Day 163/365 Atrophy of The Joy Muscle

Today I was listening to a commencement speech and the speaker quoted Kipling, “Meet triumph and disaster, and treat both those imposters the same…”

It reminded me of a story I read recently…

An old farmer had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.

“Maybe,” the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed.

“Maybe,” replied the old man. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.

“Maybe,” answered the farmer. The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.

“Maybe,” said the farmer.

Initially I loved that story.  It is a wonderful lesson in remaining calm and living in a state of non-judgement. Nobel indeed, and I can fully appreciate the thought of not getting swept up emotionally in the (apparent) peaks and valleys in one’s life.

He is at peace with whatever happens…unattached to it.

BUT…

I kind of like the peaks and valleys. They make me feel alive.

I’m not saying that I wish for things in my life that will cause me pain and sorrow.  Rather, when those things (inevitably) happen, I am growing more comfortable with allowing myself to experience a full range of emotions.

I have learned an awful lot about myself through experiencing, and emerging from, the caverns of anger, anxiety and depression.

What I do like about the farmer is he doesn’t worry about what will come next…he simply says, “Maybe” (or we’ll see..).  Again, his lack of attachment to the outcomes is admirable, but me…I want to be an optimist. I want to believe that good things will happen…not just that things will happen. Inherent in that is knowing that bad things will happen too.

I like the fact that he is at peace knowing that whatever happens, he will be okay.

BUT…

With all the peaks and valleys (a lot of valleys) I’ve experienced lately, I believe the key to happiness is actually developing a baseline not of neutrality or indifference, but of joy.

It can be hard to get back into this mindset when you’ve been low for a while. It is easy to expect good things when everything is going well. The stumbling block many of us face is in finding some joy momentum when things have been…well, shitty.

I think this is because joy is like a muscle. 
When we don’t exercise it, it begins to atrophy.
Just like going for a run, a yoga class, or to the gym is undeniably good for you – especially during busy or stressful times – so too is exercising joy.  

The problem is we don’t always feel like doing it (much like running, yoga, and the whole gym thing). We know it’ll make us feel better, but we feel uninspired, or we convince ourselves that we don’t have time, we’re too tired, we’ll do it tomorrow, etc.
So, here’s what I’ve been doing to exercise my joy muscle…
As I go through my day, I try to notice any little moments in which I feel joy.  I bring my awareness to the moment and I soak it up. I might even say to myself, “This” and I take a mental picture (or an actual picture).
I notice how the joy feels in my body…because feelings of joy ignite our pleasure sensors and leave us wanting more of the same.
So, I’m working on that joy baseline…that expectation of good things. Sometimes I’ll be disappointed, angry, anxious, depressed…but the stronger I can make that joy muscle, the easier it will always be to come back to as my default setting.
Joy begets joy
The more joy we seek, the more joy we notice;
The more joy we notice, the more joy we feel.
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Day 114/365 Lawyer Letting Loose at a Jam Band Concert

I bought tickets to two shows this summer – Tedeschi Trucks/Wood Brothers, and Jerry Seinfeld.  They just so happened to fall on back to back nights this weekend.

One music, one comedy – two totally different experiences, and I enjoyed them both. However, one much more clearly defined where I want to place my attention.

I am not going to sit here and disparage Seinfeld. To do so would be tantamount to blasphemy in my mind.  I am forever in awe of the fact that people (myself included) can still relevantly rattle off one liners from a show that stopped being produced twenty years ago, and make people laugh.

I also love the fact that he can manage to make people laugh for over an hour without using a single profanity, and without saying anything offensive to anyone (except maybe postal workers).  Don’t get me wrong, I love profanity from time to time…but it truly seems to be a lost art to deliver a stand up routine without using any of it.

The closest he came to swearing was when he was talking about how much he loves being in his sixties, and feeling that he can say NO to things.  He said people have “bucket lists” but he prefers to replace the “b” with an “f” and call it a day.  Pretty funny (I did laugh), but maybe that’s where he lost me.  “You go ahead and zip-line through the rain forest; I’m gonna sit in my recliner picking potato chip crumbs off of my sweatshirt.  Enjoy.”

