The Long Black Veil

I have been silent for nearly two weeks. These have not been the best two weeks.

It’s not worth the paper to go into details. Or maybe despite the fact that I have a small, but loyal group of readers, I don’t want to share the demons that sometimes keep joy at bay.

Joy should be the bedrock of our daily existence – or at least I believe it should be. Sometimes the joy is absent. I honestly don’t know why that happens. It seems by the definition I offered in the first post, joy should not be absent because it should be something so basic and so comforting – even in bad times – that we don’t want to loose track of it.

I don’t know.

I have been taking a meditation class and our instructor has suggested that while we breathe we repeat this over to ourselves: May I be happy, May I be well, May I be at peace.

May you be joyful, may you be well, may you be at peace.

 

Essential misery?

Recently I was in a conversation with a gentleman in an internet forum for people in my profession. I had engaged him in a brief exchange because he had referred to “joy” in a post on the group page. He made a comment I promised myself I would reflect on.

“I sometimes believe that short-term misery is part of much longer-term spiritual joy.”

I am somewhat hesitant to embrace the notion that pain or suffering give us a true sense of appreciation for the long term and ever-present prospect of joy. I always cringe at the sort of Puritanical attitude that we deserve our discomfort because we are wretched, bumbling humans who really don’t deserve to breathe the air of earth, or to embrace anything that feels like contentment.

That said, I also wonder if some taste of grief or discontentment doesn’t work on us the way sugar works in making some dishes. It seems the exact opposite of what you need, but the slight bit of sweetness counteracts the savory aspects of the dish and creates a smooth and pleasant flavor. Seems contrary, but it works.

In my life, I have known some misery. This is different from grief, which extends for a time and then dissipates. Misery is defined as a circumstance, thing, or place that causes suffering or discomfort.

In these times we are living through right now, there is a thing, which is causing a lot of misery for a lot of people. Unemployment, or foreclosure on a home, even homelessness because of this financial mayhem has befallen many. I am always amazed at the resilience of people in these circumstances. Resilience – not joy. There is a sense that “I will not be taken down by the undertow.” Then, for some, things ease a little and joy returns – or perhaps it is found for the first time.

There is a particular man who frequents my church every Sunday. I’ll call him Johnny. Johnny has been homeless for years. He is probably not the brightest of individuals. He is supported by both the city homeless facility across the block from the church, and also by our homeless day center in the basement. In the years of Johnny’s association with our parish, he has distinguished himself by his sweet and trusting attitude. He believes in the immutability of a God he has never seen. He can sing his heart out. He smiles “chronically.” He is a study in joy. Having nothing and yet appreciating everything.

But perhaps this sounds a bit too “churchy” to you. Fair enough. Consider the horrors of the earthquake in Haiti. First of all, did you punch a few buttons on your cell phone and contribute to the relief effort? Wasn’t there some inner sense in you that felt that out of the misery of their plight and your own helplessness for your fellow travelers on this earth that there was joy in the knowledge that we are really all the same and that perhaps that $10 could help? And even more, that you helped?

Secondly, tell me that you did not see at least one Haitian on the television who showed some sort of joy – some sense that all would be well. I saw several of these people. They were sleeping in the open – on rubble-covered streets. But they believed that joy was present. Their ability to summon joy reinforced for me an understanding that my own access to joy was there for the taking.

I want to return to the man who made his comment about misery and long-term spiritual joy.

Misery can allow us to forget that joy can be that lasting thing. That supporting spiritual condition that can help us keep our lives in perspective. I don’t have this perspective embedded into my soul yet. But practicing the art of living well – despite our own troubles – may be all the impetus we need. I try to do this by forgiving more and begrudging less. (Okay, I still curse bad drivers who scare me spitless.) But remembering a Buddhist practice may help in our efforts to live well. When someone parks his grocery cart in the middle of the aisle, say this to yourself: “Just like me, he probably is distracted.” Or when a store clerk seems unfriendly or short-tempered, try thinking: “Just like me, she has bad days, too.” And then, give yourself credit for asking the question.

