By Sean Dietrich
If you get a free moment today, smile. But don’t do it with your face. Try smiling with your heart.
Yes. I realize what I just said seems very stupid. It almost sounds like something a weirdo hippie therapist would say after an hour of hand-puppet therapy out in his yurt. “Alright everybody, let’s hold hands in a circle and smile in our big ole hearts.”
But I’m being serious. Close your eyes and give it a whirl. Smile with your chest region. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
See? You felt it, didn’t you? That faint fluttery thing happening in your chest. Kind of cool, huh? Great, now I’d like us all to hold hands in a circle and start chanting in Pig Latin.
No, I’m only kidding.
I can’t take credit for this heart smiling thing. An old man used to tell me this. He was a friend of mine. In some ways, he acted like a father to me after my father died. He was white-haired and a lot older than my father.
Alzheimer’s eventually took him from the world. When the disease hit, it moved fast. Pretty soon he didn’t know who I was.
The last time I saw him, he kept calling me Lucinda. I don’t know who Lucinda is, but I will say this: Lucinda must be a very handsome man.
My friend was the first one to tell me, “Smile with your heart.” Truthfully, I thought it was pretty dumb. I didn’t fully appreciate his words until I got older.
Come to find out, the phrase didn’t originate with my friend. It comes from an old American song, popular during my pal’s heyday. A song you probably know the words to. The tune is “My Funny Valentine,” written in 1937, back when the whole world was Depressed.
My friend used to tell me stories about life during the Depression. He once told me how he and his brother would go into town to do their shopping. His older brother would create a diversion in the back of a general store while my friend would sneak around and steal food.
This was rural Mississippi, his family had no money and no bread. People did what they had to do. Sometimes he would steal chickens, sometimes bigger items. He did it to keep from starving. His era was one when men and women truly knew sadness.
But anyway, on a much lighter note, back in my friend’s youth, the young people could really cut a rug. They danced in a way that many of us modern youngsters might refer to as “touch dancing.”
Dancing has changed a LOT over the decades. Prior to rock-and-roll dance styles, the popular forms of dance consisted of holding a partner in your arms.
There wasn’t any solo dancing, like the kind you see middle-aged guys do at wedding receptions that have open bars. Seventy-five years ago, if you would have danced the Mashed Potato at a USO dance, they would have called an ambulance.
Back then people swayed with partners to tunes like “Embraceable You,” “Paper Moon” and “Satin Doll.” And the classic ballad, “My Funny Valentine.”
When my friend was in his twenties, he was at a dance with this girl. The tune was “My Funny Valentine.” The lyrics of this song go:
“My funny Valentine,
“Sweet comic Valentine,
“You make me smile in my heart…”
And right there on the dance floor, the girl told him to smile. She said, “Smile with your heart, like it says in the song.” He thought this was stupid of course. Any guy would. But girls say the silliest things sometimes.
Girls don’t understand how tough we boys try to act. We’re brought up not to cry, not to be wimps, to be strong and whatever else our daddies tell us. We’re men. We’re not supposed to admit that we get sad, lonely, worried or afraid.
But here was this girl, telling him to smile. So he tried it. She made him close his eyes and smile in his heart.
I’ve tried this smiling trick, too. And now, maybe, so have you.
I remember the day I was helping this same friend move out of his house. There wasn’t much to smile about that day. He was elderly; I was a grown man. His kids had all grown up. The woman who once taught him to smile had recently been buried. His mind was going downhill.
We were loading his furniture into a moving truck, and he was sitting on a Coleman cooler, watching us carry away his belongings. I told him I was going to miss him.
He said, “Aw, don’t miss me, I’m gonna have so much fun where I’m going.” He was crying.
He was lying to me, and we both knew it. He knew the dementia was eating him alive. It kind of felt like my father was dying all over again. So he just put his arm around me and said, “Smile.”
The thing is, I can’t always smile, even though I wish I could. Because it’s not easy being a human being. Sometimes you worry. Sometimes you get overwhelmed. Sometimes you think too much. Sometimes you forget that your old heart needs rest from the heavy weight of life. Sometimes you frown.
Well. If you get a chance today, take a few seconds for yourself and smile. Do it with your heart. When you’re done, help someone else do the same thing.
And after that, if you simply can’t restrain yourself, go ahead and dance the Mashed Potato.
Sean Dietrich is a columnist, novelist, and podcast host, known for his commentary on life in the American South. His work has appeared in Newsweek, Southern Living, Garden and Gun, The Tallahassee Democrat, Good Grit, South Magazine, Alabama Living, the Birmingham News, Thom Magazine, The Mobile Press Register, and he has authored nine books, and is the creator of the Sean of the South Podcast.