My Mom used to say that, her voice edged with sarcasm, when what she meant was something quite the opposite. She’d say it when she learned that one of us had a big report due tomorrow, for school…and we hadn’t yet started the research. Or when yet another child was now down with fever, cold or chicken pox. Or when my grandparents would be coming by for a visit on their way to Beaver Island from Chicago – or vice versa – and planned to stay with us. Or when Dad would pull in to the driveway with one or more of the “Doney” brothers, who were currently “off the wagon,” and all were clearly already unsteady on their feet.
We learned the meaning of “joy” from what it was not…but it was many years before I thought about the true definition of the word. That was the case, it seems, with many words involving feelings. We were much more inclined to recognize – and verbalize -negative feelings than positive: “What are you so mad about;” “What are you crying for;” and “What’s the matter with you?” The responses kept to the same line of thought: what is wrong with my world.
At Easter time, we might excitedly chatter about our new dresses, hats and shoes, saying how much we “loved” the colors or ribbons or buckles. At Christmas time, we’d exchange secrets and smiles and giggles. We’d say, “aren’t you excited?” and “I can’t wait!” And when Mom came home from the hospital with a new baby, we’d gather around the bassinet, saying, “look how pretty” and “she’s so tiny!” At those times, and many others, in what was basically a very happy childhood, I’m certain we felt joy. We just didn’t talk about it.
I don’t think anyone ever asked, “What makes you happy” or “What brings you joy?” I don’t know if it would have made a bit of difference in how I viewed the world, as a child. I know that – as an adult – I decided, at some point, that it was my right, in this life, to be happy. Not, simply, to be not unhappy, but to have joy in my life.
With that realization came expectations and basic standards for everything. It changed the way I looked at lovers and friends, goals, activities and life-style. I expected more from relationships, jobs, and even from simple conversations. Now, if someone were to ask me what brings me joy, I would have a ready answer (the first spring blooms; my wag-tail dogs greeting me at the door; the curled, early leaves of beans poking out of the soil, hugs from brothers and sisters, giggling with my girlfriend, Jennifer’s smile, Katey’s laugh, the sweet faces of my grandchildren, snow at Christmas, the view of the harbor as I come around the corner into town…). In my life today, I’d rather pay less attention to what is wrong, and more attention to what makes me happy. Oh, joy!