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More than a brighter shade of happiness

“What have you been thinking about joy recently?” Mike asked me over lunch the other day.

“I’ve been thinking about that research suggesting that people are happier before they have children,” I said. “And about how happiness and joy are different.”

“Are you going to write the easy post about how you often feel less happy on a moment to moment basis since Dominic’s birth, but you have more joy in your life?” Mike asked.

“No,” I said. “Because, although I would like to think that this is true, I’m not actually sure that it is.”

Despite the fact that joy is the theme of this month, I’ve been trying not to think too hard about the difference between happiness and joy. This question confuses me, and thinking too hard about anything confusing in the face of this enduring sleep deficit is still a struggle. But there’s no getting around it, if I’m going to exert even a half-hearted attempt to grapple with the concept of joy, this particular question must be confronted.

Mike and I first started talking about joy a couple of weekends ago when we were hanging out at Zen and I was feeling low low low. Mike asked me what I was thinking about regarding joy on that day, too. As I recall, I told him I didn’t feel at all joyful and I didn’t feel like talking about it. Also as I recall, Mike being Mike, he persevered with the conversation, anyway.

“Happiness is present focused,” Mike said when I gave in and asked him what he thought about the difference between joy and happiness. “Joy is more future focused. Also, happiness is more self-focused while joy is others-focused.”

“Like how we feel about Leslie’s and Ryan’s engagement,” Mike continued. “Objectively there’s little in it for us other than a kick ass party, so why do we feel so elated by this? I think that feeling of gladness we feel at their good news, that’s less happiness than it is joy.”

I don’t agree with Mike about joy being tied to anticipating future good things, but then again I don’t think that I’m a very future-oriented person. If anything, I get more joy from remembering past blessings than I do thinking about the future.

However, I think Mike’s point about joy being related to empathy – being rooted in an appreciation for the “good” in life even when that good doesn’t directly benefit you – is fascinating.

Many dictionaries define joy as intense or especially exultant happiness, but this doesn’t seem nuanced enough to me. Even if I don’t find it easy to pin down exactly why, I feel as if joy really should be something more than just a brighter shade of happiness – something wider and deeper, something that stems from beyond myself and my pleasures.

I think the man who listed joy as one of the “fruits of the spirit” in Galatians 5:22 would agree. That man would probably say that true joy is a by-product of our appreciation for, and relationship with, the divine.

A good friend recently made a similar point by email.

“Joy is hard to quantify, no?” she wrote. “I think that joy doesn’t always make you happy, because the fruit of the spirit is the result of the work of God in your heart and experience shows this to be not exclusively a blissful journey. (Maybe sometimes we are more like in the stage of ‘the flower-bud of the spirit’? I mean, fruit will probably come, but not for a few months yet…).”

“I love that image of a flower bud of the spirit,” I wrote back. “I will hold the image of jasmine in my mind. At least, I’ll hold it in my mind until Mike teases me that I’m really more one of those carnivorous, meat-eating flowers you find in the Amazon. And then I might wonder aloud what sort of poor marriage decision that little flower made to end up having to adapt to living in the tropics, and tell Mike that sometimes flowers just do what they have to do to survive. Then we’ll both laugh. Thank goodness that, most days, we can both still laugh.”

We did plenty of laughing this morning when Dominic suddenly decided that our dog scratching himself was the funniest sight he’d seen in his whole little life and laughed until he turned bright red and started hiccupping. Today’s so far been a good day full of long baby naps and bright baby smiles and leisurely walks under cloudy skies to pick up groceries. Today I think of Dominic and smile. Today I can say without hesitation that Dominic’s birth has brought great joy into my life.

But today doesn’t tell the whole story of this last week.

Last week at this time I was alone in the house, exhausted from several nights in a row of broken sleep, unable to escape the screech of power tools right next door, and trying in vain to settle a grumpy baby who didn’t want to put down (or to sleep). I was walking the floor of our bedroom with Dominic in my arms, crying, thinking that this could not possibly be the point of life.

