reaching for joy

Berkeley graffiti -- red flowers on a yellow background, beneath the words "Be Courageous"

Good morning, good morning. It’s chilly here this morning, and I’m in my little
writing room with the candles lit the music very low, the dog curled up in her chair in a tight, small ball. We go walking a little in the yard under the misty moon. March is still winter in New England, but I have been finding some impossible signs of spring.

I had a very surprising experience yesterday – I felt wild joy. On Wednesday, after going for the first non-cone walk on the beach with Sophie after an operation to remove a little bit of her jaw (to remove a cancerous growth), I looked in the dry leaves and brown grass, made visible after all the snow melted over the weekend, and there, peeking up between branches and hay, were the tiny green shoots of crocus leaves. It seems altogether too early for this.

I stood back up and shouted for my sweetheart, who’d gone on down to the block to get our paper, so that we could spend the next hour reading all the bad news about everything everywhere. I showed her the shoots, the leaves, the insistence of spring. I felt wildly happy, unreasonably so.

This is a thing that happens when you plant a seed in the ground, Jen – given the right ingredients, given what it needs, it sprouts and makes the plant that it always held inside. But it still feels like a miracle – particularly in a place like Maine, were we get real weather, such drastic changes in season, when all the green dies away, the leaves fall away from the trees, the cold drops onto us like a blanket of no, and then show follows to hold that no in place around us, for months.

I can remember difficult winters, when I lived here some 18 years ago, when it felt like spring would never come, when winter seemed to stretch on for decades in a single year that the cold held on, the snow, the grey, the brown, the loss of it all. I may have been slightly more than deeply depressed I those years, and the weather reflected what I held in my body. During one of those long winters, I remember seeing the first blush of buds on the maple tree in our yard as an extraordinary gift, an impossible breach of what felt like forever hopelessness.

Spring always comes. The seasons are a cycle, and have rhythms and cadence, beats and music. Depression occludes that music; that’s its job. Depression is its own internal blanket of no, its own deep drift of snow, buffeting us and distancing us from what’s warm within, what’s warm from without, what we might need to grow.

Yesterday I got up spent an hour or so writing about cults, about the cultishness of our modern American existence, about how we seem pulled in all directions by the cults shouting for our attention: the cults of toxic masculinity and traditional femininity, the cult of late-stage sepulchral surveillance capitalism, the cult of online social media hustle culture (which is also the cult of late stage sepulchral surveillance capitalism), the death cult of T***pism, the cult of cynicism and despair. Maybe these last aren’t cults exactly – but when we fall into cynicism and despair, the end result is still in service to those in power: we do not rise up, we do not stand together, we do not recognize what’s possible when we open our mouths and sing of the wreckage and joy that lives within us, the joyful wreckage.

Early on in my work as a workshop facilitator for queer women survivors of sexual abuse (and then for all queer survivors of trauma, and folks who didn’t identify as queer, and then even with folks who didn’t identify as trauma survivors at all), I touched that place of broken joy all the time. Maybe not every day. But often. I felt so hopeful about the possibility of our coming together as survivors, sharing our stories and our fantasies, our dreams and our secrets, with one another, and getting to celebrate one another’s genius and creative brilliance. I don’t use words like genius and brilliance lightly – we got to hold, tenderly and with extravagant celebration, what was tenderest in each other, the things we made of words and imagination, the risks we took in our descriptions of the things that lived within us that had long been without words, that we had been told must never be put to words, that we had feared would kill us or break us if we ever found words for them. We wept together and we laughed together – we laughed a lot together. We celebrated each other’s rage. We made room for grief so old it still crawled sometimes, grief that needed warm hands and sweet breath, grief that was so big it filled the room, the building, the city. We wept together, and then we sang. We read poems and shared food.

I felt something elemental in those moments, a quality of connection wholly impossible when mediated by online interfaces, qualitatively different. This was a healing circle, whether or not we came together as trauma survivors – anytime we gather in service and in celebration of our creative desires, we heal something in us that has been shut down, called stupid, called a waste of time, called not good enough, called not lucrative and so why bother. We heal something in us that has always preferred play to careful comfort or fitting in, preferred discovery to normalcy, something in us that didn’t mind being silly or risking embarrassment to experience the delight of swinging as high as it could or jumping off the monkey bars just to feel like it was flying for a moment. Something in us always reaching for yes, even after years of being forced to choose no, to learn to shape no with our bodies and mouths and souls.

Anyway, I wrote this long thing about cults, and then I picked up my phone when I reached a natural stopping point, and I looked at my free will horoscope, because I am a Pisces and I believe in things like this. The I followed the threads, from the webpage with the horoscope to Rob Brezny’s facebook page, where he shares quotes and stories and ideas that are wildly, extravagantly hopeful, for the most part. And for a moment, I touched that place in myself that used to be so grandly hopeful, that believed in the possibility of joy and connection.

