Joy to the World...sounds like a message reserved for a Christmas Carol or the feeling when welcoming a new little one into the world as we did last month with our first grandchild.
I've always wondered where is joy the rest of the time. To be truthful, I think I am a joy-junkie. I can, as Katie says, "find whole scoops of joy with my children" (in my case, I'll admit it was mixed in with a bit of worry and a pinch of frustration), but I also find joy in the sunshine or the snow, in writing or in reading something that makes me laugh or cry or think more deeply. I find joy when I take the high road and don't cut off the silly driver who is attempting to run me down or try and be kind to someone whether I know them or not, even when I don't have the time or the energy. I have cocktail napkins that say, "Stop me before I volunteer again." but I never use them because volunteering brings me joy; it's my way to help contribute to the struggles in the world, doing my part to effect change where I can.
Sadly though, sometimes when I present my happy-to-be-alive and grateful-to-be-living-my-life face to the world, I have been accused of being a tad Pollyanna-ish. After all, the unasked question of "Don't I know that others are suffering?" hangs in the air; as if somehow by being really sad or at least more subdued I could make it better. At last, those days are over and I can express my joy (as well as my sadness) freely. My new lease on life came from a book a dear friend gave me for Christmas, Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, The Book of Joy, and I have embraced it more wholeheartedly than anything I have read since Our Bodies, Ourselves back in the 70's! I mean if Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama can find joy after all that they have been through, who am I to back away?
Apparently 2015, the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu spent a week together in Dharamsala, India in honor of the Dalai Lama's 80th birthday and to discuss the subject of joy. As they spoke it became clear that at the core they both valued connection with their fellow human spirits, seeing suffering together as the birth of empathy and compassion. Together they recognize that, "Ultimately our greatest joy is when we seek to do good for others." I think I have felt this my whole life. In my medical profession, like so many of my coworkers, I thought a part of my job was to make the patient's life a little easier and to help them find joy and humor in the midst of pain and suffering. The importance of finding joy has stayed with me in other areas of life as well.
For years, I was drawn to the strength of Archbishop Tutu; his ability to stay strong and committed against all odds and to foster forgiveness after the atrocities that were committed in his homeland. I marveled at his fortitude and when I heard him speak years ago, I was shocked at how diminutive he was in physical stature and yet was a giant among men. When I read his words about joy and suffering, I feel vindicated for my years of being joyful in the face of sadness, and I think his words to the universe are directly aimed at me, "Discovering more joy does not, I'm sorry to say, save us from the inevitability of hardship and heartbreak. In fact, we may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily, too. Perhaps we are just more alive. Yet as we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreak without being broken." WOW. Now I have a benchmark, a goal and have found a calling not just to feel joy, but to spread joy. To help me practice that calling with the consistency it deserves, I have but one word that I will be able to rise to the challenge:
We are beginning again. A new year. A new president. For some, new babies, newly wedded couples, new homes. As a way to symbolically bring in the New Year, I decided to go to an event where I expected there would be some type of ritual to support letting go and moving on. In my straight-backed chair, I waited to be led in some kind of "good riddance" activity that would leave me at least a little more hopeful about 2017. Then, an energetic man stood on the stage and got everyone up and out of their seats to "shake off the old" by using a traditional Qui Gong exercise. We started with shaking out our hands, then shaking our arms, then shoulders, and finally, we shook out our whole bodies. At this point, I could feel the energy in the room shift palpably. Within me, a kind of buzzing sense of connection of my Self to myself that I wasn't aware I had been missing started to happen and I began to feel a connection to all the other 'movers and shakers' in the room as well. When we finally stopped, we stood quietly, together, renewed.
The end of the year is predictably hard for me as it brings up other endings: the end of my marriage, the children moving out of the house, the absence of loved ones who no longer sit around our holiday table. Imperfectly, and unfortunately, also, somewhat predictably, I respond to the season with less than my best self and I did this again this year. So, as I shook off last year in the room with all those people I had yet to meet, I also shook off regret. I shook off cynicism. I shook off disappointment. I shook off isolation.
