Robert DeNiro and Drew Barrymore in "Everybody's Fine"

I appreciate it when the Universe conspires to make sure I'm on track and paying attention to the right things. Take yesterday, for example, when I opened the latest movie in my Netflix queue and took the afternoon off to watch Kirk Jones' "Everybody's Fine." Random movie, right on time. (see yesterday's post).

The story line is as follows: a recently widowed father (played by Robert DeNiro) decides to visit his grown children after they all renege on an invitation to a family gathering. As he travels cross-country, the dad (Frank Goode) finds that all is not as he's imagined. The story has has hung on to - working hard at a job which has affected his lungs and threatens his health in order to allow his children to pursue their dreams and achieve happiness - starts to disintegrate. Even his image of himself, an impartial, sacrificing encourager and cheerleader of his children needs to be revised.

But Frank is not the only one at fault for being out of touch with the true state of his family. As the story unfolds, we realize the adult children have been complicit in fabricating a false reality. Just as his wife had kept from him anything unpleasant, or disappointing, his children continue to edit the script they use in a desire to make their dad feel good. They don't want to disappoint, to fall short, so they built barriers with half truths. And yet, despite the lies and hurt, the pressures and misunderstandings, each  child truly loves their dad, and cares for their siblings. The dysfunction has not taken away their core desire to love and be loved.

The movie underscores the difficulty of being truthful. "People want life to be easy," says the truck driver who gives DeNiro a lift. Her comments echo those of his daughter Amy, the advertising executive. We've just seen her promote an advertisement for a loan consolidation company pitching the ease of their product. The only problem is the client knows what he's promising is false. "It doesn't matter," Amy says, "they're only paying us to market the product. It's that or nothing." If the truth won't sell, don't use it.

Everybody is not fine in this movie, if you define "fine-ness" as a happy life without disappointment or heartache (messy-free). But stating the truth and committing to community gives strength to move on, to find joy in the midst of renegotiating one's life. As the dad's name hints at - a good life is not possible without frankness.

I've been accused of seeing things too brightly, of thinking there was more health than was actually the case. In part this is because I, like Frank, have difficulty in dealing with the pain that comes from recognizing and speaking the truth. But in the past years, the invitation has been to "fear not," to allow myself to be stretched to the limit, to plumb the dark and scary depths of emotions. Though experiencing pain or grief or sadness can be uncharted territory (ironically in the movie, DeNiro has to have a heart attack for his family to assemble), it need not debilitate.

A friend of mine who offers spiritual direction, continues to draw me back to the importance of truth telling. "Notice and name," she will say. "Only then can one have the power to make changes." Is everybody fine? Yes, and no, and  hopefully yes, if we don't shrink from the truth but choose to look it in the eye, name it for what it is, and allow it to touch us. If we do this, drawing out strength from authentic community, we will not drown. We may have momentary experiences of panic, and difficult decisions to face, but even in the midst of it, we will be fine.
Yesterday, while swimming some laps (well, kind of swimming laps) I had an epiphany. As much as I would like everything to be done really well, it doesn't always happen. Sometimes I'm just figuring it out. If that's the case, when the score cards go up, the average is likely to be about a 6.5, which is depressingly far from a 10. That's when a good coach know what to do. With a smile on his face he reminds the athlete that a) the judges are just being honest and b) she's only been working on the double pike with a half twist for two weeks, so it's OK if it has room to improve.

Actually, I had started on this train of thought several days ago after receiving a note from my youngest daughter. It's her wedding we're in the midst of planning, and she had sent me a thank you card for a shower gift. She added some encouraging words about being a great mother of the bride, which went straight to some part of my heart that had been pumping its hardest in an attempt to be exactly that. And I started to cry.

It struck me how hard I had been trying over the past few months. How much I want this wedding and my part in it to be done well. And despite that strong desire to not make mistakes, and to do things smoothly, I hadn't been up to my high standards. Sometimes my best isn't The Best. I know what The Best looks like - or at least I'm bold enough to think I do - and I am honest enough to admit that it doesn't happen nearly enough. 

And it's not only me. I want the same thing for my family. I want us to be able to navigate and negotiate these "we're all adults now" years with the finesse that is totally unrealistic at the beginning of the game. And it may be unrealistic in 20 years. I don't know. But I am striving to become more comfortable with the the idea that life is pretty much always messy, which is ( I'll be truthful here) a wee bit disconcerting.
Knowing what could or should be is important. It sets up the mark, the bullseye on the target stapled to the backside of our brain. But just when we get the hang of a bow, then life gives us a sling shot, or a rifle, or some other piece of equipment we've never seen in our lives before and we have to start the learning process all over again. It reminds me of when my kids were younger. We would just settle into a schedule - sleep, eat, play, repeat with fairly predictable time slots - when the whole thing would go up for grabs. And we'd have to figure out what combination would work the best for another few weeks.