This is the part where you tell me I have no sense of humor.  I do though. Actually, many people say I’m pretty fucking funny. {ha, sorry, had to…I love irony.}

Much of his routine focused on how dissatisfied we all are – lazy, antisocial, screen addicted, fat…somehow it was very funny and very depressing all at once.

The location didn’t help – Foxwoods Casino Theatre. As we came and went, we had to walk by dozens of people staring, glazed over at slot machines, breathing in second hand smoke…when we emerged into the warm, fresh evening air with a full moon, I was elated.

By contrast, on Friday night I saw The Wood Brothers and Tedeschi Trucks Band at the Providence Performing Arts Center. The energy in the room was amazing. TTB has typically about ten musicians on the stage at once – they all appear to love what they are doing for a living. They encourage each other and seem to truly appreciate each other’s talents – grinning broadly as the audience went wild over the guitar and vocal solos of their fellow band members.  So much joy.

Possibly the best part of the performance was the guy two rows directly in front of us. He was wearing a button-down dress shirt and glasses, and was probably about sixty-five years old. He looked like he’d come straight from work – and he was having the time of his life.  He practically burst with excitement as he recognized each new song by the first few notes – looking over at his friend, shouting, “I love this one!!” He never sat down; never stopped moving. He danced the entire time and although I was watching him from behind, I have no doubt he had a huge smile on his face the entire time. It made my night, watching that guy.

So I guess what all of this rambling today is about, is that it is so clear to me that I want to follow the joy –

Not the sarcastic this is how it is so we might as well laugh at it kind of joy (although that definitely has its place).

I want to follow the my God I am so happy to be here kind of joy.

The I can’t believe my luck kind of joy.

The lawyer letting loose at a jam band concert kind of joy.

Maybe I’m just channeling this guy…

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Dad ruling the dance floor.

 

Day 113/365 Surprise!

The tiny, octogenarian usher carried a matching tiny flashlight, which she kept pointing at my self-illuminating iPhone screen to see the seat numbers on our etickets.  This didn’t inspire a lot of confidence in her seat-finding skills, so when she kept walking us closer and closer to the stage to show us our seats, I was pretty sure she was making a mistake. My friend, Sarah, and I kept exchanging glances as if to say, “Seriously? Where is she taking us?”

This is particularly funny because I bought the tickets, and yet I was as incredulous as Sarah was.  Later she said, “You should have seen the look on your face!  Priceless!” I retorted, something like, “It’s great when you are able to pull off a surprise for yourself.

Ummm…

This is the sort of thing that happens when you’ve been in a fog of grief for months. You do things, and you don’t remember.

Often this is stress inducing or frustrating, but apparently it can also make for a nice surprise! Like when you discover that at some point you must have believed that the Universe owed you amazing seats to see your favorite singer/guitar Goddess and her guitar God husband. A fact that you promptly forgot. I knew I had the tickets, but fifth row? I had no idea.


After my dad died I decided I needed to schedule some things to look forward to in the months that followed. The first was a trip to a city to which I’d never been – Savannah.  I booked a nice Bed & Breakfast and coerced two of my favorite women, Monica and Lynette, into coming with me.  Aside from one embarrassing evening in a (blessedly) dimly lit Thai restaurant, in which I sobbed into my Pad Thai, I was able to not be the grieving daughter that weekend.  New city, new me. I put the grief aside for a few days, and we had a great time.

 

When the weekend was over and it was time to go home, I hit a wall.  When I had to return to my regular life, I had the (ridiculously obvious) revelation that I couldn’t hit the reset button by leaving town for a few days. Dad was still dead, and my family was still in a cloud of grief and bewilderment.

Life would be heavy for a while.

Next up was a trip my mother and I had planned, to see some family friends the next month.  This was already in place when I had my rough re-entry from Savannah. I was really worried that my mother was going to have the same experience – fun time away, awful time coming back. I wondered if it was even worth it to go. When I picked her up to go to the airport, I could tell that she was feeling shaky.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“Yes, it’s hard to explain,” she said.

“I bet leaving the house feels like leaving dad behind.”

