“I don’t want a bunch of sad and sorry faces there,” she said. “I want it to be about Joy. I mean, that is what it’s all about.” Then she beamed me one of her luminous smiles that made my heart melt every time I saw it.
I gulped a little and said, “ok.”
I first met Vivienne in the early 80s, when she came once a week for private Tai Chi lessons with me at the fitness studio where I also taught aerobics and stretch classes. As we moved deeper into the practice, she’d ask me about the meaning behind the flowing gestures of the (yang style, short) form we were working with. As I answered her questions, I found myself speaking about more than martial arts applications such as “parry,” “deflect” etc. It was as though I could hear messages in the movements, as though the form itself was speaking to/through me. For example, a sequence I had learned as “grasp sparrow’s tail, rollback, brush ear, press,” I would see as drawing inspiration from the sky, (the Heaven realm), and expressing it through the Heart, home of love and joy (the Human realm). These musings would elicit long, probing discussions about how we might apply these interpretations to our own lives, outside of any concepts based in self-defense. Always illuminating, I’d leave our sessions feeling energized and thoughtful. As has so often been true for me, I learned deeply from my student. In fact, these early discoveries I shared with Vivienne turned out to be seedlings for the Way of Joy system.
I’d lost touch with Vivienne over time, although somehow we still managed to have rich conversations sprinkled though the years when we would see one another at events, parties or barbeques. I felt grateful to reconnect with her and become a part of her circle of beloved friends who tended to her during the last few months of her life.
So when she asked me to speak about Joy at her memorial, I wasn’t surprised because she knew I’d spent a lot of time in my life musing about it. At the same time, I was nervous about speaking in a church to her very large, spiritually and culturally diverse community. How could I find a way to speak succinctly about joy in the face of the profound grief that came with the loss of this absolutely remarkable woman?
It’d probably be helpful at this point to say that I think of joy as a life force that can sustain us, even in the face of challenges that are as painful as the loss of this beloved friend. By joy, I do not mean being “happy-happy” all the time, or in denial about pain or loss, or out of touch or ungrounded (as the state of being that Traditional Chinese Medicine refers to when it speaks of joy as a form of excess or being out of balance).
Rather, I envision joy as a container in which all other emotions can be held, a source for those feelings. Have you ever found yourself facing a deep loss where you went into an exalted state of being combining sobs with laughter at a memory, experiencing a sense of celebration of an individual’s life and gifts at the same time as mourning the absence of their physical being? Without the remembered joy, there would be no sorrow. In fact, as I prepared myself to speak at Vivienne’s funeral, it occurred to me that the degree to which any of us was grieving was the degree to which our relationship with Vivienne brought joy into our lives.
I believe that it is only when we experience all of our emotions, even the painful ones, in relationship to joy that we maintain tranquility, vitality, and our capacity to grow. If we separate painful emotions from the context of joy, they become unbearable, leaving us in despair and turning into a destructive force in our lives. Therefore I think of joy as a state that relishes our full range, the open embrace of all that life brings us, those moments of deep feeling when we know, and can sense, that we are truly alive.
I watched Vivienne embody this many times in her life. For example, here is a photograph from a breathtakingly beautiful video slide show (put together by one of her dear friends, Brenda and her partner, Tanya). When I see Vivienne standing outside among trees with her arms thrown wide open, an exalted expression on her face, it looks to me like she is embracing both the sky and her own joyful essence.
But there were other more mundane moments where I saw Vivienne model joy. Once when I was visiting her at the hospital, shortly after she’d decided to drop further treatments and move into end-of-life, palliative care, she looked at me and sighed, “I sure didn’t expect to die before I turned 60. There are still so many things I’d have liked to write, see and do.” Then she shrugged and tore off a chunk of Afghani spinach bread, dipped it into some homemade chicken soup and ate with utter delight. “This is good, so good” she murmured, happy (I believe) to have a return of appetite, a respite from the nausea that plagued her so often during her final weeks. I felt awed as I witnessed her embrace “what is” from one moment to the next with powerful presence, profound understanding and grace.
When Vivienne asked that during her funeral Joy be brought into the room, the sanctuary of St. Columba’s Catholic Church in Oakland, I believe she understood that the joy of her spirit was expanding beyond the bounds of the shell of her body and spreading out to each of us who chose to receive it, so that we might carry her radiance within us, in our own hearts and lives in the days, months and years ahead. And that by doing so, we truly would receive, honor and celebrate the gift of her being.
Thank you, dearest ViviLou, for the inspiration, love, and joy you brought to so many of us. You are cherished.