Surprised by Joy
Author : By Mark Matousek    -   Subject : Life

    Sometimes you don't know what you're missing—and then it hits you.

    I was feeling lackluster that spring afternoon, so Florence, a wise-hearted therapist friend, asked me to walk with her in the park to see the cherry trees in bloom. I had trouble telling her what was wrong, because everything was going right. My new book was finished, my marriage was good. I was healthy and earning and flossing and faithful. Yet for months I'd been struggling with uneasy feelings that seemed to spring from this very OK-ness. Middle age had settled in; I'd grown so sane and predictable that sometimes I wanted to retch. Fearsome ambition had settled (that word) into slow, steady habits and modified dreams, as it had for the guy in the T.S. Eliot poem who measured his life in coffee spoons.

    Ten years before, I'd been single and broke, diagnosed with a fatal disease—yet paradoxically vivified by hanging on so close to the edge. Now I was married and 44, with a mortgage, a future (the medications had improved) and this lurking, perverse sense of having lost something great. Was this the letdown of answered prayers, a natural symptom of getting older? Or was my malaise less clich?d—information, or intuition, struggling to make itself known? Alerting me that I'd grown up too much, gotten too safe, too comfortable? If this disenchantment was some kind of warning, what could help to relieve it, I wondered. What, I asked my friend, could energize the story's next chapter?

    Florence, who is two decades older than I and filled to the brim with vitality, sat underneath a tree and gazed up through the pink-heavy branches. "What's the real question?" she asked me.

    "Where is the joy?" I said.

    She smiled and touched a bud with her fingers. I had to answer that question myself.

    GWM, 42, Deserts, Flowers, Spring Migration

    Garry George, 53, is a strapping man with wicked brown eyes, a sexual laugh and the attire of a brainy outdoorsman—cross-trainers, knee-length cargo pants and a T-shirt from a national park. He's standing in his Los Angeles yard hosing down an abundant garden of jacaranda, fuchsia and sage that he and his partner, Joseph Brooks, planted for migrating birds. Since the two met eight years ago, George and Brooks have been traveling the world in search of rare and endangered species—not as a hobby but as a mission, a labor of love that has transformed their lives.

    "It started accidentally," George tells me. In 1985, he was a self-employed music executive living in Santa Barbara when a towhee smashed through his plate-glass window. Towhees are long-tailed, ground-inhabiting finches. "It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen. I wrapped it up in aluminum foil and kept it in the freezer for months so a painter friend could have it." (I picture feathers frozen onto Mars bars.) "After that, there was no turning back."

    This incipient "aviomania" grew from casual intrigue into obsession when George answered Brooks' personal ad (GWM, 42, deserts, flowers, spring migration). Brooks, a jewelry designer and club promoter, courted George with hummingbird expeditions and trysts at the Audubon headquarters. Today, they've birded in 40 states, Australia (three times), South and Central America (nine times), and made a dozen-plus trips to Asia. They have traipsed for hours through waist-deep mud to catch sight of their favorite bird, the antpitta, and been robbed at knifepoint in Venezuela while searching for an ultramarine grosbeak. Last year, George spent Christmas week hospitalized with malaria, caught while birding overseas. These obstacles, like romantic twists, only feed the couple's desire.

    "What's the source of this—"

    "Lunacy?" he says.

    "Passion," I say.

    "Let me try to explain." George lists the passing attractions of birding—the plumage, songs and weird behaviors, the uplift he feels watching birds take to wing—then gets down to the crux of this calling. "I think it was St. Francis who said, 'What you are looking for is what is looking.' Call it God, or Self, or whatever. Most of us long to connect back to something, a natural pattern that came before us and will continue after we're gone. Some kind of innocence."

    He continues: "I've been meditating for twenty years. But the first time the inside and outside matched was when I went into a forest in Malaysia. It was like meditating with open eyes—just looking, just being. When you crawl on your belly for five hours and finally see the bird, every single cell in your body is looking. There's no thought of past or future. You are really there." For a moment, George looks blissed-out, then he snaps right back to his ironic self. "Of course, my friends think I'm totally nuts."

