One of the first things that made me feel better after the 2016 election was Rebecca Solnit’s book Hope in the Dark. “Joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism,” she wrote. “And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated and isolated, joy is a fine act of insurrection.” A few days later, I was out for a run when Lucinda Williams’ song “Joy” came up on shuffle: “You took my joy, I want it back.” It felt like the universe was sending me a message: Joy isn’t just a nice feeling. It’s a powerful force, a lifeline in terrible times. And when someone takes your joy, goddammit, you go out there and get it back.
The year 2017 was when I watched Donald Trump take the oath of office and become president of the United States, putting a painfully final end point on the two years I spent working on Hillary Clinton’s campaign. It was the year I returned to my pre-campaign job at Planned Parenthood to help do battle with politicians who seem to have nothing better to do than try to shut down a women’s health organization. It was the year we started keeping all-purpose protest signs by the door for easy access, and the year of checking in with friends and family who fit into whatever group Trump happened to be attacking on that particular day. It was the year when, in a moment of panic, my girlfriend Liz and I wondered if we should run down to city hall and get married while we still had the right.
I was not feeling particularly joyful on the January morning when I found myself boarding a plane to Michigan with my friend, hero, and on-again off-again boss, Cecile Richards. I had put my beloved 15-year-old mutt down the day before, and visions of Michigan turning from undecided to red on election night were dancing in my head. But there we were, heading to a rally to protect the Affordable Care Act. When we pulled up to Macomb Community College in Warren, I couldn’t believe my eyes: Thousands of people were lined up around the block holding signs, cheering, and chanting, up early on a Sunday, braving the 25-degree weather to stand up for health care. There was no other word for it: It was a joyful sight.
The Women’s March was not only the biggest demonstration in American history; it was also a historic outpouring of defiance. The day after America inaugurated a man who bragged about committing sexual assault and radiated contempt for women, millions of women piled onto planes, trains, and buses wearing pink pussy hats. Some went out of frustration, fear, or pain, or simply because they didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t go at all. I was curled up with friends, vowing not to read a word of news all weekend. But over the course of that day, sneaking glances at photos and video from the march, my anger thawed. Millions of women around the world were singing and shouting and refusing to be silent. We were all bound together in joy and in the hope that change was possible. During a weekend when just getting out of bed felt like a radical act, what could be more revolutionary than that?
Even on the darkest days of 2017, there were moments of joy. As soon as Republicans unveiled their health care plan, which would have cost millions of people their health coverage and defunded Planned Parenthood, activists and ordinary people together swung into action. The morning after a particularly festive wedding, I sat at a picnic table with a friend who was gingerly sipping tea, clearly worse for the wear. I watched as she picked up her phone and punched in a number. “What are you doing?” I asked. “I’m calling John and Susan,” she said hoarsely. “Who?” I was perplexed. “John McCain and Susan Collins,” she grinned. “I call them every morning!” She was not the only one.
When the massive outcry stopped the bill the first time, cheers broke out in the Planned Parenthood office. The second time it happened, it seemed like even strangers on the subway in New York were smiling at each other. And the third time, joy reverberated across the internet — for a few hours, anyway. Each small victory propelled us to the next, and inspired everyone to keep pushing forward. Every time they counted us out, we came roaring back.
Joy is easy enough to come by when you’re winning. In all the other moments — which, let’s be real, are most moments — joy is even more important. One day this fall, I got a text from my girlfriend that said only: Oh no, Edie Windsor! I knew exactly what she meant without having to check: Edie, a vivacious, hell-raising lesbian who sued the U.S. government and made marriage equality possible, had passed away.
A few days later, at Temple Emanu-El, I witnessed one of the most beautiful celebrations of life I’ve ever seen. Hillary Clinton spoke, quoting the poet Mary Oliver (“There is nothing more pathetic than caution when headlong might save a life, even, possibly, your own.”), cracking jokes about fact-checking, and paying tribute to the history Edie made. Edie’s ass-kicking lawyer, Robbie Kaplan, gave a eulogy that made everyone in the synagogue sit up a little taller. She reminded us of one of Edie’s famous mantras: Don’t postpone joy.
As Liz and I made our way back to Brooklyn, we were both thinking about Robbie-slash-Edie’s words. When we got back to our apartment, we decided it was time. I got out the engagement ring I’d been keeping in my dresser for weeks, lured Liz out to the front steps, and proposed. She ran back upstairs, grabbed the engagement ring she’d been keeping for weeks, and proposed right back. “Don’t postpone joy!” we kept saying to each other all night. We called our friends and family, and the response was almost universal: “Thank you, I needed this!”
Joy is not some sweet or silly thing. It can get you out of bed in the morning, inspire you to fight harder, make you stronger and more resilient. It can unite millions of people who refuse to let our spirits be crushed. The year 2017 was not a joyful one. But it was the year I learned to appreciate and understand joy — to seek it out, chase it down, and hang onto it for dear life.