BootsnAll Travel Network

The Promise of Joy

As I drove to the park for my walk this morning, Handel’s “For Unto Us a Child Is Born” came on the radio, and suddenly I was twenty-eight, pregnant with Seth, and full of joy. Throughout that pregnancy I played the Messiah, danced to it, hummed it, and grinned. The baby I was carrying had excellent genes, and our life was going to be one surprise after another. The joy of that music is the joy of possibility. Sitting in the parking lot on this warm Texas morning in December, it came to me clearly that I have spent most of my sixty-one years living in joy, expecting something wonderful. Expectation is not necessarily, as some Buddhist texts warn, the seed of disappointment or suffering. It is its own fulfillment. Anticipation fills life with wonder, hope, a vibrating YES that is not (for me) ever diminished by fulfillment. When the anticipated event arrives, it is what it is, never what I thought it would be. Sometimes it’s better; sometimes it carries a hidden load of pain. But nothing can erase the joy of anticipation. Those times in my life when I have been joyfully expecting some event, change, or beginning (pregnant, about to move to a new place, on the brink of a new project, packing my boxes and giving away my possessions, half my body already over another cliff-edge)–those times I was IN JOY. I was not living in the future but living in joy, in anticipation of possibility. The promise of joy is joy itself.

Yesterday I had coffee with a vibrant, beautiful young woman named Erin, twenty-seven and full of her fine self. Six years ago she was a student in one of my drama classes, and she asked me to help her prepare an audition piece: she wanted to leave Texas, throw herself into theatre, live her dream. I urged her on. She’s back in town visiting her family for the holidays, and she wanted to tell me what happened: she made her way to Chicago, to an improv group and a life in theatre, and from there to Los Angeles, where she continues in “the business” and has married a writer. She has (at this moment) a great life, full of quirky and courageous friends who, like her, have left the suburbs of middle America and hurled their lives over the cliffs of promise. She has a shot at a possible job in New York, which would mean (for her and her husband) life on the two coasts. She’s had night-terrors, when she soaked her pillow with tears, feeling pointless and wrong. But on the balance, more of her days have been joyful than not. And maybe she’ll get this job in New York….

How could I ever believe, even for a moment, that all of life is suffering? Yes, of course, there is suffering. Obvious: injustice, cruelty, greed, mental illness, addiction, slavery, sexual abuse, war, torment of every kind. That much is given. Some people are born into such horrible circumstances that all they know is suffering; those of us who were more fortunate must make all the justice we can. That is the only moral imperative I know. The Buddha was right about craving and aversion–they poison life, they generate suffering where there need be no suffering at all. Kindness is all the religion we need. But the love of possibility, the opening of our arms to the promise of joy–that’s life, too.

As we sat on the sidewalk outside the coffee house yesterday, Erin asked me why I left New York in 1972, and I couldn’t remember. I remembered why I went, and I loved being there, going to acting school, rehearsing scenes, earning a living by working with junkies on methadone, living in the Village, belonging to a group of courageous people living their dreams. It was a glorious time. But I left for the promise of even greater joy. I left New York to return to New Orleans and finish my B.A., so I could do something more interesting with my life than make Dove Soap commercials. I glance backward and see that I have always been looking forward, not back. Why did I choose to give birth to Seth and raise him alone? Why did I go for a Ph.D.? Why did I leave Smith? Why did I leave South Africa? Why did I adopt the girls? How did I end up in Texas? Each of those life-changing decisions, and the one I’m on the brink of right now–retiring from teaching, finding a community to settle into on land I can come to know–each change is not about what lies behind, but what lies ahead. I have no doubt that difficulty will arise. Doubt will arise. Nothing will be as I imagine. Some of it will be better than anything I’ve imagined. Some of it will be a shock. But in the meantime, this moment is full of the promise of joy. And that IS joy. “For Unto Us a Child Is Born.” What more joyful sound is there than that? Who was the child foretold in Isaiah? What became of Christianity? What good and evil were done (are still done) in the name of the child said to fulfill the prophecy (“and the government shall be upon his shoulders”)? Nightmares. Great suffering. Great art. Enormous edifices. But none of what came after diminishes the joy of the possibility that exists while each of us waits for the birth of the marvelous. Whatever any child (or idea, or dream, or vision) becomes, whatever anyone makes of the marvelous arrival, there is the joy of possibility. That joy is the fulfillment of the prophecy.

“Oh!” That’s the sound Seth made when he was born. He was so big (nearly 10 pounds), he was born with his eyes open, breathing. There was no need to slap him about. He emerged, waved his right arm, and took in a breath: “Oh!” He looked around at the lights and the people, felt the space around him, and his mouth shaped a perfect O. Oh, he said. Oh. And his mother beamed: so much possibility.

Tags: , ,

One response to “The Promise of Joy”

  1. Nacho says:

    Oh Kendall, I can see why you see at least some of the resonance in our thinking. It struck me immediately when I read (well, when I first saw your blog, but in this instance…) the line “Expectation is not necessarily, as some Buddhist texts warn, the seed of disappointment or suffering. ” Why that line? Because it shows a desire to craft and compose your own life, your own way, and not just take Buddhism or anything else for that matter as the answer, as the formula, as an already figured out way to follow. Sometimes folks ask me why I don’t call myself Buddhist, or why I just give so many caveats about what I practice, what I believe, etc. or why I feel the need to challenge certain pieties. Well, because I want to compose, as much as I can my life and my answers. To be sure, the wisdom of others is essential. But I’ll be asking questions, pondering, and trying to figure out these paths we travel, and as Antonio Machado said, that we make as we walk.

    Thanks again Kendall,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *