416. Joy Joy Joy!!!

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Happiness is one thing we all desire; it’s the great American compromise concept for property, which our founding fathers substituted as follows,  “the pursuit of happiness” for “the right to own property” at the last minute in our Declaration of Independence. It has a sexier and less materialistic ring to it. Happiness is, however, an illusion that cannot be sustained anymore than a snowflake on your fingertip can be preserved.  As soon as you get it, you begin to lose it.  So it is appropriate that we are granted the inalienable right to pursue happiness, not to attain it.

 Joy, on the other hand, is a sustainable state of the heart. It lasts in ways that include moments of happiness but supersedes happiness like jet planes supersede kids’ kites and birthday balloons. Allow me to explain further on this joyous day. If happiness is episodic bubbles which float to the surface of our lives that eventually pop open into wonderful moments, then joy is a constant photosynthetic relationship that steadily goes on and on. Happiness ends and must be pursued again and again. Joy is self sustaining.

Let me give you three examples of happiness and then three examples of joy in order to make the distinctions clear.

Image result for christmas applesHappy 1. My wife’s coworker gave her a battery operated galloping horse that lit up and played the tune you all know from cartoons, The William Tell Overture. The gift was not for my wife but our granddaughter, who was temporarily thrilled and mesmerized by the equine-amity of it all. However, like all sources of happiness, the thrill began to degenerate soon after is was unleashed. Today the horse is in the infirmary with an amputated back leg. Happily, it still plays the William Tell Overture, but, as B.B.King sang, the thrill is gone.

Happy 2. Two years ago we traded in my old white 2000 Honda CRV with 215,000 miles on it for a brand new 2015 ocean blue Honda CRV with 3 miles on its odometer. It was fascinating and fabulous to drive my cushy new car around, so quiet and sleek and modern and comfortable. Then I began to notice all the other new blue Honda CRV’s out and about. The cool factors slowly slipped into routine conveniences that depreciated over time. Now it has 26,ooo miles on it and my heart does not swell when I drive it. Truth be told, I need to have it detailed because I have not been a good car boyfriend. “The frill is gone,” as my youngest daughter Jess would have said twenty years ago.

Happy 3. The slick suit, the big screen television, the treadmill, the computer… all brought brief happiness over the past years. Now, however, they sit by idly unappreciated; used without any excitement. Not so long ago it felt glorious to chill with these things.  Now, like a broken down refrigerator, the chill is gone

Joy 1.  Last year at this same time, my daughter Grace, son in law Stu, and my only grandchild at that time burst through the front door weighed down with gifts and luggage. Darling Leah was given permission to make the Annunciation she was bursting to share, “Mommy has a baby in her tummy!” I was beyond happy. I think I fell to my knees and hugged my granddaughter as my heart soared at 30, 000 feet. Unspeakable joy began its fission in my mind/body/soul interconnections.  I felt lighter, gushing with optimism in the anticipated future. Somewhere in my memory vault this moment connected to Grace’s wedding years ago when I walked her down the aisle of Christ the King Cathedral in Atlanta as sister Jess sang an angelic version of “Ave Maria”. Gravity stopped for me that day, and it felt like I was ice skating through cream cheese. Wonderwurk. Weightless fluff. Beaming faced joy swept me up and up pas the elegantly carved ceiling.

Joy 2.  “I’m pregnant.” Four and a half years ago I heard those words over the phone and fell into my wife’s joyous arms. Our family was moving into another generation. My daughter’s marriage was fruitful. We were grandparents!! I had no idea what to expect, but the anticipation was intoxicating. Unlike a drug or alcohol it did not diminish over time.  Strangely I was the only healthy member of the East Coast family who could fly out to Arizona when little Leah came home from the hospital.  She slept on my chest for hours, so I dubbed her The Glowworm and hummed songs to her new ears.Image result for glow worm toy pictures

Joy 3. Last night Zach proposed to my youngest daughter and gave her the ring he had designed around my mother in law’s diamond. Once again my heart filled past bursting, even though I knew this moment was coming. Joy rolled in waves off of Zach and Jess, hitting each of us as we admired the beaming bride to be and her ring. No church bells rang out, but in my head a chorus of a thousand church bells pealed and chimed, resonating joy across the landscape. Once again the promise of many tomorrows breathed out deeply. Joyously I inhaled all the imagined moments that would come to fruition.

