Processing Joy


processing joy

Joy. The topic du jour for me, in the few months since I got married. After living together for 9 years, I don't think either of us expected it to feel this different. We married without a lot of hoopla, we live in the same house, with the same cat, & after a brief honeymoon, not that much changed. But to our surprise, ordinary life now seems to be unfolding on another plane entirely. 

I recognize this - aloft - feeling I've been waking up with every day. It's the same elation that comes when I connect to the work in a meaningful way. (For me, stage acting delivers the 'art-high' in its most concentrated form, that's the arm-drip.)

In good times joy feels married to the creative work, arising whenever two or more of us are gathered in its name - to quote that cliched wedding song (that still gets to me.) It's levitating the space I share with the amazing group of actors in my class on Tuesday nights. It's inhaled as it's passed back & forth in one-on-one sessions in my studio. If we can only remember to call on it, it's even lurking in the audition room.

But as Shakespeare wrote, "where joy most revels, grief doth most lament; / Grief joys, joy grieves, on slender accident." Meaning - "on slender accident" - it all goes up in smoke. Joy just packs its bags & drops out of the picture, doesn't even leave a note. Vanishes. Like (sometimes) the course of love. When you first met - remember? -  the connection took your breath away. You thought of nothing else. The glow of it permeated all of your activities. But time went by & you started taking each other for granted. You got lazy. Or tired. Or disenchanted by the fact that it's not exactly like it is in the movies. & there you go. You've completely lost touch with what propelled you on the journey in the first place.

& maybe some of us weren't all that comfortable with joy to start with. From Zadie Smith's 2013 essay Joy: "If you asked me if I wanted more joyful experiences in my life, I wouldn't be at all sure I did, exactly because it proves such a difficult emotion to manage." I know what she means. Personally, processing loss is much more my speed, that's my comfort zone, where emotionally I'm at "idle." In fact, I'm a big fan of embracing loss, befriending it. Loss as a creative spur sure can get the job done. The desire to work wells up just fine, thank you, in the space of despair & regret. Loss-fueled work turns water into wine.

Fully embracing pain means making a hard-core commitment to learning the hard way. One of my favorite spiritual gurus, Marianne Williamson, is fond of saying: "You'll learn all the lessons you need. You can learn through joy, or you can learn through pain, but you'll learn." Okay, yes, sure, it's romantic to play the suffering artist. But as a steady diet? Kill me now. Anyone over 35 knows it's not sustainable for the long run.

So. Jaded & burnt, how do we find our way back?  

Here's the problem as I see it: at some point the pure joy inherent in our relationship to the work got (fatally) attached to the thrill of getting the job. (As in, getting married taking primacy over being married.) & then, lots of times, we don't get the job (which is just par for the course) & then, when we don’t get the job, we no longer feel entitled to the joy. "Grief joys, joy grieves." We forget that getting the job is a by-product of joy, not its source.

Tennessee Williams wrote: "The monosyllable of the clock is 'loss, loss, loss' - unless you devote your heart to it’s opposition." This opposition is, of course, joy. The source of joy remains undiminished & undisturbed. You come to understand it differently - maybe the way you come to understand the difference between "falling in love" & being in love for the long-haul. But it's not a well that runs dry. It's not a drug we build up a tolerance for. & it's not something that abandons us. 

Like love, accessing joy is a thing you do, not just something you randomly feel. It's the inspiration that's earned by perspiration. It's a decision. Luckily, most of us don't come by joy as our birthright. I say "luckily" because I believe it is the need, the desire to transcend loss, pain, despair that puts us on the path of becoming an artist. There is a wound. Accessing the joy of the work is the way of healing it.

Being an artist - as my friend actor / director Austin Pendleton said about Chekhov's characters - means having an appetite for joy. This appetite for joy is the artistic drive. It is what we have when we don't have joy. It is the reward for forging a successful life out of dysfunction, disappointment, despair. An appetite for joy is what we retain when worldly achievements elude us, when we're still striving to claim our potential, when finding the courage to keep going takes every ounce of effort we've got. I may not be always able to access joy. But I can, always, access my appetite for it.

Stoking my appetite for joy is the way I remember who I am, what I do, how I want to spend my time. It's whatever you get when you add"+ love" to the equation. It comes via the sense of mastery over a new bit of craft or discovery in the material. From finding kindred spirits & bonding with them. Joy = being happy to be who you are, doing what you are doing, at the moment you are doing it. Joy = gratitude. Joy = not comparing yourself with others. Joy = discipline - really, what compares to the joy of making a promise to yourself & keeping your word. It's the ultimate "I do." 

Joy means hooking into my essential self -- not my superficial self, not my dutiful self, not my escapist self, not my anxious self, not my petty self. My artist self. My real self. It remembers who I am. & when my work reflects that, I fully inhabit my potential as an artist. 

I love Matthew Arnold's Poem The Buried Life. It's about how difficult it is to connect - with another person, with what we were put on earth to do, with ourself! - and the moment of joy, of rest, when against all odds, that connection happens. (...A bolt is shot back somewhere in our breast...) Below, an excerpt - my favorite part. (The entire poem is long! - click on the link to read the whole thing.)

Actors (or anyone!), right now -- go ahead, let loose & conjure some joy in this moment. Breathe. & read the words below, aloud. 

excerpt from THE BURIED LIFE, by Matthew Arnold

But often, in the world's most crowded streets,

But often, in the din of strife,

There rises an unspeakable desire

After the knowledge of our buried life;

A thirst to spend our fire and restless force

In tracking out our true, original course;

A longing to inquire

Into the mystery of this heart which beats

So wild, so deep in us- to know

Whence our lives come and where they go.

And we have been on many thousand lines,

And we have shown, on each, spirit and power;

But hardly have we, for one little hour,

Been on our own line, have we been ourselves—

And long we try in vain to speak and act

Our hidden self, and what we say and do

Is eloquent, is well - but 't is not true!

Only - but this is rare-

When a belovèd hand is laid in ours,

When, jaded with the rush and glare

Of the interminable hours,

Our eyes can in another's eyes read clear,

When our world-deafen'd ear

Is by the tones of a loved voice caress'd-

A bolt is shot back somewhere in our breast,

And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again.

The eye sinks inward, and the heart lies plain,

And what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know.

A man becomes aware of his life's flow,

And hears its winding murmur; and he sees

The meadows where it glides, the sun, the breeze.

And there arrives a lull in the hot race

Wherein he doth for ever chase

That flying and elusive shadow, rest.

An air of coolness plays upon his face,

And an unwonted calm pervades his breast.

And then he thinks he knows

The hills where his life rose,

And the sea where it goes.

dedicated to my beloved husband, Young Ji

POSTSCRIPT: My Facebook acquaintance Gina Buntz recently did something I thought was extraordinary: she publically celebrated an imporant anniversary of her creative work. In a post, she writes:

October 9, 1980 is my personal anniversary - not with anyone else but myself. I debuted my first choreography as part of Clark Center's Choreographers' Showcase at Symphony Space in NYC. It was my 'coming out' day as a young artist - & how the feeling felt was a sense of inner calm & completeness - as if I was the eye of the hurricane in motion surrounded by a heady mix of possibilities. & like any important relationship - that feeling & how you grow & learn from yourself never changes because it is a constant evolution.

QUESTION: What anniversary of joy in your creative work can you celebrate? Not rhetorical! Say here!