The Wonder Report: March 26, 2021
Joy in the Middle
Hello there! Well, we’ve come again to the end of the week, but also to the end of March and the end of Lent. I’m grateful you’ve joined me today.
Since Steve and I have both been working from home over the past year, we’ve incorporated a daily walk with the dogs into our lunchtime routine. Most weeks, we do it every day. Lately, with some increased busyness in both of our jobs, we’ve managed to walk about three days a week. The dogs look forward to the walks even more than we do, and all it takes is for Steve to walk up from the basement and grab the key to the front door for Harper and Tilly both to begin barking hysterically.
Typically, I walk Harper, our 18-month-old chocolate Lab, and Steve walks Tilly, our 10-year-old black Lab. From the time she was a little puppy, Harper likes to be in front on our walks. If Tilly gets even close to edging her out, Harper will strain and jump in an attempt to regain the lead. We joke about it, laugh about it, and grow a little irritated about with each walk.
Last week, we were walking along our normal route down Harvard Terrace, and Harper was strutting out front as usual, pulling me along at the end of her leash. Suddenly, I saw Steve jog past me in the street with Tilly running just barely ahead of him, and before I knew what was happening, they’d passed Harper up. She was as surprised as me and began running after them, which mean that I started running too. Steve was cracking up, knowing he had provoked Harper to utter panic mode. Then I started laughing, watching my husband and dogs sprinting in front of me, each trying to take the lead. As I think about the four of us running down the street, I remember it as a moment of pure joy during an otherwise difficult week.
Life has felt hard for a long time now, especially as I juggle the demands of caring for both my mom and my family while also trying to work full-time. The events of the last year have served only to intensify what was already sad and stressful in our day-to-day reality. And now that life is beginning to resume some level of normalcy, I feel inadequately equipped to handle both the ongoing pandemic uncertainty plus the normal busy pace of the Before Times. It’s feels like those middle level issues we’ve talked so much about lately—”the questions of the uncertainty of the near future, the crises of present life, and the unknowns of the past”—on steroids.
But then, on a normal Thursday, during a walk with the dogs squeezed into the middle of a packed day full of demands and deadlines, we find a moment of joy. It felt like a moment of relief, a small antidote for an anxious time, a glimmer of hope in darkness. Joy felt like the calvary arriving in a losing battle, like a fire truck when the flames were getting out of a control, like an unexpected check in the mail when the bank account was almost empty. In that moment, I couldn’t believe how hungry I was for joy.
In the next moment, I wondered why I’d been starving myself for so long.
In Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep, Tish Harrison Warren writes about joy as she makes her way through the compline prayer:
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love's sake. Amen.
Joy is almost an afterthought in this prayer that focuses on rest and comfort for those who are weary, suffering, and dying. But the part about joy is not actually a prayer for joy. Rather, it’s a prayer for protection. Because in a world filled with so much affliction, it’s easy for the joyous to become collateral damage.
“Joy takes courage,” Warren writes. “Vulnerability is plainly on display in suffering and grief, but we also taste it simply by knowing that we live in a fallen world where we can never see around the bend. So I trick myself into believing that if I don’t take up joy or celebration, that maybe, just maybe, it won’t hurt so much when grief rises like the tide. … I try to shield myself from disappointment by not embracing joy.”
But when we do that, when we choose to avoid joy rather than risk even more sadness, we lose an important tool for our faith in Christ. See, joy does more than offer relief from the middle level issues we struggle through. It can be an essential part of embracing those struggles and growing through them. Joy can help us endure hardships with perseverance and continue in the faith even through sadness and pain.
If I’ve learned anything from my caregiving role over the past six years since Mom’s stroke, it’s that joy and sorrow can coexist. They have to, in fact. There has been so much sadness in watching my mom decline week after week. I break into tears at random moments throughout most days thinking about all she’s lost—and all I’m losing along with her. Sadness is a shadow I can never walk out from under. But “because joy comes from the knowledge of God’s love for us,” as Warren writes, even when I’m sad I can be joyful too—happy even. And I can seek to cultivate joy for Mom, too.
Today, when I finish writing, I’ll go to Mom’s room and paint her nails robin’s egg blue, because bright nail polish makes her happy. Sometimes I bake her pies or buy her cheesecake because even though she struggles to eat, sweet treats still bring her joy. I bring decorations for her room at the change of every season, because Mom has always enjoyed reflecting the holidays in her home. And I read her daily devotions to her, even when she dozes off, because, like me, she needs the reminder of God’s love for her. It’s what shields her joy, and mine, when so much sadness threatens to undo us.
“To practice joy is not to cultivate optimism, affect cheerfulness, or downplay pain,” Warren reminds us. That’s the temptation to use joy as a distraction from the middle level issues. Rather, by asking the Lord to shield our joy, “we practice living in the reality that his love is deeper and more substantial than any need we could present to God.”
There is “a time to weep and a time to laugh; A time to mourn and a time to dance,” Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes. And sometimes, all of those things happen at the same time.
This otherwise terrible picture of me is a reminder of another moment of joy this past week. Steve and I took a day off work to spend with our youngest son who is on Spring Break. On a day trip to Brown County State Park, Jacob decided to climb this 80-foot tall fire tower. And I followed him up. When we got to the top, we were both out of breath and a little nauseated (the tower gets pretty wobbly the higher up you go). But it was a joyful thing to do together.
