For so many people, the last year has not been one where joy has figured large. There are, of course, amazing times of celebration even in hard times — the birth of a new life, the awakening of spring and turning of the seasons, the random moments of connection whether with the earth or a person, a creature or a plant or just losing ourselves in cooking or daily tasks or in creative flow. Always, there are reasons for gratitude.
But always there are those larger forces too. We are living through a time of global pandemic with all the grief and fear that has come with it, as well as the contraction of life in its crucible. There are those for who social isolation has been an opportunity to re-appraise how they live, to take more time for family or writing or other passions, to re-orient. But for many it has brought crushing loneliness and anxiety, exaberating obsessions or addictions and bringing a huge rise in mental health issues. And for others it has brought bereavement or turned homes into 24/7 workplaces that can’t be switched off, bringing exhaustion and burn-out, while yet others have lost work, incomes and homes.
And this extraordinary pressure of pandemic has come into a world already facing ecological disaster and so many areas of human rights abuses and political instability across the globe.
So where is the joy in all of this? How do we celebrate? And is the idea of joy and gladness simply crass in the face of so much suffering?
That grief is in our joy
How do we celebrate and honour our joys with gratitude in harsh and challenging times?
Recently I’ve begun a teacher trainer course in yoga nidra. The words literally mean ‘ yogic sleep’ but it’s a meditative state that is so much more than the bald translation suggests. In yoga nidra the body sleeps but there remains awareness, sometimes trance-like, sometimes more focussed, an awareness that is not in the part of the brain that normally observes ‘the self’ but instead in a deeper part that takes us to more liminal states. There are a lot of paradoxes held in tension in yoga nidra and in reaching the mind-space of sleeping awareness the guide will often use opposites held together in ways that sidestep our usual binary thinking. In so doing, it becomes clear that many things that we oppose are intimately bound together.
Grief and joy are surely this kind of ‘opposite’, neither existing without the other. In The Wild Edge of Sorrow Francis Weller suggests that a mature attitude to grief, from society’s as well as individuals, acknowledges that grief comes from daring to love, from taking joy and delight in life, in people, in other creatures …
And he quotes from Judah Halevi:
It is a holy thing to love what death can touch.
I am convinced that not only can we celebrate our joys and loves with gratitude and delight in the face of all the suffering of the world, but that, if we truly love life and all that makes it sweet, we must have joy and celebration. Of course we must also mourn what we lose because to do so honours how much that person, that extinct species, that habitat, that relationship … meant, how much love and joy they gave to the world.
Grief and the presence of suffering don’t invalidate joy, they make it urgent and fill it with meaning. As Anne Lamott puts it in Almost Everything:
Even with the Internet, deciphering the genetic code, and great advances in immunotherapy, life is frequently confusing at best, and guaranteed to be hard and weird and sad at times… We witness and try to alleviate others’ suffering, but sometimes it just outdoes itself and we are left gasping, groaning. And running through it all there is the jangle, both the machines outside and the chattering treeful of monkeys inside us. […]
How can we know all this, yet somehow experience joy? Because that’s how we’re designed — for awareness and curiosity. We are hardwired with curiosity inside us, because life knew that this would keep us going even in bad sailing… Life feeds anyone who is open to taste its food, wonder, and glee — its immediacy.
That joy is intrinsic
In many cultures there is a recognition that joy is intrinsic to life. In the Ayurvedic system ojas is the vitality of life force or the ‘juiciness of life’ as my yoga nidra mentor described it. Here in France, the term joie de vivre signifies delight in life, sometimes expressed as being carfree or even hedonistic, but also more deeply rendered in taking joy in life itself and the simplest of pleasures.
I love the notion of the ‘juiciness of life’. And it is there at the heart of everything. Our garden in this forested hamlet in France is new to us and it has been astonishing each day to watch the life juices of Spring emerging in the new season.
Daisies, dandelions and primroses sprang up in profusion in February, closely followed by daffodils and lesser celandine. In March red buds were on the hazel trees and soft yellow catkins on the willows. We could hear woodpeckers at work, see buzzards overhead, and watched magpies collecting nest-makings, We noticed wagtails, great tits and a yellowhammer on the apple trees and then the swallows returned, full of acrobatic displays.
By April the high ash trees were in leaf and the grass was strewn with violets, forget-me-nots, speedwell, bugles, yarrow … and a huge patch of wood anemones by a bend in the river. I saw Buzzards lock talons in courtship ritual on the wing and the blackthorn was a riot of white blossom just before the pink apple blossom swept across the trees in the orchard. The hum of fat bumblebees collecting pollen, nectar and propolis competed with the birdsong and river hiss and we found ourselves constantly looking up the names of butterflies — my favourite the orange and speckled silver washed fritillaries.
As Richard Miller comments in Yoga Nidra:
Equanimity and joy do exist independent of whatever else is present.
Despite humanity’s best efforts to derail the earth, the seasons keep coming and there are days of sublime beauty and moments of profound connection and awe — as we gaze into a night sky or loose ourselves in the beauty of woodland or meadow or ocean … And despite how flawed we are, there are moments of connection, whether human or otherwise, that fill us with hope and delight.
