Finding Joy in the Struggle

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A well-loved red and white pillow rests on my couch, gifted to me years ago for Christmas. “JOY” is sewn on the front, and as I reposition the pillow to my liking, my mind contemplates on the complexity of that word. I believe there is no joy without sorrow, no highs without lows, and “to everything there is a season.” I’m happy to say that this season of my life is real, authentic, and lovely.red and white joy

Even then, like many people, the last couple years have been a struggle. Consumed with my responsibilities as a mother coupled with the trauma of dealing with chronic illness and a distanced community during the pandemic, I found myself a year ago standing at the kitchen sink washing dishes, tears streaming down my face. I’ve never been prone to depression, but setback after setback made me dive deep.

The music was blasting, and, thanks to my daughters, the song “Wake Up” from Julie and the Phantoms came on: “Wake up, wake up if it’s all you do. / When you’re feeling lost, / Relight that spark, / Time to come out of the dark, / Wake up.”

I could feel the universe nudging me, willing me to listen. I began to sing, and as the salty taste of tears touched my tongue, I knew things had to change. Right then, I made a vow to myself: I would crawl out of that gaping hole, that black void, no matter what. I would find myself again.

I’ve been on a quest since — to feel joy, to experience deeply, to love profoundly, to live fully, to grow and become for me. I am a better mother, partner, and friend because of it. This has become my practice.

Show up. Be real. Be vulnerable.

One of my close friends and I went out for ramen a few weeks ago. As our conversation turned to my writing about halfway through our meal, I told her my hopes, dreams, and fears — words I’ve rarely spoken aloud. Raw honesty spewed from me, filling me with the uncomfortable unknown. Without prompting, she replied with a simple, “I know you can. I believe in you.” Her words made me feel the brightness of stars.

As I reflect on that night, the lyrics of Tish Melton’s song, “We Can Do Hard Things” comes to mind: “To be loved, we need to be known.” Joy is allowing your people to see you for who you truly are—and having them love and support you, even still.

Add on. Find beauty in the little things.

A nasty virus wrecked my body in April 2020. I woke up one night to my heart pounding out of my chest. Soon after, my breathing became labored, my blood sugar levels increased, and vertigo attacks landed me in bed with the world spinning. For six weeks I parented from my bed, too weak to even walk across the street. The next two years were spent slowly figuring out how to fix this body of mine with the knowledge of a pulmonologist, cardiologist, neurologist, and dietician.

I distinctly remember a conversation when my dietician encouraged me to become healthy again through diet and exercise. Frustrated with life and angry at the world for not understanding what I was going through, I replied, “What you’re telling me to do — I can’t. It’s physically not going to happen for me.” She kindly replied, “Well, you love coffee. If all you can do is drink that cup of coffee, start a meditation practice over your cup for five minutes a day. Add on to what you’re already doing.” Her sage advice has become a guiding principle in my life. When impossibility looms over me, I add on with the beautiful, the simple, the little. Joy is seeing everyday, ordinary moments in extraordinary ways; it’s combining the beautiful with the mundane.

Discover what makes time stand still. Share it with others.

During a playdate with my five-year-old’s bestie a few weeks ago, my daughter jumped on the kitchen island and started shaking her tush. As she danced, she blurted out, “My mom shakes her butt every day!” With company over, I felt an explanation was necessary, so I replied, “She’s right. It’s important to me to show my girls how to have joy, so we dance every day.”

As I’ve laughed harder, loved deeper, sung louder, danced happier, hugged tighter; as I’ve found true joy in moments when soul takes over mind and time stands still; as I’ve dug deeper and made space, I’ve learned what makes me happy. It’s the touch of keys on the piano, the feel of dirt on my hands, the sharing of genuine care between friends, the shaking of hips in the morning. It’s music filling our home, cookies baking in the oven, and laughter rumbling from our bellies. It’s knowing that as I experience joy in all its forms, my girls do, too.

Christmas lights on a tree

As I peer out my window and see twinkling Christmas lights below, my mind turns to the battles of my past, the struggles of my future, and the friends and family hurting in the trenches right now. I see the lights shining through the starkness of bare trees, and I’m reminded: there’s light in the darkness, hope in the void. We can experience joy.

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Tara is a mom to two kiddos, ages 5 and 9, and has been married to her best friend for twelve years. Raised in the Air Force, she’s from everywhere and nowhere. If asked today, she claims the Midwest, having lived in Illinois for eight years during graduate school and the birth of her first child. Five years ago, Tara and her husband took a trip to Portland and instantly fell in love. As they drove to the Oregon coast in the rain and saw the bright green moss and towering trees, it felt as if they were transported to another world. In that moment, Tara knew it was the place to raise their kids. They packed their belongings and made the cross-country move while Tara was eight months pregnant with their second. Tara homeschools her older kiddo, hosts a monthly mom’s book club, works as a freelance proofreader and a part-time bookseller, and co-leads her daughters’ Girl Scout troop. As an introvert, Tara is the first to admit she’s horrible at small talk, but if asked about the deep stuff, she’s all in. She’s a serious plant enthusiast, and she recently found that exercising and playing piano calm her soul.

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