We've just returned this evening from a senior theater showcase written and performed by a good friend of ours. The topic was a dark one: how one escapes from the prison of negative emotions. A dimly lit set was dominated by a shuttered door. A single light bulb, fading in and out, hung on a cord from the ceiling. Water dripped into a shallow pan. This was an eery interior landscape. 

The show moved through a series of vignettes: a childhood roller coaster of emotion as a longed for skateboard is trashed by the older neighborhood demi-god; a recurring vision of setting out on a path, confident and eager, only to end up sinking deeper and deeper into a quagmire of emotion, being bogged down by feelings beyond one's control; the young adult musings of when the freedom to risk, to be vulnerable had been squelched, leaving fear to dictate thoughts and dreams.

I'm always caught by the appearance of laughter when I watch theater that is so painful. It seems out of character with the subject and raw emotions at hand.  Are we whistling in the dark, scoffing at the experience presented to us? Distancing ourselves, or trying to break the tension? Tonight I had a different theory. I wondered if we are sharing the moment with the actor, remembering that we have too been where the scene is taking us.

The last vignette retold the story of an evening drive born of the desire to head out into the dark cool night with nothing to achieve but freedom itself. In the winter landscape, the car swerves out of control, turning and rolling until it comes to a jarring stop. Into the disorienting loneliness of the night comes the voice of a stranger. "You will be OK. Help is on the way." Inexplicably, it seems, the young man is able to rest, comforted by the presence of another. 

Can it be that laughter in the midst of darkness is a way of acknowledging solidarity, of being community? Perhaps the very act itself, the sound of human voices moved to a common response, reminds us, no matter where we find ourselves, that we are not alone.
 
For most of this week, I've been looking for things that bring me laughter. Trying to notice and respond to what is funny, or odd, even ridiculous. Today I had the opportunity to be the cause of someone's laughter, and it felt great. Although I have in the past kept a crowd entertained with some outlandish story or misadventure, this isn't the sort of merriment that I mean.

I was heading out of the snack room at the college down the road, when I bumped into a former colleague. We had canceled a lunch date a week or two before, so it was great to see each other. In the course of our conversation she told me about a magazine writing class she was currently enrolled in. She was doing well (not surprisingl) but ruing the fact that she didn't have access to a small recorder, since most of her articles involved interviewing students. It would be so much easier to capture the quotes if she didn't have to do them longhand!

I started fumbling through my purse. On last year's birthday my youngest daughter gave me a small Sony recorder. For the past few months it had been underused, although, like other gifts I have been given from family members, I have no doubt it will be just what I need at some point in the future. (This is a lesson I learned when my husband gave me a microwave one Christmas, followed the next year by a cordless phone. Neither piece of technology was on my radar, but I am positive I couldn't imagine life without them now.)

The recorder was finally brought to light, and I handed it over to my friend, startling her in midsentence. She started to crack up. "I can't believe you had this in your purse!" she exclaimed. "Will you really let me borrow it? Now I have no excuse not to do well."

Strategy Five: Take the opportunity to be the cause of someone's good fortune. And share the laughter that results.
 
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In the spirit of seeking some laughs, Dan suggested yesterday afternoon that I pick up a copy of Megamind at our nearest Redbox for some after dinner entertainment. (Strategy Four: Make use of media.) Not only did I appreciate the support, but the den is the one warm room in the house these days, as we've pulled out the kerosene heater to help with heating costs. So after dinner, with heater blazing, and snuggled under a fleece, we settled down for some fun.

Megamind is definitely an enjoyable film, although it didn't produce the guffaws I was expecting after having seen Despicable Me. If you've seen the movie, you might have felt similarly. From the begining I was cheering for the underdog, surprisingly on the side of the villain, and hoping that somehow the mistreated and misunderstood child at the core of Megamind would finally get what he'd always wanted: respect and friendship.

The movie did get me thinking, however, about "evil" laughter. In one scene, Megamind fills his lair with a maniacal cackle in hopes of striking fear into the heart of his lovely kidnappee, Roxanne Ritchie. Alas, he meets with little success, as the perky Miss Ritchie ho hums his attempts to intimidate.