As I ponder all of these moments I am feeling the warm tug of joy pulling at my cheeks and my guts like a shot of propofol. I only had one dose of it for my colonoscopy a decade ago, but I woke up thinking I was James Brown inside Michael Jackson’s body. When the nurse asked me how I felt, I sang, “I feel good, butta butta butt butt, like I knew that I would now. I feeeel nice, like sugar and spice….” Then my wife put her hand over my mouth apologetically to cover up, “So good, soo good, I got you, bump bump bump bump!” But like all earthly based things, the propofol did not last. I went back to being a cleaned out old white guy without polyps.Image result for james brown and michael jackson together pictures

Ultimately, my good blog aficianados, joy is found in relationships that last.  And on this Christmas Eve I want to encourage you to look beyond happiness, beyond materialism, and into the Divine. Joy lives in mystery, the promise of a sustainable future, and, I believe, a ray of God’s love that infuses your heart.  Whatever you believe, I pray that you will have a blessed Christmas filled with moments of happiness and suffused with enduring joy.Image result for rays of light in space pictures

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353. Christmas in Prison

John Prine is an old favorite of mine. I bought his albums as a teenager and saw him once or twice in concert back in the day. “Angel from Montgomery”, “Illegal Smile”, and “Hello in There” are songs that have held up well over the decades. But “Christmas in Prison” has always held an ironic  place in my memory banks, especially the first four lines. What an unlikely pairing:  the season of redemption, grace and joy with the place of justice, punishment and separation.

It was Christmas in prison
And the food was real good
We had turkey and pistols
Carved out of wood

And I dream of her always
Even when I don’t dream
Her name’s on my tongue
And her blood’s in my stream.

Our singer persona is lying in his rack dreaming about the love of his life. I imagine it is a sweet torture for him to digest his Christmas meal while longing for his fair lady with unquenchable desire. Inmates still care and long for love too. Though he never tells his crime, it’s certainly a serious felony to be in a prison that features a searchlight and gun in the big yard. The reference to eternity suggests that he’s a lifer. Perhaps he’s a killer.

Wait awhile eternity
Old mother nature’s got nothing on me
Come to me
Run to me
Come to me, now
We’re rolling
My sweetheart
We’re flowing
By God!

His paean to desire begins with hope, I like to think so anyway. As he  works the figurative language, we get a strange description of a smart woman who is super sweet, maybe too sweet to digest. I’ve never done a picnic in the rain after a prairie fire, but I imagine the opposing energies could be interesting if not unforgettable.

She reminds me of a chess game
With someone I admire

Or a picnic in the rain
After a prairie fire

Her heart is as big
As this whole goddamn jail

And she’s sweeter than saccharine
At a drug store sale.

Okay, not a great poet but he’s a convict, found guilty of doing something very bad. His words are consistent with his setting and character.  His sweet torture, like an addict shooting up again, hoping for the original dragon ride that hooked him, leaves only a drop of blood and an empty syringe, full of disappointment. The chorus loses hope the second time around as he calls without an echoing response from his love.

Wait awhile eternity
Old mother nature’s got nothing on me
Come to me
Run to me
Come to me, now
We’re rolling
My sweetheart
We’re flowing
By God!

Actually, he’s not rolling or flowing anywhere. He’s doing hard time. I remember doing prison ministry twenty five years ago. Two or three of us would go to the county jail once a month and spend 90 minutes with a dozen or so men in orange jumpsuits. All of them had release dates that were measured in weeks and months. Still, Christmas in county jail is no picnic. About half of the population is on psychotropic medications that are dispensed from a cart, like the cookie cart at nursing homes. They are anxious, depressed, and sometimes psychotic. Who wouldn’t be while in jail for the holidays?

The search light in the big yard
Swings round with the gun
And spotlights the snowflakes
Like the dust in the sun
It’s Christmas in prison
There’ll be music tonight
I’ll probably get homesick
I love you. Goodnight.

I recall one fellow I met with individually. He had a six month sentence for trying to buy cocaine from an undercover stinger. Jake was losing his mind as Christmas came before his release date. “I can’t do it, man. I’m paranoid that the guards will set me up or one of the other inmates will plant contraband in my bunk. They don’t want me to get out. I’m freakin’ out.”

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The next visit I had with Jake I took 180 pennies and made a pile on the steel  table between us. “What’s that for?” he asked. “Well, it’s your sentence, 180 days. What I want you to do is count out the days you have already served.”

He complied, and as he did so a smile broke out on his somber pale face. “Man, I only have twenty six days to go. No problem. I got it.”

I was amazed at how such a simple visual could connect with someone’s hopeless restlessness. Jake actually got out a week early for good behavior merits, but the jailers didn’t let him know till the day of release.

Wait awhile eternity
Old mother nature’s got nothing on me
Come to me
Run to me
Come to me, now
We’re rolling
My sweetheart
We’re flowing
By God!

He was a messed up kid from a messed up family. At least he got out by New Year’s Eve. I saw him off in his civilian clothes. He seemed just as anxious about his freedom as he had been about his incarceration.