I would like to be able to say that even in that desolate moment I felt that the demanding, wailing bundle in my arms had brought joy with him when he burst into my life four months ago. Yes, I would like that. But the truth of the matter is that I simply felt so bereft of happiness and joy that I had a hard time conceiving that I would ever really feel either happiness or joy again.

I would also like to be able to say that even during that moment that felt so joyless, I still knew that the demanding, wailing bundle in my arms had brought joy with him when he burst into my life four months ago. Yes, I would like that. But the truth of the matter is, the only thing I knew for sure in that moment was that I still wouldn’t wish his birth undone. If the Archangel Gabriel had appeared in that instant and offered me the chance to hand Dominic over, I would have refused (unless Gabriel had promised to bring him back markedly more cheerful in a couple of hours – then I would have relinquished him with great haste as well as both happiness and joy).

Perhaps I still don’t have this difference between joy and happiness all sorted out in my mind because they’re impossible to completely untangle in real life. Sometimes, I think, joy does feel like a brighter shade of happiness. But sometimes in moments when happiness is nowhere to be found, I think it can feel like peace instead. And perhaps sometimes it’s not really a feeling at all, but more an attitude, or even knowledge.

I don’t think that knowing you don’t really want to push the reset button regarding the existence of your child – even in those dark, exhausted, tear-drenched moments – quite reaches the lofty heights of joy. Perhaps, however, joy can sink its roots deep into this knowledge and continue to grow even when the fertilizer of happiness is in short supply. Because I believe now that what I discovered last month about love is also turning out to be true of joy.

Last month I wrote about how love for Dominic hadn’t swamped me like a tidal wave but was creeping in slowly and inexorably, like a rising tide. I don’t know why I expected joy to be a different kettle of fish in this regard, but I did. Subconsciously I’ve been thinking of joy as something you either have – flowering full and perfect in your life – or don’t have at all. It took my friend’s letter to make me realize that I had missed a foundational implication of the fruit of the spirit analogy – the fact that fruit, uh, grows. Slowly. As in weeks, months, and entire seasons slowly. This much I do know about the process, despite the fact that I’ve never been all that talented at growing things and prefer to buy my fruit from others who have done the hard and careful work of tending.

Gosh, wouldn’t it be easier if we could buy joy from our local grocery store or, better yet, instant-download it directly into our lives using the buy-with-one-click button on Amazon?

Easier? Maybe.

Better? I can’t articulate exactly why, but I suspect not.

I will strive to remember that as I rue the irony of spending the next month thinking about peace in the midst of our ongoing negotiations with our noisy neighbors. I will remember it tonight when I wake up in the wee dark hours, as I will inevitably do, to reach down and place a hand on a stirring baby. And I will remember it this afternoon as I go soon to get him up from his nap, change him, amuse him, feed him, love him. If part of deep joy necessarily springs from focusing on others, this mothering thing surely means that my emotional greenhouse will eventually be a fruitful, joyous, sweet mess of color. And in the meantime, there are fresh mangoes and tamarind available at the little stall just down the street. Maybe I’ll take Dominic for a walk in that direction this afternoon.

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Bank cards and inner children

I found my credit card today. It’s been, well, not exactly missing, more like “vacationing in an unknown location”, since we got back from Australia. That was three weeks ago.

I remembered to ask my parents whether they’d seen it while we were on skype the other day.

“Have you seen my credit card lying around?” I asked, oh so casually, in the middle of our conversation.

My father, as I’d guessed he would, sighed.

“Lisa,” he said, and then paused. “Does your husband know about this?”

“Not exactly,” I said, grinning just a little. “I’m a firm subscriber to the theory that one of the best ways to keep your marriage healthy is not to let every single thought that goes through your head come out your mouth.”

There was silence while my parents, I’m sure, tried to figure out what this had to do with my credit card.

