I noticed it immediately. Exactly four weeks ago, three massive letters appeared next to the road near the round-about that I travel multiple times a day.
The three letters were: J-O-Y, and each letter lit up for about three seconds, until all at once, the whole word lit up.
The first time I drove by, I only got to see the J and the O light up, and that felt… well, incomplete. So, the next time I approached the letters, I took my foot off the gas well in advance. That time, I saw JOY’s full and complete rotation.
Ironically, that fifteen-second light display brought me immense joy. I actually found myself looking forward to driving past JOY, even at five o’clock in the morning when I took my 16-year-old daughter to swim team practice.
There was just something about those flashy, 70’s-style letters that felt comfortingly familiar – and it was just what I needed during a holiday season that feels vastly different than any in the past.
This year, there was no letter written to Rosie, our Elf on the Shelf, that said, “Please come… I still believe you are real.” Yearly cookie-baking traditions were lost in study sessions for final exams. Our Christmas tree is up, but yet to be decorated. I am still waiting on my younger daughter to provide a Christmas wishlist.
Just when I think, is it even worth the effort? J-O-Y miraculously shows up, IN my two-mile radius, giving me a sense of hope. Those who know me well know that I don’t like to leave my two-mile radius. There are only a few things that I’d drive to the ends of the earth for—my family is one of them.
Oddly enough, around the time JOY appeared in that grassy area next to the busy road, I was required to go far outside my two-mile radius. In the past four weeks, I have put more miles on my car than I have the whole year. My traveling companion is my 13-year-old daughter. New, troubling developments with her spine means there are new people and different professionals she needs to see.
The car rides to our destinations are usually quite pleasant—Avery is chatty and upbeat. It’s the car rides home that are the hardest. We leave our destination with more questions… undeniable Risser scores… X-ray images imprinted in our overwhelmed minds.
My child is quiet.
It is dark.
The traffic is thick.
I am afraid I am going to make a wrong turn—
But I don’t tell my companion who’s sitting in the passenger seat processing what no thirteen year old should ever have to process.
“In a year, this will be over,” she says hopefully… questioningly… breaking the silence.
And then come the “what ifs—”
I keep my voice is steady and calm.
I stick to the facts and express my faith & belief that she IS and WILL BE equipped to handle whatever comes.
I remind her we are being guided and supported by angels seen and unseen.
On one particular hard drive home, I find myself gripping the wheel too tightly.
I am leaning forward through the rain splattered window trying to see— See what?
I realize I am looking for J-O-Y in flashing lights.
They are outside your two-mile radius; I remind myself, giving into the sorrow I feel.
We drive for several more minutes and I wonder if it’s a good time to mention it.
I go back and forth and finally, I hear myself speak.
“Did you know the beautiful singer-songwriter Lauren Daigle was very sick when she was a teenager? For several years, she was so weak that she could not go to school.”
A member of my online community recently sent me the article, and I’d poured over Lauren’s remarkable story, sensing I’d know when it was the right time to relay it to Avery.
As I recall the details to my child, I am prepared for her to shut me down. No one wants to hear about other people’s problems when you have problems of your own. But Avery does not shut me down. She turns her head to look at me for the first time in the drive. I remember all the detail of the story, putting emphasis on the healing power of music and the glorious vision Lauren had while looking at herself in the mirror.
Three days later, our family goes to pick out a Christmas tree. It’s a dreary Friday night before a quick trip to Tampa to celebrate my sister in law’s 40thbirthday.
I do not feel like getting the tree. I am far from festive. I want to give into the sorrow I feel.
It is 16-year-old Natalie who insists that we do this – that we should not wait.
She is wearing the three-sizes-too-big hooded Comfy that Scott got each of us for Christmas last year.
For someone who always looks quite stylish when she goes out in public, our family finds this hilarious.
Natalie adds to the hilarity by declaring, “I don’t give a hoot.”
Watching Natalie inspect Christmas trees in that ridiculous, wooly armor has us all in stitches—especially her little sister.
I watch the sisters laugh hysterically together, the way they did when they were little.
I feel comfort. I feel familiarity.
Joy is in our two-mile radius, I think to myself, even when the cold, dreary darkness makes things seem unnavigable.
We enter the house, and Scott and Natalie begin maneuvering the tree through the house.
Avery rushes into her tiny music room with no explanation. Five minutes later, she calls out: “Mom! Come and listen.”
She begins to strum and sing four lines that came to her head as we drove home.
I am standing, but I have to sit down.
“Avery. You must write this down so you don’t forget,” I urge.
Avery’s smile indicates she knows she’s created something very special. She pulls out her songwriter notebook. The miles we’ve driven nearly correspond to the number of lines in her notebook. In colorful ink and middle schooler font, I see pain becoming purpose… lyrics becoming lifelines.
