I have a very tenuous relationship with the word ‘joy’. If I’m truly honest, it has never been one of my favorite words because I was just so envious of those who could find it everywhere seemingly so easily, when for me, joy was such an illusion. It was a far-off dream and goal that when everything finally aligned I, too, would uncover the magical place called ‘joy’.
I was so sure of what exactly would bring me joy, too. A workday where all things flowed on schedule, with finesse, and achievement ensued. Coming home to a house that I had already cleaned and had stayed clean; maybe to food I had meal-prepped. Finding out my child had completed all homework without being hounded and made whatever team was of interest in the moment. A well-behaved, cuddly dog not digging at the carpet or shedding on my favorite black shirt. I was certain that the neater and easier my life was, the more there would be joy in it. Afterall, my world has descended into chaos on more than one occasion and the challenges of life as a solo parent and professional working woman are significant even under the best of circumstances. Joy would find me – once I cleaned the kitchen counters and got the laundry done.
But joy didn’t find me that way at all. In fact, the more I chased, the further away it seemed. And last year when my church drew ‘star words’ at the first service of the new year, I was more than a little upset to draw ‘Joy’. It was like a practical joke to me. We were entering year 2 of COVID and the exhaustion of running a nonprofit and raising a preteen alone was amplified by a near-constant fear of succumbing to a disease I knew my second-hand-smoke, chronic-childhood-respiratory-infection lungs would likely not endure well. Plus, I was just a few weeks into working with a new therapist on some resurfaced dissociative tendencies. While I knew I absolutely needed the process, the work was incredibly difficult and I felt like I was being slow-roasted in painful self-discovery that just wouldn’t let up. ‘Joy’ could not have been farther from my mind. All I could think was, ‘NOW? Now, you choose to show up??’
Joy’s response to me over the next year was pretty much, ‘I didn’t choose to show up now. I’ve been here. Hanging around, seeing if you’ll notice.’
I hadn’t. Not even a little bit.
Because I wasn’t really looking for joy as it turned out. I was looking for a happiness, and I was getting that wrong too. Eventually I would come to realize my definition of happiness, which I figured would result in a low hum of perpetual goodness, was based completely on societal norms and old tropes about what ‘doing life right’ is and isn’t. It wasn’t even that I believed any of that (I don’t), but I did believe that if I could convince others of my conformity, I’d have peace and ease, which would lead to happiness. And then, I would be ‘free’ finally to live on my own terms after that, I posited. I had tied it all together, believing that my life should be a beautiful-from-the-outside, prescribed present - perfectly gift-wrapped. There, I was certain, would be joy.
But the therapy, the pandemic, and the preteen, broke me down over this last year. I cried, sometimes until I ached, from the pain of seeing people get sick. I shouted at the night sky in frustration over furloughing beloved employees. I ran shower-monologues until they were rehearsed enough to go into battle with my son over trying to engage in life and success amid the not-normalness of this all. I fought, I swore (a lot!), and I got angry – and I really resented that ‘joy’ followed me around on this stupid star-shaped piece of paper, still asking when I was going to notice.
And then, after a particularly stressful day, I was in my kitchen playing music while I put away the dishes and I became aware that I was dancing a little bit. It was a fleeting moment, but it registered. I went to a hot yoga class and my teacher called me out (in a good way) for smiling through a particularly hard to hold pose. I laughed a belly laugh I hadn’t heard from myself maybe ever – in therapy.
Joy. Right.there. Little flashes of it until, like a tiny hole in a dam, the pressure gave and the moments washed over me. I had joy. I just needed to notice it and savor it.
There was no baseline happiness that unlocked my joy. Nothing about the external circumstances changed. Work, the pandemic, the preteen, it was all hard and messy, and it all still sucks a lot of the time. The house wasn’t (and isn’t) perfectly clean and sometimes we eat cereal or pizza rolls for dinner because I don’t have the time or energy to cook let alone meal prep. I still fight because it’s core to who I am. And I still get frustrated and swear more than I wish I did. But also, I dance in my kitchen, and laugh with my therapist. I’m learning to savor even the smallest moments of joy – warm sunshine and the smell of salty air near the ocean when I roll down my car window, a delicious new song that sweeps me away for just 3 minutes, the quick hug and ‘love you’ from a now-teenage voice that may have been unruly just an hour before, even a delightful new word added to my lexicon. In these places, I have joy and the joy I have has brought dimension to my life in new and unexpected ways. I have used those moments to cultivate my own self-care. The kind of self-care that doesn’t require hours, or hundreds of dollars (which often left me feeling worse than when I sought it out) but can be part of my daily routine. Joy, then, has been added to my resilience toolkit. It’s inside me, cultivated only by an internal compass of knowing that this one moment – not the surrounding ones, or the circumstances, or the limitations – but this one space is just right for just me and I can savor it. I am so glad Joy waited around for me to notice it.