Gift of the Universe #22: JOY!
I truly believe that joy is available to everyone. No one is denied the opportunity to be joyful. Many people on this planet will never have a full stomach or adequate shelter or enough material wealth to climb out of poverty, but believe it or not, some of those very people know joy.
“Joy is not in things; it is in us.” – Richard Wagner
“Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world. We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy.” – Joseph Campbell
My late husband was ill for many years. He went under the knife for open heart surgery when he was just 31. He suffered a host of medical problems stemming from diabetes, always believing that he would get the disease under control. When he realized that was not going to happen, he said, “Okay, I’m sick. I can be sick and miserable, or I can be sick and happy. I choose happy. Pain is inevitable, misery is optional.” I really admire him for coming up with that maxim, and for embodying it. The night before he died, he called me at work and asked if I’d like to go out to dinner. Our daughters were out for the evening, and he took the opportunity to enjoy a ‘date’ with me. We went to a local sports bar & grill and enjoyed veggie appetizers and sandwiches. Our youngest called from rehearsal to say she was not feeling well and was coming home early, so we went home to be with her. Jim was tired, so he took his medications, hooked up to his dialysis machine and CPAP and watched some TV. When I came up to bed, he turned off the TV and the light. We fell asleep holding hands. He never woke up. And he never complained. Some people claim that “if you haven’t got your health, you haven’t got anything”. I don’t buy that. Jim didn’t have health, but he had joy and love and he knew it.
Many people would foreswear food, health, housing, and money in order to find joy in an ascetic lifestyle. Mendicants, yogis, monks, and priests of different faiths have adopted austere practices in order to experience the bliss of enlightenment.
“Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
“The fullness of joy is to behold God in everything.” – Julian of Norwich
This is a deep and serious topic, and much too heavy for me to write about today. My brain is circling closer to Dr. Seuss and The Grinch who puzzles how the Whos could be singing without “ribbons and tags, packages, boxes and bags”. Perhaps joy means a little bit more than the glee we feel when we get a shiny, new present. Happiness is fleeting. Joy is deeply felt.
“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.” – George Bernard Shaw
I’ve got to say that the way I have most felt this joy of being used for a mighty purpose and force of Nature is through mothering. I know what it is to be thoroughly worn out and joyful. I know what it is to feel like nobody is devoting himself to my happiness and not to complain because I am finding so much joy in devoting myself to someone else’s well-being. Not that I didn’t complain occasionally (hey! I’m human!). I always felt that mothering mattered. That I was truly making a difference, a big one, to at least four people in the world. I smiled at my babies even when I was not feeling joyful, and joy emerged. Never underestimate the effect of a smile. Check out this Still Face Experiment by Dr. Tronick on youtube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=apzXGEbZht0
“Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.” – Thich Nhat Hahn
Are you smiling every day? I’m sure I am. I even busted a belly laugh today as Steve was describing a Giotto fresco…of Mary and Joseph… kissing at the gates of Bethlehem…with Snoopy in the background. He speaks like a nerd who knows everything, and then I realize he’s bullshitting me. I fall for it all the time and then get to laugh at him and at myself. Steve’s identity motto, which he came up with at a psychology school retreat, is “I am the joy in change and movement”. I am really benefiting from his perspective because I am often afraid of change and movement. I so don’t need to be. There is freedom in allowing joy into your life.
Let Heaven and Nature sing…and see if you don’t find yourself singing along. Rejoice, my friends.
And if tonight my soul may find her peace
in sleep, and sink in good oblivion,
and in the morning wake like a new-opened flower
then I have been dipped again in God, and new-created.