Which brings me to the birth of Jesus, the redeeming savior of mankind, who cancelled our human nature debt and set the captives free from Hell’s grip. We cannot forget that crucial fact or take it for granted unless we want to be singing the blues in a jail of our own making. Not all prisons are bricks, bar, and mortar structures. Some are edifices of anger with spires of  pride. Some are sad swamps of grief and regret. “I coulda’ been a contender”, said Brando’s  boxer character in On the Waterfront. No matter. You have been set free by grace. Enjoy the reprieve. We’re flowing by God.

 

 

186. the lull latte

Image result for christmas landscapeIt’s a quiet Christmas morning. Frozen outside, a weak sun cannot melt the ice spots on our deck. Inside, the wood pellet stove fan’s whir is interrupted by the augur pushing more pellets into the hopper to burn. My bare ankles detect a chill at floor level just above the ridge of my new slippers. I adjust the stove’s setting a click higher as a sneeze sounds upstairs where my oldest daughter and wife sip tea and read books silently.  My youngest daughter sleeps behind me on a recliner after a tough night of coughing and sipping robitussin. And I, I want to memorialize gratitude on the blank document before me.

The grand baby Leah was off all  night as well. She had a wet sort of cough and a stuffy nose. At ten months of age she can’t have medications willy nilly, nor can she sleep with her binky in her mouth while snuffling through a stuffed nose. Something had to give last night, and that was her parents’ right to sleep. They held her upright and sat in a steamy bathroom on and off to ease her discomfort. As Grace cheerfully said this morning, “If anyone else prevented you from sleeping all night, you’d be upset and cranky. But when it’s your own baby, well, it doesn’t matter.” Simple truth: love sacrifices.

Several times over the past two days I have gazed at my granddaughter’s sparkling angelic face and smiled a joyous smile back at  her. She pulls her binky out of her four tooth grin and offers it to me with an outstretched little baby girl arm. Each time I think but don’t say, “Grace, thank you for not going right to work and delaying these moments for years or forever. What a great gift you have given us. As parents we did not have a choice. We  had to work up to, during, and after delivery. We lived on the edge, often upset and cranky with each other and with our station in life.  We could not be as resilient as  you. Thank you for this joy born of faith.”

“Thank you Stu for working without complaint or measuring to provide Grace and Leah this ideal time together. Thank you for who you are and who you choose to be in a world that clamors to divide your attention and loyalties. Thank you for loving God, my daughter, and my granddaughter so deeply.”

Grace, baby Leah and hubby Stu drove over to Stu’s good family this morning. Fortunately they live only three miles away so we don’t have custody cravings and clashes. They are good people, those Gallaghers. I want to thank them for putting family ahead of stuff, and for putting faith first in their family. Days like today are rich dividends paid on those investments. Not big material gains but subtle relational ones, for all the gifts exchanged mean nothing compared to the laughs, the smiles, the hugs and the love of family. “Thank you Dan and Joann for holding cracked family systems together and re-bonding the fractures. Thanks for  parenting again as grandparents. You are twice blessed.”

 

This year we really dialed it back on the gift giving, not because we had to. It was more a question of stewardship and priorities. We lack nothing. It’s an odd contradiction when you must really concentrate and take inventory to come up with a gift wish. After a few searching moments, I said, ” I could use a belt.” My wife bought me two. I’m full, Blogelves. Anything more and I will overflow in wasteful luxury. What I wanted was abundantly present before and around me– my faithful wife, my three fabulous daughters, my amazing son-in-law, and my precious granddaughter. All in harmonious peace.  Friends visited during the day, then we all went to church, opened presents and played a tough game of chess and later Scrabble. (I lost both… happily.) It’s all good.

So in the quiet of today comes the lull, the slow and easy break from the breakneck life we live. It’s the root of lullabye, a repeated lu-lu-lu sound that soothes children to sleep. I imagine Mary and Joseph lulling baby Jesus back to sleep in the brutal world they inhabited. Soothing sounds from a loving mother, better than robitussin and vodka, and before you know it the babe is rhythmically breathing, a little bird in its downy nest, a little lamb on its mother’s warm, fuzzy belly. The lull is a safe and satisfied place to be, a drainage ditch off the bayou of joy. You can bed down in the sweet long grass there like a fawn, safe and blessed. A pause in the struggle of survival. Today tastes like victory, like tiramisu and cheesecake with rich creamy coffee. It’s playing the X on a triple word space overlapping a double word line in a  seven letter word play fifty point bonus. Yeah, like that.

Yesterday at the coffee shop the coffee was free. I said to Andrea, “This must be what heaven is like.” She did not disagree. I told her I would initiate a pay it forward program all day long for coffee. She was unimpressed with my antilargesseness.  But it’s all good in the lull, the moment between inhale and exhale as oxygen hooks up on dates with blood cells in your lungs. Sure, there is more stress coming tomorrow. The world will erupt again in chaotic activity and conflicts of all sorts because this was too small or that was too large. Our first world problems will seep up to street level like sewer gases. But for the moment I’ll have the lull latte. Thank you.