The young woman stood with her arms held awkwardly away from her body, like a frightened baby bird learning to fly. Her hands trembled as she spoke into the microphone, telling the small crowd that she loved to sing but was not used to doing it in public. A heavy summer rain lashed the windows of the tiny restaurant tucked away in Morrisville, Vermont, and thunder beat a drum outside. It was Open Mic Night at The Bees Knees.
Life conditions us to search for joy in the extraordinary; a warm, white beach in Hawaii, for instance, on a vacation from the daily grind. Or a milestone birthday party, where the guest list reflects and validates the winding path of your life. When happiness lies in plain sight, however, disguising itself as a chore or tucking itself among the mundane, it can be difficult to recognize. But these unexpected moments have the hidden brilliance of a diamond in the rough. And on our first day of a thousand mile road trip to Canada, we would be lucky enough to find one.
Maine’s parting gift to the traveling Dubrows was a big, scary looking tick, clamped to the top of Ado’s big, round head. As The Oddy headed Northwest out of Bayside, we dropped the ugly bug in the mailbox–wrapped in a moistened paper towel inside a Ziploc bag—addressed to the University Of Massachusetts’ Tick Assessment Laboratory. Filling out the “Tick Requisition Form” was a bizarre experience, but since Lyme disease is a very real threat in the Northeast, we had to find out if Ado’s little stowaway was a carrier.
The pastoral, picture book countryside of northern Vermont flowed by outside as we drove tiny, two-lane roads toward the border, our plan to camp in the White Mountains scuttled by an abnormally cold summer storm. A metal roofed barn with a wooden replica of an American flag covering one side and a covered bridge on an old road going nowhere made us feel like like we had time traveled to the turn of the 20th century. Marley, a doggie dowager at the ripe age of fifteen, slept on the floor, the kid’s dangling bare feet brushing her still glossy, soft coat. We were all feeling disappointed in the weather and a little aimless when we finally pulled into Morrisville, Vermont to look for food and a place to sleep. White string lights twinkled outside the The Bees Knees Restaurant, beckoning us inside.
Despite the storm, the place was nearly full on this Saturday evening, dark and cozy, with an organic, local menu. We ordered cassoulet, tofu salad, and creamy Vermont cheddar mac-n-cheese, marveling that we would not have to eat Big Macs or bad motel food. Griff made a paper airplane and when he flew it, the man at the next table caught it in mid air, laughing, and swooshed it right back. The sound of a guitar and singing floated back from the bar, where amateurs of various skill levels reveled in the momentary spotlight. The warm, welcoming vibe of this unfamiliar spot we had never planned to visit made the washout of our camping trip begin to feel more like a blessing.
It is not only adults who have trouble identifying happiness when it comes unattached to anything planned or special. One early morning, the air outside our open windows still unruffled by the promise of heat, Griffin crawled into bed with me and Ethan, snuggling into the warm hollows of our bodies.
“I want to tell you both something,” he said after a few minutes, removing the thumb he still sucks from his mouth to talk. “Sometimes my stomach fills up with something. I don’t know what it is, but it goes up to my heart and it feels really big.”
“I think what you’re feeling, baby,” I said, smiling at his accurate description, “is joy.” His sleepy slate blue eyes looked at me, contemplating the idea that the simple (and in our house, ordinary) act of jumping into bed with mom and dad could spark such happiness.
“I like the way it feels, mommy” he said. “Like I can do anything.” Now I feel that teaching my children to acknowledge and appreciate moments like this–simple, precious and free—is one of the most important jobs of my life.
When we got up to leave the restaurant, the sky loosed a downpour worthy of Noah’s Ark. We stood in the bar, gathering the courage to run for it, and watched a toddler with curly blonde hair walk to the door and look expectantly back at her father. When he nodded yes to her unspoken question, the little girl toddled onto the sidewalk, dancing in the rain with the abandon of a whirling dervish. Soaked, she ran back inside, the droplets in her hair sparkling gold in the bar’s low lights. The feeling Griffin had described started to squeeze my heart, softly, like a grandmother’s hug–and then, it was the nervous young woman’s turn at the microphone.
She began Ingrid Michaelson’s “The Way I Am” hesitantly, her voice as wobbly as the toddler, her eyes staring over the audience’s heads, as if she’d read somewhere that this was the way to beat stage fright.
“If you were falling, then I would catch you,”
she sang, “you need a light, I’d find a match.” She closed her eyes and dug deep, trying to forget people were listening. “’Cause I love the way you say good morning, and you take me the way I am.” As she found her wings, her voice began to soar, its strength and purity stopping all chatter, and the awkward small town rookie blew the crowd away.
The changes and challenges of moving into mid life have allowed me to recognize small, unexpected joys more quickly. An extra half-hour of sleep stolen in the morning. Or hearing Marley’s paws clicking as she climbs the stairs, her arthritic hips shaking with effort but her doggy face so pleased to be near us. Or a brave, luminous girl in a country bar singing songs I’ve never heard. The rain let up as she finished to wild applause, as if even Mother Nature were awed, and Ethan and I walked to the Oddy carrying two tired, happy kids. Instead of camping, we would sleep at the Sunset Motel on U.S. Highway 2, but that somehow felt right. We had ended up in Morrisville by accident, but it was exactly where we were supposed to be.