July 4th, Simple Pleasures and the Pursuit of Joy

Happy SparklersOn the Fourth of July, I was reminded of how delicious simple pleasures can be. This year, my family enjoyed the holiday at home. We usually spend the day at my parents’, where we join my brother’s family and sometimes friends. But this year, since we live closer to some of the big firework displays in Houston, we invited everyone over, instead.

In preparation for the day, we set about cleaning and sprucing up the house—decorating the yard and putting together a brand new outdoor barbecue pit. Everyone—my husband, Jon, and the kids pitched in. We moved tables, picked flowers and finalized the menu. We even shopped together, dividing up the food list and spanning out in different directions, each with his or her own shopping cart, throughout the grocery store. By the time the doorbell started to ring, we had rearranged the furniture in a way, we agreed after much debate, that would make everyone more comfortable and included. We’d already  set out everyone’s favorite snacks.

This is not unusual, you might be thinking. This is how everyone prepares for a social gathering in their home. Perhaps. But for me, this year, the preparation was a family endeavor, which made it a different day altogether. For me, the person who is usually running around like a headless chicken trying to do all of the planning and arranging herself, this was a welcome shift in family dynamic. And it made for a lovely Fourth of July really before the festivities had even begun.

At some point during the day as we were talking, laughing, drinking wine and snacking, my nephew, who was sitting on the sofa, took a picture of Jon hovering over the barbecue outside. The picture shows the window frame through which my nephew took the shot. Jon is looking down at his arrangement of sizzling chicken and hamburgers with intense concentration, as charcoal and meat fat smoke billows around him. My nephew sends the picture to all of our phones. He thinks this is funny–his uncle so involved in cooking outside in the heat, while we are lounging comfortably in the cool air-conditioned indoors.  I love this picture. Firstly, I love it because Jon hasn’t barbequed in years. It reminds me that he used to barbecue almost every weekend when we were a young career couple living in Malibu, with our tiny children. (yes, many, many years ago) And now here he is back at it. I am thankful that he is back at it— with a simple barbecue pit, like we had in the beginning of our marriage. I am thankful, after a frightening year coping with his frightening illness, that he is here standing over his chicken and burgers—consumed in thought and smoke.

After dinner, we all traverse to our roof deck to watch the fireworks.  It is dark and the sky is mostly clear. The heat has waned enough that we are comfortable outdoors. For some inexplicable reason, the mosquitoes decide to be somewhere else this evening.  And so we are able to wait patiently for the fireworks to begin. We’ll have Herman Park fireworks to the east and Rice University fireworks to the south. But there is no sign or sound that either of those displays have begun yet. So my nephew says, “ let’s light our sparklers.” To our delight, he’d brought a big bag of sparklers.  We lit the long silver wands —one by one and two at a time.  As they sprayed out white sparks that looked like long and short glowing dashes and dots, we danced around with them.  We made circles and lines in space with them. We posed like the statue of liberty. The boys staged sparkler sword fights, and we broke out in spontaneous outbursts of patriotic song.  Then we opened the package of colored sparklers and started the revelry all over again.  My father settled himself into a lawn chair and with a glass of wine in one hand and a camera phone in the other, he watched his wife, children and grandchildren being silly and recorded some of it on our behalf.

I will never tire of sparklers- that initial burst of light and fizzle.  How the sparks rain down to the ground—onto your feet, and you never know which of those little pieces of fire will burn and which won’t. That is part of the fun and mystery of sparklers- how you can hold a dangerous firework in your hand. How is it that sparklers can spew out flames and not set your hand on fire? Why is it that one or two little sparks out of the hundreds do burn your foot, a quick, fleeting hurt that reminds you that though benign, the sparkler in your hand is still a bit dangerous.  And isn’t that one of the reasons we love them, because we love danger in little doses?  Sparklers are little doses of danger, with fleeting lives that are glorious and all-consuming, but so short, so short. When they sputter, end and go dark, don’t you always feel a tiny twinge of disappointment mixed with awe? And doesn’t that twinge of disappointment grow bigger and bigger as your bag of sparklers empties out?

Sparklers bring back, for me, a beautiful childhood, where the thrill of the Fourth of July, from the firework in my hand to the humongous explosions overhead, represented spontaneous joy and endless amazement, and where most of my disappointments were the size of this end-of-sparkler-blaze twinge–tiny. And where simple pleasures loomed large enough to be remembered and called upon decades into adulthood.

I hope today will be one of those days my family can call upon later. I hope that the simple pleasures of a Fourth of July at home are seeds planted within that will grow into huge nostalgia trees, with roots strong enough to stay put no matter what else life brings along. I hope they get the same reminder that I did this holiday—that when you are seeking joy, sometimes (almost always) the purest, most meaningful way to find it– is to go simple.

And it doesn’t matter if the joy is fleeting, as long as it sticks.

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