“To me, this is so much of life: holding the really beautiful things and the profoundly hard things in the same palm.” —Suleika Jaouad
I just finished watching the new Netflix documentary, American Symphony, featuring two of my heroes, writer Suleika Jaoud and her musician husband, Jon Batiste. They exemplify living in the both/and of life where the highest highs can accompany the lowest of lows.
Jon had received an incredible 11 Grammy nominations when his partner Suleika was re-diagnosed with leukemia after a long period of remission. In the movie, he prepares to go to the award ceremony; she goes back to the hospital. They get married; he shaves off her hair as it falls out from chemo.
He performs ebulliently on tour but caves in to fear at night.
Filmmaker Matthew Heineman captured their journey into a land neither Jon nor Suleika anticipated. Originally, the film was to document Jon composing an American Symphony to perform at Carnegie Hall. Then, it expanded to include how the couple navigated between the peaks of Jon’s accomplishment (5 Grammy wins and an Oscar in 2022) and the depths of Suleika undergoing a second bone marrow transplant.
At the Grammys, he dances with seemingly limitless joy and energy. Suleika watches his triumph from her living room with friends—her face shining even as her energy falters.
Global grief/personal loss
American Symphony is coming out when many of us struggle to keep it together in the face of global despair. The nightmare of the current Middle East situation compounds whatever personal losses we face. Other global challenges continue to haunt us. Yet despite the gloom, trees grow, grandchildren dance, great music is composed, and families bless each other at Thanksgiving.
Opportunities for micro-moments of joy surround us daily.
I have to work to not let one extreme overpower the other—to face the world’s horrors one moment and then open to its joys the next. (How did Jon go between extremes? He says, “I compartmentalize.”)
Even knowing about the both/and of life, I’m tempted to believe that if I were only a better person or more adept at doing life, I wouldn’t go down with grief or teeter at the edge of depression.
A critical voice wants me to believe that if only I:
- meditated better
- allowed myself to be more filled with Spirit
- felt more gratitude
- looked beyond the dualities of life to see the wholeness and connection between all things,
- yada, yada, yada…,
I would be spared heartbreak.
It’s hard to embrace the darkness as part of the realness of life.
But allowing for grief doesn’t mean I have to stay there all the time. I must be careful not to wallow in my fears and forget to notice the hummingbird outside the window. Yes, it’s a dark time of the year, and yes, it’s also the season of light.
And no matter what time of year it is, my twin joy-boys, my springer spaniels, will lick away my tears and fill me with laughter and hope—if I only stretch out my arms.
“Survival as a creative act”
I stole that line from the movie because I believe that making it through a day can be a creative accomplishment when we see our life as part of our creative work.
We can use creative expression to open our hearts when things are difficult. When Suleika’s eyes blurred and she could neither read nor write, she picked up a brush and painted watercolors for the first time.
Her hospital room became her studio; her paintings graced the walls.
I’ve begun to hear from readers of Meeting the Muse After Midlife, and their comments are giving me the energy I need to make it up the big mountain of book promotion I have to climb.
Recently, I heard from a friend who thought she could not read my book because of her failing eyes. But her husband had read enough of it to know she would love it—so she decided to try. With creative inspiration, she used my bookmark like a patch over her weak eye. Then, remarkably, she read.
She says she’s loving the book.
I can’t tell you how much joy that brings me—especially in this season of global woe.
Others have shared that my book:
- Inspired him to start drawing his face in the mirror.
- Led her to want to take ballroom dancing lessons.
- Reminded her they she could fulfill a childhood dream and learn to act.
Sparking light in others brightens my own path during these dark times.
The power of sharing
We need to hear each other’s heartfelt stories. Some may be difficult—with the pain that comes with being human. But we can bear that pain better when we feel witnessed and feel room to be authentically ourselves.
We remind each other that we can do this hard thing called being human, with its lights and darks, or, as in the movie with Jon and Suleika, triumphs and grief.
We discover as we share our stories and complexities, we may lighten life’s burdens for others.