"Finding the Happy in Homeless"
I bounced up the stairs of the two-star Budget Suites, excited to sleep in a bed for the first time in weeks. My family had been in transition for most of my childhood. We moved multiple times, and I attended multiple elementary schools (at times, switching teachers and towns two to three times a school year). Upon making new friends, I would inevitably face a daunting question: “Why does your family move so much?” How I longed to have a definitive answer.
As a child, all I knew was that times were tough for my family. My parents had four children, two boys and two girls. By the time they had me, their fourth child who came as a bit of an unplanned shock, they were already raising a ten-, nine-, and seven-year-old. My parents were doing the best they could with what they had. Raising a family of six demands finding creative ways to save money wherever possible. We shifted from feast to famine on a semi-regular basis.
One season I remember vividly, though I can’t recall how we got there. Our family was moving from Arkansas to Texas when I was nine, which meant I had to say goodbye to the only best friend I had ever made and gear up for another new school with more new friends . . . again. The drive was hot and depressing.
What’s worse, upon arrival, I learned that a home or apartment wasn’t awaiting us. Our six-person family had no choice but to make a navy blue Econovan our primary residence.
Details are cloudy as I look back nearly three decades later, but I recall feeling strangely comfortable in that season. Though we didn’t have a house, our family was still strong and loving. And something inside of me—call it child’s intuition—just knew that joy didn’t spring from “things.” It bubbled up from a deeper well.
Nine-year-old Candace made an unconscious decision to find happiness in homelessness.
The fold-down bench seat in the back of the van doubled as a bed, and I often counted stars out the window while the others slept. Our dog, a chow-border collie mix named Baby, usually curled up on top of my toes, doubling as an incredible foot warmer.
I loved Baby. I loved dressing her in my clothes and having conversations with her. Baby always listened with a gentle upward glance and blinking eyes as she lay her head atop her folded paws. She walked by my side many afternoons as I hunted for hidden trails in the mysterious world I imagined behind every tree and stone in whatever campground or RV park we had parked.
On the rare occasion when it snowed, I’d use cardboard boxes from trash cans or school lunch trays to race down even the shallowest of hills as though I was skiing a double diamond slope in Colorado.
And, no matter where I lay my head to rest at night, I had a Smurfette pillow to substitute for the best friend I had left behind. I tried to reassure Smurfette that one day she’d be old enough to move to her own place away from all those grumpy, blue men. She deserved better.
I lived in my imagination for nearly a decade. Many grown-ups would consider my fanciful behavior all those years as childish or naïve. They might even accuse me of denial or trying to escape from a reality I wasn’t prepared to accept. But, looking back, I think that period actually demonstrates a lesson that many adults would do well to learn:
Joy likes to play.
I remember the first time I met Joy. She was different. Joy was a newfound friend in this new season of leaving a life I loved for a life that seemed uncertain, depressing, and, in all honesty, like a severe setback. Joy brought me more than a laugh; she granted more than a wish. She offered me contentment, comfort, and peace that I couldn’t explain, even when circumstances on the outside didn’t look so bright. I didn’t meet Joy in a highlight reel moment. I first encountered true joy in an Econovan in an RV park somewhere between Arkansas and Texas.
If Joy were a person and not just an emotion, I bet she’d ask us to play with her. Joy beckons us to a place of carefree laughter, smiles, and peace in the simplest moments. Joy calls us to sniff roses and drink from half-full glasses. Joy skips when others sulk; she takes risks when others cower; she works overtime looking for ways to pierce the darkness with effervescent hope.
Many nights, like you, I feel the achy void left by Joy’s absence when my head hits the pillow. Maybe the money is tight or the bills are bigger than the paychecks, maybe you’ve been down with a head cold while still needing to take care of two kids under the age of two, or maybe you lie awake thinking about a future that holds more questions than answers. It’s easy to wake up feeling numb and apathetic to Joy’s call when you’re just hoping to survive the day. When I catch myself in this state, I’ve learned that it helps to pause and ask a couple of questions to warm up to Joy’s playful nature once again:
What did I do as a child that might spark excitement today?
What do I wish I could do that I don’t make time for?
What brings me life that I have abandoned because I’m too “old” or “busy” or “dignified?”
Where is Joy calling me to play?
I’m unashamed of my heritage and example of hard work and perseverance my parents set for me in that lean season. I remember how they taught me to embrace Joy’s playful nature. And today, I still carry the lesson I learned: that simple joys can carry us in a significant way.
Where do you hear the faint call of Joy in your life? Where do you see her waving at you to join the fun? Where do you suspect she’s waiting for you? Whether you’re living in a van, singing in the middle of Rockefeller Center, or wiping the nose of a sick toddler, our friend Joy is waiting to play.
Say yes. Jump in. And make a memory you won’t soon forget.