At the last second, he snagged the rod from my hand and steered it into my mouth. What inspiration! Maybe my peak badassness.
In 2019, I took up a weird sport called rucking. In brief, rucking = put weight in a backpack; put the backpack on; go for a long walk; occasionally add weight in the form of a sandbag or other oddball, unwieldy object; hilarity ensues. (For the long version of rucking, read this essay by the founder of the sport.) I’ll write more about my experiences with rucking at some point too. In my backpack, I have 10 lbs. The sandbag weighs 40 lbs. So, hey, I carried 50 lbs for about a quarter of a mile. When I feel down about my heart problem and believe it means I can’t do anything great in life, this photo reminds me – I can! It also reminds me that whatever obstacles I face – because of my heart problem or otherwise in life – keep going; embrace the suck; and DFQ! Seeing me seize that attitude in the face of hardship makes me smile.
For Halloween 2019, I sent this postcard to all my contacts for my real estate agent work. I have never received so many calls, texts and emails about my marketing. People loved it! Yes, I own that cowboy hat and I love it with every fiber of my soul!
Okay, last one. Less than three weeks before my open heart surgery in 2014, we had our second daughter, Cordelia. In December, while I was still recovering, my wife caught Cordelia and Daddy napping. What a smile on my face and exuberance in my soul as I look at this photo again!
Don’t let the seriousness of the world crush you. Find fun ways to lift your spirits, laugh and grin. I revel in my Smile Photos desktop folder! I hope these photos helped you smile today!
Images created by Olivia Lund.