If I shared with you the secret to joy, would you believe me?
(Hint: it’s not yoga. But the secret begins with a yoga class in Paris a few years ago.)
I was trying to hold an especially tough pose – teeth gritting, sweat drizzling, shoulders quivering, a guttural groan emerging from my spleen – when a thought came: “That which we focus on grows larger with the gazing.”
“Foooocus,” I heard. So I did. I foooocused on the painful distention of my joints, the wobbliness of my supporting leg, the general agony.
Then straight ahead of me I saw, at eye level, a candle flickering on the far side of the room. I fixed my stare, focusing. And slowly, that fleck of light seemed to hum, expanding a bit, crowding out my concerns. My jaw unclenched, breath loosened, and energy rose through my body. I even felt something akin to … was it sweetness?
Shaking out my limbs, I rolled up that strange, wonderful moment in my mind like I rolled up my yoga mat under my arm, and pranced off into the dappled sunshine along the Seine. It was Paris, after all. And it was May.
In June, our firstborn, Parker, graduated high school. My husband and I snapped shots of him with his suitcases packed for summer college. “We’ve launched him! What a gorgeous kid,” I sighed as we proud parents wiped tears, beaming.
And in July, Parker, died. While trying to save a drowning classmate, he was knocked unconscious. He lay 38 hours in coma. Circling him, our family held together in half-collapse as a technician flipped off life support. I watched my child draw his last gasp of mortal air.
That, dear friends, is how reality hits. A paragraph break, and the life story you’d plotted out, built up and counted on, is transformed. Left, is a massive bombed-through crater encrusted in black ash. With our three living children we staggered, disoriented, through that bleak landscape, sometimes barely surviving. For ages, absence was all I could see, all I could ever imagine speaking of, writing about, feeling, focusing on. We lost him. He is gone. That unrelenting feral yowl shivering its arc across the cosmos.
Until … until something shifted. Not early, not easily. After months. Gradually. Arduously. Deliberately. Like exhuming oneself from underneath an avalanche, something shifted. And seismically. It deserves a book full of clarification, but I’ll compress to two words: Change focus.
That’s it? you’re thinking. A cliché? Stay with me, because it’s nothing glib. It was like performing eye surgery on myself, that retraining of focus. Not focus from Parker or from the life I felt I’d lost with him. But on Parker, and all that had been and all that could yet be of life. Wasn’t it true I could have lost him at any moment? That I could lose anyone at any moment? Then his life, it followed– like all our lives—was all gift. Every minute “extra.” Unearned. Sheer miracle. Not to be squandered. Focusing with gratitude – seeing, enumerating, and verbalizing continually all that I had loved and still loved – actually changed the things themselves, magnifying them, making them hum, expand, flash full of flame. Like the candle’s expanded flicker, I saw there was more in the room than engulfing emptiness, than pain. Instead, there was expanding presence everywhere. That presence included Parker.
The force of gratitude has surpassed all rational understanding. It’s sent me maybe not all-out prancing, but striding back
out into life where I know how easily dappled sunshine can be eclipsed by suffocating shadows.
It’s there where I choose to grab life, (and on occasion, people), by the shoulders, awed by the simple thereness of it all. “Gratitude,” writes Ann Lamott, “not understanding, is the secret to joy and equanimity.” Et voilà: your key.
This is Paris, and this is November. Some celebrate Thanksgiving, when we formally reflect on those who, after months on the Mayflower, dropped anchor, dropped to their knees, and uttered prayers of thanks. They thanked not out of politesse or some pilgrim protocol, but out of gratitude, the kind grievers know. Parker’s tenth generation grandfather, William Bradford, Governor of Plymouth colony, led them. A griever himself – orphaned, separated from homeland, bereaved of half his fellow passengers, including his wife who drowned – Bradford hosted that first feast, trusting that gratitude magnified everything, propelling life forward and upward.
Consider all the light that emanates still from their darkest days. As Bradford wrote of those stark but auspicious beginnings, “One small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled hath shone unto many…”