A Longing for Joy
Part One: Ancestral Threads
Your heart is not in it
she says to me, in my final days
no, my heart is not in it.
But who’s heart is?
To stay there, indoors, hour after hour after hour
the sun roars,
or the autumn falls
sweeping the land in preparation for winter?
Sometimes I would steal two minutes and place my palm on the hot windows
to feel the sun on my skin,
albeit my palm and not my cheek
or the rain, even in that tower of brightness,
casting it’s thrilling gloom as it poured down.
I closed my eyes once, imagined we were a ship at sea,
the rain, buckets of water thrown against the glass.
So, no, my heart was not in it.
My soul adrift, futile planning.
To fill my pockets with such money none of us need,
to sell this
things which, mostly, none of us need.
Things like making halloween Something Else,
to sell, to sell and sell and sell
plastic witches pumpkins skeletons teeth.
Those old souls
must turn in heaven.
Those old souls
must wonder if we’ve forgotten.
Those old ghouls
no longer warned off,
no longer celebrating that precious,
small blackening window
of alive and dead
the edge of winter,
lapping like a lake,
as the shoulders of autumn
slip below the surface.
we celebrate with deathly trinkets
sold each year afresh.
I sometimes have a worry, that flits like a water boatman — here and there — on the surface waters of my soul.
That worry is: I will amount to not much.
And I will break the line of beautiful and complex family stories handed down to me through the generations.
Those grandfathers, locked unmoveably in memories, stories, even books on military strategy and Irish folk songs. Those great grandfather men who smoked cigars in bunkers with Churchill or made scientific breakthroughs. It probably doesn’t help that we use ‘great’ and ‘grand’ in the descriptions of our ancestors, but I am no linguistic so I will leave that alone.
What doesn’t get told with much clarity is the isolation of a lonely house or the tenderness that goes in to raising sweetpeas and raspberries so the garden smells like what must only be heaven on earth.
But the way those particular stories made the teller feel must be as unchanged as the first time they were told. On the face of it, the teller exudes family pride, nostalgia, and importantly, success but surely in telling my father, and his father, and his father and so on, sometimes also felt a sense of inadequacy, or envy, or a fear stirring in the grey gaps of their throat? I believe deeply that we need to tell stories and tell them often, but sometimes I wonder what lurks behind a story and if we have the story-culture maturity to have a dialogue with it.
The moral I so often take from these particular stories is not what my inner voice knows deeply to be true, what is absolutely true, which is that whatever I did, even if I did very little indeed but was happy, and living life taking delicious sips of breath, every member of my kind, dear family and all these dead ancestors, would be nothing but joyful and glad.
But instead, I listen reluctantly but completely to the words of my inner critic — which is that unpleasant stirring feeling you get when you feel you are not ‘making the most’ of something and that I basically better amount to the hand-down-able success that my ancestors have.
Something struck me, deep in a meditation, as I lowered myself down into the blacks of my heart.
I saw a girl on a tiny planet, like, if you know it, the one in the petit prince.
And on the planet was a chest, a great wooden box, filled inside with bundles of wool.
Those wool bundles are the stories that get handed down from generations before us.
We each have our own bundle, and we will in turn hand it down. All the wool bundles had different coloured bright stands of wool in them — golds and emerald greens, soft blues and garish pinks, but they all also had grey strands wrapped in amongst the colour.
And suddenly I got a sense that if I leapt off my small planet, with my wool bundle in hand, as my anchor, I would add a colourful strand when I passed it on. I would drift and tumble and soar and rest, with my wool bundle gently keeping me secure.
But — I knew that if I stayed there on the planet, staring at the bundles, knitting and weaving furiously to emulate them, I would add a grey strand.
And by the end of the meditation, I had a sense of it; I am the product of my family stories, but I am also alive and creating a million stories of my own.
However, of course, I daily forget about my wool bundle.
Instead of allowing it to nurture me whilst adding my own colourful strings by being exactly who I am, I swing wildly between other people’s and my own definition of success — as if ‘success’ were the point of life.
And how this comes out, as often as not, is as a snap at my partner — Henry. Of course it manifests itself like this rather than a realisation that I am just feeling unsure, insecure, in need of just having the hidden sting taken out of my back.
