Joy has been surfacing only in fits and spurts. But that is not why I haven't written a blog in a few weeks. I have written because I have been writing every day. Every day, I mine my past to be better able to live my present. It is a curious paradox. I have never been one to feel that mucking around the the mire of our pasts does anything other than keep our shoes stuck in some very old mud. But when we find ourselves tracking that mud through every fresh carpet of our lives, leaving footprints from the past on each next clean page of the stories of our lives, it's time to clean our shoes. The real surprise comes when we realize that our shoes have stayed muddy because we keep tracking through some very old bogs in our sleep. We can only wake up if we are willing first to explore and then to expunge the old stories that no longer serve us. Those life-limiting narratives that we have on permanent-loop audiobook playing over and over again. The antidote to all the mud-tracking and old-tape listening is awareness and practice. First we have to pay attention. Then we have to consciously develop new practices to change.
Here's the thing. It's not a lot of fun most of the time. Hopeful, yes. Fun, no.
I've been in Austin for almost three weeks now. I have more work than I can possibly accomplish -- which is, of course, one of the big bogs of my life with its muddy footprints stamped all over every clean page I have ever found. The Morass of Overwork. I know it as one of my great life perils -- but just like those ridiculous old Hollywood movies, this heroine seems to find herself in way more quicksand than actually exists. I know that it is not what I want. I know it does not bring me joy. I know something has to shift, and yet, still, I find myself working constantly, sleeping little, and having precious little time for joy.
I could say to myself, as I have in the past, Well, this, too, shall pass. But through my deep excavational work on this memoir, what I have realized is that, unless I make some changes, sure this particular phase of This Too might pass. But it will just lead into another Bog of Overwork, Slough of Self-Despair.
There are moments in our lives when we have Ontological Yard Sales and jettison it all. I've done that. It feels so good to just put that worn out living room set out on the curb and bid it a fond adieu. The desire to be rid of it far outweighing the $500 you might get for it if you went through the trouble of advertising it on Craigslist. You know it just HAS TO GO!
But the much harder work is cleaning the junk drawers of our lives -- because we have to go through each damn item so that we don't throw out something meaningful we regret later. When we do, we see things we have long forgotten. And we have to look at them. This is a junk drawer moment for me. Looking at the little things that accumulate into the muddy bogs and self-loathing sloughs. In that looking, I found a key -- accretion.
Accretion happens unawares. We just tuck receipt after receipt from the events of our lives into our junk drawers, never looking at what we bought or the prices we paid, until one day the drawer won't close and the bank account won't balance and the IRS is sending envelope that we don't want to open and the phone is ringing with fake people from countries we've never heard of offering deals to save us from ourselves that seem and of course are impossible.
Then what?!? My go-to solution for almost anything is to do more. Clean out the drawer. Drain the swamp. (Sorry!) Sell off what no longer works. In the momentary vacuum of the hopeful empty space, the lure of the blank page, I feel anything is possible. Until the mud and junk and unread receipts start piling up again. It is the cycle of modern life in a world where human doing is valued above all, and where human being seems to be a pipe dream from another millennium.
I was reading a wonderful book by David Whyte last night. I was reading it because I made myself stop after fourteen straight hours of work with one break, which was, of course, a pounding four-mile power walk up hills. I made myself stop after eating two meals standing up, after ticking forty things off my list, after too many bleary-eyed hours in front of one screen. I made myself stop because I could have gone on straight through until this morning and not have cared to even remember my name at the end. I made myself stop because I have come to realize that all the words I need right now begin with S. Stop. Stillness. Simplicity. And I keep circling back to those S words and remembering to try one of them whenever I do.
Last night it was Stop. Stillness was out of reach at that point. Every part of me was jangling. My head felt like those buzzing wires in old movies carrying all the news of the world to parts unknown, fritzing and frying the lines as they valiantly tried to cope with the overload. My whole body felt plugged in to the wrong currency, and my fuses were threatening to blow. I'd done OK with Simplicity all day. Or the best I could. Instead of working from my usual list of five thousand things, I'd narrowed it down to ten -- albeit many of which had hundreds of moving parts. Sorting, printing, signing, packaging, and labeling hundreds of books to fulfill all the Vincent Price book orders was one thing on my list. Just starting that one thing and finding a system for it without Tracy to help me here in Austin took eight hours. But I tried to keep it simple and keep to the tried-and-true One Step at a Time method. By the end of the day, I had worked out a system, gotten some help from a very interesting 15-year-old neighbor who is a photographer, and made some headway. But at what price? By 7PM I felt almost crazy from the frenetic pace of my life.