Now, blessings light on him that first invented sleep! It covers a man all over, thoughts and all, like a cloak; it is meat for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, heat for the cold, and cold for the hot. It is the current coin that purchases all the pleasures of the world cheap, and the balance that sets the king and the shepherd, the fool and the wise man, even. ~Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, 1605
All men whilst they are awake are in one common world: but each of them, when he is asleep, is in a world of his own. ~Plutarch
I imagine that sleep is a gift for all, but some may disagree. They might attribute sleep to the just, the innocent and the carefree and argue that it is refused to many who would try to attain it. I propose, then, that it is meant for all, for health, rest, and restoration. According to the National Sleep Foundation, “New evidence shows that sleep is essential to helping maintain mood, memory, and cognitive performance. It also plays a pivotal role in the normal function of the endocrine and immune systems. In fact, studies show a growing link between sleep duration and a variety of serious health problems, including obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and depression.” Two of my family members were diagnosed with sleep apnea, one with the addition of Periodic Limb Movement Disorder. For each of them, a CPAP machine was prescribed. That’s a Constant Positive Air Pressure mask which blows air into their nose and mouth all night long to keep their airways open. How anyone could sleep with that thing on is a mystery to me.
The CPAP seems like a very scientific approach to something that may be more of a spiritual process. Sleep, relaxation, the natural cycle of repair and regeneration can be picked apart and studied, but will chasing it down and corralling its components help us to enter into its presence? If we approach it calmly and reverently, will we be more likely to be invited into its sanctuary? It seems like such a gentle grace, a benevolent angel of mercy. I’d be afraid to scare it off.
Many people contend with sleep. I do a bit. I gave up my super-comfy, air-controlled, king-sized bed to my daughter, and now I sleep on a futon mattress with a sleeping bag and a suede comforter tucked under the sheet to make it a bit more yielding. It’s not really the same, but I could do worse. I’ve always been a light sleeper, a result of having 4 children, but I’ve always gone to bed pretty early. I’m not good at sleeping late, and I do enjoy napping. Sleep is not elusive for me, simply delicious. And I dream.
I was thinking this morning that I live in two alternate universes, something like Plutarch mentions in the quote above. In the world of my sleeping dreams, my dead husband keeps popping up. He very calmly occupies a place beside me, and eventually in the course of the dream, I will mention that he’s supposed to be dead. Last night, he was driving when I mentioned it, and then suggested that I take the wheel. I have the feeling that he’s supposed to vanish when I say that word, but he didn’t. He just slid into the passenger side and kept talking. This is my brain working on “what’s right” and “what’s real” about death. I still don’t have it figured out. I have a lot of anxiety dreams that also have to do with this preoccupation of mine about “doing things right”. Performance anxiety is a big theme. I’m often onstage, backstage, in front of a classroom, or trying to get to a class. When I was married to Jim, the worst nightmares I had were about the two of us being angry or false with each other. I feared anything that would threaten our togetherness, and it was manifested in some social context. I never had a big monster carrying me off or something adventurous like that. I suppose you could call that a “girlie” nightmare. My son has huge, plot-driven adventures in his dreams. He’s got to fight, to battle and overcome in his dreams. I just get upset and wake up.
I did have a nightmare two nights ago. I had indigestion when I went to sleep, and I dreamed a horrible dream that ended in watching someone eat their own limbs. “Someone” in that weird way where you are everyone in your dream. So I was eating myself. It was unsettling for my brain. My stomach was already unsettled. Peculiar how the sleeping mind works. I do have a favorite phrase to throw in when someone is describing a dream. The disjointed narrative goes on and on, and then I interject, “Oh, I know that dream! Yeah, that all happens, and the next thing you know, the pope comes in with a tray of enchiladas and…” Yup. Absurdity. It’s pretty entertaining, really, this alternate universe.
I feel lucky to be able to sleep when I am tired, to dream when I am perplexed, to regenerate every night and wake to a new day each morning. Wagner describes it musically when Brunhilde wakes to Siegfried’s kiss. Listening to it is like going through the resurrection weeping tears of joy and wonder. Once again, music gives voice to life’s mysteries.
Well, the sun is shining through the west window making puddles of warmth on my bed. Think I’ll take a catnap.
So here’s my assignment for the week: write a description of one of the characters who will be in your memoir. Here’s what I have written.
