It started to creep up on me about a year and a half ago. Slow, yet steady; a lengthening shadow across my field of vision. There was a tickle of the familiar, a vague recognition–that feeling of grasping the colors of your dream with the tip of your consciousness in the first, tiny seconds of waking. It was there, hiding in corners, lingering at the periphery. It was there, a word on the tip of my tongue, the knowledge of something I knew, but had somehow forgotten to remember.
At first I thought it was a fluke. Perhaps a fluctuation in my ever-fluctuating hormone levels. But it persisted; stubborn, underfoot. The edges of my life were suddenly softer–less capable of cutting, less dangerous. Not dulled, just a little more…rounded. Oh there were still episodes of irrational anger, of rage. A grammatical error on the school website was still apt to cause me to fly into a fist-banging rant. There were still tears, of frustration and anger, of injustice. There were still moments of standing in the kitchen stirring a pot of spaghetti and being absolutely flattened by a memory or realization. But buffering those moments were minutes and hours and whole chunks of time where I felt…joy.
Joy and I are not complete strangers. We’ve met and danced plenty of times in my life. The joy of a somersaulting stomach when you hear “I love you” for the first time. The unsurpassed joy of a tiny, blinking heartbeat on a screen after two years of trying to get pregnant; the cautious joy a few years later, happily surprised by another blink, another heart to grow in the hollow space where others had failed. There was joy in everyday moments: jokes told at dinner time and the weight of my son’s arms around my neck. Joy in an exquisite sentence, a good book, a plate of perfectly cooked fries. Yet I would never have described myself as a joyful person, a happy person, a person prone to standing unscathed among the embers of negativity that tend to stick and burn. Rather I always felt pressed for time; looking toward the next thing, worried about this, that and most times, the other as well. The worrying took up too much space. It used up my reserves. It sucked everything dry.
Yet suddenly here I was, standing in this pool of joy. I’m not going to lie and say I was drowning in it. But it was at least puddle deep, ankle-deep.
So, what changed?
I have no idea, not really. Other than I am getting older and better able to see through things, past the immediate to the other side, where objects are not always as pointed as they seem. The things that normally caused me stress and anxiety, those things ebbed a little, retreated from shore. I still get flustered if there are too many stray papers on my desk. There are things my family does that drive me batty. There are things that make me boil over with helpless rage. But somewhere in the last year and a half it occurred to me that I’m not going to be around forever. Old me would have panicked, crammed in, over-scheduled every minute to make it count. Yet when I looked around, there seemed to be plenty of time–if I chose to use it. Time to listen to what my sons were telling me. Time for lunch with my husband or a call to my mother. Time to write 50,000 words in a month if I put my mind to it. Time to work and time to play, time to love and time to weep. Time to ponder and wonder.
So part of it is surely age, but I think another part is having something in my pocket that I love, that makes me feel whole, feel clean. Having something to work at, to get better at, to hone and chisel away at. Something that belongs to only me. I have come to realize how important it is to have that…for everyone to have that…whatever it may be. For me it is crafting a sentence, for others it is something entirely different. The what of your affection doesn’t matter as much as the act of possessing it, as long as it is yours to own.
Perhaps joy and happiness are different. Perhaps happiness is something that is achievable while joy is more like a shaft of light that breaks through the clouds. Unexpected and slightly breathtaking. Those breakthrough moments have been more frequent the older I get, the more I let the everyday fall to the wayside, the further I remove myself from the negative. The more I understand, the more I accept, the less I try to change what I cannot change. It is important to have things to champion, things to fight for, but it is just as important to, in the words of the snow queen, let it go. (Except of course, for grammatical errors on the school website).
And so I end the year, a year of firsts, a year of good-byes, a year of hellos and laughter and some well deserved rants. But primarily a year of joy. Joy in the way the sun shines after a month of gray skies and rain. Joy in the way my sons inch closer to me on the sofa. Joy in the way my husband looks at me across a room. Joy in family, in friends, in not having exhausted my supply of words, despite trying mightily and fearing the worst every time I sit down to write. Joy in simply being here.
This summer I got together with an old friend I hadn’t seen in nearly twenty years. We talked about our lives and I encouraged her to find something that made her happy, something just for her. To find her joy. I stand by my advice, but I will change it to say this: if you stand still long enough, sometimes you give joy a chance to find you.
It seemed fitting to end the year with an ode to that.