A few years ago we received this beautiful hand-printed letterpress Christmas card from Carol Dunbar, an artist friend here in Orkney, with just a single word on the front, in emphatic, berry-red letters pressed deeply into the thick paper.
Ever since then the card has taken up permanent residence on the kitchen dresser among my Grannie’s best china, where it beams out warmly at us all year round.
Because, like a puppy, joy is not just for Christmas. Obviously.
But joy can feel elusive. Here we are, approaching midwinter, in the aftermath of a COP26 that achieved very little, amidst yet another wave of COVID and the continuing calamities that climate change keeps bringing us, while the destruction of the natural world seems to just keep on accelerating and lies, greed and fear proliferate. There’s no denying these are difficult times, enraging, frightening, sad, bewildering, all these things, yes.
This is also a powerful moment to be alive.
It asks tough questions of us all. How is it possible to be clear-eyed about what is happening in the world and still find ways to be of service? What is meaningful work in this moment? Is it possible to let go of the hope that things will somehow turn out OK and find another kind of hope beyond it, one that isn’t based on a shaky need for things to come good, but on the calm certainty that something is worth doing no matter how it all turns out?
I don’t have answers to these questions. But I’ve been seeking out people who do; writers, speakers, teachers, human beings with the kind of wisdom these times are asking of us all.
One of them is the long-time activist and teacher Margaret Wheatley, who says this of joy:
“Present moment actions of service, of communion, of relating, are the source of joy. Whenever we are truly present in the state beyond our own egos, beyond our own needs, that is always an experience of joy.”
What form such present moment actions of service might take is going to be different for each of us, and I don’t yet know what this might mean for me. But I do think that joy can be an act of intention, an act of resistance, and that it can be found in cultivating a deliberate practice of noticing, celebrating and sharing whatever moments of beauty and connection might present themselves.
And this feels like work I can do.
The poet Ross Gay set himself just such a task, to diligently record and share the small joys of daily life in the essays he gathered in “The Book of Delights” (Algonquin Books). In ‘Not Only…’ he writes about…
“…the peacock that had landed in Ingrid’s yard, whose long neck was what one light call dark turquoise, which would be lamentable shorthand, for the iridescence makes it another colour entirely, and reminds us how all color is a manifestation of, a meditation on, light, these mediations echoed and multiplied in the gauzy oculi looking skyward from its long tail, but Ingrid’s need to share the photo with me as I was walking…almost tugging me by the elbow to do so, using her index finger and thumb to zoom into its luminous neck, smiling and looking at it, me smiling and looking at her looking at it, which is simply called sharing what we love, what we find beautiful, which is an ethics.”
And he goes on to say:
“In trying to articulate what, perhaps, joy is, it has occurred to me that among other things…joy is the mostly invisible, the underground union between us, you and me, which is, among other things, the great fact of our life and the lives of everyone and everything we love going away. If we sink a spoon into that fact…we will find it teeming. It will look like all the books ever written. It will look like all the nerves in a body. We might call it sorrow, but we might call it a union, one that, once we notice it, once we bring it into the light, might become flower and food. Might be joy.”
He observes in his preface that this daily practice of ‘writing a delight’ occasioned a new level of awareness in him, like a muscle getting stronger, and that these small joys grow when they are shared.
I think he’s right.