A few days ago I had minor surgery. I’m memorizing the nations of the world in order to regain neural synapses after the anesthesia. I’ve come to think of my surgery as the Lesser Antilles.
I’ve also come to think of the capitals of Slovenia, Slovakia, Lithuania, Montenegro, and Moldova as corollaries of the scrambled parts of my brain that have not checked back in. Towns with names that cluster consonants, especially p’s and j’s, are beyond my command.
Part of it is the Vicodin. Like anesthesia, it takes time to get out of your system. I appreciate pain killers as much as the next person and I relish dreams where people sing, dance, fly and do absurd things in technicolor. Yet, there is the pull to clarity.
I like my awake world crystal clear. If you are of a certain age, think of the old Hamm’s Beer ads set in Minnesota to the tom-tom beat of “from the land of sky blue waters.” Surely I think of that because the family of my first love, from when I was 11 to 17, owned those islands, but I digress. I have to be pretty disoriented to leap back to the sureness of that adolescent love as he is now a far right conservative who lives in San Diego and says “any woman who can skin a bear is my kind of woman.” All hail FaceBook! All hail the unfriending feature!
But I digress.
For the past few weeks I have been mulling through the difference between joy and happiness. It is of a different nature than learning the capitals of Europe or Africa. More subtle, more vowels, fewer consonants.
Bobby at the front desk and I decided two nights before the surgery that joy originates from within while happiness comes from outside of one’s self. We did a high five on that one! Bobby is the Buddha Incarnate of our building. His eyes have that look.
To be clear – ha! – joy is a light inside that pervades and grows, pushing outward and seemingly from an endless source. Continually expanding, it proves that love is in the DNA that created life. (Don’t get all ruffled up if that is too airy-fairy for you and you want to say I’m still on Vicodin. I’m not. Well, I’m on the existential downside of Vicodin. I have just enough left in my system to speak my truth.)
Happiness is – and I realize I’m into semantics that don’t hold true for everyone, but, hey, stay with me – what we feel when something more or less concrete and measurable is added to our perception of our lives or ourselves. Something – or some perspective – comes to us that makes us feel bigger, better, more attractive, safer, more loved.
That is, joy comes in the package – though sometimes latent, waiting your discovery – while happiness is an add-on.
Both are good. We are happy when we receive a bonus, a compliment, a new basketball, a kitchen renovation. We are happy when we go places that are nice, see a comedy, buy new boots, take a selfie that flatters us, make a sale.
Some things both make us happy and enliven joy. A new love affair, a grandchild, holding hands, a great meal and wine with old friends, dancing, singing.
Some things simply blow our minds. Looking into the eyes of a newborn and seeing the universe.
Joy is the real thing of it, however, and joy is more than I can write of now, or possibly ever, and that is okay because the joy of which I speak cannot be defined. It is enough to know that it exists and to learn that, when you are grateful for it, it increases immediately. Becoming conscious of your joy allows it to release from a private chamber inside you and to emerge from you into the world. It has no borders.
[Serious note: I have never been chemically depressed and I apologize a thousand times over to every reader who has been and who finds what I write to be naive. I hope it still has some meaning to you.]
Yet – dum-dum-de-dum, here comes the existential part – we live inside bodies, minds, and emotions that go through time and space, interacting and often clashing against each other. The downside of Vicodin is that when the high is over you may find that it has shaken out the harsh parts of your history and current reality, the coarse sandpaper times where you were hurt, misguided, angry, and unhappy.
This morning I realized that the characters in my dreams post-Vicodin have all been lesser people who have betrayed me. Not the big betrayers – large as China – but the forgotten ones, who are more like Kansas or Uruguay or East Timor.
These dream visitors had become dull shapes, ragamuffins on the edges of memory – the teacher who thought I cheated and gave me a D for the semester despite having all A’s in her course, the friend who wouldn’t testify for me in court because she was afraid, the man who got me pregnant when he was 40 and I was 21 and fresh off the farm. Real people. People who fail us and our trust. Normal average people.
Why one asks did they come visiting? And the answer comes that it is because these are the people who surround us, then and now. They must be accepted, they are us.
Acceptance of flaws is a demand of joy that must be met. Joy sets the terms and guides us to meet them. It demands that we learn to love as it does or, rather, as it is.
Yes, people are confused, opinionated, distrustful, and afraid. In extremes, we kill each other. We are Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, Gaza and Israel, Bosnia, Columbia, the DRC. That list goes on and on. No high fives there.
I dreamt of these people unpleasantly – a slight grimace in my sleep, a concern about my survival – but we are each other’s life condition. Such glory and careless haphazard meanness!
Joy comes from within and one thing it cannot help but do is to show what is dark – the blood flecks, scars, forgotten disliked people. It also heals, if we are willing to be healed and want to be clear.
So I memorize nations and capitals, learning where people live, who they are and what they do. Next I’m moving on to rivers and lakes. Did you know the Caspian Sea is huge? I want to go there someday. On a boat from port to port. In the sun, in joy, with friends.