Wednesday, April 2, 2014

To Make You Feel This Way

Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy 
Sunshine in my eyes can make me cry
Sunshine on the water looks so lovely
Sunshine almost always makes me high

If I had a day that I could give you
I'd give to you a day just like today
If I had a song that I could sing for you 
I'd sing a song to make you feel this way

- from "Sunshine on My Shoulders" on John Denver's album Poems, Prayers, and Promises

Forty years ago today, John Denver earned his first #1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 with "Sunshine on My Shoulders." I can relate to Denver's recollection of the dreary, late winter day that inspired the song. "The snow was melting and it was too cold to go outside and have fun, but God, you're ready for spring. You want to get outdoors again, and you're waiting for that sun to shine, and you remember how sometimes just the sun itself can make you feel good. And in that very melancholy frame of mind, I wrote 'Sunshine on my Shoulders.'"

I found myself humming this old favorite today as the morning sunshine flooded my little car. Feeling the warm sun on my skin once again, my heart seemed lighter. After a particularly long winter, spring had finally come.

Sunshine is sweetest at the onset of spring. When the bitterness of winter is fresh in our minds, we can best celebrate the first sensation of sun on our skin. It is in experiencing the cold, cabin-fever-filled days of winter that we learn to love the freedom and newness in spring. 

John Denver was able to write a joyful song in the midst of melancholy. So strong was his yearning for spring, he was able to capture some of its warmth just by contemplating what was surely to come.

This week - just as spring began in earnest in western North Carolina - a survey was reported. For the second year running, the community I live in was listed as the fifth most miserable area in the United States.

The news spread quickly on Facebook. Sharing their initial reaction, friends either lambasted the survey's findings and methods or lamented the fact that the greater Hickory-Lenoir-Morganton area was going to become known as a misery hub. Some even agreed that we do, in fact, live in a place worthy of such an unfortunate distinction.  

The survey pointed toward economics as being an important factor in the community's sense of misery. The large and ever-increasing income disparity is hard to ignore in Hickory, Lenoir, and Morganton. Our median household income continues to rank among the lowest in the nation at $37,364. The real economic hardships experienced by our citizens seem to go ignored by politicians and business leaders. 

I believe some of the most misery-inducing issues aren't listed as indicators on the survey. Our region struggles from decades-old, ingrained racism. The good ol' boy system is still very much in place. Patriarchy persists. Equality seems a distant hope for many. Bottom-line concerns rule most business decisions. Consumers visit big box stores far more often than supporting local farmers or artisans. The needs of our struggling neighbors are unknown or ignored. Natural resources are politicized and spoken about as commodities rather than beautiful gifts to be protected. 

While our area is dealing with especially harsh, prolonged economic depression, we aren't really so different than any other community in the United States. There is much that leads to misery here and throughout our land.

But maybe we can hasten spring. Perhaps, as we live in the bitter cold of unfair economic realities and the isolation that comes from believing in the false promise of the American dream, we can yearn and strive for something better. 

I've always felt a little like an outsider here. I was born in West Virginia, and in my heart, that's always been home. Though I've lived most of my years in North Carolina, I never felt truly accepted growing up. Because generations of my ancestors lived in the West Virginia hills rather than the smaller ones of North Carolina, I was seen as 'new' and 'different.' My parents experienced the worst of our neighbors' derision. Dismissed as hillbillies or hippies, they finally moved back to the Mountain State. They're now embraced as full members of their community, with meaningful gifts and insight to share.

I've been tempted more than a time or two to call it quits here myself. But each time I come close to packing up my furniture and shaking the Carolina clay from my shoes, I choose to stay.

It's gotten easier. At the same time my area has apparently become more miserable, I've become more content and happy. And I'm convinced it's no accident.

I have tried to be open to the goodness around me. Yes - I continue to be frustrated by inept and out-of-touch politicians. I mourn for the loss of our environment. I despise a system that leaves out the 'least' among us. But goodness does remain. 

It's hard for me to sense much of a connection to this patch of earth. Six hours north, and I'm in heaven. I experience a soulful bond to the mountains my people have spent years exploring. But it's becoming more and more clear that I've been placed here. As much as I struggle against the fact, I am making my home in North Carolina.

It often occurs to me - especially when I'm feeling particularly homesick for my parents or the rolling West Virginia hills - that most of the people I love are concentrated in Hickory, Lenoir, and Morganton. It's a mystery to me how so many incredible people have found their way to this little community in western North Carolina. 

Could 'home' really be where your heart is? If that's the case, then I must be where I should be. Because my heart is wrapped up in the people I love in this sometimes-frustrating region. 

Last weekend, I enjoyed a fabulous birthday party. I'm not much for crowds. Or noise. Or parties for that matter. But I always love having my friends over. It's because I feel like I have the most diverse, amazing group of friends. 
Enjoying great friends at my prohibiton-era themed birthday party

Some are pastors. A couple are drag queens. Many of them are artists, musicians, or teachers. Lots are in their twenties and thirties, but a good number of them are my parents' age or older. Democrats and Republicans are represented. Christians, Jews, Hindus, Pagans, and those professing no faith are all dear to my heart.

I never fail to hear several people exclaim how much they love my parties. I don't boast cool games, catered food, or the choicest wine. It's conversation and connection. My friends - different as they are - come to find they really enjoy one another. They become open to the goodness that surrounds them. 

The secret is, I haven't really done anything to deserve these remarkable friendships. All I've done is been open. And once we cross each other's paths, it's up to us to nourish the initial spark of recognition. Relationships blossom. Years pass, and you suddenly realize your life is full of growth and meaning because of the people in it.

When I hear people complain that it's too difficult to find friends in Hickory or Lenoir, I cringe. It's just not so. And that's coming from an awkward introvert. You can meet interesting people throughout the area. We may be in the midst of some pretty difficult problems, but we also enjoy living in one of the most culturally rich spots on the map. 

Each week, I have too many choices. And they're all free or low-cost. I have a dozen musician friends I can go see around town. Should I go to an art reception or hang out with interesting writers? Catch a play or grab a cup of coffee with a friend? Stop by the farmer's market or take a refreshing walk? Would I rather discuss a good book with a supportive group of women or worship alongside authentic young adults? Would my young niece enjoy exploring the Science Center or playing in one of the many parks close to my home? 

Our home is only as miserable as we are. We can find kindred spirits wherever we go. If we're open. Our senses, minds, and bodies can always be engaged. If we're open. We can actually work for progress for our neighbors and environment. If we're open. We can love and be loved. We can revel in great art, music, and food. We can talk and laugh and cry. We can find common ground. We can commune with one another and nature and God. We can feel the sunshine on our skin. We can do all of this in our own backyard.

Spring is sweet. Full of life and promise. The harsh winter has melted away. If I had a song that I could sing for you, I'd sing a song to make you feel this way.