We live much of our lives crossing the intersection of joy and sorrow.
This became even more apparent to me in recent days. On Monday, I received word that my first cousin Peter Valente had died after fighting heart disease and having one organ after another shut down.
On Thursday came the news that my friend Chuck Elias — a lay associate at Mount St. Scholastica Monastery in Kansas — had passed away suddenly. Chuck had been a hero of mine ever since the first time I saw him, overseeing the packaging of Thanksgiving Day dinners to be delivered to shut-ins in his hometown of Atchison.
There was also news this week that two elderly friends — one a Benedictine sister, the other a longtime Chicago friend who was like a second mother to me — are both in a dying state.
What to do with all this sorrow?
Coincidentally, my monthly Poetry and Spirituality workshop group, led by the wonderful Boston poet Lisa Breger and sponsored by St. Mary’s Monastery in Rock Island, IL, was meeting last week on Zoom. The theme of our poems for this month happened to be finding joy in a time of sorrow.
In her poem “Why Is It?” poet Linda Clewell, asked:
Why is it
Joy is as fleeting as
A Monarch butterfly scanning the sunflowers …
Grief lingers in the heart like
An unexpected guest
Unpacking old baggage
With the intent to stay a while …
Why indeed? It seems we let loose of joy all too easily, but hold fast to our griefs. And yet, we can we look at our sorrows in another light. We can look at them as “joy unmasked,” something the poet Kahil Gibran suggests in his poem, “On Joy and Sorrow:”
Some of you say, ‘Joy is greater than sorrow,’ and others say, ‘Nay, sorrow is the greater.’
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.
Both joy and grief impose themselves on us. They come, as Linda Clewell notes in her poem, like “unexpected guests.” We can’t ward off or wish away the sorrows that visit us. We can seek out joy — even small amounts of it — in the midst of our griefs.
In his blog, “The Weekly Pause,” poet James Crews writes:
“Perhaps our task here is to spend our lives tallying up all the ways we feel held by the physical world and all the things we love about it so that it becomes much more difficult to lose sight of our aliveness and the gift of one more day on earth.”
Memories of happy moments with my cousin Peter and my friend Chuck as well as my two other friends inching closer to death, comforted me this week. So did the gratitude I felt for “the gift of one more day on earth.” So did finding fleeting encounters with joy amid the sadness.
Those moments of wonder arrived perhaps because I was looking for them. They came in the way the sun cast light spots on the bricks of my neighbor’s house so that the side of the house looked like an abstract painting. In watching a yellow hummingbird flit from flower to flower in a window box. In breathing in the sweet scent of grass after a morning rain.
“When we can allow the very simple things around us to offer themselves to our attention,” James Crews says, “we gain brief access to those qualities which can seem so fleeting, but are no less necessary: wonder and awe, gratitude and mindfulness.”
On the morning my cousin passed away, I happend to be in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. I took a long walk and when I cam back in wrote a poem called “On This Morning of Sun and Clouds” that tried to capture small moments of joy.
The round white heads of hydrangea blooms
shout of joy, like the open faces of children.
Forget the sirens, the shouts in the street
and whir of traffic heading nowhere.
Let me tell you of the flamboyant cardinal
skipping through an ivy garden beside a tender sparrow
and the yellow hummingbird who hovers long
above a window box of marigolds and daisies
the way one might gaze at a still life by Cezanne.
From a far-off city, a friend calls barely able
to speak, says dying is so very hard, asks me
to remember that being alive is easy, even when
when a shower erupts on your morning walk,
drenches you with cool rain as you breathe in
the sweet scent of wet grass and a crack
of light breaks through a floating bay of clouds
and in no time at all you are once again warm.
Lately I have been thinking how the tiniest words
pour out their meaning, can form even in the mouths
of babies. Words like see, can, you, now, yes, joy.
Can we seek out joy this week, even if we are visited unexpectedly by sorrow?
How will we cherish our aliveness, “the gift of one more day on earth?”
For more information on the Poetry & Spirituality Poetry Workshop, please visit https://smmsisters.org/retreats/spirituality-and-poetry-23-sep