And I could write now about what happened over the past several years – financial stress, the demands of the hustle, the constant demand on (I’m going to guess mostly on women/female) creatives to give their work away for free (in service to the community, of course), and the onslaught of rape stories as #metoo began to take hold in mainstream culture that left me feeling more and more despondent (which, frankly, was the point, I think – oh, you want us to cover rape? No problem, will give you rape everywhere you go and every time you turn around, every time you pick up the paper or turn on the radio or log into any of your social media platform. Still feel ready for the revolution? Or did you want to crawl back under the bed? –  but that’s another essay).

For all these reasons and more, I lost touch with that spark of joy, that place of joy inside, that place that believed that if we just came together and got to touch a new kind of freedom, eventually, the world could also be free. There’s a long time and a whole lot of work in that “eventually” – and frankly it’s been hard, even since before T***p, to believe that our little individual changes were going to make any dent in the enormous money machine that is killing the planet and the people.

But back from that image, Jen. Step back to the green pushing up out of the ground. That green is going to keep growing. It can’t not. It’s going to bring color and scent. It’s going to bring beauty. It can’t not.

Yesterday I realized how much I missed that non-cynical, odiously joyful self, the one who was so hopeful and celebratory during workshops, who could be too much sometimes, even, in grateful response after listening to someone read their new writing.

It’s always been an uphill battle, to choose joy over cynicism. (Even our metaphors make the work a challenge. Why a battle? Why a war? Maybe it’s a dance, or a song.) We have every reason to rant and rage and grieve – all the reasons.

And we also have joy. Mary Oliver wrote, “Joy was not made to be a crumb.” Audre Lorde wrote, “that deep and irreplaceable knowledge of my capacity for joy comes to demand from all of my life that it be lived within the knowledge that such satisfaction is possible…”

I have been made fun of for living in poems and loving the writers who share this joy and possibility. Today I don’t care. Today I turn away from that cynicism, just for a moment, even, and hold hands with the girl inside who delighted every single time she saw the bright red flush of a cardinal at the top of a tree, singing his heart out into the city streets. I hold hands with the girl and the young woman and the now slightly older woman who has always preferred to live in wonder rather than cynical certainty.

In one of my favorite 90s gay movies, Jeffrey, a gay Catholic priest says, “evil bores me, it’s one note, it doesn’t sing!” He wants Broadway musicals, he wants sex and connection, he’s asking the main character to choose joy and desire over the fear of getting AIDS.

I love this character, especially as played by Nathan Lane, of course. This was the movement I came out into, one that was fighting for its own pleasure, its own desire, against the threat of death and the fearmongering of straight churches/religious communities and politicians and mainstream culture. People were risking death in order to hold our own desire in our hands. That culture, that time, shaped me, shapes who I am now. When I came out, I was outraged and grieving, of course; I was terrified and lost and just beginning to understand what it meant to be a survivor of incest in the world. But I also got to hang around with an extraordinary community of queer weirdos and geeks who danced hard and flirted and played and reached for each other, even though the whole world was telling us not to.

(I mean, let’s not overly romanticize it – there was also infighting and back-biting and meanness and fear and sadness among us, as we were and are human animals in community. There was also a lot of alcohol and other drugs. There was harm we caused each other, there were hurts that went deep. We mostly tried to love each other through it, though, I think. We were learning what it meant to live as whole in the world.)

Sometimes it seems like that quality of community is gone – the gay bars disappearing (the lesbian bars long gone), all of us nestled in our state-sanctioned marriages and tucked away, two by two, far from the smoke-machine-ed clubs of our youth. Who is talking like that? Of course we still have that wild queer kid inside us, that hunger and thirst, that incredible joy we felt when we found each other and understood that we were not alone, our weirdness would not mean we’d die alone, and we learned we could love our queer bodies, our gorgeous hungers, our friendships, our possibility. We made art that raged and pushed and laughed and danced. We refused to go gentle into that good night. Some of us died, it’s true, and we mourned those losses and we mourn still. And many of us also lived, and we got to carry this messy queer reality into our lives, into the world.

I have been dancing again recently – not in clubs, not with anyone else. There are no black lights, no strobes, no disco balls—just me alone in my bedroom with the blinds closed while I follow along to routines set to Dua Lipa and Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion and goddamn Justin Timberlake. I move hard and get sweaty and laugh. I imagine doing these moves with my believed community from college 30 years ago (what? Did I just write thirty years ago?), because I still carry them with me – those queers and queer-adjacents who danced with me and held me when I fell apart and made joy a part of the diet I fed myself, at a time when all I knew how to eat was terror and despair. And I want to tell them all how much I love them still, how much that joy has shaped me and everything I’ve done since.

So I am reaching a little bit for joy right now, holding tenderly onto the ball of glee that’s dancing in my belly and chest, the thing that wants to turn the video back on and dance again, the thing that wants to run on the beach, the thing that’s beginning to push its green leaves up in me, carrying color and scent and beauty and life. After a long winter there comes spring. That’s how the seasons flow, outside and inside, too. Winter will come again – maybe tomorrow. But I don’t have to act as if it’s already here.

Listen to Mary Oliver today, if you want to: “If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it.” What would that feel like, sounds like, read like, for you today? And be easy with you, ok?

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