Tag Archives: joy

Joy

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Urocyon recently wrote a really impressive series of posts on the topic of happiness: 

Happiness part 1: What are we talking about anyway?
Happiness part 2:  In which reality is twisted
Happiness part 3:  The personal is indeed political
Happiness part 4:  Seeing beauty

I am not going to go into the amount of detail she went into, but I had a few thoughts. 

I am reminded of two poems I posted on this blog in the past because I have always found the standard metaphor of depression or sadness as “down” to be terribly misleading:

Rising Into Sadness

When the world is a graveyard
Of dusty skeletons falling apart
And the sky cannot be seen
And even the pines are no longer green
I know that there have been
Too many words

Falling into Joy

Tossed for moments into living color sky
Ever falling back to a cushion of drabness
This is the way of the world, we said
Watching our eyes adjust to the dimness
Gravity works funny ways, said the world
For those who trust in words
Laughing to itself
As the ashen floor crumbled
Knocking the wind out of us
Smelling the soil as sky blinded our eyes
We had landed on solid green

I was thinking about this today, because of my current experience of joy. The thing that has really surprised me going from depression and terror to happiness, has been that joy — combined with love, beauty, and other such things — is built into the world on a very fundamental level.

This means that instead of learning to feel an emotion, my journey towards that joy has involved removing both internally and externally imposed obstacles that were pulling me away from the joy that exists everywhere. 

There is nothing easy about it. I’m not telling people with depression to snap out of it. My experience of depression was that it is incredibly effective at finding many ways to sort of infiltrate my mind and make me totally exhaust myself by getting stuck in thought loops that have the effect of making me always run the exact wrong direction.  It’s nasty and totally effective at confusing a person until they have no idea which way to go. 

But as I untangled the knots in my head, I found gravity pulling me downward towards joy. Sometimes it has been terrifying. This kind of joy can be almost unbearably intense, and allowing gravity to work instead of running away from it can require giving up aspects of yourself that are really painful to let go of. (The mind is a very strange thing.) But because of various circumstances in my life the alternative to giving these things up has been deadly. So every now and then I’m dragged (sometimes kicking and screaming) through the process of allowing that joy to dissolve one more problematic part of how I think. 

And I suspect I am no different than other people in this regard. It’s an aspect of the human condition I’m dealing with and we all have to face such things regardless of neurology or any other personal trait. And I’m not sure it’s ever over, because growth is never over until we die. Or should never be over anyway.  So the road to this joy seems mostly to involve removing barriers to it rather than having to generate it like an emotion.  

But it’s very reassuring in a way to realize that gravity doesn’t pull us down into sadness, despair, or depression. Gravity pulls us to a place where we realize that every single part of the world no matter how small is absolutely saturated with an almost intolerably intense level of clarity, joy, love, and beauty that can’t be destroyed, only hidden.

When she curls around my heart and purrs

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These photos could easily go with my last cat post, and will have to do while I’m writing a series of new cat-related posts. She was doing something similar to this when I came up with the poem in the last cat post.

I don’t have an adequate way to describe how the photos differ from each other. All of them involve parts of my face showing, and parts of Fey showing. (Fey is a grey cat with ticked fur and some white markings on her face, paws, and belly.) In nearly all of them, Fey has parts of her face pressed to my cheek. We are lying next to each other on my bed, which is slightly tilted upward at the head. The pictures are from various angles. In the last photo, Fey is sniffing my forehead.

We can sit like this for hours, whether awake or asleep.

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Cat Love

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There is no joy greater than the purring of a cat 
(No not a cat. This cat. Cats are not interchangeable.)
There is no joy greater than the purring of this cat  
When she curls around my heart and purrs
And I purr my silent purr back
She taps out a soft rhythm of her cheek on mine
Once, twice, four times, eight times
Then rests it gently on my face for an hour
Then she shifts, and flips her head upside-down under her arm
The purr getting loud in the stretch 
Then buries her face in my neck for a while 
Before bringing it back to my cheek
And there is no moment where pain matters less
For there is no joy greater than the purring of this cat  
When she curls around my heart and purrs
And I purr my silent purr back 

(Dedicated to Fey.)

a closeup of my face with my eyes closed and a grey cat face with a spot of white resting her cheek on mine

We’ve been doing this several hours a day lately, including right now.

For a lovely illustration of a purring kittypile, see the following YouTube video by Anne of her three feral rescue kittens. There is no transcript or captions but maybe someone capable of doing so could do so in comments (including the purring). The most relevant sound to me is the sound of three kittens purring in unison in a way that sounds like an amazing cat harmony.

R.I.P. Harriet McBryde Johnson

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I only knew her from her writing, but I cried when I heard.

And I’m still having trouble believing she’s dead. She was so fundamentally there, and now she’s not there. I’ve edited this to include a lot of the links that were missing last night, plus a quote.

Unspeakable Conversations is her most famous article.

The Disability Gulag is another.

Not Dead At All is another.

She wrote a book called Too Late to Die Young: Nearly True Tales from a Life. One excerpt is here.

She wrote another book, this one fictional, called Accidents of Nature.