“Almost every day I think that maybe I should really try to find it,” I added helpfully.

Dad sighed again.

“We’ll keep an eye out,” he said.

So “find my credit card” has been on my to list for weeks now, and since today is a day full of life admin – filing, sorting books, and trying to catch up on email – I gritted my teeth five minutes ago and went in the bedroom determined to do a thorough search. I’d already looked in my wallet twice but started by flicking through it again just to make sure… and there is was. Nestled somewhere I still can’t understand why I would have put it. Halleluiah. I found it and I got to tick something off the to-do list and I do not have to go through the hassle of trying to get it replaced over here in Laos, not to mention having to confess the whole debacle to Mike. Happy days.

The whole thing has made me think of one of the first essays I wrote after I started emailing Mike. Called, “Inner Child” I thought it was merely an “all’s well that ends well” tale that kept me amused writing it up on an overnight flight to London. I found out later that Mike found it less amusing than terrifying. So, today, here’s a walk down memory lane and a look at an essay I sent out just over three years now. (PS, Despite this post’s evidence to the contrary let me assure you that I’m heaps more responsible and organized now. Heaps.)

Inner Child (October 2007)

What does my inner child look like, I wondered, rifling through the pockets of all the jackets hanging in my closet, and where on earth was my bankcard?

Both were pressing questions. Ed was picking me up for the inner child party in two hours, and I was getting on a plane to head to Kenya in less than 24. I had six dollars in my wallet, and it was Saturday at 3:30pm. The banks were closed (which I had discovered when I rocked up at my local branch at 3pm with passport in hand all set to make a withdrawal sans bankcard). They were going to stay closed until Monday morning by which time, all going well, I would be in London. This was somewhat of a problem. Plus, I still didn’t have a costume for the party. The afternoon was not going as planned.

Faced with a whole row of stubbornly empty pockets I stood back, took a deep breath, and tried to think.

When confronted with multiple crises it’s always wise to take a moment to evaluate which is the most pressing. Clearly that was what I was going to wear to the party. Perhaps if I figured that out, the secondary issue of how I was going to manage to spend two weeks in Africa on six dollars would seem more manageable.

Robin said we were supposed to come dressed as something that reflects our inner child, and this had me stumped. Did she want us to come dressed as the inner child that actually was a child? Because then all I’d have to do is straighten my hair, put on some appallingly thick glasses, and braces, and then go and sit in a playground and read a book – because that child didn’t actually have many friends and hence, didn’t go to parties often.

Or did she mean the inner child we have now – the un-self-conscious, comfortable-in-our-own-skin inner child that tempts us towards silliness and fun and levity? Come to think of it though, I’m not sure why those qualities get associated with inner children. I got better at embracing them as I got older. Most of my childhood I spent feeling like an adult trapped in a little body.

Perhaps she meant the inner child we always wanted to be when we were children? If that was the case I could go for the entirely unremarkable outfit of jeans and a tee shirt on the grounds that I spent a significant portion of my childhood wanting to just be more normal. Or perhaps I should wear a sari because when I wasn’t thinking it would be nice to be normal, I was thinking it would be nice to be Indian. Or maybe a formal dress and a tiara? I can’t actually remember fantasizing about being a princess (except being a sari-clad Indian princess) but I’m sure I did. Doesn’t every little girl want to be a princess?

I sighed and looked longingly at my bed, which was covered with clothes, work documents, and an open suitcase.

What I really wanted more than anything else in that instant was to climb back into that bed, read a good book, and forget about Africa and parties. And I’d give my kingdom to have someone bring me some ice cream. And a nice glass of wine. Or two.

That was it! My inner child just wanted to be in bed. I would go in pajamas.

“Good idea!” Robin said, when she heard what I was planning. “I will too, and Sharla, probably. Then we can have a slumber party!”

Awesome. Not only had I come up with a decent idea, this inner child went to slumber parties. This inner child had some friends. Things had definitely improved in the last two decades.

