Beautiful Between

living fully in the now & not yet

The Beauty and Ache of “Now Time”

Happiness can seem so elusive for those of us who wrestle with our mental health. I’ve often been told to “just choose joy,” as though it’s a switch I can flip to just start feeling better. It’s never worked that way for me.

However, I have learned that there are ways to cultivate joy even in my hardest seasons of depression. It’s a discipline that takes practice, and that’s why I’m so excited to invite my friend Courtney Ellis to share with us today.

Courtney’s new book is called Happy Now: Let the Power of Playfulness Lift Your Load and Renew Your Spirit and is all about how we can cultivate joy by adding a little playfulness to our lives. My prayer is that this practice of rooting ourselves in “now time” will help us reconnect with the joy that often seems so elusive. It’s a joy to share Courtney’s words with you today.

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My husband Daryl and I planned our first vacation in seven and a half years with great anticipation. As my friend Beth likes to say, “Without kids, it’s a vacation. With kids, it’s only a trip.” In the years since we became parents, we’d taken lots of trips—back to the Midwest for reunions with my family, up to Los Angeles to see Daryl’s, and to a church camp in the San Bernardino National Forest, but we hadn’t gone on a single vacation. To say we were a little bit excited would have been like saying Wayne Gretsky was a pretty good hockey player. I had been mentally packing my suitcase for six months. Any time work got stressful or the boys kicked a soccer ball through the living room or Felicity woke up before the sun, I’d mentally go to my happy place, a beach chair on a cruise ship with a lowbrow novel in my hand. My only real worry was how my stomach would look in my bathing suit and whether the cruise line served smoothies with those adorable tiny umbrellas because I really wanted one.

But our ship was set to sail on March 22… 2020. You see where this is going. Or rather, not going.

Instead of vacation, we received stay-at-home orders from the state of California. Not only were we not going to Mexico, we weren’t going to Michael’s craft store, either. Instead of feeling the ocean breeze ruffle my hair, my pixie cut grew into shaggy disarray as I juggled our oldest child’s transition to distance learning, our middle child’s virtual preschool sessions, and our youngest’s daily snack-and-activity-and- diapering needs, the uphill climb of technology necessary to care for our congregation when we couldn’t physically worship together, and my own burgeoning plague dread. It felt like a cosmic bait-and-switch; we’d been hoping for vacation bread and were given a pandemic stone instead.

We grieved our lost vacation and moved on as best we could, chugging along for a few more months as teacher-pastor- parents, sleeping little and playing even less, until one day I reached a breaking point.

“I don’t think I can do this anymore,” I told Daryl. “Apparently parenting and schooling our kids during a global pandemic isn’t really a part-time gig.”

“I don’t know how we managed to do it as long as we did,” he said.

After much prayer and soul-searching, together we came to a decision. I would transition down to one-quarter time at church, remaining in the pastoral mix but cutting way back on my responsibilities. We opted out of our school district’s well- intentioned but often rocky distance learning and ordered a homeschool curriculum. For the first time in a decade, I stepped (mostly) out of the professional world. For the first time ever, and with much fear and trembling, I stepped into the world of (almost) full-time parenting.

The first days and weeks felt like a spin cycle in the washing machine as I tried to learn how to teach second grade and preschool simultaneously while caring for a rambunctious toddler to boot. As one friend helpfully noted, “There’s not a first-year teacher out there who has an easy time of it.” But brutal as the pandemic was, it also thrust me directly into beauty and the ache of now time. Suddenly I couldn’t worry too much about next month or even next week; I was intimately tethered to the present moment, and whenever my attention would shift, another small person presented themselves for a snack or a snuggle or a school lesson.

As we grow, we begin to see ourselves on a timeline—the past, with its successes and regrets; the future, with its hopes and fears. This is necessary, of course. No one would ever start a retirement fund or stock up on Band-aids without a little foresight, and learning from the past is necessary to progress as people and as a culture.

But all this pondering the past and fretting about the future can trap us, too. Our lives are lived right here and now, in this very moment. This is where children live—right here, right now. And this is the only place playfulness happens. 

As we accept the playful invitation to be a kid again—giving ourselves permission to be discoverers of the world, in touch with the holy present—happiness arrives at our fingertips. We begin to drink from the “river of delight” of which the psalmist writes.

Let us never forget God’s invitation to us to come to him as little children, open to love and wonder. Open to joy.

Perhaps it’s time to make that paper airplane?

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Courtney Ellis is a pastor, speaker, and author of Happy Now: Let Playfulness Lift Your Load and Renew Your Spirit, Uncluttered: Free Your Space, Free Your Schedule, Free Your Soul, and Almost Holy Mama: Life-Giving Spiritual Practices for Weary Parents. A graduate of Wheaton College and Princeton Seminary, she lives in California with her husband, Daryl, and their three children. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or over at her website: CourtneyBEllis.com

An excerpt from Happy Now: Let the Power of Playfulness Lift Your Load and Renew Your Spirit by Courtney Ellis. Shared with permission of Rose Publishing, copyright 2021

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