March is our JOY month. Birthday’s galore. But this month, during the COVID-19 Corona Virus, we’ve been alone, just the four of us, for the entire time. March 5th was my last day teaching my freshmen English class. I didn’t know it then. When I got March 6th off, I was thrilled. I’d just come back to school after a week off with the flu, and I needed the additional rest. When I got March 9th off, I hoped to have time off on my birthday as well. I thought it would be a great present.
Then it continued, on and on, until it was March 24th we go back, then April 24th, and now I suspect we won’t go back until the new school year. It’s been a jaw-dropping, life-altering, completely foreign experience this month. And slowly but surely the time and the changes have chipped away at my joy.
I miss Starbucks. Oh! I miss it so badly. Today on the phone with my Mother, she said just in passing something about getting in the car, and my mouth literally watered. Images flashed through my mind, Starbucks Coffee, Ice Cream, a park… It was a physiological response to the change. We laughed about it. But this experience is impacting us in a deeply emotional, psychological, and physical way. It reminds me of when I traveled the battle journey of cancer with my husband.
JOY IS ALWAYS
Sometimes, when something bad happens to us, like this pandemic, or in our case, like my husband’s brain cancer, it can feel wrong to want to feel joy. Fear overwhelmed me during that time. It became my constant companion, and I almost lost it. I didn’t handle anything well. I was mean, a basket case, and completely destroyed by the changes. And let me tell you, cancer changes everything in ways that you never recover from.
They call it the new normal.
Except there’s nothing normal about it.
During this time, I read that the Bible tells us to be joyful in all things rejoicing and giving thanks to God, and I couldn’t imagine how I could do that facing such a terrifying situation. I was eaten alive by thoughts of raising my then 3-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son, of how they might not remember their father, how I would carry the load alone. I wondered which country I’d bury my husband in, his home in the Bahamas or ours in the US. I wondered what it would be like to fly his body to his home in a casket with my young children.
I know my journey through that was singular, affecting only us and those that loved us, but during this time when we are all facing the fear of the death of loved ones, the fear of becoming sick and dying ourselves, the fear of inevitable change and the loss of everything we recognize to be our lifestyle, I pull on what I learned during that devastating time.
I learned; joy is for always. All time. All situations. It’s not only for good times, but it is a tool we are given to remain sane during the hard times. Don’t feel guilty if you enjoy something. As a matter of fact, seek those things out. Make them your daily life while your regular life is disrupted. If you enjoy sitting in your rocking chair on your porch, do so daily. Gardening? (or in my case murdering seedlings) Get outside.
In our journey through cancer, we had to do so much to fight and win that war. First, he had brain surgery. That was the darkest of the journey. I allowed myself to dip into the waters I’m warning you from now. Then there was chemo. That was when the length of the journey became true for us. We couldn’t wallow. It was our lives now. We had to learn to find joy. We went for walks. We learned to love going for walks. I remember still today, watching the ducks and the geese at Centennial park circling in the cool waters of Autumn. How normal everyone looked as we went through the worst battle of lives. They walked. They smiled. They laughed. Everything inside of me felt broken and loose. I wanted to get where they were. I wanted to feel joy again.
It’s easy to sit in our fear and stew. But just like tea our fear flavors the entire cup. In the same way, joy can be the flavor we steep in. Times are hard, but we don’t have to be. So join me with a cup of joe, sit in your rocking chair, smell lilacs, walk around the pond and look at the geese and the ducks, curse your seedlings that keep dying and soak up the good in your life. Because there is still good.
This brings me to Tiny Joys. As Americans, we are so focused on big, bold, beautiful excitement. I literally feel like I’m going on people withdrawal right now. I’m so accustomed to moving constantly that stillness feels wrong. Where there once was a crowd of thoughts, there’s a strange emptiness full of wide-open spaces, and it feels foreign.
Tiny Joys are the smallest things that make you happy. That first bite of dinner that your spouse made when you are your hungriest. Your favorite candle scent wafting through your bedroom. The best Epsom salt steeping you in your bath as you soak. If you line each of these up, they are normal, plain, and many might think boring, but you can build an entire lifetime of joy seeking out these tiny joys.