“Yes,” she said.

For her, it was the leaving that was hard, not the returning. Yet another example of how we all grieve differently.

Anyway, I digress…back to last night.

Remember when I wrote about grief and how it is an actual, medical reality that those of us going through it literally can’t remember things, concentrate, organize thoughts well?

So, last night was a wonderful example of how that can be a little gift!

Step one: Buy awesome seats.

Step two: Promptly forget.

Step three: Absolutely adore your sad, grieving, great-seat deserving self for such a kick-ass surprise.

And then this happened – I ran into some old friends who happened to be sitting right in front of us – two couples I adore, whose children (and dogs) I used to take care of way back when. In between sets they asked me if I wanted to get a drink.  I said sure. Next thing I know I’m on a private elevator up to the “Executive Lounge.”

Free champagne. Cookies. A clean bathroom with no line….mints, you guys.

The whole night was amazing.  As you can probably tell I’m still on a high from it!!

Soooo…

Tonight, I have two tickets to see Jerry Seinfeld perform stand up. Again, I bought the tickets months ago, still in a fog of grief and (if last night is any indication), feeling fully entitled to awesomeness. I’m taking Billy.

I wonder how the seats will be…

It’ll be a surprise to both of us.

 

 

 

 

 

Day 111/365 Before and After

Facebook has a feature in which every day we have the opportunity to see the posts or photos we have shared in past years “on this day”.  I never posted very many pictures of my dad on Facebook simply because he wasn’t on Facebook to see them.  So I don’t get surprised by many photos of him that show up in this way.  What I have noticed, though, is that many times I will see photos from the past year and think, “Look at us, we had no idea what was coming. How can that be?” 


I am not sure why, but this photo of my mother and me from last summer struck me hard in this way. We look so happy. I search our faces for some indication that we had sensed a storm coming.

How could we have been having such a good time?

Why hadn’t we taken him with us?

We didn’t know.

We couldn’t have known. 

I guess that is exactly what is so disquieting…the recognition of the absolute fragility of our existence, and of our often complete lack of awareness of that.

Oh, the arrogance.

We tend to make assumptions about how our lives will play out, don’t we? When in reality we don’t have any idea what may happen next – to us or to the ones we love…

For better and for worse.

Not only are we not in control, not really – but we are also not promised any warning whatsoever when our world is about to be upended.

It can just happen – BAM.

Suddenly our memories – our lives – are divided into two distinct categories:

Before, and after.

I’m not suggesting we live our lives in fear, worrying about what may happen next.

We just don’t know.

We can’t know, so…

We have to make that okay – the not knowing.

How?

I suppose when woken up to this reality there are different ways one might deal with it, such as…blissfully going to sleep to it again, or living fearfully, neither of which appeals to me.

So, this is what I’m choosing for now…

Saying Yes to more things.

Yes to the small things, like, “Can we have pie for breakfast?” 

Yes to the bigger things like, “Should I take this trip?”

Yes to speaking from the heart…in ways both small and big. That is something I know I will never regret.

I think what it boils down to is…

More joy, less worry,

More love, less angst.

More YES.

Summer goals.

{I’m a work in progress.}

 

 

Day 98/365 Canine Existentialism

Playing this afternoon at the beach with Louie, I marveled at how, despite the fact that having the ball thrown for him seems to be the ultimate thrill, he fiercely refuses to give up the ball once he has reclaimed it.

It’s as if every time he possesses that ball, he can think only about the ball and how to maintain his control. He completely and instantly loses sight of the joy he felt in seeking it.

I began to think about that – about how in life we can hold on so tightly to what we “possess” – people, objects, ideas, even memories – that we lose sight completely of the joy we could allow ourselves were we to lessen our grip, or even to let go, and allow for new things to come our way.

Then I thought…well, maybe it isn’t about the ball at all – not about losing, chasing, gaining, maintaining…

Maybe it’s just about being present, in the moment, allowing oneself to…

“Live in the sunshine, Swim in the sea, Drink the wild air.” 

Eventually, Louie understood too…or maybe he just lost track of the ball.

He isn’t much of an existentialist.