Through high school and much of college my walls displayed a collage of various imagery clipped from calendars and other cheap sources. The exact mix of things varied, but one element that was pretty much constant was the hand-written reminder “Resistance is the secret of joy.” It’s the conclusion from Alice Walker’s novel Possessing the Secret of Joy. I don’t remember exactly when I first read it. It was sometime between the last half of eighth grade and the end of my freshman year of high school. The novel deals with the issue of female genital mutilation and I think it can safely be said that I was not old enough to really deeply understand the horrors being described. Already, though, I had begun to cling to the notion of resistance. I think if I had to describe my experiences from the ages of about thirteen to eighteen in one word, an obvious choice would be “besieged.” I resisted.
Looking back I am sometimes astounded by how hard I fought in those days. I was quick to call out the boys who insisted that women were weak and worth less than men. The physical was harder to deal with. I was less adept, even then, at dealing with the violations of my physical space than I was at fighting back against verbal challenges to my worth. Still, I resisted as best I could. I did not trust the social and institutional structures in place to support me in claiming my right to not be touched when I did not want to be touched. Sometimes, though, I forget that I claimed that right anyway. At fifteen I was scared and angry but I stood my ground and said “you will not touch me again or I will make a formal complaint.” And I did not mean simply that if he ever touched my breast again, even in a way meant to look accidental like he did the first time, that I would scream bloody murder. No, I meant if he ever touched me again at all I would tell that story, and others, to any school official who would listen. And he spent the next three years taking a step forward for every step I took away, leaving me afraid of being backed into corners. He said things to his classes that were terribly sexist and obnoxious. But he never touched me again. And looking back, I often regret not finding a way to feel safer in those years, not having the courage to fight back harder, not having the courage to the things that might have gotten him out of my life completely. But the truth is I did the best I could. I resisted.
That, though, was unrelated to joy. I took no joy in the times (two spring to mind) that I took a deep breath and said “this will stop NOW or else.” Perhaps I took joy in the pockets of peace that resistance sometimes bought me. But mostly for me, in those days, resistance was the secret of survival. Joy was uncharted water. The mantra no longer graces my wall for exactly that reason. At some point, I decided I wanted a different type of joy.
I’ve been thinking about joy a lot lately. A couple of months ago B. and I had a fight. Or rather, we failed to have a fight. I was angry and not addressing it like a responsible grown-up. He knew I was angry but was afraid of confrontation. So one night in the midst of this stale-mate he fell sound asleep while I lay in bed and stewed. Angry and hurt, tears sprung to my eyes and I found myself thinking of my relationship with my college boyfriend, a relationship that had more than its fair share of lonely late-night tears. I remembered those nights and compared them to the night I was having. Lying there I worked myself into a state of despair and then began working, in my head, on a poem that turned around the premise that when I was old it would be the nights like those, the nights full of hurt and choked back cries, that I would remember. That image terrified me. I didn’t write the poem. Ultimately B. and I had the conversations we needed to have about the things that had left me that evening in tears, but still I remained haunted by that notion that unhappiness is easier to remember than joy. That I could remember the pain of past relationships more easily than the happy times struck me as tragic.
I have since then begun to make it a point to focus on joy. I look back and sift through the sands of time to find those gems that I knew had been there. It is not just tragic but, indeed, unfair to only remember the tarnished parts. More important, though, than recasting how I think of my relationships present and past is remembering to keep track of how it is I think about my life as a whole. Day to day, I am blown away by how happy my life actually is, how full of small pleasures. But when going for an overarching narrative it is all too easy to point to the strains, the stressors, the scars.
My life is full of little joys. Yesterday I spent a quiet morning in the garden tearing out weeds and beginning the planning for winter planting. Too often I focus on all the work the garden entails rather than remembering why I do that work. On a sunny September morning even pulling the loads of bermuda grass that take over every time I take the time to blink was a relaxing meditation. Today was filled with more little gems: a short hike with B.; an afternoon spent working hard and remembering that my body is capable of that; dinner that incorporated garden tomatoes; a cheesy horror movie via netflix while I put together the winter seed order; green chile pecan brittle. These are the things I should remember ten years from now when I look back and ask myself “was I happy.”
For me the secret of joy is the paying attention, the slowing down to the here and now and noting “yes, this is nice.” Perhaps the secret of joy is simply joy.