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Saying Yes to Joy

No more waiting for the other shoe to drop. Here’s the secret to being happy right now, no matter what.

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A Christmas photocard I designed over a decade ago is my all-time favorite: Our giggling toddler twins sit together at Grandma’s upright piano. A single word accents the shot: Joy! The boys’ beaming smiles made this musical moment jolly. The random notes they banged out? Not so much. But the sound of their happiness will always be music to my ears.

Holding on to joy is the tricky part, isn’t it? Sometimes we confine joy to that narrow space between concerns about “what ifs.” Or, we put it off until some imagined future in which we’ll totally have our act together. When my husband and I welcomed our twins after two failed pregnancies, static buzzed in the background of my happiness. Will my nursing difficulties harm their growth? Will health problems show up? Will the caregiver mistreat them?

Friends assure me I am not alone in succumbing to such buzzkills. A Sisters reader shared that she’s in therapy — not to heal from another numbing breakup — but to be able to fully experience the joy of her new marriage. Her words, like many of your emails, touch me deeply. So does a recent Reddit post by a cancer survivor who cried after her last radiation treatment. She was free to apply to grad school, to get off disability and go back to work. She’d met someone and fallen in love. “I can't shake the negative thoughts,” she writes. “ This is the day he ends things with me. This is the day my side effects start again. I feel like the universe is holding a carrot of happiness out, and the second I grab it, everything is going to crumble.”

Can you relate to what our experiences share? It’s the tendency to avoid getting our hopes up, or letting our guard down, as if we might jinx ourselves if we surrender fully to joy. So, when difficult times make way for happier ones, we squander them waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Sometimes it’s not a shoe we fear dropping, but a ball. Earlier this year, I took on a new project at work, and you’re reading it now. Sisters is an amazing opportunity to connect with other African American women, your lives and your stories. That’s something I’ve done for years at publications like Essence and Ebony, but I’m particularly pleased to serve Black women here at AARP. Launching Sisters involved a new workflow, new skills and new collaborators. As I awkwardly learned to juggle these balls, I often put joyful parts of my personal life on hold. I can skip tonight’s workout … I should visit Daddy, but I need to catch up on readers’ emails … I can miss the boys’ away game.

I can make up a skipped workout. But some joyful moments are a one-time offer, and my nose-to-the grindstone mindset nearly caused me to miss a huge one. Our boys, now teenagers, have gone from sitting on our laps to running laps — at football practice. They speak excitedly with their father about the line of scrimmage and turnovers. I can’t always follow their conversations, but I grasped that something amazing was happening when their team racked up wins weekend after weekend.

My optimistic and frugal husband prebooked and insured cheap flights to Orlando just in case they made it to the national championships. Resigned to not taking days off until I could juggle all the workplace balls with ease, I decided not to go — the same knee-jerk response I had to last year’s all-star games.

Sacrifices are part of the gig. But, when I’m honest with myself, the joy appointments that I managed to keep actually made work easier. At the salon, for instance, women shared great story ideas. I’m inspired by many of you who’ve reached out to say how much Sisters “gets” you.

Back at work, I got the hang of things with the help of teammates, especially Shelley Emling, who edits Sisters’ sibling newsletter The Girlfriend. The Sisters team won an industry award. My private life perked up too. I made it over to Dad’s to sing “Happy Birthday,” thankful he’s staying sharp at 95. I lost weight. And then there I was beside my hubs in the bleachers, hooting with every TD. How long would this streak of good times last?

Thankfully, my inner voice, when I heed it, won’t let me bail on sweeter moments. A Buddhist nun I interviewed told me, “life is a thousand joys and a thousand sorrows.” Surviving is our ancestral legacy. Challenges teach us resilience. But what trains us to exercise our joy muscle?

I started flexing that neglected muscle just days before my sons’ undefeated team headed to the national games. I delegated at work and booked a last-minute (and pricey—ouch!) plane ticket. From the bleachers, I sprang to my feet with other parents, cheering on our young, gifted and (mostly) Black athletes. Back at our vacation rental, cooking spaghetti and washing smelly jerseys, I realized, So what if I don’t speak football? What matters is that I’m here.

This was joy. So was watching our sweaty, smiling squad of players earn championship rings. I can’t imagine how I’d feel right now if I hadn’t forced that narrow space for joy wider … if I’d missed these moments.

Sis, as we end this year, know that the writers, editors and designers who create this newsletter are here for your joy. Tracy Hopkins curates music playlists to perk up your days. Maya Francis updates you on how to sleep better, stress less and look great. Sarah Greaves-Gabbadon shares secrets for losing weight and staying happily married. Whether you want tips for achieving multiple income streams or multiple orgasms, the keys to unlock your joy are right here every Tuesday. We’ll share whatever 2019 brings and remind one another that there is no path or way to joy. Joy is the way.

Peace, joy and blessings to you and your loved ones, this holiday season and always.

XOXO —Claire