She did a talk at the Holocaust Memorial Museum called Medical Ethics: Legitimizing the Unthinkable, and she answered questions like What is a disability? and Can we talk about cure?, Why as a kid did we protest telethons, and So let me ask you, when you think about this question of cure and what you saw in Deadly Medicine.

New Mobility named her Person of the Year in 2004.

I’ll end this with a quote by her from Too Late to Die Young. I wish all autistic people who think that they’re non-disabled just because they find pleasure in being autistic, would read it and rethink what they think they know about the experience of disability. I think it exemplifies the core of what she was trying to do, what a lot of us are trying to do. And in the end it speaks for itself:

My path is constrained but endlessly varied. I watch the sun move up in the morning sky and in and out of clouds, take in the changing light that constantly reinvents the cities classic, composed beauty. I feel the moist air roll over my just-washed skin, breathe in the odors of sea and flowering trees and restaurant grease. Some of the best mornings are the mornings when nothing happens, when there is no story but the continuing relationship of this old city with the ocean that roars just out of sight and with the living jungle that tentatively tolerates our existence here.

How is it possible that nondisabled people tend to feel sorry for me? It still takes me by surprise. Peter Singer couldn’t imagine a disabled child enjoying a day at the beach and he’s hardly alone. The widespread assumption that disability means suffering feeds a fear of difference and a social order that doesn’t know what to do with us if it can’t make us fit its idea of normal. When we seek what we need to live good lives as we are, we come against that wall. Why bother? the thinking runs; all they can do is suffer. When nondisabled people start learning about disability, what seems most startling, most difficult to accept, is the possibility of pleasure.

For decades, little noticed by the larger world, the disability rights movement has been mobilizing people from the back rooms and back wards, along with more privileged people like me, to speak plainly about our needs. We make demands. We litigate. Run for office. Seize the streets. Sit through the meetings. Mark up the drafts. That kind of work has changed the world and we need to continue to do it.

But we need to do something else besides, something that may be difficult but is, I think, vital. We need to confront the life-killing stereotype that says we’re all about suffering. We need to bear witness to our pleasures.

I’m talking in part about the pleasures we share with nondisabled people. For me, those include social engagement of all kinds: swapping stories, arguing hard, getting and giving a listening ear. A challenging professional life. Going to movies, concerts, and exhibits. Wearing a new pair of earrings. Savoring the afternoon hit of Dove dark chocolate. I enjoy those pleasures the same way nondisabled people do. There’s no impairment; disability makes no difference.

But I’m also talking about those pleasures that are peculiarly our own, that are so bound up with our disabilities that we wouldn’t experience them, or wouldn’t experience them the same way, without our disabilities. I’m talking about pleasures that might seem a bit odd.

Let me give some examples.

John Hockenberry rolls across the Brooklyn Bridge self-propelled in a manual wheelchair. As he describes it, it’s a high no one but a hotshot para can really know.

A nation within a nation, of Deaf people, capitalizes its name to demand recognition as a language group, equal to any other in dignity and ferocious beauty.

Barry Corbet, a hotshot para now falling apart, is stuck in bed for several weeks with a pressure sore. As he lives with one marvelous view, he says life doesn’t go away; where would it go? he says life has never been richer or more juicy.

In an essay on smell, Helen Keller wrote that she could never warm up to another person who did not have a distinct and recognizable body odor.

After decades of torment, Professor John Nash recognizes his delusions for what they are and lets voices and visions and mathematical creativity cohabit in a mind unlike any the world has ever known.

My friend Kermit, a quad on a budget, goes out to lobby the legislature and finds a coffee under way. He can’t grasp with his hands so he makes a legislator feed him a donut. The last lobbyist out removes his clip-on tie.

At a summer camp, a mentally retarded boy badgers a girl in a wheelchair to teach him to play checkers. He knows he’s slow and she’s bored, but he won’t give up. Then something clicks and her explanations make sense at last and he sees the patterns and wins the game. For the smart girl in the chair — for me — it’s a humorous, humbling lesson. For the slow boy, there’s joy in pushing his intellectual limits. The peculiar pleasure is unique to each of us, but it’s also shared; the sharing makes a bridge across our differences.

Throughout my life, the nondisabled world has told me my pleasures must be only mental, never physical. Thinking to help me, it has said my body is unimportant. I respectfully disagree. For me, the body — imperfect, impermanent, falling apart — is all there is. Through this body that needs the help of hands and machines to move, that is wired to sense and perceive, comes all pleasure, all life. My brain is only one among many body parts, all of which work through one another and cooperate as best they can.

Some people, disabled and otherwise, conceptualize a self distinct and apart from the body. I may at one time have done so. I’m not sure. I know it is somehow possible for me to talk about me and my body as though separate, even though my mind and heart say we are one. At this stage in my life, my body constantly makes its presence known as needed, telling me with an urgent pain to deal with a wrinkle under my seat belt, or reminding me with a tremble or ache or flutter of its desire for food or rest or some other pleasure. Now the body I live in doesn’t only affect me. It is me.

The nondisabled world tells disabled people generally that our lot is unavoidably tragic, and if we’re smiling, we’re smiling through tears and despite suffering. In the face of these powerful social forces, I believe that living our strange and different lives, however we choose and manage to live them, is a contribution to the struggle. Living our lives openly and without shame is a revolutionary act.