The present moment is filled with joy and happiness.

If you are attentive, you will see it.

~Thich Nhat Hanh

I’ll admit, my last few posts have been on the “downer” side. Some people find it hard to read about the impact of cancer. It’s hard to write about it, too, even though I’m also sharing the positive life lessons I’m learning in the process of recovery. While I have two more posts planned for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, right now I’d love to share an unexpected joyful benefit I’ve gained from the tough stuff.

It was a cold and windy day last Saturday, October 20, when the Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest had its third annual Halloween extravaganza called “Rags to Witches.” After months of preparation, the entire Ragdale house and grounds were turned into a magical spooky kingdom. Even the outside of the house was decorated as an enormous Cheshire cat called “Fang.” Inside were ghoulish portraits, animal skeletons dining at a lavishly decorated table laden with creepy treats. There were flickering lights, cobwebs, spiders, a lone, ghostly bride—and too many more exquisitely spooky details to list.

Activities over the day included Tarot and palm readings, creepy portraits, a pet cemetery, a very curious scavenger hunt, an original play, the witches’ kitchen, Michael Jackson’s Thriller dance lessons, a makeup madness station, ghostly storytelling, a parade to the witches ring, and a costume contest. There were food stations scattered about including The Sweet Shoppe and Grub Station, and a cauldron of hot cider served by a cackling witch.

All day, eerie violin music played and, parading through the grounds, were a ghostly bride and groom, figures wrapped in white gauze and wearing giant skull masks, spookily costumed poltergeists on stilts, walking skeletons, and assorted other creepy creatures. All these were in addition to the many costumed artists and volunteers, and those of the hundreds of guests who chose to dress for the occasion. It was spectacular!

Although it was chilly, everyone seemed to be having a wonderful time. There were broad smiles to be seen everywhere, along with the excited shrieks and exuberant laughter of children.

I spent much of the day co-leading the mad-libs ghostly writing activity with a man named Steve. We had two poster-sized written ghost stories with blanks to be filled in by the kids (and adults) in attendance. Sometimes there were exuberant (and occasionally inappropriate) words shouted out. Some kids politely raised their hands to answer. Others were too shy to participate and Steve and I had to help them along. But it was all good. This was my second year to volunteer with Rags to Witches and I was loving it.

An hour into the afternoon my son Jeff, daughter-in-law Brie, and 28-month-old granddaughter Ada arrived. Ada was wearing a pink and white unicorn costume and looked adorable. Since I rarely wear makeup, I was afraid Ada wouldn’t recognize me in my fortune-teller costume and heavy, glittery (professionally applied) makeup, but she did. In the short time between arrival and seeing me, Ada had already been enjoying the various costumes on parade. She was fascinated by the large white skulls, but particularly enthralled with the poltergeists on stilts.

They stayed for a couple rounds of ghostly mad-libs, then took off to explore the rest of the activities. I joined them much later, when it was time for the poltergeist parade to the witches ring for the costume contest. Ada and I joined the end of a very long line of shivering hopefuls and her parents and I suggested she wave her arms like she was flying once onstage. When it was finally her turn, she held tightly to my finger and appeared to have stage fright. We got to the edge of the stage and I stepped down and reached back to pick her up. But as soon as Ada let go of my finger, she started waving her arms as she turned circles on the stage. Shy no more, she stole the show! The watching crowds laughed and cooed at her cuteness, while the Ragdale photographer snapped multiple pictures.

After the final contestant crossed the stage and the judges conferred, the results were read and winners received goodie bags full of treats. The last category was Cutest Costume. The judge announced the winner, “The baby unicorn!” Ada laughed and cried out, “I won!” as her daddy carried her up to get her prize.

After that, the kids and I went to The Lantern in Lake Forest for dinner. It’s a funky diner, very kid-friendly, with free popcorn and trains constantly circling on tracks overhead. There’s even a claw crane arcade game to win stuffed animals. That night two sweet little boys were big winners and shared their loot with Ada!

After dinner, we hugged and kissed goodbye and I got in my car and they got in theirs. We went our separate ways. For a moment, I had that sad separation feeling you get when you’re suddenly alone again. But then I had a rush of pure joy! As I drove home, I replayed the day in my mind, from start to finish, and I was overwhelmed with happiness. That night, I had trouble falling asleep, but it was because I felt like a kid at Christmas. It’s been such a long time since I’ve felt such happiness. And it has stayed with me. Even now, as I write, tears of joy fill my eyes.

Ever since Saturday night, I’ve been thinking about the purity of my happiness. And I’ve decided my experience is a direct result of my mindfulness practice, which is a direct result of my healing process. For months now, I’ve mostly felt fear, or sadness, or anger, and only fleeting pleasure. The negative emotions have been the most insistent—demanding the most attention. Like the squeaky wheel, they’ve been so noisy I haven’t been able to fully attend to happiness. It’s like fear, sadness, and anger were so tightly woven together they formed a veil through which I’ve been gazing at the world. The veil has been lifted when I engaged in work, or spent time with Ada and Jeff and Brie, or went out with friends, but the happiness was short-lived.

On Saturday something shifted and I was mindful in every moment—truly and completely present in the joy. And, because it has stayed with me, it feels as though that heavy veil has been lifted for good. I know there will still be dark times, but I can choose to let those be my fleeting moments. Now that I’m once again in touch with pure happiness, I intend to make it a priority. Although I can’t walk the magical kingdom of Ragdale every day holding the hand of a cute baby unicorn, I can imagine life as an arcade game and claw for the prize of joy whenever possible!