No cure for the summertime blues? Because here we are. The dog days. Our town passed hot ten degrees back, and now the prospect of sundown teases us from lengthening shadows – the air remains torpid even though the mid-day heat has broken. We share complaints with neighbors about how the heat makes everything seem harder: yard work, house work, breathing. Doldrums, we got ‘em. Joy, not so much.
I don’t blame the weather; I blame adulthood – you know, in the worst sense of the word: that slow aggregation of mundane responsibilities pouring down like tiny grains of sand until the grains fill a sack the size of a corpse. What chance does honest joy have? Such is the grim feel of an over-burdened life.
But hot luck hits on this over-baked day. While we adults stand outdoors looking for a breeze and commiserating about the oppressive heat, my neighbor’s young grand-daughter, fresh from ballet class, runs out into the yard and begins to prance and leap, defying the heat and happily ignoring the nearby grown-ups. She is drunk on childhood, on the urge to dance, and freshly cut grass. She draws spinning coils in the air with her arms and flicks her feet at the sky. She is so unconcerned about being silly that she makes the rest of us look like sclerotic idiots.
In that moment she becomes a living reminder of a small photograph that I keep on my office shelf – a completely different subject but showing the same magical spirit: sheer joy magnified to dazzling levels. I clipped the shot from a Sunday newspaper, something I’ve never done before. The frame cost more than a year’s subscription, such was the power of the image. It was snapped from a moving train, capturing a young boy of about twelve and a younger girl of eight or nine. They are astride a galloping horse directly outside the train car’s window. Their shared features indicate that she is his sister, and we can’t help but notice she is blithely trusting her big brother with her life.
But the killer element is in their faces. The boy and his sister are beaming straight at the camera. She appears to be shrieking in exuberance, and both show no concern for the running beast, the rushing ground, the train close enough to crush them. The photo makes you want to shout, “No! Get away from the train!” And with good reason. We who are seasoned by an adulthood filled with train wrecks clearly see their peril. One slip from that horse and they could go straight under the steel wheels. The drama is only intensified by the fact that they obviously don’t care. Talk about conflict – hating their recklessness and envying such effortless joy.
The photo was taken on another hot day, with the boy wearing only shorts and mud boots, while his sister is barefoot in a light cotton dress. She sits behind him showing unrestrained glee, legs gripping the animal’s flanks while her hands grasp back of the saddle. The horse has no reins and the boy is only holding onto a rope loosely tied around the animal’s neck. He rides tall in the saddle but his feet swing free because the stirrups are too long. Why didn’t they take the time to adjust them? Did they steal that horse? Are they out for a joy ride? Either way, they’re on one.
And those two little maniacs are as happy as any two people I have ever seen. Like the backyard ballerina, they have abandoned themselves to a joyful moment and are drinking of its sweetness so deeply that they will simply not allow any other concerns.
We realists know they could have suffered a bad end. Even the lawn dancer might have kicked a hidden sprinkler head and ruined her feet for the season. Life teaches us that caution is a good thing. It’s just that sometimes life teaches us too much and we become joyless lumps struggling under the load of our accumulated sandbags of endless adult worries.
And so while I celebrate that slow accretion of knowledge which has protected me from the consequences of foolish risk, invisible me nevertheless dances across the fresh-cut grass and cares nothing for hidden obstacles. Invisible me leaps from the window of that train and onto that horse’s back, peeling off across the countryside with the two sibling hooligans. We scream our defiance of danger into the overheated air and inhale joy from the breeze.
We can never have enough joy running through us until we unleash our invisible backyard dancers and allow our dream selves to gallop headlong into the wind. Because we know, without being told, that no matter how long we live it will be over all too soon, and that time stolen for joy is theft well done.
- Anthony Flacco