I felt very silly shaking myself all around like a child doing the Hokey Pokey - at least at first- but that was part of the ritual's beauty. By choosing to participate, I was being vulnerable, I was doing something outside my comfort level in the company of strangers. I guess that being vulnerable meant that my protective armor got "chinked." Miraculously, nothing short of Love, with a sprinkling of Hope, seeped in through the cracks. In Love, I forgave myself for messing up. For a short moment I was able to forgive others. This perfect peace was fleeting - clearly, I have much more work to do on myself and on Forgiveness. But I say it's a "Happy New Year." At least it's a very good start.
When I was growing up, we opened our presents on Christmas Eve, but not before my father pulled out the Bible - which had gathered dust for the previous twelve months - to read Luke, 2:1-20. "And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus..." This decree required Joseph and Mary to travel, and hence, for Mary to give birth in a manger when there was no room at the inn. In this way, each and every year, my father reminded us of the story of the first Christmas, and that its meaning was beyond our brightly lit tree and the gifts I couldn't wait to open underneath it. I loved the Thanksgiving feast we recreated the next day for Christmas dinner and relished the carols I knew by heart, sung round the family piano as my mother played.
There may not have been peace on earth, but in a raucous, imperfect family of seven, there always seemed to be peace and goodwill in our home for those holidays. Our traditions created a certain magic for me, a Christmas spirit that ignited a lifetime pursuit of the feelings evoked in an atmosphere of giving and joy and shared with the people I loved. Squabbling and worries were set aside and we managed to become our best selves - at least until December 26th. I still measure each of us by our highest common denominator, the joyful givers we became at Christmas time.
My experience isn't unique if literature, film and history are any indication. O. Henry's short story, The Gift of The Magi, is about the young, destitute couple who each sell their one prized possession to buy the other a gift, not realizing the sacrifice the other is about to make. He sells his gold pocket watch in order to buy her combs for her hair and she sells her hair in order to buy him a chain for his pocket watch. Or, who doesn't love the story of George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life? In embodying his own best self throughout the year, he changed the stars for countless others. And then, there's the story during World War I when some English and German soldiers laid down their guns on Christmas, 1914 to sing carols and allow for the gathering of their dead. We have the capacity to rise to a spirit of generosity that is especially manifested at this time of year.
Our family Christmases, as I'd known them, came to an end when my father died nearly thirty-three years ago. The house that accommodated us all had to be sold and my siblings began to scatter out of state. In time, I was able to look back and appreciate what we had and realize why Christmas is so important to me. Those festive, spiritual and connected days became the bar I set for a lifetime. I can still hear my father's strong voice as he quotes the angel in Luke's gospel, "Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy,which shall be to all the people," a message of hope that Someone has come to show us the way. (Katie)
The grateful heart sits at a continuous feast. Proverbs 15:15
When I was young, I didn't think much about gratitude. All I wanted was to be tall, blonde and own a real Barbie (instead of a knockoff), none of which, BTW, ever occurred. Fortunately as an adult, I have spent a lot more time being grateful; maybe it's because I'm making up for lost time or maybe it's because my birthday is closely tied to Thanksgiving. And, it's my favorite holiday. After all Thanksgiving is all about celebrating with those you love, creating a meal together and taking the time to appreciate the myriad of gifts that surround us. What could be better than that?
For me, first up on my gratefulness list, having survived a diagnosis of cancer, is the gift of being alive. It's a challenge each day to live life to the fullest; to feel lucky each morning to be able to get up and face the day ahead. It is a great responsibility to cherish and appreciate the life we have been given and to make the most of our time here on Earth. I think about the things so many of us take for granted: being able to see as we walk down the hallway, the actual ability to walk down the hallway...driving a car, having a car to drive...cooking a meal, having food to cook, a place to cook it and a spot where it can be enjoyed. Little things are more meaningful now as the years have gone by: a child's note of thanks, a call to say hello, an unexpected card or email, a new amusing nickname by a friend, the beauty of a rainbow, a super-moon, a garden in bloom or one settling in for a long winter. Maybe, I'm getting soft (or old!), but each of these experiences touches my soul and brings joy. I think Henry Ward Beecher was right when he said, "Gratitude is the fairest blossom which springs from the soul."
