Ode to Joy … in a Minor Key

  • On April 22nd, 2022, my youngest sibling, Robert Gerard Wonders said farewell to his life on earth.  He experienced a massive heart attack in the restroom at work while two of sweetest human beings surrounded him with love and the sure knowledge that he was held in high regard.  Walt, his boss, worked valiantly to bring him back and Steph (the Head of HR) held his hand and supported them both. The paramedics arrived and they too offered substantial effort to change the course of his fate, to no avail.  He was gone.

    Loss.  Unexpected and devastating loss.  Shock.  Denial.  Anger. And tidal grief, these feelings that are so large that they are beyond words, have come and gone from me these past 4 months.  

    AND I know that I am not alone, in experiencing unthinkable loss.  The Supreme Court’s overturning 50 years of precedence in Roe v. Wade was unthinkable to many, maybe most women and men.  The betrayal sears when I recall that 3 newly appointed Supreme Court Justices under oath declared that Roe was settled law. They all shared their belief in stare decisis, or the significance of the body of settled precedence.  Betrayal stings like few other wounds do.  The Ukrainian people must be both horrified and betrayed by Putin’s land grab. And, that Russia under his leadership, no longer respects or keeps safe hospitals, places of worship, even children.

    And what about the children of Uvalde, and the citizens of all ages attending a 4th of July parade in Highland Park, Ill?  Or England’s new reality of “Long Live the King” as it tries to digest the death of its beloved monarch Queen Elizabeth II, while it is challenged, (not unlike our own country) to reckon with its past sins as it attempts to define itself anew.  Impermanence keeps slapping us in the face, doesn’t it?  And in the face of these circumstances, any of us might feel betrayed by life, even by God, when the unthinkable happens to us.  I certainly have had those feelings and many more these last months.  

    There is so much loss in the world right now. Famine and global recession loom large and the uncertainty of these two means we all experience the loss of a certain level of predictability in our daily lives.  And then, there is the ongoing bias, both systemic and personal, implicit and explicit against all kinds of people in our country and around the globe.

    Why would I write about Joy now?  In the face of all of this?

    I wrote “Ode to Joy” on the day Bob died before this jarring and jagged fresh reality found me.  It was a spring post that connected back to my January post Beginning Again, Again I wrote it before many of the horrific events of these past 4+ months.  I stand by it.  It matters more now. Because I/we need Joy more now. More accurately, I desperately need Joy in the face of this traumatic loss to survive it.  Once again I find myself beginning again, like a school girl..  I am now a member of a tribe of 3 sisters who are desperately missing their beloved only brother.   I/we are bereft.  And because of this very grief,  I now understand, and experience Joy differently.The poet Marie Howe has this to say about the new world I find myself in …

    Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there.  And the Drano won’t work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up waiting for the plumber I still haven’t called. This is the everyday we spoke of.

    It’s winter again: the sky’s a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through the open living-room windows because the heat’s on too high in here and I can’t turn it off.

    For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking, I’ve been thinking: This is what the living do.  And yesterday, hurrying along those wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve, I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.

    Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning.  What you finally gave up. 

    We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss—we want more and more and then more of it.

    But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass say, the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a cherishing so deep for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m speechless:  I am living. I remember you.

    We are all alive.  That is quite something as the poet reveals to us.  And when Marie reminds herself that broken grocery bags and purchasing hairbrushes are what the living “get” to do, she practices Joy in the face of deep loss.  She reflects to us that small accidents and errands, truly each of our everyday acts, are what the living still “get” to do.

    In Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, a young mother dies and manages to maneuver her way to return and re-experience one single day on earth.  She picks her twelfth birthday.  Her ecstatic Joy at the smell of bacon and the embrace of her parents has the audience in tears.  Because she invites us into a reality, that death in particular makes visible.  She invites us to step back and behold the beauty of every small moment in our lives.  The play helps us face how absent we often are from the ordinary moments in our lives, often wishing for something “better” or thinking ahead of things yet to come or tasks to complete.  It also invites us to realize that if it all was to disappear in the blink of an eye, like it did for my brother, we would give a king or queen’s ransom for the chance to experience any of it again.  Even the things we despise!  There is some part of us that grows large enough when we look death in the face to make whole and beautiful even the ugly and monotonous.   Somehow, we know, just as playwright Thornton Wilder and poet Marie Howe know that even the humdrum in life is worthy of our savoring.  That in the humdrum is a kind of constancy often invisible to us, but nevertheless holding us up. Somehow the monotonous and tedious are rendered meaningful when seen through a wide enough lens.  

    Howe intimates in her poem, that she did not intend to drop her bag of groceries and struggle on the street to get them loaded into her car, but this happens to the living, and it does not happen to the dead.  Therefore, it belongs.  It is part of what the living “get” to do.  Death and its reminders invite us to be present to ALL of life, to somehow treasure, welcome and find Joy in it all, every small detail, difficult relationship, even betrayal and heart break, because this is what the living “get” to do.  The dead are beyond all this.  AND there is a new thought emerging in me as I write this:  As in the play Our Town, the departed miss the very things I resist.  They miss the heart break, the betrayals because that is what it is to be human.  They miss the joys and celebrations too, of course.  My point is they miss it all.  My newly emerging task is to to learn how to embrace and deeply love it all.  As I surely will the moment I know my death is imminent. 

    My sister upon her late husband’s death a decade ago promised she would live and relish each day enough for both of them because he died before he was ready to.  AND oh my goodness, she has totally delivered on her promise to him.  This year in particular.  Her emails to her sisters more tender and caring and grateful than ever as she now adjusts to a world without her life partner and now without her only brother as well.

