May it keep your heart open and filled with light.
I met Kay at the Wellness Community in Phoenix. Like me, Kay had been diagnosed with cancer. For Kay, it was pancreatic cancer.
Most people hear “pancreatic cancer” and conclude that death is near, within a year. Kay did too, at first.
So, Kay asked herself, “What do I want to do before I die? She reviewed the things that had been on her “Life-To-Do List” and started acting upon them.
For example, even though Kay lived in The Grand Canyon State, she had not yet hiked the Grand Canyon. She had not even visited the Grand Canyon. Determined to live the best she could until she died, Kay and her husband made the trip north and, with great care and joy, hiked together down onto the floor of the canyon from the North Rim, stayed overnight, and hiked up on the South Rim side the next day. “My husband practically had to carry me out. But we did it!”
That was the first of many things that Kay did and got to cross off her list, including riding in a hot air balloon over the Phoenix Valley. But there was no way she was going to cross off working in the Peace Corp. Or was there?
At first Kay thought she would have to abandon that dream completely. Certainly, she would not be able to actually join the Peace Corps. However, when Kay learned of a short-term mission project that her church was planning, Kay said, “I could do that!” And she did. By joining a group of volunteers and helping to repair a church, a school, a hospital, and several houses in Puerto Rico, Kay fulfilled the essence of her Peace Corps dream.
“I felt extremely grateful–and joyful—to have that opportunity,” Kay said. “And for finding ways to experience everything on my list, including learning sign language, teaching at a cancer camp for kids, and becoming a patient advocate.”
Kay credits joy with playing a significant part of her surviving well beyond the life span she and others expected after her diagnosis in 1994.
“Yup, 1994.” Kay smiled. “Somehow, with the help of joy, gratitude, good medicine, and grace, I’m still here,” she told me in 2004. “And I’m still adding things to my list. And I do simple things that stir the joy in me daily, like riding on the swing that my husband hung for me.”
A few years later, I visited with Kay again via phone one March morning. She told me that she and her husband had just taken down their Christmas tree.
“We love the little white lights. So, we left the tree up so we could enjoy watching them twinkle every night,” she said. “In fact, instead of packing the lights away with the tree, I draped them around a large plant and hung eggs from it. We now have a twinkling ‘Easter tree’ to enjoy to a few months. After that, who knows where I’ll put those lights?
“No matter what is happening, we can find ways to stir the joy in us,” Kay says. “I’ve learned that joy gives me more strength…and more hope.” She recommends making a list and doing at least one joy-stirring thing every day. “For example,” Kay says, “I’m still riding on the swing that my husband hung for me.”
As of this writing in 2011, Kay is 17-year pancreatic-cancer-survivor, still finding ways to live in joy every day. When I spoke with her this morning, she told me about the joy she experiences with her 15-month-old grandson, Dominic. “One of our favorite things to do together is to hold hands, run in the sunlight, and giggle. Simple, huh? And pure joy!”
Whenever I think of Kay, I am reminded to stir the experience of joy in me, right now, no matter what is happening. I also think back to when I faced cancer and, similar to Kay, savored the joy I experienced in little, every day things, even in the midst of chemotherapy side-effects.
For example, across the room from my bed, a crystal bowl sat on a table, under a window. Nearly every morning, sunlight passed through the bowl. When it did, the light was refracted, and hundreds of little, arched rainbows appeared on my walls. In addition to appreciating their beauty and taking hope from those little rainbows, I felt joy.
I also noticed that whenever I felt gratitude–for those rainbows, the mesquite tree outside my window, the birds that flew to and from it–for anything and everything–I also felt joy. It seems that gratitude is master key for opening to the joy that is in us.
So now, whenever I feel in low spirits, in addition to offering myself some compassion, I pause, look around, and wait to notice something for which I am authentically grateful. I don’t “count blessings.” If I do this with a sense of should-ness, it doesn’t work. I’ve learned that always, even when I am experiencing depression, I eventually notice something, however tiny, for which I am grateful. And with that, comes a sweet uplift of joy.
As Mater says to the ailing young woman in The Twelve Gifts for Healing, “Even during sad times, joy is within you. Bring it forth. Wisdom is there to guide you.”
For reflection, journaling and discussion:
Consider this quote:
You can feel happy simply because you experience happiness in your nature. Real, lasting happiness does not come at the detriment of others or through againstness or denial of reality. You can learn to be happy and not in conflict with others or situations, regardless of what is going on. Others may not agree with your happiness. They may think that you are responding inappropriately. Clearly, there is too much pain, suffering, and misery in the world, so there is no need to add to it. If your happiness is misunderstood or judged by others, you can turn it to peace, understanding, and compassion by choosing to be happy regardless.” – John Morton – from You Are the Blessings