Monday, July 2, 2012
Deadheading the roses: Surprised by Joy
This cool rainy summer has apparently suited my roses; some of them have bloomed like never before. Today I was out dead-heading, though my Henry Hudson explorer rose continues to flower. So while I snipped out the faded blooms, I could watch the bees wallow ecstatically in the pollen and could still smell fresh flowers. There's a pecular economy to dead-heading; while you are trimming out the faded blooms whose moment has passed, the work is tinged with hope. It's simply this: if you do a good job of dead-heading, you will get a second burst of blooms, not quite so ecstatic as the first, perhaps, but still beautiful. August is just a little bit different if you can get your roses to bloom again.
I was, to use the words of William Wordsworth and borrowed by C. S. Lewis, "surprised by joy." Wordsworth's sonnet isn't actually all that joyful, largely because he feels guilty about forgetting for a moment how deep his grief is for his daughter Catherine, who died at the age of three.
When I turn to the books I've been reading over the last few weeks--The Free World by David Bezmozgis, The Time in Between by David Bergen, and Reading by Lightning by Joan Thomas, I don't find much joy. When the family in Bezmozgis's novel finally gets permission to immigrate to Canada, any joy is compromised by the fact that such permission has come only because their old, unhealthy father has died. Thus, like Wordsworth, their new lives are founded on a bedrock of confused and angry grief. (The family patriarch was a difficult man.) Bergen's novel is about a Viet Nam vet's return to Viet Nam to either resolve his feelings about that troubling, problematic war, or commit suicide, and about his daughter's efforts to find him there. To suggest there can be any joy in either of their quests is to be both deaf and blind to history's brutality.
Reading by Lightning by Joan Thomas isa wonderful book, deserving of its awards and nominations. Our young narrator grows up in a savagely religious household on the prairies which threatens to misshape her entire life until she is asked to go to England after her grandfather's death to look after her grandmother. In the less fervent atmosphere of Anglican England, she is seen for what she is--a good-hearted, generous, curious girl--and not for what she isn't--sterile perfection with no desires, no body, and no questions about her body. During World War II, she loses an adopted cousin, with whom she's fallen in love, and her father. She returns back to Canada to take care of her mother, who has MS. (The family tree is weighted with illness; her father had epilepsy.) But while she's taking care of their scaled-back farm after her brother enlists, she meets a young man who had been a fleeting presence in her straitened childhood.
Who said that style in a novel is an expression of worldview? Everything in a novel is an expression of worldview. The narrative of her father's difficult time after he signed up for the Barr Colony in England, her parents' illnesses and the role of the war all speak to the difficulties of thriving in this world, the ways history and biology and culture all attempt to thwart who we really are. What intrigued me about the novel this morning as I watched the bees wollow in pollen is that there was certainly joy--in a new pair of shoes like the stylish ones her friends have or in the narrator's relationship with Russell and making love in the hay loft. But the joy is left off stage.
These three novels were chosen rather casually, but the absence of joy must say something about the particular moment we're living through and the stories we need to tell ourselves. Do we think joy is a cop-out, a cheap thrill in the context of all the things that are wrong with the world? And perhaps thanks to instant information, we know more about what needs changing. Seemingly we can also organize ourselves more effectively to lobby for those changes, though Canada has particularly intransigent governments right now.
But think of this: what did you do Tuesday evening after the downpour when the sky was suddenly filled with mamatus clouds? Did you sigh, turn your back and go into the house without saying anything to anybody? No. You took pictures and posted them on the web. You stood out in front of the house or on a street corner pointing toward the sky with your cell phone. You tried to find out what they were and posed questions to the CBC for Claire Martin to answer. What makes clouds like that? Why do they sometimes line up in tidy rows? I'm 62 and have seen a lot of skies: why have I never seen them before?
We were surprised by joy. Unlike happiness, which we pursue--and even have constitutional protections for that pursuit, joy happens. If often arrives via the natural world or through the people we know or through art. We simply have to be ready to grasp it.
I know why my mother didn't understand the ethics of joy. She was a housewife in the forties and fifties; what was ethical involved self-sacrifice. But I don't understand my own time. Hedonism, particularly capitalist hedonism, is everywhere. Open a magazine or a newspaper, watch a TV show and you'll see hedonism strolling down the street or decorating an exclusive condo, always well-dressed. But you can't buy joy and I suspect that no one can give you your own personal recipe for joy. It's a about discovery and attention. Some philosophers who study the intersection between aesthetics and ethics will tell you that what you find beautiful is entirely personal. I suspect the same is true of joy.
Maybe the reason that joy is so often accompanied by guilt or grief is that in that joyful moment time stops; the moment itself is timeless and immortal. There will be the inevitable lapse into mortality, one's daily duties, the exigencies of the particular lives that we live. But to me this makes joy more precious, not something out literature should be embarrassed about. If the earth is going to startle us with mamatus clouds, isn't there something disrespectful in a failure to celebrate?
at 4:09 PM