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The Chemistry of Joy

“like a child hovering in a doorway, watching the others,
the ones who go first…”
- “The Doorway,” Louise Glück, The Wild Iris, 1992

I’ve discovered that a pleasure principle balances the razor's edge of risk. Nitric oxide is one good reason. When we experience pleasure in a thought, even a memory, but especially in emotion or action, our blood vessels respond to this joy with a release of nitric oxide, which in turn enhances the performance of our neurotransmitters, drenching us in a bath of happy serotonin and other endorphins. Many mood enhancing drugs manipulate this interaction, this cycle between nitric oxide and neurotransmitters. The experience of pleasure upgrades our physical and mental functioning; and relating to the pleasure expressed by others affects us the same way. Being around friends who delight us, lovers who move us to tenderness, high-fiving our favorite teammates – all are experiences that make you and me happier people from the inside out.

Risk gives a flutter of adrenalin - skittering through our veins and gone. Pleasure ripples through the hours, framing the days.

The physicist John Wheeler made a statement about the balance of yin and yang that I think is worth sharing here, “Masculinity expresses the idea there are things worth dying for. Femininity expresses the idea there are things worth living for.” Pleasure is one of those ideas worth living for. That we are designed, for our own sake and others, to experience frequent pleasure in our lives. Joy in our work, our families, our relationships, pleasure in time alone on a bicycle or trekking a mountain peak. Whatever moves you to smile, to laugh, to reach out and hug someone, to close your eyes and grin at the taste of something on your tongue. Pleasure translates in us, and through us, as enhanced living. Living deepened, our bodies and minds fully engaged.

Thinking about this, I steep a cup of mountain chai tea. Now this is a special tea I am very fond of: freshly picked leaves and spices gathered into a fine triangle mesh that allows the flavor of the leaf to infuse the tea. This tea brings me pleasure. So does the scent swirled and released from a glass of 2007 Geyserville Ridge Zinfandel. A sensory richness expanded by the delight of my friends, the conversation surrounding the drinking of this great wine. Life itself delights. The sun on my face after days of gray rain sends shivers of pleasure through my skin cells. Even that first stretch upon waking, the body loose and warm and redolent: pure joy. The feel of a new book in my hand - the whispery paper, the fresh print smell. What brings pleasure is unique to each of us. What remains important is that we find and experience life moments that delight us as often as possible. And share this wealth with others. To joy! To things worth living for.  Read More 
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Keep the Day

“Take it to the mats…”
- From the film, “You’ve Got Mail,” 1992

Anniversaries of losses. The taste of sadness is metallic. I realized this recently, my hands in the dirt, pulling through the wayfaring weeds that have sprung up in the recent rains. I think how dirt has an odor, and a taste – an organic essence we identify by its familiarity. And as I work in the morning heat, and realize the sum of my day is this task, I discover the sadness.

Solitude is it’s own kind of island. At times it is peaceful, and at others, fraught with what binds from the past. Marking an absence may sink the most resilient of us. Because we know, intimately, deeply, what we have lost. What made life happy. The completeness it took so long to find.

But sadness arriving on a lovely morning in my garden - this I do not embrace! So many days stolen in just this way, by sorrow that creeps in during the most innocent task, or unguarded moment, and cuts me down at the knees. I dig in the fragrant earth fiercely. I reclaim my joy, my present, the wonder of possible tomorrows. “Take it to the mats,” the movie hero tells the heroine, quoting the novel The Godfather. Fight, he urges her, fight for what's yours. “It’s not personal, it’s business.”

Mine is not business, it’s personal. The thought makes me smile. I intend to keep this day.
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