I opened the front door and stepped outside, where a choir of birds twittered and chirped. There must have been scores of them up in the still-bare trees of early spring, all blasting at once, and a kind of joy crept up in my chest at the sound, a sense that this was beautiful in a way that almost justified existence.
It is another spring. I have seen 73 of them and the number I have left is dwindling. Now there is a sense, like Takashi Shimura at the end of Seven Samurai, talking to Daisuke Kato, saying: “Once more we have survived.”
Another spring, another year. I see the bud tips on the maple tree spread and burst out in the million tiny sprays of maroon maple flowers. It is a moment I wait for each year. Another small moment of joy. Those moments are of immense importance.
I want to avoid sounding like a Hallmark card here. For much of existence for much of the world is misery. People continue to bomb each other; children continue to die; famine spreads; refugees live by the thousands in makeshift tents; ethnic minorities are hounded and enslaved. Even in our so-called First World, otherwise comfortable people face death, betrayal, hate, disappointment and the hounding sense of their own meaninglessness.
For much of history, we have lived through plagues, wars, superstitions and “continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
And yet, you see children in those refugee camps playing soccer in the dust. They are laughing. Mothers find great love in their children. Above the camps, birds still twitter and peep. I don’t mean to downplay the misery being suffered, but to point out that even in the midst of suffering, there are sprints of joy. It is so to be human.
What affords those moments of joy — which come upon us unannounced always — is that they give us a glimpse of connectedness. To our kin and childers, to nature, even to the larger city in which we live.
I was reading in Ezra Pound’s Cantos a few days ago, through the Pisan Cantos section of that monstrous, abstruse, inchoate mass of culture-shard, written when Pound, after World War II, was imprisoned in Italy for having given intemperate radio broadcasts lauding il Duce and fascism. He was a cranky, possibly insane old man and he was kept in an outdoor cage with a concrete floor for a bed. He wrote the bulk of his Pisan Cantos there, full of the usual blatherings about economics and world history, mixed with bits of incomparable poetry and the language gave even the most pathetic of imbecilities brief moments of majesty of utterance. But, like most of Pound’s verse, it is almost all literary, with little sense of the poet’s actual life, at least outside of books.
But in the middle of Canto LXXIX, there appear, popping up in the jumble of classical allusion, several birds on the power lines strung above his cage. “With 8 birds on a wire/ or rather on 3 wires.” They make a melody on the music staff of those wires. And later, “4 birds on 3 wires, one bird on one.” Further on, “5 of them now on 2; on 3; 7 on 4.” The real birds keep breaking into his phantasmagoria of theory and the poet’s tirades about ancient China and Tallyrand seem vaporous in contrast with the physicality of those birds above his cage. Philomel and the Nachtigall give way to pigeons and starlings.
And you sense, behind all the immense brickwork of culture and reference, that moment of real connection with an actual world. And in the misery of that cage, open to wind and rain, a brief moment of joy, left fleeting and unprocessed.
Such moments are epiphany — the rending of a veil to see what is most essential. Joy is the ephemeral product of such an insight.
Such moments come in a flicker; they cannot last long. No one is joyful all the time. We are not living in some Pepsodent commercial, skipping down the sidewalk with teeth so shiny they blind passersby. Indeed, we live the bulk of our lives in neutral, neither miserable nor happy, but plodding on. But then we have that glimpse, periodically, of a bliss that transports us from our own toad-like passivity. It is a seed waiting to sprout in our psyches.
These moments don’t always stick, but sometimes they do, and inform the rest of our lives. I remember a visit to the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC in the 1970s. In the basement at the time, there was a small exhibit of Cezanne still lifes. I had never much valued Cezanne, but I had only seen his work in reproduction or on slides in art history class. But here was the real thing. Who knew there were that many greens in the world? Infinite seeming gradations of blues and greens that glowed almost like fire, “fire green as grass.” And it was, for that moment, the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I’ve since been to the big retrospective of Cezanne at the Philadelphia Art Museum in 1996 and was bowled over. The color alone, glowing like neon, gave me intense pleasure.
Another time, I heard the Philadelphia Orchestra under Wolfgang Sawallisch play Strauss’ Don Juan and the palpability of the sound, especially from eight horns playing in unison and making the seat under me vibrate, let me feel the sound as a physical presence. Jericho would have shuddered. I know I did.
Art has been at the root of much of my own experience of joy and epiphany. I could name dozens of concerts and hundreds of art exhibitions that have brought me to this afflatus — for that is what joy is.
Other sources are family: my twin granddaughters when they were three, riding bouncy-horsey, each on one of my knees and laughing the way only three-year-olds can. Even such a trivial thing as one of them asking for seconds on the pot roast I have cooked for them. Seeing them enjoy what I have prepared is a constant source of joy. I imagine the same for some Syrian refugee in a tent making dinner for her children. These moments come to us as gifts.
Nature is the third great source. I remember standing on the top of Roden Crater in Arizona, an extinct volcano being reshaped by artist James Turrell. It was dusk and the sun was setting. Turrell pointed out the now-obvious fact that night doesn’t “fall,” but rather, it rises. And you can see the edge of the shadow of the earth cast by the lowering sun against the sky forming a boundary between the light and the dark and as the sun drops, the line of demarkation rises until the night swallows all. It is an effect you don’t get to notice in the cities or suburbs, where the horizon is blocked by human busy-ness.
I stood by the Rhine River in Dusseldorf at night, with the reflection of city lights flashing off the dark current like firesparks. The river flowed broad with a swiftness and power that felt almost as if it must be a god. This was the river Robert Schumann felt was worthy of writing a symphony about.
On the plains of eastern Montana, at the Little Bighorn, I stood on a hill — one hill like a frozen wave peak in the ocean among many such peaks — and watched the wind curl the long grass in moving ripples across the landscape. The manifestation of Wakan Tanka, the great spirit that animates the cosmos. I had to stand very still among all the motion to absorb it as a moment of eternity.
In the early ’70s, I visited Gaddys Pond, just east of Charlotte in North Carolina, which was home to tens of thousands of Canada geese, a midway stop in their annual migrations. And the sound of all of them honking over each other, the din of chaos, remains the single most joyful sound I have ever heard. Ever since I have sought to recapture that moment, my hound, bay horse and turtle-dove.
We talk about joy being an emotion, as if it were some abstract titillation of the neurons, but it is a physical effect: the chest swells to almost bursting. You can feel the inner pressure of the joy wanting to escape the confines of the meat that is your body. And you feel something rising in your throat and your eyes begin to tear and overflow. The experience surges inside you. It may last only a second, or even a fraction of a second, but in that moment, you know you are alive. You know that everything is alive, and that to be alive is everything.