There is a joke in our family started years ago after the birth of our first child, (who, like me, arrived within a day of Thanksgiving.) I was overwhelmed by the number of thoughtful bouquets I received and my sister-in-law explained there were two things you could never have too many of: flowers or diamonds. Today, I would add gratitude to that list.
I was reminded of the Rolling Stones' lyric that I always loved, "You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometime you find, you get what you need," in a story a dear friend shared after she lost her aged mother last year at this time. While she was happy that her mom was at peace, she missed her; it would be their first Thanksgiving apart. Trolling around our neighborhood thrift shop a few weeks later, she found an old Christmas ornament, the kind from our childhood, delicate glass with sparkly inserts. When she saw it, she knew the silver was perfect for her holiday table. She had no idea what the red bell that was also inside the package was, but figured it could always be tossed aside - a freebie as part of her $0.50 investment. Imagine her surprise when she got home and opened the package to realize that Grandma, her children's name for her sweet mother, was actually written on the bell; a connection, a realization that sometimes things happen that are meant to bring a smile and a knowledge that though there is sadness in the world, we all have much to be grateful for. This Thanksgiving as I travel to the home of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts, I will exercise my tolerance and love for each other, even blessing the turkeys among us! (Joan)
October is the month of Hallowed Evening or Holy Evening - Halloween. While largely commercialized as an American holiday, Halloween, as we call it, is grounded in tradition from a variety of cultures. In the Christian tradition, the 'hallowed evening' started as the end of a three-day festival that honored the saints, the martyrs and the dead. In the ancient Celtic world, Halloween originated from the Gaelic Samhain harvest festival. Samhain means "summer's end" in Old Irish. There was a period of time in Ireland, when all the children dressed up, not as witches, ghosts, pirates and princesses, but as street urchins, not to beg for treats, but to get any food at all. And anyone who has lived in California for any length of time comes to appreciate the art, if not the sentiment behind the tradition of the Mexican Day of the Dead on November 1st.
I love the tradition, but I'm a little beyond helping my kids dress up for Halloween and don't have any grandchildren yet who will be out and about this year. Lately, the early darkness and the chill in the evening air has me thinking more about the Hallowed Evening and wondering if the old tradition of celebrating the mysteries of passing over to the world beyond isn't a really important thing to do. I think about friends and family who have died this last year and those friends who are so ill they could die - and of course, my own mortality. For some, this is scary thinking. But as I've gotten older, I've learned that the "veil between the worlds" is thinner than I was brought up to believe.
I ran across this beautiful poem that was written by Henry Scott Holland, an English clergyman in 1910 and popularized by Irish monks.
Death is Nothing at All
Death is nothing at all
I have only slipped away to the next room.
I am I and you are you.
Whatever we were to each other,
That, we still are.
Call me by my old familiar name.
Speak to me in the easy way
Which you always used.
Put no difference into your tone.
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.
Laugh as we always laughed
at the little jokes we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me. Pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word
that it always was.
Let it be spoken without effect.
Without the trace of a shadow on it.
Life means all that it ever meant.
It is the same that it ever was.
There is absolute unbroken continuity.
Why should I be out of mind
because I am out of sight?
I am but waiting for you.
For an interval.
Somewhere. Very near.
Just around the corner.
All is well.
Nothing is past; nothing is lost.
One brief moment and all will be as it was before only better,
Infinitely happier and forever, we will all be one together.
We should never be afraid to take time to celebrate all the people we have ever loved, the living and the dead. Life is a gift and love is a gift. Wishing you a very happy Hallowed Eve.