“When I met Jim, he was a warm, charismatic 17-year old. Everything about him was golden and good. He was an A student parented by professional educators, a member of the Mormon Church who spent an hour in seminary every day before school, an athlete competitive in tennis, a baritone soloist with the school choir, a blue-eyed blonde with thick, curly surfer locks and a regular California dream. And the crowning touch? His grandfather was an Italian immigrant. I was introduced to him at our high school’s International Talk-In, where locals were given the opportunity to mingle with exchange students. I was then the Vice President of the Italian Club, a thorough Anglo hopelessly enamored of all things italiano. My best friend at the time, the President of the Club, Lynn Panighetti, introduced us. Jim enclosed my right hand in a bear paw and then wouldn’t let go. His long lashes fluttered in befuddlement as he pretended our hands were magically glued together. He was a flirt, a funny one, and I was instantly flattered and powerfully attracted.
His right hand was broad with short, stubby fingers. He would later lament how often he “fat fingered” the keys of his computer. He had a scar on his fourth finger from a machine accident he had while working in a cannery at age 15. He told me after we’d been dating for a few years that I could have all of him except the thumb and two middle fingers of his right hand – he needed them for bowling. Eventually, he qualified for PBA membership; he always pushed himself to achieve the highest level possible in any of his pursuits. His hands matched the rest of his mesomorphic frame. At 5 feet 8 inches tall, with a massive barrel chest, he resembled a friendly teddy bear, especially to my 15-year old eyes. I nicknamed him Winnie the Pooh.
Thirty years later, that stocky body was swollen with toxins and dialysis solution as a result of his failing kidneys. His barrel chest sported a 6-inch scar where they had split his sternum to perform double bypass surgery on his 31-year old heart. A longer scar down his right calf marked the place where they had harvested a vein for the graft. The kids called his lower legs “cankles” because they looked like calves and ankles combined after neuropathy and edema developed. His polar bear feet with the sideways little toes were in pretty good shape for a diabetic. He had lost only one toenail to ulcerating infection. His hair was still thick, too short to be very curly, and just barely graying at the temples. His beautiful Italian mouth fringed by the ginger mustache looked about to smile, but it wouldn’t. His ears were blue with what our daughter identified as ‘circumaural cyanosis’. (“See, Daddy, I’m really smart,” she sobbed.) He was dead.”
I have become rather moody while taking this course. Finished Joan Didion’s memoir about her husband’s death (The Year of Magical Thinking) last night and did a little research. Her only child died at the age of 39 just a month before it was published. Recent images of her are gaunt and haunted. Interesting that she was an Episcopalian, like me. Her New York life reminds me a little of Madeleine L’Engle’s (another Episcopalian), but she is more neurotic, less serenely spiritual. L’Engle’s memoir of her marriage to actor Hugh Franklin was a favorite of mine about 20 years ago. (Two-Part Invention) I feel rather like I’m swimming in the shallow end of their private pool.
Discipline without coercion. Is it possible for individuals? For communities? Dare we believe that without obligation, people will make efforts to do their best and work toward the common good? Are people who do that “heroes”?
We dangle punitive measures and capitalistic rewards in front of the masses and hope that will encourage us to be model citizens, and then we have to deal with the greedy monsters that evolve wondering “What’s in it for me?” If I am of the 1% and super-wealthy, what incentive do I have to share? And what is the percentage of the 99% who hope that one day, they will become super-wealthy also and so feel no inclination to put restrictions on the rich? How many people are likely to come to a sense that they have “enough” all on their own and turn their surplus over to others? And when will that sense of “enough” kick in? What standard of living do we feel entitled to? What would it feel like to say, “This is all I need. I am not afraid to trust that I have enough”? Would it feel like freedom?
How do you discipline yourself without feeling a sense of obligation? Do you eat healthy foods because you want to? Or because some outside influence is holding up a consequence or reward? Do you make music because some authority is telling you to practice or for the sheer joy of it? Do you do what you do out of passion or fear?
