Last year, maybe it was even in January, Zadie Smith wrote an essay in the New York Review of Books entitled, ‘Joy.’ ‘It might be useful to distinguish between pleasure and joy,’ she begins. Because as to joy — ‘If you asked me if I wanted more joyful experiences in my life,’ she says, ‘I wouldn’t be at all sure I did.’
Pleasures are simple. I have always liked the safe consolation of a pleasure, so I know just what she means. When faced with the choice between a night on the couch with my husband, our two cats on our laps, watching re-runs of Seinfeld we have seen so many times we might act out the lines ourselves – and bungee jumping, let’s say, off a very high bridge in New Zealand — I would almost always choose the couch. Bungee jumping might very well be intensely enjoyable — it might provide a sense of joy, in fact, that would burn itself so brightly into my mind I would never forget it. I will easily forget the nights of Seinfeld, they blend into a hazy soft glow of forgettableness. But I like a hazy soft glow. And what is that few seconds of intense illumination to a lifetime of candlelight? As Zadie writes, Joy is, ‘not much pleasure at all, but rather that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight.’ Something, we must find a way to live with. Find a way to not let destroy the everyday.
In many ways, this is how I have come to think of the last year of my life. It was heightened. It was intense. It was delightful. But it was also very terrifying, more painful than not, and very rarely of the calibre of a soft forgettable glow. For one year of my life, I got to behold a landscape in which the thought was not — can I live with this view for the next fifty years of my life?’ but — you can only see that for a year, for six months more, for another week, and then it’s gone. Everything was parenthesized by finitude. I knew it couldn’t last. This did not have the effect of making me feel grateful in a sort of optimistic, making the best of things way — but extreme. I felt that every emotion I experienced, I would never experience again. So I became greedy. if I teetered out on a dark cliff, I let myself nearly fall. I sat one night on a park bench watching the sun set on an August evening and I sobbed openly for how beautiful and simultaneously painful being alive was. I couldn’t own my experience, so I let it own me.
Now that I’m back to a normal life, to asking myself questions again of — can I live with this? — and reaming back my emotions to a tolerable everyday sort of hum — I have begun to try and make sense of this past year. It is a year I think that really begins in June of 2012, when I discovered that despite wishful thinking and making the best of things, horrible things still do happen. When I thought, to hell with moderation and responsibility. When I felt reckless, and deep down, very angry and painful and raw. Now I am beginning to understand how to weave this back into a life where there are tomorrows to think about. When you still have to wish for the best, even though you know the best isn’t always what happens.
In the end of the essay, Zadie shares a line that she heard from Julian Barnes — a line that was written to him by a friend when he was mourning for his wife. ‘It hurts just as much as it is worth.’ The daily pleasures — the nights on the couch, the bowls of ice cream that I eat alone in the kitchen, the way a friend knows exactly what you mean about the tone your other friend used when you asked her to dinner, and why it was very significant — well, these are the things that protect us from the brilliancy of our own lives. I think the brilliancy would be too intense, otherwise, and it might blow us to pieces. It is the simple hum that softens things, and makes the hurt and the joy something we can live with.
Anyhow, a little look back at my year:
Hill gazing, moor climbing, coast walking, bus waiting
Coffees at Espressini, St. Just in Roseland, St. Mawes
Camellias, trains and manor houses.
Exploring the hedgerows, taking the ferry to Flushing, wild garlic
A visit to Sussex in the midsummer sun.
Gooseberries and long walks in the wheat.
Walking all over London in sultry summer sun.
Back to Michigan.
November & December:
Snow and citrus.