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Happiness

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Thanksgiving and 31 flavors of joy

November 29, 2017

I’ve really been getting into joy lately. I think because sometimes, if I’m not careful, joy can feel like a bit of a unicorn. And, let’s be honest, who wants to live in a world where the most pleasant of emotions is as rare as a leprechaun sighting in Alabama? (Or is that really rare, after all?)

Here’s the thing, I fight fear like most people fight the flu; proactively minimizing my exposure and sniffing out supplements to stack the deck. That’s not only for my own sanity (though that’s the primary reason), but also to prove a point. Because sometimes I think those who seek to instill fear get the most pleasure out of creating the illusion that it exists. It’s the scary music. The mask. Sometimes I think that gets them off even more than carrying out the actual act that elicits the fear. I’m trying to strip it of its power. I’m trying to diffuse the pressure cooker of potential catastrophes lurking in both my imagination and my newsfeed.

It’s a work in progress. Some days I notice every nuance of the sunrise and some days I hyperventilate over whether my children will see their twenties.

But this past week I was so aware of joy, you guys. I was bathing in it. It felt more tangible than it’s felt in months. I could hear it, see it, taste it. Joy! In all its delicious flavors.

Why? I don’t know … lots of reasons. As the years go by, Thanksgiving becomes one of my favorite holidays. It brings some of my most treasured traditions. The 4-mile race, cold and challenging. It wakes me up and makes me uncomfortable in that way that can only be followed by extreme elation once complete. Then we go out for a warm, carb-loaded, maple syrup-soaked breakfast with a flowing stream of creamed coffee. Everything tastes like joy after a chilly trot in 30-degree weather.

Then I love going home to watch the parade with the girls, waiting for Santa to come down a crowded New York street, confetti flying around his jolly bearded head. Then the dog show, with the wild-haired breeds no one’s ever heard of. I savor the satisfaction of packing up the food we’ve prepared to share – this year, cucumber sandwiches, crescent rollups with garlic and red pepper and a vanilla bundt cake – and loading everyone into the car.

For the past few years, Hank’s Grandma Marge hadn’t been well. I remember two years ago on Thanksgiving, we all took pictures with Grandma, an unspoken nod to the reality of her condition and fleeting time with her beautiful face. This year, there was talk of babies and ripples of laughter. Life, it seems, has gone on, and there is still joy to be had. Next year, there will be a new beautiful face at our dinner. A sweet little boy.

Friday morning, all I had to do was have Hank get the red and green totes out of the attic for the chicks to release their unbridled cheer all over the first floor of our house. JoJo pulled out every homemade ornament we had – stick-on jewels and stretch cotton ball beards – and hung them on everything standing still. Every thing. She put a string of plastic snowflakes around the handle for the freezer. She threw gold glittered Christmas trees in potted plants. She was running around like Buddy the Elf at Gimbel’s. Joy! I said to myself as I saw it run past. This is what joy looks like!

And then there’s my Spike and her powder pink ukulele. I hear her sometimes, strumming the strings in a quiet corner of an empty room. She’s more of a songwriter, see. She’s about the lyrics. After two days of mumbling along with an unfamiliar melody, my brunette beauty came out and told me she was ready to share her song. She sat down, wearing nothing but a camp t-shirt and a pair of fuzzy boots, and she poured her little heart out.

Mya from Courtney Leach on Vimeo.

It was a song about Mya, who is our dog. But this tune was not about our dog, specifically. Mya was the name of the fictional dog who runs away in the song. It’s moving … haunting, and I’m kicking myself for stopping the video just shy of her dramatic finish; three deliberate strums and unbroken eye contact. She was so proud of herself and her moving tribute to puppies, even though she hasn’t been able to replicate the tune since. Joy, in the key of who the hell cares.

Saturday we lit the lights at my parents’ house. The Grand Lighting, as we call it. Every year, on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, my mom works her ass off to make all our favorites – turkey, deviled eggs, stuffing, broccoli salad, gravy and mashed potatoes – and we all sit around laughing over the same stories we’ve been laughing about for 30 years, while Dad bitches about outlets and breakers.

