Recently I learned about the Navajo ceremony that honours a baby’s first laugh. Whoever is the first person to make a baby laugh is expected to throw a dinner party on that baby’s behalf. In one account of this tradition, the person who had to throw such a party (the baby’s aunt) also had to give that baby the gift of turquoise.
The Navajo believe that when a baby is born, she belongs to two worlds: the spirit world and the physical world. The first laugh is seen as a sign of the baby’s desire to leave the spirit world and join her earthly family and community. Further, the Navajo believe that laughter is a sign that people understand the meaning of k’é (kinship).
This ceremony (and the belief around it) delights me for so many reasons. First, it feels so meaningful to give laughter such an elevated place in one’s spiritual journey. (Maybe that’s why some of my funniest friends are Indigenous – they know the value of laughter.) Second, while it’s an expensive commitment, I love the idea of placing the responsibility for hosting the celebration on the laugh-instigator. Playing with a baby takes on a whole new meaning when you might be the one to set this all in motion. Third, I love the idea of community gathering for a feast in honour of laughter. It seems that a community built on that foundation has a lot going for it.
While I wouldn’t go so far as to appropriate this ceremony or belief, I wonder how we could let it inform us. How might it change our spiritual practices and gatherings if we believed that laughter is as spiritual as prayer or anything else? What if we gathered for feasts to honour a person who’s been on a hard journey and has learned to laugh again? What if those of us who are facilitators and community-gatherers put laughter on the list of priorities for every gathering?
Though I grew up in a spiritual tradition that’s not known for placing laughter at the centre, I was lucky enough to be part of a family that knew the value of laughter. Whenever we gathered, especially if my dad’s sisters were present, there was certain to be laughter in our midst. The sound of my aunts laughing is one of the things that feels most like home to me.
We’ve all been through a lot in the last year and a half, with the pandemic separating us from our communities and diminishing our opportunities for laughter. I think that right now, as we emerge from this pandemic, we’re in a moment in history when we are especially in need of the healing power of laughter. We need to gather with our families, friends, and communities and we need to feast and laugh until our bodies feel reconnected with each other and with the spirit world.
I can’t remember if I picked a word at the beginning of 2018. I used to choose one faithfully, but that practice hasn’t had as much of a draw for me in the last two years as it once did. In the early years (starting with the year I chose fearless), my word helped pull me forward as I got closer and closer to the authentic and meaningful life I longed for. I made some big life-altering decisions in those years, partly because my annual word helped clarify my intentions and chart my path.
This past year, though, there’s been a shift, and my life has felt deliciously close to what I was dreaming of all of those years when I was choosing words. I don’t feel as much like I need an annual word to draw me forward anymore.
The only thing I can think of for 2019 is “more of the same”.
This year, instead of choosing a word at the BEGINNING of the year, I’m selecting one at the END that reflects what the year has been. For 2018, that word is Joy.
This is a unique place for me to be, and, as I wrote earlier this year, there’s been some uneasiness claiming joy.I’ve become much more familiar with grief and struggle in my adult life, and so joy feels like a foreign country. But after a year of deepening my practice around receiving and appreciating joy, it’s become a more comfortable place to live and I don’t plan to leave any time soon.
As this year of joy draws to a close (only ten more hours, as I write this), I’m doing some reflecting from this place of joy. Here are some of my thoughts…
1.) When you find contentment, stay there until you feel restless again.In choosing “more of the same” for 2019, I am acknowledging that I’ve arrived at a place of contentment and “enough” and I’m in no hurry to change anything. HOWEVER… I know my patterns well enough to know that I will continue to need growth and change in coming years, and so I surrender to the ebb and flow of life, resting when the time is right, and moving when I start to feel restless again.
2.) Joy may look different from what you expected. Embrace it anyway.There was a time when I was certain that a joyful life would be one in which I was well-partnered, with someone to come home to who would know just how to give solace to my weary heart when I’d been out in the world too long. That hasn’t happened for me this year, and though I still welcome the possibility of it in the future, I have found this single life to bring more joy than I ever expected.
3.) Find people who’ll hold space for you not only in sadness, but in joy. As I often discuss in my Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program, though it sounds counter-intuitive, it’s often easier to hold space for someone when they’re sad or lonely or have some kind of need you can fill. When they’re joyful and content, it can feel like they need you less. But a joyful person needs deep friendships just like a struggling person does and I am so very grateful for the people who’ve shown up for me in my joy just like they did in my grief.
4.) Joy may show up in places you expect it least. One of the most joyful days of the year was in one of the poorest places in the world, surrounded by people who know struggle, who’d lived through conflict and poverty, and yet who know how to dance and laugh. In Kitgum, Uganda, I laughed harder than I have in a long time when, at the Kindergarten graduation, the women invited me up to dance and I made a fool of myself trying to move my hips the way they do.
