Written on 11-17-20.
Quite a few of my friends are expressing relief at the presumed election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. To be honest, I remain extremely tense and doubtful. The noise from Trump and his cohorts continues, as does the effort to undermine the election. They are relentless and it is astonishing. I will not allow myself any real relief until I see Biden and Harris sworn in. And, even then, conditions are such in the world that I don’t think I’ll relax very much.
There is nothing I have experienced like the loneliness of Covid isolation to bring into focus how I feel about life. It is a kind of enforced monasticism and I am grateful for it. Since a direct and powerful encounter with monastic life about 15 years ago, I have felt a great desire to be a monk. Alas, my advisers in the monastic world have been less than encouraging and the door to the cloister has never swung fully open for me, in spite of the occasional kind invitation to visit.
What I find so attractive in monastic life is the opportunity to look deeply at life just as it comes — with no ambition, no expectation, no hopes, no disappointments, just the cell and the chant and the anchoring to place. To spend my life just looking at what is, moment to moment, expecting nothing else and being asked to do nothing else seems heavenly.
The burden of a sense of justice is a heavy burden to bear. Where can it lead? Life, after all, is a pretty unjust preposition no matter how you slice it, unless you take the avenue of faith in some metaphysical perspective like, say, a savior or a G-d who acts in history. But really, is there any more evidence for that then for voter fraud in America’s 2020 election?
Life, at its best, ain’t much. We all suffer, we all die, we all accomplish less than we dream, and any honest look down the road hardly reveals an encouraging future (whatever “future” is).
But the funny thing is, we all of us still have moments of pure joy. Why? I mean, really, when you get down to it, what the heck does anybody have to be joyful about? And yet, there it is, as C. S. Lewis pointed out in trying to describe his religious conversion. We find ourselves, for no good reason, “surprised by joy.” Poets can’t shut up about it. There it is in the “shine from shook foil” of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Whitman’s plaintive listening to a bird in mourning, Frost’s woods filling up with snow on the darkest of evenings, Dickenson’s thing with feathers, Williams’s red wheelbarrow, and even Kilmer’s tree, and McKuen’s warm.
It has not been a happy time for me, these past few years. I came to grips with professional failure, spent weeks in the hospital from a botched surgery, and lost my husband to cancer within weeks of our marriage. Joy has not been my constant companion in 2020.
But even in grief, it pops up. Today it was in the form of a cast iron frying pan. I pulled the pan from the cabinet, preparing to fix some bacon and eggs. I admired its deep color, the oily patina, the scent of past meals that I could just detect, its hefty weight in my hand. And the sheer pleasure of possession overwhelmed me. There was joy in that. And, along with the joy, came thoughts of Jim and a wave of grief. It is not grief for Jim’s lost potential, or loneliness, or anger — just a deep sorrow that he is not here to enjoy the pleasure of holding a cast iron frying pan. These are the moments that matter: when the sheer joy of being, just being, bursts out of nowhere and makes it worthwhile to be alive, against all odds.
So, the government’s a mess, and the climate is collapsing, and COVID deaths are everywhere, and the economy is shot, and your family’s gone cuckoo over Trump, and our so-called “leaders” are fucking Nazis for Chrissake, and the future is as bleak as coal dust.
So what? Take a look around. Reach for a frying pan, a doorknob, a book of poetry (good or bad), a leaf, a cup of coffee, a grape — I don’t care — something you can reach for and look at. Really look. And see if you aren’t surprised by joy.
Why not? You got something better to do?