I started last summer with a list.

Cloud gazing.
Firefly catching.
Bird watching.
Running through sprinklers.

I was all set to lead my kids on a tour of the season’s simple joys.

Strawberry picking.
Bare feet on grass.
A boat ride on the lake with friends.

I had plans for them to take it all in.

Fresh-squeezed lemonade.
Buttered corn on the cob.
Growing a watermelon from seed, then sinking teeth into the ripe red.
Walking to the local parlor for ice cream.
Cotton candy at a carnival.

I was writing their future memories.

Reining in the wind with pinwheels and kites.
Waving flags and watching the parade.
Swirling their sparklers and gasping at fireworks.

It was all I planned for summer, these little pleasures, this simple list. I needed this intentionality to kick me out of the phase of weariness that had carried over from the previous fall and winter and into spring.

But then the first week of this new season started with surgery to uncover and leash my unruly canine tooth, the one that had been hiding in my palate since childhood, one that we meant to pull forward to join the rest of my teeth. A few weeks later, I learned the surgery was useless and that I’d need another.

I felt a bit foolish to look at my summer’s simple joys list now, to revisit all of the idealistic pleasures I had planned…. What did it matter if joy came near, anyway if I couldn’t smile?

As soon as I’d stumble on a happy event and my lips dared to open, I’d slap my hand over my mouth to keep people from seeing my flared teeth and the horrible empty space in the front of my smile. Behind the scenes, it was even worse. One of my teeth had been pushed so hard from orthodontic treatment that it was thrust outside of my arch, its root protruding, almost piercing my gums.

But in the midst of the leftover cloud of anesthesia, the haze of pain meds and the almost-daily visits to the surgeon when the recovery went awry…in the middle of it, joy found me.

I visited my newborn niece and talked misty-eyed with her mom about the pretty things that hang on discipline and hard times, and I thought how pain is often the backdrop that makes joy stand out all the more. And vice versa. As I shared in the comments section of the Stars Dancing in the Water post the other day, in Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis wrote, “Joy is distinct not only from pleasure in general but even from aesthetic pleasure. It must have the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing.”

When joy finds us, we feel the full meaning of the moment. We soak in the good, but we also feel the pain of knowing that all is not perfect…yet. These little joys in the middle of hardship, they are glimpses of the full redemption to come, when we will have these gifts as they were meant to be.

Like Ann Voskamp and her list, I was starting to keep one of my own, not things I planned to find, but things that found me….

My little beauty playing behind the sheer curtain in her room, looking like a veiled bride.
Her eating strawberries right from the field, this confidence that all He makes is hers to enjoy.
My little boy clipping his sailboat tie on his T-shirt before heading to the playground, a creative-type surely starting a new fashion trend.

And then, if only you could have seen my son when we went to the farm to visit Hoover, our original unruly canine. My boy saw the open fields and he didn’t need a list of summer’s simple joys to tell him to do this, he just felt it, real freedom, and he ran with all his might and turned himself upside down in somersault after somersault after somersault, open-mouthed grinning all the way.

And, sometime I want to tell you the whole story, how my children piled puppy after puppy on my lap that night, all eight of the little Hoovers, just days old. I want to tell you bit by bit how I went to the farm that night with teeth gritted and shoulders squared, a fighting failure of a mother and homemaker, and how they piled those sweet, sleepy, trusting puppies on me and made me know my worth. I ended the night with open hands, fireflies landing in them and taking off again over fields of soybeans, a joy hoped for that summer, but until then, not yet seen.

The summer went on. I kept on playing despite the pain and uncertainty. We read Feathers for Lunch, made nests out of salad and got to our bird watching. We ran through sprinklers. We twiddled our toes in grass. We walked to town for ice cream…more than once. We grew our watermelons and chewed them down almost to the rind where they curved like toothy little grins. We waved our flags and swirled our sparklers, checking off some more boxes on our original summer to-do list. And still, the spontaneous surprises came.

I clapped at the sight of my friend and her new husband kicking off their sandals on the dune where they said “I do,” laughter and grains of sand soaring. Afterward, my non-dancing husband twirled me and pulled me close in the low light of the bandstand. I laid my head on his shoulder, trusted his lead. Earlier, at the wedding ceremony, I had read from Joel, and the words came again to me now: “I will make up to you for the years that the locust has eaten.” I needed to trust His lead, too, to count on Him to make up for the months ruined by my unruly canine(s). And soon, He would do it– He would lead my family to one of our favorite restaurants, not even on our usual night, and cross my path with a friend who works for a different orthodontic provider.

I felt we were getting somewhere, but then, on my birthday, I lay in bed depressed again. Unlike my old provider, this new one was confident he could lure my tooth back into the arch, make my smile presentable again and even close my bite. But my first two years in braces would count for nothing. We were starting from below ground zero. I would have to pay the full price for a completely new orthodontic plan. This had been weighing on me for weeks, me feeling like a money pit.

Then the phone rang. I wiped my eyes and put some cheer in my voice so as not to give my mood away. It was my husband. He had gotten a call from his boss just then, an unexpected raise, six months before review time. And it covered all but twelve dollars of the monthly fee for my new orthodontic plan. A surprise…just for me.

The boss didn’t know it was my birthday, but God did. And He knew just what I needed that day. The attentive One who sent me a heart-shaped tomato in the garden in the heat of summer, He had a birthday gift picked out for me, an all-expense-paid trip to healing and wholeness. I needed to know I was not a burden and that my situation hadn’t escaped His notice and that I didn’t have to plan or provide for myself. He knew all that.

He has a list, too, these simple joys He’s just waiting to give. And when He surprised me with it all last summer, in the middle of trouble, I couldn’t help but smile…with my teeth showing.

{So far, this summer is much less eventful than last! Have you ever been surprised by what a season had in store? What do you have planned for this one? Share your story in the comments.}