I asked myself: Where is the joy? Well, there isn't much was my weary answer. Guess I won't write my blog AGAIN this week, I thought. My shoulders slumped, my heart sunk. Which is how, finally, I got to Stop.
I Stopped. I drew a deep hot bath and got in. When I couldn't quiet my mind enough to just sit still and be present, I pulled out David Whyte. Opened to a random chapter, and read EXACTLY what I needed to hear. He told the story of reaching the end of one almost paradisiacal (a word I would not have known was actually spelled that way had I not read it last night in this glorious chapter) phase of his young life and facing an unknown future.
He talked about how sometimes we have to look back to find our way forward. How our childhoods form our template for our passions as well as our patterns for our futures. He wrote "The inner compass almost always leads us back toward that childhood we have spent so much time trying to leave behind. We return there not to become a child again but to remember those instinctual joys which filled our imaginations and growing bodies and set our enthusiastic course into the world. There is something trustable about the original enthusiasms of the very young that point directly toward the way we are made."
Reading his beautiful chapter (it's in a book called Crossing the Unknown Sea; Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity, if you want to read it, too) reminded me of WHY I began this whole joy journey in the first place. I began a daily practice of joy because, in looking back at my childhood, I remembered my joy and how that joy gave me access to everything I cared about -- animals, friendships, nature, my family, new experiences, creativity. Joy was the one currency of my life that gave me hope, made me feel alive, brought me pleasure, told me what mattered to me, showed me what and how I loved. Joy was the language of the life I hoped to grow up not just to speak but to live. I began this journey not to travel toward joy but to travel in joy. Somewhere along the line, I forgot that. I forgot this: It's not where I am going. It's how I get there.
Which is why I am writing this blog this morning. Writing this blog brings me joy. Sharing my process in what I feel is a conversation with other joy practitioners brings me joy. Sharing what I have re-membered with others doing their own re-membering, brings me joy. And that joy connects us.
In writing this memoir and cleaning out my ontological junk drawers, underneath all the receipts I am having to read before deciding which to toss and which to keep, what I have found IS the joy. It was always joy that was my impetus to do everything in my life -- boneheaded and wrongoutcomed though it may have been or become. Joy was the impetus. I needed to remember that. Joy equals love. When I act from joy, I am living in love. I needed to be reminded that joy was my original dialect in my mother tongue of love, even though I often forget to speak it these days.
So where did the overwork come in? It came when I learned the word should. If life were a card game, love and joy would always be the wild cards that win the day. But somewhere along the way I came to believe, as so many of us do, that should and fear trump love and joy. Last night I read this in Whyte's wonderful chapter: "Often, in order to stay alive, we have to unmake a living in order to get back to living the life we wanted for ourselves. It is this cycle of making, disintegration, and remaking that is the hallmark of meaningful and creative work." Or as Richard Rohr so neatly encapsulates it: Order > Disorder > Reorder. And then do it all over again.
There will always be muddy footprints we are tracking from those old beckoning bogs. We may find we have listened to half of the tape of an old story we thought we had turned off and thrown out years ago. We will continue to find file drawers of unread receipts in rooms we didn't know existed. That is the nature of this human journey. But how we choose to move forward is what concerns us all now. With what intention to we take the next step, think the next thought, speak the next word, see the next face, hear the next conversation. Right now, more than ever, this is what matters.
All these years, I thought of joy as my action plan. But as I try to stop, be still, keep it simple, I realize joy is as easy as breathing, when I remember to breathe. When I stop holding my breath and kicking as fast as I can to get to the other side. There is joy, waiting for me to feel it, waiting for me to breathe it in and breathe it out. And with joy, of course, I feel love.
So today, Sunday, the day of rest that will hold little rest for me, I choose to celebrate my Sabbath in Joy. To stop when I need to remember that life isn't always about going. To be still when busy is all I have come to believe. And to keep it simple even when simple doesn't feel easy. I will remember that looking back isn't about cataloging my errors but rather about tracing the roots of the truth of us all -- that we were born and still continue to live in love. To expunge the stories that no longer serve me and to celebrate the narratives of love. I can think of no better Sunday prayer than that. No better reminder to continue to practice joy. No time when joy and love are more needed.
May we all find the courage and strength to choose love, to practice joy, to stop, be still and keep it simple in All Love. May it be so.