Life Musings

The Vulnerability of Joy

“Joy is not made to be a crumb,” my favorite poet, Mary Oliver spoke to me. It was the first time I felt joy with a greater consistency than grief. It was the first time I saw the moon turn itself upside down so that the light from the sun shone in a way I’d never seen before. 

San Blas, Mexico 2013

It took traveling to another continent, and then another, and another before I learned that joy is not the same as happiness. It is deeper. It is strong enough to show up at the same table as tragedy and sorrow. It is wise enough to break bread with grief and playful enough to make anger laugh. 

It is not an unwanted visitor.

Gathering with friends, Kansas City, 2019

But these days, I am afraid to invite it to the table. As an occasional guest, sure. For special celebrations, certainly. But there are mornings when I wake up and it’s the first thing I feel. Then it happens again the next day and I find myself terrified for it to make a home here. 

I am scared to feel content too many days in a row.

I practice gratitude with bated breath and keep Joy at arm’s length. Because I’ve been here before. Let joy seep into my skin and transform me from the inside out. Loved so fiercely I became it and wore it proudly like heart-shaped elbow patches over a worn-out cardigan. 

And the shoe did drop. And my heart did break. And the moon isn’t upside down anymore. The heart-shaped elbow patches were thrown away. And I took myself out of the arena, for awhile. 

“The dark does not destroy the light; it defines it. It’s our fear of the dark that casts our joy into the shadows,” another favorite author, Brené Brown, pipes up. 

Light through a window, Kansas City, 2018

Friggin’ Brené, I scowl because I know she’s right. 

I have so much to lose and I’m so scared of losing it because the last time I lost the things I loved I wasn’t sure I would survive. At times, I didn’t want to survive.

“But you did,” a friend reminds me. “And you will.” Her voice is stern with surety and a heavy “stop-feeling-sorry-for-yourself” emphasis. 

She’s right.

I take a deep breath and feel my lungs expand.

Tomorrow is the first day of my new job as a nurse. Those aren’t words I thought I’d say again. It feels so good and right and perfect I can hardly stand it. 

Outside, my Dad is building a wheelchair ramp for my Grandma so she doesn’t have to fret about walking up the three stairs into my home for Thanksgiving. She’s 81 and still spit-fire as they come. Even though he’s no longer married to her daughter, they’re still as close as ever. 

My Grandma, 2019

It turns me into a freakin’ cry baby when I think about it.

At my feet, Maya is chewing a new bone she got from my Mom. She’s wearing a cone and wagging her tail so that it thumps the floor, hard. We’ve been to the vet more times than I want to count this year but she is happy and playful. You might call her snuggles aggressive at times, but I can’t imagine my day without her in it. 

Maya Bear, 2019

Down the street, my sister lives in a house with a backyard that had a unicorn pool in it this summer. She bought it on a whim and invited me over on an evening when it was just hot enough to want to sit in an inflatable pool with a few inches of water splashing against the sides. Now that it’s colder I come over for re-runs of The Office and left-overs and sometimes, just to talk. 

I am surrounded by immeasurable love.

Grandpa’s 85th birthday, 2019

And the fragile, scared, self-protective part of me that doesn’t want to ever experience the pain of loss again, immediately starts preparing for it. Because if you beat loss or change or grief to the punch, it doesn’t hurt as much, right? 


“Instead of catastrophizing what might happen [we need to learn to say] “I’m just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable means I’m alive.”

Thanks, Brené. (Cue eye roll). 

But then she says some more things about how joy is our key to resilience. How it’s the thing that actually gives us enough courage to face our fear of loss and still allow ourselves to feel gratitude anyway. Without a deep commitment to the vulnerability of joy, we would not have the fortitude to survive sorrow. 

Kansas City, 2019

And that makes sense to me. 

It’s our experience of joy that soothes our grief. That gently reminds us we will laugh again. We will love again- full hearted and un-armored.  

And even though I’m afraid, I don’t want to live any other way.

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