Our quick weekend trip to Tampa offers a reprieve from medical appointments, academic studies, work deadlines, and pressure to decorate the house. We drive to the Tampa airport knowing we will have to say our goodbyes to our Indiana family once we get through security.
“Can I play my new song for Aunt Stacie?” Avery says as we are about to go our separate ways.
I look at the big, bulky guitar case that Scott and I had tried to dissuade Avery from bringing. Gratitude suddenly overcomes me for this young lady’s determined plea that had inspired us to say yes.
We sit down on the floor of the airport for an impromptu acoustic performance. Avery opens her songwriter’s notebook, turning to the third song she’s written this month. Her aunt solemnly clasps her hands together, confirming the sacredness of the moment.
Avery begins to strum softly, her soothing voice fills the busy corridor. People turn their heads.
Joy is in our two-mile radius, I think to myself, even when we are far from everything we've ever known.
Last night, I laid on Avery’s bed. Her 7thgrade TED Talk presentation on music therapy was almost here. She practiced seventeen times and suddenly decided she needed to conclude the talk with a bit of her new song.
“But you already have your talk just the way you want it,” I pointed out, looking at the clock nervously. “Wouldn't it be easier just to keep it the way it is?”
Avery nodded politely yet went ahead and changed the conclusion to transition into her song.
“Music therapy can come in many forms. I cope with stress by writing songs… and this is a song I wrote during a painful time in my life,” she explains to a pretend audience.
Avery begins to sing, turning to the mirror to see herself.
I think of Lauren Daigle as the lyrics of a song that saved my life many years ago comes back to me. One particular line that always meant so much suddenly takes on a whole new meaning:
“The smell of hospitals in winter
And the feeling that it's all a lot of oysters, but no pearls
All at once you look across a crowded room
To see the way that light attaches to a girl.”
-Counting Crows, Long December
Earlier in the day, Avery complained that she couldn’t get the hospital smell off her hands. I went to her thinking it was just her imagination, but sure enough, she was right.
But now, several hours later, her hands hold the smell of guitar strings—and for this girl, that’s the smell of comfort, familiarity, and peace.
Joy is in our two-mile radius, I think to myself, even when sadness clings to our bodies and cannot be washed away.
I lay down in bed, careful not to disturb Scott. But he is not asleep. He whispers something unexpected.
While Avery and I were gone, he’d been working in the basement while Natalie was upstairs in the kitchen making chocolate-dipped pretzels to give to her teachers. Scott kept hearing banging above his head—like she was moving furniture or training elephants.
Wondering what was going on he called out, “What are you doing up there?”
“Oh sorry! I’m dancing!” Natalie cracked up.
I stare up at the ceiling, and I think about this.
If a 16-year-old who asks her dad why he breaths so loud in the car and orders her own Christmas gifts can still wear a Comfy to the Christmas tree farm and dance in the kitchen while making treats for her high school teachers… then joy IS indeed in our two-mile radius.
In fact, it is always in our two-mile radius, even when we are navigating a season that feels uncomfortably unfamiliar, because:
We ARE the JOY.
We ARE the LIGHT.
Ok, so JOY may not look like it used to—
It may have an array of burned out bulbs;
It may be so heavy and bulky that it requires oversized security measures;
It may be buried so deep that it doesn’t seem worth the effort of digging it out.
But, my friends, we MUST!
I beg you, as I beg myself, DO NOT give into the sorrow and hopelessness;
Lean into the light of JOY –
Its radiance may only last three seconds, and its ripple may sound like elephant feet overhead,
But JOY is here, in our midst!
At this very moment, as I type these words to you, a thirteen-year-old girl stands in front of her class revealing a sacred glimpse of her strength and heart.
The young people in the audience have no idea the level of pain she is dealing with,
But then again, she does not know theirs.
Yet, she has created something healing and comforting, and it is too good to keep to herself.
I wish I could be there to see her pass it on, but I don’t need to—
If I close my eyes, I can see the way the light attaches to a girl.
The light will be passed on to the person sitting in the third row, wondering if things are going to be ok this holiday.
And for the first time, that precious soul can breathe; it is in time with the strum of Avery’s guitar.
Joy is in our two-mile radius, my beloveds. Do not be afraid.
We ARE the JOY.
We ARE the LIGHT.
Lean in ‘til we reach home.
My hand in yours.
My friends, I have cherished your presence in 2019, and I can’t imagine 2020 without you. I look forward to ushering my new book, LIVE LOVE NOW, into the world together in April… possibly experiencing the ONLY LOVE & TOGETHERNESS African Road Learning Trip as a team in July… and gathering for my second restorative and healing Soul Shift retreat at 1440 Multiversity in October. So much to look forward to in the year ahead, but for now, let's lean into the unexpected joy of today while we still can. My hand in yours ALWAYS. I love you.