I undermine. I criticise. I start to collect things about him I don’t like, or might like — in fact, I know I love, but my critic says I don’t like in that moment.
His hair on his upper lip has grown slightly over the edge. It reminds me of someone shabby. I tell him so, disguise this small violence with humour.
Or, he says it’s 56 past 5 when he looks at his phone, instead of 5.56. And for no reason this mildly humorous expression of time-telling sends out red-eyed angry rats that scuttle all over my body. I decide to resist that barb this time, slipping it’s ratty claws into my stomach. I stay quiet, but it’s poison is in me now, even if I didn’t spit it out at Henry. I could have picked lots of things out of my nasty collectors box, that take the things I love most and turn them into things that cause temporary disconnection, but these are just two.
In a rare moment of reflection I manage to brush off the rats and wonder what was the trigger this time that dragged me in murk?
I saw it immediately — My critic and ego jumped on a horse together and tramped about my body, taunting my dear soul.
They took a girl ten years my junior who we visited last week on her organic farm and said,
“Look at her. Look what she has done with herself. She has built all this with her values and her hard work and her certain thinking. What will you remember when you look back on this time as an old lady, your life gone — what will you remember you did with these clean clear days you’ve given yourself? Read books?! Write poems?!”
And I remember the words of a buddhist nun, no matter how high you climb it will never be good enough or fast enough for your critic.
Part Two: Inspiration Porn and the Inner Voice
I think this is our generation, in our context. We know we are blessed beyond measure. We know there is violent suffering somewhere in the story of our coffee beans and unseen slaughter in our milk.
We know we have every chance to do something to help, to do something that matters, to do something that makes us feel alive. We are told by Inspiration Porn to follow our heart everywhere, stuff the consequences. We’re seeking something new to immortalise so we hold up the gods from palo alto and silicon valley, setting up another start-up that gives profits back, that re-uses old shoes, that makes everybody feel great just thinking about it.
Don’t get me wrong, some of these number are great, a fundamental shift in consumerism is so desperately needed, but unfortunately for me, I nod intellegently as I hear the good stuff but inside they make me run my checklist:
- Do I want to give back? Heck yeah
- Do I want to run a social business and be my own boss? For sure
- Do I want to feel exhausted yet deeply satisfied and connected to my community and planet? ABSOLUTELY.
- Do I want to be discreetly famous, at least locally, and respected? Secretly, yes please.
When I think about those good start up businesses I will not pretend I am not triggered by an unhealthy dose of jealousy, a little desire to want to smear myself with this New Glamour — the good citizen, one people will post on social media with — ‘# inspired!
It’s like the most insidious marketing lie we could imagine. It’s beyond the Corona advert of From Where You’d Rather Be, this is New Marketing with a capital N and M, about life and experience, not products cluttering our homes.
But it’s just marketing all the same, it’s just cluttering our hearts.
Try to be someone in between the age of 20 and 45, healthy and balanced and able to deal with the grey realness of life, whilst experiencing the fullness of life at every moment, and doing so on Instagram.
How far from real is this? How deep is this poison that taunts you in to thinking you are nothing very good, when in fact you were made from earth and dust, such goodness can find no words?
I want to reinterpret success, I want to buck the grotesqueness of filling my life with a system built on suffering, I think a lot of us do, but somehow it doesn’t look like this New Marketing story either.
We had a Clearness Committee, me and some dear people.
The premise of a Clearness Committee is this: there are voices that make noise, and there are voices that offer wisdom.
The Clearness Committee (something I learned about through Parker Palmer’s work, an author I go to in times when I forget to listen) is an old quaker tradition because they had no priests or high church to do the thinking for them. As I understand it they believed, as I do, we have the inner wisdom, the inner voice to know what steps to take that are best for us.
We know how to put one foot in front of the other to follow our path. But our own qualifiers, our own critic sits itself plumb on top of our inner voice and shouts louder, sings songs you hum along to, elbows us to get our attention and points at things that need fixing, sorting, improving, indulging.
And if we get past him (who knows why mine is male, yours might be an animal or female, or well behaved, but mine is cunning and obnoxious and shapeless and ever-present). So, if we manage to get past our critic, we then have to contend with outside noise — other people’s opinions — or what we imagine are their opinions — our family, our colleagues, our friends, a dead great grandfather, it can all get in the way of us listening to the sweet whispers of our innermost voice.