It’s one of those traditions steeped in self-inflicted inconvenience. My dad’s dad, Red, was huge on Christmas displays. In turn, my dad was. Until one year, he wasn’t. But the damage had been done. We all had expectations by that point. Not to mention the grandkids who’d come along by then. And so, with my mom taking over the helm, the exterior illumination show has gone on. And we, the display’s humble admirers, still stumble outside, bellies full and wine in hand, to watch as the strings of twinkle lights shine for the first time. And it’s one of my favorite nights of the year.

We sat down for a round of Cards Against Humanity afterward. I’m tellin’ ya, you just haven’t lived until you’ve heard your mother utter the phrase, “tasteful sideboob” or “Lance Armstrong’s missing testicle”. The sound of joy.

The final day of our long weekend was also Mom’s birthday. Matt took over Big Breakfast to give our folks a little break. This family tradition is rich in joy; loud, sticky, buttery joy. The people I love most in my life, sleepy eyed in plaid pajama pants, gathering around mugs of strong coffee and plates of dippy eggs. The cousins – an army of girls punctuated by one teenage boy – flip in the front room, meandering in here and there to claim cinnamon rolls. The only rule at Big Breakfast is to come as you are.

And finally, last night I watched my three little girls hang a full tote of Hallmark ornaments on our happy little Christmas tree. One by one they picked up the ballerinas, the snowmen and the penguins wearing ice skates, and assigned them to the perfect branch. The Grinch was playing in the background, stealing their attention here and there. I should have made them go to bed by 8. I should have turned the movie off. But, the joy … oh, the joy.

The more I learn to grab it when I see it, the more I think joy is always there. Sometimes it’s concealed in discomfort, like change or unexpected news. Sometimes it takes awhile to shine through. But it’s there.

Sometimes it’s true, I have to kill a fair amount of fear so the joy has room to grow, but, like I said, I’m working on it. Worry will be the most overpowering weed in the garden if you let it. And Lord knows it’s easy to let it. But joy is where it’s at, I’m tellin’ ya. Joy is the remedy and the resolution. Let it filter in through every crack and see you through every shadow. Feel it, taste it, hear it, smell it, look for it … every day, everywhere.

Mindfulness

Wake me up so I don’t miss it

July 26, 2017

“Promise you’ll wake us up,” JoJo and Spike say, their eyes burning into mine. “Even if we’re dead asleep and you think we’ll be mad. We don’t want to miss your hugs and kisses.”

Oh, these accidental, magnificent insights.

My chicks have made an art form out of changing my crooked, bleak perspectives. I think kids in general have this way of sifting through the litter box of life and coming up with golden turds of unabashed happiness. It’s just something they’re born with that erodes a tiny bit every time someone tells them the Tooth Fairy is creepy or they watch an episode of Hannah Montana or That’s So Raven, or whatever preadolescent dribble the Disney channel feels like shoving down their throats.

I’m definitely making a conscious effort to catch all of their organic amazement before it evaporates entirely. I find, when I forget what wonder looks like, I can just watch their little faces during a thunderstorm. How their eyes widen every time a hot shard of electricity pierces the racing clouds or a rib-shaking ripple of thunder cracks down from the heavens. “God got a strike!” I tell them. “And all the angels took His picture.” Their instinctive fears spread to smirks and we watch until it passes. In these moments, my own sense of wonder starts to whisper from under a pile of rubble in my soul. “Help me … I’m still in here.”

But I want more. Without waiting for a temperamental warm front.

I keep coming back to it … Wake me up! Even if you think it’s going to make me mad. I don’t want to miss the hugs and kisses.

There was this afternoon a few summers ago, when I went to pick JoJo up from preschool, and Spike gasped and pointed down at the ground. She would have been about 3 at the time. “What?” I inquired. “What’s wrong?” JoJo gasped then, too, meeting the object of her sister’s jubilation. My eyes darted back and forth across the asphalt. What was I missing? Finally, “It’s a rainbow river!” JoJo offered. And there it was: ROYGBIV floating right there in a common oil spill. I didn’t see it. I saw someone’s misfortune; a pool of malfunction. That’s what I saw.

Why didn’t I see the rainbow?

The question bothered me.