On our first date, Steve played a kind of “twenty questions” game with me. I was trying to guess his three heroes in order to get to know him better. He maintains that each of these inspirational figures have a passion for something and demonstrate it joyfully. The first one is David Attenborough of the BBC Natural History Unit, groundbreaking writer and presenter of nature programs. The second is Julia Child, The French Chef. I was in total accord to this point, and also loved that they are easy to imitate in voice and mannerism to add levity to any undertaking (and we do this frequently). The third one was rather tough to guess, mostly because he wasn’t human. “An athlete” was about as close as I got. Finally, Steve led me to thinking about equestrian athletes, and I immediately thought of Secretariat. I found that rather a head-scratcher, though. How could a horse be a hero? And then he showed me the youtube clip of the final race in the1973 Triple Crown. It still makes him cry.
A horse cannot be coerced by the promise of fame and fortune, can it? There was no whipping, no carrot on a stick. Secretariat ran for the pure joy of running, it would seem. Feeling the power of his legs, the wind in his mane, the freedom of doing what he was born and bred and loved to do that day. Did he have a reward afterward? Did he develop a taste for winning? I suppose you could debate the emotions of a horse forever and never learn anything conclusive. You could also debate whether or not his race was something that created “good”. Many people were undoubtedly uplifted; just listen to the audio on the tape. His grace and beauty are captivating. And maybe a bunch of people were making money off of it, but the horse wasn’t. For that reason, it seems rather pure to me.
So what would it mean for you and me to be the heroes of our own lives? To be the best we could be not out of obligation or fear of reprisal or for monetary gain, but just for the joy of living out our own passion and interest, for the love of it? What would it be like to allow that to be our reward, our life work, and not ask fame or fortune from it? Would we share any surplus of our efforts? What if we all lived like that? Would we be able to balance the table top, enjoy sustainability and equality, as a community and perhaps as a planet? Is this a utopian ideal and totally unrealistic?
Probably. But I would love to feel the wind in my hair, too…
I’m afraid so…often.
I’m afraid, so I get surges of adrenaline, tense shoulders, a rather breathless feeling, and I give off a vibe that Steve notices right away as “ungrounded”, even before I’m aware of anything. Yesterday, I wrote in a comment to my blog post that I have a fear-based outlook on the world. This morning, it showed up in a small-scale episode of anxiety. I was driving to a park to do a Kindergarten program when I noticed my engine temperature indicator dipping into the HOT zone. I wasn’t going more than 8 miles away, so I just continued to the park. Driving home, the needle stayed on the cool half of the dial. I called my local repair shop and made an appointment for Monday. Now, this does not present a real problem for me at all. I don’t have a job I need to get to, and Steve has a car I can use for errands and whatnot. But something inside me escalates things into a sense of “OMG! There are things that I need to FIX RIGHT AWAY!”, and suddenly I’m making mental lists of everything I am responsible for or slightly dreading in the next month. Subtly, of course, so that I don’t notice, but Steve does. “Are you OK?” he asks. And suddenly, I am aware that I am not quite. I am a foot or so off the ground. Tense. Not confident. Addled. Alert, but not trusting. So I take a break, sit in the sun on the couch, take off my glasses and breathe.
Why don’t I trust myself? The things that I have on my mind are tasks that are well within my range of skills or conditions that I can survive. I notice that this kind of “crisis” happens in the weeks leading up to the first snowfall. Perhaps it’s a biological trigger for preparedness. Perhaps it’s a feeling of dread brought on by the many memories I have of emergencies that happened in winter. My husband was in the hospital a lot in the winter months over a period of about 5 years with pneumonia and kidney dialysis issues. He died in the middle of February. I also have a lot of automobile-related dread triggers. I hate driving in snow. I visualize car accidents all the time, probably because of the accident I was in that claimed my sister’s life. I can never go to that default position of “it’ll never happen to me”. I gasp at the slightest jerk of the steering wheel. (Just ask my kids!) So maybe I have “reasons” to be fear-based. But I don’t want to be.
