Contributed by Melissa Studdard
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” -- Howard Thurman
When I was a kid, I used to love to sit at the top of my jungle gym and watch the goings on of the neighborhood. My fence cornered two others, and I could see four more backyards besides. I knew which couples got along and which were fighting. I knew where dogs hid their bones. I watched swimming pools dug and gardens planted and other kids swinging so high I thought they wanted to marry the sky. I could tell you what time each family ate dinner and when the moms made their kids sit down to homework. I was a human calendar that could have divulged the events of many days before they even unfolded.
Then one fall, shortly before Thanksgiving, something unexpected happened: A man in my neighborhood became enamored with baking muffins—blueberry, banana nut, ginger lemon, chocolate chip, jalapeño cheddar, onion walnut—you name it, he baked it. Oh how he came alive! This once very ordinary, nondescript man, who I’d never bothered to watch much before, was now lit with the fire of passion. He was radiant as he stood over the stovetop in his apron and mitts, face aglow with oven light and infatuation, waiting for his muffins to cool. He was radiant and happy, and he made others happy too. Neighborhood children began to hang around his yard and driveway to watch him bag up muffins at his worktable in the garage. Women stopped by with casseroles in hopes of receiving muffins in return. Everyone offered help when they saw him repairing a board in his fence or trimming back a hedge. The bottom line is that this man adored muffins, and through loving muffins he loved the world and the world loved him back.
Because it was close to Thanksgiving, I began to associate my muffin-baking neighbor with the concept of gratitude, and it occurred to me then, as it does now, that there are few greater ways to express thanks for these lives we have been given than to find something that thrills us and to spend our time doing it.
When we brim, when we shimmer, when we glow with love for something, anything, we become conduits of magic, and we ourselves become gifts to the world. I don’t care if it’s muffins or poetry or nursing or duct tape art or spelunking or carving idyllic picnic scenes into egg shells; when we love what we do, that love becomes an elixir for all who are lucky enough to know us. We are not only expressing our appreciation for our lives; we are giving others reason to be thankful for us too.
Today, on Facebook, I saw a video of a hockey fan, “Dancing Kevin,” completely ignited with enthusiasm. He ripped his shirt off and rolled his belly in waves of ecstatic dance. Through his zeal for the game, he became uninhibited and true, and he was awesome. The crowd fell for him, and soon his sensational self was plastered all over the Internet, and the Internet fell for him too. His joyous celebration of hockey is now a delight for all who witness it.
You see, here’s the deal—all it takes is that one thing we love to connect us to everything and to connect us to others. We see this phenomenon so often with new parents. Watch a mom walking around in public, infatuated with her newborn child. She’s a magnet. People want to connect to that energy, that love. Strangers will come up to ask the baby’s name, not just because the baby is cute but because the mom is radiant, grateful, and approachable. She has so much love that it spills onto everyone around her, and people want to be close enough to splash in that overspill. I’ve never felt more connected to all of humanity than when my daughter was born. At the same time as having a child felt so personal and individual, it also felt historical and global. I had created a new human being, like all the parents who came before me and all the parents who would come after me. It felt like I’d joined a universal family. Through the one small person I held in my arms, I felt intimate kinship with all of humanity.
When we love that deeply, we create new worlds into existence, and we pull so much that is good and true into our orbits. You may have heard of Jadav "Molai" Payeng, a forestry worker from Jorhat, India. Over several decades, he planted trees on a sandbar of the river Brahmaputra. Every single day he planted and tended the trees, and the sandbar is now a forest reserve with Bengal tigers, Indian rhinoceroses, deer, rabbits, apes, and all kinds of birds. There are thousands of trees now, and bamboo covers over 600 acres. All because one man, one man alone, was crazy in love with planting trees—there is now a new forest, and the world has become larger, fuller, more extraordinary. One tree at a time, he did this, and the animals hopped, flew, and galloped into his sphere.
Our passions can save us too. A friend of mine, an amazing poet named Alice Anderson, was literally reconnected to the world through her love of poetry after a traumatic brain injury left her with aphasia. She couldn't speak in more than two-word sentences, and usually one of the two words would be wrong. But she was determined to write again, and she composed a poem a week as part of her recovery process. She would pick something she could see from her house (the garbage truck coming down the road, leaves on the sidewalk, children playing hopscotch) and try to write a poem about it. She would have to put space holders in place of about 3/4 of the words and do Internet searches to find them (aphasia, she explained, is like an elevated tip-of-your-tongue feeling). She would Google phrases like "long plastic tube that water comes out of outside" for “hose.” It had been devastating to her lose the thing she loved (the ability to read and write and speak) but it was also that very thing that brought her back.
So, my point is this: It doesn’t matter if you plant a thousand tulips or if you plant one tree and love it into a forest. It doesn’t matter if you bake muffins or write poems or if you give birth to a child or instead choose to dote on and nurture a furry, four-legged babe. It doesn’t matter what it is that makes you come alive, and it is not your place to judge it. What matters is that you find that thing, that one true thing, that ignites you, and you let it have its way with you. As adults especially we have a tendency to give up the things that bring us unbridled joy in favor of tending to the practical chores that help us get by day to day. Somehow, it seems more mature, less selfish. But I am here to tell you that just as much you need to tend to the practical aspects of your life, the world needs a you who has come and stayed alive. When you find that thing for which you feel crazy, over-the-top enthusiasm, whether it is a hobby or a profession, you live your life with purpose, and you give the world the greatest thing you will ever have to offer—the gift of your best self.
To love one thing and love it madly is to love everything by default, because mad love is love poured without restraint, and love poured without restraint will always spill over. And for that—for my muffin-baking neighbor, for Dancing Kevin’s shirt thrown to the floor, for Jadav Molai Payeng’s animal-filled forest, for Alice Anderson’s hard-wrought poems, and for all the moms with their strollers and slings—I am grateful, and because of them, I too have come alive.
Melissa Studdard is the author the recently released poetry collection, I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast, the bestselling novel, Six Weeks to Yehidah, and other books. Her works have received numerous awards, including the Forward National Literature Award and the International Book Award. She currently serves as an interviewer for American Microreviews and Interviews, a professor for Lone Star College System, a teaching artist for The Rooster Moans Poetry Cooperative, and host of Tiferet Talk radio.