So there I am, and I have the courage to finally ask my burning quetsion — I’d like to know what my path is for work.
I’m asked, ‘How do you see yourself now?’
A bird in a cardboard box, a thrush-like brown bird, thrashing its body weight against the lid.
And by the end the clearness committee, I felt like the lid was open and the brown bird flew out.
At 9am that Monday morning I spoke to my manager and was amazingly offered a career break, to go to nothing in particular but just because I had been ignoring this call for too many years.
Let me be clear — The Clearness Committee has given me no clarity whatsoever about what to do now.
But it did order the pieces that I knew to be true already. And that for me is it’s strength; that it helped me trust that I know how to order the fragmented whispers of my inner voice. And in that trusting and that ability to order, I have my first few steps.
I read a mother teresa quote the other day (on Inspiration Porn, I confess) that struck me — “I have never had clarity. I have only ever had trust.”
Part 3: Joy is not a Crumb
What I think I have to learn before I set up some brilliant, breathtaking business is to trust my inner voice a little more every day, slog though that may be, fearful though I still am of not ‘making the most’ of my potential (as if having lungs that give me sweet air isn’t unthinkably lucky enough).
And from that trust and from that confusion of uncertainty, somehow, wonderfully, comes joy.
And by that I mean the whispered moments of joy my heart demands. Stamps its feet for. Whether I am irritated or glad.
The joy of remembering I am blessed to have toes and can feel them take my weight on the ground, that gravity, of all bonkers things, exists.
The gurgling joy I feel of watching a fat blackbird stuffing red berries from a hawthorn bush whilst he can, whilst nature hands over in abundance.
The joy even of knowing that my body, so miraculous, knew to end a tiny life that just was not meant to be.
The only thing for me that joy is not is when it hasn’t come from a place of authenticity; I try to limit the dirty thrill my ego loves when people exclaim how fascinating my job must have been. That feeling that is the same as being drawn in by headlines about Kate Middleton’s success as a mother, or the feeling you have when you find yourself gossiping about someone. It plunges to the same part of my throat, feels hollow, base. Not like when I eat home-made bread or gather silverbeet I’ve grown. Not like when I stand up for someone or when I’ve chosen to read Dickens instead of watching Netflix.
I’m trying to learn everyday that for me uncertainty is okay; like a Tuesday morning. Or a Wednesday afternoon, or a Monday at midday. It is much more present than a Saturday afternoon. It is somehow essential to my human-ness, in a way I don’t have words to explain and it seems like it should be cherished.
I suspect I will always feel the tug of Proper Success, where you hope you will happen upon the thing you love and do it with all your might, all your resolve, sleeves rolled up.
I allow the tug of Proper Success to lurk in my relationships with my family as much as I think it lurks in so much of our culture, but I think for me trying to resist that — and not really winning — is what makes the joy more joyful. It’s what makes me absolutely, essentially, human — I am not above being dragged down by my critic, and the joy is all the sweeter when I pat him on his head and gently ignore him.
And it is what makes me weave a bright multicoloured thread to my wool bundle along with all my greys. I am going to carry on trying to trust in that, even if at times I lose my wool bundle altogether, and can only see grey. Because, as a dear friend said, the greys make the colours shine brighter.
I have no real resolution, as you can see, but I do have a plan that for tomorrow at least, I will put on my boots, go for a walk amongst the wattle, and respond to that sweet call thrown out by all life — to be joyful.
has only recently revealed it’s beautiful kinship to me
the way it holds my body
allows for rest
and to dive
into the black and colourful deeps of my soul.
drinking tea alone in the sun
as a honeyeater
with a yellow belly
one legged from the grapevine
his honeyeater girlfriend watching him a little way off.
But slowness is considered with unvoiced suspicion,
where I am from
seen as a creeping stillness
that robs hours
from fixing, cleaning, sorting, seeking.
From time to time this old definition resurfaces
And like long wisps of broken golden orb webs
across arms and legs
I feel it resting upon me.
I suppose I will always tussle a little between these worlds
where stillness is friend
but for now
the still small voice