I’m afraid, so I’ll “invite my fears to the dinner table”, make friends with my demons, try to look at them head-on and learn from them. What do they tell me about life? What do they tell me about me?
Life is unpredictable. We humans have a biological mechanism to get us hyped up to respond to emergencies. “Fight or flight”, they call it. Adrenaline flows into our veins and speeds up our breathing and heart rate. It’s useful at times, and seems inappropriate at others. What do you do with adrenaline when you’re sitting in a hospital waiting room? There’s no physical outlet for it! So perhaps this response was designed for a more physical lifestyle. I’m afraid, so I should exercise more.
I’m afraid, so I should be compassionate with myself. Slowing down, allowing my heart rate to come back to resting range, I can concentrate on my thoughts, my breath, my emotions. “Are you OK?” I want to check in with myself more often and take the time to get grounded. The stuff I need to fix isn’t usually immediate life-or-death stuff. I can take it easy. I have a frightened child with me – myself. How would I care for her?
I’m afraid, so I think I’ll write about it. Maybe one day I’ll come up with a picture book about being afraid.
Steve and I enjoy an ongoing game of “arcane book ideas”. Yesterday, it was The History of Halloween. I wonder if that book’s ever been written? In our neighborhood, trick or treating was commuted to Sunday. There was a block party followed by an hour and a half of trick or treating at certain houses designated by orange and black balloons tied outside. It was a very organized affair. An informative flier went out a week ago with a tear-off response section on the bottom. There was even a neighborhood bank account set up to receive contributions. As far as I could tell, the block party was moved indoors because of rain. The barricades remain on the parkway and never went up. But we could hear the children, teens, and parents slogging through the drizzle in the dark.
Halloween is a big thing here in the Midwest. I lived in California for 15 years and never saw more than a dozen trick-or-treaters. (Okay, spell check didn’t like that term and offered me an alternative: trick-or-anteaters. Can you imagine? Love the visual on that idea!) Maybe people there are just way too suspicious of their neighbors and scared to let their children roam. We were. My husband used to reminisce about trick-or-treating in his cul de sac with the parents following doing their own trick-or-drinking. Candy for the kiddies, cocktails for their parents. Very Californian. My mother was the most unpopular Halloween hostess on the block. She kept trying to think of low-sugar alternative treats. Most years, it was little boxes of raisins. One year, it was balloons. Deflated ones. This was before choking hazards got much press. Another year, it was nuts in the shell. Again, before nut allergies got much press. I was always so embarrassed (and disappointed) by our “candy bowl”. She was adamant about limiting sugar for the sake of our teeth long before healthy choices were fashionable. She was also a stickler for sunscreen before SPF was displayed on every bottle. Now that I’m almost 50, I should thank her every time I look in the mirror and a full set of teeth and a smooth pair of cheeks smile back.
In my day, Halloween had very few rules. You went to school in costume, partied all day, and then trick-or-treated all night (or for as long as your mom would let you). When my kids were young, that was the initial routine. Then the village posted trick-or-treat hours, usually from 4-7pm. Then there was the year that parents and teachers decided that too much instruction time was being lost on this dress up holiday with occult overtones. So they had each grade level run a study-themed costume and activity day. The third graders were doing a prairie unit, so they all dressed in pioneer outfits and made corn-husk dolls and bobbed for apples and that kind of thing. The fifth graders were doing a Native American unit, so they wove tiny patches of yarn onto looms, deciphered symbols, and ate popcorn. I really liked the idea. They got to dress up and have treats and play games, but they were very creatively centered on specific social studies units. I was rather a serious mom myself. But my kids got candy. Sacks of it. And I raided their stash every year. One year, when my oldest was just a toddler and we were living in California, I bought some Halloween candy (Mounds, my favorite) and ended up dipping into it myself before the big night. I figured we wouldn’t get many visitors anyhow. Well, we got a few more than I expected, and I ran out of candy. So when the doorbell rang, my darling daughter ran to the door to see the costumes. “We don’t have any more candy because my mom ate it all,” she explained. Well, at least I taught her honesty.