5.) It is easier to give from a place of abundance. If you want to be generous and to make a difference in the world, fill your own cup first. This year, I was able to give away more money than I’ve ever given, I held space for more clients than I ever have, I lent money to a few people I care about who are struggling, and I taught well over a hundred people through my online courses and in-person retreats. I could do all of this without feeling depleted because I’ve done a LOT of radical self-care the last few years (and continue to do so). I went to therapy, I’ve found spiritual practices that sustain me, I took sabbaticals and vacations when I started to feel depleted, and I spent time, energy, and money making my home feel more like a sanctuary. Some of what I’ve done for myself might look selfish to an outside observer, but it allows me to give generously without resentment or exhaustion, so I make no apologies.
6.) Boundaries help nurture and protect a joyful life.Becoming increasingly fierce and protective of my personal boundaries has helped me find this place of joy and protect it from those who might seek to diminish or destroy it (because of their own lack of joy). Because I know that my joy is worth protecting AND it helps me do better work and serve more people, I have become much more intentional about saying no when I’m depleted, limiting the time I spend with people who diminish my joy, and guarding the time and resources I need in order to feel well-resourced.
7.) Healthy relationships help grow a joyful life. Much of my joy comes from the time I spend with the people who matter to me. I have grown and deepened some beautiful friendships this year and I have been intentional about carving out ample time for deep and slow conversations. I have also been blessed with the best clients in the world who fill my cup every time I am in circle with them. AND I have three daughters who bring me joy. I spent as much time as I could with them this year, taking them on two vacations, knowing that there will come a time in the not-too-distant future when they will all move away from home. One of my favourite weeks of the year was a joy-filled week of play at Disney World with my girls.
8.) Joy isn’t always about ease – sometimes it comes as a result of considerable struggle. There have been many moments this year when joy came after a lot of hard work, sweat, and tears. As I wrote about my time in the Netherlands, a retreat that took us through some hard liminal space was one that ended with deep learning and much joy. This has also been true as I’ve renovated my home and backyard. I find great joy and satisfaction in completing something that stretched my physical and/or mental capacity.
9.) And then, sometimes, it IS about ease.I have found deep rest and relaxation this year – times when I’ve spent a long afternoon lounging in the hammock in my new backyard, or when I’ve taken a long leisurely hike through the woods. There was very little external stimulation needed in those times – just spaciousness and ease.
10.) Doing good and meaningful work is one of my greatest sources of joy.A year and a half ago, I launched the Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program. Since then, I’ve taught about 200 people through the online program and in-person retreats. It took a LOT of work to build this program from scratch and it continues to take a lot of work to grow it and teach it and hold space for the people who come to it. It’s a deep program and it’s not always easy to support people who have to dig deeply into their own blindspots, fear and internalized oppression in order to grow their comfort with the liminal space. AND… despite how much it asks of me (and perhaps BECAUSE of how much it asks of me) this work gives me more joy than I ever could have imagined.
I hope that in 2019, you, too, will find joy and contentment.
Friday, after a full day of work and a couple of juicy conversations with faraway friends, I headed to my hammock, tucked under two giant maple trees in my newly landscaped backyard. The late afternoon sun peeked through pinholes between the canopy of leaves, bouncing across my body now and then when the breeze rustled through. I hadn’t planned to stay long (there was supper to cook and other mom-duties-as-required), but after a few deep breaths helped me release the day, it was too comfortable to leave.
I texted my daughter (inside the house) and asked if she’d be so kind as to bring me a glass of wine. A short while later, she came with a full glass, letting me know that she’d been painting in the basement (she’s an art student) and had come all the way upstairs to fetch the wine and bring it to me. I thanked her profusely and grinned. Then I sipped slowly, read my book, and decided we’d be having supper late.
Eventually, I dragged myself out of the hammock and cooked supper on the barbecue, eating with my daughters on our new patio. Once they’d gone back inside, though, I turned on the twinkle lights and returned to the hammock. When it was too dark to read, I propped my phone on the small table beside me and watched Netflix until bedtime. Only then did I go inside.
If you’ve been following me on social media, you know how much I’m loving this new backyard. It was nothing but weeds bordered by a fallen-down hedge until a few weeks ago. Now it’s a sanctuary and I plan to spend as much time here as I can before the snow flies. (I’m currently writing this in the backyard – it’s my summer-office.)
As I’ve been enjoying this space – both alone and with friends and family – I’ve been contemplating my relationship with joy. This backyard brings me pure, unadulterated joy. It was something I’d been dreaming of for years, but only this year did I feel like I could justify the expense.
