DECEMBER 15, 2011 9:01AM

The Joyous Season

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Lately, I have been thinking about joy.  An effect of the season, no doubt.  We are warmly greeted and best wished.  We are told, exhorted, to be merry and let nothing us dismay, to be of good cheer, to be happy.  And we are told this is a joyous season, a season of joy.  Somehow, to me, joy seems qualitatively different than merriness, cheeriness, happiness; of a different order than being wished  and greeted—somehow weightier, more consequential, more momentous, more meaningful.  A season of joy.   What might joy consist of, be like, feel like, to account for that intuitive sense of difference, I wonder.   What is astir in that word, what hovers within it, gives it its talismanic charge?

 

In his novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie provides an intriguing conception of joy.  Junior, the novel’s 14-year-old Spokane Indian protagonist, seeking to realize his dream of a more fulfilling life, has left the reservation to attend high school in the all-white town of Reardan, some twenty miles away.  He befriends the smartest boy at Reardan High School, Gordy, who mentors him on the proper way to read a book.  Gordy tells Junior “you should approach each book—you should approach life—with the real possibility that you might get a metaphorical boner at any point.”  Junior is stunned.  “What the heck is a metaphorical boner?”  Gordy replies, “When I say boner, I really mean joy.”  “Then why didn’t you say joy,” Junior asks.  “Boner is funnier,” Gordy answers.  “And more joyful.”  Under Gordy’s subsequent tutelage, Junior comes to “realize that hard work—that the act of finishing, of completing, of accomplishing, a task—is joyous.”

 

A metaphorical boner.  In this image, seemingly silly yet  perfectly drawn from the erotic clamor of adolescence, Alexie is telling us something important here about the psychology of joy, its texture and contour, its creation and reception. It’s significant, I think, that joy here is described not just as openness to the potential for being excited by, aroused by, stimulated by, uncovering the mystery, the richness, that lies enfolded in books, but also, like books themselves, as an ordered arrangement and sequential process for carrying a task through, from starting point to finishing point.  Joy is not some unbidden rapture that breaks in upon us and carries us away; rather, joy is in some sense summoned, a subjective state intertwined with an objective act, the embodied experience of an effort, being finding cadence and diction in doing.

 

Alexie reiterates this point later in the novel when, in the space of two months, Junior experiences a torrential assault of tragedy: the senseless deaths of his grandmother, his friend Eugene, and his sister Mary.  Why, he wonders, has he been singled out for so much grief?  Why has he been snared in the sorrow’s too-muchness?  Utterly distraught, wanting “to kill God,” feeling absolutely “joyless,” he embarks on a campaign “to find the little pieces of joy in my life,” the only way he knows “to make it through all that death and change.”  He begins making lists of the people and things that “had given me the most joy in my life,” and continues making list after list, rewriting, revising, reediting, and rethinking.  “It became my grieving ceremony,” Junior says.  And in the crucibled intensity of this listing, this finding and sequential assembling of words, this ritual act of imposing structure, of making order amid the prattle of senselessness and the babble of contingency, Junior transcends it and, finally, reclaims joy.

 

Joy is, I think, ultimately about the richness of being we feel when we bestow sense on the senseless.  We are blessed creatures, graced with life and the capacities to make that life expansive, expectant, fulfilling.  Yet, at the same time, we are also finite creatures, limited, squeezed into a narrow timewidth, subject to the random and the unpredictable, to chance and tragedy, to the undeserved and unmerited.  We are continually wounded, it seems, and the wounds often appear stubbornly impervious to suturing.   In the face of our finitude, in our being beset by the arbitrary, the accidental, the sheer thrownness of things, it is all too easy to grow fatalistic, joyless, unless we make use of the fundamental rituals, the elemental ordering acts, that can give us “little pieces of joy”: nurture, friendship, inquisitiveness, compassion, craft for the hands, work that sharpens the mind.  These small structuring ceremonies, these purposeful bestowals of sense and meaning, these are the way to joy, for they can be heralding signs, emblems that what we do, what we partake of, is the partial realization of a larger, more comprehensive order.  And joy itself?  It can take us outside ourselves, beyond the littleness that snares our spirit, can gesture beyond our finitude, can arrest the realities of here-and-now, can carve out a cranny in time, a time within time, a vestibule where we floresce, flourish.