Because, in asking the question, you begin to build a reservoir where joy can come to lighten the load. You begin the journey of joy. Or so I believe.

I wish you peace.

Breakfast at the Parthenon

In case you were thinking that perhaps I had been to Athens to have breakfast tacos on the steps of the Parthenon, the answer is, “no.” I have never been to Greece and am not likely to go there any time soon.

These past 10 days have been rather distracting and disjointed with Mary Lazarus being ill and all…it was hard to muse about joy or consider what aspect of seeing my computer die might somehow end up with joy as something at the top of the list! But, Mary Lazarus survived and I got the digital aspects of my life back together, so I found a bit of time to reflect on joy again.

It began with the simple thought of breakfast. When I was young, Saturday and Sunday breakfasts were a big deal. On Sundays we always had something sweet – donuts or coffee cake or muffins. My parents made coffee in a percolator and it smelled divine. We came home from church, they made the coffee and heated up the donuts or whatever and we sat down to read the paper and eat our pastry. Saturday breakfasts were also memorable – our big breakfast before chores or errands. It was usually eggs, bacon and biscuits or sometimes (more often when I was very young) it was just pancakes. My parents could both make some of the yummiest pancakes ever.

When I left college I moved to Denver. I had no family there, so sometimes I just created my own Big Breakfast. It was usually scrambled eggs, rough wheat toast, grits and bacon. I was a tea drinker exclusively at that time, so hot tea was a must.

A few months after arriving, I began dating a guy whose mission in life was to explore every greasy spoon diner that downtown Denver had to offer. We lived only blocks apart and Colfax Avenue was just a few blocks from our respective apartments. We both loved to walk in the neighborhood so that we could explore all the little spots along the way. Our neighborhood was called Capitol Hill and it had many historic homes built in what is referred to as the 4-square style.

Of all the places we explored, though, the Parthenon was Steven’s very favorite. It was small. There was a big stove in the front and it had a huge griddle where the cook could make eggs, fry ham, bacon or hamburgers – or all of them, and it permeated the entire diner with its smells. There was a counter with five or six stools and several tightly packed four-tops with Fifties-style chairs of vinyl and chrome.

Breakfast was almost always the same thing when I ordered – eggs, bacon and toast accompanied by a generous side of Calvin and Hobbes or the Rocky Mountain News. The two of us usually ate for less than ten dollars and neither of us ever got sick on anything we selected. We usually stayed for a couple of hours, drinking coffee (him) or tea (me) and reading the paper. Then we would wander out and walk the street and look into storefronts.

I ask myself often why breakfast has taken on such a place of significance in my life. I really can’t say. I know that in making breakfast, there is a since of satisfaction in the wholeness of the experience. It is a particular ritual for me – timing it “just so,” savoring the butter on the wheat toast, contrasting the tang of the bacon with the pebbly feel of grits…each bite, each aspect is just perfection. It is my favorite meal and my favorite meal to invite someone to share with me.

I have had friends to breakfast on snowy days or sunny days, on days when it was really cold outside or days when the sun blistered from 7 am on. Usually, the breakfast is every bit as basic as what I have described here.

Now that I live in the suburbs, there are seldom walks or exploratory wanderings down old streets with storefronts that house shoe repair businesses, comic book sellers, or those forerunners of convenience stores that primarily carry newspapers and cigarettes. I miss that aspect of my Saturday and Sunday morning greasy-spoon breakfasts.

This recollection, this wonderful remembrance of a younger time in my life brings back a large number of pleasant memories that seem joyful in their simplicity. And, they seem joyful in their lack of complication. The three years I dated Steven were some of the most wonderful times I spent, despite the huge limitations of that relationship. Being an urban explorer in a newly adopted town (it never felt like a city to me somehow) created a pallet of memories tinged with joy.

I think sometimes that much of my joy seems to live in memory. That it is easiest for me to pull from this old treasure trove of recollections and see some bit of remembered joy.