Though it seems strange to admit it, joy doesn’t always come easily for me, and just as I’ve had to justify my backyard, I have to justify my joy. And when it does come, I don’t always trust it. Sometimes I hold it at arms’ length because it makes me nervous. And sometimes I’m so convinced that I’m not worthy of it, that I don’t dare let myself sink into it. And sometimes I spend more time bringing other people joy than myself because that feels like a more worthy pursuit. (It’s like trying to convince myself my backyard is more for my kids, when the truth is that I’ve been back there far more than any of them.)
Even as I’ve been enjoying my backyard, I’ve had those moments when the joy of it feels like too much goodness. “Should you really have spent so much money on this?” my gremlins ask. “Weren’t there other things that would have been more worthy uses of your money? And is it fair that your former husband still pays child support and lives in someone’s basement when you’re enjoying this beautiful space? And should you be lying here in a hammock when there’s work to do?”
There are many reasons why joy and I haven’t always been trusted companions.
For one thing, as Brené Brown says, we often short-circuit our joy as a defence against vulnerability. Joy feels risky, because it can be taken away in a moment, and when we feel it deeply it means that we open ourselves to feeling grief equally deeply. If we only open ourselves to moderate joy, then perhaps we can fool grief into thinking it can only show up in a moderate way as well.
To avoid the risk of feeling any emotion too deeply and getting knocked over by it, we numb ourselves and shut down our vulnerability. But… “We cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.” (Brene Brown)
Related to that is the unworthiness piece. Surely I haven’t done enough and am not valuable enough to deserve a beautiful backyard like this, the gremlins in my head like to whisper. This is the kind of space that IMPORTANT people get to enjoy – not mediocre people like ME. The moment I discovered a crack in my basement that will require part of the patio be temporarily dismantled, for example, a little voice in my head told me that it was inevitable – I didn’t deserve such a nice patio, so it would have to be destroyed to keep me humble.
And then there are the lessons we learned about joy from the social conditioning that shaped us. I had a relatively joyful childhood, but we weren’t supposed to be TOO joyful, because that might lead to ecstasy and ecstasy was the gateway to sin. Physical joy was the most dangerous, because our bodies too easily fall into temptations and can’t be trusted. Dancing was taboo, laziness was ungodly (ie. hammocks meant for nothing but lying around), alcohol was sinful, and only wholesome sex within a committed male-female marriage was permissible. To this day, there are still echoes of this messaging reverberating in my mind whenever joy and I get too acquainted.
Recently, I answered the door to two people who’d come to share their version of the truth with me and I was reminded of these old scripts that still pop up in my subconscious now and then. When I opened the door, one asked where I turn to for my marital advice (clearly a segue meant to direct me to the Bible). “I don’t,” I said. “I’m no longer married.” “I’m so sorry,” was his response. “A lot of that goes on because of our fleshly desires.” (I brought the conversation to a fairly abrupt halt, not wanting to listen to further implications that I should feel shame for my divorce.)
I was caught off guard by his comment about “fleshly desires”, but I understand what’s at the heart of it for him. He can only see divorce as sin-related. We’re meant to be husband and wife under God, in his view of the world, and when we deviate from that, it must be because of our “sins of the flesh”.
It may be somewhat true that my “fleshly desires” contributed to my marriage ending, but not in the way that he was implying. I ended my marriage because I’d learned to be more true to myself, to seek out my own happiness and not give it up for someone else, to trust myself when I didn’t feel safe, and to erect and hold boundaries when I was being emotionally and physically violated. My “flesh” desired a safe and joyful life without the anxiety, struggle and self-sacrifice that was so present for me in my marriage. That pursuit may fit his definition of sin, but it doesn’t fit mine.
That brief conversation has been on my mind a fair bit since then, not because it triggered me (it didn’t) but because I recognize how a belief system like that (which isn’t too far from what I was raised with) is a thief of our joy. In that line of thinking, it is better for me to suffer through my marriage than to be single and dare to feel joy. Marriage is considered a higher good than personal happiness.
While I hope that belief system brings peace to the people who rang my doorbell, I reject that way of thinking for myself. I choose this joyful single life and I feel no guilt about it.Personally, I think this is closer to the message of hope, joy, and grace that Jesus brought than a life of struggle and personal sacrifice would have been (but that may be my attempt to subvert scripture to my own gain).
There’s a third piece that’s coming up for me when I think about my relationship with joy and it’s related to what I wrote in my last post about my Mennonite lineage. Pure unadulterated joy, when you’ve been raised in a lineage of pain and martyrdom, can feel like a betrayal of the memory of those who died in the fire or moved from country to country in their search for peace. How could I relax in a hammock in a beautiful backyard without worries or struggles when my foremothers gave their lives for their faith? How could I choose a Friday evening under the twinkle lights when there is still so much injustice and pain in the world? How could I be so selfish when there are widows and orphans who need to be cared for? Surely there is a cross I must bear or a cause I must fight for. Surely I should feel guilty for enjoying so much abundance that I get to spend money on patio furniture and hammocks. These thoughts, though perhaps not explicit, are definitely part of the subconscious guilt that pokes through.