So when I am not as organized as I would like to be, and make twice as much work for myself as I should, it's OK. When our family communication goes awol, or we're still working on negotiating skills and the phone rings more than once as different ones are sorting things out, I tell myself: it's OK. When people are disappointed and hurt, or have to change their schedules for the 4th time and are slightly annoyed, it's OK. It's OK because we're still figuring this out. More than that, it's OK because we love each other and our teflon coating is getting stronger, so stuff slides off more easily. And most of all it's OK because we're all connected to a loving God, who keeps filling us with grace and wisdom.

This isn't an aberration of life. It seems that this is Life. The only life that is worth living. A life that requires both high standards and an expectation of messiness. A vision and a mop. And the ability to be OK with all of it.

I've been preoccupied with wedding plans of late. So many details and decisions have put my mind on overload, like an electrical grid struggling to support a plethora of air conditioning units in their battle against the summer heat. Thankfully, it hasn't been so humid here, since that also slows my brain down, and our air conditioning is quite adequate to the task of keeping our house comfortable.

My mom happened to mention during her last visit that she rarely uses her air conditioning; opening the windows at night, closing them in the morning and a judicious use of her curtains keeps her quite comfortable during the Indiana summers. While applauding her frugality, my husband mentioned that she might still want to use the air conditioning upon occasion as it would help to keep the moving parts lubricated.

It occurs to me that it's easy to let my own juices congeal. Even as I think and write about choosing joy, I can get so preoccupied with solving problems and living in my head that I don't allow the beauty of the moment to refresh my soul (not to mention my body). One of my favorite bloggers, Robin Bates, posted this poem over at Better Living Through Beowulf. I love the play on words; you wouldn't, for instance, expect that indulging your senses is the "sensible" thing to do. And "succumb" should describe someone who's been overcome by their senses, not one who has successfully resisted their allure. No, in this case, it is the rational argument that needs to be defeated - the pressures of delight that need to be endured and embraced. Imagine someone who has lived in black and white all their life entering suddenly into a world of color. The assault upon the rods and cones of the eye tempt a retreat into the familiar sepia, but oh, the loss! The solution may be to start small, one plum at a time.

I also like the marriage of mind and body that flows from this poem, the suggestion that happiness works its way to your mind through your body. "Joy is a taste before it is anything else" says Mary Oliver. While I don't know if I totally agree with that sentiment, I do believe we need to become integrated selves. Someone who lives totally in the physical realm misses the relational or intellectual joys that are also available. But those of us who live in our heads or become unnecessarily preoccupied with the busyness of life run the risk of dehydrated souls, while rivers of delight pass us by every day.

This poem encourages me to take the time to lounge - to devour (!) the beauty that comes to me through my sense (those five rivers that flow inward). And to recognize that these are, indeed, important moments.

The Plum Trees

by Mary Oliver

Such richness flowing
through the branches of summer and into

the body, carried inward on the five
rivers! Disorder and astonishment

rattle your thoughts and your heart
cries for rest but don’t

succumb, there’s nothing
so sensible as sensual inundation. Joy

is a taste before
it’s anything else, and the body

can lounge for hours devouring
the important moments. Listen,

the only way
to tempt happiness into your mind is by taking it

into the body first, like small
wild plums.

Artwork by Christian Berentz found at the Web Gallery of Art
The domain name for my site has changed from choosejoy.weebly.com (last year also choosejoy.us) to letschoosejoy.com. I like it because not only is it a bit easier to remember (!) but also because it emphasizes the corporate nature of abundant living. It's great if I choose joy today - but it's even better if you choose joy, too. As the delightful song by Jack Johnson goes "it's always better when we're together."

Joy is a natural outflow of lives that are based on love. A joyless person may have the mechanics of a "good life" down, but something is not truly energizing them. Our joy may be expressed differently (I'll defer to my introvert friends here) and it may have different ingredients, but no matter how we experience it, like the bubbly in champagne, joy adds the sparkle to our lives.

One of the things that brings me joy is helping others experience fuller lives, by changing thought patterns, understanding personality development, and discovering vocation. To this end, I'm starting to move out from just a blog presence to speaking opportunities as well as life coaching. Hopefully the website will expand as well as I inch my way forward into a more professional life. Several weeks ago I facilitated a retreat on love - which is the starting point for any conversations about lasting joy. If you know of a group that would be interested in this, I'll post a short description of it in the next week or so.

Here's to more joy!
I've picked up Julian of Norwich again after taking a bit of a hiatus. Blogging on her "Revelations of Love" during Lent was deeply meaningful, even though I only made it through 1/3 of her writings. The book I was using needed to be returned to the library, and since the copy I'd bought was still on backorder,  I'd not finished reading through to the end. But a few weeks ago I led a retreat which included some reflections from Julian, so I grabbed the library copy again. It's been great having it back in the house.

