For the last couple of weeks, I’ve found myself listening to the 4th Movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony almost every day. I had the wonderful occasion to sing it recently with the UMS Choral Union and the Budapest Festival Orchestra, and I reflected upon that incredible experience on this blog. But I’m nowhere near tired of this work. Musically and emotionally, it’s a masterpiece.
And I realize that it draws me back almost daily because of its obvious subject matter: JOY.
Each day, I seem to get some new joy from it — a hope, a feeling, a dream, a memory. A few days ago, a vivid memory popped in my mind while listening. I had not thought of it for many years, but there it was, so clear and wonderful. It was an embodiment of joy. All these years later, it reminds me of something important.
When I was 17 years old, I traveled to Austria with my high school choir. That summer, we toured in several major cities. It was the first time I had ever traveled outside of the United States, and from beginning to end, the trip felt like an absolute adventure.
My vivid memory takes place in Vienna. One afternoon, everyone in our choir had several hours to explore the city on foot. We were all given a map, and my adventuring took me pretty far away. My friends and I left enough time to turn around and get back to the tour bus, but it seems we “turned around” in the wrong direction. We thought we were tracing our steps, but we were actually moving even farther away. We consulted the map and found it confusing. Eventually, fear hit us. We realized odds were quite high we wouldn’t make it back for our agreed upon meeting time.
Horrified that an entire bus of students would be waiting for us, or worse, that we might miss a performance, I was flooded with stress. If you knew me in high school, you would know that I was fun, but a perfectionist, goody two shoes. I did not like to disappoint. I did not want to get in trouble.
So we did what we had to do: We ran. In fact, we sprinted.
I began that long run back with stress. Worried, we flew by old, colorful European architecture. Anxious, we zoomed past folks sitting in the squares of outdoor cafés. Yet at one point, in the midst of all that adrenaline, a realization dawned on me, and everything changed. I was running. . . in Vienna! Suddenly, that sense of adventure overtook me, and I felt utter joy. I felt completely alive, taking in all the details around me.
My seventeen year old self sprinted with joyful abandon. Such a vivid memory. . . I was wearing a blue dress with butterflies on it. The front was stained with chocolate ice cream I had dripped all over myself earlier in the day. And I ran in Mary Janes, those shoes popularized in the 90s. They were filthy with dust and gravel from adventures earlier in the day.
Joy found me unexpectedly, and I became unexpectedly alive.
A portion of Beethoven’s 9th reminds me of this moment musically. I think of it every time now.
And all of it reminds me of something I need to hear. Maybe you do too.
There are times these days when we’re working hard, alert to the stressors around us, deeply aware of changes we want to make in our neighborhoods and in our world. The work and the awareness are necessary and serious. No doubt.
But there are also times — thank goodness — when we’re reminded of the larger vision too, not only of what we’re working against, but what we’re working for. . .
Who and What we’re working for. . . We catch that vision, imagining that its fullness could become a reality, and suddenly, we feel the joy of it. And we begin to make it happen, even just a little bit, right now. Right this instant.
Joy finds us unexpectedly, and we become unexpectedly alive.