How hungry are you for some joy in your life?
If you’ve been starving yourself for too long, may I suggest a steady diet of laughter and happiness and a deep reminder of God’s love for you, even in the midst of all that’s hard?
Here’s the challenge: Do something just for the joy of it this weekend. Paint your fingernails blue, climb a fire tower, eat some ice cream, laugh at your dogs, or dance with your kids, but whatever you do, let it remind you of God’s deep and abiding love for you, even now.
This and That
Here are a few articles, essays, and more to give you hope, to make you think, to grow your faith, and as always, to help root you in love.
1. The Delight of Dining With Others by Geralyn Broder Murray for Shondaland. In this short essay, Murray writes about an unplanned lunch out at a restaurant after a year of take-out during COVID. Still following recommendations for masks, distancing and dining outside, she finds that being in the presence of other people, even strangers, brings her joy in a way she’s missed over the past several months.
From the essay: “When I had reached the crust of my sandwich and the bottom of my fries, I was full. Not just of culinary goodness, but humanity, too. This, I realize, is what I miss most about pre-pandemic life. It’s not just the act of going to the movies, or out to dinner or to a party, it’s the fact that by engaging in these things, we are reminded of how closely we are all connected. All these months of darkness and necessary social distancing and now this magical, medicinal dose of people-ness.”
2. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma gives impromptu performance at Covid vaccine centre from The Guardian. Those of us who are vaccinated know about the 15-minute wait after the injection. But how many of us thought to use our time to bring joy to other people? I love Ma’s work anyway, but hearing it in the middle of a vaccine clinic feels like pure joy.
3. Why are NASA engineers borrowing techniques from origami artists? by TED-Ed. I am a novice origami folder at best, and I’m even less of an expert at math and engineering. But I loved learning about the ways this ancient Japanese art form is revolutionizing healthcare, automobile safety, astronomy, and more. It made me happy in the nerdiest of ways!
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As we near Holy Week, I thought this painting by French artist James Tissot, called, “The Procession in the Streets of Jerusalem” (Le cortège dans les rues de Jérusalem) was fitting for Palm Sunday. Look at the faces, the outstretched hands, and humble bows of the crowd in the painting; it’s a haunting reminder that many of these same people will be chanting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” just days later.
The Procession in the Streets of Jerusalem (Le cortège dans les rues de Jérusalem), by James Tissot - Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum; Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 2007.
Next week, in a special Good Friday morning edition of The Wonder Report, we’ll look at 14 of Tissot’s paintings that depict the Stations of the Cross. I’ll include a Bible passage and a brief prayer with each painting, and I hope it will be a special way to spend Good Friday.
One of my greatest joys is to encourage writers as they hone their craft, develop their voice, and live a meaningful writing life. Here are some tips, insights, prompts, and more to help you as you write.
I recently attended a virtual weekend writing workshop, and in addition to getting feedback and instruction from the workshop leader on a work-in-progress, the workshop also was designed for the participants to offer feedback on each other’s work. I’ll admit I was worried—though I value good input on my work, sometimes group feedback can be confusing. Also, I’m not always sure what feedback others are willing to receive.
As the workshop developed, I found that the leader was a pro at drawing out feedback from each of us that was helpful to the author. But she also set the author up for success, too: By showing her how readers were responding to the work rather than just giving advice for what to change.
I thought of that workshop when I read Jonathan Rogers recent blog post “Want to Give Good Feedback? Stop Giving Advice.”
Here’s a truth that I hope will give you some freedom both as a feedback-giver and a feedback-receiver: FEEDBACK ISN’T THE SAME THING AS ADVICE.
When you are giving feedback to another writer, the most helpful thing you can say is, “This is what I experienced when I read your piece.” It can be extremely hard for a writer to predict what effect her writing will have on another person. It’s hard for her to know where it is confusing, because she already knows what she is trying to say. In fiction, it’s hard for the writer to know whether her world is believable, because she has been living in that world for a long time. So it is exceedingly helpful when a feedback-giver says “Here is where this piece works for me,” and “Here’s where it isn’t working (yet).”
Another way feedback can be easier to give and to receive is for the author to specify what feedback she needs in her current stage of writing. Sometimes, writers like to help other writers by pointing out grammar errors or suggesting an alternate word choice. Those things might be helpful in a later copy edit, but they won’t matter one bit if the sentence in question isn’t even in the final draft. And on an early draft of a piece of writing, everything is up for the chopping block.
In an appendix in my book The Art of the Essay: From Ordinary Life to Extraordinary Words, I include a three-step process for asking what you need from readers at various stages in the writing process. Borrowing from The National Writing Project’s Guidelines for Response Groups, I use the words Admire, Inquire, and Perspire to move peer evaluators from commenting only on what’s working, to pointing out one key problem area, to mounting a full-court press on anything in the piece that’s cause them to stumble when they read.
Like the leader of the workshop I attended, and like Rogers, though, I encourage early readers to just relay their feedback to the work, not lay out a game plan for fixing it. That’s up to the writer. And a critique is not an edit. It’s simply a response.
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Until next time,