 

Joy, as activity imbued with purpose and the delight we take from it for its own sake, can provide a privileged glimpse of transcendence, of the more so that we are.  We take a step, take several steps, turn a corner, and there we are.  We meet the meant of ourselves, the deep of us that points beyond us.  We are not marooned in the mere, the only.  Is this not the message embedded in the steeples and spires and vast vaulted ceilings of the great cathedrals?  Is this not the message encoded in the incarnate deity whose birth is celebrated in this season?  Is it not a message that speaks to us in any season?

 

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This post has turned the "yoy" I feel at this time each year into joy. I wish I could put you in a Time Machine and send you back to meet with those who wrote the Bible.

It would be a completely different book had it had the benefit of your hand, your mind.
Well, I declare! That was not a metaphor I would have expected to be drawn for a post about the Christmas season but I loved the way you extended the conceit.
Jerry,
Let me hitch a ride on that time machine with you. You & I could do a hell of a rewrite on the Good Book. I see you redoing St. Paul. Going to Athens and sampling the symposiums , talking to the reasonable men in togas. I gotta stay away from symposiums, due to my alcohol abuse issues. I’ll stay in the desert & wander & write, leaving scrolls in mysterious places to be dug up in a thousand years. We’ll meet in Rome, where we will NOT end up crucified upside down, because you will talk us out of any trouble. Later, we’ll hop in the time machine & get Guttenburg to print up our masterpiece.

I was reading some Alan Watts yesterday, “The Supreme Identity”, which he wrote before he became a hippy. While he was a rather unorthodox Episcopalian priest saturated in Buddhism & Taoism and trying to integrate East with West. Apologia type stuff for Christianity. Essential reading for the mystically inclined. Or anyone who wants to understand the deep structure of the so called “Christ Event”. You know…what this holiday is supposedly all about. (the Catholic church has a banner: “put Christ back in Christmas.” With a lovely drawing of a beautiful Caucasian couple in ancient jewish dress holding a baby. At first I mistook Joseph for Christ. Thought a blasphemy: mr. and mrs . Christ & their little blue eyed baby rugrat Christ!)

Watts said the most spiritual people are the “most human people…natural & easy in manner…for them no difference between spirituality and usual life…to their awakened insight the lives of the most humdrum and earthbound people are as much in harmony with the infinite as their own.”

And how to achieve harmony with the infinite? Paradoxically, by embracing the finite, loving it & wanting to develop it in accordance with its limitations, not as a means to ‘’attain’’ the infinite, for the infinite is this: it is the self-abandonment of itself into the finite.

Here is what the principle of law and discipline is all about, yes? There is a Tree of Life which provides wood for the paper of the Book of Life, which is all books, any book. A “finding and sequential assembling of words, this ritual act of imposing structure, of making order amid the prattle of senselessness and the babble of contingency’’ is a fine metaphor for not only intellectual but physical pursuits. We are artificers, makers of art. Hip to our own throwness, we throw it back in God’s face and get him to smile. So we answer Blake’s question in “the tiger”:

“Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?”

Grand piece.
Joy to you!
I understand metaphorical boner quite well. The erotic power of the mind properly working, an act of destruction & yet then construction. Feeding.
I asked my girlfriend why she paints paintings and she said "Because it turns me on." That is the reason to do anything. Life is about JOY and I am so glad to read this post. I do see it in the churches but in my mind they have trampled it down with judgement and dogma so much that I can barely feel it there. I see it in nature on a glorious morning or in a bird's call, I see it inside all people just peeking out in some. I see it in myself lately and I find that a little disturbing. I thought I was depressed. Ha. There is always hope for joy.
Joy. The more I try to snatch it the elusiver it gets. I've learned simply to take comfort knowing it's out and about and might creep up on a whim and give me a tickle, like it did just now as I read your incredibly magical piece. Peace and joy to you, Jer.
"Joy is, I think, ultimately about the richness of being we feel when we bestow sense on the senseless."