Far more powerful and insidious is the laughter unleashed by the juvenile Metroman, the teacher's pet who makes life miserable for the young Megamind. Standing on the moral and "genetic" high ground, Metroman is beyond scrutiny, and the teacher, like many in similar situations, oblivious to the damage inflicted to the odd child out. 

We rarely are in situations where bullies or villains stare at us with half-crazed eyes and try to terrorize us with shrieks of perverted delight. But how many wounds do we carry from those in positions of "authority" who with a little smirk, or "funny story" have managed to shame us? And how many times have we, in thoughtless "humorous" ways, caused real pain?
 
I was thinking this morning about different types of laughter. Things that are silly because they're unexpected - a platypus might be an example, or the pairing of words in a surprising way. Then there is the laughter because we are not getting something very obvious - my laughing at myself because I'm being way too serious these days. It's not necessary, perhaps not even good for me, but I'm being sincere. This laughter isn't mean-spirited, it causes me to view myself as a child and lighten up.

There's another type of laughter that comes when true delight creates too much energy to contain inside our bodies. This laughter might be a kissing cousin to song, a physical release of joy, extraverted from our soul to the realm of sound waves. So after breakfast I sat down at the piano. Choosing songs that reminded me of the greatness of God's love, I let the truth of that goodness sink in and then rebound outward. Perhaps not technically laughter, but a life-giving practice in its own right.
 
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Intentions are good. Strategies are even better. But accountability is the best! Taking a page from my food journal (due to my nutritionist's suggestions), I've decided to chronicle my efforts to add more laughter into my day. Writing down what I eat at each meal keeps me on track, so a taking the week to blog about laughter seemed worth a try. Not exactly Julie and Julia, but perhaps the way to make laughter a higher priority. (And now, you are all forewarned)

So on the way home from church today, I outlined my plan to Dan. Now, how to add laughter into my life?, I asked. He responded promptly by telling me a joke - not an amazing joke, but it did bring a chuckle. Later, I rushed into the living room where my youngest daughter, Dorea, was entertaining my husband with tales of a recent dinner conversation. Often something funny there.  I was rewarded by my diligence in enjoying another laugh.

Strategy 1: Find funny people and enjoy them.
This seems obvious, but as I was pondering this whole silly business, I realized that in the past few decades I've made it a priority to seek meaningful things to fill my life. Laughter often springs because things are meaning-less. Hmm. How often have I disparaged silliness? (Now I remember dinner times when I'd berate the girls for going off into gales of laughter instead of talking about somethig edifying, like the sermon at church this morning, for instance).

Strategy 2: Value the ridiculous. (even, maybe especially in yourself)

It's kind of sad that one needs a strategy to laugh, but hey, on the other hand, it's pretty funny!
 
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"Loving another can be demanding work; paying attention, listening deeply, holding your tongue, ladling cups of cold water. So I need and long for holy laughter to lighten and energize the work of love. And laughter abounds in the world!"

These are the opening lines from a insightful blog by Elizabeth Nordquist on her site, "A Musing Amma," which I discovered a few days ago. You can read the rest of her post here
Elizabeth's lyrical prose matches the quality of her comments. Along the way she quotes Anne Lamott, whose phrase "laughter is carbonated holiness" rings true.

Holiness is etymologically connected to both wholeness and health. So it comes as no surprise that laughter, which is known to reduce stress, release endorphins, exercise our diaphragm and abs and connect us with friends, is part of a sacred alliance.  Holy laughter, laughter that is both compassionate and confident, as Nordquist lays out for us, energizes us as we seek to participate in the glory of God.

Nordquist encourages us make laughter a spiritual practice, to "seek laughter in myself and in others, and to slay the Dragons of Doom and Cynicism and Derision in the world by letting the goodness of God, the hilarity of human beings, the kerfuffles of ordinary living be reason for laughter and rejoicing."

The guantlet is down. I think I'm up for the challenge.