As an amputee, Paralympics silver medalist, Harvard graduate and single mom, Bonnie St. John has had more than her share of challenges and triumphs. In her new book, “Live Your Joy,” the accomplished mom sheds light on her own inspiring experiences and offers simple tricks and methods to increase one's pursuit of joy. Here’s an excerpt:
Living in New York City, you get all kinds of houseguests. People come in from out of town, and, mindful of the exorbitant costs associated with a hotel room in our delightful village, you always invite them to stay with you in your home. If you don’t live in the city, you may have some grand, Hollywood-ized idea of what a New York City apartment is like — sweeping staircases leading to a second floor, soaring ceilings, elevator doors that open into a grand foyer... Forget it. The average apartment in Manhattan is smaller than most people’s kitchens. Every square inch of space is maximized to the hilt. In my first NYC apartment, the kitchen was in the living room, you had to fold up the dining room table to watch television, and you could sit on the toilet to brush your teeth. I once had an estimate done to have the whole place carpeted, and it came out to be less than a lunch at McDonald’s.
It was in this phone booth (anybody remember phone booths?) of a home that I found myself faced with an entirely unwelcome visitor. He was this huge, hulking, unkempt man with greasy hair and brown teeth who had rudely plopped himself down, rather like Jabba the Hutt, into my favorite leather easy chair. His clothes had a decidedly tacky style — sort of like the tattered, ersatz top-hat-and-tails of a traveling carnival barker. I could smell the stink of his breath as I sat on the sofa across the room (which meant our knees were practically touching). As he spoke, he wildly gesticulated his arms — wafting waves of putrid body odor all over my Lilliputian living room — and all over me.
We were, as always, arguing. And as usual, he was winning. The familiar frustration of this interplay bubbled up inside me to a fever pitch. I became consumed by it. Nothing else seemed important but this maddening battle of words and feelings. Suddenly, I remembered: this was my house! That was my beautiful chair his filthy butt was defiling. How dare he treat me that way! Here, of all places! I mustered the strength to ask him to leave.
He left without any objections and I found I almost missed him. That’s odd, I thought. I so hate having him around, but the peace and quiet I experience when he leaves is a bit unnerving.
A few minutes later he knocked on the door. I hesitated for a moment, but before I even realized what I was doing I had invited him back in. “I’m hungry,” he bellowed.
As he lumbered toward the kitchen, he hocked up a big, gooey mouthful of snot and spat on my polished hardwood floor. I thought I was going to vomit. Instead, I choked back my disgust and began to fix him a sandwich. I thought if I gave him some lunch he’d leave me alone.
“Pickles?” I asked.
He bent over, pointed his enormous fanny in my direction, and let out an earthshaking fart that, I’m pretty sure, indicated he wasn’t interested in pickles.
As he ate the sandwich, he insulted the clothes I was wearing, told me I was fatter than the last time he saw me, that my hair looked like a rat’s nest, and that my next project at work would probably fail. I felt perfectly awful around him, but for some insane reason —like rubbernecking an accident on the freeway — I couldn’t stop listening and ingesting his diatribe. As if that wasn’t enough, in a blur of astonishingly bad judgment, I once again offered to let him sleep on my sofa.
Sound absurd? Yes, of course it is. “Mr. Smelly,” as I like to call him, isn’t a real person at all. For me he is a symbol, a metaphor for the way I sometimes treat myself in my own personal space between my ears: my mind.
Inside our heads we all have our own Mr. Smellys. Shabby, mean, irritable interlopers that we not only let in, but we entertain, feed, and allow to take refuge in the already cramped chambers of our mental homes. Choosing joy is often about clearing out the clutter and making space for the thoughts, memories, and beliefs that lift us up; and, by doing so, bumping aside the ones that pull us down. It sounds so simple, yet I certainly know how easy it is to focus on the things that irritate me — often to the complete exclusion of anything that brings me joy. The irritants demand our attention — joy doesn’t. We are forced to consciously pay attention to Mr. Smelly’s invasions. The trick is to have the strength and courage to triumph over them.
I once asked a therapist friend of mine, “Have you noticed any patterns? Of all the people you talk to in your practice, what are the most common causes of pain and suffering? Disabilities? Divorce?”
As a motivational speaker, coach, and inspirational author, I was interested in which problems were the most universal. I will never forget his answer: “Relationships are the source of our most intense misery. While relationships can bring us the greatest joy, they can, and do, cause us our greatest agony.”
That answer seems right to me. My struggles to keep my life, my thoughts, and my words joyful are most often defeated by what is happening in the relationships I care about.
