conditions for joy

| January 30, 2014 | 12 Replies

High time I fess up: my plan for the year failed.

I came here with the dream of investing time in my writing: submitting essays, getting published. I knew that getting published is hard, but I didn’t fret: I can be persistent as a jackhammer. What I didn’t foresee was how disheartening the process would feel in the windy plains of our new Midwestern life. I’d get excited about a piece; toil away at it; email it to friends; toil at the revisions; submit it; wait to hear; receive the rejection notice; try to find somewhere else to submit it.

writing

When I was teaching full time I reveled in the sunshine of children. Not only does the submission process fall short in the sunshine department; it leaves me with far less to write about. It turns out that I can be persistent as a jackhammer only when I’m receiving the proper air supply. (Who doesn’t google “jackhammer maintenance” now and then? Did you know jackhammers need proper air supply and regular air hose inspections? I could elaborate on similarities between my creative process and other fine points of jackhammer use, but I’ll move on.)

jackhammer

It turns out I liked my life the way it was. Don’t get me wrong: I’ll keep writing. I’ll keep submitting, too. But I belong in a school community.

I’ve begun to see this year in perspective. Any time we try something and it doesn’t work out the way we hoped, we gain valuable information. How sad would it be to spend decades teaching while wondering if I’d be happier with a writing career? Now I know.

That four-sentence paragraph tumbled out easily enough, but it has taken four painful months to arrive at it. For a while it looked like my get-up-and-go had gotten up and gone. It was hard to get out of bed in the morning. The dark looked darker. The cold felt colder. Cookies began to resemble salvation.

I suspect that ‘most everyone goes through seasons like this. I’d love to claim a foolproof fix: some brilliant insight that propelled me through the pain and restored my zest for living. In truth, I do feel like myself again, but I earned this about as much as I earned the sunrise. We can set up the conditions for joy; joy itself is a gift.

One of the boons of this challenging year has been a sustained opportunity to examine the conditions for joy in my life. Here are a few of the practices that point me toward the light. I’m curious about yours.

Get outside. In the cold of winter, when there’s a cat lounging cozily on my lap, it can be hard to find the motivation to bundle up, but walking across the earth grounds me. In early December I discovered a tree that I love to hug. If people happen to glance out the windows of the office building as I pass by, they probably think I’m nuts, but I don’t care. When I wrap my arms around the trunk and breathe deeply, I feel rooted and steadied.

tree

Find something to sing to. Since I no longer sing with children all day, I’ve been finding other places to sing. I’ve sung a few times at church, and heaven knows David and I share countless goofy ditties. The new practice I cherish is singing to the river. I walk beside the water and intone the same two songs again and again. Somewhere in the midst of the repetition I begin to hear my self: not my fear and striving, but the presence that lies beneath.

something to sing to

Find new ways to move. When the New Year rolled around, I decided to add lap swimming and strength training to my exercise regimen. I’ve also begun to practice the guitar. Giving my body new challenges diverts my mind from its exhausting self-scrutiny. There are also endorphins involved. What’s not to like?

guitar

Cry, and then cry some more. I can’t count all the times I’ve wept over the past months. Have I been grieving for the home we left behind? For the friends, family, and students I miss? For my faltering ambition? Or have I simply become a big baby? What a relief it was to read the wisdom of Clarissa Pinkola Estés:

I am amazed how little women cry nowadays, and then apologetically. I worry when shame or disuse begins to steal away such a natural function. To be a flowering tree and to be moist is essential, otherwise you will break. Crying is good, it is right. It does not cure the dilemma, but it enables the process to continue instead of collapsing.

Women Who Run With the Wolves; truly awesome

Do the things that help, even when they don’t help. For me it helps to read poetry, to journal, to ride my bicycle, to drench myself in music, to practice yoga, to make my own granola. There have been plenty of mornings when reading Rumi has awakened only pitiful nostalgia for a time when I, like the Sufi poet, felt “lost inside God.” But I read anyway, if only to remind myself that it’s possible to feel that way. I might journal mournful tripe, but I journal nonetheless. As Rumi recommends,

Keep knocking, and the joy inside
will eventually open a window
and look out to see who’s there.

 

Darkness doesn’t last forever. While there’s no clock to foretell the soul’s dawn, believing that it will come is key. And when it does, we greet it with eyes that have been baptized by night: we’ve wept and rested, trusted and transformed. After all, in the grand scheme of life, our plans are like street lamps next to the sun.

sunrise in Wichita

Category: journey, love, outside, pain, remaining calm, singing, teaching, the seasons

Hannah Lynn Mell

About the Author ()

Hannah Lynn Mell grew up a missionary kid in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. Now she lives in Rowley, Massachusetts with her exquisitely kind husband David, their plucky three-legged cat Thomas, and a needy-yet-lovable dachshund named Birdie. She's worked with singers since 1998 and loves to help people of all ages free their voices.