    Though I envy his enthusiasm, I can't imagine sharing it where birds are concerned. "You have to find something that really moves you—besides the work you do for a living. Remember," he says, "it's a very short life."

    Oops, I Forgot to Have Children

    Melinda Ward was about to turn 50 when she realized that her career wasn't everything. An executive with a stellar background in the not-for-profit sector, she'd taken a job as a senior vice president at Public Radio International in Minneapolis, expecting that in five years she'd do what she had always done to keep her life from getting dull: switch jobs, switch cities, start over somewhere else. But this time the strategy wouldn't work. "This wasn't the challenge or sense of renewal I was looking for," she remembers.

    Then four unrelated events conspired to rattle her self-contained life. First, an unmarried friend reported that she was adopting a child. "For no rational reason, I thought, That is what I want to do." Next, while attending a poetry workshop, she came across a poem entitled "The Calling" and realized that she didn't have one. Soon after that, waiting alone for a plane in Washington's Reagan National Airport, Ward found herself surrounded by a great "explosion of joy" when she witnessed a family receiving their adopted child. "It really knocked me over," she says. Finally, as if all this weren't enough, she was considering a trio of plum jobs in three different, fabulous cities.

    "At any other time in my life, I would have jumped at any of them," she says. Instead, in September of '96, Ward set out to adopt a baby. As a single, middle-aged woman, her best chance was a child from China. After running the tortuous maze of logistics, she finally received news that a 3-year-old child had been found. The deal fell through at the last minute, and Ward was summarily told that she'd be getting a 15-month-old girl instead. "I had to sit down and take a deep breath," says Ward. "None of this was in my control, and I'm a very controlling person. Suddenly I'd be dealing with cribs, bottles and diapers. But what could I say? I wanted this baby."

    Their meeting is funny on videotape, as well as extremely moving. Looking afraid and very Caucasian, Ward is standing in a Nanjing street surrounded by Asians on bicycles when a trio of ladies approaches her and thrusts the baby into her arms. "Surreal" is how she remembers the moment. Two years later, Ward can't imagine life without Julie and plans to adopt again later this year.

    "I kick myself for not starting sooner. But being this age and having a young kid also has its advantages. Being single and getting older, you have fewer ways to relate to people. Being a mother gives me more common ground. I'm softer now and a lot more open." Though her peers have their eyes on retirement, Ward will need to work well into her 70s—a fact that seems to suit her fine. "It takes everything to stop myself from collaring childless friends and saying, 'Don't miss this experience!'" She even asks me, "You have any kids?"

    "Fake kids," I tell her. "Little dogs."

    "You'll save a lot in tuition."

    Literary Hot Dog

    Howard Morhaim is not a man you'd expect to find with grease on his hands. A 52-year-old single father with a bear-trap mind and impeccable clothes, he's the sort you'd imagine listening to Beethoven (he plays the cello) in his Brooklyn brownstone with a bottle of good Chianti. Yet Morhaim has a secret he kept to himself for many years. Beneath this cultivated persona crouches a hot dog crazy for race cars.

    "It conflicts with the image I have of myself," Morhaim tells me in his office—he's a successful literary agent with his own company. "I feared the credibility factor in a female-dominated business. You know, boys and their toys, vroom! vroom!" He smiles to think of the ladies' reactions. "The world wants to put you into a box."

    His covert affair started 10 years ago. "One day when I was in my forties, a Porsche 356C drove by and something inside me jumped. I read everything I could get my hands on, then started going to auto shows. I was just delighted without knowing why—being around old cars gave me joy."

    Unlike a simple speed freak, Morhaim revels in the gestalt of race cars, the total aesthetic, kinetic experience. "Attachment to cars is a complex thing," he tells me, ticking off the models he owns (Porsche 911S, MG TC, BMW M5). "Going fast around a track is only one aspect of it. There's the beautiful machine, its provenance, the sense of connecting your limited body to something much more powerful. There's an amazing sense of immediacy, of being completely present. Lose your focus and it's all over."

    During a three-day racing class last year, Morhaim learned this lesson the hard way. "I lost concentration, spun out on a curve. I was scared to death, but it taught me two things: I'm not the hot dog I might have been ten years ago; and there's a crucial difference between fearlessness and bravery. I've never been fearless, but I can be brave, even in the face of terror. That's a useful thing to know."

