some brief notes on joy

by s.

Lately I am getting to know a few people, and if there is one thing about all that I am immensely guilty of, it is of abandoning other priorities in favor of getting to know the new people. I always love the old people, but the discussions that you have with the new people are, well, new. That gets addictive.

One of the new people and I were talking last night over wine and fish tacos that he’d graciously prepared (because the road to any kind of love involves tacos), and we started veering into the wild and weird territory of self-definition and what it means with respect to how you make a living. It was interesting to me because I’ve had some of my best conversations on this topic with his girlfriend, who was content to sit between us and watch the words fly back and forth like tennis balls. It was also interesting because he’s maybe the only artist I know who can look at you with a straight face and say “Thank you, I know I am a very good artist”, because he is confident and honest. There is so much self-deprication and so much cockiness in artistry that it is actually shocking when those things fade away and someone is very simply good and can trust in that fact.

This morning I sat at my kitchen table eating peanut butter toast and reading the program he gave me from a show he did a couple of years ago. One of the highlights is a wood sculpture that’s on display in his living room. The curator writes:

“Medina is very interested in transforming forms. He pursues his interest via the gestalt phenomenon. By de- and re-contextualizing ordinary objects, Medina creates new shapes and relationships. A picture frame is turned into a Fibonacci sequence. A furniture piece is turned into a slave. Medina’s action of transforming ordinary objects into a new, semantically loaded form could be seen as an autobiographical statement expressing his personal feeling and experience of living in the US as an emerging artist emigrated from Mexico.”

He is one of those people who speaks calmly about the kinds of things that would infuriate most of us, make us shout or sputter. I suppose it all lives inside of his art, which is funny, because we are all so much better for having it.

Christiana is moving to Spain, because she is amazing, and we all went out to Coney Island today to celebrate. I walked home, because walking is the thing that I do instead of yoga or meditation or smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. I listened to three Lucero albums while I walked, because being an obsessive listener makes me happy and so does rock music. I thought about what my friend’s work means in the context of what I know about his life, and about the particular brand of trouble that I am having with the particular chapter of this book that I have re-written no less than ten times in the last six months. I thought, also, just a little bit, about how I’d been invited to be on a boat listening to the Newport Folk Festival at that moment and what it might have meant for me.

Eventually around mile seven I realized that all I am ever really trying to do is put “LOOK AT HOW AWESOME THIS IS” into words deserving of that thing’s awesomeness.

There is a wonderful essay on something like this by William James, who writes about things in a way much nicer than I do. On a Certain Blindness In Human Beings is a smart and simple ode to our personal joys, and how the things that make us get up in the morning, that seem so rich and worthwhile and perfect, are often things that other people totally miss. That inability to see that inward joy is, of course, what James refers to when he speaks of a “certain blindness.”

Then he says things like THIS:

“To be rapt with satisfied attention, like Whitman, to the mere spectacle of the world’s presence, is one way, and the most fundamental way, of confessing one’s sense of its unfathomable significance and importance. But how can one attain to the feeling of the vital significance of an experience, if one have it not to begin with? There is no receipt which one can follow. Being a secret and a mystery, it often comes in mysteriously unexpected ways. It blossoms sometimes from out of the very grave wherein we imagined that our happiness was buried. Benvenuto Cellini, after a life all in the outer sunshine, made of adventures and artistic excitements, suddenly finds himself cast into a dungeon in the Castle of San Angelo. The place is horrible. Rats and wet and mould possess it. His leg is broken and his teeth fall out, apparently with scurvy. But his thoughts turn to God as they have never turned before. He gets a Bible, which he reads during the one hour in the twenty-four in which a wandering ray of daylight penetrates his cavern. He has religious visions. He sings psalms to himself, and composes hymns. And thinking, on the last day of July, of the festivities customary on the morrow in Rome, he says to himself: “All these past years I celebrated this holiday with the vanities of the world: from this year henceforward I will do it with the divinity of God. And then I said to myself, ‘Oh, how much more happy I am for this present life of mine than for all those things remembered!'”

It is hard for me not to punch the air with glee when I read passages of William James. You might not feel the same way. That is the point.

When we talk about art, we are in a very basic sense talking about someone else’s attempt to make that inner meaning into something that everyone else can see. That is very, very difficult. My friend, the sculptor, the maker of fish tacos? He can do this. William James? In giving it a voice, he does this. The rest of us? Some of us are doing yoga or meditating or smoking cigarettes or walking eight miles down Ocean Parkway in ninety-degree weather. All of us, probably, struggle to find the words, but at least we have our little bits of joy to keep with us while we do it.

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