Vol 8, Num 16 :: 2009.07.31 — 2009.09.03
Moss darkened the far side of a granite boulder. Pines.
Then a hardwood forest filled in the valley, which burned and grew again,
Which burned and grew again, which burned and grew again.
From “Prayer” by Erik Pankey
“We complain too much.” Either I or my husband Rob will often say so after an evening spent with friends and we realize again that not only did we talk about ourselves too much, but most of our talking was negative.
Some might say this summer has warranted a bit of complaining, as we returned from a two-week speaking tour to find a “for sale” sign in the front yard of the house we rent. Commence scrambling to prepare a new place to live, when we thought we’d be staying put with our beloved housemate in our amazing neighborhood for another school year. In spite of the beautiful, cool July, a few weeks there were pretty dark with uncertainty and anxiety. Fortunately, the necessary hard work of renovating an apartment and moving has distracted us from the tunnel behind and consumed us with the promise of light, eventually.
I assigned this issue about joy before I knew any of this would go down, not because my crystal ball told me something was going to happen that would require a reminder, but because joy has been an increasingly complex topic of conversation, both for me and for others around me. If we’re going to discuss joy, we also have to discuss grief — fitting, as the two seem to be woven together into a mysterious tapestry that we all must contemplate in the time of already-but-not-yet. But there’s another shadow that lurks, a less clearly perceived opposing force than grief.
Throughout this issue, you’ll hear echoes of guilt bouncing around the beautiful, unfathomable canyon that is joy:
Others would consider me “blessed” and I would probably agree. So why am I not more joyful?
Why do I seem to experience joy about the wrong things, and not experience joy about the right things?
Turns out that for people of privilege, joy is a tricky thing. We travel to places of extreme poverty and wonder at the ease with which joy emerges from such intense suffering and need, only to return home and puzzle over our inability to fully experience delight in the same way as hungry children or women with AIDS. In the meantime, we debate the difference between (fleeting) happiness and (lasting) joy, as if unlocking that door might open up the answer to what-in-the-world is wrong with us. Perhaps it’s largely the luxury of existential crisis that defines the difference between a joyless us and a joyful them.
For myself, I’ve found it important this summer to meditate on experiences of joy, rather than intellectualizing it to death in an attempt to find it and hold onto it. Struggling to wrap my mind around the idea seems to close off unexpected inlets, so I’m trying to leave definitions and explanations open — a gesture of surrender, I’d say, when my circumstances have spun out of control and all I can pray is, “Help. Please.”
Unearned, undeserved, there is grace filling open hands. Joy has been more than a dozen people showing up from in and out of town to help with our renovation. Joy has been free paint from the monastery, delivered even, when we couldn’t clear our thoughts enough to make the drive. Joy has been the unexpected gift of Sabbath — coffee and baseball and sleep and good books and blessed quiet. Joy has been the provision of meals when we wouldn’t have stopped working to feed ourselves. Joy has been happy hour on the front porch before we say goodbye, smiling at the dog riding by in a baby carriage, while the baby rides in dad’s arms.
Joy has been remembering. And remembering again. And remembering again.