I enjoyed my part at the Nature Center as the witch. I’m glad we did it two weeks ago when the weather was a bit drier and warmer. The prosthetic nose and chin were rather a pain. My pointy toed boots were even worse, though, after three hours on my feet. But the wide-eyed little tykes in fairy wings and hockey gear were just as adorable as ever. I will never get tired of playing dress up…or eating chocolate.
There’s one question that keeps coming up, begging for my attention. “Who am I?” Perhaps this is a Socrates Cafe revolving door.
How much do you identify with your body? Or your gender? Or your ego? How much do you identify with your Big ‘S’ Self?
What’s a Big ‘S’ Self as opposed to a small ‘s’ self (or what I call the Big Ass self)? Steve describes it like the tip of a pyramid. It has a base, but sits on top of a much, much bigger base – The Big ‘S’ Self – which is all about simply recognizing the world as it is without trying to impose any ego imprints on it. My question today is “Where does my biology fit in?” At almost 50 years of age, I certainly recognize how my biology has impacted life as I experience it. It seems intrinsic to my being. I couldn’t possibly imagine being a man. My reproductive cycles, my hormonal moods, my childbirth experiences, my posture of surrender, my physical life and psychological attitudes that arise from that seem to be very much “me”. And yet, all of that is in flux, changing all the time, even while The Change is looming in my not-too-distant future. So maybe there’s a Big ‘S’ Self that isn’t affected by all that. Would that be my soul?
How do I bring my Self and my self into a relationship? How do I interact with someone else’s Self and self?
Sometimes it seems like it would be so much simpler just to have a body without such a brain dominating it. Eat, sleep, have sex, die. Nothing to philosophize about. Sometimes it seems like I’m trying too hard to live well. Morally. Conscientiously.
Steve surprised me. He bought me a picture book about a baby elephant. It came in the mail today. Sometimes the simplest thing is just to accept a gift….like life.
Because I’m going on the road today to visit my children, I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the internet. So here’s my suggestion: spend the time you may have spent reading my blog checking out this website.
This family is amazing. They settled in an urban house in Pasadena in 1985 and converted it to a working small farm that produces nearly all of their food and subsistence needs, including biodiesel, clothing, health care products, and much more. They now have an institute and do educational outreach all over the country. Having lived in Southern California myself for 11 years, I find this fascinating. I hope you’re inspired.
The autumn years of life. The harvest of a lifetime. Gathering together the products of work and character. There’s something nostalgic and lonesome about autumn, sweet and melancholic. Glossy photos of food and family and warm colors seem so appetizing. I am planning to host Thanksgiving dinner for Steve’s family, and I keep daydreaming about how the table will look. I want my home to be filled with warmth and love, good smells, earthy colors, sparkles of glass, silver, and candlelight. Of course, this will be on a modest scale. Martha Stewart does not live anywhere near here. I have song lyrics stuck in my head from Barry Manilow’s “Paradise Cafe 2:00am” CD… “Oh, how I hate to see October go.” How will I get my Thanksgiving vegetables now that the farmer’s market is closed? The acorn squash and broccoli we had last night were delicious, dressed only in butter, salt & pepper. The earth is so good to us and autumn is the applause before a winter curtain. How do you feel when you’re giving a standing ovation, damp-faced and shining, heart bursting, swallowing hard, delaying your exodus into the next moment? I feel that way about autumn. I remember driving home from dropping one of my children off at preschool one cloudy November day and bursting into tears. I tried to figure out what that was about and ended up writing this poem:
In autumn, the trees start to sing once again
of the bittersweet mystery of change.
Is it beauty or pain now attached to my soul?
Is it grief…or relief…or nostalgia?
In the scarlet and gold,
the blood-red of life’s hold…on my heart
and the warmth of its love
mingles memories and years
into afternoon tears
falling softly…as leaves…to the ground.