Follow the Joy: An Autumn Musing

I recently finished a lovely book, How the Light Gets in—Writing as Spiritual Practice, by Pat Schneider.  As you can see from the picture pasted below, I underlined and tagged many pages.  How the Light Gets In earned a place on my favorite books shelf.  I love books that are part memoir and part instructional manual.  Schneider takes readers on a journey of her life and highlights the links between writing, spirituality, and healing.  In the final chapter, she makes several poignant statements about vocation or calling.  Schneider suggests that each person, no matter what the social category; age, gender, race, or social status possesses a calling.  

Similarly, I would argue even more passionately that each of us is constantly being called.  But most people appear confused about what a vocation or calling is.  My former students believed that vocation or calling are terms only applicable to the ministry.  As I tried to disavow them of this misnomer, I wondered what would happen if educational institutions took the discernment of a vocational or calling as serious as seminaries do.  As an academic adviser, I hoped a structured discernment process existed for students interested in all occupations.  Moreover, the issue of calling arises many times over the course of a lifetime.  Currently, questions about calling dominate my conversations with adults of varying ages, even some I perceive as elders in spiritual direction/companioning.   Pat Schneider maintains one method of discovering a calling is to pay attention to what brings you joy. 

This idea is very similar to Howard Thurman’s famous quote:  “Don’t ask what the world needs.  Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it.  Because what the world needs is people who can come alive” or Joseph Campbell’s admonition “Follow your bliss.”  What would the world be like if every person could listen for and become engaged in work or activities that brought them joy.  Yet the quotes by Thurman and Campbell allude to a different term; passion.  Are they the same or interchangeable experiences?  Synonyms of passion include fervor, enthusiasm, zeal or an intense desire while descriptions of joy include delight, pleasure, happiness, and jubilation.  Is there something special about the feeling of joy that is different from passion?   

I see this contrast playing out in my life.  I held a passion for teaching but now I know deeper joy.  It almost feels oxymoronic for me to declare the delight I feel when I arise to work.  Eagerly I sit down to my desk to write or to greet those who walk through my front door for spiritual direction/companioning.  I look forward to the retreats I lead and talking with spiritual seekers.  What characterizes my present work that seemed absent in my past labors?

Since retiring, I have carved out a set of activities instead of adapting to the tasks associated with my job.  For example, I noted earlier one of my favorite aspects of my profession was advising students.  I could have advised students all day, every day.  I felt especially jubilant when I witnessed a student discover a calling.  What helped me to determine if a students had unearthed a hidden occupational delight?  Often I posed a series of questions and observed their behavior.  I would inquire,  “What would you do if you lacked any constraints, if you had all the time and money in the world?”  “What kind of work would you do for free?” “Which activities bring you joy?”

I noticed as students, seated across from me on a couch or chair, talked about a variety of possible careers, there was a moment in the conversation when they lit up like a Christmas tree.  The light in their eyes and the joy in their voices provided the mighty clues that we had stumbled upon a calling.   

A few students would note their own inner excitement, and pursue that path.  Unfortunately, I also encountered students who could or would not follow their dreams.  Many chose careers that their parents wanted for them or fields of study that might generate the most income.  I would remind them that whatever vocation they chose, it would need to get them out of bed for the next 30 or more years.  I counseled further that some occupational choices would be more difficult to undo than others.  Becoming a doctor for example, involves a deep investment of time, energy, and money.  Further, once students start families and begin to purchase cars and homes, changing careers becomes far more challenging, if not impossible.  What is most remarkable is that my advice was quite similar to Patricia Schneider’s or Howard Thurman’s even though I neither knew of or had read anything by either author at that time.

The experience of joy is important for daily life balance as well.  The frenetic world we live in, burdened with overactivity, overstimulation, and relentless distractions requires counterbalancing.  Joy helps to uncover the counterbalancing activities.  What is most joyful—watching a movie, sitting outside in nature, listening to music, dancing in the living room, or reading a book?  Regardless of the activity selected, it is essential to surround ourselves with our delights.  Otherwise if we become stuck on the treadmill of life, the endless tasks will wear us down.  We must get off for some rest and fun.

Where is joy beckoning you?   Following it whether it leads you to the kitchen to bake cookies or brownies, to the swings in a park, to a sporting event is what gives you vitality.  Perhaps taking a moment to observe the changing colors of autumn leaves or watch hummingbirds and butterflies, will provide the joy that is the perfect antidote to what might ail you.  Following your joy will definitely lead you to feel more of the peace and joy in your heart.

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Autumn Leaves

“Even if something is left undone, everyone must take time to sit still and watch the leaves turn.”

