And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips/Bidding adieu — John Keats, “Ode on Melancholy”
August. You again. I lamented your presence a few years back, and I stand by it. This year you also coincide with a hellacious US political sh*tshow featuring an overtly racist, sexist, xenophobic, hate-mongering, spray-tanned stinkbomb of a presidential candidate (not to put too fine a point on it). In short: Oh, joy.
Actually, it’s that short word snarkily employed up there — joy — that I’ve found myself ruminating on amid my late-summer anxiety and despair, and not in an eye-rolling way. Rather, I’m thinking about joy’s relationship to melancholy — thus the Keats. (To clarify, by melancholy, I’m not referring to clinical depression, only the temporary state of “having the blues” or “the blahs,” or “being out of sorts.” States of which, by the way, I currently am in. See: August. And the Cheetos candidate. Which is an insult to Cheetos.)
Anyhow, as I often do, I started with the word itself, perusing the OED in high nerd mode. Joy has a vividness, ebullience, and fleetingness that Happiness lacks. Joy is kinda like Happiness’s plucky older cousin (NOT to be confused with Glee or Bliss. Nobody wants those f*ck-ups at the reunion; they’ll only end up naked in the pool). Joy swings by the house on a lark with a fresh batch of chocolate-chips and a bottle of your favorite wine and daisies in her hair. You’ve been waiting by the window and fling open the door as she skips up to you. But, as ol’ Keats intimates, Joy’s on her way out the door as fast as she screeched into the driveway. With a wave and a blown kiss, she hops back on her moped, sunglasses flashing in the waning light of day. Watching her go, you want to hold her radiant perfection in your two hands. But then, she burns rubber, baby, and all you can do is watch the tires smoke, nibble a cookie, and hold the door frame for balance.
To seek a permanent state of joy is impossible, if not idiotic, unless you’re a Golden Retriever. The joy of joy is in its ephemeral nature (uh-doy, as my tween self would say). And there’s something, well, a bit embarrassing about an adult seeking joy, as if it is a simpleminded or insipid or sentimental pursuit. There’s nothing hip about Joy. She’s a little goofy, naive, even. Yes. She is. And maybe we need a few more conscious doses of her, especially when faced with so much rage and violence and fear in the world.
And I do mean conscious. It strikes me as I write this that some of my greatest moments of joy come when I’m writing, usually when something in a story reveals itself — the joy of clarity, of discovery. It also comes from the intensity of focus on words and sentences, trying to render them both logical and beautiful. Just writing this simple post has got my brain firing in a way it doesn’t when I’m passive, a mere recipient of my emotions. Here, I’m making conscious choices. I’m awake. I’m alive. I’ve flung open the door, and there it is: joy.
I’ve written before about humor and tragedy, an abiding interest of mine, and I guess I’m beating a similar drum. (Humor is Joy’s boisterous brother with the unlaced high tops, cracking wise over the cheese cubes). Joy likely won’t banish melancholy, and it shouldn’t (Melancholy’s tempestuous children are Art and Beauty). Anger serves an important purpose; sometimes we are right to be afraid. We have serious work to do, and joy won’t solve problems, or fight inequality, or make change. Yet joy can be part of the emotional equation, too. Like love and hope, joy can be trangressive, if we remember to look for it, if we remember to open the door.