I've been on the road again for almost two weeks now -- and as I always try to do, I have practiced joy every day. . .which often seems easier when I am traveling. There is always something new to see, do, discover -- and that always brings me joy. As does spending my weekends at horror conventions talking with horror fans about the love we share for my father. But there is one aspect of being on the road that does not bring me any joy -- the feeling of always being behind in my work. The emails that go unanswered, bringing second emails that can be testy reminders of the jangling To Do List in my head. (As if I could forget!)
This week I conducted a little experiment, which brought all this to light. Wednesday was my birthday, so I gave myself a few gifts at the beginning of the week. I took time away from work to do some things I knew would bring me great joy, including visiting one of my favorite botanical gardens, birdwatching in a national park, and driving through some of my favorite country on a new stretch of road. My litmus test for joy is my smile. I know I am feeling joy when I can feel myself grinning from ear to ear and/or people stop me to tell me so. Yesterday morning, walking the three miles to the horror convention along streets lined with tulips and lilac bushes (two of my favorite flowers) underneath Utah's majestic snow-covered peaks, a homeless person yelled over to me, "I love your beautiful smile!"
On my actual birthday, I could feel my huge grin mile after mile as I hiked along the cottonwood-lined Virgin River, roaring with spring runoff, and received birthday greetings from one unexpected colorful bird after another -- including a pair of incredibly playful and stunningly beautiful bright red summer tanagers! It's a wonder I didn't get back to the car with bugs in my teeth, so openmouthed was my joy!
But my real birthday gift to myself was this: For 48 hours, I turned off all of my electronic devices. No phone calls, no texts, no emails or Facebook messages. Which might seem counterintuitive for most people, for whom birthdays are a day of connection. But for me, an apologetic introverted loner who makes an extroverted living and who receives a gazillion communiques each day with which I can never catch up, this was my real birthday gift to myself.
It was as wonderful as I thought it would be. Sure, there were a few times when I felt my social media addiction, that compulsive reach for my phone to check Facebook or my texts. But my self-imposed ban helped me recognize just how unconscious that electronic tethering has become, and without the convenience of burying my face in a screen, I realized how much more present I was in LIFE! Instead of looking down at virtual reality, I looked up and out at the beautiful wide world in which we live, and I fell in love with it all over again.
But unplugging also served as a very compelling little joy experiment. Because on Thursday morning, when I turned all my devices back on, at first I was overjoyed to find many wonderful birthday messages. But then I was overtaken by a flood of feelings, all of which are the antithesis of joy: Dread, anxiety, fear, stress. I could literally feel my body jangling with an unpleasant electric energy as I realized that it would be impossible to catch up with all the work that had fallen through the cracks while also accomplishing everything else on my agenda -- driving across a large state, setting up at and appearing at a horror convention for two and a half days, and then driving across three more states to get myself home -- where I have to pack up the remainder of my home in a very short amount of time. All of the emails, the to do's, the bills, the homework, the phone calls slammed into me like a tsunami of stress and I felt like jumping out of my skin and running off into the wilderness to live like St Jerome in a cave -- perhaps with the condors whose nest a lovely gentleman had pointed out to me on my hike the day before. Anywhere, anything, but this feeling of overwhelming anxiety.
And that was my wake-up call. The realization that this thirteen-month daily practice of joy has been wonderful, but it has not even begun to touch the hidden cracks and crevices of my workaholism. No amount of joy practice can sugarcoat the fact that I am a workaholic and that, unless I address the core issues underneath, nothing fundamental will really change. I will simply be a more joyful workaholic, who still feels anxious because she is not "accomplishing" everything she should.
So, what to do? Unplugging for 48 hours is a bit like going to a spa for the weekend and eating only healthy food while getting all kinds of holistic treatments, and then, come Monday morning, diving back into work only to find that, by 11AM, your shoulders are up around your ears and you've slugged three cups of coffee while stress-eating half a box of the donuts someone left in the break room. All that self-care becomes a distant memory -- a vacation activity. And if I have learned anything from beginning to create a practice of joy in my life, it is this: Joy is not optional. It is not a sideline venture. It is not something "to do" when you "find the time".
Let me illustrate what I am trying to get at with one of my favorite quotes about joy -- a quote that makes me smile every time I read it. It was written by the wonderful (and aptly-named) Iris Murdoch.
"People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us."
I LOVE LOVE LOVE flowers. When I was a little girl, I said to my mother (much to her consternation, I think): "I only want to have enough money to have flowers around me all the time." On Monday, walking through the gorgeous grounds of Pasadena's Huntington Library, I felt like I was floating in joy. The other night here in Utah, I put the car in park in a left-turn lane with five vehicles behind me and ran out to pick some lilacs from of some overflowing bushes in the center median, because I could not resist burying my nose in their ridiculously fragrant and gorgeous blossoms. It is spring, and flowers are everywhere. I see them and I feel so much joy. But then I feel like I have to get back to "work". And I forget the flowers for my "job". But why? Why don't we go through life as Iris Murdoch so rightly imagines we should, just feeling mad with joy simply because we live on a planet that produces flowers? Why isn't the miracle of flowers far more important that the compulsion to work? Why indeed?
If I had that answer, I wouldn't have needed to create this practice of joy. And I certainly wouldn't be a workaholic. But here's the good news: If this week's unplugging taught me anything, it is that I need to reprogram the binary code of my life -- no more 0's and 1's for me. . .just love and joy. Because let's face it, there are many many aspects of my work that I love, but I do not approach most of them that way. The should mentality takes over and love and joy go out the window. I work from a place of duty and obligation, and I forget that I have chosen this life because I love it. I want to remember that that same person who feels mad joy at flowers also feels mad joy at many aspects of what I do for a living -- creating, connecting with my clients and with horror fans, traveling, writing, public speaking, working on new projects, collaborating to bring ideas to fruition.
Another marvelous writer, Pearl S. Buck, said this about joy: "To discover joy in work is to discover the fountain of youth." This is what I think she means: When we are kids, we find joy in things that, as adults, we learn to disdain. Falling down. Worms on sidewalks. Playing in the mud. Splashing in puddles. The world is our playground. It is here for our joy. Or so it seems to the delight of a child. My favorite definition of joy is this: "The pure and simple delight in being alive." As so many of the saints and prophets have reminded us, to be "as a little child" is to unlock the door to the "heaven" inside us all. When we feel joy, we feel that heaven. The trick is to feel it no matter what our external circumstances might be. To feel flower-mad with joy when facing a spreadsheet or hundreds of unanswered emails is, I admit, no mean feat. But it is the answer to every anxiety and the antidote to every stress. No more morning mayday calls unanswered by end of day. I choose joy instead.
On this May Day, I celebrate my fellow workers of the world, by vowing to no longer tether myself to my countless electronically-imposed duties, but instead to pick whichever brightly-colored ribbon of joy most appeals to me, wreath myself in lilacs and peonies, and dance around the May Pole of my life in gratitude for love, for work, for supply, for friendships, for new adventures, and even for all the trials and sorrows that have brought me to this point. As I exhorted to do myself a year ago when I began this journey, every day I vow to CHOOSE JOY!