There’s Always an Opportunity to Surrender to joy

And it’s never too late to relearn how to

I can still feel the warmth through the paper bag even though the loaf came out of the oven at least an hour ago in a village several kilometers away. From the corner of my eye, I spot the baker’s green van pulling out of the parking lot and, for a split second, I want to run outside and wave at him to stop. But I don’t. Instead, I just stand here with a grin stretching from ear to ear, holding my warm bread with reverence and gratitude for the artisan who made it.

The shop assistant gets it, she looks radiant, too, delighted to have facilitated such simple joy. If going to the boulangerie is a daily occurrence in France, this shop is the local natural foods co-op and the loaf is no ordinary loaf. I’m celiac so I cannot go anywhere near gluten and accidental ingestion causes my immune system to rebel. The smell of fresh croissants still makes me drool because I grew up with them but I can never have another one again.

When I notice the co-op sells freshly baked gluten-free bread, I get curious even though I haven’t ordered any in advance. Unable to ignore the delicious smell tickling my nostrils from behind the counter, I ask if there are any loaves unaccounted for. The co-op ordered extra that day so I even get to choose which one I want. As the shop assistant hands me the wrapped warm rice and chestnut flour loaf, spontaneous joy is irrepressible. And perhaps a little odd to unsuspecting onlookers as it’s just bread and yet it means so much more to me.

“This is the very first time in my life I get to have a fresh, warm gluten-free bread and it is… it is beyond amazing, merci beaucoup!” I tell her, a little emotional.

Every mouthful is pure delight so for three days, I enjoy delicious tartines with assorted vegan toppings. And of course, I start making plans to go visit the bakery at some stage for nostalgia’s sake; I come from a family of bakers and boulangeries have always been my happy place because of their unmistakable smell. Even though I can’t partake, I visit them often to get treats for my family because food is both an art form and a love language in France.

The downstairs neighbor’s dog barks me awake yet again; I’ve nicknamed him Réveil (French for an alarm clock). The poor creature spends the day alone in a tiny apartment right below my mother’s. Being left behind by his human every morning traumatizes him anew and the pooch barks his little head off. As the day progresses, he will also cry and sometimes howl because loneliness can be as crushing to animals as it is to humans.

With heavy eyelids and a heavier heart, I make my way to the kitchen where relief is imminent; all I have to do is put the kettle on and open the cupboard. And when I do, the heady smell of ground coffee makes me smile in anticipation; soon, the nectar of the gods will awaken my senses. And the day will begin again, gently this time, as I ponder what to do about Réveil to whom I’ve grown attached even though we’ve never met.

I raise my cup to him, savoring every sip and wondering whether a bag of canine treats and a friendly note to his human suggesting she leaves the radio on for him might help us all. There’s no point in getting annoyed at the dog’s distress as he can’t help it so I put on my noise-canceling headphones, select a soundtrack, and get to work.

Because joy is as easy as combining self-awareness with action; I can’t help Réveil but I can help myself so I do exactly that and my mood improves instantly.

Most days, Portuguese rock or electro-pop is my soundtrack of choice as I work, writing and editing in English, singing along in Portuguese. There’s magic in combining the language my heart speaks with an art form I adore; there is nothing I can’t deal with as long as I have music in my ears, no matter how exhausted I am.

In a few hours, I’ll go take a long walk to the little shop where I get coffee from and I will enjoy every step even though it’s raining. Rain is part of the fun because it makes the outside world smell wonderful plus my winter boots are waterproof. The latter is relevant as stepping into puddles remains one of my greatest joys in life, just as it was when I was a little kid. I was systematically told off and occasionally slapped for doing this but as an adult, I only have to make sure my footwear can humor my playful ways.

Before going out, I’ll have a hot shower and enjoy every minute, and then put on some fresh clothes, the clean smell of detergent always a reason to smile. There’s something comforting about fresh linen; to me, it’s even way more attractive on a romantic partner than the fanciest cologne. Plus it’s one of the most accessible forms of joy you can find as we all do laundry.

Conjuring up joy is as easy as paying attention to how our surroundings influence our mood and focusing on what lifts the corners of our mouth upward. Even during the darkest times, there’s always something. During the five years, I lost to major depressive disorder, my cats were instrumental in reframing the moment and deflecting suicidal ideation. When you focus on pets and purrs, the rest of the world disappears and everything is pure gentleness, warmth, and whiskers tickle.

And yet, we’re grumpy and we struggle. Many of us go through life with our sights set on a future that is never guaranteed instead of fully inhabiting the present moment. We also have the tendency to neglect how our senses can upend a difficult moment when we zero in on the information they give us. My all-time favorite way of dispelling anxiety is by sharing a hug with a loved one but when they aren’t around, alternatives abound as long as I remember to keep my eyes, ears, mind, and heart open.

Mindfulness makes joy readily accessible but tapping into it requires a conscious effort until it becomes a habit again.

Joy is innate to children and we can recapture it easily by directing our immediate attention to the moment until life turns into a thrilling adventure again, just like it was when we were kids.

Ordinariness doesn’t always have to be extra; joy is everywhere and in everything and it will make itself known if we’re receptive to it.

And it is contagious so why not spread it widely?

I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor now based in the Netherlands. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

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