Most recently I found myself profoundly affected by a situation with a distant cousin (which is how I refer to any family member I’m not exactly sure how I’m related to) who I felt was being abusive toward her three young sons. She lives a couple of hours away from me, but I would hear a story about something she had done to her children and feel absolutely sick (like the time she spent $20,000 on cosmetic surgery and then ended up getting her car repossessed because she couldn’t pay the bills). Of course, she coerced her ex-husband or latest boyfriend into bailing her out of these situations by using her children as a lever. She routinely enlisted the boys as a weapon in her long and tumultuous divorce by creating painful dramas designed to make the kids suffer and then blaming their father. Each time I would hear about her latest form of selfishly acting out, I felt so bad for the children that it would haunt me for days. Sometimes these stories dredged up memories from my own difficult childhood with an abusive stepfather and an emotional, unpredictable mother, causing me to relive my own traumas.
I tried to help in small ways. When I could, I took the boys out for an afternoon. We would play in the park, laughing and swinging on the jungle gym, or spend time in a diner just coloring pictures and talking. Their little faces always lit up at the prospect of escaping the lunacy of their home life for a while. Still, they would rush to their mother’s defense at the drop of a hat because they had been taught she was a helpless victim. Instead of having a mother who took care of them, they tried to take care of her. I started to realize that their mother probably had a serious alcohol problem. I felt so powerless to do anything. I talked with other family members about trying to get the kids away from her, but since she dresses nicely and is very good at manipulating everyone around her (especially men), we were advised that the attempt would most likely fail and leave the kids even more traumatized.
Thinking about those boys was like a steamroller crushing my joy. I knew that. But I also felt guilty not thinking about them. Would that mean I was a callous, uncaring person? How could I, in good, loving conscience, simply ignore this kind of abuse? Especially since my own abuse had been ignored when I was their age.
I obsessed about what was happening to the boys. I would find myself staring off into space when I was supposed to be putting on my makeup. In the bathtub I would catch myself dwelling on whether they would end up having a string of bad relationships because of what they were going through now. I spent hours trying to think of conversations I could have with them when they were old enough to understand and start healing. I knew these internal monologues of mine were useless, but there they were, like Mr. Smelly, stuck in my world, monopolizing my thoughts. Sure, I could kick him out for a while, but minutes later I would be shocked to find him back, making himself comfortable in my house all over again.
I prayed for help to be more at peace and to turn the situation over to God. I realized that the inordinate amount of time I was spending worrying about a situation I couldn’t fix not only was stealing my joy, my energy, and my attention, it was siphoning off my focus on my own child. I reminded myself to focus on the job God gave me, which was to be a good mother to Darcy. As a busy parent, I never have as much time as I would like to spend really thinking about my wonderful daughter and connecting with her on physical, spiritual, and emotional levels. How ridiculous to pour out such tremendous amounts of energy on children I can’t parent when I could put all that attention on the one child I can parent!
I began to wage a battle against the disturbing thoughts of my cousin and her family with thoughts of love and joy for my own daughter. One day, when I caught myself dwelling on all the damage a selfish, destructive, alcoholic parent can do, I instead just chose to close my eyes and conjure up the memory of Darcy’s last swim meet.
It was a crisp fall day in New York. From my taxi I could see the trees of Central Park adorned with the brilliant hues of autumn. I’m always struck by the majesty of nature at this time of year. The meet was an “away” match at Trinity, a school on the Upper West Side. I found a place on the bleachers with the other parents and watched the kids nonchalantly dallying around the edge of the pool, waiting for their turn to hit the water. I talked to a Trinity mom on my left, laughing when we got splashed by the lane closest to our feet. I saw Darcy walking up to the edge of the pool, in her red uniform swimsuit, preparing for her race. My goodness, when did she get so big? That helpless little bundle I used to carry around was now intensely focused on the competition before her. This was Darcy’s first year in competitive swimming, and she was determined to give it her all. She stepped up onto the block in a line with three other girls. She started out too afraid to dive off the blocks and had insisted on starting in the water. But here she was one month later, diving off with the others.
So it’s to be a relay. Oh, good, this is her favorite event.
Bang! The starter gun fired and she dove into the lane. Yikes, she was the first one out! She needed to set the pace for the whole relay team! My heart jumped into my throat, which was a bit dangerous since I was screaming with all my might to cheer her on. You see, we parents think our kids can actually hear us shouting even though they are underwater. Oh, just let us have our fantasy.