That is partly true. Still, it is equally true that breakfast has never ceased to be important, special, and meaningful to me.  I enjoy it in silence or in conversation, before an outing or just as ritual in and unto itself. There is a sense of stolen time that comes with breakfast.

And so, I make breakfast – which I now have with coffee – and think of my ritual as a means of blessing a busy life with joy. It is the time I spend in gratitude for the quiet moments, the small moments that fill gaps of my daily life with well-being and joy.

On some Sundays, I add Etta James to my ritual and play, Sunday Kind of Love:

I don’t want a Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday, or Thursday, Friday or Saturday

Oh nothing but Sunday oh yea

I want a Sunday. Sunday

I want a Sunday kind of love

Oh yea

Sunday, Sunday, Sunday kind of love

I invite you to consider what things give your life quiet joy and a sense of context.

In all things, I wish you peace.

A postponed joy document

Gentle Readers (as Miss Manners would say), my poor computer became very sick and had a near-death experience last week. Yes, it’s true, the Blue Screen of Death came calling. But, as my timing would have it, the great Apple god in the sky took pity on my computer and raised her from the dead.

In recognition of this powerful miracle and in deference to my Southern roots, I renamed her Mary Lazarus. (I know of a Mary Carlton and a Mary Scott. I thought Mary Lazarus was fitting.)

So, this great crisis rendered me silent for a week, but not without thoughts on joy. I hope you passed the week with at least one moment of joy.

Please look for this week’s post to appear in the next day or two.

I wish you peace.

Successful but not happy?

“And how can you be successful if you’re not happy?”

I saw this written in an article a few days ago and it pulled me up short.

Throughout my career I have been the less-than-happy recipient of several layoffs. When I lost my job the first time, a fellow job seeker pointed out to me that we use our jobs to define ourselves. For example, “Well, I’m a lawyer and I specialize in contracts.” Sometimes I want to ask people what they “were” when they were 18 (before they became lawyers). Sometimes I want to ask them if they were lawyers when they popped out of the womb.

So, my sense of things is that people define happiness in terms of success and success in terms of work.

As I have said before, I do not think happiness and joy are the same thing, and I think the question above reflects that because the high that comes from a success is relatively short-lived – just like happiness. I know a lot of discontented, unhappy people who are outwardly perceived as successful. I’m not sure anyone asks them if they see themselves as successful – perhaps they don’t see themselves in this light because they are not joyful or contented. Perhaps they aren’t sure.

When I have had times in my life when I was – in my mind, at least – monetarily successful, I did not feel any accompanying contentedness. Mostly, I felt anxious, worrying about when this “undeserved” success would desert me. Others I have met kept scratching that scab, always looking for something else to buy or planning some trip they wanted to take to an exotic place. For some, there is a chronic restlessness for something new, something to give them that next bit of inflatable happiness – if only for a few moments.

On balance, I would not call myself a highly successful businesswoman. I think I am successful in my own right, but I am not someone who is a director or vice president at a corporation or one who makes a lot of money. Some days, because we all need money to live on, I wish I had been more financially successful (by society’s standards) so I could have a more comfortable life. But there are also trade-offs that take me in the direction opposite joy or contentment.

We pay a high price with these trade-offs and I have never been able to convince myself that the price was worth it. (Sometimes it’s hell to hold the unpopular view that there must be something more than wanting.) When that happens, many things loose their price tag. When is it too much to be in a high-level job but miss time passing other experiences that might spell joy? I wonder some days if I am the only person I know who fights the idea of getting up, dressing, going to work, then to an evening meeting of some kind, returning home only to go to bed and then push the repeat button?

Perhaps doing the unpopular thing – even dangerous in today’s economy – of setting limits or saying no threatens livelihood. I honestly don’t know.

What I know more and more as I have crossed the magic line known as 50, is that time really does whiz by much more quickly than it did when I was seven and restless. Now I look up and realize that Christmas was a month ago and wonder what happened to January. So, looking for what brings joy is increasingly important.