Now, the bankcard.

I’d been convinced it was in the car.

This was not an entirely stupid assumption. I’m a relatively neat and ordered person. My office, my bedroom, the house… all fairly neat – if not germ-free clean. Captain Waldo, my car, is a totally different story. My theory is that he is actually a different planet, with his own field of gravity, which has an almost irresistible affinity for things like receipts, empty coffee cups, cans of diet coke, Tupperware containers, CD’s, and books. On Saturday morning he looked like a mobile library. There were at least forty books scattered on the back seat. It seemed likely that my bankcard was buried in there somewhere. It’s been known to happen before.

It was a great theory. The only problem being that during the half an hour it took me to dig through all the detritus it became clear that the bank card was not buried in there somewhere.

I tackled the problem logically. I marveled at the cleanness of the car for a minute or two, then I went back inside and decided it still wasn’t time to panic. It was likely somewhere in the house, I reasoned, but just in case it wasn’t, I’d better go to the bank before it closed and make a withdrawal using my passport as ID.

So off I toddled to the bank.

Which is when I learned that the bank shuts at 2pm on Saturday.

So now my costume was all sorted and another half hour of searching in the house hadn’t yielded any bank-card-joy there was no avoiding the fact that I was going to have to figure out a plan B or embrace solidarity with the poor.

Plan B would normally be Bank-O-Dad. But, unfortunately, Bank-O-Dad only has one branch, which is in Australia rather than Los Angeles. But, I suddenly realized, I had friends. Friends who would be coming to a slumber party with me that night. Friends who would surely empty their checking accounts for me. After all, what are friends for?

So I rang Robin back.

When she didn’t answer I left a message telling her I had an “unusual request.” I tried for an upbeat, “I have a really neat plan for a big adventure” tone, but had a nasty suspicion as I hung up that I had sounded more guilty than cheerful.

This was confirmed when she rang back and the first words out of her mouth were a wary, “what do you want?”

“A thousand dollars,” I said in a small voice.

“Lisa!” Robin said in a tone I’ve heard more than once in the last four years of our friendship.

“Where did you have it last?” She asked after I explained the problem.

“Chicago,” I said, even more softly.

“Lisa! You went to Chicago a month ago! I heard you say your bankcard was missing weeks ago. You didn’t find it in between? When did you really start looking for it?”

“This morning,” I whispered.

“Lisa! Wow!” Robin said. There was a long silence that gave us both ample time to reflect on my idiocy. “Well I can’t get out a thousand dollars at the ATM. I can only get four or five hundred.”

“That’s okay,” I said, relieved. “I can write you a check right now for that, and I’ll ask some of the others too.”

In the end my Bible Study group came through with the goods, and Robin, Paul, Sarah, Sharla, and Joe, all contributed to my financial solvency for this trip.

“Don’t lose it,” Robin warned me as she handed me an envelope full of cash. “And don’t tell Jenn about this. She’ll be mad.”

Yeah. Our mutual friend Jenn, and my parents, and everyone else who manages not to do things like this on a regular basis. But the way I see it I’m home free now. I only make one or two big and potentially serious mistakes per international trip. And this was my second, because this year I completely forgot that I needed visas to go to Kenya and Ghana until three weeks and two days before I was scheduled to leave and anyone who knows anything about the pace at which African embassies generally operate know that’s not exactly a safe margin. So given that I’ve already had a potential visa-debacle and weathered a missing bankcard… it should be a great trip from here on out.

Thank the Lord for growing out of lonely childhoods, for grown-up pajama parties, and for good friends is all I can say.

And, for those good friends who live in Chicago – if you happen to see my bankcard, can you mail it to LA?

Thanks.

What price a child’s life?

This afternoon Mike and I sat upstairs on the deck at our place, looking out towards the trees. It was pouring rain. Water was sheeting off the tin roofs of the houses behind us and running down the big green leaves of the coconut trees – arcing off and dropping towards earth in one, unbroken, stream.

