I’ve been spending a lot of time recently thinking about joy.
Today, for example, I was coming back from a jazz interview in Chinatown, listening to a mix of classic Stevie Wonder tunes from the 70s. I was on a subway platform walking from one train to the next with “Please Don’t Go” in my ears. It got to that part where Stevie goes into the chorus for the final time. The backing vocals kick in holding out long “aaahs” and the song modulates up a step. The feeling of happiness — of pure joy — was so intense that I could feel it in my stomach and I got that feeling around the eyes that you get when you’re almost-but-not-quite crying. I was in love with everyone and imagined they were all in love with me. I’m sure I had a huge smile on my face and I was dancing just a little while trying not to look like a nut. Probably trying and failing.
That feeling — an almost unbearable joy — happens most often for me with music, but it happens at other times, too. These days I’m focused on it because, to the external observer, my life offers few reasons to be joyous. I’m unemployed. I’m sleeping on my parents’ couch. My wife and I separating. Amicably, but it’s still a huge change after 15 years of marriage. My kids live in another state and it’s not clear when we’ll all live near one another again.
Those circumstances present two problems. One issue is that they’re not conditions that lend themselves to feelings of happiness. By most objective measures of success, my life is a bit of a shambles, in the same way the Titanic was “a bit of a disaster.” In fact, a few months ago my mom likened being my mother to being on a cruise ship during a huge storm. (OK, she actually said “during a tsunami,” but that’s a very charged word right now, particularly given my family ties to Japan.) Finding moments of happiness, or a path toward sustained happiness, is quite a challenge these days. Or at least it ought to be.
However — and this is the other issue — I’m actually happy a lot of the time. I love being in New York. I love talking with all the musicians I interview. I’m thrilled to be closer to many of my friends (although saddened to be farther from a few of them). I’m doing interesting things every day, in addition to writing a million cover letters and living off the state/parents dole. I’m excited about the personal transformation I’m going through and the possibilities it presents for love and fulfillment and growth. And I often wonder whether it’s OK to be feeling this way at all.
I don’t know if it’s because of youthful religious conditioning, or the effects of chronic and lifelong depression, or the way many of us in this country are conditioned to think, or some combination of all three, but I have a hard time accepting happiness. Actually being happy. When I’m walking down the subway platform and feeling so much joy that I want to start hugging strangers, there’s always that little voice in the back of my head warning me again these feelings of happiness. How can I be happy when I don’t have a job? When I’m not providing any material assistance to my kids, with whom I’m not even living?
There’s no easy answer. But I guess what I’ve come up with is that I’d rather find and hold onto these moments of joy than give in to the moments of despair. I’d rather be optimistic about the future. I’d rather work on becoming a happy, healthy, fulfilled and loving person — the kind of person I want my kids to have for a dad. Maybe I’m letting myself off the hook and maybe some of you reading this think I’ve got no right to be happy. But I’ve been keeping myself on a hook for years and years, and I’m ready to try something different.
So today I danced on a subway platform to Stevie Wonder. And tomorrow I hope to do the same thing.