~Elizabeth Lawrence

I feel fortunate to sit at a window seat in my work room which overlooks a near forest of tall oaks, hickory, sweet gum and pine trees.  Even on a cloudy November day, I perch and view the autumn leaves, a few still stuck on the branches as if someone hung them there with sticky tape.  I love the beauty of fall and could spend hours just watching nature in action.   Trees with multiple shades of green, yellow, burnt orange and red just make my heart sing.  Everywhere I look outside it is as if my eyes are strolling through a gallery of masterpiece paintings.  Ah but the autumn season signifies change, a period of transition that prepares me for the upcoming winter season of deep rooting, hunkering down and cuddling up.

Although autumn leaves is the name of a famous jazz standard, the falling leaves of autumn provide an apt metaphor for such a liminal time. Perhaps it signals for me my desire for change because I have similar feelings about spring.  I love trees with buds popping open like popcorn to an absolutely gorgeous new green.  Spring green energizes me, stimulates me to move beyond the slower pace of winter.  Budding growth spurs me to start new projects, plant seeds, flowers, cook less heavy stews and soups and prepare my palate for fresh veggies and salads.  Perhaps it is the dramatic shifts of winter to spring and summer to fall that capture my attention since summer feels like a warmer spring and winter feels like a colder fall.

According to the Chinese medicine calendar that a friend shared with me some years ago, the seasons represent very meaningful symbols for the cycles of life.  Fall is a time for letting go, winter a period for quiet germination and deep rooting, spring the season for new growth and summertime an opportunity to nurture that new growth signaled by warmer temperatures. The Chinese calendar also includes a late summer stage for harvesting (completing those projects initiated during spring).  I can actively attune my life to the seasons or realize that I am sitting in or even stuck in one of them.  Occasionally with my writing or sewing I notice a number of unfinished projects suggesting that I am unable to move from spring to late summer.  I also struggle with symbolic winters lacking the patience needed to let ideas or plans germinate.

I have fond memories of autumn.  I remember walking home from elementary school kicking the leaves scattered over the sidewalks.  I liked to hear the crunch when I stepped through them.  I also fondly recall the school assignment of selecting certain leaves and pressing them between wax paper so as to create a semi-permanent piece of art.  When was the last time I did that?  Unfortunately, most of the leaves in my yard right now are the soggy yellow and brown ones assaulted by numerous rain storms during the past few weeks.

I love to see the changing trees no matter where I live or visit.  Of course the entire experience of admiring fall colors was accentuated when I lived in New England where the trees yielded a tapestry of breathtaking colors.  I looked forward to the foliage reports urging me to contemplate leaves colored olive, gold, fire red, and brown especially light golden tans and deep oak which painted an amazing mural against the varying hues of blue skies. I suspect once trees feel the dramatic shifts in temperature and as the sun’s heat loses its intensity, they know it is time to shake off the leaves in preparation for winter.

In releasing their leaves, trees trust that new life will return in the spring.  Why don’t the leaves hold on in an attempt to keep their inevitable demise at bay?    Maybe they know that they will provide new energy as they are recycled as mulch for their tree’s own nourishment.  The falling leaves symbolize that change is cyclical, natural and letting go is liberating.  Like autumn and similar to what the Chinese medicine calendar suggests, I also have seasons of change, periods of transition in my life and when I trust that they will lead to new growth, I feel joy in letting go.

I also notice that leaves gently fall to the ground.  It is not like a machine comes along to tear them off and leaves don’t drop until they are ready.  Sometimes a windy, blustery day facilitates a cascade of falling leaves but those that are not ready stick to the trees through rain and wind.  I wonder what I am willing to let go of as lightly as most leaves drift from the trees or am I like the few remaining leaves that seem to hold on no matter what?

Drifting autumn leaves also remind me that it is time to give away clothes that no longer bring me delight, books that others could be reading, and to shred old papers that are cluttering my desks and file cabinets.  It’s also a time to re-assess new and old relationships.  Oh it can be so difficult to let some people go even though they never call and are often too “crazy busy” to get together.  What are the trees showing me about holding on, about life?

Falling leaves prompt me to examine other aspects of my self in flux; do I still need to feel special, unique or extraordinary, to become famous or rush to cross off everything on the “to do” list?  I am ready to release unnecessary stress and a lesson in A Course in Miracles focuses squarely on this subject.  “It is but myself that I crucify” with all of the crazy, anxious thoughts about completing my much too long daily “To Do” list.

“The autumn leaves drift outside my window, autumn leaves of red and gold…”

I love when autumn leaves fall…when autumn leaves must fall…. What signs let you know that it is a time for change, for letting go?  Are you like the remaining leaves waiting for a shocking frost, a crisis to let go, to change?   In autumn, the season of release, what inner and outer items can be cleared from your life so that an inevitable spring, the new growth can take root?  Like the falling leaves what else do I, do you need to let go of——that will allow us to experience more of the peace and joy that lies within our hearts?