Was that a flip turn? From the girl who refused to ever put her face in the water? Wow. They really do grow up in the blink of an eye. There she was, pumping her arms like pistons. I watched her head turn to grab a quick breath with the regularity of a machine. I was lost in a tidal wave of memories and emotions.
Wait a second; she’s in the lead. She’s in the lead! My baby is winning! Go, Darcy!
It still gives me a shiver just to think about it. I don’t remember if her team won the relay, or even if her school emerged victorious over Trinity. All I remember was the look of fierce determination on her face during the race, and then the ear-to-ear smile she flashed me when it was over.
“Did you see that, Mom?” I sure did.
At the end of the meet I asked the coach if I could ride the bus back to school (I wanted to save the taxi fare back to the East Side). “Of course!” he said. “Ride with us!”
What I wasn’t prepared for was how excited Darcy got about me participating in her life this way.
“Really? You’re going to ride on the bus with us? That’s so great!” she said. “C’mon. You have to have the whole experience.”
She took my hand and pulled me toward the locker room. “Look. You can see behind the scenes.”
I felt embarrassed about going with her, but I was so glad that she wanted me to come. She wanted her friends to meet me, and she wanted me to see into her life, too. “Look, everybody! My mom is in the locker room!”
She laughed and went off to use the bathroom, leaving me near the crowd of seventh graders who were changing, talking, and laughing. The hot topic today was the upcoming puberty classes at school (aka Sex Ed).
“I have to be in a discussion group with Ryan! Can you believe that? I am going to be soooo embarrassed.”
“It’s worse for me; there are only two girls in my group — the rest are all boys, like Martin, Jeremy and ... ewwww ... Justin!”
Darcy came back to rescue me and we headed for the bus. She negotiated where her friends would sit, since I was disrupting the usual arrangements. She proudly sat next to me on the hard green school-bus seats near the front. I was so thrilled that my thirteen-year-old still liked having me around and wasn’t (yet) trying to pretend she didn’t know me in front of her friends.
This was a moment I will cherish forever. I believe Darcy will, too. For the rest of my life, I can have that feeling, that memory, that thrill at any time, in any place. Those moments are burned into my heart forever. Take that, Mr. Smelly!
The Joy of Waffles
A woman I know named Michelle told me a story about waffles. Not about eating them, although that’s part of it. Remember, even though scarfing down a big batch of Belgian waffles, slathered in strawberry goo and topped with a mountain of whipped cream, is true happiness in my book, in the book you’re reading we’re dealing with joy; a deeper, more ultimately satisfying emotion. Even when it comes to waffles.
Michelle has two nephews she just adores — and they adore their aunt Michelle. She often has them over to her home for sleepovers when her sister is traveling. One of their favorite pastimes is to snuggle up on the couch with a big bowl of popcorn and watch movies together. Being ages six and three and being boys, the sillier the movie, the better. Their favorite is that classic tale of knights in shining armor, fairy-tale princesses, dragon slayings, and other such noble goofing around: Shrek. For those of you who haven’t seen the movie or read the book by William Steig, the story is a very clever send-up of the old “prince rescues a princess, they fall in love, and live happily ever after” saga. The prince, in this case, is an unlikely hero in that he’s a great, green ogre (voiced by Mike Myers in one of his best performances) named Shrek. His comic sidekick is a talking donkey (brilliantly portrayed by Eddie Murphy) who tags along helping/bothering the big green guy with some of the most delightful comic banter since Abbott and Costello.
Here’s where the waffles come in. In one of the early scenes, despite Shrek’s objections, Donkey convinces his new buddy to let him spend a night at his house. He excitedly goes on and on about how they’re going to “stay up late, swap manly stories ... and in the morning, I’m gonna make waffles!”
Murphy’s hysterically funny delivery of this line became an iconic moment in this hugely successful film, and lives near and dear to almost everyone who sees it — particularly Michelle’s nephews. Not only do they love this line that makes them giggle whenever they hear it, they love to eat waffles. So, what do you think Auntie Michelle makes for them every time they visit? You got it. Before they arrive, Michelle gleefully goes shopping and tries to find the creamiest whipped cream, their favorite choices of toppings, and the tastiest batter. Just thinking about their little faces around the breakfast table brings her an overwhelming sense of joy.
Michelle’s entire persona lit up when she told me this story. That’s the way joy works. It can wash over you like a wave. The catalyst comes from anywhere — a look from a loved one, a memory that pops into your head, a smell, a taste, a piece of music, and, yes, even waffles!
Excerpted from “Live Your Joy” by Bonnie St. John. Copyright (c) 2009. reprinted with permission from Hachette Book Group.