The Tenderness of Joy

Back in September, I made the decision to take a brief hiatus from music. I needed the extra time and space to focus on writing for my new website and to finish up a couple of other projects. I also needed a beat or two to step back, take a breath and reevaluate the whole jazz and singing thing. The time off was well spent and I made an unexpected realization along the way. It had to do with joy.

On the night this epiphany hit, I was driving home from the YMCA and singing along to something on the i-Pod. Although I can’t recall the tune now, I was having a jolly good time singing it. The moment was light and effortless. It came to me then: When I’m in my usual groove with music–practicing, gigging, and hustling for work–I push myself pretty hard. I tend to get fixated on a particular challenge and drive myself crazy trying to master it.  I guess the feeling is that if I can only “fix” this broken spot in my singing, whatever it is at the moment, then I’ll finally be “good enough,” although for what or whom I’m not sure. What I realized that night was that at some point, I had stopped having fun. I’d lost my sensibility for the process itself. I’d been grinding away so hard that joy had skittered off like a frightened colt.

Although it’s a slightly different scenario, I recently had a similar flash about Christmas. Over the past few years, the holidays have become little more than a stressful and expensive to-do list. I’ve been so busy creating a great Christmas for other people that I completely lost touch with the magic of the season. I’ve been harried, exhausted and worried about not getting it all done. And this is even after making a concerted effort to keep things simple, or simpler anyway. Last year on Christmas, after ripping through presents and the nice breakfast I’d made, my boys (then ages 15 & 19) unexpectedly split for the rest of the day. I spent Christmas night having dinner alone at a Thai restaurant, asking myself why I’d put so much effort into something that apparently only I cared about. Where was the joy in that?  joy

I think we all do this to some degree or another. We set an impossible standard for ourselves in some area of our lives and kill ourselves trying to meet it, even though the people in our lives don’t necessarily hold us to it. We push and struggle and before we know it, joy gets completely squelched. And this is my whack upside the head revelation:

Joy is a tender thing.

I used to think of joy as robust and energetic, a bold force that could blaze on its own volition. But what I’ve come to see is that joy is a delicate entity that takes great care. It demands a certain measure of reverence. When we are so dreadfully hard on ourselves, we create an inhospitable environment for joy to flourish. We can’t be reckless or cavalier with something so precious. Mastery is meaningless without joy. Christmas is meaningless without joy. And life itself is a sad waste without joy. Of course, some circumstances are beyond our control. Sometimes there are moments of pain and difficulty. But we certainly don’t have to make it any harder than it needs to be. Maybe the quickest path to joy is to simply lighten up and get out of our own way.

As far as music goes, I’ve been back at it for a few weeks now. I’ve got gigs booked for January and February and I’m practicing again. Of course, it’s a lot of work. The vocal muscles are like any others. What takes months to build can fall by the wayside in mere days.  But I’m taking the lessons from my hiatus to heart. Before I even sing a note, I pause for a moment to remember why I sing in the first place, for the joy and fun of it, and I set an intention to let that guide all my efforts.

Somewhere in your career, your work changes. It becomes less anal, less careful and more spontaneous, more to do with the information your soul carries.

                                                         – Ben Kingsley

Take everything you like seriously, except yourselves.

                                                               – Rudyard Kipling