My joy for today (so far) has been attending a quiet service at my church early in the morning when the streets of this town were deserted. I could drive up these streets without lots of other cars or more than a few pedestrians. When I left, I could anticipate the spot in the road where it curves up and to the left. I don’t know why I like that. But it seems fun to me to drive that way. I fall into formation with a clump of bicyclists all dressed in their Lance Armstrong attire with their muscular bodies rolling on down the deserted highways. I envy them their freedom, but rejoice that they are out riding.

I love the cold, crisp air and mostly the solitude. My brain is constantly busy with to-do lists and shoulda-woulda-coulda’s. But in the few minutes of silence, nothing deprives me of the sense of harmony that comes to me. I think of it as inner harmony where I can breathe better and marvel, as I always do, at the beauty of the roads I travel – both urban and country; concrete and spiritual. When I allow myself to appreciate or ponder these bits and pieces of life, I know that I am joyful.

I wish you peace.

Reverence — A joy bearer?

As I become more and more a member of that vast land called middle age, I question what bits and pieces of my past may in some way contribute to a sense of wellbeing. I think wellbeing could legitimately be another name for joy.

When some hear the word reverence, they immediately think churchy thoughts. I don’t. But I know that the expression or demonstration of reverence has often brought me a certain sense of wellbeing or contentment.

Paul Woodruff, a professor at one of our local universities said in his book Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue, “The great trees have been alive on these hills for centuries. They rise on strong bases to great heights, they are homes to many creatures, they bear clouds of greenery above and provide dense shade below. Like everything that calls for reverence, the trees are in an important sense beyond our understanding.”

Reverence is a certain level of awe, a respect for and humility around something that seems precious, even fragile. Reverence differs from joy in that way, I think – because joy is what we fold inside ourselves and protect for our own pleasure, comfort and even survival. I would suggest to you that showing reverence – whether now or in the past – helps you to shape that which is joyous in your world.

A few years ago, I worked in a company where two of my colleagues were from the Deep South. Since my grandmother grew up in Louisiana, I know something of the ways and customs of the area. Kevin was from North Carolina, whereas Faye was from Georgia. One day, Kevin’s wife brought their two very young children up to the office to see their daddy. Both of the children were under six. Kevin took them by the hand and introduced then to Faye. “Marybeth, Matthew, this is Miss Faye,” and then he turned them to me, “And, this is Miss Michele.” It’s a very old-fashioned title, and yet a very comforting one. For me, it brought up ideas about orderliness and about doing things “right.” Calling a woman – married or not – by the title of “Miss (Caroline, Mary Jo, Elaine, etc.),” holds a certain level of reverence – both for the speaker and the one spoken to. It brought me such a sense of weight – a sense that in the world, I can give a child a pillar to lean against, a hand to help and experience to teach. More importantly, I can be a part of the village that invests in the growing of that mind and heart. And, as someone who has often longed for children, but had none, this moment of participation is a great gift, a great joy to my being.

Joy can be the underground spring that bubbles up in many places. It may be an aroma, or a sensation. But, for me, much of joy is tied to reveling in the old and the overlooked. In the same way, much of reverence sets the stage for a banquet of joy. Reverence for the grandeur of trees, the balletic action of sandlot baseball, or for the raising or lowering of the flag creates the opportunity for joy. That which we reverence opens a portal to joy: a way to see that we have an endless supply of material from which to gather joy and to hold it safe and protected.

In all things, I wish you peace.

Is there joy in sadness?

When you consider that my last weekend was spent traveling to, attending and leaving from a memorial service, the topic of joy may seem rather obtuse. Still, I have been considering if joy might be a part of sadness.

I accompanied my mother down to the coast on Friday and attended the memorial on Saturday morning. Part of the planning for this occasion was for my mother’s extended family – people I grew up seeing annually – to have yet another reunion, despite the dwindling members of her generation. I hoped that part of the day would bring a certain restful feeling – one of encircling the whole once again.