After chemo, we had to move for three months for a medical trial in Boston. See, the cancer that my husband had was rare. No one in Tennessee had ever treated, and their first instinct was to give him a regular treatment. Breast cancer treatment. But it was brain cancer, and something in me knew that those two organs were vastly different. So, we went the most aggressive path for the most aggressive and rare cancer. Stem cell transplant.
Just like now with the Corona Virus, I left my students for months. I didn’t see the people I was used to seeing and I was completely absorbed in taking care of my family. My kids had to go to a new school and stay with their grandparents in Vermont, and I traveled every four days between Boston, Massachusetts and Bristol, Vermont for several months.
The worst part for me was I set the tone for everyone else. I was the one that was supposed to be the rock, and anyone that knows me knows that’s a funny joke. One might say, I’m emotional. I am what I am. Not much I can do. But in this case, I had to hold all the threads together, or so I thought, and I allowed this to break me. If I had it to do again, and Lord please don’t ever make me do it again, I would do things differently.
God is in control. That is why we can seek out and enjoy the tiny joys of each moment. The smile on our kids face, how beautiful they are, our quirky dogs and our crazy cats, our obstinate impossible slow-growing gardens who may or may not survive long enough to provide flowers. (harrumph)
So, when you want to lay in bed because lethargy is fears friend, push to get up and find a Tiny Joy. It won’t overwhelm you. It won’t even tax you. In fact, it will reenergize you to seek the next Tiny Joy, and, in this way, you will change your path from potential depression to contentment.
Every thought that drifts through your mind does not deserve real estate. Think of your thoughts like you going for a walk in your neighborhood. It’s fine for you to walk past your neighbors’ yard, enjoy the flowers they planted, the scent of their laundry washing, the beautiful dog barking, but that doesn’t mean you deserve to own their property.
Our thoughts are the same. Not every single thought has the right to staying in your mind. During these hard times, we all will experience difficult thoughts. Ruminating on them will only make these days hard. Choose joy daily. If a thought passes through that is unhealthy, and you’ll know because it will make you feel ill, then allow it to pass like a cloud floating across the sky, but don’t hold onto it, rotate it around, inspect in from every angle. Acknowledge it, even identify it, but then allow it to float on by.
When we returned from our three months stay up north “healed” “in remission” “treatment completed,” the house was in disrepair, my job was a mess, and the hope of “getting back to normal” receded into the infinite abyss of lies. There was no going back. Over several months, we discovered the lifelong reach of cancer. The relearning of life. The resettling into new patterns.
It was hard.
It was not fun.
But we are better today as a family, as a couple, and each as individuals because of that journey.
This is our journey we are fighting through now. It is hard. It is not fun. But we will come out better as a country, as a people, as individuals because of this journey.
I wish I could say cancer doesn’t still have her nasty fingers in our life, but she does. I’m still paying off the debt. Rickie has several medical problems that are ongoing and probably will last the rest of his life. COVID-19 will probably be the same. When this all comes to its trickling end, when all of the waves have peaked and fallen, there will still be effects we aren’t even aware of right now.
So, let go of normal.
Give joy the real estate of your mind. Let joy freely expand throughout it. Make this time your time to really get to know your loved ones, work gently with each other, give each other space because this hard on everyone including the smallest ones in your house, and think of the things that have given you satisfaction, or contentment, and settle your mind to think on those things. This is Biblical. It is the way we are given to prevent depression, sadness, frustration, fear, and even illness from taking over. Yes, bad things happen to everyone. But that doesn’t mean we spend our days living in them.
We are blessed to have my husband around still. When we first went to the doctors, they gave him two weeks to live. TWO! That’s what the doctor’s said. When we fought cancer, the doctors said he’d have two years to live. TWO! (Notice a trend?) He is now cancer-free, and June will be his eighth-year cancer free!!!! EIGHT!
No one knows the future, except God. No one knows your expiration date, except God. All the scientists, doctors, politicians are speculating, studying the known, but not one of them knows the unknown. ONLY GOD.
It is entirely possible and even expected, that you find joy in the toughest of times. That doesn’t mean the thoughts disappear, the fears vanish, and the invisible-virus is no longer. It means that while we stand on this planet, healthy, and for some of us, still for the first time in a long time, we can choose joy and learn to appreciate the beauty of small things.