Years ago I wrote a poem called "Too Much Joy." It's a strange, free verse thing. Here it is:
There is no such thing as "too much joy."
Sometimes I neglect her horribly - my Joy.
I send her off to share space with my Exhaustion and Insecurity.
Those two impostors, along with Envy and Fear,
Try to walk all over my Joy, because it looks like she is not so tall as them.
The reality is this: My Joy does not have to be tall - she is wide.
Nobody can puff up enough to tower over my Joy.
Nobody can cover more distance than her, or span more time.
She is infinite.
On this gray, cold day,
My Joy can notice the one dragon fly who hovers over the wooded path.
When there are detours from downtown road work and I am late,
My Joy will point out the one person kind enough to give me their turn on the highway.
When my achievements do not rank high enough for my mentors,
My Joy has the sense to remind me how far I have come, even so.
When the great Obstacle itself shows me all of my fault and failure amassed,
My Joy can call to mind every small victory, every moment of rescue, of flight!
Even when I forget her, my Joy remains gracious, spacious, and unmoved.
I recognize that she is part of myself, and that we can do great and small things.
Let all days be filled with this gift - my Joy.
When I wrote this poem I was living by myself in Chattanooga, TN. Writing it was an act of desperation.
I'd moved down to the city during the summer, right after graduating from college. I started my first graduate level class almost immediately - just a few weeks into the summer break.
That was the summer I realized that studying music education was absolutely the right thing to be doing. It was also the summer of my engagement to Robbie Tullock, who was still living in Virginia.
It was the summer of knowing almost no one in town.
It was also the summer of my first migraine headache.
As I moved into the fall semester, it became my first time taking graduate piano lessons, working toward a graduate voice recital, and performing a complete opera role. I was around performers all the time.
I learned quickly that I wasn't built for a life in competitive performance. It didn't make me happy.
When you study music at that level, even if the performance area isn't your concentration, you need to have a certain amount of self assuredness. It's not a friendly business. And nobody around you is going to go out of their way to make you feel accepted and needed. That's nobody's job. If you end up in the performance arena, it's your own job.
I was more than a little bit childish about most of it, which didn't help me very much.
I was unbelievably homesick.
I had no church family.
Robbie was far away.
I was low on Joy.
Would you know it from looking at a picture?
Would you know that a person was depressed?
Or that they were not looking forward to waking up in the morning?
And how does a person share that with other people? Especially when their obligation to others stops at the professional level . . . when there isn't open community. We need more than our professional obligations, friends. We aren't built to live only in that environment.
I was having a couple of migraines a week and I cried a lot.
I looked for answers all over the place. I looked for them everywhere but inside of myself.
Here are some answers I thought might help me:
- Maybe if I get more serious about vocal performance, I will find joy in the work.
- Maybe if I can be more successful at this, then I will feel better.
- Maybe if my list of performances can measure up to the lists of my college friends, I will feel better.
- Maybe if I can get the migraines under control I will be happier.
- Maybe if I can please my new professors more consistently, things will settle down.
- Maybe if I just focus on my successes, I'll feel more like I belong here.
- Maybe if I talk to my musical friends about how serious I am getting in my study, I'll start to believe it (if you're one of my friends who I talked to on the phone during those few years, then you know I was working hard to convince myself).
Fast forward about 3 years . . .
I teach elementary school music, I direct a church choir, and I write weird songs. Occasionally I sing with other professional musicians, but only when it's a joy. This all goes back to the boundaries thing . . . and to honesty and choices.
The fact that a person can do something doesn't make that something the best choice.
But when we're grown ups and we make a choice, we have to follow through.
When I was in graduate school I chose to sing in the opera program. I didn't have to. I chose to. It was not a good fit for me and I lived with a lot of fear. It wasn't anybody else's fault. I hung on to an idea of success rather than my personal health for a long time.
I remember telling a professor about my exhaustion and anxiety. He said, "Ms. Trotter, you chose to do this. You are going to have to complete your obligation. Next year you can choose to leave it behind if you want to."
And he was right.
I ordered an awesome dress online. It has a big red butterfly on it.
When it arrived in the mail and I tried it on, I realized that the skirt would never fit me.
It will never be the right shape. I can't possibly do enough jumping jacks to make that work.
So you know what I did??? I cut the skirt off and hemmed the bodice to turn it into an awesome shirt! The shirt still has a big, red butterfly on it. I still think it's great. And now it has the added feature of actually fitting.
Some things don't fit.
Some things do.
When we get quiet and still and listen to ourselves, we will learn which things don't fit and which things do. I learned a lot about myself because of my difficult grad school years. They were so uncomfortable for me. But as I look back on them, I can see the growing pains for what they really were.
Here are some things that feed my sense of Joy these days - the real answers I couldn't see several years ago:
- Being around kids every day.
- Writing songs and singing them in small, strange venues.
- Moving through life with a small group of choral singers at church.
- Performing only when I feel it's a natural thing for me to do.
- Talking plain.
- Being honest.
- Resting when I have a migraine instead of fighting it.
- Did I say being honest already?
- Being honest.
Romans 8:28 says this: "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose."
I think that verse confuses people sometimes. Something like . . . "God will only be working to help you find the good when you have been specifically called to some kind of pie in the sky ministry opportunity. Otherwise, you're on your own!"
That's NOT what it means to me.
Do you know what God's purpose has been for a long, long time?
Life to the Fullest.
Full life is not the way we make it look in magazines.
Full life looks more like health than we want to admit. Try this on for size: "God is working through everything in life to show us what is healthy and full - even when we are trying to fight it."
What does your full and healthy life look like?
It's alright to change that picture around as you go. Hey - in a couple of years I'll probably read this and laugh because life has changed again.
Peace and Goodness.