Back and Forth with Joy

“I want you to have some joy,” says the writing on the wall.  

It’s my own writing, someone else’s words — words from a good listener during a hard season ten years ago. She said many words to me, and some of them stuck. I worked memorable sentences into a watercolor painting of a quilt, mostly blues and aquas and ambers, each letter of each word written in stitch-like dotted lines.  

“Hold the hope in front of you.”
“There are corrections to our course.”
“Let go of fear.” 
“I want you to have some joy.”  
“Do not let feelings rule you.” 
“Don’t go where there’s no food.”  
“It’s about surrender.” 
“What action will you take?”  

The picture is at eye level near the door in my bedroom, where I can see it every time I leave the room. I can go weeks without looking at it. One day in December, I glanced, and my eyes fell on that line: “I want you to have some joy.”  

I have more joy than I did when she said that to me. But less than I’d like.  

A friend and I were recently talking about joy, in the context of a decluttering guru’s method for ruthlessly sorting through possessions. “I don’t give a rat’s ass about what someone says about the joy of folding socks just right,” I told her. I had recently had to examine and throw away some damaged possessions, which left me weary of the work of maintaining stuff, and of the impulses that led to collecting it over decades. I can’t afford to let “Does it give me joy?” determine whether something is a keeper. I don’t want objects to be my containers for joy.  

In December, joy is an in-your-face word. Joy Joy Joy Joy, said glitter-covered ornaments on a tree in the church lobby. JOY JOY JOY JOY, said the ribbon wrapped throughout a large wreath in the coffee room. Foot-high letters proclaimed it in a most unexpected place: a wooden sign over the door inside the bathroom.  

Joy was the last word the choir sang in our thirty-minute cantata, one long loud chord that made our songbooks vibrate in our hands. “Joy to the World,” the middle school children sang when I walked into the airport.  

It will be January when these words see the light of day. We think of the turn of the year as a time to look forward — ring out the old, ring in the new. Certainly, it has often been that for me. So many new notebooks begun on January 1, with a long list of hopes and intentions for the year.  

But January is named for Janus, the Roman god of doorways and beginnings. He is depicted as two-faced, one looking forward, one looking back. And those forward-looking pages of resolutions were often based on things left undone in the previous year. So I’d finish my hopeful list, and look back at the previous year’s January 1 entry … and see so many items repeated.  

At some point I stopped making resolutions and started choosing a word for the year, before I knew it was a thing. Sometimes it stayed with me all year; sometimes it was forgotten before summer. Sometimes the events of life made the word an ironic choice, a swimming-upstream choice, like something tucked into a backpack that seems like a treat at the start of a journey and ends up being a resented but necessary weight by the end.  

Thing is, I want to have some joy too. And I can’t look backward and find it (or what passed for it) in the places I used to, like playing music with friends who are now a thousand miles away, or bringing home yet another new book or another shiny object from the secondhand store up the street.  

So what is joy? I have often said fun is overrated and joy is underrated. Yet I don’t fully know what I mean by that, except that fun is momentary, both as flashy and as transitory as fireworks, while joy seems both quieter and more enduring. The dictionary calls joy a feeling of great pleasure and happiness, or a source of such feeling. Way way back, it’s from the Latin word for “rejoice.” Joy to the world, the Lord is come 

Another friend has written to me asking for help. We both like to go to a biennial writing festival, and she has increasing mobility problems. She needs assistance getting around. She’d pay my way, she says. But she doesn’t want to be a burden. Be honest, she tells me.  

Even before I read the part about paying my way, I think about how much fun she is to be with, how much we laugh when we’re together, how lonely I was a few months ago when I went to a beloved conference without a buddy. I think about all the ways she has helped me, given me a place to stay, fed me, found a mechanic when something was wrong with my car, even shown hospitality to my cat.  

It would be my joy to do this for you, I tell her.  

Honestly, I don’t like talking about my “word of the year.” I don’t even call it a word of the year. But I like to have one. This one seems to be choosing me. I open an old notebook and see words from a mentor at a time of transition: “Wait and think that an unfolding joy is your aim in the world.” 

A deadline is looming, another is past, and I should stay here at the table typing. But I need to buy a box of Christmas cards for an elderly relative, and I’d like to do it at the fair-trade shop down the street. A walk in the cold would clear my head.  

As soon as I step onto the sidewalk, something catches my eye. A huge bird is flying up to the steeple on the church next door. Often, sparrows hang out on the cross and metal ring atop the steeple, but at this moment there’s only the huge white-bellied bird. A hawk? In eighteen months, I’ve never seen one there.  

I walk maybe ten paces, a car passes, and then that bird-body freefalls toward the sidewalk. Gasp! Tears, something in the throat tightening, something in the chest opening. It opens its wings catches the air, and glides maybe twenty feet above the ground, along the street, past me. Yep, a red tail. Finally it lifts itself and disappears over a rooftop. All in fifteen seconds or less. I’d have utterly missed it if I hadn’t gone out at that moment, and looked up when movement caught my eye. I’m not certain what joy is, but I know it when I see it.  

 We walk into every year like this, having some idea where we’re going, and no idea what will come along. A year from now, I don’t want to look back in disappointment. I don’t want to still be singing old laments. And I don’t want to be arguing with my oldest friend over folding socks.  

 All right, joy. Have your way with me.  


Words by Laura Brown.