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on joy

April 6, 2023

With the arrival of Spring, and a string of days of sunshine, I have been experiencing – and, being a good academic – reflecting on joy. Being a less good academic, I have not been doing much reading. But I have been writing: to a friend with long Covid (I’ve been writing because long Covid makes talking too much too quickly), triangulating our experiences of derailed life, of slow healing, of non-linear movement, and coming to grips with the now – and the not-now. I owe a lot of the good thinking I have had to our correspondence. We’ve made material for a lot of unwritten blog posts about time, but now, it is time to write about joy.

a fallen daffodil in sunshine, spotted on the walk to visit my friend

I guess I should say that now is still also very much a time of grief. Unlike the abstract markers of time – the milestones of months and eventually years since The Event – which impose themselves upon you without meaning (is six months a long time? is it nothing?) the changing of seasons arrive both with their own heavy reality (insert Wallace Stevens here) and my own heavy reality: this is a new moment without my beloved. It is harder because we used to stop and celebrate the seasons consciously: gorging on asparagus and morels during their brief appearance, cycling out to see the new flowers and the new lambs. Kathy of course would turn her gaze of wonder and joy into painting. Me, I talk. And write.

And/but/so we return to talk of joy. Joy and grief are not a zero-sum game. They are both resonances of love, and it is precisely at moments when you are resonating with grief that you can also resound with vibrations of joy, and vice versa. It doesn’t always happen (not by a long shot) but when it does, it is a good thing.

Sonic metaphors help (I’m a radio scholar. I would say that), not least because they also allow very concrete examples of how joy and grief resonate. Listen to a gospel choir and it abounds. It first struck me watching Alison Moyet how joy underli(n)es everything she sings, happy or not. Bessie Smith, too. And Howlin’ Wolf. By far not all singers I admire have this particular gift. The sonic metaphor also captures the way that joy is not often something that comes spontaneously from within, but mostly comes upon your from outside and is felt as a resonance. In this way, joy is the opposite of ‘positive thinking’, which Barbara Ehrenreich has described as something you are expected to spontaneously generate to heal yourself – and so letting us blame people for their own misfortunes in a great Calvinist/capitalist shitbath. No: joy (like grief) comes upon us as ‘major weather’ (Wallace Stevens again) and a gift. What we can do is celebrate, amplify, and share. It’s resonance that heals: in its own way, in its own time.

I have had the great fortune to be born into, and then (not entirely coincidentally) to marry into, families that practice (both in the sense of how we do and in the sense of rehearsing) joy very seriously. My grandfather, an episcopal priest, took his job as celebrant as central to his work, and repeated often his belief that there are never enough celebrations.

So: here: now.

One last bit of Wallace Stevens:

One likes to practice the thing. They practice,

Enough, for heaven. Ever-jubilant,

What is there here but weather, what spirit

Have I except it comes from the sun?

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