    It's helpful, too, that he's old enough to have stopped caring too much what others think. "You suddenly realize you can do all these things in your life that don't fit some idea you had of who you thought you had to be—and these surprises can give you great pleasure."

    "How do you find them?"

    "They find you. You happen upon them. Just like a lover," Morhaim says. He scoffs at the assumption that fast cars mask a midlife crisis. "Every man I know in his late forties has a very focused sense of what fifty to sixty-five means. We know this is the last chunk of time we have to do the things that men do. That's not a crisis—it's knowing yourself and what you really love." And so what if the high smacks of teenage nostalgia? "If you were having a great time at nineteen, what's wrong with recapturing some of that? As long as it's not a thumb in your mouth to avoid the world," insists Morhaim, "it's only a good thing."

    Learning From Heroes

    I got a master's for this?" says Dale Napolin Flaste, laughing as she recalls her duel with the carpenter ants. We're in her cluttered, nondescript office on a downscale street in Fort Lauderdale, talking about her unlikely journey from dutiful wife to social worker—living her dream with her heart in her mouth and a can of Black Flag in her pocketbook.

    "My client's apartment was throbbing with ants, and I was wearing open-toed shoes. They're stinging my feet and I'm spraying the room, thinking, Dale, you are one crazy cookie." It's obvious when you meet Flaste that she may be a lot of things—I'd defy anyone to stand in her way—but crazy isn't one of them. "Throw me into a fire," she tells me, "and I will figure out what to do."

    She didn't always know this so clearly. "Not until I started spending my days with heroes did I know the true depth of my strength." The heroes Flaste is referring to are the women and children with HIV and their families who come to her office for help. "We become their voice in the world," she tells me. "Their sisters, mothers, confidantes—their godparents, birthing partners and finally their dying partners." Above Flaste's desk at the Children's Diagnostic and Treatment Center is a bulletin board covered with photos of clients, many of whom are deceased. While talking, she surveys their faces without a trace of morbidity. "I feel like the luckiest woman on earth."

    In 1995, she moved from Brooklyn to Florida with her soon-to-be ex to give their withering marriage some sun (and to escape New York taxes). Their two children were already grown. One day, on a sailboat-shopping excursion, they drove past the building we're sitting in now, and Flaste felt the tap of fate on her shoulder. Years before, she'd volunteered at a summer camp for families with AIDS. "I promised myself that if I could ever work with this population, I would."

    One door opened, another closed. Flaste got the job, but her marriage fizzled. "I was fifty-two, single and living alone for the first time since I was twenty. I could make of my life whatever I wanted—everything was in front of me." This freedom was scary but empowering, fraught with terrors such as romance and dating. "If no one except your husband has seen you naked for thirty-two years, the thought can fill you with absolute panic." Flaste joined a gym, slimmed down and, after kissing a few frogs, met an exiled Cuban jazz saxophonist who became her prince and current steady.

    I rush to keep pace as we exit the building and cross the empty parking lot to the snappy white number Flaste got on a trade-in for the hideous family minivan. "It's fine to go the comfy route. But if you choose that way of life, be prepared to start losing your brain cells fast."

    "You ever wonder how you got here?"

    "All the time. Like a revelation." She waves to a lady in spandex pants, holding a toddler by the hand. "But taking a woman from close to death, living in squalor with kids who are sick and feeling that she has no options in life—to help that woman to robust health, a nice apartment, a decent job, healthy kids who can use her as a role model..." Flaste's voice trails off as the lady smiles and carries her little girl into the building. "If that doesn't fill a person with joy, I don't know what would."

    The park was cold the next time we met. Florence and I were in the boathouse, looking out at the glassy lake. "Joy is pleasure with awe in it," she said, watching a V of Canada geese taking off for parts unknown.

    "Awe and courage…"

    "Being surprised."

    "I am surprised," I told her then. "Surprised that I'm alive at all." The moment I said this, something shifted. As if, like a flame, I were being rekindled. Florence took my hand and asked, "Isn't that a good place to start?"

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