Comments (12)

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  1. Ana Monahan says:

    Hannah, what a beautiful piece of writing. It’s territory I know well, though not the identical circumstances. The only thing I was certain of before Maia was born was that I wanted to be a mom. When she arrived, there was no question (for me, lots to work out with Sean but we did) that I would stay home with her. Over the last 8 1/2 years I have gone through countless identity crises, countless moments of wondering why, now that I have everything I’ve always wanted, can’t I just be happy and enjoy it dammit?! There is so much I could say, but, well, that could take days. Knowing Cecily would be in Kindergarten this year, I decided to start graduate school. I knew it would be tough on everyone to adjust, so I just took one class last fall. I loved it and I loathed it. It was such a pleasure to be in a classroom debating and discussing, and reading… it was all so interesting. But I felt like I was missing so much with my kids, even though I was only gone one day a week. I constantly felt pulled in a million directions, like there was always something I should be doing and it was never the thing I was doing. Laundry piled up until we just stopped folding it and got dressed out of the baskets piled all over our bedrooms each day. Dinners became the same four meals, rotated through until I could grocery shop and cook them with my eyes closed. And I haven’t talked about all the social and emotional stuff I was missing or willfully ignoring. It was really hard to admit to myself that, in many ways, it would have been so much easier to continue graduate school. For me, one of the hardest things is being still- both mentally and physically. And dealing with everything that my kids face as they grow up…it inevitably evokes things I don’t want to remember from my own passages. It would have been easier in so many ways to leave them to it and keep my nose buried in the books. But I finally realized that’s denying myself the chance to actually live and love this life I always thought I’d wanted. So I try to remember to acknowledge any pain their pain evokes and set it aside to be dealt with during my own grown-up time. And I try to embrace the joy and the silliness. And then, inevitably, I wonder what it means if I am a mom and not a social worker or teacher or… do I have an identity? Will I be someone on the day Cecily moves into her college dorm? And then, I try to be still. And I try to breathe. And I read the brilliant and beautiful work of Brene Brown and Glennon Doyle Melton and this beautiful piece that you’ve shared and I realize we’re all on this journey, though our journeys may look completely different. Thank you for sharing your beauty and your journey. We miss you!

    • Ana, what a joy to gain a glimpse into your world! From the outside, I see only the polished supermom with the two radiant daughters, so it’s comforting to know you’re still working to figure out who you are, too. I think all my favorite people are still working on it. Big hugs to all of the Monahan clan; I was psyched to discover your blog, too! I’m following you on bloglovin’ now. 🙂

  2. Nancy H says:

    It sounds like you’re in winter…the trees outside my office window whispered to me this a.m. “Rest and wait…” they said “Wait, with us, to be kissed awake into spring”. Spring is coming, Hannah, for you, for me. Sounds like you are learning more about who you are and who you are not…winter wisdom. I love you.

  3. Joy says:

    Oh, my dear sister. I have ached for you while observing this transition over the last few months. Partly because I know what it’s like to just pick up and move your whole life to somewhere unknown, and partly because I know what it’s like to discover that a dream should – perhaps – not turn into a reality. You and I have spoken about this some, but I’ll say it again. You can learn so much through “failure” and pain. I hope that after this year you can take away the fact that you have not failed at a dream but have learned something about yourself. And lessons about yourself and introspection and self-analysis can help you grow SO much and can give you insight for helping others through tough times.

    David and I talked about the fact that you literally get energy from being around children. We both voiced how we wished we could do the same. Good grief, kids drain me. They make me want to go hide in my room alone in the dark. But your face lights up and they literally energize you! You know that now. You know that sitting alone (or with Gus) in your cozy apartment isn’t enough to push you through your days…so use that! God has molded you beautifully and given you such gifts for teaching – and when you teach, you gain joy. Use that!

    As much as I hate the fact that you’ve had the need to cry so much in these last 4 months, I have faith in the fact that you’re going to grow from those tears. If life were easy for us, we wouldn’t be faced with the need to constantly wear a path to the cross and plead for strength from our Savior. You know that I ache for you over the trials you’ve had, but I’ve also been encouraged at the way you and David have handled the struggles and they will make you stronger and I hope you can use them to draw you closer to each other and closer to Christ.

    And…my selfish self…were you not at this place on your journey, you wouldn’t be so close to us and we wouldn’t get to see you as much as we have. We’ve said it before, but God’s timing is amazing. We have been SO blessed to have you where you are this year. I don’t know how I would’ve made it through the year without spending every 3rd or 4th weekend with you both!

    And now I’ve practically written my own blog post in your “comments” section.

    To sum up. I hope you can truly find your joy. I hope you can learn positive things from what has caused your tears. And I love you! Dearly!

    • What a beautiful comment/mini-blog, precious sister! You know that we feel just the way you do – we are SO grateful to be close to you and the kids this year. It makes all the difference in the world. No matter what the future holds, these times together have cemented our connection. I love you dearly, too.

  4. Hi Hannah Dearie!

    All of Beverly misses you
    Our Golden Poet is gone
    But who can forget that face,
    And at the Atomic Cafe
    We have saved you some space.

    It’s nice to know there is always room for bad poetry.
    Here is an exercise for you.
    Stand anywhere, visualize the area before man got there. The trees, the creeks, how you would have shelter or find food, our own Indians did it everyday. The story will come along.

  5. Jeff Bigler says:

    I really hope you find your way back into the classroom soon. Every picture I have of you in my mind’s eye has happy, excited children in it. I know Margaret and Laura are so much richer for the time they spent being your students, and I know how much richer you are for having had the opportunity to give such a gift to them, and to so many others.

    When you shed tears for the life you left behind, they are the tears of temporary separation, not permanent loss. And when you are back in your element, you will still be crying, but with tears of joy.

  6. Kim Woods says:

    A few things:

    1. You have a profound gift with children. You impact them in a lasting and deep way. We still talk about you and what a magical music teacher you are and how we may never have another one who comes close.

    2. I just read (and tucked away as it resonated) that the most difficult times in life are when you are creating another version of yourself. You are not only doing that but have manifested the trifecta: marriage, significant move & career change. I am glad that you are being kind to yourself. You need to be and you deserve it.

    3. I also just came across this (which also resonated) that writing should involve blood on the wall. If there is no blood on the wall, you’re doing it wrong. Writing wrings out your soul. It requires depths and then more depths and then even more depths.

    Brava for immersing yourself into the depths and discovering what brings you joy. That is a gift as are you.

    Kim

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