Splendid Isolation

“Once upon a time, when women were birds, there was the simple understanding, that to sing at dawn and to sing at dusk, was to heal the world through joy. The birds still remember what we have forgotten; that the world is meant to be celebrated.”
– Terry Tempest Williams

After the shelter in place mandate took hold here in Boulder, I stood at the kitchen window looking out at spring’s bare branches. The hum of fear and grief about the reality of the pandemic was palpable, encroaching on what would have been any normal morning. I stood there, looking out for solace and reassurance to root my faith in what I know to be true about the world–that there is so much more available to us than the gravity of the situation. I let out a breath. No sooner did a lone, red-headed house finch land on the tree right outside the window. It looked at me, tilted its head the way birds do and began singing. My heart was soothed and reminded that joy still has a place for us here.

In this bizarro time, when we’re all bound and removed from our normal routines, and we’re limited in what we can do and how far we can go, even here, life is full and intense. Who knew such richness could come from being homebound? (Or, maybe we knew it all along and savored our alternative routes as respite.) There’s so much that the daily routine left behind means for us. Before COVID, life may have felt to some a bit like John Hartford’s song “Tall Buildings”:

So it’s goodbye to the sunshine
Goodbye to the dew
Goodbye to the flowers
And goodbye to you
I’m off to the subway
I must not be late
I’m going to work in tall buildings

Now, many of us are saying hello to all that we once rushed past or left behind each day. 

While time has blurred like a Dali painting, all we know for sure is that there are three days of the week: yesterday, today, tomorrow. Ambition? What is that now? The parts of us that hinged on our productivity might feel lost in this new rhythm of being where the most important thing we can do is stay safe and healthy so that we keep others safe and healthy. 

Emotionally, the collective trauma our nervous systems are experiencing manifests in a range of tones that roll through us like a roller coaster. On a daily basis, we float between anxiety, grief, anger, fear, depression–all of which is a healthy range for a human in a pandemic. It is, however, a switchboard of feelings that’s hard to tone down without presence and awareness. Like all emotions, this topsy-turvy feeling smoothie is a harbinger of information. It can all be overwhelming and drown out our capacity for the more pleasant emotions, like joy. Yet, we need to keep open our circuits for joy now more than ever. 

Ingrid Fetell Lee, author of Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness, tells us in this conversation with Jerry that joy is a core emotion, one we often don’t lift up as much. Happiness, she reminds us, is simply a measure of momentary satisfaction. Joy is the oft-forgotten emotion, one we strive for and confuse with the pursuit of happiness. Sometimes, we even evade or shy away from joy, thus invalidating a messenger of truth for ourselves. It gets clouded under the burden of guilt, or other layers that deem us unworthy of it. Yet, it finds us and sometimes even surprises us–waking us up to something else just as vivid and alive as the other emotional set of fear, sadness, excitement, anger. Joy can bring us to moments of delight, connection, laughter, and even peacefulness. 

Joy is crucial for our health, especially in times like these. Linda Graham, MFT, author of Resilience: Powerful Practices for Bouncing Back from Disappointment, Difficulty, and Even Disaster reminds us: “Trying to play or find joy in hard times can seem like work, but it is the work of resilience to be flexible, to shift gears, to see things from a different perspective. Play helps strengthen your response flexibility, sometimes even when that’s the farthest thing from your mind.” 

The rhythm of nature is less muffled now than when we were marching to an un-quarantined rhythm. Still, while the birds sing, I grieve the loss of the old known normal.  While the plants spring forth with their infinite faith (every year, like magic), I struggle to find a sense of ground. Joy finds me differently and lands with more poignancy. It arrives through a crowd of other emotions, and finds a rightful place. 

In a seemingly odd, but lovely pairing, joy and grief go hand in hand. One’s ability to feel the ranges and valleys of grief, the trembles from the soul that move through currents of sadness, means that one is also more able to experience great joy. Conversely, unfelt grief can dampen our joy circuits. Consider these lines from Rumi:

“Your grief for what you’ve lost lifts a mirror
up to where you’re bravely working.
Expecting the worst, you look, and instead
here’s the joyful face you’ve been wanting to see.
Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes.
If it were always a fist or always stretched open,
you’d be paralyzed.
Your deepest presence is in every small contracting
and expanding,
the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated
as bird wings.”

There we are, in every small contracting and expanding of our lives. As beings hard-wired for the emotion ocean we’re blessed with, we simply can’t cherry-pick our way through without disrupting the flow of the tide and the health of that large body of salty water. Our ability to be present with what’s alive in us makes us fluent, not rigid, against our own flow with what is happening in any situation that stirs up much for us.

In The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief, Francis Weller, writes of a way to approach each day which considers the transitoriness of life and a way to stand witness, alive, to that: “My daily practice is to wake and immediately bring my attention to this thought: “I am one day closer to my death. So how will I live this day? How will I greet those I meet? How will I bring soul to each moment? I do not want to waste this day.” 

Ingrid reminds us that joy pulls us to something. It is feeling something good, positive, bright, pleasant. Or work, to awaken our joy circuits so that we can allow more of it into our lives is to track the good, bring our attention to it, be grateful for it (with a smile, laughter, a deep breath of appreciation), and bookmark the experience with a “Yes, more please!” so that our reticular activating system can heighten our awareness for the goodness that joy brings. 

As author and activist Terry Tempest Williams notes in her lines above, perhaps we can remember that even now this world is meant to be celebrated. Just as the birds are hardwired for song at dawn and dusk, we, too, are hardwired for joy. May our commitment to keeping joy alive in our own life, in the circuits of our own nervous system, be a contagion of healing.