Absolutely! Thank you for putting it in such an eloquent manner, Jerry. Indeed that's something we should remember every season.
Best wishes to you and yours.

R♥
This year a cherished Christmas ornament is missing. A simple piece of wood, carved into the word "Joy". It's supposed to be over the mantle by now.
I will create another joy.
Thank you, Jerry, for breathing validity back into the important practices that, as you say, enable us to find meaning amidst the chaos. Those rituals, lists, and attempts to create order have too often come to be regarded by the cynical as obsessive and desperate. I, too, believe they are a crucial part of experiencing joy.

As always, I admire your almost Shakespearean ability to make words defy any prescriptive grammatical bounds: "We meet the meant of ourselves, the deep of us that points beyond us. We are not marooned in the mere, the only."

You truly place the human experience in dimensions to which our fingers cannot point.
A deep felt "bah humbug!" with a joyful liberating lifting of a glass full of bubbly!!
Jerry,

This is so beautifully written. And I couldn't agree more.
I love this sort of contemplation, akin to my attempting to parse the difference between contentment and happiness--an easier task than what you have taken on here. Very thought provoking this. Still thinking about it here, as a matter of fact.

". . . beyond the littleness that snares our spirit . . . ." So cool that. And "thrownness." "Thrownness." God, what a great usage!
Your skill with the language brings me great joy every time I read your work. Comfort and joy.

Lezlie
Wonderful Jerry, your post gave me a measure of comfort and hope at the end of my difficult day.
As I get older I’m beginning to understand that joy doesn’t spontaneously happen, we have to some how choose it and allow it to unfold daily in our hearts.
Thank you ~R~
I have always found joy is small things. My kids first. I think some people can't distinguish between joy, and happiness. Now, that boner you wrote about, it a little bit of both!
This wonderful seasonal writing reads like poetry. Absolutely wonderful, Jerry! Made me joyful from start to finish!
I just read it again and realize I'm at odds with your and Sherman Alexis's idea of joy. My first comment didn't hit it quite right for me, either. I was equating joy with the Catholic concept of grace, that you can't earn it, it's just bestowed upon you. And this misses the point because I'm not Catholic and I don't believe in grace coming from without. So, back to Alexis and you, with a little part of me, here's what I meant to say: Joy neither arrives unbidden nor can be plotted and tracked down as an absolute consequence of achievement. It contains a little of each. You do what you know you should do and as well as you can and you work toward its completion, but not with an expectation of joy, but rather to avoid the inevitable disappointment of failing oneself. This is when the joy can enter, in the course of following the right path, doing the right thing. I've felt intense joy halfway through doing the dishes, sometimes just starting to do them, knowing I would complete the task and happy that I overcame the inertia to begin. But, for me anyway, the feeling is fleeting. To try too hard to hang onto it beyond the grace note of its visit, to, say, endeavor to clean the entire kitchen from floor to counters to cupboards to...is something else again. I believe it's called desperation.
Not sure I agree with your definition of joy, but I savoured the experience of reading about it by someone who write so very well.
In these troubled times of rampant unemployment, dismal economic outlook, shrinking opportunities and nonexistent raises, I feel I've been given a tremendous and unexpected gift in this piece. Somewhat like Scrooge and his new lease on life. Then I scrolled down to the comments to find James E's joyful addendum.

A double metaphorical boner if you will!

I never knew joy could be such a complicated idea but then again, I'm the type of person who doesn't think much about it. I get a rise out of seeing my dog chase his tail. Having an extra dollar to put in the Salvation Army bucket. Seeing someone break into a smile when I tell them how nice they look.

Maybe I've been fooling myself; I'm going to have to read the Alexie book. I've read some of his essays but not his fiction. I am going to have to dissect this notion of joy for myself and put it under a microscope I guess, to really get to the essence of it.

Great post and comments!

