A little over two months in, and this brand new year has already beaten us up pretty good. I should have known it was an ill omen when, instead of the dinner party we’d planned with friends, we spent New Year’s Eve in the ER with my dad. We got home just in time for a somber little champagne toast by the fire and a rather tearful listen to Over the Rhine’s Blood Oranges in the Snow. When the neighbors’ fireworks boomed and flowered in the night sky, we went out onto the back porch to see what we could over the trees. I remembered another New Year’s when the neighbors’ display of shells and repeaters had been a tangible symbol of hope for me, kindling fires of faith in my heart. I sighed, and drew my cardigan close. Then I went back in the house.
“I’m afraid to open the door to 2015,” I whispered to Philip. “I don’t trust it.”
When I was a little girl, I had a wonderful babysitter named Mary. She was a great big bosomy woman with a voice that sounded like honey on buttered toast. She broke nearly every dish my mother owned, and the meals in her repertoire consisted of fried hot dogs and “hamburglers and grits” (a delicacy I relish to this day). But she played with us in the yard, games from her own far-off childhood, like “Kitty Wants a Corner” and “Ain’t No Boogey Man Out Tonight” (I can still hear her shrill cry of, “Y’all hid?”). And she let us play games of our own devising in the house, most notably the living room acrobatics of “Can’t Touch the Ground,” in which my mother’s furniture fared only slightly better than our bumped and bruised personages. I never knew how old Mary was: she was ageless, immortal. And when she rocked me and sang to me at night—well past the age that I fit comfortably in her ample lap—it was angel songs on the tongue of a saint.
Mary’s faith was adorned with a fine veil of little superstitions which were less insurances against mishap than demonstrations of confident expectation. (Unlike the babysitter who tucked a kitchen knife between the mattress and box springs when my mother was on bed rest with my brother, to “cut the pain” of delivery.) On a long-ago New Year’s, I caught her at one of them, and to this day I never see the stroke of midnight on December 31st that I don’t think of her. I had crept from my bed, wakened, no doubt, by the bottle rockets spitting and popping in our otherwise quiet neighborhood, and as I came into the dining room of our long, low ranch house, I saw Mary fling wide the French doors opening onto the back yard. She stood there for a moment, head thrown back in a rush of frosty air, then, sensing my presence, she turned around with a huge grin.
“I’m lettin’ the New Year in, honey!” she replied to my puzzled expression.
As a child, I was delighted with her whimsy; as an adult, I quake before her confidence.
I didn’t want to let this new year in. Not that it made one iota of difference: 2015 marched in my door, invited or not, with its fears and uncertainties and relentless progression of Daddy’s disease. Walking the long valley of terminal illness with a loved one is such a protracted grief, like watching a plane crash in slow motion. I feel so helpless most days, even when I’m doing what little I can to mitigate his sufferings. And I’ve realized with a shock what an isolating thing sorrow can be: how its suffocating darkness can swallow you whole at times, until you feel like the Narnians imprisoned in Underworld, succumbing to the enchantment of the Witch’s song: “There is no sun, there is no sun . . .”
When God whispered to my bruised heart that “joy” was my word for 2015, I wanted to laugh. But I know Him better than that. So I hung an ornament a friend had given me for Christmas between my kitchen windows, a cute little wooden affair that spelled out J-O-Y in block letters. And I proceeded to “take joy” with abandon. I took it in my Instagram feed, with pictures of my puppy, Bonnie Blue, and in the rose-gold grace of a winter sunset kindling my stubbled pastures into holy fire. I took it in the smiles of Daddy’s good days, and in the songs of Rich Mullins and Andrew Peterson and Eric Peters. And it was good—transcendent.
But most of the time I felt like a failure in the school of joy. That little wooden plaque above my kitchen sink was mocking me; once, I almost took it down.
Earlier this week, Philip and I spent another 12 hours in what felt like the subterranean labyrinths of the ER, gazing at one another sorrowfully across my father’s hospital bed. Late in the day I went in search of coffee, navigating a half-dozen hallways that all looked exactly the same, until I emerged into the waiting room, crowded now with new faces since our early morning arrival. I tried to summon a smile for those nearest at hand, but I just couldn’t manage it; a sympathetic half-smirk was all I could muster. Pressing on, I rounded a corner that gave onto another long hallway, at the end of which I’d heard there was a barista serving up the blessed back stuff. But as soon I set foot in that corridor, something happened: for the first time in that long, sad, cold day, I was warm. On my left was nothing but windows (God bless the architect!), and through them streamed a radiance so living I was tempted to stretch out my hand to touch it: the sun! I stopped and stared like I’d never seen it before. Outside, the winter-stripped trees lifted gilded arms and clouds sailed cottony boats over an azure sky. When we’d set out that morning, the world was grey of face, with heavy brows drawn down in scowling thunderheads, but now I hardly recognized it. My heart hailed the miracle with a surge of—yes—joy. I quipped with the barista; I smiled at the marooned souls in the waiting room. And when I got back to our cramped little staging cell, I handed Philip his coffee with a significant look.
“What?” He cocked his head.
“There is a Narnia,” I said.
His eyes softened.
“Yes,” he replied. “Yes there is.”
That little incident, trifling as it may seem, bore a weight of eternity to me. It was like God put a fatherly finger under my chin and turned my head to look in the right direction. To honor grief while taking joy is to embrace the mystical dialectic of our faith—we all know that. But in my grief, I had forgotten. In a whirlpool of responsibilities, I had taken up one God never meant for me assume. Joy-Maker—that’s His name, not mine.
I was reminded of this poem I wrote for Philip last summer, ostensibly about my tendency to seek a repeat of joys I’ve already experienced, rather than being open to the gifts of the unknown. But, like pretty much everything I’ve ever written, I didn’t know what it was about until I wrote it. And, in this case, I didn’t know what it was about until it hit me squarely between the eyes over half a year later.
Shore Path, Bar Harbor
I wanted to turn back, Traverse once more the way we’d come, Grown pearly now in incandescence of this dying day— (Dying? If death be half so radiant, Why must hearts be trained to fear it? Sadly Such a native glory goes unlearned!)
To grasp again the gift Of once unlooked-for opulence—
To know, as if by chance, Each aged fir that leaned on lichened wall, Each maiden birch unsheathing innocence Before an ardent sea, and sea itself, Translucent in that piled and pillared Splendor of the west—
Again, and for the first time.
But being he, and wiser far, He turned from fatal image of delight And chose the not-known shadows of a moonlit way Where evening gathered violets ‘neath the pines And ferns breathed out the last of summer’s spice.
“Joy cannot be domesticated,” He told me with a smile, Though he uttered not a word.
Joy isn’t a spiritual discipline. Thanksgiving, praise, a cultivated gratitude, yes, absolutely—but joy is a gift, a fruit of the Spirit. We can’t summon, capture or tame it. We can only follow its comet trail of glory with our eyes, already vanishing before we’ve half-realized it’s passed right through our hearts. We “take joy” by declaring such moments are true, that they happened, and that they mean something wilder and more beautiful than we can ever get our minds around. But we can’t make joy, or find it.
Joy finds us—in the way of faith, and even when, benumbed with grief or fear or shame or weariness, we stumble out of it.
Thanks be to God.