One of my second cousins – a man barely 18 months older than I – died in August, alone and tragically, from a cruel and fast moving infection.  It had been years since I last saw him. He was only 54. He was a good man, the kind some on the east coast would call, “a real prince.” An incredible surfer, a skilled mechanic who doctored ailing light rail cars, a musician, a fisherman, and a person possessed of a fine, fine mind. He was decent, kind and engaged in a life he loved. I think when he died he knew that he had lived fully. He had done what he most wanted, what most delighted him. I am thinking that a life possessed of delight is a form of joy.

Danny is the middle child of one of my mother’s first cousins. I make no bones about the fact that I adore her. She is witty, eccentric, companionable, and like all three of her children, whip smart. I cannot express how much it annoys me that she is aging! There are few people I like as much. And, I found it heartbreaking to know that she had lost a child. But, above all, I believe in her resilience. And, while I believe in it, I know there are times when resilience cannot carry us any further. And so I pray for her to be well.

There are distinct memories in the company of this family. We had great fun in the fisherman’s shack-cum-beach-house (ha! ha!) that had belonged to Danny’s grandfather. My family joined theirs for vacations years ago. Crabbing, looking for shells, hot dogs on the beach in the dark by firelight. All of this was slow time.

The drive from home to the coast is about three to four hours, depending. We took mostly the state highways, which took us through the towns I had ridden through as a child on my way to my grandparents’ house. My mother wanted to go through her hometown, although not past her childhood home, which is quite run down. There are big doings around this tiny county seat. The oil companies have come to drill – or to frack – as they call it.  We found it worrisome, but that’s a discussion for a different forum.

Some of the best things I saw – even though one or two were bittersweet – were “of the land.” We passed through a ghost town – a place that had once been a little farming community with the name Zorn. Years ago I met a guy who was born there. He talked about how it didn’t really exist anymore and we laughed. I didn’t laugh this time, but I remembered how I counted down the towns as we closed in on my mother’s hometown, closer and closer. One town we passed through has a statue of a huge pecan. I call it “The Big Pecan.” It’s still there. Recently they made it even bigger! It still makes me laugh and smile. I just love that silly old statue.

The land spreads out flatter and flatter as we descend from hills to coast. The hills smooth back and flood plains change as we approach sea level. How can I explain in a bit of storytelling the feelings of memory in the bone that make me feel a sense of ease when I travel this way? It is one of my greatest joys – to recall the binding of land and family, to know deep inside the stories of love and poverty, of frugality and eccentricity, and of laughter and memory.

In town – my mother’s – the county courthouse had a tattered look about it and it is clear that a long time ago some particularly brilliant someone had decided to stucco over the brick and sandstone façade, to wall off doorways and remove big heavy doors. But, the state had planted a large wooden sign in front and said it was the next of the historic county courthouses to be restored. This was a special moment for me – a moment which felt a lot like that definition of joy. I love historical buildings and this one has particular meaning for me. I walked around the perimeter of the building. Perhaps the funniest moment came when I saw a paper sign in the window that said, “Due to ceiling falling, please access all offices outside to new annex building.” I laughed and laughed. I was glad the courthouse was still there – so many other things were long gone.

We talked about the past. My mother recalled her aunts and uncles as very social people, full of laughter and fun. These were my grandfather’s people, the ones I have loved so fiercely through all the years of my life. Their commitment to one another and their families was not just a matter of love, but also of necessity. An agrarian life is a hard life. When it is set next to an economic depression that decimated so many farms and families 70 to 80 years ago, the fact that their descendants still live there today, many doing the same things, is an amazing thing…a spiritual thing.

If I were honest, I probably wouldn’t choose that life. Nor would I be a fisherman or a surfer, like Danny. But I love what I encounter when I come back to these places. In trips like these – despite the sadness that made this one necessary – I travel and remember the feeling of belonging in this place, in this state, to this family at this time. And luckily, because it is a feeling that is deeply bound and knitted into me; it cannot be taken.

If joy is slow food, then this road that I have traveled so many times has created joy that is indeed a savored thing. And this makes me feel I can find my way for a while. That the memory of all that has been, of the land and the stories can create a joyful noise in my heart.