In the run up to my ordination over 26 years ago, a potter in Avebury made me a chalice and paten. On the underside of the patten he inscribed a line that was on everything he made:
For the joy of the sweet green earth.
That line has stayed with me and I know that home for me goes hand in hand with a deep connection to the natural world that all of us are part of. In The Moth Snowstorm, Michael McCarthy puts it like this:
The natural world is not separate from us, it is part of us. It is as much a part of us as our capacity for language; we are bonded to it still, however hard it may be to perceive the union in the tumult of modern urban life. Yet the union can be found, the union of ourselves and nature, in the joy which nature can spark and fire in us.
That joy is an attitude of grace
Joy is not the same as happiness, which is elusive. Happinesss comes and goes and is difficult to pin down. The more we chase it the harder it often seems it is to find it. Joy is at once deeper and more accessible because it’s not an elusive state of being but an attitude that springs from attention. When we slow down and listen — whether to the birds singing or the grass growing, to what others are saying (even in their silences) and to our own hearts, we begin to savour life and to know joy. No one puts it more wonderfully than Toni Morrison in her novel Beloved:
Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face… Love your mouth… This is flesh… Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms… Love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. And all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver — love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts… love your heart. For this is the prize.
Recently on a writer’s forum for the kith community run from this website one writer began a thread of a ‘savouring journal’. It’s an elegant, joyous idea. When we allow ourselves to relish ordinary tasks or moments life is elevated and made gracious. Whether it’s slowly making and savouring a cup of herbal tea in a quiet moment or cooking with bodiful attention or taking time to meditate, journal, walk …
That writing is for the joy of sweet green life
Joy is not a travesty in the face of suffering, but a serious act of grace that honours what we love, the earth we are part of and the simple delights of daily life. And for writers, joy is essential. In Art as Experience John Dewey lyrically explores the place of rhythm in life:
All interactions that effect stability and order in the whirling flux of change are rhythms. There is ebb and flow, systole and diastole: ordered change… Contrast of lack and fullness, of struggle and achievement, of adjustment after consummated irregularity, form the drama in which action, feeling, and meaning are one. The outcome is balance and counterbalance.
This is similar to the holding together of opposites in yoga nidra and to the equilibrium of joy that is independent of whatever the world might be throwing at us. And writers are those who can witness to the possibility of this equilibrium in constant rhythm. Dewey goes on:
In a world of chaotic flux, change can’t add up to anything, it isn’t movement in a direction. And in a world that is finished and fixed, there is none of the suspense and anticipation that rhythm requires, nothing to come next. A rhythmic life is one with constant cycles of centring, losing balance and re-finding equilibrium. It is cycles of loss and fulfillment, not based on quick highs and consumption but rather:
Happiness and delight … come to be through a fulfillment that reaches to the depths of our being — one that is an adjustment of our whole being with the conditions of existence. In the process of living, attainment of a period of equilibrium is at the same time the initiation of a new relation to environment, one that brings with its potency of new adjustments to be made through struggle. The time of consummation is also one of beginning anew. Any attempt to perpetuate beyond its term the enjoyment attending the time of fulfillment and harmony constitutes withdrawal from the world. Hence it marks the lowering and loss of vitality. But, through the phases of perturbation and conflict, there abides the deep-seated memory of an underlying harmony, the sense of which haunts life like the sense of being founded on a rock.
Edith Wharton calls this the ‘unassailable serenity’ of living in the present, aware of our flaws and fragility. And Dewey continues:
The live creature adopts its past; it can make friends with even its stupidities, using them as warnings that increase present wariness… To the being fully alive, the future is not ominous but a promise; it surrounds the present as a halo. It consists of possibilities that are felt as a possession of what is now and here. In life that is truly life, everything overlaps and merges.
And this is the life that writers tell stories about for their generation, whether those stories are told in essays or poems, flash fictions or novels … Rhythm is simply the profound work of constantly re-adjusting our bodily and life rhythms to the rhythms of life itself and reflecting this in our writing: the joy as well as the griefs and challenges we are living through.
If this sounds overwhelming, the truth is that we do this rhythmic shifting all the time, sometimes even holding different aspects of a particular rhythm in creative tension simultaneously — think of a family celebrating a new birth at the same time as losing an elder, or a day on which one friend invites you to share wonderful news and celebration while another calls with news of loss and sadness. So many rhythms are weaving through us at any moment and one of the things our writing does is to reflect that complex interplay of rhythms back to us and to the world.
In The Svenborg Poems Bertolt Brecht asks:
In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing.
About the dark times.
We could substitute writing for singing and we can also go further, as my son, Rowan, commented in one of his blogs. We can and should not only sing and write about the dark times in the dark times but we should also write and sing about hope and new visions for life and joy. For the joy of the sweet green earth and for the vitality of life itself, writers need to be those who go on asserting that joy lives, that joy persists and refuses to be crushed, whatever else might be happening.