Why I’d like to enroll in Neve’s School for Unabashedly Expressing Joy

IMG_4002.JPGI’m pretty sure I was the world’s least fun kid. (Sorry, Mom and Dad.)

I wasn’t ticklish (except for mild sensitivity on the bottoms of my feet), so there were no bouts of me rolling around on the floor, giggling helplessly.

And from Jump Street, the details of the whole Santa/Easter Bunny thing just DIDN’T. ADD. UP. (Why would just some reindeer fly, while most did not? And going to everyone’s house in one night? That’s just not logistically possible, man. Ditto on carrying presents for everyone in a single sleigh. I mean, didn’t the physical laws of science still apply?)

As the family’s middle kid, I desperately wanted to be identified as super-smart and precocious. I longed to be listened to and taken as seriously as an adult (which I felt I was, albeit in a kid’s body). So I went through a second grade phase where I’d order coffee in restaurants (and add a billion packets of sugar just to get it down); and though I had a dry sense of humor and pretty solid mimicry skills, I was stingy with my own laughter – to the point that one of my more boisterous middle school teachers gave me the nickname “Dip-n-Stiff” (emphasis on the “stiff”) and regularly said things like, “Careful, McKee. Don’t smile, or your face will crack!”

So … yeah. Not your most happy-go-lucky kid.

By contrast, there’s Neve, my chirpy spark plug of a seven year old, who loved the “Mary Poppins Returns” movie and soundtrack so much that while listening to its closing number (“Nowhere to Go But Up”) for the billionth time on a recent afternoon, she could barely contain herself. She ran to the den for a piece of paper, starting drawing a hand with a finger pointing upward, and a balloon, and a few words that are points of emphasis in the song’s lyrics.

After furiously cutting around each item, Neve started the song again and danced around the kitchen, staying close to the table so she could grab the hand and point it skyward each time the word “up” was sung, and she skipped around with her small paper balloon over her head. 


This child.

She regularly shows me, in my middle age, what unashamed, unharnessed joy looks and feels like. Listening to this song she loved wasn’t enough. It wasn’t cutting it. She needed to engage with it further somehow, dive into it more completely, and this spontaneous paper project did the trick. She performed her choreography with focus and a joyful zeal.

“I love you for so many reasons, kiddo,” I told her that night, while snuggling her to sleep, “but one of my absolute favorite things about you is the way you openly express yourself when you’re happy. I didn’t really do that when I was a kid. I felt like I had to keep this tight control over myself, or people wouldn’t listen to me or take me seriously. But I love seeing you dance and have ideas like those pictures you drew.”

“I know, Mama,” she said.

Feeling seen and appreciated for being the little jumping-bean she is is something Neve simply assumes at this point. It’s home base for her. So I don’t think my words necessarily left an impact.

But I’m pretty sure that our overwhelming love for her is precisely what gives her license to unabashedly bliss out on the daily.

I myself still struggle to embrace and express joy openly when it comes – old habits die hard, I’m afraid – but I will say this: learning how it’s done from a seven year old pro is a pleasure in itself. And a good start.

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