We were up there because Mike had quit the kitchen table, which was burdened by our two laptops and a stack of documents eight inches thick that he’d bought home to sign over the weekend. The stack was peppered with neon tags demanding his signature.

“Mr Michael,” the tags read, one after another.

Mr Michael. Mr Michael. Mr Michael…

On this quiet Sunday afternoon Mr Michael had worked through all these documents, not pausing until near the end, when he came across three requests for reimbursement. These were all related to cases where a sponsor child had gotten sick out in their village and the district health centers hadn’t been able to address their problems and had recommended transfer to the provincial health center in Luang Prabang.

It costs money to transfer sick children to the provincial hospital, and when three children get critically ill in one district within a month, it costs more money than has been budgeted for medical emergencies. Significantly more. As in, more than half the budget for the entire year.

“It’s not three cases,” Mike reminded me, when I went to see where he’d gone and found him sitting at the table on our deck, staring out at the rain. “It’s four. We also have little orphan girl.”

Ah, yes. Little orphan girl. Little orphan girl whose story began two weeks ago now, when Mr Michael received multiple phone calls on a Saturday requesting him to authorize the medical transfer of an eleven-year-old child from Luang Prabang to Vientiane. The doctors in Luang Prabang said they couldn’t treat her here, that she had a problem in her brain and that she would probably die if not flown to Vientiane for specialized medical care immediately.

Mr Michael authorized the medivac. At first, it seems, the doctors in Vientiane thought she had Japanese encephalitis – she could not even sit up, or swallow – but after a week of testing these results came back clear. So she does not have encephalitis, but no one is any the wiser yet on what she may have.

At least, this is what we think is going on. It’s very difficult to get accurate information. Whatever the doctors in Vientiane are saying gets filtered through at least two other Lao speaking staff before it reaches the office up here. To complicate matters further, little orphan girl herself doesn’t speak Lao, much less English. Little orphan girl is an ethnic minority child who is too poor to attend school, where she would learn Lao. So she only speaks Khmu, and the doctors only speak Lao.

I was speaking about this with the local staff member on the case during our house-warming party on Friday night.

“So, no one knows what is wrong with her brain,” I said, trying to make sure we were on the same page. “But now she needs help to get her muscles working again?”

“Yes,” the Iokina replied. “But the doctors say the problem will happen again. They say she will die.”

“But they don’t know what the problem is?” I said.

In summary: No. They don’t know what the problem is. They don’t know when “it” might happen again. They don’t know when she might die – it’s just that Iokina seems pretty certain that she will, at some point, especially if we send her back to the village with her fourteen-year-old sister and elderly grandmother.

“Do you think she should go back to the village?” I asked.

“Yes,” Iokina said, shrugging a little in that helpless way that needed no translating.

“We tried,” Iokina was saying, without words, “and there’s only so much you can do for one child.”

So Mike and I are left wondering. Is that really what the doctors have said? How do you weigh and filter this information that has come up to us across many miles and two significant language barriers? Would physiotherapy help her, or is the primary problem neurological? Are there any Khmu speaking physiotherapists in Luang Prabang that could coach her on exercises she could do at home? If so, how could we find them? How are her sister and her grandmother going to be able to help her when they need to be tending the rice fields so they can all eat? And, of course, how much is this all going to cost?

How do you put a price on the life of a child?

“The emergency medical fund is for emergencies,” Mike said today as we sat on the porch watching the rain. “This case is no longer an emergency. We don’t have the capacity to take on long-term rehabilitation cases. We cannot continue to pay for her treatment indefinitely when no one yet knows what may be wrong with her. She has to come back from Vientiane.”

“What then?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Mike said. “I have to go in to the office early tomorrow before we head out to the field. I’ll see if I can get some more information.”

We sat and stared at the rain for a little while longer, and then we came inside and went back to work.

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