Not long ago, I decided to wallpaper our guest bedroom closet with bright, rainbow watercolor paper. I had decided to do some spring cleaning, so I made my list of places in the house that needed attention, and at the last minute I ignored all of them and spent 5 hours cleaning out the closet and putting up this crazy wallpaper.
Now let me tell you, if there was ever a place that could probably be last on the list of spring cleaning, it’s a guest bedroom closet that has been unused during this year+ of pandemic.
But putting up that colorful wallpaper (and opening the closet door multiple times a week just to look at it) brought me an inordinate amount of joy.
For months now, I’ve focused on inviting more joy into my life. I’ve thought about it, I’ve written about it, I’ve challenged mamás to find joy with me on social media. And in some ways, I’ve wondered if the very notion of demanding joy right now is as ridiculous as the wallpapered guest closet situation. Who am I to ask mujeres (mothers especially) to conjure joy at a time when, perhaps more than any other, we are drained, depleted, grieving, fragile?
As one of my friends put it, “For a few years I’ve considered having ‘joy’ be my word of the year, but I always feel like I need to figure out other things before I get to joy.”
In her book “The Power of Meaning,” Emily Esfahani Smith argues that one of the pillars of a meaningful life—one in which, though happiness may come and go, we have something bigger to hold on to—is storytelling: the story you tell yourself about yourself. She points out that creating our own narrative from the events of our life brings clarity. It helps us understand ourselves and why we do things.
And as any writer knows, a story isn’t just a list of events. We can edit, interpret and retell our story, even as we’re constrained by the actual facts. When our personal narrative is defined by redemption, growth, joy, and love (what psychologist Dan McAdams calls a “redemptive story”), we lead meaningful lives.
After a hellish year of sickness and sadness, the bougainvillea are once again in full bloom where I live. The hot pink blossoms bring me incredible amounts of joy, partly because they remind me of my mom, who also loves them, and partly because of their brilliant color. It turns out that researchers have tied humans’ love of flowers to our evolution: color, in a very primal way, is a sign of life. When we see flowers, we know that they precede the fruits and vegetables that sustain us.
The bougainvillea bears no fruit—in fact, someone told me a few years ago that it’s technically considered a weed. But when I see it bloom, I’m reminded that my joy isn’t some superfluous extra. It’s directly connected to a fundamental instinct for survival.
Perhaps this moment when we’re navigating a (nearly, hopefully) post-pandemic world is the ideal time to center joy. After all, to unlock and demand joy and resounding love in our days can’t be an afterthought once we address more important things. It is an issue of justice and liberation. It’s a key part of creating our narrative about what we deserve, what we’re worth, and what we have the potential to become.
On the most basic level, the drive toward joy is the drive toward life.