Here we are. At the end of summer once again. The boys left this morning in the barely-there light with fresh planners and lunches made by a mom who isn’t tired of packing lunches yet…in the air was that familiar energy that is part excitement, part nervousness and a smidge of resolve necessary because no one really wanted to be awake yet.
Just one short week ago we were closing out the vacation with a last breath of carefreeness – our traditional end-of-summer camp out. It was still fairly hot, of course…no rain meant crunchy grass…and the breeze didn’t come up until almost midnight.
But the deer still hung out with us – curious about the tent and watchful of the dog.
We swam and built a fire…roasted hot dogs and s’mores…watched for shooting stars and told stories until we fell asleep, laughing, with the dog piled among us. That night – the whole summer, really – was full of moments, whole days even, that my husband and I refer to as “foreboding joy.” You know the ones: if you were watching a movie, it’s the picture-perfect moment when you think, “Oh, wait, the aliens must be about to land and turn everyone to ash” or “Yep, someone is definitely about to die.” In real life, it’s those moments when your heart just might burst because of so many wonderful, too-good-to-be-true things. It’s joy, but there’s an edge to it.
Our summer was full of bliss and blessings and dear friends and family and fantastic trips…plenty to be content and ecstatic about. But, for me, the summer also had too many dark days and tears and anxiety and insecurity and flat-out melancholy. It seemed quite confusing. How is that so? How do those opposing forces live so snugly side-by-side?
Because: Joy is such a scary thing.
One of my favorite authors, Brené Brown, tells us over and over in her work that joy is terrifying because we believe if we lean in to it too much, it will be that much more painful when it goes away.
Dress-rehearsing tragedy, she says, as a way to protect ourselves. But then we don’t fully experience the good parts either.
This morning, in a quiet house, the breakfast dishes and mess put away, the dog sulking at the front window – there is no tent in the yard, the pool toys are put away and the routines are back in place – I was thinking about the summer and my perplexing moods and what else to do about them. I was feeling relieved about how September always seems like another January to me: a fresh start, a clean slate, new teachers and a year of possibility outstretched in front of us… I was working to convince myself that certainly this shift of routine would finally help escort the melancholy along and out of my life for now. And then I thought of Brené because of her new book and how often my husband and I talked about foreboding joy in the past few months – and it occurred to me that more routine was probably not all that I needed, but perhaps also more gratitude – more active, mindful gratitude.
It’s possible that my summer doldrums were partly my way of balancing out so much goodness, so much love and so much happiness…not intentionally, of course, but our physiology has its sneaky ways, you know. Sounds a little crazy, maybe… but as long as I’m also flirting with depression, then when the joy gets annihilated, it’s not quite such a shock, right? A way to feel just a little less vulnerable when there is so much to lose. As I sat watching some birds playing in the bird bath outside the front window, I thought, “Well, here it is, yet another layer of the grief journey. With every loss and heartache and tragedy that is experienced, the more challenging it is to hold on to the idea that joy can exist and truly sustain…because we know too much. We know how quickly it can vanish.”
Gratitude is such hard work sometimes. Not the nicey-words-kind-of-gratitude. Not the make-a-list-of-things-kind-of-gratitude. No, I mean the take-a-deep-breath-and-don’t-let-your-brain-go-to-the-scary-place-kind-of gratitude. The stay-right-in-this-very-moment-and-lean-in-as-far-as-you-can kind of gratitude. I mean the kind of gratitude that is terrifying if you let yourself think about it for too long, but you go ahead and breathe it in anyway and soak it up and dunk yourself in the joy over and over again. That kind of gratitude takes practice. Probably lots of it. I’m pretty sure I need to work on exactly what that looks like.
So, I am going to embrace the renewed routine of the school year and I hope it helps. And Dr. Brown’s new book – I’ll be reading that as soon as I can get my hands on it.
But I’m also going to focus more energy on a deeper quality of gratitude; a more active, mindful and sustainable kind.
Basically, I am going to work harder to be more like my dog – because, clearly, he has already figured this out.