Joy. It’s such a small word, really. Still, its meaning has escaped and puzzled me, pushed and nudged me and kept me generally bemused by its essence for nearly a decade now.
As I round the bend and head toward forty this is what I’ve come to see: that joy and pain, beauty and depravity – that these uncomfortably awkward bedfellows – most often occur in tandem. That is the gift of my thirties.
Never was this unearthing more vivid than on a trip I took to France. The midday sun warmed the streets of Aix en Provence with unusual strength for late November. Grateful for its hospitality toward my foreign blood, I headed out of the hotel. Aix, it seemed had been waiting for me.
I’d come this far to be with my brother David – to finally say goodbye. When he died, I was forced to make the first of many difficult decisions regarding how one balances the act of living life well alongside the inevitability of heartbreak. I had to forgo his funeral abroad in order to protect my unborn child within.
As I walked the narrowed lanes of Provence, I was struck by its architectural beauty. This region is quaint and magnificent all at once. The outdoor markets glowed with colors and flavors of local produce with an intensity that entranced. The farmers’ stands bloomed life out of the cobbled streets. Autumn’s hues and painted shudders romanticized even the most ordinary of structures.
Yet everywhere I traveled within the city I encountered a tremendous amount of dog waste. Yes, dog waste. It pungently lined the sidewalks and streets. Its odor steamed off the morning dew in the most abrasive manner, literally overtaking me at times. Dog owners in Provence remained alarmingly aloof toward cleaning up after their canines, or so it seemed.
Here amidst the beauty of this place was a tremendous amount of waste.
To acknowledge one without the other proved impossible. If you ignored the waste, you’d likely step in it and end up having to deal with it in very messy and unpleasant terms. Likewise, if all one did was focus on the depravity, you’d miss so much beauty in the process.
And so it is. The beauty and the waste of Provence poignantly showed me what it means to embrace a path of life and joy right alongside that of death and pain.
It’s awkward – so utterly distracting at times. There’s remarkable potential to see one and not the other. Still, I’d encourage you to make room for both. Yes, keep soaking in every ounce of loveliness that you possibly can. And yes, also keep your eyes peeled for the waste that refuses to leave.
I’ve come to see that there is in fact room for both – that joy and pain are somehow unbreakably connected in the richest and most grueling of terms. May we find the grace to embrace this truth and to live well within this sacred and beautiful mess we call life.
Cari Stone lives on the West Coast with her husband and two young daughters. You can read more of her work at thoughtsinterrupted.net