As activists and writers like bell hooks and Maya Angelou have reminded us, though, joy is a radical, revolutionary act and should not be associated with guilt. It tells our oppressors that they have not won. It lets our ancestors know that their struggle was worth it. It is triumph in the face of persecution. It is our way to survive and thrive in spite of the injustice. Joy goes hand and hand with our commitment to justice and peace – one fuels the other and both can live in harmony.
My ancestors may have died in the flames and/or been displaced from their land multiple times, but I don’t believe they’d want me to deny myself joy because of some misplaced duty to their memory.
There’s a fourth reason why joy is a bit of a challenge for me and that has to do with the “tortured artist” archetype that runs fairly deeply in my psyche. As a writer who has no trouble writing about grief and trauma and other deeply personal struggles, I have an underlying fear that I might become boring when I’m too happy. I run out of things to write about and I fear that people will see me as one of those social media influencers with a charmed, curated life. Grief is easier to tap into when I’m writing – joy leans toward the more frivolous and self-absorbed.
It’s been a pattern for me that some of you may have recognized if you’ve follow me for awhile – I write more prolifically when life is not running smoothly. I have more to say about that than I do about beauty, easy, comfort and joy. And I feel more connected to my clients when I can relate to their struggle.
As a result, I tend to look for the struggle because, in a somewhat unhealthy way, that’s what gives me meaning, what builds my relationships, and what makes my creative juices flow. I am, you could say, overly attached to the struggle because of the way it grows my work.
I’m trying to change all of that though – to re-examine who I am when joy is in my life and to question the old patterns and beliefs that keep me from embracing it. Because just as I have been unafraid to know grief, I want to be unafraid to know joy.
Grief has been my teacher for many years, and now I am embracing joy as my teacher too. I wonder what lessons I can learn if I dive into it with as much commitment and intention as I have into grief. And I wonder how my relationships might shift if I seek out people who can have great capacity for both grief AND joy.
First, you need to stop.
Stop trying to make Joy your bitch.
Peel your fingers off the hem of her cloak.
She doesn’t respond well
to your frenzied attempts to master her.
“Oh, but the letting go…” you say,
“My heart is torn open
and I don’t know when this river will stop
flowing from my eyes.”
“Will she ever come back?” you cry,
desperate, lost, lonely.
I’m here to tell you that she will.
In the most unexpected ways.
But only when you extend the invitation.
and leave the rest up to her.
Joy responds well to invitation.
Grab a paintbrush and write the invitation on a big bold canvas.
Joy will meet you there in the middle of the mess.
Sink down on the floor and welcome her.
Wrap the invitation around your body.
Dance like a wild woman or run through the woods.
Joy will emerge with the sweat through your skin.
Let the invitation flow with your funeral tears.
Joy will be there in each remembered story
you share with the loved one lost.
Whisper the invitation into the wind
as you stand at the roots of an impossibly tall tree.
Joy will be the breeze that rustles the leaves.
Plant the invitation in the moist Spring earth.
Joy will grow in the compost made up of
many deaths from seasons past.
Crumple the invitation into a ball and toss it
into the circle of friends who gather to support you.
Joy will be the fire in the middle that keeps you warm.
Send the invitation off on the wings of a butterfly
joy will flutter past and remind you that her presence
can only come through the caterpillar’s surrender.
There is only one way to create joy.
Extend the invitation.
And then prepare your heart for her arrival.
1. The lacy pattern the sun is painting on the wall right now, aided by the tree outside my window.
2. The eclectic, chaotic Christmas tree decorated by my daughters with the ornaments they have hand-picked each year from the local fair trade store.
3. The miles of prairie roads that held hours of conversation between my friend Randy and I as we drove out of the city to explore.
4. Having a friend like Randy whose eyes light up over many of the same things that make my eyes light up – a good bookstore, books that deepen our spirituality and mindfulness, any opportunity to wander to a place we haven’t seen before, a glass of wine in the evening, deep conversation, art, etc.
5. A husband who loves to cook delicious food when friend visit.
6. More opportunities to teach than I expected would come my way when I started this journey a year ago.
7. The way creativity is showing up in unique ways in each of my children.
8. A day of Christmas baking with my mom, sister, niece, nephew, and daughters. And all of the tasty eating I’ve done since.
9. New ideas that keep popping up and inspiring me.
10. Partnerships with talented and wholehearted people that will result in some wonderful offerings in 2012.