Learning from Meadowlark

One of the greatest things that happened for me this year is that I’ve re-learned what it means just to enjoy life. I think that a big part of rediscovering that happened when I interviewed Meadowlark Lemon awhile back.

That sounds a little weird. Like, duh. Of course you should enjoy life. Of course you should have fun. Of course you should be happy as often as you can. Duh.

I forgot. I mean, not entirely. I married Katie because she’s given me all that far and beyond what I thought I could have with a girl. I’m a writer because I love the lifestyle, because wearing jeans and a t-shirt to work every morning—okay, basketball shorts and no shirt, some days—makes me feel silly but also happy. 

But I’d gotten so wrapped up in “finding my purpose in life” and in “making the world better” and in “doing everything right” that I forgot that it’s all just a process, and we’re going to screw up along the way anyway, so just go with what feels most fitting to you here and now and roll with that. 

Or, as Lemon told me when I was interviewing him for the story I wrote about him for SLAM magazine, “The biggest thing I’ve learned about life, in all my years, is that it’s all about joy.” 

Giving it to others, yeah. Who ever did that better than Meadowlark? But on another level, one maybe deeper and maybe even more important: Having joy for yourself. Joy is something that goes beyond being happy. Joy is something there even when the situation sucks. And when I asked Meadowlark, “How do you mean? How do you have joy in everything?,” this is what he told me: 

“You need passion for just about everything you do.” He motioned toward me and the tape recorder and notebook and pen in my hand. “You need passion to write. If you don’t have passion, you can’t write. You know what I mean. You can write, but you can’t really write. So these are the passions that you have. And if you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it.”

It was a good reminder. The night before I got married, my dad asked my uncle to give me some good life advice. Dad was being half-serious, because Uncle Bob isn’t often super serious, but Bob got quiet for a minute, thinking. Then he said a profound thing: “Whatever you do, have some passion in your life.” He said other things, too, but that’s what stuck with me most. 

So chase the things you love. Chase them relentlessly. Devour everything that can teach you how to chase it better, how to do it better. When I was writing my first book, I didn’t know what I was doing. I consumed books about writing and books like the one I was writing, just hoping that by osmosis or something I would somehow internalize everything I needed to write the greatest work of narrative journalism the ever bequeathed to the world.

Not that that’s quite what happened. But I wrote a solid book that got me more paying work, that got me where I am now, that enabled me to grow and get better and advance in doing what I love.

Meadowlark’s path, as you’ll read in my story, was even more intense. As a kid, he was simply awful at basketball. Had no clue what he was doing or how to play. Then he became an international basketball icon.

If you really love something, you’ll find a way to get better at it. Maybe one day, if you get the right breaks, you’ll get really good at it and have an opportunity to prove yourself to the important people in your field, and you’ll catch a big break, and your life will suddenly turn into a dream. 

I think that’s how you figure out what to do with your life: Figure out what you love, and then figure out if you can get better at it. If that lines up, then go, baby. And you’ll know when you’ve found it. It’s something that takes hold of you on the inside.

Meadowlark talked about seeing it with his soul. 

There are always reasons not to try. Meadowlark, to some, including himself, was too skinny, too small, too clueless.

But passion has a way of helping us figure out how to make things work. And maybe that’s the key. Don’t try to plan it too much. Just do the best you freaking can, and roll with the wild ride, and find your way as you go. 

And above all, ignore everyone and everything that says you can’t—especially yourself—and just go for it. 

Just make sure that you have some fun along the way. 

(This is an updated and revised version of a post originally published here Tuesday, April 5, 2011 at 7:25 a.m.) 

(pic via)