But it’s not hard to answer. It’s so easy, in this life, with its pace and its pitfalls, to focus on things like moldy strawberries straight from the store, and my constant view of the tops of the heads of my tech-tethered loved ones, and the fact that the bathroom at work always smells like AquaNet, diarrhea and orange tictacs, and fitted sheets that refuse to dutifully cover all four corners of the mattress the way their packaging promised they would. But focusing on all the bad fruit and the poop paradise and other crap certainly doesn’t make any of it go away. A few years back, when I took an honest inventory, I realized I was giving all of the bruises on the apple of my life way too much attention.

And once I noticed my pessimism – once I named it – then I could finally start shutting it down.

How did I start shutting it down? Well, I decided to say “yes” more than “no”. It’s my attempt at a more spontaneous existence. I’ve been taking the sweet seconds to smile at my babies’ white tushies striding on top of their brown summer legs. Not always, but more often than not, I look over my shoulder at the sunset on my runs. And (this is the hard one) I’ve been pausing before I begin spewing obscenities and cursing people’s small-minded bullshit, and instead, using these moments as opportunities for grace. All these podcasts about how unique every person’s walk on this earth is, and how we can Make America Kind Again, are really starting to sink in. Still, I’d say I’m only at about a 65% adoption rate on this last one.

It takes practice to push all the fat winter flies and ingrown toenails of life aside and offer a larger portion of the pie to the positive stuff. But it is possible. I mean, the reality is that, even on the darkest days, there’s always a blue sky right on the other side of the clouds. (That’s some cross stitch shit right there, but you can still quote me on it.) I think once you make that decision, once you commit to think about what’s on the other side of the gray haze, you’re one step closer to peace.

Let’s be real, rain is always going to come. If every day was sunny we’d just take it for granted, right? But when those drops start to fall, you have a choice. You can pout inside a smudged window pane or grab your polka dot umbrella, some charming galoshes and a better attitude. I’m really trying to invest in the galoshes. It makes me like myself better.

And everyone else, too. The older I get, the lower my tolerance becomes for the pouters on the other side of the pane. The world is hard and scary and diseased. I. GET. IT. But I don’t need to sulk and soak in that sad bath with you every single day. It’s exhausting and, quite frankly, draining. Awareness is healthy. But when the heaviness of it all becomes an obsession, you’ve really just given up your power and turned me off. I’m learning to nourish the space between myself and the people with toxic tendencies, so that it can organically grow and buffer my soul.

Like anything, some exceptions will apply. Life can’t be like a season of Gilmore Girls. Things are going to happen. But, from this sunnier shore, I’m finding that pain can be beautiful, even healing. Long talks with someone who really needs your ear can be life-changing, for both parties. And that the uncomfortable stuff can be a powerful vehicle for personal evolution.

Is it all rose bushes and marigolds in my own yard all the time? Ah, no. And I don’t ignore the great tragedies of this world either. I don’t dismiss the just causes, or devastating diagnosis, or disturbing headlines. I don’t pretend to be so apathetic I can turn away from the morally corrupt circus playing out before us all in real time. It’s all still there. I didn’t abandon it. You can’t abandon it. But I’m finding that the more I lean toward the bright side, the easier it is to find the light switch on the darker days. The more I focus on fostering joy and putting a tight bandage on the infectious carcinogens that strangle my heart to contain them, the better off I seem to be. And the more powerful I feel.

One of my favorite people to talk to on the planet, recently told me that 99.9% of the time, your body breathes you. It’s automatic and involuntary. But when you breathe your body – when you take a moment to feel your stomach rise and fall and notice how your hair tickles your shoulders, and feel your daughter’s soft cheek against your own – that’s when you tap into the good stuff.

So, I’m into all that. Breathing my body and my people. Detaining the toxic bullshit and its carriers. And jumping into the joy parade. It’s my 3-step process for obtaining eternal optimism.

If you see me looking away – from an adorable baby with a mouth full of spit bubbles, or my girls smelling flowers or a sunrise painted with angelic brush strokes – just give me a little nudge. And dear God, please wake me up. Even if you think I’ll be mad. Because I never want to miss the hugs and kisses. I never want to miss the love. Or this life.