    Back to Joy in a minor key.  If Joy is to matter at all it must be found in the most searing pain of loss as well as in radiant blue Texas skies or Halcyon summer days on the beach at Scraggy Neck Island on Cape Cod.  This Joy in a minor key, that I literally will into focus in the face of my loss is larger than those other joys, glorious as they are.  This transcends and yet includes those: the good times, the times of expansion and beckoning possibility.  It is a quiet, sober yet also a consoling, comforting, Joy.  It transcends good times because it is large enough even for the bitter parts of life.  Which of late I have had more experience with than I would have thought I could bear.  And yet, oddly this Joy in a minor key, seems to be the Joy I wanted to meet all along!  Really!  Let me explain:

    This Joy doesn’t need things to be good or to be positive.  She is okay when things don’t go according to her preferences.  She is sturdier.  Built for the long haul.  She can stay the course, no matter the weather.  She has a lot to teach me.  And I am not always a willing student.  This is not an essay about how to struggle with difficult realities without protest.  Life takes me kicking and screaming into many of the places I am ultimately grateful for.  The point here is that even when life is at its worst.  When familial upset and loss loom large and are unchanging, even then, maybe especially then, I realize that life is indeed worthy of my deep engaged commitment.  AND to be clear, I still struggle to find her in the aftermath of this loss, but my point to myself and all of us to stay the course.  To continue to practice a few moments of Joy each day, even if your practice is a bit half hearted.  You will get there.  I am slowly getting there.  

    Joy has a-lot to teach all of us.  To say our world is “troubled” or “dangerous” now sounds cliché.  We face climate crisis, famine, global recession, gun violence and many of us in the United States believe our very democracy is threatened on many fronts and the January 6th congressional hearings are revealing that this fear is not unfounded.  Our center is not holding.  Our trademark sunny optimism does not seem fit for the road ahead.  But Joy in a minor key, might well be what will see us through.  

    Take your well-disciplined strengths, stretch them between the two great opposing poles,

    because inside human beings is where God learns.”  Ranier Maria Rilke

    …inside human beings is where God learns…that quote renders sacred all of our trials and struggles to hold opposites, in my case the loss of my brother alongside all that is good and worthwhile in my life, not denying the reality of each of these.  For me, this gives my  struggle to acknowledge and digest my personal loss while never losing site of the perfection of the universe, the singular joys and gifts of my life, new meaning.  I am resolved to practice Joy in a Minor Key.

    In invite you to join me via the practice from my earlier blog post, Ode to Joy.  I want to double down on the practice I suggested, because it works.  It works, even in the worst of times, like the fog of bereavement that now surrounds me.  I end this post with this offering to myself and to you dear reader, reiterating with deeper emphasis what I wrote in April 2022..  I also want to remind us to practice even if the face of little progress.  Just like the bulb/seed that is germinating underground, this practice will one day deliver us to a way of being that can weather any storm.  It is becoming increasingly clear the storms never cease. Just maybe this is true because the storms of life aid and abet evolution, they are after all where God learns!

    Wonders Consultancy Practice to Increase Well-being


    3 times a day, set a timer and spend 1-or 2-minutes noticing something that delights you.  Maybe go outside or look out a window.  Pull up a beautiful image online or smell your cologne or light a candle and watch the flame.  You might listen to a few minutes of a favorite piece of music or read a quote…but stay small…close to the ground.  AND LINGER…Take the delight in.  Savor it. Then, expand it.  Make it bigger.  Let yourself fill up.

    The trick is to be disciplined about it, taking only 1 or 2 minutes.  End on time and wave goodbye knowing you will return in a few hours for another dose.  Do you see what is happening?  Actually, several things:

    1. YOU (not some external force) are choosing Joy through where you place your attention.
    2. You are empowering yourself through your own noticing (a thing you always have with you).   This gives you an increased sense of agency and control of your experience.
    3. You are reminding yourself that YES!  FOR SURE JOY WILL LEAVE…you will show her the door in 2 minutes, AND she will RETURN.  She will always return because she depends on the one thing you control.  Where you put your attention.
    4. You are not GRASPING for Joy.  You are building trust in yourself and in Joy.  You are building resilience too.
    5. You are increasing the amount of Joy in your life; by doing this 3 times a day for at least 3 weeks (that is how long it takes to make a habit).

    All that said, if you are experiencing loss or recent trauma, trust your own intuitive sense and your curiosity.  Currently what is right for me is increasing how long I savor my Joy break.  I am now going between 1 and 5 minutes.  Also, I find myself more willing to stop and take in the smallest of kindnesses and linger over them.   I wonder if I am experiencing the pleasures and small joys of this world for myself but also for my brother?   This practice is truly getting me through my personal valley of grief.  But grief is universal and also singularly personal.  Trust yourself if and how you want to use this practice.  Improvise.

    We are here for such a short time, really.  Why not decide to notice as much Joy as possible?  Or as the poet Mary Oliver says in her poem The Summer Day (below):

    Doesn’t everything die at last and too soon?

    Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

    July 13th, 2022 | admin | Comments Off on Ode to Joy … in a Minor Key | Tags: , , , ,

About Nancy


Nancy C. Wonders is an interior designer. The “interiors” she designs are psychological, not physical, space -- a client’s personal interior landscape, or the emotional barometer of a team, or an entire organization. Nancy’s office includes a “design bar” where clients have a chance to re-invent how they see themselves and/or their organizations. These re-structurings result in discovering what is fresh, new and alive. This discovery prompts profound, immediate change, on both the inside and in interactions with others. Read more»

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