Last month, I mentioned that I walked my hood daily during COVID as a healthy alternative to going completely bonkers (for which there is no vaccine), and that I continue to do so even though my local gym has re-opened. Yes, the gym has a range of equipment that exercises all of me, large flatscreen TVs with a zillion channels, regulated comfy year-round temps, and fluffy towels, but after nine years, it’s… boring. Not so the varied streets of my town, where every day brings something new and interesting to my view:
A jumble of tiny painted clay gnomes set beneath a maple tree.
An interweave of hedge branches so intricately constructed, so heartstoppingly beautiful, I paused in mid-stride, certain British nature sculptor Laura Bacon had snuck in and arranged it all moments before.
An eye-popping purple gate leading to a hidden garden.
The May morning everyone’s tulips bloomed, cued by some perfect mystery mix of rain, sun, and good karma.
An eye for the little things, an appreciation for the details. Certainly as a writer, it’s a necessity. But does it contribute something larger, more profound—an essential ingredient to our well-being?
The Measure of Happiness
As a species, we tend to measure our happiness in terms of the BIG splashy moments. The summer we rented a villa in Italy and traipsed through the vineyards, the day we bought the house of our dreams, the year we made CEO, were nominated for Teacher of the Year, won a Pulitzer.
All grand, memorable stuff. The trouble is, such events come rarely in a lifetime, and for many of us, may never come at all. So, do we entrust something as precious as joy to such precarious possibilities?
Joy is much bigger, more significant than this prize or that acquisition. Joy can carry us through the toughest of times, the most difficult struggles. It sustains strength and offers solace, but the secret is you need a steady feed to maintain your energy, your love, your hope. That’s where the “little stuff” comes in—joy is in the details. It’s in the seemingly “ordinary” things we encounter every day, if we can just slow down enough in our pursuit of the big stuff, the grand goals, to notice it, breathe it in.
The burst of color in the garden.
A house someone painted to celebrate the words and scenes of Romeo and Juliet.
A hummingbird fluttering over a cluster of pink asters.
A bowl of water some kind soul left on their lawn for passing dogs in the heat of summer.
Hearing a song that takes us back to some long-ago cherished moment—the people, the place, the emotions.
What is Possible Begins With Joy
If joy feels like a stretch in a moment when greed-fueled climate change is cranking temperatures sky-high around the globe and burning large swaths of the western U.S., while the pandemic continues to rage in Africa, the Middle East, Florida, Texas, and Missouri, maybe we need to view joy through a wider lens.
Yes, the joy we derive from the “little things” feeds our hungry soul, but its reach, like a stone cast in a pond, ripples far beyond ourselves. The joy each of us brings to the table becomes a powerhouse when multiplied by many. A powerhouse of unity that could change the world. This is the message of Contra-Tiempo, a self-described “bold, multilingual Los Angeles-based activist dance theater company creating physically intense and politically astute performance work that moves audiences to imagine what is possible.”
In early July, Ed and I went to see Contra-Tiempo at Jacob’s Pillow. Not a summer’s sojourn in Italy or a penthouse on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, but it was our first visit since the pandemic wiped out live performances last year, and we were itching to go. The show was staged on a large platform outdoors, the trees around hung with colorful tapestries celebrating the rich diversity of cultures across the globe, the green forested slopes of the Berkshires serving as backdrop. And it was one of the few days in the whole of that month when it did not rain in the Northeast. All these “little things” added up to a very joyful afternoon.
As Contra-Tiempo salsa-ed and hip-hopped to Afro-Cuban music in a work titled joyUS justUS, they encouraged us to see our possibilities as agents of social change, to realize that “our power comes from the relationships that we have with each other as human beings.” Sadness, fear, depression, hate—they zap our energy and isolate us. But joy nourishes our compassion and confidence. Joy, Contra-Tiempo reminded us throughout the afternoon, is at the heart of building a better world for all of us.
Community is Everywhere WE Are
One of the delights of life, for me, is discovering the links between people, ideas, events—something strikes you and, suddenly, like a motif, it’s popping up everywhere. Just days after our trip to the Pillow, I was reminded of Contre-Tiempo’s powerful message about the convergence of joy, art, and community in creating a more loving and just world.
July, as I noted, was rain, rain, and then—surprise!—more rain in my neck of the woods. Not a day passed that I didn’t reflect on the insanity of the western half of the U.S. suffering killer heat waves and drought, while we in the Northeast were awash in a gazillion inches of rain. Scrap those deadly oil pipelines wreaking destruction on the planet and build a clean conduit to California—we have enough water to float the Ark! But luck occasionally literally shines down on us, and we managed a lawn concert at Tanglewood on the evening of July 10, the late afternoon sun sparkling on the river that runs beside the backroad to Lenox.
The Tanglewood “parking lot”, being a vast grassy field, was a tad mucky, but the worst mudholes had been roped off. So, shouldering our chairs, the portable table and cooler, the sweatshirts-for-later, Ed and I trekked up the road, across another parking swamp, and waited in line for tix. When, at last, we passed through the gate, the scene was amazing. The vast lawn was filled with people, gathered to celebrate the return of the Boston Symphony Orchestra after the long COVID hiatus.
People of all ages, all cultures, and every walk of life were chatting, picnicking, relaxing—united in the common love that draws them to this spot: Music. Tanglewood is joy. Always. But this evening was especially magic. From the moment the featured soloist, pianist Emmanuel Ax, stepped onto the stage to greet us until Andris Nelsons, the BSO’s music director, took up his baton at the podium, we cheered and clapped and whistled. Wave after wave of applause. For the musicians of the BSO, for the return of live music, for the incredible beauty that is this spot in the Berkshires. But more than that, bigger, deeper, we were cheering the reunion of a community that survived to unite in this space once again.
Community, I think, may be the link between the little moments of joy and the profound power it bestows to move the universe.
The buzz of the BIG stuff—the awards, the promotions, the luxury this and that—wears off more quickly than we imagine beforehand, and the reward for a job well done is … another job. But joy, you can find it everywhere. Even on the crappiest day, the one with a zillion troubles to bulldozer through. Even in the most godforsaken, arid landscape, life rises—exuberant, unstoppable—and with it, joy.
Until I win the Pulitzer for literature, I’ll settle for that.