Sometimes joy slides across the table inside a card from a sparkly-eyed friend who says, I see you. Sometimes joy is at the kitchen island in the form of my partner, standing still and waiting to hear how my day actually was while the toddler boomerangs like a drunk monkey off our legs. Very often it’s crouched in the sleepy early morning light of pre-tweens who still need to be cuddled to wake up. Almost always joy is on the other end of the phone, even when it weighs 100 pounds.
Regardless, joy is recognizable by its distinguishing feature: connection. And, critical on my end, awareness. The glasses I’ve been wearing lately have been especially clearer than usual and I think it’s largely that reason that I’ve been able to notice more of the quiet little joys around me, held out in open palms like bright quartz from so many friends and family in my circle.
Mind you, I’m talking about joy – deep and quiet satisfaction – like a long draught of water. Not the shaken up soda can of happy.
I have a friend who calls the gates to her heart her “switches.” She locates them – there are two – just below the collarbone, right and left. When the switches are thrown open, everything can get in, everything gets noticed. But this is exhausting and can feel unsustainable, so we close them. The only trouble is, closing the switches becomes habit, and the opening muscles weaken.
Thomas Merton said, “If you want this force to change you, open to it.”
Still — I can be slow and stubborn.
So sometimes joy has no choice but to come in a like a heavily-pierced and cranky bruiser, bar stool raised overhead just in case I’m not paying attention.
The founder of a community development organization I once worked for said we can wake up by making visible the invisible, so that the lines of connection and caring become as prominent as the utility wires. He and his team went around with yard signs and bumper stickers and lapel pins that simply said, “We Care.” It changed the vibe of several neighborhoods and has made a true positive impact, citywide.
But the power of distracting technology, to do lists, new plans, even relationships – that busy us so that we avoid making friends with the part of ourselves that really matters – can still act as a bell jar over us, individually. I’m terribly guilty of refreshing my Facebook feed at a red light out of some antsy loneliness for my own self and habituated resistance to be bored and drift for even 60 seconds.
I’m in a place in my life that so many are, the accumulation place. My friend K calls it the oyster place. She says we accrete and accrete, growing and building so much – families, careers, friends – and it’s beautiful, this bedded-down and ever-fattening oyster, but it’s complicated too and can be simultaneously busy and stagnant. Somewhere along the way, we need to Go In, and shuck the excess and focus more on ourselves and our interior architecture. Then, ultimately, we get to be a nautilus, finding buoyancy and jet propulsion from an internal motor. (K loves the life aquatic and knows that sometimes joy comes in the form of a good metaphor).
Occasionally, joy is a prankster, who catches me by surprise by letting me know my idea of the world is not nearly so precise and correct – yet still, there might be hope for me.
In mid-September of 2013, when I was 8.999999 months pregnant, I attended a silent retreat at the 200-year-old Jesuit monastery in Grand Couteau, Louisiana. My OB was not happy I was going 4 hours away at 38 weeks, but I felt an important tug to get space and quiet before bringing in this new life who had surprised us all. When you show up anywhere THAT pregnant, you get attention. When you show up at a retreat center among a lot of older ladies THAT pregnant, you are like a golden retriever puppy in a first grade classroom. As I sat down for the opening session, a lovely woman with a high mound of white curls and enormous eyes exclaimed, “Oh, hello dear! It’s so wonderful that you made it.” She patted my knee and nodded, continuing, “How have you been these past few months?” My mind, racing to place her and her familiarity, quickly took me back to my uncle’s funeral eight months before, where this white-haired lady had told me she was the one who helped my mother load the U-Haul in the middle of the night and leave my father with my brother and me, when we were 6 and 4. What coincidence! I leaned in just as the retreat leader entered the room and asked we begin our 4 days of silence.
On the last night, we did a contemplative mediation during which our guide told us to put our right hand on the shoulder of the person at our immediate right. Mine landed on this same woman’s shoulder, and immediately tears streamed down my cheeks. Imagine this world! A person helps another in a time of crisis, helps her move half the country away in the dead of night with her two small children. Thirty-two years later, this same person happens to sit next to one of the children, grown and carrying her own baby and missing her mother terribly, and that grown woman has the opportunity to lay her hand on this woman’s shoulder for a full five minutes, silently thanking her and marveling at the magic of this world. Imagine!
The next morning, after we had broken silence and were all wheeling our suitcases across the parking lot to go home, I caught up with her. I told her I was so moved that she was here, that it was so healing for me to put my hand on her shoulder and thank her for helping my mother during the previous night’s meditation, especially in this time in my life when I was yearning for my mother the most.
She blinked, her white curls jiggling, “What’s your name, dear?”
“And your mother was?”
“Sara Lynn Cooper Beauvais.”
“Oh sweetheart,” she paused, “I don’t know you. I just thought you were cute.”
Did it matter?
Did it matter that I had mistaken her? Did it matter that this Gabriel Garcia Marquez situation of magical, patterned coincidence I had imagined all weekend didn’t actually exist if I got what I craved – connection? When my hand was on her shoulder, I was truly comforted, I was held. Whoever the hell she was. I think about that story often, not only to laugh at myself, but also to remember that what matters is the place where I’m listening to life.
My favorite passage in my favorite Rumi poem reads,
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing
there is a field. I will meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn’t make any sense.
My experience in life is totally different if I am listening, if I am in attunement, to that field — as opposed to being attune to the surface. It’s like the first violin at the start of a concert. We can’t know it outright; we have to listen for the precise note, just as it is played. If everyone in the orchestra started with C minor, imagining for themselves the tone and pitch, it would never work. But if they hear the note first – if I can get quiet enough to hear the pitch within, I can attune to the deeper field. I can drop down below the surface of wrongdoing and rightdoing, and I am listening in a different way, and then everything becomes a doorway.
And behind each doorway, there is a joy. In whatever shape she takes.