Who says no one's getting Christmas boners this year?
I love reading you Jerry, you are rococo and Shaker style all in one.
"We meet the meant of ourselves, the deep of us that points beyond us. We are not marooned in the mere, the only. " I read this several times, marveling at the meaning and the sound. Oh, and the joy.
First, that you love Sherman Alexie is something we share Jerry, and I'm delighted into joy to know that. Next, you are such a beautiful writer, in this place of writers you have the hand and heart to make it seem effortless and lovely at once. The best writer's words disappear and the evoked senses blossom. You have that rare ability Jerry, in surfeit. I can just say thanks.
I can't stay away, in either form. Came back to see if you had left any comments on the comments and read some more comments. James E's blew me away, as his often do. Margaret pointed me to it.
Jerry~ This is beautiful. It gave me great joy to read. Someone told me once that Joy is peace dancing...
That's a lovely piece, now forwarded to a couple of Sherman Alexie fan friends. And the comments are absolutely fascinating. I think I'll go with that 'glimpse of transcendence,' perhaps, for today's definition. Thanks for this.
Well said and well written. Usually I end up asking for someone to poke a stick in my eye rather than read one more "joy" themed article around the holidays but not this time.

Yours is different, in so many ways and I appreciate that. I 100% agree how joy is made up of many parts of the whole, and your strategy on allowing ourselves to embrace the components, wherever they may occur, and then parlay them inward to our soul and of course outward for others is spot on.

It is better to share a small part of joy with another than to wait for complete joy in order to reflect outward. I also agree that for some, it takes a tragedy to start the process of acknowledging the finality of life.

With the parts and little pieces of joy we can stop waiting for everything to be perfect and start reaching out with compassion for others.
Shakespearean ability to make words defy any prescriptive grammatical bounds.

That I, the son of a dear father murdered,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must like a whore unpack my heart with words,
and fall a-cursing like a very drab
 Hamlet, scene ii
………………………………………………………….
Fall a cursin I know that shit.
Joy? Happiness? Joy is ephemeral, an emotion. I eschew them. I let em thru me so as not to let em get me good, that buddhist clutching. Hate, joy, anger, jealousy, I let em flow thru. I hold out for the bliss.

Bliss is not an emotion, it is the NATURAL STATE OF MAN.

His being demands it per its law. Throwness is ok for some. Some can get cynical & self righteous 7 self piteous re. their thrownness. I got over that. I thrown in the Game. O f Maya. God a t play with himself. Through a game of hide and seek, says watts. Y ou be he. Thou=that. Etc.

Doesn’t help except when spirit intoxicated, my head tingling on its departure into the penumbra of the Surround.

Captalizing shit like a German, or a Blake. Me.






“Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief.”
 Polonius, scene ii.
Lying liar.
Blah blah. Such words hit the chest with the force of a miasma. A self disgust that u gotta be a human and gotta say, hey , all humans=wonderbar, so everything they say is golden.

Joy is quick.

Happiness is what u writin about? Aristotle? The end result of a good life, things done well?

Passion comes and pulls u up to bliss once it is selfconscious passion, and u let it pass thru.

Blake: “he who kisses the winged joy as it flies/lives in eternity’s sunrise”

Eternity is an now complex of hereness and presence. Time is beholden to eternity, indeed it is eternity’s mercy.

Thank gosh mercy is still in fashion, somewhere.
I agree...joy is a dance, an engagement, you must choose and assent to it. Sharing on FB. Thank you.
I agree...joy is a dance, an engagement, you must choose and assent to it. Sharing on FB. Thank you.
Forgot to answer the quiz at the end:

1. No because I think they were built with slave labor.

2. I guess, if you're able to put that last long, messy weekend out of your head.

3. Every season except for winter because some of us suffer from seasonal affect disorder (SAD) which is the opposite of (JOY).

Did I win?
Joy is heard in little children's laughter. Joy is like sparklers. Glowing big and running its course fast and then back to sameness and time unchanged. Joy changes us, but in incriments. Too much joy is mania and mania is scary and out of control and lost time to just be me. Realizing your time is interspersed with joy is a MUST if you are to find relief from sameness- daily grind.

I wish I was like the man who commented and found joy in washing dishes of leaving behind inertia.

Sacred music, Southern rock bands and bluegrass music give me joy.

Reading Jerry gives me awe and realization that I have so much to know and to learn about writing. But, bad or indifferent writing gives me joy and I thinks writing is your Narnia.