Here's the phrase that drew my eye this morning:
"...for my love rejoice in me, for of all things you might please me most by that."

Our breakfast reading was one of our favorites, Psalm 103, which begins and ends with the phrase: "Praise the Lord, O my soul." I mentioned to Dan that I had been reading Julian of Norwich earlier and been caught by the phrase above. I wondered aloud if God might be more delighted with our rejoicing in him than in our obedience. Dan pondered for a moment and concurred. "I'm thinking about how it feels when you do something I ask you to do," he said. " I may be pleased, but it's an entirely different feeling from that of when you compliment me, or appreciate me."

After our morning psalm, I usually offer a prayer. There were things to be thankful for this moring (our refrigerator did not totally die on us, but revived after vacuuming the coils) but after our conversation it seemed appropriate to use the prayer as a way to "rejoice" in God. As I turned my focus toward Him, as I took time to truly acknowledge His love and kindness, to value His grace and generosity, to enjoy His creativity  - I could feel the delight that it brought His Spirit - a sense of warmth and expansiveness that comes to each of our souls when we're seen and loved for who we are.

Isn't it amazing that we can bring joy to the heart of God? What a gift that our praise matters - for the both of us.
It's great when you can take a few days to plunge into something. It's even better when you have something to show for it. Of course, that something may not be an actual physical product, as much as new wisdom, or the satisfaction that you really are living out of your beliefs.

I spent this last week with my mom, fairly ensconced in wedding prep. We decided to take a running start at making bridesmaids dresses, which had us up to our elbows in fabric, patterns and sewing machines. It was an interesting blend of action - the wedding is coming up fairly soon, and creativity - as we spent two evenings with the sisters trying on half-completed dresses. We scrapped first one idea, then another. At one point, I thought I might be channeling Coco, but not so much. At the end of two days, with the additional fabric we ordered nowhere in sight, the dresses looking less than desirable, and time running out, we called it a day. As that great modern day guru, Kenny Rogers, croons: "you've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away and know when to run." There was no doubt it was time to walk away, and move on to plan D.

There's a great sense of freedom in knowing that you can walk away from two days of hard labor with nothing to show for it. Nothing to apologize for, nothing to prove. As my mother said, it keeps you humble. Working under a time constraint also makes you pony up to your deeper beliefs. When stress becomes toxic - you have the deer in the headlights look (my sister noticed that when she came to visit) or you begin to blame other people in the process, you know you have to let it go. Keeping peace, especially your own, is more important than meeting a deadline. And more and more, I believe that it's not an either/or. Somehow dresses will show up for the wedding. That's a matter of practical faith. It also follows a logical series of proposition.

Proposition 1: this wedding is a good thing.
Proposition 2: good things have the blessing of God and the energy of the universe backing them up.
Proposition 3: a way will appear
Proposition 4: this includes bridsmaids dresses.

I'm also trying to believe that if you are doing the best you can, assistance will come to you.  And even if you haven't done the best you can, you can always ask for grace.

Furthermore, you can live responsibly as a Myers-Briggs type "P". This is the sort of person whose energy peaks at the idea phase and fades when the actual work needs doing. They prefer to make decisions at the last possible moment, keeping their options open, which can make the "J" decision-loving people nuts. The goal is to trust that the universe is making an unknown appointment with the "J" people on your behalf. That when something really has to happen, your organized friends (or sisters in this case) will have time available. The key thing here is - don't pressure anybody - yourself when things can get overwhelming, or others when you're finally ready to make a decision.

No dresses to show for this week, but immersion in my left-brain (hours at a sewing machine) feels really good. Living out my personal philosophy feels even better.
I realized this morning that a lot of what I've been learning has to do with living responsibly out of a right brain dominance. This has been a bit new to me, since as an analytical person (Myers-Briggs Intuitive Thinker) I have usually moved quite cheerfully back and forth from the right to left brain. But if I lean into my intuition, it means leaning into a different way of living, one that is less linear, less time-driven and more integrated.

It means that I have to give up some arbitrary deadlines, which were helpful for a while, and trust that "going with the flow" or following the energies that I have any given day will produce the fruit appropriate to the day. Hence, the absence on the blog. While I was disciplining myself to write more, a deadline or goal was appropriate. But lately I've had to trust that other things have been more important to do, and so not berate myself for not being more disciplined to write.

I am looking forward to exploring this idea more in the days to come, will probably get back to Julian of Norwich, and some other mystics. Also, I would like to explore archetypes over the summer, having a renewed interest in the work of Carl Jung. 

Looking forward to our summer conversations.